Archive for April, 2017

Another piece for the Telegraph after the St Petersburg terrorist attack, though the title is rather deceptive as the piece is mostly about the phenomenon of radicalisation amongst Central Asians, a topic that appears sadly relevant again after the incident Friday in Stockholm.

The Saint Petersburg attack is a reminder that sophisticated terror plots are still a real threat

A victim is carried in a soft stretcher

The Metro attack was the worst terror attack in Russia for several years CREDIT: ANTON VAGANOV/EPA

The attack on St Petersburg in some ways resembles a throwback to an earlier time. With the recent spate of low-tech incidents involving knife-wielding and car driving extremists, the perception was that the nature of the terrorist threat had evolved. The as of yet unclaimed atrocity in St Petersburg is a reminder of how terrorists continue to deploy explosives to advance their causes, and how Russia remains a priority target for international terrorist networks.

It is not yet clear who is responsible for the attack in Russia, though initial indicators suggest that it was by an individual of Central Asian origin who may have previously been radicalised. This comes after an arrest earlier in March at Moscow airport of a Tajik citizen who had reportedly been sent by Isil to launch an attack in Russia. According to reports in the Russian press, the Tajik had been deployed to connect with networks already in the country who were to supply him with equipment to launch a terrorist strike. Central Asians were also implicated in the attacks late last year on the Ataturk Airport and Reina nightclubs in Istanbul, and in an attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek last August.

None of this may appear surprising to the lay observer. Central Asia has long been perceived as a hotbed of radicalisation. And yet in reality, it is a threat that has never quite expressed itself. Central Asian warriors have been a feature of the conflict in Afghanistan and more recently Syria and Iraq, but they have not been responsible for many attacks beyond these battlefields. Increasingly this appears to have changed.

It is something that is of particular concern to Russia, which has deep human, economic and security links with Central Asia. In part through the large community of labour migrants working in Russia from the region, but also directly with the countries of the region. Reflecting this, the new President of Uzbekistan is paying his first formal visit to Moscow this week, an event that has been eagerly anticipated since his election as leader in December 2017. Undoubtedly security questions will now feature as a larger part of the conversation.

From Moscow’s perspective, the menace of international terrorism is something that has been a persistent concern for some time. Of late, it appeared as though Russian security forces had been able to, for the most part, keep a lid on the problem. The attack on the Metrojet plane flying from Sharm el Sheikh was something that was beyond their control in Egypt, and at home the last major attack was in 2013 at Volgograd in the run up to the Winter Olympic games in Sochi. But the attack on St Petersburg shows the threat that Russia faces persists, and it is one that is likely to continue to become more acute as the battlefield in Syria and Iraq shrinks and groups seek to apportion blame and punish the outside powers who are perceived to be fighting against them.

There is a further danger within Russia that this growing narrative of Central Asians being seen as responsible for the incidents will strengthen suspicion among the Russian public towards the hundreds of thousands of migrants from the area. This community provides a huge service to Russia in the form of essential labour, while also providing a huge economic boost back home in remittances. The perception of threat from this community may be high, but the reality of it is actually small, a balance that Moscow needs to manage very carefully.

Finally, this attack highlights once again how terrorism is a multifaceted and complex threat that will continually find ways to penetrate security and murder civilians in advance of a political message. In the wake of incidents in Europe including the Westminster attack, the sense was we were moving towards a threat which was more focused on low tech attacks involving weapons easily available in our everyday lives. The reality is that terrorist groups retain the intent and capacity to launch more sophisticated assaults. The recent threat against aviation and the ban on large electronic items on certain routes is a reflection of the continuing threat of highly sophisticated plots; the St Petersburg attack shows how bombs in bags are still an equally effective vehicle through which to murder and attract attention to your cause.

Security agencies around the world will continue to need to pay attention to a wide range of potential threats, expressed in a variety of forms, in many different locations. The threat may yet become more acute as Isil faces defeat in its homeland.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute

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A very short piece for an excellent Central Asian regional newsletter called the Conway Bulletin looking at Pakistan and India possibly joining the SCO.

SCO Expansion Should Not Threaten the West

Expanding the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) will strain its functions but could boost trade and relations between Central Asia and South Asia, writes Raffaello Pantucci.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has achieved remarkably little in its decade plus life.

Established formally in 2001, it grew out of a regional grouping aimed at seeking to define China’s borders with the former Soviet Union. Over time, it has expanded beyond its immediate neighbourhood to include countries as distant at Belarus and Sri Lanka as ‘dialogue partners’.

The current push to welcome both India and Pakistan is likely to further test the organisation’s already limited capability. The practical implications for Central Asia are unlikely to be dramatic, though in the longer term it may help bind Central and South Asia closer together and foster a greater sense of community across the Eurasian heartland.
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In practical terms, the SCO has always been a fairly limited organisation. Seen initially by Russia as a way of controlling Chinese activity in Central Asia, for Beijing it has provided a useful umbrella under which to pursue their stealthy expansion in the region. For Central Asian powers, it provided another format in which to engage their larger neighbours. While the primary thrust of its activity has been in the security space, China has regularly sought to push it in an economic direction.

Yet, at the same time, all of the countries involved have largely pursued their own national interests through other pathways. The most recent demonstration was the establishment by
Beijing of the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM). Focused on
managing the security threats from Afghanistan, the QCCM in many ways replicates a function which one would have expected the SCO to deliver.

The addition of Pakistan and India to the grouping is unlikely to change this dynamic.

All of the nations involved in the SCO will continue to function through their own bilateral and other multilateral engagements. But it will offer another forum in which India and Pakistan are obliged to interact and will also help further tie Central and South Asia together. These ties have been growing for some time. Kazakhstan has expressed an interest in participating in the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Indian President Narendra Modi visited Central Asia last year.

If India and Pakistan join the SCO, it will further help tie them together.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the London-based Royal United Service Institute (RUSI).

And another piece, this time for my institutional home RUSI after the Westminster atrocity. Also to catch up on a few conversations with the media, spoke to Financial Times, New York Times, The Times, Wall Street JournalLa Repubblica, Politico, Daily Record, NBC, Irish Times, L’Espresso, and Daily Mail amongst others about the incident. Separately, spoke to Voice of America, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post about ISIS released a video featuring Uighurs. Finally, to the Mail on Sunday about a British jihadi who was able to get in and out of the country, and to the Guardian about the laptop ban on planes and Brexit and the security negotiations.

London: The Latest Victim of Terrorism in Europe

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary24 March 2017
EuropeUKUK Counter-terrorismDomestic SecurityTerrorism

The security services face an enormous challenge in preventing these types of terrorist attacks.

The wave of terrorism that has been striking Europe has reached Britain’s shores as a single attacker tried on Wednesday to storm the British Parliament in the centre of London.

Dartford-born Khalid Masood, né Adrian Russell Ajao – killed four people when he rammed his car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and fatally stabbed police officer PC Keith Palmer. At least 50 other people were injured, some critically.

The choice of target and the method used to conduct the attack suggest, at the very least, political intent. Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that Masood was ‘a soldier of the Islamic state’.

The incident might also be linked to the wave of Daesh and Daesh-inspired plots seen in mainland Europe. However, the degree to which this reveals a substantial connection or not has yet to be uncovered.

Security forces have been preparing for such an attack for some time. Some of the 13 plots authorities stated having disrupted in the past three years showed evidence of plotting in the same direction.

It is also one that is increasingly hard to eradicate even with well-developed national surveillance and intelligence capabilities.

Protecting Open Democracy

The decision to strike at the heart of British democracy is a seemingly obvious choice: groups have long sought to strike public institutions and the Houses of Parliament are an international symbol.

The ease of striking at parliamentarians was illustrated last year with the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox at her Batley and Spen, Yorkshire, constituency surgery by right wing extremist Thomas Mair.

It was not the first time a parliamentarian had been attacked in this way – in May 2010 there was the stabbing of Labour’s East Ham MP Stephen Timms by Roshonara Choudhry in an Islamist-inspired attack. Timms was severely wounded, and Choudhry was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Democracy, by its nature, is open and its representatives accessible to the public. Yet, such openness can complicate protecting those representatives or institutions.

Nevertheless, there are some security measures that may be tightened as a result of the current events in London. The fact that the vehicle was able to mount the pavement in the areas around Parliament will raise questions about whether the protective bollards and barriers that surround the area should be further extended.

Indeed, the fact that the individual was able to get inside the parliamentary estate will undoubtedly raise questions about whether the sanitised zone needs to be extended further and more barriers erected in the vicinity.

It is also clear that authorities have discovered that Masood had featured historically in investigations. This will raise questions about why he was not prioritised for investigation and what decisions were made in other directions.

Making the Tough Choices

This is an equally difficult task. For the security services, the problem is in identifying the individual as a priority at this specific moment. It is possible that he should have been due to indicators that were missed. However, security forces are facing a complicated situation involving thousands of persons of interest while lacking the staff numbers to deal with them all.

Choices will have to made about who needs to be prioritised for deeper investigation. This necessitates more attention to some and less to others involving a process of carefully calibrated choice.

The nature of the attack also makes it hard to prevent. Attacks involving cars and knives make use of everyday tools, a tactic which in itself limits the opportunities for the security services to detect plots in advance.

This is not only a reflection of the relative difficulty of launching more sophisticated attacks, but also the fact that terrorist groups have lowered the methodology of a successful attack to this level.

Not only are the tools hard to identify prior to attack (unlike guns or explosives), but preparation time is very limited and can be hard to discern from someone’s ordinary pattern of behaviour.

Beware of an Exaggerated Response

Ultimately, it is the reaction to the carnage which ‘makes’ the attack. An exaggerated response will increase the impact of the incident and give it undue importance. On the other hand, suppressing discussion may feed a frenzy of speculation which is also harmful.

More on the attack will be heard in the days to come, shedding light on the lessons that need to be learned. The answer – as is often the case – is to step back and review processes, ensure societal resilience and brace for the potential for further incidents.

Banner image: Armed police on Victoria Embankment in London after Wednesday’s terror attack on Westminister Bridge and Parliament. Courtesy of Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images.

Catching up on some old posting, first a piece in the Telegraph after the murderous atrocity in Westminster last week.

The Westminster attack will place added scrutiny on Britain’s controversial Prevent programme

The attack on Westminster comes as Whitehall reviews Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy, known as Contest. Developed in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the strategy was aimed at creating a holistic, cross-government approach to countering terrorism. The logic was that as these individuals came from within, a whole of society approach would be required to counter them.

The strategy has undergone numerous tweaks and iterations, with most attention focused on “Prevent”, the strand of the strategy which aimed at trying to steer people off the radical path before they became violent: “addressing the problem in the pre-criminal space”, to use the jargon. The difficulty is that this is something that by its nature should not be handled by the security services, and yet the fundamental point of Contest is to address a security matter. This in part helps illustrate why this aspect of the counter-terrorismstrategy has remained so fundamentally controversial.

Contest was designed as a four pillar strategy – Prevent (stopping people from being drawn to extremist ideas), Prepare (building societal resilience to be able to bounce back from an attack), Pursue (the classic counter-terrorism work of disrupting and investigating individuals), and Protect (building the infrastructure to defend from attack).

The current Contest review was focused on looking across all four, but as a result of this most recent incident, attention will likely focus through the lens of what happened in Westminster.

Since the attacker had historically appeared on the authorities’ radar but dropped down their priority list, the question will be asked about whether more could have been done to re-engage him with society. Or could he have been engaged with earlier to dissuade him from going down this path? The difficulty would be identifying who it was who could actually undertake this, and when would have been the right time to engage. And this in many ways illustrates some of the major issues around Prevent.

Whether we are talking about people working in communities, or those in sectors like education, welfare or healthcare, we are often looking at people who do not traditionally see themselves as security agents. They have chosen to serve society, but don’t see themselves as responsible for pre-empting security threats.

Yet it is often exactly these sorts of people who are being asked to take to the frontline in Prevent; to try to keep the problem outside the criminal space. But their priorities will be different to those of security agents who are focused very narrowly on defending from terrorism and prosecuting offenders. The paradox for Prevent is finding ways of engaging with nationally important security issues before they have become criminal problems, and therefore before the police take a dominant role.

Ultimately, if Prevent is to work it is going to have to move further out of the criminal space, with civilian public servants taking the lead.

If we are going to dissuade people from extremist groups and ideologies, we are then we will have to do it before people have gone far enough as to be a police matter, by which time it is too late. But if we are doing this, then a longer leash will be needed for those who are working on these issues. And we must understand that the nature of what we are asking them to deal with is not what would ordinarily fall into their remit, and that therefore they will look at in a different light to a hard-nosed security agent.

In addition to all of this, we are also dealing with a problem in which success – an absence of threat – cannot easily be linked to a specific programme. Can you link a lack of attacks to specific Prevent programmes running in some part of the country?

Prevent will always be the most controversial aspect of our counter-terrorism strategy. The questions that will be asked around the current incident in Westminster will likely focus on why more was not done to prevent this person from becoming involved in the first place. The answer will inevitably be incomplete, and the grieving families will not gain much from them. But it remains the key to staying ahead of the terrorist threat that we currently face.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute