Archive for October, 2020

A short piece for the South China Morning Post which did not quite land as was intended. Oh well. More to come on China in Eurasia – book now going through second round of edits.

Why China playing bystander to the trouble in Eurasia is not ideal

  • Beijing’s reluctance to get involved in the unrest in Belarus, Nagorno-Karabakh and Kyrgyzstan is in line with its traditional attitude towards conflicts that do not impinge on its own security
  • However, given Beijing’s growing global influence, its disinterested posture muddies the waters for others trying to resolve unrest

Beijing has yet to articulate much by way of major policy initiatives on the trouble in its Eurasian backyard – in BelarusNagorno-Karabakh and Kyrgyzstan. Is China’s decision to wait and watch as the chaos unfolds a conscious reflection of the power it wants to be, or acknowledgement of the fact that it has little to offer and no idea what to do?

The question of whether China should have a view on all of this instability is a reflection of its place in the world today.

On the face of it, the question seems to be merely a banal reflection of the China hysteria that has engulfed the world. However, given that China is the world’s second-largest economy and is vying for a place at the top table, the question is increasingly relevant, especially since the affected countries have often expressed a desire to engage with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In reality, China’s trade with these countries is quite limited. While Beijing is often the fastest-growing trade partner or investor, the money involved is fairly small. Of all of the countries in trouble in Eurasia, Kyrgyzstan is of greatest concern to Beijing. But this is not particularly because of trade or investment, but rather because it sits on China’s border, has a substantial Chinese diaspora and an ethnic Uygur population.

All of the countries in question are former members of the Soviet Union. Perhaps China sees this as a Russian problem, up to Moscow to manage through the sphere of influence it inherited and continues to exert influence over. Yet, China has not always appreciated how Russia has handled such problems in the past.

While with both Georgia and Ukraine, Beijing – like Moscow – was worried about the spread of “colour revolutions”, China was not happy with how the situations ultimately played out, perturbed by Russia’s redrawing of international borders and using minority populations as an excuse for interference.

Yet, Beijing did not articulate its concerns loudly, instead letting Moscow have its way. While this could be what we are seeing play out once again here, it goes against the vision of China as an increasingly influential power on the world stage, something Xi has sought to foster.

The truth is that China is a disinterested international power. Its interests outside are only relevant insomuch as they impact China directly, and more specifically, the Communist Party’s rule. Consequently, countries of marginal economic interest and little geostrategic importance can be left to their own devices, or to others. When China does have a direct interest in parts of Eurasia, it can and does focus its efforts.

For example, Beijing has helped Tajikistan strengthen its borders with Afghanistan, and also developed strong assets and links to the security forces in Kyrgyzstan. This was done, not as part of a geostrategic competition with Russia, but rather to address a security issue of direct interest to China.

It is also not clear that China would know what to do even if it could. Beijing has a limited track record of bringing warring factions to the table or of getting political factions within a country to stand down. China prefers the stability offered by strongman leaders, preferably ones in uniform, but will just as happily work with whoever comes to power.

The case of Egypt is instructive – China seamlessly maintained links through the collapse of the Mubarak and Mursi governments, and still maintains good relations with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Kyrgyzstan, witnessing its third chaotic transfer of power in 15 years, is a textbook case for Chinese strategists of the dangers of letting democracy run wild.

Non-interference plays into China’s persistent foreign policy credo. In refusing to get involved, but offering a hand of engagement to whoever comes out on top, China’s message is that it is letting each country have its own history and is not meddling, in contrast to the American-led West.

But this posture is at odds with China’s growing investments and economic footprint globally. Conflicts are infrequently bound by borders. While China may sit loftily above conflict, others do not, all of which creates instability and economic damage.

While an overly activist Beijing is a source of concern, China the disinterested superpower is not necessarily a good thing. Given China’s position on the world stage and economic clout, it is carving out a position for itself in most capitals. When chaos breaks out, people look to understand Beijing’s view and need to keep it in mind when making decisions. If China is inactive, it leaves a potential spoiler which could stymie efforts by others to bring resolution.

