Archive for the ‘THINK TANKS’ Category

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.

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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.

A new piece for my Singaporean institutional home’s keynote journal, Counter-Terrorism Trends and Analyses (CTTA), this time trying to put some hard data on the question of what has the actual impact of COVID-19 been on terrorist threats. Whilst acknowledging it is hard to draw any hard and fast lessons, or really understand the causal links, the piece tries to explore the question using databases and existing information. This is part of a broader stream of work on this topic, including earlier pieces looking at how ideologies might adapt or develop going forwards, and some more data based projects that are in the pipeline. Watch this space.

Mapping the One-Year Impact of COVID-19 on Violent Extremism

Synopsis

One year since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, looking across militant violence, ideological narratives, recruitment and funding, it is evident that so far the impact of the contagion on violent extremism has been relatively limited. Notwithstanding COVID-19, the downward trajectory of global militant violence which started in 2016 continued through 2020 as well. Likewise, in the ideological realm, after initial incorporation of COVID-19 in their narratives as divine punishment or seeking to demonstrate capability to manage the virus, the subsequent messaging by violent extremist groups was more mundane about day-to-day developments. Looking at recruitment and fundraising trends, no significant change is visible except for the fact that lockdowns and travel restrictions have constrained extremist groups’ physical mobility and the ability to collect funds. In conclusion, the article notes that COVID-19 has been more of an enabler and accelerant of existing violent extremist trends but it is difficult to conclude whether, in the post-pandemic scenario (whenever that arrives), it will result in greater violence or if the downward trajectory which started in 2016 will persist.

Introduction

This article investigates the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on violent extremism since its outbreak one year ago. Notwithstanding vaccination rollouts, large parts of the world are still dealing with the virus as a very immediate problem with no clear end in sight. Methodologically, this fluid situation makes the actual assessment of the virus’ impact on violent extremism a difficult task. We are still in the midst of the pandemic, so it is hard to conclusively assess what its full impact has been as it has not yet been entirely felt. It is already difficult absent the pandemic to draw clear causal links to explain why people become motivated by terrorist ideologies. To try to understand the specific impact of COVID-19 as it is still surging around the world is an  even harder task.

In an attempt to sketch out some preliminary understanding on the nature of the impact, this paper will focus on four broad areas of terrorist activity and explore what available research and information indicates about the impact of COVID-19 on violent extremism. First, the paper will explore how terrorist violence has changed over the past year. Then, it will probe the evolution of how extremist ideologies and narratives have coopted, altered or responded to COVID-19. Lastly, it will look at how the coronavirus has impacted terrorist fundraising and recruitment.[1] Though this does not capture the full spectrum and detail of terrorist activity, it does hopefully provide a perspective on the impact of COVID-19 on violent extremism.

The author has consulted multiple reports and databases for this paper, though the information has not always been methodically collected. Where the author is aware of openly accessible databases, they have been used to corroborate analysis or speculative writing that has been produced.

The overall picture is – as might be expected given we are still only in the midst of the pandemic – unclear at the moment. There is some evidence to suggest terrorist groups have profited from the pandemic, but nothing conclusive has been produced yet which shows how it has translated into longer-term material benefit. However, it is highly likely that over a lengthier trajectory the impact of COVID-19 will be to make terrorism trends worse, though exactly how this plays out (whether through new ideologies emerging or existing ones getting graver) is yet to be determined.

Violence

Violence is the most obvious indicator to measure the impact of COVID-19 on terrorism over the past year. A number of databases exist looking at conflicts, counting incidents of violence and death. Of course, each of these has its own limitations and focuses on slightly different aspects of the conflict. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) is distinct for having mapped various conflict indicators for a few years. ACLED started in the late 1990s by focusing on Africa; it now appears that most conflict regions around the world have been measured from 2018 until the present, though most of Europe appears to have only been added to the dataset in 2020.[2] While there are other similarly substantial datasets in existence like the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP)[3] or the Global Terrorism Database (GTD),[4] neither of these appears to have data through the pandemic period available yet with both concluding in 2019.[5]

The most up-to-date public analysis of violence data during the pandemic year appears to have been produced by the University of Chicago’s Chicago Projects on Security & Threats (CPOST). Published in March 2021, the CPOST report draws on ACLED and their own Suicide Attack Database and concludes that across “The Middle East; Sub-Saharan Africa; North Africa; South-Central Asia (including Pakistan and Afghanistan)”, there was a drop in violence in 2020. “All four regions saw attacks fall on aggregate by 5 percent. That fall was sharp in the first six months and rose again in the next six months.”[6]

But CPOST’s overall conclusion is consistent with ACLED’s cumulative annual data that is clear on the broader global trends, which show that by almost every metric calculated, violent activity is down year-on-year between 2019 and 2020. The exceptions to this trend in their data are what ACLED terms as “strategic developments” which show some limited growth and “protests” showing a much sharper rise.[7]

ACLED Overall Numbers:

ACLED Overall Numbers. Source: ACLED dashboard (accessed March 2021)[8]:

The broader trajectory on most of the violent indicators that ACLED gathers data on shows a downward trend from 2018 (with some exceptions). Removing “protest” data in particular reveals this trend more clearly. Looking at this against terrorism data more specifically, this downward trajectory is corroborated by the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Terrorism Index (GTI) for 2020. Using data from 2019, GTI reports that “deaths from terrorism fell for the fifth consecutive year, after peaking in 2014. The total number of deaths fell by 15.5 percent to 13,826. The fall in deaths was mirrored by a reduction in the impact of terrorism.”[9] CPOST analysis of ACLED data identifies a similar trend in 2020, highlighting a 5 percent overall decline in violence year-on-year. At the same time, it specifies that in the first two quarters of 2020, this drop was noticeable, but by the third quarter of the year, violence was rising again, and by fourth quarter, the numbers were the same as a year earlier in quarter four.[10]

ACLED overall numbers without “protest data”:

Figure 2: ACLED overall numbers without “protest data”. Source ACLED dashboard, accessed March 2021.

The broader fall in violence that ACLED records since 2018 drawing on all conflict data is even sharper when focused just on violent acts. The two data points which ACLED notes as increasing, “protests” and “strategic developments”, suggest potential precursors to terrorist violence.[11] In both cases, they suggest that there is a continuing anger, or brewing tensions, which could later express themselves as violence. Anecdotally, in the Philippines there has been some suggestion that groups are using this moment to re-group and refresh,[12] while in Indonesia, there were reports that groups had seen the arrival of COVID-19 as a signal of impending apocalypse and had consequently stopped their operations and sat at home waiting for the end of days.[13] More frequently, however, reporting has suggested that repeated lockdowns have complicated groups’ physical mobility and ability to carry out attacks.[14]

When compared with other available datasets, a generally static picture in violence year-on-year appears. For instance, the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) annual assessment of 2020 shows across regions covered in the report (South, Southeast, Central Asia, as well as the Middle East broadly) that violence year-on-year has reduced or remained the same during the pandemic year.[15] An IS-specific Southeast Asia dataset maintained by ICPVTR shows a year-on-year drop.[16] Noted Middle East terrorism scholar Aaron Zelin’s dataset tracking IS-claimed attacks during 2020 in Syria and Iraq has remained relatively static.[17] Likewise, the Deep South Watch, which monitors violence in Southern Thailand, illustrates a dip in terrorist attacks during the first half of 2020, but by the end of the year violence had returned to roughly the same level as 2019.[18] The South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) also recorded a drop in terrorist activity from 2019 to 2020 in South Asia, but it broadly appeared to be on roughly the same pattern as the fall from earlier years. There was a more pronounced drop in SATP’s figures for Afghanistan, but this is likely attributable to the US-Taliban deal signed in February 2020.[19] An exception to this trajectory can be found in Europe, where according to research by the International Center for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) in the Hague, there was a spike in violent Islamist incidents in Europe in 2020 – though the rates of casualties or incidents remain in the low double digits.

Critically, there is little evidence to show that COVID-19 had a material impact on militant violence – trajectories over the year were for the most part with some specific drops which might be linked to restrictions on movements or activity that came from COVID-19. The spike in Europe of violent Islamist attacks still requires greater research and understanding, but there has been very little evidence presented that COVID-19 might have been a driver in some way. Rather, it is possible that the incidents might in part have been inspired by each other and broader social tensions (amongst different communities, as well as in the form of extreme right-wing violence) in Europe.

Ideologies

An absence of violence does not equate to an absence of threat. There are many reasons why violence could have gone down and it is not clear that they are necessarily linked to COVID-19. Some experts even note that lulls in violent activity are in fact more dangerous moments as it is during these moments that groups are able to prepare and plan for more attacks away from security services’ attention.[20] Clearly, extremist groups have brought COVID-19 related ideas and commentary into their narratives. However, the degree to which these narrative shifts have materially changed group capabilities or how long these narrative shifts will last is hard to assess.

There has been a lot of writing and analysis on how violent Islamist groups have talked about COVID-19, blending it into their worldviews or talking up the opportunities that it might afford them. There have even been examples of cells talking about trying to weaponise COVID-19 in some way – for example, a cell linked to IS in Tunisia was discussing coughing and spitting at security forces,[21] while Indonesian authorities reported overhearing a cell harbouring similar intentions.[22] However, there is little evidence indicating that COVID-19 has materially changed extremist ideologies.

For example, in its regular six-monthly report on IS(IL), Al Qaeda and associated individuals’ activity, the UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team notes:

“IS(IL) continues to emphasise the “divine punishment of arrogance and unbelief” narrative regarding the pandemic that it adopted in March 2020, and to exhort followers to attack the enemy while counter-terrorist defences are supposedly weakened. (It should be noted that some Member States have observed a shift in recent months away from the “divine punishment” narrative as the pandemic’s impact has spread.) However, no developed IS(IL) strategy has evolved for the pandemic. This includes weaponisation of the virus by using contagious supporters to infect opponents, which was mooted within IS(IL) in March but has not progressed as a practical proposition.”[23]

The Monitoring Group’s commentary on al-Qaeda is focused on the high level of leadership attrition that the group has suffered, with little evidence of the group focusing much on the pandemic. The group in fact waited until late March to issue some comment on the pandemic, and this was largely a broad commentary on how badly the west was handling the virus.[24] Later comments focused instead on the fact that western governments had failed to protect their elderly and infirm, though much of al-Qaeda’s commentary during this period seemed focused on proving their leader was alive or that they were not going to be negatively affected by the fact that the Taliban were seeking to strike a deal with the US in Afghanistan which would specifically eject them from Afghanistan.

Affiliates of al-Qaeda commented about the pandemic, and in some cases suggested that they were going to offer healthcare to help local affected communities, but it was not clear how useful or realistic this was.[25] According to UN reporting, al-Shabaab found itself obliged to provide some response after local communities and followers highlighted their failure to effectively respond.[26] Syrian Hayat Tahrir al Sham has continued to support the Salvation Government in the parts of Northern Syria where they exert control and have offered reporting on COVID-19, as well as limited medical care service.[27] And in any case, it was clear that the groups were simply seeking to advance a narrative of offering themselves as alternatives to the state in tune with their broader visions of their goals, rather than something new.[28]

In contrast, extreme right-wing groups in the West not only talked a great deal about the pandemic but even changed their behaviours or ideologies to absorb COVID-19 related narratives.[29] US and UK authorities separately noted an uptick in threats towards Jews and attacks using COVID-19.[30] In some cases, there has been credible evidence that this surge in right-wing propaganda has resulted in forms of violence. The most obvious example of this is the growing instances of violence against 5G masts, emerging from conspiracy theories related to the development of such masts and the spread of COVID-19.[31] In the US, narratives around COVID-19 restrictions became caught up in anti-federal government discourses, inflaming already angry groups.[32] In April 2020, an individual tried to derail a train in the Los Angeles Port Yard in an attempt to stop a US Navy vessel bringing aid to other parts of the country.[33] In Australia, there were reports that the local branch of the Proud Boys was using anti-lockdown protests as opportunities to specifically attack police.[34] Australian security forces repeatedly pointed out that they had seen an increase in their far right activity during COVID-19.[35] UK authorities also expressed concern about young people being radicalised as they were stuck online during lockdowns,[36] a concern which might have materialised in the growing numbers of teenagers being charged with extreme right terror offences.[37]

In some instances, however, far right groups have sought to use the pandemic as an opportunity to instead push themselves further into the mainstream and used the pandemic as an opportunity to show their civic mindedness. In Ukraine, the Azov Movement and its offshoots have sought to offer training videos for people caught in lockdowns, support for those who are unable to get their shopping or need other forms of assistance.[38] This approach is similar to the modus operandi of violent Islamists who offer themselves as aid or healthcare providers during the pandemic. The key difference being that the violent Islamists need to control the territory in which they are doing it, while the extreme right (in Ukraine at least) are doing it within the broader societies in which they live. The idea is to generate more sympathy for their cause, rather than demonstrate governance capability.

Beyond these two core ideologies, it is very difficult to discern much of a change in other ideologies or groups as a result of COVID-19. In part this is due to a lack of data and research, but also as it is not even very clear that COVID-19 has produced the specified change in the two principal ideologies to receive attention. The extreme right was ascendant prior to COVID-19, while violent Islamists have always held escatalogical narratives and sought to demonstrate governance capabilities. The only discernible shift in violence that could be credibly linked to COVID-19 is from the extreme right that has incorporated the pandemic into its radicalising narratives more convincingly and with greater impact than violent Islamists. The fact that the far right in the US has managed to penetrate the mainstream, and that conspiracy theories have now developed such a wide-ranging impact including driving people towards terrorist violence, opens the door to future potential ideologies.[39]

At the same time, it has to be remembered that the year 2020 was also the final year of the Trump presidency. This is important to bear in mind as with President Trump in the White House, the world’s most powerful leader was using his platform to provide oxygen to elements of the extreme right narrative – be this in terms of his tendency to fail to condemn the extreme right in the United States[40] or re-tweet far right extremist material.[41] Rather than being a fringe ideology, it became associated with the mainstream, an intoxicating elevation which may also help explain the level of fury and activity around the global extreme right. Seen in this light, COVID-19 may have simply been further fuel into an already inflamed global situation.

Recruitment and Fundraising

Very little published data has been released highlighting the impact of COVID-19 on terrorist group recruitment. There has been some reporting around the impact on terrorist fundraising. The UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team February 2021 report provides some references to member states noting changes in fundraising patterns. Specifically, they point to enhanced difficulties of transporting money across borders due to travel restrictions complicating money transfers. But at the same time, the report indicates a growing level of use of cryptocurrencies and online transfers suggesting the impact might be mitigated through alternative cyber-routes.[42] Showing how these issues can intersect with COVID-19 specifically, there was the reported case of an ISIS fundraising network that was selling fake personal protective equipment (PPE) online.[43]

These concerns echo those articulated by the Eurasian Group (EAG) on combating money laundering and the financing of terrorism, though very few cases were provided to illustrate the particular terrorism financing concerns.[44] These findings were in turn similar to those generated by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)’s report, which again mentioned terrorism financing as a potential issue and highlighted how charitable money flows in particular could be abused by terrorist organisations.[45] Both the FATF and EAG reports, however, pointed to the far greater risk coming from COVID-19 related fraud, be it in terms of fake (or non-existent) medical equipment, as well as abuse of COVID-19 relief packages offered by governments.[46] A sense of the potential scale of the fraud involved is illustrated by the UK case, where some reports suggested that as much as half of the £46 billion being doled out by the government could be lost to defaults and fraud.[47] While theoretically some of this money could have been taken by terrorists, no clear examples have been presented yet of this taking place in the UK or elsewhere.

Looking at more specific examples of where these threats intersect, the UN Monitoring Team report also points to a decrease in maritime kidnapping for ransom in the tri-border Southeast Asian region between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.[48] However, this contrasts with reporting by the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre (IMB-PRC) which reports that there has been an increase in maritime piracy, with a particular growth in the Philippines and the Singapore Strait.[49] IMB-PRC does not specify whether there is a link to terrorism in this criminal activity, but the contrast to the UN report underscores this is an area where there is inadequate research at the moment.

Recruitment is equally challenging to track. While repeated reports show an increase in online activity, especially amongst extreme right wing groups[50], it is not yet clear whether this is pulling through to recruitment. UN reporting indicates how Eurasian member states have reported groups using the pandemic as an opportunity to offer individuals support and money, something which increases popularity and recruitment.[51] In most cases, however, the reporting is non-specific, suggesting that groups are increasing their propaganda and this theoretically translates into more recruits. However, there have been no evidence based reports showing this link successfully delivering new recruits in practice. There is repeated reporting and discussion around the threats from the increased amount of time that people spent online during the pandemic and the increased opportunities this presented for online radicalisation, but so far there has been no evidence based assessment of what the actual impact was.

Many of the specific cases of terrorism linked to COVID-19 that have emerged during the pandemic  are in fact individuals who had been involved or interested in extremist activity prior to COVID-19. For example, an early prominent attack which was linked to the pandemic in the US against a hospital focused on COVID-19 care was undertaken by an American extreme right wing adherent who had long been on FBI radars.[52] Even the very young followers in Europe who have emerged through arrest and conviction during this past year appear in many cases to be young men who had already been active on extreme right wing forums pre-pandemic.[53] COVID-19 related lockdowns may have been an accelerant towards more violent online rhetoric or given groups greater opportunities to reach out to captive audiences online, but so far it is not clear if it has translated into more violence from them. Overall, it is still inconclusive how terrorist group fundraising and recruitment have been impacted yet and whether the increased online rhetoric or activity has resulted in material change to groups’ coffers or numbers.

