While Hong Kong may have local sympathisers to violent jihad, effective plots almost always have a transnational dimension. Hong Kong’s East-West connections put it at a disadvantage. The HKPF can’t protect us alone.
I am certain the vast majority of citizens and residents living in Hong Kong are horrified and dismayed by the Islamic – Jihad inspired massacres that have taken place across the globe in recent years. Whether it has been bombs and machine guns slaughtering innocent people from Brussels to Bali, or machete attacks in Kunming, two fundamental points need to be understood by Hong Kong government and its residents. Firstly, no city or citizenry is immune from attack, and secondly, not every citizen or resident of Hong Kong is horrified or dismayed by these attacks and killings. In fact, there will be some who actively support global Jihad and the brutal, wanton killings that accompany it.
They’re out there, in here
The world has a shared humanity and Hong Kong is truly an international city, which is home to all elements of this humanity. For better or worse, this means Hong Kong is inhabited by people, admittedly a very small number, who embrace the views of apocalyptic death cults such as ISIS, Boko Haram, or regional Al- Qaeda affiliates such as Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia, or Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines.
While I believe the likelihood of a major terrorist event taking place in Hong Kong on the scale of what we have seen in just the last six months in Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Jakarta, and across a multitude of cities in the Middle East, Pakistan, and Africa is remote, the possibility of such an attack taking place on a crowded MTR, a pedestrian filled roadway in Causeway Bay, or Lan Kwai Fong, should not be discounted.
I am concerned that with Hong Kong’s preoccupation with all things Beijing, the population (including politicians) have a rather blasé attitude to the reach and capabilities of global Jihadists to bring death and destruction to Hong Kong. Hong Kong has numerous touch-points to global terrorism and, as we have learned from the Brussels attacks, items easily obtained in Hong Kong can be used to construct explosive devices similar to those used in Brussels and Paris. Terrorists, like people, come in all shapes and sizes, and the motivations that trigger support for a terrorist cause or action are rarely easy to spot or identify, especially if efforts are made to disguise such support.
Cross-border is the norm
If there are those living in Hong Kong who may be keen to join global jihad, a local police effort isn’t going to be enough to stop them. Indeed, it is hard to find a well-financed terrorist plot that doesn’t have trans-national elements.
During my career I crossed paths, on multiple occasions, with terrorists and terrorist organisations. I spent time in a jail cell (Ed. note: undercover) with the suspected banker behind a religious based terrorist campaign that spanned multiple continents and led to the deaths of hundreds, and indeed thousands of innocent people. When working covertly, I always tried to identify the agents of influence (Greed, Power, or Ego) that would allow me to ingratiate myself to my target by facilitating an outcome that played to that agent of influence. In this instance I recognised that greed and ego were primary motivators of the high profile businessman I was sharing a jail cell with, who clearly supported this violent insurgency that regrettably led to so many innocent deaths.
Following the Arab Spring in 2012, I travelled from Hong Kong to Eastern Saudi Arabia at the request of a Politically Exposed Person from the Arab world to meet a North African who purportedly had senior ties to recently deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The meeting took place in the private office of a leading Islamic Banking family. The discussion concerned itself with validating and relocating billions of dollars of gold and cash funds belonging to Qaddafi into Islamic Banks in the GCC. Unfortunately, the Syrian conflict was now in full swing and the Libyan gatekeeper to the funds was trapped in Aleppo. He was unable to provide the clarity required to commence recovering these funds. The very next day when I left Saudi Arabia, the US Senate Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations identified one of the associated banks I met with as being involved in terrorist financing and funding Al Qaeda.
In 2014, I attended Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, to assist with a multi-faceted investigation as part of the World Bank’s “StAR” or Stolen Assets Recovery Initiative. Senior military officers in the Ivory Coast had control of US $240M. The money was determined to be real and was packed and stacked in large metal crates containing USD$80M in $100 notes per crate and wrapped in the seal of Libya. I was introduced only as “Banker Bill from Hong Kong”. I purportedly was attending to verify the cash and to then negotiate the relocation of this cash into Europe. Before departing Hong Kong, I received USD $2M of Kidnap Insurance. I was also required to sign a Legal Waiver absolving the party that engaged me from doing more than paying $2M in ransom money, in the event I was kidnapped by Islamic militants.
After meeting with the military people controlling the money, I was able to determine that the cash in question did not belong to Libya, but rather was United Nations Donor Aid money, that had been taken out of the Central Bank by corrupt officials to facilitate advance fee and other “switch and bait” schemes. It should be noted that in the Ivory Coast and throughout much of West Africa, the Lebanese Mafia, which consists of Hezbollah and other Islamist groups, dominate the criminal underworld.
As provided in the examples above, the methods and people utilised to finance terrorist organisations and their operations transcend all borders, including Hong Kong’s. The capacity to monitor and connect the dots that link people and events together is of critical importance if Hong Kong is to remain safe from terrorist attacks. Big data analytics, ideally with predictive capabilities, combined with cyber and human intelligence gathering skills, is absolutely essential if Hong Kong is to thwart any future attack.
Hong Kong Limited
The challenge for Hong Kong is that it is only a city. Hong Kong is not a country with the full resources of a fully integrated national security establishment. Hong Kong simply does not have the resources to gather intelligence or do threat assessments against a backdrop of global Jihad. More challengingly, Hong Kong operates somewhat in a “no-man’s land” when it comes to the dissemination of intelligence, precisely because it has one foot in China and one foot in the West. Hong Kong is part of China full stop. Western intelligence agencies who are gathering intelligence on terrorists and their global networks will be cautious on what information is shared with Hong Kong authorities as they will be very careful not to disclose how or where they obtained that information, for fear that it would be passed on to Chinese security services who may then get a better understanding of methods used by Western intelligence agencies to gather information. Clearly, Hong Kong did not do itself any favours in its handling of the Edward Snowden situation vis-à-vis- the Five Eyes intelligence alliance.
From China’s perspective, they have a state security apparatus that is highly skilled. China utilises technology and cyber capabilities that rival any country on earth. Islamic unrest and jihad spreading to China is of great concern and so China is using its security establishment to identify terrorist threats against China and its citizens. While China has the means to gather intelligence abroad, they too will be reluctant to share their best information gathering technologies with Hong Kong Police, for the very simple reason that they do not fully trust that this information would not be passed on to Western intelligence services. This creates a security conundrum for Hong Kong. There is zero doubt that in the event information was learned of an imminent threat against Hong Kong, China, or a Western country, regardless of which country identified the threat, it would be shared to prevent any loss of innocent lives.
Independence isn’t secure
The harsh truth for those who reject Beijing’s role as the ultimate head of government for Hong Kong, is that these critics lack the ability and means to implement the security and public safety infrastructure that only China can provide. I live with my family in Hong Kong fully accepting that Hong Kong is part of China. I also fully expect that China will use the full weight of its resources to keep all Chinese territory safe, including Hong Kong. ISIS inspired terrorist attacks are not truly a national security threat in the sense they will not succeed in taking over a modern state and overthrowing its government. Terrorism is however a major public security threat and national governments have an obligation to use all the tools at their disposal to protect their citizens and their nation.
Hong Kong has within its borders a significant diaspora that originates from, or has links to source countries of terrorism. Apart from the export of terrorists to support Jihad, some of these overseas communities export a virulent thought process that if not effectively monitored and countered, can lead to intergenerational violence as we are now seeing in Europe. Hong Kong Police alone do not have the resources to meet this threat matrix. I believe rather than running from Chinese State Security, Hong Kong should be asking what more can Beijing do to ensure the evil of terrorism does not spread to Hong Kong. I am not suggesting Hong Kong should turn into a police state or have secret police around every corner so they can stifle free speech or the lawful right of assembly or protest, but equally we should not be intimidated by the proper function of a comprehensive and diligent state security apparatus, even if by necessity it must sometimes work independently of the Hong Kong Police and Government.
I agree it is pleasant to imagine a world the way we would like it to be, but my experience, which includes collecting real scar tissue, tells me that wishful thinking and loud voices will amount to nothing when body parts are being collected along Queens Road. I am an unapologetic advocate for China pouring security resources into Hong Kong to ensure the safety and well being of Hong Kong as the world faces a deadly asymmetrical threat, that has quickly become an emerging global reality.