Archive for the ‘THINK TANKS’ Category

More catch-up posting, this time a piece for my institutional home RUSI’s magazine Newsbrief, looking at how the threat from ISIS/Daesh may evolve over the next few years.

Daesh: What Happens Next?

May 24, 2017

As the battle for Mosul rages on and Daesh is put under increasing pressure in other parts of Iraq and Syria, how will the threat from the group evolve? Will Daesh end up following the path of Al-Qa’ida, with regional affiliates becoming more prominent? 

In the wake of 9/11, Al-Qa’ida was sharply ejected from its base in Afghanistan. Re-establishing itself in Pakistan’s border areas, the leadership continued their bitter struggle against the world, launching and coordinating a series of attacks. Most immediately these included: an attempt on transatlantic airlines using British shoe bombers; an attack on the Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba, Tunisia; the bombing of a nightclub in Bali; a rocket attack on an Israeli passenger aircraft leaving Mombasa, Kenya; and ship-borne suicide bombers targeting the French-flagged Petronas oil tanker MV Limburg off the coast of Yemen. Scattered around the world, these plots included a mix of local Al-Qa’ida affiliates and people who had trained at camps in Afghanistan, but all showed a clear link to the group’s leadership.

This set a pattern for the next few years, where the group continued to manipulate its networks from a distance, as well as send out cells of plotters to launch attacks around the world. In some cases, largely autonomous local networks took some seed support (or had a few key individuals return from the training camps), leading to a spate of attacks.

A good example of this was in Indonesia, where Jemaah Islamiah, the Southeast Asian Al-Qa’ida affiliate, launched a series of attacks in Bali and Jakarta. In other cases, such as the UK, the group had a steady supply of radicalised young men travel to its camps in Pakistan where they were indoctrinated and then directed to commit atrocities back home. This pipeline generated a string of plots directed from the core with escalating ambition that culminated in the August 2006 plot to bring down eight transatlantic flights with liquid bombs. This ideology received a boost from the invasion of Iraq, with random individuals seeking to launch attacks to advance the group with little evidence of a clear link to the leadership.

This pattern really started to change only in 2008–2010, when an extensive drone and Special Forces campaign was launched against the Al-Qa’ida leadership in Pakistan. This persistent hammering had an effect and led to a noticeable drop in Al-Qa’ida’s capacity to train and send out jihadis, as well as communicate with its international network. A Birmingham network, disrupted in 2011, was overheard talking about how the extent of their training camp was hanging about indoors hiding from drones and watching extremist videos. In 2010, French jihadist Mohammed Merah sought out training camps in Pakistan and appeared only able to spend a day at one before being sent quickly back on his way. The Birmingham cell was disrupted while Merah went on to launch a campaign in southern France, murdering off-duty soldiers and Jewish schoolchildren. Bin Laden senior was able to issue only occasional messages to his network and the world, leading to growing strategic stagnation.

But as the leadership took a beating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al-Qa’ida’s regional affiliates assumed a more prominent role in launching attacks. Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) raised its profile, becoming a greater draw to the community of radicalised young westerners seeking to connect with jihadist groups. This brought a new wave of young aspiring Western warriors to Yemen, in particular through the attraction of its American-Yemeni preacher Anwar Al-Awlaki. These warriors were further indoctrinated, trained and then dispatched to launch attacks back home. This led to repeated attempts on international aviation, including: the ‘underwear bomber’; the printer cartridge bombs; concerns over an attempt to launch an attack with surgically implanted explosives: and a threat from a radicalised IT worker at British Airways. AQAP became the standard bearer for Al-Qa’ida globally, continuing the international struggle as the core lost its capacity to manage such attacks.

But the core organisation continued to exist and exert influence and direction over the network. As was evidenced by the many letters to have leaked from the correspondence seized in Abbottabad, Osama was a controlling leader. In one letter, for example, he expressed disappointment and disapproval of methods of attacks advocated by AQAP in its influential English-language magazine Inspire. Elsewhere, it seems clear that he was responsible for the continuing refusal to formally recognise Somali affiliate Al-Shabaab as part of the global organisation. However, his ability to control the group was weakening and as regional affiliates became more prominent or others developed, the nature of the ideology that Osama had launched changed. His death at the hands of US Special Forces at his Abbottabad compound in 2011 changed the group, with his successor Ayman Al-Zawahiri offering a different style of leadership and direction.

The result of this was a clear shift towards regionalisation by the group. Attacks and campaigns became much more localised. The 2013 attacks at In Amenas in Algeria and Al-Shabaab’s assault on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi are the best examples of this. In both cases, the attackers were linked to Al-Qa’ida, but there was a mix of local dynamics and new leadership figures establishing themselves at play in both cases. Despite Al-Qa’ida’s celebrations and announcements, it was not clear the degree to which the attacks were directed from Afghanistan or Pakistan, if at all. The incident advanced the global cause, although appeared much more about local than international dynamics. The regional affiliates still used Al-Qa’ida’s rhetoric and ideology, though their motivations appeared to be driven by a different set of drivers than the core leadership or ideology would necessarily advocate. More focused on local enemies, they were retreating to confront the ‘near enemy’ rather than the ‘far enemy’.

Daesh appears to be undergoing the same process, albeit in a more compressed timeframe than the decade or so it has taken Al-Qa’ida. Plots linked to the Daesh’s core continue to show up around the world, with some evidence of individual former fighters returning home to plant the seeds of a network. There is also evidence of attackers being directed, instigated or inspired by the group’s core in Syria and Iraq.

