More catch up on previous events, this time an interview with La Repubblica in the wake of the death of al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri.

Al Zawahiri, Pantucci: “La leadership di al Qaeda è stata completamente decimata”

di Enrico Franceschini

“Un successo dell’intelligence Usa. La minaccia del terrorismo non scompare ma il gruppo dirigente responsabile dell’attentato dell’11 settembre è stato eliminato”, dice l’esperto di terorrismo del Royal United Services Institute

Al Zawahiri, Pantucci: "La leadership di al Qaeda è stata completamente decimata"

Eliminare al Zawahiri chiude un capitolo nella storia di al Qaeda, anche se il libro del terrorismo rimane aperto”. È il giudizio di Raffaello Pantucci, esperto del Royal United Services Institute, il più antico think tank per i problemi della sicurezza, autore del saggio We love death as you love life (Noi amiamo la morte come voi amate la vita), un’inchiesta sui terroristi della porta accanto in Gran Bretagna, e uno dei massimi specialisti in materia. “Ora la leadership di al Qaeda è stata completamente decimata”, dice in questa intervista a Repubblica.

Come giudica l’operazione annunciata dalla Casa Bianca, Pantucci?
“È chiaramente un successo dal punto di vista americano. Dimostra la capacità di eliminare un capo terrorista in un luogo ostile in un momento scelto da Washington con la garanzia di poter ricorrere ai droni, quindi con la certezza di colpire la persona giusta. Per Osama bin Laden, l’America dovette mandare i commandos delle forze speciali, perché non era sicura della propria intelligence. Stavolta invece sì, significa che l’intelligence è migliorata”. 

Che conseguenze avrà nella lotta al terrorismo?
“A mio parere chiude un capitolo su al Qaeda. La minaccia del terrorismo non scompare e può sempre riemergere in qualche modo, la rabbia contro l’Occidente rimane, però il gruppo dirigente responsabile dell’attentato dell’11 settembre e di tanti altri ha perso il suo centro, è stato decimato. Il libro del terrore è ancora aperto, ma un capitolo sembra chiuso”.

Recentemente Al Qaeda aveva rialzato la testa?
“Non in termini di attentati specifici, ma negli ultimi tempi era cresciuta la retorica, Zawahiri lanciava minacce all’India e ad altri paesi, incitava a continuare la lotta, sostenendo che il ritorno al potere dei talebani in Afghanistan dimostrava che si poteva sconfiggere l’Occidente”.

Zawahiri aveva appunto ottenuto rifugio a Kabul, proprio come bin Laden: in Afghanistan allora dal 2001 a oggi non è cambiato niente?
“Sembrerebbe proprio così, purtroppo, ma la presenza di Zawahiri era già stata segnalata in luglio da un rapporto dell’Onu, il che vuol dire due cose: o la sua presenza non era un segreto ben tenuto o tra i talebani c’era chi aveva interessa a rivelarla. L’impressione è che i talebani di oggi siano più divisi, e con più problemi al proprio interno, rispetto a quelli andati al potere vent’anni fa: questo è cambiato”. 

Le uccisioni mirate, da parte americana e non solo, suscitano critiche: sono un’opzione valida nella lotta al terrorismo?
“Io sono del parere che in assoluto sarebbe meglio catturare i terroristi e processarli. Ma stiamo parlando di gente che vive in nazioni ostili, aiutati o protetti dal governo locale e talvolta sarebbe impossibile catturarli. Nel caso di Zawahiri, inoltre, non sembrano esserci stati danni collaterali. Nell’agosto di un anno fa, l’America rispose al grande attentato all’aeroporto di Kabul con un attacco che doveva eliminarne gli autori ma, come si è poi saputo, colpì e uccise per errore una famiglia innocente. Stavolta gli Usa erano sicuri di non sbagliare”. 

Si dice che morto un capo se ne fa un altro, ma eliminarli ha anche un valore deterrente?
“Sospetto di no, come deterrenza non funziona se ci sono militanti altrettanto fanatici. Ma funziona nel danneggiare un gruppo terroristico: un leader ha conoscenza e carisma. Una volta eliminato il capo, non è facile trovarne un altro con le stesse capacità”. 

Azioni del genere fanno alzare i consensi verso il leader che le ordina, almeno per un po’: il presidente Biden avrà agito anche con un occhio al voto di mid-term?
“Non credo. Certo, esiste sempre l’idea che, se un leader ha problemi interni, un’azione in politica estera può distrarre l’opinione pubblica e rilanciare un politico facendolo apparire forte e determinato. Ma a parte che le elezioni di mid-term sono ancora lontane, operazioni di questo tipo richiedono una lunga preparazione e coinvolgono forze speciali e intelligence. Sono questi ultimi a dire al presidente quando è arrivato il momento di agire, non il contrario”.

In generale a che punto è la minaccia del terrorismo islamico ?
“Dipende dove sei. In Africa la minaccia è piuttosto acuta. In Medio Oriente e in Asia esiste ancora, particolarmente in Siria, in minor misura in Iraq, in Pakistan. In Europa è per lo più rappresentata dal fenomeno dei lupi solitari, alcuni ispirati dalle idee di organizzazioni come l’Isis e al Qaeda ma spinti ad agire anche per altri problemi che hanno nella vita, per attirare attenzione su sé stessi. E negli Usa la più grande minaccia ora è il terrorismo domestico, le stragi e le sparatorie compiute da fanatici di estrema destra”.
 

Visto che Zawahiri era il capo di al Qaeda, quanto è serio il rischio di un attacco di grandi proporzioni come quello dell’11 settembre 2001?
“Non è del tutto impossibile, però oggi è molto più difficile che in passato. Al Qaeda è seguita e scrutinata intensamente dai servizi di intelligence e antiterrorismo. Altri gruppi puntano i loro attacchi su obiettivi più regionali, in Africa o in Medio Oriente. Organizzare un attentato contro l’Occidente sulla scala dell’11 settembre richiede un livello di preparazione che adesso sarebbe molto difficile da nascondere. Ciò non esclude che qualcuno ci provi o speri di provarci, per cui la guardia va tenuta sempre alta”.

Another book edited extract published a little while ago, this time in Foreign Policy drawing on the chapter on Afghanistan.

China Is Doomed to Play a Significant Role in Afghanistan

Beijing is desperate to avoid being trapped in Kabul’s politics.

For decades, Beijing has worried about security in Afghanistan. During the Taliban’s first stint in power in the 1990s, Beijing worried about the possibility of Uyghur militants using camps in Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks against China. Then, in the early 2000s, Chinese workers were killed and kidnapped in the country. China also shares a remote but direct border with Afghanistan, and even before the Taliban takeover, increasing violence in the wider region gave China good reason to worry.

Despite this, China’s approach to its neighbor for a long time was, as prominent Central Asia analyst Zhao Huasheng1 aptly characterized it, essentially to act as an observer, leaving security questions to the United States and its allies. That changed in 2012, after then-U.S. President Barack Obama signaled he wanted to get Washington out of the conflict he had inherited. As the potential security vacuum left by Western withdrawal came into sharper relief, Beijing realized that it would have to play a role in encouraging a more stable and developed future for Afghanistan. Even then—and even after security concerns rose once again after the U.S. withdrawal in 2021—China never fully came to assume that role.

The Taliban takeover in 2021 came after we had concluded writing our book Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire. But many of the trends and patterns we observed continued to hold. Although China has undeniably stepped into a far more prominent role than ever before, it has continued to hedge its bets and refused to take on a leadership role in the country. China’s unwillingness to take on that role, even though it is increasingly being thrust into it, serves as a perfect example of the central concept our book: China is doomed to play a significant role in the country, but is studiously avoiding it.

China’s clear, yet gradual, shift from cultivated disinterest to growing engagement in Afghanistan took place over the past decade.

The most visible and significant element of China’s newfound attention on Afghanistan was Politburo member and security supremo Zhou Yongkang’s visit2 to Kabul in September 2012—the first visit by a Politburo-level Chinese official to Afghanistan since 1966.

But even earlier that year, when we visited Afghanistan, China was seeking to advance diplomacy with Afghanistan and Pakistan. In February 2012, Beijing hosted3 the first Afghanistan-China-Pakistan trilateral dialogue. Then, in May 2012, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. State Department initiated a joint training program for Afghan diplomats. The group of a dozen young diplomats would get a 15-day experience in Beijing, followed by another 15 days in Washington.

That June, as China was hosting the regional Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Beijing, then-Chinese President Hu Jintao signed a bilateral ‘strategic and cooperative partnership’ agreement with then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai and welcomed the country as an official SCO observer state. Just over a month later, then-Chinese Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Gen. Guo Boxiong met with then-Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak to ‘enhance strategic communication and strengthen pragmatic cooperation in order to contribute to bilateral strategic cooperation.’

The signaling was clear. As Washington approached a drawdown, China was going to have to step in more, though the extent of it was unclear. Yet there were clearly dissenters in Beijing, and many of the security-focused Chinese officials and experts we met were quite clear that this was a problem of Washington’s making that China wanted little to do with.

All of this change in Chinese activity was, however, undermined by the fact that Washington did not leave. In the end, Obama did not withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Although its presence shrunk considerably, the United States retained a capability to launch attacks and kept bases in the country.

Meanwhile, within China, security concerns increased. In April 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Xinjiang. This came after a tumultuous period where incidents linked to Xinjiang spread across the country—including a car and incendiary device attack on Tiananmen Square, a mass stabbing incident in Kunming, and escalating violence in Xinjiang itself. Just as Xi was leaving Xinjiang, attackers launched a knife and bomb attack4 on the train station in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital.

In his speeches about the threat in 2014, Xi made a clear link between what was going on in Afghanistan and Xinjiang. Beijing’s answer to this concern appears to have been to push a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, Beijing escalated its engagement with the Afghan authorities, building on what was already being done to create a wave of bilateral and multilateral formats with other partners in Afghanistan. On the other hand, it strengthened its contacts with the Taliban, making sure it was covering its bases for all eventualities. It seemed as though China was going to take on a more active role in the country, aware of the fact that no matter whether the United States stayed or left, it was likely to be an erratic partner Beijing could not rely on.

In July 2014, China appointed Sun Yuxi,5 a popular former ambassador to Kabul, as its first special envoy for Afghanistan. His role was to serve as a point of contact and a coordinator for China’s engagement with the Taliban, and after his arrival, there was a noticeable uptick in public engagement among China, the Taliban, and the Afghan government.

When Ashraf Ghani became Afghanistan’s president that September, he immediately signaled the importance he placed on the relationship with China by making Beijing the first capital he visited in his first formal trip abroad. During this visit, he laid the groundwork for formal peace talk negotiations with the Taliban at a meeting hosted by the Chinese government.

