Is Putin’s Russia threatened by Uzbek Jihadists?
The Syria’s most powerful rebel group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has recently implemented a new strategy to transform itself from global jihadist outlook into a local “moderate national liberation movement”. Its new agenda is entirely dedicated to Syria and the Syrian local Sunni community in particular. Within this new scope of this strategy, HTS began to severely restrict external attacks by Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups fully associated with HTS. Against the background of these changes, Russia recently accused HTS-backed Katibat Tawhid wal-Jihad (KTJ) for conducting a terrorist attack, thus preventing to achieve HTS’s goal.
Pressure on Central Asian migrants amid KTJ’s terror attacks
On October 15, 2020, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) made a statement that it has “…suppressed the activities of the interregional cell of the international terrorist organization Katibat Tawhid wal-Jihad intending to commit subversive and terrorist acts in the Volgograd city.” During the operation, the security forces killed two members of this Uzbek Salafi-Jihadi group. According to the Russian special services, “…the coordination of the terrorist activities of the jihadist cell was carried out from the territory of Syria.” The Russian FSB also distributed photos and videos of firearms, ammunition, chemical components of Improvised Explosive Device, religious literature, as well as a city’s map of planned explosions seized during the particular operation.
FSB further reported that “…other members of the KTJ’s interregional cell were also detained in the cities of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ufa, Maikop and Volgograd”. However, no evidence of the detention of jihadists in other Russian cities and their affiliation with any religious organization was ever provided.
On October 16, KTJ in its Telegram channel responded to FSB’s accusation by highlighting their “…non-involvement in the activities of the Mujahideen cell planning the explosion in Volgograd.” The Uzbek militant group stated that “…their goal is exclusively to help the people of Syria in the fight against the criminal regime of Bashar al-Assad.” Furthermore, KTJ declared that “…their activities are limited to the territory of Syria, and the conduct of terrorist acts outside of it is not the group’s policy.” At the end of its statement, the group firmly denied the accusation by the Russian authorities of planning a terrorist attack in Volgograd, calling it an absolute lie.
The Russian authorities often issue thunderous statements about successful special operations against “international Islamist terrorists”. However, these statements often arouse a certain amount of doubt among religious experts researching the activities of Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups. This mistrustful attitude to the special operations carried out by the FSB security forces is primarily due to the authoritarian nature of the Putin regime, which artificially divides Islam in Russia into what they describe as “traditional Islam” and “radical Islam” over the past 20 years.
According to the tailor-made of Putin’s Russia, ‘traditional Islam’ is assumed as the Muslim Ummah that supports the official policy of the state, that is loyal to Putin’s regime and does not raise any separatist slogans. However, in Russian reality, the concept of ‘radical Islam’ is applied very broadly and vaguely. The authorities usually refer members of the Salafi/Wahhabi jamaats of the North Caucasus, Tablighi Jamaat, Hizbut-Tahrir al-Islami and Nurjular (supporters of the Turkish theologian Said Nursi) and other followers of the Takfiri movements to the category of ‘radical Islam’.
Russian law enforcement agencies believe that mass labor migration from the Central Asian post-Soviet republics contributed to the revival of Hizbut-Tahrir al-Islami’s and Tablighi Jamaat’s activities in Russia. There have been frequent cases of so-called “radical Islamists” who are actually mere migrants from Central Asia. However, the “light hand” of Russia’s law enforcement agencies has unfairly ranked these migrants as “religious extremists”. Furthermore, there have been cases of Central Asian migrants who have been killed during special operations by the Russian FSB because that same FSB egregiously labelled them as “religious terrorists” without any trial or investigation. Unfortunately, there are plenty of such cases in Russian practice.
It is imperative to mention that this is not the first time the Russian authorities have accused the Uzbek jihadist group KTJ of organizing terrorist act. On April 3, 2017, the Russian FSB blamed KTJ for the bombing on a subway train in St. Petersburg that killed 16 people and injured 67 others. According to Russia’s Investigative Committee, Akbarjon Jalilov, a 22-year-old Kyrgyz-born ethnic Uzbek man with Russian citizenship, has been identified as the suicide bomber. Investigators concluded that the ideological mastermind and financial organizer of the subway bombing was Abu Saloh al-Uzbeki, the leader of the KTJ group. It’s known that his real name is Sirozhidin Mukhtarov, a faithful follower of al Qaeda who migrated (Hijrat) from southern Kyrgyzstan to Syria to wage jihad against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
As a result, a military court of St. Petersburg found eleven people guilty of organizing a bomb attack. One of the accused individuals was jailed for life while the other ten were given jail terms ranging from 19 to 28 years but all 11 denied the charges and membership in the Uzbek jihadi group KTJ. The detained two Kyrgyz-born brothers, Akram and Abror Azimov claimed they were tortured at a “secret jail” outside Moscow. Both stated that they were subjected to electric shocks, simulated drowning, and beatings at the facility allegedly used by Russia’s powerful FSB. Putin’s Russia arbitrarily deprived the relatives of the accused of Russian citizenship and deported them to Kyrgyzstan. The only woman among the defendants, Shokhista Karimova, declared her innocence, claiming Russia’s FSB had planted a grenade and explosives at her home. Following the trial, human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch expressed concern that Russian law enforcement authorities often target Central Asian migrants without grounds accusing them of “religious extremism”.
Clearly, the activities of the Central Asian and Caucasian Salafi-Jihadi groups are “grist to the mill” of the Putin’s authoritarian regime in dividing Islam into ‘traditional’ and ‘radical’. Could HTS’s new restricting external jihad strategy help to reduce the risk of Central Asian migrants in Russia of being accused for supporting jihad?
Will Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s new strategy appeal to Russian interests?
As is known, KTJ, created in 2013 in Syria, consists of Central Asian militants, mostly Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz from the Ferghana valley. At the beginning of 2015, the KTJ leader Abu Saloh al-Uzbeki and his militants swore allegiance (bayat) to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri. After bayat to al Qaeda, KTJ was accused of the Chinese embassy attack in Bishkek in 2016 and the St. Petersburg metro bombing in 2017, although it denied these allegations.
KTJ is also closely affiliated with HTS, Syria’s most potent militant faction, which controls Idlib province and parts of the western Aleppo. After breaking off relations with al Qaeda, HTS pursues a strategy aiming purely at the local-Syrian jihad to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. It avoids global jihad outside the country and demands to follow its plan from Central Asian and Caucasian Salafi-Jihadi groups. With its new strategy, HTS sent a clear message to the international community to declare its transformation into a “moderate” faction, and even a “national liberation movement”.
To achieve international recognition as an acceptable political actor, HTS has excluded Central Asian al Qaeda supporters and local hardliners from its ranks. The dirty image of KTJ, which was accused of serious terrorist crimes in Eurasia, severely hampered HTS’s international ambitions to recognize it as a national liberation movement rather than as a terrorist organization. Therefore, in April 2019, HTS managed to remove Abu Saloh al-Uzbeki from the group’s leadership and instead elected Abdul Aziz Uzbeki (Khikmatov), a native of the Fergana Valley, as the new leader of KTJ.
However, Abu Saloh defied HTS’ strategy of giving up global jihad ambitions and joined al Qaeda-backed Jabhat Ansar al-Din along with 50 other Uzbek jihadists. HTS regarded such a step as a betrayal and on June 16, 2020, arrested Abu Saloh. As a result, KTJ’s military-technical and financial dependence on HTS has grown even more, and now it is focusing only on local jihad in Syria and as a result of the activities of KTJ strictly correspond to the tactics and strategies of its parent organization of HTS. In response to the accusation of Russia’s FSB on the impending terrorist attack in Volgograd, the Uzbek jihadi group stated that “KTJ activities are limited to the territory of Syria, and its actions do not go beyond the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s policy.” Further, KTJ assured via its Telegram channel that it “does not have its cells in Russia and is not involved in organizing terrorist acts abroad.”
