Archive for the ‘Telegraph’ Category

And finally, a piece from Friday for the Telegraph looking at what to do with the two ISIS Brits who were dubbed ‘the Beatles’ who were reportedly captured by Kurds. This aside spoke to a few media on this, to the World Weekly about ISIS more broadly, the Financial Times about Belt and Road, and finally, the Associated News of India picked up some of my comments from last week on the topic of Belt and Road. Et enfin, pour les lecteurs français, la bande dessinée que j’ai réalisée avec Wes a été traduite en français. Vous pouvez le trouver ici. Thanks again to Wes for his fantastic work on it!

Why returning jihadis need to face real justice – not the torture of Guantanamo Bay

A masked, black-clad militant, who has been identified by the Washington Post newspaper as a Briton named Mohammed Emwazi, brandishes a knife in this still file image from a 2014 video obtained from SITE Intel Group February 26, 2015
‘Jihadi John’s fellow ‘Beatles’ have been captured CREDIT: HANDOUT/REUTERS

What do you do with a terrorist named Ringo? The capture of the final two “Beatles” – four British jihadis jokingly named after the pop group by their peers –  has reopened the question of what should be done with British nationals who have been foreign fighters.

Prior to their capture, this discussion in the UK was largely dominated by various politicians’ statements about how the best outcome with such cases was that they die on the battlefield. This bombastic answer may reflect the easiest outcome, but it should not be the desired intent. Most British people can probably agree that individuals captured alive should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, depending on where they have committed crimes.

The first thing to remember is that not all foreign fighters are the same. Research into radicalisation shows that there are almost as many stories of radicalisation as there are people who radicalise; the same is true of people’s motivations for fighting foreign battlefields.

Some are drawn by ideological and religious motivations, some by a sense of excitement and adventure; others follow a relation or close friend, while others are driven by youthful naivety. Some cases are a combination of all of these motivations, and some for yet other reasons.

On top of this, when looking at a battlefield like Syria which has been dragging on for years, you have to consider the moment at which people went and which group they joined at that moment. Someone fighting alongside Isil in its earliest days was not necessarily joining the same organisation as someone who went in 2014. Stories of people going to Syria to protect the Syrians from their oppressive government are plausible at the start of the war; not so much once Isil came to dominate the situation.

Nor did all those who went out to fight end up doing the same thing. Some arrived, discovered it was not what they thought it would be, and simply came home. Others stayed, embraced what they found and participated in monstrous atrocities. Some were aid workers initially whose views changed once they were on the ground; others were very young and found themselves trapped. Some were born or brought to Isil’s “Caliphate” by fanatical parents who are now dead.

This list of pen portraits is important to bear in mind when we are formulating our response.  Clearly if people have broken laws – if they have fought alongside proscribed terrorist organisations, or committed atrocities – then there have to be consequences. In some cases, this may mean people need to be tried in countries where they have broken the law. The focus should be on what people did, and the case handled in an open court of law.

In some cases, subsequent rehabilitation might be possible, but this should be handled in much the same way as other criminal behaviour is handled. People face up to their crimes, pay their dues to society and then society should be open to welcome them back as long as they do not break the law.

Bending or changing laws to deal with individual cases should certainly not be the norm. And placing people in limbo situations like those still stuck in Guantanamo Bay is not a good idea. Guantanamo was only ever meant to be a stopgap. Instead it became permanent, and has become an enormous headache with no clear resolution. Rather than anyone new getting sent there, people should be handled through courts systems for crimes they have undertaken.

Similarly, it is not clear that passport stripping is dealing with the problem. It may make it harder for people to travel back home, and it may make it easier for authorities to pass the responsibility on to someone else or handle individual cases in different ways, but it also leaves those people out in the world with a grudge against the home country.

So the answer for cases like those of the two captured Beatles is a fairly obvious one. They should suffer the legal consequences of their actions in whichever jurisdiction is appropriate. If they can be linked to criminal activity which the United States Department of Justice can and wants to prosecute, then they should be sent to America and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

For the range of others who have gone to fight from the United Kingdom, each one needs to be dealt with in on a case by case basis. This may produce a long list of headaches for the Crown Prosecution Service, but this is the appropriate response from our country with its proud open and free judicial system.

This approach is not only crucial in bolstering our society and showing everyone is equal under the law, but also undermines the terrorists’ narrative of how capricious our societies are. It also is the exact opposite of the horrendous treatment that those tortured by the Beatles faced.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at Rusi

 

And finally for the new year’s burst, a new piece for the Telegraph which looks more broadly at the threat from terrorism and how it is likely to evolve in the coming year and future.

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Terrorist activity in the UK last year was dominated by a significant shift both in volume of successful incidents, but also their nature. From networked plots, or large-scale attacks directed from abroad, it is now isolated individuals or small cells – some directed, some instigated and some independently latching on to ideologies – that have become the heart of the terrorist threat that the UK faces.

After a period of relative calm with sporadic incidents, in 2017 the country was struck by five terrorist attacks of varying effectiveness. Yet, with the exception of the atrocity in Manchester, it is not clear that any of the plots were products of a larger effort.

