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  • Second Thomas Shoal: an emerging flashpoint in the South China Sea?

    July 2024 Violent clashes in the South China Sea are raising tensions in the region. On 20th June, photos emerged of China Coast Guard personnel threatening Filipino crew with knives and spears and attempting to board resupply vessels at the contested Second Thomas Shoal, a reef in the South China Sea.  Later that month, the Philippines ambassador to the US warned of the risks of a regional war. As the Philippines has a mutual defense treaty with the US, the provocations raise the potential of a new flashpoint between the US and China. The Second Thomas Shoal lies in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways, with over $3 trillion in world trade passing through to China’s mega ports every year. Over the past decade, China has sought greater control over the waterway and kicked off territorial disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines to assert control. However, the new approach adopted by the Philippines to improve its naval defense capabilities in the South China Sea is a turning point in the security of the region. The Philippines is pursuing various security relationships with states other than the US to improve its position.  Repeated Clashes in the South China Sea The Second Thomas Shoal is a submerged reef in the Spratly Islands to the southeast of the South China Sea. China, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all claim sovereignty over the island. Located 200 km west of the Palawan island of the Philippines, it is around 20 km in length and is largely submerged at high tide. There are no permanent features or infrastructure. However, a small contingent of Philippine Navy personnel have been stationed there on a rusting WW2-era warship, the Sierra Madre since 1999. They have been resupplied every year to maintain the territorial claim for the Philippines.   Beijing is determined to prevent the resupply missions from happening. China’s Coast Guard has used military-grade lasers aimed at Filipino ships, almost blinding one Filipino fishermen, ramming and water cannons. On June 15, 2024, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) implemented a new policy authorizing the Chinese coast guard to detain foreigners crossing into waters claimed by China, potentially arresting Filipino citizens.  China’s actions against the Philippines have raised the risks of a US-China confrontation over the Second Thomas Shoal. The US is obliged to come to the defense of the Philippines in the 1951 mutual defense treaty, which is frequently supported by the Biden administration. While Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos said  that China’s actions do not yet warrant invoking the pact, he stated  that the death of a Filipino in SCS clashes would be ‘very close’ to an act of war.  Significance of the Second Thomas Shoal   The Second Thomas Shoal lies in the SCS, a key strategic waterway in Asia’s geopolitics. Beijing has claimed sovereignty over the SCS based on the “nine-dash line”, a claim which puts it at odds with other states in the region. There are vast untapped oil and gas reserves in the SCS, estimated at over 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 billion cubic feet of gas. It is vital for international commerce as over one-third of all maritime traffic passes to the largest ports in the world. China’s Navy has built and maintained several island reefs with air bases and a host of missile arsenals, aircraft hangers and surveillance systems to project power into the SCS.  The Philippines sees the Second Thomas Shoal as key to its own sovereignty claims, given that it lies within its Exclusive Economic Zone. Following years of the dispute, the Philippines took the contested claim to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea which ruled in favor of the Philippines in 2016. The Philippines sees defending the Second Thomas Shoal as its territorial claim and standing up for international law. There are also concerns  that Beijing will aim to take the shoal and put air bases and surveillance systems as the Chinese Navy did with the Mischief Reef, located 40 miles away.  Washington sees defending territorial claims of the Philippines as key to maintaining its security role in Asia, especially as other claimant states are looking to the US to hedge against China’s actions in the SCS. The Biden administration wants to maintain the idea of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’, where ships are free to travel in the SCS. At the same time, the US is seeking to avoid confrontation that would invoke military support for the Philippines.  Why the Philippines? Vietnam has been fast developing  new islands in its SCS claims, though there are no notable outposts or infrastructure as yet. Malaysia and Indonesia have also been developing offshore oil and gas resources in China’s claimed territory, with Beijing largely not offering  a response as harsh as toward the Philippines. However, China has decided to target the Philippines, who is a US treaty ally, and potentially send a signal to other states to undermine the US as a security provider in the region. China’s blockade of Philippine reinforcements may be an attempt to prevent the Philippines from becoming closer to the US. China’s defense ministry and People’s Daily regularly condemn the stationing of US military troops and missile deployments to the northern Philippine island Luzon, which lies 500 km from Taiwan. In April 2024, the US sent  new missile launchers capable of targeting ships at sea to Luzon. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said  that the country could be pulled into a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. China’s view is that the Philippines is merely a part of a broader geopolitical strategy to contain China. China has repeatedly stated that it objects to US security arrangements near its territorial waters. Chinese diplomats have accused the US of establishing a series of alliance systems aimed at introducing an Asia-Pacific version of NATO, claiming that this is an attempt to encircle China. Beijing also views the Aukus alliance between the US, Australia and Britain as an organization to confront China. The Philippines increasing cooperation with US allies in the region is therefore seen as another geopolitical move to confront China’s interests in the region.  New regional security ties The imbalance between China’s and the Philippines’ naval capabilities has led the Philippines to pursue better relations with the US. Marcos has allowed  the US to double the number of Philippine bases American soldiers. He has to some extent supported US priorities in the Taiwan Strait, saying the Philippines will be involved in the event of a Taiwan Crisis because it is too close to the Philippines. With the onset of a Trump presidency however, US security ties are far from guaranteed. The Philippines has also started to develop ties outside of the US partnership to conduct security arrangements with other regional powers. Japan and the Philippines will soon announce  a reciprocal access agreement allowing their troops to enter each other’s territory for joint exercises. Japan has already supplied patrol ships to the Philippines Coast Guard to defend its territorial sovereignty. Japanese prime minister, Fumio Kishida, has agreed to provide new coastal surveillance radar systems through grants. Japan’s patrol vessels, defense equipment and radar to strengthen Philippines’ law enforcement capability.  The Philippines has also developed closer ties with Australia and India. Australia shares the Philippines concerns over China’s growing military assertiveness in SCS and has become a significant military partner in the Philippines naval capabilities. They regularly conduct joint amphibious landings. India’s growing geopolitical competition with China has prompted India to forge closer ties with the Philippines and Taiwan. While their collaboration is not as significant compared with other powers, their combined naval exercises through the South China Sea indicate their growing cooperation in the maritime field.  Risks of escalation While it is unlikely that there will be open conflict between the Philippines and China, there is a chance of a crisis if a red line is crossed. Even with low-level conflict this raises the risk that the mutual defense treaty with the US will be invoked. US president Biden states that the treaty also covers Filipino ships and personnel. China has increased the number of ships around the Second Thomas Shoal and is monitoring other states in the SCS. There are some signs that Beijing and Manila are willing to talk with each other to resolve the crisis through dialogue, perhaps through a shared cooperation agreement on oil exploration. Yet the low-level conflict is remaking security ties in Asia and offering new regional security arrangements against China’s growing assertiveness.

  • Intel Brief: New Alliance of Sahel States exacerbates insecurity concerns in the region

    Date:   11/07/2024 Where : Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso  Who’s involved : Alliance of Sahel States (AES), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) What happened? On 06/07/2024 , the military rulers of  Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso signed a treaty establishing a confederation called the Alliance of Sahel States (AES) and formalizing their departure from the Economic Community of West African States  (ECOWAS). The treaty was signed during a summit of the three military junta leaders in Niamey, the capital of Niger. The goal of the confederation is mutual defense  in case of external aggression, armed rebellion, or any attack on the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the parties. The breakaway confederation has a marked anti-ECOWAS and anti-French stance .  The official formation of the new alliance between the West African military juntas took place a day before  the opening of ECOWAS 65th ordinary summit  in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, re-elected as ECOWAS chair during the summit, warned that the splitting of the juntas from the West African bloc puts  ECOWAS at "risk of disintegration" and "political isolation."  Senegalese President Faye was appointed by ECOWAS, along with the president of Togo, as a special envoy to negotiate and seek reconciliation with the governments of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.  On 07/07/2024, the US completed the withdrawal of about 1000 military personnel  from their air base in Niamey, Niger’s capital. The US is expected to complete the withdrawal of the remaining troops in the country by 15/09/2024, while Germany’s contingent will leave Niger by 31/08/2024. The Italian military maintains troops in the country, but a potential renewal will be discussed in September 2024. The withdrawal of US troops from Niger represents the loss of the last stronghold and ally for Western counter-terrorism in the Sahel States . Mali had already expelled French troops in 2022, while the withdrawal of French forces in Niger and Burkina Faso was completed in 2023.  The creation of the Alliance of Sahel States and its mutual defense pact was initially announced on 16/09/2023 , after the ECOWAS threatened to military intervene in Niger to restore constitutional rule and the deposed president following a military coup in July 2023.  On 28/01/2024, the three West African junta-led countries  simultaneously declared the withdrawal from the ECOWAS due to military and political pressure and the suspension from ECOWAS in the aftermath of their respective coups. Besides Niger's military coup in July 2023, which saw General Abdourahamane Tchiani self-proclaimed leader of the country, the Sahel region witnessed a wave of coup d’etat in the last three years , including the coups in 2020 and 2021 in Mali led by the current Malian President Colonel Assimi Goïta and the two coups in 2022 experienced by Burkina Faso, currently led by Captain Ibrahim Traoré.  Analysis : The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), established in 1975 as an economic coalition, evolved into a powerful regional political and economic union consisting of fifteen, now twelve, West African nations aiming to achieve "self-sufficiency" and economic cooperation  among member states to raise living standards and foster economic growth. ECOWAS also aimed to promote regional peace, stability, and security  through integration and cooperation among members and developing a peacekeeping force to address regional security issues such as terrorism and conflict. However, in recent years, increased regional instability, terroristic violence, and the bloc's inability to prevent military coups and restore democratic order have undermined ECOWAS' authority and credibility. The split of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso and the establishment of the AES risks exacerbating greater regional instability and further fragmenting and weakening the already crisis-ridden ECOWAS.  For ECOWAS, the exit of the AES member states, with their 72 million people, about one-fifth of the ECOWAS population, would undermine regional integration  about the free trade area (FTA), trade routes, industrial diversification and supply chains, freedom of movement and the right to work across borders. Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, on the other hand, will face economic challenges and risk worsening their economic and financial condition, already damaged by the sanctions imposed on them following the coups. Being landlocked countries , their trade routes depend mainly on the coastal members of ECOWAS. Leaving ECOWAS will also mean leaving the FTA, resulting in the reintroduction of tariff barriers and increased transactions, making their exports less competitive and imported goods more expensive. Moreover, the AES country will no longer benefit from ECOWAS development programs to foster food security, water management, agriculture, and energy in the region. International observers warn of the  risk of increased poverty, food security, and humanitarian crises in the countries.  AES announced the creation of the Sahel Economic Alliance to promote the confederation's economic development and self-sufficiency. Moreover, these countries are rich in mineral resources, mainly gold sold to non-ECOWAS countries , which could at least partially offset the economic consequences of leaving the regional economic bloc. Also, the junta-led countries announced the creation of a mechanism to allow the free movement of people, goods and services within the AES zone and their own investment bank. It is still unclear whether AES will also leave the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA). The withdrawal from ECOWAS will also imply growing political isolation for Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger and diminishing chances for the restoration of democracy. The lack of political cooperation with the ECOWAS will likely affect the efforts of the bloc and Western efforts to address the regional security challenges,  like armed groups, organized crime, and, especially, terrorism. The three junta-led states are among the most affected by violence and activities of Islamist groups, and ECOWAS leaders are concerned about the spillover of jihadist groups into neighboring countries  as a result of the collapse of joint counter-terrorism strategies and the withdrawal of Western military forces from the AES members.   The military juntas' estrangement from ECOWAS is also attributable to their strong anti-French and anti-Western stance . AES leaders have repeatedly accused the West African bloc of being "slaves" to France and acting on behalf of Western foreign powers rather than for regional interests. The expulsion of French forces and the more recent withdrawal of US contingents points at, besides counterterrorism implications, a geopolitical shift by AES in favor of non-Western powers seeking to expand their influence in the region. Russia has already consolidated its relations with members of the new alliance . Russia initiated military cooperation with Niger in 2024 and has openly supported Burkina Faso's military regime by deploying troops in the country. In addition, the presence in Mali of about 1,000 troops of the Russian private military group Wagner, which is responsible for atrocities against civilians, has been confirmed since 2021.  The US withdrawal from Niger could further the West African country's relations with Iran and Russia to boost their nuclear programs. Niger accounts for about 7 percent of the world's uranium production,  which has historically been supplied to France. Meanwhile, Russia’s Rosatom signed three cooperation deals in July 2024 with Mali’s military junta and discussed projects for a nuclear power plant. China is also expanding its influence and investment in the resource-rich Sahel region. For instance, in 2023, China invested extensively in Mali, which has one of the world's largest lithium reserves.   Despite ECOWAS's efforts for reconciliation, it is unlikely that the three military-ruled countries will opt to return to the West African bloc . The regional insecurity spawned by the new configuration of West Africa is likely to exacerbate increased violence against civilians, widespread terrorism and extremism, and a dramatic humanitarian crisis. International observers are concerned about restricting citizens' freedoms by military juntas and fear a greater authoritarian orientation in the region, even in neighboring states. The Alliance of Sahel States could likely also significantly impact migration flows to Europe . The reintroduction of cross-border controls will disrupt the usual migration routes, and the military juntas, with their stricter approach against illegal migration, will no longer be part of the cooperation framework on migration negotiated by ECOWAS and the EU.  Conclusion : The withdrawal of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, members of the newly forged Alliance of Sahel States, from the ECOWAS economic and political bloc is likely to have  far-reaching impacts on regional and international stability and security . International observers are concerned that the new Sahel configuration will exacerbate a humanitarian crisis and a migration crisis, thus having repercussions for the European Union and migration routes. Moreover, the withdrawal of Western forces from the region increases the risk of expansion and strengthening of jihadist groups . ECOWAS reconciliation efforts with the AES are unlikely to produce any results. The weakening of ECOWAS, now made up of 12 member states, could also have ramifications for the influence and peacekeeping and counter-terrorism activities of its Western allies in the region, to the benefit of non-Western powers such as Russia, Iran, and China, already seeking to cement their ties with separatist military juntas.

  • Intel Brief: Generative AI Models Spreading Russian Disinformation

    Date:   8/7/2024 Where :  The Internet/Social Media websites   Who’s involved : “Little Bug”  group, CopyCop  network, John Mark Dougan , other Russian propaganda producers What happened? A June 18th  audit by media monitoring service, NewsGuard , concluded that the ten most used Generative AI models (including ChatGPT , Microsoft Copilot , Google Gemini , X (Twitter)’s Grok , and others) substantially and demonstrably amplified Russian disinformation and propaganda  campaigns. The report came just before the publication of a June 26th  piece by WIRED , regarding Russian propaganda video “deep fakes” being created and promoted with the assistance  of Generative AI and Large Language Models  (LLM). Both publications emphasize the research and accomplishments of various investigations conducted since early 2023  that have identified hundreds of websites  generating videos , news stories , and audio recordings . The NewsGuard  audit identified 19 significant false narratives attributed to 167 websites  that appeared in 31.75 percent  of the inquiries tested with the ten AI models. Analysis The AI models would authoritatively cite the Russian disinformation sources  as legitimate “local” news. Some of these Russian sources have deliberately attempted to trick the models by naming themselves after now-defunct legitimate newspapers, such as The Arizona Observer  and The Houston Post . Some of the reproduced narratives were extremely specific. They included topics such as US bioweapon labs in Ukraine, wiretaps at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago properties, murder-coverups regarding property acquisitions by the Zelensky family, and  Ukrainian attempts to interfere with the 2024 US elections . Many of these narratives have been tied to the propaganda works of John Mark Dougan , a former US Marine and police officer who fled to Russia in 2016 to avoid legal allegations. He is alleged to be involved with the Russian disinformation network, CopyCop . As Russian influence operations shift some of their focus towards influencing US presidential elections , a Russian entity known as Little Bug , in association with the Doppelganger  disinformation network, have begun using publicly available Generative AI models to create artificial, “deepfake” music videos and public statements featuring US president Joe Biden.  Doppelganger ’s media has attempted to amplify criticisms of Biden by the America’s far-right, specifically narratives in line with the extremist “Great Replacement Theory ” of immigration and white supremacy, and reinforced accusations of unsubstantiated health issues related to Biden’s age. In May , OpenAI  released a report about how its own investigations showed that its tools (including ChatGPT  and DALL-E  image generator) were being used by disinformation actors in Russia , China , Iran , and Israel . When using some of NewsGuard ’s prompts in the newest available ChatGPT  models, it was shown that they have been updated to reflect that the identified propaganda sites are now sources of disinformation. The changes haven’t been applied perfectly. Both ChatGPT’s 4o and 4 models, which require a paid subscription, and the 3.5 model, which is available without payment, showed that with less context, some of these sites are still cited as legitimate sources: When pushed back just slightly, the model (in this case, the newest, GPT 4o) bafflingly contradicts itself: Conclusion As more tech companies offer AI integrations utilizing the models reported on by NewsGuard  and others, the reach of disinformation and propaganda threatens to grow exponentially. Additionally, Generative AI models don’t only offer the means to dispense disinformation, but to generate it, themselves. It’s important to note that even if the various developers, such as OpenAI , attempt to take steps to flag such information or sites as potentially harmful, this is only a reactive approach, and users can see that the models are not prepared to identify sources of disinformation with just the slightest changes to prompts and context. In part, the nature of AI Large Language Models, which scrape nearly the entirety of the internet for their training data, make a proactive approach impossible for developers because the disinformation is already integrated into the models. As it stands, the current onus of preventing this data scraping is on the producers of content. Disinformation networks such as CopyCop  have absolutely no incentive to engage in such protection of their data, as it would reduce their reach.

  • Intel Brief: Anti-Syrian unrest in Turkey risks reigniting tensions between Syria and Turkey

    Date:  04/07/2024 Where : Turkey or Republic of Türkiye , Turkish-controlled northern Syria Who’s involved : Turkish President Erdogan, Turkish political opposition, Syrian refugees, Syrian President Assad What happened? On 30/06/2024, anti-Syrian riots erupted in Kayseri province, central Turkey.  Turkish residents stormed and torched businesses and properties of Syrian nationals. The unrest was sparked by allegations of sexual assault against a minor by a Syrian.  The unrest spread to the provinces of Hatay, Gaziantep, Konya, Bursa and several cities, including Istanbul. Over 470 people were arrested for suspected involvement in the riots.   Turkish authorities called for calm and heightened security at the Syrian consulate in Istanbul.  On 01/07/2024, Turkish President Erdogan blamed the opposition parties for promoting anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia  that spurred the violent riots. In response, Turkey's main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), has pointed to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party or AKP) and its refugee policy as culpable for the escalation of violence and for turning Turkey into "a refugee depot." The CHP called for a revision of Turkish foreign and refugee policy.  On 02/07/2024, Turkey closed its border with Syria after Turkish forces clashed with Syrian protesters in the Syrian border city of Afrin, in the Ankara-controlled northern Syria.  Seven people were killed in the clashes. Protests and acts of violence are spreading elsewhere in Turkish-controlled north Syria calling for the withdrawal of Turkish forces, with hundreds of Syrians taking to the streets, attacks on Turkish convoys and Turkish flags being removed.  The escalation of violence, both in Turkey and in Turkish-controlled north Syria, came a few days after both Turkish President Erdogan and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad signaled their willingness to normalize relations and restore bilateral ties between the countries,  interrupted after the 2011 Syrian civil wars. The separate announcement came after Turkey reopened, in late June 2024, the Abu Al-Zandeen crossing near the northern Syrian city of Al-Bab, restoring trade routes and connecting Turkish-controlled and Syrian government-controlled areas in eastern Aleppo. This triggered  massive protests on 28/06/2024 from the Syrian population . Analysis : With nearly four million refugees, Turkey hosts the world’s largest refugee population. Most of them, approximately 3.6 million, are Syrian.   Initially welcomed as refugees under temporary protection status in Turkey following the outbreak of Syria's civil war in 2011, Syrian nationals have been experiencing increasing hostility from the local population in recent years.  The rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in Turkey is firstly related to the current economic situation in the country . Since 2018, Turkey has been experiencing a deep economic crisis, which worsened in 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Currency devaluation, rising inflation, rising cost of living, and a high unemployment rate have fueled resentment toward immigrants and refugees perceived as competitors in the labor market and a burden on the welfare state. Moreover, the opposition’s strong criticism of President Erdogan’s flexible refugee police and his refugee deal with the EU  seems to be a factor in the spread of anti-immigrant rhetoric and protests. During the May 2023 general election campaign, the main opposition party, the CHP, focused its political agenda on nationalist rhetoric and the repatriation of Syrians. Moreover, in recent years, new parties with a prominent anti-immigrant and anti-Syrian narrative  have emerged, including the far-right Victory Party founded in 2021. Although these parties gained little support in the 2023 elections, President Erdogan claimed that their anti-immigrant rhetoric is fomenting the recent new escalation of violence and resentment against the Syrian refugee population.  The recent riots are not the first xenophobic protests in Turkey targeting Syrians. An analogous event happened in 2021 when massive anti-Syrian riots broke out in the capital, Ankara, following the death of a Turkish teenager during a fight with a group of Syrians.  Beyond Turkey, anti-refugee and anti-immigrant sentiment is expanding in the region . In Lebanon, home of 1.5 millions of Syrian refugees, resentment and violence against refugees increased since the start of the economic crisis in 2019. In April 2024, Syrian communities were attacked by the local population and  Lebanon security forces, following the abduction and killing of a major figure of a Christian party. The same anti-immigrant shift is also visible in other “safe havens” for refugees, including Tunisia, where the rising anti-refugee sentiments and violence led to discriminatory regulations and treatments of Sub-Saharan migrants. In recent months, the Tunisian government launched an unprecedented crackdown and abuse campaign against migrants, refugees and human rights defenders. The new escalation of violence risks reinforcing the already volatile situation and undermining the normalization efforts between Turkey and Syria , already jeopardized by recent protests in Syria after the reopening of the Abu Al-Zandeen crossing. Relations between Turkey and Syria have been strained since 2011, after the outbreak of Syrian civil war, as Turkey supported the rebels seeking to overthrow Assad. Moreover,  Turkey still controls a buffer zone in northern Syria , which has been the reason for the failure of previous attempts at normalization as Aleppo has repeatedly stated that respect for the Syrian sovereignty and the withdrawal of Turkish forces from its territory are preconditions for the restoration of bilateral relations.  Several factors may play a role in promoting normalization between Turkey and Syria, including regional dynamics like the Israel-Hamas conflict and the possibility of the outbreak of a regional war in southern Lebanon. Moreover, restoring relations with the Assad regime is crucial for Turkey to eliminate the threat posed by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK ), active in southeastern Turkey, northern Syria and northern Iraq,  and terrorist groups like Daesh/ISIS. Finally, the Turkey-Syria normalization would be the first step toward advancing the Turkish plan to repatriate Syrian refugees  to their home country. However, to enable them to return safely, the Assad regime will first have to accept a democratic political transition. Conclusion : The recent escalation of violence against Syrian refugees in Turkey indicates an unprecedented upsurge in anti-refugee sentiments  in the country. Anti-refugee riots  are already spreading across the country, and there is a risk that they could escalate as occurred in 2021, jeopardizing the security of the Syrian population in Turkey and further exacerbating the social, political, and economic exclusion of refugees in the country. Moreover, despite normalization efforts between the two countries, t he unrest in Turkey and the outbreak of new violence and protests in Turkish-controlled northern Syria risk further deteriorating relations between Turkey and Syria . Heightened violence targeting refugees in Turkey comes on top of a volatile regional situation due to ongoing conflicts and the widespread anti-immigrant narrative gaining momentum in the region.

  • Conflict Monitoring Report: June 2024

    Written by Arianna Lucà, Mickey Beckmann, Jacob Dickinson, Iris de Boer, Kevin Heller, Sara Frisan Russia-Ukraine: The front has remained static despite Russian offensive operations in Kharkiv Oblast and Donetsk Oblast. Ukraine hit targets inside Russia with Western-supplied weapons. Israel-Hamas:  As Netanyahu's government faces instability, the conflict enters a new phase with Israel focused on eliminating Hamas leadership.  Myanmar: Civil war intensifies in the western Rakhine state and the eastern parts of the country as the military junta shuts down the internet.  Sudan:  Ongoing conflict between SAF and RSF in Sudan worsens the humanitarian crisis and increases the risk of regional instability.  Israel-Hezbollah: A war between Israel and Hezbollah seems inevitable. Several countries have called for its citizens to leave Lebanon as soon as possible. Kenya: Widespread protests erupted across Kenya against the government's planned tax hikes, resulting in deaths, injuries and many arrests. Mozambique: As SADC mission in Mozambique withdraws, violence resumes in the resource-rich Cabo Delgado province. Venezuela:  While opposition candidate González is far ahead in the polls, it remains uncertain whether Maduro will concede free and fair presidential elections on July 28.  Bolivia: Alleged failed coup deepens political instability ahead of Bolivian elections in 2025. New Caledonia: New protests erupt in New Caledonia after detained activists are sent to mainland France for trial. DRC: As the eastern provinces face a surge in attacks by M23 and ADF armed groups, escalating tensions between DRC and Rwanda heighten the risk of  violence  in the region.  Haiti: While the Kenya-led Multinational Security Support mission's arrival in Haiti is imminent, violence is spreading in rural areas.  North Korea-South Korea: Tensions rise between North and South Korea as they ramp up their propaganda campaigns and strengthen ties with allies.  China-Taiwan: Divisive legislative changes in Taiwan lead to mass protests as Beijing threatens ‘pro-independence leaders’ with the death penalty. Conflicts, June 2024   Russia-Ukraine In June 2024, Russia continued its offensive operations in Kharkiv Oblast  in the direction of Vovchansk and Kharkiv (city). Russia hit different cities in Kharkiv Oblast with deadly airstrikes and tried to push in the direction of Lyptsi. However, Russia did not manage to breach the frontline. The Ukrainian Armed Forces regained positions in the Lyptsi direction and also managed to remain in control of the majority of Vovchansk by conducting tactical counterattacks. Fighting continued in Donetsk Oblast , where Russia tried to make its way toward Chasiv Yar and captured a relatively small piece of Ivanivske.  On June 9, 2024, the head of the Chechen Republic stated that soldiers also captured the village of Ryzhivka in Sumy Oblast, but this was contested by Zelenskyy, who called it a “propaganda operation”. The pressure on the Russian Armed Forces is increasing because the promised Western aid for Ukraine has started to arrive . Nevertheless, this aid is not expected to lead to any significant changes on the battlefield before mid or late July. In late May and early June, the US, France, Germany, and other Western allies gave the green light for Ukraine to use the provided weapons to hit targets inside Russian territory . Hence, the Ukrainian Armed Forces hit targets in Rostov-on–Don, Belgorod Oblast, Azov, Sevastopol, and Voronezh Oblast. Some had their own military resources, and some had Western-provided resources. Moscow has publicly held the US. responsible for the deadly attack in Sevastopol, as it was conducted with five missiles that were supplied to Ukraine by the U.S.  On June 23, 2024, the cities of Derbant and Makhachkala in the Russian Republic of Dagestan were hit by a terrorist attack  targeting synagogues, churches, and a police post, killing at least 20 people. While most information currently points to Wilayat Kavkaz, the Northern Caucasus branch of Islamic State (IS), Russia has tried to blame the attack on Ukraine and the West, claiming that the terrorist attack is linked to the Ukrainian strikes in Sevastopol.  Israel-Hamas   The war between Israel and Hamas is moving to a new phase. The IDF has decided to focus more on special forces campaigns   against Hamas leadership, bomb makers, and weapon dealers instead of conducting large operations that cover entire cities in Gaza. Targeted strikes and assassinations or arrests will have priority in the coming months . Some IDF troops will be sent home or redeployed to the north now that the operations in Gaza are winding down and the war with Hezbollah is likely to start. Hamas is urging the US to put pressure on Israel to accept a peace deal, but Israel suspects Hamas is trying to stall for time so it can build up new strength in Rafah, Khan Yunis, and Gaza City. The US, Egypt, and Qatar are urging Hamas and Israel to return to the negotiating table, but so far, it has been unsuccessful. The humanitarian situation in Gaza is still dire, although more food trucks are arriving, and the US has resumed its project of a pier to distribute aid from the sea. The coming months will see Israel refocusing its forces to deal with the Hezbollah threat in the north  as Hamas seems to be on the verge of collapse. If the Netanyahu government survives the coming weeks, the chances of peace negotiations are remote . The Netanyahu government is further destabilized as some bills and decisions created a rift between the government's supporting parties. There is debate about whether or not to negotiate with Hamas or fully destroy the organization. Moreover, intentions for the management of Gaza in the future are unclear.  Protests are increasing in Tel Aviv and other cities , calling for a peace agreement with Hamas to free hostages. Meanwhile, the ultra-Orthodox community is rising against the passage of the mandatory conscription law for all Israelis, from which the ultra-Orthodox are no longer exempt.  Myanmar  The civil war in Myanmar has become more fluid over the past month. Pro-democracy forces and groups pushing for ethnic autonomy have made strides against the military junta, with fighting intensifying in the western Rakhine state . In early June, junta troops began emptying towns and villages in preparation for a planned attack on the regional capital, Sittwe, by the Arakan Army (AA), the armed ethnic organization of the Muslim Rohingya minority. The powerful AA said it was about to capture the city of Maungdaw, on the border with Bangladesh, and called on residents to evacuate as soon as possible. As the junta has lost territory, it has resorted to extreme measures , including indiscriminate bombing of towns and night drone attacks, targeting the Rohingya and Rakhine communities.  The military regime has also struggled to refill stocks of ammunition in aircraft and artillery as Russia, North Korea, and China are distracted or refuse to sell further weapons . China seems willing to talk to ethnic armed groups in the country. Within areas inside the junta’s control, like the capital, its conscription order has forced thousands of civilians to flee to Thailand. The junta also cut off VPN access  for as much as the country as possible, locking 20 million Burmese out of the internet. In Bangkok, supporters of Myanmar’s imprisoned leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, led a procession to object to the more than 20,600 people detained for opposing military rule.  Sudan   The civil war between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Sudan is deteriorating rapidly . Currently, the SAF seems unable to regain control of the country's main cities and infrastructure. Despite the slowdown in the RSF advance, it was reported on June 20  that paramilitaries took control of el-Fula, the capital of West Kordofan state. On June 15 , the SAF accused the UAE of supplying weapons to the RSF, allegations rejected by the UAE, which denied any involvement in the Sudanese conflict. Other countries like Egypt, Libya, Chad, Iran, and Russia have been accused of supplying weapons to either or both warring sides. Most countries deny their involvement. Russia is the only exception, as it has openly stated its willingness to aid both sides. The persistence of the conflict is aggravating the already dire humanitarian crisis  for the Sudanese civilian population. The Darfur region has been particularly affected by the war. Amnesty International reports that RSF is perpetrating crimes against unarmed civilians , with dozens of people executed or mutilated. The displacement crisis is fuelling the risk of regional instability. Approximately 2 million displaced Sudanese have been seeking refuge in neighboring countries, including Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, and South Sudan, which are struggling to handle the influx of refugees on top of their already volatile political and economic situations.  Alerts, June 2024  Israel-Hezbollah The conflict between Hezbollah and Israel is intensifying . Hezbollah forces have ramped up their missile attacks on Israel and have shown that they can fly a UAV over Haifa and military installations in Israel without being intercepted by air defense systems. This escalation has led Israel to state its intent to start a full-scale war with Hezbollah to oust them from the south of Lebanon. The Israeli government is facing considerable pressure to ensure the return of displaced citizens from the north of the country. The Israeli government has given the IDF the green light to start a war  once it is ready to do so. The IDF intensified its targeted killings of Hezbollah commanders, weapon smugglers, and bomb makers. This has rattled the Hezbollah leadership, prompting them to hide and reinforce their controlled neighborhoods in Beirut to thwart any Israeli attacks. A full-scale war would likely not only target Hezbollah, but the entire Lebanese infrastructure would be seen as a legitimate target . Beirut will especially be a likely target as Hezbollah uses the international airport  for storing and receiving weapons from Iran. The harbor is also a potential target  for the IDF as it will want to stop cargo vessels from delivering weapons to Hezbollah.  Several countries, like Canada and Kuwait, already called on their citizens to leave Lebanon as soon as possible , as it will be challenging to leave the country once the confrontations escalate. The US has been vague on whether or not it will support Israel in a war with Hezbollah. Israel is semi-dependent on intelligence gathered by US intelligence services and needs resupplies of weaponry coming from the US. The role of Iran and the IRGC  in a conflict between Hezbollah and Israel is yet to be seen. They might choose to remain in the background and offer advice and weapons or decide to commit to open warfare with Israel. Kenya Since mid-June, 2024, widespread demonstrations  erupted across Kenya in response to the government’s planned tax hikes laid out in the ‘Finance Bill’ , which many fear will worsen the cost-of-living crisis. Organized mainly by young Kenyans via social media, the heaviest protests occurred in Nairobi, where police used tear gas and water cannons. The clashes resulted in several deaths, hundreds of injuries, and about 200 arrests, including protesters, journalists, and human rights observers. The protests stem from discontent with President Ruto’s economic policies , which include raising $2.7 billion in additional taxes, equivalent to 1.9 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). Critics say Ruto has reneged on his promise to reduce taxes and lower living costs. Last month, Ruto defended the tax hikes, emphasizing the need to boost revenue and cut reliance on external borrowing, intending to make Kenya financially self-sustaining. The country faces a significant debt burden, with servicing costs soaring due to a two-year decline in the local currency's value, limiting President Ruto's options.  In response to the demonstrations, the government dropped several controversial tax proposals, including the 16% VAT on bread. However, the government indicated the cuts will result in a budget shortfall of 200 billion shillings (about £ 1,2 billion), prompting increases in fuel prices and export taxes, likely exacerbating living conditions as well. Despite the protests, parliament passed the Finance Bill's second reading on June 20, 2024 , leading to the continuation of protests in several Kenyan cities. On June 26, President Ruto eventually  decided to decline the finance bill . However, protests continued and people started to demand Ruto’s resignation  in the days after. Reuters reports that a widely shared pamphlet on June 28 called for seven days of activism , including nationwide strikes and road blockades on July 2 and July 4. Until the demonstrators’ grievances are addressed, the protests are likely to continue. Human rights watchdogs have accused authorities of illegal nighttime abductions of protestors, carried out by police in civilian clothes, and call for the release of all detainees.  Mozambique In recent months, Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, rich in gas and natural resources and plagued by violence since 2017, experienced a surge in attacks by insurgents linked to the IS . More than 80000 people have been displaced since the start of 2024. Militant activity also prevents the provision of food and health services . The UN reports that about 1.7 million people in Mozambique need immediate assistance and protection. Between May 10 and May 14 , armed groups launched a major offensive on the town of Macomia , displacing about 1,500 people. The offensive comes as French oil company TotalEnergies is restarting a $20 billion liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal located at Palma, about 200 kilometers from Macomia, halted in 2021 due to escalating violence. ExxonMobil and its partner ENI are also developing LNG projects in Cabo Delgado. However, The mandate of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) mission, deployed in 2021 to help reduce the presence of the Islamic State (IS) militants in Mozambique's northern province of Cabo Delgado, is set to expire on July 15 , 2024 . Botswana and Lesotho already withdrew their forces in April, and Angola and Namibia are reportedly preparing to leave in the next few weeks, while 1,000 South African troops will remain in the country until the end of 2024. In late May, non-SADC country Rwanda announced the deployment of 2,000 additional soldiers to Mozambique due to escalating violence. As attacks in the province persist, international observers are concerned that the withdrawal of regional forces is premature since it could give further momentum to the jihadist insurgency . This would have dire implications for the humanitarian and security situation in Mozambique and the region.  Venezuela On July 28, 2024 , Venezuela will hold presidential elections . Current president and PSUV leader Nicolás Maduro is seeking a third term. However, for the first time in nearly a decade, an opposition candidate, Edmundo González Urrutia, has a viable chance of winning. González, a former diplomat, became the surprise candidate for the Platform Unitarian Democrática (PUD) after its leader, María Corina Machado, was barred from running by Maduro. Polls show that two-thirds of Venezuelans would support any candidate challenging Maduro . Millions have fled his authoritarian rule and economic mismanagement, and those remaining yearn for democracy and economic growth. However, the election process is expected to be neither free nor fair. Maduro controls the Electoral Council and judiciary and has placed many obstacles to prevent a strong opposition candidate. In recent months, Maduro has disrupted and intimidated the opposition  by detaining members, banning them from holding public office, and imposing measures to deter criticism, leading the US to reimpose in May the oil sanctions against Venezuela. Maduro also demanded opposition candidates sign an agreement to respect the election results. González refused to sign it, accusing Maduro of violating the pact by rescinding the invitation to EU observers, while the UN and the Carter Centre announced that they will provide limited election scrutiny, but keep the findings confidential.  The post-election scenario is uncertain. In the event of an opposition victory, it is uncertain if Maduro will accept the results, or if he would disregard the vote by disqualifying González. International observers argue that it would be hazardous for Maduro not to allow the electoral transition in case of an opposition victory. Besides international prosecution of his regime's crimes and violations, it might also exacerbate divisions among the parties that support the PSVU. Nevertheless, it cannot be excluded that Maduro will attempt to retain power  anyway. This could fuel the outbreak of protests and popular uprisings. Should González be recognized as president-elect, Venezuela's democratic transition is likely to be anything but simple. The new president will inherit a country strangled by economic crisis, mass migrations, corruption and inconsistency of democratic institutions and rule of law.  Bolivia On June 26 , Bolivia suffered a potential coup  when military forces seized control of the capital's main square with armored vehicles and stormed the presidential palace with a tank. In the following hours, the army general who led the coup attempt, Juan José Zúñiga, and 17 others were arrested  for their involvement in the failed coup. Zúñiga claimed, with no evidence provided, that President Arce staged the coup to boost his popularity ahead of the 2025 presidential election. Although the government immediately denied the allegations, some opposition figures called the riots a self-coup. During the coup, Arce posted a video calling on the Bolivian people to mobilize and organize against the coup in the name of democracy. On June 27, Bolivians took to the streets to support the president  and denounce the foiled military coup. The alleged coup attempt comes at a time of instability for Bolivia, rocked by protests over shortages of US dollars and fuel and political turmoil ahead of the 2025 elections due to the rivalry between Arce and former President Evo Morales. Despite the Constitutional Court disqualifying him for the 2025 elections, Morales intends to run against former ally Arce, creating a major rift within the Socialist Party and a battle between Arce and Morales for control of the ruling MAS  (Movement for Socialism) party. Although Morales still enjoys the support of labor unions and coca growers, many complain that the former president should not be allowed to run for reelection. Among them, Gen Zúñiga had threatened, before the alleged coup attempt, that he would block Morales if he attempted to return as president.  Even if the ramifications of the coup are still unclear, this event has strengthened Arce’s political position, despite investigations into his possible involvement in the coup attempt. The situation in Bolivia remains unstable; new protests and more violence in the coming weeks cannot be ruled out. Should the political crisis and fragmentation of the ruling party intensify, political violence could escalate ahead of the 2025 elections.  Updates, June 2024 New Caledonia After an initial break-in hostilities in May, 2024 , the population rose in protest again after seven activists, arrested for allegedly orchestrating the May riots, were taken to France to be tried there.  Riots broke out, and several buildings were set alight. Around 3500 French troops are currently on the island to support local forces restoring order. Moreover, it is reported that the protests in New Caledonia are also financed and supported by Azerbaijan as a response to French military supplies and pledged defensive support to Armenia against attacks by "outside forces," with which Azerbaijan is on the brink of conflict.  The unrest was sparked in response to French plans to allow French citizens who have lived in New Caledonia for over 10 years  to be able to vote in local elections. The local population fears that such influence will reduce their power and will make way for French companies and such to come and exploit the natural resources of the island. With the French general election that took place on June 30, 2024, it is still unclear what the French government's future policy toward the overseas territories will be. A far-right cabinet under the Rassemblement National will likely not favor greater independence for those territories, which could trigger more uprisings and riots in New Caledonia in the coming future. Democratic Republic of Congo The conflict between the Congolese army and the Rwanda-supported M23 rebels continues  to rage in mineral-rich eastern DRC, worsening the dire humanitarian crisis .  In 2024 alone, over a million people have been displaced, with about 23 million facing crisis levels of hunger. Despite plans to leave the country, the UN recently announced a temporary expansion of MONUSCO troops presence in eastern DRC  to counter the surge in violence. The situation is worsened due to the violence conducted by several militia groups vying for mineral resources. The ISIS-affiliated Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) are carrying out substantial attacks  on multiple villages in the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri, eastern DRC. Local authorities reported around 150 civilian casualties attributed to the ADF in June 2024. On June 20 and 21 , the armed group Cooperative for the Development of the Congo (CODECO) reportedly carried out deadly attacks  on several villages in the mineral-rich Djugu territory, Ituri province.  Rising violence in the eastern DRC is fueling regional tension and increasing the risk of conflict in the region. The DRC is currently engaged in a bitter political confrontation with Rwanda , repeatedly accused by Kinshasa of funding the M23 and of the presence of Rwandan troops in the DRC, accusations denied by Rwandan President Kagame. Tensions are now rising following accusations by Congolese President Tshisekedi that Rwanda is orchestrating genocide in DRC's eastern provinces. In response, Kagame declared that Rwanda would be "ready to fight" against the DRC if necessary and blamed Kinshasa for funding extremist Hutu militias. Haiti After months of delay due to court rulings and the deteriorating situation in Haiti, the first Kenyan police units of the Multinational Security Support (MSS) mission arrived in Port-au-Prince on June 25 . While the Presidential Transitional Council, which recently appointed a new PM, Garry Conille, is counting on the deployment of international forces to address gang-related violence, there is little transparency on the strategic plan, political agenda, and human rights oversight of the mission . Kenyan police are currently under investigation over allegations of excessive use of force against protesters in Nairobi in late June 2024. Moreover, although the United States has assured that the mission will be coordinated by Kenyan authorities, most of the funding has come from the Biden administration, which has announced a fund to assist Haiti that includes $95 million to support the security mission and $15 million to the Haitian national police. Finally, it is uncertain how gangs will react to the arrival and operation of the MSS . The likelihood of greater violence and direct confrontations from gangs and foreign forces cannot be ruled out. Since February 2024, escalating gang violence and prolonged political instability in Haiti have led to the displacement of more than 578,000 people. Despite the epicenter of violence being the capital city of Port-au-Prince, numerous gang attacks, massacres, kidnappings, and increased displacement were reported in June 2024 in rural areas of the country as well. North Korea-South Korea Tensions between North Korea and South Korea have risen in the last month . North Korea seems to feel empowered by the open support of Russia and the lack of consequences from the West for sending weapons to Iran and Russia. North Korea has been sending hundreds of balloons across the border into the south that carry garbage and excrement in a new form of the propaganda war between the two states. On June 24, 100 balloons landed in the Seoul area. In the third week of June 2024, North Korea and Russia signed a treaty that requires each country to provide aid and defense support in case of attacks by an outside force. South Korea, in return, has reignited its  propaganda campaign  and has been blasting music and speeches through megaphones across the border. It has also   reinforced  troops in the border region  and is investing large amounts of money into the development of new stealth fighter jets, MLRS platforms and other weaponry to modernize and vastly reinforce its army. In late June, South Korea started vast military drills  called Freedom Edge with Japan and US forces. On June 22, a nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier arrived in South Korea. This will be a show of force and a signal to North Korea to back down from its aggressive posture even though it seems likely that North Korea will continue to aggravate the south just short of starting an actual war. China-Taiwan Relations between Taiwan and China deteriorated in June. Protests drew 100,000 people outside of Taiwan’s legislature to show disagreement with a controversial law proposed by the opposition . The law allows the Kuomintang (KMT) and Taiwan’s People’s Party (TPP) to call any government official to answer questions on issues of national security, including the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) president, Lai Ching-te. According to supporters of the bill, this is a measure to “consolidate and refine” Taiwan’s democracy. For the pro-independence DPP and the protesters, the measures were quickly passed through the legislature without the proper checks and balances necessary to prevent abuse. The bill was finally passed, causing several successive protests.  In an attempt to ramp up pressure on the island,  China threatened to impose a death penalty for Taiwan independence separatists , targeting "ringleaders" of the independence movement. Although Beijing has no jurisdiction over Taiwan, this indicates that Beijing is intent on increasing pressure on the island . Taiwan's president has stated that China should accept dialogue with the Taiwanese government, and the US urged restraint after the law was declared. There are risks of further tensions  as China increases its ship patrols around Taiwan's islands Matsu and Kinmen, hardens its positions toward Taiwan's government, and the US pledges to aid the island.  About the authors  Arianna Lucà Arianna is a new intern at Dyami, covering the role of Research Intelligence Analyst to enrich her background knowledge in International Relations with topics involving security and conflict. She holds an MA in International Relations from Leiden University and an LLM in European Criminal Justice from Utrecht University. During her academic career, she has volunteered for different NGOs, mainly Amnesty International, and Emergency and ActionAid, embracing humanitarian and conflict security causes, and addressing issues like famine and lack of security in different regions of the world. With Dyami, she is contributing to joint publications, writing articles, and keeping up to date with key regional developments. Mickey Beckmann Mickey is currently enrolled in the master’s program Conflict Studies & Human Rights at the University of Utrecht. As of a young age she felt the need to help people in dire circumstances, which evolved into a deep interest and drive to address sociocultural and political issues related to conflict. Motivated to make the world a safer and more accessible place, she completed a bachelor in ‘International Relations in Historical Perspective’ at Utrecht University. Eager to broaden her knowledge of geopolitical conflict and security, during her internship at Dyami she will actively participate in writing collaborative publications and authoring articles, with a main focus on the region North and Sub-Saharan Africa. Jacob Dickinson  Jacob studied Global Political Economy at Leiden University. He is passionate about international development and is looking to expand his expertise in geopolitics and crisis management. Curious about other cultures, he has traveled in Europe and Asia for both academic study and professional purposes. His expertise includes the geopolitics of oil and industrial upgrading in the electronics global value chain. He is particularly interested in the evolving political and economic relationships between China and ASEAN, and the consequences for regional development and security.  Iris de Boer Iris works as a Global Intelligence Analyst at Dyami, leveraging her background in Human Geography. Additionally, Iris holds an MA degree in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from Utrecht University, specializing in conflict analysis, peace processes, and geopolitics. Her MA thesis delved into the securitization of the war in Ukraine by the Heads of State, Ministers of Foreign Affairs, and Ministers of Defense of the Netherlands and Poland. Within Dyami, Iris is actively involved in security risk management, travel security, and geopolitical analysis. Her enthusiasm for addressing topics in international security extends across a diverse spectrum of countries and regions Kevin Heller Kevin has over a decade of experience in the world of counter-terrorism as a consultant, trainer, and analyst. His background is in military Close Quarter Battle/Combat and Krav Maga for Military and Law Enforcement agencies. As a Global Intelligence Analyst, he writes Intel Briefs on conflict zones and terrorism.He has extensive knowledge of conflicts, politics, and other events happening in the Middle East. Kevin also has a background in Journalism and International Affairs/Conflict Studies. Sara Frisan  Sara joined Dyami as a Junior Intelligence/Research Analyst post-graduate intern to deepen her passionate interest in conflict analysis and security. Sara recently completed her MA in Conflict Studies and Human Rights at Utrecht University and held an MA degree in International Sciences and Peace Studies. During her academic career, she conducted research in South America, primarily Colombia, on the dynamics of collaboration and resistance between civilians and non-state armed groups in violent settings. In her previous internship at the investigative think-tank InSight Crime, Sara developed some expertise on transnational organized crime and political-criminal alliances.

  • Risks of Chinese Espionage in Europe’s Defense Industry

    Written by Dyami analysts - June 2024 Years of underinvestment in defense industries and overreliance on the US security guarantee have resulted in the glaring lack of defense autonomy for Europe. Shortcomings in Europe’s defense industries for artillery shells and a wider industrial base have fallen short to adequately supply Ukraine’s security. As a result of this shortcoming, European defense industries are facing new calls to ramp up domestic production and reduce dependencies on overseas sources.  While European militaries are faced with funding problems, European militaries need to be also aware of the security risks of importing components from a resurgent China. This increases the risk of industrial espionage, Chinese influence on European defense, and gives China tools to pressure the EU into taking unfavorable stances in case of geopolitical tensions. Procurement strategies need to take into account their supply chains and sourcing programs to avoid the risks of being cut off from critical supplies from, for example, China. China’s role in Europe’s defense industry In 2023, it came to light that a Chinese government-owned company produced armored vehicles, including sensitive electronic warfare and command-and-control variants, and designed its interiors for the Dutch army for over a decade. Since the acquisition in 2013, Dutch intelligence services have not conducted screenings of the company which allowed continuing production and new orders worth millions.  While this is one example, there are many cases of Chinese companies selling subcomponents to European militaries. In most cases, this involves non-sensitive equipment with low security threats. However, some sales include subcomponents for sensitive systems such as radars, advanced communication equipment, and ISR sensors. Even when a Chinese (state-owned) company supplies subcomponents, the company could gain access to information about other components within the overall system, allowing China to improve their knowledge about these (sensitive) military systems. The larger concern is that NATO countries unknowingly source several key components for weapon’s systems from China. The task of reinvigorating a European Defense Industry  has raised awareness of the overreliance on sourcing microchips produced in China. For example, the Javelin anti-tank missile, a widely used weapon system by NATO members and its allies, contains over 200 microchips. This highlights the high demand for microchips in modern weapon systems, emphasizing the strategic importance of independence which could be sourced from China for these components.  Chinese components were also found in more advanced equipment like air defense radars and fighter jets. In 2022, it was discovered that an alloy sourced from China was used in the engine of the F-35 stealth jet. The Pentagon briefly paused production of the advanced fighter jets, but signed a national security waiver and resumed deliveries after an alternative was found. While the alloy was not a critical component and posed low espionage risks, it highlighted the lack of tracking of the increasingly complex supply chains by NATO militaries and their contractors. Large U.S. and European defense contractors are not aware of every detail in supply chains, especially in larger systems with many subcomponents. For adversaries like China, it is a window of opportunity to attempt to gain access to sensitive information about a supply chain and/or military system.  Chinese components are not only found in complex high-tech systems. Major European ammunition producers have repeatedly warned that Europe is overly reliant on Chinese cotton linters, which is a critical ingredient to produce artillery shells and other explosives. The high demands from the war in Ukraine has further strained imports from other sources and thus increased Europe’s dependence on China for critical military supplies. Security Risks from China’s Investment in Europe China’s sourcing of military procurement has not been met with the same concern as China’s investment in critical infrastructure. Security concerns over China’s investments in European critical infrastructure are becoming more obvious, given the Chinese Communist Party’s increasing control over both state-owned enterprises and private businesses. Chinese president Xi Jinping and the CCP have changed corporate governance to place more party control over International business to fulfill the strategic goals of the CCP. This has led to security concerns that China’s control over ports, telecommunications or rare earth minerals could be used for monitoring NATO movements or disrupting communications and strategic production lines.  China COSCO Shipping Corporation is owned by the central government and has invested  in strategically significant ports, where NATO troop movements and military exercises are regularly conducted. Another example is Hutchison Ports Poland, a subsidiary of the Hong Kong trading house CH Kuthinson Holdings which is partially owned by China Communications Construction Company. According to intelligence analysts, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is able to monitor the strategic NATO troop movements and supplies as well as the private companies passing through these strategically important ports. Screening measures to prevent Chinese companies acquiring critical infrastructure are in the process of being implemented at an EU level. The EU’s proposed European Economic Security Strategy in June 2023 focuses on better screening of potentially risky investments and encouraging skeptical capitals to adopt similar measures. However, the strategy does not cover other vulnerabilities in European security such as materials sourced from China.  Security risks in NATO’s aviation training China has been increasingly interested in pilot training programs of NATO and its allies with the goal of improving their own military flight academies. In the last decade, China has expanded their footprint in the (European) trainer aircraft industry. Next to economic opportunities, it is likely part of a larger campaign to gather military knowledge about NATO’s pilot training programs. While China is now capable of developing and producing advanced fighter aircraft, their training program is generally considered to be inadequate when compared to NATO standards. To combat this, China has intensified  their campaign to recruit Western (former) military pilots to train instructor pilots of the People Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). Dozens of former NATO pilots were successfully recruited through private firms around the globe with extravagant salaries, which allowed China to gather sensitive information about NATO pilot training without directly infiltrating or hacking NATO training programs. In addition to these aggressive recruitment efforts, China has also embedded itself in European companies producing trainer aircraft. As budget restraints remain a primary factor in the selection of new trainer aircraft for European air forces, security issues of Chinese companies with subsidiaries in Europe appear to be overlooked. In addition to information security threats, Chinese involvement in the procurement, production and operation of trainer aircraft of European air forces will allow the PLAAF to further expand their espionage on western training programs. This knowledge will then be used to improve their own training programs and increase China’s air power. This increased espionage risk highlights the need for a cautious approach to procuring new military (trainer) aircraft for European air forces, especially from companies with ties to China. A good example of this is the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), which is a state-owned aerospace and defense company that is working on aircraft/helicopter manufacturing, avionics, engine components, aircraft leasing and defense systems. The company has a history of acquiring European companies in the aviation sector. This means that European companies are not only at risk for espionage, the investments create dependency on China. With increasing tensions between Europe and China, it gives China an advantage in power with their ability to withhold investments. Looking forward As China becomes an increasingly belligerent power tacitly supporting Russia’s war against Ukraine, it is vital to be aware of the risks of becoming over reliant on the country for Europe’s defense needs. The awareness over critical infrastructure is welcome, but more attention is needed for Chinese investments in seemingly non-sensitive components or programs. China’s embedment into strategic programs and industries allows the country to gather sensitive information for both military and economic reasons without directly infiltrating companies or military programs. The increasingly complex and interconnected supply chains are being exploited for intelligence gathering. This trend is expected to further increase in the coming decade. Growing tensions between China and Europe calls for more awareness of the risks of Chinese espionage and influence in vital European industries.

  • Risks of Chinese Espionage in the Hotel Industry

    The threat of Chinese espionage is becoming more known among the general public, because of news articles, research papers and other analyses published of incidents that have occurred. Also heads of intelligence services, especially in Europe, have warned its citizens of the threat China’s intelligence services pose for their national security. The Five Eyes (a joint cooperation between the intelligence agencies of US, UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia that share signal intelligence) for example, told its citizens that ‘the threat has only gotten more dangerous and more insidious in recent years’. While some EU governments have become aware of the risks present in higher value espionage targets such as sensitive technology and energy projects, there are other industries at risk. The hotel industry is one such example where sensitive information can be gathered and used for intelligence purposes. It is thus important for the sector to remain aware of the risks in handling China’s sensitive investment in the industry. Methods of the Ministry of State Security The Ministry State of Security (MSS) is the primary intelligence agency of China who is responsible for Chinese foreign intelligence, counterintelligence and political security. All responsibilities are oriented towards the interests of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The MSS deems domestic as well as foreign actors or individuals as posing a risk to the CCP. The MSS plays an important role by conducting espionage activities to gather intelligence, but also in influencing operations, cyber attacks, policing and surveillance activities. These methods can overlap and are used for multiple purposes. In short, the methods can be described as: Gathering intelligence MSS officers use different types of sources to obtain the necessary information. For example, the MSS utilizes HUMINT (infiltrating organizations or recruiting insiders), OSINT (using open sources) and SIGINT (intercepting communications and deploying advanced electronic surveillance), to gain insights into foreign governments, military capabilities, economic conditions and technological developments. Influencing operations The MSS wants to shape the political, social or economic beliefs of foreigners in favor of the CCP. They do this by swaying the public opinion, manipulating political processes and influencing decision-makers abroad. Examples include propaganda, lobbying and engaging with local influencers/organizations/politicians to promote positive narratives for the CCP’s policies. Cyber attacks There are various hacker groups active, sometimes backed by the CCP, that conduct cyber attacks worldwide. This is a common way through which the MSS gathers information. The attacks include hacking into foreign government databases, corporate networks and critical infrastructure. Conducting a cyber attack is usually the first step of an operation, which can give perpetrators (digital) access to an organization’s assets. This gives them a strategic advantage for further actions. Police stations The MSS operates through covert police stations on foreign soil, to monitor Chinese nationals abroad, suppress dissidents and exert control over the Chinese diaspora. These operations extend the reach of Chinese law enforcement beyond its borders and help maintain the CCP’s influence over its citizens worldwide. These actions are illegal in most (European) countries. Surveillance The MSS employs extensive surveillance networks, using advanced technologies such as facial recognition, drones and artificial intelligence to monitor individuals and groups. This can involve physical surveillance by operatives (which is less used in foreign countries), electronic eavesdropping and monitoring digital communications (through Chinese apps for example). Surveillance is MSS’s way of tracking potential threats, gathering intelligence but also aiming to influence people of Chinese origin, particularly those involved in sensitive or politically significant activities. Overlooking security risks? The comprehensive national security strategy of President Xi Jinping aims to cover all aspects of Chinese society. It also extends to the CCP’s foreign adversaries. Nations, organizations and individuals opposed to the regime are targeted by MSS’s espionage activities. Several European intelligence agencies have marked Chinese investment as a security threat. According to the agencies, their target is primarily focussed on investing in vital infrastructure and sensitive technology.The European Union has to some degree recognised the problem of investments made with the wrong intentions or to benefit state interests. That’s why they have implemented an EU framework for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) screenings. The objective of the regulation is to make sure that the EU is better equipped to identify, assess and mitigate potential risks to security and public order. The framework is designed for critical infrastructure, critical technologies, supply chains of raw materials, access to/controlling sensitive information and freedom/pluralism of the media. China’s investments do not stop there. Many (private) companies that have different processes may have assets that are still targets for the CCP. What may be underrated but is vital for national security is travel intelligence (TRAVINT). This form of intelligence refers to information collected from and analyses of a wide range of travel companies. Hotels play a significant role in TRAVINT, because it is connected to every aspect of travel. The hotel industry is also an attractive target, because a large amount of personal data is processed by the hotels. A minimum level of personal information is always needed to book a stay for a guest. Following the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) the hotels need to strongly monitor the process of obtaining and controlling the information. Hotels need to explicitly ask permission to require the personal data and guests need to sign privacy statements. According to those statements, various kinds of information are obtained for different kinds of purposes. The CCP is specifically trying to gather enormous amounts of personal data, but it is unknown how and to what ends the CCP is going to use these amounts of data for. There is a likelihood that the CCP could deploy it to monitor/identify individuals and groups for possible recruitment/influencing purposes. Influence of investments Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is a way of investing into a business or organization in another country while establishing a lasting interest. From 2000 until 2016 the Netherlands was the 7th largest recipient of FDI originating from China and the majority of these investments were made through acquisitions. At the same time, 34,8 million USD was invested in real estate and hospitality. There is little record of clear connections between the CCP and the private sector in China, which makes it difficult to collect hard evidence on espionage attempts. Therefore, it is not clear if the CCP directly pushes the business sector to invest in foreign countries of their choice, but there are clear concerns of espionage risk due to previous incidents. In one example, in 2014 the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York came under Chinese ownership, as one of America’s most famous hotels was sold to China’s Anbang Insurance Group for almost 2 billion USD. The acquirer was a Chinese state-owned insurance company, the first to enter the US market. After four years of ownership, the Chinese government took control of the insurance group meaning that the organization fell into the state-controlled China Insurance Security Fund. The fund issued a statement, saying it was acting to protect consumers of insurance products as Anbang threatened to go bankrupt. Together with the Waldorf Astoria other hotels were also acquired by Anbang, who were directly under control of the Chinese government. Before the direct involvement of the Chinese government, there was already fear of its influence on hotel guests during stays. In 2015 the US president Barack Obama refused to stay at the Waldorf Astoria hotel during the annual UN General Assembly. Even though the hotel was a fixed accommodation for the event, the fear of espionage pushed the US president, the Secret Service and Obama’s White House staff to stay at another hotel. There was a similar event with the Chinese HNA Group. HNA Group was a conglomerate of Anbang, which funded a lot of overseas acquisitions around 2010. Among those acquisitions was Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. Through the years the CCP slowly seized control of the group by limiting their powers, which resulted in a request for bankruptcy. The CCP has stepped up to restructure HNA and to protect its assets against external threats. It still remains active to this day, with an executive chairman appointed by the Hainan government, an island to the south of China. Investments in the hotel industry, backed by the CCP, can cause consequences for the national security of European countries. A greater supply of Chinese FDI will decrease other investments. Secondly, an increase in Chinese FDI will give them more power on the market, making the hotel industry dependent on it. And lastly, potential interference of the CCP will increase the risk of espionage. Risks of espionage in the hotel industry Dyami Services has conducted an internal research on the risks of Chinese espionage for guests of hotel chains in the Netherlands, that can result in serious incidents with severe impact if not correctly acted on. The research gave a general indication of risks that apply to the hotel industry. The results of the research showed that there is a high risk of the MSS using the guest Wi-Fi to gather intelligence on a hotel guest, who is considered a target to the CCP. The guest Wi-Fi can be a vulnerability, because it is not always closely monitored by the hotel security department. There is also a high risk of cyberattacks conducted by state-backed hacker groups by breaching a Point of Sale (POS) system to gather Personal Information (PI). POS systems are hard- and software that accept payments from customers and are very vulnerable to hacking because it gives direct access to PI. Through the POS system the hacker groups can gain access to the network of the hotel, which can result in access to other hotels in the world who are part of the chain. There is a high risk of the MSS keeping Chinese hotel guests under surveillance by hacking Internet of Things (IoT) systems with Chinese technology. IoT devices are pieces of hardware, connected to the hotel’s network. It transmits data over the internet to its endpoint. This can be exploited by hackers as another access point. Especially when the hardware is made with Chinese technology. Looking forward The hotel chains can take measures to make guests of hotel chains more resilient against espionage activities performed by the MSS. Since the EU regulation for investments screenings does not always cover the hotel sector, the board of management of hotels should conduct detailed examinations of Chinese investments to understand their purposes and potential risks. This includes investigating their business partners for any connections with the CCP or the MSS and evaluating their intentions. Second, the hotel chains should be careful with choosing their technological devices, particularly those connected to the internet (IoT). It is crucial to understand the vulnerabilities associated with these technologies and the potential risk they pose. Two steps the hotel chains can undertake are conducting risk assessments on all the devices of the hotels and checking the background of the company selling the devices. Lastly, hotel guests themselves should be looking into the hotels they are staying at. When staying at a hotel that has Chinese investors, the risks named above should be considered. However, guests can avoid using guest Wi-Fi and the IoT devices. In addition, stays can be paid in advance, avoiding using POS systems. A disclaimer that should be pointed out is the balance between doing safe business with China for hotel chains, whilst not becoming a target for espionage. This is an issue that the Dutch government also struggles with. The balance is hard to find, which makes it difficult for hotel chains to protect their business. However, not every Chinese investor has the intention to support the CCP with spying activities. Hotel chains should be aware of the risks, when engaging with Chinese investors and take mitigating measures to reduce the risks as much as possible.

  • Security shifts in the Sahel: declining Western influence and rising extremist violence

    Written by Mickey Beckmann - June 2024 In recent years, the United States (US), United Nations (UN), European Union (EU), and regional political and economic blocs have sought to fight extremist organizations and implement democratic principles in the Sahel* to enhance stability. While some countries have made progress, there has been a rise in anti-western sentiment over the last couple of years, with an increasing number of countries questioning the legality of western operations. The ongoing decline in international interventions, as well as weakening regional (democratic) leadership, has created a security vacuum in the Sahel that extremist groups exploit, launching indiscriminate attacks on government forces and civilians. * The Sahel is a climatic zone in Africa stretching from Senegal to Eritrea. While definitions of the Sahel's precise boundaries differ, in a geopolitical context it typically encompasses the countries shown on the map. This article follows that standard. Anti-western sentiment In the past year, the influence of Western nations in the Sahel has been increasingly questioned by countries in the Sahel. Rising anti-French sentiment over the past two years led to the withdrawal of France's 4,500-strong Operation Barkhane force from Mali in August 2022, Burkina Faso in February 2023, and Niger in December 2023. Local resentment and frustration with perceived French neocolonialism and ineffectiveness drove these departures. Chad might be next to loosen ties with France, although its long-standing relationship with the country makes it challenging to shake ties off. A country that has been at the forefront of western counter-insurgency operations - Niger - expelled French troops as well, and ended two EU security missions, both following the July 2023 coup in Niger. On March 16, 2024, Niger’s military government, the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP), also suspended security cooperation with the US due to warnings about Niger's growing ties with Russia, and US’s perceived diplomatic disrespect. After months of protests and discussions, an agreement was reached in May 2024 to withdraw all US troops by mid-September 2024. This decision will hold significant implications for US and other western interests in the region, as Niger has been a key ally, hosting two major US bases, approximately 1,000 military personnel, and a $100 million drone base - Nigerien Air Base 201. Following Niger’s decision, Chad also questioned its cooperation with the US. Late April 2024, the US military withdrew about 70 troops from a French military base in N’Djamena, although it was said to be a temporary departure because of the 6 May elections in Chad. With the electoral process now concluded, the US is eager to resume security cooperation consultations with the government, yet, Chad has also shown interest in alignment with Russia. In the security vacuum left by the West’s declining influence, Russia has rapidly strengthened its security relationship with countries in the Sahel. Its involvement includes sending troops, military trainers, and air defense systems. On June 5, 2024, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov visited Chad to discuss strategies for combating terrorism and strengthening military, diplomatic, economic, and trade relations. The declining western power has also allowed non-state actors, mainly the Wagner Group, to expand their influence. Since December 2021, Wagner has deployed thousands of mercenaries to Mali, taking over former French bases. Wagner's approach includes partnering with resource-rich, poorly governed states, exchanging paramilitary, intelligence, and security services for financial gain. In March 2024, Wagner allegedly helped government forces in Mali carry out raids and drone strikes, killing dozens of civilians, including children. This shift in intervening parties, driven by a complex mix of historical grievances, geopolitical maneuvering, and regimes' needs for stability and security, is reshaping Sahel’s geopolitics and has profound security implications for the region. Coups d’état The Sahel has witnessed several coups d'état over the past three years, each contributing significantly to the exacerbation of regional instability and the resurgence of jihadist movements. Mali saw a coup in 2020 driven by dissatisfaction with President Keita's governance amidst escalating security threats and pervasive corruption. Despite international pressure to restore civilian rule, military influence remained strong, prompting another coup in 2021. Burkina Faso experienced two coups as well, stemming from failures to effectively counter jihadist insurgencies and escalating public discontent with entrenched corruption. Niger's 2023 coup resulted in widespread anti-colonial and nationalist sentiments. In the capital, thousands took the streets draped in Nigerien and Russian flags, chanting anti-French slogans. Efforts by regional organizations like the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to restore constitutional order have been challenged by the persistence of military influence and external intervention from actors like Russia and the Wagner Group. Military leaders have justified the coups as necessary responses to security challenges and governance failures. These events not only did raise anti-Western sentiment, but also made extremist groups gain more influence, heightening fears of increased jihadist violence. The resurgence of extremist movements in the Sahel not only threatens local populations but also poses risks beyond the region, including Europe and the broader international community. The surge of extremist (jihadist) groups In recent years, the Sahel region has emerged as a global hotspot for terrorism. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, it witnessed 43 percent of global terrorism-related deaths in 2022, and in Burkina Faso the impact of terrorism has been the highest of any country in the world between 2019-2024. Major jihadist groups such as Islamic State in the West African Province (ISWAP), Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Jama’atu Nusratil Islam Wal Muslimin (JNIM), and Boko Haram have exploited the void arising from the declining international counterterrorism support and poor regional governance. These groups, following a Salafi interpretation of Islam, oppose elected governments, reject national borders, and consider non-adherents as infidels. Consequently, they frequently use violence against both local and international security forces, as well as civilians. The rise in terrorist violence in the Sahel is driven by a complex interplay of issues. Despite numerous international interventions over the past decade, these problems have only intensified. The Sahel nations, consistently among the world's poorest, face compounded challenges of weak governance, poverty, food insecurity, high unemployment, illiteracy, ethnic divisions and rapid population growth. Violent extremist organizations exacerbate these humanitarian conditions, exploiting the insecurity to recruit and dominate populations in the Sahel. In regions where governments have been largely absent, they have stepped in to resolve land tenancy issues, protect cattle from theft, prosecute thieves, and provide social welfare by distributing food, medicines, and cash incentives. It has proven to be a good strategy, not only to extend their political and economic power, but also to make people become dependent on them, or even sympathize with them. The groups are also responsible for widespread atrocities, including mass kidnappings, attacks on civilians, and assaults on military bases. In February 2024, at least 170 people were killed in northern Burkina Faso where attackers targeted four villages in Yatenga province. The country is battling Islamist militant insurgency groups in this area, where armed groups - some affiliated to Al Qaeda and ISIS - regularly launch attacks on civilian and military installations. In March 2024, Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack on Niger's army, killing at least 30 soldiers and wounding several others. Furthermore, over the last few months there have been several large-scale kidnappings by Islamist insurgents, especially in northwest Nigeria, an area where ISWAP frequently operates. In this area relentless violence by Islamic militant organizations and bandit groups have crumbled communities and killed thousands of people. The abductions usually have the goal to obtain ransom, having become a lucrative business. The persistent and growing strength of violent extremist organizations in the Sahel threatens to only worsen the ongoing humanitarian crisis. As of 2023, more than 4.2 million people have been displaced across the region. In 2024 tens of millions of people in the Sahel need protection and humanitarian assistance, with millions facing acute hunger due to food insecurity (see here our article on the impact of climate change on food insecurity in Sub Saharan Africa). With the region also serving as a major transit point for migrants traveling from Sub Saharan Africa to northern coastal states and Europe, the Sahel faces the risk of increased displacement and migration due to ongoing violence. Moreover, the rise of violent extremist groups has fueled illicit activities and the growth of criminal organizations in the region. Especially since 2022, the conflict-ridden region is becoming an influential route for drug trafficking, with the seaside countries being a crucial transit point for Latin American cartels trafficking drugs to Europe and beyond. Last April, Senegal seized nearly 1,140kgs of cocaine. The involvement of various extremist armed groups in drug trafficking undermines regional peace and stability, with the drug trade financing these groups, enabling Islamic extremist networks to flourish. Conclusion International efforts to combat extremism and promote democracy in the Sahel have struggled in recent years. The rise in anti-western sentiment and increasing Russian involvement reshape the geopolitical landscape of the region. The prevalence of coups d’états in combination with diminishing presence of Western forces has left the Sahel vulnerable to extremist violence. Weakening regional leadership and the resurgence of jihadist groups are likely to keep destabilizing the region, posing significant (security) risks to both local populations and the broader international community. The region’s humanitarian crisis seems to have no end in sight, giving violent extremist organizations room to keep exploiting populations, thereby becoming more powerful and exacerbating the humanitarian conditions further.

  • Intel Brief: Security implications of French legislative elections 2024

    Date: 20/06/2024 Who’s involved: Rassemblement National, Renaissance, New Popular Front. What happened? European elections were held on 09/06/2024 in France and saw the far-right party Rassemblement National (RN) gaining a considerable advantage against the current ruling coalition, in which the party of President Macron is participating. After the results of the European Elections in France were made public, on 09/06/2024 French President Macron dissolved the parliament and announced snap legislative elections to be held on 30/06/2024, with a second round for 07/07/2024. Macron claimed there was a need for political clarification. This move surprised many, especially among Macron’s allies, as it was not disclosed with them in advance. The uncertainty also triggered turmoil in the French bond market, with many rushing to sell their stocks. Soon after the announcement, anti-far right protests began around the country. Protests also continued on 15/06/2024 in the biggest French cities. Peaceful demonstrators, backed by labor unions and human rights associations, were denouncing the rise of far right parties in France and calling for leftist parties to unite during the election. Some protesters in Paris got violent and clashed with riot police, but they drew criticism from other demonstrators. Chaos ensued in the political scene. In a bid to gain the majority, Ciotti, the leader of the center right party Les Républicains, publicly suggested a cooperation with RN. His party proceeded to oust him unanimously, in opposition to his suggestion, even though this decision was later reversed by the judicial court in Paris. Ciotti also tried to lock members out of the party’s headquarters to avoid being voted off the party. On 19/06/2024, the European Commission reprimanded France for breaking EU rules on deficit. This might trigger further excessive deficit procedures by the EU to rein in spending and possibly also fines. Analysis: According to the most recent polls, conducted after the announcement of new elections, RN is set to be the winner, although without gaining a majority. The Conservatives and Moderate parties in France will have a hard time in the coming elections as they are squeezed in between two polarities in a very polarized society. Macron and his coalition are not popular on either side of the political spectrum. Macron’s bluff calling a snap election right after the political shock of the RN winning so much in the European Elections is the expectation that the “silent majority” will rise up and go to the voting booths to stop the Far-Right or the Left from winning the elections. This bluff however is a tricky one since Macron’s policies have been unpopular across the board. It will be hard for Macron to assemble a functional government if he is looking to appease both sides of the spectrum. Far right parties, especially RN, have gained popularity in recent years, often in opposition to an increasingly unpopular President Macron. Many government policies were met with widespread protests and popular opposition, which in the end bolstered the far right. This was made apparent by the European elections. However, far right policies might worsen France’s economic position. RN has often campaigned for tax cuts concurrently with the undoing of unpopular reforms elaborated to ease the pressure on the country’s fiscal system, especially the pension reform. A RN win would put France in an increasingly strained relationship with European and possibly international partners, due to the fiscal policies and the social policies. RN has often advanced euro-skeptic and anti-immigration ideas and a parliament governed by them might create more and more conflicts with European institutions. This is especially relevant in light of EU dissatisfaction with the management of the French fiscal deficit, which could contribute to isolating a far right government. The parliamentarian Left in France has not scored well in the past decades. There are a large number of left wing parties and they have problems working together for a common cause. Also, the power of extra-parliamentary groups on the Left, like Trade Unions, communist and anarchist groups in combination with a withdrawal of interest in politics by people with an immigrant background has deeply affected the power of the Left. The discontent with politics, corruption, institutional racism, police brutality and the dismantling of the welfare state have left many people on the Left disillusioned. But now with the almost inevitable electoral win for the Far-Right it seems that all groups on the Left are starting to rally again. There are massive protests in the streets against racism in politics and the parliamentary Left parties are looking to unite under one banner. It is likely that more young people and people with an immigrant background will go to the voting booths this election in a surge to stop the Far-Right from winning. Whether or not that is going to be enough is not likely though. If the Far-Right does win the elections there is a chance that the Left will organize in and out of parliament and that large protests and strikes will bring France to a standstill. Large and intense clashes with security forces, who will get the green light from the RN to do whatever it wants, will be a likely occurrence in the coming months if not years. If the RN wins the elections it will have broad consequences for the European Union, NATO and other international alliances. France is a big player on the international scene and if the RN wins the elections there is a chance that France will withdraw from being active in the EU or NATO. Other countries will also have to decide if they want to work together with a Far-Right government. In a time of a very hot cold war with Russia over Ukraine and possible other Russian expansion efforts it is likely that a RN government will weaken the position of the EU and NATO in confronting Russia’s ambitions. Conclusion: The upcoming snap elections in France on 30/06/2024 can have broad repercussions nationally and internationally. With the expected win of the RN it is likely that protests and strikes against the RN government will take over the streets of Paris and other cities in defiance of new policies. The police will have the moral support from the RN to crack down hard on the protests and this is likely to lead to more violence from all sides. Internationally it will be difficult for the EU and NATO to work with a RN government that is eurosceptic and isolationist. The Ukrainian war effort will likely suffer from a RN government and this might encourage Russia to double its efforts in the conflict. Other international agreements on the environment, immigration and social justice will likely suffer from the policies and standpoints of an RN government. This will have consequences for united policies in the EU.

  • Intel Brief: What are the threats to the Euro 2024 in Germany and the Summer Olympics in France?

    Date: 14/06/2024 Who’s involved: Euro 2024, Paris Olympics 2024, ISIS, European security forces, Russian hacktivists, hooligans. What happened? The German police arrested a 23 year old man on 08/06/2024 who had applied to become a security guard at the Euro 2024. German authorities suspect the man wanted to commit a terrorist attack linked to ISIS. On 31/05/2024, French police arrested a teenager suspected of planning a terror attack during the summer 2024 Olympics in Paris. The suspect is thought to have planned jihadi-inspired attacks on the Geoffroy-Guichard stadium, where football matches will be held. On 26/04/2024, another teenager was arrested in France after he posted on social media about his plan to die as a martyr at the Olympics. During searches at his house, several documents were found attesting his allegiance to the Islamic State. In April 2024 the media outlet of the Islamic State in Khorasan, the Al-Azaim Foundation, called for attacks on major Champions League quarter-finals games to be held in European stadiums, including stadiums in London, Paris and Madrid. These calls were likely addressing lone wolves in European territory. The UK, France and Spain increased security at the venues to thwart any attack. On 09/06/2024 ISIS propaganda was posted on several ISIS affiliated websites depicting a man controlling a drone that seems to be flying towards the Eiffel Tower carrying a bag that says “gift” on it. The tag-line was “Lone Wolves olympics have begun with the will of Allah.” The Microsoft team that tracks hacker activities on the internet has recently unearthed several Russian backed hacktivist groups who have been sharing fake news about possible ISIS attacks on Germany and France, apparently in an attempt to scare the European population. Microsoft released an extensive report on the Russian hackers on 02/06/2024. Russia is not allowed to compete in the Euro Cup nor the Olympics and has a history of spreading disinformation to rattle the public. The French authorities have increased their vigilance and have deployed thousands of police officers to guard the events. The opening of the Olympics, which will be done on the river Seine, will reduce the amount of spectators to 300.000 from the previous 600.000 in an attempt to get a better grip on the security situation. However, French officials have been publicly open to moving it to a closed stadium if a security crisis happens. Meanwhile, Germany is also increasing its security measures in an attempt to thwart violent hooligans from traveling to Germany. The country has also implemented a temporary reintroduction of border controls on all its borders to increase security. German authorities are specifically worried about a group of around 500 Serbian hooligans that are said to want to engage British hooligans. The UK has forced 1600 known hooligans to hand in their passports so they cannot travel to Germany. Analysis The Euro 2024 and the Paris Olympics are likely targets for terrorist activities due to their mediatization, the presence of large groups of people and the symbolism of attacking such a high value target. However, possible attacks will be relatively low scale and will be conducted most likely by lone wolves, either inspired or affiliated with Islamist groups. It is highly unlikely that major attacks will happen as established terrorist organizations don’t have the capacity to carry out such attacks on EU soil. Moreover, security forces have been closely monitoring the situation for any potential terrorist threat and have already carried out preventive arrests. Russian disinformation tactics around the Euro 2024 and Olympics 2024 seem to be focused on sowing fear amongst people who want to attend these events. Governments and security forces will have to prepare for any scenario while dealing with such disinformation. However, it is likely that Russia is simply expanding its hacktivism and propaganda campaigns against the West as a response to their support for Ukraine, and it may be engaging in these online activities as a result of their exclusion from the sporting events. Security forces around Europe have been on high alert since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas. The effects from this war have caused mass protests by pro-Palestine groups which have sometimes resulted in street clashes with the police. Other times, protestors have disrupted sporting events, concerts and other public meetings to convey their message. It is likely that protests will be seen at the Euro 2024 and the Olympics 2024, but the massive deployment of security forces will likely deter or stop any mass-action from happening. It is possible that Hamas supporters will try to organize a more violent event in an effort to get media attention. Conclusion The Euro 2024 and the Olympics will certainly be prime targets for terrorist attacks by lone wolves inspired by jihadi terrorism, as it has already been proven by a few plans foiled by German and French authorities. However, security forces in both countries are already on alert and have increased security measures across their territory and especially around stadiums and other venues, including heightened border controls. While attempts at small attacks may still happen, it is highly unlikely that there will be a major attack as terrorist organizations lack the capacity to attack European soil.

  • Detecting Chinese spy campaigns in Europe

    China’s espionage campaigns are an ongoing concern for Europe’s security. As China-Europe relations are set to become tense over geopolitics and trade, espionage cases are likely to rise in the future. This also presents challenges for counter-espionage. As intelligence agencies grapple with the threat posed by Russia, terrorism, cyber attacks, China’s ambitious espionage activities may go undetected. Senior officials from intelligence agencies are worried that they have not managed to keep up with the challenge from China and have fallen behind in counter-intelligence and intelligence capabilities. The challenges posed by China’s espionage efforts in political influence campaigns, industrial espionage are likely to escalate in the future. Political influence operations in Europe All countries spy on one another. Yet the exposure of China’s espionage campaigns in Europe is different. According to the international intelligence sharing group, the Five Eyes, what makes China’s spying operation different is the scale of ‘theft of intellectual property.’ What is new is that some European intelligence agencies are discovering more cases targeting their political systems and are more willing to call them out. Recent allegations accuse China’s espionage services of targeting Europe’s politics. In April 2024, German authorities arrested multiple individuals suspected of spying for China. This included an aide to the far-right Alternative for Germany MEP, and a couple accused of smuggling sensitive military technology. In the UK, two individuals were also accused of espionage. One was a parliamentary researcher to a lawmaker in the Conservative Party. They have both been charged in breach of Britain’s Official Secrets Act. In May 2024, British authorities arrested three men who were accused of working with Hong Kong’s intelligence service. They were  accused of monitoring, surveillance and harassment of pro-democracy activists in the UK, something the Hong Kong diaspora has been facing harassment from. Beijing accused the UK of false accusation, stigmatization and arbitrary arrests. The accused former Royal Marine was found dead in a park a week later, with the police saying the death was treated as ‘unexplained’. China’s intelligence services allegedly were conducting covert operations on the UK and Germany, two of continents strongest supporters of constructing positive ties with China. Beijing has rejected the claims of espionage under plausible deniability. Instead, in a recent show of unlikely public accusation, China’s intelligence service publicly accused MI6 of recruiting two Chinese state workers as spies. They apparently worked in a “core” confidential department in a Chinese state agency and leaked information to MI6. Xi’s ambitions to remake the world order These covert operations are part of a large-scale and long-term security strategy, which has assisted in achieving multiple goals of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). By attempting to control the narrative and the perception of China held by the nations China invested in, China is able to build a stronger foundation for economic development and opportunity domestically and internationally, forge stronger political ties with nations across the globe, and create an international manufacturing dependency, due in part to the immense man-power China has to offer. With Xi Jinping at the head of the CCP and therefore China’s road ahead, a major shift in the CCP’s focus has taken place in recent years. Somewhat covert, but increasingly visible, Xi’s China is a rapidly emerging self-sufficient nation. By profiting off of China’s earlier status as a predominantly manufacturing destination, China can and is utilizing its man-power and know-how to nestle itself among the world’s leading nations by responding to demand. China’s political system sees espionage as a key means to achieve Xi’s vision for China. Whereas Chinese leaders such as Deng Xiaoping previously prioritized economic growth, Xi instead prioritizes national security. When he came to power in 2012, Xi called for a policy of “comprehensive national security” for China’s party-state. The intelligence body of China (Ministry of State Security, MSS) received the increasingly multifaceted responsibility of gathering this intel to pursue Xi’s bold foreign policy strategies. Using this large database better enables the CCP to continue to influence China’s perception abroad, socially re-engineer the Chinese population domestically and abroad, sway public opinion on China, and compete intellectually and practically with current leading competitors. In a widely cited front-page article in the Study Times, the Communist Party school’s official newspaper, the head of the MSS suggested they should organize a ‘powerful offensive’ in response to the spying accusations in Europe and the US. Xi’s focus on security in part has to do with his goal of self-preservation as CCP leader. By enabling stricter control over the party members and the Chinese population in the name of national security, Xi simultaneously prevents usurpers from gaining too much traction. However, national security also aids Xi in maintaining his power and position. Xi profits from satisfied citizens as it strengthens his reputation. However, any dissatisfaction expressed on a large scale publicly is met with repercussions. New challenges for counter-espionage For European intelligence agencies used to Russian intelligence tactics, China’s espionage activities present new challenges. While Russian intelligence operations are often targeted and clumsily carried out with no ‘plausible deniability’ the MSS uses a ‘whole of society’ approach. This describes a 2017 law passed in China where all organizations and citizens should ‘support and cooperate with national intelligence efforts’. That makes conventional ‘spying’ by agents difficult to spot. Such activities can lead to another tool for the MSS, building a culture of fear in society and potentially leading intelligence agencies to encroach on civil liberties by collecting data on ethnic Chinese citizens falsely accused of espionage. The US counter-espionage efforts since 2016 have led to the National Director warning against such practices in the US. Another way in which this threat is unfolding, is that Xi’s focus on national security reaches beyond its own borders. Conferences such as the “Peaceful China” summit not only inform its (foreign) visitors on how China deals with security issues, it is also a way in which the CCP can normalize its ideological presence in the security systems of other nations. Using the vast database available to the CCP through espionage, China is able to influence local policy. China’s espionage activities are also difficult to detect as the MSS operations utilize a whole range of agents with loose connections to main state institutions. That makes finding an espionage operation that has been planned with the hand of the state difficult. More importantly, China’s influence is overt, through its economic power, its public investments and interactions with industry, rather than covert activity carried out by intelligence officers. They are therefore harder to point out than under the radar spying operations. As Xi doubles down on his relationship with Putin and becomes a major source of trade and investment in Russia’s economy, the relationship with Europe could become worse. The CCP is also paranoid of espionage within China, clamping down on sensitive information from being sent out of the country. The MSS has detained and arrested multiple pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong as the new national security law was implemented in 2024. Xi’s vision for China’s new security state and political influence operations against European countries reveal the risk of espionage to European interests and values. Raising awareness for the future Europe’s intelligence agencies have revealed that Europe is increasingly being targeted in political influence and dissident campaigns from China. Espionage cases will most likely be revealed more in the future. Europe is becoming increasingly wary of China’s economic competition, espionage attempts and China’s neutrality toward Putin’s war against Ukraine. China’s espionage attempts to influence politics and views in Europe to favorable views of China will therefore likely increase in the future. However, China’s espionage activities are difficult to counter effectively. European intelligence agencies face threats from Russia, monitoring terrorism, and the scale of China’s espionage activities have not been recognised sufficiently. Distinguishing between overt and covert Chinese power is hard to detect. More importantly, detecting MSS espionage attempts must not be used to encroach on ethnic Chinese civil liberties. Protecting the dissidents who have found refuge from the Chinese Communist Party is highly important.

  • Intel Brief: Escalating Conflict in Sudan raises Risk of Genocide and Regional Instability

    Date: 13/06/2024 Where: Sudan Who’s involved: Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), paramilitary group Rapid Support Forces (RSF), regional and international actors What happened? More than a year after fighting broke out between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary group Rapid Support Forces (RSF) on April 15, 2023, the brutal civil war in Sudan is escalating. The conflict is exacerbating one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. According to the UN, the conflict already resulted in more than 15,000 confirmed casualties and 10 million people displaced, both internally and in neighboring countries. The intensity of the war and the seizure of crucial aid hubs by both warring factions are hampering the distribution of aid to civilians. The UN estimates that at least 25 million people are currently in urgent need of aid in Sudan. At first, fighting erupted in the capital Khartoum and its outskirts and then spread across the country, mainly to the provinces of North and West Kordofan and Western Darfur region. In recent weeks, SAF and RSF fighting has escalated in the area of the city of Al-Fashir (or El Fasher), the capital of North Darfur State. In early May 2024, Al-Fashir city, controlled by the SAF and a refuge for more than 1 million displaced people, was besieged and repeatedly attacked by RSF. On June 10, South Hospital, the main hospital of Al-Fashir and the only medical facility capable of handling mass casualty events, was attacked by RSF and taken out of service. Between May 25 and June 3, the hospital had been attacked three times. Since mid-April 2024, several attacks targeting non-Arab villages and communities by RSF and its allied Arab militias have been reported in North Darfur. The rise of ethnically motivated violence and intercommunal conflict in the region is reminiscent of the ethnic cleansing campaign of the Darfur War (2003-2020), which claimed nearly 400.000 victims. On May 21, the UN  warned that the deteriorating situation in North Darfur and in Sudan, exhibits all the signs of genocide and call for immediate international action to prevent further atrocities. Concerning levels of sexual and gender-based violence are also reported. Beyond Darfur, hostilities between the warring parties are escalating in other regions. On June 5, 2024, a massacre by the RSF was reported in the village of Wad Al-Noura in Gezira State, central Sudan. Over 150 people were killed in the attacks. Sudanese political and civil groups are mobilizing to promote dialogue. On May 8, the SAF-aligned political coalition “Coordination of National Forces,” which includes 48 political parties and civil society organizations, signed a political charter in Cairo proposing a three-year transitional government. Yet, Sudan's de facto governor, Gen. al-Burhan, repeatedly rejected any process that did not secure the RSF's surrender. International efforts to facilitate an end to the conflict in Sudan have not been successful. In late May 2024, the Sudanese government rejected the US request to resume negotiations with the RSF. Moreover, concerns about violence spillover, growing regional instability, and increasing foreign interference in the conflict are rising. In recent weeks, it was reported that Sudan and Russia are close to signing a 25-years military cooperation and port deal. Allegedly, the Sudanese army will grant Moscow a naval base in the Red Sea in exchange for military support and the cessation of the Wagner group's supply of the RSF. It has been reported that the Wagner group recently supplied missiles to the paramilitary group. Analysis: The two warring parties of the conflict, the SAF and the RSF militia, were previously allies, having joined forces in 2019 to overthrow three-decade dictator Omar al-Bashir. SAF leader General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan replaced him as the de facto head of state. In 2021, the RSF, led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, backed al-Burhan in the coup to topple Sudan's interim government. However, tensions started to escalate in February 2023 over the integration of the RSF into the Sudanese army and culminated on April 15, 2023, initiating the conflict. The ongoing conflict has deep roots. Sudan has experienced prolonged instability and violence in the past decades. In 2011, following two civil wars between the central government and southern regions, South Sudan gained independence, while from 2003 to 2020 a protracted conflict, marked by ethnic-motivated violence, war crimes and state-sponsored violence, plagued the state of Darfur. The Darfur conflict began as a result of uprisings by non-Arab tribes, suppressed by al-Bashir with the support of the Janjaweed, a collection of Arab militias. In 2013, the Janjaweed were reorganized as Rapid Support Forces (RSF), under the command of Hemedti. Throughout the conflict, the RSF perpetrated atrocities against civilians and were accused of ethnic cleansing against the Masalit, Fur, and Zaghawa communities. The displacement crisis is also fuelling the risk of regional instability. Approximately 2 million displaced Sudanese have been seeking refuge in neighboring countries, including Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, and South Sudan, which are struggling to handle the influx of refugees on top of their already volatile political and economic situations. According to the UN, Sudan's neighboring countries need assistance to cope with the flow of refugees. Chad, currently hosting some 900,000 Sudanese refugees, closed its border in April 2023. Although Sudan's border with Egypt remains open, Egypt is facing difficulties due to domestic and regional tensions. Moreover, concerns are growing over the regional security implications of the conflict in Sudan and neighboring countries fear the risk of conflict spillover and militia infiltration. The interference of external actors and foreign support for both sides is another critical issue. Since July 2023, there has been evidence of a closer alignment and military support between SAF leader al-Burhan's and Iran. Despite al-Burhan's denial of granting Iranian warships access to Port Sudan, this alliance could have implications for Iran's power over the Red Sea. Iranian support for al-Burhan could also be a response to the United Arab Emirates' (UAE) alleged military support for the RSF. In early May, tensions flared between the Sudanese government and Saudi Arabia over alleged Saudi support and military training to the RSF. Also, the Wagner Groups military support to RSF has been confirmed in recent months. Yet, the latest negotiations between the Sudanese government and Moscow regarding the concession of a naval base suggest Russia’s switch of sides in favor of the SAF. Despite efforts by the international community, including at least sixteen US-Saudi-led failed ceasefires and peace process attempts by regional actors such as the African Union, the mitigation and resolution of the conflict is far from being achieved. Conclusion: Despite several peace efforts and attempts of ceasefire by Sudanese political and civil groups and the international community, the conflict between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary RSF militia is not easing. More than a year into the fighting, Sudan is experiencing the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with alarming levels of food insecurity and indicators of ethnic cleansing and genocide. The escalation of violence in recent weeks is worsening an already highly volatile situation, and the risk of regional destabilization is escalating. Currently, the two warring factions are not open to any negotiation, and the interference and interests of foreign actors make finding common ground for dialogue even more unlikely. Moreover, despite the dramatic toll of the conflict, the crisis in Sudan is going somewhat unnoticed by the international community, which is committed to easing the ongoing Israeli-Hamas and Russian-Ukrainian conflicts. Without intervention from the international community and more humanitarian aid, the situation in Sudan is expected to worsen rapidly. The escalation of violence in North Darfur and Al-Fashir city is likely to worsen in the coming weeks. Should the town fall to the RSF paramilitaries, the army will lose the sole town left under its control in the region.

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