Archive for July, 2011

I have had a spike in visitors today, likely the result of horrific events in Norway this afternoon. However, we are early days yet so I am going to keep my powder dry for a while on that. Come back soon if you want to hear some thoughts (or contact me directly for anything specific). In the meantime, here is my latest for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel touching upon the ongoing UK connection to jihad in South Asia which draws on the still unresolved story of two British nationals picked up in Herat recently. That will be an interesting case to see unravel.

Talib al-Britani

BY RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI, JULY 22, 2011 | Friday, July 22, 2011 – 4:09 PM

Britain’s connection to jihad in South Asia was once again cast into the spotlight with the capture of two British nationals with alleged links to the Taliban in Herat. The man and woman remain unidentified, and the British Ministry of Defense and Foreign Office have both merely confirmed that they were British nationals. Stories have started to circulate in the press that they were plotting an attack back in the U.K. and it seems that they were dual Afghan-British nationals known to MI5, though other reports indicate they may be of Pakistani origin.  Whether they were planning an attack in the U.K. or not, the prospect of British nationals fighting British soldiers in Afghanistan is something that has long worried British officials. Either way, their presence shows the connection between the U.K. and fighting in Afghanistan continues to exist, a demonstration of how ingrained extreme ideas continue to be in the U.K.

In many ways, this discovery is not that surprising. NATO forces have captured other European nationals fighting for their enemies in Afghanistan before, and there have been reports of British signals intercepts planes over the country hearing men talking in distinct regional British accents. Recently a picture surfaced in an extremist video showing “Musa the British” – a dead Taliban fighter with roots in the U.K. Most dramatically, a couple of years ago a story circulated that British forces had discovered a Taliban corpse with an Aston Villa tattoo. (Aston Villa is a Birmingham football team, one of Britain’s cities with a large South Asian population.)

In the U.K. a number of cases have come before the courts in recent years highlighting the ongoing existence of a pipeline sending young men to fight alongside the Taliban (or al-Qaeda). Currently in Manchester a case is being heard against a cell of men that had formed around a former Taliban fighter who had relocated to the city. The group was allegedly using a stall set up for spreading religious messages in the city to try to recruit others to go and fight in Afghanistan. In June 2009 a court sentenced 21-year-old London lad Mohammed Abushamma to three-and-a-half years in jail for attempting to join the Taliban using a route through Turkey and Tajikistan. Abushamma admitted to police that he was seeking jihad in Afghanistan and, according to the prosecutor, emails he had sent his family “clearly indicated that he would be fighting with a Koran in one hand and an AK47 in the other.”

Others appear to have successfully got through to join the fighting. Last year the Guardian told the story of the East London taxi driver who would every year go back during fighting season to join the battle against the occupying forces. As he boastfully put it, “there are many people like me in London….we collect money for the jihad all year and come and fight if we can.” In a separate case, an Afghan suicide bomber who penetrated Kabul’s Defense Ministry in April this year, Atiqullah Mangal, was allegedly radicalized in a British jail, having been smuggled into the U.K. as an illegal immigrant in 2001 and then incarcerated for violent assault. Upon deportation at the end of his sentence, he connected with the Haqqani Network and ended up leading an audacious assault that was supposedly intended to strike the visiting French Defense Minister.

And just the other day, a court in London further extended a control order (a government means of restricting an individuals movement whom they cannot incarcerate) against “BF” — a British-born man of Pakistani descent who was allegedly connected to the Operation Crevice cell (Crevice was the first large-scale Islamist counter-terrorism operation in the U.K. to stop a plan to explode a fertilizer bomb on behalf of al Qaeda). “BF” is alleged to have travelled out to Pakistan in 2008 with a pair of brothers also connected to the cell who were fleeing control orders, and he returned carrying letters to pass on that were clearly referring to terrorism training. A year later he allegedly attempted to make the journey again, and this time was intercepted by British police and placed under restrictive custody.

Admittedly this latter path through Pakistan might not have ended up in Afghanistan, but at the same time this route is one that has been used repeatedly by British extremists in the past to go and join the Taliban. In mid-2001, the leader of the Crevice cell in the U.K., Omar Khyam, headed to Pakistan ostensibly to attend a friend’s wedding, but instead connected with extremist networks and, in his own words to British journalist Richard Watson, travelled “all over Afghanistan…the Taliban are the most hospitable people in the world.” At around the same time, Mohammed Siddique Khan, a British jihadist who was to achieve fame later as the leader of the July 7, 2005 cell, was making a very similar trip through Pakistan to Afghanistan. Khan had brought along with him another young Briton, Shippon Ullah, and the two of them trained at Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen camps where, according to Ullah, “we were treated differently because we had our own hut with two brothers from the United Arab Emirates.”

