Archive for the ‘THINK TANKS’ Category

With this am now up to date on published work, though have various other pieces that are now working their way through the publication process which should emerge soon in various forms. This last piece was done rather last minute after an invitation to present before an online session of joint hearing by two US House of Representative Committees. Consequently my statement, published below, was not footnoted and probably needed a bit of tidying. Here is the actual recording of the session, and forgive any doziness, it was very early morning for me.

Raffaello Pantucci

Senior Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), UK

Joint Committee Hearing of House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Energy, the Environment and Cyber & House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism

Transatlantic Cooperation on Countering Global Terrorism and Violent Extremism

September 21, 2021

The terrorist threat picture faced by Europe and North America is one that has only become more complicated as time has gone on. While the overall numbers of casualties may have gone down, the variety of ideologies, places of origin and nature of plots has only become more complicated in the past two decades. At the same time, cooperation between North America and Europe in countering these threats has only become tighter. To provide a survey of the entire picture in the time available would be an exercise in futility, and as a consequence, I am going to focus on two principal threat areas that that face the Transatlantic Alliance in the short term. First is the menace of lone actor terrorism which is repeatedly spoken of as the priority menace on both sides of the Atlantic (and further afield), and second the fall-out from events in Afghanistan. These remarks will be concise given space restrictions, but will hopefully provide some broader food for thought.

Lone Actor Terrorism

Since its early expressions in the late 2000s (though some would trace it back even further), lone actor terrorism as a methodology has become the principal source of terrorist attacks in Europe and North America. Whilst there can be no doubt that sophisticated terrorist networks are still keen to launch large-scale plots, it has become increasingly difficult for them to penetrate western security barriers. This is a clear source of success for the Transatlantic Alliance that has been able to construct a set of security perimeters that regularly frustrate attempts by terrorist groups to successfully attack on a larger-scale. But it has also exposed the reality that lone actor plots are exceptionally hard to detect and prevent.

The reasons for this difficulty are multi-faceted. The most obvious aspect is the fact that such attacks involve low technology weapons that are often fashioned from tools from every day life, with short flash-to-bang periods, and are often undertaken by highly volatile individuals who are difficult to legally detain pre-attack. The growing dominance of knives and vehicles in terrorist attack planning makes it difficult for security agencies to use traditional tripwires to try to prevent such incidents, and in the United States the easy availability of high grade firearms amplifies the effect of such attacks. Europe is to some degree protected from this particular aspect of the threat, given the lower availability (though this is not always the case as exemplified by attackers in Hanau or Oslo, or even further afield, Christchurch).

At the same time, terrorist ideologies have increasingly pushed their adherents towards the lone actor attack methodology. Al Qaeda, ISIS and parts of the extreme right wing (XRW) have all advanced the lone actor methodology of attack through their publications and narratives. Likely in part realizing the complexity of successfully launching large-scale plots and recognizing the potential impact a successful lone actor attack can have, terrorist groups have sought to make it easier for individuals to launch attacks in support of their ideology. ISIS in particular fashioned a very simple narrative for people to launch incidents that could be associated with their ideology, thereby providing a frame which many different individuals could use to add meaning to acts of violence that they might otherwise have committed anyway out of their own personal rage.

But the problem with these ideas is that they have a habit of drifting beyond your intended audience. They become common currency which is widely accepted and discussed, creating an easy template that anybody (or any group) can adopt. It is noticeable for example the degree to which right wing groups have taken on similar narratives, seeking to persuade their own followers to consider similar attack methodologies to those being advanced by their putative ideological adversaries in ISIS. While it is clear that this typology is not new to the extreme right – the idea of lone wolf terrorism is something that has long been embedded in extreme right thinking – the success of it in recent years for groups like ISIS or al Qaeda has awakened the effectiveness of its use to a wider audience.

And even more problematically than this, the methodology is now entirely accessible even to an audience whose ideological frame is absent or confused. In recent years, the UK’s Home Office has started to note an increase in cases of individuals who appear to have an ideological framing which is defined as “mixed, unstable or unclear.” This group have a habit of being radicalised in the classical sense, but when investigators dig into their ideological leanings, they find a confused collection of sometimes directly contradictory ideas. These highly idiosyncratic ideologies are clearly coherent in the individual’s mind, but nowhere else. Some have identified that some school shooters are similar in their outlooks, drafting manifestos prior to their attacks. Yet the attack methodology they all lean towards is a simple one, using weapons that are easily accessible and clearly aping the approach that has been popularized by ISIS or the extreme right. They appear to be ISIS or XRW attacks and yet in reality are probably something different.

Even more complicated than the ideological aspect is the mental state of some of these individuals. Whilst one has to pay attention to not entirely remove agency from the culprit, it is clear that a growing volume of offenders are people with histories of mental health disorder or neuropsychological disorders. This means you have a growing cohort of lone actor attacks that are being conducted by individuals who appear to have a confused ideological leaning, and whose mental faculties are not entirely competent. While there is a larger discussion to be had about the degree to which we should even be considering these individuals as part of the terrorism cohort (operating on the assumption that perpetrators defined as terrorists should at least have a clear political motivation inspiring them, something entirely confused in this group), from a security agency perspective this poses a major problem. A successful lone actor in this mould will in the first instance be considered a terrorist actor, leading to all of the societal tensions and complications that generates. And for first response authorities and those being injured or murdered in the attack, there is little distinction to them in a lone actor that is linked to ISIS to one that is instead inspired by a confusing mess of ideas.

But this is where the larger transatlantic alliance might want to start to explore greater cooperation and consideration. This is a problem we have seen in Europe just as much as in North America (or even further afield in alliance countries like New Zealand or Singapore). Cooperation in this space is however highly complicated as ultimately the battle is one which is not going to be successfully fought on battlefields.

In cooperative terms, three key areas identify themselves as places to focus attention going forwards. These build on years of effective counter-terrorism cooperation across the Atlantic, and reflect the complicated nature of the lone actor threat in particular.

First is on the ideological side. There is a growing interweaving of ideas and groups across the Atlantic (and more widely) online. This spread has meant that ideologies can be spawned in the United States which resonate widely across the world. In part these ideologies are able to grow in countries where rules around free speech are interpreted with a wider latitude than in others. This is not a new problem, but when looking at the extreme right and propagators of some new ideologies like QAnon, it is a problem which is increasingly found as emanating from part of the Transatlantic Alliance. This requires greater coordination to both ensure rapid takedown (something to be done in conjunction with social media companies in particular) as well as efforts to detain and prevent ideologues advancing such ideas wherever they might be. Key to this is also recognition that while an individual may not be crossing a legal boundary in the jurisdiction where they are based, they may be pushing others to cross it in foreign lands. Greater coordination in managing this, and in closing down these online networks and communities would in part help stem the problem.

Second is on the tactical side. It is clear that the United States has an online capability that is vastly superior to most European powers. While the United Kingdom, France and Germany have grown their own capabilities, they are still very dependent on the US. Greater coordination should be undertaken amongst a wider community of security agencies across the Atlantic to try to counter lone actor plots. While it is true that most lone actors operate alone, there is a growing body of evidence showing that they do in fact communicate or tell others about their attacks or plans pre-incident. Much of this communication happens online, sometimes in very public forums. This suggests a point of interdiction that Transatlantic partners should work more closely on detecting and preventing.

Third is on the preventative side – one of the key problems with lone actor terrorism as a methodology is its easy adoption. This means the range of individuals who are perpetrating such attacks is becoming ever wider, with individuals deciding to use it as a method of expression with little sense of connection to the ideology that initially spawned it as a tactic. The key point here is the wide ranging nature of profiles of those involved, and the growing instances or neuropsychological or mental health issues amongst this cohort. This generates a new form of preventative response and post-arrest management. While the sui generis nature of each case means lessons are not always easily translatable, the cumulative effect of the volume of cases seen around the world is likely to generate some new ideas and approaches which others would benefit from learning from. Creating a more regular exchange of ideas across the Atlantic about how to manage these cases in prisons, in society or elsewhere would likely generate some successful new approaches to deal with this threat.

Afghanistan

Another major terrorist issue which has raised it head for the Transatlantic Alliance in recent months is the change in government in Afghanistan, where the collapse of the Islamic Republic has led to the rise of an Islamic Emirate controlled by the Taliban. While it remains unclear the degree to which the Taliban will be able to maintain control in the longer-term, it does seem they are going to be able to hold power for the short to medium term. Given their close connections to al Qaeda, and previous support for groups and networks which have generated terrorist plots in the west and elsewhere, this is clearly a source of concern to the Transatlantic Alliance. But what is the exact nature of this threat, and what tensions has this generated in the broader alliance framework which need to be addressed.

In terms of responding to the potential threat, the first key element to focus on is that few assessments have pointed to the change in government in Afghanistan generating an immediate or medium term threat to the west. While it is impossible to predict how things will play out in the longer-term, for the time being it seems unlikely that al Qaeda will be able to rebuild its capabilities to launch large-scale terrorist attacks against western interests for at least the next two years (and possibly even further in the future). The group is a vastly reduced form of its former self, and has for the past few years appeared to focus more on regional conflicts that striking at far enemies in the west. This likely creates problems in other parts of the globe where al Qaeda linked or inspired groups exist, but not as much in the west.

A far larger and immediate threat is likely present in Pakistan, and to a lesser degree in Central Asia. India also faces the potential for threats, as do China, Russia and Iran. The key here, however, is that when looking at how threats from Afghanistan might emerge, it is imperative that the west move away from focusing single-mindedly on how problems might directly come home. The last major plot reported publicly as having links to Afghanistan, was a group of Tajiks arrested in April 2020 in Germany. Yet the extent of their connection to Afghanistan was a remote one through mobile phone applications. Far more immediate is the danger of groups starting to use Afghanistan as a base to destabilize Pakistan or even more inspiring groups in Pakistan to rise up against the government in Islamabad. A similar (though more remote) possibility presents itself in parts of Central Asia, as well as Iran, Russia and China – though all of them have more effective police apparatus that is likely able to contain threats.

The key for the Transatlantic Alliance is to focus on managing the spread of problems from Afghanistan into its neighbourhood rather than single-mindedly focusing on the not impossible, but unlikely, outcome that groups start to immediately launch attacks against the west.

The second major issue within this context is geopolitical. The withdrawal from Afghanistan by the United States was long telegraphed, but not heard in other capitals. This led to a chaotic withdrawal which raised concerns about American security guarantees. While these are likely overstated, they have highlighted once again the reality that Europe in particular has somewhat taken for granted American security support. The answer here is clearly for Europe to increase its efforts, but these should be done in conjunction with American partners who remain key enablers in counter-terrorism operations around the globe. Finding a way of better cooperating in establishing over the horizon presence in South Asia in particular is going to be an area of key cooperation going forwards. European partners like the United Kingdom have strong relations in Pakistan in particular, while France and Germany have a deep footprint in parts of Central Asia. This provides a useful point of engagement for the Transatlantic Alliance going forwards.

Finally, both sides of the Atlantic should work to try to extricate the problem of countering terrorist groups in the region in particular (and more widely) from the larger great power conflict that is currently consuming the Transatlantic Alliance. In Afghanistan in particular, the insertion of great power conflict narratives creates a context to replicate the immensely damaging and counter-productive history of using proxy groups in Afghanistan to fight against each other. Focusing on the terrorist threats as problems that menace not only the western alliance, but also regional adversaries provides a way to actually deal with the threats rather than making them worse.

Almost caught up on myself now, this time a short piece for wonderful Indian think tank the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) looking at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in Dushanbe. There is a whole chapter on the organization in my upcoming book whose cover has now been released. Will get around to a long delayed media update soon, though have a few other longer papers that need pushing out the door.

Afghanistan crisis lingers over the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit

Looking beyond the SCO’s inability to come to a consensus on Afghanistan to the normalising of Beijing’s influence in Eurasia

Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, SCO, Afghanistan, NATO, ASEAN, Eurasian heartland, China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, counterterrorism, US, SCO-Afghanistan, Taliban, Ajit Doval, Moeed Yusuf,
Wikimedia Commons (By Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0)

If there was ever an organisation that on paper would look like it was suited to focus on Afghanistan, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) would be it. Yet, as Dushanbe hosts the 20th anniversary Heads of Government session this week, there is little evidence that the organisation is going to take advantage of this moment to step forward and present a unified vision for how to deal with Afghanistan, a nation that sits literally at its geographic core. This spatial reality will only be highlighted once again with the beginning of Iran’s full accession process into the Organisation, leaving aggressively neutral Turkmenistan as the only Afghan neighbour that is not a full member.

The Summit is instead likely to reflect a generally fractured regional view of how to handle the new Taliban authorities in Afghanistan and escalating regional tensions. Where outside powers need to be careful, however, is in concluding that this is a demonstration of organisational weakness and irrelevance. It may be the case the SCO is not on its way to create some sort of regional NATO or ASEAN. Rather, it helps clarify the very different views that exist regionally about what role the SCO plays in the Eurasian heartland. Primary amongst these is China, who continues to see the entity as a useful tool to help normalise Chinese preeminence in the Eurasian heartland.

Founded in 2001 in the months before the September 11 attacks, the SCO was initially born out of a structure that developed in the post-Cold War period to help China define its borders with the former Soviet Union. By the time of the formal founding, with the joining of Uzbekistan to the previous Shanghai Five made up of China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, it was clear that all the powers had slightly different interpretations about what purpose it would serve going forward and their degree of interest in it. Yet one thing they all seemed to agree on was counterterrorism. To some degree this was normative. As authoritarian powers preoccupied with staying in power, they all saw threats to their authority as political violence (i.e., terrorism); hence it was something they could all agree on as being a major concern. But they also all realised that they sat next to Afghanistan, a country that had produced numerous regional problems in the decade between the end of the Soviet Union and SCO founding.

SCO and Afghanistan

So much was Afghanistan on people’s minds that during the June 2001 founding ceremony in Shanghai that President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan highlighted the country as “the cradle of terrorism, separatism and extremism” in his opening remarks, tying the country to the “three evils” that sit at the heart of SCO counter-terrorism thinking. In comments to Xinhua on the fringes of the inaugural Summit, President Rahmon of Tajikistan (this year’s host) “called for a common stance and unified actions in solving the Afghanistan issue through peaceful means.” In his comments during the main session, then-President of Kyrgyzstan Akayev “expressed the hope that SCO member countries will work together to alleviate the Afghan situation which has become a serious threat to countries in the region.” All of the countries involved in founding the SCO had faced violent Islamist terrorism of one sort or another in the years leading up to the Summit with links to Afghanistan identifiable in most cases.

Yet, notwithstanding all this consternation, the Organisation has done almost nothing about Afghanistan since its founding. To some degree, this was a product of external factors. Soon after the 2001 inaugural Summit in Shanghai, the September 11 attacks against the United States precipitated an American-led invasion of the country and the toppling of the Taliban regime. This deprived the Organisation of a need to actually do anything. The US had arrived with great bellicosity and seemed determined to clean shop in Kabul, effectively dealing with a problem they had all worried about. There was a part of them that was worried about long-term US military presence in their neighbourhood, but this balanced against the direct security concerns in Afghanistan that were now being dealt with.

This tension with the US was fairly constant, and, in 2005, it came into sharp relief as the democratising flame of ‘Colour Revolutions’ reached the region. The so-called Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in Spring 2005 was followed by the May massacre in Andijian, Uzbekistan. These two events were applauded and condemned by the west to horror across the region. Yet, they did not appear to impact the SCO much, which was unhappy about the instability and stood behind its members. At the same time, people continued to go in different ways on Afghanistan. In 2008/09, the US established the Northern Distribution Network to get supplies into Afghanistan via overland routes from Europe, across Russia and Central Asia to Afghanistan. While condemnation of Andijian led to US ejection from a key airbase in Kashi Khanabad in Uzbekistan, it led to the expansion of the Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan.

China has been quite heavily involved in pushing for the organisation to do more in Afghanistan. Beijing supported and encouraged the establishment of the SCO Contact Group in 2005, and during the 2012 Beijing Summit shepherded the country in as an official Observer member. Yet, notwithstanding Beijing’s diplomatic energy, very little has happened, and even China appears to accept its limitations, focusing its engagement with Afghanistan through bilateral and other regional multilateral structures. And none of the other members ever really seemed to really push for Afghanistan to become a key focus. In recent times, Moscow seemed to awaken to the idea of trying to revive the SCO-Afghanistan Contact group in some substantial way, but it did not result in anything new. Russia now seems to have fallen back into focusing on its direct security concerns through bolstering Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, while continuing to tentatively engage with the Taliban.

And this has largely been the reaction of most of the other powers as well. India and Pakistan each have their own particular relations with Afghanistan, which are largely predicated on conflict with each other. The Central Asians are wary, though the Uzbeks have seemed to lean in towards engaging with the new Taliban government while the Kyrgyz and Kazakhs appear to be in a wait-and-see mode. The Tajiks have taken an entirely contrary view, openly supporting the Northern Alliance resistance, and staking out a position as the most antagonistic power towards the new authority in Kabul. Potential new member Iran is unlikely to decide that the SCO is going to be best forum for its future engagement, while other Observers (like Mongolia) or Dialogue Partners (like Sri Lanka or Belarus) are likely going to be eager to step into the mess.

The SCO Summit on 17 September 2021

In fact, this Summit is going to be a tale of internal tensions and blandness. Central Asians may have resolved a lot of their disputes, but until April this year, Kyrgyz and Tajiks were killing each other across their borders. Pakistan and India are usually able to leave their bilateral problems at the door, but last September, during a virtual SCO National Security Advisers Summit, Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval dropped out when Pakistani National Security Adviser, Moeed Yusuf, presented a map that showed borders clashing with Delhi’s view. And while the organisation will likely seek to focus on the harmony implicit with Iran joining, the reality is that more members are only likely to create more problems.

But at the same time, it is true that the Organisation does not shrink or go away, but rather continues to grow. And in doing this, it is invariably expanding Chinese influence in subtle ways across the wider Eurasian heartland. While the rest of the world tends to focus on the optics of authoritarian gathering and the seeming lack of action on critical security questions which should logically be top of the list, we miss the vast number of sectoral dialogues, people-to-people engagements, and new institutions that China, in particular, has encouraged through the Organisation. This has helped advance Chinese interests, links and norms across the entire region. And while none of these are transformational by themselves, cumulatively they are setting in stone a reality.

It is clear there is no agreement whatsoever amongst SCO members about how to proceed on Afghanistan, and no institutional capacity within the SCO itself to do anything. Yet, in entirely focusing on this side of the Summit, the rest of the world is missing the wider normative foundations that the SCO is laying across the wider Eurasian heartland. The region is already bracketed in amongst powers that are heavily sanctioned by the US, through the SCO, Beijing is creating a structure which can increasingly normalise Chinese influence and dominance.

The last with resonances of the September 11 anniversary, this time trying to cast a wide net looking at the impact of the Taliban takeover on problems of jihadism around the world. Probably a little too short to do such a large topic justice, but such are the exigencies of the RSIS in-house journal Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses. Another collaboration with my brilliant RSIS colleague Basit (our earlier one on China’s regional terrorism problems in South Asia got some good attention).

Post-Taliban Takeover: How the Global Jihadist Terror Threat May Evolve

Synopsis

The Taliban’s victory and restoration of their self-styled Islamic Emirate following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is a watershed moment for the global jihadist movement. Existing terrorist threats are likely to evolve in a qualitatively different manner than those witnessed before the September 11, 2001 attacks. However, the threat picture is unlikely to return to the pre-9/11 status quo. The Taliban’s victory may have reinvigorated proAl-Qaeda (AQ) jihadist groups around the world, but they face an international security response which is qualitatively different to the pre-9/11 environment, alongside a world which is confronted with other challenges, including from competing ideologies and groups. Though AQ and its associated groups will undoubtedly continue to paint this as a glorious victory, and their trust in the jihadist doctrine of strategic patience may have been resuscitated, it is not clear they have the operational capability to translate that into violent extremist attacks.

Introduction

Though the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan marks a watershed in the evolution of global jihadism, the situation is unlikely to return to the pre-9/11 status quo. The existing threat landscape is more complex, fractious, and different from what it was in 2001. Therefore, the likely implications will also be different, notwithstanding the fact that the Taliban’s victory has emboldened AQ jihadist doctrine of strategic patience. In parallel to this transformation, the world has become much more attuned to jihadist terrorism, meaning it is harder for organisations to plan and execute the sort of attacks that were visible in the early years of AQ’s struggle against the west. In short, while the extremist threat has not dissipated, it is now more subtle and diffuse.

For AQ and its associated movements, the desire and intent to launch large-scale spectacular attacks against the West persists. However, undertaking an operation on the scale of the 9/11 attacks, or even the 2005 London attacks, remains a moot prospect. The most recent large-scale sophisticated attack in Europe was conducted by the Islamic State (IS) in France in November 2015. Since then, large-scale violence in Europe or North America has been conducted by isolated lone attackers, with some tenuous links or connection to groups abroad.

Rather, the focus for both AQ and IS, and their affiliates, has been the various regional conflicts in which they are present. In these regional conflicts, they have achieved some degree of success. Indubitably, the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan will animate them further. But it remains to be seen if this will help them expand in the short or medium term, or create the conditions to launch a global campaign once again. Consolidation on the ground in parts of Africa, the Middle East or South Asia may strengthen regional terror networks, but it is not obvious that this will recreate a coherent global movement, or lead to an upsurge in attacks in faraway targets.

Global Threat

South Asia

Paradoxically, the Taliban’s, and by extension AQ’s, victory in Afghanistan has emboldened both pro-AQ jihadist groups in South Asia and their arch-foe, the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (IS-K), the IS’ franchise in the country.1 Following the US withdrawal and the Taliban’s return to power, IS-K has positioned itself as the Taliban and AQ rejectionist group.2

Since its ejection from Afghanistan in 2001, AQ has entrenched itself in South Asia’s complex jihadist landscape, offering strategic guidance and ideological mentoring to local groups. For instance, AQ played a pivotal role in reorganising, reviving and subsequently supporting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan against the US.3 In Pakistan, AQ was instrumental in the formation of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in 2007 and its own South Asian franchise, AQ in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), in 2014. AQ commands the loyalty and respect of the South Asian jihadist groups, while in turn AQ pledges allegiance to the Taliban.4 The Taliban’s victory is their win as well and validation of the jihadist doctrine of strategic patience, i.e., that a local focus pursued with perseverance can succeed.5 This triumphant jihadist narrative, coupled with the Bagram and Pul-e-Charki jailbreaks freeing 5,000 jihadists, could potentially speed AQ’s regional revival.6

As Afghanistan’s immediate neighbour, Pakistan would be the most affected country, having already lost 80,000 civilians in the war on terror. Pakistan’s own complicated history and relationships with a plethora of jihadist groups will not only undermine its internal security, but regional security dynamics with adversary India as well.7 AQ appears eager to play on these tensions, and may seek to deploy effort in Kashmir in this regard. Admittedly, however, it can be hard to separate state supported militant activity there from those of AQ linked groups, complicating the nature of the link to events in Afghanistan. AQIS publications already appear to have responded to events in Afghanistan, with the group’s Urdu language magazine changing its name to Nawa-e-Ghazwa-e-Hind, following the US Taliban deal in Doha.8

In India, the Taliban’s victory has negatively energised right-wing Hindu extremists, who are furthering their domestic Islamophobic narratives in response to the perception of being encircled by Muslim states with growing numbers of extremists within them.9 The exacerbation of communal fault lines could benefit AQ through radicalising the radical fringes of the Indian Muslim community, which hitherto have proven relatively resilient to extremist recruitment efforts.

AQ has an elaborate network of like minded groups in South Asia like Ansarullah Bangla Team and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh in Bangladesh, Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind in Indian Held Kashmir and TTP in Pakistan.10 There are 8,000 to 10,00011 foreign jihadists from Pakistan, Xinjiang and Central Asia in Afghanistan, while another 5,000 have come out of prisons.12 These jihadists will be a critical factor in AQ’s regional strategy in South Asia. According to AQ’s weekly newspaper, Tabhat, the group has a presence in Afghanistan’s 18 provinces, where it fought alongside the Taliban against the US.13 Presently, both groups publicly downplay their ties, so as to not jeopardise the Doha Agreement and allow the Taliban space to consolidate their grip on power.14

For its part, IS-K has positioned itself as the anti-Taliban and AQ group in the region, in the hope of attracting the disenfranchised elements of these and other groups to its fold. IS-K’s recent attack on the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, in which 12 US marines were killed, in addition to 170 Afghan civilians and 28 Afghan Taliban fighters, potentially heralds the start of a bloody phase of the jihadist civil war in Afghanistan. This was IS’ largest-ever direct strike on an American military target, and the largest loss of American life in Afghanistan in years. The attack has created waves amongst the jihadist community in Afghanistan, illustrating the potential effective power of a group that they have been trying to eject with little success for years.

The danger in South Asia is that both AQ and IS might now be able to grow in parallel to each other. AQ offers an establishment perspective on jihad, while IS propagates an uncompromising and violent alternative. Given the absence of western forces and their allies to focus on, these groups could increasingly face off against each other, potentially giving them space to grow and develop. The AQ-IS rivalry in this context will likely stay regional for the medium term, but assessing its trajectory over the long-term is harder.

Southeast Asia

While historical links between Southeast Asian militant groups and AQ and the Taliban in Afghanistan form the backdrop of a potential reinvigorating effect on the former, the actual impact is likely to be limited.15 The Taliban’s victory may tangentially inspire the pro-AQ radical Islamist and jihadist groups in Southeast Asia, who will celebrate the group’s success and use it in their regional recruitment campaigns.16

The impact, however, will be limited due to a fractious Southeast Asian militant landscape split between pro-IS and pro-AQ groups; the presence of other conflict hotspots in the Middle East in particular and Africa to a lesser degree, diluting the pre-eminence of Afghanistan as an attractive conflict theatre; and the advent of social media which has eliminated physical hurdles and lowered entry barriers for jihadist recruitment and radicalisation.17 In the near future, the prospect of Southeast Asian jihadists travelling to Afghanistan in large numbers are low, given the COVID-19-related travel restrictions, better immigration and border controls instituted between 2015 and 2018 to stem the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria.18

At any rate, the Taliban’s victory will inspire these Islamist and jihadist groups to constantly strive for the ideological goal of creating an Islamic State by imitating the Taliban’s model. For instance, an Indonesian radical Islamist group, Jamaah Muslimin Hizbullah, has debated establishing a Taliban-styled Islamic government in Indonesia, starting with the island of Sumatra.19 Malaysia’s largest Islamist political party, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), has also congratulated the Taliban on their victory.20 Later on, facing public censure, PAS removed the message from its social media pages. The social media channels of Southeast Asian militants have also been euphoric over the Taliban’s victory. For instance, Jemaah Islamiyah, which has historical ties to both AQ and the Taliban, has distributed an Arabic language manual detailing the latter’s operational strategies and fighting tactics through WhatsApp groups.21 A proposal to invite the Taliban to establish a branch in Indonesia to help jihadists in Indonesia to create an Islamic State has also been discussed.22 It is not entirely clear, however, the degree to which any of this rhetoric and discourse will be followed by action.

Middle East and North Africa

In recent years, AQ leader Ayman al Zawahiri’s speeches and statements have focused on developments in the Middle East, while referring to Afghanistan as peripheral to AQ’s future goals.23 Since the onset of the Arab spring in 2011 and the advent of the IS in 2014, which broke off from the former as its Iraqi branch, AQ has paid closer attention to developments in the Middle East. The split of the global jihadist movement was a huge setback for AQ, while the Taliban’s victory has given a boost to AQ’s brand of jihadism.24

AQ’s franchises and affiliates in the Middle East have been energised by the Taliban takeover, calling it a magnificent victory.25 For instance, AQ in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), while felicitating the Taliban, said, “it is the beginning of a pivotal transformation worldwide.”26 Similarly, Syrian jihadist group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham has termed the Taliban’s victory “a model to follow.”27

In its two-page statement released after the Taliban’s victory, AQ leadership has particularly mentioned devoting its attention to the “near enemy.”28 The near-enemy in AQ’s jihadist strategy refers to the so called “apostate” governments in the Muslim world, particularly the Middle Eastern dictatorships and monarchies, which have assisted the US to the detriment of the “suppressed” Muslim communities in the region.29 The Middle East is the birthplace of Islam, and where the two holiest sites of Mecca and Medina are located. It is also where much of the organization’s key leadership is originally from. Without a strong footprint in the Middle East, AQ’s plans of creating a global Muslim Caliphate sound hollow. The Taliban’s victory therefore provides an opportunity for AQ to refocus on the Middle East, using the victory narrative to draw new recruits and expand its footprint.30

More success for AQ’s affiliates can be found in North Africa and the Sahel, where the group’s presence has developed a stronger footprint. Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) has for some time managed to develop a presence across the wider Sahelian region and project a force on the ground, which has created a challenge that western forces have sought to push back against. The French decision to scale back its presence, at around the same time the US announced its formal withdrawal from Afghanistan, was seized upon as evidence of a global victory by jihadists, although again, it is not clear how this will translate into action.

Africa

Looking more widely across Africa, a victory narrative can similarly be drawn, but it is for the most part linked to IS affiliated groups. In Nigeria, Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP) has managed to dramatically defenestrate Boko Haram’s key leader and recruit many of his former followers, taking the leadership position in the regional struggle.31 In the Central African Republic,32 Congo33 and Mozambique34, a similar narrative of success is built not off what the Taliban have achieved in Afghanistan, but their own triumphs on the battlefield as various subsidiaries of IS or as violent Islamist groups winning against their local adversaries.

The one place where an AQ affiliate remains dominant is East Africa, where Al-Shabaab continues to prove a hard enemy to eradicate. Whilst it has recently toned down its level of ambition, it has still demonstrated a desire to attack western targets regionally – including hotels hosting foreigners35, and even western military bases36, and continues to discuss its allegiance to AQ core. Of the many groups in Africa, Al-Shabaab is most likely to use the narrative of victory in Afghanistan to try to develop into a larger threat. Having said this, there is little reason that the group would not have already been doing this, but it might seek to more overtly link itself to the Taliban’s victory. A notable point here is that much of sub-Saharan African terrorism has stayed on the Continent, with Al-Shabaab the only one which appears to have links that could help it stretch further.

Central Asia

Looking north of Afghanistan to Central Asia, it is notable that it has been some time since a concerted terrorist campaign has been visible within the region. What attacks have taken place have been largely linked to IS (in Tajikistan)37, or remained unclaimed (the 2016 attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek).38 Whilst networks across the region continue to be disrupted, there has been a growing level of concern about the return of Central Asian jihadists to northern Afghanistan,39 and them potentially using the area as a base to attack the region. Certainly, this model had plagued the region pre-2001. The various Central Asian focused violent Islamist groups certainly retain the interest and appetite to launch attacks, though it is not clear that their capability has materially changed. Nonetheless, a permissive milieu in Afghanistan might provide a propitious environment for them, and they appear eager to try to take advantage of this (with reports emerging of fighters returning from Syria and Iraq40).

Europe/North America

Looking further afield to the West, notwithstanding hysterical predictions about a threat escalation and return to a September 11, 2001 scenario,41 the capability of violent Islamist groups to launch attacks in the West is vastly reduced, even as there are some indications that problems could emerge. Since the late 2015 attacks in Paris and Brussels, groups have been unable to get any largescale networked plots through. Rather, the field has been littered with lone actor plots, or small cells operating seemingly without any clear direction or instruction by an organised group. While there has been some evidence of individuals being inspired by the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, the threat picture is unlikely to change in the short term. In the medium term, as we see large numbers of migrants fleeing Afghanistan, it is possible some individual attackers may slip in through the groups – previous waves of migrants have brought some individuals who went on to commit attacks around Europe in particular (for example, in Germany in July 2016).42 However, it remains unclear if AQ will be able to take advantage of this flow in some way, and whether this will provide a vector through which an escalated threat beyond lone actors might strike Europe or North America (even less likely).

Conclusion

Undoubtedly, the global jihadist movement has been invigorated by the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan. Through their ejection of the US in Afghanistan, the Taliban have demonstrated the success of their model of conflict and dedication to their holy cause. However, it is unlikely to lead to an American collapse, like the implosion of the Soviet Union that followed their withdrawal from Afghanistan in the late 1980s.

It is uncertain that the global jihadist movement will be able to take advantage of this situation, notwithstanding their excited rhetoric. Certainly, Afghanistan’s near region has become more dangerous, but further afield, other elements are likely to contain any major expansions. Security forces have become more attuned to jihadist threats and created measures which are likely to complicate any action. Furthermore, the fragmenting of the global jihadist movement into two broad factions (pro-IS and pro-AQ), as well as the reality that most of these groups are now more focused on their own local contexts than the global struggle, means the threat picture over the longer-term will likely continue to stagnate.

It is not clear that the jihadist threat is the same as the global circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001 attacks. The concatenation of events that led to those attacks and the wider AQ threat against the West that followed was the product of a series of events and links that would be hard to replicate today. While this cannot lead to laxity in attention, the reality is that despite the glaring failures in the American-led effort in Afghanistan, the threat picture to America is lower and no group has credibly managed to replicate the ambition and success shown in September 2001. AQ remains a shadow of its former self, with its leader rumoured to be dead or in hiding, and other senior figures equally elusive. Nevertheless, it remains an influential brand around the world. IS has peaked and is now focusing on parts of the world where its impact is most likely to be local rather than global. And the world has also moved on, with issues concerning great power conflict, the extreme right wing, and many other expressions of violent activity taking on greater salience. The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan will undoubtedly reinvigorate jihadism in the country’s immediate neighbourhood, and prolong the ideas of a global struggle for another decade at least. However, the Taliban victory has not turned back the clock to 2001.

About the authors

Raffaello Pantucci is a 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.

Abdul Basit is a Research Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at isabasit@ntu.edu.sg.

1 Rita Katz,” Future of Al Qaeda, ISIS & Jihadism,” Wilson Centre, August 27, 2021, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/future-al-qaeda-isis-jihadism.

2 Asfandyar Mir, “Biden Didn’t See the ISIS-K Threat in Afghanistan Until Too Late,” The New York Times, August 31, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/31/opinion/bidenisis-k.html.

3 Lydia Khalil, “The Taliban’s Return to Power in Afghanistan Will Be a Boon for International jihadism,” The Guardian, August 21, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/aug/21/the-talibans-return-to-power-in-afghanistanwill-be-a-boon-for-international-jihadism.

4 Farhan Zahid, “Jihadism in South Asia: A Militant Landscape in Flux,” The Middle East Institute, January 8, 2020, https://www.mei.edu/publications/jihadism-southasia-militant-landscape-flux.

5 Collin P. Clarke, “Al-Qaeda Is Thrilled That the Taliban Control Afghanistan — But Not for the Reason You Think,” Politico, September 7, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/09/07/al-qaeda-taliban-complex-relationship-509519.

6 “Taliban Frees Prisoners in Bagram and Pul-eCharkhi Prisons,” Andalou, August 15, 2021, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/vg/video-gallery/talibanfrees-prisoners-in-bagram-and-pul-e-charkhiprisons/0.

7 Bruce Riedel, “Pakistan’s Problematic Victory in Afghanistan,” Brookings Institute, August 24, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-fromchaos/2021/08/24/pakistans-problematic-victory-in-afghanistan/.

8 Warren P. Strobel and Dustin Volz, “Taliban Takeover of Afghanistan Celebrated by Extremists on Social Media,” The Wall Street Journal, August 17, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/extremistscelebrate-taliban-takeover-of-afghanistan-on-socialmedia-11629192600.

9 Furqan Ameen, “How Taliban Return in Afghanistan Triggered Islamophobia in India,” AlJazeera, September 1, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/9/1/islamophobia-india-hindu-right-wing-taliban-afghanistan.

10 Abdul Sayed, “The Past, Present, and Future of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” The Soufan Centre, August 20, 2021, https://thesoufancenter.org/intelbrief-2021-august20/.

11 Jason Burke, “Taliban in Power May Find Themselves Fighting Islamist Insurgents,” The Guardian, August 18, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/usnews/2021/aug/18/bidens-over-the-horizon-counterterrorism-strategy-comes-with-new-risks.

12 Ivana Saric, “Thousands of Prisoners Freed by Taliban Could Pose Threat to U.S,” Axios, August 15, 2021, https://www.axios.com/taliban-bagramprisoners-release-87ec6885-6930-46d6-9e96-473a252dcf7d.html.

13 Asfandyar Mir, “Untying the Gordian Knot: Why the Taliban is Unlikely to Break Ties with Al-Qaeda,” Modern War Institute, August 8, 2021, https://mwi.usma.edu/untying-the-gordian-knot-whythe-taliban-is-unlikely-to-break-ties-with-al-qaeda/.

14 Driss El-Bay, “Afghanistan: The Pledged Binding Al-Qaeda to the Taliban,” BBC News, September 8, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia58473574.

15 Hariz Baharudin, “How Will the Taleban’s Comeback in Afghanistan Affect Singapore and the Region?” The Straits Times, August 16, 2021, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/how-will-the-talebans-comeback-in-afghanistan-affect-singapore-and-the-region.

16 Ibid.

17 Ralph Jennings, “How Taliban’s Win Might Influence Radical Muslims in Southeast Asia,” Voice of America, September 3, 2021, https://www.voanews.com/extremism-watch/howtalibans-win-might-influence-radical-muslimssoutheast-asia.

