According to the Greek historian Polybius, Alexander the Great used to say that propaganda “serves to maintain and protect the victories after the cessation of hostilities”.
This quote is still an essential key to understand the mechanisms of contemporary propaganda and psyops.
The current psychological war, in fact, is aimed above all at radically changing and building from scratch the perceptions of the inhabitants of any target State.
Whoever wins this war, apparently painless, is spared the costs of the conflict and definitively weakens the opponents, regardless of their military strength-opponents who no longer have the ability to use their conventional or indirect weapons.
Or they use them against themselves.
Even in indirect strategies and psyops, however, it is always a matter of stopping and breaking a kill chain.
What counts in these operations is always hitting the enemies where they are weaker.
Hence, always keeping at a safe distance from opponents – also from the cultural viewpoint – to avoid any conventional fight, but using, however, mass psychology like Alexander the Great, so as to “ensure” a victory which is obtained with an economic, financial, cultural and symbolic struggle.
Or to replace the military victory with that of psyops. Without a fight.
Contemporary society, however, makes things much easier.
Today we are in the phase of “attention economy”, of the massive saving of thought – the phase in which all messages, even the “highest” ones, are developed and processed to be consumed very quickly, because of an attention span which is always very short, almost as hypnosis or sleepwalking.
With a view to making the desired content be selected, two mental and material channels need to be used: the “mirror neurons” in the F5 area of the premotor cortex and the maximum use of induced emotions.
It should be recalled that mirror neurons are particular neurons that fires both when an individual acts and when he/she observes the same action (or even an emotion) performed or experienced by another.
They are the material basis of empathy.
Hence disinformation uses negative emotions and correlates them with messages useful to the sender. A message that is barely abstract, or even completely sensitive and iconic, is related to a fixed emotion of nuisance, discomfort, pain.
This is the initial core of disinformation.
The excess of negative emotions, often related to dezinformatsja techniques, always triggers anxiety and stress in the individual subject. It also lowers the serotonin levels and operates on both subjective fears and those already embedded in people’s minds.
Given this induced state of mind, the information reaching the brain is no longer directed to the prefrontal cortex, which is accustomed to use logical categories, but emotional information is targeted and directly to the motor cortex.
In this phase the brain is blocked by stress or by those situations that the Palo Alto Psychological School considered to be at the origin of schizophrenia or of “double bind”, which occurs when an individual receives two conflicting messages, a positive and a negative one, sent out by an affective source, with one negating the other and thus being emotionally distressing.
Ultimately there is the almost total material deactivation of the frontal cortex, i.e. the transformation of homo sapiens into an angry robot.
This is the reason why it is useful for disinformation to always use violent or irregular content in messages – content that increases aggressiveness and hence weakens the cortex.
The brain area of empathy is then weakened, precisely with the violent content of communication, or even with the mix of noise, rhythm, repetition of sounds, lights and signs that Marshall McLuhan considered typical of our time (and rightly so), as he told us in his book, written with Quentin Fiore, entitled War and Peace in the Global Village.
Hence the geostrategic effect of these operations: when a whole country is gradually flooded with this type of communication, everybody – including the ruling class – will suffer a temporary weakening and inactivation of the frontal cortex.
Hence, when they take decisions, they will anyway operate with pseudo-concepts, automatic reactions, commonplaces, wrong perceptions and old stereotypes.
Therefore the political link of the future will be the meeting of big data technology with the new neurosciences.
Even without recalling H.G. Wells or George Orwell, the current possibility of manipulating very large sections of the public – in a stable, effective and complete way – is already at its peak.
Whoever succeeds in manipulating the opponent always stands to wins, while whoever proves to be porous or not to be able to oppose – with an equal and contrary operation – the psychopolitical dezinformacjia of an enemy State always stands to lose.
And possibly he/she doesnot even realize it.
We have already reached the time of the IT influence operations.
In this context, however, even in the age of cyberwarfare, the enemy operations use – above all – the old techniques of advertising manipulation typical of the era prior to the Internet.
Firstly, there is the traditional bandwagon effect, which exploits the natural tendency of human beings to conform to their target group.
The rate of uptake of beliefs, ideas, facts, trends and products. increases the more they have already been adopted by others. In other words, the bandwagon effect is characterized by the probability of individual adoption increasing with respect to the proportion of people who have already done so.
There is nothing better than the “spiral of silence” to reinforce the bandwagon effect. The other side of the coin. Individuals have a fear of isolation, which results from the idea that a social group or the society, in general, might isolate, neglect or exclude members due to their opinions. This fear of isolation consequently leads to remaining silent instead of voicing opinions..
Hence the isolation determined by heterodoxy is a further push to regimentation, a typical trait of the bandwagon effect.
Psychopolitics has also another mechanism available, Astroturfing – a term derived from Astro Turf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to resemble natural grass, as a play on the word “grassroots”.
It is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants. It is intended to give the statements or organizations credibility by withholding information. It entails creating an aura of success and universality that is reinforced by many “testimonials”, often paid, who guarantee the validity of the product or the political idea.
Nowadays, however, we have already reached the era that John Negroponte predicted as early as in the 1990s – the phase in which even the most advanced information technologies would become “customized”, i.e. they would quickly be adapted to every single consumer or voter.
Obviously the more customization increases, the more information and influence content can be selected for each consumer-voter, with evident effects of invisible manipulation and regimentation.
We also need to study the filter bubble mechanism, i.e. the effect generated by the algorithms of various social platforms that, with a view to customizing services, create an information trap based on users’ preferences. These algorithms dictate what we find online by creating a unique universe of information for each of us and fundamentally alter the way we encounter ideas and information.
This is matched by the echo chamber effect, which describes an increasingly common situation in which people are only shown content that reinforces their current political or social views, without ever challenging them to think differently. Beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system.
Therefore, echo chambers and filter bubbles select and divide the online audience, but also the audience outside the Web, thus often polarizing it artificially.
Hence we go back to Ivan Ivanovic Pavlov’s old theory of the bio-psychological reinforcement of previous beliefs – hence to the construction and confirmation of conditioned reflexes of individuals and groups.
In fact, nowadays every political message tends to create its own conditioned reflex.
As Pavlov discovered, in people and animals a given stimulus always triggers a response and, when the connection between a stimulus x and the response y is definitively established, the key stimulus always automatically triggers the same response in both animals and human beings.
And the stimulus may have nothing to do with the mechanism triggered by the response.
This reminds us of the linguist De Saussure when he said that the relationship existingbetween the signifier and the signified is purely arbitrary and analytical. There is no objective bond between the physical concept of “ox” and the word “ox”, but it is anyway stronger than any natural link.
In this context, we must also study symbolic actions. They are based on the premise that actions speak louder than words and they are designed to convey a symbolic and powerful value for any fact – an artificial message that is conveyed to a wide audience to prompt a response, in Pavlov’s sense.
A child shipwrecked in the Mediterranean Sea, a girl killed brutally, a bartender achieving success in London are allexamples of facts isolated from their context, to which an induced symbolic power is attached, which ultimately triggers a mass response to this complex Pavlovian “stimulus”.
Furthermore, each fact is valid only if it is incorporated into a narrative. The human brain is not made to analyse isolated facts at any time, but to organize them into a storytelling, which has a time dimension and, above all, an end.
And it always concerns people, even if it speaks about mere facts.
Personalization is also inherent in the human brain, and every person has a positive or negative value. As in the musical drama typical of Naples, the so-called sceneggiata napoletana, he/she can only be isso(“he”, the hero), essa (“she”, the heroine) and ‘omalamente (“the villain”).
Therefore our mind reacts only briefly to the stinging action that we call “thought”.
This was a beautiful idea of the founder of American pragmatism, Charles S. Peirce.
Hence symbolic actions exert their influence when they bring together material actions and symbolic operations.
All this creates powerful signals, effective on behaviours -including political ones -which are immediately and intuitively manifested in the audience.
The disinformation narratives are based, above all, on symbolic actions which penetrate, always deeply, into the target public that has been selected for the operation.
Hence disinformation always takes up the following forms: a) the fabrication from nothing of a piece of news and/or a narrative; b) manipulation, i.e. the construction of an “environment” suited to the news useful for disinformation, be it true or false; c) misappropriation, e.g. the use of others’ data to fabricate manipulated news which, however, seems to come from the source of the original news; d) the old propaganda, which is used to favour a party, a leader, a “cause”; e) satire, which – as we Italians know all too well – can influence the political discourse (suffice to recall Giorgio Forattini’ satirical cartoons of Bettino Craxi dressed as Mussolini or the comic destructuring of Silvio Berlusconi; f) parody, which relates a narrative to an emotional and amusing fact that has little to do with the narrative itself.
The divertissement, the myth of our society, is a very important axis of disinformation.
With a view to better understanding the manipulation of facts, we should also recall the woozle effect, also known as evidence by citation, which occurs when frequent quotation of previous publications that lack evidence misleads individuals, groups and the public into thinking or believing there is evidence and non-facts become urban myths and factoids.
There are also the new “Potiemkin villages”, i.e. the fake institutional networks of dezinformatsjia, managed by IT operators expert on strategic influence.
During the 1930, the Potiemkin villages were fake villages built from scratch by the Soviet secret police, in which important visitors, often pro-Soviet ones, were shown that everything went very well, indeed. Nowadays they are built online.
After the visit, in the old Soviet villages everything returned to the usual daily tragedy.
Moreover, for all these categories, there are BOTs on the Web, i.e. the “ro”-bots.
It should be recalled that in 2017 BOTs alone generated over 50% of the Internet total global traffic.
The bot is an automated software, which operates on the basis of some algorithms.
Currently 23% of the Internet traffic is attributable to “good” bots, while 29% is produced from grey or black sources.
A typical technique of bots and trolls, which are Internet subjects operating through provocative, irritating or out-of-theme and meaningless messages, is to reinforce the polarization induced by other media, both on the Internet and in classic channels.
We have seen, in fact, that a large part of the propaganda on the Web tends to isolate and polarize the content and the audience.
Here the practice that – in psychology – is called the Overton window comes to mind.
For the American psycho-sociologist, the degrees of acceptance of public ideas are roughly the following: 1) unthinkable; 2) radical; 3) acceptable; 4) sensible; 5) popular; 6) policy.
According to Overton, every idea, even the most unthinkable, has its own specific window of opportunity.
The more it is discussed, the more reasonable it appears. Overton maintains that all ideas, even the craziest ones, can shift from the stage of unthinkable to that of public democratic debate and their subsequent acceptance.
Hence the Overton window wants to ensure that ordinary citizens take possession of a crazy idea and make it their own, possibly working on the assumption that even cats and dogs – as we have recently read in an important Italian newspaper–can and hence must vote in political elections.
The process is at the origin of a large part of contemporary psychopolitics: initially the problem- such as the vote for cats and dogs – is unacceptable or ridiculous.
Then, at a later stage, the issue reiterated in all kinds of ways becomes “unacceptable, but with reservations”.
We must never have taboos, “medieval” residues, preconceived ideas. This is the standard justification.
In this phase, intellectuals – or what they think they are – advocate the vote for cats and dogs.
Here the entire sequence of psychopolitical techniques that we have analysed above begins.
And again, imperceptibly, the issue shifts from the stage of “forbidden, but with reservations” to that of “acceptable”.
Here the above mentioned techniques of conditioning and influence still operate, especially the improper transition from the specific and particular case to the general categorization.
Still today, any manipulation of information is based on the irregular syllogisms defined by Aristotle.
Do you remember Fido or Bogey? They were so smart and certainly they would have voted with full knowledge of the facts.
Then Overton’s window shifts from “acceptable” to “sensible” and here usually two major categories operate: the economic necessity of the minority group – in many cases – or the pseudo-Darwinian natural selection.
Then comes the testimonial phase, as is the case with advertising, particularly that of consumer goods: don’t you remember Rin Tin Tin? What about “Inspector” Rex?
How dare you exclude dogs from voting? You are not “progressive”, up to date.
As seen above, the risk is exclusion from the group.
Hence everyone talks about it and the issue is amplified by the show business and the media.
The final stage is policy. You can ultimately take Fido to the voting booth.
It should be noted that these artificial conditioned reflexes are also designed to temporarily forget the real situation of the people and the country.
With 1.8 million poor families, in Italy -equivalent to 5 million individuals – people take their minds off their problems by talking about the vote for cats and dogs, or about other nonsense like that, which they can believe thanks to the above mentioned “Overton window”.
We have no doubt that shortly the technologies available for mass psychopolitical manipulation will increase.
Chinese Private Security Companies Along the BRI: An Emerging Threat?
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:
- Control Risks
- Beijing Dewei Security Service
- ZhongguoAnbao China Security Industry
- HuaxinZhongan (Beijing) Security Service (HXZA)
- Shanghai Zhongchenwei Security Service Group
- Beijing DingtaiAnyuan Guard & Technology Research Institute
- ShengzhenZhongzhouTewei Security Consultant
- Beijing Guanan Security & Technology
- 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.
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.
Tackling the Illicit Drug Trade: Perspectives From Russia
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.
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
Central Asian Jihadists’ Use of Cryptocurrencies in Bitcoin
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 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.
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:
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.
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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