Archive for January, 2014

Another piece for my institutional home’s analytical publication, Newsbrief, this time looking at the relationship between Pakistan and China. While this is not exactly Central Asia, it still forms a component of my bigger research project looking at China in Central Asia with Alex. More on this broader theme on the way.

China in Pakistan: An Awkward Relationship Beneath the Surface
RUSI Newsbrief, 15 Jan 2014
By Raffaello Pantucci

Characterised by soaring rhetoric, at first glance the China–Pakistan bilateral relationship appears to be one of the world’s closest. Yet below the surface calm bubble concerns, with policy-makers in Beijing particularly worried about the implications of the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan for stability in Pakistan. Western policy-makers should not, however, be optimistic that these concerns will soon translate into Chinese willingness to somehow assume responsibility or leadership in helping Pakistan to develop in a way favourable to the West. Rather, Chinese concerns should be seen within the context of a regional relationship that is likely to grow in prominence as time goes on, ultimately drawing China into a more responsible role in South Asia at least.

China’s Pakistan policy has three principal pillars – political, economic and security – which, together, leaders in Pakistan see as their main bulwark against international abandonment. Elites in both countries have publicly signalled the importance of the Sino–Pakistani relationship. For example, Premier Li Keqiang was the first foreign leader to visit Pakistan after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was elected in June 2013, while Sharif made China his first international destination as prime minister. Meanwhile, speaking about the region more broadly, China’s Ambassador to Islamabad Sun Weidong told Pakistan’s National Defence University in October that ‘the Chinese government attaches great importance to developing relations with South Asia, and takes South Asia as a key direction of China’s opening up to the west and a prominent position in China’s neighbouring diplomacy’.

However, the decision to refer to Pakistan in the regional context reflects a divergence of views between the two countries on the importance of the relationship. While China clearly cherishes its links with Pakistan – indeed, Ambassador Sun closed his speech with the rallying call: ‘May the China–Pakistan friendship last forever!’ – the relationship between the two is imbalanced, with China the big brother and Pakistan the supplicant.

Indeed, for China, Pakistan is significant particularly within the broader regional context of relations with the countries along its western borderlands – stretching from Kazakhstan in the north to India in the south. Ties with Pakistan are seen by Beijing as part of this wider picture, rather than constituting a bilateral relationship in its own right.

This has been evident, most recently, in the relatively slow progress on the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – a 2,000 km route connecting the Pakistani port of Gwadar with Kashgar in the northwestern Xinjiang region of China – which was formally mentioned during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s May 2013 visit to Pakistan. Always an ambitious project, at a Sino–Pakistani track-two meeting in Beijing in August 2013, Lin Dajian, vice director general of the Department of International Cooperation at the National Development and Reform Commission, highlighted ‘the security issues and challenges that could impede the speed of [the] project’. A month later, Ambassador Sun more pointedly stressed the expectation of Pakistani support in ‘safeguarding the security of Chinese institutions and citizens in Pakistan’ as they developed the CPEC.

Other Chinese firms with investments in Pakistan have previously expressed similar concern for the safety of staff based there. In September 2011, China Kingho Group, one of the country’s largest private coal-mining firms, backed out of a $19 billion deal in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province, telling the Wall Street Journal that this was out of security concerns for its staff. In 2004, the Chinese state-owned enterprise Sinohydro, which had won a contract to build the Gomal Zam Dam in Pakistan’s restive southern Waziristan province, suspended work when Chinese engineers were kidnapped near the site. One died during a rescue attempt, and the project was delayed for a further three years while Sinohydro aggressively renegotiated the contract (more than doubling its price). While this dam has now been completed, other Sinohydro projects, like the Duber Khwar hydropower project, have encountered similar problems.

These examples highlight the difficulties – even for Chinese companies – of doing business in Pakistan, belying the overly positive vision of the relationship often portrayed by the media. It also casts some doubt on the feasibility of the CPEC. With the state-owned China Overseas Holdings Limited responsible for managing the Gwadar port since February, focus has turned to the attendant ambitious plans for the Chinese-led re-development of Pakistan’s roads, railways and pipelines, with the aim of transforming the country into a giant highway conveying Chinese goods to the open seas. So far, however, it is unclear how much progress has been made on rendering the port usable. In July, it was revealed in the Pakistani media that an investigation would be initiated into why a Chinese ship had been unable to reach the port due to heavy silt, despite ‘billions of rupees’ having apparently been spent on dredging work.

Yet China’s security concerns with regard to Pakistan extend beyond apprehension about the safety of its nationals. In October 2013, a BBC Urdu report indicated that, at the behest of the Chinese government, Pakistani authorities had added the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM – known within the group itself as the Turkestan Islamic Party) as well as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) to its list of proscribed terrorist organisations. This announcement came amidst a period of turbulence in China, which saw attacks in Xinjiang and one in central Beijing in Tiananmen Square in late October. Although Chinese authorities did not specifically mention a Pakistani link in relation to these attacks, they have previously referred repeatedly to Pakistan or South Asia (which is usually read as Pakistan) as the source of such plots. They also reported, in the aftermath of a number of the attacks in Xinjiang and the Beijing incident, that radical material produced by ETIM had been found at the homes of those involved.

The nature of this connection with ETIM is unclear. While there are radical elements in Xinjiang who might use the ideological inspiration of the group as cover for their actions, it is not clear that there is a command-and-control connection. Certainly, those elements of ETIM that do exist outside of China mostly reside in Pakistan’s badlands, under the protection of those close to the most fervently anti-state members of the militant outfit Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). There, they produce a constant flow of radical videos, magazines and audio messages, calling for the overthrow of the Chinese state and for funding and support. In two messages in 2013, ETIM leader Abdullah Mansour praised those behind recent acts of violence in China: one message was released following an incident in Bachu County in April in which twenty-one were killed after a confrontation with authorities, and the other in the wake of the Beijing attack. However, Mansour did not claim responsibility for these two attacks, instead appearing more eager to give the impression that such acts are not the product of mindless anger, but of a global jihad.

Indeed, domestic messaging about international links to recent incidents in China tends not to refer specifically to Pakistan, but – increasingly – to Syria. For example, Chinese officials have suggested that individuals involved in attacks in Xinjiang also intended to go to Syria while reports in the Chinese media in July 2013 suggested that ETIM members were already fighting there. Subsequent reporting indicated that one member of the group had confessed that he had been dispatched from the battlefield in Syria with orders to conduct some sort of attack in China. Whilst the specifics of these reports are unconfirmed, videos have emerged showing Chinese-speaking individuals and Uighurs on the battlefield there – although whether they hail from China originally or from the large diaspora community in Turkey is unclear.

Despite this, for Beijing, the decision to push for Pakistan to list these groups as terrorist organisations seems more closely linked to concerns that ETIM is increasingly seeking and receiving support from other Central Asian groups based in Pakistan’s badlands. Indeed, the increasingly broad fusion of jihadi groups in the region is likely to be appealing to ETIM, which has historically had difficulty sustaining itself and gaining traction among its counterparts internationally. Furthermore, Central Asian groups like IMU and IJU would be natural partners given their linguistic and ethnic proximity, and recent reports indicate that IMU in particular has been moving northward through Afghanistan, possibly heading back towards its primary ideological target – Islam Karimov’s regime in Uzbekistan. As such, Chinese analysts speak with growing concern about the ‘re-networking’ of extremist groups across the broader Central Asian region.

This is where the importance of Pakistan to China, due to its role and position in the region, becomes clear. Although China has invested substantially in Pakistan itself, it has also invested heavily in the broader region. Afghanistan, Central Asia and India are all potential trade partners and sources of the natural resources needed by China to bolster national growth and, more specifically, to enhance development in Xinjiang. Instability in Pakistan – perhaps through the presence of terrorist organisations – has the potential to undermine such efforts. Thus the prosperity and, indeed, the survival of the Pakistani state is essential to China.

Yet Western policy-makers must remain cautious in their interpretation of this relationship. While China may have a great deal invested in Pakistan, the way in which it pursues its interests there is not likely to further those of the West. Indeed, China will advance an agenda that, first and foremost, safeguards its citizens and assets. It will be unlikely to take on a major security role, preferring to bolster local authorities with whatever they say they need to counter the threat. Human-rights issues are unlikely to be prioritised, and in cases where bribes are required to expedite a process, it is unlikely that Chinese firms will hesitate to oblige.

The positive side of all of this is that China will provide Pakistan with useful infrastructure, be it roads, ports, railways or alternative sources of electricity. China has also demonstrated a willingness to lean on Pakistan when the mutual hostility with India becomes too tense: in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack, Chinese shuttle diplomacy was important in soothing tensions. Following a visit by then-President Zardari of Pakistan to India in 2012, former Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani told the press that it was ‘our best friend China … [which] advised us to promote trade relations with India’.

The end result is a situation in which China will increasingly find itself as the responsible partner to Pakistan, drawn more closely into Pakistani affairs. However, Beijing is unlikely to push for reforms within the Pakistani system or to try to influence affairs beyond its own specific interests. Any Western–Pakistani spats or discussions will be left to one side, with China more eager to nurture a stable country than one that is friendly with the West.

Raffaello Pantucci
Senior Research Fellow, RUSI
Twitter: @raffpantucci

Advertisements

And on the topic of Syria and foreign fighters from Europe, here is a piece that I wrote a little while ago that has now gone live for a new outlet, Alternatives Internationales Hors-séries a French outlet. For those who cannot read the below French, it is similar to this piece I did for RUSI. More on this subject en route.

Les Jihadistes occidentaux rentrent à la maison

Raffaello Pantucci, chercheur au Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), Londres
Alternatives Internationales Hors-série n° 014 – janvier 2014

Des centaines de jeunes Européens sont partis faire le jihad en Syrie. Et la plupart en reviendront. Radicalisés, vengeurs, ou indifférents, ils sont devenus la bête noire des services de renseignement.

Le conflit syrien est devenu le terreau le plus fertile du jihadisme mondialisé. Alors que l’on va entrer dans la quatrième année du conflit, la guerre civile syrienne est devenue un pot-pourri d’extrémistes, jeunes sunnites ou chiites venant combattre aux côtés des différentes factions en présence. Parmi eux, on trouve de plus en plus de jeunes Européens.

Ces jihadistes occidentaux renforcent-ils la menace terroriste dans les pays européens ? Pour le moment, la guerre en Syrie a surtout alimenté la menace terroriste au niveau régional : une cellule planifiant des attentats en Jordanie a été démantelée, des attaques ont été commises en Turquie ou au Liban. De même, faut-il le rappeler, il n’y a pas de branche européenne d’Al-Qaïda. Parce que l’organisation terroriste peine à faire des émules sur le Vieux Continent, mais aussi parce qu’aucun groupe ne remplit les critères d’adhésion – autonomie logistique et financière, liens établis avec la haute hiérarchie du mouvement – édictés par la maison mère. En outre, si une branche européenne venait à officiellement se faire connaître, la réponse des services de renseignement et de sécurité ne se ferait pas attendre, et elle serait aussitôt arrêtée.

Mais les responsables européens ont raison de s’inquiéter, car historiquement nombre de terroristes ont d’abord été des combattants jihadistes. Et à moyen terme, les Occidentaux vont devoir se pencher sur leurs jeunes ressortissants revenant du front syrien, avec l’expérience, l’entraînement et les réseaux qui peuvent être utilisés à des fins terroristes sur leurs sols.

Les plus inquiétants sont ceux qui sont directement missionnés par des organisations jihadistes, comme le montre l’exemple de Mohammed Siddique Khan et Shezad Tanweer, le duo au coeur des attentats de Londres de juillet 2005. Khan, la tête pensante, avait réalisé nombre de voyages au Pakistan et en Afghanistan où il s’était entraîné dans un premier temps avec les groupes jihadistes du Cachemire, puis plus tard avec les Afghans. Son troisième voyage en Afghanistan aurait dû être le dernier – il avait prévu d’y mourir comme il l’a indiqué dans une vidéo adressée à sa jeune fille – jusqu’à ce qu’il rencontre des membres d’Al-Qaïda le convainquant de l’intérêt de mener une attaque sur son sol d’origine. D’autres ont emprunté ce chemin, mais sans parvenir à leurs fins, comme Faisal Shahzad et Najibullah Zazi, qui voulaient chacun commettre un attentat à New York après des voyages en Afghanistan et au Pakistan.

Avant de partir combattre déjà, ces hommes nourrissaient une haine de l’Occident, et voyaient dans le fait de détenir un passeport occidental l’occasion de commettre plus facilement un attentat. Un tel sentiment anime-t-il ceux qui sont aujourd’hui en Syrie ? Leur rhétorique et leur allégeance à Al-Qaïda pourraient laisser penser qu’ils partagent ses convictions, mais, pour l’heure, leur priorité est bel et bien de faire tomber le régime d’Assad, pas d’attaquer l’Occident.

