Archive for May, 2013

A very brief piece for the BBC as part of a group of pieces they commissioned about radicalisation and what to do about it in the wake of last week’s incident in Woolwich. It was longer, but got shrunk, and I owe colleagues at RUSI a debt for helping keep it focused.

Viewpoints: How should radicalisation be tackled?

Radicalisation is defined in the government’s Prevent strategy as “the process by which a person comes to support terrorism and forms of extremism leading to terrorism”.

It is a social process but also a deeply personal experience. The pathway by which one person is radicalised can have a completely different effect on someone else. This makes it very difficult to devise a one-size-fits-all answer to the problem. Instead, a menu of tools is necessary to address different causes.

Countering influences online and offline is harder than it might sound. Simply shutting down websites and arresting individuals do not necessarily eliminate the problem.

On the contrary, such moves can drive people underground, making them potentially more appealing and attractive, or they will simply adapt to be on the right side of any ban.

This is not just a law enforcement issue. As a society we need to counter the all-encompassing narrative that states that the West is at war with Islam. This is a message that should be repeatedly rejected at every level: politician, community worker, citizen.

Coupled with this, our societies should engage in practices that highlight how open and free we are, and hold power to account when mistakes are made.

The sad truth, however, is that certain decisions that are made will be interpreted by extremists as something that supports their worldview. Very little will be ultimately possible to persuade them otherwise.

The answer is to recognise and acknowledge where we make mistakes and realise that society will always have its discontents.

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And with this I have caught up on a few weeks posting. This one is of course as a result of the recent grim events in Woolwich for RUSI, I did quite a media push around them and I will in due course post links here. More undoubtedly on this as the week goes on.

The Woolwich Murder: Initial Assessments of Another Lone Actor Attack

RUSI Analysis, 23 May 2013

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

From film and eye-witness footage, it is quite clear that the perpetrators of the Woolwich attack were motivated for terrorist ends. The trend is now quite apparent, as is their intended objective of sowing societal discord.
Woolwich Help for Heroes Tributes

Yesterday afternoon two individuals carried out a brutal attack on an off-duty British soldier. They then calmly announced what they had done to the surrounding crowd. This has sparked a reaction with the English Defence League (EDL), while separately individuals are alleged to have attacked mosques.  The assault  looks like the culmination of trends that have become increasingly visible in violent Islamist terrorism of late.

This is not the first time that such attacks or targeting has taken place. In May 2010, Roshonara Choudhry took a knife she had bought at Tesco and stabbed Stephen Timms MP. When asked about her motivation, she pointed to the fact that he had voted for the Iraq War. By her own admission, she had devised the punishment having watched videos by Anwar al Awlaki online. Targeting off-duty soldiers is also not new: within a British context there is the case of Parviz Khan who was plotting to kidnap and behead a British soldier in Birmingham .He was disrupted before he could successfully carry out his attack, but Mohammed Merah a 23-year-old French-Algerian was more successful. Having identified individuals  through online activity at home in Toulouse and Montauban, he shot and killed three soldiers, before targeting a Jewish school and murdering three children and a teacher.

The key elements in all of these incidents is that subsequently very little evidence emerged that these individuals had been tasked to carry out their incidents. There was verification that Merah and Khan had made connections to extremist groups abroad, but none had been tasked to do what they did. Choudhry on the other hand has so far had no links identified and no apparent direction beyond her own. It seems possible that the individuals in Woolwich may fall somewhere within this spectrum – possibly connected to radical groups either in the UK or abroad, but unlikely to have received much direction or tasking. When looking at orchestrated plots from abroad, the tendency has been for larger scale operations targeting higher profile institutions, individuals and usually deploying bombs.

In parallel to this trend of lone actor (or small cell) terrorism with no clear command and control, there has been a growing tendency towards the targeting of more local targets and domestic military sites. In a recent case in Luton, a group of men spoke of driving a remote control car laden with explosives into a local Territorial Army barracks. A separate group in Birmingham drove to Dewsbury planning on targeting an English Defence League (EDL) march at which they hoped to find the organisations leader. And even Roshonara Choudhry’s choice of a random MP (amongst many) to punish for Iraq, all seem to suggest a targeting that is maybe seen as being part of a grander picture to the individual, but in expression seems random and very local.

A consequence of the attack is that it may incite hatred and anger between and among communities. The EDL have reacted to this recent incident vociferously and individuals have sought to attack mosques.

These trends have been increasingly visible in the past few years. From a security perspective, the dilemma is two-fold. On the one hand, how to identify lone actor terrorists who may feature in a larger intelligence picture, but do little to distinguish themselves from the crowd. And on the other, how to manage societal tensions when extremists on both sides prove eager to incite violent reactions in others.

