Posts Tagged ‘terrorism’

Been a bit slow in posting of late, lots going on. New book, radio documentary replaying, and lots of projects am late on as well as new ones starting up. That on top of life has been keeping me occupied. But need to catch up here and plan for the next wave. First up, a new journal piece for Current History, the oldest current affairs journal which have written a few times before though mostly focused on China and connectivity in Central and South Asia.

“Perpetrators no longer seemed to have a coherent motivation based on only one ideology (or any external direction), but often created highly idiosyncratic ideologies that pulled in ideas from a wide range of sources.”

The Evolving Terrorism Threat in Europe

Europe: March 2022

Two decades on from September 11, 2001, the terrorist threat in Europe has been almost entirely transformed. Far from mass casualty spectaculars like the public transportation attacks in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005, the greater danger now is isolated individuals murdering politicians or stabbing random people in public places. Yet the dwindling scale of terrorism has only made plots harder to detect.

This was pointed out in the latest annual threat assessment by Europol (the European police coordinating agency), which noted that “more jihadist terrorist attacks were completed than thwarted” during 2020, the last year of reporting. Though less directly lethal, these low-scale attacks pick at social divisions in a way that can be even more dangerous than the large-scale, spectacular attacks directed by al-Qaeda or Islamic State (ISIS).

Europe has always seemed to be a secondary battlefield in the war on terrorism. But whereas the United States appears to have insulated itself from the threat at this point, Europe continues to confront a scenario that is noticeably more complicated and chronic. Terrorism’s evolving presence still poses a deep threat to European society.

POST-9/11 SPECTERS

In the immediate aftermath of the 2001 attacks on America, Europe became a key battlefield in the “Global War on Terrorism.” Revelations that a substantial part of the logistics, planning, and even recruitment for the al-Qaeda attacks had happened in Europe awakened the continent to a threat that it had inadvertently hosted. But only a few months later, Paris became a springboard for a follow-up attack on the United States. On December 22, as the world was just starting to return to normal, a radicalized young Briton, Richard Reid, unsuccessfully tried to bring down a transatlantic flight to Miami with a bomb concealed in the heel of his shoe. Reid was part of a two-man teamof Britons who had been sent by the al-Qaeda leader responsible for 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. His co-conspirator, Saajid Badat, had backed out at the last minute.

From a European perspective, these two failed attackers were in many ways even more terrifying than the 9/11 group, for which the blame could be laid on foreign shores. The notorious Hamburg cell that produced key 9/11 hijackers Mohammed Atta and Ziad Jarrah was, for the most part, made up of foreigners like them who were in Europe studying or seeking employment. Similarly, Europe was simply a backdrop for the planning meetings that took place in Spain, or the network in the United Kingdom that facilitated the dispatch of a pair of suicide bombers to Afghanistan to carry out the assassination of leading Taliban adversary Ahmed Shah Masood. In all these elements of the attack plan, Europe served as a convenient staging point for the conspirators, who drew on the continent’s Middle Eastern population.

These communities were the product of trends that had been playing out for some time. As authoritarian Arab countries cracked down on dissidents, many fled to Europe’s more liberal and protective environment, from where they could agitate for change back home. This diaspora was a constant source of tension between Arab and European governments. Arab authorities lobbied their European counterparts to crack down; Europeans pushed back, claiming that these dissidents were simply calling for legitimate political rights, in ways that were legally protected in Europe. The dissidents were often harbored in the former colonial powers that had once ruled their home countries, giving a historical resonance to the clash.

For more, go either to Current History or get in touch or download it here.

A different kind of post this time, to highlight a radio series that I worked on for BBC Radio 4 with excellent and patient producer Richard Fenton-Smith. We worked for some time on the series, with much of it remotely which was an interesting experience. Spoke to lots of interesting people as part of it, including practitioners, experts, offenders and family members. The idea was to try to dig into the question of how mental health intersects with the terrorist threat and to explore what is being done to try to mitigate threat. We ended up spending a lot of time looking into autism spectrum disorders in the end, and it feels like there might be more on this topic out there in the future. It is a complicated edge of the current threat picture which touches on a number of bigger issues. Many thanks to all of those who spoke to us as part of it, including the various family members of offenders who were willing to tell their stories. Anyway, the first of two big projects to land this year, and doubtless more on this particular topic to come. Download, listen and enjoy!

The series webpage can be found here: Terrorism and the Mind

While the three episodes can be found here:

The Mental Health Frontline: which looks in particular at the Vulnerability Hubs which have been developed to try to work alongside the UK’s Prevent counter-terrorism policy to steer people away and address mental health issues amongst some of those flagged to Prevent.

Talking to Terrorists: which tries to look at the history of the question of mental health and terrorism, trying to unpick the research which underpins thinking into how the two issues intersect.

Getting the Balance Right: which focuses on what is actually being done at the prosecutorial end, and spends a lot of time looking at questions around autism spectrum disorders in particular which appear to be a major part of the caseload that authorities (in the UK at least) find themselves dealing with.

Catch up posting which appears a bit incongruous with current events, with a title which was certainly not one I suggested, though in the interests of consistency I have kept it as the title of this post. In any case, a piece commissioned by the Telegraph in the wake of the death of the ISIS leader.

Strange though it sounds, America may come to regret killing the leader of ISIS

There is a danger that in the wake of a leader’s removal, different groups will compete to show they are the most worthy heirs to the crown

The death of Isis leader Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi is unlikely to be the end of the group. Terrorist group decapitation can sometimes generate a new series of problems as groups fragment, face internal competition and feel the need to prove themselves with even more dramatic attacks. Which raises the long-standing question about the actual value of eliminating terrorist leaders. 

Historically, there are very few groups that can be found where the removal of a leader led to the group’s disintegration. The one analysts most frequently point to is the Shining Path in Peru which largely shrank away after its leader was jailed. But it is exceptional with most other cases groups continuing on with someone new in charge.

This is not to say that leaders are not significant. In rising to the top they will establish a web of contacts and plans which will potentially fall apart with their removal. Funding contacts, plans in train, and grand visions will be sharply stopped, and will require picking up by whoever comes next.

But there is an interesting theory which suggests that in fact a more effective way of managing a terrorist leader is to find a way of cutting him off from his organisation. By making it hard for him (or her) to lead will potentially leave the group stymied and blocked. There is some evidence that the protective measures put between Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda actually may have led to group stasis. 

Hidden in his compound in Abbotabad, only able to get messages in and out through a complicated courier system, meant it was very difficult to get rapid decisions passed down. This in turn made it hard to direct a global organisation like al Qaeda but also meant that the organisation had to wait for the leader to answer when they made inquiries to him. And Osama was a hesitant leader who it appears was often blocking plans his fighters were eager to advance. Yet, the method of communications meant it was difficult to debate and discuss.

None of this of course eradicated the group, but it made it much harder to function. And likely played a role in its decline in the late 2010s. The leader who replaced him Ayman al Zawahiri seems equally aloof, but has the additional problem of suffering from a notable lack of charisma, creating a lethal combination for al Qaeda.

A danger in removing leaders is they become martyrs to their cause. But it also potentially creates an internal dynamic within the organisation as various factions vie for the top job. Given terrorist organisations ways of showing off is by launching large scale attacks, this presents a danger that in the wake of a leader’s removal, different groups will push themselves forwards with great violence to show they are the most worthy heirs to the crown.

It is not clear how internally fragmented Isis in Syria and Iraq is these days. The organisation has in recent days launched some notable large-scale incidents, including a mass prison break. While it is hard to link this uptick in activity with the death of the group’s leader, it does suggest a dynamism within the group which is quite menacing. 

What is unlikely is that any upward trajectory is going to be stopped with Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi’s death. Rather, it may be accelerated in an attempt to avenge him, or as different groups seek to push themselves forwards at a moment of flux. Isis in Syria and Iraq will undoubtedly come out of this stronger than it was before.

Finally, my last catch-up post from last year’s annual threat assessment for Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses (CTTA), the RSIS in-house journal, this time looking at the extreme right wing threat over the past year. As with last year’s this one was with wonderful Kyler.

Extreme Right-Wing Violence in the West: In Remission?

Against the backdrop of persistent political and societal polarisation, particularly in the West, violence linked to the extreme right has declined, or at least remained static, during the past year. Since the events in Washington DC on 6 January, there were no major large-scale acts of violence linked exclusively to the extreme right compared to the previous year. However, smaller scale violence has manifested in other forms, e.g. clashes between law enforcement and COVID-19 protestors, anti-immigrant groups across Europe in particular, and occasional disrupted plots. There continues to be an ideological fluidity within some of these events, driven by an overriding anti-establishment sentiment, with the extreme right often one of a number of the ideas along the spectrum articulated through a particular incident. This was most apparent during former US President Donald Trump’s failed reelection bid, which played against the backdrop of COVID-19 measures globally, and generated a confusing new set of conspiracy theories. Finally, the continuing discovery of extreme right-linked radicalisation within security forces globally, while not a new phenomenon, continues to pose a substantial risk.

Threat Landscape Prior to 2021

There has been a degree of constancy and, in some instances, change regarding the extreme right terror threat in the last two years. This is both in terms of the scale and frequency of violence and the ideological inspirations behind the violence. In terms of the global picture, 2019 marked an apex of extreme right-wing violence, with the deadly Christchurch mosques attack in New Zealand marking a particularly heinous high point. In 2020, violence continued globally to less dramatic effect (one study showed only two incidents in western Europe,819 though EUROPOL’s data during the same period showed only one incident), in part, possibly due to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions which impacted terrorist capability across the board.820

However, 2020 was also the apex of several ideological trends which played out against the backdrop of the world trying to grapple with the new reality of COVID-19 (that echoed across ideological spectrums), the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement (which provided an angry counter-point for the extreme right to react to), and the highly-charged US presidential election that polarised the US society (but also further afield) along nationalistic lines, fostering a “militia-sphere” with international links. This attention seemed to push the American “militia-sphere” in particular into a series of incidents of violence and plots in the US.821 This was echoed in Europe, particularly Germany, which recorded the highest levels of extreme right crime in 20 years.822 It also appeared to resonate, though to a lesser degree, in other parts of the world due to the sheer volume of noise generated by the increasingly polarised American political discourse.

2021 Threat Landscape

Decline in Terrorist Incidents

Apart from the 6 January Capitol Hill riot in Washington, DC, that saw some 800 people, among whom an unclear number were identifiably right-wing extremists, storm the US Capitol in support of former president Donald Trump following his failure to get re-elected, large-scale acts of violence emanating exclusively from the extreme right were limited in 2021.823 Arrests of individuals suspected of terrorism offences linked to right-wing extremism continued primarily in the US, Europe, and Asia-Pacific (mostly Australia with sporadic and random cases elsewhere). Much of the violence in the last year was in the form of clashes between law enforcement officials and COVID-19 protesters against government lockdown measures and, more recently, against the implementation of vaccination mandates and “vaccine passports.”824

In Europe, ongoing police disruptions and protests continue to point to a diffused problem. There have been reports of violent groups in Germany targeting migrants825 and synagogues.826 Continuing disruptions in the UK’s Midlands region are also linked to extreme right-wing plotting.827 A particularly disturbing disruption in France involved a 26-year-old who was arrested for making pipe bombs with uranium dust.828 A rare plot in Poland saw two individuals charged for planning to attack a mosque.829 A plot disrupted in Italy saw a network of 12 arrested for reportedly planning to attack a NATO base.830 As disturbing as these disruptions and incidents were, there was no major extreme right-wing terror attack, and it is unclear how linked (if at all) any of these incidents were. It was also not clear from available data that there had been a surge in detentions worldwide, with the various plots disrupted seeming to be part of a broader trend than a spike.

The reasons behind this are unclear at this stage. It is likely to some degree that the heavy COVID-19 restrictions imposed across Europe have made the operating environment harder. At the same time, the push online that has taken place during this period has theoretically provided a ripe environment for ideologies to spread. It has certainly helped develop the problem of very young people being drawn towards extremist plotting, with MI5 Chief Ken McCallum reporting his service had investigated a 13-year-old who later pled guilty.831 The anonymity of the online world has lowered the threshold for youth involvement. But while reporting on the very young being involved in plotting has continued, it has not translated into actual violent actions, suggesting other factors may be at play.832 Finally, it may be that increased security force attention that has followed the surge in focus on the extreme right in the past few years may be yielding results. This increasing attention was highlighted in Australia, where the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) reported that almost half of its “onshore priority counterterrorism caseload” involved “ideologically motivated violent extremists, such as racist and nationalist violent extremists.”833 This was an increase from the previous year, where the agency reported that the extreme right accounted for around 40 per cent of its workload.834 In the US, security officials made public pronouncements about the escalating nature of the domestic, extreme right-leaning terrorist threat and its focus by security forces.835

A further explanation might be found in the end of the Trump presidency. The administration’s rhetoric had previously allowed right-wing extremism to thrive. In this respect, Trump’s refusal to condemn the far right when called to, and seeming support for extremist groups with right-wing leanings such as the Proud Boys or conspiracy movements such as QAnon, arguably gave them a boost. This in turn resonated globally.836 However, the Proud Boys and QAnon have since suffered internal fractures following the election of Joe Biden. The former group feels betrayed by Trump’s denouncement of the 6 January riot (which they claimed was incited by him). The latter is increasingly disillusioned by the “storm” that never came. This conspiracy has served as the ultimate linchpin to QAnon’s core belief that Trump will eventually bring down the shadowy cabal,837 leading to a few disillusioned QAnon supporters no longer “trust(ing) the plan.”838 Trump’s removal and increasing de-platforming from both mainstream media outlets and social media have reduced his reach outside his core audience, somewhat turning down the heat on the anger and polarisation he stirred.

