Archive for the ‘THINK TANKS’ Category

Almost entirely up to date now. A new piece exploring what competition might take place between China and India in Afghanistan. Interesting to see them both engaging with the Taliban government in different ways, and going to be interesting how this plays out going forwards. Thanks to Byron at the Center on Asia and Globalisation (CAG) at the Lee Kuan Yew school at the National University of Singapore for the kind invitation to contribute again to their fantastic China-India Brief.

Afghanistan: The new geopolitical arena for China and India

Image credit: iStock/Sohrab Omar

There have been numerous developments in Afghanistan since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021. Amongst the most unexpected was the rapidity with which New Delhi appears to have built up its relationship with new regime. While it was never clear how antagonistic the core Taliban leadership itself was to the Indian government, the fact they hosted numerous militant groups targeting India and were close to Pakistan meant they seemed obvious adversaries. Moreover, given that New Delhi had developed a strong relationship with the Republic government in Kabul, there was an expectation that India’s relationship with Afghanistan would go into a deep freeze.

Yet, as things have played out, New Delhi has instead leaned into its relationship with the Taliban. Now going so far as to open an Embassy in Kabul and having senior officials meet with Taliban counterparts. India has sent humanitarian aid and technical support teams, and suggested it might do more. In so doing, India has seemed to emulate the approach taken by China which has been very prominent in its support for the new authorities in Kabul. But the path taken by both has been very different, and the reasons for this engagement are equally different. A question lingering over all of this has been the degree to which their engagement reflects a desire to try to curtail each other’s activity in Afghanistan with the country becoming another point of conflict between the two Asian giants.

The Taliban’s desire to court the two Asian giants is clear. From their perspective, any opportunity to try to gain greater support, potential investment and exposure as a legitimate international authority is positive. The Taliban have long made it clear they are happy to work with China on certain issues (mostly around investment)—even during the previous Republic government’s time they would speak of protecting Chinese investments. Cooperation on dealing with China’s Uyghur concerns seems more mixed, with few in the movement wanting to turn over their former battlefield allies to China.

India is a newer player in this regard, though the Taliban have been quick to grab at the opportunity. It is not clear how much India has been demanding counter-terrorism support which is being delivered, though presumably this is a part of the conversation. Doubtless there is a part of the Taliban that likes the fact that the growing proximity to New Delhi causes consternation in Islamabad, demonstrating their distance from Pakistan and giving them a sense of strategic depth and control over their destiny.

For New Delhi, it is an obvious play to try to create some options for itself and to try to find ways of insulating itself from potential terrorist problems that might emerge. Engaging the Taliban also plays into regional geopolitics, placing India in a stronger position in a battlefield where its two biggest regional adversaries (China and Pakistan) are strong players. The Indian expert community has articulated the view that a large part of New Delhi’s engagement is a product of ensuring China does not end up owning the geopolitical vacuum that might exist in Kabul.

For Beijing, the question seems more narrowly focused on engaging with the Taliban to ensure the country does not become a locus for threats against China (both at home and in the region) and creating its own backstops to Pakistani security guarantees. Where China sees great power conflict, it tends to be more towards the United States (US), with India interpreted as a player that Washington is working through.

Beijing was never quite as agitated by Indian activity in Afghanistan as was sometimes made out. These concerns were largely expressed by Pakistan and sometimes echoed by Beijing. During the tenure of the previous Republic government, the Indian and Chinese governments actually even went so far as to cooperate on diplomatic training programmes of Afghan diplomats—an outcome from the successful summits between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping in 2018 and 2019.

But as the wider China-India relationship fell apart, in large part due to increasingly aggressive border clashes and the growing proximity between India and the US, this cooperation fell by the wayside. The Republic government in Kabul continued to try to find ways of engaging with both, but this became harder as trust levels fell. It was clear that direct cooperation between New Delhi and Beijing was going to be impossible. Beijing started to agree with Islamabad and mutter about Indian support for terrorist groups using bases in Afghanistan to strike Chinese targets in Pakistan. And in December 2020, Indian intelligence was suspected as being behind information that was given to the National Directorate of Security (NDS) in Kabul about a network of 10 Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) agents who had been operating in the country under cover.

It is not clear how this growing confrontation will develop. China and India continue to seem to want to both confront and appear to engage at the same time. It is likely that we will see some steps towards rapprochement more broadly between New Delhi and Beijing, notwithstanding their deep disagreements. The leaderships are not eager for a full-on open conflict, as reflected by their willingness to both still participate in the Samarkand Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit. It is not clear this limited rapprochement will happen in Afghanistan as well.

From what is discernible in the public domain, the Indian government has for the most part been engaging with the parts of the Taliban government that are linked to the group who used to run the Doha office and those from Kandahar. Mullah Yacoub, the son of the former Taliban leader Mullah Omar and current Defence Minister, gave an interview to the Indian press in June. Prior to that much of India’s engagement seems to have been through the Ministry of External Affairs which has been engaging with its counterparts in the Taliban Ministry (mostly men who were involved in the Doha office).

Beijing on the other hand has been engaging with a far wider range of actors but does not seem to be gaining absolute trust from all of them. Where it does seem to be finding more acceptance is amongst the Haqqani faction of the Taliban government in Kabul. While it is clear other parts are eager to engage as well—in particular on economic matters— a certain level of tension lingers. This is in part a product of over-inflated expectations on the Kabul side, as well as an awareness on the Chinese side of the sheer complexity of any major endeavour in war-scarred Afghanistan.

What both China and India share, however, is a general negative image that could catch on amongst the wider community of committed extremists in Afghanistan. India’s BJP government is perceived as being Islamophobic—a topic repeatedly harped on about in extremist literature linked to organisations like al Qaeda or Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). While China’s mistreatment of Uyghurs is a topic that ISKP has particularly locked on to as a topic recognising that it is a subject of great sensitivity both amongst the Uyghur contingent in Afghanistan and their supporters, this is also an anger that resonates amongst rank and file Taliban fighters.

China and India are therefore in the awkward position of potentially garnering support from the Taliban authorities but not at a wider level. Implementing their projects on the ground could become highly complicated, and even lead to some sort of internal fractures of fissures within the Taliban movement. The wider chaos that might ensue is more likely to damage Chinese interests than Indian ones . China’s direct border and substantial investments in Afghanistan’s neighbourhood mean there is a wider range of interests that could be damaged, while India still has a certain level of insulation provided by geography.

The final aspect to this dynamic is the degree to which China and India will transfer their wider tensions to the Afghanistan, and turn the country into an arena of confrontation. There are two external elements which are likely to play into this—the US and Pakistan. Both powers are close allies of India and China respectively, and have different interests in Afghanistan. The degree to which relations between China and the US or India and Pakistan are going well or badly is likely to influence how Beijing and New Delhi lock horns in Afghanistan. Given that we seem set on a period of geopolitical confrontation, the outlook for positive resolution seems unlikely. There is, sadly, a very high chance of Afghanistan becoming once again a place for geopolitical competition, this time between China and India.


Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). He tweets at @raffpantucci.

This report was a long time in the making and in fact completed initially prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but needed a lot of tidying up afterwards. Thanks to RUSI for publishing it, and to my excellent co-author Eleonora for bearing with the lengthy process to get it over the finish line. Am not going to republish it all here, as you can see it in its splendid PDF form for free online here.

Russian and Chinese influence in Italy

By examining political, security, economic and cultural ties, this paper explores Russian and Chinese influence in Italy.

Italy has been one of the leading advocates in the EU of dialogue and cooperation with both Russia and China, and its longstanding political tradition of ‘trying to sit in the middle’ sometimes faces other EU states’ criticism. This paper seeks to explore the dynamics between Italy and Russia, and Italy and China, through an examination of political, security, economic and cultural ties. It also attempts to understand the degree to which Rome’s policy positions are shaped by external influences or internal choices.

While it is inherently difficult to demonstrate influence, this paper stresses Italy’s agency in driving the relationships forwards, though it is clear that interference attempts and the economic connections that exist between the three powers play a role in influencing Italian planning. Even if Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 is heavily impacting the relationship between Rome and Moscow, how this will play out in the longer term is hard to predict.

Still working through the backlog, this time a piece for the excellent Italian think tank ISPI on the anniversary of the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul looking at the China-Afghanistan relationship. Lots more on this topic to come.

China in Afghanistan: The Year of Moving Gradually

Washington’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 created a problem for China on the border of one of its most volatile regions in Xinjiang. While Beijing was not always entirely enthusiastic about a US military presence on its border, it could see the benefits of having someone else take on the security burden. It even went so far as to cooperate with the United States in Afghanistan – something which stood in stark contrast to the rest of its relationship with the US. The Taliban takeover forced some re-calculations, and while Beijing has visibly leaned into its relationship with the new rulers in Kabul, the thrust of the engagement has remained not dissimilar to how Beijing was engaging with the Republic.

China’s primary preoccupation with Afghanistan has always been security. Beijing’s enduring fear is that the country becomes a base from which its enemies can plot against them. This has tended to focus on fears of Uyghur militants using the country to create instability in Xinjiang, a concern that persists, but has now been joined by a growing fear that other adversaries might seek to use Afghanistan as a base to target China or its interests in the wider region.

Under the Republic government, Beijing was relatively content with the security relationship it had in this regard. From the Republic government’s perspective, the Uyghur militants fighting alongside the Taliban were no allies of theirs and they were happy to hunt them down. Even the United States targeted them alongside the Taliban.

The Taliban takeover in Kabul has complicated this picture for Beijing. In the early days, the Taliban seem to have failed to keep control of a group of some 30 Uyghur militants the Republic was holding in prison who were freed when the Taliban emptied the prisons they found. While the Taliban have continued to say they will not let their country be used as a base for militant activities against others, it is clear that Uyghur militants under the banner of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) continue to gather there. In the most recent display, leader Abdul Haq showed himself celebrating Eid in the country alongside a few dozen allies and their family members. A report from the UN Monitoring Group in February highlighted member state reporting that there were some 200-700 fighters associated with TIP in Afghanistan. The report suggested that they had been moved from Badakhshan to Baghlan, a decision that was in other reporting meant to have been stimulated by Chinese sensitivities.

The most recent Monitoring report from July, however, suggested elements close the group had already disregarded this Taliban request and re-established a footprint in Badakhshan, including strengthening relationships with Tajikistan focused group Jamaat Ansarullah as well as the Pakistani focused Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). This last element is particularly worrying for China as it illustrates a larger problem for China that has sharpened in the past year – the growing targeting of China by an ever-widening range of militant groups in the region.

Pakistan is the biggest locus of this threat, with the threat picture towards China widening from mostly separatist groups (Balochi and Sindhi’s) to now TTP and the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) seeming to target China. In October 2021, ISKP deployed a Uyghur bomber to target a Shia Mosque in Kunduz, making specific reference to the Taliban’s cooperation with China in their claim of responsibility. ISKP’s propaganda has continued to highlight China as an enemy. July’s UN Monitoring report highlighted one member state reporting that some 50 Uyghurs had reportedly defected from TIP to join ISKP.

All of this serves to highlight the very different security support that China gets from the new leadership in Kabul. While there have been persistent rumours of China seeking to develop security relations with the Taliban – including being involved in meetings between Chinese, Pakistani and Taliban intelligence – very little public evidence has emerged of security contacts. It is also notable that while China is seemingly of greater interest to apparently much freer militant groups in Afghanistan, we have not seen reports of Chinese interests or nationals being directly targeted in the country.

This comes at the same time as China’s visible presence in Afghanistan has increased. Since the Taliban takeover, China has sent vaccine aid, earthquake relief, food aid (around the country, from the central government in Beijing, regional governments and companies). Chinese companies have returned to discuss possible projects, as well as explore new ones. This has come in the form of large state-owned enterprises that have long engaged in the country, as well as new ones exploring opportunities. Very little of this has so far actually moved forwards, though there has been a notable surge in low level Chinese entrepreneurs and businessmen exploring opportunities in the country.

At a more tactical level, the government has supported the re-establishment of a pine nut air corridor to enable Afghan farmers to sell their products directly to the Chinese consumer market. They have also talked about finding ways of encouraging greater volume of sales of Afghan gemstones, saffron, almonds, fruits and other products. They have said they would drop tariffs on goods to zero, and re-started visas for Afghans eager to travel to China. They have spoken of linking Afghanistan up to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and of finding ways of integrating the country into the wider regional connectivity boom.

But while all of this is very positive, very little of it is entirely new. And it is unclear how quickly the big-ticket state-owned enterprise led projects will take to get going. All of these other pieces of the economic pie are positive, but ultimately quite limited: the long-term answer to stability in the Afghan economic situation comes from large-scale investment. And so far, it is not clear that China is pushing this that rapidly ahead. Whilst the Tunxi Initiative that Beijing pushed out (as part of a much wider set of regional engagements which built on the web of minilateral institutions that China has fostered across Eurasia) was high on positive sentiment towards engagement and encouraging regional connectivity with Afghanistan, it is not clear what metrics were established to move things forwards.

China’s increased activity in many ways is a reflection of the fact that China is one of the few big players still visibly present in Afghanistan. The western withdrawal left a gap which has highlighted more clearly China’s activity (in the absence of everything else). But it is not clear how much it has materially changed or increased to the level the Taliban government want. They continue to court multiple actors, and are eager to get projects going, but with the Chinese ones at least, still finding many of the same problems that the Republic government encountered. It is not impossible that the problems will eventually become unblocked, but it is clear that at the moment, there is still a sense of hesitation and uncertainty about what is actually going to happen on the ground and how much the Taliban are really in control of the entire country.

Where China has been far happier is in terms of using Afghanistan as a stick with which to rhetorically beat the Americans on the world stage. Highlighting the fact that their planes are bringing aid to Afghanistan, while the US is bringing more weapons to Ukraine. They continue to advocate for the US to unblock the Afghan government money which is tied up abroad, and call for the US to step back to fix the situation on the ground, blaming them for everything that has happened. While this is not an entirely surprising narrative given the global context, it is in fact a true shame for Afghanistan, which used to shine as a beacon of cooperation between the US and China. Great power conflict has quite clearly been brought back to the country.

A longer report I have been working on for some time which builds on work about the terrorist threat in the UK as part of a series run by the German foundation the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung looking at the state of the terrorist threat in Europe in general. Have another big piece on this have been working on forever, just need to find time to finish. The entire report is available free online as a good looking PDF, so am not going to re-post in its entirety here, but will put the executive summary to give you a taste.

Jihadism in the United Kingdom

The UK’s jihadist terror threat picture has evolved compared to the 2000s, when the UK was a key target of al-Qaeda, and even more since the collapse of ISIS’s caliphate in 2017. That year, in fact, marked something of a recent apex which has heralded a period of regular lone actor plots – some of which demonstrate an inspiration from ISIS, but others where it is unclear. This paper seeks to better understand this transformation and the evolution of the threat in the UK, as part of the “Jihadist Terrorism in Europe” series published by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in which renowned experts analyse the current state of the jihadist threat in various countries, as well as the related counter-terrorism strategies and political debates.

In the present study, Raffaello Pantucci looks at the UK, which most recently in January 2022 saw a radicalised British national launch an attack against a synagogue in Texas in advance of the attempted liberation of Dr Aafia Siddiqui, the long-jailed female al-Qaeda member serving a lengthy sentence in a nearby jail.

› Although the UK jihadist threat has not produced any large-scale attacks recently, it has consistently produced lone actor plots.

› The paper outlines how the current threat links back to the past, and in particular the dangers posed to the UK by the reemergence of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

› The UK also still has a lingering problem of foreign fighters who went to Syria and Iraq. Passport deprivation – a preferred Home Office method of dealing with such cases – has not eliminated the problem but simply displaced it. Some individuals are still trying to return home, while others remain in Turkish or insecure Levantine jails.

› Authorities in the UK have consistently focused on trying to manage the threat through greater internal coordination.

› Larger problems around extremism continue to fester, though the degree to which they are linked to the jihadist threat remains unclear.

› The biggest problem for the UK is managing a problem which never seems to be entirely resolved, but only seems to grow in unpredictable and confusing ways, creating new cohorts of problems for authorities to manage. This, along with the growing problem of the extreme right wing, as well as sectarianism amongst South Asian communities points to a set of issues which will continue to trouble the UK.

Some time ago, the UK’s Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) published a report which provided an evaluation drawing on intelligence community thoughts and assessments about the nature and scale of the extreme right-wing threat in the UK. Its main recommendation seemed to be the security services needed more capability to manage this threat, which seemed dissonant to me with the wider discourse about the threat at the moment. Inspired I wrote the following for my UK institutional home, RUSI.

Extreme Right-Wing Terrorism in the UK: How Concerned Should We Be?

Worrying trends: the scene of a terror attack near Finsbury Park Mosque, London on 19 Jun 2017. Image: WENN / Alamy

A recent report indicates some worrying trends in extreme right-wing terrorism in the UK, but also highlights how the threat can sometimes be a product of its response.

The extreme right-wing terrorism (ERWT) threat in the UK is difficult to gauge. Often referred to as the fastest rising threat, the number of actual attacks and casualties the UK has experienced over the past decade can mercifully be counted on one hand. While attacks are a poor indicator of threat, the recent Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) report on the ERWT threat in the UK shined a light on the problem and made the key recommendation that MI5 would need more resources to manage the threat. Yet it is not entirely clear what this resource growth should look like, or how acute the ERWT threat actually is.

Since April 2020, MI5 has taken on lead responsibility for managing the extreme right-wing terror threat (referred to now formally as ERWT as opposed to the previous XRW). The decision to transfer from the police was made in 2018 in the wake of reviews after the surge of terrorist attacks in 2017. While only one of these was linked to the ERWT (the murder of 51-year-old Makram Ali outside Finsbury Park Mosque on 19 June 2017), the attack came after the proscription of National Action and the murder of Jo Cox MP. The threat from ERWT seemed to be rising and required a stronger response.

According to the then independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Sir David Anderson QC, at the time, he found a ‘lingering attachment in parts of MI5 to the notion that XRW [Extreme Right-Wing] plotting does not engage their national security function in the same way as Islamist plotting does’. He disputed this assessment, and the security establishment largely agreed, leading to the transfer of responsibility for the threat to MI5.

Yet reading the ISC report, it does not seem as though the actual threat from ERWT has notably increased in security assessments. In July 2019, MI5 is reported as saying: ‘Whilst we assess the ERWT threat to the UK is on a gradual upwards trajectory, we have not observed a significant increase in specific mobilisation or radicalisation during this reporting period, and ERWT investigations continue to constitute a significant minority of MI5’s CT [counterterrorism] casework’. This ‘minority’ was clarified by MI5’s Director General recently, who told the media earlier this month that ‘around one in five terrorism investigations in Great Britain were linked to neo-Nazi, racist ideology or other related extremism’, a rate he was reported to have said remained steady.

But the ISC report suggests that this might be a calm before the storm. It highlights research that suggests the coronavirus pandemic has materially strengthened the ERWT threat. Looking at online material, there is no doubt that the far right has adopted and absorbed narratives related to the pandemic to a greater degree than violent Islamists. In continental Europe, there has been a worrying growth in attacks, networks and plotting quite directly linking ERWT and the pandemic – the cases of Jurgen Conings in Belgium in May 2021 and a German network called the Vereinte Patrioten (United Patriots) that was disrupted in April this year highlighted some worrying trends. The involvement of serving armed forces members, the targeting of officials linked to healthcare, references to anti-vax narratives, and the wider networks around the plotters all indicated a problem that is moving in a dangerous direction. Europol’s latest annual report on the terrorist threat picture in Europe highlights how the number of attacks and plots in continental Europe has plateaued at around three per year, while the number of arrests continues to grow year-on-year.

But it is not clear how much this reflects what has been seen in the UK. There have been cases of serving police officers and soldiers being linked to ERWT groups, but these have been limited. The UK has not had to disband entire military units because of concerns about extreme right ideology as Germany has done, nor has the UK seen mobs linked in part to far-right groups attempt to storm or occupy public buildings (as seen in all other Five Eyes partners, to very different degrees). The UK has seen some hate crime and incidents such as 5G mast burnings which appear to be linked to online conspiracy theories, but these are not clear ERWT attacks.

Rather, the conclusion articulated by the ISC report, which seems to reflect the view of the wider security community, is that the threat in the UK from ERWT is for the most part dominated by Self-Initiated Terrorists (S-IT). While a number of ERWT groups have now been proscribed in the UK, only one attack has been linked to them. An interesting question raised by the ISC report is the degree to which the lone-actor threat and the ERWT threat might in fact be the same thing – or whether the ERWT threat is in large part an articulation of the lone-actor threat.

The report also highlights the significance of youth, autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and mental health issues among the ERWT caseload. While there is some internal dispute about these issues, the Homeland Security Group within the Home Office is quoted as highlighting how frontline services have reported an increase in ASD among their caseload, with a particular link to ERWT. The youth question is more obvious, with it becoming regular for very young teenagers to be arrested for ERWT offences (including most recently a 15-year-old boy from the Isle of Wight).

This poses a curious dissonance for authorities, who on the one hand have only seen actual ERWT attacks conducted by middle-aged men, while on the other hand teenagers increasingly dominate the arrest load. The question which was most recently alluded to by the Independent Terror Watchdog Jonathan Hall QC is whether these individuals are in fact simply ‘keyboard warriors’. Given most of their links and activity take place online, with few maturing to real-world plots, there is a question about the nature of the actual threat they pose – and by default, the wider threat ERWT poses if this is the majority of the arrests that are being seen.

There are also some curious aspects of the threat that are downplayed in the ISC paper, though it is difficult to draw too many conclusions on its threat assessments given the volume of redactions. Specifically, there are questions around the degree to which Russia and more recently the war in Ukraine have impacted the UK’s ERWT threat. Within the ISC report, suggestions are made about the far-right group Britain First’s connections to Moscow, but there are more worrying links out there. The Base, a proscribed organisation with deep roots across English-speaking countries, seems to be directed by an American based in Russia, while pro-Russian narratives are increasingly common among the ERWT community globally. This is interesting, as previously, ERWT individuals seeking training tended to go and fight alongside the far-right inclined Ukrainian Azov Battalion – though its current active support by Western authorities has confused things. It is not clear how many UK ERWT actors have actually gone to fight in the current conflict, and whether (if they have been fighting alongside Azov) they would actually pose a threat. How many (if any) have gone to fight on the Russian side is equally unclear.

The final point to consider and which the ISC paper alludes to is the degree to which this threat may be a product of its response. Early on, the report quotes MI5 as saying ‘it is difficult to establish an accurate historical trajectory of the ERWT threat on the grounds that the recent increase in focus by HMG and heightened public awareness of the ERWT threat has contributed to an increase in referrals and investigations’.

This raises the complicated interplay of threat and response. In the absence of attacks, terrorist threats are often defined by the response to them. Consequently, the ERWT threat in the UK is defined by the number of arrests, the volume of officials focused on it, and the proportion of capability that is being dedicated to looking at it. But none of these are objective metrics of the actual threat; rather, they are a reflection of the response. Were MI5 or the Police to dedicate more people to looking at the threat, doubtless they would find more things to look at. This is not to accuse them of artificially inflating the threat; it is simply that more resource would lower the general threshold for investigation.

This becomes relevant when looking at the wider threat picture and trying to objectively assess the degree of menace that is posed. It has been some time since the UK courts have seen any major terrorist case presented before them of the scale and ambition that used to be directed towards the country by al-Qa’ida or later Islamic State. There have not been any large-scale networks of the extreme right launching sophisticated and ambitious plots. National Action was stamped on by authorities before it could really mature, and before that one has to go back to the Aryan Strike Force, which in 2010 had mobilised people and one of its members had managed to produce ricinPatriotic Alternative may yet mature into a future threat, but as of yet it has not. The current threat picture that is seen consists of isolated individuals, shrinking numbers of arrests, and an ERWT threat that seems dominated by (though is not exclusive to) the very young.

The point is that it is not clear how much of a menace the ERWT threat actually is – or more generally how much it is a reflection of the attention it is getting rather than an increased threat. Most indicators suggest the UK’s general terror threat is down, and what plots are disrupted appear to be isolated lone actors often inspired by material they find or people they talk to online.

This is not to say that the threats from both violent Islamists or ERWT might not develop once again – the kindling is certainly in place at home and abroad. Nor is it to underplay the damage ERWT can do to the societal fabric in a way that a seemingly external threat like violent Islamists cannot. But it is to instead ask the question of whether the growing focus on an ERWT threat in the UK is appropriate. It has not yet matured to the state-level national security threat that it could have, but it is not clear if this is because of the security response to it, because the problem is decreasing, or because it is in fact a product of other societal issues which are now less linked to ERWT ideas than before (a possible explanation for the questions around ASD, mental health and youth). Finally, this comes back to the key recommendation made by the ISC for MI5 to receive more resources to deal with the ERWT threat. Is this a proportionate response to the threat, or might it actually have the counterproductive effect of highlighting or accentuating a more limited problem?

Moving away once again from book promotion, returning to the theme of terrorism in Europe, this piece for my institutional home RSIS touches on some of the larger issues covered in my BBC Radio 4 series looking at mental health and terrorism.

Terrorism in Europe: A Very Different Kind of Threat

For three weeks in a row this year, Europe has been hit by a highly public act of attempted mass murder. With the United States reeling from its latest bout of grim mass shootings, what exactly can be concluded from the fact that most terrorist incidents in the West are increasingly indistinguishable from apolitical mass murders?

Denmark in shock as gunman kills three at Copenhagen shopping mall, Reuters.

THE ATTACK in Copenhagen on 3 July 2022 by a 22-year-old Danish man is the third time this year Europe has been struck by what looked like a terrorist incident.

The weekend before the violent attack in Copenhagen, a Norwegian-Iranian gunman opened fire on celebrants of Gay Pride in Oslo killing two. On 8 June 2022 in Berlin, a 29-year-old German-Armenian drove his car into crowds on a busy shopping street. The attack killed a teacher visiting the city with a group of children from Hesse, and injured 31.

Extremist Ideology or Mental Health Issues?

Of these three violent incidents, it is only authorities in Oslo that have made a direct link to terrorism. Norwegian police revealed the gunman was someone known to them since 2015 who also had a history of mental illness. This suggestion of mental illness being present is similar to both the German and Danish cases, where the individuals have subsequently been placed into psychiatric care while authorities determine how to ultimately handle the case.

As if to emphasise the importance of this juxtaposition, the attack came at the same time as a sentence of full-time psychiatric care was imposed on a Danish convert to Islam who in October last year fatally attacked five people with a knife and bow and arrow in Norway.

But while mental health issues increasingly appear a constant, there is often also a suggestion that some ideological motivation might also be present. Highlighting this complicated balance which has become all-too-commonplace in Europe, Europol pointed out the terrorist threat as such in its last annual report:

“Some lone attackers in 2020 again displayed a combination of extremist ideology and mental health issues. This made it difficult at times to distinguish between terrorist attacks and violence caused by mental health problems.”

In the United States, there is an equally regular reference to both ideology and mental health issues in the wake of violent incidents, though the entire picture in America is complicated by the easy availability of high-powered guns. This makes acting on an impulse ever easier and more destructive, and subsequently understanding an individual’s motive even more complicated.

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was careful not to point to mental health issues in an advisory it issued in early June. It stated: “…the primary threat of mass casualty violence in the United States stems from lone offenders and small groups motivated by a range of ideological beliefs and/or personal grievances.”

The DHS later, however, provided contacts for those concerned about others suffering from mental health issues suggesting at least the recognition that the issue was one that often came up in cases the department was handling.

The Mental Health-Terror Balance

The combination is difficult for authorities to manage for a variety of reasons. In the first instance, the behaviour of such individuals is very hard to predict. Their sometimes inherently erratic lives, the nature of attacks they are undertaking that often require little immediate preparation and the highly random nature of their targets makes it an almost impossible task to ensure total security.

While there is evidence that in some cases they do actually telegraph their intent before acting – for example, in the Danish case, it seems as though he posted videos suggesting something was about to happen a day before he launched his attack. This can still be a bit of a needle in a haystack piece of data.

Furthermore, focusing on healthcare requires getting healthcare providers involved.  Doctors and mental healthcare workers are by their nature focused on ensuring the well-being and care of their patients and society so are often welcome supporters. But it is difficult to get them to focus on concerns around extremism on top of their many other responsibilities. Some are also reticent about being pushed into roles that can appear to be that of security agents.

They are also often concerned about the criminalisation of what is an already very vulnerable community. The growing incidence of violent acts being committed by people with mental health issues can criminalise an entire community in the public mind, the vast majority of whom are simply very sick people in need of help. The term mental health itself is also not very helpful, when one considers the huge range of issues that it can encompass.

The final aspect which is important to bear in mind is that there can also be a danger in overfocusing on the mental health aspect of any case. Defence attorneys have long sought to use the presence of such issues as mitigation in their cases.

People suffering from mental health issues can also perpetrate crimes. Understanding this balance is complicated and becomes even harder to strike when you incorporate an ideological crime like terrorism.

Is This Even Terrorism?

But the biggest challenge is trying to understand if any of this even classifies as terrorism any more. As highlighted earlier, of this recent spate of extremist violence, only authorities in Norway are pursuing terrorism motivation at the moment. But it seems likely that the other acts at the very least ape terrorist acts in their behaviour.

In the US, the phenomenon of mass shooting has become so common alongside a highly angry and polarised political environment that it is very difficult to separate it, or even appreciate the degree to which mental health might be salient in a particular case. In Europe this all comes as France seems to finally close the book on the ISIS attack on Paris of November 2015 though the lone actor playbook ISIS promulgated continues to resonate.

