Archive for August, 2012

An article for another new outlet, the Global Times, the more nationalist of the English language newspapers published in China. We are going to see if it comes out in the Chinese edition. While not a subject I have written much about of late, it is one I remain engaged in (EU-China relations) and this specific piece was inspired in reaction to this piece Global Times published  a couple of weeks ago that seems to suggest that Asia is solely the remit of the United States. The broader theme of a need to widen the discussion on Asian affairs is one that features in some of my China-Central Asia research and is something I will return to. Also, look to see some more writing on this topic appear around the upcoming EU-China Summit in September.

Europe’s soft power gives it significant role in Asia

by Raffaello Pantucci

Global Times | August 27, 2012 20:40

Illustration: Sun Ying
Illustration: Sun Ying from here

In the article “European powers no longer have role across Pacific” published on August 15 in the Global Times, Robert M. Farley argues that Europe and NATO are not Pacific powers. But this is predicated on a number of false assumptions. First, that trade and economics are irrelevant, second, that hard power is the only effective way of expressing yourself in the region, and third that in our globalized and increasingly multipolar world, there can be spheres of influence where others should not meddle.

The EU is China’s largest trading partner, with annual trade in 2011 of $567.2 billion, an 18.3 percent increase year-on-year. And while the US may do more trade with the two next largest East Asian powers, Japan and South Korea, the EU’s figures are not insignificant. According to American and European data, in 2011 the US did $194.6 billion in trade with Japan and $100.1 billion in trade with South Korea versus respectively $143.6 billion and $84.4 billion for Europe.
This economic power not only demonstrates why Europe has a keen interest in the region, but also highlights how hard power is not the only way to stay relevant in East Asian and Pacific affairs.
And anyway, the EU does have hard power capacity. Admittedly, the EU lacks the military clout of the US, but it is not a weakling either.
Recent conflicts in North Africa have demonstrated Europe’s capacity and willingness to project military power, and these build on a growing European tendency toward consolidation of hard power. The UK and France have put aside historical enmities to develop an ever-closer defense relationship, and over time this tendency will only increase.
That having this muscular power present in East Asia is the only way to be heard seems a very dangerous assumption to make, one that plays into the hands of hawks who see looming conflict at every turn.
The security situation in the region is tense, but surely the solution to this is to find ways to calm things down rather than ratchet them up. That Europe lacks the baggage of hard power in the region could aid in acting the role of honest broker that might be able to help soothe tensions.
This leads to a final point about the current global order. The whole point of globalization is not only that we can now get everywhere easily and talk to people on the other side of the globe without any difficulty, but it also means that the concept of spheres of influence where single powers have total domination has also passed. No longer can powers say, this is my turf and no one else has a stake.
Similarly in East Asia. While much of what happens in the region seems to be fundamentally a tussle between the US and China, the reality is that European trade will be badly affected if things in the region take a turn for the worst. We end up having an order that is confused and unclear and to speak of strictly defined spheres of interest seems antiquated.
None of this is to advocate an aggressive European return to Asia, but rather to highlight that to simply dismiss Europe as an Asian power on the basis that it does not have as many soldiers or aircraft carriers in the region is to be too hasty. The EU is looked up to by ASEAN members who see a model to emulate, European soft power is hard to miss among the floods of Asian tourists enjoying European capitals and, as illustrated, Europe has a very strong economic interest in regional stability.
To presume that the US is the only power to listen to or that matters when focusing on Asian affairs is to play into the hands of those who only see hard power and tensions.
Europe has always been fundamentally an economic power and as the globe’s economic focus shifts eastward, we will see this power and influence increase, something that will benefit everyone.
Europe has a keen interest in Asia and it is one that will only grow as the world moves beyond the current economic crisis.

The author is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn
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A new op-ed in today’s South China Morning Post, this time a solo number. Looks at the relationship between China and Russia, and how not all that is BRICS is united. They may agree on some things, but this is not some new geopolitical alignment. Touches also upon my China in Central Asia work, about which there is going to be a lot more over the next few weeks.

China and Russia are no more than allies of convenience

State councillor Dai Bingguo’s visit to Russia this week for strategic security talks has once again focused attention on the supposedly close relationship between the two BRICS powers.

An image of alliance thrown up by their parallel voting in the UN and Western analysts’ inability to look beyond former cold war alliances mean that suspicion is often cast on a relationship that has as many fractures as it does cohesion. The reality is China and Russia disagree as often as they agree.

On the chaos in Syria, the two have shown they are willing to support each other by holding up the UN as a reason for their refusal to countenance action on Syria. But while both may see eye to eye on this issue, this is not always the case. Looking in the annals of Security Council resolutions over the past few years, one can find a few instances where China or Russia found themselves abstaining alone.

Disagreeing in the UN Security Council on lesser resolutions is one thing, but far more contentious is the long border they share and the countries in between.

These concerns have two key aspects: on the one hand, Russia fears the loss of its economic and strategic influence in Central Asia, while, on the other, it fears China may overwhelm its vast and empty eastern provinces. Back in 2000, then prime minister Vladimir Putin enunciated how fundamental these concerns might become when he stated that “if we don’t make concrete efforts, the future local populations [in Russia’s East] will speak Japanese, Chinese or Korean”.

Russian analysts often talk in alarmed tones about the huge demographic disparity between China’s northeastern provinces like Heilongjiang (38 million people) and Amur Oblast on the Russian side (830,000)

And, economically, Russia can also see that it is increasingly losing out in Central Asia, previously its economic backyard. While Russian remains the language of choice in the region, it is China that is being seen as the economy of the future. Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Uzbek traders all go to Guangzhou and Urumqi for goods to import, and the China National Petroleum Corporation has signed and brought online with extraordinary speed a growing array of pipelines and oil and gas contracts from Central Asia.

The loser in this growing pipeline orientation to China is of course Russia. Not only because its firms are losing control of the Central Asian resources, but also since a growing reliance on Central Asian energy is playing against Russia in its direct negotiations with China over bilateral energy sales. The two sides have been unable to agree on the pricing of gas for almost a decade – in which time China has built a major gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, one of the world’s richest gas reserves, something that strengthens China’s hand in its negotiations with Russia.

Losing economic might and the potential fear of Chinese demographic pressure are fundamental concerns for Russia. And they build on tensions that were left over after the cold war, where the Chinese and Russian communist parties never quite saw eye to eye.

It may be the norm for elder Chinese officials to know some Russian language from that time, and for Dai to speak of how a “healthy relationship” has been forged over the past decade. But often when China looks to Russia, it sees an example of how not to manage the opening up of the state from a socialist regime. And from a Russian perspective, the new Muscovites see themselves as more European and transatlantic in their outlook and international gravitas than as members of the up-and-coming BRICS community.

So, Dai’s visit to Russia, for all the usual reassurances uttered from both sides about close co-operation, should not be taken as further evidence of some great geopolitical alignment reflective of a shifting global order. China and Russia are occasional allies of convenience, not geopolitical brothers in arms building the “other” world order.

Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

A new post for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel again with Alex as part of our broader research on Chinese interests and influence in Central Asia. More on this topic later in the month.

Finding common ground in Afghanistan
By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen | Thursday, August 16, 2012 – 5:02 PM

A beat was missed on U.S. National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon’s late July visit to Beijing. Described in the Chinese press as a “fire extinguisher visit,” it came as tensions continue to ratchet up in the South China Sea and the United States continues to butt heads with China over Iran, Syria and theoretical war plans. These disputes obscure the one area with scope for much greater cooperation between China and the United States: Afghanistan. Building on mutual goals in Afghanistan could have a positive effect on the overall relationship, showing that the distance between the two sides is not the Pacific-sized gulf that it is sometimes made out to be.

In discussions with Chinese officials about their objectives, the uniform answer is “a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan.”  This is almost identical to answers given by their American counterparts.  That said, there is a difference in tone that reflects the underlying concerns that craft it.

For Beijing, Afghanistan is primarily a domestic problem. With a common border in the sometimes lawless Wakhan Corridor, what happens in Afghanistan can potentially spill over into some of China’s most sensitive spots. This past spring, we visited China’s border in Wakhan and witnessed the ease with which militants or smugglers can cross over. Even if trouble from Afghanistan does not cross directly into Chinese territory it is likely to have a destabilizing effect in Central Asia to the north, and Pakistan to the south. China has invested heavily in both, and both have strong trade and cultural links to China’s underdeveloped and at times restive Xinjiang province. Beijing’s interest in Afghanistan turning out positively is first and foremost about China’s internal cohesion.

For Washington, the problem of Afghanistan is physically far away. The decision has been made to withdraw all combat troops by 2014, so the discussion is no longer what to do about the country, but how to exit in a dignified manner.  What security concerns the United States continues to have will be covered by the residual force left behind, but the overriding priority is for the draw down from Afghanistan to not descend into chaos as soon as the majority of American and NATO forces leave.  In our recent visit to Kabul, we could not help but note the principal focus of U.S. officials on this one goal.  Washington’s interest in Afghanistan turning out positively is about leaving behind a country more hopeful than when U.S. forces arrived.

This clear confluence has led American diplomats to encourage their Chinese counterparts to invest in Afghanistan’s future.  Beijing has responded in its own way.  Chinese state owned enterprises (SOEs) have invested in a copper mine southeast of Kabul at Mes Aynak and an oil field in Amu Darya.  China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) is seriously looking into a trans-Afghan natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China that does not necessarily rival U.S.-backed plans for a similar line to Pakistan and India.

China’s engagement is not only economic.  It made Afghanistan an ‘observer’ member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) at its June summit. While in Beijing, President Karzai also signed a strategic partnership agreement with his Chinese counterpart.  Last week, China’s Central Military Commission publically called for closer ties with the Afghan Defense Ministry.

There is also increasing evidence of low-profile cooperation with the United States on the ground in Afghanistan. There have been joint U.S.-China training programs for Afghan diplomats, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton providing a recorded message to open one session. Beijing has also indicated that it would be willing to provide counter-terrorism training for Afghan forces, coordinated with U.S. efforts.  Chinese officials we spoke to in Beijing and Kabul were quick to downplay their potential role in the future of Afghanistan.  But, their actions show that they understand the regional implications of the looming U.S. withdrawal.

A neighbor will always be more aware of the blighted house next door than will someone living across town.  The limited collaboration between American and Chinese officials on the ground in Afghanistan is a pragmatic and sensible step.  Their principals in Beijing and Washington should support them by discussing the modalities of a partnership for Afghanistan’s future.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West.  Their joint research can be found at www.chinaincentralasia.com.

A post for a long ignored outlet, ICSR’s Free Rad!cals blog. This one touches on my old hobby horse of Lone Wolves, looking at the spate of mass shootings in the US and the Breivik case a year on. Naturally, I would point you to my ICSR report on this topic for more, but also my earlier journal article on Breivik if you are looking for more detail on that specific case. A lot more on this subject in the pipeline.

Terrorist or Crazed Loner?

Filed under: Homegrown extremism, Terrorism

Almost a year to the day that Anders Behring Breivik carried out his deadly attack in Oslo, James Holmes donned his body armor, picked up the arsenal he had been accumulating over the previous months, primed a bomb at home designed to kill whoever walked in and headed off to the cinema. Once there he launched an as of now unexplained attack during a midnight screening of the new Batman movie.

Two weeks later, another tragedy struck America when Wade M. Page carried out a shooting at a Sikh Temple killing six members of its congregation. The question people have been asking since is whether any or all of these individuals are terrorists – or to be more precise, Lone Wolf terrorists.

In Holmes’ case, it is still unclear what drove him to carry out his action. Making his first appearance in a courtroom a couple of weeks ago, the immediate focus was on the color of Holmes hair and the fact that he is reported to have told arresting officers that he was the Joker – a fictional Batman nemesis. According to NYPD police chief Raymond Kelly, police apparently found some Batman paraphernalia in Holmes’ residence, and a local gun club owner said that ‘he got a “bizarre” Batman-inspired voice-mail message from Holmes that led him to issue a club-wide ban on the 24-year-old.’ All of this hints at a motive of some sort, but a tenuous one at best (the Joker, for example, did not have orange hair).

None of this points to any sort of a political motive. In fact, as time has passed, we have discovered Holmes was under psychiatric evaluation and that his doctor had tried to contact authorities about him. Whilst the case remains to be heard, it increasingly looks as though Holmes was a disjointed individual who found killing others as some sort of release.

On the other hand, with both Breivik and Page there was some sort of a political or ideological motive. This is important in defining whether this is an act of terrorism in the sense that we would commonly use it. If there was an underlying political motive, then it makes sense to characterise it as one-man political violence. If on the other hand there was no underlying motive beyond some imaginary world that the person has created, then it would seem to be missing the crucial element of political activism that is essential in an act of terrorism. This, put simply, is the action of a lunatic.

With both Breivik and Page there is a clear political motive. In Breivik’s case, we know about it since he wrote an epic and monotonous text telling us what he believed in, while with Page, we can only assume given his participation in white supremacist groups, musical tastes, and online activity. And both clearly come from an ideological ferment that seems to help explain their choice of targets. That in both cases, the communities they felt ideologically affiliated with have largely rejected them does not detract from the fact that the ideas influenced them.

The utility of understanding whether there is a political motive is that if there is, then it behooves national security services to understand it and be alert to the possible consequences. People had long watched the rise of the Eurabian fear mongering focused on conspiracy theories about a Muslim takeover of the West that was helped on by liberal governments weak on immigration, but the connection was never made that this could inspire people to violence. Not the radical right sort that most countries (except Germany it seems) have under good surveillance, but the new ideologies inspired in reaction to the rise of extremist Islamist ideas in Europe.

In the US, the notion of white supremacist/far-right groups moving into action seems to have been a concern, but resources were re-deployed from watching them in the wake of a scandal surrounding a report on the topic by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) back in 2009. More recently the single-minded focus on violent Islamists seems to have diverted people’s attention.

But what is confusing about these individuals who seem motivated by political ideology is that they decided to act on their own with such brutality and no direction. Terrorists see themselves as vanguard actors and they usually operate in a group that provides an echo chamber in which they can develop their identity. It helps them justify what they are doing and then gives them direction to do something about it. With Breivik and Page they seem to have been part of a broader community, but acted by themselves and did not necessarily expect anyone to rise up to follow them (Breivik even says he expects condemnation).

This is what makes them hard to understand. Their choice of target seems to have been dictated by their chosen ideologies. But the pointless nature of their assault and its subsequent lack of any follow-up makes it hard to comprehend. In the case of a terrorist cell performing an attack on behalf of al Qaeda, they are participating in an active global war in which their single attack is part of a bigger strike against society their group is conducting. And while Breivik and Page may see themselves in this role, from an outsiders perspective it is almost unfathomable that there is any sort of war on that these men see themselves part of and the absence of any direction seems to support this. At least with al Qaeda, we can see regular attacks by affiliates in Afghanistan, Iraq, North Africa, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, etc, as well as periodic attempts elsewhere with connections back to these hubs.

Instead with Breivik and Page we are facing two men who killed a group of people seemingly detached from any clear group, but driven by a violent set of ideas. The fact they had an ideology of some sort distinguishes them from Holmes. And it is this that defines them as Lone Wolf terrorists rather than simply a crazy kid with a gun. They were seeking a goal that has a framework that exists outside their minds. This is not to explain or justify or glorify their actions in some way, but rather to say that in categorical terms it is more useful to understand them as politically motivated actors rather than deranged people with guns who act for no reason. And if we can understand the ideology and refine our other markers to some degree, it might be possible to identify such individuals.

A new op-ed for the Chinese paper 东方早报 (Oriental Morning Post) that I write an occasional column for. This one looks a bit at events in Syria and the growing jihadi presence and what it means. Doesn’t really focus on the Chinese lack of involvement there, but the idea is to try to explain something and its potential dangers to a Chinese audience. The published Chinese is above, with the English I submitted below.

叙利亚不仅仅是叙利亚
潘睿凡   发表于2012-08-10 04:12

叙利亚前总理里亚德·希贾卜出走转投反对派,让阿萨德政权又一次雪上加霜。

潘睿凡 英国伦敦国际激进主义化研究中心副研究员

叙利亚前总理里亚德·希贾卜出走转投反对派,让阿萨德政权又一次雪上加霜。由于国际社会对于这一危机依然采取了僵持态度,激进势力积聚力量,代理人暗战日益恶化。如果只是简单地让叙利亚战争顺势爆发,这将会带来诸多难以想象的负面影响。正如之前人们在“阿拉伯之春”运动中多次观察到的那样,乐观估计总是被现实击得粉碎。如果叙利亚因为派系之争而分崩离析,这会对中东乃至整个世界带来长期消极影响。

如今的事实是,我们正在看着叙利亚慢慢地变成一团纠缠不清的乱麻,被阿拉维少数派统治的逊尼多数派产生了强烈憎恨情绪,来自世界各地的激进组织极端分子人数在增加,逊尼派海湾国家和伊朗什叶派之间的代理人战争愈演愈烈。如果不对此加以控制影响,这样复杂的内战将会酿成全球恶果。

理解当今叙利亚混乱局势和其潜在危险的关键在于回溯到第二次海湾战争、伊朗战争和伊斯兰逊尼派与什叶派之间的长期纷争。逊尼派与什叶派是伊斯兰教派中主要的两支:从世界范围来看,逊尼派人数占多数,为全球穆斯林人口75%,什叶派占10%到20%。什叶派相信先知穆罕默德指派了自己的堂弟阿里为伊斯兰领袖。逊尼派则认为真正应该追随的是在先知逝世后获得领袖地位的穆罕默德岳父艾布·伯克尔。两派对于领袖的分裂看法自此成为全世界穆斯林信徒间最重要的派别之争。

伊拉克战争使得伊拉克变成了公开的什叶派国家,一个由什叶派占据主导的国家。萨达姆政权的倒台,意味着将国家领导权交给与伊朗关系亲密的什叶派。什叶派在伊拉克掌权也意味着什叶派(或者对于什叶派友好的领袖,比如阿萨德的阿拉维教派)如今掌控着中东的伊朗、伊拉克、叙利亚和黎巴嫩。

在“阿拉伯之春”中,这一动态在海湾国家愈发显现。在北非和埃及,权力从非宗教专制政权过渡到伊斯兰教徒手中;在海湾国家,什叶派愤怒地揭竿而起,对抗掌权的逊尼派。在沙特阿拉伯东部,什叶派开始抗议;在由逊尼派王室控制人数占国内多数的什叶派的巴林,反抗浪潮一波未平一波又起。也门也同样面临着各种危机,但目前看来,还未正面受到占据约40%人口的什叶派的公开起义威胁。

对逊尼派领导人来说,前景堪称相当险恶。约旦国王阿卜杜拉二世在提出“什叶派新月带”威胁的时候详尽地表达了他的担忧。我们在叙利亚战场上越来越多地看到,海湾地区(主要是沙特和卡塔尔)的资金和特种部队训练支持着逊尼派反对者与阿萨德政权斗争。伊朗也并没有闲着。除了利用它的代理人和全球情报服务来攻击以色列之外,伊朗也在继续为阿萨德政权提供支持。

除了这些之外,我们还能看到来自世界各地的激进组织分子越来越多地出现在叙利亚。过去这周,一位年轻的德国医学院学生在阿勒颇被杀,一对外国记者也在叙利亚被挟持为人质,据说挟持者分别来自车臣、巴基斯坦、沙特和英格兰。值得我们注意的是,在美国入侵伊拉克期间,大量曾经帮助战士进入伊拉克的激进组织经叙利亚而来。部分组织由此将注意力放回了本土,也有消息说伊拉克的“基地组织”正在重返叙利亚。与此同时,伊拉克“基地组织”也在发起一系列具有高度组织性的攻击,证明他们有能力继续在伊拉克造成更多伤亡和毁灭。这些激进组织是逊尼派,尽管外部支持者会尽其可能不直接为他们提供资金援助,但在这样复杂的内战中,要将他们与逊尼派自由叙利亚军分开,还是有相当难度。在这两派中间还有那些普通的叙利亚人,他们发现自己被卷入了一场日益残酷的内战之中,战争已经几乎延续了一年半,看不到任何停止的迹象。

这一切都已经发生,而世界却还在一旁争执着是否要制裁叙利亚。西方国家暗示他们将寻找某种途径来支援这个国家中可靠的代理人,这是一条危险道路,历史上不乏不良后果。如今是需要一个负责的领袖站出来解决问题的时候。

(李鸣燕 译)录入编辑:张珺

 

Syria is about much more than Syria

The defection of Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab to the rebel side is the latest in a growing number of losses that the Assad regime has suffered in the past few months. As the international community remains deadlocked in what to do about the ongoing crisis, radical forces gather strength and a proxy war being played out by others continues to get worse. Simply letting the war in Syria play itself naturally out is something with repercussions that will be hard to judge. As has been shown repeatedly before in the Arab Spring, optimistic expectations are often shattered by reality. Letting Syria tear itself apart in a sectarian struggle is something that will have longer-term repercussions across the Middle East and the world.

China’s current approach to the Syrian crisis is to take shade under its famous rubric of ‘non-interference.’ In a particularly angry statement after the latest western instigated round of discussions to bring UN condemnation against the Assad regime, Long Zhou, a counselor in the Foreign Ministry, stated ‘we are opposed to intervention in domestic affairs, imposition of regime change and support for military interference.’ Furthermore, ‘the countries with such acts and remarks should rethink what role they have played and who indeed has been the obstacle in resolving the Syrian crisis.’

Such strong words may illustrate Chinese anger at being repeatedly blamed for holding up any action on Syria, but they do not particularly offer a path forwards to try to resolve the current crisis. Nor do they take account of the reality already being played out on the ground. The reality is that we are slowly watching Syria become an ever more tangled mess of sectarian fighting between a Sunni majority who always resented being ruled by the minority Alawite community, the growing presence of jihadist extremists from around the world, and a growing proxy war between the Sunni Gulf states and Shia Iran. Just the sort of complicated civil war that ends up having global repercussions if it is allowed to fester indefinitely.

The key to understanding the current Syrian chaos and its potential danger going forwards goes right back to the second Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq and the long-standing Sunni-Shia divide in Islam. Sunni and Shia are the two main branches of Islam: Sunni are the global majority (around 75% of the global Muslim population – including China’s Muslim minorities), while Shia are a minority (around 10-20%) who differentiate themselves from Sunni’s believing that on his death the prophet Mohammed designated his cousin Ali as the leader of Islam. Sunni’s in contrast believe Abu Bakr, Mohammed’s father-in-law, was the correct follower who took the reins of power as the head of Islam after the prophet’s death. This early split in leadership has been the foundation of most major divisions in the Muslim world since.

Whilst the invasion of Iraq was positive in that it deposed one of the world’s cruelest dictators, it had the additional effect of turning Iraq into an openly Shia nation. A Shia majority country, it was always clear that the introduction of democracy to Iraq would turn the country’s leadership over to a Shia leadership with a close affinity to Iran. And the introduction of a Shia regime in Iraq meant that Shia leaders (or Shia friendly leaders like the Alawite Assad’s) now ruled a swathe of the Middle East from Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

And as the Arab Spring gathered pace this dynamic was further exacerbated in the Gulf countries. While in North Africa and Egypt, power was passed from secular authoritarian regimes to political Islamists, in the Gulf countries, mostly angry and oppressed Shia minorities or in some cases, majorities, started to rise up against the deeply Sunni kings that ruled the kingdoms. In eastern Saudi Arabia, Shia protests started to take place, and in Bahrain, where a Shia majority is ruled by a Sunni king, repeated protests have taken place led mostly by Shia’s. Yemen has faced all manner of chaos, but thus far it seems to have been saved much of an open uprising by its 40% or more Shia minority.

For Sunni leaders, this is a menacing prospect. Jordanian King Abdulla II enunciated these concerns when he spoke of the danger of a ‘Shiite crescent’ across the Middle East. And there has been pushback, something we are increasingly seeing on the ground in Syria where stories of Gulf (primarily Saudi and Qatari) funding and Special Forces training supporting the mostly Sunni rebels fighting the Assad regime. Iran has not been idle. In addition to using its proxies and intelligence services globally to attack Israeli targets (and apparently plotting to kill the Saudi Ambassador to Washington), it has continued to provide support for the Assad regime. The two sides are supporting different factions in the civil war.

Beyond these networks, we have also seen growing numbers of jihadists from around the world showing up in Syria. This past week a young German medical student was killed fighting in Aleppo, while a pair of foreign journalists who were held captive in Syria reported being held by a group of fanatics that included Chechens, Pakistanis, Saudis and Britons. It is worth remembering that many of the jihadist networks that were helping fighters get into Iraq during the peak of the American invasion flowed through Syria. Some of these networks have now started to turn their eyes back home, and there are stories of al Qaeda in Iraq forces re-directing into Syria. At the same time al Qaeda in Iraq is proving itself increasingly able to sow death and destruction in Iraq itself – launching a series of highly coordinated attacks in the past weeks. These jihadist networks are Sunni, and while it is likely that outside supporters are doing their best to not provide funding directly to them, it may be hard to separate such groups out from the Sunni Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the chaos of a civil war. Caught in the middle of the misery are average Syrians who now find themselves in the midst of an increasingly brutal civil war that has stretched on for almost a year and a half with no prospects of conclusion in sight.

All of this is already happening. And while it does, the world is sitting by arguing about condemnation of a regime that has proven itself willing to kill its own people. The west has now started to hint that it might try to find ways of providing support for approved proxies in the country, a dangerous path that has led to problems in the past, but equally, sitting on the side letting things play themselves out is only going to let the current scenario get worse and become more bitter. The world is watching as the Middle Eastern cauldron stirs itself up, and it is only a matter of time before it spills over the side. The time has come for some responsible leadership to step forwards and find a way through the current impasse. Simply letting things play themselves out may take a long time and in period tensions will be stoked that will take decades to play themselves out with uncertain outcomes for everyone.

A longer post for a new outlet, the blog of my excellent English publisher, Hurst. Draws on material that I have gone into in much more depth in the text of my book, and touches upon the theme of Shabaab’s use of media for recruitment that I have written about before (and am working on a bit at the moment as well).

The Ballads of Global Jihad

When 17-year old Saajid Badat first moved to London in 1997 he was given a cassette tape – still a popular medium then – by some new friends he had made in Tooting. Called ‘In the Hearts of Green Birds’ and produced by Azzam Publications, the tape relayed the stories of jihadist warriors who had fallen fighting for the Muslim ummah in Bosnia. An impressionable young man who had attained the status of hafiz (memorised the Koran) by the time he was twelve, Badat was moved by the stories he heard on the tape and ‘tried to meet with different people with similar view in respect of jihad.’ Within a year, he used these same contacts to go and train, setting him down a path which in 2001 led him to agree to be deployed by al Qaeda as one half of a ‘shoe bomb’ suicide mission targeting transatlantic flights. In the event, Badat backed out at the last minute, while his co-conspirator Richard Reid attempted to bring down a Paris-Miami flight.

Stories and myths have always been important in the history of Britain’s jihad, be they delivered by cassette, video or in written form. In the 1990s at Abu Hamza’s Finsbury Park mosque, young men would crowd around and watch videos from the front in Algeria or Chechnya. Up in Beeston, young Waheed Ali, who later attended a training camp in Pakistan with Mohammed Siddique Khan (one of the four men who carried out the 7th July 2005 London bombings), recalled getting videos of fighting from a friend at the Iqra bookshop in Beeston and taking them round to his friend Shehzad Tanweer’s house. ‘Watching the brothers fighting in Chechnya against the Russians…was really inspirational.’ As he later told a courtroom, ‘it really brought a sense of brotherhood to a different level [….] if you get a Chechen Muslim or you get a Russian civilian you can’t tell the difference, they both look the same and you’re getting one people who are annihilating another people and you’re getting Muslims from all round the world, Arabs, you’re getting Pakistanis, you’re getting Africans going to Chechnya, a foreign land, to help their Muslim brothers and it was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe it. I thought ‘this is beautiful’. Ali was eventually jailed for trying to return to a training camp in Pakistan in 2007.

Others found motivation in books, like that written by Dhiren Barot, a convert who in the mid 1990s left his job working for an airline in London to go and fight alongside Kashmiri jihadists. He later wrote up his experience in a book called The Army of Madinah in Kashmir that has featured repeatedly among the collections of men jailed for terrorism in the UK. Clearly impressed by the author’s experiences, the anonymous editor Abu Umamah tells readers in the preface, ‘what is most unusual about this book is the author himself. It is so rare for people in our age to take on the struggle for the sake of Allah. So imagine someone who comes from a non-Muslim background, struggling first against himself, then those around him from friends and family to take on the most noble of duties in Allah’s cause’.

The importance of these narratives has not shrunk and extremist groups abroad have become adept at producing accessible material that tell glorious hagiographies and of a united ummah fighting against oppression. Al-Shabaab has become particularly good at this, producing videos that look professionally made, highlighting what the group has achieved in Somalia. Most recently, they released what promises to be the first in a series called ‘The Life under the Shade of Islamic Sharia in Somalia.’ Produced by al-Khataib (which translates as the person who delivers the sermon), the film was made in the style of a documentary about what life was like under sharia law in Baidoa, a city Shabaab used to control. In the film we see the English-speaking narrator (with a slight foreign accent, but clearly someone who has spent considerable time in the UK), acting like a documentary narrator on the BBC ‘travelling back to find out’ more about how Baidoa fared under al-Shabaab rule. He talks to the camera, poses against the backdrop of scenes of battles he is describing, and conducts on-screen interviews with citizens. Preceding his trip to Baidoa with a brief history lesson, we hear about dictator Siad Barre whose socialist republic collapsed in 1991, leading to a period in which, he tells us, the country descended into tribal conflicts and warlordism with Ethiopian funding.

Animosity towards Ethiopia is something that pervades the video and the more general Shabaab narrative; a majority Christian country that is repeatedly accused of being a crusader army come to oppress Somalia’s Muslim community – either with outside support or simply for its own nefarious reasons. Talking to a Somali social worker in Ealing on the topic of Shabaab a few years ago, I was surprised to hear first-hand about the strength of the Ethiopian invasion as a narrative that spurred anger among young Somalis. The importance of this narrative to Shabaab in particular can be seen in a recorded telephone conversation from August 2010 between two Somali-Swede’s accused of fundraising and recruiting for the group: ‘the diaspora helped us before, when the Ethiopians came, so that we could drive them away…because they hated Ethiopia so much…when they left, then came the Ugandans….but they hate the Ethiopians more than the Ugandans…they have never heard of the Ugandans…and now we get no help because they do not know what the war is about.’ Without this narrative to tap, the men were having difficulty raising money from the community in Scandinavia.

Hence the need to produce videos explaining their narrative and highlighting successes, and the narrator’s trip to sharia-governed Baidoa to show what Shabaab are achieving. In the video, he goes around like a reporter interviewing shop owners (one of whom breaks off during the interview to go to prayer) and asking locals what they think of sharia rule. We visit madrassas filled with eager children learning the Koran and see teams of religious police wandering around the city during prayer time to make sure everyone has closed business and gone to pray. At other times we see a bustling city apparently thriving under the group’s control with markets and new construction sites, all courtesy of foreign investment that has supposedly come to the city in the wake of the stability al-Shabaab had brought. A big point is made of talking about the role that women play in the markets – in supposed contrast to the evil democratic narrative that says they are oppressed under sharia – though at no point are we shown any women’s faces.

