Archive for May, 2016

Re-publishing a paper from a little back that I did for the new Durham Global Security Institute looking at China-Afghanistan relations. It builds on a presentation on the topic, focusing mostly on the fact that China continues to play a fairly noncommittal game in the country. A topic which there is more to come and about which much more can be found on my co-edited site China in Central Asia. Beyond regional geopolitics, spoke to the Daily Mail about the threat from terrorists and weapons from Libya, NBC about threats to the Tour de France, and my book was quoted in the Independent.

Karzai-Yuanchao

China’s Big Hedge

In November of last year, Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao visited Kabul to celebrate 60 years of diplomatic relations between Afghanistan and China.[1] The most senior level visit to Kabul by a Chinese official since the now-defenestrated former Politburo member and security minister Zhou Yongkang visited in 2012[2] the visit showed China’s continuing commitment to Afghanistan, whilst also highlighting its limits. Sitting awkwardly in President Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ vision, Afghanistan remains a foreign policy conundrum to China who continues to see the potential risks from the neighbouring country, but that Beijing understands it has a particularly central potential role to play and whose proximity negates a completely detached approach. The result has been a hedging policy in which China continues to show some level of commitment towards Afghanistan whilst not going so far as to taking on the mantle of leadership.

The Belt and Road

One of the central topics of conversation during Vice President Li’s visit to Kabul was the ‘Belt and Road’ concept. In official read-outs from the meetings, both sides agreed to work on cooperatively to help develop Afghanistan’s role in the vision and thereby deepen the link between China and Afghanistan.[3] ‘Belt and Road’ is the term used to describe the vision laid out by President Xi Jinping that is on its way to becoming his defining foreign policy legacy. First publicly raised during a visit to Astana, Kazakhstan in September 2013 when President Xi coined the term ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ to describe the trade, infrastructure and economic corridor emanating from China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang through Central Asia ultimately to European markets.[4] The next month during a speech at the Indonesian Parliament he built on this characterization to announce the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road that recreated the land model advanced across Eurasia out from China’s ports to the seas.[5] Over the next few months these trade corridors proliferated as a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor, China-Mongolia-Russia corridor and a New Eurasian Landbridge were all increasingly discussed. In fact, the Pakistan corridor was one that had been agreed prior to the September speech and had been raised during a visit by Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Pakistan in May 2013 and signed in MoU form on a return visit by President Nawaz Sharif in July 2013.[6] But the corridor was only later identified and absorbed under the logic of the grander vision. The logic of these various routes was largely the same and drew from the same structure as the Silk Road Economic Belt laid out in Astana, but over time was increasingly all captured under the rubric of the ‘One Belt and One Road’ (OBOR) and is now abbreviated to the ‘Belt and Road.’

By announcing the initiative in Central Asia President Xi was adding his stamp onto something that had in fact been taking place for over a decade.[7] Since 2001 and the formal founding of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) China has increasingly been developing its presence in Central Asia, something that was spurred on even further in the wake of riots in China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang in July 2009.[8] The rioting took place as a result of deep tensions between the minority Uighur population (a community that is close in language, culture and ethnicity to the Turkic speaking populations of Central Asia) in the region and the growing Han Chinese population who have moved west over the past century. These two populations have lived uncomfortably next to each other for some time, with Uighurs increasingly feeling alienated from their own country. This has led to a push back which has expressed itself in a number of forms: people lashing out against the state in anger for real or perceived individual slights or in more organized fashion through terrorist groups and plots. In the first instance much of the violence was isolated in Xinjiang, and in particular in the southern predominantly Uighur corridor. But over time, it has increasingly spread around the country with violent incidents in Kunming and Beijing, an attack outside the country in Bangkok, Thailand and a persistent minority of Uighurs leaving China to seek to connect with extremist groups in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Southeast Asia.[9]

For China, the key to ameliorating the situation in Xinjiang is an economic solution.[10] Seeing economic development as the answer to these problems means a great deal of internal investment, but for this investment to work, Xinjiang needs to have trading partners. Sitting in landlocked Xinjiang, it is easier to look across the Eurasian landmass to Europe and see a quicker route to markets than going to China’s eastern seaboard ports. Consequently, this investment has to spill into Central Asia where Chinese infrastructure companies, banks, and traders have all worked to develop trade corridors to open up Central Asian markets and routes to Xinjiang and Chinese traders. This has happened at every level with small time shuttle traders going back and forth with bags of goods, as well as more entrepreneurial individuals establishing brands and opening factories. Over time, this has led to a steady increase in Chinese presence in the region which has led to not only a re-wiring of the regions infrastructure so that all roads lead to Urumqi (Xinjiang’s capital), but also meant that increasingly China has displaced Russia to become the most consequential actor on the ground.

But all of this has been taking place now for over a decade. Meaning that the nomenclature of the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) is a case of President Xi placing his stamp of authority on something that was already underway – the development of an economic and trade corridor sweeping out from China’s west through Central Asia, ultimately to European markets. Seeing it as a successful model deploying foreign policy tools that Beijing could understand how to control (the deployment of capital through linked loans for Chinese firms to go forth and implement infrastructure projects), and based on some theoretical assumptions that are comprehensible. It also has the effect of helping keep the Chinese economy moving as the domestic economy slows down.[11]

But the important thing to remember about the SREB is that it is not a single path, but rather a latticework of routes out of China across Eurasia. There are roads going from Urumqi through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and onwards through other Central Asian countries, across the Caspian, Russia or Iran to Europe. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) essentially turns Pakistan into a corridor for goods to travel through Pakistan from the ports of Gwadar and Karachi to Kashgar, Xinjiang.[12] Whilst identified under a slightly different nomenclature, the CPEC is very much considered a part of the SREB vision, something exemplified by the fact that one of the first projects taken on by the specially created $40 billion Silk Road Fund established by Beijing was an energy project associated with the CPEC vision.[13] In total, billions have been promised and poured into these two routes (the SREB and CPEC) – with Pakistan alone attracting promises of around $46 billion over a number of years,[14] while President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan announced some $23 billion worth of deals during his last visit to Beijing in September 2015.[15]

Afghanistan in the middle

Problematically for Afghanistan, however, it is not entirely clear how the country fits into these ‘Belt and Road’ visions for the Eurasian continent. Whilst the central planning authority of China, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), has not actually published a formal route for the ‘Belt and Road’ vision, numerous maps have been printed in the Chinese state press. One thing that is common to most of these is that when they show routes emanating from China going westwards into Central or South Asia, they tend to go around Afghanistan. The SREB and the CPEC are clear corridors of investment and potential trade that China is pushing but they do not need in their current incarnations to necessarily touch down in Afghanistan. In fact, they can for the most part quite comfortably go around the country, following the natural regional geography that favours such routes. From Kashgar through Tashkurgan, down the Khunjerab Pass through Pakistan to Gwadar or Karachi ports, or through the Irkeshtam or Torugart crossings into Kyrgyzstan or the Dzungarian Pass or Khorogos into Kazakhstan and onto Central Asia. Sitting at the end of the Wakhan Corridor, the China-Afghan border is small and surrounded by mountainous areas meaning that the direct link to the ‘Belt and Road’s is not going to be the same as the one in neighbouring Central and South Asia, unless a very specific corridor is developed.

