Archive for the ‘ACADEMIC JOURNALS’ Category

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.

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

After the Coronavirus, Terrorism won’t be the same

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

By |April 22, 2020, 3:33 AM

LEBANON-HEALTH-VIRUS-HEZBOLLAH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally in this catch up wave, a piece from earlier this week for Foreign Policy looking in some more detail at the recent burst of terrorist attacks in the UK. To also catch up on some media appearances, spoke to the Guardian about recidivism amongst terrorists in the UK, to Yahoo News and the Daily Mail about the vogue of using fake bombs and knives in attacks, the earlier RSIS piece on Streatham was picked up by Eurasian Review, on the other side of the coin spoke to CNN about China and Europe and the earlier Telegraph piece commenting in the wake of the UK’s Huawei decision was picked up by China Digital Times.

Tougher Sentencing Won’t Stop Terrorism
A string of attacks in Britain have led Boris Johnson’s government to seek simple remedies that won’t fix the problem.

Police assist an injured man in London, on Nov.  29, 2019 after reports of shots being fired on London Bridge.

Police assist an injured man in London, on Nov. 29, 2019 after reports of shots being fired on London Bridge. DANIEL SORABJI/AFP via Getty Images

In the wake of Britain’s third terrorist incident in two months—a stabbing carried out by a recently released terrorist offender in the South London neighborhood of Streatham—the U.K. government is reaching for the most obvious legislation at hand to prevent such attacks and seeking to extend the detention of convicted terrorist offenders.

Drafting policy in the wake of a terrorist attack is always fraught with danger. With emotions high, people will grasp at whatever flaw in the system seems obvious at that moment—police surveillance, parole leniency, sentencing laws—and use that as the basis for new policies. Yet the consequences of such knee-jerk reactions can be far-reaching, and undoing the damage later can be complicated. Most worryingly, quick fixes tend to overlook the real reasons behind the problem. While some of the government’s proposed responses—such as increasing investment in probation—deserve to be applauded, the push to simply extend detention won’t address the issue at hand.

It is helpful to start by looking at the three recent cases in detail. The first took place Nov. 29, 2019, when a released terrorist offender used knives and a fake suicide vest to attack a rehabilitation conference he was attending, murdering two people before being shot by police on London Bridge. On Jan. 9, a convicted terrorist prisoner in the HMP Whitemoor prison in Cambridgeshire led an attack using bladed weapons and fake suicide vests against prison wardens. And on Feb. 2, a recently released terrorist offender was shot down as he sought to pursue an attack on shoppers in Streatham using a knife and a fake suicide vest. Given these incidents happened within the span of a few months and appear similar on the surface, they have been treated as a trend. Yet a close examination reveals many differences.

While some of the government’s proposed responses—such as increasing investment in probation—deserve to be applauded, the push to simply extend detention won’t address the issue at hand.

All three cases involved individuals who had been convicted of terrorism offenses and had served or were serving time for them. But when they launched their attacks, they were at very different stages of their sentences—in HMP Whitemoor, the convicted terrorist offender still had years to go (and now will doubtless have many more), while the London Bridge and Streatham attackers had been released on license. The London Bridge attacker had been out of prison for about one year and had, during that time, participated in a deradicalization program. He had stopped in the months prior to the attack; the full story of what took place in the intervening months has not yet emerged.

In contrast, the Streatham attacker never engaged in any deradicalization programs while in prison and on release appears to have quite quickly decided to carry out an attack. Evidence of his determination was clear after his initial arrest on May 17, 2018, following an investigation into his online activity. Not only did police find voluminous amounts of extremist material that he had shared with his family and friends, but they also found notebooks full of expressions of his desire to be a martyr and bomb-making plans.

Following his arrest, he was interviewed 19 times, during which time he largely responded “no comment” to all of the questions posed. During his sentencing hearing on Dec. 17, 2018, the judge commented on his level of fanaticism, something also emphasized by the head of the U.K. counterterrorism command when he commented on him post-sentencing.

The three cases are therefore quite distinct: The HMP Whitemoor case involves an individual who is facing a long incarceration, the London Bridge attack concerns a man who started to engage with a deradicalization program and then stopped, and the Streatham attacker seemed very firmly set on a course toward committing a violent crime. A failure in deradicalization programs was only potentially an issue in the London Bridge attack. The attacker seemed to be on a positive path once out of prison but then veered off course for reasons that are still not clear.

Of the three, a longer prison sentence would be most clearly relevant in the Streatham case, though it is unclear that the additional year in prison he would have had to serve if he’d completed his full sentence would have been enough to deter him from carrying out an attack. He had not shown any evidence of abandoning his ideas and was of such concern to security services that they had maintained intense surveillance on him after his release. It is hard to imagine that another year in prison would have done much to deradicalize him.

History actually shows that recidivism among convicted terrorist offenders in the U.K. is quite rare.

For the attacker in HMP Whitemoor, an already heavy sentence will now likely double. Longer sentencing may not have much effect (except to increase his eagerness to attack more guards). In fact, reporting on the case suggests that he has been radicalizing other prisoners, leading ad hoc sharia courts, and causing problems for prison guards.

And beyond these three cases, it is important to remember that there is a large number of terrorist offenders in prisons, many of whom are due to be released soon. These are the ones who might be affected by the government’s rushed policies. Yet no evidence has been produced that they are all in the same bracket as either the Streatham or London Bridge attacker. History actually shows that recidivism among convicted terrorist offenders in the U.K. is quite rare.

According to my research, since 2013, out of approximately 40 known plots, there have been just six plots involving people who had previously been charged with or convicted of terrorism offenses. Two plots involved people who had been charged for prior extremist activity: a group from 2014 that wanted to stab a poppy seller during Remembrance Day and a group known as the Three Musketeers that was arrested in 2016 plotting a knife and bomb attack. One of the three had been previously arrested alongside the London Bridge attacker, while the other two were part of a failed 2011 attempt to travel to a terrorist training camp in Pakistan.

According to Home Office figures, during the year ending June 2019, 53 prisoners held for terrorism-related offenses were released. Most, as far as authorities know, have not reoffended. It is therefore clear that not every terrorist offender who is released from prison will behave like the Streatham attacker.

A more salient similarity among the three cases is the attackers’ relative youth at the moment of first being arrested.

The London Bridge attacker’s house was first raided when he was 17 years old, the Streatham attacker was arrested for the offense for which he was jailed at 17, and the HMP Whitemoor attacker was picked up for involvement in a terrorist plot when he was 18.

While this is not a new phenomenon—two of the 2005 London bombers were 18 and 19 years old—there has recently been an increase in very young people becoming involved in active terrorist plotting. One of the cases of concern in the press at the moment is of an anonymous boy who was arrested at the age of 14 for being involved in an Islamic State-linked plot to attack security officials in Australia and is due for release soon.

This growing cohort of young offenders suggests that the process of radicalization is taking place at a very young age, when people are more susceptible to negative influences. In other contexts, young people who are drawn into violent or criminal activity are dealt with through criminal sanctions and engagement in rehabilitation programs, given that the young tend to be more susceptible to influencing. If such young people are being radicalized, the government needs to reconsider how it is handling such cases. Long prison sentences are undoubtedly justified in some cases, but the youth of the offender might mean that, in other cases, a more intensive rehabilitation program might help place them on a better path.

Finally, there is the question of copycat attacks. It is clear that the three attacks were in part inspired by each other—the attackers all chose to use the same methodology of knives and fake suicide vests, which is a relatively new innovation on the U.K. terrorist scene. In the wake of five terrorist attacks in 2017, Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu commented how the first attack using a car against tourists on Westminster Bridge and knives on police in front of Parliament had to some degree inspired the others. As he put it, the March 2017 Westminster Bridge attacker “gave fellow violent extremists the understanding that the U.K. was not such a hostile place to launch attacks and that by using this simple methodology you could succeed.”

The dilemma law enforcement officials face is how to stop attacks from inspiring other attacks. The question is likely around coverage of incidents, rather than anything to do with the incidents themselves.

The vogue for knife attacks started in 2013 after two radicalized individuals murdered an off-duty soldier by running him down and then trying to decapitate him on a street in South London.

Covered in the victim’s blood, they then declaimed their radical message to bystanders’ smartphones and the world, filling news broadcasts for weeks afterward and showing other terrorists how easily successful attacks could go viral and grab the world’s attention. The answers will not be found in prisons; to effectively break these chains of attacks, governments and journalists need to think carefully about how terrorist incidents are covered and reported.

The questions of the effectiveness of deradicalization programs, occasional recidivism, very young offenders, and the inspirational effect of attacks will not be answered by a simple extension of sentencing. While there may well be cases where offenders should be imprisoned for longer, it is not a solution that is applicable to all. And it is counterproductive to publicize certain cases in the press when it is clear from history that the majority of individuals who have served sentences for terrorism offenses have not returned to terrorist activity. Having their names and faces splashed in the press is unlikely to help with their rehabilitation and might leave them feeling ostracized and motivate them to return to terrorism.

Judicial and policy decisions must be objective and delivered without emotion. If a government chooses to pass new legislation on terrorism at a moment when the country is reeling from attacks, it is unlikely to make sensible and dispassionate judgments. There may well be gaps in legislation, but the British government must be careful to ensure that any new legislation addresses real problems, rather than simply pandering to the public’s fears.

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

With considerable delay, doing a bunch of catch up posting. A lot has changed in the offline world, with a change in my role at RUSI and a new position in Singapore at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) reflecting the fact that am spending more time out in Asia. Still working on much the same things, but with a slightly different geographical orientation. First up, a book review in the RUSI Journal for Shiv Malik’s long-delayed book The Messenger.

The Messenger

In early October 2018, the Metropolitan Police issued a press release detailing the conviction of a grim-faced man called Hassan Butt for some amateurish online fraud. On the surface, this was a fairly pedestrian case. It was, however, the culmination of years of investigations involving networks linked to Al-Qa’ida in the UK, the destruction of a journalist’s career, a High Court debate about the protection of journalistic sources, and the role and links of MI5 in the terrorist networks it was investigating.

Shiv Malik was the journalist at the heart of this story. After almost a decade of work, he has produced a gripping account of his experiences being caught up in the frenzied early days of the British discovery of a homegrown terrorist threat.

The story told in this book is part of an earlier time in Britain’s exposure to violent Islamist terror, when the threat everyone was focused on was articulated most severely in the July 2005 bombings: young men who had decided to turn so brutally against their community. Shiv Malik’s The Messenger tells the detailed story of one such case. It focuses on Hassan Butt, an individual whose extremist views gained prominence within the public discourse and who ultimately spoke out and turned against his former comrades. The book gradually reveals, however, that Butt might also have been working for the Security Services all along as part of a complex undercover operation.

Butt’s story has always raised more questions than it has answered. He first emerged in the public eye after the 9/11 attacks as a spokesman for Al-Muhajiroun, a militant Islamist organisation based in London and Lahore. After moving to Pakistan, Butt headed a group of British extremists who supported Al-Qa’ida and claimed to have mobilised over 200 young British men to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan. He communicated with the British public through press releases and extremist statements, acting as a one-stop shop for foreign journalists seeking pro-Al-Qa’ida perspectives. Butt thrived in this role and enjoyed his heavy influence on the public discourse so much that his Al-Muhajiroun leader – the notorious Omar Bakri Mohammed – started to joke about how he had eclipsed him in infamy.

Despite having achieved this celebrity status, Butt turned on his former colleagues by deciding to work against Al-Qa’ida: the organisation he had previously so fervently supported. His own reported reasons are explored in the book, and they appear to stem from encounters with serious Al-Qa’ida figures in Pakistan whom he helped to launch a series of brutal attacks in Karachi. When he challenges one of them about the innocent people killed in the attacks, he is simply told that ‘they’ll be carried by Allah for their good deeds’. For Butt, this is an unsatisfactory answer. He finds himself appalled by the fact that ‘they’d decided when to end other, innocent people’s lives’. This appears to have been Butt’s Damascene moment.

Malik, the author, entered Butt’s life at the same time. He was initially pointed to Butt as someone under evaluation by the BBC as a potential source of information regarding the July 2005 bombings. Malik developed a strong relationship with Butt, even deciding to help write his biography. He quickly became wrapped up in Butt’s adventure, partly on the basis of their shared history as two young South Asian men growing up in England.

In the years immediately following the July 2005 bombings, the two worked together in discussing the threat the UK faces and attempting to develop Butt’s story into a book. Malik found himself ‘truly believing in [Butt]’ and claimed that ‘[he] was willing to give almost anything to see him succeed’. This honesty and candour sets up the book’s climax: in May 2008, Butt was arrested and denied much of the story that he had shared with Malik under questioning.

It is safe to say that Butt’s tale is confusing. As well informing Greater Manchester Police that he had lied to Malik after his arrest, he faked his own stabbing and claimed that former colleagues had attacked him for his betrayal. This came after Malik had launched an expensive High Court appeal to protect the manuscript and notes that he and Butt had been working on – a reaction to police demands to use the text for prosecution.

But, as the book shows, the twists and turns do not end there. We still do not know what Butt’s real role was. The theory that he might have been working for the Security Services all along is repeatedly alluded to alongside the importance that Malik attaches to Butt’s contact with some of the most dangerous jihadist figures in the UK. The latter is evidenced by his widely recorded contacts, interviews and appearances by independent observers. Despite his proximity to numerous investigations, however, he was never prosecuted for terrorism offences.

In light of this evidence, Malik tentatively concludes that Butt was manipulated by the Security Services so they could control his narrative and distract journalists from more serious investigations. The author alleges that he was warned about such tactics by an older colleague who had similar experiences in Northern Ireland; a tip-off which arguably strengthens the credibility of his argument.

But Malik takes his conclusion even further. In the wake of 9/11, Britain’s security services were deeply alarmed by the new threat they faced. They could not, however, mobilise the public support or resources necessary to counter it. By purposefully introducing such an extremist voice into public discourse, they would alarm and excite the public, thereby giving them the opportunity to secure the resources they needed. While such extremist voices had previously been caricatures – like Omar Bakri Mohammed or Abu Hamza – Butt offered a young, eloquent and homegrown alternative which was far more disturbing.

Of course, there are holes in this narrative. One simply has to think back to the tabloid headlines used to describe the two radical preachers just mentioned to see the appeal they provided to newspaper publishers. Why the authorities would need to add another voice to this narrative is unclear, but this ambiguity is exactly the space that intelligence forces like to work within. As time has gone by, it has become increasingly clear that – despite a slow start – the UK’s intelligence services have been able to penetrate the violent Islamist networks that threaten the country.

We are unlikely to know whether Malik’s conclusion accurately reflects Butt’s real role for a long time, if ever. A narcissistic and creative megalomaniac, Butt is a complex character who once mixed with some of the most dangerous men in the UK. And while, if he was associated with the Security Services, such people are essential to enable our security forces to protect us, this book reveals some of the consequences of these people’s actions on those around them. For example, many of Butt’s reported friends are now serving long prison sentences because of evidence he provided against them, while others are dead due to links he appears to have helped nurture.

While Malik had to take a break from journalism after this experience, Butt moved in networks responsible for encouraging and practicing violence. Though he may have secretly been working against them, it is hard to know how strong his loyalties were.

In the murky world of intelligence gathering and informers, lines of trust and reliability regularly blur – this story reveals what this reality looked like within the context of the UK’s struggle against violent Islamist terrorism. Written in the fast-paced style of an investigative report, this book is an excellent journey through a historical case which filled our front pages. It provides a fascinating account of the early wave of jihad in Britain.

Somewhat belatedly, posting a book chapter that emerged in Jihadist terror: New Threats, New Responses, edited by Dr Anthony Richards, Devorah Margolin and Nicolo Scremin, a book that came out of a big project and conference in London last year. A very big event with lots of interesting people, resulting in a very interesting looking edited volume. Given it is a book, the entire text is not published below, but I have pasted the abstract and feel free to get in touch if you would like to read more.

In media, my recent Wall Street Journal piece on how terrorism might evolve post-Baghdadi’s death generated an amusing epistolary response in the paper , and was also translated into Spanish. Also spoke to the National about the new allegiance pledges to the ISIS, to NBC about foreign fighters, AFP about the attack claimed by ISIS in Tajikistan, and earlier comments about the threat picture in the UK were used by Press Association and the Independent after JTAC lowered the terror threat level in the UK. Finally, Dr Philip Lewis quoted my book in a very interesting review essay in Church Times. On the other side of the coin, the IPI Global Observatory republished another recent piece for the East Asia Forum on China and Central Asia.

Personal and Organisational Patterns of Known Terrorists and Related Groups in the UK Since 1998

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As the UK’s domestic jihadist threat enters its fourth decade, the threat picture is one that is radically transformed from its early days. Drawing on information from just under 70 separate plots in the UK since 1998, this chapter sketches out the changing nature of the external threat picture, the nature of the individuals involved in the plots and the sorts of attacks that they were planning. Given the relatively limited space and discursive nature of the set thesis, the following is necessarily superficial in some ways, but sketches out a trajectory in the threat picture in the UK. The chapter breaks the time period down into four separate phases (1998-2004; 2004-2009; 2009-2013; 2013-2018), which capture four distinct moments in the nature of the violent Islamist terrorist threat to the UK. In concluding, it observes that the arc of threat has shifted from the UK being a launchpad for threats abroad, to a threat picture which is characterized by lone-actor style plots with greater inspiration, rather than clear direction, from foreign groups.

Have a bit of catch up posting to do, and have quite a few longer pieces that are in production at the moment. Some big personal news on the horizon too, feel free to get in touch if you want to hear more (or do some digging online). My personal hope is that the upside is more time to write. A perennial complaint, lets see how it pans out.

But onto the present. First of all a longer article in Asian Affairs journal as part of series they published after this conference in London during which you can see me present the ideas laid out in the piece. Some other excellent pieces by smart colleagues in the special edition of the journal which would highly recommend. The piece might be behind a firewall for you, and feel free to get in touch if you are having issues. In the meantime, am posting the abstract below and you might be able to find the piece here.

China in Central Asia: The First Strand of the Silk Road Economic Belt

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In starting his announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative in Astana, Kazakhstan, President Xi Jinping was very consciously making the point that the broader vision of BRI was something that drew out of an approach that had been long developing between China and Central Asia. Focused on trying to improve prosperity at home through development and prosperity in adjacent regions, China’s relationship with Central Asia was one which provided a model that Xi saw as a positive way to articulate China’s foreign policy more broadly. Consequently, however, China’s relationship with Central Asia provides a useful window into understanding China’s broader Belt and Road Initiative. In the article, the author lays out a short history of China’s relations with Central Asia, illustrates their current status, before offering seven broader lessons and issues to be found which can provide a useful prism through which to consider the longer-term impact of the Belt and Road Initiative around the world.

A slightly limited post just to flag up a chapter I have written in a new book that has been published by my publisher Hurst on Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in China: Domestic and Foreign Policy Dimensions. The book is the product of an excellent conference hosted by the wonderful Michael Clarke at the Australian National University in Canberra, which brings together a number of the top experts on the topic, covering China and terrorism from a number of different angles. Given the nature of the publication I cannot just repost here, but am sure you can all purchase copies and enjoy the wonderful text in its entirety.

My particular chapter covers the question of how Uighur terrorism has intersected with Middle Eastern jihadism over time, bringing it right up to day with what is going on in Syria at the moment (though it was delivered much earlier in the year). Here is the abstract for it:

Uyghur Terrorism in a Fractured Middle East

What is the relationship between Uyghur terrorism and the current troubles in the Middle East? The aim of this chapter is to explore this question and attempt to define the impact of Middle Eastern jihadist terrorism on Uyghur terrorism. It will look in particular at what is going on at the moment in Syria and Iraq; it will try to understand the nature of the groups that are there; and, where possible, what activities they appear to be involved in. There are three sections to this chapter: first, a historical study of the links between Middle Eastern jihadis and Uyghurs; second, an investigation of the links between Uyghur extremists and the current conflict in Syria; and finally, some conclusions on how this might all impact on China’s future policies.

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Undoubtedly a subject I will return to more in the future, especially given the current context around Xinjiang. This aside, spoke to DW about the Huawei crackdown and the relation this has to the US-China clash more broadly which appears to have also been picked up in Polish by Business Insider for those who can read that.

Another slightly longer piece about China lands this time in Current History, ‘the oldest US publication devoted exclusively to world affairs’. This looks at China’s growing push into South Asia, and India’s increasingly tense response to it. Somewhat relevant but a bit late for this piece, a Chinese colleague recently described managing relations with India as ‘ticklish’ which struck me as quite apt. This topic is going to grow in significance as time goes on, and am sure will end up doing more about it. In the meantime, for those interested in similar topics, check out the China in Central Asia site. I have posted a version of the paper here, but do check out the Current History site as well for the rest of the excellent journal.

“Beijing’s miscalculations regarding India have created conflict with a regional power that has the capability and desire to disrupt China’s outward push.”

China’s South Asian Miscalculation

South Asia: April 2018

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At a conference in China a few years ago, I watched as a Chinese expert gave a presentation laying out Beijing’s view of the military conflict that it faced in nearby seas. It was largely a story about the United States and East Asian competitors, and China’s aggressive assertions of ownership of islands in the South China Sea. At the end of the presentation, a former Indian officer raised his hand and indignantly asked why India had not been mentioned as a competitor.

In a moment of surprising candor, the Chinese expert responded that he did not include India because, from his perspective, it did not pose much of a threat to China. The answer riled the Indian participant, but it reflected a fundamental calculation that exists in Beijing about India. It is a calculation that could cause serious complications for China’s broader South Asian vision, and ultimately provoke a clash between the two Asian giants.

At stake is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a much-discussed and puzzled-over concept. It has been variously described as a Chinese power grab; an attempt by China to promote its companies’ overseas interests and build infrastructure to suit its own interests; an effort by Beijing to claim leadership of the international order; or, by Beijing’s own account, a project to bind together a “community of common destiny.” But it is really best understood as an umbrella concept that acts as a central organising principle for China’s foreign policy.

The core of this scheme—building trade and economic corridors that emanate from China in every direction—strengthens China’s position in the global order and across the Eurasian landmass. The aim of these corridors is not only to help Chinese firms go out into the world and increase China’s trade connections. Most importantly, they will help China develop domestically.

Ostensibly, this is a benign concept. By improving trade and transportation links through investments in infrastructure, China is enhancing the global commons. Few would say that more eco- nomic connectivity and prosperity is a bad thing. But the reality is of course very different. China is advancing its own national interests, and is doing so by offering a one-size-fits-all policy—which means that it can appear to be proffering the same opportunity to European powers and Southeast Asian neighbors alike. While this is a perfectly understandable self-interested approach, Beijing has been blind to geopolitical problems that it is exacerbating and which may in the long term disrupt its entire strategy.

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

Finishing some larger projects so things have gone a bit quiet, but a few big things in the pipeline on both China’s Eurasian relations and terrorism. In the meantime, I have a chapter with Matt in an excellent new book by Josh and Eric looking at China’s relations with Central Asia. We just launched it to great success in London this past week at RUSI. Given it is for sale, I cannot simply post it here, but if you get in touch I can do my best to help. You can also short circuit the process and buy the book at a very reasonable price in paper or online form on the Routledge website.

China Steps Out: Beijing’s Major Power Engagement with the Developing World

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