In October 2020, HTS sent additional clear messages to the West, announcing through its Sharia Council the disavowal of prominent jihadist ideologue Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi, who is a strong supporter of al Qaeda’s global jihad. The West has reacted positively to HTS’s new strategy to exclude hardliners from its ranks and its ability to pressure Central Asian Sunni militant groups to abandon global jihadist ambitions. It is noteworthy that in February 2020 the US Representative for Syria James Jeffrey noted that “the HTS has not – we (US) have not seen them planning or carrying out international terrorism attacks. We’ve seen them focusing on basically maintaining their position in Idlib.”
Despite the efforts of HTS, it seems highly unrealistic to achieve international recognition of its legitimacy as a “national liberation movement”. The primary opponent of lifting international sanctions against HTS is Russia, which supports the Syrian government in a decade-long civil war. HTS, which holds the last major anti-government bastion in the northwestern province of Idlib, has become “a bone in the throat” for the high ambitions of Putin and Bashar al-Assad to regain full control over the entire territory of Syria.
In Russia, both HTS and its subsidiary KTJ are recognized as terrorist organizations. It becomes the peculiar of tradition that the Russian authorities automatically include the Salafi-Wahhabi Jamaats of the North Caucasus and Central Asia in the group of so-called “radical Islam”. Any Central Asian Muslim migrant can be easily accused of being an “Islamist extremist” and simulate the scenario of preparing a terror attack within circumstances of lacking civil control over the activities of the powerful FSB and with the tacit consent of the authorities.
In conclusion, Russian counter-terrorism operations against jihadist groups that challenge Russia’s state security and religious stability is justifiable. However, innocent Central Asian migrants in Russia should not face Russian labelling and be stigmatized as “Islamist radicals” simply because of the crimes of Salafi-Jihadi groups in the far away Middle East.
Maritime Security & Geopolitics in Indian Ocean Region
By linking the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and Africa, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) serves as an important global trade and commercial hub. The Strait of Hormuz, the Bab el-Mandeb, and the Malacca Strait are just a few of the strategic choke points that are located there. The region faces a number of security risks, including piracy, terrorism, territorial disputes, and geopolitical tensions. In particular, off the coast of Somalia, where pirates have seized commercial ships and held crews hostage for ransom, piracy has been a significant problem in the area for a number of years. But in recent years, the number of piracy incidents has significantly decreased as a result of the efforts of international naval forces and increased security measures by shipping companies.
Similarly, another major issue in the area is maritime terrorism, with several terrorist organizations active in the Indian Ocean’s littoral states. Shipping lanes, ports, and other maritime infrastructure are at risk from these groups. The most notorious terrorist organization present in the area is Al-Shabaab, which has ties to Al-Qaeda and is based in Somalia. Al-Shabaab has carried out numerous assaults on commercial ships and port facilities. Whereas, the Doklam plateau and the South China Sea are the subjects of the biggest territorial dispute in the area between China and India. The dispute has led to higher tensions between the two nations, and both sides have increased their military presence in the area.
However, China has been stepping up its presence in the Indian Ocean region, and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has significantly contributed to the infrastructure growth of the area. The Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and the Gwadar port in Pakistan are just two of the port development initiatives included in the BRI. India and the United States are concerned about these ports because they believe China is attempting to increase its influence in the region. Whereas, the United States is another significant player in the IOR, particularly in terms of preserving regional security and stability. Due to the fact that Bahrain is home to the US 5th Fleet, the US has a sizable naval presence in the area. The US has also been actively collaborating with other regional players, like India and Japan, to counter China’s expanding influence.
Simultaneously, the area, which makes up about one-fifth of the world’s oceans, is home to important shipping lanes. Due to these sea lanes, which link the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and Asia, the Indian Ocean region is an important trade route. The Indian Ocean is the conduit for almost 80% of the world’s oil trade and 40% of its merchandise trade. Therefore, ensuring safe and secure navigation through the area is crucial for expanding economic activity and global trade. The Indian Ocean region has a complex and varied geopolitical landscape. There are many states in the region, all of varying economic and military strength.
Along with these major players, the IOR is also home to a large number of other stakeholders, including smaller nations like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and the Maldives, as well as regional alliances like the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). These stakeholders have a significant impact on how the region will develop and will probably gain significance as the IOR continues to gain prominence.
Another significant risk to the IOR’s maritime security is the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). There are worries that non-state actors could obtain WMDs due to the presence of several nuclear-armed states in the region, including Pakistan and India. Governments and law enforcement organizations face a serious challenge when it comes to the smuggling of nuclear materials and components through the maritime domain. For regional stability and global security, the potential use of WMDs in the IOR by terrorists or state actors could be disastrous.
Similarly, a less well-known but no less important threat to maritime security in the IOR is marine environmental degradation. In addition to being a significant fishing ground, the area is home to some of the busiest shipping lanes on earth. However, unrestricted fishing methods, shipping pollution, and the disposal of waste at sea have resulted in the deterioration of marine ecosystems and the depletion of fisheries. The state of the marine environment not only jeopardizes fishermen’s means of subsistence but also has wider ramifications for global ocean sustainability and food security.
Last but not least, the creation of innovative techniques and plans for maritime security represents another chance. For example, improvements in satellite and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology could aid in enhancing the monitoring and surveillance of the region’s waters, making it simpler to identify and address security threats. Likely contributing to an increase in maritime security in the IOR is the development of new maritime policing techniques like the use of floating police stations and closer collaboration with coastal communities.
It’s high time to step up the protection of Europe’s critical maritime infrastructure
After the truth about the Nord Stream pipeline explosion came to light, the whole world knows that the United States was behind the destruction of critical infrastructure. In fact, the destruction of infrastructure is not a new method to achieve America’s purpose. Since the last century U.S. has recognized the important strategic value of critical infrastructure and has accumulated relevant experience in combating it. The Nord Stream pipeline is not the first target of attack by the United States, nor will it be the last. We should be wary of the U.S. using various means to gather information on critical infrastructure, strengthen protection of underwater infrastructure in order to prevent recurrences of similar incidents.
The U.S. has “extensive experience” in destroying critical infrastructure
In Nicaragua, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) overthrew the dictatorship of the close U.S. ally Anastasio Somoza in 1979. Since then, the United States has tried to destabilize the political situation in Nicaragua by various means. The U.S. intelligence agency formed a special detachment, directed it several times to destroy oil storage facilities and pipelines of Nicaragua and deployed mines in many ports to blow up oil tankers. The two most destructive attacks were on the fuel reserves in Corinto and Benjamin Zeledon ports. Approximately 4 million gallons of gasoline, diesel oil and other fuels were destroyed, equivalent to about a week’s worth of the country’s consumption. The means of sabotage by the United States in Nicaragua was exactly the same as that of the Nord Stream pipeline explosion. In addition, in the 1970s the U.S. directed terrorists to destroy Chile’s infrastructure including power plants and electrical substations, violently overthrew the democratically elected President Salvador Allende’s regime, and plunged Chile into a long-term military dictatorship.
In recent years, the United States has turned its attention to the oil-producing country, Venezuela. In 2020, the United States ordered agents to launch terrorist attacks on Venezuela’s Amuay refinery (one of the world’s largest and is capable of processing up to 630,000 barrels per day of crude oil) and the 146,000-bpd El Palito refinery, in an attempt to cut off economic lifeline and eliminate the anti-American regime.
Past events have shown that the United States is accustomed to eliminating anti-American forces by destroying infrastructure. U.S. sabotage has caused irreparable damage to the target country, regardless of whether the ultimate goal can be achieved. And the United States usually “does not have to” pay for its actions.
The undersea warfare launched by the United States is still going on
Behind the US’s wanton destruction of critical infrastructure is the support of high-level combat capabilities. In fact, the U.S. has a long history of research on undersea warfare, focusing on training professional military personnel, developing sophisticated underwater weapons and continuously upgrading combat systems. In 2016, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) is seeking to “build the Eisenhower highway network on the seabeds in the seven oceans”. Mathias Winter, head of the office, said the ultimate goal is to “have large-scale deployments of Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) and build service stations underwater”. The U.S. military is gradually implementing this vision. The UUV mentioned above is the “highlight” of the arms competition between the major powers in recent years. It can perform multiple tasks such as anti-submarine, seabed mapping, and frontier reconnaissance. It should be pointed out that few countries in the world have the ability to develop UUV, while the U.S. started earlier in this field and its technology is relatively mature. In January 2023 the U.S. Navy announced that it will soon begin the underwater testing of the first Orca XLUUV. The Orca is just one of several unmanned underwater vehicle projects underway by the Navy, other projects in development include the large submarine-launched UUV Snakehead, medium submarine-launched UUVs Razorback and Viperfish. The realization of the United States’ vision will boost its penetration into the marine environment of various countries. In January 2023, Namibia announced that it had discovered in its waters a US saildrone used to gather data underwater. At the same time, the U.S. military places a high priority on the training of combat divers. In addition to the famous Navy SEALs, there is a very small Army community, mostly made up of special operators, that goes through the Combat Diver Qualification Course to become combat divers. Business Insider reported in detail on the training process in February 2022.
International oil economist and author John Foster said the pipeline sabotage has opened a Pandora’s box of troubles and has endangered pipelines worldwide. It is clear who benefits. In the face of a complex and volatile international situation, critical infrastructure protection is more vital than ever. Underwater infrastructure is particularly attractive to attackers due to the difficulty of regulation and protection. The seabed internet cable between Henningsvær and Svolvær in Lofoten, Norway was broken on October 4, 2022, and the cause of the damage is still unknown. In this regard, the Spanish “Abésai” published an article saying that the recent sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines seemed a powerful symbolic action that exposed the vulnerabilities of the West, while the 475 undersea cables currently in existence that are carrying more than 95% of the world’s internet traffic are the overlooked Achilles’ heel. Among them, the Euro-Atlantic area is the oldest undersea cable route and carries traffic between Europe and America with dozens of cables. Since a majority of the data is stored in data centers located in the United States, it can be said that the US is the main “owner” of transatlantic communications and has the ability to control submarine cables.
The connecting undersea cables [submarinecablemap.com]
The Nord Stream pipeline explosion was a “wake-up call” for Europe, which led many countries to scramble to improve security of highly vulnerable undersea pipelines and communications cables. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced on 15 February 2023 the creation of a Critical Undersea Infrastructure Coordination Cell at NATO Headquarters to protect critical underwater infrastructure, noting that further measures will be finalized at the next scheduled summit in Vilnius on 11-12 July 2023. The purpose of the United States to promote the collection of information on the underwater infrastructure of other countries in the name of infrastructure protection in multilateral frameworks such as NATO is extremely obvious.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously stated: ”To be an enemy of America can be dangerous, but to be a friend is fatal.” After the war was dragged into endless combat mode by the U.S., no place or asset in the world is safe anymore. Chaos will ensue.
High-Altitude Espionage (Spy Balloon) and India’s National Security
Throughout the nineteenth century, balloons were a vital tool for obtaining intelligence. Since then, their value has drastically decreased. In order to spy on the Soviet Union in the 1950s, the United States utilised high-altitude balloons (that the Soviets complained about and subsequently shot them down). The U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance plane, (which was also shot down) and the Corona reconnaissance satellites, (the first of many generations of spy satellites) that many nations utilise today, succeeded in replacing balloons. Now that a Chinese balloon has flown above the United States, serious worries are being expressed.
During the first two weeks of February, the Chinese spy balloon saga that concerned the United States, Canada, and rest of the world seemed to have come to an end. The four balloons, or “high-altitude objects,” as they were officially referred to, were shot down by American fighter aircraft.
Similar to airships, surveillance balloons are equipped with sensors, cameras, or communication equipment to track and gather information. The spy balloons can either be anchored to the ground or can float at a great height, giving them the ability to take extensive pictures of their surroundings. Safety and monitoring, process sensing, climatology, and disaster response are all possible uses for the collected data.
Among the many uses of balloon surveillance equipment by spies are the following:
SIGINT: The intelligence community can use communication signals, such as voice and data transmissions, to intercept and analyse signals intelligence (SIGINT), which enables the collection of information on foreign governments, military forces, and other organisations. SIGINT is typically collected using balloons fitted with specialised sensors and equipment.
GEOINT: Spy Balloons collect geospatial information (GEOINT) in order to create detailed maps and photographs of the ground and track changes over time.
HUMINT: Balloons can be used to acquire human intelligence (HUMINT) to keep an eye on people, groups, and activities on the ground.
ELINT: Balloons enable the intelligence community to intercept and analyse signals from foreign military and other electronic equipment to learn more about their capabilities and intentions. This is known as electronic intelligence (ELINT).
Balloons were employed during the Cold War for psychological operations, or PSYOP, to drop pamphlets or books. In the 1950s, the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) deployed millions of hot air balloons off West Germany’s coast to drift through the Iron Wall with their prized cargo, George Orwell’s book Animal Farm (1945).
The usage of balloons for espionage operations and surveillance is not hidden from the world. Today, China adopted the earlier existing technology of balloons in its advanced version to fulfil its own intelligence needs. According to sources, US intelligence authorities think the recently discovered Chinese spy balloon is part of a vast surveillance operation managed by the Chinese military.
Such practices of China and the balloon system leaves an important question on India’s national security. A similar balloon like the one in America was sighted in January 2022 over the Andaman Nicobar tri-service command by the Indian forces last year. “But soon it flew off. These advances sparked conversations about some rethinking of the tactics to counter emerging dangers like spy balloons, ” said by former DG of DRDO. Even if such a balloon isn’t armed, it can gather private information about vital infrastructure, such as the activities of the armed troops near the border, in the islands, or anywhere else on the mainland, and test India’s capacity to recognise aerial surveillance gadgets.
China’s stance on the balloons were that it was a weather balloons, however the high resolution cameras could serve for the purpose of stationary Surveillance. Spy balloons, however, are difficult to shoot down. Elevated targets are inaccessible to anti-aircraft guns that are mounted on the ground. The fired bullets from the ground may cause casualties or injuries. Only a small number of fighter jets have the ability to launch an air-to-air missile from a height of 20 km which could quite expensive. Spy Balloons might make it easier for China’s military to collect electromagnetic emissions that reveal a weapon system’s capabilities when compared to using sophisticated satellite systems positioned at higher altitudes.
India has to improve its intelligence and counterintelligence capabilities in light of the latest incident. Sino-Indian ties are already fraught with uncertainty, so failing to recognise and address new dangers, especially those in the grey area, would have serious consequences. New Delhi needs to improve its technological proficiency and work with nations that share its interests.
Data collection today has become a very important part of a state’s strategies. Being unaware of such actions in its own backyard would have negative effects on India, given the tensions between the two countries. Although, advancement of the technology has led to blurring of the geographical border lines India needs to be rigorously vigilant to such espionage attempts especially near its borders and critical infrastructure.
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