In a recent joint appearance in London after a week of meetings, the chiefs of MI5 (the UK’s domestic intelligence agency) and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), highlighted how the lone actor was the sharp end of the threat that their services saw in the terrorism space.

As MI5 head Ken McCallum put it, they were facing a “very difficult cocktail of risks”. The increasing prevalence of mental health and related issues in the threat picture has only served to make it harder, adding a layer of unpredictability.

Still catching up on myself, this time a paper I had the pleasure of co-authoring with the excellent Veerle Nouwens, Pepijn Bergsen and Antony Froggatt. Part of a longer project we had been working on together which sought to explore the Transatlantic relationship towards China and ended up looking in some detail at the various problems that exist.

China and the transatlantic relationship

Obstacles to deeper European–US cooperation

Image — European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a joint press conference with US president Joe Biden in Brussels on 25 March 2022. Photo credit: European Commission/Pool/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

The rise of China is one of the greatest challenges for the transatlantic relationship. European countries and the US have similar concerns over China, but fundamental obstacles hinder a more joined-up approach.

Although no longer aiming for decoupling as under the Trump administration, the US under President Joe Biden still sees itself in ‘strategic competition’ with China, while the European Commission has identified China as a ‘systemic rival’. However, differences remain between Europe and US on the scale of the challenge, and also within the EU over the desired level of economic and political engagement with China and over policy responses on the national, bilateral and global levels.

This paper presents results from a two-year joint research project by Chatham House and the Royal United Services Institute on a Transatlantic Dialogue on China. The project examined the transatlantic relationship in the context of the China challenge by looking at four different policy areas – trade and investment, digital technology, climate change and the global commons.

Introduction

China is among the most complex strategic challenges confronting the transatlantic partners at this moment. Great power competition (or ‘strategic competition’ as the US is now suggesting) is not of course restricted to China. But the China challenge cuts through so many issues across domains both internal and external that it is perhaps more complex than any other.1

There are additional tensions between Europe and the US, with Washington frustrated by the European Union (EU)’s inaction on China and at times by its quest for greater strategic autonomy – a phrase that is often interpreted as meaning autonomy from the US. Notwithstanding these frictions and the systemic rivalry between Europe and the US on one side and China on the other, each side of the Atlantic is deeply intertwined with China.

From China’s perspective, the US is the principal adversary and China often tries to detach individual European countries from a transatlantic alignment. It has encouraged notions of European strategic autonomy, recognizing their potential to damage transatlantic relations, as well as finding other ways of amplifying intra-European tensions.

This briefing paper presents results from a two-year joint research project by Chatham House and the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) on a Transatlantic Dialogue on China. The project examined the transatlantic relationship in the context of the China challenge by looking at four different policy areas – trade and investment, digital technology, climate change and the global commons.2

Although it is by no means the only player on the European side of the transatlantic relationship, the EU’s leading role in many of the policy areas studied made it the main focus of the project. Underlying this choice was the acceptance that, on China, non-EU European powers (including the UK) tend towards policies that either complement the EU’s approach or align closely with the US. Where there were specific divergences or tensions (for example, around the AUKUS defence and security partnership), these were addressed in the analysis.

This paper not only brings perspectives on different but related policy challenges, it highlights several commonalities running across these areas that characterize the overall challenge for the transatlantic relationship. Given the weight and significance of China, Europe and the US, it is critical to understand how they intersect in these domains at this moment of fluidity in international relations.

The purpose of this paper is to provide analysis and conclusions from the research into these four areas within the context of European relations with China, but also with regard to how these fit into the wider transatlantic picture. The hope is that it will contribute to a better understanding of the challenges faced by the transatlantic partners.

Context

Although the challenges in the four policy areas tend to differ, they all exist within the same context – one in which China is often seen as the West’s major adversary. This is still the case despite recent events in Ukraine, which have refocused Western attention on Russia. This sense of competition with China has been growing for some time, starting during the presidency of Barack Obama but accelerating under the administration of Donald Trump, with China (and, to a certain degree, Russia) becoming the central concern of national security policy under his presidency. In March 2019 a joint communication from the European Commission on EU–China relations identified China as a ‘systemic rival’, followed two years later by the UK’s Integrated Review, which referred to China as a ‘systemic competitor’.3

This sharpening of the discourse around China reflects two views in the West. First, the shedding of the notion that China might move towards Western norms as it becomes more prosperous and economically liberal. Rather, China under Xi Jinping is now seen as an increasingly disruptive and assertive power in international affairs, while the space for political discourse within China is closing. Second, the sense that China increasingly sees the world in a purely competitive light, focusing on becoming the dominant power in its region and eventually further afield. Chinese political visions like Made in China 2025, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or the China Dream all articulate a notion of Chinese supremacy and centrality in the global system, or, at the very least, a sense of China as a strong and independent power. Even Western voices that articulate a more nuanced view on Chinese power projection see a strong sense of competition underpinning Beijing’s thinking.

The current US administration of President Joe Biden has retained a broadly antagonistic approach to China in almost all policy areas, while placing a greater emphasis on working together with allies than its predecessor. EU–China relations have deteriorated at the same time. An example of this has been the failure to move forward the ratification of the so-called Comprehensive Agreement on Investment between the EU and China, signed in late 2020 and seen initially as a snub by the EU towards the incoming Biden administration. Mutual imposition of sanctions has stalled the agreement’s ratification by the European Parliament. European powers had already expressed concern about human rights abuses in Xinjiang and restrictions on political freedoms in Hong Kong, leading to strong support for US sanctions against China. Beijing reacted with counter-sanctions, including some targeting members of the European Parliament and academics based in Europe. Policy on all sides – including in China – is, if not explicitly pushing towards a complex and costly decoupling, shifting towards greater economic self-reliance. Bifurcation in technology (and other) standards will further exacerbate the development of separate international blocs.

China is also increasingly seen as an aggressive military power. China’s military development has accelerated as it tries to live up to the demand by President Xi that the People’s Liberation Army be able to fight and win wars. This is not necessarily a statement of aggression, but a clear articulation of a need to improve capabilities. At the same time, confrontations with India, incursions into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ), a growing external military presence, increasingly aggressive action at sea and dual capabilities in outer space all point to a China that seeks to present itself as a significant global military power. The US has long confronted Beijing militarily, but European powers are now increasingly eager to deploy their seafaring capabilities in Asian waters. This stance is a demonstration of both support for allies in the region (including the US) and of a growing willingness to confront China.

This is the wider geopolitical and geo-economic context in which Europe, the US and China currently operate, setting up a complicated triangular relationship between the three powers. Geopolitical trends are pushing Europe and the US closer together, in large part due to a growing disconnect and divergence of worldviews with China. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has further complicated the situation, with likely ramifications for all the policy areas considered in this paper. The EU and the US responded rapidly and largely in unison through coordinated sanctions on Russia and broadly similar approaches. Meanwhile, China has so far remained equivocal and, at times, has appeared to support Russia.4

However, there are areas in which cooperation is not only possible but essential. Climate change is recognized as one of the greatest challenges facing humanity. Without joint action and cooperation, it will be impossible to avoid the potentially catastrophic warming of the planet. Similarly, global pandemics will be hard to manage in a decoupled world, and a divided global economy is likely to be a less prosperous one overall.

Transatlantic divergence and convergence

In this wider context, there are numerous structural issues which create tensions across the Atlantic and complicate efforts to develop a coherent perspective on China. At the same time, there are several areas of clear convergence – most obviously the long-standing close security links (exemplified by NATO), and the deep economic interlinkage. But there are also divergences, often driven by internal policy disputes within Europe and the US. There is an overarching assumption that Europe and the US – as close liberal and democratic partners in contrast with autocratic China – should have the same strategic and geopolitical ambitions, and should seek close cooperation to that end. However, transatlantic divergence and convergence on China are visible across the four policy areas examined in this paper. The nature of great power or strategic competition has meant that Beijing and Washington’s view of one another has had a greater impact on their policy direction than transatlantic coordination. In Europe, the China challenge remains further down the agenda than in the US, and responses are often hindered by a lack of agreement within the EU.

Trade and investment

Significant differences in perspective remain between Europe and the US, and also within Europe, when it comes to economic policymaking in response to the rise of China. The variations in economic exposure to China (see Figure 1, which shows European countries’ goods trade with China before COVID-19-related disruption) go some way to explaining these differences, particularly among EU member states. While all EU countries import significant quantities of goods from China, some member states have more at stake than others in terms of exports and investments. Germany is the bloc’s largest and most powerful member state, and also the most economically interwoven with China, both in absolute and relative terms. This complicates the EU decision-making process. Furthermore, interest in courting inward investment from China varies strongly between EU member states. While most Western European member states have become increasingly sceptical of Chinese investment – as this is seen to be driven in part by China’s desire to gain access to critical technologies – some Eastern European member states have continued to court inward investment from China, often with disappointing results.5

Figure 1. European countries’ goods trade with China, 2019

– Sources: UN Comtrade (2021), ‘UN Comtrade Database’ (accessed 11 Jun. 2021), https://comtrade.un.org; World Bank (2021), ‘World Development Indicators’ (accessed 17 Feb. 2021), https://databank.worldbank.org/reports.aspx?source=2&series=NY.

Some of the resulting dynamics have been seen recently in the spat between Lithuania and China over Lithuania’s recognition of the Taiwanese representation in Vilnius.6 China retaliated with economic measures, and threatened others doing business with Lithuania. Although the EU did file a case against China at the World Trade Organization (WTO), the initial response from the German business lobby was to put pressure on Lithuania to reconsider its actions.

There are also clear differences within countries. Those EU member states that are most deeply integrated with the Chinese economy, like Germany, remain hesitant to take a more confrontational approach.7 While the US approach generally has been confrontational, including under President Biden, the American financial sector is one of the main examples of an industry actually increasing its exposure to China.8 The market opportunity in China remains large enough to create divisions between those in Europe and the US seeking to profit from it and those looking to push back for either economic or political reasons. Often this is seemingly strategically driven by Chinese policy, as the Chinese government in recent years both opened its financial sector for US firms and reduced joint-venture requirements in the automotive sector; the latter with the intent of attracting German carmakers to invest even more in China.9

In the realm of economic policy, and the economic challenge posed by China, the differences between the transatlantic partners are in the perceived scale of that challenge but also in how Europe sees itself in relation to both China and the US. Although the EU has begun talking about China as a ‘systemic rival’ as relations with China have moved up the agenda, it has mainly responded with a series of relatively small policy interventions, aimed at reducing or removing distortions to the level playing field in its single market. These measures have included, for example, investment screening mechanisms, rules on public procurement, a stronger focus on industrial policy and pursuing concessions from China on reciprocal market access. In contrast, for the US, the rivalry with China has become almost a defining feature of its policymaking. Although economic decoupling has become a less overt objective under Biden, policy has not changed to any significant degree compared with the Trump administration.

Differing attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic towards the future of the global economic governance system form another major obstacle to a more coordinated transatlantic response to the economic challenge from a rising China. While the EU has sought to sustain the global multilateral trading system, the US has put it under pressure by undermining the WTO’s dispute settlement system.10 A similar split has been visible over how to engage with China through multilateral financial institutions and the extent to which both the EU and the US have been willing to engage with new, often China-led institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The BRI has also proved contentious, with some European countries – mainly in Central and Eastern Europe – actively engaged with the initiative. In contrast, the US has sought to engage European partners in its own competing initiatives, such as the soon to be rebranded Build Back Better World (B3W) Partnership.11

Transatlantic cooperation in many of these areas is as difficult to achieve as a broader European strategy. This is because European thinking is often defined as aiming to achieve economic sovereignty not just in relation to China, but also the US. In many ways, this stance is not dissimilar to US policies aimed at bolstering ‘America First’, but within Europe internal competition between member states adds a further layer of complexity.

Beyond being significantly closer to each other in terms of values, Europe and the US are also more deeply economically interlinked than China is with either party. Although both the US and the EU import significant amounts of goods from China, other measures of economic interconnection show a much stronger transatlantic bond. For instance, despite a significant increase in Chinese investment in Europe during the past decade, the amount of inward investment in the continent from China is still dwarfed by that from the US (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Sources of foreign direct investment stock in Europe, 2019

– Sources: OECD (2021), ‘Inward FDI stocks by partner country (indicator)’ (accessed 15 Jun. 2021), https://doi.org/10.1787/9a523b18-en; Statistics Finland (2021), ‘Foreign direct investment by immediate target and investor country’ (accessed 15 Jun. 2021), https://pxnet2.stat.fi/PXWeb/pxweb/en/StatFin/StatFin__yri__ssij/statfin_ssij_pxt_12gu.px.

Companies and private sector representatives in both the US and EU have increasingly voiced frustration with Chinese economic practices such as forced technology transfers, intellectual property protections, unfair competition from Chinese state-owned firms and unreciprocated market access. However, the lure of the Chinese market, and even of cooperation with Chinese firms, remains strong enough for them to keep their criticism modest.

There are also similarities to be found in terms of policies enacted on both sides of the Atlantic. Policies enacted by the EU as part of its so-called toolbox, such as investment-screening, an anti-coercion instrument and export controls, are comparable to efforts in the US. These provide potential for transatlantic cooperation, through information-sharing or shared action. For example, one of the working groups within the EU-US Trade and Technology Council is on export controls.12 While this also suggests some cooperation on industrial policy – particularly with regard to the challenge from China in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI) and electric vehicles – there remains more competition in this area than cooperation. This is highlighted by the fierce competition between European and US firms to attract semiconductor manufacturing capacity in the wake of the global shortages in this sector since the COVID-19 pandemic.

The increasing realization of the scale of the China challenge in Europe and the much closer and historic interlinking of transatlantic economies, together with a decrease in transatlantic tensions under the new US administration, have led to more cooperation between the EU and US. This is, for example, apparent in the newly created EU–US Trade and Technology Council (TTC), an attempt to develop a structure for transatlantic coordination in the key area of technology. While the aim of the TTC is far wider than solely policy towards China, it speaks of encouraging ‘compatible standards and regulations based on our shared democratic values’. The TTC plans joint work and cooperation on norms in a series of important technological areas (such as AI). It should be noted that, despite all this work, the remit of the TTC is largely limited to coordination. A return to something like the failed negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – an attempted EU–US trade agreement in 2016 – remains highly unlikely.

