Archive for the ‘BLOGS’ Category

Trying to stay on top of my posting this time – wrote something earlier this week for my publisher Hurst’s excellent blog. A great place to do slightly longer form writing on the topic of Al Muhajiroun given the current attention it is getting. Of course much more of this in my book!

Al Muhajiroun’s Long Shadow

Many years ago I had coffee with Anjem Choudary. Ensconced in the Desert Rose Café in Walthamstow where he would hold court, he joked about the punishments that would be meted out to homosexuals in his imagined Caliphate as he brushed off my questions.

As he is released from prison in the United Kingdom, it is one of Choudary’s followers who is most on my mind – a young man he introduced as ‘Saiful Islam’. At the time, Anjem was clearly quite proud of his eager and well-spoken young acolyte, telling me how his name meant ‘Sword of Islam’.

I later realised that this young man was Abu Rumaysah or Siddartha Dhar, who is now more notoriously known as Jihadi Sid. Reportedly on American targeted killing lists, he is among the British jihadis still at large in Syria. His presence reflects the long shadow that al-Muhajiroun still casts. The latter remains more visible than you would necessarily expect. The persistent appearance of al-Muhajirounis on the security services radar exemplifies the chronic nature of the terrorist problem that Britain and other countries face.

The recently concluded Westminster Bridge attack inquest exemplifies this phenomenon. During the course of the investigation into the 2017 March terrorist attack on Parliament, it was revealed that Khalid Masood had shown up repeatedly on the fringes of investigations into al-Muhajiroun related networks. Back in 2004, his number was found on the phone of Waheed Mahmood, one of the key figures in the first large-scale bombing plot in the United Kingdom, referred to by the police as ‘Operation Crevice’. At around the time he was in touch with Mahmood, he reported to one of his wives much later that he also met Abdul Wahid Majid, another Crawley man who had been involved with al-Muhajiroun and who subsequently blew himself up in Syria in 2014.

 Muslims Against Crusades 30.7.2011-563 – Anjem Choudary 

Moving to Luton from Crawley in 2009, Khalid Masood slipped seamlessly back into the al-Muhajiroun milieu – living yards from both Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly and Abu Rahin Aziz. Al Abdaly blew himself up in Stockholm, while Aziz was killed by a drone strike in Syria. Following his death, al-Muhajiroun supporters in Luton distributed sweets in celebration of Aziz’s death. A separate cell from Luton became so incensed at his demise that they explored the possibility of targeting an American airbase in Britain as a potential target.

It is important to note that it is not clear from the evidence presented in the inquest that Masood knew any of these people well – but the coincidence and his previous contacts with the group suggest he would have likely known who they were. He was close to Ibrahim Anderson, a local al-Muhajirouni who was jailed in 2016 for canvassing support for ISIS. By February 2010, Masood’s activity had escalated to the point that MI5 opened an investigation into him. During the inquest, information was uncovered that between “2012 and 2016…he was appearing as contacts of SOIs [subjects of Interest] who were linked to ALM [Al-Muhajiroun],” reportedly, however, there were no “notable ALM figures” amongst this group.

Although a peripheral figure to the al-Muhajiroun community, he was active on its fringes. According to one of his wives, he participated in dawah stalls in Luton, and sought to spread the Holy Word, recruiting one young convert who seems to have been a close acolyte of his. While this is behaviour typical of al-Muhajiroun members – it is admittedly also not out of character for a more generally religiously inclined person.

This was not the only legal process underway involving men from the al-Muhajiroun orbit going on last week. Two others featured in trials, albeit for very different reasons. Late last week, Hassan Butt, from Manchester, was jailed for at least nine years for various fraud offences. On the other side of Europe, at a court in Bolzano, Alto Adige, a trial is scheduled with British based Kurdish extremist Awat Karkuky (currently in jail in Britain) on the docket.

Hassan Butt appears to have been perpetrating fairly basic online fraud: selling things that he never despatched (but took payment for), purchasing other goods from companies and then claiming they never arrived, demanding refunds. Finally, he took loans and credit out to supposedly support his online business, and refused to pay them back, claiming to have been defrauded himself – going so far as to provide a false police number related to the fraud. Not the high capers of an Ocean’s 11 style robbery, but rather the more mundane fraud that clogs up police time around the modern world.

This digression seems to bear little relevance to al-Muhajiroun till we delve into the organization’s history and its heady post-September 11 days. Still headed in Britain by Omar Bakri Mohammed, the group jumped from relative obscurity onto the front pages as stories of British fighters dying alongside the Taliban appeared in the British press. A regular feature in this coverage was the then al-Muhajiroun spokesman, Hassan Butt. A loud Prestwich lad, Butt would talk with pride about his martyred friends, and the numerous fighters and funders who were ‘lining up’ to support their cause. He had been back and forth between al-Muhajiroun’s Pakistan and UK branches – who were in the midst of some tension at the time – and features in many stories from the period. In 2002, he returned to the UK offering his story to the press for £100,000 – only to be ignored and then become a subject of police interest. He fled to Pakistan where others in the group got irritated by his behaviour and reported on his constant pursuit of money.

Finally, Omar Bakri told the BBC after some particularly inflammatory commentary that Hassan had provided: “Hassan Butt no longer represents al-Muhajiroun in Pakistan. We are an ideological, political party. We do not recruit people to go and fight on behalf of anybody or to indulge in any military activities…In what he is doing he does not have our support. That is prohibited by Islam – to launch attacks against people just because they are British, just because you happen to disagree with them here and there.”

Yet, years later, it was revealed that Omar Bakri had been pushing Hassan to reach out to the British press. The story emerged as Hassan testified against one of his friends from al-Muhajiroun, Habib Ahmed, with whom he tried to trick a few newspapers into paying for his story. Earlier in 2007, Hassan had a turnaround in which he claimed to have rejected his violent Islamist past and instead become a model citizen – going so far as to meet with a government minister and advancing ideas about how to de-radicalize British Muslims. He became the rent-a-quote for the international media seeking an extremist voice – showing up across the UK news, but also appearing on the American flagship broadcast show 60 Minutes. At one point he claimed that he had so angered his former extremist colleagues that one of them had stabbed him in the street. Yet by 2009 he was in the courts admitting publicly that he was a liar and a fantasist, and that he had stabbed himself. One journalist with whom he had co-authored a book reportedly based on Butt’s life found himself in a serious legal quandary. Now Hassan has finally had his comeuppance and is going to jail. Not, it is worth noting, for his extremist behaviour but for far more mundane criminal activity. However there can be no doubt that he was for a while a relatively significant figure within the community of al-Muhajiroun, for both good and bad reasons, from their perspective.

Inside the British penal system he will be joining an ever-growing roster of al-Muhajirouni cadres serving jail sentences. One of this group is Awat Karkuky (also known as Awat Wahab Hamasalih), a violent Islamist extremist jailed two years ago for his links to ISIS, and who is back on trial (remotely) in Italy, as mentioned above, for his role in a European network of extremists called Rawti Shax. Uncovered a couple of years ago, it focused on radicalised Iraqi Kurds and was ideologically headed by Mullah Krekar. Krekar himself is also not appearing in the Italian court in person, but is instead on trial remotely from Norway where he is in hiding, refusing to appear in court.

Not a direct al-Muhajirouni (though it is often hard to see or understand the difference), Karkuky was hosted by Anjem Choudary when he visited the UK, and before that helped facilitate Choudary’s visit to Finland where he spoke in 2013 under the ‘Shariah4Finland’ banner. Karkuky was thrown out of Finland for this and other behaviour, and later jailed in Britain for his role in recruiting for and supporting ISIS. He was a figure of enough significance amongst extremist Kurdish groups that his life story was used as a heroic narrative to recruit others.

It is not clear what will happen to Karkuky. Currently he is serving a six year sentence, at the end of which he may face another extradition to Italy, which he has contested in the past. Butt will serve a longer sentence in prison for his various non-extremist offences. It seems hard to imagine that either will return to be productive members of society at any point soon, but more likely that, like Choudary, they will retain some problematic attitudes and now will have long prison sentences on their CVs. This will mean they will stay individuals of concern to the security services for the foreseeable future. All are charismatic in their different ways and have drawn others into violent Islamist behaviour.

Other recently released long-term al-Muhajirounis certainly seem regularly to drift back within its orbit of behaviour. Ricardo MacFarlane, of Muslim Patrols fame, has apparently been appearing at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, while former prize boxer Anthony Small has also left prison and continues to rage against the system, broadcasting on YouTube his intention to continue his struggle. Neither of these men are doing anything illegal in either of these acts, and this may be where their activism remains.

But experience has shown us that figures from the al-Muhajiroun network remain of concern to the security services. As the cases of Masood, Karkuky and Butt show, they can take a long time to work their way through our judicial and penal systems and may ultimately express themselves as problems in ways different from what we might suspect. For a while this was something that the security services relied on – most of these individuals in the wider al-Muhajiorun community are infringing the law in some way or other, hence the authorities simply focused on arresting them on any charges they could, thereby keeping them off the streets. But people get savvy to these tactics and act more circumspectly, albeit without necessarily abandoning their ideology.

For Anjem Choudhary, it is likely that he will continue to be a magnet for young people or other lost souls seeking easy explanations of the world around them, and it is hard to see him rejecting his ideology any time soon. It will also be difficult for him to return to his old ways given the highly restrictive conditions of his release. Choudhary’s potential for de-radicalization and redemption should not however be entirely discounted (some radical young men who used to be at the forefront of the group seem to have undergone fairly dramatic turnarounds), although one ought to regard such a possibility with a healthy dose of scepticism.

This is in many ways the heart of the al-Muhajiroun problem, one that shows no sign of disappearing. Not all its cadres get involved in violence, but many terrorist plots and networks uncovered in the past have snared individuals long associated with the group. And, more worryingly, analysts and the authorities in Britain continue to observe such patterns of behaviour more than two decades after the group enjoyed its heyday. The same faces and individuals consistently show up, and engage in violent or extremist behaviour, often many years after their first encounter with the group.

While Anjem Choudhury’s return will doubtless give al-Muhajiroun a brief burst of publicity, it is unlikely to change the group’s current behaviour. As long as he struggles to interact with wide numbers of people, he will pose less of a threat. But how long can such security cover be maintained? The group’s broader network remains seeded amongst Europe’s Muslim communities and will re-emerge as a problem for the authorities across the Continent for the foreseeable future, with or without him visibly at the helm of al-Muhajiroun.

 

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute and the author of “We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists”

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Another post, this time being published in a slightly more timely manner for my publisher Hurst’s blog. It looks at the links with history in the recent terrorist attacks in the UK, and specifically ties into al Muhajiroun. For lots more stories like this, of course read my book!

Al-Muhajiroun and the simmering divisions in British society

‘You know, the Qur’an even tells me which direction I must break wind in,’ declared Omar Bakri Mohammed in the late 1990s. Taking the bait, roving reporter Jon Ronson asked, ‘And which direction do you break wind in?’ leading Omar to break into hysterical laughter as he announced, ‘In the direction of the non-believer!’ Omar is the founder of al-Muhajiroun, the group linked to the London Bridge terror attack ringleader Khuram Butt and numerous other terrorist plots. His joke does not seem as funny 20 years later.

The interview with Omar Bakri Mohammed was part of a series of entertaining pieces by Jon Ronson that tracked a variety of extremists convinced that dark conspiratorial forces ruled the world. At its culmination, Omar unmasked Jon as a Jew to an audience of his jihadist acolytes at a training camp in Crawley. This dark conclusion to the encounter was a portent in some ways of what was to come. The group that Omar was fostering, al-Muhajiroun, became what another reporter characterized as an ‘old boys network’ for British jihad. Men from the community in Crawley were linked to a training camp attended by the 7 July bombers. Britain’s first known suicide bomber in Syria came from Crawley and supposedly knew Omar Bakri Mohammed personally. The gym that Khuram Butt worked at was managed by one of the supporters of the Crawley network. My own research has found clear links to the group in at least half of the jihadist terrorist plots in the UK, while a senior security official I once spoke to shrugged and pointed out that a link of some sort was ‘almost always there’ in every investigation.


From Hurst and Getty.

The first hints of trouble came soon after Omar’s then comical interview with Jon Ronson. In December 1998 one of the leaders of al-Muhajiroun, Amer Mirza, angered by the resumption of bombing in Iraq, threw a petrol bomb at a Territorial Army barracks in West London. Later that month authorities in Yemen arrested six Britons from a competing faction of violent extremists in London, linked to the infamous hook-handed cleric Abu Hamza. Arrested with explosives and guns, they were accused of planning a series of New Year’s Eve atrocities in Sana’a. These two communities were to become the beating heart of Britain’s international terrorist threat, producing a thread that links history right up to the current day.

The pattern of where the threat came from in the UK is consistent. Abu Hamza’s community produced a pair of shoe bombers, the murderer of a policeman in Manchester and fighters for the Taliban. Al-Muhajiroun helped to build an infrastructure in Pakistan for those going to fight in Afghanistan. The group was also responsible for the pair of suicide bombers who blew up a bar in Tel Aviv, provided access to training camps for the 7 July bombers, and orchestrated an attack on the CIA base in Afghanistan at Camp Chapman. Far closer to home it stirred hatred in the community from which the murderers of Lee Rigby emerged. And many more in between.

Radicalized young Britons with links back to these communities have been a regular feature of jihadist battlefields across the world. Their radicalization has led them to fight and train in Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, Libya, Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, parts of Southeast Asia and more.

Syria, however, was the real game-changer. Attracting feverous support across the world, it seemed to hearken back to the golden age of ‘just jihad’ against oppressive regimes, much like the struggle of the brave warriors in Afghanistan. Here there were people oppressed while the West did nothing about it. Only the brave muhajireen were willing to stand up to the cruel Assad regime.

Some of those drawn to this endeavour were on their way to becoming career warriors, such as Ibrahim al Mazwagi, one of the first reported British fighters to die in Syria. Prior to Syria, he had faced combat in Libya, as part of the British-Libyan mobilization who returned to Libya as the Arab Spring took hold there. For a short period they were fighting on the same side as the British government against the Gadhafi regime. Within this contingent were long-term anti-Gadhafi activists and members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a salafi-jihadi anti-Gadhafi group who had taken refuge in the UK, and who saw in the wake of the Arab Spring an opportunity to finally achieve their long-desired goal. Having been in the UK for decades, many had settled and had children who they swept up along with them, showing them that armed struggle against unjust governance was acceptable and sometimes necessary.

Initially the assessment of the Arab Spring was a relatively benign one. Long-awkward partners across the Arab world were headed for civilian overthrow as people around the world reacted to Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia. Western governments cheered, and President Obama demanded that President Mubarak of Egypt step down. But rebellions tend not to play out the way we want them to. And it was not long before the jihadist narratives started to resonate across the various battlefields born out of the Arab Spring. Young Britons and their European counterparts alike started to mobilize in substantial numbers, in particular drawn by what was happening in Syria.

Sitting in London, it quickly became clear that the groups going were the same ones who had been active for years. For instance whilst aid convoys heading to Syria from the UK had with them food, aid and ambulances, they were also used by young men as cover to go and fight. This was only the latest example of a long tradition of convoys being used as a method to enter these conflicts; for some young men this was not their first experience with activism. For example, a number of those who went on convoys with George Galloway’s Viva Palestina charity to Gaza ended up fighting in Syria. Others were arrested at protests outside the Israeli Embassy in London or had been caught trying to go to battlefields in Africa earlier. Even more had been involved in al-Muhajiroun’s constant cycle of protests and marches around London. Previously convicted activists showed up on convoys heading out to Syria, and from his new home in Syria, Omar Bakri claimed to have recruited innumerable young men to fight in the country.


From Hurst and Getty.

Whilst the stakes were raised abroad the threat in the UK seemed to have evolved. After the murder of Lee Rigby, authorities constantly kept people on edge. The government reacted in August 2014 and raised the threat level to ‘Severe’ – meaning ‘an attack is highly likely’ – but nothing seemed to materialize. In the wake of the Paris attacks in 2015, David Cameron announced an uplift in security agencies’ capacity, highlighting that the agencies had disrupted at least seven plots in the past six months, ‘albeit attacks planned on a smaller scale.’ Contrarily, right wing extremists began to slip through the security services net. A notable incident was the Ukrainian Pavlo Lapshyn’s one-man murder campaign in the West Midlands in 2013, in which he stabbed Mohammed Saleem in the street and targeted three mosques with bombs. This was succeeded by one of the most politically prominent actions of the far right during the run-up to the Brexit vote — the murder of Jo Cox by Tommy Mair as she attended MPs surgery in Birstall.

What exactly was going on was not clear, but it seemed as though the far right was a growing menace. In a piece of research by a consortium led by my think tank RUSI, we found that in the 14 years since the 11 September attacks, there have been as many extreme right-wing lone wolf terrorist incidents as there have been individual acts of terrorism driven by violent Islamist ideology. This is coupled with evidence of something more substantial and organized simmering as well. The rise of groups like the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First, both in part explicitly reacting to al-Muhajiroun’s loud and ugly protests, were one facet to this. On the continent in Europe, Anders Behring Breivik’s massacre of young political activists in Norway in July 2011 and the uncovering of the National Socialist Underground showed how the extreme right in Europe was not just organizing, but was also willing to use violence.


From Hurst and Getty

And then we had 2017. The year was off to a confusing start with the UK still reeling from Brexit, but in quick succession attacks came from both sides. The sequence of atrocities began one quiet morning in Westminster, followed by a concert in Manchesterstabbings on a busy Saturday night in London Bridge and a vehicle attack on worshippers outside the Finsbury Park mosque in London. The first still seems like an outlier, a loner not connected to any particular group. We still do not have the whole story of why Khalid Masood did what he did. But the others all touched directly on history: Salman Abedi, a child of LIFG-linked parents, and Khuram Butt with his long and public history with al-Muhajiroun. And while we still do not know exactly why Finsbury Park was targeted, the choice of the mosque where hook-handed Abu Hamza had led his acolytes gives us a connection to history that is unmistakable.

It has now been two decades since Omar Bakri established al-Muhajiroun in the UK. The days of seeing Omar as a clown have long passed, and doubtless he is not laughing from his cell in Lebanon. But the grim reality is of a threat that appears persistent, evolving and sparking counter action and response on the other side of the ideological equation. The government has launched another review of its counter-terrorism policy, seeing where there are gaps that need plugging or updating needs to be done. More attention is focused on the extreme right wing, though it remains something that is left to the police rather than intelligence agencies. But the reality is that they are addressing the same threat that has been managed for the past two decades. Incremental improvements are made in our response, some bad policies are binned, and some are steered off a path to violence, but it is not clear that we are materially eradicating the ideas and groups that are ultimately behind the violence on our streets.

But maybe this is what the end state of this conflict looks like. History tells us that on most political spectrums there is a radical edge, and some of those will turn to violence. Previously it was a struggle of the left and right, now the opposite ends appear to be the extreme right and violent Islamists. For societies stuck in the middle it seems imperative to ensure that we all come together and reject these extremes while also realizing that to some degree they are always likely to exist. Unfortunately, these are threats that we are going to have manage rather than eradicate.


Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists.

New piece for the Lowy Institute of Australia’s Interpreter blog, drawing on a batch of Eurasian travel from the end of the year.

Central Asian connectivity: Going beyond China

Central Asia is experiencing a connectivity boom, with China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ the most dominant vision for the region. Yet this dominance has started to worry Central Asian powers, leading to the emergence of a new narrative – that of diversification. With China becoming the region’s most influential economic actor, steadily increasing its role in local security and politics, Central Asian powers are seeking to broaden their engagement and bring to life a long-advocated ‘multi-vector’ diplomatic approach.

I was fortunate enough to spend the end of last year travelling the Eurasian heartland, with stops in Ashgabat, Astana, Beijing and Islamabad. It was a variety of different trips, covering different projects, but one overriding message about China shone through at every stop: the expansion of Chinese investment into its immediate neighbourhood is having a game-changing impact on the ground. This is positive, but it is also worrying those on the ground and is changing the way that Beijing is thinking about its external investments.

Talk to any Central Asian foreign policy planner and you will almost invariably hear about a ‘multi-vector’ approach to foreign relations. Sitting at the centre of Halford Mackinder’s ‘World-Island’, Central Asians envisage themselves as commanding vast power from the heart of the Silk Road. Yet it’s not always clear the degree to which they actually control the options on the table before them, or whether these great powers move around them to their own tune. Nowhere is this balance highlighted more acutely than in regards to foreign investment. Ideally, Central Asian states would want a multitude of options on the table before them, but while their FDI figures are more diverse than is sometimes given credit for, it is clear that Chinese money is increasingly the principal source.

This is increasingly the story across Eurasia, where everyone is both clamouring for Chinese investment and finding themselves uncertain about relying too heavily on a single investor. In Beijing, officials at state policy banks and private companies worry about the countries they are investing in and the fact they do not know the environments, yet at the same time find themselves under great pressure to deliver on Xi Jinping’s vaunted ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ through commercially viable projects. This leads them to trying to puzzle out how to deliver these projects effectively and seek partners to share the burden.

For landlocked Central Asians, however, the story is a different one. Trapped by geography between a sanctioned Russia, a still-recovering Iran and the disputed Caspian, they are only able to find China as a substantial and long-term investor and partner. India has tried and thus far not delivered, and while they discuss with Pakistan, Europe, Korea and Japan, projects as big as China’s have been slow in arriving. In contrast, Beijing signs contracts and infrastructure appears.

But all are aware of the dangers of having a single customer. In Ashgabat, they link Turkmenistan’s most recent push on breaking ground with the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline and alternate energy partners to a sharp slowdown in Chinese interest in their gas, as China’s economy slowed down. In Astana, President Nursultan Nazarbayev links Kazakhstan’s Nurly Zhol (Shining Road) economic vision to the Chinese Silk Road Economic Belt, in that the local strategy is intended to build on the Chinese infrastructure, showing how they are making the Chinese investment work for them.

But they also discuss the many other partnerships they are developing. Kazakhstan is planning a consulate in Bandar Abbas, the Iranian port city that provides Central Asia a different route to international markets. This was reinforced in Astana, where senior officials spoke of ‘connectivity being the number one point for Kazakhstan’ and that the country ‘will look in any direction with no discrimination’. At the same time, according to the Kaznex Invest Chairman Borisbiy Zhangurazov, China is set to undertake around 50 investment projects in Kazakhstan worth more than $24 billion, an amount almost equal ($26 billion) to all US investment in the country in the past 10 years.

In Pakistan, people worry about the degree to which they are becoming dependent on Chinese loans. Figures published earlier this year indicate that in Q1 FY17, net loan and FDI inflows from China were $1.1 billion (of which $700 million was a loan). Total FDI inflow is down from $192 million a year ago to $91 million this year. Trends that worry people who on the ground express a high level of concern about the transparency of the projects being undertaken as part of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the excessive reliance on Chinese investment.

What is interesting about Pakistan, however, is that it is clear that China is finding itself mired in as many problems as others have previously experienced in the country. As a Dawn editorial flagged at the start of this year, ‘for China, the year 2016 was when the country began to discover the complexities of doing business in Pakistan’. Beijing’s answer is to encourage others to become involved to share the burden. Russia is seeking a role. The UK is interested (an idea my institute is currently working on). Other parts of the Belt and Road, such as Kazakhstan, are equally keen. During my recent visit to Astana, senior figures intimated they were contemplating even going so far as opening a consulate in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’s crown jewel, the port of Gwadar in Baluchistan.

Connectivity remains the keyword in Eurasian geopolitics. Talk of Silk Roads continue to dominate regional conversations. Yet diversification will be essential to realise the visions that are being advanced. It will only work if it is a collective project, something even Beijing appears to be beginning to consider as well.

Another short piece off the longer interview with Andrew for the new site The Question, this time looking at ISIS in its Gulf regional context.

How can we fight Islamic State when our allies Saudi Arabia are also extreme Islamic fundamentalists?

There was a moment, which was very embarrassing, when people noticed that some Islamic State schools in Syria were using official Saudi school textbooks – which certainly suggests some proximity of outlook, at the very least, between the two places.

But they key difference is that Saudi Arabia is not at war with us. Saudi Arabia is actually helping to disrupt these terror networks, to counter these problems, and is ultimately a strategic ally – with many flaws and many problems, but an ally which fights with us.

Saudi Arabia realises that an organisation like Islamic State is going to come after them, at some point. For an Islamist organisation like Islamic State or al-Qa’ida, the Saudi regime is one of the most evil things on the planet. They see these guys not as austere practising Muslims who are living according to the prophet’s Sharia, but as a group of very rich people who are stealing money, and leading these incorrect, impure lives.

If you think back to al-Qa’ida, they had two levels of enemy that they were focused on: the near enemy and the far enemy. The far enemy was the West, and the near enemy was the various regimes in the Gulf, who they saw as impure, and incorrect, and puppets of the West. So Saudi realises that Islamic State are a problem, and that they’ve got a huge problem with their people going to fight in Syria and Iraq – and with what might happen when those people come home.

I’ve not seen categoric evidence that Saudi Arabia is supporting terrorist plots against the West. I have seen evidence that they have disrupted terrorist plots against the West. But are there potentially people in senior positions who may actually be more interested in supporting the other side because that’s who they’re more ideologically aligned with? I don’t discount that. But do I think that the state of Saudi Arabia is hell-bent on fighting against us? No.

Saudi Arabia is one of many important elements involved in the fight against Islamic State. They’re a very important power in the region, so which way they go on any issue is influential. They’re very significant when we look at Syria, especially. Islamic State will only be able to survive as an organisation as long as there’s chaos and trouble in Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia can certainly play a role in stabilising that.

And because of the unfortunate reality that Saudi Arabia has so many young men who’ve gone to fight alongside groups like Islamic State, they’ve got very good intelligence capacities about these organisation,. That’s very important when it comes to preventing them striking against the West, or elsewhere.

 

And another post as part of an interview for The Question, this time looking at the threat to the UK. Also realize I never posted the fact spoke to the Telegraph about trouble in Morocco, and the Express about a baggage handler who had an ISIS logo.

Is Islamist terrorism a genuine danger to me in Britain?

The government sees a threat level that is very substantial. At the moment the threat level is at ‘Severe’, which means that an attack is expected at some point, but they don’t have any immediate intelligence pointing to it. I think that reflects the reality of the threat picture at the moment linked to Islamist terrorism.

I think that in the UK, because of natural borders, because it’s slightly harder to get guns in this country, and because the police and intelligence services work so closely together to counter these threats, it is harder for people to launch attacks here. It wouldn’t be unexpected if something did happen here – there is quite a lot of active plotting going on – but I think the threat on the European continent is much greater.

The most likely attack that’s going to get through is the individual with the knife, or the home-made bomb. Those are the hardest to prevent because the flash-to-bang time of an attack like that is so short that it’s hard for the security services to catch it. But the big concern is the attack on multiple sites, multiple targets, with multiple weapons. The Anders Behring Breivik-style attack, the Paris-style attack, on targets in Britain.

What the police and security services are worried about is the system getting suddenly and completely overwhelmed by a group which has the savvy to launch multiple attacks over an extended period. The model of the Charlie Hebdo attack was small-scale version of that, the Paris attacks a bigger one. The one everyone looks at with great fear is the Mumbai attack of 2008, where ten men basically took over a city. That would be incredibly difficult to deal with.

A short piece (that was done in the form of an interview with Andrew Mueller who then published it) for a new site called The Question that is focused on answering key questions about specific topics of the day.

Is Islamic State losing its war?

In the short term, at least, they seem to be on the back foot. The land they control in Syria in Iraq is shrinking – and they controlled, for a time, a territory the size of the United Kingdom. Their leading people on the battlefield, quite senior people, are being killed. Their capability to launch the sort of attacks they have before is ebbing away, which suggests a period of relative decline.

Their goal was always to turn the entire planet to God’s greater glory – to bring about the end of days and the second coming of the Lord. This is a group that ultimately has a milleniarian vision of transforming the world in God’s image. That’s a very high bar to clear, but they start with what they start with, and build upwards. For IS, they were always very focused on their Levantine space, and if you read the ancient texts, you’ll see that those lands are very important, as the place where the war that will transform everything will start. So they had a vision of the world as it should be, but they’re also people who don’t much like the governments in those places, which leads to this mesh of personal angers and a bigger ideology which knit quite tightly together.

What is still going well for them is that they continue to exist, and are able to launch some quite substantial attacks, and to control a certain amount of territory. For a group like this, survival is important. And the attacks outside their territory are important, in a number of ways. They’re attacks on an enemy – you’re fighting us, so we’ll fight you. And there’s a political idea behind it as well – they’re trying to stir an ultimate clash of civilisations between the West and Islam and bring about the end of days.

With the taking out of their leaders, there’s a debate in the counter-terrorism community about what it actually means. Some people think decapitation of a terrorist organisation leads to bigger problems – what you’ll sometimes see is that after the removal of a senior figure, factions within the organisation will want to rise up and prove themselves, which they’ll do by doing something more atrocious than the last guy.

You look at al-Shabab in Somalia for example – their leader was killed, the next guy comes in, and you see the Westgate mall attack. The other model is that if you decapitate groups, they sometimes wither and die. You think of the Shining Path in Peru – their leader was taken out, and it kind of disappeared, because it turns out it was really a one-man band.

But an aggressive attrition of the middle ranks of people does have an impact on a group’s ability to function. If you keep hammering that middle level, you break the fighters away from the leadership, and that’s what we’ve seen happening to Islamic State recently. The leaders have to stay hidden, and aren’t in contact with many people. But if you take out the people around them, their ability to direct the organisation changes – if the guy who was looking after the accounts gets killed, who has that information now? Maybe there was a guy who knew where all the safe houses were. Look at Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who was very involved with Islamic State’s external operations – when he was killed, a lot of those would have been lost, or confused. A lot of these relationships are built on trust, and that doesn’t automatically transfer to the next guy.

The numbers which have been circulating recently suggest that the numbers of people from Europe going to fight with Islamic State is down to 10% of what it was last year. There are two main reasons for that. One is that security forces in Europe and elsewhere have a much better understanding of how recruitment networks function, and how to disrupt them. The other is the fact that the attraction of the group has reduced: Islamic State is no longer as powerful and successful as it was. If I’m going to go off and fight for someone, I don’t want to fight with a bunch of losers.

Raffaello Pantucci is the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists.

A short blogpost for a new outlet, the rather impressive China Policy Institute Analysis blog which is linked to the University of Nottingham. Touches on a couple of topics which are going to be a focus for the immediate future, the ‘Belt and Road’ and the BCIM in particular. As ever, much more on these topics to be found at China in Central Asia.

How New is the Belt and Road?

Chiang Sheng Yang, Presenter, Phoenix Satellite Television Holdings, Hong Kong SAR, Zhang Bingjun, Corporate Chairman, Tianjin TEDA Construction Group, People's Republic of China, Ian Bremmer, President, Eurasia Group, USA; Young Global Leader Alumnus; Global Agenda Council on Geo-economics, Jin Liqun, President, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Beijing, Li Daokui, Dean, Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University, People's Republic of China; Global Agenda Council on Global Economic Imbalances and Benedikt Sobotka, Chief Executive Officer, Eurasian Resources Group, Luxembourg at the World Economic Forum - Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Tianjin, People's Republic of China 2016. Copyright by World Economic Forum / Sikarin Thanachaiary

 Copyright by World Economic Forum / Sikarin Thanachaiary

Written by Raffaello Pantucci. 

Back in the late 1990s, then-PRC President and Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin noticed that the country was facing an imbalance. Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms had opened up the coastal cities, transforming them into beacons of international industry and development. Cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou were on their way to becoming international hubs. And yet looking inland, the difference was stark, with parts of the centre or border regions with neighbouring Southeast, South and Central Asia remaining poor and underdeveloped. Seeking to rectify this, and in part to help Chinese companies go out, Jiang Zemin instigated a ‘Develop the West’ or ‘Great Western Development’ strategies.

Academics like Zheng Xinli came back from their travels along China’s borderlands with southeast Asia with ideas of developing multilateral institutions that would help address one of the key problems in the region, a lack of infrastructure to help accelerate trade between parts of the world that were already deeply economically interdependent. To China’s west, the problems were political and had a security bent to them thanks to the proximity of Afghanistan, historical conflicts with Russia and an angry resident Uighur population. As the Soviet Union fell apart, China accelerated a process of border demarcation going on between itself, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan into a process called the ‘Shanghai Five’ – named after the city in which they met. The priority was largely to define what China’s borders were, with a later attempt to move the discussion towards other economic and political goals.

To China’s south, the scenario looked different. In the absence of a collapsing superpower with which China had fought conflicts, Beijing instead found itself confronted by a series of underdeveloped nations (including ones with which it had fought conflicts in some cases) that nonetheless had deep economic and ethnic links back and forth across China’s equally underdeveloped borderlands. In August 1999, over one hundred academics and experts from China, India, Burma and Bangladesh gathered together in Kunming for a conference at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences (YASS). The outline for the conference was laid out as:

  1. Practical and strategically significance for the regional cooperation among China, India, Bangladesh and Burma;
  1. Feasibility of cooperation in the economic, trade and technological cooperation among China (Yunnan), India, Bangladesh and Burma (including industry, agriculture, tourism and finance);
  1. Study on the construction of communication channels and networks among China, India, Bangladesh and Burma (including the opening and reconstructing roads, air lines, water routes and railways);
  1. Prospect and basis for the economic cooperation among China, India, Bangladesh and Burma;
  1. Open-door policies and trade and investment environment for China, India, Bangladesh and Burma;
  1. Construct the framework for regional cooperation in China, India, Bangladesh and Burma.

Its conclusions were similar and thus was laid out the framework for the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM), or the ‘Kunming Initiative’. Focusing on improving infrastructure and opening markets, the BCIM was dreamed up as a way of developing China through opening of markets, building infrastructure, and enhancing cooperation between China and its border nations.

The vision was one that was actually suggested a few months earlier in March 1999 at the 9th National Party Congress in Beijing by President Jiang Zemin. Crystallized in speeches delivered later in the year and put on the front page of the People’s Daily on June 19 1999, the ‘Great Western Development Strategy’ was a vision that suggested the ‘time was ripe’ to speed up the development of the central and western regions’ and that this ‘should become a major strategic task for the party.’

In other words, the Chinese Communist Party was to throw itself into working to develop the left behind ‘western’ (put in parentheses as the logic of ‘west’ was substantially stretched to anything not on China’s coast), and the ‘Kunming Initiative’ was to push this concept out as a trade and economic corridor that swept through Myanmar and Bangladesh to India.

All of which sounds a lot like the current vision that is being advanced for the ‘Belt and Road’, where we see Beijing pushing out trade and economic corridors in every direction as a way of helping not only China’s companies go out into the world, but also to help develop China’s under-developed ‘western regions’, be this in central China, Xinjiang, Tibet or Yunnan. Given the problems in Xinjiang, it is maybe unsurprising that the Central Asian strand of the ‘Belt and Road’ – the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ that Xi Jinping christened when he visited Astana in September 2013 – has found itself front and center, but it is also the one which is building on a well-established political track which Beijing had been laying since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

There is an additional problem with the BCIM which is that it ends with a power, India, with which Beijing continues to have tense relations that are complicated by China’s intimate embrace through another strand of the ‘Belt and Road’ with India’s persistent enemy Pakistan (the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor). This tension alongside the persistent problems of development, governance and criminality that are encountered in Myanmar and Bangladesh, all serve to illustrate why China has had a harder time of things in Southeast Asia.

But the BCIM and its history do serve to illustrate that the ‘Belt and Road’ vision that is on its way to becoming the signature foreign policy initiative of the Xi Jinping administration is not in fact as new as it may sound. Rather, it is a case of an old model being re-attempted in a new cast. And as the ‘Belt and Road’ continues to remain a nebulous vision rather than a specific project, its conceptual embrace becomes ever tighter and it drags in historical projects like the BCIM into its all-encompassing horizon. During their July 2015 meeting on the fringes of the joint SCO and BRICS meeting Russia hosted in Ufa, Presidents Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping confirmed the proximity of the two visions. As reported in the official Chinese read-out of the meeting:

‘Both countries should also join efforts to promote the construction of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), New Development Bank (NDB) of BRICS nations and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM), and discuss on effectively connecting China’s initiative of the “Belt and Road” with related initiatives of India, so as to achieve mutually beneficial cooperation and common development.’

The BCIM has therefore been brought into the broader ‘Belt and Road’ vision, highlighting the degree to which its goals are interchangeable with the approach being practiced by Beijing in the modern ‘march west’ strategy as laid out by Xi Jinping. Thus bringing in full circle the repetition that is inherent within the current vision and the historical one, and showing how this approach is in fact one that China has attempted before. Whether this one will succeed where previous have not is unclear at this point, but when one considers the vast sums that Beijing is able to muster and deploy under the auspices of the current approach, it seems that the current ‘Belt and Road’ will leave an indelible impression. One that may even help imprint the BCIM onto Southeast Asia in its wake.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). He is also the co-creator of http://www.chinaincentralasia.com and is currently working on a number of projects looking at the Belt and Road through a number of different lenses. Image credit: CC by World Economic Forum/flickr.