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Drones in the Hands of Terrorists: What Happens Then?

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Ardian is a counter-terrorism researcher, lecturer and security analyst, with a field research experience in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Western Europe, the Balkans, Kenya, Somalia and Central Asia. Ardian is the co-founder and director of the American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute (ACTRI), a U.S.-based research institute focused on studying translation left-wing, right-wing, and militant jihadi forms of political violence. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration.

Interviewed by Tatyana Kanunnikova.

What will be the role of drones in future terrorist attacks?

If we look at some of the most recent examples in Europe—for instance, the Gatwick Airport incident where drone sightings were reported—these led to a lot of confusion among airport officials as well as policymakers and law enforcement. In this specific case, we are talking about dozens of flights canceled, millions in costs for the airport as a result of the shutdown. We are also talking about the anti-drone technology that needs to be implemented by the airport, which translates into substantial financial costs. If we look at other places, such as active conflict areas, we’ll see that Houthi rebels used drones to target and assassinate Yemeni leaders and they were also striking key national infrastructure in places like Saudi Arabia. Even here, in the United States, sightings and illegal actions of drones flying over cities and close to government facilities in some cases speak to the fact that drone operations may be a thing in the future.

Here, in the United States, there are examples of individuals who have attempted or actively pursued ways to utilize remotely piloted aircraft or drone technology in general to cause harm to U.S. interests. For example, in 2012, a group of Virginia-based individuals, with direct or indirect affiliation with Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based terrorist organization, sought to acquire this sort of technology for the terrorist group. In 2011, we had a U.S. national, who actually was a student at one of the reputable universities here in the United States and who plotted to pilot explosive-laden, remotely controlled planes and attack U.S. government facilities and military installations. If we look at the issue from this particular standpoint, there is potential for malicious use of drones in not only active conflict zones but also here in the West, which should not be overlooked.

In 2017, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that drones constituted an imminent terrorist threat to U.S. cities. Is this threat still considered imminent?

That is a good question and that has been part of the discourse here in the United States as well. The concern is that they come with a very low acquisition cost, which presents an opportunity to pursue that kind of technology to many groups, state and non-state actors, including private individuals. One can easily procure parts to build it. It does not require sophistication in terms of running the aircraft as well.

These are all areas of concern for officials and law enforcement, especially here in the West. While I would caution against labelling drone usage for malicious or harmful purposes as the most pressing threat in the West, one should still not discount the fact that local law enforcement and other entities may not be best positioned to counter the drone threat. They are not necessarily best equipped and staffed to adequately address such a threat. I would say it is one thing to confront or operate against drone threats in active conflict zones, where the military has the resources and the capability to address that kind of threat. Domestically, in the West in general, that could be an issue given that we arguably lack the sort of sophistication needed to detect, monitor, and counter drone threat at the local level, in our cities.

Are modern terror groups capable of modifying consumer drones to conduct improvised attacks?

Terrorist groups, especially those of the modern day, have been very capable of doing that. I have witnessed first-hand such cases during our research in Syria and Iraq. I’ve seen a number of modified consumer drones used by ISIS to target the Peshmerga in the North of Iraq, Iraqi security forces in Mosul and other places. From a structural standpoint, [ISIS] were known for their Phantom DJI models. They often utilized Styrofoam, a light, easily accessible, cheap material to build drones, as well as to modify and turn other drones into actual weapons. In many cases, we saw that they were able to mount certain amounts of IEDs or other explosive devices.

There was, of course, the ability to pursue that kind of technology given a low acquisition cost. One thing that we also see is the mimicry in the use of drone technology. For example, the drone technology that has been used by ISIS is being mimicked by ISIS affiliates in other parts of the world as well because, again, of the low acquisition costs and the ease with which it can be built.

What tactics and techniques do drone-using terrorist groups use?

From my personal research experience as well as experience in places like Syria and Iraq, the drone technology was primarily used to gain intelligence, for surveillance purposes. Drone usage has also proven powerful for propaganda purposes, namely imagery that was captured through drones and exploited for propaganda purposes. Of course, one must not overlook the military-strategic component, such as the ability to mount explosive devices and drop them onto enemies. It also serves to demonstrate “aerial power,” which comes, again, with a huge propaganda value that VE and terrorist groups have been able to put to use as well.

Another thing that we see, which is very interesting, is that the drone usage, especially as far as ISIS is concerned, has given them this opportunity to claim the alleged power and control not only on the ground but also in the airspace. This gives the illusion as though—especially as it [ISIS] started losing its controlled area in 2016-2017 and onwards—the drone operations afforded the group with this sort of aerial superiority, the operational capacity to penetrate into the airspace and attack enemy forces. This did give them [ISIS], from a propaganda perspective, a huge boost as well. And we have seen, for example, that ISIS would launch their drones laden with explosives into enemy lines, accompanied by other drones equipped to record such attacks, which was then shared via Telegram or other social media platforms utilized by ISIS for their propaganda purposes. As for the success of their drone-led attacks, it is really debatable; firstly, because they [ISIS] are only going to advertise their successes. We actually do not know much—at least publicly—about their downfalls or any limitations. Some of the images, if we look at some past attacks, in 2017, for example, when ISIS dropped several IEDs via drones onto the Syrian army base storing significant stashes of weapons in a stadium, showed significant damages to the Syrian military. But we do not know with certainty about their successes, the level of their success, as we often see what they choose to share on their media.

What we do know is that it is important for us to differentiate between terrorist groups or non-state actors that have utilized drones in a limited capacity and those that have active drone programs. If we look at organizations like Hezbollah (Kataib Hezbollah), Hamas, ISIS or even Houthis, they do have a record of successfully running drone programs, weaponized drone programs. In fact, these programs are sponsored by a state. For example, we know that Iran has played a significant role in sponsoring Hamas and Hezbollah’s use of drones, and so on. Again, when trying to differentiate where the drone threat might come from, it is important to understand the difference between the usage of drones by certain groups or entities in limited capacity versus those who have been running or supporting drone programs.

Are drones more likely to be used as means of transportation or as autonomous weapons?

In many cases, aside from the primary surveillance function, they have been utilized by terrorist groups as a means of transporting explosive and other materials from point A to point B. But as for the use of autonomous weapons, to my knowledge to date, to be able to drive this sort of autonomous drone weapons, they lack such a capability given that such drone technology needs to be accompanied with artificial intelligence. Most of these [drones] are programmed to, say, carry out attacks, drop a bomb, and so on. There has to be artificial intelligence incorporated with these autonomous weapons for them to be effective in other ways. But I have not seen this sort of technology, especially with ISIS. Perhaps, this could be the case with other groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

What targets would terrorists prioritize when conducting drone attacks?

As for the targets, what we have seen in places like Iraq and Syria, much of the drone strikes targeted, of course, the military, those perceived as enemy. As I mentioned earlier, in 2017, there was a highly publicized attack where ISIS dropped a significant number of explosives onto the Syrian army positions and weapons supply points. Attacks were also carried out against the Iraqi security forces during operations in Mosul. Surveillance function is an important component because it affords this sort of “pre-attack” planning ability to ISIS and other terrorist groups to better organize and coordinate their attacks. They would normally send out drones to collect information and then follow up with an attack, as is often the case. What we have seen is not only the use of drones for attack purposes but also the demonstration of power by sending many drones at the same time to create an illusion or perception that ISIS is capable of attacking with multiple drones and penetrating the enemy’s aerial space.

There is a nightmare scenario that small drones can be used to deliver chemical or biological agents in an attack. Or disperse deadly viruses over a public gathering place. Is it real?

In Iraq or Syria, where ISIS or other operating terrorist groups are involved, it is a matter of being able to gain access to chemical or biological weapons. It is not a far-fetched notion. And there are some examples of such incidents taking place. There were some efforts on the part of ISIS to deliver chemical, biological and other weapons of mass destruction via drones.

Are drone strikes effective against terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS? If yes, why?

As regards counterterrorism, if we ask government officials, they would argue that they are effective. The way to measure such effectiveness would be to look at how certain terrorist leaders—or those associated with terrorist actions at some level—have been targeted. Most recently, Qasim al-Raymi from al Qaeda in Yemen was killed via drones, so that was one measure of success. During the Obama administration, in Yemen alone, we had upwards of 1200 drone attacks targeting different militants. During President Trump, we delivered hundreds of attacks, specifically targeting militants in Yemen, Somalia and other places. In Pakistan alone, the drone targeting campaign lasted over 10 years. We also have the recent example where the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was targeted and killed via a drone strike.

But again, if we look at terrorist organizations as unified and cohesive organizations, then we could say that killing their leaders specifically should reduce terrorist attacks as well. But we also know that terrorist organizations are not cohesive or unified in many ways. In that regard, the effects of killing a terrorist leader become perplexing or complex. For example, when a terrorist leader is killed, in theory, it should lead to a situation where a terrorist group’s leadership and control is undermined. On the other hand, depending on who comes next in the line of succession, the successor may be more prone to violence.

It is a really complicated question. In retaliation, groups may also increase terrorist attacks against civilians. And we have also seen this in terrorist groups with centralized leadership. One must also consider drone attacks leading to civilian casualties and significant grievances. I conducted research with my colleagues in Somalia last year. And during the course of interviews, drone attacks were largely criticized and raised as the source of grievance by some, even leading to recruitment and joining Al Shabaab in some cases. Although those attacks were aimed at Al Shabaab leaders or affiliates, or ISIS operatives, grievances were raised that they did lead to civilian casualties as well.

What are the risks associated with drone operations? Are there ways to mitigate those risks? How do we prevent them?

Some drones can fly at a very high altitude, while some fly only at low altitudes, which can be problematic under either scenario. From an anti-drone technology standpoint, that becomes a problematic proposition and requires a better understanding of how drone technology may be applied in the future. But again, as I mentioned earlier in the example of drone sightings at the Gatwick airport, when it led to significant confusion and material damage, the same thing applies here [in the West] in local contexts because of the inability to fully grasp and understand this emerging technology, but we’re also talking about the need to counter that technology if deployed in cities or in other places where it could pose significant difficulties and strains, especially on local governments and law enforcement.

Last year, for the first time in history, drones autonomously attacked humans. According to the UN report, these drones were supplied by Turkey to the Libyan forces. Can machines be allowed to make their own decisions to kill or should autonomous drone attacks be banned?

I have not done much research on the topic, and I do not know if these autonomous attacks led to human casualties. If this is the case, that would change the course of how we understand autonomously driven objects, specifically as it relates to drones. As stated earlier, autonomous weapons, coupled with this sort of artificial intelligence, do make sense in some way, provided that humans exercise some level of control. We have to understand the decision-making process that goes into creating this sort of autonomous technology [drones].

We know from our research that we could feed a certain image to a drone, which would enable that particular drone to carry out an attack based on the image fed. Having said that, a slight change, modification, misreading of that image (or its pixels) by the drone could lead to significant errors in terms of targeting capabilities. The lack of human control may always pose a level of risk. Humans need to play a role in a drone’s “decision-making” process. If we look at other fields that utilize these autonomous technologies, like self-driving, autonomous vehicles (AV), one can find errors there as well. From such a perspective, that could be problematic as well. Also, the question is not only how they [autonomous drones] are used but also where and how many of them are used. If we are talking about an autonomous drone being utilized in certain operations, say in a conflict zone like Syria and against ISIS, it may lead to different outcomes as compared to, say, using them in non-conflict areas, in cities and where large segments of civilian population are present. The room for error is especially there in the case of the latter, when operating in spaces where civilians are present. Again, we do not know much [publicly] about this emerging technology, including their decision-making process, their objectives, how they operate in different geographic areas, etc. These are all questions we need to better understand and address.

From our partner RIAC

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Impact of Terrorist Organizations in the Middle East

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Terrorism is a significant variable in security studies and it is hindering a wide range of safety. Likewise, because of the emotional expansion in psychological militant assaults in the course of the most recent twenty years, have economies have found a way broad ways to work on the political, social, and financial circumstances by diminishing outer struggles and fear monger assaults.

The Global Terrorism Database (GTD) distinguishes psychological oppression as a danger or genuine utilization of illicit or vicious power by a non-administrative individual or gathering to accomplish a political, monetary, strict, or social objective through dread. This is on the grounds that these exercises are intended to make mental impacts and their belongings go past the survivors of fear-monger occurrences.

Definitions of terrorism are dubious because of issues of marking activities as psychological warfare advances the judgment of the entertainers, which might  reflect philosophical or political predisposition. Definition of terrorism as characterized by the Global Terrorism Database  (GTD) is  termed  as “a  non-state  entertainer’s  compromised  or  genuine use  of unlawful authority and viciousness to attain a political, monetary, strict, or social purpose through dread, coercion, or scaring.” The people in issue, or the victims of fear-based oppression, have little in common with the fear-mongers, but they address a larger human population whose response the fear-mongers need. It is critical to comprehend that fear mongers are sane entertainers. They have a particular reason for their utilization of savagery and guess that it will make a response from the crowd that they are focusing on.

According to the GTD (2018), the Middle East has accumulated the greatest number of losses on the planet, notably since roughly 2001. Due to challenges such as high unemployment rates, money shortages, single-item financial elements, low levels of per capita payments, and slow monetary growth in the Middle East, these countries must rely on foreign speculation to beat these problems. Given the financial needs of these countries, bringing in an unfamiliar endeavour can play an important role. Differentiating the effects of capital flight and fear- based negative events in these countries might help policymakers improve or maintain business as usual.

In 2016, Iraq had 2,965 terrorist attacks, Afghanistan had 1,342, and Syria had 366. Conversely, there were 30 fear-monger assaults in all of Western Europe around the same time. However, the Global Terrorism Database notes that the number of fear-mongering attacks in Europe is increasing, the situation in the Middle East is far more concerning—a region where assaults are a piece of day-to-day existence for some residents.

The costs of psychological warfare, on the other hand, go far beyond literal annihilation. There are also significant social and financial consequences in the Middle East. ISIS has scoured a large number of historical heritage places in Iraq and Syria. Given their social and historical significance, the worth of many of these locations is incalculable. According to some sources, the sale of stolen antiques on the black market may be ISIS’ second-largest source of revenue, after oil. Some of these antique relics have been discovered in London’s antique shops. UNESCO has added a number of important locations to its list of endangered places due to pillage and obliteration, including six new sites in 2013.

The emotional drop-off in the travel business inside Syria and Iraq adds to these disasters. The Syrian Ministry of Tourism has attempted to aid the tourism business by distributing a series of YouTube recordings. The recordings show Syria’s recognisable blue waves and beautiful seashores, in an effort to rehabilitate a country that many associate solely with war atrocities. In 2011, just before the Syrian civil war reached its most destructive stage, 8.5 million tourists visited the country, contributing almost $8.3 billion to the economy (around 13.5 percent of Syria’s GDP). In 2014, however, only 400,000 tourists visited Syria. Several nations, including Tunisia and Egypt, have seen similar drops in the travel industry following psychological oppressor attacks, causing massive economic damage.

Oil is one of the Middle East’s most basic endeavours, and terrorism has a huge impact on it. Oil offices have been identified by psychological militants in a few Middle Eastern countries, causing supply shortages. Because of ISIS attacks, Iraqi oil production dropped by as much as 320,000 barrels per day at one time. Various oil offices are included in ISIS’ jurisdiction. The profits from oil sales go to the psychological militant group, diverting funds that would otherwise go to public foundation programmes. ISIS held 60% of Syria’s oil reserves in 2014, and the group made approximately $3 million per day from the illegal oil trade. Despite the fact that ISIS has recently lost a lot of territory, it still controls large wells in northern Iraq, preventing Baghdad from collecting much-needed cash.

Psychological oppression has a considerably greater impact on the Middle East’s economy than it does on the European economy. Given that the Middle East has seen the sharpest increase in illegal intimidation over the past 15 years, it appears to be a basic mistake that assessments have not attempted to gauge the absolute cost of psychological tyranny.

Organizations in Western nations which store these investigations are, maybe justifiably, more concerned about the impact of psychological persecution on their own countries. It is simple for the Western world to excuse the expense of psychological warfare in the Middle East since it is both far away and a piece of day-to-day existence for the area’s kin. Interestingly, demonstrations of terrorism in the West are considered perilous abnormalities.

While the actual effects of terrorism in the Middle East should be the primary focus of counterterrorism efforts, the financial consequences should not be disregarded. Estimating the cost of psychological warfare as a means of identifying knowledge gaps and obstacles has merit. Counterterrorism authorities should help alleviate the excessive financial repercussions that fanatic gatherings have on the Middle East by recognising and securing vital territorial income streams like the tourism industry and oil.

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The Deadliest Enemies: China’s Overseas Military Bases in Central Asia and Uyghur’s Turkestan Islamic Party

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Abdul Haq al Turkestani, the leader of Uyghur Jihadists

Amid the burgeoning sentimental relationship between Beijing and the resurrected Taliban’s Emirate 2.0, the al Qaeda-affiliated Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) has aggravated its propaganda war against Communist China, hence cleverly concealing its historically faithful jihadi bonds with the Afghan Taliban. Despite the Taliban’s assurances of non-interference in China’s internal affairs, Beijing is building up its military presence in post-Soviet Central Asia. One example is its establishment of military bases in the Af-Pak-China-Tajik strategic arena near the isthmus of the Wakhan Corridor in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan province.