Given that it involved three people, the attack near London Bridge in June was by definition a conspiracy, but it is not clear that the perpetrators were being directed by others in launching their attack.

The much vaunted menace from foreign terrorist fighters being sent back from Syria and Iraq has not so far materialized, leaving security forces instead countering this confusing new threat made up of isolated, or loosely connected individuals who use low-tech methods – such as the vehicle and knives used at London Bridge – to seek to murder fellow citizens.

It is often not clear how closely these individuals are genuinely linked to terrorist groups, with mental health or other issues often emerging as the principal driver of action, with the terrorist ideology sometimes an excuse superimposed on top.

This is likely to remain where the core of the threat remains for the immediate future and while groups may attempt to harness the interconnected world, using increasingly creative digital methodologies to try to launch complicated attacks, this will remain difficult to deliver.

Networks require some degree of communication, providing useful fissures which attentive security agencies can take advantage of. The threat of returning foreign fighters will continue to pose a menace, but difficulties of getting back and then organizing will make it hard for groups to rely on them as effective attack vectors.

The lone actor threat has deep roots in the UK, going back to the late-2000s with the separate cases of Andrew Ibrahim and Nicky Reilly in 2008, but what was once considered peripheral has now become central.

This is the result of terrorist groups adapting to security approaches. Unable to get large coordinated plots through, they push individuals, or espouse ideas and methodologies towards lone actor attacks. In addition, we have seen a growing number of people reacting to the loud volume of terrorist ideologies and latching on to them as a way of expressing their anger at society, having at best a fairly limited link or sophisticated understanding of the group for which they purport to be committing terror.

This is likely to continue and become more complex, likely spilling into other ideologies beyond violent Islamism. A by-product of the internet is that people can now develop and advance intense beliefs with a community from the calm of their own homes. Online, they can also connect with others who share these ideas, or develop complicated micro-ideologies.

Pair this with the growing accessibility of fairly dangerous technology and simple attack methodologies, and you have the potential for something shocking to happen.

At the same time, the echo chamber of the internet and an increasingly polarized public conversation has shifted the bounds of what is acceptable for open discourse. This has mainstreamed and escalated some nasty views on foreigners and others in society who do not share the same perspectives as ourselves, giving people with violent inclinations a sense of justification for acting on their impulses.

A huge crowd of people hold placards with photographs of the murdered MP Jo Cox and others saying '#LoveLikeJo'
MP Jo Cox was murdered by a lone operator, with a history of mental health problems, and links to far-right groups  CREDIT: PAUL GROVER FOR THE TELEGRAPH/PAUL GROVER

We have already seen reactive terrorism in the form of the attack on Finsbury Park mosque, the murder of Jo Cox and some of the sectarian murders within the Muslim community – and such acts of violence only serve to inspire others.

Looking forward, the nature of terrorist threat is only going to become more complex as the global picture continues to be upended by demagogic leaders. The world remains an unstable place. The increasingly tense confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran will create problems globally, a resurgent al Qaeda has not given up, and ISIS is seeking out new battlefields to re-establish itself.

The grim roster of attacks over the holiday period – Egypt, Afghanistan and Russia – shows the diversity of locations where ISIS has some resonance, while the full effect of President Trump’s recent moves in Israel are also still to be seen, but are guaranteed to awaken global anger around the Palestinian cause.

And all of this is just to focus on the narrow lens of what is going on in the Middle East; the world is littered with unresolvable problems that might suddenly shock. Just look across the water to Ireland to see how protracted terrorist problems can drag on for generations with little evidence of slowing down or going away.

This all paints a bleak picture at the start of a fresh new year and it is worth stopping a moment to recognize a more positive side. Notwithstanding this past year being a particularly grim one in terms of attacks, the UK has not faced a large-scale atrocity on the scale of the London bombings of July 7, 2005, when 56 people died.

The attacks we have suffered are for the most part of a low calibre, driven by individuals of limited resources and ability. Although, of course, none of this is to reduce their impact and the pain and suffering of every family who has lost someone or seen someone’s life irrevocably changed.

But the changing picture is in part a testament to the effectiveness of the security apparatus that is in place, which – while clearly in need of some adjustment to reflect the changing nature of terrorist activity – has been able to protect us from around 10 attacks this past year.

Terrorism will not go away in 2018 – and it may seem to get worse and more confusing. We need to move forward bearing this grim truth in mind, while all the time focusing on making our societies more resilient against the brutal atrocities terrorists cast at us. This will help insulate us from their success and ensure that they do not achieve their goals of tearing our society apart.

Finally catching up on some very old posting. Here is a piece on China for the Telegraph, was intended after the 19th Party Congress. I will catch up on other posting later.

Can China avoid an armed confrontation with the West?

Chinese soliders

China is moving towards shedding Deng Xiaoping’s famous maxim about hiding its strength and biding its time. President Xi Jinping’s bold statements during his 19th Party Congress speech last week spoke of a China rising to fill its role on the global stage.

The difficult question for the West is: how will this newfound confidence be expressed in China’s posture on the world stage? And how the rest of the world will have to interact with it?

