More belated posting, this time of another interview with CTC Sentinel of a senior UK counter-terrorism official, this time Jonathan Evans the former head of MI5. Previous ones have been with the current head of Counter-Terrorism Command and the former head of JTAC. Lots of interesting thoughts, insights and a few new details which might appeal to some.

A View from the CT Foxhole: Jonathan Evans, Former Director General, MI5

Lord-Jonathan-Evans-preferred-1-1200x800

March 2020, Volume 13, Issue 3

Authors: Raffaello Pantucci

Lord Evans of Weardale served as Director General of the U.K. Security Service MI5 between April 2007 and April 2013. He joined the Security Service in 1980, and he first worked on counter-espionage investigations. During the late 1980s and 1990s, he had various postings in Irish-related counterterrorism. From 1999 onward, Evans was directly involved in countering the threat from international terrorism. In 2001, he was appointed to the Security Service’s Management Board as Director of international counter terrorism, 10 days before the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Evans became Deputy Director General in 2005. It was announced in October 2014 that he would become a Cross Bench life peer, after a personal nomination by the Prime Minister for his public service.

CTC: Your career in the Security Service, MI5, spanned a series of terrorist threats. Could you tell us which were the biggest evolutions you noted across ideologies and groups?

Evans: There were a number of key developments over the period I was in the Service [MI5]. First amongst them was the rise of Irish terrorism as a strategic threat rather than just something that was of concern in Northern Ireland. During my time in the Service, it became very central to London government concerns, and the Service was very involved in countering it. But it was very political terrorism, carefully calibrated to try to have a specific policy impact on the British government in contrast to the different focus of some other groups.

At the same time, we were also looking at a variety of other smaller—from the U.K. point of view—threats in terms of Palestinian terrorism in the late 70s and particularly into the 80s, and terrorism arriving from the various diaspora communities in the U.K. At one stage, we were putting a lot of focus on Sikh extremism, as there was quite a lot of support activity here which was important to the Sikh extremist activities in India. The same with the PKKa who were doing a lot of fundraising in the U.K. from Kurdish communities. A lot was done through intimidation, basically racketeering, by PKK elements in north London.

But the other really big development was the emergence of al-Qa`ida as an issue in the 1990s. From a U.K. point of view, this issue impacted us through the fact that quite a lot of the ideologues from whom groups sought fatwas were based in the U.K., like Abu Qatada, Abu Hamza, and so on. A number of people involved in the Algerian GIA—the early forerunners of what then became al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM]—were based in the U.K., and so we were looking at al-Qa`ida from that point of view. Partly because the Americans were so focused on it, because of the attack on the USS Cole and the Africa embassy attacks, and then that transferring into the domestic threat in the period after 9/11. After then, it became by far the biggest terrorism threat that we were facing.

The initial turning point at which we took this seriously was in the second half of the 1990s, when we found that some of our European partners—in particular, the French—were very focused on the Algerian threat. Their view was that there were significant elements of this based in the U.K. This is the Londonistan period. They assessed that the Algerian elements in London were feeding into the threat that expressed themselves through the metro bombings in 1995 in Paris. So, in a sense, our initial response was in support of European friends, rather than on our own account.

There are various conspiracy theories about the Londonistan period including the notion that Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) in some way gave a free pass to the terrorist sympathizers in the U.K. on the basis that they would not attack us. This is a complete fabrication. The problem was that we didn’t actually know what was going on because we were not looking. There was all sorts of stuff going on that we just were not aware of. It was not that we were deliberately turning a blind eye, just that we had not noticed. With the creation of al-Qa`ida, the threats in the Middle East, and the problems in France particularly from the Algerians, we started to pay more attention, and once we started looking, the more we found. But at that stage, it was not actually plots to mount attacks in the U.K.

The first indication that we had an actual, live, real threat in the U.K. was in November 2000 with the arrest of Moinul Abedin and a co-conspirator in Birmingham.1 The co-conspirator was completely exonerated by the courts and subsequently rearrested on other charges. There was some precursor activity by them in Manchester some years before the attempt.

The lead that started the Birmingham investigation came to us from another European country, where, because they had come across an attempt to purchase terrorist equipment through criminal circles, they tipped us off and said “we came across this; you probably ought to look at these people.” That was the first time we’d come across them. We investigated and eventually realized that they were doing something which was immediately threatening. They were arrested on the 23rd of November [2000], which was the first arrest of anybody in the U.K. linked to al-Qa`ida who was planning an attack here. We knew they had to be planning an attack here because they had a large quantity of very volatile homemade explosive in their apartment, although we [still] don’t know the target.

At the time, we couldn’t directly link it into al-Qa`ida, although it looked as though it probably was. However, with the fall of the Taliban and the Afghan camps in 2001/2002, evidence came to light which demonstrated that this was an at least inspired al-Qa`ida plot of some sort. A few individuals such as Tariq Mahmood, known as T-Bone, who subsequently became very instrumental in fomenting terrorism out of Pakistan’s tribal areas into the West, appear to be have been involved in the margins of that operation.b

CTC: Having been involved in the investigation into the United Kingdom’s first al-Qa`ida-linked plot, you then watched as the threat evolved and matured through a whole series of plots including the July 7, 2005, attack on the London public transport system. Could you tell us about how that pre-9/11 investigation was similar or different to subsequent plot investigations?

Evans: That particular pre-9/11 investigation was the only one that appeared to have an element of direct threat to the U.K. in it. After 9/11, obviously, there was a lot of pressure on MI5 to provide assurance to HMG that if there were anything like a 9/11 being planned in the U.K., that that was identified. And in fact, there was not, as far as I recall, a huge amount of directly threatening activity that we could identify immediately after 9/11. We had a lot of resources given to us, but it was entirely proportionate to the threat we found. We were able to put the resources to good use. But in the immediate wake of 9/11, it was certainly not the sort of level of threat that developed later.

We started to see attempted attacks from 2002/2003 onwards, the most visible and probably the best known of which was the attack plan that we called Operation Crevice. It was a complex interlocking set of activities involving individuals in the U.K. home counties based out of Crawley and up into Luton. They were mostly likely planning to attack the Bluewater shopping center, but they had also talked in some detail about central London. They did not appear to have necessarily pinned down exactly what their target was going to be. But there was also a separate leg to the plot, which was an attempt to purchase what they thought was radiological material in Belgium. In fact, they were unable to source anything radiological, and it turned out to be a relatively common scam at the time, which was called Red Mercury.

The plot itself, however, appeared to be encouraged and fomented by al-Qa`ida in the tribal areas. It was one of the early ones we saw. It involved predominantly British citizens or British residents of Pakistani heritage, something which became something of a theme for this period.

One of the people who appeared in the margins of Operation Crevice was Mohammed Siddique Khan. At the time, we assessed him—probably rightly actually—as not being a terrorist himself but being a criminal who had some little scam going on at the edges of the Crevice group. He was noted and not prioritized because there was a lot going on and there were a whole series of investigations running at that point. We saw a very significant change in temperature between the second half of 2001 and the second half of 2003/2004. We saw a lot more apparent attack planning of various sorts, some of which was clear to us as a result of the questioning of American detainees who were giving information on networks in the U.K. Prioritization became very acute during this period, and unfortunately, one of the individuals who was prioritized out was Mohammed Siddique Khan, who went on to be the primary instigator of the 7 July [2005] bombings in London.

One notable thing about the July 7 bombings is that while they were an appalling and ambitious attack that killed many, the group of plotters did not fundamentally differ from all the other plans that failed to come to fruition. The only difference between the July 7 cell and all the others was that the police weren’t able to arrest them beforehand.

What you had that was different about the threat picture then versus now was the deliberate initiation or promulgation of plans from Pakistan, using intermediaries from al-Qa`ida Central into the U.K., using U.K. residents or citizens as the people who mounted the attack. Rashid Rauf is the most obvious of these intermediaries.2 Tariq Mahmood, T-Bone, became another of them, and there were one or two others. And that was characteristic of the period. From an intelligence point of view, this was a vulnerability because they were planning and trying to have an element of command and control over what was going on, which gives you some attack surface from an investigative perspective.

Whereas if you are merely facing the sort of terrorism that one has been seeing in the last few years involving low ambition and technology, without a command and control network, there is not nearly as much to investigate. On top of this all, the ‘flash to bang’ [in this more recent type of terrorism] can be very rapid.

