fghan administration of President Ashraf Ghani suffered a massive blow when Chief of Police in the volatile Afghan district of Kandahar Abdul Raziz, a fierce opponent and bulwark against the Taliban was assassinated. The attack critically injured the Governor of Kandhar Zalmay Wesa creating a massive power vacuum in an already faltering structure of governance in Afghanistan. 17 years into the war in Afghanistan since 9/11,Taliban roughly controls nearly as much territory as it did before 9/11.
Sri Lanka and regional press was inundated with the narrative of an RAW led assassinated plot of the incumbent President and the global media spotlight honing on the disappearance and potential assassination of a dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashogi, a columnist in exile working for the Washington Post owned by tech powerhouse Amazon.com
Sri Lanka-India relations went from normal to an emergency mode within the span of 24 hours with reports that the Sri Lankan President has made remarks of a potential RAW backed plot to assassinate him during a cabinet briefing. While both governments have managed to minimize the fall out the political narratives are hard to control. All these are incidents of a world in flux and an international order being undone and yet to be remade.
Liberal disorder and toxic information
This article does not focus on the authenticity of the actual events or intend to take a deep dive on dissecting these events separately. Instead it is an attempt to build a case on the information disorder and emergence of powerful political events and narratives around them. The core argument is located on the correlation between global disorder and disinformation campaigns both undermines democratic societies, democratic values and emboldens authoritarian powers.
Authoritarian tendencies within democracies and established authoritarian powers have begun alarming campaigns of intimidation. These campaigns include disappearances of political rivals, rights activists, targeting is becoming increasing trans-border in nature and is fully exploiting the decaying institutional structure of the so called liberal world. Grace Meng, the wife of Interpol Chief Meng Hongwei who recently resigned under mysterious circumstances while in his home soil in China, claims he is no longer alive. Hongwei served as President of Interpol from 2016 till his detention in China operating from Interpol office in Paris. Reports from China claim that, he is detained under the sweeping anti-corruption drive led by President Xi Jinping.
The most alarming aspect of this tendency of disappearances, assassinations comes in the faltering of that Post World War II order as a result of indifference towards liberal values by the architects of the global system. Analysts argue that the liberal order was a guise to advance the interest of the American hegemonic project. Thus dictators and illiberal allies were nurtured and today the US is no longer able to control the monsters of its own creation. As a consequence the US is sounding alarm bells of how weaponized narratives are undermining their position in the world backed by academic, policy research and political statements coming from both aisles of its political spectrum.
Taliban roughly controls nearly as much territory as it did before 9/11
Meng Hongwei’s wife claims her husband is no longer alive
Prince Salman saw Jamal Khashoogi as a threat to the Kingdom
Last week Harvard University’s key think tank for International politics and security released a report titled, ‘’Can democracy survive in the information Age?’’ looks at weaponization of information and the increasing vulnerability of democratic politics and political processes. The report argues, key information technologies have evolved quickly over the past five years and been weaponized against democracies. The trajectory of data-driven technologies, including machine learning and other aspects of artificial intelligence, will increase the scale, complexity and effectiveness of adversary information operations’.
While Harvard University report looks at players such as Russia and Saudi Arabia, the US Vice President Mike Pence, in a landmark speech that was delivered at the conservative think tank, the Hudson Institute a few weeks back, in which he also made a remark about Sri Lanka being a military outpost for the Chinese PLA Navy, further mentioned that China has initiated an unprecedented effort to influence American public opinion, the 2018 elections, and the environment leading into the 2020 presidential elections’. He claimed that China wanted a different president in 2020.
Saudi Arabia and its trans boundary excursions
Ever since Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman started purging rival royals and engaging in an adversarial relationship with Qatar, his ability to target dissident Saudi nationals and any element of Qatari power is a classic case study to understand the erosion of liberal institutional safeguards in global politics.
The disappearance of Khashogi while visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul needs to be revisited with the focus of why such cases have significant international political implications. The question is how did Khashogi, a longtime close confidante of the Saudi Royal Family before becoming a critique of the regime became a prime target of the crown prince. He was part of the larger media operations of the Al Saud family and he had been involved in intelligence operations on behalf of the house of Saud. He was an avid supporter of the Mujahedeen movement which fought Soviet Union in Afghanistan backed by the CIA and was one of the first people to interview Osama bi Laden during the war against Soviet Union and cut his ties with Bin laden in aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
US Vice President Mike Pence remarked SL being a military outpost for Chinese PLA Navy
Indo-SL relations suffered mild crack after suspected RAW involvment to assassinate SL President
His relations with the house of Saud were soured with Prince Salman who saw him as a threat to the Kingdom because of his relationship and support to the Muslim Brotherhood which Salman despises and perceives to be a front that advances interests of his arch rival Qatar. It was in this context Khashogi flees to the US and begins his stint as a columnist for the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post since 2017. Thus the Saudi-Qatari tensions have led Saudi Arabia to pursue multiple forms of aggression against both regime critics and Saudis who are seen as sympathetic to Qatar, thus the inability to contain such acts of aggression is a further hallmark of the decaying liberal order and institutions. The lesser known incidents of Saudi operations in the information sphere should also be highlighted.
The University of Toronto-based cyber research establishment the Citizenlabwhich was instrumental in uncovering the alleged China-led Ghostnet operation in 2009 that targeted Tibetan nationals including the Dalai Lama online, recently reported on the increasing use of sophisticated spy wear by the Saudi administration. This spy wear has the capability to totally compromise an individual’s internet identity and devices enabling the Saudi regime to track critics of the regime globally, the spy wear known as Pegasus ironically was developed by the Israeli cyber weapons developer NSO Group.
Citizenlab report identifies how Saudi connected operator was able to use Pegasus to infiltrate and takeover the cellular phone of Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi activist and Canadian permanent resident. Abdulaziz is an outspoken critic of the current Saudi regime and he runs a political satire on YouTube that has more than million followers and thus has earned the ire of the Saudi regime. The report further reveals this same operator has monitoring targets across Bahrain, Canada, Egypt, France, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Turkey and the UK
Fallout from toxic information and global disorder
The most significant socio political revolution of the 21st century is the merger of cyber culture into the larger political eco system creating informational narratives that spread via social media with no or real need for accuracy checks or need for authenticity. Thus political processes that prevented catastrophic failures of governance are indeed undermined, the term global governance is now an outcast in the Trump administration’s lexicon. Countries like Sri Lanka riding in the midst of this turmoil should need a foreign and national security policy that has strategic communication as an integral aspect and pillar if we do not adapt soon to these emerging challenges as the two mini cases discussed in this article are destined to fly blind into the eye of the storm.
Author is the Director, Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS)