Archive for the ‘Royal United Services Institute’ Category

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Been delinquent in updating this site. A few to catch up on, starting with one for my institutional home RUSI which looks specifically at Central Asia and tries to offer some ideas for how Europe in particular might try to focus its efforts there. My hope is to encourage these ideas through various projects that we are working on, but for the moment float them here. There is something important going on in Central Asia, and it would be good to see greater engagement with it as frustrated opportunity will never end well.

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Europe’s Pivot to Central Asia

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary2 May 2018
International Security StudiesCentral and South Asia

Central Asia has started to assert its interests and identity. European powers should seize the initiative and bolster these trends.

The catalyst for change in Central Asia has been the death of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. The change in Tashkent has brought Shavkat Mirzioyoev to power, a former regime apparatchik who has shown an impressive ability to stimulate change and transformation throughout the Uzbek system.

Regionally, it has led to dramatic changes as well. Longstanding regional blockages have opened a bit, and while there are still some complicated bilateral issues to be resolved, there has been more movement on regional relations in the past year than in the past couple of decades.

Tashkent’s decision to host a conference on Afghanistan, play a greater role in Afghan reconstruction and economic development and more generally be willing to be proactive in multilateral formats there has re-opened a new forum for engagement on the long-beleaguered country.

However, it is equally important to note the growing international role played by Kazakhstan. It was where President Xi Jinping first announced his broader Belt and Road Initiative concept, as well as a founding member of the Eurasian Economic Union, and Astana has for some time placed itself at the heart of Eurasian dynamics.

It has also sought an increasing role on the international stage as a mediator in the conflict in Syria, as well as working to help the international effort to manage the Iranian nuclear confrontation.

Most recently, it reaffirmed its independence by refusing to support a Russian-sponsored UN Security Council resolution condemning US-led airstrikes on the Syrian regime’s forces after the gassing of civilians in Douma.

Both Astana and Tashkent are demonstrating the potential that middle-ranking powers can have when they focus their efforts and attention on specific issues. So, the EU has started to take note and High Representative for Foreign Policy Frederica Mogherini has visited the region twice in the past six months.

To build on the current good relations between Europe and Central Asia, engagement should focus on: connecting ideas; countering violent extremism; and creating an environment conducive for economic development through small and medium-sized enterprises.

Connecting Ideas: A New Silk Road Think Tank

One ‘soft power’ initiative that would be an easy win and would provide a forum for a proper Eurasian discussion about connectivity would be the establishment of a regional connectivity think tank. This institution could draw on expertise from across the region to work together on some of the fundamental problems which still exist at the heart of Eurasia, such as regional economy and security.

It would also help to strengthen civil society across the region, as well as assist education and research needs. It would be able to help develop a data-driven research base that would help to support the work of international financial institutions that seek to give money and develop projects regionally, such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the European Investment Bank, the Asian Development Bank, or even the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Leading on Counter-Radicalisation Efforts 

This think tank should not focus solely on understanding the difficult economic and trade questions (including those that are generated by China’s – or other external powers – investment in the region). It should also to focus on some of the difficult security questions of the day, such as violent extremism and the fall-out from the many radicalised Central Asians who fought alongside jihadists in Syria and Iraq.

There are many reasons why people join overseas extremist groups. They are in some cases – as recent RUSI research has shown – a product of people’s experiences as labour migrants in Russia, but they are also in part a result of people’s experiences in Central Asia.

Many training programmes are already underway in the region through various institutions, but the EU should explore whether there are ideas and projects that have been attempted in the region which might be interesting in a European context.

And vice versa: Establishing a platform for greater engagement between countering violent extremism practitioners in Europe and Central Asia – potentially through a platform such as the European Commission’s Radicalisation Awareness Network – would strengthen the connective tissue between our two regions. There is already some connectivity in this regard but improving it and potentially focusing on what joint research projects could be undertaken could help to provide answers to some of the most difficult questions troubling both of our societies.

Boosting Investment and Economic Opportunities

Finally, more needs to be done to encourage private sector development in Central Asia. Regional economies are currently dominated by state-owned enterprises or firms controlled by key tribes or leaders, a pattern which foreign investors – China, Russia, major international energy or mining firms ­– tend to strengthen.

Serious problems still exist in the investment environment. Fears of expropriation, problems with corruption and difficulties in repatriating profits remain key obstacles to foreign investors, and particularly small or medium-sized European firms that cannot afford such risks.

Addressing this problem will require time and will not be easy. Entrenched economic interests will resist change, but a focused European effort that sought to engage with outside powers such as China, Turkey or Russia on questions surrounding transparent governance, an independent judiciary and accountable governance could help deliver change. This would help to improve the business environment in the region and make it more attractive to European investors as well as nurturing a genuine local small and medium-sized enterprises.

The EIB, EBRD or other European investment tools like national development agencies (as well as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or the Asian Development Bank where a number of European powers play an important role) could be used to target investments focused on SME development and which do so through projects designed to incentivise local governments to establish more accountable practices.

This is not, in itself, a new approach, but some of the answers and ideas for these targeted investments could draw on research commissioned from the new Silk Road think tank. The multilateral regional data driven perspective offered might offer some new ideas for how to manage long-standing regional problems.

The key to success lies in Central Asia showing interest in working with Europe, and the latter maintaining a consistent level of attention. Unlike the past when the region was largely seen as a playground for great powers, Central Asia is increasingly attempting to to write its own story.

Progress on this has been halting, but the Kazakh-Uzbek Central Asian ‘motor’ is currently pulling in a positive direction, and Europe should take notice and make a more concerted effort to encourage and nurture this process.

With limited investment which can deliver an outsized result, the EU’s image as the dominant normative power on the Eurasian supercontinent could be strengthened. Or, to paraphrase Halford Mackinder a century ago, Europe can once again reclaim the narrative in the Eurasian heartland.