Archive for January, 2013

Slightly delayed posting of my latest piece, this time with my sometime co-author and friend Li Lifan looking again at China-Russia and Central Asia. This was part of a series that Ben edited at Open Democracy Russia which seems to have attracted some attention. As usual, a lot more on this topic coming soon as part of mine and Alex’s project on China in Central Asia.

Decision time for Central Asia: Russia or China?

LI LIFAN and RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI 24 January 2013

Vladimir Putin’s attempts to draw the countries of central Asia into his fledgling Eurasian Union creates a dilemma for some of them: if they take up his offer, they might lose their valuable trading links with China. Li Lifan and Raffaello Pantucci discuss their options.

If one turns enough of a blind eye, it is easy to be optimistic about Central Asia. Wily diplomats from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are masterfully playing off the great powers. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are turning into hubs in their own right – and nobody can tell plucky Uzbekistan what to do. This is nobody’s backyard, and attempts by neo-imperialists in Moscow, Washington and Beijing to play games in the region are only strengthening the hands of the Central Asian states themselves. This is a comforting picture – which is why Western policymakers love it – but it looks increasingly false as President Putin tightens the screws.

Why a Eurasian Union matters

Russia’s desire to strengthen its sphere of influence in Central Asia seems to be intensifying. The first sign came in October 2011 when Russia’s ‘national leader’ published his vision for a Eurasian Union in the Gazprom-Media owned daily Izvestia. Here Putin stated that the Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan that would come into force on 1st January 2012 was just the beginning – and that it would expand ‘by involving Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Then, we plan to go beyond that, and set ourselves the ambitious goal of a higher level of integration – a Eurasian Union.’

The Russian president is said to dream of his third term being his ‘geopolitical presidency,’ where he will make up for the lost ground and lack of achievement in foreign affairs that he views as his main failing. The transformation of the fledgling Customs Union into the Eurasian Union of his dreams is the centrepiece of this strategy. Whilst Kazakhstan seems to have already decided that it wants to be a part of the Union (and its president, Nursultan Nazarbayev is credited for first raising the idea of a Customs Union back in 1995), for the Central Asian states of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan this is a potential turning point, forcing a decision on which partner they want to prioritize: China or Russia?

The way Central Asian states will turn — to Russia’s Eurasian Union or to China — is the test for influence in the region. Photo: (cc) Wikimedia/IvaNdimitry

Deciding whether to follow Putin into the Eurasian Union will be a decisive choice for both states in the year ahead, as it will force them to choose which they want to risk: the GDP they get from trade with China or the GDP generated from remittances from their nationals working in Russia. Putin has thrown down the gauntlet – they will now have to make up their minds whether their economic future is going to be closer to Moscow or Beijing. Their dichotomy is not quite as black and white as this, but this is nevertheless a power test. The choices they make will decide whether Russia or China has a stronger say in Central Asia.

Kyrgyzstan’s dilemma

There is a simple reason why Putin’s union matters so much to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan: trade with China. Unlike energy rich Kazakhstan, already in the Customs Union, Bishkek and Dushanbe’s economies are dependent on business with Beijing. Kyrgyzstan’s ‘shuttle trade’ business with China, where small traders cross borders as ‘tourists’ with their goods in suitcases in order to avoid Customs duties, accounts for roughly a third of its GDP.

On the other hand there is fear in Bishkek that if they do not deepen integration with Moscow then the millions of migrant workers it exports to Russia – whose remittances are also equivalent to a third of GDP – will be forced to carry international passports, or suffer far reduced quotas. The nightmare is that they will eventually end up barred from Moscow’s labour market by a full visa regime – something nationalist elements in Russia, including charismatic opposition leader Alexey Navalny, have been calling for.

These fears are well grounded: in December 2012 Putin warned that within three years he wanted to end the post-Soviet practice of migrants from the CIS being able to come to Russia on their internal passports, effectively ID cards – but Customs Union members will be exempted from the new requirement for international passports. Polls conducted by the independent Levada Centreshow over 60% of Russians supporting tighter immigration controls.

Visa-free admission to Russia and access to the Russian labour market may be soon be a thing of the past for Kyrgyz migrants. Photo: (cc) Shutterstock/FotograFFF

That free access to Russia can no longer be taken for granted is not lost on Kyrgyzstan. But at the same time the Kyrgyz elite fears that joining a Eurasian Union would mean effectively losing control over its border tariffs and regulations, and would destroy the rich network of new trade routes that are tying them into China, bringing them cheap goods and enabling a substantial re-export economy. These trade routes are economic lifelines for this fragile state – and for this network the Customs Union has all the potential to be a total disaster. As a former Kyrgyz cabinet minister put it to one of us in Bishkek last year, it would ‘decimate’ the country’s key markets in the south at Kara Suu and Osh. In his words, ‘almost every’ small business in Kyrgyzstan is reliant on trade with China and any new tariffs or rules would entirely change the local economy.

China: vulnerability and official indifference

Chinese officials insist that the expansion of the Customs Union matters little to them. Ambassador to Bishkek Wang Kaiwen put it succinctly to reporters in late November when he said: ‘Kyrgyzstan’s entry into this Customs Union will not affect trade relations with China.’ Kyrgyz-Chinese trade, he pointed out, oscillated somewhere between $5-$10 billion per annum, a figure that was ‘a small problem’ dwarfed by China’s overall foreign trade of $3 trillion. The question of whether ‘to join or not…should be your decision.’

This blunt response hides a complex reality. It is true that in the grand scheme of things, China’s trade with Kyrgyzstan is a drop in the ocean. The problem for China is that it is a drop that comes from one of the most troubled parts of one of its most restive provinces. China is not investing massively in its trade infrastructure with Central Asian countries for reasons of charity – but to stabilize its own restive Xinjiang Uygur province by turning it into a trade hub for this region.

The Eurasian Union would have a potentially damaging effect on the substantial investment China has made on both sides of its border. The erection of a Russia controlled tariff barrier between China and Kyrgyzstan is likely to have a chilling effect on trade coming out of Kashgar, at a time when the Chinese government has invested a great deal into trying to develop the southern city. Capital of a part of Xinjiang that has faced heightened ethnic tensions for decades, the government has spent a lot of money re-developing the old city and establishing a Special Economic Zone with the aim of turning it into a hub for Central Asian trade.

According to recent figures China invested some $91.91 billion into infrastructure in its ‘western provinces’ – an area that covers Tibet, Guizhou and Xinjiang. This is a focused strategy and Xinjiang sits in the middle of it. All of this will be threatened if suddenly traders no longer find it profitable to send their goods along the roads winding into the CIS from Kashgar. At the same time these traders’ choice of markets is surprisingly limited: without a route through Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan they would have to travel through the Khunjerab Pass to Pakistan. The problem there is the roads on the Pakistani side remain woefully under-built. Their only other possible border crossing would be with Afghanistan, which remains firmly closed at time of writing.

Seen from China, these are unanswered questions. When one of us asked a group of academics in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, what they thought of the Customs Union’s impact to China, they shrugged and in vague terms said they were ‘waiting to see’ if the Customs Union would actually come to pass across the whole region. In Shanghai and Beijing, everyone has stories of friends who have conducted surveys in the region that highlight its unpopularity. But this is largely behind closed doors. The official line is that espoused by Ambassador Wang, that ‘Kyrgyzstan’s entry into Customs Union will not affect trade relations with China.’ Nothing to see here, keep moving on…

A losing game for small states?

This used to be the sort of situation where Central Asians were in their element, masters of the game of playing one partner off against another. Kyrgyzstan in particular has cannily used access to its Manas airbase to extract large chunks of money from both America and Russia. This time it seems as though Moscow is playing a much harder game, forcing Bishkek into a decision that could ruin one aspect of its economy or another. How this plays out may end up determining the shape of the Kyrgyz economy. For all the talk about China in Central Asia, Putin is still able to compete with Beijing – and the choices made in Bishkek and Dushanbe will make it clearer whether Moscow is still the world power it dreams of being.

A new post for my publisher’s blog, exploring the connections between extremist leader Masood Azhar and his links to the UK. Am quite pleased with this piece which has a bunch of new information in it, and will give people a further taster of what’s in the book! Some more on this topic landing soon from a slightly different angle.

Maulana Masood Azhar in the British Jihad

January 24, 2013   |   Raffaello Pantucci

Maqbool Butt

Maqbool Butt

Kashmir has always played an interesting role in Britain’s jihad. From its earliest days, the presence in the UK of a substantial Kashmiri population meant issues in the Indian sub-continent were important in the UK as well. Most prominently, in 1984, a group of Kashmiris abducted and murdered Rhavindra Mhatre, a diplomat serving at the Indian Consulate in Birmingham. Their demands included the release of imprisoned Kashmiri leader Maqbool Butt, who was instead executed by the Indian government in retribution. In later years, as tensions slowly escalated, a growing number of young Britons were drawn to the fight, following the streams of money that had long filtered from the UK to Kashmiri jihadi groups. In time, this well-trodden path became a direct line to al Qaeda, culminating in the attacks of 7 July 2005.

Fostering connections with the UK was important for Kashmiri groups (and for Pakistani political parties in general, most of whom had and still have offices in the UK). Leaders would regularly come to the UK to rattle fundraising cups and seek moral support. One individual who made this peregrination was Maulana Masood Azhar, a portly bespectacled preacher and the son of a Bahawalpur religious studies teacher, Master Allah Baksh Sabir Alvi. Born to a religious family in 1968, Azhar undertook the study of Islam from an early age. At four he was given awards for his capacity to recite long tracts from the Koran and was sent to the Darul Uloom Islamia Binori Town in Karachi—a centre of Deobandi learning. From here he slowly moved up the ladder, travelling to Afghanistan before taking on a prominent role as editor of the magazine Sadai Mujahid(‘Voice of the Mujahid’) that extolled the virtues of jihad in Afghanistan and then later Kashmir. In February 1994 he was captured by Indian forces in Kashmir and spent six years in jail before he was freed as part of a deal to obtain the release of a planeload of mostly Indian passengers on their way to Nepal.

Released alongside Azhar was a young Briton named Omar Saeed Sheikh, an LSE graduate, who had sought to fight alongside jihadists in Bosnia in the early 1990s. There he met a Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen fighter (HuM—Masood Azhar’s then outfit) who re-directed him to Kashmir. Upon arrival he attended a training camp in Waziristan near Miranshah where in late 1993 he met Masood Azhar. Seeing some particular value in the Briton, Azhar instructed him to try to obtain a visa to enter India—something Sheikh had difficulty with due to his dual citizenship. Foiled, he returned to the UK and applied for a British passport to replace his Pakistani one and was able to get a visa into India. Once in India he helped HuM attempt a number of kidnappings of foreigners to be held hostage in exchange for detained HuM fighters, until he was caught by Indian police (who stumbled across the cell holding the hostages while on a different mission). Later freed alongside Azhar, he became notorious when in 2003 he was arrested for his role in the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. He is still sitting on death row in Pakistan for this crime.

It seems possible that Azhar may have encountered Sheikh earlier. According to some accounts, Azhar knew Sheikh’s father and had met him on a trip to the UK—a trip Azhar may have made to seek support for HuM from Britain’s pro-Kashmir community. How many of these trips Azhar made is unclear, but it seems certain that he went at least once to the UK and spent some time in Birmingham as well as East London. In Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clarke’s recent book, The Meadow, they describe him meeting another young British man and future jihadist in Birmingham, Rashid Rauf. Arriving in Birmingham, Azhar is described as having befriended Rauf’s father Abdul, a baker, former shariah judge in Pakistan and prominent local supporter of the struggle in Kashmir. According to Levy and Scott-Clarke, Abdul Rauf introduced Azhar to ‘his rootless teenage son, Rashid, whom he said was in need of a mentor.’ Many years later in 2002, Rauf would flee the UK after being sought by police in relation to the murder of an uncle. In Pakistan he headed straight to Azhar’s hometown Bahawalpur where he married Azhar’s sister-in-law, the daughter of a prominent local madrassa head. He went on to become an important al Qaeda leader.

Other accounts from Azhar’s trip around the UK describe him as being a passionate and emotive speaker with women taking off their jewelry and handing it over to support the cause in Kashmir after listening to his speeches. The inspirational effect of Azhar’s speeches reportedly transcended linguistic barriers. Waheed Ali, a young Bangladeshi friend of July 7 bomber Shehzad Tanweer, reported that the two boys, from Beeston (near Leeds), would sit around and listen to tapes of Azhar’s speeches that had been given to them at the local Iqra bookshop. Ali said he only understood a little Urdu and was reliant on his friend Tanweer to translate. As Ali put it, ‘I can understand a little bit but what used to happen is me and Kaki [Tanweer] used to listen to it and what he’d do, he’d pause and he’d explain to me what he just said, yeah, and because Maulana Masood Azhar has got a really eloquent way of speaking and he used to be really, you know, like fiery and everything, yeah, so it sounds really nice and Kaki used to explain to me what he said.’

Azhar’s influence over the wider cell around the July 7 group, including the Operation Crevice group who were jailed in 2006 for their role in plotting an attack using a massive fertilizer bomb in Bluewater, is again intelligible in the accounts from a 2003 training camp in Malakand, Pakistan, given by Mohammed Junaid Babar. At this camp, alongside the Crevice plotters, was the leader of the July 7 cell, Mohammed Siddique Khan, and Mohammed Shakil, another Beestonite who helped with the Iqra bookshop and who was later jailed alongside Waheed Ali for trying to attend a training camp in Pakistan in 2007. According to Babar’s account, at this camp the group exercised, fired AK-47s and RPGs and, to wind down, would sit around and read aloud from Masood Azhar’s famous book The Virtues of Jihad. That the young men knew of Azhar is unsurprising. Khan and Ali had first come to Pakistan to train at a HuM camp in 2001, just before 9/11. In Ali’s account they were met at the airport by a vehicle festooned with HuM stickers before being taken by the organization to their camp in Manshera (and later to a base in Afghanistan). In 1999, as part of a year out from university, Mohammed Shakil spent some time in Kashmir near his family’s hometown and spent three days at a low-level training camp. Later that same year, Omar Khyam, the head of the Crevice cell who later helped establish the camp with Mohammed Junaid Babar, ran away from home, telling his parents he was on a school trip to France, when he instead went to join the struggle in Kashmir. His parents ended up sending an aged relation to persuade him to come home, where, he claims, he was welcomed as a hero.

But while Kashmir may have been the bait that drew the young Britons in, Azhar’s specific appeal to the young British jihadists was the fact that he seemed to transcend the often corrupt and confusing struggle in Kashmir, riddled with spies, intrigue and manipulation. In a book which describes his experiences fighting alongside Kashmiri warriors in the mid-1990s, Dhiren Barot, a British Hindu of Gujarati extraction who converted to Islam and fought in Kashmir, to later connect with al Qaeda’s senior leadership, compares Azhar to Abdullah Azzam. A Palestinian jihadi scholar who acted as one of the prime recruiters for the Afghan jihad, Azzam remains an inspirational figure to jihadists the world over. In his book, The Army of Madinah in Kashmir, Dhiren Barot (writing under the pseudonym Esa al Hindi) says ‘Sheikh Mohammed Mas’ood Azhar is one of the few revivers of Jihad in our time who mirrors in the Indian sub-continent what Abdullah Azzam was to the Arab world. His works in many languages have greatly inspired men and women in realizing the low state of the Muslim people and its duty to revive itself through jihad.’

By the end of the book, Barot seems to have taken against the struggle in Kashmir, worried that brave jihadis are being lost in a struggle manipulated by people with darker agendas. The shout-out to Azhar therefore is all the more significant, highlighting Azhar’s appeal to the community beyond Kashmiri nationalists. This appeal was still visible almost a decade later when in January 2006 Umm Musab al-Gharib, aka the ‘Lyrical Terrorist’ or Samina Malik, posted Azhar’s book (the same one read at the Malakand camp), The Virtues of Jihad, onto popular Muslim forum www.forums.islamicawakening.com, adding the note ‘it will be of benefit to you all.’ Malik, whose conviction for ‘possessing records likely to be used for terrorism’ was eventually overturned, was in contact with Sohail Qureishi, a dental assistant who was arrested as he tried to go abroad to fight in Pakistan. Other groups from the UK, like the wider cell around Bradford native Aabid Khan, saw Azhar’s Jaish-e-Mohammed group as a good first point of contact when seeking to go fight in Pakistan. Apparently connected to the group, it is believed that Aabid Khan may have been a vetter for the organization, helping to identify suitable candidates to fight alongside it among the over-excited young westerners who drifted to Pakistan seeking jihad in the wake of 9/11.

Azhar is also believed to be responsible for dispatching Britain’s first known suicide bomber. On Christmas in 2000, 24 year old Birmingham native Asif Sadiq, using the pseudonym Mohammed Bilal, drove a car packed with explosives into a checkpoint outside an Indian army base in Kashmiri capital Srinagar, killing nine. Claimed by the newly-founded Jaish-e-Mohammed, the bombing (the first suicide attack in Srinagar) marked the violent birth of the new jihadist organization that Azhar established upon his release from Indian jail with Pakistani backing. Back in the UK, attention-seeking cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed (whose organization al Muhajiroun features as a backdrop to the radicalization of many of the Britons mentioned in this article) stated that his organization regularly sent ‘freedom fighters’ to Kashmir and that a group of 23-24 year olds had made this trip two weeks before Christmas. He thought it ‘quite possible’ that one of them had been involved in the Srinagar attack.

While Bakri Mohammed’s comments need to be taken with a pinch of salt, Azhar’s deadly intent and influence over young Britons, drawn to Kashmir and jihad, is unmistakable. And as time passed and Azhar’s group slowly faded, the connection that he helped nurture seems to have passed seamlessly over to al Qaeda. The archetypal example of this is Rashid Rauf, who Azhar was allegedly asked to mentor as a young man and who later married Azhar’s sister-in-law. Having re-connected with Azhar in 2002, Rauf seems to have moved effortlessly into al Qaeda’s ranks, going on to act as the coordinator for the July 7 attack, one of the key masterminds of the August 2006 plot to bring down about eight airliners on transatlantic routes (the plot that means we are still unable to take liquids onto planes) and involved in a whole series of later plots targeting the UK and US. Rauf is now believed to be dead, killed by a drone strike in November 2008 as he plotted with al Qaeda to carry out an attack on the New York subway.

What Azhar would have made of his young protégé’s demise is unknown. In fact, specifics on what Azhar is doing now are unclear. Wikileak’s Cablegate revealed that in late 2009 the Indian government had pushed for adding him to the list of known terrorists held by the UN, but this was stalled by Chinese objections—presumably to support their close allies in Islamabad. He remains at large in Pakistan regularly delivering speeches and with active personal and organization (Jaish-e-Mohammed) Facebook pages online. In late 2011 the fundraising wing of the group, the al Rahmat Trust, was identified as having made a push to raise money in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. But since the revelation in May 2011 that the Indian government continue to believe Azhar is at large in Pakistan, little more has been heard about him. For the UK, however, this is a moot point. Azhar has long since moved on from being directly implicated in Britain’s jihad, acting instead as an inspirational figurehead whose jihadi writings have entered the canon of required reading. Watching his slow transition into this role and his influence on the development of Britain’s jihad highlights the sometimes confusing role that Kashmir has played in its development.

Nowadays, jihad in Kashmir is a shadow of its former self. Largely burned out after the brutal battles of the 1990s, the struggle remains an issue, but it is no longer the focus amongst Britain’s jihadi community. Many of the young men initially drawn to it walked away disillusioned by the degree of influence the intelligence services held over it and how geopolitical games were being played by brave idealistic souls seeking to fight in God’s name to protect the Muslim ummah. But as the conflict wound down, as Dhiren Barot correctly predicted in his book, ‘there will of a surety be those who will feel cheated, humiliated and let down.’ And they developed into the community that connected with al Qaeda to launch repeated attacks against the West and helped kindle a civil war in Pakistan that rages to this day. While Masood Azhar may have gone into seclusion since his 1990s hey-day, his rhetorical influence can still be felt and his key role in bringing jihad to the UK seems clearer than ever.

More on current events in North Africa, this time for the BBC. I owe Virginia a note of thanks for reviewing it – grazie! I was also quoted briefly in this Financial Times article on the British government’s response. (UPDATE: have briefly tweaked it to reflect a commenter’s correct catch)

Islamists in Africa emerge as threat to West

By Raffaello Pantucci

Senior Research Fellow, Royal United Services Institute

An Islamist rebel is pictured on April 24, 2012 near Timbuktu in northern Mali
Militant Islamists are operating across the vast Sahara Desert

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has said that Islamist extremists in North Africa pose a “large and existential threat” – a comment he made following the siege of a gas facility in Algeria, where dozens of people, nearly all of them foreigners, were killed.

“It will require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months,” Mr Cameron said.

“What we face is an extremist, Islamist, al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group. Just as we had to deal with that in Pakistan and in Afghanistan so the world needs to come together to deal with this threat in north Africa.”

The group responsible for the incident in In Amenas in Algeria appears to have been led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a local jihadist-criminal who had been a commander of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

He left or was asked to leave AQIM late last year. Branching out, he founded an independent faction called the Signed-in-Blood Battalion that seems to have operated out of territory controlled by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) in northern Mali.

Belmokhtar’s faction claims that the assault in Algeria was conducted to avenge the French decision to attack northern Mali.

But, with his organisation reportedly having agents within the compound, it seems likely that this was a longer-term plot that was brought forward in response to the French assault.

It was in fact Belmokhtar’s close companion, Omar Ould Hamaha, a leader in Mujao, who declared in response to the French intervention in Mali that France “has opened the gates of hell [and] has fallen into a trap much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia”.

That Belmokhtar’s faction would want to attack a Western target is not entirely surprising.

He has a long form of kidnapping foreigners and AQIM – to which he belonged until last year – has a long and bloody history.

Originally born as the Armed Islamist Group (GIA) in the wake of the Algerian military annulling elections that the Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win Algeria in the early 1990s, the group evolved first into the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), before adopting the al-Qaeda mantle in 2007 to become AQIM.

Militant Islamists Mukhtar Abu Mansur  and Omar Hammami (R) in Mogadishu, Somalia,  on 11 May 2011
American-Syrian Omar Hammami (R) joined al-Shabab in Somalia in 2011

The GIA, in particular, has been linked to attacks in the mid-1990s on the Paris metro system, the GSPC to plots in Europe and North America prior to the attacks in New York on 11 September 2001, and the groups across North Africa have historically felt particular enmity towards former regional colonial power France.

What is worrying about events in Africa, however, is that violent groups espousing similarly extreme rhetoric can be found in a number of countries.

In Mali alone, alongside AQIM, Mujao and the Signed-in-Blood Battalion is Ansar Dine, another splinter from AQIM that has held large parts of the north since last year and has been imposing its version of Islamic law.

In Nigeria, Islamist group Boko Haram has conducted a destabilising and bloody campaign of terrorism in a fight that is rooted in longstanding local social and economic tensions.

Reports emerged last week that a leader from the group may have found his way to northern Mali, while American military commanders have long spoken about the connection between AQIM and Boko Haram.

Further demonstrating the potential links to Nigeria, back in July last year, a pair of men were accused in an Abuja court of being connected to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate.

And across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen is Somalia, a country that has been home to al-Shabab, a jihadist group that last year aligned itself officially with al-Qaeda.

There have been reports of Boko Haram fighters training alongside al-Shabab fighters and the Somali group is known to have deep connections with AQAP.

Particularly worrying for Western security planners, many of these groups have attracted an unknown number of foreign fighters.
In al-Shabab, some, like Omar Hammami, the American-Syrian who rose up in the Somali group’s ranks before recently falling out of favour, have become minor celebrities in their own right.

AQIM’s networks are known to stretch into France, Spain, Italy and even the UK.

Mujao’s Omar Ould Hamaha claims to have spent some 40 days towards the end of 2000 in France on a Schengen visa, whilst there have been numerous reports of Westerners being spotted or arrested trying to join the jihadists in northern Mali.

And now in In Amenas it appears a Canadian citizen may have been one of the attackers.

Seen from Western Europe, a dangerous picture emerges, potentially leading back home through fundraising networks and recruits.

But the risk is to overstate the threat and focus on the whole rather than the individual parts.

While links can often be drawn between these groups – and they can maybe be described as “fellow travellers” ideologically – it is not the case that they operate in unison or have similar goals.

Rescue workers carry the coffin of one of the hostages killed during a hostage crisis in a gas plant at the hospital in In Amenas, 21 January 2013.
Western interests in Africa will be reassessed as potential targets

Often local issues will trump international ones, even if they claim to be operating under the banner of an international organisation such as al-Qaeda.

And looking back historically, it has been a long time since AQIM-linked cells have been able to conduct or plot a major terrorist incident in Europe.

While a number of plots over the past few years have been connected to al-Shabab, so far there is little evidence that they have actually directed people to attack the West.

The bigger threat is to Western interests in Africa – sites such as In Amenas that will now be reassessed as potential targets for groups seeking international attention, or revenge for French-led efforts in Mali or Western efforts to counter groups elsewhere.

It has been an eventful weekend as the Algerian crisis appears to have finally wrapped up. I have been doing various bits of media, including a short interview that was used in this piece in the Sunday Telegraph, focusing in particular on the Algerian connection to the UK. As it becomes clearer what was the nationality the alleged ‘perfect English speakers’ was, this aspect will doubtless become more of a focus. For the time being, here is my latest for CNN on what the incident might mean for broader terrorism issues globally. Per CNN’s format, I have only posted the first bit of text, please follow links to read the whole thing.

Algeria hostage crisis may be future of terrorism

EDITOR’S NOTE: Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of the forthcoming ‘We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen’ (Hurst/Columbia University Press).

By Raffaello Pantucci, Special for CNN

ALGERIA-MALI-CONFLICT

At this still inconclusive stage it is difficult to know exactly what the aim of the groups involved in the attack on the gas installation in Algeria was. Did they truly want to ransom the hostages they took or massacre them, and was money or punishment to the Algerian or French government’s the driving motivation? What is clear is that the incident has immediately captured international attention, highlighting again how terrorism continues to be a tool that can be used by groups to bring focus to their causes. The deadly operation itself further highlights the direction that we are likely to see Islamist terrorism continue to go in over the next few years.

What seems clear is that the operation was conducted by a group of jihadist fighters under the command of Moktar Belmokhtar, a longtime fighter-criminal who had recently broken away from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to form a separate unit that was aligned with the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). Reports seem to suggest that Belmokhtar is likely somewhere in the region of Gao, a city in eastern Mali that has recently been targeted by French forces as they seek to reclaim the country from Islamist extremists.

More

A kick-off to the new year with Alex on China-Central Asia with an overview for Jamestown Foundations’ China Brief. This is part of our ongoing project looking at China in Central Asia about which we have a number of large publications coming this year.

China and Central Asia in 2013

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 2
January 18, 2013 05:10 PM Age: 1 days

China’s Gateway to Central Asia, Khorgos, picture from here

In the last two years, China has emerged as the most consequential outside actor in Central Asia. As we have described in other writings, China’s ascension to this role has been largely inadvertent [1]. It has more to do with the region’s contemporary circumstances and China’s overall economic momentum than a concerted effort emanating from the Zhongnanhai. The implications for United States and NATO policy are nevertheless profound. Not only have the geopolitics of Eurasia shifted in ways little understood in Washington and Brussels, but the socio-political and physical undergirding of the post-Soviet space from Aktobe to Kandahar is being transformed.

Official Chinese policy in Central Asia is quiet and cautious, focused on developing the region as an economic partner with its western province Xinjiang whilst also looking beyond at what China characterizes as the “Eurasian Land Bridge…connecting east Asia and west Europe” (Xinhua, September 4, 2012). Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are active throughout the region on major infrastructure projects, but it is not clear how much they are being directed as part of some grand strategy as opposed to focusing on obvious profitable opportunities. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the main multilateral vehicle for Chinese regional efforts and reassuring engagement is a powerfully symbolic, but institutionally empty actor. Many smaller Chinese actors—ranging from shuttle traders to small-time entrepreneurs to schoolteachers and students posted to Confucius Institutes throughout the region—are the gradual vanguard of possible long-term Chinese investment and influence.

China’s engagement in Afghanistan is growing as U.S. and Western involvement wanes. Whether Chinese companies and diplomats remain in the event of a surge in violence and country-wide destabilization is a question that will be answered post-2014. For the moment, however, Chinese SOEs Metallurgic Corporation of China (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper are invested heavily in one of the world’s biggest copper mines at Mes Aynak (just southeast of Kabul) while China’s energy giant China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) is pumping oil in Afghanistan’s northern Amu Darya Basin. Currently, the firm is trucking the oil across the border to refineries in Turkmenistan, although plans are in place to develop a refinery on the Afghan side of the border. Plans also are moving forward for the construction of another string of the Central Asia-China pipeline from Turkmenistan to Xinjiang to pass through northern Afghanistan (Xinhua, June 6, 2012). CNPC and its subsidiaries already have cut deals with local authorities to ensure security in their operating areas. Should Afghanistan once again be split between a Pashtun south and a Tajik and Uzbek north, Chinese companies may have the relationships to continue operations under the protection of a new Northern Alliance. It seems that plans for the natural gas pipeline include distribution to local communities in northern Afghanistan [2].

Next door, at the source of the gas in Turkmenistan, CNPC and the Chinese government have carved out for themselves an envious position as one of the most influential outside players in Ashgabat, at least when talking in energy terms. The Central Asia-China pipeline, one of the most impressive feats in energy infrastructure construction, was completed in 18 months and now is slated to bring 60 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas per year to China in the coming decades (Platts, August 31, 2011). These immense volumes—four times that planned for the Trans-Anatolian pipeline from the Caspian to Southeastern Europe—may require up to three different routes for the project’s separate strings. This route planned to traverse northern Afghanistan will offer an alternative to the more costly route through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan [3].

Turkmenistan’s main energy and foreign policy priority at the moment is the realization of the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India (TAPI) pipeline southeast across Afghanistan to markets in Pakistan and India. During the project’s recent international road show, CNPC and Sinopec reportedly expressed interest in the project, even if it was unclear in what capacity [4]. For the sake of diversity, Turkmenistan’s leadership would almost certainly prefer non-Chinese companies investing in TAPI. During the Petrotech conference in New Delhi in October 2012, the acting Minister of Oil and Gas Industry and Mineral Resources Kakageldy Abdullaev made overtures to Indian firms to come and invest in Turkmenistan (Business Standard, November 27, 2012).

Further downstream in Uzbekistan, the government started to pump its own gas down the pipeline traversing its territory in September. The move was part of a 2010 agreement signed between the two countries for Uzbekneftegas to send some 10 bcm per year to China (Platts, September 24, 2012). In historically energy-poor Tajikistan, CNPC partnered with Total to purchase a share each of Tethys find in Bokhtar, at the eastern end of the Amu Darya Basin (Bloomberg, December 21, 2012). In Kyrgyzstan, a Chinese firm also has agreed to build a refinery in the Chui Oblast whilst acting Kyrgyz Economy Minister Temir Sariyev reported “China is interested in the construction of Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan-China oil pipeline and a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan via the south of Kyrgyzstan” (Azer News, December 4, 2012; Central Asia Online, April 27, 2012).

Beijing and Chinese companies have long cultivated a close partnership with Kazakhstan as a regional power and source of valuable resources (“Sino-Kazakh Ties on a Roll,” China Brief, January 18). While Western companies suffer in their attempts to bring offshore projects online in Kazakhstan’s Caspian waters, China steadily has become the largest outside energy investor onshore. China’s sovereign wealth fund China Investment Corporation (CIC) is set to buy into Kazakhoil Aktobe, Kazakhturkmunai and Mangistau Investments—a deal which according to some estimates will give Chinese companies control over 40 percent of Kazakhstan’s oil production (TengriNews, January 8). The Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline—completed in a number of stages throughout the last decade—is slated to operate at its full capacity of 20 million tons per year (tpy) by 2014 (EnergyGlobal, November 9, 2012).

Nevertheless, this rosy picture has another side. According to analysts spoken to in Astana, the fields to which China has access are older ones that have been exploited for years. Furthermore, local Kazakhs with whom the authors spoke do not have particularly positive perspectives on their Chinese employers. At a grander scale, the slow progress with the Kazakh side of the free trade zone at Khorgos on the border between the two countries just northeast of Almaty is further evidence of these tensions. Analysts and officials asked either side of the border have vague responses about delays with the site. Currently, the Chinese side teams with new markets, corporate offices, hotels and customs buildings, but the Kazakhstani side still has some way to go in bringing its infrastructure on par with its neighbor [5]. Khorgos is the crossing point from China into Central Asia for three developments: a Central Asia-China pipeline from Turkmenistan; a new highway that is under construction linking Almaty, Astana, the Caspian shore and Russia; and a second train connection between China and Kazakhstan that opened last month (Xinhua, December 22, 2012). A key component of China’s so-called “New Eurasian Land Bridge,” the Khorgos passage is one of the main arteries in the chain connecting China’s eastern coast with Western Europe through Russia and the Black Sea-Caspian region.

These difficulties are even more evident in Kyrgyzstan where there have been a spate of clashes between locals and Chinese workers. In October, reports emerged from a gold mine managed by the Zijin Mining group in Taldy-Bulak that locals had threatened to burn down a company office after the company allegedly was killed a local horse (RIA Novosti, October 22, 2012). Then, in January, a fracas broke out between Chinese and local workers after Chinese workers allegedly caught a local stealing. In the ensuing clash some 100 people were involved and 18 Chinese workers were injured, two seriously (Xinhua, January 11). Whilst Kyrgyzstan is a notoriously difficult environment for foreign investors with many other nation’s countries also experiencing problems, China seemed to respond with particular attention this time around. In response to the first incident, the head of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Kyrgzystan, Li Deming, wrote an op-ed stating “Kyrgyzstan still a mine field for investors” (Global Times, October 28, 2012). In December, during an SCO Prime Ministers’ Meeting in Bishkek, Premier Wen Jiabao met with his counterpart and reinforced this message encouraging “Chinese enterprises to expand investment in Kyrgyzstan” (Xinhua, December 4, 2012).

A much larger, potentially strategic, threat to Chinese investments in Central Asia, however, lies in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposed Eurasian Union. Most recently announced in October 2011, when President Putin laid out his plan in an article in the Izvestia newspaper, the notion has its roots in the Customs Union that was first proposed in the 1990s by President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan. While slow to accept the idea, President Putin now has embraced the idea wholeheartedly to create a regional organization that would coordinate “economic and currency policy” between the countries of the former Soviet Union (Reuters, October 3, 2011). Currently, the Union is made up of Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia, but, in Central Asia, both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have expressed an interest in joining. What is not entirely clear is whether this is something that is taking place as a result of Russian pressure or whether this is a choice. In his annual statement to the Duma in December 2012, President Putin spoke of tightening requirements for the citizens of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to enter Russia with passports rather than simply ID cards as is the case at the moment. He left open the caveat, however, that free access would continue to be allowed for citizens of countries members of the Union (RIA Novosti, December 12, 2012). The potential implication to remittance-reliant Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan is clear, creating an instant obstacle for the masses of young men from those countries who work in Moscow to send money back home to their families.

The issue for China is what impact this will have on China’s trade relationship with these countries. In particular, Kyrgyzstan is one of the key routes for Chinese goods into the region and for onward re-export—Ambassador Wang Kaiwen, China’s man in Bishkek, places the figure at $5 billion per annum. In commenting, Ambassador Wang also placed Kyrgyzstan’s trade with China in a broader context. As he put it, “trade between China and Kyrgyzstan is $5 billion, and China’s foreign trade is $3 trillion…so this [joining the union] is not a big problem” (Knews.kg, November 30, 2012). The point is that this is a relatively limited problem for China, but the repercussions in Bishkek are uncertain and potentially more substantial.

In many ways, this uncertainty places China’s 2013 in Central Asia in its appropriate context. It is increasingly clear that China is the most consequential regional actor that is making all the right moves to consolidate its interests. The regional impact and the reactions of both the Central Asian states and Russia to this growing preponderance remain to be seen. For Beijing, the relationship is an important one if they are to effectively develop Xinjiang, but their growing perceived dominance is something that is met with ambivalence regionally where nations like China’s money, but worry about its dominance. The dragon has clearly risen in Central Asia, but how the region will decide to respond still remains unclear.

Notes:

  1. Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen, “China’s Inadvertent Empire”, The National Interest, October 24, 2012,chinaincentralasia.com/2012/10/24/chinas-inadvertent-empire/
  2. Author interviews, November 2012
  3. Author interviews, October 2012
  4. Author interviews in Ashgabat, September 2012
  5. Author observations at Khorgos, April 2012; and interview January 2013

An article for the website of my new employer, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), where I have been appointed a Senior Research Fellow. I just started and events in north Africa precipitated quite quickly resulting in the below article for the website, though this piece initially was more focused on the French decision to go into Mali. In the spike in media interest around events in Algeria, I did a short interview for ITN which was subsequently picked up by the PBS Newshour.

France Confronts Terror Threat in Africa, Risks Attack at Home

RUSI Analysis, 17 Jan 2013

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

The French assault on militant jihadists in Mali reflects a recognition in Paris that the long-brewing Islamist trouble in North Africa is something that has started to spiral out of control, and has potential to have a direct impact within France.

Mali Insurgents

France’s decision to deploy forces to Mali comes in the wake of a failed attempt to rescue a French operative captured by Somali group al Shabaab. This regional French show of strength has been treated as something of a surprise, but reflects a recognition in Paris that the long-brewing Islamist trouble in North Africa is something that has started to spiral out of control and has the potential to have a direct impact within France.

The Nature of the Threat

Islamist groups currently operating in northern Mali (and  wider North Africa) have, broadly speaking, evolved out of the chaos of Algeria in the 1990s. Following their expulsion from Pakistan, former Algerian mujahedeen fighters from Afghanistan returned home to a government that voided the election victory of the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS).

Mali Azawad

Amongst the violent groups to emerge was the Groupe Islamique Armée (GIA) that took up arms against the Algerian state as well as launching a campaign of attacks within France. As the decade wore on, the group’s brutality escalated leading to a splintering of factions. The GIA transformed into le Group Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat (GSPC), that then rebranded itself in January 2007 to become Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) following a video from September 2006 in which Al-Qa’ida number two Ayman al Zawahiri proclaimed a ‘blessed union’ between the two groups. This did not result, however, in a spate of international attacks as the group came under heavy pressure regionally and became more known for kidnapping foreigners for ransom rather than international terrorism.

Exploiting the Post-Arab Spring Weakness

The ‘Arab Spring’ seems to have revived the group. In particular the collapse of the Gadhafi regime in Libya gave Islamist and separatist networks across the region sudden access to a flood of high grade weaponry. Tuareg rebels in northern Mali seized the opportunity to take over increasingly substantial portions of territory. Sensing an opening, elements from AQIM profited from the situation to co-opt the rebellion, leading to the collapse of local military capacity as the rebels took ever-larger pieces of territory.

This result from the ‘Arab Spring’ was somewhat counterintuitive to the prevailing narrative at the time: that the largely secular mobs that took to the streets to chase Zine el Abidine Ben Ali from power in Tunis and ultimately depose Hosni Mubarak in Egypt were a sign of the lowering of the power of Islamist ideas in the region. In fact, the war in Libya provided militant groups with a place to practice their fighting skills, while the failure of secular groups to seize power sucked some of the ideological optimism from the ‘Arab Spring’.

As time has gone on, AQIM splintered and absorbed various illicit networks across the region to create groups Ansar Dine and Movement for Tawheed and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) – all of whom are now engaged in countering the French-led assault. These groups have been heavily armed with equipment taken from Libyan and Malian armories, with defenses built using earth moving equipment abandoned by foreign companies chased out of the area and money from ransoms provided to release foreign hostages. As a result, the groups have steadily transformed northern Mali into an ungoverned space where they can impose shariah law and work to establish an independent Islamic emirate.

This success has been noted by the international jihadist community, exemplified by the fact that he area has become one of the new battlefields drawing in excitable young foreigners seeking adventure and jihad. France, the former colonial power with a substantial Malian population resident at home, has been a particular source of such individuals, with reports varying as to the amount of French citizens being drawn to join in the fighting in Mali. French citizens have been apprehended in Niger, Mali and Mauritania believed to be on their way to join the fighting. Additionally, the FBI intercepted two Alabama natives allegedly heading to Morocco en route to Mali, and Mauritanian authorities captured a Briton trying to walk across the border through the Sahara desert. One Reuters reporter in Gao claimed to have seen at least three ‘white westerners’ amongst the Islamist fighters spotted there.

But it is not only foreign fighters alarming authorities. In late December last year, Tunisian authorities arrested some sixteen individuals suspected of being connected with AQIM who had established a camp and were training using weapons from Libyan armouries. In Libya, foreign consulates have come under repeated assault – in particular in Benghazi the American ambassador and three others were killed on the anniversary of the 11 September  attacks last year, and both the British and Italian Consul’s convoys have come under attack. And now in eastern Algeria on the border with Libya, an unknown group of foreign nationals working for oil companies seems to have been snatched by an armed group that claims to be linked to AQIM in Mali. Islamist insurgent networks across North Africa have had a new life breathed into them, something most prominently on display in northern Mali where they have managed to move beyond sporadic actions to hold large pieces of territory.

Just across the Mediterranean in Europe, the potential of this menace is clear, leading to France’s response and the willingness of other European powers to provide some support. The question, however, is whether this response comes too late. The potential for events to shift in this direction has been abundantly clear for a long time, with the news from northern Mali pointing to groups increasingly confident in their abilities and eager to consolidate control over territory and impose a hardline version of Sharia law. As the groups pushed southward towards the capital there were increasingly frantic calls by local authorities for outside intervention. As the power with closest links, France heeded this call, sending somewhere in the region of 2,500 soldiers to stem the Islamists advance in the south while using airpower to pound entrenched positions deeper in the Islamist controlled territory.

The War Could Come to France

At home, France has stepped up its security posture, with authorities alert to the potential for networks helping individuals to go and join AQIM or other groups in north Africa to attempt to carry out retaliatory attacks within France, as was done by a previous Islamist incarnation in the 1990s. Islamists in France have in the past year demonstrated an increasing level of violence, with Mohammed Merah – an terrorist trained in Pakistan who is likely to have had connections with north African networks – killing 3 off-duty soldiers, 3 Jewish children and a rabbi in Toulouse; a firebombing in November at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a newspaper that published cartoons of Mohammed; and a grenade attack in September on a Jewish supermarket in a Paris suburb.

Police launched a massive operation in the wake of this last assault, killing one of the two men suspected of carrying out the grenade attack when he resisted arrest. Another eleven individuals were arrested, weapons seized, extremist literature found as well as a list of other potential Israeli targets in Paris.

Whilst none of these operations has been directly linked with events in Mali, the increasing aggressiveness of such groups in Europe is no doubt fuelled by the perceived success of groups in North Africa, something that will be further accelerated now that France has taken such an active role in quashing the insurgency. The French government is alive to the potential for retaliatory attacks at home, though it seems more likely in the short-term that we are going to see more incidents like the alleged kidnapping in Algeria with Islamist networks looking for targets of opportunity closer to home.

French authorities have been keen to emphasise their deployment would be short-term and is merely a stopgap while African forces are mustered. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius declared French involvement would last ‘a matter of weeks.’ Unfortunately, this seems an optimistic perspective, and it is likely that France will have to contend with a situation that will take months rather than weeks.

The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.