After the July 7, 2005, attack, the next lowlight—so to speak—was the liquid bomb plot, Operation Overt, in 2006. With the police and the other agencies, we developed very good coverage of the plot as it matured. Again, it was fomented from Pakistan, there was command and control back into al-Qa`ida senior leadership in the tribal areas, and we were able to watch carefully and then move to intervene at the critical point in order to stop anything happening. That plot felt like some of the later-stage investigations into Irish terrorism that we had been doing. Because we had good intelligence coverage of what the Irish terrorist cells were doing, we could intervene at the relevant point, and we felt like we had a good insight into individual plots that were being prepared. Had that plot come to fruition, it would have possibly killed more people than were killed by 9/11 and would have been extremely difficult in terms of Anglo-U.S. relations. At the time, we were working extremely closely with the U.S., and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude for the support they were giving to us over that period. The U.S. have a quite extraordinary scale and spread of intelligence capabilities, and those were being used very regularly to help safeguard the U.K. There were some tensions in the run-up to the conclusion of Overt, but the fact of the matter is that actual arrest decision was triggered maybe just 24 hours earlier than might have been the case had we not had that American pressure. But it was a matter of judgment; I do not think it was a very critical issue.

CTC: To move to the present day, could we turn to the topic of resource allocation? If you think back to 2017, the volume of people being investigated for Islamist terrorism in the United Kingdom was around 3,000, and there was discussion of another 20,000 posing a residual risk.3 Could you talk through the capability to manage this kind of threat volume?

Evans: The question of managing the volume of threat intelligence, or potential threat intelligence, has been one of the continuing themes of the last 20 years. As you grow your intelligence capability, as the public become aware of the fact that they need to be alert and not alarmed, as the police are very focused on terrorism cases, then that does create a lot of incoming material that may indicate potential threats. But you cannot, despite the enormous investment in capacity that the British government has made over the past 15-20 years, follow up everything with equal speed and attention. So, you have to make judgments.

We developed quite a lot of resource into what one might call triage: looking at the whole flow of incoming intelligence, deciding what was most credible and most indicative of a threat, and focusing on that. This helped us decide how to deploy resources to deal with the most credible and threatening material in order to chase down any threats, which is the only logical way of dealing with it. During the time that I was involved in counterterrorism, I do not think we ever had a successful terrorist attack that came about from one of the top priority operations we were focused on. This was because we were able to put a lot of resources into priority investigations, get insight into what was going on, and make sure that the threat did not materialize. The problem was always with the material that had been assessed to be of a lesser priority, because it was in there that risks would suddenly eventuate. Because even though it was entirely logical and sensible to not focus on them on the basis of what you knew, actually you never have perfect insight.

As you grow the intelligence machinery, we started to know something about everybody who did something threatening on the streets of the U.K. And having this information but not acting upon it could be said to be a demonstration of the reach and effectiveness of the intelligence service or it could be interpreted as a blunder. But it is almost intrinsic to the nature of intelligence prioritization that the most important decision made is what not to do. And it is there that the risk lies. That is now well recognized, and post the 2017 attacks in the U.K., there was a review into this area, some work done on additional resources and further work into whether there are ways in which you can provide a degree of automation of this process. The idea being that it becomes an anomaly detection issue: you have normal activity taking place, then something changes, and this provides you with some direction about where in the potential target population you should look for a threat. Logically, this makes a lot of sense, as long as you’ve got good enough intelligence coverage to be able to detect anomalous or changed behavior. But again, if what you are looking for is a 9/11-sized plot, then you have quite a lot of opportunity to gather intelligence. If you’ve got somebody who’s been self-radicalized and whose weapon of choice is a hire [rental] car, then what is it that you’re going to spot? Hiring a car and driving to London does not necessarily suggest that there is a threat, but it does mean you could if you choose to kill people.

It is surprising to me it has taken so long for terrorist groups to get to this stage. I can remember talking 10 or 12 years ago and saying if al-Qa`ida stopped trying to outdo themselves with a plot that was even more dramatic than 9/11 and just got on with killing some people, that would be really difficult for us. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. But what I would say—and this sounds rather a harsh point, but it is an important one—as a society, we can, if we choose to, continue with normal life relatively unaffected by occasional stabbings and vehicles being driven into the general public. Horrible and terrible as those events are, they are not a strategic threat to us. We are speaking soon after the atrocious events on London Bridge where [on November 29, 2019] two individuals were killed through stabbing by a known terrorist. I don’t know for certain, but I suspect if you look across London that week, there were probably other people killed in stabbings that have nothing to do with terrorism and do not get the publicity. We give the terrorists something of what they want in the way in which we react to their terrorism, which of course is classic terrorism theory from the 1960s. We need to think about how we respond to this and just not play up to what the terrorists are trying to get us to do.

CTC: Looking at the case of the November 2019 London Bridge attacker Usman Khan in particular, this raised a whole series of issues about people who have been in prison. A lot of those you were investigating are now coming toward the end of their prison sentences, if they have not already. How do you think HMG can manage or mitigate this problem, and do you think there are adequate measures in place to deal with it?

Evans: I do not think there are adequate measures in place to deal with this problem. I personally feel that we should have considerably longer sentences for terrorist aggravation where there are offenses. Deradicalization and the whole Prevent agenda is absolutely critical, but it is also by far the most difficult for government of the four pillars of the Contest strategy.c Because, from a government perspective, if you want more of the Pursue pillar, which is the part of the response which is following terrorists around and stopping them [from] doing nasty things, then you give more money to the Security Service, Police, and so on, and it happens. The Protect pillar, which focuses on hardening targets and building defenses, is similar: if you want to reduce vulnerability in the environment you allocate adequate resources, and it happens. But Prevent is about changing people’s minds. It is about arguing with them about their theology, something Western governments are peculiarly badly equipped to do. It is also very difficult to tell whether it’s working because how do you know whether somebody has genuinely repented or whether they are merely saying it because they want to be released from prison? There are clear successes in the Prevent strategy, but equally, there are some pretty spectacular failures.

We need to keep trying to find the best way of working on deradicalization [and] anti-radicalization. Anti-radicalization might be a bit easier than deradicalization, but it is always going to be something which is difficult for a secular Western government to engage with. I believe that there is a strong religious element in some of the Islamist terrorism. In the early days, [the U.K.] government was very uncomfortable about anything that had religion in it and did not want to talk about it and did not want to see it as a religious issue. They would much rather see it as an issue to do with politics, economic deprivation, or whatever. And while I am sure all those have a contributory element to them, religion does as well. However, having an argument about religion is something which government departments are not that great at. It is much easier for the Emiratis who used to be very puzzled as to why we didn’t do more about this. They would issue the sermons for mosques from their government to be read out in the mosques every Friday. I do not think the British government has many people who could write credible sermons for the mosques around the U.K. even if they had the ambition to do so.

There is also the question about what is the definition of success. The British government has been slightly in two minds about this over the years. Is the measure of success that people stop terrorism, or is it that they stop adopting what might be perceived as extremist views? Government has changed its mind periodically on that question. It is probably easier to stop people adhering to terrorism than it is stopping them adhering to views that be might be not aligned to what might be perceived as British values.

A number of the programs in the Middle East [that] seem to have had some success are successful in giving strong theological support to the idea that people should not be attacking the regime because it is an Islamic government and deserves at least their acquiescence. But this acceptance is (a) very different thing from saying that somebody necessarily signs up to what might be seen as mainstream British values on rights of women and so on. The government has chopped and changed a bit on where it stands. Some of what appeared to be fairly successful anti-radicalization measures that were being implemented at one stage were dependent upon support and engagement from some parts of the Muslim community that had extremely conservative views on issues such as women, and may have had views on Israel that diverged from the British government’s. But crucially, on the issue of whether Muslims have a moral and religious duty to attack the United Kingdom, they and the U.K. government had come to the same conclusion. All this complicated things: you are giving government support to a group who, in a number of their areas of their belief, are very far from the mainstream and whose views might be seen as extremist. As a result, I am always slightly skeptical of the viability in the U.K. of the counter-radicalization efforts some Arab countries have proclaimed to be successful, because it is not always clear to me that this is transferable to the U.K. And even if it was, it would probably be struck down by the courts in the U.K.

CTC: Turning to the question of foreign terrorist fighters [FTFs], what kind of a threat do you see from the contingent of people who went to Syria and Iraq, those who are still at large? And what do you think the government should be doing with the ones in SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] custody?

Evans: I think there is a threat. I have considerable sympathy for the view that Ed Husain takes,d which is that if people have been involved in violent extremism and then decide that this actually has been an error and a mistake on their part, we could reasonably expect them to actively seek to counter extremism in this country rather than just saying “oh I made a mistake, I’m very sorry.” If there is genuine belief that they made an error and they have seen the error of their ways, then I do not know why you would not expect them to be giving evidence against people with whom they were cooperating and who took part in appalling crimes in Iraq and Syria. There has been a problem with getting evidence from those areas that could be accessible in the British courts. The question is why are the repentant members of that group not giving evidence and audibly reaching out to the community in saying that they want to help push back against extremism. Some people are contributing in this way, but many are not. I would like to see actions as well as words if we are going to accept that people have changed their minds.

CTC: On the FTF question, how does this compare to the earlier flows that you saw going? For example, those who went to Afghanistan.

Evans: There are some parallels. If you look at the history of radicalization in the U.K., there are similarities with earlier flows. The whole Kashmir dispute and conflict was very important in pushing people towards political, in fact relatively extreme political, positions and then across into more general extremism. Then there was the Balkans conflict, which radicalized a broader pool, where quite a lot of the grand old men of British Islamism were involved, and then went on to be very influential in bringing those sorts of messages back to the U.K. Then finally you had the same process in Afghanistan in 1999-2001 with the al-Qa`ida camps there [being] a sort of university of terrorism. From that, 9/11 was spawned alongside lots of the attacks that we saw in 2003-2010 period.

Syria has many of the same characteristics. There were people going out knowingly and actively taking extremist positions, others instead taking humanitarian positions to get out there. But once they are there and have the experience of being out there, the teaching they receive on the battlefield, the bonds of comradeship they form, the actual physical experience of battle, all work together to make them more radicalized and then ultimately bringing the threat back with them. It was absolutely clear during the post-9/11 period that this threat had been exported from Afghanistan and by those that had gone to Afghanistan, and I think that even from my slightly more distant position today, Iraq/Syria has many of the same characteristics.

The unique selling proposition for IS [the Islamic State] was the fact that it presented itself [as] a caliphate and it held territory. I always took the view that the very first thing you have to do in this particular case is take the territory away from them so as to demolish their claim to a status of a caliphate. But you needed a military process to take away some of their legitimacy. And now we will go, I guess, into a long period of threat from the [jihadi] alumni of Iraq/Syria.

CTC: I did want to pick up on your mention of the Kashmir issue and its capacity to be a push-factor toward radicalization in the United Kingdom, given the recent tensions in the region.

Evans: My main point there was that because of the particular shape of the Pakistan-Kashmiri diaspora in the U.K., Kashmir is a real hot-button issue. Inevitably, the recent actions of the Indians in Kashmir are likely to further have inflamed tempers. People care desperately about Kashmir in places like Bradford, and it is a radicalizing issue. So I would have thought that it is an exacerbating factor, although I don’t have a particular reason to believe that it will then turn itself against the U.K., given the fact this is an India-Pakistan conflict point. I can certainly see it as an intercommunal issue, although on the whole over the years, intercommunal issues haven’t really played out very heavily in the U.K. People have very strong views, but surprisingly, they don’t tend, for the most part, to play out on the streets of our cities.

CTC: An ideology that has increasingly worried people and has come under greater focus recently is the extreme right wing. Has its rise as a threat surprised you? Was it something you were focused on?

Evans: Yes, I was focused on right-wing extremism. I have always taken an interest in the far right, partly zoologically, because some of the individuals involved are so wacky that it is quite fascinating to watch them. I can remember back in the 1980s and 1990s, the saving grace of far-right extremists is that because they had such extreme and odd views, they tended to be extreme and odd people who did not tend to be very good at working with each other. You saw groups that tended to fragment and split like something out of a Monty Python film into smaller and purer groups. So, they never quite managed to get their act together into something more substantial. But from the early 2000s, and in those days it was mostly a police focus, from time to time individuals would come to light who were on the fringes of the far-right groups, who had been building bombs in their garden sheds, and who hated Muslims and so on. These cases were redolent of other earlier cases such as the London nail bomber, David Copeland, who went on a bombing campaign in London in 1999.4 He was on the fringes of the far right, not an active member of any particular organization, but took it upon himself to build bombs which he used to attack the ethnic and gay communities in London. Around the same time, there was a group called Combat 18, which was quite active and was itself a fragment of the far right. There were a few individuals in that group who started to espouse the idea of terrorism The [Security] Service worked closely with police to undertake some disruptions in the late 1990s of Combat 18 associated individuals who were consorting with people of similar cast of mind in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc. These groups had explicitly decided that terrorism was part of the way forward in order to try to destabilize what they characterized as the Zionist Organized Government (ZOG).

We’re seeing similar sorts of actors again now in the far-right scene. Partly I suspect it is a reflection of the social pressures on communities as a result of austerity measures [in the U.K. in the years after the 2008 financial crisis]. There seems to be a constituency of disaffected males (for the most part, but not entirely) who find extreme right-wing beliefs attractive. And they have started to get their acts together to organize into groups and plot. And there is some evidence that they have been consciously and deliberately inspired by the perceived success of the violent Islamists in getting their grievances on the table as a result of violence and thought and thinking “well, we can do something like that.” Certainly during my time, it was the English Defence League (EDL) who had started to develop this narrative. The EDL was not quite the same as other extreme right-wing groups, but they were a reactionary group that fed off and were mutually symbiotic with [the British Islamist extremist grouping] Al Muhajiroun (ALM). The EDL emerged explicitly in response to ALM activity, though in fact they both needed each other ideologically to advance. ALM needed the EDL because they gave them justification for their position and vice versa. So, they were both mutually beneficial to each other. Looking at the threat picture now and how it is evolving, I am not surprised that we have an extreme right-wing threat. We have seen signs of it emerging for 10 years-plus, and the fact that it is now more organized with groups like National Action [a proscribed U.K. extreme right-wing group] was almost predictable.

CTC: Turning to the threat from Irish terrorism and its current state, you mentioned the importance of the threat when you joined the Service. Currently, the threat to Northern Ireland from Northern Ireland-related terrorism is assessed to be higher than the terrorist threat facing the United Kingdom as a whole from all forms of terrorism.e Could you give us some reflections on the current state of this threat?

Evans: MI5 took over primacy for national security in Northern Ireland when devolution took place in 2007, given national security cannot be devolved.f This led to greater responsibilities for MI5 in the region, and it became fairly evident quite quickly that despite the tremendous political success of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, there was a rather fissiparous, but significant group of dissidents who did not accept the political settlement and wanted to foment terrorism. The solution, insofar as it was a solution, to IRA terrorism at the time was a political solution, which was to reach a negotiated accommodation between the different communities which both sides could just about manage to accept. There was a deliberate decision back then on the part of the republican groups to go down the political route because they saw that as a more effective way of achieving their aims, and as a result of that, there was also a diminution of support for terrorism for violence by the loyalist groups.

The current problem is that there is not a similar deal to be done with the dissidents that are left because they are irreconcilables and therefore the response to them over past 10 years has been a straight security response. During the time I was the Director General of MI5, we had more officers pro rata in Northern Ireland than we had in the rest of the U.K. because of the fact that there were many potentially lethal plots being fomented by the dissident groups. And from time to time, one of those would succeed. There has been a periodic drumbeat of terrorism for the last 10 or 15 years in Northern Ireland, with occasional attacks or attempted attacks on police or prison officers. There was a bomb outside our headquarters just outside Belfast in 20105 [and then subsequently another in 20156]. This hasn’t gone away. And there is the additional problem that because of the link between criminality and terrorism, various people have an interest in it not entirely going away.

The question of the moment is whether the political tensions in Northern Ireland around Brexit and the potential for a hard border with the Republic will mean terrorism will rebound? My view on this [is that] it will give probably a little twist and boost to the dissident groups. They will be able to say that the entire settlement that created the more stable current situation was based on the false premise of European unity. But I would be completely astonished if Sinn Fein [the political party that was closely associated with the IRA] decided to go back to terrorism because the Good Friday Agreement has worked well for them; they are the only political party which has got significant and substantial representation north and south of the border [in both Northern Ireland and Ireland]. If anything, the recent developments with regard [to] Brexit probably give them more hope that a future poll might lead to reunification through the ballot box, so why spoil that potential opportunity by going back to violence. So I would totally discount the idea that the IRA might decide to return to terrorism. The dissidents will probably get a boost, but they [would] struggle to get things back to where they stood in 1985. Partly because security capabilities have developed considerably over that period and [because] there is much greater investment, and therefore I think it would be harder for them. And also, I don’t think they have a core of community support which is sufficient to sustain a big, long-term terrorism threat in the way that Sinn Fein were able to do for the IRA during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.

CTC: To talk briefly about Brexit, you’ve been vocal about the negative consequences on U.K. security. Could you comment on that more broadly than Ireland? And how it will impact the United Kingdom’s response to terrorism?

Evans: I think the narrow question of intelligence sharing in Europe will not be immediately impacted by Brexit because intelligence sharing and intelligence matters have never been within European Community (E.C.) competence, and therefore the structures for enabling that are not E.U. structures. Those relationships will continue. The U.K. has been an overall net contributor to those relationships, and it is valuable to both sides that those relationships continue. But when it comes to interventions [disruption operations], those are very often law enforcement interventions. And law enforcement, policing, is within E.C. competence, and therefore things like Europol will be impacted. Whilst I would imagine that we will be able to negotiate sensible engagement with Europol, we will not be part of the core Europol community because we will not be part of the European Union. So, remaining involved with Europol will, at the very least, require extensive negotiation; it is not simply a case of people saying, “well, we want them in, so we let them in.” It would be a legal question, and it is unlikely we will be in as advantageous a position in terms of law enforcement cooperation as when we were members. The net effect will be a less effective response, in my view.

Secondly, and very importantly, the U.K. has been for some time a voice in political discussions within Europe for the security dimension of problems to be given appropriate weight. On issues such as data sharing, data protection, and so on, the fact that the U.K. has very forcefully promoted the importance of national security, as well as data privacy, has meant that the overall policy positions that the E.U. have come to have tended to be ones which were different than would have been the case if the U.K. had not been there. The U.K. has had allies in achieving these outcomes, of course, but we have been very vocal and effective in lobbying to get these goals. Now we are not going to be at the table in the same way, and while we have a wonderful diplomatic service who will excellently represent our interests and seek to influence others, it will not be the same as being at the table with a vote. From that point of view, one of the dangers is that the E.U. will take policy positions which are less security-friendly than they would otherwise have been had the U.K. been there in the debate as a full member. And whilst we will not be a member of the European Union, we will still be deeply affected by the decisions they make because we are a close neighbor and we are still going to be closely connected. The danger is that we get a policy framework which is less facilitative of information sharing and security concerns than would otherwise have been the case, something that will be a net negative in national security terms.

CTC: Finally, a more future-looking question. You mentioned earlier the attention you historically paid to the PKK and Sikh extremism, and we have talked about the threat from extreme right-wing terrorism. Are there any other issues or ideologies out there which you see as brewing terrorist threats?

Evans: I do find that a very difficult question. I suppose the question is whether there is an unspoken-for political movement out there which could become the fuel for future terrorist threats. There was a kind of canary in the mineshaft in regard to what happened with Islamism in the U.K. in the Salman Rushdie affairg because it demonstrated that there was a very vigorously held strand of thought out there which was in tension with the assumptions of the way in which British society should work in the 1980s and 90s. And I’m not trying to overemphasize the linkage, but the protests and anger around the Rushdie Affair amongst Britain’s Muslims did show that there was an issue here, which, because of circumstances, grew. The problem is identifying similar issues in the future. Predicting the future is an unsatisfactory process, because the truth is you do not know what is going to happen and how things will develop. I cannot identify here and now what the next such issue might be, but the key to establishing what might emerge in the future is to look at the areas where there is political tension which is not being addressed as this is where problems are likely to emerge.

CTC: Some have, in the past, expressed concern that the radicalization of [elements of] the environmental movement might lead to violence. Do you think this is a possible risk?

Evans: I suspect it is not an area where terrorism would be the response. The truth is that non-violent activism by [environmental activists] has had an impact over the last few months and is changing people’s political minds. Within this context, terrorism would be counterproductive. It is like animal rights in many ways: there will always be a small group of people who will go for violence because they have a predilection for it. Animal rights was quite a concern 15 years ago, and there were moves in the late 1990s towards terrorism by some of the extremists amongst the movement. And you could maybe see something like that emerge amongst the more extreme environmental position, but that’s different to mainstream environmentalism. So you might see individuals going down the route of violence, but I doubt that it will develop into the major phenomenon that Irish terrorism was for a generation, that Islamist terrorism has been, or even the far right, because you need a particular set of issues to take place to it for it to mature to that point. Key to this is a large, unaddressed political issue.

So whatever you think of the outcome of the recent election in the U.K., the fact that some of the legitimate concerns, that were being used as a pretext by English nationalists, have now been formally acknowledged at the ballot box might be a good outcome, even though it is sort of disconcerting for southern liberals. There was a significant alienated and disenfranchised group out there who didn’t think the system was taking any notice of them. And that’s where you need to be concerned about extremists exploiting legitimate concerns. Disaffected English nationalists were manifesting themselves at the extremes in things like the British National Party (BNP) and National Action, which fed the undertone that articulated itself as extreme right-wing terrorism. And attention still needs to be paid to this group, as it is not clear that they will feel entirely assuaged as a result of the fact that people are paying wider attention to them now. Terrorist problems emerge when you have a significant population who feel alienated and nobody takes notice of them, causing frustration and anger.     CTC

Substantive Notes
[a] Editor’s note: The PKK is the Kurdish Workers Party, a Kurdish militant group based in Turkey focused on creating a free Kurdish state. They have recently become known for their links to Kurdish groups fighting against the Islamic State, but are more prominently known for their decades-long terrorist campaign against the Turkish state.

[b] Editor’s note: Tariq Mahmood, a U.K. national from Birmingham, was announced arrested by Pakistani authorities in late 2003 and accused of links to al-Qa`ida. “Pakistan holds British al-Qa’eda suspect,” The Telegraph, November 17, 2003.

[c] Editor’s note: There are four pillars to CONTEST, the U.K. government’s counterterrorism strategy. These are: “Prevent: to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism; Pursue: to stop terrorist attacks; Protect: to strengthen our protection against a terrorist attack; Prepare: to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attacks.” See “CONTEST: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism June 2018,” p. 8.

[d] Editor’s note: See Ed Husain, “Take these claims of ‘rehabilitation’ with a bucket of salt,” Daily Telegraph, December 7, 2019. Ed Husain is a British commentator who rose to prominence in 2007 when he published The Islamist, an account of his experiences as a member of Hizb ut Tahrir in the United Kingdom. Having left the group and repudiated extremism, he rose to prominence as a commentator, author, and activist speaking, writing, and advising on Islam around the world.

[e] At the time of publication, the assessed threat to the United Kingdom from terrorism is “substantial” and the threat to Northern Ireland from Northern Ireland-related terrorism is “severe.” See “Threat Levels,” Security Service MI5.

[f] Editor’s note: The United Kingdom is made up of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland but administered from London. Devolution has occurred over time and meant that greater powers have passed to regional assemblies like the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the London Assembly, and the Northern Ireland executive. This grants these regional legislatures and their executives powers over certain legislation. National security sits outside this system, however, and is controlled and implemented centrally across the entire country.

[g] Editor’s note: Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel Satanic Verses resulted in anger among a significant number of Muslims around the world, including inside the United Kingdom. In 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie. In 1998, the Iranian government declared that it no longer sought Rushdie’s death. For more, see “Satanic Verses, Novel by Rushdie,” Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Citations
[1] Editor’s note: For more on this case, see Phil Mackie, “Moinul Abedin: UK’s first al-Qaeda inspired bomber,” BBC, March 2, 2012.

[2] Editor’s note: Rauf’s involvement in al-Qa`ida plots against the United Kingdom is outlined in detail in Raffaello Pantucci, “A Biography of Rashid Rauf: Al-Qa’ida’s British Operative,” CTC Sentinel 5:7 (2012).

[3] Andrew Parker, “Director General Andrew Parker – 2017 Speech,” Security Service MI5, October 17, 2017.

[4] Editor’s note: For more on this case, see Sarah Lee, “London nail bombings remembered 20 years on,” BBC, April 30, 2019.

[5] Editor’s note: “Bomb explodes outside MI5 headquarters in Northern Ireland,” Reuters, April 12, 2010.

[6] Editor’s note: Henry McDonald, “Police investigate explosion at MI5 headquarters in Northern Ireland,” Guardian, August 14, 2015.

More catch up posting, this time for my old London base RUSI’s Newsbrief publication with an excellent colleague Shashi from my new Singapore base RSIS. It tries to offer some ideas from Singapore about how the UK might want to deal with some of the problems it is trying to manage at moment around radicalised offenders (though admittedly this problem has slipped from the front and center amidst the current COVID-19 mess).

The Singapore Model: A New Deradicalisation Approach for the UK?

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Shashi Jayakumar and Raffaello Pantucci
RUSI Newsbrief13 March 2020
UK Counter-terrorismTackling ExtremismUKTerrorism

The UK is currently going through a process of re-evaluating and rethinking some of its key approaches to managing terrorism offenders. Looking at Singapore’s model would be a good start for policymakers.

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Recent terrorist attacks in the UK have highlighted key problems in the country’s counterterrorism systems and policies. Chief among them is the need to manage terrorism offenders for substantial periods of time, and what programmes need to be in place to ensure that society is protected. As the UK considers refreshing its strategy, some lessons from the Singaporean experience might be helpful. The contexts are different, but the long-term engagement model employed by Singapore might offer useful lessons for the UK.

One key piece of legislation is Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA) which facilitates detention orders. The ISA is in fact, with several modifications, a remnant of British colonialism, which was drawn up as part of emergency regulations when Singapore and Malaya were embroiled in a communist insurgency during the 1950s and 1960s. Despite periodic criticism by human rights organisations that the ISA is simply detention without trial, there are numerous safeguards – for example, a detention order must be reviewed by an independent ISA advisory board headed by a Supreme Court judge – and independent checks and routes of appeal that exist to protect its abuse by the government.

The first use of the ISA in the post-9/11 era in Singapore took place when a cell of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Al-Qa’ida’s chief affiliate in Southeast Asia, who were responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings, was discovered in Singapore in December 2001. All members of the cell came from the Singaporean Muslim community. One of the plots they had under development was the bombing of diplomatic missions in Singapore including the UK High Commission.

The government calculated that putting these individuals on trial would have been detrimental for ethnic relations in Singapore. Consequently, they instead chose to use the ISA to manage the offenders. The use of the ISA within this context is seen by detractors as punitive, but from the authorities’ point of view it is an effective way of managing rehabilitation in a controlled environment. As Singapore’s Home Affairs minister K Shanmugam has observed, ‘we have a clear process, detention, rehabilitate and release. You detain them and you don’t do anything else with them and you put them away, then their lives are not going to get better. And you’re not doing anything to deal with the situation really’.

The point is not to lock the door on people and throw the key away. Detainees are engaged and counselled one-on-one by Ustadz (Islamic scholars) in an intensive manner. In separate sessions, psychologists from the Home Affairs ministry regularly engage these individuals, with their assessments, as well as those by the Ustadz, forming a key part of the decision to eventually release detainees.

This programme, called the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), was developed and staffed by concerned and well-respected Ustadz in concert with the authorities. These religious leaders had realised after their initial interactions with the detainees that the vast majority had completely mistaken understandings of key concepts like ‘jihad’, ‘al-wala al-bara’ (loyalty and disavowal), ‘hijrah’ (migration), and living in ‘dar ul-kufr’ (non-Muslim land). Many, misled by the charismatic leaders of their cell, had come to believe that it was proscribed by Islamic law to live in a Westernised society like Singapore.

Throughout this process a path to release is open – should detainees show that they have been responsive to counselling, demonstrate genuine contrition and evince a change of perspective. Assessments of effectiveness are undertaken through repeated and continual engagement.

Social support is a critical element of the overall approach. Vocational training or job placements are given to detainees to facilitate social reintegration. In addition, during detention, families of offenders are given help as often the sole breadwinner is incarcerated. This aspect should not be underestimated as it plays a part in ensuring that the family is not radicalised; it may also alter the mindset of the detainee, seeing that their ‘enemy’ is offering support and help to their family, including, for example, school bursaries for children. A number of assistance schemes for the individual and family continue well after release. This ‘aftercare’ aspect, handled by the Inter-Agency Aftercare Group, which works closely with the RRG and the authorities, plays a role in keeping the recidivism rate low. Only two out of approximately 100 individuals who have been through the ISA’s preventive detention and RRG counselling have had to be detained again.

The RRG has gained acceptance from the Malay-Muslim community over time. This is partly to do with the fact that a large part of RRG efforts are organic and stand on their own, without funding from the state. The family and community support structures which have developed over time to deal with other social problems within the Malay-Muslim community, such as drugs, have been adapted to aid families affected by radicalisation.

Upon release, many individuals are, depending on the assessment of the authorities, kept on a Restriction Order (RO) for some time afterwards. This places restrictions on the movements of the individual. Other conditions of the RO might include needing approval prior to joining any organisation, or mandatory further religious counselling. Those who demonstrate further progress eventually (typically after a few years) have their RO lapse.

This approach delivered some success with the first wave of jihadists that Singapore faced post-9/11. For around 90% of the JI cases this meant eventual release. The remaining 10% (fewer than 10 individuals) were key influencers, or hardened radicals whose ideas are unlikely to change. They remain incarcerated. Engagement with them continues.

Things have changed since 2013 with the start of the war in Syria and the growth of the Islamic State. Rather than networked individuals, the threat picture has been made up of isolated individuals, often young ‘meaning seekers’ or those seeking diversion from their own personal problems, radicalised through online connections and in some cases seeking and succeeding to travel to Syria and Iraq.

The radicalisation process has also been compressed considerably. Whereas with the first cohort the time taken from initial contact with ideas to action was years, with the new cohort it is closer to nine months. The RRG’s success rate amongst this new cohort is nearer to 25 per cent at the moment.

The exact reasons for this are unclear. One possible explanation might be the changing salience of religious ideology. The Islamic State’s emphasis on online radicalisation creates a very different social environment around the individual where religion plays a changed role. Another crucial difference is that the Islamic State actually had a territorial ‘caliphate’ it controlled meaning the idea of hijrah was more important than in the previous phase of Singaporean extremists as they had a place to migrate to.

This new generation of Islamic State recruits seem to have a less thorough grounding in the core tenets of Islam than their JI predecessors. They learn about Islam from online sources – ‘Sheikh Google’ as it is known – and are partial to more radical preachers like Anwar Al-Awlaki or Abdullah el Faisal than classical preachers. Given this, RRG religious advisers may have less influence over the detainees.

The ‘Singapore model’ has concomitantly had to evolve. There are younger, more tech-savvy counsellors who are familiar with online vocabularies, and who can attempt to engage with younger individuals who self-educate online, but actually may know a lot less about their religion than the first batch of JI detainees. It appears Singaporean authorities are starting to refine their programme. A 17-year old boy was recently detained and assigned a mentor. This mentor will help him to focus on his rehabilitation, studies and family, and also guide him to develop ‘life skills’.

The pool of radicalised individuals has become more diverse. Aside from Islamic State recruits, several Singaporean citizens have travelled to Yemen to fight against the Houthi. Women have travelled to Syria from Singapore and married Islamic State fighters. In response, the RRG now has female counsellors to advise female detainees.

The key principle of the programme remains that no individual is released until the state has confidence they will not re-offend. This does not guarantee success, and as has been highlighted, there have been some cases of recidivism, but it does provide a measure of protection.

Looking at this experience from a UK perspective, there are some immediate similarities. First, offenders are more likely to be radicalised online. There is also a growing volume of individuals with mental health issues or autism spectrum disorders who are becoming embroiled in terrorist networks. This presents a very complicated problem to manage, both in terms of the direct threat and subsequent rehabilitation.

The UK has developed a number of programmes focused on trying to rehabilitate offenders. The Desistance and Disengagement Programme, seeks to engage with individuals using a range of psychological, theological and social supports to provide them with a new path. Similarly, programmes have been developed which seek to engage with offenders on an individual level to understand their specific path to radicalisation. One such programme, Operation Constrain, met considerable pushback when it emerged in the press. The UK also has an overworked probation service whose responsibility it is to engage with offenders when they are released and ensure that they do not slip back into their old ways.

But there are also significant differences from the Singaporean context. Much of the UK’s programming in this space was developed or co-opted by the government. While elements of the UK’s Muslim community engage with specific programmes to help with delivery – for example, counter-extremism programmes like Building a Stronger Britain Together – many organisations have become dependent on government support to survive. In fact, it is often contact with the government that creates problems for effective programmes as the link undermines the perceived independence of the programme. It is crucial to find ways of encouraging community leadership and be seen to maintain independence.

The UK also does not have indeterminate sentencing for terrorist offenders. However, in the past the UK had a system of imprisonment for public protection (IPP). In these cases, an individual served a specific sentence and then following that appeared regularly before a parole board who determined their suitability for release. The IPP system was first introduced in 2005 and then abolished in 2012. The key failing of the system was that there were not adequate rehabilitative programmes in place to help offenders make the appropriate behavioural changes needed for the parole board to permit their release.

Finally, a crucial distinction to draw between the two contexts is one of volume. While Singapore detained approximately 70 individuals from the JI and close to 30 self-radicalised individuals since 2001, with several dozen individuals judged to pose less of a threat if placed directly on RO, the UK has hundreds of cases. This places a much greater burden on the resources required for the intensive engagement that this rehabilitation method requires.

However, it must be remembered that only a small fraction of individuals convicted of terrorist offences go back to commit further terrorist offences. This highlights a key strength of the Singaporean model – long-term engagement with extremists. This may mean that with particularly hard cases long detention periods, with all the adequate judicial protections around it, are necessary. Given that UK courts are unlikely to permit the introduction of the detention orders permissible under Singapore’s ISA (and the even less likely situation that the government would be able to retroactively impose this on individuals currently in jail where most of the problem currently lies), what instead needs to be created is a more intensive probation system around certain offenders which focuses on continually trying to push them in the right direction while ensuring they do not revert to violence.

None of this will necessarily create a completely fullproof system. And it is one that will require constant adapting and updating. The problem of radicalisation does not have any easy or simple solutions. Numerous other countries have tried approaches which have shown some levels of success – Denmark for example, which uses a very different approach to Singapore. Taking inspiration from other countries might provide the UK with a more effective model to deal with radicalised individuals. But whatever the case, a key lesson is that in order to effectively manage the problem, a substantial long-term investment will be required.

Shashi Jayakumar
Shashi is a Senior Fellow and Head of Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

Raffaello Pantucci
Raffaello is a Senior Associate Fellow at RUSI and a Visiting Senior Fellow at RSIS.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Terence Ong/Wikimedia Commons.

More catch up posting, this one from a couple of weeks back for an excellent local Singaporean newspaper the Straits Times. This one draws on a theme touched on before which might be a much larger project at some point in the future. Watch this space as ever!

Running amok in an age of meaningless terror

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The shooting last month that left nine people dead in the German city of Hanau is being described as an extreme right-wing terrorist attack. Yet a close examination of the shooter’s manifesto shows an odd mishmash of ideas that draw on extreme-right ideology, but also blend in elements of misogyny and off-the-wall conspiracy theories.

These include the belief that the United States was “under the control of invisible secret societies” and that little children were being detained, tortured and killed by satanists in “deep underground military bases”. Tobias Rathjen, who subsequently killed his mother and himself, also believed in remote mind control and accused US President Donald Trump of stealing his ideas, including the America First slogan.

The gunman’s victims – mostly people of Turkish descent in shisha bars – suggest he was driven by racist, right-wing beliefs, and indeed his manifesto is full of rants against non-whites and Islam. But what is also true is that he is part of a growing cohort of terrorists whose ideology is a muddled grab bag of ideas, and that requires us to rethink some of our assumptions about terrorists. We may be moving from sacred terror into an age of meaningless terror.

For some people, there is no such thing as meaningful terrorism. The idea of murdering other people to advance the cause of some political ideology or religion is hard to comprehend. Yet, we are usually at least able to grasp the ideological underpinnings or interpretations of faith that underpin their actions, however warped. But we are now moving into a situation where the police and security forces are increasingly finding themselves confronting individuals whose ideology is confused, to say the least.

In Britain, the Home Office flagged in its report last year at least 19 cases involving individuals with “mixed, unstable or unclear ideology” who “may still pose a terrorism risk”.

In the US, the Department of Homeland Security’s strategy to counter terrorism now talks about “terrorism and targeted violence” that includes “attacks otherwise lacking a clearly discernible political, ideological, or religious motivation”.

Including the 2017 Las Vegas shooter in this group, the department notes that “terrorists and perpetrators of targeted violence may be motivated by different ideologies or narratives of personal grievance, and in some cases by none at all”, but “they attack targets with similar characteristics, often with similar tactics”.

In the case of the Las Vegas attack, Stephen Paddock, 64, opened fire from his hotel suite on a crowd gathered for a music festival on the night of Oct 1, 2017. He shot dead 58 people and wounded another 413 before killing himself. The motive remains officially undetermined.

In continental Europe, the habit is still to classify people under different known ideologies, but the many variants of beliefs across the continent and their cross-linkages can be confusing. The line between extreme right-wing ideology and personals act of violence is also not always easy to discern.

And then there are the incels – the involuntary celibate movement of men whose defining characteristic is their inability to attract the women they want. What started off as an online subculture of resentful young men has shown its potential for violence in mass shootings in Canada and the US. The Hanau killer identified himself as an incel.

The incels are typical of the growing group of extremists who seem solely linked to others through conversations on grim online forums where they share grievances and radical solutions, all the while stoking one another’s anger.

As the number of groups engaged in online hate speech grows, there is an accompanying rise in individuals with serious mental health or social disorders appearing among the roster of terrorists of all ideologies. In some cases, obsessive personalities are going down ideological rabbit holes on the Internet and building identities online with such power and force that they persuade themselves to act in the real world.

The question then is, what does this all mean? We are now seeing how individuals – some troubled, some rational – are using the garb of a terrorist incident to externalise their anger. And given the ease with which a terrorist act can be performed, we are reaching a situation where any act of mass violence becomes terrorism.

We are seeing acts of performative violence in the appearance of terrorist acts. This might help the individual give meaning to an act of violence that they might want to perform anyway for some other personal reason.

This form of “running amok” – a Malay term that has made it into the English language – is in some ways not new. The original term described the phenomenon of individuals who would suddenly go into a frenzy, attacking all those around them. The phenomenon was sometimes blamed on demonic possession.

The individuals we are seeing today are performing acts of essentially meaningless violence, but using an outward appearance we translate and recognise as acts of terrorism. This imbues the act with greater meaning. Terrorist groups have learnt how to offer people methodologies that can be easily emulated and delivered. This makes it easy to carry out attacks. It also means that these groups are able to subsequently try to claim the attacks.

The problem this presents is a complicated one. There is the danger we are over-ascribing acts to terrorist groups and increasing their power and mystique. We might also be deploying our expensive security services in pursuing essentially disturbed individuals who, if recognised in a different context, might be manageable through other public services.

Prosecuting such individuals is also complicated – on the one hand, if they have performed a violent criminal act, a law has been broken. But on the other hand, how do we prosecute those who are caught before they launch their attack and how do we handle those who are genuinely ill’

There is also a danger in how we respond. Terrorist acts that attract attention draw others to their bright light. Some go on to attack and murder others, emulating an act they have just seen – seeing it as an appropriate moment to support their interpretation of an ideology or, more simply, because they like the attention and want some of it.

For those tasked to monitor the ever-changing phenomenon that is terrorism, it can be difficult when the terrorist act appears to have lost a larger strategic goal and there is no clear ideology driving the violence. Rather than groups of acolytes following ideas, we are seeing moths bouncing between flames until they burn themselves and those around them. The act becomes the ideology and any meaningful political statement decoration on top of what is ultimately a deeply personal act of anger at society.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

As usual have been distracted in real life to get around to posting here, so have a bit of catching up to do. That and the fact that the world seems to be becoming utterly consumed by this virus nightmare, makes you wonder what the longer term consequences of everything really are. But in any case, been writing for a few new outlets and here is the first of a few pieces that emerged recently. First up is a blog post for the French Institut Montaigne, an interesting think tank that is close to President Macron. Thanks to Mathieu and Viviana for their invitation and work on this. Looks at the already faltering peace deal in Afghanistan and China’s general appetite on engagement within the country.

The US-Afghanistan Peace Agreement and a Detached China

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It has not taken long for the strains in the US-Taliban agreement to show. Within hours of signing the agreement, Afghan authorities appeared to be contradicting one of its key pillars. Within days, there was a noticeable return to violence, with the Taliban attacking government positions, the US striking Taliban forces and civilians getting killed. As more time has passed, perspectives are appearing to become more entrenched. What has been noticeable, however, has been the largely quiet response from Beijing, one of Afghanistan’s potentially most consequential neighbors that has played a relatively limited role in the country until now. A question lingering in the back of most regional planning is at what stage might Beijing ultimately step forwards to play a more proactive role.

An agreement for bringing peace

The agreement itself – at least the published part – appears fairly thin gruel. The rather clunky title “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America” reflects the immense complexity that undoubtedly underpins the broader effort to get to the position where the two sides were able to sign a document. The fact it has taken such a short period of time for the seams to show is a reflection of the rush with which it was assembled. This was an agreement to paper over an intense American desire to leave Afghanistan.

And to some degree this perspective is an understandable one. Washington has now been engaged in Afghanistan for almost two decades, and it is hard to see where the end of this conflict might lie. Simply slugging on may exhaust further American blood and treasure without changing much.

At the same time, the precipitous nature of the US withdrawal as it is currently structured appears to answer a US political need and calendar rather than any Afghan interests. For President Trump, an agreement with the Taliban and withdrawal from Afghanistan will be another foreign policy victory he will add to the list that he will no doubt repeatedly shout about on the campaign trail – adding a cowed Taliban to the roster of dead terrorist enemies (which includes ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s leader Qasim al-Rimi and Iranian General Qasem Soleimani).

The impact of such a precipitous withdrawal is not clear. Many point to the fact that it took a few years for President Najibullah to hang after the Soviet withdrawal, with many ascribing the end of foreign aid to his government as the final nail in his coffin. But Afghanistan today is not the same country it was almost three decades ago, and the Taliban are not the same organization they were two decades ago. And in contrast to then when China was a far weaker power still emerging on the international stage, Afghanistan now borders one of the world’s fastest-growing economies (Coronavirus excepted). In many ways, it could be Beijing’s response now that will help shape Afghanistan’s future – be this in terms of investment in infrastructure, encouraging bilateral trade and playing a more proactive role in stabilizing the country in political, economic and security terms. How Beijing steps forwards could shape Afghanistan’s future.

China’s circumspection

So far, Beijing has been circumspect in its response to the peace negotiations. They have not been hugely positive, nor very critical. Rather they have said they will support the process and welcome a clean resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan. In gently critical pieces they suggest that the United States has more responsibility around blame than the Taliban, though they are very careful to not to point too many fingers.

This careful approach is a product of the fact that Afghanistan appears to be one of the few places where the US and China might still effectively cooperate. Notwithstanding tensions elsewhere, Beijing and Washington were able to craft a series of engagements in Afghanistan which they delivered together. However, this approach has been sorely tested since the arrival of the Trump administration and their single-minded and aggressive focus on China. This has extended to harsh criticisms of China’s activity around its western periphery with Secretary of State Pompeo attacking China’s activity in Central Asia during a visit last month, following blunt comments by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of South and Central Asian Affairs Ambassador Alice Wells about China’s activity in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In blunt terms, she excoriated China’s involvement in Afghanistan during a Congressional hearing. While she acknowledged China’s willingness to engage on peace talks, in no uncertain terms she stated “I think that it is fair to say China has not contributed to the economic development of Afghanistan. We have not seen any substantial assistance from China. The Belt and Road is just a slogan.” Just over two months later in a public discussion at the Wilson Center, she repeated these statements as part of a broader assault on China’s Belt and Road activities. When asked about Afghanistan she responded “I haven’t seen China take the steps that would make it a real contributor to Afghanistan’s stabilization, much less stitching it back into the Central Asia and the international community.

Unsurprisingly, this generated angry commentary in the nationalist Chinese Global Times newspaper which attacked Ambassador Wells and accused the United States of continually failing to provide an “efficient resolution to boost the Afghan peace process.” In an interesting contrast, the newly installed Chinese Ambassador to Kabul Wang Yu responded to Ambassador Wells with a detailed presentation about China’s contribution to Afghanistan, including detail about the collaborative efforts that the US and China had done together. This more conciliatory approach likely reflects a desire by China to be seen as at least leaving itself open to cooperating in Afghanistan.

China no longer fears a US withdrawal

At the same time, however, it is not clear that Beijing has much plan to step forwards into the Afghan mess. Beijing has spent considerable time and effort over the past few years strengthening the various sides of the border that it shares with Afghanistan – it has provided investment and equipment support to Tajik border forces, Pakistani security forces in Gilgit-Baltistan, and hardened its own direct border.

It has provided support for Afghan forces in Badakhshan (in the form of camps, equipment, training and some joint patrolling), and it has sought to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) more engaged in the country. Particularly notably, it also instigated the creation of the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) that brings together the Afghan, Chinese, Pakistani and Tajikistani Chiefs of Military Staff and has started to explore doing joint training exercises together.

All of this means that China is not too concerned about security problems in Afghanistan having a direct impact back on itself, or what concerns it might have it has now created buffers against. And any problems they might generate in Central Asia or Pakistan are likely already factored into the regional instability that China expects in these regions. As a result, from Beijing’s perspective, there is little to be concerned about with regard to Afghanistan becoming a source of instability for China. It would appear that China’s security apparatus heeded Xi Jinping’s reported closed-door 2014 declarations about protecting the country from trouble from Afghanistan in the face of potential American draw-down.

This stands in contrast to the past, where Beijing was very alarmed by the prospect of an abrupt American withdrawal and did little about it. When such talk circulated in the early 2010s, Beijing started to panic, worried it would be left with chaos on its border though at that stage was not very confident about what would need to be done beyond hedging through Pakistani proxies. Flash forward and Chinese analysts are far more sanguine about Afghanistan. The government may survive, the Taliban may come in, fighting may break out, but China is unlikely to be impacted by much of this. Its limited investment projects in the country have not really delivered much, and while it is a positive aid contributor to the country, it has not taken the burden on that it might. No-one in Beijing is advocating for the PLA to deploy in the country. Rather, this time around, it would seem as though China is distancing itself from the American withdrawal, positioning itself as the honest broker who will be there and friends with whoever takes power. And in the event of complete chaos, China has now strengthened its direct borders insulating it from direct trouble.

Keeping the Afghan problem at bay

Earlier discussions of China acting as a ‘security guarantor’ seem to have fallen by the wayside, and China seems to have given up the role of hosting the intra-Afghan talks. Beijing, it could be concluded, sees little good coming from the abrupt American withdrawal and wants to be as disassociated from the mess as possible. This would fit with the largely flat comments to have emerged from the MFA and Xinhua in the wake of the talks as they essentially wait the situation out.

What is also clear, however, is that the goodwill that had been generated between the US and China over Afghanistan has likely gone. From Beijing’s perspective, everything is now shaped through the lens of its conflict with the United States and COVID-19. Within this context, it might actually be preferable for the United States to stay bogged down in Afghanistan as this will distract Washington’s attention from China. Afghanistan used to be a place for potential cooperation, but this is likely not the case anymore. But Beijing is no longer fussed. This time China has laid its groundwork and is in a far more comfortable position to weather any chaos that might follow the implementation of the US-Taliban agreement. Washington may think this is a problem on China’s doorstep, but Beijing has hedged itself against most eventualities.

Somewhat belated catch up posting for another new outlet, this time the excellent Indian think tank Observer Research Foundation’s (ORF) Raisina Debates forum. The piece looks at a longstanding issue of interest, Pakistan’s links to UK jihad, something you can read a lot more about in my earlier book and am sure will be a continued feature of my research.

Seen from UK, Kashmir fits the global roster of causes for Jihadists elements

Kashmir, Jammu and Kashmir, reorganisation of Kashmir, Article 370

Over a month has now passed since the Indian government made the dramatic step of changing Kashmir’s constitutional role and while the move has stirred emotions, we have not seen the outburst of violence that was expected. While it is difficult to know exactly what is going on in Kashmir and there are deep humanitarian concerns, sat in London the concern that is always present is how this might echo back into the UK. The UK has a sad history of links to violence in Kashmir, from the murder of Ravinda Mhatre in 1984 through to the London Bridge attacker from December last year. In between we have had radicalised Brits blowing themselves up in Srinagar, involved in terrorist linked kidnappings, as well as others arrested as they try to cross the line of control. The UK has a more intimate connection than others to what happens in Kashmir, meaning an eruption of violence or instability there is something that is watched with a very attentive eye.

The history of the UK’s link to Kashmir is a long and sad one. Born in part out of a dam construction in Mangala in the 1960s, this led to the displacement of a large population from the Pakistani part of Kashmir who migrated to the UK. This created a community which over time became the first link in a chain migration which left the UK in a situation whereby roughly three quarters of its Muslim population of around 3 million is of Kashmiri origin.

While the positive side of this connection has been to enrich the United Kingdom with a dynamic community that has contributed positively to the country, the negative side has been to inextricably link the United Kingdom to the persistent troubles that take place in Kashmir. This has over the years articulated itself in large-scale protests in the UK, the murder of Indian diplomats, fundraising for Kashmiri causes (mostly charitable, but also terrorist organizations like Lashkar-e-Taiba or Jaish-e-Mohammed), as well created a path to militancy which led to terrorist attacks in Kashmir and which al Qaeda took advantage of to launch a number of failed and successful terrorist attacks against the West. 

The most recent articulation of this was found in the case of Usman Khan, the troubled young man who lashed out against those who were helping rehabilitate him. Of Pakistani heritage, but born in the UK, Khan was arrested in 2010 as part of a terrorist cell whose most mature plot was a plan to attack the London Stock Exchange on Christmas Day. The group was one with deep links into the UK’s jihadist milieu with links around the country. Ultimately, they were prosecuted for a variety of acts, with the LSE plot the one which attracted most attention.

In fact, one of the more concerning elements was the part of the plot to which Khan was linked. Drawing on his Kashmiri family and heritage, Khan’s intent (along with a group of his colleagues from Stoke) was to try to establish a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. The intent was to establish an institution that would outwardly appear “a normal madrassa” but which would train warriors. Their goal, as was later summarized in court, was “the express contemplation of terrorist operations in the UK to be perpetrated by some graduates of the training camp at some future date: the imposition of Sharia in Kashmir was not the limit of the group’s aspirations.” Khan’s own lawyer characterized him as a 19 year old young man “whose ambition was to bring Sharia law to Pakistan controlled Kashmir”, though he also made on to make the point about how fanciful this planning was pointing out that “it was highlight unrealistic to suppose that the authorities in Pakistan would allow a teenager from Stoke to impose Sharia law.”

This lack of credibility aside, the fact remained that for Khan, Kashmir was a mobilizing cause. The space for militancy that it provided gave the young man a place and way into being involved in violent jihadist activity. He was in many ways tracing a path that had been seen repeatedly before in the United Kingdom, where young British men of South Asian heritage were stirred up by a combination of local preachers and global events to reach into their Kashmiri heritage to try to find links to militancy. This was seen in the early story of the network around the July 7, 2005 bombing plot against London as well as numerous others.

The connection has stretched beyond terrorist violence. In the wake of the recent decision in Jammu & Kashmir, there have been numerous protests in London and Birmingham, including some that have turned violent. While the protests have not been of a scale that has been seen previously, they come from a history of such incidents in the wake of any major event in J&K. For Britain’s Kashmiri community, watching from afar what is happening to their brethren in India is a source of great concern. It leads to calls for action in Parliament, pressure on the government and regular protests. 

But this political activity in some ways is not the problem. There are numerous expatriate communities in the UK who regularly protest about events going on back home. What is more worrying is the link that we have seen occasionally emerge with links to militancy. And while care has to be taken to make a direct correlation (mobilization for Kashmiri causes does not always equate to international terrorism), there is a long history of Kashmir providing ideological motivation or a practical first step for people to become involved in international terrorism. Prime Minister Modi’s moves and elevation has been a source of great concern and source of mobilization amongst the South Asian jihadist community in the UK. There is an inevitable link between turmoil in Kashmir and trouble in the UK. The timeline along which this can take place can be long, but the consistent feature is that these things resonate. 

And seen from Kashmir, anger against Delhi is something which gets articulated through an international lens. While the stories of ISIS in Kashmir appear to be largely overblown, graffiti in Srinagar identified in ORF’s own Kabir Taneja’s recent book on ISIS shows how locals articulate their anger using the language of ISIS even if they have little direct connection to the group itself. The point is that Kashmir fits into the global roster of causes which jihadists will summon as rationales for action. For the UK, however, the link is more immediate.

Seen from London, the Modi government’s decision is a human rights dilemma which is wrapped up in a potential security threat (both regionally and at home). The consequences may take months or years to play out, but there can be no doubt that some impact will eventually be felt.

Been doing a lot of writing for new outlets of late. Maybe part of the result of my moving to spend more time in Asia and having more time to write. Here is the first of a couple of new pieces for the Global Network on Extremism and Technology (GNET) a social media company supported project run by the lovely people at ICSR.

Abdullah el Faisal’s Persistent Screed

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By 

Insights

Ideas never die. At no point does this age old maxim seem more relevant than in the age of the Internet where they will literally live on in the panoply of media that we now have around us to communicate. The difficulty in eradicating such ideas was made visible this past month in the incarceration in the UK of Mohammed Ahad and Mohammed Kamali, two men found guilty of being webmasters for Abdullah el Faisal’s Authentic Tauheed online empire. But while both the webmasters and the preacher are now sitting in jail, until this past month the website lived on, with Faisal’s words of ‘entering the lizard hole’ providing the world with a constant reminder of his brutal perspectives. Now that it is down, Faisal’s words may be a little harder to find, but some quick digging shows how they live on scattered around the web.

Unlike most of the other radical preachers from Londonistan, it was Faisal’s words that got him incarcerated. On 14 December 2001, police in Dorset pulled over a car driven by Richard Chinyoka. A convert, Chinyoka was a brutal and manipulative misogynist – raping women, forcibly converting some, burning their feet, beating them and then rubbing salt in their wounds, and generally being a very nasty piece of work. As police went through his belongings, they found a bunch of cassette tapes (still a favoured medium at the time!) which included presentations by Abdullah el Faisal. Full of fire and brimstone the speeches advocated murder, robbery and stirred racial hatred. Shocked by what they heard, police investigated further and found similar cassettes widely available in some religious shops in London. This led to his arrest and eventual conviction on charges of stirring up racial hatred and inciting murder. Legislation, it should be added, that dated back to the 1860s.

It did not silence him, however, and his cassettes, and increasingly online versions of them, continued to live on. Either in copied CDs or cassettes, or shared around as MP3 files online. The July 7 bombers in the UK were fans, having heard him in person they listened to his recordings as they went around Pakistan preparing for their attack. One of the men accused of being a planner of the Airlines plot in 2006 was found to have in his spartan accommodation in Barking very little aside from jihadi material (in Arabic which he did not understand, but enjoyed the images) and MP3s of Abdullah el Faisal’s sermons. At the time Faisal was in jail and by the time of the trial against the airline plotters he had been released and sent to Jamaica.

In 2008 his website Authentic Tauheed started up, though for the first few years it appeared to largely be a repository for others’ work – including Anwar al Awlaki (a man who he had cast takfeer on in the past), and other prominent jihadists. It took until January 2011 for him to start posting his own material on there, including live sermons he was giving. He was, however, already using the site as a center point for his online PalTalk speeches and contacts with his radical flock around the world. He was also using the site as a way to host online conferences which brought together prominent al Muhajiroun and other extremists to speak alongside him.

The point at which he started to delegate responsibilities to others to run the site is unclear, but by the mid-2010s his webmasters were being arrested in the United States. Their role, as was shown in some detail during the recently concluded case in the UK, was to act as transcribers, connectors and filters of Faisal’s speeches and presentations. They would help manage the platforms he was using to communicate with his global flock and help get his ideas out in a form that others could read, listen to and disseminate.

This role stretched between the online and offline world, but it meant that for some time Abduallah el Faisal, by some counts one of the most derided of the Londonistani preachers, was the most followed. While the others were incarcerated or killed, Faisal’s new and old sermons and recordings continued to show up online. While many extremists were motivated by the ease with which they could access him online, once he was removed or silenced, it did little to stop his appeal. His fanatical screeds would continue to inspire and showed up repeatedly amongst the possessions of committed jihadists fighting alongside either Islamic State or al Qaeda. His arrest, his site’s removal and his webmasters’ incarceration may slow down the rate of dissemination, but his speeches, videos and tapes can still be found online, and will likely continue to feature on the playlists of violent extremists for a long time to come.

A new piece for the Financial Times Beyond BRICS site, looking at the wake of Secretary Pompeo’s trip to Central Asia. Covers ground that I have trodden a bit before, but also sets up some of the ideas in an upcoming much bigger book project. This aside, an earlier Foreign Policy piece on the UK’s response to the new terrorist threat was picked up in the I newspaper in the UK.

US unlikely to change minds by shouting at China’s neighbours
Washington needs more sophisticated narrative to break central Asia’s pragmatic ties to Beijing
February 24 2020

Workers outside the perimeter fence of what is officially an education centre in Xinjiang, China

Workers outside what is officially an education centre in Xinjiang, China. The plight of the Uighurs is not the only plank of Washington’s push against Beijing in the region © REUTERS

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to central Asia was the latest stop on his global push against China. It comes amid visits to Africa, Latin America and Europe where China featured high on the agenda.

As the confrontation with Beijing slowly spills into every facet of relations — from trade and technology to social media, scientific exchange and business of every sort — China has become a top talking point everywhere US officials go.

The problem is that this uniform and loud hostility will work to different degrees around the world. And nowhere is it likely to be less effective than among China’s neighbours, which are bound by geography to have a relationship with Beijing.

Mr Pompeo’s visit to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan followed a session on the fringes of the UN General Assembly meeting last year when he pressed those countries on their relationship with China and zeroed in on China’s mistreatment of its Uighur minority as an issue of common concern.

While the central Asians made the right noises, none of them was willing to be as forward in their criticism of China as Mr Pompeo. This was repeated on his visit to central Asia, when the secretary of state had a meeting with families of people with relations caught up in Xinjiang’s grim detention camp system. While he kept pushing for condemnation by local authorities, he was met with silence.

The plight of the Uighurs was not the only plank of Mr Pompeo’s push against China in the region. He also spoke of the dangers of Chinese investment, railing against the Belt and Road Initiative concept in particular. This is a tune which his colleague Alice Wells, the principal deputy assistant secretary for the region, has been pushing in south Asia, most prominently in comments before a congressional committee on Afghanistan and during a think-tank event in Washington.

Talking of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as “debt trap” diplomacy, and complaining about the lack of Chinese economic support in Afghanistan, Ms Wells has been replicating in south Asia her secretary’s push in central Asia.

Partners across China’s western flank are being told off by senior US officials for their relations with Beijing, and increasingly being pressured into confronting China more aggressively. The problem is that while these countries may respect the raw power Washington represents, they are also neighbours of China with strong economic and human ties.

These human ties are particularly relevant when it comes to what is happening in Xinjiang where there is evidence that central and south Asian family members are getting caught up in the camp system. But while countries feel some level of concern about their people, they are sensitive to the fact that this is taking place within China to Chinese nationals.

From their perspective, Beijing has not meddled in their affairs, so why should they violate this and meddle in those of Beijing? The central Asians in particular share with China a broadly similar assessment of what constitutes terrorism and extremism, and they are almost all bound together through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. They have little incentive to pick a fight with Beijing over what is happening.

In fact, the central Asia-China relationship is one with many layers. There is very little love lost between the peoples of the two regions at a public level — in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan there has been a noticeable increase in the past year of protests and clashes between Chinese populations and locals.

However, at a security level, they are getting closer. In economic terms — where almost all the attention is — their relationship is growing. The US is largely an irrelevance in trade terms for the region. Foreign direct investment is a similar story, though the US is more represented through international financial institutions. Nevertheless, none of these countries see their economic future as realistically bound up with Washington.

And the US has shown itself to be relatively uninterested in the region more generally. Mr Pompeo’s visit was the first by a senior US official since secretary of state John Kerry visited in 2015.

Aside from China (and Russia and Iran to a lesser degree), Washington’s principal preoccupation with the region appears to be to exit Afghanistan. creating a potentially major security issue on the borders of some central Asian states.

The US is also locked in an increasingly aggressive conflict with another of their neighbours, Iran, and has passed sanctions against another, Russia, as well. Living in this neighbourhood means the central Asians have to take a more pragmatic view.

The US continues to have a deep wellspring of admirers around the globe. They are increasingly finding this affection tested by the lectures about China. Nowhere is this more so than among China’s neighbours — all of whom are concerned about China’s rise but see that as an opportunity and a challenge they have to engage with rather than cut off from.

Washington needs to develop a more sophisticated and consistent narrative if it is to persuade them to work with it more closely.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a UK think-tank