Under the Radar: Tajikistan on track to be the next Afghanistan

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by Jeremy Luedi | Global Risk Insights

Tajikistan, the world’s leading exporter of suicide bombers to ISIS has the potential to become the next terrorist hotspot as a host of factors converge to put the small Central Asian nation at serious risk.

The recent publication of an expanded list of alleged terrorist groups and their sponsors by the National Bank of Tajikistan highlights the country’s growing concern about both domestic and international terrorist threats. The list includes over two hundred individuals as well as fifteen organizations; including the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). The inclusion of the IRPT on this list is important as it further highlights the de-legitimization of Tajikistan’s only recognized Islamic political party.

In the 1990s, the IRPT was part of Tajikistan’s formal political scene, with the moderate party garnering a place in government as part of the united opposition following the country’s 1992-1997 civil war. Since then President Emomalii Rahmon (who has ruled the country since 1992) and his People’s Democratic Party have slowly marginalized the IRPT, with the party outlawed in 2014, and declared a terrorist group in 2015.

Tajikistan’s anti-radicalization measures backfiring

The fall of the IRPT has been part of the government’s ongoing campaign against Islamism and overt faith in general. Motivated by fears of radicalization, the government’s slew of heavy-handed – and at times, bizarre – measures have only increased resentment among the population and provided ample recruitment material for radicals. In recent years, Tajikistan has: shut down hundreds of non-government sanctioned mosques and preachers, banned Islamic dress in schools and offices, limited public prayers, shuttered 160 stores selling Islamic clothing, banned children under 18 from mosques, restricted students from studying Islam abroad, and made it difficult to register Muslim organizations. In 2015 the government even went as far as to forcibly shave 13,000 bearded citizens.

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These measures have been directly cited by radicalized Tajiks as the motivation for their decision to join radical groups. A major blow to the government came in 2015 with the defection to ISIS of U.S-trained special forces commander Colonel Gulmurod Halimov. Halimov has allegedly become ISIS’ supreme military commander and has been a major influence in encouraging other Tajiks to join the organization. In part due to Halimov’s influence, Tajikistan has become the world’s leading exporter of suicide bombers to ISIS’s battlefields: 27 Tajik suicide operations were carried out in Syria and Iraq between December 2015 and November 2016.

The irony of the situation is that “when the IRPT was part of the government, one of their main tasks was to educate people not to go to [radicals]. Once [the party was] forbidden we had an enormous increase [in the number of Tajiks joining ISIS] – students, and in one case, 40 people from the same village,” notes University of Heidelberg researcher Sophie Roche.

Around 1,100 Tajiks are believed to be fighting in Syria and Iraq, with an additional 300 having been killed there in recent years. Two Tajiks were also behind the March 8th Kabul military hospital attack that left at least 49 dead. More recently, a suspected terrorist attack was orchestrated in the Tajik city of Qurghonteppa on March 12th, with an explosion killing one person near the military prosecutor’s office: Qurghonteppa’s outskirts also saw a mysterious explosion on January 30th.

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Only ten days before on January 20th, the Tajik interior ministry announced that the government had foiled 36 terrorist attacks in 2016, with over 400 people detained for suspected terrorist links. Tajikistan is facing a serious terrorism threat, as its citizens become radicalized at home due to the government’s hardline measures, and as hundreds of fighters in Syria and Iraq return home as ISIS loses ground in the Middle East.

Alongside the recent incidents already mentioned, a Tajik native was also arrested in Russia on March 8th after authorities discovered a plan for a suicide attack in Moscow. This incident demonstrates another risk vector for Tajikistan – its large migrant worker population. Over a million Tajiks work in Russia as migrant or seasonal workers, with remittances comprising a major revenue stream for Tajikistan. Poor working conditions, abuse and a sense of hopelessness puts many Tajik workers in Russia at risk of radicalization. The convergence of these risk factors has already led to the radicalization of a substantial number of Tajiks in Russia, with Islamists using Russian social media sites like Odnoklassniki and Vkontakti to recruit followers.

With Tajikistan’s economic growth slowing from 7.4% in 2013 to 3.8% in 2016, combined with an 8.5% annual inflation rate, economic hardship will force more Tajiks to seek work elsewhere, with those who stay not faring much better. Tajikistan’s economic hardship will only continue, especially with the recent cancellation of China’s Line D oil and gas pipeline. The cancellation of Line D means Tajikistan will lose out on millions of dollars in oil and gas transit fees, thus only further weakening the economy.

Stuck in a horrible neighbourhood

While these problems would be more than enough for any country, Tajikistan has the unfortunate luck of being situated in the middle of one of the most volatile regions on Earth. With its entire mountainous southern border facing Afghanistan, which at its narrowest point is also only 40 kilometers from Pakistan’s tribal north, Tajikistan faces serious risks. Add to this Tajikistan’s border with China’s restive Xinjiang province and things look grim. China’s Kashgar prefecture is home to 40,000 ethnic Tajiks, and the local government is hiring an additional 3,000 police to reinforce the border as officials increasingly intercept weapons, drugs and extremist media. Moreover, the Pakistani military’s offensive in Waziristan has pushed Central Asian ISIS supporters into northern Afghanistan, with Tajik radicals resettling in Afghanistan and others returning back home.

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Tajikistan’s Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda has estimated that there are between 10,000-15,000 militants along the Afghan-Tajik border, many of whom have cross-border connections. Indeed, Asadullah Omarkhail, governor of Afghanistan’s Kunduz province argues that “around three thousand Taliban fighters are active in Kunduz [and are receiving] Russian and Tajik support.” While claims about state assistance from Russia and Tajikistan to the Taliban are suspect, the group undoubtedly receives support from individuals in both countries, many of them Tajiks.

Tajikistan’s government takes these cross-border links seriously, and has recently ordered mobile phone providers to being re-registering all SIM cards in the country in order to thwart terrorists. First deputy head of the State National Security Committee, Mansurdzhon Umarov explained the move, stating that “we have information that on the border with our country, insurgents with the Taliban movement are actively using Tajik SIM cards.” Tajik SIM cards are popular in the region as they are cheaper, and some cases provide better service than those issued by Afghan service providers.

Tajikistan on the brink of multiple insurgencies

While the Afghan-Tajik border presents the greatest security challenge, the situation in neighbouring Uzbekistan holds important lessons, and warnings for Tajikistan. Like in Tajikistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) emerged out of resistance to a long-time leader and vehement anti-Islamist, in this case Islam Karimov. Likewise the IMU has long had cross-border dealings with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Despite this, the leadership of the IMU pledged loyalty to ISIS, with IMU emir Usman Ghasi aligning the group with Daesh in June 2015. This move caused a split in the IMU, with a splinter group retaining the IMU name, and re-affirming its allegiance to the Taliban. The existence of Jamaat Ansarullah, a Tajik IMU splinter group further connects events in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan to Tajikistan.

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What happened in Uzbekistan could easily happen in Tajikistan as ISIS supporters return home and continue to push radical Islamist goals. If the government continues its hard-line approach, these radicalized individuals are likely to act against the very government whose actions initially pushed many towards radicalization in the first place. This will create tensions between these returning ISIS expats and established local, anti-government groups. The latter has ties with ethnic Tajiks in the border regions of Afghanistan and China as well as with the Taliban.

Given the existing Taliban-ISIS rivalry, Tajikistan could well see the development of a proxy-war among rival Islamist groups, with ISIS and Taliban-backed groups attacking each other as well as the government. This would in turn transform Tajikistan from an exporter to an importer of radicals, as international supporters of both ISIS and the Taliban heed each side’s respective call for support.

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This article was originally published on Global Risk Insights on 19 March, 2017.

Under the Radar series of Global Risk Insights uncovers political risk events around the world overlooked by mainstream media. By detecting hidden risks, we keep you ahead of the pack and ready for new opportunities.

Under the Radar is written by Senior Analyst Jeremy Luedi.

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How to measure the terrorism threat after the Westminster attack


by Lee Jarvis, University of East Anglia

Two questions have been particularly prominent in the aftermath of the attack on Westminster. First, why was the attacker – named by police as Khalid Masood – not apprehended, given that he appears to have been already known to police and intelligence services. Second, what does this attack mean for security in London and elsewhere.

The UK’s counter-terrorism architecture involves a five-tiered warning system organised around five levels of threat: low, moderate, substantial, severe and critical. It is similar, in this sense, to the colour-coded warnings of the US Homeland Security Advisory System – a system which was replaced in 2011 by the National Terrorism Advisory System. The current level remains at severe in the wake of the Westminster attack.

Under the UK’s system, the country can never be entirely free from the threat of terrorism: at best an attack is seen to be unlikely. The simplicity of this system also implies that threats such as terrorism can be accurately, or even objectively, measured – and their increase or decrease calculated and compared.

Questions of probability

Assumptions such as these are misleading, because terrorism threat assessments, like assessment of any type of threat, involve an inescapable element of judgement and interpretation. Prospective dangers have to be translated into calculations of likelihood and potential consequences in order to become threats. Decisions then have to be made about the relative importance of probability and impact in calculating the severity of any such dangers.

In the case of terrorism, we are dealing with the actions of people whose intentions and behaviour may be unpredictable and are almost certainly deliberately concealed. They are also likely to adapt to changes in the environment around them, including the actions of counter-terrorism professionals.

Despite these difficulties, the desire to measure the threat of terrorism is an understandable one. Politicians, police forces, intelligence services and others have a responsibility to maintain national security. They also all play an important symbolic role which involves reassuring the public by being seen to be aware of, and responsive to, current and future dangers.

Armed guards outside parliament. Hannah McKay/EPA

The problem, in the case of counter-terrorism, is that future events, which cannot be definitively known, get translated into concrete representations of threat based upon the interpretation and judgement of security professionals. In the process, uncertainties become converted into hyper-cautious or even hyperbolic worst-case scenarios in which we are never, entirely, free from the threat of terrorism.

Political reckoning

Part of the reason for this process is political. Those tasked with national security have to make difficult and perhaps even unwanted choices and trade-offs. As Charles Clarke, who was British home secretary at the time of the 7/7 attacks in London in 2005, reflected to me an interview in 2015:

Tony Blair always used to say, quite rightly, that whatever concerns people had about civil liberties … if, at the end of a day, a bomb had gone off and we hadn’t prepared for it, people were killed even in small numbers, but far worse if it was a weapon of mass destruction or something, then people simply would not remotely accept the argument that we were worried about civil liberties. Now, I think that’s true, and I certainly felt in my particular role as home secretary that it was my principal responsibility to do whatever I could to ensure that the people of the country were safe.

The temptation toward creating precautionary threat assessments is also, in part, psychological, and a product of the human tendency to be more fearful of “exotic” or unusual threats such as shark attacks – or terrorism – than their more mundane equivalents which kill far more people around the world.

The problem, however, is that precautionary and hyperbolic approaches to threat measurement probably don’t lead to very effective counter-terrorism policy. As a consequence, policy tends to be rushed, excessive and often ineffective. This, in turn, can have repercussions for public feelings and experiences of security, especially among communities who might feel directly and deliberately targeted or “suspect”.

So, when discussion turns to “what next” in the aftermath of events such as those London has witnessed – the best advice is to proceed with patience and caution: to let the police investigation run its course before jumping to conclusions about actors and intentions. And, in the process to avoid the temptation to see unusual events such as these as anything other than that: unusual.

Lee Jarvis, Reader in International Security, School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication , University of East Anglia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ukraine and the Game of Geopolitical Go

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Image Credit: Sasha Maksymenko

by Elbay Alibayov

Political skills are frequently compared to chess-playing. However, it is the game of Go that comes closest to the art and craft of geopolitics. Go is a territorial game, where objective is to control more territory than the opponent. And the playground is big enough to allow performing poorly (or failing) in some areas but still winning the game by doing better on the board as a whole. Ukraine is the case in point.

Another milestone

Three years ago, on 18 March 2014, the self-proclaimed independent Republic of Crimea signed an accession agreement with Russia that resulted in forming new constituent entities within the Russian Federation. The agreement was signed two days after the citizens of Ukraine’s then Autonomous Republic of Crimea and city of Sevastopol voted to join the Russian Federation at the independence referendum (which was not recognized by the Ukrainian authorities). The move was (and still is) regarded in Russia as an historic act of “reunification”, while it was met with an outcry on the West and in the neighbouring countries, and was largely branded as the final act in “Russian annexation” of the Crimean peninsula (further to military occupation in February that created the conditions for the referendum).

For those observers who are familiar with historic background of the Russo-Ukrainian relations and their geopolitical context, it did not come as surprise though: the issue of Crimea (and especially the port of Sevastopol) and subsequent eastern Ukraine separatism are just another milestones on a long route of settling the relations between Russia and Ukraine in contemporary, post Soviet, history. Which itself is just a small section of a millennium long common history, with its numerous zigzags, highs and lows, infightings, controversies and moments of common pride (it is enough to remind that the Russian and Ukrainian statehood has started from Kievan Rus’ of 9-13th centuries; while Crimea becoming firmly part of the Russian Empire after the 1783 annexation and then changing hands in the course of the 20th century).

Sevastopol and national security

The irony of Russian geography is that, in spite of having a vast territory stretching from East Europe to the Far East, Russia is comparable to a land-locked country in terms of useful naval access to the world’s main theatres of action. That is why Crimean peninsula scores high in Russia’s national security strategy, and she cannot afford losing it. It is obvious that Crimea’s annexation was only an issue of time. The work in this direction started early in the post-Soviet times—already in the 1990s some Russian nationalist politicians were declared persona non grata, for meddling into Ukrainian internal affairs (under the pretext of protecting the interests of ethnic Russian or “Russian speaking” population).

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and Ukraine were negotiating the division of fleet and military and naval bases inherited by the newly independent states. From 1997 Russia was leasing the military bases of Sevastopol port from Ukraine, as per Partition Treaty. For quite some time, the sides were using their bargaining chips (gas supply and transit from Russia vs. Sevastopol bases of Ukraine) within tolerable margins.

Things became complicated once the United States and the European Union backed pro-democracy opposition groups started challenging the established status quo. Even worse for Russia, once coming to power after the so-called “orange revolution” of 2004-05, they began openly threatening to discontinue the leasing (which was due to expire in 2017). The situation temporarily normalized when the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was installed in Kiev. The agreement was immediately renewed and extended for another twenty-five-year period until 2042 (known as the Kharkiv Accords).

However, the Euromaidan protests of the opposition forces in 2014 saw Yanukovych ousted, and that was a signal for the Russian military that the time has come for action. Russia simply could not allow this happening. Honestly speaking, no one (at least among actual or those aspiring to be great powers) would.

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Crimea: a done deal

So where is Crimea now? The answer is simple and clear: Crimea is gone; forget it. It has quickly passed a grey zone (limbo, if you wish) of “no return—no further transformation” and has comfortably integrated into the Russian state. And it seems that, over time, everyone has accepted this stand of affairs.

No return means that there is no chance Crimea will be part of Ukraine ever again, given its strategic, even existential, importance to Russia: Crimean peninsula is the only place that hosts its Black Sea Fleet—one of very few outposts from where Russia can defend its southern borders and geopolitical interests in the region, as well as project its strategic offensive capabilities globally. Moreover, since the annexation Russia has deployed additional forces to strengthen its surface and sub-surface combatants and amphibious primary based in Sevastopol, Karantinnaya and Streletskaya Bays, as well as naval aviation and air defence located in nearby bases along with naval infantry.

On the other hand, there was a smallish chance that Crimea would be formally recognized as an independent state by other states and the UN any time soon. That meant no transformation into a fully fledged sovereign state; and declaring independence while being de jure part of Ukraine and de facto Russia’s satellite did not seem a feasible option, either. The only transformation from the grey zone practically justifiable (and the one that Russia did not hesitate undertaking) was integration—that is, Crimea becoming formally the part of Russian Federation. Therefore, for Russia (and by extension for all others) Crimea can be considered (at the very least, for the visible future) as fait accompli.

Eastern Ukraine: a prize no one dares to win

Eastern Ukraine, particularly people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk of the Donbass region (acronym for Donetsk [Coal] Basin), is following suit. The circumstances of Donbass are different from those of Crimea, but the destination is the same—into the grey zone where it becomes a low intensity irritant and a bargaining chip. The principal difference being that the Donbass entities are going to stay there at least in the immediate to medium term, if not indefinitely. There are reasons for that.

First comes the superiority of objectives. For Russia, the Donbass uprising has served as a supplement, to distract attention from Crimea and allow settling the primary issue (i.e., everyone to accept Crimea’s secession and integration, or annexation, even though without overwhelming formal recognition internationally) while creating a buffer zone and a constant irritant in Ukraine that will make the neighbor’s government vulnerable and more dependent on Kremlin, to extent necessary for keeping it on a safe distance from the meaningful, full-blown Euro-Atlantic integration.

Moreover, there is a principal difference between Crimea and Donbass in terms of conflict dynamics and political economy. The former was taken in a clinically performed operation and today is firmly controlled by Kremlin and does not seem to create any problems neither within its federal entity borders nor to its neighbours (I even read the reports in Russian media about how much Crimean Tatars, who initially were opposed to secession from Ukraine, come to “appreciate their newly obtained liberty”). For anyone raising their voice of concern (it still occasionally happens nowadays), the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has an immediate response pointing to Kosovo. Legalists may debate the nuances of course, but it hardly would affect the real situation on the ground.

This is not the case with Donbass and its two self-declared entities—Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics. Political economy of the conflict here includes numerous non-state actors, ranging from separatist groups to anti-Russian paramilitary battalions with diverse ideologies and allegiance, and various gangs who proliferate from the chaos and lawlessness and thus are interested in sustaining the present situation rather than ending the war. They have seized control of many industrial sites and are engaged in all sorts of illicit production and smuggling activities as within the region so across the borders.

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According to reports, separatists have seized control of steel mills, coal mines and other enterprises, and up until recent were trading with the government controlled territory.  In turn, paramilitary battalions (such as Azov, Aidar, Tornado), as revealed in international investigations, ignore the rule of law and “have been involved in widespread abuses, including abductions, unlawful detention, ill-treatment, theft, extortion, and possible executions.” Paradoxically, such groups may be of lesser headache in a low intensity conflict and lack of state control than in post-conflict situations when they play a destabilizing role and undermine the rehabilitation and state-building attempts of central authorities.

Next, Donbass is not of existential importance to Russia. Given the outdated infrastructure, degraded condition of coal mines and steel mills of the region (all demanding quite urgent and considerable investment with doubtful prospects of competitiveness), it does not represent such a great economic value to Ukraine either. The cost of physical rehabilitation is estimated in tens of billions dollars; who is going to pay for that?

To sum up, today neither Russia nor Ukraine has an appetite for fully embracing the Donbass, for it will come at prohibitive economic, social and political cost. The intricacy of Ukraine’s position is well summed in one of recent articles: “The good news is that Ukraine is prepared for all-out war with Russia; it is also prepared for and could cope with aid cutoffs from Washington and the end of sanctions. The bad news is that Kiev is thoroughly unprepared for the one scenario that could destroy Ukraine at little cost to Putin: Russia’s return of the Donbass.”

Power the aim, people not in equation

For the time being the strategic positioning of sides to the conflict over control of territories in Crimea and eastern Ukraine has been temporarily settled. “Temporarily” here may mean without meaningful change for decades to come, however. It appears that such a solution serves the interests of all state and non-state actors involved, directly or indirectly.

This is true for the status of Crimea, but becomes increasingly so with regards to Donbass and the implementation of Minsk II agreement that ought to bring peace to the troubled region. Two years after its signing, some analysts observe that “as the Minsk 2 process is now merely a self-sustaining diplomatic fiction, it has consequently become pointless; but it has also become indispensable. The present status quo and ‘neither war nor peace’ scenario is benefiting everybody, including the international community, as it justifies its lack of deeper involvement.”

“Benefits everybody”… well perhaps it is fair to say that it serves all but the ordinary citizens. And they are those who are paying the ultimate cost of the conflict. According to UN Human Rights Commissioner’s data, about ten thousand people have been killed (including two thousand civilians) and close to twenty-three-and-half thousand injured since the mid-April 2014. And it does not count the displacement, loss of jobs and hard earned property, the minimalist services and quality of life, insecurity of daily life and uncertain future, etc.

But hey… let me put it straight: people (whether human lives or their well-being) are never taken into geopolitical calculus by group actors, independently of what they claim in their public statements. Just look around… Whether we like it or not, the rule established by humankind since the dawn of civilization is that in political game, including the geopolitical game of Go, anything else but power can be sacrificed.

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The roles of the US, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Israel in Syria: moving towards the end of the war

The war in Syria is at its critical junction point, where decisions taken by various state and non-state actors upon the choices available to them at this point of time have a capacity of deciding the fate of the conflict, this way or another. An excellent break down of interests, perceptions and choices presented by a seasoned political risk analyst Elijah J Magnier: “Syria looks both close to and far from the end of the war. There are still both military (against ISIS and al-Qaeda) and political battles (constitution, cease-fire, reconstruction) to be fought. Nevertheless, despite the US and Turkish occupation of Syrian territory which Damascus will have to face one day, there are clear signs that the war in Syria is on track towards its ending.”

Elijah J. Magnier | ايليا ج مغناير

The two superpowers have agreed to finish off ISIS in Syria

Al-Qaeda in Syria has lost the support of the people and the countries of the region

Hezbollah fears an Israeli-US-Saudi Arabia war but the facts speak otherwise

Published here:  v

Elijah J. Magnier – @EjmAlrai

The US and Russia have agreed to put an end to the “Islamic State” (ISIS/Daesh) as a priority in Syria, unifying the goal without necessarily agreeing on uniting efforts and coordinating the ground attack. Nevertheless, this beginning will lead the way towards the end of the war in Syria and pave the way to removing essential obstacles (that means all jihadists) on the peace process road.

The US in Syria and the difficult choices:

The United States has pushed hundreds of its special forces and elite troops into the north – east of Syria to maintain a military presence…

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