Archive for the ‘BLOGS’ Category

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.

A post for a long ignored outlet, ICSR’s Free Rad!cals blog. This one touches on my old hobby horse of Lone Wolves, looking at the spate of mass shootings in the US and the Breivik case a year on. Naturally, I would point you to my ICSR report on this topic for more, but also my earlier journal article on Breivik if you are looking for more detail on that specific case. A lot more on this subject in the pipeline.

Terrorist or Crazed Loner?

Filed under: Homegrown extremism, Terrorism

Almost a year to the day that Anders Behring Breivik carried out his deadly attack in Oslo, James Holmes donned his body armor, picked up the arsenal he had been accumulating over the previous months, primed a bomb at home designed to kill whoever walked in and headed off to the cinema. Once there he launched an as of now unexplained attack during a midnight screening of the new Batman movie.

Two weeks later, another tragedy struck America when Wade M. Page carried out a shooting at a Sikh Temple killing six members of its congregation. The question people have been asking since is whether any or all of these individuals are terrorists – or to be more precise, Lone Wolf terrorists.

In Holmes’ case, it is still unclear what drove him to carry out his action. Making his first appearance in a courtroom a couple of weeks ago, the immediate focus was on the color of Holmes hair and the fact that he is reported to have told arresting officers that he was the Joker – a fictional Batman nemesis. According to NYPD police chief Raymond Kelly, police apparently found some Batman paraphernalia in Holmes’ residence, and a local gun club owner said that ‘he got a “bizarre” Batman-inspired voice-mail message from Holmes that led him to issue a club-wide ban on the 24-year-old.’ All of this hints at a motive of some sort, but a tenuous one at best (the Joker, for example, did not have orange hair).

None of this points to any sort of a political motive. In fact, as time has passed, we have discovered Holmes was under psychiatric evaluation and that his doctor had tried to contact authorities about him. Whilst the case remains to be heard, it increasingly looks as though Holmes was a disjointed individual who found killing others as some sort of release.

On the other hand, with both Breivik and Page there was some sort of a political or ideological motive. This is important in defining whether this is an act of terrorism in the sense that we would commonly use it. If there was an underlying political motive, then it makes sense to characterise it as one-man political violence. If on the other hand there was no underlying motive beyond some imaginary world that the person has created, then it would seem to be missing the crucial element of political activism that is essential in an act of terrorism. This, put simply, is the action of a lunatic.

With both Breivik and Page there is a clear political motive. In Breivik’s case, we know about it since he wrote an epic and monotonous text telling us what he believed in, while with Page, we can only assume given his participation in white supremacist groups, musical tastes, and online activity. And both clearly come from an ideological ferment that seems to help explain their choice of targets. That in both cases, the communities they felt ideologically affiliated with have largely rejected them does not detract from the fact that the ideas influenced them.

The utility of understanding whether there is a political motive is that if there is, then it behooves national security services to understand it and be alert to the possible consequences. People had long watched the rise of the Eurabian fear mongering focused on conspiracy theories about a Muslim takeover of the West that was helped on by liberal governments weak on immigration, but the connection was never made that this could inspire people to violence. Not the radical right sort that most countries (except Germany it seems) have under good surveillance, but the new ideologies inspired in reaction to the rise of extremist Islamist ideas in Europe.

In the US, the notion of white supremacist/far-right groups moving into action seems to have been a concern, but resources were re-deployed from watching them in the wake of a scandal surrounding a report on the topic by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) back in 2009. More recently the single-minded focus on violent Islamists seems to have diverted people’s attention.

But what is confusing about these individuals who seem motivated by political ideology is that they decided to act on their own with such brutality and no direction. Terrorists see themselves as vanguard actors and they usually operate in a group that provides an echo chamber in which they can develop their identity. It helps them justify what they are doing and then gives them direction to do something about it. With Breivik and Page they seem to have been part of a broader community, but acted by themselves and did not necessarily expect anyone to rise up to follow them (Breivik even says he expects condemnation).

This is what makes them hard to understand. Their choice of target seems to have been dictated by their chosen ideologies. But the pointless nature of their assault and its subsequent lack of any follow-up makes it hard to comprehend. In the case of a terrorist cell performing an attack on behalf of al Qaeda, they are participating in an active global war in which their single attack is part of a bigger strike against society their group is conducting. And while Breivik and Page may see themselves in this role, from an outsiders perspective it is almost unfathomable that there is any sort of war on that these men see themselves part of and the absence of any direction seems to support this. At least with al Qaeda, we can see regular attacks by affiliates in Afghanistan, Iraq, North Africa, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, etc, as well as periodic attempts elsewhere with connections back to these hubs.

Instead with Breivik and Page we are facing two men who killed a group of people seemingly detached from any clear group, but driven by a violent set of ideas. The fact they had an ideology of some sort distinguishes them from Holmes. And it is this that defines them as Lone Wolf terrorists rather than simply a crazy kid with a gun. They were seeking a goal that has a framework that exists outside their minds. This is not to explain or justify or glorify their actions in some way, but rather to say that in categorical terms it is more useful to understand them as politically motivated actors rather than deranged people with guns who act for no reason. And if we can understand the ideology and refine our other markers to some degree, it might be possible to identify such individuals.

A longer post for a new outlet, the blog of my excellent English publisher, Hurst. Draws on material that I have gone into in much more depth in the text of my book, and touches upon the theme of Shabaab’s use of media for recruitment that I have written about before (and am working on a bit at the moment as well).

The Ballads of Global Jihad

When 17-year old Saajid Badat first moved to London in 1997 he was given a cassette tape – still a popular medium then – by some new friends he had made in Tooting. Called ‘In the Hearts of Green Birds’ and produced by Azzam Publications, the tape relayed the stories of jihadist warriors who had fallen fighting for the Muslim ummah in Bosnia. An impressionable young man who had attained the status of hafiz (memorised the Koran) by the time he was twelve, Badat was moved by the stories he heard on the tape and ‘tried to meet with different people with similar view in respect of jihad.’ Within a year, he used these same contacts to go and train, setting him down a path which in 2001 led him to agree to be deployed by al Qaeda as one half of a ‘shoe bomb’ suicide mission targeting transatlantic flights. In the event, Badat backed out at the last minute, while his co-conspirator Richard Reid attempted to bring down a Paris-Miami flight.

Stories and myths have always been important in the history of Britain’s jihad, be they delivered by cassette, video or in written form. In the 1990s at Abu Hamza’s Finsbury Park mosque, young men would crowd around and watch videos from the front in Algeria or Chechnya. Up in Beeston, young Waheed Ali, who later attended a training camp in Pakistan with Mohammed Siddique Khan (one of the four men who carried out the 7th July 2005 London bombings), recalled getting videos of fighting from a friend at the Iqra bookshop in Beeston and taking them round to his friend Shehzad Tanweer’s house. ‘Watching the brothers fighting in Chechnya against the Russians…was really inspirational.’ As he later told a courtroom, ‘it really brought a sense of brotherhood to a different level [….] if you get a Chechen Muslim or you get a Russian civilian you can’t tell the difference, they both look the same and you’re getting one people who are annihilating another people and you’re getting Muslims from all round the world, Arabs, you’re getting Pakistanis, you’re getting Africans going to Chechnya, a foreign land, to help their Muslim brothers and it was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe it. I thought ‘this is beautiful’. Ali was eventually jailed for trying to return to a training camp in Pakistan in 2007.

Others found motivation in books, like that written by Dhiren Barot, a convert who in the mid 1990s left his job working for an airline in London to go and fight alongside Kashmiri jihadists. He later wrote up his experience in a book called The Army of Madinah in Kashmir that has featured repeatedly among the collections of men jailed for terrorism in the UK. Clearly impressed by the author’s experiences, the anonymous editor Abu Umamah tells readers in the preface, ‘what is most unusual about this book is the author himself. It is so rare for people in our age to take on the struggle for the sake of Allah. So imagine someone who comes from a non-Muslim background, struggling first against himself, then those around him from friends and family to take on the most noble of duties in Allah’s cause’.

The importance of these narratives has not shrunk and extremist groups abroad have become adept at producing accessible material that tell glorious hagiographies and of a united ummah fighting against oppression. Al-Shabaab has become particularly good at this, producing videos that look professionally made, highlighting what the group has achieved in Somalia. Most recently, they released what promises to be the first in a series called ‘The Life under the Shade of Islamic Sharia in Somalia.’ Produced by al-Khataib (which translates as the person who delivers the sermon), the film was made in the style of a documentary about what life was like under sharia law in Baidoa, a city Shabaab used to control. In the film we see the English-speaking narrator (with a slight foreign accent, but clearly someone who has spent considerable time in the UK), acting like a documentary narrator on the BBC ‘travelling back to find out’ more about how Baidoa fared under al-Shabaab rule. He talks to the camera, poses against the backdrop of scenes of battles he is describing, and conducts on-screen interviews with citizens. Preceding his trip to Baidoa with a brief history lesson, we hear about dictator Siad Barre whose socialist republic collapsed in 1991, leading to a period in which, he tells us, the country descended into tribal conflicts and warlordism with Ethiopian funding.

Animosity towards Ethiopia is something that pervades the video and the more general Shabaab narrative; a majority Christian country that is repeatedly accused of being a crusader army come to oppress Somalia’s Muslim community – either with outside support or simply for its own nefarious reasons. Talking to a Somali social worker in Ealing on the topic of Shabaab a few years ago, I was surprised to hear first-hand about the strength of the Ethiopian invasion as a narrative that spurred anger among young Somalis. The importance of this narrative to Shabaab in particular can be seen in a recorded telephone conversation from August 2010 between two Somali-Swede’s accused of fundraising and recruiting for the group: ‘the diaspora helped us before, when the Ethiopians came, so that we could drive them away…because they hated Ethiopia so much…when they left, then came the Ugandans….but they hate the Ethiopians more than the Ugandans…they have never heard of the Ugandans…and now we get no help because they do not know what the war is about.’ Without this narrative to tap, the men were having difficulty raising money from the community in Scandinavia.

Hence the need to produce videos explaining their narrative and highlighting successes, and the narrator’s trip to sharia-governed Baidoa to show what Shabaab are achieving. In the video, he goes around like a reporter interviewing shop owners (one of whom breaks off during the interview to go to prayer) and asking locals what they think of sharia rule. We visit madrassas filled with eager children learning the Koran and see teams of religious police wandering around the city during prayer time to make sure everyone has closed business and gone to pray. At other times we see a bustling city apparently thriving under the group’s control with markets and new construction sites, all courtesy of foreign investment that has supposedly come to the city in the wake of the stability al-Shabaab had brought. A big point is made of talking about the role that women play in the markets – in supposed contrast to the evil democratic narrative that says they are oppressed under sharia – though at no point are we shown any women’s faces.

This particular narrative may be new and unique to the Somali situation, but there are universal elements in the video and other Shabaab productions that hearken back to earlier videos. The Chechen and Bosnian videos were infamous for their depiction of butchered civilians and while the Shabaab videos are not quite as gruesome, we see a Shabaab warrior showing us a selection of skulls that are purportedly civilians beheaded by Ethiopian soldiers. In contrast to the earlier Chechen videos, however, these ones are less bloodthirsty. In ‘Russian Hell’ – also an Azzam production – it is relatively common to see mujahedeen fighters cutting the throats of Russian prisoners and executing them for the camera. Shabaab chooses a tamer version of the violence, something likely learned from the experiences of other groups where the excessively visible spilling of blood had a negative effect on the general perception of the group.

We also see clips of heroic fallen fighters – Abu Ayyub, Britain’s first suicide bomber in Somalia, is venerated in the video and we see a clip from the film he recorded prior to driving a truck bomb into an Ethiopian checkpoint in October 2007. And throughout the documentary we see footage of fighters talking to the camera, some of whose names are followed up with ‘may Allah accept him.’ This is an almost exact replica of earlier videos and cassettes where we see and hear footage of fallen fighters with a brief description of where they are from and their victorious actions. Supposedly the first in a series, the film is one of a number the group has produced, though it is of unusually high quality.

But heroes are not only conjured through film. In much the same way that Dhiren Barot wrote his story as a warrior in Kashmir, young American Omar Hamammi wrote an autobiography which he self-published online. Telling his life story as a young American in Alabama who found religion and then ran away to Egypt with his Canadian-Somali wife and then on with a friend to Somalia, the book is intended as an inspiration to others to follow in his path. He does not stint from telling about the difficulties encountered, but it is all painted in the manner of an exciting adventure in which our intrepid hero gets by on his wits. At the end of the text (which promises sequels by calling itself ‘The story of an American Jihaadi Part One’), Hammami undertakes an interview with a fellow extremist looking in some depth at some of the questions raised in the text and the justifications of what he is doing. He also reveals himself during the book to be a prolific strategist, claiming to be ‘Abu Jihad al-Shami,’ the author of four previous texts about jihad in Somalia.

The impact of these narratives is hard to judge in absolute terms. Looking back at the 1990s and the impact of the videos from Algeria, Bosnia and Chechnya, it is easy to see the influence they had in helping inspire young men to go and find out what jihad was about and how they could participate. Bosnia in particular had a transformative effect on the British Muslim narrative. Nowadays the narrative of jihad and fighting for the Muslim community in faraway lands is fairly well known, with most having at least a cursory knowledge of what it is about simply by looking in the media. But stories with heroic figures are important and showing potential fighters that what they are signing up for is a righteous adventure in a foreign land rather than an anonymous death by drone strike is essential if these groups are to maintain the flow of support and attention from the affluent west.

The importance of such material was highlighted recently in a series of cases in the London where Shabaaz Hussain from Stepney pled guilty to sending more than £9,000 to a group who had gone to fight in Somalia. According to the prosecution, his home was ‘practically dripping’ with radical material, including jihadist manifestos, speeches by Osama bin Laden and recordings of hook-handed preacher Abu Hamza. A pair of identical twins, Mohammed Shabir Ali and Mohammed Shakif Ali, were later convicted on similar charges. They had sent £3,000 to Somalia through Hussain. For these two, the narrative of what was going on in Somalia was particularly personal, as their brother Shamim Ali had gone to fight in Somalia in 2008. Among their possessions was a recording of a call he had made to them from abroad appealing for money – according to the prosecutor, he told them ‘the need is relayed by their brother for fighters to dedicate their lives to jihad, and if needs be to sacrifice life.’ Ali is believed to still be in Somalia, while his two brothers face another year of incarceration for sending him money to fight the war. The story of jihad in Somalia appealed to these men, something reinforced in the twin’s case through the direct involvement of their brother.

The threat from new battlefields like Somalia is one that keeps British security services awake at night. As MI5 head Jonathan Evans put it in June, ‘al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel have become more dangerous as al Qaeda in Pakistan has declined….in back rooms and in cars and on the streets of this country there is no shortage of individuals talking about wanting to mount terrorist attacks here.’ These individuals are motivated and inspired by stories from the battlefields, either as books, videos or recordings. In the religious conflict these groups see themselves at the vanguard of, epic stories and myths are essential to maintain support and draw others into the fray. And while the stories may come from new locations, their underlying intention remains the same and their impact can be measured in the continuing arrests and convictions we see in Europe and North America. As long as jihadi stories find an audience, radical groups will find a voice and weave mythical legends for young Britons to emulate. Stories will remain a crucial part of the British jihad.

A new post over at China in Central Asia, the site I am managing as part of my large long-term project looking at Chinese influence and interest in Central Asia. This time about a part of Tajikistan where trouble has recently erupted which we visited earlier this year. More on this topic as our project progresses, including some more about our impressions of the security situation there.

Chinese Traces in Gorno-Badakhshan

by Raffaello Pantucci

Lenin greets visitors to Murghab, Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan

Attention has been focused in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region this week, as a government operation in retaliation for the murder of a Major General Abdullo Nazarov, a senior intelligence official, has been launched in the region’s Pamir Mountains. While the regional capital Khorog has apparently now re-opened for business, it seems as though hostilities continue in the mountains.

Earlier this year, we made a trip to this part of Tajikistan, on our way through to the Kulma Pass, Tajikistan’s border post with China. Closed to anyone but Chinese or Tajik passport holders, we instead went right up to the border on either side, driving from Kashgar to Tashkurgan, pausing at Kara Suu to see the brand new border post that has been built on the Chinese side of the Kulma Pass and sat empty waiting for business. It was a crystal clear day, with the border post and army base next to it seemingly abandoned. From what we could see on the Tajik side, nothing was stirring.

Once we got over to the Tajik side a couple of weeks later, it was a largely similar experience but with worse roads. Having made a two-day trip from Dushanbe with an overnight in Khorog, we got to the village of Murghab and asked our baffled host to drive us straight out to the border. With a shrug he fired up his jeep, got his son moving and off we went. The bumpy road across the moonscape had seen better days. According to our driver, the road had been built by a Turkish firm with Aga Khan money years earlier, and while there are stories that the Chinese are meant to be rebuilding it, there was little evidence of this on display.

On the Tajik side, there were numerous other markers of Chinese presence. We found at least two Chinese-Tajik truck stops, and scattered amongst the rocks were smashed bottles of Wusu beer (a Xinjiang specialty). A place we stopped for lunch had 食堂 (canteen) written on the side of the building and an aid convoy apparently going deeper into the Pamirs was made up of half a dozen large white trucks with white Chinese writing emblazoned across them. Most impressive of all was a Chinese tomb that we found outside Bash Gumbaz – a small village in between Khorog and Murghab. According to all the guide books, this ‘marked the high tide of Chinese influence on the Pamir’ – and after much research I have been able to find very little much more information out about it than this. The Kyrgyz farmer who took the time the take us out to the site enjoyed himself on the way back telling us about how there were Kyrgyz all over the Wakhan and how they had bravely fought the Chinese off centuries before.

Back in Khorog we wandered around the region’s capital, staring across the river that separates the city from Afghanistan. The same river acts as a border for much of the Tajik-Afghan border and during the high summer months it is apparently largely dried up, making it easy to cross from one country to the other. When one pairs this with the rather limited security we saw – occasional teams of three young conscripts trudging along with AK-47s slung on their backs – it is easy to see why this is not considered a particularly tight border and how easy it would be to transit drugs from Afghanistan into Tajikistan in the area. This also helps provide a bit of explanation as to why Chinese investment in the roads in the area has been slow. For China, the unstable region is also not likely to provide a huge market for products (Gorno-Badakhshan has a population of about 200,000, the whole country about 7.5 million), and does not provide a road link to anywhere particularly useful. Instead, Chinese- built roads go to the north through Kyrgyzstan from Kashgar, bringing them right into a road network that goes to Russia, Uzbekistan and beyond that Europe.

A short post for China in Central Asia from a trip I am currently on, in Beijing at the time of the SCO Summit. Have lots of great pictures that will slowly be published over the next few weeks (alongside more writing on this topic). But in the meantime, here is a brief taste.

The Shanghai Spirit in Beijing

June 6, 2012

Beijing is in a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) kind of mood. All around the city there are SCO logos and nowhere more so than in Tiananmen Square and the Wangfujing area near it. Along Chang An Jie (Avenue of Peace) the big international hotels have prominent signs in front declaring in Chinese, Russian and English “Welcome to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit.” Outside the Singaporean owned Raffles Hotel, alongside what I presume are their usual flags, the Afghan, Indian and Pakistani flags fly, presumably marking the delegations staying at the hotel. Outside, black Audis marked “Pak” awaited delegates, while in the lobby groups of South Asians checked in. Teams of bullet-proof wearing black clothed policemen march around guaranteeing security, multiplying the already tight security around the Square.

A large three sided SCO logo is perched in the middle of Tiananmen Square, surrounded by flowers and a pair of bored looking guards sitting on stools hiding in the shade. In front of the entrance to the Forbidden City pairs of flags are draped from lamp posts – one Chinese, and one for each of the member states and observers of the SCO. However, facing them on the other side were four other lamp posts on which only the Chinese and Russian flags were paired.  Perhaps hinting at the most significant relationship within the SCO.

The Summit’s outcomes of course are still unclear to some degree. However, discussions seem to point to Afghanistan as a major focus with the decision to let the country in as an observer seemingly a forgone conclusion. Turkey is also going to come in as a “dialogue partner”.  We will also likely see discussions about potential cooperation on counter-narcotics, as well as trade issues. But as is often the case at these summits, there will probably be more one-on-one interactions between SCO member states and China, highlighting how much members, as well as Beijing, prize bilateral relations over the SCO format.

Another post for the site I manage as part of my China and Central Asia work, this time looking at my experiences visiting the Irkeshtam Pass between China and Kyrgyzstan. A fascinating trip, with some of the pictures courtesy of the lovely Sue Anne Tay.

The Irkeshtam Border Pass Between China and Kyrgyzstan

By Raffaello Pantucci

The red arrow and circle indicate the Irkeshtam border pass. Picture from here.

In what can only be described as a cosmic coincidence or evidence of some deeper significant trend that I can only guess at, on either sides of the Irkeshtam Pass between China and Kyrgyzstan we found Japanese backpackers. The surprising part was that our visits to each side of the border took place some five months apart from each other. Ardent Japanese travellers aside, there were few other obvious similarities on the two sides of the border. In fact, what differences there were seemed to be weighted in favour of the Kyrgyz side, where the road was in better shape than its Chinese counterpart.

Leaving one morning from Osh with a driver a local Chinese teacher had helped us source, our trip to Irkeshtam on the Kyrgyz side was a relatively painless one. The road was for the most part tarmacked and aside from a bumpy part in the mountains, in good condition. Funded in part by the Asian Development Bank, the Islamic Development Bank and the Chinese government, the China Bridge and Road Corporation (CBRC) had built most of the road (often as subcontractor to the international projects) – a Chinese state owned enterprise whose management office we came across as we zoomed along on the Kyrgyz side. Wandering into the compound we found a few Chinese engineers who said that the project was due to finish in spring 2012. They worked from April to October of each year when weather conditions were bearable. An hour or so down the road, we came across their colleagues, Chinese men huddled in in heavy green military coats directing large trucks of granite as they worked to asphalt the road.

As with many borders in the region, there is a gap between the actual border and where they check passports before you get to the line of demarcation. On the Kyrgyz side, a small camouflage painted mobile home sat by the side of the road with a simple metal barrier across the road itself. The young Kyrgyz guard manning the barrier waved vigorously at us as we tried to take pictures, though he seemed a lot less threatening once we noticed that his AK-47 did not have ammunition clip.

The border itself was a dusty parking lot with giant shipping trucks with Customs (海关) emblazoned on the sides edging around each other. A lone donkey wandered through the chaos as various truckers and other loafers used facilities, shopped at the mini-mud buildings selling food, cigarettes and other provisions or had meals at the rudimentary restaurants. One Uighur-Chinese driver (who had in fact helped ferry hapless Japanese backpacker Takeshi through the pass) told us eagerly that he was on his way to Uzbekistan with a truckload of ‘stuff’ – when asked to specify he said various electronica and low-end Chinese products. He was more interested to hear about Shanghai and the business prospects there.

In contrast, the Chinese side of the border was visibly policed with more solid structures at the actual border post – a big white tiled building and men in warm uniforms guiding the truck traffic. Present in early spring (we did the trip to Kyrgyz side in October, the Chinese side in April), there was still snow on the ground and written into it in the mountain above the post was the phrase 中国民爱 (roughly translated as China loves its people). Unlike the dusty Kyrgyz side, the Chinese side was a small village of concrete buildings with a police station, Sinopec office, restaurants, hotels and grocery stores. On the road before the encampment was an odd building with a giant football on top of it. Behind it was a walled area with cameras on top that our driver informed us was some sort of military installation.

While the border itself was relatively developed, there was a dramatic contrast in the state of the roads up to it on the Chinese side. Whilst likely done by the same company as that on the Kyrgyz side, the road on the Chinese side was a potholed mess and for a substantial period we were drudging through dirt and knee-deep snow. Our driver steadily became more exasperated, chain-smoking his way through two packs of cigarettes as we battled on and his carefully cleaned car turned into a mud coloured mess with a broken bumper. Ploughing through a blizzard we saw large trucks abandoned by the side of the road, battered by the treacherous road conditions. We had been warned the ride would be difficult, though given the excellent state of the Karakoram Highway and most infrastructure in China, we figured this could not be that bad. We were wrong: it was a bumpy ride from almost the moment we left Kashgar.

The reason for this rather surprising inversion in road quality is that the road to the border on the Chinese side is in the process of being re-built, due to be finished by 2013. Something visible along the way as we saw teams digging holes and moving large pieces of concrete around to support the road. A city is being built along the way at a previously minute village called Ulugqat that currently serves as an entertainment spot for the customs officers and workers on the road and at the border – but is mostly a muddy mess with giant construction going on everywhere. The customs post before the border ‘dead-zone’ on the Chinese side was a more substantial creation, with a small soldiers’ cabin across the road from a much larger official customs building with Chinese flags and logos all over it. In contrast to their Kyrgyz counterparts, these soldiers had ammunition clips in their guns as well as new uniforms that contrasted our increasingly bedraggled appearance.

Unlike its northern counterpart the Torugut Pass, Irshketam is open most of the year. One of the key crossing points for China into Central Asia, it provides a route for Chinese products to get to Kyrgyz markets as well as travel up into Russia, across into Uzbekistan and beyond both to Europe and Iran. Much of the material brought across the border ends up in Kyrgyzstan’s crowded Osh or Kara-Suu bazaars, an arrangement in danger of being destroyed if the Kyrgyz elect to join Putin’s Eurasian Union and a subsequent tariff barrier is erected between the Kyrgyz and Chinese economies. When we put this to officials in Kyrgyzstan they told us it was potentially devastating. Chinese we asked seemed less concerned. Partially because the market loss would be negligible in terms of China’s overall trade volumes, but also since they believe that the entire Eurasian Union project is unlikely to amount to much. As a Chinese academic put it to us, the Eurasian Union will clash with Kyrgyzstan’s WTO membership and the expectation is that the Kyrgyz would rather be part of the global economy than be a pawn in Russia’s expansionist agenda. This outlook was supported by evidence on the ground where China is clearly making investments in turning this road into a major artery for its Central Asian trade.

Another ribbon in the latticework that is the New Eurasian Landbridge.

 

Another piece building on my growing body of China-Central Asia work, this time for a new outlet The Commentator, but alongside my usual co-author Alex. For a more concentrated look at my work on this topic, please check out the other site I co-edit: http://www.chinaincentralasia.com

China and Turkey Revive Silk Road

By Alexandros Petersen and Raffaello Pantucci

on 22 May 2012 at 9am

The implications of the burgeoning Sino-Turkic relationship in Central Asia remain unexplored. Washington must act to guarantee everyone’s strategic objectives in the region

URUMQI, WESTERN CHINA – The leaders of the world’s fastest growing economies in Eurasia met in Beijing last month. Prime Minister Erdogan’s visit to China, coming soon after president-in-waiting Xi Jinping’s visit to Turkey might have heralded a new dawn of Sino-Turkic relations on the old Silk Road: in Central Asia.

This could be an opportunity for the United States to enlist these two dynamic economies to contribute to stability in the region once Western forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan. It could also emerge as an alternative to U.S. influence in the region. Much depends on how Washington approaches the revived relationship.

The mere fact that the visit took place in such a positive light is surprising in itself. It is just over two years ago thatErdogan used the word ‘genocide’ in comments about civil unrest here in Urumqi. Now, his first stop in China wasUrumqi. China and Turkey are now talking about cooperation at a variety of levels, from nuclear cooperation and other ‘new’ energies, increasing trade links, infrastructure projects, military cooperation and even Turkish assistance in helping develop Xinjiang. And beyond their borders, they discussed current events in Syria – in which both are playing a prominent diplomatic role – while also exploring what potential might exist for future cooperation in Central Asia.

Turkish businessmen have long had commercial links in Xinjiang due to a somewhat mutually intelligible language and the remnants of a so-called Pan-Turkism that Ankara pushed throughout Central Asia in the wake of the Cold War. These links have not extended to the rest of China. A massive trade gap exists between the two countries, with 2.5 billion USD of Turkish goods sold in China last year, compared with 21.6 billion USD of Chinese goods sold in Turkey.

In Central Asia, however, both Turkish and Chinese goods can be found at the markets. People are grateful for the cheap Chinese products, but are often willing to pay a premium for more specialized Turkish products. Wander around downtown Bishkek and you will find Turkish real-estate developers on every corner, but drive around Kyrgyzstan and you will find roads being built by Chinese state owned enterprises.

This parallelism extends into education, where Turkey has invested in large universities that offer scholarships for local students and an education focused on improving Turkic links. China has taken a more modest approach, offering language classes through Confucius Institutes that provide a labour force that can work as management for Chinese firms investing in the region and improve communication amongst the border traders going either way.

But neither power is seen as the dominant big brother in the region. Russian remains the lingua franca and visa free travel around the CIS means young Central Asians are more likely to work in Russia than elsewhere. American interests in Afghanistan mean that Washington’s focus is laser-like on security questions in the region, and Europe’s ambitious plans for engaging with the region have fallen foul of more pressing priorities. All three suffer from economies beset by domestic problems, and Central Asia is increasingly getting demoted in importance. China and Turkey, enjoying impressive growth, have clearly expressed an interest in growing their regional footprints.

As a NATO member, Turkey has served as a key provider of aid to Afghanistan, and China has investments in copper mines and natural gas fields. Their economic heft in Central Asia, in markets and with governments, could also become an important force-multiplier for U.S. efforts to facilitate a “New Silk Road” across Eurasia and through Afghanistan to provide development potential and contribute to long-term stability.

In discussions with policymakers and analysts in China and Turkey, a common refrain we have heard is that long-term stability is paramount for the growth of both countries’ investments in the region – a strategic interest they share with Washington. The U.S. State Department and CENTCOM would do well to coordinate the New Silk Road strategy with Beijing’s very similar Eurasian Land Bridge project and Turkey’s trans-continental trade networks across the Caspian.

At the moment, however, U.S. policymakers’ understandable fixation on troop withdrawals means the longer-term implications of the burgeoning Sino-Turkic relationship in Central Asia are unexplored. If the United States and its allies work in a vacuum separate from Chinese and Turkish activities, these implications could form a platform for an even more Western-sceptic sentiment than exists in the region at the moment.

Washington has already done some work to engage with both powers in the region, but more focused attention on this would help guarantee that everyone’s strategic objectives of a secure and stable region are ensured.

Alexandros Petersen is author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West. Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Their joint research is available at: www.chinaincentralasia.com

This is going to become a more regular outlet for my writing. As part of my ongoing work on China in Central Asia, I am going to be producing more content directly for the site that I help co-edit, China in Central Asia with Alex and Sue Anne. Thanks in particular to dear Sue Anne for working on this one with me. This first piece is based on an experience a week or so ago in Tashkent at a curious Expo that we came across there.

A Xinjiang Trade Fair in Tashkent

May 17, 2012

By Raffaello and Sue Anne Tay

Last week, we have been visiting Tashkent, Uzbekistan as part of our ongoing research on Chinese interests in Central Asia.

Fortunately, on the flight here from Beijing, one of us had the good fortune to be seated amidst a boisterous group of 40 Xinjiang businessmen part of a provincial business delegation attending a trade fair in Tashkent. They had been forced to fly through Beijing from Urumqi – a geographically illogical route – due to the fact that there are no direct flights between Tashkent and Urumqi.

At their invitation, we visited the trade fair earlier this week. Held in an old exhibition hall in the outskirts of Tashkent it was a no-frills affair with basic booths lined up four by four. In its fourth year, the Xinjiang Trade Expo was sponsored by the Uzbek Chamber of Commerce, the Xinjiang government, and the bingtuan (the former People’s Liberation Army (PLA)-managed state owned enterprise (SOE) responsible for much of Xinjiang’s industries).

On the Chinese side, the participants were a mix of Xinjiang companies specializing in locally produced goods like Xinjiang snacks of dabanji (the famous big plate chicken), mushrooms, culinary sauces, an array of Uighur style clothing (and some fancily called ‘Turky style’ clothing) and more generic industries like uniforms/garment manufacturing and electronic equipment.

Other key participants were Xinjiang subsidiaries of holdings companies based in Guangzhou as part of the central government’s push for increased domestic investment in China’s less-developed hinterlands. One manager highlighted that they had started this work in the province at the Guangdong provincial government’s request. They were offering potential Uzbek customers property investment opportunities in Kashgar in southern Xinjiang, Chinese electrical gadgets like smartphones and Ipad-knockoffs tailored to the Uighur market (appropriately labeled with an Android character donning a Uighur hat), lightning equipment, police and factory uniforms. Many of the samples on display were manufactured in southern China and shipped to and assembled in Xinjiang.

With the pomp of the opening ceremony behind them, the reception at the Xinjiang Trade Fair when we went was lackluster to say the least. A thin traffic of Uzbek passers-by browsed with fleeting curiosity at what they considered well made but expensive Chinese products.

“The Uzbek market is too small and low-income compared to the vast opportunities we have in Xinjiang,” a uniforms manufacturer salesman named Tan Chao complained. Two locally dressed older Uzbek women stopped by to finger the bright Gortex jackets and browse a catalogue. A listless conversation in stilted Russian began with no conclusive business made.

Like Tan Chao, many of the Xinjiang businessmen were bored by the lack of opportunities offered in the trade fair. When we spoke to a pair of salesmen from an agricultural machinery manufacturer subsidiary of AVIC (the Chinese military aviation SOE), they acknowledged their presence seemed almost futile. Neither spoke Russian nor were there any serious potential clients for the cotton-picking machines they were peddling (Uzbekistan is one of the global top five cotton-producers). They responded to inquirers by waving a sheet with the prices of their equipment carelessly scribbled. Amusingly, curious onlookers seemed more interested in purchasing the model on display rather than the actual machinery.

A manager of a Xinjiang-based electricity infrastructure developer (with affiliation to Siemens) named Liu Zhao was one of the more enthusiastic and serious participants. His company had specially shipped in a landscape model of an electricity grid made up of parts manufactured by their company. Liu spoke fluent Russian thanks to 2 years of study in Almaty, Kazakhstan and extensive experience travelling to the region for work.

Several businessmen we spoke to, including Liu, acknowledged the difficulties of doing business in Uzbekistan. The government welcomed investment but not competition with local industries. Hence, the options for Chinese businesses in Uzbekistan are in the form of trade of specialized Chinese goods to the Uzbek market, attracting Uzbek investment to China and vice versa.

The limited convertibility of the Uzbek currency – 1800 Uzbek som to 1 USD (at the official rate, we were told the unofficial rate was as high as 2800 som to the USD) – was another obstacle. It is prohibited to take earned foreign currency out of the country, meaning you cannot leave with more forex than you arrived. Thus, foreign companies are either compelled to reinvest domestically any Uzbek som profits or absorb foreign exchange losses made via the official foreign exchange centre.

Hence, the dilemma facing Duan Weiming, a Chinese producer of Western suits who had just made a modest sale of several tens of thousands in Uzbek som. He jokingly showed off his cash bundles to his friends. What is he going to do with all the cash he made? We inquired.

“Why, spend it all on dinner, drinks and karaoke!” he boomed smilingly in response. Maybe to go enjoy his new fortune, the group packed up early at four o’clock. With another day at the Xinjiang Trade Fair, the Chinese businessmen were determined to make the best of what remained a slow affair.

A new post for Free Rad!cals this time exploring in some depth documents I have not managed to see first hand yet (hint, if anyone feels like sharing or has more info about them, please don’t hesitate to write!). An admittedly slightly premature piece consequently, but it gives me an opportunity to extemporise about a subject I am very interested in, namely Britain’s jihad. It also gives me an opportunity to plug my pending book that will go into a lot more detail about all of the cases named in this piece. I should add that in the original post on Free Rad!cals the link to Florian’s blog didn’t work, and I have altered it here.

The British End of the German al Qaeda documents

View more articles by Raff Pantucci

Filed under: Europe, Homegrown extremism, Terrorism, UK

Over on his new blog, Abu Susu, aka Yassin Mubarash has provided a brief write-up of a series of alleged al Qaeda documents that have come to light as part of a terrorism trial in Germany, alongside a challenge for people to discuss the implications of the information if true. At around the same time or just before, another German journalist, Florian Flade, published a similar post on his site Jih@d, providing a slightly different description of the same documents.

The one that has most piqued my interest are the alleged British documents that are supposed to have been written by Rashid Rauf. From the understanding I have, the papers are essentially a post-operation report on the July 7, July 21, and Overt bomb plots (Overt was the codename for the 2006 attempt by Abdulla Ali and a bunch of his mates to bring down about eight planes as they made there way to America) and German intelligence seems pretty convinced that this was written by Rashid Rauf, the infamous British-Pakistani terrorist operator. This is apparently based on the detailed knowledge of the British plots and some biographical details that are mentioned.

Now I have to preface what comes next with the comment that I have not seen the documents, and so am basing my read-out on second hand analysis. But on the assumption that these are the real deal, this is fascinating as it confirms that al Qaeda in fact directed all three British plots, though to varying degrees of success. In his new book The Al Qaeda Factor, NYPD Director of Intelligence Mitchell Silber, identifies the three plots as having connections, but ends up concluding that while Overt was likely a directed plot, the 7/7 and the 21/7 plots were what he considers as “suggested/endorsed” by al Qaeda. In his assessment, there was clearly a connection, but it is uncertain that the group was directing the cells in London.

To deal with the plots in order – the confirmation that al Qaeda directed the July 7, 2005 atrocity on London’s underground is not surprising. The video in which al Qaeda claimed it and included the will of leader Mohammed Siddique Khan, “Will of the Knights of the London Raid”, featured Ayman al Zawahiri, demonstrating a high level connection. Khan was also on the periphery of the large network around the Crevice group, who had connections right up to the number three in al Qaeda at the time, Abdul Hadi al Iraqi. Furthermore, as we saw during the Coroner’s Inquest into the incident, Khan was in contact with a number in Pakistan a great deal in the run-up to his attack, and a same number in Pakistan tried to call his phone after he had carried his bombing.

That the connection might flow through Rauf in some way is also not that surprising: when Khan went to Pakistan in mid-2001 to train, he and his young protégé Waheed Ali, went to a Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen (HuM) training camp. When Rauf went to Pakistan after fleeing police in the wake of the murder of his uncle in Birmingham in 2002, he seems to have connected quite quickly with Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a slightly different Kashmir oriented group (like HuM) that JeM’s leader Maulana Masood Azhar (a former leader in HuM) had founded after he was released from prison alongside another British jihadist Omar Saeed Sheikh (who later became famous for the murder of reporter Daniel Pearl and who also first found jihad in South Asia through HuM). HuM and JeM are parallel groups with some cross-pollination and so that Khan and Rauf’s networks intersected is unsurprising. Consequently, that Khan would have connected with Rauf on one of his later trips to Pakistan – either in 2003 when he attended a training camp with the Crevice cell, or in 2004 when he went back again expecting to die fighting in Afghanistan is not entirely surprising. It has long been believed that Rauf was involved in the July 7 plot in some way, this new information seems to confirm that.

The news of a stronger connection to the July 21, 2005 attempt on London’s underground is much more surprising and interesting. In this case, we have very little solid information on the connection to al Qaeda. The belief is that Muktar Said Ibrahim may have trained with the group in late 2004 when he Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer (of the July 7 group) and Abdulla Ali (of the Overt plot) were all in Pakistan at the same time learning how to make remarkably similar bombs. Ibrahim had initially headed out with two others from his circle of friends from London’s radical community in London to Pakistan to fight in Afghanistan (the two men’s passports were allegedly found in a house of Rauf’s in Bahawalpur). A man who was later identified as a key point of contact for the Overt group and as Rashid Rauf’s key man on the ground with the Overt cell allegedly sent them to Pakistan (or at least helped them with the contacts). And finally, Muktar Said Ibrahim called numbers linked to Abdulla Ali (the leader on the ground of Overt), and some dodgy numbers in Pakistan, while his co-conspirator Yassin Omar contacted a number linked to Rangzieb Ahmed, an admitted HuM fighter who is currently in jail for being a director of al Qaeda.

But it remained unclear to what degree the group had been directed by al Qaeda. Little information has been put into the public domain about Muktar Said Ibrahim’s time in Pakistan, beyond certain statements by security services that he had trained alongside the other cells, highlighting the surprising use of hydrogen peroxide in all three devices, something never seen before in the United Kingdom. Now it seems as though the group was in fact in contact with al Qaeda core, but managed to lose contact with their handler and as a result were unable to correct the crucial flaw in their devices that meant they harmlessly popped on London’s underground system. According to Abu Susu’s read-out, the group tried to reach out but was unable to contact their handler and as a result was unable to correct their mistake in mixing their devices. So the attempt failed.

This raises a number of questions: first, did the July 7 and July 21 groups have the same handlers? It seems unlikely that this would be the case, if for no other reason than the different way in which they were managed. Khan was in regular contact with someone in Pakistan who was helping him along. Presumably, the same handler would have done the same thing with Ibrahim if he was the manager of the contact and losing contact would be remarkably inept and quite a contrast. It would also have been quite lax operational security to have the same person handle the contacts with two cells that otherwise were kept so firmly apart. Having said this, it would not be the first time that this was done: the New York cell led by Najibullah Zazi became known to authorities because he reached out to the same email account that a cell in northern England had used in Pakistan to discuss their plot. An account linked to this one helped uncover another linked cell in Oslo. So such mistakes have been made. But in 2004/5 al Qaeda likely had much more freedom operating and as a result would probably have had more resources to deploy in managing the cells.

We already know a lot more about the final cell identified here, the Overt group were long known to have had a strong connection to al Qaeda core, and specifically Rashid Rauf. What is fascinating from the discovery of these documents is that we can now see how the contacts apparently evolved. With the July 2005 bombers, al Qaeda seems to have kept them on a relatively long leash. By the time we get to the Overt group, we have Rauf himself managing the connection, through phone calls and emails. But this was not enough, with him deciding to send a close confidant in to manage things on the ground and guarantee that things went off without a hitch. Having said that, it also seems as though this individual was in contact with other potential cells around the country, suggesting that his job was not solely to manage the Overt group.

So what can be drawn from this information?

Well, first of all, it is interesting the degree to which we see the groups requiring help in building their devices once back in the UK. Clearly, an inability to check with their bosses was the key flaw that stymied the 21/7 group. Khan needed a lot of handholding and it seems had faced a similar difficulty prior to his attempt, something he was able to resolve with his handler. For the Overt chaps, we can see from emails that have been released that they discussed in some detail their progress in developing a device.

Secondly, it is fascinating that by the end of 2004, al Qaeda was willing to have quite high level leaders meet with Briton’s on jihadi tourism in South Asia and then trust these individuals to go back home and build cells. In all three cases, we can see how the key ‘emir’ in the UK (Khan, Ibrahim and Ali) trained with al Qaeda and then came back to the UK where they were able to assemble quite substantial cells of individuals willing to offer themselves as suicide bombers without having had direct contact themselves with al Qaeda. This is a testament to the volume of radicals around in the UK at the time, and the confidence of these cell leaders to be able to transform their wider networks in the UK into teams of suicide bombers. The wider cell around the 7/7 is somewhat unclear, the 21/7 group was large and included a number of individuals around the Finsbury Park mosque, and the Overt cell was always most worrying because of the large number of individuals who had seemingly offered themselves as suicide bombers and the six who had recorded martyrdom videos.

And then there is a timing question. It is fascinating to now see that al Qaeda was indeed likely directing the three cells. They came after the Crevice group who seem to have been amongst the pathfinders in terms of building connections to al Qaeda’s broader network from the UK. But based on Mohammed Junaid Babar’s testimony and other bits in the public domain, the cell there was very eager to connect with al Qaeda core (and cell leader Omar Khyam was quite noisy about his supposed connection with Abdul Hadi al Iraqi), but it seems largely to have elected to go and do something back in the UK by themselves. Whether we can read anything into the lack of inclusion of the cell in the post-event reports is unclear, but certainly they were using a different type of device and it seems as though they found their bomb training from another source. Based on what information exists, it seems as though the Crevice lot were in fact a supply network in the first place that expressed eagerness to do something, rather than a tasked cell. What contact the group did have seems to have flowed though Salahuddin Amin who was their contact in Pakistan and whom they asked for details about how to build their device. But demonstrative maybe of how far from the core he was, Amin had to spent some days going to find the answer to the question from cell leader Omar Khyam, presumably unlike the handlers for the other British plots who were directly hardwired into al Qaeda core.

So one possibility is that after the failure of the Crevice cell, al Qaeda decided to try to actually redirect some of these Brits who were showing up to more useful activities rather than let them just die in Afghanistan or go back to concoct half-baked plots. They now believed that these Brits were dedicated to the cause and were willing to trust them both with high level contacts, but also with plans that would involve them going to recruit a high number of dedicated warriors in the UK who had never trained alongside the group. The point being that maybe it took until 2004 to realise that these foreigners were trustworthy and the real thing – something confirmed by the efforts of the Crevice cell and the growing presence of increasingly senior Brits in their ranks (Rashid Rauf and Omar Saeed Sheikh being just two).

There is a final point to touch upon. German authorities seem quite convinced that Rashid Rauf wrote these documents, but he has theoretically been dead for over three years now. Were these part of some electronic brain-trust of the organisation (maybe the mysterious Office of Services Abu Susu refers to?), or is he simply not dead? Or maybe these were multi-authored documents? The common belief is that Rauf was killed by drone strike in November 2008, but no tangible evidence has ever been produced and plots with his fingerprints have emerged a number of times since then. While quite logical explanations exist for this (his contacts were passed on to someone else), you have to wonder why his name keeps showing up.

A short article for a new outlet, this time an interesting student run website called E-International Relations. They contacted me looking for a piece, and I am always happy to write for places that ask nicely (well, within reason, at the moment am trying to avoid taking on new commitments as am desperately trying to catch up on myself). A somewhat larger strategic overlook at the terrorist threat that I hope to hear some reactions to.

Grinding Terrorist Networks Down in 2012

By  on February 26, 2012

In an age of persistent conflict, terrorism will continue to be a threat confronting governments. However, the nature of this threat is shifting and the question that has not been properly answered is whether we are seeing a threat that is finally in decline or continues to ascend.

The general tendency is to answer this question with a shrug of the shoulders and say the threat seems to have “plateaued” – in other words, the threat is persistent but seems not to be increasing in volume. But this response is less than satisfying for numerous reasons – not least because it attempts to put a standard answer on a threat that has diversified considerably in the past few years.

In some parts of Africa and Asia, while major strides have been made against the variety of terrorist organizations that come under the al Qaeda brand, or ascribe to a violent Islamist ideology, the groups have proven impressively resistant and refuse to be eradicated. There continues to be a steady patter of violence emanating from them as local forces, often with the support of western intelligence and military, mount operations targeting leaders and disrupting networks. While some pose a threat to the west, the majority poses a more direct threat to local international interests or local targets. For example, beyond the depressing list of attacks targeting local forces or civilians across Asia, the Middle East or Africa, the al Shabaab instigated plot in August 2009 to target American Secretary of State Hilary Clinton while she was visiting Kenya; al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s persistent targeting of western tourists or aid workers in North Africa; or the targeting of western hotels and tourist destinations in Southeast Asia by local Islamist networks. [1]

When looking instead at the direct threat in the west, outside directed networks continue to pose a threat with individuals and groups periodically disrupted with connections to Pakistan. But intelligence capacity (and electronic intercepts) has reached such a point that these networks are disrupted before they are able to move towards any operational capacity. Instead, we have seen the larger danger emanate from unaffiliated networks and individuals that self-radicalize and self-activate, loosely following what they believe to be the al Qaeda playbook. Often this is something that they have found in reading from the Internet or in the form of American-Yemeni preacher Anwar al Awlaki’s preaching or writing.

The result has been while we continue to see a steady stream of threats emanating from abroad, these have declined in number and quality. A certain volume of young men and women choose to go and join radical networks abroad, but few end up returning home (and often they are on security services radars). Heightened vigilance has also made it hard for external networks to penetrate the west, but nevertheless some are able to get through though so far they have been caught prior to being able to do anything. Instead, when terrorist plots or attacks are perpetrated, they tend to be from groups or individuals who are almost completely homegrown and auto-didactic in nature. For example, the loner Islamist plotters Arid Uka of Germany who shot two American servicemen as they waited to be taken to a flight in Frankfurt or Roshonara Choudhry who tried to stab a Member of Parliament Stephen Timms for his support of the Iraq war. Both were clearly inspired by ideas that could be described as spawned from al Qaeda, but neither was being directed by anyone in or near the organization. Similarly, the nine men convicted for a series of offenses in the United Kingdom early this year including attempting to leave an explosive device in the London Stock Exchange were not connected to al Qaeda, though they were involved in radical groups in the UK and had made moves towards establishing a terrorist training camp in Pakistan.

The quality and degree of threat posed by such groups and individuals is clearly of a different level than the group that perpetrated the July 7, 2005 bombing in London, the September 11, 2001 group or the plotters who planned in summer 2006 to bring down as many as eight airlines on transatlantic routes using ingeniously designed liquid bombs. There we saw groups trained abroad and then directed to conduct operations in the west using counter-surveillance techniques, coded emails and cleverly designed explosive devices. Close contact was maintained between the cell on the ground and operators abroad, highlighting the degree to which the plots can be described as al Qaeda directed. The newer wave display much less contact and much less operational guile and savvy. [2]

But what is to be read from this? Is the point that intelligence services have gotten so much better at detecting and disrupting externally directed networks, or that they have stopped trying to get in as much? And is the fact that we are now seeing self-started local plots as the main driver of threat an expression of the fact that we are looking at a threat that is in terminal decline since it cannot get in or merely that this is the only aspect of the menace that security services have not quite managed to get their heads around disrupting?

Difficult questions all, but to give a general answer, it is clear that some of the heat has gone out of the violent Islamist terrorist threat. The persistent hammering of leaders with drone strikes and Special Forces operations has reduced capacity, while enhanced intelligence focus has given a much better over watch position from which to ensure that networks are not able to dispatch cells to conduct attacks. The fact that the most active plots now come from groups that are self-started and self-directed is a reflection of two things: that these individuals are unable to make contact with known networks (because it is now harder to do so due to a lack of options and security) and that the ideas are incredibly diffuse in society’s general consciousness. But the ideas are clearly only inspiring small groups of individuals, so the threat is reduced and less capable than before.

But having said all of this, there still remains a rump of individuals in the west who are drawn to violent radical ideas, something indicative of the fact that, counter-radicalisation programmes notwithstanding, progress has been relatively limited in devising effective ways to deter people from choosing this path. What has been reduced however is the capability of networks abroad to connect with these individuals undetected. And when this is coupled with the fact that these networks are being vigorously shrunk through aggressive counter-terrorism operations abroad, it is possible to determine that the terrorist threat to the west from radical Islamist groups is in decline. Not necessarily in absolute and terminal decline, but certainly a far less capable and direct threat than it was in the mid-2000s and before when large-scale networks that had been developing for decades were able to repeatedly attempt to carry out plots in the west.

Terrorism has always come in cycles . The current menace from violent Islamists targeting the west is no different. Entropic forces tend to wind down violent political networks that are unable to achieve their immediate goals in a short-to-medium term timeline, and over time networks are degraded and their ideas lose some force or evolve in new directions. Al Qaedaism as we currently know it is clearly facing a downward trajectory, but the sparks as it winds down will trouble the world for years to come.

This article was commissioned in response to Dr Gunaratna’s piece.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR). His writing can be found here:http://www.raffaellopantucci.com

[1] Raffaello Pantucci, “The Islamist Terrorist Threat to Europe after Osama bin Laden’s death,” Chatham House Workshop Paper, July 1, 2011,http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/public/Research/International%20Security/010811wr_terrorism.pdf

[2] Bruce Hoffman, “Radicalization and Subversion: Al Qaeda and the 7 July 2005 Bombings and the 2006 Airline Bombing Plot,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, vol.32, no.12, 2009