Archive for the ‘PRESS’ Category

More catch up posting, this one from a couple of weeks back for an excellent local Singaporean newspaper the Straits Times. This one draws on a theme touched on before which might be a much larger project at some point in the future. Watch this space as ever!

Running amok in an age of meaningless terror

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The shooting last month that left nine people dead in the German city of Hanau is being described as an extreme right-wing terrorist attack. Yet a close examination of the shooter’s manifesto shows an odd mishmash of ideas that draw on extreme-right ideology, but also blend in elements of misogyny and off-the-wall conspiracy theories.

These include the belief that the United States was “under the control of invisible secret societies” and that little children were being detained, tortured and killed by satanists in “deep underground military bases”. Tobias Rathjen, who subsequently killed his mother and himself, also believed in remote mind control and accused US President Donald Trump of stealing his ideas, including the America First slogan.

The gunman’s victims – mostly people of Turkish descent in shisha bars – suggest he was driven by racist, right-wing beliefs, and indeed his manifesto is full of rants against non-whites and Islam. But what is also true is that he is part of a growing cohort of terrorists whose ideology is a muddled grab bag of ideas, and that requires us to rethink some of our assumptions about terrorists. We may be moving from sacred terror into an age of meaningless terror.

For some people, there is no such thing as meaningful terrorism. The idea of murdering other people to advance the cause of some political ideology or religion is hard to comprehend. Yet, we are usually at least able to grasp the ideological underpinnings or interpretations of faith that underpin their actions, however warped. But we are now moving into a situation where the police and security forces are increasingly finding themselves confronting individuals whose ideology is confused, to say the least.

In Britain, the Home Office flagged in its report last year at least 19 cases involving individuals with “mixed, unstable or unclear ideology” who “may still pose a terrorism risk”.

In the US, the Department of Homeland Security’s strategy to counter terrorism now talks about “terrorism and targeted violence” that includes “attacks otherwise lacking a clearly discernible political, ideological, or religious motivation”.

Including the 2017 Las Vegas shooter in this group, the department notes that “terrorists and perpetrators of targeted violence may be motivated by different ideologies or narratives of personal grievance, and in some cases by none at all”, but “they attack targets with similar characteristics, often with similar tactics”.

In the case of the Las Vegas attack, Stephen Paddock, 64, opened fire from his hotel suite on a crowd gathered for a music festival on the night of Oct 1, 2017. He shot dead 58 people and wounded another 413 before killing himself. The motive remains officially undetermined.

In continental Europe, the habit is still to classify people under different known ideologies, but the many variants of beliefs across the continent and their cross-linkages can be confusing. The line between extreme right-wing ideology and personals act of violence is also not always easy to discern.

And then there are the incels – the involuntary celibate movement of men whose defining characteristic is their inability to attract the women they want. What started off as an online subculture of resentful young men has shown its potential for violence in mass shootings in Canada and the US. The Hanau killer identified himself as an incel.

The incels are typical of the growing group of extremists who seem solely linked to others through conversations on grim online forums where they share grievances and radical solutions, all the while stoking one another’s anger.

As the number of groups engaged in online hate speech grows, there is an accompanying rise in individuals with serious mental health or social disorders appearing among the roster of terrorists of all ideologies. In some cases, obsessive personalities are going down ideological rabbit holes on the Internet and building identities online with such power and force that they persuade themselves to act in the real world.

The question then is, what does this all mean? We are now seeing how individuals – some troubled, some rational – are using the garb of a terrorist incident to externalise their anger. And given the ease with which a terrorist act can be performed, we are reaching a situation where any act of mass violence becomes terrorism.

We are seeing acts of performative violence in the appearance of terrorist acts. This might help the individual give meaning to an act of violence that they might want to perform anyway for some other personal reason.

This form of “running amok” – a Malay term that has made it into the English language – is in some ways not new. The original term described the phenomenon of individuals who would suddenly go into a frenzy, attacking all those around them. The phenomenon was sometimes blamed on demonic possession.

The individuals we are seeing today are performing acts of essentially meaningless violence, but using an outward appearance we translate and recognise as acts of terrorism. This imbues the act with greater meaning. Terrorist groups have learnt how to offer people methodologies that can be easily emulated and delivered. This makes it easy to carry out attacks. It also means that these groups are able to subsequently try to claim the attacks.

The problem this presents is a complicated one. There is the danger we are over-ascribing acts to terrorist groups and increasing their power and mystique. We might also be deploying our expensive security services in pursuing essentially disturbed individuals who, if recognised in a different context, might be manageable through other public services.

Prosecuting such individuals is also complicated – on the one hand, if they have performed a violent criminal act, a law has been broken. But on the other hand, how do we prosecute those who are caught before they launch their attack and how do we handle those who are genuinely ill’

There is also a danger in how we respond. Terrorist acts that attract attention draw others to their bright light. Some go on to attack and murder others, emulating an act they have just seen – seeing it as an appropriate moment to support their interpretation of an ideology or, more simply, because they like the attention and want some of it.

For those tasked to monitor the ever-changing phenomenon that is terrorism, it can be difficult when the terrorist act appears to have lost a larger strategic goal and there is no clear ideology driving the violence. Rather than groups of acolytes following ideas, we are seeing moths bouncing between flames until they burn themselves and those around them. The act becomes the ideology and any meaningful political statement decoration on top of what is ultimately a deeply personal act of anger at society.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

A new piece for the Financial Times Beyond BRICS site, looking at the wake of Secretary Pompeo’s trip to Central Asia. Covers ground that I have trodden a bit before, but also sets up some of the ideas in an upcoming much bigger book project. This aside, an earlier Foreign Policy piece on the UK’s response to the new terrorist threat was picked up in the I newspaper in the UK.

US unlikely to change minds by shouting at China’s neighbours
Washington needs more sophisticated narrative to break central Asia’s pragmatic ties to Beijing
February 24 2020

Workers outside the perimeter fence of what is officially an education centre in Xinjiang, China

Workers outside what is officially an education centre in Xinjiang, China. The plight of the Uighurs is not the only plank of Washington’s push against Beijing in the region © REUTERS

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to central Asia was the latest stop on his global push against China. It comes amid visits to Africa, Latin America and Europe where China featured high on the agenda.

As the confrontation with Beijing slowly spills into every facet of relations — from trade and technology to social media, scientific exchange and business of every sort — China has become a top talking point everywhere US officials go.

The problem is that this uniform and loud hostility will work to different degrees around the world. And nowhere is it likely to be less effective than among China’s neighbours, which are bound by geography to have a relationship with Beijing.

Mr Pompeo’s visit to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan followed a session on the fringes of the UN General Assembly meeting last year when he pressed those countries on their relationship with China and zeroed in on China’s mistreatment of its Uighur minority as an issue of common concern.

While the central Asians made the right noises, none of them was willing to be as forward in their criticism of China as Mr Pompeo. This was repeated on his visit to central Asia, when the secretary of state had a meeting with families of people with relations caught up in Xinjiang’s grim detention camp system. While he kept pushing for condemnation by local authorities, he was met with silence.

The plight of the Uighurs was not the only plank of Mr Pompeo’s push against China in the region. He also spoke of the dangers of Chinese investment, railing against the Belt and Road Initiative concept in particular. This is a tune which his colleague Alice Wells, the principal deputy assistant secretary for the region, has been pushing in south Asia, most prominently in comments before a congressional committee on Afghanistan and during a think-tank event in Washington.

Talking of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as “debt trap” diplomacy, and complaining about the lack of Chinese economic support in Afghanistan, Ms Wells has been replicating in south Asia her secretary’s push in central Asia.

Partners across China’s western flank are being told off by senior US officials for their relations with Beijing, and increasingly being pressured into confronting China more aggressively. The problem is that while these countries may respect the raw power Washington represents, they are also neighbours of China with strong economic and human ties.

These human ties are particularly relevant when it comes to what is happening in Xinjiang where there is evidence that central and south Asian family members are getting caught up in the camp system. But while countries feel some level of concern about their people, they are sensitive to the fact that this is taking place within China to Chinese nationals.

From their perspective, Beijing has not meddled in their affairs, so why should they violate this and meddle in those of Beijing? The central Asians in particular share with China a broadly similar assessment of what constitutes terrorism and extremism, and they are almost all bound together through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. They have little incentive to pick a fight with Beijing over what is happening.

In fact, the central Asia-China relationship is one with many layers. There is very little love lost between the peoples of the two regions at a public level — in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan there has been a noticeable increase in the past year of protests and clashes between Chinese populations and locals.

However, at a security level, they are getting closer. In economic terms — where almost all the attention is — their relationship is growing. The US is largely an irrelevance in trade terms for the region. Foreign direct investment is a similar story, though the US is more represented through international financial institutions. Nevertheless, none of these countries see their economic future as realistically bound up with Washington.

And the US has shown itself to be relatively uninterested in the region more generally. Mr Pompeo’s visit was the first by a senior US official since secretary of state John Kerry visited in 2015.

Aside from China (and Russia and Iran to a lesser degree), Washington’s principal preoccupation with the region appears to be to exit Afghanistan. creating a potentially major security issue on the borders of some central Asian states.

The US is also locked in an increasingly aggressive conflict with another of their neighbours, Iran, and has passed sanctions against another, Russia, as well. Living in this neighbourhood means the central Asians have to take a more pragmatic view.

The US continues to have a deep wellspring of admirers around the globe. They are increasingly finding this affection tested by the lectures about China. Nowhere is this more so than among China’s neighbours — all of whom are concerned about China’s rise but see that as an opportunity and a challenge they have to engage with rather than cut off from.

Washington needs to develop a more sophisticated and consistent narrative if it is to persuade them to work with it more closely.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a UK think-tank

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.

 

Once again a bit late posting, but here is a short piece for the Telegraph in the wake of the London Bridge incident with Usman Khan. While on the topic, spoke to the Observer, Financial Times, Independent about the incident, to the Irish Times about the complexity of prosecuting returnees and the Guardian about the current state of the terror threat. Separately, also spoke to Global Finance magazine and the South China Morning Post about China-Russia, and Suddeutsche Zeitung about Xinjiang.

Politicians don’t understand the true nature of the terror threat

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The almost immediate political spat that arose from the London Bridge incident has occluded some of the bigger lessons to be drawn from the attack. The focus on prisons, probation and who exactly passed the legislation responsible for the terrorist’s release has ignored the wider points raised by this case.

Perhaps the most important is the longer-term question of how exactly we plan to manage an ever-growing cohort of people who, in some cases, appear to decide to re-engage with extremist activity almost a decade after they first encountered it.

As a society we have to face a chronic threat which includes Syria-Iraq returnees, the growing mainstreaming of extremist narratives, and the possibility of an abrupt drop off in our intelligence and security cooperation with key European partners. This is where the focus of the discussion around terrorism should be.

After almost two decades of facing a domestic extremist Islamist community, we have an ever-growing cohort of young men and women who have been attracted to these ideas and in some cases appear not to shake them. This number only grows over time, and given the fact that often people start to engage in their teenage years, the tail of this problem is one that is going to stretch far into the future.

It is not the case that all of these individuals are going to pose a persistent threat. Some people do grow out of these ideas which they adopt in their early adulthood and move on. Lives change, partners are met, new jobs are taken; people move on. In some cases, intense engagement with deradicalisation programmes or mentors help move them into a different space mentally, encouraging them to leave behind the extremist ideas.

But some only do this half-heartedly, never really shake the idea or find that the alternative to the extremist ideology is not a particularly exciting world. Their lives might never move forwards (or not to the level they were expecting), or other things happen around them which mean they do not leave the radical milieu.

In some extreme cases, the individuals seem to enjoy the violence. Some of these can be diverted through intense activity which channels their energy, but this requires a constant level of engagement.

The difficulty is understanding how each case is going to play out. In retrospect cases that go bad can appear obvious but this is not always so at the time. And given the easy terrorist methodologies deployed at the moment (cars and knives), it has become almost impossible for security forces to effectively and completely police this group.

Clearly more resource will help manage this problem, but it is unlikely to get rid of it. It is also key to remember that this is not a short-term investment. The London Bridge attacker first got involved in extremist activity in his late teens and then turned to violence a decade later.

When this timeline is put against the case of 2017’s 52-year-old Westminster attacker, this means you have a potential window of more than 30 years in which the state needs to potentially monitor extremists. And that resource requirement needs to be placed against the many other issues which call upon the public purse.

Ultimately, this is a problem which is going to require a long-term engagement and investment. And eradication is unlikely to succeed.

This is not a call for despair, just an acknowledgement of the reality that until some of the bigger perceptions and cases of injustice around the world are eliminated, we will continue to see some people drawn to using violence to try to rectify these issues.

In the short-term what we can do is tackle some of the immediate problems, such as dealing with the British nationals in Turkish, Iraqi or Kurdish custody. They require repatriation, detention and rehabilitation (or longer-term conviction if the legal case is met).

We also need to check the habit of mainstream politicians feeding and supporting extremist narratives. This is either through their unhelpful demonisation of others, pandering to baser narratives in the public discourse, or more simply politicising issues that should be handled more carefully.

Finally, there is a need to ensure that whoever enters government ensures that the information links that we share with European security partners are maintained. Given the increasingly diffuse, multi-ideology and international threat that we face, sharing data and information amongst our security forces is going to be a crucial tool.

It is unsurprising that the London Bridge attack has generated the sort of political debate we have seen. Coming during a tense election campaign it has immediately tapped into bigger tensions. Yet we need to be careful that we learn the right lessons and ensure that any ensuing policy change is dealing with the actual problem rather than the hysteria around it.

This is the only way to maintain the resilience of our society to dealing with the long-term problem that terrorists and extremists pose.

Raffaello Pantucci is Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

And now back up to date with writing as far as can tell, my most recent late last week on Baghdadi’s death trying to look further to the future about what is happening with terrorism more broadly for the Wall Street Journal. Some bigger ideas in here that need greater exploration in the future, but here is a short start.

Beyond this, spoke to various news outlets over the past month since last providing an update. Starting most recently with the Baghdadi death with the Financial Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Guardian about its impact on the UK threat picture (which was also picked up by an outlet called Go Tech, the Mirror and Sputnik) and this Norwegian site Klasse Kampen seems to have picked up my comments about the defunct terrorist leader from somewhere. Subsequent to his death, spoke to the Independent about his successor. Earlier, spoke to the Financial Times about Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria and its impact on ISIS, to the Sun about Syria returnees in the UK, and to the Independent about the shooting in Halle, Germany and the broader threat from XRW. On the other side of the coin, spoke to Foreign Policy/Newsweek about China-Russia, to Asia Times about China-Iran, and to Bloomberg about Russian pipeline politics.

After Baghdadi, Terrorism Without Ideology

ISIS provided a template for attacks. Now isolated people reproduce them as meaningless spectacle.

Raffaello Pantucci
Oct. 30, 2019 6:44 pm ET

 

French soldiers stand guard after a knife attack in Paris, Oct. 3. PHOTO: GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead, a few weeks after Europe was racked by four separate incidents classified as terrorism: a truck-ramming in Limburg, Germany; a series of stabbings at a police station in Paris; a shooting at a synagogue in Halle, Germany; and another set of stabbings at a shopping mall in Manchester, England. While the investigations are still under way, at this stage it doesn’t appear that any of these attacks had any structured link to a terrorist group like Baghdadi’s Islamic State. Most of the perpetrators displayed some awareness of an extremist ideology, but we don’t know that any of them were directed to do what they did.

What relevance does the death of Baghdadi have to any of these attackers, or to the terror threat at large? There is little historical evidence that decapitating terrorist groups destroys them. Leaders have networks around them built on personal contacts, and their deaths change those dynamics. Some particularly charismatic leaders drive groups forward by force of personality or personal narrative. Their removal can weaken the aura around their organizations, but it can’t promise eradication.

When leaders are abruptly lopped off, terror groups tend to fragment and become more radical. Pretenders to the throne or anointed successors want to establish their own brands and often use a spectacular attack to do it. One can look to Afghanistan, where repeated strikes against the Taliban’s leadership have only made the group more violent, or to the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, attacked in 2013 by a rising al-Shabaab terrorist leader stamping his imprint on the world. Earlier that year, an attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria followed a similar pattern. Different factions often will forge their own paths away from the core organization, seizing the opportunity to change directions and employ new tactics.

But this tells us only about the classical terror threat—the large-scale plot, often directed from abroad. Such conspiracies still exist, and authorities are fighting them with success. Where they have found more difficulty, however, is in stopping the smaller incidents, in which attacks appear in sync with terrorist ideologies while lacking clear links to the groups propagating them. ISIS honed the art of directing lost individual acolytes around the globe to launch attacks in their immediate environments with whatever tools were at their disposal. This group was supplemented by a further cadre who launched attacks drawing on the ISIS methodology and interpreting its ideology without ever establishing contact with the organization.

Then there is the terrorist without an ideology, such as Salih Khater. On Aug. 14, 2018, he drove his car into pedestrians outside the Houses of Parliament. Coming more than a year after Khalid Masood launched a similar attack near the same location, the attack set London on edge again.

In sentencing Mr. Khater, Justice Maura McGowan concluded that he had committed a terrorist act, but she couldn’t identify a clear ideology he was advancing: “You replicated the acts of others who undoubtedly have acted with terrorist motives. You deliberately copied those others. . . . You have never explained your actions and have not given any account, before or today, that is capable of dissuading me from drawing the conclusion that this offending had a terrorist connection.”

In a growing number of terrorism cases, ideology is at best an appendage to an act of planned, performative violence. These terrorists are people driven by personal demons or interactions on chat forums or online communities, people with social disorders or mental-health issues, or people with a desire to make statements in a world on which they have failed to make an impression.

Where was Baghdadi in Mr. Khater’s attempted car-ramming attack and others like it? In this new age of terror, ISIS provided only the background idea by popularizing the method of driving cars into pedestrians. The group generated the meme, or at least helped it become viral, making it easy for others to replicate.

It is too early to dismiss the structured terror of groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS. Undoubtedly other groups, leaders and followers will emerge. But the West is moving into an age of isolated and even meaningless terrorism, an age when leaders contribute more conceptually than tactically. Before long, we may look back through rose-tinted glasses to the time when terrorism was made up of easily comprehensible networks and leaders.

Mr. Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

 

 

More catching up, this one a bit more recently after Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s death over the weekend for the Telegraph.

The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi could make a fragmented Isil more dangerous

Baghdadi

Notwithstanding President Trump’s declarations, Islamic State (Isil) has not been destroyed by the death of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Like most terrorist groups, the organisation is more than its leader.

There are three key questions to consider when considering his death and what it means for Isil and terrorist threats more broadly.

The most immediate concern will be the army of fanboys that exist around the group and its ideology across the world. For some of these isolated individuals, his death might read as the moment at which they should leap into action to conduct a terrorist atrocity.

The group will undoubtedly claim these attacks as planned revenge, when in reality they are at best opportunistic. But given the growing preponderance of copycat incidents after major terrorist events, it is going to be a major preoccupation of security forces around the world.

For Isil, the question will be whether the group can continue to maintain its coherence in the absence of its iconic leader who led them at their most totemic moment. He may not have had the same personal charisma and back story as Osama bin Laden, but he was the significant figure when the group was at its apex.

This kept the group coherent under him. In his absence there will be a question about whether his successor can maintain this narrative.

The danger will be fragmentation among the regional affiliates who may decide to now re-prioritise their local concerns over the group’s globalist agenda.

But a greater question might exist between the group’s Syrian and Iraqi followers.  Isil is a group made up of Iraqis who took advantage of the conflict in Syria to grow and expand. As they grew in Syria, more locals flocked to their cause.

Over time this will have created two groups who were driven together by the joint cause of building a Levantine (and global) caliphate led by Baghdadi, their longstanding leader. His removal might precipitate a clash between the two groups which might lead it to fragment as the Syrian or Iraqi factions disagree over where they should focus their attention.

This fragmentation might make it more dangerous. Historically, the removal of terrorist leaders gives rise to eager pretenders who use dramatic violence to announce their arrival and eclipse their predecessor. It can also lead to in-fighting which can have a knock on effect on their environment.

At the same time, his removal might raise some interesting questions about Isil more broadly and its historical conflicts with al-Qaeda and other groups in Syria.

Some early commentary by jihadist groups who were against Isil on the ground in Syria suggests they are dancing on his grave and mocking his group. But cooler heads might prevail at a strategic level and try to use this as an opportunity to forge a rapprochement between the two groups in some way.

Lots of death and bad blood between Isil and al-Qaeda stands between this potential outcome, but the death of a significant leader like this does potentially change the dynamic in such a way that might create an opportunity for a renewed alliance or agreement between the two groups.

Whatever the case, Baghdadi’s death is undoubtedly a victory for the West. It may be cliché to say that it does not mean the end of Isil, but it is certainly a successful strike and further evidence of the importance of maintaining a strong war of attrition against such groups.