Archive for the ‘Observer Research Foundation’ Category

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

Beware of terrorists offering COVID19 aid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somewhat belated catch up posting for another new outlet, this time the excellent Indian think tank Observer Research Foundation’s (ORF) Raisina Debates forum. The piece looks at a longstanding issue of interest, Pakistan’s links to UK jihad, something you can read a lot more about in my earlier book and am sure will be a continued feature of my research.

Seen from UK, Kashmir fits the global roster of causes for Jihadists elements

Kashmir, Jammu and Kashmir, reorganisation of Kashmir, Article 370

Over a month has now passed since the Indian government made the dramatic step of changing Kashmir’s constitutional role and while the move has stirred emotions, we have not seen the outburst of violence that was expected. While it is difficult to know exactly what is going on in Kashmir and there are deep humanitarian concerns, sat in London the concern that is always present is how this might echo back into the UK. The UK has a sad history of links to violence in Kashmir, from the murder of Ravinda Mhatre in 1984 through to the London Bridge attacker from December last year. In between we have had radicalised Brits blowing themselves up in Srinagar, involved in terrorist linked kidnappings, as well as others arrested as they try to cross the line of control. The UK has a more intimate connection than others to what happens in Kashmir, meaning an eruption of violence or instability there is something that is watched with a very attentive eye.

The history of the UK’s link to Kashmir is a long and sad one. Born in part out of a dam construction in Mangala in the 1960s, this led to the displacement of a large population from the Pakistani part of Kashmir who migrated to the UK. This created a community which over time became the first link in a chain migration which left the UK in a situation whereby roughly three quarters of its Muslim population of around 3 million is of Kashmiri origin.

While the positive side of this connection has been to enrich the United Kingdom with a dynamic community that has contributed positively to the country, the negative side has been to inextricably link the United Kingdom to the persistent troubles that take place in Kashmir. This has over the years articulated itself in large-scale protests in the UK, the murder of Indian diplomats, fundraising for Kashmiri causes (mostly charitable, but also terrorist organizations like Lashkar-e-Taiba or Jaish-e-Mohammed), as well created a path to militancy which led to terrorist attacks in Kashmir and which al Qaeda took advantage of to launch a number of failed and successful terrorist attacks against the West. 

The most recent articulation of this was found in the case of Usman Khan, the troubled young man who lashed out against those who were helping rehabilitate him. Of Pakistani heritage, but born in the UK, Khan was arrested in 2010 as part of a terrorist cell whose most mature plot was a plan to attack the London Stock Exchange on Christmas Day. The group was one with deep links into the UK’s jihadist milieu with links around the country. Ultimately, they were prosecuted for a variety of acts, with the LSE plot the one which attracted most attention.

In fact, one of the more concerning elements was the part of the plot to which Khan was linked. Drawing on his Kashmiri family and heritage, Khan’s intent (along with a group of his colleagues from Stoke) was to try to establish a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. The intent was to establish an institution that would outwardly appear “a normal madrassa” but which would train warriors. Their goal, as was later summarized in court, was “the express contemplation of terrorist operations in the UK to be perpetrated by some graduates of the training camp at some future date: the imposition of Sharia in Kashmir was not the limit of the group’s aspirations.” Khan’s own lawyer characterized him as a 19 year old young man “whose ambition was to bring Sharia law to Pakistan controlled Kashmir”, though he also made on to make the point about how fanciful this planning was pointing out that “it was highlight unrealistic to suppose that the authorities in Pakistan would allow a teenager from Stoke to impose Sharia law.”

This lack of credibility aside, the fact remained that for Khan, Kashmir was a mobilizing cause. The space for militancy that it provided gave the young man a place and way into being involved in violent jihadist activity. He was in many ways tracing a path that had been seen repeatedly before in the United Kingdom, where young British men of South Asian heritage were stirred up by a combination of local preachers and global events to reach into their Kashmiri heritage to try to find links to militancy. This was seen in the early story of the network around the July 7, 2005 bombing plot against London as well as numerous others.

The connection has stretched beyond terrorist violence. In the wake of the recent decision in Jammu & Kashmir, there have been numerous protests in London and Birmingham, including some that have turned violent. While the protests have not been of a scale that has been seen previously, they come from a history of such incidents in the wake of any major event in J&K. For Britain’s Kashmiri community, watching from afar what is happening to their brethren in India is a source of great concern. It leads to calls for action in Parliament, pressure on the government and regular protests. 

But this political activity in some ways is not the problem. There are numerous expatriate communities in the UK who regularly protest about events going on back home. What is more worrying is the link that we have seen occasionally emerge with links to militancy. And while care has to be taken to make a direct correlation (mobilization for Kashmiri causes does not always equate to international terrorism), there is a long history of Kashmir providing ideological motivation or a practical first step for people to become involved in international terrorism. Prime Minister Modi’s moves and elevation has been a source of great concern and source of mobilization amongst the South Asian jihadist community in the UK. There is an inevitable link between turmoil in Kashmir and trouble in the UK. The timeline along which this can take place can be long, but the consistent feature is that these things resonate. 

And seen from Kashmir, anger against Delhi is something which gets articulated through an international lens. While the stories of ISIS in Kashmir appear to be largely overblown, graffiti in Srinagar identified in ORF’s own Kabir Taneja’s recent book on ISIS shows how locals articulate their anger using the language of ISIS even if they have little direct connection to the group itself. The point is that Kashmir fits into the global roster of causes which jihadists will summon as rationales for action. For the UK, however, the link is more immediate.

Seen from London, the Modi government’s decision is a human rights dilemma which is wrapped up in a potential security threat (both regionally and at home). The consequences may take months or years to play out, but there can be no doubt that some impact will eventually be felt.