Archive for the ‘BLOGS’ Category

A brief post in the wake of Islam Karimov’s death in Beijing for the site I post everything China-Central Asia related. As ever, this is something I have a few bigger things in the pipeline about. Somewhat related, spoke to the Associated Press about the attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek, the Wall Street Journal about Anjem’s jailing, the Telegraph about the numbers of children being referred to Channel and Times about a new ISIS magazine.

Karimov’s Death Seen From Beijing

zhang-gaoli-karimov

Islam Karimov’s death is the realisation of a regional concern that many have long worried about: succession amongst leaders of the Central Asian states. The question of who comes next has been a persistent concern, particularly in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Beijing is not immune to these worrries. On every visit to Beijing in which Central Asia has been a focus of discussions, there have been inevitable conversations with Chinese Central Asia analysts who have been particularly perplexed about what might happen in a post-Karimov Uzbekistan. Yet, now that this scenario has arrived, China seems unperturbed and experts spoken to seem equally unconcerned. Seen from Beijing, Uzbekistan post-Karimov is a case of business as usual.

The biggest indicator of China’s reaction to Islam Karimov’s death is how the leadership responded to the news of his demise. It came at an awkward time for China, with Beijing policymakers and planners consumed with the preparations and meetings around the G20 Summit in Hangzhou. Consequently, the best that Xi Jinping could muster was a formal note through the MFA to acting President Nigmatilla Yuldoshev praising Karimov as ‘true friend’ to China. He later dispatched Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli to the funeral as his special envoy, while Prime Minister Li Keqiang paid his respects at the Uzbek Embassy in Beijing.


This set of moves could be read as dismissive, especially given the importance of respect in the Asian context. Zhang Gaoli is ultimately the seventh ranked member of seven within the Politburo Standing Committee. Therefore, in some ways, he was the most junior senior person Beijing could send. In contrast Tajik leader Rahmon, Afghan leader Ghani and Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev attended. If Beijing was to punch at this weight, then presumably Prime Minister Li Keqiang should have attended.

But at the same time, there are no other state funerals that China has reacted to in this way. The most recent possible comparison that comes to mind was the passing of Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, a leader who commanded such respect in life that he was able to muster meetings of the Politburo outside Beijing when he visited China. Yet when he passed away, Beijing sent Li Yuanchao. Like Zhang, Li Yuanchao was a Vice Premier, but only a member of the Politburo – a second tier of senior leadership made up of 25 of the most senior members of the Party. While important, Li is definitely junior to Zhang, a Standing Committee Politburo member – ie, one of Beijing’s most inner circle of seven who rule the country. Li, it is worth mentioning, appears to also have been Beijing’s representative at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, suggesting that he may be the unofficial Chinese representative to international state funerals.

Admittedly, this is a lot of ‘Pekinology’ tea-leaf reading. However, it does seem that Beijing’s leadership made some effort to show their respect to Uzbekistan in the wake of President Karimov’s passing, notwithstanding the fact that they were otherwise preoccupied with the world’s heads of state descending on Hangzhou for the G20 meeting.

Looking beyond this speculative analysis, there is further substance to Zhang Gaoli as the representative of China to Karimov’s funeral. As well as his role on the Standing Committee, Zhang is also head of the Leading Group for Advancing the Development of One Belt One Road, a group established in February 2015 which has been tasked with steering Xi Jinping’s great initiative across the Eurasian continent. Considering the importance of Uzbekistan within this context, it is possible that Zhang is in fact one of the more appropriate members to attend the funeral given the opportunity it also presented to interact with Uzbekistan’s likely new leadership. During his visit he – like the other eminent visitors who came to pay their respects – secured an audience with Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev in which they spoke about continuing ‘to promote the Belt and Road initiative, and enrich the connotations of their all-round strategic partnership by prioritizing economy, trade, energy, production capacity, traffic and security in bilateral cooperation.’

Interested to hear more about the broader context of Uzbek-China relations, I reached out to contacts in China working in the think tank and corporate sector about what they thought of Karimov’s passing. Professor Zhao Huasheng of Fudan University in Shanghai, one of the eminent dons of Central Asia research in China told me ‘I think it [Karimov’s passing] will have no significant impact on China-Uzbekistan relations, because there are no serious problems in bilateral relations. And there is no reason for the new leader not to maintain good relations with China. A peaceful and smooth transition of power is critical for stability in the country and for security in the region.’ The biggest prerequisite and issue on the table for Professor Zhao was that the country had a ‘peaceful and smooth transition of power.’ This view was confirmed by a couple of other Chinese experts spoken to, all of whom pointed to the fact that China’s pre-eminent concern was that Uzbekistan stayed on a stable trajectory. This in fact may have been the concern that had been expressed previously – with people worried that Karimov was the lid on a cauldron that might boil over without him, rather than the leader himself being the key lynchpin in the relationship.

There are in fact no indicators at the moment to suggest that the transition of power should be anything other than smooth, or that there will be an upending of Beijing and Tashkent’s warming relationship. While there has been some speculation that the likely successor (and now interim leader), PM Shavkat Mirziyoyev, may have an openness to a more productive and close relationship with Moscow than his predecessor, it is not clear this will come to China’s detriment. Mr Miriziyoyev has already established a relationship of sorts with President Xi as the individual who personally escorted President Xi Jinping to the airport when he visited Tashkent in June 2016, a visit during which President Xi was the first ever foreign leader to give a speech in the Oliy Majlis and the two leaders (President’s Xi and Karimov) together opened a railway line that China had helped build in the country.

Suffice to say all the indicators in China-Uzbek relations are positive (notwithstanding underlying concerns that are fairly common across the region towards the potentially overbearing nature of large Chinese investments), and it would be surprising if the new leader broke away from, or reversed, this relationship. Uzbekistan continues to want foreign investment, and China has proven a fairly reliable actor in this regard. While Moscow appears to be quite actively courting Tashkent in the wake of President Karimov’s death, Beijing is the one with the relationship on a steady upward trajectory. For Beijing, the priority remains that Uzbekistan stays stable and finds ways of incorporating and building into the ‘Belt and Road’ vision. Seen from Tashkent, there is no clear reason why this wouldn’t be a possibility.

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And final catch up post, this time for a think tank I worked for a while ago, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), with whom I am still doing some things. This is a post for their site which focused on some of the issues of the ‘Belt and Road’ strategy and what they need to do to get greater European cooperation on it. This is a topic that is very rich and has lots of work in the pipeline around it.

This aside, to catch up on some media conversations, spoke to The Times, Reuters and La Liberation about the leak of ISIS documents, to Newsweek about al Shabaab targeting aviation and training Boko Haram fighters, to Buzzfeed about Brexit and national security questions, to The Independent about Prevent issues in the UK, to the Press Agency about the attacks in Ivory Coast, to the Associated Press about the latest round of talks in Afghanistan the Chinese are helping with, and a presentation I did recently in Washington on China-Russia in Central Asia got a write up in the Diplomat.

Building Support for the Belt and Road

Xi Jinping has laid out what is going to be the defining foreign policy vision of his leadership in the form of the Belt and Road. An all-encompassing initiative, it is something that repeated Chinese leaders have said they want to engage with foreign partners on, in particular with European capitals given the vision is one that starts in China and ends in Europe. Yet, there is still a lack of clarity around exactly what this initiative actually looks like and how it is that foreigners can engage with China on this project. Beijing needs to lay out more clearly what it needs and wants from the world to implement this vision.

Seen from the outside, the Belt and Road initiative is one that appears to in essence be about building economic and trade corridors emanating out from China. Through the development of transport links – be they rail, road, ports or airports – and the construction and rehabilitation of pipelines, markets, economic zones and more, China aims to open Eurasia while reconnecting China to Europe across the wide landmass they share. The potential impact is a game-changing effect on a wide swathe of Eurasia, something that has not gone unnoticed in Europe where policymakers spend lots of time thinking about how to develop their continent. Yet, connecting on the initiative has so far proven difficult. If China genuinely wants greater cooperation on this strategy, then a number of key things need to happen.

