Archive for the ‘THINK TANKS’ 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.

More belated posting, this time a short comment for RSIS with excellent new colleague Sinan. We had actually written this a little while ago, but it got buried under the COVID-19 coverage. This is a potential problem which may yet express itself more dangerously.

ISIS in the Maldives?

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Raffaello PantucciMohammed Sinan Siyech

ICPVTR / RSIS / Commentaries / Country and Region Studies / East Asia and Asia Pacific / Global / South Asia / Southeast Asia and ASEAN / Terrorism Studies

03 APRIL 2020

Synopsis

The February 2020 stabbing of three tourists in the Maldives has raised the prospect of terror in paradise. There are numerous indicators to suggest a potential threat in the Maldives, but it remains unclear whether this incident was simply a one-off or the beginning of something more serious.

Commentary

THE STABBING of three tourists recently in the Maldives has raised the prospect of terrorism in the popular tourist destination. The style of the attack, the subsequent video aping ISIS’ style, and the broader backdrop against which it comes, point to being inspired by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

The attacks were reported as an isolated incident, though media has suggested authorities might be re-opening an earlier investigation into the stabbing of a Turkish tourist in December. The video emulating ISIS style and tone threatened more attacks, though the group itself has been quiet about the attack so far.

Long-time Coming?

The attack has been a long time coming. With roughly 250 fighters, and about 1400 alleged radicalised individuals, out of a population of 350,000, the Maldives has amongst the highest per capita instances of foreign terrorist fighters around the world. For some time, there has been fear that an exodus of fighters from the Maldives might return home bringing terrorist violence with them.

There is a history of foreign militant fighters from the Maldives going back to the war in Afghanistan. There have been killings of journalists and bloggers on the islands that have been blamed on violent Islamist groups, though questions have been raised around motivations.

The last major incident was an attempted bombing in 2007 in Male which injured a dozen tourists. The networks involved then were also present in supporting ISIS. Moreover, A couple of weeks after the stabbing incident, authorities raided properties in Naifaru island of Lhaviyani Atoll claiming to have disrupted a bomb-making plot. No charges were pressed.

Identifying Trends

There are a few indicators which bear attention. First, there have been incidents in the past few years where ISIS-linked or inspired attackers have launched attacks against visiting foreigners: Tunisia (2015), Tajikistan (2018) and Sri Lanka (2019) are prominent examples. The different sorts of attacks and the nature of the links to ISIS all show how tourists present themselves as easy targets for ISIS adherents (either inspired or directed).

In each of those cases, local tensions – including inequality, anger at government and a sense of injustice – translated into violence against foreigners. Striking visiting foreigners assuages some of this anger, brings international attention to the situation, and undermines local authorities. All of which makes it an easy fit into the ISIS playbook.

Second, there are existing violent operators in the Maldives like drug smugglers and other criminal gangs. There has been evidence of such individuals being specifically recruited into ISIS networks. ISIS narrative offers itself as a source of redemption for previous criminals. Their propensity for violence and access to criminal networks makes these recruits convenient assets within extremist networks.

Third, there is a problem of fundamentalism on the margins of society. During former president Abdul Gayoom’s rule (1978–2008), many scholars such as Muhammad Ibrahim who did not toe the official line were exiled to islands where they continued preaching their exclusivist messages. Over time, his influence has spread across Maldivian society with his students inspiring attacks such as the above mentioned 2007 bombing and having linkages to ISIS.

Closing the Maldivian Pandora’s Box

Currently, it is unclear as to the degree to which local authorities have the capability or experience to manage either violent networks at home or those that might return from Syria/Iraq or Afghanistan.

For instance, there are links and communications between those abroad and Maldivians back home via encrypted platforms, but there has been little coverage of rehabilitation or other programmes to engage returnees. Understanding the connectivity, the flows home and how to effectively manage such individuals is going to be a crucial task for the authorities.

The fact that not much support for this attack has been forthcoming is confusing; but it might reflect earlier divisions amongst the Maldivian radical community who were cleaved in two when ISIS broke from Jabhat al Nusra in the early days of the Syrian civil war. It might also simply reflect ISIS’ general state of chaos at the moment.

Key Question

The key question at this stage is whether the government has indeed been able to roll up the entirety of this network. Once the profiles are made public, it will be important to note whether any are returnees or the extent of their links to terrorist groups or networks. While the West has not suffered many attacks involving returnees, there have been lethal attacks in Southeast Asian countries involving battle hardened individuals. This escalates the risk profile in the Maldives.

The government has not been complacent so far about the potential danger. They have been identifying extremist preachers and raising threat levels across the nation while also engaging in religious counter messaging. However, despite arrests, they have not been able to prosecute returnees or address root causes such as corruption and lack of employment for youth.

Given their relative inexperience in managing such threats, it will be important to cooperate with international partners. The country has formulated a national action plan on preventing violent extremism with international support; it will be important to implement any work that flows from it.

Beyond this, it will be important to see whether terrorist or extremist networks gain access to better weaponry. Another indicator will be whether ISIS or Al Qaeda-affiliated groups start to raise the profile of the Maldives as a potential target in South Asia. Given that ISIS continues to face pressure on the battlefield, a major attack on a soft target like the Maldives, whether inspired or directed by the group, would provide a useful ideological boost.

About the Authors

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence, Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. Mohammed Sinan Siyech is Senior Analyst at ICPVTR.

Still catching up on myself. Got distracted with a few other things including the current chaos in real life and suddenly a wave of new short pieces landed. So will continue updating here. Have some longer ones still gently coming to the boil, but current events have confused everything. First up, a short commentary for my London institutional home RUSI.

Don’t Lose Sight of the Enduring Global Terrorist Threat

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Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary30 March 2020
UK Counter-terrorismTerrorismMiddle East and North Africa

As the world’s attention remains understandably concentrated on the Coronavirus pandemic, it is important to remember that other threats have not gone away.

Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), has started to tell its adherents to take advantage of the chaos in the West caused by the coronavirus pandemic to launch attacks. Beyond this, a series of worrying trends point to an international terrorist movement developing greater coherence and strength in preparation for another bout of violence. Largely unnoticed amongst the flood of information and disinformation about the global pandemic, a series of actions illustrates the persistent and chronic nature of the threat of international terrorism that the world still faces.

Daesh’s recommendation for its followers to take advantage of this moment to launch attacks was a shift in its narrative around the coronavirus pandemic. Previously, it had largely been passing instructions to its followers not dissimilar to what the WHO and governments were suggesting: to be careful in certain countries and practice good hygiene. It had also enjoyed the fact that China and Iran had been so badly hit, considering it ‘divine retribution’ for China’s treatment of Uighurs and for Iran’s Shia ‘apostasy’. This message was echoed by other groups, most prominently the Uighurs fighting in Syria, who appeared eager to celebrate China’s ‘punishment’. But until recently there had been little comment around the option of launching attacks under the cover of the coronavirus crisis.

In fact, international jihadist terrorism has been a receding concern for Western governments for some time. The absence of large-scale successful attacks directed by Daesh or Al-Qa’ida has removed the threat from the top of world leaders’ in-trays. And this was reinforced by two additional trends: the growing capability of security services to disrupt and counter organised terrorist plots, and an increased focus by terrorist groups towards their local environments rather than the preparation of international plots. The danger is that whenever we have witnessed similar trends in the past, they provided a lull which concluded with new and more creative threats coming back to strike us.

A growing coherence amongst terrorist organisations

There is evidence of growing coherence amongst the global jihadist movement. Rather than disintegrating, they appear to be developing and strengthening their connections. This has been most visible in Africa, where reporting from the Sahel suggests that Al-Qa’ida- and Daesh-aligned groups on the ground are working together. This cooperation is not entirely surprising. Ultimately, the two groups offer an ideology that is very similar and it is not uncommon to see adherents initially drawn into their orbits through a mix of ideological material from both. Yet, at a strategic level, the two have been in competition for some time, something that appears now to have been overcome within the Sahel, where a growing violent insurgency is displacing and killing thousands.

A similar, though maybe less surprising, level of coherence is visible within Al-Qa’ida’s various African factions. Lately, the group’s East African affiliate, Al-Shabaab, its West African representative, Jama’at Nasr Al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), and its Yemeni affiliate Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have all been releasing messages praising each other, marking the death of AQAP’s leader Qasim Al-Raymi, the death of a senior Tunisian jihadist, and generally demonstrating a high level of interaction. This has been seen and praised by Al-Qa’ida’s senior leadership, which has issued messages congratulating them on their operations.

Al-Shabaab has emphasised its fealty by emphasising that its attacks are being conducted in accordance with senior Al-Qa’ida figures orders, demonstrating a desire to connect with Al-Qa’ida’s global ambitions rather than simply be Africa-focused. Al-Shabaab has also been demonstrating a growing capability and ambition – attacking Western forces on their bases in East Africacontinuing to aim at targets in Kenya and even reportedly looking at international aviation as a potential target once again. JNIM has not quite achieved the same level of success, but a more worrying potential development for Al-Qa’ida was the recent agreement signed between the Taliban and the US government, in which the Taliban appeared to specifically agree to ensure the group could not use Afghanistan as a base of operations once again. While on the one hand, this statement might be moot (there have long been suspicions about Al-Qa’ida hiding in Iran or Pakistan), it is also yet to be proven how assiduous the Taliban will be in going after them. Assessing that this was something that they could game in their favour, Al-Qa’ida was quick to put out a statement praising the agreement and painting it – much like the Taliban’s leadership have – as a victory for the Afghan organisation, showing once again its ability to defeat empires.

Al-Qa’ida’s calculation is likely based on the fact that the Afghan government and the Taliban already appear to be facing difficulty coming to the table for the next stage of the process to conclude Afghanistan’s decades-long conflict. This fact, and the Taliban’s persistent willingness to let Al-Qa’ida elements operate in their territory, suggest that it is unlikely that any resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan is on the immediate horizon, or that Al-Qa’ida will find itself under greater pressure as a result of the agreement.

Iran tensions not helping

All of these moves are taking place against a backdrop of escalating US–Iran tensions. The brief intake of breath that took place in the wake of the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani has been filled by more strikes and deaths of Western forces in Iraq caused by Iranian-backed militias. The coronavirus pandemic may be the major focus in Tehran at the moment, but the Iranians have not forgotten the US and seem to now have moved beyond their self-imposed cease-fire in the wake of the mistaken downing of the Ukraine Airlines plane over Tehran on 8 January.

This is relevant to the context of Al-Qa’ida and Daesh for two reasons. First, Iran has regularly shown itself to be an agile manipulator of jihadist elements, able to pragmatically engage with them when it suited Tehran’s objectives. And at the moment, these groups will prove both a useful and deniable tool in Iran’s growing showdown with the US. Second, Iran’s interest in crushing Daesh in Syria and Iraq is likely receding so, as long as the group does not focus on Iran, Tehran is likely to look the other way.

Given Daesh’s growing profile in Africa in particular, the organisation still has some power of attraction, notwithstanding the loss of its ‘caliphate’. This continues to make the organisation dangerous, and any successful effort to rebuild its territorial structures in the Levant will give it a major boost internationally.

The danger is that these shifts will produce a dramatic terrorist attack which will shock the West out of its current collective coronavirus focus. Daesh’s suggestion to its adherents represents a first indication that the terrorist organisation sees the West as distracted, and may seize the opportunity to launch a dramatic attack. The broader trends that have been visible with Al-Qa’ida date back to before the current crisis, but show a threat picture which is developing in directions that warrant close attention.

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Tomasz “odder” Kozlowski/commons.wikimedia.org

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

Almost done with my slow catch up posting (and will do a media round-up in the next one), but here posting a recent piece for my new institutional home in Singapore, RSIS, for their online journal Counter Terrorist Trends and Analysis (CTTA). The piece focuses on the impact of General Soleimani’s death on the jihadist scene and Iran’s relationship with Sunni jihadists in general.

Soleimani’s Assassination: Could Jihadist Groups Benefit?

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Synopsis

While the geopolitical implications of General Qassim Soleimani’s killing have been well discussed, an understudied aspect is its impact on the jihadist terrorist milieu. The general assumption is that the act is either tangential to or undermines the fight against the Islamic State (IS), given Iran’s role in anti-IS operations on the ground in the Levant. However, it is not clear that either of these assumptions are true, or in what ways Soleimani’s death and its consequences might shape the future behaviour of jihadists.

The Current Milieu

On the surface, the global jihadist landscape remains dominated by two core factions – those aligned with al Qaeda (AQ) and those closer to IS. However, some jihadist factions continue to hedge against outwardly joining either side, and groups elsewhere around the world have pledged allegiance to IS, but with little evidence of a direct link or connection. At the ground level, it is sometimes not clear that individual adherents see the distinction in the same way that leadership cadres might, with arrests showing caches of radical material drawing from both pools. Similarly, in West Africa, there is growing evidence of cooperation between IS and AQ, though it is not clear if this is centrally mandated or coordinated.1

The growing importance of Africa in both groups’ global footprint is a more noticeable trend. For IS, that is represented through the growing influence and presence of IS-linked or inspired groups eager to brandish their connections – for example, there has been an increase in violence in the Sahel,2 Nigeria3 and Mozambique4 linked to groups that have been releasing videos through IS channels. AQ also continues to be represented on the battlefield through their own affiliates, though they appear less vocal. The growing reported alignment between AQ and IS-linked groups in the Sahel is an interesting regional development – unique globally according to senior US military officials serving in the region5 – whose larger significance is not yet clear.

Coherent Messaging

The exception in some ways for AQ is al Shabaab in East Africa, which has managed to demonstrate a constant capability and willingness to attempt ambitious attacks, while also maintaining a persistent public deference to AQ central.6 IS has recently also taken to pushing a pan-regional narrative in direct competition to al Shabaab.7 The link to AQ core is something that is reflected across the range of AQ affiliated groups who have in recent months shown a considerable degree of coherent messaging.8

IS in contrast continues to push to inspire wherever it can, with messages in support of its affiliates. While there is an equal degree of coherence in terms of style of messaging with AQ linked groups, it does not necessarily seem to fulfil the same role of seeking to bolster the centre and show higher levels of organisational coherence. In the wake of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s death, there appeared to be a rush from around the world of groups pledging allegiance to the new IS leader, with little clarity about how this affects the various groups or cells themselves.9 Given the continued questions around IS’ new leader – with some in the security community even doubting his existence – IS certainly appears to be less concerned about global organisational coherence than AQ.10

Focus on Local Conflicts

At the same time, neither group appears at the moment in a position to launch a strategically significant strike against the West or out of their immediate areas of operation. It is possible such plots are being disrupted, but, regardless, the net result is a loss in visible effectiveness. In some parts of the world, local authority weakness, societal fissures or external tensions have created a context where the group, or a cell pledging loyalty to them, might launch a strike.11 But evidence of centrally directed plots successfully launched by either group over the past year is lacking.

Rather, the groups appear to be focused on local conflicts in which they sometimes use the rhetoric of an international attack as a garb to shroud their attacks with greater meaning. For example, Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula’s (AQAP) most recent claim of responsibility of the Pensacola terrorist attack in Florida, showed little evidence of a connection beyond the group claiming the assailant as one of its own given his nationality as a Saudi.12

Iranian Manipulation

Contrary to popular consensus that it is the sworn enemy of Sunni jihadists, Iran has shown itself to be a pragmatic actor in dealing with violent Sunni groups. This partly stems from a well-spring of early support from across the Muslim divide for the Iranian revolution. In the early days of the revolution in 1979, the overthrow of the Shah was treated as an event in the same light as the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan or the Siege of Mecca – whereby dedicated believers, armed only with guns, the Koran and the zeal of their beliefs, were able to overthrow (or hurt) long-standing apostate regimes. The focus was on Islam and anti-imperialism rather than Sunni-Shia divides.13

Support of Violent Extremists

While Iran has continued to maintain its rhetoric of permanent revolution – something alluded to within its constitution14 – providing a logic that connected it with anti-imperialist movements around the world, for the most part, its links to violent groups have been highly pragmatic. For example, Iran has historically been supportive of Turkish Hezbollah, a Sunni group that has targeted Kurdish groups as well as Turkish authorities.15 From an Iranian perspective, supporting such a group is partly motivated by a desire to control Iran’s own Kurdish separatist regions as well as providing them a card to play against Turkey.

