Posts Tagged ‘Belgium’

Re-publishing a paper from a little back that I did for the new Durham Global Security Institute looking at China-Afghanistan relations. It builds on a presentation on the topic, focusing mostly on the fact that China continues to play a fairly noncommittal game in the country. A topic which there is more to come and about which much more can be found on my co-edited site China in Central Asia. Beyond regional geopolitics, spoke to the Daily Mail about the threat from terrorists and weapons from Libya, NBC about threats to the Tour de France, and my book was quoted in the Independent.

Karzai-Yuanchao

China’s Big Hedge

In November of last year, Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao visited Kabul to celebrate 60 years of diplomatic relations between Afghanistan and China.[1] The most senior level visit to Kabul by a Chinese official since the now-defenestrated former Politburo member and security minister Zhou Yongkang visited in 2012[2] the visit showed China’s continuing commitment to Afghanistan, whilst also highlighting its limits. Sitting awkwardly in President Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ vision, Afghanistan remains a foreign policy conundrum to China who continues to see the potential risks from the neighbouring country, but that Beijing understands it has a particularly central potential role to play and whose proximity negates a completely detached approach. The result has been a hedging policy in which China continues to show some level of commitment towards Afghanistan whilst not going so far as to taking on the mantle of leadership.

The Belt and Road

One of the central topics of conversation during Vice President Li’s visit to Kabul was the ‘Belt and Road’ concept. In official read-outs from the meetings, both sides agreed to work on cooperatively to help develop Afghanistan’s role in the vision and thereby deepen the link between China and Afghanistan.[3] ‘Belt and Road’ is the term used to describe the vision laid out by President Xi Jinping that is on its way to becoming his defining foreign policy legacy. First publicly raised during a visit to Astana, Kazakhstan in September 2013 when President Xi coined the term ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ to describe the trade, infrastructure and economic corridor emanating from China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang through Central Asia ultimately to European markets.[4] The next month during a speech at the Indonesian Parliament he built on this characterization to announce the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road that recreated the land model advanced across Eurasia out from China’s ports to the seas.[5] Over the next few months these trade corridors proliferated as a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor, China-Mongolia-Russia corridor and a New Eurasian Landbridge were all increasingly discussed. In fact, the Pakistan corridor was one that had been agreed prior to the September speech and had been raised during a visit by Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Pakistan in May 2013 and signed in MoU form on a return visit by President Nawaz Sharif in July 2013.[6] But the corridor was only later identified and absorbed under the logic of the grander vision. The logic of these various routes was largely the same and drew from the same structure as the Silk Road Economic Belt laid out in Astana, but over time was increasingly all captured under the rubric of the ‘One Belt and One Road’ (OBOR) and is now abbreviated to the ‘Belt and Road.’

By announcing the initiative in Central Asia President Xi was adding his stamp onto something that had in fact been taking place for over a decade.[7] Since 2001 and the formal founding of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) China has increasingly been developing its presence in Central Asia, something that was spurred on even further in the wake of riots in China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang in July 2009.[8] The rioting took place as a result of deep tensions between the minority Uighur population (a community that is close in language, culture and ethnicity to the Turkic speaking populations of Central Asia) in the region and the growing Han Chinese population who have moved west over the past century. These two populations have lived uncomfortably next to each other for some time, with Uighurs increasingly feeling alienated from their own country. This has led to a push back which has expressed itself in a number of forms: people lashing out against the state in anger for real or perceived individual slights or in more organized fashion through terrorist groups and plots. In the first instance much of the violence was isolated in Xinjiang, and in particular in the southern predominantly Uighur corridor. But over time, it has increasingly spread around the country with violent incidents in Kunming and Beijing, an attack outside the country in Bangkok, Thailand and a persistent minority of Uighurs leaving China to seek to connect with extremist groups in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Southeast Asia.[9]

For China, the key to ameliorating the situation in Xinjiang is an economic solution.[10] Seeing economic development as the answer to these problems means a great deal of internal investment, but for this investment to work, Xinjiang needs to have trading partners. Sitting in landlocked Xinjiang, it is easier to look across the Eurasian landmass to Europe and see a quicker route to markets than going to China’s eastern seaboard ports. Consequently, this investment has to spill into Central Asia where Chinese infrastructure companies, banks, and traders have all worked to develop trade corridors to open up Central Asian markets and routes to Xinjiang and Chinese traders. This has happened at every level with small time shuttle traders going back and forth with bags of goods, as well as more entrepreneurial individuals establishing brands and opening factories. Over time, this has led to a steady increase in Chinese presence in the region which has led to not only a re-wiring of the regions infrastructure so that all roads lead to Urumqi (Xinjiang’s capital), but also meant that increasingly China has displaced Russia to become the most consequential actor on the ground.

But all of this has been taking place now for over a decade. Meaning that the nomenclature of the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) is a case of President Xi placing his stamp of authority on something that was already underway – the development of an economic and trade corridor sweeping out from China’s west through Central Asia, ultimately to European markets. Seeing it as a successful model deploying foreign policy tools that Beijing could understand how to control (the deployment of capital through linked loans for Chinese firms to go forth and implement infrastructure projects), and based on some theoretical assumptions that are comprehensible. It also has the effect of helping keep the Chinese economy moving as the domestic economy slows down.[11]

But the important thing to remember about the SREB is that it is not a single path, but rather a latticework of routes out of China across Eurasia. There are roads going from Urumqi through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and onwards through other Central Asian countries, across the Caspian, Russia or Iran to Europe. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) essentially turns Pakistan into a corridor for goods to travel through Pakistan from the ports of Gwadar and Karachi to Kashgar, Xinjiang.[12] Whilst identified under a slightly different nomenclature, the CPEC is very much considered a part of the SREB vision, something exemplified by the fact that one of the first projects taken on by the specially created $40 billion Silk Road Fund established by Beijing was an energy project associated with the CPEC vision.[13] In total, billions have been promised and poured into these two routes (the SREB and CPEC) – with Pakistan alone attracting promises of around $46 billion over a number of years,[14] while President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan announced some $23 billion worth of deals during his last visit to Beijing in September 2015.[15]

Afghanistan in the middle

Problematically for Afghanistan, however, it is not entirely clear how the country fits into these ‘Belt and Road’ visions for the Eurasian continent. Whilst the central planning authority of China, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), has not actually published a formal route for the ‘Belt and Road’ vision, numerous maps have been printed in the Chinese state press. One thing that is common to most of these is that when they show routes emanating from China going westwards into Central or South Asia, they tend to go around Afghanistan. The SREB and the CPEC are clear corridors of investment and potential trade that China is pushing but they do not need in their current incarnations to necessarily touch down in Afghanistan. In fact, they can for the most part quite comfortably go around the country, following the natural regional geography that favours such routes. From Kashgar through Tashkurgan, down the Khunjerab Pass through Pakistan to Gwadar or Karachi ports, or through the Irkeshtam or Torugart crossings into Kyrgyzstan or the Dzungarian Pass or Khorogos into Kazakhstan and onto Central Asia. Sitting at the end of the Wakhan Corridor, the China-Afghan border is small and surrounded by mountainous areas meaning that the direct link to the ‘Belt and Road’s is not going to be the same as the one in neighbouring Central and South Asia, unless a very specific corridor is developed.

And while this navigation around Afghanistan has not been acknowledged by Beijing – and in some ways is contradicted by the repeated references to the ‘Belt and Road’ during VP Li and other formal China-Afghan interactions – it is visible in the on-the-ground investments and projects undertaken by China in Afghanistan. Currently, China’s projects in Afghanistan are dominated by a series of aid contributions, like the $79 million that VP Li offered during his visit to Afghanistan to build housing in the capital,[16] some similar contributions to Afghanistan’s security through equipment and training (most recently in declarations during a visit by Fang Fenghui, PLA Chief of General Staff [17]), and a few state owned enterprise (SOE) projects. Some smaller Chinese enterprises have sought to invest in the country, but find themselves hamstrung by a hesitant government and a difficult operating environment.

At the SOE level, the two main extractive projects being undertaken by Chinese firms are the exploitation of copper mines at Mes Aynak in Logar province and CNPC’s oil extraction project in Amu Darya.[18] The Mes Aynak project in particular is one that has become something of an epigram for Chinese efforts in Afghanistan – with a pair of Chinese companies, MCC and Jiangxi Copper, outbidding a number of others to win the contract in 2007, only for them to then sit on the project since then. Underestimating the security costs and overpromising in terms of additional infrastructure that they would produce around the site, the mine has been left unexploited and the company is now attempting to renegotiate the contract as well as backing away from some of the earlier promised infrastructure (that made the bid so attractive to Kabul in the first place[19]). The company head has met with senior Afghan officials and have been reported as complaining to others that it was pressured into undertaking the project by the central authorities in Beijing. Whilst it is undoubtedly true that the security situation around the area of the mine has gotten worse over time (and global copper prices have dropped), the project has nevertheless become hugely symbolic to many Afghans showing the high levels of Chinese promises that have gone unfulfilled.

The project in Amu Darya has faced fewer difficulties and actually been able to extract some hydrocarbons from the ground, though by choosing a partner in the Watan Group, CNPC failed to engage with the proper local actors when they invested in the project. This led to some difficulties with other power brokers in the north, and led to the project’s delay. Beyond this, CNPC had promised to build a refinery in the north of the country, but this has not been undertaken yet and it remains unclear to what degree the project has actually managed to move forwards.[20] Always seen as a relatively small investment for the company, the belief was that CNPC’s greater interest was to establish a foothold in the north of Afghanistan so that when future fields in the region were to open up they would be in an optimal position to win the contracts. CNPC is particularly bullish about these prospects given its substantial investment across the border in Turkmenistan in what is the same hydrocarbon basin.

Looking beyond extractives, Chinese firms have also bid and won contracts to undertake infrastructure development in Afghanistan. In particular, Xinjiang Beixin won a contract from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to undertake the rehabilitation of a part of the road from Kabul to Jalalabad. However, the company has encountered difficulties in doing the project and it is unclear at what stage they are at the moment. The company is one that is active across the region implementing ADB projects in difficult environments, but it is unclear they still have an appetite to complete the Afghan project.[21] Atop all of these difficulties at a state owned enterprise level, smaller traders and businessmen spoken to speak of lower level issues, from problems around visa issuances to Afghan businessmen wanting to travel to China, to standards imposed by China to the exports of Afghan goods, to a reticence by China to actively support its traders to go to Afghanistan. And none of this is to speak of the security situation in the country which intimidates even the most fearless Chinese traders.

China the Peacebroker

Amid much fanfare in July 2014 China created its first Special Envoy for Afghanistan appointing a prominent and popular former Ambassador to Kabul, Sun Yuxi, to the role.[22] Coming at a time when the west was clarifying its decreasing role in Afghanistan, the appointment was one that reflected an effort by Beijing to show its commitment to the country. As time progressed, it also became clear that one of Ambassador Sun’s key roles was to help facilitate a ramping up of China’s efforts to act as a peacebroker between the Taliban and the government in Kabul. With the election of President Ghani in October 2014, he immediately signalled the importance he placed on the relationship with China by making Beijing the first capital he visited in his new role on a formal trip.[23] During this visit he not only attended the ‘Heart of Asia’ process meeting hosted by China, but also laid the groundwork for the formal peace talk negotiations with the Taliban at a behind closed doors meeting hosted by the Chinese government.

By early the next year stories emerged that China was playing a more forward role in brokering peace talks and in conversations in Beijing, and officials spoken to at the time highlighted that they were willing to act as hosts for any future peace talks.[24] By May 2015, senior Taliban figures were meeting with representatives from the Afghan High Peace Council in Urumqi.[25] In July another round of talks was held in Pakistan at which Chinese participants also played a role.[26] A further mulitlaterla track two engagement took place in Norway in which both Afghan representatives and Taliban counterparts attended.[27]

In sum, it appeared as though the Chinese supported peace track was one that was bearing fruit, until abruptly in late July 2015 the news was leaked that the Taliban leader Mullah Omar had in fact died back in 2013. This action immediately scuttled the discussions as it set the Taliban in disarray as an internal leadership struggle surfaced as to who would be Mullah Omar’s successor. It also complicated China’s contribution as it abruptly meant it was not clear who exactly the relevant partner to engage with on the Taliban side would be and so therefore where China could play a role. 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 official side to negotiate in full confidence.

Chinese experts and officials spoken to at this time almost immediately fell back into pointing that it was up to the United States to step up and play a stronger role in supporting the Afghan government and national security forces.[28] They further pointed to the fact that until there was greater clarity on the Taliban side about who was being negotiated with, it was unlikely that talks were going to bear immediate fruit. This did not stop Chinese efforts, and while Special Envoy Sun Yuxi stepped down from his role, he was replaced by the recent former Ambassador to Kabul Deng Xijun who seemed set to continue to play a key supporting role in any peace talks.

Keeping Options Open

Beijing has managed to continue to play this role by maintaining contacts with all sides. Its longstanding contact with the Taliban are believed to continue behind closed doors, while Vice President Li’s public calls in Kabul on President Ghani, Chief Executive Office Abdullah and former President Karzai show that they are eager to maintain links to all of the key official players in Afghanistan’s future. This is further reflected on the international stage where China has not only engaged with Afghanistan on a bilateral basis, but also through multilateral vehicles like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (where China has played a championing role for the country. It was during Chinese Presidency’s that the Afghan contact group was created and later the country was made into an Observer), as well as through multilateral formats like an India-China bilateral where Afghanistan is discussed, an Afghan-Pakistan-China trilateral, and a willingness to engage with the United States to undertake joint training projects in Afghanistan. Most recently, during PLA Chief Fang Fenghui’s visit to Kabul, he spoke about the creation of a sub-regional security discussion between China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan to create a regional alliance against terrorism.[29]

China is choosing not to take sides and using this as a way to guarantee its interests. While it is not clear that Afghanistan needs to fit into the ‘Belt and Road’ vision, it is also equally clear that an unstable Afghanistan has the potential to be a major spoiler for the routes through Central Asia and Pakistan. Instability in Afghanistan is likely to have an impact and cause trouble across the border in both directions and this will have a clearer impact on China’s larger project, and ultimately on Xinjiang. Consequently, China has an interest in stability in Afghanistan and this helps explain its substantial and multifaceted approach towards the country.

In many ways, this is reflective of China’s broader approach in the ‘Belt and Road’ vision where as a result of the increased external economic push Beijing is finding itself playing an ever more influential role in its immediate neighbourhood. Yet Beijing policymakers have not yet apparently entirely understood what exactly what this means for their larger political role in these countries. Nowhere is this more than in Afghanistan where they are finding themselves drawn into an ever more significant role, but are instead electing to hedge. President Ghani’s open lobbying of Beijing from early in his administration shows Kabul’s eagerness to engage with Beijing, something that is being done with Western agreement and support (the US has undertaken joint training programmes with China in Afghanistan, and European capitals are working to engage with China to encourage greater efforts in Afghanistan). But while Beijing is continuing to play a positive role, it is not demonstrating a willingness to step into a strong leadership role, choosing to instead play a significant support role.

This is ultimately unfortunate for Kabul as China has many significant cards to play in Afghanistan – be this in terms of their strong relationship with Islamabad, the massive investment they could pour in and the industry they could mobilize to rebuild the country, or the potential opening up of Iran that they could take advantage of across Afghanistan. Whilst security remains something that China is not able to provide in adequate measure outside its borders, across Central Asia, China’s security presence and efforts are growing highlighting that this is an evolving reaction from Beijing. China’s recently passed counter-terrorism legislation offers a formal framework for Chinese security forces to go deploy outside the country to counter terrorist threats. But Beijing remains a hesitant player in Afghanistan, willing to play a significant role, but continuing to make sure that it has kept its cards close to its chest and left itself a deniable exit in the case of things going in a negative direction. China continues to be Kabul’s closest hesitant friend.

[1] ‘Li Yuanchao Attends Reception for the 60th Anniversary of China-Afghanistan Diplomatic Ties,’ Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, November 4, 2015 http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1311792.shtml ; ‘China promises to continue to playing constructive role in Afghan peace process,’ Xinhua, November 4, 2015 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2015-11/04/c_134780948.htm

[2] ‘Top Chinese security official makes surprise visit to Afghanistan,’ Xinhua, September 23, 2012 http://europe.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2012-09/23/content_15776032.htm ; Rob Taylor, ‘Top Official visits Afghanistan, signs security deal,’ Reuters, September 23, 2012 http://in.reuters.com/article/afghanistan-china-idINDEE88M03620120923

[3] ‘Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met with Li Yuanchao,’ Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, November 4, 2015 http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1311790.shtml

[4] ‘Chinese President delivers speech at Nazarbayev University,’ Xinhua, September 8, 2013 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/photo/2013-09/08/c_132701546.htm

[5] ‘Speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Indonesian Parliament,’ October 3, 2015 http://www.asean-china-center.org/english/2013-10/03/c_133062675.htm

[6] ‘Chinese premier raises five-point proposal for boosting cooperation with Pakistan,’ Xinhua, May 23, 2013 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2013-05/23/c_124750134.htm ; ‘Pakistan, China sign eight agreements, MoUs,’ The News, July 6, 2013 http://www.awaztoday.tv/News_Pakistan-China-sign-eight-agreements-MoUs_1_34980_Political-News.aspx

[7] For a good book summarizing the history of China’s relations with Central Asia, please see Marlene Laruelle and Sebastien Peyrouse The Chinese Question in Central Asia: Domestic Order, Social Change, and the Chinese Factor, (UK: Hurst, October 2012; US: Oxford University Press, December 2012)

[8] Edward Wong, ‘Riots in Western China amid ethnic tension,’ New York Times, July 5, 2009 http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/06/world/asia/06china.html?_r=0

[9] It is worth also pointing out that a great deal more Uighurs leave the country in unhappiness at their situation there. Seeking a better life abroad, they are economic migrants or people fleeing persecution who are simply trying to build new lives outside China. The majority appear to gravitate towards Turkey, with substantial diaspora communities also found in parts of Europe, as well as across Central Asia. The point being not every Uighur who leaves China unhappy becomes involved in terrorist activity. According to one prominent Chinese expert spoken to in early 2016, about 9 out of 10 Uighurs who left were seeking better lives. Author interview Beijing, January 2016.

[10] Most clearly laid out in 2010 at a work conference held in the wake of the riots. ‘Chinese central authorities outline roadmap for Xinjiang’s leapfrog development, lasting stability,’ Xinhua, May 20, 2010 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/china/2010-05/20/c_13306534.htm

[11] ‘China eyes ‘Belt and Road’ to reverse trade slowdown,’ Global Times, May 28, 2015 http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/924034.shtml

[12] For the most recent maps showing the ambition and routes of the CPEC, please see the Pakistani Ministry of Planning, Development and Reforms dedicated webpage: http://www.pc.gov.pk/?page_id=2731

[13] ‘Silk Road Fund’s debut investment in $1.65b Pakistan power project,’ People’s Bank of China press release, April 21, 2015 http://www.pbc.gov.cn/english/130721/2811777/index.html

[14] ‘China’s Xi Jinping agrees $46bn superhighway to Pakistan,’ BBC News, April 20, 2015 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-32377088

[15] ‘Kazakh leader says $23 billion in economic deals agreed with China,’ Reuters, September 1, 2015 http://www.reuters.com/article/kazakhstan-china-idUSL5N1172H620150901

[16] Michael Martina and Mirwais Harooni, ‘China’s vice president pledges support in rare Afghanistan visit,’ November 3, 2015 http://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-china-idUSKCN0SS1MN20151103

[17] ‘Afghanistan to give China military equipment wish list,’ Khaaama News, March 4, 2016 https://www.khaama.com/afghanistan-to-give-china-military-equipment-wish-list-0241

[18] Raffaello Pantucci, ‘Guest Post: China in Afghanistan: A Tale of Two Mines,’ Financial Times Beyond BRICS, December 4, 2012 http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2012/12/04/guest-post-china-in-afghanistan-a-tale-of-two-mines/

[19] There have also been rumours of corruption around the deal that have not been publicly verified.

[20] The most recently publicly accessible report from July 2014 indicated the project was suspended. Jessica Donati, ‘From New York heroin dealer to Afghanistan’s biggest oil man,’ Reuters, July 9, 2014 http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2014-07-09/news/sns-rt-us-afghanistan-energy-20140707_1_cnpc-security-firm-afghanistan

[21] Michael Martina and Mirwais Harooni, ‘Slow road from Kabul highlights China’s challenge in Afghanistan,’ Reuters, November 22, 2015 http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-afghanistan-china-road-idUKKBN0TB0X720151122

[22] ‘Ministry appoints special envoy for Afghan affairs,’ Xinhua, July 18, 2014 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-07/18/c_133494661.htm

[23] ‘Afghanistan’s new president starts landmark China visit,’ BBC News, October 28, 2014 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-29803768

[24] Nathan Hodge, Habib Khan Totakhil & Josh Chin, ‘China Creates New Avenue for Afghan Peace Talks,’ Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2015 http://www.wsj.com/articles/china-creates-new-avenue-for-afghan-peace-talks-1420564492 ; further confirmed by author interviews in Beijing. ‘China favours role in Afghan peace talks, appreciates Pakistan’s efforts,’ Dawn, August 15, 2015 http://www.dawn.com/news/1200627

[25] Edward Wong and Mujib Mashal, ‘Taliban and Afghan Peace Officials Have Secret Talks in China,’ New York Times, May 25, 2015 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/26/world/asia/taliban-and-afghan-peace-officials-have-secret-talks-in-china.html

[26] Jon Boone, ‘Afghanistan and Taliban peace talks end with promise to meet again,’ Guardian, July 8, 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/08/afghanistan-and-taliban-peace-talks-end-with-promise-to-meet-again

[27] ‘Afghan, Taliban delegates attend Oslo talks on ending conflicts,’ Reuters, June 16, 2015 http://www.reuters.com/article/us-norway-afghanistan-idUSKBN0OW17B20150616

[28] Author interview in Beijing, July 2015

[29] Ibrahim Nasar and Jafar Haand, ‘Afghanistan welcomes Chinese anti-terror proposal,’ Voice of America, March 1, 2016 http://www.voanews.com/content/afghanistan-welcomes-chinese-anti-terror-proposal/3215160.html

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More belated catch up posting. It has been a very busy few weeks between travel and the horrible events in Brussels. The below piece is one that Foreign Policy commissioned to look specifically at ISIS use of tactics, pointing out that while the Brussels and Paris attacks are part of a specific campaign and cell, the problem of Lone Actor terrorism as a threat from the group persists.

The Age of the Lone Wolf is Far From Over

Even as the Islamic State evolves into a more sophisticated network, it will still cultivate unhinged, solo actors to further its fanatical ends.

By Raffaello Pantucci | March 30, 2016

Policemen work into a marked out perimeter in Colline street in Verviers, eastern Belgium, on January 15, 2015, after two men were reportedly killed during an anti-terrorist operation. Belgian police launched a "jihadist-related" anti-terrorism operation in the eastern town of Verviers on January 15. According to the Belgian prosecutor's office, the group which police targeted was about to commit a terror attack. AFP PHOTO / BELGA PHOTO / BRUNO FAHY ** BELGIUM OUT ** (Photo credit should read BRUNO FAHY/AFP/Getty Images)

AFP Photo / Bruno Fahy/Getty Images

Terrorist groups thrive on attention. Keen to bring the world screeching to a horrified halt, they launch brutal attacks against civilian targets with whatever tools they have at their disposal. Until last November’s attack in Paris, it seemed the biggest menace the Islamic State posed to the West was the threat of so-called lone-actor terrorists, striking without any clear direction from the group’s leaders. Using a relatively simple form of messaging to strike wherever they could, the group bombarded its followers through social media with calls to launch random attacks against the societies in which they lived. That nihilistic messaging continues. But now, in the wake of Brussels and Paris, the Islamic State has also demonstrated an alarming capacity to launch large-scale, coordinated plots far from its territory. The threat the Islamic State poses is multifaceted and multidirectional.

In the eight days since the Brussels attack left 35 dead, counterterrorism and national security experts have decried the end of the Islamic State-inspired lone-wolf attack. The fanatical band, they say, has crossed a new threshold, evolving into something more complex: an organized terror network capable of coordinated, multifaceted operations. And though this is true, the experts must take care not to dismiss what has long constituted the Islamic State’s essential fiber. Because regardless of its evolution, the Islamic State will remain committed to lone actor plots.

Radicalizing minds from afar has, after all, always been core to its identity. Calling attackers — the young, the socially, politically, and economically disenfranchised, the disturbed — to action shows that the Islamic State’s ideology has global reach, inspiring adherents who were unconnected to the group but desperate to launch terrorist plots in its name. Cultivating lone actors also gives the Islamic State the perfect means to distract the West, which finds itself devoting resources to identifying these isolated plotters. It is also a way to ensure that Washington, London, and Paris remain off balance, uncertain about how aggressive a response to mount against the group’s base in the Levant. Forgetting the centrality of lone wolfism to the Islamic State’s very foundations would be a dangerous mistake.

Of course, the Islamic State is not the first violent Islamist terrorist group to call for lone-actor attacks. Lone actors committed to jihadist terror, including Andrew Ibrahim and Roshonara Choudhry, first emerged in the 2000s. In 2010, Inspire, the magazine published by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, offered aspiring terrorists a specific outline for carrying out such attacks. Asserting a direct connection between any plots and the magazine, however, remained difficult, because there was never any clear link between a specific actor and Inspire. In fact, the most prominent cases came before the publication’s emergence. Rather than instigating the tactic, the group appeared to be riding a wave.

The Islamic State changed this dynamic. On Sept. 22, 2014, Abu Mohammed al Adnani, identified by the United States as the head of the Islamic State’s external operations, issued a fatwa calling on the group’s followers in the West to “kill a disbelieving American or European — especially the spiteful and filthy French — or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war… [to] kill him in any manner or way however it may be.” This chilling call became something of a marker in the group’s history. Around the world, the Islamic State’s followers read and absorbed it. In some cases, they decided to act.

Adnani’s call certainly appears to have spurred on a network of cells in Britain that had already been discussing potential terror plots in the West without any clear direction from the group’s leaders. Nadir Syed, a British extremist who was prevented from traveling to Syria, shared the fatwa with his fellow plotters as they discussed the idea of decapitating a soldier. Tarik Hassane, a medical student, and Suhaib Majeed, a physics student, shared it over the secure communications app Telegram as they talked about a plot to shoot a random security officer on the streets of London. Authorities disrupted both plots soon after the fatwa’s release.

Only days after Adnani issued his fatwa, Numan Haider walked into his local police station in Melbourne, Australia, and attacked police with a knife; he was gunned down and killed. Although authorities never publicly established a direct relationship between the fatwa and Haider’s attack, his wider circle — including prominent Islamic State fighters Neil Prakash and Sevdet Becim, who are on trial for planning to attack Australian soldiers during a national day parade — had clear ties to the group.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the Islamic State’s calls for lone-actor attacks is how deeply they have resonated. There are the dedicated warriors, who see such attacks as their chief ambition — the San Bernadino killers may be an example of this. In other cases, lone wolf attacks have become the default option for those who are unable to join the group in Syria or Iraq. Authorities had, in fact, taken away Haider’s passport not long before his attack, in response to concerns that he was planning to head to the Levant. This is not unique: Canada has blocked several aspiring fighters from heading to the Middle East, who then chose instead to launch attacks at home. Their actual links to the Islamic State remain unclear, but both took out their rage on the communities around them.

The Islamic State has, of course, also exploited the mentally unwell, preying on their vulnerabilities to turn them into lone-wolf actors. In late 2014, Sydney came to a terrified standstill when Man Haroun Monis, a disturbed Shia convert with a record of run-ins with authorities, held up a coffee bar in the middle of the city. He claimed to be carrying out an attack on behalf of the Islamic State. But he was so underprepared that he brought the wrong flag with him and asked authorities to bring him the flag of the Islamic State. Police eventually stormed the café once he began executing the hostages. The Islamic State later praised Monis in its publications, though no evidence emerged of any clear direction or instigation from the group. Other disturbed individuals like Yassine Salhi, who decapitated his boss and then tried to drive a truck into a chemical factory in France, or Muhaydin Mire, who tried to kill a random Underground passenger in London on Dec. 5 of last year, seem to have been disturbed individuals who simply latched onto the ideology or concept of launching a solo attack.

For the Islamic State, the overarching strategy is to both draw mentally unstable people while continuing to cultivate balanced individuals capable of pulling off more audacious attacks. For a group that is trying to make as much noise as possible, any vector through which this can be delivered is positive. It will further inspire others, leading to new plots that will keep security agencies and politicians busy and distracted.

Even more worrisome than these lone-actor plots are attempts by the Islamic State to actually tap into and direct this negative energy. For the most part, lone actors tend to be fairly low impact — a lone individual armed with little more than a basic bomb or knife can’t kill too many, after all. But the Islamic State wants to capitalize on the fact that, thanks to its social media prowess, it has planted the seeds of chaos.

The most prominent example of this is the Birmingham-born hacker Junaid Hussain, whose discussions with aspirant fighters in the West included instructions on how to launch lone-actor plots. Again, it is not entirely clear the degree to which he succeeded. There is some evidence that Hussain, from his base in Syria, was in contact with both the Garland, Texas, shooters and with the terror cell on trial in Britain for allegedly planning an attack on a local military base. But the specificity of his instructions had security services sufficiently worried that they decided to eliminate him through a drone strike. It is not clear if others have taken up Hussain’s mantle, but there is little evidence that the Islamic State has stopped encouraging lone-actor terrorist plotting.

Lone-actor terrorism is not new. Traditionally, it has been the domain of far-right activists and patriot movements the world over. A recent EU consortium research project led by the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI), a British think tank, found that right-wing lone-actor terrorists are actually almost as active in Europe as their Islamist counterparts. Of the 120 cases over the past 15 years analyzed by RUSI, about an equal third were Islamist and far-right in origin. In other words, European security agencies were disrupting as many lone-actor Islamists as they were far-right terrorists, a detail often missed in coverage of Islamist terrorist plots.

In this new reality, the Islamic State will continue to encourage lone-actor plots while investing in large-scale, spectacular operations. From being a one-track group focused on building a state in the sands of the Levant, it is now an active global terrorist group aggressively pushing forward on two clear threat tracks. It is a group that cannot be ignored or disregarded, both as a traditional terrorist organization, but also one that is able to instigate and inspire random assassins advancing its cause around the world. Fomenting the sort of fanaticism that underlies its very existence is, in the end, the only way it will continue to thrive.

It has been a busy week after the sad events in Brussels. A lot of links and posting to catch up on, but am on the road so not so easy to do. For the time being, here is my preliminary thoughts on the attack for the Financial Times. More to come soon.

Brussels Attacks Show That Terrorists Can Strike at Will

The surveillance problems can no longer be described as Belgian alone, writes Raffaello Pantucci

Brussels cops post attack

It is still unclear exactly what Brussels has faced just prior to Easter. The random nature of the date and targeting suggests a plot that may have been brought forward, while the scale of the attack suggests it must have been in the pipeline for some time. The Isis network, also linked to November’s Paris attacks, has claimed responsibility. The bigger issue, however, is not who is to blame for this atrocity but rather how much Europe will warp to address an acute terrorist threat, with cells apparently able to launch large-scale atrocities on an increasingly regular basis.

The first questions raised will focus on Belgium’s response to the problem on their home ground. Authorities may have scored a victory by capturing Salah Abdeslam, one of the Isis-aligned plotters linked to the Paris attacks, but they missed a network planning an atrocity with heavy weapons and explosives. This suggests gaps in the understanding and surveillance of the terrorist threat. Given that Brussels sits at the political heart of Europe, this points to a problem that can no longer be described as Belgian alone.

While for some the terrorist atrocities in Paris was a wake-up call, for security forces it had been expected for a while. Terrorist groups, from al-Qaeda to Isis, have long sought to launch a terrorist attack in the style of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and a string of plots have been disrupted or launched from a francophone network emanating from Brussels. The Paris attack was the realisation of these fears from a depressingly predictable place.

The networks of radicalised individuals with links to Isis have grown as the group continues to hold sway on the battlefield and send back peopleand plots to their original bases in western Europe. Given the tempo of attacks and the ease with which the networks appear able to acquire weapons and move freely around the continent, Europeans will ask themselves how much longer they will face this threat. Is this the start of a regular diet of such atrocities or the breaking of a wave? Given that terrorist groups have been able to launch three big, ambitious plots in Europe in the past year and half, the sense will be that we are in the thick of this threat with no end in sight.

The choice of targets is predictable. Terrorist groups have long fetishised aviation as a target, both as a way of visibly lashing out against the globalised political establishment but also for the high impact. Mass transport systems by their very nature have to be open to the public, which makes them tempting targets as they offer an easy opportunity to strike at the heart of a society. Questions will be asked about ramping up security levels but this will bring costs and further inconvenience to the daily lives of citizens. Think of the ramifications of a plot in 2006 where a cell planned to use liquid bombs on a series of transatlantic flights. Liquids are still banned on aircraft today.

The Brussels attacks will also play badly against the backdrop of Europe’s migration crisis. It will not be entirely surprising if elements close to the recent attacks found ways of slipping into the country alongside refugees from the Middle East. An already tense situation in Europe will grow more fraught, and this will have inevitable political ramifications too.

This is the biggest problem with which security planners will have to contend. It is often said that the best response to a terrorist threat is to keep calm and carry on. This is sage advice but in the face of a network that appears able to strike with impunity, and a political environment growing more toxic by the day, it will be ever harder for security forces and politicians to ensure that Europe maintains its values in the face of the terrorist threat from within.

The writer is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute and author of ‘We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists’

A brief reaction piece for Newsweek after Salah Abdeslam’s arrest in Molenbeek on Friday. The broader story of ISIS in Europe is going to continue to be an issue and undoubtedly more on this to sadly come.

Paris Attacks: Arrest of Salah Abdeslam Does Not Reduce ISIS Threat

By On 3/19/16 at 1:56 PM

cops in Molenbeek

The arrest of Salah Abdeslam is undoubtedly a success for Belgian and French security authorities. His live capture will provide intelligence agencies with a wealth of information, while his eventual trial will go some way to providing the victims of the Paris attacks with justice and closure. However, his arrest in a district of Brussels only a few hours from the scene of the attack almost four months later will undoubtedly raise questions about how one of Europe’s most wanted men could evade capture for so long. For Belgian and French authorities, success has to be tempered by the reality of the threat they are facing that continues to clearly have deep roots into their communities pointing to a long war in which Abdeslam’s arrest is a battlefield victory.

Since the Paris attacks last November, Belgian and French authorities have been in an aggressive arrest and disrupt mode. Hundreds of arrests and raids have been carried out as authorities in both countries sought to roll up the networks around the Paris attackers as well as ISIS sympathetic communities. The numbers of arrests, weapons found and individuals detained point to a negative picture in the two countries. This was brought vividly to life last month in a BBC interview with German convert and former ISIS video star Harry Sarfo from prison. He reported how his ISIS interlocutors told him: “they have people in France and Belgium. They’ve said that France is easy for them, cause they have enough people who live in France undercover with clean records.”

The interview highlights the size of the networks that French and Belgian authorities are facing. Within this context, it is therefore somewhat unsurprising that Abdeslam would choose to go to ground in this environment. One that he knows well, and one that clearly has a web of supportive figures and locations that he can call on to help him evade one of Europe’s largest manhunts. Molenbeek in particular is a longstanding location of concern, with terrorist plots emanating from the district from before September 11, 2001.

There are further questions about why Abdeslam did not die in the Paris attacks. This likely failure may point to why he did not immediately flee to the Levant. Aside from the difficulties in getting across the continent with the intense intelligence attention in the wake of the Paris attacks, it is also possible that he was not meant to survive and his possible joining of ISIS in Syria would have raised questions with the group. Was he a spy sent by Western intelligence? Had he been meant to survive, the group would likely have had a plan for his arrival to trumpet his evasion from authorities as another example of the group’s strength and power.

Instead, he has now been captured by Belgian authorities in an investigation that has highlighted the depth of the problem that is faced in the country. The raids in Forest outside Brussels in the week prior to Adbeslam’s arrest uncovered a further cell of individuals armed with an AK-47 and ample ammunition who went down fighting with authorities rather than timidly handing themselves in. Alongside these raids, the discovery of a cell of four in Paris allegedly plotting an attack earlier in the week points to how active continental terrorist networks are.

In the face of this threat, France and Belgium (and other European partners) have mobilized a massive response. In the wake of the Paris attacks, a number of high-profile scares in Germany showed the level of concern of a possible attack there, while British authorities continue to warn of the possibility of an attack at home. Most recently, Mark Rowley, the British Metropolitan Police’s assistant commissioner and head of counter-terrorism command in London, talking about the threat from ISIS, stated: “you see a terrorist group which has big ambitions for enormous and spectacular attacks, not just the types that we’ve seen foiled to date.”

It is unlikely that the arrest of Abdeslam will generate a reactive plot. The issues around whether he was meant to survive the plot will mean it is uncertain the group would want to champion him in such a fashion. The fact he was arrested hiding with a network that included Mohammed Belkaid, a 35 year-old Algerian whose details had appeared as an aspirant suicide bomber in the ISIS files that were leaked a few weeks ago, nevertheless suggests that the networks in Belgium had not completely disassociated themselves from him. But it would be out of sorts for them to launch a reactive attack in such a fashion.

This does not, however, diminish the threat from the group in Europe. The live arrest and subsequent interrogation of Abdeslam is likely to generate numerous leads for authorities that will concern others in Europe’s ISIS networks. This may lead to an acceleration of plots currently being formulated to get under way prior to their possible disruption. It may also lead to an exodus of people who fear detention and decide to head back to the relative safety of ISIS territory in the Levant.

Given the intense attention that the network around the Paris attackers had faced in the past few months, however, it is not necessarily likely that any of this is particularly new. And while there is undoubtedly some concern about who it is that Abdeslam might now compromise, the reality is that ISIS had already been seeking other ways to launch attacks in Europe. While European agencies will undoubtedly bask somewhat in the successful live detention of one of the Paris attackers, the reality is most are bracing themselves for the next possible attack.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists. Follow him @raffpantucci.