By early 2015, stories emerged that China was playing a more forward role in brokering peace talks and in conversations; officials we spoke to in Beijing said they were willing to act as hosts for any future peace talks.By May 2015, senior Taliban figures were meeting6 with representatives from the Afghan High Peace Council in Urumqi. In July, another round of talks was held in Pakistan, at which Chinese participants also played a role.This was followed by more multilateral engagements.

The Chinese-supported peace track seemed to be bearing fruit, until abruptly, in late July 2015, news leaked that Taliban leader Mullah Omar7 had died back in 2013. This declaration scuttled the discussions and set the Taliban in disarray as an internal leadership struggle surfaced over his successor. It also complicated China’s role, since it was not clear whom Beijing would engage with on the Taliban side.

Accusations of blame were passed between Islamabad and Kabul, but the net result was an uptick in violence that made it harder for the Afghan government to negotiate with full confidence or for Beijing to feel like it could do much. Chinese officials we spoke to at the time almost immediately fell back into stating that it was up to the United States to step up and support the Afghan government and its national security forces. They further noted that until there was greater clarity about who the main Taliban negotiator was, talks were unlikely to bear much fruit.

But it seemed that China maintained its contacts with the Taliban. In fact, Beijing has had a long history of contacts with the Taliban, dating to when the group was in power in Kabul before September 2001. At the time, China was one of the few countries that engaged with them, though this was largely through China’s contacts in Islamabad.

 Chinese soldiers march past the Id Kah Mosque. Chinese soldiers march past the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang, on July 31, 2014, as China increased security in many parts of the province.Getty Images 

In the early days, Beijing seemed to focus its discussions on ensuring that any trouble in Afghanistan did not spill into China and that the Taliban maintained control over Uyghur groups. Some Chinese experts who visited Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s told us they were surprised during their visit to learn of large numbers of Uyghur militants in the country. Taliban authorities reportedly sought to reassure Beijing that they would stop these individuals from launching attacks against China, though it was never clear whether the Uyghur groups adhered to this and did not launch attacks or use the territory to plot against China. We later met individuals who had been to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and al Qaeda-managed camps who told us stories—corroborated by others—of Uyghurs in the camps in large numbers.

In 2015, it seemed as though China decided to use its contacts with the Taliban to help protect its longer-term interests in the country. Aside from seeking to broker greater discussions among the Taliban, Pakistan, and the government in Kabul, China also sought to bring the United States into the discussions. Around this time, Beijing was engaged in numerous bilateral, multilateral, and minilateral engagements concerning Afghanistan.

One senior Afghan diplomat told us during a session in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, that he was exhausted from running between these different events, though it was not clear to him how useful they were. Other Afghans we spoke to were far more scathing about Beijing’s engagement behind closed doors. One former senior defense official told us that they had been forced to dispose of most of the equipment that China had handed over, claiming ‘it was full of bugs.’ Others said they had evidence that Beijing was paying off and providing military equipment to the Taliban to develop contacts and maintain influence, something that was partially confirmed to us by a Chinese contact who mentioned in passing being involved in handing over bags of money to Taliban contacts. We were never able to independently confirm this, but it did speak to a greater sense of confidence in Beijing about what China was doing in Afghanistan.

In March 2016, then-Chinese People’s Liberation Army Chief of Joint Staff Gen. Fang Fenghui visited Kabul, seemingly to help start a new minilateral regional organization. That organization, the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM), brought together the chiefs of army staff of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan ‘to coordinate with and support each other in a range of areas, including study and judgment of counter terrorism situation, confirmation of clues, intelligence sharing, anti-terrorist capability building, joint anti-terrorist training and personnel training,’ according to a statement8 by the Chinese defense ministry.

By bringing together senior security officials with all the countries that had a presence around the Wakhan Corridor, China was helping secure its own border and creating a format through which it could monitor it. The structure also formalized the People’s Liberation Army’s responsibilities in Afghanistan.

Alongside the creation of the QCCM, China started to make its security contributions to the other members of the group more public. In Afghanistan, Beijing revealed it had helped build a base and was providing funding for a mountain security force in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province. Locals reported seeing Chinese soldiers patrolling the region. Other reports highlighted how Afghan forces were being trained in China. In Tajikistan, China built around a dozen border posts for Tajik border guards as well as a base for its own forces in the country’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast. China was, in essence, creating a security buffer to seal itself off from direct threats from its border regions with Afghanistan.

Although the China-Afghanistan relationship continued to stay relatively strong over the next few years, in the dying days of Afghanistan’s government under Ghani, there was growing turmoil between the two countries. The first loud signal of trouble was the U.S. decision in November 2020 to de-list the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement9 from its list of terrorist organizations. It was a decision Kabul reportedly did not agree with and one that caused friction with China.

Then, in December 2020, a spy scandal erupted with the Afghan National Directorate of Security detaining a network of 10 Chinese nationals who, it claimed, were spies undertaking covert activities against the government in Kabul. The Afghan and Chinese governments worked to keep the story out of the media and rushed to get the spies out on a private jet back to China, denying everything, though the story was leaked in considerable detail to the Indian media.

But the Afghan government was very careful about how it handled the scandal. Unlike the United States that was now heading for the door, Kabul recognized that it needed to maintain a working relationship with Beijing.

It was later revealed that their counterterrorism relationship had also come under strain, with Kabul apparently stopping its regular repatriation of Uyghur militants it caught on the battlefield. This was made public when in the wake of Kabul’s fall, news emerged that some 30 or so Uyghurs who had been in custody were released when the Taliban emptied the country’s prisons.

But this revelation cut both ways: On the one hand, it showed how the relationship between Kabul and Beijing had broken down, but it was also an early indication of the Taliban’s lack of capability or interest in managing the problem of militant Uyghurs in Afghanistan to Beijing’s desires (highlighted by the fact that they freed them).

In current Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, there is no denying that China is more prominent. The Chinese Embassy was one of the few that stayed during the Taliban takeover. A number of Chinese businessmen are reportedly showing up to try their fortune. China has engaged with, participated in, and hosted numerous regional formats on Afghanistan. It has also sponsored some limited bilateral trade efforts and provided aid of some substance across the country, and Chinese state-owned enterprises have started to talk about restarting their projects with Taliban authorities. China has done everything except formally acknowledge the Taliban as the rulers of Afghanistan—a step it is unlikely to take until it sees others in the international community do so first.

But talk to Chinese experts, and the picture is more circumspect. They hold little hope for the Taliban to create an inclusive government, see instability on the horizon, and worry about the worsening security situation in the broader region.

Although China has spoken of Afghanistan as part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and some recent trade has started, in reality, the tangible economic links between China and Afghanistan amount to the export of Afghan pine nuts to China and the construction of a fiberoptic cable down the Wakhan Corridor to help Afghanistan get on the internet. Talk about the BRI in Kabul, and people will say good things and hope for greater engagement, but they are still waiting for it to materialize. Afghan businessmen still find it difficult to get visas into China, flights are irregular, and COVID-19 continues to make travel to China difficult.

China is still concerned about its security interests in Afghanistan, but, as in the past, its answer has been to largely seal itself off, hardening its own and nearby borders. Through a web of multilateral engagements, China has offered itself as a host and discussant but never a moderator—in other words, China is willing to be involved but does not want to take the key role of confronting actors and forcing them to resolve their issues. Beijing is certainly doing more than it did before, but it is clear that it is not going to step into a leadership role. China has all the trappings and potential to be a dominant player but has made a strategic decision to continue to watch from the sidelines.  

[1]: https://www.csis.org/analysis/china-and-afghanistan

[2]: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-china/top-china-official-visits-afghanistan-signs-security-deal-idUSBRE88M02C20120923

[3]: https://www.mfa.gov.cn/ce/ceus/eng/zgyw/t910391.htm#:~:text=From%20February%2028%20to%2029,Foreign%20Affairs%20chaired%20the%20dialogue.

[4]: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-27225308

[5]: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-afghanistan/china-appoints-special-envoy-for-afghanistan-idUSKBN0FN11Z20140718

[6]: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/26/world/asia/taliban-and-afghan-peace-officials-have-secret-talks-in-china.html

[7]: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-33703097

[8]: https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/07/31/sinostan-china-afghanistan-relations-taliban-history/including%20study%20and%20judgment%20of%20the%20counter%20terrorism%20situation

[9]: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/11/05/2020-24620/in-the-matter-of-the-designation-of-the-eastern-turkistan-islamic-movement-also-known-as-etim-as-a

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

Jihadism in the United Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terrorism in Europe: A Very Different Kind of Threat

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

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

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

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

Extremist Ideology or Mental Health Issues?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mental Health-Terror Balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is This Even Terrorism?

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

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

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

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

More belated commentary, this time for the Straits Times exploring the range of trouble spots in Central Asia that have not gotten much smaller since I wrote this.

Trouble brews in Central Asia

A mix of geopolitics and domestic turmoil is stirring unrest in all but one country in the region, which serves as an important land bridge between Europe and Asia.

The most recent bout of trouble in the region emerged in Uzbekistan last month with unrest in Karakalpakstan. PHOTO: REUTERS

The world has a collective habit of forgetting Central Asia. Rich in natural resources, the region sits at the heart of what British geographer Halford Mackinder described as the geopolitical pivot of the world – serving as an important land bridge between Europe and Asia. Key overland routes – like the Silk Road of yore – cut across the region connecting Europe directly to China.

The past year has been a tumultuous one for the region. A mix of geopolitics and domestic turmoil has created a dangerous brew in all but one of the five countries making up the region – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Only Turkmenistan, which has just seen a power transition from a tried and tested leader to his young son, appears unaffected. There is no evidence of instability in the country at the moment, although it is impossible to know what is really going on because of the lack of information. Food prices are reportedly high, inflation has long been a problem, while the population is still struggling amid a Covid-19 crisis.

REINVIGORATED MOTOR AND BULWARK

The most recent bout of trouble in the region emerged in Uzbekistan last month with unrest in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic in the north-eastern region of the country. An attempt to redraft the nation’s Constitution led to anger as locals felt their special status was being taken away without their consent. At least 18 people were killed.

The violence in Uzbekistan had followed unrest in Kazakhstan, the wealthiest and most influential Central Asian power which had thus far been regarded as the bulwark of regional stability. Both countries were widely seen as former Soviet bloc countries seemingly on the path of reform.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev turned the country around when he took over in 2016 following the death of founding president Islam Karimov. Moving to rapidly open up the previously reclusive regime, the government in Tashkent was viewed elsewhere in Central Asia as a reinvigorated motor to the region.

When Kazakhstan’s founding leader and president Nursultan Nazarbayev handed over power peacefully in 2019 he seemed to set the tone for how such power transitions could be handled elsewhere. But, in January last year, a fuel tax hike led to mass protests that were quickly overtaken by a political dispute. The violence rapidly spiralled out of control, leading President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to call on Russia to deploy its forces under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) to help stabilise the country. Reports suggest that over 200 people were killed in the unrest.

The authorities in both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are still counting the costs of the unrest, including the geopolitical and political consequences of what occurred. President Tokayev’s decision to bring in Russian forces was highly sensitive politically in a country where the government has long been pushing an increasingly nationalist narrative.

In Tajikistan, the trouble centres on the Pamiri community living along the country’s border with Afghanistan with many people angry at their treatment by the central government. The Pamiri people, who are ethnically and linguistically different from the Tajiks, have historically been locked in conflict with the rulers in Dushanbe. Last November, a young local man was tortured and killed by the authorities. This led to protests and repression which, in turn, erupted into much larger violence in May this year. The government is still suppressing the violence and has only recently reopened communications lines from the region.

Afghanistan has been a source of concern for Central Asia. As majority Muslim countries ruled by secular authoritarian or semi-authoritarian leaders, they fear the rise of Muslim fundamentalists in their region. The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban put everyone on edge. As the militant group swept into Kabul, Russia rapidly dispatched aid to Central Asia in the form of joint training exercises and speeded up arms sales to the region. China, another regional power, contributed less, though it stepped into an active diplomatic role and bolstered its forces in Tajikistan along the Afghan-Tajik border.

Border disputes remain an obstacle to better ties in the region and the problem is particularly complicated in the volatile Ferghana Valley, where the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan meet. Almost half of the 970km Kyrgyz-Tajik border has yet to be demarcated and this has led to repeated tensions between the two countries. In April last year, more than 40 people were killed as Tajik and Kyrgyz troops clashed over their disputed frontier and access to water. Tensions have since remained high with a Tajik border guard killed just a month ago.

SHADOW OF UKRAINE

All of these developments have taken place in the shadow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The invasion has a particular resonance in the case of Kazakhstan, which has a large ethnic Russian population in its north along the border with Russia. Kazakhstan has been pushing Kazakh nationalism in an effort to craft a stronger sense of independent national identity, to the detriment of Russians. This has stirred anger in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other prominent commentators questioning Kazakh national identity as a concept. The similarity with Ukraine is not lost on seasoned observers.

Nestled between China, Russia and Iran, Central Asia is isolated from the West and yet wishes it was part of it. The United States and Europe have made efforts to connect with the region, but distance, prioritisation and local governance issues have often meant that it has ended up being nothing more than a distracted partner. Instead, Central Asia has found itself stuck with regional superpowers which are locked in a geopolitical struggle with the West, and tend to see the world in entirely transactional terms.

These regional powers are also not interested in trying to manage the problems in Central Asia. Moscow continues to take a paternalistic attitude towards the region, while China is an entirely disinterested regional hegemon – increasingly the most consequential economic and political partner – but only willing to just watch as problems play themselves out. Iran is preoccupied with too many domestic problems.

The result is a Eurasian heartland in turmoil. This has consequences for energy prices – Turkmenistan is home to the world’s second largest natural gas field, and Kazakhstan is a key regional oil and gas producer. The country is also a major wheat exporter, at a time when the war in Ukraine has impacted two of the world’s largest exporters (Russia and Ukraine). The instability also has potential consequences for China’s Belt and Road visions across Eurasia, as most of the key land routes cut through this region on their way to Europe.

In his 1904 paper, The Geographical Pivot Of History, Sir Halford identified the Eurasian heartland as the key territory to control the planet. Recently it has seemed as though Russia is relinquishing its control of the region and China is assuming it, the more accurate recent narrative is that everyone is watching as it becomes unstable. The question the world needs to pay attention to is what happens if this same pivot falls off its hinges. An unstable heartland is as dangerous as a dominated one.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, and the author of Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022).

Side box

Nestled between China, Russia and Iran, Central Asia is isolated from the West and yet wishes it was part of it. The United States and Europe have made efforts to connect with the region, but distance, prioritisation and local governance issues have often meant that it has ended up being nothing more than a distracted partner.

Instead, Central Asia has found itself stuck with regional superpowers which are locked in a geopolitical struggle with the West, and tend to see the world in entirely transactional terms.

Causes for strife

BORDER DISPUTES

When the region’s borders were defined during the Soviet period, Central Asia was carved up in such a way as to ensure that its patchwork of ethnicities would remain in conflict with one another and, therefore, no threat to Moscow. The result has been a series of ill-defined borders that still cause trouble to this day. This is most apparent between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where each country has communities living in exclaves entirely surrounded by the other.

Waterways, roads and food supplies have regularly been a source of conflict, most recently in border shootings that erupted into conflict in April last year.

ETHNIC DIVISIONS

In Tajikistan, the region called the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) is home to the Pamiri people, who have historically been locked in conflict with the rulers in Dushanbe, the capital. In the 1990s, the country was wracked by a brutal civil war which led to tens of thousands of deaths. The civil war ended in 1997 with an internationally mediated accord.

In November last year, the death of a young Pamiri man in custody led to renewed tensions and fighting as the government sought to crush the Pamiri protests.

