A guest column in this weekend’s Sunday Times looking at the question of lone actor terrorism and how it fits into perceptions of the threat picture at home. Given the work I have done on this topic, it might seem I am contradicting myself, but I think the point is that all of these threats have to be kept into perspective. Lone actor terrorism is going to be a growing priority (as the end of this year has brought into sharp focus), but when held up against the sort of plotting we have seen in the past (and might still face in the future), we are dealing with a very different threat and this ought to be reflected in threat perceptions. This aside, spoke to the International Business Times about ISIS’s year.

Stand firm, the lone-wolf strike is a sign of reduced terror

Despite isolated incidents of extremism, we are safer than we think, writes Raffaello Pantucci

The Sunday Times Published: 28 December 2014

The year has ended with a sharp increase in “lone wolf” terrorist attacks. A threat that had been growing for some time finally found its feet in 2014’s closing months with incidents in Canada, America, Australia and France as well as disrupted plots in Britain and elsewhere. Yet while it feels like the threat is on the rise and security services are working at full strength to counter the risk, we are actually safer from the threat of terrorism at home.

None of this is to say that lone terrorists are not a danger. Sometimes these individuals are able to summon the wherewithal to launch attacks that kill many. The Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik is the best example with his 2011 bombing and shooting campaign in Oslo and on Utoya island that killed 77 within a few hours. However, he is a rarity and most lone-wolf plots pale in comparison with al-Qaeda’s former ambitions.

For example, in August 2006 British police disrupted an al-Qaeda plan to bring down transatlantic flights with liquid bombs. But while the security services continue to worry about such ambitious plots, they are able to disrupt them. Plots involving lots of people mean communications and other activities that set off intelligence tripwires.

In contrast, an individual planning to stab a random policeman using a knife he already has at home is a hard target to pick up unless he has told someone else. And it is not always the case that the person he is telling will report it or realise what they are being told. This sort of threat slips under the radar, as in the case of the men responsible for the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby last year in Woolwich, southeast London, or like Man Haron Monis, the Sydney siege gunman, this month. In the first case the two attackers were hard to separate from the larger antisocial, but legal, community of radicals in the UK. The Australian case shows the difficulty of spotting prior to an attack an individual angry at society who adopts the appearance of a terrorist to express himself more loudly.

The real question, though, is whether we should react in the same way to these incidents as we did to the July 7, 2005, bombings of London’s transport system. The deaths of more than 50 commuters is surely more menacing to society than the death of a single off-duty soldier in Woolwich, as tragic as any loss is. Almost a decade since the July 7 bombings we are now facing a terrorist threat that is only really able to express itself in the form of lone-wolf attacks. And while such attacks will lead to great suffering for those directly involved, they will affect many fewer people than, for example, the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.

Abroad, it remains a different matter. As the year ended, the Pakistani Taliban launched an attack on a school in Peshawar, killing more than 140, and Boko Haram murdered dozens and kidnapped another 180 people in Nigeria. Terrorism on a large scale is still the aim but it is a goal that is increasingly hard to achieve in western countries and capitals. Instead groups push for their supporters to carry out attacks without direct communication.

Individuals who are part of networks, and who are launching attacks with terrorist motives and intent, become confused with deranged or unstable people who see lone-wolf terrorism as their way of joining a larger cause or bringing attention to themselves. However, while the attacks seem more frequent, the casualties at home are less. If work by the security services has managed to reduce the threat down to lone-wolf terrorists or deranged individuals then things are not necessarily as bad as they seem.

The concern caused by lone-wolf terrorism is understandable. The rash of seemingly random incidents towards the end of the year gives the impression of a rising tide. But it must be kept in context. Terrorist groups continue to want to attack the West, yet find it increasingly hard to do so.

The lone-wolf terrorists we have seen are a mix of individuals with connections to other terrorists (but little evidence of direction in launching their attacks), or socially awkward, troubled individuals who demonstrate little ability to do much more (in most cases) than kill or injure a couple of people and try to dress it up as an organised plot.

