Archive for the ‘Prospect’ Category

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

 

Advertisements

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)

Something for a new outlet, Prospect magazine, the British equivalent of the Atlantic or the New Yorker. It shrunk a bit to appear on their blog, and an addition I tried to get in late didn’t make it. I should have also mentioned the case of Arid Uka, the young Kosovar who shot a couple of US servicemen in Frankfurt last week. I am planning a longer piece on him, and I have a feeling this might prove to a significant event. It looks like there might be similarities with Roshonara Choudhry, and that the notion of individual jihad is catching on.

Oh What a Western Jihad!

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI —  4TH MARCH 2011
As al-Qaida’s lure seems to be diminishing in the middle east, why does the group’s ideology still resonate with disaffected young men in the west?

As change sweeps across North Africa and the Middle East, al-Qaida is nowhere to be seen. Aside from a few comments from the sidelines, the group has not been able to play a role in the recent revolutions. Instead, the group’s influence has recently been most visible in the west, where a series of stories have shown the ongoing appeal of “global jihad” to a diverse collection of young aspirants.

In London, a court convicted Mohammed Gul, a young British student at Queen Mary University, of producing radical material promoting al-Qaida’s ideology online. The judge characterised Gul as “thoroughly radicalised.” A week later over at Woolwich Crown Court, a jury found Rajib Karim, an IT worker for British Airways, guilty of plotting with Yemeni-American preacher Anwar al-Awlak to blow up a plane.

While Gul was being sent down, federal agents in Texas moved in to arrest Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, a 20-year old Saudi student who had allegedly been accumulating materials to build a bomb. As he put it on his blog, “after mastering the English language, learning how to build explosives and continuous planning to target the infidel Americans, it is time for Jihad.” Elsewhere in the States, Zachary Adam Chesser, a 20-year-old convert, famous for encouraging attacks on the creators of South Park for having mocked the Prophet, was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Last week in Germany, authorities moved in to arrest two Turkish-Germans who were sending money to an al-Qaida affiliate in Waziristan, having previously trained with the group. Another four individuals on police radars also had properties searched. Connected with the Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan, an al-Qaida affiliate that fights alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, the men were part of a community of young Germans who have been drawn to Waziristan by the mystique of jihad.

Although al-Qaida does not seem to be directly linked to any of these cases, their message clearly is. All of the young men in these stories bought into the group’s violent ideology, each attempting in their separate ways to advance its aims. Yet while this message continues to find support among certain disaffected young men in the west, the al-Qaida narrative has not found much support amongst the rebellious youth taking to the streets in North Africa and the Middle East.

Interpreting this is tricky. After all, it is early days for the waves of revolution sweeping the Arab world. But in many ways it is not that surprising. Al-Qaidaism was always a movement predicated on global anti-establishmentarianism. For it to find a natural home amongst young men in the west seeking direction in life is a logical conclusion. For these western wannabe terrorists, the issues at home lack the immediacy that domestic issues have for young people in North Africa and the Middle East, and so they have more time for dreamlike notions of global jihad. For their counterparts, on the other hand, it is the near enemy in the shape of a local tyrant that remains the focal point of attention.

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