A new review essay for my home institution RUSI’s own RUSI Journal. It covers a series of books written by three different individuals who managed to penetrate different parts of al Qaeda on behalf of security forces, and lived to tell their tales. The books are written with journalists and are all a good read – for different reasons in each case. I particularly enjoyed the pacey nature of Morten Storm’s account which ducks and weaves around al Qaeda globally, as well as the detailed and deeply personal look at some of the history around Finsbury Park Mosque that I had covered in my book in Reda Hassaine’s (that one would have been useful while I was working on the book I  should add, in fact Morten Storm’s as well given the interesting revelations about some historical cases like Hassan Tabbakh), while Mubin Shaikh’s is a very personal and emotional read. The point of the review was both to try to explore the particular cases and stories, but also more generally the phenomenon of these men who are drawn to serve in this dangerous role. The article is behind a paywall, but can be accessed here, and I have pasted the first few paragraphs below. If you cannot access it, do get in touch and I can see what I might do to help. This aside, been doing bits of talking to the media, but been travelling a lot too. So far, can only find some comments I made to Voice of America on the recent Tunisia attacks and the New Scientist on online radicalisation.

Radicalism and Terrorism

Raffaello Pantucci reviews

Agent Storm: My Life Inside al-Qaeda
By Morten Storm with Tim Lister and Paul Cruickshank

and

Abu Hamza: Guilty; The Fight Against Radical Islam
By Réda Hassaïne and Kurt Barling

and

Undercover Jihadi: Inside the Toronto 18 – Al Qaeda Inspired, Homegrown Terrorism in the West
By Anne Speckhard and Mubin Shaikh

Paranoia, fantasy, omniscience and glory are a combustible mix of emotions. Stoked by handlers keen to advance their own goals, this list provides a snapshot insight into the mindset driving individuals who choose to become undercover agents. Drawn into action through disaffection, a sense of need to improve the world around them or through manipulation by others, they have repeatedly played key roles in the War on Terror. At the heart of almost every disrupted plot is an undercover agent. The three books under review tell a clutch of these tales, exposing the seamy side of the intelligence war against Al-Qa’ida.
The agents at the heart of these tales all became undercover agents through different routes and at different times, though the enemy remains, broadly speaking, the same throughout. Morten Storm (an agent for Danish, British and American intelligence) and Mubin Shaikh (an agent for Canadian authorities) were drawn towards Al-Qa’idist ideology in Europe and Canada respectively in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This marked the beginning of their struggle to counter Al-Qa’ida and its offshoots from within. For Morten Storm this was the beginning of a globetrotting life focused on Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Shabaab and their European contacts, while for Mubin Shaikh it was the entry point into an immersion into Canada’s radicalised community. In contrast, Réda Hassaïne (who worked for Algerian, French and British services) was coerced into the world of espionage and counter-terrorism by a manipulative and brutal Algerian state that saw the young journalist and sometime political activist as a useful tool to be used and disposed of at will. All three had begun with little intention of becoming agents, but after being drawn into radical milieus, found themselves being targeted by security agencies.

A new piece for my institutional home RUSI, looking at something I have been wondering about for a while, which is whether there is anything to be learned from the fact that the flow of foreign fighters between the two places seems to be the same stream. It is something worth a deeper study than this, but look forward to hearing people’s reactions to this stab at the topic.

From Al-Shabaab to Daesh

RUSI Analysis, 23 Jun 2015

By Raffaello Pantucci, Director of International Security Studies

Following the announcement of British deaths in Iraq and Somalia, it has become clear that foreign fighters are attracted to various battlefields. However, there has been a noticeable shift away from Somalia to Syria/Iraq in travel patterns from the UK. Understanding why and how this has taken place might offer some ideas for how to stifle some of the attraction of Syria and Iraq.