Although China did not camouflage its contentment with the failed US policy in Afghanistan and sought to leverage the Taliban victory as its foreign policy asset, Beijing has faced the Taliban’s elusive stance in curbing the Uyghur jihadists challenges. Today, the Celestial is well conscious of its harsh realities. With the withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan, Beijing lost a safe buffer zone in the strategically critical Afghan-Chinese borders area in Badakhshan, which has afforded with free secure area for over 20 years. While the US’s presence in the region disturbed China, it nevertheless provided Beijing with relative stability and protected from the infiltration of global al Qaeda elements into the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Therefore, by showcasing its concern over its instability in the neighboring country, Beijing prefers to pressure Taliban on security matters, claiming that Afghanistan should not become a safe haven for terrorist organizations such as the Turkestan Islamic Party. On October 25, during the bilateral meeting in Qatar’s Doha, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pressed Taliban’s Acting Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi to make a clean break with Uyghur jihadists of TIP and to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a hotbed of global terrorism.

The Taliban’s Interim government is accustomed in responding to such external pressures from its neighbors and the international community. The typicality of its response lies in the denial of the presence of Central Asian and Uyghur terrorist groups on Afghan soil, further wittily dodging the topic of its ties with al Qaeda. Taliban strategists seeking international recognition have apparently developed cunning tactics to carefully conceal their ties to al Qaeda and Central Asian jihadi groups, while maintaining the bayat (oath of allegiance) of veteran strategic partners in holy jihad.

And this time, Taliban representative Suhail Shaheen voiced a stock answer, stating “many Uyghur fighters of TIP have left Afghanistan because the Taliban has categorically told them there is no place for anyone to use Afghan soil against other countries, including its neighboring countries.” But the Chinese authorities are well aware of the Taliban’s insincerity on this matter. In turn, the Taliban realized that the authorities of China and Central Asian states did not believe their statements. As a consequence, Beijing denied the Taliban’s claims, claiming that approximately 200-300 Uyghur militants of TIP currently live in the Takhar province near Baharak town.

Certainly, to calm Chinese concerns and encourage deeper economic cooperation with Beijing, the Taliban has removed TIP Uyghur jihadists from the 76-kilometer Afghan-China border area in Badakhshan to the eastern province of Nangarhar in early October. The Taliban’s double play testifies their walk on a fine line between pragmatism and jihadi ideology, especially when they simultaneously want to look like a state and maintain a historical relationship with al Qaeda.

A short look at Taliban-China relations

Since the mid-1990s, the Af-Pak border arena has remained at the center of China’s security and counter-terrorism strategy. Chinese policymakers were concerned that the TIP’s Uyghur militants found refuge in Afghanistan’s border region of Badakhshan and are waging a decades-old holy jihad to liberate Eastern Turkestan from the iron claw of Beijing. Within this framework, China’s counter-terrorism policy aims to prevent the challenge of the TIP Uyghur jihadists who have been deeply integrated into global al Qaeda’s structure over the past quarter-century. This undertaking surfaced on Beijing’s agenda since the collapse the pro-Moscow regime of Mohammad Najibullah in 1992 and became extremely acute after the Taliban’s lightning seizure of power in August 2021.

In order to break the long-standing and trusted jihadi ties between TIP and the Taliban, Beijing has emerged as a pragmatic backer of the Taliban’s new rule, promising economic and development support through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For its part, the Interim Afghan government, seeking international recognition, has called China a most important partner and pushed for deeper cooperation with Beijing.

Following the steps of its historical diplomacy of flexibility and pragmatism from the Qing dynasty, Beijing has forged a pragmatic and operative relationship with the Taliban for nearly thirty years. Since Taliban’s first rise to power in 1996, this pragmatic relationship has been centered in China’s counterterrorism strategy. Guided by the “Art of War” strategy of the ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, Beijing decided to “defeat the enemy without fighting”. In 1999, China launched flights between Kabul and Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur region, and established economic ties with the Taliban who patronized Uyghur militants of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM – now TIP).

In December 2000, China’s Ambassador to Pakistan Lu Shulin met with the Taliban’s founder leader Mullah Omar in Kandahar, in which Lu voiced Beijing’s position on the need to stop harboring Uyghur jihadists operating in Afghanistan. Consecutively, the Taliban anticipated that China would recognize their government and prevent further UN sanctions. During the meeting, Mullah Omar assured Lu that the Taliban “will not allow any group to use its territory for any activities against China.” But this deal was only half materialized. While Omar did restrain Uyghur jihadists to attack China’s interests in Af-Pak zone, he did not expel them from Afghanistan. And Beijing did not oppose new UN sanctions against the Taliban, it only abstained.

Following the collapse of Mullah Omar’s so-called Sharia regime after 9/11, China did not sever its ties with the Taliban leaving room for strategic change in the future. Putting eggs in different baskets, in 2014-2020, China secretly hosted Taliban delegations in Beijing several times and provoked them to active struggle against foreign invaders for the liberation of the country. However, China’s central focus in their contacts with the Taliban has always been to curb the Uyghur jihad against the Celestial and build a first line of defense in the Wakhan Corridor along the Af-Pak-China-Tajik strategic arena.

Hence, according to China’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy, securing BRI strategic projects overseas from TIP attacks and blocking the Salafi-Jihadi ideology in Xinjiang became even more important for Beijing since the Taliban overtook the power. Counterterrorism and concerns of Islamic radicalization were the justification for China’s crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, where the CCP has imprisoned more than 1.5 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz Muslim minorities in concentration camps, manically depriving them of their religion, language and culture since 2014.

China’s military footprint in Central Asia

Predictably, the abrupt US withdrawal from Afghanistan encouraged Beijing to continue its aggressive and assertive foreign policy toward Central Asia to expand its BRI projects in the region. If before, in exchange for its economic assistance, Beijing demanded from Central Asian nations to adhere the “One-China policy” (recognition Taiwan as part of PRC) and support its war against “three evils” (separatism, religious extremism and international terrorism), then now it is also stepping up the military footprint in the region.

On October 27, the Tajik Majlisi Namoyandagon (lower house of parliament) approved China’s proposal to fund the construction of a $10 million military base in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province near the intersection of the Af-China-Tajik borders arena. The agreement which reached between Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry and China’s Public Security Ministry, indicates the new base would be owned by the Rapid Reaction Group of the Interior Ministry.

This is not Beijing’s first overseas military base in Central Asia. China already operates a military base located 10 km from the Tajik-Afghan border and 25 km from the Tajik-Chinese border in the Tajikstan’s Gorny Badakhshan province on the isthmus of the Wakhan corridor. Thus, the Chinese base overlooks a crucial entry point from China into Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In accordance with secret agreements signed in 2015 or 2016 between China and Tajikistan, Beijing has built three commandant’s offices, five border outposts and a training center, and refurbished 30 guard posts on the Tajik side of the country’s border with Afghanistan.

In July 2021, the Tajik government offered to transfer complete control of this military base to Beijing and waive any future rent in exchange for military aid from China. The Chinese military base in Tajikistan has no regular troops of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), but has representatives of the People’s Armed Police (PAP). It is worth pointing out that China, concerned about the activities of TIP’s militants in Xinjiang and their potential links with transnational terrorism, adopted the first counter-terrorism legislation on December 27, 2015. The law provides a legal basis for various counter-terrorism organs, including the PAP, empowering it with broad repressive functions. PAP members currently serve at China’s overseas military base in Tajikistan, the main function of which is counter-terrorism monitoring of Tajik-Af-Pak border movements.

It is imperative to note that China is concentrating its military facilities not in the depths of Tajik territory but precisely on the isthmus of the vital Wakhan corridor at the Af-Pak-China-Tajik borders intersection. In the mid-90s, Uyghur militants fled China’s brutal repression via the Wakhan corridor to join the Taliban, al Qaeda and TIP in Afghanistan. In their propaganda messages, TIP ideologists often mention the Wakhan Corridor as a “Nusrat (victory) trail” through which the “long-awaited liberation of East Turkestan from the Chinese infidels will come.”

The mastery of the Af-Pak-China-Tajik strategic arena is currently critical to Beijing for several reasons. First, the holding the Wakhan Gorge allows China not to depend solely on the will of the Taliban to prevent attacks by Uyghur jihadists of TIP. Secondly, it gives China an additional lever of pressure on the Taliban to sever their ties with Uyghur militants, playing on the contradictions between Tajikistan and the Afghan Interim government. And finally, Beijing is well positioned to protect its future investments in the Afghan economy through the BRI project.

China’s aggressive and assertive move into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence does not make the Kremlin nervous as much as the US military presence in the region. Quite possibly, China’s expansion of its military presence in Tajikistan was coordinated with Russia, which considers Central Asia to be its southern flank. Because Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are part of the Russian-led CSTO military alliance, opening a foreign military base in one of them requires the consent of this military block. Now, the two most considerable regional powers, Russia and China can be expected to pursue common counterterrorism strategies through the coordination and information-sharing on TIP Uyghur jihadists and Russian-speaking fighters based in Taliban-led Afghanistan.

Propaganda war between Communist China and Turkestan Islamic Party

As Beijing tries to fill the power vacuum left by the United States and expand its political and economic influence over the Afghan Taliban’s Interim Government, the veteran Uyghur jihadi group of Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) and newly emerged Katibat al-Ghuraba al-Turkestani (KGT) are respectively intensifying their ideological war against the China’s Communist regime.

The media center Islam Avazi (Voice of Islam), the TIP’s propaganda machine, systematically and vociferously criticizes the Chinese Communist government as “atheist occupiers” and “Chinese invaders” for occupying the lands of East Turkestan. Recently the TIP’s main mouthpiece in its weekly radio program on the Uyghur-language website ‘Muhsinlar’ stated that “China’s overseas military bases are evidence of its evil intentions to occupy new Islamic lands through creeping expansion.” Then the Uyghur speaker insists that “temporarily settling in new lands, the Chinese kafirs (disbeliever) will never leave there, a vivid example of which is the tragic experience of East Turkistan, whose religion, culture and history are Sinicized, and its titular Muslims are being brutally repressed.”

Our research indicates that despite their longstanding involvement in the global jihad in Afghanistan and Syria and their strong alliances through oaths of allegiance (bayat) with al Qaeda, Taliban and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the central ideology of Uyghur Jihadists is the fight against the Chinese Communist regime. The strategic goal of the Turkestan Islamic Party is to liberate the historical lands of East Turkestan, now known as Xinjiang, from the occupation of the Chinese “communist infidels” and to build its own state with Sharia rule there. In their regular statements, audios and videos, TIP propagandists raised the victimization of Uyghur Muslims during China’s occupation of East Turkistan, which has long been a key theme in TIP’s ideological doctrine.

Amid establishing Chinese overseas military bases in Central Asia, TIP’s media center Islam Avazi has sharply intensified anti-Beijing propaganda. Both the Taliban and TIP have double standards in this regard. Criticizing the Chinese Communist regime, TIP deliberately avoids and never condemns Taliban’s recent close ties with the China. At the same time, when the Taliban recently criticized New Delhi for persecuting Muslims in Indian-administered Kashmir and call themselves defenders of the oppressed Muslim Ummah, they tried to sidestep the topic of China’s crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Future of Uyghur Jihad in Post-American Afghanistan

Thus, even though the TIP remains an essential player of global jihad and a vanguard for the Uyghur cause, China’s pressure on the Taliban and its military bases in Central Asia will force Uyghur fighters to curb their jihadi ambitions in post-American Afghanistan. Undoubtedly, as before, the Taliban will continue their attempts to marginalize Central Asian jihadi groups in Afghanistan, making them completely dependent on their will and exploiting them for their political purposes.

It is difficult to predict to what extent the Uyghur jihadists have the strength and patience to withstand Taliban moral pressure and Chinese intelligence persecution in the new Afghanistan. Interestingly, researchers at the Newlines Institute claim the Taliban’s collaboration with Chinese military advisers present in Afghanistan. According to a senior source within the Taliban, “some 40 advisers from China (including some military ones) deployed to Afghanistan on October 3.” Therefore, it will be difficult for TIP to maintain its developed propaganda apparatus, to enhance its organizational capabilities in the new realities of Afghanistan, when Chinese overseas military bases are breathing down its neck.

Beijing’s military footprint on the Af-Pak-China-Tajik border arena will force TIP to demonstrate its diplomatic and strategic ability in seeking support and solidarity from numerous umbrellas jihadi organizations such as al Qaeda, Jalaluddin Haqqani’s Haqqani network, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, HTS, and even Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K). Suppose al Qaeda continues to weaken, and IS-K grows stronger via targeted attacks and successful recruitment. In that case, Central Asian jihadists may change their jihadi flag and join IS-K. The most capable defectors from al Qaeda to ISIS were Uzbek, Tajik and Uyghur foreign fighters in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, as their experience has shown.

Any TIP’s move to take the jihad back to Xinjiang for its liberation, undoubtedly, will face steep odds. Beijing’s repressive security measures, such as high-tech mass surveillance and mass detention of Uyghurs in so-called re-education camps, have long deprived TIP of its network in Xinjiang. Worries that TIP is poised to ravage Xinjiang, therefore, seem overblown. With demographic changes in the Xinjiang region, where the Han population is almost the majority, the TIP has lost its social underpinning and perspective of waging jihad within the country.

In conclusion, wary of antagonizing Beijing and its dependence on Chinese economic largesse, the Taliban Interim government will progressively reduce its support for Uyghur jihadists. The establishment of Chinese military bases on the isthmus of the Wakhan Corridor and the strengthening of its anti-terrorism initiatives, combined with the monitoring of the Af-Pak-China-Tajik arena, call into question the extent to which TIP can conduct operations against China’s BRI.

Lastly, a rapprochement between China and the Taliban leaves TIP cornered, limiting room for maneuver and forcing some Uyghur Muhajireen (foreign fighters) to carry out a hijrah (migration) to Syria’s Idlib province to join their fellow tribesmen from Xinjiang. Nevertheless, despite this grim appraisal of TIP’s prospects in post-American Afghanistan, it can capitalize from its commitment to transnational jihad and expand its international network exploiting the Syrian melting pot. Indeed, given the physical remoteness from China’s overseas military bases, the Syrian quagmire will give the TIP a certain latitude, strengthening its ability to assert itself on the global jihad.

Author’s note: This article was first published by a SpecialEurasia Research Institute, which partners with Modern Diplomacy.

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Terrorism

Can the Taliban tame ETIM?

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Uighur jihadists of Turkestan Islamic Party

The Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) is also known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is a Uyghur Islamic extremist organization founded in the Xinjiang province of China. TIP is the new name, although China still calls it by the name ETIM and refuses to acknowledge it as TIP. The ETIM was founded in 1997 by Hasan Mahsum before being killed by a Pakistani army in 2003. Its stated aim is to establish an independent state called ‘East Turkestan’ replacing Xinjiang. The United States removed it from its list of terrorist Organizations in 2020. The group and its ties to Muslim fundamentalism have compounded Chinese concerns about the rising threat of terrorism within the country.

In Tianjin, the Taliban’s political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar again pledged to “never allow any force” to engage in acts detrimental to China. Suhail Shaheen, the Afghan Taliban’s spokesperson, said in an exclusive interview with the Global Times that many ETIM members had left Afghanistan because Taliban had categorically told them that Afghanistan can’t be used to launch attacks against other countries. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had also asked the Taliban to crack down on the ETIM, which is based out of the Xinjiang province. In view of the Taliban’s pro-China stance on the ETIM, the article will assess the feasibility of the Taliban’s promises of not providing sanctuaries to the groups which are direct threat to the national security of China.

First, this statement surprises the experts in view of the Taliban’s historic relationship with the ETIM.  According to a recent United Nations Security Council report, ETIM has approximately 500 fighters in northern Afghanistan, mostly located in Badakhshan province, which adjoins Xinjiang in China via the narrow Wakhan Corridor. Most of Badakhshan is now under Taliban control, but according to some reports, Tajik, Uzbek, Uighur and Chechen fighters comprise the bulk of the local Taliban rank and file, rather than Pashtun fighters. This scenario appears very challenging for the top leadership of the Taliban to deny sanctuaries to such loyalists.

Second, ETIM is operating in Afghanistan since 1990. It has strong links with the local Taliban commanders. The local Taliban commanders may put pressure on the top leadership or hinder the extradition of ETIM members from Afghanistan. Zhu Yongbiao, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at Lanzhou University, thinks that ETIM members in Afghanistan still have some influence. It may not be easy for the Taliban to fully cut ties with all ETIM members in Afghanistan as it may hurt other military militants that used to support it.

Third, the Taliban’s capacity to tame the ETIM is limited because its all members and leadership have scattered across Afghanistan, Syria and Turkey. Zhang Jiadong, a professor with the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, told the Global Times, “In recent years, the ETIM also changed its living areas overseas. The exact number of ETIM members is hard to know but “its core members are living in countries including Pakistan, Syria, and Turkey. More of them stay in Syria than in Afghanistan and have been keeping a low profile in recent years”.

Fourth, the ETIM has developed close ties with international militant organizations, including Al Qaeda. Moreover, Al Qaeda has significant influence over the Taliban. Al Qaeda has ability and resources to sabotage the extradition of ETIM members from Afghanistan. Some militant organizations including IS-K have developed the ideological differences with the Afghan Taliban. IS-K recently used a Uyghur fighter for suicide campaign in Afghanistan just to show fissure between the Taliban and ETIM. So, this trend can be a challenge for the Afghan Taliban.

The Taliban’s new stance of not providing sanctuaries to the ETIM contradicts with some of its founding principles. The Taliban’s new version on ETIM is not easy to follow. Time will be the true judge of the feasibility of Taliban’s new stance.

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