Archive for November, 2012

An op-ed for an online outlet I used to contribute more to, the EU Observer. This looks at Central Asia in the wake of Catherine Ashton’s visit there. The idea of China and Europe doing more together in Central Asia is the focus of a longer piece that should be landing soon. UPDATE (2/12/12): Off the back of this article, I was interviewed for this long Los Angeles Times times piece about Ms Ashton’s visit to Central Asia.

Soldiers on guard in Turkmenistan (Photo: d_proffer)

Central Asia: Europe’s Asia Pivot?
28.11.12 @ 09:58


BRUSSELS – World media has been abuzz with America’s “Asia Pivot” and President Barack Obama’s groundbreaking trip to Rangoon.

But while the visit signals the importance of Asia as a strategic focus for Obama’s second administration, the same cannot be said of Europe.

This week’s visit by Catherine Ashton to Central Asia offers a possible key that could both refocus Europe on an area it has long ignored, as well as helping shift its relationship with China onto a more practical basis.

European leaders talk of paying attention to Asia and have long cultivated a “strategic partnership” with China, but there is little evidence of much of this having any relation to what is happening on the ground.

Instead, Europe remains on the sidelines as a whole new region emerges on the global stage.

It does not need to be this way. Europe has as much of a claim to be involved in Asian affairs as the United States – it just needs to find the right key.

While the regular Asian-European meeting (Asem) offers a forum in which Europe can talk with East Asian powers, it has yet to really live up to its full potential.

The EU-Central Asia ministerial this week offers an underexplored avenue that Europe could use to re-engage with a region that is crying out for outside assistance, as well as engaging with China on its neglected flank.

Central Asia is one of the ignored regions of the world.

Stuck between China and Russia and adjacent to Afghanistan, it has been relegated in global attention. Insomuch as it does figure in current strategic thinking, it tends to be as an extension of Afghanistan, with the current focus largely being on which nation to use as a staging point for leaving in 2014.

If thinking goes much beyond this, then there is some awareness that the region is rich in energy resources and is primarily Russian speaking.

But a new narrative is emerging regionally, with an old Russian-centric order increasingly being nudged aside through gradual Chinese investment.

Focused on developing its westernmost province, Xinjiang, into a gateway for Eurasia, China has built roads, rail and other infrastructure to help develop the region and connect it better to China.

The idea is not just to connect Central Asia to China, but rather to connect China through the region to Russian and European markets.

China and Europe’s visions and interests in Central Asia broadly align.

Both are eager for the region to develop and become prosperous, to see the natural wealth in the region as something to their benefit.

There are slightly different priorities underlying these decisions: for China it is key in developing its west, while for Europe more abstract regional “security, governance and energy” are the issues laid out in strategy papers.

But both recognise the potential danger of Afghan instability spilling across borders, with European member states engaged militarily in Afghanistan and both the EU and China implementing or announcing police training missions in Afghanistan.

As 2014 approaches and the need for greater focus on Central Asia is going to grow, a breach opens into which Europe has an opportunity to have its own “Asia Pivot” focused instead on China’s western flank.

This would be welcomed by Beijing, which would be eager to see Europe connecting across their common landmass, and would be welcomed by the regional powers that are eager to have as many international partners as possible.

Europe’s aim should be not just to continue to do the development work and infrastructure projects that it has long done, but rather to focus on developing its economic and trade links to the region.

Beyond this, it should develop its regional security programs aimed at helping improve border security and supporting counter-narcotics efforts.

Clearly there is a delicate balance that needs to be struck here with regards to human rights – but simply lecturing is not going to get the answers or responses that we want.

Engagement may help reduce security concerns and will enable better practices to be instilled regionally. All of which would ultimately also align with Beijing’s regional interests, offering a window for a new and productive discussion between Brussels and Beijing.

It could finally provide some meat on the bones of its “strategic partnership” with China, offering a practical outcome beyond the regular summit meetings.

Over a century has passed since Halford Mackinder presented his idea of Eurasia as the “geographical pivot of history” to the Royal Geographical Society in London.

The idea at its core remains sound and is the key through which Europe should orient its own “Asia Pivot” today.

Focusing on Central Asia as a region in which it can try to engage with China offers a new avenue to develop its key relationship in Asia and to focus on an area that is going to be increasingly important to Europe.

Europe needs a way to stay relevant in Asia – focusing on its connective tissue across the Eurasian landmass offers a currently underexplored vehicle.

Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS). His research can be found at

Another book review, this time for Terrorism and Political Violence about a short book on Lone Wolf terrorism written by Ramón Spaaij. Unfortunately, it is again behind a firewall so I cannot just post it here, but I will ask. In the meantime, feel free to drop me a line if you have any queries, and I would recommend having a look at the Taylor and Francis page for the review, as a chunk of it is caught in a screenshot there.

Ramón Spaaij. Understanding Lone Wolf Terrorism: Global Patterns, Motivations and Prevention


A new piece for 东方早报 (Oriental Morning Post) the Chinese paper I occasionally write for, this time focused on difficulties that corporate China has encountered recently in Central Asia. As usual, the Chinese is on top, with what I submitted in English below.

潘睿凡   发表于2012-11-14 05:13










  潘睿凡  英国伦敦国际激进主义  研究中心副研究员   (李鸣燕 译)

Corporate China’s Challenges and Opportunities in Central Asia

Last month news came out of Kyrgyzstan that a local dispute at a Chinese owned gold mine had escalated to the point that staff had to be evacuated and operations shut down. This is not the first time that Chinese companies have had trouble in Kyrgyzstan. It is not in fact the first time that Chinese companies have had trouble in Central Asia more generally. Doubtless this is a problem that is considered far down the list of priorities for the new leadership in Zhongnanhai, but it has the potential to have a direct impact on China domestically. Unless Chinese companies get Central Asia right, it is going to be very difficult for the May 2010 work plan to develop Xinjiang to be effectively implemented.

In September this year at the second international China Eurasian Expo in Urumqi, Premier Wen Jiabao highlighted the important link that Xinjiang is between China and Eurasia. In particular he highlighted how ‘Xinjiang’s reform, opening-up and development will not only benefit people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang, but also bring more development opportunities to Eurasian countries.’ Saying this at the Expo before senior leaders from Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan highlighted the importance of these relationships in developing Xinjiang.

Far from major sealanes and modern trading routes, it has always been obvious that the solution to developing Xinjiang lies in developing its links with the countries it borders. Opening up these links is something that will further help strengthen China’s connections with Europe, opening up roadways to directly link Chinese producers with European markets.

And the government has actively encouraged this. Using money from Export-Import Bank loans and deploying state owned firms it has built roads and is building rail infrastructure both in Xinjiang and Central Asia. It has further encouraged state owned companies to invest in the area, taking advantage of the rich natural resources that can be found. And the groundwork laid by state owned firms has been built on by Xinjiang companies and traders seeking new markets that have now been opened up to them. In my travels across the region, I found Chinese traders, goods and workers – many of them with strong connections back to Xinjiang, highlighting how they were helping expand Xinjiang’s economy.

But now this growth is increasingly encountering difficulties. The recent trouble in Kyrgyzstan is not the first of its kind, and in the past Chinese companies have had other problems regionally. Partially this is because Central Asia is a difficult environment to work in, but there is also a problem of local perceptions. In talking to locals in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan I was endlessly surprised by the negative reactions and beliefs they would have towards Chinese companies. People would tell me stories about how Chinese workers were stealing jobs, women and eating all the animals in sight. More seriously, they would tell me how Chinese firms underpay or pay late, offer bad jobs to locals and treat staff badly. Whether true or not, the general perception is that Chinese firms are in Central Asia to simply take raw materials and commodities back to China, while they flood the markets with low quality products.

The picture that results is a negative one that leads to difficulties like those currently being experienced in Kyrgyzstan. Admittedly, I was told by locals that most foreign firms encounter similar issues in Kyrgyzstan, but the difference is that these other companies are not playing a role in directly helping a part of their home nations develop. This is the key difference for Chinese firms in Central Asia versus European ones: for the European ones it is merely another distant market, for Chinese ones, it is a market next door that is important to develop if the policy to develop Xinjiang is to be achieved.

This is also why this story is something that is important for policymakers in Beijing. Unless something is done to improve China’s image in Central Asia, then the overall strategy of developing Xinjiang’s links with its border regions will be undermined.

What is needed is a clearer strategic approach to China’s engagement with Central Asia. China cannot solely rely on Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summits and a slow economic policy that spreads out from Xinjiang. This approach is already causing some friction on the ground and this will only get worse. If China wants to establish a cooperative economic relationship with its Central Asian neighbours, then some efforts need to be made into establishing how to help these economies develop and not simply focus on extracting national benefit from them.

This is not an easy path to take, and Beijing’s new policymakers have an already crowded plate. But unless some effort is taken to forge an actual policy towards Central Asia, China will find its regional development strategy with Xinjiang falling down too. And this would be something that would have a hugely negative effect on any grander strategy to develop the country and help it move beyond the growing economic stagnation.

I have a review of Mitchell Silber’s book in the new International Affairs journal, I previously commented on it alongside Seth Jones book for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel. Unfortunately, it is behind a paywall, so I cannot just post it here, but have asked if I can. For those very eager, become Chatham House members or get in touch and I can try to help out…

Latest piece for Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief on mine and Alex’s China in Central Asia research. We have now done pieces on China’s relations with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan for China Brief, and are hoping to get a complete set by the time our research is done! A few longer papers in the pipeline on all of this at the moment.

Shifts in Beijing’s Afghan Policy: A View From the Ground

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 21
November 5, 2012 03:22 PM Age: 1 days

Zhou Yongkang with Afghan President Karzai in September

In a clear but still gradual shift over the past year, Chinese policymakers have changed their stance on Afghanistan from cultivated disinterest to growing engagement. As the potential security vacuum left by Western withdrawal in 2014 comes into sharper relief, Beijing has come to realize that it will have to play a role in encouraging a more stable and developed future for Afghanistan. As with China’s engagement in Central Asia as a whole, Chinese activity in Afghanistan is less a part of a grand strategy for the region and more the sum of number of disparate parts. Nevertheless, the sum of these parts could have major consequences for Afghanistan and the region’s trajectory as it signals a growing realization by Beijing of the role it will find itself playing in the future.

The most visible and significant element of China’s renewed focus on Afghanistan was marked by the visit in late September of Politburo member and security supremo Zhou Yongkang to Kabul (Xinhua, September 24; China Daily, September 24). This was the first visit by a Politburo-level Chinese official to the country since 1966 when President Liu Shaoqi visited the country just prior to being purged during the Cultural Revolution. It marked, however, the latest in a growing series of high-level visits and meetings marking China’s more focused attention on Afghanistan. This attention dates back to February 28, 2012, when Beijing hosted the first Afghanistan-China-Pakistan trilateral dialogue. Held at the level of foreign ministry director-general positions (or rough equivalents), the meeting was given a senior stamp of approval when the group was met by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi a day after the discussions (Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, February 28). Then in June, as China was hosting the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Beijing, President Hu Jintao signed a bilateral “strategic and cooperative partnership” agreement with President Karzai as well as welcoming the country to becoming an official SCO observer (Xinhua, June 8). President Karzai thanked President Hu for helping facilitate the SCO upgrading, saying “without your support, we cannot do this” (Xinhua, June 8). Just over a month later on July 27, this was followed by a further high level meeting between China’s Central Military Commission Vice Chairman General Guo Boxiong and Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak. The focus of the meetings was to “enhance strategic communication and strengthen pragmatic cooperation in order to contribute to bilateral strategic cooperation” (Xinhua, July 27). The full impact of relationships established during this visit, however, may have been undermined by Wardak’s resignation after a no confidence vote in Kabul just over a week later (Reuters, August 7). Whatever the case, the growing importance China accords to the bilateral relationship would have been emphasized again in late September by Zhou Yongkang’s visit.

The importance of Zhou’s visit was not only the symbolism of a senior Chinese visitor to Kabul, but also the emphasis that his presence casts on China’s interests in Afghanistan. Within the (now outgoing) Politburo, Zhou is responsible for security matters, primarily domestic, something that highlighted China’s interest in Afghanistan’s potential as a safe haven for militants. With an eye toward the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO combat forces in 2014, China increasingly has expressed concern about the possible spillover of militancy from Afghanistan into China’s western Xinjiang province. Notwithstanding its proximity to Kashgar—a city China is trying to develop into a regional trade hub—China keeps its border with Afghanistan tightly closed, with locals in Xinjiang reporting that authorities encouraged them to help monitor any movements across the border [1]. Afghanistan has asked repeatedly for China to open the Wakhan Corridor that links the two countries, but been rebuffed by Chinese security concerns (China Daily, October 16, 2010). When the authors visited earlier this year, there was little evidence the border was about to be opened.

Chinese security concerns are further visible in announcements made during Zhou’s visit about China agreeing to train some 300 Afghan police officers over the next four years (“Zhou Yongkang’s Trip Highlights Security Diplomacy,” China Brief, October 5). Previously, China has provided training for various Afghan technical personnel and officials with Foreign Minister Yang declaring in July 2010 they had trained some 781 Afghans so far with a further 200 trained that year. In May, China and the United States jointly hosted a two-week training session for a group of some 15 young Afghan diplomats (Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, May 17; July 21, 2010). China’s current willingness to explore training security personnel also highlights the growing importance of this aspect of their relationship.

Judging from the June SCO Summit in Beijing, China clearly is aware of the potential implications of deterioration in Afghan security and the implications for the broader region and within this context. During the summit, Beijing focused heavily on persuading Russia and Central Asian member states to coordinate commitments (at least those within the SCO) toward Afghanistan to some degree, and provide aid to contribute to Afghanistan reconstruction and stabilization. As is usual with SCO endeavors, this looked more like a multilateral vehicle for Chinese bilateral activities. The “strategic partnership” signed was between Beijing and Kabul and the 150 million yuan ($23 million) in aid promised to Afghanistan came from China, not the SCO as an organization (Xinhua, June 8). Nevertheless, Afghanistan will benefit from an increased profile and upgraded role to observer within the SCO. It may be asked to contribute information on militants to the SCO’s Regional Antiterrorism Structure (RATS) in Tashkent and presumably also will be able to benefit from others’ contributions. Overall, the summit was symbolically important for both China and Afghanistan. Beijing announced it will be engaged in Afghanistan’s future and Kabul gained commitments from a regional power to bolster its post-2014 prospects.

To examine Afghanistan from a broader perspective, China’s main concern with Central Asia is the importance of the region in helping Xinjiang develop by providing trading partners as well as routes to Russian, European and Middle Eastern markets. Security concerns emanating from Afghanistan are clearly a major potential obstacle to this. Thus, Zhou’s visit and China’s attention more generally can be said to have both a security and economic dimension that links Xinjiang and the broader region. This economic dimension for Afghanistan in particular was emphasized by the fact that pictures of Zhou’s visit showed him being met at his plane by Afghan Commerce and Industry Minister Anwar ul-Haq Ahady (Xinhua, September 22). Furthermore, Zhou is a graduate of the Beijing Petroleum Institute and spent most of the 1960s and 1970s working in the oil sector, including a period as General Manager of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC)—a company that has made a number of investments in Afghanistan and that has encountered problems in the country as well. It seems probable that these topics would have been on Zhou’s agenda in Kabul.

In mid-October, CNPC started extracting oil from its field in Afghanistan’s northern Amu Darya basin. At 1,950 barrels per day, the project is a relatively small one, but is being promoted by the Afghan government as a model for how Kabul can raise revenues and wean itself off of foreign aid (Reuters, October 21). Completed at CNPC’s signature blistering speed, plans call for the Amu Darya project’s oil to be refined across the border in Turkmenistan until the Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE) builds a refinery close to the site in two to three years. CNPC won the tender for the project partly due to its very generous terms: 50–70 percent of profits will go to the Afghan government together with a 15 percent royalty on top of a 20 percent corporate tax (Reuters, October 21). While Chinese aid to Afghanistan is relatively low—partly due to domestic intolerance of sending funds abroad—projects such as the oil extraction in the Amu Darya basin appear to be an indirect form of “corporate aid.”

The relatively small oil project, however, may well be a foot in the door for access to major natural gas deposits in northern and northwestern Afghanistan. It was CNPC geologists from Turkmenistan with the world’s fourth largest natural gas reserves that scouted out the Amu Darya oil project and they have their eye on gas formations that straddle the border [2]. With possible recent major gas finds close by in Tajikistan, CNPC is positioning itself to reap the natural resource benefits of a long-neglected area. In June, it announced plans to run a fourth string of the Central Asia-China pipeline from Turkmenistan to Xinjiang through northern Afghanistan (Eurasia Daily Monitor, June 19). CNPC also reportedly expressed interest in the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline at the project’s Singapore roadshow event in September [3].

Whether or not CNPC moves forward with these projects, the prominent Chinese SOE is signaling that they see northern Afghanistan as a stable area going forward (, June 7). Until a few months ago, militias loyal to Afghan Army Chief of Staff and local warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum harassed Chinese workers in the area, but a deal seems to have been struck where these incidents have ceased (Reuters, June 11). Should CNPC move forward with its announced plans for a natural gas pipeline, it will likely find itself working closely with Dostum and other warlords.

In contrast to the opportunities blossoming in northern Afghanistan, just southeast of Kabul in Logar province the once highly touted Aynak Copper mine project is languishing. Described by President Karzai as “one of the most important economic projects in Afghan history,” the project led by Chinese SOEs Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper was valued at around $4 billion and was the largest investment project in Afghanistan (Xinhua, May 22, 2011). It, however, has been beset by problems, including an archeological dig atop the site, security concerns and now financial troubles at the parent company MCC. One report from late September stated Chinese workers had been spooked by security concerns and had left the country with only a skeleton crew left to watch over equipment (Reuters, September 27). This state of affairs seems to have reinforced skepticism of Beijing’s commitment to the project—and possibly even to Afghanistan itself—among Kabul-based officials and experts [4].

A final element that has not been sufficiently analyzed are the implications of China’s growing relationship with Kabul and its interactions with historical ally Islamabad. Whilst it is clear that China sees the importance of Pakistan in any long-term solution in Afghanistan, it is also increasingly clear that Beijing is concerned about how security in Pakistan continues to deteriorate. It thus seems likely that China’s growing focus on Afghanistan is at least in part out of recognition that it can no longer simply abrogate its strategy toward Kabul to Islamabad—a default setting Beijing previously employed. As the security situation in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) continues to muddle along in a negative direction, Beijing now has realized that it must do more to stabilize its restive neighbor. Zhou Yongkang’s visit is merely the culmination of this new focus on Afghanistan that is going to continue to develop as the 2014 deadline approaches. Whether this new attention translates into new policy resources, however, remains to be seen and probably will have to wait until after next March’s National People’s Congress, when China’s leadership transition will be completed.


  1. The authors visited Tashkurgan, Xinjiang (near the Sino-Afghan border) in May 2012.
  2. Authors’ Interviews in Kabul, May 2012.
  3. Authors’ Interviews in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, September 2012.
  4. This is a key topic of conversation with interviewees with whom the authors spoke, including local analysts, foreign diplomats, international donors and journalists who all reached similar conclusions. Author Interviews in Kabul, May 2012.

A rather long-delayed book review for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, looking at a pair of books by Mitch Silber and Seth Jones. More book reviews coming out soon, as well as another more historical piece I am quite pleased with for AfPak Channel.

Appraising al-Qaeda: The practitioner’s perspective

By Raffaello Pantucci | Monday, November 5, 2012 – 3:55 PM

Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qaeda since 9/11 – Seth Jones

The Al Qaeda Factor: Plots Against the West – Mitchell D. Silber

What is the nature of al-Qaeda? Is it an organization with tight leadership structures and command and control, or is it an idea that takes harbor in the hearts and souls of disenfranchised or disillusioned young men and women seeking some greater meaning to their lives? Over time, the importance of these two schools of general thought has waxed and waned with various academics, authors, pundits and practitioners alternatively concluding the importance of one over the other largely depending on the nature of the latest plot to be disrupted. Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qaeda since 9/11 by Seth Jones and The al Qaeda Factor: Plots Against the West by Mitchell D. Silber offer different insights into this question, while reaching largely similar conclusions about what al-Qaeda is and how it has targeted the West.

Both of these books were published over a decade after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington bloodily thrust al-Qaeda into the public consciousness, meaning they are able to look back at a considerable amount of data. While Jones’ is the more narratively satisfying book, telling a story of al Qaeda around the world, there are omissions in the text that reflect its heavy American focus. Silber’s, on the other hand, is a case-by-case analysis that lacks a narrative storyline, but the accounts of the plots in question are drawn from primary sources that make them some of the most factually accurate versions yet told of the various plots, and bring new and interesting insights useful to analysts and researchers.

Gathering information from court documents, press, personal experience, and interviews the books focus on two different theses that ultimately reach the same goal. Silber sets out to find, “what is the “al Qaeda factor” in plots against the West?” For Jones, the central question is “what factors have caused al Qaeda waves and reverse waves?” “Waves” are “surges in terrorist violence” and “reverse waves” are “decreases in terrorist activity.” The underlying aim of both is to understand how it is that al-Qaeda has targeted the West, and to what degree we can ascribe responsibility to the core organization.

Silber argues that there is a distinction to be drawn between those plots he characterizes as “al-Qaeda command and control,” “al-Qaeda suggested/endorsed,” and “al Qaeda inspired.” As the definitions quite clearly imply, in each case there is some semblance of a connection to al-Qaeda or its ideas, but there is a distinct difference between the cases in which individuals sitting in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have provided direction, and those in which individuals internalized al-Qaeda ideas to try to carry out plots (or al-Qaeda-like ideas, given the inclusion of the 1993 attempt by Ramzi Yousef to bring down the World Trade Center, something he did after having been trained in Afghanistan and having plotted with his uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but prior to Mohammed’s swearing of bayat (allegiance) to bin Laden). The end result, however, of all three types is the same: a plot, or attempted plot, to attack the West in support of al-Qaeda’s ideology. The cases offered are a laundry list of some of the most prominent plots targeting Europe, North America and Australia.

Jones’ thesis is instead that al-Qaeda’s violence has come in waves, the product of more or less intense and effective focus by counterterrorism forces. Identifying three key prongs to an effective counterterrorism strategy – a light military footprint, helping local regimes and authorities in their counterterrorism efforts, and exploiting al Qaeda’s tendency to massacre civilians – Jones draws upon events in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, and Yemen, as well as al-Qaeda plots in America, Spain and the United Kingdom, to map out how these waves have crested and broken against determined counterterrorism efforts.

Al-Qaeda’s ability to shoot itself in the foot, as in the wholesale butchery by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), is highlighted as an example of where the group goes too far and causes a local resurgence from which American forces were able to profit. It also serves to highlight how al-Qaeda Central can lose control of affiliates and suffer as a result. AQI’s butchery not only appalled the general public, but it also led a number of scholars to write about the group’s brutality and the numbers of Muslims that it wantonly killed whilst claiming to be targeting the West.

Here we can see how the organization would have liked to have tighter control, but was unable to maintain it. As the ideas it has been advancing take root, they increasingly find themselves being used by groups that take them in directions that detract from the original strategy of using terrorist attacks to stimulate the broader ummah into rising up. In some cases, like the Madrid bombings of 2004, the inspiration approach seems to work, as a group loosely connected to — but not directed by — al-Qaeda managed to carry out a successful attack on the West. In Iraq, on the other hand, where a local affiliate became too bloodthirsty, massacres of civilians led to the “Anbar Awakening” against al-Qaeda.

While al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is not the focus of attention in either book, he lingers as a background presence, his letters and writings surfacing as he tries to assert authority over the network he has created. In Jones’ book we see others in the organization finding his leadership somewhat lacking. Jones quotes a letter in which top al-Qaeda operative Saif al-Adl expresses anger to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed about how Osama “‘had failed to develop a cogent strategy for what would happen after the September 11 attacks.” In Silber’s text, bin Laden features even less, mentioned only as being aware of the 9/11 attacks (though plotting is described as being led by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) and as meeting with some of the members of the ‘Lackawanna Cluster,’ a group of Yemeni-Americans who prior to 9/11 travelled to Afghanistan and trained at al-Qaeda camps. Some of these young men heard bin Laden speak, and soon afterwards concluded they were not interested in doing any more training.

One of them, Sahim Alwan, was invited to speak to bin Laden directly, and the al-Qaeda leader asked why he was leaving and more generally about what Muslims in America were like. But, as Silber points out, while this presented an opportunity for the group to recruit the men, “it did not happen.” Both authors conclude that bin Laden was important primarily as a figurehead. As Silber writes towards the end: “regardless of the nature of his precise operational role in the organization, in the ten years since 9/11, he had become a legendary and mythical source of inspiration to individuals in the West who aspired to join his movement, regardless of whether they were in London, New York, Toronto or Madrid.”

But the larger figures in these books are the operational leaders underneath bin Laden. Coming from authors with deep involvement in American counter-terrorism efforts, the books are highly tactical in their approaches. Silber’s is written from the perspective of a man who has spent many years tracking al-Qaeda’s threat to New York as Director of Intelligence Analysis for the NYPD, while Jones writes as a researcher at RAND, drawing heavily on interviews with key players from the American counter-terrorism community, including Bruce Hoffman, Philip Mudd, Art Cummings, and John Negroponte.

Both authors conclude that al-Qaeda Central has tried and failed repeatedly over the years to launch attacks against the West. September 11 was a thundering success in this regard, but since then, while we have seen surges of terrorist violence around the world linked to al-Qaeda affiliates, the core organization’s ability to effectively launch attacks has clearly been stymied by effective counterterrorism efforts. Heavy pressure means less time for people to be trained properly, and this means less effective operators and a reduced capacity to attack.

And while the spread of extremist ideas is important, it is not always going to produce great cells. While the Madrid group or the Hofstad Cell in Holland were reasonably productive cells that connected with peripheral al-Qaeda figures and led to results like the Madrid bombings or the murder of Theo van Gogh that impressed al-Qaeda, the Duka family in New Jersey or Russell Defreitas in New York (both highlighted in Jones’ text) produced half-baked plots like the effort to blow up the fuel pipeline to JFK airport with no proper training that are hardly the sort of activity that al-Qaeda would want to be associated with.

Both books are useful in painting a methodical picture of how al-Qaeda has tried to attack the West, but where they are maybe less effective is in identifying how it is that these individuals can be prevented from ever going down the path of seeking meaning in al Qaeda’s ideas. Jones does suggest finding ways to exploit the inconsistencies in al-Qaeda’s narrative in order to undermine their capacity to recruit, but the fact is that more than a decade since the group’s official creation, people are still being drawn to the flame. This suggests that we have still not figured out how to offer an appealing alternative narrative, and that the ideas that al-Qaeda advances are still able to draw recruits.

Jones’s Hunting in the Shadows could be described as an official history of sorts of al-Qaeda from the U.S. government perspective. This makes it a different beast to Silber’s The Al Qaeda Factor, in which a much more coldly analytical process draws a clear conclusion about the ‘al Qaeda factor’ in various terrorist plots.

Jones and Silber both conclude that it is becoming ever harder for al-Qaeda to effectively connect with and re-direct these recruits back home to carry out terrorist plots. Taking this conclusion a step further, we may assume that over time this sort of pressure will wear the network down. But if they are able to harness individuals drawn to them more effectively and enable a further wave of terrorist violence, the al-Qaeda ideology may survive longer. The solution advanced in both of these books, and echoed by the U.S. counterterrorism community, is to maintain heavy pressure through drone strikes as well as support to the host governments, and continue to focus on disrupting the groups’ capability to launch attacks on the West.

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’ (Hurst/Columbia University Press).

A new piece for Jamestown’s Militant Leadership Monitor that unfortunately lives behind a paywall so I cannot simply post it here. However, they did send it out with their daily email update about the journal, so drop me a note if you are interested and I can try to forward you that. A very difficult piece to pull together given lack of data and confusion over who is who. I would also like to thank Jake for taking the time to read a draft and giving me some thoughts, he also pointed out that apparently local analysts have stated that Yakuf was also known as Abdul Shakoor Turkistani – something that confuses matters a great deal. It is also odd to note how there has been no mention of any of these losses in the spate of recent TIP publications (that can be found at the excellent Jihadology)

A Post-Mortem Analysis of Turkestani Emir Emeti Yakuf: A Death that Sparked More Questions than Answers

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor
Volume: 3 Issue: 10
October 31, 2012 06:04 PM Age: 1 hrs

Emeti Yakuf (Ministry of Public Security, People’s Republic of China)

In late August, a series of drone strikes in Northern Waziristan were reported to have killed a number of jihadist leaders. Most media attention focused on the possible demise of Badruddin Haqqani, son of the fabled mujahedeen leader, with conflicting reports about whether he had died or not. Almost as an afterthought, some of the stories highlighted that the strikes were believed to have also killed Emeti Yakuf, the current leader of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) (Dawn, August 24). This overshadowed death reflected the generally low profile that TIP is often given amongst jihadist groups, and highlighted once again the difficulties in obtaining information about the mysterious China-focused terrorist organization.