Archive for February, 2011

A slightly longer post for Free Rad!cals looking at the Shabaab’s new television channel and trying to explore its gradual evolution towards international violence. I have a longer piece on the topic of Shabaab and foreign fighters coming up soon for Jane’s.

A Threat Coming to Your TV Screen

In September last year, the Director General of the Security Service (MI5) made a speech in which he highlighted,

In Somalia, for example, there are a significant number of UK residents training in al-Shabaab camps to fight in the insurgency there. al-Shabaab, an Islamist militia in Somalia, is closely aligned with al-Qaeda and Somalia shows many of the characteristics that made Afghanistan so dangerous as a seedbed for terrorism in the period before the fall of the Taliban. There is no effective government, there is a strong extremist presence and there are training camps attracting would be jihadists from across the world.

This speech was the latest proof of high-level concern about the Islamist al-Shabaab (the youth) militia in Somalia, which has evolved quite rapidly from regional insurgency to aspirant regional al-Qaeda affiliate. The most recent evidence of its evolution was the revelation last week that the group both had a new logo and was launching its own television channel. As the official press release put it,

The “al-Kataib News Channel” came to teach.. to tell.. and to incite.. in honor of the martyrs who covered battlefields with their blood in various fronts; east and west, south and north. This came in defense of the victories of the Mujahideen who broke the pride of the infidel West, scattered its papers and made their senior commanders lose their minds. This in support of the Muwahideen’s patience and persistence in the land of pride.

This news comes in the wake of a continuing escalation in activity from the group. I have written in the past about the group in a number of different formats, each highlighting different aspects of the group’s morph from regional insurgent to global actor. It has gone from being one amongst many in the civil war in Somalia, to being an actor able to launch attacks first in semi-autonomous Puntland, to being able and willing to launch attacks in neighboring Uganda, to maybe even being connected to international attacks. There has been an almost constant digest of stories of al-Qaeda leaders hiding out amongst the group in East Africa, rhetorical video exchanges between al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab, and evidence of other al-Qaeda affiliates moving to set up shop in Somalia. On the ground, stories point to the group’s increasing extremism and imposition of Shariah law, now a television channel, and all the while it seems able to draw a wide community of foreigners to its ranks.

International Threat? Members of al-Shabaab in Training

The trajectory it seems to be headed is an attack on the international stage. As Evans put it, the group ‘shows many of the characteristics that made Afghanistan so dangerous as a seedbed for terrorism,’ and consequently it understandable that it is high on the list of threats that keeps him up at night. But at the same time, the question that should be asked is whether we are wishing ourselves towards a conclusion that in fact is not in the interests of the group?

Yes, it does seem as though the Shabaab’s trajectory is invariably taking it towards attacking the West, and at least one of its leaders has openly threatened America. As Omar Hammami, aka Abu Mansour,put it to the New York Times, “it’s quite obvious that I believe America is a target.”

But why would the group attack the West? On the one hand it would give it a greater profile and prestige, all which would invariably bring it a greater degree of support and contacts, but at the same time such an attack would bring the additional nuisance of foreign interference and attention. It already has a great deal, but compared to AQAP or AQ core in Waziristan it remains a secondary issue for western counter-terrorists. So much so that aspiring Western fighters wanting to go to jihad consider Somalia an easier place to go than the other jihadi battlefields. As far as Western security services are concerned, the greatest concern is from radicalised networks affiliated with the group that chose to move into action in their home states, rather than going to Somalia to fight. Examples of this would be in Denmark in the case of young Somali-Dane who tried to kill Kurt Westegaard, one of the cartoonists responsible for the infamous Mohammed cartoons, and the cell in Australia who were trying to get to Somalia, but failed and instead decided to try to do something at home. In addition, there is the mixed group in Demark who were apparently targeting Jyllands-Posten, and at least one of whom had tried to link up with Somali networks in the past.

But in all three cases, it is unclear to what degree al-Shabaab central command was involved. This does not mean that they are absolved of activity outside Somalia – certainly the Kampala attack seems to have had a high degree of Shabaab involvement – but it remains uncertain that the group wants to start attacks in the west. The risk it would seem is from radicalized networks who decide to do things at home of their own volition (like the Australian or Danish networks), or might be coopted by groups like Al Qaeda to carry out attacks in the west (maybe the mixed network of attackers in Denmark).

