Archive for September, 2013

My latest piece for CTC Sentinel has finally landed in timely fashion, about Bilal el Berjawi a British-Lebanese man who ended up connected with al Qaeda and al Shabaab in Somalia. Quite apt in the wake of events in Nairobi, about which I have done a few media hits. More on that later. I was on al Jazeera English’s channel talking about trouble in Sinai and Euronews on foreign fighters going to Syria.

Bilal al-Berjawi and the Shifting Fortunes of Foreign Fighters in Somalia

Sep 24, 2013

Author: Raffaello Pantucci
On September 21, 2013, al-Shabab militants attacked an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. The brazen operation comes in the aftermath of al-Shabab leader Ahmed “Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr” Godane’s consolidation of power. In June, Godane swept aside a raft of senior leaders in the group. His power grab marked a watershed event in a period of dramatic turmoil for al-Shabab.

One individual, Bilal al-Berjawi, whose death may have come as part of an early expression of this schism, returned to public attention when al-Shabab published a number of videos and materials celebrating him in early 2013. A British citizen who was drawn to Somalia before al-Shabab formally existed, he rose through the ranks of al-Shabab and the foreign fighter cell linked to al-Qa`ida to become a figure who was reportedly second only to the head of al-Qa`ida’s East Africa operations, Fazul Abdullah Mohammad (also known as Fadil Harun). Al-Berjawi’s death in January 2012 reportedly triggered tensions within al-Shabab, culminating in Godane’s takeover earlier this year. Yet al-Shabab emphasized that al-Berjawi’s death was the product of Western intelligence efforts, rather than an internal purge.[1]

The accuracy of al-Shabab’s claims in the videos remain to be proven, but the releases provide an interesting view on current developments within al-Shabab as well as illuminating al-Berjawi’s role within the group and his narrative as an epigraph for foreigners drawn to al-Shabab.

This article offers an in-depth look into al-Berjawi’s life, as well as some thoughts on how he may have become enmeshed within the contingent of al-Shabab that has been sidelined. Al-Berjawi’s death, the reported death of American al-Shabab fighter Omar Hammami alongside another Briton,[2] the death of long-time al-Shabab leader Ibrahim al-Afghani, the disappearance of Mukhtar Robow, and Hassan Dahir Aweys’ decision to turn himself in to authorities all point to a change within the organization that seems to have been punctuated by the ambitious attack in Nairobi. The ultimate result is still developing, but al-Berjawi’s rise and fall provides a useful window with which to look at the role of foreigners in the conflict in Somalia.

The Life of Bilal al-Berjawi
Bilal al-Berjawi was a Lebanon-born, British-educated young man also known as Abu Hafsa.[3] Born in Beirut in September 1984, his parents brought him to the United Kingdom when he was a baby.[4] Raised in west London, he lived as a young man near an Egyptian family whose son, Mohammed Sakr, became his close friend. Characterized as “two peas in a pod” by fellow Somalia-based foreign jihadist Omar Hammami, al-Berjawi’s and Sakr’s stories seem closely intertwined.[5] Sakr’s family reported that the two men met as boys when Sakr was 12-years-old, and then lived adjacent to each other.[6] Most references to the men in jihadist materials mention them as a pair.

In a martyrdom notice for al-Berjawi, al-Shabab said that he was from west London,[7] while the BBC identified him as being from St. Johns Wood in the northwest of the city.[8] A community worker who knew al-Berjawi in his teenage years said that he was involved in teenage gang violence in west London, specifically in clashes between Irish gangs and Muslim youth in the area.[9] He was not particularly religious, although he appeared to be a contemplative young man.[10] He had a wife of Somali origin who he married when he was 19- or 20-years-old, and a child who was conceived after he had risen up the ranks of al-Qa`ida’s East Africa cell.[11]

According to a longer martyrdom notice published almost a year after his death as part of a series called “Biographies of the Flags of the Martyrs in East Africa,”[12] al-Berjawi was trained by al-Qa`ida operatives Fazul Abdullah Mohammad and Salah Ali Salah Nabhan when he first arrived in Somalia in 2006.[13] Under their tutelage, he seems to have flourished, although when the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) fled as a result of the Ethiopian invasion, al-Berjawi returned to the United Kingdom to fundraise and find ways to send money back to East Africa.[14] Al-Berjawi’s martyr biography praised him in this role, calling him “brilliant” and able to set up many profitable projects.[15] According to his martyrdom video released by al-Shabab’s media wing, after the release of his written biography, he decided to travel back to Lebanon from London.[16]

In February 2009, al-Berjawi and Sakr headed to Kenya, telling their families their intention was to go on a “safari.”[17] They were detained in Nairobi because they “aroused the suspicions” of a hotel manager in Mombasa.[18] Both were deported back to the United Kingdom (as British passport holders) and told different accounts of their actions to awaiting security officials.[19] When Mohammed Sakr’s father confronted his son about his actions, Sakr said, “Daddy, it’s finished, it will never happen again. It’s all done and dusted.”[20]

By October 2009, the men decided to try to return to Somalia, and this time they were able to evade detection and slip out of the United Kingdom along with a third man. According to the “Biographies of the Flags of the Martyrs in East Africa,” they had to travel through a number of countries before they arrived in Somalia.[21] In November, they were reported by Ugandan authorities as being at the heart of a manhunt for individuals allegedly plotting terrorist acts in the country.[22] The two were identified alongside a third British national named Walla Eldin Abdel Rahman—a name that corresponds with British court documents.[23] Al-Berjawi, in particular, was identified as having three passports with him.[24]

According to his martyr biography, having returned to Baidoa in Somalia, al-Berjawi joined a camp and trained diligently alongside others, undertaking “difficult assignments” despite being reported as having a stomach condition.[25] He was described as being supportive of his colleagues and a lover of battles. As time passed, he seemed to have assumed greater responsibilities, helping to supply forces (with items such as clothing and weapons) and to take on responsibility for tending to families left behind by fallen warriors.[26] In early 2010, Mohammed Sakr called his parents from Somalia to reassure them that he was doing well.[27]

In July 2010, a cell linked to al-Shabab conducted a double suicide bombing in Kampala, Uganda, on two bars where people watched the soccer World Cup final. The attack claimed approximately 74 lives.[28] According to one report in the Ugandan press, al-Berjawi, Sakr and Rahman were detected entering the country in July 2010, although it remains unclear the exact role that they played, if any, in the Kampala attack.[29]

By this point, al-Berjawi was repeatedly referred to in the Ugandan press as being a direct deputy to Fazul Mohammad, the head of al-Qa`ida’s operations in East Africa, although he seems to have been close to others in al-Shabab as well.[30] The “Biographies of the Flags of the Martyrs in East Africa” identified him as being in regular direct contact with Fazul, and even helping him get into Somalia at one point.[31] A biography of Fazul released by al-Shabab and statements from American jihadist Omar Hammami corroborated this, with the biography stating that al-Berjawi was in regular contact with Fazul[32] and Hammami claiming in an interview that Fazul kept abreast of developments in Somalia through contacts with al-Berjawi and Sakr, both of whom “were very close to Fazul at the time prior to his martyrdom.”[33] In September 2010, the British home secretary sent letters to al-Berjawi’s and Sakr’s parents revoking their citizenships “on grounds of conduciveness to the public good.”[34]

In June 2011, a drone strike that may have been targeting senior al-Shabab figure Ibrahim al-Afghani supposedly injured al-Berjawi.[35] This came two weeks after Fazul took a wrong turn down a road in Mogadishu and drove straight into a Somali government roadblock. According to al-Shabab’s biography of Fazul, in the wake of his death concerns started to mount about the circumstances involved, and a number of al-Shabab commanders, alongside al-Berjawi, Sakr and others, fled the country.[36] In this version of events, as the group fled Somalia, they were targeted by the drone that injured al-Berjawi.[37] After being injured in the drone strike, al-Berjawi snuck into Kenya to recuperate with Sakr’s assistance.[38]

It is unclear at what point al-Berjawi returned to Somalia, but by early 2012 he seems to have been back in the country and is described in the regional press as having assumed Fazul’s position as the leader of al-Qa`ida in Somalia[39]—although given he had been injured so soon after Fazul’s death, it is not clear how much he would have been able to achieve in this role. Nevertheless, this would have made him a target for foreign intelligence services and, according to a video confession produced by al-Shabab and released by al-Kataib that was posted in May 2013 seemingly to affirm the narrative behind al-Berjawi’s death, it is at this time that unspecified foreign intelligence services allegedly recruited a young Somali named Isaac Omar Hassan.[40] According to Hassan’s confession to al-Shabab, he was recruited by foreign intelligence services to help them track al-Berjawi so that he could be killed in a drone strike.[41] Hassan said that al-Berjawi was the first person that the handlers asked him about.[42]

In Hassan’s telling, he recruited a friend, Yasin Osman Ahmed, who was to drive al-Berjawi that day.[43] Al-Berjawi allegedly called Ahmed on the morning of January 21, 2012, at around 9 or 10 AM as he wanted to go to the market to purchase a firearm.[44] Later, according to Hassan, al-Berjawi was driving to meet with the “amir of the mujahidin” when they stopped to make a phone call. It was at this point that the drone found its target, killing al-Berjawi.[45] In Hassan’s confessional, a month later an almost identical scenario played out, but this time with him recruiting a third man called Abdirahman Osman to act as the person who supposedly led the drone to its targets: Mohammed Sakr and another group of foreign fighters.[46]

Questions About Death
Bilal al-Berjawi’s death seems to have sparked a wave of concern within the community of al-Qa`ida in East Africa and foreigners in al-Shabab. After al-Berjawi death, hundreds of foreign fighters reportedly left Somalia. Shaykh Abuukar Ali Aden, an al-Shabab leader for Lower and Middle Jubba region, told Somalia Report that “yes, it is true that those brothers left us and went to Yemen due to some minor internal misunderstandings amongst ourselves. This started when we lost our brother Bilal al-Berjawi.”[47] An emergency meeting was held almost immediately after al-Berjawi’s death that was attended by al-Shabab leaders Ali Mohamed Rage, Hassan Dahir Aweys, Mukhtar Robow, Omar Hammami, Shaykh Fuad Mohammed Kalaf, and unidentified others.[48] Notably absent was Godane.[49] This seemed to echo another meeting that had been held prior to al-Berjawi’s death in December 2011 when al-Shabab leaders “opposed to Godane” gathered in Baidoa.[50]

Concerns seem to have focused around the fact that so many key players in al-Qa`ida’s East Africa cell and the foreign fighter community were being removed from the battlefield in quick succession. The fact that Fazul died in such odd circumstances for a man of his caliber and training,[51] followed by al-Berjawi’s death, all seemed to suggest an internal purge. When Sakr and others were killed a month after al-Berjawi, this sense seemed to harden, with Omar Hammami considering Sakr’s death “a strange incident.”[52] In between al-Berjawi’s and Sakr’s deaths, however, the new leader of al-Qa`ida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, announced al-Shabab’s official merger with the terrorist group.

The exact details of this possible leadership dispute remain unclear. Yet the recent executions of Ibrahim al-Afghani and Sheikh Maalim Burhan,[53] the reported death of American Omar Hammami,[54] Hassan Dahir Aweys’ decision to hand himself over to authorities in Mogadishu, and Mukhtar Robow’s abrupt move into hiding[55] all indicate that whatever leadership struggle was underway has now come into the open with Godane emerging victorious. What role al-Berjawi played in this remains unclear, although it seems as though his death may have been a catalyst to precipitate subsequent events. The emergence of the video confessional produced by al-Shabab seems a conscious effort to claim al-Berjawi’s death was solely the product of external intelligence efforts, rather than due to an internal purge.[56]

Al-Berjawi’s Links to Other Militants
What led Bilal al-Berjawi to fight in Somalia is uncertain. His decision to train in Somalia in 2006 when the ICU was in power suggests he was part of a larger community of London radicals who were drawn to Somalia before al-Shabab emerged as a powerful entity. The fact that he had a Somali wife likely acted as a stimulant to go to Somalia, rather than to Iraq or Afghanistan, which were popular destinations among British Islamists at the time. These individuals were part of the radical scene in London that were drawn by messages advanced by radical preachers who circled around the “Londonistan” community. Al-Berjawi was further connected, at least peripherally, to a group linked to the network that attempted to carry out a terrorist attack on London’s transportation system on July 21, 2005.

The links to this cell can be found through an individual mentioned in UK court documents as “J1.” An Ethiopian national born in 1980, J1 reportedly moved to the United Kingdom with his family in 1990 and is currently believed to be fighting deportation to Ethiopia.[57] He was part of a group that attended camps in the United Kingdom run by Mohammed Hamid, an older radical figure who took over responsibilities for the community around Finsbury Park after Abu Hamza al-Masri was taken into custody in 2003.[58]

In December 2004, J1 was picked up by police in Scotland near where Hamid was running a training camp, far away from their residences in London.[59] A former crack cocaine addict who had founded the al-Koran bookshop on Chatsworth Road, East London, Mohammed Hamid is currently in jail having been convicted of soliciting murder and providing terrorist training.[60] Most notoriously, in May 2004 he ran a training camp in Cumbria where four of the July 21, 2005, bombers attended.[61] Also at the camp was a pair of men who were later detected to have gone to Somalia in May 2005 with three other friends as part of what security services assessed was “for purposes relating to terrorism.”[62] J1 admitted knowing the men had gone to Somalia, although he claimed he thought it was for “religious purposes.”[63]

Around a month later, on July 21, 2005, J1 was in telephone contact with Hussain Osman—one of the men responsible for the attempted London bombings that day (also present at Mohammed Hamid’s camp).[64] His role in al-Berjawi’s tale is similar to that with the May 2005 group that went to Somalia. According to court documents, by 2009 J1 was a “significant member of a group of Islamist extremists in the UK” and in this role he provided support for al-Berjawi, Sakr and a third acquaintance when they went to Somalia in late 2009.[65]

Conclusion
The narrative around al-Berjawi shows the shifting relationship between al-Shabab and al-Qa`ida’s East Africa cell. His travel to the region in 2006, and then again in 2009, was during the period when jihad in East Africa was of great appeal to Western aspirants seeking jihadist adventures. The emergence of the ICU that at first seemed to emulate the Taliban provided inspiration that was then spurred on with the invasion of Somalia by U.S.-supported Ethiopian forces in 2006.[66] With the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces and the subsequent overstretch by al-Shabab, however, Somalia appears to have become a less welcoming place for foreigners seeking to advance a narrative of global jihad.[67]

This is not to say that the jihad in Somalia no longer has its foreign adherents. The elusive Samantha Lewthwaite, the convert wife of July 7, 2005, bomber Jermaine Lindsay, remains at large in East Africa and is accused of being a key figure in al-Shabab cells outside Somalia.[68] Canadian passport holder Mahad Ali Dhore was among those involved in the attack on the Mogadishu Supreme Court in April 2013.[69] Most significantly, al-Shabab claimed that a number of foreign fighters—including Americans—participated in the recent Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi.[70]

Yet Somalia has lost some of its luster, something that has been accelerated by the emergence of alternative battlefields like Syria or North Africa as places where young Western jihadist tourists can go. This is a situation that could reverse itself, but until some greater clarity is cast over Godane’s power grab in the organization and the status of al-Shabab, it seems likely that fewer foreigners will be drawn to that battlefield. The life and times of Bilal al-Berjawi offer a window with which to see the waxing and waning appeal of East Africa for Western jihadists.

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] “A Drone Strike Pronounces a Martyr,” al-Shabab, January 21, 2012.

[2] Tom Whitehead, Mike Pflanz and Ben Farmer, “British Terror Suspect Linked to ‘White Widow’ Samantha Lewthwaite Reportedly Killed,” Telegraph, September 12, 2013. In fact, it is not clear whether the individual identified in the article was the same Briton killed alongside Hammami, although it seems clear that the kunya identifying him as British was correct (Osama al-Britani).

[3] One Ugandan report also gave him the following pseudonyms: Hallway Carpet, Omar Yusuf and Bilal el Berjaour. See Barbara Among, “Police Foil Another Bomb Attack in Kampala,” New Vision, September 25, 2010. An online biography released about al-Berjawi also mentioned he liked to use the name Abu Dujana.

[4] Among; Chris Woods, “Parents of British Man Killed by US Drone Blame UK Government,” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, March 15, 2013.

[5] This quote is based on a Twitter conversation between this author and the @abumamerican Twitter handle, April 19, 2013. Omar Hammami is believed to be the owner of that handle.

[6] Woods.

[7] “A Drone Strike Pronounces a Martyr.”

[8] Secunder Kermani, “Drone Victim’s Somalia Visits Probed,” BBC, May 30, 2013.

[9] Personal interview, Tam Hussein, community worker who knew al-Berjawi, London, August 2013.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Woods.

[12] For the entire series “Biographies of the Flags of the Martyrs in East Africa,” see http://www.jihadology.net/category/biography-of-the-flags-of-the-martyrs-in-east-africa.

[13] See “Biography of the Martyred Figures in East Africa 4: ‘Abd Allah Fadil al-Qamari,’” available on Jihadology.net, which seems to draw on Fazul Mohammad’s own published biography, “War on Islam,” and interviews with individuals like al-Berjawi.

[14] “Biography of the Martyred Figures in East Africa 5: Bilal al-Birjawi al-Lubnani (Abu Hafs),” available on Jihadology.net.

[15] Ibid.

[16] This video is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dPQGhZaxD5A&feature=youtu.be.

[17] Woods.

[18] BX v. The Secretary of State for the Home Department, Royal Courts of Justice, 2010.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Woods.

[21] “Biography of the Martyred Figures in East Africa 5: Bilal al-Birjawi al-Lubnani (Abu Hafs).”

[22] Milton Olupot, “Security Hunts for Somali Terrorists,” New Vision, November 8, 2009.

[23] J1 v. The Secretary of State for the Home Department, Royal Courts of Justice, 2013.

[24] Olupot.

[25] “Biography of the Martyred Figures in East Africa 5: Bilal al-Birjawi al-Lubnani (Abu Hafs).”

[26] Ibid.

[27] Woods.

[28] Elias Biryabarema, “Uganda Bombs Kill 74, Islamists Claim Attack,” Reuters, July 12, 2010.

[29] Among.

[30] In fact, it is not entirely clear how separate the two organizations were at this point. The al-Qa`ida in East Africa cell seems to have been quite small and largely part of al-Shabab’s community.

[31] “Biography of the Martyred Figures in East Africa 5: Bilal al-Birjawi al-Lubnani (Abu Hafs).”

[32] “Biography of the Martyred Figures in East Africa 4: ‘Abd Allah Fadil al-Qamari,’” available on Jihadology.net.

[33] “Answers to the Open Interview with the Mujahid Shaykh [Omar Hammami] Abu Mansur al-Amiriki,’” The Islamic World Issues Study Center, May 2013, available at Jihadology.net.

[34] Woods.

[35] Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, “Senior Shabaab Commander Rumored to Have Been Killed in Recent Predator Strike,” The Long War Journal, July 9, 2011.

[36] “Biography of the Martyred Figures in East Africa 4: ‘Abd Allah Fadil al-Qamari,’” available at Jihadology.net.

[37] Ibid.

[38] “Biography of the Martyred Figures in East Africa 5: Bilal al-Birjawi al-Lubnani (Abu Hafs).”

[39] “Al Qaeda Leader Killed in Somalia Blast,” The Star [Nairobi], January 24, 2012.

[40] This confession video was purportedly filmed by al-Shabab. It is worth noting that in the video the group alternates between accusing the CIA or Britain’s MI6 of being responsible for handling Hassan. The video was posted in May 2013 and is available at http://ia600707.us.archive.org/22/items/3d-f7dhrhm-2/SoBeware2_HQ.m4v.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Rashid Nuune, “Al Qaeda, al-Shabaab Pledge Allegiance…Again,” Somalia Report, February 9, 2012.

[48] Mohammed Odowa, “Al Barjawi Assassination Widens Rift in Shabaab,” Somalia Report, January 23, 2012.

[49] Ibid.

[50] “Al Qaeda Commander Killed in Somalia Blast,” The Star, January 24, 2012.

[51] It is worth noting that in the East Africa martyrs biography about Berjawi, Fazul’s death is characterized as being a “planned” assassination, suggesting it was not an accident.

[52] This detail is based on a Twitter conversation between this author and the @abumamerican Twitter handle, April 19, 2013. Omar Hammami is believed to be the owner of that handle.

[53] “Godane Loyalists Reportedly Execute al-Shabaab Leader Ibrahim al-Afghani,” Sabahi, June 28, 2013.

[54] Whitehead et al.

[55] Hassan M. Abukar, “Somalia: The Godane Coup and the Unraveling of al-Shabaab,” African Arguments, July 3, 2013.

[56] This could certainly be true as al-Berjawi clearly was a focus of Western intelligence efforts.

[57] J1 v. The Secretary of State for the Home Department.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Duncan Gardham, “Airlines Plot: Al-Qaeda Mastermind ‘is Still Alive,’” Telegraph, September 10, 2009.

[61] Dominic Casciani, “Top Extremist Recruiter is Jailed,” BBC, February 26, 2008.

[62] J1 v. The Secretary of State for the Home Department.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Ibid.

[65] According to court documents: “In October 2009 Berjawi, Sakr and Rahman travelled from the UK to Somalia for the purpose of terrorist training and terrorist activity in Somalia. The appellant knew in advance about the travel plans of those three men and the purpose of their expedition.” See ibid. Confirmation of support is provided through a separate court document: J1 v. The Secretary of State for the Home Department, “Deportation – Substantive (National Security) – Dismissed,” 2011.

[66] It emulated the Taliban in the sense that it was an Islamically driven movement seeking to restore order to a land overrun by warlords.

[67] Most publicly, this has been seen in the struggle around the American Omar Hammami whose writings and online activity on YouTube and Twitter highlighted the disagreements between the various factions in al-Shabab, but traces of it can also be found in Bilal al-Berjawi’s tale.

[68] Mike Pflanz, “White Widow Samantha Lewthwaite ‘was Plotting to Free Jermaine Grant,’” Telegraph, March 13, 2013. It is worth noting, however, that it was her new husband, Habib Ghani, who died alongside Omar Hammami. See Whitehead et al.

[69] Michelle Shephard, “Probe Focuses on Canadian as Shabaab Leader of Somalia Courthouse Attack,” Toronto Star, April 15, 2013.

[70] David Simpson and Arwa Damon, “Smoke Rises Over Besieged Kenya Mall,” CNN, September 23, 2013

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Another piece for The Diplomat, this time with Alex (my co-editor at China in Central Asia), focusing on Xinjiang and how this fits into China’s Central Asian strategy. Very much the theme of our bigger project that we are working on at the moment. So much more on this subject soon!

Tightening the Silk Road Belt
By  Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

September 18, 2013

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As Chinese President Xi Jinping headed to Central Asia last week, Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang in the northwest of China, hosted the 3rd annual China Eurasia Expo. While maybe not intentionally choreographed to take place at the same time, the two events have a significant parallelism to them, reflecting the importance of Xinjiang to China’s Central Asian policy. For China, the “Silk Road Economic Belt” that Xi spoke of in Kazakhstan starts in Xinjiang, acting as the connective tissue that binds China’s crowded and prosperous eastern seaboard with Eurasia, Europe and the Middle East.

China’s interest in Central Asia is primarily a selfish one. This is not unusual in national interests: foreign policy is naturally focused on self-interest. But with China in Central Asia, the key role of Xinjiang distinguishes it from China’s relations with other parts of the world. For Beijing, Central Asian policy aims at both increasing China’s connectivity to Europe and the Middle East as well as reaping the benefits of the region’s rich natural resources, but also about helping foster development and therefore long-term stability in Xinjiang. A province periodically wracked by internal violence and instability, Beijing has quite clearly made the calculation that to stabilize the province, more economic development should be encouraged.

The result is a surge in internal investment in the province, most recently typified by the figures to emerge from the China Eurasia Expo, where some $121 billion worth of domestic deals were announced. German-Chinese joint venture company VW-SAIC is opening a car factory outside Urumqi, a Sino-Turkish investment park is being opened on the other side of the city, while companies from across China are being actively encouraged to invest in the province. And across Xinjiang new infrastructure is being built – from the refurbishment of the Karakoram Highway, to a new airport in Urumqi, to new roads to connect Kashgar to nearby border posts with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, all of which aims to transform the province into the “gateway to Eurasia” as former leader Wen Jiabao put it during his speech to the Expo last year.

But for this approach to work, it is essential that Xinjiang have a prosperous region around it to trade with – hence the heavy focus during Premier Xi’s visit on economic development and links. And it is important to note that it is not only a region to trade with, but also a region to trade through. Ultimately, Central Asian markets are quite limited and still relatively underdeveloped and poor. The real goal is to reach through Central Asia, into Russia and ultimately Europe. This is the Silk Road Economic Belt that Xi is talking about, and it is one that ends in the first instance at the new city being built with Chinese support outside Minsk in Belarus and similar developments near Tbilisi in Georgia, but really ends in the homes of European consumers.

An ambitious goal for sure, but from Beijing’s perspective, it is a means of re-connecting China to its Eurasian heritage, while also helping develop a province that has proven a difficult issue to resolve. It also provides China with a further avenue to markets that is not reliant on sea routes, as well as opening up links to a part of the world rich in natural resources.

The vision is good, but is it actually being realized? This year, cumulative deaths in Xinjiang are approaching 200, the result of a number of incidents. Almost three years on from the re-branded strategy and the “Develop the West” push, it is not clear that this approach is working. In fact, given that it increasingly seems as though incidents in Xinjiang are not the product of external direction, but rather internal anger, one could say that the problems are getting more intense.

So if the strategy is not quite working, what does China need to do to change it? What is missing, it seems, is an overarching vision that seeks to reach beyond simply making everyone wealthy, but also tries to address some of the fundamental underlying social and ethnic tensions that boil beneath the surface. Xinjiang-ren, or those who consider themselves natives of the province, will clearly not be happy just to be given jobs, trade prospects and prosperity. A larger, more holistic picture must be painted and one that is not solely reliant on trade or an iron fist. This must be the legacy of the New Silk Road: reconnecting Xinjiang and opening up the province in every way to enable it to prosper once again.

China is Central Asia’s most consequential power, a consequence of the intense focus on the region through Xinjiang. If Beijing really wants this policy to work, then it will need greater nuance and focus to transform it from a money-driven theory to one that better reflects local realities.

Raffaello Pantucci is Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and Dr. Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West.

And another piece, this time for The Diplomat, linked to Xi’s visit through Central Asia, this time focusing on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit now happening in Bishkek with my friend and co-author Li Lifan. I have also been doing various media bits around this trip, including an interview with RFE/RL among others.

Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Not Quite the New Silk Road

By  Raffaello Pantucci and Li Lifan

September 12, 2013

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Presaging his stopover in Kyrgyzstan, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech in Kazakhstan in which he spoke of establishing a “Silk Road Economic Belt” that would bind China to its Eurasian neighborhood. A trip so far focused largely on Afghanistan and trade, the stopover in Bishkek for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization(SCO) summit is the capstone to what has been a successful trip, tidily wrapping the two subjects up in a bow largely of China’s making.

Of course, there are numerous other topics on the table at the summit beyond Afghanistan. Expanding membership looks like it is going to remain unresolved again – India and Pakistan continue to knock loudly on the door. Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani has announced he will attend, possibly highlighting the new regime’s diplomatic approach (although it is unclear what the SCO means within this context), and it seems likely that further agreements about closer cooperation and discussion are likely to be held. Beijing will undoubtedly push an economic agenda – though this will find hostility from the other member states fearful of dominance. The question over the SCO development bank will remain unresolved.

Inevitably, Afghanistan will feature as a major topic of conversation. Just prior to the delegates meeting in Bishkek, units from SCO member states will have just completed a training exercise near Lake Issyk-Kul in the northeast of Kyrgyzstan. This comes after an earlier SCO flagged exercise, in which Chinese and Kyrgyz troops trained in their border areas, and a larger “Peace Mission” exercise involving Chinese and Russian formations. All of these training missions are described as being focused on countering terrorism: large-scale military activity that in fact seems more aimed at border protection and countering insurgent groups rather than urban terrorists. Useful skills if you are worried about overspill from Afghanistan.

The reality, however, is that the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is still largely considered the main regional security player by most Central Asians, backed as it is by Russian guarantees and equipment. The Chinese-led SCO still plays a second fiddle to the Russian endeavor, though the SCO has spoken at length about counter-narcotics, countering the “Three Evils” of “extremism, separatism and terrorism,” and now has a Chinese head of its security structure in Tashkent – the unfortunately namedRATS center (Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure).

The problem for the SCO is that it remains an organization lacking a clear sense of its role in the world. This is a problem that is fundamentally about the very divergent views among the member state capitals (all of whom have equal weighting within the institution’s decision-making processes), and in particular Beijing’s desire to create a positive umbrella under which to shelter its efforts in Central Asia, even as other members worry about Chinese dominance.

The result is a half-baked multilateral vehicle that focuses on arcane discussions about membership with no conclusion, and holds military exercises aimed at unspecified enemies. On the one hand, this helps develop relations and bonds in a region rife with internal tensions, but on the other it fails to deliver much in the way of practical progress. The real progress during Xi’s trip has already been made. The SCO summit merely provides a tidy bookend.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the co-editor ofChina in Central AsiaLi Lifan is secretary general of the Centre for SCO Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

A slightly belated posting of a piece I wrote for the Chinese newspaper I occasionally contribute to, 东方早报 (Oriental Morning Post), looking at Xi Jinping’s still ongoing trip through Central Asia. More on this soon as the subject remains one I am working actively on. As with other pieces I write in Chinese, I have posted the English I submitted above, with the the published Chinese below.

China needs a clear strategy for Central Asia

Two major themes have emerged as key during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Central Asia: economics and Afghanistan. The economics is made all the more relevant with the concurrent China Eurasian Expo where senior leaders from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan attended alongside businessmen from across Central Asia. The focus of the Expo is to attract investment and prosperity to Xinjiang, something that is seen as being inextricably intertwined with Eurasia and is captured in the Expo’s tagline this year of ‘common development.’ From Beijing’s perspective, developing Xinjiang is a crucial goal if the violence that has peaked once again this year is to finally be brought under control. And in order to do this properly, Beijing needs to have Xinjiang surrounded by an area of prosperity, or at the very least a region which has good roads through which goods from China can pass on to the more lucrative European and Russian markets. This is the ‘Silk Road economic belt’ that President Xi spoke of in Kazakhstan.

Central Asia is also appealing because of its wealth of natural resources: Chinese firms are one of the only ones able to extract hydrocarbons (in the form of gas) from Turkmenistan and CNPC recently successfully pulled off a major coup when it was able to buy into Kazakhstan’s giant Kashagan oil field. In Kazakhstan, China’s Development Bank has made major investments into firms extracting copper and other minerals from Kazakhstan’s rich mines. Elsewhere, Chinese companies are on the ground in Kyrgyzstan seeking out the country’s gold mines in the north of the country. And hanging over this all is the potential mineral wealth in Afghanistan, estimated by the US Geological Survey of being potentially as large as $1 trillion, including massive Lithium reserves and rare earths, as well as copper and oil fields already being developed by Chinese companies.

And sitting atop all of this bilateral activity, China has been pushing to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to move in a more economic direction. Ideas like the SCO Development Bank, an SCO Free Trade Area, greater cross-border currency usage and greater economic integration across the region are fundamentally driven out of Beijing while the other members of the organization grow concerned about Chinese economic dominance. It is here that President Xi’s visit to Uzbekistan in particular was interesting. Long the heart of Central Asia, it retains the most developed industrial infrastructure and largest population – all of which make it tempting for China but also a country that is wary of Chinese economic inroads, seeing the potential for it to undermine the nation’s capability to develop its own economy to a greater degree. Talking to Uzbek businessmen, the perception is that China is both an excellent potential partner, but also one that raises some concerns among officials who worry of succumbing to Chinese economic dominance.

All of this helps explain China’s interests in Central Asia. But the problem is that does not address the two major missing components in China’s regional approach: first is a clear strategy for the region and second is a vision for what role China sees for itself in post-2014 Afghanistan. Clearly the other key aspect of President Xi’s visit to the region, Afghanistan featured as a topic of conversation in most capitals and as part of the strategic partnership agreements and discussions that were held. But while President Xi spoke to the Central Asians about Afghanistan, it remains unclear how exactly the Chinese strategy towards the country is going to dramatically change. It remains to be seen whether we are now going to see the emergence of a clearly developed and pragmatic approach to ensuring security and stability in Afghanistan post-2014.

The absence of a clearly developed strategic vision for Afghanistan is only part of a larger problem in Central Asia, where it is equally unclear that Chinese strategists have developed a holistic approach and strategy that encompasses the full spectrum of national interests – both from a Chinese perspective and Central Asian. All of the Central Asians trade with China and seek out Chinese investment, but public opinion is not usually in China’s favour. People worry about China’s regional aims, fearing that they are about to be subsumed into becoming vassal states of China. And outside powerful elites, few feel they are really benefiting from the influx of Chinese investment. Angry publics in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan in particular have attacked Chinese nationals and interests, and in Tajikistan there was a substantial public outcry when it was revealed that large pieces of territory were being leased to Chinese agricultural companies for development. In the absence of clear explanation, public opinion tends towards conspiracy and paranoia, something that can have practical implications for Chinese companies and operators on the ground. China needs to finds ways to master its strategic communications and ‘soft power’ projection in the region.

On Afghanistan, the picture is a complicated one, though it is clear that chaos in the country has the potential to upset Chinese investments and efforts across Central Asia and Xinjiang. Currently, all that is understood of China’s interests and efforts in Afghanistan can be seen in the increasingly complicated process of the Aynak copper mine where companies MCC and Jiangxi Copper are now seeking to re-negotiate the terms of the deal. Afghans, already sceptical of China’s interests in their country, now see this as a situation where the Chinese firms are doing nothing more than impeding their capacity to benefit from their natural resource wealth. The absence of any efforts by China to support the security situation further strengthen this perception, with few in Afghanistan seeing China playing a positive role in their country. The reality is of course that China is doing something in the nation (though on security, it remains a very limited presence at training a few hundred police), but it lacks a clear strategic vision and push. It appears limited, reactive after much external pressure in a very limited way and driven by large state owned companies focused on mineral resource extraction.

