Archive for the ‘Prospect’ Category

Another piece for Prospect on a topic which am doing a bunch of work on, the impact of COVID-19 on terrorism and violent extremism. Am in the midst of a number of projects on the topic which should hopefully result in some interesting findings. But at the moment, much of the evidence base is anecdotal. Here I sketch out some of the evidence that I have seen in the UK context in particular.

How the pandemic is making extremism worse

More time spent locked down and online is allowing people to seek out chilling ideas – and act violently on them

by Raffaello Pantucci / October 28, 2020

Forensic officers at the scene in West George Street, Glasgow, where Badreddin Abadlla Adam, 28, from Sudan stabbed six people in June 2020. Credit: Andrew Milligan/PA Images

In late March, as Covid-19 was spreading, probation officers in London took part in a phone call with one of their charges. A troubled young man, part of the extremist Al-Muhajiroun community, he had been repeatedly arrested. His latest round of probation followed his conviction for putting up anti-Semitic posters outside synagogues in north-east London. Talking to his case officers, he expressed frustration at his situation. He had been unable to work due to lockdown and as a result was spending more time online. Already paranoid and angry, his time locked down was only fuelling his rage. A week later, he was re-arrested on charges of disseminating extremist material.

The case is unfortunately not atypical of what has been happening during the pandemic. The repeated lockdowns have meant we are all spending more time at home and online. This has meant a surge in all sorts of online activity—including radicalisation.

The degree to which online activity is a driver of radicalisation is a complicated question. Studies used to show that online activity is often driven by—or conducted in parallel to—offline activity. People will look at material online, but when they consider acting on their beliefs will often seek real-life contact with others. But this balance has been shifting. In the past few years there has been a growing number of cases featuring individuals who had limited or no physical contact with other extremists before deciding to act. Some of these are very young people, often with obsessive personalities, for whom the internet is a deeply captivating place.

The problem is made worse during lockdown. Enforced unemployment (or home schooling) mean that we turning to our electronic devices for longer periods of time. For those curious about extremism, this provides an opportunity to explore chilling ideas. In June, after being alerted by the child’s parents, police arrested a teenager who appeared to be making bottle bombs at home. He had recorded videos in which he claimed to want to become a martyr, and praised Islamic State. He had reportedly converted to Islam, though exactly when this had happened was unclear. What was clear from his internet search history was that he had embraced ever-more extreme ideas during lockdown.

In the end, he was cleared of the charges pressed against him—but the details of the case remain undisputed. He had made videos and attempted bottle bombs. What was unclear was whether he intended to actually carry out violent attacks. His case, however, breathed life into concerns articulated by National Prevent lead Nik Adams, who told the press: “My fear is that people have got more opportunity to spend more time in closed echo chambers and online chat forums that reinforce the false narratives, hatred, fear and confusion that could have a radicalising effect.”

His concerns referred not only to violent Islamists, but also to the growth in conspiracy theories online and the proliferation of obsessive ideas which seem to bleed into extremist narratives—like 5G causing Covid-19 and masks and vaccines being dangerous. Also alarming has been the growth of QAnon (an online conspiracy theory built around the idea that President Trump is fighting a deep state made up of paedophilic vampires) and the Incel phenomenon (made up of involuntary celibates—an online community of men angry at their rejection by women). Both QAnon and Incels have generated terrorist violence in North America.

By late April, the police had signalled their concern that Prevent referrals had dropped by 50 per cent during lockdown. Prevent relies on referrals from communities to identify potential cases of extremism. Lockdown made such engagement impossible.

Other aspects of counter-terrorism efforts have also been impacted by the virus. New MI5 chief Ken McCallum said his service had found it harder to discreetly tail suspects around empty city streets. Social media companies have found themselves relying more on algorithms to take down questionable posts—unable to deploy the manpower usually available due to restrictions around people going to workplaces to double check they are catching inappropriate material.

But the police’s biggest concern is the emotional tensions being bottled up during Covid-19. In the wake of a random set of stabbings in Birmingham in early September, West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson said “The amount of violence that is happening is actually very, very disturbing.” But he spoke of his lack of surprise: “I have been saying for some time, in the context of Covid-19, that a lot of the feelings people have and not being able to get out, and combine that with people who are now unsure about their future and their jobs, it was almost inevitable that we would see a growth in violence.”

The incident followed a pair of similar mass stabbings in June. As the UK started to lift restrictions, two troubled individuals launched attacks in Reading and Glasgow, murdering three and injuring nine. The Reading case is currently working its way through the legal system, but the incident in Glasgow was carried out by an asylum seeker who seemed to have cracked under the pressure of being moved into highly restrictive hotel accommodation as a result of Covid.

None of these were ultimately prosecuted as terrorism (and in the Glasgow case the perpetrator was killed by police). But they looked like—and were initially speculated to be—terrorist incidents. We have grown accustomed to terrorists seeking to stab random members of the public. But here we had three mass attacks (which included at least one perpetrator who had been on the security services’ radar for potential terrorism concerns) arising after lockdown relaxed. The causal link is impossible to draw definitively, but it seems hard not to see a connection.

We are still in the midst of Covid-19. This makes it impossible to know exactly what its impact will be on terrorism. But all of the indicators are that it is unlikely to make the problem—and the related phenomena of random mass violence—any better.

Have not posted for a while. Delivered a book project which should ultimately emerge sometime next year, which kept me busy. But have been writing, including this piece for Prospect magazine in the UK on the fifteen year anniversary of the July 7, 2005 bombing which was the big lynchpin event of my earlier book.

Also have numerous projects in motion at the moment pulling me in lots of directions at the same time. Going to do a media catch up in the next post, but for the time being here is a video of a webinar with my Singaporean hosts RSIS looking at the evolution of the UK threat picture.

 

 

Fifteen years on from 7/7, terrorism has changed but the jihadist threat persists

Ideologies have fragmented and dangers become more difficult to track
by Raffaello Pantucci / July 7, 2020

Court artist sketch by Elizabeth Cook of Safiyya Amira Shaikh, 37, of Hayes, West London, who pleaded guilty to preparation of terrorist acts Picture: Elizabeth Cook/PA Wire/PA Images:
Court artist sketch of Safiyya Amira Shaikh, 37, of Hayes, West London, who pleaded guilty to preparation of terrorist acts Picture: Elizabeth Cook/PA Wire/PA Images

It often feels like we have moved into a new era of terrorist threats. Gone are the days when we faced large organised plots involving networks linking the UK to dark corners of faraway lands: now terrorist attacks are made up of random mass stabbings in public places like the attack near London Bridge in 2017. The terrorists being processed through our courts are former drug addicts with troubled pasts, like convert Safiyya Shaikh who was jailed recently for plotting to blow up St Paul’s.

At the ideological end it is equally confusing, with violent Islamists seemingly replaced by a gaggle of extreme right wingers, involuntary celibates (Incels) and individuals whose ideological leaning is so confused the Home Office brackets them together as “mixed, unstable or unclear.” Yet there is more consistency than you might expect. Terrorist threats come in ebbs and flows, sometimes receding but rarely disappearing. Instead, they tend to morph and create new problems. What is constant, however, is our inability to learn from the mistakes of the past.

The most talked about threat on the rise is the extreme right wing. But it is not clear how much of a threat it actually poses. Prior to the 7th July bombings 15 years ago, the most lethal non-Irish related terrorist attack the UK had faced was David Copeland’s one-man bombing campaign targeting London’s minority communities in 1999. Leaving devices in locations targeting London’s black, South Asian and gay communities, his homemade bombs murdered three and injured 140. While Copeland seemed to plan and execute his campaign by himself, he was part of the extreme right in the UK (albeit on the fringes), and a former member of the British National Party, the National Socialist Movement and even the neo-Nazi Combat 18 group.

For years the extreme right was largely the remit of the police, but in the late 1990s it was also coming into MI5’s crosshairs. As Jonathan Evans, a former director-general of MI5, told me earlier this year: “the service worked closely with police to undertake some disruptions in the late 1990s of Combat 18 associated individuals who were consorting with people of a similar cast of mind in eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc. These groups had explicitly decided that terrorism was part of the way forward in order to try to destabilise what they characterised as the Zionist Organised Government (ZOG).” The attacks were disrupted, and soon after MI5 ended up getting almost completely overwhelmed focusing on the violent Islamist terror threat that erupted so violently in 2001.

But the extreme right never went away, and in some ways went mainstream with a rise in far-right parties across Europe. At the terrorist end of the scale, throughout the 2000s police were disrupting extreme right-wing plots. While the majority were fairly shambolic, some more organised ones would occasionally emerge. The Aryan Strike Force (ASF) was a group built around a father and son core who were bent on race war, were running training camps in Cumbria and managed to make enough ricin to kill nine people. But for the most part, they were, as Evans put it to me, “zoological” curiosities who were distinguishing mostly in their oddness.

The emergence of the English Defence League (EDL) and subsequently National Action (NA) changed the picture. From being a scattered group of individuals who were as likely to be involved in child pornography as they were extreme right-wing terrorism, these two groups instead spoke to something more organised coming together. It was also confusing ideologically, with both groups quite explicitly reacting against the violent Islamist groups that dominated public attention, yet also clearly using their tactics and language. National Action speaks of launching a “white jihad” while the EDL was born in reaction to now banned Islamist group Al Muhajiroun’s presence in Luton. And while there is a clear white supremacist tone to both groups, the EDL promoted non-white members.

More explicitly, political far-right group Britain First provided another wrinkle within this fabric, espousing a white supremacist ideology using Christian iconography. There is a palpable religious overtone to their narratives which feels more reminiscent of the violent Islamist threat that brought together religion and totalitarian views about society. This mix of ideas helped give them a strong base of support in parts of eastern Europe.

This confusing ideological background has been matched by the emergence of online ideologies drawing on fears of the “Great Replacement” of white communities. This has become the backdrop against which a whole range of ideologies have developed, spinning the extreme right in numerous different directions: ideas like the Incels movement, made up of young men who feel themselves rejected sexually. The QAnon movement, which has not only appeared at Trump rallies but now also appears to have three adherents among American congressional candidates, is made up of conspiracy theorists drawing on the vast information pool now available online to concoct narratives about controlling deep states, the dangers of 5G technology and stories of powerful paedophiles. And in one of the stranger threats to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, a growth in groups fearing the increased role of the state. Groups like the Sovereign Citizen movement have become more influential as some fear the virus response is simply an excuse to expand the power of the state to ultimately oppress them.

But notwithstanding this increasingly baffling threat picture, it has still not eclipsed the violent Islamist threat in the UK. In a recent interview, the UK’s top counter-terrorism police officer Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said that the extreme right wing took up about 10 per cent of his officers’ time. While it is, as he put it, the “fastest-growing” aspect of the threat picture, and cases have managed to rise to the very top of the terrorist “matrix” that MI5 uses to prioritise its threat picture, it is not the majority yet. The biggest threats continue to come from those inspired or linked to groups like al-Qaeda or Islamic State (IS).

This is something you hear consistently from security officials. Yes, the extreme right is a growing concern, but the violent Islamist threat persists and there is little evidence that the pool of problems that created it have gone away. They point to foreign battlefields like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq or parts of north, west or east Africa, where al-Qaeda- and IS-linked groups continue to thrive. These are the sorts of environments that produced the 7/7 attacks. Just last month, security officials in Germany disrupted a plot in which a group of Tajiks stand accused of being directed by IS networks in Syria and Afghanistan to launch an attack in Europe.

In the UK it has been a while since we have had a major public disruption like this. Instead, incidents like last year’s attack at Fishmongers’ Hall or the attempted stabbing in Streatham—when a recently released terrorist convict launched a one-man attack—are the norm. In these and other more recent cases still winding their way through the courts, isolated individuals, sometimes with links to violent Islamist networks, and usually with histories that have brought them to MI5’s attention at some point, launch one-man campaigns with no outside direction and weapons such as knives found in every household. A growing proportion of them have serious mental health or social problems, making them deeply volatile and unpredictable people. This makes them almost impossible to stop, but nevertheless results in a vast outpouring of noise from politicians and the public demanding that something must be done.

It is never a good idea to legislate in the immediate wake of a disaster. Objectivity will go out of the window, leading to ill-considered choices. We saw this in the wake of the 7/7 attacks—when the shock to the country led to a surge in focus and attention on the UK’s Muslim community. Politicians’ rhetoric sharpened, demanding they “do something.” A money spigot was opened which gave the security services more resources to manage the problem—including developing community profiling tools like Project Rich Picture, which aimed to develop a detailed understanding of the UK’s Muslim community, identifying them as the source of the threat. Self-appointed leaders (or “professional Muslims” as one colleague once sarcastically put it) popped up everywhere speaking for no one but themselves, but nevertheless able to garner grants from the government to bolster their so-called community work. Some did positive work. Others it was less clear.

All this did little to improve Muslim community relations and instead created a sense among many Muslims that they were being unfairly targeted. Paradoxically, it also created animosity among white communities who were angered by the austerity and economic marginalisation they were facing in contrast to this visible push in support to Muslim communities. We have not seen a similar outpouring of money or attention towards deprived white communities in the wake of the growing rise of the extreme right.

A decade and a half since July 2005, we seem not to have learned some of these lessons. Politicians appear unwilling to acknowledge that part of the problem of the resurgent extreme right is a product of the racially-tinged politics that have been stoked by mainstream voices in the past few years, while the growing presence of seriously troubled individuals at the sharp end of the terror threat as lone actors reflects years of under-investment in mental health services, probation and social services. The recently convicted Safiyya Shaikh, formerly Michelle Ramsden, in some ways fits this mould perfectly—a deeply troubled woman whose online life developed into her becoming a webmaster and coordinator for IS-supporting groups and plots across Europe.

We have gone from networks directing plots against our public transport to lone actors lashing out at people going about their daily lives. The underlying ideologies remain the same, though their expression has become more confusing. In many ways little has changed except for the volume of people affected and our security services’ capability to manage terrorist threats (one of the biggest reasons why we have not seen anything larger than a lone actor attack in a while). But our politicians seem unable to grasp the difficult nettles that are required to deal with these issues in a sophisticated fashion. Either we learn to live with the problem or focus on the real underlying issues.

 

A new article for Prospect magazine in the UK which ran in the magazine with the slightly more apt title ‘Great Power Play at Himalayan Heights’. Continuing the spate of China related pieces have been working on, this looks at the current dust-up between China and India in Doklam. Have a few longer Central Asia pieces in the pipeline (as well as a Webinar or so which are being planned as I type), as well as some bigger terrorism pieces coming soon. As ever, welcome any feedback!

Could China and India be heading for war?

Flare ups at the border need to be handled with caution
by Raffaello Pantucci / June 11, 2020 / Leave a comment

Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, right, talks with Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi before their delegation-level meeting in New Delhi, India. Photo by Manish Swarup/AP/Shutterstock

In the late summer of 2017, I was sat in the sumptuous lobby of one of Beijing’s luxury hotels with a Chinese military contact, catching up about current events over tea and cakes. A dust-up between China and India over Doklam, a plateau high in the disputed mountain ranges that China shares with India and Bhutan, was winding down, with both Beijing and New Delhi eager to calm tensions. With a dismissive wave my Chinese colleague said it did not really matter anyway as “winter is coming and it will resolve the situation. The Indian soldiers are old, while our PLA [People’s Liberation Army] boys are young and fit.”

This image of a vigorous China and creaky India is one that Beijing loves. Both may be rising Asian powers, but China is leaps and bounds ahead of India economically. And it is hard not to form such an impression from a visit to the respective capital cities. Beijing is a booming metropolis where the old has been swept away for the new. Giant glass skyscrapers loom over a crowded web of concrete. In contrast, New Delhi is green and dusty, with unfinished or ageing construction linked by bumpy and poorly marked roads.

But it was India’s desire to improve its infrastructure that set off the latest flare up between the two nations in May. The construction of a road on the Indian side of the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) led to a Chinese reaction, with Chinese soldiers suddenly appearing to pick fights with their Indian counterparts at various points on the disputed border. Stones, sticks and punches were thrown with some reports suggesting that soldiers on both sides had to be evacuated due to their injuries.

The state-controlled Chinese press downplayed the incident, blaming the Indians for trying to change the situation on the ground. The more vibrant Indian media was full of chatter, with retired Indian officials competing with guesstimates as to how many Chinese soldiers had invaded Indian territory. A row over a road has now turned into the most serious flare-up between the two powers in years.

The question is, why? India and China are not natural allies, but both realise there are economic benefits to be had by working together. As Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi put it, “the Chinese ‘dragon’ and the Indian ‘elephant’ must not fight each other, but dance with each other. In that case, one plus one will equal not only two, but also eleven.”

The answer is likely to be found in the China that Xi Jinping has been building—a country that sees itself as a strong and leading power on the world stage; that no longer feels it needs to bow down to others and is able to stand up to the omnipotent United States. This helps explain China’s aggressive push out in every direction—menacing Taiwan, asserting itself over Hong Kong, strengthening maritime claims in the South China Sea—and the combative “wolf warrior” diplomacy that has captured international imagination.

Xi has telegraphed his intent a number of times. At an Army Day celebration in 2017, he told gathered military leaders: “Today, we are closer to the goal of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation than any other time in history, and we need to build a strong people’s military now more than any other time in history.”

The current standoff is the end product of this aggressive mood and a desire to lash out in the wake of Covid-19. What is perhaps most worrying is that it is not certain whether Beijing was aware of the details of the attack until it had happened. While it is unlikely that PLA commanders in China’s south would have the temerity to launch an attack against their neighbour without orders, it is possible they pushed further than their bosses may have initially intended. Given the low regard they have for Indian forces, a quick prod across a disputed border would both show Beijing they were doing their bit while also reminding the Indians of their dominance in the region.

The problem is the ill will that is generated. As Tanvi Madan, an expert at the Brookings Institution, put it, even before the current clash “anti-China sentiment has gone mainstream” in India. An app that promised to remove all Chinese apps from a smartphone was downloaded 4.7m times in just five days in India before it was banned by Google.

China has likely strengthened the hands of its enemies over its southwestern border. This is an entirely unnecessary outcome that is mostly the product of Beijing’s arrogance towards Delhi and the hubristic mood that President Xi has been fostering.

And another new piece (from last month now), this time for the magazine Prospect. Tries to answer a complicated issue about terrorism that I hope to explore through some bigger projects soon.

The word “terrorism” no longer captures the threat we face

Violent attacks look less and less like terrorism as we know it

September 26, 2018 / Leave a comment

We think of terrorism as acts of violence in advance of a cause. Yet, look at recent attacks in the west and it is often hard to discern much evidence of ideological adherence or links to specific terrorist groups. In fact, the question is whether what is happening can still be genuinely considered terrorism at all. And if this is where the threat picture has gone, what does it mean for our response?

The nature of the threat is changing, with individuals increasingly acting with their own motivations rather than direct guidance from terrorist leaders. You can interpret this in a number of ways. It may be the product of an effective security response, as intelligence agencies get better at disrupting networks. It is also possible that this is part of a grand strategic plan by the terrorist groups themselves. They see a tougher operational environment and push their networks in this more diffuse direction as a result. Or maybe it is more random than that, with terrorist ideology in the public space drawing all sorts to it.

To those at the receiving end, this can all seem semantic. If you are stabbed by someone, you do not really care about the exact reason for it. The victims in London Bridge, outside parliament, in Barcelona and in Trappes will not have been focussing on this.

Yet these attackers were acting with wildly different kinds of reasons: the London Bridge terrorists came from a broader network of violent Islamists long known to authorities; all of the others appear to be individuals with personal or psycho-social reasons rather than any strict ideological motivation. It is very clear that there was an ideological steer in one while in the other three, it seems as though individuals were just latching onto the ideology as a cover for something else going on in their lives.

What does this mean for security services? What does it mean for terrorist cells? And does the word “terrorism” even apply at all?

The immediate problem is to the counter-terrorists who are struggling to manage this situation using their traditional tools. If terrorists are no longer clearly driven, ideological individuals from networks but isolated citizens with anger issues and troubled pasts, how are you going to come across them prior to their attempted attack, with the set of tripwires based around traditional networks you are watching? Something made even harder if the weapons they are going to use are all around us, like knives or cars.

There is also a problem for terrorist groups, who will have ever-lessening control over the plotters. These isolated loners or small cells might be adopting the terrorist group’s garb and methodology, but it is not very clear that they are actually advancing the group’s goals. Not if it now looks like a random catch-all for a variety of human problems, rather than an organised group driven by a plan.

More broadly: if the terrorist group’s cause (or any cause) is not being advanced, then can it still really be considered terrorism? Or are we in fact looking at an expression of human behaviour which is not really ideological terrorism, but something else. Random violence. Human rage. Expressions of anger through demonstrative public acts.

And if this is the case, what is the relevance of the terrorist group in this discussion? Seen in this light, the group could become a red herring which is distracting us from the actual problem that we are facing.

Of course, there are clearly still terrorist groups advancing plots with devastating consequences. The attack in Manchester fits this profile, and no doubt others have been disrupted by effective security forces, both in the UK and abroad. But this is often not what the counter-terrorism officers in the police or MI5 are facing. They are instead finding their time consumed by cases like Salih Kater (the Westminster car attacker) or Niamur Rahman (the slightly shambolic young man who had plans to storm Downing Street with a bomb to decapitate the prime minister, in part to avenge the death of a relation who had fought with Islamic State).

Neither of these people should be excused for their horrendous behaviour, but we do need to ask some more fundamental questions about whether this is terrorism and whether we should be attributing the responsibility to terrorist groups. This clarity is important, as once we have it, we will be in a better place to prevent further loss of life.

Slightly late posting a piece for Prospect a week or so ago about China-Russia relations. Covers ground that has been touched on before at greater length in Current History and China Economic Quarterly pieces. Undoubtedly more on this topic to come. Separately, spoke to The Times about the two captures ISIS ‘Beatles’, my recent China-South Asia piece was picked up by a Forbes columnist, and for those who can understand Italian, an event I spoke at in Rome (alongside the chair of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, the UK Ambassador, the head of Counter-Extremism in Italy, and we were joined at the end by Marco Minniti, the Interior Minister) has now been posted online.

China and Russia: the perennial frenemies

As Russia’s relations with the west go into deep freeze, watch as Putin warms to the east

Back in 2014, relations between Russia and the west took a nosedive as Moscow annexed Crimea, then invaded eastern Ukraine. The west’s opprobrium was largely shrugged off by Russian president Vladimir Putin who instead headed to Shanghai where he was feted by President Xi Jinping. A $400bn gas deal between their two countries was signed. As we watch western relations with Moscow slide even lower in the wake of the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury and the Syrian crisis, do not be surprised if we see President Putin turning, once more, towards the east.

The paving stones for a visit were laid a couple of weeks ago during the Moscow Conference on International Security. Bringing together allies from around the world, the aim of the conference is to showcase Russia’s international relationships. This year, Beijing was represented by its Defence and Foreign Ministers. Both used the event as an opportunity to highlight the importance of bilateral relations. Foreign Minister Wang Yi described relations as at the “best level in history” while Defence Minister Wei Fenghe went further stating “The Chinese side has come (to Moscow) to show Americans the close ties between the armed forces of China and Russia… we’ve come to support you.” Reinforcing this, at around the time of the conference the Russian news agency TASS announced the delivery of an S-400 Triumf missile defence system to China. They also discussed President Putin’s pending visit to China later this year, another opportunity to highlight the strength of their ties.

For those minded to see axes of evil around the world, this pro-Chinese orientation by Moscow seems to fit the bill. As essentially one-man and one-party states, they are natural allies. But this superficial understanding of a relationship misses the contradictions and disgareements at the heart of their relationship: China and Russia are bound together, but they do not necessarily like it.

Back in July 2000, soon after his first inauguration as president, Vladimir Putin gave a speech in Lake Baykal in southern Siberia near the border with Mongolia, in which he worried about Russia’s far east. “If we do not make real efforts to develop the far east in the very near future,” he said, “the Russian population will mainly be speaking Japanese, Chinese and Korean in a few decades.” Yet just 17 years later, Putin’s Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev was in Beijing praising the rise of the Renminbi and speaking of Russia’s interest in connecting with the currency, further opening Russia to Chinese investment. From fearful neighbour to pusillanimous supplicant, the shift in the Sino-Russian relationship is almost complete.

On the surface of course, relations are better than ever. Chinese officials will highlight how Moscow is a first port of call for new Chinese leaders. Xi Jinping went even further than his predecessors, not only going to Moscow but heading to Sochi a year later for the opening of the Winter Olympics—the first time a Chinese leader had attended such an event. Clearly eager to make sure his Russian hosts were happy, President Xi described the games as “splendid.” President Putin has made more visits to Beijing than any other foreign capital, and consistently turns to Beijing when he is looking for support on the international stage.

“From fearful neighbour to pusillanimous supplicant, the shift in the Sino-Russian relationship is almost complete”

Yet, there is a more complicated story. Last year in Moscow I sat in the audience at a conference panel discussing Eurasian visions. On the rostrum were two prominent Chinese experts who proceeded to give superb presentations on China’s view of the new Eurasian Silk Roads in fluent Russian. Cracking jokes, quoting Russian authors and explaining Beijing’s policies, these men had the mostly Russian audience enrapt. Over lunch later, a Muscovite friend joked how the Chinese experts’ Russian was better than theirs.

In contrast, a year or so earlier I had listened to one of those Chinese experts complain about how difficult a partner Russia was, and how their natural preference laid with relations with the west. Moscow was an unreliable and unpredictable partner whose strategic choices were ones disruptive to the placid world view that Beijing favours. Nor is this wariness one-sided. Talking to friends in Moscow during my last visit, people spoke of unrealised investment promises and a growing concern at the erosion of their nation’s strategic influence thanks to China’s actions in Russia’s backyard.

Such duplicity is in some ways not surprising. Anyone who has looked in detail at relations between any states will find a complicated mass of contradictions, where human dynamics, history and strategic imperatives will often wrestle with each other. But it is particularly striking in the Sino-Russian case. Both are powers driven by a fundamental world view of stable authoritarian state power as the ultimate answer to the difficult management of human societies. Both are fearful of the messianic and democratising west that brings instability, chaos and ultimately state collapse in their wake.

This fundamental imperative keeps the two together, while in secret they fret about each other’s activity. Russia’s behaviour in its perceived sphere of influence is the best example of this. Beijing was deeply unhappy about Russia’s actions in Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine more recently. When Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov reached out to his Chinese counterpart in 2014 to get support for Ukraine, the best he could muster was a statement that China and Russia held “broadly coinciding points of view… over the situation.” The idea that the westphalian order of state borders could be so wantonly disregarded and then breakaway provinces recognised strikes to the heart of China’s worries about its own state survival. Fearful that others might start doing the same to some of its own renegade provinces, Beijing was notably less than outspoken in support on Ukraine and actively blocked Moscow’s moves to get Central Asian powers to recognise what had happened in Georgia.

Yet at the same time, what statements did emerge about Ukraine in particular highlight how while Beijing might not like the end point that was reached, it did understand the imperative behind the initial Russian-led activity. For Beijing, the idea that popular revolutions can overthrow regimes—as appeared to be happening in Ukraine—is a worrying prospect. It points towards a confusing world order in which the primacy of state control comes into question. The Arab Spring, for example, was seen in both Moscow and Beijing as a catastrophic set of events which upended a relatively stable world order. The consequences of which they still see today.

And it is this ultimately which will keep the two powers bound together. Notwithstanding the growing Russian dependence on Chinese investment and the stealthy Chinese encroachment on Russia’s backyard—both in Central Asia where Beijing is increasingly the most consequential actor on the ground, or in Russia’s own empty and resource rich vast eastern regions—Moscow will continue to court Beijing as a close ally and friend. A friend Russia will need even more now that its relations with the west are on such a downward trajectory. And while Beijing may disapprove of Russia’s habit of stirring up the international order as a matter of principle, it will not stymie its behaviour or overtly condemn it. In fact, as we saw in Moscow recently in response to a more aggressive posture from Washington, China will overlook Russia’s disruptive activity to more pointedly confront the west.

These are two powers bound together in an embrace the west will struggle to ever pull apart.

My contribution in the excellent magazine Prospect to the public conversation in the UK last week about bombing Syria in the wake of this week’s parliamentary vote. It tries to explore what exactly kinetic military campaigns can do to counter terrroist oranization, using a few historical examples to outline some successes.

Will Bombing Ever Get Rid of Islamic State?

FILE - In this Monday, Dec. 31, 2001 file picture, Marines with full battle gear prepare to board transport helicopters at the U.S. military compound at Kandahar airport for a mission to an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/John Moore, File) PHOTO PACKAGE FOR USE WITH AFGHANISTAN ANNIVERSARY STORIES

This week’s vote to bomb Syria brings to mind a question: can hard power destroy terrorist groups? While it often may not be able to completely eradicate the groups’ ideologies, hard power does have a role in countering terrorist organisations. Historically there have been a number of successes in using it to degrade and even destroy them. This success comes in three main forms: decapitation, eradication or targeted applied force. Yet while all three can cause a group to be substantially degraded, the reality is that often the underlying causes and problems remain, meaning that while the group can be temporarily displaced, it is often not completely destroyed.

The first approach is decapitation, whereby a terrorist group is struck in such a way that its leadership is eliminated. A prime example of this is the Shining Path group in Peru that in 1992 was dealt a deadly blow when its leader Abimael Guzmán was captured by Peruvian authorities. While in the immediate wake of the strike the group’s violence increased, over time the group degraded and gradually faded away. Elements linked to it mutated into a criminal organisation, but the group has now largely disappeared from public concerns.

The second approach is a razed-earth military campaign, destroying the group, its territory, and membership with no mercy or quarter. An example of this is the campaign waged by the Sri Lankan government after the breakdown of talks in 2006 with the Tamil Tigers which led to an aggressive military campaign and the defeat of the group in May 2009. Using an aggressive land and air war, the Sri Lankan government slowly pushed the group back until it was cornered and ultimately collapsed. Many thousands were captured, while others were killed with a few hardcore figures managing to flee the country. But since then, while the aspiration to freedom still remains amongst some Tamils, the organisation is no longer able to assassinate state leaders and control territory.

For the rest of the piece, please go to the Prospect site

 

Am now finally catching up on myself, with a short piece done yesterday for Prospect in response to Prime Minister Cameron’s speech at his party conference yesterday. Am also using this moment to also catch up on media posting, I spoke to the Press Association about ISIS and the UK’s response, to the Guardian about some of the Brits killed by drone strike in Syria, to the Daily Mail about Sally Jones online threats, while on the other side of the equation spoke to Newsweek about Xi Jinping’s statement to the UN about deploying peacekeepers, South China Morning Post and New York Times about the Bangkok bombing, to Die Zeit about Uighur terrorism, and McClatchy about the Chinese government’s response to Uighur extremism.

Prime Minister David Cameron addresses the Conservative Party conference at Manchester Central.

Extremism: focus on the positive

Raffaello Pantucci—Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute

The Prime Minister has laid out a robust declaration of his intent to counter extremism. While little of the rhetoric is new, the fact that he is now able to deliver it from a position of confidence and strength means it is important to consider the detail of what he is saying.

The PM’s focus is one that very much tracks back from the front line of counter-terrorism (disrupting terrorist plots and networks) into the space of countering extremist ideas. While there is a confusing grey space between the two, where you draw the defining line of the law is something that varies depending on where you stand on the political spectrum. Clearly, the government is keen to push deep into the territory of confronting extreme ideas and wants to try to push such ideologies firmly into the illicit space. The question, however, is what the necessary relationship with counter-terrorism is. While few would dispute that those who practice such horrible acts as FGM or forced marriages in the UK should be prosecuted, it is unclear what relationship this specific behaviour has to those who are radicalised into terrorist networks.

The eagerness to confront conspiracy theories and the dissemination of incorrect information is a good ambition. The problem with confronting it in the space of extremism is that you are up against conspiracy theorists, who will pivot on a wisp of information into a spiral of obfuscation and confusion. Tackling such narratives in this space is not only difficult (since they are inherently intangible), but also ultimately pointless since no matter what is said they will find a way of pivoting away to contradict you and use your narrative to further strengthen their own. Cameron would do better to focus on the approach he also advocated of setting out what makes the United Kingdom great and focusing on that, rather than trying to correct those who are inherently bent on looking for something darker.

Marking the sad anniversary of ten years on from the July 7, 2005 attack on London, Prospect asked for an article about where we stand today as compared to a decade ago. Sitting in London writing this and seeing all the coverage today has been quite sad and moving. The threat has really evolved from a decade ago, but in some ways is far more complicated and dangerous. I spoke to quite a few journalists in the run up to today, including Sky News about the threat 10 years on and the 21/7 plot two weeks later, to Al Jazeera English about the impact on Muslim communities, to the BBC about where we stand today, and the New York Times has quoted my book in its write-up on the day.

Ten years after 7/7, is Islamic state plotting to attack the west?

British IS fighters returning from Syria are a potentially deadly threat

Three British recruits for Islamic State (IS) Reyaad Khan with Nasser Muthana and Abdul Raqib Amin

In November 2004, a pair of lads from Beeston met with a young man from Birmingham in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Far from home, the three were linked by a common hatred of the west. For the Beeston pair, Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shezhad Tanweer, their plan was to stay and fight in Afghanistan against Americans (a notion Khan himself was not entirely new to, having previously attended a camp in Kashmir and visited Afghanistan). By the end of their trip, the Brummie, Rashid Rauf, had introduced them to a senior al Qaeda figure known as Haji who had convinced the Beeston pair to turn around and launch an attack back home. The aged jihadi fighter had persuaded the trio that if they really wanted to play a role in the struggle they had come to fight and die for, they would be better served going back home. From foreign fighters to homegrown terrorists, the 7th July bombers’ journey shows how the transition can be made.

Nowadays, the focus of our attention is on the travellers. Stories like the family from Luton, heading en masse with grandparents to live under the Islamic State (IS) black banner. The Bethnal Green trio of girls thought to have been lured in part by a Scottish woman who had gone over before them and the handsome warriors stroking cats on social media pages. Or Talha Asmal, from Mohammed Sidique Khan’s hometown of Dewsbury, who was drawn from his family to earn the dubious distinction of being the UK’s youngest reported suicide bomber at the age of 17. The centre of our attention has moved from the terrorist plots back home to those who are travelling abroad to participate in foreign conflicts.

Why does this matter? If these people want to go abroad and live under IS or fight against the Assad regime, who are they hurting beyond themselves and their families? A sympathetic eye might read these stories as those of idealists who are going to fight in foreign fields to protect or fight for brother Muslims suffering as the world does little. While traditional news broadcasts tend to be dominated by stories of headline-grabbing IS atrocities, online you can also find plenty of horror stories of acts committed by the Assad regime and propaganda images of an idealised Islamic state being created in the Levant.

A more sceptical eye would instead focus on the fact that they are going to join terrorist organisations that are either part of al Qaeda (or are led by men close to the group) like Jabhat al Nusrah, or continue to spout rhetoric that seeks to inspire and instigate terrorism, like IS. At the moment these two groups appear to differ in their goals—IS seems to be railing against the world as it builds its caliphate in the sand, while Jabhat al Nusrah seems to have put al Qaeda’s global ambitions to one side while it focuses on the fight in Syria. But this is only their current state and these are groups with millennarial perspectives. Seen in this light, these travellers might eventually be deployed as weapons. For an organisation with the ideological ambitions of a group such as IS, foreign fighters are a gift. The stories of people going over strengthen their narrative of success. Later on, however, they might also provide a useful network with which to launch strikes against the west, North Africa, or elsewhere.

In fact, we may have already seen this. The slaughter in Sousse last month and the preceding attack on tourists at the Bardo Museum in Tunis were both carried out by individuals linked to IS training camps in Libya. In Verviers, Belgium this January, the authorities had a dramatic shoot-out with a group who they suspected of having recently returned from fighting in Syria. When confronted by authorities—they whipped out their weapons and in the subsequent gunfight two of the fighters were gunned down. A few days prior to this incident, the Kouachi brothers attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices while their friend Amedy Coulibaly stormed a Jewish supermarket in Paris. Coulibaly claimed in a pre-recorded  video to be undertaking the attack on behalf of IS and his wife, Hayat Boumeddiene, was later featured in IS propaganda alongside the group in Syria.

In the UK we have not seen such advanced planning yet, though authorities believe they have disrupted several plots with links to Syria and Iraq in some way. In at least two cases, it is believed the plots include individuals who were foreign fighters at some point. In all of these cases, it is highly unlikely that these young men started out with intentions to launch attacks back at home. People eager to kill do not need to travel to foreign fields to find justification to carry out their acts. More likely, they were eager to see what was happening and were drawn by the excitement of the conflict or the narrative of seeing what a supposed Islamic state looks like up close. Once there, it is unclear what happens to them: some seem to head back disillusioned by the experience, others revel in what they find there, and yet some appear to come back with deadly intent. Where and why this intent spawns is unclear.

This curiosity of visiting an Islamic state is familiar from Mohammed Sidique Khan’s narrative. In the summer of 2003, he was part of a group of Britons who met at the airport in Islamabad, Pakistan. Connected to the same networks in the UK, one group from Crawley were gathering to go and set up their own terrorist training camp where they sought to teach themselves to fight. Mohammed and his close friend from Beeston had instead become curious about what was going on in Afghanistan.

He had travelled previously to Afghanistan just before 11th September 2001 and seen the Taliban for himself. Impressed by the state they were building, he wanted to see how it was now surviving the American-led assault. After the 2003 training camp, Mohammed Sidique Khan’s plot took years to mature, showing the long tail of radical ideas that can sit within a person for some time.

A decade on from the 7th July bombings and we are still as confused as before as to what really draws young British men and women to fight for groups like IS or al Qaeda and launch terror attacks at home. There is an understanding of the ideology and subsequently how individuals are drawn to it. But this does not make prediction any easier. And it does not resolve the horror that these young Britons feel a greater loyalty to transnational groups espousing eschatological narratives than they do their country of birth. Today, as the nation commemorates the lives of the 52 Londoners who died in the attack, we are still seeking understanding as a new generation of foreign fighters head abroad to Syria and beyond.

An article for Prospect, a British political magazine, looking at the phenomenon of the growing diffusion of power in China. Not a subject I have done a huge amount about, and is really an off-shoot of other work, but it is a fact that I have encountered in China and that I find increasingly interesting and relevant. The picture, btw, is of Beijing and the building on the far right is the new CCTV building – CCTV being the Chinese national television channel.

Can China’s Centre Hold?

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI

25th November 2011  —  Issue 189 Free entry

As regions such as Xinjiang and Guangdong get richer and more powerful, it may be harder to govern from Beijing

Next year, China’s leadership changes. But as Chinese scholars, experts and officials are constantly reminding me, we should not expect any sudden or major shift in government policy. The rigid structure of Chinese government means that policy decisions are locked into place before leaders get a chance to shape them. And former leaders retain positions of influence and power behind the scenes.

Xi Jinping will likely become the international face of the Communist party, but Hu Jintao will, like his predecessors, retain a powerful position within the Chinese system. World leaders will find themselves dealing with a new character, though, as a Shanghai-based scholar told me: “leaders are not that important in foreign policy formation.”

Beneath this smooth exterior, however, there are fierce debates within the party about new “interest groups” in the system. This is shorthand for the growing fractionalisation in Chinese policymaking, a result of an increasing diffusion of power throughout the country. On the face of it, China remains a one-party state ruled by a central Politburo Standing Committee of nine men, but in reality an increasing number of actors influence the decision-making process.

Understanding the different roles these actors play is a parlour game among China watchers, but the trend is undeniably important. In a report late last year, entitled Inside the growth engine: a guide to China’s regions, provinces and cities, British bank HSBC advised: “anyone hoping to conclude a business deal in China…don’t assume you only have to deal with decision-makers in Beijing.”

A few months after the report came out, I met a local business representative from a European company in China. He described business in Shanghai and nearby provinces where his company had operations as typically opaque: what happens on the ground often differs substantially from the official line issued in Beijing. As the old Chinese saying goes: “the hills are high and the Emperor is far away.”

The regions’ newfound power is not all that surprising. China’s growth, after all, is mostly generated in a few coastal provinces. Guangdong, the nation’s powerhouse, accounts for over ten per cent of GDP and almost 30 per cent of the country’s exports (according to 2010 and 2009 figures respectively). This gives the regional governor a certain amount of power both domestically and on the international stage.

In October last year, Guangdong Governor Huang Huahua made a trip through Egypt, Israel and India in which he signed deals worth $9.12 billion and was hosted like a visiting state leader. During the trip he met with Israeli President Shimon Peres who “spoke highly of Guangdong’s energetic economy,” according to the official press release, and the two discussed ways that Israel and Guangdong could cooperate better on high technology development.

In some cases, provinces seem to be resisting central rule. On a trip to the Xinjiang province in China’s far west last year, a local guide told me how weak the current leadership in Beijing was and how the then Xinjiang Communist Party chief Wang Lequan would refuse to pay money earned in resource-rich Xinjiang to Beijing. I have been unable to confirm the details independently, but they resonate with a strong sense of independence from the center I found in the province. In a separate instance, a foreign researcher friend told me how Beijing policymakers had taken an interest in a project they were working on, which provided insights into the regional government in Yunnan province capital Kunming—they were grateful for insights on what was happening in the southern province.

State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) are also an increasingly powerful counterweight to the central government. They control about a third of total enterprise assets in China. The largest are under the direction of the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC)—a body the Chinese government established in 2003 to try to rein in the SOEs, which accounted collectively for about 60 per cent of GDP in 2009. Usually run by senior Communist party members, the sheer size of the SOEs gives their leaders disproportionate importance and in some cases seems to put them beyond state control.

Liu Zhenya is a particularly well-placed SOE head: he is CEO of China’s State Grid Corporation, the world’s largest utility company, ranked 7th in Fortune’s list of the top 500 global corporations. Having worked his way up through Shandong’s electricity industry, Liu turned the power companies into conglomerates managing billions in assets. During his time as head of Shandong Electric Power, he diversified the company’s portfolio into finance and securities, IT, business travel, real estate, culture and a local football team.

When State Grid took the same approach outside China, its attempts to move into copper mining in Chile were blocked. According to company insiders quoted in the Financial Times, it was Chinese regulators who blocked the deal, saying that State Grid was not a mining company. Characterised in the Chinese press as a “Frankenstein” company, State Grid has become almost a state within a state. Fleets of limousines shuttle executives around high-end compounds where they dine at private restaurants and consider the fates of their one-and-a-half million staff.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), meanwhile, has also emerged as a strong force on the global stage. As well as rhetorical sparring with the United States, it has started to assert itself along China’s sea borders with its south east Asian neighbours, much to their and others’ concern. An academic from the Party School suggested that the PLA’s assertiveness in recent years stems from a bargain they made with political leaders under Deng Xiaoping.

According to the Party School professor, when Deng was pushing his economic reforms through in the 1980s and 1990s, he asked the military to accept tighter budgets while the party focused on the economy. Now that the economy has picked up, the PLA is having its moment in the sun and flexing its muscles. When former US defence secretary Robert Gates visited China in January this year, the PLA Air Force showed off their new stealth fighter jet, in an apparent display of one-upmanship. It put Hu Jintao in an awkward position: he was apparently as surprised as his American guests when the subject came up in a meeting.

The key lesson here is that nine men in Beijing are increasingly finding the current political system difficult to control. The booming economy has brought prosperity to China, but it has also meant that there are more powerful actors in the country than before. Without the checks and balances that a free press or a more open political system would provide, it is difficult to keep track of them. Although the internet could (and in some limited cases does) fill this gap, strict government controls mean that it is not a completely reliable watchdog. Now the Politburo Standing Committee finds itself struggling to balance an ever more complex set of power networks around the country, as it tries to keep control at the centre.

A new piece for Prospect, looking this time at al Shabaab and its foreign recruitment. A rich topic that I keep coming back to, though one thing I realized I missed after publishing it was any mention of Shabaab’s TV channel. As ever, any tips or thoughts are warmly appreciated.

Jihadi MCs

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI — 12TH APRIL 2011

The Islamist group al Shabaab is attempting to make jihad trendy. But is it having any success?

“I obsesses not depress for martyrdom success” raps hip-hop enthusiast and keen Islamist, Omar Hammami, in his recent comeback song. This track wasn’t intended to top any charts, but instead to prove that the elusive Omar was still alive. That the Alabama-born twentysomething, who is believed to be a senior figure in the Islamist group al Shabaab, chose to do this through the medium of rap is typical of the Somali terrorist group that has brought the notion of socially networked revolution to a whole new level.

Jihad is a young man’s game. Old codgers like Osama (54) or Ayman al-Zawahiri (59) may be able to provide some ideological and operational support for cells, but for the most part it is young men who are on the frontlines. As a result, Islamist networks trying to recruit fresh blood are increasingly using new media, social networks and other non-traditional means to spread their message. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group behind the “underpants bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and last October’s parcel bomb scare, even produces a flashy magazine called Inspire—full of funky imagery and slang, it looks more like a fanzine than a terror manual. Closer to home, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) releases bilingual videos with colloquial German subtitles to appeal directly to its core audience in Germany.

But it is Somali group al Shabaab (“The Youth”) that is at the forefront of this new media approach. Omar Hammami’s recent hip-hop release is merely the latest from the jihadi MC. In his earlier work “First Stop Addis” he rapped about his earnest desire to become a martyr, over shots of him and his “brothers” training and fighting in Somalia. Released through extremist websites, but also widely available on YouTube, the MTV-inspired videos and songs seek to show kids how cool it is to be a mujahedin. Other videos released by the group show young warriors from around the world speaking happily into the camera as they boast, sometimes in perfect English, of how much fun it is to be fighting against the “kuffar” (unbeliever) government in Somalia.

Videos and songs are all very well, but as any good PR manager will tell you, a multipronged approach is what’s really needed. Recognising this, al Shabaab encourages its young warriors to phone home in order to inspire others and raise money. Using dial-in conference calls, the warriors in the field tell those back home of the fun they’re having, and urge those who cannot come to send money instead. They shoot guns in the background while on the phone, “to see they are working ok” and to show off. And online, members have ongoing conversations with the friends they left behind, sending them Facebook messages along the lines of, “’Sup dawg. Bring yourself over here” to “M-town.” Meanwhile websites like al Qimmah provide a forum for the fighters in the field and the fundraisers at home to interact, keeping the flame of jihad in Somalia alive.

This holistic media outreach program seems to be reaping dividends for the group, who continue to attract a steady trickle of young warriors from across Europe and North America. Most recently, in Canada, police pulled 25-year old Mohamed Hersi off a plane he was about to take to Cairo on his way to join the group. A bored Toronto security guard, it seems he was only the most recent of a number of young Canadians who have joined the group. Similar cases can be found in the United States, United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark and Australia, among others.

The danger for western countries is that while al Shabaab is currently using its trendy web strategy to draw fighters to Somalia, a time may come when they attempt to punish the west directly for supporting Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government. They have already turned their attention to neighbouring Uganda, which contributes soldiers to a peacekeeping mission in Somalia. If the recruitment drive succeeds, al Shabaab will have at their disposal a network of western passport-holding men, all of whom are at home in our hyperlinked society and know how to use technology to aid terrorism.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR)