Archive for the ‘Straits Times’ Category

Another piece looking at how COVID-19 is impacting international security questions, somewhat emphasizing a point made in an earlier RUSI piece focusing in on how existing terrorist threats were evolving while the world was not paying attention. This time it is for my new local paper the Straits Times and takes a wider lens to look at how adversaries are actively taking advantage of distraction to advance their own interests. Given the dominance of COVID-19 on international affairs writ large at the moment suspect there are a few more pieces in me on this topic in some shape or form. In other matters, while not doing much media, am doing various webinars including one later this week (April 29 at 6PM Indian Standard Time) with the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) about the excellent Kabir’s very readable recent book on ISIS in South Asia. Last week spoke with a panel at the Pakistani Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research (CSCR) on impact of COVID-19 on Belt and Road – the entire event was recorded and can be found on YouTube.

Covid-19 is fuel to the flames of security threats

Raffaello Pantucci For The Straits Times
PUBLISHED | APR 27, 2020, 5:00 AM SGT

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An Afghan security officer stopping motorists at a checkpoint in Kabul on April 8, during a government-imposed lockdown as a preventive measure against Covid-19. The virus may have brought much of the world to a standstill, but it has not ended conflict, says the writer. In Afghanistan, the peace process appears to be barely holding together amid continuing violence. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The Covid-19 virus may have brought much of the world to a standstill, but it has not ended conflict.

In fact, there is a growing danger that some are exploiting people’s distraction to advance their own interests. Coming at a time when there is not the capacity to either respond directly to the threats or marshal the diplomatic wherewithal to stop problems from escalating, there is a real danger that it is not just the world’s economies that will be irrevocably damaged in the post-Covid-19 world, but our national security environment as well.

The problem is articulating itself in different ways, among adversaries large and small.

In many cases, the activity is an extension of existing issues – part of the general feeling of acceleration that is being driven by the crisis. But coming when most governments are focused on disease relief at home, there is little surge capability available to respond adequately.

Those who can respond – for the most part, the United States – are moving quickly to escalation, with all the risks that come with it.

China’s recent activity in the South China Sea is a good example of this. Beijing’s behaviour is not in itself new. With its nine-dash map, China has long made claims to much of the waterway and the atolls, reefs and islands that some countries in South-east Asian consider theirs.

But the recent decision to push at them by renaming sea features and establishing districts over disputed areas suggests that China sees an opportunity in further changing the realities on the ground and creating a context that will be difficult for others to push back on without engaging in some form of conflict.

Beijing’s behaviour has not gone unnoticed, with the US dispatching vessels to support South-east Asian partners. But this comes at a difficult moment, when South-east Asian countries are seeking to work with China to help manage the pandemic they face, and also hopeful for the country to rapidly turn its economy back on to boost regional growth once again.

The danger of confrontation is high given that managing relations between the two big powers is not the easiest in the best of times, even more so now with the region in the grip of the pandemic.

Big power rivalry aside, the pandemic is undermining the fight against terrorism.

Terrorist-fuelled conflicts in Africa have seen a rise in violence as Western forces find themselves increasingly stretched by the Covid-19 crisis. In Mali, Spain drew down a substantial proportion of its forces there, while France has seen some of its forces in West Africa fall sick and suspended some maritime operations. Over in East Africa, Interpol was forced by Covid-19 to suspend its regional intelligence coordination mission.

Terrorist groups have been quick to take advantage.

In West Africa, Al-Qaeda’s local affiliate gleefully celebrated the foreigners’ difficulties as reports from Mali suggest that militants are getting within reach of the capital Bamako. In East Africa, an Islamist-fuelled insurgency in northern Mozambique continues to escalate and is taking a trajectory that increasingly resembles that of Boko Haram, the terrorist group that continues to ravage Nigeria’s north and neighbours. Groups across the Sahel are becoming more ambitious and aggressive, with soldiers, civilians and fighters killed in growing numbers.

This pattern is also visible in Asia. In the holiday spot of the Maldives, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has claimed responsibility for its first attack amid a growing number of violent incidents in the country, including attacks on foreign visitors. In Afghanistan, the peace process appears to be barely holding together amid continuing violence.

Both the Maldives and Afghanistan also face Covid-19 outbreaks of unknown magnitude and are likely going to struggle to manage both a pandemic and terrorist attacks at the same time.

Again, outsiders have tried to step in to help, but the assistance is sporadic and mostly focused on providing medical aid, without focusing on the escalating security problems. A brief visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo showed the US’ concern with the Afghan security situation, but was not enough. In fact, the rush to exit from Afghanistan by the US risks leaving chaos in its wake that will have wider repercussions across the region.

In the meantime, Western powers have to contend with sabre-rattling and other provocative actions from the likes of Russia, Iran or North Korea. In a time of great distraction elsewhere, there are few moderating influences available to try to de-escalate these situations.

What Covid-19 has done is to act as an accelerant to the fires already burning in various hot spots around the world. If not contained, the conflicts will be hard to unwind. With the US and China on a path towards collision, there is increasingly little space for diplomacy.

Material changes on the ground, like claimed territories or cities taken over by terrorists, will not be easily reversed without conflict.

It is understandably difficult to get governments to focus on much else at the moment. Controlling the virus, saving lives at home and finding ways of getting economies moving again are clearly the immediate priorities.

But we are in danger of missing shifts happening in our national security environment that could lead to conflict or escalation beyond the point of control.

Without more attention being paid to these other problems, when the world starts up again after the contagion is over, we may find the geopolitical environment strategically altered for the worse.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

More catch up posting, this one from a couple of weeks back for an excellent local Singaporean newspaper the Straits Times. This one draws on a theme touched on before which might be a much larger project at some point in the future. Watch this space as ever!

Running amok in an age of meaningless terror

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The shooting last month that left nine people dead in the German city of Hanau is being described as an extreme right-wing terrorist attack. Yet a close examination of the shooter’s manifesto shows an odd mishmash of ideas that draw on extreme-right ideology, but also blend in elements of misogyny and off-the-wall conspiracy theories.

These include the belief that the United States was “under the control of invisible secret societies” and that little children were being detained, tortured and killed by satanists in “deep underground military bases”. Tobias Rathjen, who subsequently killed his mother and himself, also believed in remote mind control and accused US President Donald Trump of stealing his ideas, including the America First slogan.

The gunman’s victims – mostly people of Turkish descent in shisha bars – suggest he was driven by racist, right-wing beliefs, and indeed his manifesto is full of rants against non-whites and Islam. But what is also true is that he is part of a growing cohort of terrorists whose ideology is a muddled grab bag of ideas, and that requires us to rethink some of our assumptions about terrorists. We may be moving from sacred terror into an age of meaningless terror.

For some people, there is no such thing as meaningful terrorism. The idea of murdering other people to advance the cause of some political ideology or religion is hard to comprehend. Yet, we are usually at least able to grasp the ideological underpinnings or interpretations of faith that underpin their actions, however warped. But we are now moving into a situation where the police and security forces are increasingly finding themselves confronting individuals whose ideology is confused, to say the least.

In Britain, the Home Office flagged in its report last year at least 19 cases involving individuals with “mixed, unstable or unclear ideology” who “may still pose a terrorism risk”.

In the US, the Department of Homeland Security’s strategy to counter terrorism now talks about “terrorism and targeted violence” that includes “attacks otherwise lacking a clearly discernible political, ideological, or religious motivation”.

Including the 2017 Las Vegas shooter in this group, the department notes that “terrorists and perpetrators of targeted violence may be motivated by different ideologies or narratives of personal grievance, and in some cases by none at all”, but “they attack targets with similar characteristics, often with similar tactics”.

In the case of the Las Vegas attack, Stephen Paddock, 64, opened fire from his hotel suite on a crowd gathered for a music festival on the night of Oct 1, 2017. He shot dead 58 people and wounded another 413 before killing himself. The motive remains officially undetermined.

In continental Europe, the habit is still to classify people under different known ideologies, but the many variants of beliefs across the continent and their cross-linkages can be confusing. The line between extreme right-wing ideology and personals act of violence is also not always easy to discern.

And then there are the incels – the involuntary celibate movement of men whose defining characteristic is their inability to attract the women they want. What started off as an online subculture of resentful young men has shown its potential for violence in mass shootings in Canada and the US. The Hanau killer identified himself as an incel.

The incels are typical of the growing group of extremists who seem solely linked to others through conversations on grim online forums where they share grievances and radical solutions, all the while stoking one another’s anger.

As the number of groups engaged in online hate speech grows, there is an accompanying rise in individuals with serious mental health or social disorders appearing among the roster of terrorists of all ideologies. In some cases, obsessive personalities are going down ideological rabbit holes on the Internet and building identities online with such power and force that they persuade themselves to act in the real world.

The question then is, what does this all mean? We are now seeing how individuals – some troubled, some rational – are using the garb of a terrorist incident to externalise their anger. And given the ease with which a terrorist act can be performed, we are reaching a situation where any act of mass violence becomes terrorism.

We are seeing acts of performative violence in the appearance of terrorist acts. This might help the individual give meaning to an act of violence that they might want to perform anyway for some other personal reason.

This form of “running amok” – a Malay term that has made it into the English language – is in some ways not new. The original term described the phenomenon of individuals who would suddenly go into a frenzy, attacking all those around them. The phenomenon was sometimes blamed on demonic possession.

The individuals we are seeing today are performing acts of essentially meaningless violence, but using an outward appearance we translate and recognise as acts of terrorism. This imbues the act with greater meaning. Terrorist groups have learnt how to offer people methodologies that can be easily emulated and delivered. This makes it easy to carry out attacks. It also means that these groups are able to subsequently try to claim the attacks.

The problem this presents is a complicated one. There is the danger we are over-ascribing acts to terrorist groups and increasing their power and mystique. We might also be deploying our expensive security services in pursuing essentially disturbed individuals who, if recognised in a different context, might be manageable through other public services.

Prosecuting such individuals is also complicated – on the one hand, if they have performed a violent criminal act, a law has been broken. But on the other hand, how do we prosecute those who are caught before they launch their attack and how do we handle those who are genuinely ill’

There is also a danger in how we respond. Terrorist acts that attract attention draw others to their bright light. Some go on to attack and murder others, emulating an act they have just seen – seeing it as an appropriate moment to support their interpretation of an ideology or, more simply, because they like the attention and want some of it.

For those tasked to monitor the ever-changing phenomenon that is terrorism, it can be difficult when the terrorist act appears to have lost a larger strategic goal and there is no clear ideology driving the violence. Rather than groups of acolytes following ideas, we are seeing moths bouncing between flames until they burn themselves and those around them. The act becomes the ideology and any meaningful political statement decoration on top of what is ultimately a deeply personal act of anger at society.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.