Posts Tagged ‘US’

A bit late posting my latest for the Straits Times, this time digging into the question of nationalism and the problems it causes countries using the lens of the Wolf Warrior mentality in Beijing as the entry point. Still crashing to finish some bigger projects, hoping to have more time for other writing soon!

Beware the spirit of the Wolf Warrior
Summoning the forces of nationalism anywhere in the world invites the risk of a bite-back

Screen Shot 2020-07-01 at 15.18.51

The film Wolf Warrior 2 has managed that special feat of entering the lexicon.

Wolf Warrior has become the byword for a mood in Beijing that sees little reason to stand down before adversaries. Its primary audience is domestic, showing the Chinese public they are living in a strong country built by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But this sort of narrative is also dominant globally, where political leaders are stoking nationalist and nativist fires at home to bolster themselves.

Such narratives rarely stop at borders, however, and usually create friction abroad. This can constrain government options as they seek to please domestic audiences. Nowhere is this clearer than in the current stand-off between New Delhi and Beijing where cool heads are struggling to maintain control.

Wolf Warrior 2’s key message was clearly stamped in its final scene, where against a backdrop of a Chinese passport, words appeared saying: “To citizens of the People’s Republic of China, when you find yourself in danger in a foreign country, do not give up hope. Please remember, behind your back, will be a strong and powerful motherland.”

This film is aimed at a Chinese audience – something that is important to remember when considering what the point of the so-called Wolf Warrior diplomacy is. It is not something aimed at the rest of the world, but at Chinese citizens to show them their motherland’s strength.

The specific phrase “Wolf Warrior diplomacy” appears to have been coined in July last year, in a BBC Chinese article that explored a Twitter spat between then charge d’affaires at the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad, Mr Zhao Lijian, and former US national security adviser Susan Rice.

Now a senior spokesman with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr Zhao at the time ran one of the most prominent and prolific Chinese government official Twitter accounts. He was at the forefront of a growing mood in Beijing that the film seemed to encapsulate – of a China that was no longer hiding and biding its time, in Deng Xiaoping’s phrase, but was rather standing tall and thrusting itself into prominence on the international stage.

The aggressive posture Mr Zhao encapsulated was intended to show that China was no longer being pliant, but was taking the rhetorical fight to the enemy.

Chinese people will often receive a mixed message at home – on the one hand, they see their country getting rich and leaders talking of national rejuvenation, but then abroad they see they are treated as a second-tier power with anger directed at them.

The extraordinary growth at home and hostility abroad do not seem to fit together, and actually undermine the CCP’s messaging to its own people about how well things are going. Stoking nationalist fires helps strengthen the public’s positive feelings towards their government.

This is a global problem. In the United States, President Donald Trump has made a domestic virtue out of attacking allies. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s spending, decoupling from China, withdrawing the US from international agreements – these are all policy decisions that he has championed to his voter base, heedless of the impact or appeal to allies.

In London, the entire Brexit conversation was predicated on the fact that Europe was a millstone to British ambition. Similar narratives can be found in almost every European capital. Leaders pandering to their political bases have long blamed a distant and abstract Brussels as the source of domestic problems. Yet, in a world of superpower confrontation, the idea of walking away from what could be one of the most powerful alliances on the planet seems absurd.

And in Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has harnessed Indian and Hindu nationalism to win resounding election victories. Globally, however, it has brought him condemnation with concerns about human rights of minorities in the country and the troubles in Kashmir.

Stoking these fires can be dangerous after a certain point. By getting people worked up at home about mendacious or evil foreigners, you create a context not only for racism to thrive at home, but also for your citizenry to pick fights for you abroad.

In Kazakhstan, China is having to deal with the fallout. In mid-April, a series of articles emerged on the Chinese Internet that suggested many of China’s neighbours wanted to “return” to China. The implication was that they were all so envious of China’s success that they wanted to renounce their own nationhood to become part of greater China. Produced by a click-bait farm in Xi’an, they appeared to be an attempt to monetise the nationalist mood at home.

When one article referring to Kazakhstan came to the attention of Kazakh netizens, however, it created an uproar, surfacing as it did against a backdrop of growing concern about Chinese influence in their country. The public anger that followed led to its Ministry of Foreign Affairs hauling China’s ambassador in to give him a dressing down. The ambassador in turn expressed anger at the stories, claiming that the entire event was being stirred up by Western media – all done on Facebook, blocked in China.

In Ladakh, we might now be seeing the apotheosis of this problem. With strong nationalist sentiment stirred up at both ends, China and India are facing off at a moment when the popular sentiments in both countries are being agitated by strongman national leaders against each other.

In this light, an admission of large loss of life in conflict is something that neither side wants to accept without consequences. The public has been brought up on narratives of how strong they are and how weak the other is. There is a danger domestically if this does not fit with what they see. Both sides are constrained in their choices as a result. They have to keep the public happy, yet at the same time are concerned about escalating into a larger conflict.

The danger is in some ways best captured by the experience of Wu Jing, the director and star of the Wolf Warrior movies.

In the wake of the runaway success of the second movie, he became a talking point on Chinese social media. Among the many stories that circulated was the rumour that he was from Hong Kong, and that his wife was an American green card holder and his son had United Kingdom citizenship – somewhat contradictory, given the nationalist tone of his blockbuster. In an echo of the “birther” scandal in America around President Barack Obama’s right to contest the presidency, Wu’s mother had to post on Weibo photos of their Chinese passports. The nationalist fires that his film had fanned ultimately circled back to burn him. This is the danger that such nationalistic narratives can create. Uncontrollable anger at home which limits your options abroad.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

An interview rather than article, with the excellent Central Asia Analysis Network (CAAN) or Voices on Central Asia. This looks at the repercussions of the US-China clash in Central Asia – had I done it later, I would have also included this crazy story from Kazakhstan about China pointing fingers at biolabs that the US had sponsored in Kazakhstan. Led to a wonderful comment from the Echo Kazakhstan that the government should listen to the people and reject both the US and China.

This aside, a Webinar with some RSIS colleagues here in Singapore looking at COVID-19 and the terrorist threat picture in now up on YouTube. My comments focused a bit on how it was impacting counter-terrorism response drawing on my earlier RSIS CTTA article.

The Worsening of US-Chinese Relations and the Echo in Central Asia

May 18, 2020

What has led to the worsening of the US-Chinese relations today? Is this a legacy of unresolved trade issues, the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, or is it primarily connected to the current US administration?

The almost complete collapse in US-China relations at the moment is a product of a number of trends on both sides. First, in Beijing you have seen rise a government under Xi Jinping that feels far more entitled and firm about its position on the world stage. Shedding the old maxims of ‘hiding and biding time’, Xi Jinping’s China is the end product of decades of economic growth and prosperity that have shot China up from being a developing world country into a global power in two short decades. This has naturally engendered confidence and to some degree arrogance on the world stage and a desire to shape the world order rather than just be dictated by it.

At the same time, this shift in Beijing has followed a growing despondency in Washington regarding China. This stems from a number of different places. There are those who fear the waning of Pax Americana, following persistent inconclusive wars in the Middle East and a reduced ability to dominate international affairs. From their perspective, a rising China is a clear challenger to the throne who must be aggressively countered.

And then within the China watching community, there are those more inclined to be dovish towards China from years of sinology and close friends in China. They have watched as the country has gradually increased its political repression under Xi Jinping, crushing hopes that had been raised during the Hu Jintao era of explosive economic growth that prosperity was going to herald a more open and liberal China. The business community has grown increasingly frustrated at the deal they had to strike to make money in China, which was to sacrifice intellectual property for market access. Additionally, they have found over time that they are still not being let into some sectors, and they now have the problem of not only facing Chinese firms that are just as strong, but also state supported challengers around the world. And finally, the China hawks who have long wanted confrontation with Beijing now see an opportunity to lead the debate and push forward their narratives of destroying the CCP.

The narrative of democracy versus authoritarianism is a useful lens for people to try to explain this simply, but it does not accurately capture the discourse, as this really is a conflict about power and norms. Within this, President Trump is a complicating factor, mostly because he has greatly reduced America’s standard (and therefore the democratic ideal) in the world while at the same time shown himself to be quite erratic on China. On the one hand, he is presiding over an administration that is pushing back on China more aggressively than any power before, but at the same time, he is personally praising Xi Jinping. This oscillation causes all sorts of problems. But a key element that American analysts tend to miss is that from Beijing’s perspective, there is a clear continuum between Obama and Trump – they are all articulations of America as an adversary. The fact that in the west we see them as so different is not how they are perceived on the ground. This is important as it further clouds our ability to effectively and realistically frame things as a debate between authoritarians and democrats given the differences we see between Trump and Obama.

What consequences do these US-Chinese contradictions have for the countries of Central Asia?

The clash’s impact on Central Asia is largely one of further marginalizing the United States in the region. Geography means Central Asia will always prioritize its relations with China and Russia, but as the relationship between the US and China sharpens, the challenge for Central Asia will be to continue to find a way of striking a path through the middle (if it wants to). If the US continues down a path of confrontation with China, both sides will start to apply more pressure in an effort to get those in the middle to make a choice between them—something no one really wants to do. This will be a problem for regions like Central Asia, which find themselves with important relationships with neighbouring China.

At the same time, the situation is made even more complicated by the fact that two other countries that Central Asia finds itself next to, Russia and Iran, also find themselves in conflict with the United States. These complications are likely to sharpen as the clash between China and the US gets worse, leaving Central Asia with even fewer options and surrounded by American adversaries.

Can COVID-19 change the role of the USA, Russia, and China in the Eurasian space? Can it, for example, slow down the dynamics of BRI and the EAEU? If Russia faces an economic slowdown and political problems, does this influence its political image and power limits in Eurasia?

The EAEU is likely to continue to face problems as its economic heart, Russia, finds its economy under ever greater pressure. It is hard to see, however, this reducing Moscow’s influence over the former Soviet heartland, given most of these economies’ continued dependency on Russia and their strong links to Moscow. The EAEU’s dynamic was always too ambitious for many of those outside Russia, and the pressure against it was always going to limit how far it could go. The question now, however, is whether it can provide backup or support for economies suffering as a result of COVID-19. The fact that this is unlikely to be possible—thanks to shrunken coffers in Moscow—will only further highlight the institution’s limitations.

BRI was already slowing down before COVID-19. The narrative was one of countries taking on more than they could handle and China increasingly finding itself carrying a lot of bad debt. Kyrgyzstan has already sought some renegotiation of its debt burden with China (amongst others), while China has asked for a slowdown in gas supplies from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. This is the literal articulation of what a BRI slowdown looks like. It does not mean it is going to stop, but you will see a greater focus on projects that are viable and able to deliver results, with an effort to stop waste—something that will be driven in no small part by growing pressure at home for Beijing to spend its money on China, not on foreign projects of questionable value.

Is the American establishment worrying about China’s growing influence in Central Asia’s security?

I recall having a meeting in Washington about a year ago in which the topic of Chinese security influence in Central Asia came up. I do not recall anyone being particularly interested or concerned about the topic. They see the SCO as one of the main points of security engagement and see it as a fairly impractical and ineffective organization. At the same time, they see Chinese security and bases going up in the region to support countries in counter-terrorism efforts and border protection as a process, which they can just ignore given its marginal impact on their interests. At worst, they imagine that it might lead to China getting dragged into military confrontations in Afghanistan and therefore be a net advantage for the United States. Overall, they see Chinese security encroachment into Central Asia as something which is a problem for Russia and likely to cause tensions between China and Russia—something which, again, is a positive for Washington.

Coronavirus can enhance regionalization processes, since countries may want to protect themselves and create closer production chains. What stakeholders can benefit from this—the five Central Asian countries, or Russia and China? Someone who has clearer goals?

China is most likely to come out of this with the most benefits in the Russia/Central Asia space. Its considerable domestic market size means it will be able to replace regional supply chains domestically and will have the companies that can start to dictate within their regions. Having said that, if Central Asia is dynamic enough, it might be able to take advantage of the fact that there are some things which just do not make economic sense to be done in China anymore. Historically, these have relocated to Southeast Asia, but given that the region is going to find itself even more torn in the US-China clash, if Central Asia could offer itself as a new place to relocate, it might be able to take advantage of the relative stability it could offer Chinese manufacturers.

The United States, Russia, and China want to promote a peaceful and prosperous Eurasia. However, can economic difficulties (including problems faced by migrants) increase instability in the region?

The drop in remittances and employment opportunities that will take place from the slowdown in migrant labour is going to create a real problem in Central Asia. With few immediate prospects at home, it is likely that we are going to see a rise in an idle male workforce, which is a recipe for problems.

Frankly, it is up to Central Asian governments to focus their efforts and take advantage of this situation to offer themselves as places that can offer manufacturing capabilities aligned with the new supply chains that are likely to develop around China as decoupling between the US and China takes greater hold. If they are able to develop this capacity at home, they will be able to create gainful employment for the now idle migrant labor workforce. Otherwise, they will find themselves hit by the triple-whammy of growing numbers of idle men alongside the slump in remittances income and reduced income from rock bottom commodities prices which will resonate across the Eurasian space.

Trying to be a bit more rapid about my updates this time, here is a brief Telegraph commentary that came out looking at the geopolitics of Coronavirus and the impact it is having on the west and China in particular.

China is losing the geopolitical battle of coronavirus. Unfortunately, the West is too

The more dominant public narrative is of

The Chinese government has embarked on a highly-publicised campaign to supply medical supplies to European nations as they contend with their own domestic outbreaks of coronavirus. But for all the noise Beijing is making about its “medical diplomacy”, it is hard to see how many new friends it has won.

So far, expressions of gratitude have come from predictable places, while China’s critics have focused on the unreliability of Chinese data or conspiracy theories advanced by Foreign Ministry spokesmen. It is not clear that China is winning the geopolitical conflict around Covid-19. Unfortunately, neither is the United States, which leaves a dangerous vacuum at the top.

But while China might not be winning this narrative, it is strengthening itself at home, creating a context which will leave Beijing well-placed to paint itself as a successful government in comparison to others around the world, when the short-term nightmare of covid-19 has passed.

This will have repercussions for China’s future behaviour, and for parts of the world that were already inclined in Beijing’s direction. China may not be winning new geopolitical space, but it is shoring itself up at home. This will make it even more assertive in the future.

One narrative that has caught on in public discourse is that China has ramped up its medical aid in a cynical attempt to use the current chaos to win new influence. Countries like Italy are described as being abandoned by their European brothers while the friendly Chinese sweep in with aid and gifts, in a clear geopolitical “win” for China.

The reality is far more complicated. The EU has mobilised considerable resources to support its member states. EU rules around state aid have been relaxed to allow countries to support affected industries better. Medical aid has flowed around the continent, and a growing number of intensive care cases from the hardest stricken countries like Italy are being sent to neighbouring countries. And while there is no denying the Chinese support, it happened after considerable volumes of European aid flowed to China when the country was in the heat of its own crisis – all delivered with much less fanfare.

This is not unknown in the halls of power. European governments know that their first port of call will always be their neighbours. Those who shout about Chinese aid are for the most part using it to score political points against adversaries, either at home or in Brussels. Leaders who have thanked China in more modest tones have only done the courteous thing which is expressed gratitude when someone offers you support.

Media reports have instead focused on Chinese equipment being delivered either with caveats or outright defective or faulty. Conspiracy theories advanced by Chinese foreign ministry officials about the virus being a product of some US military plan have failed to gain traction, and there is open doubt about data around the virus reported by Beijing.

There is little evidence that we are seeing a groundswell of positive perspectives on China sweeping across Europe. For all Beijing’s efforts, it has failed to win hearts and minds through medical outreach and aid.

Where these narratives have worked is at home, where the conspiracy theories in particular, as well as the stories of munificence and the improved domestic situation, have shaped Chinese domestic perceptions of the virus. The narrative in China is that Beijing has controlled the virus domestically, but now faces a second wave from irresponsible European countries who failed to control their own outbreaks and are exporting trouble back to China.

Such narratives also focus on domestic success and external enemies stirring up trouble within China, something already visible in the conspiracy theories about the virus emanating from the United States military. The rally to the flag effect this produces is only exacerbated when Chinese people see the dominant narrative in Europe being of defective Chinese equipment and cynicism about Chinese motives. The sense of hurt this generates could widen the gulf between China and Europe. None of this is strengthening China geopolitically, but it is certainly strengthening the Chinese leadership at home.

This is not dissimilar to what is happening in Washington, where the government has slowly let the crisis overwhelm it, used anti-Chinese narratives to apportion blame and has failed to take a global leadership role. The result is a situation which could be wide open for middle powers – including Britain – to step forward. But this has not yet happened; everyone is understandably distracted with their own problems. The result is a rudderless moment in international geopolitics, at a moment when great conflict was already the keynote.

This is where the real danger of Chinese influence could lie. It is not in China influencing new parts of Europe, but instead becoming even more detached. Building a nationalist narrative at home will make even greater aggression abroad politically possible in the future. An already confident China will feel even more emboldened while the rest of the world lacks any clear way forward and will be left reeling by the economic damage Covid-19 will unleash.

We are entering a moment of even greater geopolitical uncertainty, with adversarial behaviour all around and no clear leader. Nature abhors a vacuum, and Covid-19 has torn a big hole in our already confused order.

A new piece for the Financial Times Beyond BRICS site, looking at the wake of Secretary Pompeo’s trip to Central Asia. Covers ground that I have trodden a bit before, but also sets up some of the ideas in an upcoming much bigger book project. This aside, an earlier Foreign Policy piece on the UK’s response to the new terrorist threat was picked up in the I newspaper in the UK.

US unlikely to change minds by shouting at China’s neighbours
Washington needs more sophisticated narrative to break central Asia’s pragmatic ties to Beijing
February 24 2020

Workers outside the perimeter fence of what is officially an education centre in Xinjiang, China

Workers outside what is officially an education centre in Xinjiang, China. The plight of the Uighurs is not the only plank of Washington’s push against Beijing in the region © REUTERS

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to central Asia was the latest stop on his global push against China. It comes amid visits to Africa, Latin America and Europe where China featured high on the agenda.

As the confrontation with Beijing slowly spills into every facet of relations — from trade and technology to social media, scientific exchange and business of every sort — China has become a top talking point everywhere US officials go.

The problem is that this uniform and loud hostility will work to different degrees around the world. And nowhere is it likely to be less effective than among China’s neighbours, which are bound by geography to have a relationship with Beijing.

Mr Pompeo’s visit to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan followed a session on the fringes of the UN General Assembly meeting last year when he pressed those countries on their relationship with China and zeroed in on China’s mistreatment of its Uighur minority as an issue of common concern.

While the central Asians made the right noises, none of them was willing to be as forward in their criticism of China as Mr Pompeo. This was repeated on his visit to central Asia, when the secretary of state had a meeting with families of people with relations caught up in Xinjiang’s grim detention camp system. While he kept pushing for condemnation by local authorities, he was met with silence.

The plight of the Uighurs was not the only plank of Mr Pompeo’s push against China in the region. He also spoke of the dangers of Chinese investment, railing against the Belt and Road Initiative concept in particular. This is a tune which his colleague Alice Wells, the principal deputy assistant secretary for the region, has been pushing in south Asia, most prominently in comments before a congressional committee on Afghanistan and during a think-tank event in Washington.

Talking of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as “debt trap” diplomacy, and complaining about the lack of Chinese economic support in Afghanistan, Ms Wells has been replicating in south Asia her secretary’s push in central Asia.

Partners across China’s western flank are being told off by senior US officials for their relations with Beijing, and increasingly being pressured into confronting China more aggressively. The problem is that while these countries may respect the raw power Washington represents, they are also neighbours of China with strong economic and human ties.

These human ties are particularly relevant when it comes to what is happening in Xinjiang where there is evidence that central and south Asian family members are getting caught up in the camp system. But while countries feel some level of concern about their people, they are sensitive to the fact that this is taking place within China to Chinese nationals.

From their perspective, Beijing has not meddled in their affairs, so why should they violate this and meddle in those of Beijing? The central Asians in particular share with China a broadly similar assessment of what constitutes terrorism and extremism, and they are almost all bound together through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. They have little incentive to pick a fight with Beijing over what is happening.

In fact, the central Asia-China relationship is one with many layers. There is very little love lost between the peoples of the two regions at a public level — in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan there has been a noticeable increase in the past year of protests and clashes between Chinese populations and locals.

However, at a security level, they are getting closer. In economic terms — where almost all the attention is — their relationship is growing. The US is largely an irrelevance in trade terms for the region. Foreign direct investment is a similar story, though the US is more represented through international financial institutions. Nevertheless, none of these countries see their economic future as realistically bound up with Washington.

And the US has shown itself to be relatively uninterested in the region more generally. Mr Pompeo’s visit was the first by a senior US official since secretary of state John Kerry visited in 2015.

Aside from China (and Russia and Iran to a lesser degree), Washington’s principal preoccupation with the region appears to be to exit Afghanistan. creating a potentially major security issue on the borders of some central Asian states.

The US is also locked in an increasingly aggressive conflict with another of their neighbours, Iran, and has passed sanctions against another, Russia, as well. Living in this neighbourhood means the central Asians have to take a more pragmatic view.

The US continues to have a deep wellspring of admirers around the globe. They are increasingly finding this affection tested by the lectures about China. Nowhere is this more so than among China’s neighbours — all of whom are concerned about China’s rise but see that as an opportunity and a challenge they have to engage with rather than cut off from.

Washington needs to develop a more sophisticated and consistent narrative if it is to persuade them to work with it more closely.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a UK think-tank

Been quiet for a few weeks as I try to crack on with some much longer and larger writing commitments. They should land eventually and cover a few issues I look at. In the meantime, however, I have been doing a bit around the current threat pulse that is passing through the system. I did a few media bits, including a longer interview for ITN that was used by the Telegraph. Below is my contribution to the conversation from the yesterday for my institutional home, RUSI. More on this story as it emerges.

Al-Qa’ida’s August Surprise?

RUSI Analysis, 5 Aug 2013
By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

US officials are speaking of a level of terrorist chatter as high as that prior to 11 September 2001. With Embassy closures across the Muslim world, large-scale prison breaks in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan, the threat tempo is rising. Is Al-Qa’ida planning an August surprise?

AQAP Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula

The weekend announcement by the American government that nineteen embassies should remain closed through the next week, alongside a travel advisory for US citizens travelling in the region, seems to emanate from a threat linked to Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Coming hot on the heels of a series of large-scale prison breaks in IraqLibya and Pakistan, the fear is that this is part of some co-ordinated effort. The reality is probably far more complicated than this, with the larger point being that the threat from Al-Qa’ida affiliated and associated terrorism continues to be a major concern.

The Threat from Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula

The first aspect to focus on is the danger from Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the driver of the threat reporting this past weekend. It seems to be focused on Sana’a in particular, with American, British, French, and German embassies all electing to close in Yemen last weekend. This was extended for the US, UK and German Embassies at least through Eid at the end of the week. French Foreign Minister Fabius announced the French mission would reopen Wednesday. Beyond this, the US closed a further twenty embassies across the Muslim world, while Canada decided to close its in Dhaka, Bangladesh – all relating to the same stream of threat reporting.

The level of specificity around the threat suggests that intelligence agencies have intercepted something particular, but the link to AQAP is not surprising. It is just over two weeks since Transport Security Administration (TSA) Administrator John Pistole confirmed a story that had been circulating for some time that AQAP master bomb-maker Ibrahim al-Asiri had managed to successfully train a number of students. This knowledge transfer was seen as particularly dangerous given that al-Asiri has been responsible for a number of cunning devices that were able to penetrate airport security – Umar ‘underpants bomber’ Farouk Abdulmutallab, the dual printer bombs that were intercepted in Dubai and the UK while en route to the US, and the ‘underpants 2‘ bomb that was handed over to authorities by an agent that had penetrated AQAP. In addition, we have seen a growing volume of drone strikes in Yemen in the past few weeks withthree in quick succession since July 28, suggesting a growing focus by US intelligence.

A year has now passed since a bomb with al-Asiri’s touch had been publicly detected, but he remains on the loose and eager to strike the US. Most recently, there has been a particular tempo of threat warnings from Al-Qa’ida in particular with leader Ayman al Zawahiri vowing to ‘spare no effort’ to free the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, whilst also condemning the use of drones. Guantanamo has a particular resonance with the leadership of AQAP, with recently deceased senior member Saaed al Shirhi having spent time in the jail before being released in 2007. His death by drone was recently confirmed by Ibrahim al Rubaish, another senior AQAP member who had been in Guantanamo. The group vowed to avenge his death. AQAP leader Nasir al Wuhaishi, a former confidant of Osama bin Laden is reported to have been promoted to a senior role within the global Al-Qa’idaorganisation. The close links between what is left of Al-Qa’ida core in Waziristan and AQAP in Yemen, its technical capabilities, as well as its ability to control pieces of territory in Yemen, all point to it being one of the most dangerous of the Al-Qa’ida affiliates in terms of wanting and being able to launch attacks in the West.

As Al-Qa’ida-Core Fades, Al-Qa’ida Affiliates Consolidate

All of this comes in parallel to the large-scale prison breaks that we have seen in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. The exact implications of the Libya break-out is unclear. But in Iraq and Pakistan the hand of Al-Qa’ida linked groups can be seen. In Pakistan, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) demonstrated an ability to once again launch targeted operations with relative impunity in Pakistan – this time leading to the release of some 250 prisoners. It is unclear whether any of them were particularly high value targets, but doubtless the influx of people will be a boost to the organisation’s capabilities regionally.

The Iraqi break seems far more alarming, especially given the reporting that a number of individuals of high concern have escaped. This comes as the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham (ISIS, the Iraqi affiliate of Al-Qa’ida that has spread its wings deep into Syria), the group that claimed responsibility for the prison break, demonstrates an increasing ability on the field in Syria, while the death toll in Iraq last month is creeping up to the levels of the brutal insurgency of a few years ago. The almost 1,000 killed in the past month is a five year high. The influx of hardened fighters in the wake of the prison break will only further bolster its capabilities and raise the potential risk of the group launching attacks against targets in the broader region.

And atop this, we have seen a growing tempo of violence from the long brewing insurgency in the Egyptian Sinai and an open question hanging over what will happen now that the military has deposed the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring, has seen gradually escalating violence and instability with targeted political assassinations, a number ofdeadly clashes between militants and authorities, and a man blowing himself up by accident in the capital while preparing a device. A recent report on foreign fighters being drawn to the battlefield in Syria highlighted the fact that in the dataset examined by the authors of death notices posted by groups, Tunisians accounted for the second-most number of foreign nationals killed at the front. This is a surprising evolution, further suggesting that jihadi fervor is strong in the country. And across North and West Africa, brewing hotspots and roving networks continue to launch sporadic attacks. In Somalia, a group that had largely been counted out, al-Shabaab, continues to be able to function with a relatively regular flow of incidents attributed to the group.

It seems, therefore, that there are many facets to this complicated threat picture, but it is not clear as to the degree to which all of these are connected. Even in the cases where there are clear and known links between the groups, it is not certain that all of these activities can be seen as part of a campaign.

Instead, a conclusion that can be drawn is the fact that some terrorist groups abroad are growing in strength and capability. At the moment, they remain relatively disparate with occasional links and connections though the co-ordination and global drive that used to underline Al-Qa’ida seems to have gone. But the connections cannot be completely discounted – in particular with AQAP – and the unifying impact of the conflict in Syria may yet bring some coherence back to the group.

There is a longer-term concern here. The more groups are able to consolidate their hold on pieces of territory, replenish their ranks through prison breaks and gain greater experience on the battlefield, the more experience and capability they develop. At the moment this seems something that is of greater regional than international concern, but the worry remains that eventually they might decide to live up to their international aspirations and rhetoric. Alternatively, individuals or groups with global ambition or anti-Western views might use these groups as a springboard to launch attacks against the West, drawing on their replenished capacity to attack.

Al-Qa’ida may now be a shadow of its former self, but the ideology and, more importantly, the affiliates it helped nurture remain. As they benefit from the chaos stirred by the Arab Spring, the long tail left after the 11 September, 2001 attacks gets longer. Countering terrorism overseas is clearly going to be key for Western policymakers for the next few years

Finally catching up on some old posting – this is a second piece I wrote for my new Institute RUSI.

Boston Bombers Highlight Difficulties of Countering Isolated Terror Cells

RUSI Analysis, 24 Apr 2013

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

As motives and operational set-up of the Boston bombers become known, urgent questions will be asked about how US intelligence agencies are prioritising threats in the United States. The case reveals the huge dilemma faced in collecting, evaluating and acting on credible intelligence leads.

Boston Bombers

We do not yet know with absolute clarity what motivated the Boston bombers, who last week so dramatically caught the public’s attention. It also remains unclear the extent to which the two may or may not have been connected to international terrorist networks. What is clear, however, is the danger that such small and disconnected terrorist cells pose and the difficulties that security services face in countering them.

Questions are now being asked about the degree to which the Boston brothers’ were connected or directed by any outside forces. Their Chechen heritage, recent travels to the restive Dagestan part of Russia and their online footprint showing an interest in Chechen jihadism all point to a possible link through the northern Caucasus to international jihadi networks. The fact that Russia appears to have flagged their concerns on older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev to the FBI suggests that there may have been more to this connection than simple coincidence. However, given Russia’s robust approach to counter-terrorism, it seems unlikely they would have let a suspect of serious concern travel in and out of their country without some form of action. Furthermore, while there have been instances of Chechen individuals being involved in plots outside Russia, for the most part Chechen jihadist networks have focused on Russia with some links to battlefields in Afghanistan and Syria.

