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Trends in the Spread of Radical Islam in Africa: The Case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Galina Sidorova

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Authors: Galina Sidorova and Natalia Zerlitsina*

Islamic radicalism and extremism are perceived around the world as a major threat to international security. The Islamists started developing terrorism and took it to a global level. Today, perhaps, there is no continent where this problem would not be acute. This is the standpoint of scientist D. V. Trenin who presents his reasoning in the article Traditional and New Security Challenges in International Relations [Trenin 2015: 138]. Indeed, one could easily agree with him.

In recent times, intrusion and spread of radical Islam has become evident in African countries, where, as it is, the problems of national and continental security have not been solved due to the never-ending armed conflicts. The most prevalent Islamic groups in sub-Saharan Africa are the Wahhabis and the Muslim Brotherhood. Other widespread groups are the Sheikh Balala sect in Kenya with an active subdivision in Zimbabwe, the Sunni Muslim Association in Cote d’Ivoire, the People against Gangsterism and Drugs, and the Islamic Jihad in the Republic of South Africa (the RSA). In Nigeria, the greatest danger is posed by the Boko Haram extremist organization imposing the Shariah laws and extirpation of the Western lifestyle; in Senegal — the Al-Falah Movement for Salafi Islamic culture; in Burkina Faso, there is Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah al-Muhammad; in Somalia — Al-Shabaab and Jihad al-Islamiyya, the radical wing of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (headed by Oumar Ould Hamaha); Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, that seized control over the northern territories of Mali and, in October 2012, was holding 9 European citizens as hostages, 6 of whom were French [Kemal 2015: 156].

The revivalists’ backbone is not only Islam coming from Arab countries of the East and the Maghreb. The African reality has seen some examples of religious extremism conceiving in the depths of the African society itself. These are various sects and groups primarily calling attention of disadvantaged population of the country, striving for a better life. They all differ in terms of dogmatic principles. Although the majority of them are constituted by Sunni Muslims, in a number of countries there is also the Shia minority (notable for bravery in combat, no fear of death, belief in afterlife), which is also influential due to the financial, organizational and moral support of Iran. The influence of Shia revivalists is apparent in Nigeria, Senegal, Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, and the RSA.

It should be noted that the term “Islamic revivalists,” which is most often associated with terrorism did not always bear this negative connotation. If we look back in history, we will see that it entered the political lexicon in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, after rise of the anti-Shah regime in Iran. Russian diplomat and orientalist A. I. Vavilov asserts that “it is not always justifiable that Islamic revivalism is applied to fairly broad, vague and, in many respects, motley religious-political movement standing for return to the “original, radical values of Islam” (not incidentally, the Arabic word for “revivalists” means “radicalists”) [Vavilov 2009: 229]. Another scientist, Africanist A. D. Savateyev, maintains the position that Islamic revivalism is far from the national spirit, although it “incorporates a range of diverse outlooks from the spiritual and religious point of view, and reflects the interests of various social strata and sentiments of many categories of Muslims” [Savateyev 2006: 201]. He mentions the following classification of Islamists. The first category is focused on the intrinsic values of eternal order — justice, equality, and fair work in accordance with Koranic precepts. The second category does not follow the rules and regulations of the “true” Islam and appeals to the brothers of the religion with proposals to follow the prophetic directives. The third one goes beyond the “brothers” circle and seeks to impose its standards of behavior upon adherents of other confessions. The fourth category of the Muslims includes representatives of secular intellectuals, merchants; it stands for connecting Islam to the government, and, in fact, for the re-establishment of a theocratic state. Although, the views of the adherents are far from being identical in this case. The fifth category of the revivalists is the armed jihad, manifested as achieving the goal (creation of a unified Islamic religious and political entity) by any means including the fight against “expansion” of Christians and reprisal against infidels. The basic features of the moral portrait of the revivalists’ extremist wing are cynicism and resentment aimed at breach of native African values. According to the ideology of Islamic extremism, a Muslim is merely obliged to fight the non-Muslims, that is, to conduct armed jihad. [Savateyev 2006: 230].

Study of penetration of Islam and its implications to one of the Central African countries — the DROC — provides a visual representation of the topic addressed. In the DROC, Islam has been recognized relatively recently, though islamization of the country, advancing from the east of the DROC, had been known as early as before the arrival of the Portuguese to the continent (1482). In March 1972, the President of Zaire Mobutu Sese Seko issued Decree 72/194 on the foundation of the Islamic Community of the Republic of Zaire (COMIZA), which later transformed into the Islamic Community of the DROC (COMICO) [Cheik Ali Mwinyi…La Référence plus. Kinshasa 2014: P. 2]. This organization is officially recognized and unites only a part of the Muslim community in the DROC. Besides COMICO, there are other Islamic organizations acting “on a private basis”. In March 2014, from among 12 contenders for the post of the Head of the Islamic community Mufti Sheikh Ali Mwini Mkuu was elected to a 5-year term — a politically literate, well-educated person maintaining an active position in the subregional, continental and international organizations [Les musulmans de la RDC…L’Observateur. Kinshasa 2014: P.11]. Wide connections and communications with regional and international colleagues enable the Mufti to collect information, “keep his finger on the pulse”, and control the situation in the country.

In 2012, the Islamic Community of the DROC launched the programme “Peaceful Settlement of Conflicts, Administration and Efficient Governance,” with the view to train representatives in the provinces of the country. The initiative involved 48 regional committees and 288 Islamic centres, which employ about three thousand activists. According to the Deputy Chairman of the Islamic Community of the DROC M. Seto-Bagoni, who is in charge of legal issues, trained specialists will provide indispensable support to the DROC Government in establishing peace and supremacy of the statute law across the country. In the provinces, Congolese people are also provided with the necessary legal, expert, and advisory assistance to settle the internal political situation in the Republic. With the assistance of local, regional and international sponsors, about USD 130,000 were allocated for the implementation of the Islamic Community’s project.

It should be kept in mind that the role of religious denominations in the social and political life of the DROC, taking into account the deep piety inherent in the Africans, is extremely high. The dominant position is held by Catholicism, which is practiced here by more than 50% of the 80 million population, and by Protestantism as its branch — 20%. This data identifies the DROC as the largest Catholic country in Africa and draw special attention to Kinshasa from the Vatican. The National Episcopal Conference, declaring its position on key issues of domestic and foreign policy on a regular basis, demonstrates significant interest in this region. Catholic structures, traditionally involved in political processes, occupy senior positions in the government. For example, Abbot Apollinaire Malumalu has been elected as the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission twice — in 2006 and in 2013. Religious leaders mediate the processes of settlement of the Eastern crisis, coordinate the provision of humanitarian assistance, and offer a wide network of higher and secondary educational institutions.

Afro-Christian syncretic sects (especially Kimbanguism) also have numerous congregations in a number of provinces, and, according to their postulates (chosenness of the Africans and etc.), are characterized by considerable political engagement, often of separatist or anti-European orientation (about 10%). There are many various religious sects. As a rule, they are fee-paying, but due to the preachers’ rhetoric skills and their ability to attract attention, the sects are very popular among the local population. Orthodox Christianity is represented thinly (five parishes). It is professed by about 3% of the population. According to 2015 estimates, 10% of the Congolese are Muslims.

The largest number of adherents of Islam is concentrated in the east of the country, in the Provinces of Orientale, Maniema, and in the north of Katanga. In the DROC, along with Christian buildings for public worship, there are 70 mosques belonging to different Muslim communities: Pakistani, Iranian, Lebanese, Indian and others.

Year by year, the percentage of the Congolese people professing Islam is growing. This is partly promoted by the presence of Muslim peacemakers in the country, who serve with the UN Stabilization Mission in the DROC, and by numerous Pakistani military units that provide financial support for the Islamic communities, in particular in construction of mosques. The severe internal political, economic and social situation in the country fosters the spread of the radical wing of Islam.

In one of the author’s conversations that took place in Kinshasa in 2013, Sheikh Abdalah Mangal told that the Islamic Community in the DROC has nothing to do with so-called radical, aggressive Islamists. The Community is thoroughly monitoring manifestations of proselytism with the purpose of nipping it in the bud; it aims at reconciling hostile ethnic groups, at settlement of conflict situations including those in the east of the country, and stands for consolidation of the peoples of various religious confessions. Muslims try to spread and introduce their culture, open schools and provide humanitarian assistance to the poverty-ridden Congolese population. However, according to the Mufti, in spite of the attractiveness of Islam, the Congolese authorities inhibit the spread of this religion in the “Catholic country”. He gave the following example. On April 18, 2013, the Minister of Justice and Human Rights of the DROC signed a decree on suspension of the activities of the Islamic Community for three months (the reasons are not disclosed). The decree was abolished after the Mufti had argued against it and appealed to the Congolese authorities.

As Congolese analysts assert, although within the period of 2011–2014 no radical Islamists’ organizations were detected in the country, still there are certain fears about penetration of jihadist ideas. According to the experts, the Muslim influence is, albeit slowly, but moving to the DROC. In the west the “Muslim wave” is coming from Mali and Nigeria; in the east — from Kenya through Uganda and Rwanda; in the south — from Tanzania and Zambia; and in the north — from the Central African Republic (the CAR), subsequent to the coup in March 2013.

It is Mali — the “citadel” of Islamism in Africa — which is often named by the experts an “epicenter of the spread” of radical Islam. They do not exclude that the conflict between Salafists, who differ dogmatically, ideologically, politically and culturally, can be brought to the Republic Congo, similar to the conflict between Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda in 1994, which was brought to the DROC from outside. In this regard, a large Malian community in the DROC, living by its own laws and having its own mosque, raises certain concerns. Another threat originates in Nigeria, where ethnic antagonisms between the “Christian south” and the “Muslim north” pose a real danger, up to division of the country into two states. Consequences of the conflict may well have an effect on the central region of Africa where the refugees of different faiths will rush into. As a result, “foreign” problems will affect the already existing ethnic and religious contradictions. A serious danger is also posed by crossing the “unconsolidated” border by militants-illegal aliens from South Sudan, who partially “settled down” in the DROC. This makes the Congolese society extremely vulnerable in the face of the permanent terrorist threat.

Another source of threat of the spread of Islam in the DROC is the neighboring Central African Republic (CAR) where, as already noted, a coup took place. According to MONUSCO Russian military observers, on December 5, 2013, near the residential community of Zongo in the Province of Équateur (the DROC), bordering the residential community of Bangun (the CAR), armed clashes broke out between the Muslim Seleka and the Christian Antibalaka organization. By the experts’ assumption, the ethnic conflict escalated as a result of mass activity of French troops, which deployed the “Sangaris” (which means “red butterfly” in Swahili) operation in the CAR. It was also reported that about 10 militaries of the Seleka movement oppositional to the CAR government entered the DROC territory. Streams of refugees from the CAR were crossing the border and “dissolving” in the forests of the DROC since they did not want to stay in the refugee camps because of the unstable situation in the region. The Congolese people, who lived in the areas bordering the CAR, also responded to the situation and fled from the country. Generally, the situation complicated because the civilian population of the DROC was extremely irritated by the aliens from the neighboring country who provoked conflicts and worsened the already disastrous conditions in the state. The incomers were not only “pressing” the local population in the Province of Équateur, but were also bringing with them Islamic culture alien to the Congolese Christians and to those, who adhere to the local faiths. According to the UNHCR, in May 2014 in the DROC, there were about 70 thousand refugees from the CAR and six thousand Congolese returnees. In addition to the arriving refugees, another problem arose in the country. The CAR militants started seizing the DROC territory. The risks of migration processes and the destabilization associated with them are addressed in details in analytical notes by Russian researchers K. Borishpolets and A. Babadzhanov [Borishpolets K., Babadzhanov A. 2007: 3-7].

The threat of radical Islam in the DROC and other African countries comes not only from the East and the Maghreb. After the investigations of the terrorist attack that was carried out in Nairobi on September 21, 2013 (67 people died), the non-governmental organization Red Cross came to the conclusion that the militants had also been recruited in Europe. Germans, Scandinavians, Americans were among them. According to the European Union Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove, “it is necessary to find out how people get there”. In Belgium, for example, there exists an organization for recruiting mercenaries, the so-called Sharia4Belgium Organization (L’Organisation de la Chariat pour la Belgique). European mercenaries were seen in Syria and Kenya [Les Shebabs…L’Observateur 2013: P. 11].

The eastern regions of the DROC are the most vulnerable and susceptible to jihadist influence. Considerable length and “unconsolidated” nature of borders with 9 neighbour countries, geological and climatic characteristics (mountainous terrain, multilayer equatorial forest, rainfall seasons) along with the absence of roads and traffic infrastructure precondition the inefficiency of the border safety system and create a “back door” not only for cross-border criminality, but also Islamic revivalists.

The growth of terrorism spread by armed groups on the African continent as a whole is the additional risk factor for the destabilization of situation. For more than a decade illegal armed groups, the members of which profess Islam, have been acting in the eastern part of the DROC (North Kivu and South Kivu provinces, Orientale and the northern part of Katanga) uncontrolled by central authorities. These were primarily the Uganda Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) groups. Consequently, flashpoints of conflict emerge and create opportunities for terrorist attacks. As a rule, the criminal activity of illegal armed groups is connected with illegal exploitation of valuable natural resources, being smuggled abroad, and with uncontrolled cash flow. Leaders of illegal armed groups quite often control the process of valuable minerals and metals extraction and selling on the black market, using locals as free labour in the mines. In remote areas civilians often become victims of robbery, lawlessness and violence inflicted by various military forces. Local population is tortured and humiliated, often killed, robbed of cattle; their houses are burned and their crops are destroyed. There are numerous cases of people being kidnapped into slavery. Some of them are used for service support of gunmen in the rear, others are forced to participate in combat operations. Recruiting of child soldiers deprived of education and prone to psychological traumas remains a painful problem. Gunmen use underage children as labour force under the threat of bodily harm. It provokes mass exodus of population into the frontier zones where new centres of tension emerge.

Authorities of the Republic are gravely concerned by such actions of militants as ransom kidnappings, including those of foreigners. Thus, in April 2010, in the province of Équateur the illegal armed group of Enyele rebels took a number of foreign citizens hostage to draw attention of the international community to their activity. At the same time they occupied the airport and municipal buildings of the provincial capital of Mbandaka.

The situation is aggravated by the catastrophic condition of social sphere, extreme poverty of population, non-payment of monetary allowances to the members of national army. Destitute population, largely comprised of young people, is the most susceptible to Islamist influence, which promises to improve their living conditions. They are the people who join armed groups and unwillingly become carriers of the ideas of Islam.

Virtually all the neighbouring counties are involved in extraction and sales of valuable raw materials on foreign markets. According to experts, over 80% of the DROC economy remains shadow, and so far nobody sees the way out of this dramatic situation. Experts state that there are mafia formations in this field having direct access to offshore centres. Customs Administration of the Democratic Republic of the Congo intends to fight money laundering, illicit trade and cross-border criminality at large. On November 21, 2013, they signed the Memorandum of Understanding with the Judicial Police of the Public Prosecution Office. This document proposes a programme for enforcement of customs officers’ authority, which is aimed at criminal investigations. Article 2 of the Memorandum states that “the Judicial Police of Public Prosecution Office is obliged to provide education for customs officers within the prescribed time limits and create, with assistance of Interpol, the database of the Customs Administration aimed at combating theft”[ Lutte contre la criminalité transfrontalière…Le Potentiel. Kinshasa 2013: P. 10]. In their reports, based on facts and investigations, human rights nongovernmental organizations like Human Rights Watch draw special attention to correlation between income from sales of contraband goods on world market and illegal arms traffic in the eastern regions of the DROC. Considerable amounts of arms and uncontrolled cash flow enter combat operation zones. In the context of armed groups activity there arises a problem of illicit trade in small arms acquired in exchange for the so called “conflict diamonds” (compact and convenient form of mutual payments). Strengthening of control over illicit trade in small arms, which is detrimental to relations between the DROC, Rwanda and Uganda, is still one of the sensitive issues for the whole region.

Militants from illegal armed groups commit terrorist acts not only overland. From time to time, the mass media reports on piracy on Lake Tanganyika. According to witnesses, it is highly unadvisable for cargo vessels to appear on the lake after 6 PM (i. e. at nightfall). Thus, on the night of July 1, 2014, Mai-Mai Yakutumba rebels attacked a merchant vessel near the City of Uvira (South Kivu Province). Pirates forced the captain to give them two thousand dollars, defueled the vessel and stole the board instrument. According to the report, militants were well armed and trained [Des miliciens Maï-Maï arraisonnent…Le Potentiel 2014: P. 9]. A similar incident took place in 2011, when armed combatants hijacked “Maman Wundja” vessel (about 100 passengers and 40 tonnes of cargo were on board) sailing across Lake Tanganyika from Uvira (South Kivu Province) to Moba (Katanga Province), and made the captain change the course, virtually taking him hostage [Les Maï-Maï Yakutumba prennent…APA. Kinshasa 2011: P. 8].

National separatists fuel terrorism in the DROC. According to estimates by authorities, over the last decade the most active was the religious and political movement Bundu dia Kongo. During the transition period (from 2003 to 2005), this organization controlled the largest part of the Lower Congo Province, advocating its complete independence as historical successor of the Great Kingdom of Kongo. Although after conflicts between the followers of movement and law enforcement forces in spring of 2008 the activity of Bundu dia Kongo was officially banned, it has not lost its “audience” and continues to influence its followers. Formally, the slogans of Bundu dia Kongo seem quite democratic. For example, in the proclamation of October 8, 2012, representatives of this organization call for protection of the Bakongo people [Document de l’organisation réligieuse de la RD Congo «Bundu dia Kongo»…Kinshasa 2012: P. 3].

Bursts of separatist sentiment fostering national differences are constantly observed in the Katanga Province. In the middle of 2014, Kata Katanga illegal armed group militants announced that on June 11, on the anniversary of proclamation of the Republic of Katanga, which existed from 1960 to 1963 but was not recognized by the world community, they intended to seize its provincial capital, the City of Lubumbashi. The purpose of seizing the second most important city after the capital was to proclaim independence of Katanga once again and plant their flag at the strategic sites of the city. They considered the monument to Moise Tshombe, “the President” of the Republic of Katanga, as one of such sites. Although the announcement of Kata Katanga was not implemented and only frightened the civilians with gunfire, security agencies including military and police forces were prepared to meet the attack with a massive array of military equipment [Tensions à Lubumbashi…Agence Presse Associée. Kinshasa 2014: P. 1].

One of the ways for Islam to penetrate the DROC is trading with neighbouring countries. “Trust relations in business”, a Congolese diplomat said in a conversation, “create a fertile ground for discussing, among all, religious topics”. Besides, long distance drivers, for example, from Tanzania and Zambia, as bearers of Islamic culture are considered here to be spreading Islam in the eastern and western parts of Congo. As the diplomat emphasized, the National Committee for the Coordination of Anti-International Terrorism cooperates with regional and international organizations in this field, and “uses analytical potential of the CIA”. According to him, this organization traced the activity of Somalian radical Salafi Ash-Shabaab movement, which was founded in the DROC. It was created in 2000 (translated from Arabic as “youth”) and is the part of Al-Qaeda, which seeks to establish strong relations within the DROC. In 2011 Ash-Shabaab emissaries tried to contact Islamic organizations in the eastern regions of the country, primarily in South Kivu Province, where Pakistani subunits of MONUSCO were quartered. The Islamic group Ash-Shabaab claimed responsibility for a terrorist attack in the capital of neighbouring Uganda, the City of Kampala, on July 11, 2010. The Ugandan authorities stated that terrorists supposedly entered the country from the territory of the DROC. Military command of Uganda put forward a public assumption of Ash-Shabaab connection with Uganda rebel anti-government ADF group, based in the western regions of the DROC.

Ash-Shabaab counts 7 to 9 thousand militants from various illegal armed groups [Kongo 2013: P. 12]. The prospect of its penetrating the DROC poses an additional grave threat to both national security of the country and improvement of conditions in the central region of Africa as a whole. In the interview to the Potentiel magazine Congolese researcher of the problems of Islam Valentina Soria mentioned that Ash-Shabaab aims to adapt to the local African cultures, thus capturing political and economic space and establishing stable relations [Cinq questions…Le Potentiel. 10.10.2013: P. 4].

One of the documents, which was ostensibly left in the car of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed from Ash-Shabaab and later got into the Canadian newspaper The Toronto Star, contains information about special operation performed in Bombay in 2008, in Nairobi in 2013, and in The Ritz Hotel in London. In the same document it is also said that such countries as Uganda, Ethiopia and Burundi are considered to be “the enemies of Islam” and are to be fought against by all means. Arming of the adherents of Islam is also mentioned. They consider Kalashnikov rifle to be “a bulky weapon” and prefer to arm themselves with guns and hunting knives! [Cinq questions…Le Potentiel. 10.10.2013: P. 4].

Radical Islam and terrorism are constantly in the focus of Congolese authorities’ attention. Article 52 of the Constitution serves as a ground for banning terrorist activities. It states: “No individual or group of individuals may use part of the national territory as a basis for subversive or terrorist activities against the Congolese State or any other state” [La Constitution de la Republique Démocratique du Congo 2006: P. 23]. The issues of antiterrorist and anti-criminal activities as well as of spreading revivalism are among priorities in the work of the DROC security agencies, as in the eastern regions of the country there constantly emerge flash points of military conflict, which are fertile ground for serious terrorist attacks. The National Committee for the Coordination of Anti-International Terrorism investigates these issues. This body was established by the Presidential Decree No. 070/2001 as of 26 December 2001. This regulatory act is, in fact, the only internal document regulating interdepartmental cooperation in this field.

The activity of the Committee is controlled directly by the Head of State, while the Special Adviser to the Head of State on Security is responsible for coordination. In accordance with the Decree, the tasks of the Committee include executive decision-making on all the issues in the field of fighting terrorism, coordination of application of the field-specific international conventions, development and conduct of national activities, provision of corresponding cooperation with foreign countries and international organizations. Among the members of the Committee there are Ministers of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (the post is currently divided in two), Minister of National Security (the post was abolished), Minister of Defence, Minister of the Interior, Minister of Justice, military, political and diplomatic advisers to the Head of State, and Special Adviser to the Head of State on security. The latter acts as the permanent Secretary of the Committee and controls the work of its technical secretariat.

Kinshasa is the member of several international and regional conventions in the field of antiterrorist protection, including the African Union. It supports similar initiatives in the network of subregional organizations. In May 2008, under the auspices of the African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism the decision was made about cooperation in the field within the Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS), brought back to life by efforts of the DROC.

As the present study has shown, the prospect of radical Islam spreading in the DROC poses a certain threat to both national security and improvement of conditions on the African continent as a whole. As of now, Congo still has not reached the so-called “red mark,” signifying the reign of terrorists. However, it may happen that tomorrow terrorists’ hegemonic ambitions will spread to this central African country as well [Des terrorists menacent…Le Phare.Kinshasa 2012. P.2]. “Vacuum” of governmental authorities in the provinces of the country creates favourable conditions for spread of terrorist attacks. Being weak, security agencies currently cannot ensure safety in these regions. Congolese politicians state that if the territory of the country is not controlled by the authorities, army and the republican police (taking into account geostrategic situation of the DROC on the African continent), nothing can constrain the surge of terrorists, who have already set foot in Libya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Somalia, Kenya, Sudan and South Sudan. It may happen that the ideas of revivalists from the “Islamic State” (ISIL) group, formed in 2014, will also be promoted in the African countries. It will cause new flash points of religion-based conflicts, which, combined with the “traditional” conflicts, such as, for example, ethnic ones, will further complicate political and military situation in some African countries and will lead to armed conflicts.

Taking into consideration the important role of religious denominations in political life and shaping of public opinion in African countries, spread of Orthodoxy and its cultural values can act as a counter-force to aggressive Islam in Africa, as well as religious extremism at large. Greek communities, which, in addition to religious worship use religious institutes and local congregation to address their own political and economic issues, should play an important role in developing and supporting Orthodox culture.

*Natalia Zerlitsina, Institute of International Relations and Social and Political Sciences, Moscow State Linguistic University

References

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Doctor of Political Sciences, professor of the Department of theory and history of international relations, as well as of Diplomatic Academy of Russian Foreign Ministry and of the Institute for African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences

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Chinese Private Security Companies Along the BRI: An Emerging Threat?

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When documenting China’s security footprint abroad, the PLA and the PLAN often get the spotlight. But under the hood, a relatively newer force is entering many conflicts ridden zones along China’s land based and maritime Silk Roads. These are up and coming Private Security Companies (PSCs) that are seeking to expand out of domestic Chinese markets and capitalize on growing Chinese businesses throughout the BRI. As the BRI continues to expand into countries with a weak state and ongoing conflicts, BRI businesses need security and protection. On the maritime front, increasing worries about sea piracy have created a demand for armed escorts for merchant ships. As was the case in Pakistan, on ground local government forces have repeatedly failed at providing adequate protection. This is where Chinese PSCs come in. With foreign forces failing to secure BRI projects, businesses are approaching Chinese companies. China’s entry into the international Private Military and Security Company (PMSC) market marks a significant departure in a space that continues to be dominated by American and British contractors. These westerns PMSCs have had decades to develop in the international sphere. During this tenurethey havealso managed to create a whirlwind of criticism around the field. It is in this space that Chinese PSCs, one of Asia’s strongest powers,are trying to leave a mark. Thus, it will be valuable to assess their scope, what they might evolve into, and their connection to the Chinese state. 

The Current International Chinese PSCLandscape

Chinese Private Security Companies are a relatively new entry on the international scene. Beginning in the early 2010s, violent incidences – including abductions, killings, brawls, piracy, etc. – involving Chinese individuals in countries such as South Sudan, Pakistan, and Mali experienced an uptick causing concern in Beijing. The wake-up call came in 2010 when separatists from the Baloch Liberation Army in Pakistan attacked the Zaver Palace Continental Hotel situated near the Gwardar port hoping to target Chinese investors.In 2014 ten Chinese individuals working on a Cameroonian construction site run by a state owned company were kidnapped. In 2015, Chinese citizens were kidnapped again in Nigeria and several more died in a car bomb explosion in Somalia. Beijing has responded to these concerns through two step, first by deploying the PLA and the PLAN where possible and secondly by allowing domestic security organizations to go abroad. Allowing PSCs to operate instead of PLAN can actually be the better choice in some situations. China is acutely aware of rising international fears around the potential of a hegemonic China, especially among developing nations. In other cases, using military resources would simply be excessive. In such situations, PSCs can provide a viable middle ground alternative.

Currently there are thousands of Chinese PSCs operational within the country which are providing risk assessment services, surveillance equipment, private security, etc. Much of these functions transfer on to international operations as well. As the domestic market saturatessome companies are looking abroad to expand their business. Consequently, the international footprint of Chinese PSCs is expanding. According to work done by Tsinghua University, Beijing, the top 10 PSCs in China with an international footprint are:

  1. G4S
  2. Control Risks
  3. Beijing Dewei Security Service
  4. ZhongguoAnbao China Security Industry
  5. HuaxinZhongan (Beijing) Security Service (HXZA)
  6. Shanghai Zhongchenwei Security Service Group
  7. Beijing DingtaiAnyuan Guard & Technology Research Institute
  8. ShengzhenZhongzhouTewei Security Consultant
  9. Beijing Guanan Security & Technology
  10. Shandong Huawei Security Group

These companies represent a very minor fraction out of a range of domestic PSCs. The reason for the small footprint abroad is manifold. Legally the Chinese government poses several restrictions on domestic PSCs that make it harder to operate abroad. The 1996 “Law of the PRC on Control of Guns” states that only the PLA, the police, and the militia can legally possess weapons andthose who possess arms overseas may face imprisonment for their crime.  This is clearly a significant hurdle for PSCs that wish to operate in conflict prone areas. In a 2010 law passed by the Ministry of Commerce concerning the operation of PSCs, the government added several strict criteria for firms looking to operate abroad. These included providing security training to their employees before sending them abroad, set up security management systems and mechanisms for emergency response. Providing security systems and training to employees of firms going abroad provides one avenue for PSCs to enter the international market. While the 2010 lawopens up some paths for PSCs looking to expand, these existing regulations still prove to be a major hurdle for all but a few PSCs. Most do not have the resources to fulfill these basic requirements and cannot afford to set up bases abroad. These concerns are reflected by the Wu Guohua, Executive chairman of the “Overseas Security Guardians” which operates Zhong Jun Jun Hong Security Group. He states that while since 2011 companies, small and large, have jumped at the chance to expand abroad, many smaller companies don’t have the resources to negotiate with foreign governments or local forces, educate their personnel thoroughly on local laws to the same level that bigger companies can. Additionally, major companies that do operate abroad, like the HuaxinZhongan Security Service (HXZA) and the Zhong Jun Jun Hong, also boast a range of international certifications to bolster their bid internationally. Many other security organizations are unable to acquire them. Thus, regulatory requirements in the future must reign in these elements and bring smaller companies into the fold as well.

