August 18, 2023No Comments

Egypt: A genuine effort to end violence in Sudan or politics of symbolism? 

Author: Chantal Elisabeth Hohe - Middle East Team

After the Gaza negotiations in 2019 and the COP27 2022 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt once again positioned itself as a diplomatic force within its neighborhood. This time, to address the violent conflict that broke out in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, this spring and ever since, plagued the country as a whole. 

Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hosted a neighbor’s summit in Cairo on July 13th, inviting the heads of state of all countries bordering Sudan. Namely: Libya, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Chad, the Central African Republic, and Eritrea. After more than three months of violence, it is about time the regional powers undertook a joint effort to prevent the conflict from escalating even further, right? 

What has happened in Sudan recently?

After the Sudanese people’s strife for democracy had grown increasingly vocal, in 2019, the authoritarian leader Omar Al-Bashir was toppled. Al-Bashir had been in power for almost three decades, with the SAF (Sudanese Armed Forces) and RSF (Rapid Support Forces) in place to ensure his protection. Especially the RSF, a former paramilitary organization active in the Darfur region, had been essential for Al-Bashir’s safety.

After his removal from power, an interim government was installed, consisting of military and civilian parties. In 2021, this sharing of power between the two military factions and civilian actors failed. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, chief of the SAF, and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as “Hemeti”), commander of the RSF, took to power in Khartoum. A new Prime Minister, Abdulla Hamdok, was installed, but resigned soon after, leaving al-Burhan as the de facto leader since 2022, with Hemeti in his shadow. A crucial detail, as Hemeti never liked being number two.

Ultimately, on the 15th of April, violence erupted in Khartoum — al-Burhan and Hemeti started a power struggle that ultimately led to a violent outbreak and chaos in Sudan’s capital. Since then, the conflict spread, thousands fell victim to the violence, and millions had to flee - around 700.000 to Egypt, living in inhumane conditions and without access to their basic needs such as food, water, and medical treatment.

What was decided at the Cairo Summit?

At the leaders’ summit, Egypt voiced two demands. For one, the regional powers should work towards a ceasefire between the RSF and the SAF, and ultimately initiate peace talks. And second, the warring parties should ensure safe passage for humanitarian aid convoys and facilitate access for international humanitarian workers to the country.

The Cairo Summit was the beginning of a series of ministerial talks to be held in the countries bordering Sudan in the following weeks and months, with the first round of the ‘Ministerial Mechanism’ taking place in Chad and resulting in an action plan created to work towards a ceasefire in consideration of the political sensitivity, the military risks, and the humanitarian facets of the conflict.

Let us look at what happened in Sudan, why Egypt took up the orchestrating role in diplomatic efforts, and what broader context these efforts are situated in. 


Why is Egypt interested in leading diplomatic efforts? 

Having a seat at the negotiating table in Sudan is not merely an act of benevolence, or an effort to end the violence for the Sudanese people’s sake. There is a lot to consider, without delving deep into the workings of Egyptian foreign and security policy. Most importantly, economy and natural resources play an essential role.

Though Egypt still is one of the strongest economies on the African continent, its power has weakened in recent years. The coronavirus pandemic, the increase in energy prices, and an uptick in food prices have taken their toll on the economy and the population. Inflation is high, and Egypt faces a currency crisis, finding itself in need of ever more uncertain international financial support. 

Apart from the grim economic outlook, Egypt is in deep water stress. As it derives all of its freshwater resources from the Nile River, it has a strong interest in keeping friendly relations with the countries that sit at the river’s spring - one of them being Sudan. Of course, Egypt is keen on maintaining stability within these countries just as much. Before the spring of this year, Egypt played its part to ensure stability in Sudan by providing military support to the SAF. Now, this could backfire, as the weapons once supplied by Egypt are now used in the power struggle against the RSF, contributing to an escalation of the situation, and causing civilian deaths.

With Sudan collapsing, Egypt’s water supply could become uncertain. For instance, whoever holds the power in Sudan — itself a water-stressed country — could decide to limit the amount of water that crosses the border into Egypt, with devastating consequences for its people and its economy. 

Water security and economic as well as political stability go hand in hand. Without the former, the latter will collapse, ultimately triggering a multifaceted crisis that Egypt is unlikely to shoulder, especially considering the current political and economic situation that is already destabilizing the country. Thus, positioning itself in the center of peace efforts in Sudan is likely to help Egypt prevent a domestic crisis of its own.

Where do we go from here?

With the violence continuing, and no peace deal in sight, a different approach might be needed to address the problem. A Berlin-based analyst for Foreign Policy magazine, Mahmoud Salem, has proposed an interesting take on what might help: a bottom-up approach. “Tak[ing] the side of the civilian parties“ as a balanced strategic response. This could help Egypt curb the influx of refugees that it cannot handle (neither economically nor politically). But could this also be the solution to the water struggle and the rivalry between General Burhan and General Hemeti?

It remains open to debate whether this approach is in line with Egypt’s foreign policy agenda, and if so, whether it will be accepted by Sudan’s other neighbors — and most importantly, how the warring parties should be included in this approach. For now, they were not invited to the table. And Egypt’s past with Sudan is not exactly the one of a neutral, diplomatic partner…

July 10, 2023No Comments

Iranian Drone Warfare: theory and praxis

Author: Danilo dalle Fave - Article Intelligence and Military Strategy Team

The Iranian strategic doctrine and the role of drone warfare

Iranian strategic doctrine has been influenced by the peculiar nature of its political regime and its history. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 infused in the Iranian strategic doctrine of Shah’s era, inspired by the contemporary Western military doctrines, some elements that influence the current role of drones in Iranian warfare: “holy defence”, export of the revolution, and especially the concept of self-reliance are the ideological foundation of the current Iranian strategic doctrine.

The Iraq-Iran war of the ‘80s has defined the current duality of Iranian armed forces: due to the distrust toward the Iranian army (Artesh), seen as an instrument of Shah’s supporters, the khomeinists developed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a parallel army and the main instrument of their foreign policy. The purges against the high command of Artesh and the lack of strategic doctrines among the pasdarans compelled them to create an ad hoc military doctrine, deeply influenced by their origin as an ideological militia with a revolutionary structure.

The result is a strategic doctrine centred around three pillars: proxy warfare, which means the use of guerrilla groups of Shia communities around the Islamic world used as an instrument for the projection of Iranian influence abroad; asymmetric warfare, a direct consequence of the military and technological superiority of their enemies; the focus on Ballistic missiles, which is caused by the weak Iranian air forces and the foreign dependency for aeronautical components and have compelled to focus on specific arms systems that can provide deterrence and be produced domestically.

Despite being formally a defensive strategic doctrine, the current supreme leader Ali Khamenei has provided also the official state doctrine for external interventions in 2010, the so-called two-wing doctrine: the Foreign Ministry and the Quds Force, the overseas operations arms of the IRGC, have the task to protect Iran and enhance Iranian role in the region. This means that the military instrument is embedded in Iranian foreign policy.

IRGC interventions of the last ten years have shown how foreign operations are usually conducted when certain conditions are met: the presence of a Shia community that can provide the proxy actor (e.g. in Lebanon Hezbollah or the Houtis in Yemen), the weakness of the state actors, like in Iraq or Lebanon, that can allow the strengthening of pro-Iranian forces and provide a logistics pipeline, capable of transfer personnel, weapons and allowing training by IRGC forces.

In this framework, drone warfare is exclusively conducted by the IRGC aerospace force, which also controls Iran’s strategic-missile force. Drones are used to compensate for the weakness of Iranian air forces in the reconnaissance and surveillance domain and the industrial constraints to the mass production of warplanes.

IRGC drones are perfectly suited to match the IRGC view of warfare: in the air domain, drones can be used along with ballistic and cruise missiles to attack enemy positions to strike and rapidly retreat, for reconnaissance and to overwhelm enemy positions. Swarms of loitering munitions can overburden enemy air defence allowing missiles to strike their objectives. The recent use in the Ukraine of Iranian-made drones by Russia is a clear example of how these kinds of saturation tactics can be very effective.
In the sea, the traditional naval swarming tactics, developed during the Iran-Iraq war, can be augmented with unmanned vehicles and balance the military superiority of the US and their allies.


Iranian Unmanned Aerial vehicles and industry

The first family of Iranian drones are the Iranian Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company (HESA) Ababil: originally developed by the IRGC-owned Qods Aviation Industries, the Ababil-1 was a suicide drone used during the Iran-Iraq war usually launched by pneumatic truck launchers. Now they developed a specific Unmanned loitering munition drone, the DIO Arash.

This experience allowed the production in the 90s of the Ababil-2 and its different variants: the Ababil-B, a target drone for air-defence exercises, the Ababil-S, the first Iranian surveillance drone, the Ababil-T, a twin-tail variant that can be used for surveillance and as strike munition payloads and has been adopted by Hezbollah and the Houtis. The latter has deployed the Qasef-1 and Qasef-2K, Abadil-2 variants with 30 kg warheads, used as loitering munition against the Saudi-led coalition forces since 2016.

The Ababil-3, suspected to be a copy of the South African Denel Dynamics Seeker, is an Intelligence-Surveillance-Reconnaissance (ISR) drone and has been used extensively by Iranian forces during the Syrian civil war. The last member of this family, the Ababil-5, debuted in April 2022 and appears to be a Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle, similar to the American Predator.

The other family of Iranian drones is represented by the Mohajer, the first ISR drone produced in the 80s and widely exported to Iranian proxies. Many Iranian drones are the result of a reverse-engineered version of Western drones, like the IAIO Fotros, IAIO Yasir, HESA Hamaseh, and IRIAF Kaman-22: the most important of them are the Saegheh, an entire family of drones that are the result of the acquisition of US Lockheed RQ-170 Sentinel, downed in 2011, which shows how Iranian industries are capable to copy stealth drones and in general to adapt western technology for internal purposes.

The most important drone family is the Shahed: the HESA Shahed-129, a dual-role drone is deployed for patrols and direct attacks for the Iranian Army and Navy, while the HESA Shahed-136 is a loitering munition designed for swarm attacks against ground targets. The last addition is the HESA Shahed-149, a reusable attack drone capable of launching missiles and bombs and being equipped for electronic warfare.

As previously said, Iran relies on drones in order to overcome the lack of a proper aerospace industry: the cost-effectiveness of drones in production and maintenance avoids the costly traditional aircraft procurement. At the same time, it is also a matter of internal political dynamics. Drone producers are mostly linked with the IRGC which managed to concentrate power in recent years, especially with the current president Ebrahim Raisi. The main consequence of this, apart from a greater role of IRGC in Iranian politics, is the “capture” of funds by the IRGC, leaving the Iranian Air Forces with shrinking resources to develop their vehicles and devices.
That is why Iran relies, as during Shah’s era, on imports: the recent discussion for the procurement of the Russian Su-35, a 4th generation multi-role jet fighter, is a clear sign of the overreliance on imports for traditional aircraft.


Summing up, drone warfare is an important element of the Iranian way to wage war: it reflects Iranian leadership’s preference for asymmetric approaches and the adaptation to Western sanctions that prevented the development of traditional aerospace vehicles. Despite domestic strifes and tensions with the US, Iran can exploit its expertise in drones to obtain technology and know-how in the aerospace field that needs to scale up its military prowess: deeper cooperation with Russia, favoured by the isolation of both countries in the international arena, could augment Iranian aerospace forces, with consequences on the military balance in the Middle East.

June 26, 2023No Comments

Cultural Question and Cyber Quandary: Making Sense Of TikTok Bans Worldwide

Authors: Maria Makurat (Cyber Security and AI Team) and Anurag Mishra (USA Team)

TikTok and the “Ban Hammer”

The debate of apps such as TikTok being a security threat to individuals as well as countries has been going on for a while. Several articles, studies and other blog articles have been, and are still being released on this hot topic. One of the main concerns remains: TikTok is collecting data of users against their consent whilst one is also not using the app. Since TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese-owned company, many Western countries and especially the US are highly sceptical and states such as Montana have even taken the initiative to ban the app altogether. What does this mean for cyber as well as cultural security issues? Many factors and international events surround this debate such as TikTok already being banned in India, the issues of the Chinese state  being seen as a spy and whether one can see TikTok as a surveillance weapon? Cyber security as well as cultural issues tie into the debate where we see theories of whether we have a “cyber war” in relation to social media platforms as well as cultural matters if TikTok is having a negative impact on countries. This article explores the issues highlighted above and opens up possible questions that still need to be asked.

Montana Mounts a “Blackout Challenge” to TikTok

Senate Bill #149 of the 68th legislature of Montana, which was introduced by state senator Shelley Vance makes the offering of the app on any application store illegal and prescribes a fine of $10,000 per day for each time someone accesses TikTok, “is offered the ability” to access it, or downloads it. Governor Greg Gianforte, a Republican from Montana, had approved the law on anticipating potential legal challenges. Although the law is not set to be enforced until January 1, 2024, there are doubts about the state's ability to implement it effectively. The impact of this new legislation in Montana is expected to be more significant than the existing TikTok bans already implemented on government devices in approximately half of the states and at the federal level in the United States.

From the outside, the one-of-a-kind ban looks like an assault on ByteDance’s data-gathering exercise but also has a deeper purpose of extinguishing the app’s ability to influence the impressionable youth of America.

One of the major reasons why TikTok became the conservative eyesore and a major cause of worry for parents was the “Blackout Challenge.” Also known as the "choking challenge" or the "pass-out challenge," it involved urging individuals to hold their breath until they lose consciousness as a result of insufficient oxygen. While the Blackout Challenge was the biggest troubling online challenge, causing as many as 20 children to lose their lives, a slew of similar troubling trends made TikTok infamous. "Dry-scooping," climbing on tall stacks of milk crates, removing your own IUD, and eating massive amounts of frozen honey and corn syrup, and the list goes on.

The problem with TikTok does not end there. When juxtaposed with the wider scheme of things, TikTok appears to be one of the many arrows in the Chinese quiver. The issue of Chinese Police Stations coming up on the United States’ territory has landed many in the stew and has made the American government restive. Taking a leaf out of India and some European countries’ books, several states in the US decided to ban TikTok on office/government-issued phones and devices. As of April, 34 American states have banned TikTok on government-issued devices. The idea behind banning the mischievous app has largely been to secure any data leaks. India was the first country to ban TikTok and several other Chinese mobile applications nationwide, citing national security concerns. India banned TikTok as early as June 2020. At first, the ban was seen as a mild yet conclusive response to the PLA’s misadventure across the Sino-Indian border, but as more countries put restraints on the Chinese app, the Indian government’s official position on the ban seems to have been vindicated.

Reservations and concerns abound TikTok and have only gone on to grow in the past three years. Not just the adversaries and rivals but even allies like Pakistan and North Korea have blocked TikTok. The question nevertheless remains whether TikTok is just an online pastime or a phisher. 

Source: Unsplash

Weapon of Mass Surveillance: TikTok and its Cyber Security Issues?

The debate surrounding TikTok being a security issue has been around for a while. Several individuals as well as companies had their doubts but as of around April 2023, one has been seeing a surge in states and countries being serious about banning the popular app. The major concern lies within the fact that TikTok is owned by a Chinese company and several discrepancies have arisen concerning the security of the app. It is being repeatedly “expressed that TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, may put sensitive user data, like location information, into the hands of the Chinese government.” This together with political tensions between Russia, China and the West in relation to the Ukraine war add to the TikTok debate with companies being concerned that data is being stolen. Countries find themselves recently in much more complicated relations.

One can link this to traditional international affairs theories such as whether we will even have a “cyber war” (discussion by Thomas Rid)  and how social media is being “weaponized” (discussed by P.W. singer, Emerson T. Brooking and Dr Andreas Krieg). “In so doing, social media has evolved from a mere distraction machine into a tool of sociopolitical power, galvanising public awareness and civil-societal activism.” It is being discussed that ever since the 2016 elections in the US with Russian interference, that other social media platforms, where TikTok can possibly also be an instrument, can be used to spread false information and not only be used as a tool by itself to collect data. Countries such as Germanyalso increasingly see the issue of social media platforms being used to spread false information as well as collecting data (BIS: Bundesamt für Sicherheit in der Informationstechnik). The so-called “Digitalbarometer 2020” released by the BIS, stated that in Germany for the year 2020, every fourth individual was affected by some type of cyber-attack and every third was affected financially. Whilst Germany has not released a law that forbids the use of TikTok, it is being discussed by the Federal Minister of the Interior and Community that one needs to stay alert and be aware of the possible consequences.

This issue is also being discussed very intensely by scholars such as Dr Andreas Krieg (recent work “Subversion - The strategic weaponization of narratives”) and Dr Kathleen Hall Jamieson (Cyber-War : How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President). We see both now in the international affairs academic world as well as the communications and cultural disciplines a debate, on how social media platforms are being weaponized (see also this blog article on hate speech on social media). Now perhaps more than ever, interdisciplinary communication between different academic strands is needed to address the issue. So we see it is not only the issue of TikTok being owned by a Chinese company and the possible spread of false information but also the physical issue of collecting data. We have both cultural/ethical and cyber security issues.

To Ban, or Not to Ban?

To mitigate the goodwill loss and the loss of business that TikTok has encountered, it would be wise for the company to make itself more transparent and even sell stakes, as beseeched by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. The company will also need to come clean on the accusations of data theft and spying. The root of all remains the involvement of the Chinese state in its corporate entities and in the long run, such involvement will not go unnoticed by the countries hosting Chinese businesses. When considering all these factors, open questions remain such as if we will see other countries following suit in banning TikTok and how likely is it that more organisations will take action? Do we see a certain cyber war taking place in the realm of social media or is it more an issue of moral and ethical values? Younger generations still use TikTok in their daily life, especially since this is also linked to businesses (such as Infleuncers as well as big companies) which could prove problematic in the future. Perhaps stronger rules are required that regulate the use of TikTok and its data collection if the app is to be further used. It remains to be seen how this develops and whether individuals will be concerned with the use of the app.

June 5, 2023No Comments

An Overview of Russia’s Private Military Company

Authors: Patrick Haasler, Eleonora Tatizki, Fabrizio Napoli, Igor Shchebetun, Davide Gobbicchi, Greta Bordin - Russia Team

In August 2022, the town of Soledar in Ukraine went from a bustling community to a pile of rubble. Months later, a surprising announcement appeared on Telegram, claiming that the Wagner Group, a private military company, had seized control of Soledar. What made this revelation intriguing was that it came not from the Russian army, but from Evgeny Prigogine, a Russian oligarch with close ties to President Vladimir Putin.

Prigogine, nicknamed the "Putin chef" for his past role as a Kremlin caterer, rose to power in 2014 as the head of the Wagner Group. This secretive organization operated a covert network involving mining companies, political influence operations, and a ruthless private military force. However, the Wagner Group's activities were typically concealed, and public victories like the one claimed in Soledar were rare.

Yet, things are changing. The Wagner Group, once shrouded in secrecy, is now revealing its strategies and becoming more visible. Its soldiers, known as "Little Green Men," were first observed in 2014 during the Russian annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine. Since then, they have become Prigogine's frontline agents, supporting Russia's global strategy.

The Wagner Group serves multiple purposes for the Russian government, with the primary objective of diverting attention from activities that the Kremlin prefers to keep hidden. Journalist Candace Rondeau, who investigates the Wagner Group and Russia's proxy warfare strategy, explains that one of the group's main functions is to deliver weapons and military services to countries with which Russia has military agreements.

Recruitment is a significant aspect of the Wagner Group's operations. Despite Russian law technically prohibiting its citizens from engaging in paid foreign combat, the group has managed to recruit tens of thousands of soldiers, mainly from Russia. These soldiers typically consist of hardened military veterans in command positions, while others with elite backgrounds fill the rank-and-file level. Over time, the Wagner Group has developed a recognizable brand, complete with emblems, insignia, and an online presence, earning them the moniker "the McDonald's of the Russian way of war."


The Wagner Group employs three primary strategies to carry out Russia's objectives worldwide. They target countries experiencing prolonged conflicts, weak governance, or corruption. Syria, for example, became a focal point when Wagner mercenaries appeared to support President Bashar al-Assad's forces in their fight against rebel groups. Wagner troops have been observed in numerous unstable regions, expanding the group's influence across at least four continents, particularly in Africa.

In these client states, the Wagner Group engages in various activities, including teaching local militaries reconnaissance and counterinsurgency tactics, often employing rough and brutal methods. Mali, which has been grappling with a jihadist insurgency and frequent coups, became a prime target for the Wagner Group. After France withdrew its military support in 2021, the group discreetly arrived in Mali, establishing a military base and apparently causing significant human rights abuses, leading to a sharp increase in civilian casualties.

Motivated by complex factors, the Wagner Group's involvement in fragile countries often intertwines with economic interests. As an integral part of military agreements, the group contributes to cycles of debts and loans. In exchange for weapons, training, and assistance, client states offer valuable resources such as oil, gold, and uranium. This seems to enable the Wagner Group to engage in illegal mining activities and money laundering enterprises, consolidating its illicit wealth.

The international response to the Wagner Group's activities has been marked by increased scrutiny and sanctions. While Russian President Putin consistently denies direct links to the group, Prigogine's growing public statements and visibility have drawn global attention. The challenges posed by the Wagner Group to Putin's regime and Russia's military influence across continents continue to evolve, making it a significant concern.

May 29, 2023No Comments

Mali: the next stage for power competition? 

Counterterrorism in the wake of EU’s withdrawal and Wagner Group’s operations in the country

Authors: Camilla Cormegna and Liz Morán - Crime, Extremism, and Terrorism Team

The Sahel: the epicenter of terrorism

The emergence of extremism in the Sahel did not take place in a vacuum. Poverty, unemployment, and weak social infrastructures have fostered local support for extremism groups, as supported by the latest UNDP report. More importantly, two events have also been cited as contributors to the Sahel’s instability and insecurity: first, the disintegration of the Libyan state in 2011, which flooded the Sahel with cheap arms and attracted and stirred up violent religious extremism; and second, the Malian civil war of 2012.[1] A decade forward from these events, the Global Terrorism Index warns that the Sahel has become the epicenter of terrorism, with Mali recording its highest number of terrorist attacks and deaths since 2011. Indeed, home to the world’s fastest growing and most-deadly terrorist groups, the region now accounts for 35% terrorism-related deaths of the global total of terrorism deaths in 2021, compared with just 1% in 2007. 

Unsurprisingly, such a security challenge has caught the attention of global leaders. In May 2023, Martha Ama Akyaa Pobee, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Africa, warned, in a UNSC and G5 Sahel meeting, that the devastating effects of the persistent destabilization of the Sahel will be felt far beyond the region. Such an understanding also reigns in the minds of European leaders and policymakers, with the Sahel being framed as a security matter to the EU as irregular migration to Europe and violent extremism rose. In this vein, Josep Borrell, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, stated that “instability and terrorism in the Sahel directly threaten our security. It is therefore our duty of solidarity, and also in our interest, to stand by the people and countries of the Sahel.” Moreover, key EU foreign policy documents (Global Strategy, 2016, i.e.) have reinforced the “internal-external security nexus”.

Thus far, efforts to curb extremism and terrorism have largely failed, prompting the entrance of new security actors into the region and the departure of French troops from Mali. The entrance of these new “(in)security providers”, however, have not been eagerly welcomed by all actors involved in the region. In such a scenario, the Sahel, and especially Mali, may become an important arena for power competition, as a result of the balancing between Europe, the United States, and Russia. 

Voices have highlighted the importance to rethink the international community’s approaches to supporting regional security mechanisms. Precisely, this article will reflect both on the EU and Wagner groups’ counterterrorism efforts, assessing their impact in the region.

A failed ‘patchwork of counterterrorism’  

Instability in Mali has been shaped by the socio-political crisis that fed the expansion of terrorist groups. The main movements in the region are the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS), active since 2015, and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), an al-Qaeda-affiliated umbrella group that appeared in 2017. The conflict, however, has been wrongly framed internationally: these groups are not proxies of the global jihad but have sought to exploit the weaknesses of the region and aim at solving local problems through violence. State absence, the fragility of the rule of law, poverty, poor access to justice and basic services are some of the drivers of extremism in Mali, and terrorist groups have successfully recruited from marginalized communities. 

Since 2012, Mali has been defined as a ‘laboratory’ for counterterrorism (CT) interventions, leading to undesired effects on the overall security of the country. The interventions were divided between UN-led peacekeeping operations and France-led military operations based on capacity-building and international and regional cooperation. However, state CT interventions were obscured by human rights abuses. The Malian army adopted Western CT concepts to address the local insurgency issue, pursuing a military-only stance overlooking the root causes of said insurgency, further fueling extremism. National forces have also carried out extra-judicial killings towards the ethnic communities that supported the terrorist groups that offered them protection, fostering grievances against the Malian government and reinforcing the support for insurgency groups.

France’s CT operations in Mali started after the 2012 coup d’état. France, thus, developed Opération Serval in 2013 alongside the Malian army, succeeding in ousting Islamic militants from Mali. Then, in 2014, Opération Serval was transformed into Opération Barkhane to permanently eliminate the jihadi threat and train Malian armies. Barkhane was successful in neutralizing several operational leaders of JNIM and ISGS, crippling their capabilities and leading to an overall reduction of large-scale attacks. Still, Barkhane has been accused of strategic ineffectiveness, as France would seem to have made several mistakes that hindered the operation. Indeed, France’s indiscriminate attacks on groups’ leaders made the Malian community distrustful of them. French and Malian authorities overlooked the role played by economic and political factors that allowed jihadists to acquire a secure position within the region and recruit from marginalized communities. It also failed to evolve its responsiveness towards insurrection’s escalation, which turned into a turf war. The coup de grace was France’s disagreement towards Mali’s decision to negotiate with the terrorist groups. This increased the suspicion towards France’s motives, as the Metropole allowed negotiations for the release of European hostages while negating cooperation when it came to Malian security. 

Source: wikicommons-Opération Barkhane


Overall, the potential role of European peacekeeping and CT operations did not bear the anticipated fruit. More CT did not equal more security in Mali, which experienced a surge in internal displacement and humanitarian crisis. Purely military responses have proven to be ineffective at reducing terrorism and have had the opposite result, pushing local populations towards jihadists. European CT strategies have further empowered the Malian junta, accused of human rights abuses as well as corruption, and the local community may perceive European help as complicity. Moreover, CT operations can be fruitful in the short-term but ineffective in the long run if not paired with strategies that target the drivers of extremism, such as socio-economic issues and state absence. Indeed, the “war on religious terrorism” mentality has diverted attention from governance problems, while the paradigm based on the “terrorist” label is problematic because it does not exist in vernacular dialects. For local communities, insurgents are not the main security challenge but armed robbers, cattle thieves, and ethnic tensions. 

France’s unwillingness to negotiate with terrorists was the last straw, leading to a deterioration of French-Malian diplomatic and political relationship. The military junta, in power since the 2021 coup, hampered France’s operations while anti-Western sentiments exploded in the region and the Wagner Group increased its presence. In 2022, France and the EU halted all capacity-building programmes, with Barkhane coming to an end. They also relocated their military resources to neighboring countries and ISGS took advantage of France’s withdrawal. 

The Wagner Group in Africa 

The Wagner Group, a private military contractor, has been expanding its footprint into various African countries, with Mali its most recent conquest, by leveraging “Western policy missteps, anti-European sentiment, and the long-standing failures of international and local actors to address the root causes of regional instability”. Russia’s interests in Africa, however, precede the recent involvement of the Wagner Group: since 2006, Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to rebuild Russia's presence and influence in Africa. Some argue that it is precisely to achieve such an end that Russia has used mercenary groups to advance Moscow's interests in the region. 

Since its involvement, the Group has been engaging in activities such as leading training exercises, fighting anti-government forces, and suppressing protests. Now, while the Wagner Group often aligns with Russia’s foreign policy interests, its status as an independent contractor allows it to maintain a level of unpredictability and gives Russia plausible deniability for its actions. This, thus, seems to make the Group a valuable tool in the hands of Russian policymakers to balance Western presence in the region and test new military cooperation environments –without appearing overly involved. 

Some commentators have argued that the partnership between Russian proxies and African governments is not solely the result of major regional disinformation campaigns. Instead, it stems from a conscious decision by African leaders and civil society actors who actively seek cooperation with Russia. In this sense, African states seek greater agency in managing their own affairs, resisting Western imposition and being receptive to narratives against Western colonialism. Russia, thus, has identified a window opportunity and adapted its foreign policy discourse: Russian Foreign Affairs Minister, Sergei Lavrov, remarked that Moscow remains supportive of Africans’ efforts to push back against the West and works with partners in Africa to counter “European colonialism”. 

Certainly, the Group’s involvement in the region is not exempt from criticism. Some argue that Russian forces tend to use Malian soldiers as “cannon fodder”, exposing them to greater risks. Others have stated that the group's objective is not to stabilize the countries where it operates, but rather to provide security to several regimes in exchange for access to valuable natural resources. Likewise, it has been said that the Group's presence in Africa is likely to further destabilize the countries where it operates. First, because its transactional relationships with Sahelian governments undermine their legitimacy in the eyes of the population. Second, because the Group’s approach focuses primarily on providing security through kinetic means, neglecting critical aspects of counterinsurgency, such as strengthening the rule of law and promoting good governance. Indeed, experts have argued that the Wagner Group's approach may have yielded isolated short-term results but has ultimately failed to address the underlying challenges. Moreover, the absence of French airstrikes, which Islamists feared, has emboldened insurgents, leading to a significant increase of violence in Mali. Finally, the Group's human rights abuses contribute to grievances among the population, creating a fertile ground for terrorist groups to recruit new members. Studies have, in fact, shown that the Group engages in high levels of civilian targeting in Central African Republic and Mali, with it accounting for a significant portion of Wagner's involvement in political violence. 


The Malian situation has revealed the insufficient effectiveness of European-led CT to combat local insurgencies. A securitized and purely military approach has shown tactical success and has aggravated the situation by contributing to pushing local marginalized communities into the arms of jihadists. Moreover, the various strategies have been hindered by the unwillingness of local authorities to change their clientele-based political systems. This has opened new opportunities for other international actors such as Russia, which has fueled already existing anti-Western grievances. 

Wagner’s presence in the region has caused more insecurity but the belief that their aid is contributing to the fight against terrorism is emboldening the current junta. However, it is unlikely that Wagner’s assistance to the Malian army will be successful in leading a fruitful CT strategy. There is concern that the departure of EU allies could accelere the reconstruction of supply routes and fundings for terrorist groups in the region. Security experts are also concerned about the risk of terrorism spreading over neighboring countries in the Gulf of Guinea which have already been subjected to terrorist attacks attributed to JNIM and other al Qaeda-affiliated groups. The Sahel can be the next arena of competition for power, therefore future CT strategies should address the capacity of Sahelian states through a governance-focused approach and address the drivers of extremism. 

[1] Since the year 2015, Mali has experienced a continued upward trend in terrorist attacks and deaths related to it. This trend began with the 2015 declaration of a state of emergency in the wake of the Radisson Blu Hotel attack in Bamako.

May 15, 2023No Comments

The Case of Humanitarian Aid to Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

Authors: Arslan Sheikh and Réka Szabó - Human Security Team

More than 700,000 Rohingya - half of them children - were compelled to escape their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and seek refuge in the neighbouring district of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh due to armed assaults, widespread violence, and severe violations of human rights in August 2017. Although Bangladesh is one of the world’s most densely populated countries, it is currently home to the largest and continuously expanding refugee settlement globally. The settlement consists of over thirty camps and now accommodates more than 920,000 Rohingya. 

The Rohingya, a Muslim minority group in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, have faced discrimination, persecution, and violence for several decades. Despite living in a country where the majority are Buddhists, the Rohingya are not considered an official ethnic group and have been denied citizenship since 1982

The reasons for the statelessness of the Rohingya date back to the British colonial times. The reasoning of the Myanmar government for not providing the minority with citizenship today is that the Rohingya did not belong to the population of the state in the period before 1824, the first Anglo-Burmese war. When Myanmar (then Burma) gained separate administration from British India in 1937, the territory where most of the Rohingya lived, was not demarcated, and when then Burma gained independence from British rule in 1948, the Rohingya were subjected to exclusionary citizenship laws. This has resulted in them being one of the largest stateless populations in the world. 

The Evolution of Humanitarian Aid to Rohingya

The Rohingya refugee crisis from 2017 was not the first one in the history of Bangladesh. Multiple times in 1978, 1990s, 2007, and 2012, the Rohingya were forced to leave their homeland because of conflict and instability in Myanmar, and they sought refuge in Bangladesh. This means that the people and authorities were not completely inexperienced when the crisis broke out in 2017. However, the actions that took place in order to ameliorate the situation of the hundreds of thousands of refugees, transformed and became more organized and large-scale.

During the first month of the crisis, the support in Cox Bazar was spontaneous and came from Bangladeshi individuals, groups, and local businesses. They helped with money, food delivery, shelter, clothes, and other necessities. After this, more international actors in cooperation with the government, army, and UN agencies took up most of the humanitarian work in a more coordinated way. 

Several NGOs had already been present in Bangladesh since the 1970s and 1980s. These organizations, for instance, Save the Children Fund, Oxfam, and Médecins Sans Frontières, expanded their activities to the refugee camps in Cox Bazar. Several faith-based international NGOs like Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid are also present in the refugee camps. These NGOs provided tents, cooking, and hygiene kits to refugees monitored the construction of water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities, treated dehydration, diseases and injuries, and provided mental health counselling.

Bangladeshi NGOs, however, do not fit in the classical categorization of NGOs anymore as they have gone through transformations during the last decades and now local development NGOs are more specialized in private sector-related activities. For instance, related to microcredit or business development. An example is BRAC, which presents itself as an NGO but also acts as a social enterprise.

The Current Scenario

Despite the coordinated and large-scale efforts of the government and international organizations, the Rohingya in Cox Bazar still live under difficult conditions, with “limited access to clean water, food and basic healthcare”. Women and children make up over 75% of refugees and they encounter elevated risks of gender-based violence, abuse, and exploitation. A majority of the refugees taking shelter in the camps are minors whose future remains uncertain. 

These conditions exist due to several reasons. For instance, the so-called localization agenda of the humanitarian sector is not fully implemented. Without effective support and funding to local actors —and the use of their expertise —, humanitarian responses are impeded and unable to assure that the Rohingya receive the maximum support. 

The application of the localization agenda in Cox Bazar is also impeded because of the unsuccessful allocation and reduction of funding. Equitable and complementary partnerships between international and local NGOs do not exist either, due to technical and political reasons. For instance, Bangladeshi NGOs and their goals and values are often politicized. As mentioned before, the local organizations cannot necessarily be described as humanitarian which means that they cannot be held accountable for not operating according to the international humanitarian norms.

The decreased funding for refugees has increased their vulnerabilities concerning proper nutrition, shelter materials, sanitation facilities, and livelihood opportunities. Despite committed humanitarian efforts, 45% of the refugee families do not get a proper diet which has made malnutrition a severe challenge to overcome. 

Another reason for current conditions is political. The Bangladeshi government considers the influx of Rohingyas a security threat since they connect it with the possible growth of Islamic terrorism and political Islam, smuggling, and drug trafficking in Cox Bazar. This has led to the securitization of the issue, which has severe implications for the life of the Rohingya in Cox Bazar. The government forbade cash-based aid and limited NGO activities in the camps (some faith-based NGOs were also suspended, and the INGOs are also selectively allowed in the country). The rights of the Rohingya refugees are also restricted: they seem to have no refugee rights and are considered illegal immigrants by the Bangladeshi authorities. This means that they are not entitled to access work permits in Bangladesh, leaving them dependent on humanitarian aid. Currently, barbed wire fences surround camps to impede the free movement of the refugees. 

The crowded settlement and the fragile materials of the huts – bamboo and plastic – also fail to protect the people from the monsoon rains and fires at Cox Bazar. The last huge fire, which according to investigators, was a planned act of sabotage, took place on the 5th of March 2023. It killed several people and resulted in the displacement of 50,000 refugees. 


Currently, the government of Myanmar is not likely to allow the return of the Rohingya. If the government of Bangladesh does not provide them with workers’ rights and take steps to integrate them into society, chances are high that the Rohingya will be forced to stay in the camps of Cox Bazar for a long period. 

Authorities, international organizations, and NGOs, therefore, should aspire for more effective cooperation and the promotion of refugee rights so that the living conditions and prospects of almost a million people can improve. 

May 6, 2023No Comments

Turkey’s Election: The Earthquake, a Fragile Economy, and Why Erdogan May Win Again

Authors: Riccardo Bosticco, Miguel Jiménez, Michele Mignogna - Political Economy Team

In February, Turkey was hit by an earthquake that devastated the country. This sudden movement along faults appears to have brought to the surface not only a natural disaster but the policies of the incumbent president. Tayyip Erdogan’s rule was characterized by a period of rapid expansion in the aftermath of a previous quake in 1999; nonetheless, the increased power of the Turkish president has allowed him to deploy controversial economic policies which have contributed to the country’s to record inflation numbers. However, this growing control of all means may allow Erdogan to reshape the narrative and remain in power. Elections on May 14 will serve as a testing ground for this. 

Groundhog Day

Literature on natural disasters is broad, and its economic impacts have been intensely scrutinized. Among natural disasters, earthquakes take a particular spot, given their destructive nature. They represent adverse shocks that can affect the distribution of economic activity within a region and propagate throughout the economy via supply chains and trade linkages. Not surprisingly, beyond the inherent destructive power of each earthquake, the pre-existing economic conditions of the region hit may make the earthquake’s effects more severe. Hence, the economic growth of poorer economies with lower government spending and weaker institutions may take a more brutal blow from these events. Sitting at the intersection of three major tectonic plates, in the last three decades, Turkey has suffered two notorious earthquakes preceded by epochs of economic fragility. 

Back in 1999, an earthquake hit Kocaeli province near Istanbul with a death toll of over 17,000. The impact was magnified as a result of a preceding unstable economic period characterized by macroeconomic imbalances and external crises which hit the confidence of emerging markets, leaving the economy with modest growth and ill-prepared to face the earthquake. Although the 1999’s earthquake was lower in magnitude and occurred in less densely-populated areas, the regions hit were economic and industrial powerhouses, accounting for 7% of the GDP and 14% of the industrial value added. Furthermore, due to the linkages of these regions to the country’s main cities, the earthquake had spillover effects extending to an area accounting for 35% of the country’s GDP and half of the industrial output.

Despite these past events, the country has yet to improve its resilience against future earthquakes. As a matter of fact, the natural disaster that occurred last February brought ghosts from the past to the surface. The aftermath of the 1999’s earthquake appeared promising, with measures headed in the right direction: an earthquake tax was levied, and more than US $38 billion were raised to enhance Turkey’s urban resilience. Nonetheless, when the latest earthquake hit, causing damage that amounted to over US $34 billion and claiming the lives of over 50,000, some of the more than 20,000 collapsing buildings belonged to that wave of apparently earthquake-proof constructions

Tayyip Erdogan, who took office shortly after the 1999 incident, managed to renew 3 million housing units; however, much of the construction boom which has characterized his mandate could contain  numerous irregularities. To begin with, despite initial compliance with the government’s standards, construction developers managed to circumvent these initial premises due to poor monitoring and this, in turn, allowed them to cut back on the necessary materials needed to ensure resistant buildings. To make matters more dubious Erdogan accepted the amnesty program that forgave many of these developers for their millions of buildings’ faults. This happened weeks before the 2018 general election. It was seen as a popular move that enabled his government to reap the political dividends and to claim to have solved the housing problems for many city residents.

These facts and the latest earthquake demonstrate that the insufficient attention paid to natural disaster prevention in Turkey magnifies crises. Moreover, as shown below, they potentially contribute to economics that weaken Turkey’s finances and could make Erdogan’s position in the imminent elections more fragile. 

The Unorthoxy of Erdoganomics

As Turkey prepares for its May 14 elections, its economic crisis and inflation have emerged as significant campaign themes. Erdogan was already dealing with serious issues due to the country’s high inflation rate, the second highest in the G20 after Argentina. Now, the earthquake has made it a much more difficult situation. 

The currency poses a problem since Turkey’s central bank utilized $7 billion in reserves to stabilize the currency following severe earthquakes, encouraged banks to make derivative transactions on Borsa Istanbul, and increased the spread between Foreign Exchange and gold trading to reduce the demand for foreign exchange. After a string of unconventional interest rate cuts supported by Erdogan drove inflation to a 24-year high above 85% in October, it fell to 58% in January with a positive base impact and to about 50% in March. Projections establish that it should be around 35/40% in June, even if Turkish officials argue that due to the earthquake’s effects, it is likely to remain approximately 40-50%.

“We will improve the investment further with a structure based on a free-market economy integrated with the world,” the ruling party’s manifesto states. It aims to achieve a GDP of $1.5 trillion and an annual growth of 5.5 percent by 2028. In 2022, the GDP was a little less than $1 trillion. Consequently, the auspicious leapfrog is unlikely, given the projected $84 billion loss due to the earthquake (about 10% of Turkey’s GDP) and a devastated populace.