The importance of the China challenge is also visible in the EU’s overt attempt to compete with the BRI through its Global Gateway plan.13 As with the US-led B3W initiative, it remains to be seen whether Global Gateway will be substantial enough to have any real economic or geopolitical impact, as no new resources have been made available for it. Closer cooperation between the EU and the US has also yet to lead to any significant shared efforts to boost the influence and effectiveness of multilateral economic and financial institutions; the US is often behind the increasing ineffectiveness of those institutions and presents a stumbling block to reforms that the EU would prefer to pursue, for instance in case of the WTO.14

Digital technology

There is a general agreement on both sides of the Atlantic about the importance of digital technology, as highlighted by the creation of the TTC. It remains to be seen to what degree the TTC achieves its goals, but its existence – as well as the desire to focus on technology and the continued veiled references to China and Chinese investment in its published materials15 – all highlight the desire of the EU and the US to at least focus discussions on the topic. It is also clear that, via purchases of Western technology firms and other overt or covert methods, China is strengthening its own capabilities – something that European powers are becoming increasingly aware of and are expressing concern about. There are, however, numerous fissures between the EU and US which suggest that the TTC will face challenges in trying to develop a coherent transatlantic approach towards China in the digital and technological domain.

The first issue is the way in which broader geopolitical tensions and relations affect internal European politics. Broadly speaking, Central and Eastern European countries view the relationship with the US as essential and as the key bulwark against Russian aggression – a fear that has become more acute in recent years and particularly amid the Russia–Ukraine conflict. This means that those countries are keen to pursue policies closer to those of Washington than to the views of either Brussels or larger member states. This divergence was most apparent during the Trump presidency, when Central and Eastern European countries were among the most supportive of the push from the US administration to remove Chinese technology from European digital infrastructure. This view was in contrast to that from Western European capitals such as Berlin, London or Paris, where there was a desire to constrain rather than to block Chinese technology. Larger member states have sought a balanced relationship with Beijing partly due to their economic interests, which echo through the digital and technology spaces, and partly to different geopolitical views.

Figure 3. Chinese technology projects in the EU, EFTA and UK

– Source: Compiled using publicly available data from Australian Strategic Policy Institute and International Cyber Policy Centre (undated), ‘Mapping China’s Tech Giants’, https://chinatechmap.aspi.org.au/#/homepage.

While France and Germany view the transatlantic security alliance as crucial to their security and prosperity, there is also a strong desire in those countries to emphasize European (or, rather, national) strategic autonomy from the US. At the same time, the view in Central and Eastern Europe is not universal, with some countries like Hungary placing a premium on the relationship with Beijing – a stance which, to some extent, is guided by the significant Chinese digital and technological investment in Hungary.16 This investment is also visible in the larger EU member states, which have welcomed Chinese participation in research and development as well as other key digital and technological domains (see Figure 3, which shows the number of individual Chinese technology projects in each European country). These countries are keen to retain such investments – in some cases because companies might go out of business if Chinese investment was not forthcoming and also because Western governments do not necessarily see a value in underwriting those companies. This desire to maintain inward investment flows creates a natural point of influence for China within Europe, but also counteracts attempts in Europe to present a more aggressive front against China on technology in particular.

Within the transatlantic alliance too, there is an inherent tension caused by competition and cooperation. Western governments may currently favour cooperation to confront the challenge posed by China, but this is not always the case among private companies, and each side of the Atlantic is likely to favour its own businesses. Ideas for joint US and European support for Western companies that can become ‘champions’ in technologies currently dominated by Chinese firms do not appear to have been taken forward.

Companies themselves do not always have the same interests as their host governments and tend to be more agnostic in their political views. Their desire to access large markets like China means they may be more inclined to seek engagement. Vast parts of tech supply chains are linked to China, while Western tech companies sell considerable volumes of goods in the Chinese market. This makes the technology space an inherently difficult one for Europe and the US to control and hinders any joint effort to force companies to comply with an anti-China stance.

This tension between private and public sector interests runs through the entire digital and technology space. Within China to some degree it is more coherent, though often the West underestimates the tensions within the Chinese system – most recently evidenced by the clampdown on social media and tech companies within China.17 This development reflects a desire by the Chinese government to bring the sector under tighter state control, in part due to many of the same concerns around data protection that exist elsewhere, but also out of concern over the immensely powerful structures being built in the Chinese private sector, which the state fears could supplant it in key sectors of the economy. At the same time, in the West, liberal market policies make it difficult for governments to develop industrial policies that do not undermine the free-market logic underpinning the European and American economies. Given the increasing centrality of technology in daily life around the world, this dynamic will be a difficult one to manage anywhere.

At the same time, the decision to focus transatlantic cooperation in a vehicle such as the TTC reflects both the importance for the area for future growth and its role in the competition with China. Within the technology domain, the public sector largely acts as a regulator, and is crucial in determining the rules within which companies operate. This impacts everything from development and ethics to income, economic viability, employment and tax burdens. Given the size and power of the transatlantic economy in this regard, coordination affords the EU and US considerable influence in determining international technological norms.

The public sector can also play a significant role in investing in the research and development that underpins the discoveries helping to develop the digital world – though, in this area, the public sector is most usefully able to play a supportive role. Once technologies have started to achieve a certain maturity, it becomes harder for the public sector to be involved as this can be seen as distorting the market. At earlier stages of development, government can provide the investment and support that can help ideas be tested and in some cases fail. Identifying which technologies to support, and how long to continue to support them, becomes a difficult balance for government, especially when market viability in certain key technologies may only be achievable through subsidy – for example, when a much cheaper Chinese technology is widely available.

Finally, there are also normative and conceptual disputes between Europe and the US in the area of digital technology; for example, on the subjects of data privacy and regulation of online discourse. In Europe, there is a greater willingness to seek to impose restrictions, while in the US a more libertarian approach is favoured. At the same time, European approaches to personal data protection have gone much further than the US – exemplified by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which entered into force in May 2018 and which places much greater emphasis on data managers to ensure citizens’ control of personal data. This directly contradicts the business model of numerous online firms, including that of large US social media platforms, and has caused a degree of transatlantic friction. In contrast, China has created its own legislation mirroring large parts of GDPR.

However, in terms of the openness of online discourse, and even in areas like protection of citizens’ data, Europe and the US are closer in perspective than either of those two partners are to China. In terms of developing the future infrastructure and standards of the global digital economy, Europe and the US also share more with each other than either does with China. This extends into the global institutions that shape our technological world, where there is a growing effort by both Europe and the US to coordinate efforts to counterbalance Chinese attempts to dominate and establish norms that reflect their own interests.

Climate change

China, the EU and the US are the world’s three largest emitters of greenhouse gases and therefore are fundamental to global efforts at achieving a stable climate. In the US, climate change is a party-political issue, with Democrats largely favouring both national and international action – for example, Democratic President Obama signed the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change18 – and the Republicans less committed – Obama’s Republican successor, Trump, withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement in 2020.19 To further demonstrate the partisan nature of climate change, one of the first acts by President Biden – a Democrat – after taking office in January 2021 was to rejoin the agreement. Therefore, all too often, the nature of the US’s international engagement changes every four to eight years with the election of a new president. Given the US’s importance to global efforts to combat climate change, this on/off approach creates significant difficulties for the EU and other like-minded partners, as they seek to build and maintain momentum towards more ambitious policies.

However, while the US’s international climate policy is led by the president, the ability of any administration to ratify international agreements is ultimately determined by the US Senate. This tension was demonstrated in the late 1990s when the Clinton administration signed the Kyoto Protocol20 – which was a legally binding treaty as opposed to the non-binding Paris Agreement – but never submitted it to the Senate for ratification. Efforts at international cooperation therefore face further uncertainty, as not only does the US climate position depend on whether a Democrat or Republican is in the White House, but also whether the executive and legislative branches of US government are politically aligned.

Climate change is considered an important issue by the incumbent Biden administration, as demonstrated by its hosting of the Climate Leaders Summit in April 2021.21 John Kerry, the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, has invested considerable time and effort into engaging with China, resulting in the signing of a joint declaration on enhancing climate action at the UN COP26 climate summit held in November 2021.22 While the declaration does not bind either party to new targets, it does provide a platform for further cooperation between the US and China.

China is important to global diplomacy on climate change, owing to the scale of its emissions and to its manufacturing capabilities, being the world’s largest producer of solar and wind equipment.2324 Furthermore, China has significant geopolitical and economic influence, particularly in developing countries and those countries that are signed up to BRI.

Individual EU member states have enacted their own climate mitigation plans, carbon-pricing and cooperation agreements with third countries. The EU has been consistently supportive of more ambitious climate action, although Central and Eastern European member states tend to be less enthusiastic. During negotiations between member states on the latest 2030 carbon reduction plans, Poland, alongside like-minded states, sought to ensure that the upcoming reform of the EU carbon market would increase financial resources dedicated to supporting the transition in Central and Eastern European member states. Despite these divisions, under the current presidency of Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission has made climate change a high priority, with increased funds and more ambitious emissions reduction targets. In the approach to COP26, the Commission raised the climate mitigation target to greenhouse gas emissions reductions of at least 55 per cent by 2030, up from 40 per cent as initially proposed in the Paris Agreement.25

Climate change is recognized as one of the most important – if not the most important – global challenges of our time. Emissions primarily from the burning of fossil fuels and land-use changes are increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides and fluorine gases) in the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in a higher planetary temperature. If emissions continue to rise, then the consequences of the associated increasing global temperature will be catastrophic for humanity. The most recent IPCC report said that: ‘[i]t is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land’, which is ‘already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe’.26

Greenhouse gas emissions have the same impact regardless of where they are released. Therefore, without common action, it is impossible for any country or individual to be unaffected. Given the clear and uncontested view of the causes – and, increasingly, the impacts of climate change – global and coordinated action needs to follow.

There is no doubt that unless China and the US – and, to a lesser extent, the EU – take ambitious climate action, meeting agreed targets will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Joint actions will also both make the transition cheaper and more rapid and will remove much of the uncertainty about decarbonization. Therefore, an overarching cooperative approach to climate change is clearly not only mutually beneficial but essential. It demonstrates the necessity of a cooperative approach between China, the EU and the US, and also of common approaches between the G20 countries and with developing countries, emissions from which in many cases are rising rapidly.

The war on Ukraine and consequent economic sanctions imposed on Russia have affected global prices for fossil fuels, and have raised concerns in Europe particularly over energy security. The implications for climate change are unclear, as the EU seeks to accelerate the transition towards greater use of renewable energy and increased energy efficiency, in order to reduce its dependence on Russian-sourced coal, oil and gas. This may in turn lead to the export of more Russian fossil fuels to China. The US is also anticipating increased exports of its gas to the EU, further changing the geopolitics and financial flows of the global energy sector.

The global commons

In Europe, the EU and its member states (as well as most non-EU countries) have signed up to the major global regimes governing the seas and oceans, including those covering the Southern Ocean and its seabed and outer space. However, national economic interests, as well as intra-European political disputes, have led to a fractured European response on a range of issues that extend beyond the long-standing concern over China’s human rights record. These include, among others, technological cooperation with China on outer space and arbitration on disputes in the South China Sea. On the latter, for example, Greek and Hungarian objections to an EU statement in support of a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, against China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea, were criticized as being motivated by those countries’ dependence on Chinese inward investment.27 Croatia also reportedly raised concerns over the statement, owing to its own maritime boundary disagreement with Slovenia, for which the court ruling would have set a precedent.28

As in other areas of policymaking, intra-European governance structures hamper coordination. In the example of outer space, European policies have been overwhelmingly driven by individual member states and their national space agencies. To an extent, these agencies are brought together in the European Space Agency (ESA), but this organization itself is separate from the EU. While the EU has sought to streamline its space policy via the EU Space Programme for 2021–2027 and its new EU Agency for the Space Programme in order to be able to compete with China and the US, it remains unclear how these initiatives will reduce the influence of national interests in the decision-making process.29 Indeed, while the EU seeks to establish its own space industry and strategic position, France reiterated in March 2021 that it would continue to work with China bilaterally in outer-space exploration.30 Similarly, the ESA continues to support China’s space exploration programme.31 Media reports suggest that France and the ESA were exploring opportunities to work with China and Russia on their future lunar base, although it remains uncertain whether this was indeed the case and how Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine will affect long-term interest in such cooperation.32 Potential economic opportunities in the space industry have further driven European companies to cooperate with their Chinese counterparts, despite growing concerns of European governments over Chinese dual-use capabilities and strategic objectives in outer space. The private sector provides an example of the difficulty of building deeper transatlantic cooperation, despite pre-existing comprehensive links between Europe and the US and long-standing messaging from the US over its concerns regarding European space cooperation with China, in particular the sharing of sensitive technology.33 However, the commercial opportunities to advance European space technologies and companies, and to create security supply chains to help enable strategic autonomy, also drive a sense of competition with the US.34

The economic dimension of countering China’s challenges in the global commons can also be seen in the maritime sector. For example, in 2021, German sales of engines were reported to have helped to modernize the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy fleet, despite widespread concerns in Europe and the US over both Chinese military modernization in general and China’s assertiveness at sea in waters beyond its national maritime jurisdiction.35

However, there are also more deep-rooted challenges in the differing European and US interpretation of norms, particularly with regard to outer space. While the EU recognizes outer space as a global common, recent US administrations have mainly sought to protect American national interests in this new frontier. In 2015, the Obama administration enacted the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which included Title IV on Space Resource Exploration and Utilization to defend US investments in outer space resource-extraction.36 In 2020, Trump signed an executive order stating explicitly that outer space is not viewed by the US as a global common. Furthermore, the US has embarked on its own regime for conduct in outer space through the creation of the Artemis Accords, an initiative which so far has received the support of 19 other countries, including seven European states, with France becoming the 20th state to join the accords in June 2022.37

Despite their differences over governance of the global commons, there is also a great deal of alignment between Europe and the US. This is particularly evident in the maritime domain, despite the US’s continued refusal to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) due to long-standing domestic political opposition. Concerns cited by opponents include possible infringements on US sovereignty through restrictions on its access to marine resources and legal obligations to accept the jurisdiction of an international body over disputes concerning US resources and territory.38 However, the US has consistently abided by UNCLOS as a matter of customary international law.39 It is also worth noting that not all states that have ratified UNCLOS – including European states – share the same interpretation of its various rules, and that such differences have not obstructed their relations with other countries.40

Increasing interest in the Indo-Pacific from European states, as demonstrated by recent naval missions in the South China Sea, shows a shared concern over Beijing’s attempts to rewrite the rules of maritime law in its own region. In 2019, the E3 – France, Germany and the UK – issued a joint statement expressing support for UNCLOS and the 2016 PCA Final Ruling on the South China Sea, and noting their concern over destabilizing activities that were not in line with international maritime law. This was followed in 2020 by a note verbale to the UN.41 In 2021, France, Germany and the UK separately announced that they would send warships to the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific region in an effort to underscore the importance of international maritime law and the principle of free passage; the UK’s deployment of its Carrier Strike Group included a US ship and a Dutch ship, as well as US F-35 jets.42

Transatlantic cooperation in the governance of outer space is likewise moving forwards. A UK-led UN resolution on norms for conduct in outer space received support from both European states and the US. Cooperation is also being advanced through the ESA, plus government-to-government and commercial channels. While the Artemis Accords have not yet been fully subscribed by EU countries, the ESA and NASA have signed a bilateral memorandum of cooperation on joining ‘the first human outpost in lunar orbit’ by contributing service modules and affording ESA the opportunity to send European astronauts to the outpost.43 NATO is also considering the strategic use of space: in 2019, it adopted a new Space Policy and declared space an operational domain. In 2020, NATO established a dedicated space centre at Allied Air Command in Germany,44 and in 2021, it recognized that its members could invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty over attacks to, from or within space.45

Conclusion

While Europe remains closer to the US than it is to China, and while European countries and the US share concerns over China’s economic and geopolitical rise, the transatlantic relationship is far from settled when it comes to developing a coherent response to the challenges posed by China. Obstacles to closer cooperation are present across all four policy areas explored in this project. Although this paper is far from exhaustive, it presents some of the most significant barriers to more effective transatlantic cooperation on China in several policy domains.

Competition between Europe and the US holds back deeper transatlantic cooperation across all policy domains considered. For instance, discussions in Europe on attaining strategic autonomy are often held not so much with China in mind, but the US. Meanwhile, US policy remains broadly one of ‘America First’. This rivalry continues to drive competition in trade and technology, with impacts on normative behaviour in the global commons.

Furthermore, the fractured nature of internal policymaking in the governance structures in both Brussels and Washington remains a hurdle across all of the policy domains studied. While the narrative of the past years has been a growing political consensus in numerous Western countries with regards to China, the reality is that many institutions and sectors in those countries retain different interests – whether they are in the private sector, public sector or are non-governmental in nature. For example, US tech companies continue to depend heavily on Chinese contractors and suppliers, while German automotive firms remain reliant on demand from the Chinese market. On both sides of the Atlantic, influential constituencies believe in a more moderate approach to China, would prefer engagement over confrontation, want economics to be prioritized over human rights or can see the benefits of continued engagement in such areas as environmental protection and resource scarcity.

Paralysis in policymaking is a long-standing complaint about the European and US governing structures. This does indeed place the transatlantic alliance at a disadvantage when facing China’s more top-down decision-making process. While varying perspectives can be found in the Chinese system, the central command structure is more focused and has become stronger during Xi Jinping’s presidency. For example, while European and US authorities struggle to regulate their digital sectors, there has been a dramatic regulatory clampdown on technology companies in China recently. Beijing clearly has greater capacity to bring companies to heel, compared with Western governments. Even if US and European authorities were able to agree a course of action, it is not clear that their private sectors would necessarily follow.

It is worth observing that the transatlantic partnership was able to rapidly mobilize and respond to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, suggesting that it is not impossible for Western countries to overcome internal disagreements to impose strong and punitive sanctions on an adversary. But it is not clear that China would undertake such a bellicose action as Russia’s to prompt a similar response. It is equally true that Russia’s links with the global economy are not the same as China’s. While there is still deep interdependence between Europe and Russia in certain sectors (for example, in energy), the direction in Europe at the moment is to break this dependence. Nevertheless, the key lesson here is that, in the face of extreme action, Europe and the US can mobilize rapidly, and are willing to accept damage to their own interests in advance of a common goal against an adversarial power.

Across the four policy areas, there is a significant difference in adherence to the existing global multilateral order between the transatlantic partners, as both the US and China have undermined this at certain times. This has led the EU to seek a mediating or leadership role in the policy areas of trade, digital and tech, climate change and global governance. European powers regard themselves as both beneficiaries and champions of the international order and its institutions. They also see the EU as an independent strategic actor and would rather move towards greater autonomy from the US than increase dependence. This sentiment might be stronger under some US administrations than others. But the main lesson for Europe from the Trump presidency was that the US might not always be a reliable actor and partner in international affairs. Even under the Biden presidency, the AUKUS partnership and the chaotic withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan against European wishes appear to have confirmed the sense among certain EU countries that they lack influence over decision-making in Washington.

It is further important to consider third-party countries in all policy areas – both in Asia and elsewhere. These powers have considerable agency over the issues considered in this paper, and have their own perspectives on the China challenge. For example, Taiwan is crucial to the production of semiconductors, while Japanese and South Korean firms are at the cutting edge of many new technologies. Meanwhile, much of the developing world continues to rely on Chinese suppliers of goods due to their relatively low prices and rapid delivery – which Western companies struggle (or do not want) to compete with.

A solely transatlantic response to China will therefore leave gaps, which will make it impossible to achieve desired outcomes. Cooperation with third countries is already happening in some areas as the transatlantic partners engage more deeply with security issues in the Indo-Pacific region. But even in this case, they do not always take the wider region into account, except China and a small number of large players like India and Japan.

The current lack of trust within the international system makes good-faith engagement difficult. But it is imperative to include China in the global conversation if these problems are to be overcome. China is a now a major part of the global system and this is unlikely to change fundamentally in the medium-term.

Whether the issue is establishing rules on international technology standards, mitigating the next pandemic or governing the global commons, some level of engagement with China will be necessary. On climate change in particular, no comprehensive solution is possible without China. It may prove difficult for Western policymakers to achieve such engagement. But finding a balance between engagement, competing views within the transatlantic alliance and an increasingly assertive China will be the West’s most significant challenge for the next decade or more.

Another brief break from book promotion, this time a new article for my Singaporean institutional journal Counter Terrorism Trends and Analyses (CTTA). This was an attempt to look back at COVID-19 and reflect a bit on some of my earlier pieces which looked at who benefitted most or not from the pandemic. Not sure everything I wrote earlier on quite played out, but some bits did. Am still convinced this anti-establishmentarian narrative will gain more traction and the extreme right in Continental Europe is going to be a bigger problem going forwards.

Extreme Right-Wing Terrorism and COVID-19 – A Two-Year Stocktake

As the pandemic moves into its third year, normality appears to be returning. While caution has not dissipated, there is no doubt that governments’ treatment of COVID-19 has changed. As countries embrace a wider “open up” strategy, this is already being flagged as a possible opportunity for terrorists.1 These warnings are linked to concerns that, as countries open up, the barriers erected to prevent COVID-19 from spreading will lift and make terrorist plotting easier once again. But a larger question lingers about what the actual impact of COVID-19 has been on terrorist threats at an ideological level. Given the threat has resonated in a stronger fashion on the Extreme Right, this article seeks to sketch out that impact and assess its wider implications.

Introduction

Following the onset of the pandemic, there was a rush of commentary and subsequent research trying to understand its potential impact on terrorist and extremist threats.2 The conclusions drawn were fairly diverse, but few observers concluded that terrorism would be reduced as a result of the pandemic. Rather, concerns were articulated that the threats would become worse, owing to a variety of reasons – the increasing amount of time people were spending online;3 the growing isolation fostered by lockdowns;4 the uncertainty created by the pandemic;5 and the likely shrinking of counter-terrorism and P/CVE budgets.6 There was also divergence within the research community, with sharply dissenting voices pouring cold water on more dramatic prognostications, including that there would be a surge in online radicalisation.7

As it turned out, in the broadest possible terms, the two major threat ideologies diverged in their response to the pandemic. Violent Islamist groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) broadly framed the pandemic as God’s providence and something followers should not worry too much about, except to celebrate how it made their enemies suffer and to maintain resilience.8 In some cases, they spoke of how strategic opportunities might present themselves, which followers should take advantage of,9 and at some lower levels, chatter was picked up that suggested people should try to weaponise the virus.10 But this was never something that the core organisations called on their followers to do.

In contrast, among the Extreme Right (violent, extremist or just Far Right), groups embraced the pandemic in their narratives to recruit and mainstream even further than they had already. Protests around pandemic restrictions were frequently adopted and promoted by extreme right-wing groups, and anti-establishment narratives absorbed pandemic resistance smoothly into their views.11 Systemic conspiracy theories also ran rife, absorbing prominent figures like Bill Gates into narratives of population control through vaccination,12 as well as broader conspiracies involving undermining indigenous communities.13

On the Far Left, an anti-systemic narrative also did catch on, but with far less vigour. While fears of government control could be found, their greater concern was with the resurgent far right or other acts of societal injustice.14 More confusing ideologies like the QAnon or Incel movement seemed to echo pandemic conspiracies but, for the most part, this merely fed into the wider chatter around their ideologies rather than transforming them.15 It was not clear from available research what the effect was on other faith-based extremisms – like Buddhist or Hindu extremists, for example.

Early Terrorist Action

Little of this noise translated into actual terrorist action, although there were widespread instances of civil disturbance – most prominently on January 6, 2021 when supporters of former US President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. This was one of many instances where large protests ended in violence and involved resistance to pandemic restrictions, amongst other motivations. In Australia, it seemed as though the Extreme Right actively took advantage of such protests to advance their ideas.16

It was not always clear the degree to which the protests were terrorist activity, nor whether the protests could be entirely placed in the ideological category to which they were often linked. For example, during anti-lockdown protests or the January 6 assault on the Capitol, there were undoubtedly many extreme right-wing leaning individuals involved, but it remains unclear if they made up the entire corpus of the protest. Nor is it clear that the protest could be described as entirely motivated by extreme right-wing ideas.

In terms of terrorist action that could be directly linked to the pandemic, the list is more limited. At the pandemic’s onset, two cases in the United States seemed to suggest a direct link to the government’s response to the virus – Timothy Wilson’s attempted bombing of a Missouri hospital and Eduardo Moreno’s train derailment targeting the US Navy’s hospital ship Mercy docked in the Port of Los Angeles. Whilst clearly targeting institutions linked to the government’s pandemic response, both had different origins.

Wilson, a long-standing subject of interest to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), had links to a serving US soldier stationed in Kansas who was reportedly planning to fight alongside the Azov Battalion in Ukraine.17 He had also spoken of launching attacks on multiple domestic targets, including prominent Democrat politicians.18 Reportedly, Wilson had long been planning some sort of incident, and it is possible that the pandemic simply changed his targeting choices. He had also seemingly been planning his attack with the full knowledge of the FBI, although it was not clear whether this was because of an undercover agent who turned him in, or whether he was simply under FBI surveillance.19

In contrast, Moreno was a railway worker arrested for planning an attack by himself. This involved derailing the train he was working on in the Port of Los Angeles in an attempt to draw people’s attention towards the “government take-over” that he perceived was happening.20 As was stated in his indictment, “Moreno believed people needed to know what was going on with the COVID19” pandemic and the U.S.N.S. Mercy.21 Among other claims, Moreno stated that “they are segregating us and it needs to be put in the open.”22 He was also very specific in stating that “no one was pushing his buttons” in orchestrating the attack, reflecting his desire to not have his stated motivations dismissed.23

These two early cases received considerable attention, coming as they did in the immediate wake of the early announcements of lockdowns in March 2020, and as people sought a better sense of the pandemic’s likely impact on extremism. In both cases, action involving the perpetrators took place, and some inspiration from the pandemic response was involved in the attack planning, although not necessarily in the same way. While Moreno’s attack was clearly a response to the pandemic, Wilson seemed a longer-term extremist linked to Extreme Right networks who decided on a pandemic-related target relatively late in his planning cycle.24

From what is known about Moreno’s attack, it is possible to conclude that sans the pandemic the attack might not have happened. In contrast, Wilson’s pre-existing links to other extremists and networks suggest he could have acted even if the pandemic had not taken place. The pandemic appears to have presented an interesting targeting opportunity for Wilson, with the government’s response to the event reinforcing Wilson’s pre-existing worldview.25 This could also be the case for Moreno (he may have already held some anti-government ideas), but not enough is known about his case to draw a decisive conclusion.

In a survey of pandemic-related terrorism done in March 2021, Sam Mullins and Michael King concluded that this pattern of activity held across the extreme right-wing cases they surveyed.26 Looking at a dataset of seven cases, including both Moreno and Wilson, they concluded that all the individuals, aside from Moreno and one other where it was unclear, had pre-existing extreme right-wing tendencies (mostly linked to the anti-government Boogaloo Bois movement).27

The authors’ conclusion was that it remains too early to conclude that the pandemic has spurred more violence. While the cases they explored largely highlighted how problems of extremism have generally gotten worse along the same trajectory as prior to the pandemic, they are less clear about the pandemic’s potential accelerating effect.28 A survey of wider trends a year into the pandemic concluded something very similar, though it broadly surmised that the Extreme Right seemed like it was going to be affected more than the violent Islamist community.29

Trouble Spreading?

Largely, existing trends have continued and, as the pandemic ends, the expectation should be that extremist-linked activity will pick up as they had before. Consequently, parts of Europe may find themselves once again most seriously afflicted by lone-actor terrorism; the United States may face a metastasising menace of extreme right-wing and anti-government groups; Africa a sharpening terrorist threat linked to IS affiliates; the Middle East a constant threat; and Southeast Asia a threat that appears to have slowed over the past few years. Afghanistan has already started to export problems north and south of its border, suggesting the mid-2021 Taliban take-over is going to worsen long-standing terrorist problems across South Asia (and even into Central Asia). None of this brief overview seems to have been impacted notably by COVID-19.

However, there are some patterns that do appear to be worsening and can be linked to the pandemic. In particular, the extreme right-wing threat in Europe. A long-standing threat, it has in the past year shifted in a direction to resemble its North American counterpart in a way that is novel and potentially destabilising. There has been a notable number of large-scale disruptions that suggest networks of radicalised individuals, often with military training, inspired by extreme-right ideas and eager to strike targets associated with the pandemic response. Events in Ukraine have had an impact on the broader extreme right-wing in Europe, but this appears to have happened in parallel to the pandemic.

Recent cases have also put a spotlight on some worrying underlying trends. Specifically, these include the growing number of arrests of members of the security forces with links to extreme rightwing groups (something particularly noticeable in Germany); a growing number of vaccination centre bombings; and finally, spates of 5G mast attacks across Europe. The last two are not exclusively linked to the Far Right, though there are often links. All, however, point to a pent-up anger that could come to the fore in a dangerous fashion.

Two specific plots, which came a year apart from each other, underscore these trends. First, in mid-May 2021, Jürgen Conings, a radicalised soldier who was already under surveillance for his extreme right-wing links, fled with weapons stolen from his barracks, leaving behind a note for his girlfriend that claimed he was “going to join the resistance”30 and did not expect to survive. He had previously expressed anger towards a prominent Belgian virologist, and there were fears he was planning on targeting the latter for murder.31 Conings was found dead just over a month later, having taken his own life.

As investigation into his case continued, it was uncovered that Conings was a long-standing target of authorities and had close links to other prominent figures in the extreme right-wing movement in Europe.32 Conings’s case became something of a cause célèbre amongst the far-right and antivaccination communities in Belgium and French-speaking Europe, with thousands signing petitions and a number of protest marches organised in support of his case.33 While it is not clear whether his case inspired others to violence, it did illustrate the depth of support that exists below the surface, as well as the very smooth interlinking of extreme-right and anti-vaccination ideologies, all alongside the notion of using violence to fight back against the government.