Scope of Current PSC Tasks

Considering that Chinese PSCs are not permitted to carry arms abroad, PSCs often diverge into a range of other security services that do not require its personnel to be armed. These include training personnel, providing logistical assistance, serving as guards in factories, etc., and collaborating with armed local officials for providing protection to Chinese citizens abroad. The only service where Chinese PSCs have been allowed to use arms has been while escorting Chinese vessels through water bodies like the Gulf of Aden or the straits of Malacca. Maritime escorting is a rising field for many PSCs. Most major PSCs provide multiple, if not all, of these services. One of the largest is HuaxinZhongan(HXZA) Security Service that provides all of these above-mentioned services. HXZAis also recognized for their ability to communicate and cooperate with local authorities and PSCs for support. Another major PSC is the Overseas security Guardians Association, which is part of the Zhongjun Junhong group that operations other domestic security subsidiaries. The association is perhaps the most explicit in its connection to the BRI. The organization aims at “safeguarding the promotion of national ’one belt, one road’ strategy” and “building the great wall of steel” to guard the “overseas economic development and the safety of oversea China-invested enterprises and compatriots”.

Maritime escorting is slowly growing as a prominent service amongst organizations. This usually involves PSCs providing protection to merchant ships or fishing vessels in piracy prone areas of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. While the affair is expensive, PSCs can find a relative niche for themselves in the work that sets them apart from the PLAN which frequently serves this purpose. In the Sohu Military Observer, Mr. Wu wrote that using PSCs for escorting services is often more cost effective then a PLAN deployment and PSCs tend to be better matched in force as well. The scale of piracy is also smaller than one would expect. Most piracy operations are not large scale and involve the use of small and fast boats, and light weapons. This strength of force can be proportionally dealt with by well-armed PSCs without the need for large scale investment of troops or equipment from the navy. Additionally, PLAN deployments carry the risk of sending a political statement, whether that was intended or not. Here too the commitments to bolstering the BRI arein both practice and rhetoric. In 2015, HXZA made headlines for escorting a Chinese sailor, Zhai Mo, who was took a 10,000 Nautical Mile journey retracing the ancient Maritime Silk Road.

These modes of engagement however are still limited due to few key restrains. Firstly, the inability of PSCs to use arms restricts their independent operations. Many organizations continue to provide logistical services. Like stated earlier many smaller companies do not have the connections to work with local PSCs or authorities to find local forces that can help provide the muscle. HXZA is one of the few companies that has been authorized to carry arms abroad. This also puts PSC employees into severe danger themselves. In Juba, the capital of South Sudan, Chinese security forces from DeWei Security Services found themselves stuck in an active shooting incident that was occurring between local warring factions. Unarmed and underprepared, the security workers and the employees of its client that it was sent to rescue were trapped in an insecure building awaiting government forces to evacuate them. Secondly, PSC operatives often have limited foreign language abilities, be that inEnglish or the native language in the area of deployment. This creates a barrier between locals and the PSC which makes collaboration even harder. In many BRI locations, local population are distrustful if not outright hostile to Chinese presence as demonstrated above. Lingual barriers can add on to this sense of division between locals and the Chinese guests in addition to posing obvious administrative difficulties.

PSCs and The Chinese State

For the longest time, the Chinese state and the domestic legal framework was not friendly to the establishment of Chinese PSCs abroad. However, over the past decade the ice has started to melt as ministries have eased legal restrictions and HXZA operatives were even allowed to carry arms. Chinese firms will perhaps slowly but surely continue to expand into these new markets. Increasing foot print of Chinese agencies that are actively engaged in security operations, risk assessment, provision of security equipment (as in the case of HXZA) etc., brings with it concerns about their connection to the Chinese state and if they can be fully autonomous in their operations. Many Chinese businesses, such as Huawei, have been subject to these fears thus is it logical to worry if PSCs will function as an extension of the PLA or even the Chinese state. The evidence insupport for this is currently weak. PSCs are still mostly engaged in services like anti-piracy operations, resolving kidnapping incidents, guarding Chinese citizens and infrastructure abroad, etc. This relatively narrow range of services is still quite niche and Chinese PSCs are yet to go fully mainstream. Additionally, while some successful PSCs may have connections with their domestic state clients, it may not necessarily translate into serving as an arm of the state abroad. Thus, today the verifiable connections between PSCs and the state are quite limited.

Perhaps as the industry grows and come of its own, the Chinese state will take greater cognizance of its potential uses for state aims. It is not entirely novel for PSCs or PMCs to take government provided tenders. Afterall, the precedent for this was already set by western PMSCs who provide their own government forces, or even foreign governments, with logistical services among other facilities. Thus, it would not be wise to erase the possibility of state influence altogether either. There are few possible avenues for state influence toseep in through. First, Private Security Companies in china often hire ex-PLA and ex-PAP (People’s Armed Police) officers into their ranks. Many higher-ranking positions within PSCs are also occupied by ex-military or former public security personnel. Second, there are reports that Chinese officials are actively pressuring Chinese enterprises abroad to hire PSCs of Chinese origin. 

Conclusion

The Chinese Private Security industry is still as its initial stages. However, it is likely that it will stay given government pressure over overseas enterprises and enthusiasm by Chinese PSCs to establish operations overseas despite the dangers. Little work has been done to study the nature of Chinese PSCs in depth, but as they grow in number and prominence it will become increasingly important to understand their ins and outs and monitor their relationship with the Chinese state. It will also be interesting to consider how, if at all, the role of the PLA might change given the emergence of these new security actors. Granted the PLA will be the most immediate and the strongest projection of Chinese national power, however this poignant power projection is not always desirable. In such scenarios PSCs may become a viable replacement in low intensity missions. Before any of this can happen however, the Chinese government would have to loosen regulation on PSC activities and develop a framework for their operation. For now, prospects are relatively limited, and existing organizations are acting in conjunction with local authorities and companies. However, the international PMSC industry is already under heavy scrutiny for acting eerily like modern mercenaries for hire. The same could happen for Chinese companies as well.

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Tackling the Illicit Drug Trade: Perspectives From Russia

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The Afghan drug trade supplying the Russian market has fuelled conflict, corruption, and instability in the region, provided financial support to terrorist organisations and led to a devastating addiction and HIV epidemic in Russia. How can this fight be won? While strengthening cooperation with its Central Asian neighbours will be crucial to stemming the flow of drugs, Russia needs to complement law enforcement with a softer approach for the demand side of the drug trade at home.

“The Afghan drug threat is one of the worst problems for Russia’s national security,” said Alexei Rogov, deputy director of the new challenges and threats department of the Russian foreign ministry on November 26, 2019. He thus effectively captured Russia’s persistent drug problem since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Accounting for one-fifth of the world’s opium market estimated at USD 65 billion, Russia is the world’s largest heroin consumer, all of it flowing from Afghanistan through Central Asia.

The Afghan drug trade supplying the Russian market has fuelled conflict, corruption, and instability in the region, provided financial support to terrorist organisations and led to a devastating addiction and HIV epidemic in Russia. Russia has around four to six million drug addicts and a drug-related mortality rate of 10.2 per 100 000 persons. This far surpasses the rate of its European neighbours. The UK, despite being Europe’s largest cocaine consumer, has a drug-related mortality rate of 3.7 per 100 000 persons. With a death toll of around 30 000 per year, it is no wonder Russia has marked the drug trade as a major national security threat.

How can this fight be won? The words of Alexei Rogov perfectly illustrate Russia’s heavily securitised approach to the problem. Russia’s response has focused primarily on the security aspect of the drug trade, such as policing and border control. While regional cooperation is crucial to stemming the flow of drugs, initiatives between Russia and its Central Asian neighbours are short-term and poorly coordinated. Regional organisations’ anti-drug potential could be further exploited, as could cooperation with the EU, which is also affected by the Afghan drug trade. At home, the high mortality rates are explained by the draconian legislation on drug consumption and the lack of comprehensive drug policies. Faced with increasing drug-related mortality, complementing law enforcement and regional initiatives with a softer approach at home is the next logical step.

A Threat to National and Human Security: Developments and Continuities in the Afghan Drug Trade

Drug trafficking in Russia is far from being a recent problem. The drastic rise of organised crime in the tumultuous years that followed the fall of the USSR, as well as the newly opened and poorly controlled borders with former Soviet states, has facilitated the transnational smuggling of opium produced in Afghanistan (which accounts for 90 per cent of the world’s heroin output). Travelling through the Northern route, the drugs are smuggled to Russia through Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. While Afghanistan might be the Colombia of Central Asia, the Central Asian drug market presents different characteristics from its well-known Latin American counterpart. It is not organised in mega-cartels with the power of a small state, but in smaller more disparate criminal groups. These groups can extend their influence in the region more thanks to poor border security, lack of transnational cooperation, and rampant corruption among law enforcement and local officials than to their own strengths and ingenuity.

Pointing fingers at borders and even at the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which saw Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan integrated into a free trade zone with Russia in 2015, is highly misleading. While greater connectivity and opened borders make the region an ideal transit route for illicit trade, it is complicity and impunity that explain why less than 5 per cent of the drugs passing through Tajikistan are seized. The widespread corruption and poverty that lead many to resort to drug trafficking are the root causes of the drug trade in Central Asia.

Regarding Afghanistan, the ongoing conflict (2001-2020) and political instability make it a breeding ground for drug trafficking. The drug trade has led to many disagreements between the U.S. and Russia, with the two parties failing to reach a coherent anti-drug strategy. The possibility of a NATO-Russia cooperation was briefly evoked but has been eliminated by U.S. withdrawal from the country following the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement signed on February 29, 2020. This recent development will risk affecting the anti-drug fight. With 61 per cent of the Afghan population deriving its income from agriculture, the impossibility of cultivating traditional crops amidst conflict, and a new power vacuum, Russia will need to step up to make sure drug production does not explode. Moreover, Afghanistan’s new dabble into the mass production of synthetic drugs, notably methamphetamines, which is cheaper than heroin, is increasingly worrying. A booming market largely driven by the rise of the Russian Hydra darknet, the quantities of synthetic drugs seized by Russian authorities have multiplied by twenty over the 2008-2018 period.

Given the growing availability and affordability of drugs on the Russian market, the security dimension of the Central Asian drug trade naturally dominates the drug discourse and, to some extent, justifies Russia’s militarised approach. With a 7 644 km-long shared border with Kazakhstan and hundreds of tonnes of drugs flowing in each year, drug trafficking has severe implications beyond the social costs of addiction and directly threatens Russia’s security. This is all the more worrying considering that Islamic terrorist groups like the Taliban use the drug trade to finance their operations. The crime and terrorism nexus operating in the region thus makes Central Asia a priority for Russian policy.

The War on Drugs at the Regional Level: Results and Future Perspectives

A relentlessly creative and adaptable market, with a myriad of new ways to conceal and smuggle narcotics every year, the illicit drug trade is truly a transnational problem and requires intense cooperation between the affected states. However, the anti-drug potential of regional organisations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Sino-Russian led security alliance, or the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), is not fully exploited and is limited in terms of capacity and political will.

Russia has been promoting collective security with its Central Asian neighbours through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Created in 2001 and composed of eight member-states (India, Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), it plays a major role in stemming the Afghan drug trade. The SCO’s 2018-2023 anti-drug strategy marks the creation of an effective anti-drug mechanism within the organisation. The SCO often collaborates with the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a military alliance between six former Soviet states (Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), and the Central Asian Regional Information and Coordination Centre for combating the illicit trafficking of narcotics (CARICC).

Most of Russia’s effort in the region has focused on strengthening the governments in place, such as investing in the state structure or their military. Russia has maintained a steady military presence in the region, one likely to increase after U.S. withdrawal. However, regional cooperation has mainly focused on short-termed joint operations and border security, such as operation spider web in July 2019, which led to the seizure of 6 422 kg of narcotic drugs and 3 241 arrests. The porous borders, explained in part by the geographical difficulty of border control in such mountainous terrain, the lack of training and equipment of security forces are certainly worth paying attention to, but they are also short-term solutions to a much more endemic problem. 6 422 kg might seem like a big win, but it is nothing compared to the hundreds of tonnes of heroin crossing the border each year. This purely militarised and short-term response, both from Russia’s part and in its engagement with its neighbours, is necessary but insufficient. Fighting the illicit drug trade will require a long-term strategy and a much greater political will to tackle its systemic causes. At the moment, the drug trade is 30 per cent of Tajikistan’s GDP, with an increasing amount of people turning to drug trafficking to survive. Fighting corruption, implementing institutional reforms and providing economic benefits to the region are as crucial as border policing.

In light of this, international assistance could prove useful, notably from the EU. While Central Asia is not a priority for Brussels, there is still a strong case for cooperation here. Afghan heroin and meth production is not only Russia’s problem. The drug trade in Central Asia might not be a security issue for Europe in the way it is for Russia, but opium trafficking along the Northern and the Balkan route also reaches Europe and the black sea route via Turkey is rapidly emerging as a prominent smuggling corridor. In July 2019, Ukraine intercepted 930 kg of Afghan heroin destined for Western Europe. Europe’s role in Central Asia is limited compared to Russia’s, and its focus on democracy promotion tends to clash with Russia’s priority of supporting the regimes in place to strengthen their capacity to fight the drug trade. But overcoming those differences and finding ground for cooperation would be a positive step towards fighting the drug trade.

The War at Home: the Grim Reality of Drug Addiction in Russia

Draconian legislation criminalising drug use has characterised Russia’s domestic war on drugs for the past three decades. While the dominance of the security discourse in Russia’s anti-drug strategy is somewhat justified, tackling the illicit drug trade purely from a national security perspective does not diminish the social threat posed by drug consumption. Drug use is a pervasive domestic issue, but it has yet to become a policy issue. Underdeveloped drug policies and politicians’ refusal to address it largely explain the high mortality rate.

With 100 000 jailed in 2018 (one in three convicts), Russia has the highest number of people per capita imprisoned for drug crimes in Europe, most of them convicted under Article 228 of the Russian penal code which treats drug possession as a criminal offence. Such harsh legislation not only leads to more risky forms of drug use (the use of dirty needles for drug injection has directly contributed to the HIV epidemic currently affecting 1.16 million people in Russia, one of the fastest-growing HIV rates in the world), but prevents access to treatment. With such large fines and lengthy prison sentences, (for possession of 2.5 grams of meth, users can go to jail for up to ten years) as well as the social taboo around drugs and HIV, users do not seek treatment and are further marginalised.

This addiction and HIV crisis in Russia is largely homegrown and will reach endemic levels in the next few years if it continues to be swept under the rug. The peculiarity and pervasiveness of the drug trade is its creation of a steady base of consumers and addicts. Criminalisation has not and will not diminish the demand for drugs, hence the need to work on demand much as supply reduction. While the legalisation of soft drugs is unlikely to appear as a convincing solution anytime soon in Russia, a softer approach to drug use is needed. At the moment, no long-term treatment or harm reductions services are available, and opioid substitution therapy remains forbidden.

Conclusion

Drug trafficking is a complex issue that must be fought on multiple fronts. Russia’s drug policy needs to involve a wider concept of security that not only encompasses the threat to national security, but also the human and social threat of drugs. Intense cooperation with Central Asia and Afghanistan through the SCO and CSTO is essential, as is strict border policing and law enforcement. Nonetheless, this no-tolerance policy for the supply side of the drug trade needs to be complemented with a softer approach for the demand side at home. To dwell on the social and economic consequences of drug use would be a truism, and Russia has every interest in decreasing the influence of drug trafficking on its population’s health and security. Developing more robust social policies seems at the moment more feasible than tackling the systemic causes of the drug trade in Central Asia. The latter will require a solid long-term strategy that goes beyond anti-drug operations and border control. Russia must step up its fight both at home and abroad.

From our partner RIAC

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Central Asian Jihadists’ Use of Cryptocurrencies in Bitcoin

Uran Botobekov

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Central Asian Jihadists in Syria. A screenshot from Telegram, April 6, 2019

On August 13, 2020, the US Justice Department announced that it seized $2 million in Bitcoin and other types of cryptocurrency from accounts of three Salafi-Jihadi extremist groups, including al Qaeda and the Islamic State, relied on to finance their organizations and violent plots. According to their statement, the U.S. authorities seized over 300 cryptocurrency accounts, four websites, and four Facebook pages all related to Sunni-Jihadi militant organizations. Indeed, the disclosed criminal case documents indicate that this was the largest-ever seizure of cryptocurrency by US intelligence agencies in the context of terrorism.

US counterterrorism agents analyzed transactions of cryptocurrency on the blockchain, a secure form of public ledger for the online funds, and employed undercover operations as well as search warrants on email accounts to establish a money trail of Sunni terror groups that was detailed in an 87-pages of the Washington DC federal court report

The banner calling for donations to Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad. A screenshot from Telegram, May 18, 2020

The revealed papers indicate, in some instances, al Qaeda and its affiliated terrorist groups in Syria acted under the cover of charities ‘Al Sadaqah’ and ‘Reminder for Syria’. In this regard, it should be noted that some al Qaeda-linked Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups also have frequently acted under the umbrella of the charity ‘Al Sadaqah’ for bitcoin money laundering and have solicited cryptocurrency donations via Telegram channels to further their terrorist goals.

But that doesn’t mean that Islamist terrorist groups from the post-Soviet space raised funds precisely through this charity ‘Al Sadaqah’ of al Qaeda, whose accounts were seized by the US Justice Department. It has become a tradition in the Islamic world that charity organizations and foundations widely give to themselves the names ‘Al Sadaqah’ and ‘Zakat’, as the Quranic meaning of these words (Quran 2:43; 63:10;9:103)exactly corresponds to the purposes of “voluntary charity”. Analysis of the finance campaigns of al Qaeda-affiliated Central Asian militant groups demonstrates that they frequently raised cryptocurrency donations through charities called ‘Al Sadaqah’ and ‘Zakat’.

In order to explore the scale of the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi Jamaats’ crowdfunding campaigns, we analyzed their social media activities where they raised Bitcoins, dollars, Russian rubles and Turkish lira over the past two years.The methods and sources of the Uzbek and Uighur Islamist militants’ crowdfunding campaigns in bitcoins are about the same as those of their parent organizations, the global Sunni terrorist groups ISIS and al Qaeda.Due to the inclusion in the list of terrorist groups, they carry out sophisticated cyber-operations for solicitation of cryptocurrency donations.

Before “mastering” the complex technology of cyber-tools in order to raise bitcoin funds in cyberspace, Central Asian jihadists used the simple ‘hawala’ money transfer system (informal remittance system via money brokers).Sometimes they have resorted to conventional ‘hand-to-hand’ cash transfer channels, where trust, family relationships or regional affiliations play an important role.

The banner requesting to provide Uzbek jihadists with modern military gear and equipment. A screenshot from Telegram, March 3, 2020.

According to a UN report, Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi terrorist group Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ), Katibat Imam al Bukhari (KIB) and the Islamic Jihad Group (IJG) leading jihad in Syrian Idlib province have close financial ties with its cells in Afghanistan. The UN Security Council’s Sanctions Monitoring Team states that “regular monthly payments of about $ 30,000 are made to Afghanistan through the hawala system for KTJ.”

The UN report asserts that “similarly to KTJ, KIB sends financial assistance, from its cell in Istanbul, through the hawala system to Afghanistan. Funds are brought in by informal money exchangers for Jumaboi from Maymana, the capital of Faryab. The original source of this income is the smuggling of fuel, food and medicine from neighboring Turkmenistan.”According to the UN report, “suffering material losses, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)and Tajik militant group JamaatAnsarullah (JA) are forced to engage in criminal activity, including transportation of drugs along the northern route in Afghanistan.”For the Uighur jihadists of Turkestan Islamist Party (TIP) from China’s Xinjiang province operating under the umbrella of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in northern Syria, “funding comes primarily from the Uighur diaspora” in Turkey, Central and Southeast Asia.

Dark Web & Bitcoin: New Endeavor of Central Asian Terrorists

With the development of digital cryptocurrencies as Bitcoin, Central Asian jihadists actively began to exploit this innovative financial transaction system to support their attacks and other terrorist activities. It is known that al Qaeda-backed Salafi-Jihadi groups of the post-Soviet space are seeking to purify Islam of any innovations (Bid’ah) and strictly following the Sharia law. They live similarly to how the Islamic prophet Muhammad and his companions lived in the seventh-century and always oppose any form of Bid’ah, considering it to be shirk and heresy. However, the Uzbek and Uighur Wahhabis did not shy away from using bitcoin innovation.

The first advertisements of Central Asian terrorist groups crowdfunding campaigns accepting bitcoin for Jihadi purposes in Syria appeared on the Telegram channel in 2017. In November of that year, a self-proclaimed charity group al-Sadaqah began a fundraising campaign on the internet from Western supporters to help the Malhama Tactical, the first private military contractor team from Central Asia working exclusively for jihadist groups in Syria.Al-Sadaqah in English on Telegram, explicitly relying on the English-speaking western sponsors, called on them to make bitcoin donations to finance the Malhama Tactical and the Mujahedeen fighting against the Assad regime in northeastern Syria.

As we have previously analyzed, Malhama Tactical is a private jihadi contractor operating in the Idlib-Aleppo region of Syria. The group, founded by an Uzbek jihadist Abu Salman (his real name is Sukhrob Baltabaev) from Osh City of Southern Kyrgyzstan in May 2016, is closely allied with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the strongest militant factions in northern Syria. The Malhama Tactical is known to have regularly conducted military training for jihadists of HTS, Ahrar al-Sham, Ajnad al Kavkaz and the Turkistan Islamic Party.After the death of Abu Salman in August 2019, Ali Ash-Shishani, the native of Russia’s North Caucasus became the new leader of Malhama Tactical.

In 2017-18, al-Sadaqah charity on Telegram called on followers to donate via a “Bitcoin wallet anonymously and safely for the Mujahedeen brothers of Malhama Tactical”. The charity group urged potential cryptocurrency contributions to benefit from “the ability to confuse the trail and keep anonymity”.

We do not know how much bitcoin money al-Sadaqah managed to raise for the activities of the Central Asian Muhajireen. But according to Malhama Tactical’s report on the internet, crowdfunding has been “fruitful.” In an effort to explain how donations were spent, Malhama Tactical has advertised extensively to followers on 17 October 2018, in a video posted on Telegram, that a new training camp had been built and purchased airsoft rifles, night vision devices and other modern ammunitions.

Since 2018, Uzbek and Uighur militant groups KTJ, KIB and TIP have begun an agitation campaign to fundraising bitcoin money on the Internet. Judging by the widespread call for Bitcoin donation online, their need for anonymous, secure, and hassle-free funding streams have made cryptocurrencies of some potential value to them. These properties are the anonymity of fundraising, the usability of remittance and transfer of funds, the security of attack funding, acceptance of funds, reliability, and volume of web money.

And every time they announced a crowdfunding campaign, they clearly declared for what purpose the collected bitcoins would be used. For example, al Qaeda-linked KTJ’s most recent call for bitcoin appeared on Telegram in May 2020 as a banner that asks to “Equip a jihadist”. The poster showed a masked jihadist and the exploitation of the Quran’s Hadith in Uzbek, calling on the believers to prepare and equip a fighter going on a raid for the sake of Allah.

Another picture shows a jihadist with a Kalashnikov AK-74 in his hand, over whose head enemy planes and helicopters fly. The picture gives a symbolic meaning about the empty-handed jihadists in Syria, fighting against the Russian and Syrian powerful military aircraft to protect the Islamic Ummah. Then goes on with KTJ’s call to make donations in bitcoins and rubles to purchasing equipment and ammunition for the Central Asian Mujahedeen in Syria. On the bottom it was displayed the long address of the virtual wallet for Bitcoin donations along with KTJ’s Telegram and web contacts promising the anonymity of potential donors.

On June 18, 2020, KTJ militants published the opinion of the well-known ideologue of modern jihadism Abu Qatada al-Falastini in Telegram from whom they asked whether the crowdfunding campaign of Bitcoin for the purposes of Jihad contradicts Islam. As it is known, there are still ongoing disputes among the world’s top Islamic scholars about whether cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, are deemed Sharia-compliant.

Abu Qatada from a religious point of view justified the acceptability of using Bitcoin to protect the Islamic Ummah and wage holy Jihad, but at the same time warned against full confidence in Bitcoin. In his opinion, the enemies of Islam can destroy this cryptocurrency in the future, and if it loses its current value, and then the devout Muslims who have invested their savings in Bitcoin could go bankrupt. Abu Qatada al Falastini is a greatly respected Salafi thinker among Central Asian jihadists and he gave a pep talk to KTJ when it pledged bayat (Oath of Allegiance) to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri in 2015.

On June 25, 2020, KTJ posted another Crypto Crowdfunding campaign announcement on its Telegram channel to provide Uzbek jihadists with modern military gear and equipment. For clarity, the group published a picture entitled “Perform jihad with your property” in Uzbek, which indicates the prices for military clothing and weapons. For example, the AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle costs $300, unloading vest for AK-47 cartridges – $20, Field Jacket – $50, Military Combat Boots – $30.In total, $400 will be needed on the full provision of one Mujahid with weapons and uniforms. On the upper side of the picture is a Hadith quote about “He who equips a fighter in Allah’s path has taken part in the fighting.”

A month later, the group’s Telegram channel reported that it had managed to raise $4,000, for which 8 sets of weapons and uniforms were purchased for the Uzbek Mujahedeen. Also, KTJ’s media representative announced that the group is stopping the fundraising campaign for this project.

Other projects of the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups were the Bitcoin crowdfunding campaign for the purchase of motorcycles for Inghimasi fighters (shock troops who  penetrate into the enemy’s line with no intent to come back alive), cameras, portable radios, sniper rifles and night vision devices. For each project, a separate closed account was opened on the website of jihadist groups in Telegram, after which the Bitcoin and Monero accounts, as well as contact information, were closed.

Another crowdfunding project posted on January 29, 2020, in Telegram, called ‘Helping captive Muslim sisters’ and claims to raise money to free Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek ISIS women hold in the al-Hol refugee camp in northeast Syria controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. The KTJ jihadists posted pictures of Central Asian women with their children holding posters “We need help” in Kyrgyz, and asked the fellow Muslim believers to raise money to ransom them from the captivity of the Kurdish communists. It was not clear to us how much money was raised as a result of the crowdfunding campaign since this channel was later blocked by the Telegram administrator.

The annual largest crowdfunding project for the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups is being implemented on the eve of the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, during which believers pay Zakat (obligatory tax) and Sadaqah (voluntary alms).According to the Quran, recipients of the Zakat and the Sadaqah include the poor and needy, debtors, volunteers in jihad, and pilgrims.

The websites of the Central Asian Jihadist Jamaats revealed that their crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for the jihad was particularly active during Ramadan. Ramadan is known as a holy and generous month, but this year was especially generous to notorious al Qaeda-linked Central Asian extremist groups. KTJ, KIB, Uighur’s TIP and Russian-speaking North Caucasian militant group Liwa al Muhajireen wal Ansar (LMA), that pledged allegiance to HTS, have boosted their military budget during Ramadan.

To avoid the risk of being blocked or tracked, they created a temporary mirror group called ‘Zakat’, where the donation money was received. Zakat’s wallet received donations from Central Asian labor migrants in Russia in the amount of $150 to $220 each time to purchase livestock, which was then slaughtered in sacrificial prayer on behalf of the donors. After Ramadan and the holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, the ‘Zakat’ mirror group in Telegram was closed.

The Central Asian Islamist extremist groups have asked their supporters to make Bitcoin donations mainly at the following two virtual wallet addresses:

– 3HoWzYwaBbTg7sKGtHz3pAZxdHZoXUJRvG;

– 12SxsxvrE8zrtRveSeFJYA6sgbJZbyHDGk.

Our analysis confirmed that multiple transactions were made to these bitcoin addresses. In addition, other transactions were made in digital currencies, the addresses of which were blocked on Telegram.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the significance of the crowdfunding campaigns in bitcoin should not be given exaggerated importance, even though they have improved the position of the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups in Syria and Afghanistan, and boosted their budget. Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi terrorist groups’ technical abilities are not currently suited to bypass the financial controls of international counterterrorism organizations and discreetly conduct money laundering.

The history of their activities has shown that small Uzbek, Uighur and Russian-speaking Islamist extremist groups from the post-Soviet space and China have been assimilated with more powerful global Sunni terrorist organizations such as ISIS, al Qaeda and HTS. And accordingly, their potential for crowdfunding campaigns in bitcoin should be viewed through the prism of their global parent organizations.

In any case, the governments of Central Asia and Russia do not have sufficient mechanisms and leverage to combat illegal cryptocurrency transactions on the dark web by global Salafi-Jihadi movements waging jihad in the Middle East. As noted at the beginning of this article, such opportunities to monitor and investigate jihadist crowdfunding activities are available to the US government and financial institutions. For example, the U.S. Treasury“ has access to unique financial data about flows of funds within the international financial and commercial system,” which is invaluable for tracking illicit flows of money.

Consequently, Central Asian governments must rely not only on Moscow but also actively cooperate with Western counter-terrorism and financial institutions to disrupt the Salafi-Jihadi group’s external crypto crowdfunding sources.

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