Posts Tagged ‘UK’

Have a lot of catching up to do. Been dealing with a lot of late, so as ever slow here. First up, a brief note from last month for Prospect which sought to show the importance of Afghanistan to the story of British jihadism. Lots more stories like this in my first book, and more to come on the lone actor side of the problem.

The Britons who fought for the Taliban

Since 9/11, British citizens have continued to travel to Afghanistan to fight western forces. Now the Taliban are back in charge, the authorities fear more terrorist plots could be hatched in the country

By Raffaello Pantucci September 28, 2021

In 2018, Khalid Ali was convicted of planning a terrorist attack in London and of making bombs for the Taliban. Credit: Met Police handout

In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, Britons were shocked to discover that some of their own were fighting for the Taliban. Broadcasting to the world from a safehouse in Lahore, Hassan Butt, the British spokesman for radical group al-Muhajiroun, reported that a group of Britons had been executed by Northern Alliance fighters in Afghanistan for “being pro-Taliban.” Posing in front of shelves of books he had likely never read, Butt spoke with a Mancunian twang as he celebrated his fellow Britons’ deaths: “we’re very envious and we would like to be like them because to live and die and walk and talk Islam is every Muslim’s role in life.” As journalist Shiv Malik has revealed, Butt’s story later turned out to be more complicated than it first seemed. But it is true to say Butt and others like him exposed a reality that still haunts Britain.  

A number of Britons who were in Afghanistan after 9/11 ended up being sent to Guantanamo Bay, like the famous Tipton Taliban. The trio of West Midlanders claimed to have set off for a friend’s wedding in Pakistan and wandered into Afghanistan out of curiosity, only to get caught by the Northern Alliance. Their story was dramatised in a somewhat forgiving 2006 film called The Road to Guantanamo, which focused on their torture at the detention camp. The backstory they appear to have confessed to US interrogators (admittedly an account made under duress) showed, in contrast, a path peppered with extremist preachers, radical communities in northern England and a stop at al-Qaeda’s al-Faruq camp in Afghanistan. Though they were not convicted of anything on their return to the UK after being freed from Guantanamo, the group seemed to fit the profile of other Brits who did go to train and fight in Afghanistan. 

The US-led invasion did not seem to deter British nationals or residents from fighting alongside the Taliban—if anything, it encouraged some. RAF Nimrod operators regularly reported overhearing Taliban fighters in Helmand talking to each other with “broad Midlands and Yorkshire accents.” One Taliban corpse was reportedly found with an Aston Villa tattoo. In 2010, the Guardian interviewed an East London cabbie in Dhani-Ghorri, northern Afghanistan, who claimed to return to Afghanistan for a few months each year to fight western forces. In June 2011, Atiqullah Mangal died during a brazen attack on the Afghan Defence Ministry. Subsequent investigation revealed he had been radicalised in a British prison, where he was jailed for violent assault in Aston after being smuggled into the UK in 2001 from Afghanistan. Following deportation, he had joined the insurgency and recruited others.

In November 2012, a video emerged which included images of “Umar the British,” a Taliban fighter in Pakistan who was, reportedly, one of the planners of the 2009 attack on Camp Chapman in Afghanistan, which led to the deaths of seven CIA agents. In the video he spoke with a London accent. He is now believed to be a long-missing British jihadist from East London, who was reported to have been killed in a US drone strike in 2010.

While these worrying stories continued to appear over the years, the actual depth of support in the UK for the Taliban was never clear. The UK is home to a population of around 100,000 Pashtuns with ancestry in Pakistan, rather than Afghanistan. According to the ONS there were some 33,000 people in the UK from Afghanistan as of June 2020 (the number will have increased since then.) Support for the Taliban, however, tended to come from a wider pool than just the Pashtun or Afghan communities. 

Key to the connection is the Deobandi movement, a conservative religious strain that emerged in India in the late 19th century, that helped in part give birth to the Taliban. The Deobandi creed is followed by around half of the mosques in the UK. Aimen Dean, a former member of al-Qaeda who worked undercover for MI5 and MI6, told the BBC that “pre-9/11 there was no question that the Deobandis supported the Taliban of Afghanistan and the regime of Mullah Mohammed Omar to the hilt, because it was a purely Deobandi regime… even after 9/11 there were many mosques still stubborn in their support of the Taliban because of the Deobandi solidarity.” 

While it is unfair to tarnish all Deobandis with the Taliban brush, there is little doubt there are ideological crossovers. Writing in 1999, Taliban expert Ahmed Rashid described the group as having emerged from Deobandi madrassahs in Pakistan. As he put it in Foreign Affairs, “The Taliban’s anomalous interpretation of Islam emerged from an extreme and perverse interpretation of Deobandism, preached by Pakistani mullahs (clerics) in Afghan refugee camps.” Former Taliban leader Mullah Omar wrote to the sect’s leadership in Pakistan asking for guidance, though he does not seem to have gotten a direct response. 

It is hard to know in absolute terms how much Taliban support there is in the UK. And it is impossible to know with any certainty for how many people this translated into travelling to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban. But there have been a few other high-profile cases. Omar Khyam, the brains behind the 2004 fertiliser bomb plot, had been home to Afghanistan in 2001 and reported finding the Taliban highly hospitable. In 2006, Parviz Khan was arrested for plotting to kidnap a Muslim British soldier in Birmingham, and then planning to video his decapitation. He had previously been running a regular supply line for Taliban militants in Pakistan, sending money and equipment. He was jailed for life.

Taliban-linked plots have continued until relatively recently. In April 2017, police made a dramatic arrest in Whitehall of a smiling young man with three large knives suspected of planning an assault on police officers. Khalid Ali was a sometime plumber who disappeared from his home in Edmonton, north London, in 2011, only to reappear in 2016 at the British Consulate in Istanbul trying to get temporary travel documents to get home. When he landed back in the UK police found 42 matches with an FBI database of prints found on explosives in Afghanistan. Under questioning, he stated he was a Taliban soldier and that he had pressed the button detonating bombs in Afghanistan “more than 300 times.” On the stand later he changed his story, but his phones were not all recovered and the prosecution speculated that he appeared to be planning to launch his attack concurrent with the Taliban’s Spring offensive. He was convicted of planning a terror attack and making bombs for the Taliban, and jailed for 40 years.

The plot was a strange one that took place in a year in which the UK saw four successful violent Islamist plots and around a dozen disrupted ones. But it distinguished itself with its links to the Taliban and Afghanistan—in contrast to the Islamic State links that had by then become the norm.

This all returned to the headlines again after the recent fall of Kabul, when military intelligence sources leaked to the Sun that they had “received some intercepts of two British men, probably below 30, talking openly on mobiles… One had a London accent, what you might call a street accent.” This kind of intelligence leak about homegrown militants appears to be one British authorities enjoy doing—so the timing of its appearance now (in a tabloid) must of course raise eyebrows. But it is not surprising that British nationals might be fighting or be present in Afghanistan. 

Yet the bigger danger for the UK is the Pakistan connection. The 7th July, 2005 cell started off interested in jihad in Kashmir, only to get re-directed to train in Afghanistan where (after some time) they were directed by al-Qaeda to murder 52 Londoners.

While the danger from terrorist networks in Pakistan striking the UK appears to have reduced, extremism originating in Pakistan has grown in different ways in the UK. In February 2016, Jalal Uddin, a 71-year-old imam, was bludgeoned to death with a hammer by an extremist who then fled to Syria to join Islamic State. (Another man was found guilty in the UK.) Uddin was accused of spreading witchcraft through taweez faith healing and had stirred the anger of fundamentalists in Rochdale. A month later, a Bradford cabbie drove up to Glasgow and murdered Asad Shah, an Ahmadiyya shopkeeper who had posted videos online which the fundamentalist cabbie found blasphemous. 

The Ahmadiyya are a widely persecuted minority Muslim sect (in Pakistan they are officially considered non-Muslims). Numerous investigations by the BBC and others found cases around the UK of anti-Ahmadiyya sentiment or openly sectarian Pakistani groups in the UK. Even from jail Asad Shah’s killer has maintained his connection with extremists, finding ways of releasing audio recordings encouraging people to attend events linked to his sect in Pakistan. He has, in fact, become something of a folk hero amongst the Sufi Barelvi community in Kashmir.

The support network for such extremist sentiment in the UK is clearly already present. A stridently sectarian political organisation called Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) made an appearance in the streets outside the Pakistani High Commission in London in April 2021, protesting the government’s refusal to eject the French Ambassador in the wake of President Macron’s calls for new laws to control extremism after the murder of schoolteacher Samuel Paty. Notwithstanding being banned in Pakistan, the group appears an irritant that the authorities in the UK cannot dismiss.

Colonial history ties South Asia and the UK together in a way that is unique. It is a rich connection that generates a huge amount of good for both sides. Unfortunately, it also has a darker edge: for the UK a regular stream of support for the Taliban and associated extremist groups in Pakistan, as well as radicalised young men and terrorist plots. Now we have a Taliban government in power, some of the more covert aspects of this connection are likely to become more prominent. And as MI5 chief Ken McCallum put it recently, this time “we will have neither the advantages nor the risks of having our own forces on the ground.”

Another September 11 anniversary linked piece, this time a short introductory essay for a collection of RUSI Journal articles assembled from the past twenty years which sketch out some of the main issues touched upon in the journal on terrorism. The request from the editors was to write something which tries to capture how research has evolved over this period. Re-reading the pieces (confess did not quite get to all of them), I realize that the Journal has really been a major outlet for various prominent voices for some time. Lots of interesting bits to read there and I would recommend taking time to read them while they are still open access until the end of the year.

The 9/11 Attacks: Two Decades of Countering Violent Extremism

Terrorism did not start with the attacks of 9/11, but there can be no doubt that these events changed the way that we think and look at the phenomenon. Terrorist spectaculars in themselves were not new – Carlos the Jackal had perfected the art, while seasoned terrorism watcher Brian Michael Jenkins had coined the phrase ‘terrorism is theater’ as early as 1974. But the magnitude and ambition that Al-Qa’ida displayed seemed to change things. For security experts, it pushed what had been largely seen as a niche specialisation into the centre ground of security thinking.

Within the research community it also engendered a new wave of thinking and research as people struggled to comprehend, explain and analyse the apparently new phenomenon that had burst on to our screens that clear September day. Much of the early discourse was an attempt to define what had just happened, both in terms of trying to comprehend who Al-Qa’ida was, but also to appropriately frame the response. The decision by the US to immediately move to a bellicose context meant a deeply conflictual stage was set early on. The decision to follow the invasion of Afghanistan with the invasion of Iraq only further complicated this discussion, steering us away from solely confronting Al-Qa’ida to taking on all adversaries out there. This muddying continues to ripple through the problems we see today.

Yet the truth that slapped the UK brutally in the face in July 2005 was that the threat was in fact one that came from within. Already in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the UK was shocked to discover there were young Britons fighting alongside the Taliban and Al-Qa’ida. The shoe bombers later in the year were evidence of what this could turn into. And in 2005, Londoners woke to the grim reality that these individuals were willing to come back and commit atrocities on their home soil. This exposed a key dimension that was going to be needed in the response: to find ways of better engaging with the wider communities within our societies from which these individuals came. The need for a holistic response had already been identified in 2003 in the early versions of the counterterrorism strategy CONTEST, but what this actually meant in practice and how essential this was only became apparent later.

But the converse of this holistic, all-of-society response, was to turn everyone into a security agent. Something that rankled parts of society who felt that the approach was overly intrusive and stepping all over civil liberties which a liberal-democratic society should cherish. While politics played some role in this discourse, the reality was that much of the political establishment was largely supportive of expansive powers being given to security services in their pursuit of shielding us from violent extremists.

The perennial conundrum this created, however, was that there was a conclusion that the problem came from within and we needed to work with Muslim communities in particular to deal with the problems. But at the same time, those very communities disliked the exaggerated negative attention they were receiving, feeling even more ostracised by the very policies purportedly developed to help them to better integrate.

These were unfortunately not debates that were ever really resolved, and took place against the backdrop of a threat that continued to evolve and develop. From being almost entirely directed by Al-Qa’ida using bases in Pakistan drawing on the UK’s deep human connection with that country, the terrorist threat spread to places such as Somalia and Yemen. Young Britons continued to get animated by extremist ideas and were drawn to an ever-expanding range of locations to join fundamentalist groups. This broadened the range of places the research community needed to understand. But it also highlighted the deep persistence of the problem even after senior figures and camps got hammered by the increasingly far-reaching UAV (drone) strike campaigns.

This particular tactic raised a new set of questions for the UK – around proportionality and state assassination. The US had clearly already set a path in this direction, but for the UK the discussion was a complex one which touched on a complicated history of the Irish troubles. The UAV capability provided a level of reach that was unparalleled, but it raised complicated ethical issues. Legal systems in the UK were already struggling with new legislation aiming to criminalise possession of material, ideas and conviction for acts which had not taken place.

And then the emergence of the Islamic State from the civil war in Syria appeared to suggest the entire cycle was repeating itself once again but closer to home. There were new tweaks to the Islamic State menace, whose exceptional online presence provided researchers with an extraordinary level of data and information which they could use to analyse the threats posed by the group. Individual terrorists could be spoken to from the battlefield. Group messaging became global and accessible instantaneously, something Osama bin Laden could only dream of achieving.

This also sharpened problems that were already emerging. The lone-actor threat had already started to appear in the UK in 2007. But by the time the war in Syria took off, it had become a more prominent part of the threat. In part no doubt as a result of an effective security response which made it harder for large-scale plots to get through, but also as a result of the fact that the ideas were now so diffuse that anyone could easily access them and react to them.

The research discourse also started to evolve. As we moved into a time of isolated terrorists, the question of ideology and group identity started to get overtaken by research focusing on individual stories, causes and narratives. This in turn created a wave of research trying to craft the nuanced responses that would be required to deal with a problem which was as unique as each individual who had become involved. This then opened up a focus on different sub-groups – be it on the basis of gender, age or mental health. This transformed the nature of communities that researchers were focused on.

But the grim reality is that the problem of terrorism has never really left us and is unlikely to. During this 20-year chapter defined by the opening salvo of the 9/11 attacks and closed (at least in political narrative terms) by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the world has gone through many contortions. The research community has found itself following and echoing these. But often the most frequent finding is that these problems are not new, the drivers are as much personal as societal, and the danger is that we continue to reinvent the wheel as we seek to find an answer to what is likely an intractable societal ill. Terrorism existed pre-9/11, and it is going to follow us deep into the future.

The RUSI Journal has published extensively on these themes over the past 20 years. This collection of articles traces how our understanding has evolved since that momentous day in September 2001.

A brief policy focused piece for a new outlet and institution called the UK National Committee on China (UKNCC) which they requested in the wake of the US led withdrawal from Afghanistan to try to focus on how the UK’s relationship with China needs to navigate this. It is part of a triumvirate of pieces they published including one by Alessandro and another by the Chinese Special Envoy for Afghan Affairs Yue Xiaoyong. Builds on something I wrote earlier for RUSI, and is likely to be an interesting and complicated policy question going forwards.

What are the implications of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan?

The world is increasingly defined by great power conflict. Escalating tensions between the US and China have grown to touch on almost every aspect of international relations. This reality has most recently been on display in Afghanistan. The US withdrawal from a two-decade long military commitment on China’s borders has thrown into question American security commitments and raised questions about what kind of a power China will be in its own backyard. For a power such as the United Kingdom that straddles the relationships between Beijing, Kabul and Washington, the question is how, in this complicated strategic equation, to ensure British interests. The balance is a complex one which highlights the nature of the challenges that the UK is going to face in trying to carve out its own path in the world.

The most prominent and immediate question to emerge from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is what it means for London’s much vaunted ‘special relationship’ with Washington. Senior officials, including the Defence Secretary, have openly questioned President Biden’s decision-making on the withdrawal, while the public discourse in London has focused on how events have shown the limits of British influence in Washington. Yet the reality remains that the US is the UK’s key strategic security ally on the world stage. The narrative of divergence in UK and US interests is exaggerated, even if it is clear that Washington is focusing on its confrontation with Beijing as the driving policy focus to the detriment of everything else.

At the same time, it is clear that the UK is unable to entirely disengage from Afghanistan. Quite aside from the deep commitments generated from twenty years of conflict, there are the human and historical connections that the UK has with South Asia. Large diaspora communities from Pakistan, and to a lesser extent from Afghanistan, give the UK a particular stake in the country and region. This also means that the UK needs to explore ways in which to engage and secure its interests in Afghanistan in the longer-term, including generating creative options that reflect the changing regional geopolitics.

The harsh geopolitical reality is that the United States-led withdrawal from Afghanistan will bolster Chinese influence in the region. This is not a reflection of a push by Beijing to fill an abstract security vacuum, but rather a demonstration of geographical reality. With the departure of American forces, Beijing is set to become the most consequential power in the Eurasian heartland. For the UK, threading the needle of a uninterested Washington and influential Beijing will require strategic thinking.

Chinese influence across Eurasia has been ascendant for some time. Yet until now, China has chosen to prioritize economic engagement, with security engagement placed a discrete but focused second. The American withdrawal from Afghanistan has complicated this approach. While parts of Beijing may have chafed at the idea of military bases on their borders, others sensibly reckoned that an American security presence was likely dealing with problems that otherwise Beijing might have to address.

The US withdrawal has therefore left Beijing seeking new partners in the region. The most pragmatic and logical choice from China’s perspective is the new Taliban-led government. However, there is still no clarity about the level of power and control the Taliban may command, their long-term stability in power, or whether they are interested in dealing with the issues that most concern Beijing. Recognizing this, China has also sought greater coordination with Russia, increased its bilateral discussion on Afghanistan with Iran, and continued its engagement with Pakistan.

Yet, while these relationships are more established than those with the Taliban, each has its own complications and mistrusts. This is most clear in the lack of any action or discussion recently by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) about doing anything concerning Afghanistan. Including as it does all of Afghanistan’s neighbours except Turkmenistan, and with a particular interest in terrorism, the SCO should theoretically be the obvious platform for greater engagement in Afghanistan.

Established with Chinese impetus, Beijing has long sought to get the SCO to do more in Afghanistan, but has struggled to get members to share its focus. For the most part, these other countries have rather sought to engage Afghanistan bilaterally or through other regional formats that they host and control.

In many ways, this is exactly the approach Beijing has itself taken. While China has done a great deal of multilateral engagement in the wider region and on Afghanistan, it has usually taken a bilateral approach to focus on its real interests, through selective security engagement, economic investment or developing political and social partnerships. In Afghanistan, the prime concern is that the country might become a base from which Uyghur militants (or other anti-Chinese elements) gather to try to attack China directly or its interests in the wider region. This has led to quite focused security and intelligence attention.

This focus on counter-terrorism is something that provides the UK with a first potential point of engagement. London is as concerned about terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan as Beijing is, though the degree of threat and the nature of them is slightly different. The degree of actual threat that China might face from militant Uyghurs in Afghanistan remains an open question. It is after all many years since a specific threat has been seen. There does though appear to be evidence of some presence and there is no doubt that its wider regional concerns are of relevance. In recent years, terrorists have targeted both China’s embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and its consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, part of a wider trend of targeting of Chinese interests.

But engagement on counterterrorism with China is a double-edged sword for the UK. There may be some concurrence in the assessment of threats abroad: for example, the UK continues to list the Turkestan Islamic Party (also known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement) as a proscribed terrorist entity in contrast to the US.

However, there is little agreement on domestic counter-terrorism policy. The UK has correctly been at the forefront of the global push to condemn Chinese action in Xinjiang which is done under the rubric of countering extremism. Threading the needle of engaging abroad while condemning at home will be difficult. But focusing on shared concerns about groups such as al Qaeda, ISIS, and other regional salafi-jihadi groups that are likely to play a major role in destabilizing the wider region would be something China and the UK might work on.

Focusing on cooperation through the Belt and Road Initiative is equally fraught, though for more prosaic reasons. Whilst Beijing talks a great deal about BRI cooperation, it is hard to find evidence of genuine action following this rhetoric.

The UK has tried, for example, a great deal in Pakistan with limited success. Meaningful BRI cooperation has been largely limited to the level of individual contracts where UK firms take on defined sub-contract roles within larger projects.

Humanitarian aid might offer itself as the most obvious first point of pressure and engagement. The Taliban take over has precipitated a frantic run for the door in all directions. Most visibly via Kabul International Airport, but in far larger numbers across the country’s land borders into Pakistan and Iran – places already swelled by years of Afghan emigration. These problems sit in addition to the larger humanitarian crisis that is likely coming in Afghanistan, if the country remains cut off from the international community and from the aid flows that dominated the economy. Beijing should be engaged and encouraged to expend more money and effort in alleviating these humanitarian crises that sit in its backyard.

