Archive for January, 2012

A post for the long-ignored Free Rad!cals at ICSR. This one looking at the stories around Abu Musab al-Suri’s possible release and the implications of it. Brynjar was kind enough to give me some time to talk about it and I would recommend everyone read his book on the subject if they find the time.

Whither al Suri?

Towards the end of last year a story emerged that suggested that infamous al Qaida ideologue Mustafa Setmariam Nasr, aka Abu Musab al- Suri, had been released from the Syrian jail in which it was believed he had been languishing. Picked up in Quetta in October 2005, al-Suri was a longtime jihadist who during his career had served as a trainer in Afghanistan, married a Spanish woman, and worked as a propagandist from Londonistan. He is most well-known, however, as an author and ideologue and particularly for his massive tome, Global Islamic Resistance Call, a text that laid out his idea for al-Qaeda’s structure as “nizam, la tanzim” (system, not organization). Most recently, his writing had gotten increased traction as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had very publicly taken up his ideas as part of their push in Inspire magazine to try to stir up Lone Wolf terrorism.

While the unconfirmed announcement of his release has not gotten much traction, the story was interesting given the importance al-Suri’s work is often given by researchers (and the fact that he was amongst the individuals whom Zawahiri asked for in exchange for kidnapped American Warren Weistein). Intrigued by the story, I reached out to Dr. Brynjar Lia of FFI in Norway, the world’s foremost expert of al-Suri, having written the excellent biography “Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al Qaeda Strategist Abu Musab al Suri,” to see what he thought of the story and its potential consequences:

I think it is quite likely that al-Suri was transferred to Syria and has been held there, judging by the various reports pointing in that direction over the past few years. However, I am not sure whether Syrian authorities would have much to gain by releasing him. He is no friend of the Syrian regime to say the least, and he consistently denounced the Syrian regime both politically and religiously, labeling them “a Nusayri [another word for the Alawi, Bashar al Assad’s ethnic community] occupation”. The only thing I could think of is that the regime is trying to send a signal to the West, and the U.S. in particular, that if they push the Assad regime too hard, they will lose a partner in “the war on terrorism”, to use an outdated term. Al-Zawahiri mentioned al-Suri as one of several jihadis he wanted to see released in return for a U.S. citizen, reportedly held hostage by al-Qaida in Pakistan. However, in the current climate it is hard to imagine U.S.-Syrian cooperation on swapping al-Suri for the U.S. hostage.

“The impact of al-Suri’s release, if true, will not necessarily be dramatic, although it depends on the circumstances of his release. I don’t really see him in any operational role in the jihadi organisations in the region such as al-Qaida in Iraq, Ansar al-Islam, Fatah al-Islam or others. As for the Syrian opposition in exile, they will probably view him as a liability and they seem to believe that he might have been released as part of the Syrian regime’s orchestrated efforts to portray the opposition as an al-Qaida supported insurgency. Furthermore, al-Suri has few friends among the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, whom he singled out for very harsh criticism in his early writings. He did not have a large crowd of dedicated disciples, but was mostly a theoretician and a writer and was admired for his writings and his seniority as a jihadist.

For my own two cents, it would be strange for the Syrians to take such an action for a man who was so clearly their enemy and unlikely to ever do them any favors – but then again, as the Shia Iranian experience with allowing Sunni al Qaida to stay in their territory has shown, the geopolitics of the war on terrorism are complex. But I also wonder whether it would necessarily be the case that his release would be some sort of a boon to the notion of Lone Wolf jihad as espoused by AQAP. Clearly Inspiremagazine saw al-Suri as their ideological godfather and repeatedly held up his image and writing as key in their thinking, but I wonder if al-Suri would equally embrace the notions as they have advanced it.

To start with, it is unclear to me on the basis of his work that al Suri would be that impressed by the religious and ideological knowledge displayed by the army of young people who are taking up arms in response to AQAP’s call. In the early 1990s as he was first advancing his ideas in Peshawar, al Suri spoke of being unimpressed by the lack of “necessary doctrinal, programmatic, ideological and political guidance” amongst his fellow Arab-Afghans. Furthermore, in his magum opus, the Global Islamic Resistance Call, where he praises “the school of individual jihad and small cells” and a group of lone individuals who took up the cause of jihad, he highlights how while these attacks may be a military, security and agitation success, their political and educational impact is relatively low. It is hard to imagine that he would see greater ideological fervor or wider political success amongst the young people claiming his heritage.

Beyond this, it is unclear that he would necessarily approve of the sort of random targeting that is suggested by Inspire magazine’s ideas of taking down apartment blocs full of people by renting out one on a lower floor and letting the gas run freely or the idea to use a combine harvester to literally mow through crowds. While al-Suri’s writing does recognise the validity of targeting civilians, he does say that this needs to be done in a discriminating fashion. This is reflected in information to have emerged from Abbotabad where it is claimed that bin-Laden was “taken aback” by the Inspire proposal to use a harvester “he complains that this tactical proposal promotes indiscriminate slaughter. He says he rejects this and it is not something that reflects what al-Qaeda does.”

It is unclear whether al-Suri will be able to react in any sort of a public way to the children of the jihad who have claimed his legacy, not least because we have no idea at the moment of whether he has even been released (or if he has what limitations he may be under). But should he have been released and be able to become an active jihadi ideologue once again, it will undoubtedly prove a coup for al-Qaeda’s battered ideology and forces (as Jarret Brachmann has pointed out). What is less clear, however, is what kind of an impact it would have on the AQAP driven push towards indiscriminate, undirected Lone Wolf terrorism. It is uncertain to what degree the group is responsible for the growth in such events, and it is even less certain whether al-Suri would necessarily appreciate the interpretation of his work that they have been advancing.

Lone Wolf terrorism will no doubt continue to emerge whether al-Suri has been released or not. Al Suri’s potential addition to this mix will be to breathe new life into a group whose ideology and leadership has taken a sound beating, offering a leader whose ideas at the time were not paid much attention to, but since his arrest have increasingly become the vogue amongst terrorist tacticians.

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A new piece for CNN, this time looking in a bit more detail at the group Boko Haram to try to understand what lessons can be learned from nearby al Qaeda affiliates and fellow travellers to see about its trajectory as an global terrorist threat. My sense is that it is unlikely to start actively launching attacks abroad, but I suppose never say never. I cannot pretend to be an expert on Nigeria, but a detail that stood out for me was that it turns out that only about 10% of Britain’s Nigerian population is Muslim (14,000 in the 2001 census) – which somewhat reduces the potential danger to the UK at least. A project I would be very interested in seeing would be a closer examination of what exactly Nigeria’s diaspora population looks like by tribe and religion. Any pointers anyone has come across would be very interesting.

What might Boko Haram do?

From Raffaello Pantucci, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Raffaello Pantucci is an associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and the author of the forthcoming “We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen” (Hurst/Columbia University Press).

After an explosive festive season that spilled into the New Year and growing stories of increased connections to other regional networks, Nigerian group Boko Haram is likely to be one of the main focuses of attention for counter terrorism experts in this coming year.

While definitively predicting whether it is going to metastasize into a global threat, or remain a regional one, is something dependent on many variable factors, some lessons from other regional violent Islamist networks can be drawn to understand better the general direction Boko Haram is going in.

Three groups are particularly useful to look at: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, al Shabaab in Somalia and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). All three are groups that have a clear globalist violent Islamist rhetoric and varying degrees of connectivity with al Qaeda core in Pakistan.

While Boko Haram seems to increasingly sound like a global jihadist group, it has thus far only established connections with regional al Qaedaist networks – specifically, members have admitted to training in Somalia and American military officials have pointed to links with AQIM.

Of these three groups, the one that has repeatedly posed a direct threat to American homeland security is AQAP, the Yemeni based al Qaeda affiliate that hosted Anwar al-Awlaki, the infamous Yemeni-American preacher.  Established by individuals who had served directly with Osama bin Laden and had been involved with al Qaeda since its early days (and some who have been in Guantanamo) it has been an important part of al Qaeda’s global strategy.

Documents found in bin Laden’s layer point to the organization asking him directly about management issues and there is evidence of direct communication between the groups about operational planning.  The group has inherited al Qaeda core’s obsession with the United States, something demonstrated in intercepted emails between Awlaki and a contact in the UK that show Awlaki telling him to prioritize the United States, rather than the United Kingdom, as a target.

And this obsession has been given operational support by a steady flow of young Western recruits, drawn in part by the groups English-language media campaign.  These recruits both provide the network with operational assets they can use to strike the West, but also help feed its anti-Western rhetoric, spurred on as they are by a deep rejection of the society that they came from.  All of which helps explain why the group is seen as a major threat to the United States and why the group continues to try to launch attacks, all the while also trying to consolidate its position in Yemen.

The group has also been shown to have strong links with al Shabaab in Somalia, another regional network with links to al Qaeda core, but that has so far not demonstrated the same eagerness to launch attacks directly against the American homeland or in Europe. Similar to AQAP, al Shabaab has some leaders who have been quite close to al Qaeda core and it has hosted a number of senior al Qaeda members.

But the majority of its leadership has emerged from the long-standing inter-tribal conflicts that have dominated Somalia’s recent history. It has also been something of a draw for young Westerners seeking the thrill of fighting on a jihadist battlefield, and some of these young people have tried to launch attacks back home – though not at the direction of Shabaab.

But while it may have launched attacks in Somalia against Western targets, and seemed to be involved in plots to attack Western targets regionally (including recent stories of using western recruits for plotting in neighboring Kenya), there is currently little evidence that the group has directed attacks targeting North America or Europe.

Instead, it seems as though the group has chosen to avoid such direct provocations, most likely to not distract from their regional interests and bring too much attention to them from the American security machine.  The focus is on consolidating power in Somalia, in many ways something that is merely an extension of the civil war that has been raging in the nation for decades.  It clearly has the potential to launch direct attacks in the form of support networks sending money and fighters in Europe and North America, but has chosen not to deploy them.

And finally, there is al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), another group with direct historical ties to al Qaeda core as an evolution of a group that was born from the community of Algerians who had served in Afghanistan against the Soviets.  Individuals linked to previous iterations of the group have been involved in attacks in France and individuals linked to the group continue to be found in Europe.

But it has been a long time since it launched an attack, or was linked to an attack, in Europe. Instead, there has been a steady patter of attacks against north African security forces and repeated kidnappings for ransom of Westerners traveling around the region – making the group seem more of a regional criminal-terrorist network that international terrorist organization.

The group may receive some sort of a boost in the wake of the Arab Spring in terms of equipment and there are stories that al Qaeda core is focusing on the region as a new field of operations as pressure in Pakistan continues, but none of this has yet translated into much evidence of a large out-of-area terror campaign.

So where would Boko Haram fit into this spectrum?

It lacks much evidence of direct contacts with al Qaeda core, meaning that it is unlikely to have directly inherited al Qaeda’s obsession with attacking America.  Instead, it seems to have developed out of the long-standing tribal and north-south tensions in Nigeria.  It has been cloaking itself in an anti-western rhetoric – its name translates as “western education is forbidden” – and made contact with other regional Islamist groups that shout loudly about global jihad, but its focus remains the sharia-ization of Nigeria.

Of course, all of these factors can change, and the attack last August on the U.N. office in Abuja showed a level of technical capacity and an interest in targeting foreigners.  But this does not necessarily mean the internationalization of the group’s fight.  The attack could be interpreted as a way of drawing attention to the group and its struggle – something key for an organization using violence to advance a political cause.  The world press has become sadly used to massacres in Africa, so in order to draw attention, groups have to choose westernized targets.

In this light, it therefore seems that Boko Haram is most like al Shabaab, though at a much earlier stage.  Like Shabaab, it grew out of local tribal conflicts and tensions adopting Islamist garb, and it has so far avoided direct confrontations with the west. Unlike the Somali group, it lacks direct connections to al Qaeda core.

While it is clearly angry at the west, it does not yet seem to have made the specific strategic decision to expend its efforts in launching attacks in Europe or North America.  It is possible that like Shabaab, in time Boko Haram might expand its operations regionally and again against foreign targets – but this should be seen within a regional context rather than a globalist jihadist framework.  Finally, unlike all of the other groups, it also lacks a notable international support network sending money and fighters, but as security agencies have already worried, the large Nigerian diaspora internationally might change this.

For Western security planners it is a hard game to judge. While it would be surprising for the group to launch attacks against the west, if it continues to grow and is able to tap into the globalist jihadist narrative it will draw more attention to itself and its international networks will develop.  This will expand the pool of people being radicalized and will provide al Qaeda or affiliate networks with new potential networks they can capitalize upon to advance their globalist cause.

And if the group is able to establish a safe territory where it can impose its will and shariah, it is possible that it could turn into a haven for jihadists being hounded by drone strikes and western intelligence elsewhere.  This all poses a threat, but too much direct foreign attention to the group will both increase the groups credibility and also bring them into direct confrontation with western forces – something that might in itself accelerate a shift towards globalist violence.

So far, however, the only Nigerian to be prominently involved in terrorist plotting against the west was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the British educated Nigerian student who was dispatched by AQAP with a bomb sewn into his underwear.  And there has been no evidence that he was connected with Boko Haram.  Instead, the group has focused on causing chaos and massacring people in Nigeria, something that is terrible but must clearly be focused on in a regional way rather than as part of a global anti-terrorist struggle.

A new article for 东房早报 (the Oriental Morning Post) the Chinese newspaper I sometimes contribute to about what China faces with regards the Middle East and the fall-out from the so-called Arab Spring of last year. I have also been doing a few media appearances, including being quoted in an article for Voice of America about recent troubles in Xinjiang and Chinese cultural influence in Kyrgyzstan for Eurasianet. Also, my recent piece for HSToday about Lone Wolves has been reproduced in a few places, including this digested version of it for a specialist site.

The article can be found here, and below is the English I submitted and under that is the text in Chinese for those able to read it and compare the differences.

China and the Arab Spring

This has been the year of great drama in the Arab world. Old certainties were pushed aside as Hosni Mubarak was reduced from Pharaoh to an old man being wheeled into a courtroom on a bed and the defiant Muammar Gadaffi was stripped and shot while hiding in a sewer. A new world order is being shaped, but what remains unclear is what exactly China’s role in this order will be.

At a conference in May this year, a Chinese friend angrily berated the government for being so slow to respond to events in Libya. While he was impressed by the rapidity with which they had been able to evacuate the 35,000 or so Chinese workers in the country, he was distinctly unimpressed by how long it had taken the government to reach out and make contact with the rebels.

And even once China did make contact with rebels, stories were also to emerge that China was maintaining contact with the old Gadhafi regime. In one widely reported case that was subsequently admitted by the government, documents obtained by the press showed that Chinese arms manufacturers were holding discussions with the Gadhafi regime as late as July 16, 2011 to provide supplies for the Colonel’s forces. This taking place a month after Beijing had hosted NTC leader Mahmoud Jibril to discuss China’s interests in Libya.

On the one hand, being friendly with both sides is something that is a strategically safe bet. By keeping everyone happy, you are able to theoretically focus on your interests and not become involved in local rivalries. But on the other hand, this can leave you in a situation where you are seen to be supporting an unpopular regime. Something highlighted when a friend from Beirut reported in response to a question about how China was perceived by the “Arab street” during this time, that China was not seen in a very positive light. Protesters taking up against regimes like Mubarak’s or Gadhafi’s were noticing that the regime had received weapons and equipment from China. They also did not appreciate the sense that it was a result of Chinese foot-dragging that the United Nations did not become involved sooner.

All of which illustrates quite tidily the problem that China faces when looking at how to react to the Arab Spring. The long-standing non-interference principle dictates that China cannot take an active role in getting involved in other nation’s internal problems. But this is a stand that will protect it from becoming entangled in situations like Iraq, but at the same time, it means that when an unhappy populace rises up against its leadership, it is equally likely that China will find itself backing the wrong side in the local public mind.

The problem for China with the non-interference principle is that sometimes in not choosing, China has made a decision or can be interpreted as making a choice. So when China chooses to avoid supporting sanctions through an abstention, it is in fact tacitly agreeing with the sanctions and therefore supporting the side that would want the sanctions. But it is doing this in a grudging fashion that suggests that in fact it disagrees with the idea of imposing the sanctions. Currently this is most visible in Iran and Syria where the Chinese government’s ongoing refusal to support strengthened sanctions against either country is something that is blocking the west from advancing sanctions themselves. The problem for China is that while at the moment this can seem a safe bet given the fact that it is not only China that is blocking sanctions, in the longer run it could leave China in an awkward situation should the regime be replaced.

Let us look for example at Syria, the off-shoot of the Arab Spring that is most likely to dominate news cycles in the next year. After a refusal to support UN resolutions condemning Bashar al-Assad’s regime, China ended the year by supporting a Russian proposal that in equal measure apportioned blame for the current trouble on the rebels and government. Earlier shifts only came after the Arab League had moved to condemn the regime in Damascus – theoretically reflecting a broader regional condemnation and therefore a regional consensus that China could agree with and therefore be seen as part of the mainstream.

This is a careful approach that is designed to give the appearance of not supporting oppression while at the same time not advocating regime change. Instead, the desire is to project a vision of China that is supportive of whomever is in charge, irrespective of their political leanings. The logic is that once the dust settles, China can sweep in with its deep pockets and focus on its interests and avoid having to choose sides. And certainly for some in Libya this is the case: as Abdul Rahman Busin, a spokesman for the NTC put it, “we all need to remember that China is a superpower. We all rely on products that come from China. We would have hoped they would have been on our side….but if it is the interests of the Libyan people to deal with China, then we will deal with China. It is very expensive and time consuming trying to settle old scores.”

But what does this say of China as a global power? Part of the reason why European forces engaged in Libya was a recognition that they had until then been supporting an oppressive regime and that it was a stain on Europe’s character. Once Gadhafi started to talk about going from house to house wiping out dissidents, it became clear that Europe was on the wrong side and leaders moved swiftly to get UN authorization to protect Misrata and Benghazi. While the decision to impose a no-fly zone was one that was contentious within Europe – Germany chose to abstain from the resolution – the end result was that the no-fly zone was voted for and imposed. This led to subsequent events and Gadhafi’s toppling.

China’s decision to sit, with Germany and others, in the abstention box, was ultimately neither here nor there. By refusing to take a position, China ultimately did take a position since it did nothing to try to stop the no-fly zone from being imposed. As a result, China ended up supporting what took place in Libya without accruing any of the international credibility that accompanied the vote. Instead, China was seen as being uncertain whether it really was a good idea to save the floundering rebellion and unaware of the consequences of its decision-making in the UNSC.

The question that China needs to confront in this coming year is what kind of an international player it is going to be. In this past year, it has shown that it is an international player – operations off Somalia show a capacity to conduct operations within an international framework (something already shown in the many peacekeeping operations China participates in), voting on sanctions against Libya shows it can choose sides when it wants to, the 10th year anniversary of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) show that it can create a regional security framework, and its work in Sudan helped ensure that the partion of the country was a largely peaceful event. The world knows that China has deep pockets and impressive capabilities to develop infrastructure, but the question is what sort of a leadership role is China going to take in the new world order.

Nowhere will this test become clearer in this coming year than in Iran and Syria – two countries long at odds with the western world and ruled by regimes of dubious legitimacy. This year it seems possible that we will finally reach a climax on both. For Iran, the signals that it is nearing capability to build nuclear devices are becoming ever clearer, while for Syria it seems likely that the Assad regime will eventually succumb to pressure and either crack-down more heavily and violently in a way that the international community cannot deny or simply collapse. And these late echoes of this past year’s Arab Spring will have a direct impact on China’s interests, something that China would do well to try to get ahead of rather than subsequently follow.

Up until now, China has been able to sit back and watch world events happen while it hedges by making friends with both sides. This is something that has been made possible by the willingness of western powers to step in and take leadership roles to make situations develop in positive directions. But in the coming year, austerity and domestic elections will become the priority concerns, meaning that China might find that its previous cover is blown. 2012 marks a new leadership direction in Beijing – let us hope that this leadership includes a more proactive stance in international affairs. The world is crying out for greater Chinese leadership; let the next generation of leaders be those to take China onto the world stage.

2012年中国面临的中东挑战

过去的一年是阿拉伯世界经历大变局的一年:穆巴拉克从“法老”变成了躺在床上被推进法庭的老头;从来不可一世的卡扎菲躲进了下水道,并在毙命前被羞辱……过去的一套法则被颠覆,新的世界秩序正被重塑,但中国在这一秩序中究竟将扮演怎样的角色还远不清楚。

比如,尽管中国政府从利比亚撤离35000多人的速度和能力令世人印象深刻,不过,中国政府向利比亚反对派伸出橄榄枝的步伐却没那么快。

一方面,“两头不得罪”在战略上是安全的。从理论上讲,让所有人都高兴,可以让人能够专注于自身利益,而不必卷入地区冲突之中。但另一方面,这种做法可能置人于一种不利的境地。

以上这些都非常清楚地展现了中国在思考如何应对“阿拉伯之春”的问题时所面临的困扰。长期秉持的“不干涉原则”限定了中国不可能积极地介入其他国家的内部问题。

“不干涉原则”给中国带来的问题还在于,“不选择”有时候也表明中国已经做出了决定,或可能被认为是做出了选择。所以,当中国选择通过弃权来避免支持对某国进行制裁时,表示它心照不宣地对制裁采取了赞成的立场,由此事实上也就支持了想要推行制裁的一方。而以不情愿的方式采取行动,则暗示其不赞成采取制裁。眼下,这一点最显著地体现在伊朗和叙利亚事件上,中国政府拒绝支持对任何一国实施进一步的制裁,这阻碍了西方推进制裁的脚步。

让我们以叙利亚为例。在新的一年里,这一场“阿拉伯之春”的独幕戏最有可能占据新闻头条。中国拒绝支持谴责大马士革阿萨德政权的相关决议,并在2011年年底前对俄罗斯的提议——将叙利亚出现乱局的责任分摊到反对派和政府身上,各打五十大板——表达了支持。这是一种谨慎的处理方式,表明中国一方面不支持压迫人民的做法,与此同时,也不主张政权更替。当然,对于利比亚的某些人而言,这的确如此,如同利比亚全国过渡委员会发言人Abdul-Rahman Busin所言:“我们都需要记住,中国是一个超级大国。我们都依赖来自中国的产品。我们希望他们能够站在我们一边……但如果与中国打交道符合利比亚人民的利益,我们将和中国打交道。力图解决过去的矛盾既耗费资本,又浪费时间。”

过去的一年,中国已经展现了国际大国的形象:索马里海域的巡航行动显示了中国具有在国际框架下执行(军事)任务的能力(这在中国参与的多项维和行动中同样得以展示);在利比亚制裁决议上投赞成票表明必要时中国能够“选边站”;上合组织成立十周年展示了中国具有创建地区安全框架的能力;在苏丹开展的外交工作确保了该国的分而治之得以和平进行……全世界都知道了中国拥有巨大的财富和惊人的基建能力,但问题是新世界秩序之下,中国将扮演怎样的领导角色。

新的一年里,没有什么比伊朗和叙利亚事件更能明晰地考验中国在国际角色扮演上的选择。这一年里,两起事件似乎都可能达到顶点。就伊朗而言,越发逼近制造核武器能力的信号已然清晰;而在叙利亚,阿萨德政权可能将最终迫于压力,或发起更大程度和更为暴力的镇压行动,或轰然倒台。刚刚过去的2011年“阿拉伯之春”的回响对中国外交将产生直接的影响,中国会竭力提前采取行动,而不是在事后再跟着形势走。

直至目前,通过与两边交朋友,中国得以能够“袖手旁观”且静观世界风云变幻。但这种局面得以可能的前提是西方强国愿意介入和发挥领导作用以推动局势向积极方向发展的情况之下。

在新的一年里,经济拮据和国内选举将成为各主要强国的首要关切,这意味着,中国可能发现这些之前的掩护已经不复存在。

2012年对于中国而言,将开启新的篇章,全世界迫切需要中国发挥更大的领导作用,期待中国在国际事务中采取更加积极的立场。

(张娟 译)

“全世界都知道了中国拥有巨大的财富和惊人的基建能力,但问题是新世界秩序之下,中国将扮演怎样的领导角色。

2012年对于中国而言,将开启新的篇章,全世界迫切需要中国发挥更大的领导作用,期待中国在国际事务中采取更加积极的立场。”