ISIS convoy

Thomas Evans’s death fighting against Kenyan forces in Lamu the same weekend that it was revealed that Talha Asmal was involved in a suicide bombing in Iraq reminds us once again that Syria/Iraq is not the only battlefield drawing British foreign fighters. There has always been a curious connection between the Somali and Levantine battlefields, with both conflicts proving able to project a global narrative that appealed to excitable young Britons. However, over time, Somalia’s attraction has shrunk while Syria and Iraq’s has grown: it is therefore an interesting question to try to understand this shift better to see if there are policy lessons that can be learned to counter Daesh’s current draw.

Al-Shabaab’s draw

Emerging from the ashes of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) Al-Shabaab was an organization that had a strong link to the Al Qa’ida cell operating in East Africa (AQEA). Led by prominent jihadists Saleh Ali Nabhan Saleh and Fazul Mohammed, the AQEA cell was a key draw and conduit for Western fighters going to the Horn of Africa. Amongst those who went was Bilal el Berjawi, a Lebanese West Londoner who, alongside his close childhood friend Mohammed Sakr, ended up fighting alongside the group before both were killed in drone strikes. They were both were young men brought up in West London and excited by the narratives of global struggle and jihad that had most prominently taken root in East Africa in the mid-to-late 2000s. Al-Shabaab had managed to show itself as a key point in the global struggle championed by Al- Qa’ida and, as Afghanistan/Pakistan became harder to travel to, Somalia offered itself as an alternative location with a strong link to Al-Qa’ida core. At the same time, the popular radical preacher Anwar al Awlaki championed Al-Shabaab’s fight from his base in Yemen, amplifying its attraction to the young international warriors.

And for a brief while, Somalia was the big draw to excitable young men and women seeking the glories of jihad in foreign fields. The group would release videos with good production values venerating their dead or re-playing their battles using actors and graphics reminiscent of Hollywood productions. They were even active online (with some who still are now), with their warriors taking to Twitter to communicate with the world and spread ideas, videos and information. All of which is very reminiscent of what ISIS and the battlefield in Syria and Iraq are currently producing.

Shifting networks

It is therefore not that surprising that over time it was observable that the networks sending people to Somalia started to show up in the background stories of those going to fight in Syria. Repeated videos and narratives have emerged in which tales tell of people finding Somalia too difficult and instead turning to Syria. Mohammed Emwazi is the most prominent example of this, who first tried to go to East Africa, but instead ended up in Syria after getting turned back. Others include dead West Londoners like Mohammed el Araj or Choukri Ellekhfi, who came from the same networks that had produced Bilal el Berjawi and Mohammed Sakr. Up in North London, a group that included TPIM absconders Ibrahim Magag and Mohammed Ali Mohammed started off sending people to Somalia and Afghanistan, to more recently helping people go fight in Syria. On the continent of Europe, a network sending people from Belgium to Somalia also ended up re-directing fighters to Syria. In many ways, Thomas Evans’ death is a left over from this earlier time when Somalia was the main conflict and he seems to have simply been one of the few Brits still left fighting out there, as the fight in the Levant slowly became the biggest draw for those seeking jihadi battlefields.

Lessons Learned?

The key policy question here is why did Somalia start to lose its appeal? And are there lessons that can be learned from that experience that might help with Daesh and the appeal of Syria and Iraq? In this light, four aspects are worth considering.

First, sometime in 2011, Al-Shabaab started to undergo internal ructions. Different factions vied for control, leading to others getting killed off. There was widespread belief that Bilal el Berjawi’s death, for example, was the product of these internal tensions, and other prominent foreigners were believed to have been felled in similar ways. The result was to scare some foreign fighters off as they saw prominent contacts getting killed and Al Shabaab turning it on itself.

Second, the conflict in Somalia was always a difficult one to get to. Direct flights to Somalia are hard to get, and even getting to neighbouring countries does not make it easy to get to Shabaab’s camps. Over time, this became harder as regional security forces focused ever more on foreigners travelling to neighboring countries with the intention of trying to get into Somalia.

Third, over time, it became increasingly obvious that Al-Shabaab was losing territory and land. No longer able to project an image of success and ruling territory, the narrative around the conflict instead became of internal struggles, a group on the run and headlines about strikes taking out key leaders.

Fourth, the conflict in Syria took off in late 2011 and soon after that became the brightest light on the jihadi map. Over time, this slowly sucked all the air out of other fields and when taken in conjunction with the previous points, made Syria overall far more attractive than what was going on in Somalia.

The lessons learned are blunt. An unstable conflict in which groups are under substantial external pressure is one that is less attractive to the foreign warriors. Difficulty in getting to the field, a fractured leadership and a narrative of failure is important in reducing the groups’ appeal. Media output – which Al-Shabaab continues to produce with high production values, but no longer attracts attention – is not the key factor. This is important to consider in the sometimes excessive focus on online activity as the key aspect of Daesh that needs countering. In fact, more traditional responses of making life difficult for groups to operate is in fact key in stemming growth. Daesh needs to be seen to be losing and fracturing on the ground before it loses its appeal to the foreign warriors drawn to fight alongside it.

 

Alongside Qingzhen Chen, a former RUSI colleague, I have a piece in the latest edition of ECFR’s China Analysis journal. This looks at the geopolitical risks that Chinese scholars and experts have identified in the ambitious ‘one belt, one road’ strategy that they have been trumpeting around the world. The piece is freely accessible, but a bit too complicated to repost here, so please follow this link to it in its entirety. I have posted below the Chinese pieces that it draws upon as well as the first paragraph which lays out the questions it focuses on (after that it becomes very difficult because of all the footnotes!). China_analysis_belt_cover

The Geopolitical Roadblocks

by Raffaello Pantucci and Qingzhen Chen

Sources: Zhang Yunling, “Analysis says One Belt One Road Faces Five Challenges,” Xiaotang Caizhi, 23 March 2015.

Tang Yiru, “Where does the money come from for the One Belt One Road? Geopolitical risks cannot be ignored,” Guoji Jinrong Bao, 9 February 2015.

Hu Zhiyong, “How to understand the political risks of ‘One Belt One Road’”, Aisixiang, 2 March 2015.

Jia Qingguo, “A number of issues that the OBOR urgently needs to clarify and prove,” Aisixiang, 24 March 2015.

Ge Jianxiong, “The History of One Belt One Road is misunderstood,” Financial Times (Chinese version), 10 March 2015.

Pang Zhongying, “One of the resistances to the One Belt One Road is from India,” Aisixiang, 4 March 2015.

Chinese authorities – and authors selected here – describe China’s “One Belt, One Road” (一带一路, yidai yilu, hereafter OBOR) strategy as one of the most important foreign policy initiatives in the twenty-first century, and Chinese authors agree. Across the country (and, increasingly, across the world), Chinese universities and research institutions are conducting projects to explore how the vision might be implemented. Meanwhile, China’s leadership is offering economic incentives to help make the vision a reality, either through bilateral connections or through the new constellation of multilateral international financial institutions that China is developing.38 However, Chinese comments also reflect that the strategy will have to overcome many challenges. Is Chinese business ready to go global? Are the countries along the routes ready to embrace the initiative? How much does China know about the countries involved and about how they will be changed by Chinese investment? And is China properly prepared to implement this strategy?

Another short op-ed in between longer pieces of work, this time for Reuters looking at the China-India-Pakistan trilateral relationship and all its complexities. Reflects a number of views I heard on recent trips to all three capitals.

Untangling the web of India, China and Pakistan diplomacy

By Raffaello Pantucci
May 25, 2015

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters)

On the eve of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China, Xinhua published a rare opinion piece by his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif. The obvious choreography of the visit and article shows the delicate balance in relations between China, India and Pakistan.

