And finally for the new year’s burst, a new piece for the Telegraph which looks more broadly at the threat from terrorism and how it is likely to evolve in the coming year and future.

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Terrorist activity in the UK last year was dominated by a significant shift both in volume of successful incidents, but also their nature. From networked plots, or large-scale attacks directed from abroad, it is now isolated individuals or small cells – some directed, some instigated and some independently latching on to ideologies – that have become the heart of the terrorist threat that the UK faces.

After a period of relative calm with sporadic incidents, in 2017 the country was struck by five terrorist attacks of varying effectiveness. Yet, with the exception of the atrocity in Manchester, it is not clear that any of the plots were products of a larger effort.

Given that it involved three people, the attack near London Bridge in June was by definition a conspiracy, but it is not clear that the perpetrators were being directed by others in launching their attack.

The much vaunted menace from foreign terrorist fighters being sent back from Syria and Iraq has not so far materialized, leaving security forces instead countering this confusing new threat made up of isolated, or loosely connected individuals who use low-tech methods – such as the vehicle and knives used at London Bridge – to seek to murder fellow citizens.

It is often not clear how closely these individuals are genuinely linked to terrorist groups, with mental health or other issues often emerging as the principal driver of action, with the terrorist ideology sometimes an excuse superimposed on top.

This is likely to remain where the core of the threat remains for the immediate future and while groups may attempt to harness the interconnected world, using increasingly creative digital methodologies to try to launch complicated attacks, this will remain difficult to deliver.

Networks require some degree of communication, providing useful fissures which attentive security agencies can take advantage of. The threat of returning foreign fighters will continue to pose a menace, but difficulties of getting back and then organizing will make it hard for groups to rely on them as effective attack vectors.

The lone actor threat has deep roots in the UK, going back to the late-2000s with the separate cases of Andrew Ibrahim and Nicky Reilly in 2008, but what was once considered peripheral has now become central.

This is the result of terrorist groups adapting to security approaches. Unable to get large coordinated plots through, they push individuals, or espouse ideas and methodologies towards lone actor attacks. In addition, we have seen a growing number of people reacting to the loud volume of terrorist ideologies and latching on to them as a way of expressing their anger at society, having at best a fairly limited link or sophisticated understanding of the group for which they purport to be committing terror.

This is likely to continue and become more complex, likely spilling into other ideologies beyond violent Islamism. A by-product of the internet is that people can now develop and advance intense beliefs with a community from the calm of their own homes. Online, they can also connect with others who share these ideas, or develop complicated micro-ideologies.

Pair this with the growing accessibility of fairly dangerous technology and simple attack methodologies, and you have the potential for something shocking to happen.

At the same time, the echo chamber of the internet and an increasingly polarized public conversation has shifted the bounds of what is acceptable for open discourse. This has mainstreamed and escalated some nasty views on foreigners and others in society who do not share the same perspectives as ourselves, giving people with violent inclinations a sense of justification for acting on their impulses.

A huge crowd of people hold placards with photographs of the murdered MP Jo Cox and others saying '#LoveLikeJo'
MP Jo Cox was murdered by a lone operator, with a history of mental health problems, and links to far-right groups  CREDIT: PAUL GROVER FOR THE TELEGRAPH/PAUL GROVER

We have already seen reactive terrorism in the form of the attack on Finsbury Park mosque, the murder of Jo Cox and some of the sectarian murders within the Muslim community – and such acts of violence only serve to inspire others.

Looking forward, the nature of terrorist threat is only going to become more complex as the global picture continues to be upended by demagogic leaders. The world remains an unstable place. The increasingly tense confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran will create problems globally, a resurgent al Qaeda has not given up, and ISIS is seeking out new battlefields to re-establish itself.

The grim roster of attacks over the holiday period – Egypt, Afghanistan and Russia – shows the diversity of locations where ISIS has some resonance, while the full effect of President Trump’s recent moves in Israel are also still to be seen, but are guaranteed to awaken global anger around the Palestinian cause.

And all of this is just to focus on the narrow lens of what is going on in the Middle East; the world is littered with unresolvable problems that might suddenly shock. Just look across the water to Ireland to see how protracted terrorist problems can drag on for generations with little evidence of slowing down or going away.

This all paints a bleak picture at the start of a fresh new year and it is worth stopping a moment to recognize a more positive side. Notwithstanding this past year being a particularly grim one in terms of attacks, the UK has not faced a large-scale atrocity on the scale of the London bombings of July 7, 2005, when 56 people died.

The attacks we have suffered are for the most part of a low calibre, driven by individuals of limited resources and ability. Although, of course, none of this is to reduce their impact and the pain and suffering of every family who has lost someone or seen someone’s life irrevocably changed.

But the changing picture is in part a testament to the effectiveness of the security apparatus that is in place, which – while clearly in need of some adjustment to reflect the changing nature of terrorist activity – has been able to protect us from around 10 attacks this past year.

Terrorism will not go away in 2018 – and it may seem to get worse and more confusing. We need to move forward bearing this grim truth in mind, while all the time focusing on making our societies more resilient against the brutal atrocities terrorists cast at us. This will help insulate us from their success and ensure that they do not achieve their goals of tearing our society apart.

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A further piece for the South China Morning Post about what more China could do in Afghanistan. More on this topic over the year as well I think.

Beijing needs to move beyond rhetoric and take more concrete action to help and guide the violence-torn nation on its northern borders, writes Raffaello Pantucci

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 January, 2018, 3:03pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 January, 2018, 8:48pm

It was a rather frantic end to last year, lots on which is going to hopefully land in the form of a few things over the next few months. This is going to be a year of larger writing to try to get some big projects that have been hanging over my head for some time out of the way. Or that’s the plan. Started the year over the holidays writing a few op-eds. First up, the first time into the Mail on Sunday with a brief comment piece to their front page story about the UK government’s new plan for how to protect small ports.

Small ports are vital in the war against terrorism

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By RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI, director, International Security Studies, Royal United Services Institute

The threat to Britain from terrorists has never been so high.

Criminal groups have long used smaller harbours as points of entry for illicit products, while radicalised individuals regularly seek to sneak in and out of the country via less-obvious points of entry.

We have ample evidence that shows terrorists and suspects have used ferry terminals such as Dover to sneak out of the UK, sometimes while they were under investigation.

In September, the man accused of the Parsons Green attack, Ahmed Hassan, was arrested in the departures area of the Port of Dover.

Criminals have also sought to use smaller entry points around the country’s ports.

As an island nation close to the world’s most densely populated continent, securing our shores creates a huge challenge for UK border forces.

The use of special volunteers, who may not have powers of arrest, is not the answer to policing the more sleepy ports, harbours and marinas of the country.

We need a well-funded and well-trained Border Force, which can protect Britain’s ports and its thousands of miles of coastline from this unprecedented threat from both terrorists and criminals.

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

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

Comic explainer: what is lone-actor terrorism?

Wes Mountain/The ConversationCC BY-ND

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

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

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


 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Rachid Kassim is quoted from an interview with Jihadology.

Junaid Hussain’s quote is from court documents.


 


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

Illustrations by Wes Mountain for The Conversation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can China avoid an armed confrontation with the West?

Chinese soliders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. China often cooperates with the West

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

2. China sometimes passively opposes the West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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