This sort of jihadi tourism was something that primarily served the purpose of fundraising for the Taliban and providing young British men with an exciting experience during their summer holidays. But as was seen with both Khyam and Khan, the potential danger was that these young men could then be persuaded to take up arms against their own country at home. It is unclear at this stage what exactly these two in Afghanistan were doing, but their existence highlights that the jihadi pipeline between the UK and Afghanistan is alive and well.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and the author of the forthcoming “We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen

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A long lost post for ICSR looking at terrorism in China, something that I had actually drafted initially prior to the recent events out in Hotan. There it now seems as though the government is saying that a “flag of jihad” was being flown, though I have not seen reference to the East Turkestan groups anywhere. Any tips or pointers always welcome.

Jihad in China

Islamist terrorism and extremism in China is a very difficult subject to research. A general sense of paranoia casts a shadow over the it and a great paucity in direct and accurate information means that people often have very little that is empirical or tangible to add.

None of this is to say that the problem does not exist. Recently a video emerged on the forums that by my count is the first to be released that is primarily in Chinese (Mandarin that is, the main Chinese language) – previous videos have been later translated into Chinese, but this is the first one to boast a speaker clearly using Chinese. Others have been released threatening China ahead of the Olympics, and a video from April 2008 showed three Chinese men being executed, most likely somewhere in Waziristan. There have also been a number of half-formed plots, including an attempt to bring down a plane going from Urumqi (a regional capital) to Guangzhou (a regional the capital) using a petrol bomb,a series of bus bombings for whom no satisfactory explanation has ever been provided and aseemingly suicidal attack against security forces in Aksu, Xinjiang in August last year.

In all of these cases, the Chinese authorities blamed what are called East Turkestan groups. East Turkestan refers to what China’s westernmost Xinjiang province is considered by those who call for independence of their province. These people tend to be Uighur, a Turkic minority mostly resident in China that used to be the most populous in that province: Han Chinese migration has completely changed the ethnic demographics of the province. This migration has been accompanied by what is seen locally as a slow erosion of Uighur culture and a general sense that Han China is taking advantage of the province’s considerable natural resources with little benefit to the locals. Uighur’s are a predominantly Muslim minority and some splinters of the al-Qaedaist narrative have managed to find a home amongst the disaffected communities. And these groups are either referred to as, or self-call themselves, East Turkestan Islamist Movement (ETIM) or Turkestan Islamist Party (TIP).

But whether these attacks are actually carried out by organised groups is very hard to confirm. Some individuals have in the past made connections with al Qaeda and affiliated networks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and broader Central Asia. According to Camille Tawil’s recent authoritative book Brothers in Arms, in Afghanistan prior to 9/11 ETIM “pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar and stopped all paramilitary activity against China (which the Taliban could ill-afford to upset), as requested.” And the existence of the connection is further confirmed by a quick review of the Chinese listed Wikileak’d Guantanamo detainee files that show a whole series of Uighur men who left China for reasons mostly to do with what they felt was Chinese oppression and ended up in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whether they were all connected to terrorist groups is unclear, but certainly the path they took seems to have been a well-trodden one. There are regular reports that the Pakistani government trumpets of “Turkestan” fighters being killed in operations in Waziristan. And last May, interior minister Rehman Malik referred to the back having been “broken” of the “East Turkestan” groups. He was rewarded with substantial contracts and investment from China.

More recently, while the regional Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was undertaking one of its joint counter-terrorism exercises, Chinese minister Meng Hongwei declared that, “signs are the ‘East Turkestan’ terrorists are flowing back.” But while this declaration sounded like it was founded in some sort of direct threat intelligence, nothing has since materialized. This could of course be due to the fact that it is sensitive information and consequently suppressed, but at the same time, Chinese authorities like to trumpet success in counter-terrorism operations.

But now we have had what seems to be a genuine expression of violence in Xinjiang, with the news that a mob of “thugs” attacked a police station in Hotan, one of the few majority Uighur cities left in the province. While this attack does not seem on the scale of the grim July 2009 riots that led to around 200 deaths, reports indicate that at least a handful of people have been killed. So far blame has not been attributed to the East Turkestan groups, but the local information bureau has already referred to the event as “an organised terrorist attack.”

The East Turkestan groups and the threat from them are also often quoted as one of China’s driving motivations behind engagement with Central/South Asia. But what is interesting is that there is often little evidence of a successful terrorist attack being carried out in China. Consequently, there is a certain amount of skepticism about the size and nature of the threat. Curious, I recently asked a series of high profile researchers and officials what size they considered the threat to be and got broadly similar responses, though very different senses of how dangerous the ETIM/TIP groups are.

One told me that in the past year some 100 had been killed in Afghanistan/Pakistan and that he estimated there were some 1,000 more. Someone affiliated with a research institution linked to the state security ministry played the threat down, declaring that there were some 100/200 people and that the networks had been largely disrupted. The only reason he thought they would be able to make a turn-around was if things in Afghanistan got a lot worse providing the group with a new space to operate in. In a larger conference space I posed the same question to a University academic who had just given a very doom and gloom assessment of security in Central Asia and he guesstimated numbers were in the “hundreds” and that they were very active in the “border regions.” He expressed particular concern about Tajikistan and the porous borders that the nation had as a potential conduit for terrorist networks in the region.

Often, however, the bigger threat that is referred to are groups like Hizb ut- Tahrir, whom are present in Central Asia and apparently amongst the communities of cross-border traders that go back and forth between Xinjiang and the bordering states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. One high estimate that was given me was of some 50,000 HuT members in China spread out from Xinjiang all the way down to Sichuan province with people seeing the group as part of a dangerous Islamicization that is taking place in broader Central Asia and consequently in China too. More conservative estimatessay there are some 20,000 HuT members in China.

It seems that there is some sort of a terrorist threat to China from violent Islamist networks. But what remains unclear is to what degree this threat is able to conduct any sorts of operations within China or to what degree al Qaeda and affiliate networks are able (or want) to manipulate it for their own ends. Currently, the jihad in China seems more aspirational than operational. At the same time, if events in Hotan are confirmed, it looks like the tinderbox of ethnic friction and disenfranchisement that might offer an outlet for such extremism to latch on to continues to exist.

Not the actual title of my latest article for Oriental Morning Post (东方早报), but instead the title of an article in the Telegraph that quoted my recent ISN piece. Wen’s trip to Europe also elicited an interview with Reuters, which they used a small quote from that was picked up in a variety of places. In any case, here is the link to the Dongfang Zaobao piece (in Chinese), and below is the text I drafted in English.

Premier Wen Jiabao returns from his latest European trip with a raft of new deals and contracts with old European friends. In contracts geared to bring benefits to both sides, Premier Wen’s trip led to the signing of deals worth $15 billion in Germany (part of which was a purchase of some 88 Airbus planes), $4 billion in the UK and $1.8 billion in Hungary. He also announced the establishment of $2.8 billion fund to support cooperation between Small to Medium sized Enterprises (SME) in China and Germany and a special loan of $1.4 billion to support similar relations between Chinese and Hungarian firms. But while these deals show the strength of the Sino-European relationship, the fact that they are the big issues to come away from Premier Wen’s trip to Europe shows the relatively immaturity of the EU-China relationship. This is not a “strategic partnership” with any depth.

The blame for this is two-fold. On the one hand, Europe has not managed to clarify its decision-making processes yet. The selection of Herman van Rompuy as President of the EU and Catherine Ashton as Foreign Minister was a conscious choice by the member states of the European Union to maintain authority over Brussels, the traditional seat of power in the EU. Neither are known as being aggressive leaders, and the member states have continued to use Brussels when it is useful and ignore it when it is not. The result has been to confuse matters with outside partners uncertain of whether they should focus their efforts on the member states or Brussels when they are looking for a partner to talk to in Europe.

But at the same time, China remains a hesitant actor on the world stage. Unless dealing with obvious trade or economic questions or issues that are seen as “core interests,” China is not a very certain actor in international relations. The traditional policy is one of “non-interference”: but as a Chinese colleague put it to me the other day this can also mean, “not doing anything.” The end result is that as China’s interests in the world are expanding, its capacity and ambition to do anything have not matched this growth. This has led to trips like this latest one to Europe, where big trade deals have been signed while there has been little serious discussion about anything else.

This is unfortunate, as both China and Europe share interests in the world beyond trade. To look at Libya, both suffered greatly as a result of Colonel Gadaffi’s slow strangling of his nation and the subsequent chaos that it caused. China lost unknown billions in investment and had to suddenly evacuate tens of thousands of citizens. Europe had to evacuate less people, but nevertheless lost a major energy supplier and an equally substantial investment. While now there is some divergence on how to address the problems that the chaos in Libya has thrown up, there is clearly a joint interest in making things better and in establishing ways that such situations can be avoided in the future.

And beyond Africa, both China and Europe clearly have a keen interest in making sure that things in Afghanistan and Pakistan calm down considerably from their current tense tempo. While clearly it is the US that is the lead actor in AfPak at the moment, both China and Europe have active interests in ensuring stability prevails and some discussion of what they want to do there in the longer term might be a good idea. And it is not only geopolitical questions that are important: climate change remains an crucial issue to both, but aside from discussions of developing green technologies, there was surprisingly little conversation between China and her European interlocutors on this topic this time around.

All of this is a missed opportunity, as clearly China is coming to a period of reconsidering its position in the world, while Europe is figuring out how to do more with fewer assets. A moment that would lend itself to more comprehensive consultations between Chinese and European leaders than the trade and economics show that just took place.

The point is simple: trade between nations will always take place. In a globalized world, men will always sell things to each other across borders. If we want to make this into a truly “strategic partnership” however, then we need to deepen the seriousness of our discussions beyond this realm. In this way, the EU-China relationship can live up to its long-missed potential.