At the same time, Daesh’s regional affiliates – for instance, its groups in Afghanistan, Egypt, Nigeria or Libya – are taking a much more forward and aggressive position. The core group claims responsibility for these attacks and releases images through formal information channels linked to its Amaq or Nashir news agencies. The attacks themselves, however, often appear to be far more locally oriented and directed. That is to say, they are focused on striking enemies in their immediate environments, rather than using their bases to launch the large-scale attacks on the West that the core seems interested in wanting to do. Daesh’s Afghan affiliate, for example, has repeatedly launched attacks against Shia or government targets in Kabul. The group’s Egyptian affiliate continues to strike against minorities or the state in Egypt. Libya is possibly the exception to this rule, given the disorder in the state, the group has often used its training camps or footprint there to launch attacks or attempted plots in nearby North African countries such as Morocco or Tunisia.

This local focus suggests a far looser network of groups whose allegiance may be more limited, or at the very least a narrative by the core organisation that allows for far greater autonomy by regional affiliates. But this strategy carries with it risks for the core. If a regional affiliate has been operating autonomously for some time and is merely carrying the banner locally, then its loyalty may over time become frayed. Members of the leadership with personal links to the affiliate may get killed off, leading to the rise of new individuals whose ties may lie elsewhere. This will change the power dynamic between the core and the affiliate as the historical kinship links which tie the groups together get lost and new ones are harder to develop over long distances. This is a dynamic that has already played out to some degree with Al-Qa’ida, but it is happening with Daesh over a much shorter timeline as the core organisation continues to hold territory in the Levant and directs, instigates and inspires terrorist plots around the world.

Therefore, the potential threat from Daesh is one that is an enhanced version of what was seen with Al-Qa’ida. And the dangers from these patterns are similar to those seen with Al-Qa’ida. The growing prominence of affiliates is something that became a threat not only to Western countries or their nationals abroad, but also means that the core ideology and threat from the group is transferred from the core to affiliates at moments when the former comes under particular stress. The rise of AQAP to prominence in the late 2000s is a reflection of this, and it is possible that we could see a similar displacing as Daesh comes under greater pressure in the Levant.

At the same time, it is equally possible to draw some lessons from Al-Qa’ida’s weakening to understand how to damage Daesh and manage its growth. First, the core needs to be hammered and deprived of territory. This pressure clearly degrades capacity. Second, the West needs to be vigilant against more confident and strong affiliates as they can become the core threat. Third, it needs to understand the nature of individual links between groups. Targeting key individuals may disrupt connections between groups. However, according to the law of unintended consequences, there might be some instances of degrading, while in some other cases there may be individuals whose rise will pose a greater menace. All of this provides a pen portrait for how aggressive counterterrorism activity, as well as careful management of regional affiliates is at the core of understanding how to manage the threat from the group.

All of this is taking place as the threat from Al-Qa’ida core continues to exist. As Hamza bin Laden’s latest message illustrates, the progenitor organisation continues to want to stay relevant and is trying to re-appropriate the concept of lone-actor terrorist attacks (an attack methodology it had long advocated but was unable to weaponise as effectively as Daesh), showing the longevity of these sorts of threats. While Daesh seeks to distinguish itself in many ways from Al-Qa’ida and there are strong tensions between the two groups, their ideologies and outlooks remain similar. Daesh’s methods of attack, direction and radicalisation may have developed from Al-Qa’ida’s, but in many ways this is due to changes in the way people communicate since Al-Qa’ida’s heyday in the mid-2000s. And while Daesh’s relative youth and wanton brutality have somewhat distinguished it from Al-Qa’ida, the biggest danger in many ways is that the two threats may end up fusing.

While this may seem a far-fetched notion at the moment given the leadership tensions, it is not an outcome that can be completely discounted, especially if we see a Daesh that fragments back to its affiliates as the core becomes weakened. In this scenario, we could see enhanced affiliates drawing on both groups support to launch concerted regional campaigns both in their immediate areas, but also against the West.

The unfortunate reality is that it is likely that both threats will be with us for some time yet. While there are some clear lessons in how to manage the threat down from the struggle against Al-Qa’ida, that conflict has shown how hard it is to eradicate such groups. Patience, focus and a long-term plan will be the only way to manage the threats from such international terrorist organisations.

Raffaello Pantucci
Director, International Security Studies, RUSI.

 

 

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Catching up on various bits of writing from the past few weeks that haven’t had a chance to re-publish. Starting with this longer piece for the Italian English-language geopolitical publication Longitude looking at the threat from Islamic State and how it might evolve going forwards. Am not republishing the text here, as it was in a magazine, so instead there is a link to the PDF in the title below.

The Islamic State’s Four Layers of Threat

Pantucci_Longitude 72

Although IS keeps losing territory rapidly, it is by no means about to disappear. Rather, it will probably spread out from its core in the Levant and morph into local terrorist groups loosely connected through ideological affinity.

 

Trying to catch up on various recent posts, though am a bit behind, so apologies. A few longer pieces have landed now as well. In the short term, here is something for my institutional home RUSI about what policy ideas could be advanced to manage the long-term threat that the UK faces.

What Policy Changes Are Needed after the Manchester Attack?

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary31 May 2017
UK Counter-terrorismTackling ExtremismSecuring BritainTerrorism

A week after the atrocity in Manchester, it is now possible to draw some preliminary conclusions: there clearly was a breakdown in the intelligence flow that led to suicide bomber Salman Abedi slipping through the net; there are enduring questions about the UK’s Prevent anti-terrorism strategy; and, finally, there are the weaknesses of ‘soft targets’ that such an attack invariably expose.

