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Did Central Asia’s Jihadists Challenge Al Qaeda?

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Jihadists of the Turkestan Islamic Party

Uzbek and Uyghur Muhajireen support HTS

First-time al Qaeda-linked Salafi-Jihadi groups from Central Asia, Caucasus and China’s Xinjiang fighting against the Bashar al-Assad regime in northern Syria have interfered in ideological disputes and internal confrontations between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Tanzim Hurras al-Din, the Guardians of Religion, which has remained loyal to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Foreign fighters groups in Idlib such as the Uyghurs’ Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), the Uzbeks’ Katibat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (KTJ) and the Chechen-led Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA) affirmed their support to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in a joint statement released in February 2019.Also, the statement was signed by the Albanian militants group Katibat al-Alban, Iran’s Harakat al-Muhajireen al-Sunna, Saudi Arabia’s Rabitat al-Ma’ali, the Maldivian Mujahideen and other smaller foreign groups fighting under the leadership of HTS.

Thus, foreign speaking Salafi-Jihadi groups violated their traditional balanced ties with al Qaeda’s various branches and first time openly supported one of the sides of the confrontation. As is well known, Uzbek and Uyghur militants have always tried to keep their neutrality, without interfering intra-jihadi rivalries between HTS and other al Qaeda-affiliated groups.

In the one-page and three paragraphs statement, foreign fighters are clearly stated their strong support and loyalty to HTS.The first paragraph states that “Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, represented by its leadership and fighters, is the dignity and the force of Ahl al-Sunnah [Sunni Islam] in Bilad al-Sham”. Further, statement authors poured to HTS generous words of praise that “it is the best to have borne the banner of jihad in this blessed land; the one that defends the frontlines; it has protected Muslims security and established the courts that rule by God’s law in all the areas subjected to them”. Special attention is paid to the centralized role of HTS “around whose leadership the mass of the Ansar [natives] and Muhajireen [foreign fighters] has gathered”.

Then, they turn to other opponent groups that “we are with our brothers in one rank and a structured edifice, and we will stand as a barrier of obstruction before all who take it upon themselves to attack HTS.” Thus, foreign groups gave a clear signal to other branches of al Qaeda that they are ready to take a bullet for themselves for the HTS and they will defend it in arms.

The second paragraph of the statement is devoted to the relations between Ansar and Muhajireen, who are militants from Central Asian and the Caucasus, who made Hijrah (migration of Muslims) to Syria for jihad. The Muhajireen are very worried that their interests are not being taken into consideration. According to the authors, “the interest of the Muhajireen is the same as the interest of the Ansar, the masses of the Muslims in al-Sham, and they cannot be separated from each other. Because Muhajireen came to this blessed land of Sham at the call of Allah and do not claim particular interests and particular rights. Both belong to the Muslims Ummah and what comes upon them comes upon others besides them.”

Then, foreign militants raised the sore question that “some local groups want to use them [Muhajireen] who came from all over the world to Syria for holy jihad as a bargaining chip to be handed over to ‘disbelievers’.” The authors noted, “we will not be content that they [opponents of HTS] should be a door for auction to support a faction over another besides it, for their [HTS] support is truly well-known in its ways and there is not from that auction in their name.” Then the foreign fighters thanked the HTS for its strong support, reception and granting of refuge to Muhajireen and called it the best of Ansar.

In the letter’s third paragraph foreign fighters turned to other al-Qaeda-backed groups and warned that they should not accept the false accusations of the HTS address at face value and advised them to verify and investigate it. They called for the conciliation and unity of all Mujahideen to lead together jihad in the path of Almighty God.

There are several reasons why al Qaeda-backed foreign fighter groups support HTS.

Muhajireen and Ansar: Brothers or Rivals?

At the timethe Syrian government forces with the support of Moscow and Tehran have achieved significant success in regaining control over the main part of the country, the question of the withdrawal of foreign militants from the region is often being raised not only by Damascus’ sponsors but also by the local influential Salafi groups too.

It should be noted that Syria’s northwest, long a hotbed of armed resistance and the heartland of al-Qaeda-linked operations, has become a real-life shelter for the foreign militants from the former Soviet Union and Chinese Xinjiang. Among them the Uzbek groups Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad and Katibat Imam al-Bukhari,Uyghur’s Turkestan Islamic Party and Chechen’s Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar are affiliated with al Qaeda. All of these groups are fighting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad under the leadership of HTS. They share al Qaeda’s ideological doctrine and, on its call, performed Hijrah from Afghanistan and Central Asia to Syria.

The presence of al Qaeda-backed foreign militant groups in Idlib greatly irritates Moscow and Tehran. During regular meetings, the leaders of the so-called “guarantor countries of the Syrian peace process” – Russia, Turkey and Iran – constantly reaffirm the determination to eliminate HTS’ predecessor “Al-Nusra Front and other terrorist groups associated with al Qaeda or ISIS”. The main responsibility for forcing the withdrawal of al Qaeda-backed foreign groups from Idlib obligated Turkey, the initiator of the Sochi Memorandum to accomplish this. But, so far, Ankara has not succeeded in fully complying with its obligations to withdraw the militants and heavy weaponry from the demilitarized zone.

Because Ankara has limited opportunities to influence foreign militant groups associated with al Qaeda in Syria. The main obstacle on this path is HTS which took under its wing of protection the Turkestan Islamic Party, Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad and Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar not only from Assad’s regime but also from possible attacks by other Salafi-Jihadi rival groups.HTS remains the most powerful Islamist group in Syria. During the last three months, HTS had expanded its territories and imposed control over 90% of Idlib, the last major opposition stronghold, inflicting a crushing defeat on the rival rebel groups Nour al-Din al-Zenki and Ahrar al-Sham, the members of the Turkey-allied National Liberation Front. Therefore, Muhajireen from post-Soviet countries and China feel secure under the umbrella of HTS.

The HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani considers that on the question of mutual relations between Muhajireen and Ansar his group relies on Islamic values when the local inhabitants [Ansar] of Medina warmly welcomed, provided shelter and supported the Prophet Muhammad and his followers [Muhajireen], who had left their homes behind for the sake of Islam in 622.At the beginning of the Syrian civil war Jabhat al-Nusra provided Muhajireen, who migrated from Central Asia and joined al Qaeda, the opportunity to live in separate villages in the northwestern Syria’s countryside where they could lead jihad against the forces of Damascus. Thanks to HTS support the Turkestan Islamic Party, Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad and Katibat Imam al-Bukhari have taken deep root in Syria soil where they opened several madrasahs in which militants’ children receive the education in Uzbek and Uyghur languages. In recent times, cases of joint marriages between Muhajireen and Ansar have become more frequent.

Abu Abdullah al-Shami, the head of HTS’ Shariah Council and the group’s highest ideologue, in his article entitled “Six Issues” clearly defined the position of the HTS regarding Muhajireen. He claims that “HTS will not compromise on its principle of refusing to barter with the Muhajireen. We do not do something that does not please our Lord. We consider it forbidden to hand over the Muslims to the disbelievers [the states]. And the Muhajireen are our brothers and we do not see a difference between a Muhajireen and Ansar, and our throats are beneath the throat of the one who has migrated to us, and we will not allow bartering on their portfolio in any circumstances, for besides the fact that it is in contravention of the Shari’a principles, it is far removed from Islamic ethics and chivalry.”

The strong support of HTS for Muhajireen fully meets the military and religious goals of Uzbek and Uyghur fighters who made Hijrah to Syria for jihad.In turn, they respond to the HTS with reciprocity and devotion to the ideals of jihad and with respect for Ansar.Abu Saloh, the leader of Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad, during the Bayat (oath of allegiance) to al Qaeda stated that Abu Mohammad al-Julani is the lion of Islam, who never uses Muhajireen as a bargaining chip. He compared the HTS leader with the founder of the Taliban movement, the late Mullah Omar, who provided Muhajireen at the head of Osama bin Laden refuge in Afghanistan to conduct jihad against America. According to him, after 9/11, even under the threat of the US military intervention to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Mullah Omar did not betray bin Laden to crusaders and remained faithful to Islamic values of Muhajireen until the end of his life.

HTS’s Controversial Turkey policy

Russian and Turkic speaking foreign fighter groups are supporting HTS rapprochement with Turkey which has long been a sensitive issue causing problems among global Salafi-Jihadi movements. Turkey’s factor and the forced collaboration of HTS with Ankara caused sharp criticism from al Qaeda, his loyalist Tanzim Hurras al-Din and many ideologues of Salafism.

In a speech entitled “The Way of Salvation” and published on 5 February 2019, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri criticized HTS for clinging to territory under Turkey’s protection, albeit not mentioning the group explicitly. He rebuked HTS for relying too heavily on Turkish support and its desire to hold onto ground at all costs. In his opinion, the jihadists in Syria are engaged in a misguided “competition for an imagined authority” over territory that is under the oversight “of secular Turkish checkpoints.” Zawahiri strictly warned the jihadists that they shouldn’t rely on Turkey to protect them. The main point of the appeal of the al Qaeda emir is that the HTS jihadists instead, of holding onto Idlib province as a proto-Emirate, it would be better for them to go underground and conduct continuous jihad against the Bashar al Assad regime, Zionists and America.

The HTS’ position on Turkey was sharply criticized by one of the most important spiritual fathers of the Salafi-Jihadi ideology Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi, who considers that any diplomatic or military ties with non-Muslim rulers count as “sinful wala’.” For Maqdisi, allowing Turkey to control any land at all in Syria is equivalent to allowing the criminal, apostate regime to do so, and makes HTS dangerously close to violating Tawḥid.

The decision of the HTS to allow Turkish troops to enter Syria and establish 12 military posts in Idlib agreed upon at Astana on October 2017 was also heavily criticized by Tanzim Hurras al-Din.The Hurras al-Din amir Abu Hammam al-Shami and its Chief Sharia Counsel Sami al-Uraydi published a statement on 30 January 2019, in which they argued that HTS’s jihad is not founded on correct Aqida (Islamic creed) or Manhaj (Methodology of the Salaf us-Saalih). Further, the leaders said some of HTS’s weapons belong to al Qaeda, and since Hurras al-Din now represents al Qaeda in Syria it is the rightful owner of the weapons.

Along with authoritative ideologues, ordinary supporters of al Qaeda accused the HTS of thwarting its own jihad by forming relations with the NATO army [Turkey] and considered it a traitor. But they could not blame HTS for apostasy.

HTS Shura Council member Abu Al-Fatah al-Farghali denied all this accusations and named three conditions under which the Turks were allowed to enter Idlib that were based on the Shari’a. First, the military superiority in the liberated areas should be for the mujahideen and not the secular Turkish army. Secondly, the Turks should not intervene in ruling or administering the liberated areas in any circumstances or forms, so as not to violate the Sharia rule. Thirdly, the decision of peace and war in the liberated areas should be in the hands of the mujahideen and not the Turkish army. He concluded that today all three conditions are strictly enforced according to the doctrine of loyalty and disavowal (al-wala’ wa-l-bara’).

The vitriolic debate and ideological violent controversy between HTS and Hurras al-Dinal most turned into an armed confrontation, during which an HTS fighter was killed in a checkpoint in southern Aleppo on February 7, 2019.The Central Asian’s Muhajireen were worried that a conflict between al-Qaeda’s former allies was causing damage to the common goals of Jihad. As a result, on February 10, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Hurras al-Din reached anew agreement, in which both organizations swore to end their war of words and cooperate against their common enemy. HTS and HAD agreed that an Islamic court would handle the controversial issues between the parties.

As we noted at the beginning of our article, the Uzbeks’ KTJ and Uyghurs’ TIP suggested that the Ansars resolve the dispute through an Islamic court, where they promised to protect the HTS with a weapon in the event of an attack on it. They hope for the justice of Islamic scholars at the head of Abu Qatada al-Filastini, who became a member of the Islamic court review the case. It should be noted that Abu Qatada al-Filastini played a key role in joining the Uzbek group KTJ to al Qaeda and HTS.

Uzbek and Uyghur militants support HTS in its pursuit to choose the lesser of two evils and do not see in its forced cooperation with Turkey violating the doctrine of loyalty and disavowal of Salafism in waging Jihad. Muhajireen do not oppose Ankara’s initiatives to create a demilitarized zone in Idlib jointly with Moscow. This is due to several factors.

First, the cultural, linguistic and kinship community with the Turks plays an important role, and they consider Turkey’s initiative helped delay for one year a possible attack by the Assad army, Iran’s Shiite proxy forces and the Russian Aerospace Forces on Idlib. During this time, the Muhajireen and the Ansar were able to prepare for a future battle.

Second, the Uyghurs Muhajireen view Turkey as the only country that provides them with moral and political support in the face of Chinese repression. More than 50 thousand Uyghurs live in Turkey who fled from Beijing’s persecution and Ankara condemned China’s Islam policy .In this regard, the Uyghurs are trying to pay back for this act of kindness. Some Uyghur Muhajireen participated in the military Operation Olive Branch along with the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army to liberate Afrin in March 2018.

Thirdly, in the Kurdish question, the ideological position of the Central Asian militants coincides with the position of the HTS, who consider Kurdish YPG and PKK as communist organizations and unbeliever (kafir) groups.

The future of Central Asia’s Muhajireen in Idlib’s Safe-Haven

The ideological contradictions and continuous clashes between the rival rebel groups in Syria clearly characterize not only the current state of relations between former al Qaeda allies, but also the complex transformation that occurs within the global Sunni Salafi-Jihadi movement.

In this regard it should be noted that the statement of foreign fighters in support of HTS will have far-reaching consequences. Now, the prospect of finding Uyghur, Uzbek and Caucasian salafi groups on Syrian soil and their participation in global jihad in Middle East will depend on the position of the HTS. It can be expected that further deepening of the contradictions between HTS and al Qaeda in the near future will raise the question for foreign fighters about the choice of a strategic partner, because TIP and KTJ are members of al Qaeda, but at the same time they support the position of HTS in its dispute with al Qaeda.

After the defeat of the last stronghold of ISIS in al-Baghuz the attention of the regional powers will now be focused on the HTS, which built a prototype of the Caliphate, the so-called “Government of Salvation” in Idlib, which is managed on the basis of Sharia. However, HTS’s pursuit to distance itself more and more from al Qaeda and its desire to transform itself into a participant in the political dialogue of the Syrian conflict will force it to distance itself from the foreign Muhajireen. Therefore, in the near future, Uzbek and Uyghur Muhajireen will have to flee from Idlib or they await the bitter fate of ISIS.

Doctor of Political Science (PhD), expert on Political Islam. Modern Diplomacy Advisory Board, Member. SpecialEurasia, Team Member.

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Terrorism

Terrorism, Radicalisation and Legitimacy

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Terrorism

In discussions about fighting terrorism, the word “radicalisation” is often used, yet its meaning remains unclear. Focusing only on intellectual radicalisation risks assuming that radical ideas are a proxy for terrorism or a crucial precursor when we know this is not the case. Different paths and processes of engagement in terrorism act differently for different individuals at different times and circumstances. 

This article examines the difficulties in defining radicalisation and radicalism and concludes that radicalisation, especially participation in terrorism, is best understood as a collection of distinct processes. It then discusses several potentially exciting theories, such as social movement theory, social psychology, and conversion theory, that could encourage future research into these processes. Further, the article describes potential frameworks for comprehending how the processes may assist terroristic activity. 

Radicalisation has been arguably the most common foundation for understanding micro-level shifts toward violence during the past decade. Nonetheless, the concept has evolved into more than just a dominant police paradigm; it has also become a holistic government strategy that includes vigilance, security, vulnerability, and civic engagement. With the introduction of this approach came a slew of analysts, consultants, and professors claiming “expert” knowledge of individual conversions to political violence. Relevant researchers on terrorism and extremism have yet to agree on a clearly articulated understanding of this notion. However, the term’s meaning and bounds are hotly debated around the globe.

The definition of radicalisationby McCauley and Moskalenko (2017) is “greater preparation for and commitment to intergroup conflict and violence.” Hafez and Mullins (2015) defined radicalisation as a “gradual ‘process’ including indoctrination into an extreme belief system that lays the groundwork for violence but does not guarantee it.”

However, Alex Schmid (2013) reassessed radicalisation to improve the consistency and objectivity of discussions around this concept. According to him, 

“an individual or collective (group) process whereby, usually in a situation of political polarisation, normal practices of dialogue, compromise and tolerance between political actors and groups with diverging interests are abandoned by one or both sides in a conflict dyad in favour of a growing commitment to engage in confrontational tactics of conflict-waging. These can include either (i) the use of (non-violent) pressure and coercion, (ii) various forms of political violence other than terrorism or (iii) acts of violent extremism in the form of terrorism and war crimes. The process is, on the side of rebel factions, generally accompanied by ideological socialisation away from mainstream or status quo-oriented positions towards more radical or extremist positions involving a dichotomous world view and the acceptance of an alternative focal point of political mobilisation outside the dominant political order as the existing system is no longer recognised as appropriate or legitimate.”

Although the term “radicalism” and its subsequent derivative “radicalisation” historically has had a much broader meaning, in the context of contemporary studies and policymaking, the term “radicalisation” typically refers to a path that leads to terrorism, a gradual slide into extremism or fundamentalism, or, more generally, a movement toward justifying violence and eventually engaging in it. The great majority of definitions agree that radicalisation is a process; nevertheless, they disagree on where this process will go after it is complete. 

For instance, the European Commission’s expert group on radicalisation describes radicalisation as “socialisation to extremism that emerges as terrorism” (European Commission Expert Group 7). In contrast, the United States Department of Homeland Security describes radicalisation as “the process of acquiring an extreme belief system, including the readiness to advocate or use violence as a means” (US Department of Homeland Security). Institute for Homeland Security Studies According to some official definitions, it is a path that leads to terrorism. For instance, in the United Kingdom, it is defined as “the process through which an individual comes to support terrorism and forms of extremism that lead to terrorism” (House of Commons Home Affairs Committee).

People in representative democracies have the freedom to voice views that go to the core of issues (precisely what the word “radical” denotes) and the right to advocate for significant changes to political, economic, or social systems. Many of the concepts European “radical groupings” proposed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were ultimately incorporated into the conventional conception of political liberalism (widening the franchise, redistributing property, freedom of the press, etc.). 

This is likely why liberal constitutions protect the rights of individuals to defend radical or unusual opinions and limit free speech only when it incites violence, is offensive or is vulgar. The rules that govern the realm of thoughts are opposed to the laws that govern the world of actions. Individual conduct is rigorously watched, especially when it involves the illegal use of violence against non-combatants that is not state-sanctioned. 

Individuals and organisations who use violence without discrimination confront justifiable objections in open societies. For instance, the experts commonly use “radicalisation” while discussing Salafists and the ultraconservative Islamists. These groups are notorious for their relentless proselytising and support for ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Since Salafists are affiliated with both of these terrorist organisations, this is the case. Radicalisation, however, is not contained in one aspect or region of the globe. It is seen in all types of terrorism, including leftist, rightist, anarchist, ethno-nationalist, and religious terrorism. 

Prior research and analysis support the assumption that there is no one causal pathway or explanatory theory that applies to all types of individuals. According to Walter Laqueur (2003), the search for a “universal theory” of terrorism is erroneous since “many terrorists exist, and their traits change over time and between nations.” The same seems to be true of the radicalization process.

Despite this, a variety of efforts have been made to articulate a fundamental sequence of stages, events, or obstacles that may apply to both cross-group and within-group kinds. How do individuals come to accept violent extremist beliefs (radicalise), translate them — or not — into reasons or imperatives for using terrorist action, and choose (or not) to participate in violent and subversive behaviour in the service of these ideologies? This seems to be the driving question for these initiatives.

To be clear, the great bulk of what has been written so far on “radicalization” into violent extremist ideas (particularly those supporting terrorism) is conceptual rather than factual. While the exact processes and sequencing of these changes are controversial, it is certain that various pathways and mechanisms function differently for different people. We may be able to design better-informed policies and procedures to curb and prevent the spread of violent extremism if we have a more sophisticated understanding of how this process unfolds inside and among organisations.

For decades now, the international community has worked to adopt impartial standards in times of conflict that prohibit the use of particular types of violence and weaponry by setting limits aimed to safeguard certain people and objectives. However, the neutrality of these regulations has traditionally benefitted the more powerful, leaving those with less power with few options for circumventing them. This explains why, after WWII, the greatest amount of victimisation has happened during non-international wars.

Consider also that the lack of international law to offer adequate procedures for the peaceful settlement of disputes has all too often left protagonists with no choice but to resort to violence and, as a result of power imbalance, to violate the rules on the limits to violence. At a summit of chiefs of state in the Americas in 1961, President John F. Kennedy clearly said that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”

Thus, in the absence of effective mechanisms for peaceful conflict resolution and the rule of law that applies equally to all protagonists, the alternative is violence—and, more often than not, violence in violation of international humanitarian law and human rights law, which falls under the definition of terrorism.

Borum (2012) has sought to describe the driving elements that drive radicalisation, particularly militant Islamist radicalisation in Europe, by looking outside of the existing radicalisation paradigm.

Background factors or personal struggles with religious identity, experience with discrimination, etc. Trigger Factors or specific events that could provoke antipathy or activism; finally, Opportunity Factors include the individual’s degree of access and exposure to extremist ideas, such as physical and virtual spaces where she/he is likely to meet like-minded people. (ibid). Additionally, in developing a functional explanation for political radicalisation, McCauley and Moskalenko (2017) describe it as “a stronger readiness for and commitment to intergroup confrontation.” They outline the process using the Pyramid Model, with the base of the pyramid consisting of all persons who sympathise with the terrorists’ stated goals. All individuals who wanted the “Brits out” in Northern Ireland were part of the Irish Republican Army’s support base.

As with the staircase model, the pyramid’s higher levels are associated with decreasing numbers but increasing radicalisation among individuals regarding their views, attitudes, and behaviours as we go from the base to the apex. It was previously stated in this article that the process of radicalisation differs amongst persons.

McCauley and Moskalenko go even farther, describing how radicalisation occurs at several levels, including the individual, the group, and even the masses. Individuals may become radicalised for a number of reasons, including personal victimisation, political grievances, and joining a radical organisation, either via an existing membership with the group of a loved one or by a prolonged process of self-radicalisation. Even though self-radicalisation has been heavily debated, the presence of a group dynamic has been demonstrated to be critical for radicalisation, and an increasing number of psychological studies have shown the deadly potential of self-radicalisation.

Milgram’s 1963 experiment sought to ascertain the conditions that might persuade someone to do ”evil’. The experiment required volunteers to shock a person who answered a question incorrectly. As the number of incorrectly answered questions increased, so did the shock voltage until a lethal voltage was administered. Although no genuine shocks were administered, the individuals were unaware of this. The majority of participants gave what they thought were lethal quantities of electricity. While the experiment’s primary goal was to understand the concept of obedience in humans, it also helped explain how people could transform into radicals simply because an authoritative figure promised them significance within a group. This provided them with enough motivation to disengage from the evil they were committing morally.

Further talking about the legitimacy or non-legitimacy of radicalisation, for decades now, the international community has endeavoured to develop impartial rules in times of war that restrict the use of certain forms of violence and armament by establishing limitations designed to protect specific persons and purposes. However, the neutrality of these restrictions has historically favoured those with more power, leaving those with less power with few choices for evading them. This explains why, following World War II, the highest number of victims have occurred in non-international conflicts.

Moreover, the lack of international law to provide proper processes for the peaceful resolution of conflicts has often forced protagonists to resort to violence and, as a consequence of a power imbalance, to breach the norms about the boundaries of violence. It has always been easier for nations to proclaim self-defence and legitimacy, whereas aggrieved groups have found it more challenging to make the same claims. A significant example is an Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Regardless of the nature of the violent action, it is legal when carried out by Israel, with the rare exception of perhaps excessive use of force. Nevertheless, it is almost always terrorism when carried out by the Palestinians. Utilising violence to instil fear in a population has been a constant throughout history. Despite what contemporary politicians claim, terrorism, as we have come to call it, is not new, nor are its responses.

Nevertheless, regardless of whether terrorism is illegitimate or not, there are three critical qualities that, when combined, distinguish terrorism from other violent social engagements. First, a violent act is considered terrorist when its psychological effects on a specific population or social aggregate, in terms of widespread emotional reactions such as fear and anxiety, are disproportionate to its actual or potential material consequences, in terms of physical harm to both people and property (Aron, 1962). Second, for such violence to impact, it must be systematic and unexpected, often directed at targets selected for their symbolic value within a dominant cultural framework and within a particular institutional framework (Thornton, 1964; Walter, 1969). Third, the injury of such targets is utilised for communicating signals and threats, making terrorism a tool for communication and social control (Roucek, 1962; Crelinsten, 1987).

Even though there is reason to believe that various state and non-state actors initiate radicalisation in reactions to oppression, hatred, bigotry, and discrimination, classifying the workflow as legitimate or illegitimate would be reducing a comprehensive and multifaceted problem to strict binary functions. Leaders of violent extremist groups, for instance, may exploit Muslims’ perceived marginalisation across the globe. However, there is a heated intellectual and political debate on whether the perceived marginalisation of Muslims throughout the globe as a source of extremism is or just an interpretation of extremist goals. Human rights abuses and the perception of international hostility may radicalise diaspora groups for sure.

Several social scientists have identified legitimacy as a crucial issue in the study of terrorism. According to Martha Crenshaw, legitimacy is “a significant obstacle in conceptualising terrorism and, indeed, any kind of political violence.” Often, legitimacy is at stake in conflicts between governments and terrorist organisations; in these circumstances, one side disputes the legitimacy of the other. Crenshaw identifies far-left terrorists “Consider actions against the state to be morally permissible and question the state’s legitimacy. Frequently, right-wing terrorists “deny the validity of protest and believe that violence in the service of order is sanctioned by the significance of the status quo.” Lastly, impacted states claim legitimacy: a state under terrorist attack is often required to “maintain and defend its legitimacy while delegitimising the terrorist threat” (Crenshaw, 1983).

States and terrorist organisations must explain their use of force or violence to obtain legitimacy and show a genuine commitment to democratic values and objectives. Given these conditions, which are necessary but inadequate for establishing legitimacy, it should be clear that legitimacy claims are not just challenging to prove but also defensible once established. A state’s legitimacy crisis might be caused by a single act (denying its citizens the right to a fair and open trial) or a sequence of interconnected actions. Ultimately, this crisis may culminate in a challenge to the existence of a state or government; this challenge may take the form of substantial civil disobedience (as happened in France in May 1968), or it may be more violent.

According to the literature in the social sciences, terrorism has been utilised in response to analogous situations. In contrast, legitimacy is a challenging and complex term with legal, political, and moral ramifications. After establishing legitimacy as a crucial aspect in the struggle between governments and terrorist organisations, so, it is not unexpected that social scientists avoid discussing the issue.

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Global Terrorist Trends 2020 to 2022: An analysis

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Over the years, the surging global trends have assumed varying characteristics between 2020 and 2022. While on the one hand, negotiations between the state apparatus and terrorists have become normalised and a part of the international relations conducted in Africa and South-Central Asia. On the other hand, the non-state actors, having accumulated far-reaching influence and fear factor, have now audaciously challenged the state’s integrity and thereby compel the government of the day to heed to its demands, from the bottom-up to the top-down.

On the other hand, far-right and politically charged acts of terrorism have primarily swept away the traditional Islamist jihadist threats facing the West without wholly diluting its essence. In contrast, the narratives about accelerationism, the great replacement theory, and video games as a radicalisation toolkit have become vital to analysing the first world’s developing security challenges.

Negotiating with terrorists: The Malian way

Amid the widening rift with the French, the Malian junta has presumably sought to acquire an alternative, even a disagreeable partner, to diminish the locals’ growing angst and frustration at continuing violence and insecurity. Accordingly, the Malian leadership is reportedly in the works of negotiating a deal with Jamaat Nusrat Al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), an Al-Qaeda affiliate and the most rapidly expanding terrorist outfit worldwide. This step has presumably been initiated as part of the government’s last-ditch attempt to retain power and bring the ravaging war, from 2017 onwards to an end.

Analysts like Wassim Nasr believe that the already strained relationship between the Malian junta burdened with multiple economic embargoes and President Emmanuel Macron hit its rock bottom due to the prospect of a ceasefire between the government and the terrorists. He claims

“Negotiations were the last affront for France and, in the current context, it is the junta’s last card to play. But even if the negotiations ultimately fail, a ceasefire would allow the junta to boast that it has facilitated the return of displaced populations or that it has enabled a particular village to stop being encircled by the jihadists and that is what counts for the local people.”

In central Mali, several tribal leaders have signed what crudely termed as “survival pacts” with JNIM fighters in the absence of effective army control and destabilising security situation countrywide.

To preserve peace and prevent the killing of ordinary civilians and the looting of cattle by the jihadists, the communities have collectively sought to achieve a fragile but ongoing truce with this deadly terrorist organisation. However, while freedoms have been put aside to eliminate violence by the terrorists, the hard-won stability does not appear to be taken for granted. Some of these tribal heads have now called upon the government to officially open a channel for negotiations with JNIM, including them and clerics. Whether or not this will be mainstreamed and eventually bear fruit is still debated.

The Afghan-Central Asian quicksand

As the Afghan example suggests, the US-led attempts to negotiate a dignified exit from its longest-running war after 2001 also normalised diplomatic engagement with insurgents-turned administrators. Most states globally have exercised caution in granting official recognition to the Taliban’s interim government. Nonetheless, their continued engagement, beginning with the Doha agreement signed in February 2020 or the Troika Plus Meeting held in Moscow, has de facto accorded an informal diplomatic status to Afghanistan’s new regime.

A country undergoing a multifaceted human security crisis as Afghanistan is bound to be the forerunner on the Global Terrorism Index report. The internalised violent rivalry between the Taliban and the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), with a potential for spillover, has added to the Afghans’ chaos and instability, especially in the Shia Hazara community, frequently jolted by bloodshed and insecurity. Moreover, replacing the Taliban as the deadliest terrorist organisation in 2021, the ISKP has continued to stage the ground for a protracted conflict locally while attempting to permeate the Central Asian borders, including those of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

It has also tried to depict any cooperation between the Taliban and the Uzbeks as a betrayal on the former’s part for colluding with a country that it accuses of being Islam’s enemy and for being heretics. Furthermore, while the outfit is hailing the allegedly recent attack on the Tajik soil as the initiation of its parent organisation’s “great jihad to Central Asia,” its association with hardened Tajik jihadists goes back to their recruitment by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq in 2014 and Afghanistan in 2015.

According to a Voice of America report unveiled in April 2022, the ISKP claimed to have staged ten rocket attacks, targeting the Uzbek territory, particularly a military facility in Termez. Although the Uzbek government swiftly refuted this assertion, the SITE Intelligence Group, a non-governmental organisation that tracks jihadist and white supremacist outfits’ online terrorist propaganda, has published alleged pictures supporting the ISKP’s audacious claims.

Since the fall of the Ghani administration in August 2021, Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries have apprehensively looked at the evolving trends. This comes amid the growing tensions between the Taliban’s interim government and the Tajik leaders over the latter’s assistance to the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan. Its torchbearers like Ahmed Shah Massoud and Amrullah Saleh are ethnic Tajiks.

The never-ending Pakistani crises

On the other hand, the evolving terrorist trends have also included Pakistan’s domestic crisis and its confrontation with the TTP. The TTP is the Pakistani branch of the Afghan Taliban. It has waged a protracted armed battle against the host state, with some of its earlier attacks, like the massacre at an army school in Peshawar in December 2014, resulting in hundreds of school children and teachers’ deaths. However, last year, after the one-month ceasefire broke down in December 2021, it had intensified its attrition. While this temporary ceasefire agreement failed to materialise into a more permanent initiative, it reinforced the normalisation of negotiating with proscribed groups and terrorists. Nonetheless, it set the stage for a probable return to negotiations with the Afghan Taliban mediating the talks based on a similar format.

Since the beginning of May 2022, the state and TTP have been re-engaged in discussions, albeit constantly arriving at a stalemate due to demands that neither side can appear to agree to. For example, end to military operations in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas and halting attacks on Pakistani installations. Over the past month, they have extended the ceasefire thrice. This time, they have done so for an indefinite period, after the last one expired on 30 May. A three-member committee to iron out differences, moderated by Sirajuddin Haqqani, has also been formed.

Pakistani officials have claimed that over 100 officers have lost their lives in TTP attacks since 2022. This is only a minuscule sample size to understand the gravity of the situation wholly. However, the state establishment has found it increasingly challenging to convince its Afghan compatriots to rein in the TTP as it had hoped and give it some respite to shift its focus to the deteriorating economic crisis.

However, the persevering patron-client ties now face the hurdle of overcoming what appears to be a nearly-insurmountable roadblock. Despite repeated requests by the Pakistani leadership, the de facto Afghan rulers have refused to cooperate on severing ties with the TTP and instead sought to militarily engage with armed forces in constructing fences along the contested Durand Line. Furthermore, an internationalised diplomatic crisis has ensued due to Pakistani forces’ “counter-terrorism operations” in Afghanistan’s eastern Khost and Kunar provinces in April 2022. Reportedly to eliminate TTP jihadists, the airstrikes killed at least 47 civilians, including 20 children.  In such instances, counter-terrorism strategies are intertwined to penalise neighbouring states who refuse to conform to patron countries’ demands.

When terrorism comes to the West: The United States, the UK, Germany, and Canada

  • The United States of America

The Capitol Hill Riots organised in January 2020 to protests against those who “stole” the election, or the most recent targeted killings of African-Americans by Payton Gendron, an 18-year-old white supremacist and conspiracy theorist, in a prominently African-American neighbourhood supermarket in Buffalo, New York, reveal the country’s diverse security challenges. They are driven by the deep-rooted paranoia associated with the Great Replacement Theory – a conspiracy theory touted by ultra-right white supremacists according to whom the “superior” race, i.e., the white community in the Western world, is threatened by the immigration of non-whites, which will result in the former’s extinction.

Additionally, although not directly linked to a terrorist ideology, accelerationism, is a loophole that ought to be remedied at urgent notice. Its proponents believe that it is obligatory for the alt-right white nationalists to violently ensure the liberal democratic order’s destruction to make way for an order dominated by them to emerge. Ethnic and racial minorities, Jews, “race traitors” such as whites indulging in inter-racial relationships must also be wholly wiped out. Furthermore, it is unsurprising that such distorted notions have gained prominence during the pandemic, convincing a segment of the population that migrants and Jews bear responsibility for the spread of this infectious disease.

Seth Aaron Pendley is currently serving a ten-year imprisonment sentence for plotting to blow up an Amazon data centre, driven by the farce idea that this act would disrupt most of the internet and federal agencies’ digital communication services. He believed that the fallout would have such a devastating impact on the Americans’ lives that they would violently rise against the “dictatorship.”

On the other hand, in November 2021, a large-scale shooting at the Oxford High School in Michigan has become the first even to be categorised by prosecutors as an act of domestic terrorism in the country. The mass violence and fear generated by one of the several incidents related to gun violence in the United States has relatively convinced the authorities that acts of terrorism, whether committed by Islamist jihadists or a high school teenager, should be placed and judged within the same paradigm. Whether it was 9/11 or blood spilled at an academic institution and a supermarket, these events fulfilled some of the essential criteria of terrorism

“Any act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities in a situation of armed conflict, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population or to compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.”

  • The United Kingdom

Violence linked to alt-right ideologies has catapulted, including in the United Kingdom (UK), according to the Metropolitan (Met) Police’s Assistant Commissioner, Matt Jukes. 41 percent of arrested individuals in 2021 comprised of those affiliated with or ideologically inclined towards the alt-right. Last year, a 13-year-old teenager was arrested on charges of trying to make a bomb.

However, the Islamist jihadist threat has not waned yet in the UK. Three arrests – a 13 and an 18-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl – have been made by the police during a week on terrorism-related charges in May 2022. Although their investigations are currently viewed independently for the moment, Richard Smith, Commander of Met’s Counter-Terrorism Command Centre, has claimed that –

“It is a further indication of a concerning upward trend in police action against younger people for terrorism-related matters.”

Moreover, Prevent, a core component of the British government’s counter-terrorism, counter-radicalisation strategy, has also struggled to address the loopholes in its countrywide de-radicalisation programmes. For example, Sir David Amess, a former parliamentarian, was assassinated in October 2021 by Ali Harbi Ali, an Islamist terrorist who was once a part of this initiative.

  • Germany

In 2020, violent right-wing extremist incidents across Germany reached a two-decade high. The past statistics indicated that 23,064 alt-right-related crimes accounted for all politically-motivated crimes during that year, with an increase of 18.8 percent in violent hate crimes, including attempted murders and fatal injuries. In addition, January 2020 witnessed a racially-motivated attack against the country’s only serving black member of the Bundestag (the German federal parliament), Dr. Karamba Diaby, when his car was found riddled with five bullet holes. A week after that incident, he received a threatening email warning that he would meet the same fate as Herr Lübcke (details mentioned below).

In March of that year, Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution – The German Domestic Intelligence Services) placed the alt-right Alternative für Deutschland’s (Alternative for Germany) influential party leaders under surveillance and categorically defined it as an extremist organisation. According to Herr Thomas Haldenwang, the Intelligence Chief, at least 200 lives have been lost due to right-wing extremism between the German re-unification and March 2020.

Furthermore, one must also consider two significant far-right attacks – The deadly Hanau shooting in February 2020, where nine people died and five suffered injuries by Tobias Rathjen, a right-wing ideologue driven by anti-Semitic sentiments. Even though his letters detailing his chilling thoughts had been delivered to the state authorities, no action had been taken. Following his rampage, he murdered his mother and committed suicide after returning home. This was preceded by the assassination of Walter Lübcke, a politician from Hesse, in June 2019, who was targeted by Stephen Ernst, a neo-Nazi, due to his pro-refugee stance.

On the other hand, the Ukrainian war appears to have given the German neo-Nazis a fresh impetus to advocate for their ideological aspirations –  

“When Putin marches through, men will again be men, electricity and fuel will become cheaper, Islamization will end, and the greens and lefties will all be locked up.”

This message appeared on Free Thuringians, an alt-right extremist groups’ Telegram channel.

  • Canada

The threat analysis report released by the federal administration’s Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre in 2021 warned that authorities’ ability to detect potential attacks committed by such religiously or ideologically motivated groupings or persons has become challenging. For example, there are hundreds of alt-right outfits across the country. Unsurprisingly, law enforcement and security personnel find it difficult to narrow down and clamp down on at-risk individuals and groups.

Furthermore, as Jessica Davis, a former Senior Intelligence Analyst with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, has aptly pointed out, while a considerable segment of radicalised people is active on social media platforms only a minority of them genuinely translate their views into threatening actions, the “challenge is really figuring out who in that big bucket is actually going to do something.” The pandemic has also witnessed a surge in neo-Nazi activities, predominantly hate crimes, as targeted violence against the Black community in Canada has catapulted by more than 96 percent, with analogies being drawn with the Buffalo shooting in the United States of America.

Conclusion

Terrorist threats have magnified over the past few years, gradually subsuming efforts to prioritise socio-economic development, particularly in fragile states. Namely, Mali is still struggling to address the local grievances and is unable to develop and implement a multi-pronged counter-terrorism strategy that works. This has forced the government’s hand and compelled it to potentially strike a peace deal with the terrorists. In addition, the efforts to do so have intensified amid the inevitable French withdrawal from the Malian territory and the desire to secure peace and stability. However, one could also assert that, like Mali, Afghanistan also served as the theatre of negotiations to end the “forever wars.”

Unstable countries in the Sahel region, including Mali, have eclipsed West Asia and North Africa region, and Afghanistan, in the at-risk category. On the other hand, according to the Global Terrorism Index Report 2022, Afghanistan has retained its place as the worst impacted by this menace third year in a row. 

Concurrently, one must remember that Afghanistan’s position has been cemented primarily because of its humanitarian and security quagmire. It is confronted with numerous challenges –  the absence of adequate funds to run the country and provide essential services and security, in addition to brain drain and the threat of a booming narco-terror economy looming ahead. The trajectory it will take is debatable despite numerous dialogues and conferences focused on its emanating issues being organised worldwide.  

Additionally, Pakistan also sought to adopt a similar playbook to halt, even partially, the radicalised elements,’ including those belonging to the Taliban’s Pakistan branch’s advance. The army and intelligence agencies have faced this mounting dilemma despite their long-standing relationship with the Afghan Taliban. Their radicalisation occurred in the Pakistani madrassas over two decades ago. It retained the support of subsequent governments during their insurgency against Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani’s administrations and the international coalition forces. As explained Sami Yousufzai, an Afghan journalist –

“Pakistan is angry that the Taliban are copying its playbook by hosting a militant group hostile to a neighbouring country.”

Invariably, such sentiments will remain unchanged because the subsequent Afghan governments are unlikely to compromise on their jihadist principles to such an extent. They are already under severe strain due to reported Uyghur defections to the ISKP and criticism for parlaying with the West. Betraying their TTP brethren would unravel the fundamental argument for waging the bloody insurgency to replace the American-backed administrations and replace them with an Islamic system based on Sharia. A group whose inability to secure the country from ISKP attacks or to overcome the humanitarian catastrophe amid the pandemic would not survive such an overreaching compromise of their Islamic beliefs. Like the Afghan Taliban, the TTP also seeks to violently overthrow the existing state infrastructure and replace it with a Sharia-backed Islamic government.

Alt-right terrorism and conspiracy theories have increasingly gained ground among the new breed of terrorists in the western world. The Great Replacement Theory is at the core of emerging security challenges. However, developed countries have also continued to experience its fallout, rapidly shifting its course from Islamist threats to alt-right domestic violent extremism or politically motivated violence. For example, first-world countries such as the United States of America have realised that individuals who are generally the amalgamation of white supremacists and conspiracy theorists pose some of the most significant domestic threats to the nation-state.

Despite emerging as the European powerhouse over the last few years, Germany has been compelled to navigate challenges of politically-motivated terrorism, frequently attributed to the alt-right ideology. As per official accounts, it is believed to have recorded at least 19 such attacks, surpassing those anywhere in the western world. A substantive degree of radicalisation occurs on chat forums and video games, particularly among middle-class persons. Over time, this can take the form of politically-motivated terrorism, and the situation appears to have worsened amid the pandemic. The United Kingdom is a case in point.

The Canadian authorities, who have remained relatively immune, vis-à-vis their western counterparts to such acts of terror, have recently begun to confront security challenges posed by lone-wolf actors and small-scale organisations.

On the other hand, while the Covid restrictions have constrained people’s ability to participate in physical meetings and engage in activities intended to cause tangible harm, hours spent traversing through online forums have spurred alt-right radicalisation and continued to inspire lone-wolf attacks. The targets of attacks are often those who are considered a threat to white supremacy, either due to their racial or religious attributes, and “race traitors.”

Nevertheless, catapulting alt-right tendencies in the West cannot dilute the threat posed by Islamist jihadists. For example, the challenges associated with Prevent, a core component of the British government’s counter-terrorism strategy, have recently been subjected to greater scrutiny due to its loopholes.

These overlapping conflicts are detrimental to domestic and regional security dynamics.

As has been indicated above, governments have resorted to backtracking from their ideal positions or refraining from engagement with terrorists to save face, redirect resources towards socio-economic crises engulfing their populace, or reduce fatalities of the civilians, or state personnel, including the police, and armed forces.

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Terrorism

Human rights must be ‘front and centre’ in the fight against terrorism

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A family runs across a dusty street in Herat, Afghanistan. (file photo) UNAMA/Fraidoon Poya

Responses to terrorism must be anchored in the rule of law, human rights, and gender equality to ensure their effectiveness, Secretary-General António Guterres told a UN-backed counter-terrorism meeting that opened in Málaga, Spain, on Tuesday. 

“As a moral duty, a legal obligation, and a strategic imperative – let’s put human rights where they belong: Front and centre in the fight against terror,” Mr. Guterres said in a video message to the High-Level International conference on Human Rights, Civil Society and Counter-Terrorism

The two-day event is taking place against the backdrop of the growing threat of terrorism across the globe, and the resulting increase in related legislation and policies. 

Assault on human rights 

During the conference, governments, international organizations, civil society and human rights defenders will examine how to formulate terrorism responses that comply with human rights and the rule of law, and ensure meaningful participation of civil society in counter-terrorism efforts. 

“This gathering reflects a central truth. Terrorism is not only an attack on innocent people. It represents an all-out assault on human rights,” said the Secretary-General. 

The threat is growing and global, he added, listing examples such as the continued expansion of Da’esh and Al-Qaeda in Africa, and resurgent terrorism in Afghanistan. 

The UN chief spoke of how extremist groups are targeting women and girls with gender-based violence, including sexual violence, while terrorists are also using technology to “spread and export lies, hatred and division at the touch of a button.” 

Meanwhile, xenophobia, racism and cultural and religious intolerance are accelerating. 

Reaffirm core values 

Mr. Guterres warned that at the same time, global responses to terrorism can make things worse. 

“In the name of security, humanitarian aid is often blocked – increasing human suffering. Civil society and human rights defenders are silenced – particularly women. And survivors of terrorism and violence are left without the support and access to justice they need to rebuild their lives,” he said. 

The Secretary-General called for reaffirming commitment to core values, including by investing in health, education, protection, gender equality, and justice systems that are accessible to all people. 

This must also include safeguarding humanitarian action, respecting international law and “opening the door to civil society – and especially women – to meaningfully engage with counter-terrorism efforts.” 

Ensuring long-term efforts 

The high-level conference is jointly organized by the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) and Spain. 

In his opening remarks, Mr. Vladimir Voronkov, UN Under-Secretary-General for Counter-Terrorism, stressed that “countering terrorism helps protect human rights, but only if human rights are protected while countering terrorism.”  

Moreover, he added the violation or abuse of human rights only plays into terrorists’ hands, as they seek to provoke heavy-handed and indiscriminate responses from security forces. 

“Terrorists do this with the aim of undermining public confidence in the ability of governments to protect their own citizens.  That is why a human rights-based approach is not aimed at challenging or frustrating counterterrorism initiatives,” he said. 

“On the contrary, it’s essential to ensure effective, long-term, and sustainable counter-terrorism efforts.” 

Global strategy 

The conference follows a virtual dialogue held last year with human rights and civil society partners, also convened by the UNOCT and Spain.   

Several thematic sessions will focus on issues such as human rights, the rule of law and principled humanitarian action in the context of counter-terrorism efforts; and support for victims and survivors of terrorism. 

Prior to the opening, a workshop and six side events were held to accelerate momentum and commitment towards implementing the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in a balanced manner. 

The strategy, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2006, includes measures that range from strengthening State capacity to counter terrorist threats to and better coordinating the UN’s System’s counter-terrorism activities. 

The Foreign Minister of Spain, José Manuel Albares Bueno, who also addressed the opening ceremony, expressed high hopes for the conference.  

“The diversity of the themes is a true reflection of the comprehensive nature of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in its seventh review, which was co-facilitated by Spain and adopted by consensus by the General Assembly in June last year,” he said. 

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