Archive for April, 2010

My addition to the ongoing debate in the UK about the elections over at Free Rad!cals, this time to highlight the fact that counter-terrorism strategy appears to have fallen right off the table. It occurs to me that in fact, a similar point can be made about foreign policy in the debate. None of this is very inspiring for the future.

The Big Three Counter-Terrorism Strategies

Filed under: Terrorism, UK

Inspired by a post over at Kings of War which looked at the three big party’s defense proposals in their manifestos, I decided to perform a similar operation of the big three counter-terrorism proposals. As it turned out this was a pretty easy endeavor, given the almost complete absence of major shifts or proposals in any of them. To look at their respective proposals in alphabetical order:

– ban Hizb-ut-Tahrir and “close down organizations which attempt to fund terrorism from the UK”
– create a new National Resilience Team for Homeland Security
– (I have to confess that I could not find this in their manifesto,
but the BBC seem to think it is) review “the controversial control orders system”

– “we will develop our PREVENT strategy to combat extremism.”

Liberal Democrats
– scrap control orders
– reduce pre-charge detention to 14 days
– allow intercepts in court, make greater use of post-charge questioning.

All three seem to suggest that the police should take the lead in counter-terrorism, and all condemn torture (the Libdems want to launch a “full judicial inquiry into allegations of British complicity in torture and state kidnapping”). Afghanistan features in all three as linking a foreign threat to a domestic threat, while Pakistan is of greatest apparent concern to Labour – though all are concerned with unstable states as a threat to domestic security. Al Qaeda is only mentioned specifically by Labour. Aside from Labour, none of the parties discuss the allegedly all-important Preventing Violent Extremism strategy (and even Labour merely refers to it as listed above, without giving any more detail). In the debates, the topic has come up even less, with it merely being referred to within the context of Afghanistan.

Now on the one hand, it is worth remembering that for the two parties not in power, they do not have access to all of the intel that the government does and thus are potentially preparing blind. But at the same time, it is surprising that in essence all of the main parties have failed to present in their party manifesto’s anything substantial to address the threat of terrorism.

There are, in my mind, two answers to this: they either think that it is not a problem (or agree with the current strategy approach aside from the small tweaks they offer) and have thus omitted it consciously, or they have no idea what to do. Either option, however, offers the conclusion that they have no fresh ideas about what can be done to address a problem that senior police officers, politicians and security agents believe will remain with us “for a generation” and for which the budget has trebled since Labour have been in power (according to their own figures cited in the manifesto).

Of course, there is the possible conclusion that it is my personal fixation on the topic which is exaggerating the importance of its absence. Maybe in fact this is all a conscious effort to tone down the centrality or importance of counter-terrorism within the government’s duties, and thus maybe defuse some of the mythology around it. Still, if this is the really the case, then you would expect some greater acknowledgement of the choice given the fact that the government has been moving in the opposite direction, spreading counter-terrorism across an ever expanding number of agencies and departments.

To look at the specific proposals, the Liberal Democrat proposals seem most progressive, but at the same time, I wonder if they will not find themselves of a different view when they are in power and can see what I imagine is the intelligence that is bringing around the control order regime. Still, there is some substantial logic behind the premise that the government should prosecute or lift control orders and that the ongoing situation is not sustainable in the extended long term. If they are able to force the discussion about how to conclude this situation, then this is excellent news. In contrast, I remain unsure about the proposal to proscribe Hizb ut Tahrir. If it is implemented, I have a feeling it will merely increase the power and mystique of the organization with little substantial counter-terror benefit.

My latest more journalistic contribution for HSToday, providing them with an update on the situation in the UK. The timings are a little mangled, but provides some summary of recent HMG documents on terrorism. Thanks to Tim Stevens at Ubiwar for providing some very helpful insights in interview.

by Raffaello Pantucci
Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The risk … is that a heavy-handed reaction will focus on the symptom, rather than the cause Britain is under a “severe” threat of a terrorist attack, according to its security services.

