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Countering Extremism: Jihadist Ideology Reigns Supreme

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The sad truth is that governments, law enforcement, security forces, intellectuals and journalists do not have an ideological response to political violence’s latest reiteration, jihadism. Moreover, the struggle against political violence, is not one that is predominantly ideological.

To add to this, mistakes are being repeated. Al Qaeda produced the counterterrorism industry in the context of a response that was focussed on law enforcement, security and military engagement. To be sure, that has produced significant results. It has enhanced security across the globe, stopped plots before they could be executed, driven Al Qaeda into caves, and deprived the Islamic State of its territorial base.

All of that, however has not solved the problem, nor has it fundamentally reduced the attraction of religiously-cloaked extremism. No doubt, social media has provided militants with a megaphone. But let’s be clear: social media are vehicles, media channels, they are not drivers. Yet, much like the terrorism industry, the call for a counter-narrative has produced an industry of its own. Like the terrorism industry, it has vested interests of its own: its sustainability is dependent on the continued existence of perceived real threats.

Further troubling the waters is the fact that the public and private anti-terrorism and counternarrative industries see human rights as second to ensuring security and safety; have little interest in addressing the problem through notions of alienation, marginalization, socio-economic disenfranchisement, youth aspirations and basic rights in which counterterrorism and counter-narratives would be embedded. Aiding and abetting the problem are the ever more evident campaigns by non-egalitarian and non-inclusive democratic societies as well as autocratic Middle Eastern and North African regimes that either have reduced interest in independent analysis and reporting, seek to restrict freedoms of expression and the press, or define any form of dissent as terrorism.

The notion that one can eradicate political violence is illusionary. Political violence has been a fixture of human history since day one and is likely to remain a fact of life. Its ebbs and flows often co-relate to economic, social and political up and down turns. In other words, counterterrorism and counternarratives will only be effective if they are embedded in far broader policies that tackle root causes.

And that is where the shoe pinches. To develop policies that tackle root causes, that are inclusive and aim to ensure that at least the vast majority, if not everyone, has a stake in society, the economy and the political system involves painful decisions, revising often long-standing policies and tackling vested interests. Few politicians and bureaucrats are inclined to do so.

Starting with Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, militants have benefitted from the fact that the world was entering a cyclical period in which populations lose confidence in political systems and leaderships. The single largest success of Osama bin Laden and subsequent militants is the fact that they were able to disrupt efforts to forge inclusive, multicultural societies, nowhere more so than first in Europe, then the United States with the rise of Donald Trump, and exploit ripple effects in Asia.

The result is the rise of secular and religious nationalism, populism, greater acceptance of autocratic or illiberal rule, and the erosion of democratic values and institutions. Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and other forms of ethnic and religious prejudice that no doubt existed but lived under a cloud of primarily social taboos and have become socially acceptable and often politically convenient. Of course, the refugee crisis put oil on the fire.

Nonetheless, what makes this cycle of lack of confidence more worrisome and goes directly to the question of the ideological challenge is how it differs from the late 1960s, the last time that we witnessed a breakdown in confidence and leadership on a global scale.

The difference between then and now is that then there were all kinds of worldviews on offer: anti-authoritarianism, anarchism, socialism, communism, concepts of extra-parliamentary opposition, and in the Middle East and North Africa, Arab nationalism and Arab socialism. Today, the only thing on offer are militant interpretations of Islam and jihadism.

Human rights activist and former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki was asked in a Wall Street Journal interview why it was not only those who lacked opportunity and felt that they had no prospects and no hopes but also educated Tunisians with jobs who were joining the Islamic State. His answer was: “It’s not simply a matter of tackling socioeconomic roots. You have to go deeper and understand that these guys have a dream—and we don’t. We had a dream—our dream was called the Arab Spring. And our dream is now turning into a nightmare. But the young people need a dream, and the only dream available to them now is the caliphate.”

Its hard to build an ideological challenge or develop counternarratives without a dream. With democracy on the defense, free market enterprise having failed significant segments of the public, and newly found legitimacy for prejudice, bias and bigotry, democratic governments are incapable of credibly projecting a dream, one that is backed up by policies that hold out realistic hope of producing results.

Autocrats are in a no better situation. The mayhem in the Middle East and North Africa is not exclusively, but in many ways, due to their inability and failure to deliver public goods and services. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appeared to be holding out a dream for his kingdom. But that dream increasingly is being shattered both in Yemen and at home. Autocrats in the Middle East and North Africa are about upgrading and modernizing their regimes to ensure their survival, not about real sustainable change. Elsewhere, populists and nationalists advocating racial, ethnic and religious purity and protectionist economic policies are unlikely to fare any better.

What this means is that identifying the root causes of political violence demands self-inspection on the part of governments and societies across the globe. It is those governments and societies that are both part of the problem and part of the solution. It is those governments and elites that are at the root of loss of confidence.

Translating the need to tackle root causes into policy is proving difficult, primarily because it is based on a truth that has far-reaching consequences for every member of the international community. It involves governments putting their money where their mouth is and changing long-standing, ingrained policies at home that marginalize, exclude, stereotype and stigmatize significant segments of society; emphasize security at the expense of freedoms that encourage healthy debate; and in more autocratic states that are abetted by the West, seek to reduce citizens to obedient subjects through harsh repression and adaptations of religious and political beliefs to suit the interests of rulers.

The result is a vicious circle: government policies often clash with the state or regime’s professed values. As a result, dividing lines sharpen as already marginalized, disenfranchised or discriminated segments of society see the contradiction between policies and values as hypocritical and re-confirmation of the basis of their discontent.

Creating a policy framework that is conducive to an environment in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia that would favour pluralism and respect of human rights and counter the appeal of jihadism and emerging sectarian-based nationalism is not simply a question of encouraging and supporting voices in the region, first and foremost those of youth, or of revisiting assumptions of Western foreign policies and definitions of national security. It involves fostering inclusive national identities that can accommodate ethnic, sectarian and tribal sub-identities as legitimate and fully accepted sub-identities in Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian, as well as in Western countries. It involves changing domestic policies towards minorities, refugees and migrants.

Inclusiveness means, that victory has to be secured as much in militant strongholds in a swath of land that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean as in the dismal banlieues, run-down, primarily minority-populated, suburbs of French cities that furnished the Islamic State with its largest contingent of European foreign fighters; in the popular neighbourhoods in Tunisia that accounted for the single largest group of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq; in Riyadh, seat of a government whose citizens accounted for the second largest number of foreign fighters and whose well-funded, decades-long effort to propagate a puritan, intolerant, interpretation of Islam has been a far more important feeding ground for jihadist thinking than the writings of militant Islamist thinkers like Sayyid Qutb; and in Western capitals with Washington in the lead who view retrograde, repressive regimes like those of Saudi Arabia and Egypt as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

In territorial terms, the Islamic States has been defeated but the problem remains unresolved. Al Qaeda was degraded, to use the language of the Obama administration. In the process, it weakened a jihadist force that increasingly had advocated a gradual approach to the establishment of its harsh interpretation of Islamic law in a bid to ensure public support. Instead of reducing the threat of political violence, the largely military effort to defeat Al Qaeda produced ever more virulent forms of jihadism as embodied by the Islamic State. It may be hard to imagine anything more brutal than the group, but it is a fair assumption that defeating the Islamic State without tackling root causes could lead to something that is even more violent and more vicious.

Defining repressive, autocratic rule and the Islamic State as the greatest threat to stability and security and the furthering of more liberal notions is problematic. In the case of the Islamic State, that definition elevates jihadism – the violent establishment of Pan-Islamic rule based on narrow interpretations of Islamic law and scripture — to the status of a root cause rather than a symptom and expression of a greater and more complex problem. It is an approach that focuses on the immediate nature of the threat and ways to neutralize it rather than on what sparked it. It also neglects the fact that the ideological debate in the Muslim world is to a large extent dominated by schools of thought that do not advocate more open, liberal and pluralistic interpretations of Islam.

That is where one real challenge lies. It is a challenge first and foremost to Muslims, but also to an international community that would give more liberal Muslim voices significant credibility if it put its money where its mouth is. Support for self-serving regimes and their religious supporters, as in the case of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, reduces the international community’s choices to one between bad and worse, rather than to a palate of policy options that take a stab at rooting out the problem and its underlying causes.

There are no quick solutions or short cuts and the value of partial solutions is questionable. The key is the articulation of policies that over the medium term can help generate an environment more conducive to change rather than the continuous opting for knee-jerk reactions to events and facts on the ground.

One place to look for alternative approaches is Norway. In contrast to most reactions to political violence and expression of pro-jihadist sentiment, Norway’s response to right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik’s traumatic attacks in 2011 that killed 77 people stands as a model for how societies can and should uphold concepts of pluralism and human rights. Norway refrained from declaring war on terror, treated Breivik as a common criminal, and refused to compromise on its democratic values. In doing so, Norway offered a successful example of refusing to stigmatise any one group in society by adopting inclusiveness rather than profiling and upholding the very values that autocrats and jihadists challenge.

The result of exclusively security-focussed approaches, coupled with the exploitation of economic opportunity by autocratic Middle Eastern and North African regimes and Western governments, is an increasingly insecure region in which the creation of pluralistic societies that honour human rights seems ever more distant. Said an Egyptian Islamist militant, whose non-violent anti-government activism is as much aimed at opposing the regime of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi as it is designed to persuade increasingly frustrated youth that there are alternatives to nihilistic violence: “The strategy of brutality, repression and restricting freedom has failed to impose subservience. It hasn’t produced solutions. Governments need to give people space. They need to prove that they can address the problems of a youth that has lost hope. We have nothing to lose if they don’t.” The Egyptian’s inclinations pointed towards peaceful protest in favour of a more liberal society, albeit bound by Islamic morality codes; his options, however, left him little choice but to drift towards jihadism.

Edited remarks at India Foundation conference, Changing Contours of Global Terror, Gurugram, Haryana, 14-16 March 2018

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Terrorism

Girls groomed for suicide missions fight back against the extremists of Lake Chad

MD Staff

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In Bol, Chad, the Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed (l) meets Halima Yakoy Adam who survived a Boko Haram suicide bombing mission. UN News/Daniel Dickinson

Halima Yakoy Adam won’t forget 22nd December in 2015, the day she was supposed to carry out a suicide bomb attack in the Lac Region town of Bol, 200 km north of N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, in Central Africa.

“It was market day in Bol and I was with two other girls who like me carried explosives,” the young woman told UN News. “I was just 15 years old. I was given drugs and had been trained by the extremist Boko Haram terrorist group to be a suicide bomber.”

The local authorities detected the three teenage girls and tried to arrest them, but the two other girls detonated their explosive vests, killing themselves and seriously wounding Halima Yakoy Adam. She survived but had both legs amputated below her knees.

Halima is one of the extraordinary young women, introduced to the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General in Chad on Thursday. UN News is accompanying her and other senior women from the world body, and the African Union, on a high-level visit that will include neighbouring Niger this weekend.

Boko Haram has been active in north-east Nigeria and the neighbouring countries of Cameroon, Chad and Niger for several years. Its chief aim is to create an Islamist state in the north of Nigeria. Its campaign of terror has caused the displacement of some 10 million people as of 2017, and led to the widespread destruction of basic infrastructure, such as health and educational facilities, as well as agricultural land and machinery.

Coordination among the affected countries including through the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) has led to what the UN described last year as “encouraging progress in the fight against Boko Haram.”  But to compensate for that success, the group has changed its tactics, increasing the use of suicide attacks. In June and July 2017, the United Nations recorded some 130 attacks attributed to Boko Haram, leading to the deaths of 284 civilians in the four affected countries.

Raising Awareness

Speaking in Bol after talking to Halima, Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed told UN News: “This is one of many stories I have heard, as this is where I come from. I come from Nigeria. This is sadly the story of many girls; but unlike Halima many did not survive.”

Ms Mohammed praised the young woman’s resilience, adding: “I think there is more awareness of suicide bombing today than there was before. There is nothing more powerful than a victim who tells her story. Halima has moved from victim to survivor because she is using that experience to educate other girls.”

Although the incidence of suicide bombing appears to be increasing in Chad, it is a relatively new development for women to be involved, according to Clarisse Mehoudamadji Nailar from CELIAF, a Chadian association of women leaders.

“Extremism amongst women didn’t exist in the past in Chad. This seems to be a new phenomenon,” she said. “The Government is making a big effort to fight the extremists and meanwhile non-governmental organizations in Chad are trying to educate and sensitize women about the dangers of extremism.”

A joint United Nations-African Union mission has been in Chad for two days. The visit which also included the Foreign Minister of Sweden, Margot Wallström, has focused on the importance of women’s meaningful participation in promoting peace, security and development.

The Executive Director of the UN’s gender agency, UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka- also part of the mission – said that groups like Boko Haram aim to manipulate young girls to carry out terrorist acts. “What is common to these terrorist groups is the subjugation of women and girls and a denial of their rights”, she told UN News.

“These groups manipulate and exploit inequality. It is for this reason that our efforts to prevent violent extremism need to prioritize gender equality.” She added that “Halima’s story epitomizes the relationship between the lack of power of women and terrorism – a young woman who had no choices over decisions relating to her own life.”

Back in Bol in Chad’s Lac Region, Halima has finished her training as a paralegal. Today she considers herself an agent change of who sensitizes “my sisters against radicalism and extreme violence,” she said adding: “I am happy to have a second chance in life and now I want to give back to my community.”

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Combatting political violence: Pakistan’s determination is put to the test

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Pakistan’s determination to crack down on United Nations-designated global terrorists is being put to the test barely two weeks after the South Asian nation evaded blacklisting by an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog.

A statement by a group widely viewed as a front for UN-designated Jamat-ud-Dawa and its leader, Hafez, Saeed, said it would field hundreds of candidates in elections scheduled for July 25 under the banner of an existing Islamist political party.

The agreement between Milli Muslim League, the front group, and Allah-O-Akbar Tehreek, an Islamist party, came after Pakistan’s election commission rejected the League’s application to be registered as a political party.

The agreement follows the government’s removal of a virulently anti-Shiite militant from its terrorism list two weeks ago at the moment that it was finalizing its agreement with FATF at the group’s meeting Paris.

Pakistani’s willingness to work with FATF to improve its anti-money laundering and terrorism finance regime in ten specific areas meant the country was grey rather than blacklisted by the watchdog.

The removal of Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, the head of Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), from the Pakistani terrorism list paved the way for the group to field its own candidates in the upcoming election.

Mr. Ludhianvi unlike Mr. Saeed, believed to be the leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of South Asia’s most violent groups, which established Jamaat-ud-Dawa after it was designated by the United Nations and banned in Pakistan in 2004, has not been globally designated.

Lashkar-e-Taiba, which reportedly enjoys tacit support of the Pakistani military because it targeted India, is widely held responsible for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai that killed more than 160 people. The US Treasury has put a $10 million bounty on Mr. Saeed’s head.

“Militant organisations are active. Call them non-state actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me. Why can’t we complete the trial? It’s absolutely unacceptable. This is exactly what we are struggling for,” said ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif in May in what was seen as an attack on the military.

Pakistan’s agreement with FATF stipulates that it demonstrates “effective implementation of targeted financial sanctions (supported by a comprehensive legal obligation) against all 1267 and 1373 designated terrorists and those acting for or on their behalf, including preventing the raising and moving of funds, identifying and freezing assets (movable and immovable), and prohibiting access to funds and financial services.”

Mr. Saeed, Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Lashkar-e-Taiba have been designated under UN Security Council resolutions 1267 and 1373. Milli Muslim League does not fall technically under the resolution because it has been designated only by the US Treasury and not the UN.

The Pakistani election commission’s rejection of the group’s application, however, amounts to recognition by the government that it is a front for Jamat-ud-Dawa.

“Getting into politics is the right of every Pakistani, and no one can be denied their basic, fundamental right. That’s why we have decided to participate under the umbrella of Allah-O-Akbar Tehreek in the upcoming elections,” the League’s spokesman, Ahmad Nadeem Awan, said.

The militants’ determination to field candidates in the upcoming election puts at stake more than Pakistan’s commitment to FATF and its determination to avoid blacklisting, which would severely limit if not cut off its access to the international financial system.

It goes to the core of a debate in Pakistan on how to deal with militants and an apparent desire by the military and intelligence to coax them into the mainstream of Pakistani politics in an effort to reduce violence and militancy in a country in which religious ultra-conservatism and intolerance has been woven into the fabric of branches of the state and significant segments of society.

Running last year as an independent in a Punjabi by-election, Milli Muslim League candidate Yaqoob Sheikh garnered together with another Islamic militant 11 percent of the vote. Traditionally, Islamists have had social and political influence but never fared well in elections.

Military support for the participation of militants in elections was “a combination of keeping control over important national matters like security, defense and foreign policy, but also giving these former militant groups that have served the state a route into the mainstream where their energies can be utilized,” a senior military official said.

Critics charge that integration is likely to fail. “Incorporating radical Islamist movements into formal political systems may have some benefits in theory… But the structural limitations in some Muslim countries with prominent radical groups make it unlikely that these groups will adopt such reforms, at least not anytime soon… While Islamabad wants to combat jihadist insurgents in Pakistan, it also wants to maintain influence over groups that are engaged in India and Afghanistan,” said Kamran Bokhari, a well-known scholar of violent extremism.

Citing the example of a militant Egyptian group that formed a political party to participate in elections, Mr. Bokhari argued that “though such groups remain opposed to democracy in theory, they are willing to participate in electoral politics to enhance their influence over the state. Extremist groups thus become incorporated into existing institutions and try to push radical changes from within the system.”

The Milli Muslim League statement puts the Pakistani political and military establishment on the line.

Said retired Lieutenant General Talat Masood: “Allowing MML (the League) to participate under some other political platform will only add to the global pressure and criticism on Pakistan regarding cracking down on militant groups. Don’t forget, we have just been added to FATF’s terror watch list, and there is a possibility of going on the blacklist in the coming months.”

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Video: A Look at Lone Wolf Terrorism in the 2020s

MD Staff

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In 10 years’ time, the “9/11 syndrome” will be over, according to Dr. Matthew Crosston. In this exclusive vlog, American Military University’s Dr. Crosston discusses terrorism in its current state and what the future of counterterrorism efforts will look like in the next decade.

Interview with Dr. Matthew Crosston
Faculty Member, Doctoral Programs, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University

Video Transcript:

Al-Qaeda did not intend for the Twin Towers to fall. The terror group just wanted to hit them; that would have been success. The fact that they actually achieved a much greater success than they ever anticipated created peer pressure on themselves. Anything they did next had to be of equal value or of equal impact as the Twin Towers collapse.

That made it difficult for al-Qaeda to do anything smaller. The unfortunate thing about the inter-terrorist rivalry that exists between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State is that the Islamic State has made a very important divergence from al-Qaeda strategy. The Islamic State does not suffer from al-Qaeda’s 9/11 syndrome. “We didn’t do 9/11,” they say. “So anything we do if it works to our cause and has a benefit to us is okay.”

As a result, counterterrorism efforts will be dealing with the inter-terrorist rivalry that exists between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. In Europe and, unfortunately, in parts of the United States, vehicles are now being used to kill people. Individual shooters go into nightclubs or get on buses with bombs in their backpacks. These are things that al-Qaeda did not do throughout the 2000s. But the Islamic State’s biggest successes have come from “old school terrorism,” which is at the top of its agenda.

Countering Lone Wolf Terrorism in the 2020s Is Going to Get More Difficult

Countering lone wolf terrorism in the 2020s is going to get more difficult. We are going to have to deal with stopping these small-scale events, which may be less bloody and kill fewer people, but that are much harder to detect and therefore much harder to deter.

Space is going to become a new battleground for the U.S. and its Western allies. There’s a presumption that the next “space race” will involve drones. In that respect, the West has a clear technological advantage that will exist far into the future. Our main competition will come from China, Russia and even India, which we often think of as an ally.

Countries Are Going to Compete for the Many Beneficial Military Applications

Countries are going to compete for the many military applications that will benefit science, diplomacy, and political and economic development. As an emerging threat, the space race matters greatly because the United States and its Western allies are not going to be able to keep their advantage the way they will do with drones.

We’re going to see four or five competitors that are actually coequal when it comes to their technological abilities and capabilities. We won’t be able to just offset them or neutralize them automatically. That leaves a lot of interesting new work for us to do in the future. In North Korea’s case, it has the capability to acquire build, develop and ultimately launch nuclear weapons.

We don’t know if the Islamic State is ever going to be destroyed in the sense that it will be dead to us geopolitically, that it will weaken enough to make it irrelevant as a global entity. The Islamic State will probably continue to exist at the regional level.

The Islamic State is going to stay at least impactful across the greater Middle East, especially in Syria and Iraq. These kinds of terrorist groups don’t just disappear overnight. It may seem to us in America as if they’ve been around for a long time, but compared to other groups, they haven’t been here that long. The Islamic State will probably exist for another generation at least and we will be continuously working to defeat it.

In terms of what the future is going to bring, especially in global security and strategic intelligence, we’re going to see the United States move away from formal engagement in wars around the world. We’re going to see increased informal engagements at a localized or regional level and sometimes probably out of the public eye. We’ll find out about diplomats or military units being killed in skirmishes that we were not aware of our involvement in or what our aims were.

We have spent 15 years openly, explicitly involved in wars. We’ve had an entire industry of academics grow up complaining about that involvement. As the United States moves into the future, we need consider what would be even worse — to formally engage in wars that we think are ambiguous and not succeed in what we’re trying to accomplish?

Instead of a war that leads to peace, will we engage in more intelligence-oriented operations on a smaller scale to influence skirmishes in five, six, or seven spots on the globe with a lot of critical geopolitical and transnational implications for them?

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