Seul contre tous

La deuxième façon dont la menace s’est exprimée dans le passé, c’est à travers des individus qui se sont rendus sur les champs de bataille jihadiste, qui s’y sont constitué un réseau, s’y sont entraînés, puis sont rentrés pour planifier une attaque de leur propre chef. Par exemple, Bilal Abudllha, un médecin irako-britannique qui avec le soutien de son ami Kafeel Ahmed, a tenté de faire exploser deux voitures piégées en plein Londres, et réussi à lancer une voiture remplie d’explosif dans l’aéroport international de Glasgow, en 2007. Abdullah s’était auparavant rendu en Irak, s’était entraîné parmi les insurgés, mais il n’est pas sûr que ces derniers lui aient demandé de commettre des attentats au Royaume-Uni. Dans la même veine, Mohamed Muhidin Gelle, un jeune dano-somalien proche des Chebab avec qui il s’était entraîné, a été accusé de fomenter avec d’autres un attentat contre Hillary Clinton. Le complot a été découvert, et Gelle a été extradé vers le Danemark. Là-bas, il semble qu’il ait pu reprendre une vie normale, jusqu’au 31 décembre 2009 où il s’est attaqué au domicile du caricaturiste Kurt Westegaard, armé d’une hache et de sabres. Mais, même si les Chebab ont admis connaître cet individu, rien ne prouve qu’ils ont été les commanditaires de cette tentative d’assassinat.

C’est plutôt ce profil que l’on retrouve en Syrie. Parmi la foultitude de jeunes hommes prêts à faire le jihad à l’étranger, il est quasiment certain qu’au moins l’un d’entre eux rentrera à la maison vivant, entraîné, et décidé à agir en son nom propre. Est-ce cela qui explique le faible soutien des pays occidentaux à la rébellion syrienne ? En tout cas, c’est ce genre d’individus qui devrait inquiéter leurs diplomates et gouvernants.

Recommandé par les anciens

Enfin, il y a ceux qui partent se battre, rentrent pleins de colère, mais pas suffisamment pour commettre un attentat. Ils préfèrent aider les autres jihadistes à trouver des fonds et deviennent des figures du radicalisme, à l’instar du prédicateur anglo-égyptien Abu Hamza al Masri, célèbre pour ses prêches enflammés dans la mosquée de Finsbury Park à Londres. Jeune homme fuyant la conscription en Égypte, Abu Hamza (alias Mustafa Kamel) était parti combattre les Soviétiques en Afghanistan. Là-bas, il a rencontré Abullah Azam, figure tutélaire du jihad antisoviétique, avant de rentrer blessé et mutilé, ce qui a d’ailleurs contribué à sa renommée. De retour au Royaume-Uni, il est devenu prédicateur, puis petit à petit il est apparu comme une figure incontournable de la mouvance extrémiste britannique. Même s’il ne s’est jamais personnellement impliqué dans une attaque terroriste, il a radicalisé et influencé toute une génération de jeunes hommes, les persuadant de partir se battre à l’étranger, de s’entraîner, voire de perpétrer des attaques en Occident. Il y a, à des niveaux d’influence moindre, bien d’autres exemples comme Abu Hamza, et la plupart d’entre eux n’ont jamais attiré l’attention. Ces individus sortent souvent des radars publics, soit parce qu’ils rejoignent un groupe encore inconnu des services, soit parce qu’ils sont très prudents, soit parce que tout simplement ils n’ont pas l’intention de commettre un attentat.

À cause d’eux, non seulement plus de jeunes sont tentés d’aller combattre en Syrie, mais surtout l’idéologie du jihad se répand en Europe, car leur expérience personnelle est aisément transposable dans le récit plus global du jihad. Ainsi, le problème du terrorisme islamique qui semblait en déclin va en fait s’étendre et se prolonger en Europe.

Même s’il est impossible de savoir combien exactement de jeunes Occidentaux sont partis (ou prévoient de) combattre en Syrie (quelques centaines d’Européens, estiment les services de renseignements, mais ils sont certainement plus nombreux), l’expérience montre que lorsque des Occidentaux rejoignent les champs de bataille jihadiste, la menace terroriste se renforce de manière générale. Reste pour les services de renseignements à déterminer quand et comment celle-ci pourrait se matérialiser. La Syrie hantera l’Europe pendant de longues années encore.

My latest for Jane’s Intelligence Review about European Foreign Fighters going to Syria. Unfortunately, its behind a firewall, so I cannot just post it here now, but they have agreed to let me put up what is below so far with the rest later in the month. Get in touch if you have any questions. In the meantime I did interviews for the Sunday Times on the same subject, something with Sky News about prison radicalisation and something for NBC about the Iraq-Syria troubles and its links back home. Many thanks to the Airey Neave Trust for their support of my work on this topic.

UPDATE: March 22, 2014 – per agreement with Jane’s I have now posted the entire article here. Thanks to my editors!

Foreign Fighters – Battle-hardened Europeans return from Syria

Key Points
  • Rising numbers of European citizens travelling to fight for Islamist groups in the Syrian civil war increase the domestic terrorism threat as they return home.
  • European fighters in Syria are from a diverse range of nationalities and ethnicities, with the domestic threat seemingly most elevated in the Balkans, Belgium, and the United Kingdom.
  • The risk of domestic militant attacks in European countries will rise further should Syria’s civil war continue.

Increasing numbers of European citizens have travelled to Syria to fight for Islamist groups in the civil war. Raffaello Pantucci examines the threat facing Europe from fighters returning home and the risk of domestic militant attacks as a result.

Syrian militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) on 7 December 2013 posted an announcement on its Facebook page stating that a Luxembourg national using the battlefield name Abu Huthaifa had died in al-Safira, Aleppo governorate. The news – although unconfirmed in any mainstream press – marked a new chapter in the history of global jihadism.
As the first national from Luxembourg publicly known to have died fighting alongside jihadist groups in Syria, he became another ‘first’ in a war that is rapidly eclipsing all previous jihadist battlefields. For European security officials who are increasingly concerned about the conflict, 2013 marked a new high in a trend that had been rising since 2012.
In its annual report on terrorist trends in Europe, the EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE-SAT) 2013, the European Police Office (Europol) reported that, “in 2012, there was a distinct rise in the number of EU citizens travelling to Syria, in a number of cases fighting alongside groups associated with religiously inspired terrorism”.

In 2013, this trend accelerated further, with an assessment published by researcher Aaron Zelin of King’s College London suggesting that over the period from April to December 2013 the number of Europeans heading to fight in Syria had almost tripled, and could total between 5,000 to 10,000.