Recent questionable institutional and democratic changes can be considered to be at the root of Turkey’s economic problems and have allowed Erdogan to cut interest rates in the face of galloping inflation. According to someone, he has emerged as a political strongman since the bloody crackdown on the Gezi Park protesters in 2013. He has since consolidated further authority through a constitutional reform that changed the parliamentary system to a presidential one. He seemingly influences the country’s monetary policies through his control over the central bank, while technically still being an independent body. Three governors have been forced to quit in the last two years alone for defying the president’s unconventional requests.

All this may have given Edogan the opportunity to implement the so called “Erdoganomics,” the president’s alternative to neoclassical economic models, holding that higher interest rates raise inflation and not the other way around. In response to roaring inflation, Erdogan has continuously decreased rates, recently dropping by 50 basis points despite the earthquakes.

While casting doubts on economists, Erdoganomics also provides a puzzling issue for political scientists: why does the president continue to decrease rates despite the political fallout as the presidential elections get closer? Erdogan’s grip on the state’s institutions and the prominent position he has carved out for Turkey at the internal stage allow him more freedom to act according to his electoral needs. As argued below, the type of power system established by Ergogan could help him overcome the general idea that sees the economic crisis and earthquake badly managed.

Erdogan’s Grip on Power: Shielding from the (Un)wanted?

The earthquake crisis has added to the challenges facing Erdogan’s re-election, but the last word on the election’s outcome is difficult to predict. Two powerful party coalitions now dominate Turkey’s political scene. The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Great Unity Party (BBP) are now members of the People’s Alliance, which is being led by President Erdogan (AKP). The Nation Alliance, which unites six opposition parties, represents the majority of the opposition and is led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, also known as the “Turkish Gandhi”. However, a third group could be crucial to how the future elections turn out. It comprises minor left-wing organizations, but includes a political powerhouse too, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (or HDP), the most prominent pro-Kurdish organization, which, according to Soli Zel, the HDP will probably influence the election outcome with 12% to 15% of the vote.

Even if the earthquake mismanagement and Turkey’s economic turmoil blow a wind of change in Turkish politics, President Erdogan can still turn things in his favor. The President’s established system of power and influence can strengthen Erdogan’s rally-around-the-flag and help him win support. The national earthquake crisis has overwhelmed Turkey’s rescue teams, and the state has activated a level-4 alert, requiring international help. Despite the abovementioned issues regarding emergency preparedness and Turkey’s economy, Erdogan could still arrive safely at the next election. 

If opinion polls indicate stormy weather for the president, he could potentially extend the state of emergency to postpone the elections – the last state of emergency declared in Turkey, in 2016, lasted two years. Moreover, the from many considered illiberal power system shaped by Erdogan could give him access to defeat the opposition and stay in power. 

Turkey’s president has purged courts, law enforcement agencies, civil service, intelligence agencies, military officers, and the media while strengthening his ties with the loyalists. Turkey’s judicial system is not entirely independent. In December 2022, Ekrem İmamoğlu was sentenced to two years for “insulting public officials”. He was a popular figure from the secular center-left. Similarly, more than 100 politicians from the People’s Democratic Party, pro-Kurdish, remain trialed for terrorism offenses, the movement risking being outlawed. 

Erdogan’s media power can be considered disproportional: as a Reuters investigation found, in Turkey, “[t]he biggest media brands are controlled by companies and people close to Erdogan and his AK Party, following a series of acquisitions starting in 2008”. While social media could serve as an alternative to the politicization of traditional media outlets, they can hardly be exempted from delivering misinformation, an article from Politico writes. In fact, the government has taken a more proactive stance against them: “[w]ith a new controversial social media law, Turkish authorities now have the right to control and, if necessary, restrict online free speech in ways that would be unthinkable in any democracy”, noted Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute.

In addition to that, in two years of power Erdogan was able to bring society closer to a more conservative idea of Islam. While Turkey’s relationship between government and religion has always been in flux despite the Constitution not recognizing any official state’s faith, the current president has refueled Islam’s force. If the process provoked protests by secularized citizens of the Turkish metropolises, Erdogan was nevertheless able to consolidate his grip in the Anatolian heartland and rewrite the narrative around Islam as a source of political identification and ideology playing a more significant role in the era of social media. Beyond that, in the past, he has shown his ability to transform difficult situations in his favor. For example, when a military putsch was attempted at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport in 2016, Erdogan responded: “[t]hey will pay a heavy price for this. [...] This uprising is a gift from God to us.”; this episode can be seen as a confirmation of the Turkish de-secularization.

Thus, Erdogan may take advantage of the current emergencies pending in Turkey. His influence on the judicial and information system may help him rally the society around the Turkish flag, consolidating a pool of voters around the need to be united against the damages of the earthquake and a weak economy. In such a situation, Turkey’s foreign policy activity may also help in the president’s favor, not the least the war in Ukraine and Erdogan’s positioning as a mediator.

While opinion polls do not favor the incumbent, anything can be expected from the May 14 elections. Despite signs of illness registered recently, Erdogan has returned to the electoral stage in ‘thundering’ form and giving the impression that he will do anything to stay in power. 

April 18, 2023No Comments

By water or air: how drones are changing the face of drug trafficking

Author: Latin America Team - ITSS Verona

The ever-changing nature of the drug trafficking scene

The drug trafficking scene is ever-changing, with new actors emerging and a myriad of traffickers constantly adapting to the latest measures by law enforcement and exogenous circumstances. Amid the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, drug traffickers have adapted their modus operandi by increasing their use of the dark web and social media platforms to sell drugs, opting for contactless mail transactions and enabling payments through cryptocurrency. As a result, drug markets on the dark web are now worth $315 million annually. Still, many drugs –mainly manufactured in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia– enter Europe through sea or air cargo, with the illicit substances typically concealed in food, construction materials, and commodities. However, this is not to say that drugs are not trafficked in more sophisticated ways: both drones and narco-submarines have been captured by Spanish authorities in the last few years.

Indeed, record amounts of seized cocaine have been a pattern in Europe since 2017, as the region becomes a key trans-shipment point for drugs originating in Latin America destined for the Middle East and Asia. Europe, though, has not become the epicentre of cocaine just out of pure coincidence. With a saturated United States (US) drug market, the kilogram of cocaine is sold for $60,000 in Europe, twice as much as in the US. Moreover, Europe's appeal for drug traffickers is partly due to the lower risks of asset seizure. The large volume of cargo passing through major ports, like Antwerp and Rotterdam, allows traffickers to take advantage of the sheer quantity of shipments, minimizing the chances of being caught. Thus, while Colombian, Albanian, and Italian organized crime has historically dominated Europe's cocaine trafficking, new actors have sought to exploit these vulnerabilities to enter the European drug market. For instance, Mexican cartels, albeit starting with methamphetamines, have entered Europe's cocaine market, partnering with locals to facilitate production, trafficking, and distribution. Therefore, is not only local cocaine production increasing thanks to transatlantic partnerships between Latin American and European criminal groups, but also high levels of cocaine production in Latin America have entailed an increased drug flow entering the region.

In the face of increasing drug trafficking, the European Union (EU) and member states have taken steps to stifle/stop/impede the flow of drugs:

  • The drug monitoring centre: the European Union (EU) drug monitoring centre was granted an extended mandate.
  • The Dutch government vowed to invest €29 million to "make main Dutch ports as unattractive as possible for international drug trafficking."
  • A super-cartel was busted in November 2022.

Nevertheless, the stability of cocaine prices indicates that more is evading seizure and reaching the EU markets.

The ways drugs are trafficked are growing in their technical and organizational complexity. We do not know how long or often drones have been used to smuggle drugs. Their use, however, certainly reflects the adaptability and evolving nature of drug trafficking. Through air or sea, through submarines, cargo, or drones, drug traffickers are determined to keep their business alive and booming.

Smuggling by Air

Aerial drones are a tactical innovation by drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) to facilitate or assist in illicit trade. Denoting a learning competition, these technologies are used ostensibly to overcome and evade national and international law enforcement efforts. DTOs use these drones for various purposes, such as carrying small amounts of narcotics within and across international borders (i.e., air trafficking), conducting surveillance on law enforcement agencies, and guiding "narco-jets" full of cocaine into illegally established airstrips.

DTOs use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to smuggle drugs domestically and internationally. For instance, Mexican DTOs use multi-copters – small UAVs – to smuggle small amounts of drugs into the United States (US). For example, in 2017, a drone carrying approximately USD 46,000 of methamphetamine successfully crossed into San Diego County, where the package was to be delivered to a local contact. Similarly, DTOs operating in Morocco use various UAV types to successfully air traffic narcotics over the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain and Portugal. In 2021, Spanish police intercepted a large fixed-wing UAV operated by a French DTO attempting to smuggle drugs from Morocco into Spain's Sun Coast in Andalusia. At €30,000 to €150,000 a piece, this Chinese drone had a wingspan of 4.5 meters, vertical take-off ability, carrying capacity of 150 kilograms, maximum speed of 170 km/h, and could fly for over seven hours.

Beyond these UAVs' operational anonymity and cost-effectiveness, DTOs are using ship-based launching mechanisms to increase their operational capacity. This extends their air trafficking range and, thus, the number of trafficking routes. These developments, therefore, illuminate how DTOs are constantly adapting and developing new methods to evade detection and circumvent law enforcement measures.

Furthermore, these UAVs might also improve existing illicit drug trafficking operations. For example, an international drug syndicate in Australia used aerial drones to conduct surveillance on law enforcement. They attempted to smuggle 26 boxes of cocaine (worth USD 30 million) from Panama on the Spirit of Shanghai to Melbourne. Cartels have also used UAVs to guide jets full of cocaine into illegally established airstrips during night operations near the Laguna Del Tigre National Park in Guatemala. These shipments feed the northbound demand for cocaine destined for the United States. However, the sound of these drones alerts authorities to the arrival of these so-called "narco jets."

Therefore, despite UAVs seemingly improving our quality of life, they have also helped DTOs perform various functions to evade law enforcement. In this sense, the remote nature of these devices permits DTOs to operate them from anywhere, reducing the overall criminal risk involved in drug trafficking.


Smuggling by Sea

In recent years, drug cartels' use of submarine drones has become a growing concern for law enforcement agencies. As border security primarily focuses on land and air trafficking and cargo shipments, this new method of drug smuggling represents another innovative way DTOs avoid detection.

Submarine drones can be broadly categorized as either remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) or uncrewed underwater vehicles (UUVs). ROVs are tethered vehicles piloted by crew members on a nearby vessel, whereas UUVs are untethered and designed for largely autonomous operation without a human operator. Narcos generally use the latter ones since they can be controlled remotely from anywhere in the world.

Since the use of underwater drones is one of the latest novelties in drug trafficking, it is not straightforward to outline the phenomenon. What is sure, however, is that it marks the beginning of a new era in global drug trafficking. For instance, in July 2022, for the first time, Spanish police seized three underwater drones that were specifically designed for smuggling drugs across the sea from Morocco. The unmanned submersibles were seemingly capable of carrying up to 200 kg of cargo each, as reported by BBC News. However, this is not the first time that Spanish authorities have discovered devices created for carrying illicit substances underwater. Before the advent of drones, "narco submarines" were used to smuggle drugs worldwide. Spanish law enforcement authorities seized the first "narco-sub" in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Galicia in November 2019. Still, these types of underwater devices are used today. Indeed they have not been completely replaced by submarine drones. As a point in case, on March 13, 2023, another "narco submarine" was located off the coast of Vilagarcia, in Galicia. It was about 20 meters long and could carry up to 5 tons of drugs. In this sense, the interception of this vessel marked the third episode related to drug submarines in Spain.

Nevertheless, catching these underwater devices is all but easy. According to the US federal agency "Drug Enforcement Administration" (DEA), only a quarter of the vessels are intercepted. Based on this evidence, the percentage of seized underwater drones is even lower.  

For the sake of comparison, a critical difference between the two underwater vehicles is that the manned ones are significantly larger than the drones. Hence, they can carry thousands of kilograms of drugs. For instance, the first "narco-sub" seized off the coast of Galicia in November 2019 was able to transport 3 tons of cocaine. According to Corriere della Sera, the amount seized was worth about a million dollars. On the other hand, as specified by H.I. Sutton, an analyst specializing in submarines, the drone submarines found last July in Spain were made of steel with electric propulsion and were small enough to fit within a transit van, making transportation easy. Moreover, as reported above, they could carry "only" 200 kg of cargo each. Finally, what the two devices have in common is that even if they are commonly referred to as "underwater devices", in reality, both are technically semi-submersibles.

Legal challenges and regulations shortcomings

The use of drones has been greatly criticized since their spike in recent years, mostly for violating physical and behavioral privacy. They have been at the centre of international relations because of the rise of their misuses. Due to the lack of general awareness and regulation found in international and regional laws, drones have been one of the latest tools in the hands of organized crime groups. Needless to say, this surely violates international law since their use by organized crime groups represents a significant challenge for authorities. Legal implications for drones are scarce and not strong enough to tackle this new phenomenon that can only grow from now on. But what are the regulations in place now?

As drones are small and difficult to detect, it is complicated to intercept them. Not only that, but organized crime groups are also using sophisticated technology to operate these drones, making it highly arduous to track them down. Moreover, authorities are further limited by the laws governing this domain, with guidelines generally issued by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) internationally and by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) for the EU. Generally, legislation marks that drones need to be registered, their operators must be licensed, and their use must not endanger public safety. Furthermore, both agencies also divide drones into three categories based on the risk that they might pose. That is, the higher the risk, the more licenses and authorizations the operator needs to use them in the air and the water.

Recently the "U Space Regulation" adopted by the EASA in April 2021 seeks to harmonize the requirements for drone traffic in the air to mitigate air and ground risk and regulate all types of uncrewed aircraft operation. However, the guidelines issued by ICAO and EASA still do not provide any directive for law enforcement agencies to intercept illegal activities. As a result, law enforcement agencies have their hands tied: they cannot shoot down drones or interfere with their operation, even if they are being used for illegal activities.

In Latin America (LATAM), however, this regulation has yet to take place. That is, the region still needs to have a regional organization that can monitor drones and their activities. However, Brazil and Mexico are emerging as top countries in the usage of drones, with Israel being their main supplier. In this sense, in the region, most of the control remains in the hands of the military, with domestic and international law regulations being virtually non-existent. This scenario has, thus, created problems also for human rights advocates. Therefore, although considered a powerful intelligence and operations tool used by criminal groups, drones remain a highly ungoverned grey area domestically, regionally, and internationally.


Undoubtedly, cutting-edge technology - such as UAVs and UUVs - will play an essential role in the learning competition between drug trafficking organizations and law enforcement. Moreover, regarding the use of drones, the narcos currently have a significant advantage over agencies that combat this activity.

First, law enforcement agencies ability to counter drug trafficking drones is constrained by a series of laws and regulations. For obvious reasons, these same limitations do not apply to narcos. Then there is an economic factor, as criminal organizations, in some cases, have greater financial resources at their disposal than law enforcement agencies.

Indeed, drones are not capable of transporting large quantities of drugs, but their operational elusiveness and anonymity offer a seemingly unbridled challenge to law enforcement., an advantage that should not be underestimated since those who are arrested often start cooperating with law enforcers.

The use of drones certainly cannot replace traditional methods of drug trafficking. Still, it can play a fundamental role in capillary supply or improving tried-and-tested methods.

April 4, 2023No Comments

Germany and other European countries supply Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine

Authors: Alessandro Spada, Francesca Belotti and Januaria Gizzi - UK & European Affairs Team

Exactly one year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, both countries are at an impasse. On the one hand, Moscow has not obtained as many territories as it had wanted; on the other hand, the Ukrainian resistance has yet to make any progress in defeating Putin. This might be due to the lack of weapons at Kyiv's disposal. Indeed, until a few days ago, only lighter weaponry was given to Zelensky's troops to keep their line of defence intact. Unfortunately, a war cannot be won by playing only defence, so Kyiv has started asking its Western allies for additional support. In particular, Germany and the USA were asked to supply its high-tech Leopard 2 tanks, although, with initial insecurity, such a wish was finally granted.

The reasons behind the reluctance

The main reasons Germany was reluctant to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine are the following. The first one is certainly linked to the vast historical significance of World Wars One and Two. German modern-day leaders feel the weight of history, meaning that they feel a deep responsibility for the death of millions of Russians during the two world wars. Indeed, as the aggressor in two world wars, many Germans opt for a cautious line of being Ukraine's leading supplier of battle tanks. Moreover, this decision would be a further break for Berlin with its post-World War Two non-belligerent policy.

The second reason is related to German society. A significant segment of the population, particularly situated in the former communist German Democratic Republic, feels traditionally close to Russia and has an aversion to the values and functioning of Western society. Shortly before Christmas, 40% of Germans who took part in a poll said they recognized the Kremlin's justification to invade Ukraine, blaming the West for the eastward expansion of the Nato military alliance. In addition, according to a Jan. 19 poll, only 46% of Germans were in favour compared to 43% who opposed the supply of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.

The third reason is Scholz's governing coalition and even the SPD. The German Chancellor Scholz couldn't ignore the strong pacifist wings inside both major parties to its governing coalition, the Social Democrats and the Greens. Especially, many Social Democrats voters live in former East Germany, which has been more sympathetic to Moscow".

Another reason for such reluctance would be that the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, wouldn't have authorized any Leopard 2 tank supply to Ukraine unless the US government agreed to send M1 Abrams tanks.

Lastly, granting Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine could mean overstepping Germany's position as a mere weapons supplier and cause a military escalation.

The two sides' reactions

Ultimately, the decision of Germany to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine generated some reactions at the international level. How did Russia react to this decision? Can we consider this decision proof that the Western powers are escalating into war more than before?

From a realist perspective, we could say that Russia perceived this decision as a proper threat, which will most likely reflect in Russia counter-attacking or entering a defensive approach towards Germany and the West in particular. Hence, in a statement, the Russian Embassy said that the current conflict would escalate to a new level.

Western powers play an essential role in understanding the reactions. First of all, NATO utterly supported Germany's decision, making clear that it would help Ukraine win against Russia. From this, Russia's threat perception has significantly increased, allowing Russia to undermine the Western powers consequently. Interestingly, the position of Britain in this given context reflected on Rishi Sunak, the current Prime Minister, to underpin Steffen Hebestreit's decision-making. Thus, the British Prime Minister clearly expressed his position on Twitter by saying, "The right decision by NATO Allies and friends to send main battle tanks to Ukraine. Alongside Challenger 2s, they will strengthen Ukraine's defensive firepower," and "Together, we are accelerating our efforts to ensure Ukraine wins this war and secures a lasting peace.".

In a nutshell, the decision to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine was made to help it defend itself better, but it was not made lightly. The fears of becoming too involved in a war "that is not ours to fight", the weight of history, and the pacifistic forces within Germany's main parties were all weighed carefully before lending the peculiar tanks to Ukraine. Unfortunately, this is not the end of the conflict or the requests. Indeed, the day after the announcement made by the Chancellery, a new request for fighter jets was filed by Kyiv in order to switch strategy to an attack-based one. Western ally has yet to respond positively to a possible supply of fighter jets, but all remains to be seen. Will the West stand by, or will it contribute even more than it already has?

April 3, 2023No Comments

Mapping the European Defense Research landscape

Author: Iris Raith - Defense & Procurement Team


The war in Ukraine has forced the European Union (EU) fundamentally to rethink its stance on defence policies. While the EU is still, first and foremost, a peace project, it can simply no longer keep defence cooperation and innovation in the background considering its borders are actively threatened by increasingly undemocratic regimes. The EU has the means and the knowledge to become an autarkic defence power which will rely less on the protective umbrella of the United States, which has been in place since the end of World War II. A newly drafted agreement allowing for easier US-EU defence project collaboration already explicitly excludes joint research cooperation. The first steps towards more independent EU defence can be noticed, such as introducing the Directorate General for Defence industry and Space (DG DEFIS) in 2021 or creating the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in 2017. 

It is interesting to note the various developments that can be observed regarding research and development (R&D) in European defence, especially since most EU Member States have not invested in defence R&D until now. As such, this article will outline the steps taken in recent years to promote increased collaboration and cooperation to establish a leading EU-focused R&D related to defence. 

The European Defense Agency (EDA)

The EDA was created in 2004 to promote collaboration among the Member States' militaries. Nevertheless, the Agency has become quite active over the last few years. It supports joint projects to ensure the diversification of military assets within the EU. Moreover, it manages and coordinates over 140 joint development and research projects among Member States. Notably, the EDA serves as the joint Hub for the coming together of research institutions, universities, start-ups and established industry actors to encourage defence innovation. 

The EDA has a specialised Research, Technology & Innovation Directorate (RTI), which coordinates, develops and manages research activities as well as the implementation of the European Defence Fund presented further down. In addition, the EDA hosts a crucial activity in order to heighten preparedness for what the future might bring: it regularly conducts technology foresight exercises. The study of ‘futures’ has become an essential tool for researchers and policymakers despite being often neglected by the latter. However, the activity of foresight allows for educated scenario buildings, presenting a long-term vision of where technological innovation might bring the defence sector and security more generally. As a result, foresight enables policymakers and states, in general, to effectively prepare for possible ‘futures’. In the specific case of technology foresight, developing scenarios around future technological defence capabilities for the next 20 to 30 years provides defence actors with concrete, educated guesses to develop strategies and agendas. 


Institutes and Fora 

The emergence of an array of think tanks and research institutes specialised in European security and defence research has enormously contributed to multiple EU researchers collaborating and setting up policy recommendations and analysing possible future defence cooperation. It is also interesting to note that the 2005-established European Security and Defence College (ESDC), targeted primarily towards military personnel, encourages research cooperation by offering a Doctoral programme on CSDP and publishing an academic journal. This encourages experienced military personnel from Member States to have academic exchanges regarding best practices and their thought on CSDP. Moreover, renowned think-tanks such as RAND Europe and the Dutch Clingendael Institute have also established research teams dedicated to European defence and security research. 

One of the well-established think tanks already in place since 2002 is the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS). It was set up as an autonomous EU Agency tasked with supporting CFSP/CSDP implementation and knowledge production. It regularly produces insightful publications on timely matters, such as examining existing EU cyber defence policy and related suggestions for its development or the important discussion on the EU’s defence partnerships with recommendations for a more effective way forward.

Moreover, the EUISS is notably always present at an ever-increasing number of conferences and fora organised around EU defence cooperation. The first-ever ‘Schuman Security and Defence Forum’ was organised this year in March 2023. This has been designed as an event which will happen every two years and is aimed at providing grounds for discussion among politicians, decision-makers, military representatives and civil society representatives, all engaged in security and defence. This initiative represents a significant opportunity for a plethora of actors to come together, effectively establishing tighter cooperation to promote more autonomous and empowering EU security and defence mechanisms. 

Funding military independence 

A notable increase has slowly joined the above-outlined increased research regarding EU Defence cooperation in EU funding dedicated to this field. This is particularly important given that according to the latest EDA report for 2020-2021, only two Member States invest 20% of their defence budget into R&D, and the other 24 states remain well under 10%. However, a significant increase could be observed regarding Research and Technology (R&T) investment, reaching an aggregate of €3.6 billion in 2021 compared to around €1.7 billion in 2019. Nevertheless, the agreed-upon 2% benchmark has not yet been reached. However, the investment surge shows that Member States have acknowledged the increased role of technology in defence, recognising that investing in researching technology will ultimately improve the EU’s defence capabilities in a future of omnipresent technology. 

The European Defence Fund (EDF) has recently been inaugurated for a project period of 2021-2027 with a current budget of €8 billion to promote EU cooperation regarding defence technology. Incentives to participate in a joint collaboration between member states include the involvement of SMEs with a funding bonus awarded in such cases. It is important to highlight that EDF grants are solely awarded to projects in collaboration with at least three EU member states. This effectively encourages companies, state agencies and general defence actors to cooperate on a cross-border level, enabling them to lead more extensive projects. 


In conclusion, this article laid out the multitude of actors and initiatives engaged in enhanced research cooperation in European defence—these range from state-level collaboration on the EU level to research institutes and multi-actor fora of discussion. As can be noticed, a lot has been done in recent years, but the war in Ukraine has served as a decisive push towards a truly independent European defence sector. This does not mean that the road towards a unified EU army is now wide open. However, the efforts mentioned above show that EU Member States and the EU institutions have recognised that the EU’s security relies on ever-closer cooperation in the various defence sectors. Intensive research cooperation has the advantages of cost benefits, EU-wide standardised capabilities and increased innovation opportunities bringing together European minds.