Assessments provided by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Center (JTAC) stated that “an attack is highly likely.”

But maintaining public engagement and support continues to be a problem for the British government, especially as it attempts to tackle the new menace of online radicalization.

While the threat was raised to its current level in January for unspecified reasons, Lord Carlisle, the government’s independent auditor of terrorism legislation, told the BBC “the message from the current change of assessment is not that we should be more afraid, but that we should be a little bit more vigilant than we have been.”

But critics speculated that the decision to raise the threat level had a lot more to do with the upcoming election cycle to stoke public fears for political advantage.

Whatever the reason, terrorism remains the “preeminent security threat to the UK,” according to the first annual report of the Home Office’s Office for Security and Counterterrorism’s broadened counterterrorism strategy, known as CONTEST.

According to the report, CBRN threats are increasing due to a “significant increase in the illicit trafficking of radiological materials, the availability of CBRN related technologies on the internet and the increasing use of CBRN material for legitimate purposes.”

And the upcoming 2012 Olympic and Para-Olympic games present “one of the most significant challenges we will face over the next two years,” the report stressed, noting that the principal terrorist threat to the UK continues to be Al Qaeda in Pakistan.

Al Qaeda and instability in Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel also present a threat, the report stated.

But while government sees a growing Al Qaeda threat, the public remains increasingly skeptical – apathy seems to be is the most noticeable feature of the public debate. There also is a high level of distrust.

In a report in the Guardian about a Parliamentary oversight committee reporton the Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) program that Whitehall sees as fundamental to Britain’s long-term counterterrorism strategy, Committee Chair, MP Phyllis Starkey, said “the close association between [PVE] and the government’s wider counterterrorism strategy has bred profound distrust on a community level.”

This is a deeply problematic disconnect when considering that the government’s strategy is meant to strengthen these communities so that they are better able to tackle negative ideologies themselves.

As the report highlights, Muslims increasingly see the government engaging them only through the prism of countering terrorism, and see the specter of intelligence gathering behind any program that’s aimed at strengthening or engaging communities. Meanwhile, there’s a growing backlash among some communities angry at the money and attention that is being lavished on Muslims.

Cognizant of these trends, there has been an effort to publish more information on Britain’s terrorist threats in an attempt to garner greater public support and understanding.

Leading the way is the Home Office’s Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), which in addition to issuing a weekly report to its counterterrorism consumers that highlights the official line on relevant stories each week, also issues reports for internal use only.

This strategy is fraught with problems for a variety of reasons. One recently issued report, “Estimating Network Size and Tracking Dissemination Information Amongst Islamic Blogs” (which was written in April 2008), by David Stevens of the University of Nottingham, “[studied] the link patterns and discussions of Islamic bloggers with particular reference to the UK.” The report listed the top twenty most popular “Islamic” blogs, how they are interlinked, and highlighted the fact that there are more “anti-Islamic” blogs than “pro-Isamic blogs.”

The report didn’t receive a very warm reception. Guardian newspaper columnist Brian Whitaker asked: “Why did they bother” to publish a report that threw up “some blindingly obvious insights.” That sentiment was echoed by Jillian York at Al Jazeera, who attacked the report’s “flawed” methodology while quoting a number of the bloggers “outed” as pro-Islamic.

Similar perspectives were repeated in an interview with Tim Stevens, a researcher of online radicalization at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College.

“Personally, I think the report’s assumptions, methodology, execution and analysis are weaker than they might be, mainly as they don’t seem to achieve the stated aims of the research,” Stevens said. “It adds very little to our understanding of the topic and does not provide an insightful picture of the specific media it set out to study.”

According to Stevens, “the publication of the report may be counterproductive, in that it makes them and their Home Office sponsors look out of touch and potentially antagonistic to Muslims.”

In much the same way that Muslim communities perceives that the government sees them solely through the prism of terrorism, their online counterparts appear to be angry that moderate voices are being scrutinzed by researchers who are paid out of a counter-terrorism budget.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Edip Yuksel of the American Islamic reform movement said of the first blog on the list, Ali Eteraz, “listing Ali’s name in research to track terrorists is a travesty of truth.”

Nevertheless, understanding the Internet and its role in radicalization is a key focus of the British government. A recent high-profile BBC series, “Generation Jihad,” focused on the growing importance of the Internet in terrorist plots in the United Kingdom and its apparent influence in radicalizing ever younger individuals.

The risk, however, is that a heavy-handed reaction will focus on the symptom, rather than the cause.

As Stevens put it: “The internet is important, but there are other important factors in radicalization, too. Even if it were possible or desirable to shut down the internet, it wouldn’t stop the existence or influence of violent or radical ideas.”

These ideas, though, will continue to be the principal long-term battleground for the British, and global, counterterrorism struggle.

A new post (actually mine this time) over at Free Rad!cals, this time emerging from something that occurred to me as I was reading the Stefan Aust book about the Baader-Meinhof group. For those who don’t have the patience for the book (which is quite chunky, but at the same time, is a very quick read: he is a journalist and it is made up of lots of short chapters), I really rather enjoyed the recent movie, though I can see it skips over some details.

On Trials and Political Statements

Filed under: Europe, Terrorism

I have been re-reading Stefan Aust’s excellent book The Baader Meinhof Complex and have just finished trudging through the part which looks at the Stammheim trials period when four of the main Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Fraction, RAF) members, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Ulrike Mienhof, and Jan-Carl Raspe were held in the high security Stammheim Prison while they were on trial for a series of RAF attacks.

What is interesting about the Baader-Meinhof story is that in many ways there are parallels to be drawn with the current wave of extreme Islamist terrorism in the West. A small group of individuals, mostly young, educated and from middle class families, become persuaded that the system that they were born into and live in is fatally broken and the only way to fix it is through the use of purgative violence. Of course, it is equally easy to pull holes in the comparison, but that is not the focus of my train of thought here.

The Stammheim part highlights the differences to me. For the RAF group the trial was an opportunity to grandstand for the media and an attendant audience. They disrupted the trial to the point that they were not even present to hear the conclusion. This has manifestly not been the case with the ever increasing roster of Islamist terrorist cases in the West, where instead the defendants have chosen, for the most part, to use the trials as an opportunity to plead innocence while they remain silent about any connections to other terrorists.

Olivier Roy, in his paper, “Al Qaeda in the West as a Youth Movement: The Power of a Narrative,”describes the phenomenon thus:

“most of AQ suspects keep silent or deny any involvement during their trial, a very unusual attitude for political militants, who traditionally transform their trial into a political tribune.”

This is one of the fascinating elements of the movement which has found appeal amongst a specific community of young Muslims in the West. These individuals appear committed enough to go and train in camps in dangerous corners of the world and then come back home to plot, but they do not appear willing to try to stand up for their convictions in court or to publish voluminous texts to support their activities. At the same time they are also remarkably resilient in terms of caving to pressure and giving each other or their superiors up. To paraphrase what I recall hearing a former senior copper saying, the halls of Paddington Green police station (where most terror suspects are taken in the UK), are not “ringing” with the sounds of confessions.

On the one hand, this could be explained away by the fact that they genuinely are innocent and are merely sticking to their guns. But in counter to this, in cases where there is a pretty heavy burden of evidence against them (for example, Bilal Abdulla who was literally caught sitting on his bomb outside Glasgow airport), we have still had them denying culpability and offering pretty thin political statements to defend their actions. Nowhere have there been the sort of detailed political writing and haranguing that we find during the RAF trials: the RAF prisoners used to send letters between each other arguing about their political beliefs and published books and statements about their cause. The closest I have seen to this is the odd letter that leaks out from the prison system which is claimed to be written by incarcerated extremists, but these mostly complain about their treatment inside rather than going into the finer points of Islamic jurisprudence.

But the question remains as to whether this is a sign of a lack of seriousness and thus weakness of the central motivating ideology, or whether it is a sign of strength. Weakness since they do not appear to be able to back their convictions with stirring rhetoric, or strength since they are willing to take their punishment and silently sit it out to prepare to return to the fight when they are released. Given the control order regime which can continue to hinder activity once released, there is a benefit to staying quiet and acting calm. After all, hatred is patient.

For the RAF the Stammheim trials marked the end of the first generation of fighters. Ulrike Meinhof killed herself long before the trial ended, while the other three killed themselves a few months after the verdicts were handed down (a fourth member, Irmgard Moller, also attempted suicide, but survived the attempt and claimed it was all a government plot). The group continued on until it officially disbanded in 1998 – giving it a total lifespan of 28 years. I am unsure how far we are along in the current lifespan.

A post I am a little late in putting up, as I have had difficulty accessing the site. It is also one that is actually not really mine, but rather one I asked Ces Moore of Birmingham University to contribute to Free Rad!cals. I understand he is doing an event at Kings sometime towards the end of the month for those in London and able to go.

Dr Cerwyn Moore on Moscow Bombings

Filed under: Terrorism

Cognizant of my own limited knowledge on the topic of Russia and terrorism, I asked Dr Cerwyn Moore of the University of Birmingham, one of the top scholars on the topic in the UK, for his thoughts. He has kindly agreed to share them with us all:

“Since 2000, there have been three waves of suicide attacks linked to the insurgency in the North Caucasus. I won’t detail the three waves here, but will note that the recent attacks in Moscow on Monday (29th March), and the most recent suicide attack directed against security personnel in Dagestan (Kizlyar, 31st March), form part of a wave of attackers which began in 2008, when a lone bomber detonated explosives near military officials in the highland Chechen town of Vedeno. Thereafter, a suicide attacker attempted to assassinate Musa Medov, an Ingush official, again in 2008. Although overshadowed by the war in South Ossetia, another suicide attack occurred in 2008, in November, when a female attacker detonated explosives in a taxi cab in the North Ossetian capital, Vladikavkaz. Few statements were released related to these attacks, but all served symbolic, tactical and strategic purposes, in support of the case of the North Caucasus insurgency led by Dokku Umarov. Throughout 2009, suicide attacks became commonplace in Chechnya, Ingushetia and latterly in Dagestan, as the third wave gained momentum. For the most part, the attacks revolve around five points:

1)    They have served a broader strategic goal, garnering international news attention, while allowing the insurgents to draw federal forces into an evermore internecine cycle of violence, thereby demonstrating the weakness of federal and local security measures.

2)    They have served a tactical goal, targeting key officials such as the Ingush President, federal forces including key police compounds in Nazran (17th August, 2009) and in Dagestan (6th Jan 2010) and more general interior ministry and political officials.

3)    Thirdly, they have been used symbolically, on the one hand, to unnerve local political officials, and on of the other hand, to bring the war to the heart of Russia. Given widespread human rights abuses by local law enforcement agencies, although condemned by the wider population, the attacks are viewed as a legitimate retaliatory tool by the military units of the insurgency.

4)    Politically and strategically, the leader of the insurgency, Doku Umarov has successfully integrated different ethnic groups, including a younger generation of disillusioned men and women into the insurgency. In 2008, Umarov re-instated the Riyad us-Saliheyn, a franchise organisation which links different jamaats and facilitates the use of suicide terrorism. The Riyad us-Saliheyn, essentially a group of martyrs, was founded by Shamil Basayev as part of the second war, and was used to deadly effect in the second wave of suicide attacks, named ‘Operation Boomerang’. Following the Beslan school siege and a series of decrees and military reforms by the leader of the resistance between late 2005 and 2006, the unit was disbanded.

5)    Finally, the recent attacks raise the broader issue of the relationship between insurgencies and terrorist networks. How do the former host the latter? How do these relationships evolve and change over time? The insurgency in the North Caucasus is, and indeed always has been multi-ethnic, with Chechen fighters at the forefront. The transformation from a separatist movement to a North Caucasus movement has its roots in the early 1990s, but became more marked in the inter-war year. This shift has also acted as a catalyst as a result of widespread poverty, years of conflict and latterly, the influence of religious radicalism and internal radicalisation.

Together these points have given insurgents from the North Caucasus, and Umarov, a willingness and capability to mount a campaign of suicide terrorism across the North Caucasus and in the heartland of Russia, as part of a broader anti-Russian or anti-federal campaign.

The return of suicide attacks to Russia, as well as the steady escalation in the usage of this tactic is partly due to the pressure exerted by federal forces since April 2009, and partly due to internal radicalisation in the North Caucasus insurgency. Commentators, reporters and even some academics often mistakenly focus on the sensational aspects of the attacks; the use of female attackers (depending on how attacks are assessed, there have been nearly as many male attacks over the last ten years) or so-called ‘black widows’, highlighting trauma, the influence of foreign groups or Wahhabi religion, contagion or Al Qaeda, as a motivational causes, instead of recognising the tactical, retaliatory and strategic and symbolic nature of the attacks, or the local cultural narratives of resistance and blood revenge, and dynamics in the insurgency. Moreover, commentaries often conflate attacks with suicidal intent (such as the Moscow Theatre or Beslan School siege) with suicide attacks. All of which blurs, rather than effectively highlights the decision to employ, halt and resume the use of suicide attacks as part campaign of terrorism within a broader multi-ethnic insurgency.

Although notable exceptions exist, a tendency also exists to view attacks through the lens of Russian studies, clouding analysis of the organizational dynamics in the insurgency. At the forefront of the recent wave of attacks, as I have argued, are two key jamaats – the first, the Ingush group headed by a long serving insurgent who operates under the nom de guerre Magas, hosted the young Islamic convert and radical ideologist, widely considered to be one of the advocates who re-instigated the use of suicide attacks – Said Buratsky. Said Buratsky was killed, along with around eight other people in a two day shoot-out in Ingushetia at the start of March. A few weeks earlier, a long-serving member of the Arab mujahideen, and key leader involved in the organisation of the insurgency, Seif Islam, was also killed by federal forces, who have had other notable successes in recent months targeting the jamaats which operate in Dagestan. Moreover, in the last few weeks Abu Khaled, another foreign fighter, and a key aid of the leader of the insurgency, Doku Umarov, was also killed in federal operations. These setbacks, along with the severe restrictions, widespread human rights abuses appear to have forced the insurgents to escalate their campaign – targeting the metro stations near the FSB headquarters, the Lubyanka, and the Park Kultury station, near the interior ministry in Moscow, as part of the broader wave of suicide attacks. Both the FSB and Interior Ministry were said to be behind the recent military successes which have targeted the leadership of the insurgency.

The recent attacks in Moscow clearly result from recent federal successes in the low-intensity conflict which has beset the region since 2007. Whilst federal authorities have repeatedly claimed major successes, indicating that the insurgency was all but defeated, wide-scale poverty in the region, corruption and hard-line policies by Kremlin – repeated in recent days in statements by Vladimir Putin (which are, incidentally, eerily reminiscent of statements he made prior to the outbreak of the second Russo-Chechen War) – appointed strongmen, and apparatchiks have helped to radicalise a generation of new fighters willing to undertake ‘smertniki’ operations or suicide attacks.”

Cerwyn has covered this topic extensively elsewhere (see his webpage for a complete list), including two recent pieces for the Jamestown Foundation on the recent wave of attacks (here, and here). He also has a forthcoming book “Post-Modern War in Kosovo and Chechnya” from Manchester University Press. He can be contacted directly at: