Archive for July, 2013

A longer piece that I wrote a little while ago that is testimony I offered to the British Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, but has only been published now. It explores the threat in relation to the UK and how British interests are affected by what is happening in the evolution of terrorism in North and West Africa. It may re-emerge in parts in a future RUSI piece I have been working on, but for the time being here we go. The title is not of my choosing, but was the one offered by the call for submissions.

The UK’s Response to Extremism and Political instability in North and West Africa

Written evidence from Raffaello Pantucci Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

1. The threat of North African terrorism to UK interests at home and overseas is not new to the British Security and Intelligence Agencies (SIA). Recent events, however, have highlighted how the threat has evolved and in particular how this threat might express itself back to the United Kingdom or as a threat to national interests abroad.

2. As the more general threat from Al-Qa’ida terrorism has disaggregated and diversified, the particular menace from North and West African has developed into a higher profile priority. All of this poses a problem for the SIA who have limited resources that had focused on other parts of the globe.

3. With North Africa in particular, the Prime Minister staked out a particular rhetoric in the wake of the terrorist incident at In Amenas when he told parliament ‘we face a large and existential terrorist threat from a group of extremists based in different parts of the world who want to do the biggest possible amount of damage to our interests and way of life…. those extremists thrive when they have ungoverned spaces in which they can exist, build and plan.’ [1] But what exactly is the threat to the United Kingdom from networks in North Africa that have so far not presented a clear and present danger to British domestic interests? Moreover, how does this feed into the larger picture of the terrorist threat faced by the country?

The Threat Back Home

4. In the years immediately after 11 September 2001, British security forces were less concerned about the threat from South Asia than about Algerian terrorist networks operating or present in the UK in cities like London, Manchester and Birmingham.

5. This concern was premised on an expectation that these networks were closely aligned to Al-Qa’ida ideologically and that individuals from these groups had formative experience and expertise from undertaking jihad in Afghanistan and/or Bosnia. As such, British security services were monitoring a number of North Africans living in the UK, including Amar Makhlulif – also known as Abu Doha – Rachid Ramda and Rabah Kadre. Abu Doha was believed to be a key figure in a network of plots that stretched across Europe, North America and as far as the Khalden training camp in Afghanistan. He was also connected to fellow Algerian Ahmed Ressam who was intercepted on 14 December 1999, headed from Canada to detonate a device at Los AngelesInternationalAirport to mark the millennium. Abu Doha also knew Rachid Ramda and Rabah Kadre, both of whom were extradited to France where they were convicted for their involvement in terror plots in France with links to Algerian networks. [2]

6. All of these men used to frequent the community established by Abu Hamza Al-Masri at the Finsbury Park Mosque in North London. This was a place where Al-Qa’ida-linked recruiters would operate and which Kamel Bourgass used as a postal address and photocopy shop for his poison recipes. Linked to a broader network of Algerians, Bourgass went on to murder DC Stephen Oake and was convicted of plotting to carry out a terrorist incident involving ricin. Whether he was directly connected to Al-Qa’ida remains unclear, though it is evident that he was involved in Algerian networks that had supported fighters from the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) and the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC). Whilst his ultimate targets and aims –and even, possibly, his name – have never been definitely clarified, the plot and the network around him seemed to indicate that the threat to the UK from Al-Qa’ida networks was most likely to emanate from the North African community that gravitated around Abu Hamza’s Finsbury Park Mosque.

7. Beyond Algerians, post-2001 the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), another North African group, were certainly part of the UK threat environment as were other Islamist organizations with their roots in Algeria and Tunisia (En Nada for example). However, threats did not appear to materialize from these groups in the same way as from the Algerian community.

8. This profile was turned on its head when just over a year after Stephen Oake’s murder, when a cell known by their police codename ‘Crevice’, was arrested as part of a plot within the UK. They hailed mostly (though not exclusively) from second-generation Southern Asian backgrounds, and had close connections to British extremist groups like Al-Muhajiroun, as well as to Abu Hamza’s Finsbury Park Mosque. Operation Crevice and a number of cells connected to it highlighted the way in which elements mostly from Britain’s South Asian community had made connections directly to Al-Qa’ida. While the connection was not exclusively South Asian by any means, they constituted the largest group involved in the networks in the UK and the connection to Afghanistan and Pakistan became an intelligence focus.

Diversification

9. As time has passed the threat has adapted. As Jonathan Evans, the director-general of the Security Service put it last June, ‘whereas a few years ago 75% of the priority casework addressed by my Service had some sort of Pakistan and/or Afghanistan dimension, thanks to our efforts and those of our international partners that figure has reduced and now stands at less than 50%. We appear to be moving from a period of deep and focused threat to one where the threat is less monolithic but wider. Al-Qa’ida affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel have become more dangerous as Al-Qa’ida in Pakistan has declined and we see increasing levels of co-operation between Al-Qa’ida groups in various parts of the world.’[3]

10. The nature of these foreign battlefields and their draw to Britons has also changed. The numbers may be small, but the flow of Western individuals drawn to participate in fighting abroad has continued unabated. In the case of North Africa and the Sahel in particular, it is not clear how many British citizens have traveled to the fight there. There is already one reported instance of a young Briton trying to walk across the Sahara from Mauritania to Mali, and it is unlikely that he is the only one. [4] In Libya, a number of British residents and nationals of Libyan descent returned to fight alongside the rebels, though most seemed drawn by a nationalist, rather than a jihadist, narrative. And it is likely that some vestige of the previous connection between Algeria and groups in the UK continues to exist. But so far, none of this has translated into a direct threat of terrorism in the UK.

11. The most prominent international terrorist network in North Africa, Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has singled out the UK for direct punishment in its rhetoric only a few times. These threats have for the most part been connected to Abu Qatada – also known as Omar Mahmoud Othman – the radical cleric currently in British detention facing extradition to Jordan for his alleged role in terrorist plots in the country. [5] On 22 January 2009, for example, an AQIM cell snatched a group of tourists that included British national Edwin Dyer, and while Swiss and German nationals taken with Dyer were eventually released, Dyer was brutally executed in late May 2009 after the group made repeated statements demanding the British government pay a ransom and release Abu Qatada. In April 2012, the group repeated this request when they demanded Britain release the cleric and send him to an ‘Arab Spring’ country in exchange for Stephen Malcolm, a dual British-South African national who was snatched by the group in November 2011.

12. In contrast, France has some fifteen nationals currently being held by various groups in the Sahel, [6] alongside an unspecified number of nationals or residents fighting alongside the various Islamist networks operating in the region. On 5 February, French security forces arrested four people on the outskirts of Paris for their association with a network sending fighters to join AQIM. The four were linked to Cedric Lobo, a twenty-seven-year old social worker arrested in Niamey, Niger for trying to join the fighters in Timbuktu. This was merely one in a number of investigations the French are undertaking as they try to get a handle on the connections between North African jihadists and other networks at home.

13. However, while there are networks in North Africa with tentacles back in Europe, it is not currently clear that these groups have either the capacity or intention to use them to launch attacks. In fact, the far more likely impact might continue to revolve around regional incidents in which foreigners are targeted as a means of gaining attention and as reprisals for Western involvement in northern Mali. These are not likely to be on the scale of In Amenas, but more along the lines of kidnappings or the targeting of Western corporate interests. Of particular concern in this regard are Mali’s neighbours Niger and Mauritania. Niger in particular appears to be in the cross-hairs with a number of alarming incidents of late, including the double suicide attack in late May in which bombers targeted a military base in Agadez and a French run (the company Areva) uranium mine in Arlit, killing 21 people. The attack was claimed by the potentially resurrected MokhtarBelmokhtar’s ‘Signed in Blood Battalion’ that was also responsible for the In Amenas incident. [7]

14. Moreover, following the 2011 intervention in Libya, a new area of instability has opened up with a growing menace also posed by training camps in the lawless southern parts of the country. A further threat is apparent in Benghazi, where Western interests have been repeatedly targeted, including the assault on the British ambassador in June 2012 and the death of the American ambassador Christopher Stevens in September 2012. These particular dangers have resulted in the issuance of a number of alerts by the Foreign Office advising against travel to the city by British nationals.

15. But potential regional repercussions may stretch beyond the immediate borders of Mali and the Sahel. There have been reports of Nigerian extremists training at camps in Timbuktu, and Boko Haram leader, AbubakarShekaku, was believed to have been spotted in Gao in mid-January. Reflecting potential concern from this link, in January, France issued an alert to its citizens in northern Nigeria and those living around Abuja fearing potential reprisals for French action in Mali. Again, there is potential evidence that the Boko Haram link may have stretched into Niger with a recent incident at a prison in Niamey allegedly involving Boko Haram prisoners who were trying to escape and had managed to arm themselves with guns. [8]

16. Indeed, the connection between Nigerian Islamists and Sahel-based groups seems to be more than occasional, and in December 2011 a group calling itself ‘Al-Qa’ida in the Land Beyond the Sahel’ – a group that seems likely to have been a precursor of sorts of the Boko Haram splinter group Ansaru – claimed to be holding British national Chris McManus who had been snatched in Birnin-Kebbi, northwest Nigeria. In March 2012, British Special Forces mounted an assault to save Mr McManus and fellow hostage Italian national Franco Lamolinara, an incident that ended with the deaths of numerous captors including the two Europeans. This sort of kidnapping was repeated again in February 2013, when a group of British, Italian, Greek and Lebanese nationals were snatched from a construction site in northwestern Nigeria, and then soon after the seizing of a French family of seven in northern Cameroon. The first incident was believed to be linked to Ansaru, with the group claiming responsibility and who later executed the prisoners on the basis of a claimed visible British support for the government in Nigeria. Responsibility for the second incident remains unclear though appears to fall to elements close to Boko Haram, and the group was ultimately released unharmed in April 2013, two months after their abduction. The danger to such individuals and companies is clearly going to increase in the near future in the broader region, though again, this keeps the threat at a regional, rather than international level.

17. The resolution of these two kidnappings highlights the particular danger, however, from groups that are espousing a globalist jihadist rhetoric. While Boko Haram appears willing to have negotiated the release of the group, Ansaru chose instead to execute its hostages. This poses a serious consideration for governments and companies operating in the region. Hostage negotiations that can be concluded peacefully, involving exchanges of money or something else, are one issue. If on the other hand, as it increasingly seems likely with Ansaru, the group is seeking to make a point – then the insurance costs and willingness of individuals to work in areas where the group is active will increase. Fortunately, thus far incidents of kidnapping by such groups remain relatively few in number, however, this shift in methodology requires close attention given the potential implication to foreign interests investing money and materiel into the region.

Recommendations

18. While the prime minister may have struck a dramatic tone when he spoke of ‘existential’ and ‘generational’ struggle, the underlying problems have long tails. A pragmatic British counter-terrorism response needs to focus on a number of aspects that strike the balance between protecting national interest and political realities at home. The British public – and most other Western publics and governments – will no longer support long-term heavy military engagement in foreign nations from where the direct threat to their country seems opaque. The result must be a light-footprint approach focused on training to develop local capacity and on understanding how the threat is set to develop. In the longer term, this would involve a clear focused on stabilization and development that will help resolve age-old regional disputes, and in turn reduce the space available for Islamist groups to move in. [9]

19. More practically and immediately, such an approach should seek to:

Strengthen and Develop Local Links

The Prime Minister’s visit to Algeria and Libya is an example of how this approach should work in practice: developing strong links to local security forces and bolstering their capacity to address domestic issues through the provision of training and equipment. Going forwards, training future leadership cadres in regional militaries will have the added bonus of allowing for the early development of strong local contacts.

20. Help Foster Stronger Regional Connections and Develop Border Security

The lessons of In Amenas and the subsequent incidents that have been seen across the region is that terrorist networks in this region are highly mobile and adaptable, and are able to slip back and forth across porous borders. Helping foster greater regional co-operation and interaction is therefore essential in countering these groups’ ability to act. Developing regional confidence-building measures and brokering regular interactions between regional security forces will help cross-border governmental relationships develop into effective counter-terrorist tools.

21. Improve British Regional Intelligence Capacity

British foreign intelligence capacity, and in particular defence intelligence, has been shrunk in recent years. This poses a problem when the armed forces are asked to deploy in previously uncovered parts of the world. Developing and maintaining this capacity across the board in at-risk regions will be crucial in identifying future threats, as well as understanding them better when incidents occur. How DIS and other SIA collaborate in sharing intelligence and pre-empting threats is also a point to consider

22. Develop a Deeper Understanding of the Threat These Groups Pose and How They Connect Together

International terrorism is no longer the monolith it was in the period immediately after 11 September 2001. In order to continue to counter it, it is crucial that we understand the various groups and sub-groups involved, their nature and aims, their complexity and how they relate to, and communicate with, each other. By better understanding these relationships, it will also be easier to develop counter-strategies that focus on identifying fissures between groups and ways of pulling them apart.

23. Recognising the role of local communities

The growing priority and focus placed upon North and West Africa in counter-terrorism terms requires a parallel push in Prevent terms. Prevent – the forward looking aspect of counter-terrorism that seeks to stop people from adopting radical narratives – policy will play a key role in ensuring that Britain’s North and West African communities understand British foreign policy in the region and feel that their views in turn are being heard and understood. If engaged with positively, they can play a key role in protecting Britain’s interests. Without robust counter-narrative work and effective CT-informed community policing, there is a risk that the issue of the ‘home grown’ South Asian terrorism of 2005 onwards will be witnessed again in the North and West African community.

24. Yet all of this presents a further potential long-term problem: that of how the UK should balance a strategy of encouraging local people to deal with local problems whilst guaranteeing that human rights and due process are observed (support for which governments might undermine efforts at engaging with local communities in the UK). The foreign secretary highlighted this problem during a speech at RUSI on 14 February 2013, observing that alliances of convenience based on a common threat perception can lead to political backlash that can also inflame the very narrative they seek to address. The answer to this is unclear, and is likely to be found in a pragmatic approach that ensures that certain red lines are not crossed by British authorities, while also recognising that allies using methods that Britain may disapprove of may end up turning up information that helps to address the threat. As such, efforts should be made to train local authorities in improving their methods and agencies should be proactive in advancing this perspective; simply cutting off contact is not a workable response.

Conclusion

25. The time in which threats abroad could be seen as detached from threats at home has passed. Terrorist networks in North Africa may have difficulty reaching Britain’s streets, but the potential for such groups to threaten British nationals and interests overseas is high, and the intent to strike in the UK continues to lurk in the background of their rhetoric. The region is rich in energy and other commodities that make it a key target for a range of groups. Regional instability is set to result in upward pressure on energy prices and other commodities sourced from the region, something that will have a direct economic impact on the UK.

26. The British government’s current response focuses on intelligence co-operation and local capacity-building as a means of countering the threat posed by such groups. However, countries in the region have very different abilities to address such problems at present. The reality is that groups like AQIM, Ansar Dine, Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), Signed in Blood Battalion,Ansaru and Boko Haram operate in a territory that is almost the size of Europe. Groups in northern Mali in particular have strong smuggling and nomadic traditions, making them adept at slipping back and forth across porous desert borders. None of this is new to foreign security services, which have increasingly come to view AQIM as a criminal-terrorist network focused on drugs and smuggling rather than on perpetrating international terrorist attacks.

27. Furthermore, nations in the Sahel in particular lack the capacity to implement long-term strategies to counter the underlying issues that facilitate recruitment into terrorist groups. Establishing ‘Prevent’ and ‘Combating Violent Extremism’-style programmes in these countries will be important, but is something that is currently hard to envisage. The focus at present is on countering immediate threats, and clamping down on emerging crises, rather than on a long-term vision for dealing with national issues whose roots are deep.

28. The threat to the UK remains offshore. However, it is not impossible, for example, to imagine a group or individual deciding, without direction, to launch an attack within British borders, or elsewhere within Europe with links to the region. Fed off a diet of grim images from Mali, radical messages online and a perception that the British government is complicit in the deaths of Muslims abroad, a group or individual might decide to launch a lone actor-style operation. But there are many potential sources of motivation for such an incident, and this would not necessarily have to be linked to North Africa.

29. Additional to this, the danger exists that British jihadists may start to see the region as an alternate battlefield where they can receive training. There is already some evidence of this shift at least in notional terms. In a plot disrupted in April 2012 in Luton – a group who later pled guilty to plotting to carry out a terrorist attack and training – spoke in January 2011 of potentially going to join al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) as an alternative to going to Pakistan. The group were ultimately able to make some connections in Pakistan, but had they not, the Sahel may have been an alternative for them. While Syria currently offers a more tempting and active battlefield for aspirant British jihadists, given the ongoing British connections to Libya and opportunities offered in the broader Sahel, it is possible that more individuals may choose this path.

30. It is also possible that groups in North Africa decide to launch an incident themselves, or that their networks come to be directed by individuals with a more aggressively anti-Western agenda. Again, both scenarios are possible, but the absence, so far, of any evidence of plotting, or indeed of anything more than rhetorical intent against the West, suggests that, at present, this threat seems distant. This might abruptly change in the future, but the tipping point is hard to judge in every case.

31. If the dynamics of conflict and instability continues, flow of refugees from the area also may provide AQIM or other groups with an opportunity to send operatives to Europe and the UK.

32. More likely, trouble will continue to brew in North Africa, with the periodic targeting of foreign interests continuing to be used as a means to attract attention, as well as to punish the West for its involvement in Mali and elsewhere. That the problem remains regional does not preclude the need for a response, however, as simply ignoring it will not make it go away and indeed will simply store up problems that will need to be confronted later. The current impasse faced by Europe is the direct result both of years of neglect of the problem, and of the fall of a number of authoritarian regimes in North Africa. To step back from North and West Africa now could provide an opportunity for Al-Qa’ida affiliates to establish themselves in a region closer to Europe than ever before.

NOTES


[1] David Cameron to parliament, 18 January 2013, < http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmhansrd/cm130118/debtext/130118-0001.htm >, accessed 26 February 2013.

[2] These men were not the only ones; others included DjamelBeghal and KamelDaoudi , a pair who belonged to London’s Algerian community before they were extradited to France (from Dubai and London respectively), where they were convicted for their roles in planning an attack on the American Embassy in Paris.

[3] Jonathan Evans, Address at the Lord Mayor’s Annual Defence and Security Lecture, Mansion House, City of London , 25 June 2012.

[4]

[5] Within this context it is worth noting that Abu Qatada used to boast to British intelligence services of his hold over Britain ’s radical Algerian community. He claimed to be able to rein in any potentially negative repercussions that might occur as a result of the extradition of Rashid Ramda . See Special Immigration Appeals Commission, AQ v Secretary of State for the Home Department, Open judgment before the Honorable Mr Justice Collins, [2004] UKSIAC 15/2002, 8 March 2004.

[6] Lori Hinnant , ‘Why Are So Many French Held by al- Qaida?’ , Associated Press , 21 February 2013.

[7] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-22654584

[8] http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/niger-official-boko-haram-prisoners-tried-to-escape-from-niamey-jail-killed-2-guards/2013/06/02/6b25b6b8-cb78-11e2-8573-3baeea6a2647_story.html

[9] This is apart from the Prime Minister’s recent statements about increasing the volume of DfID’s budget that is used for peace and stability operations.

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Catching up posting for some RUSI publications I have been contributing to. Some behind a firewall and some not – for those the wrong side, please feel free to drop me a note and I can see what I can do to help. First up is a longer review article I did for the RUSI Journal about China going out using this book ‘The Chinese Question in Central Asia‘ and this one ‘China’s Silent Army‘ – this article is behind a firewall. Both books were interesting in their own way, but very different styles.

Second, this article that I co-wrote with Lifan a while ago about China, the Eurasian Union and the implications for Central Asia has been picked up by the British government’s UK-China Strategic Communications Initiative. They have translated the piece into Chinese (it had already been picked up and translated into Russian, but I cannot seem to find it anymore).

The posted article below ran in the last edition of RUSI’s magazine-style foreign and security policy analysis publication called Newsbrief. It looks at the China-India relationship using the recent border spats in Ladakh as the starting point. This is an off-shoot of the China-Afghanistan work I have been doing and part of some larger projects we have underway at RUSI. This earlier piece for the National Interest is another example. As ever comments, criticisms, reactions welcome.

Beyond the Ladakh Border Dispute

RUSI Newsbrief, 24 Jun 2013 | By Raffaello Pantucci

On the eve of his visit to India in late May, Premier Li Keqiang published an editorial in The Hinduin which he spoke of China and India as ‘two big Asian countries … destined to be together’. Running under the headline ‘A Handshake Across the Himalayas’, the piece offered an optimistic look at relations between China and India. Only one brief mention was made of the border dispute that had dominated headlines in previous months, brushing the issue under the carpet by stating that, ‘with joint efforts in the past few years, the two sides have gradually found a way to maintain peace and tranquility in the disputed border areas’. This statement would have jarred with Indian assessments of the border incursion as provocative Chinese action aimed at altering the established modus vivendi across the Line of Actual Control, the de-facto border between the two countries accepted in the absence of an internationally recognised border in the region. Nevertheless, the episode passed without too deleterious an impact on Premier Li’s visit, something that senior Indian commentators have interpreted as a sign of China’s victory in this round of tension between the two Asian giants.

The incident that sparked this most recent antagonism started in mid-April, when a contingent of Chinese forces abruptly moved into the Daulat Beg Oldi sector of Ladakh, the disputed Sino-Indian territory in the northern part of Jammu and Kashmir state. Somewhere in the region of thirty Chinese soldiers then set up camp in the area, apparently unfurling banners declaring that the Indians were on the ‘Chinese side’. This provocative act confused India, but quickly led to the deployment of a unit from the 5th Battalion of Ladakh Scouts, which established its own camp nearby.

In the face of substantial public anger, the Indian government sought to play down the confrontation, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh describing it as a ‘localised problem’ to be resolved at the regional level. Defence Minister A K Antony took a more robust line, telling the press that ‘India will take every step to protect its interests’, while local and opposition politicians used it as an opportunity to score political points. Arun Jaitley, a senior member of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, stated in Parliament that while the government ‘may have some security options, … [and it] may have some diplomatic options, … being clueless is not an option’.

The Chinese government, on the other hand, reacted slowly but came out with a universal line. In a press conference on 25 April, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying spoke of China and India as ‘neighbours yet to complete border demarcation’, and voiced her view that ‘problems inevitably arise one way or another in the border area’. This reflected the view on the ground, where an Indian officer reported that during a meeting with a Chinese official, the latter had reportedly claimed that it was Chinese territory on which they had set up camp.

Indeed, the border in this region has long been contested, and occasional disagreements are to be expected. What distinguished this act as unusual, however, was the establishment of a camp in what is mutually agreed to be contested territory. For those of an alarmist inclination, this was reminiscent of the run-up to the 1962 war between China and India, during which similar incursions by the Chinese became the pretext for wider conflict.

However, on this occasion, China seemed willing to step back relatively quickly, with an announcement on 6 May that its forces had withdrawn to their previously agreed positions the night before. A statement put out by the Indian side the next day announced that India and China had ‘agreed to restore [the] status quo along the Line of Actual Control in the western sector of the India-China boundary, as it existed prior to April 15, 2013’ and that ‘flag meetings ha[d] … been held to work out the modalities and to confirm the arrangements’. And as forces on both sides withdrew to earlier positions, the path was smoothed for Premier Li’s visit to New Delhi two weeks later.

During the visit itself, the border dispute remained largely in the background, though in a press conference Li admitted that there were ‘problems’ between the two sides, and acknowledged the need to ‘improve border related mechanisms and make them more efficient’. Prime Minister Singh concurred, declaring that special representatives from the two countries would ‘continue discussions seeking an early agreement on a framework for a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable boundary settlement’.

Instead, much greater emphasis was placed on the eight bilateral Memoranda of Understanding signed between the two sides during the visit (covering everything from allowing Indian pilgrims into Tibet and agricultural agreements to plans to translate each other’s literature), and the re-statement that both sides hope bilateral trade will increase to $100 billion by 2015. Having achieved what he had set out to, Premier Li moved on to Pakistan, the next stop on his first international tour as number two in the Chinese administration.

From an outside perspective, the optics of the trip played very much in China’s favour. Premier Li was able to go to India, get the visit he was aiming for and travel on to China’s ally Pakistan without any hold-ups. While some pro-Tibetan protesters took to the streets when Premier Li was in town, Indian authorities kept them under tight control. And the border dispute in Ladakh, an incident instigated by Chinese forces, was carefully sidestepped.

From an Indian perspective, the benefit of permitting the trip to play out so smoothly after such unilateral Chinese action is unclear. One senior commentator explained to the author that it was a way of letting the Chinese save face, but to what end is uncertain. This is particularly so given the relationship between the two powers: one of imbalanced acceptance, in which both recognise the importance of the other, but at the same time have very different needs. It is not like the Sino-American relationship of interdependence, but rather one in which mutual assistance would be beneficial, albeit not essential.

India, for example, needs investment in infrastructure to help it achieve its growth potential – investment it has had difficulty securing but that deep Chinese pockets would be able to provide. China, meanwhile, would benefit from developing India as a market for its companies, as well as from obtaining a potential ally in Afghanistan.

At the same time, both powers have complicated relationships with Pakistan that are in some ways mutually reinforcing. China recently went so far as to tell Pakistan to mend its relationship with India, while in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack Chinese shuttle diplomacy was at the heart of defusing tensions between the two neighbours.

The question over the viability of co-operation in Afghanistan remains complex, with India concerned about Pakistan, and particularly about the latter’s awkward position as a transport buffer for Indian trade with Afghanistan. For China, cognisant that in 2014 the West will potentially leave a situation that could exacerbate violence in Pakistan, getting India involved will – it hopes – ensure that it is not the sole major power with a substantial stake in Afghanistan’s future.

Despite a range of concerns on both sides, the two countries have met a number of times to talk about Afghanistan and the potential for co-operation on the country’s future. Largely an initiative driven by China, its eagerness to talk in the face of Indian ambivalence highlights the degree to which it is China that seeks greater co-operation with India, rather than the other way around.

At a broader strategic level, both see the benefit of aligning themselves as part of the so-called BRICS grouping (comprising the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). China, in particular, has demonstrated great interest in developing the bloc into more than just an economist’s catchphrase: while Premier Li’s first visit abroad was to India, President Xi’s first visit was to Russia and then to South Africa for a BRICS summit. An alliance with India within this merely burnishes China’s credentials as a ‘global South’ power distinct from the colonialist powers of the West.

The longer-term question, however, is the sustainability of China’s approach to India. The border spat that preceded Premier Li’s visit appears to have come as something of a surprise to Beijing. Certainly its timing, just before Premier Li’s inaugural foreign visit, would not have been in tune with Chinese preferences for positive mood music during foreign trips. And most striking was the relative absence of bellicose or nationalist rhetoric in the Chinese state-owned media, with editors usually taking advantage of such incidents to publish aggressive commentary to stir up public anger and indignation. This implies that the Chinese authorities were unaware of the incursion, with some speculative commentary in the Indian press suggesting that it might have been part of an internal Chinese party struggle, carried out by PLA officers aligned with former leader Jiang Zemin. Or, at least, it points to a situation that the Chinese government was eager to contain.

All of this implies that India’s hand may be stronger than it believes. China sees a positive relationship with India as important – viewing it as a trading partner, a fellow Asian BRICS power, and a key player in helping to secure stability in Afghanistan. China may have the financial clout to buy its way into Kabul, but it is to India that Afghan politicians will turn out of preference. As one Chinese interlocutor grumbled during a recent workshop in Beijing, ‘when you Indians trade with the Afghans, they see you as brothers’ – not a sense the Afghans would share regarding Chinese traders, who they see in a far more transactional light. This and the fact that China is increasingly seen as a de-facto ‘responsible parent’ to Pakistan points to China’s attempts to cultivate better relations with India as a means of balancing out its regional position. Indeed, the danger it faces is that alone it will come to be seen as the primary vehicle for regional stability – a responsibility no Chinese administration would want.

Yet the longer-term repercussions of the Ladakh border spat remain uncertain. The willingness of both sides to rapidly de-escalate the situation suggests that this was merely a test, though to what end and by whom is unclear. Equally uncertain is who has emerged as the victor, and the nature of the larger strategic picture between the two Asian superpowers. China currently retains the upper hand, yet clearly sees an important role for India in any regional or global order. Whichever way it develops, the relationship between these two rising BRICS giants is likely to be a fulcrum of the international order well into the future.

Raffaello Pantucci
Senior Research Fellow, RUSI.
Twitter: @raffpantucci

A new post for RUSI earlier in the week, this one touching upon the fact that the infamous Abu Qatada was deported on the anniversary of the July 7, 2005 London bombings. Likely a coincidence, but an interesting one nonetheless that helps mark out a period of British jihadist history. Unrelated, but showing how the threat continues to evolve, I was quoted in this BBC piece about the decision to add Nigerian Boko Haram and British Minbar Ansar Deen to the proscribed terror list in the UK.

Abu Qatada Leaves the United Kingdom

RUSI Analysis, 9 Jul 2013By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

Abu Qatada symbolised an era of British jihadism that relied on radical preachers to motivate a generation of terrorists. Alongside a general degradation of Al-Qa’ida’s capacity to launch large-scale plots, Qatada’s departure marks an end of an era that peaked during the 7 July 2005 attacks on London.

Abu Qatada cropped

The departure of Abu Qatada from British soil on the eighth anniversary of the 7 July bombings in London marks something of a marker for a period of British jihadism. From a coordinated threat directed by Al-Qa’ida that drew on a community of young British Muslims fostered by radical preachers leading to plots like the 7/7 attack, the menace has now evolved. Expressions in the form of attempted attacks or thwarted plots continue to appear, but gone is both the easy and public coordination at home epitomised by the radical preacher community in the UK, and gone is ability of Al-Qaida core in Waziristan in particular to manipulate large scale plots through this particular network to strike on British soil.

Radical Preachers

Abu Qatada was the last of four prominent preachers in the United Kingdom around whom young radicals from around the world gathered and who formed the nub of what was publicly derided as ‘Londonistan.’ A period in the 1990s when Britain became the home away from home for a number of preachers and activists from across the Muslim world agitating for change, both violent and non-violent, in their home countries. Many of these individuals presented (and continue to present) no specific threat to the UK, and are focused very much on events abroad.

Abu Qatada’s role within this community was an interesting one. Largely focused abroad, he nevertheless had authority over this sub-community in the UK. In particular, he was reported to have told security services that he could ‘wield powerful, spiritual influence over the Algerian community in London.’ He also acted as a teacher figure to younger men Abu Hamza and Abdullah el-Faisal, both of whom were characterised as his students at one time or another. He seems to have had a less direct relationship with Omar Bakri Mohammed, the fourth of the radical preachers, though it seems clear the men moved in similar circles in London. Abu Qatada’s credentials as a scholar and his links to one the fathers of modern Salafism, Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani set him apart from the other three who lacked such credentials. Unlike the other three, his impact seems to have been more ideological, while the others fostered networks and communities from which a number of terrorist plots emerged.

Al Qa’ida Orchestration

The most successful of these plots was 7/7 bombings carried out by four men, at least two of whom had been trained by Al-Qa’ida in Waziristan. This plot, like a number of others that were disrupted before and since, involved Britons who had been radicalised in part under the tutelage of the radical preacher community, managed to establish connections with Al Qa’ida core and were directed to carry out attacks in the West. Numerous other plots were disrupted from this network, including the August 2006 plot codenamed ‘Overt‘ that aimed to bring down somewhere in the region of eight flights on transatlantic routes with a potential casualty count higher than the 11 September 2001 attacks.

These plots drew their footsoldiers from the radical communities that the UK-based preachers fostered. Recruiters for Al-Qa’ida or other extremists used this space  to seek out funding and followers. Going abroad, most of these men were initially seeking to fight and die on foreign battlefields. However, once there, some were re-directed back to conduct attacks at home as Al-Qa’ida realised their potential as a community that could penetrate deep into Western society. Key individuals like British national Rashid Rauf became the connective tissue providing a link between the senior echelons of Al-Qa’ida and the British recruits, helping them get around Waziristan and then providing managerial control over operations.

Over time, however, this connection has come under increasing scrutiny as  Western intelligence services realised its magnitude and increasingly became able to intercept its communications, penetrate its structures and remove key players from the field. This led to a gradual degradation of the network, though there is evidence that the community of individuals eager to travel back and forth to seek training continues to exist.

Most recently this connection was seen in a case in Birmingham in which a number of Britons travelled to Pakistan’s lawless provinces, trained alongside groups close to Al-Qa’ida before receiving loose direction to return home to carry out an incident of some sort. This is a world apart from the Operation Overt cell from 2006 where multiple elements were in repeated contact with masterminds back in Pakistan who had provided specific training and targeting and helped them along the trajectory of the plot. By 2011, the level of orchestration from afar was much harder to identify with Irfan Naseer – the plot leader of the Birmingham cell – giving little indication of being in regular touch with someone abroad. In a comment overheard by a security listening device he said that his guidance was more rudimentary than that: ‘they said yeah, the knowledge they gave us, they want that to spread to Europe.’ There was little evidence offered during the case (or any of the other cases linked to the core cell around IrfanNaseer) that anything was being orchestrated from afar. As was commented at the time, the approach seemed to be ‘fire and forget.’

Threat Shifting Overseas

But as groups in Pakistan in particular come under increasing pressure and lose their reach back to the UK, the threat elsewhere abroad has been growing, and the potential remains for foreign networks to use the continuing flow of British fighters to places like Syria to launch attacks back home. Currently, groups leading the fight in Syria have demonstrated no interest in launching a terrorist attack in the UK (or anywhere else in particular for that matter – their interest seems focused on toppling Bashar al Assad’s regime), but it is an open question how this will develop in the future.

Beyond foreign battlefields, the Internet has helped spread radical ideas and made them more accessible. Lone actor terrorism is a novel phenomenon that has shown an ability to express itself in a random and violent manner. And actions by extremist Islamist groups in Europe have led to a counter-reaction by extremists on the other end of the spectrum. We have now evolved, though not entirely passed, from a time when people sought out the community of radical preachers such as Abu Qatada, and from them were recruited by groups to go and fight abroad.

This evolution has come about for a number of reasons. Primary amongst these was the removal of the radical preachers (Abu Hamza through jail and then deportation to the US, Abdulla el Faisal through jail and then deportation to Jamaica, and Omar Bakri Mohammed through a self-imposed exile) and the removal of the open space in which they could operate. Abu Qatada’s departure from Britain for Jordan’s courts marks the conclusion of a long process by successive British governments that sought to expel these figures from the UK. New charismatic leaders and preachers have since emerged, but current legislation means that they are much more circumspect in their comments and openness in actively pushing people to go and fight abroad. Individuals are still drawing ideas from this ideological pool and some are electing to go and fight abroad, but the direct linkages are now far more discreet.

The other side to this coin is found in Pakistan where Al-Qa’ida’s ability to direct plots and plotters has been substantially degraded. The pressure of drone strikes and a growing western intelligence footprint means that key figures like Rauf and numerous other Al-Qa’ida figures have been taken off the battlefield. Those that are left are having to provide guidance and training in far more constrained environment, and once people have left the camps they are largely being left to simply get on with attempting to carry out attacks. The age of large-scale orchestrated plots from Pakistan seems to have passed.

Additionally, the emergence of Al-Qa’ida affiliates and battlefields of competing interest has given individuals a number of different locations where they can seek to find the adventure and thrill of jihad or play their role in fighting to protect the ‘ummah.’ How these different battlefields will impact the threat picture in the UK is a developing story, but at the moment they do not pose the same sort of threat that Al-Qa’ida’s grand plans directed from Pakistan did.

Coming exactly eight years after Al-Qa’ida’s last successful attack on the west, Abu Qatada’s deportation marks the end of an era in British counter-terrorism. But as one era seems to come to a close, a new one may be being forged on foreign battlefields and the internet marking an evolution of a problem many in the UK may consider removed with Abu Qatada’s departure.

And a final update for this evening, this time an op-ed I had appear in this week’s South China Morning Post focusing on the grim troubles in Xinjiang this past month. More on this coming soon, and I did a number of media interviews about this.

Xinjiang violence a sad indictment of Beijing’s policy

It is proving to be another hot and violent summer in Xinjiang . In quick succession, incidents of violence have erupted across the autonomous region, leading to double-digit casualties. Beijing seems torn between blaming the incidents on foreign terrorists and pointing the finger at domestic turmoil, a focus that ultimately misses the point that whatever is being done to fix the region’s problems is not working.

The problem is complicated. First, there are individuals in Pakistan’s badlands who are plotting to attack China. Just last week, a video emerged on jihadist forums in which the emir of the Turkestan Islamic Party praised the incident in April in Bachu county, just outside Kashgar , in which 15 policemen and officials and six attackers were killed. Last month, the group published a video in which a senior al-Qaeda ideologue gave them advice in their struggle.

This relatively limited group, however, seems far apart from the violence erupting in the province. In incidents reported from Hotan , it seems a mob launched an assault on a police station.

This sounds like a replay of events in 2011 when a group attacked a police station in the prefecture, leading to 18 deaths and dramatic pictures beamed around the world in which armed police were photographed trying to take their station back.

The violence is a sad repetition of history that is becoming a marker of Xinjiang’s summers.

It is not as though Beijing has not made efforts to try to improve the region’s lot. The annual China-Eurasia Expo brings billions of dollars of investment into the province, aspiring party cadres agree to relocate to the region to try to bring their expertise to bear on developing its economy, and foreign investors are courted by Xinjiang officials. The decision to appoint governor Zhang Chunxian after hardliner Wang Lequan’s removal was seen as a conscious effort to give the region new leadership, and one that would be more open in a media age.

Founded on good intentions, this strategy has, nonetheless, not been working. Rather than a reduction in violence since the grim 2009 riots in Urumqi that claimed some 200 lives, trouble has spread.

Travel around Xinjiang and you can see construction, and an effort being made to rebuild. Talk to local officials, often cadres sent from other provinces, and you find competent staff eager to engage and create opportunities in the region. Yet, clearly, it is not working.

Part of the problem may be that entrenched interests there are not allowing economic development to flow in as it could. Talk to most Uygurs in the province and you will find people who do not feel they are personally benefiting from the economic boom that is purportedly happening. The trickle-down effect isn’t working.

Furthermore, while the government tries to advance quite progressive policies towards minorities, there is still clearly a strong sense that their voices are not being heard. In numerous accounts recently, individuals have reported that trouble was sparked by the imposition of regulations regarding religious conduct. A sense of persecution is evident.

There is no easy solution. However, it’s clear that the economically driven strategy is not having the desired effect. Trouble continues to escalate, whether or not outside forces are helping to stir things up. The long-term answer lies in local security, and that is what Beijing’s new leadership needs to focus greater attention on.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London

A longer piece I did for Jane’s, this time exploring the importance of training camps for British jihadists.

Fuelling the campfire – the importance of training camps to aspirant UK jihadists

  • UK jihadists engaged in militant training in the UK and abroad during the 1990s, with training camps providing a core element the necessary preparation for jihad.
  • Despite a crackdown on such activities, a series of disrupted jihadist plots in the UK over the past three years have highlighted the persistence of key elements in militant training.
  • Most notable was the continuing importance attached to training by aspirant jihadists and the preference for travelling abroad to train with existing jihadist networks.

A series of convictions of Islamist militants in the United Kingdom in early 2013 has underlined the continuing importance attached to militant training camps in the UK and abroad by aspirant jihadists.Raffaello Pantucci investigates.

The investigation into the bombing of the Boston marathon in the United States on 15 April has refocused attention on the issue of training in terrorist plots in the West, in particular whether plotters are able to rely on militant publications – such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) English-language magazine Inspire – to learn how to make explosive devices, or if they need to actually physically attend a training camp. In the case of the alleged perpetrators of the Boston attack – brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – it remains unclear, but a recent series of failed and disrupted attack plots in the United Kingdom indicated in some detail the ongoing importance attributed to training and the role of camps by Western jihadist cells.Although these plots are ultimately historical, and it is difficult to accurately assess the degree to which they reflect the ongoing reality of current training camps, they nonetheless have a number of similarities with longstanding trends seen among jihadists not only in the UK but also in the West more broadly. Additionally, the features of the training camps that the individuals are eager to attend, or are establishing themselves, are broadly similar to previous jihadist training camps, illustrating the persistence of certain patterns.

Precedents

In the 1990s, UK jihadists were urged to prepare to fight by radical Islamist clerics such as Mustafa Kamel Mustafa (alias Abu Hamza al-Masri) – who was subsequently extradited to the US in October 2012 to face terrorism charges – and Omar Bakri Mohammed, a former leader of now-banned UK Islamist activist group Al-Muhajiroun, who is currently residing in Lebanon. As part of an investigation by UK newspaperThe Sunday Telegraph in November 1999, a number of UK nationals confessed to training both in the UK and abroad. Abdul Wahid Majid – current status unknown – was quoted as stating: “After my basic training with swords and sticks at the mosque [in the UK], I then went on a number of courses, where I was taught how to use firearms and live ammunition.”

Abu Hamza al-Masri stated toThe Sunday Telegraph : “We do use weapons which have been decommissioned by the police,” while senior Islamist activist and former Al-Muhajiroun spokesman Anjem Choudary confirmed to the paper: “Before they go abroad to fight for organisations like the IIF [a reference to the International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders, an entity consisting of Al-Qaeda and several allied militant Islamist groups that was first mentioned by now-deceased Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a February 1998 statement and which facilitated UK Muslims to travel to fight in Bosnia and Chechnya], the volunteers are trained in Britain. Some of the training does involve guns and live ammunition.”

While these statements may have been brash pronouncements overstating what may have been little more than adventure camps, they highlighted the importance of training camps to UK jihadists at that point. The speeches by Omar Bakri Mohammed and Abu Hamza al-Masri in this period appear to constantly exhort their students to prepare and train. Individuals would seemingly train in the UK and then travel abroad to train further or fight, a trend that continued even after the arrest of Abu Hamza al-Masri in August 2003 and the expulsion of Islamist groups from the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London.

In May 2004, Mohammed Hamid – a senior member of the Finsbury Park Mosque community who was jailed indefinitely in March 2008 after being convicted of organising terrorist training and soliciting murder – organised a training camp in the county of Cumbria in the northwest of the UK, which was attended by four men who were jailed for life in 2007 over the failed 21 July 2005 London bomb plot (in which five bombs were placed in London Underground stations, but failed to detonate properly). A year later, two other men who attended the same camp travelled to Somalia “for purposes relating to terrorism”, according to court documents. In footage that emerged subsequent to Hamid’s trial, images were seen of the men exercising together, walking around with heavy packs, and camping in the Welsh countryside.

Recurring trends

The jihadist cell around these camps was largely disrupted, with some members arrested as part of the 21 July 2005 attack network or alongside Hamid in September 2007. Others were reported to have died in air strikes in Somalia – deaths confirmed by both families and militant groups. One such figure, Bilal Berjawi, re-emerged in January 2012 when his official biography and a video were released by the Al-Kataib Media branch of Somali militant Islamist group the Shabab.

Berjawi was a UK citizen of Lebanese origin who rose through the ranks of the community of Al-Qaeda fighters in East Africa to purportedly become a key fighter and leader of the Shabab. According to his official biography, Berjawi travelled back and forth from Somalia to the UK, raising funds between bouts of fighting in Somalia. In addition, the video of Berjawi showed him training with other Islamist militants in Somalia, including his close friend Mohammed Sakr. Friends since they were 12 years old, the two young men went to Somalia more than once and – after being stripped of their UK citizenship by the government in 2010 – both were subsequently killed in suspected US unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) missile strikes in Somalia; Berjawi in January 2012 and Sakr the following month.

These cases highlight that UK jihadist cells are seemingly fixated with carrying out training, whether in the UK or abroad, particularly connecting with jihadist groups, be it in Somalia like Berjawi; or in the UK like Muktar Said Ibrahim, the leader of the 21 July 2005 cell. Ibrahim attended one of Hamid’s camps in the UK and then later met with Rashid Rauf – a UK national of Pakistani descent who was linked to a UK plot to bomb transatlantic airliners in 2006, and reportedly killed in a 2008 UAV strike in Pakistan – and other senior Al-Qaeda figures in Pakistan. Training in the UK provides a framework to demonstrate a certain level of commitment to Islamist militancy and to develop contacts, while linking up with groups abroad for training frequently proves a more operational shift.

The significance of these trends is underlined by the way they have persisted through to more recent plots. A series of attack plots by UK jihadist cells through the late 2000s and early 2010s seem to confirm that, as late as early 2012, this modus operandi remained in play. In all of the plots disrupted by security services, the cells consistently gave an indication of seeking training, or attempting to develop their own training camps. These are traits that reflect longstanding plotting methodology and highlight the ongoing importance of training for groups of UK jihadists.

Gyms

A four-member militant cell based in the UK city of Luton headed by Zahid Iqbal pleaded guilty to preparing for acts of terrorism in March 2013. Police observed the men undertaking hiking expeditions in Wales, and according to recordings used by the prosecution during their trial, on returning from one of these trips to Snowdonia in March 2011, one of the men in the group was overheard saying the trip was “good jihad training”. During another trip later in the month, convicted cell members Mohammed Sarfraz Ahmed and Umar Arshad were overheard discussing how Scafell Pike – the highest mountain in England – was similar in conditions to the parts of Pakistan that Ahmed had visited as part of an earlier trip in pursuit of militant training.

During the trial, Ahmed in particular was identified by the prosecution as being “actively engaged in the radicalisation and recruitment of others for extremist purposes”, adding that he “engaged in physically and mentally training these others [the other cell members]”. During a trip to Snowdonia, Ahmed was observed by police leading groups in what was described by the prosecution as “regimental walking, press-ups, running in formation, and using logs perhaps as mock firearms”. These activities had been observed by police in earlier camps run by Hamid.

Another similarity with earlier attack plots was the use of gyms as places in which individuals would undergo physical training in preparation for future activities. Iqbal was recorded by police telling others that he had joined a gym to help himself train. In a separate conversation, Ahmed was overheard saying: “A lot of the stuff we do, you can do at home, say your press-up, burpees [a physical exercise] and stuff,” but while he stated the value of training with others, he highlighted the risks associated with doing military-style exercises and group training at public gyms.

One such gym in the UK city of Birmingham, the Darul Ihsaan, or Abode of Excellence, gym – also known to locals as Jimmy’s Gym – was used as a focus of congregation by two separate militant Islamist cells in the city, members of both of which were later convicted on terrorism charges.

The first cell was headed up by Irfan Naseer, with support from Irfan Khalid and Ashik Ali. The three were convicted in February 2013 of plotting suicide attacks in Birmingham. According to a 22 February 2013 report in UK newspaperThe Daily Telegraph , Naseer first met Khalid and Ali at “premises known as the 24/7 Gym” in Birmingham in 2007 and 2008, although the men later collectively changed to the Darul Ihsaan gym.

In addition, Anzal Hussain and Mohammed Saud – two members of a six-man cell that pleaded guilty in April 2013 to planning to bomb a far-right English Defence League (EDL) rally in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, in June 2012 – were identified in local media reports as being employed at the Darul Ihsaan gym.

Overseas training

For Naseer, the Darul Ihsaan gym was also a source of recruits, including the four members of a cell who pleaded guilty in October 2012 to travelling to training camps in Pakistan. The group ended up being part of Naseer’s downfall as their absence was noted by their families who vociferously complained to another prominent local individual – identified as Ahmed Faraz (alias Abu Bakr), who was convicted in December 2011 on charges of possessing terrorist material – and accused him of facilitating the men’s travel. A regular at the Darul Ihsaan gym, Faraz denied responsibility and pointed the angered families in Naseer’s direction.

For Naseer, like all of the other cells, the priority seems to have been travelling overseas to train. However, while Naseer and Khalid twice travelled to Pakistan for training, from March-November 2009 and from December 2010 to mid-2011, not all of the cells appear to have been able to

In the case of one such cell – nine members of which were arrested in December 2010 and pleaded guilty in February 2012 to planning to bomb the London Stock Exchange – the solution was instead to build their own camp using land one of their families already owned. A member of the cell, Usman Khan, had a piece of family land in Pakistani-administered Kashmir on which – according to the prosecution – the cell was planning to build a madrassah (religious seminary) that could be used to train people for terrorism. Adjacent to an already existing mosque, the prosecution claimed the cell had long-term ambitions to fundraise and build a camp around the madrassah that could become a base for UK Muslims seeking training in a secure environment.

It remains unclear whether members of this cell had been able to establish any connection to known militant Islamist organisations in the region, although at least one member of the cell was believed by authorities to have had contact with other radical Islamists in prison, and cell leader Mohammed Chowdhury had been widely identified in media reports as being present at a number of marches organised by off-shoots of Al-Muhajiroun. By contrast, Naseer had been able to make contact with elements linked to Al-Qaeda and to arrange training at a Harakat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) camp in North Waziristan in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

To a lesser extent, Iqbal, leader of the Luton cell, was identified by the prosecution as being in contact with an individual, identified only by the Security Service codename ‘Modern Sleeve’, who facilitated fellow cell member Ahmed’s travel to Pakistan for training in early 2011. While a 15 April 2013Daily Telegraph report described ‘Modern Sleeve’ as an “Al-Qaeda contact”, his group affiliation remains unconfirmed in open sources. At another point, Iqbal was recorded by police telling another cell member that “Mauritania has got thing now innit, it’s got an AQ [Al-Qaeda] group innit. AQ of the Islamic Maghreb” – a likely reference to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – to which Ahmed replied: “If they (the brothers) are still saying wait, I don’t want to keep waiting here, do you understand? I want to get out of this place and I’ll wait over there, at least then I’m close by sort of thing.” Whether the cell actually had any contact with the Al-Qaeda affiliate in North Africa remains unclear.

Similarly, it is unclear whether Richard ‘Salahuddin’ Dart and Jahangir Alom – two members of a three-man cell who pleaded guilty in April 2013 to plotting a series of bomb attacks – were able to actually make the connections with the militant Islamist groups they were hoping for. In an online conversation between Dart and the third cell member, Imran Mahmood – who the prosecution claimed had come into contact with explosives, as evidenced by traces of explosive materials found on his possessions – Mahmood told Dart: “Tare [sic] with TTP [Pakistani militant Islamist group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan] and AQ, no its not Swat Valley but they got connection and I try get u close to the people who are close to them amir and thats rare.” Mahmood is admitting difficulty in connecting Dart but is selling it to him that he has an ability to reach out to the TTP and Al-Qaeda. Dart’s response illustrated where his interest lay: “Yer al hamdulilah [praise be to Allah] that would be excellent. We would want to be active and with the right people.”

Adventure’s end

However, when training abroad could be arranged, the training camps were not always the exciting adventure camps the men expected. Court documents described how the four cell members from Birmingham were shocked when they arrived in Pakistan in August 2011 to find themselves dumped in a bare camp on a mountainside with no toilets, beds, or protection from the stifling heat and mosquitoes. The entire trip seemingly quickly lost its romantic appeal and the group first called one of the cell back in the UK before reaching out to their families, who commanded them to leave the camp and meet with Pakistani relations in a nearby city.

Despite suffering a rather ignominious expulsion from his second training trip to Pakistan, Naseer was able to obtain some useful training. When he was arrested in September 2011, he was found to be in possession of quite capable bomb and detonator designs, and while it is sometimes hard to separate reality from bluster, it seems he was able to make connections with Al-Qaeda-linked individuals in Pakistan – with whom he and Khalid left martyrdom videos that they were later heard discussing and re-enacting for others. This separates the Birmingham cell somewhat from the other cells previously identified, who were unable to firmly establish connections with militant personnel in Pakistan and whose training was either self-created or aspirational.

Another commonality across some of the cells was the desire to masquerade as observers of non-violent Deobandi Islamic reform and propagation movement Tablighi Jamaat to hide their movements. During the trial of the Luton cell, the prosecution stated: “Iqbal and Ahmed discussed using the Tablighi sect as a cover for travel… It is generally considered to eschew controversy hence the defendants’ belief that it provided good cover.” In a separate conversation in Birmingham, Naseer was recorded by police giving fellow cell member Ishaq Hussain – one of the four who pleaded guilty to travelling to Pakistani training camps in October 2012 – a list of madrassahs he was to say he attended if he was questioned by police about his activities in Pakistan, one of which was a “Tablighi” madrassah. This habit of using Tablighi Jamaat as cover, both in terms of travelling and also in Pakistan, seems to be fairly standard among UK jihadists, some of whom have spent time at Tablighi mosques in the UK and all of whom recognise the travelling missionary cover provided by the sect as one that is hard for security services to dispute as well as providing them access to a community of missionaries that will always welcome fellow believers.

The key conclusions from many of these plots appear clear: UK patterns in jihadist training persist and have largely remained unchanged as time has passed. Jihadist cells continue to be eager to use the UK’s highlands and gyms as places to train, and remain eager to participate in some form of training overseas – particularly in Pakistan. What has changed, though, is the increasing difficulty cells face in achieving this, with security forces increasingly identifying and intercepting those who attempt to travel overseas for militant training.

While the ongoing anti-government uprising in Syria has somewhat provided an additional venue for UK nationals to receive militant training, the strong UK connection to South Asia and the persistence of groups like HuM who are quite mercenary in their willingness to train people for money means that Pakistan will likely continue to attract aspirant Western jihadists for training. As such, it seems likely that training at camps in the UK and abroad will continue to be a feature of the UK jihadist scene for the foreseeable future.

Am finally catching up on some late posting, this is a piece from a few weeks ago when I was in Kabul about how China is perceived there. It was initially published in  东方早报 (Oriental Morning Post) and I have put the English at the top and the Chinese it was published in below.

Kabul – China’s optics in Afghanistan are not good. After a week of travelling around talking to Afghans and others in Kabul, the general consensus is that China is doing little to contribute on the ground. In fact, the perception remains that China is doing little than trying to draw profit from Afghanistan’s abundant natural resources while giving little in return.

Central to Afghan concerns are the activities of MCC and Jiangxi Copper at Mes Aynak. One of the world’s largest copper mines, back in 2007 the Chinese state owned companies paid somewhere in the region of $3 to $4 billion (depending on whose figures you believe) to acquire the mine. Since then, very little has actually happened. Security on the site, an archeological dig of great historical importance on top of the site, company problems back home and elsewhere and difficulties with the Afghan authorities have all meant that the project has not started in any meaningful way.

In fact, currently the discussion seems focused around the fact that the Chinese firm is trying to renegotiate its contract for the site. The perception from officials, media and the public spoken to is that this is something that the Chinese side is doing specifically to drive a harder bargain and alter the parameters of an already agreed deal. Something that infuriates Afghans as it means that a project they are eager to get started as it might provide some economic benefit to the country is not moving forwards. The possible jobs that the project would provide are believed to be one way of helping develop the province and maybe quell some of the tensions underlying the insurgency. The longer it does not start, the longer it will take for these benefits to be felt.

On the other side of the equation, there is acknowledgement that MCC and Jiangxi Copper’s concerns are valid. The area is dangerous and the historical site above the mine requires some care. Additionally, Afghanistan is still working on resolving and passing its new mining legislation, something that understandably makes foreign companies hesitant to invest in the country.

But whatever the reality of these concerns, the truth is that this is not the message that has gotten down to most Afghans. All they see is a large foreign company sitting on one of their prime assets without any sense that it is going to develop it any time soon. This angers people and is only one of a number of negative images China has in the country. Aside from having a low visible public diplomacy presence, China’s contribution to Afghanistan’s security (300 police trained after Zhou Yongkang’s visit last year) is low and there is a strong sense that China prefers perennial enemy Pakistan to Afghanistan. China’s soft power in Afghanistan is in a very low state.

China has a difficult hand to play in Afghanistan. On the one hand, as a wealthy neighbor with influence over Pakistan and positive links to the Taliban it is perceived as being the one holding one of the best hands in the region. But at the same time, the realities on the ground mean China is wary of getting too involved in a situation that has historically proved very difficult to mend. But the current approach of waiting and seeing is having a deeply counter-productive result. Not only is it engendering anger amongst the Afghan population, but it is furthermore helping render a situation in Pakistan that is dangerously escalating out of control even worse. More instability in Afghanistan is only going to make Pakistan more dangerous.

A quick fix solution to this is difficult to see. But some ideas exist that could help raise China’s profile. The initial security contribution offered by Zhou Yongkang should be developed further – more police should be trained and China should offer to help foot the costs of maintaining the Afghan security forces post-2014. Focusing this money towards specific areas where China’s companies have made investments would be a way to link this money to specific Chinese interests. Secondly, China should undertake a soft power push into Afghanistan. Other rising Asian giant India provides somewhere in the region of 2,000 scholarships a year to Afghan students to come to India – China provides far fewer. Increasing this number is an easy way to start to develop a new cadre of young Afghans with a stronger feeling towards China. And finally, China’s companies that are invested in Afghanistan should do more to help develop the nations infrastructure. Chinese companies are amongst the best in the world at doing such work in difficult environments – they should deploy this ability into the Afghan context.

China has long played the waiting game with Afghanistan. The time has come to step forwards and develop a more coherent, sustainable and holistic approach to find some resolution in Afghanistan. Helping solve the country’s problems will not only be of benefit to the region and world, but it will directly help China’s development of its own western provinces. A win-win if ever there was one.

中国需要一个更清晰的阿富汗政策

潘睿凡

特约撰稿人

经过长达一周的旅行和交流,接受我们访谈的阿富汗人和在喀布尔的外国人一致认为中国在阿富汗问题上可以做得更多。

阿富汗人最关心的是中冶集团(MCC)和江西铜业共同投资的艾娜克(Mes Aynak)铜矿项目。作为世界上已探明的最大铜矿之一,艾娜克铜矿早在2007年就得到了中标的上述两家中国国有企业30亿到40亿美元的投入。不过,阿富汗糟糕的安全形势、艾娜克矿区重大的考古发现、投资者自身的举棋不定以及与阿富汗当局的微妙关系都表明短期内项目仍不可能建成投产。

事实上,当前阿富汗人议论的焦点是中国企业正在试图就合同问题与阿方重新谈判。来自喀布尔官方、媒体和公众的印象是,中国企业正在争取更有利的谈判地位,并试图改变业已达成的合同内容。让一些阿富汗人感到不爽的是,这意味着这个他们热切希望推进的能给阿富汗带来经济收益的项目正处于停滞状态。这个项目本来可以为当地人提供就业岗位,从而有助于发展当地的经济,并缓和那些可能诱发冲突的紧张关系。项目拖延的时间越长,当地等待收益的时间就越久。

但另一方面,中冶集团和江西铜业的关切也有其合理性。艾娜克铜矿所在的地区动荡不安,矿区的考古发掘也需要时间。此外,阿富汗至今没有完成新的矿业立法,这不能不让外国企业在阿富汗投资时有所顾虑。

然而,无论中国投资者有怎样的苦衷,真相是大部分阿富汗人并不了解这些信息。他们所看到的是一个大型外国企业占据着他们最重要的资产之一,却迟迟不见开发的迹象。其他原因包括中国在阿富汗的公共外交较少、中国对阿富汗安全的援助仍可以更多,以及中国更青睐巴基斯坦等。总而言之,中国在阿富汗的软实力仍有待提高。

在阿富汗问题上,中国有自己的困境。一方面,作为一个有影响力的富有的邻国,中国被认为是对地区影响力最大的国家之一。但与此同时,中国又不太愿意深度介入这个在历史上就被证明是个难以收拾的烂摊子的地区。

要马上一揽子解决这些问题是不现实的。但有一些理念可能有助于改善中国在阿富汗的形象。中国对阿富汗的安全援助应该得到继续和深化——中国不妨帮助阿富汗培训更多的警察,并且为2014年北约撤军后的阿富汗安全部队提供资金支持。将资金投向中国企业投资的地区将会更好地服务中国的利益。其次,中国不妨在阿富汗施展自己的软实力。另一个崛起中的亚洲大国印度提供了每年2000个奖学金名额以资助阿富汗学生来印度学习,在这方面目前中国还有差距。增加给阿富汗的奖学金名额是培养对中国有好感的阿富汗年轻精英的最便捷的方法。最后,在阿富汗投资的中国企业应该为发展当地的基础设施作出更大的贡献。中国企业最擅长在恶劣条件下建设基础设施,阿富汗也应当成为他们的用武之地。

长期以来,中国在阿富汗问题上奉行的是观望政策。然而,现在已经到了有所作为的时刻。中国需要一个更清晰、更可持续和更全面的阿富汗政策。帮助阿富汗解决它的问题不仅有益于地区和世界,也对中国西部地区的发展有直接的帮助。这是一个双赢的选项。

胡勇 译