This worrying pattern was found again in April 2022 in Germany, when authorities disrupted a plot involving a cell of five men who were planning to kidnap the country’s health minister and overthrow the government. The men had managed to obtain at least one Kalashnikov machine gun and were reportedly in advanced stages of planning their attack.34 Calling themselves the “United Patriots” (Vereinte Patrioten), the group had a long history of anti-pandemic activism.35 The leader had reportedly been boasting about his plans up to a year before the arrests, and the group was made up of individuals who were also active Reichsbürger members.

The Reichsbürger movement is similar to the Sovereign Citizen movement found in North America (and in parts of Europe), and is made up of a few thousand individuals who reject the German state, accusing it of being an overbearing construct imposed on the nation in the wake of the Second World War.36 They are a growing concern to German authorities, who find the individuals very violent during arrests, and are often discovered to have large caches of dangerous weapons. Prominent figures have also been arrested for the murder of security officials.37

What is notable about both these European cases is the high degree of similarity with earlier American cases. Long-standing extreme right-wing communities have now absorbed antipandemic sentiments, chosen targets and sought to launch terrorist attacks against them. The targets are often large symbols of the state, and the sort of attack being launched is a civil uprising, sometimes including a plot against a prominent politician or public leader. There is a strong strain of anti-government sentiment in these groups, with the pandemic offering the perfect context for the articulation of their anger.

This similarity may feel unsurprising but, within a European context, such large-scale anti-state activity is relatively new. While not unheard of, traditionally, European extreme right-wing groups or cells have tended to focus on nativist, white supremacist or xenophobic tropes and targets. Politicians and prominent figures have been targeted over the years (Anna Lindh,38 Pim Fortuyn39 and Jo Cox40 are a few examples), but it is usually part of an assassination plan undertaken by an isolated individual rather than an attempt to overthrow the government.

Where networks of extreme right-wing terrorists have been found, they tend to be groups that have gone on the run for long periods of time, launching repeated attacks on minorities (like the National Socialist Underground in Germany). Many European countries are plagued with white supremacist, nativist political parties, with some of these individuals spilling over into violence – though these are usually one-off cases. Organised extreme right-wing groups or individuals with an intent to truly overthrow the state are relatively rare.

The pandemic, however, seems to have pushed these networks to the fore or encouraged them in new directions. Angry at governments’ actions, they appear desirous of launching large-scale incidents to change the status quo. In this way, they are increasingly mirroring their American counterparts. The Patriot, Sovereign Citizen, Militia and extreme right-wing communities have a long history in North America; in Europe, these violent patriot-type ideologies are relatively new. Governments’ pandemic responses appear to have acted as a perfect storm to push groups forward in terms of providing them with a source of anger and thus instilling a new sense of purpose.

It is of course very difficult to absolutely link this trend to the pandemic. It is possible that the broader raising of profile and prominence of the Far Right during the Trump administration in Washington, as well as the fallout from the migration crisis of the mid-2010s, have created a context in Europe for the Extreme Right to mature in this new direction. It is also possible that the large-scale crackdowns that took place across Europe against the Extreme Right pushed some deeper into radicalisation (and we have yet to see the fallout from the growing mainstreaming of the far-right leaning Azov Battalion in Ukraine as a result of the Russian invasion).

In France, the Interior Ministry reported that such trends of extreme-right, anti-state violence took place in the year or so before the pandemic as well.41 Now that the trend has progressed in this direction, it is unlikely to go backwards. A far-right motivated individual or group, through complicated planning to undertake anti-state violence to overthrow the government, is likely to be an increasing norm in Europe. Old narratives of xenophobia and nativism will doubtlessly persist, but they will now be strengthened by this new expression of anti-state violence.

As such, the actual terrorist impact of the pandemic could well be gauged by the fostering of a new form of anti-state mobilisation in Europe that in part builds on prior developments (Anders Behring Breivik’s attack in 2010 was an early articulation of anger against the state, specifically with regard to migration policies),42 but whose organisation, links to the military and growing emergence across the Continent suggest something more substantial at play. And the pandemic response of imposing greater state control, alongside the likely impoverishment of large numbers in the wake of the pandemic and the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, all suggest a context in Europe where grievances can fester. While the blame cannot entirely lie with the pandemic, it is clear that the pandemic provided a context for the violent Extreme Right in Europe to worsen, and laid the foundations for a much deeper long-term problem.

About The Author:

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and 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.

Citations

1 Amy Chew, “Terror Groups Target Asia as Global Travel Reopens: Singapore Defence Minister,” South China Morning Post, March 30, 2022, https://www.scmp.com/weekasia/politics/article/3172414/terror-groups-may-target-asia-global-travel-reopens-singapore.

2 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-thesame/.

3 Dan Sabbagh, “Pandemic has Spurred Engagement in Online Extremism, Say Experts,” The Guardian, October 19, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/19/covid-pandemicspurred-engagement-online-extremism.

4 Nikita Malik, “Self-Isolation Might Stop Coronavirus, but It Will Speed the Spread of Extremism,” Foreign Policy, March 26, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/26/self-isolation-might-stopcoronavirus-but-spread-extremism/.

5 Richard Burchill, “Extremism in the Time of COVID-19,” July 15, 2020, Bussola Institute, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3693293.

6 Abdul Basit, “COVID-19: A Challenge or Opportunity for Terrorist Groups?” Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism Vol. 15, Issue 3, 2020, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/18335330.2020.1828603, 263-275.

7 Michael King and Sam Mullins, “COVID-19 and Terrorism in the West: Has Radicalization Really Gone Viral?” Just Security, March 4, 2021, https://www.justsecurity.org/75064/covid-19-and-terrorismin-the-west-has-radicalization-really-gone-viral/.

8 Nur Aziemah Azman, “Evolution of Islamic State Narratives Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Home Team Journal, Issue 10, June 2021, https://www.mha.gov.sg/docs/hta_libraries/publications/hometeam-journal-issue-10.pdf, 188-197.

9 Ibid.

10 “IPAC Short Briefing No. 1: COVID-19 and ISIS in Indonesia,” Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, April 2, 2020, http://file.understandingconflict.org/file/2020/04/COVID-19_and_ISIS_fixed.pdf; and https://documents-ddsny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N21/000/98/PDF/N2100098.pdf?OpenElement.

11 Blyth Crawford, “Coronavirus and Conspiracies: How the Far Right is Exploiting the Pandemic,” King’s College London, September 16, 2020, https://www.kcl.ac.uk/coronavirus-and-conspiracieshow-the-far-right-is-exploiting-the-pandemic.

12 Jane Wakefield, “How Bill Gates Became the Voodoo Doll of Covid Conspiracies,” BBC News, June 6, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-52833706.

13 Mark Scott and Steven Overly, “Conspiracy Theorists, Far-Right Extremists Around the World Seize on the Pandemic,” Politico, May 12, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/05/12/trans-atlanticconspiracy-coronavirus-251325.

14 The WannabeWonk, “Bremen is Emerging as a Hot Spot of Left-Wing Militancy in Germany,” Militant Wire, 30 November, 2021, https://www.militantwire.com/p/bremen-is-emerging-as-a-hotspot?s=r.

15 Marc-André Argentino, ‘QAnon Conspiracy Theories About the Coronavirus Pandemic are a Public Health Threat,” The Conversation, April 8, 2020, https://theconversation.com/qanon-conspiracytheories-about-the-coronavirus-pandemic-are-a-public-health-threat-135515.

16 Michael McGowan, “Workers’ Rights or the Far Right: Who Was Behind Melbourne’s Pandemic Protests?” The Guardian, September 24, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/australianews/2021/sep/25/workers-rights-or-the-far-right-who-was-behind-melbournes-pandemic-protests.

17 Mike Levine, “FBI Learned of Coronavirus-Inspired Bomb Plotter Through Radicalized US Army Soldier,” ABC News, March 27, 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/fbi-learned-coronavirusinspired-bomb-plotter-radicalized-us/story?id=69818116.

18 Ibid.

19 This detail might help clarify the degree to which others were involved in his planning and therefore how the pandemic actually impacted his targeting choices. But Wilson’s death has meant absolute certainty about exactly what was going to happen is now impossible.

20 Douglas Swain, “Statement of Probable Cause A. Moreno Derails Train at the Port of Los Angeles near USNS Mercy,” April 2020, https://www.courthousenews.com/wpcontent/uploads/2020/04/MercyTrain-CRAffadavit.pdf.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 “FBI: Government’s Response to Virus Spurred Would-Be Bomber,” AP News, April 15, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/ad891a0e69f0e3d285c397a1626d1e0d.

25 Ibid.

26 Michael King and Sam Mullins, “COVID-19 and Terrorism in the West: Has Radicalization Really Gone Viral?” Just Security, March 4, 2021, https://www.justsecurity.org/75064/covid-19-and-terrorismin-the-west-has-radicalization-really-gone-viral/.

27 While their targets were linked to the pandemic or some aspect of response to the pandemic, it was not clear that they were entirely driven forward by it.

28 Michael King and Sam Mullins, “COVID-19 and Terrorism in the West: Has Radicalization Really Gone Viral?” Just Security, March 4, 2021, https://www.justsecurity.org/75064/covid-19-and-terrorismin-the-west-has-radicalization-really-gone-viral/.

29 Raffaello Pantucci, “Mapping the One-Year Impact of COVID-19 on Violent Extremism,” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses Vol. 13, Issue 2, March 2021, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wpcontent/uploads/2021/03/CTTA-March-2021.pdf, 1-9.

30 Daniel Boffey, “Belgian Manhunt for Armed Soldier Who Threatened Virologist,” The Guardian, May 19, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/19/belgian-manhunt-armed-soldier-jurgen-cthreatened-virologist.

31 Helen Lyons, “The Hunt for Jürgen Conings: A Timeline,” The Brussels Times, June 16, 2021, https://www.brusselstimes.com/170779/far-right-terrorist-manhunt-marc-van-ranst-ludivine-dedonderalexander-de-croo-the-hunt-for-jurgen-conings-a-timeline.

32 “Un Terroriste d’Extrême Droite et Sympathisant de Jürgen Conings Comme Agent de Sécurité d’une Boîte de Nuit,” 7sur7, January 17, 2022, https://www.7sur7.be/belgique/un-terroriste-dextremedroite-et-sympathisant-de-jurgen-conings-comme-agent-de-securite-dune-boite-de-nuit~ab99df76/.

33 Evelien Geerts, “Jürgen Conings, The Case of a Belgian Soldier On the Run Shows How the Pandemic Collides With Far-Right Extremism,” The Conversation, June 16, 2021, https://theconversation.com/jurgen-conings-the-case-of-a-belgian-soldier-on-the-run-shows-how-thepandemic-collides-with-far-right-extremism-162365.

34 Philipp Reichert, “Putin-Fans und Corona-Leugner,” Tagesschau, April 26, 2022, https://www.tagesschau.de/investigativ/report-mainz/vereinte-patrioten-101.html.

35 “German Police Arrest Far-Right Extremists Over Plans to ‘Topple Democracy’,” Deutsche Welle News, April 14, 2022, https://www.dw.com/en/german-police-arrest-far-right-extremists-over-plans-totopple-democracy/a-61468227.

36 Wolfgang Dick, “What Is Behind the Right-Wing ‘Reichsbürger’ Movement?” Deutsche Welle News, July 24, 2018, https://www.dw.com/en/what-is-behind-the-right-wing-reichsb%C3%BCrgermovement/a-36094740.

37 The Reichsbürger community has been very active during the pandemic, bringing together a series of narrative strands about overbearing authority that resonated with the community. See “Former ‘Mister Germany’ Facing Life in Prison for Attempted Murder of Policeman,” Deutsche Welle News, October 9, 2017, https://www.dw.com/en/former-mister-germany-facing-life-in-prison-for-attemptedmurder-of-policeman/a-40881234.

38 “Suspect in Swedish Murder Makes Surprise Confession,” NBC News, January 8, 2004, https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna3899995.

39 “Dutch Free Killer of Anti-Islam Politician Pim Fortuyn,” BBC News, May 2, 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-27261291.

40 Ian Cobain, Nazia Parveen and Matthew Taylor, “The Slow-Burning Hatred That Led Thomas Mair to Murder Jo Cox,” The Guardian, November 23, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/uknews/2016/nov/23/thomas-mair-slow-burning-hatred-led-to-jo-cox-murder.

41 Laurent Nuñez, “Contending with New and Old Threats: A French Perspective on Counterterrorism,” The Washington Institute, October 12, 2021, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/contending-new-and-old-threats-frenchperspective-counterterrorism.

42 Mark Townsend and Ian Traynor, “Norway Attacks: How Far Right Views Created Anders Behring Breivik,” The Guardian, July 30, 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jul/30/norwayattacks-anders-behring-breivik.

Back in May, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission held a hearing looking at “China’s Activities and Influence in South and Central Asia”. I was invited to testify, and though I could not sadly go and join in Washington, I was able to do it remotely. The entire hearing can be found here (including a complete video, as well as all of the other excellent experts testimony). My own testimony is pasted below.

China’s Current Security Approaches and Interests in Afghanistan

Testimony Before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, May 12, 2022

Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore

China’s security interests and approaches to Afghanistan and its environs are shaped by a concern that threats from this region might ultimately come back to hurt China. This is either from Uyghur separatists which Beijing fears are hiding in the region, or increasingly the growing number of regional groups that have identified China as an adversary. This shapes China’s security responses in the region. But underpinning the direct security responses that China undertakes is a vision for economic prosperity and development across the region which Beijing believes will ultimately stabilize the region and deliver long-term security guarantees.

1. In what ways does China hedge its relationship with the Taliban through bilateral and multilateral security initiatives such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the quadrilateral counter-terrorism cooperation mechanism (QCCM) with China, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan? Does China use these organizations primarily for security cooperation and training or to establish blocks of political influence? Has China’s investment in these organizations, either in manpower or money, changed since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan?

China has always sought to hedge its security concerns with Afghanistan through multiple avenues of engagement. Since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, China has largely sought to continue its regional activities as before. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has continued to hold a number of meetings and engagements, including a heads of state hybrid summit held in Dushanbe in September 2021. China participated in this and other SCO sessions in much the same way it has before, seeking to engage through the format, but not appearing to force through anything new. President Xi in his remarks during the summit focused heavily on Afghanistan and spoke of China’s goals as being: “One, the peaceful transfer of power to Afghanistan. Second, contact and communicate with Afghanistan. Third, provide humanitarian and anti-epidemic assistance to the Afghan people.”[1] He also called on the United States to play a greater role in providing funding to stabilize the country, releasing funds being held up by Washington, and help Afghanistan out of its economic funk. The major achievement of the Summit was the admission of Iran into the organization, and while Afghanistan hung heavy over the discussions – it was likely too close to the fall of Kabul to be able to properly adjust and respond. There was some discussion about how the Taliban should be engaged with now it was the de facto government of Afghanistan, but it was not something that Beijing expressed a view on.[2] This attitude is likely to persist with the SCO, with China continuing to highlight Afghanistan as an issue within the organization, and repeating these talking points, but unlikely to be actively pushing towards the SCO doing much more – in particular as there does not seem to be a consensus amongst members about exactly how to handle Taliban-led Afghanistan.

Looking to the Quadrilateral Cooperation Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) – this was an institution that was developed in large part as a result of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) seeking to play a greater role in Afghanistan. When it was established in 2016, it came as part of a larger effort where China was seeking to strengthen its direct border relations with Afghanistan – there was discussion about undertaking more training and even potentially building a base with the Afghans in Badakhshan. It was also the moment around which the discussion of the Chinese base in Tajikistan became more publicly acknowledged. After this initial appearance by the QCCM, it went quiet, though it continued to provide a convening function for China to engage with its regional partners on border security questions in particular. Afghan officials acknowledged its utility in particular in trying to manage complex security questions in remote Badakhshan. Given the official partner in the engagement would have to be government of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defence, it would require formal recognition of the Islamic Emirate government for it to be formally included and revived, meaning its revivification is something which would only be possible in the wake of formal recognition of the authority in Kabul – a step Beijing is unlikely to take first.

At the same time, in many ways, China has already recognized the Islamic Emirate government. Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted his Pakistani counterpart Qureshi and Amir Muttaqi in April 2022 on the fringes of the larger regional meeting hosted by China at Tunxi.[3] This format replicates an earlier multilateral engagement that China used to host which brought together senior foreign ministry officials between the three countries. In June 2021, two months before the collapse of the Republic government, Wang Yi hosted a virtual engagement involving Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi and then-Foreign Minister Atmar.[4] This highlights China’s desire to attempt to re-engage with the Islamic Emirate government in the same way that it was engaging with the Republic beforehand, restoring the same structures. Given the fact this has now happened with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it would not be impossible for a similar event to be held between Defence Ministries of the three powers. It is worth noting though that the QCCM is a structure theoretically represented by the Chiefs of Defence Staff which would be a different form of engagement to political ministries.

There have also been reports that China has helped facilitate engagements between the Islamic Emirate security authorities and the Pakistani intelligence services, in an attempt to help get them to resolve some of their differences.[5] Issues that have become more acute in the recent past as Tehrek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have increased the tempo of their attacks in Pakistan, and in return Pakistani authorities have launched cross-border strikes alongside violent border clashes between Afghan and Pakistani fighters.[6] If confirmed, China’s attempt to step into the middle of this divide suggests a recognition by China of the role it can play in trying to stabilize the relationship between the two countries, leveraging the relationships that it has developed. Within these contexts, China appears to be trying to improve relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, while also building up its on bilateral links to both. The aim ultimately is to enable China to have good security relations, establish influence and place China in a significant role across the wider region.

It is difficult to discern at the moment the degree to which China has actually increased its engagement or activity within these structures since the takeover, though there are persistent rumours of increased Chinese security engagement with the Taliban. The exact nature of these contacts is unknown. Whatever the case, the key driver of Chinese engagement is recognition that the Islamic Emirate authority appears like the most stable governance structure in Afghanistan for the immediate future and therefore an entity that Beijing will have to engage with if it wants to ensure its security interests in Afghanistan. While in the early days, much of the noise around China’s security concerns was focused on the potential for Uyghur militants to establish themselves, it appears as though the Islamic Emirate’s decision to move what Uyghur networks were present to locations far from Afghanistan’s regions closest to China has to some degree soothed Chinese concerns.[7] The more likely concern at the moment is the growing violence in Pakistan which as has been seen in a number of recent attacks has led to the deaths of Chinese nationals.[8]

While China is still reticent to transfer all its former engagements with Kabul to the new government, it is clear that Beijing is increasingly moving in this direction. The ultimate goal will be not only to help strengthen China’s relations and influence, but more specifically to ensure security guarantees from potential threats that may develop. It is worth remembering that from China’s perspective, in many ways, the earlier relationship with the Republic government was one that Beijing appreciated as the Republic authorities for the most part shared their assessment about Uyghur militants being a group that needed clamping down on. While there was some evidence that this relationship had started to sour in the final months of the Republic government, there was also evidence that this had also created some tension with the incoming government which failed to monitor the escape of a number of Uyghur’s in detention when they took over the country.[9]

This aspect is significant as it shows the levels of mistrust that China still needs to overcome in terms of its security relationships with Kabul, meaning Beijing will continue to seek to hedge rather than put all its eggs in one basket. This is likely to be a key aspect of the engagements China undertakes, with no single avenue being used, but instead a web of connections both with the Islamic Emirate authorities, regional powers, as well as long-established and more recently developed regional formats. Alongside this, China will continue its policy of strengthening its security relations with Tajikistan and Pakistan – with a particular emphasis on border security – to ultimately provide a hard security guarantee to accompany the multiplicity of political engagements. This hedging approach is a continuation of the approach that China has been taking with Afghanistan since at least 2014.

2. Please describe China’s security presence in neighboring countries aimed at reducing extremist threats. What Chinese organizations are present (e.g., Peoples Armed Police, Ministry of State Security, private security companies), and how do they cooperate with host governments? Is their focus stopping flows into Xinjiang, or has it moved toward creating stability in the the region? What changes, if any, has China made to their security presence in Tajikistan and neighboring countries in the last year, including any use of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) units, increased militia presence, or additional training exercises outside of China’s borders?

The primary goal of China’s security actors in neighbouring countries is to provide guarantees for China, as well as eyes and ears onto possible security threats from the region which might come back to China. Within the context of Pakistan and Afghanistan, this extends to worrying about the threats exacerbating tensions around the region, as well as threatening Chinese nationals or interests in the region. However, this latter concern is a secondary one, with the primary concern being domestic security. Thus far, there is confirmed presence of the People’s Armed Police (PAP) in Tajikistan,[10] as well as reports they have in the past undertaken joint patrols with Republic forces in Afghanistan.[11] The principal aim of these security forces has been to help China have an ability to have a direct reach into local security forces, to enable them to have a greater sense of control over the potential threats that might emerge. There is also a history of China providing security support through equipment to Pakistani forces in Gilgit Baltistan, strengthening the other indirect border China shares with Afghanistan.

It is difficult to trace the movements of the Ministry of State Security (MSS). The most visible appearance of MSS operatives in Afghanistan took place in late 2020, when the Republic authorities disrupted a spy network in Kabul which they accused of collusion with anti-government factions on the ground. Their ejection was rapid and kept relatively discrete by the Afghan and Chinese authorities, as the Republic government had little incentive at that stage to entirely sabotage its relationship with Beijing. However, it was notable that reporting indicated that at least one of the men who had been ejected had been masquerading as a pine nut trader – a trade that Beijing has been encouraging between China and Afghanistan, but which also provides China with a good reason to engage with farmers in parts of Afghanistan where Uyghur militant groups have been active.[12]

This economic engagement has also been seen in other contexts, where China has used direct aid to the regions in Afghanistan near to its borders to try to develop links and contacts on the ground.[13] While there is a logic to cultivating these relationships due to their border proximity and the humanitarian needs on the ground, it also provides a good opportunity for intelligence gathering and an excuse for China to maintain eyes on the ground.

The final element which is difficult to further quantify is the presence of Chinese private security companies. While they have been seen in Kyrgyzstan, and are believed to be present in Tajikistan, it is difficult to pin down their activities in other places.[14] Reports from the ground suggest that some have started to emerge in Afghanistan, and since the recent attacks on Chinese nationals in nearby Pakistan, it is likely the presence of private Chinese security firms will increase there as well.

Whatever its scale and vector, the decision to assert some security presence is reflection of a sense of trepidation, and a continued fear that the situation in Kabul might abruptly destabilize. What remains constant, is China’s single-minded focus on its own interests, rather than trying to bring regional stability. Quite aside from not having any experience in bringing peace brokering initiatives to life, China is also disinterested in engaging in regional issues between powers as this will force China to take sides, something which will only weaken Beijing’s hand before some of the parties. By maintaining its objective view, this enables China to continue to cultivate all sides.

3. What lessons or assessments can be drawn from China’s undeclared persistent security force presence in Tajikistan?  How might the presence of armed forces from China in Tajikistan be indicative of future armed force projection (whether People’s Armed Police, PLA, contract, or based on other military or paramilitary forces)? To what extent is that presence indicative of China’s leadership expanding their definition of China’s “border region” in their security interests? What opportunities or burdens does China perceive in its growing security presence in and around Afghanistan?

The deployment of a Chinese People’s Armed Police (PAP) base in Tajikistan has been overread as evidence of Chinese security stretch into Central Asia. China has long been providing military support for Tajikistan to strengthen its borders with Afghanistan, recognizing that the long and porous border between the two countries represented a weak point in the region.[15] This mirror’s Russia’s own continued to provide military support in Tajikistan and continued to maintain its largest military base outside its own borders in Tajikistan, the 201st Military Base which is divided between Dushanbe and Bokhtar, done under agreement with the Tajiks until 2042.[16] The aim of this Russian presence is to help monitor and address potential threats that might emanate from Afghanistan through Tajikistan and ultimately threaten Russia. The Russian base has continued to be active, undertaking regular training exercises,[17] including a surge of effort around the time of the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.[18]

While the Chinese presence is more limited than the Russian one, and with a very different history, the ultimate goals are similar. Beijing, like Moscow, is concerned about potential threats from Afghanistan spilling into Tajikistan, and recognizes that the border regions which China has with Tajikistan are adjacent to the border regions Tajikistan shares with Afghanistan. Remote and rugged, these are regions which are hard to entirely monitor and there is little faith in Tajik capabilities to ensure security coverage. As a result, Beijing has on the one hand provided regular military support to the Tajiks, but it has also chosen to ensure it has some of its own eyes on the potential threats and problems that might emerge. This is the fundamental reason for the Chinese presence. It is additionally significant to note that the security force that is being used is the People’s Armed Police (PAP), an extension of a domestic security agency. This is the same force that has played an important role in building bilateral engagements with Uzbek, Kazakh and Kyrgyz security forces, reflecting the fact that China sees security threats in Central Asia as ones that have the potential to be linked directly to domestic security threats.

While China continues to refuse to entirely admit to the basing, when pressed, Chinese experts compare the engagements in Tajikistan to what Chinese security forces have done in the Golden Triangle region of Southeast Asia with which China shares borders. In the wake of the brutal kidnap and massacre of Chinese sailors in October 2011,[19] China started to undertake joint patrols with Laotian, Thai, Myanmar and Cambodian forces to try to ensure better security in the region.[20] In some cases, the Chinese provided equipment, and have now started to explore basing in the region.[21] This is similar to the context in Tajikistan, where there is a live security concern that Beijing is worried about in a neighbour where Beijing obviously has little faith in their capabilities to provide security assurances. The result has been to increase its direct security equity to be able to provide and ensure for its concerns – something articulated through equipment and funding support, the establishment of forward bases, and the creation of overlapping multilateral and minilateral institutions that provide opportunities for engagement.

The aim here is not to provide regional stability, but rather to ensure Chinese security concerns. There has been little evidence of China wanting to take a wider security leadership role, instead, China has retained a narrow focus on its own interests. The useful contrast is to examine Russian security engagement which while also fundamentally about Russian concerns about instability in the region impacting Russia directly, is interpreted in a far more expansive fashion whereby Russia sees itself as an ultimate security guarantor across the region. Witness the surge of Russian security engagement and activity at around the time of the fall of Kabul, and the Russian willingness to deploy to support the Kazakh government in the wake of violent protests in January 2022. Neither of these are roles that China sees for itself, where instead there was a limited increase in Chinese engagement with Tajikistan during the summer of 2022, but this was simply building on what China was already doing, rather than expanding it.

In terms of lessons that can be drawn from this, it is that China remains a fundamentally solipsistic regional security actor, focused single-mindedly on its concerns which it interprets through a fairly narrow lens. What is interesting is the fact that it appeared in the early days of China’s deployment of forces and base establishment in Tajikistan, it appeared to be something that was not done in consultation with Moscow, with reports from the ground suggesting Russia was surprised by the reports of the base’s establishment. This illustrates a tension between Beijing and Moscow which is worth considering, though not overstating, as it is clear that both countries have been able to move beyond these initial tensions. It is also notable, however, that they have not actually done anything to undertake cooperation in Tajikistan on security questions notwithstanding a presence that is near to each other on the ground. The key point is that while they are willing to work side by side, when it comes to hard security concerns on the ground, both clearly want to have their own eyes on problems, rather than relying on each other. And even more crucially, this does not seem a competitive relationship, but rather one that functions in parallel.

The overarching take-away from this deployment is that China is still not interested in taking a utopian approach to regional security, but is focused on its own security concerns. It will focus on these interests through multiple and overlapping approaches which will collectively provide China with enough assurance to be content. In the case of Afghanistan, this includes regional engagement as well as engagement with the Taliban with the two parts of the piece providing assurance to each other. It is questionable whether this model is one that China would offer in other contexts as well, outside direct border regions, as the fundamental driver to China’s concerns in Tajikistan and Afghanistan are ultimately the potential impact this could have back to China directly.

4. Is there risk of actors being drawn into or choosing to engage in proxy wars through unattributable support to militant groups in and around Afghanistan? How does any potentially increased risk emanating from Afghanistan impact existing internal security concerns in Tajikistan, Pakistan, or for others in the region?  What might this look like, and how might it affect U.S. interests in the region?

There has been a clear and growing problem of terrorist groups using Afghanistan once again as a base to launch attacks on neighbours. At the moment, the problem is most acute with Pakistan where the TTP in particular has increased its presence and violence within Pakistan from bases in Afghanistan, but it is notable that Balochi militancy has also been increasing as a problem for the past few years with a sharpening focus on China. The recent attack at Karachi University which led to the death of the Confucius Institute Director, two of his Chinese staff and their driver, was conducted by the Majeed Brigade of the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA), a unit that has undertaken repeated lethal attacks on Chinese interests in Pakistan. In Central Asia, Chinese interests have not recently been targeted in the same way – but the 2016 attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek was an illustration of the dangers that exist for China in the region.[22] The recent cross border shootings and growing rhetorical effort being undertaken by the Islamic State in Khorasan Province’s (ISKP) to garner support and threaten Central Asia are illustrations of how problems in Afghanistan are reaching across borders north into Central Asia as well as south into Pakistan.[23] The fact ISKP has also made specific threats towards China further sharpens this concern towards Beijing.[24]

This violence has already created some problems for regional relations. Pakistani forces have launched cross-border incursions into Afghanistan to address with threats they observe from there. There has also been a notable number of violent deaths of TTP leaders in Afghanistan since attempted peace talks between the TTP and government in Pakistan dissolved late in 2021. To the north, the Uzbek airforce has launched strikes into Afghanistan in response to concerns about ISKP threats from there. And there have been border clashes between IEA forces and their counterparts on Afghanistan’s borders with Pakistan and Iran.

Underpinning all of this violence is a fear of groups being manipulated by outside forces. Pakistan, for example, has long accused Balochi groups of being in the pay of India – a paranoia which is sometimes echoed in Chinese statements around attacks.[25] The evidence base for this is difficult to ascertain in the public domain. In some cases, Chinese paranoia takes this one step further and point to the United States as a possible outside actor manipulating forces. An early narrative that was advanced in the immediate wake of the collapse of the Republic government (which is heard less now) was that the United States was seeking to manipulate Uyghur groups in the region to threaten China.[26] The decision in late 2020 by the Trump administration to remove the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from its list of proscribed terror organizations was seen by China as a prelude to a move by Washington to engage with the group as a proxy against China.[27]

More recently, Chinese officials have stopped making such references publicly, though it remains to be seen if this is because of a lack of concern or simply a decision to not antagonise the relationship with Washington. The recent decision by the US government to include the Central Asian group Katibat Tawheed wal Jihad (KTJ) on its list of proscribed organizations specifically referring to the group as being responsible for the 2016 attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek might have been an attempt to mend this fence by Washington.[28] But until a decision is made to return Uyghur militants to the list of proscribed organziations, there will continue to be paranoia in China. Beijing continues to worry about the manipulation of groups in the region in advance of larger geopolitical interests, be this directed by Delhi, Washington, or others.

It is possible that China might seek to undertake similar manipulations itself. There have been reports of efforts by Chinese security and intelligence to develop contacts with potential proxies in border regions with India in Myanmar or Bangladesh to undermine Indian security.[29] But in the Afghan and Pakistani context, most of these stories have instead pointed to China seeking to develop connections with groups with the idea in mind of trying to get them to stop attacking Chinese interests.[30] It would presumably not be impossible for China to seek to manipulate groups to attack western or other adversary interests, but at the same time, Beijing does not have much form in successfully doing this. And for most of the violent groups in the region, there is a growing interest in targeting China recognizing as they do Beijing’s growing influence and power across the region. Manipulations could easily backfire.

The primary danger to US interests lies in the broader violent trends in the region which could develop into threats which start to reach out beyond the region. There is also the potential danger to the US presence in the region – for example, diplomatic staff, businessmen, or travellers. If violence in Pakistan continues to escalate, it would be likely that US or allied interests might come into the cross-hairs of violent groups. The danger of proxy warfare through such groups in the region is another possible threat vector, but the risk comes more from the US being seen as being linked to such manipulations or India being discovered as being linked to violence. Both of these would escalate violence in the region, and increase the threat from groups which might even start to stretch beyond the region.

Finally, by increasing its security connections across the region, China is embedding itself further into the region. This could in the longer-term translate into influence which further locks the United States out of the region – part of a much bigger trend which has been visible across the wider region. While the US remains a significant player, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, worsening relations with Pakistan and worsening relations with Iran, Russia and China all mean this is a part of the world where the US is increasingly seen in an adversarial light. As Chinese influence increases, and as long as US-China relations remain tense, this is likely to harden further.

5. The Commission is mandated to make policy recommendations to Congress based on its hearings and other research. What are your recommendations for Congressional action related to your testimony?

It is difficult to make recommendations without knowing more about what current action is already being taken, so these suggestions are simply ideas or areas in which the United States could explore taking steps forwards in the near term future in the region.

First – the US should try to avoid seeing the region through the lens of big power politics. Afghanistan has in the recent past been a place where the US and China have been able to cooperate to address mutual threats and concerns. Such cooperation might be impossible at the moment, but avoiding going too far in the other direction will enable the US to continue to try to address the humanitarian questions that exist across the region while also making overwatch of potential security threats that might emerge from militant groups more possible.

Second – the US should explore reversing the decision to remove ETIM from the proscribed terror list. While re-listing may be complicated, recognizing that there are some Uyghur groups that have made connections to violent jihadist groups is an important element to restore faith in US focus on genuine terror threats as opposed to political games being played through such proxies.

Third – unblock funding which could be used to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans. This will be difficult as the IEA government has shown repeatedly it is disinterested in meeting western demands around women’s rights, but those who suffer are the Afghan people and finding ways of reaching out positively to them is important. It will remove a plank of China’s narratives in Afghanistan.

Fourth – increase direct support for border security forces in Central Asia. The United States already has strong links and has provided support across the region. Continuing and exploring expanding this support is an important signal to the region as well as a way of building US ability to mitigate risks and maintain security overwatch in the region.

Fifth – work to encourage Pakistan to try improve the security situation in Balochistan through negotiations. The situation in Balochistan is worsening at the moment and it is possible Pakistan will react to it with a harder crackdown. Engaging with the new government in Islamabad to take a new approach might enable a new dynamic in the region which would strengthen the US hand in the region.


[1] http://www.chinatoday.com.cn/ctenglish/2018/commentaries/202109/t20210926_800259123.html

[2] https://eurasianet.org/csto-sco-summits-presage-policy-of-wary-tolerance-of-taliban-regime-in-afghanistan

[3] https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/zxxx_662805/202203/t20220331_10658064.html

[4] https://www.mfa.gov.cn/ce/ceuk/eng/zgyw/t1881345.htm

[5] https://www.intelligenceonline.com/government-intelligence/2022/04/14/guoanbu-calls-on-isi-to-cooperate-with-taliban-secret-services,109767975-art

[6] https://www.usip.org/publications/2022/05/pakistans-twin-taliban-problem

[7] https://www.rferl.org/a/afghanistan-taliban-uyghurs-china/31494226.html

[8] https://asia.nikkei.com/Opinion/Karachi-terror-attack-strains-Pakistan-s-ties-with-China

[9] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2021/10/16/exclusive-uyghur-jailbreak-complicates-talibans-ties-china/

[10] https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/central-asia/tajikistan/b87-rivals-authority-tajikistans-gorno-badakhshan

[11] https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2017/03/05/chinese-troops-appear-to-be-operating-in-afghanistan-and-the-pentagon-is-ok-with-it/

[12] https://thediplomat.com/2021/02/did-china-build-a-spy-network-in-kabul/

[13] https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202112/1243022.shtml

[14] https://oxussociety.org/the-growth-adaptation-and-limitations-of-chinese-private-security-companies-in-central-asia/

[15] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tajikistan-china-border-idUSKCN11W0T1

[16] https://tass.com/defense/1394749

[17] https://interfax.com/newsroom/top-stories/76143/

[18] https://www.wsj.com/articles/russian-military-drills-near-afghan-border-deliver-warning-to-extremists-11635188626

[19] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/oct/10/chinese-sailors-killed-mekong-river

[20] https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-southeastasia-drugs-mekong-idUKKCN0WH2ZW

[21] https://www.voanews.com/a/us-says-cambodia-not-transparent-about-chinese-role-in-naval-base-construction-/6272820.html

[22] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-kyrgyzstan-blast-china-idUSKCN11C1DK

[23] https://www.specialeurasia.com/2022/05/05/islamic-state-uzbekistan/

[24] https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3151791/why-did-isis-k-say-its-suicide-bomber-was-uygur

[25] https://www.firstpost.com/world/china-warns-india-says-it-will-intervene-if-new-delhi-foments-trouble-in-balochistan-2980404.html

[26] https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/2511_665403/202103/t20210327_9170714.html

[27] https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-irate-after-u-s-removes-terrorist-label-from-separatist-group-11604661868

[28] https://www.state.gov/terrorist-designation-of-katibat-al-tawhid-wal-jihad/

[29] https://www.asiasentinel.com/p/beijing-said-to-fund-separatist-india?s=r

[30] https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/pakistan-balochistan-china-seperatists-talks/29055188.html

A shift away from book promotion (briefly!), to touch on the case of the murder of Sir David Amess, MP, who was brutally murdered by an ISIS acolyte in the most recent terrorist attack in the United Kingdom. As seems to be de rigeur, the case attracted a lot of attention to Prevent which has a long awaited review due out at some point. The piece was published by my British institutional home RUSI, thanks as ever to Jonathan for helping shepherd it through.

An MP’s Murder: The Failure of the Prevent Programme?

29 April 2022

The UK’s counterterrorism programme Prevent is once again under the spotlight. But can the programme ever really be expected to eradicate terrorism?


Main Image Credit Courtesy of Maureen McLean / Alamy Stock Photo

The conviction of Sir David Amess’s murderer has reignited the debate on counterterrorism practice in the UK. Much has been made of the fact that the MP’s murderer was someone who had been referred in his late teens to the government’s counterterrorism Prevent programme. It was the latest in a number of people referred to Prevent who have subsequently gone on to launch attacks, and comes as a major review of the programme is underway.

Prevent has consistently been the most publicly discussed aspect of the UK’s counterterrorism strategy, yet in budgetary terms it consumes the smallest amount of money of all of the ‘four Ps’ that make up the strategy (the other three are Pursue, Protect and Prepare). The other ‘Ps’ are focused on responding to events and pursuing networks, protecting targets and preparing the public, while Prevent is about stopping the terrorist threat from ever emerging. Within Prevent, there are a range of activities that take place, from preventative work to steer people off the path to radicalisation, to the work that is instead focused on trying to rehabilitate or de-radicalise people who have been convicted of terrorist activity.

Some of it is contentious work. While in principle, few would disagree with the notion of trying to stop people being drawn towards terrorist ideas and action, in practice this means engaging with people through the lens of a counterterrorist programme before they have actually committed any terrorist act. It can feel like people are being seen through a criminal lens before any criminal act has actually taken place. The film Minority Report with its Department of Pre-Crime is often invoked as a dystopian comparison.

In practice, Prevent is made up of thousands of referrals every year – made by police, educators, health workers and concerned citizens – to Prevent officers, who will then examine the case and determine whether it requires greater engagement. In the majority of instances, they will dismiss the case, concluding that the referral is incorrect. To give a sense of numbers, in the year ending 31 March 2021 there were 4,915 referrals, of which 1,333 were discussed at a Channel panel, and 688 were taken on as cases. The year before, there were 6,287 referrals, with 1,424 discussed at Channel and 697 taken on. While the proportions are not always identical, they are similar, and the key point is that in the overwhelming majority of cases a Prevent referral does not result in deeper investigation.

It is difficult to know why this is the case. It is possible that people are over-referring out of a lack of understanding of extremist ideas or out a sense of needing to be seen to be doing something. This is a possible impact of the Prevent duty which was brought in through legislation in 2015 which obligates educators in particular to play a role in preventing people from being drawn into terrorism (alongside the police they are the biggest source of referrals). It is possible that the system is misidentifying which of the referrals are genuine cases or not.

It is not clear exactly where in this process the recently identified failed cases were. But it is equally clear that they are outliers. While even one failure in this context is too many, it is notable that we have seen a decrease in the volume of overall terrorist arrests, and a drop in coordinated terrorist plots. The overwhelming majority of those that are currently disrupted are instead lone actors who seem to be inspired by groups, but have no real link to them. Police and intelligence services say the violent Islamist threat is the biggest terrorist problem they face. However, this does not appear to be translating into arrests or Prevent referrals, which instead suggest the growing threat of the extreme right wing. While the Home Office does not report ideology on arrest, the number in prisons identified as extreme right wing in prison is growing. In addition to this, there is a rise in cases that are identified as not having any clear ideological foundation. Whether any of this decrease in threats from Islamists is related to Prevent is difficult to know – a programme based around stopping things from happening is always going to struggle to prove its effectiveness.

The bigger question in some ways is a more existential one about Prevent. The initial concept of the UK’s counterterrorism strategy was to try to develop a programme which would seek to stop people from being drawn towards terrorist ideas and groups in the first place. It was an attempt to get ahead of the problem, rather than continually managing it – which is largely the role of the other three Ps in the strategy.

Yet, this pre-emptive approach was something that had never really been tried before. The UK had developed robust approaches to countering terrorism and defending targets to counter the threats of Irish-related terrorism and the various Middle Eastern factions that had launched attacks in the 1970s. But none of these sought to stop people from being drawn towards extremist ideas. It was more a case of disrupting networks and stopping people. De-radicalisation was also not something that had been tried with great vigour. In other forms of criminal behaviour, work had been done (and is being done) to try to stop people from choosing paths of crime and to rehabilitate them afterwards. But with terrorism, such an approach was new.

Two decades on from its inception, there are people who have abandoned extremist ideas, though in many cases they have done this as a result of their own choice and agency – sometimes prodded along by Prevent programmes. It is also likely that Prevent has steered some people away from bad choices, or that contact with the programme alone has scared them off the path they were on. Talk to people who have been engaged with by Prevent in communities, and you often find far more positive stories than media reporting would suggest. Surveys suggest attitudes in the broader public (amongst Muslim communities as well as the general public) are more positive than is suggested by the few voices that tend to dominate the public conversation. But it sometimes feels like another branch of social services, rather than a specific programme that is trying to stop terrorist incidents.

The problem Prevent is trying to deal with is a complex one. As we are learning with Sir David Amess’s murderer, in some cases, perpetrators stew in their ideas for some time, lashing out years after their first curiosity in extremist ideas arose. In many ways, this case is typical of a cohort that appeared around the fringes of the Syria traveller phenomenon – young men who often became radicalised alone (or started down the path alone), connected with others in person and online, and then sought to go to Syria. And in some cases – like this one – they failed to make it.

There were consistent warnings expressed by authorities at the time that the frustrated traveller community was of high concern. These were individuals who were radicalised enough to want to go and join Islamic State, but who were stumped by often quite simple hurdles in getting there. Their radicalisation did not decrease as a result of the failed journey (and might actually have gotten stronger), and they continued to be drawn to a group which would shout about people doing things at home if they could not come and join them in the Levant. It appears in this case that it took the perpetrator almost five years to decide to move towards action.

It is not entirely clear that Prevent would have been an effective vehicle to stop a culprit like this. Effective Prevent interventions require some agency and engagement by the individual. If they have no interest in being de-radicalised, then it is difficult to get them to move on from extremist ideas – imagine someone pressuring you to reject a strong belief you hold. In this case, the man was so committed that he kept the ideas to himself and launched an action years after he had first explored them. It is possible that consistent engagement by authorities during this time might have shifted him from this path – but it may have been difficult to tell whether he was someone who could be moved by this consistent level of engagement or if this would have been an appropriate use of potentially considerable public funds (or how many other cases might on paper look like this one but never materialise into an attack).

As with any major public incident, there is an eagerness to understand what went wrong and what needs to be changed as a result. The murder of an MP is a mercifully rare event, and merits attention to understand what went wrong. But it is equally clear that we need to think a bit harder about what our expectations are with Prevent, and some thought needs to go into whether it can ever be entirely foolproof in protecting society from terrorists. The answer to dealing with the reality of extremist tendencies might lie in some fundamental changes to our society. It is unclear that Prevent will be able to address this.