China’s rise as a military and security power is not a new story. From a third-rate military force in the 1980s, the People’s Liberation Army has transformed itself.

Xi Jinping’s administration has stepped this up through an intensive process of reform that is giving it doctrines and approaches that are competitive with some of the world’s most effective militaries.

China is also expanding its military footprint. We can see this from the establishment of new forward bases, like in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, or through port visits, such as the appearance of Chinese submarines in Sri Lanka.

On land, Chinese peacekeepers are being deployed with increasingly dangerous mandates, something reflected in losses on the ground in parts of Africa.

In military sales, China has leapt up the rankings to become the world’s third largest weapons vendor at around $9.1 billion, according to estimates by SIPRI.

But is this surprising? China will soon be one of the world’s largest economies, with investments and interests all around the globe. It makes sense for it to develop a hard power capability to protect its interests and people as they go out under the auspices of Xi Jinping’s keynote “Belt and Road Initiative”, which aims to build a series of land and sea trade routes across Asia.

The dilemma for China is whether this role is one which will complement or compete with the activities of the West – and the United States in particular. The American political scientist Graham Allison believes all rising powers face something called the Thucydides Trap, in which their rapid improvement brings them into inevitable confrontation with an established power which fears replacement.

In reality China’s foreign policy is complex, containing three strands with varying degrees of aggression:

1. China often cooperates with the West

In Afghanistan it has worked closely with the US and Germany on joint training missions, providing training for Afghan security forces, and facilitating negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Kabul. This clearly matches with western interests.

2. China sometimes passively opposes the West

In Syria the US and most of Europe has taken against the Assad regime, against Isil and alongside the Kurdish forces. By contrast, Beijing has thrown its weight firmly behind Assad, and is supporting the fight against Isil only with the proviso that it is ultimately the regime (supported by Russia and Iran) that will bring stability and security back to the country.

The running theme through all of these situations is that China is protecting its own interests. This is quite natural, but an accidental war would be in nobody’s interest. So far, tensions like these re mostly restricted to border countries where China feels it is not being expansionary but merely protecting its homeland.

A bigger dilemma will present itself when China decides to undertake a more aggressive action in some foreign field where it has no direct border dispute but isprotecting its interests or nationals. In this context, what will be the Western response – to support or condemn?

It is not clear we are anywhere near this situation yet, but clearly Beijing has started down a path of preparing itself for such an eventuality. The question at that stage will be whether the West agrees and supports China’s activity, or whether Beijing is seen as an aggressor that requires confrontation.

There is no clean answer to this question. And nor is it clear whether and when it will be faced. But there is no doubt that China is rising as a global power and has a growing military and security footprint to accompany its mighty economic machine. How the world manages this will be one of the defining questions of the next decades.

Further catching up on posting, this time a piece from this Thursday’s Telegraph looking at the juxtaposition with the fall of Raqqa and MI5 head Andrew Parker’s menacing round of interviews about the nature of the threat that is currently faced. Additionally, spoke to the Independent around the story, the Wall Street Journal about the lack of more attacks with foreign fighters in Europe, the Arab News about the threat from peripherals on terrorist networks, the Financial Times about London’s preparations to counter terrorism, to Sky News about the UK government’s issues with social media companies and terrorism, to the Independent again about the Las Vegas shooter, and on the other side of the coin, to the Financial Times about a visit by the PLAN to the UK as part of a global tour and UK-China military relations.

It’s not Isil’s returning terrorists we should worry about. It’s those who are already here

An anti-Isil commander celebrates in the main square of Raqqa, October 17, 2017 CREDIT: BULENT KILIC/AFP/GETTY

On the same day that Raqqa fell, the head of MI5 Andrew Parker gave a set of interviews in which he talks about facing the most severe threat that he has seen in his over three decades working in the intelligence agencies. This dissonant set of messages highlights the degree to which the terrorist threat that the UK is facing has transformed.

From a terrifying but comprehensible phenomenon directed by surreptitious foreign networks, we are now facing a confusing and diffuse one whose link to terrorist organisations is ever looser.

Isil’s loss of territory has not produced the surge in terrorist plots that was expected. Since the beginning of the year, the UK has faced five successful terrorist attacks – and yet, with the possible exception of the Manchester bombing, none have involved foreign fighters. Rather than the individuals who went off to fight in Syria and Iraq, the threat comes from individuals who are still at home.

In some ways this lack of a sudden surge is not surprising. The notion of an uptick in threat from foreign fighters after the collapse of the Caliphate was predicated on the notion that Isil was somehow holding themselves back – saving the potential strikes back home until they were at their weakest point. This clearly lacks much connection with reality, where we can see that the group has been consistently shouting, directing and instigating terrorist plots in the West for the past three years.

What has changed, however, is the nature of the threat back home, where we continue to see individuals being mobilized by extreme ideologies but finding it harder to travel. Instead, a community of frustrated travellers is developing around the world, at a moment when the ideology and methodology of what constitutes a terrorist attack has become diffuse to the point that it is indistinguishable from random acts of social violence.

This helps explain the picture that we are seeing at the moment. A threat abroad appears to be decreasing (through loss of territory, capability and manpower) just as a different sort of threat is expressing itself at home. But there is still an important question to be asked about what is going to happen to those individuals who went abroad to fight. Even according to Andrew Parker’s latest figures, at least a few hundred are still out on the loose somewhere.

What these individuals will do is going to be determined in large part by their reasons for going to Syria in the first place. For some, the motivation to go and fight was ideologically pure and focused abroad. They were going to fight motivated by a sense of injustice, a driving sense of religious duty or a desire to defend the Syrian people. For them, it is possible that the fight in Syria and Iraq is just the first stage in a long life of constant struggle. Among the first foreign fighters to the battlefield in Syria were fighters who had toppled Libyan leader Gaddafi.

For others, the motivation was more selfish – seeking to flee a chequered past back home and gain redemption on the battlefield. Still others were drawn by friends, family, a sense of adventure or some other reason which now leaves them stranded in a conflict zone. Some will possibly change sides to continue fighting in Syria; some will settle down in some ungoverned space; others will die, and yet others will move on to further zones of conflict. Few went out in the first instance to come back home and be terrorists. Most were driven by a desire to do something abroad.

Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and Iraqi army members in a series of armoured vehicles gather on the outskirts of Hawija, Iraq October 4, 2017. Thick smoke billows on the horizon in front of them
Iraqi forces and Shi’ite militia gather on the outskirts of Hawija during a campaign against IsilCREDIT: STRINGER/REUTERS

In many ways it is to the affiliates that we should most worry about the foreign fighter flow. In places like Sinai, the Philippines, Libya, parts of Central or Southeast Asia or Afghanistan, there are locations were Isil affiliates are taking root. Those that can accept these battle-hardened warriors will welcome them, enhancing a range of problems that until now have appeared deeply localised. Local governments have varying degrees of capability to manage these problems. In the fullness of time, one of these affiliates may pick up the banner of the global organization and become the new Isil core.

The threat comes from when these affiliates decide to launch attacks against the West, either in their immediate neighbourhood, or further afield. The base in Libya has already produced a number of problems in Europe – this may grow. Others may start to express themselves too. But MI5’s attention is apparently on the domestic situation, where instead the difficulty lies in the fact that they are facing a threat that is increasingly hard to predict. A community of individuals who once seemed peripheral are now becoming the main danger.

Raqqa has now fallen. Isil is not yet finished. But at the same time, terrorism has already evolved into a new form that security services are struggling to manage. Foreign fighters will undoubtedly be part of the picture, but, currently at least, they are not where the core of the problem lies.

A short piece for the Telegraph in the wake of yesterday’s incident at Parsons Green underground station in London. Spoke to the BBC, Washington Post and Sun in its wake. Am sure there will be more on this plot in due course, still not clear exactly what took place.

After the Parsons Green tube bombing, what can we do to protect our public transport network?

Public transport by its nature has to be open. This makes it user-friendly to the audience for which it is intended: commuters, travelers, and ordinary citizens. Unfortunately, it also leaves it exposed to people eager to do us harm.

The latest attack on London’s transport system, on a Tube train at Parson’s Green station, is a reminder of this, and it raises uneasy questions about what can be done to protect us all as we go about our business. It also raises further questions about the nature of threat that we face and how we have to adapt to this seemingly low spattering of terrorist incidents which have now become the depressing norm.

It is still too early to understand the motivations of the bomber. With no indication of any ideological goal, nor any claim of responsibility, it is impossible to know at this stage. But it is possible to look back across the recent past and see an increasingly diffuse and confusing threat picture. This year alone, we have four successful attacks – three Islamist and one inspired by the far Right. They are bracketed by seemingly damaged Damon Smith, who left a bomb on the Jubilee line in October 2016 and an aspirant violent Islamist who drove to Buckingham Palace with a samurai sword last month.

Outside the Manchester bombing, the devices and weapons have been rudimentary, using household items to launch random attacks. The individuals are often known to authorities, but in some cases come from nowhere. But they are consistent in their intent to strike fear into the public.

Public transport is an obvious target for this. They are arteries of our cities; they get us all where we want to go. To strike at them is to hit the hearts of our cities and societies and damage the economy that underpins everything.

And this very fluidity is what makes it so hard to protect them. To erect airport-style security at every railway station would not only increase costs and times substantially, but would become a physical impediment at their height of the rush hour, which would create large crowds of people outside stations. Those crowds would in themselves become tempting targets for any bomber or shooter.

In addition there is the perennial question of where one would draw the boundaries of this security bubble. The public transport system of London alone is hugely complex and sprawling. If if we follow the logic of the threat picture becoming more diffuse and scattered, we also raise the issue of which public transport system around the country should not be subject to the same sorts of security blanket. A long-distance service from Euston to Glasgow or a tram on the Manchester metro is just as vulnerable in principle as the Tube.

The answer, as ever, lies in a response that reflects the threat picture. There are numerous public awareness campaigns active aimed at getting the public to be watchful to the potential threats, and these appear to be delivering some success. Damon Smith’s device was picked up by alert passengers. This message needs to continue to be driven home.

Beyond this, the authorities need to continue to play their role in disrupting networks, staying on top of a confusing threat picture and responding as quickly as possible to events that take place. The situation nowadays is such that it is almost impossible to guarantee complete security, but by maintaining a tight lid on the threat we are fortunately only seeing relatively limited impact events getting through. This, atop a public awareness of what is going, on is the likely medium term answer to the severe threat Britain now faces.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the defence think tank Rusi

The culmination of a more extended piece of work I have been doing around my usual obligations with the BBC (for the programme Inside Out) looking at the phenomenon of online instigation and direction by ISIS in seeking to launch attacks in the UK. Acting as frontman for the piece, the real work was done by Zack, Claire, Dippy and some undercover reporters. We shot it around London using material from online conversations by undercover reports with Junaid Hussain and other ISIS plotters. Zack wrote the piece up for the BBC, and the piece got picked up by Associated Press/Guardian, Daily Mail, Metro, Times, and Mirror. For those of you in the UK, you can see the show on the BBC iPlayer for the next month (and maybe more as it is going to be screened on the BBC News Channel as well), in addition for those of you internationally, it is going to be screened on the BBC World News at these times. Finally, Zack and myself published the below piece with the Telegraph.

Beyond this, since the last update, spoke to the Independent about the terror threat to the UK, to Sky about assessment of the difference between the threats at home and from foreign fighters returning, to Newsweek and The National about the Barcelona attack, to National Public Radio about the broader threats to Europe, and to the Daily Mail about the possibility of chemical attacks in the UK. Finally, spoke to the Financial Times about geopolitical security clashes with China in the seas.

How Isil’s shadowy ‘online manipulators’ lure Britons into committing terrorist attacks

The man on the other end of the line was called Junaid Hussain. He was speaking to an undercover reporter through an encrypted chat application; it was the middle of 2015. “Do something over there in the heart of the crusader army,” he told the reporter. He meant London.

Birmingham-born Junaid had been in Syria for two years at that point. Soon afterwards, he would die in an American drone strike. But he had enough time to make his mark in the world of jihadist terrorism as one of the most active and earliest “online manipulators” – steering people into terrorist attacks in the West solely on the basis of commands they receive through social media and encrypted applications.

Earlier this year, the UK was indeed struck by a series of terrorist attacks. The full detail of what went on in each case is still unclear. But, as Ben Wallace, Minister of State for Security told us during our investigation into this phenomenon, the use of encrypted communications “is common throughout every single one of these incidents.”

In much the same way that the rest of us have increasingly come to rely on communications applications to maintain our social relationships, terrorists have also moved into this space. In one sense, this is merely a reflection of the fact that terrorists come from the same societies as those they target. But what Isil has become particularly adept at doing is manipulating these relationships from great distances to push people to launch terrorist attacks.

The way in which this happens is surprisingly elementary. Our investigators would in the first instance make contact with the online Isil activists through their public social media profiles. People like Junaid were very active online using Twitter and Facebook and in essence used these profiles as honeypots to draw people to themselves. Once the contact had been established, the conversation would often move into an encrypted channel through WhatsApp, Telegram, Kik or Surespot.

Here, a more intense conversation would take place, with the radical asking the recruit to prove their bona fides, and direct them to parts of the dark web where they could find guides about how to make bombs, plan lone actor terrorist attacks or mask their activity. Throughout this conversation, the recruiter would be constantly exhorting the target to launch an attack, talking about potential targets, highlighting other successful incidents and pushing our investigators to undertake their own attack.

Junaid was just one of a number of online instigators our investigators spoke to. Others suggested the idea of attacking Westminster or London Bridge, and directed them to material on the dark web that showed how to use vehicles as weapons, where to stab people for maximum effect, and how to create a fake suicide vest. They suggested this was useful as it would stop police from attacking you, giving you more time to attack. Junaid was even more ambitious, suggesting that “we can train you [in] how to make bombs.”

This is the beating heart of the online terror threat. Clearly radical material disseminated online will fan the flames of ideas, and mean that groups like Isil will be able to maintain their notoriety and draw people to themselves. But it is the online manipulation that is turning these long-distance online relationships into terrorist attacks, and individuals like Junaid are able to manipulate people into launching attacks that are difficult to prevent in western capitals.

The answer to this is complicated. There is possibly more that companies could do in terms of the speed of their response. But the reality is that they are as unable to get into these applications as the rest of the world. End-to-end encryption is designed to keep everyone – even its creators – out. And while government can spend more money on staff and surveillance, when the style of attack is so individual, basic and diffuse, it becomes very difficult to maintain complete control.

Online manipulation is one of the most menacing current expressions of terrorism. Until the groups are gone, and we have cracked the code of stopping people from being drawn towards terrorist ideologies, this form of threat will be with us.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at Rusi, and this article was co-authored by Zack Adesina, a senior producer at the BBC. Their film ‘Terror by Text’ airs on Inside Out on BBC1 at 19:30 on Monday September 4.

Late to post this, as it was published over a week ago in the Telegraph on the anniversary of the July 7 bombings.

Twelve years on from the 7/7 atrocities, the terror threat has evolved. Have our defences?

