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SCO-RATS: Finding Common Ground against Terrorism

Mr Nikhil Guvvadi is Research Intern at the Counter Terrorism Centre, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • December 29, 2022

    As Chair of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation-Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (SCO-RATS) during 2021–2022, India repeatedly stressed on the destabilising regional and global consequences of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan. India hosted the council meeting of SCO-RATS in New Delhi on 14 October 2022, where the members of the group agreed to take joint measures to counter terrorist threats from Afghanistan.1 In its meeting at Samarkand in September 2022, the SCO decided to prepare a standard list of terrorist, separatist and extremist groups to provide an operational basis for effective counter-terrorism measures.2


    China, Russia and the Central Asian Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan met in Shanghai in 1996 and agreed on the ‘Agreement on Confidence-Building in the Military Field in the Border Area’ for resolving outstanding border issues and developing mutual trust. The Shanghai Five was renamed as the SCO in June 2001 with the addition of Uzbekistan. India and Pakistan acceded to the organisation in 2017, and Iran’s accession process will be completed in 2023. Afghanistan, Belarus and Mongolia have ‘Observer’ status, and the Dialogue Partners are Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, Nepal, Turkey and Sri Lanka.3

    The SCO also established an Afghanistan Contact Group in 2009, which was revived in 2018 to develop mechanisms for a “peaceful, stable and economically prosperous state, free from terrorism and extremism”.4 The commitment to tackle the ‘three evils’ of terrorism, separatism and extremism is part of the very first convention adopted by the SCO on 15 June 2001.5 The 20-year Programme of Multilateral Trade and Cooperation only came later in September 2003.

    SCO-RATS came into being with the ‘Agreement on Regional-Terrorist Structure between the Member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’ on 7 June 2002, pertinently after 9/11. Its working bodies are the Executive Committee (EC) and the Council, with the EC based at Tashkent, while the secretariat is in Beijing.6

    The objective of the SCO-RATS is to create a practical organisational, legal and regulatory framework for effective cooperation along with the member states and incorporate relevant legal acts into their practices and national legislation. The primary task of SCO-RATS is to maintain a databank and facilitate information sharing of terrorist organisations and individuals, aiding and abetting terror activities amongst the member states.

    The SCO-RATS’ capacity-building mechanisms include joint annual anti-terrorist exercises, cooperation between competent bodies, anti-terrorist structures, and border services of the member states.7 Targeted work also takes place in improving the interoperability of each of these national units. The group later agreed on dealing with the flow of narcotics and arms as drug smuggling is the major source of funds for terror outfits in the region.8 Border patrolling exercises between the member states play an essential role in this regard.

    The Joint Working Group of Experts within the SCO-RATS constantly works towards curbing online terrorist propaganda. SCO-RATS also works towards cooperation with international and other regional organisations such as the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (UN-CTED), United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Interpol, Eurasian Group on Combatting Money Laundering and Financing of Terrorism (EAG), Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Commonwealth of Independent States Anti-Terrorism Centre (CIS-ATC). An annual RATS International Scientific and Practical Conference also happens every year to further international cooperation against terrorism.9

    Regional Terrorism Concerns

    The attacks that followed the Taliban takeover by IS-KP on minorities, women and children,10 and the neutralisation of al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri through a US drone strike in July 2022 inside the Afghan capital of Kabul confirm the concerns of the member states of SCO and the world at large that Taliban’s continuing ties with al-Qaeda are now undeniable. IS-KP is an affiliate of the Salafi Daesh, whereas the Taliban is Deobandi. Both are puritanical but differ in their approach to jihad, takfir, and sharia, making them compete for influence. The rise of IS-KP during this critical phase of political transition in Afghanistan, challenging the domestic legitimacy of the Taliban, is not only a worry for them but a significant security threat to the region and the wider world.

    Terrorist attacks in Pakistan have increased by 51 per cent since the Taliban swept across Afghanistan.11 The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a jihadi-insurgent group that owes its allegiance to the Taliban, is a product of Pakistan’s fiddling with terrorism that has come back to haunt them. Therefore, the already porous western border has become even harder to manage. For China, East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) has been the only reason to venture into counter-terrorism and lead the formation of SCO along with Russia. ETIM is an Uyghur Muslim jihadi-insurgent group that operates in the Xinjiang autonomous region of China.

    Taliban has always been one to support, provide shelter, and assistance to those who belong to their creed, and to vouch for any assurances stating otherwise is a grave mistake.12 In December 2022, IS-KP attacked a hotel frequented by Chinese businesspersons in Kabul.13 Their growing presence in Afghanistan is sure to become a hurdle to China’s aspirations in the country. IS-KP undertook a suicide attack on the Russian embassy in Kabul in September 2022, where two diplomats lost their lives.

    Russia has always been the security provider in Central Asia through the CSTO, whose operational scope cannot address the root of terrorism in the region. That makes it even more important to improve counter-terrorism cooperation within the SCO.14

    The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) in Uzbekistan, and Jamaat Ansarullah (Tajik Taliban) are the major jihadi-insurgent groups in Central Asia. Recently, IS-KP fired rockets into Uzbekistan and Tajikistan from Afghan territory.15 The Tajik Taliban, like the TTP, is a Taliban affiliate that foments terror in Tajikistan with explicit approval from them.16 There are also fears that IMU might gain some ground betwixt all this chaos.

    Drug trafficking has been the primary source of funding for terror outfits in the region. It has become extremely tough for neighbouring states to control the outflow of opium-based drugs from Afghanistan.17 India is highly concerned about a spill over of terrorist activities to Jammu and Kashmir, where there is a rise in cases of drug trafficking. It is increasingly becoming a matter of concern in the socio-political scenario of Jammu and Kashmir.18

    Regional Geo-strategic Dynamics

    Central Asia as a region is vital for a more comprehensive Eurasian connectivity, and the region is what holds the SCO together. The organisation's membership now comprises all the regional powers, and increasingly the fault lines between individual member states are getting even more profound. The divergence of interests among member states is bringing a stalemate regarding matters of strategic importance, making it hard to move forward with any agenda at hand.19

    The admission of India and Pakistan as permanent members of the organisation in 2017 brought the political complexities of the sub-continent to the SCO table. Central Asia is part of the extended neighbourhood of India and its ‘Look North’ strategy. China’s ambition to become the sole catalyst for trade on the continent through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is at odds with India’s vision for the region, be it the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC) or the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India (TAPI) gas pipeline. Doklam and Galwan border crises have added to regional tensions.

    Russia too, considers Central Asia as its sphere of influence. The accession of a regional power such as Iran will also affect the organisation's workings, whose interests may sometimes not align with the organisation. These developments will potentially become a hurdle towards fruitful cooperation in Eurasia's increasingly hostile geopolitical and geo-economic environment.20

    Central Asian states realise the eventuality of geopolitical competition between Russia and China. India can anchor Central Asia’s interests and share its expertise on counter-terrorism from within the SCO framework. For India, the lack of geographical contiguity to the region makes a peaceful, stable Afghanistan free of terrorism and radicalism very important for transforming ‘Look North’ into ‘Act North’. Russia is preoccupied with the Ukraine war, and China is undergoing an economic slump. India can take advantage of the situation and ramp up its relations with Central Asian states through the SCO and address its Afghanistan Conundrum through its Afghanistan Contact Group rather than directly talking to the Taliban for the time being. At the same time, India can leverage good relations with Russia to help it manoeuvre through the China–Pak maze.


    The cauldron of rising terrorism and drug trafficking is a security threat to all the member states. The prospect of terrorist organisations that work against the integrity of India, China, Pakistan and the Central Asian nations finding a haven in Afghanistan is always a concern. Converging on counter-terrorism will help address those concerns and secure everyone’s geo-economic interests. Terrorism emanating from Afghanistan threatens the security and economic interests of all the member states of SCO alike, China’s BRI or any other initiatives by India for South-Central Asia connectivity and cooperation.

    SCO-RATS is the best-suited forum to address such shared security concerns. The addition of its relatively new members also has the potential to boost its operational scope, and it will only need to bolster its efforts on an already well-established mechanism. The new member states, can, for instance, be incorporated in border patrol exercises in Central Asia. They can take measures to create a joint anti-terror military structure. They can also work towards devising a de-radicalisation programme for Central Asia considering the common Turkic past and culture. The member states of the SCO must adhere to the ‘Shanghai spirit’, give up unilateral approaches vis-à-vis the Taliban regarding security concerns and must unite to tackle terrorism, separatism, and extremism in the region.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.