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

Last in my catch up posting blast a more recent piece for Foreign Policy looking at a question that has been on my mind for a while which is the growing appearance of Central Asians and Indians in international jihadist attacks. The piece got some traction in the Pakistani press in particular who got quite excited about the focus on India as a source of terrorism including editorials in the Daily Times, the Associated Press of Pakistan, Express Tribune, while Capital TV interviewed me about it and I did a brief recording for the Ambassador’s Brief using Conversation Six platform with the excellent Sam Mullins. This aside, spoke to the South China Morning Post about China-Kyrgyzstan, RFE/RL about China-Afghanistan, and earlier piece with Kyler about Incels for RSIS was reproduced by Eurasian Review.

Indians and Central Asians are the new face of the Islamic State

Terrorists from India, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan were never at the forefront of global jihad before – now they are.

Raffaello Pantucci | October 8, 2020, 6:32 AM

Members of the Islamic State stand alongside their weapons, following their surrender to Afghanistan's government in Jalalabad on Nov. 17, 2019.

As white nationalists across the world have gained prominence through racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic acts, the world’s focus on terrorism seems to have shifted. Many experts on extremism now focus heavily on the far-right in its many incarnations as an important driver of terrorist threat. But this myopic approach ignores the dynamism that the Islamic State injected into the international jihadist movement, and the long-term repercussions of the networks it built. In particular, the Indian and Central Asian linkages that the group fostered are already having repercussions beyond the region.

This threat emerged most recently with the attack by the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) on Jalalabad prison in early August. The attack showed a level of ambition that distinguished the group from many of the Islamic State’s other regional affiliates. Part of a bigger global push to do something about colleagues rotting in prisons, it was also a way of signaling how the group’s approach to freeing its prisoners differed from the Taliban’s. In ISKP’s eyes, the Taliban are in essence surrendering in their peace negotiations with the U.S. government. But the most interesting aspect of the attack was the roster of fighters involved—a multinational group that included Afghans, Indians, Tajiks, and Pakistanis.

While at first glance this seems unsurprising, the presence of Central Asians and Indians in transnational attacks is a relatively new phenomenon that reflects a shifting pattern in jihadism linked to the Islamic State. Some of the group’s most dramatic attacks—like the Easter 2019 Sri Lanka bombings, the attack on a Turkish nightclub on New Year’s Eve 2017, or the 2017 truck attacks in New York City and Stockholm—revealed jihadism’s persistent appeal to a global audience. Indeed, the rise of Central and South Asian cohorts to the front rank of attack planning is a development with potentially worrying consequences.

Jihadist ideas are not new to Central Asia or India. The civil war in 1990s Tajikistan that broke out in the wake of the country’s emancipation from the Soviet Union was an early post-Cold War battlefield which included jihadist elements. Fighters used northern Afghanistan as a base from which to fight in Tajikistan.

While most of the support for the fighting in Tajikistan emerged from communities in northern Afghanistan who went on to fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban, some disillusioned fighters in the conflict ended up fighting alongside al Qaeda. And for a while, assessments of where al Qaeda would go after its ejection from Afghanistan post-9/11 focused on the Fergana Valley, a region spanning Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan that is home to conservative communities who have clashed with their respective capitals. Groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Jund al Khilafah, the Islamic Jihad Union or various Tajikistani groups provided networks that helped Central Asians get involved in fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But these networks were relatively limited in their impact.

India’s history of jihadism goes back even further. The country was the birthplace of the Deobandi movement, a sect that was a source of ideas for the Taliban among others. And the conflict in Kashmir has long been held up by extremist groups as one of the world’s most long-standing unresolved jihadi conflicts. While most Kashmiris are nationalists furious at New Delhi, their conflict is one that is regularly adopted as a rallying cry by extremists who point to it as one of the many places where Muslims are being abused.

Yet notwithstanding this heritage, neither India nor Central Asia has historically produced many figures in the international jihadist movement, launching attacks far from their borders. Indians have stayed involved in networks in India, or occasionally Pakistan. Central Asians have shown up in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but rarely farther afield. That is changing.


A major attraction drawing young men and women to jihadism has always been the idea of participating in a transnational religious movement and an epic global struggle. To focus only on a parochial local level misses the larger canvas of their narratives. This appears to be a gap that the Islamic State identified and filled.

A major turning point in Indian and Central Asian involvement in the global jihadist movement was Syria.

A cauldron that continues to draw people in, it is a clear and significant marker in the international jihadist story. The battlefield was one that drew in Muslims from almost 100 different countries and from every continent. This included Indians and Central Asians, though their experiences were markedly different.

The Central Asians integrated well into the conflict, serving alongside both Islamic State and al Qaeda-affiliated groups. For example, Tajikistani former Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov rose to be a senior Islamic State commander. Large groups of Central Asians fought on the battlefield. In contrast, the few Indians who made it to the Levant had a different experience. Many received bad treatment at the hands of their Arab hosts, who tended to look down on them—reflecting the status of South Asians as poor laborers in much of the Arab world. This racism did not stop a significant number of Indians being drawn to the group, however. A more thriving community of Indian fighters made it to the conflict in Afghanistan to fight alongside ISKP there.

Since the Islamic State’s emergence, Central Asians have been involved in repeated attacks in Turkey, including the assault on Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport in June 2016 and the high-profile massacre at the city’s Reina nightclub on New Year’s Eve 2017, as well as attacks using vehicles that were driven into crowds in 2017 in Stockholm in April, and New York City on Halloween that year, as well as an underground bombing in St. Petersburg.

For Indians, the international role has been more limited, with Indians for the most part appearing in attacks in Afghanistan and in limited numbers on the battlefield in Syria. The attack on the prison in Jalalabad follows the earlier decision by ISKP to use an Indian fighter to attack a Sikh gurdwara—a place of worship—in Kabul. Seen as “polytheists,” Sikhs are regarded as an acceptable target by the Islamic State like many other religious groups, though the decision to use an Indian attacker likely reflected a desire by the group to highlight their connection to India in particular.


The Islamic State officially announced the creation of an affiliate in India last year but has been hinting about involvement in Kashmir for years. The group was likely in part rejected by local Kashmiris who have long seen foreign Islamists as complicating factors in their struggles against the Indian state. However, it now seems as though the group is quite openly talking about its involvement. Al Naba, the Islamic State’s regular publication, recently listed the martyrdom notices of three Kashmiris who had reportedly fallen fighting for the group. These individuals join the growing numbers of Keralans and other Indians who are now reported to have died or fought alongside the Islamic State.

While the absolute numbers are small, this is an entirely new trend. Indians involved in external jihadist attacks have until now been the exception. The few Indians who pursued jihad tended to do it at home in a limited fashion, often with links across the border to Pakistan. Only a few ventured beyond, like Dhiren Barot, a British-raised Hindu convert who was close to 9/11 organizer Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and was ultimately jailed for a plot to detonate a bomb in the U.K. in 2005.

This is surprising, considering that India is home to the world’s third-largest Muslim community. However, today’s new generation of jihadists, is driven by a range of economic, political, and ideological factors.

Both Central Asia and India are home to large communities of young men who go and work abroad, sending home remittances that are a crucial pillar of local economies. It is often among these diaspora communities where radicalization takes place—for the Indians in the Gulf, for the Central Asians in Russia. In the COVID-blighted world, this workflow has slowed down, hurting economies, but also creating a pool of underemployed young men at home and abroad.

This comes in the context of a tense political environment. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has advanced a series of policies promoting a Hindu nationalist narrative openly hostile toward Muslims. There has since been a notable uptick in jihadist propaganda toward India. In Central Asia, governments may not be stoking the same fires, but there has been an active pursuit of political opponents across the region. While there are numerous programs in place seeking to counter violent extremism, it is not always clear how effective they are, nor is it clear they are able to deal with problems of radicalization amongst diaspora communities.

And there is the continuing question of what will happen to the fighters from these countries who went to Syria and Iraq. Some may try to come home, but others may end up fostering new networks which create problems elsewhere.

The danger is that there may be an increasing number of Indian and Central Asian links to plots outside their regions. Earlier this year, German authorities disrupted a network of Tajiks linked to cells in Albania and in contact with the Islamic State in both Afghanistan and Syria. They were reportedly under orders to launch an attack in Europe. Other Central Asian cells have been reportedly disrupted across Europe, and authorities in Ukraine have made numerous arrests of fighters fleeing the collapsing battlefield in Syria.

India has seen less such activity, though there were Indian links to the 2019 Sri Lanka Easter attacks. Like many violent Islamist extremists, a Southern Indian cell involved appears to have followed the sermons of Indian prominent extremist preacher Zakir Naik, whose speeches have helped radicalize numerous different jihadists around the world.

Most of the current attention on new terrorist groups focuses on the extreme right—something that is understandable given the deeply polarized political environment in the western world. But violent Islamist threats have not gone away, and are transforming. The story of Central Asian and Indian jihadism is one that has historically received too little attention. Emerging from domestic environments that are creating more opportunities for disenfranchisement and radicalization to take place, they are exactly the sort of threats which may slip under the radar until it is too late.

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

More belated posting, this time a bit more recent in the form of a Commentary post for my Singaporean institutional home RSIS. Looks at the question of Incels and whether they are a terrorist threat, something people here have been wondering about. Written with my excellent colleague Kyler with whom there are a few projects on the boil. More to come.

Incels and Terrorism: Sexual Deprivation As Security Threat

ON 24 FEBRUARY 2020, a Canadian teenager stabbed a female owner of an erotic massage parlour in Toronto. Identified by police as an ‘Incel’ – short for Involuntary Celibate – he was accused of being motivated by a misogynist ideology and later charged with terrorism. He was the first Incel to be prosecuted as a terrorist. Since 2009, Incels have committed at least 16 attacks, mostly in North America and Europe, often in the form of indiscriminate violence against members of the public. In the first half of 2020 alone there have been four attacks.

Incels justify their acts of violence as revenge against women or society in response to their inability to have sex or enter into a relationship with women. They see themselves as having more inferior genes, and are angry at women who prefer men they describe as “Chads” (men who are ‘sexually successful’). Whilst the movement remains generally non-violent and confined to online chat forums, a more militant community has emerged recently that encourages the expression of their frustrations in lethal ways.

Incels and Terrorism

There are myriad definitions of terrorism. What draws most of them together is the use of violence against non-combatants in advance of a political goal, usually by a non-state group.

One of the biggest hurdles therefore in including Incels within the roster of terrorist organisations is the absence of a clear political goal, beyond a revenge for their personal rejection by the opposite sex. Some Incels discuss an imagined historical world in which women were more subservient to men and hearken back to it, but there does not appear to be a concerted strategy to achieve such a goal.

There are elements within the Incel community, however, that mimic traditional terrorist modus operandi. The self-directed attacks, use of social media to network and radicalise, and the employment of non-sophisticated weapons, are all tactics that resemble broader trends in contemporary terrorism.

By posting pre-attack manifestos or intent to start an “Incel rebellion”, some Incel attackers resemble traditional terrorists as they appear to have a wider goal, seek recognition, presence and broader meaning to their act. These texts are for the most part confused, however, and do not appear to articulate a very coherent broader worldview and plan.

Ideological Convergence with Extreme Right-Wing

Moreover, the Incel ideology converges with the broader range of ideologies which characterise the extreme right-wing today. Strands of white supremacy, misogyny, anti-government sentiments and racism are weaved into Incel narratives.