Like it or not, China is going to be a major player in Central Asia and Afghanistan. The time has come for Beijing to develop a coherent regional strategy and approach that finds ways of accepting this responsibility and living up to the promises towards Afghanistan that China continues to say it is making. President Xi’s trip highlighted China’s acknowledgement that Central Asia is worried about Afghanistan: as the big player at the table, it is time to take some leadership and more from rhetoric to pragmatism.

 潘睿凡

特约撰稿人

正当第三届中国-亚欧博览会在乌鲁木齐盛大召开之际,习近平也开始了他就任中国国家主席之后的首次中亚之行。时间上的重叠既凸显了中亚对于中国的重要性,也投射出了双方关系的复杂性。就中国而言,重视对中亚的政策与中国的内政密切相关,同时也与当下一些最错综复杂的国际安全问题紧密相连。问题在于外界对于中国在中亚到底有没有一个成熟的或者清晰的战略视野尚不清楚,即使从一开始中国就参与了围绕中亚的战略博弈。

习近平此访的两项优先议程是经济合作与阿富汗问题。与第一项议程直接相关的就是刚刚落幕的中国-亚欧博览会。出席博览会的除了来自中亚的商界人士,还有吉尔吉斯斯坦总理和塔吉克斯坦第一副总理。博览会的主要目的是为新疆招商引资,从而促进新疆繁荣昌盛。这是因为新疆的发展一直被视为与欧亚大陆的命运难解难分,这从今年博览会“共谋发展”的主题中也可见一斑。从北京的视角来看,如果要抑制新疆的暴力恐怖活动,发展新疆就是至关重要的抉择。而要达到这个目标,北京就需要为新疆塑造一个繁荣的外部环境,至少要有一条稳定的通道将中国的商品运往更有利可图的欧洲和俄罗斯市场。这一点对于吉尔吉斯斯坦尤为重要,因为各方资料均显示对中国商品的进口和再出口如今占到了这个中亚最贫困国家国内生产总值的三分之一。

中亚的吸引力还在于其丰富的自然资源。中国企业是少数能够从土库曼斯坦开采到天然气的外国公司。中石油最近又成功参股哈萨克斯坦的卡沙甘(Kashagan)油田。中国国家开发银行还向哈萨克斯坦企业提供贷款,帮助它们在本国开采铜矿和其他矿物。除此之外,中国企业还在吉尔吉斯斯坦北部开采金矿。更令中国企业兴奋的是,根据美国地质调查局的估算,阿富汗潜在矿藏的价值可能高达1万亿美元,其中包括大量的锂矿和稀土,以及中国公司已经在中亚其他地区开采的铜矿和油田。

除了上述双边合作项目,中国正在力推上海合作组织(SCO)成为一个更加偏重经济的区域组织。无论是上合组织开发银行、上合组织自贸区还是更大规模的区域经济一体化方案,基本上都是出自北京之手。习近平此番对乌兹别克斯坦的访问特别引人瞩目。乌兹别克斯坦最吸引中国企业的地方在于它拥有中亚最发达的工业基础设施和最庞大的人口,长期以来都是中亚的中心国家。但另一方面,这个国家中的有些人也担心中国的经济影响力可能会削弱其发展本国经济的能力。根据笔者同乌兹别克斯坦商界的交谈,他们认可中国是不可多得的潜在合作伙伴,但也有政府官员担心将来会受制于中国的经济控制力。

所有这些都可以帮助解释中国在中亚的利益。但中国的中亚政策还有两个重要的组成部分有待补全:一是清晰的地区战略,二是2014年以后中国在阿富汗发挥什么作用。

缺乏一个清晰和成熟的地区战略可以解释中国与中亚国家之间时不时出现的小摩擦。尽管所有的中亚国家都与中国做生意并渴望中国的投资,但坦率地说,在这些国家的公众眼中,中国并不一定总是讨人喜欢。当地总有些人担心中国在中亚的真正意图,个别人甚至害怕它们将来会沦为中国的附属国。由于缺少清楚的解释,这些国家的舆论倾向于相信阴谋论,并对中国在当地的企业及其经营者疑神疑鬼。中国不妨想办法改善战略沟通,并在该地区投射“软实力”。我们高兴地看到,习近平在哈萨克斯坦的有关中亚政策的演讲已经开启这一进程。

阿富汗问题非常复杂。目前显而易见的是该国的混乱局面可能会破坏中国在中亚和新疆的投资与努力。当前中国在阿富汗的利益和努力可能比较集中在形势越发复杂的艾娜克(Aynak)铜矿。习近平主席此行与他访问的中亚国家都就促进阿富汗的安全、和平和发展达成了一致,这表明中国开始意识到是时候在中亚地区事务中发挥大国的作用了。

中国正在成为中亚和阿富汗的主要行为体,这是不以他人的意志为转移的。不过,由于战略视野和动力尚待进一步清晰,中国和该地区的关系显得既棘手又复杂。习近平选择出访中亚凸显了该地区对中国的重要性,让我们期望他此行的演讲和与中亚国家领导人的会晤能为一个更加清晰的地区视野寻找到一个新的表述。(胡勇 译