Archive for August, 2018

More catching up, this time from this week’s Telegraph in the wake of this week’s still-unclear incident outside Parliament.

Also catching up on some media interviews, spoke to NPR, the Independent and il Foglio about the Westminster incident, to RFI about ISIS in Indonesia, to BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show about the news that emerged about Salman Abeidi’s evacuation from Libya, to the Independent again about the Toronto shooting, to Vice about ISIS returning into a guerrilla organisation, and on the other side of the substantive equation to Bloomberg about Turkey’s relations with China and the South China Morning Post about Kazakh-Chinese relations in the wake of the Sauytbay case in Kazakhstan (which was subsequently picked up by China Digital Times).

TELEMMGLPICT000171684858_trans_NvBQzQNjv4BqH8oGYaaASnJZUiuddQ1p_w4wRx7k9ixzqw8pl8JMpsMForensics officers work near the car that crashed into security barriers outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018 CREDIT: FRANK AUGSTEIN/AP

Despite the attack on Parliament, all signs suggest we are safer than we were last year

Since the attempted bombing in Parsons Green last year, we have had something of a lull in visible terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom. We have had a few panics, and when it first popped up on news feeds this morning, it may have seemed like the incident in Westminster was just another of those.

Clearly, the terrorist threat is still with us. But it has also shifted and, though we can’t be certain what is around the corner, it seems to have lessened. Once dominated by large-scale plots, it is now concentrated around isolated individuals advancing ideologies of different stripes in lo-tech and often uncoordinated ways.

Isil’s loss of territory in Iraq and Syria has made a big difference. Cells and individuals with experience of the battlefield in Syria and Iraq remain a concern, but the groups on the ground seem far more preoccupied with their activity in the Levant than in launching attacks against far-off capitals.

The brutal murder of four cyclists in Tajikistan and the use of a Moroccan suicide bomber in the Philippines show how Isil remains a worldwide player. But the scale and ambition of directed attacks that we saw with in Paris in 2015, and the networks around them, seem to have waned.

Instead, we have seen a fairly constant patter of small-scale incidents characterised by individuals with a wide range of backgrounds, mental faculties and links to extremist groups, who are driven as much about what is going on their lives as by whichever the terrorist ideology they may have associated themselves themselves with.

This community has been empowered in part by the fact that our definition of a terrorist attack has widened. Once upon a time, a car driving into a crowd would have been seen as a traffic incident. Now it is immediately considered as a possible attack, even if this is later disproved.

Think back to last October, when a car mounted the pavement in South Kensington near the Natural History Museum. The immediate concern was a terrorist incident had taken place, with speculation running wild that this was the case.

Ideologues with political axes to grind leaped to the scene and spewed out commentary, and the entire public discourse swerved in a charged direction. Yet soon it emerged that we were merely dealing with a taxi crashing into crowds. A month later in Covent Garden, another taxi crashing into people sparked a similar panic which also quickly died down.

Similarly, many groups are now quite happy to claim any sort of incident, even when the link is spurious. Look at the shooting in Toronto in July, or the shooting last October in Las Vegas, which were both claimed by Isil without much credibility. At the same time, some attacks are genuinely Isil-inspired and directed, and we only need to look back to the first half of last year to see genuine terrorists using vehicles to plough into crowds and murder people.

This is the complexity of the terrorist threat that we are now facing. Varied methods and fractured extremist movements create a very confusing environment for members of the public.  Nevertheless, it does seem, at least for now, to be a safer one.

Security services deserve some credit for the shift in threat. As they have become better attuned to disrupting networked plots, we consequently see less of them. For terrorist groups still keen to launch attacks, this requires a change in methodology (and consequently a similar reaction from security forces).

But we can also see the quality of the individuals involved seems to be going down. Does this mean that terrorist groups are no longer attracting the sort of people they were before (and therefore losing their power), or does it mean that the ideology has simply become more diffuse and accessible (so then a wider range of people can connect with it)? Or maybe both?

There are no easy answers. But what is certain is that the threat will go on, and that if we are not careful we can undo all this positive change.

We know that a politically fragile and febrile environment, where narratives of exclusion and separated societies are increasingly mainstream, is an optimal place for people to latch onto extreme ideas and impulses and act on them. In such an environment, mainstream figures who openly talk in exclusionary terms creating the perception of a “clash of civilizations” which extremist groups thrive on.

To drag these ideas into the mainstream is to create a context where extreme answers seem justified. That gives ideological cover to people who are really just angry at their government or angry at their life, and are lashing out.

A persistent number of people continue to find the answer to their personal crises in violence. We are now facing a terrorist threat whose methods are almost indistinguishable from the general violence that permeates organised societies. If our political discourse is confrontational and negative, it will increase that violence.

We may not be able to eradicate the ideas or the groups which drive terrorism, but we can certainly try to change the public discourse and create an environment in which we are not doing terrorist groups’ jobs for them.

 

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Been delinquent in posting stuff, doing some bigger writing and catching up with things takes time. First up, posting a piece for my institutional home RUSI’s Newsbrief publication looking at the extreme right wing and violent Islamist threat in the UK, through the lens of a few recent cases.

A Tale of Two Terrors: The British Extreme Right Organises While Islamists Scatter

Raffaello Pantucci
Newsbrief31 July 2018
UK Counter-terrorismTackling ExtremismInternational Security StudiesTerrorismUKDomestic SecurityRadicalisation and Countering Violent ExtremismIntelligenceNational SecurityTerrorism

Once again, the dividing lines that distinguish between variations of violent extremism in the UK have morphed, but addressing the similarities and differences between the extreme right and violent Islamists should help to ensure that the UK’s counter-terror strategy as synchronised as possible with the current threat picture.

far_right_protest_london_pa-30777462

Two contrasting terror trials were recently concluded in the UK. The separate convictions of Naa’imur Rahman and Mohammed Imran, and the sentencings of Christopher Lythgoe and Matthew Hankinson brought together two sides of the terrorist threat facing the UK. With one linked to Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS) and the other to the extreme right wing (XRW), the two cases highlighted the shifting nature of the two ends of the threat spectrum, with the XRW rallying around the threat of violent Islamists, while Islamists point to the XRW as evidence of the clash of civilisations they perceive as being at the heart of, but also the similarities that exist between these two threat sources. Given that both have been prioritised in the latest iteration of the UK’s counter-terror CONTEST strategy, it is unlikely that this is the last time we will see a similar temporal coincidence of the two types of cases.

Ostensibly, the two cases are very different. The Lythgoe and Hankinson convictions are part of a larger case linked to the proscribed XRW terrorist group National Action (NA). The first time in decades a right-wing organisation has been made illegal in the UK, the network they created was one of the first instances of an organised effort on the part of the British XRW. Illustrating their aspiration in a message to the group’s community on the communications app Mumble shortly before the group was formally proscribed by the Home Office, Lythgoe told the leadership to pass messages of sustenance along to ‘people further down the NA hierarchy’ to:

Make sure they understand that the SUBSTANCE of NA is the people, our talents, the bonds between us, our ideas, and our sustained force of will. All of that will continue into the future. We’re just shedding one skin for another. All genuinely revolutionary movements in the past have needed to exist partly underground. These are exciting times.

In stark contrast, the case against Rahman and Imran was a clear articulation of the chaotic and increasingly diffuse threat posed by violent Islamist extremism, where isolated individuals advancing the ideology have tenuous or limited links to the sharp end of the threat. Rahman claims that his uncle, who was killed in an American drone strike while fighting in Syria, was pushing him to launch an attack. Imran was eager to go fight abroad himself. Both were connected to each other through a variety of social media applications and had some links to fighters abroad – although it later emerged that some of these contacts were in fact undercover law-enforcement agents posing as Daesh supporters. The men believed that they were operating as part of a wider network but were in fact quite isolated. This is very much an articulation of the sort of disorganised terrorist threat that is opposite to what has been expressed in the more organised NA plot, with both Rahman and Imran being fairly detached from the extremist community but seeking to advance its ideology through individual action.

Looking back on the history of the XRW and violent Islamist threats in the UK, these plots show an almost complete role reversal between the two. During the mid to late 2000s, the XRW threat was characterised by isolated individuals like Neil LewingtonMartyn Gilleard or Terence Gavan, who accumulated massive amounts of weaponry, indulged in anti-social behaviour, or sought paedophilic material – all the while showing clear sympathies to the XRW cause – but who were largely loners. When attempted plots were uncovered, they were seen as shambolic at best. The exception to this was the Aryan Strike Force (ASF), disrupted in 2009, which boasted a global online network of around 350 individuals. Led by administrators in the UK, the group was largely an online community, although police uncovered evidence of limited training camps in Cumbria and that one member managed to make a substantial amount of the poison Ricin. But even then, the ASF was mostly an online network, while the NA group was more politically active both on and offline.

In contrast, the violent Islamist terror threat of the same period was characterised by sophisticated networks linked to Al-Qa’ida affiliates around the world. Leaders in distant countries provided training and direction to plotters in the UK and throughout the West. There were isolated loners that latched onto violent Islamist ideology to try to launch attacks, but this was the exception rather than the norm. Compare this to today: while Rahman and Imran had some links, these were distant and there is limited evidence of clear direction from foreign-based leaders.

This divergence is reflected in some ways by the men’s commitment to their plots. Jack Renshaw of NA, who had separately pled guilty, wanted to attack MP Rosie Cooper and a police officer who had angered him; he seemed fairly consistent in his commitment to this particular act. In contrast, from available evidence, Rahman was fairly scattered in his plotting. While the chief plot for which he was convicted – of wanting to detonate an explosive device in Downing Street and decapitate the prime minister – continually emerged in his planning, he had numerous other plots in mind. At one point he considered using a drone to attack the Wimbledon tennis tournament, while at other times he discussed going to fight abroad. Rahman had the idea of driving a truck into a crowd, or using one as a bomb and then using guns to shoot people in a hybrid active shooter plot. He was, however, unable to drive and did not know how to shoot (or source) guns.

But while the threat may have gone in divergent directions, there are a surprising number of similarities as well. Both plots targeted prominent political figures: Rahman had an ambitious plan to storm Downing Street and murder the prime minister, while Renshaw wanted to murder an MP and a police officer. At one point he considered the Home Secretary, but ultimately deemed this too difficult a target. This shows a collective anger against the political class and a desire to punish them on both sides of the XRW versus violent Islamist ideological spectrum.

Both plots were inspited in part by other attacks and would have served as revenge for personal attacks perceived to have been made against the individuals. In the case of Rahman, he saw the attempted Parsons Green bombing from earlier in 2017 as ‘the start’ and was impressed by the Manchester Arena bombing. He saw his attack in part as vindication for his uncle’s death in Syria at the hands of the International Coalition Against ISIL. Similarly, the NA cluster was inspired by the 2016 murder of MP Jo Cox and saw Zack Davies’ racially inspired attempted murder of a dentist in a Tesco supermarket as a precedent. Renshaw’s desire to target a particular police officer stemmed from an earlier arrest and a specific officer whom he blamed for his troubles. He hoped to murder her alongside MP Rosie Cooper. Both cases demonstrate clear inspiration from other attacks, highlighting the longer-term consequences to the threat picture of a successful attack, as well as an underlying desire for revenge in their intent.

Another curious similarity is the evidence of predatory sexual behaviour in both cases. Rahman first came onto the radars of the security services when authorities investigated him for sending indecent images to underage girls. In Renshaw’s case, after an initial detention on other charges linked to NA activity, his phone was downloaded and searched, at which point police allegedly found evidence of child sex offences. These alleged perversions are surprisingly common among offenders on both sides of the ideological spectrum and suggest a potential investigation point for security officials.

There are additional comparisons to be made between the investigations of the two cells. In both cases, undercover agents were key for securing convictions. Robbie Mullen, himself a member of the NA cell, turned against the group to work with Hope not Hate, a charity dedicated to fighting the group’s ideology. For Rahman and Imran, the two men believed that they were part of a Daesh network, yet it was largely made up of intelligence agents. The disruption of the Daesh network in particular is notable in this regard, as it reflects an approach by UK security forces that is reminiscent of the behaviour of US authorities, which some UK security officials have previously thought to be inappropriate. Given the broader chaos in Rahman’s life – he was homeless and unemployed at the time of his arrest, seemingly living out a deadly fantasy life through his Daesh-inspired activity and being incapable of doing many of the acts he said he wanted to do – it is an open question whether he would have been able to achieve his goals had he not been apprehended by the network of undercover intelligence agents around him.

Yet, his successful conviction shows that this methodology of securing a case against a perpetrator can work. It has been seen in other recent plots as well, as in the case of Safaa Boular, a young woman convicted of planning an attack on the British Museum who believed she was talking to extremists in Syria online, for example, and will likely be used again. With Renshaw, the fact that Mullen defected to a charity rather than turning himself into the police demonstrates the importance of such community organisations in countering terrorist threats.

The latest version of CONTEST highlighted that ‘Islamist terrorism is the foremost terrorist threat to the UK. Extreme right-wing terrorism is a growing threat’. These two cases show what these menaces look like in practice, and what similarities exist between the two. CONTEST pledged an increase in the volume of resources for targeting the XRW, while the broader violent Islamist threat is now characterised as a series of discrete and seemingly random terrorist plots. The tools needed to counter this sort of threat are included within the new Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, which necessitates longer sentences for terrorism offence convictions and gives authorities the tools needed to disrupt plots earlier on. There is of course a danger in this approach, as individuals may receive heavy sentences for relatively limited activity or involvement, but given the current threat picture, police and security services clearly feel a need to bolster their capabilities in this regard.

There are broader points to consider about the growth of these two threats. First, the rise of a more organised XRW is in many ways a reflection of the increased polarisation of political discourse in the UK. As far-right narratives increasingly creep into the mainstream conversation, the more extreme fringes become empowered, anticipating that the tide of debate is moving in their direction. Second, the problem of a more diffuse and complicated threat picture is not exclusively a problem with violent Islamists. Soon after the conclusion of these two terror trials, another member of NA, Jack Coulson, was sentenced to four years for downloading terrorist manuals. This was his second offence, with the first linked to building pipe bombs as a minor. There was little evidence provided that he coordinated his action with others in the NA group, illustrating how direction and coordination within the XRW is also quite loose.

Last year highlighted how the terrorist threat in the UK remains persistent and can abruptly catch security forces off guard. It may now be typified by more low-tech efforts using basic weaponry, but the ideological background has amplified and is only likely to become more complicated as time goes on. The new iteration of CONTEST reflects this threat picture, but it is important to consider how much the terrorist menace in the UK has evolved since CONTEST was first devised, and to raise the question of whether a more dramatic overhauling of the structure is required. The threat picture has progressed, from one characterised by an external threat touching the UK’s shores and using UK nationals, to one of homegrown actors focused on UK interests, to today’s threat picture driven by multiple ideologies with competing networks, and a broad footprint of isolated adherents conducting attacks without clear direction. Evidently, we are still at the stage of managing a threat rather than eradicating a problem, which is potentially all that will ever be achieved, emphasising the need to evaluate and adapt to a threat picture that does not stand still.

Raffaello Pantucci
Raffaello is the Director of International Security Studies at RUSI.

BANNER IMAGE: The April 2017 ‘London March Against Terrorism’ was organised by far-right groups Britain First and the English Defence League in response to the attack on Westminster that occured days before. Countering the threat of violent Islamists is a key rallying point for the British far-right. Courtesy of PA Images.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.