Archive for the ‘Royal United Services Institute’ Category

As usual late posting, this time a piece for my London institutional home RUSI with the wonderful Veerle Nouwens looking at the UK’s strategy towards China in the wake of the latest Huawei decision. Things definitely heating up in this space and we are working together on another pair of China projects and papers which should be due out later in the year. In the meantime, you can enjoy this and an interview panel for Al Jazeera English’s Inside Story programme that I did on China posted below, and follow this link for a conversation with the Nepal Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement (NIICE) on UK engagement with China.

 

Huawei is No Way for British Strategy on China
Veerle Nouwens and Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary17 July 2020
ChinaInternational Security StudiesUKTechnology

The UK may escape serious Chinese retaliation for its decision to bar Huawei’s equipment. But that is no substitute for the elaboration of a coherent UK strategy towards China.

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It may be too early to predict China’s reaction to the UK’s decision to bar the Huawei telecommunications company from supplying equipment to the UK’s 5G infrastructure. Beijing’s bark may yet prove worse than its bite. However, the issue has highlighted a far bigger problem for the UK. London needs a more sophisticated debate, vision and plan for managing its relationship with China.

Chinese Ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming has claimed to be ‘disheartened’ by the decision, alleging that it reduces trust between the two countries, and asserting that the UK has now sent a signal to foreign companies that it is not open to their business. Chinese media outlets have largely reacted by blaming the US for the UK’s decision. Repercussions pointed out in Chinese media overwhelmingly revolve around the substandard 5G network that the UK will have without the inclusion of Huawei.

The discussion in China beyond this has largely been muted. Given the volume of noise that the debate had previously attracted, it would be surprising if there were no reaction from Beijing. China might choose to find a way of swiping at London that does not link necessarily to the Huawei decision itself, but paints it against a series of issues it is displeased with, such as the UK’s reaction to Hong Kong, re-examination of Chinese investment in the UK and declarations about the need to uphold freedom of navigation in Asian waters. The UK’s commercial relationship is a likely target. At a political level, a cooling of bilateral ties likewise would be unsurprising.

However, Beijing has not yet entirely written off the UK relationship, judging by media coverage which appeared to leave scope for future links. For, as was stated in an article published in the Global Times – the English-language tabloid of the official party People’s Daily – the UK should ‘stop moving in the wrong direction so that damaged bilateral ties can recover’. And another article in the same media outlet noted that while Beijing must respond in order to show it cannot be bullied, it is unnecessary to turn this into a China–UK confrontation.

The UK still represents an important market for potential flagship Chinese projects in Europe, whether in nuclear energy or high-speed rail. The all-important financial sector is one that Beijing would struggle to effectively target with sanctions. And, as the City of London is the leading hub (outside Greater China) for the Chinese renminbi, it would not be in Beijing’s interest to do so. Moreover, there are many other investments and commercial links between the UK and China beyond Huawei, and the biggest British champions in the financial sector have already gone on record to support China’s positions.

While Beijing may expect the upcoming investment-screening measures to more heavily scrutinise Chinese foreign direct investment into the UK’s critical national infrastructure, it will do itself few favours by tightening the screws on London. China-sceptic voices calling for a hardened approach will be amplified in Westminster and reverberate across Europe and other like-minded partners. The threat of an alliance against Chinese 5G tech dominance looms on the horizon. Europe does not just serve as a market for Chinese infrastructure investments, but also remains key in China’s access to technology for its own development. Unless Beijing would like to see more doors close – particularly as it remains on the road to post-pandemic economic recovery – it would be unwise to lash out too severely.

It is also worth remembering that while China has recently reacted with sanctions against some who have attracted its ire, these have been fairly toothless. Sanctioning Lockheed Martin for US military sales to Taiwan does little damage to the firm’s bottom line. Targeting US senators unlikely to travel or do business in China is not going to change their lives. And it has let the Huawei decision pass by in other cases. To little fanfare two weeks ago, Singapore’s two biggest telecommunications providers made the decision to not use Huawei in their 5G roll-out. The damage to Singapore–China relations was so limited that earlier this week President Xi called newly elected Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to congratulate him on his election victory. Japan made the decision against Huawei back in late 2018, and President Xi was still eager to travel to the country on a state visit earlier this year (the trip was only postponed because of the global pandemic). So, the current showdown with the UK does not need to be an unnecessarily politicised issue. Indeed, the same Global Times noted that the UK is not the US, Australia or Canada, a statement which is perhaps intended as a put-down, but may also indicate a differentiated reaction.

BUT THE FUTURE?

The question is what this means for the future of UK–China relations. The issue of Huawei seems to have been decided, but it is just a single point in a much larger picture. The UK has now been to-ing and fro-ing on Huawei for years, transforming what is a technical issue into a proxy for the UK’s debate about how to engage with China. This political conversation about Chinese investment in the UK’s national critical infrastructure is important, but there is a need for a clearer articulation of the UK relationship towards China.

