Short piece for the Telegraph after last week’s bomb scares on the London underground looking at the transport system as a target. The case is turning out to be quite an interesting one.

London’s public transport remains a highly alluring target for terrorists – we must all be vigilant

As a child in London in the late 1980s and early 1990s, one of the most reliable excuses for being late for school was a bomb scare on the underground.

Inevitably, it usually proved to be an abandoned bag of some sort, though occasionally these were viable IRA devices. In 2005, the full potential horror of bombs on London’s public transport system was realised in the form of the July 7 bombings which killed 52.

Since then, London’s transport system has been largely spared. Muhidin Mire’s attempted murder of Lyle Zimmerman at Leytonstone tube station last December stands out as an exception, but even so was more vicious assault than sophisticated terrorist plot.

It is still unclear how rudimentary the device at the heart of this week’s bomb scare on the tube was, but the viability of the device and the incident highlights how London’s public transport system remains a consistent target for those who set out to do harm to fellow citizens.

Police vans
Police arresteded a 19-year-old man on suspicion of terrorism offences after a suspect device was found

London’s public transport is an obvious target for terrorists. Given the difficulty and expense of driving around the city, tubes trains and buses cater to a broad cross-section of society.

A quick glance at the roster of victims from the London bombings of 2005 highlights this reality, and shows how a strike on the tube can be a strike at the city itself.

Furthermore, by its very nature the tube has to be open, as otherwise its usefulness would be lost. But this openness leaves it vulnerable.

Finally, terrorist groups are fixated on not only murdering, but also damaging economies. A strike on the tube and the ensuing impediment to daily life and trade can have an vast economic consequence.

This helps explain in part why public transport systems are consistent targets for terrorists. The Madrid bombings of 2004, and the subsequent London bombings of 2005 are two obvious examples of success, while Najibullah Zazi’s disrupted plot to target the New York subway system in 2009 or the thoughts of Dhiren Barot, the British terrorist currently serving life, about targeting the Heathrow Express, show how it features fairly high on terrorist targeting packages. But it has been some time since there was a successful attack, especially in the UK. This is in part due to the vigilance and intelligence work of British authorities, but also due to an evolution of the terrorist threat.

In recent times terrorists appear to have decided to broaden out quite considerably the nature of targets that they want to hit. For the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil) or its followers, high profile individuals, security officers in civilian attire, sports events, random public venues and religious venues have all now also become – potentially easier – targets than public transport.

In some countries, like China, authorities have even gone so far as to install airport style security checks on bags in public transport, though London seems far off from this.

Even so, public transport remains a highly alluring target for its widespread social, and economic, impact. And in this latest case, timing may be a crucial factor.

If this is the work of an Islamic extremist linked to Isil, we may see the attack described as retaliation for the advance on Isil’s Iraqi capital of Mosul, though it would be slightly strange for them to have waited until this moment to strike.

Nevertheless, Government agencies will certainly be alive to that possibility. So while vigilance by us all has to become the norm, there will certainly be extra security – both overt and covert – on the tube today.

And a final short piece in a latest burst of commentary posting mostly around Mosul, this time for the New Statesman looking a bit more at the history of ISIS.

Battle for Mosul: will this be the end of Islamic State?

The militant group’s grip on power is slipping but it has proved resilient in the past.


The battle for Mosul is the latest stage in the long struggle to defeat Islamic State. The group has been around since the late 1990s in one form or another, constantly mutating in response to its environment. Undoubtedly its ejection from Mosul will be a significant moment in the group’s history, but it is unlikely to be its final chapter. The destruction of the group will only be complete when some fundamental changes occur within Iraq and the war in Syria comes to an end.

IS’s roots go back to a training camp established by the militant Islamist Abu Musab al Zarqawi in the late 1990s in Herat, Afghanistan. Founded as an army to overthrow the apostate regimes of the Levant, it fled to northern Iraq in the wake of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11 where it re-established itself as a force alongside Ansar al Shariah, a hardline Salafi jihadi organisation.

As American attention shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq, the group was ideally placed to become one of the leading lights in the post-Saddam Iraqi insurgency. Brutally announcing itself to the world in August 2003 with successive attacks on the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, the UN headquarters and a Shia shrine in Najaf — the latter being the deadliest attack in Iraq that year with a death toll of 95 — the group grew to assume the mantle of al-Qaeda in Iraq. By 2006 this brand had become somewhat damaged through the brutal sectarian campaign the group waged, and when its founder, Zarqawi, died it sought to reinvent itself as the Mujahedeen Shura Council. This incarnation did not last long either, and eventually it assumed the title of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), alongside a more Iraqi leadership.

This was the start of a diffcult period in the group’s history. Its excesses in Iraq (including indiscriminate slaughter of Shia Muslims to stir sectarian hatred and filmed decapitations of prisoners) lost it local support and led to the tribes in Sunni Iraq rising up and supporting the government in Baghdad’s fight back against the group. By 2009, when the west abruptly stopped paying attention and withdrew from Iraq the group was largely perceived as in decline, with the Shia Muslim-led Iraqi government appearing to slowly assert itself more effectively across the country.

The terrorist attacks by the group continued. And the new government started to advance an increasingly sectarian agenda. These two played off each other in a downward spiral that was given a fresh boost of blood when the civil war in Syria erupted in 2011. Drawing on its existing networks (that were leftovers from when Syria was used as a staging point by the organisation to launch attacks into Iraq), the leadership sent a cell to Syria to explore what opportunities existed within the emerging fight there. This cell became the seed that grew into Jabhat al Nusrah and ultimately IS – a label the group adopted when in June 2013 IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided it was time to reveal this link between his Iraqi group and Jabhat al Nusrah. This led to divisions and the breaking up of the two organisations.

For IS, however, it was the beginning of an upward trajectory, building on this division to grow itself substantially in Syria (with Raqqa as its capital) and in 2014 taking over Iraq’s second biggest city of Mosul. We then reach the apex of IS’s success and the biggest expansion of the group yet.

It now seems that this growth had a shelf life of just two-and-a-half years. As the group appears to be losing Mosul, it is likely that we will see the beginning of a period of retraction. But this will not be its end – rather, it will flee back to the hills and the ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria from where it will continue a persistent terrorist strategy in both countries. Here it will bide its time until the moment presents itself to rise up. Waiting until the governance in Iraq and Syria fails its people again, the group can paint itself as the protector of Sunnis and once more build on that group’s disenfranchisement to win supporters and occupy a space vacated by local governments.

IS’s grip on power might currently be slipping but as history has shown, it has waxed and waned depending on the context it is operating in. We are now going to see a period of withdrawal, but unless attention is paid by the global community, it will expand again in the future.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Visit his website at

Another piece for the Telegraph, this time after the fall of Mosul, looking in particular at the worrying consequences subsequently if attention is not paid to the fall out.

What happens after Mosul? Chaos – unless the West keeps its eye on the ball


It has been a dramatic weekend for Isil. The symbolically significant town of Dabiq in Syria fell over the weekend, and then, this morning, the assault on Mosul, their capital in Iraq, has begun.

This likely heralds the beginning of a period of retrenchment for the group, as they find themselves in retreat and unable to project the same vision of power and victory and before. The consequences for the West are important.

Undoubtedly the threat from the group will evolve, and work needs to be done now to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. We must lay the groundwork to properly eradicate the group, rather than let Iraq sink into sectarianism as it did in the past.

A major concern is what will happen now to the mass of foreign fighters who will be suddenly left without a home. Rudderless but with a sense of revolutionary purpose, this group will present a menace to security officials around the world for years to come. In terms of the numbers of fighters who have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, it is hard to find an exact precedent. The closest is the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s when the mujahedeen rallied to fight the Soviet Union. This produced the beginnings of the network that later developed into al Qaeda, but also created a cadre of warriors who sensed an opportunity to use the battlefield experience they had honed in Afghanistan on overthrowing regimes in their home countries.

In some cases, the revolutionary fighters kept on going, seeking another struggle to join, be it in Algeria, Chechnya, Kashmir or Bosnia. The war’s aftermath created clusters of militants with links to each other across the Eurasian continent, North America and Asia – cells that later turned into the base for al Qaeda plots for years to come.

How this will replicate now is difficult to predict. The speed and nature of the flow of fighters that went to Syria and Iraq to fight with Isil is different. But there’s a high probability of a threat and it will be a combination of things. There is an obvious risk of directed cells. Isil has shown a capacity to send individual fighters back hidden among the flow of refugees coming to Europe. This will likely continue, with a confusing mix of individuals returning home feeling that their fighting days are over, alongside individuals tasked with establishing networks or even launching attacks. Keeping track and understanding this flow, then preventing any plots emerging now or in the future will be a major concern to European authorities for some time.

Communities of Arab, South-east Asian, Central Asian, Russian and North African fighters may also decide to start heading home. In some of their home countries, the injection on a large scale of well-trained and battle-hardened fighters may become too much for authorities to cope with. This may lead to instability and violence which in some cases may be targeted against western nationals.

The fall of Mosul is likely to exacerbate this flow. As various reports appear to indicate, the numbers of disenfranchised fighters who are seeking to leave the Caliphate is increasing. The loss of Mosul will shatter the vision of the group as an all-powerful entity which controls a nation with major cities, something that will inevitably reduce its appeal as a destination for people to go to.

In many ways, however, it is exactly now that the longer-term danger rears its head. As the group is pushed back from Mosul, not only will its threat evolve, but there is also the possibility that western attention will drop off once again. Last time the West seemed to score a victory in Iraq, western powers rapidly lost attention and withdrew. The result was a sectarian mess in Iraq that provided the groundwork for Isil, creating  the environment from which it was able to grow. In addition, while the group is losing ground in Syria – as evidenced most recently by the loss of Dabiq – it is still a force on the ground and the brutal civil war there rages on.

The danger is now that with thi precipitous loss of territory, the rich world’s attention will wane. And in taking our eye off the ball, the stage may be set for Isil to re-group and re-establish itself. The pressure must be kept up on the battlefield, but also in terms of finding ways of rebuilding communities and cities that have been torn apart by conflict. All of this is a long-term struggle that the West has failed to follow through on in the past. It is essential to make sure that this same mistake is not made twice.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and author of ‘We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists


Another short piece off the longer interview with Andrew for the new site The Question, this time looking at ISIS in its Gulf regional context.

How can we fight Islamic State when our allies Saudi Arabia are also extreme Islamic fundamentalists?

There was a moment, which was very embarrassing, when people noticed that some Islamic State schools in Syria were using official Saudi school textbooks – which certainly suggests some proximity of outlook, at the very least, between the two places.

But they key difference is that Saudi Arabia is not at war with us. Saudi Arabia is actually helping to disrupt these terror networks, to counter these problems, and is ultimately a strategic ally – with many flaws and many problems, but an ally which fights with us.

Saudi Arabia realises that an organisation like Islamic State is going to come after them, at some point. For an Islamist organisation like Islamic State or al-Qa’ida, the Saudi regime is one of the most evil things on the planet. They see these guys not as austere practising Muslims who are living according to the prophet’s Sharia, but as a group of very rich people who are stealing money, and leading these incorrect, impure lives.

If you think back to al-Qa’ida, they had two levels of enemy that they were focused on: the near enemy and the far enemy. The far enemy was the West, and the near enemy was the various regimes in the Gulf, who they saw as impure, and incorrect, and puppets of the West. So Saudi realises that Islamic State are a problem, and that they’ve got a huge problem with their people going to fight in Syria and Iraq – and with what might happen when those people come home.

I’ve not seen categoric evidence that Saudi Arabia is supporting terrorist plots against the West. I have seen evidence that they have disrupted terrorist plots against the West. But are there potentially people in senior positions who may actually be more interested in supporting the other side because that’s who they’re more ideologically aligned with? I don’t discount that. But do I think that the state of Saudi Arabia is hell-bent on fighting against us? No.

Saudi Arabia is one of many important elements involved in the fight against Islamic State. They’re a very important power in the region, so which way they go on any issue is influential. They’re very significant when we look at Syria, especially. Islamic State will only be able to survive as an organisation as long as there’s chaos and trouble in Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia can certainly play a role in stabilising that.

And because of the unfortunate reality that Saudi Arabia has so many young men who’ve gone to fight alongside groups like Islamic State, they’ve got very good intelligence capacities about these organisation,. That’s very important when it comes to preventing them striking against the West, or elsewhere.


Slightly late posting of a new piece for the Telegraph which was written a little while back and finally got up last week. I am not in total agreement with the title chosen by the editors which explicitly suggests that the sectarianism was something linked to Kashmir which was not my intent. My point, which I hope the article shows, was to say that violence and militancy in South Asia tends to resonate in the UK.

Sectarian violence in Kashmir is increasingly spilling over onto the streets of Britain

An Indian policeman fires tear gas shells towards the demonstrators during an anti-India protest in Srinagar, October 4, 2016

An Indian policeman fires tear gas shells towards the demonstrators during an anti-India protest in Srinagar, October 4, 2016 Credit: Danish Ismail/Reuters


Two of the world’s nuclear powers almost went to war recently to little notice in the UK. And yet the group accused of being the spark for the violence and the countries involved are ones with deep historical links to this country.

Violence in South Asia has a habit of resonating in Britain, be it in the form intra-communitarian clashes, terrorist violence or familial murder. And while it is unclear in what way the current clashes in Kashmir will resonate, Britain’s historical connection with South Asia mean that rising violence and sectarianism over there will have an impact here.

The group that stands accused of being behind the recent cross-border incursions from Pakistan into India that generated a violent ‘surgical’ response by India is Jaish-e-Mohammed (the army of Mohammed) a group established in the late 1990s by Maulana Masood Azhar. A long-standing jihadist and Kashmiri independence ideologue, Masood Azhar has a history of links to the UK.

In 1993, when he was involved in a precursor group called Hizbul Mujahedeen, he came on a fundraising tour of the UK, giving emotional speeches about jihad, raising money for training camps in Pakistan and recruiting young men to join his cause. His speeches were reportedly so stirring that women would take off their jewellery there and then to contribute to the cause. In 1999 he was released from captivity in India alongside Briton Omar Saeed Sheikh (a young man he knew from their time together in Hizbul Mujahedeen), an LSE graduate who went on to play an important role in his group and who currently sits on death row in Pakistan guilty of involvement in the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

Maulana Masood Azhar, Muslim cleric and leader of the militant group fighting in Indian-held Kashmir against Indian forces, arrives at Karachi airport in January, 2000, after being released by Indian authorities in a prisoner exchange

Maulana Masood Azhar, Muslim cleric and leader of the militant group fighting in Indian-held Kashmir against Indian forces, arrives at Karachi airport in January, 2000, after being released by Indian authorities in a prisoner exchange Credit: Athar Hussain/AP Photo

On Christmas Day 2000, Masood Azhar’s group Jaish-e-Mohammed (which he founded on his release from Indian jail) claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Srinagar that was undertaken by a Birmingham born 24 year-old using the name Mohammed Bilal. In 2005 Masood Azhar’s brother in law, Rashid Rauf, another Birmingham-born lad, took Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer around al Qaeda training camps in Pakistan as they learned how to make bombs, recorded suicide videos and prepared to launch the July 2005 attack on London on behalf of al Qaeda.

A year prior to launching his attack, Mohammed Siddique Khan attended a training camp in Pakistan at which a group of radicalised Brits learned how to make bombs and shoot guns. At night the young men would entertain themselves reading Masood Azhar’s tracts to each other around the campfire.

Rashid Rauf is escorted by police commandos during his appearance in court in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, 2006

Rashid Rauf is escorted by police commandos during his appearance in court in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, 2006 Credit: Mian Khursheed/Reuters

South Asian militancy and violence has resonated in other ways as well. In 1984 a pair of Kashmiri men living in Birmingham murdered the Indian Deputy Consul General in retaliation for the jailing of one of their leaders in India. And more recently there have been sectarian murders which have more in common with intra-ethnic hatred in South Asia than anything in the UK.

The murder of Jalal Uddin in Rochdale in February was done by a pair of angry young men, one of whom subsequently ran away to Syria to fight alongside Isil, who thought Uddin’s practice of taweez, turning pieces of the Koran into amulets, was blasphemous. A month later Bradford cab driver Tanveer Ahmed drove to Glasgow and brutally stabbed shopkeeper Asad Shah to death, apparently angered by videos he found online of Mr Shah suggesting he was the prophet.

While in the Uddin murder there was some evidence that the men had absorbed Isil ideology, it was also clear that the men’s anger against Mr Uddin’s behaviour had a deeper root. Mr Shah was a member of a minority Ahmaddiya sect, and while it seemed as though Mr Ahmed was angry about specific videos Mr Shah had put of himself online, the fact of his Ahmaddiya background played substantially into the narrative around his murder.In many ways, both the Uddin and Shah murders were a product in part of sectarian hatreds that have their roots in South Asia. The Ahmaddiya community is frequently persecuted in Pakistan, with senior figures often calling for them be declared apostates. The practice of taweez is equally controversial amongst conservative Muslims who believe the worship of amulets is a form of idolatry. Most disturbingly as Mr Ahmed was sent down to life imprisonment for the murder of Mr Shah, supporters in the public gallery chanted “god is great.” In the wake of both deaths, there were public conversations amongst Britain’s Muslim community about the practices the men were accused of being involved in, and the degree to which they might be considered properly Muslim.

Looking beyond the problem of violence and conflict with neighbouring countries, militancy and crime within the country, one of the biggest problems Pakistan currently faces is rising sectarianism. In 2010, two Ahmaddiya mosques in Lahore were targeted with bombs leading to almost 100 deaths and over a hundred injuries. On March 27 this year a suicide bomber detonated explosives at an Easter celebration in Lahore killing 75. Both attacks were claimed by militant groups and were targeting minority communities in the country. Visiting Pakistan late last year, a security official told me how one of the number one security concerns his country faced was “sectarianism.”

Seen in this light, the Shah and Uddin murders are echoes from South Asia. Narratives from the region regularly appear on Britain’s streets, be in the form of political protests marching along Whitehall, religious or political murders or terrorist plots – often linked through long-standing networks and communities that tie the UK to South Asia. Now we are seeing sectarian murders.

Politicians and militant leaders from the sub-continent have long noticed and profited from this proximity of the now long-settled South Asian communities in the UK and the sub-continent and used it as a source of fundraising and support. Violence over there tends to resonate here. And while it will be impossible and incorrect to try to cut this umbilical cord linking us together, greater attention needs to be paid to understanding how this connection is evolving.

The danger otherwise is the gradual importation of escalating violence from South Asia to the UK’s streets.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at RUSI and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists

And another post as part of an interview for The Question, this time looking at the threat to the UK. Also realize I never posted the fact spoke to the Telegraph about trouble in Morocco, and the Express about a baggage handler who had an ISIS logo.

Is Islamist terrorism a genuine danger to me in Britain?

The government sees a threat level that is very substantial. At the moment the threat level is at ‘Severe’, which means that an attack is expected at some point, but they don’t have any immediate intelligence pointing to it. I think that reflects the reality of the threat picture at the moment linked to Islamist terrorism.

I think that in the UK, because of natural borders, because it’s slightly harder to get guns in this country, and because the police and intelligence services work so closely together to counter these threats, it is harder for people to launch attacks here. It wouldn’t be unexpected if something did happen here – there is quite a lot of active plotting going on – but I think the threat on the European continent is much greater.

The most likely attack that’s going to get through is the individual with the knife, or the home-made bomb. Those are the hardest to prevent because the flash-to-bang time of an attack like that is so short that it’s hard for the security services to catch it. But the big concern is the attack on multiple sites, multiple targets, with multiple weapons. The Anders Behring Breivik-style attack, the Paris-style attack, on targets in Britain.

What the police and security services are worried about is the system getting suddenly and completely overwhelmed by a group which has the savvy to launch multiple attacks over an extended period. The model of the Charlie Hebdo attack was small-scale version of that, the Paris attacks a bigger one. The one everyone looks at with great fear is the Mumbai attack of 2008, where ten men basically took over a city. That would be incredibly difficult to deal with.

A short piece (that was done in the form of an interview with Andrew Mueller who then published it) for a new site called The Question that is focused on answering key questions about specific topics of the day.

Is Islamic State losing its war?

In the short term, at least, they seem to be on the back foot. The land they control in Syria in Iraq is shrinking – and they controlled, for a time, a territory the size of the United Kingdom. Their leading people on the battlefield, quite senior people, are being killed. Their capability to launch the sort of attacks they have before is ebbing away, which suggests a period of relative decline.

Their goal was always to turn the entire planet to God’s greater glory – to bring about the end of days and the second coming of the Lord. This is a group that ultimately has a milleniarian vision of transforming the world in God’s image. That’s a very high bar to clear, but they start with what they start with, and build upwards. For IS, they were always very focused on their Levantine space, and if you read the ancient texts, you’ll see that those lands are very important, as the place where the war that will transform everything will start. So they had a vision of the world as it should be, but they’re also people who don’t much like the governments in those places, which leads to this mesh of personal angers and a bigger ideology which knit quite tightly together.

What is still going well for them is that they continue to exist, and are able to launch some quite substantial attacks, and to control a certain amount of territory. For a group like this, survival is important. And the attacks outside their territory are important, in a number of ways. They’re attacks on an enemy – you’re fighting us, so we’ll fight you. And there’s a political idea behind it as well – they’re trying to stir an ultimate clash of civilisations between the West and Islam and bring about the end of days.

With the taking out of their leaders, there’s a debate in the counter-terrorism community about what it actually means. Some people think decapitation of a terrorist organisation leads to bigger problems – what you’ll sometimes see is that after the removal of a senior figure, factions within the organisation will want to rise up and prove themselves, which they’ll do by doing something more atrocious than the last guy.

You look at al-Shabab in Somalia for example – their leader was killed, the next guy comes in, and you see the Westgate mall attack. The other model is that if you decapitate groups, they sometimes wither and die. You think of the Shining Path in Peru – their leader was taken out, and it kind of disappeared, because it turns out it was really a one-man band.

But an aggressive attrition of the middle ranks of people does have an impact on a group’s ability to function. If you keep hammering that middle level, you break the fighters away from the leadership, and that’s what we’ve seen happening to Islamic State recently. The leaders have to stay hidden, and aren’t in contact with many people. But if you take out the people around them, their ability to direct the organisation changes – if the guy who was looking after the accounts gets killed, who has that information now? Maybe there was a guy who knew where all the safe houses were. Look at Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who was very involved with Islamic State’s external operations – when he was killed, a lot of those would have been lost, or confused. A lot of these relationships are built on trust, and that doesn’t automatically transfer to the next guy.

The numbers which have been circulating recently suggest that the numbers of people from Europe going to fight with Islamic State is down to 10% of what it was last year. There are two main reasons for that. One is that security forces in Europe and elsewhere have a much better understanding of how recruitment networks function, and how to disrupt them. The other is the fact that the attraction of the group has reduced: Islamic State is no longer as powerful and successful as it was. If I’m going to go off and fight for someone, I don’t want to fight with a bunch of losers.

Raffaello Pantucci is the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists.