Archive for April, 2020

Another piece looking at how COVID-19 is impacting international security questions, somewhat emphasizing a point made in an earlier RUSI piece focusing in on how existing terrorist threats were evolving while the world was not paying attention. This time it is for my new local paper the Straits Times and takes a wider lens to look at how adversaries are actively taking advantage of distraction to advance their own interests. Given the dominance of COVID-19 on international affairs writ large at the moment suspect there are a few more pieces in me on this topic in some shape or form. In other matters, while not doing much media, am doing various webinars including one later this week (April 29 at 6PM Indian Standard Time) with the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) about the excellent Kabir’s very readable recent book on ISIS in South Asia. Last week spoke with a panel at the Pakistani Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research (CSCR) on impact of COVID-19 on Belt and Road – the entire event was recorded and can be found on YouTube.

Covid-19 is fuel to the flames of security threats

Raffaello Pantucci For The Straits Times
PUBLISHED | APR 27, 2020, 5:00 AM SGT

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An Afghan security officer stopping motorists at a checkpoint in Kabul on April 8, during a government-imposed lockdown as a preventive measure against Covid-19. The virus may have brought much of the world to a standstill, but it has not ended conflict, says the writer. In Afghanistan, the peace process appears to be barely holding together amid continuing violence. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The Covid-19 virus may have brought much of the world to a standstill, but it has not ended conflict.

In fact, there is a growing danger that some are exploiting people’s distraction to advance their own interests. Coming at a time when there is not the capacity to either respond directly to the threats or marshal the diplomatic wherewithal to stop problems from escalating, there is a real danger that it is not just the world’s economies that will be irrevocably damaged in the post-Covid-19 world, but our national security environment as well.

The problem is articulating itself in different ways, among adversaries large and small.

In many cases, the activity is an extension of existing issues – part of the general feeling of acceleration that is being driven by the crisis. But coming when most governments are focused on disease relief at home, there is little surge capability available to respond adequately.

Those who can respond – for the most part, the United States – are moving quickly to escalation, with all the risks that come with it.

China’s recent activity in the South China Sea is a good example of this. Beijing’s behaviour is not in itself new. With its nine-dash map, China has long made claims to much of the waterway and the atolls, reefs and islands that some countries in South-east Asian consider theirs.

But the recent decision to push at them by renaming sea features and establishing districts over disputed areas suggests that China sees an opportunity in further changing the realities on the ground and creating a context that will be difficult for others to push back on without engaging in some form of conflict.

Beijing’s behaviour has not gone unnoticed, with the US dispatching vessels to support South-east Asian partners. But this comes at a difficult moment, when South-east Asian countries are seeking to work with China to help manage the pandemic they face, and also hopeful for the country to rapidly turn its economy back on to boost regional growth once again.

The danger of confrontation is high given that managing relations between the two big powers is not the easiest in the best of times, even more so now with the region in the grip of the pandemic.

Big power rivalry aside, the pandemic is undermining the fight against terrorism.

Terrorist-fuelled conflicts in Africa have seen a rise in violence as Western forces find themselves increasingly stretched by the Covid-19 crisis. In Mali, Spain drew down a substantial proportion of its forces there, while France has seen some of its forces in West Africa fall sick and suspended some maritime operations. Over in East Africa, Interpol was forced by Covid-19 to suspend its regional intelligence coordination mission.

Terrorist groups have been quick to take advantage.

In West Africa, Al-Qaeda’s local affiliate gleefully celebrated the foreigners’ difficulties as reports from Mali suggest that militants are getting within reach of the capital Bamako. In East Africa, an Islamist-fuelled insurgency in northern Mozambique continues to escalate and is taking a trajectory that increasingly resembles that of Boko Haram, the terrorist group that continues to ravage Nigeria’s north and neighbours. Groups across the Sahel are becoming more ambitious and aggressive, with soldiers, civilians and fighters killed in growing numbers.

This pattern is also visible in Asia. In the holiday spot of the Maldives, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has claimed responsibility for its first attack amid a growing number of violent incidents in the country, including attacks on foreign visitors. In Afghanistan, the peace process appears to be barely holding together amid continuing violence.

Both the Maldives and Afghanistan also face Covid-19 outbreaks of unknown magnitude and are likely going to struggle to manage both a pandemic and terrorist attacks at the same time.

Again, outsiders have tried to step in to help, but the assistance is sporadic and mostly focused on providing medical aid, without focusing on the escalating security problems. A brief visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo showed the US’ concern with the Afghan security situation, but was not enough. In fact, the rush to exit from Afghanistan by the US risks leaving chaos in its wake that will have wider repercussions across the region.

In the meantime, Western powers have to contend with sabre-rattling and other provocative actions from the likes of Russia, Iran or North Korea. In a time of great distraction elsewhere, there are few moderating influences available to try to de-escalate these situations.

What Covid-19 has done is to act as an accelerant to the fires already burning in various hot spots around the world. If not contained, the conflicts will be hard to unwind. With the US and China on a path towards collision, there is increasingly little space for diplomacy.

Material changes on the ground, like claimed territories or cities taken over by terrorists, will not be easily reversed without conflict.

It is understandably difficult to get governments to focus on much else at the moment. Controlling the virus, saving lives at home and finding ways of getting economies moving again are clearly the immediate priorities.

But we are in danger of missing shifts happening in our national security environment that could lead to conflict or escalation beyond the point of control.

Without more attention being paid to these other problems, when the world starts up again after the contagion is over, we may find the geopolitical environment strategically altered for the worse.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Finally, in this latest clutch, a new piece for the in-house journal Counter-Terrorist Trends and Analyses (CTTA) at my new Singaporean institutional home ICPVTR at RSIS. It is a bit of a thought experiment in trying to think forwards about what the impact of the current COVID-19 crisis could be to counter-terrorism practitioners and policy makers. It goes in a way alongside my previous Foreign Policy piece which sketched out how the threat might get worse. Clearly the big topic in this one is resources which is going to create problems which will be difficult to predict, but there are other dangers and even opportunities as well. In the UK, there is already concern around Prevent referrals being down, while France is already worrying about release of terrorist prisoners and I am sure we will start to see other issues in this space emerge.

Key Questions for Counter-Terrorism Post-COVID-19

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Synopsis

All aspects of government decision and policymaking are likely to be impacted in a post-COVID-19 world. This article focuses on the specific impact on counter-terrorism policy and practice amidst a changed environment. Using the UK’s Contest strategy and its formulation of the 4 P’s (Prevent, Pursue, Protect and Prepare) as a frame, the article explores a set of questions that governments will have to think through to manage a persistent terrorist threat.

Introduction

The impact of COVID-19 is widespread. At a geopolitical level, it will accelerate existing trends, while free-trade and open borders will be hurt for some time as the global economy adjusts to such a dramatic freeze and the inevitable fitful re-opening. This will have consequences across the board for governments, including security policies. Though a lot has been written about how different terrorist groups are reacting to COVID-19, its impact on counter-terrorism policy and practice remains understudied.

This article will outline some key issues that security officials should be considering going forwards about how COVID-19 might impact counter-terrorism (CT) and countering violent extremism (CVE) policies and practices. As a framework, the article will use the structure of the UK counter-terrorism strategy that captures the different strands of most CT and CVE policies around the world. In short, the UK’s Contest strategy is made up of the following four pillars:

• Prevent: to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. This forward-looking work comprises of rehabilitation and de-radicalisation initiatives.

• Pursue: to stop terrorist attacks. This involves disrupting and arresting individuals involved in terrorist activity.

• Protect: to strengthen safety mechanisms against a terrorist attack, such as building up physical defences.

• Prepare: to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack. Here, societal resilience is emphasised to ensure society can bounce back from an incident.1

Overview of COVID-19’s Impact

Before going into a detailed analysis of the impact using the four P’s framework, some overarching themes need to be considered about the impact of COVID-19 on CT and CVE work. First is the re-evaluation of national risk assessment (and more importantly perceptions of risk) that will take place in the wake of the virus. Re-reading old national strategy documents or statements, it is possible to find evidence that numerous countries had identified pandemic disease as a major risk and threat – the UK’s National Risk Register, for example, identified ‘pandemic influenza’ as the event of greatest relative likelihood and impact.2 US President Donald Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy had also identified pandemics as a major danger,3 while President Xi Jinping had spoken of the threat in his speech to the 19th Communist Party of China (CPC)’s National Congress in 2017.4 The United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have of course been warning about these pandemic threats for years. Yet, notwithstanding these repeated warnings, it is not clear if sufficient resources and expertise were allocated into mitigating the risk.

This lack of focus (and in some cases, specific choice to reduce focus) was in part a product of the absence of political pressure around the issue.5 While the global commentariat is now full of chatter about how obvious this threat was, previously it was only experts in the scientific community who were genuinely concerned with little public discussion about the threat.6 Parts of Asia that had faced viruses before were more attuned to the concern than others, but largely, it was not a high ranking political issue.

The net result was other threats, like terrorism, cyberattacks, state conflicts and trade wars absorbed more attention and budget, alongside assessments of priority. Given the widespread impact of COVID-19, this balance is likely to change as governments realise the full potential extent and damage of a pandemic disease. This will in large part also be driven by public pressure as populations see extensive impact of the threat. For terrorism threats, it will highlight once again the relatively limited impact that they actually have to the average citizen (especially comparable to pandemic threats) and might make it harder to mobilise the same sort of national level concern around them in the short to medium term.7

The positive side to this will be a reduction in the noise around terrorist threats, which may have a corollary impact on the degree to which threats can multiply and reduce the copycat or lone actor phenomenon whereby individuals are drawn to terrorist ideologies more by the noise around attacks than the ideology. It will also potentially marginalise those drawn to such ideologies as people re-evaluate what matters to them and consequently refuse to simply accept the narratives advanced by terrorist groups about the global upheavals that merit terrorist mobilisation.

On the negative side, the massive expansion of online activity will produce its own problems of radicalisation with some vulnerable individuals becoming more isolated and getting more embroiled in extremist ideologies.8 National budgets will also shrink around the world. Governments will have to make harder decisions and redirect their resources and capabilities on economic revivals. This will mean pressure on security budgets at home and abroad, with more questions asked about importance and prioritisation. This is where public perceptions of risk will come into play. In the wake of COVID-19, the public will continually ask about policy steps to mitigate the next possible pandemic outbreak and this will lead to reallocations of budget from elsewhere.

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, there was already a noticeable shift away from concern around terrorist threats, with state- based conflicts or cyber threats getting the top priority. This trend will accelerate further making it harder for CT security officials to ensure their issues retain the level of attention and budget they require. This particular issue is one that is going to play across this article. Finally, how COVID-19 will impact extremist ideologies merit some brief thought. The economic downturn will create contexts in which anti-state groups can thrive. Racism has already emerged – in particular towards Asians, but also within Asian countries towards others – which may lead to different forms of violence.

The disenfranchised communities or inequalities that will emerge in the post- COVID-19 world will create some individuals or groups who see violence as the answer to their situation. In some contexts, the massive increase in government will produce its own problems. In America, for example, the long history of fear of federal government has generated terrorist atrocities in the past (like the Oklahoma City bombing which just passed its 25 year anniversary);9 some similar reactions seem to be already appearing.10 There is also the possibility that fringe groups will be able to take advantage of the ensuing world to find their own specific niche fears further exacerbated. For instance, the accelerated rise of tech during this moment may generate extremist luddites, or other fringe movements might emerge.

Prevent

At the best of times, preventing people from being drawn towards groups or persuading them to subsequently reject extremist ideologies is difficult. Governments find it almost impossible to eradicate, counter or stop the proliferation of extremist ideologies. In some countries, dealing with the root causes of any form of terrorism can go into deep social issues whose origins go back decades. Terrorist groups offer ideologies which are parasitic on these problems. This means that in order to eradicate the problem, governments have to deal with the underlying socio-economic issues, while at the same time prevent the spread of extremist ideas.

Fund allocation is key in dealing with these issues, be they at home or abroad. The problems far from home usually need resolution through social transformation, something which only happens through investment of resource. As budgets tighten, problems in places far from home, which are not directly linked to a threat back home, will be easily dispensable in favour of more immediate problems. This resource tightening for distant CVE work will be exacerbated by the fact that often aid work doubles as CVE work in some contexts – whether by chance or on purpose to mask its intent. This means not only will distant countries lose resource from direct CVE work, but also from a broader and likely budget tightening.

In societies with relatively limited numbers of people affected, CVE and de-radicalising work tends to be built around individual level interventions in which mentors work with individuals to steer them onto a better path. In countries with larger problems, this model is essentially enhanced, with interventions targeted at entire sectors or larger groups of people. In systems where the number of cases is limited, this will likely remain manageable, but countries where hundreds, if not thousands, need managing will require a considerable expenditure of resource which will come under pressure. While there is an ongoing debate about degrees of recidivism amongst terrorist offenders, there will be budgetary pressures on programmes in prisons.11 More generally, the lack of clear evidence of programme effectiveness will make it easy for such programmes to become targets for budget cuts.

Lastly, the online ideological space and counter-messaging will face greater scrutiny as a necessary expense. Already, there are concerns around the efficacy of online counter-messaging campaigns.12 It is likely that the entire counter-ideological space will come under budgetary pressure given the almost impossible task of showing causal effect of programmes to the issue they are seeking to address.

Pursue

National security questions are easy to mobilise public resource towards. The public sees government as their ultimate protector and will give fairly substantial lee-way in deploying resources to keep any threats at bay. The most visible expression of this within terrorism comes via Pursue work, which involves chasing down terrorists and using security and intelligence agencies to detain and arrest terrorist suspects. This strand of work may find some of its resources redirected into other tasks. But the underlying political reality of needing to maintain this capability at a high state of readiness will ensure these parts of the system remain funded.

Pursue actors are in fact already benefitting in a COVID-19 world. The mass imposition of quarantine conditions across societies creates a context in which monitoring and disruption becomes much easier. Security forces no longer need to develop complicated reasons to detain suspected individuals but can simply mask disruptions or inquiries under the veil of the quarantine monitoring. Furthermore, suspects of interest will find themselves as housebound as everyone else creating static targets requiring less resource to observe. And should they venture out, security agencies have a justified reason to inquire as to what they are doing.

Countries have also already pushed out apps seeking to track individuals and gather data to help monitor transmission of the virus. Whilst many legal systems will put in place strong measures to prevent their use beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, these apps are potential monitoring tools for security officials concerned about terrorist attacks or networks. Some countries may be less open about their subsequent use. It is also possible that the data generated will produce some interesting findings about human behaviour in crisis situations which might support future counter- terrorism activity.

Finally, the development of such tools will create learning within the technological space. This learning may be currently directed towards tracking COVID-19 spread, but the same tools might be later more useful in the counter-terrorism space. Analysing movement of people or potential disease transmission using multiple vectors and probabilities might generate a new set of analytical tools that might subsequently be turned towards countering terrorism or chasing terrorists online.

Protect

The Protect space is dominated by expenditure on security which seeks to cover every potential eventuality. Sometimes these are sunk costs which generate one-off expenditures, but others require regular reinvestment. Furthermore, they have a habit of increasing in a corollary manner to the terrorist threat evolution, as new counter- measures need to be deployed to reflect changing patterns of terror activity.

One positive effect to the Protect space might come in the form of more restrictive behaviour that will be imposed on citizens in order to mitigate further flare-ups of COVID-19. These measures will likely focus on preventing movement, or checking people’s temperatures or other indicators at regular intervals. This will create a potential Protect (and even Pursue) opportunities. For example, temperature checking posts would be a moment for security officials to check on members of public; they could be a deterrent in themselves. It has been observed that terrorists have changed attack locations due to the presence of Protect measures.

In some cases, governments seek to offset these costs by passing them on to the private sector which is at the front line of this threat. Private sector sites are often the targets of terrorist groups; consequently, they bear the expenses in making their locations safe. This discussion might become more complicated in an environment of contracted economic means, for any business sector. It will become more challenging for the governments to impose requirements for expenditure that do not answer an immediate security concern (like fire hazard) rather than a more abstract one like terrorism.

An additional challenge to the Protect space will come from the likely surge in transborder activity of goods and people that will take place in the wake of COVID-19 and the lifting of travel restrictions.13 For travel hubs where international travel is an integral part of existence, this will mean a sudden potential surge in work in different directions. This will be impacted by the urgency with which there will be a push to return to normality in terms of getting trade and international supply chains moving again. While there might be a push to nationalise supply chains in some countries, few will be able to effectively deliver this, meaning an expansive security cordon which will need to be developed with equal rapidity.

Prepare

Societies have for the most part demonstrated a remarkable resilience against terrorist attacks. Terrorists have largely failed to disrupt social orders in the wake of their attacks.14 Where they have caused damage, however, is in tearing the social fabric. And this could worsen in a post-COVID-19 world. While there have been globally remarkable demonstrations of collective civil mindedness and a push to help and celebrate fellow humans, there has also been a darker edge as people seek to apportion blame. Most obviously, this is visible against Asians in the west in particular with repeated reports of assaults on people of Asian appearance in response to what has been described by very senior government officials in the United States as the ‘Chinese virus.’15

This tension is visible in other contexts as well and is likely to generate its own counter- responses, both in terms of state-to-state tensions, but also amongst communities. Within China, there has additionally been a growing anger towards African communities.16 While this does not necessarily portend terrorism, it does raise the danger that as waves of the virus continue to express themselves and be reported in different parts of the world, this might lead to consequent targeted social tensions at different moments. This is significant in terms of shoring up social cohesion and resilience, a key component of long-term Prepare work.

The practical tools often used to advance Prepare goals are potentially ones impacted by broader budgetary cuts. Emergency services are essential amenities which people expect, but ensuring their resource levels are maintained to a high enough level to cover every contingency might come under pressure. While emergency response services will always be needed, the question will be whether the additional training and expense required to maintain a full-spectrum counter-terrorism response (which might include low probability events like CBRN attacks) can be justified or is essential in the same way as it was before.

Looking Ahead

The impact of COVID-19 on CT policy and practice will be complicated and varied. Overall, the pressure on direct CT measures will not necessarily be strong. Concerned publics will continue to expect governments to deliver adequate defences against terrorist threats. If security agencies are dynamic enough, ample opportunities avail to use the virus restrictions as an opportunity to enhance security blankets. But longer-term programmes focused on dealing with problems at root are likely to be impacted. This problem is magnified in third-world and poorer countries badly affected by the COVID- 19 fall-out, and has a knock-on effect on the threat picture emanating from these locations.

The danger will also come from a threat picture rendered even more complex in the wake of COVID-19; in part, driven by existing threats which will not resolve themselves and may even get worse and also, as a result of new emerging threats. With more people pushed deeper into online worlds, this might generate a new articulation of the lone actor terrorist threat under different ideologies. While much of broader society, focused on health security and economic recovery, will vie for greater government attention and resources, terrorists will not go away and likely multiply in new and confusing ways.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence, Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit within the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be contacted at israffaello@ntu.edu.sg.

1 “CONTEST: the United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism,” Home Office (UK), June 2018, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/ uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/71690 7/140618_CCS207_CCS0218929798- 1_CONTEST_3.0_WEB.pdf. A final caveat on this choice of structure is that the author will sometimes veer away from precise UK designations about what is covered under each pillar of Contest, but this is not relevant for the discussion at hand which is merely using Contest as a frame with which to structure a discussion.

2 “National Risk Register,” Cabinet Office (UK), 2008, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/ uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/61934/ national_risk_register.pdf.

3 “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” White House, December 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp- content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017- 0905.pdf.

4 “Full text of Xi Jinping’s report at 19th CPC National Congress,” Xinhua, October 18, 2017, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/special/2017- 11/03/c_136725942.htm.

5 Marisa Taylor, “Exclusive: U.S. slashed CDC staff inside China prior to coronavirus outbreak,” Reuters, March 26, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us- health-coronavirus-china-cdc-exclusiv/exclusive-u-s-slashed-cdc-staff-inside-china-prior-to-coronavirus-outbreak-idUSKBN21C3N5.

6 Tim Harford, “Why we fail to prepare for disasters,” Financial Times, April 16, 2020 https://www.ft.com/content/74e5f04a-7df1-11ea- 82f6-150830b3b99a.

7 Two caveats to this are the event of another major terror attack which might once again shift people’s perceptions of risk, and the fact that over time this perception will likely shift again.

8 Nikita Malik, “Self-isolation might stop Coronavirus, but it will speed the spread of extremism,” Foreign Policy, March 26, 2020 https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/26/self-isolation- might-stop-coronavirus-but-spread-extremism/.

9 Kelly-Leigh Cooper, “Oklahoma City bombing: The day domestic terror shook America,” BBC News, April 19, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-51735115.

10 The two separate cases of Edouard Moreno and Timothy Wilson illustrate this threat. Moreno tried to derail a train in the Port of Los Angeles and Wilson tried to attack a Kansas City hospital preparing to deal with COVID-19. Both claimed to highlight the dangerous expansion of government. For more on Moreno: “Train Operator at Port of Los Angeles Charged with Derailing Locomotive Near US Navy’s Hospital Ship Mercy,” Department of Justice Press Release, April 1, 2020, https://www.justice.gov/usao- cdca/pr/train-operator-port-los-angeles-charged- derailing-locomotive-near-us-navy-s-hospital and Wilson; Emily Rittman and Maggie Holmes, “Court documents reveal new details in Raymore man’s alleged hospital bombing plot,” KCTV News, April 8, 2020, https://www.kctv5.com/news/local_news/court-documents-reveal-new-details-in-raymore-mans-alleged-hospital-bombing-plot/article_53ac1f4c-7a01-11ea-a72a-1ba92e352c7b.html.

11 For example, Andrew Silke “Risk assessment of terrorist and extremist prisoners,” in A. Silke (ed.), Prisons, Terrorism and Extremism: Critical Issues in Management, Radicalisation and Reform, (London: Routledge, 2014), pp.108-121; Omi Hodwitz “The Terrorism Recidivism Study (TRS): Examining Recidivism Rates for Post-9/11 Offenders,” Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 13, No. 2 (April 2019) conclude the problem is limited; Mary Beth Altier, Emma Leonard Boyle & John G. Horgan (2019): Returning to the Fight: An Empirical Analysis of Terrorist Reengagement and Recidivism, Terrorism and Political Violence conclude the opposite.

12 Eric Rosand and Emily Winterbotham, “Do counter-narratives actually reduce violent extremism?” Brookings Institution, March 20, 2019 https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from- chaos/2019/03/20/do-counter-narratives-actually- reduce-violent-extremism/.

13 Officials in Wuhan noted an immediate surge in travel in the wake of the lifting of the strict quarantine there.

14 There are of course counter examples, with IS success in Syria-Iraq being the most recent example. But in many of the cases where success can be evaluated, it involves a level of contact resulting in taking on the state as a military force. Terrorism campaigns in otherwise peaceful societies have not for the most part resulted in the same level of impact.

15 “Trump defends calling coronavirus the Chinese virus,” Al-Jazeera, March 23, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/newsfeed/2 020/03/trump-defends-calling-coronavirus-chinese- virus-200323102618665.html.

16 Danny Vincent, “Africans in China: We face coronavirus discrimination,” BBC News, April 17, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa- 52309414.

Almost up to date, this time with a new piece for Foreign Policy. The piece has attracted a certain amount of attention, my suspicion is that the bleakness it paints appeals at this rather depressing moment in world affairs. More in this vein coming sorry to say, and the broader topic is one to which I will return.

After the Coronavirus, Terrorism won’t be the same

As big-government initiatives expand and leaders deflect blame, anti-establishment groups, angry Luddites, and China-haters could turn to violence.

By |April 22, 2020, 3:33 AM

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A picture taken during a guided tour organized by the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah shows volunteers sorting food aid that will be distributed during the coronavirus pandemic in Beirut’s southern suburbs on March 31. A poster on the wall shows the current leader of the movement, Hassan Nasrallah. AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

As the coronavirus pandemic has spread, terrorist groups have reacted in different ways.

Traditional terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda and its many affiliates are for the most part confused in their response to COVID-19. Some see chaos that they can take advantage of (in places such as West Africa), others divine retribution on nonbelievers (as the Islamic State and the Turkistan Islamic Party, a Uighur group, have suggested), while others an opportunity to show their governance capabilities (such as the Taliban and Hezbollah). Governments have redeployed some counterterrorism capabilities to support the coronavirus response while contorting legal definitions of terrorism to prosecute people committing antisocial acts such as coughing on others.

So far, the number of acts that could reasonably be called terrorism have been quite limited. It is for the most part generic anti-establishmentarianism fed by conspiracy theories. Fear of 5G technology being linked to the spread of the disease has led to the burnings of cell-phone towers across Europe.

In the United States, fear of big government has resulted in a bomb plan targeting a Kansas City, Kansas, hospital preparing for virus response and an attempt to derail a train in the Port of Los Angeles shipyard. Some more enterprising jihadis have sought to weaponize the coronavirus, while the extreme right wing has largely only talked about doing it.

These acts have a unifying theme. Like most terrorism, they are fundamentally acts of revolt against the established order. In the United States there is a rich tradition of anti-government activity, drawing on a broader narrative of libertarianism than runs through the American body politic.

Oklahoma City just marked the 25th anniversary of Timothy McVeigh’s attackon the Alfred P. Murrah building in 1995 that led to 168 deaths. McVeigh emerged from a broader U.S. movement called “Patriots” by federal investigators, who had long worried about these extreme libertarians’ potential for violence and their propensity for gathering lots of weapons. More recently, this movement has expressed itself through sovereign citizen groups, which reject federal regulations and target police.

For those whose mindset is shaped by this history of anti-government activity, the massive expansion of the state that follows a national crisis like a pandemic outbreak will be a concern. For such individuals, the fear is as much about expansion of the state as it is distrust in government’s activity in general. Some expressions of this anger are already visible in places such as Michigan, Kentucky, and North Carolina.

This sense of disenfranchisement is further exacerbated thanks to the growing distrust that is visible in government globally. Given the propensity of leaders to publicly utter untruths or half-truths, citizens’ collective faith in government is being eroded. Various criminal organizations have spotted this and sought to offer themselves as alternatives.

Terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, the Taliban, and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham that control pieces of territory have used the chaos to showcase their own public health capabilities, as thin as they are. Criminal groups in Brazil, El Salvador, and Mexico are seeking to display their power and resources. These moves are not particularly altruistic, however, with most groups undertaking them out of recognition of the battle for hearts and minds they could win through these acts.

Others on the fringes are taking this distrust to its violent extreme, and their number is likely to increase over time. The current COVID-19 response is going to expand the presence of the state, draw attention to inequalities that will be exacerbated in the post-coronavirus economy, and ultimately highlight the budget-tightening that is going to have to follow.

Some may fear big government, but others will instead grow angry if it is not seen to be dealing with their problems and concerns. These fissures all open up narratives ripe for exploitation by anti-government factions, racist groups, political extremists of every type, and extremist Luddites or other fringe groups.

The growing army of the disenfranchised will create a community of those who are open to placing the blame on someone else. In the West there has been a growing push to blame China—something that is happening among senior officials (such as Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger and Sen. Ted Cruz in the United States or the heads of the parliamentary defense and foreign select committees in the U.K.) and increasingly in the general population in countries where the tone of anti-Chinese sentiment is growing. This anger is also straining existing social tensions around migrants, something visible in the nasty racist tinge that colors a lot of COVID-19 discourse.

Unfortunately, once anti-Chinese sentiment catches on among the general public, it tends to be less discerning—resulting in abuse and violence toward all those who appear to be of East Asian ethnicity. And while hate crimes do not always equate to terrorism, they are often a precursor to it. The intercommunal tensions hate crimes produce provide fodder to those who are prone to violence to act out on their nasty impulses, as well as providing a rich environment for groups seeking to advance divisive ideologies.

This problem is not exclusive to the West. In Indonesia, researchers have warned of a growing tension toward Chinese nationals within the country. This draws on a rich seam of anger toward China more generally in the country—in part stemming from historical ethnic tensions, but more recently being exacerbated by Beijing’s treatment of its Muslim Uighur minority. There have even been warnings of this sentiment resulting in terrorism against Chinese residents of Indonesia, with a cell reported as having discussed targeting Chinese workers. This might lay the foundations for a more violent expression of anti-Chinese terrorism in Southeast Asia.

Chinese relations with Southeast Asia are often strained, and there are other expressions of anger against China more generally at the moment as well. Thailand became embroiled in an online spat with China when young Thais took umbrage at Chinese online warriors attacking prominent Thai actors for expressing views in solidarity with Taiwan and Hong Kong. The resulting “milk tea alliance”—so called because people in the countries are generally fans of sweet milk tea—has angered Beijing and dragged in the local embassy to express the usual Chinese anger at others recognizing the independence of places Beijing sees as part of China.

In Kazakhstan, a post on the Chinese internet that appeared to suggest that Kazakhstan wanted to become part of China drew enough ire to prompt the Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs to haul in the Chinese ambassador and demand an apology. In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, anti-Chinese sentiment coalesced around the idea of Chinese nationals being spreaders of the disease and has seen a member of parliament make statements about how Chinese citizens should be avoided.

None of this is terrorism, of course, but there is a clearer focus of public anger toward China. As China becomes a more dominant player in world affairs, it will increasingly become a target, something that is in part driven by Beijing’s treatment of minorities at home. This could crystallize into attacks on Chinese nationals or companies.

At the even darker fringes, even the 5G telephone pole-burning phenomenon might be a prelude to something else. The Luddites were a group of textile workers in the U.K. who emerged in the 19th centur. They were known for violently protesting as technology developed that was slowly displacing their jobs. In more modern times, Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, carried forward the Luddite mantle by leading an almost two-decade-long bombing campaign that culminated in the publication of his manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future”—a screed about how modern technology was eroding personal freedoms.

Today, the rapid shift to online work by a growing proportion of workers is going to dramatically accelerate in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Companies are shrinking volumes of staff and trying to work more online or remotely. Things that were previously done in person are now migrating online.

While many will return to working in the ways they did before the crisis, a surprisingly high number might find their work pattern permanently altered or face redundancy as a result of the cost savings that companies now see they can make while still achieving the same result. This might create an angry movement that draws together disgruntled ex-workers using the very tools that they are angry about for displacing them. Having been made redundant by online tools, they could very well repurpose them to mobilize a backlash.

Terrorism often emerges in the spaces where government is perceived to have failed or where people feel they are being excluded from the system. The pandemic is likely to lower people’s sense of trust in authority even further. The result will be increased problems from those who turn angry enough to want to use violence to articulate their grievances.

The world has already seen a failure in international cooperation when it comes to responding to the coronavirus, and while there have been innumerable acts of kindness between citizens, the larger sense of anger and disenfranchisement that will follow will create new forms of political violence. Some will draw on long-standing ideologies and groups, while others will emerge in surprising ways. Terrorism will not end in the wake of the coronavirus; instead, it is likely to evolve in ever more extreme ways.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute and a visiting senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists. Twitter: @raffpantucci

A longer piece for a great new outlet, the Bookings Institution managed Lawfare Blog. This one is a longer story I have been trying to publish for some time about the last and in some ways most dangerous of the Londonistani preachers, Abdullah el Faisal. Touched on some of this in my earlier piece for GNET. It draws on some material that from my book, but goes on beyond that including digging into the many stories of plots and networks that have been linked to him around the world.

Abdullah al-Faisal’s Global Jihad

By Raffaello Pantucci

Sunday, April 19, 2020, 10:00 AM

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Editor’s Note: The history of the modern jihadist movement is often the tale of different charismatic preachers and fighters, whose inspiring words and deeds—and whose pettiness and divisions—shaped the movement. RUSI’s Raffaello Pantucci examines the life and times of Abdullah al-Faisal, the storied jihadist preacher whom the United States is trying to extradite. Faisal is a particularly militant jihadist, and his personal history captures the dangers of the movement and its many divisions.

Daniel Byman

When he was able to preach publicly, Abdullah al-Faisal enjoyed employing apocalyptic imagery. The current COVID-19 misery no doubt appeals to his taste for biblical pestilence. The drama of his preaching was such that others in London’s Muslim community would find his exaggerated rhetoric absurd and often dismiss him as a marginal figure. More than two decades on from his heyday in the United Kingdom, Faisal is now fighting extradition to the United States, where he stands accused of helping people join the Islamic State. His four-decade-long career around the world and online distinguishes him as among the most modern jihadist preachers in the West.

Born Trevor William Forrest to an evangelical Christian family in Jamaica, Faisal was introduced to Islam in his mid-teens by his business education teacher, Jolly McFarlane. When he graduated from secondary school in 1980 he changed his name to Abdullah el Faisal, and the next year took a Saudi government-sponsored six-week course in Islamic and Arabic studies in Trinidad. He also studied in Guyana before leaving in November 1984 for Riyadh, where he took up a scholarship in Arabic and Islamic studies at the Imam Mohammad Ibn Saud University. Years later, he told police he had been sent to the United Kingdom by his teacher, Sheikh Rajhi, and set himself up among the growing community of black converts in south London. Landing at around the same time that Spike Lee’s film “Malcolm X” was attracting attention, Faisal’s vigorous speeches, skin tincture, fluent Arabic and street style made him a hot commodity among young Muslims in the United Kingdom. In an interview with the Sunday Times in February 1993, Faisal boasted that he was able to transform this charisma into numbers at the south London mosque where he operated, claiming he had “received three converts a day for the past six years.”

Soon after this, however, he fell out of favor at the mosque because of his extreme preaching. By some accounts, it was after he was caught playing Abu Hamza tapes at the mosque. Another of the “Londonistan” preachers at the time, Hamza was already actively involved in jihadism by the mid-1990s, having been to Afghanistan, met Abdallah Azzam and started down his path to becoming the famous hook-handed cleric. At one point or another both Faisal and Hamza had been students of Abu Qatada al-Filistini, the famous Jordanian cleric who had provided spiritual guidance justifying some of the darkest acts during the brutal jihadist conflict that wracked Algeria during the 1990s. Faisal acted occasionally as an interpreter for Qatada, though this sometimes produced strange results.

In a screed attacking Faisal, titled “Be Aware of Takfir!”, Hamza provides an anecdote capturing the relationship Faisal had with his teacher (as well as the tensions among all the preachers). Qatada and Faisal had been invited to publicly debate the practice of takfir—a controversial act, whereby one excommunicates others for failing to act as a proper Muslim. It is a crucial concept among violent jihadists as it provides a context permitting violence against individuals once they are cast out, enabling the killing of Muslim civilians and other Islamists with whom one disagrees. Because Qatada had little English, he was reliant on Faisal as his translator. During the presentation, by Hamza’s account, Faisal was somewhat selective in his translations of Qatada’s words, meaning that while the Arabic speakers in the room felt that “the end of the debate left brother Faisal a broken man[,] … those that did not understand the Arabic [Faisal’s students] went away feeling the same about Qatada.”

Faisal was a particularly aggressive proponent of takfir, wantonly spraying it in any direction he could. The long and illustrious list of people with whom he fell out included everyone from Anwar al-Awlaki (whom Faisal accused of being too restrictive in his use of takfir and therefore a kafir worthy of takfir himself) to the “Tooting and Finsbury Park” Muslims he dismissed as “fake jihadis … using the word ‘jihad’ for fame and fortune and to line their pockets.” At one event with Qatada, he went so far as to call his audience “Jews” when they disagreed with his views—a perspective that even Qatada thought was over the top.

Notwithstanding this rather razed-earth approach to preaching, Faisal remained an attractive figure to jihadists and continued to interact with his fellow Londonistani preachers. One expert with whom I spoke spent considerable time among the jihadist milieu in the early 2000s and described how members of the community would go to Hamza for the religion and to Faisal for the fire. Young Muslims from that time have told me how much they enjoyed listening to Faisal thanks to his polished English, angry rhetoric and cool Jamaican accent. He claimed a street heritage in Jamaica that gave him a way of connecting with the lost men of color in the grimier parts of London where he would hold his teaching groups. He had a strong following across the United Kingdom’s young Muslim community but found that his messages resonated particularly with those who had criminal pasts or inclinations. A number of the black convert Muslims drawn into his circles were often successfully encouraged to move away from lifestyles revolving around drug and alcohol abuse. One respectable Deobandi Muslim leader in north London praised Faisal for this success and struggled to reconcile this history with what Faisal was ultimately accused of in court.

But Faisal was deeply engaged with the U.K. jihadist community. He was a regular at events where future terrorist plotters gathered. In the early 2000s, he appeared at an event with Hamza in Crawley at which the two men spoke before a group that included individuals from the “Operation Crevice” cell that was later disrupted in 2004, a Brit who went on to play a prominent role in the 2009 Camp Chapman attack in Afghanistan, as well as a preacher who was close to the pair who murdered Lee Rigby in Woolwich in 2013. Faisal was also an influential figure in the lives of Zacarias Moussaoui, the infamous 20th 9/11 hijacker, and “shoe bomber” Richard Reid.

Faisal was booted out of the United Kingdom and returned to Jamaica in 2007, having served four years in prison for inciting violence and racial hatred. He had been caught after police attention was drawn to his rantings in the course of their investigation of Richard Chinyoka, a brutal misogynist who was incarcerated for 12 years for raping and torturing a series of women. As police went through Chinyoka’s belongings, they discovered cassette tapes of Faisal’s sermons and were shocked by what they heard. They were even more stunned to discover that these tapes were fairly openly available when they investigated religious centers around London. This led to Faisal’s incarceration and eviction from the country—but not before he was able to help push a young convert named Germaine Lindsay along the path to radicalization. Lindsay then went on to be one of the bombers who attacked the London Underground on July 7, 2005, all of whom reportedly enjoyed listening to Faisal’s preaching.

Faisal’s links to the July 7 group continued after their deaths. Years later, Faisal reported that Samantha Lewthwaite, Germaine Lindsay’s widow, had visited him while he sat in Long Lartin prison. She told him she was happy and offered him money and supplies while he provided her with guidance. The two stayed connected, and soon afterward, when Faisal traveled to South Africa after his deportation to Jamaica, he met a young man, Fahmi Jamal Salim, who was looking for a white wife. Claiming to know him to be Lewthwaite’s type, Faisal put the two in touch and a relationship and children followed. Salim was a long-standing jihadist fighter close to al-Qaeda in East Africa (AQEA) and al-Shabaab. His sister was married to a fighter who was killed when Comorian AQEA cell leader Harun Fazul took a wrong turn in Mogadishu and ended up in front of a Somali security checkpoint. All of these individuals have links to the same groups and networks that hosted Faisal when he was in South Africa.

After a protracted deportation process that involved bouncing around a number of countries, Faisal was ejected from Africa and back to his native Jamaica. From there he became a keyboard warrior and magnet for journalists. The U.K. press in particular was drawn to him and eager to gather more details about his links to the United Kingdom. His influence at this stage had also grown considerably in the United States, and he was proving to be a draw for extremists from further afield through his website, Authentic Tauheed, and associated social media accounts.

Faisal continued to espouse his aggressive and uncompromising messages online, turning toward the Islamic State as the group gained prominence. He provided speeches and justifications about the validity of the Islamic State’s caliphate, arguing that part of the reason for the Islamic State’s rise was that al-Qaeda was not brutal enough. Showing his eagerness to continue to speak in favor of sexual violence, he declared that Islamic State fighters were allowed to rape women they captured. Additionally, he encouraged jihadists to sacrifice themselves in combat on behalf of the Islamic State, telling his audience that “some of you have lived a sinful life—the only way for you to go to paradise is to die on the battlefield.”

As it turned out, Faisal’s Authentic Tauheed site was managed by an array of extremists dotted around the world to whom he delegated responsibilities. Two of his online associates, 38-year-old Mohammed Abdul Ahad, from north London, and 31-year-old Muhammad Abdur Raheem Kamali, from Rochdale, were sentenced to four years each in February. Their roles were to help manage the website, translate parts of Faisal’s speeches, design posters, and disseminate links and information. They were part of a web of individuals involved in these activities, some of whom have also been arrested and pleaded guilty in the United States over the past few years.

Faisal’s audience was truly global. By one count, 10,000 people listened in during one of his talks. They could ask questions and engage with the preacher through the layer of support staff he built up around him. In October 2019, Singapore handed down its first conviction for terror financing. Ahmed Hussein Abdul Kadir Sheikh Uduman was a 35-year-old who had been following Faisal’s work online since 2013. Uduman reached out to Faisal, and the two swapped messages via WhatsApp, email and Facebook. Eventually, Uduman sent $840 to Faisal via an intermediary using the name Patrick Grey and Faisal’s wife. Uduman pleaded guilty to the financing charges, and the government claimed he was also eager to pursue armed jihad overseas.

In other cases, Faisal appears to have inspired people to more violent acts. Mohammad Kasim Stimberwala, a lab technician, and Ubed Ahmed Mirza, a practicing lawyer, were both reportedly in contact with Faisal and planning an atrocity aimed at Jewish targets in Mumbai. They had been active online radicals for years, and had even gone so far as to try to obtain weapons and scout potential targets. They were also communicating with Aadhil Ameez, an extremist recruiter in contact with Faisal as well as the 2019 Sri Lankan Easter bombers. His speeches were also reportedly played frequently in Trinidad and Tobago, where he stands accused of being a facilitator for people to go to Syria and Iraq.

The list of attacks he is linked to in the United States is substantial, with the U.S. Treasury Department connecting him to “the Ohio State University attacker during Thanksgiving weekend in 2016; a Garland, Texas shooter at a Mohammed drawing contest in 2015; Faisal Shahzad, the attempted Times Square bomber in New York City in 2010; Mohammed Chowdury, who planned and attempted to bomb the London Stock Exchange in 2010; Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber who attempted to down an airliner over Detroit, Michigan in 2009.” Separately, Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan linked to al-Qaeda who sought to attack the New York subway system in 2009, told a jury in 2012 that Faisal had influenced his radicalization and that he had listened to Faisal’s tapes as he trained in Pakistan ahead of his attempted attack. In all cases, the individuals were active listeners to Faisal’s material, and in some cases—like the Garland, Texas, shooters—they were in direct contact with him.

Faisal was particularly influential among converts, among them Jason Brown, also known as Abdul Ja’Me. Brown was the head of a Chicago gang specializing in drug trafficking called AHK—a mutation of the Arabic “akhi,” meaning “brother”—that required members to convert to Islam. In June 2016, Brown was arrested in Clayton County, Georgia, on gun charges. When police searched his phones, they found evidence that he was an avid consumer of Faisal’s teachings. Brown continued his obsession with Faisal while in prison and, upon release, started to more actively recruit members of his gang to follow Faisal’s teachings and told them in early 2019 about his plan to travel abroad to join the Islamic State. He also told them that he had sent money to Faisal to support him during his extradition to the United States from Jamaica. He was ultimately arrested for sending money to someone he thought was an Islamic State fighter in Syria.

To this roster of Faisal’s adherents we can also add the two men killed in the United Kingdom as they launched terrorist knife and fake bomb attacks in London in November 2019 and January of this year. Usman Khan, responsible for the November attack on London Bridge, and Sudesh Amman, the man shot down in Streatham in January, were both listeners to Faisal’s teachings. Khan even had Faisal’s phone number.

When he was free, Faisal interacted frequently with his flock and took full advantage of modern technology as well as in-person contacts. His legal trouble in the United States is in part a product of helping one of his adherents join the Islamic State. While trying to impress one follower online, Faisal told her that he was adored in Raqqa and that the Islamic State was keen to fly him in to guide them. Now that he is jailed, he has fewer contacts, but his ideas continue to flourish online.

Faisal’s luck has finally run out. Given U.S. sentencing and conviction rates for terrorism offenses, it is highly likely he will eventually face a long stint in prison. His ideas, speeches and lessons, however, will continue to live on. Authentic Tauheed can still be found online with some digging. The website stopped updating in August 2017, roughly around the time that Jamaican authorities arrested Faisal on a U.S. warrant. His final posting is titled “Entering the Lizard Hole,” which he explains “means that the Muslims will imitate and follow the kuffar in their creed, culture and character. This issue is one of the signs of the Day of Judgement.” As Faisal awaits judgment, his ideas will continue to be perpetuated around the world online—making him likely the most enduringly and globally influential of the infamous Londonistani preachers.

Still being slow in posting, but not in producing material. Have gotten a few longer things in the pipeline and a big project that is winding towards conclusion. Media has slowed down considerably, so little to post on that front for the time being, but in the meantime, here is a new piece with Kabir for his excellent institution the Observer Research Foundation (ORF). Tries to push back a bit on the attention that the COVID commentary by terrorist groups was getting.

Beware of terrorists offering COVID19 aid

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Terrorists have been thrown off course by COVID19. While their narratives may try to claim they are ahead of the curve on the virus, the truth is that they are still uncertain about how to react to what is going on and what the longer-term impact of the virus will be on their action. Nowhere is this more visible than in the public health and welfare sector where there has been a steady pattern of terrorist and non-state groups jumping forwards to show their own plan of action to deal with the virus. Yet their action has for the most part been an echo of traditional state structures, or accusations of blame about where the disease has come from, all reflecting the paucity of their response and the challenge that the virus poses to them as much as anyone else.

As anti-state structures, terrorists are always keen to show their superiority to the existing state. Most often this is articulated through violence, but there is a softer side to this as well with groups seeking to win the hearts and minds of their target audience as well as inspire terror. One way to do this is through charitable work, or being seen to provide for people’s needs. This helps show that the group is more than just murderers and also emphasizes their appropriateness as an alternative state structure. For violent Islamist groups who are seeking to build a better world in God’s image, it is even more important as for them to adequately demonstrate this ability as they are showing their ultimate goal is a better world.

The pandemic, like for any state or quasi-state structure, poses a significant problem for a terror group that holds control of territory and population. Any insurgency, irrespective of size or ideology, requires a level of support from the population that surrounds it to thrive, whether by threat or cooperation. However, public health as an idea and policy is arguably far too a heavy-lifting task even for the best organised and most equipped groups.

While groups like to show the image of themselves as new state builders, in reality they struggle to offer much of genuine practical utility. In part this is about resources. A large well-resourced group (which are in some ways political parties) like Hamas, Hezbollah, Lashkar-e-Taiba (or one of its many incarnations) can offer some succour given their size and physical footprint, the truth is that their actual offer is quite limited. Lashkar-e-Taiba’s actual contribution to aid relief in the wake of the 2005 earthquakes in Pakistan or the 2010 floods was much less in practical reality than international organizations or donors, though the group did an excellent job of projecting the rapidity of its arrival on the scene and subsequent activity. Similarly, while Hezbollah has contributed to Lebanon’s economy, international donors are bigger contributors to the aid that is given to the many refugees squatting in their country.

In other cases, we see that terrorist groups actually target aid and healthcare workers. The Taliban in Afghanistan may be currently talking about the positive action they are taking to support the counter-COVID19 effort, but they have previously made it difficult for polio vaccinators to operate. Their counterparts in Pakistan, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), even went so far as killing some of these health workers. Boko Haram has not currently offered much perspective on the virus, but in the past has been responsible for the persistence of polio in the parts of Nigeria where it operates. All three (Boko Haram, the Afghan Taliban and the TTP) have targeted aid workers more generally in the past.

The Afghan Taliban has been one of the more vocal groups in response to the pandemic. Pictures of the Taliban organising camps to treat people in the territories that they control became popular on social media as the world struggled with controlling the virus. Taliban images show their members social distancing, while wearing protective clothing and simultaneously maintaining that the pandemic is “sent by Allah because of disobedience and sins of mankind”. The Taliban also announced the establishment of medical centres, including in areas such as Afghanistan’s Paktika province, mere months after the group was blamed for attacking the government run medical centre in the same place. All this posturing, while also looking for help from aid agencies and health workers that previously they targeted, comes alongside them talking about cease-fire in areas it contests with the Afghan government. All of this raises questions about whether their approach in battling COVID19 is to genuinely setup a health care system or simply a cynical effort to portray the group as doing so.

For a group such as the Taliban, the virus comes as a significant challenge at a critical time. They are in the midst of trying to justify themselves as part of the ruling elite in Kabul. The images in circulation of their members attending to local populations in health clinics in full protective gear comes in stark contrast when images of health workers from New York to New Delhi working with shortages of the same gear are all over the news. This creates a counter-narrative for the group that they are more in control than most, while in reality they do not have the capabilities of running a quasi-health care system for their quasi-state.

ISIS is potentially the most hypocritical group in this regard. When they had their state, they liked to vaunt the social and healthcare systems they built, including videos in which British medical students who had joined the group were shown in films that aped the UK’s much-loved National Health Service (NHS). In reality the systems they offered were limited, and in some cases were hijacked charity ones.

Currently, the group is focused on its online propaganda and propagating Do-It-Yourself (DIY) terror in its name by its supporters around the world as it continues to rebuild itself after its territorial and leadership loss. Online, ISIS’s newsletter Al Naba warned its fighters against the virus being spread in Europe, while the group’s online supporters took the opportunity to criticise the Chinese state’s treatment of the Uighurs and the Shiite regime in Iran, comparing images of Shiite clerics with those of the virus. In South Asia, the newly launched pro-ISIS publication ‘Voice of Hind’ in its March issue dedicated a page to COVID19, but not from a health perspective, but an ideological one, pontificating that the disease is Allah’s creation to “cause chaos amongst the nations of disbelief.”

These narratives reflect the difficulty that groups have in keeping ideological coherence amongst their followers in advance of something so far from their usual concerns. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the formerly al Qaeda affiliated group in northern Syria, offers an interesting case study in this regard. HTS cancelled Friday prayers in its areas of control in the northern Syrian region of Idlib, following a ban on bazaars and markets. The region’s ‘Salvation Government’, backed by HTS, advised people to not attend mosques in order to control the COVID19 pandemic. This is a significant move for a quasi-government backed by HTS. Ideologically, HTS choosing science over religious directives offers an interesting insight in what is an Islamist group taking a more ‘state like’ approach. In a 4 minute long report released by ‘News Agency of Sham’, a media outlet of the ‘Salvation Government’ in Idlib, the quasi-state shows its preparations against COVID19, with preventive quarantine centre, distributing information to local traders, pictures of sanitization efforts and so on. HTS image is that of a more reasonable organisation than even some churches in the US, that have refused to close down in face of the pandemic. At the same time, HTS has suffered from coherence around its messaging with some of its leaders refusing to toe the line and continuing to operate much as before.

The practical problems do not end here, and go beyond simply having the resources to provide adequate healthcare. There is also the practical reality of trying to mobilize people. Those who join terrorist groups are not individuals – for the most part – who joined the group to become social or healthcare workers. They may see themselves as soldiers and warriors who are willing to do what they are ordered to, but providing basic healthcare services to people was not likely a major driver of their decision to join a group. Quite aside from questions of competence in the role, there is a question about how long they would be willing to play such a part rather than a frontline warrior.

Terrorists as healthcare providers and counter-virus warriors are an odd mix. It is not the first time we have seen such groups try to co-opt global narratives outside their ordinary remit as a way of showing their greater relevance and governance capability (another odd example is al Shabaab’s environmentalism), but given the all-encompassing nature of COVID19 these previous efforts have arguably been overshadowed. The reality of these efforts are that the groups are not really able to contribute much, and are merely cynically exploiting the existing situation and fears to draw more attention to themselves. This is the real impact of their efforts and should be treated as such.

And now finally up to date with my latest piece for the South China Morning Post, this time looking at some of the geopolitical questions flowing around China, broader geopolitics and the COVID-19 mess. Covers ground not dissimilar to my earlier piece for the Telegraph though focused in a different direction. Has already received some anger online and was reproduced in a Singaporean local Today. In other media work, earlier piece for ORF on Kashmir and the UK and my last RSIS piece on the Maldives were both picked up and reproduced by Eurasia Review, while spoke to the Independent about recent UK terrorism numbers release and last interview in CTC Sentinel with Lord Evans was written up by the paper.

How China’s coronavirus medical diplomacy is failing to win over the world

Forget Pax Sinica, China’s medical outreach is struggling to attract new friends. And even though Russia and Iran, its closest allies, may be on the same page, underlying tensions remain. There is a global leadership gap but Beijing is not filling it

Raffaello Pantucci

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The world is grasping for an understanding of how the geopolitics of the coronavirus will play out. One dominant theme is that China is mendaciously riding the media waves to paint itself as a saviour dispensing medical equipment.

Yet, it is hard to see how Beijing is benefiting from its medical diplomacy, with opprobrium from every direction. Even given China’s close alliances with Iran and Russia, it is possible to see tensions emerging.

It is not at all clear that China will come out of the virus crisis as the rhetoric winner, notwithstanding the frantic narrative seeking to paint it that way.

Given the energy that China appears to be putting into promoting and pushing its medical diplomacy, it is surprisingly hard to uncover much evidence of a positive reception. While news stories speak of Chinese doctors and equipment arriving in stricken European states, it is difficult to find many news stories trumpeting China’s magnanimity.

Those who do speak of it positively tend to be the ones who already hold a positive view of China. The bigger narrative that seems to have caught on of late, however, is that much of the Chinese equipment appears to be faulty. It certainly does not seem that China is winning many new friends with its medical diplomacy.

Where China is finding resonance is in the predictable places, but even this is with caveats. The almost comical conspiracy theory that Covid-19 was a US military weapon has, unsurprisingly, found resonance in both Tehran and Moscow.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei referred to the theory on his Twitter feed, while Russia’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, defended China’s work on the virus and helped to propagate narratives espoused by Beijing.

Yet, singing from the same hymn sheet about the virus has not swept away the underlying tensions. For example, Sinochem is refusing to buy oil from Russia’s Rosneft after the US warned of sanctions if it did so.

At the same time, Chinese purchasers have bought record volumes of Russian oil from other suppliers, taking advantage of record low prices to fill strategic reserves.

Iran may still be supplying energy to China, but some calculations have concluded that Tehran is doing this for zero income, given that it is paying off earlier Chinese investments. This is hardly magnanimous action on Beijing’s part to strategic allies in difficult positions.

The coronavirus has caused tensions between the three nations. Russia was one of the first countries to close its borders to China (doing so at the same time as
Italy and before theUnited States), while reports from Iran suggest that its outbreak, which started in Qom, may have come either from businessmen travelling back from China or Chinese workers.

In Russia, there have been reports of East Asians being attacked, while Moscow bus drivers were told to report it to the police if they found a Chinese person on board.

We are seeing a classic dance play out here, with all three powers playing the same game of rhetoric (deriding Europe and attacking America), while the realist dynamics churn on relentlessly below the surface.

There is little evidence that the coronavirus has changed the dynamics between the three, nor that it has bolstered China and its axis of convenience on the world stage.

Some fear that in some ways Beijing’s displays of medical diplomacy will permanently reshape the international order. Yet, the reality is that the most damaging impact to the international order comes from the absence of leadership in Washington.

Some European capitals have been slow to respond to the pandemic and walked when they should have run, but the truth is that few expected the European Union to lead the world in responding to this crisis. The EU remains confounded by its fundamental governance contradictions.

But none of this means that China can credibly fill the vacuum. Rather, a vacuum continues to exist, and is only being made larger by the fumbling response from US President Donald Trump and his administration. This is the acceleration that is happening in international geopolitics. Power is ebbing away while others desperately thrash around for influence.

Yet no one is able to fill it, creating a confusing order where rules and behaviour are increasingly incomprehensible, where state leaders and their spokespeople lie, and we refuse to acknowledge goodwill and impressive gestures for what they are. The cynicism is obvious, but the absence of something better means such narratives are gaining greater attention.

China has undoubtedly used its medical aid politically, but ultimately this is not going to shape the new world order. We may not be seeing an end to an American-led order in favour of Pax Sinica, but we are witnessing a rebalancing of the two.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

More belated posting, this time a short comment for RSIS with excellent new colleague Sinan. We had actually written this a little while ago, but it got buried under the COVID-19 coverage. This is a potential problem which may yet express itself more dangerously.

ISIS in the Maldives?

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Raffaello PantucciMohammed Sinan Siyech

ICPVTR / RSIS / Commentaries / Country and Region Studies / East Asia and Asia Pacific / Global / South Asia / Southeast Asia and ASEAN / Terrorism Studies

03 APRIL 2020

Synopsis

The February 2020 stabbing of three tourists in the Maldives has raised the prospect of terror in paradise. There are numerous indicators to suggest a potential threat in the Maldives, but it remains unclear whether this incident was simply a one-off or the beginning of something more serious.

Commentary

THE STABBING of three tourists recently in the Maldives has raised the prospect of terrorism in the popular tourist destination. The style of the attack, the subsequent video aping ISIS’ style, and the broader backdrop against which it comes, point to being inspired by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

The attacks were reported as an isolated incident, though media has suggested authorities might be re-opening an earlier investigation into the stabbing of a Turkish tourist in December. The video emulating ISIS style and tone threatened more attacks, though the group itself has been quiet about the attack so far.

Long-time Coming?

The attack has been a long time coming. With roughly 250 fighters, and about 1400 alleged radicalised individuals, out of a population of 350,000, the Maldives has amongst the highest per capita instances of foreign terrorist fighters around the world. For some time, there has been fear that an exodus of fighters from the Maldives might return home bringing terrorist violence with them.

There is a history of foreign militant fighters from the Maldives going back to the war in Afghanistan. There have been killings of journalists and bloggers on the islands that have been blamed on violent Islamist groups, though questions have been raised around motivations.

The last major incident was an attempted bombing in 2007 in Male which injured a dozen tourists. The networks involved then were also present in supporting ISIS. Moreover, A couple of weeks after the stabbing incident, authorities raided properties in Naifaru island of Lhaviyani Atoll claiming to have disrupted a bomb-making plot. No charges were pressed.

Identifying Trends

There are a few indicators which bear attention. First, there have been incidents in the past few years where ISIS-linked or inspired attackers have launched attacks against visiting foreigners: Tunisia (2015), Tajikistan (2018) and Sri Lanka (2019) are prominent examples. The different sorts of attacks and the nature of the links to ISIS all show how tourists present themselves as easy targets for ISIS adherents (either inspired or directed).

In each of those cases, local tensions – including inequality, anger at government and a sense of injustice – translated into violence against foreigners. Striking visiting foreigners assuages some of this anger, brings international attention to the situation, and undermines local authorities. All of which makes it an easy fit into the ISIS playbook.

Second, there are existing violent operators in the Maldives like drug smugglers and other criminal gangs. There has been evidence of such individuals being specifically recruited into ISIS networks. ISIS narrative offers itself as a source of redemption for previous criminals. Their propensity for violence and access to criminal networks makes these recruits convenient assets within extremist networks.

Third, there is a problem of fundamentalism on the margins of society. During former president Abdul Gayoom’s rule (1978–2008), many scholars such as Muhammad Ibrahim who did not toe the official line were exiled to islands where they continued preaching their exclusivist messages. Over time, his influence has spread across Maldivian society with his students inspiring attacks such as the above mentioned 2007 bombing and having linkages to ISIS.

Closing the Maldivian Pandora’s Box

Currently, it is unclear as to the degree to which local authorities have the capability or experience to manage either violent networks at home or those that might return from Syria/Iraq or Afghanistan.

For instance, there are links and communications between those abroad and Maldivians back home via encrypted platforms, but there has been little coverage of rehabilitation or other programmes to engage returnees. Understanding the connectivity, the flows home and how to effectively manage such individuals is going to be a crucial task for the authorities.

The fact that not much support for this attack has been forthcoming is confusing; but it might reflect earlier divisions amongst the Maldivian radical community who were cleaved in two when ISIS broke from Jabhat al Nusra in the early days of the Syrian civil war. It might also simply reflect ISIS’ general state of chaos at the moment.

Key Question

The key question at this stage is whether the government has indeed been able to roll up the entirety of this network. Once the profiles are made public, it will be important to note whether any are returnees or the extent of their links to terrorist groups or networks. While the West has not suffered many attacks involving returnees, there have been lethal attacks in Southeast Asian countries involving battle hardened individuals. This escalates the risk profile in the Maldives.

The government has not been complacent so far about the potential danger. They have been identifying extremist preachers and raising threat levels across the nation while also engaging in religious counter messaging. However, despite arrests, they have not been able to prosecute returnees or address root causes such as corruption and lack of employment for youth.

Given their relative inexperience in managing such threats, it will be important to cooperate with international partners. The country has formulated a national action plan on preventing violent extremism with international support; it will be important to implement any work that flows from it.

Beyond this, it will be important to see whether terrorist or extremist networks gain access to better weaponry. Another indicator will be whether ISIS or Al Qaeda-affiliated groups start to raise the profile of the Maldives as a potential target in South Asia. Given that ISIS continues to face pressure on the battlefield, a major attack on a soft target like the Maldives, whether inspired or directed by the group, would provide a useful ideological boost.

About the Authors

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence, Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. Mohammed Sinan Siyech is Senior Analyst at ICPVTR.