Bit of a departure from usual activity, this is an animated interpretation for the website The Conversation of some of the lone actor work that I have been involved in. The numbers and detail of the work comes from the Countering Lone Actor Terrorism (CLAT) project that involved a range of excellent research institutions and colleagues (who are captured in one of the images). A HUGE thanks and applause is due to Wes Mountain who did the animation and was immensely patient with me in producing it.

This aside, spoke to Sky News for a special about a terror case in Manchester with links to the Manchester bomber, and the broader question of the terrorist threat to the UK linked to Libya, and for Canada’s Perspectives with Alison Smith on CPAC about what to do about returning foreign terrorist fighters.

Comic explainer: what is lone-actor terrorism?

Wes Mountain/The ConversationCC BY-ND

Security services and governments around the world remain vigilant to the threat of lone-actor terrorists in our cities.

But when there’s often no indication of an explicit intention or ideology, questions about mental health and with groups like Islamic State willing to encourage and claim responsibility for almost any attack, how do we define lone-actor terrorism?

In this comic explainer, Raffaello Pantucci, Associate Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Director of International Security Studies at RUSI, explains the theory behind lone-actor terrorism and what we know about lone actors’ effectiveness, motives and behaviours that could help us to better understand and disrupt future attacks.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Rachid Kassim is quoted from an interview with Jihadology.

Junaid Hussain’s quote is from court documents.


 


The full Countering Lone-Actor Terrorism Series is available at the Royal United Services Institute’s website.

Illustrations by Wes Mountain for The Conversation.

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Catching up again on posting with an old piece for the South China Morning Post, trying to address some of the rather vacuous commentary that exists around the Belt and Road Initiative. Don’t totally agree with the choice of title, but that was of course an editorial choice. Of course more on this to come, and please check out my other site China in Central Asia for my history of work on this. A few bigger projects coming on this topic next year.

Also to catch up on some commentary, spoke to the Independent about UK’s historical offender management programme, to the Washington Post about leadership in terrorist groups, to Vox about vehicle terrorist attacks, to AFP about jihadi returnees from Syria, to the Daily Mail about equipment being used to monitor potential returnees, to Newsweek for a historical piece about the Paris attacks, to the National about terrorism trends, to Talk Radio about the Las Vegas shooting, to the Independent about the same incident, to the Washington Post after the recent New York attack, to the Wall Street Journal about terrorism in Germany, to Sky News about what social media companies are doing to counter terrorism, to the Times after minister Rory Stewart’s comments about jihadis dying in Syria, to the South China Morning Post about China’s activity in Syria and finally, to the Economist for this short video on returning foreign terrorist fighters.

Opinion: China can cope with any bumps along the way on ‘Belt and Road’ 

Beijing has long experience dealing with countries involved in its massive trade initiative and the idea that it’s not prepared for problems is misleading, writes Raffaello Pantucci

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 November, 2017, 3:32pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 November, 2017, 10:17pm
There is an increasingly tired narrative about how China’s encounters with problems in countries involved in its “Belt and Road Initiative” are evidence of potential bumps along the way.

Implicit within these statements is the idea that the project (as though the belt and road is a single project) is still being developed and conceptualised, and that these problems are something for down the road. The reality is that the initiative is already under way and China is already managing the problems it is encountering.

Announced in 2013, the initiative was Chinese President Xi Jinping’s way of stamping his name on something that was already under way. The story of Chinese investment in Central Asia goes back to the first days of the collapse of the Soviet Union. As the Chinese economy grew, it slowly spilt over its western borders, following the natural flow of regional trade. As trouble in China’s Xinjiang got out of hand, an approach of using heavy economic investment to improve the region only accelerated this flow. This became the root of the Silk Road Economic Belt.

Down in southern China, the 1999 Kunming Initiative aimed to foster greater connectivity for Yunnan province, all under the auspices of former president Jiang Zemin’s Great Western Development Strategy. This became the root of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor.

In Pakistan, as far back as 2002, former premier Zhu Rongji visited Pakistan to inaugurate work at the port in Gwadar.

Meanwhile ex-president Hu Jintao announced a surge in trade and investment with Pakistan in 2006. The bones of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor had been laid out long before Premier Li Keqiang signed a memorandum of understanding in 2013. And none of this covers the port investments in Sri Lanka and other Southeast Asian ports that have long bothered India.

There is no doubt that the agglomeration of all of these projects under a single umbrella has turbocharged them. While previously projects somewhat sputtered along, the high-level attention that is accorded by becoming belt and road initiatives, plus the investments and companies that follow, have changed their dynamics. But the key point to remember is that something was already under way. This is not, for the most part, completely fresh and brand new investment. It builds on old ideas and in some cases on old contracts.

Consequently, it is incorrect to say that China is completely new to these countries and completely new to problems they may encounter. Kyrgyzstan, for example, has faced a few moments of domestic instability. Back in 2010, rioting in the wake of a contested election and fierce interethnic clashes led to the evacuation of Chinese traders working in border trading posts. The kidnapping and death of two Chinese engineers in the Gomal Zam Dam project in Pakistan in 2004 led to a cessation of work in the country. Suffice to say, the problems that China may encounter through investing in challenging periphery countries are not new.

What has changed, however, is the scope of China’s investments and the numbers of people and assets involved. This does change the dynamic somewhat, leaving China exposed in a way that it has not had to manage thus far.

While previously, having to worry about a few people in faraway lands was largely something that could be left to local actors, increasingly this is not the case. Not only are there far more people and assets to worry about, they are vocal and angry when they get in trouble. Voices get to Beijing and stoke fires of public anger suggesting China is unable to protect its citizens, notwithstanding the massive investments it has made in its security forces.

Additionally, Chinese citizens are increasingly obvious targets. Gone are the days when Chinese were overlooked as poor beggars eking out an existence. In China’s neighbourhood, they are increasingly the big investors (whether this is true or not) and this has consequences for their image overseas.

They are now wealthy and attractive targets, both in terms of their economic value, but also in that they are increasingly the representatives of the big power that is supporting a government that may be unpopular for various reasons. All of this makes them targets for angry locals keen to protest against the state, or criminal and terrorist elements who are looking for opportunities.

There is no doubt that China is going to encounter bumps as it paves, mines and develops the belt and road projects. But these problems are not new, in much the same way as the investments themselves are building on deep conceptual and financial foundations that have come before them. The belt and road is not so much a coming concept as a current reality.

Understanding the specific nature of each branch is going to be the important determinant that people should be focusing on to understand how and whether the belt and road is worth engaging with.

It is also how China is going to comprehend how it is going to mitigate the risks that it is already managing better.

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

Finally catching up on some very old posting. Here is a piece on China for the Telegraph, was intended after the 19th Party Congress. I will catch up on other posting later.

Can China avoid an armed confrontation with the West?

Chinese soliders

China is moving towards shedding Deng Xiaoping’s famous maxim about hiding its strength and biding its time. President Xi Jinping’s bold statements during his 19th Party Congress speech last week spoke of a China rising to fill its role on the global stage.

The difficult question for the West is: how will this newfound confidence be expressed in China’s posture on the world stage? And how the rest of the world will have to interact with it?

China’s rise as a military and security power is not a new story. From a third-rate military force in the 1980s, the People’s Liberation Army has transformed itself.

Xi Jinping’s administration has stepped this up through an intensive process of reform that is giving it doctrines and approaches that are competitive with some of the world’s most effective militaries.

China is also expanding its military footprint. We can see this from the establishment of new forward bases, like in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, or through port visits, such as the appearance of Chinese submarines in Sri Lanka.

On land, Chinese peacekeepers are being deployed with increasingly dangerous mandates, something reflected in losses on the ground in parts of Africa.

In military sales, China has leapt up the rankings to become the world’s third largest weapons vendor at around $9.1 billion, according to estimates by SIPRI.

But is this surprising? China will soon be one of the world’s largest economies, with investments and interests all around the globe. It makes sense for it to develop a hard power capability to protect its interests and people as they go out under the auspices of Xi Jinping’s keynote “Belt and Road Initiative”, which aims to build a series of land and sea trade routes across Asia.