What happens in Afghanistan matters to both the UK and China. It matters also to the United States, but Washington has clearly articulated that it is prioritizing efforts elsewhere. London should not step back in a similar way, but should instead explore whether targeted cooperation is possible to advance shared concerns and interests. While at the moment it increasingly looks like there is little appetite in Beijing for genuine cooperation, the problems that Afghanistan faces are likely to be with us for some time yet. Working towards encouraging Beijing to take a greater humanitarian role while recognizing the common terrorist threats offers a way of trying to strike the difficult strategic balance that the UK will need to find in a world of great power confrontation.

Still catching up on myself after a very busy period, this a quick policy note for RUSI picking up on some comments by the UK Foreign Secretary about the need to have to cooperate with China and Russia in Afghanistan. The idea of cooperating with China in particular in Afghanistan is something that lots of people have done over the years, and for those who may have been reading my stuff for a while will know I have done projects on since 2014 (looking at China-India cooperation), again in greater depth in 2016 and most recently last year between the UK and China. As Afghanistan’s wealthiest, and going forwards likely most influential, neighbour, it strikes that China is going to be playing a role or should be taking a more positive role. It makes sense to try to ensure some sort of cooperation can be maintained, while the larger relationships will continue to be incredibly challenging and confrontational. Of course all of this push towards engagement is something that only works if Beijing and Moscow also contribute, something that they have hesitated to do so far (in particular in China’s case).

Enlisting China and Russia in Managing Afghanistan

The UK foreign secretary is the first to raise what will soon become an imperative: engaging with China and Russia in containing the fallout from Afghanistan.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen leaves after a news conference in Moscow, 9 July 2021. Courtesy of Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo.

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s recent comments about enlisting the support of China and Russia to act as moderating influences in Afghanistan amounts to a sober admission of reality: the long-term answer to stability in Afghanistan is going to come from its immediate region. The snag with this assessment is that Afghanistan is a state entirely surrounded by countries that are in one way or another sanctioned by the West. It is this adversarial relationship with much of Afghanistan’s neighbourhood that makes it difficult for a power like the UK to influence events, especially when it comes to engaging Moscow and Beijing on something as sensitive as Afghanistan. So, what exactly can the West in general, and the UK in particular, expect in requesting support from China and Russia in the context of Afghanistan?

Not Exactly Enthused

The first fact to note is that, notwithstanding rhetoric, neither Beijing nor Moscow are pleased with the ultimate outcome of an unstable Afghanistan. They may enjoy the West’s perceived failure and ignominious departure, but an Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban is not an outcome they welcome with excitement. Violent Islamists imbued with a sense of victory present a potential inspiration to extreme groups within China and Russia. It is worth remembering that the Taliban has previously provided space from which militants targeting these countries could operate. Furthermore, any short- or medium-term terrorist threat that could emanate from Afghanistan is most likely to appear in its immediate region rather than further afield.

Neither are Beijing or Moscow attracted to an unstable Afghanistan with a weak or internally divided government without the stabilising force of US power. Such a situation would be an irritant which sits near their borders and could have other consequences for their broader spheres of influence and interests across the Eurasian heartland. Beijing and Moscow would rather have a Taliban government that found a way of creating a stable environment, most preferably through some political agreement. There is likely a divergence in views between London, Beijing and Moscow on what the specific composition of this government might look like, but there is probably an underlying agreement about the broad structure.

Keep it Simple, Keep it Focused

While this suggests a restriction to the degree to which China and Russia will cooperate on Afghan politics, it also indicates a certain alignment with Beijing and Moscow, as their goal is similar to that pursued by the UK. All three want stability. But, rather than expend political capital on precise deliverables that may be unattainable, the focus should be kept on larger goals.

A priority must be to apply whatever pressure is possible to get Beijing and Moscow to encourage the Taliban to facilitate a positive outcome to the current humanitarian crisis at Kabul airport. In the medium term, the UK should impress upon Beijing and Moscow the need to increase their humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and its neighbours. China has considerable wealth and influence in Pakistan, where numerous Afghan refugees are already flowing. Providing greater aid and support for this community, while also continuing the provision of coronavirus pandemic-related aid to Afghanistan, should be a priority. Similarly, Iran is experiencing a refugee influx it can ill afford to manage as it continues to suffer from the effects of the pandemic. Beijing and Tehran have recently started to strengthen their engagement, opening discussions on Afghanistan in particular.

Moscow has already demonstrated a desire to restrict US options in Central Asia, but Russia can still be pushed to step up its humanitarian support to help the countries of the region manage the humanitarian fallout. Before the fall of Kabul, Moscow was offering itself as a valued security bolster to the Central Asian powers, and it should be encouraged to build on this with greater humanitarian aid.

In order to help foster greater cooperation, a key plank of engagement is the joint concerns all three powers have about terrorist threats. Pressure needs to be maintained on the Taliban to ensure their territory is not used by militant groups to launch external attacks. The reality is that both China and Russia (through Central Asia) are under a greater threat than the West from such a development. The UK faces a clear risk through Pakistan, and the deep human links the two countries share, which unfortunately extends to South Asian militancy and extremism. Here, discussion between the UK, China and Russia should be easier. All three already agree in broad terms on the shape of the violent Islamist threat (though domestic assessments and counterterrorism approaches vary wildly). A dialogue with Beijing on the topic would be easier for the UK in particular, given it has not, unlike the US, removed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement from its roster of proscribed terrorist organisations, considering it another name for the Turkestan Islamic Party.

Looking to the future, both China and Russia should be encouraged to live up to their various promises of support for Afghanistan, from trying to work in a more collective and coordinated fashion to help impede the flow of narcotics to boosting cross-border trade and low-level economic activity.

At the moment, much of the discussion around the Afghan economy tends to focus on overly ambitious, long-term and frankly unviable economic visions for the country, be these China’s Belt and Road concept or the opportunity to mine Afghanistan’s potential mineral wealth. The reality is that none of this wealth was extracted during the relative stability of the past 20 years of US-led intervention, when there was a government that had the ability and knowledge necessary to help deliver complicated extractive projects. It is difficult to comprehend why this situation would now be improved or the country seem more appealing, even to more risk-tolerant Chinese firms. Furthermore, such projects take years to see benefits, and the people of Afghanistan need assistance now.

And Less of the ‘Great Game’

It would be useful for the UK to do everything it can to ensure that Afghanistan does not get caught in the grinding tectonic plates of international geopolitics once again. Beijing has already started to identify the country as a potential point of conflict with the US and India, and efforts should focus on disentangling these threads to try to encourage cooperation again. Afghanistan used to shine as a place where adversaries like the US, China and India could cooperate, even if only to a limited extent.

At this stage, any engagement on Afghanistan with other powers must be done with great care. The situation on the ground remains highly unstable and the tussles for power are febrile. Regardless of who ultimately takes and maintains control in Kabul, however, Beijing and Moscow will be highly influential players. Engaging with them in some form will be hard to avoid; the key objective is to do so meaningfully.

It has been a very busy month in the world and in work terms, and have been delinquent about posting. So quite a lot of catching up to do over the next few days. First up is a piece for an outlet I used to contribute to quite regularly, the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor on a topic that I used to cover annually for them, providing a short review of the annual Europol Annual Terrorist Threat report. This year’s highlighted the problem of lone actors in particular as the core of the terrorist threat. As with all these sorts of reports, the data collection requires caveats, but the trends are nonetheless very interesting.

New Europol Report Warns of Lone Actors and Analyzes Decrease in Terrorism in 2020

Terrorism Monitor: Volume 19, Issue: 15

Source: europarl.europa.eu

In late June, Abdirahman Jibril A, a 24-year-old Somali migrant legally residing in Germany, walked barefoot into a Woolworth shop in the center of Würzburg, Bavaria asking for the kitchenware department. Once there, he took a large kitchen knife and started attacking people. When he was finally brought down by police and pedestrians, he had murdered three people and injured seven others.

The attack came only a week after the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol) had launched its latest annual report, which highlighted that lone actor terrorism of this sort is the sharp end of the threat Europe faces. Most worrying for Europol chief, Catherine de Bolle, was the fact that “more jihadist terrorist attacks were completed than thwarted during 2020.” While absolute numbers of such attacks remain low at 15 attacks recorded over the year, the lone actor threat remains a critical gap in European counterterrorism.

Comparing the Attackers in Würzburg and France

At time of writing, details around the Würzburg attacker were lacking. Authorities in Germany seemed divided between whether he was a terrorist or suffering from some sort of mental crisis at the time of the attack. While he was reported as having shouted “Allahu Akhbar” during the attack, authorities appear not to have concluded that he consumed much jihadist or other radical material prior to the attack. Discussions with family members have also not clarified the extent of his radicalization (tagesspiegel, July 15). Some reports indicated a history of serious mental issues, including hearing voices and believing himself to be followed by the authorities (Welt, July 2). The attack seems part of a pattern of incidents highlighted in the Europol report whereby “some lone attackers in 2020 again displayed a combination of extremist ideology and mental health issues. This made it difficult at times to distinguish between terrorist attacks and violence caused by mental health problems.”

In some cases, authorities have gone so far as to blame COVID-19 for attacks. The Europol report mentions, “At an individual level, there is a risk that the situation created by the pandemic could be an additional stress factor for radicalized individuals with mental health problems. As a result, lone actors might turn to violence sooner than they would have done under different circumstances.” French authorities in particular have suggested that two cases almost exactly a year apart reflect this trend, with mental strain pushing individuals previously not known to authorities to launch extremist attacks.

The first attack in Romans-sur-Isère came just as lockdowns were starting in France in April 2020 and was conducted by a Sudanese migrant who murdered two people and injured five others waiting in a shop. He was found to have extremist material, though ultimately he was placed into a secure mental health unit (lemonde.com, May 11). Almost exactly a year later, a Tunisian man who had lived in France for several years attacked staff at a police station in Rambouillet, leading to one death. This attacker was as unknown to authorities as the man in Romans-sur-Isère and was listening to extremist material at the time of his attack. He was shouting “Allahu Akhbar” during his attack before being killed by police. Authorities are still unclear about his radicalization process, although indicators, including his online activity, appear to suggest it may have in part been triggered by COVID-19 lockdowns (lexpress.fr, April 25).

Diminishing Mainstream Jihadism and Right- and Left-Wing Terrorism?

Notwithstanding the attacks in Würzburg and France, the Europol report is notable for highlighting the more mainstream jihadist activity that might have been expected has not materialized. The report mentions that few people sought to travel to foreign terrorist battlefields in the past year, and downplayed the criminal-terrorism nexus. It stated, “In the EU, there is little evidence of systematic cooperation between criminals and terrorists…The nexus between crime and jihadist terrorism mainly manifested itself through financing sources as well as within prisons.”

The report highlighted that a third of the attacks identified during the reporting year involved individuals who had previous criminal charges for terrorism offences. However, it downplayed the link, stating that “recidivism among terrorism convicts in Europe is relatively low.” A lingering sense of threat from the western Balkans is felt throughout the report, however, as the successful Vienna attacker in November 2020 revealed a terrorist network linked to Islamic State (IS) and the Middle East (Terrorism Monitor, December 3, 2020).

Beyond violent Islamists, the report also discussed extreme right-wing terrorism as a threat, although reported numbers are relatively low. The report, for example, identified one successful extreme right-wing attack in Hanau, Germany in February 2020 (dw.com, February 20, 2020). However, it made the point that while that shooter was clearly racist, it was unclear the degree to which he was connected to any other networks.  The report also highlighted three other disrupted attacks in Belgium, Germany, and France, the growing trajectory right wing extremist youths, and the importance of online communities for this contingent (brusselstimes.com, July 28, 2020; euronews.com, January 28, 2020; francebleu.fr, May 29, 2020).

Also notable is that Europol reported that there were more actual attacks on the far-left and anarchist side of the coin than from right-wing extremists, although the former did not result in any fatalities. According to the report, some 24 attacks were reported in Italy, with another one disrupted in France. An example of the incidents in Italy was a parcel bomb sent to Giuseppe Pasini, the leader of the Brescia industry association and Chair of local Steelmaker Feralpi Group in September 2020 (Giornale di Brescia, September 23, 2020).

More recently, Italian authorities noted an increase in anarchist violence directed at authorities and COVID-19 response centers, television transmitters, ATMs, and other public defacements (Panorama, April 21). This reflects Europol reporting in 2019 where more than 20 incidents were recorded in Italy, as well as in Spain and Greece, and a broader trend in Europe whereby left-wing/anarchist groups tend to be more active in southern European countries (Europol, June 2020). While for the most part they are involved in letter bomb and firebombing campaigns that cause damage to property rather than life, the Council of the European Union held a discussion on July 7, 2021 to examine whether the seeming escalation of the threat required a greater focus from a higher level (Council of the European Union, July 1).

Conclusion

The overall narrative from Europol reporting is that terrorist threats in Europe are down, though the agency hesitates to say this is a result of lowered activity and speculates that the downturn might be linked to COVID-19-related restrictions. It states, “This decrease, however, is not necessarily linked to decreased terrorist activities. The UK cautioned that the decline in terrorism-related arrests and convictions can also be attributed to the operational changes necessary under government restrictions imposed in March 2020, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Published in the middle of 2021, it is notable that the trends highlighted in the report for 2020 appear to have carried forward. Thus far, few violent Islamist attacks have taken place in Europe, and those that have taken place are similar to the Würzburg attack, including an incident in Vetlanda, Sweden in March, another stabber in Dresden, Germany days after the Würzburg attack, and a former terrorist offender who attacked a police officer in France in May (politico.eu, March 4; tagesspiegel.de, July 6; France24.com, May 28). All were identified in reporting as individuals ideologically inspired and troubled. Meanwhile, the case in May of Jurgen Conings in Belgium, who tried to kill a virologist before dying while in hiding in the wilderness, highlighted the danger on the far right (politico.eu, June 20). Isolated individuals launching one-man terrorist campaigns appear to be the sharp end of the terrorist threat in Europe for the moment.

A new piece which I recognize has a certain level of irony imbued within it – making the point that an extremist leader is best starved of the oxygen of publicity by writing about him in a national newspaper. But still, it felt a significant point to make. I noted during his press conference announcing the end of his restrictions apparently someone walked past and shouted at him. As quoted in the Telegraph, “one passerby, of South Asian origin, shouted: “You don’t speak for us”.” So maybe he is finally on his way out. But I suspect this is not the last we have heard from Anjem Choudary I am afraid. In any case, here is my short comment for the Times Red Box column.

How do we silence Anjem Choudary? Start by switching off the microphone

David Rose for The Telegraph


As the rest of the UK celebrated the end of Covid restrictions, Anjem Choudary celebrated his return to free speech. Having been jailed for inviting people to support Islamic State, he was freed in 2018 and had been living under restrictive licence conditions until now.

But being able to speak is not the same as a return to influence. This is not something that will be entirely determined by the restrictions he is living under. The real determinant is the degree to which he is welcomed back into the public debate as a figure representing a part of society.

This is something we can all determine around him and something he will struggle to control.

There is no denying the damage his organisation, al Muhajiroun, has done. The last two violent Islamist terrorist attacks in this country to kill innocent people were conducted by individuals that had some contact with the organisation.

This is the latest chapter in an almost three-decade history for the group. Go back to before September 11, 2001 and the group and its people are a regular feature of most terrorist investigations.

Yet it is also the case that it is not clear how much the organisation has managed to grow and develop further in the past few years. Choudary was the most prominent leader of an organisation that struggles to mobilise in the same way as it used to.

One of its more prominent remaining leaders, Shakil Chopra, was jailed a couple of weeks ago for sharing extremist videos. Others are living under restrictive conditions that are designed to consume their time and constrain their ability to meet with others or radicalise further.

Of course no system is perfect, but these restrictive measures do have a corrosive effect on capability.

It has been some time since we have seen a large-scale terrorist plot prosecuted in our courts of a scale comparable to those that were being disrupted in the mid-2000s when al Qaeda used a pipeline of followers that al Muhajiroun had helped build to direct a series of attacks towards the UK.

Rather we have seen atrocities that have been sporadic and occasional with no clarity about the role of terrorist groups or al Muhajiroun. It is not clear how many new followers the group is generating in the same way as it did before.

Security services continue to worry about violent Islamists, but it is not clear how much of this threat is still linked to al Muhajiroun in the same way as before.

The residual parts of the network continue to exist, but are under continual scrutiny. Choudary’s release provides a moment at which it could try to regenerate, but he will be watched closely and will struggle to mobilise people in the same way as before.

And anyway, in some ways the world has moved on. Al Muhajiroun’s narrative does not work in the same way as it used to. They used to shout about an Islamic State — it was built by Isis and there was considerable criticism for those in the organisation who did not go and join it.

Those being drawn towards extremist narratives today have not always heard of Choudary in the same way. Some in extremist communities ridicule his ilk as “microphone jihadis” who are all talk.

A key to him not getting back to the position he was in before is to starve him of his microphone and ensure that he is not the dominating news figure that he was. While this will not get rid of him, it will reduce his attractiveness.

His provocative interviews would draw people to him and create an aura of influence and power, which he was adept at manipulating to open up people to ideas that in some cases would lead them down a path towards violence.

There is of course a certain irony in writing this in an article about him for a major national website, but it is worth stating nonetheless: starving Anjem Choudary of his microphone will reduce his power and influence. Without it, he will simply become another aging ideologue whose followers are jailed, dead or drifting away.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at Royal United Services Institute

My final piece in this most recent blast, this time for my London base RUSI looking at UK terrorist threats and matching up what the UK threat picture looks like with the growing focus the UK is placing on counter-terrorism deployments in parts of Africa. The point was really to raise questions about whether these deployments are going in the right places. Am aware the balance is always a complicated one between threats, capabilities and cost, but it does seem an odd set of choices to make at the moment. I think this is a set of questions I want to explore in more detail going forwards, but at the moment a bit overcommitted with other pieces which should be landing over the next few months.

One Down, Many More Challenges: The UK and Threats of African Terrorism

The UK is shifting its counterterrorism capability to Africa. Yet while the threat picture in Africa appears to be worsening, it remains unclear how outwardly menacing it actually is. The key question Whitehall needs to ask is whether the new deployments to Mali and Somalia appropriately reflect the global terrorist threat picture the UK faces.

For the ninth or tenth time, the leader of the Boko Haram terrorist group, Abubakar Shekau, has been reported killed. His death comes at a moment of growing attention towards terrorism in Africa. While last year saw a broader fall in terrorist violence around the world, in Africa it actually rose.

All of this comes as the UK appears to be increasing its counterterrorism focus on the continent. The prime minister has announced a deployment to Somalia to help address terrorist threats there, and the UK’s force in Mali has started to conduct operations on the ground. This suggests a shift in where the UK judges its main foreign terrorist threats to be coming from, as it follows the US out of the door in Afghanistan. The key question is whether this accurately reflects the threat picture to the UK and its interests.

Ironically enough, having been the target of authorities for many years, Shekau’s ultimate demise is reported to have come at his own hand while fighting the local Islamic State affiliate. An exceptionally violent man, Shekau led a brutal fighting force whose indiscriminate violence was considered too much even for Islamic State, leading to infighting among the jihadist groups on the ground. During his final stand, reports on the ground suggest that large numbers of his followers joined Islamic State rather than fight alongside him.

The death of terrorist leaders can often lead to fragmentation and greater levels of violence. However, Shekau’s death may actually accelerate a process of unification among the various violent groups in Nigeria under the Islamic State banner. This in turn could make the specific threat from Islamic State in the region worse.

What is less likely is that his death will particularly change the threat picture to the UK. As a global power with interests across Africa, the UK has an interest in stability in the region. But when looking at this region through a rigid counterterrorism lens, the threat appears far more local than international. And this is where questions might be asked about the current UK deployments to Mali and Somalia.

The threat picture in Somalia is one that has had direct links to the UK. We have just marked the eight-year anniversary of the death of Fusilier Lee Rigby. His murder was undertaken by individuals with links to terrorist networks in Somalia and their allies across the Gulf on the Arabian Peninsula. The current leader of Islamic State in Somalia is a former longstanding UK resident. There are fewer links to Mali, and no active plots that have been uncovered. Moreover, it has been a while since an active plot was prosecuted in the UK that had links to Somalia. Terrorism with links to networks in Africa that has affected the UK has tended to be connected to Libya – as we are discovering in some detail through the Manchester Arena bombing inquiry – as well as Tunisia, where some 30 UK holidaymakers were massacred in 2015.

There is no doubt that terrorist groups in Africa do have some connections to international networks, but they are not necessarily all connected in the same way. Nor is it entirely clear that they are all a threat to the UK or its interests equally – or that they pose the same level of menace as the groups that will continue to exist in Afghanistan.

While the UK has not seen a terrorist plot with direct links to South Asia for some time, a court in Germany is currently trying a network of Tajiks who are alleged to have been directed in part by Islamic State in Afghanistan. And the UK’s deep human connections with South Asia will always ensure that some echoes of tensions there will be felt in the UK.

But the UK is following the US’s decision on Afghanistan, and while some residual UK force will likely remain to support the more limited NATO mission on the ground, this is clearly not going to be a UK military focus. The key question, then, is whether the new UK mini-deployments to Africa are being targeted in the right places, and whether they are large enough to actually effect some change on the ground. So far, the reported numbers in both Somalia and Mali are in the low hundreds – certainly not enough to overturn longstanding jihadist threats or insurgencies that have been going on in some cases for generations.

This suggests the deployments are more demonstrative or focused on supporting limited kinetic counterterrorism goals rather than the long-term efforts that are needed to materially change the situation on the ground. This in turn highlights how the core of the UK’s security approach towards Africa in this regard still relies heavily on local forces.

Yet this has repeatedly been shown to be a fragile policy. One need only look at the fact that, at the same time as Shekau was dying fighting Islamic State, the Nigerian Army Chief died in a helicopter crash – or that just a month earlier, Chadian President Idriss Déby died fighting insurgents in his country – in order to see how fleeting African security arrangements can be. And this is before one factors in the latest coup d’état in Mali.

There is a growing terrorist threat in Africa. As the coronavirus pandemic afflicted the world last year, Africa was among the only places where violence associated with terrorist groups went up. And events in Mozambique earlier this year highlighted what a terrorist crisis in Africa could look like at its worst. Shekau’s death is likely to precipitate more violence in Nigeria. But it is not clear what kind of an outward-facing aspect these threats currently have.

By deploying small numbers of troops to Mali and Somalia, the UK is playing its part in tackling the broader regional issue. But the problems around terrorism in Africa are infinitely more complicated than these deployments suggest, and come at the same time as cuts in aid budgets to the same regions. If this light footprint reflects the fact that the threat picture to the UK is seen as limited, then questions should be asked as to whether scarce resources are being deployed optimally. The potential terrorist threat to the UK is still more likely to emanate from Libya, the Middle East or South Asia.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: UK forces in Mali. Courtesy of Ministry of Defence/OGLv3.0

Back on my one of my more traditional topics which has become a lot less newsworthy of late in a new short piece for UK’s The Times Red Box about the never ending Shamima Begum case. Am sure this is not the last we will hear of this case, and my sense is that the subsequent problems that might emerge from the case are only likely to get longer the more she is left out in Syria. Hard to see how this is going to end well sadly.

Ignoring UK terrorists like Shamima Begum is not the answer

As she has for almost three years, Shamima Begum continues to sit in a dusty camp in Syria waiting for some resolution to her stage in life. Having made a catastrophically bad decision at 15, she is bound in a limbo to which there likely seems no end. The problems around her case, however, have not been resolved by the Supreme Court’s decision that simply prolongs her stasis.

There are numerous questions around her case, but three in particular distinguish themselves as needing immediate attention. First is the problem of her age. When she ran away to Syria at 15, she was committing a criminal terrorist act at an age younger than an anonymous Cornwall boy who pleaded guilty a few weeks ago to being a key UK figure of the online extreme right-wing group Feuerkrieg Division.

As a key organiser for the group online, he helped recruit others, vet members, and pushed followers online to move forwards to committing online acts of terrorism. Having pleaded guilty, he was given a two-year youth rehabilitation order, while a 17-year-old he had recruited and stirred into action was given a five-year custodial sentence for planning a terrorist attack.

It is difficult to compare the cases of course in part as we do not know what Begum did while she was in Syria. However, it does seem odd that our criminal justice system is able to handle teenage terrorists with relatively light custodial sentences while this young woman who started down a path when younger than them is on the receiving end of a literal life sentence.

We seem able to handle murderers, rapists, and other serious criminals through our ordinary criminal justice system, but we are incapable of managing a fanatical young woman.

Putting this to one side, it is also important to realise how utterly porous and unstable the situation in which Begum finds herself is. The camps in Syria are managed by a Kurdish fighting group that is ill-suited to keeping them and is far more pre-occupied with its own survival than the fate of those sitting in the camps. From their perspective, the foreigners are useful in that they keep the world’s attention on them, but they do not much care what actually happens to them.

The result has been regular escapes and clear evidence of support from networks back in the homes where they came from. In February, Turkish authorities detained French, Russian and New Zealand Isis women who had managed to sneak out of Syria. Investigations by UK newspapers have shown how online funding networks exist with links to the UK to raise money to help Isis women in these camps.

The point is that as static as the camps are, the people within them are not. This means that the method of simply leaving people over there and hoping the problem will go away is not an answer. And far more dangerous than leaving them in the camp is the prospect of them escaping unfettered and unobserved.

There is a final American angle to this dilemma. While President Biden is doubtless going to be focused on other things for the time being, it is a source of continued irritation in Washington that Europe has not found a way of managing its nationals in these camps.

While under Trump this complaint joined a long list of irritants with an administration that most wanted to try to avoid having to deal with, under Biden, the question will become more pressing and harder to ignore. Europeans spent a lot of time telling Washington off for Guantanamo Bay. How long before some in Washington start to draw similar comparisons?

There is no doubt that managing the return of Begum and the many others who joined Isis will be complicated. But the answer to this problem is to deal with it head on and on a case by case basis, rather than uniformly strip passports and dump on someone else people who are British responsibilities. Doubtless some of these individuals are hardened and irredeemable criminals who should serve long sentences for their crimes, but it is equally likely that some may be people who can be rehabilitated after some punishment. In this way they are similar to the many of thousands of others who have been through the British criminal justice system.

The answer to terrorism is to treat it like an ordinary criminal act rather than an extraordinary behaviour. We seem able to do that with teenage terrorists at home, it is not clear why we cannot with Begum.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute

A short and unfortunately incomplete post this time for a short essay published by Hope not Hate, a UK advocacy group that does excellent work on countering extremist and divisive narratives in the UK. Have written for them in the past as well, and this time the piece looks at how extreme right and violent Islamist narratives tend to converge (like most extremists in some ways). Not a world apart from what I wrote about last time for them I see. Unfortunately, the magazine only partially goes online, so I have a snapshot of the first pages posted in the image below and the rest hardcopy. You can get it by either subscribing to support them or if you ask me very nicely, I may be able to help. For the time being here is the first page with the very striking picture they decided to use.

As usual late posting, this time a piece for my London institutional home RUSI with the wonderful Veerle Nouwens looking at the UK’s strategy towards China in the wake of the latest Huawei decision. Things definitely heating up in this space and we are working together on another pair of China projects and papers which should be due out later in the year. In the meantime, you can enjoy this and an interview panel for Al Jazeera English’s Inside Story programme that I did on China posted below, and follow this link for a conversation with the Nepal Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement (NIICE) on UK engagement with China.

 

Huawei is No Way for British Strategy on China
Veerle Nouwens and Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary17 July 2020
ChinaInternational Security StudiesUKTechnology

The UK may escape serious Chinese retaliation for its decision to bar Huawei’s equipment. But that is no substitute for the elaboration of a coherent UK strategy towards China.

Screen Shot 2020-07-26 at 07.23.51

It may be too early to predict China’s reaction to the UK’s decision to bar the Huawei telecommunications company from supplying equipment to the UK’s 5G infrastructure. Beijing’s bark may yet prove worse than its bite. However, the issue has highlighted a far bigger problem for the UK. London needs a more sophisticated debate, vision and plan for managing its relationship with China.

Chinese Ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming has claimed to be ‘disheartened’ by the decision, alleging that it reduces trust between the two countries, and asserting that the UK has now sent a signal to foreign companies that it is not open to their business. Chinese media outlets have largely reacted by blaming the US for the UK’s decision. Repercussions pointed out in Chinese media overwhelmingly revolve around the substandard 5G network that the UK will have without the inclusion of Huawei.

The discussion in China beyond this has largely been muted. Given the volume of noise that the debate had previously attracted, it would be surprising if there were no reaction from Beijing. China might choose to find a way of swiping at London that does not link necessarily to the Huawei decision itself, but paints it against a series of issues it is displeased with, such as the UK’s reaction to Hong Kong, re-examination of Chinese investment in the UK and declarations about the need to uphold freedom of navigation in Asian waters. The UK’s commercial relationship is a likely target. At a political level, a cooling of bilateral ties likewise would be unsurprising.

However, Beijing has not yet entirely written off the UK relationship, judging by media coverage which appeared to leave scope for future links. For, as was stated in an article published in the Global Times – the English-language tabloid of the official party People’s Daily – the UK should ‘stop moving in the wrong direction so that damaged bilateral ties can recover’. And another article in the same media outlet noted that while Beijing must respond in order to show it cannot be bullied, it is unnecessary to turn this into a China–UK confrontation.

The UK still represents an important market for potential flagship Chinese projects in Europe, whether in nuclear energy or high-speed rail. The all-important financial sector is one that Beijing would struggle to effectively target with sanctions. And, as the City of London is the leading hub (outside Greater China) for the Chinese renminbi, it would not be in Beijing’s interest to do so. Moreover, there are many other investments and commercial links between the UK and China beyond Huawei, and the biggest British champions in the financial sector have already gone on record to support China’s positions.

While Beijing may expect the upcoming investment-screening measures to more heavily scrutinise Chinese foreign direct investment into the UK’s critical national infrastructure, it will do itself few favours by tightening the screws on London. China-sceptic voices calling for a hardened approach will be amplified in Westminster and reverberate across Europe and other like-minded partners. The threat of an alliance against Chinese 5G tech dominance looms on the horizon. Europe does not just serve as a market for Chinese infrastructure investments, but also remains key in China’s access to technology for its own development. Unless Beijing would like to see more doors close – particularly as it remains on the road to post-pandemic economic recovery – it would be unwise to lash out too severely.

It is also worth remembering that while China has recently reacted with sanctions against some who have attracted its ire, these have been fairly toothless. Sanctioning Lockheed Martin for US military sales to Taiwan does little damage to the firm’s bottom line. Targeting US senators unlikely to travel or do business in China is not going to change their lives. And it has let the Huawei decision pass by in other cases. To little fanfare two weeks ago, Singapore’s two biggest telecommunications providers made the decision to not use Huawei in their 5G roll-out. The damage to Singapore–China relations was so limited that earlier this week President Xi called newly elected Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to congratulate him on his election victory. Japan made the decision against Huawei back in late 2018, and President Xi was still eager to travel to the country on a state visit earlier this year (the trip was only postponed because of the global pandemic). So, the current showdown with the UK does not need to be an unnecessarily politicised issue. Indeed, the same Global Times noted that the UK is not the US, Australia or Canada, a statement which is perhaps intended as a put-down, but may also indicate a differentiated reaction.

BUT THE FUTURE?

The question is what this means for the future of UK–China relations. The issue of Huawei seems to have been decided, but it is just a single point in a much larger picture. The UK has now been to-ing and fro-ing on Huawei for years, transforming what is a technical issue into a proxy for the UK’s debate about how to engage with China. This political conversation about Chinese investment in the UK’s national critical infrastructure is important, but there is a need for a clearer articulation of the UK relationship towards China.

To be sure, there are significant challenges in the relationship. Beijing has done little to endear itself of late. Its aggressive behaviour in every direction has been exacerbated by a hectoring tone from its diplomats who appear to be trying to outdo each other in their demonstrations of indignation and anger. China continues to detain Canadian researchers Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor on spurious charges as ransom for the detained Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou who is facing extradition proceedings in Canada. Atop this, while Beijing may believe that what it does to its own people is nobody else’s business, this goes against a fundamental belief in universal human rights to which many countries ascribe. It is also unclear why Beijing appears unable to understand, or unwilling to care, that people outside of China will interpret how it treats its own people as how it might ultimately treat them.

Yet not everything that China does has been disastrous. Putting aside the many questions that remain over coronavirus, Beijing has managed to by and large contain the situation within its own borders. Its economy is starting to pick up – though underlying structural problems still exist. And looking beyond the virus, whatever happens, China is still going to be there. With almost one sixth of the world’s population living within its borders, China will be a force on the planet (much like India will). Issues such as climate change will not get resolved by Western European powers alone. Future pandemics will not respect the artificial boundaries of alliances that we create. A globalised economy so bifurcated that the UK does not touch China in some way is likely impossible – or so expensive that it is unattainable.

The UK government may disagree and dislike the governing Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but the CCP shows little evidence of collapsing in the short or medium term (nor can we be certain we will like what might come in its wake). We must deal with the government we face, not the one we wish it to be. London and its partners are quickly catching up in bettering their understanding of Beijing. This knowledge should aid Whitehall in devising a comprehensive China strategy – one that identifies UK priorities, including human rights, the rule of law and the plight of those in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, as well as the Canadians who remain imprisoned in China.

This does not mean that the UK’s bilateral relationship with Beijing must be fundamentally antagonistic. China is an important partner in some of the biggest issues of our time. These are not yes or no questions, unlike the Huawei decision. And of course, Beijing must reciprocate engagement. Nevertheless, a UK strategy on China must remain firm on matters of UK core interests, but be prepared to cooperate effectively in others. This is a phrase that will ring familiar in Beijing.