Since the early days of the revolution, Iran has also supported Hamas against Israel.16 Further, looking to Iran’s complicated border region with Pakistan, the long-standing Baluchi insurgency on both sides of the border has generated repeated accusations by Pakistan that Tehran is providing support to some Baluchi elements, specifically the Baloch Raji Aajoi Saangar (BRAS),17 a Sunni group that has targeted Pakistani security officials. Iran’s support appears tit-for-tat, but also an expression of concern against growing Saudi influence in Pakistan and particular investments in Baluchistan.

Iran’s relationship with the Taliban and AQ is also complicated. For years post-9/11, Iran hosted a number of senior AQ figures, alternatively jailing them and letting them run around under fairly loose supervision. This included senior figures like Saif al Adl and a number of Osama bin Laden’s close family. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the subsequent founder of al Qaeda in Iraq (the precursor to IS) was allowed to pass through Iran as he fled Afghanistan for northern Iraq.18 Iran appears to have held these individuals hostage as negotiating leverage as well as to protect themselves against future attacks by AQ. Nonetheless, relations between AQ and Iran have remained consistently antagonistic, something evidenced by comments within Osama bin Laden’s correspondence found in Abbottabad.19

In 1998, when the Taliban overran Mazar-e-Sharif, they reportedly massacred a group of 11 Iranians (including 9 diplomats), pushing the two sides to the brink of war.20 This soured relations such that following the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan by the United States, Tehran actively reached out to the US offering detailed maps of Taliban positions to aid in its attack plans.21 However, as the AmericanIranian relationship soured, the relationship between the Taliban and Tehran flourished. To the point that there was a Taliban Mashhad Shura formed, as well as Iranian support for Taliban groups in the north and west of Afghanistan.22 Iran’s calculations here appear to be driven by a desire to keep its hand in play in Afghanistan as well as formulate another way to frustrate the US.

Pragmatic Relations

The key takeaway from all of this interaction with the Sunni jihadist world is that Tehran is highly pragmatic in its relations with them. While there are clear moments of conflict, Iran is seemingly willing to overlook them in order to advance broader strategic goals. This perspective will unlikely change following the removal of Soleimani. Unlike a terrorist group, where the leader is a figure around whom great mystique, ideology and personal linkages flow, Soleimani was simply (albeit very charismatic) the leader of an army – an organisation with a fixed hierarchy and goals, promotion and division of labour. The overall approach may be massaged by a leader, but ultimately the institution will have political perspectives that are dictated elsewhere. This will not change with the removal of a general.

Jihadists’ View of Iran

While Iran may have a highly pragmatic and agnostic view of Sunni jihadist groups, it is equally clear that the groups themselves have fairly firm views on Iran. The clearest expression of this is in the numerous postings that appeared on extremist social media channels in the wake of Soleimani’s death. While AQ did not make a formal statement, its affiliate on the ground in Syria, Hurras al Din, celebrated his demise.23

In contrast, IS was more open in its gloating, with a message in late January from its new spokesman, Abu Hamza al Qarashi, celebrating Soleimani’s death, describing him as a ‘Safavid apostate’ and calling on God to curse him and all who supported him.24 The message followed an earlier one in IS’ newsletter al Naba, which hailed Soleimani’s death as a victory for the jihadist group.25 There was also substantial condemnation amongst the jihadist community for Hamas’ stance on Soleimani’s death.26

This does not mean jihadists would be averse to once again strike pragmatic deals with Iran if they advance broader strategic goals. They may shout anti-Iran rhetoric, and IS has in the past sought to accelerate its conflict with Iran with its June 2017 attack on the Parliament and Mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini, which followed its first ever Persian-language video.27 But outside this attack, the group has done little in advance of its animosity towards the Islamic Republic (though Iran has claimed numerous foiled attacks).

Moreover, while both IS and AQ might see Shi’ite apostates as enemies, it is not clear how much they are dependent on this narrative to generate supporters and recruits. It is notable, for example, that in IS’ messages claiming the 2017 attack in Tehran, they sought to emphasise the ethnicities of the various attackers – highlighting their Baluchi and Ahvazi heritage; two minorities within Iran with strained relations with Tehran.28 This suggests a narrative around the attack that attempts to manipulate local politics and tensions rather than rely solely on the simplistic Sunni-Shia divide.

Broader Geopolitics

While Iran is seen as the heart of an alliance of apostates that is oppressing Sunni Muslims in the Middle East, the jihadist community still seems fixated on its enemies in the West and the regimes they are supporting around the world. The Shia may also be seen as adversaries, but arguably, they are not a principal focus of the jihadist community. Soleimani’s death is unlikely to change the calculations for both sides (Tehran and the jihadist community) a vast amount.

Continued Operations Across Middle East

This is not to say that in key theatres where AQ and IS operate, including in Iraq and Syria, Soleimani’s death will not have some effect. While physically decimated, IS is still estimated to carry out 60 attacks a month in Iraq alone targeting security forces and local rivals, as it seeks to regroup around an estimated 20,000 hardcore fighters across the Iraq-Syria theatre.29 While concerned about IS’ regrowth in Syria, Iran will likely continue to focus their efforts through either their forces on the ground or Iraqi or Syrian proxies. The removal of Soleimani is not going to change this approach.

Rather, the greater impact will be on the broader US-Iran clash, where the escalation marked by the removal of Soleimani will give Iran and its proxies a greater sense of latitude in their operations. This will concern Saudi Arabia, Iran’s principle adversary in the Gulf, who has been noticeably careful in official statements to downplay any gloating over Soleimani’s death.30

This perspective provides an interesting resonance to the broader question of the longer-term consequence of the strike for Sunni jihadist groups. For the US, this strike was part of a maximum pressure campaign against Iran that appears to be intended to topple the Tehran regime. It also came as the US continued to agitate to withdraw its troops from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. If US President Donald Trump is successful in his desire to pull US forces out of these Middle Eastern theatres, the resultant vacuum is one that will likely be filled by instability or Iran-Saudi tensions.

Filling the Security Vacuum

These tensions might express themselves through proxies like Sunni jihadist groups, but it is likely that these groups’ actions will be a combination of manipulation and individual agency. While IS and AQ (or other Sunni jihadist groups like the Taliban or those in Syria) might take advantage of the security vacuum that follows a US withdrawal to grow once again, their adversaries (including Iran) will likely retaliate. This will give Iran’s foes an opportunity to provide support to their enemies’ enemy. So, as IS advances and the Iraqi and Syrian sides push back against them with Iranian support, it would be unsurprising if some support flows towards IS from Gulf backers.31

Similarly, in Afghanistan in the peace deal that was signed, the Taliban seemed to appear willing to sever their links with AQ.32 While there has been much scepticism around this declaration and earlier intent by the Taliban to sever such links,33 the new agreement might provide a context in which Tehran could once again seek to play its cards with AQ to maintain some leverage against Taliban – a group with which they have deep historical enmity which may have only temporarily been put to one side. It might also be useful leverage in Iran’s broader conflict with the US – who by virtue of the latest agreement are (theoretically at least) now allied with the Taliban against AQ and IS.

Conclusion

The Sunni jihadist milieu is one that paints itself as ideologically pure. Yet it can be as brutally pragmatic as its state-based adversaries. In Tehran, the leadership also appears happy to cooperate with its perceived adversaries to ensure broader strategic goals. The death of General Soleimani will not alter such calculations, and rather may herald a period of greater confrontation between Iran and the world which will have the corollary effect of both weakening some of the alliances fighting against Sunni jihadist groups (for example in Iraq and Syria) while also increasing the willingness for Iran to use or manipulate proxies to launch attacks around the world.

