Archive for the ‘ACADEMIC JOURNALS’ Category

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

April2018

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.

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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

ChinaStepsOut

Slightly late posting here, but a longer review for my institutional journal RUSI Journal of two excellent recent books about terrorism – Al Qaeda’s Revenge by Fernando Reinares and The Exile by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark.

Al-Qaeda’s Revenge: The 2004 Madrid Train Bombings/The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden

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As an expression of human behaviour, politically motivated violence or terrorism is a constant. There will be extremists on most political spectrums and some of these will feel a need to use violence to awaken everyone else to their cause. Terrorists may occasionally come up with tactical innovations and ideological mutations, but their essential behaviour (the sorts of violence they will resort to) is generally repetitive. Although lone actors – instigated, inspired or directed by Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS) – have received much attention, the reality is that even this expression of terrorism is deeply linked to what has been previously enacted. Similarly, government reactions are remarkably repetitive, seemingly unaware of lessons from the past. This excellent pair of books highlights these realities, drawing on extensive research into well-trodden stories, generating new insights and clarifying the nature of past threats, those we are currently confronting and what they will look like in the future.

The new details and insights offered by these books are striking, especially since the subjects have been written about substantially. Fernando Reinares’s authoritative review of the 2004 Madrid bombings draws on a wealth of new material from security sources, court documents and more, to tell the story of the brutal attack that remains Europe’s most deadly terrorist atrocity linked to violent Islamists. Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy’s pacey volume reads like an action thriller, and draws on a wealth of interviews conducted with security officials, members of Al-Qa’ida and others, alongside an impressive wealth of new material to tell the story of Al-Qa’ida after the 9/11 attacks from the group’s perspective. Other books have dug into aspects of this tale, but this is the first work to provide details about what went on inside the Al-Qa’ida cluster that fled to Iran after the fall of Tora Bora in December 2001, and the centrality of Osama bin Laden’s family to the group’s post-Afghanistan journeys.

The shocking nature of individual terrorist attacks often leads to the conclusion that such attacks are a complete surprise. When these incidents occur, they seem to reflect a gap in the knowledge of security and intelligence agencies, which may seem unfathomable to the public. And indeed, the reality is that subsequent investigation usually uncovers connections, contacts and prior knowledge. Information that was previously ignored or overlooked assumes a greater importance, and with hindsight a clear story of how the attack slipped through undetected can be told. Whether the fault lies with inadequate oversight by relevant authorities or with the ability of the attackers to disguise their activities becomes a point of conjecture. Nonetheless, it usually emerges that security forces were aware of the groups that conducted the attack.

More recently this conventional pattern of how terrorists behave and how authorities respond has become more complex. The recent spate of lone-actor attacks, in which individuals appear to have acted on behalf of terrorist groups with which they have no discernible link, has started to confuse the picture. However, as research has shown, often the individual has some connections or demonstrated some activity that would show him or her to be less isolated than might initially appear.

After every incident there is a scramble to uncover what links exist and who might have known about them before the event took place. Ultimately, the aim is to apportion blame and explain the atrocity. However, often the information that comes out in the immediate aftermath of the incident is incomplete and incorrect.

These two books show in different ways how the consequences of this can be dramatic – something that was particularly visible in the wake of the Madrid bombings, when the government suggested that the atrocity might have been committed by ETA, the Basque separatist organisation. It soon emerged that the incident was in fact the product of a violent Islamist cell, which released messages claiming the attack. But many have linked this confusion and the degree to which the government was blamed for spreading the false rumour to the ultimate fall of the government of then Prime Minister José María Aznar. The most dramatic consequence was that Spain withdrew its forces from Iraq, in line with a campaign pledge by incoming Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Many have pointed to the link between the bombing and the withdrawal as evidence of successful political manipulation as a result of terrorism.

Yet, as Reinares shows in Al-Qaeda’s Revenge: The 2004 Madrid Train Bombings by drawing on previously less well-covered meetings of senior Al-Qa’ida figures, the planning of the plot went back further than Spain’s decision to participate in the US-led invasion of Iraq. He traces it to December 2001, when two North African Al-Qa’ida-linked men plotted in Karachi to make Spain suffer. Of Moroccan descent, Amer Azizi and Abdelatif Mourafik had jihadist pedigree and, in Reinares’s account, harboured anger towards Spain that was in part a reflection of their failed attempts at jihadist overthrow in North Africa. Linked to both the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group and Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the men felt deep anger towards Spain, a power with historical and current influence over North Africa. In February 2002, they met again in Istanbul and decided to strengthen and develop the necessary networks in Western Europe and their home countries to launch a terrorist campaign, coordinated with the acquiescence of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian extremist who established Al-Qa’ida in Iraq soon afterwards. Attacks in Casablanca followed in May 2003, and in Madrid in March 2004.

As is often the case, Spanish authorities were on to the network, but had clamped down on only part of it. As the attacks in Madrid took place, a major counterterrorism operation was being brought to its conclusion in court, with 24 men facing trial after Operation Datil led to them being charged with involvement in terrorist networks. Some of the key figures in the 3/11 cell (as the group responsible for the Madrid bombings is known) expected to be detained as part of this arrest, and arguably the failure of the Spanish authorities to capture them may have accelerated the cell’s activity. This pattern was repeated in August 2017 by the terrorist cell that attacked Barcelona.

There are further similarities with more contemporary events. Reinares identifies the cell as one that used robbery and the proceeds of drugs as a way to raise money for its jihadist activity. Describing them as ‘common delinquents turned into jihadists’, we hear how a number spent time in prison, where they were radicalised or made important connections. In general, there is a lack of clarity about the degree of direction from Al-Qa’ida Core: the strong connections between the cell and Al-Qaida’s leadership are repeatedly claimed, but specific direction is not always clear. The book points out that Osama bin Laden’s first threat message to reference Spain was released in October 2003. The day after the message emerges, the first known allusion to the bombing’s specific date is found in Molenbeek, Brussels: a date written on a piece of paper. A member of the Moroccan network affiliated with Al-Qa’ida is based there. The link to Molenbeek is relevant not only to the current wave of Daesh attacks, but also to the attack last year in Barcelona. The key preacher, Abdelbaki Es Satty, had spent some time in Molenbeek before the attack, something that highlights the persistence of certain locations as focuses for radicalisation and terrorism.

In the wake of the Madrid attack, the cell decided to first claim responsibility (after watching the confusion in the media about ETA’s responsibility), and then countermand a ceasefire declaration issued by Al-Qa’ida after the result of the Spanish election on 14 March, three days after the attack. Al-Qa’ida was keen to recognise the political message delivered through the election result, while the cell in Spain planned to continue its fight. This confusion highlights a key problem in the decentralised approach in terrorist plotting – by delegating responsibility and autonomy, control of the action on the ground is lost, which can lead to a perversion of the intended message. A similar confusion can be found in the attacks on London Bridge in 2017, when the acclamation expressed by Daesh-affiliated accounts online was matched by the opprobrium from accounts more closely linked with Al-Qa’ida.

This is a possible outcome of this sort of globalised insurgency. Abu Musab Al-Suri – whose whereabouts remain unclear – has achieved semi-mythical status in jihadist circles. This key ideologue is one of the few remaining senior figures in Al-Qa’ida whose death has not been confirmed and was last known to have been placed in a Syrian jail in 2014. Appearing in both books, he provides a link between the past and present, highlighting how the activities of Al-Qa’ida as a network have evolved from the pre-9/11 world, through the misery of the Madrid bombings to current-day Syria. In a particularly worrying hint of what might be, the leader of the Syrian jihadist group Jabhat Al-Nusrah, Abu Muhammad Al-Jawlani, is reported in Scott-Clark and Levy’s book as being a big fan of Al-Suri’s work, and while he eschewed Al-Suri’s push towards seeding Europe with lone-actor cells, he championed the theoretician’s approach to war and beseeches his fighters to read his texts.

Scott-Clark and Levy explicitly address this connection between past and present in their introduction. The text repeatedly shows the links between Al-Qa’ida, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Daesh and current events. The character of Hamza bin Laden is a key figure throughout the text, as Osama bin Laden’s clear heir among his many children, and the book ends by highlighting him as the group’s new figurehead. All of this happens as Hamza bin Laden assumes an increasingly prominent role in public, releasing videos calling others to arms and, most recently, eulogising his dead father. A growing number of profiles have now been written about him suggesting he might be the harbinger of a reborn Al-Qa’ida, and Scott-Clark and Levy show him being shuttled between safe houses and mentors as the group seeks to keep him and the rest of the Al-Qa’ida leadership and their families alive and safe.

The most striking part of The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden is the account of the time many members of Al-Qa’ida spent in prison in Iran. Quickly recognised by the Iranian authorities as useful pawns in a larger global strategic game, the Al-Qa’ida leaders and their families spent many years being moved between prisons, alternately given relatively lenient treatment and kept under tight control. The book reports occasional protests and escapes as the Iranian authorities try to play a game of controlling and using the people under their charge. This aspect of the Al-Qa’ida tale is one that has not previously been told in such detail; it is fascinating given that this is a story of a fundamentalist Sunni group aligning itself with a theocratic Shia regime – both of which have regularly condemned each other. Yet clearly Iran sees a bigger potential game at hand, and even figures such as the Qassem Soleimani, leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, feature in the Iranians’ discussion about what to do with the group of Al-Qa’ida men, women and children.

Scott-Clark and Levy also show how badly Iran played its hand in this story. Unable to control the group of Al-Qa’ida fighters, the Iranians tried to manipulate the members to advance their goals or do their bidding. But they failed, and instead, the group ended up using Iran as a staging point to undertake violence elsewhere. It is not always clear whether this was done with Iran’s full acquiescence, but it is just one instance the authors provide of how difficult it is to manipulate such groups. Similarly, Western (and particularly American) efforts frequently come under fire, as Scott-Clark and Levy condemn the Americans’ use of torture and show how these actions fed the radicals’ narrative. For example, Aafia Siddiqui, the US-educated Pakistani neuroscientist who was painted in public as a mastermind of Al-Qa’ida, is here depicted as an ethereal figure whose exact role in the organisation is never clear, but whose torture and disappearance become a cause célèbre for Islamists around the world.

The story, of course, has no conclusion except that this conflict is not going to end in the foreseeable future. In Scott-Clark and Levy’s interpretation of the Abbottabad documents (captured when US Navy SEALs stripped the property where they shot Osama bin Laden), they see a network that is regrouping and continuing on its trajectory of conflict. Incidentally, they are angry that these documents were released in choice leaks to friendly journalists, which they say was intended to paint a picture of a group in decline – something which by the time of publication of The Exile had been rectified through a massive data dump by the CIA. They see little optimism in Pakistan’s behaviour, or that of other supposed allies who are likely to be feeding the conflict for their own reasons. And when looking at what might be done to counter such groups, they add a healthy dose of scepticism to the idea that voices countering extremist ideologies might work. The totemic jihadist ideologue Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi made a substantial assault on Daesh by rebuking its ideas and approaches, but this had done little to stunt the group’s appeal. Rather, he spoke to an earlier generation whose ability to exert influence over the current wave of potential extremists may have passed.

And this in some ways is one of the bleaker conclusions to draw from these books: terrorist groups have long narratives and histories, and are focused on horizons that extend well beyond those of the security services and governments they are fighting against. The past determines the present, and the present determines the future. Thus far, the West has been unable to stay ahead of the curve, and there is little evidence that it will be able to in the future. Both of these books help to cast a clearer light on the past and its links to the present, and how persistent and dangerous the terrorist threat that we face from violent Islamist groups, and Al-Qa’ida in particular, remains. 

New piece for an outlet to which I haven’t contributed for some time, The National Interest. This time looking at trying to explain China’s enhanced engagement and interest in Syria with Michael Clarke of Australian National University. We are hopefully working on a longer writing related project along these lines in the future, and the topic is undoubtedle one there will more on.

China Is Supporting Syria’s Regime. What Changed?

Michael Clarke | Raffaello Pantucci
Beijing’s motivations are close to home.

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On August 14, Guan Youfei, a rear admiral in China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, visited the Syrian capital of Damascus, escorted around the city under heavy guard. Guan’s visit reportedly included meetings with senior military officials and Russian officers, as well as pledges that the Chinese military would provide medical training for Syrian medical staff. The question is why China is increasing this engagement now.

Admiral Guan’s engagement contrasts with previous Chinese behavior during the Syrian crisis. While China has been one of the few powers to maintain an embassy in Damascus throughout the current crisis, Beijing’s engagements have been fairly limited, and mostly focused on attempts from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to insert itself into peace negotiations and occasional expressions of concern around individual nationals who appear on the battlefield (either as hostages or fighters). The approach has been driven by a mix of motives, including Beijing’s long-standing principle of “non-interference,” aversion to what China sees as largely Western-led regime change in the guise of humanitarian intervention and a Chinese desire to insulate its growing economic interests in the Middle East from the continuing consequences of the Arab Spring.

That dynamic may now be about to change. China has started to become a participant in the many international discussions around countering terrorism, and ISIS in particular. China has participated in the Global Counterterrorism Forum and hosted sessions about terrorists’ use of the internet, while engaging in discussions at home about contributing more to the fight against ISIS. Last year, a decision was made to alter national legislation to allow Chinese security forces to deploy abroad as part of a counterterrorism effort, and China has sought to establish overseas bases in Djibouti. In neighboring Afghanistan, it has established a new sub-regional alliance between Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and China to discuss and coordinate the fight against militancy and terrorist groups in the area. All these actions highlight the degree to which China is slowly pushing its security apparatus out into the world in a more aggressive posture than before. Seen within this light, Admiral Guan’s visit to Damascus is another piece in this puzzle, and the most ambitious yet in many ways for a power that has historically preferred to play a more standoffish role in addressing hard military questions.

Looking to the Syrian context in particular, there are two major reasons for China’s apparent decision to begin playing a more forward role in engaging in Syria. One is China’s concern at the numbers and links of Uighur militants from its restive province of Xinjiang participating in the Syrian conflict. The other is its desire for geostrategic stability in the Middle East as it seeks to consummate its “One Belt, One Road” strategy.

Of particular importance on the first count is the presence of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) on the Syrian battlefield. TIP is a successor organization of sorts to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group that Beijing has blamed for violence linked to Xinjiang after 9/11. Beijing has claimed that Al Qaeda directly “funded and supported” ETIM, and while the scale of Al Qaeda’s direct support of ETIM has been widely disputed, the relationship between TIP and Al Qaeda has only grown closer since, with TIP garnering more Uighur recruits from 2009 onward and Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri praising Uighur contributions to the global jihad in a recent message.

Chinese suppression in Xinjiang, especially after the interethnic riots and violence in the capital, Urumqi, in July 2009, has resulted in the development of what Chinese state media has dubbed an “underground railway” of Uighurs seeking to flee the region. Some of those have ultimately found their way to Turkey and onward to Syria to fight with TIP and other jihadist groups. By 2015, TIP had established a well-documented presence on the battlefield in Syria, with the group releasing a number of videos detailing its combat role fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, until recently Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. (TIP does not fight alongside ISIS; its leadership has released statements in which it condemns ISIS’s activities.) TIP is increasingly showing itself to be an effective force, participating in many major fights (including the breaking of the Aleppo siege) and showing off its skill, manpower and equipment.

Historically, China has not had much economic interest in Syria, a country that prior to the civil war was more closely linked economically to its region, Iran and Russia. And more recently, China has continued to play a second-tier role. While it has had numbers of nationals join ISIS, others kidnapped and killed by the group, and the group has threatened it in some of its rhetoric, it does not appear to be much of a focus for the group. On the non-ISIS side fighting the regime, the numbers fighting alongside TIP seem to be quite substantial, whilst the group’s leadership and a core of the group continues to fight in Afghanistan. And, according to Kyrgyz authorities, this connection may have now matured into the attack that took place in late August against the Chinese embassy in Bishkek.

This threat from TIP in particular is one that is therefore becoming of much greater concern for Beijing. Yet it is not clear who is focused on fighting TIP on the ground in Syria. Western powers fighting in Syria are for the most part focused on ISIS and less focused on the groups fighting against the Assad regime, like TIP. Turkey’s historical proximity to the Uighur cause has raised concerns with Beijing; Uighurs are a people whose culture and language are very close to Turkey’s, and Uighur flags and symbols are regular features during AKP rallies. Erdogan himself has expressed support for the Uighur cause, and back in 2009, in the wake of rioting in Xinjiang that led to some two hundred deaths, he referred to Chinese activity on the ground as “a sort of genocide.” Since 2012, Uighurs have been found traveling on forged Turkish passports in transit countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, raising questions of Turkish complicity. Leaked ISIS documents show a consistent flow of individuals through Kuala Lumpur, as well as other Southeast Asian routes to Turkey.

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On the second count, Beijing faces multiple challenges in the current Middle East for its “One Belt, One Road” strategy. In brief, OBOR is Beijing’s attempt to facilitate Eurasian economic connectivity through the development of a web of infrastructure and trade routes linking China with South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Key parts of this project, such as the $45 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the proposed Yiwu-Tehran high-speed rail link, according to James M. Dorsey, “illustrate the politics of its One Belt, One Road Initiative. Xi Jinping believes that he can achieve Chinese dominance through investment and interconnected infrastructure.”

The current fracturing of the Middle East as a result of the Syrian crisis, however, poses a central roadblock to China’s ability to make this vision a reality. In this context, Beijing views the United States’ approach to Syria as driven by Washington’s desire to use the civil war as a pretext to overthrow the Assad regime in order to weaken Iran’s growing power and influence in the Middle East. In contrast, Russia has been firm in its commitment to root out what it calls the “terrorist” threat there in support of the regime in Damascus, and Beijing has been impressed by the manner in which Russia’s decisive moves have had an effect that years of attrition on the battlefield failed to achieve.

So Beijing may now have arrived at the conclusion that supporting Assad and taking sides with Russia is the most viable option to effectively combat the growth of TIP. Increasing its involvement in Syria via military-to-military cooperation can also be seen in the wider context of a PLA keen to develop its overseas experience, in areas from peacekeeping to antipiracy missions to counterterrorism.

David Shambaugh eloquently argued in 2013 that China remained a “partial power” whose diplomacy “often makes it known what it is against, but rarely what it is for” and that this made its foreign policy in many regions of the world “hesitant, risk averse and narrowly self-interested.” This calculus is now changing under pressure from developments in the Middle East and Afghanistan that directly threaten core Chinese interests and are metastasizing into the very terrorist threat that China has long said it is concerned about. The response from China is relatively predictable—an outward security push. The question that remains, however, is how deeply China wishes to plunge into troubled waters to defend these interests.

Dr. Michael Clarke is Associate Professor at the National Security College at Australian National University. Raffaello Pantucci is Director of the International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

Image: Chinese tanks in formation at Shenyang training base in China. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force

More belated catch up posting. It has been a very busy few weeks between travel and the horrible events in Brussels. The below piece is one that Foreign Policy commissioned to look specifically at ISIS use of tactics, pointing out that while the Brussels and Paris attacks are part of a specific campaign and cell, the problem of Lone Actor terrorism as a threat from the group persists.

The Age of the Lone Wolf is Far From Over

Even as the Islamic State evolves into a more sophisticated network, it will still cultivate unhinged, solo actors to further its fanatical ends.

By Raffaello Pantucci | March 30, 2016

Policemen work into a marked out perimeter in Colline street in Verviers, eastern Belgium, on January 15, 2015, after two men were reportedly killed during an anti-terrorist operation. Belgian police launched a "jihadist-related" anti-terrorism operation in the eastern town of Verviers on January 15. According to the Belgian prosecutor's office, the group which police targeted was about to commit a terror attack. AFP PHOTO / BELGA PHOTO / BRUNO FAHY ** BELGIUM OUT ** (Photo credit should read BRUNO FAHY/AFP/Getty Images)

AFP Photo / Bruno Fahy/Getty Images

Terrorist groups thrive on attention. Keen to bring the world screeching to a horrified halt, they launch brutal attacks against civilian targets with whatever tools they have at their disposal. Until last November’s attack in Paris, it seemed the biggest menace the Islamic State posed to the West was the threat of so-called lone-actor terrorists, striking without any clear direction from the group’s leaders. Using a relatively simple form of messaging to strike wherever they could, the group bombarded its followers through social media with calls to launch random attacks against the societies in which they lived. That nihilistic messaging continues. But now, in the wake of Brussels and Paris, the Islamic State has also demonstrated an alarming capacity to launch large-scale, coordinated plots far from its territory. The threat the Islamic State poses is multifaceted and multidirectional.

In the eight days since the Brussels attack left 35 dead, counterterrorism and national security experts have decried the end of the Islamic State-inspired lone-wolf attack. The fanatical band, they say, has crossed a new threshold, evolving into something more complex: an organized terror network capable of coordinated, multifaceted operations. And though this is true, the experts must take care not to dismiss what has long constituted the Islamic State’s essential fiber. Because regardless of its evolution, the Islamic State will remain committed to lone actor plots.

Radicalizing minds from afar has, after all, always been core to its identity. Calling attackers — the young, the socially, politically, and economically disenfranchised, the disturbed — to action shows that the Islamic State’s ideology has global reach, inspiring adherents who were unconnected to the group but desperate to launch terrorist plots in its name. Cultivating lone actors also gives the Islamic State the perfect means to distract the West, which finds itself devoting resources to identifying these isolated plotters. It is also a way to ensure that Washington, London, and Paris remain off balance, uncertain about how aggressive a response to mount against the group’s base in the Levant. Forgetting the centrality of lone wolfism to the Islamic State’s very foundations would be a dangerous mistake.

Of course, the Islamic State is not the first violent Islamist terrorist group to call for lone-actor attacks. Lone actors committed to jihadist terror, including Andrew Ibrahim and Roshonara Choudhry, first emerged in the 2000s. In 2010, Inspire, the magazine published by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, offered aspiring terrorists a specific outline for carrying out such attacks. Asserting a direct connection between any plots and the magazine, however, remained difficult, because there was never any clear link between a specific actor and Inspire. In fact, the most prominent cases came before the publication’s emergence. Rather than instigating the tactic, the group appeared to be riding a wave.

The Islamic State changed this dynamic. On Sept. 22, 2014, Abu Mohammed al Adnani, identified by the United States as the head of the Islamic State’s external operations, issued a fatwa calling on the group’s followers in the West to “kill a disbelieving American or European — especially the spiteful and filthy French — or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war… [to] kill him in any manner or way however it may be.” This chilling call became something of a marker in the group’s history. Around the world, the Islamic State’s followers read and absorbed it. In some cases, they decided to act.

Adnani’s call certainly appears to have spurred on a network of cells in Britain that had already been discussing potential terror plots in the West without any clear direction from the group’s leaders. Nadir Syed, a British extremist who was prevented from traveling to Syria, shared the fatwa with his fellow plotters as they discussed the idea of decapitating a soldier. Tarik Hassane, a medical student, and Suhaib Majeed, a physics student, shared it over the secure communications app Telegram as they talked about a plot to shoot a random security officer on the streets of London. Authorities disrupted both plots soon after the fatwa’s release.

Only days after Adnani issued his fatwa, Numan Haider walked into his local police station in Melbourne, Australia, and attacked police with a knife; he was gunned down and killed. Although authorities never publicly established a direct relationship between the fatwa and Haider’s attack, his wider circle — including prominent Islamic State fighters Neil Prakash and Sevdet Becim, who are on trial for planning to attack Australian soldiers during a national day parade — had clear ties to the group.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the Islamic State’s calls for lone-actor attacks is how deeply they have resonated. There are the dedicated warriors, who see such attacks as their chief ambition — the San Bernadino killers may be an example of this. In other cases, lone wolf attacks have become the default option for those who are unable to join the group in Syria or Iraq. Authorities had, in fact, taken away Haider’s passport not long before his attack, in response to concerns that he was planning to head to the Levant. This is not unique: Canada has blocked several aspiring fighters from heading to the Middle East, who then chose instead to launch attacks at home. Their actual links to the Islamic State remain unclear, but both took out their rage on the communities around them.

The Islamic State has, of course, also exploited the mentally unwell, preying on their vulnerabilities to turn them into lone-wolf actors. In late 2014, Sydney came to a terrified standstill when Man Haroun Monis, a disturbed Shia convert with a record of run-ins with authorities, held up a coffee bar in the middle of the city. He claimed to be carrying out an attack on behalf of the Islamic State. But he was so underprepared that he brought the wrong flag with him and asked authorities to bring him the flag of the Islamic State. Police eventually stormed the café once he began executing the hostages. The Islamic State later praised Monis in its publications, though no evidence emerged of any clear direction or instigation from the group. Other disturbed individuals like Yassine Salhi, who decapitated his boss and then tried to drive a truck into a chemical factory in France, or Muhaydin Mire, who tried to kill a random Underground passenger in London on Dec. 5 of last year, seem to have been disturbed individuals who simply latched onto the ideology or concept of launching a solo attack.

For the Islamic State, the overarching strategy is to both draw mentally unstable people while continuing to cultivate balanced individuals capable of pulling off more audacious attacks. For a group that is trying to make as much noise as possible, any vector through which this can be delivered is positive. It will further inspire others, leading to new plots that will keep security agencies and politicians busy and distracted.

Even more worrisome than these lone-actor plots are attempts by the Islamic State to actually tap into and direct this negative energy. For the most part, lone actors tend to be fairly low impact — a lone individual armed with little more than a basic bomb or knife can’t kill too many, after all. But the Islamic State wants to capitalize on the fact that, thanks to its social media prowess, it has planted the seeds of chaos.

The most prominent example of this is the Birmingham-born hacker Junaid Hussain, whose discussions with aspirant fighters in the West included instructions on how to launch lone-actor plots. Again, it is not entirely clear the degree to which he succeeded. There is some evidence that Hussain, from his base in Syria, was in contact with both the Garland, Texas, shooters and with the terror cell on trial in Britain for allegedly planning an attack on a local military base. But the specificity of his instructions had security services sufficiently worried that they decided to eliminate him through a drone strike. It is not clear if others have taken up Hussain’s mantle, but there is little evidence that the Islamic State has stopped encouraging lone-actor terrorist plotting.

Lone-actor terrorism is not new. Traditionally, it has been the domain of far-right activists and patriot movements the world over. A recent EU consortium research project led by the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI), a British think tank, found that right-wing lone-actor terrorists are actually almost as active in Europe as their Islamist counterparts. Of the 120 cases over the past 15 years analyzed by RUSI, about an equal third were Islamist and far-right in origin. In other words, European security agencies were disrupting as many lone-actor Islamists as they were far-right terrorists, a detail often missed in coverage of Islamist terrorist plots.

In this new reality, the Islamic State will continue to encourage lone-actor plots while investing in large-scale, spectacular operations. From being a one-track group focused on building a state in the sands of the Levant, it is now an active global terrorist group aggressively pushing forward on two clear threat tracks. It is a group that cannot be ignored or disregarded, both as a traditional terrorist organization, but also one that is able to instigate and inspire random assassins advancing its cause around the world. Fomenting the sort of fanaticism that underlies its very existence is, in the end, the only way it will continue to thrive.

Things are slowing down a bit now in the wake of the Paris atrocity, though unfortunately am sad to say the story is likely to not go away. Still some interest around the topic though, and spoke to the Sunday Times about the noisy Sally Jones, to the Huffington Post about how ISIS compares to historical threats, as well as the South China Morning Post about China’s view on the downing of the Russian plane and the Straits Times about what China might do to contribute to the anti-ISIS coalition. More on all of this am sure as ever. In the meantime, a new piece which was acually published prior to the Paris atrocity about China-Russia relations globally for the China Economic Quarterly. Huge thanks to the editors for their patience and invitation to do this. Greatly appreciated and definitely a subject that will be returned to.

China And Russia: Locked In Reluctant Embrace

china russia image

The dynamic of the Sino-Russian relationship is one that has long perplexed Western decision makers and thinkers. At a geopolitical level they appear in lockstep in an anti-western front, but below the surface they seem willing to engage with the west against each other’s interests while also sharing some fundamental disagreements. The reality is that Moscow and Beijing have a sophisticated modus vivendi that both allows for a clear disparity in the relationship in Beijing’s favor, while at the same time retaining an equal sense of importance of the broader strategic relationship. The overriding priority for both remains to ensure that they have an ally against the West and as long as this need remains the axis of authoritarianism will persist.

The archetypal space to explore this complex divergence is Central Asia. On the one hand it is a region where China has gradually increased its footprint to become the most consequential actor on the ground, while on the other it remains linked inextricably to Russia through multilateral vehicles and long-standing ties. And while in other parts of Eastern Europe or the Caucasus Russia has reacted negatively to encroaching external influences with armed conflict (like Georgia or Ukraine), in Central Asia the slow creep of Beijing’s influence has happened largely with Moscow’s acquiescence, though not without some counter-reaction.

China’s interest in Central Asia stems from a desire to improve the economic situation in Xinjiang. Seeing economic development as the answer to ethnic tensions between Han and Uighur in the region, Beijing has embarked on numerous large-scale economic projects to develop the western region of Xinjiang. However, for effective economic development to take place in Xinjiang there is a need for the region to have greater connectivity outwards. A fivehour flight from Beijing, Urumqi is as landlocked as the Central Asian countries it is near, and for it to prosper adequately, it needs to develop routes and roads into the region and ultimately to European markets. Consequently, as Beijing has poured money into the region, there has been an ancillary push into Central Asia with policy banks, state owned enterprises and private citizens all seeing the opportunity and need that lies in developing routes and markets into the Russian space.

Chinese cash displaces Russia in Central Asia…

The consequence of this has been a steady growth of economic influence across the region as Chinese capital and companies move into the region to repave, rebuild and open up Central Asian markets while also taking advantage of the region’s natural wealth to feed the Chinese economic machine. Previously a region largely the domain of Russian extractives firms, and, in the post-Cold War period, large Western players, Central Asia has seen CNPC and other Chinese energy firms moved in to stake claims. But significantly, Chinese firms have not stopped at only extracting energy, with firms showing up re-metering national gas infrastructure, re-developing solar furnaces, and building new power plants, refineries, and transmission lines across the region. The most rapid global pipeline growth of the past decade can be seen in the region, as Chinese firms plan, fund and built in quick succession a series of pipelines bringing hydrocarbons back to China from Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

All of this has largely been done to the detriment of Russian firms, who retain key stakes in most regional energy efforts but find themselves unable to compete with China’s easy funding and rapid construction. The American evacuation of the Manas airbase is a case in point. Initially awarded to a Russian firm linked to Rosneft, the company had to withdraw due to lack of funding, leaving a Chinese firm to step in and take over the contract. In Turkmenistan, a longstanding animosity between Moscow and Ashgabat culminated with the main pipeline to Russia blowing up and not being rebuilt. Instead, Chinese pipelines appeared and China is now the nation’s key partner—so much so that Turkmenistan might question the wisdom of its almost complete dependence on China.

…but Russian weapons are still welcome

Despite China’s economic incursions, Russia remains the most credible security provider. Untested by conflict outside its borders, China’s military is still a relatively timid force that is wary of launching direct confrontations or placing themselves in situations that would lead to such conflict. Whenever there is security trouble in the region, the powers look more to Russia to provide them with support – in particular in the more unstable nations of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both of whom have looked to Russia to help provide some stability in the wake of interethnic violence (Kyrgyzstan) and to strengthen their border with Afghanistan (Tajikistan).

Moscow has also made better use of regional organizations than has Beijing. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), sponsored jointly by China and Russia, is in the most externally observed, but least effective regional multilateral vehicle. The Moscow-driven Common Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) are all more active in changing the context on the ground. The EEU in particular is seen as an attempt to recreate the Soviet space and is driven by Moscow as a specific attempt to reclaim the economic dominance and influence it used to hold. Encompassing Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, with Armenia and Kyrgyzstan the latest joiners, the EEU gives Moscow the power to dictate border tariffs and standards across the entire region.

In Central Asia the EEU is seen as direct push-back to Beijing’s growing influence. Yet the reality is that the EEU can do little to stem the rising influence of Chinese cash. And for Beijing’s traders keen to take advantage of Xi Jinping’s vision to create a New Silk Road Economic Belt through the region to European markets, the existence of a single tariff zone from Kazakhstan to Belarus will save them money and time in getting goods from China to Europe. Direct trade with Central Asia may be down, but, as traders in Kyrgyz markets at Kara Suu and outside Bishkek pointed out during a visit in early 2015, these markets had been shrinking for years due to closed local borders and weakening local economies. The addition of a failing Russian economy only further softened local currencies and further reduced remittances from Central Asian laborers in Russia, which in the case of Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan account for almost a third of GDP.

On the whole, Beijing policymakers seem to view the EEU as complementary to their Belt-and-Road strategy; and even if they did not, they have reason to be skeptical of the EEU’s longevity. Belarus and Kazakhstan have already blocked some trade across their borders, and it remains unclear how Kyrgyzstan is going to be able to effectively integrate and thrive in an economic union where it has few advantages.

China has the upper hand in bilateral affairs

All of this takes place against a backdrop of a failing Russian economy that is increasingly looking to Beijing for growth. Whilst previously resistant to letting Chinese firms invest in upstream energy assets, Moscow allowed the Chinese Silk Road Fund to invest in the Yamal gas field. In a sharp turnaround from previous paranoia of Chinese expansion into Russia’s east, Moscow has actively encouraged cross-border trade between Heilongjiang and the Amur region, with the governor of the region going so far as to say that he would welcome Chinese workers coming into the region to help repopulate it. The Russian press is increasingly full of stories of actively encouraging trade across the border, something that stands in stark contrast to speeches by President Putin in 2000 about losing Russia’s East to Asia.

In all this investment, China clearly retains the upper hand. The Power of Siberia pipeline remains a project largely on paper as CNPC lobbies aggressively to get the deal finalized on its terms. And although the large gas deal signed between Russia and China was supposedly resolved earlier in the year after almost 15 years of haggling, the reality is that the agreement was largely cosmetic. It came at a moment when President Putin wanted to be able to show the world that he had strong allies in the face of a growing animosity between Moscow and the west over Ukraine. Within hours of the deal being signed, stories surfaced of re-negotiations taking place and a continuing lack of agreement over the pricing structure of the deal.

At a geostrategic level there are further tensions between the two great powers. Vietnam is a long-time client state to Russia that depends on Moscow for military equipment, including naval assets that Vietnam feels it needs to bolster its claims to islands in the South China sea that it disputes with China. India is another long-term Russian ally that has border disputes with China and a long-standing inferiority complex to its neighboring Asian giant.

It is also clear—despite its lack of public criticism—that China is displeased by Russia’s adventures in Ukraine and Georgia, as it worried about the precedent of annexing parts of neighboring countries and recognizing break-away provinces. Nor is it enthusiastic about Russian intervention in Syria where it seems unlikely that more combatants on the field will resolve the situation. As a status quo power that sees the future as firmly within its grasp under the current world order, Beijing disapproves of Russia’s efforts to undermine current structures.

The SCO was supposed to be a vehicle for joint maneuver in Central Asia, but has bogged down in disagreements. Beijing’s interest in having it focus more on economic issues has been blocked by Moscow. And in turn Moscow has promoted a rapid expansion of the group, against China’s wishes. Unwilling to directly confront and exclude others, China has found itself forced to bow to external pressure in letting the organization expand against its better judgment.

Authoritarian birds flock together

Notwithstanding these tensions, the two powers retain a tactical geopolitical alignment. Partially this is for the purpose of mutual support in the UN Security Council. As two of the permanent five members, knowing that they will consistently support each other (by either veto or abstention), means that they need never feel isolated in the body.

Shared political insecurity also draws them together. Both governments are equally paranoid about the overthrow of authoritarian regimes. Both speak equally acerbically about the negative influence of democracy and the wave of color revolutions that swept through the former Soviet space in the mid-2000s and the subsequent ‘Arab Spring.’ Watching as chaos came in the wake of the civilian overthrow of regimes from Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and then later Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, both ascribe these incidents to a missionary foreign policy advocated by western capitals. Fearing that ultimately this wave of civilian insurrection ends up with regime overthrow in Beijing and Moscow, both see each other as fundamental allies in a world divided between western democratic zealots riven with uncertainty and stable one-party states ruled by strongmen and parties.

These underlying geopolitical realities outline why this axis of authoritarianism continues to function as a genuine alliance of sorts despite fundamental differences and an ever-growing imbalance in power between the two. Russia may increasingly be selling itself to China in a manner that will become irreversible, but it is doing this to a power that it fundamentally sees itself locked in step with. It was President Putin who first enunciated in 2000 the fear that Russia would lose its east to Asian influences, but it is also President Putin under whose reign China has become the Russia’s biggest geopolitical friend.

More catch-up, this time a longer magazine sized piece for the excellent current affairs journal Current History. This explores the China-Russia relationship with a particular focus on Central Asia sitting in between them. Clearly more on this topic to come – including a piece soon focused a bit more on the econ and geopolitical equation more broadly. I have pasted the first paragraph below to give you a flavour, but the whole thing is available as PDF below as well.

China and Russia’s Soft Competition in Central Asia

China and Russia have a long history of conflict and competition in Central Asia. Sitting between the two great superpowers, the landlocked Central Asian nations appear to have little choice or control over their destiny, and are often considered to be pawns in a perpetual great game. Yet this narrow view misses the broader picture of the Sino-Russian relationship. It is undeniable that the region has been slipping out of Russia’s immediate economic sphere of influence for some time, but China has been making inroads with Russia’s full acquiescence. For Moscow and Beijing, Central Asia is increasingly a region of soft competition where they are very aware of and attentive to each other’s interests, rather than a source of conflict and tension.

Overriding any differences concerning the steppe are the larger realities of the Sino-Russian strategic relationship on the international stage, where the two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council continue to support each other’s refusal to bow to a Western-dominated global order. Russia may appear to be the loser in Central Asia, but the two powers have established a modus vivendi that suits the interests of both. The real geopolitical losers are likely to be the Central Asians, slowly slipping from Russia’s orbit into China’s.

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