That is not to say that the highly-charged nationalism powered by anti-immigrant sentiments and white supremacism is no longer a threat. On the contrary, according to the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research’s (ICPVTR) monitoring of social media accounts of right-wing extremist channels and groups, violent rhetoric against immigrants in the Western hemisphere remains rife. A case in point is the May 2021 border crisis between Spain and Morocco, which saw some 8,000 African migrants crossing into the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, which share a border with Morocco.

This episode garnered widespread attention on Spanish social media, as Spaniards blame the government for the “invasion,” call for the deaths of immigrants, and cast accusations on African immigrants, particularly Moroccans, for any criminal acts by foreigners with darker skin tone reported in mainstream media. While chatter as such may be regarded as harmless white noise – habitual of the extreme right’s empty threats that often dominate its online platforms and discourse – it points to an underlying seething anger of government betrayal based around xenophobic and racist sentiments towards immigrants that provide a ripe environment for extreme right groups to thrive. While there has been less evidence of actual attacks, the extreme right’s agitational rhetoric persists.

Ideological Confluence

An additional element that has exacerbated the extreme right has been its ability as an ideology to appropriate and repurpose the language of others. This includes initially antagonistic ideologies which are co-opted to fit the extreme right worldview, justify their extremist actions, and exploit anger, distrust, and alienation to converge on a mutual enemy. All of this is done to galvanise extremist behaviour and sometimes violence.

In some instances, this confluence can play out in organised actions, like during the 6 January Capitol Hill riot or in various protests against COVID-19 measures worldwide. In both cases, strands of the extreme right as well as other ideologies can be found. The anti-vaccine movement has provided fertile ground for extreme right conspiracy theories to thrive. Some segments have reacted negatively to COVID-19 restrictions, including some on the left, leading to odd fusions with left-wing countercultures.839 In Australia, but also elsewhere, recent mob action in September against the trade union’s decision to mandate vaccination for workers in the construction industry led to protests involving a wide gamut of far-right nationalists, anti-vaxxers, libertarians, and trade unionists to the most obscure conspiracy theorists.840 Across Europe, COVID-19 demonstrations were often an amalgamation of different movements motivated by different ideologies. Whereas some movements merely seek increased individual autonomy on medical freedom, others are fueled by more extreme left and right-wing elements. But it is often the right leaning element that appears dominant in the violence. A shared sense of anti establishmentarianism often drives such groups, with the left-right element sometimes getting lost in between.

Web 2.0 has also made it easier for the flow of Western extreme right rhetoric to other parts of the world where such a narrative typically does not have traction. While still very uncommon, Western extreme right ideologies and conspiracy theories have been seeded in parts of Asia, where selective beliefs are being repurposed to fit local contexts. In Singapore, for instance, the arrest of a 16-year-old led to the disruption of an attempted copycat attack of the Christchurch terrorist attack by Brenton Tarrant. The boy reportedly planned to attack Muslims at two local mosques on the second anniversary of the March 2019 Christchurch mosques shooting.841

Lastly, the 2020 CTTA Annual Threat Assessment had highlighted the uptick in violence by men with incel-leaning ideology since 2018 and the connection of this misogynistic subculture within the tapestry of the extreme right.842 This confluence was particularly visible in the case of Tobias Rathjen, who carried out a mass shooting in January 2020 in Hanau, Germany, against the minority community. While his motivation can be pegged as a blend of white supremacism and antiimmigrant nativism, there was clear evidence of his espousal of antigovernment QAnon and incel thinking in videos and messages he published around the attack.843

The occasional violence that has emerged out of this largely benign and non-violent movement mimics the traditional terrorist modus operandi, making a case for its inclusion within terrorist studies.844 In August 2021, Jake Davison went on a shooting rampage killing five people in Plymouth, UK.845 While not much is known of his exact motive, there are clear hints of his incel thinking and right-wing libertarian tendencies, including his pro-Trumpism and gun-right advocacy.846 However, it is also notable how this case was exceptional with few other overt incel cases reported during 2021, feeding into the overall analysis that the violent expression of the threat picture is reduced (or at least static) in 2021.

Conspiracies Chasing Meanings

The extreme right has once again proven their adeptness at adjusting their narrative and conspiracy theories to fit new realities and sustain their worldview. For example, following the failure of Trump’s re-election campaign, the QAnon movement’s credibility among its adherents was dealt a blow, as the prediction that Trump would prevail and continue to bring the “cabal” down was quashed. Instead, new theories emerged to explain Trump’s defeat, claiming that “[s]ometimes you must walk through the darkness before you see the light.”847 In a bid to sustain support and boost morale, QAnon members online have been observed to continue to reshare prior mysterious and interpretative “drops” published by Q.848 QAnon members treat the “drops” like prophetic gospels to explain obscure new happenings that tie them to the QAnon’s overarching belief that the plan is still in place and that the “Storm” and “Day of Reckoning” when the cabal will be defeated will eventually arrive.

Likewise, COVID-19 conspiracy theories promulgated by the extreme right have also changed, as a shift in strategy was warranted when governments moved from lockdown restrictions to implementing vaccination requirements affecting the dayto-day lives of the people. At the start of the pandemic, conspiracies were focused on peddling the virus as either fake, a biological weapon, or a form of population control through measures including nationwide lockdowns. By the second half of 2021, there was a proliferation of anti vaccination conspiracies taking centre stage. Regardless of the shift, what was retained is a deep strain of anti-Semitism that advances the extreme right agenda that a Zionist Occupied Government (ZOG) is colluding with Western governments for world domination.849

Disturbingly, however, cases have demonstrated deep roots behind them, with the case of anti-vaxx conspiracy theorist and soldier Jurgen Conings revealed to be the tip of a larger extreme right conspiracy in Belgium. His case also illustrated the danger from the extreme right in infiltrating western security forces. There was a considerable security force (current or former) present during the 6 January Capitol riot, with senior figures of the Proud Boys also members of security forces.850 The recent sentencing of two members of the neo-Nazi white nationalist group, the Base, also revealed the involvement of former military servicemen.851 The insider threat picture since 2020 from former (or serving) military personnel amongst the extreme right has not changed.852

In Europe, the issue remains a major problem, especially in Germany, which saw the disbandment of an elite wing of the armed forces in 2020 due to its extreme right connections. Last year, a battalion of the military’s honour guard was suspended for a similar association.853 Whilst not exactly the same, a similar degree of tension between civilians and soldiers was apparent in France, where open letters from allegedly semi-retired and active French soldiers warned of a civil war due to the government’s “concession” to Islamism. 854 Recently, a former local politician and far-right conspiracy theorist in France was also charged, amongst other terrorist acts, for plotting a coup against the government and recruiting soldiers to facilitate the act.855 Such open rebellion highlights a significant homegrown problem that Western nations have faced over the last decade following the migrant crisis in Europe.

Outlook

As nations emerge from COVID-19 lockdowns and establish a new normal, ongoing COVID-19 mandates are likely to provide more ammunition to the extreme right and its anti-establishment narratives. The underlying and omnipresent issues of racism and nativism that have provided the extreme right with great sustenance have calmed down but not gone away. As Western nations continue to grapple with the political polarisation of sensitive issues such as immigration, the “us versus them” partisanship will continue to wedge an ever-wider gap between the extremes and unravel already fragile social fabrics. Those that fall in between will feel the exponential push and pull force from either side, aided by Web 2.0 as a content sharing vehicle. Complicating the extreme right threat picture further will be how effective the governments are in stemming the influence of extreme right ideology in youth and the security forces, in particular. Governments in the West are increasingly putting their security forces under the microscope, making arrests and disbanding segments tainted by right-wing extremism. A proactive approach of weeding out extremists during the recruitment process,856 however, should also be thrown into the mix.

About the Authors

Kyler Ong was formerly an Associate Research Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. She can be reached at iskylerong@ntu.edu.sg.

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

819 Madeleine Thorstensen and Jacob Aasland Ravndal, “Stable Trends in Unstable Times: Right-Wing Terrorism and Violence in Western Europe in 2020,” Center for Research on Extremism, September 31, 2021, https://www.sv.uio.no/c-rex/english/news-andevents/right-now/2021/stable-trends-in-unstabletimes-right-wing-violenc.html.

820 Raffaello Pantucci and Kyler Ong, “Persistence of Right-Wing Extremism and Terrorism in the West,” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses 13, no. 1 (January 2021): 118, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wpcontent/uploads/2021/01/CTTA-January2021.pdf.

821 Ibid., 119.

822 Laurenz Gehrke, “Germany Records Highest Level of Right-Wing Extremist Crime in 20 Years,” Politico, May 4, 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/germany-records-highest-level-of-right-wing-extremist-crimes-in-20-years/.

823 Apart from the case of Nathaniel Veltman, who rammed into a Muslim family in London, Ontario, Canada. Veltman has been discovered to be a follower of Brenton Tarrant, the right-wing extremist gunman responsible for the 2019 Christchurch mosques shootings. See Andrew Russell, Stewart Bell and Mercedes Stephenson, “EXCLUSIVE: London Attack Suspect Was Inspired by New Zealand Mosque Shooter, Sources Say,” Global News, November 10, 2021, https://globalnewsca.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/globalnews.ca/news/8361038/london-attack-suspect-inspired-newzealand-mosque-shooter/amp/.

824 Even so, it is imperative to highlight that both the January 6 Capitol riot and the COVID-19 protests run the gamut of all sides when it comes to the ideological adherence of those involved. See Robert A. Pape and Keven Ruby, “The Capitol Rioters Aren’t Like Other Extremists,” The Atlantic, February 2, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/02/the-capitol-rioters-arent-like-otherextremists/617895/; “‘It’s Almost Like Grooming’: How Anti-Vaxxers, Conspiracy Theorists, and the Far-Right Came Together Over COVID,” The Conversation, September 21, 2021, https://theconversation.com/its-almost-likegrooming-how-anti-vaxxers-conspiracy-theoristsand-the-far-right-came-together-over-covid168383.

825 “Germany to Increase Controls as Far-Right Activists Target Polish Border,” France 24, October 24, 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/livenews/20211024-germany-to-increase-controlsas-far-right-activists-target-polish-border.

826 Oliver Towfigh Nia, “Germany Arrests 4 for Alleged Terror Attack Plot on Synagogue,” Anadolu Agency, September 16, 2021, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/europe/germanyarrests-4-for-alleged-terror-attack-plot-onsynagogue/2366479.

827 “Three People From Keighley Charged With Right Wing Terrorism Offences,” ITV News, May 14, 2021, https://www.itv.com/news/calendar/2021-05-14/three-people-from-keighley-charged-with-rightwing-terrorism-offences; “South Yorkshire Man Charged With Terrorism and Drugs Offences,” Counter Terrorism Policing, April 24, 2021, https://www.counterterrorism.police.uk/southyorkshire-man-charged-with-terrorism-and-drugsoffences/.

828 Mitchell Prothero, “Neo-Nazi and KKK Fanboy Built Pipe Bombs With Uranium From eBay,” Vice, September 13, 2021, https://www.vice.com/en/article/xgxjxd/neo-naziand-kkk-fanboy-built-pipe-bombs-with-uraniumfrom-ebay.

829 “Polish Far-Right Extremists Charged Over Terror Plot on Mosque,” Kafkadesk, January 8, 2021, https://kafkadesk.org/2021/01/08/polish-farright-extremists-charged-over-terror-plot-onmosque/.

830 Hannah Roberts, “Italian Neo-Nazis Were Plotting to Bomb NATO Base, Police Say,” Politico, June 7, 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/italian-neo-naziswere-plotting-to-bomb-nato-base-police-say/.

831 Dan Sabbagh, “MI5 Investigated Far-Right Terror Suspect Who Was 13 Years Old,” The Guardian, July 14, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/jul/14/mi5-investigated-rightwing-terror-suspect-whowas-13-years-old.

832 For example, rather than actual extremist ideology-inspired terrorism, the very young could simply be playacting online lives. But further research is still required to conclusively assess the factors underpinning the involvement of the very young.

833 “ASIO Annual Report 2020-21,” Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, 2021, 4, https://www.asio.gov.au/sites/default/files/Annual%20Report%202020-21%20WEB.pdf.

834 Paul Karp, “Asio Reveals Up to 40% of Its Counter-Terrorism Cases Involve Far-Right Violent Extremism,” The Guardian, September 22, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/australianews/2020/sep/22/asio-reveals-up-to-40-of-itscounter-terrorism-cases-involve-far-right-violentextremism.

835 Mark Hosenball, “White Supremacist Groups Pose Rising U.S. Threat, Garland Says,” Reuters, May 12, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/us/whitesupremacist-groups-pose-rising-us-threatgarland-says-2021-05-12/.

836 “Germany Shooting: What We Know About the Hanau Attack,” BBC News, February 20, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe51571649.

837 Camila Domonoske, “The QAnon ‘Storm’ Never Struck. Some Supporters Are Wavering, Others Steadfast,” National Public Radio, January 20, 2021, https://www.npr.org/sections/inauguration-daylive-updates/2021/01/20/958907699/the-qanonstorm-never-struck-some-supporters-arewavering-others-steadfast.

838 QAnon adherents generally believe that there is a plan to bring down the shadowy cabal ruled by a Jewish-dominated world government and elites, and that Donald Trump himself is executing this plan. Based on ICPVTR’s monitoring of QAnon social media channels and groups, hints of disillusionment have emerged in the QAnon camp and some members are increasingly frustrated that nothing has come to fruition to rescue the people from Covid-19 restrictions.

839 George Monbiot, “It’s Shocking to See So Many Leftwingers Lured to the Far Right by Conspiracy Theories,” The Guardian, September 22, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/sep/22/leftwingers-far-right-conspiracy-theoriesanti-vaxxers-power.

840 Josh Roose, “‘It’s Almost Like Grooming’: How Anti-Vaxxers, Conspiracy Theorists and the Far Right Came Together Over COVID,” ABC News, September 22, 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-09-22/howantivaxxers-conspiracy-theorists-far-rightmelbourne-protest/100481874.

841 Koh, “Teen Detained for Planning.”

842 Raffaello Pantucci and Kyler Ong, “Persistence of Right-Wing Extremism,” 121.

843 Ibid.

844 Raffaello Pantucci and Kyler Ong, “Incels and Terrorism: Sexual Deprivation as Security Threat,” RSIS Commentary, October 6, 2020, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wpcontent/uploads/2020/10/CO20176.pdf.

845 Matthew Weaver and Steven Morris, “Plymouth Gunman: A Hate-Filled Misogynist and ‘Incel’,” The Guardian, August 13, 2021, https://amp.theguardian.com/uknews/2021/aug/13/plymouth-shooting-suspectwhat-we-know-jake-davison.

846 “Plymouth Shooting Suspect Jake Davison Who Killed Five Was A ‘Loner’ and Had Gun Permit,” Agence France-Presse, August 13, 2021, https://www.scmp.com/news/world/europe/article/3144873/plymouth-shooting-6-dead-includinggunman-who-opened-fire.

847 Laurence Arnold and Daniel Zuidijk, “What’s Become of QAnon Since Trump’s Defeat?” Bloomberg, June 14, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-06-14/what-s-become-of-qanon-since-trump-sdefeat-quicktake.

848 “Intelligence Drops,” https://qalerts.app/.

849 “ZOG,” Anti-Defamation League, https://www.adl.org/education/references/hatesymbols/zog.

850 Sarah Sidner and Marshall Cohen, “Disproportionate Number of Current and Former Military Personnel Arrested in Capitol Attack, CNN Analysis Shows,” CNN, February 4, 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/01/31/us/capitol-riotarrests-active-military-veterans-soh/index.html.

851 “Two US Neo-Nazis From ‘The Base’ Jailed For Terrorist Plot,” BBC News, October 29, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada59085935.

852 Raffaello Pantucci and Kyler Ong, “Persistence of Right-Wing Extremism,” 124-125.

853 “Germany Suspends Soldiers in Military Guard Over Far-Right Allegations,” Deutsche Welle, October 8, 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/germany-suspendssoldiers-in-military-guard-over-far-rightallegations/a-59451421.

854 “French Soldiers Warn of Civil War in New Letter,” BBC News, May 10, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe57055154.

855 “Rémy Daillet: Conspiracist Charged Over Alleged French Coup Plot,” BBC News, October 28, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/worldeurope-59075902.

856 “ASIO Annual Report 2020-21,” 38.

Another belated post from the last annual RSIS Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses (CTTA) overview of the threats over the previous year, this time looking at China, again with Nodir.

China

Xinjiang Province

For the fifth year in a row, China’s Xinjiang province was free from acts of reportedly politically motivated violence in 2021. Authorities asserted that this cessation in violence has been a product of enhanced security measures implemented in combination with re-education and labour transfer policies. In the jihadist sphere, the threat of Uyghur militancy continues to draw attention. Mainly, this stems from the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which still maintains ties to varying degrees with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria. The Afghanistan connection in particular has grown in salience since the Taliban takeover in Kabul, and will be Beijing’s main point of focus with the new government for the immediate future.

Trends

It has been just under five years since there were any reported cases of politically motivated violence involving Uyghurs in China. The last reported incident was in February 2017, when three Uyghur assailants undertook a series of knife stabbings in Hotan Prefecture in Xinjiang, an event which was followed by large displays of security presence across the region. According to Chinese counterterrorism authorities, Xinjiang has stabilised following the launch of the “special campaign against violence and terror” in 2014, which has led to crackdowns on more than 1,900 violent and terrorist gangs, the arrest of over 14,000 suspects, and the confiscation of more than 2,000 explosive devices so far.688 While it is difficult to assess these figures, it seems clear that China is keen to demonstrate it has a substantial threat it is fighting to keep under control. This crackdown builds on previous crackdowns which were conducted under the rubric of “Strike Hard” campaigns.689

The reasons for this cessation in violence in Xinjiang are hard to objectively analyse, but seem due in large part to the increasingly pervasive security blanket that exists across the region. This has two sides to it – on the one hand, a heavy security presence; on the other, widespread use of “re-education centres” and labour transfer policies within Xinjiang and other parts of China. While the implementation of the mass re-education programmes has been reportedly wound down, labour transfer policies appear to continue unabated.690 For instance, by March 2021, 250,000 Uyghur and other minority workers from Xinjiang’s Hotan Prefecture had reportedly resettled in other provinces under the ongoing state-run labour transfer scheme. Western governments and scholars have criticised this scheme as being a “system of coercion” that would ultimately aim to “thin out minority populations” in Xinjiang.691 In response, Chinese authorities and researchers have denied allegations of forced labour transfers, insisting that such programmes are a voluntary element of the state’s poverty alleviation strategy in Xinjiang.692

There is also little evidence that the security blanket has been much lowered, especially with the recent appointment of Lieutenant General Wang Haijiang to take over as PLA commander in Xinjiang. Formerly in charge of Tibet, the implication was that his approach to suppressing minorities might be the reason for his move to Xinjiang (following a pattern set by current Xinjiang Party Chief Chen Quanguo who had previously served in Tibet and brought many of his policies with him). It is likelier, however, that General Wang was picked due to his experience managing volatile borders. Ultimately, it is not PLA forces that are responsible for internal security in China.

The need for a military commander with experience in managing potentially volatile borders that China shares was illustrated by the change in government in neighbouring Afghanistan, where Beijing continues to be concerned about the potential overspill of violence. This potential threat emanates both from across the small direct border China shares with Afghanistan, the parts of Tajikistan or Pakistan that are close to China which also share a border with Afghanistan, and most substantially, from Uyghur militant groups who might use Afghanistan as a base to attack China or its interests at home or in the region. These concerns have escalated since the arrival of the Taliban-led government into Kabul.

Uyghur Groups in Afghanistan and Syria

Afghanistan and Syria continue to shelter a large number of Uyghur jihadist fighters from Xinjiang. The vast majority are known to be fighting under the most prominent Uyghur militant group, TIP. TIP retains fighting units in both theatres of conflict. Since the very early days of its participation in the Syrian conflict, the Syria-based TIP has introduced itself as the “Turkistan Islamic Party’s branch in Sham [Syria],” while indicating Abdulhaq Damullam (or Abdul Haq al-Turkistani), the long-standing leader of the Afghanistan-based TIP, as their “bash emir,” or supreme (overall) leader.693 United Nations reporting confirms that the two groups maintain direct, albeit limited, ties due to geographic distance and the difficulty of guaranteeing secure communication.694

In Afghanistan, TIP has been one of the Taliban’s closest foreign jihadist allies for nearly 25 years. Before the former’s capture of Kabul in August 2021, TIP had approximately 400 Uyghur fighters, gathered primarily in the Jurm district of the country’s north-eastern Badakhshan province, which shares a small border with Xinjiang via the mountainous Wakhan Corridor.695 Before the fall of the Westernbacked Afghan government, a contingent of 1,000 fighters, including Uyghur militants, was under the command of TIP’s deputy commander Hajji Furqan, or Qari Furqan, who has reportedly also served as a deputy commander in Al-Qaeda (AQ).696 TIP fighters participated in several Talibanrun offensives and were reported by local officials as being highly effective fighters.697 According to various reports, the group also facilitated the transit of fighters from Syria, along various routes, including via Vietnam and Pakistan toward Afghanistan.698

A potential resurgence of TIP, which China blames for many attacks at home, has been the latter’s overriding security concern. Beijing has repeatedly urged the Taliban to sever its ties with the group. In response, the Taliban leadership has reassured that nobody would be allowed to use Afghan soil as a launchpad to carry out attacks against other countries. In September, the Taliban’s spokesperson claimed that many TIP members had left Afghanistan after having been asked by the movement to do so.699 Reports, however, surfaced in October alleging that the Taliban relocated the Uyghur fighters from Badakhshan to other areas, including in the eastern Nangarhar province, suggesting that they are still residing in Afghanistan.700 Various unverified reports suggest the Uyghur presence remains a point of tension between the Taliban and China.701

In Afghanistan, TIP is not the only terrorist group of concern to China. The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), that is reported to have bases in Afghanistan from which it launches campaigns in Pakistan, are both organisations that have recently been linked to incidents involving China. Until now, ISKP has not much discussed China and the Uyghur cause.702 This changed, however, on 8 October 2021, when ISKP claimed responsibility for an attack on a Shia mosque in Kunduz that killed nearly 50 and injured dozens. In its claim of responsibility, ISKP identified the suicide attacker as “Muhammad al Uyghuri” without providing any details about his nationality.703

Rumours have circulated about his possible Turkish background and experience in Syria.704 ISKP’s use of the kunya “Al-Uyghuri” in reference to the attacker is also notable, given most Uyghur militants are usually identified as “AlTurkistani.” According to ISKP’s statement, the attack targeted “both Shias and the Taliban for their purported willingness to expel Uyghurs [from Afghanistan] to meet demands from China.”705 This explicit threat to China is something new from the group.

TTP is a more established group in some ways, though its attention has remained on Pakistan rather than Afghanistan. Recently, the group has shown an increasing interest in targeting Chinese personnel and officials.706 A suicide bombing by the TTP in April targeted the Serena Hotel in the Pakistani city of Quetta, barely missing China’s ambassador to Pakistan. Later in July, a car laden with explosives killed 12 Chinese engineers going to the Dasu hydroelectric power project in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Chinese and Pakistani officials claimed TTP and TIP to be behind the attack, though no official claim of responsibility was issued.707

In Syria, TIP remains one of the most powerful, well-organised and well-trained foreign units fighting under the umbrella of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), AQ’s former Syrian ally. TIP commands between 1,500 and 3,000 fighters in the northwestern Idlib province. In line with its apparent attempt to pivot away from the global jihadist agenda and transition into a locally-oriented revolutionary insurgency, HTS has been pressuring militant outfits under its control, including TIP, to deprioritise or give up their external agendas and links especially with internationally designated terrorist groups such as AQ. This has apparently led to internal strife within TIP, particularly between lesser extreme (pragmatic) and hard-line elements. As a result, approximately 30 per cent of the group’s fighters defected to Hurras al-Din (HAD), a faction established by veteran AQ loyalists as a counter to HTS in Syria, after the former started to distance itself from AQ.708

Amidst such developments, Ibrahim Mansur, who rose to become the leader of TIP’s Syrian branch five years ago, defected from the group. Some extremist websites in Turkish claimed in September 2021 that Mansur was captured by police officers while applying for Turkish citizenship with a fake identity in Izmir. The website accused Mansur of committing a series of crimes (murder, robbery and others) in Turkey through TIP’s hidden cells when he was leading the group. While it is unclear exactly why and how he stepped down as the group’s leader, he might have been the target of HTS’ pressuring campaign to subdue rivals and solidify its dominance.709 According to TIP videos, “Abu Umar,” also known by the moniker “Kawsar aka” (Kawsar brother), has replaced Mansur as the group’s leader.710

TIP has a very strong online presence. During the period under review (January to December 2021), it produced more than 60 extremist propaganda videos and 280 audios and released them on its Uyghur language website, which serves as a primary distribution platform of its productions to other platforms such as Telegram and Flickr. However, the coverage of Afghanistan consists only a small percentage of the overall material on the website.

The Taliban’s capture of Kabul has been an iconic moment for TIP and many other jihadist groups across the world. A few days after the fall of the Afghan government, TIP issued a statement lauding the Taliban’s “victory” and the “restoration of the Islamic Emirate.” In a video released in September, TIP’s military commander Abu Muhammad (Zahid) was shown in a video talking to a group of about 50 Uyghur teenagers studying in a madrasa (Islamic school). He claimed that the “discipline, unity, patience to struggle and investment in education” have been key for the Taliban’s “achievement of victory.” He also explained that “an independent Islamic state in their homeland” could be achieved only through “armed struggle,” while framing TIP’s involvement in the Syrian war as a necessary military preparation for its fighters.

Dozens of audio materials released by the group contain translations of the work of Abu Musab Suri, a notorious AQ-linked jihadist ideologue, and Abu al-Hasan Rashid al-Bulaydi, the slain head of the Sharia Committee of AQ in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This illustrates TIP’s continued subscription to the AQ ideology, despite HTS’ public commitment to pivot away from its AQ past. At the same time, the presence of Abu Al Harith Al Masri, an influential jihadist ideologue within HTS, in several TIP videos, shows that HTS continues to see TIP as an important partner. Overall, TIP has been more visible in Syria than in Afghanistan, assisting HTS to run checkpoints, police some villages and conduct offensives against Syrian armed forces. It remains to be seen how the fracturing witnessed within the group will play out in the longer term, or how this will affect fighter transfers from Syria to Afghanistan.711 What is clear, however, is that TIP continues to be an active force amongst the roster of international jihadist groups.

Responses

It appears unlikely that China will seek to lighten its security presence or approach in Xinjiang. From Beijing’s perspective, this process is working, and has helped ensure that there is no violence being reported in the region. Few in China seem publicly unhappy about the approach that is being taken, with most Han Chinese, the ethnic majority, appearing to be largely willing to accept the authority’s narrative of counter extremism being the primary motivation for the crackdown in the region. However, there is evidence that the Han Chinese in Xinjiang find the policies as oppressive as the Uyghurs (though it is not targeting them) and the overall environment in Xinjiang is reported as being highly oppressive for everyone.712 While some people in China have started to express anxiety about certain developments within their country,713 this is not a widespread sentiment, and the authorities in Beijing are unlikely to change paths. The external pressure brought by international sanctions and condemnation only appears to feed a nationalist sentiment around the policies, even further reducing the desire by Beijing to change course.

Separately, there appears to be some Chinese trepidation about the potential for trouble from Afghanistan to impact the threat picture in China. This has been expressed in a number of different ways. In the first instance, there has been a more visible presence of Chinese intelligence within Afghanistan, reportedly focusing on trying to proactively disrupt perceived Uyghur threats in the country. This was sharply brought into focus in December 2020, when a network of Chinese intelligence agents was reportedly disrupted and ejected from the country.714

There was also an increase in commentary by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs suggesting that the US might be seeking to use Uyghur groups in Afghanistan to try to destabilise China.715 And finally, the Chinese government sought to engage all sides in talks and highlighted concerns about militant Uyghurs in every format. This included meetings with security officials with the old government in Kabul,716 as well as with the Taliban.717 Though, as reports in October uncovered, there were some 35 Uyghur militants in Afghan detention, when the former government fell, who were freed, illustrating Chinese problems with both the old government and the Taliban.718 On their part, the Chinese press and expert community continue to publicly express concern about the potential for militant Uyghurs to use Afghanistan as a base of operations.719

Outlook

TIP’s (or other Uyghurs) fate in Afghanistan will depend on the Taliban’s political will and ability to balance complex internal and external challenges. The current Taliban government in Afghanistan is highly focused on trying to gain international legitimacy, and so is incentivised to instruct militant groups in the country to not use it as a base to launch attacks elsewhere. However, the Taliban are also ideologically motivated and likely feel a certain degree of loyalty to TIP (amongst others), who have been fighting alongside them for over two decades. According to jihadi precepts, any unreasonable disavowal of existing oaths of allegiance would be viewed as a serious offence. The Taliban may therefore choose to settle the issue through informal but non-aggressive methods – moving militants around as has already been suggested, ask individuals to leave or disarm them. Whether this will work, and how far they will go to enforce this is unclear. Any violent suppression may turn some TIP militants against the Taliban, or even lead them to join ISKP. The problem is that it is equally unclear whether a path of compromise will be adequate for outside powers like China that the Taliban are keen to cultivate to help gain greater international acceptance.

By claiming publicly to have mobilised a Uyghur fighter to launch its Kunduz mosque bombing and by portraying the attack as a retaliation for the Taliban’s ostensible cooperation with China against Uyghurs, ISKP is giving a clear signal that it will have a more hands-on stance towards China. This is a direct challenge to evolving Taliban-China relations and helps bolster ISKP’s narrative of being the leading anti-Taliban organisation in Afghanistan. In using this messaging, the group may be willing to position itself as a new protector of the Uyghurs after the Taliban’s stated incentive to curb its ties with Uyghurs, so that it could recruit disaffected TIP militants and others to swell its ranks. In Syria, more pragmatic and less extreme members of TIP remain aligned with HTS, assisting this alliance to consolidate its local control. Although HAD, with its more global and extreme outlook, may keep attracting hardline Uyghurs, it will likely continue to focus on local priorities given pressure coming from both HTS and the Syrian government.

Overall, however, there remains little evidence that any of the many Uyghur factions has developed a capability to strike within China, though an increase in the targeting of Chinese nationals and messaging focusing on China going forward is likely, involving an ever-wider range of militant organisations.

About the Authors

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

Nodirbek Soliev is a Senior Analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at isnsoliev@ntu.edu.sg.

688 “ETIM Is a Big Threat as It Keeps Sending Members to China to Plot Terrorist Attacks: Ministry of Public Security,” Global Times, July 16, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202107/1228823.shtml.

689 This is a term used by the Chinese government to characterise the ‘harder’ side of their response to dealing with instability and terrorism in Xinjiang. The term has been used a number of times over the years, but most recently in 2014 in the wake of a visit to the region by President Xi Jinping. See “‘Strike Hard’ Campaign Aims to Restore Harmony in Xinjiang,” Global Times, July 7, 2014 https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/869084.shtml.

690 John Sudworth, “‘If the Others Go I’ll Go’: Inside China’s Scheme to Transfer Uighurs Into Work,” BBC News, March 2, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china56250915. There is also some dispute on whether the Xinjiang government is actually winding down its re-education camps.

691 Ibid.

692 Xie Wenting and Fan Lingzhi, “Xinjiang Workers Enjoy Full Freedom and Benefits Working in Guangdong, Academics Find Through 9-Month-Long Field Study,” Global Times, March 23, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202103/1219241.shtml.

693 It should be noted that some sources including the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) refer to the TIP’s Afghanistan-based core as the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). ETIM continues to be designated by the UNSC and several countries as an international terrorist organisation. However, the U.S. Department of State and some scholars insist that the ETIM is not a real organisation, but just a mislabel used to describe Uyghur jihadists who fought in Afghanistan. As TIP’s Syrian branch and its core in Afghanistan currently identify themselves only as TIP, the authors use TIP in this article to refer to both branches.

694 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (July 21, 2021), 11, https://undocs.org/S/2021/655.

695 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (June 1, 2021), 19-20, https://www.undocs.org/pdf?symbol=en/S/2021/486; “Chinese Uighur Militants Operating Under Taliban Umbrella in Badakhshan,” KabulNow, March 1, 2021, https://kabulnow.com/2021/03/chinese-uighurmilitants-operating-under-taliban-umbrella-inbadakhshan/.

696 Ibid., 20.

697 Tamim Asey, “China’s Borderland Relations: Afghanistan,” Young China Watchers Online Discussion, September 2021, https://www.youngchinawatchers.com/chinasborderland-relations-afghanistan-with-tamimasey/.

698 Ibid. Asev clearly made reference to the Vietnam/Pakistan route. The transit has been reported in the UN Monitoring Group’s reporting, though there are also some dissenting views from Turkey suggesting this transit may not be taking place to the scale suggested. See “From Myth to Reality: A Look at the Flow of Fighters From Idlib To Afghanistan,” Independent Turkce, October 9, 2021, https://www.indyturk.com/node/421701/t%C3%BCrki%CC%87yeden-sesler/efsanedenger%C3%A7ekli%C4%9Fe-i%CC%87dlibtenafganistana-sava%C5%9F%C3%A7%C4%B1-ak%C4%B1%C5%9F%C4%B1-iddialar%C4%B1na.

699 Wen Ting Xie and Yun Yi Bai, “Exclusive: New Afghan Govt Eyes Exchanging Visits With China; ETIM Has No Place in Afghanistan: Taliban Spokesperson,” Global Times, September 9, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202109/1233876.shtml.

700 Reid Standish, “Taliban ‘Removing’ Uyghur Militants From Afghanistan’s Border With China,” RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, October 5, 2021, https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/taliban-uyghurmilitants-afghan-china/31494094.html.

701 “China’s Intelligence Chief Mounts Pressure on Sirajuddin Haqqani to Extradite Uyghur Militants From Afghanistan,” Sify.com, October 9, 2021, https://www.sify.com/news/chinasintelligence-chief-mounts-pressure-on-sirajuddinhaqqani-to-extradite-uyghur-militants-fromafghanistan-news-national-vkjjktfjhbehf.html.

702 Elliot Stewart, “The Islamic State Stopped Talking About China,” War on the Rocks, January 19, 2021, https://warontherocks.com/2021/01/theislamic-state-stopped-talking-about-uighurs/.

703 Although the bomber’s nom de guerre (“Al Uighuri”) suggests that he could be an ethnic Uyghur, it does not mean that he was necessarily from Xinjiang. Despite the fact that a majority of ethnic Uyghurs reside in Xinjiang, there are Uyghur immigrant communities in many foreign countries including Afghanistan.

704 Saleem Mehsud, “Some interesting details about ISIS-K Kunduz suicide bomb Muhammed al Uyghuri-was Boxer; former solider of Turkish Army; migrated to Khorasan with his elder brother to join ISKP etc; his elder brother killed in classes with Taliban in Khogyani district of Nangrahar, Afghanistan,” Twitter, October 8, 2021, https://twitter.com/saleemmehsud/status/1446762669713895428?s=12.

705 “Afghanistan: Dozens Killed in Suicide Bombing at Kunduz Mosque,” Al Jazeera, October 8, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/10/8/blasthits-a-mosque-in-afghanistans-kunduz-duringfriday-prayers.

706 Xin Liu, Hui Zhang and Yun Yi Bai, “TTP’s Enmity Toward Pakistan Creates Risk for Chinese Projects: Analysts,” Global Times, September 18, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202109/1234606.shtml.

707 “Truth on Dasu Terror Attack Surfaces Amid Unanswered Questions, As China And Pakistan Step Up Security For Chinese,” Global Times, August 13, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202108/1231423.shtml.

708 United Nations Security Council, “Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (July 21, 2021), 11, https://undocs.org/S/2021/655.

709 HTS has a record of removing non-abiding commanders with corruption and criminality charges (framed or actual).

710 UN reports identify him as “Kaiwusair.”

711 “From Myth to Reality: A Look at the Flow of Fighters From Idlib to Afghanistan,” Independent Turkce, October 9, 2021, https://www.indyturk.com/node/421701/t%C3%BCrki%CC%87yeden-sesler/efsaneden-ger%C3%A7ekli%C4%9Fe-i%CC%87dlibtenafganistana-sava%C5%9F%C3%A7%C4%B1-ak%C4%B1%C5%9F%C4%B1-iddialar%C4%B1na.

712 “’The Atmosphere Has Become Abnormal’: Han Chinese Views From Xinjiang,” SupChina, November 4, 2020, https://supchina.com/2020/11/04/han-chineseviews-from-xinjiang/.

713 Darren Byler, “‘Truth and reconciliation’: Excerpts From the Xinjiang Clubhouse,” SupChina, March 3, 2021, https://supchina.com/2021/03/03/truth-andreconciliation-excerpts-from-the-xinjiangclubhouse/.

714 “10 Chinese Spies Caught in Kabul Get a Quiet Pardon, Fly Home in Chartered Aircraft,” Hindustan Times, January 4, 2021, https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/10-chinese-spies-caught-in-kabul-get-a-quietpardon-fly-home-in-chartered-aircraft/storyYhNI0zjmClMcj6T7TCCwVM.html.

715 “Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference on March 26, 2021,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, March 27, 2021, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/t1864659.shtml.

716 “Zhu afuhan dashi wang yi huijian a di yi fu zongtong sa li he pibo mei ‘she jiang shengming’,” February 3, 2021, http://af.chinaembassy.org/chn/sgxw/t1850986.htm.

717 “Wang Yi Meets With Head of the Afghan Taliban Political Commission Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, July 28, 2021, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1895950.shtml

718 “Exclusive: Uyghur Jailbreak Complicates Taliban’s Ties With China,” The Telegraph, October 16, 2021, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/worldnews/2021/10/16/exclusive-uyghur-jailbreakcomplicates-talibans-ties-china/.

719 “Will Afghan Taliban Honor Its Promise to China to Make a Clean Break With ETIM,” Global Times, September 16, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202109/1234477.shtml.

Have been very slow in posting of late for a wide and varied set of reasons – stuff at home, lots of work and generally chaotic start to the year. Made all the worse by current events which seem to continue to trump themselves in misery. Anyway, first up, one of three contributions to this year’s Annual Assessment Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses (CTTA) for my Singaporean host institution the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). This ones provides an overview of events last year in relation to extremism and terrorism linked to Central Asia – either in the region or beyond. As ever, enjoyed doing this with Nodir.

Central Asia

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan

Despite the absence of recorded terrorist attacks over the last two years, countering terrorism and extremism remained a security priority for the five Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in 2021. This is primarily accrued to potential risks arising from the presence and activities of Central Asian jihadist groups in Syria and neighbouring Afghanistan, where the radical Taliban movement took power in August. In both theatres of conflict, Central Asian fighters continue to fight under the protection and control of bigger militant groups such as the Taliban, Hay ’ at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Islamic State (IS). Another ongoing challenge is the exploitation by regional groups of online tools to radicalise, recruit and fund-raise both within the region and amongst diaspora communities scattered around Europe, Russia and beyond.

Militant Groups in Afghanistan

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan has left Central Asia with a complex security dilemma along its border. While Afghanistan’s strategic landscape may differ from the five Central Asian states in a number of ways, the presence of interlinked cross-border communities, as well as relatively porous borders and linked economies, also binds them together. The overriding regional security concern is Central Asian militant groups that had been fighting alongside the Taliban will take advantage of the situation to regroup and refocus their attention towards Central Asia, using Afghanistan as a springboard. This, alongside the possibility that the wider militancy in Afghanistan might lead once again to an unstable state whose violence might overspill in other ways into the region, has put Central Asian authorities on alert.

For more than two decades, Afghanistan has sheltered various Central Asian militant groups. Currently, four Central Asian militant units, namely the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Jamaat Ansarullah (JA), Islamic Jihad Union (IJU or IJG) and the Afghanistan wing of Katibat Imam al-Bukhari (KIB) are known to be active there. All four groups operate under the protection and control of the Taliban and retain some ties among themselves. From the late 1990s to early 2010s, IMU, JA, IJU and two other Central Asian groups, Jund Al Khilafah and Jaysh Al Mahdi, which might not be active presently, had carried out some significant attacks in Central Asia from their bases in Afghanistan-Pakistan, while maintaining close links with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda (AQ).

Over the past decade, the aforementioned Taliban-linked groups have not carried out an attack in Central Asia. Nor have there been many large-scale plots disrupted by local governments that were planned by them.651 While this could partly be explained by the Central Asian states’ increased capacity to prevent attacks, another significant factor could be the Taliban’s prohibition of its foreign units to involve themselves in external operations or their sustained focus on fighting the Afghan National Army and western forces.652 While there has not been much public reporting around this, as the Taliban had been in protracted negotiations with the US government in recent years, they did start to issue edicts aimed at their foreign militant allies. For instance, in September 2020, the Taliban reportedly ordered the foreign groups operating from their territory to halt unauthorised travel and recruitment.653 Other leaked messages from the Taliban to their commanders and other groups had contained instructions to refrain from using Afghan territory to plan or execute external attacks, while some also detailed punishments if these groups worked with foreigners without special permission from the central leadership.654

Before capturing Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban used these foreign fighters as foot soldiers in their offensives against the Afghan forces, the US-led coalition and jihadist rivals. This generated a lot of video and other visual content which the groups would actively promote to highlight their activities, further recruit, fund-raise and radicalise. However, since 2020, the Taliban has prohibited Central Asian groups from publishing online photo and video materials of their activities in Afghanistan.655 As a result, their release of online propaganda materials has dropped precipitously. It is unclear how much this correlates with a cessation of activities, but it is likely part of an attempt by the Taliban to hide the presence of foreign fighters in Afghanistan.

Before the Taliban takeover, the IMU, with less than 700 fighters and their family members, were residing in the Afghan provinces of Faryab, Sar-e Pol and Jowzjan.656 The group was reportedly experiencing financial difficulties after the Taliban reduced financial support to them in the wake of their former leader Usman Ghazi’s defection to IS in 2015. Ghazi was killed by the Taliban as punishment in late 2015. The result of this clash was that the IMU would splinter into two factions: one comprising predominantly ethnic Uzbek militants (led by Jafar Yuldash, the son of Takhir Yuldash, the notorious founding leader of the group who was killed in 2009) and the other with mainly ethnic Tajiks (led by “Ilhom” alias “Usmoni Khon,” Yuldash’s former deputy). IMU has been significantly weakened in recent years by the loss of key leadership, the Taliban’s pressure and ongoing internal fissures within the group. It remains unclear how close the respective factions are with the Taliban, though their continual presence in Taliban controlled areas in Afghanistan shows they are clearly still dependent on their support to some degree.

Unlike the IMU, JA remains a reliable partner of the Taliban. Made up mainly of ethnic Tajiks, the group is known as “the Tajik Taliban” in Afghanistan. Its leader, Muhammad Sharifov (alias “Mahdi Arsalan”), who is originally from Tajikistan’s eastern Rasht Valley, is said to have at least 200 fighters under his command.657 In July and August 2021, the Taliban relied on JA when it captured the northern Afghan provinces. including Badakhshan, which shares a common border with Tajikistan. The Taliban have placed Mahdi and his militants in charge of several districts in the northern region, and armed them with new military vehicles (including Humvees), weaponry and other equipment seized from the toppled Afghan civilian government. While expressing doubts over the seriousness of the threat these groups pose across the border, Tajik authorities have heightened security along their own borders. The Taliban has denied that the militants were planning to infiltrate Tajikistan.658

Separately, the KIB’s Afghan wing, with about 25 to 150 fighters, was based mostly in Badghis. The group had reportedly received funding from its central core in Idlib through hawala methods to increase its operational capability.659 KIB’s leader Dilshod Dekhanov (alias “Jumaboi”) has encouraged the Taliban leadership to bring together all Central Asian militant groups in Afghanistan under his command. Some factions, however, instead proposed the IJU’s current leader, Ilimbek Mamatov (a Kyrgyz national who is also known as Khamidulla), as the overarching commander.660 Overall, the fate of Central Asian groups in Afghanistan, and their potential unification prospects remains unclear since the Taliban returned to power.

Militant Groups in Syria

In Syria, AQ-linked Central Asian combat units such as Katibat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (KTJ) and KIB’s central core have remained active. As in previous years, both KTJ and KIB are part of the jihadist alliance of HTS, itself an evolution of AQ’s former representative on the Syrian battlefield. There are no official updated numbers on the force strength of KTJ and KIB in 2021. However, relevant reports from 2020 and recent online propaganda videos featuring militant training sessions suggest both remain among the most prominent foreign militant groups in Syria, commanding hundreds of fighters.661

KTJ is still led by Khikmatov (alias “Abdul Aziz”) and Akhliddin Novkatiy (Navqotiy), who serves as his deputy. Like KTJ’s former leader, both figures are hardline Salafi-jihadist ideologues who constantly preach before KTJ fighters and their families and release recorded videos online. Mainly, their propaganda appears designed to emphasise the importance and legitimacy of conducting armed jihad in Syria.

In this light, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan represents an iconic moment for Central Asian groups. In August, KTJ posted a video on its Telegram channel congratulating the Taliban on its “victory,” which it claimed “was achieved through a sustained patience and determined struggle.” In a recent video, Khikmatov also claimed that “the fate of the state built by Morsi” in Egypt was a “reminder of realities that it would be impossible to build an Islamic state through political methods.” For its part, KIB still operates under the command of “Abu Yusuf Muhajir,” who also actively engages in jihadi preaching activities.

Amidst their ongoing dispute for supremacy in Idlib, HTS and Hurras ad-Din (HAD), AQ’s current affiliate in Syria, had also jostled for control over the Central Asian fighters operating in the territory. As discussed in the previous year’s reporting, this had ended with the arrest of KTJ’s former leader, Abu Saloh, by HTS for attempting to defect to HAD. There has been some speculation about his subsequent fate. According to the United Nations’ (UN) reporting, Abu Saloh was given the choice of declaring his affiliation to HTS or being convicted of theft.662 Others speculated that HTS had considered deporting him to Russia, where he is suspected of masterminding the 2017 metro bombing in Saint Petersburg, if it could receive a substantive bounty in exchange.663 Currently, his status is unknown.

Nearly three years after IS’ territorial defeat in Syria and Iraq, Central Asian fighters have become nearly invisible. Whilst many detained IS women and children have been repatriated by their respective governments, the remaining IS fighters from the region have either gone into hiding or are scattered across ungoverned parts of Syria and Iraq and continued fighting. Some of those still at large have also opted to leave the battlefield to return home or relocate elsewhere. For instance in February 2021, Turkish security agencies in the city of Kilis detained Amanbek Samat, a former IS militant from Kazakhstan’s Atyrau region as he attempted to cross the border from Syria.664 Kazakh authorities worked closely with their Turkish counterparts to extradite Amanbek, who was on Kazakhstan’s most wanted terror suspect list.665

Internal Challenges

In 2021, Central Asian countries continued to foil attack plots and arrest suspected terrorists and self radicalised individuals. In the first half of the year, Kazakhstan had recorded 139 criminal cases related to terrorism and extremism, largely involving online radicalisation and the propagation of violence.666 This marked a twenty percent increase over the same period in 2020. Most cases were observed in the southern provinces of Turkistan and Jambyl as well as Shymkent city. In January 2021 in Kyrgyzstan, security agencies arrested a Kyrgyz national for planning to attack a local military unit under the instruction of an unnamed international terrorist group, of which he was suspected of being a member.667 Later in July, a Kyrgyz citizen who returned home from Afghanistan allegedly on the pretext of carrying out an attack was also detained.668 Details around this case were not released, making it hard to assess any potential links to Afghan jihadist groups. However, reflecting local officials’ concerns around the cross-border links of radicalised Kyrgyz, two individuals were arrested in October for their involvement in fund-raising believed to be linked to the January 2017 IS-linked shooting at an Istanbul nightclub.669

In August in Tajikistan, the Minister for Internal Affairs revealed the authorities had thwarted three attacks in the first six months of 2021 in Farkhor, Isfara and Vahdat districts. The foiled attacks were reportedly planned by members of IS and the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). The latter is banned in Tajikistan and designated an extremist and terrorist organisation.670 The country also arrested 143 suspected members and supporters of other banned terrorist and extremist organisations, including IS, AQ, JA and the Muslim Brotherhood.

In Uzbekistan in April, security authorities revealed they had thwarted two attacks in 2020, without providing further details.671 Further rounds of arrests were also conducted across the country throughout 2021, disrupting several online recruitment and fund-raising cells particularly linked to KTJ.672 In June, Uzbek authorities detained members of two separate support cells in Jizzakh and Samarkand for trying to travel to Syria to join KTJ and propagating extremism among residents in these provinces.673 In the same month, police also held another 20 individuals from Sirdaryo on suspicion of distributing ‘extremist materials’, while seizing extremist literature, a laptop, pistol, and sniper rifle.674 As in previous years, no reporting was available from Turkmenistan.

Diaspora Radicalisation

The networking of Central Asian and Russian-speaking fighters on the ground in Syria and Iraq and the ability of such networks to reach out and radicalise some segments of Central Asian and Russian diaspora communities abroad, particularly in Europe and Russia, remains a security concern. In March 2021, investigators in France revealed that Abdoullakh Anzorov, a Chechen immigrant who murdered the French schoolteacher Samuel Paty in a Paris suburb, was in direct contact in October 2020 with Farrukh Fayzimatov, an Idlib-based Tajik militant, through Instagram right before the murder. Fayzimatov is an active member of HTS who goes by the nom de guerre “Faruq Shami,”675

While it remains unknown what role (if any) Fayzimatov might have played in Paty’s murder, Anzorov reportedly had regular discussions with him about jihadi topics. It also should be noted that Paty’s murder came a month after Fayzimatov called for an attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s offices, while expressing his own readiness to take part in it, in response to the republication of the controversial cartoon of Prophet Muhammad.676 An HTS spokesperson claimed that they did not know Anzorov, but stopped short of condemning the murder.677

Despite allegations that Fayzimatov might have been killed in Idlib, recent videos discussing battleground events in Syria indicate that he is still alive and continues working for HTS as an important virtual jihadist propagandist and fund-raiser. Since 2016, Fayzimatov has produced hundreds of audio and video propaganda materials in Russian and Tajik. In July 2021, the US Treasury Department blacklisted Fayzimatov for providing financial and material support to HTS.678 Through various online crowdfunding campaigns, Fayzimatov has apparently collected several thousand dollars in Bitcoin (BTC) and other cryptocurrencies transferred from multiple US, Russian, Asian and European exchanges.679

Like in recent years, Russian authorities in 2021 continued to investigate and arrest Central Asian migrants suspected of having links to terrorist or extremist groups. Most arrests involved cases of terrorism financing and recruitment as well as attack plots linked to members and supporters of KTJ in particular. For instance in August 2021, Russian security services rounded up 31 suspected members of KTJ in a coordinated operation across Moscow, Yakutsk, Krasnoyarsk and Novosibirsk.680 According to the Federal Security Service (FSB), the detainees were part of an “interprovincial structure of terrorists” that had transferred funds and recruits to Syria and called for committing terrorist crimes in Russia. However, it did not reveal how many of those detainees were from Central Asia.

Similar but smaller scale arrests of Central Asians in Russia with links to KTJ took place in February in Novosibirsk and Tomsk, in May in Kaliningrad, and in October in Moscow and Vladimir. Other frequent arrests involved members and supporters of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) within this migrant community. HT is a transnational pan-Islamist and neo-fundamentalist revolutionary group, which has been banned in Russia and all Central Asian countries and designated an extremist and terrorist organisation. Similar arrests involving HT-linked individuals are conducted regularly in Central Asia, particularly in Kyrgyzstan.

In previous years, concerns had been raised about a segment of the Central Asian diaspora networks in Europe having possible links to terrorist networks in the Syrian and Afghan conflict zones. In 2021, however, there were no major disruptions from this community. Previous cases, however, continue to work their way through the system, with police in Germany finally incarcerating a member of a Tajik cell detained in April 2020 for planning attacks on US military facilities, while posting charges against five of his associates.681 In January, a Greek court also refused an extradition request by Tajikistan against a 27-year-old individual accused of being an IS member. According to reports, the Tajik national, who was initially arrested in Tripoli in November 2020, had claimed the extradition request was politically motivated as he was the persecuted brother-in-law of an IRPT member.682

The case reflects an ongoing issue between Europe and Central Asia involving aspects of cooperation on counterterrorism, where European courts continue to accuse some countries in the region of alleged human rights abuses, which the latter have often refuted Still in other areas, it is notable that Central Asian states are providing some European powers, Germany and France in particular, a great deal of support, including supporting their evacuation of nationals and others stranded in Afghanistan. Beyond Europe, countries in the region have developed bilateral counter-terrorism cooperation, including the extradition of terrorist suspects, with countries such as Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Responses

Broadly, state responses in Central Asia for managing extremism and radicalisation have stayed fairly constant. Governments maintain heightened security measures, while also working through international partnerships to disrupt militant networks. Concurrently, community-level programmes have been rolled out to counter-radicalisation. A major effort deployed (to varying degrees of success and commitment) across the region is the deradicalisation and reintegration of those repatriated from Syria.683 While no independent evaluations of these programmes exist, it is notable that no plot involving returnees has been publicly highlighted yet.

Over the past year, the major shift in the threat picture has been prompted by developments in Afghanistan. Despite shared concerns, the five Central Asian republics have adopted differing responses to the ground situation and the Taliban’s return. Most in the region have viewed the Taliban’s capture of power in Afghanistan as a new reality to contend with, and sought to develop pragmatic but cautious relations with the new authority in Kabul. For now, this pragmatic relationship has been confined to the delivery of humanitarian assistance, re-establishment of mutual trade and discussions on important security issues, including the Taliban’s future relationship with Central Asian militants in territory under its control.

Beyond this, it will likely extend to an establishment of diplomatic relations only after international recognition of the Taliban-led government is attained. Ashgabat was one of the first capitals to engage with the new Taliban government, publicly meeting with them repeatedly long before Kabul fell. During the closing weeks of the Republic government, Turkmenistan faced clashes directly on its borders; as soon as the Taliban took over, they rapidly re-engaged and commenced talks about restarting major infrastructure projects connecting Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.

Tashkent sees shutting off economic and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan as something which will only risk greater instability.684 The bigger question for Uzbekistan is the degree to which they will engage a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan into their vision for a greater Central Asia, which includes Afghanistan. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has placed great emphasis on his regional foreign policy initiative and, shortly before the fall of Kabul, hosted a large conference focused on Central and South Asian connectivity, with Afghanistan sitting at its core.

In contrast, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon has chosen to turn his country into the main home for opposition figures to the Taliban, hosting numerous elements from the Northern Alliance faction that used to dominate Kabul. Shortly after the Taliban’s takeover, President Rahmon signed a decree which posthumously awarded the country’s third highest honour, the Order of Ismoili Somoni, to Ahmed Shah Masood and Burhanuddin Rabbani, two dead leaders of the Northern Alliance who had fought against the Taliban and also played a role in Afghanistan’s brutal civil war.685 The awards have been followed by open and loud condemnation of the Taliban and a continuing willingness to back opposition groups.

Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have taken a more circumspect approach. While Kyrgyzstan in particular had suffered in the late 1990s from numerous large assaults by militants in the south with links to groups in Afghanistan, both countries have now established direct contact with the Taliban and largely accepted them as a new reality.686 Additionally, they seem keen to work both bilaterally and through regional structures like the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to manage their responses.

Both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan’s responses have also been bolstered by external military support, including from Russia. In the weeks before Kabul fell, Moscow held joint military exercises near both countries’ borders with Afghanistan. Russia has also sped up military sales, and sent military aid to the region. Mirroring its particular concerns, China undertook some limited joint exercises with Tajik Interior Ministry forces, and offered more support for Tajik border forces. China has also increased its diplomatic activity in Central Asia, though this reflects a wider range of concerns beyond just terrorism and extremism.

Outlook

The fate of Central Asian militants in Afghanistan will largely depend on the commitment, ability, and approach taken by the Taliban in dealing with foreign militants in the country. So far, the discussion around foreign militants has focused on western fears about AQ’s revival, the potential for the Taliban’s implacable adversary, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), to export terrorist violence or how the Taliban are managing the Uyghur contingent wanted by Beijing, believed to be in Afghanistan. Whilst historically, the Uyghur group has been close to the Central Asian militants fighting alongside the Taliban, the latter could now seek to decouple them, reflecting very different concerns in Beijing vis-a-vis Central Asia.687

In Syria, Central Asian fighters continue to play an active part in ongoing fighting, though it is not clear that their trajectory varies from that of HTS or the other remnant IS fighters on the ground. While the Central Asian governments continue to express a high degree of concern about the potential for terrorist violence to affect them, attacks are rare, and few indicators point to this changing soon. As in elsewhere, the spectre of foreign fighters returning home to launch terrorist attacks has not yet materialised, though they remain a concern for regional governments for the near to medium term.

The other key element involves the instances of Central Asians appearing in terrorist networks outside their region. While still an occasional occurrence, that Central Asian jihadist groups and ideologues continue to exploit – to varying degrees – online platforms, such as Telegram, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, to post and disseminate their extremist materials underscores their connection with the increasingly diffused diaspora. Sometimes, this has manifested in attacks around the world, though the degree of direction involved is not always clear (for example, the Samuel Paty murder). Instead, the continuing presence and spread of extremist materials, inspiring segments of the Central Asian diaspora, provide another reason for security officials to be concerned about them.

About the Authors

Nodirbek Soliev is a Senior Analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at isnsoliev@ntu.edu.sg.

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

651 Attacks which have taken place have been linked elsewhere (for example, the 2016 attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek was linked to Central Asian and Uyghur militants in Syria).

652 Further, it should be noted that sustained kinetic operations by the US-led international coalition has been another important factor in the decline of the militant threat in Afghanistan in the last decade as they had restrained the organisational capability of Central Asian groups, in addition to killing or capturing key jihadist leaders.

653 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (June 1, 2021), 18, https://www.undocs.org/pdf?symbol=en/S/2021/486.

654 Rahmatullah Amiri and Ashley Jackson, “Taliban Narratives on Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan,” Centre for the Study of Armed Groups Working Paper, September 2021, https://cdn.odi.org/media/documents/Taliban_narratives___13_Sept.pdf.

655 “Sovet Bezopasnosti OON: Taliban prodolzhayet pokrovitel’stvovat’ tsentral’noaziatskim dzhikhadistam,” The Center for Studying Regional Threats, March 19, 2021, https://crss.uz/2021/03/19/sovet-bezopasnostioon-taliban-prodolzhaet-pokrovitelstvovatcentralnoaziatskim-dzhixadistam/.

656 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (June 1, 2021), 20.

657 “Commander of Jamaat Ansarullah Radical Group Declares His Readiness to Invade Into Tajikistan,” Asia-Plus, October 7, 2021, https://asiaplustj.info/en/news/tajikistan/security/20211007/commander-of-jamaat-ansarullah-radical-group-declares-his-readiness-to-invadeinto-tajikistan.

658 “Tajikistan Concerned About Taliban Plots to Infiltrate From Afghanistan,” RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, September 25, 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/tajikistan-concernedtaliban-plots/31477716.html.

659 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (June 1, 2021), 20.

660 Prior to the Taliban takeover, the IJU had about 100 fighters active in Faryab and Kunduz provinces. See “2002 god. Prednovogodniy terakt,” AKIpress, December 27, 2017, https://kg.akipress.org/news:628918.

661 HTS has involved these groups mainly in frontline duties, running checkpoints and offensives against the Syrian army.

662 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (February 3, 2021), 16, https://undocs.org/pdf?symbol=en/S/2021/68.

663 Charles Lister, “Twenty Years After 9/11: The Fight for Supremacy in Northwest Syria and the Implications for Global Jihad,” CTC Sentinel 14, no. 7 (September 2021): 1-105, https://ctc.usma.edu/twenty-years-after-9-11-thefight-for-supremacy-in-northwest-syria-and-theimplications-for-global-jihad/.

664 “Zaderzhan kazakhstanets, kotorogo nazvali odnim iz samykh razyskivayemykh terroristov,” Tengrinews, February 20, 2021, https://tengrinews.kz/world_news/zaderjankazahstanets-kotorogo-nazvali-odnim-samyih429572/.

665 “KNB raskryl lichnost’ samogo razyskivayemogo kazakhstantsa,” Sputnik, March 2, 2021, https://ru.sputnik.kz/society/20210302/16427658/KNB-raskryl-lichnost-samogo-razyskivaemogokazakhstantsa.html.

666 “Chislo svyazannykh s ekstremizmom i terrorizmom prestupleniy vyroslo v Kazakhstane,” Tengrinews, September 3, 2021, https://tengrinews.kz/kazakhstan_news/chislosvyazannyih-ekstremizmom-terrorizmomprestupleniy-447516/.

667 “V Kyrgyzstane predotvratili terakt v voyskovoy chasti — GKNB,” Sputnik, January 2, 2021, https://ru.sputnik.kg/incidents/20210102/1050972720/kyrgyzstan-gknb-terakt-predotvraschenieterrorizm.html.

668 “V Kyrgyzstane zaderzhan boyevik, planirovavshiy sovershit’ terakt,” 24kg, July 16, 2021, https://24.kg/obschestvo/201365_vkyirgyizstane_zaderjan_boevik_planirovavshiy_sovershit_terakt/.

669 https://svodka.akipress.org/news:1736685

670 “MVD: v Tadzhikistane udalos’ predotvratit’ triterakta,” Sputnik, August 4, 2021, https://tj.sputniknews.ru/20210804/mvd-tajikistanterakt-1041398103.html.

671 “SGB predotvratila 2 terakta v Uzbekistane v 2020 godu,” Gazeta, April 5, 2021, https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2021/04/05/securityservice/.

672 “V Syrdar’ye zaderzhany chleny terroristicheskoy gruppirovki “Katiba Taukhid val’-Dzhikhad,”” Podrobno, July 20, 2021, https://podrobno.uz/cat/obchestvo/v-syrdarezaderzhany-chleny-terroristicheskoy-gruppirovkikatiba-taukhid-val-dzhikhad-/.

673 “Zaderzhany 14 chelovek, podozrevayemykh v popytke primknut’ k boyevikam v Sirii,” Gazeta, June 11, 2021, https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2021/06/11/terrorism/; “Jizzaxda Suriyadagi terrorchilik tashkiloti tarkibiga kirmoqchi bo’lgan shaxslar qo’lga olindi,” Daryo, June 15, 2021, https://daryo.uz/k/2021/06/15/jizzaxda-suriyadagiterrorchilik-tashkiloti-tarkibiga-kirmoqchi-bolganshaxslar-qolga-olindi/.

674 “20 chelovek, podozrevayemykh v ekstremizme, zaderzhano v Syrdar’ye,” Gazeta, June 17, 2021, https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2021/06/17/extremists/.

675 Thomas Chammah, “Assassinat de Samuel Paty : le dernier contact du tueur identifie en Syrie,” CNews, March 10, 2021, https://www.cnews.fr/videos/france/2021-03-09/assassinat-de-samuel-paty-le-dernier-contactdu-tueur-identifie-en-syrie; “Posobnikom ubiytsy uchitelya vo Frantsii okazalsya urozhenets Tadzhikistana,” Sputnik Tajikistan, March 9, 2021, https://tj.sputniknews.ru/20210309/urozhenetstajikistan-soobschnik-terrorista-france1032967527.html.

676 “Kak spetssluzhby Ukrainy formiruyut rusofobskuyu povestku v siriyskom Idlibe,” RIA FAN, December 3, 2020, https://riafan.ru/1345935-kak-specsluzhbyukrainy-formiruyut-rusofobskuyu-povestku-vsiriiskom-idlibe. This came after a separate attempt in France by a young radicalized Pakistani who tried to kill two journalists outside Charlie Hebdo’s old offices.

677 Luc Mathieu, “Le Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, parrain syrien d’Anzorov?” Libération, October 23, 2020, https://advance.lexis.com/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:6147-P9D1-JBW3-818W-00000-00&context=1516831. It is worth noting that in other contexts, HTS has been linked to attacks which it has kept silent about – like the 2017 metro bombing in St Petersburg which Russian investigators had linked to the group.

678 “Counter Terrorism Designations; Syria and Syria-Related Designations and Designations Updates,” July 28, 2021, https://home.treasury.gov/policy-issues/financialsanctions/recent-actions/20210728.

679 “OFAC Sanctions Syrian-Based Terrorist Financier and Associated Bitcoin Address,” TRM Labs, July 28, 2021, https://www.trmlabs.com/post/ofac-sanctionssyrian-based-hayet-tahrir-al-sham-terroristfinancier.

680 Roman Shimaev, “«Osushchestvlyali perepravku rekrutov v zony boyevykh deystviy»: FSB zaderzhala boleye 30 terroristov v chetyrokh regionakh Rossii,” Russia Today, August 25, 2021, https://russian.rt.com/russia/article/899393-fsb-zaderzhanie-terrorizm-yacheiki-regiony.

681 “Germany Charges Five Tajiks Over Islamic State Membership,” RFE/RL Tajik Service, February 15, 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/germany-charges-fivetajiks-over-is-membership/31104482.html.

682 Yannis Souliotis, “Court Rejects Tajikistan’s Extradition Request for Alleged Jihadist,” Ekatheimerini, January 1, 2021 https://www.ekathimerini.com/news/261187/court-rejects-tajikistan-s-extradition-request-foralleged-jihadist/.

683 Kanymgul Elkeeva and Farangis Najibullah, “Central Asia Struggles to Reintegrate Islamic State Returnees,” RFE/RL, November 6, 2021 https://www.rferl.org/a/central-asia-islamic-staterepatriation/31548973.html.

684 Kamran Bokhari, “The Friend America Needs in Afghanistan,” The Wall Street Journal, November 1, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-friend-americaneeds-in-afghanistan-taliban-aid-diplomacyuzbekistan-11635708869.

685 “Tajikistan Posthumously Awards Afghans Masud, Rabbani With One of Country’s Highest Honors,” RFE/RL Tajik Service, September 2, 2021 https://www.rferl.org/a/tajikistan-masudrabbani-awards/31440569.html.

686 Bruce Pannier, “Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan Open Channels With the Taliban,” Qishloq Ovozi, October 1, 2021 https://www.rferl.org/a/kazakhstan-kyrgyzstantaliban/31487684.html.

687 So far, it is hard to gauge the Taliban’s actions in this regard. Having won the war fighting alongside these militant groups, it may see little reason to betray them. There is also a danger in rejecting one group, as the others will immediately fear a similar betrayal in future, potentially stirring tensions within Taliban ranks.

Catching up on posting from late last month on a longstanding topic of interest for Foreign Policy, China’s threat from international terrorist groups. Afghanistan has I think changed things a bit, and it will be interesting to see in many different ways how this develops going forwards.

How China Became Jihadis’ New Target

International terrorist organizations long considered Beijing a secondary focus. That’s changed.

A silhouette of a demonstrator is seen behind a Chinese flag outside the Chancellery in Berlin on May 31, 2019, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan are holding talks. (Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP) / ALTERNATIVE CROP (Photo by ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images)

In early October, an Islamic State-Khorasan bomber killed nearly 50 people at a mosque in Kunduz, Afghanistan. That the militant group claimed responsibility for the attack wasn’t surprising, but, in a worrying new twist for Beijing, it also decided to link the massacre to China: The group said that the bomber was Uyghur and that the attack was aimed at punishing the Taliban for their close cooperation with China despite its actions against Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

China was long seen as a secondary target by international terrorist organizations. Groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State were so focused on targeting the United States, the West more generally, or their local adversaries that they rarely raised their weapons toward China, even though they may have wanted to due to, for example, China’s mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims. But in Kunduz, this narrative was brought brutally to a close. China can now consider itself a clear target.

China’s history with violent Islamist groups is complicated. For a long time, Beijing’s ability to project a status as a “developing world” power meant it could hide to some degree behind a veneer of not being a “first world” former colonial power that antagonized the world’s downtrodden. Before 9/11, al Qaeda theorists went so far as to speak of Beijing as a possible partner. According to their logic, China was against the United States, al Qaeda’s sworn enemy, and therefore the old “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” trope might apply.

There’s very little evidence that happened. The tolerance China appeared to show in the late 1990s toward al Qaeda figures who occasionally used Chinese territory for transit and support operations was more likely due to ignorance than to plotting. By 2004, this dynamic had changed, and Chinese intelligence was willing to work with Western services to hand over suspected terrorists who passed through China’s airports.

During the first Taliban-led government in the 1990s, Chinese officials were hesitant but willing interlocutors with Mullah Mohammad Omar’s regime. China was never a full-throated Taliban supporter but instead preferred to find ways of working with the group in the background. This mostly took the form of China providing limited investment and support that was encouraged by Pakistan, with the expectation that the Taliban would restrain the Uyghur groups that had established themselves in Afghanistan under Mullah Omar’s protection from attacking China. Beijing didn’t seem to be very concerned about what the Taliban’s larger goals were, as long as Afghanistan’s leaders acted on this key request. Still, there is little evidence that Beijing linked this domestic problem to a broader international terrorist threat.

With the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, and later Iraq, the problem of international terrorism took off globally, with groups targeting an expanding range of countries. Yet China’s successful push to get some of its own domestic Uyghur groups added to the United Nations and U.S. roster of terrorist organizations did not bring the country much international jihadi attention. Meanwhile, in the years immediately after 9/11, China became wary of the Taliban. A Uyghur group reportedly fought alongside the Taliban for years, as a video by al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri highlighted in 2016 and as U.S. intelligence information from Guantánamo Bay indicated earlier.

As the 2010s went on, more Chinese citizens started to be harmed in terrorist incidents around the globe, but, for the most part, these seemed incidental—a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Al Qaeda and then Islamic State leaders released some statements that threatened Beijing for its treatment of Uyghurs—and indeed Muslims more generally—but for the most part, they were limited and didn’t lead to any major push to target China.

Now, it’s undeniable that China is being targeted, especially as its footprint in Afghanistan grows. Beijing has long skirted around formal engagement in Afghanistan, and while it continues to do this to some degree, it has also been the most willing of the major powers in the region to engage with the Taliban directly. The Islamic State-Khorasan clearly sees the Taliban bowing to Beijing as a weak point to capitalize on, and the group’s message is clear: It is offering itself as a home to Uyghurs who are unhappy with the Taliban regime, as well as others in Afghanistan appalled at China’s treatment of Muslim minorities.

The new Taliban government has publicly stated its desire to work with the Chinese government—something Beijing has made clear is conditional on action against Uyghur militants. Taliban leaders are especially keen to attract Chinese investment and economic partnerships. In late October, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with the group’s leaders in Doha, Qatar. Taliban Foreign Minister-designate Amir Khan Muttaqi presented Wang with a box of Afghan pine nuts, reflecting one of the many goods Afghanistan is hoping to export to the Chinese market. Wang, meanwhile, focused on the need for stable government in Afghanistan and appealed to the Taliban once again to sever their links with Uyghur militants.

But the degree to which the Taliban are able—or want—to entirely sever this Uyghur connection is an open question. Over the past few months, the group has said that they would not let their territory be used by militants to launch attacks abroad and that Uyghur militants had left the country. Yet while rumors circulate of anti-Uyghur action behind the scenes—and of the Taliban moving Uyghurs within Afghanistan away from China’s borders—Beijing is not entirely convinced. After the meeting in Doha, the Chinese foreign ministry wrote that Wang had expressed that China “hopes and believes” that the Taliban “will make a clean break with the ETIM” (the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement,” the name China uses to describe militant Uyghur networks), suggesting that the group hasn’t yet fulfilled Beijing’s desires.

It is this dynamic that the Islamic State-Khorasan capitalized on when it used a suicide bomber in the Kunduz attack with the battlefield name Muhammad al-Uighuri. In the message released by the Islamic State’s media channels claiming the attack, the group linked the attacker directly to the Taliban and China’s cooperation, stating, “the attacker was one of the Uyghur Muslims the Taliban has promised to deport in response to demands from China and its [China’s] policy against Muslims there.”

The message has many layers. First, it is a signal to the Taliban highlighting their inability to protect minorities in the country they now purport to control. Second, it is a message to China, attacking Beijing for its policies in Xinjiang and linking those to the group’s interests. Third, it is a message to other Uyghurs who feel abandoned or threatened by the Taliban and may be seeking to join other groups that will advance their interests. Finally, it is a message to the world, showing that the Islamic State-Khorasan is a capable organization that’s continuing the Islamic State traditions on the battlefield and speaking up for oppressed Muslims. These messages will resonate with potential supporters around the world.

Publicly, China was circumspect in its response, which decried the loss of life. No official comment was made about the attacker’s identity, though a Chinese academic published an opinion piece in the state-owned Global Times accusing the Associated Press of fabricating the narrative of the attacker being Uyghur. He instead advanced Taliban narratives that Uyghurs who had been fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan had left the country and praised the Taliban’s control and cooperation with China.

But Beijing likely knows that this is a dangerous development—especially in a region where it is facing greater threats. There have been new reports of a growing Chinese security presence in Tajikistan aimed at strengthening its ability to address potential threats from Afghanistan. A growing range of militant groups in Pakistan are targeting Chinese interests there, with attacks in Dasu and Karachi coming from local Baluchi and Sindhi separatists. China’s embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, was struck in 2016, as was its consulate in Karachi in 2018, an attack that killed four people (and three attackers). Local protest movementsmilitant groups, and politiciansare all looking at China as an adversary. Until now, however, most of the attacks were conducted by local separatist movements. The addition of the Islamic State-Khorasan to the roster finally brings the country firmly into jihadis’ crosshairs.

The problem for China is that it is ill prepared to handle such threats. Its military may be large and well equipped, but it has little experience countering militant organizations and often relies on other countries to do so for it. Yet, as Beijing is increasingly discovering in Pakistan—one of its more reliable allies—this is difficult to guarantee. Taliban leadership may project great strength and hubris, but they will face the same difficulties as others in the region in quelling militant groups in their territory, and they may find it difficult to entirely protect China from determined terrorist organizations.

In a sense, Beijing is stuck. China is Afghanistan’s most powerful and influential neighbor, which partly explains the growing attention toward its role in the country. Beijing is increasingly seen as the Taliban’s great supporter on the international stage. In assuming this role, China runs the risk of being seen as filing the vacuum the United States left in Afghanistan—something Beijing is keen to avoid. The reality, however, is that it is already getting sucked in. The Islamic State-Khorasan’s attack in Kunduz merely highlighted how far down this path Beijing has already gone.

More catch up posting, this time a short piece for the Times in the wake of the strange terrorist incident in Liverpool which remains unresolved. Part of a bigger strand of thinking that still needs a larger outlet and so far is made up of a number of shorter pieces have worked on over time. A big radio project out next year which goes in this direction and a couple of others still up in the air. Watch this space.

Its time to rethink our counterterrorism strategy

nvestigators are still struggling to pin down the motive behind the Liverpool bombing. The bomber’s ethnicity and religious history have led people to assume he was motivated by Islamic extremism, but no clear evidence of this has been found. Rather, people are scratching around his background, history of mental health issues, failed asylum claims and religious conversion as possible explanations for his attempted act of terrorism.

While this confusing picture can appear anomalous, it is increasingly an important part of the threat we face. But it is not clear that we should consider it terrorism.

In counterterrorism parlance, the work being done to try to stop people being drawn towards extremist ideologies is called Prevent. This work includes different programmes, but crucially a project called Channel where potentially radicalising or at-risk individuals are identified and steered off their dangerous path by a panel tailored to deal with each case.

Among the referrals to this programme over the past few years is the growing number of people who the Home Office has struggled to define, grouping them together as having a “mixed, unstable or unclear” ideology. In practice this means a strange amalgam of ideas, drawing on a variety of different bits and pieces the individual has usually picked up online.

While most of the referrals classed under this grouping are discounted (in contrast to violent Islamists or those on the extreme right who are picked up by the programme at higher rates), they are nonetheless representative of a growing community that are showing up on counterterrorism radars. Some attacks have taken place which would fit into this category.

Salih Khater was a naturalised British citizen who in 2018 drove his car into cyclists outside parliament. He was jailed for attempted murder and the judge sentencing him to life stated he had acted “with terrorist motives” but could not identify a specific ideology.

In June last year a teenager who had been previously referred to Prevent for extreme right ideas brutally murdered two women in the park as part of a satanic pact to win the lottery.

These cases are part of a growing trend where we see individuals who appear to be radicalising or conducting acts which copy terrorism but yet their ideology is unclear. In a curious parallel, Isis has stopped claiming attacks with the same abandon that it used to.

The Liverpool bomber, the murder of Sir David Amess, and a mass stabbing in Norway that happened shortly before are all incidents that previously Isis could have been expected to claim. Isis had a habit of claiming all sorts of random acts of violence but now do not appear to claim even ones where there is a suggestion that the individual might be inspired by them.

All of this raises a complicated set of questions for security officials. The most obvious one is how do you stop these acts of violence if they are being conducted by isolated individuals, operating largely off dark corners of the internet, out of their own bedrooms and in their own heads.

Security agencies such as MI5 or the police are investigators that follow leads. It becomes almost impossible to know where their investigations will start if the individual is not following an obvious ideology and is simply lost among the innumerable voices online. If the act of violence they perpetrate is using a simple weapon such as a knife or a car, or a basic bomb using readily available chemicals, where are the leads going to come from?

But there is an important question to ask about whether our security investigators are the ones best placed to counter this particular problem. Should we be using expensive and sophisticated tools such as our intelligence agencies or counterterrorism police to track down what are often highly troubled individuals who are drawing inspiration from random ideas they find online to commit acts of extreme violence.

Part of the reason behind the decision to raise the national terror threat level after the Liverpool bomb and the murder of Sir David Amess was a sense by the intelligence analysts who set the levels that they were not confident about knowing who might be inspired by them. Both acts had taken them by surprise and raised the possibility of others.

The fact that Isis did not make much mention of either incident is further reflective of a strange decoupling that appears to be taking place. Even terrorist groups are not seeming to claim or champion these cases. Yet we are treating them as terrorists in many cases and using those same tools to deal with them.

The answer to this problem might in fact lie elsewhere — in other parts of healthcare, social services or society in general. These are clearly troubled people. It is not as clear whether they are terrorists. Maybe it is time to think more strategically about how to deal with them and develop a new programme to deal with this growing cohort of individuals using extreme violence to hurt those around them.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at Royal United Services Institute

Have been very delinquent in posting of late. Been consumed with a lot of bigger papers and stuff at home. Have a few to catch up on, first up is my latest column for local paper the Straits Times looking at the complexity of expecting a terrorist group to manage another terrorist group, this time the Taliban and the hope they will deal with ISKP. Been involved in a few conversations about Afghanistan of late which have been for the most part deeply depressing, something that is exacerbated by the clear absolute lack of interest that increasingly is visible in western capitals.

Terrorism is a war the Taliban cannot win

A Taliban fighter displays their flag at a checkpoint in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Nov 5, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

Winning a war is a confusing experience for an insurgent or terrorist group. The sudden crush of responsibility that follows taking over a country calls for a very different skill set from that required while trying to overthrow a government.

Not only are you now expected to deliver on a whole suite of basic public services, but you also have to provide security – the very thing you used to undermine. This can come in the form of defending borders, stopping criminality, or fighting terrorist groups; the last, ironically, is a growing headache for the Taliban, now that it is the ruler of Afghanistan.

Along with the outside world, the Taliban views with apprehension the growth of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-Khorasan (ISIS-K) group, the local affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group.

There is little love lost between the Taliban and ISIS-K. Since the emergence of ISIS-K in 2015, it has been a thorn in the Taliban’s side, competing for recruits, funding and influence. The two have fought each other regularly, with the Taliban usually winning.

However, since the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in August, this dynamic has changed. From being an insurgent group that was fighting against a competing faction as well as the government, the Taliban is now the government trying to squash a non-state group. In some ways this is not dissimilar to what it was doing before. Prior to taking over, the Taliban was quite effective in its fight against ISIS-K, using violence and intelligence. The problem now is that, as the ruling authority in Afghanistan, the Taliban is expected to protect people as well as fight.

GROWING VIOLENCE

This is a weakness that ISIS-K has ruthlessly exploited, launching not only a campaign of targeted assassinations of Taliban figures around the country, but also horrendous large-scale attacks on civilians. The dramatic assault at Kabul airport that killed over 180, including 13 US service members, in August has since been followed by attacks on Shi’ite worshippers at mosques in Kunduz and Kandahar that left dozens dead, as well as an assault late last month on the Daoud Khan Military Hospital in Kabul that killed 25, including at least one senior Taliban figure.

These brutal ISIS-K attacks are single-mindedly focused on undermining the Taliban’s authority by aiming at soft targets. Underscoring that intent, an ISIS video on the group’s Telegram channel on Sunday branded its rivals as “Biden hirelings” and gloated that “the Taliban militia are lost in panic, they do not know how to conceal their shame”.

ISIS-K, estimated to have some 4,000 fighters, has been very precise in its attacks, seeking maximum carnage and also to deploy suicide bombers whose battlefield names often identify them as being members of minority groups that might come into conflict with the Taliban. The aim is not only to undermine the Taliban’s claims of being in charge, but also to highlight to those minorities that ISIS-K is fighting alongside them.

The growing violence by ISIS-K worries the United States, the country’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West said on Monday. American officials reportedly believe that absent security pressure, ISIS-K could develop the ability to strike the West within six to 12 months.

However, outside powers have little faith in the Taliban’s capability to deal with the ISIS-K menace. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee late last month, US Under-Secretary for Defence Colin Kahl said “we would not count on the Taliban to be the ones responsible for disrupting (external threats from ISIS-K). We will have our own unilateral capabilities to do that.”

This is not to say that the US has not engaged with the Taliban. Central Intelligence Agency director Bill Burns was one of the first senior foreign officials to visit Kabul after the Taliban took over. ISIS-K was clearly on the agenda among other things. But it is clear that the US remains to be convinced that the Taliban has the capability to deliver not only on ISIS-K, but also in keeping all of its various factions in line.

MULTIPLE GROUPS, DIVERSE AGENDAS

There is still no clear evidence that the Taliban has ejected Al-Qaeda from its territory, nor has it visibly clamped down on any of the other non-Afghan factions that had been fighting alongside itself for years. These other groups are undoubtedly happy with the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, and are now keen to replicate this in their countries of origin. Pakistan, Central Asia, Iran, Russia, China and others are all looking askance at the situation.

For the Taliban, contending with multiple groups with diverse agendas is going to be a major problem going forward. It is going to have to find ways of moderating the impulses of groups it has been fighting alongside for years, as well as clash with competing terrorist organisations on the ground. It is also going to have to contend with external pressures as outside powers start to stir up its own proxies on the ground.

This sort of proxy meddling, using one faction to go after another, has a long history in Afghanistan and the wider region.

Neighbouring Iran has mastered the practice on the world stage through the development of Hizbollah as an international terrorist force which it uses against the US and Israel, while it recruited thousands of Shi’ite Afghans to fight on its behalf in Syria. Pakistan is another master of proxy group manipulation, regularly using jihadist groups as a deniable proxy in its conflict with India. In turn, Delhi is constantly accused of manipulating separatist groups in Pakistan against the state.

And it is not just a practice found in the wilds of Central and South Asia. In the tumult of post-World War II Europe, leftist terror groups, often supported by the communist bloc, would wreak campaigns of violence. In some cases, parts of the security apparatus in non-communist countries would manipulate right-leaning groups to either target the leftists, or commit atrocities in their name to force the government’s hand to clamp down harder.

More recently, the West has been quite openly using groups close to proscribed terror organisations to fight on the ground in Syria against ISIS. This was most obvious with the open support of the YPG, a Kurdish group closely linked to the PKK, a longstanding terrorist menace within Turkey.

But there was also a strange moment at the peak of the ISIS threat in Syria and Iraq when discussions in Western capitals circled around the idea that the West might want to explore cooperation with Jabhat al-Nusra – an organisation born out of Al-Qaeda – to fight ISIS, its implacable enemy; the logic being my enemy’s enemy is my friend. Today, Nusra’s successor Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is trying to remodel itself as the Salvation Government in parts of northern Syria which are not controlled by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It has openly lobbied for engagement with the West, this time offering itself as a responsible government and alternative to the brutal Assad regime or ISIS.

There is, of course, a rich irony in all of these contortions. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda were themselves born out of a context in which the West had sought to manipulate groups on the ground to fight against the Soviet Union. That succeeded beyond expectations, but has produced blowback that we are still feeling today. No doubt the choices that are being made now will resonate in unexpected ways in the years to come.

Terrorist groups are by definition extremists. Governments, political forces and others have always sought to manipulate other extremes in society to fight back against a terrorist group that is challenging their authority. Yet in doing this, they are invariably stoking the very fires they are trying to put out. And once these catch, it is almost impossible to entirely extinguish them.

Already representing a minority community and still not trusted by many outside Afghanistan, the Taliban is going to struggle to entirely rule its country. Similarly, it is going to find it hard to entirely eliminate the terrorist threats that might emerge.

More likely, as its fight against ISIS-K goes on, it will increasingly find that its rival will thrive, drawing in more and more of those who are alienated by Taliban rule. Credible stories are already emerging of former Afghan soldiers joining ISIS-K.

While this will undoubtedly undermine the Taliban government, it will also inflict greater suffering on the Afghan people, who will have to endure yet another chapter of seemingly endless conflict in their country’s history.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and author of a forthcoming book exploring China’s relations with Central Asia, titled Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire.

Another piece in Italian, this time for La Repubblica (again), though this time something authored by me rather than an edited interview that have done with them in the past. The plan is for this to be the first of a few for the newspaper, mostly likely looking at China’s relations in Eurasia. It seems there is a pretty inexhaustible interest in the topic at the moment, and there are a few more pieces in the pipeline, including my upcoming book.

Afghanistan, quel “corridoio” di affari che lega Cina e Pakistan al destino dei talebani

L’instabilità legata ai continui attacchi terroristici dell’Isis-K rischia di frenare gli investimenti del Dragone. Pechino teme anche che il Paese possa diventare una base per i militanti uiguri

Con la partenza degli Stati Uniti dall’Afghanistan, Pechino si trova in una posizione di grande influenza in un paese dove non ci sono garanzie. Nel passato, la Cina poteva affrontare i rischi tramite un governo a Kabul con il quale aveva relazioni accettabili, con amici ben disposti in Islamabad, e tutto questo sotto un ombrello di sicurezza americano. Tutto ciò non c’è più, e quel che rimane sono i talebani e i pachistani, entrambi “amici” di lungo termine, ma entrambi poco affidabili. I rischi per la Cina sono cresciuti.

Pechino ha preoccupazioni molto precise in Afghanistan. Innanzitutto ha paura che diventi una base dalla quale gruppi di militanti uiguri possono addestrarsi e complottare contro la Cina nello Xinjiang, che ospita circa 10 milioni di uiguri. Lo Xinjiang è una zona sensibile per Pechino, mentre è in atto un braccio di ferro fra Stati Uniti e Cina. Nel passato, alcuni uiguri hanno usato basi in Afghanistan per progettare attentati in Cina. Al tempo del primo governo talebano, gruppi di uiguri si erano radunati a Jalalabad sotto la protezione del Mullah Omar.

Ai tempi, le relazioni fra cinesi e talebani erano abbastanza immature. La Cina si stava ancora aprendo al mondo, ed era totalmente dipendente dal Pakistan per i contatti con i talebani. La relazione fra Islamabad e Pechino era (ed è ancora) molto stretta. Da tempo condividono le stesse preoccupazioni riguardo l’India, e mantengono une delle poche vere alleanze che la Cina abbia nel mondo (l’altra è con la Corea del Nord: con amici come questi…). Prima dell’11 Settembre 2001, il Pakistan voleva usare questa relazione con Pechino per rafforzare i suoi alleati talebani a Kabul. Spingevano i cinesi a riconoscerli come governo legittimo. In compenso, Pechino voleva aiuto sulle sue preoccupazioni uigure, e offriva di incoraggiare le sue aziende a esplorare opportunità in Afghanistan. 

Vent’anni dopo, poco è cambiato in termini di cosa preoccupi Pechino, e cosa possa offrire. Quello che è cambiato sono le relazioni dirette che la Cina ha adesso con i talebani, e l’essere diventata la seconda potenza economica nel mondo. Entrambi sono aspetti interessanti per il nuovo governo talebano che vuole dimostrare la sua indipendenza da Islamabad.

Il guaio è che ciò crea più problemi di quanto semplifichi le cose. Da un lato, i talebani non si sono ancora dimostrati affidabili. La richiesta chiave per Pechino riguardo agli uiguri non è facile da esaudire per i mullah a Kabul. Primo, non c’è consenso nei ranghi talebani su come trattare gli uiguri. Una parte li vede come alleati che hanno combattuto per anni con loro, e si chiedono perché dovrebbero consegnarli ai cinesi. Per seconda cosa, non è chiaro se i talebani controllino tutto il paese. La rappresentanza locale dello Stato Islamico (Isis-K) ha effettuato numerosi attentati nelle ultime settimane, uno dei quali a Kunduz ha colpito una moschea sciita: il gruppo ha dichiarato d’aver usato un soldato uiguro. Nella rivendicazione l’Isis-K ha detto che l’attacco era mirato ai talebani per la loro alleanza con i cinesi contro gli uiguri. E’ la prima volta che lo Stato islamico lancia un messaggio così diretto alla Cina.

Ciò non rappresenta solo una minaccia alla Cina, ma anche alla sua volontà di incoraggiare le sue aziende a fare investimenti in Afghanistan. Le aziende cinesi sono disposte a provare: sotto il vecchio governo erano fra le poche a essersi offerte di fare grandi investimenti nel paese, in continuazione di quello che stavano esplorando già sotto il primo governo talebano. Finora, però, questo interesse non si è tradotto in risultati, in parte proprio per la sicurezza instabile. E questo non sembra essere cambiato.

Una soluzione sarebbe coinvolgere l’alleato storico, il Pakistan. E sembra che fino a un certo punto questo sia già successo. Negli ultimi giorni del vecchio governo, da Kabul era partita una serie di visite in Cina da parte di importanti esponenti pachistani: in parte serviva ad alleviare l’irritazione cinese per diversi attentati contro suoi interessi in Pakistan, ma doveva anche preparare le cose per la missione del mullah Baradar prevista poco prima che cadesse Kabul.

Questo è un ruolo che il Pakistan ha offerto alla Cina da tempo. E fa parte di una relazione fra Pechino e Islamabad che ha aspetti economici, politici, e di sicurezza. La Cina ha investito miliardi di dollari in investimenti e progetti in Pakistan sotto la visione del Cpec (China Pakistan Economic Corridor), citato come progetto chiave della visione più estesa della Belt and Road Initiative (Bri) cinese. Inoltre stanno lavorando insieme alla costruzione di sottomarini e di un nuovo aereo militare, e a tanti altri progetti di sicurezza.

Ma mentre ai governi di Pakistan e Cina piace raccontare in pubblico favole di grande amicizia e cooperazione, sotto il tavolo ci sono problemi. Incertezze che di recente sono diventate più acute con la morte di ingegneri cinesi in attentati terroristici, e con il rallentamento dei progetti d’investimento cinesi per i fallimenti da parte pachistana. In aggiunta, ufficiali pachistani continuano a dire sotto voce quanto siano obbligati a lavorare con la Cina e come preferirebbero invece essere più vicini agli americani, i nemici principali di Pechino. Questo ha creato irritazioni fra le due capitali, alzando il livello di paranoia reciproca. Un disequilibrio mentale che peggiora quando i cinesi cominciano a trattare direttamente con i talebani senza raccontare tutto al Pakistan.

Per il Pakistan, l’Afghanistan è un progetto di lungo termine su cui sta facendo un gioco complicato. Da un lato vuole mantenere il controllo, e si concentra a tenere fuori il suo nemico mortale: l’India. In questo contesto considera l’Afghanistan una strategic depth, una zona di sicurezza prima del fronte con Delhi. D’altra parte, si rende conto che se perde il controllo in Afghanistan porta un pericolo a casa. I problemi di estremismo in Afghanistan rimbombano in Pakistan. Questo vuol dire che in Afghanistan, il Pakistan terrà in mente solo i propri interessi. Pechino si troverà presto nella stessa situazione in cui si è trovata l’America. Per le sue garanzie in Afghanistan dipenderà da un governo in Pakistan che è contemporaneamente sia la soluzione che una parte del problema. La Cina sta imparando la complessità di essere la più grande potenza nella stanza.

Con questo articolo Raffaello Pantucci, analista del Royal United Services Institute di Londra, inizia la sua collaborazione con “Repubblica”