Terrorist groups continue to be unable to carry out large plots on the scale of the July 7 bombings, though they continue to try. In fact it is even possible that the hyperventilation around lone wolves is helping to attract more people to the idea and exacerbating the problem. If people notice that these sorts of attacks attract attention, then they might want to emulate them to direct some of the spotlight onto their own personal cause. The current lone-wolf panic might ultimately be instigating the very sort of incidents we are all worried about.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute

First of all: Happy holidays to anyone who is reading this!

A brief hiatus over the holiday period after a slowdown towards the end of the year for a variety of reasons, but will be hopefully back to more regular output next year. In the wake of Sydney (and subsequent events in France) had a spate of conversations with journalists about the phenomenon of lone actor terrorism, including for the Financial Times, Telegraph, Huffington Post, Newsweek and New York Times. The Guardian in the meantime solicited the below piece. I am sure (and know) there will be more on this topic in the new year, in particular as am in the midst of projects on this very topic in a variety of different directions.

The Sydney siege fits the new, confusing global norm: the ‘lone actor’ attack

How do we know if ‘lone actors’ are unstable individuals, or acting under direction from a group? Counter-terrorist planning will increasingly grapple with this question

theguardian.com, Wednesday 17 December 2014 03.31 GMT

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man haron monis

‘Isolated individuals who launch attacks using rudimentary weapons are difficult for security forces to detect.’ Man Haron Monis in 2011. Photograph: AAP

Lone actor-style terrorism is becoming the new normal. Groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State (Isis) have been pushing it most recently, but it has been a feature of terrorist narratives and strategic thinking for some time.

Isolated individuals who launch attacks using rudimentary weapons are difficult for security forces to detect using their traditional methods. The same factors that make it hard to intercept such individuals make it equally hard to know for sure that what is being looked at is a genuine terrorist attack, or a deranged person who adopts the garb of a terrorist to publicly exorcise personal demons.

Monday’s attack in Sydney by Man Haron Monis was an archetypal case of how confusing this picture can get. A clearly troubled individual tried to draw some of Isis’s brand and spotlight to himself, and ended up leaving the world wondering the degree to which he can be considered associated or connected to the group in any way.

Lone actor (the preference by governments is to not use the term “lone wolf” as it is seen as glorifying) terrorism is not new. Right wing extremists have long liked the idea, drawing back to Cold War thinkers who were keen to prepare America for the possibility of an invading force that would require loyal survivors to take to the hills to wage an undercover insurgency against invaders.

Initially developed under the concept of “leaderless resistance” in the 1960s by a US Army Cold Warrior called Ulius Louis Amoss, the ideas were further advanced by a Ku Klux Klan member called Louis Beam in the 1980s. For Beam, the concept of single man (or small cell) fighting units was a perfect way around the need to fight a strong and pervasive state – because there were fewer opportunities for security forces to intercede.

Moving into our current age of sacred terror, the concept of networks of extremists with few connections launching a global insurgency was advanced by an al-Qaeda ideologue named Abu Musab al Suri. He spoke of a group structured like a “system, not organisation” – whereby different cells had their roles, but did not speak to each other in any direct way, each knowing their job and role without the need for compromising contact.

Largely ignored by the broader al-Qaedaist community, his ideas were picked up with great verve by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap) who used their Inspire magazine to push the idea of a self-starting jihad whereby individuals simply launch attacks using weapons easily to hand against any target they could find.

In one issue they advocated people simply taking a jeep with knives welded to the front of it and driving it into a crowd of people. Track forwards to today and Isis leader Muhammad al Adnani gave a speech in which he called for people to “kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war … in any manner or way however it may be”.

As al Adnani put it, cause murder and mayhem wherever you are, without asking “for anyone’s advice” or “anyone’s verdict. Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military”.

While groups have long pushed in this direction, it is not clear how successful they have been in actually driving people in this direction. There has been a noticeable increase in lone actor style terrorist attacks whereby people launch attacks seemingly without any clear direction or command and control from a specific group. It is not clear that this is something that a group, like Isis or al-Qaeda, could really claim credit for.

