Archive for May, 2020

An interview rather than article, with the excellent Central Asia Analysis Network (CAAN) or Voices on Central Asia. This looks at the repercussions of the US-China clash in Central Asia – had I done it later, I would have also included this crazy story from Kazakhstan about China pointing fingers at biolabs that the US had sponsored in Kazakhstan. Led to a wonderful comment from the Echo Kazakhstan that the government should listen to the people and reject both the US and China.

This aside, a Webinar with some RSIS colleagues here in Singapore looking at COVID-19 and the terrorist threat picture in now up on YouTube. My comments focused a bit on how it was impacting counter-terrorism response drawing on my earlier RSIS CTTA article.

The Worsening of US-Chinese Relations and the Echo in Central Asia

May 18, 2020

What has led to the worsening of the US-Chinese relations today? Is this a legacy of unresolved trade issues, the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, or is it primarily connected to the current US administration?

The almost complete collapse in US-China relations at the moment is a product of a number of trends on both sides. First, in Beijing you have seen rise a government under Xi Jinping that feels far more entitled and firm about its position on the world stage. Shedding the old maxims of ‘hiding and biding time’, Xi Jinping’s China is the end product of decades of economic growth and prosperity that have shot China up from being a developing world country into a global power in two short decades. This has naturally engendered confidence and to some degree arrogance on the world stage and a desire to shape the world order rather than just be dictated by it.

At the same time, this shift in Beijing has followed a growing despondency in Washington regarding China. This stems from a number of different places. There are those who fear the waning of Pax Americana, following persistent inconclusive wars in the Middle East and a reduced ability to dominate international affairs. From their perspective, a rising China is a clear challenger to the throne who must be aggressively countered.

And then within the China watching community, there are those more inclined to be dovish towards China from years of sinology and close friends in China. They have watched as the country has gradually increased its political repression under Xi Jinping, crushing hopes that had been raised during the Hu Jintao era of explosive economic growth that prosperity was going to herald a more open and liberal China. The business community has grown increasingly frustrated at the deal they had to strike to make money in China, which was to sacrifice intellectual property for market access. Additionally, they have found over time that they are still not being let into some sectors, and they now have the problem of not only facing Chinese firms that are just as strong, but also state supported challengers around the world. And finally, the China hawks who have long wanted confrontation with Beijing now see an opportunity to lead the debate and push forward their narratives of destroying the CCP.

The narrative of democracy versus authoritarianism is a useful lens for people to try to explain this simply, but it does not accurately capture the discourse, as this really is a conflict about power and norms. Within this, President Trump is a complicating factor, mostly because he has greatly reduced America’s standard (and therefore the democratic ideal) in the world while at the same time shown himself to be quite erratic on China. On the one hand, he is presiding over an administration that is pushing back on China more aggressively than any power before, but at the same time, he is personally praising Xi Jinping. This oscillation causes all sorts of problems. But a key element that American analysts tend to miss is that from Beijing’s perspective, there is a clear continuum between Obama and Trump – they are all articulations of America as an adversary. The fact that in the west we see them as so different is not how they are perceived on the ground. This is important as it further clouds our ability to effectively and realistically frame things as a debate between authoritarians and democrats given the differences we see between Trump and Obama.

What consequences do these US-Chinese contradictions have for the countries of Central Asia?

The clash’s impact on Central Asia is largely one of further marginalizing the United States in the region. Geography means Central Asia will always prioritize its relations with China and Russia, but as the relationship between the US and China sharpens, the challenge for Central Asia will be to continue to find a way of striking a path through the middle (if it wants to). If the US continues down a path of confrontation with China, both sides will start to apply more pressure in an effort to get those in the middle to make a choice between them—something no one really wants to do. This will be a problem for regions like Central Asia, which find themselves with important relationships with neighbouring China.

At the same time, the situation is made even more complicated by the fact that two other countries that Central Asia finds itself next to, Russia and Iran, also find themselves in conflict with the United States. These complications are likely to sharpen as the clash between China and the US gets worse, leaving Central Asia with even fewer options and surrounded by American adversaries.

Can COVID-19 change the role of the USA, Russia, and China in the Eurasian space? Can it, for example, slow down the dynamics of BRI and the EAEU? If Russia faces an economic slowdown and political problems, does this influence its political image and power limits in Eurasia?

The EAEU is likely to continue to face problems as its economic heart, Russia, finds its economy under ever greater pressure. It is hard to see, however, this reducing Moscow’s influence over the former Soviet heartland, given most of these economies’ continued dependency on Russia and their strong links to Moscow. The EAEU’s dynamic was always too ambitious for many of those outside Russia, and the pressure against it was always going to limit how far it could go. The question now, however, is whether it can provide backup or support for economies suffering as a result of COVID-19. The fact that this is unlikely to be possible—thanks to shrunken coffers in Moscow—will only further highlight the institution’s limitations.

BRI was already slowing down before COVID-19. The narrative was one of countries taking on more than they could handle and China increasingly finding itself carrying a lot of bad debt. Kyrgyzstan has already sought some renegotiation of its debt burden with China (amongst others), while China has asked for a slowdown in gas supplies from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. This is the literal articulation of what a BRI slowdown looks like. It does not mean it is going to stop, but you will see a greater focus on projects that are viable and able to deliver results, with an effort to stop waste—something that will be driven in no small part by growing pressure at home for Beijing to spend its money on China, not on foreign projects of questionable value.

Is the American establishment worrying about China’s growing influence in Central Asia’s security?

I recall having a meeting in Washington about a year ago in which the topic of Chinese security influence in Central Asia came up. I do not recall anyone being particularly interested or concerned about the topic. They see the SCO as one of the main points of security engagement and see it as a fairly impractical and ineffective organization. At the same time, they see Chinese security and bases going up in the region to support countries in counter-terrorism efforts and border protection as a process, which they can just ignore given its marginal impact on their interests. At worst, they imagine that it might lead to China getting dragged into military confrontations in Afghanistan and therefore be a net advantage for the United States. Overall, they see Chinese security encroachment into Central Asia as something which is a problem for Russia and likely to cause tensions between China and Russia—something which, again, is a positive for Washington.

Coronavirus can enhance regionalization processes, since countries may want to protect themselves and create closer production chains. What stakeholders can benefit from this—the five Central Asian countries, or Russia and China? Someone who has clearer goals?

China is most likely to come out of this with the most benefits in the Russia/Central Asia space. Its considerable domestic market size means it will be able to replace regional supply chains domestically and will have the companies that can start to dictate within their regions. Having said that, if Central Asia is dynamic enough, it might be able to take advantage of the fact that there are some things which just do not make economic sense to be done in China anymore. Historically, these have relocated to Southeast Asia, but given that the region is going to find itself even more torn in the US-China clash, if Central Asia could offer itself as a new place to relocate, it might be able to take advantage of the relative stability it could offer Chinese manufacturers.

The United States, Russia, and China want to promote a peaceful and prosperous Eurasia. However, can economic difficulties (including problems faced by migrants) increase instability in the region?

The drop in remittances and employment opportunities that will take place from the slowdown in migrant labour is going to create a real problem in Central Asia. With few immediate prospects at home, it is likely that we are going to see a rise in an idle male workforce, which is a recipe for problems.

Frankly, it is up to Central Asian governments to focus their efforts and take advantage of this situation to offer themselves as places that can offer manufacturing capabilities aligned with the new supply chains that are likely to develop around China as decoupling between the US and China takes greater hold. If they are able to develop this capacity at home, they will be able to create gainful employment for the now idle migrant labor workforce. Otherwise, they will find themselves hit by the triple-whammy of growing numbers of idle men alongside the slump in remittances income and reduced income from rock bottom commodities prices which will resonate across the Eurasian space.

A new piece in the South China Morning Post which seems to have elicited anger and positivity from both sides in equal measure. Part of a broader theme around some of my writing of late which is taking quite a negative turn. Hard to be hugely positive given the current state of the world.

Beyond this, media appearances have been more limited, but did feature in BBC Radio 4’s Briefing Room series about China’s relations with the world. And two of the recent Webinars that I did are now available on YouTube. Watch here to see me talking about Mapping the Pandemic and the implications to UK-China relations courtesy of RUSI with Veerle, Steve and Jonathan moderating, and here talking about Kabir’s excellently readable book on ISIS in South Asia hosted by Maya and ORF with Indrani Bagchi as a fellow discussant.

Beijing faces a perfect storm as the world turns against its narrative amid rising nationalism, leaving it no room for compromise

In the face of growing global criticism, Beijing may be painting itself into a corner with its narratives, which are fuelling an increasingly angry nativism in China, forcing it to take the dangerous path of doubling down on confrontations

Raffaello Pantucci
Published: 10:45am, 16 May, 2020

People wave Chinese flags as they gather for a flag-raising ceremony to mark the New Year in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Photo: Reuters

People wave Chinese flags as they gather for a flag-raising ceremony to mark the New Year in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Photo: Reuters

China is heading into a perfect storm on the world stage. While the Communist Party habit is to double down when confronted, others are showing a willingness to match, and top, anything China does. The Covid-19 crisis has provided the perfect cover with China already painted by some as the instigator, something its conspiratorial rhetoric has only exacerbated.

The most obvious problem China faces is its confrontation with the US. Already bad before this crisis, relations have only worsened. But President Donald Trump is not the problem; without him at the helm, the situation might be even worse for China. Without his confusing and contradictory noise, the US might be able to mount a coherent and consistent strategy with allies against China.

Beijing is out of supporters in Washington. Sinophiles are appalled at the negative human rights news. The harassment of journalists based in Beijing has hardened the foreign press corps against the party. The think tank community is concerned about the continued detention of the two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

And the business community has realised the limits of the economic opportunities in China. Even fewer will want to champion Beijing, as the narrative of China as an adversary takes off in the public imagination.

Beyond Washington, the grand Western alliance is turning against China. Beijing may be able to persuade some European powers to side with it, but the underlying orientation within Europe will still be towards a transatlantic partnership.

Serbia, for example, is not going to turn its back on Europe or European Union membership in favour of Beijing. Nor are Hungary, Italy
or any other powers where senior political figures say positive things about China.

These are internal dynamics at play. Serbia has long had a resentful relationship with Brussels – China offers an opportunity to poke it in the eye. But should Brussels suddenly change its passive approach and start imposing a cost on Serbia, the country’s Sinophilia would quickly melt away.

European powers will not reject the US at a strategic level in favour of China. There are issues where the US and Europe diverge but, at a fundamental strategic level, European powers still operate under an American security umbrella

There are frictions and resentments, but these are disputes within a long-standing marriage, rather than early signals of a divorce. The transatlantic alliance is a fundamental part of European strategic thinking and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Tensions also extend to Beijing’s supposed allies. Russia and Iran may see themselves as close to China at a strategic level, but it takes very little to get beneath the surface to find unhappiness towards Beijing.

Very public spats over Covid-19 between senior officials in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran are just one articulation of this. While at the official level, they continue to hold together against the common enemy of an American-led democratising West, this is a thin alliance.

There is also growing anger against China because of how high it has risen and how it acts in parts of the developing world. While China used to be able to hide behind the mask of being a developing country, this is no longer the case. China’s development may be uneven, but this is not what people see. China’s grandstanding on the world stage shows it to be a big power.

But once you ascend to this position, global expectations are raised. And when they are not met, people feel more able to say something and be angry. As a major power, you are supposed to be able to take such criticism. The global order is changing, but this comes with responsibilities and resentment.

And atop this, China’s domestic behaviour is viewed negatively elsewhere. Beijing may dismiss this as foreign interference, but it does not change perceptions about the treatment of Uygurs, Taiwan, Hong Kong
or growing encroachment in the South China Sea. Given such domestic circumstances, few believe Beijing will be more magnanimous internationally.

How China deals with these issues is the final problem for Beijing: that of angry nationalism at home. China’s nativists are increasingly emboldened. They see their country rising and confronting the world superpower, the US. And they see no reason to back down. They have been told they are living the Chinese dream, with everyone eager to connect through the belt and road and have access to their success and wealth.

From their perspective, these ungrateful countries want to rip China apart. Any ceding of China’s position on core issues would be an admission of defeat, and would raise questions about the legitimacy of the party’s rule.
This means Beijing cannot back down, and must weather the coming economic storm while doubling down on any confrontation.

This is the quandary Beijing has got itself into. It can rail against the US and complain about double standards, but its narrative is only hardening opposition.

The world is becoming more restive. Everyone needs to think about what the future could look like if we continue along this dangerous path.

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

Not quite a new article, but a short letter in the Financial Times, restating a point I made in an earlier article for the Straits Times. Generally feeling quite pessimistic at the moment and suspect that it is coming through in my writing.

Lessons of Covid-19 for defence spending have still to be learnt

FT image

Helen Warrell’s point about the defence industry facing a shrunken environment in the wake of Covid-19 is unfortunately likely but reflects an over-optimistic assessment of the international security environment (Opinion, May 6). While government budgets will undoubtedly shrink in general, the threats that are faced have not gotten any smaller.

Arguably, they are getting worse. The US-China confrontation is taking an ever more bellicose tone, while the Iran-US showdown is escalating. Russia continues to be an armed irritant buzzing UK shores and neighbours’ armed forces, showing no interest in backing down from its persistent confrontation with the west. And the confusion around Kim Jong Un’s disappearance highlights a nuclear confrontation that has yet to be resolved. At the other end of the scale, militant groups are spotting an opportunity and pushing forwards as governments look elsewhere at home to manage their healthcare problems.

We are entering a world of ever more great power confrontation. The answer will unfortunately be to increase defence spending, as illogical as it might be in the face of a realisation that there are far more dangerous things to us than conflict between states. Assessments of risk before Covid-19 pointed to a pandemic virus being the most likely and most disruptive threat that we might face and we failed to prepare. There is little reason to think we have learnt that lesson yet.

Raffaello Pantucci
Senior Associate Fellow,
Royal United Services Institute,
London SW1, UK

Another post for the lovely folk at GNET, who also recently appointed me one of their many Associate Fellows. It is a pen portrait of L Jinny or Abdul-Majed Abdul Bary, the former rapper and hacktivist who has now ended up arrested in Spain after sneaking out of ISIS-land trying to get back home to Europe. With his UK passport stripped he is likely to find himself getting shunted on to Egypt, but you can never quite predict these stories. In any case, doubtless more on the fall-out from Syria to come, including more of these sorts of short pieces drawing on a wide range of material.

Jihadactivist

Screen Shot 2020-05-04 at 07.07.28

By 

in Insights

The line between protest and terrorism is clear, but can become complicated when one digs into the underlying ideas. Many would find themselves agreeing with some of the underlying sources of anger that drive terrorist groups, but they would not agree with their choice of action in responding to it. This proximity, however, has a habit of creating strange bedfellows and journeys – like the path taken by Lyricist Jinny, the Egyptian-British one-time rapper and former Islamic State (IS) member who was arrested in Spain last week. A counter-culture tale that flows from rapper and hacktivist to jihadist and (likely) jail.

Abdel-Majed Abdel-Bary (also known by his musical name Lyricist Jinny or L Jinny) was born into a large family whose father was missing for a good portion of his childhood. Fighting extradition from the UK to the US on charges of being involved in Al Qaeda’s 1998 bombings of US Embassies in Africa, Adel Abdel Bary was part of an earlier generation of jihadists. Showing he remembered with anger his father’s arrest, in one of his many raps still easily available online, L Jinny spits “Give me the pride and the honour like my father, I swear the day they came and took my dad, I could have killed a cop or two.” Like a lot of rap music, L Jinny’s is flavoured by a protest against the system and the hard knock life on the streets – something that was reflected in his own experience. While in Syria in March 2014 he tweeted about the incarceration back in the UK of one of his friends for his part in a brutal knife murder in Pimlico in January 2013. Giving a shout-out from the battlefield he wrote, “my lil brother ahmed got sentenced to life…26 years minimum….love lil bro see you in the afterlife inshallah #kasper.”

But there is a noticeably more political angle to some of his rap, with a couple of songs showing his support for the hacktivist collectives Anonymous and TeaMp0isoN. In 2011, L Jinny teamed up with the hacktivists to produce a rap song and video called #OpCensorDis which acted as an angry clarion call against censorship against a backdrop of protests and images from the riots that shook London in 2011. “Now i linked up with TeaMp0isoN they can’t censor me” he raps, protected supposedly by the hacktivist collective who trailed the song online with comments about how if it was censored they would launch merciless online attacks against the music industry. The money raised was supposedly given to the East Africa Crisis Appeal, though it was unclear how much was actually made or why the music industry would censor a fairly pedestrian rap song. Paradoxically, they also used the #OpCensorDis operation to launch a defacement attack on UN aid organizer UNDP’s sites.

This was not the only lyrical contribution to the operation that L Jinny offered. Alongside rappers Tabanacle and Proverbz, he produced another song imaginatively called Op Censor Dis 2. This time shot with a video of a group of lads rapping against the system in front of the Bank of England. Featured alongside the rappers in the music video was a rather smug looking young man called Junaid Hussain, one of the leaders of TeaMp0isoN who was active online using the handle TriCk. His Twitter handle had been the one to release #OpCensorDis in late 2011 and showing his growing arrogant confidence, he was willing to do anonymous interviews with the press over Skype boasting of his group’s skills. After a particularly prominent attack on the UK Metropolitan Police’s Counter-Terrorism reporting hotline he told the Telegraph, “We done it due to the recent events where the counter terrorist command and the UK court system have allowed the extradition of Babar Ahmad, Adel Abdel Bary and a few others – we also done it to due the new “snooping” laws where the GCHQ can “spy” on anyone and everyone.”

TeaMp0isoN as a collective were fairly scattered in their success and damage. They got into fights with fellow hacktivists Lulzsec whose real identities they threatened to out online. Angry at reports that Blackberry owner RIM were helping police track rioters during the 2011 UK riots, they attacked and defaced Blackberry’s blog. They brought down the English Defence League’s site. In an attack which finally got him jailed, Junaid Hussain got into the email account of one of Tony Blair’s aides and leaked Blair’s contact information and more online. Other attacks found them derided as ‘skiddies’, with some experts pointing out that their contribution to a big Anonymous driven hack against the Nigerian government was to hack into the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association and the Engineering Materials Development Institute. Neither very relevant to Nigeria. During another Anonymous led attack on Stratfor which TeaMp0isoN piggybacked they took stolen credit card details and used them to give money to a variety of charities. In a bit of a home goal, this money was reclaimed and the charities ended up having to cover payback fees.

Reflecting Hussain and Bary’s later life, there were various off-shoots of TeaMp0isoN which had a flavour of the struggle they were going to end up joining. This included their Operation Free Palestine series of hacks, and off-shoot groups ZCompany Hacking Crew (ZHC), which aimed to “end injustice, extremism, Zionism, illegal occupation” and focused on Kashmir and Pakistan. Both TeaMp0isoN and ZHC were also linked to the Mujahideen Hacking Unit (MHU) and Muslim Liberation Army (MLA). At this stage, however, the confluence was simply youthful protest being driven in lots of different directions.

When exactly Junaid Hussain’s shift to jihadism took place is unclear, but he seems to have been firmly on the path after his release from prison in 2013 for the hack on Tony Blair’s assistant. At around the same time, Bary started to reject his former life online posting on Facebook in July 2013 “the unknown mixtape with my bro tabanacle will be the last music I’m ever releasing. I have left everything for the sake of Allah.” In October that year he tweeted “for everyone that still asks me about where my videos have gone, like I said a while back I quit music & I took all the vids I can down….& if you own a channel that has any of my music up can you take it down also, appreciated. Bless.”

The two men were by then in Syria, fighting (or training) initially alongside the Army of Furqan before shifting over to IS using the same connection, Abu al Taj, to vouch for them. Reflecting their online pasts, in their IS entry forms they both identified themselves as having pasts in computers – with Bary saying that he used to work in a computer shop, while Hussain said he had a specialization in electronics.

In Junaid’s case at least we know that his online activity became a major driver of his contribution to IS, founding the Islamic State Hacking Division (ISHD) under which he drew notoriety and attention through his creative use of online activity to advance IS cause. In one of the more infamous attacks which attracted particular US government ire and drew on his TeaMp0isoN contacts, he worked with a young Kosovan studying in Malaysia to obtain and leak the contact information of 1,351 US government and military folk. Ardit Ferizi was another case of hacktivist turned jihadi supporter though he never actually made it to the Levant. Instead, using hacking skills he had perfected as the self-appointed leader of the Kosova Hacker’s Security (KHS) he attacked various sites and then passed along information he thought would be useful to IS. Ardit and Junaid knew each other from TeaMp0isoN days. Junaid enthusiastically circulated the hacked US government contacts under the ISHD accounts hoping followers would use the information to launch lone actor attacks in advance of IS cause.

FBI state that no damage was actually done through this leak. But two short weeks after he posted Ferizi’s information online, a drone strike killed Junaid at a petrol station in Raqqa. Ferizi was arrested in Malaysia in September and is now sitting in a US jail on a 20 year sentence.

Bary’s story went quiet at around the same time, with reports circulating he was unhappy with IS. He reportedly fled across the border into Turkey at which point he disappeared. Now that he has resurfaced in Spain, he will likely be looking at the inside of a prison cell for some time. In arresting him, Spanish police highlighted his “great ability to obtain funding and move like a fish in the water of the darknet” providing maybe a flavour of what he had been up to since he had disappeared. The UK has stripped him of his passport so he is most likely heading to Egypt. L Jinny’s counter-culture adventure has come to a close, but the arc shows what the journey can look like. From rapper and hacktivist to jihadist and jail.