More worryingly, in 2013, further evidence started to emerge suggesting that the return of these fighters home may have increased terrorist threats in Europe.

Jihadist profiles

Little is known about Abu Huthaifa. The brief statement posted about him on JeM’s Facebook page indicated that he had entered Syria through Turkey and that he might be as young as 18 years old. Beyond this, he was a young Caucasian wearing traditional army garb. However, in his portrait there are a number of features observed among the European contingent fighting in Syria.

First, the lack of clarity about his ethnicity reflects the broad background of the European foreign fighter contingent in Syria. Unlike the civil conflict in Libya, which seemed to draw mostly, but not only, Libyan Europeans to fight, the civil war in Syria has attracted Europeans of various ethnic backgrounds, from Arabs and South Asians to converts of every ethnicity.

A review of available information about foreign fighters in Syria reveals that the broad base of fighters in the country reflects the ethnic breakdown of Muslims across Europe. According to the 2011 census, the majority of Muslims in the UK are of South Asian origin. Citizens of that origin equally represent the largest contingent of British foreign fighters in Syria.

Europeans of multiple ethnicities with distinct national accents appear in videos recorded by jihadist groups on the battlefield. One video discovered in early June 2013, which purported to have been taken in March, showed a group including Dutch-speaking individuals beheading someone identified as a Syrian government supporter, with at least one of those involved speaking Flemish (Belgian Dutch).

Other videos to emerge actively encourage individuals to join the fighting in their native languages: English – by a Briton of seemingly African origin talking by the side of the road as he loads a pistol; Swedish – by Swedes of Arab origin; Danish; French; and other languages.

German authorities have grown increasingly concerned about the activity of a 38-year-old former rapper, Denis Mamadou Cuspert. A Ghanaian-German convert, he was known by his stage name Deso Dogg or his battlefield kunya (an honorific title) Abu Talha al-Almani. Prominent for his radical views in Germany before going to Syria, Cuspert has become the face of German jihad in Syria, releasing videos of himself rapping and calling on others to join the fight. It is unknown whether or not he is still alive.

Second, Abu Huthaifa’s age reflects the fact that jihad in Syria remains primarily attractive to the younger demographic, with a large number of teenagers in particular drawn to the fight. In October, Burkhard Freier, head of the North Rhine-Westphalia branch of the German domestic intelligence agency Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), told the ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen) television network that his service had “observed adolescents who departed for Syria in order to fight there”.

In September, he reported that a group of more than 20 young German Muslims had gone from Germany to Turkey and onwards to Syria. Among the group there were five teenagers, including a 15-year-old. In December, the minister of the interior of the German federal state of Hesse, Boris Rhein, highlighted a study commissioned by his ministry, which suggested that of 23 males who had gone to fight in Syria, nine were still at school.

In Norway, a pair of Somali-born sisters aged 16 and 19 declared in an email to their parents, “Something needs to be done [about Syria]. We want to help the Muslims, and the only way to do so is to be with them in their pains and their joy.” The girls’ father tracked them down in Syria, but failed to persuade them to return. In Belgium, the worried parents of two teenagers – Jejoen Bontinck and Brian de Mulder – separately spoke to the international media in March and April of 2013, expressing their concerns about their sons, who had gone to fight in Syria.

However, the spectrum of fighters also includes those who are middle-aged. Abdal Munem Mustafa Halima (also known as Abu Basir al-Tartusi) – a London-based extremist preacher, believed to be in his 50s and originally from Syria – emerged in videos published online by the group Ansar al-Sham in October 2012, seemingly addressing crowds in Latakia. One video posted on the video-sharing website YouTube is dated 8 August 2012.

In February 2013, reports emerged that Slimane Hadj Abderrahmane, a 39-year-old former Guantánamo Bay camp detainee, had died fighting four months after arriving in Syria. Abderrahmane was born in Denmark. At the age of seven he moved to Algeria with his family and then returned to Denmark in his late teens. Formerly a popular techno DJ, he became concerned by the suffering of Muslims around the world and trained in Afghanistan. In February 2002, he was captured and handed over to the US forces, which held him in the Guantánamo Bay detention camp for two years before releasing him to Denmark, where he wrote a book about his experiences, protested against Danish support of American foreign policy, and was imprisoned for credit card fraud.

The reason for Abderrahmane’s decision to go to Syria was unclear, with the Facebook group Islamisk Budskab (Islamic Message), which posted news of his death, merely saying that he “packed his backpack, said goodbye to his wife and children, and gone off [sic] to Kastrup Airport [Copenhagen Airport]”.

However, the average age of foreign jihadists seems to be somewhere between the mid-teens and middle age. In his detailed public records study of 18 Swedish nationals who had fought in Syria, Swedish researcher and journalist Per Gudmundson found that the fighters’ average age was 23.5 years. The results of this study were published in the September 2013 edition of the New York City Combating Terrorism Center’s (CTC) monthly publication CTC Sentinel.

In June 2013, Belgian minister of the interior Joëlle Milquet stated that the average age of Belgian nationals fighting in Syria was between 23 and 25 years old. A BBC radio File on Four programme from October quoted UK officials who told Shiraz Maher, a researcher at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London, that the average age of Britons going to fight was in their 20s. Public data and specific instances across Europe suggest that the majority of those reported to be fighting in Syria are in their 20s, with a few more seasoned fighters in their 30s.

Moreover, although the overwhelming majority of those travelling to Syria are men, there has been some evidence of young women also going to the battlefield, but it remains unclear what roles they perform. The case of the teenage Norwegian sisters has already been mentioned, and a report for the UK’s Channel 4 television channel from July also highlighted the case of British citizens “Maryam” and “Aisha”. The two women were living with their husbands, who were fighting alongside the Sunni militia Katiba al Muhajireen in Syria.

Having converted to Islam four years before, Maryam decided to move to Syria in early 2013, where she met her Swedish-Arab husband. Aisha moved to Syria with her British husband, and the two families lived in the same building near the Syrian frontlines. According to the documentary, the men fought together, while the women stayed behind to look after their children.

There are more such cases of married partners moving to Syria. A report in the Bosnian press published in December highlighted the case of approximately 10 married couples who had gone to Syria, with some of them taking children who were as young as three months old.