Given the disruption or success of historical plots by Iranian linked networks in places as diverse as Thailand, India, Georgia, Cyprus, Argentina, Nigeria, Bulgaria, and the US, amongst others, the conflict against its enemies (Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia) from Tehran’s perspective has no borders. While a permanent alignment between Tehran and IS or AQ is unlikely, there is not likely to be much of a focused effort in eradicating either group by Tehran. In fact, it is possible and likely that Tehran will see IS, AQ and their various affiliates as useful potential assets to manipulate (if they are able) in their increasingly aggressive confrontation with the US.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence, Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit within the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be contacted at israffaello@ntu.edu.sg.

1 Eric Schmitt, “Terrorism Threat in West Africa Soars as US Weighs Troop Cuts,” New York Times, February 27, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/27/world/africa/ter rorism-west-africa.html.

2 Jason Burke, “Sahel faces surge in violence from terror attacks,” Guardian, January 22, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/22/sah el-faces-surge-in-violence-from-terror-attacks.

3 “Islamic State in Nigeria ‘beheads Christian hostages’,” BBC News, December 27, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-50924266.

4 Peter Fabricius, “Is Islamic State taking charge of Mozambique’s jihadist insurgency,” Institute for Security Studies Today, January 10, 2020, https://issafrica.org/iss-today/is-islamic-state-takingcharge-of-mozambiques-jihadist-insurgency.

5 Adrian Blomfield and Will Brown, “British troops back on front line against jihadists as war on terror spreads to Africa,” Telegraph, March 1, 2020, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/03/01/britishtroops-back-front-line-against-jihadists-war-terror/.

6 The attack on the Dusit hotel in Nairobi in January 2019 (James Kahongeh, “How Dusit terror attack unfolded,” Daily Nation, January 15, 2020, https://www.nation.co.ke/news/How-Dusit-terrorattack-unfolded/1056-5418518-bp715yz/index.html) and the attack on US and Italian forces in September 2019 (Caleb Weiss, “Sahabaab strikes American, Italian forces in Somalia,” Long War Journal, September 30, 2019, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2019/09/shabaab-strikes-american-italian-forces-in-somalia.php) show ambition, while their praise of AQAP’s Pensacola attack claim and the reference in the Dusit attack to being Zawahiri’s soldiers shows deference: “Blessing and Salutations for the Military Operation at the US navy base in Pensacola, Florida,” Al Kataib Media, February 2, 2020, https://twitter.com/Magdashi3/status/12249689 22329505792.

7 “Islamic State video seeks recruits in East Africa,” BBC Monitoring, February 28, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201hy23 – it is also notable how al Shabaab is being reported as broadening its recruitment base, Nicholas Komu, “AlShabaab changes tack, targets jobless youths in Nyeri slums,” Daily Nation, March 1, 2020, https://www.nation.co.ke/news/Al-Shabaab-targetsyouth-in-Nyeri-slums/1056-5474832- xagos9z/index.html.

8 This can be seen in some of the aforementioned incidents, but also see Caleb Weiss, “Al Qaeda’s general command praises recent Shabaab attacks,” Long War Journal, October 17, 2019, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2019/10/alqaeda-praises-recent-shabaab-attacks.php.

9 “Regional affiliates start pledging loyalty to new IS leader,” November 2, 2019, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c2017fwd; Mina al-Lami, “Analysis: Decoding Islamic State’s allegiance videos,” BBC Monitoring, October 7, 2019, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c20150sr

10 Mina al-Lami, “Analysis: Ongoing uncertainties about identity of new Islamic State leader,” BBC Monitoring, January 24, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201eozr and Martin Chulov and Mohammed Rasool, ISIS founding member confirmed by spies as group’s new leader,” Guardian, January 20, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/20/isisleader-confirmed-amir-mohammed-abdul-rahman-almawli-al-salbi; there appears to be a debate about his identity which even a report in the Guardian reportedly sourced from numerous intelligence sources has not cleared up. IS’ recent statement referred to the new leader again, without showing him.

11 The Easter 2019 attack in Sri Lanka is arguably an archetypal example of this.

12 Thomas Joscelyn, “AQAP claims ‘full responsibility’ for shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola,” Long War Journal, February 2, 2020, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2020/02/aq ap-claims-full-responsibility-for-shooting-at-naval-airstation-pensacola.php.

13 Emmanuel Sivan, “Sunni radicalism in the Middle East and the Iranian Revolution,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol.21, no.1, February 1989, pp.1-30.

14 “Chapter One: Tehran’s Strategic Intent,” Iran’s Networks of Influence in the Middle East, (IISS Strategic Dossier: London), November 2019, pp.11- 38, https://www.iiss.org/publications/strategicdossiers/iran-dossier/iran-19-03-ch-1-tehransstrategic-intent.

15 Fatih Altayli, “Is Iran Supporting Turkish Hezbollah?,” Al Monitor, April 16, 2013, https://www.almonitor.com/pulse/security/2013/04/turkey-iranhezbollah-support.html; there is a live debate about the degree to which Iran is involved with the group. People close to the group deny (“Huda-Pars emergence,” The Economist, November 23, 2013) while Turkish sources tend to highlight links (Mustafa Cosar Unal and Tuncay Unal, “Recruitment or enlistment? Individual integration into the Turkish Hezbollah,” Turkish Studies, vol. 19, No.3, 2018, pp.327-362)

16 Adnan Abu Amer, “The Hamas-Iran alliance remains and expands,” Middle East Monitor, January 14, 2019, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20190114-thehamas-iran-alliance-remains-and-expands/; “Chapter One: Tehran’s Strategic Intent,” Iran’s Networks of Influence in the Middle East, (IISS Strategic Dossier: London), November 2019, pp.11-38, https://www.iiss.org/publications/strategicdossiers/iran-dossier/iran-19-03-ch-1-tehransstrategic-intent.

17 Shahaburddin Shahab, “Pakistan asks Iran to act on militants behind Baluchistan killings,” Reuters, April 20, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/uspakistan-iran/pakistan-asks-iran-to-act-on-militantsbehind-baluchistan-killings-idUSKCN1RW0EQ.

18 Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden (UK: Bloomsbury), August 2017.

19 Nelly Lahoud, “Al-Qa’ida’s Contested Relationship with Iran: The View from Abbottabad,” New America Foundation, September 2018, https://s3.amazonaws.com/newamericadotorg/docu ments/AlQaidas_Contested_Relationship_with_Iran_2018- 08-20_151707.pdf.

20 Douglas Jehl, “Iran holds Taliban responsible for 9 diplomats’ deaths,” New York Times, September 11, 1998, https://www.nytimes.com/1998/09/11/world/iranholds-taliban-responsible-for-9-diplomatsdeaths.html.

21 Dexter Filkins, “The Shadow Commander,” New Yorker, September 23, 2013, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/09/30/th e-shadow-commander.

22 Javid Ahmad and Husain Haqqani, “What does Soleimani’s death mean for Afghanistan?,” The Hill, February 6, 2020, https://thehill.com/opinion/international/481884-whatdoes-soleimanis-death-mean-for-afghanistan.

23 “Syria-based jihadist group reportedly welcomes Soleimani’s death,” BBC Monitoring, January 12, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201dr8l.

24 “Text of IS spokesman’s message announcing new phase in jihad,” BBC Monitoring, January 27, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201f2pb.

25 “IS gloats at death of Soleimani in first comment on US-Iran crisis,” January 9, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201dfp7.

26 “Jihadist supporters condemn Hamas for mourning Soleimani,” BBC Monitoring, January 7, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201d54j.

27 Chris Zambelis, “Terror in Tehran: The Islamic State Goes to War with the Islamic Republic,” CTC Sentinel, vol.10, no.6, June/July 2017, https://ctc.usma.edu/terror-in-tehran-the-islamicstate-goes-to-war-with-the-islamic-republic/.

28 Ibid.

29 Loveday Morris and Louisa Loveluck, “Killing of ISIS leader has not hurt group’s operations, says Iraqi Kurdish prime minister,” Washington Post, February 15, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/killing-of-isisleader-has-not-hurt-groups-operations-says-iraqikurdish-leader/2020/02/15/d3e7303a-4ff8-11eaa4ab-9f389ce8ad30_story.html

30 Yasmine Farouk, “What does the US killing of Soeimani mean for Saudi Arabia?,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Commentary, January 7, 2020, https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/01/07/whatdoes-u.s.-killing-of-soleimani-mean-for-saudi-arabiapub-80722

31 Martin Williams, “Factcheck Q&A: Is Saudi Arabia funding ISIS?,” Channel 4 News, June 7, 2017, https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/factcheck -qa-is-saudi-arabia-funding-isis

32 “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America,” February 29, 2020, https://www.state.gov/wpcontent/uploads/2020/02/Agreement-For-BringingPeace-to-Afghanistan-02.29.20.pdf

33 This skepticism was well articulated by Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, “Trump’s Bad Deal with the Taliban,” Politico, March 18, 2019, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/03/18/ donald-trump-afghanistan-zalmay-khalilzad-225815 and was particularly illustrated in the death of Asim Umar in Afghanistan in September 2019, “Asim Umar: Al-Qaeda’s South Asia chief ‘killed in Afghanistan’,” BBC News, October 8, 2019 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-49970353.

More catch up posting, this time for my old London base RUSI’s Newsbrief publication with an excellent colleague Shashi from my new Singapore base RSIS. It tries to offer some ideas from Singapore about how the UK might want to deal with some of the problems it is trying to manage at moment around radicalised offenders (though admittedly this problem has slipped from the front and center amidst the current COVID-19 mess).

The Singapore Model: A New Deradicalisation Approach for the UK?

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Shashi Jayakumar and Raffaello Pantucci
RUSI Newsbrief13 March 2020
UK Counter-terrorismTackling ExtremismUKTerrorism

The UK is currently going through a process of re-evaluating and rethinking some of its key approaches to managing terrorism offenders. Looking at Singapore’s model would be a good start for policymakers.

 Download Article (PDF)

Recent terrorist attacks in the UK have highlighted key problems in the country’s counterterrorism systems and policies. Chief among them is the need to manage terrorism offenders for substantial periods of time, and what programmes need to be in place to ensure that society is protected. As the UK considers refreshing its strategy, some lessons from the Singaporean experience might be helpful. The contexts are different, but the long-term engagement model employed by Singapore might offer useful lessons for the UK.

One key piece of legislation is Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA) which facilitates detention orders. The ISA is in fact, with several modifications, a remnant of British colonialism, which was drawn up as part of emergency regulations when Singapore and Malaya were embroiled in a communist insurgency during the 1950s and 1960s. Despite periodic criticism by human rights organisations that the ISA is simply detention without trial, there are numerous safeguards – for example, a detention order must be reviewed by an independent ISA advisory board headed by a Supreme Court judge – and independent checks and routes of appeal that exist to protect its abuse by the government.

The first use of the ISA in the post-9/11 era in Singapore took place when a cell of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Al-Qa’ida’s chief affiliate in Southeast Asia, who were responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings, was discovered in Singapore in December 2001. All members of the cell came from the Singaporean Muslim community. One of the plots they had under development was the bombing of diplomatic missions in Singapore including the UK High Commission.

The government calculated that putting these individuals on trial would have been detrimental for ethnic relations in Singapore. Consequently, they instead chose to use the ISA to manage the offenders. The use of the ISA within this context is seen by detractors as punitive, but from the authorities’ point of view it is an effective way of managing rehabilitation in a controlled environment. As Singapore’s Home Affairs minister K Shanmugam has observed, ‘we have a clear process, detention, rehabilitate and release. You detain them and you don’t do anything else with them and you put them away, then their lives are not going to get better. And you’re not doing anything to deal with the situation really’.

The point is not to lock the door on people and throw the key away. Detainees are engaged and counselled one-on-one by Ustadz (Islamic scholars) in an intensive manner. In separate sessions, psychologists from the Home Affairs ministry regularly engage these individuals, with their assessments, as well as those by the Ustadz, forming a key part of the decision to eventually release detainees.

This programme, called the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), was developed and staffed by concerned and well-respected Ustadz in concert with the authorities. These religious leaders had realised after their initial interactions with the detainees that the vast majority had completely mistaken understandings of key concepts like ‘jihad’, ‘al-wala al-bara’ (loyalty and disavowal), ‘hijrah’ (migration), and living in ‘dar ul-kufr’ (non-Muslim land). Many, misled by the charismatic leaders of their cell, had come to believe that it was proscribed by Islamic law to live in a Westernised society like Singapore.

Throughout this process a path to release is open – should detainees show that they have been responsive to counselling, demonstrate genuine contrition and evince a change of perspective. Assessments of effectiveness are undertaken through repeated and continual engagement.

Social support is a critical element of the overall approach. Vocational training or job placements are given to detainees to facilitate social reintegration. In addition, during detention, families of offenders are given help as often the sole breadwinner is incarcerated. This aspect should not be underestimated as it plays a part in ensuring that the family is not radicalised; it may also alter the mindset of the detainee, seeing that their ‘enemy’ is offering support and help to their family, including, for example, school bursaries for children. A number of assistance schemes for the individual and family continue well after release. This ‘aftercare’ aspect, handled by the Inter-Agency Aftercare Group, which works closely with the RRG and the authorities, plays a role in keeping the recidivism rate low. Only two out of approximately 100 individuals who have been through the ISA’s preventive detention and RRG counselling have had to be detained again.

The RRG has gained acceptance from the Malay-Muslim community over time. This is partly to do with the fact that a large part of RRG efforts are organic and stand on their own, without funding from the state. The family and community support structures which have developed over time to deal with other social problems within the Malay-Muslim community, such as drugs, have been adapted to aid families affected by radicalisation.

Upon release, many individuals are, depending on the assessment of the authorities, kept on a Restriction Order (RO) for some time afterwards. This places restrictions on the movements of the individual. Other conditions of the RO might include needing approval prior to joining any organisation, or mandatory further religious counselling. Those who demonstrate further progress eventually (typically after a few years) have their RO lapse.

This approach delivered some success with the first wave of jihadists that Singapore faced post-9/11. For around 90% of the JI cases this meant eventual release. The remaining 10% (fewer than 10 individuals) were key influencers, or hardened radicals whose ideas are unlikely to change. They remain incarcerated. Engagement with them continues.

Things have changed since 2013 with the start of the war in Syria and the growth of the Islamic State. Rather than networked individuals, the threat picture has been made up of isolated individuals, often young ‘meaning seekers’ or those seeking diversion from their own personal problems, radicalised through online connections and in some cases seeking and succeeding to travel to Syria and Iraq.

The radicalisation process has also been compressed considerably. Whereas with the first cohort the time taken from initial contact with ideas to action was years, with the new cohort it is closer to nine months. The RRG’s success rate amongst this new cohort is nearer to 25 per cent at the moment.

The exact reasons for this are unclear. One possible explanation might be the changing salience of religious ideology. The Islamic State’s emphasis on online radicalisation creates a very different social environment around the individual where religion plays a changed role. Another crucial difference is that the Islamic State actually had a territorial ‘caliphate’ it controlled meaning the idea of hijrah was more important than in the previous phase of Singaporean extremists as they had a place to migrate to.

This new generation of Islamic State recruits seem to have a less thorough grounding in the core tenets of Islam than their JI predecessors. They learn about Islam from online sources – ‘Sheikh Google’ as it is known – and are partial to more radical preachers like Anwar Al-Awlaki or Abdullah el Faisal than classical preachers. Given this, RRG religious advisers may have less influence over the detainees.

The ‘Singapore model’ has concomitantly had to evolve. There are younger, more tech-savvy counsellors who are familiar with online vocabularies, and who can attempt to engage with younger individuals who self-educate online, but actually may know a lot less about their religion than the first batch of JI detainees. It appears Singaporean authorities are starting to refine their programme. A 17-year old boy was recently detained and assigned a mentor. This mentor will help him to focus on his rehabilitation, studies and family, and also guide him to develop ‘life skills’.

The pool of radicalised individuals has become more diverse. Aside from Islamic State recruits, several Singaporean citizens have travelled to Yemen to fight against the Houthi. Women have travelled to Syria from Singapore and married Islamic State fighters. In response, the RRG now has female counsellors to advise female detainees.

The key principle of the programme remains that no individual is released until the state has confidence they will not re-offend. This does not guarantee success, and as has been highlighted, there have been some cases of recidivism, but it does provide a measure of protection.

