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Big data and the Future of Democracy: The Matrix world behind the Brexit and the US Elections

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Authors: Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus

Aegean theater of the Antique Greece was the place of astonishing revelations and intellectual excellence – a remarkable density and proximity, not surpassed up to our age. All we know about science, philosophy, sports, arts, culture and entertainment, stars and earth has been postulated, explored and examined then and there.

Simply, it was a time and place of triumph of human consciousness, pure reasoning and sparkling thought. However, neither Euclid, Anaximander, Heraclites, Hippocrates (both of Chios, and of Cos), Socrates, Archimedes, Ptolemy, Democritus, Plato, Pythagoras, Diogenes, Aristotle, Empedocles, Conon, Eratosthenes nor any of dozens of other brilliant ancient Greek minds did ever refer by a word, by a single sentence to something which was their everyday life, something they saw literally on every corner along their entire lives. It was an immoral, unjust, notoriously brutal and oppressive slavery system that powered the Antique state. (Slaves have not been even attributed as humans, but rather as the ‘phonic tools/tools able to speak’.) This myopia, this absence of critical reference on the obvious and omnipresent is a historic message – highly disturbing, self-telling and quite a warning.” – notes prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic in his luminary book of 2013, ‘Is there like after Facebook? – Geopolitics of Technology’.

Indeed, why do we constantly ignore massive and sustain harvesting of our personal data from the social networks, medical records, pay-cards, internet and smart phones as well as its commercialization and monetization for dubious ends and disturbing futures.

Professor Bajrektarevic predicts and warns: “If humans hardly ever question fetishisation of their own McFB way of life, or oppose the (self-) trivialization, why then is the subsequent brutalization a surprise to them?”

Thus, should we be really surprise with the Brexit vote, with the results of the US elections, and with the forcoming massive wins of the right-wing parties all over Europe? Putin is behind it !! – how easy, and how misleading a self-denial.

Here is a story based on facts, if we are only interested to really grasp the Matrix world. The Iron Cage we constructed ourselves.

On November 9 at around 8.30 AM., Michal Kosinski woke up in the Hotel Sunnehus in Zurich. The 34-year-old researcher had come to give a lecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) about the dangers of Big Data and the digital revolution. Kosinski gives regular lectures on this topic all over the world. He is a leading expert in psychometrics, a data-driven sub-branch of psychology. When he turned on the TV that morning, he saw that the bombshell had exploded: contrary to forecasts by all leading statisticians, Donald J. Trump had been elected president of the United States.

For a long time, Kosinski watched the Trump victory celebrations and the results coming in from each state. He had a hunch that the outcome of the election might have something to do with his research. Finally, he took a deep breath and turned off the TV.

On the same day, a then little-known British company based in London sent out a press release: “We are thrilled that our revolutionary approach to data-driven communication has played such an integral part in President-elect Trump’s extraordinary win,” Alexander James Ashburner Nix was quoted as saying. Nix is British, 41 years old, and CEO of Cambridge Analytica. He is always immaculately turned out in tailor-made suits and designer glasses, with his wavy blonde hair combed back from his forehead. His company wasn’t just integral to Trump’s online campaign, but to the UK’s Brexit campaign as well.

Of these three players—reflective Kosinski, carefully groomed Nix and grinning Trump—one of them enabled the digital revolution, one of them executed it and one of them benefited from it.

How dangerous is big data?

Anyone who has not spent the last five years living on another planet will be familiar with the term Big Data. Big Data means, in essence, that everything we do, both on and offline, leaves digital traces. Every purchase we make with our cards, every search we type into Google, every movement we make when our mobile phone is in our pocket, every “like” is stored. Especially every “like.” For a long time, it was not entirely clear what use this data could have—except, perhaps, that we might find ads for high blood pressure remedies just after we’ve Googled “reduce blood pressure.”

On November 9, it became clear that maybe much more is possible. The company behind Trump’s online campaign—the same company that had worked for Leave.EU in the very early stages of its “Brexit” campaign—was a Big Data company: Cambridge Analytica.

To understand the outcome of the election—and how political communication might work in the future—we need to begin with a strange incident at Cambridge University in 2014, at Kosinski’s Psychometrics Center.

Psychometrics, sometimes also called psychographics, focuses on measuring psychological traits, such as personality. In the 1980s, two teams of psychologists developed a model that sought to assess human beings based on five personality traits, known as the “Big Five.” These are: openness (how open you are to new experiences?), conscientiousness (how much of a perfectionist are you?), extroversion (how sociable are you?), agreeableness (how considerate and cooperative you are?) and neuroticism (are you easily upset?). Based on these dimensions—they are also known as OCEAN, an acronym for openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism—we can make a relatively accurate assessment of the kind of person in front of us. This includes their needs and fears, and how they are likely to behave. The “Big Five” has become the standard technique of psychometrics. But for a long time, the problem with this approach was data collection, because it involved filling out a complicated, highly personal questionnaire. Then came the Internet. And Facebook. And Kosinski.

Michal Kosinski was a student in Warsaw when his life took a new direction in 2008. He was accepted by Cambridge University to do his PhD at the Psychometrics Centre, one of the oldest institutions of this kind worldwide. Kosinski joined fellow student David Stillwell (now a lecturer at Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge) about a year after Stillwell had launched a little Facebook application in the days when the platform had not yet become the behemoth it is today. Their MyPersonality app enabled users to fill out different psychometric questionnaires, including a handful of psychological questions from the Big Five personality questionnaire (“I panic easily,” “I contradict others”). Based on the evaluation, users received a “personality profile”—individual Big Five values—and could opt-in to share their Facebook profile data with the researchers.

Kosinski had expected a few dozen college friends to fill in the questionnaire, but before long, hundreds, thousands, then millions of people had revealed their innermost convictions. Suddenly, the two doctoral candidates owned the largest dataset combining psychometric scores with Facebook profiles ever to be collected.

The approach that Kosinski and his colleagues developed over the next few years was actually quite simple. First, they provided test subjects with a questionnaire in the form of an online quiz. From their responses, the psychologists calculated the personal Big Five values of respondents. Kosinski’s team then compared the results with all sorts of other online data from the subjects: what they “liked,” shared or posted on Facebook, or what gender, age, place of residence they specified, for example. This enabled the researchers to connect the dots and make correlations.

Remarkably reliable deductions could be drawn from simple online actions. For example, men who “liked” the cosmetics brand MAC were slightly more likely to be gay; one of the best indicators for heterosexuality was “liking” Wu-Tang Clan. Followers of Lady Gaga were most probably extroverts, while those who “liked” philosophy tended to be introverts. While each piece of such information is too weak to produce a reliable prediction, when tens, hundreds, or thousands of individual data points are combined, the resulting predictions become really accurate.

Kosinski and his team tirelessly refined their models. In 2012, Kosinski proved that on the basis of an average of 68 Facebook “likes” by a user, it was possible to predict their skin color (with 95 percent accuracy), their sexual orientation (88 percent accuracy), and their affiliation to the Democratic or Republican party (85 percent). But it didn’t stop there. Intelligence, religious affiliation, as well as alcohol, cigarette and drug use, could all be determined. From the data it was even possible to deduce whether someone’s parents were divorced.

The strength of their modeling was illustrated by how well it could predict a subject’s answers. Kosinski continued to work on the models incessantly: before long, he was able to evaluate a person better than the average work colleague, merely on the basis of ten Facebook “likes.” Seventy “likes” were enough to outdo what a person’s friends knew, 150 what their parents knew, and 300 “likes” what their partner knew. More “likes” could even surpass what a person thought they knew about themselves. On the day that Kosinski published these findings, he received two phone calls. The threat of a lawsuit and a job offer. Both from Facebook.

Only weeks later Facebook “likes” became private by default. Before that, the default setting was that anyone on the internet could see your “likes.” But this was no obstacle to data collectors: while Kosinski always asked for the consent of Facebook users, many apps and online quizzes today require access to private data as a precondition for taking personality tests. (Anybody who wants to evaluate themselves based on their Facebook “likes” can do so on Kosinski’s website, and then compare their results to those of a classic Ocean questionnaire, like that of the Cambridge Psychometrics Center.)

But it was not just about “likes” or even Facebook: Kosinski and his team could now ascribe Big Five values based purely on how many profile pictures a person has on Facebook, or how many contacts they have (a good indicator of extraversion). But we also reveal something about ourselves even when we’re not online. For example, the motion sensor on our phone reveals how quickly we move and how far we travel (this correlates with emotional instability). Our smartphone, Kosinski concluded, is a vast psychological questionnaire that we are constantly filling out, both consciously and unconsciously.

Above all, however—and this is key—it also works in reverse: not only can psychological profiles be created from your data, but your data can also be used the other way round to search for specific profiles: all anxious fathers, all angry introverts, for example—or maybe even all undecided Democrats? Essentially, what Kosinski had invented was sort of a people search engine. He started to recognize the potential—but also the inherent danger—of his work.

To him, the internet was a gift from heaven. What he really wanted was to give something back, to share. Data can be copied, so why shouldn’t everyone benefit from it? It was the spirit of Millenials, entire new generation, the beginning of a new era that transcended the limitations of the physical world. But what would happen, wondered Kosinski, if someone abused his people search engine to manipulate people? He began to add warnings to most of his scientific work. His approach, he warned, “could pose a threat to an individual’s well-being, freedom, or even life.” But no one seemed to grasp what he meant.

Around this time, in early 2014, Kosinski was approached by a young assistant professor in the psychology department called Aleksandr Kogan. He said he was inquiring on behalf of a company that was interested in Kosinski’s method, and wanted to access the MyPersonality database. Kogan wasn’t at liberty to reveal for what purpose; he was bound to secrecy.

At first, Kosinski and his team considered this offer, as it would mean a great deal of money for the institute, but then he hesitated. Finally, Kosinski remembers, Kogan revealed the name of the company: SCL, or Strategic Communication Laboratories. Kosinski Googled the company: “[We are] the premier election management agency,” says the company’s website. SCL provides marketing based on psychological modeling. One of its core focuses: Influencing elections. Influencing elections? Perturbed, Kosinski clicked through the pages. What kind of company was this? And what were these people planning?

What Kosinski did not know at the time: SCL is the parent of a group of companies. Who exactly owns SCL and its diverse branches is unclear, thanks to a convoluted corporate structure, the type seen in the UK Companies House, the Panama Papers, and the Delaware company registry. Some of the SCL offshoots have been involved in elections from Ukraine to Nigeria, helped the Nepalese monarch against the Maoists, whereas others have developed methods to influence Eastern Euripean and Afghan citizens for NATO. And, in 2013, SCL spun off a new company to participate in US elections: Cambridge Analytica.

Kosinski knew nothing about all this, but he had a bad feeling. “The whole thing started to stink,” he recalls. On further investigation, he discovered that Aleksandr Kogan had secretly registered a company doing business with SCL. According to a December 2015 report in the Guardian and to internal company documents given to Das Magazin, it emerges that SCL learned about Kosinski’s method from Kogan.

Kosinski came to suspect that Kogan’s company might have reproduced the Facebook “Likes”-based Big Five measurement tool in order to sell it to this election-influencing firm. He immediately broke off contact with Kogan and informed the director of the institute, sparking a complicated conflict within the university. The institute was worried about its reputation. Aleksandr Kogan then moved to Singapore, married, and changed his name to Dr. Spectre. Michal Kosinski finished his PhD, got a job offer from Stanford and moved to the US.

Mr. Brexit

All was quiet for about a year. Then, in November 2015, the more radical of the two Brexit campaigns, “Leave.EU,” supported by Nigel Farage, announced that it had commissioned a Big Data company to support its online campaign: Cambridge Analytica. The company’s core strength: innovative political marketing—microtargeting—by measuring people’s personality from their digital footprints, based on the OCEAN model.

Now Kosinski received emails asking what he had to do with it—the words Cambridge, personality, and analytics immediately made many people think of Kosinski. It was the first time he had heard of the company, which borrowed its name, it said, from its first employees, researchers from the university. Horrified, he looked at the website. Was his methodology being used on a grand scale for political purposes?

After the Brexit result, friends and acquaintances wrote to him: Just look at what you’ve done. Everywhere he went, Kosinski had to explain that he had nothing to do with this company. (It remains unclear how deeply Cambridge Analytica was involved in the Brexit campaign. Cambridge Analytica would not discuss such questions.)

For a few months, things are relatively quiet. Then, on September 19, 2016, just over a month before the US elections, the guitar riffs of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” fill the dark-blue hall of New York’s Grand Hyatt hotel. The Concordia Summit is a kind of World Economic Forum in miniature. Decision-makers from all over the world have been invited, among them Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann. “Please welcome to the stage Alexander Nix, chief executive officer of Cambridge Analytica,” a smooth female voice announces. A slim man in a dark suit walks onto the stage. A hush falls. Many in attendance know that this is Trump’s new digital strategy man. (A video of the presentation was posted on YouTube.)

A few weeks earlier, Trump had tweeted, somewhat cryptically, “Soon you’ll be calling me Mr. Brexit.” Political observers had indeed noticed some striking similarities between Trump’s agenda and that of the right-wing Brexit movement. But few had noticed the connection with Trump’s recent hiring of a marketing company named Cambridge Analytica.

Up to this point, Trump’s digital campaign had consisted of more or less one person: Brad Parscale, a marketing entrepreneur and failed start-up founder who created a rudimentary website for Trump for $1,500. The 70-year-old Trump is not digitally savvy—there isn’t even a computer on his office desk. Trump doesn’t do emails, his personal assistant once revealed. She herself talked him into having a smartphone, from which he now tweets incessantly.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, relied heavily on the legacy of the first “social-media president,” Barack Obama. She had the address lists of the Democratic Party, worked with cutting-edge big data analysts from BlueLabs and received support from Google and DreamWorks. When it was announced in June 2016 that Trump had hired Cambridge Analytica, the establishment in Washington just turned up their noses. Foreign dudes in tailor-made suits who don’t understand the country and its people? Seriously?

“It is my privilege to speak to you today about the power of Big Data and psychographics in the electoral process.” The logo of Cambridge Analytica— a brain composed of network nodes, like a map, appears behind Alexander Nix. “Only 18 months ago, Senator Cruz was one of the less popular candidates,” explains the blonde man in a cut-glass British accent, which puts Americans on edge the same way that a standard German accent can unsettle Swiss people. “Less than 40 percent of the population had heard of him,” another slide says. Cambridge Analytica had become involved in the US election campaign almost two years earlier, initially as a consultant for Republicans Ben Carson and Ted Cruz. Cruz—and later Trump—was funded primarily by the secretive US software billionaire Robert Mercer who, along with his daughter Rebekah, is reported to be the largest investor in Cambridge Analytica.

“So how did he do this?” Up to now, explains Nix, election campaigns have been organized based on demographic concepts. “A really ridiculous idea. The idea that all women should receive the same message because of their gender—or all African Americans because of their race.” What Nix meant is that while other campaigners so far have relied on demographics, Cambridge Analytica was using psychometrics.

Though this might be true, Cambridge Analytica’s role within Cruz’s campaign isn’t undisputed. In December 2015 the Cruz team credited their rising success to psychological use of data and analytics. In Advertising Age, a political client said the embedded Cambridge staff was “like an extra wheel,” but found their core product, Cambridge’s voter data modeling, still “excellent.” The campaign would pay the company at least $5.8 million to help identify voters in the Iowa caucuses, which Cruz won, before dropping out of the race in May.

Nix clicks to the next slide: five different faces, each face corresponding to a personality profile. It is the Big Five or OCEAN Model. “At Cambridge,” he said, “we were able to form a model to predict the personality of every single adult in the United States of America.” The hall is captivated. According to Nix, the success of Cambridge Analytica’s marketing is based on a combination of three elements: behavioral science using the OCEAN Model, Big Data analysis, and ad targeting. Ad targeting is personalized advertising, aligned as accurately as possible to the personality of an individual consumer.

Nix candidly explains how his company does this. First, Cambridge Analytica buys personal data from a range of different sources, like land registries, automotive data, shopping data, bonus cards, club memberships, what magazines you read, what churches you attend. Nix displays the logos of globally active data brokers like Acxiom and Experian—in the US, almost all personal data is for sale. For example, if you want to know where Jewish women live, you can simply buy this information, phone numbers included.

Now Cambridge Analytica aggregates this data with the electoral rolls of the Republican party and online data and calculates a Big Five personality profile. Digital footprints suddenly become real people with fears, needs, interests, and residential addresses.

The methodology looks quite similar to the one that Michal Kosinski once developed. Cambridge Analytica also uses, Nix told us, “surveys on social media” and Facebook data. And the company does exactly what Kosinski warned of: “We have profiled the personality of every adult in the United States of America—220 million people,” Nix boasts.

He opens the screenshot. “This is a data dashboard that we prepared for the Cruz campaign.” A digital control center appears. On the left are diagrams; on the right, a map of Iowa, where Cruz won a surprisingly large number of votes in the primary. And on the map, there are hundreds of thousands of small red and blue dots. Nix narrows down the criteria: “Republicans”—the blue dots disappear; “not yet convinced”—more dots disappear; “male”, and so on. Finally, only one name remains, including age, address, interests, personality and political inclination. How does Cambridge Analytica now target this person with an appropriate political message?

Nix shows how psychographically categorized voters can be differently addressed, based on the example of gun rights, the 2nd Amendment: “For a highly neurotic and conscientious audience the threat of a burglary—and the insurance policy of a gun.” An image on the left shows the hand of an intruder smashing a window. The right side shows a man and a child standing in a field at sunset, both holding guns, clearly shooting ducks: “Conversely, for a closed and agreeable audience. People who care about tradition, and habits, and family.”

How to keep Clinton voters away from the ballot box

Trump’s striking inconsistencies, his much-criticized fickleness, and the resulting array of contradictory messages, suddenly turned out to be his great asset: a different message for every voter. The notion that Trump acted like a perfectly opportunistic algorithm following audience reactions is something the mathematician Cathy O’Neil observed in August 2016.

“Pretty much every message that Trump put out was data-driven,” Alexander Nix remembers. On the day of the third presidential debate between Trump and Clinton, Trump’s team tested 175,000 different ad variations for his arguments, in order to find the right versions above all via Facebook. The messages differed for the most part only in microscopic details, in order to target the recipients in the optimal psychological way: different headings, colors, captions, with a photo or video. This fine-tuning reaches all the way down to the smallest groups, Nix explained in an interview with us. “We can address villages or apartment blocks in a targeted way. Even individuals.”

In the Miami district of Little Haiti, for instance, Trump’s campaign provided inhabitants with news about the failure of the Clinton Foundation following the earthquake in Haiti, in order to keep them from voting for Hillary Clinton. This was one of the goals: to keep potential Clinton voters (which include wavering left-wingers, African-Americans, and young women) away from the ballot box, to “suppress” their vote, as one senior campaign official told Bloomberg in the weeks before the election. These “dark posts”—sponsored news-feed-style ads in Facebook timelines that can only be seen by users with specific profiles—included videos aimed at African-Americans in which Hillary Clinton refers to black men as predators, for example.

Nix finishes his lecture at the Concordia Summit by stating that traditional blanket advertising is dead. “My children will certainly never, ever understand this concept of mass communication.” And before leaving the stage, he announced that since Cruz had left the race, the company was helping one of the remaining presidential candidates.

Just how precisely the American population was being targeted by Trump’s digital troops at that moment was not visible, because they attacked less on mainstream TV and more with personalized messages on social media or digital TV. And while the Clinton team thought it was in the lead, based on demographic projections, Bloomberg journalist Sasha Issenberg was surprised to note on a visit to San Antonio—where Trump’s digital campaign was based—that a “second headquarters” was being created. The embedded Cambridge Analytica team, apparently only a dozen people, received $100,000 from Trump in July, $250,000 in August, and $5 million in September. According to Nix, the company earned over $15 million overall. (The company is incorporated in the US, where laws regarding the release of personal data are more lax than in European Union countries. Whereas European privacy laws require a person to “opt in” to a release of data, those in the US permit data to be released unless a user “opts out.”)

The measures were radical: From July 2016, Trump’s canvassers were provided with an app with which they could identify the political views and personality types of the inhabitants of a house. It was the same app provider used by Brexit campaigners. Trump’s people only rang at the doors of houses that the app rated as receptive to his messages. The canvassers came prepared with guidelines for conversations tailored to the personality type of the resident. In turn, the canvassers fed the reactions into the app, and the new data flowed back to the dashboards of the Trump campaign.

Again, this is nothing new. The Democrats did similar things, but there is no evidence that they relied on psychometric profiling. Cambridge Analytica, however, divided the US population into 32 personality types, and focused on just 17 states. And just as Kosinski had established that men who like MAC cosmetics are slightly more likely to be gay, the company discovered that a preference for cars made in the US was a great indication of a potential Trump voter. Among other things, these findings now showed Trump which messages worked best and where. The decision to focus on Michigan and Wisconsin in the final weeks of the campaign was made on the basis of data analysis. The candidate became the instrument for implementing a big data model.

What’s Next?

But to what extent did psychometric methods influence the outcome of the election? When asked, Cambridge Analytica was unwilling to provide any proof of the effectiveness of its campaign. And it is quite possible that the question is impossible to answer.

And yet there are clues: There is the fact of the surprising rise of Ted Cruz during the primaries. Also there was an increased number of voters in rural areas. There was the decline in the number of African-American early votes. The fact that Trump spent so little money may also be explained by the effectiveness of personality-based advertising. As does the fact that he invested far more in digital than TV campaigning compared to Hillary Clinton. Facebook proved to be the ultimate weapon and the best election campaigner, as Nix explained, and as comments by several core Trump campaigners demonstrate.

Many voices have claimed that the statisticians lost the election because their predictions were so off the mark. But what if statisticians in fact helped win the election—but only those who were using the new method? It is an irony of history that Trump, who often grumbled about scientific research, used a highly scientific approach in his campaign.

Another big winner is Cambridge Analytica. Its board member Steve Bannon, former executive chair of the right-wing online newspaper Breitbart News, has been appointed as Donald Trump’s senior counselor and chief strategist. Whilst Cambridge Analytica is not willing to comment on alleged ongoing talks with UK Prime Minister Theresa May, Alexander Nix claims that he is building up his client base worldwide, and that he has received inquiries from Switzerland, Germany, and Australia. His company is currently touring European conferences showcasing their success in the United States. This year three core countries of the EU are facing elections with resurgent populist parties: France, Holland and Germany. The electoral successes come at an opportune time, as the company is readying for a push into commercial advertising.

********

Kosinski has observed all of this from his office at Stanford. Following the US election, the university is in turmoil. Kosinski is responding to developments with the sharpest weapon available to a researcher: a scientific analysis. Together with his research colleague Sandra Matz, he has conducted a series of tests, which will soon be published. The initial results are alarming: The study shows the effectiveness of personality targeting by showing that marketers can attract up to 63 percent more clicks and up to 1,400 more conversions in real-life advertising campaigns on Facebook when matching products and marketing messages to consumers’ personality characteristics. They further demonstrate the scalability of personality targeting by showing that the majority of Facebook Pages promoting products or brands are affected by personality and that large numbers of consumers can be accurately targeted based on a single Facebook Page.

In a statement after the German publication of this article, a Cambridge Analytica spokesperson said, “Cambridge Analytica does not use data from Facebook. It has had no dealings with Dr. Michal Kosinski. It does not subcontract research. It does not use the same methodology. Psychographics was hardly used at all. Cambridge Analytica did not engage in efforts to discourage any Americans from casting their vote in the presidential election. Its efforts were solely directed towards increasing the number of voters in the election.”

The world has been turned upside down. Great Britain is leaving the EU, Donald Trump is president of the United States of America. And in Stanford, Kosinski, who wanted to warn against the danger of using psychological targeting in a political setting, is once again receiving accusatory emails. “No,” says Kosinski, quietly and shaking his head. “This is not my fault. I did not build the bomb. I only showed that it exists.”


KrogerusAbout authors:
Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus are investigative journalists attached to the Swiss-based Das Magazin specialized journal.  The original text appeared in the late December edition under the title: “I only showed that the bomb exists” (Ich habe nur gezeigt, dass es die Bombe gibt). This, English translation, is based on the subsequent January version, first published by the Motherboard magazine (titled: The Data That Turned the World Upside

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Intelligence

Central Asian Jihadists between Turkey and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham

Uran Botobekov

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Frustrated by Jihad Islamists looking for ways to the West

After the signing and implementation of the Sochi Memorandum on Stabilization of the Situation in Idlib between Turkey and Russia there is a noticeable anxiety among al Qaeda linked-Central Asian jihadist groups, who are fighting in the north-east of Syria against the Bashar Assad’s regime.Over the past two months, the military and propaganda activities of these Sunni Salafi armed groups have significantly weakened.Some militants turned the corner and moved to the territory of Turkey, and are looking for opportunities to return to a peaceful life

During a recent trip to Turkey, I visited the Zeytinburnu region in Istanbul, in which a large Uyghur diaspora from Chinese Xinjiang lives. As I was informed, one of the Uyghur militants of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), after moving to Turkey for fear of being discovered by the Chinese special services, is trying to migrate to Europe or the US under the guise of refugees from Xinjiang.But the problem is that during the fighting in Jisr ash-Shugur in northwestern Syria, he lost his passport, and today is in Turkey illegally.

Recently, a researcher known for his controversial ideological views, a fellow at the Middle East Forum Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi interviewed another TIP fighter from Tajikistan Abu Osaid, who wants to return to peaceful life and migrate to Europe. Abu Osaid, who was born in Tajikistan in 1988, believed in the ideology of al-Qaeda, made a Hijrah (migration) to Syria with his wife to conduct jihad against the kafirs and protect the values of the Islamic Ummah. He went through the hell of captivity, fought side by side with the Uighurs, then became disillusioned with jihad and is now looking for ways to migrate to Europe, where he hopes to get an education, get a job and become a legal resident among Christians.

These two episodes from the life of the two Salafis indicate a certain mood among the Central Asian jihadists in Idlib, who dream of going to the West.It turns out an interesting tragicomedy: some Central Asian Islamists want to wage a holy war for the “purity of Islam” and the establishment of a Caliphate in the Middle East, but they certainly want to live in the homeland of “crusades” in Europe or in the US. At the same time, there is a great danger that in the case of migration to the West, former members of al Qaeda will continue their jihadist activities and there is no guarantee that they will not commit a terrorist act on the orders of their religious patrons. Therefore, counterterrorism and religious extremism specialists should carefully monitor the movements of members of the Salafi-Jihadi groups from Syria to the West.

The al Qaeda’s crossroads

It should be noted that currently in the province of Idlib stationed such as foreign Salafi-jihadi groups from Central Asia’s Fergana Valley and the Chinese province of Xinjiang, Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ), Katibat Imam al-Bukhari (KIB), the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) and Katibat Ghuraba al Turkestan (KGT).The total number of Uzbek, Uyghur, Tajik and Kyrgyz militants are about 4-5 thousand.

KTJ and TIP coordinate all their military operations in Syria and conduct them under the leadership of the most powerful single insurgent organization Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), former al-Nusra Front. Practically they became an integral part ofHTS.Uzbek militants KIB have closer cooperation with the National Liberation Front (NLF) — a rebel coalition in Syria formed in May 2018 under Turkey’s auspices.But all of them are united by their belonging to the Salafi ideology of al Qaeda.

Despite the fact that al-Nusra Front and al Qaeda formally broke off their relations in 2016, the Central Asian groups did not withdraw from al Qaeda and consider his leader Ayman al-Zawahiri their ideological leader.This is a unique case in which they coordinate their military and religious activities with both al Qaeda and HTS. Thus, the Salafi-jihadi groups of Central Asia became the connecting bridge between al Qaeda and HTS after their quarrels.

Today there is double pressure on the al Qaeda-linked Turkic and Russian-speaking Salafi-jihadi groups from the former Soviet Union in Idlib: from the Turkish special services and his favorite rebel coalition NLF on the one hand, and HTS on the other.Each side is trying to pull them over to its side and use their armed potential in their own interests as the Idlib gambit.

As is known, in accordance with the Sochi Memorandum, Turkey is working to set up a demilitarized zone of a depth of 15-20 km in Syria’s Idlib region, the withdrawal of terrorist groups, including al-Nusra and heavy weapons from the buffer zone between rebel and government fighters and al Assad’s allied Iran-backed groups.As part of this operation, the Turkish intelligence services held talks with all armed groups of the Syrian opposition and al Qaeda-backed Salafi-Jihadi groups, including the HTS and his foreign fighters divisions from Central Asia.In this situation, the Uyghur and Uzbek jihadi groups are trying to keep the “middle ground” by not openly opposing the Turkish initiative, but at the same time not breaking off their close relations with the HTS to please Ankara.

Despite the double pressure, the Central Asian Islamists managed to maintain their ideological loyalty to al Qaeda, who after the fall of the Islamic state became the leader in world Salafi-Jihadi Movement. Therefore, none of the Central Asian militant groups in Idlib made an official statement over the Sochi Memorandum. Only the leader of the Imam Bukhari Jamaat, or KIB, Abu Yusuf Muhojir wrote on Telegram under the pictures of the presidents of Russia, Iran and Syria that “Jihad is not commerce since the honor of Muslims is not for sale. The enemies of Islam will not succeed in destroying the religion of Allah.”

There are several factors that the Uzbek groups KTJ and KIB, as well as the Uighur militant units TIP and KGT will not be able to openly conflict with Ankara.

First, thanks to the common religious, linguistic and cultural identity of the peoples of Central Asia and Turkey, the Islamists of the Fergana Valley and Chinese Xinjiang received the hidden support of Ankara when crossing the Turkish-Syrian border. Erdogan’s Turkey allowed more than 20,000 foreign fighters from Russia, Central Asia, Caucasus and China to pass through her borders to join Salafi-Jihadi terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq from 2013 to 2016.In the event of the capture of Idlib by the Bashar al-Assad army and the fall of the last stronghold of the Syrian opposition, the Turkish territory remains the only transit zone for the Russian-speaking foreign fighters to leave Syria. Therefore, they do not want to burn bridges that will serve them in the future.

Secondly, at the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011-14, Turkey considered jihadists from Central Asia as a pro-Sunni force capable of fighting to remove Bashar al-Assad from power. The Turkish authorities have allowed wounded fighters from Central Asia to be treated in the hospitals of Turkey. In 2014 the leader of KTJ Abu Saloh was wounded in the eye in fighting against the Syrian government forces and then was treated in Turkey.

Thirdly, still act the logistics infrastructures of the TIP in Turkey among Uyghur’s diaspora, where collect financial aid from its businessmen for those who are on the Hijrah. The favorable attitude towards the Uighurs is also due to the position of Turkish President Erdogan, who said that “Eastern Turkestan is not only the home of the Turkic peoples, but it is also the cradle of Turkic history, civilization, and culture. The martyrs of Eastern Turkestan are our own martyrs.”

Considering all these factors, Erdogan’s security services today are trying to influence the leaders of the jihadist groups of Central Asia in order to pull them under the NLF’s umbrella.As we already know, Ankara uses the armed potential of the NLF not only fight against the al-Assad regime but also to fight the Kurdish military unit YPG along the Turkish-Syrian border.On November 6, 2018, the Ebaa news agency reported that Turkey called on the NLF members to prepare for the battle in the Eastern Euphrates against the Kurdish YPG units.NLF already participated in the military operation “Olive Branch” to liberate Syrian Afrin from Kurdish groups in February-March 2018.Pro-Turkish Jaish al-Sharqia, one of the NLF’s major factions, has declared its readiness to fight the Eastern Euphrates with Kurdish groups. Therefore, it is possible that in case of joining the NLF, the Uighur and Uzbek jihadists will have to conduct fight against the Kurdish troops. According to religious and ideological views, Central Asian jihadists have always been against Kurdish Communists.

It should be noted that with the help of financial and military leverage, Ankara managed to rally around 30 Sunni Islamist rebel groups around the NLF, including Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zenki. Today, the total number of NLF fighters is about 100,000, a third of whom are associated with al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. According to Daily Beast, Turkish National Intelligence (MIT) has been deeply involved with the al Qaeda affiliated groups. Therefore, joining the NLF will not cause any ideological differences for al Qaeda-backed TIP, KTJ and KIB.

However, Central Asia’s Salafi-Jihadi groups are also under pressure from HTS, which does not intend to release them from its control.The military wing of the HTS said to Ebaa news agency that those who leave ribat (guard service at the border for the protection of Dar al-Islam), will give up arms or violate the bayat (oath of allegiance to an emir) will be considered traitors and will face severe punishment in accordance with Islam.

In its statement on the Sochi Memorandum, which is titled, “The Syrian Revolution Will Not Die”, HTS thanks all those who have supported Syrians and appreciate who saved liberated areas, including Central Asian Mujahideens who have “emigrated to join us.”HTS seeks to reassure the foreign fighters who have traveled to Syria, implying that they won’t be sacrificed to meet the demands of international actors.HTS refused to surrender heavy weapons and promised to continue jihad against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Russia and Iran.Thus, HTS became a serious obstacle to Ankara’s ambition to create its autonomous protectorate in the north of Syria and reduce Kurdish influence in the border area.

Because of the intransigence of its leaders, the HTS today has made many enemies. The tension between pro-Turkish groups and HTS has reached such a level that the NLF Ninth Division is ready to launch an offensive.The al-Assad army and Iranian-backed Shia militias consider HTS to be their main enemy that is spreading terrorism and preventing the establishment of peace in Syria.

Despite the Sochi Memorandum, armed clashes between HTS and the Syrian Army occur every day. In this situation, the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups became hostage to the ambitions of Abu Mohammed al-Jolani.

Idlib’s Trap

Today the financial position of TIP, KIB and KTJ has deteriorated markedly.External sponsors from Arab countries substantially reduced their economic assistance. The internal resources of these groups are at the verge of exhaustion. The influx of new militants from the Caucasus and Central Asia has almost stopped. The work of recruiting new jihadists from among labor migrants in Russia, Fergana Valley, and Chinese Xinjiang are not being conducted. In this situation, some deserters who managed to escape from their commanders and cross the Turkish-Syrian border are trying to leave for the West.

In October 2018, the leader of al Qaeda-backed Junud al-Sham group, ethnic Chechen militant Muslim Abu Waleedal-Shishani (Murad Margoshvili) made an appeal to the World Muslim Ummah. He acknowledged that the Salafi groups from the post-Soviet space in Idlib are going through a difficult period, some Mujaheeds have come back, closing the doors of a holy Jihad. Therefore, he asked them not to hurry to leave Sham, because all is not lost.He called on the World Muslim Ummah to make donations for “the lions of Allah who migrated to Sham and protect the honor of Islam. “The desperate appeal of al-Shishani witnessed the nervous situation among Salafi-Jihadi groups from Russia, Central Asia and China in Syria.

Today Central Asian jihadists are in Idlib’s trap, where NLF and Turkish special services breathing down their necks, the al-Assad’s army, Iranian Shia militias and the Russian air force attack in front, and a Khawarijis(al Qaeda uses the term “Khawarij” as a synonym for ‘extremist’ to describe members of the ISIS)of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi strike from behind.

Turkey’s flirting with al Qaeda

The prospect of the continued presence of the Central Asian al-Qaida branches in Syria depends on the future actions of regional players – Russia, Turkey and Iran on the Idlib scene. In any case, they all understand perfectly well that the Sochi Memorandum is temporary. Moscow and Ankara declare that it was necessary to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis. But for Damascus the deal in Idlib was necessary to gather strength and al-Assad will try to seize the last stronghold of the opposition by force. And then, to protect not only Idlib but also to retain control over the Syrian border region by Ankara, the military potential of al Qaeda-linked Central Asian jihadists will be required.

But as al Qaeda’s Afghan experience and September 11 tragedy showed, flirting with this global Sunni terrorist organization and using its forces to achieve situational gains can lead to serious religious and political upheavals in the Middle East and Central Asia in the future.

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Three Groups of Threats from Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems

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Using autonomous technologies, artificial intelligence and machine learning in the military sphere leads to the emergence of new threats, and it is crucial that we identify them in time.

Over the last decade, the development of technologies that can provide conventional weapons with unique capabilities typical of “killer robots” has been accelerating. The UN has given these types of weapon the designation of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS). This is the name for weapons that are capable of hitting land, air and water targets without human participation.

AI-based LAWS create threats that can be divided into three groups:

1.The first group comprises risks associated with removing human agents from the decision to use weapons, the so-called “meaningful human control problem.” The global public (NGOs such as Stop Killer Robots, Article 36, the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, businesspersons and scientists, in particular, Steven Hawking, Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak) believe it highly probable that fully autonomous weapons will not be able to comply with international humanitarian law and human rights and will create a problem of identifying the persons to be held liable in case of illegal acts by autonomous units. “Killer robots” are accused of being incapable of sympathy, i.e. a human feeling that often acts as deterrent to the use of weapons. Another argument against LAWS is that their use contradicts the principle of humaneness and the demands of public conscience.

2.The second group of threats is related to breaches of strategic stability. Elements of autonomy and AI are appearing in all areas of military confrontation. In the nuclear sphere, high-precision tactical nuclear bombs and hypersonic devices with new nuclear warheads are now appearing. In outer space, it is unmanned space drones, low-orbit surveillance and satellite communications systems. In the area of missile defence, there are new surveillance and tracking systems linked with communications and control systems. And in the cyber sphere, cyber weapons and automated hacking-back cyber systems are emerging. Some of these weapons, for instance, hypersonic missiles and cyberattacks, could serve as instruments of tactical deterrence along with nuclear weapons. That is, even non-nuclear countries now have the capability of sharply increasing their deterrence and attack potential. These trends entail a series of risks:

— the risk of one country establishing technological and military global superiority;

— a new arms race;

— increased regional and international tensions;

— reduced transparency of military programmes;

— a disregard for international law;

— the spread of dangerous technologies among non-state actors.

Based on the experience of using military and commercial drones, researchers conclude that the manufacturing technologies of LAWS, as well as their components and software, will proliferate abundantly, which will give rise to another arms race resulting in instability and escalation of various risks.

Some experts believe that maintaining strategic stability in the coming decades will require a revision of the foundations of the deterrence theory in the multipolar world.

3.The third group of threats stems from the drastically reduced time allocated for making strategic decisions within the Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance (ISR) and military Communications, Command and Control (C3) systems. The principal drawback of a human compared to a machine is that the human mind requires too much time to assess the situation and make the right decision. An entire series of military programmes in the leading states (in particular, the Pentagon’s Maven, COMPASS, Diamond Shield) aims to have supercomputers take over the work of analysing various data and developing scenarios for the political and military leadership.

That entails, as a minimum, the following risks:

— The shortage of time to make meaningful decisions.

— Insufficient human control over the situation.

— Making strategic decisions on the basis of mathematical algorithms and machine learning systems, not human logic.

— The lack of mutual understanding between the machine and the human. Neural networks are thus far incapable of explaining the regularities of their work in a human language.

To be fair, it should be noted that globalization and the development of cross-border projects, social networks, transnational corporations, international cooperation, surveillance satellites and radio-electronic surveillance equipment have made the world more transparent. The world now has a huge number of sensors that report new threats before they even materialize.

Let us consider these three groups of threats in more detail.

The Meaningful Human Control Problem

In December 2016, the Fifth Review Conference Fifth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) weapons adopted the decision to create a Group of Governmental Experts authorized to “explore and agree on possible recommendations on options related to emerging technologies in the area of LAWS.” Commentators believe that, despite various obvious terminological discrepancies, those who attended the conference agreed that the use of force should always take place under “meaningful human control.”

Some experts see four components in the problem:

  1. The risks that LAWS carry for civilians.
  2. The risks of human rights and human dignity violations.
  3. The inability of LAWS to comply with the laws of war.
  4. The uncertainty concerning legal liability for intentional and unintentional consequences of using LAWS.

It would be a mistake to think that the emergence of LAWS laid bare certain gaps in international law that need to be filled immediately. States and their citizens must comply with the norms and principles of international law in effect, and these norms and principles contain an exhaustive list of rules and restrictions in warfare.

International humanitarian law (IHL) was designed to protect human values, and a number of experts believe that some of its documents have direct bearing on the LAWS problem:

The Martens Clause: the rule formulated by the Russian lawyer and diplomat Friedrich Martens in 1899 stating that even if a given provision is not included directly in the articles of the current law, in situations of military hostilities, the parties will be guided by the principles of laws of humanity and the dictates of public conscience.

The “Laws of humanity” stemming from the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Article 36 of the 1977 Protocol Additional I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions on new weapons.

— Various documents constituting the law of armed conflict with its basic principles:

  1. The distinction between civilians and combatants.
  2. The principle of proportionality (commensurability) of the use of force.
  3. The principle of military expediency.
  4. Restricting the means and methods of warfare (prohibition of excessive destruction or causing excessive suffering).

Since the international instruments that are currently in effect place give national governments the responsibility to interpret their obligations, international experts fear that the latter will interpret them in their own favour while neglecting moral concepts and human dignity. From this, they conclude that there is a need for a more detailed elaboration of the IHL norms as applied to LAWS.

Whatever the case may be, the latest consultations on the future of LAWS held on August 27–31, 2018 in Geneva at the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) resulted in the approval of ten potential principles that could serve as a future foundation for the international community’s approach to LAWS. The key principle is that all work in military AI should be conducted in compliance with international humanitarian law, and liability for the use of such systems will always lie with a human. The final decision on the future of the Group of Governmental Experts will most likely be made on November 23, 2018 at the conference of CCW signatory countries.

LAWS and Strategic Stability

At the Washington Summit held between the Soviet Union and the United States in June 1990, the parties made a joint declaration on nuclear and space weapons. In it, they outlined the theoretical foundations of strategic stability, which was defined as a state of strategic relations between two powers when neither has the incentive to deliver the first strike. The parties distinguished two notions within strategic stability: crisis stability and arms race stability. Crisis stability was taken to mean a situation in which even in a crisis neither party had serious opportunities or incentives to deliver the first nuclear strike. Arms race stability was determined with regard to the presence of incentives to increase a country’s own strategic potential.

The principles of strategic stability enshrined in the 1990 Declaration were considered the guidelines for weapons control. Later, the notions of “first strike stability” and even “cross-domain strategic stability” emerged.

Military AI has the potential to breach stability within any concept. Some high-ranking Pentagon strategists have already made statements that autonomous robots could ensure global military dominance. They believe that combat drones will replace nuclear weapons and high-precision munitions and will make it possible to implement the so-called “third offset strategy.”

Obviously, machine learning and autonomy technologies open new opportunities for using nuclear munitions (for instance, a high-precision reduced-capacity B61-12 nuclear bomb) for tactical missions and vice versa. Strategic tasks can be handled using non-strategic weapons.

For instance, the development of hypersonic vehicles with high defence-penetration capabilities leads to a lower nuclear conflict threshold.

The Boeing X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle and XS-1 Spaceplane space drones or the X-43A Hypersonic Experimental Vehicle hypersonic drone will change the model of confrontations in space. Combining the Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) with the Command and Control, Battle Management, and Communications (C2BMC) system demonstrates entirely new strike capabilities of ballistic missiles. The strategy of neutralizing missile systems at launchers by using cyber and radio-electronic Left-of-Launch devices opens up a new roadmap for missile defence. The QUANTUM programme and the automated hacking-back cyber weapon can set destructive software into “fire” mode.

The rapid spread of drone technologies throughout the world and the budding competition for the global market between major manufacturers of strike drones are causes for alarm. Today, the United States has over 20,000 unmanned vehicles, including several hundreds of combat strike drones. Small strike drones that in the future may deliver strikes as an autonomous swarm distributing functions without an operator’s input are now in development in future. China is not officially disclosing the number of drones in service of the People’s Liberation Army; however, some experts believe that it is roughly equal to the number in service of the Pentagon. China both manufactures and actively exports strategic drones capable of both intelligence and strike missions. Following the United States with its MQ-25 Stingray programme, China is developing ship-based drones and unmanned vehicles capable of interacting with manned aircraft.

The United Kingdom, Israel, Turkey, Iran and Japan also lay the claim to a place among the world’s leading drone manufacturers. Military strategists of small and large states believe that, in future, unmanned vehicles will form the backbone of their air force. Back in 2015, United States Md. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said that the F-35 will likely be the last manned strike fighter, and unmanned systems will be “the new normal in ever-increasing areas.”

C3ISR Outsourcing and Strategic Time Pressure

Using artificial intelligence (AI) in the military area is gaining momentum. As a rule, a programme of automatic data collection and analysis opens up possibilities for new projects in related areas. The use of the so-called artificial intelligence in the military sphere will probably increase exponentially moving forwards.

AI will also be a reason for the emergence of new weapons and related army units in the near future, such as cyber command, missile defence, AI-based intelligence, information warfare, electronic warfare (EW) systems, laser weapons, autonomous transportation, robotics units, drones, anti-drone weapons, hypersonic aircraft, unmanned underwater drones and aquanaut teams.

In future, conventional army service branches will change shape, forming different combinations to use the advantages of new AI-based systems. Studies have demonstrated a twofold increase in the effectiveness of air and missile defence working in conjunction with EW systems.

Using AI in the military sphere will result in the gradual introduction of robotics and automation in every possible sphere, in materials and logistics in the first place. Logistics of the future is capable of seriously affecting strategic stability through the high automation of logistical processes up to the autonomous delivery of munitions to the battlefield.

Information exchange between service branches will develop both vertically and horizontally, from aircraft pilots in the air to platoon leaders on the ground and vice versa, and AI will filter information so that each party will only receive data that is useful to them, with information noise being removed. That is the idea behind the Diamond Shield air and missile defence that is currently being developed by Lockheed Martin. Data collected on land, in the air and in space, including through the Pentagon’s MAVEN programme, will be processed by neural networks and distributed in real time to commanding officers of all levels. AI will conduct the actions of military units, creating so-called algorithmic warfare.

AI will track clandestine action in times of peace, too. The COMPASS (Collection and Monitoring via Planning for Active Situational Scenarios) programme is one such example. The goal of COMPASS is to analyse a situation and its participants’ behaviour in a “grey” zone, which is understood as a limited conflict on the border between “regular” competition among states and what is traditionally deemed to be war. Strategic time pressure will lead to assessments of national threats and the use of weapons also being automated and outsourced to AI-based command and analytical systems.

The symbiosis of analytical and command programmes on the basis of neural networks increases the risk of the Human-Machine Interaction model, leaving little room for humans, who will have just one button to press to approve decisions made by machines.

The configurations of AI-based analytical and control systems will be highly classified, thereby causing additional concerns to the public.

Allegorically speaking, human civilization is standing in front of the door into a world where the military handles its objectives using AI and autonomous “killer robots.” Thus far, we do not know for sure how dangerous that is. Maybe our worst expectations will not come true. However, in the worst-case scenario, that world will open Pandora’s box, letting out fears and suffering. Preventing such a scenario in advance is the proper course of action.

First published in our partner RIAC

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The China/Russia Space Threat: Is Star Wars Far Away or On the Horizon?

Dana Ogle

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In world politics, using force, blatantly offensive force in particular, rarely comes without costs.–Gil Merom

Space – The Final Frontier?

The space race from the 1950s until the end of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States eventually ended in a tie.  Maybe not totally a tie, but the advent of the International Space Station (ISS) and the amount of training performed at Star City just outside of Moscow by both Russians and Americans in preparation for their missions give the appearance that the former rivalry is now a cooperative event.  Over the last few years, space is becoming the focus of many nations from a security perspective.  Merom’s succinct summation of the cost of using offensive force is a driving reason for the new focus on space either from the standpoint of dominance or of countering other nations’ use of it.This time, instead of claiming dominance by planting a flag on the moon, the idea of controlling a domain that is still not truly understood provides a level of security impacting many areas, like the Global Positioning System (GPS), Positioning, Navigating, and Timing (PNT), and Satellite Communication (SATCOM) (Harrison et al. 2018; Weeden and Sampson 2018).  And it is China and Russia that are currently leading the charge of attempting to operationalize and weaponize space to project power.

Power Projection

Countering the threat of the United States is a purpose both China and Russia cite as a reason to develop space and counterspace capabilities, but that is almost the default/de facto motive for any action they take.  Achieving space superiority is not on par with becoming a nuclear power in terms of international recognition, but China and Russia both see gaining the upper hand in space as a way to set their nations apart from the rest of the international community.  China recently declared space as a military domain. That allows China to expand its military doctrine “that the goal of space warfare and operations is to achieve space superiority using offensive and defensive means in connection with their broader strategic focus on asymmetric cost imposition, access denial, and information dominance.”( Weeden and Sampson 2018, xi). Based off of this statement, the Chinese view space as another avenue to project military power. And space, like cyberspace, is much harder to counter due to the difficulty in attribution.

Russia’s efforts to regain counterspace capability also provides a method for projecting power and is another area to show that they are back as players on the world stage.  President Putin laid out four ideas for a 21st century Russia, “(1) the strong, functioning state; (2) the state-guided market economy; (3) the welfare state with attendant safety net; and (4) the state-safeguarded foreign and security policy position that provides Russia a Eurasian – and even global – leadership position.” (Willerton 2017, 211) Pursuing a program of space and counterspace options ties directly into the first and fourth idea presented by the President and could tie into the second and third if Russia is able to export technology or intellectual capital to assist other nations.  The Russian perspective sees “modern warfare as a struggle over information dominance and net centric operations that can often take place in domains without clear boundaries and contiguous operating areas.” (Weeden and Sampson 2018, xii) Space falls within this definition so, if by leveraging space to conduct cyberspace or space-enabled information operations, then that provides an even larger platform that Russian targets must defend. After all, Russia has “extensive operational experience from decades of spaces operations.” (Harrison et al. 2018, 13) Although some areas of the Russian space program have atrophied since the end of the Cold War, Russia and the U.S. have maintained a partnership with civil space missions to the ISS. (Harrison et al. 2018, 13)

GPS, PNT, and SATCOM

Most nations widely use GPS and PNT for navigation and the geo-tagging of locations for official and unofficial uses.  For China, GPS is how Japan maintains situational awareness in the East China Sea. (Horowitz et al. 2016, 30) If China were able to achieve control over GPS satellites, the advantage it would have over other nations would be hard to quantify.  Aside from blinding or manipulating what the Japanese see in the East China Sea, commercial and military pilots rely on GPS, as do many other peoples for navigation via ships, cars or phones.  Unmanned Aerial Systems, or drones, are also dependent on GPS, and many military operations use drones for communication relays.  If China or Russia manipulated or jammed the link between a ground control station and the drone, then the drone could pose a threat to any airplanes or helicopters in the area. If a weaponized drone, then that capability could be used against unauthorized targets (a rogue drone) or cause chaos due to the lack of communications.

A vast majority of communications today are done by SATCOM.  To control or have the ability to deny, degrade, disrupt, destroy, or manipulate any combination of GPS, PNT, and SATCOM gives a nation a huge benefit and should be cause for concern by all.  Most systems were built and launched into orbit before cybersecurity became an issue.  The distance from Earth to the satellites’ respective orbits provided an inherent level of assumed security, so many measures that are standard on systems today are not on satellites currently in use.  Knowing the exact amount of cyber-attacks on satellites or their ground stations is unlikely as the number is either classified or nations and companies are unwilling to admit they were victims publicly.  What is known is that both China and Russia are capable, competent cyber and signals intelligence(SIGINT) actors and attacks of this nature are not beyond their abilities.

A 2014 Crowd strike report linked the “People’s Liberation Army General Staff Department Third Department 12th Bureau Unit 61486 – that subset of what is ‘generally acknowledged to be China’s premiere SIGINT collection and analysis agency’ dedicated specifically to ‘supporting China’s space surveillance network.’” (Weeden and Sampson 2018, 7-7) That level of attribution is impressive in such a nebulous environment.  Although not an official attribution by the United States Government, Crowd strike and other commercial threat intelligence providers’ identification and designation of threat actors are generally universally accepted as accurate.

A Russian Criminal syndicate, known as Turla, exploited satellite links to hack other targets according to Kaspersky Labs. (Weeden and Sampson 2018, 7-7) The Russian Government can claim Turla was a criminal act and not supported by Russia, but in 1998 Russian hijackers gained “control of a U.S. – German ROSAT deep-space monitoring satellite, then issued commands for it to rotate toward the sun, frying its optics and rendering it useless.”(Weeden and Sampson 2018, 7-8) These few examples demonstrate China and Russia maintain both the intent and capability to conduct operations in space.

Weaponization

Both China and Russia are “developing the ability to interdict satellites both from the ground standpoint and from the space standpoint” according to the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. (Tucker 2018) The idea of weaponizing space is enticing and terrorizing.  For those nations that are able to develop and deploy technology to disrupt other satellites, a huge advantage exists. Iran, India, and Israel are among other nations seeking to develop a space or counterspace program.  (Harrison et al. 2018; Weeden and Sampson 2018) None of these nations, however, is at the level of the space/counterspace programs of China, Russia, or the United States. Nor are they likely to refocus the bulk of their economies and militaries to concentrate solely on space. Much like the alliances developed as nuclear powers emerged, nations that desire space superiority or, simply wishing that the United States not be the dominant space power, may put their efforts toward aligning with a power they feel they can benefit from, even if other strategic objectives do not necessarily align.  The threat presented by space does not produce the mass panic that nuclear war does, but when considering that space is the domain where missiles and communications could be jammed or re-directed resulting in an inadvertent nuclear crisis, the legitimacy and severity of threats from space become apparent.

China and Russia launched a 200 million dollar venture in 2015 whose purpose was to innovate technologies. (Harrison et al. 2018, 6) In July 2018, China sent a delegation to Russia to explore potentially building a jointly-run station based on Russian knowledge in an area China is deficient. (Russia, China 2018) Interestingly, in 2013, the European Space Agency considered making China its primary space partner, instead of the United States, “as China’s global ‘rising power’ status now extends to space.” (Johnson-Freese 2015, 91)

China’s messaging that it is serious about becoming a space power resonates with other nations and they appear ready to broker the relationships needed to achieve the goal.  Russia has the technical knowledge and perhaps the upper hand in that it is a key partner on the ISS with several other nations, including the United States.  If Russia and China continue with either joint ventures or Russia supplying China with expertise, it is unknown how the United States will react, since it vehemently opposes China’s inclusion on the ISS. (Johnson-Freese 2015, 95) In February 2018, the United States Director of National Intelligence identified “Russia and China as continuing to launch ‘experimental’ satellites that conduct sophisticated on-orbit activities, at least some of which are intended to advance counterspace capabilities …some technologies with peaceful applications—such as satellite inspection, refueling, and repair—can also be used against adversary spacecraft.” (Tucker 2018) The issue is on the United States radar at a high enough level that the threats presented by China and Russia were included in the 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community from the Director of National Intelligence. (Coats 2018, 13) To what extent the United States will go to deter either China or Russia in space is still unknown at this time, however.

Space Law

The United Nations maintains an Office for Outer Space Affairs that, among other roles, assists with space law “associated with the rules, principles, and standards of international law appearing in the five international treaties and five sets of principles governing outer space, which have been developed under the auspices of the United Nations.” (United Nations 2018) In addition to the space laws adjudicated by the United Nations, individual states have their own laws regarding the use of space.  China and Russia are among those that develop national space laws.  China’s 2015 National Security Law made China’s defense of interests in space legally binding and a white paper in that same year stated, “threats from such new security domains as outer space and cyberspace will be dealt with to maintain the common security of the world community.” (Weeden and Sampson 2018, 1-20).  Russian National space laws listed on the United Nations website include areas covering space activity, management structure, licensing space operations, Russian Space Agency regulations, and an agreement between the Russian Federation and Cabinet Ministers of Ukraine about technical safeguards on the use of outer space. (United Nations 2018) The bulk of the Russian laws listed were written in the 1990s, with the exception of the Ukrainian agreement which is dated 2009. So, the possibility exists that these laws do not represent what the Russian Federation follows today as a national space law.

One area under that is a potential loophole for any nation is the dual-use nature of most satellites.  Unless a country scrutinizes a satellite before launching it into orbit, determining the use is strictly for a defensive or offensive purpose is difficult to prove.  Again, the tyranny of distance comes into play trying to establish the true nature of space-related activities.  Intelligence collection methods possibly can gather the required information to identify a weapons system or counter-weapons system on a satellite schematic, but for a communications, GPS, or PNT satellite, proving its ultimate use for something more than just supporting commercial or regular military communications and navigation services is not so easy.

What’s Next?

International and national laws are in place to ensure the freedom and safety of space for all nations. But those laws only help nations that can afford to operate in space to a certain extent.  As China and Russia expand their independent efforts at becoming dominant nations in space, where Chinese-Russian joint ventures go is worth watching. How far these two nations are willing to collaborate and even become true partners in space will have lasting consequences on how other countries will or can react. The space threat is real even if it is difficult to quantify based on it being mostly an amorphous threat today.  That does not mean nations are not trying to exploit seemingly ambiguous space as a domain for their own national advantages.  Thus, there is no excuse for international organizations like the United Nations to be caught unaware if sometime in the near future a major power shows it has successfully turned space into a domain for waging war or projecting power.

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The level of transparency in military spending in sub-Saharan Africa is greater than previously thought, according to a new report...

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