Archive for May, 2014

My new piece for CTC’s Sentinel, this one an update for a piece I did for them last February looking at the UK-Syria connection. Lots more on this topic coming.

The British Foreign Fighter Contingent in Syria


In mid-April 2014, the British government released its latest annual report on CONTEST, the British counterterrorism strategy. Focusing on the persistent threat from international terrorism faced by the United Kingdom, the document highlighted how the British government is “concerned about the threat to the UK from Syria based groups and the threat from foreign fighters returning to this country.”[1] Officials spoke of 33-50% of security service casework having a Syria component to it.[2]

The threat of returning fighters from Syria is one that British security officials already believe they have seen and disrupted, specifically in the form of a “Mumbai-style” plot targeting the United Kingdom in October 2013 that reportedly had links to Syria.[3] On the ground in Syria, British fighters continue to die and broadcast their activities through a variety of social media platforms, while publicly denying the accusation of wanting to launch attacks in the United Kingdom.[4] The community of Britons in Syria, however, reveals a group with strong links to criminal networks in the United Kingdom, as well as a growing willingness to publicize violent activity that might constitute war crimes.

Taken alongside the fact that Britons appear to be fighting with a multiplicity of groups (many British fighters who announce their affiliation claim to be members of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, although others appear in images fighting alongside groups connected to Jabhat al-Nusra or even other smaller units), it seems that the threat to the United Kingdom is growing. The actual number of British fighters in Syria is an imprecise science, with French President Francois Hollande saying in January 2014 that some 700 Britons were fighting in Syria, a figure downplayed by the British government who stood by 350 fighters.[5] The International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) estimated in December 2013 that there were somewhere between 43-366 British fighters who had traveled to Syria.[6] A more recent figure was offered by Helen Ball, the senior national coordinator for counterterrorism in the Metropolitan Police, who admitted that as many as 700 Britons might be fighting in Syria.[7]

This article offers a brief background on the alleged Mumbai-style plot that was disrupted in October 2013, and then looks more specifically at the community of British fighters in Syria. It finds that while most British foreign fighters in Syria may not pose a domestic threat to the United Kingdom, it appears likely that some might, especially in light of the recent Mumbai-style plot that reportedly had connections to the Syrian battlefield.

Mumbai-Style Plot
On the evening of October 14, 2013, police staged a dramatic series of arrests across London.[8] Four men, all allegedly long-term investigative suspects, were picked up in the sweep after authorities believed the group might have had access to firearms.[9] Two individuals were arrested in a “hard stop” involving shotgun rounds used to blow out the wheels of the car they were driving, a third at his home in Peckham and a final suspect outside an Iranian restaurant in Westbourne Grove.[10]

The identities of the four men were not confirmed beyond their ethnicities and ages: all were British nationals, but one each of Algerian, Azerbaijani, Pakistani and Turkish ethnicity. Ultimately, charges were only brought against the Algerian and Turkish individuals, who were both charged with “making record of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism or possessing a document or record containing information of that kind.”[11] The Turkish individual was also accused of “preparing a terrorist act,” while the Algerian was accused of “possession with a false document.”[12] It is believed the other two were released.

There has been a tight hold on further information allowed in the public domain, although the understanding is that the men were believed to be planning a “Mumbai-style” shooting spree attack and the plot was one which had connections to Syria.[13] One report suggested the men may have met in Syria.[14] Information around the case has been limited with the names of the charged men kept out of the public domain. The case is due to go to trial later in the year.

British Fighters Increasingly Bold in Syria
Syria continues to have connections to Britain’s longstanding Islamist community, and the police have moved to clamp down heavily on the foreign fighter phenomenon at home. In the first three months of 2014, authorities made more than 40 arrests connected to Syria-related activity.[15] At the same time, the groups in Syria have become more bold, with British fighters communicating with the media to discuss their intentions and even going so far as to establish their own media outlet and group in December 2013 known as Rayat al-Tawhid.

The Rayat al-Tawhid branding has become an increasingly prominent feature of reporting in the United Kingdom around Syria, with the group publishing a series of videos and pictures through YouTube, Instagram and Twitter accounts that offer insights into personal experiences on the battlefield. The videos have glorified the fighting, calling on people to leave “the gangster life behind and join the life of jihad.”[16] Other more recent videos have shown the background of their lives near the battlefield, characterizing it as “Five Star Jihad”—a likely ironic reference to earlier images that emerged off the battlefield in which Britons described the luxurious lives they were leading with sweets from home and abandoned mansions with swimming pools in which to live.[17] Rayat al-Tawhid videos reflect a harder life on the battlefield, illustrating the basic living conditions, while also using the videos to solicit funding from the United Kingdom.[18] The group has also posted images of members involved in the apparent execution of an individual identified as a rapist, and in another image one of them is seen with a bag of heads that are apparently from a group of regime soldiers.[19]

It is not clear who is behind Rayat al-Tawhid, although their activities and publicity are reminiscent of longstanding British extremist groups. They speak with British accents, and their references to gang culture suggest at least a working knowledge of that life. What is somewhat disturbing about the group is their ease with the extreme violence and brutality of the battlefield in Syria, including involvement in battlefield executions, beheadings and possibly torture. The men all seem eager to maintain their anonymity and only appear in videos with their faces covered, which suggests that they want to protect their families back home from the attention of the authorities, or that they might plan to eventually return to the United Kingdom. This latter prospect is of great concern to British authorities, given their brutalization and apparent ability to manufacture explosives (a skillset suggested in images in which they show homemade bombs).

Kataib al-Muhajirin/Kataib al-Kawthar
This is not the first time that Britons have emerged in such a public way on the Syrian battlefield. In early 2013, a group called Kataib al-Kawthar began to produce tweets under the handle @KAlKawthar and established a Facebook page that on March 31, 2013, released a video entitled Commander Abu Musab’s Weekly Address, purporting to be “the first weekly address of Abu Musab, a western Mujaahid commander who is currently leading his forces against the oppressive regime of al-Assad.”[20] Delivered in fluent, but accented, English, the blurb promised regular weekly updates, although it is not clear if any more statements emerged. At around the same time as the video’s publication, Kataib al-Kawthar released a hagiographical video of Abu Kamal al-Swedee in both English and Arabic, with the English language delivered in native sounding English.[21] Abu Kamal was identified as a Finnish-born Swede with a convert Finnish mother and Swedish father.[22]

The video about Abu Kamal appeared to be produced by a parallel or sister group to Kataib al-Kawthar called Kataib al-Muhajirin, a grouping composed of foreign fighters in Syria apparently led by the Georgian Omar al-Shishani. The divisions between the group are unclear, with Abu Musab being referred to in a video released by Kataib al-Muhajirin as one of Omar al-Shishani’s commanders. The Abu Musab in the second video speaks only in Arabic, although prominent in the video are also Sayfullah al-Shishani and Ibrahim al-Mazwagi, a Libyan-Brit who was the first confirmed Briton killed in Syria.[23] A prominent figure who shows up repeatedly in Kataib al-Muhajirin videos, al-Mazwagi (also known as Abu Fidaa) fought previously in Libya and appeared to have enjoyed being filmed fighting in Syria.[24] Subsequent to his death, for example, a mini-film emerged showing his activities on the battlefield, joking around with fellow foreign fighters and marrying a Swedish woman who had come to the front.[25] In the Abu Kamal video, Abu Fidaa is referred to alongside suspected British national Abu Qudamah as carrying their fallen Swedish comrade’s body back to an ambulance.[26] Abu Qudamah seems to be the battlefield name of another British man from London who was later killed and who features prominently in images released by Kataib al-Muhajirin.