This nonetheless means the group is a threat, but it is different from the threat posed by groups whose leadership appears to have made a conscious decision to attack the west. At the moment its attacks outside Somali borders have focused on nations involved in the AMISOM force, rather than any “kaffir” state. The danger is that we wish ourselves into facing a threat from the group by focusing too much attention on it. While it seems clear that radicalized networks are a threat, it is not clear that the group itself is eager to launch attacks against the west. This is not to say that it might not happen (I am wary of making any concrete assumptions, aware of how these groups mutate and how easy it is for affiliate networks to be coopted by others), but it is unclear that we are there yet in terms of core command targeting cities in America or Europe.

The Director General of MI5 seems very aware of this, and chose his words carefully about the group. “I am concerned that it is only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside al-Shabaab,” is how he put it. But maybe this should be more delicately put saying “connected” rather than “inspired.” The point is not that the group is not dangerous or a threat, but that it is not quite at the stage of being an AQAP or AQ core threat. To think strategically it would seem as though we need to find a better way by which to assess which affiliates are direct and indirect threats and what are the signs they are moving in an increasingly dangerous direction. All of which might help identify what moves might be made to send them down a different path.

 

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A slightly belated article on the recent events in Moscow for HSToday (belated in that there are now hints it has been figured out who the culprits are). There should be a longer interview I have done with Ces that should appear soon (and of course, thanks for taking the time to talk to me about it!).

Culprits Behind Latest Moscow Bombings Still A Mystery

By: Raff Pantucci

02/04/2011 (12:00am)

The New Year started with a deadly explosion in Moscow. Terrorists detonated a powerful bomb inside Moscow’s Domodevo international airport, killing 35 persons and injuring more than one hundred. Moscow had barely dodged an earlier attack on revelers in Red Square on the night of December 31.

News of the earlier failed attack emerged in the wake of the investigation into the bombing at the Domodevo airport. According to Russian media that quoted intelligence sources, the attackers were gathered in a rented house in Kuzminki Park where they were assembling an explosive device that they reportedly intended to explode at Red Square.

But the bomb detonated prematurely, when the cell phone that was to be used as the trigger was left turned on and received a text message from the phone company, setting off the bomb. The explosion killed the bomber and destroyed the safe house they were using. Two or three other suspected bombers were seen fleeing the scene who are believed to have been responsible for the later bombing at Domodevo airport.

Russian authorities have been tight lipped about sharing information on the plotters involved in the airport attack. In a particularly blunt statement, a spokesman for the National Anti-Terrorism Committee (NAK) said “the investigation is ongoing, and only the [investigators] can say what’s what. Everyone else needs to shut up.”

That pronouncement though had not stopped speculation that the bombers had ties to the North Caucasus and Islamist fighters from Chechnya or neighboring Dagestan.

In an attempt to allay speculation, Prime Minister Vladmir Putin said “this terrorist act, according to preliminary data, has no relation to the Chechen Republic.” Putin’s statement, however, increasingly has been contradicted by reports that individuals from the region were behind the bombing. According to Russian terrorism expert, Cerwyn Moore of the University of Birmingham, the most likely culprits were Islamists in the North Caucasus led by Dokku Umarov, who “has vowed to launch attacks in Russian cities.”

According to Moore, it was not necessarily the case that this was a plot that was centrally directed. “It may well be that this attack is only loosely linked to the core of the insurgency – many attacks in the past were launched almost as independent operations – under the framework of a loose network of affiliates.”

The affiliate that’s under suspicion is a group called Nogaisky Jamaat near Dagestan, a neighboring province of Chechnya. A number of suspects were leaked that support this speculation. An ethnic Russian convert named, Vitaly Razdobudko, from Stavropol near where Nogaisky Jamaat is from, are being sought in connection with the plots, and reports suggested that the woman who was blown up prematurely was the widow of Temerlan Gadzhiyev, a dead leader of the group.

Whoever proves to be culpable, it is unlikely that this is going to be the last such attack in Russia. In 2004, two female suicide bombers who’d bribed their way onto planes from Domodevo brought both aircraft down, killing 88. It was a particularly grim year that started with a suicide bombing in the Moscow underground in February which killed 39, and ended in September with the Beslan school massacre, which killed 331. The carnage has continued regularly since then, with two more female suicide bombers blowing themselves up in Moscow’s underground last March, killing 40.

Among the speculation about outside terrorist connections, one report from Pakistani stated that Russian agents had been in contact with sister services in Pakistan in connection with the incident. The suspicion is that some of the individuals might have trained in Waziristan – a development that is supported by media interviews of European radicals regarding Chechens who were at training camps in Pakistan.

The decision to target the international arrivals area at Domodevo airport would suggest that the group responsible for the bombing there intended to send a message beyond Russia. However, the lack of a claim for responsibility would seem to contradict this theory and denote that the bombers’ key constituency is on the home front. As Moore put it, “the fact that the violence has continued, in varying degrees of intensity for nearly twenty years, indicates that the movements in the region have a social base – and is largely indigenous.”

The underlying problem that has kept violence brewing for almost two decades has not dissipated, and it is uncertain that the response to the latest attack is going to do anything to bring these issues to a close.

 

A slightly belated post for Whose World Order? This time looking at the preparations for the Year of the Rabbit. Happy Chinese New Year all!

Shanghai View: Get ready for the Rabbit

Date: 1st February 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: Hu JintaoShanghaiYear Of The RabbitChina

Someone recently told me that with China, you have to add a zero to everything to get the proportions right. Major cities like Beijing or Shanghai are the same, or larger, in population than many European nations. The online population of netizens is now estimated to be around 400 million, more than there are US citizens. Similarly, this time of year, Chunjie (Spring Festival or Chinese New Year), somewhere in the region of 230 million people will make train journeys to get home for the festival. It is a well-worn cliché, but these mind-boggling scales are important to bear in mind when one makes any consideration about why China acts in the way that it does.

Long queues are already forming at train stations and ticket offices as people wait to buy tickets for trains home: in an attempt to stop scalping (which of course still takes place) you can only buy tickets ten days ahead of time, but this means that on days when everyone wants to travel, like clockwork, 10 days out you have a long queue. In Beijing the other day it was reported that all tickets from the city sold out in half an hour. Given the fact that at this time of year everyone tries to get back home to see family (and in Shanghai alone it is estimated there are some 3 million migrant workers), you can imagine how hectic these queues can get. In one incident doing the rounds, an infuriated migrant worker named Chen Weiwei stripped naked and ran into the station controllers office in Jinhua, East Zhejiang, after he waited for 14 hours on two consecutive days to get tickets to go home.

Marketplaces are full of red rabbit stuff. Red is the color of prosperity and happiness, and we are about to enter the year of the rabbit (fyi, we are just leaving the year of the tiger). Strings of faux silk lanterns, chili’s, zodiac characters, large pieces of cardboard with Chinese characters emblazoned on them in gold, and all manner of small red envelopes in which you put money to give to people to say thanks fill market stalls and doorways. The intense red masks the low quality of the items, which I discovered are apparently mass-produced in Guangzhou.

But there is a darker side to this time of year too: friends have told me that they have encountered a growing number of pickpockets. This is common at this time of year as people start to get desperate and realize that they might not have the money to get back home and they do stupid things in an attempt to raise money. It is seen as a great humiliation to not be able to make the family migration for Chinese New Year and as a result there is a usually a spike in petty theft at this time of year as people make one last desperate pitch to raise cash.

Police are also kept busy with an increasing number of drunk drivers. Similar to Christmas time, this time of year is full of heavy drink laden meals resulting in inebriated individuals deciding a drive home is a sensible idea. And of course fireworks become ubiquitous, resulting in invariable fires. In 2009 188 people were killed in explosions related to fireworks at around this time, though this was down on an average of 400 per year between 1986 and 2005.

The authorities are aware of all of this and in response have launched an anti-crime campaign nationally to address these issues, “as the spring festival approaches, mass activities, traffic, fire control and other agencies are adding more security measures for our society.” And while this can be dismissed as the usual government-speak, the CCP is acutely aware of the importance of this holiday to the public. In 2008 when heavy snows brought parts of the rail network to a standstill as people were making their annual pilgrimages home, Premier Wen Jiaobao went to train station platforms in Hunan and Guangzhou to apologize and reassure people that the government was doing as much as it could. Given the bad weather we have already had this year, it is possible that he and Mr Hu will have to do this again this year. The alternative would be the possible wrath of the many thousands who would be directly affected, and the further sympathetic anger expressed by the many millions of others who would scold the government (either openly, online or in conversation amongst each other) for failing to provide adequate services for the public. In Chinese officialdom’s mind, who knows what this might escalate in to?

Chinese officials regularly berate foreigners for pressuring them to do too much too fast, complaining that they are still a “developing country” with domestic priorities which are more important than any foreign entanglements. It can be a frustrating perspective to encounter, but at the same time, at this time of year, it is a bit easier to understand what they mean.

 

A rather belatedly posted piece on the ECFR website looking at EU-China relations comparing them to US-China. Am finishing up a longer paper on this which will hopefully draw out some useful ideas for people. In the meantime, any suggestions or things that I am missing would be very welcome.

