Archive for February, 2013

An analytical piece for my new think tank home RUSI about the large British terrorist case that has concluded this week. A longer piece about them coming soon for a magazine, with lots of interesting detail.

The Birmingham Terrorist Plotters: Lessons for Counter-Terrorism Today

RUSI Analysis, 22 Feb 2013By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow
The convictions of three Birmingham residents of a terrorist plot reveal classic linkages between homegrown bombers and Pakistan. The supply side of the terrorist threat in the UK continues to prove a problem.
Birmingham Terrorist Conviction 2013

In what has been described by the Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) as the ‘most significant Counter-Terrorism investigation since the airlines bomb plot of 2006‘ a jury at Woolwich Crown Court yesterday found three Birmingham residents guilty of planning a terrorist campaign in the UK. The plot was unraveled in a landmark police surveillance operation, codenamed Pitsford.

The plot seems to be a throw back to an earlier time, where a group of radicalised young, British-born Muslims have links to Al-Qa’ida in Waziristan – a connection that seems to have flowed through Kashmiri oriented networks – and were caught seeking innovative ways of creating a bomb. The key difference is Al-Qa’ida in Pakistan is a very different entity today than it was in the mid-2000s, no longer able to exert the same sort of command and control over terrorist cells it has trained and sent to carry out attacks.

The men involved in the plot all fit a profile that has been perceived as being all too common in British counter-terrorism. Young men from Britain’s South Asian Muslim communities with some education, had elected to dedicate themselves to Al-Qa’ida’s cause rather than become productive members of society and to instead inflict ‘revenge for everything, what we’re doing is another 9/11‘ as Irfan Khalid put it within range of a security service listening device. Having decided what they were seeking to do, they headed to Pakistan where they sought and obtained connections to Al-Qa’ida.

How high these connections went is something that was made clear by cell leader Irfan Khalid ‘well you know the sheikh we’re on about, the Kuwaiti guy. You know about the top 5…..he’s the one who’s blessed this whole thing and he’s the one who is saying people are doing dua [praying] for you. Then, there’s other top people doing dua. They’ve done istekhara [religious prayer for guidance] from what we guess.’ The man they are referring to is Abu Zaid al-Kuwaiti, a senior Al-Qa’ida leader who was killed in a drone strike last December. Whether they met with him is unclear, but it is certain that they had made contact with one of his lieutenants who brought around Waziristan to training camps and helped them record their martyrdom videos.

Their story is reminiscent of a narrative that had been common in counter-terror investigations from a few years ago, in particular the 7 July bombers who killed fifty-two in an Al-Qa’ida directed attack on London’s public transport system. In both plots, radicalised young British Muslims went to Pakistan, were able to connect with Al-Qa’ida, were trained by the group in creative ways to make bombs, recorded martyrdom videos that they left behind and were then dispatched back to the UK to carry out an attack.

Influencers

Looking back further, there were similarities in some of the influences on key plotters belonging to the two cells: in recorded conversations, the Pitsford cell, praised the work of now dead radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and would use his work to further radicalise individuals they were drawing into their network. While driving one group to the airport to go to Pakistan, one of the lieutenants who had previously pleaded guilty for his role in the cell asked how a fellow plotter had discovered the path of jihad: ‘how did you know this was the “haqq” [truth], Anwar al-Awlaki?’ Having affirmed this, he praised the cleric, ‘may Allah reward him. Cause of him so many people [have discovered the truth]’.

In material to have subsequently emerged around the 7 July plotters, it was revealed that their handler in Pakistan, another Birmingham man named Rashid Rauf, had realised that Mohammed Siddique Khan and his co-conspirator were serious and had ‘good knowledge’ as they used to listen to, amongst others, Anwar al-Awlaki. In the Pitsford case, Awlaki seems to have played an even more prominent role through the magazine that he created with a young American acolyte,Inspire. The men were found in possession of the magazine, but also recorded discussing some of the plots mentioned in it, including the idea of driving a harvester machine re-fitted with swords or blades into a crowd and the bomb-making recipes within it.

An even earlier ideological parallel can also be found in the fact that one of the men in the cell reported that he had his first encounter with extremist ideas at the age of eight when he found a book at his house by Maulana Masood Azhar. A prominent Pakistani preacher who is seen as a key figure in the Islamicisation of the nationalist campaign in Kashmir, Azhar stands as a shadow over the history of British jihadism, especially on Pakistani/South Asian communities.

In the early 1990s, Azhar visited the UK to raise money for the Kashmiri struggle, including a stop in Birmingham. He was later arrested and jailed by Indian authorities, only to be released (alongside another young Briton he had helped radicalised, LSE graduate Omar Saeed Sheikh) in exchange for a planeload of Indian passengers en route to Nepal. He went on to found a group called Jaish-e-Mohammed that claimed responsibility for the first reported British suicide bomber, another young Birmingham man called Asif Sadiq, who in December 2000 blew himself up in a car bomb in Srinagar, Kashmir. Jaish-e-Mohammed, alongside Harakut-ul-Mujahedeen – another similar group Azhar has also been linked to-became key conduits and training vehicles for British Muslims seeking jihad in Kashmir.

During the Pitsford case, one of the plotters, Rahin Ahmed, said he had first found extreme ideas through Azhar’s writing. For the 7 July cell, Azhar’s book The Virtues of Jihad, was an important text that they would read to each other at a training camp they shared with other young Britons who went on to be convicted of terrorist plots in the United Kingdom. Members of the group associated with the  7 July bombers also admitted to having gone and trained at camps managed by Harakat ul-Mujahedeen. The point being that the network of jihadist groups in Pakistan that had previously been focused on Kashmir provided a network that the young Britons were able to use to find not only radical ideas, but also obtain training.

Differences between 7/7 bombers and the Pitsford cell

Similarities notwithstanding, there were two key differences between the Pitsford group and the 7 July cell. First, of course, was the failure of the Pitsford cell to carry out their deadly duty. Second, however, was the degree to which Al-Qa’ida was able to direct them: the 7 July team remained in contact with their handlers in Pakistan right up to the point they carried out their operation. In the evidence to have emerged, there is no sign that the Pitsford cell were able to maintain this same level of communication, and were instead trained and then dispatched to spread the word and carry out an act. The level of command and control that has been visible in previous plots is clearly no longer able to exist in the same fashion. Al-Qa’ida has evolved as an entity: from being an organisation that could direct and communicate with its cells around the world, to one that dispatches footsoldiers from Pakistan with uncertainty about the final outcome.

The reasons for this shift are undoubtedly in part because of the pressure the group has come under in Pakistan through drone strikes and focused intelligence attention. But beyond this, it is also because the centre of gravity for jihadist ideas has shifted. Dissemination and conceptualisation of the Jihadist creed is no longer the preserve of Al-Qa’ida core in Pakistan. These ideas have found fertile ground in Somalia, the Sahel, parts of northern Nigeria, Yemen, wider Central Asia, and returned to parts of the Middle East and in particular Syria. These new battlefields have taken away some of the attention from Al-Qa’ida core and its ability to be the only draw for money and recruits. For a young Briton seeking the thrill of jihad in a foreign field, better the live fire battlefield of Syria fighting an oppressive dictator than hiding under trees from drone strikes in Waziristan.

Nevertheless, the plot unraveled by Operation Pitford highlights once again a fundamental problem before us. Eight years after the 7 July bombings, and almost 20 years after their ideas first inculcated themselves in the United Kingdom, we continue to see young Britons radicalised to the point of wanting to join terrorist groups and networks abroad. And in some cases they are willing to plot and carry out atrocities at home. The supply side of the terrorist threat in the UK continues to prove a problem.

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A new book review for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, looking at quite a fun book I read a little while ago about a piece of history with all links to today. Also quite timely given the recent troubles in Kashmir to highlight how long this problem has been hanging over things. In an interesting and in some ways related case (for reasons that I will go into in a separate piece), I have been doing a bit of press around the recently concluded large terror trial at Woolwich Crown Court against a group of British Muslims who connected with al Qaeda were planning an incident in the UK. I was quoted in the Associated Press, Press AssociationCNN, Channel 4, and on BBC Newsnight (which is only available for the next six days to those in the UK). Longer piece on that case coming soon.

The Meadow: Kashmir 1995 – Where the Terror Began
By Raffaello Pantucci
Thursday, February 21, 2013 – 4:16 PM

Conflict in Kashmir has been back in the news recently. In January, a series of attacks and counter-attacks by Indian and Pakistani soldiers were reportedly sparked by a grandmother who crossed the Line of Control to be near her children and their families, resulting in the deaths of soldiers on both sides. What is striking about recent events and seems to be a particular throw back to earlier times, is the apparent brutality with which two Indian soldiers involved were killed. One was reportedly beheaded, whilst another ‘mutilated.’ This particular detail seems to belong to an earlier time highlighted in Adrian Levy’s and Cathy Scott-Clark’s book about the kidnapping of a group of western tourists in July 1995 in Kashmir, when the full insurgency was underway between Pakistan and India over the disputed province.

The portrait that Levy and Scott-Clark paint of the 1990s insurgency in Kashmir is a brutal one: locals living in fear as groups and alliances shift around them. No one is certain who is on whose side, as idealistic Kashmiri freedom fighters are manipulated by Pakistani ISI agents and their families are punished by Indian authorities. Local warlords change sides regularly, turning on each other with ready brutality at the right price. Police and intelligence agents on the same side end up working against each other, each with a different goal in mind. And caught up in the middle of this is a group of foreign hikers, drawn by the beauty of the countryside and kept in the dark about potential danger by inept local authorities eager for the much-needed tourist revenue.

The Meadow is written in the style of a thriller, with an investigative journalist’s eye for detail. It uncovers new information, offering definitive conclusions about what happened to the unfortunate foreigners entangled in the kidnapping. It has attracted less attention than previous books the authors have written about the region – their earlier book Deception, about the Pakistani nuclear program, has been widely praised – but nonetheless comes to some dramatic conclusions about what happened to the group of tourists.

At the heart of this narrative are six western (American, British, German and Norwegian) nationals. Snatched by a group of Kashmiri warriors supported by Pakistan, the intention was for the men to be traded for a group of supporters of the Kashmiri jihad, including Maulana Masood Azhar, an increasingly important preacher who had managed to get himself caught by Indian authorities some weeks before. This was in the days prior to Azhar’s later fame as the founder and head of Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Led by a Kashmiri called Sikander who fought in Afghanistan during the 1980s, the team was a mix of raw recruits and experienced fighters. Sikander had participated in an operation involving foreigners before, abducting two British citizens, Kim Housego and David Mackie, in June 1994 in an operation that ended in failure. Under intense international pressure, Sikander’s cell had given the hostages up to Kashmiri journalists. The second time around they hoped to avoid this pressure by creating a shell group, al Faran, which people would be unable to link so easily to the group’s well-known organizers, the Pakistani-supported, Kashmiri-oriented Harakat ul Ansar (HuA). According to the book, the new group name was chosen ‘randomly…. by someone in Islamabad that had vague Islamic connotations, being a mountain in Saudi Arabia’ (p.95).

The kidnappers were initially planning on snatching foreign workers at infrastructure projects, but as they got sidetracked in other operations time pushed on and they decided instead to go after a group of foreign tourists. By the time they were able to get moving on the plot it was June 1995 and it was only by July 1995 that they made it into the eponymous ‘Meadow’ above and around Pahalgam in the Anantnag district of Kashmir. Here, they wandered around the various campsites, capturing two British (Paul Wells and Keith Mangan) and two American (John Childs and Don Hutchings) trekkers they found, sending the women they were travelling with back down the mountain with a note demanding the release of Masood Azhar and other leaders. When one of the Americans, John Childs, managed to escape, the group panicked and snatched another two foreigners they found, this time a Norwegian (Hans Christian Ostrø) and a German (Dirk Hastert). Sikander’s father recalls his son telling him ‘human cargo’ was not ‘like transporting bullets of rice’ requiring all sorts of attention and care (p.93).

At this point, the story becomes murkier. Intrepid journalists, Levy and Scott-Clark rounded up as many different contacts as they could, but patching together what happened to the hostages while they were in captivity is something that is always going to be shrouded in mystery and reserved primarily to the hostages and their captors, none of whom are able to talk now. Using interviews with locals, family members, subsequent intelligence reports, and gathering the pieces of information that the hostages managed to leave secreted with locals as they were transported around the region, the authors piece a compelling narrative together. They uncover how particularly vivacious and infuriating a captive Hans Christian Ostrø was, apparently trying repeatedly to escape whilst charming locals with his enthusiasm. Eventually, a brutal faction within the cell tires of him and leaves his beheaded body to be found with the words ‘al Faran’ engraved on his chest.

The others were never found; their family members remain uncertain of their end to this day. For the women who had been trekking with the men before they were snatched, the nightmare was made all the worse by the seemingly limited and incompetent assistance they report receiving from Indian authorities. Having come down the mountain to disbelieving and slow-moving authorities, they then find themselves sidelined as geopolitics overtake the incident.

It is here that Levy and Scott-Clark are able to bring the most new information to light, digging into the grim world of the Kashmiri insurgency to offer a novel conclusion of what happened to the hapless trekkers. After Childs escaped, he lobbied for U.S. Special Forces to go back and rescue the others. But he was ignored, as Indian authorities refused to let foreign boots on the ground or accept much international assistance, eager to keep foreign eyes from the awkward domestic insurgency. And so, the captives were left in an isolated area where, as the authors paint it, India had full control. Even though authorities were in contact with the group, and according to the negotiators had managed to obtain a fixed amount of $250,000 to secure the foreigners release, no exchange actually took place. As the book portrays it, elements within India preferred a grim conclusion to highlight Pakistani perfidy. So once the demand had been made through a private communication between a local officer and the group – who allegedly told the officer ‘the movement [those who had sent him to carry out the kidnapping] can go to hell’ (p.325) – someone promptly leaked it, rendering it void as the move had not been approved al Faran’s superiors.

Instead, the men are sold to a local warlord fighting for the Indians, who then has them executed and disposed of. Indian authorities (or elements within the Indian power structures) are implied to have had full knowledge of everything that was going on, and to have actively pushed events in this direction, a searing indictment that has attracted ire within India.

The Meadow connects this incident to the larger events of September 11, highlighting the proximity of elements linked to al-Qaeda and the subsequent group that Masood Azhar founded when he was eventually released in exchange for a planeload of Indians held hostage while en route to Nepal. That group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, has been responsible for a number of major atrocities, including the first use of suicide bombers in Kashmir: on Christmas Day 2000, Asif Sadiq, a 24 year old Birmingham student blew himself up at a checkpoint in Srinagar. A year later, as the world was still rocking from the September 11 attacks, a JeM team joined by fighters from Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) launched an attack on India’s parliament that almost brought the sub-continent to nuclear conflict.

Levy and Scott-Clark push this web of shadowy links even further, pointing out a connection between Masood Azhar and Rashid Rauf, the British al Qaeda leader who would go on to act as the overseer of the July 7 and July 21 plots against London, before helping mastermind the aborted August 2006 plot to bring down some eight airplanes on transatlantic routes. In their book, Rauf is a bit part, with Azhar meeting Rauf’s father on a trip to Birmingham and being introduced to young Rashid as ‘his rootless teenage son…whom he said was in need of a mentor’ (p.296). But the connection nonetheless cements Azhar’s importance in helping provide links for a man who went on to be one of al Qaeda’s most dynamic foreign leaders.

A hefty book at almost 500 pages, the text sometimes gets lost in its own detail and in the numerous, long and detailed interviews the authors conducted. But drawing on a wealth of primary interviews, it tells a compelling narrative about a specific incident, while also painting a picture of a brutal conflict that, as we saw recently, has all the kindling in place to light up again.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Research 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).

A new article for the CTC Sentinel that has been in the pipeline for a while. Looks at the phenomenon of British fighters going to Syria and the larger connections between the UK and fighting in Syria. A fascinating story that has not been dug into much, but is going to get bigger as time goes on. On other matters, I was quoted in a pair of Associated Press stories, here and here about the recent Ansaru Nigerian kidnappings.

British Fighters Joining the War in Syria

Feb 20, 2013

Author: Raffaello Pantucci

Since the start of the Syrian war, British police have arrested and charged three men for their roles in a terrorist conspiracy linked to the conflict. British security officials fear that these arrests may only be the tip of an iceberg as they watch Syria become the brightest flame drawing in young British radicals. As British Foreign Secretary William Hague recently said, “Syria is now the number one destination for jihadists anywhere in the world today. This includes a number of individuals connected with the United Kingdom and other European countries. They may not pose a threat to us when they first go to Syria, but if they survive some may return ideologically hardened and with experience of weapons and explosives.”[1]

The most striking aspect about the Syria-UK connection is its similarity to past events. Not only are there shades of Bosnia in the ease with which Britons can join the war in Syria,[2] but there are also similarities in the structures that have nurtured the conflict.[3] Longstanding London-based preachers have returned to join fighters on the frontlines, convoys run by Muslim charities take food and supplies while hosting events at which they criticize the lack of action by the international community, and young men are taking time off from their ordinary lives to join the fight. Atop all of this, a political debate in the United Kingdom—reflective of the broader global debate—about what action to take in Syria has failed to deliver meaningful results, providing more fodder for those who perceive that the West is turning a blind eye to the plight of Muslims.

In highlighting the complexity of this threat, this article identifies the current known links between the Syrian and British jihadist communities, as well as the broader context from which it is emerging. It also shows how fallout from Syria has the potential to have negative repercussions in the United Kingdom for years to come.

The Case of the Kidnapped Journalists
Attention was first drawn publicly to the issue of British jihadists operating in Syria when a British and Dutch journalist escaped from their captors in Syria and made it to safety in Turkey. The men, Jerome Oerlemans and John Cantlie, had entered Syria on July 19, 2012, on assignment, but had the misfortune to fall into the hands of a group of mostly foreign extremists.[4] Held captive for a week, the men were repeatedly threatened with death and beaten after an escape attempt.[5] They were eventually released by a group of Syrians who had initially helped them enter the country.[6] Yet the most surprising news to emerge from the event was that among the men’s captors had been almost a dozen British jihadists—nine of whom “had London accents” and at least one who claimed to be a National Health Service (NHS) doctor.[7]

The trainee doctor in question, Shajul Islam, was intercepted on October 9, 2012, when he returned on a flight from Egypt with his wife and child.[8] A Briton of Bangladeshi origin, little is known about Shajul Islam aside from his age, 26-years-old, that he is from Stratford in East London, and that he is a doctor.[9] A graduate of St. Bartholomew’s and a University of London hospital, he reportedly had a first class degree in biochemistry.[10] According to captive John Cantlie, he carried an NHS medical kit with him and planned to return to work as a trauma consultant after a two year sabbatical.[11] Less is known about his co-conspirator Jubayer Chowdhury, except that he is of Bangladeshi descent. Both are currently awaiting trial for their role in kidnapping the two journalists.

In what was reported as an expansion of the case, authorities arrested an additional six men in mid-January 2013 as part of a wide-ranging police investigation into links with Syria.[12] Authorities arrested one group of three men at addresses in east London, while a fourth man identified as being Portuguese was picked up at Gatwick airport.[13] All were detained “on suspicion of commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.”[14] Authorities arrested a second pair “outside a business” in west London, although no link was immediately drawn between the two cases.[15] In the end, all but Mohamed Elyasse Taleouine from Lisson Grove, north London, were cleared, while Taleouine was charged with possession of a blank-firing MAC-10 that had been converted into a live weapon.[16] A week later, police went back and re-arrested a man from the first set of arrests, revealing him to be Najul Islam, brother of Shajul Islam.[17]

Najul Islam was charged with a variety of offenses, including funding his brother’s travel to Syria, funding Jubayer Chowdhury’s return from Syria, and sending them money to support their activities.[18] Additionally, police believe he traveled by vehicle from the United Kingdom through Turkey to Syria to provide equipment including night vision goggles, air rifle optic mounts, and medical supplies.[19] Likely to come to trial next year, more information will then be released about the men and how they reached Syria.

A great deal more information, however, has emerged about an unconnected, separate case involving Nassim Terreri and Walid Blidi, two men of Algerian descent who were raised in London and died March 26, 2012, at Darkoush, a few miles from the Turkish border.[20] Respectively from west and south London, the men led relatively uneventful lives prior to their deaths.[21] Reported as a kind young man who worked hard at school, Nassim Terreri dropped out of a university course and had drifted into waiting tables.[22] In his early 20s, he found religion and traveled to Mecca, after which he began wearing traditional Arab dress.[23] He reportedly participated in an aid convoy to Gaza led by Minister of Parliament George Galloway.[24] By the end of 2011, however, his family noted he had shaved off his beard and met a girl—suggesting that his religious fervor may have passed.[25] In early 2012, he went on a vacation with Walid Blidi to France.[26] Two weeks later, he called his mother from the Syrian border and, according to a family friend, “told her he was going to find out what was really happening in Syria.”[27] After another two weeks, she received a call that he and Blidi were dead.[28] Much less is known about Blidi, except that in August 2007 he was arrested in Exeter alongside a pair of others during a police drug sting.[29]

Initially, reports from Syria indicated that Blidi and Terreri were journalists.[30] Little evidence, however, emerged of them having done any reporting, and the al-Assad regime included their names in a list to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as evidence foreign terrorists were involved in the insurgency.[31] The real story emerged when reporters interviewed fighters who claimed to have been with the men on the night they died.[32] The two British fighters apparently opened fire at a passing Syrian government convoy, attracting retaliatory fire and getting the group caught in a firefight between government and rebel forces.[33] During the clash, other Syrian fighters were killed, and another Briton known only as Hamza was injured.[34] His fate is unknown.[35] The brigade in which the men were fighting, the Hisham Haboub brigade of the Free Syrian Army, was not Salafi-jihadi, but the men’s actions and deaths highlight how easy it is for British nationals to participate in frontline fighting in Syria. Biographies published in the British media highlighted that Nassim Terreri in particular “favorited” videos of “extremist Australian preacher” Shaykh Feiz Mohammed.[36]

“Londonistan’s” Syrian Flavor
Young Britons fighting in Syria is not a surprising development. British fighters have been found on almost every jihadist battlefield since Afghanistan in the 1970s. This pipeline was nurtured by the unique combination of restive second-generation immigrant communities, dissident Arab populations—both secular and non-secular—who used bases in London to promote causes, including anti-government agendas, at home, with a seemingly passive British government response.[37] Captured in the public imagination with the shorthand term “Londonistan,” this community also provided a home for radical preachers who brought jihadist ideas to British shores and ended up radicalizing a portion of British youth. This led to young Britons becoming involved in international radical networks, including al-Qa`ida, leading ultimately to the July 7, 2005, bombings when a group of young Britons under orders from al-Qa`ida killed 52 people on London’s transport system.[38]

Since the advent of the Arab Spring, however, the larger connection between Arab dissidents based in London and their home nations has become more prominent. Libyan exiles from London and Manchester went back in unknown numbers to fight alongside the rebels against the Mu`ammar Qadhafi regime,[39] a number of key Tunisian Ennahda party members (including leader Rashid al-Ghannouchi[40]) relocated from Britain to help run the country in the wake of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s departure, and prominent former Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Kamal Helbawy was among a number of exiles who returned to Egypt as Hosni Mubarak was deposed.[41] The United Kingdom has a personal connection with the anti-government forces in many Arab Spring countries—whether they are secular, nationalist, or Islamist. This connection is also present with Syria, where dissidents and exiles from the Syrian community living in the United Kingdom (estimated at 13,000 strong[42]) have become a key support network for their brethren in the Middle East. Support includes providing funding and aid convoys, dissident groups providing a way for information to get out from the war raging in Syria, as well as fighters and spiritual leaders for the rebellion.

In addition to Syrians, British Muslims of other ethnicities have traveled to Syria as well. As highlighted by the previous examples, British fighters known to have fought in Syria are young men who have graduated from university, worked as waiters, trainee doctors, or even as former drug dealers. The exact numbers in terms of ethnic provenance are hard to determine, but a substantial amount seem to be drawn from communities other than Syrian. According to Birmingham Minister of Parliament Khalid Mahmood, as of August 2012 at least 30 young Britons not of Syrian descent had traveled to Syria.[43] A Sudanese community leader from west London reported that he had spoken to a younger member of his community who claimed to have at least 21 friends who were training to go to Syria, and spoke of joining formerly UK-based Moroccans and Somalis who had already gone to fight.[44] In August 2012, a British journalist in Aleppo met a British convert from Walthamstow who used the name “Abu Yacoub.”[45] He claimed to have converted five years earlier, having originally been born in Tanzania and brought to the United Kingdom as a child.[46] He came to Syria four months earlier and was found in the company of an Iraqi friend who had been injured. Both men claimed to be members of Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham (Free Men of Syria), an Islamist group involved in the war.[47]

Another report from later in the year instead highlighted a “pious” young Bangladeshi Briton who had risen in the ranks of foreign fighters and was responsible for about 50 Britons who went to fight in Syria.[48] Thus far, none of those reportedly arrested around the case linked to the kidnapping of the two journalists have been identified as being of Syrian descent.

Yet while the foot soldiers may come from different ethnicities, the older “Londonistani” warriors who have gone back to join the frontlines seem to be Syrian. Most prominent is Abu Basir al-Tartusi, a preacher formerly based in Poplar, east London. One of the few preachers with a following among radical communities to still operate in the United Kingdom, al-Tartusi was once quoted in the press as being “a leading jihadi theologian on a level with Abu Qatada.”[49]

His importance internationally had not translated into great acclaim among Britain’s young jihadist community. His lack of English and the fact that he condemned suicide bombing (including the July 7, 2005, London bombings), taking a more moderate line than most of the “Londonistani” preachers, meant he had less of a following among the radical community in the United Kingdom. The radical community tended to follow preachers such as Abu Hamza al-Masri[50] and Abdullah Faisal[51] (both of whom were incarcerated on charges of inciting racial hatred and murder), Abu Qatada (who openly boasted to British authorities about his power over the United Kingdom’s extremist Algerian community),[52] and Omar Bakri Mohammed (the Syrian preacher who founded al-Muhajiroun).[53] Al-Tartusi’s decision to travel to the Syrian frontlines surprised some, and likely elevated him in the eyes of the broader radical community.[54] While al-Tartusi’s exact activities since traveling to the front are unclear, he has maintained a steady production of materials and fatawa and has been spotted at least twice brandishing an AK-47.[55] Al-Tartusi responded angrily when the news emerged that he was at the front, with the implication being that he was consorting with terrorists, and he published a remonstration on his site in which he declared that he was there as “a servant and an adviser to all the heroic rebels and to all the Syrian people who are in defiance against the oppression and tyranny of Bashar al-Assad.”[56]

Another former “Londonistani” who appeared briefly toward the beginning of the Syrian conflict and then disappeared was Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, otherwise known as Abu Mus`ab al-Suri. A prominent jihadist theologian, U.S. and Pakistani forces captured him in Quetta in 2005 and eventually transferred him to Syrian authorities.[57] In the late 1990s, al-Suri was one of the prominent former Arab Afghan warriors to have landed in London as Afghanistan descended into civil war and the jihad against the Soviets concluded.[58] Alongside Abu Qatada, al-Suri managed the jihadist screed Ansar that openly supported extremist groups in Algeria. Following his time in London, he moved to Afghanistan from where he helped train fighters and authored literature until he was captured in late 2005.[59]

Al-Suri languished in Syrian custody until early February 2012, when news emerged on the Shumukh jihadist website that he had been freed.[60] While it is hard to independently verify this claim, the news has been widely accepted as true among the expert community and seemingly confirmed both by reliable extremists on forums and London-based extremists who knew him.[61] The logic behind the al-Assad regime’s decision to release him is unclear.

Humanitarian Support
Support for the war in Syria has not only come through fighters and warrior preachers. One of the more under-reported but highly important figures to have emerged from the United Kingdom is Muhammad Surur bin Nayif Zain al-Abidin. A British passport holder, Surur was based in the United Kingdom for almost two decades after moving there in the 1980s.[62] He has reportedly been characterized as a “Godfather-like” figure who had previously vetted individuals who had traveled to the United Kingdom to meet with Saad al-Faqih or Muhammad al-Massari. Al-Faqih and al-Massari are two prominent Saudi dissidents in London who have played senior roles in the “Londonistan” community. As well as individually running dissident groups aimed against the Saudi regime, al-Massari in particular was an active supporter of Britain’s nascent online jihadist community.[63]

A former Muslim Brotherhood activist, Surur was an innovator in Salafist thinking and established with his followers the Center for Islamic Studies in Birmingham, from where he published magazines and later ran the http://www.alsunnah.org website.[64] In 2004, Surur left the United Kingdom, moving to Jordan and later to Qatar, and it is from here that, according to one prominent Syrian journalist based in London, he has become an important figure in the flow of Qatari money to Syria.[65] As journalist Malik al-Abdeh alleged, “Surur has established himself as one of the key conduits for Qatari money to the anti-Assad rebels.”[66]

Other Syrians have remained in the United Kingdom and have taken roles publicly supporting the rebels in other ways, either through formal new Syrian National Council structures or Syrian-managed NGOs.[67] Beyond politics, a basic sense of feeling the need to support the Syrian refugees seen regularly on television screens has driven unknown numbers of Britons to give money and other forms of aid to support those living in refugee camps in Turkey or elsewhere. Support for Syrian refugees has come from traditional charitable entities from across Britain’s Muslim community. Using a blend of videos, magazines, flyers, stalls in city centers, charity boxes inside and outside mosques, and sponsored events, these charities turn the money they raise into goods which they then drive—in convoys usually with donated ambulances—to refugee camps in Turkey.[68] There is no evidence that these are anything but charitable enterprises, but some of the individuals involved are notable for more radical views.[69] More openly controversial groups such as Hizb al-Tahrir have also regularly held demonstrations or protest events at which they call for al-Assad’s downfall.[70] At these events, emotive language is used to encourage people to help support the refugees, with preachers often providing a religious explanation for why more should be done. These are all legitimate activities, yet it highlights the backdrop around which the issue is discussed in Britain’s Muslim community.

Demonstrating the ease with which British citizens are able to get close to the fighting—either for military or humanitarian purposes—former Guantanamo Bay prisoner and spokesman for the activist group Cage Prisoners, Moazzam Begg, made a trip to Syria as part of an aid convoy at some point in the first half of 2012. According to his own report, he traveled to “the outskirts of the city of Aleppo [where] I stayed with a group of pious, well-educated, relatively young and very hospitable fighters.”[71]

Conclusion
The trouble in Syria remains beyond British borders. Security officials are somewhat constrained about how to respond, and understandably only take action when specific cases linked to kidnapping or terrorism can be constructed. The question becomes what will happen to the young men who are bloodied in the conflict after the Syrian war winds down, as well as the networks that will have been established between radical groups in Syria and in the United Kingdom.

It took a few years before former Bosnian fighters were implicated in terrorist plots in the United Kingdom. In 1995, Andrew Rowe, an aimless former drug dealer, converted to Islam and went to Bosnia where he took up arms and was injured during fighting.[72] In 2003, he was arrested with unspecified terrorist plans after being connected with a number of French former Bosnian fighters who carried out a series of violent robberies across France.[73] Saajid Badat went to Sarajevo in 1998 and the next year to Afghanistan.[74] Two years later he was on his way back to the United Kingdom with Richard Reid and a set of “shoe bombs” with the intent to blow up transatlantic airlines.[75] Also in 1998, Omar Sharif answered the call to go and join Kosovar militants fighting Serbs, although he cut his trip short. He went to Damascus approximately a year later, then Afghanistan after 9/11, before his fatal trip in 2003 back to Damascus where he hoped to join the insurgency in Iraq and instead ended up as part of a two-man suicide cell operating on Hamas’ behalf in Tel Aviv.[76]

This is not a new narrative. Conflicts with a jihadist flavor attract idealistic young fighters who are sometimes redirected to other conflicts. At some point, if these fighters encounter certain groups or individuals, this energy can develop into plotting at home. Certainly this is not always the case, and most of those who go—either to fight or simply to do charity work—will return home and resume their lives. Yet the growing depth and complexity of the UK-Syria connection will perplex security services for years to come as they try to identify who is connected with Salafi-jihadi groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and who went for less nefarious reasons.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Research 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).