It is, of course, impossible, without full access to information, to properly understand exactly the nature of the intelligence breakdown that led to last week’s suicide attack on an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester.

Still the fact that the bomber, Salman Abedi, was flagged up to authorities a number of times, by locals in Manchester, was travelling back and forth to a country that is a warzone and came from a family with strong militant pedigrees all indicate – without the benefit of hindsight – that he was someone who should have attracted attention.

If, as suggested, he was someone who had featured in previous investigations but was sidelined in favour of what were deemed to be more menacing targets, then the attack in which 22 people were killed and dozens wounded highlights what for the intelligence services remains a perennial question: how do you determine who seems more menacing when resources are limited?

This is not only a difficult calibration to make, it is also not a way to remove someone from concerns altogether. For, as we have seen repeatedly, individuals will sometimes rise back out of this pool of downgraded threats to pose an immediate danger.

And the challenge is immense. According to Security Minister Ben Wallace, there are about 20,000 in this larger pool of people who are not seen as an immediate danger but who, like Abedi, can suddenly become one.

What can be done to manage this problem? Additional resources would help, as well as new technologies such as super computers using artificial intelligence to manage the challenge through data-crunching looking for particular patterns of behaviour. Another method is to continually challenge previous assessments about the security risks that certain individuals may pose, a determination which is bound to shift over time.

However, the principle of proportionality also has to be borne in mind: having lots of security forces chasing those individuals not only requires more resources than are currently available, but may also end up exacerbating the very problem that they are trying to manage.

Other, more extreme ideas have been advanced: internment or enhanced restrictive movement orders. The first proposal is so clearly counterproductive that it bears no consideration; internment in Northern Ireland during the early 1970s became part of the problem, rather than the solution to terrorism troubles.

The second proposal – house arrests – has greater value, except in that it does not necessarily reduce the burden on security officials. An individual who has been placed under house arrest is not actually being dealt with; rather, he or she is being put in a very publicly visible ‘holding pattern’.

Similarly, excluding people from the UK – either through passport denial or exclusion orders – is not actually dealing with the challenge; it simply postpones a determination, and pushes the individual on to another country to be dealt with.

A proportion of the work managing this pool of 20,000 ‘lower-grade’ suspects will come under the contentious Prevent strategy of counterterrorism activity. And this raises another strand of debate to emerge from the Manchester atrocity: how to reform Prevent.

One aspect that should be undertaken is to separate out the different strands of the strategy. The work of managing dangerous offenders or suspects clearly needs to stay attached to the security realm, possibly through the creation of a new specifically developed and tailored service, modelled on the probation service.

Combining probation, welfare, police and intelligence, the new agency could be staffed by individuals who are each managing a specific case-load of former offenders or suspects.

Each case will require a different sort of engagement, but this may provide a way of both keeping an eye on such cases while also focusing on trying to get them on a different path.

A version of the Channel programme, which provides early support to individuals who are at risk of being drawn into terrorism, could be used; this will be a way of providing an individually tailored ‘light touch’ over-watch.

But other parts of the Prevent that are focused on more forward-looking efforts to steer people away from radical paths before they get on to them, should instead be moved firmly out of the criminal space.

Prevent is intended to be about keeping people away from ever getting to terrorism, and this means, among other measures, actually keeping them out of the criminal justice arena. Consequently, it would seem imperative that these programmes are not handled by a security department such as the Home Office.

Finally, there are some very understandable questions about the fact that the bomber was able to walk his device into a crowded space and kill so many. Most arenas nowadays are heavily guarded and people are subject to bag checks on entry.

Clearly, some additional thought must be given to reviewing entry and exit points to such sites, with the usual difficulties of agreeing where to draw the ultimate line of the security cordon.

Much work has gone into managing security in crowded spaces: the lessons learned need to be applied more rigorously and around the entire country. Sports events or concerts that by their very nature aim to be open and accessible will continue to pose a potential problem.

It is unlikely that this will be the last terrorist attack the UK faces. Coming during an election cycle, however, this incident offers an occasion for both introspection and new ideas as future governments continue to confront the challenge.

Banner image: Armed police stand guard at Manchester Arena after Salman Abedi’s suicide bomb attack during a Ariana Grande gig. Courtesy of PA Images.

Back on my China in Eurasia theme, this time a piece timed to land at my institutional home RUSI to coincide with the big Belt and Road Forum taking place in Beijing. Lots more on this topic to come, and if you want more have a look at the China in Central Asia site.

Separately, spoke to the Times about returning foreign fighters to the UK from Syria, to Politico about Brexit and counter-terrorism, and the Mail on Sunday about Khalid Ali, the arrested Westminster terror plotter.

China: Understanding Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative

A great deal of rhetoric is expended over China’s gigantic investment initiatives. Still, many of the economic projects are real, and Western governments will be well advised to understand their purpose.

The Middle Kingdom is asserting its centrality in global affairs by hosting the Silk Road summit this weekend. Aimed at showcasing President Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ vision, the conference will bring together leaders, officials and experts from around the world.

Apart from the signing of some large deals and some affirmations about China’s eagerness towards free trade, the summit’s real importance is in the message it sends about China’s place in the world.

First announced in 2013 in a set of speeches in Astana and Jakarta, the One Belt, One Road (now renamed the Belt and Road Initiative) is at its root about putting a new name on a series of initiatives that built on existing Chinese investment and trade relationships.

The decision to first focus the initiative on Central Asia was a reflection of the fact that the region served as a conduit for China’s decades-long approach to investment around the world.

With a model of building infrastructure using Chinese firms deployed to deliver on loans provided by the country’s financial institutions to open up trade and markets, Beijing’s investments in Central Asia since the end of the Cold War provide a model for the globalised Belt and Road Initiative.

For countries along the routes, there is the difficulty of understanding and connecting with the Chinese investments in a manner that is useful to them, so that they are not simply roads passing through their territories.

For outside powers, such as the UK, there is the challenge of comprehending where they sit in the broader vision, as well as how they can connect with these projects along the routes.

To understand these issues better, there are three key aspects to remember. First, the concept is not a monolith. Each of the strands of the Belt and Road are different; at different stages of development, advanced to differing degrees and of variable importance.

In some cases, China is building on a long history of investment, while in others China is starting from a very low base of investment. It is important to distinguish between the rhetoric and the reality in each case.

Second, it is important to remember that this is not a giant aid project; China is making commercial investments in many cases. In some, the loans have been offered at reasonable rates and the implementing partner is contractually obliged to be Chinese. Looking at the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank projects, they are in fact put out to open tender.

It is only in very few cases that the investment being offered acts as pure aid. China is still developing its aid profile, and this is key in understanding what China is doing under the Belt and Road.

The ultimate aim is to develop a series of trade and economic corridors using Chinese companies (thereby helping them go out into the world) to help China develop domestically. This is fundamentally a selfish vision aimed at advancing Chinese interests.

Third, it is important to think of the vision with a longer horizon that we are used to considering. At the moment, there is little economic logic to placing goods on trains from China to go to Europe: the route is far more expensive than going by sea and the highest value goods that need to get across land quicker need to travel by air.

Consequently, the much-vaunted trains which are travelling across the Eurasian landmass bringing goods between Europe and China are for the most part going full one way and empty back.

Furthermore, they are being subsidised by Beijing or the regional governments from where they depart. They do not currently make economic sense.

But it is possible that this is looking at them on too short a timeline. Seen from Beijing, the idea is to lay these tracks and develop these routes so that once China’s western regions become more developed and productive, they can take advantage of these routes.

Over time, what seems a short-term loss may turn into a longer-term artery of international trade. The point is that it is possible that the horizon with which the Belt and Road is currently considered is too limited.

In fact, it is something with a much longer timeline and is fundamentally, seen from Beijing, about re-establishing China as the centre of a global network of trade and economic routes that will help re-wire international trade.

These three elements are essential to bear in mind when outside powers are seeking to connect with the vision. It is important to understand each corridor in detail, to focus on the commercial opportunities that the corridors will create and to think with a longer horizon that most governments usually consider.

Once this learning has been absorbed and considered, it will be easier to understand how to connect with China’s vision – something that is as relevant to countries such as the UK at one end of the route as those that are along the routes.

For the Chinese investments are happening, notwithstanding the hyperbole that will be on display this weekend; money is being spent, and ground is being broken.

Banner image: The first goods train service from China to the UK arrives at DB Cargo’s rail freight terminal in Barking, East London. Courtesy of PA Images

And another piece, this time for my institutional home RUSI after the Westminster atrocity. Also to catch up on a few conversations with the media, spoke to Financial Times, New York Times, The Times, Wall Street JournalLa Repubblica, Politico, Daily Record, NBC, Irish Times, L’Espresso, and Daily Mail amongst others about the incident. Separately, spoke to Voice of America, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post about ISIS released a video featuring Uighurs. Finally, to the Mail on Sunday about a British jihadi who was able to get in and out of the country, and to the Guardian about the laptop ban on planes and Brexit and the security negotiations.

London: The Latest Victim of Terrorism in Europe

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary24 March 2017
EuropeUKUK Counter-terrorismDomestic SecurityTerrorism

The security services face an enormous challenge in preventing these types of terrorist attacks.

The wave of terrorism that has been striking Europe has reached Britain’s shores as a single attacker tried on Wednesday to storm the British Parliament in the centre of London.

Dartford-born Khalid Masood, né Adrian Russell Ajao – killed four people when he rammed his car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and fatally stabbed police officer PC Keith Palmer. At least 50 other people were injured, some critically.

The choice of target and the method used to conduct the attack suggest, at the very least, political intent. Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that Masood was ‘a soldier of the Islamic state’.

The incident might also be linked to the wave of Daesh and Daesh-inspired plots seen in mainland Europe. However, the degree to which this reveals a substantial connection or not has yet to be uncovered.

Security forces have been preparing for such an attack for some time. Some of the 13 plots authorities stated having disrupted in the past three years showed evidence of plotting in the same direction.

It is also one that is increasingly hard to eradicate even with well-developed national surveillance and intelligence capabilities.

Protecting Open Democracy

The decision to strike at the heart of British democracy is a seemingly obvious choice: groups have long sought to strike public institutions and the Houses of Parliament are an international symbol.

The ease of striking at parliamentarians was illustrated last year with the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox at her Batley and Spen, Yorkshire, constituency surgery by right wing extremist Thomas Mair.

It was not the first time a parliamentarian had been attacked in this way – in May 2010 there was the stabbing of Labour’s East Ham MP Stephen Timms by Roshonara Choudhry in an Islamist-inspired attack. Timms was severely wounded, and Choudhry was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Democracy, by its nature, is open and its representatives accessible to the public. Yet, such openness can complicate protecting those representatives or institutions.

Nevertheless, there are some security measures that may be tightened as a result of the current events in London. The fact that the vehicle was able to mount the pavement in the areas around Parliament will raise questions about whether the protective bollards and barriers that surround the area should be further extended.

Indeed, the fact that the individual was able to get inside the parliamentary estate will undoubtedly raise questions about whether the sanitised zone needs to be extended further and more barriers erected in the vicinity.

It is also clear that authorities have discovered that Masood had featured historically in investigations. This will raise questions about why he was not prioritised for investigation and what decisions were made in other directions.

Making the Tough Choices

This is an equally difficult task. For the security services, the problem is in identifying the individual as a priority at this specific moment. It is possible that he should have been due to indicators that were missed. However, security forces are facing a complicated situation involving thousands of persons of interest while lacking the staff numbers to deal with them all.

Choices will have to made about who needs to be prioritised for deeper investigation. This necessitates more attention to some and less to others involving a process of carefully calibrated choice.

The nature of the attack also makes it hard to prevent. Attacks involving cars and knives make use of everyday tools, a tactic which in itself limits the opportunities for the security services to detect plots in advance.

This is not only a reflection of the relative difficulty of launching more sophisticated attacks, but also the fact that terrorist groups have lowered the methodology of a successful attack to this level.

Not only are the tools hard to identify prior to attack (unlike guns or explosives), but preparation time is very limited and can be hard to discern from someone’s ordinary pattern of behaviour.

Beware of an Exaggerated Response

Ultimately, it is the reaction to the carnage which ‘makes’ the attack. An exaggerated response will increase the impact of the incident and give it undue importance. On the other hand, suppressing discussion may feed a frenzy of speculation which is also harmful.

More on the attack will be heard in the days to come, shedding light on the lessons that need to be learned. The answer – as is often the case – is to step back and review processes, ensure societal resilience and brace for the potential for further incidents.

Banner image: Armed police on Victoria Embankment in London after Wednesday’s terror attack on Westminister Bridge and Parliament. Courtesy of Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images.

Going to catch up on a batch of belated posting today, starting with a piece for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s (ASPI) annual counter-terrorism yearbook looking in particular at what China has been up to in 2016.

China’s Terrorism Threat and Response in 2016

Raffaello Pantucci

Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute

In August 2016, China experienced what appears to have been the first targeted terrorist attack against one of its embassies.1 A Uygur suicide bomber drove a car into China’s diplomatic compound in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, exploding it outside the ambassador’s residence; the attacker was the only fatality, but three Kyrgyz employees were injured. While Kyrgyz authorities were quick to link the attack to a Syrian-based network—although publicly available evidence to date has been limited—for Beijing the attack was the manifestation of an increased threat from Uygur groups, which had now spread beyond China to threaten Chinese interests abroad. Clear and substantial connections between Uygur groups and international terrorist networks were also confirmed in 2016.

During the year, China increased its external security presence to mitigate these threats, while attempting to balance this against its longstanding practice of non-interference. At home, it has continued a hardline approach to managing the Uygur issue in Xinjiang, and 2016 marked a new level of regional control in the region, including an almost complete halt to media reporting of security-related incidents.

China’s terrorist threat comes primarily from the divisions in China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang, where a Uygur minority resents rule from Beijing.2 That resentment has expressed itself through social tensions, an exodus of Uygurs from the country and violence against the state. Beijing has taken a two-pronged approach to dealing with the problem. In the rst instance, it has invested heavily in the region economically (including the‘Silk Road Economic Belt’, which has opened Xinjiang to regional trading markets), but at the same time launching regular ‘strike hard’ campaigns deploying heavy security measures to control the region and enacting new regional and national CT legislation.

Beijing’s focus on terrorism is primarily concerned with Chinese Uygurs, something that has attracted some international and human rights concern as potentially unfairly dealing with its own minority citizens.3 The national CT legislation has similarly attracted criticism for not balancing strong CT measures with transparent and fair judicial process, as well as for a broad de nition of terrorism that may be at odds with international law standards for free speech, freedom of religion and peaceful protest.

Reported terrorist incidents within China decreased in 2016, and then-regional Communist Party chief Zhang Chunxian stated in March that ‘violent terrorist incidents have dropped signi cantly.’4 Indeed, only one incident was reported: an attack on 29 December in Moyu (or Karakax) County in southern Xinjiang, where a group drove explosive-laden cars into a local Communist Party office. Reporting on casualties was mixed, although o cial sources reported that three attackers, one security official and one bystander were killed.5 The explosives, while rudimentary, appeared to demonstrate an increased level of sophistication for attacks in the region.

While this incident capped an otherwise quiet year, non-state sources suggest that more was going on but not being publicly reported. The day after the incident in Moyu/Karakax County, a report published by the Hong Kong-based advocacy group, the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, claimed that more than 1,000 violent incidents in Xinjiang in the past year weren’t reported in the press.6 The precipitous drop in reported incidents is indeed surprising, given previous levels of violence, which had been variously estimated at between a few hundred and 2,000 fatalities per year since 2013, but is difficult to evaluate due to the difficulties of undertaking independent research in the region.7

The reported decrease in incidents may be a product of a more aggressive government security posture in the region. In August, the regional government passed CT legislation supplementing national legislation passed earlier in the year. The local legislation was seen as far more wide-ranging than the national laws, focusing in particular on recruitment and radicalisation, the dissemination of extremist material (the definition of which was also expanded) and the deradicalisation of prisoners.8 Soon after its passage, a large CT exercise was undertaken in southern Xinjiang—the part of the region that remains majority Uygur—involving around 3,000 personnel and testing 21 new types of ‘high-tech equipment, including drones, assault rotorcraft and all-terrain assault vehicles’.9

The security approach was further sharpened during the year through changes to the regional party leadership. Leader Zhang Chunxian was moved to the post of Deputy Leader of the Leading Group for Party Building and replaced by Chen Quanguo, the former party chief in Tibet. Upon arriving in the region, Chen immediately introduced hardline policies re ecting those used in Tibet, including establishing a region-wide network of ‘convenience’ police stations, providing increased state presence and surveillance. Recruiting drives for security officers were launched in Xinjiang and neighbouring regions to increase the number available for deployment.10 The importance Chen attaches to shows of strength was demonstrated in the wake of the Moyu/Karakax County attack, when he hosted a large public oath-taking ceremony and CT exercise in Urumqi.11 Nevertheless, this heavy approach to security appears to be unable to completely address the region’s problems, and the attack at the end of the year showed that local anger can still erupt into violence that gets to public attention despite the government crackdown.

Outside China, Beijing has also faced an increasingly worrying threat picture. The August attack in Bishkek followed a growing number of worrying indicators that Uygur militant groups outside the country were gaining strength.

The Syria and Iraq battlefields have also provided opportunities for anti-Chinese groups to link with Islamist terrorist groups. The Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) is the main Uygur terrorist group.

TIP’s close link with al-Qaeda was confirmed earlier in the year through a series of videos released by the two groups. In May, the leader of TIP, Abdul Haq, who had previously been believed killed, re-emerged and released an audio message in which he attacked ISIS, praised al-Qaeda, and highlighted TIP’s proximity to the latter.12 In July, al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a video as part of a bigger series called ‘Islamic Spring’ in which he specifically praised the Uygur contribution to the jihad in Afghanistan and beyond and elevated leaders from the group into the pantheon of senior jihadi leaders.13 Both videos carried threats for China, but in many ways the most worrying aspect for Beijing was the clearly warm and public embrace shared by the two groups.

Al-Qaeda has historically had close links with Uygur militants (Abdul Haq was identified as a member of al-Qaeda’s shura, or leadership council, as early as 2005 14) but has shown little interest in dedicating resources to the Uygur cause. The videos suggested the possibility of a change.

In Syria, TIP ghts mainly alongside Jabhat al-Nusrah / Jabhat Fateh al-Sham groups and regularly publishes videos showing large numbers of well-armed ghters engaged in combat across Syria, as well as releasing messages condemning Islamic State (IS) activity. While the main body of TIP fighters is engaged in ghting in Syria, Beijing considers that Abdul Haq is hiding in northern Afghanistan. The South Asian wing of the group appears to have moved into Afghanistan in response to the Pakistani Government’s Zarb-e-Azb push that ejected them from their previous base in Pakistan’s badlands.

Evidence from the Middle East shows that a substantial number of Uygurs have joined IS. Leaked IS documents indicate between 118 and 167 IS ghters are identifiably Chinese or Uygur. Additionally, Uygurs appear to have been picked up by Turkish authorities as part of the investigation into the New Year’s Eve attack in Istanbul. Yet while IS has added China to its list of enemies, it hasn’t dedicated many resources to attacking it.

The patterns of TIP and other militant Uygur activity in Afghanistan and Syria go some way to explaining increased Chinese security activity in both countries. On 14 August, People’s Liberation Army Navy Rear Admiral Guan Youfei met Russian and Syrian security o cials in Damascus, where he pledged China’s training support to Syrian medical staff.15 In Afghanistan, building on a long history of engagement, China sought to establish a new regional security subgrouping, bringing together the army chiefs of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and China to discuss border security and regional terrorist groups. Tajikistan has additionally publicly confirmed that China is helping to construct border posts between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.16

Beyond warzones, Uygur militants have demonstrated increased contact with Southeast Asian terrorist groups. In August 2016, Indonesian authorities shot and killed a Uygur linked to the East Indonesia Mujahidin, one of the main terrorist groups in Indonesia, led by Santoso.17 This was the tenth Uygur killed alongside the group. The Uygur group was allegedly seeking training with the East Indonesia Mujahidin before returning to China. In November, Nur Muhammet Abdullah al Faris was jailed in Indonesia for his involvement with a network planning a series of terrorist attacks in the region. The network was also reportedly involved in people smuggling to help Uygurs flee China and in some cases receive terrorist training. Some reports indicate that the group received money from TIP (or, as it was identified in the reports, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement), which it was using to advance its own goals as well as to support terrorist training for Uygurs.18

These developments indicate increasingly deep and substantial connections between militant Uygur groups and international terrorist networks. This menacing picture for China underscores the increased need for China to act against the networks externally. The 2016 national CT law recognised this, providing a broader mandate for Chinese security forces to act outside national territory to disrupt terrorist networks. And, as discussed above, China is also increasing the substance and visibility of its security forces beyond its national territory.

The question that remains, however, is the extent to which China’s actions may be exacerbating the very threat that it seeks to mitigate. China’s Uygurs see themselves as a persecuted minority that’s subject to restrictive legislation not imposed on any other groups in China, including other Muslim minorities.19 While there’s been substantial economic investment into Xinjiang, it’s unclear whether the benefits are filtering down to the Uygur community or remaining primarily with the politically and economically dominant Han community. And the lack of information coming out of the region means that it’s impossible to independently evaluate whether the ‘strike hard’ campaign has delivered results.

Certainly, the move of Zhang Chunxian from Xinjiang to Beijing and his replacement by former Tibet party leader Chen Quanguo suggests that the central leadership had mixed feelings about Zhang’s tenure in the region, although it’s hard to discern whether his move was related to failed policies in Xinjiang or his factional connections. Within Xinjiang, it appears that a hard line is taken against officials for failure in areas where attacks occur. A recent report indicated that the party chief in Moyu/Karakax County and the party secretary of Hotan Prefecture (where Moyu/Karakax is located) were both under investigation by the Discipline Inspection Committee for corruption and dereliction of duty, seemingly linking these investigations to the security failures associated with the 29 December incident.20

China’s terrorist problem continues to grow. Last year marked a new point with the attack on the Bishkek Embassy, and the broader threat indicators are not positive. As China continues to advance its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, its nationals and companies are increasingly going to dangerous countries and potentially finding themselves in the cross-hairs of terrorist groups.21 Also, whereas previously China was able to shield itself from attack somewhat because terrorist groups saw the US and the broader West as their targets, this will change as Uygurs rise up the ranks of international terrorist networks and China assumes a more prominent role in international affairs.

Another side to China’s growing outward push reflects the country’s increasing desire to assert itself internationally and become a more normalised security actor in international affairs. While this is reflected in continuing assertiveness in China’s maritime relationships, on land it’s often seen through the lens of CT, on which China finds a more accommodating international consensus. For Beijing, CT offers a more acceptable way to test the limits of its ability to assert its security interests abroad. But the complicated domestic nature of China’s Uygur issue has led to some calls of concern from members of the international community. At the same time, however, Beijing finds an increasingly worrying international terrorism threat picture connected with its domestic concerns, requiring a more assertive posture. In future, it’s likely that these trends mean that Beijing will continue to crack down at home while expanding its efforts abroad.

Notes

  1. Chinese compounds have previously been struck by terrorist or insurgent networks, but the strikes have typically been incidental to being in a warzone and not speci cally targeted, or have been small-scale individual attacks, as seen in Bishkek in 2009.
  2. China has also faced a number of other incidents that have a terroristic aspect to them, including mass stabbings, occasional bombings and shootings, although for the most part those incidents have tended to be linked to individuals’ complaints against the state.
  3. See, for example, Javier C Hernandez, ‘China says 5 killed in attack on Communist Party o ce in Xinjiang’, New York Times, 29 December 2016, online.
  4. ‘“Violent terrorism” in China’s Xinjiang has dropped: party official’, Reuters, 8 March 2016.
  5. Cui Jia, ‘Terrorists strike, but progress made,’ China Daily, 30 December 2016.
  6. Kenji Kawase, ‘More than 1,000 violent clashes in restive Xinjiang this year’, Nikkei Asian Review, 30 December 2016.
  7. See, for example, reporting in Richard Finney: ‘As many as 700 died in Xinjiang violence in last two years, rights group says,’ Radio Free Asia, 3 March 2015, online and ‘“At least 2,000 Uyghurs killed” in Yarkand violence: exile leader’, Radio Free Asia, 5 August 2014.
  8. Chong Koh Ping, ‘Xinjiang gets tough on terrorism’, Straits Times, 5 August 2016; ‘Xinjiang issues China’s rst local counterterrorism law’, Xinhua, 5 August 2016.
  9. ‘China’s armed police hold anti-terror exercise in Xinjiang’, Xinhua, 15 August 2016.
  10. James Leibold, Adrian Zenz, ‘Beijing’s eyes and ears grow sharper in Xinjiang’, Foreign A airs, 23 December 2016.
  11. Eva Li, ‘Show of force in Xinjiang sends hardline message’, South China Morning Post, 3 January 2017.
  12. Thomas Joscelyn, Bill Roggio, ‘Turkistan Islamic Party leader criticizes the Islamic State’s “illegitimate” caliphate’, Long War Journal, 11 June 2016.
  13. Thomas Joscelyn, ‘Zawahiri praises Uighur jihadists in ninth episode of “Islamic Spring” series’, Long War Journal, 7 July 2016.
  14. UN Security Council Subsidiary Organs,‘QDi.268 Abdul Haq, reasons for listing’, UN Security Council Committee Pursuant to Resolutions 1267 (1999) 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) Concerning ISIL (Da’esh) Al-Qaida and Associated Individuals Groups Undertakings and Entities, summary published 13 August 2009, online.
  15. Christopher Bodeen, ‘Chinese admiral visits Syria in show of support’, Associated Press, 18 August 2016.
  16. ‘China to build outposts for Tajik guards on Tajikistan–Afghanistan border,’ Reuters, 26 September 2016.
  17. Ruslan Sangadji, ‘Last Uighur of MIT shot dead’, Jakarta Post, 18 August 2016.
  18. Nivell Rayda, ‘Uighur terrorists sent funds to Indonesia,’ The Australian, 6 September 2016.
  19. Alice Su, ‘China doesn’t mind Islamic extremists’, Foreign Policy, 16 December 2016.
  20. Jun Mai, ‘China probes senior Xinjiang party o cials days after deadly bomb attack’, South China Morning Post, 5 January 2017.
  21. The Belt and Road Initiative, also called ‘One Belt, One Road’, is China’s broad-ranging economic development and trade initiative, aiming to increase prosperity through developing land and maritime trading links. A feature of the initiative relevant to terrorism and CT is infrastructure development across areas in China and neighbouring Central Asia.

Slightly delayed posting of a new piece for my institutional home RUSI looking at how the UK should connect with Asia in the new Trumpian world. It struck me as interesting that while the US elected a President who spoke of isolation and scrapping treaties, the Chinese Premier tracked the new Silk Roads in China’s ongoing burst of international connectivity. Separately, spoke to the Guardian about the latest possible death of Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

Britain and Asia in a Trumpian World: Only Connect

As the US appears set to limit its global involvement under President-elect Donald Trump and China intensifies its engagements across the world, an opportunity has arisen for Britain. It is one the UK government should seize.
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The contrast could hardly be greater: as the US voted in a president who has not committed himself to free trade and is keen on closed borders, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang crossed the new Silk Road from China to Europe through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Latvia, promoting precisely the opposite ideas.

And with concrete results. In Gwadar, Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif watched as the first load of products to make the journey down the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor from western China leave for the seas. As America closes in on itself, Eurasia is opening up ever more. And the British government, which has not missed these trends, needs to develop a more strategic approach if it is going to effectively position itself to take advantage of them.

In stark contrast to the apocalyptic vision of international relations which seems to be associated with US President-elect Donald Trump, China’s economy is pushing itself ever-more aggressively into the world. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ concept has become an all-encompassing foreign policy vision, espousing trade and connectivity with talk of the ‘revival of silk roads’ and ‘connectivity’. Nowhere is this clearer than in Eurasia, where China is re-drawing the economic and geopolitical map, as it steers money, companies and people into re-establishing Eurasian continental links.

Li’s tour in many ways mirrored Xi’s in June, when he travelled to Serbia, Poland and then Uzbekistan. And while the announcement of the first load of trucks making it from Kashgar in western China to the coast in Baluchistan was actually far more symbolic than economically significant, it did show how ‘Belt and Road’ connectivity rhetoric was producing results.

It is on this divergence of global attitudes between a retreating US and a thrusting China that UK and other middle powers would do well to focus. A simplification, perhaps, but clearly something is fundamentally shifting and in a world of growing giants, the UK needs to focus on how it can best position itself against these shifting tectonic plates.

The answer for London is a need for greater and closer engagement. With the US, it is likely too early to decide on how to deal with a Trumpian America. However, with China, the answer is to find ways to connect with this surge of Eurasian connectivity. At the same time, London has also to find ways of engaging more seriously with other Asian partners by taking advantage of the broader global shift taking place. Asia is a story of multiple rising giants, and the UK is well regarded by many of them. Britain has long under-performed in its engagement in Asian strategic and security affairs and now is the moment to take a more substantial posture on the issues that preoccupy its partners there.

The current British government has already started to make noises in this direction: while Li was crossing the continent and the US was voting for Trump, Prime Minister Theresa May was in India and Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond hosted the latest Economic and Financial Dialogue with China in London. These moves need to be matched by a more serious engagement in regional strategic and security affairs.

Both China and India realise their growing weight in international affairs and want to engage with the UK as a serious power, but are often concerned that London does not take their strategic concerns seriously. This is likely less true for China than India. However, at the same time, the fact the UK has such an enhanced and visible engagement with China is having a detrimental knock-on effect on other Asian partners for whom China is a competitor and antagonist.

There are two important aspects from this for the UK to note. First, London needs to establish a more comprehensive and strategic dialogue with Asia. This means not just paying lip service to regional security questions, but playing a more forward role in engaging and understanding them. British diplomatic, analysis and security personnel across Asia and in government offices in London need to be enhanced and bolstered so that policymakers have a more substantial understanding of Asian dynamics and a demonstrable desire to engage in them.

Second, the UK needs to move forwards into playing a more engaged strategic role. Rather than continuing as a passive observer of regional dynamics, the UK should move into a position where it can build on its existing relationships to play the role of regional peace-broker.

To focus on Eurasia in particular: the current Chinese-driven surge of connectivity has the potential to be a collective net boon, but at the moment it is only partially working. Hiccups such as regional neighbours refusing to let products travel across their borders, or China being unable to resolve long-standing historical tensions, have hindered the smooth progress of the Belt and Road concept. If London stepped in to find a unique role as broker and diplomat between regional powers, it could help to encourage the aspiration of connectivity which serves a broader group of nations than just China.

Looking at South Asia, the UK’s relationships with both India and Pakistan place it in a unique position to try to lower tensions. Admittedly not an easy task, and one that has been attempted in fits and starts for some time, but a more focused effort on both sides of the border might help show a level of strategic seriousness that the UK is accused of missing in its current pursuit of trade deals.

By stepping forward to play this role – a position that may become vacant if Trump’s isolationist America happens – the UK will be able to carve a new role for itself in the world, one which benefits more from Asian growth without being too openly mercantilist.

The UK has been somewhat rudderless strategically since the referendum in June to leave the EU.

The election of Trump has further accentuated this perception, and there is a palpable concern about what might comes next. But the world has kept turning, and Chinese-driven Eurasian connectivity continues its inexorable surge. If the UK wants to truly benefit from this shifting world order, it needs to rapidly define where exactly it will sit and what it will bring to the table. Engaging more seriously and substantially in Asian strategic affairs would be an important place to start.