Elliot Rodger, the first Incel attacker, was vehemently against interracial relationships and partially attributed his inability to get a girl to competition from other races. Tobias Rathjen, the Hanau shooter in Germany, launched his acts of terror in the name of anti-immigrant feeling, but there were clear strains of Incel thinking in his manifesto.

Taken alongside the many other extreme right narratives that have emerged in the past few years – from the militant North American Boogaloo Bois to the increasingly global QAnon movement (which the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) regards as a potential terror threat) – it is possible that Incels should potentially be defined as simply another articulation of the modern extreme right, where misogynistic ideologies are rampant.

This definition places Incels within a frame which is relevant to national security actors, reflecting them as part of the confusing new expressions of terrorism focused around lone actor violence which have increasingly taken centre stage around the world.

Relevance for Asia: Currycels or Ricecels?

The correlation between Incel and the extreme right-wing throws a spanner in the works when trying to establish their relevance in Asia. Given that the extreme right-wing is still mostly a white supremacist movement which therefore resonates in areas of white majority populations, outside New Zealand or Australia, the nexus is less salient in Asia.

But it is worth noting that there are many Incels who are also non-white. Rodger himself was of a mixed-race descent, but considered himself to be descended from “British aristocracy,” placing him as part of (what he considered) a superior race. Pure Asians, especially the diaspora community found in Western countries, also embrace their own interpretations of Inceldom, dubbing themselves “currycels” or “ricecels” depending on their ethnic origin.

Incels are in part a reaction by young male populations of the perceived feminisation of society and their relative weakening. While admittedly a generalisation, Asian societies tend to be dominated by an uncontested patriarchy, where misogyny (and its associated violence) is not uncommon. The growing women’s rights movement may provide the same impetus that has in part produced Incels in the West.

Such narratives are already visible in online communities. A case in point in Singapore is the dissatisfaction of losing girls to white immigrants. Others take on a slightly different but equally misogynistic flavour, such as the sentiment of how military conscription sets men back in their career whilst self-serving and career-minded women are given a step ahead to advance in life. This sense of male victimhood is something which is universal and could find resonance and manifest violently in an Asian context through something that might look like Incel violence.

Policy Implications

The question then is whether this group of angry young men warrant the sort of rigorous counter-terrorism efforts that have been poured into tackling jihadist extremism.

Certainly the rise of the extreme right appears to be something that the security community in the west had overlooked. Some extreme right imagery and ideas from Reddit, 4chan or 8kun have penetrated Asia and been repurposed for local conflicts. Pepe the Frog has appeared amongst the Hong Kong democracy movement, while anti-Muslim feeling in India or Myanmar often steal imagery and ideas from western discourses online.

This suggests a spread of ideas from West to East with potentially dangerous consequences. Male anger is an issue in Asia which might ultimately start to see Incel ideas as meshing with their broader rage and even present a useful outlet. Violence could be the result.

Regardless, any decision to draw Incels into the realm of national security effort must consider the costs (such as the risk of pushing the community underground) and benefits (heightened efforts to thwart the threat) of doing so. A community of angry young men feeling they do not have a place in society is not a new human phenomenon, putting a terrorist label must be carefully calculated.

About the Authors

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow and Kyler Ong an Associate Research 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.

A short and unfortunately incomplete post this time for a short essay published by Hope not Hate, a UK advocacy group that does excellent work on countering extremist and divisive narratives in the UK. Have written for them in the past as well, and this time the piece looks at how extreme right and violent Islamist narratives tend to converge (like most extremists in some ways). Not a world apart from what I wrote about last time for them I see. Unfortunately, the magazine only partially goes online, so I have a snapshot of the first pages posted in the image below and the rest hardcopy. You can get it by either subscribing to support them or if you ask me very nicely, I may be able to help. For the time being here is the first page with the very striking picture they decided to use.

As ever, have let a lot of time pass since my last posting, but have not been delinquent in my writing. Am struggling with some longer pieces, this time of enforced immobility has been of mixed usefulness in being productive in this regard. In any case, first up another short piece for the South China Morning Post, this time looking at the China-India clash which has not resolved itself but seems to be settling in to a higher level of tensions as the norm.

Crumbling China-India relations suggests escalation will continue

China has never taken India seriously, while New Delhi has never made a clear choice about what it wants from relations with Beijing. The possibility of miscalculation is growing

China and India continue to talk past each other. China still does not regard India as a serious power, while New Delhi is prodding Beijing in areas of great sensitivity.

Security planners on both sides appear willing to accept higher tensions in their bilateral relationship, but the clash in the Galwan Valley shows this can get out of hand. The space between escalation and miscalculation is closing, and a dangerous new normal is establishing itself across the Himalayas.

China has never taken India seriously. This irritates New Delhi, which can feel Beijing’s condescension. China has also increased activity around India without considering what that looks like to its neighbour. With growing Chinese economic and security activities in almost every country around India, it is no wonder New Delhi sees what looks like encirclement.

India, on the other hand, has continually hedged and never defined what it wants from its relationship with China. In some contexts, its choices speak to a desire for close engagement – from entering the BRICS bloc, the Russian-India-China grouping or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s love-in meetings with President Xi Jinping.

At an economic level, Delhi has welcomed some Chinese investment. It tried to engage with parts of China’s Belt and Road Initiative it liked, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor.

At the same time, India has bristled at China’s close relationship with Pakistan, sought a closer strategic relationship with the United States and other Chinese adversaries and tried to limit some Chinese investment in the country. The global backlash against TikTok first emerged in India, which accounts for a huge part of the application’s users.

The two Asian giants bump into each other across the Himalayas, where they share an unclear border. Both claim they want to resolve this, yet little movement has been achieved. This border has become the focus of the current clash in which soldiers on both sides have died and no clear resolution appears likely any time soon.

Rather, the discussion now appears to be an acceptance of higher tensions across this disputed border, with both finding ways of strengthening their position and jostling against the other. The tensions have moved into every other part of their bilateral relationship.

The result has been a confused emboldening by Delhi. Planners talk about how things cannot go back to normal with Beijing, but it is not always clear where they want them to go. Economic resistance to China is tempered by reality, while there is a clear limit Delhi sets to the other alliances it wants to forge against China. It wants confrontation with Beijing, but maybe not as aggressively as Washington is pushing.

Worryingly, Delhi has injected Tibet into the narrative. The press is full of stories of Tibetan soldiers in the Indian armed forces. The death of one Special Frontier Force officer, Tenzin Nyima, in an explosion near Pangong Tso turned into a major news story following leaks in the Indian press about the unit. A political leader in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, Ram Madhav, attended and tweeted about the funeral.

All of this led to more posturing by Beijing. Official media reports ever grander military statements and exercises in the region near the border with India. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokespeople continue to reject any Indian claims while calling their own bellicose posturing merely routine behaviour.

From Beijing’s perspective, the confrontation with India is being manipulated by Washington. Rather than treat Delhi as a direct competitor with agency, it sees India being pushed towards such action by the United States.

The result is a repeat of a continued Chinese position on India – one of faint derision. Beijing does not take India seriously but rather sees it as acting at others’ behest.

This means Beijing does not seriously engage with Indian concerns while overlooking the provenance of potential threats. Now that Beijing has created a new context of tension on its border with India, it will not back down – especially as it does not think India is doing this on its own behalf.

It seems unlikely tensions will escalate into nuclear conflict. However, India playing the Tibet card prods Beijing in a very sensitive place. Meanwhile, China’s refusal to take India seriously exacerbates Delhi’s sense of needing to do more to get China’s attention.

The space for miscalculation is growing, and both are increasingly doing things to the other in a way in which they are more likely to misjudge reactions. This fisticuffs over the Himalayas has the potential to escalate further.

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