Archive for the ‘ACADEMIC JOURNALS’ Category

Almost up to date, now a piece for Foreign Policy about the importance of Central Asia in Chinese foreign policy in the wake of his tour to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Why Xi Jinping Chose Central Asia for His First Post-COVID-19 Trip

The region has long served as a testing ground for Beijing’s economic and foreign-policy ambitions and is becoming increasingly close to China.

China’s President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and other participants attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) leaders’ summit in Samarkand on September 16, 2022. (Photo by Sergei BOBYLYOV / SPUTNIK / AFP) (Photo by SERGEI BOBYLYOV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to make Central Asia the site of his first foreign visit since the coronavirus pandemic began is an unsurprising one. The region is one where China can claim lots of foreign-policy successes and is full of countries that will not publicly criticize Beijing. As then-Lt. Gen. Liu Yazhou [1] put it in 2010, Central Asia ‘is a rich piece of cake given to today’s Chinese people by Heaven.’

Modern China’s relationship with Central Asia goes back to the end of the Soviet Union. Beijing inherited a number of things from the collapse of Moscow’s empire. One was a lesson on how not to dismantle a communist ruling governance structure; the other was a messy border adjacent to one of Beijing’s most sensitive regions. The second became the foundational issue for China’s relations with Central Asia.

For China, the end of the Soviet Union meant that it suddenly found itself bordering four new countries: Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan also emerged, but they did not share borders with China.) The Soviet-Chinese frontier had always been remote and ill-defined, and with the emergence of these new states, there was a need to establish relations, define borders, and attempt to demilitarize what was a messy and ill-defined space. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to make Central Asia the site of his first foreign visit since the coronavirus pandemic began is an unsurprising one. The region is one where China can claim lots of foreign-policy successes and is full of countries that will not publicly criticize Beijing. As then-Lt. Gen. Liu Yazhou[1] put it in 2010, Central Asia ‘is a rich piece of cake given to today’s Chinese people by Heaven.’

Modern China’s relationship with Central Asia goes back to the end of the Soviet Union. Beijing inherited a number of things from the collapse of Moscow’s empire. One was a lesson on how not to dismantle a communist ruling governance structure; the other was a messy border adjacent to one of Beijing’s most sensitive regions. The second became the foundational issue for China’s relations with Central Asia.

For China, the end of the Soviet Union meant that it suddenly found itself bordering four new countries: Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan also emerged, but they did not share borders with China.) The Soviet-Chinese frontier had always been remote and ill-defined, and with the emergence of these new states, there was a need to establish relations, define borders, and attempt to demilitarize what was a messy and ill-defined space.

This led to the creation of the Shanghai Five grouping, bringing together the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia to help define borders, establish what military presence would exist, what cross-border trade would look like, and how the relationships between China and these new states could develop.

But the entity grew far beyond its initial mandate, and it was so successful (at least from a Chinese perspective) that Uzbekistan was encouraged to join. With Tashkent’s ascension, the name changed and in 2001, it evolved into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Each member joined for their differing reasons. Beijing was always interested in the organization developing a strong economic aspect, something the others were more skeptical of. Ultimately, they all agreed to let it develop as a security grouping focused on terrorism, and it became the first international, security-focused, multilateral organization that China created.

This was a major step forward at a moment when China was still a relatively timid actor on the world stage. Here the country was trying to build something, when in many other contexts it appeared to be trying to still live by the maxim of ‘hide and bide your time.’ But within Central Asia, it was actually not surprising.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, China has sought to rekindle the idea of Silk Roads through Central Asia. At the time, the focus was to build pipelines and rail links from the region across China to the eastern seaboard to reach the booming Japanese market that was keen for Central Asian hydrocarbons. However, this rapidly shifted as China’s economy took off and needed more of these resources itself and people saw growing markets they wanted to connect with.

Beijing signed contracts in 1997 and was soon building pipelines in Kazakhstan to get its oil back to China (agreements were signed even earlier with Turkmenistan to access its rich gas supplies, but took much longer to actually implement). In the wake of his 1994 tour of the region, Chinese Premier Li Peng hosted meetings of Eurasian rail ministers to help develop links across the region and open up routes from China. This was a first for Chinese energy firms. Central Asia was a region where China was willing to try out new things.

As well as get access to the region’s rich resources, China’s ultimate goal in Central Asia was to help stabilize Xinjiang province. Beijing was worried about violence in the region, which had links across the border. Militant Islamists were a feature of the scenery in both the region and China—though the degree to which they were motivated by religion or their ethnic identity was difficult to determine. Large-scale violence took place in Central Asia as well as China throughout the late 1990s. China wanted cooperation and support from Central Asian governments to deal with this. As a result, strong and sensitive security links were developed.

But the longer-term answer to these problems, in Beijing’s analysis, was always going to be economic. A benefit of the collapse of the Soviet Union to Xinjiang in particular was a sudden opening up of what had been a landlocked region that had faced sealed borders. Chinese leaders at the time pushed the region to exploit these opportunities. As then-Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen put it (as reported by Xinhua News Agency in March 1993), ‘the foreign minister urged all border regions [Xinjiang] to further improve their infrastructure and basic industries such as transport, energy and telecommunications to meet challenges they will face in years to come. Border trade must develop into mutual economic cooperation.’

This order was followed, and over the next few years, Xinjiang gradually increased its trading activity of goods with Central Asia. Products from across China would increasingly move through Xinjiang to Central Asia while raw materials and some agricultural products, in particular, would go into China. Much of this was via routes built by Chinese firms, often with Chinese bank loans supporting them.

This was something that was carried forward into Chinese President Xi Jinping’s time, when he decided in September 2013 to make Kazakhstan the site of his first speech laying out his big foreign-policy concept: the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In doing this, he was building off earlier visits by Li and later declarations by leaders like former Chinese President Jiang Zemin or former Chinese leader Wen Jiabao, who in 2012 declared Urumqi the ‘gateway to Eurasia.'[2]

Central Asia had always held an important place in Chinese thinking, and Xi decided to stamp his imprimatur on it and take it one step further by globalizing the entire concept. But the broader vision of the BRI was something that China had been talking about and doing in Central Asia since the late 1990s.

There was an additional hard security agenda at play as well. Although strong contacts and focus had helped manage the violent threat that China perceived from angry Uyghurs, there were still risks. In the wake of rioting in Xinjiang in 2009, violence seemed to escalate, coming to an embarrassing head in 2013 when an attack was perpetrated in Tiananmen Square and then a year later when Xi visited Xinjiang in 2014, only to be met by an attempted suicide bombing at Urumqi’s train station. In their wake, an already tight security vice clamped down further, and there was an increasing push by China to establish clearer visibility on security threats in the region.

This led to the creation of a People’s Armed Police (PAP) permanent presence being established in Tajikistan along the top of the Wakhan Corridor—the thin strip of Afghanistan which reaches out and touches China, separating Tajikistan from Pakistan. (It was initially developed as a border between the rival Russian and British empires). This was China’s first-known military base outside its borders; it has since more publicly established a naval base in Djibouti and is currently exploring opportunities in other places as well.

The exact dates of the establishment of the base are unclear. From my own research around the region, I started to hear rumors as early as 2012, though it was unclear whether this was just Chinese soldiers patrolling, people misinterpreting what they thought they had seen, or something else. What is clear is that as word of it started to spread in the mid-2010s, Russia started to become agitated. But its public anger was directed more toward Tajikistan than China—bristling at the fact that a Collective Security Treaty Organization partner would allow a foreign base on its territory without informing its partners.

The Tajikistan episode highlights a long-standing, simplistic analysis that is often thrown around regarding this region. There are always dark rumors that Beijing is trying to oust Moscow from the region and that heated competition behind the scenes could escalate. There is doubtless some displacement happening, but the truth is that for both of them, competition over this region is far less relevant than the important geostrategic support they provide each other in their collective confrontation with the United States. Russia has noted it is losing ground and seeking to strengthen its position in creative ways by demonstrating what it can offer, but it is unlikely to do this in a way that would be interpreted as running counter to Chinese interests.

The region is a propitious one for Xi to make his first foreign foray in over two years. He is visiting a region where China has consistently tested out new foreign-policy ideas, where the local governments will go to great lengths to ensure the visit goes smoothly, and where there is an appetite for economic cooperation on all sides.

From a domestic Chinese perspective, it means Xi has had an easy visit where he rubs shoulders with some of the world’s largest powers (like Russia and India), can showcase his foreign-policy vision (the Belt and Road Initiative), and celebrate China’s contribution to the world of international multilateral organizations (the Shanghai Cooperation Organization).

Although the SCO is widely derided in the West, it has only grown and expanded in remit during its 21-year existence, and it now encompasses almost 40 percent of the world’s population. It is an organization that has important Western allies (like India) as members, reflecting its appeal beyond the club for anti-western authoritarians that it is sometimes described as. For many of its members, the SCO is an expression of the ‘more just’ international order that senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi[3] described to the Russian ambassador to Moscow. It is showing the world that there are options out there beyond the western-dominated order that was created in the wake of World War II.

Central Asia has always held an important place in Chinese strategic thinking. It is a space where China has consistently tested out new ideas and has a web of relations and interests that are tied to some of its most sensitive domestic national security concerns. It is now also giving Xi the final step of his victory lap ahead of his likely third-term coronation at the 20th National Party Congress.

[1]: https://www3.nd.edu/~pmoody/Text%20Pages%20-%20Peter%20Moody%20Webpage/AdvanceTowardWest.pdf

[2]: http://english.mofcom.gov.cn/article/newsrelease/significantnews/201209/20120908320465.shtml

[3]: https://www.theepochtimes.com/mkt_app/china-and-russia-vow-more-just-international-order-ahead-of-putin-xi-meeting-top-ccp-diplomat_4727591.html

Another book edited extract published a little while ago, this time in Foreign Policy drawing on the chapter on Afghanistan.

China Is Doomed to Play a Significant Role in Afghanistan

Beijing is desperate to avoid being trapped in Kabul’s politics.

For decades, Beijing has worried about security in Afghanistan. During the Taliban’s first stint in power in the 1990s, Beijing worried about the possibility of Uyghur militants using camps in Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks against China. Then, in the early 2000s, Chinese workers were killed and kidnapped in the country. China also shares a remote but direct border with Afghanistan, and even before the Taliban takeover, increasing violence in the wider region gave China good reason to worry.

Despite this, China’s approach to its neighbor for a long time was, as prominent Central Asia analyst Zhao Huasheng1 aptly characterized it, essentially to act as an observer, leaving security questions to the United States and its allies. That changed in 2012, after then-U.S. President Barack Obama signaled he wanted to get Washington out of the conflict he had inherited. As the potential security vacuum left by Western withdrawal came into sharper relief, Beijing realized that it would have to play a role in encouraging a more stable and developed future for Afghanistan. Even then—and even after security concerns rose once again after the U.S. withdrawal in 2021—China never fully came to assume that role.

The Taliban takeover in 2021 came after we had concluded writing our book Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire. But many of the trends and patterns we observed continued to hold. Although China has undeniably stepped into a far more prominent role than ever before, it has continued to hedge its bets and refused to take on a leadership role in the country. China’s unwillingness to take on that role, even though it is increasingly being thrust into it, serves as a perfect example of the central concept our book: China is doomed to play a significant role in the country, but is studiously avoiding it.

China’s clear, yet gradual, shift from cultivated disinterest to growing engagement in Afghanistan took place over the past decade.

The most visible and significant element of China’s newfound attention on Afghanistan was Politburo member and security supremo Zhou Yongkang’s visit2 to Kabul in September 2012—the first visit by a Politburo-level Chinese official to Afghanistan since 1966.

But even earlier that year, when we visited Afghanistan, China was seeking to advance diplomacy with Afghanistan and Pakistan. In February 2012, Beijing hosted3 the first Afghanistan-China-Pakistan trilateral dialogue. Then, in May 2012, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. State Department initiated a joint training program for Afghan diplomats. The group of a dozen young diplomats would get a 15-day experience in Beijing, followed by another 15 days in Washington.

That June, as China was hosting the regional Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Beijing, then-Chinese President Hu Jintao signed a bilateral ‘strategic and cooperative partnership’ agreement with then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai and welcomed the country as an official SCO observer state. Just over a month later, then-Chinese Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Gen. Guo Boxiong met with then-Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak to ‘enhance strategic communication and strengthen pragmatic cooperation in order to contribute to bilateral strategic cooperation.’

The signaling was clear. As Washington approached a drawdown, China was going to have to step in more, though the extent of it was unclear. Yet there were clearly dissenters in Beijing, and many of the security-focused Chinese officials and experts we met were quite clear that this was a problem of Washington’s making that China wanted little to do with.

All of this change in Chinese activity was, however, undermined by the fact that Washington did not leave. In the end, Obama did not withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Although its presence shrunk considerably, the United States retained a capability to launch attacks and kept bases in the country.

Meanwhile, within China, security concerns increased. In April 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Xinjiang. This came after a tumultuous period where incidents linked to Xinjiang spread across the country—including a car and incendiary device attack on Tiananmen Square, a mass stabbing incident in Kunming, and escalating violence in Xinjiang itself. Just as Xi was leaving Xinjiang, attackers launched a knife and bomb attack4 on the train station in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital.

In his speeches about the threat in 2014, Xi made a clear link between what was going on in Afghanistan and Xinjiang. Beijing’s answer to this concern appears to have been to push a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, Beijing escalated its engagement with the Afghan authorities, building on what was already being done to create a wave of bilateral and multilateral formats with other partners in Afghanistan. On the other hand, it strengthened its contacts with the Taliban, making sure it was covering its bases for all eventualities. It seemed as though China was going to take on a more active role in the country, aware of the fact that no matter whether the United States stayed or left, it was likely to be an erratic partner Beijing could not rely on.

In July 2014, China appointed Sun Yuxi,5 a popular former ambassador to Kabul, as its first special envoy for Afghanistan. His role was to serve as a point of contact and a coordinator for China’s engagement with the Taliban, and after his arrival, there was a noticeable uptick in public engagement among China, the Taliban, and the Afghan government.

When Ashraf Ghani became Afghanistan’s president that September, he immediately signaled the importance he placed on the relationship with China by making Beijing the first capital he visited in his first formal trip abroad. During this visit, he laid the groundwork for formal peace talk negotiations with the Taliban at a meeting hosted by the Chinese government.

By early 2015, stories emerged that China was playing a more forward role in brokering peace talks and in conversations; officials we spoke to in Beijing said they were willing to act as hosts for any future peace talks.By May 2015, senior Taliban figures were meeting6 with representatives from the Afghan High Peace Council in Urumqi. In July, another round of talks was held in Pakistan, at which Chinese participants also played a role.This was followed by more multilateral engagements.

The Chinese-supported peace track seemed to be bearing fruit, until abruptly, in late July 2015, news leaked that Taliban leader Mullah Omar7 had died back in 2013. This declaration scuttled the discussions and set the Taliban in disarray as an internal leadership struggle surfaced over his successor. It also complicated China’s role, since it was not clear whom Beijing would engage with on the Taliban side.

Accusations of blame were passed between Islamabad and Kabul, but the net result was an uptick in violence that made it harder for the Afghan government to negotiate with full confidence or for Beijing to feel like it could do much. Chinese officials we spoke to at the time almost immediately fell back into stating that it was up to the United States to step up and support the Afghan government and its national security forces. They further noted that until there was greater clarity about who the main Taliban negotiator was, talks were unlikely to bear much fruit.

But it seemed that China maintained its contacts with the Taliban. In fact, Beijing has had a long history of contacts with the Taliban, dating to when the group was in power in Kabul before September 2001. At the time, China was one of the few countries that engaged with them, though this was largely through China’s contacts in Islamabad.

 Chinese soldiers march past the Id Kah Mosque. Chinese soldiers march past the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang, on July 31, 2014, as China increased security in many parts of the province.Getty Images 

In the early days, Beijing seemed to focus its discussions on ensuring that any trouble in Afghanistan did not spill into China and that the Taliban maintained control over Uyghur groups. Some Chinese experts who visited Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s told us they were surprised during their visit to learn of large numbers of Uyghur militants in the country. Taliban authorities reportedly sought to reassure Beijing that they would stop these individuals from launching attacks against China, though it was never clear whether the Uyghur groups adhered to this and did not launch attacks or use the territory to plot against China. We later met individuals who had been to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and al Qaeda-managed camps who told us stories—corroborated by others—of Uyghurs in the camps in large numbers.

In 2015, it seemed as though China decided to use its contacts with the Taliban to help protect its longer-term interests in the country. Aside from seeking to broker greater discussions among the Taliban, Pakistan, and the government in Kabul, China also sought to bring the United States into the discussions. Around this time, Beijing was engaged in numerous bilateral, multilateral, and minilateral engagements concerning Afghanistan.

One senior Afghan diplomat told us during a session in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, that he was exhausted from running between these different events, though it was not clear to him how useful they were. Other Afghans we spoke to were far more scathing about Beijing’s engagement behind closed doors. One former senior defense official told us that they had been forced to dispose of most of the equipment that China had handed over, claiming ‘it was full of bugs.’ Others said they had evidence that Beijing was paying off and providing military equipment to the Taliban to develop contacts and maintain influence, something that was partially confirmed to us by a Chinese contact who mentioned in passing being involved in handing over bags of money to Taliban contacts. We were never able to independently confirm this, but it did speak to a greater sense of confidence in Beijing about what China was doing in Afghanistan.

In March 2016, then-Chinese People’s Liberation Army Chief of Joint Staff Gen. Fang Fenghui visited Kabul, seemingly to help start a new minilateral regional organization. That organization, the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM), brought together the chiefs of army staff of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan ‘to coordinate with and support each other in a range of areas, including study and judgment of counter terrorism situation, confirmation of clues, intelligence sharing, anti-terrorist capability building, joint anti-terrorist training and personnel training,’ according to a statement8 by the Chinese defense ministry.

By bringing together senior security officials with all the countries that had a presence around the Wakhan Corridor, China was helping secure its own border and creating a format through which it could monitor it. The structure also formalized the People’s Liberation Army’s responsibilities in Afghanistan.

Alongside the creation of the QCCM, China started to make its security contributions to the other members of the group more public. In Afghanistan, Beijing revealed it had helped build a base and was providing funding for a mountain security force in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province. Locals reported seeing Chinese soldiers patrolling the region. Other reports highlighted how Afghan forces were being trained in China. In Tajikistan, China built around a dozen border posts for Tajik border guards as well as a base for its own forces in the country’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast. China was, in essence, creating a security buffer to seal itself off from direct threats from its border regions with Afghanistan.

Although the China-Afghanistan relationship continued to stay relatively strong over the next few years, in the dying days of Afghanistan’s government under Ghani, there was growing turmoil between the two countries. The first loud signal of trouble was the U.S. decision in November 2020 to de-list the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement9 from its list of terrorist organizations. It was a decision Kabul reportedly did not agree with and one that caused friction with China.

Then, in December 2020, a spy scandal erupted with the Afghan National Directorate of Security detaining a network of 10 Chinese nationals who, it claimed, were spies undertaking covert activities against the government in Kabul. The Afghan and Chinese governments worked to keep the story out of the media and rushed to get the spies out on a private jet back to China, denying everything, though the story was leaked in considerable detail to the Indian media.

But the Afghan government was very careful about how it handled the scandal. Unlike the United States that was now heading for the door, Kabul recognized that it needed to maintain a working relationship with Beijing.

It was later revealed that their counterterrorism relationship had also come under strain, with Kabul apparently stopping its regular repatriation of Uyghur militants it caught on the battlefield. This was made public when in the wake of Kabul’s fall, news emerged that some 30 or so Uyghurs who had been in custody were released when the Taliban emptied the country’s prisons.

But this revelation cut both ways: On the one hand, it showed how the relationship between Kabul and Beijing had broken down, but it was also an early indication of the Taliban’s lack of capability or interest in managing the problem of militant Uyghurs in Afghanistan to Beijing’s desires (highlighted by the fact that they freed them).

In current Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, there is no denying that China is more prominent. The Chinese Embassy was one of the few that stayed during the Taliban takeover. A number of Chinese businessmen are reportedly showing up to try their fortune. China has engaged with, participated in, and hosted numerous regional formats on Afghanistan. It has also sponsored some limited bilateral trade efforts and provided aid of some substance across the country, and Chinese state-owned enterprises have started to talk about restarting their projects with Taliban authorities. China has done everything except formally acknowledge the Taliban as the rulers of Afghanistan—a step it is unlikely to take until it sees others in the international community do so first.

But talk to Chinese experts, and the picture is more circumspect. They hold little hope for the Taliban to create an inclusive government, see instability on the horizon, and worry about the worsening security situation in the broader region.

Although China has spoken of Afghanistan as part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and some recent trade has started, in reality, the tangible economic links between China and Afghanistan amount to the export of Afghan pine nuts to China and the construction of a fiberoptic cable down the Wakhan Corridor to help Afghanistan get on the internet. Talk about the BRI in Kabul, and people will say good things and hope for greater engagement, but they are still waiting for it to materialize. Afghan businessmen still find it difficult to get visas into China, flights are irregular, and COVID-19 continues to make travel to China difficult.

China is still concerned about its security interests in Afghanistan, but, as in the past, its answer has been to largely seal itself off, hardening its own and nearby borders. Through a web of multilateral engagements, China has offered itself as a host and discussant but never a moderator—in other words, China is willing to be involved but does not want to take the key role of confronting actors and forcing them to resolve their issues. Beijing is certainly doing more than it did before, but it is clear that it is not going to step into a leadership role. China has all the trappings and potential to be a dominant player but has made a strategic decision to continue to watch from the sidelines.  

[1]: https://www.csis.org/analysis/china-and-afghanistan

[2]: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-china/top-china-official-visits-afghanistan-signs-security-deal-idUSBRE88M02C20120923

[3]: https://www.mfa.gov.cn/ce/ceus/eng/zgyw/t910391.htm#:~:text=From%20February%2028%20to%2029,Foreign%20Affairs%20chaired%20the%20dialogue.

[4]: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-27225308

[5]: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-afghanistan/china-appoints-special-envoy-for-afghanistan-idUSKBN0FN11Z20140718

[6]: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/26/world/asia/taliban-and-afghan-peace-officials-have-secret-talks-in-china.html

[7]: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-33703097

[8]: https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/07/31/sinostan-china-afghanistan-relations-taliban-history/including%20study%20and%20judgment%20of%20the%20counter%20terrorism%20situation

[9]: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/11/05/2020-24620/in-the-matter-of-the-designation-of-the-eastern-turkistan-islamic-movement-also-known-as-etim-as-a

Still catching up, here a longer piece for Foreign Policy with my excellent new partner in writing Ajmal. We are brewing up a few more projects, lots of interesting stuff happening in the China-Afghanistan space.

China Wants Its Investments in Afghanistan to Be Safer Than in Pakistan

Beijing could profit handsomely from Afghan resources and exports, but new ventures risk exposing Chinese nationals to violence

Afghan worker works on the site of an ancient monastery discovered in Mes Aynak, in the eastern province of Logar on November 23, 2010. The archaeological dig is located at the world’s second-biggest unexploited copper mine. The Chinese government-backed mining company, China Metallurgical Group Corp., which won the contract to exploit the site, has given archaeologists three years to finish the excavations. Archaeologists fear that the 2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery will probably be largely destroyed once work at the mine begins. AFP PHOTO/SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP via Getty Images)

On April 26, a suicide bomber killed Huang Guiping, the director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Karachi, as well as two Chinese teachers and a Pakistani driver. The attack, claimed by Baloch separatists, highlighted the tensions that China has stirred up with its massive China-Pakistan Economic Corridor investments in Pakistan—a lesson Beijing has learned and is keen not to repeat in Afghanistan. But China will struggle to entirely sidestep these problems, especially because the answer it often reaches for in these situations is economic investment—something that inevitably expands exposure on the ground.

The most prominent example of this tension can be found at the Mes Aynak copper mining project in Afghanistan. For years, the project was a byword for broken Chinese dreams. The Taliban, now returned to power in Afghanistan, have revived the project and are more generally trying to take advantage of the nation’s proximity to China. And Beijing seems willing to reciprocate.

The recent Tunxi Initiative endorsed by President Xi Jinping referenced the project, and Chinese executives have visited Kabul to discuss the project. Yet the problems they appear to be discussing are the same ones that were being raised under the old government. And the mining executives seem far less sure-footed than their colleagues at China National Petroleum Corp., which is seeking to restart oil production at its concession in northern Afghanistan under a new deal.

It is doubtful either of these projects will move quickly. And ordinary Afghans won’t see the benefits for years in any case, no doubt stirring resentment toward China. It is lower-level activities such as artisanal mining and exports of gemstones, pine nuts, and saffron that could take off much more quickly. They could also have a real impact on the lives of ordinary Afghans, but they will also make China far more exposed to security risks.

Kabul is awash with Chinese businessmen. Walk out of Kabul International Airport, and you are greeted by a big billboard advertising Chinatown, a housing and business compound in the city that offers a range of services for Chinese (and other) entrepreneurs interested in taking advantage of Afghanistan’s opportunities. So many businessmen and random curiosity-seekers have been showing up that the Chinese Embassy has had to issue repeated warnings telling their citizens to report to the mission and not take unnecessary risks. The fear is that these Chinese nationals could become targets like the Confucius Institute director and his team in Pakistan.

Whereas in Pakistan China feels as if it has a reasonably stable counterpart to deal with, one of Beijing’s major concerns about Afghanistan is that the Taliban government might collapse. Beijing had hoped that the Taliban would bring in an inclusive government, which would help bring some stability to Kabul and unity to the country. In the absence of an inclusive government or much evidence the Taliban is planning to create one, Beijing has concluded that the only answer is to support the government and ensure it does not collapse chaotically. However, the challenge China faces is how to do this without assuming responsibility for everything that happens in Afghanistan.

While Afghanistan’s mineral potential is of significant interest to China in terms of its proximity, scale, and strategic importance to regional infrastructure development, Chinese firms are also aware of the complications that come with trying to exploit it. The Tunxi meeting and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s subsequent speech and visit to Kabul are clear signals to any Chinese majors that are interested in exploiting Afghanistan that the political support is now there but it’s not yet clear how much these state owned enterprises will engage.

Economics plays an important part in Chinese considerations. When it comes to rare-earth minerals, China is already a market leader. It provides more than 85 percent of the world’s rare earths, and it is home to about 30 percent of the world’s total rare-earth reserves. China is not in a hurry to secure additional supplies, particularly when the value of worldwide rare-earth imports stood just at $8 billion in 2018—a fraction of the more than $1 trillion in global oil imports.

While dependence on rare earths enables China to leverage influence on the world stage, it is something that Beijing has in the past discovered limited utility in trying to exert. Following an attempt by China to choke Japan’s supply after a political dispute, Tokyo found alternative supplies and reduced its dependency on Beijing.

Similarly, according to reports from last November, Chinese miners were in talks to access Afghanistan’s vast lithium reserves. But big firms see little reason to endure the complexities of Afghanistan. Some opportunist mineral ore brokers may step in, including small-scale operations run by individuals or small companies that will use pumps and excavators to get at the brine lithium that can be found under dried salt lakes.

This requires none of the heavy industrial machinery or effort of a large firm, just access to the site, something that is now possible given the relative stability the Taliban government has brought to Afghanistan. There is evidence from contacts on the ground (and videos on Chinese social media) that Chinese prospectors are already exploring these opportunities.

But while lithium and rare earths may make catchy news headlines, politically overlooked but economically significant commodities are more likely to be of interest to China. Afghanistan has world-class deposits of iron ore. The Hajigak iron ore deposit, situated in the central province of Bamyan, is one of the several prospecting sites a Chinese delegation visited in November. It was previously won by an Indian consortium that decided not to proceed with the project for political and commercial reasons.

According to old Soviet and U.S. surveys, the deposit contains approximately 1.8 billion metric tons of ore at a concentration of 62 percent iron, which makes it the region’s largest known direct shipping ore deposit—the stuff that you can just dig up and ship. High-grade iron ore supply is already struggling to meet demand as China’s decarbonization efforts have boosted demand.

The S&P Global Platts index for 62 percent iron ore fines reached a record $233.1 per metric ton on May 12, 2021, driven by a resurgence in global demand and tightening supply. Although this has slightly eased, China’s increasingly ambitious emission reduction schemes; its efforts to diversify away from Australian supply in the wake of recent political disputes between Beijing and Canberra, which accounted for 61 percent of Chinese iron ore imports in 2020; and a COVID-induced shuttered capacity in Brazil will mean demand for alternative high-grade iron ore will remain robust. This is not to say Afghanistan is not a risky prospect, but it gives China an alternative option much closer to home.

By focusing on Afghanistan’s iron ore deposits, China can achieve several key objectives. First, it can secure access to an alternative high-grade iron ore deposit critical for the production of low-carbon steel. Second, with the current favorable market prices, it is economically viable to mine and ship the ore via Karachi without the need for investing in transport infrastructure. Third, it will demonstrate a quick win by generating the much-needed cash flow for the Taliban regime. Fourth, in the past 10 years, many small-scale steel mills, including ones run by Chinese companies, have popped up around Afghanistan, relying for the most part on a dwindling supply of scrap metals for the production of their steel products.

Unlike many other minerals for which no domestic consumption capacity exists in Afghanistan, iron ore can immediately utilize domestic steel industry capacity, perhaps with some help from China to improve quality and efficiency.

The other advantage provided by Afghanistan is an abundant supply of coal. This is crucial in the smelting process, which requires power that can be generated by coal to process the steel from the iron. Chinese producers have a long history of undertaking such projects regionally. In fact, those who designed the initial Mes Aynak copper project had intended to build a coal-fired power plant to help supply both the mining site and smelting plant, as well as the local region.

This model was one that had been proposed to the republic government before the fall of Kabul, when a Chinese delegation met former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani with a proposal to commission a 300-megawatt coal-fired power station at an approximate cost of $400 million just northeast of Kabul, where the Pul-e-Charkhi Industrial Park and most of the steel plants are located. Ghani had approved the proposal in principle and had given instructions to the relevant authorities to facilitate and expedite the project. This project is one that the Taliban is simply waiting to approve and could provide an easy win for the new authorities in Kabul.

The crucial question is the degree to which Beijing is going to orchestrate such projects in Afghanistan or allow enterprising entrepreneurs to go ahead and launch the projects with its tacit support. Industrial-scale lithium, rare earths, and copper mining require large outlays and substantial infrastructure as well as end users who tend to be important state-linked actors. Iron ore is easier to manage discretely and already has a substantial Chinese infrastructure under the surface in Afghanistan.

There is also substantial demand for iron ore around China and the wider region, which makes it an easy commodity to exploit without drawing too much attention. (Conveniently, this also means the polluting part of the process is shifted offshore, helping China with its climate-related goals as well.) In reaching out to China’s limitless consumer market, it could be similar to the pine nut exports that China has encouraged and that has seen around 40 planeloads of Afghan pine nuts go to China to be rapidly sold for a tidy sum online as a luxury product.

Iron ore and pine nuts (and similar products) offer China a way of engaging in Afghanistan with little direct state commitment. Getting big state-owned enterprises engaged is full of political and security risks and could lead to targeting of Chinese nationals working for these firms, as happened in Pakistan. This has knock-on effects in terms of getting the local authorities to provide protection and generates tensions at a state level. Focusing on smaller-scale projects and miners while allowing small traders and hardy entrepreneurs to try their hand costs Beijing little and has far less risk attached to it. And what risks are attached tend to be linked to the individuals rather than the Chinese state.

The lesson learned from Pakistan seems to be: engage—but at a lower level that commits you to less and therefore exposes you to less risk. Yet the web of economic activity that is spun is potentially just as substantial and might actually benefit a wider range of Afghans. By linking the Afghan economy to China’s at a lower level, Beijing would help support stability in Afghanistan at little cost to itself.

But as much as China might hope to avoid the same problems it is encountering in Pakistan, as the world’s second-largest economy that shares a direct border with both countries, it seems unlikely that China can do so without playing a role in resolving regional problems. Beijing’s longer-term goal is to ensure Afghanistan does not destabilize the wider region or cause problems for itself. Taking a lower-profile approach to economic engagement will help China achieve this goal without attracting the same high-profile problems it is finding in Pakistan. But economic opportunity does not always translate into stability. Beijing need only look at what it has been trying to do in parts of the Pakistani region of Balochistan to see the anger it can provoke, with tragic consequences.

Been a bit slow in posting of late, lots going on. New book, radio documentary replaying, and lots of projects am late on as well as new ones starting up. That on top of life has been keeping me occupied. But need to catch up here and plan for the next wave. First up, a new journal piece for Current History, the oldest current affairs journal which have written a few times before though mostly focused on China and connectivity in Central and South Asia.

“Perpetrators no longer seemed to have a coherent motivation based on only one ideology (or any external direction), but often created highly idiosyncratic ideologies that pulled in ideas from a wide range of sources.”

The Evolving Terrorism Threat in Europe

Europe: March 2022

Two decades on from September 11, 2001, the terrorist threat in Europe has been almost entirely transformed. Far from mass casualty spectaculars like the public transportation attacks in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005, the greater danger now is isolated individuals murdering politicians or stabbing random people in public places. Yet the dwindling scale of terrorism has only made plots harder to detect.

This was pointed out in the latest annual threat assessment by Europol (the European police coordinating agency), which noted that “more jihadist terrorist attacks were completed than thwarted” during 2020, the last year of reporting. Though less directly lethal, these low-scale attacks pick at social divisions in a way that can be even more dangerous than the large-scale, spectacular attacks directed by al-Qaeda or Islamic State (ISIS).

Europe has always seemed to be a secondary battlefield in the war on terrorism. But whereas the United States appears to have insulated itself from the threat at this point, Europe continues to confront a scenario that is noticeably more complicated and chronic. Terrorism’s evolving presence still poses a deep threat to European society.

POST-9/11 SPECTERS

In the immediate aftermath of the 2001 attacks on America, Europe became a key battlefield in the “Global War on Terrorism.” Revelations that a substantial part of the logistics, planning, and even recruitment for the al-Qaeda attacks had happened in Europe awakened the continent to a threat that it had inadvertently hosted. But only a few months later, Paris became a springboard for a follow-up attack on the United States. On December 22, as the world was just starting to return to normal, a radicalized young Briton, Richard Reid, unsuccessfully tried to bring down a transatlantic flight to Miami with a bomb concealed in the heel of his shoe. Reid was part of a two-man teamof Britons who had been sent by the al-Qaeda leader responsible for 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. His co-conspirator, Saajid Badat, had backed out at the last minute.

From a European perspective, these two failed attackers were in many ways even more terrifying than the 9/11 group, for which the blame could be laid on foreign shores. The notorious Hamburg cell that produced key 9/11 hijackers Mohammed Atta and Ziad Jarrah was, for the most part, made up of foreigners like them who were in Europe studying or seeking employment. Similarly, Europe was simply a backdrop for the planning meetings that took place in Spain, or the network in the United Kingdom that facilitated the dispatch of a pair of suicide bombers to Afghanistan to carry out the assassination of leading Taliban adversary Ahmed Shah Masood. In all these elements of the attack plan, Europe served as a convenient staging point for the conspirators, who drew on the continent’s Middle Eastern population.

These communities were the product of trends that had been playing out for some time. As authoritarian Arab countries cracked down on dissidents, many fled to Europe’s more liberal and protective environment, from where they could agitate for change back home. This diaspora was a constant source of tension between Arab and European governments. Arab authorities lobbied their European counterparts to crack down; Europeans pushed back, claiming that these dissidents were simply calling for legitimate political rights, in ways that were legally protected in Europe. The dissidents were often harbored in the former colonial powers that had once ruled their home countries, giving a historical resonance to the clash.

For more, go either to Current History or get in touch or download it here.

Catching up on posting from late last month on a longstanding topic of interest for Foreign Policy, China’s threat from international terrorist groups. Afghanistan has I think changed things a bit, and it will be interesting to see in many different ways how this develops going forwards.

How China Became Jihadis’ New Target

International terrorist organizations long considered Beijing a secondary focus. That’s changed.

A silhouette of a demonstrator is seen behind a Chinese flag outside the Chancellery in Berlin on May 31, 2019, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan are holding talks. (Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP) / ALTERNATIVE CROP (Photo by ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images)

In early October, an Islamic State-Khorasan bomber killed nearly 50 people at a mosque in Kunduz, Afghanistan. That the militant group claimed responsibility for the attack wasn’t surprising, but, in a worrying new twist for Beijing, it also decided to link the massacre to China: The group said that the bomber was Uyghur and that the attack was aimed at punishing the Taliban for their close cooperation with China despite its actions against Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

China was long seen as a secondary target by international terrorist organizations. Groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State were so focused on targeting the United States, the West more generally, or their local adversaries that they rarely raised their weapons toward China, even though they may have wanted to due to, for example, China’s mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims. But in Kunduz, this narrative was brought brutally to a close. China can now consider itself a clear target.

China’s history with violent Islamist groups is complicated. For a long time, Beijing’s ability to project a status as a “developing world” power meant it could hide to some degree behind a veneer of not being a “first world” former colonial power that antagonized the world’s downtrodden. Before 9/11, al Qaeda theorists went so far as to speak of Beijing as a possible partner. According to their logic, China was against the United States, al Qaeda’s sworn enemy, and therefore the old “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” trope might apply.

There’s very little evidence that happened. The tolerance China appeared to show in the late 1990s toward al Qaeda figures who occasionally used Chinese territory for transit and support operations was more likely due to ignorance than to plotting. By 2004, this dynamic had changed, and Chinese intelligence was willing to work with Western services to hand over suspected terrorists who passed through China’s airports.

During the first Taliban-led government in the 1990s, Chinese officials were hesitant but willing interlocutors with Mullah Mohammad Omar’s regime. China was never a full-throated Taliban supporter but instead preferred to find ways of working with the group in the background. This mostly took the form of China providing limited investment and support that was encouraged by Pakistan, with the expectation that the Taliban would restrain the Uyghur groups that had established themselves in Afghanistan under Mullah Omar’s protection from attacking China. Beijing didn’t seem to be very concerned about what the Taliban’s larger goals were, as long as Afghanistan’s leaders acted on this key request. Still, there is little evidence that Beijing linked this domestic problem to a broader international terrorist threat.

With the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, and later Iraq, the problem of international terrorism took off globally, with groups targeting an expanding range of countries. Yet China’s successful push to get some of its own domestic Uyghur groups added to the United Nations and U.S. roster of terrorist organizations did not bring the country much international jihadi attention. Meanwhile, in the years immediately after 9/11, China became wary of the Taliban. A Uyghur group reportedly fought alongside the Taliban for years, as a video by al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri highlighted in 2016 and as U.S. intelligence information from Guantánamo Bay indicated earlier.

As the 2010s went on, more Chinese citizens started to be harmed in terrorist incidents around the globe, but, for the most part, these seemed incidental—a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Al Qaeda and then Islamic State leaders released some statements that threatened Beijing for its treatment of Uyghurs—and indeed Muslims more generally—but for the most part, they were limited and didn’t lead to any major push to target China.

Now, it’s undeniable that China is being targeted, especially as its footprint in Afghanistan grows. Beijing has long skirted around formal engagement in Afghanistan, and while it continues to do this to some degree, it has also been the most willing of the major powers in the region to engage with the Taliban directly. The Islamic State-Khorasan clearly sees the Taliban bowing to Beijing as a weak point to capitalize on, and the group’s message is clear: It is offering itself as a home to Uyghurs who are unhappy with the Taliban regime, as well as others in Afghanistan appalled at China’s treatment of Muslim minorities.

The new Taliban government has publicly stated its desire to work with the Chinese government—something Beijing has made clear is conditional on action against Uyghur militants. Taliban leaders are especially keen to attract Chinese investment and economic partnerships. In late October, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with the group’s leaders in Doha, Qatar. Taliban Foreign Minister-designate Amir Khan Muttaqi presented Wang with a box of Afghan pine nuts, reflecting one of the many goods Afghanistan is hoping to export to the Chinese market. Wang, meanwhile, focused on the need for stable government in Afghanistan and appealed to the Taliban once again to sever their links with Uyghur militants.

But the degree to which the Taliban are able—or want—to entirely sever this Uyghur connection is an open question. Over the past few months, the group has said that they would not let their territory be used by militants to launch attacks abroad and that Uyghur militants had left the country. Yet while rumors circulate of anti-Uyghur action behind the scenes—and of the Taliban moving Uyghurs within Afghanistan away from China’s borders—Beijing is not entirely convinced. After the meeting in Doha, the Chinese foreign ministry wrote that Wang had expressed that China “hopes and believes” that the Taliban “will make a clean break with the ETIM” (the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement,” the name China uses to describe militant Uyghur networks), suggesting that the group hasn’t yet fulfilled Beijing’s desires.

It is this dynamic that the Islamic State-Khorasan capitalized on when it used a suicide bomber in the Kunduz attack with the battlefield name Muhammad al-Uighuri. In the message released by the Islamic State’s media channels claiming the attack, the group linked the attacker directly to the Taliban and China’s cooperation, stating, “the attacker was one of the Uyghur Muslims the Taliban has promised to deport in response to demands from China and its [China’s] policy against Muslims there.”

The message has many layers. First, it is a signal to the Taliban highlighting their inability to protect minorities in the country they now purport to control. Second, it is a message to China, attacking Beijing for its policies in Xinjiang and linking those to the group’s interests. Third, it is a message to other Uyghurs who feel abandoned or threatened by the Taliban and may be seeking to join other groups that will advance their interests. Finally, it is a message to the world, showing that the Islamic State-Khorasan is a capable organization that’s continuing the Islamic State traditions on the battlefield and speaking up for oppressed Muslims. These messages will resonate with potential supporters around the world.

Publicly, China was circumspect in its response, which decried the loss of life. No official comment was made about the attacker’s identity, though a Chinese academic published an opinion piece in the state-owned Global Times accusing the Associated Press of fabricating the narrative of the attacker being Uyghur. He instead advanced Taliban narratives that Uyghurs who had been fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan had left the country and praised the Taliban’s control and cooperation with China.

But Beijing likely knows that this is a dangerous development—especially in a region where it is facing greater threats. There have been new reports of a growing Chinese security presence in Tajikistan aimed at strengthening its ability to address potential threats from Afghanistan. A growing range of militant groups in Pakistan are targeting Chinese interests there, with attacks in Dasu and Karachi coming from local Baluchi and Sindhi separatists. China’s embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, was struck in 2016, as was its consulate in Karachi in 2018, an attack that killed four people (and three attackers). Local protest movementsmilitant groups, and politiciansare all looking at China as an adversary. Until now, however, most of the attacks were conducted by local separatist movements. The addition of the Islamic State-Khorasan to the roster finally brings the country firmly into jihadis’ crosshairs.

The problem for China is that it is ill prepared to handle such threats. Its military may be large and well equipped, but it has little experience countering militant organizations and often relies on other countries to do so for it. Yet, as Beijing is increasingly discovering in Pakistan—one of its more reliable allies—this is difficult to guarantee. Taliban leadership may project great strength and hubris, but they will face the same difficulties as others in the region in quelling militant groups in their territory, and they may find it difficult to entirely protect China from determined terrorist organizations.

In a sense, Beijing is stuck. China is Afghanistan’s most powerful and influential neighbor, which partly explains the growing attention toward its role in the country. Beijing is increasingly seen as the Taliban’s great supporter on the international stage. In assuming this role, China runs the risk of being seen as filing the vacuum the United States left in Afghanistan—something Beijing is keen to avoid. The reality, however, is that it is already getting sucked in. The Islamic State-Khorasan’s attack in Kunduz merely highlighted how far down this path Beijing has already gone.

Another September 11 anniversary linked piece, this time a short introductory essay for a collection of RUSI Journal articles assembled from the past twenty years which sketch out some of the main issues touched upon in the journal on terrorism. The request from the editors was to write something which tries to capture how research has evolved over this period. Re-reading the pieces (confess did not quite get to all of them), I realize that the Journal has really been a major outlet for various prominent voices for some time. Lots of interesting bits to read there and I would recommend taking time to read them while they are still open access until the end of the year.

The 9/11 Attacks: Two Decades of Countering Violent Extremism

Terrorism did not start with the attacks of 9/11, but there can be no doubt that these events changed the way that we think and look at the phenomenon. Terrorist spectaculars in themselves were not new – Carlos the Jackal had perfected the art, while seasoned terrorism watcher Brian Michael Jenkins had coined the phrase ‘terrorism is theater’ as early as 1974. But the magnitude and ambition that Al-Qa’ida displayed seemed to change things. For security experts, it pushed what had been largely seen as a niche specialisation into the centre ground of security thinking.

Within the research community it also engendered a new wave of thinking and research as people struggled to comprehend, explain and analyse the apparently new phenomenon that had burst on to our screens that clear September day. Much of the early discourse was an attempt to define what had just happened, both in terms of trying to comprehend who Al-Qa’ida was, but also to appropriately frame the response. The decision by the US to immediately move to a bellicose context meant a deeply conflictual stage was set early on. The decision to follow the invasion of Afghanistan with the invasion of Iraq only further complicated this discussion, steering us away from solely confronting Al-Qa’ida to taking on all adversaries out there. This muddying continues to ripple through the problems we see today.

Yet the truth that slapped the UK brutally in the face in July 2005 was that the threat was in fact one that came from within. Already in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the UK was shocked to discover there were young Britons fighting alongside the Taliban and Al-Qa’ida. The shoe bombers later in the year were evidence of what this could turn into. And in 2005, Londoners woke to the grim reality that these individuals were willing to come back and commit atrocities on their home soil. This exposed a key dimension that was going to be needed in the response: to find ways of better engaging with the wider communities within our societies from which these individuals came. The need for a holistic response had already been identified in 2003 in the early versions of the counterterrorism strategy CONTEST, but what this actually meant in practice and how essential this was only became apparent later.

But the converse of this holistic, all-of-society response, was to turn everyone into a security agent. Something that rankled parts of society who felt that the approach was overly intrusive and stepping all over civil liberties which a liberal-democratic society should cherish. While politics played some role in this discourse, the reality was that much of the political establishment was largely supportive of expansive powers being given to security services in their pursuit of shielding us from violent extremists.

The perennial conundrum this created, however, was that there was a conclusion that the problem came from within and we needed to work with Muslim communities in particular to deal with the problems. But at the same time, those very communities disliked the exaggerated negative attention they were receiving, feeling even more ostracised by the very policies purportedly developed to help them to better integrate.

These were unfortunately not debates that were ever really resolved, and took place against the backdrop of a threat that continued to evolve and develop. From being almost entirely directed by Al-Qa’ida using bases in Pakistan drawing on the UK’s deep human connection with that country, the terrorist threat spread to places such as Somalia and Yemen. Young Britons continued to get animated by extremist ideas and were drawn to an ever-expanding range of locations to join fundamentalist groups. This broadened the range of places the research community needed to understand. But it also highlighted the deep persistence of the problem even after senior figures and camps got hammered by the increasingly far-reaching UAV (drone) strike campaigns.

This particular tactic raised a new set of questions for the UK – around proportionality and state assassination. The US had clearly already set a path in this direction, but for the UK the discussion was a complex one which touched on a complicated history of the Irish troubles. The UAV capability provided a level of reach that was unparalleled, but it raised complicated ethical issues. Legal systems in the UK were already struggling with new legislation aiming to criminalise possession of material, ideas and conviction for acts which had not taken place.

And then the emergence of the Islamic State from the civil war in Syria appeared to suggest the entire cycle was repeating itself once again but closer to home. There were new tweaks to the Islamic State menace, whose exceptional online presence provided researchers with an extraordinary level of data and information which they could use to analyse the threats posed by the group. Individual terrorists could be spoken to from the battlefield. Group messaging became global and accessible instantaneously, something Osama bin Laden could only dream of achieving.

This also sharpened problems that were already emerging. The lone-actor threat had already started to appear in the UK in 2007. But by the time the war in Syria took off, it had become a more prominent part of the threat. In part no doubt as a result of an effective security response which made it harder for large-scale plots to get through, but also as a result of the fact that the ideas were now so diffuse that anyone could easily access them and react to them.

The research discourse also started to evolve. As we moved into a time of isolated terrorists, the question of ideology and group identity started to get overtaken by research focusing on individual stories, causes and narratives. This in turn created a wave of research trying to craft the nuanced responses that would be required to deal with a problem which was as unique as each individual who had become involved. This then opened up a focus on different sub-groups – be it on the basis of gender, age or mental health. This transformed the nature of communities that researchers were focused on.

But the grim reality is that the problem of terrorism has never really left us and is unlikely to. During this 20-year chapter defined by the opening salvo of the 9/11 attacks and closed (at least in political narrative terms) by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the world has gone through many contortions. The research community has found itself following and echoing these. But often the most frequent finding is that these problems are not new, the drivers are as much personal as societal, and the danger is that we continue to reinvent the wheel as we seek to find an answer to what is likely an intractable societal ill. Terrorism existed pre-9/11, and it is going to follow us deep into the future.

The RUSI Journal has published extensively on these themes over the past 20 years. This collection of articles traces how our understanding has evolved since that momentous day in September 2001.

Finally on this past few week’s blast, a piece for Foreign Policy which was actually set up before events in Afghanistan came to a head, but had to get pushed back a bit. It is also my first piece with my excellent RSIS colleague Basit, with whom I have a few projects in the pipeline. Undoubtedly more on this topic and with Basit to come. Suspect the China and regional terrorism axis of topicality is only going to grow as we go further forwards.

Why Terrorists Will Target China in Pakistan

As awareness of Uyghur persecution increases and anger about Beijing’s investment projects simmers, Chinese citizens and businesses are likely to suffer.

Pakistani rangers stand in front of the Chinese consulate after an attack in Karachi on November 23, 2018. – At least two policemen were killed when unidentified gunmen stormed the Chinese consulate in the Pakistani port city of Karachi on November 23, officials said. (Photo by ASIF HASSAN / AFP) (Photo credit should read ASIF HASSAN/AFP via Getty Images)

With great power comes great responsibility, as the old Marvel comics maxim goes. But great power also attracts envy, anger, and enemies.

This is something that China is learning belatedly—and much to its chagrin—in Pakistan, where its investment projects are facing complications and its citizens and facilities are increasingly being targeted by local terrorist organizations, from jihadi groups like Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to ethnoseparatists in Balochistan and Sindh.

China has long been in the crosshairs of Pakistani militants. But lately the pace of attacks appears to be picking up. Last Friday saw the latest attempt, this time by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) against Chinese transports in Gwadar. The group has repeatedly targeted high-profile Chinese targets in Pakistan, including the Chinese Consulate in Karachi in November 2018.

Reports diverge regarding the casualties of this latest attack, with the BLA claiming it killed six Chinese nationals and three security guards, while Chinese and Pakistani authorities claim one Chinese national was injured and two children were killed (the BLA claims the two children were killed by scattershot firing from Pakistani forces). Whatever the grim count, the attack is the fourth high-profile incident this year, and it also confirms the worrying trend of using suicide bombers, an innovation for the Balochi group.

Pakistan has become a microcosm of a larger reality that Beijing is going to have to contend with globally. As it becomes a global power on the world stage, it is going to attract the anger of terrorist organizations. Beijing’s willingness to engage with the Taliban may be an attempt to try to preempt such problems in the new Afghanistan, but history has shown this to be a risky gamble for Beijing.

China tried to strike an earlier pre-9/11 deal with the Taliban to get them to do something about Uyghur groups the Chinese had noticed gathering in Afghanistan, but it is unclear that the Taliban did anything about those groups.

The new deal Beijing and the Taliban are reported to have struck is likely not dissimilar to the previous one in its concerns, but now there is the additional question of the large number of Chinese nationals who can be found around the region, including various intrepid entrepreneurs in Kabul who may not adhere to the various sharia laws the Taliban will impose. Who will guarantee their safety? And none of this will help Beijing overcome the larger problem of the inevitable enemies you attract once you have superpower status.

The Gwadar attack last Friday followed the killing of nine Chinese engineers working on the Dasu hydroelectric power project in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province—an attack that remains formally unclaimed. Soon after that attack, two Chinese nationals were shot at and one wounded in Karachi by a different Baloch separatist group (the Baloch Liberation Front). In March, a Sindhi separatist group wounded a Chinese national in a gun assault, also in Karachi. This followed two similar incidents in December.

Most dramatically, China’s ambassador to Pakistan, Nong Rong, narrowly escaped an attack by the TTP in April at the Serena Hotel in Quetta. Responsibility for this grim roster of incidents comes from a growing range of actors, highlighting the escalating nature of the problem that China is facing in Pakistan.

The most effective of these attacks was the assault in Dasu. Chinese sources have attributed it to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM)—a group whose existence is disputed and whose name is mostly used to refer to a group that calls itself the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP)—acting in unison with the TTP. Both Pakistan and China also used the opportunity to cast blame on India—a perennial accusation thrown around terrorist attacks in Pakistan.

More formally, Beijing seemed to widen the circle of blame during the Afghan Taliban’s two-day visit to China, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi demanding that the Taliban make a clean break from ETIM/TIP and take action against it in Afghanistan as ‘it was a direct threat to China’s national security.’

While not stated explicitly, the statement appeared to be a shot across the bow, suggesting a condition for Beijing’s recognition of the Taliban government as the group takes power in Afghanistan. Beijing has continued to focus on ETIM as a preeminent concern that could attempt to take root, potentially emanating from the instability that is likely to follow the Taliban’s takeover, and it is not clear how confident Beijing is in Taliban assurances about managing ETIM threats.

But the abrupt increase in terrorist attacks on Chinese nationals and projects in Pakistan underscores how anti-Chinese militancy is evolving against the backdrop of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

China may be developing its relationship with the Taliban in part to mitigate these concerns, but the problem is much bigger than something Taliban leaders can control. Previously, the jihadi community was fairly ambivalent about China. Osama bin Laden was even quoted pre-9/11 saying that Beijing could be a strategic ally for the jihadi community given their collective antagonism toward the United States. But at the time, China was still seen as a developing country. Now it is the world’s second-largest economy and is increasingly becoming the most consequential actor in Afghanistan’s neighborhood. This changes the common perception of China and brings tension with it.

This tension is most clearly visible in Pakistan. Even though Beijing and Islamabad are close friends and strategic partners, Pakistan has consistently been the location of the highest number of terrorist attacks against Chinese nationals in any country.

This situation has the potential to get worse for Beijing. For the last two decades, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan kept the terrorist threat from that country in check, meaning China did not need to preoccupy itself too much with security challenges. With the U.S. exit, that security buffer is gone, as is the distraction of the great American Satan being present on Afghan soil.

China has sought to strengthen its direct defenses with Afghanistan through building bases and providing support to Tajik and Pakistani forces on either side of the Wakhan Corridor, alongside building its own direct bases in Tajikistan and bases for the former national Afghan government forces in Badakhshan (bases whose current status is unknown but presumably now under Taliban control).

This somewhat limited effort was being carried out when the United States was still there and providing definitive assurances to keep militant groups in check and even helping target anti-Chinese groups. In February 2018, the U.S. military targeted a series of camps in Badakhshan that were reportedly being used by the Taliban and ETIM.

The problem for China could get even worse. While the United States was at the receiving end of jihadi attacks for intervening in Afghanistan and for what was perceived as a broader anti-Muslim crusade as a result of the global war on terror, China is confronted with the ire of both the jihadi and the ethno-separatist groups in the region.

Sindhi and Baloch ethno-separatist groups perceive China as a neocolonial power usurping their resources and partnering with their primary adversary, the Pakistani state, to worsen their already abysmal socioeconomic condition. This was clearly articulated in the Baloch Liberation Front’s claim of responsibility for shooting at the Chinese nationals in Karachi: ‘In the garb of development projects, China is not only colluding with the Pakistani state in plundering the Baloch resources but assisting in the Baloch community’s persecution as well.’

Jihadi groups have been less focused in their anger toward China, continuing to see the United States and the West as their primary external adversaries. But at the same time, there is a palpable uptick in propaganda narratives directed toward China. This is often linked to Beijing’s persecution of the beleaguered Uyghur Muslim community in China’s Xinjiang region.

Rising ideologues like the mufti Abu Zar al-Burmi—originally from Myanmar—tie these narratives together. Since 2015, the firebrand orator Burmi has been framing China as the next neocolonial power after the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan. Burmi, for instance, told his followers in a statement, ‘Mujahideen should know that the coming enemy of the ummah is China, which is developing its weapons day after day to fight the Muslims.’ In another video, titled ‘Let’s Disturb China,’ he argues that after the ‘Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan our next target will be China.’

His anti-Chinese rhetoric, combining narratives of Chinese colonialism (in his native Myanmar as well as Xinjiang) with accounts of Muslim persecution, has drawn jihadi attention to Beijing. Echoes of these sentiments are also found among some Indonesian jihadi groups and among ultranationalists in Central Asia.

Xinjiang has long been a discussion point for the global jihadi community, but the community has never dedicated resources toward doing anything about it. While it is still unclear that this has changed, what is noticeable is that the narrative is sharpening and the Uyghur cause is no longer the marginal issue that it used to be. Uyghur fighters are regularly praised by other jihadi factions for their bravery in battle.

For a country like Pakistan, which shares a direct border with Xinjiang, it has been a political hot potato, with Prime Minister Imran Khan regularly championing and defending China’s treatment of its Muslim minority. This has extended to not offering protections to the Uyghur community that is resident in Pakistan and has fallen into China’s suspicious crosshairs. This merely adds to the anger against the Pakistani state that is felt from within the jihadi community. Nevertheless, attacking China in Xinjiang or elsewhere in the mainland is a tall order for these groups.

By contrast, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—a network of highways, railways, power projects, and other projects that will enter Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region from Xinjiang and culminate at Gwadar port—presents these groups with numerous opportunities to hurt Beijing as well as the Pakistani government. Chinese investment in Pakistan has become a sort of soft underbelly for Beijing.

In its next planned phase, CPEC will spread further across Pakistan. And beyond formal CPEC projects, there is a growing number of potential Chinese targets in the country through the thousands of individual travelers and entrepreneurs who take advantage of the smooth visa access into Pakistan to seek opportunities. This will vastly expand Pakistani terrorist groups’ potential Chinese targets and complicate Pakistani government efforts to provide protection. More Chinese and Pakistanis are likely to suffer.

The problem for Beijing is that Chinese targets in Pakistan (and Afghanistan and further afield) will become increasingly attractive. This is in part a product of China’s growing presence and alliance with an Islamabad government that has a plethora of enemies on the ground, but it’s also because of the growing prominence of China at the global level.

Terrorist groups ultimately seek to deliver a political message to draw attention their cause; spectacular acts of violence are the tool they use to accomplish this. Each attack helps with promoting their message, recruiting, fundraising, and more. By targeting China—now the world’s second-largest economy—jihadi, ethno-separatist, and other terrorist groups are all increasingly guaranteed this attention. China is discovering that becoming a great power also comes with great risks.

A longer piece for an outlet I have written for a few times before, the world’s oldest journal dedicated solely to international affairs, Current History. Am again here looking at China through the lens of the Belt and Road Initiative (previous pieces have looked at Central Asia and South Asia), this time looking at how it impacts and influences beyond infrastructure. It is currently free to access on their site, so please download directly, but have also provided some links at the bottom of this post.

“The BRI is creating a web of links around the world that will guarantee some form of pervasive Chinese influence for generations to come.”

The Many Faces of China’s Belt and Road Initiative

Global Trends: January 2021

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is best known as a massive set of infrastructure projects stretching from Asia to Europe. But more than that, it is a sweeping foreign policy vision that provides China with opportunities for deep engagement with virtually every aspect of state and society in its partner countries. Many developing countries welcome the investments and opportunities for trade linked to the initiative, but some of the projects have sparked local resistance over fears of unfair terms or potential opportunities for Chinese intelligence penetration.

The emergence of COVID-19 initially loomed as a catastrophe for the leadership of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Although Beijing later tried to change the narrative of the pandemic’s origins, the first major outbreak of the novel coronavirus occurred in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province and the largest city in central China. Early in 2020, the PRC leadership faced a domestic crisis as people in the afflicted region panicked and accusations flew over mismanagement of the outbreak. President Xi Jinping, seemingly worried that his reputation might be affected by association with the disaster, dispatched Prime Minister Li Keqiang to serve as the face of the official response. The time-worn strategy of blaming local leaders was deployed; a range of Wuhan officials was condemned and punished in quick succession. All the while, Beijing stayed above the fray, seeking to absolve itself of responsibility.

As time passed, and as health authorities in Wuhan (and around China) brought the outbreak under control, Beijing switched its approach. The leadership had come to see COVID-19, which by then had become a global pandemic, as an opportunity for China to show a positive face to the world. Having quietly accepted aid from other countries in the early days of the outbreak (privately requesting that European powers refrain from publicizing the assistance they provided), China decided to champion the aid it had begun to distribute around the world.

China’s “medical diplomacy” (sometimes called “mask diplomacy”) focused on sharing expertise and sending doctors and medical equipment to countries that were struggling to control the virus. This was all wrapped together and labeled a “Health Silk Road.” Beijing was relying on the diplomatic playbook that had come to typify the Xi era. Almost everything China does outside its borders increasingly is incorporated into a Silk Road narrative.

By doing so, Beijing is associating a variety of policies with its overarching vision for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is a foreign policy framework that Xi first articulated in 2013, when he spoke of creating a Silk Road Economic Belt across Central Asia. Soon after that, he called for creating a twenty-first century Maritime Silk Road. The two schemes together make up the foundation of the BRI.

For more, go either to Current History or get in touch or download it here.

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

Very belatedly a review for RUSI Journal of Christine Fair’s recent book on Lashkar-e-Toiba. Well worth a read for those interested in the group.

Also taking this opportunity to catch up on media appearances as it has been a while. On the terrorism side of the equation spoke to the Independent about extreme right wing proscriptions in the UK, NBC about the growing right wing problem in Europe, and Matt Feldman cited some of my earlier work in this very interesting piece on the radical right and lone actors. On the China and the world side of the equation spoke to CNN about UK-China relations, to the Austrian Der Kurier about 5G, China and Europe, the Daily Express picked up an earlier piece for the Sunday Times about China/Russia geopolitics, Asia Times quoted some earlier work on China and Central Asia, while spoke to RFE/RL at some length for this bigger piece about China-Central Asia.

In Their Own Words: Understanding Lashkar-e-Tayyaba

Fair-NEW-WEB-REVISED

C Christine Fair Hurst, 2019

Considered by some to be one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) emerged from the ‘fag end’ (p. 57) of the Afghan Civil War that more famously produced Al-Qa’ida. Responsible for the 2008 attacks on Mumbai, arguably the most audacious terrorist attacks since 9/11 and likely one of the key inspirations for the November 2015 attacks by the Islamic State on Paris, LeT is in fact one of the most sophisticated terrorist groups around. As C Christine Fair points out in In Their Own Words: Understanding Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, an impressive and detailed history of the group, the organisation has long since moved from being a simple terrorist organisation to becoming a political party, charity and branch of the Pakistani deep state (Pakistan’s solid and consistent ruling structures formed mostly from its security structures) that continues to be a factor in regional politics. Given the centrality to local and international security affairs of its host country, Pakistan, this gives the group an outsized relevance on the international stage. Being a potential spark between two nuclear powers that have long been at each other’s throats gives weight to LeT’s actions.

The group’s link to the UK has always been complex. Back in the 1990s, its senior leadership would openly visit the UK to raise money for its cause from the large Kashmiri diaspora. Its narrative of being at the forefront of the fight to liberate Kashmir appealed to much of the UK’s Kashmiri-Pakistani community. Some British citizens went to fight alongside the group, leading to the first trial against a Muslim imam in the UK in 1997, when then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw sought to deport an Oldham-based Ahl-e-Hadith (the sect which provides LeT’s ideological basis) preacher who was assessed by MI5 as raising money, recruiting and facilitating travel of young Britons to fight alongside LeT in Kashmir. The path to liberate Kashmir that the preacher was accused of fostering was the same one along which the 7 July 2005 London bombers started their journey to infamy. Written from an American perspective, Fair’s book tends to see the Mumbai attacks as the moment when US officialdom really started to focus attention on the ground – the UK was already deeply concerned about the group long before this. Fair also shows the importance of the UK, partition and post-colonialism in the group’s mythology (p. 21). A heavily Punjabi organisation, LeT recruits in the part of Pakistan which was most badly impacted following partition (p. 115).

Fair is a well-established scholar of LeT and Pakistan, and an author of numerous books and academic texts on the country and the terrorist groups within it. Her mastery of the languages, and social and political dynamics of the region, is on clear display in this book, which uses LeT’s own texts to explain the group. Through this, she opens up a number of interesting new aspects.

One particular phenomenon she highlights using these texts is the role of women within LeT, and their importance in the group’s dynamic. This stands in contrast to other Kashmiri-focused jihadi groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed (p. 135) and is what helps strengthen the organisation as a national institution. ‘LeT is the only jihadiorganization in Pakistan that has an active women’s wing that issues its own publications’ (p. 135). This is significant given the large number of jihadi organisations in the country. In the various LeT texts Fair cites, she quotes stories about women’s support for the group, their pride in their sons or husbands fighting and dying for the group – calling on their menfolk’s ‘brothers’ to not ‘let his Kalashnikov fall’ (p. 144). She also identifies how the group goes out of its way to permit and encourage female support at its events, including creating a separate section where they can gather at public events. The fact the group does this at some monetary cost reflects the importance it assigns to women’s participation. Most recruitment Fair identifies takes place among family and friends (p. 125). While she does not explicitly identify any countermeasures that might deal with the role of women as radicalisers for the group, she does propose the idea of women being a vector for future countering violent extremism engagements. Fair is clearly interested in the role of women in the group, and sees some value in looking in the future into understanding how they might be used to help deradicalise cadres.

The book is also persuasive in illustrating the importance of Kashmir to the overall Pakistani national mythology and its centrality to the Pakistani security state. She quotes Chief of Army Staff (often referred to as the most important figure in the country given the dominance of the army in national affairs) Raheel Sharif who during his Martyr’s Day speech in 2014 ‘explained that Kashmir is Pakistan’s sheh rag, or jugular vein … Kashmir is “nothing less than a struggle for [the] very existence of Pakistan as a viable nation-state”’ (p. 36). Within this context, LeT, one of the key foot soldiers in the struggle for Kashmir, is characterised as a central institution of Pakistan’s deep state. The emergence of a political branch (the Milli Muslim League, MML), its emphasis on charity and support in disaster-stricken areas (in particular during the 2005 earthquake, though Fair points out how the Pakistani state has sought to exaggerate its role (p.190)), as well as its well-funded and effective security apparatus, make it a very useful and deniable proxy in the ongoing tensions between Pakistan and India.

In contrast to the many other proxies that the Pakistani state is accused of supporting, in the book LeT is shown to be one that the state supports both practically and ideologically in many different ways. For example, it refrains from launching attacks within the country, it has refused to stir up the sectarianism that is popular within Pakistan against the Ahmadiyya community (a minority Muslim sect that is believed by many to be apostate) and it tells its followers that they are not permitted to overthrow Muslim leaders. This is something the group finds itself talking about a lot as followers ask why the organisation is so fixated on fighting enemies of Islam abroad when the government in Pakistan is hurting Muslims through its corrupt behaviour. The group’s line is that such leaders do not deserve to be overthrown, but rather to be persuaded through active proselytisation. In her book, Fair cites a number of LeT thinkers who say ‘violence is never a legitimate response with which to contend with an illegitimate Muslim leader no matter how dissolute he may be’ (p. 172). As with many things, the LeT thinkers see ‘any argument for jihad in Pakistan as a conspiracy, fostered by India or other enemies of Pakistan’ (p. 172).

A detailed and academic text, Fair’s book is written in the form of chapters which can each stand alone. While this might impede narrative flow across the book as a whole, it does make for a rich text which draws on an impressive array of primary texts including a number of LeT’s own magazines, books and reports to paint a detailed picture of the group. Given LeT’s continuing importance, such insightful work is to be welcomed and shows the complex and diverse array of extremist groups that the world continues to face.