Archive for September, 2010

A new post over at Free Rad!cals, which is in the middle of a relaunch. Lets hope it goes well! In the meantime, the piece looks at two films I recently saw about terrorism in the West – both worth watching. One thing I would add is that I provide a link in it to my earlier Studies in Conflict and Terrorism piece, which is behind a firewall. There are a few pieces on this site like that – apologies, but if you want to read them, use the contact form to drop me a note and I can see what I can do.

Filed under: Afghanistan, Bin Laden, ICSR, Radicalisation, UK

I have recently indulged in watching a couple of films which in different ways handle contemporary terrorism. One is serious and one is less so, but both did inspire me to think about issues around some of the questions they raise. While my aim is not to provide a substantive critique on the films themselves, undoubtedly some opinion will slip in.

First up (in alphabetical order) is Four Lions, British satirist Chris Morris’s take on Islamist terrorism in the UK. In true Morris style it is a mordant comedy which pulls no punches in highlighting the sheer stupidity and inadequacy of the majority of young men who become involved in jihadist terrorism in the UK. The men are religiously illiterate and lead meaningless lives which are focused around whatever banal things fill the average middle Englander’s day.

Clueless: Three of the Four Lions

Morris claims much of the material he has used came from amongst the reams of research into court documents and interviews he has done with people who have become involved in Islamist terrorism in the UK. I have no doubt that this is true – I have spoken to a number of security professionals who have at various points in my endless questioning about various plots and plotters highlighted to me what morons these chaps actually are. And in some cases, you really have to wonder. Omar Khyam, the leader of the Crevice plot, was busted after he forgot the bomb-making recipe he had learned and emailed his friend in Pakistan a rather blatant note inquiring about the specific volumes. Eventual “super-grass” Mohammed Junaid Babar was so discrete that he thought it would be a good idea to go straight to the hotel where all the foreign journalists were staying in Lahore and announce that he had radical ideas and was willing to do interviews about it. This landed him a prime-time slot on international TV and arrest as soon as he stepped back onto U.S. soil. Rangzieb Ahmed, the first man to be jailed in the UK for being an “Al Qaeda director,” was unclear what exactly a bidet was and thought it might be a bath for small people. And the list goes on. One case which Morris highlighted in interviews is of a plotter who snorted some TATP thinking it was cocaine – I have been unable to pin down exactly who this was and would appreciate any pointers.

But for me, the fact that they are idiots is not all that relevant. Some of them may not be all that smart, but they are nonetheless playing with dangerous toys which can lead to innocent deaths. That they have no idea what they are doing, are religiously illiterate and are buffoons is somewhat tangential if they are able to actually follow through on what they are attempting to do, albeit in their half-baked way. Morris hints at this towards the end, but it is an important point to remember when considering these people as idiots. People treated Abu Hamza like a clown who had been delivered by central casting to act as a real-life Captain Hook until it became clear exactly what he was facilitating. This is not to exaggerate the menace, but neither is it a good idea to completely dismiss it – the real point is that hopefully such satire will help demystify these groups a bit.

The second film, which is probably less well-known outside a specialist audience, is called “La Prima Linea” (translation: the first line – it was the name of the group). It is an Italian film which looks at a terrorist group that existed in Italy during the Anni di Piombo (years of lead) during which left and right wing terror groups shot and blasted their way around the country. The group was second only to the more notorious Brigate Rosse (red brigades) in number of activities and members. Based on the memoirs of one of the group’s commanders, the film does for the group much the same as “The Baader Meinhof Complex” did for the Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Fraction).

Unlike Four Lions, this film takes its subject matter very seriously, and is told from the perspective of one of the leading members who relates his story from prison. It shows how the group evolved from small-time protesters, to murder and beyond. In many ways it is a story telling a piece of Italian history – but in the same way as something can be learned from examining old groups which is applicable today, the group dynamics highlighted in the film offer some lessons which seem relevant to our time

In the film we see how the group launches a massive assault on a prison to release their comrades. A rather foolhardy act in many ways, but nonetheless it does provide evidence of how strong the bonds are between the members of the group – a dynamic which is part of Marc Sageman’s “bunch of guys” theory. Much is made of the emotional bond between the individuals in the group (in true Italian style, two fall in love), and the fact that over time, the political content of what they are doing starts to lose its power and not wanting to let down your comrades takes over as a driving motivation. Early on we also see how, though they don’t think that they are necessarily going to achieve their goals, they are certain that something should be done and a vanguard needs to lead the way with action.

In an earlier post looking at the RAF, I (in a highly caveated fashion) pointed out some of the similarities between these leftist groups and current Islamist groups. This film adds some depth to this discussion in showing how the dynamics of the relationships in such groups might work – though it is unclear that current groups are necessarily structured in as hierarchical a fashion.

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More for the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor, this time exploring the odd case in Lithuania of Egle Kusiate, the alleged aspirant suicide bomber who wanted to go to Chechnya. This has received very little coverage outside the Baltics, and it is hard to know exactly what is going on. It will be interesting to see how it all develops – if anyone sees any interesting stories on this proceeding, please forward them on.

Strange Case of Suspect Lithuanian Suicide Bomber Complicated by Alleged Role of Security Services

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 35

September 16, 2010 04:33 PM Age: 2 days

By: Raffaello Pantucci

Buried in this year’s Europol report on terrorism trends was a reference to “a 20 year-old Lithuanian woman” who was “arrested before she traveled to Russia to commit a suicide attack there. She had converted to Islam and was self-radicalized via the internet” (for the report, see Terrorism Monitor, June 4). [1] This rather conclusive narrative provided to Europol by Lithuania’s security forces was seemingly contradicted in early August when the suspect, Egle Kusaite, was released from custody by a court of appeals pending a trial whose date has not yet been set (Baltic News Service, August 6).

The strange case of Egle Kusaite first came to public attention in late April/early May 2010 when security forces were obliged to reveal information about her in open court after nearly six months in custody (AP, May 4). Having admitted that she was in custody, prosecutor Justas Laucius told the court that “Egle Kusaite performed illegal actions, and was likely ordered by someone to go to Russia and blow herself up at a military object” (AP, May 4). Laucius later defined the target as “a strategic site,” namely “a military barracks holding Russian troops who had fought in Chechnya” (Kauno Diena (Kaunas), July 20).

Arrested on October 29, 2009 as she tried to board a plane with a new passport, a one-way ticket and $500 she had obtained from radicals for the trip, Kusaite was picked up as part of an intelligence-led operation and has been in Vilnius’ Lukiskes Prison ever since (Baltic News Service, June 11; Baltic Times, July 28). According to the Russian press, Kusaite had been on Lithuanian security’s radar for some time as a result of “anti-Russian messages” she had been posting online (RussiaToday, May 4). Kusaite had repeatedly applied for visas to enter Russia, and was in online contact with extremists in Azerbaijan, the United Kingdom and Uzbekistan as well as a cell in Russia (Baltic News Service, May 4). She had also downloaded manuals about making explosives, which were found in her possession alongside maps of the Moscow underground system as she attempted to board the plane to Russia.

In 2007, the then 18 year-old Kusaite had been reported missing by her family. According to a former teacher, she had developed a close relationship with a man from the North Caucasus, whom she later married in Germany (AP, May 4; Kavkazcenter.com, May 4). Her husband apparently returned to Chechnya and was killed in the fighting, allegedly providing Kusaite with personal motivation to become involved in the conflict (Baltic News Service, August 5). Kusaite’s mother, Virginija Kusiene, claimed she had been obsessed with Chechens, conversing with individuals online before running away to Germany where she had lived in a Chechen couple’s flat “in a room without windows and furniture except for a dirty mattress where she would spend entire days” (Baltic Report, August 6). According to the suspect’s mother, Kusaite lived in her home town of Klaipeda in a flat rented by the Lithuanian State Security Department after her return from Germany and associated with Muslim fundamentalists who were, in reality, agents of the security service (Baltic Times, July 28).

Having been detained by security forces, Kusaite confessed in June “that her goal was to go to Russia and then Chechnya, were she would have performed a suicide bombing in a public area.” It was also revealed that a Chechen brother and sister detained in Russia had admitted to providing her with guidance, offering training and sending her the $500 required for the trip to Russia (Baltic News Service, June 11). The mother of the two Russians admitted the three were in touch, but suggested that Kusaite and her daughter talked only of “girly things” during their internet conversation (Baltic News Service, July 19). On the other hand Kusaite’s family denied her confession altogether, declaring that it had been forced – something she herself now claims (Baltic News Service, August 5).

This is not the only inconsistency with the case, which has stirred up a fierce internal debate in Lithuania about its counterterrorism policy. When the case was first announced, Russian forces denied all knowledge of it, though it had been simultaneously reported that individuals in Russia had been detained and that the arrest was a joint Lithuanian-Russian operation (Interfax, May 5; AP, May 4). Lithuanian forces also claimed to have connived with the Russian Embassy to have Kusaite’s visa application rejected in an attempt to prevent her from going to Russia, suggesting some level of prior contact with Russian authorities (Baltic News Service, June 10).

Lithuanian human rights activists including European Parliament MP Darius Kuolys have even suggested State Security Department operatives tried to convince Kusaite to undertake a suicide bombing in Egypt (Baltic Times, July 28). The activists also claimed that Kusaite had been in the security services thrall for around two years, apparently working as some sort of agent for them. This was confirmed by Lithuanian press sources contacted by Terrorism Monitor who suggested that the case has been complicated by the fact that she had worked in some capacity for the security services. Her family claimed that she had undergone physical and psychological abuse while in custody and that Russian agents had been involved in beating her while in Lithuanian custody, a charge the suspect later repeated in court (Baltic News Service, June 22; Baltic Times, July 28). On the way to her July 20 court appearance, Kusaite shouted to journalists, “I was beaten by three Russians!” (15min.lt [Lithuania], July 26). An investigation into the charges determined the Russians had acted only as observers during the interrogation.

The Kusaite case comes in the wake of a separate case in which it is claimed a Lithuanian agent had attempted to gain information on a Chechen family suspected of radical activity through their foster daughter, whom he had gotten pregnant and then forced to plant listening devices (Baltic News Service, May 12).

Amidst claims that the prosecutor in Kusaite’s case had intimidated the defendant, the court gave way to public and political pressure and dismissed the lead prosecutor (Baltic News Service, July 22). Just over two weeks later the decision was made to allow Ms. Kusaite to leave prison pending her trial, though her documents were seized and she is obliged to report regularly to a police station (Baltic News Service, August 6). It is currently unclear when her trial will be held, though a decision is expected imminently. However, given her alleged involvement with the security services and the fact that she was effectively held in secret detention for approximately six months, a conviction is far from a foregone conclusion. In the meantime, the case highlights the ongoing anxiety that exists among European security services regarding the potential for the North Caucasus to act as a drawing force for aspiring young jihadis.

Note:

1. TE-SAT 2010: EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, April 28, 2010, available at:www.europol.europa.eu/publications/EU_Terrorism_Situation_and_Trend_Report_TE-SAT/TESAT2010.pdf, p.15.

My latest for Free Rad!cals, looking at an odd case in Denmark. One thing that occurred to me while writing this is that I am unsure how exactly one refers to people from Copenhagen? Copenhagers?

Something Rotten in the State of Denmark

Filed under: Europe, Radicalisation

Last Friday Danes were inconvenienced once again by the specter of incompetent terrorism. Following a “small explosion” in the bathroom of the low-cost Hotel Joergensen near to Copenhagen’s busiest train station, police chased a suspect to a nearby park where they cut off his belt using a set of remote controlled pliers.

At this point the story gets confusing. The man, slightly injured by the blast, is now in custody, but has yet to be officially identified. Charged with attempting to detonate a bomb and firearms possession, his age has been placed at either 20s or 40s and he has been described as being of either European or North African extraction. He has been refusing to cooperate with investigators though he apparently speaks “excellent English,” German and used a French interpreter in court.

According to investigator Svend Foldager, the man “has done everything to hide his identity” and when arrested was found to be in possession of three different ID’s (in the names Raoul Foltz, David Francois de Vicq de Cumptich and Hans Veller) from Luxembourg and two “Central European countries.” One report in the Belgian press claimed one of these was Belgian, a detail which was supposedly supported by the fact that he had purchased a bus ticket to Brussels a few days prior to his bombing. But none of this is corroborated or clear and he had no credit cards, mobile phones or other identifying objects in his possession at arrest. He has further apparently scratched off the serial number on a prosthetic leg he uses and while in custody has asked for a Bible and a Koran and declared himself a vegetarian. All part, no doubt, of an effort to further baffle investigators.

This being Copenhagen, early speculation around the incident suggested he might be attempting a bombing at the offices of Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper which famously published the Muhammad cartoons a few years ago. Tabloid Ekstra Bladet claimed that a source close to the investigation had said that the man was captured in possession of a map of Copenhagen with the Jyllands-Posten address highlighted. Police responded cryptically that “The information Ekstra Bladet has put forward is not correct. We base our work on the thesis that Jyllands-Posten may be a target, but those are two different things.”

All of which merely highlights how little Danish police seem to know about this entire case. They have now published pictures or him, his fake leg and a tool set he bought recently in the hope that someone might be able to help them figure out who he is. One report hinted he might be a “lone wolf” though as we have seen from earlier in the year, “lone wolf” Islamists with connections have been drawn to attempt to avenge the cartoons. Similarly, Colleen LaRose, aka ‘Jihad Jane,’ was planning on going to neighboring Sweden to kill a cartoonist who had offended the prophet.

Whether there are any sort of links is of course speculation at this point. But the fact he has so many fake ID’s and has managed so thoroughly to eradicate his identity seems to suggest that he is not without some capabilities. At the same time, you would have thought that if this was some politically motivated attempt, he might have spoken about it more loudly or some further evidence of his motivations might have been found. Instead he sits mum in his cell in Copenhagen leaving harried local forces with a riddle to puzzle over.

A new contribution for the Interpreter blog, this time not looking at the Expo, but instead at terrorism in China in its various forms. A fascinating topic I hope to cover more over time.

China’s domestic terrorism problem

by Raffaello Pantucci – 6 September 2010 12:25PM

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, where he is working on an EU-funded project on EU-China relations.

Recently there was a bombing in Aksu, a predominantly Uighur city in China’s Xinjiang province. The world’s media leapt on the story, eager to learn more about a set of issues which the Chinese are notoriously coy about.

Very little actual information emerged, except for brief updates from Xinhua and other official outlets. They suggest that a total of six people were involved in the attack, using an electric tricycle to lob bombs around a crossroads in Aksu, targeting a group of local security forces. Crucially, the stories refused to say that it was terrorism linked to the East Turkestan Islamist Movement (ETIM), the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), or other Uighur extremists, and instead hinted that it was most likely a business dispute. One official described it as ‘a violent criminal case’.

The cynic will look at this and assume that something else is afoot. Previously, TIP claimed in a video to have carried out a series of bombings in Shanghai, Wenzhou, Guangzhou and Kunming – but in all four cases, local officials denied they were terrorist acts. Who is telling the truth is almost impossible to know, though it is curious that Chinese officials are so eager to downplay any effective attacks by such groups.

But let’s assume it is as described. It is still disturbing that so many people in China are willing to resort to such violent methods to resolve personal disputes. According to local reports, in Wenzhou, the bombing was related to a gambling dispute; in Shanghai a man named Wang claimed he did it to get ‘more, stronger attention and worship from netizens’.

When one couples this with the spate of knife attacks on schoolchildren earlier in the year, which were perpetrated by men angry at the world, it seems as though the main terrorist threat in China is not in fact groups like ETIM or TIP, but rather angry locals who strike out randomly at fellow citizens.

In fact, when we compare this to the effectiveness of Uighur radical groups, it seems as though these sorts of random attacks are in fact worryingly regular and much more effective (though admittedly, coverage of what occurs in Xinjiang is erratic – one report by RFA suggested small-scale attacks in the province are regular; certainly, group-arrests are). The ‘lone wolf’ seems a much more dangerous predator in China than the organised ethno-Islamist or separatist group.

This also might help explain why there is a great trepidation in describing these attacks as terrorism. If all such acts were categorised as terrorist in nature, then a whole set of domestic problems might be grouped together and would have to be addressed through the lens of terrorism. Given the power of anonymous group-think powered by the internet in China, there is every possibility that the characters who perpetrate these acts achieve some sort of online celebrity which might further complicate the official response.

Photo (of Chinese security forces in Urumqi during the Uighur unrest of 2009) by Flickr user Remko Tanis, used under a Creative Commons license.

A somewhat elementary title for my latest short commentary on EU-China relations for the EU Observer. There are going to be a few more on this theme in the near future as I continue to try to publish more in relation to the work I am doing in China at the moment. Am going to be building towards something large to be published sometime next year.

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI

Today @ 11:34 CET

EUOBSERVER / COMMENT – Baroness Ashton is in China once again to help clarify a little better what exactly it is that a strategic partnership between China and the EU should look like. Since its declaration in 2003, thinkers across the EU and China have puzzled together and apart over exactly how to implement this grand rhetoric, with no discernible conclusion. The reason for this: both sides have very different interpretations of what this means.

“The EU needs to recognise that China has very different views on issues that Europeans hold dear” (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

During a recent research interview in Beijing, a connected and eminent Chinese Euro-watcher told me “China’s meaning of strategic is different to the EU’s: China’s interpretation is we agree on strategic issues…in China this means we are thinking in long-term. Dealing with single issues is not strategic.” This stands somewhat in contrast to Baroness Ashton’s comments on the eve of her latest trip in which she told the China Daily, “The EU and China hold a strategic partnership. That means that we will not only talk about bilateral relations, but also about the main challenges the world is facing today.” China sees a realist “long-term” view while Europe sees “today.”

This is an important distinction to make, as it underlies a lot of the misunderstandings that are often visible between the EU and China. The EU thinks in terms which are linked to the here and now, while China prefers to think in the longer term seeing the short-term as unproductive. As a Chinese policy planner put it to me when talking specifically about Iran, “more speed, no result.” Unfortunately, this rather clashes with the sense of urgency that Europeans often see on issues in comparison to their Chinese counterparts. Iran and climate change are just two examples.

Since she has been in office, Baroness Ashton has made robust statements about the need for Iran to cease its nuclear programme highlighting in remarks in Cairo in March that the EU position “is based on the firm belief that an Iran with nuclear weapons risks triggering a proliferation cascade throughout the Middle East. This is the last thing that this region needs. A nuclear weapons free Middle East remains a European goal.”

On this last point, the Chinese would undoubtedly agree. In discussions experts and officials alike highlight the fact that a nuclear-free world is a goal that we can all agree on. However, Beijing does not see the same sort of urgency around Iran in the short-term. A report in February by the International Crisis Group based on extensive interviews pointed out that, “China does not view Iran’s nuclear programme as an immediate threat,” a view that is supported by more recent interviews in Beijing and Shanghai.

Missing the bigger picture?

This fundamental difference means that while the EU feels that something needs to be done now and the recent sanctions were the clear next step, China instead thinks that there is a “need to be more patient” and that sanctions are going to be counter-productive. In a particularly blunt conversation, one influential scholar told me in July that the Middle East is “your problem” and that anyway there is very little that China can do in this situation. His view was that the focus on nuclear issues is perceived by some to be missing the bigger point which is that a more comprehensive solution is needed.

In many ways, a similar picture can be painted for climate change where broadly speaking both the EU and China recognize that it is a problem, but they see it on very different timelines. Or to put it more accurately, see it at different positions in the ranking of current issues to be dealt with.

According to the European Commission Environment website, “Climate change is already happening and represents one of the greatest environmental, social and economic threats facing the planet.” At the Nanjing EU-China Summit last year Commission President Barosso highlighted this urgency further while pushing the US and China to do more “We are asking all sides to do everything they can to contribute to a comprehensive and global agreement,” he said. This seemed to echo Premier Wen Jiabao’s earlier comments to the Financial Times that “the Chinese government gives top priority to meeting the challenge of climate change.”

Climate change or poverty – one issue at a time

But at the same time, repeated Chinese statements have highlighted that economic growth is a bigger priority than climate change. In the wake of the Copenhagen conference, He Jingjun, a prolific analyst working for the Chongqing government, was quoted as saying, “the Chinese government must continue to prioritise development, economic growth and social stability” over climate change. This was reinforced to me in conversation with an influential Beijing academic who said the government can address either climate change or poverty – both at the same time is simply unrealistic. His unvarnished conclusion was that “China is not going to do what West wants on climate change.”

There is even a school of thought, described to me by a senior foreign policy thinker at Peking University, that the entire climate change issue might have been concocted by the West to stunt Chinese growth. In his view, if climate change was as urgent and threatening a problem as the EU claims, we would not be haggling over technology transfers.

It is hard to know how widespread this view is, but it is certainly the case that there is a general sense that China is being asked too much in climate change terms. One official repeated the old Chinese line that “China is a developing country,” and that other “important actors” need come to the table on the issue if it is to be solved.

But this sort of debate is one which frustrates European policymakers who repeatedly refer to climate change as an immediate problem needing to be addressed at forums like Copenhagen. As Commission President Barosso put it: “we cannot negotiate with the reality of climate change.” For Europe the here-and-now is the priority, while for China, it is obviously a less immediate crisis.

On her visit to Guiyang today, Baroness Ashton was quoted in the Chinese press as saying that “the EU needs to know more about China.” The context of this may have been a general sense of understanding of the great wealth and population diversity that can be found across this great country, but it is equally clear that the EU needs to recognise that China has very different views on issues that Europeans hold dear.

The writer is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS), where he is working on a project looking at EU-China relations as an EU STFP Fellow.