Archive for January, 2017

A new brief piece for the Telegraph looking at the new President’s options for countering terrorism.

Donald Trump doesn’t have a perfect answer to terrorism any more than Obama did

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Slightly belated piece for the New Statesman to kick the year off looking at ISIS, tries to sketch out what is likely to happen with the group this year. Separately spoke to the Neue Zircher Zeitung about the threat that Germany faced in the context of the broader European threat.

What Islamic State will do in 2017

In retreat across Syria and Iraq, will the newer terror group emulate the strategy honed by al-Qaeda?

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Any predictions of Islamic State’s demise are premature. During the surge towards Mosul at the end of last year, commentators repeatedly suggested this marked the beginning of the end for the extremist group. Yet, it still has the ability to launch attacks against its enemies both within Iraq and Syria, but also further afield. These trends are likely to continue, although security forces are increasingly learning how to mitigate the threat the group poses. The risk, however, is that the threat will continue to mutate.

The prospect of IS finding a way to regroup on the ground in Syria and Iraq can’t be ruled out. While Iraqi forces are pursuing a systematic approach to retaking Mosul, it is possible the group will melt into the countryside and wait for attention to shift before surging back. How the Iraqi forces take back the city and whether they provide those in Sunni areas with reassurance over their political future will determine whether IS is able to find a supportive base from which it can rebuild. In Syria, while confusion continues to reign, it will continue to find a way to embed somewhere.

But there is no doubt that the group has lost some of its lustre and power. While there are still some individuals choosing to go and fight alongside the group, the numbers have fallen dramatically. A report in September last year from US intelligence indicated that from a peak of 2,000 a month, only about 50 individuals were assessed as crossing the border each month to go and fight alongside a range of groups including IS in Syria and Iraq.

In fact, the biggest concern is the flow of people back. Foreign fighters disenfranchised by losses on the ground or tired after years of conflict are heading home. Some are no doubt eager to seek a conflict-free life, but others are being sent back to build networks or launch attacks. German authorities believe they disrupted at least two such cells in June and September of last year, linking them to the Paris bombers and unclear whether they were sent back to launch attacks or prepare ground for others. Similarly, Italian intelligence has raised concerns about the return of Balkan jihadists as a threat to Europe, pointing to the believed return to the region of Kosovan IS leader Lavdrim Muhaxheri with somewhere between 300-400 ISIS fighters. They have already been linked to one specific plot against a football game, and suspected of potentially again laying ground for others.

These individuals will join the continuing ranks of “lone wolf” or “failed traveller” attackers that we have seen in Europe and around the world in the past year. In Anis Amri’s attack in Berlin, or the murder of the priest in Rouen, we see individuals who apparently aspired to travel to Syria, failed to do so, and instead perpetrated attacks in Europe. We also see individuals latching on to the group’s violent ideology to launch attacks. This includes Omar Mateen, who butchered 50 in a shooting at an Orlando nightclub which he claimed to be doing on behalf of the group – although no clear link was uncovered. Given the basic methods used and the broad range of targets, it is highly likely that more of these loners (either instigated or self-starting) will emerge to wreak havoc in the coming year.

Finally, it is important to not forget IS affiliates around the world like Boko Haram in Nigeria, IS in Khorasan (Afghanistan), Sinai, Libya, or Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. There has always been some element of scepticism around the legitimacy of the links these groups have to the core operation, with speculation that some of their pledges of allegiance are more an expression of anger at al Qaeda or some other local group. Yet there is usually some evidence to support the association – most prominently with IS core in the Levant acknowledging them in their material. As we see the group’s core shrink in strength, these regional affiliates could rise up to take greater prominence or to take on a greater leadership mantle.

It is also possible that the core group in Syria/Iraq will use these affiliates to launch attacks or re-establish themselves. We have already seen how individuals linked to the Paris attacks were reportedly killed in Libya, and there is growing evidence that IS in Khorasan, the Afghan affiliate, has seen some back and forth of fighters. In future, it is possible that we may see these groups rise up in a more pronounced way. More acute problems might start to emerge from Libya, Afghanistan and Sinai where substantial affiliates appear to operate, or Nigeria, Pakistan or Southeast Asia where there is a more confusing aspect to the ISIS affiliates. There, the degree of strong connection with the core organisation is unclear, with it sometimes seeming that the adoption of the IS banner is rather an expression of local divisions between militant groups. If the pressure on the group in the Levant intensifies over the next year, these groups might look like tempting ways of distracting western security agencies through attacks that cause governments to re-allocate resources away from the Levant and thereby take some pressure off the group’s leadership in Syria and Iraq.

This would emulate al-Qaeda’s strategy. There have been moments historically when the core organisation pushed its affiliates to launch attacks to try to take pressure off the core group. This happened between al-Qaeda core in Pakistan and its Yemeni affiliate between 2003-2009. Similarly, al-Qaeda has realised that sometimes not declaring loud Caliphates and committing public atrocities such as televised beheadings, but instead committing targeted acts of terror and endearing itself to local populations to build support from the ground up, is a more productive way forwards.

How the outside world will react is a further unknown element. Donald Trump has stated he will eliminate the group, but he has not outlined a strategy for how he will achieve this. There is little evidence that the US could do much more than deploy greater force on the ground (whose ultimate goal and success would be unclear). The announced Saudi alliance to counter the group has not so far done a huge amount, and European powers remain secondary players. It is unclear that any country is preparing a Russian-style push with the potential human and political risks attached, meaning we are unlikely to see a dramatic change.

For IS, the conflict they are fighting is a millennial one for God’s greater glory and temporal timelines like our calendar are largely irrelevant. Dramatic events like the loss of cities or leadership figures may change its dynamic, and in some cases significantly degrade its capacity, but are unlikely to eradicate the group. Rather, it will continue to evolve and grow regionally primarily, but also internationally, with attacks against western targets a continuing interest.

Once the war in Syria settles down, and Iraq becomes unified, discussions may be possible about how to eradicate the group, but this is unlikely to take place in the next 12 months given the continuing fighting on the ground in the face of a ceasefire which in any case includes neither IS or al-Qaeda affiliates, meaning another year of the world remaining in state of high alert is likely. Were peace to break out, IS would find itself in a complicated situation, but this would require a very substantial change of situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq. That, unfortunately, looks some way off.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of ‘We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen’

New piece for the Lowy Institute of Australia’s Interpreter blog, drawing on a batch of Eurasian travel from the end of the year.

Central Asian connectivity: Going beyond China

Central Asia is experiencing a connectivity boom, with China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ the most dominant vision for the region. Yet this dominance has started to worry Central Asian powers, leading to the emergence of a new narrative – that of diversification. With China becoming the region’s most influential economic actor, steadily increasing its role in local security and politics, Central Asian powers are seeking to broaden their engagement and bring to life a long-advocated ‘multi-vector’ diplomatic approach.

I was fortunate enough to spend the end of last year travelling the Eurasian heartland, with stops in Ashgabat, Astana, Beijing and Islamabad. It was a variety of different trips, covering different projects, but one overriding message about China shone through at every stop: the expansion of Chinese investment into its immediate neighbourhood is having a game-changing impact on the ground. This is positive, but it is also worrying those on the ground and is changing the way that Beijing is thinking about its external investments.

Talk to any Central Asian foreign policy planner and you will almost invariably hear about a ‘multi-vector’ approach to foreign relations. Sitting at the centre of Halford Mackinder’s ‘World-Island’, Central Asians envisage themselves as commanding vast power from the heart of the Silk Road. Yet it’s not always clear the degree to which they actually control the options on the table before them, or whether these great powers move around them to their own tune. Nowhere is this balance highlighted more acutely than in regards to foreign investment. Ideally, Central Asian states would want a multitude of options on the table before them, but while their FDI figures are more diverse than is sometimes given credit for, it is clear that Chinese money is increasingly the principal source.

This is increasingly the story across Eurasia, where everyone is both clamouring for Chinese investment and finding themselves uncertain about relying too heavily on a single investor. In Beijing, officials at state policy banks and private companies worry about the countries they are investing in and the fact they do not know the environments, yet at the same time find themselves under great pressure to deliver on Xi Jinping’s vaunted ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ through commercially viable projects. This leads them to trying to puzzle out how to deliver these projects effectively and seek partners to share the burden.

For landlocked Central Asians, however, the story is a different one. Trapped by geography between a sanctioned Russia, a still-recovering Iran and the disputed Caspian, they are only able to find China as a substantial and long-term investor and partner. India has tried and thus far not delivered, and while they discuss with Pakistan, Europe, Korea and Japan, projects as big as China’s have been slow in arriving. In contrast, Beijing signs contracts and infrastructure appears.

But all are aware of the dangers of having a single customer. In Ashgabat, they link Turkmenistan’s most recent push on breaking ground with the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline and alternate energy partners to a sharp slowdown in Chinese interest in their gas, as China’s economy slowed down. In Astana, President Nursultan Nazarbayev links Kazakhstan’s Nurly Zhol (Shining Road) economic vision to the Chinese Silk Road Economic Belt, in that the local strategy is intended to build on the Chinese infrastructure, showing how they are making the Chinese investment work for them.

But they also discuss the many other partnerships they are developing. Kazakhstan is planning a consulate in Bandar Abbas, the Iranian port city that provides Central Asia a different route to international markets. This was reinforced in Astana, where senior officials spoke of ‘connectivity being the number one point for Kazakhstan’ and that the country ‘will look in any direction with no discrimination’. At the same time, according to the Kaznex Invest Chairman Borisbiy Zhangurazov, China is set to undertake around 50 investment projects in Kazakhstan worth more than $24 billion, an amount almost equal ($26 billion) to all US investment in the country in the past 10 years.

In Pakistan, people worry about the degree to which they are becoming dependent on Chinese loans. Figures published earlier this year indicate that in Q1 FY17, net loan and FDI inflows from China were $1.1 billion (of which $700 million was a loan). Total FDI inflow is down from $192 million a year ago to $91 million this year. Trends that worry people who on the ground express a high level of concern about the transparency of the projects being undertaken as part of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the excessive reliance on Chinese investment.

What is interesting about Pakistan, however, is that it is clear that China is finding itself mired in as many problems as others have previously experienced in the country. As a Dawn editorial flagged at the start of this year, ‘for China, the year 2016 was when the country began to discover the complexities of doing business in Pakistan’. Beijing’s answer is to encourage others to become involved to share the burden. Russia is seeking a role. The UK is interested (an idea my institute is currently working on). Other parts of the Belt and Road, such as Kazakhstan, are equally keen. During my recent visit to Astana, senior figures intimated they were contemplating even going so far as opening a consulate in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’s crown jewel, the port of Gwadar in Baluchistan.

Connectivity remains the keyword in Eurasian geopolitics. Talk of Silk Roads continue to dominate regional conversations. Yet diversification will be essential to realise the visions that are being advanced. It will only work if it is a collective project, something even Beijing appears to be beginning to consider as well.

Another piece for the Telegraph, this one made it into the paper as well in a shortened form, see the picture for the published piece. Spoke to a few media outlets, but can only locate this conversation with CNN. Separately, spoke to the Financial Times, Reuters, and the Washington Post in the wake of the Berlin attacks late last year, to the Guardian about the terror threat to the UK, to the Irish Times about UK and European security relations post-Brexit, and the Financial Times again about UK Asia policy.

Isil’s attack in Istanbul is a turning point – and more violence could follow

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The Islamic State group’s claim of the New Year’s attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul puts a cap on a grim year for Turkey. Hundreds have been killed in attacks by various terrorist groups during the year, but Isil’s  (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) claim of responsibility of the attack nevertheless marked a new point in Turkey’s war on terrorism.

Until now, the group had only formally claimed one attack in the country with others merely linked to networks around the group absent a formal claim of responsibility. The question is what is presages for the year ahead.

The simple brutality of the attack has become the signature of Isil attack planning. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the group continues to aspire to launch more Paris or Brussels style attacks, but it finds itself increasingly constrained by the realities of aggressive counter-terrorism forces that expend every effort to disrupt plans at every turn. Numerous potential plots were disrupted in the run up to the end of the year, including potential attacks in the UK, France and Germany.

Relatives and friends mourn at a coffin during the funeral of Ayhan Arik, one of the 39 victims of the gun attack on the Reina
Relatives and friends mourn at a coffin during the funeral of Ayhan Arik, one of the 39 victims of the gun attack on the Reina

But some still get through. Prior to Istanbul, Anis Amre, slipped through the net and was able to drive a truck into the crowd at a Berlin Christmas market. A video later emerged linking him to Isil . The degree to which he was directed, instigated or self-started remains to be determined, but his attack showed basic simplicity that Isil encourages of its attackers these days. Cognizant that large-scale attacks are more likely to get picked up on and disrupted, the group has taken a more pragmatic approach.

The result is a spate of smaller scale incidents choosing seemingly random civilian targets using basic weaponry that is easier to obtain.

There is also likely an element of pragmatism within the choice of target in Turkey. Whilst the group repeatedly issued menacing warnings of attacks around the holiday period, the only successful incident in Europe was the atrocity in Berlin – likely a product of a more difficult operating environment. In contrast, in Turkey, the group has networks and access to weaponry.

On top of this, Turkey has increasingly turned its firepower against the group. Operation Euphrates Shield was launched by Turkish armed forces in August 2016 which aimed to fight both Kurdish and Isil groups in Syria. And within Turkey, authorities have taken an increasingly more aggressive approach. Earlier in the day of the Istanbul attack, Turkish police arrested eight alleged Isil members in Ankara who they suspected of planning a New Year’s attack. The men were part of a group of 63 that Turkish authorities swept up in the 3 days prior to the attack.

ISIS has responded with violence. In November, the group claimed its first attack in Turkey with a bombing in Diyabakir targeting security forces, something that came immediately after a speech by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in which he directly threatened the country.

In December it released a video which purported to show two Turkish soldiers being burned alive. In claiming the recent attack, it specifically linked Turkey to the ‘crusader’ alliance – placing Ankara on the other side of the clash of civilizations that ISIS sees itself in. But it is also clear these are not the first atrocities against Turkey – repeated previous incidents have been linked to ISIS networks in the country. For example, early intelligence showing up in the Turkish press has been linking the Istanbul attacker with the same network that attacked Istanbul’s international airport in June of this year. Whether this link will be proven in due course is unclear, but the possibility reflects repeated statements by Turkish authorities that have blamed terrorist atrocities in the country as the responsibility of ISIS.

None of this portends a positive immediate future for Turkey. While authorities have shown a capacity to disrupt networks within their country, they have faced numerous attacks in the past year. If Isil is turning it attention in a more focused way on Ankara, given the proximity to the group’s remaining Caliphate as well as the clearly substantial networks linked to the group that exist within the country, then it seems likely that more will unfortunately get through.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of the International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)