And more late posting, this time a piece I wrote for Jamestown’s China Brief looking at the recent grim events in Xinjiang. A topic that is only going to become more relevant as time goes on given the depth of tensions. Of course, this all also feeds into the larger project I am working on looking at China in Central Asia.

Xinjiang’s April 23 Clash the Worst in Province since July 2009

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 11
May 23, 2013 04:16 PM Age: 4 days

A People’s Armed Police Patrol in Xinjiang, from here

On April 24, reports emerged from Xinjiang that 21 people had been killed in what was reported as a “terrorist clash” in Bachu County, Kashgar Prefecture (Xinhua, April 24). The incident came as U.S. Ambassador to Beijing Gary Locke was undertaking the first visit to the province by a senior U.S. delegation in 20 years as part of Beijing’s push to attract foreign investment to the province (Xinjiang Daily, April 25). The juxtaposition of the two events highlighted Beijing’s persistent difficulties in taming the province’s tensions. They call into question Beijing’s economics-based strategy while illustrating the ongoing questions about the drivers of radicalization in the province.

Initial descriptions about the events in Selibuya village in Bachu County (also known as Maralbexi) just outside Kashgar, suggested the incident was the product of a “violent clash between suspected terrorists and authorities” (Xinhua, April 24). Three community workers were described as entering a property and finding suspicious individuals with knives. They managed to alert others, but were killed before help could arrive. This lead to a larger clash in which a total of 15 police and community workers were killed while six so-called “mobsters” were shot to death (Xinjiang Daily, April 24; Shanghai Daily, April 24). The 15 dead were heralded later as “martyrs” and identified by their ethnicities as 10 Uighur, three Han and two Mongolians (Xinhua, April 29). Grim pictures released in the days after the funerals seemed to show females identified as cadres with their throats slit (CCTV13, April 30).

Xinjiang government spokeswoman Hou Hanmin quickly blamed the incident as being the work of terrorists (Reuters, April 24). Two days later after U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell refused to call it terrorism, an editorial lashed out at U.S.  “double standards,” something felt all the more keenly in the wake of the Boston bombings in which a Chinese student was killed (Xinhua, April 26). A few days later, security forces announced they had arrested a further 11 suspects for involvement in the incident, bringing the total number of captured individuals to 19 (Xinhua, April 29). In making this announcement, the government laid out its claim that they had disrupted a terrorist cell headed by Qasim Muhammat (also spelt Kasmu Memet) that had been founded in September 2012 and was in the process of planning “something big” this summer in Kashgar (Xinhua, April 29). The group allegedly would gather at cell member Muhanmetemin Barat’s house where they would do physical training, watch extremist videos, read the Koran and practice making explosives (Xinhua, April 29). The group was in the process of making explosives at the house when the three community workers came visiting leading to the incident (Xinhua, April 29).

According to an official timeline released by the government, one of the members of the cell, Musar Aisanjon, had first come to security officials’ attention in July 2007 when he was questioned by authorities linked to unspecified charges. Three years later, he is alleged to have met Qasim Muhammat, who subsequently went on to recruit the other members of the cell (China Daily, April 30). By September 2012, the group was formed and under Qasim’s lead were gathering regularly to train, listen and watch radical material and make knives. By the time of the incident, they allegedly had tested explosives five times. When authorities subsequently raided the properties, they uncovered knives, combat training equipment, illegal religious material and three jihadist flags along with at least one identified as being an “East Turkestan” banner (Xinhua, April 29; China Daily, April 30). Nevertheless, a few days later spokeswoman Huo Hanmin went on record saying that the incident and individuals involved “had no connection with foreign forces” in contrast to many previous incidents where external influences were blamed (China Daily, May 2).

This official version of events was disputed remotely by dissident groups through Radio Free Asia, where they called for independent coverage of the story (RFA, May 3). A BBC crew was able to get to Selibuya and spoke to locals who said a family that was at the center of the clash had “a long-standing dispute with officials.” Apparently very religious, the family was under pressure to shave their beards and for their women to unveil themselves—something that was apparently in accordance with local laws. The family refused and something snapped on April 23 leading to the brutal incident (BBC, April 26). Little of this account beyond the end result was corroborated by official Chinese reports, leaving observers in the usual frustrating state of confusion when observing such incidents in Xinjiang.

Waters were further muddied when RFA—citing Uighur websites, local sources and dissident groups—reported that there had been a further incident in Hotan, Xinjiang during which two more community workers were killed and three cars burned in an incident sparked off by clampdowns in the wake of the Selibuya deaths (RFA, April 26). No further information has emerged about this incident. Other incidents reported by RFA in subsequent days (and not corroborated elsewhere) showed tensions between Uighur and Han across the country. One report indicated there had been a clash between Uighur and Han students at Beijing’s Minorities University leading to the authorities separating the two communities on campus (RFA, April 29). Meanwhile in Shanghai, a group of Uighur women protesting their being banned from selling products outside the Changde Lu Mosque, reportedly were moved along violently by local authorities (RFA, May 3). It is unclear if there is any connection between all of these events and whether these are anything more than usual intra-ethnic tensions. They do, however, highlight a persistent issue.

A contact in Kashgar at around the time of the incident reported no particular local coverage of events, with locals suggesting they return to Urumqi rather than press on toward the borders near Kashgar. Another report indicated that the government had re-issued laws regulating possession of SIM cards in the region (RFA, April 30). Such laws had been issued previously in conjunction with other rioting when it was believed that dissemination of pictures of Han or Uighur brutality against each other had exacerbated tensions. By having people registering SIM cards against ID cards, the belief was that individuals could be tracked.

While possibly sensible from a security surveillance perspective, such measures are impediments to rapid transfer of information. Something that when taken in conjunction with the confusion that permeates the official accounts of the events in Selibuya suggests that the government is going to continue to have a difficult time in attracting the external investment that it is looking for to develop the province. External investors will be both alarmed by the security situation, but also the heavily watched environment and the impediments to obtain SIM cards.

According to 2012 trade figures, during the first 11 months of 2012, Xinjiang attracted some $396 million in foreign direct investment (FDI)—a figure up 30.8 percent year-on-year—but still paltry when put in the context of the $100.02 billion that China overall attracted during the same period (Xinhua, December 21, 2012). Eager to attract foreign firms, the Xinjiang government has been proactive in bringing foreign companies out to the province. It has signed a cooperation agreement with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI); Volkswagen has established a joint venture car factory outside Urumqi; French waste management firm Veolia is taking on the modernization of Urumqi’s wastewater infrastructure; Coca-Cola is opening a plant in the province with its bottling partner Cofco; IBM is working with authorities in Karamay to develop a “smart city”; Danish wind power manufacturer LM Glasfiber setting up a factory in the Urumqi Economic and Technological Development Zone; and Turkey signed an agreement in 2011 to develop a Sino-Turkish Development Park outside Urumqi (www.cbi.org.uk, January 28; China Daily, November 14, 2012; South China Morning Post, April 3, 2012; China Daily, August 16, 2011; http://www.finance.veolia.com, September 1, 2005). More recently, the U.S. delegation visiting with Ambassador Locke had representatives from GE, the Aluminium Company of America (Alcoa), DuPont, Cummins and Peabody Energy Corporation (Xinjiang Daily, April 25).

All of this activity, however, does not seem to be translating into a huge pay-off on the ground as external investment remains relatively low. Foreign firms wonder about the prospects in the wake of incidents like that in Selibuya as well as practical concerns like the province’s still underdeveloped infrastructure and its distance from any bodies of water or markets. The annual China-Eurasia Expo held in Urumqi in September, for example, is intended as a further FDI booster, but most of the deals done are between Chinese firms. During the 2011 Expo, $29.14 billion in deals were signed with Chinese firms versus $5.5 billion in foreign trade contracts (Xinhua, September 3, 2012).

What does seem to have changed, however, is the government’s willingness to blame incidents like that in Selibuya on outside actors (something attested to by Huo Hanmin’s earlier clarifications). In a number of discussions over the past year, the author has heard Chinese scholars suggest that incidents in Xinjiang are at root domestic problems rather than external ones [2]. Xinjiang Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian published an article in Seeking Truth following the wake of the Bachu incident in which he laid out the current context and strategy for developing Xinjiang. Hinting at a slight adjustment in the degree to which authorities are eager to blame outside forces, Zhang described the security problems in terms of social stability and development rather than blaming foreign elements (Qiushi, May 16). In keeping with the reported paranoia of the security services, an anonymous Xinjiang security official, however, said “The ‘three evil forces’ of separatism, extremism and terrorism have long been using mobile phones and the Internet to incite terrorist attacks in China” (Xinhua, May 17). The party secretary’s article stands in contrast to statements in response to previous incidents where outside groups were accused of directing plotters and infiltrating operatives.

Further confusing matters, at around the time of the incident, the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) released its latest batch of videos through Islam Awazi, including one in which a now believed dead senior al Qaeda ideologue, Abu Zaid al-Kuwaiti provides “advice for the Muslims of East Turkestan” (jihadology.net, May 4). At no point in these videos is there any mention of recent incidents in Xinjiang or of any specific direct threats against targets in China. Something suggestive of a disconnect between what Uighur groups operate in Waziristan and their ethnic brethren in Xinjiang. The narrative of this incident further emphases this discontent, pointing in the direction of being a domestic clash with no external instigation.

The fact that government has chosen to release such detailed information about this incident would suggest an effort to get their side out with as much detail and openness as possible. This reflects the growing desire of propagandists to have official government bureaus be the most authoritative source on breaking events (Study Times, May 6). This public relations approach seems to be part of a broader effort to shift the messaging about who is to blame for such incidents. Who this is directed at, however, is unclear: the international community, Chinese residents elsewhere in the country or residents of Xinjiang? Whichever the case, given their previous history of opacity and conflicting views from the ground, much more still needs to be done for Beijing’s views on events in Xinjiang to be taken at face value.

Notes:

  1. Author’s Communication with Foreign Visitor in Kashgar, April 24, 2013.
  2. This is a perspective the author has heard at conferences at official think tanks in Beijing and Shanghai and has been corroborated by other foreign scholars in discussions with Chinese experts looking at terrorism questions and South Asia.

Still catching up on old posts, this is a piece that I think is actually quite important but unfortunately appears to have broadly gotten buried. It is an article for The National Interest in which we get prominent Chinese and Indian academics to agree on paper on working together on Afghanistan’s economic future. As ever more on this subject to come, and please be sure to check out the site that I co-edit looking at China in Central Asia.

Afghanistan’s Economic Hope

The key to Afghanistan’s long-term stability is economic prosperity and development anchored in a secure and sound society. Sitting at the heart of the Eurasian continent, its prospects are important to the UK, China and India. Harnessing a common interest in Afghanistan’s economic future into an agenda could provide the foundations for a long-term solution to that nation’s intractable problems.

Fellow BRICS members China and India do not see eye to eye on a number of issues. Longstanding border disputes plague the relationship and both have different views of Islamabad as a partner. Nevertheless, both share concerns about Afghanistan’s future and recognize the importance of stability in the country for broader regional peace. As a NATO power exiting militarily alongside the United States, the United Kingdom is eager to continue its aid program and other work with regional partners to develop a stable structure that guarantees Afghanistan does not return to its former state as a haven for terrorism and extremism.

According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), Afghanistan may be sitting on mineral wealth worth around $1 trillion. Its potential lithium deposits have been described as having the potential to turn the country into the ‘Saudi Arabia of lithium’ while it is estimated to have some $421 billion’s worth of iron ore, and a further $273 billion in copper. In the north, Afghanistan sits atop the lower end of the hydrocarbon rich Amu Darya basin. But the ongoing security and governance problems mean that this untapped prosperity remains stuck underground.

The threat of attack and uncertainty about post-2014 have meant that companies have been hesitant to proceed with investments. Security issues aside, problems with a lack of local-government capacity and a difficult business environment mean that while it is easy to get into Afghanistan, setting up shop is only the first hurdle. The result is an Afghanistan that cries out for investment and is unable to profit from its natural wealth. It is here that China and India could play a greater role.

As regional powers with booming economies hungry for raw materials, they are exactly the consumer that would benefit from this mineral wealth. Currently, foreign direct investment into Afghanistan is dominated by Chinese and Indian state-owned enterprises (SOEs). There is MCC, Jiangxi Copper (owners of the Mes Aynak copper mine) and CNPC (responsible for an oil project in Amu Darya), all Chinese SOEs, and SAIL-AFISCO (majority owner of the Hajigak iron ore mine), an Indian firm.

As SOEs, the firms are better able to take on large projects: governments have greater ability to influence company direction and harness it for Afghanistan’s long-term benefit. The key is to get firms to invest in both the project and the country.

This can happen in a number of ways. First, there is the tool of providing jobs for locals around the sites. But projects should also aim to develop infrastructure around the site to connect the mines with the rest of the country and region, efforts that should be prioritized and coordinated in future bids. An additional benefit could be created if firms investing in the country were to assume responsibility for training local engineers and mining professionals. This training could take place at the sites or abroad. One possibility is for Chinese and Indian firms to offer scholarships to Afghan students to attend top universities in China or India to learn skills that could then be deployed on the mining sites. It is here also that the United Kingdom could play a role. British foreign policy has a long history of facilitating training programs, and some of the lessons learned may be helpful to China and India.

The capacity problem is one that exists not only at an operational level, but also at a governmental level. British, Chinese and Indian governments could offer training courses for technocrats in the Ministry of Mines and other civil servants to help them develop the skills needed to effectively manage their country’s national wealth. Investing in local capacity should not stop at training people. Given that the companies in question are state-owned entities, their home governments have greater influence to ensure standards in compliance and corporate practice.

Beijing and New Delhi should push their own SOEs to ensure that certain minimum standards of behavior are undertaken, focused on ensuring that their firms will not indulge in corrupt behavior in pursuit of contracts. A common standard of practice should be established to ensure that deals cut in Afghanistan are clean, and all sides should agree to not undercut each other. Naturally, a pragmatic approach needs to be taken but establishing good practices early will save trouble in the long run. The United Kingdom already works with the Afghan government to support the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), and the lessons being applied here could provide the foundation for a strong anticorruption program in Afghanistan.

Finally, work should be done to develop a special mineral-protection corps. Men currently employed in the security forces will find themselves unemployed as the ANSF budget is reduced, and numbers are cut to create a more professional force. With few other opportunities on offer, they could simply hire themselves out to the highest bidder—whether they are mercenary, Taliban or warlord. Offering them jobs as a civilian security corps tasked with defending mining concessions could offer one useful alternative. A special constabulary has already been established tasked with defending the Mes Aynak project. Creating similar entities in other areas might have the dual effect of creating security on the sites, while providing a good employment opportunity for otherwise unemployed armed men.

This is an admittedly optimistic agenda. But as neighboring countries (and brother BRICS countries) with a vested interest in ensuring Afghanistan’s future, Beijing and New Delhi must find ways to cooperate more effectively. As a key NATO member about to withdraw after a decade of conflict, Britain is eager to create a regional consensus that guarantees a positive legacy in the heart of Eurasia. All three need to find ways of working cooperatively with other regional actors like Pakistan, the Central Asian states and Russia on issues of access and evacuation of mineral resources. Focusing on Afghanistan’s economic future and encouraging local development is key to ensuring a peaceful transition post-2014. Afghanistan’s past has been dominated by imperial exploitation—the future need not be the same.

Brigadier (retd) Vinod Anand is based at the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF). Professor Hu Shisheng is affiliated with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR). Raffaello Pantucci is a scholar at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

And another late post up to the site, also for RUSI, this time touching upon the disrupted plot to attack an English Defence League (EDL) march in Dewsbury. The cell was linked to the other Birmingham plot I mentioned in these two pieces. Looking back in light of recent events, it looks like some of the points I made here are relevant in relations to Woolwich.

We Hate the EDL More Than We Love Life?

RUSI Analysis, 9 May 2013

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

Last week, Islamist extremists were found guilty of plotting a terrorist attack on a rally of the English Defence League. The case shows how extremists from both sides are turning to violent means. It also shows how Jihadists in the United Kingdom are focusing on domestic targets.

EDL Rally Plot April 2013

The plan was to attack an English Defence League (EDL) march in Dewsbury and possibly leader Tommy Robinson using knives, machetes, shotguns and explosives. A number of the figures in the plot had appeared on the periphery of other investigations: at least one was already on bail (having served time) for possession of terrorist material, another was a fundraiser in a separate plot to carry out an unspecified suicide bombing and another was the brother of a plotter from the same investigation. The case highlights a number of issues for British security, intelligence agencies and the police. This includes  understanding the multiple strands of  potential terrorist activity in the Birmingham’network of networks’; understanding the dynamic between Islamist extremists and the Far right and living with the embedded domesticization of the terrorist threat in the United Kingdom.

The Plot

The particular plot to target the EDLwas one that was part of a phenomenon of growing concern to security officials. The plotters actions seem to be part of an apparent escalation that the two sides share in the press and at events: the group of Islamist extremists from Birmingham were planning to drive north and launch an attack against a planned EDL march in Dewsbury on 30 June 2012. They had gathered knives, machetes, sawn-off shotguns, a partially constructed pipe bomb, a fireworks based improvised explosive device and had in their possession a letter addressed to Prime Minister David Cameron, the Queen and the ‘English Drunkards League.’ The men had allegedly aborted their attack after being late for the EDL rally, returning home having done nothing. Had they been able to carry out their attack, the casualties could have been high and police were unable to rule out that the group had been planning a suicide attack.

This is the first plot in which a group of Islamist terrorists has chosen to take measures to directly target members of the EDL, an extremist group that ‘was founded in the wake of the shocking actions of a small group of Muslim extremists who, at a homecoming parade in Luton, openly mocked the sacrifices of our service personnel without any fear of censure.’ The parade in question was in March 2009 and was conducted by a group that was praised by self-appointed preacher AnjemChoudhry – one of the leading figures in the now-banned al Muhajiroun – and involved a number of individuals who had been affiliated with the group in Luton. Similarly inflammatory incidents have been carried out on Remembrance Days in 2010 (during which a protester burned a symbolic poppy) and 2011 (when the protest used the headline ‘Hell for Heroes’), and a planned protest at Wootton Basset in 2010 was cancelled after much publicity.

The EDL’sresponse to this has been a series of protest marches up and down the country, all of which attract varying degrees of support and attention. The group has not been linked to any terrorist plots, though a number of its members have been arrested over time for various public order offences – usually involving violence at protests. Separately there have also been arrests of far right activists allegedly planning bombings of some kind, though their group affiliation (if any) remains unclear.

The picture from a government perspective is a negative one. An already polarised public political conversation is taking a more violent tone. The danger of a cyclical reaction and counter-reaction between the two sides of an extreme equation seems increasingly tangible, with already heightened tensions between different communities now finding acts of terrorism palatable. The question becomes whether this particular event will spark a possible counter-reaction or simply prove a one off.

Local Targeting, Less Command and Control

From a solely violent Islamist perspective, this plot highlights both the ongoingand embedded nature of the domestic threat, and the growing evidence of a lack of command and control from overseas. Whilst individuals in this plot were involved in a separate cell, there is little in the public domain to suggestthat they received instruction from Al-Qa’ida. Rather, the plot seems to have been one that was concocted amongst networks based in the United Kingdom, loosely using publications like Inspire magazine as guides to build devices, but targeted at domestic, almost ‘local’ grievance issues. The choice of the EDL as a target is not actually that new: in a recent case in Luton the group mentioned the EDL on a list of potential targets that included the Security Service, MI5, and the US Air Force (USAF). In a separate case, radicalised convert Richard Dart mentioned attacking a protest at Wootton Basset as a possible target while also being in possession of a recording of himself delivering a video ‘Message to the EDL’ on a ‘Muslims Against Crusades’ video. But in neither of these cases had individuals done more than include the group as one of a number of possible targets they were interested in exploring within the UK.

This choice of targeting reflects a growing trend in British violent Islamist networks where they have chosen targets of a very domestic British nature rather than international.  Is it the case that much like politics, all terrorism is local?  Rather than public transport, international targets or large shopping arenas, this group intended to target a domestic British political organisation. Similar efforts in the past include the attempt in September 2008 to firebomb the home of the publisher of the book The Jewel of Medina, a book that had attracted some controversy for its portrayal of the Prophet Muhammed or Roshonara Choudhry’s attempted murder of MP Stephen Timms for his vote in favour of the Iraq War after she had watched a series of videos by Anwar al Awlaki. In both of these cases, the ideology that was underpinning the choice of targets was support for a global jihadist cause, but the end result was a choice of target that was more a reflection of local concerns that international targeting. This reflects, at least in part, the fact that none of these cells had any clear connections to outside plotters who might have steered them towards more prominent targets with an international profile.

A Complex Intelligence Picture

The product of this approach is a set of plots that demonstrate less external direction and more haphazard targeting. This complicates traditional threat assessments of targeting choices, as well as making harder the job of identifying cells pre-emptively. Traditionally, security and intelligence services and police find cells or plotters through their communication or contacts with others: if a cell lacks any direct command and control from abroad or is a Lone Actor, then this becomes a harder proposition. This also means that it is harder to identify and assess individuals within a broad community of interest who are either involved or on the periphery of a terrorist cell.

If individuals are all radicalising within a broader community and the targeting decisions are coming around in a more random manner – using easily accessible weapons and focused on domestic political targets – officials observing may find it difficult to distinguish which are moving towards a terrorist atrocity versus those who are simply expressing extreme political views. Additionally, when the targeting picture is one focused on domestic British extremist political entities, it means that a potentially much wider group of people are affected: there are many individuals who talk loudly about being angry about the EDL or other similar groups, but which are those who are talking with potentially terrorist intent versus those simply expressing anger and opposition? A Sheffield man was charged with threatening the EDL with an attack after he sent a threatening message through their website: a jury was unable to reach a conclusion in a case where the defendant claimed to have sent the message out of personal spite with no intent.

Finally, it is worth noting that this cell targeting the EDL was one that was actively part of the extremistcommunity in Birmingham that has been the source of a number of serious terrorism cases of late. Jewel Uddin, one of the key figures in the group targeting the EDL was a fundraiser for a cell convicted recently for planning to carry out an unspecified suicide bombing in the United Kingdom. Uddin was in fact mentioned during the previous trial as an individual who appeared on a number of wiretaps and was at least briefly under direct intelligence surveillance:whilehe purchased knives that were subsequently discovered in a vehicle with other weapons the cell was going to use in attacking the EDL march.

Another member of the group, Zohaib Kamran Ahmad was previously incarcerated on charges of possessing radical material, while AnzalHussain was the brother of one of the individuals involved in the previous Birmingham case. This means that in total 17 Birmingham men have pled guilty of terrorism offences in quick succession, highlighting ongoing radicalisation within the city. Locals point to the fact that families in Birmingham tried to resolve some of the issues themselves rather than alert authorities as a good sign about trends in recognizing and accepting the danger of radicalisation in the city. Nevertheless, it is becoming apparent that Birmingham isa rising as a source of concern for British security authorities.

Overall, there is a complicated domestic picture that is matched by an equally confused map abroad where Al-Qa’ida’s increased fracturing offers numerous new regions where potential threats might brew – like parts of the Sahel, Nigeria, Syria and so on. The terrorist threat in the UK may seem increasingly amateurish and domestic, but it maintains the potential to produce sudden, sharp blows. Understanding where these may come and how they express themselves will continue to be a concern for the next few years.

Finally catching up on some old posting – this is a second piece I wrote for my new Institute RUSI.

Boston Bombers Highlight Difficulties of Countering Isolated Terror Cells

RUSI Analysis, 24 Apr 2013

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

As motives and operational set-up of the Boston bombers become known, urgent questions will be asked about how US intelligence agencies are prioritising threats in the United States. The case reveals the huge dilemma faced in collecting, evaluating and acting on credible intelligence leads.

Boston Bombers

We do not yet know with absolute clarity what motivated the Boston bombers, who last week so dramatically caught the public’s attention. It also remains unclear the extent to which the two may or may not have been connected to international terrorist networks. What is clear, however, is the danger that such small and disconnected terrorist cells pose and the difficulties that security services face in countering them.

Questions are now being asked about the degree to which the Boston brothers’ were connected or directed by any outside forces. Their Chechen heritage, recent travels to the restive Dagestan part of Russia and their online footprint showing an interest in Chechen jihadism all point to a possible link through the northern Caucasus to international jihadi networks. The fact that Russia appears to have flagged their concerns on older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev to the FBI suggests that there may have been more to this connection than simple coincidence. However, given Russia’s robust approach to counter-terrorism, it seems unlikely they would have let a suspect of serious concern travel in and out of their country without some form of action. Furthermore, while there have been instances of Chechen individuals being involved in plots outside Russia, for the most part Chechen jihadist networks have focused on Russia with some links to battlefields in Afghanistan and Syria.

Instead, it seems more likely that the Tsarnaev brothers are a ‘lone’ or ‘solo’ actors that were partially radicalized online and carried out their attacks without direction from overseas.. While there seem to be some investigative strands that suggest others – specifically a mysterious figure named Misha – may have facilitated on Tamerlan’s radicalisation, the investigation does not seem to be pointing to a wider terrorist cell with many external connections. The conclusion seems to be that the men found and absorbed radical ideas largely by themselves, before deciding to launch a terrorist campaign to punish America for wars against Islam and in line with ideas they found in publications like Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Inspire magazine, advanced by preachers like Sheikh Feiz Mohammed and possibly explained by individuals like the mysterious Misha.

Reportedly, Dzhokhar, the younger brother, told investigators that they got their bomb design and ideas from Inspire magazine, the publication put out by Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It seems that the reported pressure cooker device used at the Boston bombing may have been drawn from a design suggested in the first edition of the magazine from Summer of 2010 . Moreover, it appears that this was merely the first incident in an intended campaign of further destruction. According to investigators, the brothers told a man whose car they hijacked that ‘we just killed a cop. We blew up the marathon. And now we’re going to New York.’ But so far no evidence has emerged that there was anyone orchestrating this plot, telling the men what to do and who to attack. The targeting of a marathon, a random policeman and then heading to New York is all very evocative of Inspire magazine’s brand of terrorism against society at large rather than symbols of government or authority.

The Dilemma of Identifying an Isolated Threat

From a security analysis perspective, it is often connections that make it possible for authorities to become alert to individuals or terrorist cells. Intercepted communications or contact with known extremists will place cells or individuals on official radars, leading to possible deeper investigation that may uncover the existence of a threat. Networks tend to trip over intelligence leads directing authorities to focus on them as particular potential threats.

The particular problem, however, posed by ‘lone’ or ‘solo actor’ individuals – that is a terrorist cell that conduct attacks without any clear direction or command and control from external groups – is that oftentimes they may throw up subsequent connections, but these are hidden amongst a mass of other information. For example, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s travel to Chechnya and his online activity may be something that now seem deeply suspicious, but it is possible that at the time they would have been pieces of evidence that are fairly common amongst young North Caucasians. The fact that the extent of the Russian follow-up was to warn American counterparts of their concerns suggests that these links did not draw bright red flags.

One is faced with the dilemma of identifying which of these strands of information or intelligence will result in an unravelling of a terrorist cell, versus information of people simply flirting with radical material online. This is clearly a very difficult job, and in some cases it seems likely that it would be almost impossible to identify people pre-event. For example, Roshonara Choudhry, the King’s College London student who in May 2010 tried to kill MP Stephen Timms for his support of the Iraq war, would have been very difficult to detect prior to carrying out her attack. Thus far, all that is known about the extent of her radicalisation was that she was watching videos by Anwar al-Awlaki and Abdullah Azzam online.

Other cases, however, like Khalid Aldawsari in Texas, show how tripwires can catch potential ‘lone’ or ‘solo actor’ terrorists. In that case, Aldawsari attempted to purchase chemicals from the Carolina Biological Supply company, using a commercial shipping company to have them delivered to his home in Lubbock, Texas. Both the chemical company and the shipping company flagged the purchase as one of concern to authorities, leading to an investigation by the FBI that uncovered Aldawsari as a loner terrorist cell building a bomb whose diary was full of menacing jihadist ideas. He was convicted in November last year and sentenced to life imprisonment.

‘Inspiring’ Terrorism

Recognition of the difficulty to detect such cells is exactly why Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been actively pushing, through its magazine Inspire, towards the idea of people carrying out terrorist attacks on this basis. By simply using everyday items, they are able to launch whatever sort of incident they are able to against the West. What has loosely been called ‘Just Do It’ terrorism in the press and has been referred to as ‘Open Source Jihad’ by AQAP inInspire. It is all aimed at detaching operational command and control from the terrorist cell in recognition of the fact that it is this element which most often proves the compromising element.

But while AQAP has been actively pushing this through their publications and messages, andInspire has repeatedly shown up in investigations in Europe and North America, there is little evidence that the magazine has in itself been a generator of cells. It is a regular feature of terrorist investigations, but it does not seem as though simply reading the publication is turning people into terrorists. Rather, people have used it for ideas – with already radicalised individuals using it as a way to figure out how to build a device. From an investigative perspective, it is difficult to know how to identify the individuals using it for operational purposes versus curious young men and women is difficult without a fuller intelligence picture. Even if individuals have downloaded the magazine, it is not necessarily the case that they are worth the resources of an investigation by authorities.

However, the picture becomes more interesting for investigators if the magazine appears alongside other potentially incriminating evidence. For example, that the individual is consuming increasingly radical material, is planning travel to parts of the world where Al-Qa’ida or affiliated movements are particularly active or is seeking connections with other radicals or groups. And it is here that intelligence and police agencies clearly need to focus when they are trying to pre-emptively identify Lone or Solo Actor terrorist cells. No doubt a difficult prospect, but given the growing propensity of terrorist cells to look like this, something that requires deeper understanding.

A final note to touch upon is the fact that the Boston cell appears to be made up of two people rather than an isolated individual. However, as brothers with the older leaving a more radical footprint, it is possible that he was the radicalising agent who influenced his younger brother.Stories are emerging of the older brother’s influence over his younger sibling. While such isolated cells with no external connections are rare, they are not unheard of: for example, in October 2009 Mohammed Game blew himself up at the gates of a Milan barracks. While later investigation uncovered links to two others who were subsequently prosecuted, no wider connections from the cell were ever uncovered. Similarly, in May 2007, a group in New Jersey were arrested for plotting some sort of attack against the Fort Dix barracks – at the heart of the cell were the three Duka brothers, Albanian-Americans, and their brother-in-law Mohammed Shenwer, who were apparently Anwar al-Awlaki fans and were plotting some sort of incident in New Jersey. These sorts of isolated ‘solo’ or ‘lone actor’ (or as the author has previously referred to them ‘Lone Wolf Packs’) cells tend to be easier to locate given their tendency to have more external links or tripwires for authorities to come across them. However, as shown in the Boston and Milan cases, these cells can also slip by undetected.

The key conclusion for security agencies is that such terrorist cells are notoriously difficult to uncover prior to event. Some work can be done in targeted public information campaigns aimed at chemical companies, storage firms or other industries that might be conduits for individuals to obtain transformative material for homemade explosives. This will help give authorities leads like those that led to Khalid Aldawsari’s detention. As the tendency towards ‘lone’ or ‘solo actor’ cells becomes a pattern, a more comprehensive pattern may emerge of such lone/solo actor individuals or cells, providing authorities with a better profile that they can test information against to see if individuals are moving in a direction of concern.

Policy Options

The main policy conclusion that can be usefully drawn is that as such cells are hard to detect, greater work needs to be focused on subsequent response and management of information that would allow analysts to determine whether a terrorist plot is part of an externally directed or self-directed campaign.

Furthermore, a concerted effort will be required to remove the mystique around such attackers. The first step would be to encourage a public culture that equates would-be attackers to mass shooters rather than a heroic terrorist. If this is done successfully, it is possible they will consider other avenues of expression and Inspire’s message will be less inspiring.