18 Jolene Jerard, “Taliban’s Return in Afghanistan Cements Southeast Asia Extremist Strategy of Strategic Patience,” Channel News Asia, August 26, 2012, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/commentary/taliban-terrorism-al-qaeda-southeast-asia-2132656.

19 Amy Chew, “Afghanistan: Taliban’s Return ‘Boosts Morale’ of Militant Groups in Southeast Asia,” South China Morning Post, August 20, 2021, https://www.scmp.com/weekasia/politics/article/3145856/talibans-returnafghanistan-boosts-morale-militant-groups.

20 J.S. Lee, “PAS Leader Congratulates the Taliban for Taking Over Afghanistan,” Malay Trends, August 18, 2021, https://www.malaysiatrend.com/pasleader-congratulates-the-taliban-for-taking-overafghanistan/.

21 Amy Chew, “Afghanistan: Taliban’s Return ‘Boosts Morale’ of Militant Groups in Southeast Asia.”

22 Ibid.

23 Andrew Hanna & Garrett Nada, “Jihadism: A Generation After 9/11,” Wilson Centre, September 10, 2020, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/jihadismgeneration-after-911.

24 Nelly Lahoud, “Bin Laden’s Catastrophic Success,” Foreign Affairs, September-October 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/afghanistan/2021-08-13/osama-bin-ladens-911-catastrophicsuccess.

25 Aron Y. Zelin, “Return of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan: The Jihadist State of Play,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, August 18, 2021, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policyanalysis/return-islamic-emirate-afghanistan-jihadist-state-play.

26 Rita Katz,” Future of Al Qaeda, ISIS & Jihadism.”

27 Ibid.

28 “Al Qaeda’s Kashmir Message to Taliban, Says US Humiliated in Afghanistan,” Hindustan Times, September 1, 2021, https://www.hindustantimes.com/videos/worldnews/al-qaeda-s-kashmir-message-to-taliban-saysus-humiliated-in-afghanistan101630504866523.html.

29 Joe Macron, “What Will the Taliban Victory Mean for the Middle East?” Al-Jazeera, August 19, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/8/19/whatwill-the-taliban-victory-mean-for-the-middle-east.

30 Kathryn Wheelbarger, Aaron Y. Zelin, Patrick Clawson, “From Afghanistan to the Middle East: Implications of the U.S. Withdrawal and Taliban Victory,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, August 26, 2021, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policyanalysis/afghanistan-middle-east-implications-uswithdrawal-and-taliban-victory.

31 Obi Anyadike, “Quit While You Are Ahead: Why Boko Haram Fighters Are Surrendering,” The New Humanitarian, August 13, 2021, https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/analysis/2021/8/12/why-boko-haram-fighters-are-surrendering.

32 Benoit Faucon and Gordon Lubold, “U.S. Sanctions Islamic State’s Central African Franchise for First Time,” The Wall Street Journal, March 10, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-to-sanctionislamic-states-central-african-franchise-for-first-time11615406777.

33 “The Murky Link Between DR Congo’s ADF and Islamic State,” France 24, July 07, 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210707-the-murky-link-between-dr-congo-s-adf-and-islamic-state.

34 Emily Estelle, “The Islamic State Resurges in Mozambique,” Foreign Policy, June 16, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/06/16/mozambiqueislamic-state-terrorism-france-total/.

35 Matt Bryden and Premdeep Bahra, “East Africa’s Terrorist Triple Helix: The Dusit Hotel Attack and the Historical Evolution of the Jihadi Threat,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, July 2019, https://ctc.usma.edu/east-africas-terrorist-triple-helixdusit-hotel-attack-historical-evolution-jihadi-threat/.

36 Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Eric Schmitt, Charlie Savage, and Helene Cooper, “Chaos as Militants Overran Airfield, Killing 3 Americans in Kenya,” The New York Times, January 22, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/22/world/africa/shabab-kenya-terrorism.html.

37 “When ISIS Killed Cyclists on Their Journey Around the World,” The New York Times, June 21, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/21/theweekly/isis-bike-attack-tajikistan.html ; “Tajikistan: 17 Killed in Border Outpost Attack,” DW.COM, November 06, 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/tajikistan-17-killed-in-borderoutpost-attack/a-51129060.

38 “Kyrgyzstan Sentences Three Over Chinese Embassy Attack,” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, June 28, 2017, https://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstanchina-embassy-jailed/28583623.html.

39 Mumin Ahmadi, Mullorajab Yusufi and Nigorai Fazliddin, “Exclusive: Taliban Puts Tajik Militants Partially in Charge of Afghanistan’s Northern Border,” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, July 28, 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/taliban-tajik-militantsborder/31380071.html.

40 “Twelfth Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team Submitted Pursuant to Resolution 2557 (2020) Concerning the Taliban and Other Associated Individuals and Entities Constituting a Threat to the Peace Stability and Security of Afghanistan,” United Nations Security Council (UNSC), June 1, 2021, https://www.undocs.org/pdf?symbol=en/S/2021/486

41 Alan McGuinness, “Afghanistan: Al Qaeda ‘Will Probably Come Back’ as Situation in Country Deteriorates, Says Defence Secretary,” Sky News, August 13, 2021, https://news.sky.com/story/afghanistan-al-qaeda-willprobably-come-back-as-situation-in-country-deteriorates-says-defence-secretary-12380142.

42 German Train Attack: IS Releases Video of Afghan Knifeman,” BBC News, July 19, 2016, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe36832909.

A brief policy focused piece for a new outlet and institution called the UK National Committee on China (UKNCC) which they requested in the wake of the US led withdrawal from Afghanistan to try to focus on how the UK’s relationship with China needs to navigate this. It is part of a triumvirate of pieces they published including one by Alessandro and another by the Chinese Special Envoy for Afghan Affairs Yue Xiaoyong. Builds on something I wrote earlier for RUSI, and is likely to be an interesting and complicated policy question going forwards.

What are the implications of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan?

The world is increasingly defined by great power conflict. Escalating tensions between the US and China have grown to touch on almost every aspect of international relations. This reality has most recently been on display in Afghanistan. The US withdrawal from a two-decade long military commitment on China’s borders has thrown into question American security commitments and raised questions about what kind of a power China will be in its own backyard. For a power such as the United Kingdom that straddles the relationships between Beijing, Kabul and Washington, the question is how, in this complicated strategic equation, to ensure British interests. The balance is a complex one which highlights the nature of the challenges that the UK is going to face in trying to carve out its own path in the world.

The most prominent and immediate question to emerge from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is what it means for London’s much vaunted ‘special relationship’ with Washington. Senior officials, including the Defence Secretary, have openly questioned President Biden’s decision-making on the withdrawal, while the public discourse in London has focused on how events have shown the limits of British influence in Washington. Yet the reality remains that the US is the UK’s key strategic security ally on the world stage. The narrative of divergence in UK and US interests is exaggerated, even if it is clear that Washington is focusing on its confrontation with Beijing as the driving policy focus to the detriment of everything else.

At the same time, it is clear that the UK is unable to entirely disengage from Afghanistan. Quite aside from the deep commitments generated from twenty years of conflict, there are the human and historical connections that the UK has with South Asia. Large diaspora communities from Pakistan, and to a lesser extent from Afghanistan, give the UK a particular stake in the country and region. This also means that the UK needs to explore ways in which to engage and secure its interests in Afghanistan in the longer-term, including generating creative options that reflect the changing regional geopolitics.

The harsh geopolitical reality is that the United States-led withdrawal from Afghanistan will bolster Chinese influence in the region. This is not a reflection of a push by Beijing to fill an abstract security vacuum, but rather a demonstration of geographical reality. With the departure of American forces, Beijing is set to become the most consequential power in the Eurasian heartland. For the UK, threading the needle of a uninterested Washington and influential Beijing will require strategic thinking.

Chinese influence across Eurasia has been ascendant for some time. Yet until now, China has chosen to prioritize economic engagement, with security engagement placed a discrete but focused second. The American withdrawal from Afghanistan has complicated this approach. While parts of Beijing may have chafed at the idea of military bases on their borders, others sensibly reckoned that an American security presence was likely dealing with problems that otherwise Beijing might have to address.

The US withdrawal has therefore left Beijing seeking new partners in the region. The most pragmatic and logical choice from China’s perspective is the new Taliban-led government. However, there is still no clarity about the level of power and control the Taliban may command, their long-term stability in power, or whether they are interested in dealing with the issues that most concern Beijing. Recognizing this, China has also sought greater coordination with Russia, increased its bilateral discussion on Afghanistan with Iran, and continued its engagement with Pakistan.

Yet, while these relationships are more established than those with the Taliban, each has its own complications and mistrusts. This is most clear in the lack of any action or discussion recently by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) about doing anything concerning Afghanistan. Including as it does all of Afghanistan’s neighbours except Turkmenistan, and with a particular interest in terrorism, the SCO should theoretically be the obvious platform for greater engagement in Afghanistan.

Established with Chinese impetus, Beijing has long sought to get the SCO to do more in Afghanistan, but has struggled to get members to share its focus. For the most part, these other countries have rather sought to engage Afghanistan bilaterally or through other regional formats that they host and control.

In many ways, this is exactly the approach Beijing has itself taken. While China has done a great deal of multilateral engagement in the wider region and on Afghanistan, it has usually taken a bilateral approach to focus on its real interests, through selective security engagement, economic investment or developing political and social partnerships. In Afghanistan, the prime concern is that the country might become a base from which Uyghur militants (or other anti-Chinese elements) gather to try to attack China directly or its interests in the wider region. This has led to quite focused security and intelligence attention.

This focus on counter-terrorism is something that provides the UK with a first potential point of engagement. London is as concerned about terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan as Beijing is, though the degree of threat and the nature of them is slightly different. The degree of actual threat that China might face from militant Uyghurs in Afghanistan remains an open question. It is after all many years since a specific threat has been seen. There does though appear to be evidence of some presence and there is no doubt that its wider regional concerns are of relevance. In recent years, terrorists have targeted both China’s embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and its consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, part of a wider trend of targeting of Chinese interests.

But engagement on counterterrorism with China is a double-edged sword for the UK. There may be some concurrence in the assessment of threats abroad: for example, the UK continues to list the Turkestan Islamic Party (also known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement) as a proscribed terrorist entity in contrast to the US.

However, there is little agreement on domestic counter-terrorism policy. The UK has correctly been at the forefront of the global push to condemn Chinese action in Xinjiang which is done under the rubric of countering extremism. Threading the needle of engaging abroad while condemning at home will be difficult. But focusing on shared concerns about groups such as al Qaeda, ISIS, and other regional salafi-jihadi groups that are likely to play a major role in destabilizing the wider region would be something China and the UK might work on.

Focusing on cooperation through the Belt and Road Initiative is equally fraught, though for more prosaic reasons. Whilst Beijing talks a great deal about BRI cooperation, it is hard to find evidence of genuine action following this rhetoric.

The UK has tried, for example, a great deal in Pakistan with limited success. Meaningful BRI cooperation has been largely limited to the level of individual contracts where UK firms take on defined sub-contract roles within larger projects.

Humanitarian aid might offer itself as the most obvious first point of pressure and engagement. The Taliban take over has precipitated a frantic run for the door in all directions. Most visibly via Kabul International Airport, but in far larger numbers across the country’s land borders into Pakistan and Iran – places already swelled by years of Afghan emigration. These problems sit in addition to the larger humanitarian crisis that is likely coming in Afghanistan, if the country remains cut off from the international community and from the aid flows that dominated the economy. Beijing should be engaged and encouraged to expend more money and effort in alleviating these humanitarian crises that sit in its backyard.

What happens in Afghanistan matters to both the UK and China. It matters also to the United States, but Washington has clearly articulated that it is prioritizing efforts elsewhere. London should not step back in a similar way, but should instead explore whether targeted cooperation is possible to advance shared concerns and interests. While at the moment it increasingly looks like there is little appetite in Beijing for genuine cooperation, the problems that Afghanistan faces are likely to be with us for some time yet. Working towards encouraging Beijing to take a greater humanitarian role while recognizing the common terrorist threats offers a way of trying to strike the difficult strategic balance that the UK will need to find in a world of great power confrontation.

Still catching up on myself after a very busy period, this a quick policy note for RUSI picking up on some comments by the UK Foreign Secretary about the need to have to cooperate with China and Russia in Afghanistan. The idea of cooperating with China in particular in Afghanistan is something that lots of people have done over the years, and for those who may have been reading my stuff for a while will know I have done projects on since 2014 (looking at China-India cooperation), again in greater depth in 2016 and most recently last year between the UK and China. As Afghanistan’s wealthiest, and going forwards likely most influential, neighbour, it strikes that China is going to be playing a role or should be taking a more positive role. It makes sense to try to ensure some sort of cooperation can be maintained, while the larger relationships will continue to be incredibly challenging and confrontational. Of course all of this push towards engagement is something that only works if Beijing and Moscow also contribute, something that they have hesitated to do so far (in particular in China’s case).

Enlisting China and Russia in Managing Afghanistan

The UK foreign secretary is the first to raise what will soon become an imperative: engaging with China and Russia in containing the fallout from Afghanistan.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen leaves after a news conference in Moscow, 9 July 2021. Courtesy of Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo.

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s recent comments about enlisting the support of China and Russia to act as moderating influences in Afghanistan amounts to a sober admission of reality: the long-term answer to stability in Afghanistan is going to come from its immediate region. The snag with this assessment is that Afghanistan is a state entirely surrounded by countries that are in one way or another sanctioned by the West. It is this adversarial relationship with much of Afghanistan’s neighbourhood that makes it difficult for a power like the UK to influence events, especially when it comes to engaging Moscow and Beijing on something as sensitive as Afghanistan. So, what exactly can the West in general, and the UK in particular, expect in requesting support from China and Russia in the context of Afghanistan?

Not Exactly Enthused

The first fact to note is that, notwithstanding rhetoric, neither Beijing nor Moscow are pleased with the ultimate outcome of an unstable Afghanistan. They may enjoy the West’s perceived failure and ignominious departure, but an Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban is not an outcome they welcome with excitement. Violent Islamists imbued with a sense of victory present a potential inspiration to extreme groups within China and Russia. It is worth remembering that the Taliban has previously provided space from which militants targeting these countries could operate. Furthermore, any short- or medium-term terrorist threat that could emanate from Afghanistan is most likely to appear in its immediate region rather than further afield.

Neither are Beijing or Moscow attracted to an unstable Afghanistan with a weak or internally divided government without the stabilising force of US power. Such a situation would be an irritant which sits near their borders and could have other consequences for their broader spheres of influence and interests across the Eurasian heartland. Beijing and Moscow would rather have a Taliban government that found a way of creating a stable environment, most preferably through some political agreement. There is likely a divergence in views between London, Beijing and Moscow on what the specific composition of this government might look like, but there is probably an underlying agreement about the broad structure.

Keep it Simple, Keep it Focused

While this suggests a restriction to the degree to which China and Russia will cooperate on Afghan politics, it also indicates a certain alignment with Beijing and Moscow, as their goal is similar to that pursued by the UK. All three want stability. But, rather than expend political capital on precise deliverables that may be unattainable, the focus should be kept on larger goals.

A priority must be to apply whatever pressure is possible to get Beijing and Moscow to encourage the Taliban to facilitate a positive outcome to the current humanitarian crisis at Kabul airport. In the medium term, the UK should impress upon Beijing and Moscow the need to increase their humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and its neighbours. China has considerable wealth and influence in Pakistan, where numerous Afghan refugees are already flowing. Providing greater aid and support for this community, while also continuing the provision of coronavirus pandemic-related aid to Afghanistan, should be a priority. Similarly, Iran is experiencing a refugee influx it can ill afford to manage as it continues to suffer from the effects of the pandemic. Beijing and Tehran have recently started to strengthen their engagement, opening discussions on Afghanistan in particular.

Moscow has already demonstrated a desire to restrict US options in Central Asia, but Russia can still be pushed to step up its humanitarian support to help the countries of the region manage the humanitarian fallout. Before the fall of Kabul, Moscow was offering itself as a valued security bolster to the Central Asian powers, and it should be encouraged to build on this with greater humanitarian aid.

In order to help foster greater cooperation, a key plank of engagement is the joint concerns all three powers have about terrorist threats. Pressure needs to be maintained on the Taliban to ensure their territory is not used by militant groups to launch external attacks. The reality is that both China and Russia (through Central Asia) are under a greater threat than the West from such a development. The UK faces a clear risk through Pakistan, and the deep human links the two countries share, which unfortunately extends to South Asian militancy and extremism. Here, discussion between the UK, China and Russia should be easier. All three already agree in broad terms on the shape of the violent Islamist threat (though domestic assessments and counterterrorism approaches vary wildly). A dialogue with Beijing on the topic would be easier for the UK in particular, given it has not, unlike the US, removed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement from its roster of proscribed terrorist organisations, considering it another name for the Turkestan Islamic Party.

Looking to the future, both China and Russia should be encouraged to live up to their various promises of support for Afghanistan, from trying to work in a more collective and coordinated fashion to help impede the flow of narcotics to boosting cross-border trade and low-level economic activity.

At the moment, much of the discussion around the Afghan economy tends to focus on overly ambitious, long-term and frankly unviable economic visions for the country, be these China’s Belt and Road concept or the opportunity to mine Afghanistan’s potential mineral wealth. The reality is that none of this wealth was extracted during the relative stability of the past 20 years of US-led intervention, when there was a government that had the ability and knowledge necessary to help deliver complicated extractive projects. It is difficult to comprehend why this situation would now be improved or the country seem more appealing, even to more risk-tolerant Chinese firms. Furthermore, such projects take years to see benefits, and the people of Afghanistan need assistance now.

And Less of the ‘Great Game’

It would be useful for the UK to do everything it can to ensure that Afghanistan does not get caught in the grinding tectonic plates of international geopolitics once again. Beijing has already started to identify the country as a potential point of conflict with the US and India, and efforts should focus on disentangling these threads to try to encourage cooperation again. Afghanistan used to shine as a place where adversaries like the US, China and India could cooperate, even if only to a limited extent.

At this stage, any engagement on Afghanistan with other powers must be done with great care. The situation on the ground remains highly unstable and the tussles for power are febrile. Regardless of who ultimately takes and maintains control in Kabul, however, Beijing and Moscow will be highly influential players. Engaging with them in some form will be hard to avoid; the key objective is to do so meaningfully.

Another piece on Afghanistan, this time for RUSI looking through the lens of Central Asia to understand better how the region is worrying about what is going on and trying to engage with major powers to mitigate its risks. Been doing quite a bit on Afghanistan in its region of late, and a few more short pieces to come, as well as (hopefully!) some longer ones. All of this of course helps tee things up for the book early next year. As ever, comments, thoughts, criticisms, and more welcome!

Central Asia and Afghanistan: Old Fears, Old Actors, New Games

The countries of Central Asia have reason to be concerned about Afghanistan in the wake of the Western withdrawal. Yet it remains unclear how they will mitigate the security risks, and what major power support to do this might look like.

Leaders attending the 18th Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Qingdao, China in June 2018 pose for a group photo. Courtesy of Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo


Just over 20 years ago, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was founded, with mitigating risks from Afghanistan as one of its key objectives. In his opening comments at the first session, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan characterised the country as ‘the cradle of terrorism, separatism and extremism’. Two decades later, security concerns around Afghanistan remain alive and well in Central Asia. This was evident recently in Tashkent, as Uzbekistan hosted a major summit focused on Central and South Asian connectivity. One of the first large-scale international events since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, much of its focus was on Afghanistan, a country which ties the two regions together.

Traditionally, international attention towards Afghanistan has tended to focus on its southern border, given the Taliban’s deep links with Pakistan, as well as the Pashtun communities that tie the two countries together across the still ill-defined border. The attacks of 11 September 2001 brought the focus of international terrorism concerns to Afghanistan. Yet long before 2001, Central Asia had many reasons to worry about security threats emanating from Afghanistan.

The five-year Tajik Civil War which raged during the 1990s was in part fuelled by groups operating out of bases in Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan was invaded by militants linked to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the summer of 1999 and 2000. And in February 1999, a series of six car bombs in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent killed 13 people. All of the networks and groups behind these incidents had links to Afghanistan, highlighting President Nazarbayev’s concern over the country, and providing an animating issue for the SCO to group around.

Yet, despite the SCO being created as a vehicle which could – among other things – help coordinate a response to the problems emanating from Afghanistan, the organisation did nothing. In fact, following the September 11 attacks and the abrupt US return to the region, the Central Asian members quite rapidly pivoted to support the renewed US push into Afghanistan. US bases were welcomed into the region, to veiled scepticism in Beijing and Moscow. And for two decades, the SCO did very little practically in support of Afghanistan.

China’s Stake

This was not for want of China trying. Beijing sought to push the SCO to do more in Afghanistan, bringing the country into the organisation as an observer member and fostering the creation of an SCO–Afghanistan Contact Group. But these efforts achieved little. Ultimately, Beijing lost its patience and ended up doing more bilaterally with various partners around Afghanistan than through the SCO.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent tour of the region again served to highlight this approach. He attended an SCO summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, stopped off in Tashkent for a regional security conference organised by the Uzbeks, and completed his tour in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. At each stop he held high-level bilateral engagements and talked about working together on Afghanistan in vague terms, focusing on border security, cooperation and working towards an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned solution. No clear or new answers were proffered within or outside the SCO format.

US Involvement

At the same time, the US has participated in a series of engagements in the region. On the fringes of the Tashkent conference, the US held the latest C5+1 format session, bringing together the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian countries and the senior US representative attending the conference. The final statement emerging from the meeting focused heavily on Afghanistan, highlighting a desire to encourage trade links, improve regional connectivity with Afghanistan, and ensure that the country would not be a threat to the C5+1 or others.

Eager to highlight its particular brand of diplomatic nous, Uzbekistan also managed to work with the US to establish a new regional Quad grouping of Afghanistan–Pakistan–US–Uzbekistan to support an ‘Afghanistan-Peace Process and Post Settlement’. What this all means in practical terms, however, remains unclear, with many of the statements repeating what has been seen and heard before. The US is a major investor in Central Asia, but it demonstrates little committed strategic attention in a region where high-level geopolitics is the order of the day.

… And Russia

Not to be left behind, Russia has also stepped into the game, generously offering to let the US have access to its bases in the region – a move that highlights Moscow’s habit of forgetting that the Central Asian states are now independent. But at the same time, Russia announced military drills with Uzbek and Tajik forces near the two states’ respective borders with Afghanistan, something the Central Asians have welcomed. They have deep historical links to Russian security forces, and Tajikistan hosts a base, Kyrgyzstan an airfield and Kyrgyzstan a missile testing range used by Russian forces. In the wake of the recent escalation in fighting in Afghanistan, Tajikistan called on the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – a Russian construct which seeks to retain some of the security links that existed during Soviet times – to come to its aid. While it is not clear whether the entity itself will respond, Moscow has demonstrated a willingness to come to Dushanbe’s aid, boosting its capabilities in particular at its military base in the country near the border with Afghanistan.

Rising Concerns

As the fighting in Afghanistan gradually moves closer to its neighbours’ borders, Central Asian concerns are increasing. In early July, hundreds of Afghan soldiers and some civilians fled across the border into Tajikistan. The Tajiks let them in, though they ultimately repatriated some of them. In Uzbekistan a similar scene played out, though the Uzbeks were much faster in turning border-crossers around. In Turkmenistan, fighting at the border became so bad that shells started to land in Turkmen territory, leading senior Turkmen officials to reach out to the Taliban to try to bring an end to the fighting.

Prior to this, the region had been somewhat unclear in its response to the unfolding situation in Afghanistan. It had sought to engage with both the Taliban and the government in Kabul, though with varying degrees of publicity. The Tajik government has played a major diplomatic role this past year, hosting high-level sessions of the SCO, the CSTO and the Heart of Asia/Istanbul process – a Turkish-Afghan initiative seeking to focus on Afghanistan’s regional connections as the answer to its long-term problems. Meanwhile, the recent summit in Tashkent is the latest effort by the new government in Uzbekistan to try to tie Afghanistan closer to Central Asia, and Kazakhstan has sought to initiate other regional diplomatic engagements as well. But through all of this, it is not clear that the region has developed a firm plan for how it will manage the potential chaos in Afghanistan in the future.

While all the Central Asian countries now seem to agree that Afghanistan is a key part of their region, they do not seem quite as clear on how to deal with it collectively. Their continuing need and desire to engage with large outside powers as part of their response, however, highlights a concern about being left to cope with this responsibility alone. What is striking is that among the big powers, Russia remains the only one that continues to offer practical answers to the problems Afghanistan might present to Central Asia.

While China has been far more active in its engagement recently across the board in Afghanistan, it is still not clear that Beijing has much intention of stepping in to fill the vacuum left by the US. Rather, it seems that Beijing is eager to soothe regional concerns, while Washington is merely talking about them; only Moscow is stepping in to actually do something. The key unanswerable question at this stage is the degree to which Beijing and Moscow are coordinating their activities, and whether this is the solution that Central Asia actually wants. It is, however, likely to be what it will get.

Its been a busy week on various fronts, but in particular in work on China-Afghanistan. But it seems apt given the SCO celebrated its second decade. Have a couple more pieces to post from the week, but for the time being here is a piece for the excellent Oxus Society (established by Edward to whom I am very grateful for publishing this) which draws on my various experiences meeting with the Organization over the years. You will find a lot more of this coming in the book which is due out early next year, but for the time being enjoy. As ever comments, criticisms, corrections welcome.

The SCO Turns Twenty

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was born almost exactly two decades ago, on June 15, 2001 at a glittering event overlooking the Huangpu River in Shanghai. Celebrating the birth, President Jiang Zemin articulated a vision for the organization that spanned everything from counter-terrorism, regional trade agreements, to pragmatism, solidarity, a pioneering spirit and openness. The last was delivered without a sense of irony to a room of leaders who (for the most part) had taken power with little public ratification. The key, President Jiang said, was to maintain the ‘Shanghai Spirit’ that had brought them all to where they were today.

This was very different to the birth story I was told almost exactly a decade later sitting in the Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We were told that the SCO was “a baby that was born of a time.” It was an “illegally born child” to its parents China and Russia who could not agree on a way forward, hence they decided to form a family called the SCO. But like any family, our Kyrgyz interlocutor informed us, there were “certain frictions” usually involving money, and over time there was “psychological exhaustion by the parents.” A more cynical view that over time I discovered was more typical from the region to what I would hear in Beijing.

A year later, I had my first physical encounter with the organization. After chasing various contacts and colleagues in Shanghai, I fixed a meeting at the Organization’s headquarters in Beijing with a fellow researcher. We had aimed to meet with the Secretary General, but ended up getting passed along to some lower-level diplomats. A Kazakh and a Russian official who were posted to the Organization from their respective Ministries of Foreign Affairs. The more elderly Russian was in a playful mood and clearly enjoying what he saw as a sinecure role. 

Sat in a grand and slightly dusty meeting room which had a cabinet full of football trophies in the corner, we listened as he expounded about the organization’s processes and procedures downplaying any of the more menacing aspects. Projects were nascent and slow moving, he told us. Everything was done by consensus. Terrorism – something he described using the Chinese phrasing of the Three Evils (terrorism, separatism and religious extremism) – was a major concern. Economic aspects were still under discussion. The overriding message we got from them was nothing to see here, move along, move along.

The overriding question from all of these encounters was what really was the point and aim of this organization? Western diplomats we met in Beijing or Central Asian capitals would largely rubbish the organization as a large talking shop. Chinese officials we spoke to, however, would talk about it as a foundational element in their vision for Eurasia and the world. Westerners, they would tell us, missed the gentle consensus building that the SCO brought to the table. As a Chinese expert at one of the more influential think tanks in Beijing told me when I asked what the SCO had achieved “to not do anything is to do everything.”

The initial seed of the SCO was planted in the wake of the Cold War. As the Soviet Union fell apart, there was an imperative for China to clarify its western borders. China had shared a long, porous and remote border with the Soviet Union. Once China was suddenly confronted with three new border countries, this vagueness no longer worked. From this was born the idea of establishing a grouping to discuss de-militarization and border delineation between China and the new states of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Meeting first in Shanghai in 1996, the grouping was imaginatively called the Shanghai Five, upgraded later to the SCO when Uzbekistan joined at the glittering event in Shanghai.

China’s vision was larger, however, than just borders and security. It was about economic connectivity and prosperity across the entire region. The larger concept could be found in a visit in 1994 by then-Premier Li Peng to Central Asia, when he swept through all of the capitals except Tajikistan. China was opening itself up after the setback of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacres and Premier Li had been at the forefront of promoting the new China, taking groups of businessmen around with him and trying to encourage western firms to come and invest. Central Asia was critical both in terms of being a border region to China, but also given the deep cross-border security concerns that existed with Beijing worried about Uyghur dissidents using the region as a base to launch attacks within China. 

This blend of security and prosperity is what has been at the heart of Chinese interests in the SCO. Focusing on terrorist threats in particular is something that all of the member states find themselves agreeing on, and economic prosperity is always appreciated. Counter-terrorism in particular developed its own home. 

The Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS), first announced in 2001, and then formally opened in Tashkent in 2004 was established as a hub for counter-terrorism and counter-extremism activity. When I visited in 2012, I found a sleepy institution in a bright pink building where the Chinese officials refused to speak Mandarin to me, while their bosses told me about the meetings and conferences their institution hosted and some of them fell asleep during our meeting. This dozy welcome, however, masked the institution’s role in creating a common roster of enemies and the growing legal harmonization in counter-terrorism and countering online extremism that RATS helped foster. 

Counter-terrorism has also provided China with a way into other forms of engagement. China pushed forwards the development of a training center in Shanghai which offered courses for Interior and Border Guard forces across the region – providing an opportunity to develop relationships at multiple levels in local security forces. Through the SCO it has hosted and partnered with numerous regional partner forces on joint military exercises. The regular large-scale military exercises provide not only an opportunity to strengthen bilateral relations, but also for Chinese forces to practice with the vastly more experienced Russian forces. It has also increasingly given China an opportunity to show-case some of their military hardware – in particular drones – to potential customers. 

But the organization has over time developed a much wider range of activities beyond this, creating an entire cultural roster of actions and events to encourage what they describe as the ‘Shanghai Spirit.’ A whole series of cultural activities bringing SCO nationals together. A marathon, a film festival, young businessmen forums, a traveling festival of culture which I once came across by chance in Tashkent which included exhibitions from key cities in each member state, a university exchange program which allows for post-graduate students to spend a year at a university in another member state university offer a sense of the SCO’s broader activities. 

Not everything Beijing wanted to achieve has succeeded. Notwithstanding putting almost one billion dollars on offer, the idea of an SCO Development Bank or Fund has never taken off. Repeated efforts to establish an SCO Free Trade Area have gone nowhere. And after having tried to get the Organization to do something specific about Afghanistan rather than just host meetings, China seemed to accept it was too complicated. In 2016, China established a new mini-lateral entity called the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) that brought together the Chiefs of Army Staff of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Tajikistan. Notwithstanding continued Chinese efforts, they realized nothing was moving forwards within the SCO on Afghanistan and so they built a parallel entity to handle their direct security concerns. This is not to say that China has not continued to push the idea of the SCO doing more in Afghanistan forwards – most recently, after meeting with his Central Asian counterparts in May 2021, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi once again hammered home the point that the Organization needed to do something about Afghanistan. Everyone agreed, though it is still not clear anything will happen.

But China’s relentless persistence with the Organization has paid dividends. And the Organization has only continued to grow over time, now also encompassing Pakistan and India, with Iran a regular courter. Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia are official Observer states, while Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey are Dialogue Partners. The Organization is growing and at current count claims to be the largest regional organization by population and geographical coverage – representing about half of the world’s population. Whatever Jiang Zemin released in Shanghai in 2001 has proven to be attractive. 

Beijing has also shown itself to be highly dynamic through the Organization, echoing in many ways their global growth in other areas as well. When one path is blocked they seem to find another. Having been repeatedly stymied in their grand economic goals, China has now managed to start to advance them through its tech and digital giants who have started to work with the SCO to advance China’s Digital Silk Road. Chinese applications, Chinese online markets, Chinese online health and educational platforms, have all become increasingly dominant within the SCO. Central Asians working with the Organization tell me working with Chinese tech is one of their biggest tasks. The capstone of all of this activity was laid in November 2020 with the establishment of the China-SCO Development Zone in Qingdao, which was inaugurated with $8.6 billion worth of projects focusing on China’s digital and tech sector.

China’s SCO partners were not very visible during the event, however, but had supported its establishment during an earlier Summit in Qingdao in 2018. They have continued to attend, participate and host, even as other tensions have developed between them. Notwithstanding the violent border clashes and technological tensions between Delhi and Beijing last year, Prime Minister Modi attended the SCO leaders Summit and paid respect to the Organization, while his country has taken the lead in establishing a working group looking at digital commerce and start-ups ahead of this year’s twentieth anniversary. China and India may be at knifepoint at the border, but Delhi still sees great value in participating in the SCO.

And this is the ultimate goal of this now two-decade old entity. To create an Organization in China’s image that has captivated the Eurasian heartland with its non-judgmental appeal. The constant meetings, conferences and encounters have developed a web of relationships across the Eurasian heartland that are all fostered around a vision of the world articulated by China. The world may be obsessed with what China is doing in the seas, but it is through the SCO and over land that the longer-term play can be seen. It is here that the real impact and effect of China’s webs of connectivity can be found, and a vision of what China’s new world order might look like.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute and a visiting senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. His work focuses on terrorism, counter-terrorism and China’s Eurasian relations.

It is a big week for Eurasia, though much of the attention is focused on President Biden’s Europe trip. In parallel to his visit to NATO, the G7 Summit, a meeting with President Putin and more, a number of other things are happening – most curiously from my perspective the SCO is turning 20. More on that later. First of all though, a paper on China in Afghanistan for a NATO Defence College paper edited by excellent colleagues Aniseh and David. This was initially written a little while ago, and has had some updating as we have gone along. I think its has managed to stay accurate given the constantly changing events on the ground, but it is surprising to me how little attention Afghanistan has been getting during the NATO Summit. Something that really reflects the total disinterest that you now find about staying in country. More on that topic to come as well.

China

What China wants

China has taken a largely neutral view on Afghanistan, repeatedly calling for all sides to agree and for violence to de-escalate. It has sought to engage with Afghanistan through multiple regional and global formats, never taking a leadership role while carefully cultivating relationships with every side of the conflict – including the Taliban with which it brokered informal talks in 2015.144 It seems that Beijing is fairly ambivalent about who will ultimately come to power in the country, though it would likely prefer not to see the Taliban solely dominant.

China’s public passivity might reflect a genuine expression of Beijing’s view on the Afghan Peace Negotiations (APN) and the end state in the country. It has not taken any public position on the APN beyond stating its support for any Afghan-led and Afghan-owned discussion.145 In December last year, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, “We hope both sides of the Afghan peace talks will put the nation and people first, act on the people’s will, meet each other halfway and reach consensus on peace as soon as possible. China will continue working with the international community to play a constructive role in this process.”146 This has been the official line delivered consistently, with a different MoFA spokesman (and former Deputy Chief of Mission to Islamabad) Zhao Lijian stating in March, “China calls on the Afghan Taliban and all parties in the country to grasp the opportunity to start the intra-Afghan negotiations as soon as possible, and to negotiate for political and security arrangements acceptable to all so as to realize lasting peace and stability of Afghanistan.”147 When the APN started in September, Foreign Minister Wang Yi sent some opening remarks calling for all sides to agree,148 and special representative Liu Jian later visited Qatar.

This neutral expression towards the talks masks the fact that Beijing places much of the blame for failure on the talks with the US, whom they see as posturing and refusing to acknowledge the outsized role they play in the problem. China believes the US has a responsibility to resolve the issues in Afghanistan. These are the very same issues they have contributed to creating, and Beijing does not see much chance of success.149 More recently, a more aggressive tone has crept into China’s commentary about the US role in Afghanistan. In a late March 2021 MoFA Press Conference, Spokeswoman Hua Chunying played a video in which Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, spoke of how the US’s decision to invade Afghanistan was part of a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) plan to develop assets to attack China from within in Xinjiang.150 Such rumour has long circulated in Beijing, but its elevation to official discourse by the MoFA shows a willingness to far more aggressively confront the United States in Afghanistan. It closes the door on possibilities for cooperation, while also potentially signalling that Beijing may view NATO’s operations in Afghanistan with more hostility than previously. A leaked intelligence report in December which suggested that Chinese agents were offering bounties for American casualties in Afghanistan is an example of how this souring narrative can drag Afghanistan into the heart of the US-China clash.151

The advent of the Biden administration does not appear to have changed the trajectory of US-China relations, and arguably it has been getting worse. Many of the key figures in the new American administration are individuals who had previously worked in the Obama administration and helped shape the cooperation between China and the US in Afghanistan. And while there are suggestions that Afghanistan could lend itself as a useful platform for cooperation between the US and China152, this seems unlikely this time around. The steps taken by the outgoing Trump administration might have sealed the conflict with China. Some of these have direct salience to Afghanistan – for example, the decision to remove the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from the list of proscribed terrorist organisations. In Beijing’s eyes, the US is negating the existence of China’s primary concern in the country: Uyghur militants and affiliates’ activities in Afghanistan.153 By raising the spectre of US manipulation of Uyghurs to attack China from within, Beijing is linking Afghanistan to its core domestic security concerns in Xinjiang – something which has also become a focus of US sanctions towards China. Afghanistan has thus now been tied to the very heart of the US-China confrontation.

The US decision to withdraw its military forces from Afghanistan is unlikely to have much direct impact on Chinese behaviour in Afghanistan. China has for the most part developed a complicated set of tools to help hedge against what it perceives as its direct security threats from Afghanistan. As a result, Beijing is likely less concerned about whether the US is there dealing with terrorist groups than it was before. An additional concern was that the United States would use bases in Afghanistan as forward staging posts against China. This fear has shifted. While China seems more concerned about secretive CIA deployments, it is less focused on military deployments. Ultimately, a substantial US drawdown will only further assuage this concern.

Overall, China is likely to maintain a watching brief in Afghanistan, refusing to step forward, except where its most direct interests are involved – such as the security of its direct borders with Afghanistan or concerns about Uyghur militants. Undoubtedly China would prefer a stable Afghanistan on its borders. But at the same time, it is not clear how concerned it actually is about having an unstable Afghanistan next door. Beijing has now hardened its direct links and borders with the country, meaning China likely feels it has cauterized its direct security concerns. Senior Afghan officials repeat Chinese talking points about Uyghur threats, while they appear to have a path for discussion with the Taliban. Given the relative absence of much activity by Uyghur militants targeting Chinese interests, China is most likely fairly comfortable with the current relative instability.

Playing the Eurasian chessboard

To some degree, Chinese concerns with Afghanistan are shaped by Beijing’s fears of the potential for instability in the country to affect Pakistan and Central Asia. China has invested a great deal in both Pakistan (through the fabled China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, CPEC which is reportedly a cumulative investment package of between $30 and $50 billion) and Central Asia (where Xi Jinping first announced his keynote Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Chinese influence and presence has been growing for the past 20 years). These investments are closely linked to China’s long-term project to stabilize its western region of Xinjiang. Consequently, tensions and difficulties between Afghanistan and its southern neighbour Pakistan are of potential concern to Beijing (there is far less tension between Afghanistan and the Central Asian countries). At the same time, China’s long-standing and close relationship with Pakistan means that China is likely to favour Islamabad over Kabul.

In fact, the relationship with Pakistan plays a substantial part in China’s relationship with Afghanistan. While Islamabad used to be the conduit of China’s relationship with Afghanistan, Beijing is now more confident in its direct relationships with Kabul and has crafted a policy which is developed around its specific interests. At the same time, its relationship with Pakistan is still significant, and much of what China does is done with taking into consideration the impact on Pakistan’s interests.

The consequence of the proximity between Islamabad and Beijing has been a knock-on effect on India and its role in Afghanistan (and the broader region). Already locked into a tense confrontation with India after border violence in Ladakh, China’s security apparatus is increasingly pushing for a more confrontational approach towards India. Taken alongside the growing hard-line set of relationships with Pakistan, this suggests Beijing might be more willing to accede to Pakistani positions on India’s role in Afghanistan. This is unlikely to be a major driver of the Chinese policy on Afghanistan, but it will play into its considerations. The suggestions floated during President Xi and Prime Minister Modi’s one-on-one meetings that they would focus their efforts on finding ways to cooperate in Afghanistan154 are likely to be shelved for the time being due to broader tensions, and Pakistani fears about Indian activity in Afghanistan are likely to get a positive hearing in Beijing.

Taken to its most extreme, this could result in China and India waging a proxy war in Afghanistan. Hints of what this could look like might already be seen in the repeated attacks against Baluchi groups operating from bases in Afghanistan155 that have targeted Chinese interests in Pakistan.156 While those responsible for the attacks are not often identified, or they are blamed on vague militants, there is a correlation between high profile attacks in Pakistan against Chinese targets, and subsequent targeting of senior Baluchi figures hiding in Afghanistan. There are also reports about India stirring Tibetan activists or fighters against China.157 Senior Indian politicians made appearances at public events alongside Tibetan activists and the Indian press championed the role of Tibetan forces serving in the Indian Army158 (there have also been reports of Chinese agents stirring things up with Assamese separatists159). Were this escalation to develop further, it could turn into Chinese and Indian proxies targeting each other in Afghanistan.

At the same time, it is worth noting that there is likely a limit to how far Beijing will let Pakistan dictate its policies towards India, and the degree to which China will seek a full on conflict with India. Notwithstanding border tensions and a growing Indian effort to de-couple technologically from China by banning Chinese mobile phone applications and threatening to ban Huawei and ZTE from building Indian telecoms infrastructure,160 Prime Minister Modi and other senior Indian officials have continued to engage in multilateral institutions where China is an influential leader.161 Senior Indian representatives have attended both the BRICS (Brazil – Russia – India – China – South Africa) and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summits in 2021, and still talk about engaging productively within them.162 Furthermore, the thawing in relations between Islamabad and New Delhi could further complicate this dynamic. There remains a danger within this overall context that Afghanistan becomes a useful deniable battlefield where the two sides’ more hawkish elements and security agencies can face off against each other.

Counter-terrorism as a priority

Counter-terrorism has always been high on China’s list of concerns with Afghanistan, though the threat from militant Uyghur networks in the country seems much reduced in comparison to earlier years. China has not reported any attacks within its borders linked to militants in either Afghanistan or Pakistan for over a decade – the last time was a 2011 incident that took place in Kashgar.163 China’s border control efforts have focused on supporting the construction of an Afghan security forces base in Badakhshan,164 providing equipment for Afghan forces and undertaking joint patrolling with their Afghan counterparts,165 while also providing support to border control forces in Tajikistan166 and Pakistan.167 It has also fostered the creation of the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) that brings together the Defence Chiefs of Staff of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Tajikistan.168

This regional mechanism which has admittedly not done much in the past couple of years, is nonetheless important for a number of reasons. First, it provides China with a direct structure through which it can address its security concerns with Afghanistan. It shows that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has an interest in engaging on the security issues related to the country. Second, it provides a multilateral framework which answers a need which should (in theory) fit within the responsibility of the SCO. The existence of the QCCM in many ways reflects China’s disappointment with the SCO as a vehicle to advance its security concerns with Afghanistan.169 Third, the QCCM was established without notice to Moscow, something troubling to Russia as one of the members, Tajikistan, is also a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), whose members are supposed to cooperate closely on security matters. This fact highlights both China’s willingness to act without heeding Russia’s concerns and the fallacy of common assumptions that China only focuses on economic issues in Central Asia while leaving security issues to Moscow.

Besides securing its direct border with Afghanistan, it also developed relationships with parties in Kabul interested in countering Uyghur groups. Both the Taliban and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) have said they would either fight Uyghurs or prevent them from acting against China from the Afghan territory. The lack of any major attack or plot in Xinjiang or China for years reflects the relative effectiveness of this security blanket from China’s perspective, though it is equally clear that China wants to ensure that it can guarantee its security concerns directly as well as through partners.

Having said this, China’s increasing concern about the US potential use of Uyghur proxies to attack or undermine its interests, suggests that counter-terrorism (CT) will remain high on Beijing’s agenda, with indications that China might have already started to take a more proactive view on disrupting Uyghur networks in Afghanistan.170

Binding the world with Belts and Roads

China’s Belt and Road Initiative has, for the most part, not touched on Afghanistan. While there have been numerous conferences, and officials from both the Afghan and Chinese governments talk about the BRI relevance for Afghanistan, the truth is that there has been as little investment in infrastructure or other domains in Afghanistan as China has made in Central Asia or Pakistan. The one piece of direct infrastructure connecting the two countries which has been mooted is a fibre optic cable that is supposed to run through the Wakhan Corridor – a project supposedly developed under the auspices of a World Bank initiative.171 It is worth noting that Chinese firms have worked (and are working) on numerous infrastructure projects within Afghanistan, but these are all funded by international financial institutions rather than by Beijing. In other words, Chinese contractors are working on the ground, but it is not part of any formal Beijing driven BRI project.

The two much vaunted economic investment projects in Afghanistan – the Mes Aynak copper mine and the Amu Darya oil field – have both stagnated and not delivered nearly the local benefits that the Afghans had hoped when they signed the deals.172

China has, however, encouraged BRI related projects in Central Asia and Pakistan that might connect with Afghanistan, particularly those focused on developing infrastructure linked to CPEC. Beijing has long wanted to get connected with Afghanistan and has invested in making border crossings of goods more efficient.173 As direct trade between China and Afghanistan also remains limited174, Afghanistan therefore does not play a particularly significant role in China’s broader economic vision for the region, except with regards the potential spill over of instability from Afghanistan to Central Asia and Pakistan, where China has substantial investments. Going forward, it is unlikely that this is going to change much. The Chinese economic vision for the region does not need to include an Afghanistan that will succeed. Additionally, there has been a broader push by Chinese institutions to recalibrate the projects that they are doing under BRI with a view to ensuring economic sustainability and returns on investment. Seen in this light, it is unlikely that Afghanistan will become a major target for BRI support in the future.

——–

144 E. Wong and M. Mashal, “Taliban and Afghan peace officials have secret talks in China”, The New York Times, 25 May 2015.

145 “常驻联合国副代表耿爽大使在阿富汗问题阿里亚模式会上的发言”, Permanent Mission to the UN, 20 November 2020 (Speech by Ambassador Geng Shuang, Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, at the Aria Model Meeting on Afghanistan).

146 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying’s regular press conference on 3 December 2020”, People’s Republic of China, 3 December 2020.

147 “China welcomes US-Taliban peace deal: FM spokesperson”, Xinhuanet, 3 February 2020.

148 “China welcomes intra-Afghan talks, expects lasting peace via joint efforts”, China Global Television Network, 14 September 2020.

149 “The status of the Afghan Taliban”, Charhar, 13 October 2020.

150 Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference on March 26, 2021 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/t1864659.shtml

151 J. Swan and B. Allen-Ebrahimian, “Scoop: Trump administration declassifies unconfirmed intel on Chinese bounties”, Axios, 20 December 2020.

152 D. Markey, “The best place to test cooperation with China is in Afghanistan”, The Hill, 22 February 2021.

153 “China condemns US for delisting of ETIM as terrorist organization”, China Global Television Network, 6 November 2020.

154 A. Krishnan, “Modi-Xi bonhomie 2.0: all that happened during the ‘informal’ Wuhan summit”, India Today, 28 April 2018; S. Haida and A. Aneja, “Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping ‘informal summit’ in Chennai from October 11”, The Hindu, 9 October 2019.

155 S. Shukla, “Who are Baloch Liberation Army? Insurgents who killed 30 in Pakistan in last one week”, The Print, 20 February 2020.

156 “Alleged leader of Chinese consulate attack in Pakistan killed”, Al Jazeera, 27 December 2018.

157 K. Purohit, “Tibetan SFF soldier killed on India-China border told family: ‘we are finally fighting our enemy’”, South China Morning Post, 24 September 2020.

158 A. Bhaumik, “Nyima Tenzin: an unsung Tibetan hero of India’s resistance against Chinese PLA’s aggression”, Deccan Herald, 2 September 2020.

159 “Beijing said to fund separatist India movement”, Asia Sentinel, 21 August 2020.

160 M. Singh, “India bans 43 more Chinese apps over cybersecurity concerns”, TechCrunch, 24 November 2020.

161 “PM Modi addresses SCO summit: Key points”, The Times of India, 10 November 2020.

162 “Brics summit 2020 live updates: PM Modi addresses Brics summit”, The Times of India, 17 November 2020.

163 M. Wines, “China blames foreign-trained separatists for attacks in Xinjiang”, The New York Times, 1 August 2020.

164 M. Martina, “Afghan troops to train in China, ambassador says”, Reuters, 6 September 2018.

165 S. Snow, “Chinese troops appear to be operating in Afghanistan, and the Pentagon is OK with it”, Military Times, 5 March 2017.

166 “Tajikistan: secret Chinese base becomes slightly less secret”, Eurasianet, 23 September 2020.

167 ANI, “China strengthening military base in Gilgit Baltistan by constructing mega infrastructures, say activists”, Yahoo News, 17 July 2020.

168 “QCCM military group launched to counter terror”, The Nation, 4 August 2016.

169 The existence of the QCCM in many ways reflects China’s disappointment with the SCO as a vehicle to advance its security concerns with Afghanistan. China has consistently sought to get the SCO to engage more in Afghanistan, with Xi Jinping once again raising the issue during the SCO Heads of State Summit (held online) in November 2020. See: X. Jinping, “Full text: Xi Jinping’s speech at 20th SCO summit”, China Global Television Network, 10 November 2020. However, notwithstanding China’s push, the organization has consistently played no role in Afghanistan. Since 2017 there has been a push to revive the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group but it is not clear that this grouping has achieved anything practical. See “SCO Resumes Afghanistan Contact Group Meeting”, Tolonews, 11 October 2017.

170 While the full details are not clear, public and private reporting has suggested that the network of Chinese agents that was disrupted by NDS in Kabul in late 2020 was seeking to establish a fake Uyhgur cell to draw in real Uyhgur networks to neutralise them. See S. Gupta, “10 Chinese spies caught in Kabul get a quiet pardon, fly home in chartered aircraft’, The Hindustan Times, 4 January 2021.

171 Z. Jahanmal, “Afghanistan, China to connect through fiber optic network”, Tolonews, 23 April 2017.

172 R. Pantucci, “China’s non-intervention in Afghanistan”, The Oxus Society, 18 November 2020.

My final piece in this most recent blast, this time for my London base RUSI looking at UK terrorist threats and matching up what the UK threat picture looks like with the growing focus the UK is placing on counter-terrorism deployments in parts of Africa. The point was really to raise questions about whether these deployments are going in the right places. Am aware the balance is always a complicated one between threats, capabilities and cost, but it does seem an odd set of choices to make at the moment. I think this is a set of questions I want to explore in more detail going forwards, but at the moment a bit overcommitted with other pieces which should be landing over the next few months.

One Down, Many More Challenges: The UK and Threats of African Terrorism

The UK is shifting its counterterrorism capability to Africa. Yet while the threat picture in Africa appears to be worsening, it remains unclear how outwardly menacing it actually is. The key question Whitehall needs to ask is whether the new deployments to Mali and Somalia appropriately reflect the global terrorist threat picture the UK faces.

For the ninth or tenth time, the leader of the Boko Haram terrorist group, Abubakar Shekau, has been reported killed. His death comes at a moment of growing attention towards terrorism in Africa. While last year saw a broader fall in terrorist violence around the world, in Africa it actually rose.

All of this comes as the UK appears to be increasing its counterterrorism focus on the continent. The prime minister has announced a deployment to Somalia to help address terrorist threats there, and the UK’s force in Mali has started to conduct operations on the ground. This suggests a shift in where the UK judges its main foreign terrorist threats to be coming from, as it follows the US out of the door in Afghanistan. The key question is whether this accurately reflects the threat picture to the UK and its interests.

Ironically enough, having been the target of authorities for many years, Shekau’s ultimate demise is reported to have come at his own hand while fighting the local Islamic State affiliate. An exceptionally violent man, Shekau led a brutal fighting force whose indiscriminate violence was considered too much even for Islamic State, leading to infighting among the jihadist groups on the ground. During his final stand, reports on the ground suggest that large numbers of his followers joined Islamic State rather than fight alongside him.

The death of terrorist leaders can often lead to fragmentation and greater levels of violence. However, Shekau’s death may actually accelerate a process of unification among the various violent groups in Nigeria under the Islamic State banner. This in turn could make the specific threat from Islamic State in the region worse.

What is less likely is that his death will particularly change the threat picture to the UK. As a global power with interests across Africa, the UK has an interest in stability in the region. But when looking at this region through a rigid counterterrorism lens, the threat appears far more local than international. And this is where questions might be asked about the current UK deployments to Mali and Somalia.

The threat picture in Somalia is one that has had direct links to the UK. We have just marked the eight-year anniversary of the death of Fusilier Lee Rigby. His murder was undertaken by individuals with links to terrorist networks in Somalia and their allies across the Gulf on the Arabian Peninsula. The current leader of Islamic State in Somalia is a former longstanding UK resident. There are fewer links to Mali, and no active plots that have been uncovered. Moreover, it has been a while since an active plot was prosecuted in the UK that had links to Somalia. Terrorism with links to networks in Africa that has affected the UK has tended to be connected to Libya – as we are discovering in some detail through the Manchester Arena bombing inquiry – as well as Tunisia, where some 30 UK holidaymakers were massacred in 2015.

There is no doubt that terrorist groups in Africa do have some connections to international networks, but they are not necessarily all connected in the same way. Nor is it entirely clear that they are all a threat to the UK or its interests equally – or that they pose the same level of menace as the groups that will continue to exist in Afghanistan.

While the UK has not seen a terrorist plot with direct links to South Asia for some time, a court in Germany is currently trying a network of Tajiks who are alleged to have been directed in part by Islamic State in Afghanistan. And the UK’s deep human connections with South Asia will always ensure that some echoes of tensions there will be felt in the UK.

But the UK is following the US’s decision on Afghanistan, and while some residual UK force will likely remain to support the more limited NATO mission on the ground, this is clearly not going to be a UK military focus. The key question, then, is whether the new UK mini-deployments to Africa are being targeted in the right places, and whether they are large enough to actually effect some change on the ground. So far, the reported numbers in both Somalia and Mali are in the low hundreds – certainly not enough to overturn longstanding jihadist threats or insurgencies that have been going on in some cases for generations.

This suggests the deployments are more demonstrative or focused on supporting limited kinetic counterterrorism goals rather than the long-term efforts that are needed to materially change the situation on the ground. This in turn highlights how the core of the UK’s security approach towards Africa in this regard still relies heavily on local forces.

Yet this has repeatedly been shown to be a fragile policy. One need only look at the fact that, at the same time as Shekau was dying fighting Islamic State, the Nigerian Army Chief died in a helicopter crash – or that just a month earlier, Chadian President Idriss Déby died fighting insurgents in his country – in order to see how fleeting African security arrangements can be. And this is before one factors in the latest coup d’état in Mali.

There is a growing terrorist threat in Africa. As the coronavirus pandemic afflicted the world last year, Africa was among the only places where violence associated with terrorist groups went up. And events in Mozambique earlier this year highlighted what a terrorist crisis in Africa could look like at its worst. Shekau’s death is likely to precipitate more violence in Nigeria. But it is not clear what kind of an outward-facing aspect these threats currently have.

By deploying small numbers of troops to Mali and Somalia, the UK is playing its part in tackling the broader regional issue. But the problems around terrorism in Africa are infinitely more complicated than these deployments suggest, and come at the same time as cuts in aid budgets to the same regions. If this light footprint reflects the fact that the threat picture to the UK is seen as limited, then questions should be asked as to whether scarce resources are being deployed optimally. The potential terrorist threat to the UK is still more likely to emanate from Libya, the Middle East or South Asia.

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

BANNER IMAGE: UK forces in Mali. Courtesy of Ministry of Defence/OGLv3.0

Had a busy week publishing with three short pieces out on a fairly disparate selection of topics, though all ones that I have done work on in the past. First up is a short piece with my excellent former RSIS colleague Sinan for the wonderful Indian think tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF). Big thanks to Kabir for helping get it published. It builds on a previous piece Sinan and myself did for RSIS, and is a topic which would merit much more work going forwards as the picture in the Maldives is very unclear.

Targeting of a former president highlights the growing challenge of extremism in Maldives

The attempted murder of the former Maldivian President and current Speaker Mohammed Nasheed has highlighted once again the challenges of extremism in the South Asian island nation. The Maldivian authorities have arrested 14 individuals in total, and as of May 29, the government has accused four individuals of planning a conspiracy to conduct terrorist attacks, supporting a foreign terrorist group, and recruiting individuals to partake in terrorist activity overseas.

The Home Affairs Minister, Imran Abdulla, has commented that there are numerous individuals in the islands who possess IED training, and the tiny nation has the unfortunate boast of being one of the countries with the highest per capita rates of jihadists who have left to fight in Iraq and Syria, all highlighting the depth and complexity of the violent Islamist threat that the Maldives faces. But at the same time, this threat background is not new, suggesting that a greater understanding is needed to understand the drivers of violence on the islands. Overreaction can be as dangerous as underreaction—calibrating that balance in the Maldives is going to be key.

A brief history of terrorism in the Maldives

Like much of the world, the Maldivian economy, which in ordinary times is reliant on tourism which contributes over 30 percent of GDP, has been depressed as a result of COVID-19. Coming out from the pandemic, it will need tourism numbers to pick up rapidly once again. But this beautiful tourist destination has also faced its fair share of terrorist complications. These date back to the war in Afghanistan and the jihad in Kashmir in the late 1990s, where individual Maldivians were found fighting alongside extremist organisations.

According to Maldivian specialists, there was a surge in the spread of extremist ideas in the wake of the 2004 Tsunami. In part, this was thanks to groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba taking advantage of the situation to establish a charitable foothold which then gave them an ability to recruit locally, but it was also thanks to the spread of a more exclusive form of Islam that flowed from different parts of the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia’s austere Salafi Islam, in particular, made its way to the nation giving the already disgruntled citizens a more intolerant religious ideology which mixed badly with the rampant corruption, poverty, and contrasting opulence reserved for tourists.

One result of this radicalisation was a bombing in 2007 that injured a group of mostly Chinese tourists at the Malé Sultan Park. This incident led to a crackdown on local Islamist networks, including the arrest of a number of preachers. After this, there was a reported silence in terms of incidents within the Maldives, though reports repeatedly emerged on Maldivians showing up in foreign battlefields or alongside other networks around the region.

Then in 2015, former President Abdullah Yameen was targeted in an explosion that took place on his boat; and in 2017 a prominent blogger, Yameen Rasheed, was stabbed to death near his home. Responsibility in both cases was unclear, with fingers being pointed at both extremists and political adversaries. In March 2020, a police boat was set on fire by Moosa Inaas, a man who was previously involved and jailed for the 2007 bombings.

New actors

Most worryingly, in 2020, there were stabbings of tourists; these incidents were claimed by Islamists with alleged links to the Islamic State in the nation, prompting further fear. This was in addition to some government-owned boats being set on fire (April 2020) in an incident that the ISIS claimed responsibility for.

The picture that is left is an opaque one. The attacks that have taken place appear to focus largely on politically connected figures or on tourists. While suspicions have repeatedly fallen on Islamists, it is not always clear that they are responsible. Since the establishment of the Islamic State in 2014, the country has been pushed into the spotlight. Evidence of this is seen in Sawt al-Hind’s (Voice of India)  publications where this regional online propoganda magazine has been used to claim or laud attacks that have taken place in the Maldives.

But while there has yet been no clear claim of responsibility for the attack on Speaker Nasheed (ISIS has yet to comment on the incident at all), there is a clear and growing concern around the threat from ISIS or al-Qaeda-inspired extremists. The government accuses the four men who were allegedly involved in the attack on Speaker Nasheed of  supporting and recruiting people for overseas terrorist groups in the name of ‘jihad’; it  is more than likely that  their assessments point to one of the two.

In the aftermath of this bombing, Maldivian Home Affairs Minister Imran Abdulla also noted that over 1,400 extremists were living freely in the Maldives, and some of them had improvised explosive device training. He used this opportunity to call for greater legal powers to detain and rehabilitate extremists.

Uncomfortable questions (and answers)

The bigger problem that the incident casts a light on is the continuing lack of any clear plan in the Maldives about how to address the still lingering question of radicalisation amongst some members of the island’s community. The Home Affairs Minister’s reference to the 1,400 extremists is a worrying set of statistics for a security force which is apparently struggling to provide tight security to one of its most senior politicians. Authorities appear to be willing to repatriate individuals who fought in Syria and Iraq, but it is not clear if there are processes in place to manage their effective de-radicalisation.

In January this year, authorities released a 34-year-old man who had been brought back from Syria the year before with police saying they would merely continue to monitor him. This follows a pattern in which police reportedly undertake arrests and disrupts plots, but infrequently appear to follow up with trials. Moosa Inaas’s case demonstrates the weaknesses in the processes to de-radicalise terrorist convicts.

But in a similar way, the government appears to be struggling on how to manage this threat­—a threat they do not fully comprehend. The ISIS has passed comments about a few incidents in the Maldives, but it is not clear as to why they are not claiming the others. Given the large number of per capita extremists in the islands, the rich number of potential targets in the forms of foreign tourists, the tensions that exist between conservative Muslims on the islands and some of these tourists, and finally the questionable capability of the security force, it is surprising in some ways that more attacks have not been seen.

This highlights an uncomfortable conclusion that has to be explored in the Maldivian context. While it is probable that more incidents are likely to take place, care needs to be taken to not overstate and overreact. There is clearly an intangible balance that exists within the Maldives that has so far kept an explosive situation to a limited (and highly targeted) set of incidents. Understanding this complicated balance is essential before a large-scale counter-extremism and counter-terrorism programming is deployed. Otherwise, a spark might set off something far worse.