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Anti-Russian Ideology of Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi Groups: Causes and Consequences

Uzbek jihadists in Syria

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Russia and Muhajireen are both interventionists in Syria

The Russian military intervention in the Syrian civil war has strengthened the anti-Russian ideological wave of the al-Qaeda-aligned Central Asian and North Caucasian Salafi-Jihadi groups fighting alongside the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) against the Bashar al-Assad regime. After the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, fueled by the Arab Spring protests, several hundred Central Asian Islamic radicals, calling themselves Muhajireen (Migrants, i.e. Sunni foreign fighters), performed a Hijrah (the migration of Muslims for Jihad) in response to the call of al-Qaeda to Syria.

Since then, Syria’s northwest Idlib province, long a hotbed of armed resistance and the heartland of al-Qaeda-linked operations has become a real-life shelter for Muhajireen from the former Soviet Union and Chinese Xinjiang. Among them, the Uzbek groups Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ) and Katibat Imam al-Bukhari (KTB), Uighur fighters of Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), as well as Chechen’s Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA) and Ajnad al Kavkaz (AK) are affiliated with al Qaeda. They share al Qaeda’s ideological doctrine and consider its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri their ideological mastermind. The activities of TIP and KTJ jihadists, which have remained loyal to al Qaeda but simultaneously subordinate to HTS, indicate that they have become a link between al Qaeda and HTS after their formal detachment of ties. That is, today they coordinate all their military operations in Syria and conduct them under the leadership of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the largest Sunni jihadist group, controlling most of Idlib province which is the last major opposition stronghold.

At the beginning of the Syrian jihad, the ideology of the Central Asian Salafi groups was not particularly distinguished by anti-Russian hostility but after the Russian invasion of Syria in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime in 2015, Central Asian jihadists and the Russian military found themselves on opposite sides of the front line and became sworn enemies. This was also facilitated by the fact that many Uzbek and Tajik Muhajireen came from Russia, where they worked as labor migrants and were often discriminated against by Russian nationalists. They also experienced moral and psychological humiliation by the corrupt Russian police, local officials and employers. Some Mujahideen admitted on the social networks Telegram and Odnoklassniki that the unfair Russian reality inflicted unbearable humiliation which contributed to their migration to Syria and joining jihadist groups.That is, the anti-Russian ideology of the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups appeared not only because of the radicalization of their religious views but also as a response to discrimination by Russian nationalists and the invasion of Russian troops in Syria.Thus, over the past five years, al Qaeda’s Takfiri ideology of conducting global jihad against the infidel regimes of the West has been supplemented by the anti-Russian ideology of the Central Asian Muhajireen.

Abu Saloh, former leader of Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad, a famous ideologist of anti-Russian jihadism. His fighters swore allegiance to al Qaeda

In order to better understand the roots and causes of the anti-Russian ideology of the Central Asian Sunni extremist movements, it is necessary to analyze the Khutbah preaching (Sermons) of their leaders and famous ideologists during Jumma Namaz (Muslim Friday Prayer Service), which they actively disseminate on the Internet in Uzbek, Russian, Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Arabic.

Characteristic features of the Muhajireen’s anti-Russian ideology

Over the past five years, Idlib has become not only the real-life shelter for Russian-Speaking foreign fighters but also the place of fueling the aggressive anti-Russian ideology of the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups. It’s interesting to note that they are actively using the Russian entrepreneur Durov’s social networking Telegram channel to widely disseminate anti-Russian ideology. Central Asian Muhajireen have the radio station “Voice of Sham” which also has the website “www.muhajeer.com” and provides daily updates over ten channels on Telegram through which they praise holy Jihad and spread anti-Russian propaganda.

Leaders and ideologues of the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups advance the idea that al-Qaeda’s global network needs more support from like-minded Muslims around the world, who are willing to help its jihad. Therefore, in order to catalyze support, mobilize the base, and expand awareness of the Syrian jihad, they are waging an active “anti-Russian ideological war” on the Internet. Jihadist websites are designed to entice, inform, and rally Russian-speaking Muslims to join in the fight to safeguard Islam in Syria.

The ideologues and propagandists of al Qaeda-linked Central Asian movements seek to use Moscow’s heavy hand to recruit new fighters and accumulate financial resources.Each time after the Russian aviation’s scorched-earth tactics and indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas in the province of Idlib, the anti-Russian ideology of Central Asian jihadists intensifies on the Internet.

KTJ former leader Abu Saloh (his real name Sirojiddin Mukhtarov), who possesses excellent oratory skills and deep knowledge of the Quran, is the fiery voice of the anti-Russian ideology. He urges his listeners to establish religiously pure communities governed by a strict Salafi reading of Sharia or Islamic law.He regards modern post-Soviet countries in Central Asia to be illegitimate and desires not only the overthrow of these states but the creation of a new theocratic state in their place that unites all Muslims and, ultimately, a global Islamic Caliphate.In his opinion, the ideal conditions for conducting jihad today arose precisely in Syria and the Muslim Ummah should achieve an inevitable victory over the enemies of Islam by which he means not only the West but also the Bashar al-Assad’s regime, its military and political patrons, Russia and Iran. Abu Saloh believes that the victory of the Ahlus Sunnah (Sunni Islam) begins precisely with the holy land of Sham, where the Prophet Muhammad and his Sahaba (companions) shed their blood to raise the banner of jihad.

Abu Yusuf Muhojir, leader of Katibat Imam al-Bukhari, is an ardent foe of Russia. His group swore allegiance to Taliban

In the last video published on December 26, 2019, on Telegram, entitled “Appeal from the Blessed Sham to the Muslim Ummah” he calls on Muslims of Central Asia and Russia to make financial donations for jihad. He argues that jihad can be done in the path of Allah against the infidels in three ways: by one’s life, wealth, and speech. If Central Asian migrant workers in Russia make financial donations to support jihad in Syria, then Allah will consider them as participants in holy jihad who have fulfilled their mission to the Almighty. Participation in the wealth jihad will atone for their sins before Allah on Judgment Day. Therefore, migrant workers are required to participate in the wealth jihad, even while in Russia, he said. He calls on Central Asian Muslims not to become slaves of Russian kafirs (infidel) and warns that jihad is an obligation of every Muslim and that any Muslim who denies its sanctity should be considered as a kufr (unbeliever in Allah).

It should be noted that Russia accused Abu Saloh of the terror attack on St. Petersburg’s metro in April 2017 and the Kyrgyz authorities blamed him for the attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek on August 30, 2016.He and his Uzbek-speaking fighters from the Fergana Valley of Central Asia swore allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Another well-known ideologist of Central Asian jihadism and a vocal critic of Russian occupation of Sham is the KIB’s leader Abu Yusuf Muhojir. On January 3, 2020, he posted his video message on the KIB’s webpage on Telegram entitled “Appeal from the mountain range Jebel al-Turkman of Latakia.”He claims that only jihad can to protect the Islam Ummah from Russia’s and Iran’s oppressors and free our occupied land of the blessed Sham from the terrorists of the Nusayri regime (Alawites).Following the concepts of the militant Salafi ideology, Abu Yusuf Muhojir regards violent jihad as an obligation for all Muslims and seeks to engage in jihad in both Khorasan and Sham, where opportunities have arisen.Then he quotes the Quran’s Surah of Al-Ankabut (The Spider) in Arabic and says that Allah is testing Muslims in Sham, and that only jihad will help us to pass this test with dignity. In conclusion, he said neither America nor Russia can close the path of holy jihad since jihad is the path to Allah. If the Mujahideen get killed in the jihad, he affirms that Allah himself will guide them and admit them to Paradise. Furthermore, Uzbek militants ofKIB have sworn allegiance to the Taliban and are conducting jihad in both Syria and Afghanistan.On March 22, 2018, the US State Department designated KIB a global terrorist organizations.

The root of the Jihadists’ anti-Russian ideology

The so-called “media activists” (Faruk Shami, Muhammad Jazira, Gulyam Muhammad,Saad Muhtor, Abdul Aziz Kazanly) who live and work among the Central Asian jihadists in Syria play a significant role in increasing anti-Russian ideology. They organize live broadcasts, interviews with leaders of Central Asian and Caucasian Salafi-Jihadi groups on YouTube and Instagram, and translate theological works of al Qaeda’s ideologues from Arabic into Russian, Uzbek, Tajik, Kyrgyz and Uighur.

One of the channels called “Mujahideen of Sham” in Kyrgyz on the Telegram, for instance, published short information: “Russian kafirs, who were the enemies of our ancestors, bombed the city of Sarakib on December 21, 2019, as a result of which they were killed more 120 innocent Muslims of Sham.” Further, this channel posted an audio message from a Kyrgyz Muhajir to the Russian military: “Oh, Russian infidels, keep your eyes peeled, we are attacking to shed your blood. As you love vodka, Zina (illicit sexual relations), so we are in a hurry to die in the name of Allah to stop the kafirs’ invasion on Islamic lands.”

