Archive for the ‘Straits Times’ Category

A longer piece for my current local newspaper the Straits Times on a topic that have been doing a lot of work on of late, China in Afghanistan. It has been something of a running theme for some time and this tries to focus the analysis specifically through the lens of the pending US withdrawal. When I started to first really dig into this topic in the early 2010s, the discussion was Obama’s potential withdrawal which seemed to accelerate Chinese thinking. This time, it does not seem to be having the same effect.

In addition, a quick media catch up. Spoke to the Financial Times in the wake of the Austria and France terror incidents (which was picked up in Croatian), to RFE/RL about Central Asian decisions to repatriate more of their people from the Syrian camps, and on the other side of the coin spoke to David Wertime for his excellent Politico China Watcher column.

Will China be better off as the US withdraws from Afghanistan?

A US Chinook helicopter flying over Kabul in 2017. Beijing may now be enjoying America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, but it is the one that is most likely to feel the longer-term repercussions, says the writer.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

China is enjoying the United States’ precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan. From Beijing’s perspective, America’s abrupt dash for the exit as the conflict continues to rage reinforces the argument that the US is an erratic and unreliable player on the world stage.

This glee, however, should be tempered by the fact that the trouble that is likely to follow America’s withdrawal is going to cause Beijing more trouble than the seemingly never-ending conflict which it has been able to observe from the sidelines.

In the short term, China has comfortably hedged itself against all direct threats from Afghanistan.

In the wake of declarations under the Obama administration that the US was going to withdraw from Afghanistan, China started a programme of investment into the military and border capabilities of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan, countries with which it shares the Wahkan Corridor, China’s direct border with Afghanistan.

It established a forward base for the People’s Armed Police in Tajikistan, as well as built a base for Afghan forces in Badakhshan, where in the first few years Chinese forces would also patrol. The Chinese also inaugurated a new regional multilateral structure, the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism, that brought together the chiefs of army staff of the countries with which it shared the Wakhan Corridor.

China also started to more openly cultivate its relations with all of the factions on the Afghan battlefield. Previously Beijing would rely on its “iron brother” Pakistan to facilitate contacts with the Taleban. This included visits to Kabul pre-2001 to meet Taleban leader Mullah Omar and offers by companies like Huawei to help build infrastructure in the country. But while this outreach was initially done behind the scenes, from 2014 onwards China started to openly host Taleban delegations in Urumqi and Beijing, while its special envoy for Afghanistan Sun Yuxi would help organise meetings involving Pakistan, Afghanistan, the US and China.

In addition, every senior visit by a Chinese official to Afghanistan was accompanied by photo calls with all of the major political leaders in the city. The result of all this engagement was statements by the Taleban that they would help protect Chinese infrastructure investments in the country, as well as regular support for Chinese perspectives by all factions in the Afghan government.

Neither side – Taleban or the Afghan government – said they would provide support for Uighur militant groups using Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks in China. In fact, both said they would actively eject such groups from their territory.

All of this has given Beijing the sense of having effectively shielded itself from the Afghan conflict. It has hardened its direct and indirect borders and has won friends across the board. Theoretically, China is well-placed no matter what happens in a post-America Afghanistan.

INDIA, U.S. AND THE UIGHURS

Yet this happy situation for China is now vulnerable to the broader tensions it has engendered through its recent aggressive foreign policy. Afghanistan used to shine for China as a place where it could cooperate with even its most difficult partners. During the Obama years, China and the US had developed a series of cooperative projects in Afghanistan, including a diplomat training programme which involved courses in Beijing and Washington. When President Xi Jinping and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi met first in Wuhan in April 2018 and then later near Chennai in October last year, they discussed Afghanistan as a place for cooperation, with infrastructure as a possible area of particular focus.

But the souring of ties with the US and India has largely put paid to these efforts. The Sino-US joint programme was suspended earlier in the year purportedly because of Covid-19 restrictions, but seems unlikely to start again. And anyway, any cooperative activity between the US and China in Afghanistan is going to be complicated by the fact that the US government made a decision in October this year to remove the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from its list of terrorist organisations.

An organisation whose specific existence has long been disputed, ETIM is the catch-all term used by the Chinese authorities to describe Uighur militants. For years the US had acceded to the group’s inclusion on its list of banned terrorist groups, in part to ensure China’s support for Washington’s broader war against terrorism. But what Uighur militants do exist tend to use a different name, fighting in Afghanistan and Syria under the banner of the Turkestan Islamic Party. They talk about attacking China in their videos, and have historically claimed links to incidents in China (though the evidence of actual responsibility is limited).

Washington’s decision to remove ETIM from its list of proscribed groups hardens the rupture between China and Washington in Afghanistan. One of Beijing’s biggest stated concerns about Afghanistan is the possibility of Uighur militants operating as ETIM using the country as a staging point from which to attack China.

Yet now Washington does not even acknowledge that the organisation exists, meaning it formally disputes one of the fundamental reasons for Chinese engagement in Afghanistan. For the US to reverse this decision would require the State Department to push through legislation targeting Uighur militants at the same time as the entire US government is attacking China’s broader policy towards Uighurs through an escalating sanctions regime.

India’s position is less complicated, though it is unlikely that the government in Delhi will be very interested in engaging China over Afghanistan given current broader tensions as a result of the border clashes earlier this year.

The Taleban’s continued hostility towards India as well as Pakistan’s long shadow and close ties to China suggest it is unlikely that we will see cooperation between Delhi and Beijing soon. In fact, there are indications that we might even see the opposite.

BALUCHISTAN SEPARATISTS

One of the irritants that China has noticed over the past few years is the growing instances of violence by Baluchi separatist groups in Pakistan targeting Chinese projects in the country. These groups loudly tout their anger against Islamabad and Beijing, accusing them both of raping their land in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province while launching attacks on prominent targets linked to China such as a busload of Chinese engineers, or a hotel in Gwadar (the Pakistani port that is spoken of as the “jewel” of the wider China Pakistan Economic Corridor). They do this from bases in Afghanistan, particularly in Kandahar.

Pakistani, and increasingly Chinese, experts blame much of this Baluchi violence on Indians and their Afghan proxies. From their perspective, Delhi is playing an old game of manipulating militants based in Afghanistan against them. Place this activity alongside the American decision about ETIM, and it can look to Beijing like Afghanistan is becoming a place where two of its biggest adversaries are lining up to support anti-Chinese militant groups.

Whatever the merits of the accusations, the fact remains that Afghanistan’s geography and porous borders make it an inviting base from which militant fighters can strike at Pakistan and Xinjiang province.

TALEBAN PROMISES

China may draw comfort from Taleban statements about not supporting foreign militants in using their territory, but the Taleban’s history of reliability about such statements is quite thin.

Chinese officials and experts alike love to chuckle about how Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. They point to the futility of previous British, Russian and now American efforts to assert their might over the country. They would never be so silly as to get caught in that trap, they say.

Yet simply standing back is not going to make Afghanistan’s problems go away. China’s large mineral extraction projects in Afghanistan (a copper mine in Mes Aynak and an oilfield in the north) have not brought the Afghans the benefits hoped for. Beijing cannot but be on the watchout for its adversaries latching on to local disgruntlement against failed projects to stoke a bigger backlash.

China may not want to get dragged into Afghanistan’s troubles, but it may find itself unable to avoid them. Whether America completely withdraws or not, China will still be Afghanistan’s wealthiest neighbour with growing economic interests in every country that Afghanistan borders. Its concerns about domestic and regional threats from terrorism and instability have links into the country.

Beijing may now be enjoying America’s embarrassing withdrawal, but it is the one that is most likely to feel the longer-term repercussions.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and has a forthcoming book looking at China’s relations with Central Asia that draws on almost a decade’s worth of travel and research across the region.

Been doing a bunch of media around the terrible attacks in France. Tensions seem very high in and around the country at the moment, depressing how these cycles never seem to end. Ahead of the upcoming US election, however, wrote this short piece for my local paper the Straits Times looking at the potential for domestic terrorism in the US and drawing the narrative of this threat back in American history.

In the US, terror is increasingly coming from inside the country

US President Donald Trump has consistently baited the extreme right wing during his presidency. From retweeting extreme right material to refusing to condemn groups during presidential debates, the concern is that by election time he will have unleashed a wave of uncontrollable anger that will result in mass civil unrest.

This is unlikely, but it is equally likely that no matter the outcome of the election, violence of some sort will follow.

The stage has been set for the continuation of a persistent problem in America that will continue to cloud and confuse the political debate and sadly result in domestic terrorism.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

The attack, which killed 168 people and injured almost 700, remains the worse incidence of domestic terrorism the United States has seen.

The perpetrator of the attack, Timothy McVeigh, was an unrepentant member of the Patriot movement who feared an oppressive government was going to take away people’s guns as a first step towards a tyranny.

He saw his fears realised in a series of incidents in the 1990s when the government used violence against individuals he believed were simply trying to live lives away from the federal government.

His strain of libertarianism is not new to the American political discourse. Founded by men and women who carved out their piece of territory in the Wild West, the US has always seen itself as a frontier nation peopled by rugged and independent individuals.

This has fostered a national spirit founded on the importance of independence of mind, body and spirit – rejecting central control and fearful of anything that impedes human development.

This in part helps explain the endless optimism and opportunity that characterises America. However, it has also meant the existence of a deep tension in some parts of American society.

Some take these basic societal principles to the extreme. These are people who reject government, and believe lives should be lived independently away from strong central authority.

They reject taxes, rules around education and other strictures imposed by the government. Those eager to live off the grid are often ardent supporters of gun ownership rights and, more often than not, tend towards Republican politics, if they believe in the party system.

The Patriot movement that McVeigh emerged from was one that was closely linked with various Christian religious groups and militias that exist in America’s remote areas.

These communities seek to live self-sufficient lives out of government control, though sometimes ending up making choices which breach the laws of the land.

This leads to clashes and confrontations with the state, most often law enforcement at a local and federal level.

With McVeigh’s atrocity, much greater attention was placed on these groups and communities, leading to a reduction in their capability and a number of disruptions.

But the problem of terrorism for US law enforcement was upended by the events of Sept 11, 2001, which refocused attention on the danger of external threats.

The internal threats, however, never went away, and the Patriot movement, militias and various extreme right-wing groups continued to fester.

In the mid-2010s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation highlighted its growing concerns about the sovereign citizen movement, members of which believe they get to decide which laws to obey and which to ignore, and think they should not have to pay taxes. The group had developed alongside the Patriot milieu and sought to use violence in some cases to separate themselves from the federal government. They were part of a broader community that has long existed but often felt marginalised.

The Trump administration has been a boon to such groups. Already ascendant prior to his arrival, his polarising form of politics has merely served to strengthen their sense of conflict within the country, for which they need to prepare.

This has fostered the more public emergence of a range of groups that have long existed in various forms – from armed militias around the country such as the Wolverine Watchmen, who were planning to kidnap Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer; groups like the Boogaloo Bois, whose aims are confused but talk often of provoking a second Civil War; the Proud Boys, who see themselves as fighters against left-wing extremists; the Oath Keepers, made up mostly of former and current servicemen and police officers who believe the government is failing; to a whole range of violent extreme-right groups who barely hide their xenophobic beliefs.

The dilemma is what will happen after election day. Unfortunately, it is unlikely any good will follow.

If President Trump wins, such groups will likely feel emboldened. Their sense of impending conflict will be fuelled by the fact he is likely to continue to see his polarising politics as an effective way to govern.

The likely backlash from the left and others angry at Mr Trump’s re-election will only feed their sense of a civil war within the country.

Should his Democratic challenger Joe Biden win, doubtless they will see an election stolen. President Trump’s repeated comments and tweets raising questions about mail-in voting and election rigging have set the tone. His loss will likely speed them on their confrontational path towards violence.

Mr Trump may not be the creator of these groups, but he is providing substantial succour to them. And whether he wins or loses, they will continue to exist.

This is not a guarantee there will be violence on election day – though given tensions it would not be surprising – but it does mean that the problem of an extreme right and libertarian violence will persist in America after election day no matter who wins.

The problem predates Mr Trump and speaks to something deep in some parts of the American psyche.

Sadly, neither a President Trump nor a President Biden will be a salve to soothe this.

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

Finally, in my latest catch-up, a piece for my new local paper the Straits Times, this time exploring the phenomenon of QAnon and its straying back and forth across the line between terrorism and politics.

Am also taking advantage of this opportunity to do a catch up media posting. On the terrorism side of the coin, spoke to the Mail on Sunday about the reported death in a new book of al Muhajiroun leader Siddartha Dhar fighting with ISIS in Syria, to the Telegraph about the situation of the women and children in the Kurdish camps in Syria which was picked up by Arab News, and my interview for CTC Sentinel with Gilles de Kerchove was picked up by the UK’s Independent and their sister paper in Ireland. On the other side of the coin, spoke to CNBC18 in India ahead of the EU-China Summit, to the South China Morning Post about Mongolia and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and separately the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Reasons for the Rise and Rise of QAnon

Screen Shot 2020-09-21 at 05.52.26

How did an online conspiracy theory become so strong that it is influencing the politics of the party ruling the world’s most powerful country while inspiring terrorists at the same time’

The rise of QAnon – an online conspiracy theory that has the trappings of a religious cult – is reflective of broader trends in society, notably how technology is blunting our ability to know what is real while driving existing tendencies for politics to head into ever more extreme directions.

QAnon seems an improbable platform for political office.

It claims, among other things, that a powerful cabal of paedophiles and cannibals within the “deep state” is engaged in a global fight to take down US President Donald Trump.

No one knows who Q is (hence the Anon tag) but his (or her) cryptic messages have led to actions that are sufficiently worrying for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to flag QAnon as a potential domestic terror threat.

The movement has not merely survived its infamous early fiasco (involving a gunman attacking a Washington pizza outlet in the belief that it was a front for a Hillary Clinton-run paedophile ring) but has thrived.

QAnon has increasingly grown in popularity in Republican political circles, with several supporters winning recent congressional primaries. One of them, Ms Marjorie Taylor Greene, is likely to land a seat in the House of Representatives.

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Reddit have shut down numerous QAnon accounts and communities, Republican politicians have voiced misgivings – Senator Lindsey Graham has called it “batsh*t crazy” – but notably Mr Trump has seemed to welcome its supporters, claiming that they “like me very much” and “love America”.

QAnon’s success comes from a strangely modern brew.

It lacks a leadership, beyond an imagined one online (in which Mr Trump is an unknowing leader and anonymous individuals working within the government are leaking information to the world), but this almost complete lack of structure helps explain why a series of online posts has become a movement that encompasses everything from domestic terrorists to people running for Congress.

To be sure, openness at an ideological level is not unique to QAnon. Most movements are inherently evangelical.

If you are advancing a world-transforming idea, you are usually seeking adherents or followers. This requires an ability to broadcast and a method by which people can join and participate.

But the point at which they move from becoming merely a listener to being a more active member is the point at which a barrier usually needs to exist.

Here, a comparison with violent Islamist groups can offer insights.

For groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the ideas can initially be found online or at public gatherings where preachers speak or teach. This provides an initial point of contact which the individual can then follow up and, if he is assiduous enough, eventually leads to his recruitment after some “vetting”.

QAnon is different. Rather than being a structured organisation that has individuals who control entry, QAnon provides access online through discussion forums such as 4chan and 8chan where ideas and conspiracy theories can be followed and developed.

More active adherents produce documentary films or write long articles which expound and explain links to others.

But the fundamental ideas are out there for anyone to find.

And similar to those of other such movements, they offer an answer.

But unlike ideologies with a core text which requires interpretation by trained subject matter experts, here the core text is one that is self-assembled, drawing on the limitless volume of information that exists in our online world.

The core ideas of QAnon – that the world is ruled by a dark cabal which Mr Trump is fighting – are perennial, but how you get to them and where you see the links are up to the individual and his own interpretation.

The ideology becomes one that you partially assemble yourself. This gives the ideas greater salience and strength for the individual, helping to explain the appeal.

As Q followers say: “Do your own research, make up your own mind.”

The idea that humans need an explanation for how the world works is not new.

In dark and confusing times, people will regularly turn to more extreme explanations and strong messengers.

We are living through a moment of great political disruption alongside an explosion in information and disinformation. Certainties no longer exist.

Deepfakes mean that even moving images can be credibly altered. We struggle to know what we know and what we do not know.

The one certainty many people seem to have is that the world is getting worse and entropic forces are taking us down towards some catastrophic end.

Messianic or demagogic leadership becomes important at a moment like this as it appears to provide clarity amid confusion.

Problematically, QAnon’s leader is the ether.

Unlike ISIS, JI or Al-Qaeda in their heyday with clear hierarchies, plans and direction which their followers were steered towards, QAnon offers an idea and sense of belonging to an entirely leaderless organisation.

This makes the tipping point to violence much harder to identify, as it is located within each individual rather than the organisation itself.

QAnon offers itself as an idea that adherents can build themselves.

Some individuals get so worked up they end up like the Illinois woman who threatened to kill Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden over claims of sex trafficking.

Others organise, either by running for public office or taking part in a pro-police protest in Portland, Oregon.

Many are content amplifying the elliptical messages online and, at Trump rallies, flashing symbols and slogans.

Being such a broad-spectrum, DIY movement, QAnon is able to embrace both the mainstream and the extreme.

It also helps explain why the FBI can identify it as a source of concern while numerous Republican party members can run on campaigns that openly reference it.

It is also why it will be impossible to eradicate. Scattered online, it is unlikely to go away until something else comes along and replaces it.

Humankind is always seeking leadership and explanation, and QAnon offers both in an almost limitless, crowdsourced and reinterpretable form.

It provides a haven for those angry at the world who can interpret it as a rationale for going towards violence, while it also creates a large enough community that is attractive to politicians seeking supporters.

QAnon is a cult for our troubled times, bringing religion, explanation, leadership and identity to its followers at the same time.

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

A bit late posting my latest for the Straits Times, this time digging into the question of nationalism and the problems it causes countries using the lens of the Wolf Warrior mentality in Beijing as the entry point. Still crashing to finish some bigger projects, hoping to have more time for other writing soon!

Beware the spirit of the Wolf Warrior
Summoning the forces of nationalism anywhere in the world invites the risk of a bite-back

Screen Shot 2020-07-01 at 15.18.51

The film Wolf Warrior 2 has managed that special feat of entering the lexicon.

Wolf Warrior has become the byword for a mood in Beijing that sees little reason to stand down before adversaries. Its primary audience is domestic, showing the Chinese public they are living in a strong country built by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But this sort of narrative is also dominant globally, where political leaders are stoking nationalist and nativist fires at home to bolster themselves.

Such narratives rarely stop at borders, however, and usually create friction abroad. This can constrain government options as they seek to please domestic audiences. Nowhere is this clearer than in the current stand-off between New Delhi and Beijing where cool heads are struggling to maintain control.

Wolf Warrior 2’s key message was clearly stamped in its final scene, where against a backdrop of a Chinese passport, words appeared saying: “To citizens of the People’s Republic of China, when you find yourself in danger in a foreign country, do not give up hope. Please remember, behind your back, will be a strong and powerful motherland.”

This film is aimed at a Chinese audience – something that is important to remember when considering what the point of the so-called Wolf Warrior diplomacy is. It is not something aimed at the rest of the world, but at Chinese citizens to show them their motherland’s strength.

The specific phrase “Wolf Warrior diplomacy” appears to have been coined in July last year, in a BBC Chinese article that explored a Twitter spat between then charge d’affaires at the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad, Mr Zhao Lijian, and former US national security adviser Susan Rice.

Now a senior spokesman with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr Zhao at the time ran one of the most prominent and prolific Chinese government official Twitter accounts. He was at the forefront of a growing mood in Beijing that the film seemed to encapsulate – of a China that was no longer hiding and biding its time, in Deng Xiaoping’s phrase, but was rather standing tall and thrusting itself into prominence on the international stage.

The aggressive posture Mr Zhao encapsulated was intended to show that China was no longer being pliant, but was taking the rhetorical fight to the enemy.

Chinese people will often receive a mixed message at home – on the one hand, they see their country getting rich and leaders talking of national rejuvenation, but then abroad they see they are treated as a second-tier power with anger directed at them.

The extraordinary growth at home and hostility abroad do not seem to fit together, and actually undermine the CCP’s messaging to its own people about how well things are going. Stoking nationalist fires helps strengthen the public’s positive feelings towards their government.

This is a global problem. In the United States, President Donald Trump has made a domestic virtue out of attacking allies. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s spending, decoupling from China, withdrawing the US from international agreements – these are all policy decisions that he has championed to his voter base, heedless of the impact or appeal to allies.

In London, the entire Brexit conversation was predicated on the fact that Europe was a millstone to British ambition. Similar narratives can be found in almost every European capital. Leaders pandering to their political bases have long blamed a distant and abstract Brussels as the source of domestic problems. Yet, in a world of superpower confrontation, the idea of walking away from what could be one of the most powerful alliances on the planet seems absurd.

And in Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has harnessed Indian and Hindu nationalism to win resounding election victories. Globally, however, it has brought him condemnation with concerns about human rights of minorities in the country and the troubles in Kashmir.

Stoking these fires can be dangerous after a certain point. By getting people worked up at home about mendacious or evil foreigners, you create a context not only for racism to thrive at home, but also for your citizenry to pick fights for you abroad.

In Kazakhstan, China is having to deal with the fallout. In mid-April, a series of articles emerged on the Chinese Internet that suggested many of China’s neighbours wanted to “return” to China. The implication was that they were all so envious of China’s success that they wanted to renounce their own nationhood to become part of greater China. Produced by a click-bait farm in Xi’an, they appeared to be an attempt to monetise the nationalist mood at home.

When one article referring to Kazakhstan came to the attention of Kazakh netizens, however, it created an uproar, surfacing as it did against a backdrop of growing concern about Chinese influence in their country. The public anger that followed led to its Ministry of Foreign Affairs hauling China’s ambassador in to give him a dressing down. The ambassador in turn expressed anger at the stories, claiming that the entire event was being stirred up by Western media – all done on Facebook, blocked in China.

In Ladakh, we might now be seeing the apotheosis of this problem. With strong nationalist sentiment stirred up at both ends, China and India are facing off at a moment when the popular sentiments in both countries are being agitated by strongman national leaders against each other.

In this light, an admission of large loss of life in conflict is something that neither side wants to accept without consequences. The public has been brought up on narratives of how strong they are and how weak the other is. There is a danger domestically if this does not fit with what they see. Both sides are constrained in their choices as a result. They have to keep the public happy, yet at the same time are concerned about escalating into a larger conflict.

The danger is in some ways best captured by the experience of Wu Jing, the director and star of the Wolf Warrior movies.

In the wake of the runaway success of the second movie, he became a talking point on Chinese social media. Among the many stories that circulated was the rumour that he was from Hong Kong, and that his wife was an American green card holder and his son had United Kingdom citizenship – somewhat contradictory, given the nationalist tone of his blockbuster. In an echo of the “birther” scandal in America around President Barack Obama’s right to contest the presidency, Wu’s mother had to post on Weibo photos of their Chinese passports. The nationalist fires that his film had fanned ultimately circled back to burn him. This is the danger that such nationalistic narratives can create. Uncontrollable anger at home which limits your options abroad.

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

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

Screen Shot 2020-04-28 at 05.06.51

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

Screen Shot 2020-03-25 at 03.29.48

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.