Although many women appear to adopt domestic roles, some have died on the battlefield. In late May, the Syrian government published pictures of what purported to be the passport of a British man, an American woman, and a third individual killed in a car outside Idlib in the northwest. It transpired that the British man was in fact alive, because he had handed over his passport to his handlers, who then gave it to someone else – a typical practice for foreign fighters in Syria. The American woman was identified as Nicole Lynn Mansfield, a 33-year-old convert whose death was confirmed by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The details of her case remain unclear, but Mansfield’s death demonstrated that some foreign females who go to Syria also take on frontline roles.

Travel and recruitment

A third element that Abu Huthaifa’s case highlights is the method of travelling to Syria. Having entered the country through Turkey, his case reveals the main route used by European foreign fighters to the battlefield. In most cases, individuals travel to Turkey and from there cross the porous border into Syria, where they connect with Islamist groups on the ground.

Sometimes it is done by road under the auspices of aid convoys from Europe. The convoys often carry genuine medical supplies or other essential goods and are driven by individuals who have raised money with a genuine intent to hand it over to refugees. Yet often unwittingly, the convoys also transport individuals who seek to join jihadist groups in Syria. As a result, border authorities at the UK port of Dover frequently stop and search suspicious individuals in convoys under Schedule 7 on port and border controls of the UK Terrorism Act 2000.

Others fly into Turkey (sometimes on unused package holidays), using the country’s well-connected main cities as points of entry from where they travel to the Syrian border by internal transport. In other instances, individuals take circuitous routes across Europe, driving to a smaller European airport to then take a flight to Turkey. Some go through North African countries such as Egypt and then take flights on to Lebanon or Turkey.

A senior Turkish official at a presentation in London in late October 2013 reported that Turkish authorities had prevented several hundred individuals from crossing the border into Syria. However, given the reported number of European fighters on the ground, which could be in the low thousands, this highlights the porosity of the border. According to media reports from early December, Turkey informed its European partners that during 2013 it had arrested and deported approximately 1,110 EU citizens who had arrived in Turkey with the intention of joining jihadist groups in Syria; requests for their detention had been received from other countries or the sharing of intelligence through the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol).

The fourth element of Abu Huthaifa’s profile becomes salient once he arrived in the country. Given that his biography was posted on a Facebook page that is managed by a group close to one of Al-Qaeda’s affiliates – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – it seems likely that he was serving alongside this group. According to Zelin’s study, only 20% of subjects reported group affiliation; the two primary Al-Qaeda affiliates on the battlefield, based on their responses, were ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Nevertheless, although these groups attract many of the foreign fighters, they are not the only ones that draw Europeans to their ranks. Numerous other groups also count on European members, including Jund al-Sham, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, and Jund al-Khilafah.

From a threat perspective, those sub-groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda are of the greatest concern as their rhetoric and approach hardly differ, and it is likely that a number of plots have been initiated by groups associated with them.

It is currently unclear how actively those groups are recruiting for the battlefield in Syria, or whether individuals are being drawn there by a compelling news narrative that attracts them to fight. It appears that extremist groups operating camps on the ground in Syria have a vetting system, as prospective jihadists often need to have a group connection back home to support them as they travel to the battlefield. Volunteers are usually expected to pay substantial amounts of money for their training and are required to hand over their documents upon arrival in Syria. These are often circulated among other individuals in the group for use as false identification.

Many of those travelling to Syria also appear to be individuals who have previously been involved in a terrorist act or criminal investigations in their home countries. Their exact number is not available, but many media reports suggest that such individuals have criminal records for either extremism or common criminality. Per Gudmundson’s study of Swedish fighters indicated that at least eight out of the 18 subjects had criminal records.

Those connected to recognised radical movements include a group in Bosnia that was linked to Mevludin JaÜarevic, who opened fire at the US embassy in Sarajevo in October 2011; and the extremist Belgian group Shariah4Belgium, which was associated with a number of cases of radicalisation of individuals who went to fight in Syria. In Europol’s TE-SAT 2013, the agency specifically identified Shariah4Belgium as contributing to “the radicalisation and engagement of EU citizens in the Syrian conflict”.

Returnee threat

Shariah4Belgium has become notorious among European affiliates of the British group al-Muhajiroun – initially established in 1996 in the UK by now-excluded preacher Omar Bakri Mohammed and is currently overseen by preacher Anjem Choudary – because of allegations in the Belgian press that individuals connected to Shariah4Belgium in Syria had been recorded threatening attacks in Europe. For example, a Facebook message was sent to Dutch-language Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws listing a series of targets in Antwerp and Brussels to be attacked on 31 December 2013.

In July 2012, one of the leaders of Shariah4Belgium, 22-year-old Houssien Elouassaki, was sentenced to 200 hours of community service in Belgium for “insults, threats, and racist comments” to a police officer. He failed to serve his sentence and subsequently fled to Syria, where he became the leader of a group of approximately 35-40 Belgians who were connected with Jabhat al-Nusra.

In April 2013, Elouassaki’s younger brother Hakim returned home from Syria to Vilvoorde, Belgium, having been seriously injured. Houssien was killed fighting in Syria on 13 September, according to sources quoted in the Belgian press. Based on reports in Belgian media verified by official sources, Houssien was overheard talking about wanting to attack the Palais de Justice in Brussels. Whether or not these threats were anywhere near becoming actual plots remains unclear.

A far more dangerous militant cell was discovered in Kosovo in early November. Kosovar authorities conducted operations in the cities of Pristina and Gjilan, arresting six ethnic Albanians. A seventh suspect escaped. Two of the men were alleged to have attacked a pair of American Mormon missionaries in Pristina on 3 November, and those group members were arrested as they tried to purchase weapons from undercover officers. The status of legal proceedings against those detained was unknown at the time of going to press.

According to the authorities’ briefing with the Associated Press, the investigation into the cell had apparently lasted three months, and following the interception of a telephone call in which group members were heard discussing a possible attack in an unnamed European country, the group was arrested.

The group was found to have in its possession a sniper rifle, a carbine, an assault rifle, two handguns, 1,200 rounds for an AK-47 assault rifle, and explosive materials for possibly making an improvised explosive device (IED). According to officials talking to the press at the time, two of the detainees had fought in Syria, and the broader cell was linked to a wider community of radicals who had been travelling back and forth to Syria.

Far more mature than the threats emanating from the Belgian group, the Kosovo plot was of the type with links to Syria that concerns European security services, namely, individuals with battlefield experience and access to weapons who return home with the intent to carry out an attack. Kosovar authorities reported that following the arrests they received threats and demands to release the detainees, identified in the Serbian press as a group known as ‘Jihad of Kosovo’.

The Albanian group’s targeting was not clear, but a long tradition of jihadist fighting in the Balkans has made the region a source of concern for authorities across Europe, with the problem aggravated by the fact that an estimated 150 Albanians are believed by Kosovar authorities to be fighting in Syria.

Despite the apparent severity of the Albanian threat, the most serious warnings are increasingly coming from the UK. The director general of the Security Service (MI5), Andrew Parker, and the head of the Counter-Terrorism Command (CTC), or SO15, at the Metropolitan Police, Commander Richard Walton, have mentioned the fact that the jihad in Syria is increasingly becoming a security threat beyond its borders.

In his speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) on 8 October, Parker highlighted that MI5 had noted a substantial increase in cases with connections to Syria. According to Parker, “a growing proportion of our casework now has some link to Syria, mostly concerning individuals from the UK who have travelled to fight there or who aspire to do so”.

He also spoke of how MI5 judged that “[Jabhat] al-Nusra and other extremist Sunni groups there aligned with Al-Qaeda aspire to attack Western countries”.

This threat was brought into sharper domestic focus in December, when Walton told an audience in London that his officers were “starting to see signs” that Britons were returning from Syria tasked with carrying out attacks back at home.

The assessment of an expanding threat from the European contingent in Syria was also emphasised in December by Belgian authorities, which told the press that they were assessing a group of “Dutch-speaking Belgian jihadists” who had participated in an attack in Iraq. A source from the Belgian police believed that “the leaders of the Syrian networks are determined to export – in time – to Morocco and Tunisia the fighting capacity that is now assembled in Syria”.

The Belgian officials were also quoted saying, “Al-Qaeda has four to five thousand jihadist combatants at hand deployed in Syria who have passports from a Schengen area country”. This is a very high figure that exceeds most public assessments provided by European security officials so far.

Outlook

There is a rising level of concern among security officials across Europe consulted by IHS Jane’s about the threat emanating from Syria. The plots highlighted to date probably represent only the beginning of a threat that will evolve in various ways in the coming years.

Although it is by no means the case that every individual returning from Syria will pose a domestic threat or will launch an attack, the high number of European jihadist fighters in Syria means that a threat of some sort is likely to emerge. Moreover, a protraction of Syria’s civil war would mean more individuals would be drawn to the battlefield, therefore increasing the pool of potential jihadist recruits who could be a threat back at home.

Indeed, the gravity of the situation was highlighted by a US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assessment reported in The Wall Street Journal on 31 December, that drew on analysis of previous insurgencies, concluding that the civil war in Syria “could last another decade or more”.

The foreign fighter contingent in Syria is likely to match this timescale and is therefore also likely to be at the heart of Europe’s militant threat for the next five years at least – a period of time that will only increase the longer the conflict continues.

Case Study: Abu Huthaifa

Abu Huthaifa’s profile appears on the Facebook page of the “Army of Mohammad Peace and Blessings be upon him – Abu Ubaidah al-Muhajir” (which translates as the migrant – meaning that the fighter is or was outside his homeland). Abu Ubaidah al-Muhajir appears to be the name of one of the units fighting in the conflict.

IHS Jane’s assesses that the Arabic-language page has an international jihadist tenor, rather than exclusively Syrian jihadist.

Unusually, most of its updates are about members who have been killed in action rather than about major victories or battles, with a particular bias towards recording the deaths of Tunisian citizens.

According to the Facebook account, the ‘brother’ and media activist from Luxembourg, Abu Huthaifa, left his family back home. He entered Turkey to study, then moved to Syria to support the religion of Allah. He was not more than 18 years old. He was martyred in al-Safira, Aleppo governorate.

The comments following the entry about Abu Huthaifa’s death are all blessings calling for Allah to rest his soul. Two more individuals who had been killed and mentioned on the page were a Tunisian called Abu Maryam, and media activist Abu Usama. The comments also include links to YouTube videos that allegedly were produced by Abu Huthaifa.

Another piece on Xinjiang for the new year, this one for Jamestown’s China Brief providing a bit of an overview of what has been happening in violent terms in the past year. Some editorial choices I would not have made, but it is something I am going to be writing more about going forwards. Around New Year’s day, I was quoted for a piece for the South China Morning Post about one of the violent incidents to close the year.

Tiananmen Attack: Islamist Terror or Chinese Protest?
Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 1
January 9, 2014 05:21 PM
By: Raffaello Pantucci

47653b6c79

2013 was a violent year for China and Xinjiang. On December 30, at 6:30 in the morning, a group of individuals believed to be Uighur attacked a police station in Shache County (or Yarkand) near Kashgar with “explosive devices” (Xinhua, December 30). According to official reports, no security officials were killed in the incident, in which eight were killed and a ninth arrested. The official government report stated that the group was led by Wusiman Balati and Abuduaini Abudukadi (also written as Usman Barat and Abdugheni Abdukhadir), a pair who “held successive gatherings” since August in which they watched “violent terrorist videos” discussed “religious extremist thought” and formed a group that raised money, made explosives, tested these explosives out and planned violent activities (Xinhua, December 30, 2013).

The high point came on October 28, when a jeep crashed into railings in front of the iconic statue of Mao Zedong in the middle of Tiananmen Square. The incident was attributed to a Uighur named Usmen Hasan (Xinhua, November 26). Usmen, as well as two passengers reported to be his wife and mother, were killed, along with a Filipino tourist and a domestic Chinese tourist from Guangdong. Several more Filipino and Japanese tourists were also injured in the incident (Xinhua, November 3, 2013). The incident was praised in mid-November by Abdullah Mansour, believed to be the current leader of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) (Reuters, November 23, 2013).

While these incidents were both connected to Xinjiang in some way, a double bombing outside government offices in Taiyuan in the first week of November demonstrated that terrorist-like violence in China is not always linked to the province. The Taiyuan bombing was ultimately attributed to a taxi driver “angry at society” for unspecified reasons (China Daily, November 9, 2013).

Context in Xinjiang

Subsequent to the incident a series of five arrests were made of individuals from Hotan, Xinjiang. The group was alleged to have gathered some 40,000 RMB in advance of the incident and had conducted three reconnaissance trips to the Square. They had established their group in September and came to Beijing by SUV and train on October 7 (Xinhua, November 1, 2013). Xinjiang military commander, Peng Yong, was also fired from the province’s Communist Party Standing Committee (Caixin, November 4, 2013). The sacking, while not officially linked to the incident in Tiananmen Square follows a pattern of dismissals in the wake of major security lapses. In the wake of the Urumqi riots in July 2009, Party Secretary Li Zhi and Xinjiang Public Security Bureau (PSB) head Liu Yaohua were dismissed in September, while under a year later province governor and long-time boss Wang Lequan was shunted sideways to be Deputy Head of the Political and Legislative Affairs Committee in Beijing. Explicit links to the trouble in province were not made, though the intent was clear.

The incident came in the wake of a long, brutal summer in Xinjiang that was marked by flare-ups involving multiple deaths and casualties. An unofficial tally by the author places the total number of deaths in the triple digits, though it is unclear whether this is a total accounting of what had taken place. [1] Videos have emerged showing Uighurs or Chinese-speaking individuals on battlefields in Syria. [2] In July 2013, the Global Times reported the case of Memeti Aili, a 23-year-old Uighur who claimed to have been studying in Istanbul, Turkey when he was approached by radical groups and recruited to fight in Syria. Memeti Aili was arrested as he tried to return to Xinjiang to complete his assigned mission to “carry out violent attack and improve fighting skills,” a task he had reportedly been given by ETIM (Global Times, July 1, 2013). The exact nature of his plot was not revealed, but it was held up as a specific instance of how the fight in Syria was becoming a direct problem for China.

It is clear from magazines, statements and videos showing people training and fighting somewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan’s badlands that a group exists outside Xinjiang that threatens Chinese authorities—calling itself the Hizb al Islami al Turkestani (Turkestan Islamic Party, TIP). Occasional reports surface of individuals dying in drone strikes or of plots linked to networks around the group internationally (Dubai, July 2008 and Oslo, July 2010), and al-Qaeda leaders will mention the plight of the Uighurs in some of their speeches. [3] Most recently, their plight was highlighted in a video released by the Somalia-based militant group al-Shabaab, with the group contrasting the Uighurs’ plight and the international focus on Tibet as evidence of the West’s not caring about Muslim suffering. But there is little direct evidence that outside groups have much direct connection with the incidents that take place in the province. In one incident from 2011, an individual identified as being involved in an incident by the Chinese authorities was shown in a video released by Islam Awazi (TIP’s media wing), while more recently the group praised as jihad an incident in which 15 security officials were killed in the province though they stopped short of claiming the incident.

The government has not stopped linking the group to the threat, offering as evidence videos or other radical material in the possession of individuals involved in incidents. In the most recent case, authorities claimed the group had been watching extremist videos—presumably ones linked to the group or other al-Qaeda affiliates. But the directional link has been somewhat limited in its evidence, with incidents often seeming to have some local spark, though it is certainly notable that the manner in which these incidents break out is often similar.

The specifics around the group who ended up in Tiananmen remain equally unclear. According to government accounts, they were linked to ETIM and were in possession of radical material (Xinhua, November 26, 2013). Highlighting the degree to which the government continues to see ETIM and other Central Asian groups as a threat, news emerged shortly before the incident that China had pushed the Pakistani government to proscribe ETIM, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) (BBC Urdu, October 23, 2013). The concern for China is that these groups may be drawing on their common Central Asian heritage and language to plot together—efforts so far mostly felt in Afghanistan, but that might be redirected towards China in the wake of NATO withdrawal. No released evidence about the Tiananmen incident demonstrated any specific link or direction from outside groups, but the proximity of the statements in the Pakistani press and Meng Jianzhu’s categoric declarations about ETIM’s links to the Tiananmen incident illustrate a willingness by China to draw links between instability at home and anti-state groups in China’s near neighborhood.

Violent Petitioners

A divergent account of the causes behind the incident emerged from an account in Radio Free Asia (RFA), that drew primarily on an interview with a former village chief from Yengi Aymaq village in Akto County, who claimed that the attack had taken place exactly a year from the time when Chinese authorities had torn down a mosque in the village. According to former village chief Hamut Turdi, the attack was revenge for the local authorities destruction of a mosque that the community had raised money to build, which was torn down when the government claimed it was an “illegal extension” to an existing prayer room (Radio Free Asia, November 6, 2013). Others cited in the RFA report claiming to know Usmen Hasan said that he had lost a family member during the bloody July 2009 riots and another that his younger brother had died in a “mysterious traffic accident” that had been “blamed on the majority Han Chinese or the Chinese authorities” (RFA, November 6, 2013). None of the accounts were independently corroborated.

In the account supplied by RFA, the logic is that Usman was drawing on a Chinese tradition of petitioning the Emperor as a result of injustice at the hands of local authorities. This longstanding tradition is one that countless others have called upon through setting themselves on fire. To give only examples from the majority Han ethnicity: a group of five believed to be linked to Falun Gong set themselves alight in January 2001, a man from Anhui complaining about forced relocation did so in September 2003, and, most recently, in November 2011 a man from Hubei set fire to himself in anger “over the outcome of civil litigation” (Xinhua, September 15, 2003; Daily Telegraph, November 16, 2011). Tiananmen Square is also a draw for angry or deranged individuals of other sorts too. Two days prior to the jeep incident in Tiananmen Square, an argument in a staff canteen in the Forbidden City adjacent to the Square led to one man stabbing two colleagues before trying to kill himself (South China Morning Post, October 25, 2013). This followed a summer in Beijing in which a man went on a stabbing rampage in Carrefour killing one and injuring four (Xinhua, July 22, 2013) as well as another who had killed an American and a Chinese national in another shopping mall in the city (Agence France Press, July 18, 2013).

High profile incidents that might elsewhere be described as terrorism, in China are instead seen as forms of petitioning. In July, Ji Zhongxing, a wheelchair-bound man, detonated an explosive outside the arrivals gate in Beijing International Airport’s third terminal. Injuring only himself and a police officer, Ji claimed to be angry at the fact that he had not been adequately compensated for a beating by Guangdong authorities that had left him paralyzed in a wheelchair. He was later jailed for six years (Xinhua, October 15, 2013; BBC, October 15, 2013). In July 2011, disgruntled farmer Qian Mingqi detonated three large devices outside official buildings in Fuzhou, Jiangxi leading to four deaths (including Mr. Qian’s) (Xinhua, May 31, 2011, 2013). This is the context in which Chinese media and the public viewed the attack in Taiyuan, in which a coordinated set of bombs armed with ball bearings were detonated outside an official building in the heart of the city.

China’s Response

Random individuals with the ability to build and effectively detonate multiple explosives in a coordinated and lethal manner might seem to be more menacing than an attempt to drive a car into a crowd. But from the perspective of the Chinese state, such “lone wolf” terrorism is less dangerous than Uighurs’ attempts to speak for a community. Even without clear ties to an organized group, they offer a potential alternative source of legitimacy and an alternative power base.

