Things are slowing down a bit now in the wake of the Paris atrocity, though unfortunately am sad to say the story is likely to not go away. Still some interest around the topic though, and spoke to the Sunday Times about the noisy Sally Jones, to the Huffington Post about how ISIS compares to historical threats, as well as the South China Morning Post about China’s view on the downing of the Russian plane and the Straits Times about what China might do to contribute to the anti-ISIS coalition. More on all of this am sure as ever. In the meantime, a new piece which was acually published prior to the Paris atrocity about China-Russia relations globally for the China Economic Quarterly. Huge thanks to the editors for their patience and invitation to do this. Greatly appreciated and definitely a subject that will be returned to.

China And Russia: Locked In Reluctant Embrace

china russia image

The dynamic of the Sino-Russian relationship is one that has long perplexed Western decision makers and thinkers. At a geopolitical level they appear in lockstep in an anti-western front, but below the surface they seem willing to engage with the west against each other’s interests while also sharing some fundamental disagreements. The reality is that Moscow and Beijing have a sophisticated modus vivendi that both allows for a clear disparity in the relationship in Beijing’s favor, while at the same time retaining an equal sense of importance of the broader strategic relationship. The overriding priority for both remains to ensure that they have an ally against the West and as long as this need remains the axis of authoritarianism will persist.

The archetypal space to explore this complex divergence is Central Asia. On the one hand it is a region where China has gradually increased its footprint to become the most consequential actor on the ground, while on the other it remains linked inextricably to Russia through multilateral vehicles and long-standing ties. And while in other parts of Eastern Europe or the Caucasus Russia has reacted negatively to encroaching external influences with armed conflict (like Georgia or Ukraine), in Central Asia the slow creep of Beijing’s influence has happened largely with Moscow’s acquiescence, though not without some counter-reaction.

China’s interest in Central Asia stems from a desire to improve the economic situation in Xinjiang. Seeing economic development as the answer to ethnic tensions between Han and Uighur in the region, Beijing has embarked on numerous large-scale economic projects to develop the western region of Xinjiang. However, for effective economic development to take place in Xinjiang there is a need for the region to have greater connectivity outwards. A fivehour flight from Beijing, Urumqi is as landlocked as the Central Asian countries it is near, and for it to prosper adequately, it needs to develop routes and roads into the region and ultimately to European markets. Consequently, as Beijing has poured money into the region, there has been an ancillary push into Central Asia with policy banks, state owned enterprises and private citizens all seeing the opportunity and need that lies in developing routes and markets into the Russian space.

Chinese cash displaces Russia in Central Asia…

The consequence of this has been a steady growth of economic influence across the region as Chinese capital and companies move into the region to repave, rebuild and open up Central Asian markets while also taking advantage of the region’s natural wealth to feed the Chinese economic machine. Previously a region largely the domain of Russian extractives firms, and, in the post-Cold War period, large Western players, Central Asia has seen CNPC and other Chinese energy firms moved in to stake claims. But significantly, Chinese firms have not stopped at only extracting energy, with firms showing up re-metering national gas infrastructure, re-developing solar furnaces, and building new power plants, refineries, and transmission lines across the region. The most rapid global pipeline growth of the past decade can be seen in the region, as Chinese firms plan, fund and built in quick succession a series of pipelines bringing hydrocarbons back to China from Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

All of this has largely been done to the detriment of Russian firms, who retain key stakes in most regional energy efforts but find themselves unable to compete with China’s easy funding and rapid construction. The American evacuation of the Manas airbase is a case in point. Initially awarded to a Russian firm linked to Rosneft, the company had to withdraw due to lack of funding, leaving a Chinese firm to step in and take over the contract. In Turkmenistan, a longstanding animosity between Moscow and Ashgabat culminated with the main pipeline to Russia blowing up and not being rebuilt. Instead, Chinese pipelines appeared and China is now the nation’s key partner—so much so that Turkmenistan might question the wisdom of its almost complete dependence on China.

…but Russian weapons are still welcome

Despite China’s economic incursions, Russia remains the most credible security provider. Untested by conflict outside its borders, China’s military is still a relatively timid force that is wary of launching direct confrontations or placing themselves in situations that would lead to such conflict. Whenever there is security trouble in the region, the powers look more to Russia to provide them with support – in particular in the more unstable nations of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both of whom have looked to Russia to help provide some stability in the wake of interethnic violence (Kyrgyzstan) and to strengthen their border with Afghanistan (Tajikistan).

Moscow has also made better use of regional organizations than has Beijing. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), sponsored jointly by China and Russia, is in the most externally observed, but least effective regional multilateral vehicle. The Moscow-driven Common Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) are all more active in changing the context on the ground. The EEU in particular is seen as an attempt to recreate the Soviet space and is driven by Moscow as a specific attempt to reclaim the economic dominance and influence it used to hold. Encompassing Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, with Armenia and Kyrgyzstan the latest joiners, the EEU gives Moscow the power to dictate border tariffs and standards across the entire region.

In Central Asia the EEU is seen as direct push-back to Beijing’s growing influence. Yet the reality is that the EEU can do little to stem the rising influence of Chinese cash. And for Beijing’s traders keen to take advantage of Xi Jinping’s vision to create a New Silk Road Economic Belt through the region to European markets, the existence of a single tariff zone from Kazakhstan to Belarus will save them money and time in getting goods from China to Europe. Direct trade with Central Asia may be down, but, as traders in Kyrgyz markets at Kara Suu and outside Bishkek pointed out during a visit in early 2015, these markets had been shrinking for years due to closed local borders and weakening local economies. The addition of a failing Russian economy only further softened local currencies and further reduced remittances from Central Asian laborers in Russia, which in the case of Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan account for almost a third of GDP.

On the whole, Beijing policymakers seem to view the EEU as complementary to their Belt-and-Road strategy; and even if they did not, they have reason to be skeptical of the EEU’s longevity. Belarus and Kazakhstan have already blocked some trade across their borders, and it remains unclear how Kyrgyzstan is going to be able to effectively integrate and thrive in an economic union where it has few advantages.

China has the upper hand in bilateral affairs

All of this takes place against a backdrop of a failing Russian economy that is increasingly looking to Beijing for growth. Whilst previously resistant to letting Chinese firms invest in upstream energy assets, Moscow allowed the Chinese Silk Road Fund to invest in the Yamal gas field. In a sharp turnaround from previous paranoia of Chinese expansion into Russia’s east, Moscow has actively encouraged cross-border trade between Heilongjiang and the Amur region, with the governor of the region going so far as to say that he would welcome Chinese workers coming into the region to help repopulate it. The Russian press is increasingly full of stories of actively encouraging trade across the border, something that stands in stark contrast to speeches by President Putin in 2000 about losing Russia’s East to Asia.

In all this investment, China clearly retains the upper hand. The Power of Siberia pipeline remains a project largely on paper as CNPC lobbies aggressively to get the deal finalized on its terms. And although the large gas deal signed between Russia and China was supposedly resolved earlier in the year after almost 15 years of haggling, the reality is that the agreement was largely cosmetic. It came at a moment when President Putin wanted to be able to show the world that he had strong allies in the face of a growing animosity between Moscow and the west over Ukraine. Within hours of the deal being signed, stories surfaced of re-negotiations taking place and a continuing lack of agreement over the pricing structure of the deal.

At a geostrategic level there are further tensions between the two great powers. Vietnam is a long-time client state to Russia that depends on Moscow for military equipment, including naval assets that Vietnam feels it needs to bolster its claims to islands in the South China sea that it disputes with China. India is another long-term Russian ally that has border disputes with China and a long-standing inferiority complex to its neighboring Asian giant.

It is also clear—despite its lack of public criticism—that China is displeased by Russia’s adventures in Ukraine and Georgia, as it worried about the precedent of annexing parts of neighboring countries and recognizing break-away provinces. Nor is it enthusiastic about Russian intervention in Syria where it seems unlikely that more combatants on the field will resolve the situation. As a status quo power that sees the future as firmly within its grasp under the current world order, Beijing disapproves of Russia’s efforts to undermine current structures.

The SCO was supposed to be a vehicle for joint maneuver in Central Asia, but has bogged down in disagreements. Beijing’s interest in having it focus more on economic issues has been blocked by Moscow. And in turn Moscow has promoted a rapid expansion of the group, against China’s wishes. Unwilling to directly confront and exclude others, China has found itself forced to bow to external pressure in letting the organization expand against its better judgment.

Authoritarian birds flock together

Notwithstanding these tensions, the two powers retain a tactical geopolitical alignment. Partially this is for the purpose of mutual support in the UN Security Council. As two of the permanent five members, knowing that they will consistently support each other (by either veto or abstention), means that they need never feel isolated in the body.

Shared political insecurity also draws them together. Both governments are equally paranoid about the overthrow of authoritarian regimes. Both speak equally acerbically about the negative influence of democracy and the wave of color revolutions that swept through the former Soviet space in the mid-2000s and the subsequent ‘Arab Spring.’ Watching as chaos came in the wake of the civilian overthrow of regimes from Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and then later Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, both ascribe these incidents to a missionary foreign policy advocated by western capitals. Fearing that ultimately this wave of civilian insurrection ends up with regime overthrow in Beijing and Moscow, both see each other as fundamental allies in a world divided between western democratic zealots riven with uncertainty and stable one-party states ruled by strongmen and parties.

These underlying geopolitical realities outline why this axis of authoritarianism continues to function as a genuine alliance of sorts despite fundamental differences and an ever-growing imbalance in power between the two. Russia may increasingly be selling itself to China in a manner that will become irreversible, but it is doing this to a power that it fundamentally sees itself locked in step with. It was President Putin who first enunciated in 2000 the fear that Russia would lose its east to Asian influences, but it is also President Putin under whose reign China has become the Russia’s biggest geopolitical friend.

Final piece from last week, this time looking at whether the incident in Paris could take place in the United Kingdom for my home institution RUSI. While it is likely not the last on this topic, likely the last commentary at this point. In addition to commentary, spoke to Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Daily Mail, NBC, The Times, Bloomberg, while the Mirror ran an interview with a press agency as an interview. In the immediate wake of the incident, RUSI also recorded this brief interview for our site. Prior to the terrible events of last Friday, spoke to Wall Street Journal, Politico and La Repubblica about the large network of arrests linked to Ansar al Islam and Mullah Krekar, and more recently to Bloomberg and Voice of America about the impact of recent deaths on China’s contributions to the current war on terrorism.

Could Paris happen in the UK?

Trafalgar Sq_Paris_Nov 2015

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary, 20 November 2015
Europe, France, Terrorism, UK, UK Counter-terrorism, Tackling Extremism, International Security Studies, Terrorism

Soon after the Paris attacks, the prospect of similar massacres happening in the UK was raised. While the danger is serious, crucial contexts specific to the Continent mean the UK faces a different kind of threat.

In the wake of the horrific terrorist attack in Paris, the immediate question posed in the UK was whether this could happen here.The prime minister made a clear statement about the potential risks, stating that British security services had disrupted seven attacks in the past six months, ‘albeit on a smaller scale to what was seen in Paris’.

The potential threat is certainly present, but, at the same time, certain specific local contexts create slightly higher hurdles for a terrorist group to launch such a terrorist attack in the UK.

There are three principal reasons for this.

Limited access to weaponry

First, it is harder to obtain high-powered rifles in the UK. Looking at the massacre in Paris, it is clear that the greatest number of casualties were caused by the use of assault rifles, which the cell was able to acquire in worrying numbers. Such rifles appear to be more easily available on the continent. Whilst the investigation has yet to publicly uncover the source of the weapons, their availability is clearly a persistent problem in France and neighbouring countries.

Since the beginning of the year, three different cells have attempted and succeeded in launching attacks with such weapons in France alone. In January, a cell in Verviers, Belgium, was found to be in possession of a number of high-powered weapons and explosives. When police tried to arrest the group, the fighters did not hesitate to fight back; they were killed during the shootout with police. Beyond terrorists, criminal networks in places like Marseille quite regularly get involved in public shoot-outs using such weapons.

So far, in the UK, terrorist cells have not been able to access modern or high-powered weaponry. Fusilier Lee Rigby’s murderers Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo were able to get an antique pistol for their plot in 2013, but the weapon failed to work and blew up in Adebowale’s hands. A cell disrupted earlier this year and going on trial soon were only able to get their hands on a Soviet-era weapon to advance their plot.

Networks have certainly sought to obtain higher-powered weapons, but restrictive laws and availability mean it is harder to do so in the UK than in Continental Europe. There are some worrying indicators regarding the proximity between terrorist and criminal networks, but so far this has not placed the same kind of equipment in the hands of terrorists.

Greater control over borders

Second, unlike France, the UK has a greater degree of control over its borders. Natural geography means that there are fewer access points into the UK, making it relatively easier for authorities to watch entry and exit points (though the system is by no means perfect – news emerged this week that two well-known repeat terrorism offenders were caught trying to cross Hungary even though they were on no-travel lists).

On the continent, the situation is very different. French authorities may attempt to get firm control over their own territory, but they border a number of countries with substantial domestic problems and with different levels of government effectiveness and cover. Yet they have open borders between them, complicating France’s ability to completely control their situation and meaning they share open borders with countries with varying levels of weapons availability as well as different criminal-justice systems.

Links to the Levant

Finally, the conflict in the Levant is one with a greater draw and connection to Arab communities on the continent. This is a reality that has come at a moment when the centre of gravity of international jihadism has shifted from South Asia to the Levant.

The UK has seen over 700 people go and join the fighting in Syria and Iraq – but these numbers are higher in countries like France (where officials refer to around 700 or more) and Belgium (where most recently officials refer to up to 800 having gone), which have seen large numbers of extremists go and fight, while others have instead stayed at home and stewed in anger, with some of those who were prevented from going to fight instead choosing to launch attacks at home.

A different kind of threat

None of this is to say that the UK is not facing a dangerous menace. It has been featured regularly in ISIS propaganda as a target, is fighting in the coalition against ISIS and has launched drone strikes against key individuals in the group. Authorities in the UK are working at full pelt to disrupt networks, and, as highlighted before by the prime minister, some seven plots have already been disrupted in the past year.

But the nature of the threat appears different. Networked plots exist, but have so far been effectively penetrated and disrupted before moving into action – though this track record is something that has been shown to be imperfect in the past. Greater levels of concern are often expressed around more dispersed plots that seem to demonstrate less clear command and control from abroad, but seek to undertake attacks like the murder of Lee Rigby.

Whilst we now face the horror of a large-scale terrorist attack in Paris, the reality is that the murder of a single man in the UK almost three years ago in Woolwich had a quite substantial media impact, even if not on the scale of the atrocity in Paris.

*Header image: A vigil for the victims of the Paris attacks in Trafalgar Square, 14 November 2015. Image courtesy of Hannah McKay / PA Wire/Press Association Images

Still catching up after a busy week. This a short piece for the BBC on how vulnerable Europe is to attacks like that we saw last Friday. The point here is not to say it is impossible, but to try to keep things in perspective.

How vulnerable is Europe to Paris-style attacks?
By Raffaello Pantucci
Royal United Services Institute (Rusi)
18 November 2015
From the section Europe

French authorities_BBC

AP The French authorities have stepped up security following the deadly attacks in Paris
Paris attacks

The cancellation of the football match in Hannover on Tuesday night was the latest expression of a terrorist fear that currently wracks Europe.

Coming after a long month in which major attacks were seen in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, Beirut, Baghdad, Ankara and Paris, the febrile environment has generated an understandable level of concern among people in major cities across Europe.

Yet, the reality is that people face a greater daily danger from using their cars than they do from falling foul of terrorist plots in a European capital.

While the current environment is of heightened concern given attempts by Islamic State (IS) and its affiliates to massacre innocents, the reality is that plots on the scale of Paris are a rarity.
In response, European security agencies will step up their already highly vigilant posture and move to disrupt networks at increasingly earlier stages.

Outside the norm

Terrorism in European capitals is not unheard of.
London bomb_BBC Nov

AFP Four suicide bombers struck in central London on 7 July 2005, killing 52 people

Since the attacks of 11 September 2001 in Washington and New York, there have been large-scale atrocities in Madrid, London, Moscow, Oslo and now Paris.

Yet, these events are outside the usual norm.

In contrast, cities in Africa, parts of Asia and the Middle East face such attacks on a more regular basis.

Plots in the West are often disrupted – especially large-scale ones involving big networks of individuals.

While the 7 July 2005 bombers succeeded in killing 52 people in London, at least four or five other large-scale plots with links to al-Qaeda which aimed to strike the UK between 2004 and 2006 were disrupted by authorities.

‘Lone actors’
More recently, concerns had focused around the phenomenon of “lone actor” terrorism – acts undertaken by individuals who did not demonstrate any clear direction from a terrorist group or network.

AP Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in two attacks in Norway, was a “lone actor”
Sometimes the individuals proved to be part of a known radical community, but in other cases they were unknowns who had driven themselves towards terrorist activity.

And yet, while numerous such cases were disrupted, only three people were able to murder fellow citizens – Pavlo Lapshyn stabbed Mohammed Saleem to death in Birmingham, while Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo murdered Lee Rigby in Woolwich.

In most other cases, the individuals were only able to injure themselves in their attempted attacks.
Difficult to disrupt

IS had noticed this phenomenon and one of the major concerns of the past few months has been the ability of individuals in the group to inspire and instigate people in the West to launch such isolated attacks.

France had faced a number of these, including a spate of attempted murders around Christmas last year.

Paris post_BBC_Nov
AFP The French government has called the Paris attacks an act of war by a “terrorist army”

From the authorities’ perspectives, plots are inherently harder to disrupt, given the individuals’ lack of connections and links to known networks, meaning intelligence tripwires were harder to identify.
Yet at the same time, these plots also tend to be less menacing in their ability to cause mass murder.
Anders Behring Breivik was an exception to this, but he remains unique in his attacks in Norway in 2011 that left 77 people dead.
In most cases, the individuals are only able to attempt to murder one or two in their immediate periphery.

Shifting focus
Clearly, recent events in continental Europe show that the current threat picture there is more heightened than this, but plots on the scale of the slaughter in Paris remain a rarity.

While IS is clearly a terrorist organisation that has shifted its attention from state building in its core in the sands of the Levant to causing mass murder globally, the degree to which the group is able to get such large-scale plots through European security nets remains unclear.
ISIS_BBC_Nov Islamic State has warned European countries that they will be unable to stop further attacks
In the wake of the atrocities in Paris, it will become even harder for the group as authorities move to disrupt plots earlier rather than let something like this reoccur.
At the same time, the current threat picture is complicated – with hundreds of Europeans and others fighting alongside IS having absorbed the groups ideology.
It is unclear how many more plotters will need to be stopped and for how long Europe will face this menace.
Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at Rusi in London. His research focuses on counter-terrorism and he is the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists. Follow him @raffpantucci

And in a second piece, this time from Monday’s Times, looking at the phenomenon of homegrown radicalisation, this time in the context of Mohammed Emwazi, as well as the Paris attacks.

Radicals become the killers within

Mohammed EmwaziMohammed Emwazi was drawn to radical ideas in his youth

Last updated at 12:01AM, November 16 2015

As the full horror from Paris is revealed, the inevitable news has emerged that at least one of the gunmen had deep links and history as a radical in France (Raffaello Pantucci writes).

This came in the week that news emerged from Syria that an American drone had killed Mohammed Emwazi, a west Londoner who joined Isis and rose to become the group’s public executioner. The concept of the homegrown jihadist, the killer from within, only accentuates the horror of the terrorist act — something of which terrorist groups are fully aware and capitalise on to drive their brutal message home.

The concept of the homegrown jihadist is not new. For the most part they are drawn to extreme ideologies in their youth as they are exploring their individual identities and for one reason or another find salafi jihadism the most attractive.

It is a problem that has been faced in Europe for almost two decades. The problem is one that is not going away, and is becoming more complex as we see people drawn to these ideas but in some cases not ultimately acting on their terrorist impulse for years. In the case of both Omar Mostefai, the Bataclan murderer, and Emwazi, the revelation of their names uncovered news that they were people the authorities had long noticed as individuals attracted to radical ideas. For the public, this is almost as shocking as the news of the individuals’ western backgrounds. How is it possible that these young men could have been allowed to carry out their atrocities if they were known to authorities?

It is important to look at their individual histories to address the issue. For the Frenchman, the authorities had noticed as far back as 2010 that he appeared to be interested in radical ideas. However, they did not feel that he was part of what they identified as terrorist networks. He appears to have been a higher priority as a petty criminal.

While circulating in a milieu that was not dissimilar, Emwazi seems to have been drawn to radical ideas in his youth. Graduating from the University of Westminster in 2009, he tried to join al-Shabaab in Somalia, part of a larger community of west Londoners drawn to the internationalist jihadist message advanced by that group.

While these men chose a life of violence, what is not known is how many others with similar narratives drop off security services’ radar as they move on to peaceful lives.

For the authorities the problem is a thorny one. The maturation of an individual from young person interested in radical ideas to active terrorist-murderer is something that can take years (or in some cases an alarmingly short period of time) and is not necessarily something that happens in tidy isolation or with clear markers. The Charlie Hebdo killers were also of longstanding interest to the authorities, but had been relegated to secondary priorities, given their lack of overt terrorist activity. It was the same for the murderers of Lee Rigby in Woolwich. Emwazi and Mostefai are likely to be in this category too: background concerns who were superseded by more active plotters.

Unfortunately, ideologies are patient. And as long as these ideas continue to exist, the long tail of terrorist radicalisation will occasionally brutally lash our societies.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute and author of We Love Death as You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists

It has been rather busy of late, so a bit behind on posting. First up, I wrote a longer piece in the Independent on Sunday at the weekend on the atrocity last Friday in Paris.


Paris terror attacks: The lessons of Mumbai were learned – by the jihadis
For Isis to distinguish itself from al-Qaeda it must create greater misery

In November 2008, a new form of terrorism filled our television screens as a 10-man cell dispatched by Pakistan-based terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba wreaked murder and mayhem across Mumbai. Choosing prominent targets filled with foreigners and Indians, the terrorists opened fire on anyone they came across, butchering 266 before dying fighting the authorities.

In so doing, they took over global headlines for days as well as bringing one of Asia’s super-cities to a standstill. Terrorist groups around the world celebrated this horror and began to discuss how they might try to emulate this success. Seven years later in Paris, the playbook has been copied.

This has been the longstanding fear of Western security agencies. Aware of the perceived success of the Mumbai attack, police and intelligence services across Europe have been ramping up their preparedness and training. Most recently, in June, the UK’s emergency and intelligence agencies did a dry run for a marauding shooter attack in London. And there have been scares. In 2010, a network of European cells that seemed to indicate al-Qaeda was attempting a Mumbai-style assault, with training camps in Pakistan’s badlands, was apparently disrupted.

Then earlier this year, Paris was racked by the Charlie Hebdo murders. But whereas those attacks, initially at least, were selective in their targets, Friday’s were utterly indiscriminate. The bombers at the stadium must have known the French President was in the environs, though they blew themselves up outside, killing whoever happened to be nearby. The other cell liberally targeted Parisians on a Friday night out. This is a markedly different form of horror and one that requires deep indoctrination, preparation and training. It is also a step up in terms of atrocity from what we had seen before in Europe. Mumbai-style terrorism has reached European shores.

At least one of the attackers has been uncovered as having some French background. While unsurprising given the threat picture that we have seen, this is particularly disturbing within the context of the sort of attack they undertook. To brutally shoot and execute fellow nationals pleading for their lives is something which would have required intense commitment. This training may have occurred in Syria, but in many ways this no longer matters. Islamic State (Isis) has shown an interest in stirring chaos and misery around the world with little apparent concern for its strategic impact.

Unlike the Madrid bombings, which had the effect of prying apart the coalition in Iraq, the attacks that Isis has inspired, instigated or directed, have been aimed at killing as many as possible in “enemy” countries and stirring tensions in societies. France in particular has been at the epicentre of this threat. In May 2014, Frenchman Mehdi Nemmouche opened fire at a Jewish Museum in Brussels killing three. He was later reported to have fought alongside Isis. In August this year, another young man with links to France, Ayoub el Khazzani, was barely prevented from shooting at passengers on a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris.

His background remains unclear, but he was linked to a network in Turkey that was linked to Isis and connected to Sid Ahmed Ghlam, a 24-year-old Algerian French resident who was reportedly plotting to attack churches in Paris. He was detained after he called an ambulance to his home having shot himself accidentally in the leg. He was already of concern to French security services.

And none of this is to talk about the numerous plots that French authorities have faced where individuals have launched attacks in advance of jihadist ideologies with no clear evidence of any sort of network. Around Christmas last year there was a spate of random attacks using knives or cars, and in June, Yassin Salhi decapitated his boss and tried to drive a car bomb into a chemical factory in Lyon. He strung up his boss’s head on a fence, took pictures of it with an Islamist flag and sent them to a fighter he knew in Syria.

This, sadly, is the nature of the current threat. And while obtaining the high-powered rifles required to cause such mass slaughter is much harder in the UK, it could strike here. Each wave of terrorism has to cause greater mayhem to have the same impact over time, and consequently for Isis to distinguish itself from al-Qaeda, it must create greater impact and misery.

While the UK can draw comfort from the fact weapons are harder to get here, British people abroad have fallen foul of these plots. The massacre in Sousse particularly affected British nationals, and at least one Briton was caught up in Friday’s Paris attacks. Terrorism has to continually evolve and cause greater brutality to maintain impact and attract attention. And while France is currently the epicentre, the ideology and groups are ones that are keen to equally target the UK

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

Am now finally catching up on myself, with a short piece done yesterday for Prospect in response to Prime Minister Cameron’s speech at his party conference yesterday. Am also using this moment to also catch up on media posting, I spoke to the Press Association about ISIS and the UK’s response, to the Guardian about some of the Brits killed by drone strike in Syria, to the Daily Mail about Sally Jones online threats, while on the other side of the equation spoke to Newsweek about Xi Jinping’s statement to the UN about deploying peacekeepers, South China Morning Post and New York Times about the Bangkok bombing, to Die Zeit about Uighur terrorism, and McClatchy about the Chinese government’s response to Uighur extremism.

Prime Minister David Cameron addresses the Conservative Party conference at Manchester Central.

Extremism: focus on the positive

Raffaello Pantucci—Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute

The Prime Minister has laid out a robust declaration of his intent to counter extremism. While little of the rhetoric is new, the fact that he is now able to deliver it from a position of confidence and strength means it is important to consider the detail of what he is saying.

The PM’s focus is one that very much tracks back from the front line of counter-terrorism (disrupting terrorist plots and networks) into the space of countering extremist ideas. While there is a confusing grey space between the two, where you draw the defining line of the law is something that varies depending on where you stand on the political spectrum. Clearly, the government is keen to push deep into the territory of confronting extreme ideas and wants to try to push such ideologies firmly into the illicit space. The question, however, is what the necessary relationship with counter-terrorism is. While few would dispute that those who practice such horrible acts as FGM or forced marriages in the UK should be prosecuted, it is unclear what relationship this specific behaviour has to those who are radicalised into terrorist networks.

The eagerness to confront conspiracy theories and the dissemination of incorrect information is a good ambition. The problem with confronting it in the space of extremism is that you are up against conspiracy theorists, who will pivot on a wisp of information into a spiral of obfuscation and confusion. Tackling such narratives in this space is not only difficult (since they are inherently intangible), but also ultimately pointless since no matter what is said they will find a way of pivoting away to contradict you and use your narrative to further strengthen their own. Cameron would do better to focus on the approach he also advocated of setting out what makes the United Kingdom great and focusing on that, rather than trying to correct those who are inherently bent on looking for something darker.

And a final catch-up piece, this time a chapter in a report colleagues (Liz and Jonathan) at RUSI pulled together looking at the UK government’s response to the threat from ISIS. The whole thing is available here for free, but I have pasted the first few paragraphs here to give you a flavour.

V. ISIS, Terrorism and the UK

Raffaello Pantucci

ISIS has rapidly moved from being a group seen merely as an affiliate or offshoot of Al-Qa’ida to being recognised as one of the principal international terrorist threats faced by the UK. The threat comprises various strands: the number of British citizens travelling to fight alongside ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the possibility that they may return with the intent of undertaking an attack on British soil; possible attacks on UK territory by individuals who have not fought abroad but who are nevertheless inspired or facilitated by ISIS; and the possibility of attacks on British interests and citizens abroad.

It is true that ISIS remains part of a larger threat picture, and care needs to be taken to avoid exaggerating the domestic threat posed by the group, which would only serve to inflate its importance while potentially distracting the UK from other menaces both on and off the battlefield. Indeed, British citizens are travelling to the Middle East to fight not only with ISIS, but also with groups such as Jabhat Al-Nusra, Al-Qa’ida’s principal affiliate on the battlefield in Syria. Nevertheless, the threat posed by ISIS, at home and abroad, remains a serious one that the UK must persist in addressing.

The picture is complicated as it remains unclear whether ISIS – or any of its affiliates in Africa or Asia – has taken a strategic decision, at a senior level, to launch a large-scale campaign of terrorism outside its immediate territory (in contrast to the wave of more loosely linked incidents witnessed so far). Currently, those plots already disrupted in the UK have demonstrated a confused link to the battlefield in Syria and Iraq. Nevertheless, given the reach of ISIS via the Internet and the large numbers travelling to join its ranks, the problem remains a substantial one. Bolstering agency capacity and building community resilience will help to some degree, but the threat will only be eradicated once stemmed at source.

This chapter outlines the nature of the current threat posed by ISIS before exploring the response by the UK’s police and security agencies, which involves disrupting the plans of both would-be attackers and aspiring travellers alike. It will conclude by offering some ideas about how to counter the particular threat that the UK faces from ISIS at home.

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