Archive for February, 2020

And finally in this catch up wave, a piece from earlier this week for Foreign Policy looking in some more detail at the recent burst of terrorist attacks in the UK. To also catch up on some media appearances, spoke to the Guardian about recidivism amongst terrorists in the UK, to Yahoo News and the Daily Mail about the vogue of using fake bombs and knives in attacks, the earlier RSIS piece on Streatham was picked up by Eurasian Review, on the other side of the coin spoke to CNN about China and Europe and the earlier Telegraph piece commenting in the wake of the UK’s Huawei decision was picked up by China Digital Times.

Tougher Sentencing Won’t Stop Terrorism
A string of attacks in Britain have led Boris Johnson’s government to seek simple remedies that won’t fix the problem.

Police assist an injured man in London, on Nov.  29, 2019 after reports of shots being fired on London Bridge.

Police assist an injured man in London, on Nov. 29, 2019 after reports of shots being fired on London Bridge. DANIEL SORABJI/AFP via Getty Images

In the wake of Britain’s third terrorist incident in two months—a stabbing carried out by a recently released terrorist offender in the South London neighborhood of Streatham—the U.K. government is reaching for the most obvious legislation at hand to prevent such attacks and seeking to extend the detention of convicted terrorist offenders.

Drafting policy in the wake of a terrorist attack is always fraught with danger. With emotions high, people will grasp at whatever flaw in the system seems obvious at that moment—police surveillance, parole leniency, sentencing laws—and use that as the basis for new policies. Yet the consequences of such knee-jerk reactions can be far-reaching, and undoing the damage later can be complicated. Most worryingly, quick fixes tend to overlook the real reasons behind the problem. While some of the government’s proposed responses—such as increasing investment in probation—deserve to be applauded, the push to simply extend detention won’t address the issue at hand.

It is helpful to start by looking at the three recent cases in detail. The first took place Nov. 29, 2019, when a released terrorist offender used knives and a fake suicide vest to attack a rehabilitation conference he was attending, murdering two people before being shot by police on London Bridge. On Jan. 9, a convicted terrorist prisoner in the HMP Whitemoor prison in Cambridgeshire led an attack using bladed weapons and fake suicide vests against prison wardens. And on Feb. 2, a recently released terrorist offender was shot down as he sought to pursue an attack on shoppers in Streatham using a knife and a fake suicide vest. Given these incidents happened within the span of a few months and appear similar on the surface, they have been treated as a trend. Yet a close examination reveals many differences.

While some of the government’s proposed responses—such as increasing investment in probation—deserve to be applauded, the push to simply extend detention won’t address the issue at hand.

All three cases involved individuals who had been convicted of terrorism offenses and had served or were serving time for them. But when they launched their attacks, they were at very different stages of their sentences—in HMP Whitemoor, the convicted terrorist offender still had years to go (and now will doubtless have many more), while the London Bridge and Streatham attackers had been released on license. The London Bridge attacker had been out of prison for about one year and had, during that time, participated in a deradicalization program. He had stopped in the months prior to the attack; the full story of what took place in the intervening months has not yet emerged.

In contrast, the Streatham attacker never engaged in any deradicalization programs while in prison and on release appears to have quite quickly decided to carry out an attack. Evidence of his determination was clear after his initial arrest on May 17, 2018, following an investigation into his online activity. Not only did police find voluminous amounts of extremist material that he had shared with his family and friends, but they also found notebooks full of expressions of his desire to be a martyr and bomb-making plans.

Following his arrest, he was interviewed 19 times, during which time he largely responded “no comment” to all of the questions posed. During his sentencing hearing on Dec. 17, 2018, the judge commented on his level of fanaticism, something also emphasized by the head of the U.K. counterterrorism command when he commented on him post-sentencing.

The three cases are therefore quite distinct: The HMP Whitemoor case involves an individual who is facing a long incarceration, the London Bridge attack concerns a man who started to engage with a deradicalization program and then stopped, and the Streatham attacker seemed very firmly set on a course toward committing a violent crime. A failure in deradicalization programs was only potentially an issue in the London Bridge attack. The attacker seemed to be on a positive path once out of prison but then veered off course for reasons that are still not clear.

Of the three, a longer prison sentence would be most clearly relevant in the Streatham case, though it is unclear that the additional year in prison he would have had to serve if he’d completed his full sentence would have been enough to deter him from carrying out an attack. He had not shown any evidence of abandoning his ideas and was of such concern to security services that they had maintained intense surveillance on him after his release. It is hard to imagine that another year in prison would have done much to deradicalize him.

History actually shows that recidivism among convicted terrorist offenders in the U.K. is quite rare.

For the attacker in HMP Whitemoor, an already heavy sentence will now likely double. Longer sentencing may not have much effect (except to increase his eagerness to attack more guards). In fact, reporting on the case suggests that he has been radicalizing other prisoners, leading ad hoc sharia courts, and causing problems for prison guards.

And beyond these three cases, it is important to remember that there is a large number of terrorist offenders in prisons, many of whom are due to be released soon. These are the ones who might be affected by the government’s rushed policies. Yet no evidence has been produced that they are all in the same bracket as either the Streatham or London Bridge attacker. History actually shows that recidivism among convicted terrorist offenders in the U.K. is quite rare.

According to my research, since 2013, out of approximately 40 known plots, there have been just six plots involving people who had previously been charged with or convicted of terrorism offenses. Two plots involved people who had been charged for prior extremist activity: a group from 2014 that wanted to stab a poppy seller during Remembrance Day and a group known as the Three Musketeers that was arrested in 2016 plotting a knife and bomb attack. One of the three had been previously arrested alongside the London Bridge attacker, while the other two were part of a failed 2011 attempt to travel to a terrorist training camp in Pakistan.

According to Home Office figures, during the year ending June 2019, 53 prisoners held for terrorism-related offenses were released. Most, as far as authorities know, have not reoffended. It is therefore clear that not every terrorist offender who is released from prison will behave like the Streatham attacker.

A more salient similarity among the three cases is the attackers’ relative youth at the moment of first being arrested.

The London Bridge attacker’s house was first raided when he was 17 years old, the Streatham attacker was arrested for the offense for which he was jailed at 17, and the HMP Whitemoor attacker was picked up for involvement in a terrorist plot when he was 18.

While this is not a new phenomenon—two of the 2005 London bombers were 18 and 19 years old—there has recently been an increase in very young people becoming involved in active terrorist plotting. One of the cases of concern in the press at the moment is of an anonymous boy who was arrested at the age of 14 for being involved in an Islamic State-linked plot to attack security officials in Australia and is due for release soon.

This growing cohort of young offenders suggests that the process of radicalization is taking place at a very young age, when people are more susceptible to negative influences. In other contexts, young people who are drawn into violent or criminal activity are dealt with through criminal sanctions and engagement in rehabilitation programs, given that the young tend to be more susceptible to influencing. If such young people are being radicalized, the government needs to reconsider how it is handling such cases. Long prison sentences are undoubtedly justified in some cases, but the youth of the offender might mean that, in other cases, a more intensive rehabilitation program might help place them on a better path.

Finally, there is the question of copycat attacks. It is clear that the three attacks were in part inspired by each other—the attackers all chose to use the same methodology of knives and fake suicide vests, which is a relatively new innovation on the U.K. terrorist scene. In the wake of five terrorist attacks in 2017, Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu commented how the first attack using a car against tourists on Westminster Bridge and knives on police in front of Parliament had to some degree inspired the others. As he put it, the March 2017 Westminster Bridge attacker “gave fellow violent extremists the understanding that the U.K. was not such a hostile place to launch attacks and that by using this simple methodology you could succeed.”

The dilemma law enforcement officials face is how to stop attacks from inspiring other attacks. The question is likely around coverage of incidents, rather than anything to do with the incidents themselves.

The vogue for knife attacks started in 2013 after two radicalized individuals murdered an off-duty soldier by running him down and then trying to decapitate him on a street in South London.

Covered in the victim’s blood, they then declaimed their radical message to bystanders’ smartphones and the world, filling news broadcasts for weeks afterward and showing other terrorists how easily successful attacks could go viral and grab the world’s attention. The answers will not be found in prisons; to effectively break these chains of attacks, governments and journalists need to think carefully about how terrorist incidents are covered and reported.

The questions of the effectiveness of deradicalization programs, occasional recidivism, very young offenders, and the inspirational effect of attacks will not be answered by a simple extension of sentencing. While there may well be cases where offenders should be imprisoned for longer, it is not a solution that is applicable to all. And it is counterproductive to publicize certain cases in the press when it is clear from history that the majority of individuals who have served sentences for terrorism offenses have not returned to terrorist activity. Having their names and faces splashed in the press is unlikely to help with their rehabilitation and might leave them feeling ostracized and motivate them to return to terrorism.

Judicial and policy decisions must be objective and delivered without emotion. If a government chooses to pass new legislation on terrorism at a moment when the country is reeling from attacks, it is unlikely to make sensible and dispassionate judgments. There may well be gaps in legislation, but the British government must be careful to ensure that any new legislation addresses real problems, rather than simply pandering to the public’s fears.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute and a visiting senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists. Twitter: @raffpantucci

Almost up to date, now my inaugural piece for my new Singaporean home RSIS in the form of one of their commentaries, this time looking at the recent spate of terrorist incidents in the UK using the Streatham attack as the peg.

Responding to Streatham: Managing Low-Tech Terrorist Threat

Raffaello Pantucci

ICPVTR / Commentaries / Country and Region Studies / Europe / Middle East and North Africa (MENA)

10 February 2020

Synopsis

The 2 Feb Streatham attack in south London does not appear to have been part of a larger plot. But it has once again shone a negative light on the UK’s approach to counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation, this time under the newly appointed government.

Commentary

ON 2 FEBRUARY 2020, the south London district of Streatham saw a knife-and-fake bomb attack in which a man was shot dead by police after stabbing two people. ISIS claim of responsibility has little credible evidence; despite the young man’s reported pledge of allegiance to ISIS, there is no proof they were in contact.

The attack, however, comes against a political context which will demand some reaction. The re-installed Tory government has now faced three incidents on its watch. The outward similarities in all three draws public attention. The United Kingdom fears that it could find itself in the midst of another 2017 when the country suffered five terrorist attacks in relatively quick succession.

More Copycat Attacks?

The most immediate concern for authorities will be the possibility of a copycat incident of some sort. The Streatham attack itself was already a copy. The knife-and-fake-bomb model is one that was deployed in 2017 on London Bridge, on London Bridge again in November 2019, and then in Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) Whitemoor in early January 2020 when a convicted terrorist offender and a prisonmate attacked prison guards with bladed weapons and fake suicide vests.

Further emulation might be possible given the simplicity and relative success (in media terms) of the attack. The approach of using knife-and-fake-bomb is a new innovation that has been proven to deliver easy success. The Streatham attack showed how you could wait until the moment of attack to arm yourself, completely compressing the time to attack.

It is hard to completely assess at this stage the exact nature of inspiration that the three plots played towards each other. But on the basis of previous chains it is likely that any subsequent spontaneous ones are likely to come sooner rather than later. More considered plots do not necessarily fall within this analytical framework.

Undirected “Campaign” of Lone Actors

At this stage, the Streatham attack appears as an isolated act. However, as 2017 showed in the UK, a terrorist campaign no longer needs to come in the form of a series of directed attacks; it can also happen to a series of incidents like this. Both Al Qaeda and ISIS have championed the lone actor model of attack repeatedly.

Understanding how to analyse potential lone actors from a pool of potential offenders was a major question to emerge from 2017, and it will likely now be revisited again.

It is worth noting that security authorities were very concerned about the Streatham attacker. The fact he was being monitored as he went about his Sunday business by an undercover armed response unit (armed response units are rare in the UK) shows a high level of risk management assessment.

The high level of concern was visible earlier as well. The counter-terrorism lead at the time of his detention and the sentencing judge all publicly expressed concern about his level of radicalisation. Reporting from his time in prison has suggested that he refused engagement with de-radicalisation programmes.

Offender Management in Prison

A running theme between the London Bridge, HMP Whitemoor and Streatham incidents is prison. However, there are differences that are important to highlight. While the Streatham incident took place days after the offender’s release, the London Bridge attacker waited over a year to launch his attack, for some part of which he engaged with a de-radicalisation programme.

In contrast, the HMP Whitemoor offender still has a number of years on his sentence (a sentence which is likely now to become longer). It is therefore hard to judge where the useful comparison is to assess where the problems might lie.

Recidivism is rare among UK terrorist offenders – prior to the London Bridge attack last year, no successful plots involving recidivists had been seen. While there is a cadre of radicalised individuals who consistently show up on charges for various related offences (often individuals drawn from the Al Muhajiroun community), actual attacks (or plots) by people previously convicted of terrorism offences is a relatively new innovation in the UK context.

Prior to the current cluster, the UK had only seen two since the conflict in Syria started (out of around 40 or so plots that have been disrupted or taken place).

Youth Radicalisation and Long-term Monitoring

Another similarity between the three recent cases is the relative youth at the time of first offence of the three men. The Streatham attacker was 17 when he first came to authorities’ attention, the London Bridge attacker’s house was first raided by counter-terrorism authorities when he was 17 and the HMP Whitemoor offender was 18 when he was arrested on his way to launch a knife attack.

Aside from what this means for radicalisation, it presents a long-term issue for authorities when it is considered alongside the fact that the UK has seen a terrorist attack by a 52-year-old (London Bridge, March 2017). Authorities may have decades of monitoring ahead of them with all of the expense and resource that entails.

Beyond Deradicalisation Programmes

The attacks have drawn attention to the effectiveness of de-radicalisation programmes. While the Streatham attacker refused to engage, the London Bridge attacker before him had been engaged for some time before stopping in the months prior to his attack. In other words, de-radicalisation programmes are not relevant across all of the cases and such dramatic failures are a new phenomenon in the UK.

The UK has had almost two decades of Islamist terror offenders, but only recently are we seeing such attacks from amongst recidivists. At the same time, it is clear that this is where the current heart of the problem lies given the growing number of people coming out of prisons or back from Syria.

This means more offenders (or people of concern) who will need attention for longer. The idea of using probation services better to manage such offenders is good, but this means probation needs a considerable uplift.

Streatham is now the 11th known attack with Islamist links that the UK has seen since the Conservatives took power in 2010. While the nature of the threat has changed, it is not clear that all aspects of the response have kept up.

Problematically, however, the current commentary emanating from Whitehall suggests that the response is likely to focus on punitive measures pandering to a political base.

About the Author

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence, Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

Up next another China piece, this time for the South China Morning Post looking at the Belt and Road in the wake of Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar.

Is China getting real with its grandiose visions for the belt and road?

  • Beijing is toning down its rhetoric for the grand plan and rethinking its massive international infrastructure programme, Raffaello Pantucci writes
  • Signs of a more modest approach from Xi Jinping’s trip to Myanmar when there was little official mention of an economic corridor involving the two countries
Topic |   Belt and Road Initiative

Absent from almost all of the official coverage around Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Myanmar was any mention of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC).

A belt and road route before the Belt and Road Initiative existed, the corridor was a concept first mooted in the late 1990s but has largely gone nowhere. The bigger question this poses is whether this is a harbinger of China shedding its grander overambitious belt and road visions over the next decade for a more focused and logical set of bilateral engagements.

Certainly there has been a toning down of rhetoric around the belt and road, an infrastructure vision to link economies into a China-centred trading network. While it remains a hot topic in Beijing and a sure-fire way for leaders of other countries to be seen to be aligning themselves with China, its scattered record of success has meant there has been rethinking about how this grand concept will continue to fit into Beijing’s foreign policy repertoire. It continues to be a convenient tag for Chinese diplomats to use given its broad and positive conceptual basis but, it is not clear that China wants to continue to talk in the expansive corridor terms that it used to.

The result has been that while the initiative continues to feature in the public discourse, there has been a refocusing of attention around it. Rather than talk in terms that are almost impossible to deliver to or fail to deliver with the rapidity that might be hoped, the focus of the next stage of the narrative around belt and road will be to focus on the bilateral. Rather than China painting itself as the global regional connector, Beijing will scale back its ambition to focus on delivering direct connectivity to China in the first instance, with everything else coming in the future.

The logic of this from Beijing’s perspective makes sense: why go to the expense and effort of pushing your resources in directions whose direct benefit to China is limited or on a very long time horizon? Better instead to focus on things that are tangible and immediate and provide China with clear connectivity that it can show results at home for.

It will also help address some of the belt and road pushback that Beijing has faced globally, where the initiative is referred to as “debt trap” diplomacy, and an attempt by China to reshape global economic geography around its interests while creating a list of client states.

Not only has the volume of recipient countries complaining been growing, but foreign companies are calling out the win-win rhetoric as they grow frustrated at their inability to benefit from this push of external Chinese capital. Most recently, the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China published a report in which its members complained about a lack of transparency in belt and road projects and irritation that the benefits they had seen from the initiative were “quite insignificant”.

On a visit to Pakistan last year, I met a wave of Pakistani businessmen frustrated at their inability to tap the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor money they heard reported flooding into their country. Beijing is not unaware of these concerns. The Belt and Road Summit in Beijing last year was largely a story of China trying to address global concerns around the initiative, focusing on making it more inclusive, ensuring more local benefit and making a greater effort on environmental concerns.

From this perspective, the dropping of BCIM-EC from Xi’s visit to Myanmar might be a first sign of how Beijing wants to drive the initiative forward. The BCIM-EC was always an awkward corridor to fit into the belt and road given Indian hesitation around it more generally. We saw little public reference to it during the meeting between Xi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year, and then again during Xi’s visit to Myanmar.

Instead, we see China focusing on the bilateral, delivering what has already been discussed, and avoiding too much grandiloquence which will ultimately be hard to live up to. Beijing’s track record in Myanmar is a patchy one, and recent reporting has shown how China’s efforts to support peace processes in the country have also failed to deliver.

Ultimately, Beijing will be an important partner for Myanmar. Geographic proximity assures this. The questions are how high a bar does China want to set for this relationship and how much does Beijing want to become the responsible stakeholder it was setting itself up to be?

This might be the key lesson to draw from this visit for the broader belt and road. From a half decade of ever growing grandeur, the next half decade of the initiative will be a more realistic tone and narrative focusing on ensuring China gets what it needs from these bilateral relationships rather than the overblown – and expensive – rhetoric that dominated the first half decade.

And in many ways this is a reflection of the reality of the first intended aim of the initiative, which evolved from Xi’s call for a focus on periphery diplomacy, then developed into a call for greater infrastructure and economic connectivity, and then grew into the globe spanning beast that stretched from Asia to Latin America via Africa and Europe and back. In many ways it could be that this is going to be a period of the belt and road returning to its roots. A moving of the goalposts that will allow for a shift in belt and road rhetoric without having to completely walk away from it and the loss of face that would follow.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

And now my first piece for the new year for the Telegraph offering some thoughts on how the UK needs to develop a strategy towards China now that the Huawei question has been resolved.

The Huawei drama has exposed a depressing reality – Britain has no coherent plan for China

Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace (L) and General Sir Nicholas Carter (R) leave Downing Street after attending the National Security Council meeting convened by Boris Johnson

Britain’s way forward has been wrongly framed as a binary choice between China and the US

In recent days, the Huawei debate has obscured a concerning longer-term trend; London’s inability to have a serious discussion about its approach to China.

The story of China’s rise to the first rank of international powers is well-known, but in Britain at least, it has largely been treated as an external event, of little direct consequence to the UK. The result has been an immature discussion that let the conversation about Huawei turn into a proxy for a discussion about China, reducing the debate to a false binary choice between Washington and Beijing. The truth is far more complicated, relating to where the UK sits in the world and how London will navigate the great power games buffeting the planet.

The world has changed in the two decades since the turn of the century. Where once terror threats dominated, the preeminent concern that now faces capitals is great power politics. While the trans-national threats posed by terrorist groups challenged our way of understanding who were our enemies, the challenge of current geopolitics is that it is not as conveniently binary as the Cold War.

China is a particularly complicated case. An authoritarian power whose internal fragilities are almost impossible to calculate (thus making it hard to know how strong or weak it actually is), what is clear is its assertive posture on the world stage.

The UK, like every other power on the planet, needs to have some sort of a relationship with both Beijing and Washington. Quite aside from the globalised economy that binds us all together  (notwithstanding the many difficulties of doing business with China), challenges such as climate change cannot be addressed without some engagement and coordination between everyone. Choosing between China and the US is therefore not a useful frame with which to look at the world.

And while this binary choice makes no sense from London, this reality is even more acute in parts of the world which are more dependent on China. While China’s actual economic influence, power and investment is often exaggerated in the developing world (as compared to European or American economic links), it is far harder for them to stand up to Beijing or Washington. This reality is something that complicates the UK’s engagement in these parts of the world. For example, both India and Pakistan are important powers to the UK. Both have complex relationships with China (as well as of course between each other and the US) which rank very high in their strategic thinking. They see China as both an opportunity and threat. Yet the UK needs to find a way of balancing between them all to advance its own interests.

The goal for the UK must be to focus on understanding where and when it should choose to engage, influence or counter Chinese behaviour. We must push back on aggressive Chinese activity – whether against neighbours or human rights abuses at home – and influence China as it plays an ever greater role in developing global norms. Chinese action on climate change, as well as Beijing’s role in the developing world requires engagement.

Looking at the other side of the coin, the US remains the UK’s preeminent security partner. The Five Eyes intelligence network and intimate security partnership is matched only by the close human, political and economic relationship across the Atlantic. Notwithstanding disagreements, like over Iran policy or the US’s recalcitrance on climate change, the transatlantic alliance is going to persist as London’s main security pillar on the world stage.

But the UK has no desire to follow the US down the path of cleaving the world in two. The idea of severing all links and pushing China into a purely adversarial relationship misses the vast complexity of China’s place in the world and is not to the UK’s advantage.

The truth is that both large powers are behaving in a manner they feel commensurate with their size and power. We now occupy a world which is determined by the realities of hard power rather than ideology. For the UK, navigating this world in a post-Brexit context will be a complicated soup of diplomacy and activism. It will not be an easy path to forge, but London needs to engage with the world as it is, rather than as it would like it to be. It will require a more serious conversation about foreign policy that does not simply boil it down to “yes” or “no” choices.

The Huawei debate has for too long occluded a serious conversation about China’s place in the world and how the UK should respond. This debate needs to take place at a public as well as a political level. Until it does, we will continue to find ourselves buffeted by the winds of geopolitical hard power, rather than steering our way through these choppy waters.

Next up, a report for RUSI with Veerle which captures the findings from a project looking at UK-China cooperation in Afghanistan. A theme that we have been working on for some time, and will likely continue to work on going forwards in one way shape or form. The full paper is available here, and the online intro is posted below.

An Outline for UK–China Cooperation on Afghanistan

Veerle Nouwens and Raffaello Pantucci
Conference Reports, 18 December 2019
China, Afghanistan, International Security Studies, UK

On 29 April 2019, representatives from the UK, the People’s Republic of China, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan held a seminar in Beijing to discuss cooperation on development in Afghanistan. Initially conceived as a trilateral format (between the UK, China and Afghanistan), the addition of participants from Pakistan and Uzbekistan expanded the format to help adequately address some of the regional connectivity questions.

The event was co-hosted by RUSI and the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) and was attended by representatives from the UK embassies in Kabul and Beijing, representatives of the governments of China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, as well as representatives from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Aga Khan Foundation. The seminar focused on five key questions:

• How can the UK and China best prioritise areas of cooperation in Afghanistan?
• What are Afghanistan’s rail infrastructure needs?
• What is the connectivity landscape between Central and South Asia, and what role might Afghanistan play as a bridge between the two regions?
• How can Afghanistan engage with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)?
• How can the UK and China cooperate in the space of humanitarian aid in Afghanistan or other third countries?

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Asian Development Bank/Wikimedia Commons

With considerable delay, doing a bunch of catch up posting. A lot has changed in the offline world, with a change in my role at RUSI and a new position in Singapore at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) reflecting the fact that am spending more time out in Asia. Still working on much the same things, but with a slightly different geographical orientation. First up, a book review in the RUSI Journal for Shiv Malik’s long-delayed book The Messenger.

The Messenger

In early October 2018, the Metropolitan Police issued a press release detailing the conviction of a grim-faced man called Hassan Butt for some amateurish online fraud. On the surface, this was a fairly pedestrian case. It was, however, the culmination of years of investigations involving networks linked to Al-Qa’ida in the UK, the destruction of a journalist’s career, a High Court debate about the protection of journalistic sources, and the role and links of MI5 in the terrorist networks it was investigating.

Shiv Malik was the journalist at the heart of this story. After almost a decade of work, he has produced a gripping account of his experiences being caught up in the frenzied early days of the British discovery of a homegrown terrorist threat.

The story told in this book is part of an earlier time in Britain’s exposure to violent Islamist terror, when the threat everyone was focused on was articulated most severely in the July 2005 bombings: young men who had decided to turn so brutally against their community. Shiv Malik’s The Messenger tells the detailed story of one such case. It focuses on Hassan Butt, an individual whose extremist views gained prominence within the public discourse and who ultimately spoke out and turned against his former comrades. The book gradually reveals, however, that Butt might also have been working for the Security Services all along as part of a complex undercover operation.

Butt’s story has always raised more questions than it has answered. He first emerged in the public eye after the 9/11 attacks as a spokesman for Al-Muhajiroun, a militant Islamist organisation based in London and Lahore. After moving to Pakistan, Butt headed a group of British extremists who supported Al-Qa’ida and claimed to have mobilised over 200 young British men to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan. He communicated with the British public through press releases and extremist statements, acting as a one-stop shop for foreign journalists seeking pro-Al-Qa’ida perspectives. Butt thrived in this role and enjoyed his heavy influence on the public discourse so much that his Al-Muhajiroun leader – the notorious Omar Bakri Mohammed – started to joke about how he had eclipsed him in infamy.

Despite having achieved this celebrity status, Butt turned on his former colleagues by deciding to work against Al-Qa’ida: the organisation he had previously so fervently supported. His own reported reasons are explored in the book, and they appear to stem from encounters with serious Al-Qa’ida figures in Pakistan whom he helped to launch a series of brutal attacks in Karachi. When he challenges one of them about the innocent people killed in the attacks, he is simply told that ‘they’ll be carried by Allah for their good deeds’. For Butt, this is an unsatisfactory answer. He finds himself appalled by the fact that ‘they’d decided when to end other, innocent people’s lives’. This appears to have been Butt’s Damascene moment.

Malik, the author, entered Butt’s life at the same time. He was initially pointed to Butt as someone under evaluation by the BBC as a potential source of information regarding the July 2005 bombings. Malik developed a strong relationship with Butt, even deciding to help write his biography. He quickly became wrapped up in Butt’s adventure, partly on the basis of their shared history as two young South Asian men growing up in England.

In the years immediately following the July 2005 bombings, the two worked together in discussing the threat the UK faces and attempting to develop Butt’s story into a book. Malik found himself ‘truly believing in [Butt]’ and claimed that ‘[he] was willing to give almost anything to see him succeed’. This honesty and candour sets up the book’s climax: in May 2008, Butt was arrested and denied much of the story that he had shared with Malik under questioning.

It is safe to say that Butt’s tale is confusing. As well informing Greater Manchester Police that he had lied to Malik after his arrest, he faked his own stabbing and claimed that former colleagues had attacked him for his betrayal. This came after Malik had launched an expensive High Court appeal to protect the manuscript and notes that he and Butt had been working on – a reaction to police demands to use the text for prosecution.

But, as the book shows, the twists and turns do not end there. We still do not know what Butt’s real role was. The theory that he might have been working for the Security Services all along is repeatedly alluded to alongside the importance that Malik attaches to Butt’s contact with some of the most dangerous jihadist figures in the UK. The latter is evidenced by his widely recorded contacts, interviews and appearances by independent observers. Despite his proximity to numerous investigations, however, he was never prosecuted for terrorism offences.

In light of this evidence, Malik tentatively concludes that Butt was manipulated by the Security Services so they could control his narrative and distract journalists from more serious investigations. The author alleges that he was warned about such tactics by an older colleague who had similar experiences in Northern Ireland; a tip-off which arguably strengthens the credibility of his argument.

But Malik takes his conclusion even further. In the wake of 9/11, Britain’s security services were deeply alarmed by the new threat they faced. They could not, however, mobilise the public support or resources necessary to counter it. By purposefully introducing such an extremist voice into public discourse, they would alarm and excite the public, thereby giving them the opportunity to secure the resources they needed. While such extremist voices had previously been caricatures – like Omar Bakri Mohammed or Abu Hamza – Butt offered a young, eloquent and homegrown alternative which was far more disturbing.

Of course, there are holes in this narrative. One simply has to think back to the tabloid headlines used to describe the two radical preachers just mentioned to see the appeal they provided to newspaper publishers. Why the authorities would need to add another voice to this narrative is unclear, but this ambiguity is exactly the space that intelligence forces like to work within. As time has gone by, it has become increasingly clear that – despite a slow start – the UK’s intelligence services have been able to penetrate the violent Islamist networks that threaten the country.

We are unlikely to know whether Malik’s conclusion accurately reflects Butt’s real role for a long time, if ever. A narcissistic and creative megalomaniac, Butt is a complex character who once mixed with some of the most dangerous men in the UK. And while, if he was associated with the Security Services, such people are essential to enable our security forces to protect us, this book reveals some of the consequences of these people’s actions on those around them. For example, many of Butt’s reported friends are now serving long prison sentences because of evidence he provided against them, while others are dead due to links he appears to have helped nurture.

While Malik had to take a break from journalism after this experience, Butt moved in networks responsible for encouraging and practicing violence. Though he may have secretly been working against them, it is hard to know how strong his loyalties were.

In the murky world of intelligence gathering and informers, lines of trust and reliability regularly blur – this story reveals what this reality looked like within the context of the UK’s struggle against violent Islamist terrorism. Written in the fast-paced style of an investigative report, this book is an excellent journey through a historical case which filled our front pages. It provides a fascinating account of the early wave of jihad in Britain.