To be sure, there are significant challenges in the relationship. Beijing has done little to endear itself of late. Its aggressive behaviour in every direction has been exacerbated by a hectoring tone from its diplomats who appear to be trying to outdo each other in their demonstrations of indignation and anger. China continues to detain Canadian researchers Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor on spurious charges as ransom for the detained Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou who is facing extradition proceedings in Canada. Atop this, while Beijing may believe that what it does to its own people is nobody else’s business, this goes against a fundamental belief in universal human rights to which many countries ascribe. It is also unclear why Beijing appears unable to understand, or unwilling to care, that people outside of China will interpret how it treats its own people as how it might ultimately treat them.

Yet not everything that China does has been disastrous. Putting aside the many questions that remain over coronavirus, Beijing has managed to by and large contain the situation within its own borders. Its economy is starting to pick up – though underlying structural problems still exist. And looking beyond the virus, whatever happens, China is still going to be there. With almost one sixth of the world’s population living within its borders, China will be a force on the planet (much like India will). Issues such as climate change will not get resolved by Western European powers alone. Future pandemics will not respect the artificial boundaries of alliances that we create. A globalised economy so bifurcated that the UK does not touch China in some way is likely impossible – or so expensive that it is unattainable.

The UK government may disagree and dislike the governing Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but the CCP shows little evidence of collapsing in the short or medium term (nor can we be certain we will like what might come in its wake). We must deal with the government we face, not the one we wish it to be. London and its partners are quickly catching up in bettering their understanding of Beijing. This knowledge should aid Whitehall in devising a comprehensive China strategy – one that identifies UK priorities, including human rights, the rule of law and the plight of those in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, as well as the Canadians who remain imprisoned in China.

This does not mean that the UK’s bilateral relationship with Beijing must be fundamentally antagonistic. China is an important partner in some of the biggest issues of our time. These are not yes or no questions, unlike the Huawei decision. And of course, Beijing must reciprocate engagement. Nevertheless, a UK strategy on China must remain firm on matters of UK core interests, but be prepared to cooperate effectively in others. This is a phrase that will ring familiar in Beijing.

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.

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.

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

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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.

Have a few posts to catch up on getting up, been travelling a bit which slows me down. First up, re-posting a piece from last week for my institutional home RUSI about Hamza bin Laden’s reported death, placing it in the wider context of what it means when terrorist leaders are removed and how we struggle to judge terrorist group’s ends.

Hamza bin Laden Dead
Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary2 August 2019
Tackling ExtremismThe decade after 9/11International Security StudiesCounterinsurgencyTerrorismThe War on TerrorAl-Qa’idaTerrorism

us_military_in_iraq

But decapitating a terrorist organisation is not proven to result in a lower threat from terrorism.

The reported death of Hamza bin Laden, the son of Al-Qa’ida founder Osama bin Laden, isunlikely to do much to the terrorist threat picture. Still, his removal illustrates the challenging question governments face when they try to understand whether a terrorist campaign has finally come to an end or a terrorist group has been liquidated. Just as security forces seem incapable of entirely accurately predicting or preventing a terrorist group’s rise, they seem unable to derive its demise.

‘Decapitation’ as a strategy for eliminating terrorist groups has never really been proven as an effective method. The most common example in favour of decapitation that is often quoted is the removal of Abimael Guzman, the leader of the Shining Path in Peru; after his incarceration, the group seemed to wither. However, in most cases the removal of one leader merely contributes to group fracturing and the rise of more radical leaders in their stead. So, rather than confronting a reduced problem, one can end up with an enlarged and angrier one. The repeated strikes against the Taliban’s leadership, for example, have done little to weaken or de-radicalise the group.

And even when one believes that a terrorist group is being substantially degraded by airstrikes, it is not always clear that the strikes have that effect, or that one can effectively judge what is happening. The Shining Path, for example, may have been deemed decapitated with the loss of its leader, but some of its networks persisted as criminal groups, and only last month Peruvian security forces proudly proclaimed the capture of another senior figure. In such situations it is difficult to judge the degree to which an enduring terrorist group remains a threat.

The conundrum is the result of a number of challenges. There is the reality that people who are part of an ideologically motivated group tend not to forget or discard their ideas, and over time may in fact become more committed to them. Does one think that Ayman Al-Zawahiri or Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi will ever forget their extremist ideas? As time passes and the cause they believe in continues to fail to deliver on its promise, believers of this sort may only get more desperate. Or they may believe that the path they are on is a long one and the hardship is to be expected. It appears that in some cases, people move on from these ideas for a variety of reasons mostly to do with their own person experiences. But in the case of senior or core figures in a movement, once they are on the path of violence, they are unlikely to step off.

Additionally, the ideas that motivate terrorist groups tend to be perennial ones embedded in fundamental problems or injustices within societies. And that means that the ideas advanced by such groups and their leaders will always retain some pulling power.

This presents security forces with a complicated dilemma. They may be able to box a leader and their core cadre in, but unable to remove them entirely. And even if they do, someone else may rise up to fill that space. At what point can they judge that they are being effective in containing a group to the point that they can take the pressure off? Reach that conclusion too early, and one risks being exposed to new terrorist attacks; do it too late and one misses an opportunity at resolution and squanders scarce security resources.

Hamza bin Laden’s coronation as a potential Al-Qa’ida boss and now his likely death is merely a reminder of just how meteoric and unpredictable the lives of such terrorists are. It also illustrates the bigger problem in judging when terrorist problems are effectively eliminated. Just like Daesh did not go away with the loss of its caliphate, Al-Qa’ida will not disappear with the loss of its putative crown prince.

BANNER IMAGE: US Marines clear an abandoned building during Operation Defeat Al-Qa’ida in northern Al Anbar province, Iraq, 11 June 2008. Courtesy of Cpl. Tyler Hill/US Marine Corps

Some catch up posting from this week, starting with a new piece for my institutional home RUSI with one of our Senior Distinguished Fellows, and former Assistant Commissioner for Specialist Operations (ACSO) for the Metropolitan Police Sir Mark Rowley.

Despite Territorial Defeat, Islamist Terrorism Will Continue to be a Threat

Mark Rowley and Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary14 March 2019
International Security StudiesNational SecurityTerrorism

Daesh, Al-Qa’ida and other terrorist organisations may appear to be in current retreat. But rather than being eradicated, they have scattered. The violent extremism they have spawned has not entirely disappeared and understanding how it might evolve is going to be a central preoccupation for security planners.

 

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A bomb in Derry/Londonderry, warnings about a political environment that is fertile ground for the extreme right, and a letter bombing campaign linked to Irish-related terrorists all show that the terrorist threat to the UK has more dimensions now than just the menace of violent Islamism. But jihadist threats persist and have changed from the more organised and conventional Al-Qa’ida network that was the prior focus of attention. We continue to face a persistent violent Islamist threat that exists in parallel to the noisier threats dominating the media. The open-source violent Islamist cult of terrorism that scattered its ideology across the web to hook the angry and the vulnerable is now showing signs of seeding new threats around the world.

Raqqa, the Syrian stronghold of Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS), may have fallen, but the ideas and people involved have not gone away. The nihilistic cult that the group promoted from its bases in Syria and Iraq was part social experiment in building a utopian state, and part mini social movement with global reach. Fostered through an easily accessible ideology with a low threshold to entry for membership, packaged around an easy explanation of how the world worked, and disseminated using social media and messages created in easily shareable fashion, it was and is an exceptionally diffuse ideology.

This was a major reason why Daesh was able to achieve its position on the world stage. Using extreme acts of performative violence while projecting the image of building a state to which all the believers were welcome, it became the dominant alternative ideology in the global discourse.

That power has waned; loss of territory and erosion of leadership have reduced the potency of the message. But Daesh has not gone away. Following defeat on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq, the remains of the organisation could still generate future conflict in the Levant. Internationally, the flames that the group was able to foster during its totemic moments have scattered still-burning embers around the world. Some of these will likely mature into the threats of tomorrow.

Consider a series of incidents and disruptions that took place across Europe last December. These started with the shooting in Strasbourg on December 11, where a radical former petty criminal who was known to authorities as a possible violent Islamist threat decided to go on a shooting rampage after he realised authorities might be about to arrest him. A week or so after his shooting, police in Italy detained Anas Khalil, a Somali national who was allegedly in contact with Daesh in Somalia and was allegedly talking of launching a bombing campaign against churches in Italy. And finally, in the UK, New Year’s celebrations were marred by a stabbing at Manchester’s main train station which led to an individual subsequently being held under the Mental Health Act while also being investigated for a terrorist offence – showing a different potential expression of the threat that we face.

In each of these three incidents a link of some sort can be found to Daesh. Yet the nature of this link is not the usual command and control connection (whereby the terrorist group uses specific direction to advance the plot) that we would ordinarily expect. Instead, it is through Daesh affiliates, individuals latching on to the ideology, or people who are part of a broader network. This is a reflection of a cult ideology that has scattered far and wide, and has now taken root in fertile ground. For the group, the level of link to the individual launching the attack is probably less important than the act itself.

Al-Qa’ida evolved in quite a different manner. After it was hammered by drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan the core of the threat shifted to Yemen, where its strongest affiliate with a deep personal connection to Osama bin Laden could be found. The various Al-Qa’ida affiliates all also stepped forwards into the public eye in their own local ways – leading to attacks like the murderous rampage by Al-Shabaab at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall or Al-Mourabitoun’s hostage-taking of Western oil men in the Algerian deserts at In Amenas. Each of these attacks reflected the group’s local interests, while nodding to the banner organisation’s vision. The degree of command and control from the centre was different, with the group ultimately losing a certain degree of control over the affiliates. It became a network with independent affiliates, rather than a centrally controlled network with a rigid hierarchy and core.

