Archive for the ‘THINK TANKS’ Category

As usual late posting, this time a piece for my London institutional home RUSI with the wonderful Veerle Nouwens looking at the UK’s strategy towards China in the wake of the latest Huawei decision. Things definitely heating up in this space and we are working together on another pair of China projects and papers which should be due out later in the year. In the meantime, you can enjoy this and an interview panel for Al Jazeera English’s Inside Story programme that I did on China posted below, and follow this link for a conversation with the Nepal Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement (NIICE) on UK engagement with China.

 

Huawei is No Way for British Strategy on China
Veerle Nouwens and Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary17 July 2020
ChinaInternational Security StudiesUKTechnology

The UK may escape serious Chinese retaliation for its decision to bar Huawei’s equipment. But that is no substitute for the elaboration of a coherent UK strategy towards China.

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It may be too early to predict China’s reaction to the UK’s decision to bar the Huawei telecommunications company from supplying equipment to the UK’s 5G infrastructure. Beijing’s bark may yet prove worse than its bite. However, the issue has highlighted a far bigger problem for the UK. London needs a more sophisticated debate, vision and plan for managing its relationship with China.

Chinese Ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming has claimed to be ‘disheartened’ by the decision, alleging that it reduces trust between the two countries, and asserting that the UK has now sent a signal to foreign companies that it is not open to their business. Chinese media outlets have largely reacted by blaming the US for the UK’s decision. Repercussions pointed out in Chinese media overwhelmingly revolve around the substandard 5G network that the UK will have without the inclusion of Huawei.

The discussion in China beyond this has largely been muted. Given the volume of noise that the debate had previously attracted, it would be surprising if there were no reaction from Beijing. China might choose to find a way of swiping at London that does not link necessarily to the Huawei decision itself, but paints it against a series of issues it is displeased with, such as the UK’s reaction to Hong Kong, re-examination of Chinese investment in the UK and declarations about the need to uphold freedom of navigation in Asian waters. The UK’s commercial relationship is a likely target. At a political level, a cooling of bilateral ties likewise would be unsurprising.

However, Beijing has not yet entirely written off the UK relationship, judging by media coverage which appeared to leave scope for future links. For, as was stated in an article published in the Global Times – the English-language tabloid of the official party People’s Daily – the UK should ‘stop moving in the wrong direction so that damaged bilateral ties can recover’. And another article in the same media outlet noted that while Beijing must respond in order to show it cannot be bullied, it is unnecessary to turn this into a China–UK confrontation.

The UK still represents an important market for potential flagship Chinese projects in Europe, whether in nuclear energy or high-speed rail. The all-important financial sector is one that Beijing would struggle to effectively target with sanctions. And, as the City of London is the leading hub (outside Greater China) for the Chinese renminbi, it would not be in Beijing’s interest to do so. Moreover, there are many other investments and commercial links between the UK and China beyond Huawei, and the biggest British champions in the financial sector have already gone on record to support China’s positions.

While Beijing may expect the upcoming investment-screening measures to more heavily scrutinise Chinese foreign direct investment into the UK’s critical national infrastructure, it will do itself few favours by tightening the screws on London. China-sceptic voices calling for a hardened approach will be amplified in Westminster and reverberate across Europe and other like-minded partners. The threat of an alliance against Chinese 5G tech dominance looms on the horizon. Europe does not just serve as a market for Chinese infrastructure investments, but also remains key in China’s access to technology for its own development. Unless Beijing would like to see more doors close – particularly as it remains on the road to post-pandemic economic recovery – it would be unwise to lash out too severely.

It is also worth remembering that while China has recently reacted with sanctions against some who have attracted its ire, these have been fairly toothless. Sanctioning Lockheed Martin for US military sales to Taiwan does little damage to the firm’s bottom line. Targeting US senators unlikely to travel or do business in China is not going to change their lives. And it has let the Huawei decision pass by in other cases. To little fanfare two weeks ago, Singapore’s two biggest telecommunications providers made the decision to not use Huawei in their 5G roll-out. The damage to Singapore–China relations was so limited that earlier this week President Xi called newly elected Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to congratulate him on his election victory. Japan made the decision against Huawei back in late 2018, and President Xi was still eager to travel to the country on a state visit earlier this year (the trip was only postponed because of the global pandemic). So, the current showdown with the UK does not need to be an unnecessarily politicised issue. Indeed, the same Global Times noted that the UK is not the US, Australia or Canada, a statement which is perhaps intended as a put-down, but may also indicate a differentiated reaction.

BUT THE FUTURE?

The question is what this means for the future of UK–China relations. The issue of Huawei seems to have been decided, but it is just a single point in a much larger picture. The UK has now been to-ing and fro-ing on Huawei for years, transforming what is a technical issue into a proxy for the UK’s debate about how to engage with China. This political conversation about Chinese investment in the UK’s national critical infrastructure is important, but there is a need for a clearer articulation of the UK relationship towards China.

To be sure, there are significant challenges in the relationship. Beijing has done little to endear itself of late. Its aggressive behaviour in every direction has been exacerbated by a hectoring tone from its diplomats who appear to be trying to outdo each other in their demonstrations of indignation and anger. China continues to detain Canadian researchers Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor on spurious charges as ransom for the detained Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou who is facing extradition proceedings in Canada. Atop this, while Beijing may believe that what it does to its own people is nobody else’s business, this goes against a fundamental belief in universal human rights to which many countries ascribe. It is also unclear why Beijing appears unable to understand, or unwilling to care, that people outside of China will interpret how it treats its own people as how it might ultimately treat them.

Yet not everything that China does has been disastrous. Putting aside the many questions that remain over coronavirus, Beijing has managed to by and large contain the situation within its own borders. Its economy is starting to pick up – though underlying structural problems still exist. And looking beyond the virus, whatever happens, China is still going to be there. With almost one sixth of the world’s population living within its borders, China will be a force on the planet (much like India will). Issues such as climate change will not get resolved by Western European powers alone. Future pandemics will not respect the artificial boundaries of alliances that we create. A globalised economy so bifurcated that the UK does not touch China in some way is likely impossible – or so expensive that it is unattainable.

The UK government may disagree and dislike the governing Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but the CCP shows little evidence of collapsing in the short or medium term (nor can we be certain we will like what might come in its wake). We must deal with the government we face, not the one we wish it to be. London and its partners are quickly catching up in bettering their understanding of Beijing. This knowledge should aid Whitehall in devising a comprehensive China strategy – one that identifies UK priorities, including human rights, the rule of law and the plight of those in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, as well as the Canadians who remain imprisoned in China.

This does not mean that the UK’s bilateral relationship with Beijing must be fundamentally antagonistic. China is an important partner in some of the biggest issues of our time. These are not yes or no questions, unlike the Huawei decision. And of course, Beijing must reciprocate engagement. Nevertheless, a UK strategy on China must remain firm on matters of UK core interests, but be prepared to cooperate effectively in others. This is a phrase that will ring familiar in Beijing.

A new piece for a place have been contributing to increasingly of late, the Indian Observer Research Foundation (ORF), this time a piece on the extreme right wing in Europe with RSIS colleague Kyler.

Going to start catching up on other media or webinar appearances as well, including a new format I have not used before which is the embedded YouTube feature. Here below is a video of the webinar that I did with Marlene and her Central Asia Program on China and Central Asia during COVID-19, which drew on a paper of mine they kindly published.

 

From fringe to mainstream: The extreme rightwing in Europe

This ideological confusion between violence and politics has become even more opaque with the growth of ideologically overlapping subcultures online.

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Europe has long suffered from far-right politics and extreme right terrorism. Over the past decade, however, the terrorism associated with the ideology has grown in influence and potency. The increasing mainstreaming of racist narratives which hold non-whites culpable for the current dire state of affairs has brought fringe views into broader public view. At the same time, Europe has seen a growth in an increasingly networked and armed extreme rightwing, showing a threat picture evolving in worrying directions.

Mainstreaming far-right narratives

In Europe, just as in some other parts of the world, governments’ bid to contain the spread of COVID-19 brought rightwing extremists to the forefront of anti-lockdown protests. In Germany, for instance, extremists have attended rallies organised by a mainstream far-right political party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), and leveraged the pandemic to spread anti-semitic and racist conspiracy theories. Many of these theories have attributed Jews as the source of the crisis and reason for lockdown, and blamed migrants for being the original carriers of the virus.

Separately, the killing of a Black American man, George Floyd, on 25 May 2020 by a police officer in Minnesota, has ignited anti-racist protests and counter-protests globally. Rightwing extremists in Europe are exploiting the chaos to conduct counter-protests against “white racism” in Paris, the tearing down of national monuments linked to slavery and colonialism in London, and ultimately to incite violence.

This trend of the extreme right taking advantage of the chaos generated during COVID-19 and the race protests is not surprising. But it comes after a general trend in European politics of the mainstreaming of far-right voices. Be it France’s Front Nationale, Germany’s AFD, UKIP in the UK, Italy’s Lega Nord, Spain’s Vox or Victor Orban in Hungary, there has been a growing trend across Europe in the past decade or more of parties mainstreaming far-right narratives. Mostly focused on immigration, they tap into racist sentiment dressing it up as nationalism to move closer to power. In some cases, they have achieved their goal and won political office, but in others they have served to simply drag the existing mainstream right deeper towards their narratives as they attempt to reclaim the political territory.

The net result of this shift is previously fringe narratives and parties being brought closer to the center. In turn, this means the extreme right is also brought in, empowering those on the hard edges who see the winds blowing in their direction and an opportunity to capitalise. In Germany, this link has been quite explicit, with the radical wing of AfD (known as Der Flügel) placed under surveillance by German domestic intelligence. The growing mainstreaming of nativism is also not exclusive to the rightwing, and is visible at the other end of the political spectrum as well. Some leftist parties are fighting to “bring back” populist votes by championing “ours first” policies in their electoral campaigns. This is visible in the Danish Social Democrats or Italy’s leftist Five Star movement which has been willing to enter into coalition with far-right parties to get into power.

A European Union of hate

Somewhat paradoxically given their tendency to oppose the European Union, these far-right political groups have found themselves networking across the continent. Drawing on each other’s successes, they have held rallies together, spoken admiringly of each other as a way of highlighting the substance to their movement across the Continent, and even formed political blocs in the Union. This connectivity is something that is equally visible on the extreme right, where groups like the English Defence League (EDL) have been emulated across Europe. And on the even harder edge, we can see how terrorist groups or individuals are linking up across the continent. Anders Behring Breivik, a man who presented himself as the forefront of a movement with his attack in Norway in 2011 and has subsequently become something of an icon to parts of the extreme right, reported contacts with extremists in the Balkans, as well as attended EDL marches in the UK.

In the UK, the case of Pavlo Lapshyn, a Ukrainian student who moved to Birmingham in 2013 and launched a one-man terror campaign against the West Midlands Muslim community, was an early indicator of what could come. Britain First, the fringe far-right group, has found support in Eastern Europe with its leadership going to rallies in Poland, posting materials in Polish and hosting Poles in London. Some of their Polish followers have launched attacks in the UK. This link draws on the 1990s when UK far right extremists made connections with their counterparts in Eastern Europe. Networks of extremists from Germany, Eastern Europe and Nordic countries have long formed sub-cultures around the white power music scene. This has provided a backdrop for networks of extreme right-wing terrorists like the Nationalist Socialist Underground (NSU) in Germany.

Further multiplying concerns has been the growth in links to battlefields and training camps. Rightwing extremists in Europe have travelled and developed relations with individuals and networks within and outside of the continent, and vice versa. White supremacist groups originating from the United States, such as The Base, also have presence in Europe. The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has turned it into a battlefield pitting pro-Russian separatist against ultra-nationalist groups, and turning it into a transnational hub attracting foreign fighters to join both sides. The Azov Battalion is known to have conducted recruitment outside of Ukraine and trained white supremacists who have travelled to Ukraine. Fighters from across Europe have shown up, with a number tracing links to far-right groups back home.

 rightwing extremism, far-right politics, extreme right terrorism, white racism, fringe narratives, political spectrum, right terrorism, English Defence League, Britain First, ideological strands, fringe ideologies, white supremacism, ideological construction, Great Replacement, indigenous European population, extreme right ideologies, radicalisation, anti-semitic, rightwing terrorism in Europe

The growing cooperation is not only restricted to Ukraine. The Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), a Russian ultra-nationalist, quasi-paramilitary organisation, has hosted training camps that have attracted Swedish, Finnish and German extremists. Some went to Ukraine, but others returned home. German neo-Nazis, particularly the youth wings of two neo-Nazi German political parties, the National Democratic Party and The Third Path, attended camps before returning home to promulgate far-right ideas. Two Swedish members of the Nordic Resistance Movement who trained with RIM went on to construct explosive devices which they used to target sites in Sweden associated with migrants in 2016 and 2017. The US has recently designated RIM as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entity, partly for its role in these attacks.

Ideological twist and shout

There is also a growing confusion at the ideological end of the spectrum. The nexus between far-right political ideologies and extreme rightwing, non-affiliated lone terrorists, is murky and has in some cases led to acts of extremism and terrorism perpetrated by lone terrorists being politicised. Germany’s AfD was initially blamed for Tobias Rathjen’s 19 February shootings at a series of shisha bars in Hanau, though there was no evidence of a link and ultimately questions were raised around Rathjen’s mental state. Similarly, the murder of UK MP Jo Cox by Thomas Mair was initially associated with the group Britain First, given his past involvement with the group and reports of him shouting the group’s name during his attack. The link was ultimately revealed to be unclear and denied by the group.

This ideological confusion between violence and politics has become even more opaque with the growth of ideologically overlapping subcultures online. While the classic extreme right of neo-Nazi’s, skinheads and hooligans still exist, they are now joined by fringe ideologies such as “incel” (which is shorthand for “involuntary celibate,” an adherent who believes that attractive women and men are to be blamed for their inability to find a romantic or sexual partner), anti-government movements such as Sovereign Citizens (which already has sizable membership in Europe), QAnon or conspiracy theorists focused on the dangers of 5G technology. These ideas, ideologies, online sub-cultures all merge together and have produced terrorist attacks. A growing number of European cases draw on a range of these ideologies, with a strong extreme right undertone tying them together. Philip Manshaus (August 2019 Bærum mosque attack), Stephan Balliet (attempted October 2019 Halle synagogue attack), and Tobias Rathjen (February 2020 shisha bars attack), were all triggered by their hatred for immigrants, but showed incel refrains in their manifestos. Even if the fringe ideology may not have been the main driver to the act of terror, the convergence of rightwing extremist ideologies (e.g., white supremacism), inceldom and conspiracy theory driven movements is increasing.

At the other end of the ideological construction there is a problem of reciprocal radicalisation where elements of the extreme right draw their motivation from ideological adversaries on the far-left or violent Islamists. But there has also been a growth of groups subsuming ideological strands or messaging from opposing groups into their own ideologies — in part out of acknowledgement of success others have had in projecting their messages. For example, the UK’s National Action talked of white jihad, used tactics and imagery aping ISIS, while stirring up neo-Nazi messaging and using the direct-action political activism reminiscent of al-Muhajiroun.

Overall, however, an underlying narrative that tends to drive the extreme right in Europe is the “Great Replacement” theory, which promulgates that “indigenous European population is replaced by non-European migrants.” Anders Brevik and Tobias Rathjen have cited the incipient threat of white genocide in their manifestos as reasons for taking up arms to fight against the colonisation of western civilisation. This is a narrative also popular amongst some far-right and libertarian politicians across Europe.

What the future holds

Extreme rightwing terrorism in Europe has contributed an increased share of total terrorist attacks in the last five years (in some years, it even represented the largest threat). According to Europol’s figures, notwithstanding reporting issues (member states have a habit of reporting in different ways), there has been a consistent increase in reported arrests on the extreme right since 2015 (coinciding with the migrant crisis), and these numbers have more than doubled between 2017 and 2018, potentially demonstrating heightened counter-terrorism efforts. Just in June this year, the German Interior Ministry placed a ban on the anti-semitic rightwing extremist group, Nordadler. In the same month, the Belgian government reported that some 20 of its citizens have participated in paramilitary training camps in Eastern Europe in recent years. As reciprocal radicalisation, lone actor attacks drawing on a mixture of warped extreme right ideologies, and mainstreaming of far-right ideas continue to grow, the problem is not going away. With violent Islamist threat appearing to retreat, rightwing extremism and terrorism remain amongst the most dangerous ideologies on the continent, and a growing force to be reckoned with.

Have been delinquent again in posting, but been very busy with a big deadline that is now upon me. In the meantime, have had a few pieces emerge in various places. Will post here as soon as find time. Wanted to flag one up sooner rather than later though as am doing a webinar today about it. It is a short paper for the wonderful Central Asia Program at George Washington University, run by the excellent Dr Marlene Laruelle. Many thanks to her and Jennet for all their work on this paper. It tries to look at how China’s relationship with Central Asia has developed in light of COVID-19, and offers some thoughts on the longer-term impact. The webinar is taking place at 9PM Washington, DC time today, and am sure late signer-uppers can still sneak in – follow this link to get to it.

Beijing Binds: COVID-19 and the China-Central Asia Relationship

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Washington’s intensely negative perspective on China has obscured the ability to look in detail at what is going on around the world. While it is true that many are concerned about China’s assertive rise and how COVID-19 has been handled, the story is not universally negative. In Central Asia, where countries are increasingly dependent on China economically and are likely to become more so in a post-COVID-19 world, the narrative is a complicated one. Previous tensions have been exacerbated by the virus, while at the same time China has strengthened its presence and relationships. The net result is likely to be an even closer binding between China and Central Asia, notwithstanding the persistent tensions that exist between them.

Patient Zero and Sinophobia

Given their physical proximity, it is interesting to note that none of the Central Asian powers have pointed to China as the source of their initial infections. The one that comes closest to pointing an accusing finger is Turkmenistan, which on February 1 saw a flight from Beijing to Ashgabat redirected to Turkmenabat after a woman on board was taken sick. She was discharged from the plane and placed in quarantine in a tuberculosis sanatorium. However, Turkmenistan has not yet had any officially confirmed cases (and this story was not reported in official media).1 In contrast, Kazakhstan identified their first cases as coming from Germany on March 9 and 12,2 Kyrgyzstan from Saudi Arabia entering on March 123 and Uzbekistan from France on March 15.4 Tajikistan only admitted official cases in late April after there had been repeated reports of people falling sick from pneumonia type diseases, making public tracing of patient zero within the country impossible.5 Rumours had circulated for some time prior to these official confirmations about cases, and it is interesting that all appear to have announced their first cases at around the same time.

This relatively late link did not, however, stop a wave of Sinophobia sweeping through the region in January and February as people went down the route of attacking ethnic Chinese they saw in the markets. Whilst early rumours that violence in early February in Masanchi, south Kazakhstan between Dungan (ethnically Han but religiously Sunni peoples who have lived in the region for over a hundred years) and Kazakhs was related to COVID19 inspired Sinophobia proved false,6 there were reports of violence against Chinese in markets in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan7 and Tajikistan.8 In Bishkek, Parliamentary Deputy Kamchybek Zholdoshbaev made a speech in Parliament about how Kyrgyz should avoid contact with Chinese citizens and all those in the country should be forced to wear masks.9 On January 29, a train in the south of Kazakhstan was stopped and two Chinese nationals on board booted off when a panic set in that they might have the virus. They tested negative.10

Reflecting a broader anger against China in the country, in mid-February the announcement was made to cancel the At-Bashi logistics center in Kyrgyzstan. The US$280 million project was signed during a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping the year before and had faced massive protests.11 It was not entirely clear from reporting whether the Kyrgyz government or company withdrew the project, but it was obvious that it was the volume of local protestors that drove the decision. Described as an articulation of fear of Chinese landgrab, the project’s collapse is a net loss to Kyrgyzstan as it would have helped restore some of the country’s role as a regional trade hub. There is no evident link between the project’s cancellation and COVID-19, but doubtless it played into the background of protestors views.

Medical Aid Flows Both Ways

Sinophobia was not, however, the pervasive view amongst government across the region, with the Uzbek,12 Kazakh13 and Kyrgyz14 governments all sending various volumes of medical aid to China during the first half of February. The Turkmen government sold one million masks to China at around the same time.15 In late January early February, they all gradually severed their physical connections with China, closing direct borders, air routes and setting bans on arrivals from China. These measures were imposed as much of the world was severing its contacts with the Middle Kingdom as the full measure of the COVID-19 outbreak across China became clear.

It did not take very long for the tables to turn. By mid-March, the Central Asians were facing their own outbreaks and started to seek support and aid from China. The Kyrgyz Security Council met and decided to request support from Beijing.16 Beijing quickly reciprocated the donations, with aid starting to arrive by the end of the month. In the first instance it was mostly to Kazakhstan17, Kyrgyzstan18 and Uzbekistan19 (the three countries that had admitted they were suffering from the disease), but testing kits and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) were also handed over on March 30 (a full month before Dushanbe reported cases) by Chinese officials to their Tajik counterparts at the Karasu (or Kulma) border post.20 Turkmenistan remains a black hole of information.

And this munificence has continued, with repeated flights of aid from both regional authorities across China (Xinjiang seems a natural leader, but lots of other regions have provided support as well) as well as the business community. The Jack Ma foundation followed up on an earlier promise of support to Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) members by sending planeloads of aid to all Central Asian members.21 Companies with large footprints in the region like Huaxin, Sany, Sinopec, China Construction, China Road and Bridge Company (CRBC) and many more, provided money or PPE (often through the local embassy). One shipment to Uzbekistan was sent by a group of mostly Chinese defence companies using Uzbek military aircraft to distribute PPE to security officials and front line medical staff.22 In late April, the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek handed over PPE and medical aid to the State Border Guard Service.23 By mid-May, the PLA got into the action, sending supplies to their counterparts in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.24 The Uzbek colonel receiving the aid in Tashkent noted that this was the first medical aid from abroad that the Uzbek Armed Forces had received.25

Even before the aid (some of which was sold rather than gifted, though from open reporting more seems given than purchased), Chinese doctors were heading to the region or providing regular video conferences with their local counterparts to share their experiences. For example, a group from Xinjiang did a 15-day tour of Kazakhstan in early April.26 The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) representative in Tashkent met with his local counterparts to discuss how China had implemented its lockdowns.27 The China Petroleum University, who is responsible for the Confucius Institute in Khujand, Tajikistan, launched the translation in Russian of a manual to help deal with COVID-19.28 In Uzbekistan, a telemedicine system was set up between Jiangxi and Tashkent to help provide sharing of experiences.29 Similar exchange structures have been suggested in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The SCO has also played a growing role, interestingly beyond the security space with which it is most commonly associated. On March 22, SCO Secretary General Vladimir Norov wrote an effusive letter to remote learning firm Weidong Cloud Education. A company with a strong footprint through MoUs already around the region, Norov praised the firm’s contribution to member states’ ability to respond to COVID-19.30 In mid-May, the SCO co-hosted a seminar with Alibaba to connect Chinese doctors from the First Affiliated Hospital of Wenzhou Medical University with their SCO counterparts. Potentially reflecting language preferences, the session did not include Indian and Pakistani experts, but did include Observer member Belarus and Dialogue Partner Azerbaijan.31

Persistent Tensions

But all good news must come to an end, and amidst this flood of support and aid there has been a consistent pattern of bad news stories towards China as well. An early one relating directly to the virus was a diplomatic spat at Dushanbe airport in early February when Chinese diplomats returning to the country refused to be placed in mandatory quarantine.32 But most of the reported stories have focused on Kazakhstan, where the government has had to manage anger around an article that emerged mid-April in China which seemed to suggest that Kazakhstan wanted to “return” to China.33 Emanating from a clickbait farm in Xi’an, the article was one of many that were published written for a nationalist domestic audience in mind which suggested that most of China’s neighbours were eager to “come back” to China.34 Unsurprisingly, this was not well-received (though curiously did not attract the same sort of attention in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan about which similar articles were also written35), and led to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to haul the Ambassador in for a dressing down.36

The Embassy sought to dismiss the story as a Western concoction,37 but in early May the Ministry in Beijing caused the Ambassador a further headache when they launched a coordinated rhetorical attack with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on a series of U.S. supported biolabs across the former Soviet space.38 Established in the wake of the Cold War, the biolabs were part of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) initiative which sought to decommission safely the many weapons of mass destruction left over from the Soviet Army. The story that circulated was that in 2017 an American team working out of one of these labs in Kazakhstan was studying Coronavirus in bats as part of a U.S. Department of Defence funded programme.39 It takes little imagination to draw a conspiratorial line to the current day.

None of this played well in Kazakhstan, leading to news commentaries which in essence called a plague on both houses – saying Kazakhstan was unhappy with both China and the United States.40 This confirmed polling undertaken by a NSF-funded collaborative research project on “The Geopolitical Orientations of People in Borderland States,” which suggested that both the US and China are held in low regard, with Russia only slightly higher as a primus inter pares amongst big powers in the region as far as Kazakhs were concerned.41 It seems as though some of this tension also spilled over into the medical diplomacy China was providing, with Chinese and Kazakh doctors arguing over the amount of PPE they were using in hospital. The Chinese doctors thought all the staff at hospital should be using high levels of PPE for every patient they were handling, while the Kazakhs responded saying they were following World Health Organization’s guidelines which pointed to its use only in intensive care or patients known or suspected to be infected.42

Get Central Asia Moving Again

Tensions aside, the Central Asians are getting quite keen to get their economies moving once again. The Kyrgyz have asked to open their border posts with China,43 something which must have now happened given the fanfare that was attached to the announcement of a shipload of goods heading from Gansu to Tashkent via Irkeshtam in Kyrgyzstan.44 There is further evidence of Chinese agricultural products entering the region.45 The Kyrgyz have taken things even further, and sought to renegotiate their debt load with China – as part of a bigger push to re-negotiate their entire foreign debt burden. President Jeenbekov made a direct plea to Xi about this in a phone call.46 It is not clear that the Chinese have signed off on this, but given the general trend globally (and China’s statements through the G20 about debt relief47), it would be likely that China will extend the repayment schedule at the very least. Presumably, a similar discussion is ongoing with Tajikistan at the very least, though it has not been publicly reported.

The Uzbeks have taken a more pragmatic approach, and instead spoken about speeding up construction of the long-delayed train line between Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan-China. The Kyrgyz section has held things up, but the Uzbeks now consider it essential to help create a safe corridor for transport in a time of COVID-19.48 Reflecting the possibility that the Kyrgyz obstacle might still be in place, and showing further use of COVID-19 rhetoric for potentially political reasons, the Kyrgyz MP Kenjebek Bokoev said that the virus is a major obstacle to completing the line.49 He appears to have been overruled, however, as the Gansu train is reportedly travelling as far as Kashgar on rail, before shifting over to vehicles before picking up a train again at Osh. This demonstration is presumably a push to try to force the conclusion of the discussion with the Kyrgyz side.

A central dilemma to this problem, however, is who is going to do this construction. Many of the Chinese engineers who were working in the region had gone home for holidays before the virus took off, and simply never returned. In early March, officials in Kyrgyzstan were already expressing concern about who was going to complete various road projects around the country,50 while the Chinese Ambassador in Dushanbe pointed out that there might need to be delays to ongoing projects given absent staff.51

For Chinese workers that have stayed in the region the situation is not always a positive one. Chinese workers in Tajikistan lost their temper at local authorities, rioting at their mining site near the northern city of Khujand. Local authorities claimed it was a protest about the fact that they had not been paid in some time, but it seems more likely the men were fearful of their environment and demanding repatriation.52 As has been pointed out, it is possible that all of these stories are true as the experience of Chinese workers in Central Asia is a tough one in general,53 and shortly before the fight the Chinese Embassy had reported that the first Chinese national in the country had succumbed to COVID-19.54 Long before the government in Dushanbe had accepted its first COVID-19 cases, Chinese contacts in Tajikistan were reporting concerns about the spread of the disease within the country. All of which suggests likely local tensions.

The Central Asian economies had been suffering even before the virus hit them full bore. The crash in remittances from migrant labor in Russia has kicked out a major pillar of many of their economies, while the collapse in commodities prices has knocked out another. China made a coordinated request to Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan that they all lower the volume of gas that they are sending, part of a broader slowdown in the Chinese economy.55 It is also true that China appears to have increased its oil purchases from Kazakhstan (potentially taking advantage of low prices to fill strategic reserves – something that has been seen in their purchases from Russia as well56), this is one of few bright economic lights in the region.57 Chinese projects that had been suspended appear to be starting up again and reports are starting to trickle in of Chinese workers returning to complete projects across the region. No one in the region will be looking to Moscow to resolve the economic dilemma that COVID-19 has created, especially given Russia’s own difficult situation with the virus at home, as well as the continuing hit from rock bottom oil prices. Rather, the current situation and its fall-out is likely to push the Central Asians into even deeper economic binding with China, and in increasingly innovative ways.

Towards a Chinese e-future

Alibaba (Chinese Amazon.com equivalent) founder Jack Ma’s aid towards the region comes after a meeting mid-last year with SCO Secretary General Norov and other Central Asian leaders.58 Alibaba’s sites are amongst the most commonly used across the SCO space, with a majority of packages travelling into Central Asia and Russia from China emanating from the company in some way. In his meeting with Norov, Jack Ma spoke of creating some 100 million jobs in the next decade and many of these would be in SCO member states.59 They have also discussed using the platform’s payment tools like AliPay to help facilitate payments across the entire region, as well as finding ways of using the platform to open up Southeast Asian markets to Central Asian and Russian consumers.60

While this ambitious talk may be just that, it is in many ways the realization of something that Beijing has long sought to push through the SCO. Over the years, Chinese experts have repeatedly advanced ideas of creating an SCO Free Trade Area, an SCO Development Bank or other financial institutions. Beijing’s stated aim with the SCO was consistently to make it an economic structure rather than a security one. Yet they were consistently stymied by other members. Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan was particularly recalcitrant, and until relatively recently so was Moscow. Through Alibaba and the COVID-19 disaster, China might have found a vehicle to finally advance this goal.

And this is in many ways the story of China’s COVID19 experience in Central Asia. As with much of the world, the narrative is one of acceleration as a result of the virus and its fall-out. Existing trends supercharged as the world spirals into disorder and confrontation. China has long been re-wiring Central Asia into its own orbit. The virus has merely opened up new opportunities, or at least strengthened ones that were already moving in a certain direction. Economic dependence is becoming ever more real, while the underlying cultural tensions remain strong. China continues to have soft power problems in the region, but these are being subsumed by a web of economic and other links increasingly intertwining the region to China. Taking the example of how China’s response to COVID-19 has played out in cyber-space with links in e-medicine, e-commerce, e-payments, elearning and doubtless more shows how wideranging China’s contributions and links to the region are. In many cases, it might be building on efforts that existed pre-virus, but COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to show how helpful these can also be to the region and increase their uptake. Of course, Russia is still a dominant player (for example agreements across the region through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and common Russian telcos bound by SORM legislation at home means Moscow has great access to Central Asian data61), but the foundations are being deepened into Chinese digital technologies in a wide-ranging manner across society.

Central Asians of course see this with some concern, and would clearly be interested in diversifying their options. But in the absence of serious commitments which cover the broad gamut of their interests, they will find China an irresistible force. While Secretary Pompeo’s visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in early February as the drawbridges were being pulled up with China was actually quite comprehensive in the range of issues that was covered,62 all of the media attention pushed by the State Department was about confronting China.63 This push to get the region to more actively fight back against China is a losing battle given physical proximity and economic realities on the ground. Something especially the case when US engagement is done in such a spasmodic and occasional manner. And it has to be said that to some degree there is nothing wrong with the region having a strong relationship with China. It would be strange for the Central Asian powers to not have a relationship with such a powerful and rich neighbour. But the perennial problem is that the scales of control are not tipped in the region’s favour, and judging by how the COVID-19 crisis has played out so far, this is unlikely to change going forwards. Beijing will doubtless emerge from the current disaster with stronger links to the region as the Central Asians get sucked inexorably deeper into China’s orbit.

1“Passazhirku reĭsa, sledovavshego iz Pekina, pomestili v karantin v Turkmenabate,” hronikaturkmenistana.com, February 2, 2020.
2 “Dva sluchaia zarazheniia koronavirusom podtverzhdeny v Kazakhstane” Fergana.news, March 13, 2020.
3“V Kyrgyzstane zaregistrirovan pervyĭ sluchaĭ koronavirusa,” kabar.kg, March 18, 2020. 4“U grazhdanina Uzbekistana, vernuvshegosia iz Frantsii, vyiavlen koronavirus” kun.uz, March 15, 2020.
5“Tadzhikistan ofitsialno priznal nalichie koronavirusa covid-19 v strane” avesta.tj, April 30, 2020. 6“Death Toll In Ethnic Clashes In Kazakhstan’s South Rises To 11,” rferl.org, February 13, 2020. 7 “Call Tsenter: Na rynke djynhay prodavcy vygnali kitaycev iz ih konteynerov,” kaktus.media, March 2, 2020.
8 “Chem Torguyut v Kitaiskih Produktovih Magazinah Dushanbe,” asiaplustj.info, March 2, 2020. 9 “Kamchybek joldoshbaev o koronaviryse: nyjno izbegat kontakta s grajdanami kitaia” kaktus.media, January 29, 2020.
10“Dvuh grajdan kitaya podozreniem koronavirus snyali poezda,” Tengrinews.kz, January 29, 2020.
11 “China-led $280 Million Kyrgyzstan Project Abandoned After Protests,” Reuters.com, February 18, 2020.
12 “Uzbekistan Sending Medical Supplies to Virus-hit China,” rferl.org, February 12, 2020.
13 “Mid knr poblagodaril kazahstan za gumanitarnuyu pomosch v bor be s koronavirusom,” lenta.inform.kz, February 3, 2020.
14 “MCHS Kyrgyzstana peredalo 7 tonn gympomoshi Kitau,” kaktus.media, February 19, 2020.
15 “Kitaĭ zakupil v Turkmenistane 1 million zashchitnykh meditsinskikh masok”, turkmenistan.ru, February 16, 2020.
16 “Sovbez rekomendoval provesti peregovory y Kitaia poprosiat pomosh dlia Kyrgyzstana,” kaktus.media, March 16, 2020.
17 “Pervyy gumanitarnyy grus iz Kitaya pribyl v Almaty,” inform.kz, April 2, 2020.
18 “Dostavlena gympomosh ot Kitaia dlia medrabotnikov,” kaktus.media, March 26, 2020.
19 “Istinnoĭ druzhbe rasstoianie ne pomekha,” Uzdaily.uz, March 30, 2020.
20“Kitaj predostavil tadzhikistanu sredstva profilaktiki koronavirusa” avesta.tj, March 30, 2020.
21 Uzbekistan: “V Tashkent pribyl ocherednoĭ gumanitarnyĭ gruz, predostavlennyĭ kitaĭskimi partnerami,” uzdaily.uz, April 10, 2020;Kazakhstan: “Dzhek ma napravil v Kazakstan medicinskie sredstva zaschity,” lenta.inform.kz, April 11, 2020.; Kyrgyzstan: “V Kyrygyzstan pri byla pervaia partiia gryza predostavlennogo osno vatelem alibaba djekom ma,” kaktus.media, April 10, 2020.; Tajikistan– it is not clear from public reporting that any has been sent to Tajikistan, but it seems likely that some will have been sent.
22 “V Uzbekistan pribyl gumanitarnyĭ gruz iz Kitaia,” uzdaily.uz, March 30, 2020.
23 “Chinese Embassy hands over PPE to Kyrgyz Border Gaurds,” en.kabar.kg, April 24, 2020.
24 “Chinese PLA sends epidemic prevention supplies to militaries of 12 countries,” english.chinamil.com, May 17, 2020.
25 “Uzbekistan I kitay klyuchi ot budushchego/narodno osvoboditelnaya armiya kitaya peredala gumanitarnyy gruz dlya borby s koronavirusom vooruzhe”, podrobno.uz, May 13, 2020.
26“Pribyvshie v stolicu kitayskie vrachi posetili nacional nyy nauchnyy kardiohirurgicheskiy centr,” lenta.inform.kz, April 11, 2020.
27 “V GUVD g. Tashkenta obsudili opyt politsii Kitaia v period borʹby s pandemieĭ koronavirusa,” uzdaily.uz, April 6, 2020. 28 “Chinese universities compile the first new crown prevention manual for Tajikistan,” news.sciencenet.cn, April 15, 2020.
29 “China-Uzbekistan telemedicine system put into operation,” xinhuanet.com, April 25, 2020.
30 “Weidong Cloud Education together with SCO to fight COVID-19”,” wdecloud.com, March 27, 2020.
31 “With SCO support, the Alibaba Group hosted a workshop on countering the spread of the novel coronavirus infection,” eng.sectsco.org, May 14, 2020.
32 “Mocharoi Diplomati bo Diplomatchoi Chin Furudgochi Dushanbe,” akhbor.com, February 9, 2020.
33 “Kazakhstan summons Chinese ambassador in protest over article ,” reuters.com, April 14, 2020.
34 “Rising Nationalism Tests China’s uneasy partnerships in Central Asia,” eastasiaforum.org, May 29, 2020.
35 “WeChat responds to the article “Multi-country eager to return to China”: delete 227 articles, 153 titles,” thepaper.cn, April 16, 2020.
36 “Kazakhstan summons Chinese ambassador in protest over article ,” reuters.com, April 14, 2020.
37 “ChinaAmbassadorKazakhstan – Post April 17” Facebook.com, April 17, 2020.
38 “China, Russia can initiate probe of US bio-labs,” globaltimes.cn, May 14, 2020.
39 “Pentagon okruzhil rossiyu poyasom sekretnykh biolaboratoriy,” mk.ru, May 5, 2020.
40 “Kazakhstan okazalsya mezhdu molotom I nakovalnej v konflikte SSHA I Kitaya o voenno biologicheskih laboratoriyah,” ehonews.kz, May 12, 2020.
41“Kazakhs are wary neighbours bearing gifts,” opendemocracy.net, April 30, 2020.
42 “Almatinskie vrachi otvetili na kritiku kolleg iz Kitaya,” ehonews.kz, April 17, 2020.
43 “Kyrgyz, Chinese FMs discuss opening of border checkpoints,” akipress.com, May 27, 2020.
44 “Uzbekistan I Kitay klyuchi ot budushchego Kitay otkryl novyy transportnyy koridor v Uzbekistan v obkhod Kazakhstana,” podrobno.uz, June 6, 2020.
45 “Chinese business briefing working overtime,” Eurasianet.org, June 4, 2020. 46“Jeenbekov predlojil predsedatelu knr oblegchit ysloviia po vneshnemy dolgy,” kaktus.media, April 14, 2020.
47“China suspends debt repayment for 77 developing nations, regions,” globaltimes.cn, June 7, 2020.
48 “Uzbekistan I Kitay klyuchi ot budushchego, Uzbekistan predlozhil uskorit stroitelstvo zh d Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan I Kitay eto samyy bezopasnyy put’ v uslovnikh pandemii,” akipress.com, May 20, 2020.
49 “Coronavirus has become a big obstacle for China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railroad project: PM,” akipress.com, May 12, 2020. 50 “Premer:grajdane Kitaia pokidaut Kyrgyzstan. Kto teper bidet stroit dorogi,” kaktus.media, March 4, 2020.
51 “Kitaj Pobezhdaet koronavirus I gotov okazat pomoshh mirovomu soobshhestvu,” avesta.tj, March 20, 2020. 52 “Strel’ba v Zarnisore: Pochemu omon podavil protest Kitaiskiv rabochix?” akhbor.rus.com, May 21, 2020.
53 “Chinese business briefing working overtime,” Eurasianet.org, June 4, 2020. 54 “Notify the first case of new coronary pneumonia among Chinese citizens in Tajikistan,” Chineseembassy.org, May 10, 2020.
55 “Central Asian countries discussing shared cut in gas supplies to China Uzbekneftgaz,” spglobal.com, May 5, 2020.
56 “China buys record volume of Russian oil as European demand dives traders,” reuters.com, March 25, 2020.
57 “Kazakhstan to resume exports of its oil to China in March,” reuters.com, February 26, 2020.
58 “SCO Secretary-General Vladimir Norov, Alibaba Group CEO Jack Ma discuss intra-SCO IT cooperation,” eng.sectsco.org, August 29, 2019.
59 “Alibaba to create 100 million jobs, most of which in SCO countries,” marketscreener.com, August 30, 2020.
60 “China-Russia bilateral trade expand. Alibaba Russia e-commerce,” silkroadbriefing.com, October 9, 2019.
61 “Private Interests: Monitoring Central Asia,” privacyinternational.org, November 12, 2020.
62 “Secretary Pompeo’s Visit to Kazakhstan,” state.gov, February 1, 2020.; “Secretary Pompeo’s Visit to Uzbekistan,” state.gov, February 2, 2020.
63 “Pompeo, in Central Asia, Seeks to Counter China,” voanews.com, February 3, 2020.

Finally, in this latest clutch, a new piece for the in-house journal Counter-Terrorist Trends and Analyses (CTTA) at my new Singaporean institutional home ICPVTR at RSIS. It is a bit of a thought experiment in trying to think forwards about what the impact of the current COVID-19 crisis could be to counter-terrorism practitioners and policy makers. It goes in a way alongside my previous Foreign Policy piece which sketched out how the threat might get worse. Clearly the big topic in this one is resources which is going to create problems which will be difficult to predict, but there are other dangers and even opportunities as well. In the UK, there is already concern around Prevent referrals being down, while France is already worrying about release of terrorist prisoners and I am sure we will start to see other issues in this space emerge.

Key Questions for Counter-Terrorism Post-COVID-19

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Synopsis

All aspects of government decision and policymaking are likely to be impacted in a post-COVID-19 world. This article focuses on the specific impact on counter-terrorism policy and practice amidst a changed environment. Using the UK’s Contest strategy and its formulation of the 4 P’s (Prevent, Pursue, Protect and Prepare) as a frame, the article explores a set of questions that governments will have to think through to manage a persistent terrorist threat.

Introduction

The impact of COVID-19 is widespread. At a geopolitical level, it will accelerate existing trends, while free-trade and open borders will be hurt for some time as the global economy adjusts to such a dramatic freeze and the inevitable fitful re-opening. This will have consequences across the board for governments, including security policies. Though a lot has been written about how different terrorist groups are reacting to COVID-19, its impact on counter-terrorism policy and practice remains understudied.

This article will outline some key issues that security officials should be considering going forwards about how COVID-19 might impact counter-terrorism (CT) and countering violent extremism (CVE) policies and practices. As a framework, the article will use the structure of the UK counter-terrorism strategy that captures the different strands of most CT and CVE policies around the world. In short, the UK’s Contest strategy is made up of the following four pillars:

• Prevent: to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. This forward-looking work comprises of rehabilitation and de-radicalisation initiatives.

• Pursue: to stop terrorist attacks. This involves disrupting and arresting individuals involved in terrorist activity.

• Protect: to strengthen safety mechanisms against a terrorist attack, such as building up physical defences.

• Prepare: to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack. Here, societal resilience is emphasised to ensure society can bounce back from an incident.1

Overview of COVID-19’s Impact

Before going into a detailed analysis of the impact using the four P’s framework, some overarching themes need to be considered about the impact of COVID-19 on CT and CVE work. First is the re-evaluation of national risk assessment (and more importantly perceptions of risk) that will take place in the wake of the virus. Re-reading old national strategy documents or statements, it is possible to find evidence that numerous countries had identified pandemic disease as a major risk and threat – the UK’s National Risk Register, for example, identified ‘pandemic influenza’ as the event of greatest relative likelihood and impact.2 US President Donald Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy had also identified pandemics as a major danger,3 while President Xi Jinping had spoken of the threat in his speech to the 19th Communist Party of China (CPC)’s National Congress in 2017.4 The United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have of course been warning about these pandemic threats for years. Yet, notwithstanding these repeated warnings, it is not clear if sufficient resources and expertise were allocated into mitigating the risk.

This lack of focus (and in some cases, specific choice to reduce focus) was in part a product of the absence of political pressure around the issue.5 While the global commentariat is now full of chatter about how obvious this threat was, previously it was only experts in the scientific community who were genuinely concerned with little public discussion about the threat.6 Parts of Asia that had faced viruses before were more attuned to the concern than others, but largely, it was not a high ranking political issue.

The net result was other threats, like terrorism, cyberattacks, state conflicts and trade wars absorbed more attention and budget, alongside assessments of priority. Given the widespread impact of COVID-19, this balance is likely to change as governments realise the full potential extent and damage of a pandemic disease. This will in large part also be driven by public pressure as populations see extensive impact of the threat. For terrorism threats, it will highlight once again the relatively limited impact that they actually have to the average citizen (especially comparable to pandemic threats) and might make it harder to mobilise the same sort of national level concern around them in the short to medium term.7

The positive side to this will be a reduction in the noise around terrorist threats, which may have a corollary impact on the degree to which threats can multiply and reduce the copycat or lone actor phenomenon whereby individuals are drawn to terrorist ideologies more by the noise around attacks than the ideology. It will also potentially marginalise those drawn to such ideologies as people re-evaluate what matters to them and consequently refuse to simply accept the narratives advanced by terrorist groups about the global upheavals that merit terrorist mobilisation.

On the negative side, the massive expansion of online activity will produce its own problems of radicalisation with some vulnerable individuals becoming more isolated and getting more embroiled in extremist ideologies.8 National budgets will also shrink around the world. Governments will have to make harder decisions and redirect their resources and capabilities on economic revivals. This will mean pressure on security budgets at home and abroad, with more questions asked about importance and prioritisation. This is where public perceptions of risk will come into play. In the wake of COVID-19, the public will continually ask about policy steps to mitigate the next possible pandemic outbreak and this will lead to reallocations of budget from elsewhere.

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, there was already a noticeable shift away from concern around terrorist threats, with state- based conflicts or cyber threats getting the top priority. This trend will accelerate further making it harder for CT security officials to ensure their issues retain the level of attention and budget they require. This particular issue is one that is going to play across this article. Finally, how COVID-19 will impact extremist ideologies merit some brief thought. The economic downturn will create contexts in which anti-state groups can thrive. Racism has already emerged – in particular towards Asians, but also within Asian countries towards others – which may lead to different forms of violence.

The disenfranchised communities or inequalities that will emerge in the post- COVID-19 world will create some individuals or groups who see violence as the answer to their situation. In some contexts, the massive increase in government will produce its own problems. In America, for example, the long history of fear of federal government has generated terrorist atrocities in the past (like the Oklahoma City bombing which just passed its 25 year anniversary);9 some similar reactions seem to be already appearing.10 There is also the possibility that fringe groups will be able to take advantage of the ensuing world to find their own specific niche fears further exacerbated. For instance, the accelerated rise of tech during this moment may generate extremist luddites, or other fringe movements might emerge.

Prevent

At the best of times, preventing people from being drawn towards groups or persuading them to subsequently reject extremist ideologies is difficult. Governments find it almost impossible to eradicate, counter or stop the proliferation of extremist ideologies. In some countries, dealing with the root causes of any form of terrorism can go into deep social issues whose origins go back decades. Terrorist groups offer ideologies which are parasitic on these problems. This means that in order to eradicate the problem, governments have to deal with the underlying socio-economic issues, while at the same time prevent the spread of extremist ideas.

Fund allocation is key in dealing with these issues, be they at home or abroad. The problems far from home usually need resolution through social transformation, something which only happens through investment of resource. As budgets tighten, problems in places far from home, which are not directly linked to a threat back home, will be easily dispensable in favour of more immediate problems. This resource tightening for distant CVE work will be exacerbated by the fact that often aid work doubles as CVE work in some contexts – whether by chance or on purpose to mask its intent. This means not only will distant countries lose resource from direct CVE work, but also from a broader and likely budget tightening.

In societies with relatively limited numbers of people affected, CVE and de-radicalising work tends to be built around individual level interventions in which mentors work with individuals to steer them onto a better path. In countries with larger problems, this model is essentially enhanced, with interventions targeted at entire sectors or larger groups of people. In systems where the number of cases is limited, this will likely remain manageable, but countries where hundreds, if not thousands, need managing will require a considerable expenditure of resource which will come under pressure. While there is an ongoing debate about degrees of recidivism amongst terrorist offenders, there will be budgetary pressures on programmes in prisons.11 More generally, the lack of clear evidence of programme effectiveness will make it easy for such programmes to become targets for budget cuts.

Lastly, the online ideological space and counter-messaging will face greater scrutiny as a necessary expense. Already, there are concerns around the efficacy of online counter-messaging campaigns.12 It is likely that the entire counter-ideological space will come under budgetary pressure given the almost impossible task of showing causal effect of programmes to the issue they are seeking to address.

Pursue

National security questions are easy to mobilise public resource towards. The public sees government as their ultimate protector and will give fairly substantial lee-way in deploying resources to keep any threats at bay. The most visible expression of this within terrorism comes via Pursue work, which involves chasing down terrorists and using security and intelligence agencies to detain and arrest terrorist suspects. This strand of work may find some of its resources redirected into other tasks. But the underlying political reality of needing to maintain this capability at a high state of readiness will ensure these parts of the system remain funded.

Pursue actors are in fact already benefitting in a COVID-19 world. The mass imposition of quarantine conditions across societies creates a context in which monitoring and disruption becomes much easier. Security forces no longer need to develop complicated reasons to detain suspected individuals but can simply mask disruptions or inquiries under the veil of the quarantine monitoring. Furthermore, suspects of interest will find themselves as housebound as everyone else creating static targets requiring less resource to observe. And should they venture out, security agencies have a justified reason to inquire as to what they are doing.

Countries have also already pushed out apps seeking to track individuals and gather data to help monitor transmission of the virus. Whilst many legal systems will put in place strong measures to prevent their use beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, these apps are potential monitoring tools for security officials concerned about terrorist attacks or networks. Some countries may be less open about their subsequent use. It is also possible that the data generated will produce some interesting findings about human behaviour in crisis situations which might support future counter- terrorism activity.

Finally, the development of such tools will create learning within the technological space. This learning may be currently directed towards tracking COVID-19 spread, but the same tools might be later more useful in the counter-terrorism space. Analysing movement of people or potential disease transmission using multiple vectors and probabilities might generate a new set of analytical tools that might subsequently be turned towards countering terrorism or chasing terrorists online.

Protect

The Protect space is dominated by expenditure on security which seeks to cover every potential eventuality. Sometimes these are sunk costs which generate one-off expenditures, but others require regular reinvestment. Furthermore, they have a habit of increasing in a corollary manner to the terrorist threat evolution, as new counter- measures need to be deployed to reflect changing patterns of terror activity.

One positive effect to the Protect space might come in the form of more restrictive behaviour that will be imposed on citizens in order to mitigate further flare-ups of COVID-19. These measures will likely focus on preventing movement, or checking people’s temperatures or other indicators at regular intervals. This will create a potential Protect (and even Pursue) opportunities. For example, temperature checking posts would be a moment for security officials to check on members of public; they could be a deterrent in themselves. It has been observed that terrorists have changed attack locations due to the presence of Protect measures.

In some cases, governments seek to offset these costs by passing them on to the private sector which is at the front line of this threat. Private sector sites are often the targets of terrorist groups; consequently, they bear the expenses in making their locations safe. This discussion might become more complicated in an environment of contracted economic means, for any business sector. It will become more challenging for the governments to impose requirements for expenditure that do not answer an immediate security concern (like fire hazard) rather than a more abstract one like terrorism.

An additional challenge to the Protect space will come from the likely surge in transborder activity of goods and people that will take place in the wake of COVID-19 and the lifting of travel restrictions.13 For travel hubs where international travel is an integral part of existence, this will mean a sudden potential surge in work in different directions. This will be impacted by the urgency with which there will be a push to return to normality in terms of getting trade and international supply chains moving again. While there might be a push to nationalise supply chains in some countries, few will be able to effectively deliver this, meaning an expansive security cordon which will need to be developed with equal rapidity.

Prepare

Societies have for the most part demonstrated a remarkable resilience against terrorist attacks. Terrorists have largely failed to disrupt social orders in the wake of their attacks.14 Where they have caused damage, however, is in tearing the social fabric. And this could worsen in a post-COVID-19 world. While there have been globally remarkable demonstrations of collective civil mindedness and a push to help and celebrate fellow humans, there has also been a darker edge as people seek to apportion blame. Most obviously, this is visible against Asians in the west in particular with repeated reports of assaults on people of Asian appearance in response to what has been described by very senior government officials in the United States as the ‘Chinese virus.’15

This tension is visible in other contexts as well and is likely to generate its own counter- responses, both in terms of state-to-state tensions, but also amongst communities. Within China, there has additionally been a growing anger towards African communities.16 While this does not necessarily portend terrorism, it does raise the danger that as waves of the virus continue to express themselves and be reported in different parts of the world, this might lead to consequent targeted social tensions at different moments. This is significant in terms of shoring up social cohesion and resilience, a key component of long-term Prepare work.

The practical tools often used to advance Prepare goals are potentially ones impacted by broader budgetary cuts. Emergency services are essential amenities which people expect, but ensuring their resource levels are maintained to a high enough level to cover every contingency might come under pressure. While emergency response services will always be needed, the question will be whether the additional training and expense required to maintain a full-spectrum counter-terrorism response (which might include low probability events like CBRN attacks) can be justified or is essential in the same way as it was before.

Looking Ahead

The impact of COVID-19 on CT policy and practice will be complicated and varied. Overall, the pressure on direct CT measures will not necessarily be strong. Concerned publics will continue to expect governments to deliver adequate defences against terrorist threats. If security agencies are dynamic enough, ample opportunities avail to use the virus restrictions as an opportunity to enhance security blankets. But longer-term programmes focused on dealing with problems at root are likely to be impacted. This problem is magnified in third-world and poorer countries badly affected by the COVID- 19 fall-out, and has a knock-on effect on the threat picture emanating from these locations.

The danger will also come from a threat picture rendered even more complex in the wake of COVID-19; in part, driven by existing threats which will not resolve themselves and may even get worse and also, as a result of new emerging threats. With more people pushed deeper into online worlds, this might generate a new articulation of the lone actor terrorist threat under different ideologies. While much of broader society, focused on health security and economic recovery, will vie for greater government attention and resources, terrorists will not go away and likely multiply in new and confusing ways.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence, Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit within the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be contacted at israffaello@ntu.edu.sg.

1 “CONTEST: the United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism,” Home Office (UK), June 2018, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/ uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/71690 7/140618_CCS207_CCS0218929798- 1_CONTEST_3.0_WEB.pdf. A final caveat on this choice of structure is that the author will sometimes veer away from precise UK designations about what is covered under each pillar of Contest, but this is not relevant for the discussion at hand which is merely using Contest as a frame with which to structure a discussion.

2 “National Risk Register,” Cabinet Office (UK), 2008, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/ uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/61934/ national_risk_register.pdf.

3 “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” White House, December 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp- content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017- 0905.pdf.

4 “Full text of Xi Jinping’s report at 19th CPC National Congress,” Xinhua, October 18, 2017, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/special/2017- 11/03/c_136725942.htm.

5 Marisa Taylor, “Exclusive: U.S. slashed CDC staff inside China prior to coronavirus outbreak,” Reuters, March 26, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us- health-coronavirus-china-cdc-exclusiv/exclusive-u-s-slashed-cdc-staff-inside-china-prior-to-coronavirus-outbreak-idUSKBN21C3N5.

6 Tim Harford, “Why we fail to prepare for disasters,” Financial Times, April 16, 2020 https://www.ft.com/content/74e5f04a-7df1-11ea- 82f6-150830b3b99a.

7 Two caveats to this are the event of another major terror attack which might once again shift people’s perceptions of risk, and the fact that over time this perception will likely shift again.

8 Nikita Malik, “Self-isolation might stop Coronavirus, but it will speed the spread of extremism,” Foreign Policy, March 26, 2020 https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/26/self-isolation- might-stop-coronavirus-but-spread-extremism/.

9 Kelly-Leigh Cooper, “Oklahoma City bombing: The day domestic terror shook America,” BBC News, April 19, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-51735115.

10 The two separate cases of Edouard Moreno and Timothy Wilson illustrate this threat. Moreno tried to derail a train in the Port of Los Angeles and Wilson tried to attack a Kansas City hospital preparing to deal with COVID-19. Both claimed to highlight the dangerous expansion of government. For more on Moreno: “Train Operator at Port of Los Angeles Charged with Derailing Locomotive Near US Navy’s Hospital Ship Mercy,” Department of Justice Press Release, April 1, 2020, https://www.justice.gov/usao- cdca/pr/train-operator-port-los-angeles-charged- derailing-locomotive-near-us-navy-s-hospital and Wilson; Emily Rittman and Maggie Holmes, “Court documents reveal new details in Raymore man’s alleged hospital bombing plot,” KCTV News, April 8, 2020, https://www.kctv5.com/news/local_news/court-documents-reveal-new-details-in-raymore-mans-alleged-hospital-bombing-plot/article_53ac1f4c-7a01-11ea-a72a-1ba92e352c7b.html.

11 For example, Andrew Silke “Risk assessment of terrorist and extremist prisoners,” in A. Silke (ed.), Prisons, Terrorism and Extremism: Critical Issues in Management, Radicalisation and Reform, (London: Routledge, 2014), pp.108-121; Omi Hodwitz “The Terrorism Recidivism Study (TRS): Examining Recidivism Rates for Post-9/11 Offenders,” Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 13, No. 2 (April 2019) conclude the problem is limited; Mary Beth Altier, Emma Leonard Boyle & John G. Horgan (2019): Returning to the Fight: An Empirical Analysis of Terrorist Reengagement and Recidivism, Terrorism and Political Violence conclude the opposite.

12 Eric Rosand and Emily Winterbotham, “Do counter-narratives actually reduce violent extremism?” Brookings Institution, March 20, 2019 https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from- chaos/2019/03/20/do-counter-narratives-actually- reduce-violent-extremism/.

13 Officials in Wuhan noted an immediate surge in travel in the wake of the lifting of the strict quarantine there.

14 There are of course counter examples, with IS success in Syria-Iraq being the most recent example. But in many of the cases where success can be evaluated, it involves a level of contact resulting in taking on the state as a military force. Terrorism campaigns in otherwise peaceful societies have not for the most part resulted in the same level of impact.

15 “Trump defends calling coronavirus the Chinese virus,” Al-Jazeera, March 23, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/newsfeed/2 020/03/trump-defends-calling-coronavirus-chinese- virus-200323102618665.html.

16 Danny Vincent, “Africans in China: We face coronavirus discrimination,” BBC News, April 17, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa- 52309414.

Still being slow in posting, but not in producing material. Have gotten a few longer things in the pipeline and a big project that is winding towards conclusion. Media has slowed down considerably, so little to post on that front for the time being, but in the meantime, here is a new piece with Kabir for his excellent institution the Observer Research Foundation (ORF). Tries to push back a bit on the attention that the COVID commentary by terrorist groups was getting.

Beware of terrorists offering COVID19 aid

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Terrorists have been thrown off course by COVID19. While their narratives may try to claim they are ahead of the curve on the virus, the truth is that they are still uncertain about how to react to what is going on and what the longer-term impact of the virus will be on their action. Nowhere is this more visible than in the public health and welfare sector where there has been a steady pattern of terrorist and non-state groups jumping forwards to show their own plan of action to deal with the virus. Yet their action has for the most part been an echo of traditional state structures, or accusations of blame about where the disease has come from, all reflecting the paucity of their response and the challenge that the virus poses to them as much as anyone else.

As anti-state structures, terrorists are always keen to show their superiority to the existing state. Most often this is articulated through violence, but there is a softer side to this as well with groups seeking to win the hearts and minds of their target audience as well as inspire terror. One way to do this is through charitable work, or being seen to provide for people’s needs. This helps show that the group is more than just murderers and also emphasizes their appropriateness as an alternative state structure. For violent Islamist groups who are seeking to build a better world in God’s image, it is even more important as for them to adequately demonstrate this ability as they are showing their ultimate goal is a better world.

The pandemic, like for any state or quasi-state structure, poses a significant problem for a terror group that holds control of territory and population. Any insurgency, irrespective of size or ideology, requires a level of support from the population that surrounds it to thrive, whether by threat or cooperation. However, public health as an idea and policy is arguably far too a heavy-lifting task even for the best organised and most equipped groups.

While groups like to show the image of themselves as new state builders, in reality they struggle to offer much of genuine practical utility. In part this is about resources. A large well-resourced group (which are in some ways political parties) like Hamas, Hezbollah, Lashkar-e-Taiba (or one of its many incarnations) can offer some succour given their size and physical footprint, the truth is that their actual offer is quite limited. Lashkar-e-Taiba’s actual contribution to aid relief in the wake of the 2005 earthquakes in Pakistan or the 2010 floods was much less in practical reality than international organizations or donors, though the group did an excellent job of projecting the rapidity of its arrival on the scene and subsequent activity. Similarly, while Hezbollah has contributed to Lebanon’s economy, international donors are bigger contributors to the aid that is given to the many refugees squatting in their country.

In other cases, we see that terrorist groups actually target aid and healthcare workers. The Taliban in Afghanistan may be currently talking about the positive action they are taking to support the counter-COVID19 effort, but they have previously made it difficult for polio vaccinators to operate. Their counterparts in Pakistan, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), even went so far as killing some of these health workers. Boko Haram has not currently offered much perspective on the virus, but in the past has been responsible for the persistence of polio in the parts of Nigeria where it operates. All three (Boko Haram, the Afghan Taliban and the TTP) have targeted aid workers more generally in the past.

The Afghan Taliban has been one of the more vocal groups in response to the pandemic. Pictures of the Taliban organising camps to treat people in the territories that they control became popular on social media as the world struggled with controlling the virus. Taliban images show their members social distancing, while wearing protective clothing and simultaneously maintaining that the pandemic is “sent by Allah because of disobedience and sins of mankind”. The Taliban also announced the establishment of medical centres, including in areas such as Afghanistan’s Paktika province, mere months after the group was blamed for attacking the government run medical centre in the same place. All this posturing, while also looking for help from aid agencies and health workers that previously they targeted, comes alongside them talking about cease-fire in areas it contests with the Afghan government. All of this raises questions about whether their approach in battling COVID19 is to genuinely setup a health care system or simply a cynical effort to portray the group as doing so.

For a group such as the Taliban, the virus comes as a significant challenge at a critical time. They are in the midst of trying to justify themselves as part of the ruling elite in Kabul. The images in circulation of their members attending to local populations in health clinics in full protective gear comes in stark contrast when images of health workers from New York to New Delhi working with shortages of the same gear are all over the news. This creates a counter-narrative for the group that they are more in control than most, while in reality they do not have the capabilities of running a quasi-health care system for their quasi-state.

ISIS is potentially the most hypocritical group in this regard. When they had their state, they liked to vaunt the social and healthcare systems they built, including videos in which British medical students who had joined the group were shown in films that aped the UK’s much-loved National Health Service (NHS). In reality the systems they offered were limited, and in some cases were hijacked charity ones.

Currently, the group is focused on its online propaganda and propagating Do-It-Yourself (DIY) terror in its name by its supporters around the world as it continues to rebuild itself after its territorial and leadership loss. Online, ISIS’s newsletter Al Naba warned its fighters against the virus being spread in Europe, while the group’s online supporters took the opportunity to criticise the Chinese state’s treatment of the Uighurs and the Shiite regime in Iran, comparing images of Shiite clerics with those of the virus. In South Asia, the newly launched pro-ISIS publication ‘Voice of Hind’ in its March issue dedicated a page to COVID19, but not from a health perspective, but an ideological one, pontificating that the disease is Allah’s creation to “cause chaos amongst the nations of disbelief.”

These narratives reflect the difficulty that groups have in keeping ideological coherence amongst their followers in advance of something so far from their usual concerns. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the formerly al Qaeda affiliated group in northern Syria, offers an interesting case study in this regard. HTS cancelled Friday prayers in its areas of control in the northern Syrian region of Idlib, following a ban on bazaars and markets. The region’s ‘Salvation Government’, backed by HTS, advised people to not attend mosques in order to control the COVID19 pandemic. This is a significant move for a quasi-government backed by HTS. Ideologically, HTS choosing science over religious directives offers an interesting insight in what is an Islamist group taking a more ‘state like’ approach. In a 4 minute long report released by ‘News Agency of Sham’, a media outlet of the ‘Salvation Government’ in Idlib, the quasi-state shows its preparations against COVID19, with preventive quarantine centre, distributing information to local traders, pictures of sanitization efforts and so on. HTS image is that of a more reasonable organisation than even some churches in the US, that have refused to close down in face of the pandemic. At the same time, HTS has suffered from coherence around its messaging with some of its leaders refusing to toe the line and continuing to operate much as before.

The practical problems do not end here, and go beyond simply having the resources to provide adequate healthcare. There is also the practical reality of trying to mobilize people. Those who join terrorist groups are not individuals – for the most part – who joined the group to become social or healthcare workers. They may see themselves as soldiers and warriors who are willing to do what they are ordered to, but providing basic healthcare services to people was not likely a major driver of their decision to join a group. Quite aside from questions of competence in the role, there is a question about how long they would be willing to play such a part rather than a frontline warrior.

Terrorists as healthcare providers and counter-virus warriors are an odd mix. It is not the first time we have seen such groups try to co-opt global narratives outside their ordinary remit as a way of showing their greater relevance and governance capability (another odd example is al Shabaab’s environmentalism), but given the all-encompassing nature of COVID19 these previous efforts have arguably been overshadowed. The reality of these efforts are that the groups are not really able to contribute much, and are merely cynically exploiting the existing situation and fears to draw more attention to themselves. This is the real impact of their efforts and should be treated as such.

More belated posting, this time a short comment for RSIS with excellent new colleague Sinan. We had actually written this a little while ago, but it got buried under the COVID-19 coverage. This is a potential problem which may yet express itself more dangerously.

ISIS in the Maldives?

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Raffaello PantucciMohammed Sinan Siyech

ICPVTR / RSIS / Commentaries / Country and Region Studies / East Asia and Asia Pacific / Global / South Asia / Southeast Asia and ASEAN / Terrorism Studies

03 APRIL 2020

Synopsis

The February 2020 stabbing of three tourists in the Maldives has raised the prospect of terror in paradise. There are numerous indicators to suggest a potential threat in the Maldives, but it remains unclear whether this incident was simply a one-off or the beginning of something more serious.

Commentary

THE STABBING of three tourists recently in the Maldives has raised the prospect of terrorism in the popular tourist destination. The style of the attack, the subsequent video aping ISIS’ style, and the broader backdrop against which it comes, point to being inspired by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

The attacks were reported as an isolated incident, though media has suggested authorities might be re-opening an earlier investigation into the stabbing of a Turkish tourist in December. The video emulating ISIS style and tone threatened more attacks, though the group itself has been quiet about the attack so far.

Long-time Coming?

The attack has been a long time coming. With roughly 250 fighters, and about 1400 alleged radicalised individuals, out of a population of 350,000, the Maldives has amongst the highest per capita instances of foreign terrorist fighters around the world. For some time, there has been fear that an exodus of fighters from the Maldives might return home bringing terrorist violence with them.

There is a history of foreign militant fighters from the Maldives going back to the war in Afghanistan. There have been killings of journalists and bloggers on the islands that have been blamed on violent Islamist groups, though questions have been raised around motivations.

The last major incident was an attempted bombing in 2007 in Male which injured a dozen tourists. The networks involved then were also present in supporting ISIS. Moreover, A couple of weeks after the stabbing incident, authorities raided properties in Naifaru island of Lhaviyani Atoll claiming to have disrupted a bomb-making plot. No charges were pressed.

Identifying Trends

There are a few indicators which bear attention. First, there have been incidents in the past few years where ISIS-linked or inspired attackers have launched attacks against visiting foreigners: Tunisia (2015), Tajikistan (2018) and Sri Lanka (2019) are prominent examples. The different sorts of attacks and the nature of the links to ISIS all show how tourists present themselves as easy targets for ISIS adherents (either inspired or directed).

In each of those cases, local tensions – including inequality, anger at government and a sense of injustice – translated into violence against foreigners. Striking visiting foreigners assuages some of this anger, brings international attention to the situation, and undermines local authorities. All of which makes it an easy fit into the ISIS playbook.

Second, there are existing violent operators in the Maldives like drug smugglers and other criminal gangs. There has been evidence of such individuals being specifically recruited into ISIS networks. ISIS narrative offers itself as a source of redemption for previous criminals. Their propensity for violence and access to criminal networks makes these recruits convenient assets within extremist networks.

Third, there is a problem of fundamentalism on the margins of society. During former president Abdul Gayoom’s rule (1978–2008), many scholars such as Muhammad Ibrahim who did not toe the official line were exiled to islands where they continued preaching their exclusivist messages. Over time, his influence has spread across Maldivian society with his students inspiring attacks such as the above mentioned 2007 bombing and having linkages to ISIS.

Closing the Maldivian Pandora’s Box

Currently, it is unclear as to the degree to which local authorities have the capability or experience to manage either violent networks at home or those that might return from Syria/Iraq or Afghanistan.

For instance, there are links and communications between those abroad and Maldivians back home via encrypted platforms, but there has been little coverage of rehabilitation or other programmes to engage returnees. Understanding the connectivity, the flows home and how to effectively manage such individuals is going to be a crucial task for the authorities.

The fact that not much support for this attack has been forthcoming is confusing; but it might reflect earlier divisions amongst the Maldivian radical community who were cleaved in two when ISIS broke from Jabhat al Nusra in the early days of the Syrian civil war. It might also simply reflect ISIS’ general state of chaos at the moment.

Key Question

The key question at this stage is whether the government has indeed been able to roll up the entirety of this network. Once the profiles are made public, it will be important to note whether any are returnees or the extent of their links to terrorist groups or networks. While the West has not suffered many attacks involving returnees, there have been lethal attacks in Southeast Asian countries involving battle hardened individuals. This escalates the risk profile in the Maldives.

The government has not been complacent so far about the potential danger. They have been identifying extremist preachers and raising threat levels across the nation while also engaging in religious counter messaging. However, despite arrests, they have not been able to prosecute returnees or address root causes such as corruption and lack of employment for youth.

Given their relative inexperience in managing such threats, it will be important to cooperate with international partners. The country has formulated a national action plan on preventing violent extremism with international support; it will be important to implement any work that flows from it.

Beyond this, it will be important to see whether terrorist or extremist networks gain access to better weaponry. Another indicator will be whether ISIS or Al Qaeda-affiliated groups start to raise the profile of the Maldives as a potential target in South Asia. Given that ISIS continues to face pressure on the battlefield, a major attack on a soft target like the Maldives, whether inspired or directed by the group, would provide a useful ideological boost.

About the Authors

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence, Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. Mohammed Sinan Siyech is Senior Analyst at ICPVTR.

Still catching up on myself. Got distracted with a few other things including the current chaos in real life and suddenly a wave of new short pieces landed. So will continue updating here. Have some longer ones still gently coming to the boil, but current events have confused everything. First up, a short commentary for my London institutional home RUSI.

Don’t Lose Sight of the Enduring Global Terrorist Threat

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Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary30 March 2020
UK Counter-terrorismTerrorismMiddle East and North Africa

As the world’s attention remains understandably concentrated on the Coronavirus pandemic, it is important to remember that other threats have not gone away.

Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), has started to tell its adherents to take advantage of the chaos in the West caused by the coronavirus pandemic to launch attacks. Beyond this, a series of worrying trends point to an international terrorist movement developing greater coherence and strength in preparation for another bout of violence. Largely unnoticed amongst the flood of information and disinformation about the global pandemic, a series of actions illustrates the persistent and chronic nature of the threat of international terrorism that the world still faces.

Daesh’s recommendation for its followers to take advantage of this moment to launch attacks was a shift in its narrative around the coronavirus pandemic. Previously, it had largely been passing instructions to its followers not dissimilar to what the WHO and governments were suggesting: to be careful in certain countries and practice good hygiene. It had also enjoyed the fact that China and Iran had been so badly hit, considering it ‘divine retribution’ for China’s treatment of Uighurs and for Iran’s Shia ‘apostasy’. This message was echoed by other groups, most prominently the Uighurs fighting in Syria, who appeared eager to celebrate China’s ‘punishment’. But until recently there had been little comment around the option of launching attacks under the cover of the coronavirus crisis.

In fact, international jihadist terrorism has been a receding concern for Western governments for some time. The absence of large-scale successful attacks directed by Daesh or Al-Qa’ida has removed the threat from the top of world leaders’ in-trays. And this was reinforced by two additional trends: the growing capability of security services to disrupt and counter organised terrorist plots, and an increased focus by terrorist groups towards their local environments rather than the preparation of international plots. The danger is that whenever we have witnessed similar trends in the past, they provided a lull which concluded with new and more creative threats coming back to strike us.

A growing coherence amongst terrorist organisations

There is evidence of growing coherence amongst the global jihadist movement. Rather than disintegrating, they appear to be developing and strengthening their connections. This has been most visible in Africa, where reporting from the Sahel suggests that Al-Qa’ida- and Daesh-aligned groups on the ground are working together. This cooperation is not entirely surprising. Ultimately, the two groups offer an ideology that is very similar and it is not uncommon to see adherents initially drawn into their orbits through a mix of ideological material from both. Yet, at a strategic level, the two have been in competition for some time, something that appears now to have been overcome within the Sahel, where a growing violent insurgency is displacing and killing thousands.

A similar, though maybe less surprising, level of coherence is visible within Al-Qa’ida’s various African factions. Lately, the group’s East African affiliate, Al-Shabaab, its West African representative, Jama’at Nasr Al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), and its Yemeni affiliate Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have all been releasing messages praising each other, marking the death of AQAP’s leader Qasim Al-Raymi, the death of a senior Tunisian jihadist, and generally demonstrating a high level of interaction. This has been seen and praised by Al-Qa’ida’s senior leadership, which has issued messages congratulating them on their operations.

Al-Shabaab has emphasised its fealty by emphasising that its attacks are being conducted in accordance with senior Al-Qa’ida figures orders, demonstrating a desire to connect with Al-Qa’ida’s global ambitions rather than simply be Africa-focused. Al-Shabaab has also been demonstrating a growing capability and ambition – attacking Western forces on their bases in East Africacontinuing to aim at targets in Kenya and even reportedly looking at international aviation as a potential target once again. JNIM has not quite achieved the same level of success, but a more worrying potential development for Al-Qa’ida was the recent agreement signed between the Taliban and the US government, in which the Taliban appeared to specifically agree to ensure the group could not use Afghanistan as a base of operations once again. While on the one hand, this statement might be moot (there have long been suspicions about Al-Qa’ida hiding in Iran or Pakistan), it is also yet to be proven how assiduous the Taliban will be in going after them. Assessing that this was something that they could game in their favour, Al-Qa’ida was quick to put out a statement praising the agreement and painting it – much like the Taliban’s leadership have – as a victory for the Afghan organisation, showing once again its ability to defeat empires.

Al-Qa’ida’s calculation is likely based on the fact that the Afghan government and the Taliban already appear to be facing difficulty coming to the table for the next stage of the process to conclude Afghanistan’s decades-long conflict. This fact, and the Taliban’s persistent willingness to let Al-Qa’ida elements operate in their territory, suggest that it is unlikely that any resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan is on the immediate horizon, or that Al-Qa’ida will find itself under greater pressure as a result of the agreement.

Iran tensions not helping

All of these moves are taking place against a backdrop of escalating US–Iran tensions. The brief intake of breath that took place in the wake of the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani has been filled by more strikes and deaths of Western forces in Iraq caused by Iranian-backed militias. The coronavirus pandemic may be the major focus in Tehran at the moment, but the Iranians have not forgotten the US and seem to now have moved beyond their self-imposed cease-fire in the wake of the mistaken downing of the Ukraine Airlines plane over Tehran on 8 January.

This is relevant to the context of Al-Qa’ida and Daesh for two reasons. First, Iran has regularly shown itself to be an agile manipulator of jihadist elements, able to pragmatically engage with them when it suited Tehran’s objectives. And at the moment, these groups will prove both a useful and deniable tool in Iran’s growing showdown with the US. Second, Iran’s interest in crushing Daesh in Syria and Iraq is likely receding so, as long as the group does not focus on Iran, Tehran is likely to look the other way.

Given Daesh’s growing profile in Africa in particular, the organisation still has some power of attraction, notwithstanding the loss of its ‘caliphate’. This continues to make the organisation dangerous, and any successful effort to rebuild its territorial structures in the Levant will give it a major boost internationally.

The danger is that these shifts will produce a dramatic terrorist attack which will shock the West out of its current collective coronavirus focus. Daesh’s suggestion to its adherents represents a first indication that the terrorist organisation sees the West as distracted, and may seize the opportunity to launch a dramatic attack. The broader trends that have been visible with Al-Qa’ida date back to before the current crisis, but show a threat picture which is developing in directions that warrant close attention.

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Tomasz “odder” Kozlowski/commons.wikimedia.org

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

Almost done with my slow catch up posting (and will do a media round-up in the next one), but here posting a recent piece for my new institutional home in Singapore, RSIS, for their online journal Counter Terrorist Trends and Analysis (CTTA). The piece focuses on the impact of General Soleimani’s death on the jihadist scene and Iran’s relationship with Sunni jihadists in general.

Soleimani’s Assassination: Could Jihadist Groups Benefit?

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Synopsis

While the geopolitical implications of General Qassim Soleimani’s killing have been well discussed, an understudied aspect is its impact on the jihadist terrorist milieu. The general assumption is that the act is either tangential to or undermines the fight against the Islamic State (IS), given Iran’s role in anti-IS operations on the ground in the Levant. However, it is not clear that either of these assumptions are true, or in what ways Soleimani’s death and its consequences might shape the future behaviour of jihadists.

The Current Milieu

On the surface, the global jihadist landscape remains dominated by two core factions – those aligned with al Qaeda (AQ) and those closer to IS. However, some jihadist factions continue to hedge against outwardly joining either side, and groups elsewhere around the world have pledged allegiance to IS, but with little evidence of a direct link or connection. At the ground level, it is sometimes not clear that individual adherents see the distinction in the same way that leadership cadres might, with arrests showing caches of radical material drawing from both pools. Similarly, in West Africa, there is growing evidence of cooperation between IS and AQ, though it is not clear if this is centrally mandated or coordinated.1

The growing importance of Africa in both groups’ global footprint is a more noticeable trend. For IS, that is represented through the growing influence and presence of IS-linked or inspired groups eager to brandish their connections – for example, there has been an increase in violence in the Sahel,2 Nigeria3 and Mozambique4 linked to groups that have been releasing videos through IS channels. AQ also continues to be represented on the battlefield through their own affiliates, though they appear less vocal. The growing reported alignment between AQ and IS-linked groups in the Sahel is an interesting regional development – unique globally according to senior US military officials serving in the region5 – whose larger significance is not yet clear.

Coherent Messaging

The exception in some ways for AQ is al Shabaab in East Africa, which has managed to demonstrate a constant capability and willingness to attempt ambitious attacks, while also maintaining a persistent public deference to AQ central.6 IS has recently also taken to pushing a pan-regional narrative in direct competition to al Shabaab.7 The link to AQ core is something that is reflected across the range of AQ affiliated groups who have in recent months shown a considerable degree of coherent messaging.8

IS in contrast continues to push to inspire wherever it can, with messages in support of its affiliates. While there is an equal degree of coherence in terms of style of messaging with AQ linked groups, it does not necessarily seem to fulfil the same role of seeking to bolster the centre and show higher levels of organisational coherence. In the wake of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s death, there appeared to be a rush from around the world of groups pledging allegiance to the new IS leader, with little clarity about how this affects the various groups or cells themselves.9 Given the continued questions around IS’ new leader – with some in the security community even doubting his existence – IS certainly appears to be less concerned about global organisational coherence than AQ.10

Focus on Local Conflicts

At the same time, neither group appears at the moment in a position to launch a strategically significant strike against the West or out of their immediate areas of operation. It is possible such plots are being disrupted, but, regardless, the net result is a loss in visible effectiveness. In some parts of the world, local authority weakness, societal fissures or external tensions have created a context where the group, or a cell pledging loyalty to them, might launch a strike.11 But evidence of centrally directed plots successfully launched by either group over the past year is lacking.

Rather, the groups appear to be focused on local conflicts in which they sometimes use the rhetoric of an international attack as a garb to shroud their attacks with greater meaning. For example, Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula’s (AQAP) most recent claim of responsibility of the Pensacola terrorist attack in Florida, showed little evidence of a connection beyond the group claiming the assailant as one of its own given his nationality as a Saudi.12

Iranian Manipulation

Contrary to popular consensus that it is the sworn enemy of Sunni jihadists, Iran has shown itself to be a pragmatic actor in dealing with violent Sunni groups. This partly stems from a well-spring of early support from across the Muslim divide for the Iranian revolution. In the early days of the revolution in 1979, the overthrow of the Shah was treated as an event in the same light as the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan or the Siege of Mecca – whereby dedicated believers, armed only with guns, the Koran and the zeal of their beliefs, were able to overthrow (or hurt) long-standing apostate regimes. The focus was on Islam and anti-imperialism rather than Sunni-Shia divides.13

Support of Violent Extremists

While Iran has continued to maintain its rhetoric of permanent revolution – something alluded to within its constitution14 – providing a logic that connected it with anti-imperialist movements around the world, for the most part, its links to violent groups have been highly pragmatic. For example, Iran has historically been supportive of Turkish Hezbollah, a Sunni group that has targeted Kurdish groups as well as Turkish authorities.15 From an Iranian perspective, supporting such a group is partly motivated by a desire to control Iran’s own Kurdish separatist regions as well as providing them a card to play against Turkey.

Since the early days of the revolution, Iran has also supported Hamas against Israel.16 Further, looking to Iran’s complicated border region with Pakistan, the long-standing Baluchi insurgency on both sides of the border has generated repeated accusations by Pakistan that Tehran is providing support to some Baluchi elements, specifically the Baloch Raji Aajoi Saangar (BRAS),17 a Sunni group that has targeted Pakistani security officials. Iran’s support appears tit-for-tat, but also an expression of concern against growing Saudi influence in Pakistan and particular investments in Baluchistan.

Iran’s relationship with the Taliban and AQ is also complicated. For years post-9/11, Iran hosted a number of senior AQ figures, alternatively jailing them and letting them run around under fairly loose supervision. This included senior figures like Saif al Adl and a number of Osama bin Laden’s close family. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the subsequent founder of al Qaeda in Iraq (the precursor to IS) was allowed to pass through Iran as he fled Afghanistan for northern Iraq.18 Iran appears to have held these individuals hostage as negotiating leverage as well as to protect themselves against future attacks by AQ. Nonetheless, relations between AQ and Iran have remained consistently antagonistic, something evidenced by comments within Osama bin Laden’s correspondence found in Abbottabad.19

In 1998, when the Taliban overran Mazar-e-Sharif, they reportedly massacred a group of 11 Iranians (including 9 diplomats), pushing the two sides to the brink of war.20 This soured relations such that following the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan by the United States, Tehran actively reached out to the US offering detailed maps of Taliban positions to aid in its attack plans.21 However, as the AmericanIranian relationship soured, the relationship between the Taliban and Tehran flourished. To the point that there was a Taliban Mashhad Shura formed, as well as Iranian support for Taliban groups in the north and west of Afghanistan.22 Iran’s calculations here appear to be driven by a desire to keep its hand in play in Afghanistan as well as formulate another way to frustrate the US.

Pragmatic Relations

The key takeaway from all of this interaction with the Sunni jihadist world is that Tehran is highly pragmatic in its relations with them. While there are clear moments of conflict, Iran is seemingly willing to overlook them in order to advance broader strategic goals. This perspective will unlikely change following the removal of Soleimani. Unlike a terrorist group, where the leader is a figure around whom great mystique, ideology and personal linkages flow, Soleimani was simply (albeit very charismatic) the leader of an army – an organisation with a fixed hierarchy and goals, promotion and division of labour. The overall approach may be massaged by a leader, but ultimately the institution will have political perspectives that are dictated elsewhere. This will not change with the removal of a general.

Jihadists’ View of Iran

While Iran may have a highly pragmatic and agnostic view of Sunni jihadist groups, it is equally clear that the groups themselves have fairly firm views on Iran. The clearest expression of this is in the numerous postings that appeared on extremist social media channels in the wake of Soleimani’s death. While AQ did not make a formal statement, its affiliate on the ground in Syria, Hurras al Din, celebrated his demise.23

In contrast, IS was more open in its gloating, with a message in late January from its new spokesman, Abu Hamza al Qarashi, celebrating Soleimani’s death, describing him as a ‘Safavid apostate’ and calling on God to curse him and all who supported him.24 The message followed an earlier one in IS’ newsletter al Naba, which hailed Soleimani’s death as a victory for the jihadist group.25 There was also substantial condemnation amongst the jihadist community for Hamas’ stance on Soleimani’s death.26

This does not mean jihadists would be averse to once again strike pragmatic deals with Iran if they advance broader strategic goals. They may shout anti-Iran rhetoric, and IS has in the past sought to accelerate its conflict with Iran with its June 2017 attack on the Parliament and Mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini, which followed its first ever Persian-language video.27 But outside this attack, the group has done little in advance of its animosity towards the Islamic Republic (though Iran has claimed numerous foiled attacks).

Moreover, while both IS and AQ might see Shi’ite apostates as enemies, it is not clear how much they are dependent on this narrative to generate supporters and recruits. It is notable, for example, that in IS’ messages claiming the 2017 attack in Tehran, they sought to emphasise the ethnicities of the various attackers – highlighting their Baluchi and Ahvazi heritage; two minorities within Iran with strained relations with Tehran.28 This suggests a narrative around the attack that attempts to manipulate local politics and tensions rather than rely solely on the simplistic Sunni-Shia divide.

Broader Geopolitics

While Iran is seen as the heart of an alliance of apostates that is oppressing Sunni Muslims in the Middle East, the jihadist community still seems fixated on its enemies in the West and the regimes they are supporting around the world. The Shia may also be seen as adversaries, but arguably, they are not a principal focus of the jihadist community. Soleimani’s death is unlikely to change the calculations for both sides (Tehran and the jihadist community) a vast amount.

Continued Operations Across Middle East

This is not to say that in key theatres where AQ and IS operate, including in Iraq and Syria, Soleimani’s death will not have some effect. While physically decimated, IS is still estimated to carry out 60 attacks a month in Iraq alone targeting security forces and local rivals, as it seeks to regroup around an estimated 20,000 hardcore fighters across the Iraq-Syria theatre.29 While concerned about IS’ regrowth in Syria, Iran will likely continue to focus their efforts through either their forces on the ground or Iraqi or Syrian proxies. The removal of Soleimani is not going to change this approach.

Rather, the greater impact will be on the broader US-Iran clash, where the escalation marked by the removal of Soleimani will give Iran and its proxies a greater sense of latitude in their operations. This will concern Saudi Arabia, Iran’s principle adversary in the Gulf, who has been noticeably careful in official statements to downplay any gloating over Soleimani’s death.30

This perspective provides an interesting resonance to the broader question of the longer-term consequence of the strike for Sunni jihadist groups. For the US, this strike was part of a maximum pressure campaign against Iran that appears to be intended to topple the Tehran regime. It also came as the US continued to agitate to withdraw its troops from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. If US President Donald Trump is successful in his desire to pull US forces out of these Middle Eastern theatres, the resultant vacuum is one that will likely be filled by instability or Iran-Saudi tensions.

Filling the Security Vacuum

These tensions might express themselves through proxies like Sunni jihadist groups, but it is likely that these groups’ actions will be a combination of manipulation and individual agency. While IS and AQ (or other Sunni jihadist groups like the Taliban or those in Syria) might take advantage of the security vacuum that follows a US withdrawal to grow once again, their adversaries (including Iran) will likely retaliate. This will give Iran’s foes an opportunity to provide support to their enemies’ enemy. So, as IS advances and the Iraqi and Syrian sides push back against them with Iranian support, it would be unsurprising if some support flows towards IS from Gulf backers.31

Similarly, in Afghanistan in the peace deal that was signed, the Taliban seemed to appear willing to sever their links with AQ.32 While there has been much scepticism around this declaration and earlier intent by the Taliban to sever such links,33 the new agreement might provide a context in which Tehran could once again seek to play its cards with AQ to maintain some leverage against Taliban – a group with which they have deep historical enmity which may have only temporarily been put to one side. It might also be useful leverage in Iran’s broader conflict with the US – who by virtue of the latest agreement are (theoretically at least) now allied with the Taliban against AQ and IS.

Conclusion

The Sunni jihadist milieu is one that paints itself as ideologically pure. Yet it can be as brutally pragmatic as its state-based adversaries. In Tehran, the leadership also appears happy to cooperate with its perceived adversaries to ensure broader strategic goals. The death of General Soleimani will not alter such calculations, and rather may herald a period of greater confrontation between Iran and the world which will have the corollary effect of both weakening some of the alliances fighting against Sunni jihadist groups (for example in Iraq and Syria) while also increasing the willingness for Iran to use or manipulate proxies to launch attacks around the world.

Given the disruption or success of historical plots by Iranian linked networks in places as diverse as Thailand, India, Georgia, Cyprus, Argentina, Nigeria, Bulgaria, and the US, amongst others, the conflict against its enemies (Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia) from Tehran’s perspective has no borders. While a permanent alignment between Tehran and IS or AQ is unlikely, there is not likely to be much of a focused effort in eradicating either group by Tehran. In fact, it is possible and likely that Tehran will see IS, AQ and their various affiliates as useful potential assets to manipulate (if they are able) in their increasingly aggressive confrontation with the US.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence, Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit within the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be contacted at israffaello@ntu.edu.sg.

1 Eric Schmitt, “Terrorism Threat in West Africa Soars as US Weighs Troop Cuts,” New York Times, February 27, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/27/world/africa/ter rorism-west-africa.html.

2 Jason Burke, “Sahel faces surge in violence from terror attacks,” Guardian, January 22, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/22/sah el-faces-surge-in-violence-from-terror-attacks.

3 “Islamic State in Nigeria ‘beheads Christian hostages’,” BBC News, December 27, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-50924266.

4 Peter Fabricius, “Is Islamic State taking charge of Mozambique’s jihadist insurgency,” Institute for Security Studies Today, January 10, 2020, https://issafrica.org/iss-today/is-islamic-state-takingcharge-of-mozambiques-jihadist-insurgency.

5 Adrian Blomfield and Will Brown, “British troops back on front line against jihadists as war on terror spreads to Africa,” Telegraph, March 1, 2020, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/03/01/britishtroops-back-front-line-against-jihadists-war-terror/.

6 The attack on the Dusit hotel in Nairobi in January 2019 (James Kahongeh, “How Dusit terror attack unfolded,” Daily Nation, January 15, 2020, https://www.nation.co.ke/news/How-Dusit-terrorattack-unfolded/1056-5418518-bp715yz/index.html) and the attack on US and Italian forces in September 2019 (Caleb Weiss, “Sahabaab strikes American, Italian forces in Somalia,” Long War Journal, September 30, 2019, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2019/09/shabaab-strikes-american-italian-forces-in-somalia.php) show ambition, while their praise of AQAP’s Pensacola attack claim and the reference in the Dusit attack to being Zawahiri’s soldiers shows deference: “Blessing and Salutations for the Military Operation at the US navy base in Pensacola, Florida,” Al Kataib Media, February 2, 2020, https://twitter.com/Magdashi3/status/12249689 22329505792.

7 “Islamic State video seeks recruits in East Africa,” BBC Monitoring, February 28, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201hy23 – it is also notable how al Shabaab is being reported as broadening its recruitment base, Nicholas Komu, “AlShabaab changes tack, targets jobless youths in Nyeri slums,” Daily Nation, March 1, 2020, https://www.nation.co.ke/news/Al-Shabaab-targetsyouth-in-Nyeri-slums/1056-5474832- xagos9z/index.html.

8 This can be seen in some of the aforementioned incidents, but also see Caleb Weiss, “Al Qaeda’s general command praises recent Shabaab attacks,” Long War Journal, October 17, 2019, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2019/10/alqaeda-praises-recent-shabaab-attacks.php.

9 “Regional affiliates start pledging loyalty to new IS leader,” November 2, 2019, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c2017fwd; Mina al-Lami, “Analysis: Decoding Islamic State’s allegiance videos,” BBC Monitoring, October 7, 2019, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c20150sr

10 Mina al-Lami, “Analysis: Ongoing uncertainties about identity of new Islamic State leader,” BBC Monitoring, January 24, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201eozr and Martin Chulov and Mohammed Rasool, ISIS founding member confirmed by spies as group’s new leader,” Guardian, January 20, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/20/isisleader-confirmed-amir-mohammed-abdul-rahman-almawli-al-salbi; there appears to be a debate about his identity which even a report in the Guardian reportedly sourced from numerous intelligence sources has not cleared up. IS’ recent statement referred to the new leader again, without showing him.

11 The Easter 2019 attack in Sri Lanka is arguably an archetypal example of this.

12 Thomas Joscelyn, “AQAP claims ‘full responsibility’ for shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola,” Long War Journal, February 2, 2020, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2020/02/aq ap-claims-full-responsibility-for-shooting-at-naval-airstation-pensacola.php.

13 Emmanuel Sivan, “Sunni radicalism in the Middle East and the Iranian Revolution,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol.21, no.1, February 1989, pp.1-30.

14 “Chapter One: Tehran’s Strategic Intent,” Iran’s Networks of Influence in the Middle East, (IISS Strategic Dossier: London), November 2019, pp.11- 38, https://www.iiss.org/publications/strategicdossiers/iran-dossier/iran-19-03-ch-1-tehransstrategic-intent.

15 Fatih Altayli, “Is Iran Supporting Turkish Hezbollah?,” Al Monitor, April 16, 2013, https://www.almonitor.com/pulse/security/2013/04/turkey-iranhezbollah-support.html; there is a live debate about the degree to which Iran is involved with the group. People close to the group deny (“Huda-Pars emergence,” The Economist, November 23, 2013) while Turkish sources tend to highlight links (Mustafa Cosar Unal and Tuncay Unal, “Recruitment or enlistment? Individual integration into the Turkish Hezbollah,” Turkish Studies, vol. 19, No.3, 2018, pp.327-362)

16 Adnan Abu Amer, “The Hamas-Iran alliance remains and expands,” Middle East Monitor, January 14, 2019, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20190114-thehamas-iran-alliance-remains-and-expands/; “Chapter One: Tehran’s Strategic Intent,” Iran’s Networks of Influence in the Middle East, (IISS Strategic Dossier: London), November 2019, pp.11-38, https://www.iiss.org/publications/strategicdossiers/iran-dossier/iran-19-03-ch-1-tehransstrategic-intent.

17 Shahaburddin Shahab, “Pakistan asks Iran to act on militants behind Baluchistan killings,” Reuters, April 20, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/uspakistan-iran/pakistan-asks-iran-to-act-on-militantsbehind-baluchistan-killings-idUSKCN1RW0EQ.

18 Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden (UK: Bloomsbury), August 2017.

19 Nelly Lahoud, “Al-Qa’ida’s Contested Relationship with Iran: The View from Abbottabad,” New America Foundation, September 2018, https://s3.amazonaws.com/newamericadotorg/docu ments/AlQaidas_Contested_Relationship_with_Iran_2018- 08-20_151707.pdf.

20 Douglas Jehl, “Iran holds Taliban responsible for 9 diplomats’ deaths,” New York Times, September 11, 1998, https://www.nytimes.com/1998/09/11/world/iranholds-taliban-responsible-for-9-diplomatsdeaths.html.

21 Dexter Filkins, “The Shadow Commander,” New Yorker, September 23, 2013, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/09/30/th e-shadow-commander.

22 Javid Ahmad and Husain Haqqani, “What does Soleimani’s death mean for Afghanistan?,” The Hill, February 6, 2020, https://thehill.com/opinion/international/481884-whatdoes-soleimanis-death-mean-for-afghanistan.

23 “Syria-based jihadist group reportedly welcomes Soleimani’s death,” BBC Monitoring, January 12, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201dr8l.

24 “Text of IS spokesman’s message announcing new phase in jihad,” BBC Monitoring, January 27, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201f2pb.

25 “IS gloats at death of Soleimani in first comment on US-Iran crisis,” January 9, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201dfp7.

26 “Jihadist supporters condemn Hamas for mourning Soleimani,” BBC Monitoring, January 7, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201d54j.

27 Chris Zambelis, “Terror in Tehran: The Islamic State Goes to War with the Islamic Republic,” CTC Sentinel, vol.10, no.6, June/July 2017, https://ctc.usma.edu/terror-in-tehran-the-islamicstate-goes-to-war-with-the-islamic-republic/.

28 Ibid.

29 Loveday Morris and Louisa Loveluck, “Killing of ISIS leader has not hurt group’s operations, says Iraqi Kurdish prime minister,” Washington Post, February 15, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/killing-of-isisleader-has-not-hurt-groups-operations-says-iraqikurdish-leader/2020/02/15/d3e7303a-4ff8-11eaa4ab-9f389ce8ad30_story.html

30 Yasmine Farouk, “What does the US killing of Soeimani mean for Saudi Arabia?,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Commentary, January 7, 2020, https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/01/07/whatdoes-u.s.-killing-of-soleimani-mean-for-saudi-arabiapub-80722

31 Martin Williams, “Factcheck Q&A: Is Saudi Arabia funding ISIS?,” Channel 4 News, June 7, 2017, https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/factcheck -qa-is-saudi-arabia-funding-isis

32 “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America,” February 29, 2020, https://www.state.gov/wpcontent/uploads/2020/02/Agreement-For-BringingPeace-to-Afghanistan-02.29.20.pdf

33 This skepticism was well articulated by Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, “Trump’s Bad Deal with the Taliban,” Politico, March 18, 2019, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/03/18/ donald-trump-afghanistan-zalmay-khalilzad-225815 and was particularly illustrated in the death of Asim Umar in Afghanistan in September 2019, “Asim Umar: Al-Qaeda’s South Asia chief ‘killed in Afghanistan’,” BBC News, October 8, 2019 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-49970353.

More catch up posting, this time for my old London base RUSI’s Newsbrief publication with an excellent colleague Shashi from my new Singapore base RSIS. It tries to offer some ideas from Singapore about how the UK might want to deal with some of the problems it is trying to manage at moment around radicalised offenders (though admittedly this problem has slipped from the front and center amidst the current COVID-19 mess).

The Singapore Model: A New Deradicalisation Approach for the UK?

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Shashi Jayakumar and Raffaello Pantucci
RUSI Newsbrief13 March 2020
UK Counter-terrorismTackling ExtremismUKTerrorism

The UK is currently going through a process of re-evaluating and rethinking some of its key approaches to managing terrorism offenders. Looking at Singapore’s model would be a good start for policymakers.

 Download Article (PDF)

Recent terrorist attacks in the UK have highlighted key problems in the country’s counterterrorism systems and policies. Chief among them is the need to manage terrorism offenders for substantial periods of time, and what programmes need to be in place to ensure that society is protected. As the UK considers refreshing its strategy, some lessons from the Singaporean experience might be helpful. The contexts are different, but the long-term engagement model employed by Singapore might offer useful lessons for the UK.

One key piece of legislation is Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA) which facilitates detention orders. The ISA is in fact, with several modifications, a remnant of British colonialism, which was drawn up as part of emergency regulations when Singapore and Malaya were embroiled in a communist insurgency during the 1950s and 1960s. Despite periodic criticism by human rights organisations that the ISA is simply detention without trial, there are numerous safeguards – for example, a detention order must be reviewed by an independent ISA advisory board headed by a Supreme Court judge – and independent checks and routes of appeal that exist to protect its abuse by the government.

The first use of the ISA in the post-9/11 era in Singapore took place when a cell of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Al-Qa’ida’s chief affiliate in Southeast Asia, who were responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings, was discovered in Singapore in December 2001. All members of the cell came from the Singaporean Muslim community. One of the plots they had under development was the bombing of diplomatic missions in Singapore including the UK High Commission.

The government calculated that putting these individuals on trial would have been detrimental for ethnic relations in Singapore. Consequently, they instead chose to use the ISA to manage the offenders. The use of the ISA within this context is seen by detractors as punitive, but from the authorities’ point of view it is an effective way of managing rehabilitation in a controlled environment. As Singapore’s Home Affairs minister K Shanmugam has observed, ‘we have a clear process, detention, rehabilitate and release. You detain them and you don’t do anything else with them and you put them away, then their lives are not going to get better. And you’re not doing anything to deal with the situation really’.

The point is not to lock the door on people and throw the key away. Detainees are engaged and counselled one-on-one by Ustadz (Islamic scholars) in an intensive manner. In separate sessions, psychologists from the Home Affairs ministry regularly engage these individuals, with their assessments, as well as those by the Ustadz, forming a key part of the decision to eventually release detainees.

This programme, called the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), was developed and staffed by concerned and well-respected Ustadz in concert with the authorities. These religious leaders had realised after their initial interactions with the detainees that the vast majority had completely mistaken understandings of key concepts like ‘jihad’, ‘al-wala al-bara’ (loyalty and disavowal), ‘hijrah’ (migration), and living in ‘dar ul-kufr’ (non-Muslim land). Many, misled by the charismatic leaders of their cell, had come to believe that it was proscribed by Islamic law to live in a Westernised society like Singapore.

Throughout this process a path to release is open – should detainees show that they have been responsive to counselling, demonstrate genuine contrition and evince a change of perspective. Assessments of effectiveness are undertaken through repeated and continual engagement.

Social support is a critical element of the overall approach. Vocational training or job placements are given to detainees to facilitate social reintegration. In addition, during detention, families of offenders are given help as often the sole breadwinner is incarcerated. This aspect should not be underestimated as it plays a part in ensuring that the family is not radicalised; it may also alter the mindset of the detainee, seeing that their ‘enemy’ is offering support and help to their family, including, for example, school bursaries for children. A number of assistance schemes for the individual and family continue well after release. This ‘aftercare’ aspect, handled by the Inter-Agency Aftercare Group, which works closely with the RRG and the authorities, plays a role in keeping the recidivism rate low. Only two out of approximately 100 individuals who have been through the ISA’s preventive detention and RRG counselling have had to be detained again.

The RRG has gained acceptance from the Malay-Muslim community over time. This is partly to do with the fact that a large part of RRG efforts are organic and stand on their own, without funding from the state. The family and community support structures which have developed over time to deal with other social problems within the Malay-Muslim community, such as drugs, have been adapted to aid families affected by radicalisation.

Upon release, many individuals are, depending on the assessment of the authorities, kept on a Restriction Order (RO) for some time afterwards. This places restrictions on the movements of the individual. Other conditions of the RO might include needing approval prior to joining any organisation, or mandatory further religious counselling. Those who demonstrate further progress eventually (typically after a few years) have their RO lapse.

This approach delivered some success with the first wave of jihadists that Singapore faced post-9/11. For around 90% of the JI cases this meant eventual release. The remaining 10% (fewer than 10 individuals) were key influencers, or hardened radicals whose ideas are unlikely to change. They remain incarcerated. Engagement with them continues.

Things have changed since 2013 with the start of the war in Syria and the growth of the Islamic State. Rather than networked individuals, the threat picture has been made up of isolated individuals, often young ‘meaning seekers’ or those seeking diversion from their own personal problems, radicalised through online connections and in some cases seeking and succeeding to travel to Syria and Iraq.

The radicalisation process has also been compressed considerably. Whereas with the first cohort the time taken from initial contact with ideas to action was years, with the new cohort it is closer to nine months. The RRG’s success rate amongst this new cohort is nearer to 25 per cent at the moment.

The exact reasons for this are unclear. One possible explanation might be the changing salience of religious ideology. The Islamic State’s emphasis on online radicalisation creates a very different social environment around the individual where religion plays a changed role. Another crucial difference is that the Islamic State actually had a territorial ‘caliphate’ it controlled meaning the idea of hijrah was more important than in the previous phase of Singaporean extremists as they had a place to migrate to.

This new generation of Islamic State recruits seem to have a less thorough grounding in the core tenets of Islam than their JI predecessors. They learn about Islam from online sources – ‘Sheikh Google’ as it is known – and are partial to more radical preachers like Anwar Al-Awlaki or Abdullah el Faisal than classical preachers. Given this, RRG religious advisers may have less influence over the detainees.

The ‘Singapore model’ has concomitantly had to evolve. There are younger, more tech-savvy counsellors who are familiar with online vocabularies, and who can attempt to engage with younger individuals who self-educate online, but actually may know a lot less about their religion than the first batch of JI detainees. It appears Singaporean authorities are starting to refine their programme. A 17-year old boy was recently detained and assigned a mentor. This mentor will help him to focus on his rehabilitation, studies and family, and also guide him to develop ‘life skills’.

The pool of radicalised individuals has become more diverse. Aside from Islamic State recruits, several Singaporean citizens have travelled to Yemen to fight against the Houthi. Women have travelled to Syria from Singapore and married Islamic State fighters. In response, the RRG now has female counsellors to advise female detainees.

The key principle of the programme remains that no individual is released until the state has confidence they will not re-offend. This does not guarantee success, and as has been highlighted, there have been some cases of recidivism, but it does provide a measure of protection.

Looking at this experience from a UK perspective, there are some immediate similarities. First, offenders are more likely to be radicalised online. There is also a growing volume of individuals with mental health issues or autism spectrum disorders who are becoming embroiled in terrorist networks. This presents a very complicated problem to manage, both in terms of the direct threat and subsequent rehabilitation.

The UK has developed a number of programmes focused on trying to rehabilitate offenders. The Desistance and Disengagement Programme, seeks to engage with individuals using a range of psychological, theological and social supports to provide them with a new path. Similarly, programmes have been developed which seek to engage with offenders on an individual level to understand their specific path to radicalisation. One such programme, Operation Constrain, met considerable pushback when it emerged in the press. The UK also has an overworked probation service whose responsibility it is to engage with offenders when they are released and ensure that they do not slip back into their old ways.

But there are also significant differences from the Singaporean context. Much of the UK’s programming in this space was developed or co-opted by the government. While elements of the UK’s Muslim community engage with specific programmes to help with delivery – for example, counter-extremism programmes like Building a Stronger Britain Together – many organisations have become dependent on government support to survive. In fact, it is often contact with the government that creates problems for effective programmes as the link undermines the perceived independence of the programme. It is crucial to find ways of encouraging community leadership and be seen to maintain independence.

The UK also does not have indeterminate sentencing for terrorist offenders. However, in the past the UK had a system of imprisonment for public protection (IPP). In these cases, an individual served a specific sentence and then following that appeared regularly before a parole board who determined their suitability for release. The IPP system was first introduced in 2005 and then abolished in 2012. The key failing of the system was that there were not adequate rehabilitative programmes in place to help offenders make the appropriate behavioural changes needed for the parole board to permit their release.

Finally, a crucial distinction to draw between the two contexts is one of volume. While Singapore detained approximately 70 individuals from the JI and close to 30 self-radicalised individuals since 2001, with several dozen individuals judged to pose less of a threat if placed directly on RO, the UK has hundreds of cases. This places a much greater burden on the resources required for the intensive engagement that this rehabilitation method requires.

However, it must be remembered that only a small fraction of individuals convicted of terrorist offences go back to commit further terrorist offences. This highlights a key strength of the Singaporean model – long-term engagement with extremists. This may mean that with particularly hard cases long detention periods, with all the adequate judicial protections around it, are necessary. Given that UK courts are unlikely to permit the introduction of the detention orders permissible under Singapore’s ISA (and the even less likely situation that the government would be able to retroactively impose this on individuals currently in jail where most of the problem currently lies), what instead needs to be created is a more intensive probation system around certain offenders which focuses on continually trying to push them in the right direction while ensuring they do not revert to violence.

None of this will necessarily create a completely fullproof system. And it is one that will require constant adapting and updating. The problem of radicalisation does not have any easy or simple solutions. Numerous other countries have tried approaches which have shown some levels of success – Denmark for example, which uses a very different approach to Singapore. Taking inspiration from other countries might provide the UK with a more effective model to deal with radicalised individuals. But whatever the case, a key lesson is that in order to effectively manage the problem, a substantial long-term investment will be required.

Shashi Jayakumar
Shashi is a Senior Fellow and Head of Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

Raffaello Pantucci
Raffaello is a Senior Associate Fellow at RUSI and a Visiting Senior Fellow at RSIS.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Terence Ong/Wikimedia Commons.

As usual have been distracted in real life to get around to posting here, so have a bit of catching up to do. That and the fact that the world seems to be becoming utterly consumed by this virus nightmare, makes you wonder what the longer term consequences of everything really are. But in any case, been writing for a few new outlets and here is the first of a few pieces that emerged recently. First up is a blog post for the French Institut Montaigne, an interesting think tank that is close to President Macron. Thanks to Mathieu and Viviana for their invitation and work on this. Looks at the already faltering peace deal in Afghanistan and China’s general appetite on engagement within the country.

The US-Afghanistan Peace Agreement and a Detached China

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It has not taken long for the strains in the US-Taliban agreement to show. Within hours of signing the agreement, Afghan authorities appeared to be contradicting one of its key pillars. Within days, there was a noticeable return to violence, with the Taliban attacking government positions, the US striking Taliban forces and civilians getting killed. As more time has passed, perspectives are appearing to become more entrenched. What has been noticeable, however, has been the largely quiet response from Beijing, one of Afghanistan’s potentially most consequential neighbors that has played a relatively limited role in the country until now. A question lingering in the back of most regional planning is at what stage might Beijing ultimately step forwards to play a more proactive role.

An agreement for bringing peace

The agreement itself – at least the published part – appears fairly thin gruel. The rather clunky title “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America” reflects the immense complexity that undoubtedly underpins the broader effort to get to the position where the two sides were able to sign a document. The fact it has taken such a short period of time for the seams to show is a reflection of the rush with which it was assembled. This was an agreement to paper over an intense American desire to leave Afghanistan.

And to some degree this perspective is an understandable one. Washington has now been engaged in Afghanistan for almost two decades, and it is hard to see where the end of this conflict might lie. Simply slugging on may exhaust further American blood and treasure without changing much.

At the same time, the precipitous nature of the US withdrawal as it is currently structured appears to answer a US political need and calendar rather than any Afghan interests. For President Trump, an agreement with the Taliban and withdrawal from Afghanistan will be another foreign policy victory he will add to the list that he will no doubt repeatedly shout about on the campaign trail – adding a cowed Taliban to the roster of dead terrorist enemies (which includes ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s leader Qasim al-Rimi and Iranian General Qasem Soleimani).

The impact of such a precipitous withdrawal is not clear. Many point to the fact that it took a few years for President Najibullah to hang after the Soviet withdrawal, with many ascribing the end of foreign aid to his government as the final nail in his coffin. But Afghanistan today is not the same country it was almost three decades ago, and the Taliban are not the same organization they were two decades ago. And in contrast to then when China was a far weaker power still emerging on the international stage, Afghanistan now borders one of the world’s fastest-growing economies (Coronavirus excepted). In many ways, it could be Beijing’s response now that will help shape Afghanistan’s future – be this in terms of investment in infrastructure, encouraging bilateral trade and playing a more proactive role in stabilizing the country in political, economic and security terms. How Beijing steps forwards could shape Afghanistan’s future.

China’s circumspection

So far, Beijing has been circumspect in its response to the peace negotiations. They have not been hugely positive, nor very critical. Rather they have said they will support the process and welcome a clean resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan. In gently critical pieces they suggest that the United States has more responsibility around blame than the Taliban, though they are very careful to not to point too many fingers.

This careful approach is a product of the fact that Afghanistan appears to be one of the few places where the US and China might still effectively cooperate. Notwithstanding tensions elsewhere, Beijing and Washington were able to craft a series of engagements in Afghanistan which they delivered together. However, this approach has been sorely tested since the arrival of the Trump administration and their single-minded and aggressive focus on China. This has extended to harsh criticisms of China’s activity around its western periphery with Secretary of State Pompeo attacking China’s activity in Central Asia during a visit last month, following blunt comments by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of South and Central Asian Affairs Ambassador Alice Wells about China’s activity in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In blunt terms, she excoriated China’s involvement in Afghanistan during a Congressional hearing. While she acknowledged China’s willingness to engage on peace talks, in no uncertain terms she stated “I think that it is fair to say China has not contributed to the economic development of Afghanistan. We have not seen any substantial assistance from China. The Belt and Road is just a slogan.” Just over two months later in a public discussion at the Wilson Center, she repeated these statements as part of a broader assault on China’s Belt and Road activities. When asked about Afghanistan she responded “I haven’t seen China take the steps that would make it a real contributor to Afghanistan’s stabilization, much less stitching it back into the Central Asia and the international community.

Unsurprisingly, this generated angry commentary in the nationalist Chinese Global Times newspaper which attacked Ambassador Wells and accused the United States of continually failing to provide an “efficient resolution to boost the Afghan peace process.” In an interesting contrast, the newly installed Chinese Ambassador to Kabul Wang Yu responded to Ambassador Wells with a detailed presentation about China’s contribution to Afghanistan, including detail about the collaborative efforts that the US and China had done together. This more conciliatory approach likely reflects a desire by China to be seen as at least leaving itself open to cooperating in Afghanistan.

China no longer fears a US withdrawal

At the same time, however, it is not clear that Beijing has much plan to step forwards into the Afghan mess. Beijing has spent considerable time and effort over the past few years strengthening the various sides of the border that it shares with Afghanistan – it has provided investment and equipment support to Tajik border forces, Pakistani security forces in Gilgit-Baltistan, and hardened its own direct border.

It has provided support for Afghan forces in Badakhshan (in the form of camps, equipment, training and some joint patrolling), and it has sought to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) more engaged in the country. Particularly notably, it also instigated the creation of the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) that brings together the Afghan, Chinese, Pakistani and Tajikistani Chiefs of Military Staff and has started to explore doing joint training exercises together.

All of this means that China is not too concerned about security problems in Afghanistan having a direct impact back on itself, or what concerns it might have it has now created buffers against. And any problems they might generate in Central Asia or Pakistan are likely already factored into the regional instability that China expects in these regions. As a result, from Beijing’s perspective, there is little to be concerned about with regard to Afghanistan becoming a source of instability for China. It would appear that China’s security apparatus heeded Xi Jinping’s reported closed-door 2014 declarations about protecting the country from trouble from Afghanistan in the face of potential American draw-down.

This stands in contrast to the past, where Beijing was very alarmed by the prospect of an abrupt American withdrawal and did little about it. When such talk circulated in the early 2010s, Beijing started to panic, worried it would be left with chaos on its border though at that stage was not very confident about what would need to be done beyond hedging through Pakistani proxies. Flash forward and Chinese analysts are far more sanguine about Afghanistan. The government may survive, the Taliban may come in, fighting may break out, but China is unlikely to be impacted by much of this. Its limited investment projects in the country have not really delivered much, and while it is a positive aid contributor to the country, it has not taken the burden on that it might. No-one in Beijing is advocating for the PLA to deploy in the country. Rather, this time around, it would seem as though China is distancing itself from the American withdrawal, positioning itself as the honest broker who will be there and friends with whoever takes power. And in the event of complete chaos, China has now strengthened its direct borders insulating it from direct trouble.

Keeping the Afghan problem at bay

Earlier discussions of China acting as a ‘security guarantor’ seem to have fallen by the wayside, and China seems to have given up the role of hosting the intra-Afghan talks. Beijing, it could be concluded, sees little good coming from the abrupt American withdrawal and wants to be as disassociated from the mess as possible. This would fit with the largely flat comments to have emerged from the MFA and Xinhua in the wake of the talks as they essentially wait the situation out.

What is also clear, however, is that the goodwill that had been generated between the US and China over Afghanistan has likely gone. From Beijing’s perspective, everything is now shaped through the lens of its conflict with the United States and COVID-19. Within this context, it might actually be preferable for the United States to stay bogged down in Afghanistan as this will distract Washington’s attention from China. Afghanistan used to be a place for potential cooperation, but this is likely not the case anymore. But Beijing is no longer fussed. This time China has laid its groundwork and is in a far more comfortable position to weather any chaos that might follow the implementation of the US-Taliban agreement. Washington may think this is a problem on China’s doorstep, but Beijing has hedged itself against most eventualities.