Posts Tagged ‘Russia’

Somewhat belatedly, I am reposting here an article that I had published in the Chinese 东方早报 (The Oriental Morning Post) during Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow a week or so ago. The article does not seem to have been put online, so I have posted the English text that I submitted below. I currently cannot figure out how to attach a PDF here, so cannot add the tear page, but if you are interested, please drop me a line and I can send it over. Related, I did an interview for Danish radio on the visit, focusing in particular on Central Asia. I am also going to use this opportunity to highlight interviews I did for the Italian AGI and The Atlantic on China in Central Asia. As ever for more on my work in this direction, please have a look at the site I manage with Alex focusing on our project on China in Central Asia.

China and Russia will maintain a pragmatic partnership

There has been a great deal of speculation in the press about the significance of Xi Jinping’s decision to make Russia his first foreign trip as leader of China. The implication of much of the discussion is that China is about to reorient itself to turn Moscow into a priority ally, creating some sort of a new axis in international affairs. The reality is that little is practically changing in this relationship beyond reaffirmation of the fact that both sides see the other as a power with which it suits them to be perceived as being aligned.

The relationship in the past few years has evolved substantially. Discussions about enhancing military cooperation and the prospect of joint technological development projects were highlighted during Defence Minister Shoigu’s visit to Beijing late last year, national energy giants CNPC and Rosneft have signed deals to build refineries near Tianjin and explore similar opportunities in Russia as well as looking at doing a large $25-$30 billion loan for oil deal – the Russian firm is believed to be seeking the loan from the Chinese firm in a repeat of a deal from a few years ago. At a political level, President Putin visited Beijing very soon after his election victory, so in some ways this is reciprocating. And on the international stage, China and Russia broadly find themselves in agreement with regards their postures on issues like Syria or Iran and generally prove willing to support each other’s positions in the United Nations Security Council. They both found the ‘colour revolutions’ of a few years ago alarming, and view the ‘Arab Spring’ in an even darker light. Trouble from rebellious provinces is an issue they both share, and they see western plots inside domestic problems.

But beneath this cordiality there is a tension. In the run-up to President Xi’s visit, much has been made in the Chinese press that some final agreement may be about to come about on the topic of gas pricing, a discussion that has been ongoing between China and Russia for over a decade. Unable to reach an agreement, we have seen a number of high level visits come and go with no conclusion in sight of the deal. This time, we are told, it may actually happen. And the logic may finally be there: China’s growing gas relationship with Turkmenistan means that it is going to be less reliant on finding Russian sources, something that will in turn pressure Russia to come to some agreement to not lose its hand in the discussion with China.

This aside, there is the question of Central Asia more broadly. A region that Russia has traditionally seen as its strategic backyard, but where China is increasingly becoming the more relevant actor. Economically, this is displacing Russian interests, though it remains clear that the Central Asian powers continue to see Russia as the more important security guarantor regionally. The story of the past decade, however, is the money and investment flowing in mostly from Xinjiang rewiring Central Asia so its roads all lead to China. Russia is seen to be pushing back against this through the institution and implementation of the Customs Union that at the moment only encompasses Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. But this is a still developing project and it is unclear how it will ultimately impact Chinese economic growth in Central Asia.

Looking beyond Central Asia, there is the dilemma of Afghanistan and the tensions between India and Pakistan. This triumvirate of countries is a complicated one with both Moscow and Beijing having very different views. Russia has always supported ally India, while Beijing retains strong ties with Islamabad. A delicate balance that has the result of keeping both India and Pakistan out of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). And on Afghanistan, while there is evidence that China is slowly coming to the realization that more must be done and soon, Russia remains trapped in the shadow of its history in that country and refuses to commit much.

The point is that China and Russia are not an easy pairing. They may concur on a few things, but disagree on others too. But what they do share is a concern about western dominance in international affairs and a feeling that the American approach is not always necessarily the right one. And it is maybe here that we should look for deeper meaning in the Russia-China relationship. It is not so much that they are partners of principle, but they are partners of utility. Each sees the value in having a strong counterpart whom is willing to stand up to the United States and the West. Left alone, they would end up being isolated in international affairs and have to deal with the brunt of international wrath when they stood up for unpopular issues. But united they are able to provide some cover for each other and extend the travel schedule of any western foreign minister seeking to lobby their support for issues at the UNSC or elsewhere.

China and Russia remain partners of convenience. Their tentative gestures towards a real strategic partnership are likely to continue to edge gradually forwards, and mutual support will continue on the international stage, but the reality is that this is never going to be a holistic and firm axis in international affairs. Instead it will remain a utilitarian partnership that will provide each other with a useful ally when facing down against perceived western interventionism.

 

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London
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Another op-ed on Central Asia for the Global Times, one of China’s English dailies. This time focused on looking beyond Great Games in Central Asia.

Local needs matter more than imaginary struggles in Central Asia

Global Times | 2012-12-17 19:25:05

By Raffaello Pantucci

Last month, Russia was reportedly ready to provide weapons worth $1.1 billion to Kyrgyzstan and $200 million to Tajikistan along with a further $200 million in petroleum products. In early June, China offered $10 billion through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to Central Asia. India has been focusing on developing a strategic partnership with Tajikistan since September, while the US always develops a stronger relationship with Uzbekistan.

There is a sense that we are returning to the “Great Game” in Central Asia. But this focus on abstract theories misses hard realities on the ground. Outside powers invest in Central Asia to advance their individual national interests, not out of a strategy directed against other powers.

Russia has long been a primary supplier of military equipment to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan: The money that Russia is providing will buy Russian arms and will help bolster an industry at home. And Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have long been the weak regional security links, providing a path into the Commonwealth of Independent States directly from Afghanistan. Drugs from Afghanistan can flow along the porous Tajik-Afghan border and from there into Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia and ultimately Russia.

Similarly, were the security situation in neighboring Afghanistan to deteriorate, then other threats could use this path. This is why Russia is willing to spend money to help strengthen the Kyrgyz and Tajik militaries. Certainly, a desire to keep American bases out of its backyard plays into the decision, but direct security considerations are the priority.

China has taken a different approach to Central Asia, one that is focused on economic and trade relations. For China, the main focus is to develop the region’s links with the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to help the underdeveloped Chinese region grow and become a hub for Eurasian trade. The result is a strategy focused on building roads and rail links, infrastructure to support local development, as well as investing in exploiting the region’s rich natural resources.

While China has expressed concern in security threats emanating from the region, it remains a timid security power in Central Asia with some participation at SCO exercises, bilateral interaction about specific security concerns and training missions in Afghanistan.

For the US, the major interest at the moment is developing a stronger relationship with Uzbekistan, something that is largely built around the 2014 exit strategy from Afghanistan. The US and Europe have little direct interest in Central Asia beyond a useful route in and out of Afghanistan.

India, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Pakistan and Turkey all express an interest in the region, but have less to work with. Each one sees Central Asia through a slightly different lens, but all are ultimately interested in trying to strengthen their economic relations with the region.

And all of this discussion of outside powers forgets that Central Asians too have a seat at this table. As relatively poor countries that are still in a development phase, they frankly welcome the outside attention bringing them investment that they desperately need.

This is particularly true of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which unlike their other Central Asian partners lack abundant natural resources.

So when Russia comes and offers them substantial assistance, they are going to take it, in much the same way that regional leaders signaled their support for China’s policy toward the region when they attended September’s China-Eurasia Expo in Urumqi. Their hope was to be seen supporting China’s push to develop Xinjiang into the gateway for Eurasia and to see how they could also do well out of this approach.

Focusing single mindedly on the struggle between great powers in Central Asia often misses important details. Doubtless, regional geostrategy plays to some degree into Moscow’s considerations when providing weapons to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but there are equally immediate security concerns at play.

China’s rising profile in the region may make it look like the increasingly dominant power, but this is something that is taking place as a result of an intensive focus from China on the “develop the west” strategy.

The “Great Game” in Central Asia should be left in the past as we focus on the very real problems that exist in the region.

The author is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

A longer article in the latest The National Interest journal, this one alongside Alex as part of our ongoing China in Central Asia project. Whilst the whole article is available on their site, they have asked that I only post the first few paragraphs here for the time being with the rest up later here. The article is the first that captures comprehensively the ‘inadvertent empire’ thesis that is going to be a big focus of this project.

China’s Inadvertent Empire

From the 

A Chinese road crew works in Tajikistan.

PRESIDENT OBAMA’S late 2011 announcement of his administration’s pivot to Asia marked a sea change in America’s geopolitical posture away from Europe and the Middle East to Asia and the Pacific Rim. Reflecting the growing strategic repercussions of China’s rise, the move presages a new era of great-power politics as the United States and China compete in Pacific waters. But is the United States looking in the right place?

A number of American strategists, Robert D. Kaplan among them, have written that a potential U.S.-Chinese cold war will be less onerous than the struggle with the Soviet Union because it will require only a naval element instead of permanent land forces stationed in allied countries to rein in a continental menace. This may be true with regard to the South China Sea, for example, or the Malacca Strait. But it misses the significance of the vast landmass of Central Asia, where China is consolidating its position into what appears to be an inadvertent empire. As General Liu Yazhou of China’s People’s Liberation Army once put it, Central Asia is “the thickest piece of cake given to the modern Chinese by the heavens.”

For most of its unified history, China has been an economically focused land power. In geopolitical terms today, China’s rise is manifest particularly on land in Eurasia, far from the might of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and Washington’s rimland allies—and far also from the influence of other Asian powers such as India. Thus, Western policy makers should be dusting off the old works of Sir Halford Mackinder, who argued that Central Asia is the most pivotal geographic zone on the planet, rather than those of Alfred Thayer Mahan, the great U.S. strategist of sea power. Greater attention needs to be paid to China’s growing presence in Central Asia if the United States is to understand properly China’s geopolitical and strategic rise.

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Veering away from my recent spate of terrorism related articles, a new op-ed for the South China Morning Post, a newspaper I have written for before on China-Central Asia with the same co-author, my friend Li Lifan. This uses the recent Russian election as a spring-board for some analysis of China’s relations with Russia and Central Asia. This is a topic I am going to be doing a bunch of writing on in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, however, SCMP operate a firewall, so I cannot simply post this here, though I will ask my editorial contacts. In the meantime, feel free to write if you have any questions. (UPDATE, per SCMP’s approval, I have now reposted it all here).

Contest over Central Asia between allies

Li Lifan and Raffaello Pantucci say China and Russia are both adept strategists

Mar 20, 2012

Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in Russia was predictably controversial in Europe and America. In Beijing, the official read-out provided by Xinhua highlighted a positive conversation, with President Hu Jintao stating with “confidence that Putin’s new presidential term would see faster progress in building a stronger and richer nation”. That statement affirmed the importance of the Sino-Russian axis as a pole in international relations. Putin, the quintessential Russian chess master, has a very clear sense of where Russia’s future must lie, and needs Beijing onside if he wants to carry this out.

The Sino-Russian relationship has had its ups and downs. As Putin put it recently, “there are some sources of friction”. The joint Chinese-Russian veto last month of a UN resolution on Syria attracted attention. But, beyond this, tensions persist as Russia proves implacable in discussions over energy pricing, and tries to develop a “Eurasian Union” to counter China’s successful inroads into Central Asia. The resultant price increase is detrimental to Chinese interests and delays economic integration under the auspices of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO).

But these contradictions are perfectly adapted for both the Chinese and Russian political system, where shadow chess games are seen as the antidote to erratic Western policy strategies. Rather than make dramatic shifts and pronouncements, both sides forge long-term alliances of convenience, focusing on their mutual interests, where possible, while recognising unresolved tensions remain.

This malleable alliance is something that both countries will need in the next few years, as problems over Iran’s nuclear programme come to a head and the US withdraws from Afghanistan, leaving potential chaos in both China and Russia’s backyard. Neither China nor Russia have any interest in seeing the Iranian situation escalate.

In Afghanistan, neither is interested in seeing the nation fall back into chaos, but they will be relieved to see a reduced American military footprint in their immediate neighbourhood. Figuring out how to manage the situation post 2014, the deadline for US withdrawal, will probably require a joint effort, which Russia and China have started to explore within the SCO format. The security drills to be held in Tajikistan in June will showcase the grouping’s capacity to address threats regionally and help improve co-ordination ahead of the American withdrawal.

Domestically, the abutting regions of Xinjiang and Siberia are their respective nations’ most underdeveloped regions and will require close attention from Beijing and Moscow. Xinjiang is a cauldron of ethnic tensions that China is trying to calm with economic development, while Russia’s east is a largely empty space that gets ever more depopulated as its youth go west to Moscow and Europe.

Establishing better prospects and opportunity there will help stabilise the administration of both nations, and better economic co-operation and regional stability are key to long-term development. Of course, underlying this is a competition for resources and markets in Central Asia, with unresolved energy pricing issues and the Russian fear of mass Chinese immigration colouring debates.

But these are known tensions, and carefully managing them is something that leaders on both sides recognise as important.

The two are each other’s biggest allies in the United Nations Security Council and are members of the new BRICS club. As such, they see a close alignment on international issues. At the same time, regionally, they see elements of peer competition.

Striking a balance is the essence of realist international relations. The result is a considered game of chess between a Chinese leadership used to deliberative policymaking and a newly minted Russian leader who has long shown his capacity for an unemotional approach to international relations.

Li Lifan is a senior fellow and Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

 

An op-ed in the International Herald Tribune today, looking at China and Russia across Central Asia. Am currently in the middle of a fascinating trip through the region, about which more later. My co-author and I are going to be producing a lot more on this topic in the near future, so watch this space. This particular article has already generated one angry response.

October 17, 2011

BY RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI AND ALEXANDROS PETERSEN

BEIJING — Traffic around Tiananmen Square was even worse than usual last week as President Vladimir Putin rolled through town to cement the supposedly flowering Chinese-Russian relationship. A series of high-level deals were signed between Chinese and Russian state-owned enterprises and China announced a substantial infusion into the new Russian Direct Investment Fund.

While cordial, an unspoken undertone to the meetings was Russian concern about growing Chinese influence in the former Soviet Union and particularly Central Asia.

Just before his visit to Beijing, Putin had announced a desire to form a new Eurasian Union that would tie a number of former Soviet states back into the Russian orbit. Hands immediately starting wringing in Brussels. At this time of E.U. weakness, the Eurasian Union was seen to be aimed at counterbalancing Western institutions.

These concerns are largely ill-founded. While the new organization is clearly an effort by Russia to reassert authority over its old dominions, it is in fact aimed East rather than West. Russia is far more concerned by growing Chinese influence in its backyard than anything the West is throwing its way.

The core of Russia’s concerns is the slow but steady progress of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, originally set up in the post-Cold War period to define borders between its five members — China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan ( later joined by Uzbekistan).

But in the last 10 years the S.C.O. has evolved into the most interesting, and perhaps consequential, example of Chinese diplomacy. As a Chinese scholar put it to us the other day in Beijing, the organization went from being focused on regional security to honing in on regional development — a trajectory that accords tidily both with China’s and the Central Asians’ interests.

While nominally an equal partner to all members, Russia has felt like a junior partner in the S.C.O. Once one of the two poles in the world, Russia is now considered among the ranks of new rising powers — not a bad group to be in, but clearly a step down from its previous position in global affairs.

Moscow has sought to counter this by retaining links and authority among former Soviet republics. Those in Europe have now been absorbed into the European Union, but the Eurasian states have remained within the Kremlin’s sphere of influence, bound by a latticework of organizations like the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Eurasian Economic Community.

The S.C.O. was initially ignored by Russia when it was set up a decade ago, but it has steadily developed into an increasingly important actor that has become a vehicle for China’s push to develop Central Asia.

China has focused on trying to turn the S.C.O. from a security-focused organization into an economic bloc, a policy predicated on the knock-on effect that a stable and prosperous Central Asia would have on China’s underdeveloped Xinjiang Province.

Using its deep pockets to pour money into the poor and isolated Central Asian states, China has secured energy contracts, worked on hydroelectric plants and helped develop infrastructure from roads to telephone systems.

But China has gone beyond hard-nosed economics, developing a holistic strategy that attempts to bring Chinese soft power to bear on the region. China has established Confucius Institutes to teach Chinese in all the Central Asian states but Turkmenistan, and has also helped develop an S.C.O. University that brings together some 50-plus universities across China and Eurasia.

As part of a push to develop the S.C.O. as a cultural entity, as well as one focused on security and economics, these are admittedly baby steps, but there is some evidence of success. Growing numbers of Central Asian students can be found at Chinese Universities and reports from Confucius Institutes in the region point to the children of affluent families trying to learn Mandarin.

This is perhaps the greatest threat to Russia’s powerful legacy in the region. Moscow has no money to spend, so it has been happy to allow China’s investment in Central Asia, as long as Russia retains cultural predominance. That is starting to slip. Putin’s efforts at a Eurasian Union thus appear to be a rearguard action to stem the tide of increasing Chinese omnipotence in Russia’s backyard.

Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Alexandros Petersen is an adviser at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

Another op-ed for the South China Morning Post, this time written in conjunction with my friend Lifan Li who has been immensely helpful during my time in China. The article is timed to be pegged to the 10th anniversary of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and it is highly likely that this topic in general, China and Central Asia, is going to be a big focus in the near future. It is a fascinating subject that I have looked at before and did my post-graduate work on. At this point, unfortunately, the article is behind the SCMP’s paywall, but if you drop me a note I can probably help out.

Cosying Up

China’s holistic approach in Central Asia is gradually paying off. Ten years after its founding, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is helping Beijing advance its cause peacefully.

Lifan Li and Raffaello Pantucci

June 15, 2011

Ten years on and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) remains a work in progress. It has achieved much in its short life, but its hesitation in resolving unrest in Kyrgyzstan last year and its ongoing inability to contribute much to improve stability in neighbouring Afghanistan have shown the limits of its power. All of these raises questions about the grouping’s aims and hopes for the next decade.

China is increasingly becoming a force in Central Asia, a predominantly Russo-Turkic region. On the ground, it is still possible to find expressions of tension towards China, but, nevertheless, growing numbers of Central Asian families are electing to send their children to China to study. From Kazakhstan alone, there are some 1,600 students now in Chinese universities; Shanghai has 800 students from Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, numbers electing to go to the West are shrinking.

Find the rest here.

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.

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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.