Instead, it seems more likely that the Tsarnaev brothers are a ‘lone’ or ‘solo’ actors that were partially radicalized online and carried out their attacks without direction from overseas.. While there seem to be some investigative strands that suggest others – specifically a mysterious figure named Misha – may have facilitated on Tamerlan’s radicalisation, the investigation does not seem to be pointing to a wider terrorist cell with many external connections. The conclusion seems to be that the men found and absorbed radical ideas largely by themselves, before deciding to launch a terrorist campaign to punish America for wars against Islam and in line with ideas they found in publications like Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Inspire magazine, advanced by preachers like Sheikh Feiz Mohammed and possibly explained by individuals like the mysterious Misha.

Reportedly, Dzhokhar, the younger brother, told investigators that they got their bomb design and ideas from Inspire magazine, the publication put out by Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It seems that the reported pressure cooker device used at the Boston bombing may have been drawn from a design suggested in the first edition of the magazine from Summer of 2010 . Moreover, it appears that this was merely the first incident in an intended campaign of further destruction. According to investigators, the brothers told a man whose car they hijacked that ‘we just killed a cop. We blew up the marathon. And now we’re going to New York.’ But so far no evidence has emerged that there was anyone orchestrating this plot, telling the men what to do and who to attack. The targeting of a marathon, a random policeman and then heading to New York is all very evocative of Inspire magazine’s brand of terrorism against society at large rather than symbols of government or authority.

The Dilemma of Identifying an Isolated Threat

From a security analysis perspective, it is often connections that make it possible for authorities to become alert to individuals or terrorist cells. Intercepted communications or contact with known extremists will place cells or individuals on official radars, leading to possible deeper investigation that may uncover the existence of a threat. Networks tend to trip over intelligence leads directing authorities to focus on them as particular potential threats.

The particular problem, however, posed by ‘lone’ or ‘solo actor’ individuals – that is a terrorist cell that conduct attacks without any clear direction or command and control from external groups – is that oftentimes they may throw up subsequent connections, but these are hidden amongst a mass of other information. For example, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s travel to Chechnya and his online activity may be something that now seem deeply suspicious, but it is possible that at the time they would have been pieces of evidence that are fairly common amongst young North Caucasians. The fact that the extent of the Russian follow-up was to warn American counterparts of their concerns suggests that these links did not draw bright red flags.

One is faced with the dilemma of identifying which of these strands of information or intelligence will result in an unravelling of a terrorist cell, versus information of people simply flirting with radical material online. This is clearly a very difficult job, and in some cases it seems likely that it would be almost impossible to identify people pre-event. For example, Roshonara Choudhry, the King’s College London student who in May 2010 tried to kill MP Stephen Timms for his support of the Iraq war, would have been very difficult to detect prior to carrying out her attack. Thus far, all that is known about the extent of her radicalisation was that she was watching videos by Anwar al-Awlaki and Abdullah Azzam online.

Other cases, however, like Khalid Aldawsari in Texas, show how tripwires can catch potential ‘lone’ or ‘solo actor’ terrorists. In that case, Aldawsari attempted to purchase chemicals from the Carolina Biological Supply company, using a commercial shipping company to have them delivered to his home in Lubbock, Texas. Both the chemical company and the shipping company flagged the purchase as one of concern to authorities, leading to an investigation by the FBI that uncovered Aldawsari as a loner terrorist cell building a bomb whose diary was full of menacing jihadist ideas. He was convicted in November last year and sentenced to life imprisonment.

‘Inspiring’ Terrorism

Recognition of the difficulty to detect such cells is exactly why Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been actively pushing, through its magazine Inspire, towards the idea of people carrying out terrorist attacks on this basis. By simply using everyday items, they are able to launch whatever sort of incident they are able to against the West. What has loosely been called ‘Just Do It’ terrorism in the press and has been referred to as ‘Open Source Jihad’ by AQAP inInspire. It is all aimed at detaching operational command and control from the terrorist cell in recognition of the fact that it is this element which most often proves the compromising element.

But while AQAP has been actively pushing this through their publications and messages, andInspire has repeatedly shown up in investigations in Europe and North America, there is little evidence that the magazine has in itself been a generator of cells. It is a regular feature of terrorist investigations, but it does not seem as though simply reading the publication is turning people into terrorists. Rather, people have used it for ideas – with already radicalised individuals using it as a way to figure out how to build a device. From an investigative perspective, it is difficult to know how to identify the individuals using it for operational purposes versus curious young men and women is difficult without a fuller intelligence picture. Even if individuals have downloaded the magazine, it is not necessarily the case that they are worth the resources of an investigation by authorities.

However, the picture becomes more interesting for investigators if the magazine appears alongside other potentially incriminating evidence. For example, that the individual is consuming increasingly radical material, is planning travel to parts of the world where Al-Qa’ida or affiliated movements are particularly active or is seeking connections with other radicals or groups. And it is here that intelligence and police agencies clearly need to focus when they are trying to pre-emptively identify Lone or Solo Actor terrorist cells. No doubt a difficult prospect, but given the growing propensity of terrorist cells to look like this, something that requires deeper understanding.

A final note to touch upon is the fact that the Boston cell appears to be made up of two people rather than an isolated individual. However, as brothers with the older leaving a more radical footprint, it is possible that he was the radicalising agent who influenced his younger brother.Stories are emerging of the older brother’s influence over his younger sibling. While such isolated cells with no external connections are rare, they are not unheard of: for example, in October 2009 Mohammed Game blew himself up at the gates of a Milan barracks. While later investigation uncovered links to two others who were subsequently prosecuted, no wider connections from the cell were ever uncovered. Similarly, in May 2007, a group in New Jersey were arrested for plotting some sort of attack against the Fort Dix barracks – at the heart of the cell were the three Duka brothers, Albanian-Americans, and their brother-in-law Mohammed Shenwer, who were apparently Anwar al-Awlaki fans and were plotting some sort of incident in New Jersey. These sorts of isolated ‘solo’ or ‘lone actor’ (or as the author has previously referred to them ‘Lone Wolf Packs’) cells tend to be easier to locate given their tendency to have more external links or tripwires for authorities to come across them. However, as shown in the Boston and Milan cases, these cells can also slip by undetected.

The key conclusion for security agencies is that such terrorist cells are notoriously difficult to uncover prior to event. Some work can be done in targeted public information campaigns aimed at chemical companies, storage firms or other industries that might be conduits for individuals to obtain transformative material for homemade explosives. This will help give authorities leads like those that led to Khalid Aldawsari’s detention. As the tendency towards ‘lone’ or ‘solo actor’ cells becomes a pattern, a more comprehensive pattern may emerge of such lone/solo actor individuals or cells, providing authorities with a better profile that they can test information against to see if individuals are moving in a direction of concern.

Policy Options

The main policy conclusion that can be usefully drawn is that as such cells are hard to detect, greater work needs to be focused on subsequent response and management of information that would allow analysts to determine whether a terrorist plot is part of an externally directed or self-directed campaign.

Furthermore, a concerted effort will be required to remove the mystique around such attackers. The first step would be to encourage a public culture that equates would-be attackers to mass shooters rather than a heroic terrorist. If this is done successfully, it is possible they will consider other avenues of expression and Inspire’s message will be less inspiring.

A rather quick response piece to events in Boston with a colleague at RUSI in response to the inevitable surge in inquiries after the sad incident. Undoubtedly more about this as it emerges, though I am wary of ascribing responsibility at this point. My own sense is that it is likely a lone individual, something I say based on the sort of device, the random target and the lack of any subsequent ideological messaging, but until more information emerges it is dangerous to speculate too much.

Boston Marathon: ‘Keep Calm and Carry on Running’

RUSI Analysis, 16 Apr 2013By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow; Jennifer Cole, Senior Research Fellow, Resilience & Emergency Management

The authorities in the United States are rightly cautious in ascribing blame to yesterday’s incident in Boston. The explosions – killing three and injuring over 140 – highlight the importance of securing public events without being governed by fear.

Boston Marathon

With no claims of responsibility and no ideological leads that authorities are visibly pursuing, it is almost impossible to know why yesterday’s attack in Boston took place.

The early facts are clear: the target was the Boston Marathon; the use of two devices, and their location, suggests the intention was to kill as many people as possible; and the devices appear to have been homemade, possibly with black powder. None of these details conclusively point to a particular individual or a group.

Sporting events in the United States have been targeted before. Most prominently during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, Eric Rudolph targeted the games with a homemade explosive, killing two and injuring more than a hundred. Looking further afield, of course, the Munich Olympics of 1972 stand out as a major incident conducted by international terrorists taking advantage of the spotlight that the games brought. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, attacks on public places with the aim of causing mass casualties – such as those in Madrid, London, Mumbai and Norway – have become the favoured modus operandi of terrorists around the world, regardless of the ideologies to which they subscribe.

The choice of two explosive devices, timed to detonate within seconds of one another, and the use of shrapnel inside them suggest the perpetrator(s) wanted to harm as many people as possible. Eyewitnesses record that the second explosion happened as they were running from the first. In addition, choosing the finishing line of the Boston Marathon as a target ensures that media coverage of the attack will reach the eyes of the world within seconds: television cameras and press photographers were already on site, while a plethora of social media was available with which both the media and the public could broadcast the incident far and wide.

Fortunately for many of the runners and spectators caught up in the attack, there was a large emergency-response team on hand. A marathon – or any other large public event – by necessity has high numbers of volunteer and professional paramedics on standby, as well as large numbers of crowd stewards and police to help keep the situation as calm as possible. Command-and-control centres – ready to deal with any incident that arises – will already have been established to manage the marathon and will be able to respond to the incident quickly.

Just as fortunately, perhaps, the improvised explosive devices seem to have produced a relatively limited explosion and to have caused few fatalities.

Who Perpetrated These Attacks?

The key questions that remain are who was responsible for this incident and what they hoped to achieve. Given there was no specific intelligence regarding an attack, it will take time for the US authorities to determine the identity of the culprit(s).

There are numerous terrorist groups who could have conducted an attack, including domestic groups. For example, the forthcoming twentieth anniversary of the climax of the Waco siege, centred on a cult based in Texas, could prompt such an attack by a sympathetic domestic group; while those on the far political right and Patriot movements in America should not be immediately or instinctively discounted as potential perpetrators. It may even be a lone individual.

But the truth is that at this stage we do not know, and it is not useful to speculate over who was responsible and whether or not the choice of a marathon run on Patriots’ Day as the target is significant. The incident highlights how rapidly and easily it is possible to grip the world’s attention with a single act of violence. Whether the perpetrator is a lone wolf, right wing, jihadist or other, this terror plot has once again caught the world’s attention.

Implications

However tragic the event, from a resilience perspective it is important to guard against allowing the psychological damage to outweigh the physical and material. Whoever the perpetrators and whatever their specific aim, their real victory is counted not in the number of people killed or injured in Boston, but in the impact the attacks may have on, to quote the UK National Security Strategy, the ability of those targeted ‘to go about their daily lives freely and with confidence’. The more this freedom is undermined, the greater the success of the act of terrorism.

Questions have already been raised about the security of the forthcoming London Marathon, taking place within days of its Boston counterpart, on 21 April. In his 2007 review of security in crowded public places, Lord West (then Under-Secretary of State for Security and Counter-Terrorism at the Home Office) made clear that while the threat to such events has increased in recent years, lockdown is neither practical nor prudent.

Nonetheless, it is worth reviewing security arrangements in advance of the London Marathon this weekend. Such security arrangements are made up of two workstreams: to ‘protect’ and ‘prepare’, both of which the government sees as a high priority and which have also been practised extensively in recent months – an feature of the Olympic legacy. During the 2012 Olympics, London hosted a marathon for which security arrangements were ramped up considerably from those in place for previous London Marathons. As one of the few events not completely contained within the Olympic Park or dedicated venues, the vulnerabilities will have been scrutinised extensively and plans will have been made for the mitigation of an attack. The planning for this and the Olympic Torch relay route is still fresh in the minds of all those involved, as are the skills and techniques used in implementing the plans – from protecting transportation routes without imposing airport-style security measures, to using CCTV camera software to pick up suspicious behaviour in crowds.

Such preparation has to be done in advance; additional personnel cannot be sourced and trained in days. They need to be ready to go – and they will be. It is likely that some of the security infrastructure put in place for Baroness Thatcher’s funeral tomorrow will now remain in place over the weekend, including the numbers of personnel on high-readiness to deploy, for example, and the incident control rooms fully staffed and ready to respond immediately.

Similarly, there will be an increased security focus on any intelligence that may suggest a threat to the marathon and on anything that might be known by then about the perpetrators of the Boston attacks or their networks. Luckily, ramping command-and-control networks and intelligence-sharing back up to Olympic-period levels will still be based on personal memory and experience; new technology paid for out of Olympic budgets is still state-of-the-art. Such solid preparation brings with it as high a level of protection as possible. Everything that can be done will be done to ensure the safety and security of the London Marathon, and especially so in the aftermath of the tragic events in Boston.

As one participant in the Boston Marathon was heard to say, we need to ‘keep calm and carry on running.’

This is going up a bit late, since have been a bit distracted with other obligations. It also ended up being published after Intelwire and Red State articles on the topic, though I had written it before reading them both (honest!). A long post for Free Rad!cals, something I am trying to return to with some regularity. This is exploring the subject of Lone Wolves that I have long been going on about, and in fact was quoted in a CNN story on the topic and a Christian Science Monitor one. It has been a while since I posted for a variety of reasons, but in the meantime, I was quoted a fair bit in this story linked to the London Somalia conference in the Danish newspaper Information and separately (and unrelated) on Chinese influence in Central Asia in an article that was written for Eurasianet and reprinted in the Atlantic.

When is a Lone Wolf a Lone Wolf?

View more articles by Raff Pantucci

Filed under: Anwar al-Awlaki, Homegrown extremism

The arrest last Friday of Amine el Khalifi as he strode towards the US Capitol Building with what he thought was a functioning MAC-10 submachine gun and explosive suicide vest marks the latest in a growing list of individuals who have been incarcerated in the United States in cases involving intelligence agents. As with many previous cases, this one has already been called a “lone wolf” by officialdom in the US. But does this definition really hold water in a case like Khalifi’s?

The problem with using this definition in Khalifi’s case is that central to the plot seems to be at least one law enforcement agent and a confidential informant. Individuals who hinted to him that they were connected with al Qaeda and ultimately provided him with what he thought were the tools to conduct a Fedayeen-style terrorist attack on the Capitol Building. All of which suggests that in Khalifi’s mind he was not actually a “lone wolf,” but rather an individual who was part of a terrorist cell.

This distinction is important since it raises a subsidiary question of whether Khalifi would have actually done something if he hadn’t had the community of agents around him to both provide him with what he thought was a cell, as well as the weapons to carry out his terrorist attack. Khalifi was clearly a disjointed fellow – a former landlord is quoted as saying he was suspicious of Khalifi and found him to be a very troublesome tenant suspecting he may have been building bombs – but how dangerous was he and did he have the wherewithal to launch a terrorist plot by himself?

At this point, we shall never know. Given Khalifi was captured as he marched up to his intended target armed with a machine gun and suicide vest, it is hard to envisage any jury finding him innocent or to disagree with this conclusion. And it is perfectly possible that Khalifi is indeed a deranged individual who may have been prone to going down a path of violence. But the dilemma is the degree to which the cell of agents empowered him, and whether they could have used the information to dissuade him instead of helping him in this direction.

His case is very similar to that of Jose Pimental, a New Yorker arrested earlier this year by NYPD as he was supposedly building a bomb with what emerged to be a police agent. In that case, Pimental was also described as something of an oddball who would broadcast his radical views loudly online, was part of the community of individuals involved in the Revolution Muslim website and decided to get involved in a plot once he came across what he thought was a fellow radical. Pimental was seemingly obsessed with Anwar al Awlaki, and had apparently tried to reach out to him, but to no avail. Oddly enough, in that case the FBI declined to become involved leaving the case in the NYPD’s jurisdiction hinting that Pimental was not that dangerous (an odd conclusion given the similarities to the Khalifi case). Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly backed their forces, however, declaring Pimental a “ total lone wolf.”

This approach to capturing violent Islamist cells is not a particularly new one for American forces. While I may have missed some cases, scanning old reports and lists on the topic of disrupted terrorist plots in the US, it seems to me as though the first plot involving unaffiliated individuals who were caught using a confidential informant involved Shahawar Matin Siraj and James Elshafay who were planning to bomb a subway station in New York City in August 2004. In that case, a police agent, who allegedly offered his services to trawl through New York’s Muslim community to identify Muslims who were bringing a bad name to his religion, was key in securing the convictions.

However, it seems as though Siraj had voiced his ideas to others prior to the agent and had another co-conspirator James Elshafay, a mentally troubled individual who volunteered to plant a bomb. In other words, Siraj was moving in a dangerous direction with others even prior to meeting the agent. While it is true that the agent might have acted like a final trigger into moving him into action, he was not operating in a total vacuum with the agents acting as his only contacts to other extremists prepared to do something.

When we look at a case like Khalifi’s, there are a number of key differences. In his case, Khalifi’s entire connection to the al Qaeda cell he thought he was part of was fictitious. Unlike Siraj whom it seems was both voicing his opinions, but also in contact with others willing to carry out violence, Khalifi seems to have been willing to voice his radical ideas but was not in contact with any others eager to follow the path he eventually took, until he encountered the federal agents.

But the purpose here is not to condemn the use of confidential informants or undercover agents – but instead to focus on whether we can really call such individuals lone wolves and what effect this approach is having on reducing this problem.

The answer to the first question is clearly negative: these individuals cannot really be called “lone wolves” since they were really not acting alone. They were part of what they thought was a cell. That this turned out to be mostly federal agents is important as it complicates whether we can confidently say that they would have chosen this path independently and acted as “lone wolf” terrorists. The answer is we cannot – we shall never know whether they would have chosen this path without the group around them. Certainly we can look at the individual’s readiness to move into action with some level of concern, but we cannot confidently say they would have done this absent the contacts with agents.

It is easy to understand why enforcement agencies favor this sort of an approach. Lone Wolf terrorists are very hard to spot and identify before they move into action – this approach draws out individuals who seem to be moving in this direction and merely gives them the tools to hang themselves by their own petards. In this way it is pre-emptive. For example, someone like Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the 19-year-old Portland, Oregon Somali who tried to blow up a vehicle bomb at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in late 2010. According to court documents, Osman was trying to make contact with radicals in Pakistan to try to join them to fight jihad. Having identified him, federal agents moved in and in the end Osman decided to try to carry out an attack within America.

In a case like Osman’s it is easy to see the logic behind a pre-emptive approach. Osman was clearly interested in making contact and joining radicals abroad. Conviction on the basis of this sort of contact is no doubt hard to prove; so sending agents in to understand the individual better makes some sense. That this then led to him wanting to carry out a plot within the US is one outcome this can lead to – whether Osman suggested it or the agents did is something that will no doubt come out in trial. Pimental had tried to reach out to other radicals (including Anwar al Awlaki allegedly), but it is not clear whether this is also the case with Khalifi.

The other logic behind such operations is the notion of deterrence. If you catch and convict some individuals like this, it serves as an example to the other potential ones out there. Siraj received a 30-year sentence for his crime, and Osman, Pimental and Khalifi are looking at similar sentences. And unlike Europe, where long sentences can be reduced with good behavior, etc, in the United States, long terms means a long time in a prison where prosecutors openly admit same sex rape is common.

But the deterrence case somewhat falls down when we consider how long the United States has been pursuing such individuals and how they continue to appear. If we take the Siraj case as a first example – we can see how since 2006 (on the basis of when he was incarcerated versus arrested) examples have been publicly made of what is going to happen to you if you wander down this path and how there are agents out there seeking to catch you. And yet we have continued to see cases occur with this latest pair merely the most recent in a long list. Of course it is possible that there would have been many more, and that in fact the relatively small number we see is a reflection that in fact this deterrent effect is working, but this is another statistic that will be impossible to ever prove.

There is no clean answer to this discussion. One solution I have advocated is that police and intelligence agencies should identify such people and then instead of moving in with a team to catch them doing something bad, send in a team to dissuade them from doing anything. Make it obvious to them that they are wandering down a dangerous path and they should get off it. This might scare some sense into them and lead them to choosing another path. It might also have the opposite effect in some cases, but I am certain if an intervention is handled properly, it could save a lot of time and effort from courts, prisons and intelligence agencies.

But to return to the question I started this whole post off with: when is a lone wolf a lone wolf? He can be considered a “lone wolf” terrorist when he tries to carry out a terrorist act by himself or herself, without any support or command and control from known or unknown networks. To call individuals like Jose Pimental or Amine el Khalifi “Lone Wolves” is a misinterpretation of the term that is only going to complicate the struggle in identifying such individuals that really are “Lone Wolves.” The real “lone wolves” are people like Khalid Aldawsari, the Saudi student in Texas whose romantic and poetic blog masked a desire to build a bomb to attack America. He quietly worked away on his plot until he tried to purchase chemicals from an attentive seller. They reported him to authorities and he was subsequently arrested and is now awaiting trial. People like Jose Pimental or Amine el Khalifi may indeed have been potential “lone wolves” in the future, but the reality is we shall never know whether they were actually going to go down this path or not.

Another short blogpost for Free Rad!cals, this time on a topic that has been bugging me for a while. It seems as though the US is making a few unfortunate choices in counter-radicalisation terms that emulate earlier mistakes Europe made, something particularly silly given how much attention they have lavished on studying and criticising Europe’s mistakes. This was already up, but I see now that guru Brian Michael Jenkins has written an excellent piece for Foreign Affairs attacking another mistaken American policy choice. Of course, not everything the US has done is negative in this regard, but there are a few silly mistakes that seem to be being made.

Muslim Integration: America Must Avoid Europe’s Mistakes

Filed under: Europe, Homegrown extremism, UK

Americans love to berate Europe and its failings. Youthful America looks to its European progenitor and sees post-colonial stagnation and sclerotic economies that are unwilling to face up to their problems. A bugbear of the past few years has been criticism of Europe’s approach to its resident Muslim population. Commentaries have focused on a problem that is seen by many as an incubator of anger that has expressed itself in the form of attacks by European, or European-based, terrorists against America – most notably on September 11, 2001.

But while Europe has in the past provided a depressingly productive Petri dish for Muslim rage with contradictory policies that have had an alienating effect on parts of the broader community, it is increasingly the case that America is simply following Europe in the same direction. Recent stories of New York’s police department using inflammatory videos about Islamist extremism in training come in the wake of stories of possibly CIA assisted intelligence operations against Muslim communities. Whatever the tactical utility of such operations, it is clear that from a hearts-and-minds perspective they can be seen to be a failure.

More absurdly, states have tried to pass laws preventing shariah law from being imposed on them – a highly unlikely outcome, but reflective of the high levels of paranoia and anti-Muslim feeling amongst the American public. Something also seen in stories of Muslim leaders being disembarked from domestic flights with little reason given, in some cases as they were on their way to conferences about “Islamophobia”.

At a political level the conversation has been just as poisonous as in Europe. Potential Republican candidate Newt Gingrich has spoken of “the mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it” posed by shariah. In Congress, Representative Peter King has held hearings accusing America’s Muslim community of failing to regulate itself and producing homegrown terrorists. And while a direct correlation with this polarizing narrative is of course impossible to draw, there has been an increase in young Americans drawn by the lure of jihad abroad or into becoming involved in what they believe are terror plots within the US in the past few years.

Europe has hardly covered itself in glory in integrating its Muslim communities. But neither has America, and the current approach is increasingly emulating many of Europe’s failed policies. It is all very good to shout about Europe’s failings, but the United States needs to increasingly look within before it allows its problems to get too out of hand.

America has a long tradition of being a national melting pot, able to absorb people of all cultures and creeds and accepting of diversity as a crucial element of its identity. For years, the belief was that America would be immune to the sort of problems that Europe faced with homegrown extremism. As time has shown, however, this is clearly not the case with numerous young men drawn to the flame of extremism. The United States should focus on learning positive lessons from Europe’s problematic experience and avoid emulating its failed policies.

Slightly delayed in posting this here for a variety of reasons. Anyway, a new piece for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel looking at China’s play in Afghanistan. Re-reading my old piece in Foreign Policy on the subject, I see I am a bit more positive this time around, but still no clear signs of a Chinese shift. What I realise now that I also didn’t go into was the stories I have been hearing about the Chinese doing more proactive training efforts with Afghans. Another time maybe. Ultimately, however, the real question for this all will be what happens with the US, after that we might get a clearer sense of China’s plan. More on this topic to come.

China Passes the Buck in Afghanistan

By Raffaello Pantucci | Friday, October 28, 2011 – 4:47PM

As we pass the 10-year anniversary of the US-led war in Afghanistan, most attention has been focused on how much longer the United States intends to stay in the region. But a question that has not been addressed is who is going to be putting the pieces together afterwards. The European Union (EU) and the United States are clearly at the end of their tether, while Russia, India and other nearby powers continue to lack the capacity or means to dominate the region. Other rising regional power China may continue to be wary of becoming involved in any foreign entanglements, but as a friend put it in a meeting in Beijing the other day, China may not have broken the teapot of Afghanistan, but it is one that sits firmly on their borders.

And there is some evidence that this reality is sinking in at Zhongnanhai in Beijing. Chinese firms have made substantial investments in Afghanistan. The Aynak copper mine has been joined by an investment in oil fields in northern Afghanistan. And while Chinese firms in the end did not invest in the Bamiyan iron mines they have still cast their lot in terms of developing Afghan infrastructure – pouring money into telecoms, road-building and train lines linking Afghanistan to the rest of the region.

But this has not been supported by any large-scale investment in Afghan security. For that, China continues to look to NATO on the ground and more implicit protection from her close ally in Islamabad. As one senior Afghan put it to me, a reason that was often given for why the Chinese had gotten some of these deals was that it was known how close they were to Pakistan. The assumption was that if the deal went to China then the site would be protected in some way and the development would proceed.

While unclear to what degree this was the determining factor, the story plays into what seems to be China’s main foreign policy factor when considering Afghanistan, and that is Pakistan. The Sino-Pak relationship is one of the closest in the world, spanning trade, nuclear weapons, counter-terrorism and regional hedging against India. As both sides characterize it publicly, it is “higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, stronger than steel, sweeter than honey, and dearer than eyesight.” And into this fits Afghanistan, a troublesome country that borders both and is the source of regional instability. China, still a hesitant foreign policy actor, is unwilling to do too much to assert her authority in the region and is more than happy to let eager Pakistan take the lead.

And this approach is something that has worked for China for many years now. Unwilling to become involved in a conflict that could force it to take sides in a conflict in which it could be painted as part of some alliance against Islam and potentially support actors who would encourage separatists in the restive Xinjiang province, China has hesitated to do much in Afghanistan in support of NATO efforts in the country. For some in China, there was a sense that NATO’s loss in Afghanistan was China’s gain and that the potential encirclement that might result from NATO success on their borders would be to China’s detriment, while for others there was a sense that this was a lost cause anyway and that Afghanistan was the “graveyard of empires.”

Instead, China focused on investing in things that seemed like a good idea. A large copper mine at Aynak sits close to China’s borders and consequently seemed a wise investment to first bid for it and then offer a whole package of deals including a local power station and train line to provide the backdrop to make the deal work for the Chinese firm. All of this would help supply China’s need for copper, as well as develop a part of the country that was close to China and would therefore potentially have a knock-on effect in improving prosperity in neighboring underdeveloped Chinese province Xinjiang. Similarly with the deal to secure the oil fields in Amu Darya – China’s unslakable thirst for hydrocarbons means it will reach out anywhere to get them, and when they are so close to home, all the better.

But while none of this disagrees with western policy in Afghanistan, there is no sense that China is willing to buy into any active policy supporting western goals in the region. China continues to be the ultimate hedging power in Afghanistan – while it seems clear that they are willing to support western aims in the country, there continues to be a lack of any clear evidence that they are as willing to expend political capital or effort to advance their goals actively in the country. This is not to say they are indolent in advancing their interests, but that they are wary of becoming entangled in a country that has repeatedly shown a capacity to reject foreign influence.

From a Chinese perspective, the answer to Afghanistan is clear. The tribes need to fight it out amongst each other – to paraphrase what one expert told me in Beijing, this is a country with “lots of big powerful men who need to be kept happy” and outsiders do not really stand much of chance moderating this. Ultimately, the country is poor, will clearly need investment going forward, and China will be there to support it. With deep pockets and no conditions, this support can be funneled to whomever is in charge and to whomever has the power of the provinces where China has direct interests. When it comes to border threats, China seems to have managed to secure strong intelligence links and is able to keep a quite firm lid on any potential threats from extremist groups with links to networks in Pakistan or Afghanistan.

China’s play in Afghanistan has been very hesitant so far. The reason for this is a lack of certainty in Beijing about what Washington’s game plan is. In the meantime, they have continued to make careful strategic investments with a view to the long game. And while from a western analysis this should mean a greater Chinese interest in stabilizing the current government, from Beijing’s perspective it is far better to let things play themselves out while focusing on specific interests. This will not necessarily help western aims to re-shape Afghanistan, but it will strengthen China’s hand when the west finally leaves.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation. He blogs athttp://www.raffaellopantucci.com.