The dilemma for China is whether this role is one which will complement or compete with the activities of the West – and the United States in particular. The American political scientist Graham Allison believes all rising powers face something called the Thucydides Trap, in which their rapid improvement brings them into inevitable confrontation with an established power which fears replacement.

In reality China’s foreign policy is complex, containing three strands with varying degrees of aggression:

1. China often cooperates with the West

In Afghanistan it has worked closely with the US and Germany on joint training missions, providing training for Afghan security forces, and facilitating negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Kabul. This clearly matches with western interests.

2. China sometimes passively opposes the West

In Syria the US and most of Europe has taken against the Assad regime, against Isil and alongside the Kurdish forces. By contrast, Beijing has thrown its weight firmly behind Assad, and is supporting the fight against Isil only with the proviso that it is ultimately the regime (supported by Russia and Iran) that will bring stability and security back to the country.

The running theme through all of these situations is that China is protecting its own interests. This is quite natural, but an accidental war would be in nobody’s interest. So far, tensions like these re mostly restricted to border countries where China feels it is not being expansionary but merely protecting its homeland.

A bigger dilemma will present itself when China decides to undertake a more aggressive action in some foreign field where it has no direct border dispute but isprotecting its interests or nationals. In this context, what will be the Western response – to support or condemn?

It is not clear we are anywhere near this situation yet, but clearly Beijing has started down a path of preparing itself for such an eventuality. The question at that stage will be whether the West agrees and supports China’s activity, or whether Beijing is seen as an aggressor that requires confrontation.

There is no clean answer to this question. And nor is it clear whether and when it will be faced. But there is no doubt that China is rising as a global power and has a growing military and security footprint to accompany its mighty economic machine. How the world manages this will be one of the defining questions of the next decades.

Further catching up on posting, this time a piece from this Thursday’s Telegraph looking at the juxtaposition with the fall of Raqqa and MI5 head Andrew Parker’s menacing round of interviews about the nature of the threat that is currently faced. Additionally, spoke to the Independent around the story, the Wall Street Journal about the lack of more attacks with foreign fighters in Europe, the Arab News about the threat from peripherals on terrorist networks, the Financial Times about London’s preparations to counter terrorism, to Sky News about the UK government’s issues with social media companies and terrorism, to the Independent again about the Las Vegas shooter, and on the other side of the coin, to the Financial Times about a visit by the PLAN to the UK as part of a global tour and UK-China military relations.

It’s not Isil’s returning terrorists we should worry about. It’s those who are already here

An anti-Isil commander celebrates in the main square of Raqqa, October 17, 2017 CREDIT: BULENT KILIC/AFP/GETTY

On the same day that Raqqa fell, the head of MI5 Andrew Parker gave a set of interviews in which he talks about facing the most severe threat that he has seen in his over three decades working in the intelligence agencies. This dissonant set of messages highlights the degree to which the terrorist threat that the UK is facing has transformed.

From a terrifying but comprehensible phenomenon directed by surreptitious foreign networks, we are now facing a confusing and diffuse one whose link to terrorist organisations is ever looser.

Isil’s loss of territory has not produced the surge in terrorist plots that was expected. Since the beginning of the year, the UK has faced five successful terrorist attacks – and yet, with the possible exception of the Manchester bombing, none have involved foreign fighters. Rather than the individuals who went off to fight in Syria and Iraq, the threat comes from individuals who are still at home.

In some ways this lack of a sudden surge is not surprising. The notion of an uptick in threat from foreign fighters after the collapse of the Caliphate was predicated on the notion that Isil was somehow holding themselves back – saving the potential strikes back home until they were at their weakest point. This clearly lacks much connection with reality, where we can see that the group has been consistently shouting, directing and instigating terrorist plots in the West for the past three years.

What has changed, however, is the nature of the threat back home, where we continue to see individuals being mobilized by extreme ideologies but finding it harder to travel. Instead, a community of frustrated travellers is developing around the world, at a moment when the ideology and methodology of what constitutes a terrorist attack has become diffuse to the point that it is indistinguishable from random acts of social violence.

This helps explain the picture that we are seeing at the moment. A threat abroad appears to be decreasing (through loss of territory, capability and manpower) just as a different sort of threat is expressing itself at home. But there is still an important question to be asked about what is going to happen to those individuals who went abroad to fight. Even according to Andrew Parker’s latest figures, at least a few hundred are still out on the loose somewhere.

What these individuals will do is going to be determined in large part by their reasons for going to Syria in the first place. For some, the motivation to go and fight was ideologically pure and focused abroad. They were going to fight motivated by a sense of injustice, a driving sense of religious duty or a desire to defend the Syrian people. For them, it is possible that the fight in Syria and Iraq is just the first stage in a long life of constant struggle. Among the first foreign fighters to the battlefield in Syria were fighters who had toppled Libyan leader Gaddafi.

For others, the motivation was more selfish – seeking to flee a chequered past back home and gain redemption on the battlefield. Still others were drawn by friends, family, a sense of adventure or some other reason which now leaves them stranded in a conflict zone. Some will possibly change sides to continue fighting in Syria; some will settle down in some ungoverned space; others will die, and yet others will move on to further zones of conflict. Few went out in the first instance to come back home and be terrorists. Most were driven by a desire to do something abroad.

Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and Iraqi army members in a series of armoured vehicles gather on the outskirts of Hawija, Iraq October 4, 2017. Thick smoke billows on the horizon in front of them
Iraqi forces and Shi’ite militia gather on the outskirts of Hawija during a campaign against IsilCREDIT: STRINGER/REUTERS

In many ways it is to the affiliates that we should most worry about the foreign fighter flow. In places like Sinai, the Philippines, Libya, parts of Central or Southeast Asia or Afghanistan, there are locations were Isil affiliates are taking root. Those that can accept these battle-hardened warriors will welcome them, enhancing a range of problems that until now have appeared deeply localised. Local governments have varying degrees of capability to manage these problems. In the fullness of time, one of these affiliates may pick up the banner of the global organization and become the new Isil core.

The threat comes from when these affiliates decide to launch attacks against the West, either in their immediate neighbourhood, or further afield. The base in Libya has already produced a number of problems in Europe – this may grow. Others may start to express themselves too. But MI5’s attention is apparently on the domestic situation, where instead the difficulty lies in the fact that they are facing a threat that is increasingly hard to predict. A community of individuals who once seemed peripheral are now becoming the main danger.

Raqqa has now fallen. Isil is not yet finished. But at the same time, terrorism has already evolved into a new form that security services are struggling to manage. Foreign fighters will undoubtedly be part of the picture, but, currently at least, they are not where the core of the problem lies.

Late posting of a new piece for the South China Morning Post, looking at foreign fighters from Syria heading back to China.

China should beware of ‘returning radicals’ whether they come home or not

The goal of the Turkestan Islamic Party is to punish China for what has been happening in Xinjiang, and it will do so wherever it can

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 October, 2017, 6:03pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 October, 2017, 10:01pm

The threat of returnees from Syria and Iraq is the threat that has not yet barked in the way that was expected.

While thousands of radicalised individuals from around the world streamed to fight in Syria, we have not yet seen the same outflow of individuals off the battlefield with direction to launch attacks back in their home countries. There have been some incidents, but it is still unclear whether this threat will express itself in the same way as the flow the other way.

When it does, however, China is one of the countries that should be particularly concerned by what happens to this flow.

In research undertaken in 2015, prominent terrorism researcher Thomas Hegghammer showed how terrorist plots featuring returnee foreign fighters were among the most lethal. Using a data set focused mostly on foreign fighters from the West, the research highlighted how individuals who had received some form of training or experience on the battlefield, tended to be more able to launch effective terrorist plots back home.

There is a logic to this: those who are experienced on the field are more likely to have training to make bombs or use other weapons (and therefore be more effective), they will be more desensitised to violence and therefore more willing to kill, and they are more likely to have the necessary contacts with terrorist networks and leadership.

But at the same time, being a foreign fighter does not necessarily equate to becoming a terrorist at home. Many foreign fighters are motivated by idealistic goals, seeking the thrill of fighting in foreign fields to protect communities of brother Muslims. Their initial intent is not to launch terrorist attacks at home, and while some (London’s July 2005 bombers are a good example of this) are re-directed on the battlefield by senior figures to launch attacks back home, the overwhelming majority do not have this in the forefront of their minds when they travel in the first place.

This stands in contrast to what we see in those who have gone from China to fight in Syria and Iraq. Watch the videos or statements from the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) in Syria and you can see messaging that is quite clearly aimed at persuading people to come and fight in Syria to ultimately prepare to return home to China. Videos show the oppressive situation in Xinjiang and call for people to come to Syria to a better life to prepare to rectify the situation.

Islamic State messaging to Uygurs has been more limited, though we have seen the group issue direct threats to China from its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as well as through its Uygur warriors who have published magazines and videos threatening China.

In its first message in Uygur in March this year, IS threatened to “shed blood like rivers” in China and against Chinese interests. While on the one hand this can be dismissed to some degree as fairly standard threatening by these groups against anyone that they see lined up against them, when looking to China in particular the threat takes a different dimension.

TIP’s goal (and Islamic State’s in some ways) is to forge an army that will be able to return to punish China for what has been happening in Xinjiang. And there is already some evidence that they have tried to do this – the attack last year against the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, may have been a failure, but it showed a growing ambition by Uygur extremists to target China. And while returning home to China may prove to be too difficult, launching attacks on Chinese interests around the world may prove easier.

This is important for China to note. While in many other countries, the radical impulse that motivates people to go and become foreign fighters may have in part been addressed by the experience in Syria and Iraq, for those who have come from China, it appears as though the experience was merely preparation for what is to come later. And while this is not to reduce the potential threat that foreign fighters pose around the world, the overarching dynamic of the community is likely to be different for those coming from China versus other places.

For most Uygur fighters, they are going away to train and prepare to ultimately return and punish China for years of perceived oppression. Given the numbers and training they will have received, this is something which is going to trouble Chinese security officials for some time to come.

On the one hand, there is a clear need to find a way to address the causes of grievance that can be found in Xinjiang. The current hard line approach needs some moderating to try to assuage people’s concerns rather than exacerbate anger. But at the same time, Beijing needs to think about the growing impact of this group of radicalised and battle-hardened individuals around the world.

As China has increasingly gone out into the world, its human footprint has increased, producing numerous potential targets. If its warriors off the battlefield in Syria and Iraq are unable to return home, they are likely to find ways of striking China elsewhere.

This is likely to produce a network and threat that China will be addressing for years to come. Beijing needs to both solve its problems at home, as well as find a way of protecting itself abroad.

Another short comment piece for London’s Evening Standard in the wake of the Parsons Green incident, and a brief discussion with Sky News.

Low-level plots like Parsons Green need even more vigilance


Armed police patrol in Westminster Underground station following the attack last week Getty Images

London has now faced its fourth terrorist attack this year. As details emerge, new peculiarities are uncovered. The brutal reality, though, is that low-level terror plots like that at Parsons Green are becoming the norm.

This is not a tacit admission of defeat, but rather a warning that we are facing an increasingly diffuse threat. This means we all have to be alert, while the authorities need to maintain and even step up the tempo of their effort to stay ahead of the threat.

There are some novel peculiarities around the Parsons Green attack. A bomb left on an Underground train with a timer is something that had not been seen for some time. Most recent bombers seemed to have had suicidal intent.

While most recent plots have been conducted by UK-born individuals, the potential presence of refugees in this attack is not entirely new.  IS’s pro-forma claim to be behind the attack lacks evidence of prior knowledge, but it is perfectly possible those responsible may have assimilated some of its ideology.

This is the larger context that the authorities are contending with: a threat made up of disparate individuals launching attacks using rudimentary and home-made means. The time it takes for them to be galvanised into action continues to shrink, and terrorist groups are emitting an ever more basic message to encourage sympathisers to launch attacks.

Given the easy access and diffuse nature of the ideology and attack methods it becomes very difficult to maintain complete cover. On top of this, the authorities are seeing more individuals who were previously under suspicion moving back into current investigations, and a continuing inflow of people from troubled areas — a limited number of whom may arrive with lethal intent.

The good news is that all terrorists are finding it increasingly difficult to launch large-scale coordinated plots.

The greater danger appears to be among the broader community from whom terrorists come. More work needs to be done tying together the many different information streams that authorities have access to and more thought given to how to prioritise them. And the pressure needs to be kept up in keeping known figures under adequate surveillance.

But there is a role for the public too. There is an onus on us Londoners to keep our eyes open.

As a child in London, I recall constant public campaigns about potential IRA devices on public transport. Tubes were held up by abandoned bags, but many attacks were prevented. There needs to be a return to this approach. We all need to keep our eyes open to protect the society in which we live.

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

A short piece for the Telegraph in the wake of yesterday’s incident at Parsons Green underground station in London. Spoke to the BBC, Washington Post and Sun in its wake. Am sure there will be more on this plot in due course, still not clear exactly what took place.

After the Parsons Green tube bombing, what can we do to protect our public transport network?

Public transport by its nature has to be open. This makes it user-friendly to the audience for which it is intended: commuters, travelers, and ordinary citizens. Unfortunately, it also leaves it exposed to people eager to do us harm.

The latest attack on London’s transport system, on a Tube train at Parson’s Green station, is a reminder of this, and it raises uneasy questions about what can be done to protect us all as we go about our business. It also raises further questions about the nature of threat that we face and how we have to adapt to this seemingly low spattering of terrorist incidents which have now become the depressing norm.

It is still too early to understand the motivations of the bomber. With no indication of any ideological goal, nor any claim of responsibility, it is impossible to know at this stage. But it is possible to look back across the recent past and see an increasingly diffuse and confusing threat picture. This year alone, we have four successful attacks – three Islamist and one inspired by the far Right. They are bracketed by seemingly damaged Damon Smith, who left a bomb on the Jubilee line in October 2016 and an aspirant violent Islamist who drove to Buckingham Palace with a samurai sword last month.

Outside the Manchester bombing, the devices and weapons have been rudimentary, using household items to launch random attacks. The individuals are often known to authorities, but in some cases come from nowhere. But they are consistent in their intent to strike fear into the public.

Public transport is an obvious target for this. They are arteries of our cities; they get us all where we want to go. To strike at them is to hit the hearts of our cities and societies and damage the economy that underpins everything.

And this very fluidity is what makes it so hard to protect them. To erect airport-style security at every railway station would not only increase costs and times substantially, but would become a physical impediment at their height of the rush hour, which would create large crowds of people outside stations. Those crowds would in themselves become tempting targets for any bomber or shooter.

In addition there is the perennial question of where one would draw the boundaries of this security bubble. The public transport system of London alone is hugely complex and sprawling. If if we follow the logic of the threat picture becoming more diffuse and scattered, we also raise the issue of which public transport system around the country should not be subject to the same sorts of security blanket. A long-distance service from Euston to Glasgow or a tram on the Manchester metro is just as vulnerable in principle as the Tube.

The answer, as ever, lies in a response that reflects the threat picture. There are numerous public awareness campaigns active aimed at getting the public to be watchful to the potential threats, and these appear to be delivering some success. Damon Smith’s device was picked up by alert passengers. This message needs to continue to be driven home.

Beyond this, the authorities need to continue to play their role in disrupting networks, staying on top of a confusing threat picture and responding as quickly as possible to events that take place. The situation nowadays is such that it is almost impossible to guarantee complete security, but by maintaining a tight lid on the threat we are fortunately only seeing relatively limited impact events getting through. This, atop a public awareness of what is going, on is the likely medium term answer to the severe threat Britain now faces.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the defence think tank Rusi