In a British context, the first real lone actor terrorist plot took place in the form of Andrew Ibrahim, a troubled young man from Bristol who was reported to authorities by the local community when he showed up to his local mosque with quite serious burns on his hands. A self-proclaimed Muslim convert, Ibrahim had led a troubled youth dabbling in drugs, the rave scene and steroids.

At the time of his arrest Ibrahim seemed to be primarily making his money on welfare and selling the Big Issue. Somewhere along the way he decided to adopt the garb of extreme Islam.

Ibrahim spent some time trying to connect with extremists around the UK, while he would show off videos of Osama bin Laden to his friends. When police moved to arrest him they were shocked to find viable homemade explosives in his fridge, a homemade suicide vest behind his door and a well thought-out plan of the Princesshay shopping mall, which he apparently intended to target in a suicide terrorist attack.

With no connections or direction from known extremists, Ibrahim was the first in a number of cases in the UK where individuals launched seemingly random attacks in which they would refer to the language and rhetoric of violent Islamism without having any connection to it.

When prying into their motivations, often the appearance was of an individual who was angry at the world and was looking for some way to express this anger. The bright light of violent Islamism sometimes offers the best way to express this rage.

While we still do not know the full picture with Man Haron Monis, it increasingly seems as though we are dealing with a similar individual who is troubled and angry at society for his own personal reasons, and who saw the bright light of Isis’s brand as the best way to get his message out there.

The problem is that while he may have had no connection to the group, his choice of using its rhetoric and approach to express himself meant that his plot captured the world’s attention. A man, angry at society, quickly escalated into a potential terrorist incident, with potential links to Isis.

This both bolsters the group and the individual. Separating these incidents out and establishing how to properly respond to them is going to be at the heart of counter-terrorist planning for the near future.

With apologies for the silence, it has been a very busy and hectic time in a number of different directions. Things ramping up in many different ways for the end of the year, so am only now getting around to posting my latest journal article for my institutional home’s in-house publication the RUSI Journal. It looks at Lone Actor terrorism in the UK in the wake of the Woolwich attack, something that abruptly became very relevant again recently as a result of a number of disparate attacks in Canada and now Australia. More on this topic to come.

Over the past few weeks have also spoken to a few journalists, including the Los Angeles Times about the UK’s counter-radicalisation efforts, the Financial Times and Jewish Chronicle about the difficulties posed to counter-terrorists across Europe due to the free movement around the EU, to the Guardian about the ongoing chaos in Libya, to NBC about ISIS, and the Financial Times and Telegraph about events in Sydney and lone actors. On the other side of the docket, spoke to Bloomberg about the Silk Road Economic Belt and Li Keqiang’s visit to Kazakhstan, to Voice of America about Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive in the wake of the charging of Zhou Yongkang, and to the Associated Press and South China Morning Post about terrorism in Xinjiang. Finally, I was on the BBC’s Newsnight about the Sydney attack last night, which can be seen here for the next month.

The RUSI Journal article is freely available online here, and rather than post it on this site

A Death in Woolwich: The Lone-Actor Terrorist Threat in the UK

RUSI Journal, Oct 2014, Vol. 159, No. 5 

By Raffaello Pantucci

OBM RUSI Journal

Recent events in Syria and Iraq have shown in horrifying starkness the increased participation of British jihadists in terrorist fighting in the Middle East. In response, many have called for increased measures against home-grown radicals, to prevent them from travelling abroad to fight for the Islamist cause and, crucially, to stop them from carrying out attacks upon their return. Raffaello Pantucci analyses the difficulties of identifying potential terrorists among the many individuals who move within radical Islamist circles, and the even more challenging task of pinpointing those susceptible to self-radicalisation who could, without direct guidance, carry out dangerous acts of lone-actor terrorism.

Somewhat belated posting of a brief report I co-authored with RUSI colleague Clare Ellis looking at the threat of ISIS to the UK, and more broadly providing some comment on the threat from the group and what might be done to deal with it. Follow the links to read the whole piece. I also spoke to the Washington Post about Anjem Choudhry, Billboard about jihadi rap, the Daily Mail about the plot disrupted in London, and RIA Novosti about Syria and ISIS. Separately, I spoke to Eurasianet about the recent SCO Summit and the possibility that Pakistan might join the organization. Just finished a rather long regional trip, so more coming out on that topic soon.

The Threat of ISIS to the UK: RUSI Threat Assessment

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is well financed, well equipped and brutal. It is also a plausible threat to the UK.

Download the briefing here (PDF)

The group operates across large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, where the sustained conflicts continue to attract large numbers of foreign fighters. Official estimates suggest the total travelling to the region has now exceeded 15,000, including 500 from the UK. It is unclear what proportion has joined ISIS, though it is understood that a majority of these UK citizens have joined its ranks. This briefing argues that it is this community of foreign fighters that poses an immediate terrorist threat to the West.

As the UK joins the coalition against this increasingly dominant jihadist force, understanding the scale of the threat and the complexity of the challenge is crucial. This briefing analyses four key questions:

  • What is the group’s current narrative and interest?
  • How is this narrative being heard in the UK?
  • What would change to make ISIS refocus from its regional concentration
    to a global one?
  • How might a new ‘awakening’ movement be stimulated in Iraq?

This briefing provides an objective view on ISIS and some judgements about its current threat trajectory. It draws on a series of discussions held at RUSI, which involved internal and external expertise, to come to some key judgements on the group.

A new piece as part of a Room for Debate conversation on the New York Times opinion pages. This one looking at the phenomenon of radicalisation in the west and how to counter it. Honoured to be in the company of friends and distinguished academics on the topic. The surge in attention around Brits in Syria and Iraq has led to a spike in media requests and conversations, including the New York Times, Economist, Voice of America, Los Angeles Times, AFP, and Press Association among others. I also spoke to Voice of America about the Shanghai Cooperation Organization counter-terror ‘Peace Mission’ exercise last week as well as USA Today about the China’s attempt to use the new Silk Road Economic Belt to ameliorate the situation in Xinjiang.

There Are Ways to Address Radicalism Early

British nationals (and many from other Western countries) have been a feature of jihadist battlefields for almost two decades. Some are drawn for idealistic reasons – going to fight for a cause, defend a people, or for some religious vision. Others go for more prosaic reasons, fleeing trouble at home, or seeking redemption for a criminal past. And yet others are simply young people at a juncture in their lives where the idea of going to run around a training camp and shooting guns seems quite appealing.

Countering this complicated mix of motivations is difficult. Part of it is developing programs that give people alternatives in their lives. These are not dissimilar to programs to help dissuade people from being drawn to gang culture. Part of it is also countering the spread of ideas in communities. While the Internet and social media play a role in drawing people to think about Syria and Iraq and find ways of getting there, it is often through real-world interactions that they will meet individuals who help provide the push, contacts or motivations to actually go to fight. Communities need to reject such people, but in addition, alternative pillars within society need to be developed to provide voice to credible alternative narratives.

A great deal of pressure is often put on communities within this context – the expectation is that they will somehow police themselves and this will resolve the problem. But at the same time, the reality is that sometimes people within communities simply do not know what they are dealing with. Families find themselves dealing with children or siblings who are becoming drawn to ideas, but it is difficult to know whether they are being drawn to dangerous ideas or simply going through a phase.

A partial answer to this problem can be found in a program initially developed in Germany, now being introduced in Britain, where a special hotline is established within communities and provides people with a place to ask questions without having to resort to the authorities. Creating spaces in which people can ask about what they should do if a relation is starting to flirt with radical ideas, without actually having to report it to the police, offers a moment at which an intervention could be made. This is something that will be more appealing to people within communities who are fearful of destroying someone’s life by reporting something innocuous to the police.

Ultimately, the phenomenon of young Britons (or Westerners more generally) being drawn to Syria and Iraq is not one that is going to be resolved overnight. There will ultimately be no longterm solution to this problem until the respective civil conflicts in Syria and Iraq are drawn to some definitive conclusion. This will involve creative diplomacy and bolstering of regional allies, as well as a recrafting of the current status quo across the broader Middle East. But until this happens, the battlefields will continue to be a draw to a certain community of young Westerners seeking adventure, meaning and ideals.

A piece on kidnapping by terrorist groups for Italian magazine Panorama, a kind of more tabloidy version of the Economist. It basically makes the case for why paying is a bad idea, though I must say that I am maybe a bit more ambivalent on the topic than the article might suggest. I fully understand families and others difficulties in deciding whether to pay or not, but it is clear that paying does propagate the phenomenon. The counter-point would be if we didn’t pay, would people not get kidnapped? Maybe it simply make kidnapping an even more dangerous experience since it would in essence be a deadly journey each time. It is very difficult to know. This was actually written and published prior to the emergence of the James Foley video, and I have been doing various bits of media around that. More on that soon.

Guerra al terrore: ma è giusto pagare i riscatti?

Il rapimento delle due ragazze italiane in Siria e la decapitazione del giornalista Usa riaprono la polemica sui soldi versati agli estremisti in cambio della liberazione degli ostaggi. 
Un immenso flusso di denaro. Che va bloccato

27-08-2014

Guerra al terrore: ma è giusto pagare i riscatti?

James Foley a Idlib, in Siria, nel 2012

Credits: ANSA /EPA /Nicole Tung /Courtesy of GlobalPost

di Raffello Pantucci*

Vantandosi in una recente lettera con il collega leader di al Qaeda nel Maghreb islamico (Aqim), Nasser al Wuhayshi, numero 2 del movimento islamista nella penisola arabica (Aqap), gongolava per il fatto che «la maggior parte dei costi della battaglia erano pagati dai bottini: quasi la metà dei quali proveniente da riscatti. I rapimenti costituiscono un facile bottino, un affare vantaggioso e un tesoro prezioso». Per quanto l’affermazione di Wuhayshi possa apparire vanagloriosa, mette in evidenza le ragioni per cui il pagamento dei riscatti è qualcosa che i terroristi e i gruppi estremisti considerano un’attività fondamentale per la continuazione delle loro azioni.

Le organizzazioni terroristiche e gli insorti hanno bisogno di soldi. Operando in ambienti ostili, dove rifornimenti e fondi scarseggiano, il denaro è necessario per comprare cibo, vestiario e armi, per pagare le spese di trasporto e i combattenti, e per assicurarsi il transito in aree governate da signori della guerra e capi tribali che altrimenti potrebbero denunciare le attività sospette alle autorità. Le attività criminali come contrabbando o estorsioni consentono di incassare soltanto parte dei fondi, ma richiedono forti investimenti e un grande impiego di uomini. Mentre fare soldi con i rapimenti è decisamente più facile e veloce.

I gruppi armati sono sempre più consapevoli degli ingenti profitti che è possibile realizzare sequestrando persone di paesi noti per correre in soccorso dei propri cittadini, e puntano individui provenienti da stati più disposti a pagare per la loro liberazione. È un’operazione puramente economica, nella quale l’ideologia c’entra poco. I soldi ricevuti sono indispensabili per le attività terroristiche e si può tracciare la parabola delle varie formazioni a seconda della loro capacità di assicurarsi fonti di finanziamento. Così mentre il nodo attorno al nucleo di al Qaeda si è stretto e l’attività della rete terroristica è diminuita, quella di gruppi come al Qaeda nel Maghreb islamico, al Qaeda nella Penisola arabica, o Isis prosperano grazie alla loro abilità nell’ottenere denaro dalle attività criminali.

La situazione per coloro che sono prigionieri in Siria è sfortunatamente ancora più complicata, perché non sono chiare le motivazioni per cui i miliziani dell’Isis trattengono gli ostaggi. Stanno chiedendo soldi per rimetterli in libertà o hanno soltanto intenzione di usarli come scudi contro attacchi esterni? Ciò che è chiaro, tuttavia, è che gli ostaggi resteranno pedine dei gruppi che cercano fondi e attenzione. Il fatto che famiglie, aziende e governi alla fine decidano di pagare è solo un modo per perpetuare questo circolo vizioso, aumentando il numero di gruppi che guardano al rapimento come un’attività lucrosa.

Per interromperlo è necessario che tutti si rifiutino di pagare. È una decisione difficile da mettere in pratica, e anche difficile da fare accettare a famiglie e opinione pubblica. Ma è l’unico modo per chiudere la «fabbrica dei sequestri».

*Esperto di sicurezza e terrorismo al Royal united services institute (Rusi) di Londra

I had a feature piece in today’s Observer newspaper in the wake of the Foley murder this week. This time focusing on the online reactions amongst the jihadi twittersphere to the murder and putting it in a wider context. For some reason, the piece appeared in the Observer app and newspaper, but not online yet. However, the editors have generously allowed me to repost it here. I did a number of interviews around this as well, but many have not yet appeared online. One for the Sunday Mail has shown up and another for a Columbian magazine called Semana. More undoubtedly on this general topic to come.

Extremists preach to the converted and bid to provoke a global reaction

Observer screenshot_August 2014

“What a beautiful message to America!” said Qaqa Britani, a Mancunian jihadist fighting in Syria  in response to the videoed murder of James Foley last week. Agreeing with him, another British fighter using the twitter handle @muhajirbritanni proclaimed “Allahu akbar, the best IS video so far, a message to america, Masha Allah Allahu akbar”. While incomprehensible to most people, the justifications offered by these fighters provide a view into their thinking, one that while at odds with public opinion has a warped logic that sustains them as they fight alongside Isis.

It is not the first time that Qaqa Britani has found notoriety for posting pictures of beheadings. Earlier this month he posted a picture of someone holding up a decapitated Assad regime fighter with the declaration “another nusayri head. We strike terror into their hearts by Allah’s permission!” In a nod to the fact that he was doing this for an audience, he then offered an apology for the bad lighting, stating “sorry my camera doesn’t have a flash”.

A couple of weeks later, another British fighter, identified as former rap MC Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, posted a picture of himself in Raqqa holding up a severed head with the statement “chillin’ with my other homie, or what’s left of him”.

By highlighting that these deaths have been done in the name of their god, the men are pointing to the strength and purity of their cause. For them, the murder of James Foley was an act that taunted the world and showed their power and the relative weakness of the American government, which was unable to prevent it.

Others took a different reaction to the murder, falling back instead into spurious comparisons. One pro-Isis twitter account @abulooz22 said: “2035 Palestians killed….barely a reaction 1 American killed…..World on IS.”

A British fighter using the name Abu Abdullah Britani, who is linked to the Rayat al Tawheed cluster of Brits fighting in Syria who have been responsible for a number of gruesome videos that have attracted public attention, took a similar approach, stating: “A brother severed one body part and the world went nuts. A drone severes a body into a hundred pieces but no one says nothing. #cheapBlood.”

These kinds of comparisons are typical of extremist narratives. Seeing the world through a narrow lens of confrontation between the west and Sunni Islam, all they are interested in is supporting evidence they selectively find around them.

Most grim of the reactions found to the video of Foley’s murder was that of British extremists who revelled in pride at the fact that it appeared to be one of their number in the video. “Beheaded by a British brother! What an honour!’ declared Qaqa Britani, while Abul Muthanna, believed to be the account of one of a group from Cardiff, reacted to a question about the video saying “lol the bruddas went on a mad one here, that british brother allahumma barik alayh what a lion!”

For those fighting in Syria, the narratives they broadcast through social media are aimed at people who already agree with them, as well as provoking a reaction from the world at large. Their aim is to justify, and the more extreme the justification, the more likely it is to generate a reaction. In this way, their narrative becomes debated and increasingly brought into the public conversation. Suddenly their extreme ideas are being pulled into the mainstream.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies, Royal United Services Institute