Abu Qudamah and Ibrahim al-Mazwagi feature in a number of images together, as well as with other individuals. Al-Mazwagi is later photographed alongside Omar al-Shishani, while Abu Qudamah is instead featured in a montage set of images published on Facebook by a now closed account in which a group of individuals were heralded as “Green Birds.”[27] What is particularly striking about this collection of images is that alongside Abu Qudamah, the montages feature Mohammed el-Araj, Bilal al-Berjawi and Mohammed Sakr. Al-Berjawi and Sakr were two Britons who came from west London and were killed in Somalia fighting alongside al-Shabab.[28] Mohammed el-Araj, on the other hand, was a Briton of Palestinian descent from Ladbroke Grove in west London who was killed in Syria in August 2013.[29] El-Araj was an engineering student who was arrested in January 2009 at a protest outside the Israeli Embassy.[30] Also arrested at the protest were Mohammed Sakr and Walla Rehman, although both received far lighter punishments than el-Araj—Sakr and Rehman were charged with affray under the public order act, while el-Araj was charged with handling stolen goods. Rehman’s significance within this context comes from the fact that he was identified as being involved in the same network as al-Berjawi and Sakr in East Africa.[31]

It is of course impossible to know the extent or importance of these connections, although it is notable that the men all come from a relatively similar part of London. It is possible that the young men all knew each other and the grouping behind them is one that has previously helped fighters reach Somalia and is now directing people toward Syria.[32] What is certainly concerning about this grouping is that it has clearly pledged allegiance and fought alongside Omar al-Shishani, a man who was the leader of foreign fighters in Syria and has now moved over to be a sub-commander to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)—one of the most violent groups in Syria. The other Chechen visible in the aforementioned video featuring Omar and Abu Musab, Sayfullah al-Shishani, appears to have broken away from Omar to set up a more independent faction fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra.[33] He was killed in early February 2014 in an attack on Aleppo prison where the first recorded British suicide bomber, Abdul Waheed Majid, killed himself.[34] A long-term activist himself, Abdul Waheed Majid had featured on the periphery of serious terrorist investigations in the United Kingdom for some time, including the large 2004 plot called Crevice that intended to target a shopping mall outside London with a large fertilizer-based explosive device.[35]

Historical and Criminal Networks
The war in Syria also has connections to longstanding members of the jihadist community in the United Kingdom. British foreign fighter Abdel Majed Abdel Bary, for example, is the son of Adel Abdel Bary, who was extradited to the United States in 2012 after spending years in British custody.[36] He stands accused of being the leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad’s cell in London in the 1990s and of providing support to Usama bin Ladin by helping to run a media outpost for al-Qa`ida.[37] He is also accused of involvement in the 1998 East Africa U.S. Embassy bombings.[38] The younger Bary, a former grime music rapper from west London, seems to have had a radical damascene moment in mid-2013, and in July declared on his Facebook page that “the unknown mixtape with my bro tabanacle will be the last music I’m ever releasing. I have left everything for the sake of Allah.”[39] In October 2013, he used his Twitter feed to ask “for everyone that still asks me about where my videos have gone, like I said a while back I quit music & I took all the vids I can down….& if you own a channel that has any of my music up can you take it down also, appreciated. Bless.”[40]

In other moments, the younger Bary referred to his missing father, pushed back against those who defamed the ISIL, and repeatedly denied accusations that he was in some way connected to prominent British extremist preacher Anjem Choudary. Mentioned in an early profile that exposed him publicly as fighting in Syria,[41] Bary seemed offended by the prospect, stating at one point “why linking me to anjem choudary again though, I dont know the man and we aint on the same wave lol hes on that microphone jihad.”[42] In another post, he reported how he and a fellow Briton were “kidnapped/tortured by FSA/IF scum they stole our ak’s and a 7mm, my vehicle & our phones and cash.”[43] Highlighting the circles in which he operated back in the United Kingdom, in mid-March 2014 he declared that “my lil brother ahmed got sentenced to life…26 years minimum….love lil bro see you in the afterlife inshallah #kasper.”[44] He appears to be referring to Ahmed Kasper Mikhaimar, a convicted burglar who in January 2014 was sentenced to 26 years incarceration for the murder of a teenager on London’s streets.[45]

This link to serious criminality can be found elsewhere among Britain’s community of fighters in Syria. Choukri Ellekhlifi, a Briton of Moroccan descent from Paddington west London who used the name Abu Hujama, was killed in August 2013 alongside his brother-in-arms Mohammed el-Araj.[46] Prior to coming to Syria, Ellekhlifi had been arrested with Mohammed Elyasse Taleouine and Mohammed Ibrahim in August 2012 after a series of brutal robberies in London’s affluent Belgravia district where masked men on bicycles attacked people walking the streets, threatening them with a taser while they stole their possessions.[47] In two cases, they used the taser on their victims.[48] The men were released on bail, and it appears that at this point Ellekhlifi fled the country and traveled to Syria where he joined the fighting.[49] Taleouine was re-arrested on January 10, 2013, when counterterrorism officers undertook an “intelligence-led operation” into “alleged facilitation of travel overseas for terrorism.”[50] Searching Taleouine’s property, police discovered a converted 9mm MAC-10 submachine gun, and he ultimately pleaded guilty to firearms offenses and robbery charges.[51] Taleouine was sentenced to 10 years in jail.[52]

Abdel Majed Abdel Bary also provides a connection to another relation of a prominent British individual previously accused of involvement with radical circles. On April 18, 2014, Bary tweeted “Subhanallah just seen the brother less than 2 weeks ago, may Allah accept his shahada, Abdullah Deghayas, martyr inshallah.”[53] This was a reference to Abdullah Deghayes, an 18-year-old Briton of Libyan descent who was killed fighting in Kassab, Latakia.[54] The nephew of former Guantanamo detainee Omar Deghayes, Abdullah is the middle child of three brothers who have left their homes in Brighton to fight alongside a Libyan unit in Syria called al-Battar.[55] His older brother Amer was shot in the stomach during the same clash, while his younger brother Jaffer is the youngest publicly confirmed Briton fighting in Syria at 16 years of age.[56] Their father has since pleaded for his two remaining sons to return home, although it seems uncertain whether this will be possible.[57]

The final connection to longstanding members of the UK jihadist scene is the case of Moazzam Begg, the former Guantanamo Bay detainee and founder of the Azzam Publications bookshop in Birmingham.[58] UK authorities arrested Begg on February 25, 2014, and charged him with providing terrorist training as well as funding terrorism overseas.[59] Arrested alongside him were Gerrie and Mouloud Tahari, a mother and son who are also charged with supporting terrorism overseas.[60] Begg’s arrest elicited substantial public outcry and his trial later in the year is likely to prove a major spectacle as he fights against perceived persecution.