We are now seeing Daesh’s different approach leading to a very different global spread. Its cultish nature has fostered a scattering of its ideology on the wind of the internet. Unlike Al-Qa’ida which demanded some level of linkage and control, Daesh seems happiest letting things blossom and flourish wherever they find fertile conditions. There are examples of them connecting to groups and conflicts in the Philippines, West Africa and the Maldives. Daesh has acknowledged some of the groups as affiliates, while others it simply praises as conducting activities in advance of their ideology. But it is not clear which of these are the priorities for a group which seems just as willing to claim responsibility for things to which it has no link, as for those which it is quite clearly directing.

This poses a new kind of longer-term menace to those tasked with our security. We may be in a stage now when the various seeds scattered to the winds are in their germination stage. Some will wither and die, while others will be spotted and pruned before they can mature into a substantial threat.

This requires new approaches from governments. Identifying those trends which are going to develop into something more substantial is going to require constant attention. Building the resilience of the fragile states where this threat can get a foothold will be important, as aid efforts and security objectives will increasingly overlap.

This model of global Islamist terrorism with a cult-like ideology scattering and fostering independent mini-caliphates to grow will need constant effort to be effectively managed. The danger is that, just as some key Western governments are retreating from internationalism, new terrorist footholds will establish themselves, strengthen themselves and shock us. The surprise leaves us prone to overreaction that only exacerbates the problem. To counter terrorist threats, we need to not only fight them on the ground, but appreciate the reason why they have developed in the first place and calibrate our response appropriately. Only then will we be able to manage them effectively and guarantee our security.

Mark Rowley is former Assistant Commissioner for Specialist Operations at the Metropolitan Police and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at RUSI.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at RUSI.

BANNER IMAGE: A road in London Bridge remains closed after the 2017 terrorist attack. Courtesy of David Holt/Wikimedia

Some belated catch up posting, this time something for my institutional home RUSI. Was inspired by the terrible rhetoric that we continue to be seeing deployed in the wake of terrorist incidents by political leaders, and the particularly horrible incidents attacks we saw in the US ahead of the mid-term elections. There is something brewing on the far right which while not totally new, has the potential to cause some major societal damage. On top of the fact of how our public discourse has now shifted, it seems deeply unwise for certain rhetoric to be deployed. Unfortunately, little evidence on the horizon that anything is going to change.

oslo_view_of_city_crop

Lone Actor Terrorists and Extreme Right Wing Violence

Recent attacks perpetrated by extreme right wing terrorists in the US are undoubtedly linked to the upcoming mid-term elections, reflecting the reality that the country’s charged political scene may be pushing would-be terrorists into action.

 

There can be little doubt that there is a correlation of some sort between the spate of mail bombs dispatched around the US last week, the murderous shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue and next week’s mid-term elections. The poisonous rhetoric deployed in political discourse will rile people up and stir anger, which a few individuals will take to its natural extreme conclusion. This in turn is exacerbating a growing shift towards lone actor terrorism as the principal expression of extremist violence in Europe and North America, something that we see acknowledged in the spate of incidents in the US and the news that MI5 is to take on a greater leadership role in fighting the extreme right wing (XRW) in the UK.

The sorts of attacks seen in the US over the past week can, on the surface, appear to be the sort that are almost impossible to prevent. An isolated individual who decides to take matters into his own hands, using objects which are relatively accessible to the general public might set off very few tripwires for authorities. In fact, what is usually discovered in the wake of such incidents is that the individuals involved were in fact quite indiscrete in their behaviour. In the case of both Cesar Sayoc (the mail pipe bomber) and Robert Bowers (the Pittsburgh shooter), there was ample evidence of their vile views in their online activity. In Sayoc’s case, he was also vocal about his extreme views among people he knew and in public. Bowers was quieter in person, but foreshadowed his intent on a social media platform called Gab prior to launching his attack.

None of this behaviour is surprising for lone actor terrorists. In a study undertaken by a RUSI-led research consortium in 2016 focused on lone actor terrorism in Europe, from a pool of 120 cases between 2000 and 2014 across the ideological spectrum, perpetrators exhibited ‘leakage’ of some sort in at least 46% of cases. This ‘leakage’ took various forms, with some individuals changing behaviour in front of their families, while others made far clearer statements of intent which almost exactly described the acts they later committed. While there were considerable similarities among the various ideological groups in the dataset, there was a noticeable difference between the XRW and religiously inspired terrorists (the two biggest groups in the dataset), with XRW terrorists being far more likely to post telling indicators online. One perpetrator identified by researchers posted on an XRW website, ‘watch television on Sunday, I will be a the star … Death to zog [Zionist Occupation Government], 88!’. ‘88’ represents ‘Heil Hitler’, as H is the eighth letter of the alphabet. There is some similarity between this commentary and Bowers’s final post on Gab, ‘I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in’. Given the data for the study was largely drawn from what was available in the public domain, and with some cases being drawing on sparse information, researchers suspected that the actual number might be higher than 46%.

From current understanding, Sayoc does not appear to have signalled his intent as explicitly, but he seems to have had a deep appreciation for US President Donald Trump’s more extreme narratives and this appears to have shaped his choice of targets. Aiming at a wide range of prominent figures and institutions which have arrayed themselves against Trump politically, in public reporting Sayoc appears to have expressed his extreme pro-Trump views to several people in his immediate surroundings, having driven a van emblazoned with his support.

This appears to be in stark contrast to Bowers, who seemingly moved through his immediate community ‘like a ghost’. His in-person behaviour was apparently different from his crude, violently anti-Semitic and anti-Trump online persona.

While divergent in outward appearance, neither of these patterns are atypical to XRW lone attackers, where socially awkward individuals will externalise their behaviour abruptly and dramatically, often with some clear indicators beforehand that are unfortunately often only comprehensible in the aftermath of an attack. Even Bowers’s apparently obvious online vitriol is depressingly indistinguishable from the torrent of hatred that can be found on some XRW websites.

What is clear, however, is that the increasingly poisonous political rhetoric seen around the world is in part to blame for such incidents. In much the same way that the anger stirred up around the 2016 EU referendum was likely, in part, to blame for the murder of MP Jo Cox, it seems likely that the political winds stirring in the US in part compelled these two men to act. The sense of great political confrontation at hand and the language used in the mainstream likely accelerated the behaviour of already undoubtedly troubled individuals.

But what is most worrying is the fact that aside from the violence that is visible through these individual acts, there is a growing organisation and structure to the XRW in the UK. While the US scene has long been populated by a mix of groups and isolated individuals, the UK scene was, until relatively recently, largely the domain of isolated individuals, with organised violent groups a limited part of the XRW picture. This has been changing of late, with the emergence of groups like National Action, whose intent on murdering politicians and organising attacks in the UK has led to them becoming a growing focus to the UK’s intelligence services.

It is still difficult to make absolute comparisons between the XRW and violent Islamist terrorism in the UK. While there is a growing organisational structure and menace in the XRW in the UK, the shadow of violent Islamists’ aspirations remains far more dangerous. But the XRW draws from more mainstream political narratives, meaning the damage to society’s fabric can be more substantial. There have also been catastrophic XRW attacks in Europe in recent memory – specifically, Anders Behring Breivik’s 2010 massacre in Norway. The XRW has the potential to cause mass innocent death, and feeds off a broader political discourse which is already deeply troubled. There is a link between what is happening in the world more generally, and society’s violent political edge. And unless attention is paid, one will make the other worse.

BANNER IMAGE: Smoke rises over Oslo following the detonation of a car bomb near the executive government quarter of Norway, 22 July 2011. Right wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik’s attack remains one of the most catastrophic extreme right wing attacks in Europe in recent memory. Courtesy of Wikimedia. 

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

Been delinquent in posting stuff, doing some bigger writing and catching up with things takes time. First up, posting a piece for my institutional home RUSI’s Newsbrief publication looking at the extreme right wing and violent Islamist threat in the UK, through the lens of a few recent cases.

A Tale of Two Terrors: The British Extreme Right Organises While Islamists Scatter

Raffaello Pantucci
Newsbrief31 July 2018
UK Counter-terrorismTackling ExtremismInternational Security StudiesTerrorismUKDomestic SecurityRadicalisation and Countering Violent ExtremismIntelligenceNational SecurityTerrorism

Once again, the dividing lines that distinguish between variations of violent extremism in the UK have morphed, but addressing the similarities and differences between the extreme right and violent Islamists should help to ensure that the UK’s counter-terror strategy as synchronised as possible with the current threat picture.

far_right_protest_london_pa-30777462

Two contrasting terror trials were recently concluded in the UK. The separate convictions of Naa’imur Rahman and Mohammed Imran, and the sentencings of Christopher Lythgoe and Matthew Hankinson brought together two sides of the terrorist threat facing the UK. With one linked to Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS) and the other to the extreme right wing (XRW), the two cases highlighted the shifting nature of the two ends of the threat spectrum, with the XRW rallying around the threat of violent Islamists, while Islamists point to the XRW as evidence of the clash of civilisations they perceive as being at the heart of, but also the similarities that exist between these two threat sources. Given that both have been prioritised in the latest iteration of the UK’s counter-terror CONTEST strategy, it is unlikely that this is the last time we will see a similar temporal coincidence of the two types of cases.

Ostensibly, the two cases are very different. The Lythgoe and Hankinson convictions are part of a larger case linked to the proscribed XRW terrorist group National Action (NA). The first time in decades a right-wing organisation has been made illegal in the UK, the network they created was one of the first instances of an organised effort on the part of the British XRW. Illustrating their aspiration in a message to the group’s community on the communications app Mumble shortly before the group was formally proscribed by the Home Office, Lythgoe told the leadership to pass messages of sustenance along to ‘people further down the NA hierarchy’ to:

Make sure they understand that the SUBSTANCE of NA is the people, our talents, the bonds between us, our ideas, and our sustained force of will. All of that will continue into the future. We’re just shedding one skin for another. All genuinely revolutionary movements in the past have needed to exist partly underground. These are exciting times.

In stark contrast, the case against Rahman and Imran was a clear articulation of the chaotic and increasingly diffuse threat posed by violent Islamist extremism, where isolated individuals advancing the ideology have tenuous or limited links to the sharp end of the threat. Rahman claims that his uncle, who was killed in an American drone strike while fighting in Syria, was pushing him to launch an attack. Imran was eager to go fight abroad himself. Both were connected to each other through a variety of social media applications and had some links to fighters abroad – although it later emerged that some of these contacts were in fact undercover law-enforcement agents posing as Daesh supporters. The men believed that they were operating as part of a wider network but were in fact quite isolated. This is very much an articulation of the sort of disorganised terrorist threat that is opposite to what has been expressed in the more organised NA plot, with both Rahman and Imran being fairly detached from the extremist community but seeking to advance its ideology through individual action.

Looking back on the history of the XRW and violent Islamist threats in the UK, these plots show an almost complete role reversal between the two. During the mid to late 2000s, the XRW threat was characterised by isolated individuals like Neil LewingtonMartyn Gilleard or Terence Gavan, who accumulated massive amounts of weaponry, indulged in anti-social behaviour, or sought paedophilic material – all the while showing clear sympathies to the XRW cause – but who were largely loners. When attempted plots were uncovered, they were seen as shambolic at best. The exception to this was the Aryan Strike Force (ASF), disrupted in 2009, which boasted a global online network of around 350 individuals. Led by administrators in the UK, the group was largely an online community, although police uncovered evidence of limited training camps in Cumbria and that one member managed to make a substantial amount of the poison Ricin. But even then, the ASF was mostly an online network, while the NA group was more politically active both on and offline.

In contrast, the violent Islamist terror threat of the same period was characterised by sophisticated networks linked to Al-Qa’ida affiliates around the world. Leaders in distant countries provided training and direction to plotters in the UK and throughout the West. There were isolated loners that latched onto violent Islamist ideology to try to launch attacks, but this was the exception rather than the norm. Compare this to today: while Rahman and Imran had some links, these were distant and there is limited evidence of clear direction from foreign-based leaders.

This divergence is reflected in some ways by the men’s commitment to their plots. Jack Renshaw of NA, who had separately pled guilty, wanted to attack MP Rosie Cooper and a police officer who had angered him; he seemed fairly consistent in his commitment to this particular act. In contrast, from available evidence, Rahman was fairly scattered in his plotting. While the chief plot for which he was convicted – of wanting to detonate an explosive device in Downing Street and decapitate the prime minister – continually emerged in his planning, he had numerous other plots in mind. At one point he considered using a drone to attack the Wimbledon tennis tournament, while at other times he discussed going to fight abroad. Rahman had the idea of driving a truck into a crowd, or using one as a bomb and then using guns to shoot people in a hybrid active shooter plot. He was, however, unable to drive and did not know how to shoot (or source) guns.

But while the threat may have gone in divergent directions, there are a surprising number of similarities as well. Both plots targeted prominent political figures: Rahman had an ambitious plan to storm Downing Street and murder the prime minister, while Renshaw wanted to murder an MP and a police officer. At one point he considered the Home Secretary, but ultimately deemed this too difficult a target. This shows a collective anger against the political class and a desire to punish them on both sides of the XRW versus violent Islamist ideological spectrum.

Both plots were inspited in part by other attacks and would have served as revenge for personal attacks perceived to have been made against the individuals. In the case of Rahman, he saw the attempted Parsons Green bombing from earlier in 2017 as ‘the start’ and was impressed by the Manchester Arena bombing. He saw his attack in part as vindication for his uncle’s death in Syria at the hands of the International Coalition Against ISIL. Similarly, the NA cluster was inspired by the 2016 murder of MP Jo Cox and saw Zack Davies’ racially inspired attempted murder of a dentist in a Tesco supermarket as a precedent. Renshaw’s desire to target a particular police officer stemmed from an earlier arrest and a specific officer whom he blamed for his troubles. He hoped to murder her alongside MP Rosie Cooper. Both cases demonstrate clear inspiration from other attacks, highlighting the longer-term consequences to the threat picture of a successful attack, as well as an underlying desire for revenge in their intent.

Another curious similarity is the evidence of predatory sexual behaviour in both cases. Rahman first came onto the radars of the security services when authorities investigated him for sending indecent images to underage girls. In Renshaw’s case, after an initial detention on other charges linked to NA activity, his phone was downloaded and searched, at which point police allegedly found evidence of child sex offences. These alleged perversions are surprisingly common among offenders on both sides of the ideological spectrum and suggest a potential investigation point for security officials.

There are additional comparisons to be made between the investigations of the two cells. In both cases, undercover agents were key for securing convictions. Robbie Mullen, himself a member of the NA cell, turned against the group to work with Hope not Hate, a charity dedicated to fighting the group’s ideology. For Rahman and Imran, the two men believed that they were part of a Daesh network, yet it was largely made up of intelligence agents. The disruption of the Daesh network in particular is notable in this regard, as it reflects an approach by UK security forces that is reminiscent of the behaviour of US authorities, which some UK security officials have previously thought to be inappropriate. Given the broader chaos in Rahman’s life – he was homeless and unemployed at the time of his arrest, seemingly living out a deadly fantasy life through his Daesh-inspired activity and being incapable of doing many of the acts he said he wanted to do – it is an open question whether he would have been able to achieve his goals had he not been apprehended by the network of undercover intelligence agents around him.

Yet, his successful conviction shows that this methodology of securing a case against a perpetrator can work. It has been seen in other recent plots as well, as in the case of Safaa Boular, a young woman convicted of planning an attack on the British Museum who believed she was talking to extremists in Syria online, for example, and will likely be used again. With Renshaw, the fact that Mullen defected to a charity rather than turning himself into the police demonstrates the importance of such community organisations in countering terrorist threats.

The latest version of CONTEST highlighted that ‘Islamist terrorism is the foremost terrorist threat to the UK. Extreme right-wing terrorism is a growing threat’. These two cases show what these menaces look like in practice, and what similarities exist between the two. CONTEST pledged an increase in the volume of resources for targeting the XRW, while the broader violent Islamist threat is now characterised as a series of discrete and seemingly random terrorist plots. The tools needed to counter this sort of threat are included within the new Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, which necessitates longer sentences for terrorism offence convictions and gives authorities the tools needed to disrupt plots earlier on. There is of course a danger in this approach, as individuals may receive heavy sentences for relatively limited activity or involvement, but given the current threat picture, police and security services clearly feel a need to bolster their capabilities in this regard.

There are broader points to consider about the growth of these two threats. First, the rise of a more organised XRW is in many ways a reflection of the increased polarisation of political discourse in the UK. As far-right narratives increasingly creep into the mainstream conversation, the more extreme fringes become empowered, anticipating that the tide of debate is moving in their direction. Second, the problem of a more diffuse and complicated threat picture is not exclusively a problem with violent Islamists. Soon after the conclusion of these two terror trials, another member of NA, Jack Coulson, was sentenced to four years for downloading terrorist manuals. This was his second offence, with the first linked to building pipe bombs as a minor. There was little evidence provided that he coordinated his action with others in the NA group, illustrating how direction and coordination within the XRW is also quite loose.

Last year highlighted how the terrorist threat in the UK remains persistent and can abruptly catch security forces off guard. It may now be typified by more low-tech efforts using basic weaponry, but the ideological background has amplified and is only likely to become more complicated as time goes on. The new iteration of CONTEST reflects this threat picture, but it is important to consider how much the terrorist menace in the UK has evolved since CONTEST was first devised, and to raise the question of whether a more dramatic overhauling of the structure is required. The threat picture has progressed, from one characterised by an external threat touching the UK’s shores and using UK nationals, to one of homegrown actors focused on UK interests, to today’s threat picture driven by multiple ideologies with competing networks, and a broad footprint of isolated adherents conducting attacks without clear direction. Evidently, we are still at the stage of managing a threat rather than eradicating a problem, which is potentially all that will ever be achieved, emphasising the need to evaluate and adapt to a threat picture that does not stand still.

Raffaello Pantucci
Raffaello is the Director of International Security Studies at RUSI.

BANNER IMAGE: The April 2017 ‘London March Against Terrorism’ was organised by far-right groups Britain First and the English Defence League in response to the attack on Westminster that occured days before. Countering the threat of violent Islamists is a key rallying point for the British far-right. Courtesy of PA Images.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.

Another one for RUSI, this time looking at how the UK should respond to the Belt and Road Initiative. Rather repeats points from previous pieces, but still need to be made. More on this topic in the form of a more substantial piece soon hopefully.

Also, catching up on some other things – this report Understanding the Factors Contributing to Radicalisation Among Central Asian Labour Migrants in Russia which was the product of a longer project we worked on at RUSI finally emerged. It looks at the phenomenon of radicalisation amongst Central Asian labour migrants in Russia. Was the product of a lot of effort, and the final drafting of the paper is heavily owned by my RUSI colleague Mo who took the lead, and Sarah and Nadine who both contributed substantially to both working on the project and drafting bits. Thank you all! Off the back of this, did a Majilis podcast with the excellent Bruce and Muhammad for RFE/RL.

And on the other side of my substantive equation, spoke to the Intercept about the far right terror menace in the UK, and to Voice of America about the Liege terror attack today.