In Uzbekistan, as part of a broader drive to reform the country and potentially extend his rule, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev sought to redraft the national Constitution – including changing the status of Karakalpakstan. Physically the largest of the country’s 14 regions, Karakalpakstan has been an “autonomous republic” since the establishment of modern Uzbekistan in 1991. People in the area have always cherished their special status which gave them particular power and status within the country. Last month violent protests occurred in the regional capital, Nukus, which left 18 people dead.

ECONOMIC WOES

The apparent trigger for trouble in Kazakhstan came from a fuel tax hike at the beginning of the year. Already suffering from a domestic economic contraction, the public expressed anger at the visible economic inequalities in a resource-rich country.

The apparently organic protests were quickly overtaken by a larger power struggle as factions close to former long-time founding leader Nursultan Nazarbayev sought to undermine President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev using the cover of the protests.

Part of the problem was that many in the security forces remained loyal to the former leader, leading President Tokayev to make the politically risky decision to seek Russian forces to help stabilise the situation.

His gamble worked, and the trouble was contained, but it highlighted the deep political tensions in the country overshadowed by the apparently peaceful transition of power in 2019.

More delayed posting, this time a piece for Nikkei Asian Review which seeks to tie together some of the strands of trouble that have been brewing in Central Asia since the beginning of the year.

The Perils of Ignoring Eurasian Instability

Volatile region has historically caused problems for the rest of the world

A Kyrgyz policeman looks at a burnt armored personnel carrier outside the village of Kok-Tash near the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border in southwestern Kyrgyzstan in May 2021: Exchanges of fire continue to take place with casualties on both sides.   © AP

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and author of “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire.” (Oxford University Press, April 2022)

As the world focuses on a possible clash between China and the West over Taiwan and war in Europe on the other, the parts in between are going up in flames.

In the past, Russia or the United States could be relied upon to step in and settle the situation, but both are now otherwise engaged. With Beijing showing a reluctance about stepping into the role, this leaves a region that has historically caused problems for the rest of the world without a security blanket.

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last year marked a turning point.

While Afghanistan itself has seen violence go down, tensions have moved north into Central Asia, with the Islamic State in Khorasan Province launching several rocket attacks into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as increasing the propaganda it publishes in Central Asian languages.

In Pakistan, Balochi separatist groups have continued to grow the volume and ambition of their attacks, as has the Tehreek-E-Taliban Pakistan. Worryingly for Islamabad, there are signs that Balochi and Islamist groups are cooperating.

In Afghanistan, while the Taliban has repeatedly stated that it will not lets its territory be used to plot terrorism against others, it has done little to stop it. In one recent and particularly galling display, the previously reported dead leader of the Uighur militant group Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) released a video showing him celebrating Eid al-Fitr festival this year in Afghanistan.

This is despite repeated calls by China for the Taliban to not allow Uighur militants to use Afghanistan as a base. Left-behind American weapons have already appeared in attacks in Pakistan and even as far away as their border with India.

Looking beyond Afghanistan, the situation in Central Asia has become markedly more violent over the past year.

There has been trouble in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region as locals push back against Dushanbe in clashes that recall the country’s brutal Civil War from the 1990s. An attempt to re-write the constitution in Uzbekistan led to large-scale violence in Karakalpakstan whose costs are still being counted. On Tajikistan’s messy border with Kyrgyzstan, exchanges of fire continue to take place, with casualties on both sides.

Add to that the chaos in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year, which led many to question their assumptions about the stability of Central Asia.

Long Seen As Central Asia’s Wealthy Bulwark, The Instability In Kazakhstan Has Been Driven By A Combination Of Unhappiness With The Government Of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev And An Internal Power Struggle That Has Shown How Fragile The Country Actually Is. And If Seemingly Stable Kazakhstan Can Unravel So Quickly, What Is Really Going On Elsewhere In The Region? Recent Events In Uzbekistan Serve To Only Strengthen This Narrative.

Long seen as Central Asia’s wealthy bulwark, the instability in Kazakhstan has been driven by a combination of unhappiness with the government of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and an internal power struggle that has shown how fragile the country actually is. And if seemingly stable Kazakhstan can unravel so quickly, what is really going on elsewhere in the region? Recent events in Uzbekistan only serve to strengthen this narrative.

President Tokayev’s decision in January to call for help from Russia and the other four members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization highlighted Moscow’s continuing role as a security guarantor in the region.

At the same time, Russia’s subsequent decision to invade Ukraine has resonated across Central Asia, in part over concerns that President Vladimir Putin’s revanchist fantasies might swing in Central Asia’s direction.

Kazakhstan, in particular, continues to find itself targeted by Russian Nationalists, and there is a wider concern about the knock-on damage that each country is likely to feel from the crashing Russian economy and the degree to which Moscow might be able to continue to play a stabilising role.

President Putin’s visit to Tajikistan this past week was a clear demonstration of the role Russia can still play and a reminder or Moscow’s importance. His visit focused attention on Russian forces in Tajikistan and their supposed focus in Afghanistan, but aside from likely celebrating the fact that they have not been sent to Ukraine, it is not clear what they are doing there.

Vladimir Putin listens to Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon during a meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on June 28: a clear demonstration of the role Russia can still play and a reminder of Moscow’s importance.   © Reuters

While Washington stepped back from the region following its withdrawal from Afghanistan, it has recently taken quiet steps back into Central Asia with a focus on shoring up regional security.

The region doubtless welcomes this attention, but given prior American fickleness and the light touch being applied, it remains to be seen how far the US will, or can, go when it comes to security. Central Asia is ultimately bordered by powers with which the US is locked in geopolitical struggle, while Washington’s relations with Islamabad continue to be complicated.

Throughout all of this, Beijing has taken a watching brief. In Afghanistan, this has taken the odd form of China being the most prominent external interlocutor on the ground with the Taliban government while still hedging its bets.

Beijing’s anger at Pakistan has grown as the violence being directed at Chinese nationals there continues to get worse. There are persistent rumours of Chinese involvement in helping Tajik authorities stabilize the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region, but the details are unclear.

There is a narrative in some western capitals suggesting that none of this really matters because the Eurasian heartland is far away and more likely to cause trouble for its neighbours than the west. But this neglects the fact trouble in this region has a tendency to spread.

South Asia has human connections around the world, as well as three nuclear powers will ill-defined borders and histories of enmity, while Central Asian militants have been showing up increasingly further afield.

Afghanistan has long been a major source of narcotics, and it is always useful to remember that this is the battlefield that forged Al Qaida and from which the Sept. 11 attacks were launched.

It may seem unlikely that such a terrorist catastrophe could happen again, but this remains a region that has the ability to shock the world. Failing to take note of instability there could prove very costly for us all.

Back to more book promotion for Sinostan, this time an edited extract that was published by Prospect magazine, focusing in particular on the China-Russia dynamics articulated in the book.

The rising tension between China and Russia

The war in Ukraine and Beijing’s growing military assertiveness are testing relations with Moscow

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen 

June 24, 2022

Tensions: Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meeting with President of China Xi Jinping at the opening of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Credit: Alamy

Tensions: Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meeting with President of China Xi Jinping at the opening of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Credit: Alamy

The war in Ukraine has brought the China-Russia relationship into sharp relief. China’s seeming willingness to tolerate behaviour which directly contradicts a series of principles that Beijing has sought to advance in international relations has left everyone scratching their heads about the nature of the partnership. The old assumption, often described as playing out in Central Asia, was that China was doing the economics and Russia the security. Yet, travelling around Central Asia my co-author and I Alexandros Petersen found that the dynamic is far more complicated, with Beijing increasingly making its presence felt in the security domain while continuing to value the geostrategic relationship it has with Moscow. The relationship is one that defies the simple narrative often painted in the west, and we found this repeatedly on the ground in the Eurasian heartland that binds the two powers together.

A trip from Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek to Dushanbe, Tajikistan in 2013 illustrated the reality of this dynamic vividly. We had noticed the Chinese businessman in the queue for the plane. Stuck in Bishkek’s underwhelming waiting lounge with little else to do, we wandered over to strike up a conversation. Intrigued to find a foreigner who spoke some Mandarin, he told us about his work as a manager/engineer for the China Rail company. While he was vague about exactly what project he was working on, he was very keen to impress us with how well connected he was where we were going in Dushanbe. He showed us pictures on his phone in which he was standing next to a tall and severe-looking Tajik security official in his full dress uniform. Then a young Kyrgyz man in army fatigues came over and started speaking Chinese, saying he appreciated the opportunity to practice. He told us he recognised the severe-looking officer in the pictures.

The Kyrgyz officer had learned his atonal but fluent Mandarin on an 11-month training course in Nanjing. He was particularly keen to tell us about the brothels and night markets he had found. He had been sent on the course along with several mid-ranking officers in his border guard unit—the whole programme was sponsored by the Chinese government. The Chinese businessman chuckled at this strange encounter with all these Mandarin-speaking foreigners, and we separated to board the plane, though of course not before the obligatory selfies were taken.

The encounter was one of our earliest insights into the depth and complexity of China’s security relationship with Central Asia. When we started researching the country’s role in Central Asia, the abiding narrative (that has only recently started to change) was that the Chinese were all about economics and trade. With the advent of the Belt and Road Initiative, this was redefined as being principally about infrastructure and extractives—getting the region’s rich hydrocarbon and other resources back to China. But at no point did we get much of a sense that security was a part of the story. Rather, most analysis pointed to a bargain—unspoken or not—between Beijing and Moscow whereby China did the economics and Russia the security. But this seemed an odd conclusion. In the first instance, our entire sense of why China was interested in Central Asia was predicated on a domestic security concern. China wanted Central Asia to be secure, open, connected and prosperous, so that its own part of Central Asia, Xinjiang, would also be prosperous and therefore stable. Ultimately, China’s thinking about Central Asia was based on the goal of security at home.

There was also a very hard edge to this concern. China is concerned about militancy, both within Xinjiang and across the border in Central Asia. Chinese diplomats, businesspeople, and visiting dignitaries had been targeted over the years in Kyrgyzstan by groups it assessed—in some cases correctly—as being linked to militant Uyghurs. In 2016 the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek was targeted by a car bomb. The subsequent investigation revealed a network with links to Uyghur groups in Syria. When we pressed Kyrgyz security officials for answers about the attack, they dismissed it as not having links to international terrorism, pointing to it as an instance of local “political” violence linked to a specific grievance against the Chinese rather than anything else (earlier this year, the US government linked it to a larger Central Asian militant group with a footprint in both Afghanistan and Syria).