Portsmouth’s Bangladeshi Bad Boys
Another cluster of Britons drawn to Syria can be found in Portsmouth where a group that seems to in part echo a local da`wa (propagation) community has gone to fight in Syria alongside the ISIL. The Portsmouth Da`wa Team continues to carry out its peaceful activities in the city center, and there has been no evidence presented that it is connected to terrorism. A number of former members, however, have gone to fight in Syria. Most prominently, Iftekar Jaman, a former call center employee and son of fast food restaurant owners, became something of a celebrity jihadist through his online media profile.[61] In November 2013, he achieved particular notoriety when he was interviewed by the BBC’s flagship Newsnight program.[62] He was also responsible for helping to facilitate travel to Syria for two other Britons who used the pseudonyms Abu Qaqa and Abu Layth al-Khorasani.[63] Abu Layth was later revealed to be a Manchester-born student at Liverpool University and part-time amateur boxer called Anil Khalil Raoufi.[64] Both Raoufi and Iftekar Jaman have since been killed fighting.[65]

Others from the Portsmouth cluster who are still fighting in Syria include former private schoolboy and fitness fanatic Muhammad Hassan.[66] Hassan, another participant in the Portsmouth da`wa group, is a regular on social media and promotes the ISIL’s cause.[67] In mid-November 2013, another Portsmouth man, Muhammad Hamidur Rahman, a manager at a local retail clothing store, told his family he was heading to Syria as part of an aid convoy only to reemerge weeks later as a fighter alongside the ISIL.[68] Both men are believed to still be fighting in Syria.

In contrast, Mashudur Choudhury, who recently became the first Briton to be convicted of terrorism charges related to the conflict in Syria,[69] was arrested upon his return to the United Kingdom on October 26, 2013.[70] He had left for Syria on October 8 with four other Portsmouth men on a commercial flight to Turkey (including Muhammad Hamidur Rahman and Muhammad Hassan) after long conversations via various social media and online communication methods, including Skype, with Iftekar Jaman.[71] In one of these messages, Choudhury suggested that the group he was traveling with should call themselves the “Britani brigade Bangladeshi bad boys,” which elicited a “lol sounds long” from Jaman.[72] Choudhury was also revealed to have argued about his activity with his wife who saw him as a fantasist and who finally told him in a July text message to “go die in battlefield. Go die, I really mean it just go. I’ll be relieved. At last. At last.”[73]


The flow of foreign fighters to Syria from the United Kingdom continues, although the scale is difficult to determine. The trends are worrisome, with the preponderance of longstanding networks of individuals involved in radical activity, the continued featuring of British nationals fighting alongside the ISIL, and the fact that a number of these nationals are connected to serious criminal networks in the United Kingdom. These factors highlight a trend that is likely to develop into future threats. The twin incidents of the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich by longstanding activist Michael Adebolajo and the suicide bombing in Aleppo by Abdul Waheed Majid, a man with almost two decades of radical activity, serve to highlight the persistent and long-term threat that such radicalized individuals can pose.

Thus far, only one domestic terrorist plot in the United Kingdom has been reported as having a connection to Syria, but there is an expectation that more will emerge.[74] While most fighters who return from Syria may not pose a threat, it is likely that some will. British fighters state that they have no intention of carrying out attacks in the United Kingdom, but the indicators from across Europe (including the recently foiled Mumbai-style plot) suggest that future domestic threats connected to the war in Syria are likely to emerge.[75]

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) and is grateful for the support of the Airey Neave Trust in his work on foreign fighters.

[1] “CONTEST: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism, Annual Report,” UK Home Office, April 9, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Duncan Gardham, “Police Foil ‘Mumbai-Style’ Terrorist Plot in London, Say Security Sources,” Guardian, October 14, 2013.

[4] “British Fighters in Syria ‘Not Planning UK Attacks,’” ITV News, April 8, 2014.

[5] Tom Whitehead, “700 Britons Fighting in Syria Terror Groups, Warns Hollande,” Telegraph, January 31, 2014.

[6] “Up to 11,000 Foreign Fighters in Syria; Steep Rise Among Western Europeans,” The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, December 17, 2013.

[7] Tom Whitehead, “Up to 700 Britons Feared to be in Syria,” Telegraph, April 24, 2014.

[8] Sean O’Neill and David Brown, “Syria Link to Terror Arrests in London Raids,” Times, October 15, 2014.

[9] Justin Davenport, “Police Foil ‘Major Islamist Terror Plot’ After Armed Raids Across London,” Evening Standard, October 14, 2013.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Two Men Charged with Terrorism Offences,” Press Association, October 20, 2013.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Gardham, “Police Foil ‘Mumbai-Style’ Terrorist Plot in London, Say Security Sources”; Justin Davenport, “Islamist Terror Suspects Could Have Met During Syria Conflict,” Evening Standard, October 15, 2013; Amanda Williams, “Hundreds of British Jihadis Returning From Fight in Syria Spark Terror Alert After Police and MI5 Thwart Mumbai-Style Attack on London,” Mail Online, February 16, 2014.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Tom Whitehead, “Syria-Related Arrests Soar as Police Urge Mothers and Wives to Stop Would-be Jihadis,” Telegraph, April 24, 2014.

[16] Steve Swann, “British Man Recruits for Syria Jihad,” BBC, December 20, 2013.

[17] Aris Roussinos, “Jihad Selfies: These British Extremists in Syria Love Social Media,” Vice, December 5, 2013.

[18] Know Your Role, Rayat al-Tawhid, April 25, 2014, available on Instagram.

[19] The image of the severed heads was posted on Instagram. The execution video was made public through the reporting of Tom Rayner, “British Fighters Filmed in Syria ‘War Crime,’” Sky News, May 2, 2014.

[20] Commander Abu Musab’s Weekly Address, Kataib al-Kawthar, March 30, 2013, available at

[21] Shaheed Abu Kamal English Version, Kataib al Muhajirin, March 13, 2013, available at

[22] Per Gudmundson, “The Swedish Foreign Fighter Contingent in Syria,” CTC Sentinel 6:9 (2013).

[23] Richard Kerbaj and Malik al-Abdeh, “Dead at 21: Britain’s Veteran Jihadist,” Sunday Times, March 3, 2013.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Inigo Gilmore, “Britons Fighting with Syria’s Jihadi ‘Band of Brothers,’” Channel 4 News, June 14, 2013.

[26] Shaheed Abu Kamal English Version.

[27] Roussinos.

[28] For a more complete story about al-Berjawi’s and Sakr’s adventures in Somalia, see Raffaello Pantucci, “Bilal al-Berjawi and the Shifting Fortunes of Foreign Fighters in Somalia,” CTC Sentinel 6:9 (2013).

[29] Shiv Malik and Haroon Siddique, “Briton Killed Fighting in Syria Civil War,” Guardian, November 20, 2013.

[30] Ibid.

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

[32] It is possible that there is a similar structure at play in Belgium in a case currently working its way through the system in which fighters were being sent to both Somalia and Syria. See “L’epouse de Rachid Benomari lui envoyait de l’argent en Somalie,” La Libre, March 10, 2014.

[33] “An In-Depth Look At Chechen Fighters in Syria – Part I: Sayfullah Al-Shishani and His Circle,” Middle East Media Research Institute, December 6, 2013.

[34] “UK ‘Suicide Bomber’ Abdul Waheed Majid Video Posted Online,” BBC, February 14, 2014.

[35] Raffaello Pantucci, “Syria’s First British Suicide Bomber: The UK Jihadist Backdrop,” Royal United Services Institute, February 14, 2014.

[36] Chris Greenwood, “Fighting Jihad in Syria, The British ‘Grime’ Rapper from £1m Home in Maida Vale, West London, Who is the Son of a Suspected Al Qaeda Mastermind,” Daily Mail, December 31, 2013.

[37] “Fact Sheet on Extradition of 5 Terrorism Suspects to US: Information on Charges,” U.S. Embassy London, October 5, 2012.

[38] Ibid.

[39] This post, dated July 1, 2013, is available at

[40] Twitter feed @ItsLJinny, October 9, 2013.

[41] Greenwood.

[42] Twitter feed @ItsLJinny, March 9, 2014.

[43] “The Scum Stole our Cash,” Daily Mail, March 9, 2014.

[44] Twitter feed @ItsLJinny, March 13, 2014.

[45] William Turvill, “Five Thugs who Killed a Schoolboy Stabbing Him with Swords and Meat Cleavers in one of Britain’s Wealthiest Postcodes are Jailed for 131 Years,” Daily Mail, January 31, 2014.

[46] Amie Keeley, “Four Britons ‘Killed Fighting in Syrian Civil War With Al Qaeda Rebels,’” Mail Online, November 20, 2013.

[47] Duncan Gardham, ‘The Al Qaeda Fanatic from Britain who Funded Jihad Trip to Syria by Mugging Londoners with a Taser,” Mail on Sunday, November 30, 2013.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Metropolitan Police statement, undated, available at

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Twitter feed @ItsLJinny, April 18, 2014.

[54] “Father Scared for Sons in Syria,” Press Association, April 21, 2014.

[55] Conal Urquhart and Shiv Malik, “Teenager From Brighton Killed Within Weeks of Joining Syrian Conflict,” Guardian, April 18, 2014.

[56] Urquhart and Malik.

[57] Shiv Malik, “Father of UK Teenager Killed in Syria Implores his Other Sons to Return,” Guardian, April 20, 2014.

[58] “UK Ex-Guantanamo Detainee Moazzam Begg Remanded in Custody,” BBC, March 1, 2014.

[59] Ibid.

[60] “Mouloud Tahari: Briton, 20, Charged over Funding Syria Terrorism,” Independent, March 4, 2014.

[61] Edward Malnick and Richard Spencer, “British ‘Celebrity Jihadi’ and Chef Dies in Syria,” Telegraph, December 17, 2013.

[62] Richard Watson, “Briton ‘Doing his Duty’ by Fighting with Group Linked to al Qaeda in Syria,” BBC, November 21, 2013.

[63] Tam Hussein, “Social Media Jihadi: The Inside Story of a Briton who Died Fighting for ISIS,” Huffington Post, February 6, 2014.

[64] Yakub Qureshi, “Anil Khalil Raoufi, 20, Killed Fighting in Syria Thought War was ‘Like Star Wars,’” Manchester Evening News, February 13, 2014.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Dipesh Gadher, David Leppard, Hala Jaber, Toby Harnden and Laura Molyneaux, “‘We Need to Start Taking Heads Off’: The YouTube Jihadists who Pose a Risk to Britain,” Sunday Times, January 12, 2014.

[67] Dipesh Gadher and Laura Molyneaux, “Portsmouth’s Primark Jihadist Surfaces in Syria,” Sunday Times, December 1, 2013.

[68] Ibid.

[69] Dominic Casciani, “Mashudur Choudhury: Serial Liar and Jihadist,” BBC, May 20, 2014.

[70] Tom Whitehead, “Man Travelled to Syrian Terror Training Camp After Angry Wife Said ‘Go Die on Battlefield,’ Court Told,” Telegraph, May 7, 2014.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Ibid.

[74] O’Neill and Brown.

[75] Raffaello Pantucci, “Thick as Thieves: European Criminals Take to Syria’s Battlefield,” Royal United Services Institute, March 31, 2014.

New piece for RUSI about a curious and unconsidered problem emanating from the current chaos in Syria. Emerges from conversations with Jenni around the office about how Polio has started showing up in and around the conflict, as well as in other parts of the world where violent insurgent/terrorist networks operate. Maybe more on this topic coming. In the meantime, I did a few interviews around events in Xinjiang for the Associated Press, Shanghai’s CICA meeting (and adjacent China-Russia gas deal) with the Economist, Agence France Presse, and the South China Morning Post.

Polio and the Syrian Crisis: The Accidental Bioterrorist
RUSI Analysis, 21 May 2014

By Jennifer Cole, Senior Research Fellow, Resilience & Emergency Management; Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

The World Health Organization’s recent declaration of a public-health emergency due to the re-emergence of polio in countries including Syria and Somalia highlights the nexus between insecurity, violent Islamist groups and the spread of deadly diseases.

Polio vaccine in Djibouti US Department of Defense photo

The continual use of chemical weapons in Syria has shocked the world. It has also reopened speculation around the possible use of biological weapons. In January 2014, US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper suggested in a statement to the US Senate Intelligence Committee that the Assad regime is capable of producing lethal agents, though it may not yet have an effective delivery mechanism.

But the potential use of such weapons is not the most pressing biological threat emanating from Syria. Earlier this month, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHIEC)[1] as a result of an unintentional bio-crisis: the re-emergence of polio, a deadly killer which was once almost eradicated. Over the last twelve months, twenty-five cases of polio have been confirmed in Syria, putting neighbouring Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey at risk. Prior to its ongoing civil war, Syria had been polio-free for fourteen years but the country’s immunisation rates have plummeted from more than 95 per cent of eligible children before the conflict to around 52 per cent at the time of the polio outbreak.[2] Tellingly, the majority of the children affected were born after the vaccination programme fell apart.

(In)security and Bio-Threats

The global, long-term impact of what appears to be a lost opportunity to rid the world of this crippling disease is just as devastating as any deliberate act of bioterrorism.

The challenging security environment that has facilitated its spread should sound alarm bells for the future. Genetic sequencing has linked the strain of polio responsible for the October 2013 outbreak in the Deir Al-Zour province in eastern Syria to one of Pakistani origin that has also been found in Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories in recent months. The speculation is that Pakistani fighters battling the Assad regime, or Syrian military personnel who have undergone training in Pakistan, may have inadvertently brought the virus to Syria with them.

Two-thirds of the 400 or so polio cases recorded globally in 2013 were caused by strains imported to the affected country from elsewhere, again largely from Pakistan – while ninety-two actually occurred in Pakistan.[3]. Sixty-nine per cent of these were concentrated in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA),[4] where the Taliban is particularly active, while Peshawar – the main city that is a way station for people transiting to Afghanistan – is the largest polio reservoir in the world.

Islamist Resistance to Vaccination

The apparent link between polio and Islamist activity is no coincidence: efforts to eradicate the disease in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria – the only three countries where the disease remains endemic, with ‘wild’ or naturally occurring strains still circulating – have long been challenged by Islamist militants who claim that the vaccinations are a Western plot to make their children infertile, to spread AIDS, or that health workers are undercover Western spies. The latter claim is not without substance: Dr Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani physician working for the CIA, famously obtained DNA from children in Abbottabad in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, under the cover of a fake immunisation campaign. Such suspicion can have a devastating impact: twenty-seven polio workers have been assassinated in Pakistan since December 2012.[5] Nonetheless, as long as the virus remains endemic in Pakistan, jihadist fighters will be able to inadvertently carry it to other areas of instability across the globe.

This problem is not exclusive to Pakistan. In May 2013, cases of the disease were recorded in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu for the first time since 2007, caused by strains imported from northern Nigeria, where imams and local political leaders issued a polio-vaccination boycott in 2003. In February 2013, the Islamist group Boko Haram murdered nine young women working on polio-vaccination programmes. Meanwhile, the spread of the disease across Somalia itself has been further helped by Al-Qa’ida-affiliated Al-Shabaab extremists discouraging parents from vaccinating their children by claiming that the vaccines contain AIDS.

A Polio-Free World?

How the world reacts to this global public-health emergency in the coming months – particularly over the summer, which heralds what is traditionally the high-transmission season for polio – will determine whether we can realistically continue to aim for a world that is polio-free.

Co-ordinating international efforts to support vaccination programmes in failed and fragile states is one response. Another measure – that has now been implemented by WHO – is to limit international travel from affected regions by those who cannot prove they have been vaccinated.  This is an approach that has also been replicated within countries. For example, Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif has stipulated that no unvaccinated child from FATA be allowed to enter the settled areas of Pakistan. He has also ordered army protection for polio vaccinators going into volatile regions of the country.

Other more creative measures should also be considered. The Organization of the Islamic Conference has issued fatwas in support of polio vaccination, and Pakistan has encouraged senior imams to speak out on the topic. On 16 May, the White House issued a statement that the CIA will no longer make operational use of vaccination workers.

But beyond these, there needs to be greater awareness amongst the broader security community of how this niche problem can develop into a global threat – an ancillary product of instability and violence that can have deep, longer-term ramifications. Security issues and the success or failure of WHO’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative are clearly, if intricately, linked. As such, efforts to wipe out polio in its last few remaining strongholds must be approached with both in mind.

Another piece on Boko, this one that I had been working on with Sofia long before the Chibok girls kidnapping, but lands now for my Institute’s magazine publication RUSI Newsbrief. For those eager to see me talking about foreign fighters, I participated in a debate on BBC’s Newsnight last night that can be found here (though only for 6 more days from May 20 2014) and separately I did an interview with the Press Association around the anniversary of the Woolwich attack last year.

The ‘Franchising’ of Boko Haram

RUSI Newsbrief, 19 May 2014

By Raffaello Pantucci

On 14 April, a bomb went off at a bus station on the outskirts of Abuja, reportedly killing seventy-five. On the same day, more than 200 girls were abducted from a school in Borno State. Both acts were claimed by Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamist terror network that has become a household name around the world. Yet whilst the kidnap of the girls in particular has served to enhance the group’s notoriety, the nature of its structure and membership – as well as the extent to which acts attributed to it are directed by the central command – is increasingly opaque. For foreign observers concerned about the rise of Salafi-jihadism (a short-hand term to characterise extreme Islamist-inspired violence) in West Africa, the issue is important in determining what kind of threat the group may pose in the future.

During a press briefing in the wake of the girls’ kidnap, spokesperson of the Nigerian State Security Service Marilyn Ogar characterised Boko Haram as ‘a franchise’, which ‘anybody can assume and lay claim to.’ This is a useful means of conceptualising the group, with some cells clearly connected to the leadership, others seeming to act more autonomously and others carrying out criminal activity while masquerading as (or being mistaken for) Boko Haram. Indeed, the term ‘franchise’ may help to explain the many faces of violence in northern Nigeria, and to demonstrate the lack of clarity around the nature of the current organisation. Today’s Boko Haram – although still representative of the ideology forged by founder Mohammed Yusuf – has become a multifaceted, cellular group, seemingly encompassing terrorists, insurgents and criminals, in a manner that is hard to understand or contain.

At the same time, northern Nigeria has long been a dangerous part of the world beset by ethnic violence, criminality, draconian government responses, and longstanding tension with the south. The ‘franchising’ framework offers analysts a means of defining an increasingly nebulous organisation and region – helping in turn to identify ways of dealing with the various factions. It also highlights how the ambiguous nature of Boko Haram makes it an increasingly dangerous organisation.

The confusion surrounding Boko Haram relates to a range of factors. First, there is an absence of accurate and reliable information about incidents; the challenges faced by external actors in gaining access to the area make it difficult to independently verify reports. Given that reporting is often fragmentary or contradictory, it is very difficult to know whether violent incidents are being properly attributed and which sources are credible.

This relates to a second point, which is that it is not always clear where the line of responsibility for these incidents can actually be drawn. For example, the regular tempo of inter-ethnic violence in the region is sometimes wrongly attributed to Boko Haram. In March, journalists wrongly blamed an attack in Katsina State on Boko Haram that was actually carried out by Fulani herdsmen (a Muslim ethnic community resident in the north).

Likewise, criminal acts – such as kidnappings and bank robberies – are commonplace in the north, and the extent to which Boko Haram is connected to such incidents is often unclear. Boko Haram has relied on criminal activity to raise money in the past – a bank robbery in Yobe attributed to the group in April 2013 resulted in currency worth over $50,000 being stolen and twenty-five being killed. Yet, to paraphrase the viewpoint of SOAS Nigeria expert Bala Liman, it is not uncommon for people to rob a bank and come out shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ (‘God is great’), prompting witnesses to report the incident as connected to Boko Haram based on little evidence beyond this.

Northern Nigeria is also afflicted by violence apparently linked to local ruling elites. Some of this can be attributed to such power-brokers’ support – for personal or ideological reasons – for Boko Haram, but much of it is simply a reflection of local politics. The spikes in violence during election campaigns, for example, are linked in part to groups like Boko Haram, but also to people settling political scores and hiding it in the chaos.

The final element in this violent picture concerns events that are actually claimed by Boko Haram. Yet even these claims often prove difficult to assess due to the opaque structure of the organisation and the indistinct nature of its affiliates and splinter groups. Mohammed Yusuf’s deputy – Abubakar Shekau – succeeded Yusuf as leader after his death in August 2009. His position as head of the organisation is well known and accepted, yet numerous others have posed as leaders and spokesmen in recent years. Mallam Sanni Umaru emerged immediately after Yusuf’s death, issuing a written statement to the Nigerian press describing himself as ‘acting leader’ and outlining the group’s cause, mission and targets. However, nothing has been heard from him since.

