Archive for the ‘Newsweek’ Category

New piece for Newsweek looking at the potential threat from ISIS post-Mosul (which has still not yet fallen). The piece was actually drafted a little while ago, but took some time to land. Separately, spoke to Politico about Italy’s approach to counter-terrorism and a presentation at a UK Foreign Office conference got picked up. Finally, my piece for the Financial Times Beyond BRICS blog got picked up and translated into 中文 for those who can read it.

How Big is the Threat to Europe from Jihadis Fleeing Mosul?

10_30_mosul_01Members of the Iraqi special forces police unit fire their weapons at Islamic State fighters in al-Shura, south of Mosul, Iraq October 29.  GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS

There is a presumption that the fall of Mosul will result in a surge in attacks and terrorism back in the West. Europe in particular feels like it is in the group’s crosshairs, with the refugee flow potentially masking a threat that will only magnify as the group loses territory on the battlefield in Iraq and more fighters want to leave the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). But this presumption is based on a potentially flawed set of assumptions about what will happen next and an understanding of how the terrorist threat has been evolving. Europe may face some terrorist incidents linked to a failing ISIS or other groups, but this threat is likely to simply continue much as before. It is unclear why ISIS would have waited until now to launch a surge of attacks.

Historically speaking it is hard to know where to look for a comparison with what we see happening in Iraq, and therefore what a precedent might look like. The most obvious comparison is the conflict in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. In wake of Moscow’s defeat, there was a chaotic situation in Afghanistan from which a flow of trained and ideologically motivated revolutionary warriors headed around the world. This produced extremist networks that expressed themselves in attacks for years to come under the banner of Al-Qaeda as well as insurgencies and civil wars in North Africa.

Yet this comparison is not completely accurate for the case of ISIS post-Mosul. The group may be losing one its major cities, but it still has a battlefield in Syria into which it can flow. Its territory there may be in retraction, but even if it loses it, the ungoverned spaces in the country mean it will be impossible to completely eradicate. And to look at a micro-level the individual fighters may make a varied set of choices: some may try to head home; some may seek other battlefields to continue the revolution; and yet others may simply change sides and continue to fight against the Assad regime under a different banner.

But more convincing still is the question of why the group would wait until now to mount some sort of attack. The Paris and Brussels attacks showed the group’s capability and intention, and a number of subsequently disrupted plots show the group has been persistently trying, but so far seems to have failed to deliver any more blows. Instead, it has resorted to stirring plots from afar in the form of young people directed through encrypted communications to launch shocking low-tech plots. Some, like the murder of Jacques Harmel in Rouen, worked, while others, like the attempted attack outside Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, failed. And while a lot of these appear to be in France (and in that particular set of cases, directed by the same Rachid Kassim), there have been incidents in Australia, Germany, Indonesia and the U.K. that have similarities.

All of this suggests that the group is having difficulty pulling off another large-scale spectacular like Paris or Brussels, and is having to resort to instigating things from a distance. These can be equally atrocious and it is not, of course, impossible something large might still get through, but it is a question as to why the group would have waited until now to launch such an attack.

During Ramadan, the highly significant moment in the Islamic calendar that historically has been a depressing magnet for terrorist atrocities, the horrors the group was able to muster were a brutal bombing in Baghdad, alongside an attack on Istanbul’s international airport. Horrors, yes, but in countries where they had substantial presence and ability to launch attacks—clearly something that they were unable at that moment to pull off in Europe.

Why the group is encountering this difficulty is likely a product of a number of things. In the first instance, it is clear that one of the attractions of the group was its success and strength on the battlefield. As this has waned, the number of those attracted has gone down. Second, coordination among security and intelligence agencies has likely gotten better; while there are still clear problems within some countries and coordination between their various security forces, they have also learned over time. Which of these is preeminent is unclear, but both will have an impact on the flow of fighters.

This is not to downplay the potential threat. One of the under-explored problems is the question of what to do with blocked travelers. As security authorities have faced the threat of terrorism from the battlefield in Syria and Iraq, they have learned and developed a deeper understanding of the nature of the threat and the networks getting people there. This has led to a growing number of people being prevented from traveling. The dilemma, however, is what to do with them then. In many cases, these are individuals who are motivated enough to want to go and fight, but find themselves abruptly unable to. This pent-up frustration can express itself in violence as people feel they want to do something, but are incapable of doing it. A number of attacks around the world have been linked to this phenomenon, including incidents in Canada, Australia, and France. This aspect of the threat may become larger as time goes on and the group becomes more inaccessible, while trying to stir people on further, but again, this is a trend that has been underway for some time already and it is not entirely clear why people would be more keen to do something for a group that was in recession.

Of greater concern instead is the potential ramifications to terrorist networks in third countries, like parts of southeast Asia, central Asia, the Middle East or north Africa. While forces in some of these countries are also improving, this has not been uniform and some notable gaps remain. In these places, the relatively easier trip may mean more decide to head home (rather than seek other battlefields or change sides in Syria) and this could produce instability and attacks.

ISIS’s potential loss of Mosul is going to prove a significant moment for the group. But the threat from it is unlikely to change abruptly. Rather, the threat is likely to mutate and evolve, continuing to be a part of the fabric of the terrorist threat the world faces for some time to come.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and author of We Love Death as You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists.

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Catching up on posting late again, this time an article for Newsweek looking at why the UK has not yet faced an attack in the current wave we see sweeping across Europe.

How Long Will the UK be Spared an Extremist Attack?

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The United Kingdom threat level from international terrorism is currently set at “severe.” This means that the security and intelligence agencies believe that “an attack is highly likely.” It has been at this level since August 2014 when it was raised in response to developments in Iraq and Syria including the increased number of foreign fighters travelling to the Middle East from Britain and Europe. Since then we have seen the extremist threats in Europe mature and become more acute, while the U.K. has so far been spared an attack.

It is difficult to know why that is the case. It could be thanks to effective efforts by security and intelligence agencies, or it could be because the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), Al-Qaeda or other groups do not currently have the capacity to launch an attack on British soil. It is known that ISIS would like to launch attacks in the U.K.—aside from European returnees from the group such as the British former militant Harry Sarfo telling us, there is also the question of the links to the U.K. of the network that carried out the Paris Attacks on November 13 2015, as well as the regular appearance of British imagery in ISIS videos. The U.K. is seen as one of the key western powers that are fighting the group, and striking it would be an attractive option.

So far, the threat picture has been quite disparate. There have been plots that appear to show evidence of some external direction and coordination, others in which individuals appear to be working in conjunction with contacts abroad including the infamous ISIS hacker and recruiter Junaid Hussain, and plots which appear more in the lone wolf mold.

In the wake of the current spate of incidents in France and Germany, it is clear that intelligence agencies and police forces in the U.K. will be ramping up their capability. The use of new—and very basic—methodologies like a truck to run down crowds, will lead to a re-think on how best to prepare and conceptualize against such an attack. One solution is to build more heavy street furniture like bollards that prevent vehicles from driving on pavements.

The tactic of publicly decapitating someone has already been seen in Britain, with the murder of the soldier Lee Rigby in 2013. It was also mooted even earlier in 2006 when a man named Parviz Khan planned to kidnap and decapitate on video an off-duty British soldier. Security forces are alert to this threat, and beyond raising concerns among a larger community—with religious establishments now an even bigger target than before—there is not a huge amount that can be done. Synagogues have had security guards for some time, and they have started to appear at some mosques, but it is unlikely that we will see them at every religious establishment in Britain.

The biggest lesson to be drawn from the current spate of attacks is the contagious nature of this phenomenon.This is not a new phenomenon—when dramatic extremist incidents take place, they tend to generate copycat attacks—success breeds emulation. The British reaction should be to try to understand better how these events are triggered and to identify those plotting similar attacks in the U.K.

British authorities will also be exploring the implications of the fact that the 19-year-old who attacked the priest in Rouen was already on the security services radar, was subject to some form of electronic tagging and had already been incarcerated. The fact that an individual who tried to travel to Syria twice was not considered a priority case either suggests that the system in France is dangerously overloaded, or that the question of correct prioritization remains a concern. This is something all intelligence agencies face. In a world of incomplete information, multiple potential threats and targets and limited resources, prioritization is essential. Choices are made on the basis of available information and this means some individuals are given less attention. In this case, as with the Charlie Hebdo shooters and the Lee Rigby murderers, the decision was made to pay less attention to the eventual terrorists than others on watch lists because their activity did not seem to merit it. This question of who to focus on is a continual problem for the intelligence services and this particular failure will undoubtedly make British agencies re-consider some of their approach.

Greater attention will also be paid to reforming the U.K.’s existing Terrorist Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs) system. So far a number of people on them have been able to abscond to Syria, though fortunately none have launched attacks like that seen in Rouen. The latest incident has shown what failure can look like, and making sure similar slips do not occur in the U.K. is going to be a priority.

While Britain has been lucky so far, the intent by groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda continues to cause serious concern. The U.K. has at least 800 foreign fighters who went to Syria and Iraq, and has a constituency of radicalized individuals at home who support ISIS. Lone wolf attacks can occur at any time, in any place and no security service has yet found the perfect solution to counter them. While some practical realities are different—the ease of access to high powered weapons for example or the completely open borders—between the U.K. and Continental Europe, as the Nice and Rouen attack showed you do not need a sophisticated weapon to cause a successful high profile incident, and it is not always clear if closed borders would have stopped anything.

Currently, British security services will be focused on supporting their continental counterparts who are facing a particularly acute threat that could still be escalating. Until we know more about the trajectory of this wave of attacks, it will be difficult to know why the U.K. has been fortunate so far been spared.

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

It has been a pretty crazy moment, with all sorts of chaos raising its head in the wake of the Brexit decision. Have had a couple of pieces out on the topic, mostly focused on the narrow security threat aspect of it which it doesn’t strike me will change a huge amount. Here is the first of a couple of pieces on the topic for Newsweek.

How Brexit Could Strengthen ISIS’s Message of Hate

Xenophobia and the far right may be the biggest threat to security and could boost ISIS.

BY  ON 6/28/16 AT 6:47 PM

Paris attacks Eiffel Tower
A French soldier enforcing the Vigipirate plan, France’s national security alert system, is pictured on November 18, 2015 in Paris in front of the Eiffel Tower, which is illuminated with the colors of the French national flag in tribute to the victims of the November 13 Paris attacks.JOEL SAGET/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Brexit has changed the European landscape overnight. Among the many questions and issues raised during the campaign was the potential for the vote to change the U.K.’s domestic security situation, in particular in response to the menacing threat of international terrorism. The reality is that in the wake of the vote, very little will change.

Many of the practical questions around counter-terrorism and national security had remained the domain of member states. This is not to say, however, that nothing will change—outside the EU, the U.K. will end up finding itself less able to influence and participate in European conversations that are ultimately focused on common threats. And there is the danger that the social tensions that the Brexit vote may exacerbate will spread across the Union and become a destabilizing force that will accelerate processes of disenfranchisement and radicalisation.

Subscribe now – Free phone/tablet charger worth over $60The fundamental question of intelligence sharing to address common threats is unlikely to change. Security agencies across the European continent have a close set of links that go far beyond the political tensions we are currently seeing playing out. All face a common threat from international extremist groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda and are focused on disrupting and destroying it.

The U.K. in particular is perceived as a power that contributes greatly to this fight in terms of practical information and intelligence, as well as strategic thinking about how to deal with such threats. This is unlikely to change in the short to medium term. All are continuing to face the same threats and are focused on protecting life and disrupting terrorist networks, and therefore information sharing and practical information will continue to flow.

The negative side of the equation comes in with the potential loss of U.K. support and leadership in the emergent conversation about greater integration and the development of joint security functions. Europe has long benefited from British support and leadership on the topic of threats, with many looking to the U.K.’s CONTEST framework as a structure that they have tried to emulate in parts.

Similarly, the U.K.’s efforts on strategic communications to counter terrorism, and their support for Europol  both point to a leadership role that others will have to step into. It also means the U.K. will have a more limited ability to influence the debate and direction of these initiatives in Europe, a place which will remain of key strategic importance to the U.K.

But in many ways, the practicalities of mitigating common threats will continue to drive the U.K. to cooperate with European partners where necessary. Intelligence sharing will undoubtedly continue as appropriate, and we will continue to see joint operations to disrupt terrorist networks. Notwithstanding a certain level of awkwardness that might slip into some of these discussions and the practicalities that might be imposed if vehicles like the European Arrest Warrant are suspended with the U.K., security forces and agencies across the continent will continue to work together to counter these threats together.

There are also unintended and unpredictable security consequences, however. In the first instance, we have seen how there has both been a rise in xenophobic narratives and violence in the U.K. as well as a strengthening of far-right parties across the continent in the wake of the Brexit vote. These tensions may escalate into violence—creating a context where extreme right-wing terrorist groups may thrive. This is something that will not only exacerbate social tensions further, lead to possible deaths and a new threat for security agencies to deal with, but will also strengthen of the ‘clash of civilizations’ narratives that sit at the heart of ISIS and al Qaeda’s views of the world.

And finally, it is going to take many years to fully understand the consequences to the U.K.’s global security position in the wake of Brexit. In a world of growing superpowers, the U.K. has taken a step back from a potentially emergent one. Notwithstanding whatever agreement that might be reached between the U.K. and its European partners to understand what Brexit looks like in practice, the damage in some ways is done, and we have now seen the limits of pan-European cooperation and discussion. This will undoubtedly damage the bloc on the world’s stage and it will take some time for the full resonance or meaning of this to play out.

Ultimately, the practical security questions that trouble individual member states are unlikely to be damaged by Brexit, though the potential for social tensions to become exacerbated and lead to violence is going to be a growing concern. The bigger strategic questions about the future of Europe in the world and a common European security identity is going to come increasingly under question and face greater difficulties in a world that continues to have major strategic threats and dangers confronting it.

The question now is how both the remnant EU and the U.K. find ways of moving through this crisis as global players, rather than retrenching their attentions back home and becoming consumed by the hugely complex internal politics that have been thrown up by the Brexit crisis. For European security to be assured, the continent needs confident, strong and coordinated approaches to the world—be this under EU, NATO or other auspices.

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

A brief reaction piece for Newsweek after Salah Abdeslam’s arrest in Molenbeek on Friday. The broader story of ISIS in Europe is going to continue to be an issue and undoubtedly more on this to sadly come.

Paris Attacks: Arrest of Salah Abdeslam Does Not Reduce ISIS Threat

By On 3/19/16 at 1:56 PM

cops in Molenbeek

The arrest of Salah Abdeslam is undoubtedly a success for Belgian and French security authorities. His live capture will provide intelligence agencies with a wealth of information, while his eventual trial will go some way to providing the victims of the Paris attacks with justice and closure. However, his arrest in a district of Brussels only a few hours from the scene of the attack almost four months later will undoubtedly raise questions about how one of Europe’s most wanted men could evade capture for so long. For Belgian and French authorities, success has to be tempered by the reality of the threat they are facing that continues to clearly have deep roots into their communities pointing to a long war in which Abdeslam’s arrest is a battlefield victory.

Since the Paris attacks last November, Belgian and French authorities have been in an aggressive arrest and disrupt mode. Hundreds of arrests and raids have been carried out as authorities in both countries sought to roll up the networks around the Paris attackers as well as ISIS sympathetic communities. The numbers of arrests, weapons found and individuals detained point to a negative picture in the two countries. This was brought vividly to life last month in a BBC interview with German convert and former ISIS video star Harry Sarfo from prison. He reported how his ISIS interlocutors told him: “they have people in France and Belgium. They’ve said that France is easy for them, cause they have enough people who live in France undercover with clean records.”

The interview highlights the size of the networks that French and Belgian authorities are facing. Within this context, it is therefore somewhat unsurprising that Abdeslam would choose to go to ground in this environment. One that he knows well, and one that clearly has a web of supportive figures and locations that he can call on to help him evade one of Europe’s largest manhunts. Molenbeek in particular is a longstanding location of concern, with terrorist plots emanating from the district from before September 11, 2001.

There are further questions about why Abdeslam did not die in the Paris attacks. This likely failure may point to why he did not immediately flee to the Levant. Aside from the difficulties in getting across the continent with the intense intelligence attention in the wake of the Paris attacks, it is also possible that he was not meant to survive and his possible joining of ISIS in Syria would have raised questions with the group. Was he a spy sent by Western intelligence? Had he been meant to survive, the group would likely have had a plan for his arrival to trumpet his evasion from authorities as another example of the group’s strength and power.

Instead, he has now been captured by Belgian authorities in an investigation that has highlighted the depth of the problem that is faced in the country. The raids in Forest outside Brussels in the week prior to Adbeslam’s arrest uncovered a further cell of individuals armed with an AK-47 and ample ammunition who went down fighting with authorities rather than timidly handing themselves in. Alongside these raids, the discovery of a cell of four in Paris allegedly plotting an attack earlier in the week points to how active continental terrorist networks are.

In the face of this threat, France and Belgium (and other European partners) have mobilized a massive response. In the wake of the Paris attacks, a number of high-profile scares in Germany showed the level of concern of a possible attack there, while British authorities continue to warn of the possibility of an attack at home. Most recently, Mark Rowley, the British Metropolitan Police’s assistant commissioner and head of counter-terrorism command in London, talking about the threat from ISIS, stated: “you see a terrorist group which has big ambitions for enormous and spectacular attacks, not just the types that we’ve seen foiled to date.”

It is unlikely that the arrest of Abdeslam will generate a reactive plot. The issues around whether he was meant to survive the plot will mean it is uncertain the group would want to champion him in such a fashion. The fact he was arrested hiding with a network that included Mohammed Belkaid, a 35 year-old Algerian whose details had appeared as an aspirant suicide bomber in the ISIS files that were leaked a few weeks ago, nevertheless suggests that the networks in Belgium had not completely disassociated themselves from him. But it would be out of sorts for them to launch a reactive attack in such a fashion.

This does not, however, diminish the threat from the group in Europe. The live arrest and subsequent interrogation of Abdeslam is likely to generate numerous leads for authorities that will concern others in Europe’s ISIS networks. This may lead to an acceleration of plots currently being formulated to get under way prior to their possible disruption. It may also lead to an exodus of people who fear detention and decide to head back to the relative safety of ISIS territory in the Levant.

Given the intense attention that the network around the Paris attackers had faced in the past few months, however, it is not necessarily likely that any of this is particularly new. And while there is undoubtedly some concern about who it is that Abdeslam might now compromise, the reality is that ISIS had already been seeking other ways to launch attacks in Europe. While European agencies will undoubtedly bask somewhat in the successful live detention of one of the Paris attackers, the reality is most are bracing themselves for the next possible attack.

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 Terrorists. Follow him @raffpantucci.

 

It has been a quiet holiday period so far, though I kept busy catching up on work and doing a couple of solicited op-eds. This first one was in response to the British Defence Secretary’s announcement of the deployment of more British forces to help Nigeria fight Boko Haram for Newsweek. Another out later in the week on something else. Also, spoke to the Guardian about recent events in Afghanistan and a long ago interview with Washington Post finally emerged in this great overview of Chinese relations with Central Asia and what this means for the Sino-Russian relationship by Simon Denyer.

Britain’s Support Could Be Key To Beating Boko Haram

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Prime Minister David Cameron, left, shakes hands with Nigeria’s then-President-elect Muhammadu Buhari in London, England, May 23. The U.K. has promised to double its deployment of military personnel to Nigeria to help with the fight against Boko Haram. Neil Hall / Reuters

 

Back in March, Nigeria’s Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). The announcement was met with concern both in terms of what this meant about ISIS’ global spread, but also what it might mean for one of Africa’s most brutal terrorist groups. In reality, very little changed, with the exception that Boko’s media output professionalized somewhat. What the declaration highlighted, however, was the group’s persistence as a feature of the international terrorist landscape, and how clearly more needed to be done to counter the group.On December 21, the U.K. showed its commitment to this goal with the announcement that it would increase its deployment of soldiers to 300 to support Nigeria’s fight against the group. Taken against a backdrop of increasing deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq and potentially Syria, the U.K. can appear to be spreading itself very thin, but in reality the approach being undertaken in Nigeria is likely the most sensible way for outside powers to play a role in countering regional terrorist groups.Boko Haram is unlikely to develop into a direct threat to the British mainland. It can never be discounted that individuals somehow linked to the group might end up becoming involved in plotting in the U.K., but the threat from the group is far more pronounced regionally. Born out of a longstanding tension between north and south Nigeria, blended with local tribal differences and with an overlay of violent international Islamist ideology, Boko Haram is a product of local history narratives being co-opted by adopting a global ideology.

Given the U.K.’s strong historical links to the region, it makes sense that Britain would see the fight against Boko Haram as an important foreign policy priority. The deployment of forces to act as trainers for the Nigerian authorities is the most logical contribution to make. Ultimately, the U.K. does not have the necessary forces to deploy in substantial numbers to operate on the ground and eradicate the group, and, in any case, it is not clear that this would be the most effective way to deal with the militants.International terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda or ISIS have attempted to reach out to the group to support it, but have encountered problems in trying to operate in Nigeria. Notwithstanding this, Boko Haram has developed links with other regional terror organizations (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Somalia’s Al-Shabab), though this is usually instigated by the group seeking connections and training outside its borders. It has also increasingly demonstrated an interest in launching attacks across Nigeria’s borders in Cameroon, Niger and Chad. This is where the biggest threat from the group lies: What was at first a local northeastern Nigerian problem is slowly developing into a regional menace.

As with many conflicts dealing with groups that are born out of local problems with an international ideology overlaid on top, the reality is that the fundamental causes for the group’s existence are only ones that local forces and politicians will be able to properly deal with. An external force may be able to provide some support and play a role in eliminating key leaders or disrupting networks, but this is merely managing the problem.

To deal with the underlying issues that Boko Haram is able to feed off for its support, the Nigerian government will have to find ways of alleviating the gross inequalities that exist between the north and south of the country and the longstanding tensions that exist between different tribal communities in Nigeria. Additionally, it will now have to find ways of working with neighboring powers to ensure that the problem is one that is contained and eliminated, rather than simply displaced across borders.

None of this is something that an outside power like the U.K. will be able to undertake by itself. At best, the U.K. can play a supporting role to local efforts. And this is where the role of trainers is key. Whilst regionally the Nigerian Army has a fairly good reputation, it has faced capability problems—both in terms of funding and equipment, but also corruption and problems with alleged human-rights abuses. The contribution of some British trainers will help not only provide Nigerian forces with a higher degree of professionalism, but also act as a signal of support to the (relatively) new government of Muhammadu Buhari.

More broadly, it is also increasingly the manner in which Western countries will find themselves trying to fight terrorist groups around the world. Rather than sending in ground forces to take and hold territory as an outside force, the effort will be focused on growing a local capability to deal with their own domestic problems. Local forces are more likely to be accepted by the local populations, and will have a more attuned sense of on-the-ground dynamics. This is the approach that has been tried in Afghanistan and is very much the focus of efforts in Iraq and Syria.

Building up local capacity to deal with local problems is the heart of the West’s response to foreign terrorist organizations. But at the same time, as has been seen in Afghanistan recently, it is also not clear that this is always the most effective solution or the degree to which local forces are able to overcome historical tensions to deal with longstanding problems. Whether it proves to be the answer for Nigeria will take time to tell, but by deploying more forces in a training capacity, the U.K. is demonstrating that London thinks it is the best approach.

Raffaello Pantucci is the Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a U.K.-based defense thinktank. He tweets @raffpantucci