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The GMO case in the interpretation of the School of Economic Warfare

Gagliano Giuseppe

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In 1983 laboratory experimentation on genetic mutation seemed to pave the way for a future technological revolution. Entrepreneurs heavily invested in research and development of bio-technologies applied for agricultural purposes. In this regard, businessmen sealed a number of deals concerning new varieties of plants created through transgenic processes. European farmers were particularly concerned about this fast-paced development and aggressive propaganda in favor of transgenic products, especially because the agro-chemical sector had confirmed their resistance to pesticides and herbicides.

The development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) raised some concerns about their impact on human health and on the ecosystem. At the same time, the European agricultural business sector feared that the development of GMOs would have created a dependency on U.S. multinational agro-chemical corporations.

The European public opinion – whose trust had already been broken after the scandals of BSE (mad cow disease) and dioxin in chicken – has so far been caution and vigil towards this new form of agriculture and demanded specific labeling for all GMO products (officially approved in February 2000).

American consumers instead, relied on quality controls provided by the federal agencies like FOOD & DRUG ADMINISTRATION  and EPA , which were considered reliable watchdogs for public health and environmental safety. Since their approval is automatically considered as a guarantee for consumers’ safety, the GMO labeling procedure appears as superfluous. Free market regulations prescribe that every country intending to reject the import of a given product, must provide a proof of its health risks. The transatlantic debate on this topic mostly focused on food safety and environmental protection preserving biodiversity in the long run and promoting a healthy diet. The failure of Cartagena Convention to draft a protocol on biotechnological risks occurred during a phase in which European consumers demanded their governments to make clearer decisions. When in December 1996 the EU Commission authorized the placing on the market of transgenic corn (that benefited the company Novartis), many EU countries expressed their concerns. In February 1997, Austria and Luxembourg prohibited the import of that specific type of corn; similarly, in September 1998, Greece and the United Kingdom banned the rapeseed produced and distributed by Agrevo. Over the course of the same year, Denmark banned all kinds of GMOs and France suspended the farming of transgenic corn in accordance with the decision made by the Council of State on September 25th, 1998. Public opinion was also very worried and reluctant towards GMOs products. Fearing that governments would have not protected the interests of consumers, many associations and environmental movements vocally campaigned against GMOs and showed civil society’s response to the economic dominance of the United States. In January 1999, the Organization for Biological Certification Soil Association condemned the company Monsanto for the insufficient protective measures against the pollination of surrounding plantations. Soil Association  revealed  the risks of cross-contamination operated by  winds and insects moving the pollen of transgenic plants for long distances. At the same time, a poll conducted by the French NGO Friends of the Earth revealed that numerous fast food chains had already eliminated – or were about to do so – all GMO based food.

The environmental experts of the scientific community were concerned about the impact of the extensive use of chemicals on the crops whose genes were resistant to herbicides; they hypothesized that in response to this, insects might develop a gene mutation as well. The British Medical Association demanded the creation of a health agency and the ban of antibiotic-resistant marker genes in transgenic food. They basically asked for a moratorium.

Already in August 1998, the British researcher Arpad Pusztai pointed out some health risks caused by GMO potatoes and a few days later he lost his job at the Rowett Research Institute. This episode – that had received extensive media coverage – reinforced the stances of the GMOs critics as it was perceived as an attempt to bury a certain kind of scientific research in order not to spread fear. For their part, consumers were already shocked by the BSE scandal and started reducing significantly the purchase of transgenic products. Pushed by public opinion, the British government – that had previously welcome GMO biotechnologies – recognized the importance of a moratorium. Therefore, it commissioned two studies on the impact of GMOs on health, agriculture and environment. Large retailers were therefore forced to yield to the will of consumers. Sainsbury – second largest grocery store in the UK – together with Body and Mark and Spencer announced the withdrawal of all GMO products and some other big European groups followed their example: Carrefour (France), Esselunga (Italy), Migros (Switzerland), Superquinn (Ireland), Delhaize (Belgium). These latter issued a press release in which they committed to addressing the requests of consumers and only sell GMO free products, in agreement with agricultural and raw materials industries.

They appointed Law Laboratories Ltd, an independent research lab, for quality controls in cultivated fields and in food-production chains in order to detect the potential presence of GMOs. Some GDO companies offered consumers the choice between transgenic products and a GMO-free alternative of their own production. Paradoxically, the campaign against GMOs turned into a marketing strategy that favored national brands over the big industrial chains. On April 27th 1999, Tesco, leader in the UK food distribution, decided to collaborate with Greenpeace in order to identify suppliers that guaranteed GMO free products. Tesco’s commitment in the distribution of biological products resulted in both great enthusiasm of environmentalist groups and in Greenpeace’s success in the countries where Tesco was present (Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland).

On April 28 of the same year, Unilever, the first grocery store that introduced GMOs on the UK food market, decided to stop distributing these products; so did Nestlé – the Swiss titanic food industry- and H. McCain, world leader in the frozen food distribution, that withdrew the sale of transgenic potatoes as consumers had requested. The actions taken by the European agro industrial sector led many foreign companies to adjust their policies. In the United States, for example, Gerber – company specialized in food for children – decided to utilize only organic corn. As a result, most American farmers realized that transgenic seeds were the reason of the drop in exports (60% drop in 1998). The reports issued by the federal agencies USDA  and EPA clearly showed that the amount of insecticides used for a transgenic sowing was exactly the same used for traditional sowing. Besides, and that certain types of insect were resistant to the toxins present in transgenic plants.

These revelations produced some troubles in the agro-chemical sector that controlled 2/3 of the global market of pesticides and one quarter of the seeds one and the whole market of transgenic plants. Multinational corporations like Monsanto (USA), Du Punt de Nemours (USA), Novartis (Switzerland), Aventis (France and Germany) and Zenecca (United Kingdom) had made huge investments in order to reach the global control of pesticide market. They engaged in the significant challenge of setting the regulations of a new market (norms, rules, financing) to secure their absolute primacy in the biotechnological field.  These companies also initiated a communication campaign on global food security with slogans like: “Acting in harmony with Nature” (Novartis); “You have the right to know what you are eating. Especially if it’s the best” (Monsanto).  Since June 1999, Monsanto Director-General, Robert Shapiro, launched a massive advertising campaign involving the most important news outlets in the UK and in Europe in response to the protests.  The leitmotiv of this campaign was the idea of improving people’s diet and health while protecting the environment. In an open letter addressed to the President of Rockefeller Foundation, Gordon Conway (that had previously discredited this technologies and highlighted the disadvantage of developing countries), Shapiro announced Monsanto’s intention to use biotechnologies to produce sterile seeds. Later, on October 6th, 1999 Shapiro intervened in a conference-call during the debate in London with Greenpeace. Loaded by the criticism of environmentalist and consumers, Monsanto tried to regain some credit. Since it was aware of the fact that the opposition to GMOs was caused by its obstinate attempt to acquire the absolute primacy in seed production and distribution, Monsanto decided to change strategy. The political change of course was due to the necessity of meeting market and investor requests, that started to share their very low expectations of growth for the agrochemical food sector.

In December 1999, thanks to the fusion with the group Pharmacia-Upjohn, Monsanto sold 20% of its agricultural division and developed its pharmaceutical branch, whose outcomes were very positive thanks to the sales of Celebrex – an analgesic medicine used in the treatment of arthritis. Most likely, this strategy paved the way and favored the increase in production of medicated feed, also known as “pharma-food”. These products that can be found on the counter of big food chains in the shape of candies for the sight-improvement or chewing gum for the cold. The core concept of the pharma-food is the focus on the advantages of a healthy diet and is one of the innovative challenges of the next century. This moment marked the beginning of a partnership between pharmaceutical laboratories and food industries on nutrigenetics, a new science that offered evidence for a healthy diet with healing properties. In recent years, about eight billion dollars invested in life sciences led to significant achievements in this new biotechnological branch. Nevertheless, the worldwide opposition of consumers and environmentalists made investor fear a sharp fall in sales and therefore the agro-chemical industry changed direction. The trade of transgenic products is a very important challenge for the U.S. government that traditionally supported the agrochemical industry. The United States never denied the favor towards the agrochemical industry and its ability to boost the production process, like in the case of the medicated feed. During the Cartagena conference in 1999, the opposition of a group from Miami led by the United States referred the matter to the World Trade Organization (Seattle, December 199) but no deal was reached anyways.

The US strongly supported the Montreal Conference (January 24 – 28th 2000) and managed to secure an important benefit. On the one hand, the act of the conference recognized the precautionary principle that granted the importer countries the right to ban GMO products; on the other hand, it was not very clear how these countries could claim this right in practice. The text of the agreement stated:  “the exporters are only requested to inform about the possibility that a load may or not contain GMOs, without specifying the nature or ensure the presence of GMOs”. This formulation allowed the US to buy time since there was no specific measure prescribing the creation of a separate production chain.

Congressional lobbies – agricultural professional organizations backed by scientists and academics – defended the GMO cause in front of the U.S. Senate and asked for the government’s unconditional support and opposed the compulsory labeling procedure requested by the EU. The President of the National Organization of Corn Producer, Tim Hume, strongly criticized the European skepticism towards GMOs: in his opinion, European or American organization opposing GMOs only aim at increasing their profits through the exploitation of people’s fears and concerns. According to several researchers, GMOs would be the only solution to fight world hunger and cure many diseases. According to John Oblorogge, Professor at the University of Michigan, the second generation of transgenic plants will allow to increase the nutritive content of the crops. Charles Arntzen, Emeritus Professor at Arizona State University and former President of the Research Institute Boyce Thompson, considered the labeling process as an unjustified scaremongering for consumers and concluded that “The microbiological contamination of food is a problem as much as the labeling”.

Scientists therefore requested public funding to support university research on biotechnologies in order to avoid big corporation funding that usually represents an obstacle to independence and objectiveness.

In order for their strategy to be effective, GMOs critics needed to cast doubts on transgenic product and amplify it through local and regional press, TV channels, environmental associations websites, internet forums (that are often loaded with information). Besides, due to GMO critics’ initial disadvantage, they had to identify the contradictions in GMOs supporters discourse and exploit them to their own benefit. On their side, businessmen in the agrochemical sector had to conduct a number of tests on their products in order to prove the absence of toxicity before putting them on the market. Entrepreneurs must anticipate the strategy and study the potential of the opponent in order to foresee its attacks towards their products or their company and be able to react rapidly. It is no more a matter of crisis management and substantial communication, but rather of managing the power during the attack and react accordingly, case by case.

Greenpeace has indeed contributed to boosting the campaign against multinational agricultural corporations Unilever and Nestlé, which were forced to withdraw their transgenic products from the United Kingdom. The analysis of Greenpeace French website reveals a manipulative communication strategy. The absence of transparency of the debate on GMOs is quite remarkable in the narrative employed in the brief introduction to the topic posted in the topical issues section: “Manipulators”; “Sorcerer’s apprentices”; “disturbing lottery”; “inadequate and weak responses”; “the future of our health is at stake”; “environmental impact”; “risks for public health”. This narrative reflects the clarity of the premises of Greenpeace as a protest movement: it portrays the duel between the weak (consumers) and the strong (agrochemical multinational corporations), and exploits the power of the general discontent linked to the primary need of nutrition that is common to each human being. Its technique consists in manipulating the consumers (both figuratively and tangibly) according to the following scheme from the INFO-CONSUMERS section on Greenpeace website, articulated in four simple concomitant steps:

  1. Spread the two lists of products with the producers’ names: the white list of GMOs-free products for which it is possible to track the origin of the ingredients and additives; the black list of products that might contain GMOs and for which the supplier (highlighted in bold) does not oppose GMOs possible presence and cannot formally deny it.
  2. Questions to the suppliers through spamming the administration of the targeted company with petitions, fax, mail, phone calls in order to push it to take some measures in response, usually through a public statement. For this purpose, the website offers some pre-compiled letter templates that are filled with the address of the negligent industrial groups (Danone Unilever France and Nestlé France). In addition, Greenpeace shared a successful story of a company that, after having found its name on the black list and received a number of petitions, had publicly apologized for the presence of GMOs and issued a written statement declaring their withdrawal from its production.
  3. Forwarding the response of the company and the letters to at least 5 people.
  4. Keeping Greenpeace posted with updates on the activist participation and the recruiting of new activists.

This pressing strategy against agro-chemical industries turned out to be effective because it forced producers to report on their activities. Greenpeace has recently published other two lists containing all the GMOs introduced in the animal feed and asked consumers to make sure that poultry farmers used the organic ones. Activists are also asked to communicate the answers through updating the lists.

Whenever necessary, Greenpeace may also resort to disinformation. In its magazine, the organization reports that in 1998 the Council of States favored Greenpeace in revoking the authorization for the cultivation of GMOs corn that had been granted at the beginning of the year. Although on February 5th 1998, Greenpeace and other organizations had requested the annulment of a decree of the French Minister of Agriculture, the Council of State had simply decided on September 25th 1998 to suspend that decree and refer to the EU Court of Justice for the interpretation of the EU law. The activists did not actually win, but they have leveraged on a free interpretation of reality and deliberately spread misinformation across public opinion. In fact, what is important for Greenpeace is to push the intervention of national courts, no matter the result obtained. Greenpeace has also proved capable of considering all the nuances of a given issue, when it decided to admit a mistake and play the transparency card. In 1998, British researcher Arpad Pusztai was fired because he had proved that some test animals fed with transgenic potatoes presented some organic atrophies. In reality, the variety of potatoes that the researcher used in his experiments had been transformed with a gene of a toxin of a different species; therefore, these potatoes were not harmful because of the presence of GMOs, but because of this toxin that was harmful per se. In August 1998, Greenpeace had presented Pusztai as a renowned expert that had been unfairly fired after proving the toxicity of transgender plants. The following year, Greenpeace specified: “The conclusions of this research is still fragile, as some varieties of potatoes produce their own insecticide. Besides, similar vegetables are regularly sold in Canada”.  In this specific case, Greenpeace managed to appear as genuinely misguided by this research, and recognizing to have made a mistake just like anyone else.

Transgenic market represents a strategic field for the U.S. government. Since the early ‘80s, multinational chemical and pharmaceutical corporations have freely operated in the field of genetic engineering and allowed the US to establish their worldwide primacy. Nowadays a consistent part of EU and U.S. public opinion (consumers and farmers) strongly opposes these initiatives. On the other hand, US government criticized the European public opinion and attacked the EU weaknesses in response, without offering justifications for its own support for GMOs. According to Alan Larson (Undersecretary ad interim for Economic, Trade and Agricultural Affairs):“because of the EU, many U.S. corn producers are deprived of almost 200 million dollars in exports. (…)Some EU agencies specialized in food safety revealed to be easily influenced by politics and should take inspiration from the FDA. I had never witnessed such a level of scaremongering in Europe between consumers.”

It is important to note that there is no independent health agency at the EU level. The only authorities that can effectively address this issue belong to Member States, that is the reason why it is legitimate to question their impartiality. According to James Murphy, U.S. adjunct representative for international trade:

Our ability to sell these products goes beyond economic data. It is more a humanitarian, ecological and food safety issue. We are witnessing a strong opposition from Europe … with the lack of trust of public opinion towards science … the opposition group were able to exploit the anxiety of consumers that have consequently lobbied their political representatives.”

David Sandalow, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, that represented the US at the Montreal Conference in 2000, declared to the Washington File that

Focusing on biodiversity and environmental protection can sometimes overshadow the debate on food safety. Negotiations…should not be focused on trade regulations…that could hinder international trade. The United States will not support it. According to many experts, the scaremongering in Europe towards GMOs, risks to let thousands of people die from hunger and millions of children of developing countries, if scientists and institutes financing researches refuse to apply modern biotechnologies. The safety and the quality of the food produced through modern biotechnological techniques are not different from traditional food”.

The skepticism of the scientists and of the EU politicians is the proof of their incapacity to support research on GMOs and this delay is the cause of many deaths in developing countries. The defense strategies that the Department of Agriculture and the Federal Agencies put in place consisted in a discourse centered on accountability and justification: on November 1st1999, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched its new internet website in order to inform consumers on the state of biotechnological research applied to the agricultural sector. The website was aimed at providing an answer to the most Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) and shed light on regulations and information on international trade related to agricultural products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration organized three public conferences on the GMOs issue: Chicago – November 18th; Washington November 30th; Oakland – December 13th1999. These public debates allowed U.S. consumers to express their views on the policies of the FDA: many associations like Consumer Union demanded the labeling of transgenic product to ensure the respect of the right of choice.

During the Washington session, Joseph Levitt, Director of the Center of Food Safety at FDA declared: “Taken note of the controversy … we want to point out your recommendations in order to improve our verification of food safety strategies and optimize the sharing of information on the public level.”