And while this navigation around Afghanistan has not been acknowledged by Beijing – and in some ways is contradicted by the repeated references to the ‘Belt and Road’ during VP Li and other formal China-Afghan interactions – it is visible in the on-the-ground investments and projects undertaken by China in Afghanistan. Currently, China’s projects in Afghanistan are dominated by a series of aid contributions, like the $79 million that VP Li offered during his visit to Afghanistan to build housing in the capital,[16] some similar contributions to Afghanistan’s security through equipment and training (most recently in declarations during a visit by Fang Fenghui, PLA Chief of General Staff [17]), and a few state owned enterprise (SOE) projects. Some smaller Chinese enterprises have sought to invest in the country, but find themselves hamstrung by a hesitant government and a difficult operating environment.

At the SOE level, the two main extractive projects being undertaken by Chinese firms are the exploitation of copper mines at Mes Aynak in Logar province and CNPC’s oil extraction project in Amu Darya.[18] The Mes Aynak project in particular is one that has become something of an epigram for Chinese efforts in Afghanistan – with a pair of Chinese companies, MCC and Jiangxi Copper, outbidding a number of others to win the contract in 2007, only for them to then sit on the project since then. Underestimating the security costs and overpromising in terms of additional infrastructure that they would produce around the site, the mine has been left unexploited and the company is now attempting to renegotiate the contract as well as backing away from some of the earlier promised infrastructure (that made the bid so attractive to Kabul in the first place[19]). The company head has met with senior Afghan officials and have been reported as complaining to others that it was pressured into undertaking the project by the central authorities in Beijing. Whilst it is undoubtedly true that the security situation around the area of the mine has gotten worse over time (and global copper prices have dropped), the project has nevertheless become hugely symbolic to many Afghans showing the high levels of Chinese promises that have gone unfulfilled.

The project in Amu Darya has faced fewer difficulties and actually been able to extract some hydrocarbons from the ground, though by choosing a partner in the Watan Group, CNPC failed to engage with the proper local actors when they invested in the project. This led to some difficulties with other power brokers in the north, and led to the project’s delay. Beyond this, CNPC had promised to build a refinery in the north of the country, but this has not been undertaken yet and it remains unclear to what degree the project has actually managed to move forwards.[20] Always seen as a relatively small investment for the company, the belief was that CNPC’s greater interest was to establish a foothold in the north of Afghanistan so that when future fields in the region were to open up they would be in an optimal position to win the contracts. CNPC is particularly bullish about these prospects given its substantial investment across the border in Turkmenistan in what is the same hydrocarbon basin.

Looking beyond extractives, Chinese firms have also bid and won contracts to undertake infrastructure development in Afghanistan. In particular, Xinjiang Beixin won a contract from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to undertake the rehabilitation of a part of the road from Kabul to Jalalabad. However, the company has encountered difficulties in doing the project and it is unclear at what stage they are at the moment. The company is one that is active across the region implementing ADB projects in difficult environments, but it is unclear they still have an appetite to complete the Afghan project.[21] Atop all of these difficulties at a state owned enterprise level, smaller traders and businessmen spoken to speak of lower level issues, from problems around visa issuances to Afghan businessmen wanting to travel to China, to standards imposed by China to the exports of Afghan goods, to a reticence by China to actively support its traders to go to Afghanistan. And none of this is to speak of the security situation in the country which intimidates even the most fearless Chinese traders.

China the Peacebroker

Amid much fanfare in July 2014 China created its first Special Envoy for Afghanistan appointing a prominent and popular former Ambassador to Kabul, Sun Yuxi, to the role.[22] Coming at a time when the west was clarifying its decreasing role in Afghanistan, the appointment was one that reflected an effort by Beijing to show its commitment to the country. As time progressed, it also became clear that one of Ambassador Sun’s key roles was to help facilitate a ramping up of China’s efforts to act as a peacebroker between the Taliban and the government in Kabul. With the election of President Ghani in October 2014, he immediately signalled the importance he placed on the relationship with China by making Beijing the first capital he visited in his new role on a formal trip.[23] During this visit he not only attended the ‘Heart of Asia’ process meeting hosted by China, but also laid the groundwork for the formal peace talk negotiations with the Taliban at a behind closed doors meeting hosted by the Chinese government.

By early the next year stories emerged that China was playing a more forward role in brokering peace talks and in conversations in Beijing, and officials spoken to at the time highlighted that they were willing to act as hosts for any future peace talks.[24] By May 2015, senior Taliban figures were meeting with representatives from the Afghan High Peace Council in Urumqi.[25] In July another round of talks was held in Pakistan at which Chinese participants also played a role.[26] A further mulitlaterla track two engagement took place in Norway in which both Afghan representatives and Taliban counterparts attended.[27]

In sum, it appeared as though the Chinese supported peace track was one that was bearing fruit, until abruptly in late July 2015 the news was leaked that the Taliban leader Mullah Omar had in fact died back in 2013. This action immediately scuttled the discussions as it set the Taliban in disarray as an internal leadership struggle surfaced as to who would be Mullah Omar’s successor. It also complicated China’s contribution as it abruptly meant it was not clear who exactly the relevant partner to engage with on the Taliban side would be and so therefore where China could play a role. Accusations of blame were passed between Islamabad and Kabul, but the net result was an uptick in violence that made it harder for the Afghan official side to negotiate in full confidence.

Chinese experts and officials spoken to at this time almost immediately fell back into pointing that it was up to the United States to step up and play a stronger role in supporting the Afghan government and national security forces.[28] They further pointed to the fact that until there was greater clarity on the Taliban side about who was being negotiated with, it was unlikely that talks were going to bear immediate fruit. This did not stop Chinese efforts, and while Special Envoy Sun Yuxi stepped down from his role, he was replaced by the recent former Ambassador to Kabul Deng Xijun who seemed set to continue to play a key supporting role in any peace talks.

Keeping Options Open

Beijing has managed to continue to play this role by maintaining contacts with all sides. Its longstanding contact with the Taliban are believed to continue behind closed doors, while Vice President Li’s public calls in Kabul on President Ghani, Chief Executive Office Abdullah and former President Karzai show that they are eager to maintain links to all of the key official players in Afghanistan’s future. This is further reflected on the international stage where China has not only engaged with Afghanistan on a bilateral basis, but also through multilateral vehicles like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (where China has played a championing role for the country. It was during Chinese Presidency’s that the Afghan contact group was created and later the country was made into an Observer), as well as through multilateral formats like an India-China bilateral where Afghanistan is discussed, an Afghan-Pakistan-China trilateral, and a willingness to engage with the United States to undertake joint training projects in Afghanistan. Most recently, during PLA Chief Fang Fenghui’s visit to Kabul, he spoke about the creation of a sub-regional security discussion between China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan to create a regional alliance against terrorism.[29]

China is choosing not to take sides and using this as a way to guarantee its interests. While it is not clear that Afghanistan needs to fit into the ‘Belt and Road’ vision, it is also equally clear that an unstable Afghanistan has the potential to be a major spoiler for the routes through Central Asia and Pakistan. Instability in Afghanistan is likely to have an impact and cause trouble across the border in both directions and this will have a clearer impact on China’s larger project, and ultimately on Xinjiang. Consequently, China has an interest in stability in Afghanistan and this helps explain its substantial and multifaceted approach towards the country.

In many ways, this is reflective of China’s broader approach in the ‘Belt and Road’ vision where as a result of the increased external economic push Beijing is finding itself playing an ever more influential role in its immediate neighbourhood. Yet Beijing policymakers have not yet apparently entirely understood what exactly what this means for their larger political role in these countries. Nowhere is this more than in Afghanistan where they are finding themselves drawn into an ever more significant role, but are instead electing to hedge. President Ghani’s open lobbying of Beijing from early in his administration shows Kabul’s eagerness to engage with Beijing, something that is being done with Western agreement and support (the US has undertaken joint training programmes with China in Afghanistan, and European capitals are working to engage with China to encourage greater efforts in Afghanistan). But while Beijing is continuing to play a positive role, it is not demonstrating a willingness to step into a strong leadership role, choosing to instead play a significant support role.

This is ultimately unfortunate for Kabul as China has many significant cards to play in Afghanistan – be this in terms of their strong relationship with Islamabad, the massive investment they could pour in and the industry they could mobilize to rebuild the country, or the potential opening up of Iran that they could take advantage of across Afghanistan. Whilst security remains something that China is not able to provide in adequate measure outside its borders, across Central Asia, China’s security presence and efforts are growing highlighting that this is an evolving reaction from Beijing. China’s recently passed counter-terrorism legislation offers a formal framework for Chinese security forces to go deploy outside the country to counter terrorist threats. But Beijing remains a hesitant player in Afghanistan, willing to play a significant role, but continuing to make sure that it has kept its cards close to its chest and left itself a deniable exit in the case of things going in a negative direction. China continues to be Kabul’s closest hesitant friend.

[1] ‘Li Yuanchao Attends Reception for the 60th Anniversary of China-Afghanistan Diplomatic Ties,’ Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, November 4, 2015 http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1311792.shtml ; ‘China promises to continue to playing constructive role in Afghan peace process,’ Xinhua, November 4, 2015 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2015-11/04/c_134780948.htm

[2] ‘Top Chinese security official makes surprise visit to Afghanistan,’ Xinhua, September 23, 2012 http://europe.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2012-09/23/content_15776032.htm ; Rob Taylor, ‘Top Official visits Afghanistan, signs security deal,’ Reuters, September 23, 2012 http://in.reuters.com/article/afghanistan-china-idINDEE88M03620120923

[3] ‘Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met with Li Yuanchao,’ Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, November 4, 2015 http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1311790.shtml

[4] ‘Chinese President delivers speech at Nazarbayev University,’ Xinhua, September 8, 2013 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/photo/2013-09/08/c_132701546.htm

[5] ‘Speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Indonesian Parliament,’ October 3, 2015 http://www.asean-china-center.org/english/2013-10/03/c_133062675.htm

[6] ‘Chinese premier raises five-point proposal for boosting cooperation with Pakistan,’ Xinhua, May 23, 2013 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2013-05/23/c_124750134.htm ; ‘Pakistan, China sign eight agreements, MoUs,’ The News, July 6, 2013 http://www.awaztoday.tv/News_Pakistan-China-sign-eight-agreements-MoUs_1_34980_Political-News.aspx

[7] For a good book summarizing the history of China’s relations with Central Asia, please see Marlene Laruelle and Sebastien Peyrouse The Chinese Question in Central Asia: Domestic Order, Social Change, and the Chinese Factor, (UK: Hurst, October 2012; US: Oxford University Press, December 2012)

[8] Edward Wong, ‘Riots in Western China amid ethnic tension,’ New York Times, July 5, 2009 http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/06/world/asia/06china.html?_r=0

[9] It is worth also pointing out that a great deal more Uighurs leave the country in unhappiness at their situation there. Seeking a better life abroad, they are economic migrants or people fleeing persecution who are simply trying to build new lives outside China. The majority appear to gravitate towards Turkey, with substantial diaspora communities also found in parts of Europe, as well as across Central Asia. The point being not every Uighur who leaves China unhappy becomes involved in terrorist activity. According to one prominent Chinese expert spoken to in early 2016, about 9 out of 10 Uighurs who left were seeking better lives. Author interview Beijing, January 2016.

[10] Most clearly laid out in 2010 at a work conference held in the wake of the riots. ‘Chinese central authorities outline roadmap for Xinjiang’s leapfrog development, lasting stability,’ Xinhua, May 20, 2010 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/china/2010-05/20/c_13306534.htm

[11] ‘China eyes ‘Belt and Road’ to reverse trade slowdown,’ Global Times, May 28, 2015 http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/924034.shtml

[12] For the most recent maps showing the ambition and routes of the CPEC, please see the Pakistani Ministry of Planning, Development and Reforms dedicated webpage: http://www.pc.gov.pk/?page_id=2731

[13] ‘Silk Road Fund’s debut investment in $1.65b Pakistan power project,’ People’s Bank of China press release, April 21, 2015 http://www.pbc.gov.cn/english/130721/2811777/index.html

[14] ‘China’s Xi Jinping agrees $46bn superhighway to Pakistan,’ BBC News, April 20, 2015 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-32377088

[15] ‘Kazakh leader says $23 billion in economic deals agreed with China,’ Reuters, September 1, 2015 http://www.reuters.com/article/kazakhstan-china-idUSL5N1172H620150901

[16] Michael Martina and Mirwais Harooni, ‘China’s vice president pledges support in rare Afghanistan visit,’ November 3, 2015 http://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-china-idUSKCN0SS1MN20151103

[17] ‘Afghanistan to give China military equipment wish list,’ Khaaama News, March 4, 2016 https://www.khaama.com/afghanistan-to-give-china-military-equipment-wish-list-0241

[18] Raffaello Pantucci, ‘Guest Post: China in Afghanistan: A Tale of Two Mines,’ Financial Times Beyond BRICS, December 4, 2012 http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2012/12/04/guest-post-china-in-afghanistan-a-tale-of-two-mines/

[19] There have also been rumours of corruption around the deal that have not been publicly verified.

[20] The most recently publicly accessible report from July 2014 indicated the project was suspended. Jessica Donati, ‘From New York heroin dealer to Afghanistan’s biggest oil man,’ Reuters, July 9, 2014 http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2014-07-09/news/sns-rt-us-afghanistan-energy-20140707_1_cnpc-security-firm-afghanistan

[21] Michael Martina and Mirwais Harooni, ‘Slow road from Kabul highlights China’s challenge in Afghanistan,’ Reuters, November 22, 2015 http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-afghanistan-china-road-idUKKBN0TB0X720151122

[22] ‘Ministry appoints special envoy for Afghan affairs,’ Xinhua, July 18, 2014 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-07/18/c_133494661.htm

[23] ‘Afghanistan’s new president starts landmark China visit,’ BBC News, October 28, 2014 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-29803768

[24] Nathan Hodge, Habib Khan Totakhil & Josh Chin, ‘China Creates New Avenue for Afghan Peace Talks,’ Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2015 http://www.wsj.com/articles/china-creates-new-avenue-for-afghan-peace-talks-1420564492 ; further confirmed by author interviews in Beijing. ‘China favours role in Afghan peace talks, appreciates Pakistan’s efforts,’ Dawn, August 15, 2015 http://www.dawn.com/news/1200627

[25] Edward Wong and Mujib Mashal, ‘Taliban and Afghan Peace Officials Have Secret Talks in China,’ New York Times, May 25, 2015 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/26/world/asia/taliban-and-afghan-peace-officials-have-secret-talks-in-china.html

[26] Jon Boone, ‘Afghanistan and Taliban peace talks end with promise to meet again,’ Guardian, July 8, 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/08/afghanistan-and-taliban-peace-talks-end-with-promise-to-meet-again

[27] ‘Afghan, Taliban delegates attend Oslo talks on ending conflicts,’ Reuters, June 16, 2015 http://www.reuters.com/article/us-norway-afghanistan-idUSKBN0OW17B20150616

[28] Author interview in Beijing, July 2015

[29] Ibrahim Nasar and Jafar Haand, ‘Afghanistan welcomes Chinese anti-terror proposal,’ Voice of America, March 1, 2016 http://www.voanews.com/content/afghanistan-welcomes-chinese-anti-terror-proposal/3215160.html

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A piece from yesterday’s Times in their regular Thunderer column looking at terrorism and aviation. Have done a bit of work on this topic in the past and of course we do not yet know what actually happened with EgyptAir, but there is an understandable suspicion in this direction. Beyond this, spoke to the Financial Times as part of their big Silk Road special supplement.

thunderer

Airport security is the terrorist’s best friend

Raffaello Pantucci

People’s complete vulnerability on an aircraft and the spectacular coverage of air crashes make them a ripe target.

On December 11, 1994 a bomb went off on Philippine Airlines Flight 434 from Cebu to Tokyo, killing one passenger. The liquid bomb had been designed by Ramzi Youssef, who was testing aviation security. His ambition was to plant around ten such devices on planes originating in Asia bound for the United States. The success of his plan hinged on the relatively low level of security at Asian airports.

Youssef’s plan never came to pass. An entrepreneurial bombmaker and terrorist, he was captured in Pakistan the following year and jailed in the US for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York. His uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was more successful with the 9/11 attacks and tried to fulfil his nephew’s ambition by dispatching two young Britons with bombs in their shoes to bring down planes on transatlantic routes. In preparing them for their mission, Osama bin Laden told aspirant bomber Saajid Badat that it would break a crucial link in the global economic chain and lead to the collapse of the United States.

Aviation continues to be the focus for terrorist networks. People’s total vulnerability on an aircraft, the essential role of aviation in connecting our world and the spectacular coverage of air crashes all make it a ripe target. Groups continue to create sophisticated new devices, such as the laptop bombs deployed against planes in Somalia that have so far failed to kill anyone except the bombers. But the real key to success for terrorists is to identify an individual working in the security system who helps slip a device or weapon on board a plane. The most likely cause of the downing of a Metrojet plane last year is the use by Islamic State of an insider at Sharm el-Sheikh airport security to plant a bomb that killed 224 Russian tourists and aircrew.

For security officials one of the greatest concerns is the marriage of these two problems — increasingly sophisticated devices and secret help on the inside. This is heightened by the fact that planes increasingly start and end their days on different continents, stopping numerous times along the way. This should multiply the number of security checks on the craft but given the number of journeys and people involved, it instead exposes them to numerous potential breaches. What’s more, the quality of security checks varies enormously from country to country.

Setting international standards for such security is complicated and expensive. The equipment is very costly. To install it globally would be a heavy burden on poor countries with competing domestic priorities. Second, there are thousands of airports connected by typical daily flight plans. A plane that starts its day in some remote city in Africa can easily end up in a European capital after stopping off somewhere in the Gulf. Security checks on such an aircraft would need to be consistent among staff with different languages and legal systems. And finally, notwithstanding all the potential tightening of safety rules, clever terrorists will continue to devise new bomb-making methods, meaning that airport security needs to be continually updated just to maintain a basic standard. When one considers the many thousands of flights that take place every day over the world, the scale of the challenge is considerable.

Yet it is worth remembering that successful terrorist incidents remain mercifully limited. While we have seen a number of civilian craft brought down recently, terrorism has been less of a factor. The Germanwings disaster last year was a pilot suicide, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in 2014 was never resolved (but not believed to be a terrorist incident) and Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down the same year by Ukrainian rebels using Russian missiles.

The Metrojet bombing was the most recent successful terrorist attack on a plane. All of these incidents took place against the backdrop of our increasingly crowded skies, in which almost every flight passes off safely. It’s important to remember this when evaluating the response to disasters such as this week’s. An exaggerated reaction can be costly, ineffective and simply play into the hands of terrorists who want to undermine our way of life.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute

A new piece for my institutional home RUSI and Sky News, which is part of a collaboration we are doing with them institutionally looking at the Daesh documents which were leaked recently. The piece was both published on the RUSI site and Sky News. My excellent colleague Clare Ellis was the lead on this work, so thanks to her for pulling it all together. More on this topic to come!

Friends, Sponsors and Bureaucracy: An Initial Look at the Daesh Database
Clare Ellis and Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary, 3 May 2016
Terrorism, Al-Qa’ida, Terrorism

isis-recruitment-forms

A preliminary analysis of leaked Daesh recruitment files by RUSI experts suggests that the social processes underlying the radicalisation and mobilisation of foreign fighters still mirrors those of Al-Qa’ida.

In March 2016 it was revealed that a defector from Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS or IS) had obtained a memory drive containing the personal details of thousands of foreign fighter recruits. Sky News has shared the information with RUSI, and while its researchers are still conducting detailed analysis of the records, a preliminary examination has revealed a number of insights.

The majority of the documents appear to be arrival forms, completed by or for Daesh recruits as they sought entry into Daesh-controlled territory between early 2013 and late 2014. They are bureaucratic in nature, with 23 fields recording details from basic biodata to level of Sharia-related knowledge; there is even a space on the form where the date of the individual’s death can be entered, should the recruit die while fighting with Daesh.

While of evident value, it is important to acknowledge the limitations of this database. They offer only a partial snapshot of those who travelled to Syria and Iraq – it is impossible to know how many others travelled during this period, or how this specific dataset compares against the broader picture. Nevertheless, they provide important details not only about individuals but also about how Daesh administers its territory; about the recruitment, radicalisation and mobilisation of foreign fighters; and about how the group has learned from the experiences of its precursor organisation, Al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI).

A Militant Bureaucracy

Examining the format of the documents, it is clear that they represent an attempt to impose control and implement state administration. There are some similarities with AQI’s practices: these forms record similar information to that found in the AQI archive known as the ‘Sinjar records’, including the recruit’s route of entry, his or her facilitator and the personal belongings being deposited.There are also indications that AQI’s initial model has been further developed to record the knowledge and experience of incoming fighters. There are additional fields, not found in the Sinjar documents, to record the recruit’s level of Sharia knowledge and his or her previous experience of jihad. There is also evidence that further notes were made to record any potentially relevant skills or knowledge beyond those relevant to combat.

The bureaucracy of ‘state’ administration points to the dual nature of Daesh. As the group has come under increasing military pressure in Syria and Iraq, it has amplified its efforts to inspire, instigate and direct attacks against the West. Former Director General of MI5 and RUSI Senior Associate Fellow Jonathan Evans has categorised this strategy as ‘chaotic terrorism’, with some attacks directed by the group, but many undertaken by ‘disparate individuals who may have no actual contact with the group but are encouraged through its propaganda’. There are therefore stark contrasts between these dual roles: Daesh is simultaneously a tightly controlled and bureaucratic ‘state’, and a loosely controlled ‘chaotic’ global terrorist movement.

With a Little Help from My Friends

Examining Al-Qa’ida’s recruitment practices, Marc Sageman encapsulated the importance of social bonds in what became known as his ‘bunch of guys’ theory. He showed that bonds of kinship, or friendship, often predate recruitment and radicalisation. Similarly, anthropologist Scott Atran’s research finds that kinship and friendship are crucial to understanding why people radicalise and embrace violence: ‘people don’t simply kill and die for a cause. They kill and die for each other.’Daesh has skilfully exploited social media to spread their message to a global audience; however, as Peter Neumann at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) has argued, social media is a powerful propaganda tool but it has not displaced the importance of these real-world connections in mobilising people to action. Initial analysis of the leaked documents reinforces this insight, revealing evident geographic clustering within foreign fighter recruitment.

Just as analysis by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) of the Sinjar records revealed a high proportion of AQI recruits arriving on the same day as others from their hometown, these documents show many British fighters arriving in groups. The fact that some of these groups hail from the same place, with notable concentrations from Coventry, Cardiff and Portsmouth, underlines the importance of offline interactions in radicalisation; were social media the crucial element, then (as Neumann has explained) recruits would be dispersed across the country rather than clustered in specific locations.

A Word from the Sponsors

Moreover, the documents confirm that in gaining admittance to Daesh-controlled territory, it is necessary to declare a sponsor. Like Al-Qa’ida before it, Daesh seeks to verify the identity of its new recruits to limit possible infiltration. One individual who appears in this role is particularly noteworthy: Omar Bakri Mohammed, the Syrian preacher who founded the group Al-Muhajiroun in the UK in the late 1990s (an extremist group that was later proscribed in 2010). In the wake of the July 2005 bombings, he fled the UK, and was subsequently barred from returning by the Home Secretary.From his base in Lebanon, Omar Bakri appears to have continued his radicalising activity. While this is not a new revelation, it is striking that he is cited as a sponsor numerous times in the Daesh database. Previously dismissed as a ‘loud-mouth’ – most amusingly characterised as the ‘Tottenham Ayatollah’ in Jon Ronson’s 1996 television documentary – Bakri now appears able to facilitate access to Daesh. This highlights the continuing threat from charismatic extremists, as well as the persistence of jihadist networks – in this case both still posing a threat more than two decades after their emergence.

Conclusion

Daesh has clearly learned lessons from Al–Qa’ida, and AQI in particular, so that it can hold territory more successfully and more effectively utilise the skills of its recruits. However, the evidence from the Daesh database suggests that the fundamental mechanisms of terrorist recruitment and radicalisation are still the same.Social media has given the group greater access to a global audience, but the social processes underlying the radicalisation and mobilisation of foreign fighters still mirrors that seen among the recruits of Al-Qa’ida. Behind the bureaucracy, foreign fighters are still just a bunch of guys.

A new post this time on the other topic that occupies a lot of time, looking at China and Russia’s relations with Central Asia. It is in essence the transcript of a presentation Sarah and me did in Washington at the kind invitation of the fantastic Marlene Laruelle of George Washington University and Director of their Central Asia Program. As ever, more on this topic to come, more stuff can always be found on China in Central Asia.

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China and Russia in Central Asia: Cooperation and Conflict

Despite the significant rise of China’s economic influence in the region, Russia continues to maintain its political leverage in Central Asia. In contrast to China, it explicitly states its intention to keep its grip on this influence, as highlighted by Medvedev’s speech in 2008. This declared commitment to preserving Russia’s ‘spheres of privileged influence’ certainly includes Central Asia. The key aim for Russia is to ensure, at least in theory, loyalty to the Russian government, seeking countries it can depend on for support. The various alliances Russia plays a crucial role in alongside the Central Asian states, such as the EEU, SCO, CSTO and CIS, also have a utility of legitimizing Russia’s position in a visibly multipolar world. Indeed, the SCO is a platform shared with China, but they all act as a way of overtly demonstrating structural equivalents of Western-dominated organizations such as the EU and NATO.

The Ukraine crisis has undermined Russia’s legitimacy by raising suspicions for both Central Asia and China about Russian intentions in the region. The prevention of color revolutions, which was enshrined in the recently updated version of Russia’s Military Doctrine, has potential implications across the former Soviet space. Indeed, Russia’s commitment to protect Russian- speakers and ethnic Russians abroad causes concern for Central Asians. Although Russia has almost exclusively acted on this in the more Western-leaning post-Soviet countries, such as Ukraine and Georgia, a speech by Putin that addressed Kazakhstan was provocative in light of events in Ukraine. Not only did Putin praise Nazarbayev, but he also highlighted that Kazakhs realized the value of being part of the “greater Russian world,” which raised alarm bells in Astana. Russia has proven it has no issues in leveraging its position over former Soviet states for certain self-interested strategic purposes.
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It is worth noting that, despite this political leverage Russia has over its former empire, the Central Asian states are by no means passive in their relationship with Russia. Independence of action varies between the five states, but it has expressed itself in subtle ways. For example, in the UN vote on Crimea, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan abstained from voting. Although potentially more symbolic than reflecting real intention, Nazarbayev has made statements in which he says Kazakhstan will leave the EEU if it ceases to be in Kazakhstan’s economic or political interests to be a member.

An area of general agreement between Russia and Central Asia, however, is the definition of and desire for political stability in the region. Although there are certainly concerns around how Tajikistan is currently handling its fragile political situation, the Central Asian states are as averse to abrupt regime changes or color revolutions threatening the status quo as Russia. This allows for a consensus between Russia and Central Asia towards political and governance norms.

China is certainly engaging in a different way politically with Central Asia compared to Russia. China’s political role in the region could be described as latent but one that has not yet manifested itself so overtly. It is certainly a more subtle political actor than Russia. However, there are indications that Central Asia plays the role of testing ground for Chinese foreign policy efforts, meaning Central Asia forms what could be described as China’s “inadvertent empire.” The belt and road vision is a prime example of this. It was significant that Xi Jinping announced the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) at Nazarbayev University in 2013. This represented a vision that built on something that had already been happening for years in Central Asia. China had long been building infrastructure using linked loans, which allowed domestic companies to “go out” and build in Central Asia. The announcement showed Xi Jinping stamping his name and authority onto a coherent foreign policy that was based on existing activities. China’s “testing ground” has also manifested itself in other formats, particularly those that are multilateral. The SCO is the best example of a structure through which China can test its security policy in the region.

Moreover, a contrast between Russian and Chinese foreign policy in Central Asia is that China’s policy is closely linked to addressing domestic concerns. For China, it is much more about ensuring stability and development in Xinjiang. Central Asia is an important trade link to ensure access and opportunities for Xinjiang back home. Thus, it is much less about spheres of influence for China. Rather than ensure explicit political loyalty to China within Central Asian governments, which features more importantly in Russia’s foreign policy, China strives more towards developing good economic ties. Of course, political allegiance and support assists doing business in the region, but the ultimate aim is economic utility for China.

One question, the answer to which is not yet clear, is when does this economic power express itself politically? There are a few examples of how this might express itself. For example, in Kyrgyzstan there have been cases of Chinese businessmen facing serious trouble with local corrupt officials when they have failed to pay off the right people, often ending in violence. The Chinese Embassy in certain cases has expressed anger directly to the government of Kyrgyzstan, demanding for an apology. For the most part, however, China’s political role has continued to be consistent with non-interference. China is happy to be the largest investment partner to the region, but does not wish to own the political and security problems of Central Asia in the same way Russia is prepared to do.

Therefore, in the security sphere, Russia still seems to be the dominant player. The Chinese have been active in terms of border security, military aid and some arms deals. It has conducted training with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in particular, which it views as weak links from a Chinese security perspective. Again, engagement primarily reflects China’s domestic security concerns rather than a willingness to project itself as a security power in the region. China still appears content deferring to Russia on this broader security agenda.

A good example of this reluctance to intervene in domestic issues can be seen in Pakistan. Some of the recent issues around the China-Pakistan economic corridor (CPEC) illustrate this. China’s priority is to build a corridor from Kashgar that ends in either Karachi or Gwadar, gaining sea access. However, it appears China was not quite prepared for Pakistan’s internal disputes over the route and is not clear on how to mediate this discussion. The Chinese Embassy in Islamabad was forced to issue a statement on this, essentially sending the message that CPEC is a project that should benefit the entire country. It is up to Pakistan to handle the local politics. Looking back to Central Asia, tensions in regional politics certainly present challenges to China’s intended implementation of the SREB. These are challenges that China will be reluctant to mediate directly.

Both Russia and China clearly provide economic incentives for the Central Asians to cooperate with them. It seems that Russia is much more willing to leverage these incentives, and indeed pressure Central Asian states economically when useful, particularly to extract political gains. A prime example of this pertains to the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan. When Kyrgyzstan was discussing closing access to the base for the US in 2009, Russia offered a huge aid package to Kyrgyzstan as an incentive to terminate the US contract. When Bakiyev went back on this deal, Russia used its soft power as a tool to pressure Kyrgyzstan to reconsider, particularly pushing stories of Bakiyev’s involvement in corruption as a way of de-legitimizing the leader. This demonstrates Russia’s approach of rewarding, but also punishing, the Central Asian states to act in a way that benefits Russia. Another example of an economic pressure point is migrant workers. In January 2015 new rules came into force that made it more difficult for migrant workers to work legally in Russia, such as mandatory Russian language tests and increased costs for documentation. This in particular affected Tajik workers, which led many to believe this was Russia’s way of pressuring Tajikistan to join the EEU.

It is easy to interpret every policy Russia has towards Central Asia as a form of leverage. This is not only an over-simplification but also may be unfair to Russia. However, some of the pressure points Russia can exploit are vulnerable, indicating that the Central Asian states are by no means inevitably tied to Russian foreign policy. For example, given the economic situation in Russia, remittances are dropping. These constitute an economic life-line to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in particular, and if they drop there is less incentive for these countries to respond to some of Russia’s more political demands. Russia has had to cancel hydropower projects in Kyrgyzstan, which it had pledged to fund, not only showing Russia as unreliable but simultaneously reinforcing the perception that China is the real economic player. Although in the long-term it is unlikely that Central Asia-Russia economic ties can be severed, it still shows that some of Russia’s points of leverage are far from guaranteed.

The EEU is Russia’s big economic draw, and tool, for the region. Although in principle it could be positive in furthering economic integration, it so far has shown many negatives. For example, in the first three months of 2015, inter-member trade actually dropped. The fact that Ukraine is unlikely to join unless there is another domestic political pivot means there are huge limitations to the benefits that the Central Asian members can reap from the union given the over- dominance of the Russian economy. Moreover, given the rhetoric from Nazarbayev on the EEU, there are also clearly fears that it is used by Russia as a political tool.

The failures of this Union have manifested themselves in the protectionist measures initiated by member states. For example, Kazakhstan has implemented oil embargoes against Russia. There are complaints from Kyrgyzstan regarding the lack of benefits the EEU brings the country, whilst highlighting that it had no choice in joining. Obviously this also plays into Kyrgyzstan’s interests of extracting more economic incentives from Russia. But fundamentally there are question marks as how political, rather than economic, the strategy is behind the implementation of this project.

China in contrast is investing in Central Asia at a rate that Russia knows it cannot compete with. China is now the biggest trading partner of the Central Asia region, having displaced Russia. There are also risks for Russia that at least symbolically Central Asia becomes a Chinese foreign policy project. Having been very cautious about endorsing the SREB, Russia supported the project by agreeing to find ways to integrate the SREB with the EEU. The practicalities of such integration are unclear given the difference in structure of each strategy. However, it is likely instead that the EEU will be subsumed rhetorically by the SREB project, i.e. that the EEU becomes a part of the bigger Chinese project. This signifies a loss of prestige for Russia.

One unknown for the Belt and Road project is how the economic slowdown in China might affect the project’s implementation. There have already been some frustrations voiced in Central Asia on this front. For example, Nazarbayev noted that Kazakhstan is being affected negatively not only by the economic slowdown in Russia, but also by that which is occurring in China. Turkmenistan is struggling to find consistent gas demand in China, and subsequent pricing, as planned. The enthusiastic push to making TAPI a reality speaks to the urgency of Turkmenistan’s need to find new gas markets. There have also been challenges in Xinjiang’s own domestic build-up, the powerhouse of the SREB policy. The planned robust economic development there does not seem to have taken off at the speed required. This will have knock- on effects across the border. On the other hand, the Belt and Road presents a potential outlet for the challenges causing the slowdown in China. If the infrastructure construction market is slowing down at home, and there is excess capacity in companies and materials at home, exporting it abroad is a strategy for, at least in the short-term, ameliorating this.

Another challenge in the Belt and Road discourse pertains to the huge loans that China is dispensing to the Central Asian states, with little confidence that they will be paid back. Although economically this may not make sense, it does speak to the longer-term perspective that China takes with such loans. They are much more patient about such debts. Moreover, the way these deals are structured has an added benefit to China. For example, China’s Eximbank will grant a significant loan to the Tajik government to implement a series of projects on the condition that a Chinese company will implement it. Often this means that the money never really leaves Beijing – it is simply shifted from one Chinese state bank account to another.

Thus, in conclusions, there is always potential for conflict between two great powers such as China and Russia in Central Asia, but currently there seems to be a useful division of labor between the two. There are overriding geopolitical dynamics between Russia and China that mean they gain more from avoiding confrontation. China does not seem perturbed by Russia’s desire to maintain its neo-imperial approach to the region, as long as it does not conflict directly with China’s economic interest. Russia is aware it cannot compete with China in terms of economic investment but knows that it can maintain the security mandate in the region. This creates a genuine mutual respect between the two in Central Asia. Moreover, there is an informal consensus on the need for political stability between Russia, China and the Central Asian states. That is not to say that tensions are absent. People we have spoken to in Beijing hint that the Russians are difficult to work with. People we have spoken to in Moscow are innately suspicious of Chinese geopolitical intentions in the region. So far, however, it is difficult to see where full-blown conflict between the two might occur.

Another very belated post coming after the Brussels terrorist attack, this time for the Spanish daily El Pais. I have pasted the published Spanish below, alongside the English I submitted below it.

To also catch up on some media interviews, had a conversation with La Repubblica about the terror threat to Europe, to the New York TimesGuardian, Wall Street JournalIndependent, Daily Mail, CNBC, Telegraph about the terror threat after the Brussels attacks and the impact to the UK, as well as to the Daily Mail about the recently concluded Tarik Hassane case in the UK and some weapons adverts that were being posted from Libya onto Facebook to the Daily Mail and BBC.

El espionaje es clave enate el terror

Los servicios de espionaje necesitan establecer nuevas prioridades para enfrentarse a las crecientes amenazas

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Ahora que ha pasado la tormenta de los atentados de Bruselas, se levantan los dedos acusadores que preguntan cómo una gran red, responsable de dos gravísimos atentados terroristas, pudo atravesar el cordón de seguridad europeo. Poco a poco se ha ido filtrando información que muestra que los servicios de seguridad tenían en sus radares a individuos que formaban parte de esa red y, a toro pasado, parece que nuestros servicios de inteligencia tenían una imagen muy detallada del panorama. Sin embargo, ese a posteriori resulta una lente defectuosa para analizar los fallos del espionaje, que requieren una lectura mucho más profunda para comprender correctamente cómo pudieron producirse unos errores que, en apariencia, se podrían haber evitado.

El descubrimiento, tras un atentado terrorista, de que se disponía de información sobre las personas involucradas puede resultar deprimente. Después del atentado del 7 de julio de 2005 en Londres, salió a luz que al menos dos de los implicados habían pasado por campos de entrenamiento en Pakistán cuya existencia conocían los servicios de espionaje. De hecho, el líder de la célula y su mano derecha venían apareciendo en los márgenes de las investigaciones desde casi cuatro años antes del atentado, e incluso había fotos de ellos junto a un grupo de condenados por planear un atentado en Reino Unido. También en el caso de los atentados del 11-S en Estados Unidos, las investigaciones posteriores revelaron que los servicios de seguridad ya habían señalado a los individuos implicados como elementos preocupantes. Dos de los miembros de la célula del 11-M que reventó los trenes de Atocha en 2004 eran viejos conocidos de los agentes que seguían la huella del salafismo en España.

Si los servicios de seguridad tenían fichados a esos individuos, ¿por qué no impidieron que siguiesen adelante tendiéndoles una emboscada y atrapándolos? El problema radica en que este planteamiento olvida cómo funciona el espionaje.

Aunque a posteriori estos detalles pueden parecer significativos y una señal clara de un peligro inminente, es posible que quedaran enterrados bajo otra cascada de detalles, hechos e hilos. Volviendo al ejemplo de los terroristas de Reino Unido, existía información de años atrás que los situaba en un campo de entrenamiento hablando sobre su marcha al extranjero para combatir. Pero formaban parte de un grupo de 12 sospechosos y, en aquel entonces, otros colectivos constituían una amenaza mayor. Es una cuestión de prioridades. Los servicios de espionaje disponen de recursos limitados y se ven obligados a elegir y descartar. Unas pistas que más tarde parecerán enormemente significativas, en el momento se juzgan menos importantes y bajan peldaños en el rango de prioridad.

Por desgracia, el establecimiento de prioridades es una ciencia imperfecta que necesita evolucionar para reflejar la amenaza a la que se hace frente. Parte del error de cálculo sobre los conspiradores del 7 de julio en Reino Unido fue obviar que unos ciudadanos británicos pudieran cometer atentados suicidas en su país. Parte del error de cálculo sobre los terroristas del 11-S fue pasar por alto que Al Qaeda pudiera ejecutar una conspiración tan ambiciosa y sofisticada en territorio estadounidense. Parte del fallo en los atentados de París fue infravalorar la intensidad con que el Estado Islámico (ISIS, en inglés) se organizaba para atentar en Europa. Parte del fallo con relación a la célula de Bruselas fue desconocer su tamaño y pensar que París constituía su punto final. Ahora, a posteriori, esa red y sus objetivos pueden verse parcialmente en una serie de atentados e intentos previos, como el tiroteo de Mehdi Nemmouche en el museo judío de Bruselas o la confesión de Reda Hame de que había vuelto a Europa con la intención de abrir fuego en una sala de conciertos.

También hay fallos menos abstractos que pueden verse en el caso de la célula de Bruselas y París. El hecho de que ahora podamos ver la mano de Abdelhamid Abaaouden conspiraciones en Europa que se remontan a 2014 demuestra que debería haber sido una prioridad mayor en todo el continente. Eso apunta a un fallo en los servicios fronterizos y en la forma en que los diferentes países del continente comparten información secreta. Schengen crea un espacio común en el que los terroristas pueden actuar con impunidad, y del que por desgracia no se benefician los servicios de seguridad que los persiguen. La cooperación y la coordinación son esenciales para los servicios europeos de seguridad y espionaje, habida cuenta de que su jurisdicción solo llega hasta sus fronteras. Al mismo tiempo, la prioridad también varía entre los distintos países: mientras que para Bélgica y Francia este problema es el más acuciante, ya que existen células activas listas para atentar, es posible que para otros Estados miembros, como Portugal o los países del centro y este de Europa, la amenaza no parezca tan inminente.

Por último, las diferencias legislativas entre los Estados miembros son otra dificultad añadida. Es difícil detectar la ubicación de armas peligrosas, como las pistolas, porque la legislación es muy diferente entre países. Además, las competencias de la policía y los servicios secretos son dispares entre Estados y no siempre está claro con qué organismo homólogo hay que colaborar, con lo que es más que posible que resulte más difícil compartir información. En algunos países, la policía lleva las riendas de las investigaciones, pero en otros los servicios secretos recelan a la hora de compartir información por miedo a poner en peligro una fuente de información al exponerla a un proceso judicial. Esta es una diferencia clave entre los servicios de espionaje y la policía: mientras que la segunda trabaja con un procesamiento judicial como meta, los primeros se mueven en las sombras, evitando el foco de los tribunales. Eso provoca problemas, dentro de los Estados y entre ellos.

Y, sin embargo, estamos ante una amenaza ­paneuropea. En las semanas previas a los atentados de París, las autoridades italianas llevaron a cabo una investigación más amplia en todo el continente contra un grupo que se hacía llamar Rawti Shax: una comunidad compuesta en su mayoría por extremistas kurdos suníes, vinculada a Ansar al Islam, un grupo extremista de kurdos iraquíes muy cercano al ISI, precursor del ISIS. Su desmantelamiento, con arrestos en Escandinavia, Italia, Reino Unido y Bélgica, mostró todo el potencial de la cooperación judicial y entre los servicios secretos en toda Europa.

Pero el éxito duró poco. Al cabo de pocas semanas se produjo la masacre de París y se descubrió que una red más amplia de terroristas llevaba un tiempo activa y operando en todo el continente. Desde entonces se redobló la atención, pero una célula logró colarse en Bruselas. Aunque esta red marcará sin duda un punto de inflexión para los servicios belgas y franceses, la cuestión es si la lección tendrá eco en todo el continente. Toda Europa tiene que aprender las lecciones de París y Bruselas, ya que los grupos y redes vinculados al ISIS (y a Al Qaeda) siguen queriendo atentar en el continente. El espionaje, siempre una ciencia imperfecta, es en última instancia una de las últimas barreras contra la amenaza compleja y sofisticada que representa el ISIS.

Raffaello Pantucci es responsable de estudios de seguridad internacional en el Royal United Services Institute y autor de We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists.

How Was ISIS in Europe Missed?

As the dust has settled on the Brussels attacks, fingers of accusation have been pointed asking why a large network that produced two major terrorist attacks was able to get through Europe’s security cordon. News has slowly filtered out showing how security agencies had individuals who were part of the network on their radars, and in retrospect a growing intelligence picture looks rich in indicative detail. But hindsight is an imperfect lens through which to look at such intelligence failures, which requires much closer reading to properly understand how such apparently obvious failures could have happened.

It can appear a depressing indictment when in the wake of a terrorist attack, information is discovered to have been already in the possession of intelligence agencies about individuals involved in the attack. In the wake of the July 7, 2005 attack in London it was discovered that at least two of the individuals involved had attended training camps in Pakistan that had been known about by intelligence agencies. The cell lead and his principle support had in fact shown up on the periphery of investigations for almost four years prior to the attack, including pictures of them alongside a group who had been convicted of planning an attack in the United Kingdom. Similarly, for the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States, subsequent investigation uncovered how the individuals had been flagged up as of concern by security officials. One agent in the FBI had written a memo in which he worried about the fact that so many individuals who were of concern as terrorist suspects were showing up at flight schools seeking to learn how to fly.

But if security services knew, then why did they not act? If they had these individuals in their sites, why did they not prevent them from moving forwards and sweep them up in their dragnets?

The problem is that this is an incomplete way to consider these details and strands of intelligence. Whilst in retrospect, these details can appear massively significant and indicative of the pending plot, at the time they would have come in they would have been buried in a flood of other details, facts and strands of intelligence. To use the example of the July 7 plotters in the United Kingdom again: the strands of information that linked the plotters to a previously disrupted plot and placed them at a training camp as well as discussing going abroad to fight meant that the plotters Mohammed SIddique Khan and Shezhad Tanweer were two of twelve different individuals who were being followed up on by investigators after the earlier set of arrests was undertaken. Investigators did not unfortunately get to follow up on them in time.

At the time Khan and Tanweer were two of a large pool of people, with the two of them appearing more prominently involved in discussions about petty fraud and criminal activity to go abroad rather than try to launch attacks in the United Kingdom. At the same time, security agencies were stretched. Not only were they concerned with the wide network of people they had discovered in the earlier investigation, but also focused on a number of other high profile individuals and cases that appeared more menacing at the time.

The question is one of prioritization. Intelligence agencies have limited resources and are obliged to prioritize what they focus on at any given time. Some strands of intelligence can appear more significant and get more attention. Pieces that later appear hugely meaningful, at the time appear less important and get pushed down the rank of things to focus on. This might be the explanation for why intelligence agencies appeared to largely know about the individuals involved in the terrorist attacks yet seemed unable to do anything about the information.

Prioritization is unfortunately an imperfect science and one that needs to evolve to reflect the threat that is being faced. Part of the mis-calculation behind the July 7 plotters in the United Kingdom was the fact that British nationals would launch suicide attacks in the UK. Part of the miscalculation around the September 11 attackers was that al Qaeda would try such an ambitious and sophisticated plot within the American homeland. Part of the failure around the Paris attacks was a misunderstanding of the intensity of plotting that was underway by ISIS to attack in Europe. Part of the failure around the Brussels cell was to fail to understand the size of the cell and the fact that Paris was not the conclusion of their effort. The larger network and their ambition was in retrospect partially visible in a string of previous attacks or attempted attacks from Mehdi Nemmouche’s shooting at the Brussels Jewish museum, in Reda Hame’s confession of coming back with direction and intent to shoot up a music hall, in Ayoub el Khazzani’s attempted massacre on a Thalys train or a heavily armed cell in Verviers, Belgium. A series of plots that now appear linked and set the groundwork for what happened in Brussels and Paris.

There are also less abstract failures that are clearly observable in the specific Brussels and Paris cell. The fact that now in retrospect it is possible to see Abaaoud’s hand in plots in Europe dating back to 2014 shows how he should have been a higher priority across the continent and not someone who should have been able to slip in and out of ISIS controlled territory and Europe. This speaks to a failure of borders agencies, as well as intelligence sharing across the continent. The fact that for terrorists Schengen creates a common space across which they can operate with impunity is not unfortunately matched by the security agencies who are pursuing them. For European security and intelligence agencies, cooperation and coordination is key, as their mandates only stretch as far as their borders. And at the same time, questions of prioritization are true between states. Whilst for Belgium and France the problem is the most pressing security dilemma of the moment with active cells seeking to launch attacks, for Portuguese or Central and Eastern European member states may not feel as immediate a threat.

Finally, legislative and structural difference across member states adds another layer of difficulty to this problem. Different levels of legislation around dangerous weapons like guns make it a difficult threat to mitigate in a pan-European way. Different mandates for police and intelligence agencies, usually due to history or the power of local federal governments, mean that it is not always clear which partner agency needs to be engaged with and makes it potentially harder to share information with each other. In some countries, it is police who lead such investigations but in others intelligence agencies are wary of sharing with police for fear of compromising a source of information through exposing them to a judicial process. This is a key difference between intelligence agencies and police: police work towards prosecutions, whereas intelligence agencies work in the shadows avoiding the spotlight of courtrooms. These cause problems between and within member states.

And yet, the threat is one that is pan-European. In the weeks before the Paris attacks, authorities in Italy led a larger investigation across the continent against a group calling itself Rawti Shax. A community of largely Kurdish Sunni extremists they were linked to the Ansar al Islam group, an Iraqi Kurdish extremist group aligned closely with ISIS precursor group ISI. With arrests in Scandinavia, Italy, the UK and Belgium, the disruption showed the power of the possible with intelligence and judicial cooperation across Europe.

Success proved short lived. A few short weeks later, the massacre in Paris took place and a larger network of plotters was discovered to have been active and operating across the continent for some time. Since then, attention has been ramped up, but a cell managed to slip through in Brussels. Whilst undoubtedly this network will prove to be a turning point for Belgian and French agencies, the question will be whether the lessons will resonate across the continent. The lessons from Paris and Brussels need to be learned across the continent as the groups and networks emanating from ISIS (and al Qaeda) continue to want to attack Europe. Intelligence, always an imperfect science, is ultimately one of the last barriers against the complicated and sophisticated threat that ISIS poses.