Archive for July, 2017

Another post, this time being published in a slightly more timely manner for my publisher Hurst’s blog. It looks at the links with history in the recent terrorist attacks in the UK, and specifically ties into al Muhajiroun. For lots more stories like this, of course read my book!

Al-Muhajiroun and the simmering divisions in British society

‘You know, the Qur’an even tells me which direction I must break wind in,’ declared Omar Bakri Mohammed in the late 1990s. Taking the bait, roving reporter Jon Ronson asked, ‘And which direction do you break wind in?’ leading Omar to break into hysterical laughter as he announced, ‘In the direction of the non-believer!’ Omar is the founder of al-Muhajiroun, the group linked to the London Bridge terror attack ringleader Khuram Butt and numerous other terrorist plots. His joke does not seem as funny 20 years later.

The interview with Omar Bakri Mohammed was part of a series of entertaining pieces by Jon Ronson that tracked a variety of extremists convinced that dark conspiratorial forces ruled the world. At its culmination, Omar unmasked Jon as a Jew to an audience of his jihadist acolytes at a training camp in Crawley. This dark conclusion to the encounter was a portent in some ways of what was to come. The group that Omar was fostering, al-Muhajiroun, became what another reporter characterized as an ‘old boys network’ for British jihad. Men from the community in Crawley were linked to a training camp attended by the 7 July bombers. Britain’s first known suicide bomber in Syria came from Crawley and supposedly knew Omar Bakri Mohammed personally. The gym that Khuram Butt worked at was managed by one of the supporters of the Crawley network. My own research has found clear links to the group in at least half of the jihadist terrorist plots in the UK, while a senior security official I once spoke to shrugged and pointed out that a link of some sort was ‘almost always there’ in every investigation.


From Hurst and Getty.

The first hints of trouble came soon after Omar’s then comical interview with Jon Ronson. In December 1998 one of the leaders of al-Muhajiroun, Amer Mirza, angered by the resumption of bombing in Iraq, threw a petrol bomb at a Territorial Army barracks in West London. Later that month authorities in Yemen arrested six Britons from a competing faction of violent extremists in London, linked to the infamous hook-handed cleric Abu Hamza. Arrested with explosives and guns, they were accused of planning a series of New Year’s Eve atrocities in Sana’a. These two communities were to become the beating heart of Britain’s international terrorist threat, producing a thread that links history right up to the current day.

The pattern of where the threat came from in the UK is consistent. Abu Hamza’s community produced a pair of shoe bombers, the murderer of a policeman in Manchester and fighters for the Taliban. Al-Muhajiroun helped to build an infrastructure in Pakistan for those going to fight in Afghanistan. The group was also responsible for the pair of suicide bombers who blew up a bar in Tel Aviv, provided access to training camps for the 7 July bombers, and orchestrated an attack on the CIA base in Afghanistan at Camp Chapman. Far closer to home it stirred hatred in the community from which the murderers of Lee Rigby emerged. And many more in between.

Radicalized young Britons with links back to these communities have been a regular feature of jihadist battlefields across the world. Their radicalization has led them to fight and train in Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, Libya, Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, parts of Southeast Asia and more.

Syria, however, was the real game-changer. Attracting feverous support across the world, it seemed to hearken back to the golden age of ‘just jihad’ against oppressive regimes, much like the struggle of the brave warriors in Afghanistan. Here there were people oppressed while the West did nothing about it. Only the brave muhajireen were willing to stand up to the cruel Assad regime.

Some of those drawn to this endeavour were on their way to becoming career warriors, such as Ibrahim al Mazwagi, one of the first reported British fighters to die in Syria. Prior to Syria, he had faced combat in Libya, as part of the British-Libyan mobilization who returned to Libya as the Arab Spring took hold there. For a short period they were fighting on the same side as the British government against the Gadhafi regime. Within this contingent were long-term anti-Gadhafi activists and members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a salafi-jihadi anti-Gadhafi group who had taken refuge in the UK, and who saw in the wake of the Arab Spring an opportunity to finally achieve their long-desired goal. Having been in the UK for decades, many had settled and had children who they swept up along with them, showing them that armed struggle against unjust governance was acceptable and sometimes necessary.

Initially the assessment of the Arab Spring was a relatively benign one. Long-awkward partners across the Arab world were headed for civilian overthrow as people around the world reacted to Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia. Western governments cheered, and President Obama demanded that President Mubarak of Egypt step down. But rebellions tend not to play out the way we want them to. And it was not long before the jihadist narratives started to resonate across the various battlefields born out of the Arab Spring. Young Britons and their European counterparts alike started to mobilize in substantial numbers, in particular drawn by what was happening in Syria.

Sitting in London, it quickly became clear that the groups going were the same ones who had been active for years. For instance whilst aid convoys heading to Syria from the UK had with them food, aid and ambulances, they were also used by young men as cover to go and fight. This was only the latest example of a long tradition of convoys being used as a method to enter these conflicts; for some young men this was not their first experience with activism. For example, a number of those who went on convoys with George Galloway’s Viva Palestina charity to Gaza ended up fighting in Syria. Others were arrested at protests outside the Israeli Embassy in London or had been caught trying to go to battlefields in Africa earlier. Even more had been involved in al-Muhajiroun’s constant cycle of protests and marches around London. Previously convicted activists showed up on convoys heading out to Syria, and from his new home in Syria, Omar Bakri claimed to have recruited innumerable young men to fight in the country.


From Hurst and Getty.

Whilst the stakes were raised abroad the threat in the UK seemed to have evolved. After the murder of Lee Rigby, authorities constantly kept people on edge. The government reacted in August 2014 and raised the threat level to ‘Severe’ – meaning ‘an attack is highly likely’ – but nothing seemed to materialize. In the wake of the Paris attacks in 2015, David Cameron announced an uplift in security agencies’ capacity, highlighting that the agencies had disrupted at least seven plots in the past six months, ‘albeit attacks planned on a smaller scale.’ Contrarily, right wing extremists began to slip through the security services net. A notable incident was the Ukrainian Pavlo Lapshyn’s one-man murder campaign in the West Midlands in 2013, in which he stabbed Mohammed Saleem in the street and targeted three mosques with bombs. This was succeeded by one of the most politically prominent actions of the far right during the run-up to the Brexit vote — the murder of Jo Cox by Tommy Mair as she attended MPs surgery in Birstall.

What exactly was going on was not clear, but it seemed as though the far right was a growing menace. In a piece of research by a consortium led by my think tank RUSI, we found that in the 14 years since the 11 September attacks, there have been as many extreme right-wing lone wolf terrorist incidents as there have been individual acts of terrorism driven by violent Islamist ideology. This is coupled with evidence of something more substantial and organized simmering as well. The rise of groups like the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First, both in part explicitly reacting to al-Muhajiroun’s loud and ugly protests, were one facet to this. On the continent in Europe, Anders Behring Breivik’s massacre of young political activists in Norway in July 2011 and the uncovering of the National Socialist Underground showed how the extreme right in Europe was not just organizing, but was also willing to use violence.


From Hurst and Getty

And then we had 2017. The year was off to a confusing start with the UK still reeling from Brexit, but in quick succession attacks came from both sides. The sequence of atrocities began one quiet morning in Westminster, followed by a concert in Manchesterstabbings on a busy Saturday night in London Bridge and a vehicle attack on worshippers outside the Finsbury Park mosque in London. The first still seems like an outlier, a loner not connected to any particular group. We still do not have the whole story of why Khalid Masood did what he did. But the others all touched directly on history: Salman Abedi, a child of LIFG-linked parents, and Khuram Butt with his long and public history with al-Muhajiroun. And while we still do not know exactly why Finsbury Park was targeted, the choice of the mosque where hook-handed Abu Hamza had led his acolytes gives us a connection to history that is unmistakable.

It has now been two decades since Omar Bakri established al-Muhajiroun in the UK. The days of seeing Omar as a clown have long passed, and doubtless he is not laughing from his cell in Lebanon. But the grim reality is of a threat that appears persistent, evolving and sparking counter action and response on the other side of the ideological equation. The government has launched another review of its counter-terrorism policy, seeing where there are gaps that need plugging or updating needs to be done. More attention is focused on the extreme right wing, though it remains something that is left to the police rather than intelligence agencies. But the reality is that they are addressing the same threat that has been managed for the past two decades. Incremental improvements are made in our response, some bad policies are binned, and some are steered off a path to violence, but it is not clear that we are materially eradicating the ideas and groups that are ultimately behind the violence on our streets.

But maybe this is what the end state of this conflict looks like. History tells us that on most political spectrums there is a radical edge, and some of those will turn to violence. Previously it was a struggle of the left and right, now the opposite ends appear to be the extreme right and violent Islamists. For societies stuck in the middle it seems imperative to ensure that we all come together and reject these extremes while also realizing that to some degree they are always likely to exist. Unfortunately, these are threats that we are going to have manage rather than eradicate.


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

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More late posting, this time on China’s posture with regard to international terrorism for the South China Morning Post. Am also catching up on some media appearances over the past couple of months. Spoke to the LA Times, AFP, and Washington Post about the Finsbury Park attack. To the  New York TimesNewsweek, Financial Times, Guardian, and Ireland Herald about the London Bridge attack. To the New York Times about ISIS long distance direction. On the broader question of the current threat picture and UK history with The TimesObserverBloomberg, the Australian, and Newsweek. And finally, on the difficulties countering online terror and European sharing with the Washington Post and US News Report. More on this final topic to come in an interesting new format soon. And absolutely finally, on the other side of the coin, about the Belt and Road causing frictions between China and Russia for RFE/RL. As ever a lot more on this to come soon as well (including a very substantial couple of new pieces).

‘Why China must do more to fight international terrorism’

China is increasingly becoming a target for militant groups, but by cooperating more with other countries Beijing can help combat the threat, writes Raffaello Pantucci

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 July, 2017, 2:03pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 July, 2017, 2:49am

A darker side to China’s Belt and Road Initiative is starting to reveal itself.

As China’s profile rises and its investments and interests globally grow, China is finding itself in the terrorists’ cross hairs. This means Beijing needs a more considered counterterrorism policy with greater international cooperation.

Back in July 2015, the Islamist militant group al-Shabab launched an attack on the Jazeera Palace Hotel in Mogadishu, Somalia. Apparently revenge for an assault by Ethiopian soldiers that killed civilians, the attack also happened to hit the Chinese embassy in the building, killing a security guard.

Al-Shabab was reminded of the impact of its action in a message from the Turkestan Islamic Party, a Uygur jihadi group that China has blamed for a series of attacks in its western region of Xinjiang. It sent a message saying: “We the mujahideen in the Turkestan Islamic Party congratulate the Islamic Ummah for this blessed operation, we endorse it and we encourage the Shabab al-Mujahideen Movement in Somalia to carry out more such jihadi operations.”

But there was little evidence that the group had meant to target the Chinese embassy.

Just over a year later, another Chinese embassy was hit by a terrorist attack. This time a suicide car bomber crashed through the gates of the embassy compound in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, before detonating explosives in the vehicle. The damage was limited, although local employees were hurt. But the attack this time was far more targeted. Nobody claimed responsibility, but reports strongly suggest the attack was linked to an Islamist militant group operating in Syria. What was not in doubt was it clearly targeted China.

This shift comes after a period when China could relax as a second-order priority for international terrorist groups. While al-Qaeda and others would occasionally issue threats to China, it was not clear that they were dedicating material resources to target Beijing or its interests. The principal link China had to international jihadist networks was the militant Uygur community angry at Beijing’s domination of Xinjiang. Some were connected with international jihadi networks. Yet this group was largely seen as weak and not one that could command much more from the international jihadist community beyond rhetorical statements.

Turn to today, and as China reaches out to the world through President Xi Jinping’s belt and road plan, Beijing is becoming more of a terrorist target.

Many of these forces intersect in Pakistan, where large-scale infrastructure investment into the conflict-prone country is directly exposing Chinese interests and citizens to the dangers of armed groups. In part, this is a product of China’s support for the Pakistani state – the main target of many Pakistan-based groups. But it is also a result of China’s ongoing problems in Xinjiang and an angry Uygur minority who are finding more active support in the international jihadist milieu. Recent statements by Islamic State and other militant groups in Pakistan link strikes and anger against China to their treatment of Uygurs.

But what can China do about this? In the first instance, Beijing needs to find some way to resolve its problems in Xinjiang – letting the situation fester there is not going to improve China’s standing in the eyes of the international jihadist community. Looking abroad, Beijing still officially stands behind its sacred principle of non-interference but it is clearly starting to build a legislative framework to provide a mandate for its forces to go out into the world and protect its national interests. This can be seen in new counterterrorism and intelligence legislation. It is also apparent in the People’s Liberation Army’s growing assertiveness and international presence – be it more aggressive peacekeeping mandates, overseas bases, or growing direct military support for countries dealing with militant groups at home.

Yet there is more that can be done. China continues to be a hesitant player in international cooperation. This is in part the product of a lack of trust and different views on the root causes of terrorist problems, but there are a number of places around the world where China and the West share a common threat.

Sharing assessments and specific intelligence linked to respective national interests is one cooperative way forwards, but these both need to be two-way streets. Historically, China has acted in a more passive manner in such engagements, taking information without giving much in return. More could also be done to think through the impact of support for government forces on the ground – in particular to make sure there is a greater level of common effort in this direction.

For example, coordinating support to the Philippines as it deal with its growing problem with militants. Currently, numerous powers – both Western and Asian – provide support for the Philippine government. Making sure this support is complementary and that both sides are highlighting the same problems to the Philippine government is key in establishing long-term stability in the country.

International terrorism is a common problem facing the world. While there are always going to be disagreements and difficulties in countering these threats, there are some things which can be done together.

China can no longer hide in the shade of terrorist groups’ desire to strike primarily at the West. As it expands its international footprint, it is going to be increasingly exposed and will need to build relations with friends around the world to manage this growing menace effectively.

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

Late to post this, as it was published over a week ago in the Telegraph on the anniversary of the July 7 bombings.

Twelve years on from the 7/7 atrocities, the terror threat has evolved. Have our defences?

We are always fighting the last war. As we reach the twelve year anniversary of the July 7, 2005 attacks it is worth taking stock of how much the threat picture from terrorism we face has changed, and ask whether our response has kept pace. From a terrorist threat that was directed by al-Qaeda using radicalised British nationals trained at camps in Pakistan, we are facing a threat of lone individuals launching confusing attacks with household weapons. It is not yet clear that our response has caught up.

Prior to 7/7 it was hard to conceptualize the fact that British nationals would commit suicide bombings at home. But once it happened, it became the norm, with security services spending much of the next decade countering similar plots. In doing so, they began to understand how the networks worked, what the processes and communications methods were, and how al-Qaeda saw British nationals as useful tools to strike against the West. Having understood the threat, they were able to develop measures to counter it, and find ways of getting into networks. What was once a source of strength, was steadily uncovered as a source of weakness, and security services adapted their practice to disrupt such networked plots.

But having closed one door, another opened. Still determined to launch attacks, terrorist groups have adapted and individuals now are instigated, inspired or directed remotely. The plots they are advancing are low tech and require little training. This shrinks the plotters footprint, making it much harder for security agencies to catch them in their nets. A link abroad still exists – and in some cases, like Salman Abedi in Manchester, a strong link – but the majority of cases appear to be more isolated with trace links abroad or to a broader radical milieu.

To counter this evolving menace a new posture needs to be taken. In the first instance, it is clear that more capacity is needed. This is something that has been clear for some time, and security agencies are growing – but this takes time to mature into useful capacity.

Second, we need to find a way of re-focusing and sharpening the way that residual or peripheral cases are managed. As we have seen in all three of the recent violent Islamist attacks in the UK, the individuals involved were people who had featured in previous investigations, but were never the main targets. Over time, the pool of individuals who fit into this category will only grow. While undoubtedly the Security Service will have to keep some attention on them, a new agency or cross-departmental team could be formed to instead focus on each case in a more intense fashion and to make sure they are getting off a path towards radicalisation. A methodical and refreshed look at them by a non-secret agency in light of the current threat picture might be useful and clear time for security agencies to focus on other priority cases.

Third, we need to get ahead of ideologies and methodologies. There are two parts to this: first, greater attention needs to be paid to the extreme right wing. It has a capacity to shock, cause misery and greater tensions that in turn exacerbate the violent Islamist threat. At the moment our focus is on violent Islamists, and yet we can see on the right wing a consistent pattern of threat and hints towards coordination and competence. Second, we need to explore new ways of mining and managing the data that is collected. The security agencies are clearly tracking new technologies that can support counter-terrorism analysis, but using AI may help throw up leads which are currently being missed among the mass of information. While this will never be completely accurate, given the disparate nature of the threat that is faced, and the manner in which it has recently kept popping out of the woodwork, it is worth considering whether something like this might help pick up some hidden leads.

Fourth, we need to have a more mature public conversation about the nature and reality of the threat that is faced and how safe we are from it. Statistically, there are innumerably more things that are threats to your health than terrorism. We are also not facing an existential threat. And we are unlikely to eradicate it in the near term future. All of these realities need to be discussed in a way that steers clear of the polemical side of the conversation that tends to crowd the public forum. Most organized human societies have faced terrorism in their histories – and in most cases they have survived. The few that have been changed have usually done so because of the overwhelming nature of the failures of governance by the power that was overthrown.

Finally, we need to make sure we do not make obvious missteps and exacerbate the very threat we are trying to counter. This means not cutting off (or threatening to) intelligence sharing with crucial allies in Europe. Not talking in the same clash of civilization terms that the extremists do. Not politicising counter-terrorism work in a way that means its effectiveness becomes stunted. And not standing idle while terrorist groups gather abroad. As we have repeatedly seen, they will come back and strike us in due course. None of these measures will likely eradicate terrorism in the medium term future, but they will set us on a course that will go in that direction and keep us even safer than we already are from terrorist attacks.

Raffaello Pantucci is the Director of International Security Studies at RUSI