Looking at this experience from a UK perspective, there are some immediate similarities. First, offenders are more likely to be radicalised online. There is also a growing volume of individuals with mental health issues or autism spectrum disorders who are becoming embroiled in terrorist networks. This presents a very complicated problem to manage, both in terms of the direct threat and subsequent rehabilitation.

The UK has developed a number of programmes focused on trying to rehabilitate offenders. The Desistance and Disengagement Programme, seeks to engage with individuals using a range of psychological, theological and social supports to provide them with a new path. Similarly, programmes have been developed which seek to engage with offenders on an individual level to understand their specific path to radicalisation. One such programme, Operation Constrain, met considerable pushback when it emerged in the press. The UK also has an overworked probation service whose responsibility it is to engage with offenders when they are released and ensure that they do not slip back into their old ways.

But there are also significant differences from the Singaporean context. Much of the UK’s programming in this space was developed or co-opted by the government. While elements of the UK’s Muslim community engage with specific programmes to help with delivery – for example, counter-extremism programmes like Building a Stronger Britain Together – many organisations have become dependent on government support to survive. In fact, it is often contact with the government that creates problems for effective programmes as the link undermines the perceived independence of the programme. It is crucial to find ways of encouraging community leadership and be seen to maintain independence.

The UK also does not have indeterminate sentencing for terrorist offenders. However, in the past the UK had a system of imprisonment for public protection (IPP). In these cases, an individual served a specific sentence and then following that appeared regularly before a parole board who determined their suitability for release. The IPP system was first introduced in 2005 and then abolished in 2012. The key failing of the system was that there were not adequate rehabilitative programmes in place to help offenders make the appropriate behavioural changes needed for the parole board to permit their release.

Finally, a crucial distinction to draw between the two contexts is one of volume. While Singapore detained approximately 70 individuals from the JI and close to 30 self-radicalised individuals since 2001, with several dozen individuals judged to pose less of a threat if placed directly on RO, the UK has hundreds of cases. This places a much greater burden on the resources required for the intensive engagement that this rehabilitation method requires.

However, it must be remembered that only a small fraction of individuals convicted of terrorist offences go back to commit further terrorist offences. This highlights a key strength of the Singaporean model – long-term engagement with extremists. This may mean that with particularly hard cases long detention periods, with all the adequate judicial protections around it, are necessary. Given that UK courts are unlikely to permit the introduction of the detention orders permissible under Singapore’s ISA (and the even less likely situation that the government would be able to retroactively impose this on individuals currently in jail where most of the problem currently lies), what instead needs to be created is a more intensive probation system around certain offenders which focuses on continually trying to push them in the right direction while ensuring they do not revert to violence.

None of this will necessarily create a completely fullproof system. And it is one that will require constant adapting and updating. The problem of radicalisation does not have any easy or simple solutions. Numerous other countries have tried approaches which have shown some levels of success – Denmark for example, which uses a very different approach to Singapore. Taking inspiration from other countries might provide the UK with a more effective model to deal with radicalised individuals. But whatever the case, a key lesson is that in order to effectively manage the problem, a substantial long-term investment will be required.

Shashi Jayakumar
Shashi is a Senior Fellow and Head of Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

Raffaello Pantucci
Raffaello is a Senior Associate Fellow at RUSI and a Visiting Senior Fellow at RSIS.

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

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Terence Ong/Wikimedia Commons.

As usual have been distracted in real life to get around to posting here, so have a bit of catching up to do. That and the fact that the world seems to be becoming utterly consumed by this virus nightmare, makes you wonder what the longer term consequences of everything really are. But in any case, been writing for a few new outlets and here is the first of a few pieces that emerged recently. First up is a blog post for the French Institut Montaigne, an interesting think tank that is close to President Macron. Thanks to Mathieu and Viviana for their invitation and work on this. Looks at the already faltering peace deal in Afghanistan and China’s general appetite on engagement within the country.

The US-Afghanistan Peace Agreement and a Detached China

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It has not taken long for the strains in the US-Taliban agreement to show. Within hours of signing the agreement, Afghan authorities appeared to be contradicting one of its key pillars. Within days, there was a noticeable return to violence, with the Taliban attacking government positions, the US striking Taliban forces and civilians getting killed. As more time has passed, perspectives are appearing to become more entrenched. What has been noticeable, however, has been the largely quiet response from Beijing, one of Afghanistan’s potentially most consequential neighbors that has played a relatively limited role in the country until now. A question lingering in the back of most regional planning is at what stage might Beijing ultimately step forwards to play a more proactive role.

An agreement for bringing peace

The agreement itself – at least the published part – appears fairly thin gruel. The rather clunky title “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America” reflects the immense complexity that undoubtedly underpins the broader effort to get to the position where the two sides were able to sign a document. The fact it has taken such a short period of time for the seams to show is a reflection of the rush with which it was assembled. This was an agreement to paper over an intense American desire to leave Afghanistan.

And to some degree this perspective is an understandable one. Washington has now been engaged in Afghanistan for almost two decades, and it is hard to see where the end of this conflict might lie. Simply slugging on may exhaust further American blood and treasure without changing much.

At the same time, the precipitous nature of the US withdrawal as it is currently structured appears to answer a US political need and calendar rather than any Afghan interests. For President Trump, an agreement with the Taliban and withdrawal from Afghanistan will be another foreign policy victory he will add to the list that he will no doubt repeatedly shout about on the campaign trail – adding a cowed Taliban to the roster of dead terrorist enemies (which includes ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s leader Qasim al-Rimi and Iranian General Qasem Soleimani).

The impact of such a precipitous withdrawal is not clear. Many point to the fact that it took a few years for President Najibullah to hang after the Soviet withdrawal, with many ascribing the end of foreign aid to his government as the final nail in his coffin. But Afghanistan today is not the same country it was almost three decades ago, and the Taliban are not the same organization they were two decades ago. And in contrast to then when China was a far weaker power still emerging on the international stage, Afghanistan now borders one of the world’s fastest-growing economies (Coronavirus excepted). In many ways, it could be Beijing’s response now that will help shape Afghanistan’s future – be this in terms of investment in infrastructure, encouraging bilateral trade and playing a more proactive role in stabilizing the country in political, economic and security terms. How Beijing steps forwards could shape Afghanistan’s future.

China’s circumspection

So far, Beijing has been circumspect in its response to the peace negotiations. They have not been hugely positive, nor very critical. Rather they have said they will support the process and welcome a clean resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan. In gently critical pieces they suggest that the United States has more responsibility around blame than the Taliban, though they are very careful to not to point too many fingers.

This careful approach is a product of the fact that Afghanistan appears to be one of the few places where the US and China might still effectively cooperate. Notwithstanding tensions elsewhere, Beijing and Washington were able to craft a series of engagements in Afghanistan which they delivered together. However, this approach has been sorely tested since the arrival of the Trump administration and their single-minded and aggressive focus on China. This has extended to harsh criticisms of China’s activity around its western periphery with Secretary of State Pompeo attacking China’s activity in Central Asia during a visit last month, following blunt comments by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of South and Central Asian Affairs Ambassador Alice Wells about China’s activity in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In blunt terms, she excoriated China’s involvement in Afghanistan during a Congressional hearing. While she acknowledged China’s willingness to engage on peace talks, in no uncertain terms she stated “I think that it is fair to say China has not contributed to the economic development of Afghanistan. We have not seen any substantial assistance from China. The Belt and Road is just a slogan.” Just over two months later in a public discussion at the Wilson Center, she repeated these statements as part of a broader assault on China’s Belt and Road activities. When asked about Afghanistan she responded “I haven’t seen China take the steps that would make it a real contributor to Afghanistan’s stabilization, much less stitching it back into the Central Asia and the international community.

Unsurprisingly, this generated angry commentary in the nationalist Chinese Global Times newspaper which attacked Ambassador Wells and accused the United States of continually failing to provide an “efficient resolution to boost the Afghan peace process.” In an interesting contrast, the newly installed Chinese Ambassador to Kabul Wang Yu responded to Ambassador Wells with a detailed presentation about China’s contribution to Afghanistan, including detail about the collaborative efforts that the US and China had done together. This more conciliatory approach likely reflects a desire by China to be seen as at least leaving itself open to cooperating in Afghanistan.

China no longer fears a US withdrawal

At the same time, however, it is not clear that Beijing has much plan to step forwards into the Afghan mess. Beijing has spent considerable time and effort over the past few years strengthening the various sides of the border that it shares with Afghanistan – it has provided investment and equipment support to Tajik border forces, Pakistani security forces in Gilgit-Baltistan, and hardened its own direct border.

It has provided support for Afghan forces in Badakhshan (in the form of camps, equipment, training and some joint patrolling), and it has sought to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) more engaged in the country. Particularly notably, it also instigated the creation of the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) that brings together the Afghan, Chinese, Pakistani and Tajikistani Chiefs of Military Staff and has started to explore doing joint training exercises together.

All of this means that China is not too concerned about security problems in Afghanistan having a direct impact back on itself, or what concerns it might have it has now created buffers against. And any problems they might generate in Central Asia or Pakistan are likely already factored into the regional instability that China expects in these regions. As a result, from Beijing’s perspective, there is little to be concerned about with regard to Afghanistan becoming a source of instability for China. It would appear that China’s security apparatus heeded Xi Jinping’s reported closed-door 2014 declarations about protecting the country from trouble from Afghanistan in the face of potential American draw-down.

This stands in contrast to the past, where Beijing was very alarmed by the prospect of an abrupt American withdrawal and did little about it. When such talk circulated in the early 2010s, Beijing started to panic, worried it would be left with chaos on its border though at that stage was not very confident about what would need to be done beyond hedging through Pakistani proxies. Flash forward and Chinese analysts are far more sanguine about Afghanistan. The government may survive, the Taliban may come in, fighting may break out, but China is unlikely to be impacted by much of this. Its limited investment projects in the country have not really delivered much, and while it is a positive aid contributor to the country, it has not taken the burden on that it might. No-one in Beijing is advocating for the PLA to deploy in the country. Rather, this time around, it would seem as though China is distancing itself from the American withdrawal, positioning itself as the honest broker who will be there and friends with whoever takes power. And in the event of complete chaos, China has now strengthened its direct borders insulating it from direct trouble.

Keeping the Afghan problem at bay

Earlier discussions of China acting as a ‘security guarantor’ seem to have fallen by the wayside, and China seems to have given up the role of hosting the intra-Afghan talks. Beijing, it could be concluded, sees little good coming from the abrupt American withdrawal and wants to be as disassociated from the mess as possible. This would fit with the largely flat comments to have emerged from the MFA and Xinhua in the wake of the talks as they essentially wait the situation out.

What is also clear, however, is that the goodwill that had been generated between the US and China over Afghanistan has likely gone. From Beijing’s perspective, everything is now shaped through the lens of its conflict with the United States and COVID-19. Within this context, it might actually be preferable for the United States to stay bogged down in Afghanistan as this will distract Washington’s attention from China. Afghanistan used to be a place for potential cooperation, but this is likely not the case anymore. But Beijing is no longer fussed. This time China has laid its groundwork and is in a far more comfortable position to weather any chaos that might follow the implementation of the US-Taliban agreement. Washington may think this is a problem on China’s doorstep, but Beijing has hedged itself against most eventualities.

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.

Almost up to date, now my inaugural piece for my new Singaporean home RSIS in the form of one of their commentaries, this time looking at the recent spate of terrorist incidents in the UK using the Streatham attack as the peg.

Responding to Streatham: Managing Low-Tech Terrorist Threat

Raffaello Pantucci

ICPVTR / Commentaries / Country and Region Studies / Europe / Middle East and North Africa (MENA)

10 February 2020

Synopsis

The 2 Feb Streatham attack in south London does not appear to have been part of a larger plot. But it has once again shone a negative light on the UK’s approach to counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation, this time under the newly appointed government.

Commentary

ON 2 FEBRUARY 2020, the south London district of Streatham saw a knife-and-fake bomb attack in which a man was shot dead by police after stabbing two people. ISIS claim of responsibility has little credible evidence; despite the young man’s reported pledge of allegiance to ISIS, there is no proof they were in contact.

The attack, however, comes against a political context which will demand some reaction. The re-installed Tory government has now faced three incidents on its watch. The outward similarities in all three draws public attention. The United Kingdom fears that it could find itself in the midst of another 2017 when the country suffered five terrorist attacks in relatively quick succession.

More Copycat Attacks?

The most immediate concern for authorities will be the possibility of a copycat incident of some sort. The Streatham attack itself was already a copy. The knife-and-fake-bomb model is one that was deployed in 2017 on London Bridge, on London Bridge again in November 2019, and then in Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) Whitemoor in early January 2020 when a convicted terrorist offender and a prisonmate attacked prison guards with bladed weapons and fake suicide vests.

Further emulation might be possible given the simplicity and relative success (in media terms) of the attack. The approach of using knife-and-fake-bomb is a new innovation that has been proven to deliver easy success. The Streatham attack showed how you could wait until the moment of attack to arm yourself, completely compressing the time to attack.

It is hard to completely assess at this stage the exact nature of inspiration that the three plots played towards each other. But on the basis of previous chains it is likely that any subsequent spontaneous ones are likely to come sooner rather than later. More considered plots do not necessarily fall within this analytical framework.

Undirected “Campaign” of Lone Actors

At this stage, the Streatham attack appears as an isolated act. However, as 2017 showed in the UK, a terrorist campaign no longer needs to come in the form of a series of directed attacks; it can also happen to a series of incidents like this. Both Al Qaeda and ISIS have championed the lone actor model of attack repeatedly.

Understanding how to analyse potential lone actors from a pool of potential offenders was a major question to emerge from 2017, and it will likely now be revisited again.

It is worth noting that security authorities were very concerned about the Streatham attacker. The fact he was being monitored as he went about his Sunday business by an undercover armed response unit (armed response units are rare in the UK) shows a high level of risk management assessment.

The high level of concern was visible earlier as well. The counter-terrorism lead at the time of his detention and the sentencing judge all publicly expressed concern about his level of radicalisation. Reporting from his time in prison has suggested that he refused engagement with de-radicalisation programmes.

Offender Management in Prison

A running theme between the London Bridge, HMP Whitemoor and Streatham incidents is prison. However, there are differences that are important to highlight. While the Streatham incident took place days after the offender’s release, the London Bridge attacker waited over a year to launch his attack, for some part of which he engaged with a de-radicalisation programme.

In contrast, the HMP Whitemoor offender still has a number of years on his sentence (a sentence which is likely now to become longer). It is therefore hard to judge where the useful comparison is to assess where the problems might lie.

Recidivism is rare among UK terrorist offenders – prior to the London Bridge attack last year, no successful plots involving recidivists had been seen. While there is a cadre of radicalised individuals who consistently show up on charges for various related offences (often individuals drawn from the Al Muhajiroun community), actual attacks (or plots) by people previously convicted of terrorism offences is a relatively new innovation in the UK context.

Prior to the current cluster, the UK had only seen two since the conflict in Syria started (out of around 40 or so plots that have been disrupted or taken place).

Youth Radicalisation and Long-term Monitoring

Another similarity between the three recent cases is the relative youth at the time of first offence of the three men. The Streatham attacker was 17 when he first came to authorities’ attention, the London Bridge attacker’s house was first raided by counter-terrorism authorities when he was 17 and the HMP Whitemoor offender was 18 when he was arrested on his way to launch a knife attack.

Aside from what this means for radicalisation, it presents a long-term issue for authorities when it is considered alongside the fact that the UK has seen a terrorist attack by a 52-year-old (London Bridge, March 2017). Authorities may have decades of monitoring ahead of them with all of the expense and resource that entails.

Beyond Deradicalisation Programmes

The attacks have drawn attention to the effectiveness of de-radicalisation programmes. While the Streatham attacker refused to engage, the London Bridge attacker before him had been engaged for some time before stopping in the months prior to his attack. In other words, de-radicalisation programmes are not relevant across all of the cases and such dramatic failures are a new phenomenon in the UK.

The UK has had almost two decades of Islamist terror offenders, but only recently are we seeing such attacks from amongst recidivists. At the same time, it is clear that this is where the current heart of the problem lies given the growing number of people coming out of prisons or back from Syria.

This means more offenders (or people of concern) who will need attention for longer. The idea of using probation services better to manage such offenders is good, but this means probation needs a considerable uplift.

Streatham is now the 11th known attack with Islamist links that the UK has seen since the Conservatives took power in 2010. While the nature of the threat has changed, it is not clear that all aspects of the response have kept up.

Problematically, however, the current commentary emanating from Whitehall suggests that the response is likely to focus on punitive measures pandering to a political base.

About the Author

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence, Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

Next up, a report for RUSI with Veerle which captures the findings from a project looking at UK-China cooperation in Afghanistan. A theme that we have been working on for some time, and will likely continue to work on going forwards in one way shape or form. The full paper is available here, and the online intro is posted below.

An Outline for UK–China Cooperation on Afghanistan

Veerle Nouwens and Raffaello Pantucci
Conference Reports, 18 December 2019
China, Afghanistan, International Security Studies, UK

On 29 April 2019, representatives from the UK, the People’s Republic of China, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan held a seminar in Beijing to discuss cooperation on development in Afghanistan. Initially conceived as a trilateral format (between the UK, China and Afghanistan), the addition of participants from Pakistan and Uzbekistan expanded the format to help adequately address some of the regional connectivity questions.

The event was co-hosted by RUSI and the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) and was attended by representatives from the UK embassies in Kabul and Beijing, representatives of the governments of China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, as well as representatives from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Aga Khan Foundation. The seminar focused on five key questions:

• How can the UK and China best prioritise areas of cooperation in Afghanistan?
• What are Afghanistan’s rail infrastructure needs?
• What is the connectivity landscape between Central and South Asia, and what role might Afghanistan play as a bridge between the two regions?
• How can Afghanistan engage with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)?
• How can the UK and China cooperate in the space of humanitarian aid in Afghanistan or other third countries?

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Asian Development Bank/Wikimedia Commons

For much the same reasons as last time, been a bit delinquent in posting. Going to try to catch up a bit now, starting with a piece for my host institution RUSI looking at the China-Russia relationship. There is a possibility that some may see a whiff of contradiction in here, given the volume of writing I have done about how the China-Russia relationship is changing, but at the same time the point here is to say that it increasingly feels like in some places we are letting this get a bit too far. All of which reflects a weakened understanding of the topic. More on this as you can imagine to come, and as ever, comments, corrections and contradictions welcome.

The Over-Hyphenation of ‘China-Russia’

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary, 3 October 2019
China, International Security Studies, Russia, Global Security Issues, Land Forces, Military Personnel, Technology

russia_china_1.jpg

A growing Western habit of linking China and Russia as joint adversaries in various contexts is missing the actual strengths of the relationship, and their varied interests in third locations.

Geopolitics have returned with a vengeance. Public discourse is increasingly conducted in adversarial terms, with ‘our side’ versus ‘their side’ dominating the strategic narrative. And while the ‘enemy of the day’ from a UK perspective is Iran, there is a growing discussion about China and Russia as though they are one and the same, a new ‘axis of evil’ working to stymie ‘our’ ability to operate in the world.

Reading between the lines of the narratives of most international confrontations, ‘they’ – for the most part the Russians and Chinese – inevitably appear to be supporting almost all of those who the UK (or ‘West’ more broadly) is against in the world: blocking votes at the UN; working together on military exercises; building up bases in the Arctic; and supporting Venezuela, Iran or the Syrian regime. This new entente appears to be behind many adversaries.

Yet there is a real danger of creating a Frankenstein’s monster in this interpretation of the Sino–Russian vector. There is no denying that the two have moved closer together in recent years – just watch the optics from Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Moscow where he was feted as a great potential saviour of the Russian economy, or the latest security exercises involving Russian and Chinese forces, Tsentr 2019 – but the truth is that there are tensions between the two countries bubbling below the surface.

Start with Central Asia where there is a perennial tussle between the two over who is the dominant force. Russia has watched as China has become a major holder of regional debt, as its companies have moved in en masse to dominate local economies, and it is increasingly clear how China is moving into Russia’s traditional role of security provision. Chinese border guards are showing up along Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan, doing training exercises and furnishing equipment. Security ministries across the region have growing numbers of officials who speak Mandarin or have experience in China. Russia’s power no longer looks as strong as it once was. It takes little effort to find voices in Moscow who worry about this erosion of Russia’s sphere of influence.

Or look at the growing Chinese technological penetration into Russia. Like much of the world, Russia is in the midst of a debate to determine who is going to build its 5G networks. But unlike the US, the UK or the rest of Europe, there is little evidence that Russians are going to resist China’s entry into this sector. Moscow’s spooks may worry about what this means for their dependencies on China but, as they will candidly say, what alternatives do they have? They point to who is sanctioning them at the moment. China may be scary, but the West is actually punishing Russia.

And, to look at a loftier normative level: China is fundamentally a status quo power, while Russia is the ultimate disruptor. Beijing quite liked the world structure as it was before US President Donald Trump took his sledgehammer to everything; the old world order fostered China’s stratospheric economic growth. It was a good path to which Beijing would like to return. By contrast, Russia has made itself increasingly relevant around the world through disruption, by creating chaos or by helping spur it along, as a prelude to Moscow inserting itself as an important player to help bring resolution.

These are fundamentally contradictory positions: Beijing likes the status quo, while Moscow derives relevance in chaos. And there are moments where these two perspectives have clashed. Beijing disapproved of Moscow’s redrawing of Ukraine’s borders (and Georgia’s beforehand). China has its own provinces with ethnic minorities seeking independence and recognition. It certainly does not like the precedents that Moscow set in recognising the South Ossetians and Abkhazians in Georgia or the breakaway parts of Ukraine. What if people were to start doing this to Tibet or Xinjiang?

Yet notwithstanding these tensions, the West is increasingly looking for a China–Russia axis around the world. The US has articulated this axis most clearly in the Pentagon’s National Defence Strategy, and similar concerns are echoed in Brussels and London. More glib commentary tries to separate them out – Russia is described as being a storm, while China is climate change. The argument here is that both are problematic, only that the former is an irritant, while the other is seismic. Yet increasingly such perspectives consider the two countries as parts of a linked problem.

Russia and China are not blind to this narrative and the broader global confrontations. For them it can be useful to show a strong alliance in the face of the growing Western bloc. At most major international conferences, senior figures stand up and champion their close relationship. They are undertaking ever more ambitious and important military exercises together. Beijing’s strategic bombers have participated in Russia alongside 1,600 troops as part of the massive Tsentr 2019 military exercise, the third or fourth such drill this year they have done together. They are talking about an ‘Ice Silk Road’ over the Arctic and have obviously developed a modus vivendi of sorts over what is going on in Central Asia. Li Keqiang’s latest visit has highlighted more investments into Russia (and Russian sales to China), at a time when Beijing’s economy continues to suffer under US trade tariff impositions.

Beijing and Moscow also share a worry about the ongoing pattern of popular uprising endangering regimes around the world. For Beijing this is most visible in Hong Kong, while Moscow has watched protestors rumbling on its streets for some time. For both of them, the fear is that this is part of the bigger wave of ‘colour revolutions’ that swept through Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in the 2000s, and more recently through the Middle East in the Arab uprising. Seeing these as Western-orchestrated plots to bring down governments the West found inconvenient, Moscow and Beijing worry that they might be next on the list.

There is no doubt that China and Russia increasingly see their futures as linked and are binding themselves closer together. But the West’s current habit of only seeing them this way is exacerbating this tendency and creating a unified adversary.

Adopting such an approach also means the UK is blind to the potential opportunities that exist on the ground in some contested areas of the world. Simply seeing a China–Russia axis means that observers miss their different equities in different places, and the fact that the local dynamics in each context and region vary. The UK must be careful not to will itself into a confrontation against an adversary that does not always exist.

BANNER IMAGE: Ceremony for exchanging the documents signed during the President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping’s working visit to the Russian Federation, 2018. Courtesy of President of Russia/Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

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