For Beijing, both powers are important if it is to realize its ambitious strategy of trade and economic corridors emanating from the Middle Kingdom under the rubric of the Silk Road Economic Belt. For current governments in Islamabad and New Delhi, Beijing’s economic miracle offers a way of helping develop their economies. Yet we are some way off before this trilateral relationship will be able to live up to its potential as the economic powerhouse at the centre of Asia.

Islamabad reaped substantial benefits from President Xi Jinping’s delayed visit to Pakistan. The formalization of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to the tune of $46 billion signalled a major investment by China into Pakistan’s future (even if one takes a skeptical view that the money was repackaged old deals and multiple-year contracts conflated for a public announcement).

The current outline for the CPEC is a multistage strategy starting with the development of Pakistan’s parlous energy infrastructure and the redevelopment of its road, rail and pipeline network. A series of economic zones will be established along the CPEC route in Pakistan to attract industry that is finding itself increasingly priced out of Chinese markets. As envisaged, the corridor will not only open up China’s western regions to the seas through Gwadar Port, but also create a latticework of prosperity across Pakistan.

India has traditionally seen a close China-Pakistan relationship as a source of concern. Seeing it as a relationship that is built on the foundations of anti-Indian sentiment, hawks in New Delhi are concerned by this proximity. But the new government of Narendra Modi has appeared willing to open up a new conversation with Beijing, one that tries to look beyond these historical tensions to build stronger economic ties, resolve long-standing border disputes and helps reshape the global order to the advantage of the two Asian giants. China has also offered a direct link to India in one of the numerous trade corridors it is pushing out from Beijing — in the form of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor.

But underlying these optimistic perspectives are a number of fundamental problems, the most central of which is regional security. In the context of CPEC, security in Pakistan (in the form of growing sectarianism, terrorism, as well as separatists in Baluchistan) and in neighbouring Afghanistan pose major threats to the route. And while India may be interested in the BCIM as a potential concept, it remains concerned about encirclement by China through the Maritime Silk Road and the network of relationships China is building in the Indian Ocean as well as the ongoing border tensions in Ladakh. India has continued to keep China out of SAARC and Modi’s Project Mausam is a direct pushback to China’s maritime strategy, in contrast to the country’s willingness to engage on the BRICS Bank, AIIB and to work on joint projects in Iran.

And bringing the trilateral complexity of these relationships into focus are incidents like theattack on the Park Palace Hotel in Kabul. While it remains unclear what the ultimate target was, the potential presence of the Indian Ambassador and Indian casualties immediately painted the incident as part of the shadow war between Pakistani intelligence and the Taliban on the one side, and Afghan intelligence and their Indian supporters on the other. Such incidents stoke paranoia on all sides and complicate efforts to try to forge a regional peace and stability.

The China-India-Pakistan trilateral relationship is a complicated one. All three need each other to succeed, but do not believe this to be the case, remaining fiercely independent in their outlooks and jealous when the other two appear to be moving closer together. On the one hand, China has the potential to act as an honest broker, offering economic investment to all while trying to help offer a platform for discussions. But in reality, China wants no part of a situation where it ends being responsible for brokering peace in such a fractious part of the world, and it continues to take advantage of opportunities to assert its dominance over its Asian neighbours. For India and Pakistan, history continues to be stuck in the legacies of partition.

Yet this is a trio of countries that together account for about a third of the world’s population and where future prosperity is likely to come from. The danger at the moment is the assumption that economic development and prosperity will resolve everything and is the goal that needs to be achieved for regional stability. In reality, all three powers need to shed their historical legacies, and find ways of ending the paranoid tensions that underlie their global outlooks. Until this has been achieved, the CPEC, BCIM and any other regional economic framework will be undermined and no long-term stability will be found in the heart of South Asia.

 

I am travelling and working on various projects which is impeding my productivity and ability to post. A few pieces to come this next week hopefully though. This one is an op-ed for the EU Observer, somewhere I used to write more frequently for but I like to hope gives me an hearing in Brussels. At its base, the idea of the piece is to try to raise awareness of China’s Silk Road Economic Belt in Brussels where so far it has not quite taken off. A Chinese friend pointed out it was translated into Mandarin, while I also see that the Russian press has picked it up. Not sure what I should read into that. More on this topic undoubtedly to come.

Europe: The other end of China’s Silk Road

I'm preparing for my trip to China and when I bought the currently I was a little surprised to see that Mao is still on the Yuan notes.  Hmm. I took some detail shots of the money as well - I always enjoy seeing the currency of different countries.  This shot was taken with my 100mm Macro f/2.8 IS.  Flash fired remotely with a poverty wizard to add sidelight to enhance the texture of the paper.

China is coming closer to European markets (Photo: dolmansaxlil)

LONDON, 18. MAY, 09:24

All of the attention around Xi Jinping’s recent European trip was focused around his visit to Moscow in time for the May Day military parade.

By focusing so singly on the Moscow stop, however, the importance of the route he took was missed.

Coming soon after the President’s visit to Pakistan in which he laid out the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), this trip affirms one of the key routes of the Silk Road Economic Belt – running through Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus to ultimately end in Europe.

This final link is the key which Europe needs to wake up to, to understand that this Chinese outward push is one that is both a reality and one that can advance European interests.

The Silk Road Economic Belt route of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative advanced by Xi is going to become the cornerstone foreign policy of the current Chinese administration. Enmeshed in the idea of returning China to its place at the center of global power, the initiative has led to the fanning out of a number of economic and trade corridors from Beijing.

The precursor to all of the ones currently talked about (a latticework of routes stretching out from China’s ports around the world through the Maritime Silk Road, through Pakistan in the CPEC, through Bangladesh-Myanmar and to India in the BCIM) was the route through Central Asia.

Initiated as part of a strategy to develop China’s western regions, the idea was to help reconnect Xinjiang to Central Asia, and ultimately through the region to European markets. For Beijing, Europe is the other end of the Silk Road Economic Belt.

In trying to implement its strategy, China has made a very conscious effort to reach out to Europe, in terms of official statements and an eagerness to try to find ways of working together on making this strategy work.

At this point it has gone beyond rhetoric. As well as pouring massive amounts of money in helping infrastructure across the former Soviet space, they have also looked at undertaking large investment projects in Belarus, Ukraine and other countries on Europe’s south-eastern periphery.

Closer to Europe

An economic force is sweeping along the Silk Road bringing China ever closer to European markets.

To some this will be seen as a threat. Chinese goods getting a quicker route to European markets will only place more pressure on already threatened European industries.

But this is a dynamic that is going to happen anyway and is already underway. Far better to try to focus on the other side of the equation and the potential opportunities.

Not only in terms of high end luxury and technical goods which Europe continues to manufacture which are so keenly desired by the ever-growing middle class Chinese consumer market which can travel back along this route, but also in terms of the development it will bring along the way to countries that Europe has long sought to help along the path of economic development.

This is something that is particularly true in Central Asia.

Europe has long seen Central Asia as a region it has been trying to support. The current Latvian Presidency has made the region a particular priority. As well as the potential economic opportunities (that Central Asians welcome), the region is one that has fraught internal dynamics.

European entities like the EU and OSCE are amongst the only ones that have been able to help bridge some of these divides – providing a set of lessons and experiences that China is simply unable to replicate, but is keen to learn from.

On the economic side of the equation, Chinese firms have been pushing into Central Asia and encountering all sorts of difficulties be it in terms of local governance or security issues.

This is a space that European companies and international institutions like the EBRD have long worked in and have developed a number of strategies for dealing with these very particular regional problems.

There is an opportunity here.

Building missing links

For Europe, China offers the opportunity to magnify effect – Europe’s economic and political force is substantial, but when bolstered by Chinese capacity and means, becomes an even more substantial force.

As well as the $40 billion Silk Road fund, there is the nascent Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the slowly developing BRICS Bank, and the sometimes talked of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Development Bank.

And China has continued to sign massive bilateral deals in countries along the route, with a particular focus in Central Asia. Admittedly some of this money is hyperbole around official high level visits, but go on the ground across the region and it is impossible to deny the presence of the Chinese funding – tangible as it is in roads, pipelines, railway projects, energy infrastructure and construction across the region.

There is also a larger political point to be made here about China’s relationship with the European Union.

The EU has long sought to find ways to engage with China in a productive manner – Central Asia and the larger Silk Road Economic Belt offers an opportunity to work with China on something that is of direct interest to Europe, but also is clearly a strong strategic priority from the very top of Xi Jinping’s administration.

For Beijing, Europe is the other end of the Silk Road – Europe needs to seize this opportunity to help advance its own interests.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at Rusi, a think tank in the UK

 

I have a chapter in this new Routledge book edited by Magnus Randstorp and Magnus Normark called Understanding Terrorism Innovation and Learning: Al-Qaeda and Beyond. My particular chapter focuses on ‘Innovation and Learning in British Jihad’ and draws on a lot of my research for my book. I am actually going to be presenting a version of the chapter at this forthcoming British Academy conference. I cannot simply post this here, though I am asking the publisher if they will let me. In the meantime, feel free to get in touch to hear more about it and I will try to help. This aside, I spoke to the Wall Street Journal and USA Today about the British government’s new counter-terrorism policies, the Sunday Mail about ISIS and immigration from Libya into Europe, and its daily counterpart the Daily Mail about British jihadi girls in Syria.

Understanding Terrorism Innovation and Learning: Al Qaeda and Beyond

This book examines the role of terrorist innovation and learning in theory and practice, and in the context of three specific EU case-studies.

It is often said that terrorist groups are relatively conservative in character operating in a technological vacuum – relying almost exclusively on bombs and bullets. This observation masks increasing complexity and creativity and innovation within terrorist groups and one of the most distinguishing features of al-Qaeda’s terrorist operations is its propensity for remarkable innovation. This book examines how and why terrorist groups innovate more generally and al-Qaeda-related terrorist plots in Europe more specifically. The starting point for this book was twofold. Firstly to examine the issue of innovation and learning more generically both in theory, within specific themes and within the context of al-Qaeda’s influence on this process. Secondly, this book examines the evolution of specific al-Qaeda-related plots in three specific northern EU states – the United Kingdom, Denmark and Germany – where there has been a significant volume of planned, failed and executed terrorist plots. In particular, these case studies explore signs of innovation and learning.

A new brief reaction piece for my home institute RUSI looking at some of the current trends in ISIS and jihadism. My preference is to use ISIS, but it appears as though the institutional choice is Daesh. Undoubtedly more on this topic to come. In the meantime, I have been doing book promotion events around town, thanks to those who have hosted me and am looking forward to future ones. For those interested, here is me talking to the Henry Jackson Society. I am going to be at the Bradford Literature Festival this weekend, the Hay Festival on the 31st May, and the Lewes Festival on July 18th. And hopefully more of those to come! Please also feel free to leave comments on Amazon about the book should you read it!
The Texas Attack: An Expression of Daesh’s Reach
RUSI Analysis, 11 May 2015 | By Raffaello Pantucci, Director of International Security Studies
The jihadist movement known as Daesh has claimed responsibility for the aborted attack on an art contest in Texas. But other than shared motives, there are hardly anyreal  linkages. Overreaction and misreading of the threat will merely play into their hands.
Garland Shooting Perpetrators 2015

The claim by Daesh (or ISIS, as it is also known as) of some connection and responsibility for the attempted attack on Sunday 3 May 2015 in Texas is credible. While it is unlikely that the senior leadership within the group tasked the American pair or saw the event in Texas as a globally significant target, it is perfectly possible that it will emerge that the two men had at least some online connection to the group and were spurred into action by a combination of this contact and the group’s regular exhortations to its followers to launch attacks in the West.

At the same time, it is not clear that this is in any way an expression of the beginning of a campaign by the group to launch terrorist attacks outside its territory or that we need to worry about Daesh anymore now than before. Rather, Daesh continues to show itself to be an opportunistically canny organisation that is able to read global trends and stoke public debates at the right moment to maximise their apparent reach and power.

The threat picture for the immediate future is likely to be a continuing pattern of similar attacks, alongside a continuing potential menace of more classically directed terrorist cells. This seemingly enhanced threat, however, has to be kept in perspective and care needs to be paid not to overreact. A measured response will help deal with the problem in the longer term, while an exaggerated response will only fuel it.

Daesh Going Out?

Daesh remains a primarily Middle Eastern focused organisation, intent on growing and consolidating its territorial gains in Iraq and Syria. At the same time, over the past few months there has been an increasing level of connectivity and interaction between its core in Mosul/Raqqa and its regional Wilayats (provincial governorates) in Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan and Yemen. The degree of strength of these regional connections is not always clear, though looking at the Libyan case in particular, it is clear that there is some strong link between the centre and what is happening in that country in terms of ideology, means and direction.

A series of attacks on foreign targets in Tripoli, grim beheading videos being done to a schedule dictated from Syria/Iraq and stories of fighters and money flowing from the Levant to Libya point to something more than just an ideological affiliation.

In Egypt, Afghanistan and Yemen at least there is some evidence of ideological and possibly individual, but less clear is the degree to which this is a strong flow with much direction, rather than exploratory links. On the purely aspirational end of the scale, there is the link to Boko Haram – an organisation that has shown itself to be even more opportunistic than Daesh and has proclaimed links to Al-Qa’ida and others repeatedly over the years with little tangible evidence of much by way of strong connections.

In parallel to this there has been the growth in inspired and instigated attacks in the lone actor model: plots undertaken by individuals or small cells lacking any clear command and control from an outside organisation. Choosing soft targets that can broadly be captured under the aegis of the global struggle between Islam and the West, these individuals get caught up in the fervour and hysteria around Daesh and launch attacks at home in the West under their own direction.

Some cases appear to demonstrate links back to Syria (like Mehdi Nemmouche in Brussels) some may be reacting to travel restrictions (like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau in Ottawa), while others appear  simply to be attracted by the allure and hysteria of the group (like the spate of incidents in France late last year or Man Haroun Monis in Australia). For some of these individuals, Daesh’s narrative is simply the loudest in the public conversation for them to draw on.

Lone actor or copy-cat, whichever model it is, Daesh can subsequently claim it or praise the incident and appear as though it is somehow responsible for a global wave of terror.

Extensions of longer-term trends

In reality, both trends are extensions of what has been going on with jihadist terrorism for the past few years. Since around 2010 al Qaeda core’s capability and links globally have shrunk as the group’s ideology has increasingly found that the local causes that it would parasitically attach itself to increasingly moved towards advancing their own more local agendas rather than the group’s global directives. When launching attacks, regional affiliates would still use the jihadist rhetoric and targeting choices, but it was increasingly hard to see strong levels of command and control from the core. There were of course exceptions to this like Yemen where AQAP retains a strong core following loyal to the movement’s globalist perspective. But for the most part regional affiliate groups increasingly drifted away from the core’s orbit as Al-Qa’ida’s remnant leadership spent its time hiding from drones in Pakistan’s hinterlands.

The result has been a fracturing of the global jihadist movement operating under Al-Qa’ida’s ideological banner. As leaders have been killed, it has led to groups splintering into different factions. Furthermore, with a weakened core, regional affiliates have shifted in their targeting and intent back towards their own regions. In launching attacks they will still choose international targets as these bring attention and appear to be part of a global cause. Often, however, the degree to which they have been directed from the core is limited. Examples include the In Amenas attack in Algeria by an off-shoot of AQIM, or the al Shabaab linked attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.

Into this fractured scene steps Daesh, offering a more hardline ideology, a new leader claiming to be Amir al Mu’mineen (commander of the faithful) who commands a territory he declares a Caliphate. Here is a narrative of success that stands in contrast to Al-Qa’ida’s declining fortunes. This quickly offers an appealing alternate power base that becomes the opposite pole to the current established jihadist narrative directed by Al-Qa’ida and draws in many of the disaffected and detached affiliate groups. Daesh appeal to them is not necessarily the ideology of the group, but rather the fact the group offers an alternate expression and successful banner to the status quo for them to attach themselves to.

The lone actor phenomenon is also not one that Daesh can claim stake to owning. Lone actor plots started to emerge in 2007/2008 (arguably Bilal Abdulla and Kafeel Ahmed’s attempted double bombing in London and Glasgow in 2007 was an early expression demonstrating no level of direction by a group, though some connectivity to terrorist networks in Iraq), and have been an increasingly regular feature of the terrorist threat picture since then. In 2010 Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) sought to try to harness the growing wave of such attacks and spur them further on through Inspire magazine and its ideology of ‘just do it’ attacks and ‘open source jihad’ that made jihadi terrorism accessible and actionable by everybody.

But there was little tangible evidence the magazine did much more than stoke fires that were already burning. The magazine became a staple feature of terrorism investigations. A growing number of plotters tried to build bombs to the magazines design and in online forums extremists increasingly talked proudly of being ‘lone wolves.’ But the trend towards this type of terrorism was underway prior to the magazine and there has been little clear evidence that the magazine can be singularly blamed for any specific plot.

Daesh has merely taken this strategy to the next level through its active promotion of the idea of such attacks through speeches, magazines and increasingly through individual fighters who connect through social media to the aspirant keyboard warriors who have not chosen to make the trip to the Levant, but seek it out instead online. By creating more noise around the idea of such attacks, they become more attractive and the group creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in its narrative.

This results in more people hearing it and more disaffected folk concluding that if they want to make themselves heard (for whatever reason) then Daesh’s ideology is the one to attach themselves to. All of this needs to be borne in mind against the backdrop that the ideology of violent Islamist inspired terrorism as one of the dominant global anti-establishment ideologies of the moment. Previously disaffected folk might be drawn to other movements, Al-Qa’ida or Daesh are now the alternative global movement. Again, rather than creating something new, Daesh (and Al-Qa’ida before it), have simply harnessed and attempted to spur on a trend that was already underway.

The Danger of Over-reaction

The importance of understanding the proper roots of these trends is to mitigate against the dangers of overreaction to them. If the Western reaction to the attack in Texas (and other future possible attacks) is to attack the organisation in a large fashion involving deployed armies and forces, this will have exactly the effect the group is likely hoping for.

An overreaction draws it into more direct conflict with the West making it both seem more powerful than it is, showing it able to stand up and fight directly with the world’s superpowers. It feeds into the group’s narrative of where it stands in the world and helps it become more important than it really is.

Instead, the focus needs to be on fixing the underlying reasons behind the contexts where the group’s ideology is able to take root. In Syria this means finding ways of bringing the brutal civil war to a close. In Iraq it involves building a participatory government so that the country’s Sunni’s do not look to groups like Daesh as defenders. In Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan and Egypt it involves solving local problems that will help reduce the space in which the group is able to permeate.

And in the West, it involves engaging with people who are so disaffected from societies that they feel they want to rebel violently against them. None of this is easy, and for Western government’s to succeed the reality is they need to target limited resources on specific countries abroad in a global division of labour, and at home need to find ways of developing grass roots programmes to engage with specific individuals who are drifting towards extremist ideologies. But key to making sure that we do not prolong this problem any longer than it needs to be is a clear understanding of the nature of the threat that is faced.