This particular narrative may be new and unique to the Somali situation, but there are universal elements in the video and other Shabaab productions that hearken back to earlier videos. The Chechen and Bosnian videos were infamous for their depiction of butchered civilians and while the Shabaab videos are not quite as gruesome, we see a Shabaab warrior showing us a selection of skulls that are purportedly civilians beheaded by Ethiopian soldiers. In contrast to the earlier Chechen videos, however, these ones are less bloodthirsty. In ‘Russian Hell’ – also an Azzam production – it is relatively common to see mujahedeen fighters cutting the throats of Russian prisoners and executing them for the camera. Shabaab chooses a tamer version of the violence, something likely learned from the experiences of other groups where the excessively visible spilling of blood had a negative effect on the general perception of the group.

We also see clips of heroic fallen fighters – Abu Ayyub, Britain’s first suicide bomber in Somalia, is venerated in the video and we see a clip from the film he recorded prior to driving a truck bomb into an Ethiopian checkpoint in October 2007. And throughout the documentary we see footage of fighters talking to the camera, some of whose names are followed up with ‘may Allah accept him.’ This is an almost exact replica of earlier videos and cassettes where we see and hear footage of fallen fighters with a brief description of where they are from and their victorious actions. Supposedly the first in a series, the film is one of a number the group has produced, though it is of unusually high quality.

But heroes are not only conjured through film. In much the same way that Dhiren Barot wrote his story as a warrior in Kashmir, young American Omar Hamammi wrote an autobiography which he self-published online. Telling his life story as a young American in Alabama who found religion and then ran away to Egypt with his Canadian-Somali wife and then on with a friend to Somalia, the book is intended as an inspiration to others to follow in his path. He does not stint from telling about the difficulties encountered, but it is all painted in the manner of an exciting adventure in which our intrepid hero gets by on his wits. At the end of the text (which promises sequels by calling itself ‘The story of an American Jihaadi Part One’), Hammami undertakes an interview with a fellow extremist looking in some depth at some of the questions raised in the text and the justifications of what he is doing. He also reveals himself during the book to be a prolific strategist, claiming to be ‘Abu Jihad al-Shami,’ the author of four previous texts about jihad in Somalia.

The impact of these narratives is hard to judge in absolute terms. Looking back at the 1990s and the impact of the videos from Algeria, Bosnia and Chechnya, it is easy to see the influence they had in helping inspire young men to go and find out what jihad was about and how they could participate. Bosnia in particular had a transformative effect on the British Muslim narrative. Nowadays the narrative of jihad and fighting for the Muslim community in faraway lands is fairly well known, with most having at least a cursory knowledge of what it is about simply by looking in the media. But stories with heroic figures are important and showing potential fighters that what they are signing up for is a righteous adventure in a foreign land rather than an anonymous death by drone strike is essential if these groups are to maintain the flow of support and attention from the affluent west.

The importance of such material was highlighted recently in a series of cases in the London where Shabaaz Hussain from Stepney pled guilty to sending more than £9,000 to a group who had gone to fight in Somalia. According to the prosecution, his home was ‘practically dripping’ with radical material, including jihadist manifestos, speeches by Osama bin Laden and recordings of hook-handed preacher Abu Hamza. A pair of identical twins, Mohammed Shabir Ali and Mohammed Shakif Ali, were later convicted on similar charges. They had sent £3,000 to Somalia through Hussain. For these two, the narrative of what was going on in Somalia was particularly personal, as their brother Shamim Ali had gone to fight in Somalia in 2008. Among their possessions was a recording of a call he had made to them from abroad appealing for money – according to the prosecutor, he told them ‘the need is relayed by their brother for fighters to dedicate their lives to jihad, and if needs be to sacrifice life.’ Ali is believed to still be in Somalia, while his two brothers face another year of incarceration for sending him money to fight the war. The story of jihad in Somalia appealed to these men, something reinforced in the twin’s case through the direct involvement of their brother.

The threat from new battlefields like Somalia is one that keeps British security services awake at night. As MI5 head Jonathan Evans put it in June, ‘al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel have become more dangerous as al Qaeda in Pakistan has declined….in back rooms and in cars and on the streets of this country there is no shortage of individuals talking about wanting to mount terrorist attacks here.’ These individuals are motivated and inspired by stories from the battlefields, either as books, videos or recordings. In the religious conflict these groups see themselves at the vanguard of, epic stories and myths are essential to maintain support and draw others into the fray. And while the stories may come from new locations, their underlying intention remains the same and their impact can be measured in the continuing arrests and convictions we see in Europe and North America. As long as jihadi stories find an audience, radical groups will find a voice and weave mythical legends for young Britons to emulate. Stories will remain a crucial part of the British jihad.