[1] William Hague, “Foreign Secretary on Countering Terrorism,” speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), February 14, 2013.

[2] Bosnia was a bus or car ride away for British citizens, similar to Syria.

[3] Covered in greater detail later in the article, there are charitable organizations, as well as jihadist support networks, that help British Muslims become involved in Syria: either in providing aid as part of charity convoys, or more active roles as fighters. This is similar to Bosnia where similar structures existed. Evan Kohlmann’s Al-Qaeda’s Jihad in Europe: The Afghan-Bosnian Network provides a snapshot of British jihadist support structures in Bosnia.

[4] John Cantlie, “Are You Ready to Die?” Sunday Times, August 5, 2012.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] John-Paul Ford Rojas, “NHS Doctor ‘Led Extremist Cell in Syria,’” Telegraph, August 27, 2012.

[8] “British Police Arrest 2 at Heathrow Airport in Probe into Terrorist Activity in Syria,” Associated Press, October 9, 2012.

[9] Tom Whitehead, “NHS Doctor Accused of Being Part of a British Jihadi Group in Syria,” Telegraph, October 17, 2012.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Paul Peachey, “Four Men Arrested Over Syria Terror Fears,” Independent, January 10, 2012.

[13] Tom Whitehead, “Four Men Arrested Under Terror Laws After Kidnap of Journalist,” Telegraph, January 10, 2012.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Margaret Davis, “London Man Charged Over Sub Machine Gun Possession,” Independent, January 17, 2013.

[16] “Man, 20, is Held on Sub-Machine Gun Charge by Officers Investigating Alleged Support for Terrorism,” West End Extra, January 18, 2013.

[17] “Man Charged in UK Over Journalists’ Syria Kidnap,” Agence France-Presse, January 25, 2013.

[18] “Man at Court Charged with Terrorism Act 2006 Offence,” Crime & Justice, January 25, 2013.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Tom Coghlan and Laura Pitel, “The British Pals Who Died Waging Holy War in Syria,” Times, October 13, 2012.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] “Drug Squad Criticizes Jail Terms Handed out to Crack Cocaine Trio,” Express and Echo, February 10, 2008.

[30] “Two Independent Journalists Killed in Syria,” Committee to Protect Journalists, March 27, 2012.

[31] Laura Pitel and James Hider, “British ‘Terrorists’ Among Dead, Says Syria,” Times, May 18, 2012.

[32] Coghlan and Pitel.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] “Two Independent Journalists Killed in Syria.”

[36] Coghlan and Pitel.

[37] Omar Nasiri, Inside the Jihad: My Life with al Qaeda (London: Hurst, 2006), p. 16.

[38] Raffaello Pantucci, “A Biography of Rashid Rauf: Al-Qa`ida’s British Operative,” CTC Sentinel 5:7 (2012); Nic Robertson, Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, “Documents Give New Details on al Qaeda’s London Bombings,” CNN, April 30, 2012.

[39] Exact numbers are unknown, but anecdotal stories suggest that dozens went back to fight from Manchester’s Libyan community. See Jane Deith, “The Teenage Libyan Rebel from Manchester,” Channel 4 News, June 11, 2011; Edna Fernandes, “Why Do So Many Libyan Rebels Seen on TV Speak with British Accents?” Daily Mail, July 31, 2011.

[40] “Tunisian Islamist Leader Rashid Ghannouchi Returns Home,” BBC, January 30, 2011. Another key figure to have returned was Said Ferjani.

[41] Mohamed Elmeshad, “Profile: Kamal al-Helbawy, a Defector of Conscience,” Egypt Independent, September 4, 2012. For a longer overview of Britain’s “Londonistani” community and the impact of the Arab Spring, see James Brandon and Raffaello Pantucci, “UK Islamists and the Arab Uprisings,” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology 13 (2012).

[42] Zubeda Malik, “Britain’s ‘Fragmented’ Syrian Community,” BBC, August 24, 2012.

[43] Andrew Gilligan, “Security Services ‘Failing’ to Stop British Jihadis Heading to Syria,” Sunday Telegraph, August 25, 2012.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Richard Spencer, “British Convert to Islam Vows to Fight to the Death on Syrian Rebel Front Line,” Telegraph, August 16, 2012.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] David Brown, Sean O’Neill and Dominic Kennedy, “British Jihadi Recruits 50 Muslims for War in Syria,” Times, October 18, 2012.

[49] Duncan Gardham, “The Poplar Preacher Leading an Armed Gang of Jihadis in Syria,” Telegraph, October 19, 2012.

[50] “Abu Hamza Jailed for Seven Years,” BBC, February 7, 2006.

[51] “Hate Preaching Cleric Jailed,” BBC, March 7, 2003.

[52] Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, or Abu Qatada v. Secretary of State for the Home Department, Special Immigration Appeals Commission, March 8, 2004.

[53] Mahan Abedin, “Al-Muhajiroun in the UK: An Interview with Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed,” Spotlight on Terror 2:5 (2005); Shiv Malik, “The Missing Links,” New Statesman, May 7, 2007.

[54] This statement is drawn from conversations with London’s Muslim community, and discussions such as the following on the Islamic Awakening Forum: http://www.forums.islamicawakening.com/f18/sheikh-abu-basir-al-tartousi-hafidhahullah-liberates-61936.

[55] Ibid. Also see the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=uJfBkUgkSU8.

[56] For details, see his statement at http://www.abubaseer.bizland.com/hadath/Read/hadath%2093.pdf. By February 2013, al-Tartusi had returned to the United Kingdom.

[57] This abbreviated biography is drawn primarily from Brynjar Lia, Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al Qaeda Strategist Abu Mus`ab al-Suri (London: Hurst, 2009).

[58] Ibid.

[59]  Ibid.

[60]  Murad Batal al-Shishani, “Syria’s Surprising Release of Jihadi Strategist Abu Musab al Suri,” Terrorism Monitor 10:3 (2012).

[61]  Specifically, Egyptian Yasser al-Siri has claimed that he has information pertaining to Abu Mus`ab’s release. See “Abu Musab Al-Suri Speaks on His Pakistan Detention,” The Arab Digest, February 24, 2012.

[62] Details on Surur can be found in Lia.

[63] In 1999, a British man working for Railtrack, Mohammed Sohail, was revealed to be using his work account to fundraise for jihad abroad, in locations such as Kashmir, Algeria and Chechnya, among others. When confronted by reporters, he told them, “I work for two people really, Mr. Massari and Osama bin Laden.” See Chris Hastings and Jessica Berry, “Muslim Militia Training in Britain: Bin Laden Groups to Join Mujahedeen for Various Wars, Including Chechnya,” Ottowa Citizen, November 7, 1999. In later years, al-Massari would openly talk on the BBC about running jihad supporting websites and radio stations from the United Kingdom. See “The New al-Qaeda: jihad.com,” BBC, July 20, 2005; Philip Johnston, “Calls to Deport ‘the Voice of al-Qa’eda,’” Telegraph, July 27, 2005.

[64]  Jarret Brachman, Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice (London: Routledge, 2008), p. 38; Lia.

[65]   Ibid.; personal interview, Malik al-Abdeh, London, November 2012.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Two prominent examples are Walid Saffour and Rami Abdulrahman.

[68]  The author encountered one such convoy on its way to Ancona, Italy, in the Marche region of Italy heading to a boat to Turkey. With a bus branded from “Dudley [a British city in the west midlands] to Damascus,” the drivers reported being part of a six vehicle convoy including an ambulance and a heavy goods truck with clothes and children’s milk. They were linked to the charity United Muslims (www.unitedmuslims.co.uk). Other convoys have been sent from the Aid Convoy charity (www.aid-convoy.org.uk).

[69]  For example, on February 25, 2012, outside the Syrian Embassy, the group Aid Convoy 2 Syria (that later became the Aid Convoy) held an event called “Answer the Call: Charity Rally for Syria,” at which Shaykh Haithem al-Haddad and Imam Shakeel Begg spoke with the Qur’anic recitation provided by Sufyan Mustafa Kamal, the son of recently deported preacher Abu Hamza al-Masri. While none of these men have been convicted on any terrorism charges or fallen under suspicion of any crime, they have all attracted some controversy due to the tone in their preaching.

[70] For pictures of this demonstration, see http://www.demotix.com/news/1060472/hizb-ut-tahrir-march-through-london-support-syrian-uprising#media-1060346.

[71] Moazzam Begg, “Syria: My Journey to the Land of Blessing, and Torture,” Cage Prisoners, August 16, 2012.

[72]  Jeremy Britton, “Rowe ‘Bore al-Qaeda Hallmarks,’” BBC, September 23, 2005.

[73] “Al Qaeda Exploits ‘Blue-Eyed’ Muslim Converts,” Reuters, October 11, 2005.

[74] Martin Beckford, “Terrorist Supergrass Saajid Badat: The Shoe Bomber Who Got Cold Feet,” Telegraph, April 17, 2012.

[75] Paul Cruickshank, “Transatlantic Shoe Bomber Knew Bin Laden,” CNN, April 20, 2012.

[76] “World: Road to Martyrdom,” Journeyman Pictures, first broadcast on May 30, 2007.

A new piece with Alex for The Diplomat, an excellent online magazine focused on mostly Asian affairs and strategy. This one looks particularly at Turkey’s recent public dalliance with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and highlights some of the problems inherent in that organization. Turkey’s role in Central Asia writ large is a fascinating one and the topic of much more research – more hopefully to come! In the meantime, I was quoted in this piece for another online magazine The International on China’s role in ‘New Iron Silk Road’ and Afghanistan. As ever, for more of mine and Alex’s work on the broader themes in these pieces, please see our co-authored blog: http://www.chinaincentralasia.com

Turkey: Abandoning the EU for the SCO?

February 15, 2013

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

Recent moves suggest Turkey could make a bid for entry into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. It would be a mistake.

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The European Union is in a rut. Its once-vaunted economy and “ever closer” integration is facing the tough challenges of a dogged recession and anti-EU sentiment in some of its most powerful member states. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that some EU aspirants appear lukewarm about their prospects and continued desire to join the club. For Turkey, probably the most unfairly spurned EU aspirant, it makes a lot of sense to at least explore alternatives.

After all, Turkey’s economy is booming – leaping from $614.6 billion in 2009 to $775 billion in 2011 (in current U.S. dollars) according to World Bank figures. Reflecting the country’s position at the global cross-roads, Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport international traffic more than doubled between the years 2006 and 2011. Last year alone its passenger volume increased by 20%, making it Europe’s 6th busiest airport. The country’s regional and global profile has grown since it first evinced a desire to join the EU. European leaders should only be surprised that Turkey has maintained its interest in the EU for so long.

However, even as it makes sense to decision-makers in Ankara to reconsider their relationship with the EU, it is not a strategically sound choice for Turkey to consider membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as an alternative. Already a ”dialogue partner” with the SCO, late last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he had made an overture to Russian President Vladimir Putin about joining the SCO, stating “If we get into the SCO, we will say good-bye to the European Union. The Shanghai Five [former name of the SCO] is better — much more powerful.” Erdogan also noted that Turkey has more “common values” with the SCO member states.

The issue, however, is that the SCO remains a nascent organization that is still in the process of defining itself. Absorbing new members, or figuring out the protocols for new members to be formally acceded, is merely one of the many problems the SCO faces. The Organization’s security structures, including the unfortunate-acronym RATS Center [Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure], have yet to fully flesh out their purpose in advancing regional security in a very militarily tense region. Meanwhile, China continues to dominate the SCO’s economic agenda, including negotiations to establish an SCO Free Trade Area (FTA), an SCO Development Bank, and Beijing offering $10 billion in loans for member states. All of this alarms Russian strategists who see China encroaching on Moscow’s Central Asian interests. Nonetheless, all of this results in a minimal concrete presence, something we found first-hand as we travelled around Central Asia over the past year, finding little tangible evidence of the Organization’s footprint on the ground.

Further complicating matters, Turkey is not the only country that has expressed an interest in becoming a full member. In fact, Pakistani and Indian officials both said their countries were interested in becoming full-fledge members at the Prime Minister’s Summit in Bishkek last December. Iran too has expressed an interest in joining the organization, although Moscow recently said this would not be possible so long as Tehran remains under UN sanctions. All three countries currently languish as “observers,“ a status that Pakistan and India have held since 2005 and one that is considered superior to the ‘dialogue partnership’ that Turkey was only accorded last June. Still, both Pakistan and India – strategically important allies for China and Russia respectively – would undoubtedly feel put out were Turkey allowed to jump the queue.

None of this is to say that Turkey does not have a key role to play in Central Asia, the SCO’s primary area of operations. Waiting for visas in Bishkek, we found ourselves jostling with Turkish truckers getting visas to Kazakhstan, whilst in the city’s downtown, eager students at the Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University told us how exciting it would be to visit Turkey. In neighboring Uzbekistan, our driver told us how he preferred to fly Turkish airlines and how convenient the country was linguistically. This ethnic proximity is something that China in particular has sought to cultivate – in April last year, Erdogan broke protocol when he started his Chinese trip with a stopover in Urumqi, capital of historically Turkic Uighur Xinjiang.

Eager to attract outside investment to encourage prosperity as a salve for ethnic tensions between Uighur and Han Chinese and historical underdevelopment, the Urumqi government has established a Turkish-Chinese trade park outside the city, offering Turkish investors favorable rates and support to develop businesses in the province. Turkey is clearly a significant regional player and its SCO “dialogue partner” status reflects this. But full membership is a step too far and one that seems out of whack with the Organization’s current trajectory.

Far more likely, Erdogan is hinting at a shift in orientation in frustration at the West’s relationship with his country. Europe has repeatedly proven an awkward partner and the United States has demonstrated little appetite to get overly involved in the problems that sit right on Turkey’s border. Aware of his nation’s geopolitical location at a global crossroads, Erdogan is highlighting that he has options.

Still, the reality is that joining the SCO would not heighten Turkey’s global stature or teach the West a lesson. U.S. and NATO policymakers keep an eye on the SCO, but none seriously view it as a strategic counterweight. In some respects, Western strategists have been far more eager than their Chinese counterparts about the possibility of an SCO role in stabilizing Afghanistan after Western combat forces depart in 2014. In the past year, the Organization has expressed some interest in doing more in Afghanistan, but it remains light years away from replacing NATO as a security guarantor.

As an ascendant power in Eurasia, Turkey may find it useful to keep in a toe in the SCO.  However, full membership is not in the offing.  And even if it were, Turkey’s decision-makers would quickly find that China’s multilateral cover for its bilateral engagement in Central Asia is still an empty shell.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).  Dr. Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West and an Associate Professor at the American University of Central Asia.  Their joint research is available at www.chinaincentralasia.com.

A slightly odd post in that it is not an article, but rather an interview I did with the author of the Bug Pit blog on Eurasianet that focuses on all things ‘military and security in Eurasia’. In any case, it was inspired as a result of the piece I recently did with Lifan for Open Democracy Russia, a piece that has been translated in Russian already and is apparently going to go up in Chinese as well. As ever, more on this topic more broadly to come.

Russia and China May Compete Economically in Central Asia, But Not Militarily

February 1, 2013 – 1:32pm, by Joshua Kucera 

Last week, Open Democracy Russia ran a very good series of articles on relations between Russia and China. One was especially interesting for EurasiaNet readers, about choices that the Central Asian states are having to make between integration with Russia or China. The piece concentrates on the economic sphere, in which, as the authors convincingly argue, integration with the two big superpowers is becoming mutually exclusive.

Of course, Russia and China also have their respective Central Asia integration schemes in the security sphere: China has the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and Russia the Collective Security Treaty Organization. So I asked one of the piece’s authors, Raffaello Pantucci, an expert on Chinese-Central Asian relations, about whether there was going to be a similar reckoning in that sphere. Short answer: no. His more detailed thoughts:

The Bug Pit: Is there a similar looming choice to make for the Central Asian states, whether they prioritize ties with the SCO (dominated by China) or CSTO (dominated by Russia)?

Raffaello Pantucci: There is little similar looming choice with regards the SCO and the CSTO. In part this is since the SCO remains a relatively infant security entity, while the CSTO has the advantage of having lots of interoperable forces and equipment. Also, China has no interest in stirring up a security competition having a foreign and security policy that does its utmost to not seem threatening. Having said all of this, it is interesting to see how the SCO has developed as a security actor – it is maybe not as active as some initially thought it would be, but the Chinese are certainly taking advantage of the opportunities it offers to test out equipment and strategy. The ‘Peace Mission’ exercises they regularly undertake are ones that the Chinese are increasingly playing an active role in directing.

TBP: Why has the SCO not turned out to be as active a military organization as China seems to have originally expected?

RP: I’m not entirely sure that was always the focus from a Chinese perspective. The SCO was born out of the ‘Shanghai Five’ – a grouping that was established in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union to help delineate and demilitarize China’s borders with the newly former Soviet states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Russia. This grouping proved successful and it evolved into the SCO in 2001 with Uzbekistan’s accession. In its founding declaration, the members emphasize their ‘non-alignment, not targeting to the third country or region, and opening to the outside world.’ Instead, they focus on countering the domestic threat of three evils ‘terrorism, separatism and religious extremism’ – a very Chinese phrasing. Terrorism is quite a useful unifying rallying subject that all of these nations agree on, all of whom had (and for the most part have) active networks of some sort operating in their territory.

In fact, the Chinese have always seemed more interested in the economic aspects of the SCO, and analysts will say as much in conversation. Their emphasis has repeatedly been on developing the SCO as an economic actor, something they hope will help them strengthen their economic hand and links in the region. Looking at many of the recent economic moves and discussions within the organization – talk of an SCO FTA, an SCO Development Bank, the large loan vehicles through the organization – the impetus is all coming from Beijing.

TBP: Do you think that Central Asian governments would like the SCO to be more active? Is there any desire for China to balance Russia in the security sphere?

RP: When Alex and me were travelling in Kyrgyzstan, one of the more amusing stories we heard was that the roads the Chinese were building were being designed to carry the weight of a Chinese tank. This apocryphal story may be founded on little more than speculation, but it captures quite effectively a concern that bubbles barely beneath the surface in Central Asia. People in the small and under-populated Central Asian states are worried about being neighbours to the Chinese behemoth. Tracked out, it translates into little desire for China to step in as the main security guarantor. And in practice, the Chinese have not done much in direct security terms. Look back to the troubles in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and there was no evidence of China stepping in – it was rather Russia that ended up standing up as the regional supporter.

A final point to make is that China has little desire to become the main security guarantor in the region. It cuts right against the national ethos of non-interference. Elsewhere around the world it has slowly found itself being dragged into such nettlesome security problems and it is still working out how to address them. Where possible, they would like to avoid this in Central Asia too.

TBP: What do Central Asian leaders expect from China and the SCO long-term? Will they eventually take a larger role in security?

RP: I don’t think the Central Asian leaders see the SCO as being on a trajectory towards a greater security role. The impression is that they see it as a useful way to engage more generally with China and manage Chinese regional goals. The fact that the other main regional security player Uzbekistan has been so hesitant to engage with the SCO as a security actor highlights the distance the Chinese still have to go to turn it into a regional security player that everyone will buy into.

The interesting long-term question is what exactly will the Chinese do if their economic interests are directly threatened by security problems. Will they simply write them off? Or rely on local actors to protect them? Or send their own forces in, either under a Chinese flag or the SCO? The answer at this point is unclear, and this is a question that Chinese policymakers are still struggling with.