Archive for the ‘THINK TANKS’ Category

Finally doing some catch up posting as have let things slip for a while. Been somewhat preoccupied with some real-world issues which am still working through. Likely going to see some workflow changes in the future, so watch this space!

But back to the matter at hand, back in early September this chapter emerged at last as part of an NBR publication. The paper was the product of an excellent workshop in Washington that Nadege, Brian, Ed and their colleagues had invited me to last year. The final report is a very interesting one featuring a selection of colleagues and experts writing about China’s growing security efforts along the Belt and Road.

I have reposted the executive summary here, but the whole paper is available to easily download from the NBR website. More on this topic more generally in the pipeline over the next period.

Essay from NBR Special Report no. 80

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The Dragon’s Cuddle
China’s Security Power Projection into Central Asia and Lessons for the Belt and Road Initiative
by Raffaello Pantucci
September 3, 2019

This essay examines how China’s growing security engagement with Central Asia provides a blueprint for how China might engage with countries through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in a similar fashion.

Executive Summary

Main Argument

Xi Jinping’s decision to deliver one of the speeches announcing BRI in Kazakhstan was not incidental. It highlighted the centrality of Central Asia in Beijing’s thinking about the initiative. Consequently, it is useful to examine China’s behavior in Central Asia in some detail to understand better the longer-term consequences of Chinese influence and investment in regional countries under BRI. In the security space, Central Asia has been traditionally considered an area of Russian influence, but over time China has gradually increased its interests using five pillars for engagement: the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), training and joint exercises, military aid, military sales, and private security companies (PSCs). Given the analysis of PSCs elsewhere in this report, this essay will focus on the first four pillars in order to better understand the long-term consequences of China’s security engagement in Central Asia and survey options for policymakers seeking to address China’s growing influence.

Policy Implications

  • Chinese security engagement in BRI countries should be understood in a broader context than military sales. Instead, a continuum of security activity should be considered, encompassing training and multilateral engagement as well as military sales. External powers seeking to understand or counter Chinese influence in this space need to engage in a range of security actions.
  • China is investing considerable resources into educating and developing the next generation of security leaders in Central Asia. The longer-term consequences of these efforts may take decades to play out but will likely require a more sophisticated level of engagement from outside powers.
  • The SCO is often considered an impotent institution that has failed to deliver any clear action. However, China and other members appreciate the consistent forum for engagement that the SCO provides, and the forum offers China opportunities to influence the normative space.

Raffaello Pantucci is the Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London.

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Have a few posts to catch up on getting up, been travelling a bit which slows me down. First up, re-posting a piece from last week for my institutional home RUSI about Hamza bin Laden’s reported death, placing it in the wider context of what it means when terrorist leaders are removed and how we struggle to judge terrorist group’s ends.

Hamza bin Laden Dead
Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary2 August 2019
Tackling ExtremismThe decade after 9/11International Security StudiesCounterinsurgencyTerrorismThe War on TerrorAl-Qa’idaTerrorism

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But decapitating a terrorist organisation is not proven to result in a lower threat from terrorism.

The reported death of Hamza bin Laden, the son of Al-Qa’ida founder Osama bin Laden, isunlikely to do much to the terrorist threat picture. Still, his removal illustrates the challenging question governments face when they try to understand whether a terrorist campaign has finally come to an end or a terrorist group has been liquidated. Just as security forces seem incapable of entirely accurately predicting or preventing a terrorist group’s rise, they seem unable to derive its demise.

‘Decapitation’ as a strategy for eliminating terrorist groups has never really been proven as an effective method. The most common example in favour of decapitation that is often quoted is the removal of Abimael Guzman, the leader of the Shining Path in Peru; after his incarceration, the group seemed to wither. However, in most cases the removal of one leader merely contributes to group fracturing and the rise of more radical leaders in their stead. So, rather than confronting a reduced problem, one can end up with an enlarged and angrier one. The repeated strikes against the Taliban’s leadership, for example, have done little to weaken or de-radicalise the group.

And even when one believes that a terrorist group is being substantially degraded by airstrikes, it is not always clear that the strikes have that effect, or that one can effectively judge what is happening. The Shining Path, for example, may have been deemed decapitated with the loss of its leader, but some of its networks persisted as criminal groups, and only last month Peruvian security forces proudly proclaimed the capture of another senior figure. In such situations it is difficult to judge the degree to which an enduring terrorist group remains a threat.

The conundrum is the result of a number of challenges. There is the reality that people who are part of an ideologically motivated group tend not to forget or discard their ideas, and over time may in fact become more committed to them. Does one think that Ayman Al-Zawahiri or Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi will ever forget their extremist ideas? As time passes and the cause they believe in continues to fail to deliver on its promise, believers of this sort may only get more desperate. Or they may believe that the path they are on is a long one and the hardship is to be expected. It appears that in some cases, people move on from these ideas for a variety of reasons mostly to do with their own person experiences. But in the case of senior or core figures in a movement, once they are on the path of violence, they are unlikely to step off.

Additionally, the ideas that motivate terrorist groups tend to be perennial ones embedded in fundamental problems or injustices within societies. And that means that the ideas advanced by such groups and their leaders will always retain some pulling power.

This presents security forces with a complicated dilemma. They may be able to box a leader and their core cadre in, but unable to remove them entirely. And even if they do, someone else may rise up to fill that space. At what point can they judge that they are being effective in containing a group to the point that they can take the pressure off? Reach that conclusion too early, and one risks being exposed to new terrorist attacks; do it too late and one misses an opportunity at resolution and squanders scarce security resources.

Hamza bin Laden’s coronation as a potential Al-Qa’ida boss and now his likely death is merely a reminder of just how meteoric and unpredictable the lives of such terrorists are. It also illustrates the bigger problem in judging when terrorist problems are effectively eliminated. Just like Daesh did not go away with the loss of its caliphate, Al-Qa’ida will not disappear with the loss of its putative crown prince.

BANNER IMAGE: US Marines clear an abandoned building during Operation Defeat Al-Qa’ida in northern Al Anbar province, Iraq, 11 June 2008. Courtesy of Cpl. Tyler Hill/US Marine Corps

Second up, a piece for Pool Reinsurance in-house publication Terrorism Frequency. Pool Re is an interesting institution which is specifically focused on the terrorism reinsurance market and was established in the wake of the 1990s IRA campaign in the United Kingdom. Their reports bring together expertise on a variety of topics, in this case their in-house experts on terrorism data, as well as the extreme right and extreme left, alongside myself and the excellent Andrew Silke.

Beyond these new pieces, spoke to the media including to the Telegraph about Ayman al Zawahiri’s latest comments about terrorism in Kashmir, to Public Radio International about radicalisation in France, the BBC about Turkestani’s in Syria, and an earlier interview with AFP about Xinjiang and Central Asia has now appeared in Portuguese.

The Road to Radicalisation – Ideological Trends and Processes

Amongst the reams of academic literature written on the topic, there is no single explanation or answer to how or why radicalisation happens. This process of radicalisation is a highly individualised one, driven by personal choices framed against a broader ideological backdrop.
Pool Re logo

People seeking an identity or explanation for their role in the world are drawn to the relatively straightforward answer provided by an extremist ideology to join groups and conduct terrorist acts. Yet, the reason that they got themselves mentally into the space that meant they were seeking an alternative explanation for the world around them is highly personalised and driven by their own experience. Having said all of this, there are some broad trends that are observable in the process of radicalisation that seem to have evolved over time, and seem to vary across ideologies.

Islamist

For example, while violent Islamist radicalisation has long been perceived as being the domain predominantly of young men, more recently there has been an escalation in discussion around the role of women in extremist networks. Data shows us that women have long played a role in violent Islamist networks, but the impenetrability of most battlefields meant that in the past few would actually go and join groups abroad. Rather, they would stay behind and champion the cause through the dissemination of extremist material or through helping to inspire or instigate their partners to play a more active role. Women like Malika el Aroud, the twice widowed head of an online network sending people to Afghanistan, became significant radicalisers and recruiters, while only the occasional woman, like Muriel Degauque, would show up as suicide bombers.

This has now entirely transformed, with women seemingly playing this role from the frontlines, with growing numbers reportedly becoming involved not only in helping build and sustain networks, but also even in attack cells. While it is not clear the degree to which this changes our understanding of radicalisation, it has changed our understanding of how networks operate and the role of women within them.

Extreme Right-Wing

Looking at the extreme right-wing end of the scale, there has been a noticeable change in the profile of extremists who are becoming involved with the community moving increasingly towards a profile not dissimilar to those that are found on the violent Islamist end of the scale. Previously, the extreme right was largely characterised by older white men who tended to be isolated. This has changed more recently, with a growth in younger people and women becoming involved in communities that increasingly look closer to those found on the violent Islamist end of the scale. This has been most vividly captured in the UK through the emergence of the network National Action, a loud online and offline activist organisation that used to organise protests, and which has moved in the direction of planning covert terrorist activity. Unlike their predecessors on the extreme right, it has been a network bringing together younger activists all drawn by a common ideology and talking in terms not dissimilar to those that are traditionally found on the violent Islamist side of the coin. Using terms like white jihad and talking about launching stabbing attacks, the threat picture is one which apes that seen previously in cells inspired by ISIS, leading the UK Government to focus on the group as a particular terrorist threat.

In fact, this threat is not that new and is part of a growing continuum of threat from the extreme right that has been visible in Europe for some time. In continental Europe, an earlier expression of this threat can be found in the National Socialist Underground in Germany. And even in the UK, one of the precursors showing how this threat picture was connected up around Europe could be found in the outlier case of Pavlo Lapshyn, a young Ukrainian engineering student who won a scholarship to come to the UK and then launched a one-man terror campaign in 2013 against British Muslims in the West Midlands. Starting with the murder of Mohammed Saleem, Lapshyn then launched a series of bombs against Mosques in the West Midlands, with fortune largely sparing the communities he targeted before he was captured. His history in Ukraine before coming to the UK was of an angry young man with a history of making bombs and an active footprint online with extreme right forums. His appearance in the UK showed how the threat from Central and Eastern Europe was a mobile one which could threaten the UK.

There are other aspects of radicalisation which appear to be changing. While there was always some question about the degree to which mental health was an issue in radicalisation, in more recent years this has become more prominent. Cases like the attack on New Year’s Eve of revellers in Manchester was the latest expression of a threat which seemed to cross the divide between radicalisation and mental health, with the culprit examined through both lenses by authorities. The UK in particular has been very aware of this growing trend for some time – and while the research around whether this is a new phenomenon or merely a previously underexplored one is still unclear – the response has been to develop ‘vulnerability hubs’ in Birmingham, Manchester and London to respond to this side of the threat. These hubs are designed to bring together mental health practitioners, police officers and nurses to create a specially designed tool to manage this aspect of the threat picture.

A broad rationale

What is unclear is what is driving these changes. The broad rationale that can be found in most individual cases of terrorism remains a sense of personal grievance that is linked to a perceived injustice in society, which is mobilised by a terrorist ideology or network. The weighting of these varies from case to case, with some motivated more by personal issues than any ideology. But broadly speaking general anti-establishmentarianism remains a major driver of radicalisation, with extremist ideologies as the lens through which people can express themselves.

This is not something that is new to organised human society. Communities will always have a political spectrum, and on the edges of those spectra there will be individuals who feel like their messages are not being heard and need to express themselves through violence.

As we have seen in recent times, the growing radicalisation of the middle ground in politics has meant that the extreme edges (on the right in particular) have been brought further into the centre, giving adherents a sense of their ideology becoming more significant and relevant, spurring them into greater action.

Fringe ideologies

Going forwards this is going to be a growing problem, in particular as the growth in the online world has provided an environment in which more fringe ideologies can develop a sense of identity and community amongst themselves which previously they would have been unable to find. This creates a context in which radicalisation can become more diffuse, and micro-ideologies can assume greater power. Given the rise of the lone actor terrorist as a phenomenon across ideologies, and the lowered threshold of access to ever more dangerous technology, there is a menacing potential fusion on the horizon which thus far has expressed itself in one-off attacks. What we have still not understood entirely is how this changes our understanding of radicalisation and how it works.

Conclusion

The problem of radicalisation appears a perennial one, but how it expresses itself through different ideologies appears to broadly follow trends that go in similar directions; but as we move into a world where traditional groups hold an ever-more diffuse appeal and micro-ideologies start to emerge, how the threat picture expresses itself and who we need to pay attention to will become ever more confusing.

Some catch up posting from this week, starting with a new piece for my institutional home RUSI with one of our Senior Distinguished Fellows, and former Assistant Commissioner for Specialist Operations (ACSO) for the Metropolitan Police Sir Mark Rowley.

Despite Territorial Defeat, Islamist Terrorism Will Continue to be a Threat

Mark Rowley and Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary14 March 2019
International Security StudiesNational SecurityTerrorism

Daesh, Al-Qa’ida and other terrorist organisations may appear to be in current retreat. But rather than being eradicated, they have scattered. The violent extremism they have spawned has not entirely disappeared and understanding how it might evolve is going to be a central preoccupation for security planners.

 

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A bomb in Derry/Londonderry, warnings about a political environment that is fertile ground for the extreme right, and a letter bombing campaign linked to Irish-related terrorists all show that the terrorist threat to the UK has more dimensions now than just the menace of violent Islamism. But jihadist threats persist and have changed from the more organised and conventional Al-Qa’ida network that was the prior focus of attention. We continue to face a persistent violent Islamist threat that exists in parallel to the noisier threats dominating the media. The open-source violent Islamist cult of terrorism that scattered its ideology across the web to hook the angry and the vulnerable is now showing signs of seeding new threats around the world.

Raqqa, the Syrian stronghold of Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS), may have fallen, but the ideas and people involved have not gone away. The nihilistic cult that the group promoted from its bases in Syria and Iraq was part social experiment in building a utopian state, and part mini social movement with global reach. Fostered through an easily accessible ideology with a low threshold to entry for membership, packaged around an easy explanation of how the world worked, and disseminated using social media and messages created in easily shareable fashion, it was and is an exceptionally diffuse ideology.

This was a major reason why Daesh was able to achieve its position on the world stage. Using extreme acts of performative violence while projecting the image of building a state to which all the believers were welcome, it became the dominant alternative ideology in the global discourse.

That power has waned; loss of territory and erosion of leadership have reduced the potency of the message. But Daesh has not gone away. Following defeat on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq, the remains of the organisation could still generate future conflict in the Levant. Internationally, the flames that the group was able to foster during its totemic moments have scattered still-burning embers around the world. Some of these will likely mature into the threats of tomorrow.

Consider a series of incidents and disruptions that took place across Europe last December. These started with the shooting in Strasbourg on December 11, where a radical former petty criminal who was known to authorities as a possible violent Islamist threat decided to go on a shooting rampage after he realised authorities might be about to arrest him. A week or so after his shooting, police in Italy detained Anas Khalil, a Somali national who was allegedly in contact with Daesh in Somalia and was allegedly talking of launching a bombing campaign against churches in Italy. And finally, in the UK, New Year’s celebrations were marred by a stabbing at Manchester’s main train station which led to an individual subsequently being held under the Mental Health Act while also being investigated for a terrorist offence – showing a different potential expression of the threat that we face.

In each of these three incidents a link of some sort can be found to Daesh. Yet the nature of this link is not the usual command and control connection (whereby the terrorist group uses specific direction to advance the plot) that we would ordinarily expect. Instead, it is through Daesh affiliates, individuals latching on to the ideology, or people who are part of a broader network. This is a reflection of a cult ideology that has scattered far and wide, and has now taken root in fertile ground. For the group, the level of link to the individual launching the attack is probably less important than the act itself.

Al-Qa’ida evolved in quite a different manner. After it was hammered by drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan the core of the threat shifted to Yemen, where its strongest affiliate with a deep personal connection to Osama bin Laden could be found. The various Al-Qa’ida affiliates all also stepped forwards into the public eye in their own local ways – leading to attacks like the murderous rampage by Al-Shabaab at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall or Al-Mourabitoun’s hostage-taking of Western oil men in the Algerian deserts at In Amenas. Each of these attacks reflected the group’s local interests, while nodding to the banner organisation’s vision. The degree of command and control from the centre was different, with the group ultimately losing a certain degree of control over the affiliates. It became a network with independent affiliates, rather than a centrally controlled network with a rigid hierarchy and core.

We are now seeing Daesh’s different approach leading to a very different global spread. Its cultish nature has fostered a scattering of its ideology on the wind of the internet. Unlike Al-Qa’ida which demanded some level of linkage and control, Daesh seems happiest letting things blossom and flourish wherever they find fertile conditions. There are examples of them connecting to groups and conflicts in the Philippines, West Africa and the Maldives. Daesh has acknowledged some of the groups as affiliates, while others it simply praises as conducting activities in advance of their ideology. But it is not clear which of these are the priorities for a group which seems just as willing to claim responsibility for things to which it has no link, as for those which it is quite clearly directing.

This poses a new kind of longer-term menace to those tasked with our security. We may be in a stage now when the various seeds scattered to the winds are in their germination stage. Some will wither and die, while others will be spotted and pruned before they can mature into a substantial threat.

This requires new approaches from governments. Identifying those trends which are going to develop into something more substantial is going to require constant attention. Building the resilience of the fragile states where this threat can get a foothold will be important, as aid efforts and security objectives will increasingly overlap.

This model of global Islamist terrorism with a cult-like ideology scattering and fostering independent mini-caliphates to grow will need constant effort to be effectively managed. The danger is that, just as some key Western governments are retreating from internationalism, new terrorist footholds will establish themselves, strengthen themselves and shock us. The surprise leaves us prone to overreaction that only exacerbates the problem. To counter terrorist threats, we need to not only fight them on the ground, but appreciate the reason why they have developed in the first place and calibrate our response appropriately. Only then will we be able to manage them effectively and guarantee our security.

Mark Rowley is former Assistant Commissioner for Specialist Operations at the Metropolitan Police and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at RUSI.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at RUSI.

BANNER IMAGE: A road in London Bridge remains closed after the 2017 terrorist attack. Courtesy of David Holt/Wikimedia

More belated posting, this time a short piece for a larger report done by NSI, a company that seems to do reports and papers for the US Government. It looks at the question of Negotiated Settlement in Afghanistan: Elements of a Grand Bargain. The other chapters are done by various prominent Afghanistan experts.

What Role Might China Play in a Grand Bargain In Afghanistan?

Director, International Security Studies, RUSI

Chinese analysts have historically seen Afghanistan as the graveyard of empires. This basis has meant their willingness to engage in grand bargains based on negotiating with actors whom they realize may only have a fleeting grasp on power means that their preferred willingness has been to focus on making sure that they have good, or workable, relationships with as wide a range of actors as possible. At the same time, they have increasingly put in place a growing volume of tools to ensure that their own specific security equities are covered. From Beijing’s perspective, the idea of a grand bargain in Afghanistan is an interesting one, but will only be one they will invest effort into once it is demonstrated that it is going to work, and once everyone else is on board.

Beijing’s equities in Afghanistan are relatively narrow. Their principal concern used to be direct security threats from Uighur militants using the country as a base to launch attacks within China. Over time, they have strengthened their relations with the relevant parts of the Afghan security apparatus and hardened their specific border with Afghanistan. Nowadays, the assessment in Beijing is that the Uighur threat is one that is more relevant in a Syrian context than in Afghanistan. Their current preoccupations with Afghanistan are more regional in nature. Of greater concern than what is going on within Afghanistan is what impact Afghan instability might have in Central Asia and Pakistan.

Chinese investments in Afghanistan have continued to remain relatively small. There are two prominent large mining projects, while numerous Chinese infrastructure firms have delivered projects on behalf of international financial institutions in the country. Additionally, there is a relatively limited degree of lower level engagement, including gemstone trade, some import and export of white goods and agriculture products, as well as other household products and construction materials. None of this amounts to what Beijing perceives as a major stake.

This is reflected in Beijing’s approach towards the country, where it has visibly invested in hardening its own border as well as Afghanistan’s nearby border regions (in Pakistan and Tajikistan), while only providing relatively limited broader support to Afghanistan’s security forces.

This context is all important to understand to be able to properly evaluate Beijing’s willingness to be involved or support a grand bargain within the country. Beijing is interested and concerned about what happens in Afghanistan, but it sees this through a narrow regional lens, rather than a grander national security context. This is reflected in the fact it has yet to demonstrate a willingness to take a strong leadership role within the country.

This is not to say that Beijing has been entirely delinquent in its action within the country. Aside from the above mentioned efforts, and a growing willingness to seek to bring Afghanistan within the broader context of the Belt and Road Initiative, China has shown a strong appetite to engage with other regional powers in the country. China has sought to get institutions like the SCO and CiCA more involved, it has a greater plurality of regional configurations around the country—China-India, China-Afghanistan-Pakistan, as well as extra-regional partnerships like India, US, UK or Germany— and played a role in others regional efforts, for example Russia, Iran, or the Istanbul Process.

Yet none of these are decisive, and there is a sense that Beijing might be seeking to dilute its responsibility through this large range of engagements. In some cases, it is even possible that Beijing sees Afghanistan as a useful security policy case study to engage with a partner it cannot find other formats to positively engage with. This might help explain the highly positive, but ultimately indecisive, Chinese engagements with India and the US in the country. Beijing has deeply contentious and conflictual relationships with both Delhi and Washington, yet is able to use Afghanistan as a context in which it can attempt to develop a collaborative relationship. This is positive (but not decisive) for Afghanistan, and it is not yet clear that this is evidence of a strong commitment by Beijing.

Within the context of a grand bargain, the likely envisaged role for China would be to support bringing the harder partners to the table. For example, Beijing’s strong relationship with Pakistan could help ensure Islamabad played a positive role in any deal in the country, and that it ensured its proxies within Afghanistan played along. At the same time, Beijing could use its long-standing links to the Taliban to play a more direct role in this regard.

But what is important to note is that these connections and relationships that Beijing has are both long-standing and not as total as is sometimes painted. Beijing struggles to get Pakistan to provide adequate security to its interests within Pakistan, while at the same time being frustrated by some of the Pakistani state’s decisions and planning around CPEC. It is no more likely able to guarantee Islamabad’s acquiescence to control its proxies in Afghanistan than anyone else. At the same time, were Beijing able to exert such influence over the Taliban directly, why has it not used these relationships more forcefully before now? It has maintained a steady relationship to ensure its interests are protected, but as has been seen, Uighur militants have still historically been able to operate from Afghanistan.

The key point here is that Beijing is only willing to play a role insomuch as it advances its interests. And Beijing’s interests in Afghanistan at the moment are seen from Beijing as being manageable. They have a security situation that is problematic, but largely contained within Afghanistan, and they have hardened their borders around it. They continue to play a role, and are pushing some investment and economic activity in the country, but they have chosen not to showcase the country as a place in which they are going to take a leadership role. The commitment involved in taking that sort of a position is something that is beyond their interest.

This all highlights the role that China would play in any grand bargain. It would support a deal, as long as all the parties involved were agreed and in commitment to deliver it. It would likely be willing to play a role in supporting building this, but it will continue to maintain other relationships while it is doing this—in other words, Beijing is unlikely to cut off any links in favour of one deal over another (it has in past severed relationships with groups, but learned over time that this approach unless bound to a specific and achievable goal, is not sensible in the medium or longer-term). This helps explain Beijing’s willingness to play a role both in efforts in Afghanistan with both the US and Russia or India and Pakistan at the same time. China does not want to choose and to therefore set itself up for potential failure. It is better to continue to engage with everyone.

At the same time, this does not mean China is not willing to take a role, but it will avoid choosing sides or taking any leadership role. This reality is likely to persist until there is a blunt and clear western forces withdrawal from the country—something that might change Beijing’s calculus. Until that moment, China would continue to hedge and would play a similar role in any current grand bargain thinking.

Some belated catch up posting, this time something for my institutional home RUSI. Was inspired by the terrible rhetoric that we continue to be seeing deployed in the wake of terrorist incidents by political leaders, and the particularly horrible incidents attacks we saw in the US ahead of the mid-term elections. There is something brewing on the far right which while not totally new, has the potential to cause some major societal damage. On top of the fact of how our public discourse has now shifted, it seems deeply unwise for certain rhetoric to be deployed. Unfortunately, little evidence on the horizon that anything is going to change.

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Lone Actor Terrorists and Extreme Right Wing Violence

Recent attacks perpetrated by extreme right wing terrorists in the US are undoubtedly linked to the upcoming mid-term elections, reflecting the reality that the country’s charged political scene may be pushing would-be terrorists into action.

 

There can be little doubt that there is a correlation of some sort between the spate of mail bombs dispatched around the US last week, the murderous shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue and next week’s mid-term elections. The poisonous rhetoric deployed in political discourse will rile people up and stir anger, which a few individuals will take to its natural extreme conclusion. This in turn is exacerbating a growing shift towards lone actor terrorism as the principal expression of extremist violence in Europe and North America, something that we see acknowledged in the spate of incidents in the US and the news that MI5 is to take on a greater leadership role in fighting the extreme right wing (XRW) in the UK.

The sorts of attacks seen in the US over the past week can, on the surface, appear to be the sort that are almost impossible to prevent. An isolated individual who decides to take matters into his own hands, using objects which are relatively accessible to the general public might set off very few tripwires for authorities. In fact, what is usually discovered in the wake of such incidents is that the individuals involved were in fact quite indiscrete in their behaviour. In the case of both Cesar Sayoc (the mail pipe bomber) and Robert Bowers (the Pittsburgh shooter), there was ample evidence of their vile views in their online activity. In Sayoc’s case, he was also vocal about his extreme views among people he knew and in public. Bowers was quieter in person, but foreshadowed his intent on a social media platform called Gab prior to launching his attack.

None of this behaviour is surprising for lone actor terrorists. In a study undertaken by a RUSI-led research consortium in 2016 focused on lone actor terrorism in Europe, from a pool of 120 cases between 2000 and 2014 across the ideological spectrum, perpetrators exhibited ‘leakage’ of some sort in at least 46% of cases. This ‘leakage’ took various forms, with some individuals changing behaviour in front of their families, while others made far clearer statements of intent which almost exactly described the acts they later committed. While there were considerable similarities among the various ideological groups in the dataset, there was a noticeable difference between the XRW and religiously inspired terrorists (the two biggest groups in the dataset), with XRW terrorists being far more likely to post telling indicators online. One perpetrator identified by researchers posted on an XRW website, ‘watch television on Sunday, I will be a the star … Death to zog [Zionist Occupation Government], 88!’. ‘88’ represents ‘Heil Hitler’, as H is the eighth letter of the alphabet. There is some similarity between this commentary and Bowers’s final post on Gab, ‘I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in’. Given the data for the study was largely drawn from what was available in the public domain, and with some cases being drawing on sparse information, researchers suspected that the actual number might be higher than 46%.

From current understanding, Sayoc does not appear to have signalled his intent as explicitly, but he seems to have had a deep appreciation for US President Donald Trump’s more extreme narratives and this appears to have shaped his choice of targets. Aiming at a wide range of prominent figures and institutions which have arrayed themselves against Trump politically, in public reporting Sayoc appears to have expressed his extreme pro-Trump views to several people in his immediate surroundings, having driven a van emblazoned with his support.

This appears to be in stark contrast to Bowers, who seemingly moved through his immediate community ‘like a ghost’. His in-person behaviour was apparently different from his crude, violently anti-Semitic and anti-Trump online persona.

While divergent in outward appearance, neither of these patterns are atypical to XRW lone attackers, where socially awkward individuals will externalise their behaviour abruptly and dramatically, often with some clear indicators beforehand that are unfortunately often only comprehensible in the aftermath of an attack. Even Bowers’s apparently obvious online vitriol is depressingly indistinguishable from the torrent of hatred that can be found on some XRW websites.

What is clear, however, is that the increasingly poisonous political rhetoric seen around the world is in part to blame for such incidents. In much the same way that the anger stirred up around the 2016 EU referendum was likely, in part, to blame for the murder of MP Jo Cox, it seems likely that the political winds stirring in the US in part compelled these two men to act. The sense of great political confrontation at hand and the language used in the mainstream likely accelerated the behaviour of already undoubtedly troubled individuals.

But what is most worrying is the fact that aside from the violence that is visible through these individual acts, there is a growing organisation and structure to the XRW in the UK. While the US scene has long been populated by a mix of groups and isolated individuals, the UK scene was, until relatively recently, largely the domain of isolated individuals, with organised violent groups a limited part of the XRW picture. This has been changing of late, with the emergence of groups like National Action, whose intent on murdering politicians and organising attacks in the UK has led to them becoming a growing focus to the UK’s intelligence services.

It is still difficult to make absolute comparisons between the XRW and violent Islamist terrorism in the UK. While there is a growing organisational structure and menace in the XRW in the UK, the shadow of violent Islamists’ aspirations remains far more dangerous. But the XRW draws from more mainstream political narratives, meaning the damage to society’s fabric can be more substantial. There have also been catastrophic XRW attacks in Europe in recent memory – specifically, Anders Behring Breivik’s 2010 massacre in Norway. The XRW has the potential to cause mass innocent death, and feeds off a broader political discourse which is already deeply troubled. There is a link between what is happening in the world more generally, and society’s violent political edge. And unless attention is paid, one will make the other worse.

BANNER IMAGE: Smoke rises over Oslo following the detonation of a car bomb near the executive government quarter of Norway, 22 July 2011. Right wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik’s attack remains one of the most catastrophic extreme right wing attacks in Europe in recent memory. Courtesy of Wikimedia. 

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.

A piece from late last week as part of a short dossier ahead of the Afghan election done for a new outlet of an excellent Italian think tank called Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI). My contribution focused on China’s role in Afghanistan, a common theme which there should be more work on later in the year.

In addition, spoke to Norwegian paper Morgenbladet about Anjem Choudary’s release and the Sun about ISIS in Syria.

18 October 2018

lachinainafghanistan

Afghanistan remains an awkward fit within China’s Belt and Road Initiative concept. Look at most maps of Xi Jinping’s keynote foreign policy concept cutting a route across Eurasia, and they tend to go tidily around Afghanistan. But this masks China’s genuine stake in the country, the gradual shift that is visible in Beijing’s activity and finally, the potential importance of the country to China’s broader push across Eurasia.

Starting with national security, China has increasingly sought to harden its security presence in Afghanistan. But this has been focused for the most part on Chinese national interests, rather than providing broader security support to the country. Beijing has provided funding, equipment and training for Afghan forces in Badakhshan, in Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan, and helped build border bases for Tajik forces on their side of the border in Badakhshan. At a strategic level, China has fostered the creation of the Quadrilateral Coordination and Cooperation Mechanism(QCCM) which brings together the Chiefs of Army Staff for China, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan. The focus of the grouping the border region around the Wakhan Corridor which all three of them share.

The key to understand this is that China is not seeking to displace the United States or NATO as a key security provider for Afghanistan’s armed forces. The country is focusing on bolstering its links and the capability of the various armed forces that touch upon its border with AfghanistanThis posture focused on Chinese national security concerns can be seen in China’s previous security engagements with Afghanistan which have for the most part focused on building relations with local groups to ensure that China’s security equities – either its nationals and investments or its concerns about Uighur militants using the territory to plan attacks in China – are covered. 

Having said this, there is an equally noticeable gradual increase in China’s activity in Afghanistan. From largely seeing the country as a graveyard of Empires from which it prefers to keep a discrete distance, China has increasingly stepped forwards to play a role in the country. Chinese firms have won some large extractive projects – in the north CNPC won an oil concession in Amu Darya, while MCC and Jiangxi Copper famously won the Mes Aynak Copper mine in Logar. Construction firms like Xinjiang Beixin, CBRC and Gezhouba have all worked on major infrastructure projects in the country. And at the smaller end of the scale, Chinese traders have sought to exploit the gemstones in Afghanistan, while Afghan shuttle traders are a feature of the thriving community of developing world merchants in Yiwu.

And Beijing has actively sought tomend the previous omission of Afghanistan from the broader Belt and Road, hosting conferences in Kabul and Beijing on the topic. At the same time, China has used a multiplicity of regional groupings to bring different regional configurations together on Afghanistan. Large multilaterals like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), and the Heart of Asia (or Istanbul) Process have all seen Chinese leadership try to push different parts of them towards playing a role in Afghanistan. At a mini-lateral level, Beijing has brought together the Afghan and Pakistani Foreign Ministers, and engaged, separately, with the US, India, UK and Germany on Afghanistan.

All of this is a step change from earlier years when Beijing largely kept on the sidelines of any discussion around Afghanistan. To some degree this was part of a general reticence by Beijing to become too involved in any major international entanglements, but it was also a product of China’s habit of abrogating its Afghanistan policy to Islamabad. While Beijing continues to be responsive to Pakistan’s concerns in Afghanistan, it has increasingly struck out its own path. The key turning point can likely be seen in 2014 when Beijing realized that American-led NATO efforts in Afghanistan had a shelf life and were not likely to result in a tidy resolution in Kabul. And while Islamabad could provide some support to advance Beijing’s goals, it did not have total control. The United States instead, was not a continental power. It could eventually up and leave – as a physical neighbour, Beijing was a hostage of geography.

At the same time, the main running narrative from Beijing was one of Belt and Road. There was a gradual build up to this through Xi Jinping’s early years – with a major foreign policy work conference on peripheral diplomacy, a refocusing on Xinjiang and China’s border regions, some major foreign travel to South Asia by leadership figures (including in May 2013 the signing of the MoU that laid the foundation for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor), and finally in September and October 2013 the respective announcements of the Silk Road Economic Belt (in Astana, Kazakhstan) and the 21stCentury Maritime Silk Road (in Jakarta, Indonesia). In 2014, China decided to create a position of Special Envoy for Afghan Affairs, appointing seasoned diplomat and Afghanistan watcher Sun Yuxi to the role.

Yet while the appointment was a clear signal of focus by Beijing, it was made in a manner which seemed to suggest it was adjacent to the broader Belt and Road Initiative. At the time, the concept was still working itself out, so in some ways this was not surprising, but the net result was to create a sense of BRI not necessarily being something which encompassed Afghanistan.

The appointment of Ambassador Sun, however, did demonstrate a level of seriousness by Beijing in terms of trying to understand how to engage with Afghanistan at a more sophisticated level than just engaging with Kabul. The difficulty with a country like Afghanistan for a power like China which is still developing its civil service cadre, is to find individuals who are able to understand countries from the inside and figure out which levers deliver results. In a tribal country like Afghanistan, this problem is multiplied, with local power brokers as significant to guarantee success of projects as the central government. As an Ambassador who had served in the country for some time, Ambassador Sun had a good understanding of these dynamics and good relations across the board on the ground. He was also instrumental in getting Beijing’s efforts are helping try to broker negotiations between the Taliban, Islamabad and Kabul together – playing an important role in the creation of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) bringing together China, USA, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This was not unfortunately always the case with Chinese investments in the country. When CNPC embarked on its project in the Amu Darya region, they did it with a company which was not linked to the local power brokers, causing issues when their engineers deployed into the region to deliver the actual project. 

Over time, Beijing has learned these lessons, and is increasingly seeking opportunities to engage with Afghanistan in new formats and play a slightly more forward role. It has ensured that it has developed a range of relationships within the country amongst all the different factions, but at the same time ensured that it has prioritized strengthening its specific border with Afghanistan to make sure China is protected from overspill of security problems. Currently the focus is largely on bolstering capacity in neighbouring weaker countries (in Central Asia, or parts of Pakistan), while also continuing to show a willingness to talk about playing a positive role in Afghanistan. Beijing’s broader caution, however, remains and the country continues to refuse to take a clear leadership role with Kabul. A posture which is likely to continue until China sees with greater clarity what exact role the United States sees for itself in the longer run.

 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)