Posts Tagged ‘India’

Catching up on some old posting again, combination of being busy and some technical difficulties causing issues with updating. This is a piece for The Diplomat in the wake of the SCO Summit in Tashkent which passed with very little attention.

Is SCO Expansion a Good Thing?

Whilst the brotherhood of European Union countries has shrunk by one, the community of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) states grew by two. Whilst it is by no means confirmed that India and Pakistan are full members of the regional security organization, their membership is all but assured as long as they are able to ratify the relevant documents through their national processes. The more existential question is whether this membership is going to transform the SCO in the same way that British exit from the EU is likely to transform the EU. As with the EU referendum, no one really knows, but it seems equally likely that the end result will be negative.

SCO expansion has been a source of great trepidation for member states for some time. Previous efforts at expansion had stalled for various reasons. Iran was kept out both for practical reasons: it was under UN sanction in contravention to the rules. But realpolitik also played a role: the larger member states did not want to so openly join former President Ahmadinejad’s aggressive anti-Western alliance. Afghanistan was always kept at near arms length, reflecting some member states’ desires to bring the state in, whilst others preferred to maintain their relations at a bilateral level. And the question of India and Pakistan always seemed to be balanced by the two big powers (China and Russia) who each wanted one of the two in, whilst the Chinese generally grew concerned that an expanded group would lose coherence.

In the end, China appears to have lost this struggle, obliged to both accept its close ally Pakistan as well as expanding a regional organization whose utility it was already questioning. Whilst to outside observers, the SCO was the primary vehicle of regional engagement, in reality, Beijing was undertaking a consistent level of bilateral engagement on the sidelines of SCO meetings. Every SCO Summit was accompanied by bilateral engagements, and by all accounts, it was at these engagements that all serious business was done. Previous Chinese efforts to push the SCO in new directions stalled, including Beijing-led efforts to create an SCO Development Bank, an SCO free trade area, or other economic initiatives.

Most recently, China had shown the degree to which it was losing interest in the SCO as a vehicle for regional multilateral security engagement when PLA Chief of Staff Fang Fenghui raised the notion of a regional sub-grouping of China, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan as a vehicle for engagement on regional security questions. Whilst it is not clear that this proposal was a new regional concept as opposed to a potential relevant meeting grouping, its expression reflects a Chinese willingness to look beyond the SCO to resolve regional security questions and highlighting their skepticism toward the organization.

This is in many ways a shame. The SCO, for all its failings, is an organization that might offer some solutions for a fractured region. Central Asia is a part of the world that is beset with border disputes at a very senior level that impede the most basic cross-border trade. The SCO is one of the few organizations that guarantees relevant leaders are obliged to meet with their counterparts on a regular basis on neutral ground. The hope for some was that by bringing Pakistan and India into this format, it would similarly force them to engage in another forum on a regular basis.

In reality, however, SCO expansion is likely to produce little such impact. But it has potentially highlighted a reality in international affairs. Whilst people are keen to leave multilateral organizations in the first world, they appear keen to continue to join them in the developing world. Notwithstanding protestations of national strength and independence by SCO member states, the reality is that they are all 25 years young this year and keen members of an organization that they may not adore, but one in which they have had a resonant voice from the beginning. From an outsider perspective, some of the practices that are advanced through the SCO are questionable at best, but seen from inside they are comprehensible measures that address fundamental questions of national security. This clarity of purpose is what gives the organization its attractiveness, cutting through the nebulous normative concepts that drive European security projects.

But as the EU has learned to its detriment, expansion and new members do not always lead to a positive outcome. It can also lead to a context in which individual member states dictate agendas and steer narratives away from hoped for goals. And it is here that sentiment for expansion for the SCO lies: somewhere between timid optimism and catastrophic exuberant expansionism. The SCO was already having difficulty crafting an identity and practical ideology with six member states, let alone with eight. Going forwards it is likely to continue to drift onward, meandering through the seas of time with no clear port in sight.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

Catching up on some old posting, going to put out a few things at the same time. All looking at China in Eurasia, a topic that continues to be a major focus. Of course, all of my work on this is stored on the China in Central Asia site, and this particular piece is something that was undertaken with my excellent RUSI colleague Sarah Lain.
Proceedings of a workshop held in New Delhi in March 2016 to explore the challenges that China’s strategic Belt and Road vision to connect Central Asia hopes to address.

In March 2016, RUSI, in collaboration with the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) hosted a workshop in New Delhi to discuss the challenges of connectivity facing China’s strategic Belt and Road vision, which aims to connect Central Asia  and develop strategic economic corridors across the region.

The workshop covered the different economic corridor concepts initiated by China and India and their aim of enhanced connectivity in Central and South Asia, how such visions will be realised and how they could enhance the security and economic development of the region.

The report summarises these discussions and provides insights into co-operation between China and its regional partners.

Catching up on a lot of old posting, here is a report for my home institute RUSI that has been the culmination of a lot of work with Chinese and Indian researchers and RUSI colleagues (Emily and Edward) looking at the potential for Chinese and Indian cooperation in Afghanistan.

Communication, Co-operation and Challenges: A Roadmap for Sino-Indian Engagement in Afghanistan

by Shisheng Hu, Raffaello Pantucci, Ravi Sawhney and Emily Winterbotham

The politics of Afghanistan remain precarious. But if undertaken correctly, regional engagement by China and India can play a positive role in consolidating security and the economy

afghanistan-india-pakistan-map

Communication, Co-operation and Challenges: A Roadmap for Sino–Indian Engagement in Afghanistan  concludes a research project which brought together influential thinkers and experts from China, India, Pakistan, the UK and Afghanistan in a number of workshops in London, Beijing, New Delhi and Qatar, and outlines areas of common interest between China and India in Afghanistan. The project spanned several years, starting in 2012. While participants’ opinions and responses were therefore likely influenced by developments in Afghanistan at the time the workshops were held it is, however, still possible to draw out the key commonalities and divergences between each country’s participants to map out policy ideas for co-operation and ‘burden-sharing’ between India and China in Afghanistan.

Both China and India have unique and strong relationships with Afghanistan and, in addition to co-operative efforts, both countries can play a number of bilateral roles. This paper presents some ideas for thinkers and strategists in Kabul, Beijing and New Delhi on how to help Afghanistan move forward and achieve stability.

In honour of this week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Ufa, I have a new piece for a new outlet, the Indian think tank Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. It explores how India might (or might not) benefit from its joining the organization. Related, spoke to Bloomberg about Sino-American cooperation on Afghanistan and unrelated to Newsweek about the revelation that a couple of Indonesian pilots had gone to join ISIS.

India and SCO: the real benefit

India becoming a becoming a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation will be a significant moment in its engagement with Central Asia. However, there are not a lot of security or other benefits to be gained

post imageIndia’s path to membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) now seems certain. It is not clear that the Ufa Summit will conclude with the organization admitting both Pakistan and India, but the next step in membership will be taken with Delhi formally being admitted into the SCO structures next year.

But what will this new membership actually mean for India?

The short answer: not much.

An often misunderstood and overblown entity, the SCO was founded in 2001 and evolved from a grouping born out of the end of the Cold War to define China’s western borders. Over time, the grouping discovered a common set of interests in countering terrorism, agreeing broadly on what constitutes terrorist activity and then developed structures to try to counter it collectively.

In reality, the organization has done little in practical terms to counter terrorism, except for holding regular meetings, establishing the unfortunately-achronymed RATS (Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure) center in Tashkent – really just a repository of information of proscribed individuals – and organizing large-scale joint military exercises under the rubric of counter-terrorism. There has been discussion of a number of other entities being created (like an SCO Bank, most recently raised again by the Kyrgyz leadership), as well as an SCO University (a constellation of universities across the member states where students can earn joint degrees), and various other forms of cooperation.

Little has been practically done, however, with the most visible contribution of the SCO being that at least once a year the leaders of the Central Asian countries will have to sit down with each other. This is not, in itself, a bad thing given how toxic relations are between some of the regional leaders. But considering that it appears to be the grouping’s central achievement, there is a somewhat questionable return on investment in the effort.

There is some benefit to this for India. The regular leadership and other meetings around the SCO now means that both Indian and Pakistani officials at a senior level (from Prime Minister and head of state meetings to Health Ministers, Foreign Ministers and Interior Minister meetings) will now have to encounter each other at least once a year, away from the glare of the annual September UN General Assembly meeting. This is not negative as it will provide another neutral forum in which the two rival powers have an opportunity to interact. Participation in RATS may bring some new levels of intelligence sharing, as well as help the others develop counter-terrorism strategies based on India’s long experience of it.

Beyond this, India’s principal benefit from joining the SCO will be geopolitical. It will help bring India closer to China by supporting the only multilateral security entity outside the United Nations that China has both created, is a part of and refuses India entry into. It will also help clarify India’s growing interest in Central Asia – something already highlighted in President Modi’s visit to the five countries on the fringes of his visit to Russia.

This may be the longer-term gain for India. The sometime fractious China-India relationship has been on a broadly positive trajectory for a while, notwithstanding the periodic border spats, thanks to a concerted charm offensive by the Xi Jinping administration. China and India are able to hold constructive conversations on a wide range of issues, from AIIB membership to joint counter-terrorism exercises. The relationship is moving in a positive, though still slightly tentative, direction. Perhaps the principal exchange emerging from India’s accession to the SCO, will be a new push by China to be admitted into SAARC.

The relationship with Central Asia, however, is one of India’s untapped opportunities. Indian soft power already has considerable influence in Central Asia, far more than China. Bollywood movies are much enjoyed, compared with Chinese entertainment, for instance. But it is unclear whether India has really found ways to profit beyond that. In Tajikistan, Indian doctors and military support play an interesting bilateral role, but Indian companies have not participated in the way they should have in the region.

The main problem for India is the physical impediment of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This reality complicates relations, but India has sought to overcome it by developing the Chahabar Port in Iran – an alternative route for Indian products from Central Asia.

The bigger issue is political attention. The Central Asian powers are sandwiched between China and Russia and find themselves increasingly drawn into China’s economic thrall, in the face of a declining Russia to which they are still bound by history and physical and linguistic infrastructure. They constantly seek new partners and India offers an alternative they can appreciate and work with.

India can surely gain from access to Central Asia’s minerals and energy, as also market access to Russia and ultimately Europe. Central Asia is still deeply underdeveloped, offering an entree for Indian construction firms and others. This will require formal support, something that Chinese leaders have long recognized through their regular visits to the region. Indian leaders seem not to have recognized that yet.

SCO membership will go some way towards changing this, though it will still need a concerted effort by New Delhi if India is to capitalize effectively on the opportunity that Central Asia offers. Indian membership of the SCO will undoubtedly be trumpeted as a major change in regional geopolitics; it will only become A reality if India follows through with its offers to Central Asia.

Raffaello Pantucci is the Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute 

This feature was written exclusively for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations

Been travelling so quiet for a while, but a longer Occasional Paper I have been working on for a while as part of a bigger project finally lands with my institutional home RUSI, it offers some practical ideas for Chinese and Indian cooperation in Afghanistan. More on this topic to come. Related, I spoke to the BBC (and featured on the Today show) about Uighurs, Xinjiang and the incident in Kunming earlier in the year. On Syria/Iraq and jihad, I spoke to NBC about ISIS online and music strategy, with CNN about ISIS leader Omar al Shishani, with Belgian outlet Knack about foreign fighters, with the Sunday Mail about plotting coming back to the UK from Syria, with the Birmingham Mail about recruitment to Syria and links to previous plots in the UK, and with Voice of Russia and Daily Beast about the emergence of the Caliphate in Iraq/Syria.

A Roadmap for Sino-Indian Co-operation in Afghanistan

LI53C6AC3D9E1FD-155x219

As NATO and Western powers begin to take a backseat in Afghanistan’s future, one of the most pressing questions is what role regional powers, particularly China and India, can play in helping the country to become a prosperous and stable nation.

Download the paper here (PDF)

Numerous efforts are already underway through multilateral and bilateral forums, yet the key to regional co-operation in securing Afghanistan’s future lies through closer interaction between Beijing and New Delhi.

This paper – which draws on a research project spanning a number of workshops in Beijing, New Delhi and Qatar, and involving influential thinkers and experts from China, India, the UK and Afghanistan – maps out specific ideas that policy-makers in Beijing and New Delhi can explore as avenues for co-operation.

Post-2014 Afghanistan will remain a major regional concern for at least the short to medium term. The earlier that China and India can develop workable collaborative undertakings, the sooner they can forge a stable and prosperous neighbourhood.

The paper is co-authored with Dr Shisheng Hu, Director of South Asia and Oceania Studies at the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations and Lieutenant General (Rtd) Ravi Sawhney, Distinguished Fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation. Many thanks to RUSI colleague Edward Schwarck for his support in drafting this paper.

Still catching up on old posts, this is a piece that I think is actually quite important but unfortunately appears to have broadly gotten buried. It is an article for The National Interest in which we get prominent Chinese and Indian academics to agree on paper on working together on Afghanistan’s economic future. As ever more on this subject to come, and please be sure to check out the site that I co-edit looking at China in Central Asia.

Afghanistan’s Economic Hope

The key to Afghanistan’s long-term stability is economic prosperity and development anchored in a secure and sound society. Sitting at the heart of the Eurasian continent, its prospects are important to the UK, China and India. Harnessing a common interest in Afghanistan’s economic future into an agenda could provide the foundations for a long-term solution to that nation’s intractable problems.

Fellow BRICS members China and India do not see eye to eye on a number of issues. Longstanding border disputes plague the relationship and both have different views of Islamabad as a partner. Nevertheless, both share concerns about Afghanistan’s future and recognize the importance of stability in the country for broader regional peace. As a NATO power exiting militarily alongside the United States, the United Kingdom is eager to continue its aid program and other work with regional partners to develop a stable structure that guarantees Afghanistan does not return to its former state as a haven for terrorism and extremism.

According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), Afghanistan may be sitting on mineral wealth worth around $1 trillion. Its potential lithium deposits have been described as having the potential to turn the country into the ‘Saudi Arabia of lithium’ while it is estimated to have some $421 billion’s worth of iron ore, and a further $273 billion in copper. In the north, Afghanistan sits atop the lower end of the hydrocarbon rich Amu Darya basin. But the ongoing security and governance problems mean that this untapped prosperity remains stuck underground.

The threat of attack and uncertainty about post-2014 have meant that companies have been hesitant to proceed with investments. Security issues aside, problems with a lack of local-government capacity and a difficult business environment mean that while it is easy to get into Afghanistan, setting up shop is only the first hurdle. The result is an Afghanistan that cries out for investment and is unable to profit from its natural wealth. It is here that China and India could play a greater role.

As regional powers with booming economies hungry for raw materials, they are exactly the consumer that would benefit from this mineral wealth. Currently, foreign direct investment into Afghanistan is dominated by Chinese and Indian state-owned enterprises (SOEs). There is MCC, Jiangxi Copper (owners of the Mes Aynak copper mine) and CNPC (responsible for an oil project in Amu Darya), all Chinese SOEs, and SAIL-AFISCO (majority owner of the Hajigak iron ore mine), an Indian firm.

As SOEs, the firms are better able to take on large projects: governments have greater ability to influence company direction and harness it for Afghanistan’s long-term benefit. The key is to get firms to invest in both the project and the country.

This can happen in a number of ways. First, there is the tool of providing jobs for locals around the sites. But projects should also aim to develop infrastructure around the site to connect the mines with the rest of the country and region, efforts that should be prioritized and coordinated in future bids. An additional benefit could be created if firms investing in the country were to assume responsibility for training local engineers and mining professionals. This training could take place at the sites or abroad. One possibility is for Chinese and Indian firms to offer scholarships to Afghan students to attend top universities in China or India to learn skills that could then be deployed on the mining sites. It is here also that the United Kingdom could play a role. British foreign policy has a long history of facilitating training programs, and some of the lessons learned may be helpful to China and India.

The capacity problem is one that exists not only at an operational level, but also at a governmental level. British, Chinese and Indian governments could offer training courses for technocrats in the Ministry of Mines and other civil servants to help them develop the skills needed to effectively manage their country’s national wealth. Investing in local capacity should not stop at training people. Given that the companies in question are state-owned entities, their home governments have greater influence to ensure standards in compliance and corporate practice.

Beijing and New Delhi should push their own SOEs to ensure that certain minimum standards of behavior are undertaken, focused on ensuring that their firms will not indulge in corrupt behavior in pursuit of contracts. A common standard of practice should be established to ensure that deals cut in Afghanistan are clean, and all sides should agree to not undercut each other. Naturally, a pragmatic approach needs to be taken but establishing good practices early will save trouble in the long run. The United Kingdom already works with the Afghan government to support the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), and the lessons being applied here could provide the foundation for a strong anticorruption program in Afghanistan.

Finally, work should be done to develop a special mineral-protection corps. Men currently employed in the security forces will find themselves unemployed as the ANSF budget is reduced, and numbers are cut to create a more professional force. With few other opportunities on offer, they could simply hire themselves out to the highest bidder—whether they are mercenary, Taliban or warlord. Offering them jobs as a civilian security corps tasked with defending mining concessions could offer one useful alternative. A special constabulary has already been established tasked with defending the Mes Aynak project. Creating similar entities in other areas might have the dual effect of creating security on the sites, while providing a good employment opportunity for otherwise unemployed armed men.

This is an admittedly optimistic agenda. But as neighboring countries (and brother BRICS countries) with a vested interest in ensuring Afghanistan’s future, Beijing and New Delhi must find ways to cooperate more effectively. As a key NATO member about to withdraw after a decade of conflict, Britain is eager to create a regional consensus that guarantees a positive legacy in the heart of Eurasia. All three need to find ways of working cooperatively with other regional actors like Pakistan, the Central Asian states and Russia on issues of access and evacuation of mineral resources. Focusing on Afghanistan’s economic future and encouraging local development is key to ensuring a peaceful transition post-2014. Afghanistan’s past has been dominated by imperial exploitation—the future need not be the same.

Brigadier (retd) Vinod Anand is based at the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF). Professor Hu Shisheng is affiliated with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR). Raffaello Pantucci is a scholar at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

A longer article in the latest HSToday, that predates the current chaos regarding a certain person who was killed in Pakistan. Looks at why terrorists remain fixated with aviation. The whole article can be found below, but those who want to read it in the magazine can find it here or at your local newsagents (if you are in the US).

Airport Security: Aiming At Aviation

Why terrorists continue to focus on planes as their number one target.

By: Raffaello Pantucci

05/04/11
A suicide bomber in the reception hall at Moscow’s Domodevo International, a shooter randomly targeting US servicemen as they wait for a bus outside Frankfurt International airport, parcel bombs placed upon international freight carriers heading for the United States intercepted in Dubai and the UK’s East Midlands Airport—aviation and airports have never seemed to be a higher priority target for terrorist groups.
This is not in itself a new phenomenon, but given estimated costs and disruption for each plot veering into millions of dollars and the guaranteed media attention that they bring, it seems equally clear that this is a problem that is only likely to get larger over time.

A short history of explosive flight

Terrorists have long sought out airlines as priority targets. Sept. 11, 2001, stands out as a major recent watershed, but this was merely a tactical fusion of two separate strands in terrorist targeting that had gone on before.

For groups seeking quite specific tactical aims, the idea of kidnapping aircraft laden with passengers provided a group of hostages that could be bartered for money or fellow comrades sitting in jails, all the while advancing their political cause before a global audience. Throughout the 1960s-1990s, terrorist groups of many different stripes would target aircraft, from the Japanese Red Army who in 1970 hijacked an internal Japanese flight that they redirected to North Korea, to Kashmiri extremists who in December 1999 hijacked a Kathmandu, Nepal, to Delhi flight and ended up securing the release of three fellow comrades sitting in Indian jails. The international nature of air travel meant that groups were guaranteed global media attention that would often translate into successful media operations whether or not the specific tactical aims were achieved.

This global attention and disruption was also at the heart of targeting aircraft with bombs to bring them down mid-flight. On June 22, 1985, Sikh extremists placed suitcases full of explosives on Air India flights originating from Canada. One exploded over the Atlantic Ocean near Ireland while the other went off on the ground at Tokyo’s Narita airport, both bombs killing a total of 331 people. The campaign was part of a radical Sikh campaign to seek separation for an Indian state. Three years later, a bomb placed in a suitcase on Pan Am flight 103 from London Heathrow to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York brought down that aircraft over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 on board and a further 11 on the ground. The bombing was part of a Libyan sponsored campaign that also included the bombing in September 1989 of a flight from Brazzaville, Congo, to Paris, killing 170, and the hijacking in 1986 of another Pan Am flight on the ground in Karachi, Pakistan. All these attacks were part of the shadow war between Colonel Muammar Gadaffi’s Libya and the United States.

The Sept. 11 attacks, however, brought these two deadly strands together in a manner that had not yet been seen—turning a hijacked craft into a flying bomb.

Echoes of the plot could be found earlier. In December 1994, a cell of Algerian Islamists linked to the Armed Islamic Group (known by its French acronym GIA) hijacked a flight from Algiers to Paris and, according to a French intelligence asset, intended to crash it full of fuel into the Eiffel Tower. The plotters were taken out on the ground in Marseilles by French special forces, and as a result their final intentions will never be known.

Weeks after the raid in Marseilles, police in Manila, Philippines, reported to an apartment fire and caught Pakistani national Abdul Hakim Murad in an apartment full of terrorist material. Murad later confessed to being part of a conspiracy masterminded by Ramzi Youssef to bring down about a dozen flights en route from Asia to the United States with undetectable bombs left on board the flights. The plotters had already tested out one of their devices on a Manila to Tokyo flight, killing a Japanese businessman. Youssef, who a year earlier had masterminded the 1993 attempt to topple the World Trade Center towers, was the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and continued to plot with his uncle until he was captured in Islamabad, Pakistan, in February 1995. Upon capture he was found to have US flight plans in his possession.

These dots were never connected until after September 2001. Some security planners were reported by the 9/11 Commission to have considered scenarios along the lines of 9/11 prior to the event, but no one had considered the implications of what might be required to respond.

Post-Sept. 11, however, there has been a noticeable drop off in attempts to hijack aircraft. While passengers with personal agendas or mental disorders threaten sporadic aircraft, there has not been an organized hijacking since September 2001, something that is a testament to the effectiveness of the 9/11 plotters. Having seen what can happen, it is now unlikely that a flight full of passengers will sit docilely by while they are flown to certain death.

None of this has, however, reduced the attraction of airlines and aircraft as a target for Al Qaeda. Subsequent to his arrest in March 2003, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed revealed plans to attack Heathrow airport in London either using a hijacked craft or a mortar. Three months after his successful 9/11 strike, he had dispatched Richard Reid and Saajid Badat—two British Muslims who had been directed to Al Qaeda camps in the years prior to 2001 through the network around the Finsbury Park mosque in London—with bombs in their shoes to bring down transatlantic flights. Badat backed out at the last minute with a message to his handler saying “you will have to tell Van Damme that he could be on his own,” while Reid attempted to board a flight in Paris. Showing up looking unwashed and with no baggage, he was initially turned back by security but was able on the second day to board a Paris to Miami flight.

Russian terrorism takes flight

Even in the wake of the more stringent checks placed on aircraft and passengers caused by 9/11, Al Qaeda remained fixated on airlines, a consistency also visible among terror networks in Russia that targeted aircraft both before and after 2001.

In March 2001, a team of three Chechens armed with knives and what they claimed was a bomb hijacked a flight from Istanbul to Moscow, redirecting it to Medina in Saudi Arabia where they released some of the passengers and demanded refueling, supposedly to go on to Afghanistan. Fearing a bloody resolution if the terrorists blew the plane up as they threatened, Saudi authorities decided to storm the craft, resulting in the death of a hijacker, a passenger and one of the crew. The two captured terrorists were quickly identified as Aslanbek Arsayev, a prominent Chechen who had served previously as minister for state security in Chechnya, and his brother Supian Arsayev. Both men were eventually extradited to Russia and their current whereabouts are unknown.

Subsequent to the September 2001 attacks, Russian Military Air Forces Commander in Chief General Anatoly Kornukov was quoted as saying that “it would be impossible for terrorists to hijack several aircraft simultaneously in Russia.” Showing a certitude born from previous experience when he ordered the shooting down of a South Korean passenger plane that had accidentally violated Russian airspace, Kornukov told a Russian reporter, “if I knew for a fact that there were hostages aboard the hijacked plane and the terrorists were heading straight towards the Kremlin I would report so to the defense minister and suggest he destroy the aircraft. That would be the lesser evil. And then let others judge my actions as they will.”

As it turned out, it was not hijacking on which the Chechens focused. Three years later, Chechen fighters bribed their way onto a pair of planes leaving Moscow’s Domodevo airport on internal routes. Waiting patiently until they knew both flights would be in the air, the bombers detonated their explosives at 11 p.m. on Aug. 24, 2004, bringing both craft down and killing a total of 89 people.

Posthumously identified as Satsita Dzhebirkhanova and Amanta Nagayeva, the “black widows” were identified as Chechens who had suffered family losses as a result of the war and who had been dispatched by Chechen leader Shamil Basayev as part of a campaign called “Operation Boomerang.” According to Cerwyn Moore, an expert on Russian Islamist terrorism at the University of Birmingham, UK, the entire operation was “designed to demonstrate the weakness of Russian security measures … breaching security Domodevo not only caused embarrassment for the Putin administration, it also posed a security dilemma for the Russian authorities.” And as we saw in January, it is one that they have not yet managed to resolve.

For Russians, terrorism from Chechnya and the Northern Caucasus has become something of a routine affair. Aside from the targeting of airplanes, there have been takeovers by terrorists of hospitals, schools and theaters as well as periodic bombings of everything from the Moscow subway to outdoor concerts and the grim apartment bombings of September 1999 that claimed 293 dead. The decision, however, to target the international airport’s arrivals lounge in January 2011 was, according to Moore, specifically “to send a message to both the Russian authorities but also to the outside world … that the Russian authorities’ most secure transport hubs could be attacked.” The subsequent international media coverage guaranteed that this message reached a wider audience, though it is unclear that it will have any tangible impact on the group’s aims.

Al Qaeda’s innovative wing

In August 2006, British and Pakistani forces moved in to arrest a network of plotters that they had under surveillance as part of a large-scale plot, directed by Al Qaeda’s upper echelons, to bring down as many as eight aircraft on transatlantic routes.

Coordinated using a network of British extremists, six of whom had recorded martyrdom videos, the plotters were planning on using devices ingeniously devised to pass airport security. Using highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide hidden in soft drink bottles as the main charge, hollowed out batteries filled with explosive to provide the detonator and a disposable camera light bulb as the trigger, the bombs would have been likely to pass airport security and killed thousands. According to former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, the attack “would have rivaled 9/11 in terms of the number of deaths and in terms of the impact on the international economy,” a statement that highlights quite precisely the double-impact that terrorist groups try to achieve through attacking airplanes.

Since this point, however, the Al Qaeda core has seemingly backed away from aviation, preferring more traditional targets like bombs in city centers. The Najibullah Zazi plot in New York, the April 2009 plot in Northern England and the July 2010 plot in Oslo, Norway, all seemed to target buildings in city centers. And the rumors swirling around the global intelligence community in late 2010 were that Al Qaeda was hoping to stage a Mumbai-style attack on an unspecified European city.

Instead, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemeni affiliate connected to Yemeni-American preacher Anwar Al Awlaki, has eagerly taken up the mantle of targeting aviation. Echoing their ideological leader Osama bin Laden in their English-language Inspire magazine, they declared, “if our messages can reach you by words, then they wouldn’t have traveled by planes.”

The group was behind the attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to bring down a flight en route from Amsterdam to Detroit in December 2009, and then just under a year later for the double-parcel bomb on airfreight craft en route to the United States.

Both attempts were directed and claimed by the group, with Anwar Al Awlaki seen as the ideological and operational leader and Ibrahim Al Asiri, a Saudi bomb maker, as the designer of the devices. Al Asiri had previously designed the bomb that his brother Abdullah had hidden in his rectal cavity and tried to use to kill Saudi security chief Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef. Showing his ongoing capacity to design devices able to get past airport-style security, in December 2009 he constructed the device that Abdulmutallab carried in his underwear, first on a plane from Ghana to Amsterdam and then on to Detroit. It is also believed that he designed the devices secreted in printers that were intercepted in October 2010.

This final operation was celebrated by the group in a special November 2010 edition of Inspire in which they provided images and details of what they dubbed “Operation Hemorrhage.” Alongside claiming responsibility for the two parcel bombs hidden in printers that had been intercepted at the Dubai airport and the UK’s East Midlands airport following a tip passed on by Saudi intelligence, the group also claimed responsibility for the downing of a United Parcel Service plane that crashed in early September 2010 near the Dubai airport. The plane went down for unspecified reasons, and the group claimed responsibility, declaring that “we have succeeded in bringing down the UPS plane but because the enemy’s media did not attribute the operation to us we have remained silent so we may repeat the operation.”

Non-government academic experts, who requested anonymity, told Homeland Security Today that, more likely than not, the group was simply claiming responsibility for something it had not done. But one former British official verified the impressive technical quality of the devices that were found in Dubai and the UK. While international air cargo has long been known as a security weakness in the international supply chain, these devices were able to penetrate security and then were only identifiable to British security officials who were looking for them after they were specifically told where to look by their Emirati counterparts who had located the other device. The bombs showed a new level of technical proficiency.

How the group had achieved this seems to be a combination of human and technical intelligence, something boasted by the “Head of Foreign Operations” in Inspire magazine. In preparing for the attack he claimed that, “we have researched the various security systems employed by airports. We looked into X-ray scanners, full body scanners, sniffing dogs and other aspects of security. The resulting bomb was a device that we were confident that, with the will of Allah, it would pass through the most stringent and up-to-date security equipment.” Later in the magazine the authors highlight in detail how they sealed the device in plastic and then cleaned the bag afterwards so that the device would be undetectable.

While much of the magazine remains anonymous (or penned under what look like pseudonyms), according to Thomas Hegghammer, a prominent scholar of Al Qaeda, this article “is almost certainly written by Awlaki.” Citing a number of references typical of Awlaki’s writing and the “long-held suspicions of intelligence analysts,” Hegghammer believed that this article signaled Awlaki’s “coming out.” Significantly, it also highlighted Awlaki’s personal obsession with targeting aviation—something born out by the parcel bomb attempts and the Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempt, both of which he is believed to have played a key role in directing.

Analysis

In a seminal 1974 article written for the RAND Corporation, “International Terrorism: A New Kind of Warfare,” (http://www.rand.org/pubs/papers/2008/P5261.pdf) renowned terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins discussed the threat of terrorism and the then-increasingly common form of international air travel.

“Jet air travel furnishes unprecedented mobility and with it the ability to strike anywhere in the world. Recent developments in news broadcasting—radio, television, communication satellites—are also a boon to publicity-seeking terrorists,” he wrote.

It is a nexus that current terrorist groups have been targeting with regularity, recognizing the publicity and chaos that disrupting air travel can cause for relatively low cost. While likely overestimating the cost of their disruptions (they claim it will “cost America and other Western countries billions of dollars in new security measures”), AQAP proudly boasted that “Operation Hemorrhage” cost the group merely $4,200—a more credible figure that highlights how cheap terrorism can be.

What is equally likely is that the groups will learn from their mistakes in targeting international travel, but also that they are likely to learn from the lessons of the two more successful attacks carried out in early 2011—the Moscow Domodevo bombing and the shooting at Frankfurt Airport.

Unlike AQAP’s efforts, these two attacks were effective in killing people and likely required a lot less planning. It is in fact likely that there will be an increase in attacks like that at Frankfurt airport—random acts of violence pursued by loners who believe they are part of an international movement—but whether they take place at airports will not be something that security planners can factor in any more than they can factor in similar attacks in other places. Heightened states of security already exist at most international hubs, and doubtless in the wake of the Frankfurt and Moscow incidents the security perimeter will be pushed out further in much the same way that a July 2007 attempt to drive a car bomb through the departures hall of Glasgow International Airport resulted in increased security at regional British airports.

But for terrorists the optimal target will continue to be aircraft in transit. The problem from a terrorist’s perspective is that a bomb at an airport is very similar to a bomb in any other public place, except the security is tighter (the exception would seem to be Russian airports where, at least in the case of the double-plane downing, individuals at the airport have been corrupted with small, on-the-spot bribes). Consequently, it can seem easier to simply deposit a device on a public transport system where security will be far less. Furthermore, it lacks the drama of an attack on an international flight.

As Brian Michael Jenkins put it in 1974, “terrorism is theater” and an airplane full of people traveling between two developed economies remains the only sure way to guarantee a large media splash, dramatic economic damage and intense attention for your cause. Given AQAP’s continuing fixation with aviation, security in the air will continue to be a major headache in the years to come.

_________________________________________________

Evil by e-mail

Further evidence of Anwar Al Awlaki’s obsession with aviation and the United States was seen in e-mails that emerged in the trial of a Bangladeshi man employed as a British Airways information technology worker who was incarcerated in February for plotting with Awlaki.

In an e-mail to the Bangladeshi in early 2010, Awlaki wrote that he “was excited by hearing your profession” and that “I pray Allah may grant us a breakthrough through you. As a starter, can you please answer these questions in as much elaboration as possible: can you please specify your role in the airline industry, how much access do you have to airports, what information do you have on the limitations and cracks in present airport security systems.”

In responding to the preacher, Karim stated he knew “two brothers, one who works in baggage handling at Heathrow and another who works in airport security. Both are good practicing brothers and sympathise towards the cause of the mujahideen.” Two men were picked up by police in Slough in the wake of Rajib Karim’s arrest, though neither was charged with anything. One was subsequently fired from his job at Heathrow.

A later note from Awlaki highlighted the preacher’s overriding desire to attack the United States using planes. “Our highest priority is to attack the US. Anything, even on a smaller scale compared to what we may do in the UK, would be our choice. So the question is: with the people you have is it possible to get a package or a person with a package on board a flight heading to the US?”

Two weeks after this e-mail was received in February 2010, Karim was arrested at his desk at a British Airways office in Newcastle. Awlaki went on to plan “Operation Hemorrhage” and clearly found other ways to gather information about airport security. Showing how this might have taken place, in late 2010 British intelligence officials released a story to the media that highlighted their belief that terrorist networks were “periodically testing” security at some of Britain’s regional airports. Images were released to the Guardian newspaper that appeared to show improvised explosive devices as seen through airport X-ray machines.