The building that houses the Executive Committee of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure is in a walled compound in the center of the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. I had the good fortune to be among the few Americans invited to take a peek inside.
Since its official opening in June 2004, the anti-terrorism center, or RATS, has fostered coordinated policies and joint action on potential terrorist threats in SCO member states. It also has planned SCO exercises and organized efforts to disrupt terrorist financing and money laundering.
Like the US Embassy, RATS headquarters has its own housing and dining facilities inside the compound, located in downtown Tashkent. But unlike the American Embassy, I encountered no security after the lone guard waived our embassy car through the gate. The current executive director, who happened to be out of town during my visit, is a Kyrgyz citizen; the next director will be from China and a Russian national will lead the RATS Executive Committee in 2014. A couple of dozen staffers work at the RATS compound.
Accompanied by several American diplomats who helped arrange the visit, I met with three representatives of the RATS Executive Committee: Deputy Director Aleksey Krilov, Senior Expert Berik Zhusupov (a Kazakhstani national), and Expert Pavel Ostrikov.
Some American diplomats expressed surprise upon hearing that my request to visit RATS headquarters had been accepted, given that the several US Embassy visit attempts had been rejected in recent years. The RATS representatives stressed that “the SCO is not a military bloc” and that RATS focuses exclusively on terrorism and related illegal trans-national activities, including money laundering.
When I asked about RATS efforts to compile an integrated terrorist list, Ostrikov said that it remains a work in progress, adding that it focuses on organizations rather than individuals. RATS does not try to identify or eliminate terrorists; this is done by member governments.
Krilov, the deputy director, confirmed that RATS is having problems compiling an integrated terrorist list. “Each government defines terrorism somewhat differently,” he noted. For example, the Chinese government does not officially regard al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization. India, likewise, does not see Ḥizb ut-Taḥrīr as a terrorist organization.
Ties between RATS and other, Moscow-dominated security structures, including the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, are minimal, according to Krilov. RATS tends to cooperate most closely with a single national security agency from each member government, usually the one most heavily focused on countering terrorism. This is typically, but not always, the Ministry of Interior in any given member state.
The SCO comprises China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Observer nations include India Iran, Pakistan, and Mongolia and Afghanistan. The organization also counts Belarus, Sri Lanka and Turkey as “dialogue partners.”
The RATS staff is dominated by representatives from the three states that are the SCO’s biggest financial contributors – China, Kazakhstan and Russia. The three other member states contribute what they can. Krilov noted that all countries participating in SCO activities engage in RATS’ operations. Sri Lankan experts, he noted, have been sharing information concerning suicide-bomber techniques.
Among RATS’ top priorities is encouraging information sharing and harmonizing anti-terror policies. A recent RATS-organized conference, for instance, focused on ways to maintain security at large public events, such as the Olympics or an international conference.
When I asked about the SCO’s interest in working with the United States, Ostrikov explained that RATS’ legal mandate does not allow for direct cooperation with national governments that lack formal affiliation with the SCO. But indirect contacts can occur via SCO cooperation with the United Nations, the OSCE and Interpol, all of which have a major US presence.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, SCO member states are “paying increasing attention” to the Internet, Krilov noted. Every SCO country acts on the basis of its own laws and capabilities to counter perceived cyber threats, he added. In particular, each SCO member has a specialized Internet security unit.
Krilov also said that RATS has established an expert group to assess how to extend its anti-terror mandate into the realm of counter-narcotics operations. He pointed out that some terrorist groups are known to obtain funding by engaging in drug trafficking. RATS’ ability to coordinate counter-narcotics efforts is hampered by the fact that in some SCO member states the same agency deals with terrorist and narcotics threats, while in others, including Russia, there are two separate entities dealing with terrorism and drug trafficking.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.