According to the Director of the Center for Biotechnologies for Agriculture and Environment of the University of Rutgers, the skepticism of European consumers towards GMOs was the result of ineffective norms that had been proved incapable of preventing the BSE diseases and the sale of animal feed containing dioxin. James Maryanski, FDA Coordinator of biotechnologies maintained that EU regulations focused on product, foods and additives rather than on the plants used in the production process. Today FDA is managing to adopt new regulations to apply when a product does not comply to certain safety standards. The only law controlling the food obtained from transgenic plants dates back to 1992 and essentially consists in the same safety measures foreseen for traditional food. This law was heavily criticized by an American author, because it allowed the commercialization of GMOs without any proof of safety or authorization. It seems that at the moment FDA is imposing the agrochemical industries to carry out preemptive checks in order to avoid any risk for the health. Multinational corporations like Monsanto and Du Pont de Nemours were forced to batten down the hatches and tried to adopt a new approach based on accountability and justification. On October 6th, 1999 during a debate with Greenpeace, Monsanto took the initiative and admitted its lack of listening and conciliation spirit. Similarly, Du Pont de Nemours, recognized that businessmen were incapable of addressing the concerns of public opinion and considered them as the result of ignorance. Between the counter-offensive techniques used by Monsanto, the use of advertising campaigns as communication weapons plays a prominent role: “The protests of farmers, consumers and businessmen forced Shapiro to publicly withdraw Terminator technology from the market”.

This principle – an open letter addressed to a famous Foundation – allowed to orient the message towards the desired direction, limiting the competitor’s operating space.

“(…) The decision has therefore taken into account the opinions that you have expressed and those of a huge number of experts and personalities, included the representatives of our important agricultural community. We have consulted many international experts in order to get to a deep and independent evaluation of the subject. We will continue to encourage a free and transparent debate”.

This press release portrays Monsanto as a responsible company that pays attention to collective interests and partners up with farmers to help them improving their harvest, rather than a monopolistic corporation that exploits on its power.

The strong mobilization of GMOs detractors and its media echo provoked a sudden halt in the GMOs scientific progress. In fact, transgenic plants were created in order to improve agricultural output, but their long-term impact on people had not been considered. To this day, nobody is able to guarantee that GMOs are fully harmless. This is a key issue that is capable to persuade part of the U.S. population.

This year, the FDA has been subject to a legal action because of its politics on food biotechnologies that was considered too lightly regulated. This is the commercial reason why some U.S. retailers must obtain supplies of non-transgenic corn, so that they comply with the traceability designed at the EU level. The European campaign was not addressed to cope with the economic rivalry with the US on GMOs, but rather from a complete absence of clear information and from food safety issues (BSE and dioxin in chicken).

Agrochemical industries completely misinterpreted the balance of power and this precluded the chance of anticipating and foresee such a campaign. It was too late when they understood the necessity of changing communication strategies, since US farmers refused to buy their seeds.

When the protests broke out, companies showed their lack of global vision and knowledge of the fields, environment in general and of the other actors, so that the ignorance on competition principles dragged them into a crisis.

Managing information risks cannot be improvised but needs to be based on a substantial plan. This episode shows the power of information as offensive strategy and the limitations that companies go through when they have to reorganize their communication approach to attract consumers.

In a meeting, it is not so important to know the interlocutor, but rather having the ability of putting oneself in the other’s shoes.

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Uzbek’s Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad changed its leader

Uran Botobekov

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Former KTJ leader Abu Saloh

On April 12, 2019, Central Asia’s Salafi-Jihadist group Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ) issued a statement on the Telegram channel, in which it announced the resignation of its amir Abu Saloh (real name Sirojiddin Mukhtarov), a native of southern Kyrgyzstan, from the position of head of the group. According to the statement, the decision on the resignation of Abu Saloh was made at the meeting of the group’s Shura (Council) based on his own statement. In this regard, Shura also expressed gratitude to him “for the fruitful service in the name of Allah over the past six years in protecting the spiritual values of Islam and leading jihad against the enemies of Muslims.”

Abdul Aziz, a little-known in the jihadi world, an Uzbek and a native of the Fergana Valley was elected the new leader of KTJ. In the statement, a brief characterization of the new leader was given using an honorable tone, which states that “Our teacher Sheikh Abdul Aziz hafizahullah devoted his life to Allah, has many years of experience on the path of the jihad and deep knowledge of science [in the study of Islam].” In addition, the statement calls on all members of the group to strictly obey the new leader, in connection with which the Surah An-Nisa [4:59] of the Quran is quoted: “O you who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you”.

It should be noted that Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad was created by Abu Saloh in 2013 in northern Syria, which consists of Central Asia’s militants, mostly Uzbeks of the Fergana Valley. Since that period Syria’s northwest, long a hotbed of armed resistance and the heartland of al-Qaeda-linked operations has become a real-life shelter for Uyghur, Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz militants, and their families. Today Uzbek militants are the most combat-ready, well-equipped and largest group among the Central Asian foreign jihadist groups in Idlib Province. The approximate number of KTJ militants is about 500 people.

Under the Abu Saloh leadership, KTJ grew out of an unobtrusive regional group into a formidable and tough member of the global Salafi-Jihadi movement. In early 2015, Uzbek militants of the group swore allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri. During this time Abu Saloh demonstrated his brilliant ability to successfully spread the al-Qaeda ideology on a global scale. He was and remains a faithful and aggressive propagandist of the Jihadi idea into the post-Soviet space.

KTJ is also affiliated with the Syrian rebel group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and is currently fighting against the Bashar al-Assad regime. HTS has from the beginning of the Syrian war been a combat mentor for Uzbek militants.

Who was Abu Saloh?

The former leader of the group Abu Saloh, fluent in Uzbek, Uyghur, Russian and Arabic, in the early 2000s received a theological education at the Islamic University of Al-Fatah al-Islamiya in Syria. It was there that he became an ideological supporter of al-Qaeda, deeply studied the theological works of Islamic scholars, the founders of the radical current of Salafism and Wahhabism Ibn Taymiyyah and Abd al-Wahhab. After graduating from university, he returned to Kyrgyzstan, worked as an assistant to the imam in one of the mosques in the Osh region.

New KTJ leader Abdul Aziz

The persistent study of the Wahhabi literature and love of the Salafi ideology led him back to Syria in 2012. Thanks to his profound knowledge of the Koran, oratory and leadership skills, Abu Saloh quickly rose through the ranks, became a spiritual mentor of the Mujahideen. In battles with the Syrian government troops, he was wounded in the eye and treated in the city of Gaziantep in Turkey in 2014.

After conducting a comprehensive analysis of audio and video public performances of Abu Saloh, as an expert on the radicalization of the ideology of Islam, I must note that he has a deep religious erudition, knows by heart the Quran and the hadith of Imam al-Bukhari. He clearly and emotionally expresses his thoughts, confidently holds the attention of the crowd and has been able to inspire a new generation of jihadists to suicide attacks.

From time to time, in his video and audio appeals he argued in absentia with political leaders and heads of intelligence services of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. He accused them of repressing innocent Muslims, banning the norms of Islam and called them satans who sold their souls to the devil.

During his time in Syria, he avoided several attempts on his life by ISIS supporters. But on July 9, 2018, at the hands of the local member of the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate in Idlib his wife and four-year-old son were killed; he himself was not injured.

Reasons for the resignation of Uzbek jihadist group’s amir

Abu Saloh’s resignation from the post of group leader may be due to several factors. First, Russia’s special services are leading a real hunt for him in Syria. Director of Russia’s Federal Security Service Alexander Bortnikov accused KTJ leader of organizing the terror attack on St. Petersburg’s metro in April 2017 and Kyrgyz authorities blamed Abu Saloh for the attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkekon August 30, 2016.In order to avoid pinpoint strikes by Russian aviation on the locations of the KTJ group in Idlib, he may have initiated his resignation and gone deep underground.

Secondly, the possible fall of Idlib in the future will force Central Asian militants to seek new shelter places; they will most likely prefer to move to Afghanistan. To do this, they will have to use the territory of Turkey for the transit zone. If it were loudly announced, the resignation of Abu Saloh could divert the attention of the Turkish secret services from the Central Asian militants-smugglers.

Thirdly, within the KTJ group there has long been a slight opposition to his Amir, who are dissatisfied with his financial and organizational activities. Perhaps in order to avoid splitting the group, he was forced to resign and thus is trying to preserve the unity of the ranks of the Uzbek jihadists.

In the end, it should be noted that, despite his resignation, Abu Saloh remains a fanatical follower of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, an ardent propagandist of al Qaeda ideology and the most wanted terrorist in the post-Soviet space.

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Illiberals and autocrats unite to craft a new world media order

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Underlying global efforts to counter fake news, psychological warfare and malicious manipulation of public opinion is a far more fundamental battle: the global campaign by civilisationalists, autocrats, authoritarians and illiberals to create a new world media order that would reject freedom of the press and reduce the fourth estate to scribes and propaganda outlets.

The effort appears to know no limits. Its methods range from seeking to reshape international standards defining freedom of expression and the media; the launch and/or strengthening of government controlled global, regional, national and local media in markets around the world; acquisition of stakes in privately-owned media; advertising in independent media dependent on marketing revenue; demonization; coercion; repression and even assassination.

Recent examples abound. They include a more aggressive Chinese approach to countering critical coverage of the People’s Republic that violates international norms of diplomatic conduct, the use of technology to spy on journalists, researchers and activists by, for example, the governments of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia; the jailing of journalists across the Middle East and North Africa and in countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh, US President Donald J. Trump’s identification of mainstream media as “the enemy of the people,” and the killing of journalists across the globe including the murder last year of Jamal Khashoggi.

The effort to create a new world media order is enabled by a tacit meeting of the minds among world leaders as well as conservative and far-right politicians and activists that frames global jockeying for power in a world order that would replace the US-dominated system established in the wake of World War Two and take into account the rise of powers such as China, India and Russia.

The emerging framework is rooted in the rise of civilisationalism and the civilizational state that seeks its legitimacy in a distinct civilization rather than the nation state’s concept of territorial integrity, language and citizenry.

It creates the basis for an unspoken consensus on the values that would underwrite a new world order on which men like Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Victor Orban, Mohammed bin Salman, Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump find a degree of common ground. If anything, it is this tacit understanding that in the shaping of a new world order constitutes the greatest threat to liberal values such as human and minority rights as well as freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

To be sure, independent media have often made life easier for those seeking to curb basic press freedoms. Valid criticism has put the media on the defensive. The criticism ranges from coverage of US special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into now apparently unfounded allegations that Mr. Trump and his 2016 election campaign had colluded with Russia to false assertions in the walk-up to the 2003 Iraq war that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

The nuts and bolts of creating a new world media order are highlighted in a recent report by Reporters Without Borders that focuses on efforts by China, a key driver in the campaign, to turn the media into a compliant force that serves the interest of government rather than the public.

The 52-page report asserts that “over the course of the last decade, China has actively sought to establish an order in which journalists, scholars and analysts are nothing more than state propaganda auxiliaries.”

While the report focuses on China, the issues it raises in terms of what constitutes journalism and the role of the media as the fourth estate that holds power to account and ensures that the public has access to accurate information and continued snapshots of history as it unfolds go far beyond Beijing’s efforts.

So does the lifting of the asylum and arrest in Britain this week of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. The Assange case raises issues of definitions of journalism. It also shines a spotlight on the field of tension between a free press and illiberal, autocratic and authoritarian leaders and governments that increasingly dress up their attempts to curb media freedom in civilizationalist terms.

The Assange case forces both the media and government, particularly in democratic societies, to determine the boundaries between journalism and whistleblowing.

Leaving aside allegations that Wikileaks played a role in alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election and criticism of Assange’s style and personality, Wikileaks operated as a channel and post office box for whistle-blowers and as a source for media that independently authenticate and asses the news value of materials presented. In doing so, Wikileaks provided a service rather than added-value journalism.

To be fair, some of the issues raised in the Reporters Without Borders report pose broader questions about the standards on which proper journalism should operate rather than the right of governments, irrespective of political system, to try to ensure that their views and positions are reflected alongside their critics in media reporting.

The report lists among Chinese efforts the lavishing of money on modernizing and professionalizing China’s international television and radio broadcasting, investment in foreign media outlets, buying of vast amounts of advertising in foreign media, and invitations to journalists from all over the world to visit China on all-expense-paid trips.

The report also notes that China organizes its own international events as an additional way of promoting its repressive vision of how the media should function.

Hardly unique, these aspects of the Chinese effort, while noteworthy, primarily pose issues for the media. They raise questions about the standards to which media owners should be held, the way politically and geopolitically driven advertisement should be handled and whether journalists and independent media, or for that matter analysts and scholars, should accept paid junkets or avoid any potential jeopardizing of the integrity of their reporting and analysis by paying their own way.

More troublesome is the report’s assertion that China does not shy away from employing what it describes as “gangster methods.”

The report asserted that “China no longer hesitates to harass and intimidate in order to impose its ‘ideologically correct’ vocabulary and cover up the darker chapters in its history. International publishing and social network giants are forced to submit to censorship if they want access to the Chinese market.”

Moreover, Chinese embassies and Confucius Institutes serve as vehicles for attempts to impose China’s will and counter perceived persecution by what it sees as hostile Western forces that seek to tarnish the People’s Republic’s image.

China’s vision of a new world media order is grounded in a 2003 manual for Communist Party domestic and external propaganda published with a foreword of then party secretary general Hu Jintao.

The manual sees journalists as government and party propagators who exercise self-censorship by “handling properly the balance between praise and exposing problems.” Mr. Xi amplified the message in 2016 during a rare, high-profile visit to the newsrooms of China’s top three state-run media outlets, the party newspaper People’s Daily, news agency Xinhua, and China Central Television (CCTV).

“The media run by the party and the government are the propaganda fronts and must have the party as their family name. All the work by the party’s media must reflect the party’s will, safeguard the party’s authority, and safeguard the party’s unity. They must love the party, protect the party, and closely align themselves with the party leadership in thought, politics and action,” Mr. Xi told media workers, the term China increasingly is using to replace journalists as a designation.

Chinese journalists have been banned from writing personal blogs, are advised daily by the party about which stories to emphasize and which to ignore and obliged to attend party training sessions.

The title of Reporters Without Borders’ report, ‘China’s New World Media Order’, borrowed a phrase coined by Li Congjun, a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee and former head of Xinhua.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal in 2011, Mr. Li cast the need for a new media order in civilizational terms. Media of all countries had the right to “participate in international communication on equal terms” and should respect the “unique cultures, customs, beliefs and values of different nations,” Mr. Li said.

Mr. Li’s argument and language were straight out of the civilisationalists’ handbook that employs the theory of cultural relativism to oppose universal definitions of human rights and basic freedoms and argue in favour of such rights being defined in terms of individual civilizations. Civilizationalists also use cultural relativism to justify their tight control of the Internet that ranges from blocking websites to creating a Chinese wall between national networks and the worldwide web.

Mr. Li was two years later even more straightforward about what China was trying to achieve. “If we cannot effectively rule new media, the ground will be taken by others, which will pose challenges to our dominant role in leading public opinion,” he asserted.

China’s purpose was also evident in Mr. Li’s systematic reference to the media as a mass communication industry rather than journalism as a profession. “This is not insignificant,” the Reporters Without Borders report said. “By treating the media as an industry whose mission is to exercise influence on the state’s behalf, (Li’s) ‘new world media order’ abolishes the watchdog role the media are meant to play.”

Foreign affairs columnist Azad Essa discovered just how long the Chinese arm was when Independent Media, publisher of 18 major South African titles with a combined readership of 25 million, fired him for writing about the crackdown on Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.

Mr. Essa was told his column had been discontinued because of a redesign of the groups’ papers and the introduction of a new system. China International Television Corporation (CITVC) and China-Africa Development Fund (CADFUND) own a 20 percent stake in Independent Media through Interacom Investment Holdings Limited, a Mauritius-registered vehicle.

Mr. Essa’s experience notwithstanding, Chinese efforts to create its new world media order have produced mixed results.

Various autocrats such as Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman and the United Arab Emirates’ Mohammed bin Zayed have bought into the order’s coercive and surveillance aspects.

The two crown princes have In some ways been at the blunt edge of efforts to create a new world media order with their demand that Qatar shut down its state-owned Al Jazeera television network as one of their conditions for the lifting of the Saudi-UAE led diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state that has been in place since June 2017.

They also put themselves at the forefront by employing cutting edge Israeli technology and former US intelligence personnel to spy on journalists and dissidents across the globe.

For their part, Chinese technology companies that would provide much of the new world media order’s infrastructure have had something of an uphill battle.

Attempts by Baidu, China’s leading search engine, to establish local language versions in Japan, Brazil, Egypt, Thailand and Indonesia flopped commercially.

Ironically, the very freedoms China was trying to curtail worked in its favour when a US federal court in the southern district of New York ruled against pro-democracy activists who were seeking to restrict Baidu’s ability to delete from searches terms censored in China. The court argued that Baidu’s filtering of terms was a form of editorial judgment.

Similarly, Chinese technology giants like Tencent with its unencrypted WeChat instant messaging app and controversial telecom equipment and consumer electronics manufacturer Huawei have scored where Baidu has failed.

WeChat, whose traffic passes through Tencent’s China-based servers that are accessible to Chinese authorities, claims to have more than one billion users, ten percent of which are outside China. Huawei, that accounts for 15 percent of the world’s smartphone market, has been accused of providing surveillance technology to Iran as well as Xinjiang and is suspected by a host of Western nations of posing a risk to national security. The company was accused of installing a “backdoor” in some of its products that allows secret access to data.

Even more fundamental than the role of technology providers in the creation of a new world media order, is China’s ability to persuade nations in Asia and Africa to emulate its draconic laws governing cybersecurity and the Internet.

Chinese tech start-ups such as Leon, Meiya Pico, Hikvision, Face++, Sensetime, and Dahua have achieved unprecedented levels of growth on the back of more than US$7 billion in government investments over the last two years.

Export of those technologies have prompted countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Nigeria, Egypt, Uganda, Zambia and Tanzania to introduce or contemplate introduction of legislation authorizing measures ranging from obliging Internet companies to store data on local servers to criminalizing content that authorities deem to be propaganda, calls for public gatherings or cause for disruption or divisiveness

CloudWalk, a Guangzhou-based start-up has finalized a strategic cooperation framework agreement with Zimbabwe to build a national “mass facial recognition program” in order to address “social security issues.” Zimbabwe has installed a Chinese system that allows the government to monitor passengers at airports, railways, and bus stations.

If the Reporters Without Borders report proves anything, it is that China is a major source of the problem. It is however but one source. China may have significant clout and considerable resources, but it is not alone in its civilizationalist approach towards crafting a new world media order. Its aided by autocratic and authoritarian regimes as well as the world’s illiberal democrats.

Finnish paper Helsingin Sanomat drove the point home when Mr. Trump met Mr. Putin in Helsinki in July of last year. Some 300 of the paper’s billboards, lining the road from Helsinki airport to the summit, welcomed the two men “to the land of free press.”

Headlines on the billboards reminded them of their recent attacks on the media. Said one billboard: “Media-critiquing Trump has changed the meaning of fake news.”

Helsingin Sanomat editor Kaius Niemi added in a statement that the paper wanted to remind Messrs. Trump and Putin of the importance of a free press. “The media shouldn’t be the lap dog of any president or regime,” Mr. Niemi said.

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BRICS, SCO and Kashmir Terrorism

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On February 14, 2019, a suicide bomber from the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist organization drove a car filled with explosives into a bus that was transporting members of the Indian security forces, killing over 40 people. India immediately accused Pakistan of being behind the attack and started a “diplomatic offensive” against Islamabad similar to the one of it launched in September 2016 when it attempted to isolate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, make it a rogue state and thus force the country’s leadership to abandon its support of Kashmir militants. This offensive is being waged on all fronts, including at international organizations, for example, BRICS, whose final declarations at its summits in recent times have regularly featured items on fighting terror.

BRICS and Terrorism

Up until 2017, the issue of fighting terror was virtually absent from the BRICS agenda, even though India had regularly attempted to put it up for consideration and record the results in official documents. This was due primarily to the specifics of the positions taken by India and China: while New Delhi viewed the issue as mostly a regional matter, trying to get the Pakistan-based groups carrying out terrorist attacks in the Indian part of Kashmir condemned, Beijing, as an ally of Islamabad, blocked New Delhi’s attempts to declare Pakistan responsible for the terrorist attacks and generally hindered any initiatives that could be seen as directed against Pakistan. Even at the 2016 Goa Summit held soon after the attack on the army brigade headquarters in Uri that left 19 people dead, China, according to the Indian media, blankly refused to have the final resolution declare Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist organizations. The document mentions only Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State and addresses the need to fight terrorism in Afghanistan.

However, China unexpectedly changed its stance in 2017. At the Xiamen summit, Beijing supported India’s proposal to include a provision condemning terrorism in the final declaration. The declaration expressed concern over the situation in the region and mentioned the threat posed by terrorist groups such as the Taliban, Islamic State/DAESH, Al-Qaida and other organizations associated with it, such as the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani network. India interpreted this as a major diplomatic success. Apparently, China pursued two goals: first, to hold its “A Stronger Partnership for a Better Future” summit successfully and without any incidents; second, to show India that it was ready to defuse tensions and willing to embark on a rapprochement following the Dolam incident that had taken place a few months prior.

Islamabad was concerned about China’s support for India’s statements. Minister of Foreign Affairs of Pakistan Khawaja Muhammad Asif said that Pakistan needs “to break our false image […] We need to accept the history and correct ourselves.” Asif noted that “We need to tell our friends that we have improved our house. We need to bring our house in order to prevent facing embarrassment [sic] on an international level.”

The stance taken by China and the statements made by Asif raised hopes in India. Soon, however, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China Wang Yi made it clear that no changes had taken place in China’s stance on Pakistan: Beijing still views Islamabad as a victim of terrorism, not as a sponsor, and China supports and highly values Pakistan’s efforts to fight militants. Significantly, Weidong Sun, China’s Ambassador to Pakistan, emphasized that the BRICS declaration listed only those organizations that had already been prohibited in Pakistan. It soon became clear that China had not changed its stance when it again blocked adding Masood Azhar, leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, to the list of terrorists during UN Security Council votes.

Nonetheless, at BRICS summits, India continued to focus on the issue of fighting terrorism and succeeded in having it included in every final declaration. The document released at the conclusion of the 2018 summit in Johannesburg stated, “We call upon all nations to adopt a comprehensive approach in combating terrorism, which should include countering radicalisation, recruitment, travel of Foreign Terrorist Fighters, blocking sources and channels of terrorist financing including, for instance, through organised crime by means of money-laundering, supply of weapons, drug trafficking and other criminal activities, dismantling terrorist bases, and countering misuse of the Internet by terrorist entities.” The same year, following the informal meeting of BRICS leaders at the G20 summit, a media statement was released stating, “We deplore continued terrorist attacks, including against some BRICS countries. We condemn terrorism in all forms and manifestations […] We urge concerted efforts to counter terrorism under the UN auspices on a firm international legal basis.”

Finally, the terrorist attack in Pulwama led Brazil, the current President of BRICS, to confirm at the BRICS Sherpa meeting in Curitiba on March 14–15 its intention to make fighting terrorism one of the organization’s priorities. The Indian delegation supported this initiative, calling upon all BRICS countries to engage in closer cooperation on the issue.

India’s proposal to consistently mention the fight against terrorism in BRICS declarations raises certain questions: To what degree is BRICS suitable as a platform for discussing anti-terrorist initiatives? And can breakthroughs in this area be achieved within BRICS?

SCO and BRICS

When India and Pakistan were admitted to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in June 2017, it seemed it would replace BRICS as the principal platform for discussing regional security issues. The SCO has several major advantages over BRICS in that regard: first, it includes, either as members or as observers, all major regional actors; and it is far better structured and suited to serve as a venue for proposing initiatives on fighting terrorism. The SCO has a special body intended to coordinate relevant activities, the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS). The experience of RATS gave grounds for optimism: within RATS, Russia, China and the Central Asian states successfully coordinated efforts to fight cross-border terrorist groups.

However, the experience of the past 18 months has shown that while RATS worked smoothly in the “group of six” format, it was entirely unfit to coordinate the activities of the national security services of India and Pakistan, which openly accused each other of supporting terrorism. Essentially, the issue of terrorist groups being active in South Asia was taken off RATS’ table. On the one hand, this allowed both the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure and the SCO as a whole to avoid paralysis during another flareup of the India–Pakistan crisis. On the other hand, it called into question its value as a body coordinating the anti-terrorist activities of all the SCO member states. The national security services of India and Pakistan proved unable to latch onto the “Shanghai spirit” that is often mention in connection with the SCO, and it would be difficult to expect things to develop otherwise: essentially, these two states are locked in a permanent war with each other.

The problem, in this case, is systemic in nature, and it can hardly be resolved at any other venue, be it BRICS, the United Nations or any other regional organization. When India talks about fighting terrorism, it does not mean some abstract terrorism, but rather the very specific terrorism in Kashmir that is fuelled by Pakistan. In this regard, non-regional BRICS member states, such as Brazil and South Africa, are only capable of providing moral support for India.

 “The Wall of China” for India

In this connection, it would be wise to consider the ways in which India could achieve its goal through diplomatic manoeuvres.

Currently, whatever diplomatic means India uses to try and influence Pakistan, it inevitably runs into the “wall of China”: without China’s help and support, India cannot exert enough pressure on Pakistan to induce it to stop supporting Kashmir separatists. The importance of China’s position for the Pakistani authorities is demonstrated by the example of Asif and the final declaration of the Xiamen summit. However, India can gain this help and support only if collaboration with India becomes more important for China than collaboration with Pakistan, which is hard to achieve given the profound mistrust between the political elites of India and China and India’s desire to preserve strategic autonomy. Clearly, India will never become closer to China than Pakistan is, since the latter is essentially a client state of China. Consequently, the only way for India is to become an important trade partner for China so that their economic rapprochement would neutralize the political rapprochement between China and Pakistan. Excessive pressure on Pakistan is equally unacceptable for China, as it could result in the ascendancy in the Pakistan leadership of groups that are geared towards the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf.

India can achieve certain success at international venues, including the SCO. But this would require more active participation on the part of Russia as a country that is equally close to China and India, as well as the complete reformatting of the activities of RATS to account for the specifics of India–Pakistan relations and the transition from “Shanghai principles” to “Shanghai rules.” This, in turn, requires reciprocal steps by India and Pakistan, which do not want to internationalize their conflict. Without a certain level of international intervention (at least monitoring the situation in Kashmir), the SCO’s activities will be reduced to traditional condemnations of terrorism and the activities of terrorist groups, without any specific steps being taken.

Finally, an extremely unlikely scenario in which New Delhi achieves a direct peace agreement with Islamabad without Beijing’s participation is also possible. However, relations in the India–Pakistan–China triangle are such that Beijing’s help will make it much easier to convince Islamabad to make concessions.

It could thus be concluded that the role of BRICS as a platform for coordinating anti-terrorist activities essentially duplicates the role of the SCO, especially when the latter distanced itself from intervening in fighting terrorism in South Asia. If the SCO plans to retain its standing as the key regional organization, including in the fight against terrorism, it needs to radically reconsider the mechanism of anti-terrorist cooperation within the SCO, starting, for instance, by drawing up a combined list of terrorist organizations, something that the SCO has thus far failed to do.

First published in our partner RIAC

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