We are always fighting the last war. As we reach the twelve year anniversary of the July 7, 2005 attacks it is worth taking stock of how much the threat picture from terrorism we face has changed, and ask whether our response has kept pace. From a terrorist threat that was directed by al-Qaeda using radicalised British nationals trained at camps in Pakistan, we are facing a threat of lone individuals launching confusing attacks with household weapons. It is not yet clear that our response has caught up.

Prior to 7/7 it was hard to conceptualize the fact that British nationals would commit suicide bombings at home. But once it happened, it became the norm, with security services spending much of the next decade countering similar plots. In doing so, they began to understand how the networks worked, what the processes and communications methods were, and how al-Qaeda saw British nationals as useful tools to strike against the West. Having understood the threat, they were able to develop measures to counter it, and find ways of getting into networks. What was once a source of strength, was steadily uncovered as a source of weakness, and security services adapted their practice to disrupt such networked plots.

But having closed one door, another opened. Still determined to launch attacks, terrorist groups have adapted and individuals now are instigated, inspired or directed remotely. The plots they are advancing are low tech and require little training. This shrinks the plotters footprint, making it much harder for security agencies to catch them in their nets. A link abroad still exists – and in some cases, like Salman Abedi in Manchester, a strong link – but the majority of cases appear to be more isolated with trace links abroad or to a broader radical milieu.

To counter this evolving menace a new posture needs to be taken. In the first instance, it is clear that more capacity is needed. This is something that has been clear for some time, and security agencies are growing – but this takes time to mature into useful capacity.

Second, we need to find a way of re-focusing and sharpening the way that residual or peripheral cases are managed. As we have seen in all three of the recent violent Islamist attacks in the UK, the individuals involved were people who had featured in previous investigations, but were never the main targets. Over time, the pool of individuals who fit into this category will only grow. While undoubtedly the Security Service will have to keep some attention on them, a new agency or cross-departmental team could be formed to instead focus on each case in a more intense fashion and to make sure they are getting off a path towards radicalisation. A methodical and refreshed look at them by a non-secret agency in light of the current threat picture might be useful and clear time for security agencies to focus on other priority cases.

Third, we need to get ahead of ideologies and methodologies. There are two parts to this: first, greater attention needs to be paid to the extreme right wing. It has a capacity to shock, cause misery and greater tensions that in turn exacerbate the violent Islamist threat. At the moment our focus is on violent Islamists, and yet we can see on the right wing a consistent pattern of threat and hints towards coordination and competence. Second, we need to explore new ways of mining and managing the data that is collected. The security agencies are clearly tracking new technologies that can support counter-terrorism analysis, but using AI may help throw up leads which are currently being missed among the mass of information. While this will never be completely accurate, given the disparate nature of the threat that is faced, and the manner in which it has recently kept popping out of the woodwork, it is worth considering whether something like this might help pick up some hidden leads.

Fourth, we need to have a more mature public conversation about the nature and reality of the threat that is faced and how safe we are from it. Statistically, there are innumerably more things that are threats to your health than terrorism. We are also not facing an existential threat. And we are unlikely to eradicate it in the near term future. All of these realities need to be discussed in a way that steers clear of the polemical side of the conversation that tends to crowd the public forum. Most organized human societies have faced terrorism in their histories – and in most cases they have survived. The few that have been changed have usually done so because of the overwhelming nature of the failures of governance by the power that was overthrown.

Finally, we need to make sure we do not make obvious missteps and exacerbate the very threat we are trying to counter. This means not cutting off (or threatening to) intelligence sharing with crucial allies in Europe. Not talking in the same clash of civilization terms that the extremists do. Not politicising counter-terrorism work in a way that means its effectiveness becomes stunted. And not standing idle while terrorist groups gather abroad. As we have repeatedly seen, they will come back and strike us in due course. None of these measures will likely eradicate terrorism in the medium term future, but they will set us on a course that will go in that direction and keep us even safer than we already are from terrorist attacks.

Raffaello Pantucci is the Director of International Security Studies at RUSI

More catch-up posting, this time for the Telegraph looking at trying to understand the difficulties around intelligence and counter-terrorism. Got various media posting to also catch up on, but will do soon.

Intelligence is fragmented by nature – sometimes terrorists will slip through

Three knife-wielding assailants led a deadly rampage through central London on Saturday. One was known to UK intelligence, another to the Italian police
Three knife-wielding assailants led a deadly rampage through central London on Saturday. One assailant was known to UK intelligence, another to the Italian policeCREDIT:  MATTHEW CHATTLE/BARCROFT IMAGES

It has become habit that in the wake of a terrorist incident it is soon uncovered that security agencies were aware of the individuals in question. The immediate assumption therefore is that there was a clear failure, with questions understandably asked about why those involved had not been detained and prevented from carrying out the atrocity.

The problem is that this assumption is based on fragmentary information.

First, the wider picture is unknown. How many other people were there in view at that moment in time, and how did the behaviour of the individual who launched the attack match up to theirs?

Maybe he was not doing anything particularly suspect, while the others being watched were in the midst of undertaking suspicious behaviour which appeared far more menacing. The more menacing person will merit greater attention while the other will be observed in a slightly less intense fashion.

This is ultimately a process of prioritization, where choices to deploy resources are made on the basis of activity and information.

Second, someone who comes under the suspicion of intelligence agencies is not necessarily by default guilty. Security and intelligence agencies will gather a lot of information on a lot of people: but not all of them will require any deeper investigation.

Someone may appear in an investigation by default of who they live near, who they know or who they bump into for some reason. Some will require greater investigation to understand who they are, but the majority are irrelevant and simply passers-by who happen to have encountered someone who is malicious.

Those who are investigated to a greater extent, dealt with by the police and ultimately jailed are those who are undertaking activity that is against the law and against whom a specific criminal case can be made. We live in a country where due process and jury courts require the state to produce a burden of evidence to demonstrate guilt.

Third, security and intelligence agencies are not always very keen to demonstrate their methods. Consequently information that has maybe been gathered by covert agents or through technical means is not necessarily something that is usable in an open court.

In the case of the agent, their identity may be compromised, while the revelation of technical tools will give other terrorists the opportunity to learn about what they have to do to avoid detection in future. This means that sometimes information is gathered which cannot immediately be acted upon openly.

Clearly if suspects are moving towards violent or dangerous behaviour something will be done, but if they are not doing anything criminal, and there is no usable evidence of them planning something, then observation has to be the default.

Of course we have no clear idea at this moment whether any or all of these are the reason why the existing information on the various recent plotters was not acted upon.

Questions are being understandably asked about whether the process of prioritization is calibrated correctly. Three successful attacks from the broader pool of people known to the intelligence agencies is clearly a worrying reality. Have they adequately factored into the prioritization process patterns of behaviour by terrorist groups, new methodologies of attack and how radicalisation works these days?

It is worth noting that in many ways it is a good thing that intelligence agencies have knowledge of individuals who ultimately go on to commit terrorist atrocities. It would be even worse if they did not know who they were.

Should terrorists emerge completely from the void, questions would have to be asked about how it was they had no knowledge of them. Awareness demonstrates that they are looking at the right people and places.

The reality is that intelligence information is by its nature fragmentary. Unable to see inside people’s minds, security and intelligence agencies rely on assorted inputs to develop a picture on the basis of which they make judgements and assessments about who they should devote attention to watching.

The process by which these choices are made are subject to fairly constant revision and consideration, but unfortunately, they are not perfect.

None of this will of course provide comfort to those who have lost loved ones in an atrocity, but it is something that is important to bear in mind when considering what should be done in its wake.

Clearly security and intelligence agencies will have to review their processes, but care should be paid to not move to more extreme and draconian measures that will ultimately foster the very narrative that extremists advance.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

A short response piece to the horrible incident that happened in Manchester for the Telegraph. The threat level has now been raised to Critical which means this incident is going to take a while to resolve. In the wake of the incident, spoke to CNBCGuardian, and National Press Agency about bombs, and separately to Guardian, Washington Post, and The Australian about the bigger threat picture. Also did interview that was recorded on ABC’s Lateline.

Cars and knives are easier to use, but bombs will always be central to terrorist thinking

Survivors of the attack sit on the pavement
The successful use of a bomb is unusual among recent terror attacks CREDIT: JOEL GOODMAN/LNP

 

Terrorism has a predictable brutality to it. And yet, the idea of a bombing is something that still surprises us when it happens. The attack in Manchester in some ways appears a flashback to a different time when the terrorists we worried about detonated bombs, rather than using vehicles as rams or stabbing people. The reality is that terrorism’s only constant is its desire to shock and kill. For any group or ideology, the fundamental point is to make yourself heard as dramatically as possible. Groups and individuals will use whatever tools they have to gain that attention.

Making bombs that you know will reliably work is not as easy as it might sound. History is littered with attempted bomb-makers whose devices detonated too early or failed to go off. Unless you have had some training or practice, it is difficult to know for certain that you are making something that will go off exactly when you want it to.

There have been examples of lone bomb makers in the past, but they are rare. Anders Breivik, who killed 77 in Oslo in 2010, and David Copeland and Pavlo Lapshyn, who respectively launched one-man extreme right wing bombing campaigns in London and Birmingham, are examples. But in all cases, lone bomb makers choose to leave their devices behind rather than die in the detonation. This separates them from the Manchester bomber, though the degree to which we can conclude this means he acted alone is unclear.

Isil’s claim of responsibility would seem to strengthen the idea that the bomber was linked to someone. But care has to be paid to understand exactly what their claim means. On the one hand, it could be the group is merely claiming something to which it has a very loose link. The use of a bomb can also add confusion to the picture, especially when we consider that the majority of the incidents we have seen in Europe linked to the group of late have been stabbings or using vehicles to run down crowds. Yet this narrative assumes that the group is not keen to launch explosives attacks. This is incorrect – from the group’s perspective, anything that fulfills their goals of gaining attention and sowing terror is desirable.

The shift towards knives and cars was something that the group had encouraged in part as it realised that making bombs is difficult and prone to failure. Telling your aspirant warriors to keep it simple seems a more effective way to ensure success. One need only look at issues of the group’s magazine Rumiyah to see how rudimentary some of the forms of attack being promoted by Isil are.

The smashed up car used during the 2017 Westminster terror attack
Vehicles have been used as weapons, as in the Westminster attack earlier this year, for their ease and simplicity CREDIT: GEOFF PUGH FOR THE TELEGRAPH

But the key point to remember is that these groups, and Isil in particular, are not very discerning in their methodologies for terrorist attacks. Their aim is to cause chaos, draw attention to themselves and kill as many as they can. This brings attention to their cause and shows their commitment to their ideology. It is intended to sow divisions in our societies and strengthen the narrative of anger that is central to breathing life into their beliefs.

So whether they use a bomb and murder children, massacre people at airports, gun them down in concert halls, or stab elderly priests in their churches, they are getting their job done. And if we shout in horror at the methodology they employ, they simply brush this away by pointing to atrocities that they see happening around the world, and which they see as setting a precedent for violence.

The key issue from the rest of society’s perspective is to realise this is their deadly intent, and to ensure to not rise to the bait and do the group’s job for them. Terrorism’s only constant remains its perpetrators desire to shock and murder: the manner in which they do so is only secondary.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at  RUSI and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists

Another piece for the Telegraph after the St Petersburg terrorist attack, though the title is rather deceptive as the piece is mostly about the phenomenon of radicalisation amongst Central Asians, a topic that appears sadly relevant again after the incident Friday in Stockholm.

The Saint Petersburg attack is a reminder that sophisticated terror plots are still a real threat

A victim is carried in a soft stretcher

The Metro attack was the worst terror attack in Russia for several years CREDIT: ANTON VAGANOV/EPA

The attack on St Petersburg in some ways resembles a throwback to an earlier time. With the recent spate of low-tech incidents involving knife-wielding and car driving extremists, the perception was that the nature of the terrorist threat had evolved. The as of yet unclaimed atrocity in St Petersburg is a reminder of how terrorists continue to deploy explosives to advance their causes, and how Russia remains a priority target for international terrorist networks.

It is not yet clear who is responsible for the attack in Russia, though initial indicators suggest that it was by an individual of Central Asian origin who may have previously been radicalised. This comes after an arrest earlier in March at Moscow airport of a Tajik citizen who had reportedly been sent by Isil to launch an attack in Russia. According to reports in the Russian press, the Tajik had been deployed to connect with networks already in the country who were to supply him with equipment to launch a terrorist strike. Central Asians were also implicated in the attacks late last year on the Ataturk Airport and Reina nightclubs in Istanbul, and in an attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek last August.

None of this may appear surprising to the lay observer. Central Asia has long been perceived as a hotbed of radicalisation. And yet in reality, it is a threat that has never quite expressed itself. Central Asian warriors have been a feature of the conflict in Afghanistan and more recently Syria and Iraq, but they have not been responsible for many attacks beyond these battlefields. Increasingly this appears to have changed.

It is something that is of particular concern to Russia, which has deep human, economic and security links with Central Asia. In part through the large community of labour migrants working in Russia from the region, but also directly with the countries of the region. Reflecting this, the new President of Uzbekistan is paying his first formal visit to Moscow this week, an event that has been eagerly anticipated since his election as leader in December 2017. Undoubtedly security questions will now feature as a larger part of the conversation.

From Moscow’s perspective, the menace of international terrorism is something that has been a persistent concern for some time. Of late, it appeared as though Russian security forces had been able to, for the most part, keep a lid on the problem. The attack on the Metrojet plane flying from Sharm el Sheikh was something that was beyond their control in Egypt, and at home the last major attack was in 2013 at Volgograd in the run up to the Winter Olympic games in Sochi. But the attack on St Petersburg shows the threat that Russia faces persists, and it is one that is likely to continue to become more acute as the battlefield in Syria and Iraq shrinks and groups seek to apportion blame and punish the outside powers who are perceived to be fighting against them.

There is a further danger within Russia that this growing narrative of Central Asians being seen as responsible for the incidents will strengthen suspicion among the Russian public towards the hundreds of thousands of migrants from the area. This community provides a huge service to Russia in the form of essential labour, while also providing a huge economic boost back home in remittances. The perception of threat from this community may be high, but the reality of it is actually small, a balance that Moscow needs to manage very carefully.

Finally, this attack highlights once again how terrorism is a multifaceted and complex threat that will continually find ways to penetrate security and murder civilians in advance of a political message. In the wake of incidents in Europe including the Westminster attack, the sense was we were moving towards a threat which was more focused on low tech attacks involving weapons easily available in our everyday lives. The reality is that terrorist groups retain the intent and capacity to launch more sophisticated assaults. The recent threat against aviation and the ban on large electronic items on certain routes is a reflection of the continuing threat of highly sophisticated plots; the St Petersburg attack shows how bombs in bags are still an equally effective vehicle through which to murder and attract attention to your cause.

Security agencies around the world will continue to need to pay attention to a wide range of potential threats, expressed in a variety of forms, in many different locations. The threat may yet become more acute as Isil faces defeat in its homeland.

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