A longer essay this morning in the Observer looking at the impact of the murder of Lee Rigby on the face of terrorism five years on from when it looks place. Some reactions on twitter already, look forward to hearing more people’s thoughts (feel free to contact through comments or the contact page). I am careful about saying that this is the harbinger of the end in the conclusion of the piece, as it could be for this expression, though as I have written elsewhere, it is depressingly likely that things will evolve in other ideological directions.

How Lee Rigby’s murder changed the face of terror

Lee Rigby memory

The murder of Lee Rigby five years ago ushered in a wave of ‘easy’ extremist violence. But will such random acts result in radical Islam losing its malign ideological power?

by 

Just under five years ago, two men ran down and then butchered with knives Fusilier Lee Rigby as he walked back to his barracks in Woolwich, south London. Still covered in Rigby’s blood, the older of the two men calmly spoke to the cameraphones of those nearby, justifying his act, declaring it revenge for atrocities in “Muslim lands”. Armed police arrived soon afterwards, shooting the attackers and detaining them. But their act had already been memorialised and continues to resonate half a decade later.

Rigby’s murder was not the first time knives had been used in a violent Islamist act in the United Kingdom. In one example, three years earlier, a young east Londoner called Roshonara Choudhry walked into her MP’s constituency surgery and stabbed him, in revenge, she said, for voting for the war in Iraq. Stephen Timms survived his attack and the act was so strange at the time that it took quite a while for people properly to realise what had happened.

Terrorist groups had been urging such attacks for some time. Al-Qaida’s English-language magazine, Inspire, called for people to carry out such acts regularly under the title of “just do it” terrorism. It had been particularly proud of Choudhry’s act, highlighting how a woman had been stepping up to carry out acts that men, as the magazine put it, were failing to do.

But the important difference is that these previous acts had not “worked” – as in resulted in death. In contrast, Rigby’s murder was public, brutal and recorded for posterity. Shocking in its nature, it seemed a very different terrorist attack to those that we had been used to: such as the coordinated operations of 9/11 or 7/7 or the team of marauding gunmen who executed the Mumbai attack in 2008.

Yet, as time passes, it is clear that Rigby’s murder has had a substantial impact on the terrorist threat picture in the UK and around the world. It was the most public terrorist knife attack and it became something of a model. In the UK alone, at least 16 plots or incidents took place afterwards in which bladed weapons were either used or planned to be used.

The transmission of terrorist ideas and methodology is something that is hard to track precisely. But in the first instance, a public “success” such as this will breed emulation. This was most clearly visible in the immediate wake of the attack in two incidents. A few days after the murder in Woolwich, Alexandre Dhaussy, a French recent convert to Islam known to authorities for his radical views and petty criminal activity, stabbed a soldier in the neck as he patrolled in La Défense in Paris. A week later, after an imam called for prayers for Rigby’s family during a service at HMP Full Sutton in east Yorkshire, a group of radicalised prisoners kidnapped a guard, called for the release of other extremists and tried to take over part of the prison. In both cases, questions were asked about the degree of ideological commitment of the attackers, but it seems clear that their action was in part inspired by the murder of Rigby.

People leave the London Bridge area with their hands up after the 2017 terrorist attack
 People leave the London Bridge area with their hands up after the 2017 terrorist attack. Photograph: Neil Hall/Reuters

In the longer term, the Woolwich action and imagery provided people with an example to copy and perceived heroic figures to follow. Almost a year later, Brusthom Ziamani, a confused young man who had moved in (now banned) al-Muhajiroun circles and looked up to Adebolajo as an older brother – he described him to his girlfriend as a “legend” – was arrested by authorities as he went to carry out an attack similar to that of his idol.

For others, the act lives on in imagery and legend. Nadir Syed, another al-Muhajiroun extremist who was later convicted of planning a knife attackagainst authority figures, was found to have shared images of Rigby’s killers among his friends on social media.

On the other side of the ideological spectrum, in January 2015, Zack Davies started hacking at a South Asian man he saw in a Tesco supermarket in Mold, Wales, shouting “white power” and saying that he was undertaking the attack in revenge for Rigby. Later investigation showed he was an isolated and paranoid young man who was obsessed with the far right.

The drama of the act is transmitted through the media, which help magnify it and give it resonance. This brings it to others’ attention and gives them a sense of great acts of history at play. In the longer term, it generates a wealth of imagery that can be used and manipulated by groups to show the message they are advancing.

Ultimately, the key thing the Rigby murder showed was that there was no need to overcomplicate the terrorist act. Rather than build a bomb, go to a training camp in a far-off land, source expensive and elusive weapons or gather a large network of people, you could conduct a highly effective terrorist attack using tools sitting in your kitchen and your car.

Rigby’s murderers Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale were, in fact, committed and long-term extremists connected to the al-Muhajiroun network in the UK. They were linked to a group of British extremists in Yemen alongside the radical Islamist Anwar al-Awlaki (the preacher whose videos inspired Choudhry, she claimed, to attempt to kill Timms). Adebolajo was arrested in November 2010in Kenya trying to get into Somalia to join the militant al-Shabaab group. He had first appeared on security services’ radars in mid-2008 on the fringes of a network linked to individuals who were trying to obtain material to conduct a terrorist attack and had been in direct contact with core al-Qaida; he had in fact been active in the al-Muhajiroun community as early as 2003 when he was only 19.

Adebowale, the junior in the partnership, had a similar history. He was first investigated by MI5 in 2011, but is known to have had contact with a “subject of interest” to the security service as early as 2009. At the time, he was just coming out of a young offender institution where he had been incarcerated on narcotics charges. Leaving prison, he was reported to be wearing Islamic robes and had adopted a more hardline Islamist ideology. He then joined in the constant churn of activism that marks al-Muhajiroun, showing up at protests, attending events, shouting for cameras.

So while they might have been two jihadist drifters, they nevertheless managed to carry out a terrorist act that captured attention and set a new example. We still do not know the degree to which they were talking to others about doing this, but it does not completely matter. They were committed, long-term extremists who decided to act in a way that they could and, in the process, they changed the dynamic of how we saw terrorism and terrorist acts.

The UK had not experienced a successful violent Islamist terrorist attack since the 2005 bombings on London’s public transport system. Repeated cells had been disrupted, including the 2006 airlines plot, which would have probably killed more than the 9/11 attacks had it succeeded in bringing down up to eight airlines on transatlantic routes. In 2007, a double car bombing in the heart of London was thwarted (two bombs were discovered and disabled), as was a subsequent vehicle-borne explosive device at Glasgow international airport.

The pattern still seemed to be for terrorists to want to achieve large-scale spectaculars that brought mass casualties or caused massive economic damage.

This was not true across the ideological spectrum. Shortly before the Rigby attack, an elderly Muslim man had been stabbed and killed in Birmingham. At the time, it was not clear what had taken place in the murder of Mohammed Saleem. It later turned out to have been the act of a lone far-right extremist from Ukraine, Pavlo Lapshyn, who had arrived in the UK on a scholarship only five days earlier and set off on a one-man terror campaign. But after this stabbing, Lapshyn reverted to what he seemed to really enjoy doing and set off a series of bombs outside mosques in the West Midlands. At the time, questions were asked about whether the murder of Saleem might have inspired Adebolajo and Adebowale, but there was no evidence of this. Rather, they carried out a targeted act of terror in advance of the ideology to which they were dedicated.

The Woolwich attack was shocking for many reasons. There was an ease and randomness about it that seemed so much more brutal than anything that had been seen before. The fact that the men had undertaken their act, paused for the cameras, not attacked anyone else, all showed a level of calculation and menace that suggested something new was afoot.

While horrific, the suicide bombings on the London underground were comprehensible and left a distinct trail: training camps, terrorist leaders in far-off countries directing individuals and sophisticated plots involving hard-to-assemble bombs. Adebolajo and Adebowale changed this profile, showing how everyday household items were redeployable as terrorist weapons.

The wider effect was to lower the threshold of what constitutes a terrorist attack, suddenly making the act much more “accessible”. And this is reflected in what came next, with repeated attempted attacks using bladed weapons, as terrorists realised that this was all that was needed. In the UK alone, at least 16 plots of this type are identifiable on the violent Islamist end of the spectrum. On the continent, the pattern is similar, with the car and bladed weapon terrorist methodology becoming depressingly ubiquitous.

Terrorist groups tried to claim credit. Al-Shabaab, the group that Adebolajo had tried to join in 2010, released an hour-long video taking its title from his comments to camera. In it, al-Shabaab championed the Woolwich murder and elevated it into the pantheon of lone actor terrorist attacks. It called for others to emulate this and seemed to suggest targeting various individuals who were seen on film commenting in the wake of the murder.

Just over a year later, the methodology was given an extra jolt of life by the Isis leader Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s fatwa, which electrified the extremist community. It ran thus: “Kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian… and kill him in any manner or way however it may be. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car…” This was of a piece with an approach advanced by an al-Qaida theorist called Abu Bakr Naji. In his book The Management of Savagery, Naji advocates the use of persistent and extreme violence to grind an enemy down, using as crude tactics as possible. Adnani’s savage litany resonated and subsequent terrorist attacks have clearly drawn inspiration from it.

Numerous cells of plotters were shown to discuss its effect and appeared to accelerate plotting in response. At the same time, the speech was following a path that had already been trodden by Rigby’s murderers. The narrative tying Adebolajo and Adnani together was on display in the Nadir Syed case, where he discussed on social media the importance and inspirational impact of the Adnani fatwa, while praising Adebolajo’s act.

It is in many ways extraordinary that things have turned out like this. In the first instance, the attack by Adebolajo and Adebowale, while a tragedy for the murdered soldier’s family, was in some ways a reflection of how hard it had become to launch terrorist attacks in the UK. The security services had learned how to manage the threat. Complicated plots got disrupted; networks of extremists had been penetrated. Many of those in the al-Muhajiroun circle of friends were in jail or under surveillance. Out of this effective security response emerged the assault on Rigby.

But what could not be known at the time was how the simplicity of this attack would inspire others and show them an “easier” path to take, offering crazed individuals a path to perceived grandeur through others’ misery using tools they had lying around the house. The ideology was accessible through the internet and easy to regurgitate, the methodology and targeting was easy; suddenly, the idea of terrorism was no longer an elite activity for the select few who had access to specific groups and weapons.

In the wake of the Woolwich attack, there was a renewed crackdown on the extremists who make up al-Muhajiroun. It did not eliminate them, but it took some off the streets and a growing number went to Syria. For them, Islamic State’s declaration of the caliphate in June 2014 changed everything, forcing them to make a choice between joining what they had advocated for years or showing themselves up as empty loudmouths.

While there continued to be plots that were disrupted, the ideology spread beyond their tightknit community and sprang up in random circles and homes around the country. Khuram Butt, a known al-Muhajiroun extremist who was the focus of police investigation, was the leader of the cell who, using a van and knives, murdered eight people as they enjoyed a night out, close to London Bridge in June 2017. His act was one that had clear inspiration from his previous al-Muhajiroun comrades.

Yet while diffusion of the threat picture has made it more dangerous, it has also started to tear at its coherence. It becomes quite hard to maintain a consistent ideology when you are trying to bring together organised and ideologically motivated plots with what look like random acts of terror. The spectrum from the concert massacre in Manchester to the bafflingly incompetent attack attempted by Mohiussunnath Chowdhury against police at Buckingham Palace is wide.

An Uber driver angry at the world, Chowdhury entered the wrong co-ordinates into his satnav the first time and found himself stuck outside a pub before figuring out the way to Buckingham Palace. Once there, he drove at a police van, shouting: “Allahu Akbar” and was subdued by police officers with CS gas. One officer was injured as Chowdhury brandished the samurai sword he had with him.

The bus destroyed by a terrorist’s bomb in London’s Tavistock Square, July 2005
 The bus destroyed by a terrorist’s bomb in London’s Tavistock Square, July 2005. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images/PA

This is the issue difficult to assess: when terrorism has become so random, how does it still maintain any of its ideological power? The attacks of 11 September 2001 or the 2015 massacre at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris have an archetypal imagery about them. They capture the maxim advanced by Brian Michael Jenkins, a former US special forces officer and one of the early writers about modern terrorism, who argued that “terrorism is theatre”. The drama and scale of the act draws attention and advances a group’s message.

And this is important to remember: terrorists are fundamentally seeking to advance a political ideology and message. The terrorist act is a way to deliver this. Consequently, the act needs to have drama and effect. A large network plotting to carry out a mass atrocity is a terrifying concept, which will draw attention to itself.

The Rigby murder in its novelty had an equal drama. But as time went on, this approach lost its lustre. In a city where a campaign of stabbings is the major criminal activity preoccupying the police, what effect will a random ideologically motivated one have? If the act becomes indistinguishable from other murders that take place in our societies every day, how does the group continue to advance its message?

This is something that al-Qaida theorists have worried about. The godfather of the lone actor methodology, Abu Musab al-Suri, highlights in his text The Global Islamic Resistance Call that campaigns repeatedly failed because of a lack of proper “education” of ideologies among terrorists. As networks were ground down through confrontation with authorities, “the cadre of supporters that had been formed through lengthy education were expended and the level of education declined among the succeeding bases of cadre”, he writes. This resulted “in the complete failure [that] manifested itself in the inability to realise the goals of the general project”. In other words, as the terrorists committing the act became more detached from the core group, the strength of the ideology was weakened.

Seen in this light, it is possible that we might try to interpret the murder in Woolwich as the beginning of the end or, cleaving to caution, at least the beginning of a path that might take us towards the end. Isis, and its brutality, has extended the lifespan of this threat by years, but ultimately the trajectory will be downward.

Terrorist attacks that are indistinguishable from random murders that take place in our cities or from the brazen acts of lunatics will increasingly have less power to shock. And with no coherent movement, the truly dangerous ideological core will struggle to motivate the right people to launch an effective struggle that has a goal. Rather, it will be occasional lunatics who hurt ordinary citizens but ultimately are unable to change anything. Societies have survived sustained terror campaigns and while none of this is any sort of panacea to those who lose loved ones, the terrorist project is in decline.

Five years on from the murder in Woolwich, the act has achieved a totemic place in the jihadist canon. Yet, decades from now, it might be seen instead as a harbinger of the end of a movement.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (Rusi)

Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, one of the gunmen in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, which left 166 people dead
 Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, one of the gunmen in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, which left 166 people dead. Photograph: Sebastian D’souza/AP
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Catching on a piece from a little while ago for the Times Thunderer column, looking at the effectiveness and issues around deradicalisation programmes. Got a bit of a reaction online. The title is a bit more robust than the piece itself, as my point was more that in some cases a more intense engagement may be able to catch and steer people off the past they are on. Ultimately, people will only really de-radicalise if they make the choice to reject or move on from the ideas. But making them engage with programmes might help catch some more, and that in itself would never be a bad thing.

Been doing some bigger writing which will still take a while to land, but hopefully have some effect. As ever, do get in touch with feedback or thoughts. In the meantime, spoke to Neue Zürcher Zietung about UK jihadis, Middle East Eye about UK jihadi links to Libya, South China Morning Post about China’s problems with jihadis, and randomly to AFP about the Philippines. This aside, the China Steps Out book in which Matt and myself co-authored a chapter looking at China in Central Asia got a substantial write-up by the Council on Foreign Relations in the US. Thanks again to Josh and Eric for their work and patience editing the volume.

Thunderer

 the times

 

The trial of the Parsons Green bomber Ahmed Hassan raises a fundamental question about how we tackle extremism. The court heard that Hassan was identified as a risk before attempting to blow up a Tube train but was never compelled to attend deradicalisation courses run by Prevent, the government’s anti-extremism programme.

Trying to make people attracted by violent Islamist ideology turn their back on it is extremely hard. Success is often only possible if they are identified early enough, when they are still questioning these poisonous ideas, and encouraged to change their minds themselves.

This is why Channel, the anti-extremism programme run by local authorities and the police, has for so long relied on people to take part voluntarily. But the Hassan case shows that if nascent extremists refuse to take part, then the authorities must take tougher action.

The case for compulsion particularly applies to those aged under 18 who are often the most vulnerable and susceptible to radicalisation. Children have more malleable minds and stand to benefit more from a strategy that compels them to attend courses and interviews as part of Prevent. In many cases, they do not have any real understanding of the ideas to which they have been exposed and can be easily turned around. Others may appear wise and manipulative beyond their years but can still be helped to see sense by compulsory deradicalisation.

Another lesson from the case of Hassan, 18, who last week was jailed for life, is that the different strands of counter-extremism strategy need to talk to each other. It is extraordinary that, having failed to engage with the Channel element of Prevent, nobody followed up on why Hassan had effectively dropped off their radar. Neither was there adequate investigation into several occasions when he expressed worrying behaviour. Nor were his foster parents warned of the concerns about him. Each individual failing might be explained away but cumulatively, they let a bomber run loose. The only thing that saved commuters at Parsons Green was the fact he failed to build a successful device. Without greater compulsion from now on, we may not be so lucky next time.

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

Another slightly longer piece about China lands this time in Current History, ‘the oldest US publication devoted exclusively to world affairs’. This looks at China’s growing push into South Asia, and India’s increasingly tense response to it. Somewhat relevant but a bit late for this piece, a Chinese colleague recently described managing relations with India as ‘ticklish’ which struck me as quite apt. This topic is going to grow in significance as time goes on, and am sure will end up doing more about it. In the meantime, for those interested in similar topics, check out the China in Central Asia site. I have posted a version of the paper here, but do check out the Current History site as well for the rest of the excellent journal.

“Beijing’s miscalculations regarding India have created conflict with a regional power that has the capability and desire to disrupt China’s outward push.”

China’s South Asian Miscalculation

South Asia: April 2018

April2018

At a conference in China a few years ago, I watched as a Chinese expert gave a presentation laying out Beijing’s view of the military conflict that it faced in nearby seas. It was largely a story about the United States and East Asian competitors, and China’s aggressive assertions of ownership of islands in the South China Sea. At the end of the presentation, a former Indian officer raised his hand and indignantly asked why India had not been mentioned as a competitor.

In a moment of surprising candor, the Chinese expert responded that he did not include India because, from his perspective, it did not pose much of a threat to China. The answer riled the Indian participant, but it reflected a fundamental calculation that exists in Beijing about India. It is a calculation that could cause serious complications for China’s broader South Asian vision, and ultimately provoke a clash between the two Asian giants.

At stake is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a much-discussed and puzzled-over concept. It has been variously described as a Chinese power grab; an attempt by China to promote its companies’ overseas interests and build infrastructure to suit its own interests; an effort by Beijing to claim leadership of the international order; or, by Beijing’s own account, a project to bind together a “community of common destiny.” But it is really best understood as an umbrella concept that acts as a central organising principle for China’s foreign policy.

The core of this scheme—building trade and economic corridors that emanate from China in every direction—strengthens China’s position in the global order and across the Eurasian landmass. The aim of these corridors is not only to help Chinese firms go out into the world and increase China’s trade connections. Most importantly, they will help China develop domestically.

Ostensibly, this is a benign concept. By improving trade and transportation links through investments in infrastructure, China is enhancing the global commons. Few would say that more eco- nomic connectivity and prosperity is a bad thing. But the reality is of course very different. China is advancing its own national interests, and is doing so by offering a one-size-fits-all policy—which means that it can appear to be proffering the same opportunity to European powers and Southeast Asian neighbors alike. While this is a perfectly understandable self-interested approach, Beijing has been blind to geopolitical problems that it is exacerbating and which may in the long term disrupt its entire strategy.

For more, go either to Current History or get in touch or download it here.

Another short piece for the Evening Standard this past week after the anniversary of the Westminster attack and also linking the general strategy of asymmetry done by terrorists to that being deployed by Russia.

A careful but firm response is the way to stop attackers

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It is a year to the day since the murderous terrorist rampage that killed four innocent bystanders and a brave police officer in Westminster. The news is now dominated by a different menace. The attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter (which caught another policeman in its wake) is different in origin but similar in intent. Both involve an attempt to undermine our society by striking at soft targets through violence. We need to be firm in our response, but not rise to the bait and do our enemies’ jobs for them.

Though it may not feel like it, our security services are strong: and those who try to attack us know it. They fear an overwhelming response were they to launch a full military attack and, in the case of terror, their efforts are defeated, though at a terrible human cost. They are weak. But they aim to exploit divisions in our society, and how we respond affects our success in defeating them.

Individual terrorist motives are hard to understand but the overarching point of attacks is to awaken us to conflicts that those involved believe are already happening. Adversaries are eager to try to pry apart our alliances and undermine faith in our security.

While it is impossible for us to stop people taking aim at us, we can make sure that we do not play into their hands by doing their jobs for them. Exaggerated rhetoric in response to risk is exactly what they want.

Both terrorism and Russia pose dangers. But these threats have to be managed, and not made worse, rather than eradicated. This is not an admission of defeat. We will have to sustain some relationship with Russia in the longer term, though Moscow is gearing towards continued confrontation. But there are others there who do want to engage with us and we need to find ways of strengthening our links with them.

Terrorism, unfortunately, is a constant within our societies, and one that will be made worse if we respond with rhetoric that talks up the divisions and strengthens the claims of extremist groups. They think they are fighting a religious clash of civilisations — if we respond in similar terms, we risk making the very case they are advancing.

A year on from the Westminster attack, it feels as though the terrorist threat has calmed down to some extent. After a terrible year, security agencies appear to have been successful and arrests and attacks has slowed.

It has become something of a cliché to talk about standing strong in the face of terrorism and praising British resolve. Yet this is the best response to attacks which, while hideously damaging to those caught in the crossfire, are not going to bring our societies crashing down — unless we do our adversaries’ jobs for them and inflame the very fissures they are trying to pull apart.

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

Finishing some larger projects so things have gone a bit quiet, but a few big things in the pipeline on both China’s Eurasian relations and terrorism. In the meantime, I have a chapter with Matt in an excellent new book by Josh and Eric looking at China’s relations with Central Asia. We just launched it to great success in London this past week at RUSI. Given it is for sale, I cannot simply post it here, but if you get in touch I can do my best to help. You can also short circuit the process and buy the book at a very reasonable price in paper or online form on the Routledge website.

China Steps Out: Beijing’s Major Power Engagement with the Developing World

ChinaStepsOut

A short piece in London’s Evening Standard yesterday about the announcement over the weekend of China scrapping the rule that Presidents only stay in power for two terms. Over the weekend, spoke to Sunday Times about the West London cluster of jihadis that fought along ISIS which included the infamous Jihadi John and his friends.

China is sending a message that it is a power on the world stage

People walk past a poster of Chinese President Xi Jinping on a street in Beijing  AFP/Getty Images

In a move that has resonated quietly around the world, the Chinese Communist Party has announced that it is changing the laws on the length of term that presidents can sit in China. Widely interpreted as an indication that current leader Xi Jinping is setting the table to stay on beyond his current term, the reality is that we still do not have any clear idea about what this will mean.

Are we seeing the rise of Xi the forever leader? A reflection of the state of chaos that China sees in leadership around the world? Or something else altogether? What is clear is that from being driven by Deng Xiaoping’s modest maxim of “hide our capacities and bide our time”, China is becoming an increasingly confident power that feels little need to adhere to others’ views of how it should be governed.

Speculation around the change in Beijing has focused on the more ominous potential the amendment suggests. Comparisons have been made with Russia’s President Putin or other leaders who have changed legislation in order to stay in power beyond constitutionally determined terms. But this would be at odds with the leader we have seen so far.

By strengthening his position, Xi is, however, sending a strong message to the rest of the world. A China that is led by a confident leadership is a potent force on the world stage. With China having about a sixth of the world’s population, growing economic might, a steadily increasing military presence and a soft power influence that is raising its global profile, the next decade is one that is going to be increasingly defined by whoever is in power in Beijing.

This calls for a clear and coherent response — something that is not always evident in London. While the Prime Minister’s recent visit to Beijing went smoothly, it was a long-delayed trip, a casualty of the current political difficulties London faces with Brexit. Yet the world is not going to wait for Brexit. Rather it is going to move onwards and upwards, and the consolidation in power in Beijing is a reflection of where it is heading.

China’s leadership and what that leadership wants is going to be one of driving forces behind the global order of the next few decades. In order adequately to respond, London needs to develop a clear, coherent and consistent strategy towards China. Whether this one of greater confrontation or greater co-operation is up to Downing Street, but a clear path needs to be laid now. Beijing is showing the route it is going to take; now London and the world need to respond.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI)

A new piece for an excellent outlet that I occasionally contribute to, the CTC Sentinel, which is an interview with Neil Basu, the Senior National Coordinator for Counterterrorism Policing in the UK. It is quite a wide-ranging discussion around the current threat picture, recent problems, and future threats that might mature. It got a bit of a bounce getting picked up by The Times, Daily Mail, The Sun, Asharq al Awsat, and some other local UK outlets. It was also suitably spun by RT. Thanks to editor Paul for all his hard work on it! Separately, spoke to Vice about the Jihadi Beatles, and Arab News about foreigners fighting with Kurds.

A View from the CT Foxhole: Neil Basu, Senior National Coordinator for Counterterrorism Policing in the United Kingdom

DAC-Neil-Basu-06-600x429

February 2018, Volume 11, Issue 2

Authors: Raffaello Pantucci

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu is Senior National Coordinator for Counterterrorism Policing in the United Kingdom, a role he was appointed to in October 2016. He is responsible for delivering the police response to the Pursue and Prevent elements of the Government’s CONTEST strategy. In this role, he coordinates the policing response to threats arising from terrorism and domestic extremism nationally and also manages the Metropolitan Police Service’s Counter Terrorism Command (SO15). In his career, Basu has worked as a detective in all ranks to Detective Superintendent, served as the Area commander for South East London, and headed London’s Armed Policing within Specialist Crime & Operation.

CTC: How has U.K. counterterrorism policing evolved to confront the changing threat?

Basu: 9/11 was the contemporary game changer. In the U.K., it started off with some plotting between 2002 and 2004, which wasn’t just concentrated in London. It was also regional. Then you get to 2005, and in the worst way possible, we were taught that this was actually embedded in local communities: domestic home-grown terrorism with some direction from abroad. So there was a need to build regional capability, and that was the start of the network that we have today. Now we have nine counterterrorism units—embedded regionally, collocated with MI5, building intelligence in local communities, [and] connected into local community policing.

Given the nature of the threat we now face, we need to be even more focused on communities and more focused on getting local information. While the ambition is still there for the mass spectacular—and the July 2017 airline plot in Sydney, Australia, was a recent example of that—IS [the Islamic State] has been encouraging supporters living in the West to carry out high-impact/low-complexity attacks. Because of the military push on the ground in Syria and Iraq and the effective eradication of IS’ geographical territory and their ability to project that abroad, it is much harder for them to send trained people back. Borders have closed. Turkey has done well with their border.

The big threat for us now is the ideology that’s been diffused onto the internet and the calls for attacks by its followers in the West by IS online. The caliphate may have been defeated militarily, but it has now become a virtual network. What we’re not seeing is a reduction in people’s willingness to align themselves with this ideology. So even though there is no caliphate to go and fight for, in the minds of some British extremists, the fight carries on because they can aspire to go to Libya or another ‘province.’

In confronting this evolving threat, we have to be more ‘fleet of foot’ at a time when ‘going dark,’ due to the widespread availability of encrypted apps, has become the new norm. We can no longer depend upon all the usual intelligence-gathering apparatus.

CTC: Has the locus of the threat abroad shifted? Syria and Iraq was where the threat was, but would you now look to Libya as a place where you could see the same sort of a threat emanating from?

Basu: You would be completely foolish not to worry about Libya. All of the coalition thinks that that is going to be a tremendous problem in years to come. Anywhere there is ungoverned space, anywhere there is fragile political governance is a potential source of threat. But it is not clear that it is going to be easy for terrorists to move from location to location. We already know of eight or nine IS affiliates around the world that have claimed allegiance, with [fighters in] Libya being one example. Libya is very close to home for Europe and our allies, but for a long time, it was not the focus for our attention. For us in the U.K., what happened in Manchester was a big wake-up call to the fact that there were people who had traveled back and forth to Libya doing much the same thing we were preventing people from doing in Iraq and Syria and who had a similar hatred for this country. And oddly enough, these travelers were second or third generation [immigrants], not necessarily the generation you would assume.

CTC: The Manchester attack and its links to Libya were particularly striking given the similarities with other networks and plots seen previously in the U.K., in particular historical networks linked back to terrorist groups in Pakistan.

Basu: You would have to take a huge leap of faith to say Salman Abedi [the Manchester suicide bomber] was not traveling to and from Libya with some malicious intent and that it was all just about family and socializing and not about training. We’ve long known that training overseas can battle-harden people. It’s not just being able to fire a gun; it’s the psychological bar that you overcome by being brutalized in theater. Once you get a taste for violence, the second time is much easier. And cops know that from dealing with violent criminals.

CTC: A year after the cluster of plots in the first half of 2017, do we have any more clarity on what precipitated all of that terrorist activity in the U.K.? 

Basu: JTAC [Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre] was very good at saying something is coming. Security analysts understood that once there was a military push on the ground against them [Islamic State fighters] in Syria and Iraq, they were going to start lashing out. Leaders like [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi and [Abu Muhammad] al-Adnani, before he was killed, were telling followers in the West they didn’t need to ask permission from an emir; they could just go ahead and launch attacks.

This was the backdrop that was making security forces nervous. Then, and this is a personal view, Khalid Masood [the March 2017 Westminster bridge attacker] launched his attack. He had no clear and obvious connection to either IS or al-Qa`ida. He was clearly someone who cherry-picked the bits of Islam that he believed justified what he did. Whether his particular religious interpretations was the actual driver for what he did, I am of two minds, but his motivation died with him. There is no concrete information that it was for the glory of the caliphate or for the glory of IS or for the glory of AQ. But what he did achieve was that he gave fellow violent extremists the understanding that the U.K. was not such a hostile place to launch attacks and that by using this simple methodology you could succeed. Some violent extremists admired him for actually going ahead and doing it. Some criticized him for not doing a very ‘good job.’ But at the end of the day, what it did say to them was that ‘my plot could work. What I have been thinking of doing, I could actually do.’

CTC: Have you seen much of a change in the threat picture since Raqqa has fallen? Or has it had no effect?

Basu: What we’ve seen is a lot more chatter, a lot more people thinking that they have a chance of successfully carrying out attacks. So the pace and tempo, the number of leads that we think are concerning, the pace has gone up. Whether or not this is linked to the push in Raqqa is hard to tell.

In terms of plots, the trend is towards less sophistication, more amateurism. We’ve not seen a growth of extremists. We’ve seen more conversations among extremists expressing the belief they can launch successful attacks here. So definitely the pace of plotting activity we’re looking at has gone up. But then that was predictable as well. I don’t think anyone thought the military defeat of the group in Syria and Iraq was going to be the end of this. We are dealing with an ideology, which is being spread online and has global reach, and we to need to confront this by clamping down on what’s being spread through the internet and better engaging with people who are vulnerable to the extremist message.

CTC: Earlier this year, Minister of State for Security Ben Wallace stated a significant number of British nationals who signed up to fight with extremist groups in Syria and Iraq had gone missing somewhere in the region.1 What do we think has happened to those who are unaccounted for? Where have they ended up? 

Basu: I think there’s probably more in detention overseas, including in YPG or Kurdish or SDF detention, than we currently know. We obviously won’t know everyone who’s died. It’s a warzone and difficult to be definitively accurate. We estimate that 15 percent of the 850 foreign fighters that have traveled from the U.K. to Syria and Iraq have died. There are some we absolutely know died, and there are ones we guess are deceased because, for example, they are no longer communicating. Establishing the fate of the others is going to be very difficult.

I think we have made it very clear how hostile it would be for foreign fighters if they return here. The policy is very clear. You do not get to come back here if you did manage to get over there and you are a fighter.

About half of the 850 who traveled to Syria and Iraq since the onset of the Syrian civil war have returned to the UK. The large majority of these came back very quickly and early on. Some of those were genuine aid workers. Some were people who thought they were going to build a caliphate, not necessarily be immersed in a war. Generally speaking, the people who came back quickly are not where the bigger threat lies.

The larger threat is posed by the return of committed recruits who went there to be trained. When it comes to people who we know are back in the U.K. that we suspect fall into this category, we have either tried to build a case or we’ve monitored them or we have talked to people who know them. As far as those who are still overseas are concerned, we have been making it very clear that this will be a very hostile place to come back to, and I do not think most of these foreign fighters will want to come back. They will want to fight on, and that’s why they have been so committed to being in theater for this length of time.

We are still not seeing what many predicted was going to be a large reverse flow as the so-called ‘caliphate’ disintegrated. Instead, we are seeing just the odd person come back.

When it comes to those still unaccounted for—and who are not being held in detention in the region—I have no doubt a number might be trying to reach other IS strongholds. It is almost impossible to say what has happened to these people. I think we overestimated the stand-and-fight-until-you-die attitude. Some of these foreign fighters will want to fight another day. It is also too early to say where they will coalesce. Could it be the Philippines? Could it be Libya? But it is worth thinking about how practically easy it would be for somebody who is not Arab-speaking, doesn’t necessarily ‘look the part,’ to meld into society in a place like Libya. Very difficult, I would think.

If you crunch the figures: about 850 foreign fighters who went, about half who came back, 15 percent who died, you’re probably looking at a cohort of about 300 that we know traveled who are still out there. Not all of those are mono-Brits; a lot of those are dual nationals. Like other countries, we operate on the principle that we don’t want you back, and therefore we will deprive you of your British passport. And the government has done that. Because of this, the ones who could come back are about a third of this 300 number. And for those among these who end up coming back, we are absolutely waiting for them. That’s the bottom line.

CTC: British officials have said a residual risk is posed by about 20,000 individuals who were previously the subject of counterterrorism investigations. This is a very large number. How is it possible to manage the risk from such a large community of people? Who is going be responsible for managing this? Is this a job for the security services?

Basu: It’s impossible for any country to allocate resources for that kind of number. And every country will have a similar issue. That number will always grow. Because there will always be people who have been considered a national security threat but are no longer considered a national security threat. There is no way the security services or policing can manage all of those on their own. What we have to make sure is that there are ways of assessing whether the risks still exist or not in specific cases, and that’s going to involve something that the security agencies have never done before, which is sharing information from the secret space into multi-agency partners who may be able to help assess that risk. This is not a new concept. Multi-agency public protection arrangements for serious and violent offenders already exist. These individuals live in communities, and there are all kinds of measures in place to manage them. Local authorities need to be informed in a similar way as when people convicted of TACT [terrorism legislation] offenses return to their communities.

People get hung up on the full 20,000 number that is circulated, but what we need to be focused on is what the actual risk in that group is. The bigger risk to us are the additional 3,000 open cases that U.K. security minister Ben Wallace has talked about. That’s where the larger risk lies. A lot of the nervousness has come from the fact that we had two people come out of the 20,000 pot and attack us last year—Khalid Masood and Salman Abedi—while London Bridge attacker Khurram Butt was in the 3,000 who were being looked at. But we would be making a terrible mathematical mistake if we said that we need to swivel all of our guns onto the 20,000, when the 3,000 is where the big risk is.

What exists in that 20,000 is the possibility of people reengaging, like Abedi and Masood. How do you spot that reengagement? Do we have the right triggers in place so that when somebody who has previously shown signs of violent extremism reengages or does something or contacts someone of concern, it comes onto our radar screen?

The only way we are ever going to significantly improve coverage of this is by alerting a broader number of U.K. agencies about who is in the 20,000 pot. David Anderson [former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation in the United Kingdom] has stated this is something we are going to have to get much better at. We have already learned a great deal from the Operational Improvement Review in the wake of the attacks, and Mr. Anderson praised the work that had been done. But clearly more needs to be undertaken to tighten up our processes to prevent such attacks from taking place.

We are going to run pilot programs and see where we get to on this larger group, to see whether there are issues around reengagement. As a result in some of those cases, we will end up moving them deeper into the safeguarding space: they don’t want to be engaged in extremist activity, they might choose to volunteer, and they might want assistance in all kinds of ways, whether that’s mental health, education, or intervention providers providing religious instruction. There might be people who genuinely want to get off this extremism carousel. And there might be others who are reengaging who become a risk again, and we need to look at them from a law enforcement and security perspective. We are only going to be able to know this is the case if more people are helping us, and that includes my core policing colleagues outside of the specialism of counterterrorism policing. They will be used to the principles; they just need to learn to apply them to terrorism offenders. The key is information sharing and spreading the risk, but because we work in a top-secret world, that’s a cultural change, which is easy to call for out loud like this but really difficult to achieve.

CTC: We keep seeing TATP showing up in terrorist plotting. Is there more that could be done to stop that? 

Basu: A few very obvious things need to be done. We need much more help from the private sector. Anyone who sells materials that could be used in this process needs to be engaged with, and we need to be much quicker at spotting suspicious purchasing activity. Same with the banking sector and suspicious transactions—all of which has been in place for some time, but we need to be much better at it. And we need to make sure that we remove anything that looks like bomb-making instruction from anywhere on the internet. The difficulty is that some of this stuff is O-level [type] chemistry experimentationa that is available online and aimed at children and students. So some of it is not IS appearing online saying ‘this is how to blow people up.’ And so there is a danger is being disproportionate in what we take down and what we don’t. TATP is still dangerous, volatile, and difficult to make, but it is probably not as difficult as we thought it was. So you don’t need to be a chemical engineer to be able to do this kind of stuff.

CTC: When it comes to social media and its role in encouraging or directing terrorism, is there more, from the policing perspective, that you can do? 

Basu: This is principally a role for intelligence agencies rather than police. What it does require, however, is close cooperation from social media companies. And where there isn’t cooperation, we need to consider coercive measures. Governments need to consider legislation. In reality, 2017 was a wake-up for the U.K. and for a lot of companies, not just in the CSP [communication service provider] space. It is about corporate social responsibility [for] how they protect their clients. I do not think it is acceptable anymore to say, “I’m defending free speech” if free speech involves blowing people up. The companies need to be in that space. There are positive signs that they are in that space. They’ve been in front of various hearings and political leaders. I’ve no doubt that they are listening, but they need to make sure their business models are effective in dealing with this now. They’ve got the brainpower, and they’ve got the resources, and they need to help.

CTC: Turning to the threat posed by the Extreme Right Wing (XRW) in the U.K. It has been discussed as an escalating problem for some time. Has it now crossed the threshold of being a national security threat?

Basu: It is too early to see how much it should be escalated. The threat assessment should be looked at by JTAC, and where we think there is a national security threat, then the security services should be involved. The far-right group National Action was the first time we saw anybody who was organized in the XRW space in a way that would represent a national security threat. Thankfully, it is nowhere near the same scale or problem as we’ve had from the IS-inspired or -directed [threat] or the AQ [threat] prior to that or the IRA threat prior to that. That is really something to be proud of in the U.K. culture and tradition that we don’t have this mass wave of extreme right wing. So far, we have seen people try to get on the back of that and not be incredibly successful. They are still relatively small, relatively disconnected, relatively disorganized groups.

My biggest concern about the extreme right wing, which is not a national security threat, is the Darren Osbornesb of the world, the Thomas Mairs of the world [the murderer of Member of Parliament Jo Cox], and the lone actor with the mental health problems, depression, drugs, and the personal grievance who is acting alone. It is spotting people doing something like that which is very difficult.

The biggest concern for the country should [be] that violent Islamist extremism and violent right wing extremism will feed off each other. Islamophobia is something we have to be really clear about in policing: hate is hate. And we should be very, very robust and have a zero tolerance towards hate crime. And if we don’t do that, and Muslim communities are being stigmatized and attacked because of things a tiny minority of people are doing, I think we will create problems for ourselves. The Muslim community is going to be thinking that it is unfair and unjust. I think we don’t have parity at the moment in the way that we look at things. But we don’t have parity because at the moment, the scale of the threat is not the same. I do not want to wait for the scale of the threat to get to a point that something has to be done about it. You have seen a lot of the robust action we’ve taken against National Action, and that was because we were determined to stop this [from] becoming the next problem.

CTC: What about the policy side? The latest iteration of CONTEST [the U.K. counterterrorism strategy] is due out in a few months. What is your particular view on the “Prevent”c pillar of the strategy? 

Basu: Prevent is the hugely controversial part of the strategy. Government will not thank me for saying this, but an independent reviewer of Prevent, as suggested by David Anderson, would be a healthy thing. In fact, he would be excellent in the role. Prevent is, as a Prevent officer who used to work for me said, five percent of the budget but 85 percent of the conversation. Prevent is the most important pillar of the four pillar strategy.d There is no doubt in my mind about it. We’re pretty good at Pursue; we’re pretty good at Prepare, as people have seen in our response. What needs to be better in Protect is the private sector, and I think there’s a big willingness, like there is with CSPs, to understand that they need to protect their customer base better. And whether that’s insider threats, cyber threats, or security guards [in] crowded places, there is an understanding that they need to invest more in that. But Prevent is the key.

There is still this hangover of toxicity around the Prevent campaign that we need to stop, because people need to understand that this about stopping people in the pre-criminal space ever getting anywhere near criminality. And Prevent needs to concentrate on how it does that. That cannot be a job for the police and security services. That has got to be a wider societal pillar. The more that policing and security service could withdraw from Prevent in order to focus Prevent work on problem solving within communities and getting communities to deal with it, the better in the long-term. There will always be a role for policing because we are a frontline. And here I don’t mean counterterrorism policing but the other 115,000 or so police officers who are in the frontline working together with communities. But actually the big responsibility is how do we get everyone else interested and involved and talking positively about some of the brilliant work that is going on.

Prevent, at the moment, is owned by the government, but I think it should be outside central government altogether. I think people who are running their local communities should be taking the lead. Local leaders around the country should be standing up and talking about this, not central government, security services, and counterterrorism police. Communities should be talking about protecting themselves from the grassroots up. When you see Prevent working on the ground brilliantly, that’s where it’s working, and largely unsung and un-talked about. Substantial community resilience is produced by that sort of work, and giving people that resilience is important and communities have to help each other do that. I would love to see a professional communications company say, as part of their social responsibility programming, “I’ll give free training to anybody from youth or whoever who wants to start a conversation around this.” That would be great. Rather than the government handing over a sum of money and then it becoming state sponsored with accusations of demonizing communities, it should be locally generated. We have gotten all of that messaging the wrong way around, it should be grassroots up.

Previously, this was not being done. But there are increasingly some phenomenal voices who’ve got real gravitas in their communities who are beginning to talk about the issues. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is a really good example of that. He is not central government, he runs a city, and the protection of the city is his concern, he should be doing that, not MI5. Not the Cabinet, and the National Security Council and New Scotland Yard.

CTC: The threat picture we talked about is about a scattering of diffuse, random, isolated loners who latch onto ideologies, launching lone actor-style attacks. Have you seen any evidence in the attack planning of anything more substantial than that? Or is that really where the heart of the threat now sits? And is that where the threat picture going forward is going to be?

Basu: We will never eradicate the ambition [of extremists] to put a complicated network together to do a big, spectacular attack. The difficulty with that for a terrorist is that all that planning and all that preparation makes you very vulnerable. Where people aren’t vulnerable is when they are sitting in their bedrooms, using encrypted apps or not using any technology at all, and not having any contact with the outside world. Thomas Mair was a good example of that: no one spotted that happening because he was just a bit of an odd, loner, social misfit. No one saw any triggers that would be interpreted as leading him to that extreme level of violence. That is the bit that concerns me. We are seeing people who are vulnerable to suggestion, who have low-level mental health challenges, which probably don’t hit any clinical threshold. So even if they presented to the National Health Service, they would not look like they were someone of concern. It might be a low-level mental illness, but it’s a low-level mental illness with a lot of other red flag markers around it—for example a propensity towards violence. You can be seriously mentally ill and not violent. Nobody should ever stigmatize people with mental health, or put the two things together. But it is that kind of thing that concerns me most, and we are seeing more of that. And most disturbingly, very young and more female interest in violence.

That disturbs me and has got to have come from social media, if you think where kids get all of their information and how fast that they get it … and then how easy it is to go from—it’s a horrible expression—‘flash-to-bang,’ from having no understanding [of] what they are dealing with to a tiny, partial, ridiculous kind of notion of what religion or what violence, or what freedom of expression, or what these things mean because they picked it up in six-second soundbites on their phone. That malleability worries me a lot, and that concern seems to be being replayed around the world in my conversations with partner agencies across the European continent. So how we influence that younger, very vulnerable generation is going to be a key question. A revamped Prevent strategy is going to be a large part of the answer.     CTC

Substantive Notes
[a] O-levels are exams students in the United Kingdom used to take at age 16.

[b] Darren Osborne is the recently convicted extreme right-wing terrorist who drove into a crowd outside the Finsbury Park mosque in June 2017.

[c] “Prevent” is the forward-looking aspect of the strategy that focuses on preventing individuals from being drawn to extremist ideas.

[d] The other three pillars are “Pursue,” “Prepare,” and “Protect.”

Citations
[1] Roger Baird, “Government has lost track of hundreds of British jihadi fighters,” International Business Times, January 5, 2018.