Abu Mohammed Ibn Abdulaziz then emerged in late 2012, declaring himself Shekau’s direct spokesman. In an interview with The Guardian, he claimed that the group was in peace discussions with the government. Speaking to the press in English rather than Hausa, however, served to raise doubts, and with peace not achieved, Abdulaziz’s involvement with the group seems as ambiguous as his comments, with local people with inside information also discounting this link.

A similar figure was Mohammed Marwan, who claimed to be second-in-command to Shekau. In April 2013, he declared that the group was becoming more moderate (in stark contrast to its activity). Even though Nigeria’s Minister of Special Duties Kabiru Turaki confirmed that Marwan was his main interlocutor, hopes of an accord were dashed in July 2013, when Shekau released a video reassuring his supporters that ‘we will not enter into any truce with these infidels’. Shekau underscored this by claiming responsibility for recent, brutal attacks on secondary schools in Mamudo (where, on 6 July, militants had butchered forty-two children and their teachers) and in Damaturu (where, on 16 June, Boko Haram members opened fire, killing thirteen). As Shekau put it, ‘we … warned that we are going to burn all schools. They are schools purposely built to fight Islam.’ Indeed, the group has specialised in these grim school massacres, seemingly living up to the loose translation of its name, ‘Western education is forbidden’. This approach, and the emergence of questionable interlocutors, is now playing out again with the kidnap of the girls in Borno, where it is unclear whether those offering themselves up as negotiators actually have any link to the group itself.

Whether these are instances of fracturing or merely reflective of a lack of clarity around the group is uncertain. Seemingly clearer, and of greater concern to Western strategists, was the formation of the group Ansaru in January 2012. Claiming to want to conduct more targeted attacks focused on figures of authority and international targets in line with globalist jihadist aims like those of Al-Qa’ida, rather than the wanton destruction directed by Shekau, Ansaru’s emergence has been interpreted in different ways. Age-old ethnic divisions between Fulani and Kanuri are one possible explanation, while others focus on the links between elements in Ansaru and Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the main Sahelian jihadist group. Indeed, aside from individual connections, Ansaru’s rhetorical preference for limiting Muslim casualties seems to resonate more with AQIM’s approach of trying to win over local populations than with Shekau’s brutal razed-earth approach. Ansaru’s kidnapping and killing of foreigners is also reminiscent of former AQIM leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, famous for masterminding the January 2013 attack on the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria.

Having claimed responsibility for attacks in areas traditionally dominated by Boko Haram whilst operating under a different name and ideology, Ansaru has further complicated Western efforts to gain an insight into the psyche of Islamic fundamentalism in Nigeria. Beyond this, the broader explosion in violent activity across northern Nigeria since 2012 reinforces the notion that Boko Haram has developed into a brand whose ‘franchise’ has been adopted by all sorts of other organisations. This makes an understanding of Boko Haram even more complicated, with the already opaque nature of the group lending itself well to an umbrella organisation to which anyone can attribute their actions.

Finally, while 2014 has seen extreme levels of violence claimed by the group, including the Abuja bombing and Borno kidnapping, these acts, while not too far from Boko Haram’s previous activity, do strike a new pattern. Previously, the group largely kept to launching attacks in the northeastern provinces, with earlier kidnap operations far more limited in scale. Yet the international coverage that this kidnap, in particular, has generated suggests a new, more ambitious tempo of activity that the group is likely to continue to pursue. This will further complicate attempts to predict the future actions of the group and its splinters.

For external observers, this is particularly worrying, suggesting that the grim bill of violence in northern Nigeria is unlikely to subside any time soon. Meanwhile, the fracturing and ‘franchising’ of Boko Haram complicates any attempt by the government to resolve the situation peacefully (or even to establish who to begin to talk to).

So far, the Nigerian government has taken a hard-line approach, with reports of mass detentions, collective punishments, torture and extra-judicial killing, which may serve to further alienate local populations. Some of these may ultimately take an anti-Western stand: although attacks on Western interests have so far been conducted primarily by Ansaru (with only the 2011 attack on the UN offices in Abuja claimed by Boko Haram), an increasingly fractured organisation may produce groups or cells seeking to distinguish themselves or connect with other African jihadist organisations such as AQIM or its many splinters.

Meanwhile, the concerns of the West, as well as those of the Nigerian government, are not limited to the security threat. The growing chaos caused by the proliferation of instability in Nigeria will only further undermine the country’s burgeoning (but still inefficient) economy. This will have substantial repercussions on external interests in West Africa, and on the continent as a whole.

Raffaello Pantucci and Sofia Patel

Senior Research Fellow and Research Assistant, RUSI.
Twitter: @raffpantucci, @laramimi

A new op-ed in the South China Morning Post with Lifan looking at China and Russia’s relationship and China’s foreign policy more grandly as part of the discussion around the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) currently going on in Shanghai. I also spoke to Agence France Presse about the meeting.

China relishes its new role fostering regional cooperation

Li Lifan and Raffaello Pantucci study China’s rising profile as a big power

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 May, 2014, 9:12pm

UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 May, 2014, 4:02am

The Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, which begins today in Shanghai, largely passes unnoticed most years. But this year it is being touted as a major global event, largely due to Russia’s current awkward relationships elsewhere and China’s growing global profile.

It also offers a window into President Xi Jinping’s vision for China’s foreign policy.

First proposed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan in 1992, it took 10 years for the conference to hold its first summit in Almaty. Now with 24 members, nine observer states and four observer organisations, the conference offers an interesting forum where countries with difficult relations can interact.

This year, there are high expectations of what it might mean for regional engagement in Afghanistan in the post-drawdown world.

The group’s first summit in 2002 was held in the shadow of the September 11 attacks and concluded with a declaration on eliminating terrorism. Non-traditional security threats have always been high on the agenda; in the current environment, they remain a priority.

But in many ways, this year’s event will be overshadowed by the interaction between Russia and the various members.

Both China and Russia have already hinted that this is finally the year when they will resolve their long-standing gas pricing dispute, and both have indicated they will have substantial bilateral interactions, including military exercises near the time of the conference.

The benefits for Russia are obvious. At a time when its relations with Europe and the US are soured over Ukraine, this is an opportunity to interact with a friendly community of nations and show how Russia has other geopolitical options.

One has to take a step back, however, to appreciate the benefits for China. For China, the conference is an opportunity to showcase itself as a major power at the heart of a number of different international forums (China is host this year), as well as a moment where Xi can offer a glimpse into his vision for China’s foreign policy.

This vision needs to be understood in the context of Chinese strategic considerations. One is the four trade corridors: the Silk Road economic belt (through Central Asia); the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor; the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation; and the maritime Silk Road. These are really four strings of the same instrument – one that flows from Xi’s comments about the importance of China’s border relationships late last year.

Foreign policy under Xi is one in which China will play an increasingly proactive role, founded on practical economic relationships, but also one that is heavily focused on multilateral cooperation. Xi wants his foreign policy to be seen as all about regional cooperation and integration.

For China, the meeting is in many ways an expression of this. Bringing together contentious partners and old friends alike, it highlights China as a major power that can convene important conferences with all sorts of actors around the table. Its concepts of “peaceful development” and “new great power relations” are both captured within this bigger vision.

The reality, of course, is that this is the natural state of international relations between states, where contentious relations sit alongside necessary cooperation. But it is significant that Xi has seen it as such a critical concept.

Li Lifan is secretary general of the Centre for SCO Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Raffaello Pantucci is senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

Another piece with a RUSI colleague, this time Matthew Cadoux-Hudson, for our collective institutional home looking at Boko Haram in the wake of the Chibok girl’s kidnapping. It builds on bigger work that we are doing on this topic at the moment and I have at least another smaller piece coming out on this topic. I did some media work around the event, including an interview with NBC, on other topics, I spoke with the Independent about two Brits who were reported dead in Syria and spoke to the Telegraph about terrorism in China.

Nigeria’s Opaque Jihad: Insurgency in Africa’s Richest Nation

RUSI Analysis, 16 May 2014

The kidnapping of girls in Chibok by Boko Haram has increased the international spotlight on Nigeria. The dilemma for the international community at this point is to understand this complicated environment, but also to make sure the interest is not simply transitory.

By Raffaello Pantucci and Matthew Cadoux-Hudson

Boko Haram Leader

The world’s attention has been caught by the plight of the Nigerian schoolgirls brutally snatched from their schools in Chibok a month ago by Islamist fighters in northern Nigeria. In the sudden surge of attention, Boko Haram has been treated as though it is coherent with clear goals and aspirations. The reality is that the group is a largely nebulous entity that has been waging a brutal insurgency in northern Nigeria for almost five years with little international attention. The question is whether this burst of attention will be sustained beyond the current crisis.


It is important to understand the group a little better. The group does not, in fact, refer to itself as Boko Haram but rather (in the material that it releases) as ‘The Congregation of the People of the Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad’ (Jamâ’at Ahl al-Sunnah li Da’wahwa-l-Jihâd). But focusing on this detail misses the fact that one of the underlying drivers of the group’s narrative is a historical one that draws on a long tradition of tensions between north and south Nigeria, and the perception of more Christian (and therefore Western) education being brought into the Muslim north. Boko Haram in many ways claims to be the heirs of past expressions of a regional ethnic and religious identity that previously bubbled up in the form of Usman dan Fodio’s Sokoto Caliphate from the early 1800s or more recently the Maitatsine riots that came to a head in 1980.

In that latter case, in much the same way as Mohammed Yusuf emerged in the northeastern provinces and established a utopian Muslim community in the early 2000s that clashed with the Nigerian state, Mohammed Marwan, or Maitatsine, was a Muslim preacher who established a community of followers around Kano and then began railing against endemic corruption within the Nigerian state. In both cases, the Nigerian government clamped down hard, leading to violent rioting, and in the more recent case, the brutal insurgency that continues to plague Nigeria and has now kidnapped the Chibok girls.

Current State

The current size of the group is not clear, though it has shown itself repeatedly capable of withstanding substantial losses whilst still launching large-scale attacks highlighting an ability to replenish their ranks. The structure of the group is also not entirely clear. Abubakar Shekau, who has become a household name in the wake of the current crisis, is clearly the leader of the organisation. There are a number of prominent individuals who operate under him,  but the degree to which he controls or directs them all is not clear.

The number of girls kidnapped in this particular instance is something new for the group. But kidnapping and targeting females is not.  The group has been kidnapping individuals, both young boys and girls, for over a year. Shekau spoke of the initial kidnappings being undertaken in retaliation for the imprisonment of the groups’ wives and children. In some cases it seems as though the group has targeted women in particular to act as cooks and support in their camps.

The group’s brutal notoriety did not traditionally focus on its penchant for kidnapping girls, but for butchering entire schools of male children. On 6 July 2013, the group launched an attack on a local secondary school in Mamudo killing forty-two students and staff. On 29 September 2013 in Gujba they launched an attack on the College of Agriculture killing fifty students. On 26 February 2014 in Buni Yadi the group attacked a remote boarding school killing at least twenty-nine students. And there have been numerous other similar incidents. In every case the local security response was parlous. While the first of these incidents attracted some attention, more recent ones have blended into the background of violence in northeastern Nigeria.

Taken against this backdrop, it is not entirely clear that the group would have therefore been expecting the response it got to this particular kidnapping. On the same day as the kidnapping took place, a bomb went off in a city on the outskirts of Abuja, killing at least seventy-five people. Shekau released a video almost the next day claiming the explosion. It was followed by another explosion a couple of weeks later. In contrast, the videos relating to the girls did not emerge for some weeks until the international media spotlight was brought to bear, suggesting the group was not necessarily expecting such attention.

Exploiting the Attention

However, now that it has the world’s attention, it is going to try to get as much as it can. The group has form in resolving kidnappings with exchanges of money, and has in the past bargained with the Nigerian government to have the imprisoned wives and children of group members released for kidnapped women and children. While on the one hand it is unlikely that the group controls or has all of the girls (reports indicate some may have already died, while others are likely to have been sold off), now it has initiated a process it seems likely at least some will be released through negotiation.

The bigger issue is what happens after that. The world has largely sat by while Boko Haram and its many off-shoots and franchises have wreaked havoc. This has left the Nigerian government responding to the threat in a manner which is not getting rid of the group beyond containing it in the northeastern provinces.

Even this does not seem to be working with two bombings near Abuja in the past month. France has now taken the lead in agreeing to host a regional summit on Boko Haram in Paris on 17 May, bringing together leaders from Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Benin as well as senior figures from the UK, US and EU. The hope has to be that this is the beginning of a more concerted effort to deal with a group that has been steadily growing in violence since the early 2000s.

A longer paper published with my RUSI colleague Edward for CIDOB, a Barcelona based think tank that is doing a big project on Sources of Tension Afghanistan and Pakistan: Regional Perspectives that looks at Afghanistan-Pakistan and what is going to happen post-2014. I have participated in a couple of the workshops attached to the project and am looking forward to staying engaged going forwards.


My contribution to the project this time is a paper looking ‘Transition in Afghanistan: Filling the Security Vacuum – The Expansion of Uighur Extremism.’ The full paper can be found behind the hyperlink. It basically looks at the likelihood and possibility that Uighur extremists might take a more prominent role in Afghanistan-Pakistan post-2014. The answer is a limited one, but the piece also sketches out a longer trajectory of the problems around Uighur extremism and how it has developed over the years and what China has been doing regionally. More on subjects related to this topic soon, and check back to the China in Central Asia site which is undergoing a revamp at the moment. On a related topic, I did an interview with the Telegraph about China’s response to terrorism.

Another piece that was published in Chinese this week, this time for BBC 中文 about the incident in Urumqi this past week as Xi Jinping was finishing up his tour of the province. I have re-published the Chinese at the top and the English version below. I did a few interviews around this including for South China Morning Post and the Associated Press. I also spoke to Global Post, Radio France Info and Asharq al Awsat about foreign fighters and Syria.

更新時間 2014年5月1日, 格林尼治標準時間17:26







Xi Jinping in Xinjiang














本文章不代表BBC的立場和觀點, 網友如要發表評論,請使用下表:


The attack in Xinjiang comes as President Xi Jinping completes a visit to the province in which he spoke of it being ‘the front line in anti-terrorism and maintaining social stability.’ Coming after a year in which violence in the province has been increasing, the incident at Urumqi train station highlights once again how the problems in the province are escalating.

While not all the details around the incident are available at the moment, official reports indicate that a pair of attackers armed with knives detonated explosives outside the exit of Urumqi South train station. One of the attackers was identified as an ethnic Uighur called Sedierding Shawuti from Aksu, a part of the province that has seen a number of incidents take place this year. Three people have been reported killed, two assailants and a third bystander. The style of attack, involving explosives and individuals using knives is something that has been seen before in the province, though usually it seems to be more targeted at symbols of state authority and it does not take place in Urumqi. The fact that the attack comes as Xi Jinping is concluding his trip to the province only increases the impact and highlights how the very problems he had come to speak about continue to be a major issue.

In Xinjiang over the past year problems have been escalating. Be this in terms of attacks against state authority in Xinjiang, incidents linked to the province in Beijing and Kunming or increasing reports of ethnic Uighurs (a Turkic minority mostly resident in Xinjiang) trying to flee the country into Central Asia or Southeast Asia.  The escalation now of an attack involving individuals who according to local reports were using bombs strapped to their persons is new, though in previous attacks it has certainly seemed as though individuals were expecting to die in pursuit of their act. This determination atop the previous incidents demonstrates a level of dedication by the individuals involved that is clearly founded in a sense of their message not getting through.

The key problem at the heart of China’s issues in Xinjiang is a sense of alienation and disenfranchisement amongst the Uighur community. Go around the province and you will find individuals who do not feel they benefit from the Chinese state and complain about in-flows to the province of ethnically Han Chinese who are perceived as being the primary beneficiaries of the province’s wealth. People complain about the state destroying their culture and point to the destruction of the old city of Kashgar as evidence.

The Chinese government’s response so far has been a dual track: heavy economic investment and a hardline security crackdown. Messages that resonated throughout President Xi’s visit, with him pictured talking to police officers in Kashgar and visiting fruit factories. Since President Xi came into power he has spoken repeatedly about terrorism as an issue, and also introduced a new National Security Council – a central security organ that seems to have terrorism as one of the issues it will focus on. Beyond China’s borders, he has spoken of the New Silk Road Economic belt, an economic and trade corridor that flows from the province into Central Asia and is in part about trying to improve the economic situation in the province.

The current strategic approach echoes previous efforts in the province, but was brought into clearer focus in the wake of a strategy that was introduced in 2010 in the wake of rioting in July 2009 in Urumqi that led to more than 200 deaths. There was a substantial change-over in leadership in the province, and a renewed economic focus in particular. But while the government is clearly very focused on the issue, it is not totally clear that what it has been doing has been paying off. Rather, violence in the province has continued, developed further and started to spread around the country.

The prognosis for Xinjiang at the moment is not positive. The level and tenor of incidents is getting worse and any economic strategy will not bear fruit for some time. Furthermore, public anger and concern around the problems in Xinjiang and terrorism emanating from the province is getting worse. The answer for the Chinese government is a complicated one that is founded in continuing to try to find ways to make Uighurs feel like they have a stake in modern China. At the same time, Beijing has to find ways of addressing the growing tenor and increasing random nature of terrorism attacks in China.


A bit late to post here, but a longer interview I did late last month for the the Chinese newspaper I occasionally write for 东方早报 (Oriental Morning Post). The interview focuses on China in Afghanistan, a topic I’ve been doing quite a bit of work on and you can find more about on the China in Central Asia site. I have put the published Chinese on top, but the English interview I initially did it pasted below.

维护阿富汗稳定的责任 或将落到中国身上 
早报记者 黄翱 发表于2014-04-28 07:06


Raffaello Pantucci












1. In the post-ISAF ear, should China take a major role of the regional geopolitics of Afghanistan? If does, what the role should be?
Yes, China should take on a much bigger role in Afghanistan in the future. As one of the major regional giants with interests in Afghanistan, China has an important role to play – this is in terms of the country’s economic future, but also in terms of its political and security future. So far China has tried to avoid doing too much in this direction, but without the western interest and focus it will increasingly fall to regional powers like China to take these roles on.
2. How could China make clear to the Afghan people and international community of a clearer Afghan strategy?
The problem here is complicated as the fundamental divergence between Chinese policy and action really lies in the big investment projects that are being done by Chinese companies. Many Afghans I have spoken to complain about the Mes Aynak project being run by MCC/Jiangxi Copper saying that it is something that company has just been sitting on and blocking impeding the ability to develop the site. They then resent China for not doing more to make the project start. I am sure the reality on the ground is complicated, but I also am sure that more could be done.
What Afghanistan needs is not only a political statement, but also demonstrations of action. So far, China has played a role in Afghanistan, but not a major one. The Afghans hope and expect that China will say it will play a major role and then follow through. The final element to remember is that China needs to find a way of balancing its relationship with Pakistan with that with Afghanistan. The Afghans often become agitated when they see how much China does and supports Pakistan (a country they have a very complicated relationship with) and how relatively less China does with them.
3. Should China provide more security product in the region? How could China do so?
Yes, China does need to do more in security terms in Afghanistan. This could look in a few different directions. First, help the Afghans strengthen their border security – China has learned many lessons about Central Asian borders through the SCO and its partnerships in Central Asia. These could be translated to help Afghanistan strengthen its borders. Training: the Chinese government already does some limited training of security forces (ANP mostly I believe) in Afghanistan. It should increase these numbers substantially. Develop local security forces to protect mining sites: the Afghan interior ministry has already created a special Aynak protection force essentially – helping fund or train more in this direction would be a good thing that would also help secure Chinese investments.
4. What would be the greatest obstacle of Chinese enterprises expanding their business in Afghanistan? How should China do to remove it?
Security is the biggest problem, so see my previous answer. The other aspect is Afghanistan’s legal framework and official technocratic capacity. This China can help in two ways: first, ensure that Chinese firms doing investments in Afghanistan do not indulge in corrupt practices. If everyone stops doing this the system will improve, but you have to start somewhere. If the government makes sure that state owned firms investing in the country are not using bribes and are adhering to Afghan law this will help. Second, the Chinese government should explore looking at offering training at Chinese technical universities or sponsoring scholarships for junior Afghan officials to go and learn about (for example) drafting laws or other technical skills this will help Afghanistan develop the capacity to have a better and more efficient set of officials who can help the country grow and become more stable. It will also mean that Chinese businesses investing in the country will have a more effective group of officials to interact with making the Afghan system more efficient.