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The armed conflict between ISIS and al Qaeda has reached its climax

Uran Botobekov

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Al Qaeda-backed Central Asian jihadists

How Central Asian jihadists kill each other in Syria?

Exactly one year ago, on July 10, 2017, the Islamic state citadel of Mosul city was liberated and, as a result, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi solemnly announced that the Caliphate in Iraq had finally and irrevocably fallen.More than three months later, on October 17, 2017, the Kurdish combat units of the Syrian Democratic Forces, with the support of the aviation of the international anti-terrorist coalition led by the United States, drove out the Islamic State from the Syrian city of Raqqa.

But, as the terrorist attacks carried out by the supporters of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in July 2018 in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Canada showed, the Islamic state managed to regain its strength over the past year and further expanded the geography of its military operations. While victorious fanfares sounded, ISIS fighters successfully mastered the tactics of guerrilla warfare and deeply integrated into the Sunni population of the Middle East and Central Asia. Pinpoint terrorist strikes clearly indicate that the victory over the Islamic state is still far away and the jihadists are determined to take revenge. Today ISIS is conducting an intense offensive guerrilla war not only against Western countries and government regimes in the region but also against the Taliban and armed groups of alQaeda, who are its ideological rivals for leadership in the jihadist world.

In this brutal and intra-factional war between ISIS Islamist groups on the one hand, and al Qaeda and Taliban on the other hand, the jihadists of the Central Asia’s five countries, called the “Stans”, are actively participating.Islamists from the Fergana Valley, because of ideological confrontation, were divided into supporters of al-Baghdadi and Ayman al-Zawahiri and often commit terrorist acts against each other in Syria.

According to the Hayat Tahrir al Sham–affiliated information agency Ebaa, on July 9, 2018, an attack was carried out in Syria’s city Idlib against the amir’s house of the Central Asian terrorist group Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad Abu Saloh. As a result of the attack, his wife and four-year-old son were killed. The Uzbek jihadists’ leader himself was not injured. Security officer Hayat Tahrir al-Sham Anas al-Sheikh said that the house of Abu Saloh was attacked by an armed Khawarij (al Qaeda uses the term “Khawarij” as a synonym for ‘extremist’ to describe members of the ISIS), who was detained by the security forces of the city after hot pursuit.During the interrogation, a member of the Islamic state confessed to the crime. He was recruited by ISIS in Turkey. Later “Khawarij” was executed, Ebaa agency reported.

This is not the first victim among the Central Asian jihadists as a result of an armed confrontation between ISIS and al Qaeda. On April 27, 2017, during the evening prayer in the mosque of a Syrian city of Idlib, leader of the al Qaeda-backed Katibat Imam al Bukhari Sheikh Salahuddin was killed by an ISIS militant who was from Uzbekistan. The Islamic State distributed the following statement via Telegram messenger in this regard, “The emir of detachment of Katibat al-Imam Bukhari, Sheikh Salahuddin, was punished according to Sharia law for all the betrayals he committed.”Two ISIS terrorists from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan who murdered the Sheikh Salahuddin were detained and executed.

Lately in the northwestern province of Idlib, which is the last stronghold of the Syrian armed opposition, terrorist attacks of ISIS militants on military and religious sites al Qaeda-backed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham sharply intensified.Lately in the northwestern province of Idlib, which is the last stronghold of the Syrian armed opposition, terrorist attacks of ISIS militants on military and religious sites of al Qaeda-backed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham sharply intensified.

Terrorist organizations from Central Asia such as Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, Katibat al-Imam Bukhari, as well as Uyghur groups from Chinese Xinjiang, the Turkestan Islamic Party and Katibat al-Ghuraba are located in Idlib.All of them were affiliated with al Qaeda and were fighting within the largest jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The Salafi-jihadi ideologues of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham are making efforts to transform the Idlib province into an emirate ruled under Shariah.

According the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 229 jihadists of al Qaeda were assassinated by ISIS terrorist attacks. Of these, 153 fighters belong to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, al Qaeda-linked jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Izza, and other factions operating in Idlib. 25 jihadists of Uzbek, Uyghur and Caucasian nationalities have been assassinated in the same ways.

Caliphate rising from the ashes

On July 12, 2018, ISIS’ media center Amaq issued the message with three images from an improvised explosive device attack in Idlib city. The target was Sheikh Anas Ayrout, the President of the Court of Appeal in Idlib, a longtime opposition figure and senior Sharia official who played a key role in the formation of the Syrian Salvation Government. Based on Shariah rule the Syrian Salvation Government is a civil authority formed in Idlib province in early November 2017 and backed by the rebel coalition Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

A pinpoint attempt on such a high ranking religious and political figure indicates that the explosion was not accidental or chaotic.The al-Baghdadi militants have studied the possible routes of Sheikh Anas Ayrout and easily identified his car. They received from the Syrian Salvation Government information about when he would travel on this route.From this, it can be concluded that the Islamic state succeeded in introducing its agents into the military and religious structures of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and created a complex network of underground cells throughout Syria, including the Idlib province.

On July 13, 2018, the Islamic State’s propaganda machine released the information with several photos about the assassination of the Turkey-backed Sultan Murad Division rebel group’s leader Abu Ahmed al-Sansawi in Idlib city.ISIS’ photos clearly showed that the killing was a targeted assassination, during which the terrorists confidently pursued the car of al-Sansawi. This once again testifies that the underground ISIS network is organized at a high level, and they have mastered the tactics of guerrilla warfare.

The Media Center Amaq almost daily reports about Islamic state’s successful armed attacks on the positions of the “enemies of Islam” Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in the province of Idlib.Indeed, the guerrilla attacks and terrorist acts of the supporters of al-Baghdadi not only complicated the life of al-Qaeda-backed jihadists in Idlib, but they also caused a more serious threat to the security and defense of the entire armed Syrian opposition, than a possible attack by the Assad army and Iranian proxy Shiite militias with the support of Russian aviation.

On July 25, 2018, ISIS gunmen committed the bloodiest attack in Syria’s history in the southwestern Sweida province, killing 215 people and injuring 180 people.The sad reality is that the fighters of al Baghdadi survived the air strikes of the Western coalition and today continue to pour out streams of blood in Sham.They are trying to prove to the outside world and the entire Sunni jamaat that, despite the fall of Mosul and Raqqa, the military, human and organizational potential of the ISIS remains high.

Today, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Central Asian Salafi-jihadi groups have to fight on three fronts: with the armed forces of the Assad regime, the Iranian controlled Shiite proxy units and ideological opponents of the Islamic state.If the war with the first two is outlined by a clear front line, then the fight against ISIS is conducted as an invisible guerrilla war.

Since 2017, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham regularly conducts a security campaign to identify ISIS clandestine cells and eliminate its agents in the province of Idlib.But it is very difficult to solve the problem of ensuring the security.To intimidate those who support the emir of the overthrown Caliphate al Baghdadi and those who sympathize with him, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham began to publicly execute the ISIS prisoners of war.

On July 14, Anas Sheikh, a security officer inIdlib, told Eba news agency that in the village of Sarmin,Hayat Tahrir al-Sham executed 8 ISIS members led by their commander Abu Barra Sahili. As evidence, the group’s propagandists published a photo of executed terrorists.

On July 24, Eba agency reported that HTS militants destroyed a large cell of the Islamic state in the village of Jisr Shugur in the west of Idlib.As a result, the deputy amir of ISIS in Idlib Abu Said al-Shishani was captured and immediately executed. His photo was published on the Eba website.

Abu Said al-Shishani was the brother of ISIS military minister, Abu Omar al-Shishani (real name Tarkhan Batirashvili), a well-known Chechen terrorist and the closest military adviser to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.The US Treasury Department added Batirashvili to its list of “Specially Designated Global Terrorists”, and the US government announced a reward up to $5 million for information leading to his capture in 2015.

A sacrifice of the pure Islam

It should be noted that according to the direction of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri,Hayat Tahrir al Sham and Central Asian jihadist groups avoided publicizing public executions of their enemies.But the difficult situation caused by the terrorist attacks of ISIS, apparently, forced the ideologists of al Qaeda to change the tactics of their propaganda.

In response, the jihadists of the Islamic state staged a wave of terror in the province of Idlib, as revenge for the murder of their members.They named their operation in honor of the murdered commander Abu Barra Sahili.Such a tradition was initiated by al Baghdadi himself.Earlier, ISIS carried out a military operation in honor of the lost military minister, Abu Omar al-Shishani, and in honor of the official spokesperson and senior leader of the Caliphate, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani.

The ideological rivalry and armed conflict between al Qaeda and ISIS for the leadership in the jihadist world has reached its peak.As is known, both terrorist groups are fighting for the purity of Islam.Both seek to establish Sharia laws, create an Islamic caliphate and to spread it around the world.ISIS ideologists consider the supporters of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham apostates and kaafirs (infidels).Al Qaeda described the supporters of the Islamic state as Khawarij (the early Islamic sect that was involved in the disruption of the unity of the Muslims and rebelled against the Khalifah).

From the analysis of ISIS activities over the last six months, it can be concluded that, firstly, the group leaders are trying to compensate for the loss of the Caliphate with abundant terrorist acts behind enemy lines and by expanding the geography of “the holy war.” Secondly, the supporters of the Islamic state managed to create at an advanced level an expanded underground network among Sunni Muslims in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Yemen and Egypt. Thirdly, the publication of statements and press releases in the Amaq News Agency show that terrorist acts in different countries and regions are managed from a single ISIS center.

From a practical point of view, fighting between jihadists of the Islamic state and al Qaeda is beneficial to all countries that are fighting Islamist extremism and terrorism. A long and bloody confrontation will undoubtedly weaken the human, technical and financial potential of both Salafi-jihadi groups.

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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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Artificial intelligence, machine learning and intelligence

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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Over the past two years, the development of Artificial Intelligence and the new techniques for using Big Data has become both faster and more widespread.

 According to the old definition, by Artificial Intelligence we mean teaching a machine to think like a man, while Big Data is such a large mass of data in terms of quantity, speed and  variety that it has to enable specific technologies and methods to extrapolate data from news already learned and extract new data and links from the news which seem unrelated to one another.

 This ranges, for example, from the analytical forecast of buyers’ behaviours -by always using machine learning – to the inference of relations between single data and sequences of phenomena. Just to make an example, each buyer wants a specific reward.

 Currently we also have the possibility of developing  Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs), which create objects not existing in reality, but similar to reality, as well as faces that have never been seen before but are quite probable, and objects that do not exist but seem to work well.

  Not to mention the self-correcting systems based on concepts that are adapted by the machine itself, as well as programs that self-create themselves, starting from a small nucleus.

 In the United States, the total investment in AI companies is already worth 2.3 billion US dollars.

 According to the analysts of this specific market, however, there are some trends which will emerge shortly and will make the difference among the various global competitors.

  Reinforcement learning, for example, is a technique enabling the software used to maximize a cumulative reward. An information reward or even a reward in terms of speed in data search.

 A sort of Pavlovian algorithm favoring the most suitable AI network and, above all, more capable of creating new algorithms during its “evolutionary” activity.

 This AI device is needed for robots, but – as can be easily imagined – also for university training or for health, especially for arranging therapies for chronic diseases or even for analyzing and forecasting the share flows on the markets.

 There is also Artificial Intelligence for quantum computing, i.e. a technology used by the computers operating with quantum physics.

 Besides processing information in the “classic” way, quantum computers use two specific characteristics of the quantum system, i.e. overlapping – where two or more quantum states can be added together – and entanglement that implies, in a counter-intuitive way, the presence of many remote correlations among all the physical quantum states examined.

 Hence an availability of data and calculation speeds, enabling to carry out previously unimaginable operations: the analysis of continental climate change; the world economic cycles of raw materials; the number and physical constants of galaxies in space.

 In the future, there will also be convergence between AI and the Internet of Things, which will make both the construction of vehicles and their driving autonomous.

 Another short-term integration will be between blockchain technology and Artificial Intelligence.

 We have often spoken about blockchain, but in this case it is above all the integration between the blockchain “closed” network and a selective data collection or, otherwise, a patented and still secret technology.

 Another promising AI sector is facial recognition, as well as the specialized programs’ ability to recognize manipulated data.

 We can easily imagine to what extent this algorithm is important in intelligence analysis.

 We will also have complex neural networks available for “deep learning” but, above all, we will have the possibility of developing very complex and highly predictive socio-economic models.

 Deep Learning is the AI automatic learning network using concept or sign hierarchies, where higher-level concepts are defined by lower-level concepts. Identifying the genetic sequences of some diseases, as well as identifying tumors with X-ray and arranging an automatic supermarket are all Deep Learning operations.

However, there will also be significant developments in privacy protection and in the development and processing of natural language, both for Deep Learning, which often uses personal data, and for the other AI techniques.

 Hence how do major countries act, faced with this new extraordinary technological and productive opportunity?

 China has entered the global AI “first level” as early as 2017, while it sells many weapons with Artificial Intelligence content in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) and in the areas where it is not possible to trigger competition between China and the other countries having AI technologies.

 For the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, war is currently shifting from the destruction of the “conventional” enemy  to the operations for harming and eliminating the enemy, which are based on AI, but are extremely fast and aim at the enemy’s complete destruction.

 For China, in the future war will be a “confrontation of algorithms” and not a clash of “forces”.

 In addition, President Xi Jinping and his team believe that, as the role of AI is expanding in both the civilian and military systems, China must rely ever less on imported technologies and ever more on those developed within China.

 Precisely in October 2018, President Xi chaired a special Politburo on AI.

 Hence strategic, scientific and technological self-centeredness, together with the achievement of world hegemony.

 An important strategic element in the Chinese AI doctrine is the need – raised by some leaders as early as 2018 – to “avoid the AI global threat” and hence set some global checks at multilateral level, as happened for nuclear and chemical weapons.

 A recent document drafted by the China Academy for Information and Communication Technology already speaks openly about international standards that can put AI under control.

 Furthermore, the Chinese military decision-makers are already thinking about a future war “without fighters”, with weapons fully independent from man and even transported autonomously.

 Currently China is already exporting most of its aerial drones to the Middle East, including the latest generation ones, which are almost all remote-controlled.

 China, however, also shows strong interest in military robotics and, particularly, in automated military decision-making.

 In China’s current doctrine, there is – first and foremost -intelligence supremacy, which is almost naturally followed by AI dominance.

 In Xinjiang, for example, Artificial Intelligence is already used against local terrorists.

 In this case, AI technologies are used to identify and track all terrorist activities, both through the sensor network and by means of facial recognition technologies and the recognition of other physical characteristics.

 Moreover, the Chinese government has established two new research centres in the AI field, namely the Unmanned Systems Research Center and the Artificial Intelligence Research Center.

 They are dedicated to the AI dual use research -both civilian and military research – but, despite other countries’ undeniable AI development, China wants to become the top country in the field of research, AI patents, venture capital invested in AI and number of companies dealing with Artificial Intelligence. Finally, it wants to become the largest pool of talent in the world.

 With specific reference to the analysis of its own strategic weaknesses, currently China perceives it has AI limits in terms of best researchers; technical standards used; the quality of software platforms and the evolution of semiconductors – which is essential for developing advanced software systems.

  Chinese leaders find other technological limits of their country’s AI project in the specific hardware for AI platforms and in the evolution of algorithms.

 Currently the “best” AI experts are approximately 204,575 worldwide.

 The United States currently has at least 28,536 of them and China, which is already ranking second, has over 18,232 of them.

 China, however, is still ranking only eighth in the list of  Top AI talent, with mere 997 AI scientists at the highest levels, compared to 5,518 in the United States.

With specific reference to the search for new AI technologies and markets, in its official documents China argues that we should always “abide by market mechanisms, but step up the marketing of AI technologies to create a comparative advantage. Finally, Chinese operators must always well understand the division of labour between the market and the government.” Marketing to create a comparative advantage is a very interesting concept to evaluate China’s Artificial Intelligence strategy.

 For China the turning point will be the development and autonomous innovation in the semiconductor industry, which currently – as in the past – is at the core of information technologies, at first, and later of AI technologies.

 In the future, the new AI technologies will be quickly marketed in China to support the financial effort for their implementation and, above all, to keep on operating with the old mass tools and instruments in the intelligence field.

 In abstract terms, however, which are the factors of national power in the AI era? Firstly, a large amount of useful data must be available.

 In fact, AI will greatly increase the power of the countries capable of identifying, acquiring and applying the data sets enabling to develop new effective AI architectures.

 More data, more algorithms. More algorithms, more accuracy and complexity.

 Furthermore, considering that the abilities for developing AI are still very rare in the research community, the Artificial Intelligence competition will be won by the country that will invest a great deal of resources in research but, above all, in the salaries and scientific equipment of AI researchers.

 Nor should we forget the resources for calculation, which must already be very large.

 Currently the most powerful computer in the world is already Chinese.

 Then there must also be the political or economic incentive to adopt AI in business, in companies or in offices.

 With specific reference to investment, a sound correlation is also needed between the private and the public sectors.

 China is favoured from this viewpoint, considering its link between the military and scientific academies, while the United States shows some limits.

 These limits are inherent in the Silicon Valley’s private operating logic and in the scarce relations between it and the military decision-makers.

 Finally, however, there is also a smart – and not mythological – assessment of privacy regulations.

 The countries that – sometimes obsessively-give priority to privacy over other regulations, are obviously slower in developing advanced AI technology.

 Here again material technology is decisive in itself:  the evolution in graphics cards, the chips with particular characteristics and the evolution of hardware enable to achieve not the abstract possibility of Artificial Intelligence, but its operational existence.

 Without a specific level of technology already reached, AI is simply impossible.

 Apart from the United States and China, Israel invests in AI for both commercial and military reasons: currently Israel has already collected a total amount of 7.5 billion dollars to invest in AI, with 950 small companies, 51% of which use machine learning technologies.

 The Russian Federation has long been investing a great deal of resources in AI and robotics.

 Last year Russia even doubled its AI investment while, according to its military leaders, “robots will be the real protagonists of the future war”, while Russian military staff is already tending to the “complete automation of military space “.

 The well-known Kalashnikov company has already studied and marketed a series of autonomous weapons, managed by AI neural networks. In the near future, however, there will be Russian robotic nuclear submarines, in addition to the Armata T-14tank – also incorporating AI technologies -which has already been used in Syria.

 Here the legal matters to which China sometimes refer are linked, above all, to the Convention on Prohibition or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons which may be deemed to be excessively injurious or to have indiscriminate Effects, a Geneva Convention of 1981 signed by 50 States.

 While the aforementioned Convention applies to the new killer robots and lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS), Russia, the United States, China and Israel must obviously put new types of LAWS into action.

 They are certainly not robots like those of the 1960s comics, but conventional weapons, at least apparently, which decide for themselves – without human command and control – who must live and who must die.

China, however, agrees with the new LAWS criteria, but the fact is that: a) LAWS weapons are decisive for the future battlefield; b) China has already decided and established the technologies suitable for the future LAWS; c) China has developed even more advanced weapons, in relation to the new growing powers.

 The new arms race will always take place within the AI context.

 With specific reference to Russia, however, additional considerations must be made.

 In 2014, Russia’s political and financial system defined 9 high-tech sectors, in view of Russia producing these AI technologies by the end of 2035.

 The projects are AutoNet, AeroNet, EnergyNet, FinNet, FoodNet, HealthNet, MariNet, NeuroNet and SafeNet, which are basically all AI networks.

 So far 1,400 AI projects have been carried out in Russia. According to the Russian government’s forecasts, the AI and machine learning market is expected to increase by at least  three times within 2020 while, over the next five years, 80% of decisions in financial markets will be taken through AI, while 50% of the service sector will still be dominated by AI techniques, in both the field of e-commerce and of other types of trade.

 There is also Singapore, a small but powerful hub for Artificial Intelligence.

 Finally, there is South Korea, which uses AI for its financial and export markets but, above all, to control the Demilitarized Zone on the border with North Korea.

 Hence, in principle, we could say that AI operates preferably in capital-intensive countries.

 Certainly, with specific reference to the AI military issues, in the United States there is Google, which can be partly used by strategic networks, but China has full State control of the Internet, which allows a huge collection of data to later process some “useful” algorithms.

 In principle, we have already seen China’s future AI strategy.

 Conversely, so far the United States has not had a real national AI strategy, although currently – after some documents of the White House during Barack Obama’s Presidency, but above all after some decisions taken by President Trump – AI has been integrated into the Defence sector and is examined in relation to the possibility of creating a private market leading to the victory of the US Artificial intelligence over the Chinese or Russian ones.

 Among the countries which are less interested in or capable of achieving AI hegemony, there is also India, which is interested in the Artificial Intelligence applications in the  agriculture and administration sectors, while it deals with automated land vehicles and robotics in the Defence field.

 In April 2018 the European Union developed a “Strategy for Artificial Intelligence”, with 20 billion euros of public and private investments until 2020 and additional 20 million in the following decade.

 There will also be a group of EU experts, although we do not know yet who will appoint them. This group will deal with the ethical guidelines for the use of Artificial Intelligence.

 The Italian public investment for the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence must be placed within this framework. In the public budget for the period 2019-2020, this investment is expected to be 15 million euros. There is no need for further comments.

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