Archive for September, 2017

Another short comment piece for London’s Evening Standard in the wake of the Parsons Green incident, and a brief discussion with Sky News.

Low-level plots like Parsons Green need even more vigilance


Armed police patrol in Westminster Underground station following the attack last week Getty Images

London has now faced its fourth terrorist attack this year. As details emerge, new peculiarities are uncovered. The brutal reality, though, is that low-level terror plots like that at Parsons Green are becoming the norm.

This is not a tacit admission of defeat, but rather a warning that we are facing an increasingly diffuse threat. This means we all have to be alert, while the authorities need to maintain and even step up the tempo of their effort to stay ahead of the threat.

There are some novel peculiarities around the Parsons Green attack. A bomb left on an Underground train with a timer is something that had not been seen for some time. Most recent bombers seemed to have had suicidal intent.

While most recent plots have been conducted by UK-born individuals, the potential presence of refugees in this attack is not entirely new.  IS’s pro-forma claim to be behind the attack lacks evidence of prior knowledge, but it is perfectly possible those responsible may have assimilated some of its ideology.

This is the larger context that the authorities are contending with: a threat made up of disparate individuals launching attacks using rudimentary and home-made means. The time it takes for them to be galvanised into action continues to shrink, and terrorist groups are emitting an ever more basic message to encourage sympathisers to launch attacks.

Given the easy access and diffuse nature of the ideology and attack methods it becomes very difficult to maintain complete cover. On top of this, the authorities are seeing more individuals who were previously under suspicion moving back into current investigations, and a continuing inflow of people from troubled areas — a limited number of whom may arrive with lethal intent.

The good news is that all terrorists are finding it increasingly difficult to launch large-scale coordinated plots.

The greater danger appears to be among the broader community from whom terrorists come. More work needs to be done tying together the many different information streams that authorities have access to and more thought given to how to prioritise them. And the pressure needs to be kept up in keeping known figures under adequate surveillance.

But there is a role for the public too. There is an onus on us Londoners to keep our eyes open.

As a child in London, I recall constant public campaigns about potential IRA devices on public transport. Tubes were held up by abandoned bags, but many attacks were prevented. There needs to be a return to this approach. We all need to keep our eyes open to protect the society in which we live.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

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A short piece for the Telegraph in the wake of yesterday’s incident at Parsons Green underground station in London. Spoke to the BBC, Washington Post and Sun in its wake. Am sure there will be more on this plot in due course, still not clear exactly what took place.

After the Parsons Green tube bombing, what can we do to protect our public transport network?

Public transport by its nature has to be open. This makes it user-friendly to the audience for which it is intended: commuters, travelers, and ordinary citizens. Unfortunately, it also leaves it exposed to people eager to do us harm.

The latest attack on London’s transport system, on a Tube train at Parson’s Green station, is a reminder of this, and it raises uneasy questions about what can be done to protect us all as we go about our business. It also raises further questions about the nature of threat that we face and how we have to adapt to this seemingly low spattering of terrorist incidents which have now become the depressing norm.

It is still too early to understand the motivations of the bomber. With no indication of any ideological goal, nor any claim of responsibility, it is impossible to know at this stage. But it is possible to look back across the recent past and see an increasingly diffuse and confusing threat picture. This year alone, we have four successful attacks – three Islamist and one inspired by the far Right. They are bracketed by seemingly damaged Damon Smith, who left a bomb on the Jubilee line in October 2016 and an aspirant violent Islamist who drove to Buckingham Palace with a samurai sword last month.

Outside the Manchester bombing, the devices and weapons have been rudimentary, using household items to launch random attacks. The individuals are often known to authorities, but in some cases come from nowhere. But they are consistent in their intent to strike fear into the public.

Public transport is an obvious target for this. They are arteries of our cities; they get us all where we want to go. To strike at them is to hit the hearts of our cities and societies and damage the economy that underpins everything.

And this very fluidity is what makes it so hard to protect them. To erect airport-style security at every railway station would not only increase costs and times substantially, but would become a physical impediment at their height of the rush hour, which would create large crowds of people outside stations. Those crowds would in themselves become tempting targets for any bomber or shooter.

In addition there is the perennial question of where one would draw the boundaries of this security bubble. The public transport system of London alone is hugely complex and sprawling. If if we follow the logic of the threat picture becoming more diffuse and scattered, we also raise the issue of which public transport system around the country should not be subject to the same sorts of security blanket. A long-distance service from Euston to Glasgow or a tram on the Manchester metro is just as vulnerable in principle as the Tube.

The answer, as ever, lies in a response that reflects the threat picture. There are numerous public awareness campaigns active aimed at getting the public to be watchful to the potential threats, and these appear to be delivering some success. Damon Smith’s device was picked up by alert passengers. This message needs to continue to be driven home.

Beyond this, the authorities need to continue to play their role in disrupting networks, staying on top of a confusing threat picture and responding as quickly as possible to events that take place. The situation nowadays is such that it is almost impossible to guarantee complete security, but by maintaining a tight lid on the threat we are fortunately only seeing relatively limited impact events getting through. This, atop a public awareness of what is going, on is the likely medium term answer to the severe threat Britain now faces.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the defence think tank Rusi

The culmination of a more extended piece of work I have been doing around my usual obligations with the BBC (for the programme Inside Out) looking at the phenomenon of online instigation and direction by ISIS in seeking to launch attacks in the UK. Acting as frontman for the piece, the real work was done by Zack, Claire, Dippy and some undercover reporters. We shot it around London using material from online conversations by undercover reports with Junaid Hussain and other ISIS plotters. Zack wrote the piece up for the BBC, and the piece got picked up by Associated Press/Guardian, Daily Mail, Metro, Times, and Mirror. For those of you in the UK, you can see the show on the BBC iPlayer for the next month (and maybe more as it is going to be screened on the BBC News Channel as well), in addition for those of you internationally, it is going to be screened on the BBC World News at these times. Finally, Zack and myself published the below piece with the Telegraph.

Beyond this, since the last update, spoke to the Independent about the terror threat to the UK, to Sky about assessment of the difference between the threats at home and from foreign fighters returning, to Newsweek and The National about the Barcelona attack, to National Public Radio about the broader threats to Europe, and to the Daily Mail about the possibility of chemical attacks in the UK. Finally, spoke to the Financial Times about geopolitical security clashes with China in the seas.

How Isil’s shadowy ‘online manipulators’ lure Britons into committing terrorist attacks

The man on the other end of the line was called Junaid Hussain. He was speaking to an undercover reporter through an encrypted chat application; it was the middle of 2015. “Do something over there in the heart of the crusader army,” he told the reporter. He meant London.

Birmingham-born Junaid had been in Syria for two years at that point. Soon afterwards, he would die in an American drone strike. But he had enough time to make his mark in the world of jihadist terrorism as one of the most active and earliest “online manipulators” – steering people into terrorist attacks in the West solely on the basis of commands they receive through social media and encrypted applications.

Earlier this year, the UK was indeed struck by a series of terrorist attacks. The full detail of what went on in each case is still unclear. But, as Ben Wallace, Minister of State for Security told us during our investigation into this phenomenon, the use of encrypted communications “is common throughout every single one of these incidents.”

In much the same way that the rest of us have increasingly come to rely on communications applications to maintain our social relationships, terrorists have also moved into this space. In one sense, this is merely a reflection of the fact that terrorists come from the same societies as those they target. But what Isil has become particularly adept at doing is manipulating these relationships from great distances to push people to launch terrorist attacks.

The way in which this happens is surprisingly elementary. Our investigators would in the first instance make contact with the online Isil activists through their public social media profiles. People like Junaid were very active online using Twitter and Facebook and in essence used these profiles as honeypots to draw people to themselves. Once the contact had been established, the conversation would often move into an encrypted channel through WhatsApp, Telegram, Kik or Surespot.

Here, a more intense conversation would take place, with the radical asking the recruit to prove their bona fides, and direct them to parts of the dark web where they could find guides about how to make bombs, plan lone actor terrorist attacks or mask their activity. Throughout this conversation, the recruiter would be constantly exhorting the target to launch an attack, talking about potential targets, highlighting other successful incidents and pushing our investigators to undertake their own attack.

Junaid was just one of a number of online instigators our investigators spoke to. Others suggested the idea of attacking Westminster or London Bridge, and directed them to material on the dark web that showed how to use vehicles as weapons, where to stab people for maximum effect, and how to create a fake suicide vest. They suggested this was useful as it would stop police from attacking you, giving you more time to attack. Junaid was even more ambitious, suggesting that “we can train you [in] how to make bombs.”

This is the beating heart of the online terror threat. Clearly radical material disseminated online will fan the flames of ideas, and mean that groups like Isil will be able to maintain their notoriety and draw people to themselves. But it is the online manipulation that is turning these long-distance online relationships into terrorist attacks, and individuals like Junaid are able to manipulate people into launching attacks that are difficult to prevent in western capitals.

The answer to this is complicated. There is possibly more that companies could do in terms of the speed of their response. But the reality is that they are as unable to get into these applications as the rest of the world. End-to-end encryption is designed to keep everyone – even its creators – out. And while government can spend more money on staff and surveillance, when the style of attack is so individual, basic and diffuse, it becomes very difficult to maintain complete control.

Online manipulation is one of the most menacing current expressions of terrorism. Until the groups are gone, and we have cracked the code of stopping people from being drawn towards terrorist ideologies, this form of threat will be with us.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at Rusi, and this article was co-authored by Zack Adesina, a senior producer at the BBC. Their film ‘Terror by Text’ airs on Inside Out on BBC1 at 19:30 on Monday September 4.

Catching up posting as ever, this another piece for South China Morning Post looking at China’s problems along the Belt and Road with reference to current tensions with India potentially being an indicator of what could happen more substantially.

China must get along with regional powers to make its New Silk Road plan work

Raffaello Pantucci writes that Beijing is seeking to increase its presence in regions where it is going to need more friends than enemies, including India

Geopolitics matters. As we move deeper into a multipolar world, the importance of grand strategy will only grow. Relations between states at a strategic, economic and even emotional level will all intertwine to create a complicated web that will require sophisticated diplomacy to navigate. For China this is a particularly important lesson to learn, given its keynote “Belt and Road Initiative” that requires an acquiescent and peaceful world to deliver on its promise of building a web of trade and economic corridors emanating from China and tying the Middle Kingdom to the world. China’s current stand-off with India highlights exactly how geopolitics can disrupt Xi Jinping’s foreign policy legacy initiative.

The details of the specific transgression within this context are not entirely important. China is asserting itself in its border regions and changing facts on the ground to solidify claims. Indian push-back is based on strategic relations with Bhutan that go back a long way and a concern about how this changes Indian capabilities on the ground.

It comes at a time when relations between China and India are particularly low, with suspicion on both sides. Most analysts do not seem to think we are going to end up with conflict, but it is not clear at the moment what the off-ramp looks like. But whatever this exit looks like, we are undoubtedly going to see China finding it tougher to advance its Belt and Road Initiative through India’s perceived or real spheres of influence in South Asia.

This is something which is already visible in the broader tensions between China and India over Pakistan. China has focused on the country as a major ally that it is supporting to develop its domestic economy and improve its strategic capacity for a variety of reasons. Yet this approach directly undermines Pakistan’s perennial adversary India’s current approach of isolating Islamabad on the international stage as punishment for cross-border terrorism.

Further, the CPEC route’s cutting through disputed territories in Kashmir provides a further spur to Indian concerns. At a more tactical level, China’s refusal to allow Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar to be included on the list of proscribed terrorists, and its blockage of Indian entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, all point to a relationship with which Beijing is clearly playing an aggressive hand. India has also shown itself to be a hardball player in this regard, making public shows of proximity to the Dalai Lama, a source of major concern to China.

Of course, such a posture is either capital’s prerogative. Past relations between China and India have been fraught. The two countries have fought wars against each other. Yet at the same time, the overall tenor between the two is often in a different direction: both are proud members of the BRICS grouping (arguably the two leaders of it), and both have embraced the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. India is keen to gain a slice of the outbound Chinese investment, while China is keen to access India’s markets. Both see the opportunities and recognise that as Asian giants they have an upward trajectory over the next few decades. Together they will undoubtedly be stronger than alone.

But this positive message is thoroughly buried under the negative news around the border spat in Bhutan. Rather than being able to build a productive relationship, the two countries now find themselves at loggerheads. This is a problem for both, but has an important lesson within it for China as it seeks to advance its Belt and Road Initiative globally.

To be able to credibly realise the Belt and Road Initiative, China is going to need to have positive relations with partners on the ground, in particular major regional powers. With plans to build infrastructure, expand investments and grow physical footprints on the ground, Beijing is seeking to substantially increase its presence in regions where it is going to need more friends than enemies. When looking across South Asia, this means having a productive relationship with India. Without this, Delhi will find ways of complicating China’s approach or, more bluntly, obstructing it. Given the importance of some of the South Asian routes to the development of some of China’s poorest regions, it is important for Beijing to make sure that these corridors related to the Belt and Road plan live up to their promise.

And this lesson is one that will be relevant outside a South Asian context. For Beijing to be able to deliver on the promise of the Belt and Road Initiative, it is going to need to watch the geopolitics. Similar problems may eventually materialise with Russia, or on the seas as Beijing seeks to turn the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road into a reality.

Without friends along these routes, China is going to find it very difficult to make these visions work no matter how much money they try to throw at the problem. With nationals, companies and interests broadening and deepening, China needs an acquiescent environment and countries that are eager to work with it. Geopolitics is a chess game of many different levels, and as power becomes more diffuse on our planet, Beijing is going to have to learn how to play these games if it wants to deliver on the promise of its grand visions.

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

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: It’ll be tough going without friends on the New Silk Road