Conclusion

A year into the pandemic, it remains entirely unclear the exact impact that COVID-19 will have on violent extremism in the longer-term. It is clear that it has affected groups’ behaviour and action in the same way that it has affected everyone else, but it is not clear that it has materially changed things in a way that is utterly unique to the pandemic. Previous natural disasters have produced contradictory comparisons. For example, the Spanish Flu of 1918 was followed by a spate of anarchist violence which did not appear linked to the pandemic, while the 2004 Asian tsunami helped bring peace to Aceh and accelerated violence in Sri Lanka.[54] A RAND study from 2011 which sought to apply some methodological rigour to the question found that there was in fact an increase in terrorism-related death in the wake of natural disasters.[55] The same report explored the impact of natural disasters on government capacity to respond to terrorist threats and showed a dip in capability following the disaster which groups take advantage of, but within two years authorities are usually able to regain the upper hand.[56] This suggests something to pay attention to once the pandemic has been definitively brought under control.

At the moment, the most noticeable change in behaviour to have been generated by the pandemic has been the acceleration to prominence and wider acceptance of the use of violence to advance conspiracy theories. While at the moment this violence is an irritant, it is a first step on an escalatory path. Furthermore, the indicators in ACLED data that protests and groups’ preparatory action has persisted and even grown during the pandemic, suggest that while COVID-19 seems to have acted as an inhibitor of major terrorist activity during the first pandemic year, it has most certainly not gone away and might even be biding its time rather than in retreat. COVID-19 has in fact appeared to be something of an enabler and accelerator of existing trends and threats. The key question which has yet to be addressed is whether this means that terrorist violence will continue on the downward trajectory that most indicators appeared to show over the past few years, or whether in fact the COVID-19 pandemic will result in an increase in threats. In the longer-term, it is likely that COVID-19 will help foster a new wave of ideologies, though whether the pandemic is entirely to blame might be difficult to conclude. The end of the pandemic will expose a world which is likely to be even more divided than before, alongside a likely global economic recession. All of which will create a context in which the threat picture from terrorism might start on a gradual path upwards again in contrast to the trends over the past few years.

About the author 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.


[1] The author is grateful for his ICPVTR colleagues’ comments during a brainstorming session in late 2020 which helped inform the creation of this list.

[2] “ACLED coverage to date” https://acleddata.com/acleddatanew/wp-content/uploads/dlm_uploads/2019/01/ACLED_Country-and-Time-Period-Coverage_updFeb2021.pdf

[3] Uppsala Conflict Data Program: Department of Peace and Conflict Research https://ucdp.uu.se/#/

[4] Global Terrorism Database: START https://www.start.umd.edu/research-projects/global-terrorism-database-gtd

[5] It is further worth noting that the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) annual terrorism review the Global Terrorism Index draws on data primarily from the GTD meaning it has also not provided any analysis or data for 2020 yet (https://www.visionofhumanity.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/GTI-2020-web-1.pdf).

[6] “Political Violence: January 1 – December 31, 2020,” Review, Chicago Project on Security & Threats, March 2021

[7] ACLED Full Dashboard: https://acleddata.com/dashboard/#/dashboard; In ACLED terms, “strategic developments” is classified as events which are linked to politically motivated groups that usually indicate a precursor to possible violence, but do not involve violence, while “protests” are classified as peaceful events. In other words, the two indicators that ACLED sees as having increased during the pandemic are non-violent ones.

[8] ACLED Full Dashboard: https://acleddata.com/dashboard/#/dashboard

[9] “Global Terrorism Index 2020: Measuring the Impact of Terrorism,” Institute for Economics and Peace, November 2020 https://www.visionofhumanity.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/GTI-2020-web-1.pdf (p.2)

[10] “Political Violence: January 1 – December 31, 2020,” Review, Chicago Project on Security & Threats, March 2021

[11] Peaceful protests are events which articulate mass public political anger, while “strategic developments” are activities which groups are undertaking (or experiencing, given arrests are also included within this category) that reflect non-violent action which could be interpreted as preparatory. “Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) Codebook” https://acleddata.com/acleddatanew/wp-content/uploads/dlm_uploads/2019/01/ACLED_Codebook_2019FINAL.docx.pdf .

[12] “The Fusion of Offline and Online Interventions against Extremism in the Philippines,” GNET-CENS workshop report, 16 December 2020 https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/GNET-CENS-Workshop-2-Philippines-210114.pdf

[13] “IPAC Short Briefing No.1: COVID-19 and ISIS in Indonesia,” Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), April 2, 2020 http://file.understandingconflict.org/file/2020/04/COVID-19_and_ISIS_fixed.pdf

[14] “The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on terrorism, counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism: Update” UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, December 2020 https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/CTED_Paper_The-impact-of-the-COVID-19-pandemic-on-counter-terrorism-and-countering-violent-extremism_Dec2020.pdf

[15] Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, vol.13, no. 1, January 2021 https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/CTTA-January-2021.pdf – there are exceptions to this, like Myanmar where the report suggests an “intensification” of violence (p. 34). In other cases, the data is less categorical, but the characterization is of problems over 2020 that have either remained the same or reduced in violence.

[16] Closed database maintained by ICPVTR, February 2021

[17] Aaron Y. Zelin, @azelin, February 2, 2021 https://twitter.com/azelin/status/1356361479881183234

[18] “Summary of incidents in Southern Thailand, January 2021” Deep South Watch Database, February 15, 2021 https://deepsouthwatch.org/en/node/11973

[19] “Number of terrorism related incidents year wise” March 14, 2021 https://www.satp.org/datasheet-terrorist-attack/incidents-data/southasia

[20] “What Happens Now? Terrorism and the challenges of counter-terrorism in the next decade” ICPVTR webinar by Suzanne Raine, Affiliate lecturer, Centre for Geopolitics at Cambridge University, January 27, 2021 https://www.rsis.edu.sg/event/icpvtr-webinar-on-what-happens-now-terrorism-and-the-challenges-of-counter-terrorism-in-the-next-decade-by-suzanne-raine/#.YC9oFHczZ5w

[21] “Terrorists plotting COVID-19 contamination attack on Tunisian security forces arrested,” North African Post, April 17, 2020 https://northafricapost.com/40082-terrorists-plotting-covid-19-contamination-attack-on-tunisian-security-forces-arrested.html

[22] “Adjustment and Resilience: Preventing Violent Extremism in Indonesia during COVID-19 and beyond,” UNODC and Guyub Project, February 2021 (primary author Cameron Sumpter) https://www.unodc.org/documents/southeastasiaandpacific/Publications/2021/indonesia/Main_COVID_CT_Indonesia_PRINT_EN.pdf

[23] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities” United Nations Security Council, February 3, 2021 https://undocs.org/S/2021/68

[24] “Al-Qaeda invites ‘Western nations’ to Islam amid COVID-19,” BBC Monitoring reporting Rocketchat messaging service in Arabic, April 1, 2020 https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201l1q3

[25] “The Limits of ‘Shabaab-CARE’: Militant Governance amid COVID-19,” CTC Sentinel, vol.13, No.6, June 2020 https://ctc.usma.edu/the-limits-of-shabaab-care-militant-governance-amid-covid-19/

[26] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities” United Nations Security Council, February 3, 2021 https://undocs.org/S/2021/68

[27] “Coronavirus and The Salvation Government – Hay’at Tahir al-Sham,” Jihadology.com, March 1, 2021 https://jihadology.net/coronavirus-and-the-salvation-government-hayat-tahir-al-sham/

[28] Kabir Taneja and Raffaello Pantucci “Beware of terrorists offering COVID-19 aid,” Raisina Debates, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), April 17, 2020 https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/beware-of-terrorists-offering-covid19-aid-64731/

[29] “Member States concerned by the growing and increasingly transnational threat of extreme right wing terrorism,” CTED Trends Alert, July 2020 https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/CTED_Trends_Alert_Extreme_Right-Wing_Terrorism_JULY.pdf

[30] “COVID-19: How Hateful extremists are exploiting the pandemic,” Commission for Countering Extremism, July 2020 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/906724/CCE_Briefing_Note_001.pdf and “Lauder: National Guard must protect Jews from Neo-Nazi coronavirus threat,” Jerusalem Post, March 25, 2020 https://www.jpost.com/International/FBI-Neo-Nazi-groups-encouraging-spread-coronavirus-to-police-and-Jews-622006

[31] Amongst the many conspiracy theories circulating was one which linked the expansion of 5G to the spread of the virus – in part technophobia, in part anti-Chinese sentiment. The result has been a spike in destruction of 5G infrastructure (usually masts) in parts of Europe in particular, though also in North America. Michael Loadenthal, “Anti-5G, Infrastructure Sabotage, and COVID-19,” GNET Insight, January 19, 2021 https://gnet-research.org/2021/01/19/anti-5g-infrastructure-sabotage-and-covid-19/

[32] Blyth Crawford, “Coronavirus and conspiracies: how the far right is exploiting the pandemic,” The Conversation, September 15, 2020 https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-and-conspiracies-how-the-far-right-is-exploiting-the-pandemic-145968

[33] “Train Operator at Port of Los Angeles Charged with Derailing Locomotive Near US Navy’s Hospital Ship Mercy,” US Department of Justice, Central District of California, April 1, 2020 https://www.justice.gov/usao-cdca/pr/train-operator-port-los-angeles-charged-derailing-locomotive-near-us-navy-s-hospital

[34] Michael McGowan, “Australian Proud Boys sought to combat-trained supporters to ‘arrest’ police at COVID lockdown protests,” Guardian, February 15, 2021 https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/feb/15/australian-proud-boys-leader-sought-combat-trained-supporters-to-arrest-police-at-covid-lockdown-protests

[35] Samaya Borom, “Increased visibility of Far-Right movements in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic,” GNET Insights, September 24, 2020 https://gnet-research.org/2020/09/24/increased-visibility-of-far-right-movements-in-australia-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/

[36] Caleb Spencer, “Coronavirus: ‘children may have been radicalised in lockdown’,” BBC News, June 30, 2020 https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-53082476

[37] Lizzie Dearden, “Boy, 14, started making bombs during lockdown after watching ISIS propaganda, court hears,” Independent, September 29, 2020 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/terror-plots-uk-teenage-boy-eastleigh-bottle-bombs-isis-online-radicalisation-b693441.html

[38] Michael Colborne, “For the Far Right, the COVID-19 crisis is a PR opportunity,” Fair Observer, April 13, 2020 https://www.fairobserver.com/region/europe/michael-colborne-far-right-coronavirus-pandemic-assistance-covid-19-crisis-pr-news-10109/

[39] Raffaello Pantucci, “After the Coronavirus, Terrorism won’t be the same,” Foreign Policy, April 22, 2020 https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/22/after-coronavirus-terrorism-isis-hezbollah-5g-wont-be-the-same/

[40] David Smith, Lois Beckett, Maanvi Singh and Julia Carrie Wong, “Donal Trump refuses to condemn white supremacists at presidential debate,” Guardian, September 30, 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/sep/29/trump-proud-boys-debate-president-refuses-condemn-white-supremacists

[41] “Donal Trump retweets far-right group’s anti-Muslim videos,” BBC News, November 29, 2017 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-42166663

[42] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities” United Nations Security Council, February 3, 2021 https://undocs.org/S/2021/68

[43] USA vs Facemaskcenter.com and Four Facebook Pages, Case 1:20-cv-02142-RC, Filed 08/05/20 https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/1304296/download

[44] “Information Note: Concerning the COVID-19 impact on the EAG countries’ AML-CFT efforts and measures taken to mitigate the ML/TF risks stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic” Eurasian Group (EAG), https://eurasiangroup.org/files/uploads/files/%D0%9C%D0%B5%D1%80%D1%8B_%D0%B2_%D1%81%D0%B2%D1%8F%D0%B7%D0%B8_%D1%81_COVID-19/Information_note_on_COVID-19_measures_eng_rev4.pdf

[45] “Update: COVID-19-related Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing,” FATF, December 2020 https://www.fatf-gafi.org/media/fatf/documents/Update-COVID-19-Related-Money-Laundering-and-Terrorist-Financing-Risks.pdf

[46] “Update: COVID-19-related Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing,” FATF, December 2020 https://www.fatf-gafi.org/media/fatf/documents/Update-COVID-19-Related-Money-Laundering-and-Terrorist-Financing-Risks.pdf

[47] Daniel Thomas and Stephen Morris, “A giant bonfire of taxpayers money: fraud and the UK pandemic loan scheme,” Financial Times, December 20, 2020 https://www.ft.com/content/41d5fe0a-7b46-4dd7-96e3-710977dff81c

[48] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities” United Nations Security Council, February 3, 2021 https://undocs.org/S/2021/68

[49] “Maritime piracy hotspots persist during 2020,” Hellenic Shipping News, Febrary 1, 2020 https://www.hellenicshippingnews.com/maritime-piracy-hotspots-persist-during-2020/

[50] “Member States concerned by the growing and increasingly transnational threat of extreme right wing terrorism,” CTED Trends Alert, July 2020 https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/CTED_Trends_Alert_Extreme_Right-Wing_Terrorism_JULY.pdf

[51] “The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on terrorism, counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism: Update” UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, December 2020 https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/CTED_Paper_The-impact-of-the-COVID-19-pandemic-on-counter-terrorism-and-countering-violent-extremism_Dec2020.pdf

[52] Pete Williams, “Missouri man planned to bomb hospital during pandemic to get attention for white supremacist views,” NBC News, March 31, 2020 https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/missouri-man-planned-bomb-hospital-during-pandemic-get-attention-white-n1172346

[53] Lizzie Dearden, “Boy, 14, started making bombs during lockdown after watching ISIS propaganda, court hears,” Independent, September 29, 2020 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/terror-plots-uk-teenage-boy-eastleigh-bottle-bombs-isis-online-radicalisation-b693441.html

[54] Abdul Basit, “COVID-19: a challenge or opportunity for terrorist groups?” Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism, vol.15, No.3, October 2020 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/18335330.2020.1828603?needAccess=true

[55] Claude Berrebi and Jordan Ostwald, “Earthquakes, Hurricanes and Terrorism: Do Natural Disasters Incite Terror?” RAND Working Paper, 2011 https://www.rand.org/pubs/working_papers/WR876.html

[56] Claude Berrebi and Jordan Ostwald, “Earthquakes, Hurricanes and Terrorism: Do Natural Disasters Incite Terror?” RAND Working Paper, 2011 https://www.rand.org/pubs/working_papers/WR876.html


I have a few longer papers that are due to land over the next few weeks, mostly on terrorism for a variety of different outlets. Some bigger China ones coming after that. First up is this piece which was actually written last year and was commissioned by the lovely people at the Vienna based European Institute for Counter-Terrorism and Conflict Prevention (EICTP), and which draws on ideas which were first loosely sketched out in this earlier Foreign Policy piece. It is a bit of a forward looking piece trying to explore where trends might end up going. There are a couple of more empirically based pieces coming looking at the impact of COVID-19 on terrorism and extremism.

Terrorist Threats Post-COVID-19

It is too early at this stage to draw any definitive conclusions about what the impact on terrorism from COVID will be, but some early sketches can be drawn of problems which appear to be being exacerbated. The causal link to COVID is hard to tell. But there has been a noticeable shift in various terrorist ideologies in COVID’s shadow which merit a stock-take. The aim of this article is to dig into these shifts and try to offer some broad thoughts about where the longer- term threat picture might be going.

What have terrorists said about COVID-19?

As a start point, it is useful to explore what terrorist groups have actually said and done about COVID. In the early days of the virus, groups were commenting on it in much the same way as everyone else was. In some cases, they drew the ideas into the larger conspiracies they are signed up to seeking to explain it as part of a master plan to destroy the world and advance their ideology. Less apocalyptic responses focused instead on the practical things that groups could do to help populations fend off the virus. This form of social services was an attempt to win over hearts and minds to demonstrate how governments were failing. In many cases it built on a history of offering social services to their communities, and merely served to further endear them. And yet others instead chose to make the strategically sensible point that the net result was likely to be less attention by security forces and distracted authorities, therefore offering a useful moment to strike or take territory.216

There was also considerable discussion around the idea of trying to weaponize the virus, though the evidence around this happening has been very thin. Extremist forums churned out propaganda about what could be done, but very few actually moved forwards with their plans. One plan was dramatically uncovered in Tunisia, where a preacher was telling his followers to cough or sneeze on security forces in advance of an attack.217 For the most part, security services have not reported much change in the threat picture as a result of COVID.218 In the US some people have been prosecuted under terrorism legislation for threatening to actively spread the virus, though it is not clear there was any political motive behind their act.219

Having said this, there has been a noticeable increase in the volume of noise around terrorist groups,220 though it is not clear this has actually resulted in an increase in violence. While metrics are hard to get, using the data offered by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), it would appear that all of the conflict and political violence metrics that they follow are down year on year across the world, and in particular in regions where terrorist groups are dominant.221 This is not an entirely surprising outcome. Given the general lockdowns and difficulties in travelling, it has become harder to practically mobilize in the same way as before. And while online activity has made the spread and virulence of extremist ideas and disinformation alongside it easier, it is not yet in a state to replace the physical act of violence.

But a lack of violence does not unfortunately necessarily equate to the absence of a problem. The underlying issues that can cause radicalization can take considerable time to turn into a visible terrorist threat. And the current immediate news environment can telescope our ability to properly assess the timeline required for problems to develop. Given the constant noise of threat that is now produced by groups, alongside constant reporting of threats globally at the same time, it can be harder to assess longer-term changes and patterns. The constant coverage gives an impression of an accelerating threat. This results in an expectation that threats materialize immediately, when in fact they can take time to mature.

This is not an entirely new phenomenon, nor is it one that is exclusive to the study of terrorism and political violence. In general, societal expectations around issues are wildly accelerated by a relentless news cycle which requires a constant digest of new information and news. The net result is a lack of patience in tracing consequences and impact from specific actions. From an analytical perspective, it can make it more complicated to appropriately describe problems and threats as the expectation is often that causal impact will be rapid and immediate. In fact, problems often take time to develop and ultimately articulate themselves in violence. The confusion that this reality creates is augmented in a static situation like that created by COVID-19 which has brought vast sections of human activity around the world to a standstill. Objectively standing back, it is hard to assess that COVID-19 has materially changed for the better many situations that were affected by terrorism, in fact, it can appear that the longer- term situation has likely been made worse.

A current stocktake

A complete overview of all terrorist threats globally for such a short paper would be by its nature incomplete and incorrect. Consequently, the author will focus on two dominant threat ideologies (violent Islamists and the extreme right wing) and provide a brief overview of their current status with some broad analysis of how things are advancing in the shadow of COVID.

Within the violent Islamist cohort, al Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated organizations are the dominant representatives. And in both cases, an assessment with relation to the impact of COVID on them is fairly limited at this stage. Both groups continue to thrive in their different ways, though they appear to be facing issues related to their respective broader operating environments rather than anything linked specifically to COVID. Outside rhetoric, at this stage it is very difficult to find many studies that have conclusively pointed to any major change in behavior.222

For example, in 2020 al Qaeda marked the nineteenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attack. This was communicated across al Qaeda publications and media channels, though the outputs were for the most part repetitive of previous years and revealed little that was new. The key message from leader Ayman al Zawahiri was an attack on an Al Jazeera documentary made about the attack.223 This reflects a broader stasis around the group which while not defunct, has largely faded from the high points of the past few decades. A useful overview of the organization by BBC Monitoring’s Mina Al Lami showed how its affiliates in Mali and Somalia are its best beacons of success, while its other affiliates are under considerable pressure.224

Similarly, while ISIS continues to exist as a global organization, it is very different to the organization which dominated the airwaves during its peak years of controlling territory in Syria and Iraq. Its core entity in the Levant is a shrunken version of its former self but is gradually gaining some space on the ground in Iraq in particular.225 Its global network of affiliates remains loose, with different ones showing greater degrees of effectiveness and connection to the core. Some are reduced in effectiveness, while others appear ascendant.226 As an overall organization, however, it appears to be in a stage of being an irritant in most of the environments it is present, rather than the existential threat it previously posed when controlling vast pieces of territory in the Levant.

This is certainly not to say that either organization is completely down. Key for the current paper, however, is the fact that neither group appears to have been impacted particularly by COVID. Rather, both persist on roughly the same trajectory that they did before the outbreak of the virus. The threat from them remains relatively constant, with some parts of the threat rising and others falling. The key point, however, is persistence with security agencies still prioritizing the threat from violent Islamist actors.227

More dynamic and impacted to a greater degree in some ways by the virus is the extreme right wing. A threat which was ascendant across Europe, North America and select parts of Asia (Australia and New Zealand) before the outbreak of COVID-19, white supremacist terrorism was something which has been an escalating concern for some time.228 However, in the shadow of the virus, the problem appears to have mushroomed in a number of different directions. Most prominently in the United States there has been a growth in prominence of a number of different groups, ideas and violence. Whilst their individual strains might be slightly different, there are key themes which appear to tie many of them together. From the anti-state Boogaloo Bois who are expecting an impending civil war, the now-prominent Proud Boys (a drinking club dedicated to fighting leftist protestors), to more classic far right groups stoking race war or the constellation of new groups clustering around aspects of the far right like the Incel movement, QAnon conspiracy theorists or angry online communities gathering on sites like 8kun, 4chan or Gab. The world of far right in the United States has achieved greater prominence recently.

These have all been exacerbated in recent times, though it is not clear whether this is related to the virus, or more simply American politics which have gone in a deeply divisive direction under President Trump. His active inflaming of racial tensions and anger towards left-wing protestors feeds the extreme right, groups he has actively promoted from his position as President of the United States of America. During the first Presidential debate, his comments about the Proud Boys group quite specifically brought prominence to them229, while his earlier tweeting has brought international prominence to a far-right British group Britain First.230

But he is not solely responsible for this rising right-wing. Under the auspices of COVID, some aspects of the acceleration of extreme right anger can be linked to the expansion of the state, something that has been happening in some parts of the country in response to COVID- 19.231 And there has been a growth in conspiracy theories linked to COVID-19 response – like fears around vaccines or the impact of 5G technology – which have often stoked some of the growing constellation of groups gathered on the extreme right.232 This will be covered again later, but they are clearly playing into long-standing US narratives of an overbearing federal state which is seeking to disenfranchise groups, removing their guns, infringing on their liberties and generally becoming a menace to the free state as defined in the US constitution. Such Patriot or Sovereign Citizen groups have long been a feature of the American discourse, but recent political clashes, somewhat exacerbated by the further expansion of the state in response to COVID and polarized political narratives, have strengthened their hold amongst fringe communities.

In Europe, a more classic extreme right tends to dominate, with racist networks flourishing in the shadows of a growth of far-right political movements and a polarized debate around immigration. This phenomenon has been developing for some time, with Germany facing the National Socialist Underground (NSU) in the late 2000s, while angry protest groups like the UK’s English Defence League (EDL) spawned imitators across Europe. Annual Europol reports point to a growing extreme right wing threat in Europe, while individual security forces point to disrupted plots.233 Renaud Camus totemic text The Great Replacement has captured a particular mood across the continent234, while mass violence associated with such ideas can be found earlier in Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 attack in Oslo and Utoya Island.235 Europe has also seem an emergence of conspiracy theorists, QAnon236 and Incels,237 and a growing rumbling of anti-government anger similar to that in the US.238

But similar to the narrative on the violent Islamist side, what has been happening on the extreme right is in many ways merely an extension of what was going on before. Extreme right- wing terrorism had been a growing phenomenon for the past few years and its fragmentation had started even before the outbreak of COVID-19 and the lockdowns that followed. For some countries, the return to dominance of the extreme right was a reflection of a balance of threat that existed pre-September 11, 2001.239

Future threats

COVID-19 has, however, changed how society is functioning and this will have some sort of effect on terrorist threats. In particular, the change to society that is going to be wrought in the longer time by the virus or existing issues whose impact was accelerated by the virus will have some effect on terrorist threats.

As stated at the outset, it is at this stage quite difficult to measure the exact causal effect, but some trends appear to be accelerated in the shadow of the virus which point to how this moment might impact the longer-term threat picture. While life is returning to some semblance of normality, the constant fear of new waves of the virus and the consequent disruption to society that follows continues to hang over things. The economic damage done by the virus has still not been calculated and may be being artificially suppressed temporarily due to economic stimulus programs. But their impact will be felt in many different ways in terms of government budgets both at home and abroad. The abrupt shift online is likely to permanently change some industries and eliminate others. The effect on the workforces will be dramatic and abrupt, creating potentially large unemployed or underemployed communities.

The potential impact on political violence and terrorism is hard to gauge, but three areas stand out as potential spaces in which political violence may grow in the future in part as a result of the impact of COVID-19’s ravaging the planet. In many ways these are also extensions of previous problems, but their acceleration against other trends impacted by COVID is potentially going to create greater problems than might otherwise have emerged.

A web spun by COVID

One of the biggest winners of COVID-19 is the Internet. With the advent of lockdowns and working from home, people found themselves increasingly spending time online. The impact of this on terrorism is complicated and goes in many different directions. In the first instance there is the impact on online radicalization. Something that used to be seen as a peripheral aspect of the problem, with the majority of radicalization still requiring physical contact with other extremists, the last few years have seen a growth in cases involving individuals who are choosing to move towards terrorist ideas and then into action solely on the basis of contacts or material they have found online.

In some cases, this is simply a shift online of what used to happen offline. The phenomenon of remote direction as popularized by ISIS is a shifting of the relationship between group and individual attacker online. Whereas previously individuals would head to a training camp and then be directed to launch an attack back home, now the approach was to simply direct people from a distance to launch their attacks using the many encrypted applications that exist. Individuals like Junaid Hussain240 or Rachid Kassim241 became infamous for the networks of young westerners they directed from ISIS held territory to launch terrorist attacks.

But more recently this has developed differently where people are now seemingly ready to launch attacks in advance of ideas they have found online with little to no connection with the actual group itself. In some cases, the individuals are not even joining a group. In the case of something like Incel or QAnon, they are simply following an online phenomenon or chat group and stirring themselves onto violence. The connection between terrorist violence and organized networks and hierarchies is shifting. This has been described as ‘post-organizational’ terrorist plotting where groups, their links and structures are no longer as clear as they used to be.242 While structured organizations still exist, the growth of ideologies online which people can piece together themselves, connect with as imprecisely as they would like, and ultimately interpret in any way that they would like has created a range of problems which live beyond our current interpretations of political violence.

The expression of this can be found in how security services find themselves talking about threats. In the United Kingdom, there has been a growth in individuals who are radicalizing with an ideology which appears to be a mix of contradictory issues and ideas, they are being bracketed by the Home Office as being “mixed, unstable or unclear”.243 In the United States, terrorism is now handled by the Department for Homeland Security (DHS) alongside “Targeted Threats”.244 In Canada they talk of “ideologically motivated violent extremism”.245 The key point is that there is a growth of individuals who are acting out in a manner which is reminiscent of terrorism, and yet when some investigation is done into their ideological motivation, it is unclear exactly what it is. It is even possible to question whether this should properly be called terrorism or whether it is in fact simply an expression of personal anger using the vernacular of terrorism to give it greater meaning.246

Whatever the case, this cohort of individuals is a growing phenomenon. There is a number of individuals who are becoming involved in terrorist activity who are suffering from mental health issues, others that are being identified as having autism spectrum disorders and a growing proportion of very young individuals being drawn into violent activity. Again, absolute numbers are hard to identify, but the number of studies looking into the question has grown while security agencies have increasingly expressed concerns. And while none of these phenomena are new, there is some evidence that the cases are being exacerbated as a result of the lockdown from COVID. In the UK there is the case of the fourteen-year-old boy who reportedly became fascinated with ISIS videos while stuck at home in lockdown, and started to make bombs off models he found online (he was ultimately cleared by a court).247 In Spain, a radical who had been under observation by security services, was arrested after authorities started to grow concerned about the fact that he was radicalizing further and moving towards action during lockdown.248 Finally, there have been lower level cases, like individuals who were going through periods of probation and suddenly found themselves underemployed who instead turned back to online activity.

And this roster accounts only for those of violent Islamist inclination. There is a growing concern around these issues for other ideologies as well. Focusing on the UK, there have been the disturbing cases in recent history of a deeply disturbed man arrested on charges related to left-wing terrorist activity who committed suicide while incarcerated.249 Online extreme right networks in Europe have been found to have been led by very young teenagers.250 There have been Incels found in Europe making explosives, including very young teenagers who have been identified as suffering from autism spectrum disorders.251 And then there is the confusing phenomena of very young individuals whose ideology appears to be a self-created mix of ideas drawing on a wide pool of extreme material they find online.

Such individuals who are self-assembling extremist ideas are often drawn towards conspiracy theories, or dark holes on the internet where such ideas can lurk. And the strength and potency of such online conspiracies has only grown – enhanced by the uncertainty and instability that COVID and geopolitics has created. Conspiracy theories like fears of the dangers of 5G, the threats from vaccines, super-conspiracies like those underpinning QAnon about dark cabals of pedophiles ruling the world are all now circulating online amongst communities of people who are spending ever larger volumes of time online on social media. While work has gone into trying to change or break the algorithms, companies are still struggling to completely control them and often these ideas grow in spaces beyond the big social media companies.

All of this is further exacerbated by active government disinformation campaigns that are working to stir up tensions online. In part this is directed against elections, but it is also simply a way of causing trouble. Sometimes it is not even clear the degree to which it is directed by states, rather than angry groups or bored children. But whatever the case, its impact is felt much more deeply part as a result of the general polarization that is taking place in politics, but also by the fact that an ever-increasing volume of people are spending time online.

Left, luddism and environmentalism

Tracking all of this forwards, the time spent online is not only something which is transforming our methods of communication and absorption of information, but it is further likely to have longer-term repercussions on the shape of our economies and workforces. As lockdowns and restrictions continue, entire industries are suffering and likely to be closing down. Physical retail, already in retreat thanks to the boom in online markets, is likely to take a further beating, while the food and beverage industry is going to continue to suffer for some time to come. The fundamental point is that a growing number of these services will shift online in some capacity, meaning that the physical jobs needed in shops or restaurants to serve people will not necessarily exist anymore. This will create a growing community of unemployed people, or people who end up under-employed or forced to take even more menial jobs. It is hard to gauge exactly what the volume of this shift will be, but it might start to inspire a backlash against the technology and firms that are abetting this shift.

Luddism, a concept first advanced in the 19th century by textile workers angry at the advance of modern technology which was rendering their jobs redundant, could make a comeback. This is not new. Theodore Kaczyinski, the infamous Unabomber, was an earlier luddite whose anger at technology’s dominance of society was something which led him to launch a one-man letter bombing campaign from 1978 to 1995 from a remote cabin in Montana.252 His manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future” was published September 1995 in the Washington Post and started with the premise that “the industrial revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.”253 He may have been twenty years early, but many of the issues he raises in his manifesto are relevant today. As we enter an ever more interconnected and online world, not only are we likely to see more people reacting negatively to it, but also we will see more people becoming disenfranchised as a result. Stories have already emerged about the horrors of working for some of the big online retail companies,254 and these are likely to be exaggerated further in COVID’s wake as we see them assume an even more dominant place within our society.

It is not only a modern form of luddism that may emerge in reaction. Many of the ideas rejecting society or large industrial take over is reminiscent of ideas emanating from the left – where capitalism’s imposing structures crush individuals in advance of profit. These fundamental ideas which are often appropriated by groups on both sides. Consequently, the massive expansion of some companies, of an internet which is controlled by large firms and which is ultimately disempowering people and eliminating employment has the potential to be attractive as an adversary to those on the far left as well. Anti-globalization groups that used to have prominence in the pre-September 11 world,255 have in the past two decades been dominated by a terrorist narrative which focuses on the threat from violent Islamist groups and latterly those on the extreme right wing. The left has receded as a dominant threat, notwithstanding President Trump’s declarations otherwise.256 Yet, within the chaos wrought by COVID-19, it is possible to see a re-emergence of elements of a far-left threat, angry at the rampant far-right and seeing inequality deepening.

Atop this, issues around environmentalism may have been pushed to one side due to COVID-19 concerns, but the problems remain. From a governmental perspective, there is still a need to resolve them, though the pace of change is one that is not happening fast enough for a number of activists. Whilst violence associated with the environmental movement is rare, the fall-out from COVID and the likely de-prioritization of environmental issues in favor of healthcare and repairing stricken economies, may stir more violence. An interesting phenomenon of the past few years has in fact been the mainstreaming of environmental anger into other ideologies. In some cases, like al Shabaab’s banning of plastic bags, it appears banal and almost comical,257 but in others, like the attackers in El Paso and Christchurch declaring they are eco-fascists,258 it shows how environmental ideas can be absorbed into more mainstream violent ideologies in a way that enhances the narrative. Suggesting that for environmental issues to become a terrorist problem, they do not necessarily have to emerge solely from the environmental movement’s mainstream or fringe. Played against the broader backdrop of instability and likely environmental degradation which will continue in the post-COVID-19 world, it is possible such narratives will gain greater salience.

China

A final threat which is likely to rise further, accelerated by COVID-19, is the growth of China as a target for violence and terrorism. Already a trend that was visible pre-COVID-19, it was something which was likely in part a product of China’s rise to a preeminent place on the international stage, as well as a reaction to China’s domestic and foreign policy. At home, the treatment of its Uighur minority has long-spurred anger rhetoric against China, but it has generated surprisingly little terrorism. Domestic violence within China associated with Uighur extremism is often rather expressions of anger at the state, with only some incidents justifiably considered terrorism.259 China’s heavy-handed crackdown has largely suppressed these instances of violence at home, but there have been a few abroad associated with Uighur networks.260 More dominant has been the growing targeting of Chinese nationals and interests by groups elsewhere – more often than not local networks rather than international ones.

For example, in Pakistan, China has increasingly become the target of Baluchi and Sindhi separatists. While there is a consistent level of concern around violent Islamist groups within the country, they have for the most part not targeted Chinese specifically.261 When they have hit Chinese targets, it has tended to be incidental and as part of a larger assault against foreigners or the state. In contrast, Sindhi and Baluchi groups have specifically targeted Chinese institutions and repeatedly put out messaging saying that China was their target. Similarly, in Indonesia, there may be a long history of anti-Chinese sentiment, but recently there has been a growth in specific thinking about targeting Chinese nationals within the country by violent Islamist groups. In part they consider this retribution for the treatment of Uighurs, but it also reflects an anger towards China as an invading colonial force.262

This particular anger is something that is only likely to grow going forwards. Beijing will find that as China rises to become an ever more central pillar in international affairs, it will attract as many detractors as it will supporters. And some of these detractors will be infuriated at Chinese behavior enough to want to commit acts of violence against Chinese interests. This trend is likely to be accelerated by the COVID-19 moment the world is going through. Beijing’s unapologetic response to its links to the origin of the virus, subsequent aggressive public relations diplomacy captured under the moniker ‘wolf warrior’263 and forceful posture on the world stage has done little to endear China to the international community.264 All of this is likely to attract different levels of public anger, some of which is likely to articulate itself as terrorism.

In some parts of the world this has already taken something of an ugly twist with the growing targeting of East Asian nationals in racist attacks.265 Taken alongside the growing levels of tension towards China, this is the sort of violence that has in other contexts ended up expressing itself through violence. China and ethnic East Asians are likely to find themselves increasingly potential targets of violence going forwards.

Conclusions

Much of this is of course speculative at this point. The world is still battling COVID with no clear timeline for when we will be able to talk about being in a post-COVID-19 world. And the longer the world suffers from COVID, the deeper the consequences touched upon in this paper are likely to be. The societal divisions, the economic damage, the transformed economies, and societies are all issues where impact is already visible, and this will only become more acute as more time passes. Society will change and this will have some sort of knock-on effect on the world of terrorism and political violence.

It will likely take some time, even years, before a clear causal link will be possible between the current events and the longer-term changes that might take place in terms of politically motivated violence and terrorism. Some of these effects might in fact be mere accelerations of what was already happening. This is something that is visible already in the growing prominence of the extreme right. Its rise was already visible pre-COVID, with the pattern tracing back years. But in the shadow of the disease and the societal, political and economic impact it has wrought we are seeing its rise sped up and worsened. Of course, this has to be played against the polarized political environment in Washington, DC in particular, which has amplified the noise around the far-right, something which has also likely been made worse by COVID-19. The point being that separating out effects and causal links will be something which is going to be hard to measure and quantify.

One issue which is likely to change in the west in particular in the wake of COVID-19 is the role of state in society. The massive bailouts, new healthcare and security infrastructure which will be needed to ensure future pandemics are better managed, and large public debt that will follow will require management. They will generate unhappiness in unexpected quarters, and in some cases, outright rejection. Given terrorism is at its root a form of anti-establishmentarianism, the massive growth of the state that is likely to result in post-COVID world could be a key underlying issue to look at when trying to explore how terrorism might evolve in the future. This is already most prominently visible in the United States, where it builds on a long history of libertarian and anti-federal government activity, but it is possible that similar strains may start to emerge elsewhere. In some ways, the anti-Chinese anger which may become exacerbated is another expression of this, with China becoming such a dominant figure globally that it is consequently attracting ire.

All of this needs to be kept into perspective of course. While COVID may have some effect on terrorism and political violence, its principal impact will most immediately and dramatically be felt in other aspects of human behavior. However, understanding how these ripples will echo in terrorism remains an important aspect to observe.

Sources

[216] https://d2071andvip0wj.cloudfront.net/B004-covid-19-seven-trends.pdf

[217] https://northafricapost.com/40082-terrorists-plotting-covid-19-contamination-attack-on-tunisian-security-forces-arrested.html

[218] https://apcss.org/assessing-the-impact-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-on-terrorism-and-counter-terrorism-practitioner-insights/

[219] https://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/us-charges-terror-crimes-threats-spread-virus-70052376

[220] https://gnet-research.org/2020/04/27/comparing-jihadist-and-far-right-extremist-narratives-on-covid-19/

[221] https://acleddata.com/#/dashboard

[222] There has been considerable work, however, looking at the potential risks. For example, IPAC in Indonesia has written a number of useful papers looking at threats there: http://www.understandingconflict.org/en.html and the UN has summarized what has been happening in CT and CVE terms: https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/CTED-Paper%E2%80%93-The-impact-of-the-COVID-19-pandemic-on-counter-terrorism-and-countering-violent-extremism.pdf, and finally, Abdul Basit has provided a useful summary of a number of trends across the terrorism space and the threat and opportunity it provides for terrorist organizations: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/18335330.2020.1828603

[223] https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2020/09/zawahiri-asserts-al-qaedas-independence-in-new-message.php

[224] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-54102404

[225] https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/iraq/when-measuring-isiss-resurgence-use-right-standard

[226] ISIS Somalia has had a very bad year so far: https://public.tableau.com/profile/fddmaps#!/vizhome/SomaliaClaims/Dashboard1 while its affiliate group in Mozambique has been increasingly effective: http://www.open.ac.uk/technology/mozambique/sites/www.open.ac.uk.technology.mozambique/files/files/CEEI_Security_Brief_3.pdf 

[227] The US intelligence community is one prominent example: https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Testimonies/20200917_HCHS_Miller_SFR_Final.pdf, though it is not clear that this applies internationally and domestically to the same degree. A recent DHS assessment pointed to an expanded White Supremacist Threat in particular at home: https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/2020_10_06_homeland-threat-assessment.pdf

[228] Australia has recorded a particular rise: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/sep/22/asio-reveals-up-to-40-of-its-counter-terrorism-cases-involve-far-right-violent-extremism as well as the United States: https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/2020_10_06_homeland-threat-assessment.pdf

[229] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/09/30/politics/proud-boys-trump-debate-trnd/index.html

[230] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-42166663

[231] The case of Eduardo Moreno is instructive in this regard: https://www.justice.gov/usao-cdca/pr/train-operator-port-los-angeles-charged-derailing-locomotive-near-us-navy-s-hospital

[232] https://public-assets.graphika.com/reports/Graphika_Report_Covid19_Infodemic.pdf

[233] file:///Users/raffaellopantucci/Downloads/european_union_terrorism_situation_and_trend_report_te-sat_2020_0.pdf

[234] https://www.lemonde.fr/les-decodeurs/article/2019/03/15/la-theorie-du-grand-remplacement-de-l-ecrivain-renaud-camus-aux-attentats-en-nouvelle-zelande_5436843_4355770.html

[235] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-14259989

[236] https://slate.com/technology/2020/09/qanon-europe-germany-lockdown-protests.html

[237] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/the-filter/rise-women-haters-inside-dark-world-british-incels/

[238] https://raffaellopantucci.files.wordpress.com/2021/03/f1810-source_d3.7_assr4.pdf

[239] Australia is a case in point where far right violence was the dominant threat pre-9/11. Similarly, within Europe, while various separatist groups were the dominant terrorist threat, the far right was a problem that sometimes spilled into violence.

[240] https://ctc.usma.edu/british-hacker-became-islamic-states-chief-terror-cybercoach-profile-junaid-hussain/

[241] https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-islamic-state-weaponized-the-chat-app-to-direct-attacks-on-the-west-1476955802

[242] https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/confronting-the-challenge-of-post-organisational-extremism/

[243] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/763254/individuals-referred-supported-prevent-programme-apr2017-mar2018-hosb3118.pdf

[244] https://www.dhs.gov/tvtp

[245] https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/csis-scrs/documents/publications/PubRep-2019-E.pdf

[246] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/09/22/who-is-a-terrorist-actually/ ; https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/running-amok-in-an-age-of-meaningless-terror

[247] https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-hampshire-54450013

[248] https://www.catalannews.com/society-science/item/man-arrested-in-barcelona-for-allegedly-plotting-terrorist-attack

[249] https://www.leeds-live.co.uk/news/leeds-news/dominic-noble-huddersfield-dies-prison-18812989

[250] https://apnews.com/article/7067c03e1af0b157be7c15888cbe8c27

[251] https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/uk-news/fantasist-obsessed-incels-jailed-over-17998017

[252] https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/unabomber

[253] https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/unabomber/manifesto.text.htm

[254] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/11/hired-six-months-undercover-in-low-wage-britain-zero-hours-review-james-bloodworth

[255] https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/01/the-dark-side-of-globalization-why-seattles-1999-protesters-were-right/282831/

[256] https://www.ft.com/content/fdf5e423-4a4e-482c-8ca8-e0bf71fcfbcd, it is also worth noting that some left-wing terrorism still exists in parts of southern Europe – for example, Italy and Greece.

[257] https://www.businessinsider.com/al-shabab-bans-plastic-bags-as-a-serious-threat-to-people-2018-7

[258] https://www.gq.com/story/what-is-eco-fascism

[259] https://raffaellopantucci.com/2014/07/24/chinas-domestic-insurgency/

[260] https://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstan-china-embassy-jailed/28583623.html and https://www.reuters.com/article/us-thailand-blast-idUSKBN13A0FR

[261] https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2160918/lesson-pakistan-suicide-attack-china-will-have-pay-high

[262] https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3099151/indonesian-terrorists-planned-attack-shop-owners-areas-chinese

[263] https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/beware-the-spirit-of-the-wolf-warrior

[264] https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/10/06/unfavorable-views-of-china-reach-historic-highs-in-many-countries/

[265] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52714804

A new post for Carnegie, this time the kind invitation to contribute came from the brilliant Sasha in their Moscow office to write about a subject that I continue to write a lot about and have a book landing soon about, China in Central Asia. This time it looks again at the question of Chinese security presence in the region, a topic that I have touched on before and have at least one chapter on in the book. It all is part of a much bigger project Carnegie Moscow are running called Pax Sinica, which is well worth checking out.

Not-So-Hidden Dragon: China Reveals Its Claws in Central Asian Security

China sees security issues in Central Asia as inextricably tied to its own domestic security concerns, and is rapidly establishing a footprint that will allow it to deal with matters as it sees fit in the region.

There has long been a fallacy at the heart of much analysis of Chinese security policy in Central Asia that China is focused on economics in the region, and Russia on security. This is built on the odd assumption that Beijing is willing to simply delegate its security concerns to others: something that clashes with the increasingly strong China that President Xi Jinping has been projecting. In fact, China has long had a security footprint in Central Asia. What is new, however, is Beijing’s increased willingness to demonstratively flex its muscle in the region.

The most obvious recent example of this and the problems it can generate occurred in December last year in Kabul, when it was reported by Indian media that Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, had arrested a cell of about ten Chinese nationals at various locations in the Afghan capital. While the exact details of what took place have not been confirmed, the principal Afghan accusation appears to have been that the cell was establishing contacts with extremist networks and trying to build an artificial Uighur cell to draw in militant Uighurs of concern to China in Afghanistan.

The incident was cause for great awkwardness on both sides, and concluded with the reported repatriation of the Chinese agents on a private jet back to Beijing. The story was only covered by Indian media, through leaks clearly calculated to embarrass Beijing and highlight nefarious Chinese activity in Afghanistan. The Chinese government did not comment, while the Afghan authorities publicly claimed nothing had happened. Yet if the contours of the reported story are accurate, then the plans by the network had a level of ambition that is novel for Chinese security services. It was also an odd plot to hatch in a country which has been broadly supportive of Chinese goals and which sees itself as fighting the same Uighur networks, given their proximity to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Until now, Chinese security activity in Afghanistan was largely thought to be limited to sealing off China from security threats that might emanate from the country. Investment focused on helping to build and strengthen Tajikistan’s border posts with Afghanistan, increasing the capability of Gilgit-Baltistani security forces in Pakistan, and building a base for Afghan mountain forces in Badakhshan, near the mouth of the Wakhan Corridor that connects China to Afghanistan. China’s People’s Armed Police even went so far as to establish their own dedicated counterterrorism base in Tajikistan, and there are rumors of an additional Chinese base in Afghanistan. Yet none of this activity was aggressive, and rather seemed focused on cauterizing the dangers that might flow from the physical links between Afghanistan and China.

The incident in Kabul, however, shows a new level of Chinese activity that suggests a desire to tackle security issues head on. It comes amid the growing presence of Chinese private security firms in Central Asia, as well as growing pressure on local authorities to accept their presence, in contravention of local legislation. This pushiness has encroached further into the public domain in other ways, too. Du Dewen, the Chinese ambassador to Bishkek, made boosting the security of Chinese nationals and companies a priority issue during her inaugural meeting with new Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ruslan Kazakbaev late last year. The usually staid transcript from the meeting released by the embassy highlighted both ambassador Du’s complaint and the emphatic and acquiescent response from the minister.

The other notable point about China’s security engagement with the region is that it is done for the most part by People’s Armed Police (PAP) forces, rather than the People’s Liberation Army. PAP is reportedly responsible for shoring up the border posts in Tajikistan and performing joint patrols with Afghan and Tajik forces. It has also signed agreements and carried out patrols with its counterparts in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. In December 2018, a female cadre of elite PAP Falcon Commandos provided training for their Uzbek counterparts, while in August 2019, they hosted their Kyrgyz counterparts for counterterrorism exercises in Urumqi, Xinjiang.

The appearance of PAP at the forefront of engagement with Central Asia highlights the degree to which China sees the security issues in those countries as inextricably tied to domestic security concerns. As a gendarmerie force whose primary responsibility is domestic, the PAP’s growing presence on China’s periphery raises questions about Chinese thinking on how to manage security problems in its neighborhood.

Central Asia has also become a conduit through which China has increasingly sought to target its perceived dissident Uighur community. Reports emerged in 2019 of Uighurs being arrested in Turkey, given Tajik travel documents, and placed on planes to Dushanbe, from where they were immediately flown back to China. Central Asian complicity is further suggested by the Kazakh authorities’ decision to clamp down on anti-China protesters within their own country.

In some ways, none of this is particularly new. Uighurs in Central Asia have long been a major Chinese concern. When it was officially inaugurated in 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization used fighting the “three evils” of terrorism, extremism, and separatism as its foundational credo. During his famous tour of the region in 1994, which laid the groundwork for the current Silk Road visions across the region, then premier Li Peng highlighted concerns about Uighurs at every stop. Over subsequent years, rumors circulated about the Chinese pursuing Uighurs across Central Asian borders, while any dissident networks that existed in Central Asia were clamped down upon. Occasional attacks against Chinese businessmen or officials in Bishkek served as a reminder of the dangers that existed in the region, but the Chinese response largely involved pressuring local officials to do more to protect their people and go after people they did not like.

Now, however, China appears to be starting to change tack. Rather than relying on local law enforcement agencies or passing on responsibility for security to Russia, China is stepping forward with its own forces to deal with its own concerns. Locals are still expected to do their bit, but China is now establishing a footprint that will allow it to deal with matters as it would like fit in Central Asia. The fact that a growing number of regional security forces are buying high-end technical equipment from China—while their cyber infrastructure is increasingly built using Chinese hardware—gives Beijing growing leverage.

Beijing’s rise as a security actor in Central Asia is not aimed at displacing Russia from its perceived sphere of influence in some contemporary replay of the Great Game, but rather at guaranteeing Chinese interests. In many ways, it’s not a surprising move: what country is not interested in securing its own interests? It is, however, a change in China’s external behavior, which has traditionally been to pay lip service to local autonomy and Chinese non-interference. China is getting involved, and stepping ever further into the breach.

The other half of my contribution to ICPVTR’s annual assessment document is an overview of what has been going on with the extreme right wing over the past year with Kyler. We have been doing a lot on this topic and have a few other projects in the pipeline this year which am looking forward to. This particular piece pre-dates the whole debate at the moment in the US about whether what took place on Capitol Hill was terrorism or not. My own brief assessment would be that the appearance of improvised explosive devices certainly helps push it in this direction, though we still have to see what is eventually uncovered about the levels of organization involved in the overall assault.

This aside, an earlier piece for the Central Asia Program at George Washington University has now been re-published in an edited volume CAP has published. It looks at Central Asia and the pandemic more broadly, and is full of other fascinating stuff by a wide gamut of Central Asia experts. The subject of China-Central Asia in particular is a topic am hoping to do more on this year and which my eventual book will also cover. Watch this space for more on that.

Persistence of Right-Wing Extremism and Terrorism in the West

Global events provided fertile grounds for already ascendant extreme right-wing ideology and violence to thrive and further metastasise in 2020. The global COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, the November Presidential elections in the United States (US) and continuing anti-immigrant antipathy in Europe, all point to cleavages that are likely to continue to widen over the coming year. Fueled by an increasingly polarised global political discourse and growing dependence on easily manipulated social media, the problems currently remain most acute in North America, although a persistent roster of incidents, networks and plots across Europe, Australasia, and beyond, show how transnational the problem has become.

2020 Threat Landscape

Extremist Violence

In some ways, 2019 marked the current apex in extreme right-wing violence with the mass casualty attack on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand that claimed 51 lives and directly inspired at least six other shootings.891 The broader global problem had simmered for some time, but the Christchurch shootings marked a high point of violence in recent years.892 The year 2020 saw a continuance of this threat, with a multiplication of groups in the extreme right ideological camp. White supremacists, racists, anti-government militias, misogynists, anti-globalizers, and antivaxxers, amongst others, have sought to capitalise on the global social and political upheaval to advance intolerant ideas and in some cases inflict violence. This growing fragmentation of the extreme right is a significant feature of recent years, with a growing chorus of groups espousing variations of intolerance that appear to be part of a spectrum of ideologies that makes up the modern extreme right-wing. Many have produced violent attacks that are conducted by lone actors or small groups without formal direction from a centralised leadership.

Globally, the number of attacks and plots appears to be sustaining, though there is some variance in different locations. According to a brief by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), 67 percent of all domestic terrorist attacks and plots in the US between January 1 and August 31, 2020 were carried out by rightwing extremists, and the absolute number of ‘violent far-right’ attacks remained the same as in 2019.893 The 2020 Homeland Threat Assessment by the US Department of Homeland Security noted that White Supremacist Extremists (WSE) alone “remain[ed] the most persistent and lethal threat” in the country and accounted for approximately 40% of all terrorist attacks and plots recorded in 2019.894

This trajectory is not surprising given the potent mix of the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, and rising political tensions in the run up to the year-end US Presidential Election, among other concerns, have heightened security risks. The blend of issues has also shone a light on how right-wing extremists, including WSEs, as well as other anti-government fringe groups such as the Boogaloo movement, QAnon,895 the Proud Boys, as well as various Patriot or militia groups, all coalesce over shared attitudes on the “legitimacy of the pandemic, lockdown orders and the role of the law enforcement and other government officials.” The result is a “militia-sphere” which has produced incidents of violence and aspirational plots.

There has been, for example, an attempted terrorist plot to blow up a hospital with COVID-19 patients896 and an attempt to derail a train in order to disrupt a medical ship that was being deployed to counter the virus.897 Some have attended anti-lockdown and BLM rallies as platforms to spread misinformation, sow social disorder, and incite or attempt violence,898 while others have orchestrated lethal attacks in the midst of chaos.899 Most recently, a cluster of individuals identifying themselves as the Wolverine Watchmen planned the kidnapping of the Michigan state Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Some of the individuals involved had previous convictions for terrorism offences, while others were involved in an earlier plan to attempt an armed take-over of the state capital building in Lansing, Michigan.900

Europe has also faced a growing problem of extreme right violence. While definitional and reporting variance makes it difficult to draw exact statistics on right-wing violence and terrorism across the European Union (E.U.), the extreme right threat is a problem across Europe with variations from country to country.901 For instance, Germany faced no less than 35 such events in 2019,902 and last February saw a foiled mass casualty attack targeting mosques as well as the mass shootings at various shisha bars in Hanau, that took nine lives.903 More recently in November, German authorities charged a network of 12 who had been arrested in February for planning attacks on minorities and politicians.904

In France, President Emmanuel Macron has faced two disrupted ‘ultraright’ terrorist plots targeting him in 2017905 and November 2018,906 while a network targeting minorities and opposition politicians was disrupted in October 2017.907 In October 2020, a pair of Muslim women were attacked with knives under the Eiffel Tower by a pair of disgruntled women, who also called them “dirty Arabs.”908 Separately, a psychologically troubled man wearing markers identifying himself as linked to the identitarian movement in France, attacked a passersby in Avignon on October 30.909 In the United Kingdom (UK), the proportion of prisoners with “far-right ideologies” has also increased significantly since 2018, from 33 to 44 in 2020.910 Metropolitan Police Counterterrorism lead Neil Basu has referred to the extreme right-wing as the fastest growing part of the terror threat that his officers face. New MI5 Chief Ken McCallum has also pointed out that “of the 27 late-stage terrorist attack plots in Great Britain disrupted by MI5 and CT Policing since 2017, 8 have been right wing extremist.”911 Elsewhere around Europe, the threat picture is highly varied. In some parts of Central and Eastern Europe, for example, migrants continue to be targets of regular abuse, and racist treatment and behaviour. In many countries, the line between violent groups and far-right political parties is also often blurred, complicating cross-continent data collection. Finally, the battlefield in Ukraine continues to be a draw for extreme right-wing fighters from around the world.

The wave of violent right-wing extremism has also reached the Oceania, most notably with the March 2019 Christchurch mosque shooting. Australia, while having not experienced right-wing violence in recent years, has recently reported an increase of violent right-wing extremist counter-terrorism caseload to about 40% in 2020.912 While Islamist terrorism remains the dominant threat, US President Trump’s hyped up populist conservative politics have been appropriated to fit local context, with the President championed as a defender of “white identity.” Narratives in Australia around COVID-19 responses have also echoed developments in Europe and the US, with race and anti-establishment views being woven into extreme right identities.913 This has even reached outside the white Caucasian world with QAnon narratives being picked up in Japan, adapted to the local context but part of the global problem.914

A final transnational element which is woven into this tapestry of the extreme right is the Incel (Involuntary Celibate) movement. Misogynist tendencies can be found amongst most of the groups that have been mentioned so far, but the Incel movement focuses in on them. The ideology, found mostly in online forums and communities, justifies violence against women and society as a revenge for men’s inability to have sex or enter into a relationship with a female. In Europe and North America, there has been an uptick in violence by such individuals since 2018, with more than a dozen perpetrated by Incel adherents.

Ideological Confluence

Placing Incels within this context also highlights the complexity of the current extreme right. Made up of a spectrum of ideological groups, often their ideologies drift beyond traditional extreme right narratives. Incels, for example, are not uniformly rightwing (though many of those who appear motivated towards violence show xenophobic tendencies). Questions also abound over whether the group should be classified as a terrorist movement, given that its adherents’ acts of violence can be regarded as personal revenge attacks rather than aiming at an overarching political goal. While it can be argued that Incels mimic traditional terrorist modus operandi and that their misogynist ideological convergence with the extreme right-wing render them perhaps “simply another articulation of the modern extreme right,”915 this has still faced criticism. This conflict is most visible in Canada, where authorities in Toronto opted to prosecute as an Incel terrorist incident a February attack where a teenager stabbed a woman.916 By contrast, a 2018 car ramming attack in Toronto that killed 10 by an individual who admitted inspiration by Incel ideologies was not prosecuted as a terrorist incident.917

Other cases are clearer cut. The Hanau shooter, for example, had clearly expressed racial hatred in targeting minority communities in Germany, although amongst the ideological materials he left behind, such as his 24-page manifesto, was clear evidence of Incel thinking, as well as antigovernment QAnon-esque ideologies.918 QAnon itself, a conspiracy theory which has both inspired terrorists and drawn sympathy from former President Trump and a growing roster of US Congressional candidates,919 has increasingly converged with the extreme right as well as right-wing politicians, but is not an entirely right-wing conspiracy. Part of the ideology is centred around a perceived Jewish ploy to replace the white race (adherents also believe that President Trump is a heroic figure fighting a cabal of pedophilic elites) which helps explain why the conspiracy theory fits with white supremacist narratives in particular.

Other parts of the extreme right connect actively with other terrorist ideologies for more opportunistic reasons. In September, the US Department of Justice announced charges against a pair of men who were part. of the Boogaloo Bois group (a movement focused on an impending American Civil War) for offering their mercenary services to undercover FBI agents who were posing as members of Hamas.920 The men spoke of their common desire to overthrow the US government, as well as offering material support to the group.

The ideological confusion has been heavily influenced by current events. New strands of ideological conspiracies have also emerged as a result of the BLM movement, as well as propaganda linked to COVID-19, which has focused on racist, anti-Semitic, and other tropes, as well as more odd beliefs like the impact of 5G technology on infection rates.921 Traditional figures of paranoia like George Soros or Bill Gates have been woven into these narratives, and the tensions have been exacerbated by the recent US election, leaving a confusing array of ideologies whose only clear fact is that they are increasing. The Anti-Defamation League’s H.E.A.T Map recorded 3346 incidents of white supremacist-related propaganda, compared to 2724 incidents in 2019, amongst which they included propaganda related to COVID19, BLM and the election.922

Social Media Exploitation

An important component of the proliferation and confusion of ideologies is the everincreasing penetration of social media and the internet into people’s daily lives. QAnon, for example, is an ideology which has emerged from the ether, while Incels have been able to forge connections online. The past few years have seen a number of high profile terrorist incidents involving individuals who appeared to be lone actors, but were later discovered to be active in online forums. Often, they have signaled their act or posted videos showing their attack on social media platforms or discussion forums. Providing a platform for individuals from around the world to gather and plot anonymously, the Internet has proven a particularly useful asset in helping fringe ideologies proliferate.

The anonymity offered by the Internet has also helped lower substantially the age of individuals involved in extreme right activity. This was highlighted in Europe during this past year with a number of teenagers convicted, uncovered or arrested in the UK for their involvement in extreme right online forums like Fascist Forge,923 the British Hand,924 or the Order of Nine Angels.925 Feuerkrieg Division, a now proscribed organisation, was revealed to have been led by a 13-year-old Estonian boy.926

Over the past year, the heavy restrictions imposed on people’s movement and employment in the wake of COVID-19 has exacerbated the spread of extremist ideas as people spend a growing amount of time online. For instance, Boogaloo-related chatter in various gun-rights and militia enthusiast communities as well as message boards catered to violent racial conspiracies has surged on both Reddit and 4Chan, with calls urging followers to amass arms in anticipation of a second civil war and fight against perceived civil liberties-violating lockdowns.927 Extremists are also using bots to spread misinformation on scientifically baseless conspiracy theories about the virus to fuel political polarisation.928 A number of terrorist suspects have been charged and arrested during this period, with evidence indicating they have further radicalised themselves as a result of spending an excessive amount of time online.929

Responses

Addressing the extreme right threat has proven deeply complicated for states. Given the bleed into the political mainstream that can often be found, the problem becomes very difficult to isolate and eradicate in the same way that violent Islamist ideologies can be targeted.930 While some programmes have been developed to deradicalise or grapple with at-risk individuals, efforts to deal with the underlying causes that leave people prone to exploring such extremist ideologies remain elusive. Similarly, removing extremist content can be complicated by the fact that it echoes mainstream politicians’ views, making it almost impossible to police for social media companies who have to be responsive to local sensitivities which will vary between jurisdictions.

Social Media Crackdown

Nevertheless, social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter have stepped up their bans on content, deployed more aggressive algorithms to take-down material, and expanded their efforts to focus not just on violent organisations, but also fake news that has proliferated on their platforms.931 Recently, Facebook moved to ban all content and accounts promoting QAnon material, recognising the level of influence this movement has on swaying American voters’ sentiment through misinformation.932 The platform’s more aggressive policies were showcased in the wake of the detention of a group of extremists planning to kidnap Michigan Governor Whitman, when it was revealed that Facebook had alerted the authorities to the group’s online activities some six months prior to their arrests.933

One result of the such removals by social media companies is the migration of extreme right groups to other platforms. TikTok, for example, has become a particular target for QAnon conspiracy theories and their followers, especially in the lead up to the November US Presidential Election. In June, videos with #wwg1wga, an acronym for “where we go one, we go all”, a QAnon slogan, garnered more than 100 million views to date. While TikTok has also joined other big social media companies in banning extremist content and hashtags largely related to QAnon (e.g., #wwg1wga or qanon) is no longer searchable on its platform and have largely dwindled, QAnon adherents continue using TikTok to promote pro-Trump videos, QAnon conspiracy theories, COVID-19 and BLM disinformation. This habit of migrating across platforms is a common modus operandi amongst various extremist ideological camps.

What is more particular to the extreme right, however, and has raised issues the world over, is the occasional spill-over between parts of the extreme right’s ideological edge, and mainstream political parties. The problem is a particularly acute one for online companies, as it can mean they find themselves having to block mainstream political organisations or leaders for posting material which falls foul of their community guidelines. For Twitter and Facebook this has meant controlling the output of the President of the US.934 The problem is one that is not exclusive to the west, however, with Indian politicians also regularly falling foul.935 This problem came into particular focus last year given the high-profile US elections but is likely to be a consistent issue with extreme right, far right or populist politicians’ output going forwards.

Managing Problems at Home

Governments have increasingly sought to proscribe extreme right groups, though this has so far been patchy rather than systematic. In 2020, the United States proscribed the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM),936 the UK Feuerkrieg Division (FKD) and Sonnenkrieg Division (SKD),937 and Germany Combat 18938 and Der Fluegel [which translates as ‘the wing’ and is a radical wing of the far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD)].939 There is a heated debate in the US about adding more of the constellation of extreme right-wing groups to lists managed by domestic security agencies like the FBI or DHS, but this has collided with the political discourse in the US where the Trump administration has preferred to repeatedly highlight the impact of extreme left-groups like Antifa. The administration’s own security forces, however, seem divided on the menace of such groups, with a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report not mentioning Antifa at all and instead focusing on white supremacists as the biggest threat faced by the United States.940

There is also a growing incidence of security forces being accused of extreme right biases or outright membership. While this is not a new problem, it gained new salience last year with a number of cases in Europe and North America. In June, the UK’s Metropolitan Police charged a 21-year-old officer for membership of banned extreme right-wing group National Action.941 In the US, Private Ethan Meltzer was arrested and charged with membership of a Satanist-Neo-Nazi group, the Order of the Nine Angels (O9A), and planning an attack in advance of the group’s ideology against his own unit.942 Other disrupted extreme right-wing plots in the US were made up of cells which included veterans, including the cell planning to kidnap Governor Witmer.943 In Canada, an undercover investigation led to the exposure of an Army engineer who was a reported member of The Base.944 Dramatically highlighting the severity of the threat in Germany, the country disbanded a company within the army’s elite Special Command Forces (KSK) due to allegations of infiltration by right-wing extremists.945 In North-Rhine Westphalia, 29 police officers were dismissed for sharing Nazi imagery online, while a former officer and his wife in Berlin were charged with sending threatening emails to well-known figures of immigrant background.946 Germany’s Military Counter Intelligence Service has reported that it believes some 600 soldiers serving in the army have extreme right-wing sympathies.947

Outlook

While yet to achieve the gravitational power and structure of violent Islamist threats, there has been a steady patter of incidents linked to the extreme right over the past year, which points to a growing and globalising problem. For example, the expulsion by Ukraine of two American members of Atomwaffen division who were reportedly seeking to join the white supremacist Azov Battalion.948 This is not a new phenomenon, but its persistence suggests the beginning of a transnational movement of individuals built around practical potential terrorist training.949 This has also migrated to other battlefields. In October last year, the leader of the French extreme-right group Zouaves Paris, Marc de Cacqueray-Valmenier, announced on social media that he had left to fight alongside the Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict against Azerbaijan.950 The US’ decision to proscribe the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) also came after reports of the group providing training to German and Scandinavian extreme right-wing terrorists.951 Online, the links are clear, with groups regularly moving across borders and bringing together like-minded extremists together. An investigation into the group The Base uncovered the fact the group was led by an American living in St Petersburg, who was actively seeking to recruit UK and US teenagers.952 The confluence of many of these links to Russia, as well as activity by Russian government actors online to stir up race as an issue during the US election, all points to a nexus which is worth watching given the potential geopolitical consequences.

A further worrying feature which requires close monitoring is the growing confluence of extreme right and violent Islamist ideologies online. Again, while not new, it is notable during this past year that a growing number of cases have been disrupted where extreme right networks openly praise or emulate violent Islamist group activity. Ethan Melzer, for example, had reportedly disclosed sensitive information to al-Qaeda, and praised the Islamic State’s brutality.953 The case of the two Boogaloo Bois elements willing to provide material support for Hamas shows their ideological malleability. In Europe, extreme right online networks now regularly employ the same propaganda strategies as the Islamic State (IS) to recruit into their ranks, something that is unsurprising given their shared common enmity towards western governments. This confluence points to a potential danger worth monitoring going forwards, especially given the far more mature violent Islamist support networks that exist.

There is a perception in the analytical community that a major driver of the current surge in extreme right-wing violent activity is linked to the US Presidential Election and President Trump’s sometimes ambiguous statements about extreme right groups in the US. This suggests that last year’s presidential election might act as a breakwater (or accelerant) of the current problems. Yet, it is instructive to note that 2020 marked the 25th anniversary since the Oklahoma City Bombing in the US, an attack carried out by Timothy McVeigh, a US Patriot figure still venerated amongst the US’ extreme right, libertarian and anti-government movement. While things appeared to become more confrontational and aggressive during President Trump’s tenure, it is not clear that the broader trajectory is linked to him. This suggests a problem which has rooted itself in western societies.

Finally, the problem of political bleed between the extreme right and far-right politics (and even mainstream right-wing politics in some contexts) is going to continue to make it very difficult for security forces to effectively deal with the problems of the extreme right. The proximity of ideologies and ideologues points to a problem which governments will struggle to legislate against and security forces will consequently find difficult to move against. This problem will likely only become sharper going forwards given the increasingly polarised political conversation in most western countries.

About The Authors

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior 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 israffaello@ntu.edu.sg.

Kyler Ong is an Associate 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. She can be reached at iskylerong@ntu.edu.sg.

891 These include perpetrators such as William John Shutt, John Timothy Ernest, Patrick Crusius, Philip Manshaus, Stephan Balliet, and Filip Golon Bednarcyzk. In each case, there is clear evidence that the individuals involved knew and praised Brenton Tarrant’s terrible act.

892 In terms of sheer volume of violence, Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 massacre in Norway marked an earlier high point that was in fact glowingly cited by the Christchurch murderer.

893 Seth G. Jones, Catrina Doxsee, Nicholas Harrington, Grace Hwang and James Suber, “The War Comes Home. The Evolution of Domestic Terrorism in the United States,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, October 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/war-comes-homeevolution-domestic-terrorism-united-states

894 “Homeland Threat Assessment,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security, October 2020, https://www.dhs.gov/publication/2020-homelandthreat-assessment p.18.

895 Whilst not all Boogaloo adherents are white supremacists, some clearly are. Broadly speaking, adherents to this movement espouse the need to overthrow the government through armed action. QAnon adherents believe that there’s a “deep state” comprising Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and George Soros plotting a coup d’état against Donald Trump. This “deep state”, it is alleged, is also involved in an international child sex trafficking ring that works for the benefit of the global elite. For further reading on each group, please see Leah Sottile, “The Chaos Agents,” New York Times, August 19 2020 (for Boogaloo) https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/08/19/magazine/boogaloo.html , or Adrienne LaFrance, “The Prophecies of Q,” The Atlantic, June 2020 (for QAnon) https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/qanon-nothing-can-stop-what-is-coming/610567

896 Michael Kosnar and Phil Helsel, “FBI says man killed in Missouri wanted to bomb hospital amid coronavirus epidemic,” NBC News, March 26, 2020 https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/fbi-says-man-killed-missouri-wanted-bomb-hospital-amid-coronavirus-n1169166

897 “Train operator at Port of Los Angeles charged with derailing locomotive near US Navy’s hospital ship Mercy,” US Department of Justice Press Release, April 1, 2020 https://www.justice.gov/usaocdca/pr/train-operator-port-los-angeles-chargedderailing-locomotive-near-us-navy-s-hospital

898 Anna Orso and Ellie Rushing, “White Supremacists and Other Extremist Groups Are Using Protests and a Pandemic to Amplify Their Message,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 13, 2020, https://www.inquirer.com/news/whitesupremacistextremists-reopen-rallies-black-lives-matter-protests20200613.html

899 Maura Dolan, Richard Winton and Anita Chabria, “Suspect in Killing of 2 Bay Area Officers Tied to Right-Wing ‘Boogaloo’ Group, Prosecutors Alleged,” Los Angeles Times, June 16, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-06-16/suspects-charged-killing-santa-cruz-cop-andoakland-federal-officer

900 United States of America v. Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta, Continuation of a Criminal Complaint, Case No. 1:20-mj-416-SJB, https://www.justice.gov/usao-wdmi/pressrelease/file/1326161/download ; Kelly Weill, “Sixteen ‘Boogaloo’ Followers Have Been Busted in 7 Days,” Daily Beast, October 9, 2020, https://www.thedailybeast.com/with-the-govgretchen-whitmer-busts-16-boogaloo-followershave-been-busted-in-7-days?ref=scroll

901 The EU TE-SAT report for instance reported six right-wing terrorist attacks and plots in 2019, whilst another independent report by the University of Oslo’s Center for Research on Extremism noted a total of 116 right-wing violent events in Western Europe in the same year. See European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation, “European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2020,” June 23, 2020, https://www.europol.europa.eu/activitiesservices/main-reports/european-union-terrorismsituation-and-trend-report-te-sat-2020 , p.18; Jacob Aasland Ravndal, Sofia Lygren, Anders Ravik Jupskås and Tore Bjørgo, “RTV Trend Report 2020. Right-Wing Terrorism and Violence in Western Europe, 1990-2019,” 2020, https://www.sv.uio.no/crex/english/groups/rtvdataset/rtv_trend_report_2020.pdf

902 Ravndal et al., “RTV Trend Report 2020. RightWing Terrorism and Violence in Western Europe, 1990-2019,” p.8.

903 Agence France-Presse (AFP), “German FarRight Arrests Reveal Plot to Attack Multiple Mosques,” The Guardian, February 17, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/17/german-far-right-arrests-reveal-multiple-mosqueattacks-plot ; Philip Oltermann and Kate Connolly, “Germany Shooting: Far-Right Gunman Kills 10 in Hanau,” The Guardian, February 20, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/19/shooting-germany-hanau-dead-several-people-shishanear-frankfurt

904 “Germany charges 12 in far-right ‘terror’ plot: reports,” DW, November 12, 2020 https://www.dw.com/en/germany-charges-12-in-farright-terror-plot-reports/a-55574323

905 Chris Baynes, “Right-Wing Terrorist Plot to Kill French President Foiled,” Daily Mercury, July 4, 2017, https://www.dailymercury.com.au/news/rightwing-terrorist-plot-kill-french-president-fo/3196432/

906 “Six Arrested over Far-Right Anti-Macron Plot,” Radio France Internationale (RFI), November 6, 2018, https://www.rfi.fr/en/20181106-six-arrestedover-far-right-anti-macron-plot

907 “French Far-Right Plot to Attack Mosques, Migrants, Politicians Uncovered,” RFI, October 18, 2017, https://www.rfi.fr/en/france/20171018-french-far-right-plot-attack-mosques-migrants-politicians-uncovered

908 “Two French Women Charged Over Racist Stabbing of Veiled Muslims,” Al Jazeera, October 22, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/22/two-french-women-charged-over-racist-stabbing-of-veiled-muslim

909 It is worth mentioning that outside the identitarian badge, the individual in question was not clearly understood to be launching a terrorist attack. See “Avignon: un homme armé abattu par la police, la piste terrorist écartée,” Le Monde, October 30, 2020 https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2020/10/30/a
vignon-un-homme-arme-abattu-par-la-police-lapiste-terroriste-ecartee_6057835_3224.html

910 U.K. Home Office, “Operation of Police Powers Under the Terrorism Act 2000 and Subsequent Legislation: Arrests, Outcomes, and Stop and Search. Great Britain, Financial Year Ending March 2020,” https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/891341/police-powers-terrorism-mar2020-hosb1520.pdf p.18.

911 Address by MI5 Director General Ken McCallum, October 14, 2020, https://www.mi5.gov.uk/news/director-general-kenmccallum-makes-first-public-address

912 Paul Karp, “ASIO Reveals Up to 40% of Its Counter-Terrorism Cases Involve Far-Right Violent Extremism,” The Guardian, September 22, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/australianews/2020/sep/22/asio-reveals-up-to-40-of-itscounter-terrorism-cases-involve-far-right-violent-extremism

913 Ibid.; Daniel Hurst, “US-inspired Rightwing Extremism an ‘Insidious’ Threat to Australia, Study Finds,” The Guardian, October 9, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/australianews/2020/oct/09/us-inspired-rightwing-extremism-an-insidious-threat-to-australia-study-finds ; Henry Storey, “Is Australia Taking the Threat of Right-wing Terrorism Seriously?” The Diplomat, April 10, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/is-australia-taking-the-threat-of-right-wing-terrorism-seriously

914 “QAnon’s rise in Japan shows conspiracy theory’s global spread,” The Straits Times, November 30, 2020, https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/qanons-rise-in-japan-shows-conspiracy-theorys-global-spread

915 Raffaello Pantucci and Kyler Ong, “Incels and Terrorism: Sexual Deprivation as Security Threat,” S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies Commentaries, October 6, 2020, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/rsis-publication/icpvtr/incelsand-terrorism-sexual-deprivation-as-securitythreat/#.X4U7bmczblw

916 Simon Cottee, “Canada May Host the World’s First Incel Show Trial,” Foreign Policy, June 1, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/06/01/canadamayhost-the-worlds-first-incel-show-trial/

917 Nicole Brockbank, “Alex Minassian Reveals Details of Toronto Van Attack in Video of Police Interview,” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), September 27, 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/alekminassian-police-interview-1.5298021

918 Tobias Rathjen, the Hanau mass shooter, demonstrated inherent misogyny, QAnon-esque conspiracy leanings, as well as a twisted interpretation of Inceldom, where he blamed his inability to find a romantic partner on the government. See Blyth Crawford and Florence Keen, “The Hanau Terrorist Attack: How Race and Conspiracy Theories Are Fueling Global Far-Right Violence,” Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) Sentinel 13, no. 3 (March 2020), https://ctc.usma.edu/wpcontent/uploads/2020/03/CTC-SENTINEL032020.pdf , p.1-8.

919 “What Is QAnon? What We Know About the Conspiracy Theory,” Wall Street Journal, October 15, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/what-isqanon-what-we-know-about-the-conspiracy-theory11597694801 ; Clare Foran, “GOP Candidate Who Embraced QAnon Conspiracy Theory Wins Georgia Runoff, CNN Projects,” Cable News Network (CNN), August 12, 2020, https://edition.cnn.com/2020/08/11/politics/marjorietaylor-greene-georgia-runoff-qanon-conspiracytheory/index.html

920 “Two Self-Described ‘Boogaloo Bois’ Charged with Attempting to Provide Material Support to Hamas,” Department of Justice, September 4, 2020, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/two-selfdescribed-boogaloo-bois-charged-attemptingprovide-material-support-hamas

921 “Member States Concerned by the Growing and Increasingly Transnational Threat of Extreme Right Wing Terrorism,” CTED, p.2.

922 Anti-Defamation League (ADL), ADL H.E.A.T. Map, accessed 13 October 2020 https://www.adl.org/education-andresources/resource-knowledge-base/adl-heat-map

923 Daniel De Simone, “Harry Vaughan: House of Lords Clerk’s Son a ‘Neo-Nazi Satanist’,” British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), October 16, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london54568916

924 Patrik Hermansson, “Hitler Youths. The Rise of Teenage Far-Right Terrorists,” Hope Not Hate, September 2020, https://www.hopenothate.org.uk/wpcontent/uploads/2020/09/HnH_Hitler-Youthsreport_2020-09-v2.pdf

925 Daniel De Simone, “UK Nazi Satanist Group Should Be Outlawed, Campaigners Urge,” BBC, March 2, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk51682760

926 Michael Kunzelman and Jari Tanner, “He Led a Neo-Nazi Group Linked to Bomb Plots. He was 13,” The Associated Press, April 11, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/7067c03e1af0b157be7c15888cbe8c27

927 Joel Finkelstein, John K. Donohue, Alex Goldenberg, Jason Baumgartner, John Farmer, Savvas Zannettou and Jeremy Blackburn, “COVID19, Conspiracy and Contagious Sedition. A Case Study on the MilitiaSphere,” The Network Contagion Research Institute, https://ncri.io/reports/covid-19-conspiracy-and-contagious-sedition-a-case-studyon-the-militia-sphere/ , p.5-6.

928 “Member States Concerned by the Growing and Increasingly Transnational Threat of Extreme RightWing Terrorism,” CTED, p.1.

929 This has been more clearly visible on the violent Islamist end of the scale with a number of cases in courts in Europe showing evidence of individuals having further radicalised during lockdown. See BBC, “Boy, 15, Found Not Guilty of Terror Plot,” October 9, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/ukengland-hampshire-54450013; The Catalan News Agency, “Man Arrested in Barcelona for Allegedly Plotting Terrorist Attack,” May 8, 2020, https://www.catalannews.com/societyscience/item/man-arrested-in-barcelona-forallegedly-plotting-terrorist-attack ; Emily Pennink, “Ilford Extremist Who Shared ‘Attack, Attack’ Video in Group Chat Found Guilty of Terrorism,” Ilford Recorder, October 20, 2020, https://www.ilfordrecorder.co.uk/news/crimecourt/royal-festival-hall-extremist-guilty-of-terrorism1-6892474

930 It should be noted this is something that is equally problematic in Asia, where far right political parties often appeal to an ethno-nationalist political base – for example, Hindutva in India’s relationship to the ruling BJP Party, or the Myanmar government’s relationship with Buddhist extremists.

931 CTED, “Member States Concerned by the Growing and Increasingly Transnational Threat of Extreme Right-Wing Terrorism,” p.5.

932 “Facebook Bans QAnon Conspiracy Theory Accounts Across All Platforms,” BBC, October 6, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada54443878

933 Kurt Wagner and Christian Berthelsen, “Facebook Approached FBI About Michigan Militia Six Months Ago,” Bloomberg, October 9, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-09/facebook-approached-fbi-about-michigan-militia-six-months-ago

934 Jessica Bursztynsky, “Facebook, Twitter Block Trump Post That Falsely Claims Coronavirus Is Less Deadly than Flu,” Consumer News and Business Channel (CNBC), October 6, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/10/06/facebookremoves-trump-post-falsely-comparing-coronavirusand-the-flu.html

935 Newley Purnell and Jeff Horwitz, “Facebook’s Hate-Speech Rules Collide with Indian Politics,” Wall Street Journal, August 14, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-hate-speechindia-politics-muslim-hindu-modi-zuckerberg11597423346

936 Nathan A. Sales, “Designation of the Russian Imperial Movement,” U.S. Department of State, April 6, 2020, https://www.state.gov/designation-ofthe-russian-imperial-movement/ ; Arie Perliger, “The ‘Domestic Terrorist’ Designation Won’t Stop Extremism,” The Conversation, June 29, 2020, https://theconversation.com/the-domestic-terroristdesignation-wont-stop-extremism-141258

937 “Proscribed Terrorist Organisations,” U.K. Home Office, July 17, 2020, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/901434/20200717_Proscription.pdf

938 “Raids in 6 states as Germany bans ‘Combat 18’ neo-Nazi group,” DW, January 23, 2020 https://www.dw.com/en/raids-in-6-states-asgermany-bans-combat-18-neo-nazi-group/a52116504

939 Joseph Nasr, “Germany Designates Radical Wing of Far-Right AfD as “Extremist Entity’,” Reuters, March 12, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-germanysecurity-idUSKBN20Z1SW

940 Betsy Woodruff Swan, “DHS draft document: White Supremacists are greatest terror threat,” Politico, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/09/04/whitesupremacists-terror-threat-dhs-409236

941 Nadeem Badshah and Vikram Dodd, “Met Police Officer Charged with Belonging to Far-right Terror Group,” The Guardian, July 9, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/uknews/2020/jul/09/met-police-officer-charged-withbelonging-to-far-right-terror-group

942 U.S. Department of Justice, “U.S. Army Soldier Charged with Terrorism Offenses for Planning Deadly Ambush on Service Members in His Unit,” June 22, 2020, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/usarmy-soldier-charged-terrorism-offenses-planning-deadly-ambush-service-members-his-unit

943 Meghann Myers, “Far-Right Groups Like the ‘Boogaloo’ and ‘O9A’ Continue to Attract Troops and Veterans,” Military Times, June 23, 2020, https://www.militarytimes.com/news/yourmilitary/2020/06/23/far-right-groups-like-theboogaloo-and-o9a-continue-to-attract-troops-and-veterans/

944 “Far-Right Infiltration of Canada’s Military Poses a Serious Threat, Says Winnipeg Reporter,” CBC Radio, September 18, 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/radio/day6/ruth-bader-ginsburgdead-at-87-the-far-right-in-canada-s-military-supermario-at-35-and-more-1.5728537/far-rightinfiltration-of-canada-s-military-poses-a-serious-threat-says-winnipeg-reporter-1.5728539

945 “KSK: German Special Forces Company Dissolved Due to Far-Right Concerns,” Deutsche Welle, July 30, 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/kskgerman-special-forces-company-dissolved-due-tofar-right-concerns/a-54386661

946 “Germany Far-Right: Police Suspended for Sharing Neo-Nazi Images,” BBC, September 16, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe54174393

947 AFP, “Germany to Present Report on Far-Right Extremism in Police,” Bangkok Post, October 6, 2020, https://www.bangkokpost.com/world/1997487/germany-to-present-report-on-far-right-extremism-in-police

948 Christopher Miller, “Ukraine Deported Two American Members of A NeoNazi Group Who Tried to Join a Far-Right Military Unit for ‘Combat Experience’,” Buzzfeed News, October 8, 2020, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/christopherm51/ukraine-deports-american-neo-nazi-atomwaffendivision

949 Tim Lister, “The Nexus Between Right-Wing Extremism in the United States and Ukraine,” CTC Sentinel 13, no. 4 (April 2020), https://ctc.usma.edu/the-nexus-between-far-rightextremists-in-the-united-states-and-ukraine/ , p.30-41

950 “Extrême droite: le patron des Zouaves Paris part combattre au Haut-Karabakh,” La Gazetteaz, October 30, 2020 https://www.lagazetteaz.fr/news/politique/2975.html

951 Kyler Ong and Raffaello Pantucci, “From Fringe to Mainstram: The Extreme Rightwing in Europe,” Observer Research Foundation, July 1, 2020,
https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/fringemainstream-extreme-rightwing-europe-68848/

952 Daniel De Simone, Andrei Soshnikov and Ali Winston, “Neo-Nazi Rinaldo Nazzaro Running US Militant Group The Base from Russia,” BBC, January 24, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-51236915

953 U.S. Department of Justice, “U.S. Army Soldier Charged with Terrorism Offenses for Planning Deadly Ambush on Service Members in His Unit.”

Two more longer pieces to get the year going, this time part of my new institutional home ICPVTR at RSIS‘s annual Counter-Terrorist Trends and Analysis (CTTA) which provides an overview of the threat picture in a series of jurisdictions over the past year with some brief thoughts about where things might go. I worked with colleagues Nodir and Kyler separately on two of the pieces, looking at Central Asia and the Extreme Right Wing respectively. Will post both, but would encourage people to read the whole document as it provides a useful overview of threats around the region. First up, however, the Central Asia paper with Nodir.

Central Asia

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan

There were no reported terror attacks in Central Asia (referring to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) in 2020, although the threat of terrorism and radicalisation persisted in the region. The current jihadist threat to Central Asia can be categorised in three ways: i) threats associated with Central Asian nationals fighting in the Afghan and Syrian conflicts and the security implications posed by their potential return home or move to a third country to continue engaging in violent activities; ii) prospective attacks orchestrated by self-radicalised individuals or cells of supporters within Central Asia; and iii) radicalisation of members of Central Asian diaspora communities and their involvement in terror plots.

Central Asian fighters in Syria and Afghanistan

Official estimates indicate that up to 5,650 individuals from the region – 2,000 Tajik, 2,000 Uzbek, 850 Kyrgyz and 800 Kazakh nationals respectively – have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside jihadist groups to date.698 Some foreign newspapers and international organisations have also alluded to the potential presence of fighters from Turkmenistan in the Syrian conflict, although officials in Ashgabat have refrained thus far from publicly addressing the issue.699

Based on observations of online materials released by Central Asian jihadists based in Syria and Iraq, it appears that large segments of Kazakh and Tajik operatives are fighting alongside IS, while Kyrgyz and Uzbek nationals appear to have mostly aligned themselves with Al Qaeda-linked groups.700 To date, an estimated 1,633 (29 percent) of the reported Central Asian nationals have been killed in battle, while another 1,715 (30 percent) individuals, comprising mostly women and children, have been captured (or surrendered) and placed in detention facilities across Syria and Iraq.701 As far as is known, the remaining IS fighters from the region have either gone into hiding or are scattered across ungoverned parts of Syria and Iraq continuing fighting. Others have relocated to conflict zones elsewhere. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda-linked Central Asian groups remain active in the north of Syria.

In Afghanistan, Central Asian fighters continue to appear occasionally, with local authorities regularly referencing their presence. For example, in a November 2020 address at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Leaders’ Summit, Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) Director Jumakhon Giyosov informed that his organisation, a permanent body within the SCO that focuses on terrorist issues, had received intelligence of growing numbers of Central Asian fighters in northern Afghanistan.702 A threat appeared to materialise just over a week later, when a Tajik-led Taliban cell in Badakhshan attacked a police station near the Tajik border, killing 19 Afghan policemen. Following the attack, the cell’s leader made threatening comments in a propaganda video towards Tajikistan, suggesting the group may seek to launch attacks there too.703 Additional threats from Tajik fighters affiliated to the Taliban were also visible elsewhere in Afghanistan, with media reports in August identifying four Tajik nationals as members of a cell involved in an IS-claimed attack on a prison in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad.704

IS’ External Operations Arm Has Weakened

IS-linked Central Asian nationals presently detained in Kurdish prisons include prominent Tajik members of the “Amniyat alKharji” (or “Emni”) – IS’ external operations arm dedicated to organising terrorist attacks outside of Syria and Iraq. In January 2020, Tajik prosecutors revealed that two highranking Tajik IS militants, Parviz Saidrakhmonov (“Abu Dovud”) and Tojiddin Nazarov (“Abu Osama Noraki”), were being held in Syrian prisons, along with several other Tajik IS militants, following capture by Kurdish forces.705 The duo were wanted in Russia and Tajikistan respectively for their alleged links to a number of terror plots in both countries. Swedish authorities claimed the two militants are also part of a Syriabased IS attack network reported to be behind the 2017 Stockholm truck attack.706 Their extradition is still being sought.

There have also been conflicting reports on the fate of Gulmurod Khalimov, Tajikistan‘s former police special operations colonel, who defected to IS in May 2015, and was later promoted as the group‘s ‘War Minister’ in Syria.707 In August 2020, Tajikistan’s Minister of Internal Affairs, Ramazon Rahimzoda Hamro, stated that some IS Tajik fighters who had returned home from Syria testified that Khalimov and his family had been killed in an air strike in Syria.708 However, the minister highlighted that without hard evidence, such testimonies were insufficient to officially declare Khalimov as dead. Tajik authorities had earlier alleged that Khalimov and some of his associates could have relocated to the northeastern Afghan province of Badakhshan.709 In October 2020, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) announced the inclusion of Khalimov in its updated sanctions list, suggesting that official confirmation of his death remains elusive.710

The possible loss of senior figures such as Saidrakhmanov, Nazarov and Khalimov highlights the degree to which IS’ core cadre of Tajik operatives appears to have been weakened. Nonetheless, the recent detention of Tajik nationals over IS-linked terror plots in countries such as Germany and Albania has shown that IS remains connected to its Tajik support base, and is still able to direct supporters to carry out attacks, including, for example by providing them with the necessary operational guidance through dedicated online tutorials or communications via encrypted Internet applications. Throughout the year, the group also continued to produce propaganda material aimed at its Central Asian constituency.

KTJ Stuck in a Rivalry Between HTS and HAD

Al-Qaeda-linked Central Asian combat units such as Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ) and Katibat Imam Al Bukhari (KIB) have remained active in Syria. Both groups, operating under the umbrella of the Al Qaeda-linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist alliance, are predominantly made up of ethnic Uzbek fighters from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

In 2020, both KTJ and KTB were caught in the middle of escalating tensions between HTS, the dominant Islamist militant group in Idlib, and Hurras ad-Din (HAD), one of several other jihadist factions operating in the area. HAD is currently Al Qaeda’s main affiliate in Syria. In June 2020, KTJ’s founder and former leader, “Abu Saloh”, along with two accomplices, defected to Jabhat Ansar al-Din (JAD), a newly-formed jihadist faction closely aligned with HAD.711 Prior to 2016, when it formally severed ties with the global jihadist group, HTS’ predecessor al Nusra Front had been regarded as the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda, and they had fought together under the same umbrella. HAD and HTS have since fallen out.

Since HAD’s inception, hardline elements have criticised HTS, arguing it had abandoned the Al Qaeda agenda, and was alienating itself further by showing a willingness to endorse the ceasefire agreements over Idlib put forward by Turkey and Russia. HAD and other Al Qaeda-linked factions have rejected the Idlib agreement, which they view as “a conspiracy of the occupiers”.712 The accusation, it appears, has undermined HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani’s authority and inspired some of the more hardline factions within HTS to break away from the group.713

Abu Saloh’s defection to JAD triggered a larger migration of fighters. Following in his stead, around 50 KTJ members defected to JAD.714 Al-Julani would later respond to these defections by launching a manhunt for Abu Saloh and other defectors. Soon after, Abu Saloh and the other dissenting fighters were arrested and jailed by HTS in Idlib. Some media reports have speculated that Abu Saloh’s defection might have occurred after the KTJ’s new leadership accused him of stealing a significant amount of money from the baytumal (common budget) of the group.715 Regardless of the true motive, Abu Saloh’s arrest was a significant coup for al Julani. Had he gone unpunished, it could have inspired more defections from KTJ as well as possibly precipitated a fracturing of HTS. Later, al-Julani announced that Abu Saloh and his accomplices could be released, on condition they agreed to return to the HTS fold. Failing this, the HTS leader threatened to charge and punish Abu Saloh for a series of crimes, including embezzlement of group funds and property as well as apostasy.716 His ultimate fate remains unknown.

Abu Saloh’s arrest came as he was stepping back from a leadership role in KTJ. In April 2019, he announced his resignation as leader of the group “to focus on recruitment and fundraising following an injury in a terrorist operation”.717 At the same time, he has maintained a high degree of visibility online, continuing his radical preaching activities under KTJ’s banner and endorsing Al Qaeda’s ideology. Despite his present troubles, some of Abu Saloh’s audio and video preaching materials still exist on the KTJ’s website.

Following its recent leadership reshuffle, some new figures have emerged within KTJ’s upper echelon. The group’s online propaganda materials have introduced “Abdul Aziz” as a successor to Abu Saloh. While referencing his family name as “Khikmatov”, a UN report disclosed that he had fought alongside the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), the Al Qaeda-linked Central Asian group fighting in Afghanistan, for close to two decades prior to joining KTJ in Syria.718 It was later reported that Abu Saloh’s role as the group’s key ideologue was taken over by Akhliddin Novkatiy (Navqotiy), who reportedly arrived from Turkey at the personal invitation of Abdul Aziz.719 The “Navqotiy” name is synonymous with the southern Kyrgyz town of Novqat (or Nookat), hinting it could be his original birthplace. As the new ideological leader of the group, Navqotiy has appeared in a series of audio and video propaganda lectures.

KIB and Other Central Asian Groups in Syria/Afghanistan

KIB is assessed in UN reporting to have a total of 220 fighters in Syria, while about 70 fighters from its military wing are active in Afghanistan.720 In Syria, KIB together with other groups such as KTJ and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) have played a crucial role in defending HTS’ territorial positions in Idlib from the Syrian government’s offensives. KIB’s Afghan wing, while known to operate under the umbrella of the Taliban, has maintained close contact with its central core in Syria.721 It conducts militant operations against Afghan government forces in Faryab and Jowzjan provinces, where ethnic Uzbeks constitute a large portion of the indigenous population. According to data from the United Nations Monitoring Team, KIB’s Afghan wing leader Jumaboi is reported to receive funding from the group’s cell in Istanbul, Turkey via the hawala system.722

In July 2020, KIB released photos on its Telegram channel in which it claimed to have undertaken a joint operation with the Taliban that led to the capture of several Afghan government soldiers.723 Soon after, however, this claim was disputed by the Taliban’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, who countered that the footage circulated by KIB had been stolen from the Taliban’s archive and falsified by “anti-peace elements for
propaganda”.724 It is difficult to interpret this divergence in claims. Notwithstanding KIB overall leader Abu Yusuf Muhajir’s welcoming of the Taliban’s peace agreement with the United States, which he described as “the great victory of the Islamic Ummah”, some elements within KIB clearly oppose the pact.725 Other Central Asian groups based in Afghanistan include the IJU, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and Jamaat Ansarullah (JA). These groups continue operating under the banner of the Taliban, while receiving sanctuary, protection, and training from the movement in return. Their status, however, could be thrown into doubt if the Taliban follows through on its agreement to stop foreign groups from using Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks.

Terrorist Developments Within Central Asia

Despite the global shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, terrorist activities have persisted in many parts of the world, including Central Asia. In 2020, Central Asian countries continued to foil attack plots and arrest several suspected jihadists. In October, Kazakh authorities revealed they had thwarted five terrorist attacks since the beginning of the year, resulting in the arrest of ten suspects.726 The foiled attacks included a reported plot by an IS supporter planning to target mass gatherings with grenades during the Navruz spring festival in Almaty. Another reported plot involved an IS supporter planning to detonate an explosive device in the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan. Both plots were thwarted in March 2020.727

Uzbekistan saw a relative increase in arrests for terrorist recruitment and funding compared to 2019. Uzbek authorities in June 2020 arrested 15 residents in Surkhandarya province, who were reportedly part of an extremist recruitment and fundraising cell linked to KTJ.728 The cell’s ringleader was reportedly radicalised while working as a seasonal worker in Russia, and later recruited members from among his compatriots. While in Russia, the cell members regularly met up to listen to and discuss online audio and video propaganda preached by extremist ideologues such as Abu Saloh, Abdulloh Zufar, and Sodiq Samarqandiy. The suspects, all of whom were reportedly detained upon their return home, were allegedly planning to travel to Syria and had also sent money there to finance KTJ’s activities.729

A similar case emerged in the Uzbek province of Jizzakh, where counterterrorism agencies arrested a group of 23 young men reportedly part of a virtual extremist cell linked to KTJ. The leader of the cell had reportedly been radicalised by extremist ideologies in Turkey and, in turn, began recruiting via the Odnoklassniki and Telegram social networks.730 Later, during two rounds of additional arrests conducted in Tashkent city and Tashkent Province, the police arrested a further 36 men, also with links to KTJ. They had reportedly planned to travel to Syria to fight for the group.731

In August 2020, Tajik authorities revealed that in the first half of the year, the country’s counterterrorism agencies had thwarted two terrorist plots by IS followers targeting police officers in the Rasht and Shakhrinav provinces.732 Authorities used the opportunity of the announcement of the two plots to declare that over the year they had detained 274 people and detected around 900 extremism-related crimes.733

While similar cumulative data is hard to come by in the context of Kyrgyzstan, there was a steady patter of terrorist related activity reported in the country throughout 2020. In February, authorities detained a 23-year-old Kyrgyz citizen who had returned home from abroad intent on recruiting others. The individual had allegedly failed previously to travel to Syria via an unnamed foreign country.734 In October, a foreign individual was arrested, having entered the country also reportedly with the intent to partake in radicalisation activities. He had previously served time for terrorism offences in another Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) country.735 Two others detained in the same month had reportedly undertaken robberies in the southwestern Jalal-Abad Province on behalf of an unnamed militant group. Both had previously fought in Syria for the same group, before returning to Kyrgyzstan.736

Overall, security risks to Central Asia persist, with authorities continuing to report detentions. While the full scope and nature of the terror networks and plots disrupted are rarely made public, strands of reporting repeatedly point to radicalisation taking place in Russia, the significance of social media and regular efforts to send money to Syria.

Central Asia Diaspora Radicalisation Abroad

There continue to be worrying signals of the expansion of a threat from Central Asians outside their home region. More particularly, Central Asian migrant and diaspora communities based in the Republic of Korea, Russia, Turkey, and other parts of Europe, continue to be a target for online jihadi propaganda and recruitment737. In the past year, plots featuring Central Asians were uncovered by authorities in parts of Europe and Russia.

In mid-April 2020, German authorities detained four Tajik nationals over an IS linked terror plot to attack US military facilities and personnel stationed in the country.738 According to the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office, the detainees and their ringleader, who has been in pre-trial custody since his arrest in March 2019, were in a regular contact with two senior IS militants in Syria and Afghanistan, from whom they had reportedly received instructions. While the attacks were not planned for the immediate term, the cell members had already ordered bomb parts online and were stocking up on firearms and ammunition in preparation.739 The reported plan was to target the US air base in Spangdahlem and the NATO AWACS air base near Geilenkirchen, potentially using remote-controlled drones or paragliders armed with explosives.740 Reports also suggested that the individuals had initially sought to return to Tajikistan to launch attacks, but had been re-directed to Europe by their external handlers.741

The detainees were also accused of raising and channeling funds for IS’ core operations in Syria. As part of these fundraising missions, they had reportedly partaken in a murder-for-hire operation in Albania and collected money from Chechens from France who were working on a construction site in Germany. The team deployed for the attempted contract killing operation in Albania had included two Russian-born Chechens from Austria.

All the suspects involved in the plot to attack the US air bases were Tajik citizens residing in Germany as migrants, although much remains unclear about their exact path towards radicalisation. It is believed that none had previously travelled to jihadist conflict zones. The said plot was announced shortly before authorities in Poland detained another group of four Tajiks, reportedly also connected to IS. Along with a fifth individual, who was detained later, they were deported to Tajikistan in September.742 The details of this group’s suspected activities remain sketchy, though they were reportedly accused of recruiting others and potentially being linked to another extremist arrested by Polish authorities in December 2019.743 In October, an IS-linked Tajik national who had been granted asylum in Greece was arrested following an international search operation.744

As in recent years, Russia in 2020 saw a regular diet of arrests involving Central Asians reportedly plotting terrorist activity in the country. In October, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) disrupted a cell reportedly linked to KTJ which was planning terrorist attacks in Volgograd. The cell members, alleged to be in contact with others in Syria, were seeking to attack government buildings, military personnel residences, enterprises and a famous Motherland Calls statue, possibly using firearms and an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). According to the FSB, two members of the cell, who were migrants from an unnamed Central Asian country, were killed at the scene as they resisted surrender. FSB later arrested the other cell members in operations across Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ufa and Maikop, but did not disclose their nationalities.745 Earlier in July, an IS-linked cell that reportedly included Central Asians was disrupted in Rostov-on-Don. The cell leader was killed in a shoot-out with authorities, with narcotics reported subsequently found alongside weapons.746

Most other arrests during the year were, however, of a smaller scale involving isolated individuals. For example, in October, the FSB in Moscow arrested a Central Asian planning an explosion in the city.747 Three months earlier, another individual was shot when he opened fire on officers trying to arrest him. He was reportedly planning a mass shooting in Moscow.748 These arrests, in addition to other arrests and attack plots foiled over the past year, reflect a persistent level of concern by Russian authorities of potential threats from radicalised members of the substantial Central Asian diaspora living within the country.

Responses

On 8 December, Uzbek authorities announced that they brought back 25 women and 73 children from Syria in the latest round of the “Mehr” (‘Kindness’) humanitarian rescue operation.749 However, other countries with similar plans have had to hold back such plans, largely owing to the global pandemic. For example, Tajikistan halted plans to repatriate a group of women and children (about 300) from Syria due to the ongoing lockdowns and other challenges in dealing with the health crisis.750 In spite of this, the relevant governmental and nongovernmental organisations in the three Central Asian states, namely Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, that in recent years have conducted large-scale repatriations, continued to offer the necessary material and social support for the repatriated women and children, to facilitate their reintegration into their respective communities. However, such efforts remain a work in progress given, as various experts have pointed out, transforming the extreme beliefs of some ideologically hardened repatriates has been notoriously slow.

Responses to terrorism have increasingly incorporated soft measures. Governments are tapping on civil society institutions as part of efforts to bolster their populations’ resistance against extremism. For instance, Kazakhstan announced increased funding for projects aimed at preventing online extremism,751 while the government also announced that 13,000 pieces of material propagating extremism and terrorism had been blocked online.752 In Uzbekistan, a police department in Tashkent launched a consultative centre in 2020 as a pilot project. Staffed with experienced religious clerics and theologians, the centre can anonymously arrange consultations for people who find themselves confused about specific religious doctrines – such as jihad – that are often misinterpreted and distorted by extremist groups.753

Regional governments also increasingly sought international collaborations in countering terrorism. During the SCO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) meetings, terrorism was mentioned as a source of mutual concern and, throughout the year, various UN bodies hosted workshops focused on the Central Asian experience. The Uzbek government is planning to host a large conference in 2021 reflecting on the experience of cooperating on a joint regional action plan for countering terrorism. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and UNDP have also collaborated with various youth organisations and civil society institutions around the region on training programmes, reflecting a desire among regional authorities to continue promoting their work related to Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). Central Asian governments have also conducted bilateral exchanges with numerous western states throughout the year, with many championing the region’s particular approach to the repatriation of foreign fighters in Syria as a model to emulate.

However, varying perceptions in the west of the human rights records of some Central Asian states could complicate potential cooperation between the latter and the EU in particular. In Europe, the September repatriation of a group of Tajik nationals accused by Poland of involvement in terrorist activity followed attempts by lawyers to block the repatriations on the basis of human rights concerns that were upheld for some time. Earlier attempts by Sweden to deport Uzbeks who had served time for terrorism offences failed on this same count, suggesting a potential impediment in smooth EU-Central Asia cooperation in particular counterterrorism objectives. All of these issues may become more significant going forward, given the numbers of Central Asians arrested in Europe linked to alleged terrorist activity and the need for greater regional cooperation to effectively manage such threats.

Outlook

The worrying prominence of Central Asian jihadists on the international jihadist scene will persist. While the biggest contingents of Central Asian fighters remain on battlefields in Syria and Afghanistan, the recent disruptions of terror plots and arrests in Europe, in particular, point to a rapidly evolving and expanding threat landscape. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on this problem will be difficult to track, given the lack of access to real-time intelligence and data, although the common history of migrant labour that many of the radicalised Central Asians share, and the likely setbacks this workforce will experience in COVID-blighted economies, could exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. In the near term, Central Asian nationals are likely to remain a significant component of the global jihadist milieu, highlighting the importance of buttressing domestic responses and greater international cooperation in the regional security sphere.

About The Authors

Nodirbek Soliev is a Senior Analyst 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 isnsoliev@ntu.edu.sg.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior 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 israffaello@ntu.edu.sg.

698 i) Tokhir Safar and Mumin Ahmadi, “Istochniki: v Sirii arestovany tadzhikskiye «dzhikhadisty» Abu Dovud i Abu Usama Noraki,” Radio Ozodi – RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, 19 December 2019, https://rus.ozodi.org/a/30332766.html; ii) The figure on Uzbek fighters, was revealed by a counterterrorism officer from Uzbekistan during an Interpol regional experts meeting held in Tbilisi, Georgia in September 2018. The stated figure constitutes the total number of Uzbek militants fighting in armed conflicts abroad, including the Iraqi-Syrian and Afghanistan theatres; iii) “Nuzhno li vozvrashat kyrgyzstantsev iz Sirii. Chto dumayut MID i eksperti?” (‘Is it necessary to repatriate Kyrgyz militants from Syria. What do the Foreign Ministry and experts think?’), Kaktus Media, 1 June 2019, https://kaktus.media/doc/392271_nyjno_li_vozvrash_at_kyrgyzstancev_iz_sirii._chto_dymaut_mid_i_eksperty.h tml; and iv) “Za rubezh vyiekhalo svyishe 800 kazakhstantsev – posledovateley destruktivnykh ideologiy” (‘Over 800 Kazakhstanis – followers of destructive ideologies traveled abroad’), Khabar 24, 6 November 2019, https://24.kz/ru/news/social/item/352893-za-rubezhvyekhalo-svyshe-800-kazakhstantsevposledovatelej-destruktivnykh-ideologij.

699 There have also been occasional references to Turkmenistani fighters in other contexts – for example, Cypriot authorities reported to the UN they had captured a Turkmenistani national amongst a group of individuals “linked to either ISIL-or Al-Qaidaaffiliated groups”. See: “Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” United Nations Security Council, p.15, 23 July 2020, https://undocs.org/S/2020/717.

700 This conclusion has been drawn by the first author based on his systematic monitoring and analysis of online extremist content in Central Asian languages.

701 These figures have been compiled by the first author based on local newspaper reports. The data also shows that since 2019, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan have separately repatriated a total of 1,003 of their detained citizens from Syria and Iraq. According to news reports a substantial number of these repatriated citizens were associated with IS.

702 He spoke at the SCO Heads of State Summit held online on November 10, livestream recorded here: https://eng.scorussia2020.ru/video/20201110/1080285/Livestreaming-of-the-SCO-Heads-of-State-CouncilMeeting.html (he spoke at 2: 01).

703 “Afghan Taliban said planning to attack Tajikistan,” BBC Monitoring, 11 December 2020; Andrey Serenko, “Tadzhikskiye taliby anonsirovali perenos dzhikhada iz Afganistana na rodinu” (‘The Tajik Taliban have announced the transfer of jihad from Afghanistan to their homeland’), Nezavisimaya gazeta, 11 December 2020, https://www.ng.ru/world/2020-12-11/100_afgan111220.html.

704 “Indian doctor suspected of having been Jalalabad prison car bomber,” Ariana News, 5 August 2020, https://ariananews.af/indian-doctorsuspected-of-having-been-jalalabad-prison-carbomber/.

705 “Genprokuratura: iz tyurem Sirii v Tadzhikistan ekstradiruyut terroristov-verbovshchikov” (‘Prosecutor General’s Office: terrorist recruiters to be extradited from prisons in Syria to Tajikistan’), Sputnik Tochikiston/Tajiki, 28 January 2020, https://tj.sputniknews.ru/country/20200128/1030615883/tajikistan-syria-ekstradiciya-terroristy.html.

706 Sirojiddin Islom, “Ozodlik tekshiruvi xulosalari Shved matbuotining bosh xabariga aylandi” (‘The findings of an investigation conducted by Ozodlik grabs the headlines of the Swedish press’), Ozodlik Radiosi, 10 February 2018, https://www.ozodlik.org/a/29032493.html.

707 Amir Abdallah, “Former Tajikistan police chief appointed ISIS minister of war,” Iraqi News, 5 September 2016, https://www.iraqinews.com/iraqwar/former-tajikistan-police-chief-appointed-isisminister-war/.

708 Avaz Yuldashev, “Glava MVD Tadzhikistana: Gibel’ eks-komandira OMON ostayetsya na urovne slukhov” (‘Tajik Interior Minister: The death of the exOMON commander remains at the level of rumors’), Asia-Plus, 4 August 2020, https://asiaplustj.info/ru/news/tajikistan/security/20200804/glava-mvd-gibel-eks-komandira-omonostaetsya-na-urovne-sluhov.

709 “Tadzhikskiy «igilovets» Gulmurod Khalimov zainteresovalsya situatsiyey v Gornom Badakhshane” (‘Tajik IS militant Gulmurod Khalimov became interested in the situation in Gorno-Badakhshan’), Fergana, 11 January 2019, https://fergana.agency/news/104222/.

710 Bakhmaner Nadirov, “Zhiv ili net? Sovbez OON prodlil sanktsii v otnoshenii Gulmuroda Khalimova” (‘Alive or not? UN Security Council extended sanctions against Gulmurod Halimov’), ASIA-Plus, 22 October 2020, https://asiaplustj.info/ru/news/tajikistan/security/20201022/zhiv-ili-net-sovbez-oon-prodlil-sanktsii-votnoshenii-gulmuroda-halimova.

711 Abu Saloh is the nom de guerre of Sirojiddin Mukhtarov, a Kyrgyzstan-born ethnic Uzbek.

712 Sirwan Kajjo, “Jihadists in Syria’s Idlib Form New ‘Operations Room’,” The Voice of America, 15 June 2020, https://www.voanews.com/extremismwatch/jihadists-syrias-idlib-form-new-operationsroom.

713 Rami Jameel, “HTS Leader al-Julani’s New Strategy in Northwestern Syria,” Terrorism Monitor, 13 October 2020, https://jamestown.org/program/hts-leader-al-julanisnew-strategy-in-northwestern-syria/.

714 “Tahrir al-Sham arrests a leader of the Ansar alDin Front. Who is Abu Salah the Uzbek,” Step News Agency, 18 June 2020, https://stepagencysy.net/2020/06/18/%d9%85%d9%86-%d9%87%d9%88-%d8%a3%d8%a8%d9%88-%d8%b5%d9%84%d8%a7%d8%ad-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%a3%d9%88%d8%b2%d8%a8%d9%83%d9%8a/.

715 Viktor Mikhaylov, “V Siriyskom Idlibe arestovan odin iz liderov boyevikov iz TSA – Abu-Salokha” (‘In the Syrian Idlib, one of the leaders of the militants from Central Asia, Abu Saloh, was arrested’), Novosti Uzbenistana, 23 June 2020, https://nuz.uz/antiterror/1157170-v-sirijskom-idlibe-arestovan-odin-iz-liderov-boevikov-iz-cza-abusaloha.html.

716 “Siriya novosti 7 iyulya 22.30: predotvrashchen terakt v Afrine, Dzhulani ozvuchil svoi usloviya dlya osvobozhdeniya Abu Salakha Al’-Uzbeki” (‘News from Syria, July 7 22.30: terrorist attack in Afrin prevented, Giulani announced his conditions for the release of Abu Salah al-Uzbeki’), RIA FAN, 7 July 2020, https://riafan.ru/1291658-siriya-novosti-7-iyulya-22-30-predotvrashen-terakt-v-afrine-dzhulaniozvuchil-svoi-usloviya-dlya-osvobozhdeniya-abusalakha-al-uzbeki.

717 “Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” United Nations Security Council, p.15, 20 January 2020, https://undocs.org/S/2020/53.

718 Ibid.

719 Viktor Mikhaylov, “Idlibskiy peredel ili kak grazhdane Kyrgyzstana i Uzbekistan raskololi v Sirii mezhdunarodnuyu terroristicheskuyu organizatsiyu” (‘Idlib redistribution or how citizens of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan split an international terrorist organization in Syria’), 31 March 2020, CSRT, https://crss.uz/2020/03/31/idlibskij-peredel-ili-kakgrazhdane-kyrgyzstana-i-uzbekistan-raskololi-v-siriimezhdunarodnuyu-terroristicheskuyu-organizaciyu/.

720 “Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” United Nations Security Council,
p.15, 20 January 2020, https://undocs.org/S/2020/53.

721 Ibid.

722 Ibid.

723 Viktor Mikhaylov, “Ozhidayemyye provaly v uzbekskikh etnicheskikh terroristicheskikh gruppirovkakh” (‘Expected failures in Uzbek ethnic terrorist groups’), Novosti Uzbekistana, 24 July 2020, https://nuz.uz/antiterror/1160924-ozhidaemye-provaly-v-uzbekskih-etnicheskihterroristicheskih-gruppirovkah.html.

724 Gulabudin Ghubar, “Uzbek Militant Group Claims it Conducted Operation with Taliban,” TOLOnews,
9 July 2020, https://tolonews.com/afghanistan/uzbek-militantgroup-claims-it-conducted-operation-taliban.

725 “Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” United Nations Security Council,
p.15, 23 July 2020, https://undocs.org/S/2020/717.

726 “V Kazakhstane soobshchili o predotvrashchenii pyati teraktov s nachala goda” (‘Kazakhstan reported on the prevention of five terrorist attacks since the beginning of the year’), RT, 16 October 2020, https://russian.rt.com/ussr/news/793267-kazahstan-predotvraschenie-terakty.

727 i) “Spetssluzhby Kazakhstana predotvratili terakt v Nur-Sultane” (‘Kazakhstan’s special services prevent terrorist attack in Nur-Sultan’), RT, 26 March 2020, https://russian.rt.com/ussr/news/732030-kazahstanzaderzhanie-terrorizm; ii) “V Kazakhstane spetssluzhby zaderzhali podozrevayemogo v podgotovke terakta” (‘In Kazakhstan, special services detained a suspect preparing a terrorist attack’), RT, 14 March 2020, https://russian.rt.com/ussr/news/728393-kazahstanzaderzhanie-terakt.

728 “Surkhondaryo va Jizzakh viloyatlarida noqonuniy guruhlar faoliyatiga chek qo’yildi” (“The activity of illegal groups have been eliminated in Surkhandarya and Jizzakh provinces”), Xalq so’zi, 9 July 2020, http://xs.uz/uzkr/post/surkhondaryo-vazhizzakh-viloyatlarida-noqonunij-guruhlarfaoliyatiga-chek-qojildi.

729 Ibid.

730 Ibid.

731 “V Tashkente presekli deyatel’nost’ 11 uchastnikov terroristicheskoy gruppy” (‘The activity of 11 members of a terrorist group has been crashed in Tashkent’), RIA Novosti, 30 June 2020, https://ria.ru/20200630/1573707230.html.

732 “V Tadzhikistane predotvratili dva terakta” (‘Two terrorist attacks were prevented in Tajikistan’), Sputnik Tochikiston/Tajiki, 3 August 2020, https://tj.sputniknews.ru/country/20200803/1031674398/tajikistan-predotvratili-dva-terakta-2020.html.

733 “V Tadzhikistane za posledniye polgoda predotvratili dva terakta” (‘Two terrorist attacks were prevented in Tajikistan over the past six months’), Mir24.TV, http://tj.mir24.tv/news/103295.

734 Mokrenko, Anastasia, “Propagandista terrorizma zaderzhali v Kyrgyzstane” (‘A terrorist propagandist was detained in Kyrgyzstan’), 24.KG, 5 February 2020, https://24.kg/proisshestvija/142685_propagandista_terrorizma_zaderjali_vkyirgyizstane_/.

735 “Zaderzhan inostrannyy verbovshchik v ryady terroristov” (‘A foreign terrorist recruiter was arrested’), Kabar, 3 October 2020, http://kabar.kg/news/gknb-zaderzhan-inostrannyiverbovshchik-v-riady-terroristov/.

736 “Zaderzhany chleny terroristicheskoy organizatsii – GKNB KR. Chto u nikh nashli” (‘Members of a terrorist organisation were detained – the SCNS of the Kyrgyz Republic. What they found’), Sputnik Kyrgyzstan, 29 October 2020, https://ru.sputnik.kg/society/20201020/1050127498/kyrgyzstan-mto-terrorizm-zaderzhanie.html.

737 The precise targeting of foreign diaspora in jihadist material is hard to trace. But it is clear that some members of the Central Asian diaspora are consumers of extremist material given the growing volume of overall arrests from these communities outside Central Asia. Security services have reported finding volumes of extremist material on their personal electronic devices.

738 “Festnahme fünf mutmaßlicher Mitglieder einer Terrorzelle der ausländischen terroristischen Vereinigung „Islamischer Staat (IS)“,” An arrest warrant, the Office of the German Federal Public Prosecutor, 15 April 2020, https://www.generalbundesanwalt.de/SharedDocs/Pressemitteilungen/DE/aktuelle/Pressemitteilungvom-15-04-2020.html.

739 “Festnahme fünf mutmaßlicher Mitglieder einer Terrorzelle der ausländischen terroristischen Vereinigung „Islamischer Staat (IS)“,” An arrest warrant, the Office of the German Federal Public Prosecutor, 15 April 2020, https://www.generalbundesanwalt.de/SharedDocs/Pressemitteilungen/DE/aktuelle/Pressemitteilungvom-15-04-2020.html.

740 i) Axel Spilcker, “Zugriff nach Hinweis vom FBI,” Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, 08 September 2020, https://advance.lexis.com/document/?pdmfid=1516831&crid=e182b99c-42e8-46c0-92abab1ea56e4a06&pddocfullpath=%2Fshared%2Fdocument%2Fnews%2Furn%3AcontentItem%3A60SSJCH1-JBR8-40RX-00000-00&pdcontentcomponentid=360784&pdteaserkey=sr0&pditab=allpods&ecomp=tzg2k&earg=sr0&prid=568b144a-b4d0-4fe1-977a-907dc44a0d5a; ii) Matthias Gebauer, “Traum vom Fliegen,” Der Spiegel, 18 April 2020, https://advance.lexis.com/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:5YPB-8SG1-DYJRP2HN-00000-00&context=1516831.

741 “Germany arrests IS suspects plotting attacks on US bases,” Deutsche Welle, 15 April 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/germany-arrests-is-suspects-plotting-attacks-on-us-bases/a-53129563

742 i) “Four Tajik Nationals Detained For Alleged Militant Recruitment In Poland,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 11 May 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/four-tajik-nationals-detainedfor-alleged-militant-recruitment-inpoland/30605951.html; ii) “Poland Deports Five Tajiks Suspected Of Terrorism,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 29 September 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/poland-deports-five-tajikssuspected-of-terrorism/30863940.html.

743 Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska, “Deporting Muslim Immigrants Won’t Make Poland Safer,” Foreign Policy, 19 October 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/10/19/deport-muslimimmigrants-poland-counterterrorism-pis-islamistradicalization/.

744 Paul Antonopoulos, “Leading member of ISIS that was granted asylum status has been arrested
in Greece,” Greek City Times, 5 October 2020, https://greekcitytimes.com/2020/11/05/isis-asylumgreece/.

745 “Boyeviki pokushalis’ na «Rodinu-mat’»: FSB predotvratila terakt” (‘Militants attempted to destroy the Motherland Calls statue: FSB prevented the attack’) Gazeta, 15 October 2020, https://www.gazeta.ru/army/2020/10/15/13320667.shtml.

746 Vusala Abbasova, “Russian Security Service Detains IS Cell In Rostov Region,” Caspian News, 14 July 2020, https://caspiannews.com/newsdetail/russian-security-service-detains-is-cell-inrostov-region-2020-7-13-15/.

747 “Terrorist attack reportedly thwarted in Moscow region as FSB arrests suspect & seizes ISIS flag (VIDEO),” 22 October 2020, RT, https://www.rt.com/russia/504264-terrorist-attackthwarted-moscow-region/.

748 “Russia says it has foiled a militant attack in Moscow,” Deutsche Welle, 27 July 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/russia-says-it-has-foiled-amilitant-attack-in-moscow/a-54331742.

749 ““Mehr-3″ operaciyasi doirasida Suriyadan 25 nafar ayollar va 73 nafar bolalar yurtimizga olib kelindi” (‘As part of the “Mehr-3” operation, 25 women and 73 men were brought back to our homeland’), Xalq so’zi, 8 December 2020, http://xs.uz/uzkr/post/mehr-3-operatsiyasi-doirasidasuriyadan-25-nafar-ayollar-va-73-nafar-bolalaryurtimizga-olib-kelindi

750 “Nearly 300 Tajik women and children ready to return home from Syria,” Asia-Plus, 28 July 2020, https://asiaplustj.info/en/news/tajikistan/society/20200728/nearly-300-tajik-women-and-children-readyto-return-home-from-syria.

751 Asel Sultan, “Countering Extremism in Kazakhstan: Where Do They Waste Millions?” CABAR.asia, 16 January 2020, https://cabar.asia/en/countering-extremism-inkazakhstan-where-do-they-waste-millions.

752 Torgyn Nurseitova, “Boleye tysyachi kazakhstantsev poluchili tyuremnyy srok za terrorizm i ekstremizm” (‘More than 1,000 Kazakhstanis received prison sentences for terrorism and extremism’), Zakon, 30 November 2020, https://www.zakon.kz/5049486-boleetysyachi-kazahstantsev-poluchili.html

753 Navruz Melibaev, “Policy of Countering Terrorism and Extremism in Uzbekistan: How Did It Change Over the Past Few Years?” CABAR.asia, 4 May 2020, https://cabar.asia/en/policy-ofcountering-terrorism-and-extremism-in-uzbekistanhow-did-it-change-over-the-past-few-years.