While there was little evidence back then of similar networks in other countries, China was nevertheless concerned about the possibility of such threats as well as about other groups that might emanate from Central Asia to threaten Xinjiang or China directly. In the wake of the attack, there was considerable concern from the security community in China around the potential for similar incidents in Tajikistan as they surveyed the security environment in Central Asia, both from the perspective of threats as well as local capability to manage them.

Second, as we uncovered the deep levels of distrust that existed between China and Russia in Central Asia in particular, it seemed very unlikely that Beijing would simply abrogate its security interests in Central Asia to Moscow. The Chinese officials and experts we met repeatedly expressed their disdain for Russia, while at the same time maintaining a convivial public demeanour. Moscow’s management of the post-Cold War collapse of the Soviet Union was treated in Beijing as a textbook case of how not to manage such a change. In Moscow we looked on as, at a prominent event in 2017, one of China’s top Russia watchers wowed an audience of cynical Muscovites with his fluent Russian, peppered with humour and Dostoevsky quotes, as he talked about the relations between the two great powers.

Over lunch afterwards, a Russian friend praised the Chinese academic’s linguistic skills, joking it was better than theirs. Yet, a short year later we saw the same academic in Beijing before an audience of European experts in which he lambasted Russia and complained about how difficult they were to work with. He said China felt forced into a relationship with Russia because it was rejected by the west. Beijing would far prefer to be close to Europe. We heard the converse repeatedly in Moscow over the years. Both were clearly playing to their audiences, but it nevertheless highlighted a deep underlying mistrust.

The Sino-Russian relationship may be strategically important to both, and it has grown closer in recent years through collective confrontation against the west, but they do not trust each other. The Sino-Soviet split in earlier times casts a long shadow. “Frenemies” is the best characterisation we were able to come up with at the time (though it still feels unsatisfactory), where the two see themselves as important strategic allies, but fundamentally worry things may one day turn adversarial. This was repeatedly reflected in discussions we had where it did not take long, in any bilateral engagement, to find that the counterpart in front of us would complain about the other who was not present. Russians were always quick to complain about the Chinese, and after a little prodding the Chinese would reciprocate.

This tension was visible in our various engagements as well as publicly. Discussions around bilateral deals were always contentious and occasional spy dramas would play out in the press. In 2020, a story emerged of the Russian FSB arresting prominent academic Professor Valery Mitko, president of St Petersburg Arctic Social Science Academy. A former navy captain, he was accused of selling secrets about Russia’s submarine fleet to Beijing. A year or so earlier, a similar story had played out in Kazakhstan, where a prominent academic sinologist who had advised the new President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in his dealings with China was arrested for selling state secrets to Beijing. A former KGB officer, Konstantin Syroyezhkin was given a ten-year sentence and stripped of his citizenship, meaning he faces deportation to Russia upon completion of his time in prison. All this merely serves to illustrate once again the close relationship that Russia has with the region, and how this competition can sometimes hit up against China.

The debate about Huawei and whether Russia should use the company in the construction of its own 5G network was a good articulation of the tension at the heart of the relationship for Moscow. On the one hand, Russia (and its intelligence agencies) feared letting China into their digital and tech infrastructure, but on the other hand, they felt somewhat limited in their options. As we were told in Moscow, “look who is actually sanctioning us.” They might not trust the Chinese, but they recognized at a strategic level that they are on the same page as Beijing rather than the western capitals producing the alternatives to Huawei, meaning Moscow would have to go with the Chinese option.

It seems illogical that Beijing would, in turn, rely on Moscow to guarantee the security of its growing assets and interests in Central Asia. Given Beijing’s particular concerns around Xinjiang and the importance of this to the Chinese Communist Party and their control over China, this logic seems even more flawed, illustrating why the simplistic assumption that China does economics while Russia does security does not work. Nor is it visible on the ground in Central Asia. The reality was articulated perfectly to us during a visit to Bishkek where, as we were doing the rounds of the think tanks and ministries, we were repeatedly given the line that China did the economics while Russia did security, only for an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to turn to us and say, “well, in fact, the Chinese did just build a new headquarters for our border guards.”

It has been fascinating to watch Chinese assertiveness, particularly in the military domain, grow over time. From a power that was largely passive in security matters, it became a power increasingly flexing its muscles, developing a security footprint that not only served to advance China’s direct and narrow interests but increasingly seemed to be aimed at embedding China within the region’s security apparatus in the long run. What officials in Moscow had assumed was solely theirs has been eroded over time. Afghanistan notably lurks like a menacing shadow for Beijing in the background of their concerns about Central Asian stability. From providing border support and equipment, to language training and Covid-19 aid—China’s military relationship with Central Asia is as ascendant as in every other area. The old implicit bargains between Beijing and Moscow are increasingly being tested, with events in Ukraine likely placing even greater pressure on them.

Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen are the authors of Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (OUP)

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

China and the transatlantic relationship

Obstacles to deeper European–US cooperation

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

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

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transatlantic divergence and convergence

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

Trade and investment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climate change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The global commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

Early Terrorist Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trouble Spreading?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About The Author:

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

Citations

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

2 Raffaello Pantucci, “After the Coronavirus, Terrorism Won’t Be the Same,” Foreign Policy, April 22, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/22/after-coronavirus-terrorism-isis-hezbollah-5g-wont-be-thesame/.

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

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

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

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

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

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

9 Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18 Ibid.

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

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

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

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

25 Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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