Al Qaeda-linked Central Asian jihadists sometimes use some historical events of the Russian colonial policy of the 18-19 centuries in Central Asia to rally support for the Islamist agenda and radicalize those sympathetic to the plight of Muslims in Syria. The same channel “Mujahideen of Sham” writes: “Russian Tsarist forces, which killed tens of thousands of Kyrgyz during the Genocide of 1916, today are massacring innocent Muslims of the blessed Sham. The colonial policy of the Russian Empire continues. Make dua (prayer) for Muslims of Sham.” It is probably about the ‘Urkun’ (“Exodus”) tragedy 1916, when 150 thousand Kyrgyz died during the uprising against Russian Tsarist forces and a mass exodus to China. Such information is aimed at winning the hearts and minds of Central Asian jihadists who are familiar with historical events.

Translation of books, essays and videos of medieval and modern jihadi thinkers from Arabic into Russian and local languages and its distribution on the Telegram channel is an important part of the work of Central Asian jihadists. Spreading classic works of Salafi-Takfiri thinkers help legitimize anti-Russian Jihadi ideology and stoke the fire of jihad. Crucial spiritual nourishment for Central Asian Muhajireen are the essays of Ibn Taymiyyah, Abd al-Wahhab, Sayyid Qutb, Abdullah Azzam, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Sulayman al-ʿAlwān, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Qatada al-Filistini and other scholars of Salafism. This clearly indicates the ideological affinity of Central Asian Muhajireen with transnational Islamic fundamentalist groups that utilize sacred violence in their war against Russia and the West. Moreover, KTJ, KIB, and TIP explicitly try to define its ideological and operational agenda as being intimately tied to an integrated effort of al Qaeda aimed at asserting the global dominance of Islam through armed jihad.

Despite the fact that the Central Asian jihadists are seen as a small cog in the transnational Sunni-Jihadi network, they are actually drawing up and spreading anti-Russian ideology in the post-Soviet space and the Middle East alongside Chechen and Uighur jihadists. They are using pejorative terms in reference to Russia such as “Russian terrorists,” “Russian bandits,” “Russian pig executioners,” as well as pejoratives directed toward Vladimir Putin such as “Putin is a killer,” “Putin is a war criminal,” and “Slaves of Putin’s Chef Prigozhin,” as well a variety of generalized pejoratives comparing Russians to Fascists, swine and vermin. 

The anti-Russian ideology of the Central Asian jihadists in Syria has gone far beyond the national and geographical framework and they are trying to create the image of Putin’s Russia as an enemy of the entire Muslim Ummah.The Russian military operation in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime, the destruction of hospitals, schools, and other social facilities in Idbil by Russian aircraft, the flow of refugees towards the Turkish borders, the deaths of hundreds of civilians, children and women from the bombing create a favorable background for strengthening the trend of anti-Russian ideology among the Muhajireen in Syria.

Muhajireen’s propagandists also skillfully manipulate the historical rivalry between Sunnis and Shia. The analysis showed that they consider the enemies of Ahl al-Sunna of all Nuseyrites, Rafidites and their ally Russian Crusaders. The Jihadi ideologists claim that Russia is a leading player in the global conspiracy to destroy Ahl al-Sunna in Sham, and therefore helps Nuseyrites. The call to defend the last stronghold of Ahl al-Sunna gives them the opportunity to recruit new militants from the Sunni population of Central Asia and Russia.

At the same time, some facts of atrocities and heinous crimes perpetrated by Russian mercenaries of the Wagner group and Iranian proxy militias in Syria, which became public knowledge, create spaces for promoting Central Asian Jihadi ideas. Recently, after a video appeared on the Internet in November 2019 in which four Russian mercenaries tortured, stabbed and beheaded a Syrian man, Russian President Putin has become the main target of criticism of Salafi-Jihadi agitators from the former Soviet countries. This gave Central Asian jihadists a reason to accuse Putin’s Russia of using terror policy against Islam and the Muslims of Sham.

In order to foment jihadist sentiments in the Russian speaking Eurasian region, Salafi-Jihadi ideologists are manipulating the strongman Putin’sphrase that “Syria has become a field for testing the latest Russian weapons systems.” They regularly publish victims’ photographs of Russian air bombing, which are intended to rally support for the Islamist agenda and radicalize those sympathetic to the plight of Sunni Muslims in northwest Syria. They wonder “how much longer will Putin’s terrorists be testing their weapons in Syria and using civilian Muslims as living targets?”

Conclusion

The Central Asian Muhajireen’s anti-Russian ideology and the aggressive imposition of global Jihadi ideas on the internet undoubtedly pose a threat to Russia’s national security but, at the same time, the major actors of the Syrian conflict, primarily Russia, Iran and the Syrian government must understand that further tightening the screws of the Syrian war, exacerbating the humanitarian catastrophe and a new mass influx of refugees, will lead to further strengthening of anti-Russian and anti-Shiite ideology. Because of this, Central Asian Jihadi groups, following the strategy of al Qaeda, are trying to infiltrate local Sunni communities of Syria, build influence there by expressing the interests of the Ansar (natives).

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Covid 19 and Human Security in Anthropocene era

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Since the end of second World  the focus on international security has grown, not only state threats but also threats from non-state groups such as terrorism groups, cyber attacks, climate change and the environment and what we are living right now is the threat from Covid19 caused by the SARS virus -Cov2, up to the time this article was written has 136.609.182 cases, with the number of deaths 2948567, have killed more victims from the Vietnam War, the Gulf of Persia, the Afghanistan War. Although the optimistic hopes of finding  vaccine for Covid19 provide room for movement and bright light of hope in the future, it has almost entered the two-year mark since its initial presence in Wuhan, China last December 2019, Covid19 is still major concern and scourge for human survival in currently, many people in the world are tired of waiting for when this epidemic will end. Covid19 has become an invisible but real enemy felt by humankind in the early 21st century, more cunning than previous security threats such as physical warfare, trade wars, terrorism and air pollution. There is no difference in price between the rich and the poor, developed or developing countries, women or men, good or bad people. Not only that, the effects of the Covid19 virus pandemic are also greater, such as inflation, scarcity of goods, uneventful mobility, a decline in the tourism sector, changes in human social behavior patterns, bilateral and multilateral relations between countries, as well as causing conflict and new attention to certain institutions. What is still a question in our minds right now is why Covid 19 still exists in the world, when will this pandemic be over and what will the conditions be after.

So far, the Covid19 outbreak is still seen as a global disease so that international security means providing efficient health care and the answer is how to prevent and find anti-viruses. But in essence, the presence of Covid19 explains more than that. Covid19 is also an impact of an environmental crisis that humans are rarely aware of, because basically Covid19 is a zoonotic disease (disease originating from animals) that can pass to humans through vectors (carriers) in the form of animals or humans, which humans are the last result of a series of cycles. viral life. Its presence identifies the irregular relationship between humans and their environment.

Concerns about the emergence of zoonotic diseases have existed for several years. In the 2016 UNEP Frontier Report, it was stated that one of the concerns that arose from international agencies dealing with the environment was zoonotic diseases. Since the 20th century, 75% there has been a drastic increase in infectious diseases which are zoonotic diseases of animal origin. On average, an animal-to-human infectious disease appears every four months. This is closely related to environmental changes or ecological disturbances such as defortation, climate change, decreased biodiversity, and the destruction of animal habitats.

In an interview with VoA Indonesia with one of the virologists at Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) Indonesia (Sugyono) stated that the “Covid19 virus that is currently endemic in the world is due to interactions with humans and animals such as poaching and environmental damage. Some of the infectious diseases that hit the world are caused by pathogens of disease-carrying microorganisms that originate or spread through animals. Bats, mice, monkeys and other animals often become carriers of viruses to humans without the animals experiencing illness, the process of interaction between animals and humans such as poaching causes disease transmission. mutates due to climate change and weather ”. Viruses are small infectious agents with a simple composition that can only reproduce in host cells. Its survival is influenced by temperature and environment, changes in temperature and the environment can accelerate its spread.

Humans are the only creatures that can manage the earth, their presence since ancient times has greatly influenced the state of the earth both on land and in the oceans. In one of their journals Paul Crutzen stated that we (humans) are no longer in the Holocene but have entered the Anthroposcene era. The term Anthroposcene itself implies a transition from the Holocene which is an interglacial condition, influenced by the magnitude of human activity, further this intention is explained by Steffen that the Anthroposcene shows where human activities have become so numerous and intensive that they (humans) rival the great power of nature. The Anthroposcene shows that a crisis originates from human accident and this crisis is not an easy thing to mitigate.

Covid 19 is not a disaster or natural selection that can be understood to occur naturally but identifies more deeply than that, the presence of Covid19 demands that international security policies and practices must evolve beyond what they have understood so far. Although the threat of a pandemic is not new, the current pandemic is popularly referred to as “unprecedented.” It is currently uncertain when Covi 19 will end or at least be brought under control. Almost all diseases and disasters caused by environmental damage such as nuclear, severe pollution in several countries such as America, in Tokyo, Beijing, Jakarta, and other big cities cannot return to the way it was before the damage occurred, can only reduce the impact. If  revisit history further back, the earlier nations that had high civilization such as Central America, the people of the Easter islands, the Maya, the Anasazi, the Greek Mikene and many other civilizations also became extinct. What is modern society doing today is similar to what previous civilization nations did, accidental “ecological suicide” resulting in  drastic reduction in the size of the human population and political, economic, social complexity in over large area. Nature actually did a selection at its time and it (nature) was also able to regenerate itself within a certain period of time, but  if humans interfere in the process too deep  will change and disrupt the normal working system of nature which will have a bad effect back on humans.

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COVID-19 As an Agent of Change in World Order

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Image: Alexandra Nicolae/Unsplash

The Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has claimed millions of lives. It has severely damaged the economy of the world. The consequences of the pandemic are expected to go much further. The virus has threatened the functioning of national and international politics. It has disrupted the international system through which events are controlled in the world. In one way or the other, all the fundamental constituents of the World Order have been reshaped. Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State, forewarned, “The coronavirus epidemic will forever alter the world order.”

COVID-19 could potentially vary the following aspects of the existing World Order.

Cooperation

COVID-19 easily crossed international borders. It has been observed that states cooperated with each other on the strategy of containing the virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) played an important part in integrating the states on the issue of contemporary health emergency. The WHO remained an ineffectual organization when the United States, under the presidency of Donald Trump, withdrew from it. Bringing the US back in the WHO was among the first presidential orders given by President Joe Biden.

Some scholars, on the other hand, view this warm cooperation by the US in the international arena as a facade for uniting to oppose the rise of China. The ‘America first’ approach of Donald Trump meant American protectionism. Joe Biden is said to have used the opportunity created by the COVID-19 pandemic to walk in step with allies in Asia.

Security

Power-practicing states have rarely downright inclined towards the standards of human security defined by the United Nations in its 1994 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development report. The report lays down the basic tenets of human security. Food, economic and health security are among important entities of human security. The pandemic has facilitated in proving the momentous nature of international institutions and cooperation. Security, therefore, has been redefined. The priorities have been shifted to health security.

Balance of Power

One may assume that in these trying times of the pandemic the states have come closer to fight the disease. However, this claim is not validated by hard-boiled political thinkers. Disruptions in the global economy tend to destabilize international politics, therefore, conflicts are likely to increase in the post-Covid world. For instance, the ongoing economic competition between the US and China is likely to continue to soar as the two states begin to engage in the ‘New Cold War’. The US has put blame on China for the spread of the coronavirus. Trump had repeatedly termed the coronavirus as the ‘China virus’. To neutralize the blame, China is active in the research and development of the COVID-19 vaccine. The crisis has facilitated China in showing the world its capability. In the long run, this could sway the balance of power.

However, neither China nor the United States is in a state in which it could emerge as a ‘winner’ in a way that would dramatically shift the balance of world power in favour of either state.

Vaccine Race

The production of mass-scale COVID-19 vaccine is no less than a race of the order of space race or arms race. Manufacturing COVID-19 vaccine is not only a matter of saving lives, but also a matter of saving face for some world leaders. Russia, US, UK, Germany, India and China are among the top competitors in the vaccine race. Vladimir Putin, Russian President, is eager to debut the vaccine to the world. It would be a sign of prestige in the international society and help Russia impose the new world order it vies for. Similarly, China has its own ambitions to lead the world, and inoculating the world is one way to do it.

The redistribution of power in post-Covid world will be dependent on states’ accomplishment in curbing the virus.

Financial World Order                                                        

The World Bank has estimated a 5.2% shrinkage in the global economy due to COVID-19 pandemic. Both the United States and China are eager to restore their Covid-hit economies in a way that one’s is greater than the other. In a substantial way, the United States is leading the world economy. It is one-fourth of the world economy. 80% of world trade is in USD. China aims to alter this mode of payment in international trade. It is giving competition to the US in terms of global trade exchange by building banks of its own. The pace of economic recovery adopted by the two competitors shall decide the post-Covid financial world order.

Dependency

Both the United States and China need allies to compete in the ‘New Cold War’. The COVID-19 pandemic has given them the opportunity to make allies via health assistance. The COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) facilities plan to distribute a major share of the vaccination to low and middle income countries. In July, 2020, China promised a $1 billion loan to Latin American and Caribbean countries. The US is also keen on this practice as Joe Biden is a strong advocate of global institutionalism.

COVAX could be a novel form of a bailout package. If this is so, the dependence of the Third World on the First World is likely to be increased.

Technology

As an agent of latent function, Covid has helped boost innovation. The states who have better technology are odds-on to impose their World Order. During the COVID-19 crisis, there has been an exponential growth in technology adoption. This implies that the military will have better strategic equipment than pre-Covid era. In modern international relations, military strength is the core determinant of state power.

Health as element of national power

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the elements of state power were either military strength or economy. The pandemic has shown that health can also be an indirect element of national power. The states with better healthcare have better chances of containing the virus. Their economy has better prospects of getting restored. Resultantly, the ‘healthy’ states have advantage over others in carrying on with their power politics.

Climate Change                                           

Due to closure of industrial sectors in the lockdown period, the global economy has collapsed. In the initial stage, it was expected that the lockdown will be a blessing in disguise for the cause of climate change. To restore the economy, however, governments of both developed and developing countries have no option but to reopen their industries. This means more emissions of carbon. The climate agreements are likely to be postponed until the economy is put back on track. The oil price decrease due to the pandemic will facilitate the poorer states in restoring their industries. This is another impediment in the way of a carbon-free global economy. Thus, the post-Covid world will have adverse effects on climate.

Threat to the political Right

The pandemic has proved to be unfortunate for the rising Right. Populism, nationalism and demagoguery do not seem to be working for the right wing leaders. The COVID-19 pandemic requires performance and output rather than speeches and slogans. This is so evident from the 2020 US Presidential elections. Donald Trump had been highly criticized for being a populist leader. His handling of the pandemic is one of the main factors that cost him the election. Similarly, in other parts of the world, people are demanding good governance rather than falling for rabble-rousers.

End of Globalization?

Globalization has severely been affected due to the pandemic. However, the process of globalization was slowing long before the pandemic, even before the election of anti-internationalist former US President Donald Trump. Some scholars are predicting the end of globalization due to the pandemic. Others argue that the pandemic shows how interconnected the world is. They see a potential growth in globalization and cooperation among the states, especially regarding the COVAX. Historical data show that crises tend to reinforce globalization. Globalization also helps to boost the fallen economy. Employment is an important part of globalization. There has been a significant surge in unemployment rate due to the lockdown imposed to cease the spread of the virus. To rectify the damages, people will tend to cross international borders. Therefore, immigration and, consequently, globalization is likely to increase in the post-Covid world.

COVID-19 pandemic alone may not change the World Order altogether. The transitions brought by the pandemic in the international system are likely to decide the leader of global political order. The post-Covid World Order depends on how and how fast the world emerges out of the pandemic. Vaccinating the world is the need of the hour. The contenders of the vaccine race need to be all-inclusive in the process of inoculation. If the United States or China succumbs to vaccine nationalism—the practice to limit the dosage of COVID-19 vaccine to domestic use— it will be difficult for them to ally other states in their vision of the new World Order.

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Broad Cyber-Consensus

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On Friday March 12, 2021, the United Nations adopted the report of the UN Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security. The document was supported by consensus and, since all member states were able to take part in the OEWG, we can say that it reflects the views of most of the international community. The report marks the culmination of the OEWG’s two years of work on introducing a new format for negotiations on security in cyberspace launched in 2018 at the initiative of Russia. The successful completion of the group’s work suggests that demand for such a platform exists. This is particularly important, given that the OEWG will continue its activities in the new convocation for 2021–2025.

A Victory for Diplomacy

Andrey Krutskikh, Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation on Issues of International Cooperation in the Field of Information Security, called the adoption of the report “a triumphant success for the Russian diplomacy,” while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs lauded the significance of the moment in its official commentary.

To better understand why the adoption of the report has exactly seen such a success, we need to take a trip into the recent past. The issue of information security was included in the UN agenda in 1998, after Russia presented its draft resolution “Achievements in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security” to the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly. Negotiations have been ongoing since 2004 in the form of closed discussions in Groups of Government Experts (GGEs) involving between 15 and 25 states (the seventh composition of the GGE is expected to conclude its work in May 2021).

The negotiations started to pick up steam in the early 2010s, as three GGE consensus reports have shown. For example, the 2010 GGE report’s recommendations included furthering the dialogue among states on cyber norms, introducing confidence-building measures, exchanging information on national legislation and policies as well as identifying measures to support capacity-building in less developed countries as a means to reduce the risks associated with the use of information and communication technologies (ICT). The 2013 report reflected the OEWG’s conclusion that international law “is applicable and is essential to maintaining peace and stability and promoting an open, secure, peaceful and accessible ICT environment” (while conceding that a common understanding on the application of these rules needs to be worked out), and that state sovereignty applies to the conduct of ICT-related activities by states. Among other things, the 2015 report sets out the norms, rules or principles of responsible behaviour of states in the context of the ICT use.

The UN negotiating process on cyber threats stalled after 2015. The fifth convocation of the GGE in 2016–2017 failed to accept a consensus report, as the participants disagreed on how international law should be applied to state activities in cyberspace. This led to the United States and Russia putting forward separate initiatives in 2018. The United States and its co-sponsors proposed that the next GGE be convened to continue the discussion in a narrower circle. Meanwhile, Russia called for the negotiating process to be “more democratic, inclusive and transparent.” To this end, Moscow tabled a proposal to create an open-ended working group for all member states interested and hold consultative meetings for all other interested parties, namely business, non-governmental organizations and academia. Two parallel formats were launched as a result – the OEWG and the UN GGE.

The OEWG report is the first tangible result of the UN negotiations on cyber threats since 2015, which was made possible by a number of factors. First, the overwhelming majority of UN member states were interested in such a format (119 nations voted in favour of the Russia-drafted resolution in 2018), as it would avail many of them the opportunity to participate in a GGE for the first time.

Second, those countries that refrained from supporting the OEWG were nevertheless active in its work, and they put no obstacles in the way of adopting the final document. Representatives of 91 states spoke at OEWG meetings during the two years of its work. That is almost half of all UN member states, while one third of them have never been part of the GGE.

Finally, Jürg Lauber, Chairman of the OEWG and Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the UN, was widely praised for the work he did to push the negotiations through. He continued to perform his duties as Chairman even after being transferred from New York to Geneva. It was through Lauber’s chairmanship that an additional link between the OEWG and the GGE was established (one of the criteria for choosing Switzerland was the country’s participation in the closed GGE), which helped avoid competition between the two formats. The coronavirus pandemic posed yet another challenge for the Chairman of the OEWG and its participants. While the original plan was to adopt the OEWG in the summer of 2020, the final session of the Working Group was postponed for several months.

Let the Talks Continue

Content-wise, the report reflects the coordinated assessments of the current situation in cyberspace and, in accordance with the OEWG’s mandate, contains the following topics:

  • Existing and Potential Threats
  • Rules, Norms and Principles for Responsible State Behaviour
  • International Law
  • Confidence-Building Measures
  • Capacity-Building in ICT
  • Regular Institutional Dialogue on ICT

The OEWG participants agree that there is a growing risk of ICT being used in inter-state conflicts and see an increase in the malicious use of ICT both by state and non-state actors as an alarming trend. The report notes the potentially devasting consequences of attacks on critical information infrastructure (CII). Specifically, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of protecting the healthcare infrastructure. Inter-state interaction, as well as interaction between the state and the private sector, is important.

However, the OEWG report does not put forward any practical solutions to a number of information security problems, primarily in inter-state relations. The way international law should be applied in cyberspace largely remains a bone of contention. Despite the successful adoption of the OEWG report, negotiators have yet to find compromises on key issues.

In terms of the regulatory framework, the report essentially reiterates the agreements reached earlier within the framework of the GGE, such as those relating to the applicability of the rules, norms and principles for responsible state behaviour. The OEWG participants conclude the report by stating that additional legally binding obligations may be introduced in the future.

The proposals put forward in the report are, for the most part, of a general nature. States are urged to continue to inform the Secretary-General of their national views on the applicability of international law on the use of ICT in the context of international security, discuss these issues at the United Nations as well as envision confidence- and capacity-building measures.

More practical steps feature the recommendation that states nominate a national Point of Contact responsible for information security at the technical, policy and diplomatic levels who would then be included into a kind of international directory.

A group of over 40 countries led by France and Egypt managed to get an initiative of their own—proposed back in the fall of 2020 and urging to introduce a permanent forum on cybersecurity to replace the OEWG and GGE—included in the recommendations. The initiative, dubbed as the Programme of Action for Advancing Responsible State Behaviour in Cyberspace, appears in one of the paragraphs in the OEWG report, which lends weight to it and serves as the basis for discussions in the next convocation of the group.

One of the main reasons why we have not seen any breakthrough agreements in this regard is because of the sheer number of participants in the discussion on information security issues. On the one hand, this has brought new participants into the negotiations—those endorsing the previously agreed points—thus boosting their international clout. On the other hand, many participants demanded that a common denominator be identified, with all the difficult questions taken off the table. The last leg of the negotiations, in particular, saw a non-consensus draft part of the report published in a separate document, the Chair’s Summary.

The fact that the report was adopted by consensus does not mean that the participants in the negotiations have overcome the differences in their approaches to security in cyberspace. Rather, they have agreed to put fundamental issues on the back burner. Michele Markoff, U.S. cybersecurity negotiator, conceded in her Explanation of Position at the Conclusion of the UN Open-Ended Working Group that the report was “not perfect,” noting that the United States had reservations about the need for a new OEWG to convene. She also stated that the United States could not subscribe to calls for new legal obligations in cyberspace, citing non-compliance on the part of certain states with the existing regulations. That notwithstanding, the United States sees the report as a step forward.

Negotiations after Negotiations

Negotiations on cyber threats have now been going on for decades, broth at the United Nations and on other venues, and they are likely to drag on for many years to come. The OEWG report is an important milestone in the process and a reminder of the importance of multilateral efforts. According to Andrey Krutskikh, the successful completion of the group’s work “opens up huge opportunities for ensuring the success” of the current GGE, the Expert Group on Cybercrime—established during negotiations at the United Nations General Assembly Third Committee at the initiative of Russia—and the OEWG, whose mandate for 2021–2025 has been adopted.

Success or failure of future negotiations in the OEWG will depend on three main components. First, the relations between the key players will define how productive the talks actually are. While Russia and the United States may have managed to put their differences aside in order to reach a consensus on the report, the differences themselves have not gone anywhere. The sides still bang heads over such issues as attribution in cyberspace, the possibility of applying the norms of international humanitarian law to cyberattacks, etc. This is made all the worse by the new trend towards using the ICT for military and intelligence purpose as well as by numerous public accusations and threats emanating from both sides. One such example is the recent New York Times article on U.S. preparations for a retaliatory attack on Russian networks following the large-scale hack of U.S. government departments and corporations (known as the SolarWinds hack), which Russia is said to have carried out. Cybersecurity remains a sore point in U.S.–China relations as well. Tensions between major powers need to be reduced if we are to see any real progress in multilateral relations on this issue.

The second factor is related to the competition between the negotiating platforms. The OEWG has the advantage that is enjoys broad support among UN members, and its mandate has been written into the respective Resolution of the General Assembly. That said, the GGE format is also widely supported within the United Nations, and the “Russian” resolution received fewer votes in the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly last year than it had in 2018, while the “American” resolution actually received more. What is more, the United Nations does not have a monopoly when it comes to negotiating platforms on cybersecurity, as a number of non-governmental initiatives on cyberspace regulation have appeared in recent years. France is actively pushing the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, which has the support of almost 80 nations as well as of many civil society organizations and companies. Six working groups are to be launched under the initiative in order to advance international norms and develop practical cooperation in cybersecurity. The competitive environment will mean that the OEWG will need to produce more tangible results in areas that are important for the participants.

The third and final factor has to do with preserving the gap between the practical side of ensuring information security and the international discussion surrounding it. Tech companies face cyberthreats on a daily basis, but their expertise in dealing with these challenges is not in demand at these negotiating platforms. The OEWG report talks about the need for public-private partnerships in order to protect the CII. However, the OEWG could take this one step further by examining the lessons of the responses of the business world to large-scale cyberattacks and by speaking their minds when it comes to assessing the efforts of technology leaders to advance rules and norms in cyberspace. The OEWG has the potential to bridge this gap (the new group’s mandate allows it to work with business and other stakeholders), but it has not been exploited to the full thus far. The most active player in the first convocation from the business world was Microsoft, while Trend Micro, Huawei, Fujitsu and others have also taken part in informal consultations. Kaspersky Lab is the only Russian company involved in the discussions. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs believes it is necessary “to create conditions for attracting the business world to the negotiation process on international information security (IIS), thus giving the public-private partnership an institutional character.” Two problems will first need to be resolved for this to happen: 1) how to motivate Russian businesses to take part in the negotiations; and 2) how to organize the interaction of different stakeholders in the OEWG in the most effective manner. Otherwise, the efforts of all sides will continue to lack the much-needed link to practical experience in this area.

From our partner RIAC

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