A final piece on the Anjem Choudary jailing, this time for the Telegraph. Am sure in due course there will be more about him, though hopefully this conviction will keep him quiet for a while. Aside from this, it has been a fairly quiet August which have been keeping myself busy with lots of other things and longer writing projects which will land in due course. Aside from the piece, spoke to the Telegaph again about Choudary, as well as the Wall Street Journal for this longer interesting piece looking at jihadis using smuggling routes around Europe. And just today to the Guardian about a car bombing at the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek  – details a bit early on this one, but whatever transpires it will be an interesting development around China becoming targeted by terrorists abroad.

The Least Bad Way to Imprison Extremists

The Ministry of Justice’s policy of isolation offers no hope of rehabilitation

Radicalisation to violence is a deeply personal process. It’s about an individual making a set of choices for their own reasons within a broader political context that leads them to turn against a society into which they were born. This makes it very difficult to counter and even harder to remove once it has been embraced. Few effective solutions exist, and they are even harder to implement inside a prison.

Last week’s prosecution of the extremist preacher Anjem Choudary – along with a number of his acolytes from the now-banned al-Muhajiroun organisation – means the prison system will again be absorbing a new batch of radicals into a population of alienated and sometimes violent young men who are vulnerable to their message. Managing them will be a complicated process, so the Ministry of Justice has announced a new approach: the “most dangerous” extremist prisoners will be isolated from the general population in special high-security units. But will it work?

We are dealing with a very small number of people. Most of the Islamist terror plots hatched in the UK over the past 20 years – and even some of those unfolding in Europe – can be linked in some way with al-Muhajiroun and its graduates. Authorities have not been ignorant, and a persistent policing and intelligence effort has disrupted their activities, including an attentive effort that sweeps them periodically off the streets when they overstep the line of the law for whatever reason.

Yet this is not a permanent solution. In many cases these individuals serve a limited time before returning to their earlier activity. One Choudary associate, Trevor Brooks, was recently caught on a train to Turkey in breach of his bail conditions despite repeated spells in prison. In short, they are persistent long-term radicals – likely lost causes.

That is not always true. There are cases where people move on from extremism. Although the paths out are as personal and variable as the paths that lead into it, this process can be accelerated or shaped by intensive and engaged mentors who can take a leadership role in the individual’s life and steer them away from their former ideology. That requires two things: isolating them from their old groups and leaders, and offering them a real alternative life they can embrace.

But what do you do with persistent long-term offenders who show no evidence of rejecting their creed and may use prison as an opportunity to further spread it? Ideally you should isolate them from the broader prison community, yet solitary confinement – especially over a sentence of 30 or 40 years – is prohibitively expensive and legally problematic. At the same time, they cannot simply be confined together, free to plot their next moves upon release; the authorities learnt that lesson in Northern Ireland, where paramilitary prisoners packed together in the infamous HMP Maze ended up in effective control of their cell blocks and became a political force.

Until now the government response to this dilemma has been to keep extremist prisoners in confinement or in the general population, moving them regularly so they cannot form strong links. This has its own problems, not least that there aren’t enough prisons in Britain to keep its 100-plus jihadists from meeting each other inside.

In that sense, the new approach is the least bad option. This is not the Maze: each unit will be relatively small and subject to as yet unspecified anti-plotting interventions. It may be that this small but dangerous group of people will always be with us, and that the best we can do without violating our societal principles is to manage them and stop them recruiting – to lock them up when we can, to control their movements and activity once they are out, and to disrupt their ability to spread their ideology in public.

There is a price. Although it is rare, committed long-term extremists do sometimes unexpectedly turn away from their beliefs. As always, this is more likely if they are isolated from comrades and able to socialise with non-extremists, and less likely if not. We will never know how many people we have written off as incorrigible might otherwise have followed this path. It is a balance with no perfect answer – but one which society will probably have to accept.

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

A new piece in the wake of the revelation of Anjem Choudary’s conviction for the Guardian looking at the question of the importance of leadership in terrorist networks and what his detention means. The article is a bit less declarative as the title, but there we go. Also spoke to BBC Today about Choudary’s arrest and they have used the clip on their podcast which can be downloaded here and bits of it got subsequently picked up here. Separately, also spoke to NPR about his arrest and what it means for the UK.

Am also using this opportunity to catch up on some media comments, spoke to the Financial Times about lone actor terrorism, to Politico about the UK-China relationship and Hinkley Point, to Politico about Europol’s future, to TodayFM about terrorism in France, to Huffington Post about how the current wave of terrorism compares to history in Europe, to the BBC, France 24 and The Local about the spate of terrorist attacks in Germany,

Anjem Choudary was a leader. His conviction will damage terror networks

Figureheads give direction to what would otherwise be just a cluster of angry people. Imprisonment will keep his hateful ideology in check
Choudary

The conviction of Anjem Choudary marks a significant moment in the history of British jihadism, but it is unclear what kind of an impact it will have. Terrorist groups and networks do suffer when they lose charismatic leaders. Their removal is unlikely to completely destroy a group, but it does change the dynamic.

Terrorist networks are, at their core, groups of people gathering around an ideology. Individuals are drawn in for various (often deeply personal) reasons, but to function as an effective unit that works to advance an ideology requires organisation and leadership. Otherwise, it is just a cluster of angry people with no particular direction.

It is here that leadership figures are key. They provide direction and can help motivate others, as well as offering some practical experience and, crucially, contacts. An individual who has risen to the top of a terrorist network after a long period of time will develop an understanding of what works. The relationships they will have developed over time are hard to replicate.

Choudary is a prime example. Involved in the formation of the UK-based jihadist group al-Muhajiroun in the mid-1990s, Choudary had pedigree and trust among the community of individuals drawn to the group as well as the wider extremist community. This included those who joined the group pre- and post-9/11. He understood the mechanics of how to organise protests and attract media attention, providing the kinds of soundbites news organisations wanted to use. And he was a charming and charismatic fellow who would make people laugh while he told them about the brutal punishments that would be meted out in the perfect Islamic state he was seeking to achieve. All of this made him a very persuasive figure to the lost or curious young men and women who were drawn to him after seeing or hearing him in the press. In his absence there is no doubt that the network will suffer to some degree, even if Choudary’s own reputation is enhanced to some degree by the perception that he is martyr to the cause, possibly adding to his street cred among followers when he is released.

Other terrorist groups and networks have suffered as a result of the loss of such figures. The Shining Path in Peru largely shrank back into drug smuggling networks after its leader Abimael Guzman was arrested in 1992. Al-Qaida has never quite been the same since Osama bin Laden was killed and the less charismatic Ayman al-Zawahiri took over. After Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed, al-Qaida in Iraq faced a period of decline. In all of these cases, the groups did find ways of picking up or evolving subsequently, but the removal of leadership figures had a noticeable impact.

‘Al-Qaida has never quite been the same since Osama bin Laden was killed and the less charismatic Ayman al-Zawahiri (r) took over.’

The importance of these charismatic leaders is both inspirational and practical. Choudary was famous for being the face of al-Muhajiroun and knew the lines. But he was also an organiser – which is important in ideological networks that aim to get people excited about ideas. They need not only to deliver the ideology persuasively, but also to help others organise themselves to hold protests, send out messages and establish websites. Choudary was very aware of this role and used the ease of contact and travel around Europe as a way of further internationalising his cause. Describing his relationship with a pair of radicals in Norway who helped establish the local equivalent of al Muhajiroun, Profetens Ummah, Choudary said: “There are no administrative links between us, but I am a mentor and adviser for them.”

The jailing of Choudary for a few years will not end the story of British jihadism. Partially because there are others like him, but also because the narrative he was espousing has entered the mainstream to the extent that his role as a megaphone for radicalisation is less important. But his imprisonment will have an impact on his immediate group and some of the contacts he had developed over time. For some time at least, he will be silenced and unable to spread his hateful ideology so publicly. Unless he is managed carefully, it is possible he might end up causing some damage in prison by radicalising fellow inmates, but the mere fact of his removal from the public conversation for an extended period will certainly do no damage to the cause of countering terrorism in the UK. Meanwhile, some of the people who were drawn into Choudary’s orbit and subsequently groomed or recruited by jihadist networks will, thanks to his absence, have a new hurdle to cross.

Catching up on another late post, this time for the Financial Times Beyond BRICS blog looking in some detail at the question of how the ‘Belt and Road’ has had an impact on Xinjiang-Central Asia trade. Trying to look at this as a case study for the bigger question lots are asking. Am immensely grateful to the excellent Anna Sophia for doing some excellent digging to get the numbers for this. As ever a topic that will get more coverage as we go forwards, and check out China in Central Asia for more on this larger topic.

Xinjiang trade raises doubts over China’s ‘Belt and Road’ plan

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The vast Chinese northwestern frontier region of Xinjiang may serve as a useful early indicator of how Beijing’s much-touted “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) is supposed to work – and how successful it may become.

The region, which is home to several muslim minority peoples, has been wracked by ethnic turmoil for decades, prompting Beijing to seek to nurture social stability by driving economic development through hefty investments.

But for this strategy to gain traction, Beijing realised that it needed to boost development in the region around Xinjiang by building commercial corridors to neighbouring Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Thus, Xinjiang was key motivator behind the BRI concept.

But so far the results have been underwhelming. In the three years since the forerunner of the BRI was launched, Xinjiang’s trade volume has not increased and it still constitutes an unchanging portion of total Chinese trade with Central Asia (see chart). This discrepancy between action and results raises questions about whether the BRI is a turning point in Chinese economic policy or simply old wine in a new bottle.

The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region government is an active player in the BRI. Under its auspices, Xinjiang’s major energy companies are expanding Chinese energy trade with Central Asia.

Following its promotion as one of seven national centers for the development of Chinese wind power in 2014, the Xinjiang-based wind turbine company Goldwind won contracts to build plants throughout Central Asia in 2015. In addition, the Tebian Electric Apparatus Stock Company, one of China’s major power transformer companies located in Xinjiang, announced in 2015 plans to build a power transformation line in Kyrgyzstan and a power station in Tajikistan.

Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, called the power station in Tajikistan a symbol of the growing “friendship” between China and Tajikistan, highlighting Xinjiang’s importance to the political and economic objectives of the BRI.

In addition to this corporate activity, the Xinjiang Communist party leadership has represented Beijing in Central Asia. Zhang Chunxian, Communist Party Secretary in Xnjiang, has formalised trade partnerships initiated by Mr Xi with Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. These include deals on agriculture, infrastructure and trade with Tajikistan after Mr Xi’s 2013 visit and a $2bn trade deal with Kazakhstan. Thus, Xinjiang is serving to implement the leader’s vision.

These BRI deals, however, do not in fact represent a departure from Xinjiang’s trade history. Special trade relationships with Central Asian states existed before the initiative was announced, and energy and commodities were already important in its regional trade.

The Kashgar Special Economic Zone was established in 2010 and is intended to deal primarily in regional commodities exports. Likewise, plans for the Kazakhstan Khorgos Border Cooperation Center, where duty-free trade between Kazakhstan and Xinjiang could occur, were already announced in 2011, though construction did not begin until 2014. The point being that many of the projects now tagged as BRI are in fact pre-existing projects that are being re-branded.

The lack of change in Xinjiang’s trade volume since the BRI was announced calls the connection between the broader vision and the deals into question. In 2015, Xinjiang’s trade volume with Central Asia declined more rapidly than the national volume, while experiencing a reduction in trade with every Central Asian country aside from Turkmenistan, which was involved in building a new pipeline to the region.

Xinjiang’s textile exports have increased in 2016, according to the Global Trade Review. However, textiles were already a significant part of Xinjiang’s trade to Central Asia, so the rebound may merely be the result of a weak 2015 base.

The discrepancy between Xinjiang’s visibility in the BRI and its steady proportion of China’s total trade with Central Asia suggests that – so far – the initiative is simply publicising trade relations that existed before, instead of changing China’s trade patterns.

If this pattern holds, it will be important for countries that deal with China to look beyond the visionary rhetoric of the BRI and engage instead with concrete and bankable projects. This requires a focus on what made sense before the BRI was announced.

Raffaelo Pantucci is director of international security studies and Anna Sophia Young is a research intern at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a think tank based in London.

And now a longer report with Sarah for our institutional home RUSI looking at the Tbilisi Silk Road Forum a conference we attended last year and are keen to try to engage with more. It sketches out some of the ideas to emerge from the event, and some ideas about how to take the project forwards. More on this general topic to be found on China in Central Asia. Finally, I also co-edited with Aniseh, this longer report looking at Iran’s relations with Syria for RUSI, as seen from a number of different angles. Am not re-posting it in its entirety here, as it was largely authored by others. But I would encourage everyone to read my colleagues excellent work!

Tbilisi Silk Road Forum: Next Steps for Georgia and the Silk Road

Raffaello Pantucci and Sarah Lain

RUSI Publications, 2 August 2016

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This workshop report provides a number of recommendations which aim to capitalise on the success of the Tbilisi Silk Road Forum and place Georgia at the heart of Eurasian connectivity

The Tbilisi Silk Road Forum which took place 15–16 October 2015 – co-hosted by the Georgian and Chinese governments – was a clear endorsement by Georgia of China’s proposed Belt and Road policy. It also provided an opportunity to showcase Georgia’s position at the heart of a changing Eurasia. At a time when Iran is opening up, there is a surge of Chinese investment following the Belt and Road vision; numerous other proposals for Eurasian connectivity are being advanced by outside powers. As a country with strong connections to the east and west, Georgia is well placed to benefit from this web of connectivity and to offer examples of best practice to those nations that are still formulating their own responses to this regional development. This report details the key findings that emerged from the two-day conference, suggests ways in which it can move beyond being a one-off event and outlines some ideas for how Georgia can establish itself as one of the key hubs of Eurasian trade and commerce.

Some belated posting of which I have a bit to do, this one for the Telegraph about the furore around the Hinkey Power Plant deal and China-UK relations. A difficult topic which is still in a very complex phase. Been trying to finish some very delayed writing projects that is keeping me busy and has some angry editors after me. Apologies to them. A spate of China related material which reflects something there is going to be an increasing amount of over the next period.

How to avoid nuclear fallout and become equal partners with China

Last week’s announcement delaying the decision on the Hinkley C nuclear power plant project has turned into a running commentary on the changing nature of the UK’s relationship with China. While Downing Street has been at pains to highlight that the decision is not linked to Beijing, much has been read into statements through the public news agency Xinhua that seem to foreshadow a veiled warning about the UK’s “golden age” with China being under threat. These proclamations need to be tempered by reality, however, and a realization that China is a pragmatic actor which will continue to seek the best deal it is able to achieve rather than pursuing an entirely quixotic foreign trade and investment agenda.

This is not say that China is not prone to publicly punish countries that have displeased it. Norway has faced a barrage of mostly symbolic sanctions since in 2011 the Nobel Prize Committee gave an award to incarcerated dissident Liu Xiaobo. In the wake of David Cameron’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2012, the UK faced a similar slap-down with diplomats’ lives in Beijing made more difficult and the Prime Minister having a number of visits postponed. In 2010, a pair of German researchers undertook a study using UN data from 1991 to 2008 on the “Dalai Lama effect”, whereby they identified an 8.1 per cent drop in exports to China in the two years after a nation’s leader met with the Dalai Lama.

Yet these numbers do not appear to tell the whole tale. During the period of Norwegian “punishment” (which according to some accounts continues today), the majority government owned oil company Statoil was still able to explore shale gas projects in China, and opened a research center in Beijing. In the UK’s case, it is inconclusive whether there was a definitive drop in trade figures during this period, though it is noticeable that in the immediate week after the fateful meeting between the Prime Minister and the Dalai Lama, a deal worth £50 million was signed between the UK and China to export pig offal and trotters for consumption in China.

Some apparent attempts by China to impose economic punishments on countries that have displeased them have backfired. In 2010, there was a spat between China and Japan over a fishing boat captain whose ship crashed into Japanese vessels in disputed waters; China subsequently moved to make the export of rare earth minerals more expensive. It is a matter of speculation whether the point here was to support domestic industry over outsiders or whether this was specifically targeted at Japan, whose high tech industry relies heavily on rare earths which at the time were 97% controlled by China (or some combination of the two). Whatever the case, the result was that other rare earth sources became economically viable, destroying China’s previous market monopoly.

China is in fact a pragmatic actor in international affairs. When its companies have faced pushback due to domestic concerns, often they have continued forwards in other ways. China has quite rigid domestic restrictions about what industries outsiders can invest into, so finds it hard to overtly attack others for doing the same thing. Often the rhetoric does not match the action, and the new government in Downing Street would do well to understand this distinction and calibrate its response appropriately. The decision over a nuclear power plants is an important one with substantial national ramifications for years to come, and it makes sense the new government would want to take time to ensure they are happy with the deal. Going forwards, however, it is important to ensure that a productive relationship is maintained with Beijing, a power that is only going to grow in significance as time goes on.

In order to ensure a smooth engagement with China and Asia more broadly, a number of steps should be taken: first, the UK should be consistent and long-term. Wild oscillations in policy and approach are not appreciated by Beijing (or any other government). We should seek a relationship of working together as partners with China while setting parameters. Concerns over human rights should be raised – as they are already – and pushing back on China’s aggressive cyber activities should continue. As the United States has shown in its relationship with China, these issues can be raised whilst maintaining a productive overall relationship.

Second, it is important to realize why China likes to invest in the UK. As an open market, the UK is an attractive option for Chinese businessmen looking for opportunities overseas. According to figures published by the Mercator Institute for China Studies and the Rhodium Group, between 2000 and 2014 the UK attracted more FDI from China than any other European country. While the status of the UK market’s relationship with the EU is uncertain longer term, for the time being the UK will remain a major financial hub and discussions and deals continue. Reflecting this, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) met earlier this week to discuss how financial products can work between both jurisdictions.

Third, the UK should seek to engage with China in third markets like Pakistan, Central Asia or parts of Africa where the UK has strong historical economic and political interests and China is increasing its presence. In some countries in this category, Britain and China are competitors, but in others, there is an element of complementarity. Exploring these opportunities will help British business going global, as well as improving the quality and effectiveness of Chinese investments in parts of the developing world.

Fourth, the UK should raise its game and attention to East Asian security issues like the disputes in the South and East China Seas, or the ongoing difficulties with North Korea. Currently, Britain is seen as a part-time player, second fiddle to the US in this sphere. Establishing a distinct and comprehensive understanding of these questions, the relevant relationships, as well as expressing informed views about regional problems and backing them with diplomatic heft would go a long way towards balancing the UK’s approach to the region.

Handled badly, Britain’s relationship with China could suffer in the wake of the delay to the Hinkley Point deal. However, if care is paid to engaging China in ways that are of interest to Beijing and that advance British interests, it is possible to find a way forwards in which the UK can express its concerns while continuing to attract Chinese investment and trade. Beijing is seeking partners as much as the UK is, and in the current state of global uncertainty it would seem unwise to cut off relations with another G7 power. The trick will be to establish the contours of the relationship and make sure that both sides are telegraphing each other’s intent with clarity and with a view to the long-term.

Catching up on posting late again, this time an article for Newsweek looking at why the UK has not yet faced an attack in the current wave we see sweeping across Europe.

How Long Will the UK be Spared an Extremist Attack?

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The United Kingdom threat level from international terrorism is currently set at “severe.” This means that the security and intelligence agencies believe that “an attack is highly likely.” It has been at this level since August 2014 when it was raised in response to developments in Iraq and Syria including the increased number of foreign fighters travelling to the Middle East from Britain and Europe. Since then we have seen the extremist threats in Europe mature and become more acute, while the U.K. has so far been spared an attack.

It is difficult to know why that is the case. It could be thanks to effective efforts by security and intelligence agencies, or it could be because the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), Al-Qaeda or other groups do not currently have the capacity to launch an attack on British soil. It is known that ISIS would like to launch attacks in the U.K.—aside from European returnees from the group such as the British former militant Harry Sarfo telling us, there is also the question of the links to the U.K. of the network that carried out the Paris Attacks on November 13 2015, as well as the regular appearance of British imagery in ISIS videos. The U.K. is seen as one of the key western powers that are fighting the group, and striking it would be an attractive option.

So far, the threat picture has been quite disparate. There have been plots that appear to show evidence of some external direction and coordination, others in which individuals appear to be working in conjunction with contacts abroad including the infamous ISIS hacker and recruiter Junaid Hussain, and plots which appear more in the lone wolf mold.

In the wake of the current spate of incidents in France and Germany, it is clear that intelligence agencies and police forces in the U.K. will be ramping up their capability. The use of new—and very basic—methodologies like a truck to run down crowds, will lead to a re-think on how best to prepare and conceptualize against such an attack. One solution is to build more heavy street furniture like bollards that prevent vehicles from driving on pavements.

The tactic of publicly decapitating someone has already been seen in Britain, with the murder of the soldier Lee Rigby in 2013. It was also mooted even earlier in 2006 when a man named Parviz Khan planned to kidnap and decapitate on video an off-duty British soldier. Security forces are alert to this threat, and beyond raising concerns among a larger community—with religious establishments now an even bigger target than before—there is not a huge amount that can be done. Synagogues have had security guards for some time, and they have started to appear at some mosques, but it is unlikely that we will see them at every religious establishment in Britain.

The biggest lesson to be drawn from the current spate of attacks is the contagious nature of this phenomenon.This is not a new phenomenon—when dramatic extremist incidents take place, they tend to generate copycat attacks—success breeds emulation. The British reaction should be to try to understand better how these events are triggered and to identify those plotting similar attacks in the U.K.

British authorities will also be exploring the implications of the fact that the 19-year-old who attacked the priest in Rouen was already on the security services radar, was subject to some form of electronic tagging and had already been incarcerated. The fact that an individual who tried to travel to Syria twice was not considered a priority case either suggests that the system in France is dangerously overloaded, or that the question of correct prioritization remains a concern. This is something all intelligence agencies face. In a world of incomplete information, multiple potential threats and targets and limited resources, prioritization is essential. Choices are made on the basis of available information and this means some individuals are given less attention. In this case, as with the Charlie Hebdo shooters and the Lee Rigby murderers, the decision was made to pay less attention to the eventual terrorists than others on watch lists because their activity did not seem to merit it. This question of who to focus on is a continual problem for the intelligence services and this particular failure will undoubtedly make British agencies re-consider some of their approach.

Greater attention will also be paid to reforming the U.K.’s existing Terrorist Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs) system. So far a number of people on them have been able to abscond to Syria, though fortunately none have launched attacks like that seen in Rouen. The latest incident has shown what failure can look like, and making sure similar slips do not occur in the U.K. is going to be a priority.

While Britain has been lucky so far, the intent by groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda continues to cause serious concern. The U.K. has at least 800 foreign fighters who went to Syria and Iraq, and has a constituency of radicalized individuals at home who support ISIS. Lone wolf attacks can occur at any time, in any place and no security service has yet found the perfect solution to counter them. While some practical realities are different—the ease of access to high powered weapons for example or the completely open borders—between the U.K. and Continental Europe, as the Nice and Rouen attack showed you do not need a sophisticated weapon to cause a successful high profile incident, and it is not always clear if closed borders would have stopped anything.

Currently, British security services will be focused on supporting their continental counterparts who are facing a particularly acute threat that could still be escalating. Until we know more about the trajectory of this wave of attacks, it will be difficult to know why the U.K. has been fortunate so far been spared.

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

Last catch up for something that was published today in the Sunday Telegraph, this time in the wake of the Munich attack specifically but looking more broadly at the rather odd spate of semi-terror attacks that have taken place.

The piece was re-published in the Gulf News, and separately an interview with one of the newswires was picked up by the Express, spoke to the LA Times, the newswires (picked up in the Mirror) and Middle East Eye in the wake of the Nice attack, spoke to the Wall Street Journal about the current terror threat that Europe is facing, spoke to PBS about Lone Actors, spoke to CNN about the recent terror arrests in Brazil, to AFP about the recent incidents in Kazakhstan, whilst an old piece about Breivik was cited in the New York Times.

What Does a Modern Terrorist Look Like and What Motivates Them?

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There is no perfect profile of a terrorist. This is one of the main findings in the growing body of literature around terrorism. Terrorists and those who are radicalised towards extremist ideologies come in all shapes and sizes. Yet, one of the key features that appeared to distinguish terrorists from mass murderers was the fact that they were motivated more clearly by an ideology than by personal motivations. Increasingly, this line is becoming harder to draw. The last two cases to afflict Europe – the massacres in Nice and  more recently in Munich – highlight this difficulty with both cases appearing to have elements of both within them.

It is still unfortunately too early to categorically know what was going on in Nice and Munich. Whilst the early coverage around both focused on the fact that the Nice murderer was operating alone, and the speculation around the Munich shooter that he may have been motivated by some violent Islamist ideology, we are now instead seeing confusing indicators in other directions. French authorities have now arrested five others in conjunction with the Nice attack, whilst it now appears that the Munich shooter was someone who may have had a fixation with mass shootings and was possibly more inspired by Anders Behring Breivik (who exactly five years earlier murdered 77 people in Oslo in anger at the government’s immigration policies) rather than Isil.

But what both cases do appear to have in common is disturbed young men who are angry at the world around them. In both cases, stories have now emerged of potentially confused sexuality, confused religious identity, anger management issues and family disputes. Rather than being ideologically committed terrorists, they may simply using be the method of a terrorist attack – under whatever ideology – to excise personal demons.

This appears to be an increasingly common phenomenon. It is difficult to know exactly why this is happening. Certainly, the methodological approach of “lone wolf” terrorists is on the increase and groups like Isil and al Qaeda have advocated for their adherents to undertake it for some time. But in many of these cases it is not clear that the “lone wolves” in question are totally bought into the ideology they claim to be fighting for. Man Haron Monis, the Australian-Iranian who held up a coffee shop in downtown Sydney in 2014, was an only recent convert to Sunni Islam and brought the wrong flag with him to his allegedly Isil-inspired attack. Omar Mateen, the shooter who killed 50 in Orlando, apparently claimed some allegiance to al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Isil – competing Islamist organisations.

But it is possible that the amount of noise surrounding groups like Isil is drawing lost souls towards it. It is almost impossible to turn on the television or open a newspaper without hearing about Isil, terrorism or political violence. If you are a socially awkward individual with violent tendencies who is seeking some sort of meaning in your life, then the methodology of a “lone wolf” spree under the banner of such a group may be appealing. It will provide you with a way to punish the world around you whilst also giving meaning to your act. And given the manner in which Isil and other groups push out their omnidirectional message of violence and offer a very low bar for entry to the group, it is very easy to latch on to the ideology as you may loosely understand it and use it as an excuse to express your anger.

There is also an element of “copy catting” within such attacks. It increasingly seems as though Munich shooter Ali Sonboly may have drawn some inspiration for his attack from Anders Behring Breivik. This emulation is not new to such incidents – the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013 by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale is an attack that has generated numerous copies. The day after the attack Alexandre Dhaussy, a recent convert to Islam and known to authorities more for his petty criminal activity that than his violent Islamist links, stabbed soldier Cedric Cordier in the La Defense part of Paris. In August 2014, Brutschom Ziamani, a young man who had fallen into the orbit of violent extremists after he had been thrown out of his family home, was arrested on his way to carry out an attack emulating the Woolwich murder. In January 2015, Zack Davies started hacking at a South Asian man he saw in Tesco’s  shouting “white power” and that he was undertaking the attack in revenge for Lee Rigby. Later investigation showed he was an isolated and paranoid young man who was obsessed with the far Right and claimed to have drawn inspiration from the Jihadi John videos.

The profile of what we consider a terrorist attack is becoming increasingly hard to define. In the same way that the specifics of what our terrorists look like is becoming ever harder to grasp. Fundamentally, a terrorist is someone who is motivated by a political ideology rather than personal anger – but increasingly this line is becoming blurred. The profile of your average terrorist is increasingly becoming melted into the profile of a mass killer presenting authorities with an almost impossible mountain to climb to prevent them all.