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China’s Belt and Road Initiative: A Call for Pragmatism

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary22 May 2018
ChinaInternational Security Studies

China’s Belt and Road Initiative requires a logical response, one based on an assessment of realities rather than rhetoric, and reciprocity, rather than outright confrontation.

There has been little clarity of the UK’s approach to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) since the prime minister’s visit to Beijing in January. The key message to emerge from the visit seemed contradictory: the UK claimed to be ‘a natural partner’ for the BRI, but at the same time, Prime Minister Theresa May refused to sign a memorandum of understanding for the initiative presented by Chinese leaders. But this is a comprehensible paradox. The UK is facing the same conundrum posed to most countries: Chinese investment is attractive, but the norms and political pressure that may follow in the wake of this grand initiative are not.

The key to properly responding to Beijing’s economic statecraft under the BRI is clarity. The foreign policy concept advanced by Chinese President Xi Jinping is the latest expression of China’s ‘going out’ policy; it provides the overarching logic for Chinese external investment. The BRI narrative is one that has grown over time to overwhelm Chinese foreign policy; almost any external engagement that China engages in can be captured in some way under the BRI.

The first point worth remembering is that just because China talks of the BRI in grandiose uniform terms, this does not mean other countries need to be engaged with it as a single project. For European powers, for example, it is abundantly clear that there is a vast difference between Chinese projects in Europe, and projects in faraway parts of Asia. The BRI concept is an overarching foreign policy idea best understood as a series of distinct projects. And, as with any large set of projects (or foreign policy goals laid out by a foreign power), some elements have a natural logic of cooperation to them, while others do not.

Secondly, it is essential to understand what is actually happening on the ground, since there is much rhetoric and sometimes little action when it comes to the BRI. There are numerous examples of mismatched expectations throughout Central and Eastern Europe. The much vaunted 16+1 format (China plus the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe) has delivered little in terms of solid investment; the Czech Republic has found itself facing a sudden massive loss of prospective investment as Chinese energy conglomerate CEFC withdrew abruptly from its push into the Czech market. By contrast, Pakistan is abuzz with activity, as Chinese companies build new infrastructure up and down the country.

The moral of these contrasting episodes is, therefore, to focus on what is happening, not on what is being merely discussed or announced. For, while this is an obvious point, it remains far too easy to get caught up in the noise around Chinese projects and miss what is actually going on. It is also too easy to fall for the other stories that such mega-projects generate. Some stories – such as allegations that Chinese prison labour is being used to implement infrastructure projects – are untrue, while others – such as claims that some countries are taking on onerous debt burdens alongside Chinese projects – are true. But even then, the debt burden story is nuanced. For example, the terms offered by the Export–Import Bank of China or the China Development Bank are sometimes favourable, but there are also genuine questions about the financial liabilities of some projects once they are up and running: see, for instance, the controversy over the sizeable obligations that the government of Pakistan has assumed in guaranteeing revenue for the many Chinese-financed and executed electricity generating projects in the country.

Finally, there is the broader ideological question posed by the BRI. As Western values of prosperity through democracy are being increasingly questioned by Western publics, and governments themselves, Beijing is offering an alternative worldview underpinned by norms and standards that do not necessarily conform with Western outlooks. Yet even on this point, the debate needs to be focused on a case by case basis. The relatively new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that elicited such a great controversy in the West was in part a response to a perception among countries of the global south that the dominant international financial institutions did not represent their interests or give them a voice. The AIIB is a product of these considerations as well as an attempt by Beijing to try its own hand at operating international structures that are not Western-invented. In sum, far from being a parallel or disruptive player, the AIIB could be seen as representing a positive Chinese-led contribution to the international order.

In contrast, China’s push to advance its version of the internet to strengthen models of state control, or its attempts to use its economic weight as a coercive tool, remain to be contested. But the key to any such response is strengthening alliances to confront patterns of behaviour from Beijing – either under the auspices of the BRI or otherwise – that are against national interests or those shared throughout the West. Beijing may resist, seeking ways to circumvent such opposition, but this is the natural push-and-pull of international affairs. The key to guiding a response is to offer alternatives and to think about what could address the issues on the ground that Beijing is seeking to resolve through its investments. In other words: if the UK is concerned with a project being undertaken by a developing country under the BRI, they should find ways of engaging with that country to either agree upon alternative sources of investment or to ensure that the Chinese project is delivered to an acceptable standard and that it will deliver maximum local benefit.

This lesson is broadly applicable. The West should focus on engaging with segments of the BRI that are empirically underway, and should engage with local partners to ensure they gain real benefits. The idea that the BRI could be a source of massive profit for UK companies based globally is a view that needs tempering. UK companies in Beijing are already making money accompanying their long-standing Chinese partners as they pursue the BRI. The broader profit is more likely to come from taking advantage of the infrastructure investment that is taking place, and finding ways of ensuring that the countries receiving BRI investment are able to grow in its wake.

The key point to remember within all of this is that the Chinese companies and banks making deals under the BRI are focusing on their own interests; they will expect everyone else to do the same thing.