First, Beijing needs to clarify where the routes of the Belt and Road will actually go. At the moment, all of the maps that have been produced are ones that are done by enterprising journalists interpreting official statements. The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the body responsible for the vision, has so far not expressed a view or produced a map. This is problematic as it means people are unable to know exactly which Beijing’s priorities are and what specific routes Europe should focus on developing to support and work with China’s plan. For example, generally it is clear that the Silk Road Economic Belt will pass through Central Asia, but which specific road or rail projects is China going to focus on first?

Second, China needs to understand that if they want to maximise external support on the vision, then Chinese led funding initiatives need to be open to foreign contractors. European investment structures like the EBRD or EIB (as well as international ones like the ADB) are very keen to work with China on this vision, but need to ensure that the subsequent project contracts to emerge from investments are put out to open tender. This ensures that the best possible contractors will undertake the projects and ensures that the vision gets carried through in the most effective way possible. This is something that extends beyond simple financing terms and contract procedures: it needs to be made clearer that there is a role for others in Chinese led projects. The key point here is that China needs to be open to working with others in very practical terms to try to advance this vision.

Third, China needs to find ways to discuss sensitive security questions with outsiders. Through the Belt and Road, China is going to increasingly find itself becoming one of the most consequential players on the ground in large parts of Eurasia. With such power will increasingly come a greater regional role, including on sensitive security questions where Beijing will find itself having to try to broker negotiations and agreements between sides in open conflict with each other. This is already happening in Afghanistan, and as time goes on Beijing will find itself ever more involved in such discussions across the continent. Europeans have some experience and understanding of some of these questions and would be willing to share their intelligence and experience with China if Beijing showed an equal level of openness in discussions. Genuine cooperation and deeper understanding come from a full and frank exchange.

There are clearly a great deal more detailed issues that need to be discussed, but these three overarching points need to be addressed before greater detail can be gone in to. China needs to understand that many in Europe are keen to cooperate on this vision, but they need some greater clarity to able to find practical ideas for what cooperation can look like in practice. By offering a more detailed outline of what this initiative physically looks like and what projects Beijing is prioritising, opening up to the idea of making joint investments, and being willing to participate in more frank and open security discussions, Beijing will find receptive doors across Europe. All of which will be essential to ensure President Xi’s vision turns into a long-standing foreign policy legacy reconnecting the Eurasian landmass along the old Silk Roads.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

This is a slightly longer freeflowing piece for an old site I used to contribute to fairly regularly called The Interpreter, the blog for a great Australian think tank called the Lowy Institute. Was based off some reflections from some recent travel I got to do to China, Pakistan and Uzbekistan. I’ve been lucky with the piece getting some traction, including some nice tweets, Casey Michel quoting it in his piece about China’s energy relations with the region and the Australian Business Spectator magazine republishing it. Thanks Sam for publishing it, and goes without saying a lot more on this theme and style to come!

A piece for a new outlet, War on the Rocks, an online magazine established by some friends formerly of the London War Studies community now in Washington. Good resource with a great roster of writers. The piece offers some thoughts on Mehdi Nemmouche and his alleged attack in Belgium within the context of lone actor terrorism trends and the bigger problem of foreign fighters going to Syria and coming home a problem. Beyond this, I did an interview with Swedish TV about foreign fighters around some interesting cases they have going on, as well as talking to Channel 4 and NBC about the current chaos engulfing Iraq. Per War on the Rocks request, I have only posted the first paragraph here, and the rest can be found after the hyperlinks free of charge.

Mehdi Nemmouche and Syria: Europe’s Foreign Fighter Problem

The capture of Mehdi Nemmouche in France alongside his apparent videoed confession claiming responsibility for a shooting last month at a Jewish museum in Brussels offers the first example of deaths in Europe linked to the battlefield in Syria. EU Counterterrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove has spoken of his expectation of more such small-scale attacks, while European security services grow increasingly concerned about the potential scale of the blowback they might expect from Syria. The key problem that has yet to be grappled with is the necessary community messaging that will persuade people of the negative consequences of joining the fight in Syria.

A slightly odd post in that it is not an article, but rather an interview I did with the author of the Bug Pit blog on Eurasianet that focuses on all things ‘military and security in Eurasia’. In any case, it was inspired as a result of the piece I recently did with Lifan for Open Democracy Russia, a piece that has been translated in Russian already and is apparently going to go up in Chinese as well. As ever, more on this topic more broadly to come.

Russia and China May Compete Economically in Central Asia, But Not Militarily

February 1, 2013 – 1:32pm, by Joshua Kucera 

Last week, Open Democracy Russia ran a very good series of articles on relations between Russia and China. One was especially interesting for EurasiaNet readers, about choices that the Central Asian states are having to make between integration with Russia or China. The piece concentrates on the economic sphere, in which, as the authors convincingly argue, integration with the two big superpowers is becoming mutually exclusive.

Of course, Russia and China also have their respective Central Asia integration schemes in the security sphere: China has the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and Russia the Collective Security Treaty Organization. So I asked one of the piece’s authors, Raffaello Pantucci, an expert on Chinese-Central Asian relations, about whether there was going to be a similar reckoning in that sphere. Short answer: no. His more detailed thoughts:

The Bug Pit: Is there a similar looming choice to make for the Central Asian states, whether they prioritize ties with the SCO (dominated by China) or CSTO (dominated by Russia)?

Raffaello Pantucci: There is little similar looming choice with regards the SCO and the CSTO. In part this is since the SCO remains a relatively infant security entity, while the CSTO has the advantage of having lots of interoperable forces and equipment. Also, China has no interest in stirring up a security competition having a foreign and security policy that does its utmost to not seem threatening. Having said all of this, it is interesting to see how the SCO has developed as a security actor – it is maybe not as active as some initially thought it would be, but the Chinese are certainly taking advantage of the opportunities it offers to test out equipment and strategy. The ‘Peace Mission’ exercises they regularly undertake are ones that the Chinese are increasingly playing an active role in directing.

TBP: Why has the SCO not turned out to be as active a military organization as China seems to have originally expected?

RP: I’m not entirely sure that was always the focus from a Chinese perspective. The SCO was born out of the ‘Shanghai Five’ – a grouping that was established in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union to help delineate and demilitarize China’s borders with the newly former Soviet states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Russia. This grouping proved successful and it evolved into the SCO in 2001 with Uzbekistan’s accession. In its founding declaration, the members emphasize their ‘non-alignment, not targeting to the third country or region, and opening to the outside world.’ Instead, they focus on countering the domestic threat of three evils ‘terrorism, separatism and religious extremism’ – a very Chinese phrasing. Terrorism is quite a useful unifying rallying subject that all of these nations agree on, all of whom had (and for the most part have) active networks of some sort operating in their territory.

In fact, the Chinese have always seemed more interested in the economic aspects of the SCO, and analysts will say as much in conversation. Their emphasis has repeatedly been on developing the SCO as an economic actor, something they hope will help them strengthen their economic hand and links in the region. Looking at many of the recent economic moves and discussions within the organization – talk of an SCO FTA, an SCO Development Bank, the large loan vehicles through the organization – the impetus is all coming from Beijing.

TBP: Do you think that Central Asian governments would like the SCO to be more active? Is there any desire for China to balance Russia in the security sphere?

RP: When Alex and me were travelling in Kyrgyzstan, one of the more amusing stories we heard was that the roads the Chinese were building were being designed to carry the weight of a Chinese tank. This apocryphal story may be founded on little more than speculation, but it captures quite effectively a concern that bubbles barely beneath the surface in Central Asia. People in the small and under-populated Central Asian states are worried about being neighbours to the Chinese behemoth. Tracked out, it translates into little desire for China to step in as the main security guarantor. And in practice, the Chinese have not done much in direct security terms. Look back to the troubles in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and there was no evidence of China stepping in – it was rather Russia that ended up standing up as the regional supporter.

A final point to make is that China has little desire to become the main security guarantor in the region. It cuts right against the national ethos of non-interference. Elsewhere around the world it has slowly found itself being dragged into such nettlesome security problems and it is still working out how to address them. Where possible, they would like to avoid this in Central Asia too.

TBP: What do Central Asian leaders expect from China and the SCO long-term? Will they eventually take a larger role in security?

RP: I don’t think the Central Asian leaders see the SCO as being on a trajectory towards a greater security role. The impression is that they see it as a useful way to engage more generally with China and manage Chinese regional goals. The fact that the other main regional security player Uzbekistan has been so hesitant to engage with the SCO as a security actor highlights the distance the Chinese still have to go to turn it into a regional security player that everyone will buy into.

The interesting long-term question is what exactly will the Chinese do if their economic interests are directly threatened by security problems. Will they simply write them off? Or rely on local actors to protect them? Or send their own forces in, either under a Chinese flag or the SCO? The answer at this point is unclear, and this is a question that Chinese policymakers are still struggling with.

A new post for my publisher’s blog, exploring the connections between extremist leader Masood Azhar and his links to the UK. Am quite pleased with this piece which has a bunch of new information in it, and will give people a further taster of what’s in the book! Some more on this topic landing soon from a slightly different angle.

Maulana Masood Azhar in the British Jihad

January 24, 2013   |   Raffaello Pantucci

Maqbool Butt

Maqbool Butt

Kashmir has always played an interesting role in Britain’s jihad. From its earliest days, the presence in the UK of a substantial Kashmiri population meant issues in the Indian sub-continent were important in the UK as well. Most prominently, in 1984, a group of Kashmiris abducted and murdered Rhavindra Mhatre, a diplomat serving at the Indian Consulate in Birmingham. Their demands included the release of imprisoned Kashmiri leader Maqbool Butt, who was instead executed by the Indian government in retribution. In later years, as tensions slowly escalated, a growing number of young Britons were drawn to the fight, following the streams of money that had long filtered from the UK to Kashmiri jihadi groups. In time, this well-trodden path became a direct line to al Qaeda, culminating in the attacks of 7 July 2005.

Fostering connections with the UK was important for Kashmiri groups (and for Pakistani political parties in general, most of whom had and still have offices in the UK). Leaders would regularly come to the UK to rattle fundraising cups and seek moral support. One individual who made this peregrination was Maulana Masood Azhar, a portly bespectacled preacher and the son of a Bahawalpur religious studies teacher, Master Allah Baksh Sabir Alvi. Born to a religious family in 1968, Azhar undertook the study of Islam from an early age. At four he was given awards for his capacity to recite long tracts from the Koran and was sent to the Darul Uloom Islamia Binori Town in Karachi—a centre of Deobandi learning. From here he slowly moved up the ladder, travelling to Afghanistan before taking on a prominent role as editor of the magazine Sadai Mujahid(‘Voice of the Mujahid’) that extolled the virtues of jihad in Afghanistan and then later Kashmir. In February 1994 he was captured by Indian forces in Kashmir and spent six years in jail before he was freed as part of a deal to obtain the release of a planeload of mostly Indian passengers on their way to Nepal.

Released alongside Azhar was a young Briton named Omar Saeed Sheikh, an LSE graduate, who had sought to fight alongside jihadists in Bosnia in the early 1990s. There he met a Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen fighter (HuM—Masood Azhar’s then outfit) who re-directed him to Kashmir. Upon arrival he attended a training camp in Waziristan near Miranshah where in late 1993 he met Masood Azhar. Seeing some particular value in the Briton, Azhar instructed him to try to obtain a visa to enter India—something Sheikh had difficulty with due to his dual citizenship. Foiled, he returned to the UK and applied for a British passport to replace his Pakistani one and was able to get a visa into India. Once in India he helped HuM attempt a number of kidnappings of foreigners to be held hostage in exchange for detained HuM fighters, until he was caught by Indian police (who stumbled across the cell holding the hostages while on a different mission). Later freed alongside Azhar, he became notorious when in 2003 he was arrested for his role in the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. He is still sitting on death row in Pakistan for this crime.

It seems possible that Azhar may have encountered Sheikh earlier. According to some accounts, Azhar knew Sheikh’s father and had met him on a trip to the UK—a trip Azhar may have made to seek support for HuM from Britain’s pro-Kashmir community. How many of these trips Azhar made is unclear, but it seems certain that he went at least once to the UK and spent some time in Birmingham as well as East London. In Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clarke’s recent book, The Meadow, they describe him meeting another young British man and future jihadist in Birmingham, Rashid Rauf. Arriving in Birmingham, Azhar is described as having befriended Rauf’s father Abdul, a baker, former shariah judge in Pakistan and prominent local supporter of the struggle in Kashmir. According to Levy and Scott-Clarke, Abdul Rauf introduced Azhar to ‘his rootless teenage son, Rashid, whom he said was in need of a mentor.’ Many years later in 2002, Rauf would flee the UK after being sought by police in relation to the murder of an uncle. In Pakistan he headed straight to Azhar’s hometown Bahawalpur where he married Azhar’s sister-in-law, the daughter of a prominent local madrassa head. He went on to become an important al Qaeda leader.

Other accounts from Azhar’s trip around the UK describe him as being a passionate and emotive speaker with women taking off their jewelry and handing it over to support the cause in Kashmir after listening to his speeches. The inspirational effect of Azhar’s speeches reportedly transcended linguistic barriers. Waheed Ali, a young Bangladeshi friend of July 7 bomber Shehzad Tanweer, reported that the two boys, from Beeston (near Leeds), would sit around and listen to tapes of Azhar’s speeches that had been given to them at the local Iqra bookshop. Ali said he only understood a little Urdu and was reliant on his friend Tanweer to translate. As Ali put it, ‘I can understand a little bit but what used to happen is me and Kaki [Tanweer] used to listen to it and what he’d do, he’d pause and he’d explain to me what he just said, yeah, and because Maulana Masood Azhar has got a really eloquent way of speaking and he used to be really, you know, like fiery and everything, yeah, so it sounds really nice and Kaki used to explain to me what he said.’

Azhar’s influence over the wider cell around the July 7 group, including the Operation Crevice group who were jailed in 2006 for their role in plotting an attack using a massive fertilizer bomb in Bluewater, is again intelligible in the accounts from a 2003 training camp in Malakand, Pakistan, given by Mohammed Junaid Babar. At this camp, alongside the Crevice plotters, was the leader of the July 7 cell, Mohammed Siddique Khan, and Mohammed Shakil, another Beestonite who helped with the Iqra bookshop and who was later jailed alongside Waheed Ali for trying to attend a training camp in Pakistan in 2007. According to Babar’s account, at this camp the group exercised, fired AK-47s and RPGs and, to wind down, would sit around and read aloud from Masood Azhar’s famous book The Virtues of Jihad. That the young men knew of Azhar is unsurprising. Khan and Ali had first come to Pakistan to train at a HuM camp in 2001, just before 9/11. In Ali’s account they were met at the airport by a vehicle festooned with HuM stickers before being taken by the organization to their camp in Manshera (and later to a base in Afghanistan). In 1999, as part of a year out from university, Mohammed Shakil spent some time in Kashmir near his family’s hometown and spent three days at a low-level training camp. Later that same year, Omar Khyam, the head of the Crevice cell who later helped establish the camp with Mohammed Junaid Babar, ran away from home, telling his parents he was on a school trip to France, when he instead went to join the struggle in Kashmir. His parents ended up sending an aged relation to persuade him to come home, where, he claims, he was welcomed as a hero.

But while Kashmir may have been the bait that drew the young Britons in, Azhar’s specific appeal to the young British jihadists was the fact that he seemed to transcend the often corrupt and confusing struggle in Kashmir, riddled with spies, intrigue and manipulation. In a book which describes his experiences fighting alongside Kashmiri warriors in the mid-1990s, Dhiren Barot, a British Hindu of Gujarati extraction who converted to Islam and fought in Kashmir, to later connect with al Qaeda’s senior leadership, compares Azhar to Abdullah Azzam. A Palestinian jihadi scholar who acted as one of the prime recruiters for the Afghan jihad, Azzam remains an inspirational figure to jihadists the world over. In his book, The Army of Madinah in Kashmir, Dhiren Barot (writing under the pseudonym Esa al Hindi) says ‘Sheikh Mohammed Mas’ood Azhar is one of the few revivers of Jihad in our time who mirrors in the Indian sub-continent what Abdullah Azzam was to the Arab world. His works in many languages have greatly inspired men and women in realizing the low state of the Muslim people and its duty to revive itself through jihad.’

By the end of the book, Barot seems to have taken against the struggle in Kashmir, worried that brave jihadis are being lost in a struggle manipulated by people with darker agendas. The shout-out to Azhar therefore is all the more significant, highlighting Azhar’s appeal to the community beyond Kashmiri nationalists. This appeal was still visible almost a decade later when in January 2006 Umm Musab al-Gharib, aka the ‘Lyrical Terrorist’ or Samina Malik, posted Azhar’s book (the same one read at the Malakand camp), The Virtues of Jihad, onto popular Muslim forum www.forums.islamicawakening.com, adding the note ‘it will be of benefit to you all.’ Malik, whose conviction for ‘possessing records likely to be used for terrorism’ was eventually overturned, was in contact with Sohail Qureishi, a dental assistant who was arrested as he tried to go abroad to fight in Pakistan. Other groups from the UK, like the wider cell around Bradford native Aabid Khan, saw Azhar’s Jaish-e-Mohammed group as a good first point of contact when seeking to go fight in Pakistan. Apparently connected to the group, it is believed that Aabid Khan may have been a vetter for the organization, helping to identify suitable candidates to fight alongside it among the over-excited young westerners who drifted to Pakistan seeking jihad in the wake of 9/11.

Azhar is also believed to be responsible for dispatching Britain’s first known suicide bomber. On Christmas in 2000, 24 year old Birmingham native Asif Sadiq, using the pseudonym Mohammed Bilal, drove a car packed with explosives into a checkpoint outside an Indian army base in Kashmiri capital Srinagar, killing nine. Claimed by the newly-founded Jaish-e-Mohammed, the bombing (the first suicide attack in Srinagar) marked the violent birth of the new jihadist organization that Azhar established upon his release from Indian jail with Pakistani backing. Back in the UK, attention-seeking cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed (whose organization al Muhajiroun features as a backdrop to the radicalization of many of the Britons mentioned in this article) stated that his organization regularly sent ‘freedom fighters’ to Kashmir and that a group of 23-24 year olds had made this trip two weeks before Christmas. He thought it ‘quite possible’ that one of them had been involved in the Srinagar attack.

While Bakri Mohammed’s comments need to be taken with a pinch of salt, Azhar’s deadly intent and influence over young Britons, drawn to Kashmir and jihad, is unmistakable. And as time passed and Azhar’s group slowly faded, the connection that he helped nurture seems to have passed seamlessly over to al Qaeda. The archetypal example of this is Rashid Rauf, who Azhar was allegedly asked to mentor as a young man and who later married Azhar’s sister-in-law. Having re-connected with Azhar in 2002, Rauf seems to have moved effortlessly into al Qaeda’s ranks, going on to act as the coordinator for the July 7 attack, one of the key masterminds of the August 2006 plot to bring down about eight airliners on transatlantic routes (the plot that means we are still unable to take liquids onto planes) and involved in a whole series of later plots targeting the UK and US. Rauf is now believed to be dead, killed by a drone strike in November 2008 as he plotted with al Qaeda to carry out an attack on the New York subway.

What Azhar would have made of his young protégé’s demise is unknown. In fact, specifics on what Azhar is doing now are unclear. Wikileak’s Cablegate revealed that in late 2009 the Indian government had pushed for adding him to the list of known terrorists held by the UN, but this was stalled by Chinese objections—presumably to support their close allies in Islamabad. He remains at large in Pakistan regularly delivering speeches and with active personal and organization (Jaish-e-Mohammed) Facebook pages online. In late 2011 the fundraising wing of the group, the al Rahmat Trust, was identified as having made a push to raise money in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. But since the revelation in May 2011 that the Indian government continue to believe Azhar is at large in Pakistan, little more has been heard about him. For the UK, however, this is a moot point. Azhar has long since moved on from being directly implicated in Britain’s jihad, acting instead as an inspirational figurehead whose jihadi writings have entered the canon of required reading. Watching his slow transition into this role and his influence on the development of Britain’s jihad highlights the sometimes confusing role that Kashmir has played in its development.

Nowadays, jihad in Kashmir is a shadow of its former self. Largely burned out after the brutal battles of the 1990s, the struggle remains an issue, but it is no longer the focus amongst Britain’s jihadi community. Many of the young men initially drawn to it walked away disillusioned by the degree of influence the intelligence services held over it and how geopolitical games were being played by brave idealistic souls seeking to fight in God’s name to protect the Muslim ummah. But as the conflict wound down, as Dhiren Barot correctly predicted in his book, ‘there will of a surety be those who will feel cheated, humiliated and let down.’ And they developed into the community that connected with al Qaeda to launch repeated attacks against the West and helped kindle a civil war in Pakistan that rages to this day. While Masood Azhar may have gone into seclusion since his 1990s hey-day, his rhetorical influence can still be felt and his key role in bringing jihad to the UK seems clearer than ever.

Back where this is accessible so catching up on old posting. This is a new piece based on recent travels in Kazakhstan, part of my ongoing project on China in Central Asia with Alex. On a related topic, was quoted in the UK’s Daily Telegraph about Zhou Yongkang’s visit to Afghanistan.

Chinatown, Kazakhstan?

September 20, 2012

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

Is there a Chinese restaurant in town?  The front desk clerk at our hotel answered that he knew of none in the city and could only direct us to a Japanese-Korean establishment, complete with waitresses in kimonos and chopsticks sanitized in Seoul.  While the food was good, it wasn’t what we were looking for.

Aktobe is our latest stop through the region tracking China’s influence in Central Asia.  We had heard this was the oil town where China National Petroleum Corporation runs the show and we wanted to try to get a sense of China’s role on the steppe.  Local Kazakhstani’s have nicknamed the city ‘Chinatown’ – a reflection of the size of the Chinese population. But, how could there be no Chinese restaurants in Chinatown?

The answer of course, is that there are some, though they maintain a low profile. One local Chinese worker mentioned his favorite. It’s ‘not high quality’ he said, as though our palates would only accept the most refined food. It was as we were wandering around to see Aktobe’s brand new, immaculate Russian Orthodox Church that we noticed a building with a big CNPC logo atop and the word ‘restaurant’ in Russian.  Right around the corner from our hotel, it was obviously something our concierge had never noticed. Inside a surprised waitress from Hubei pointed out the menu was only in Kazakh and Chinese. ‘没关系’ (‘never mind’) we responded with a smile to the empty dining hall.

Next door was further evidence of China: a Bank of China office. Walking in to ask whether a UnionPay card would work here, a Kazakhstani receptionist informed us in fluent Chinese that these cards could not be used here. When asked whether this was a bank only for companies, she shook her head – it was open for retail customers too, but had no capability to manage UnionPay transactions (UnionPay is the Chinese debit card system).  It was obviously a bank for local Chinese.

Chinese companies and foreign workers in Kazakhstan do not advertise their presence.  A vast country with long stretches of sparsely inhabited territory and a relatively small population, many Kazakhstani’s look warily at their overpopulated neighbor to the east.  In 2009 plans for a Chinese agricultural firm to lease parcels of land for soybean production were met with vehement nationalist protests.

Stories abound of low pay and bad working conditions at Chinese companies.  There is evidence that they import unskilled laborers from China to fill jobs that could go to locals; they even advertise for chefs that speak Chinese.  But back in Astana, Kazakhstan’s gleaming capital, energy analysts point out that nobody really knows what occurs on Chinese work sites.  Kazakhstan’s government is very strict about enforcing ‘local content’ quotas.  Local rumours may in fact be just that.

Nevertheless, in Aktobe it is quite clear that CNPC is the big player in town.  A new hotel and office complex houses a number of CNPC-AktobeMunaiGas subsidiaries, with a bustle of smart Chinese professionals coming in and out for meetings. Visitors from Beijing use the lobby bar to check emails, while colleagues take cigarette breaks in front of the building. Smaller offices can be found dotted around the city and a local sanatorium on the outskirts has apparently been turned into a rest home for the CNPC workers in from the field.

With no pagodas or chinoiserie to draw attention, relative to most American or European cities, the overt Chinese presence in Aktobe is minimal.  One has to go looking for it.  It therefore says something about the watchfulness of ordinary Kazakhstanis that Aktobe has earned its sobriquet.