Handling the Chinese: Europe should take lessons from Washington

BY RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI – 24 JAN 11

President Hu is no doubt pleased about how his trip to Washington went. Aside from some translator issues, there were no embarrassing moments and it looked to the world like a meeting between two of the world’s most powerful leaders. From the American side too there is certainly relief that things went so well – some concessions were given by the Chinese on DPRK and indigenous innovation, a few big deals were signed and the press walked away assessing that the President had pressured the Chinese on human rights.

Contrast this with the last EU-China Summit last October, which resulted in Premier Wen Jiaobao being irritated, a press conference being cancelled and a scuffle over some journalists being excluded, which was read by the press as evidence of Chinese authoritarianism abroad. The only reason this embarrassment was so quickly brushed under the carpet was the almost total absence of any meaningful media coverage of what takes place in Brussels. If there ever was a signal that Europe’s approach to China was broken, hopefully this is it.

Some in Europe will disagree with this harsh assessment, highlighting that the EU is able to work at a mechanical and practical level with their Chinese counterparts. The EU is China’s biggest trade partner and discussions at a trade or economic level are sophisticated and effective. Furthermore, the deals signed in America are on a par with the deals signed when President Hu went to Paris last year or when David Cameron went to Beijing.

But those deals were at a bilateral, member state level, and while it is true that some very important discussions take place at an EU-China level on trade, IPR and tariffs, all of these are quite practical discussions that are in everyone’s interests. Nations will always try to find ways to trade and sell things to each other. The reason that the Chinese reaction to their DC trip was so much more positive than that EU-China Summit was that there was clear evidence of Washington taking Chinese concerns seriously and effort was put into making sure the event looked good.

In the lead up to the meeting, Beijing was repeatedly visited by senior American diplomats. Chinese officialdom was told about what was going to happen and how it would happen. The issues on the table were raised and repeated, so President Hu knew what he was going to be facing long before he got to the White House. China was worried about how the meeting would play given previous humiliations when the President has visited the White House, and the US made sure none of the hiccups of the past took place. This resulted in a good event from which both sides were able to walk away with their heads held high.

In stark contrast, when Premier Wen went to Brussels for the summit he was presented late with a list of demands that the EU expected as outcomes from the meeting, and told that the market economy status question which he thought had finally been resolved was not to be concluded this time. At a business meeting during his visit (which at least some Chinese diplomats counted as a success!), Premier Wen finally lost his temper and went off-script to warn Europe not to “join the choir” of those telling China to re-evaluate. The disaster was such that the final press conference of the summit had to be cancelled.

Clearly, Brussels failed to do all the necessary diplomatic footwork. This was no doubt in part due to the fact that the EU was then in the midst of the big reshuffle, as Catherine Ashton figured out her role and the EEAS was drafted. But it would be too easy to blame it all on this, and the reality is that the EU still fails to get what it is that it needs to do if it wants to be taken seriously by the Chinese.

China is serious about wanting market economy status from the EU and the arms embargo lifted. Neither of these things may seem of much tangible import – MES will be irrelevant in four years anyway and the arms restrictions in place at a member state level are stronger than the embargo – but to China they would be a clear message that Europe recognises they are important to China and are wiling to give them over even though they are politically thorny at home. This optic is important to the Chinese, and the EU is giving no sign of having taken this on board.

In 2004, the lifting of the arms embargo was described as a “done deal,” and then nothing happened (everyone believes this was due to American pressure). In early 2010, the new Spanish Presidency of the EU hinted that the time might have finally come, but others rapidly corrected them. Then, late in 2010, a paper leaked out in which Catherine Ashton suggested that the embargo was “a major impediment,” and that a “way forward” needed to be designed. But in early 2011, while Li Keqiang was in the UK, stories emerged of David Cameron’s rage at the possibility, suggesting the idea was once again dead.

This vacillation on something that China repeatedly says it holds dear is seen by Beijing as a slap in the face. Couple this with European behaviour on the Galileo satellite project – China was disinvited having initially been brought in as a senior partner on a project to create an alternative to the US-controlled GPS system – and with Europe’s continued failure to recognise China’s market economy status, and it is easy to see that Wen’s behaviour at the messy meeting in October was the result of accumulated anger. So while Hu went to Washington and had the red carpet rolled out for him, Wen went to Brussels and ended up having to cancel a press conference. No one went home happy and now a higher hill will have to be climbed to ensure the next one looks better.

It is flogging a dead horse to continually criticise Europe about its incapacity for unified decision-making, but European leaders should at least be able to organise the optics of a meeting with China. Once they have resolved this they can start to seriously think about what it is they want from a “strategic partnership” with China.