For Beijing, the problem is clearly a complicated one. On the one hand, it is undeniable that some Uighur extremists exist and are connecting to global al-Qaeda-affiliated or -inspired networks. But it is not clear that these groups and networks are able to launch large-scale attacks within China. The incident in Tiananmen Square may have been substantial in its impact, but no evidence of external direction has been provided. But external direction or not, the growing tempo of violence emanating from the province in the past year highlights a domestic problem that seems to be growing worse rather than better.

In parallel to this, China faces a problem of petitioners angry at the state who are using increasingly violent means to express their rage—from random acts of self-immolation, to random stabbings, to massive explosions that have so far killed mercifully few. In some ways these seem similar to the Xinjiang-related incidents, but the background context is fundamentally more alarming to authorities given the potential for a single incident related to Xinjiang to be seen as part of a broader separatist movement. Thus, the Chinese government seeks to distinguish between violent protest and terrorism, and ensure that the response is one that is moderated in ways that do not simply inflame tensions in Xinjiang further.

Notes

  1. The author has been maintaining an unofficial tally based on official reports that can be provided on request.
  2. One video showed a possibly Uighur individual: < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjrUhb7Lx1o >. Another highlighted ethnically-Han Bo Wang talking directly to the Chinese people in Mandarin: < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=maccGe9MSMY >
  3. On the Dubai and Oslo plots, see Terrorism Monitor, July 22, 2010; and “Manchester, New York and Oslo: Three Centrally Directed Al-Qa’ida Plots,” CTC Sentinel, August 1, 2010.

Starting the new year with a splash and a piece for the Financial Times BeyondBRICS, this captures an idea I have been working on for a while and am hoping this year to finally really develop. Lots more on my work with Alex in particular on our joint site: http://www.chinaincentralasia.com

Guest post: The route to better relationships with China lies along the Silk Road

Jan 8, 2014 9:26am by guest writer
By Raffaello Pantucci of the Royal United Services Institute

A gentle rapprochement is under way between China and the United Kingdom. After almost two years in a diplomatic freeze, David Cameron visited Beijing last month and made an effective play for more trade. For the UK, this is a moment to recalibrate its relationship and play a role in coaxing China towards becoming a responsible international stakeholder. One route to that end is through understanding and working with China’s ‘march westward’ strategy, which has at its heart the re-activation of the ancient Silk Road linking China to Europe.

Coined by prominent Chinese academic Wang Jisi back in 2011, the ‘March Westwards’ strategy is the external component of the ‘Develop the West’ strategy that Beijing advanced to bring prosperity and development to its historically underdeveloped and turbulent western provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet. Long-standing sources of instability for the central government, the regions were racked by particular violence in 2008 (Tibet) and 2009 (Xinjiang). The brutality of the Xinjiang violence was a wake-up call, with more than 200 reportedly killed on the streets of Urumqi, the provincial capital, as the chaos forced then-leader Hu Jintao to leave an international G8 Summit in L’Aquila to manage the situation.

Since then, a series of measures have been taken to try to force the region to prosper. Richer coastal provinces have taken responsibility for counties in Xinjiang, putting a percentile of their GDP and staff to work in the region. Chinese companies have been encouraged to invest in the province, while a local trade fair has been transformed into an international China-Eurasian Expo that has attracted regional heads of state, senior Politburo members and former leaders of the stature of Tony Blair. The Xinjiang government has made an active play in trying to court foreign investment into the region, undertaking trade missions around Europe while also building trade parks targeted at regional players such as Turkey.

But all of this investment will achieve nothing if Xinjiang has nowhere to trade with. This explains China’s push into central Asia. Once a bit player in the region, China is the ascendant power across central Asia with Chinese businessmen and workers crowding the streets of Bishkek, Dushanbe and Almaty. In Tajikistan, international financial institutions report that tenders for contracts are increasingly competitions between Chinese firms underbidding each other to rebuild the mountainous country. In Turkmenistan, the economy is focused on exporting its hydrocarbon wealth to China, the one country that has shown the agility and capacity to unlock its mineral wealth and is willing to engage with the authorities on their terms. Across the region, Chinese work-teams are rebuilding roads, railways and other infrastructure to re-wire the region’s infrastructure so that all roads lead to Beijing.

But the ultimate goal of all this is to reconnect China to Europe across the Eurasian landmass and to strengthen the physical link between Chinese producers and European markets. As Wen Jiabao affirmed in his speech at the 2nd China-Eurasia Expo, China’s aim is to transform Urumqi once again into the ‘gateway to Eurasia’. And it is here that the UK can find its natural role as the anchor at the other end of this route.

Sitting in Urumqi last year, a Xinjiang official who had been sent to the province from Beijing as a footsoldier in China’s regional strategy, told a visiting British delegation that Urumqi was ‘the closest big Chinese city to Europe’. From a Chinese perspective, a key part of this solution to Xinjiang’s problems is to nurture the economic link and encourage Europe to participate more actively.

This is an opportunity for British businesses to get into one of the underdeveloped parts of the Chinese economy, as well as tapping into a growing boom in central Asia. In some fields this will mean competing with Chinese companies but, in others, finding niche specialisms or technologies that British companies have and Chinese companies lack offers an opening into markets in both China and central Asia. Several British companies have found Xinjiang to be a profitable market. Some are providing equipment for energy companies, others are developers helping cities re-design themselves, others supply heavy building equipment to support China’s infrastructure boom across the region. Chinese competitors may exist in these fields but ‘brand China’ continues to be seen in a negative light both within and beyond the country. When other brands are available, people tend to prefer to go for them if they are affordable. And doubtless other opportunities exist.

There is of course an important human rights component to this discussion that needs to be addressed. Many object to China’s disregard for human rights in its ‘counter-terrorism’ strategy in Xinjiang, a concern only further heightened in central Asia. While care needs to be made, this also offers a further angle for British engagement. The UK’s CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy may have its faults and deficiencies but is a widely emulated model whose division between pre-emptive and reactive measures offers a useful structure through which to try to engage with political violence. Clearly, the approach and relative weighting of different aspects of the strategy needs to be carefully calibrated in every situation – but the Chinese are in the midst of a re-structuring of their counter-terrorism response with Xinjiang at the heart of their concerns. Engaging now offers a moment to influence the situation positively.

The UK’s history with China has been dominated by the seas. Hong Kong was the final bastion of British seafaring dominance of China, a history that still hangs heavy in the Chinese mindset. A new approach is needed that instead looks to China’s Eurasian heritage to rebuild a British, and European, policy towards China.

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