Archive for the ‘New Statesman’ Category

Slightly belated piece for the New Statesman to kick the year off looking at ISIS, tries to sketch out what is likely to happen with the group this year. Separately spoke to the Neue Zircher Zeitung about the threat that Germany faced in the context of the broader European threat.

What Islamic State will do in 2017

In retreat across Syria and Iraq, will the newer terror group emulate the strategy honed by al-Qaeda?

ns-isis-2017

Any predictions of Islamic State’s demise are premature. During the surge towards Mosul at the end of last year, commentators repeatedly suggested this marked the beginning of the end for the extremist group. Yet, it still has the ability to launch attacks against its enemies both within Iraq and Syria, but also further afield. These trends are likely to continue, although security forces are increasingly learning how to mitigate the threat the group poses. The risk, however, is that the threat will continue to mutate.

The prospect of IS finding a way to regroup on the ground in Syria and Iraq can’t be ruled out. While Iraqi forces are pursuing a systematic approach to retaking Mosul, it is possible the group will melt into the countryside and wait for attention to shift before surging back. How the Iraqi forces take back the city and whether they provide those in Sunni areas with reassurance over their political future will determine whether IS is able to find a supportive base from which it can rebuild. In Syria, while confusion continues to reign, it will continue to find a way to embed somewhere.

But there is no doubt that the group has lost some of its lustre and power. While there are still some individuals choosing to go and fight alongside the group, the numbers have fallen dramatically. A report in September last year from US intelligence indicated that from a peak of 2,000 a month, only about 50 individuals were assessed as crossing the border each month to go and fight alongside a range of groups including IS in Syria and Iraq.

In fact, the biggest concern is the flow of people back. Foreign fighters disenfranchised by losses on the ground or tired after years of conflict are heading home. Some are no doubt eager to seek a conflict-free life, but others are being sent back to build networks or launch attacks. German authorities believe they disrupted at least two such cells in June and September of last year, linking them to the Paris bombers and unclear whether they were sent back to launch attacks or prepare ground for others. Similarly, Italian intelligence has raised concerns about the return of Balkan jihadists as a threat to Europe, pointing to the believed return to the region of Kosovan IS leader Lavdrim Muhaxheri with somewhere between 300-400 ISIS fighters. They have already been linked to one specific plot against a football game, and suspected of potentially again laying ground for others.

These individuals will join the continuing ranks of “lone wolf” or “failed traveller” attackers that we have seen in Europe and around the world in the past year. In Anis Amri’s attack in Berlin, or the murder of the priest in Rouen, we see individuals who apparently aspired to travel to Syria, failed to do so, and instead perpetrated attacks in Europe. We also see individuals latching on to the group’s violent ideology to launch attacks. This includes Omar Mateen, who butchered 50 in a shooting at an Orlando nightclub which he claimed to be doing on behalf of the group – although no clear link was uncovered. Given the basic methods used and the broad range of targets, it is highly likely that more of these loners (either instigated or self-starting) will emerge to wreak havoc in the coming year.

Finally, it is important to not forget IS affiliates around the world like Boko Haram in Nigeria, IS in Khorasan (Afghanistan), Sinai, Libya, or Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. There has always been some element of scepticism around the legitimacy of the links these groups have to the core operation, with speculation that some of their pledges of allegiance are more an expression of anger at al Qaeda or some other local group. Yet there is usually some evidence to support the association – most prominently with IS core in the Levant acknowledging them in their material. As we see the group’s core shrink in strength, these regional affiliates could rise up to take greater prominence or to take on a greater leadership mantle.

It is also possible that the core group in Syria/Iraq will use these affiliates to launch attacks or re-establish themselves. We have already seen how individuals linked to the Paris attacks were reportedly killed in Libya, and there is growing evidence that IS in Khorasan, the Afghan affiliate, has seen some back and forth of fighters. In future, it is possible that we may see these groups rise up in a more pronounced way. More acute problems might start to emerge from Libya, Afghanistan and Sinai where substantial affiliates appear to operate, or Nigeria, Pakistan or Southeast Asia where there is a more confusing aspect to the ISIS affiliates. There, the degree of strong connection with the core organisation is unclear, with it sometimes seeming that the adoption of the IS banner is rather an expression of local divisions between militant groups. If the pressure on the group in the Levant intensifies over the next year, these groups might look like tempting ways of distracting western security agencies through attacks that cause governments to re-allocate resources away from the Levant and thereby take some pressure off the group’s leadership in Syria and Iraq.

This would emulate al-Qaeda’s strategy. There have been moments historically when the core organisation pushed its affiliates to launch attacks to try to take pressure off the core group. This happened between al-Qaeda core in Pakistan and its Yemeni affiliate between 2003-2009. Similarly, al-Qaeda has realised that sometimes not declaring loud Caliphates and committing public atrocities such as televised beheadings, but instead committing targeted acts of terror and endearing itself to local populations to build support from the ground up, is a more productive way forwards.

How the outside world will react is a further unknown element. Donald Trump has stated he will eliminate the group, but he has not outlined a strategy for how he will achieve this. There is little evidence that the US could do much more than deploy greater force on the ground (whose ultimate goal and success would be unclear). The announced Saudi alliance to counter the group has not so far done a huge amount, and European powers remain secondary players. It is unclear that any country is preparing a Russian-style push with the potential human and political risks attached, meaning we are unlikely to see a dramatic change.

For IS, the conflict they are fighting is a millennial one for God’s greater glory and temporal timelines like our calendar are largely irrelevant. Dramatic events like the loss of cities or leadership figures may change its dynamic, and in some cases significantly degrade its capacity, but are unlikely to eradicate the group. Rather, it will continue to evolve and grow regionally primarily, but also internationally, with attacks against western targets a continuing interest.

Once the war in Syria settles down, and Iraq becomes unified, discussions may be possible about how to eradicate the group, but this is unlikely to take place in the next 12 months given the continuing fighting on the ground in the face of a ceasefire which in any case includes neither IS or al-Qaeda affiliates, meaning another year of the world remaining in state of high alert is likely. Were peace to break out, IS would find itself in a complicated situation, but this would require a very substantial change of situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq. That, unfortunately, looks some way off.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of ‘We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen’

And a final short piece in a latest burst of commentary posting mostly around Mosul, this time for the New Statesman looking a bit more at the history of ISIS.

Battle for Mosul: will this be the end of Islamic State?

The militant group’s grip on power is slipping but it has proved resilient in the past.

fighter-w-gun-mosul

The battle for Mosul is the latest stage in the long struggle to defeat Islamic State. The group has been around since the late 1990s in one form or another, constantly mutating in response to its environment. Undoubtedly its ejection from Mosul will be a significant moment in the group’s history, but it is unlikely to be its final chapter. The destruction of the group will only be complete when some fundamental changes occur within Iraq and the war in Syria comes to an end.

IS’s roots go back to a training camp established by the militant Islamist Abu Musab al Zarqawi in the late 1990s in Herat, Afghanistan. Founded as an army to overthrow the apostate regimes of the Levant, it fled to northern Iraq in the wake of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11 where it re-established itself as a force alongside Ansar al Shariah, a hardline Salafi jihadi organisation.

As American attention shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq, the group was ideally placed to become one of the leading lights in the post-Saddam Iraqi insurgency. Brutally announcing itself to the world in August 2003 with successive attacks on the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, the UN headquarters and a Shia shrine in Najaf — the latter being the deadliest attack in Iraq that year with a death toll of 95 — the group grew to assume the mantle of al-Qaeda in Iraq. By 2006 this brand had become somewhat damaged through the brutal sectarian campaign the group waged, and when its founder, Zarqawi, died it sought to reinvent itself as the Mujahedeen Shura Council. This incarnation did not last long either, and eventually it assumed the title of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), alongside a more Iraqi leadership.

This was the start of a diffcult period in the group’s history. Its excesses in Iraq (including indiscriminate slaughter of Shia Muslims to stir sectarian hatred and filmed decapitations of prisoners) lost it local support and led to the tribes in Sunni Iraq rising up and supporting the government in Baghdad’s fight back against the group. By 2009, when the west abruptly stopped paying attention and withdrew from Iraq the group was largely perceived as in decline, with the Shia Muslim-led Iraqi government appearing to slowly assert itself more effectively across the country.

The terrorist attacks by the group continued. And the new government started to advance an increasingly sectarian agenda. These two played off each other in a downward spiral that was given a fresh boost of blood when the civil war in Syria erupted in 2011. Drawing on its existing networks (that were leftovers from when Syria was used as a staging point by the organisation to launch attacks into Iraq), the leadership sent a cell to Syria to explore what opportunities existed within the emerging fight there. This cell became the seed that grew into Jabhat al Nusrah and ultimately IS – a label the group adopted when in June 2013 IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided it was time to reveal this link between his Iraqi group and Jabhat al Nusrah. This led to divisions and the breaking up of the two organisations.

For IS, however, it was the beginning of an upward trajectory, building on this division to grow itself substantially in Syria (with Raqqa as its capital) and in 2014 taking over Iraq’s second biggest city of Mosul. We then reach the apex of IS’s success and the biggest expansion of the group yet.

It now seems that this growth had a shelf life of just two-and-a-half years. As the group appears to be losing Mosul, it is likely that we will see the beginning of a period of retraction. But this will not be its end – rather, it will flee back to the hills and the ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria from where it will continue a persistent terrorist strategy in both countries. Here it will bide its time until the moment presents itself to rise up. Waiting until the governance in Iraq and Syria fails its people again, the group can paint itself as the protector of Sunnis and once more build on that group’s disenfranchisement to win supporters and occupy a space vacated by local governments.

IS’s grip on power might currently be slipping but as history has shown, it has waxed and waned depending on the context it is operating in. We are now going to see a period of withdrawal, but unless attention is paid by the global community, it will expand again in the future.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Visit his website at http://www.raffaellopantucci.com

Loners to wannabe terrorists

Posted: November 26, 2008 in New Statesman
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A new piece for the New Statesman which starts to explore converts, a project I have been trying to find time to work on myself separately. This is an off-shoot of a bigger thing looking at the phenomenon of converts in UK plots. Any thoughts or reactions on this topic, or pointers to others working on it would be very interesting and welcome.

http://www.newstatesman.com/uk-politics/2008/11/islamic-reilly-cases-found

Loners to wannabe terrorists

Raffaello Pantucci

Published 26 November 2008

In two separate cases, white British loners found acceptance online among Islamic extremists and then attempted to detonate bombs.

A block of flats in Plymouth where Nicky Reilly was thought to have lived.

Presiding Justice Calvert-Smith declared that a twelve month delay on sentencing requested by the defence in the sad case of wannabe suicide bomber Nicky Reilly would not be acceptable last Friday. For many, the conclusion in this case seems to be that it was a one-off situation where extremists took advantage of a person suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome who had a mental age of 10. But while Reilly’s case is the most prominent to have reached the public imagination, thanks to the advanced nature of his plot, there are similarities to be found in other cases in the year preceding Reilly’s attempt.

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A productive set of days. Here’s another one for the New Statesman – again, some of the ideas should feature in a longer piece i need to finish. Also, this draws from a recent workshop we did.

http://www.newstatesman.com/north-america/2008/09/online-release-qaeda-videos

Al Qaeda’s delayed release

Raffaello Pantucci

Published 19 September 2008

Extremist websites are abuzz this week with barely contained rage at the delayed online release by Al Qaeda’s media outlet the As-Sahab Foundation of their annual video celebrating the anniversary of 9/11.

 

Since the atrocities on 11 September 2001 Al Qaeda hasn’t missed the opportunity of an anniversary to celebrate their murderous attacks. Usually a video is released like clockwork on 11 September. It inevitably features an array of Al Qaeda stars like Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri who celebrate the advance of their global jihad to a backdrop of Arabic nasheeds (Islamic songs) and footage from battlefields around the world. The purpose of the release, this year entitled “The Results of Seven Years of the Crusades,” is to show the world and supporters that Al Qaeda is alive and well seven years after its biggest achievement.

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No Template for Terrorists

Posted: September 2, 2008 in New Statesman
Tags: ,

My latest for the NS – am breaking my usual position of writing for them only on American politics, but this seemed like a good outlet for this piece which examines the recently leaked MI5 report that didn’t exactly shock those looking at these issues. Some of the ideas are feeding a bigger project which we are currently pursuing. Any thoughts or reactions welcome!

http://www.newstatesman.com/global-issues/2008/08/society-extremist-individuals 

No template for terrorists

Extremist ideas have taken a much deeper hold in our broader society than we might like to admit, argues Raffaello Pantucci

 

The leaking of an MI5 report on violent extremism in the UK provided official confirmation of a conclusion that may have been all too obvious to someone studying the evolution of Britain’s terrorist threat: there is no “one size fits all” template that can be applied to the homegrown Islamist danger the UK faces.

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Flip-Flopping

Posted: July 7, 2008 in New Statesman
Tags:

My latest in the NS on the US elections. In retrospect, the point could have been made a little harder, but oh well. Still, i do find this almost perverse fixation on the flipflop obnoxious, as naturally people will change their views when they hear new ideas. Irritatingly, i saw after i had written this, that Julian Baggini had done something similar in the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jul/05/1). Back to terrorism next, tho am waiting for it to be published before i put it here.

http://www.newstatesman.com/north-america/2008/07/flip-flop-vote-usa-obama

Flip-flopping

Raffaello Pantucci

Published 07 July 2008

The reality is that the fixation on the “flip flop” is really little more than a catchy phrase that essentially captures what politician’s have been doing for years

 

No sooner than Hillary conceded to Obama then the US presidential campaign got underway in earnest and with it came the usual rampant speculation.

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My latest for the New Statesman about the Obama potential. I see it has already attracted ire, though i thought it was rather placid effort. Ah well.

http://www.newstatesman.com/north-america/2008/06/obama-usa-vote-potential-world

Fixing Bush’s Legacy

Having recently returned to planet earth from a ten day stop-over in Washington, it would appear as though Barack Obama is on the cusp of being a shoo-in not just for the Democratic nomination but for the presidency as well.

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