Archive for the ‘Evening Standard’ Category

Another short piece for the Evening Standard this past week after the anniversary of the Westminster attack and also linking the general strategy of asymmetry done by terrorists to that being deployed by Russia.

A careful but firm response is the way to stop attackers

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It is a year to the day since the murderous terrorist rampage that killed four innocent bystanders and a brave police officer in Westminster. The news is now dominated by a different menace. The attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter (which caught another policeman in its wake) is different in origin but similar in intent. Both involve an attempt to undermine our society by striking at soft targets through violence. We need to be firm in our response, but not rise to the bait and do our enemies’ jobs for them.

Though it may not feel like it, our security services are strong: and those who try to attack us know it. They fear an overwhelming response were they to launch a full military attack and, in the case of terror, their efforts are defeated, though at a terrible human cost. They are weak. But they aim to exploit divisions in our society, and how we respond affects our success in defeating them.

Individual terrorist motives are hard to understand but the overarching point of attacks is to awaken us to conflicts that those involved believe are already happening. Adversaries are eager to try to pry apart our alliances and undermine faith in our security.

While it is impossible for us to stop people taking aim at us, we can make sure that we do not play into their hands by doing their jobs for them. Exaggerated rhetoric in response to risk is exactly what they want.

Both terrorism and Russia pose dangers. But these threats have to be managed, and not made worse, rather than eradicated. This is not an admission of defeat. We will have to sustain some relationship with Russia in the longer term, though Moscow is gearing towards continued confrontation. But there are others there who do want to engage with us and we need to find ways of strengthening our links with them.

Terrorism, unfortunately, is a constant within our societies, and one that will be made worse if we respond with rhetoric that talks up the divisions and strengthens the claims of extremist groups. They think they are fighting a religious clash of civilisations — if we respond in similar terms, we risk making the very case they are advancing.

A year on from the Westminster attack, it feels as though the terrorist threat has calmed down to some extent. After a terrible year, security agencies appear to have been successful and arrests and attacks has slowed.

It has become something of a cliché to talk about standing strong in the face of terrorism and praising British resolve. Yet this is the best response to attacks which, while hideously damaging to those caught in the crossfire, are not going to bring our societies crashing down — unless we do our adversaries’ jobs for them and inflame the very fissures they are trying to pull apart.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute.

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A short piece in London’s Evening Standard yesterday about the announcement over the weekend of China scrapping the rule that Presidents only stay in power for two terms. Over the weekend, spoke to Sunday Times about the West London cluster of jihadis that fought along ISIS which included the infamous Jihadi John and his friends.

China is sending a message that it is a power on the world stage

People walk past a poster of Chinese President Xi Jinping on a street in Beijing  AFP/Getty Images

In a move that has resonated quietly around the world, the Chinese Communist Party has announced that it is changing the laws on the length of term that presidents can sit in China. Widely interpreted as an indication that current leader Xi Jinping is setting the table to stay on beyond his current term, the reality is that we still do not have any clear idea about what this will mean.

Are we seeing the rise of Xi the forever leader? A reflection of the state of chaos that China sees in leadership around the world? Or something else altogether? What is clear is that from being driven by Deng Xiaoping’s modest maxim of “hide our capacities and bide our time”, China is becoming an increasingly confident power that feels little need to adhere to others’ views of how it should be governed.

Speculation around the change in Beijing has focused on the more ominous potential the amendment suggests. Comparisons have been made with Russia’s President Putin or other leaders who have changed legislation in order to stay in power beyond constitutionally determined terms. But this would be at odds with the leader we have seen so far.

By strengthening his position, Xi is, however, sending a strong message to the rest of the world. A China that is led by a confident leadership is a potent force on the world stage. With China having about a sixth of the world’s population, growing economic might, a steadily increasing military presence and a soft power influence that is raising its global profile, the next decade is one that is going to be increasingly defined by whoever is in power in Beijing.

This calls for a clear and coherent response — something that is not always evident in London. While the Prime Minister’s recent visit to Beijing went smoothly, it was a long-delayed trip, a casualty of the current political difficulties London faces with Brexit. Yet the world is not going to wait for Brexit. Rather it is going to move onwards and upwards, and the consolidation in power in Beijing is a reflection of where it is heading.

China’s leadership and what that leadership wants is going to be one of driving forces behind the global order of the next few decades. In order adequately to respond, London needs to develop a clear, coherent and consistent strategy towards China. Whether this one of greater confrontation or greater co-operation is up to Downing Street, but a clear path needs to be laid now. Beijing is showing the route it is going to take; now London and the world need to respond.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI)

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

Low-level plots like Parsons Green need even more vigilance


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A final piece after a busy week, this time in a first time for London’s Evening Standard. A somewhat downbeat piece, part of a series like this over the week that try to take a longer view on the current threat picture. Undoubtedly, there will be more on this topic to come.

Spoke to a few media outlets over the past few weeks. To Politico about al Muhajiroun after the London Bridge attack, to the National about the disrupted Sydney airplane plot, to Newsweek about Israel’s views on the war in Syria, and to ABC, ITV, New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian and the Globe and Mail about the Barcelona attacks.

Using vehicles in crowded streets is a desperate tactic by fanatics struggling to make a lasting impact

High alert: Spanish police patrol the streets of Barcelona the morning after the vehicle attack which killed 13 people
High alert: Spanish police patrol the streets of Barcelona the morning after the vehicle attack which killed 13 people Getty Images

A balmy summer’s evening once again disrupted by terrorism. Tourists mowed down as they enjoy their well-deserved holidays. The incidents in Las Ramblas, Barcelona, and later in the seaside resort of Cambrils — and the wider network that is being uncovered around it — reminds us once again of the threat from international terrorism that European cities face. It is only two months since London faced its last attack. It is unlikely that this will be the last.

Given that launching an “IS-style” attack is as easy as getting a knife or car and attacking random citizens, suddenly the group has sanctioned a vast range of potential activities. For the perpetrators this model is deeply appealing as it will elevate them from being individuals simply stabbing or driving people down to a holy warrior advancing a global cause. This is a classic win-win, with the organisation and individual benefiting from the atrocity without any particular demonstration of connection beyond the individual having possibly read the group’s material online at some point.

But in this case, the other incidents that authorities have confirmed, including the deaths of five men in Cambrils who were reportedly wearing fake suicide vests and a number of other arrests, suggest something more substantial. This could be IS, which has claimed responsibility, though it could also be al Qaeda or some other network — Barcelona, it is worth remembering, was the focus of a plot in January 2008 when a cell connected to the Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was believed to be planning a suicide bomb attack on the city’s metro using perpetrators sent from Pakistan.

Yet it is not clear that it really matters any more who is responsible for such acts. Jihadist groups may have some sectarian and leadership differences but seen from the victims’ perspective they are all the same. The point is that terrorist groups are substantial and consistent in their desire to launch attacks against us. There is no actual dichotomy within IS or any terrorist group about launching either small-scale or large-scale attacks. These groups are dedicated to their cause and will do whatever they can deliver their brutal message to us. For them, launching small-scale attacks does not mean stopping attempting larger ones. From the security perspective, the appearance of more lower level-style attacks suggests a degree of success by security agencies as it suggests it has become too difficult to get bigger plots through.

Second attack: Armed police in Cambrils following a second attack in Spain (EPA)

Understanding attribution when it comes to the so-called Islamic State is not as easy as it sounds. The group has made an art out of spreading its extremist ideas and very basic attack methodologies as widely as possible. This means there are often terrorist attacks where individuals will launch an attack model emulating what is widely perceived as “IS-style”, without demonstrating any particular link to the group, and yet at the same time the group will claim them.

Al Qaeda first advocated the notion of using a car in mowing down the public in the October 2010 edition of its magazine Inspire. This methodology was in fact considered too much for the al Qaeda leadership, with Osama bin Laden reportedly reading the magazine in disgust and telling other acolytes that he did not consider this “proper terrorism”. Yet the methodology stuck in its simplicity, and while we saw a number of attempted or semi-attempted attacks deploying it, it was in Nice last year that its success was crystalised. The extremists leapt on this idea and issued repeated declarations in advance of this style of attack.

The difficulty for terrorist groups, however, is that as we see this patter of small-scale attacks become more regular, they will lose impact among the public. Clearly, individuals who have suffered directly in such incidents will never be the same after seeing such an incident close up. The sheer brutality of watching random fellow citizens mown down by a truck or stabbed in front of you will leave unspeakable psychological damage.

Armed police officers patrol a deserted street in Las Ramblas, in Barcelona, on Friday morning. (AP)

But while the individual may suffer, society overall will move on. And over time, lose interest in such atrocities. This is not a reflection of a lack of humanity but rather of the fact that for terrorism to be effective it must be shocking so the low-level campaign being waged now will lose its impact, something that will make individuals question whether they are willing to sacrifice themselves for this cause. Undoubtedly some still will, but increasingly this will be confused and damaged individuals whose ideological purity will be limited, and therefore will prove to be poor carriers of the extremist message that groups such as al Qaeda or IS are seeking to deliver.

This suggests that there is an end in sight for this style of attack. While it is doubtful that it will ever completely disappear (its simplicity suggests it will always prove to be a last resort for desperate individuals), it is also likely that we will see groups pushing towards more targeted or sophisticated efforts to re-assert their authority and deliver their message in a coherent fashion.

None of this will, of course, change the misery wrought in Barcelona. Terrorism has been a feature of organised human society for a long time — in Spain, prior to the current wave of Islamist terrorism, the separatist group ETA murdered hundreds in a campaign that lasted decades. But it is not clear that this path is sustainable for the terrorist organisations. While it provides a useful way of distracting security services and raising a cause, with limited broader public effect it is not advancing a strategic goal.

This ultimately is what terrorist groups are seeking to do: change the world and persuade us all of their message. If they cannot do this, they will fade away as supporters lose interest in such a clearly losing cause.

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