Archive for the ‘RSIS’ Category

More belated posting, this time a bit more recent in the form of a Commentary post for my Singaporean institutional home RSIS. Looks at the question of Incels and whether they are a terrorist threat, something people here have been wondering about. Written with my excellent colleague Kyler with whom there are a few projects on the boil. More to come.

Incels and Terrorism: Sexual Deprivation As Security Threat

ON 24 FEBRUARY 2020, a Canadian teenager stabbed a female owner of an erotic massage parlour in Toronto. Identified by police as an ‘Incel’ – short for Involuntary Celibate – he was accused of being motivated by a misogynist ideology and later charged with terrorism. He was the first Incel to be prosecuted as a terrorist. Since 2009, Incels have committed at least 16 attacks, mostly in North America and Europe, often in the form of indiscriminate violence against members of the public. In the first half of 2020 alone there have been four attacks.

Incels justify their acts of violence as revenge against women or society in response to their inability to have sex or enter into a relationship with women. They see themselves as having more inferior genes, and are angry at women who prefer men they describe as “Chads” (men who are ‘sexually successful’). Whilst the movement remains generally non-violent and confined to online chat forums, a more militant community has emerged recently that encourages the expression of their frustrations in lethal ways.

Incels and Terrorism

There are myriad definitions of terrorism. What draws most of them together is the use of violence against non-combatants in advance of a political goal, usually by a non-state group.

One of the biggest hurdles therefore in including Incels within the roster of terrorist organisations is the absence of a clear political goal, beyond a revenge for their personal rejection by the opposite sex. Some Incels discuss an imagined historical world in which women were more subservient to men and hearken back to it, but there does not appear to be a concerted strategy to achieve such a goal.

There are elements within the Incel community, however, that mimic traditional terrorist modus operandi. The self-directed attacks, use of social media to network and radicalise, and the employment of non-sophisticated weapons, are all tactics that resemble broader trends in contemporary terrorism.

By posting pre-attack manifestos or intent to start an “Incel rebellion”, some Incel attackers resemble traditional terrorists as they appear to have a wider goal, seek recognition, presence and broader meaning to their act. These texts are for the most part confused, however, and do not appear to articulate a very coherent broader worldview and plan.

Ideological Convergence with Extreme Right-Wing

Moreover, the Incel ideology converges with the broader range of ideologies which characterise the extreme right-wing today. Strands of white supremacy, misogyny, anti-government sentiments and racism are weaved into Incel narratives.

Elliot Rodger, the first Incel attacker, was vehemently against interracial relationships and partially attributed his inability to get a girl to competition from other races. Tobias Rathjen, the Hanau shooter in Germany, launched his acts of terror in the name of anti-immigrant feeling, but there were clear strains of Incel thinking in his manifesto.

Taken alongside the many other extreme right narratives that have emerged in the past few years – from the militant North American Boogaloo Bois to the increasingly global QAnon movement (which the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) regards as a potential terror threat) – it is possible that Incels should potentially be defined as simply another articulation of the modern extreme right, where misogynistic ideologies are rampant.

This definition places Incels within a frame which is relevant to national security actors, reflecting them as part of the confusing new expressions of terrorism focused around lone actor violence which have increasingly taken centre stage around the world.

Relevance for Asia: Currycels or Ricecels?

The correlation between Incel and the extreme right-wing throws a spanner in the works when trying to establish their relevance in Asia. Given that the extreme right-wing is still mostly a white supremacist movement which therefore resonates in areas of white majority populations, outside New Zealand or Australia, the nexus is less salient in Asia.

But it is worth noting that there are many Incels who are also non-white. Rodger himself was of a mixed-race descent, but considered himself to be descended from “British aristocracy,” placing him as part of (what he considered) a superior race. Pure Asians, especially the diaspora community found in Western countries, also embrace their own interpretations of Inceldom, dubbing themselves “currycels” or “ricecels” depending on their ethnic origin.

Incels are in part a reaction by young male populations of the perceived feminisation of society and their relative weakening. While admittedly a generalisation, Asian societies tend to be dominated by an uncontested patriarchy, where misogyny (and its associated violence) is not uncommon. The growing women’s rights movement may provide the same impetus that has in part produced Incels in the West.

Such narratives are already visible in online communities. A case in point in Singapore is the dissatisfaction of losing girls to white immigrants. Others take on a slightly different but equally misogynistic flavour, such as the sentiment of how military conscription sets men back in their career whilst self-serving and career-minded women are given a step ahead to advance in life. This sense of male victimhood is something which is universal and could find resonance and manifest violently in an Asian context through something that might look like Incel violence.

Policy Implications

The question then is whether this group of angry young men warrant the sort of rigorous counter-terrorism efforts that have been poured into tackling jihadist extremism.

Certainly the rise of the extreme right appears to be something that the security community in the west had overlooked. Some extreme right imagery and ideas from Reddit, 4chan or 8kun have penetrated Asia and been repurposed for local conflicts. Pepe the Frog has appeared amongst the Hong Kong democracy movement, while anti-Muslim feeling in India or Myanmar often steal imagery and ideas from western discourses online.

This suggests a spread of ideas from West to East with potentially dangerous consequences. Male anger is an issue in Asia which might ultimately start to see Incel ideas as meshing with their broader rage and even present a useful outlet. Violence could be the result.

Regardless, any decision to draw Incels into the realm of national security effort must consider the costs (such as the risk of pushing the community underground) and benefits (heightened efforts to thwart the threat) of doing so. A community of angry young men feeling they do not have a place in society is not a new human phenomenon, putting a terrorist label must be carefully calculated.

About the Authors

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow and Kyler Ong an Associate Research Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence, Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

Finally, in this latest clutch, a new piece for the in-house journal Counter-Terrorist Trends and Analyses (CTTA) at my new Singaporean institutional home ICPVTR at RSIS. It is a bit of a thought experiment in trying to think forwards about what the impact of the current COVID-19 crisis could be to counter-terrorism practitioners and policy makers. It goes in a way alongside my previous Foreign Policy piece which sketched out how the threat might get worse. Clearly the big topic in this one is resources which is going to create problems which will be difficult to predict, but there are other dangers and even opportunities as well. In the UK, there is already concern around Prevent referrals being down, while France is already worrying about release of terrorist prisoners and I am sure we will start to see other issues in this space emerge.

Key Questions for Counter-Terrorism Post-COVID-19

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Synopsis

All aspects of government decision and policymaking are likely to be impacted in a post-COVID-19 world. This article focuses on the specific impact on counter-terrorism policy and practice amidst a changed environment. Using the UK’s Contest strategy and its formulation of the 4 P’s (Prevent, Pursue, Protect and Prepare) as a frame, the article explores a set of questions that governments will have to think through to manage a persistent terrorist threat.

Introduction

The impact of COVID-19 is widespread. At a geopolitical level, it will accelerate existing trends, while free-trade and open borders will be hurt for some time as the global economy adjusts to such a dramatic freeze and the inevitable fitful re-opening. This will have consequences across the board for governments, including security policies. Though a lot has been written about how different terrorist groups are reacting to COVID-19, its impact on counter-terrorism policy and practice remains understudied.

This article will outline some key issues that security officials should be considering going forwards about how COVID-19 might impact counter-terrorism (CT) and countering violent extremism (CVE) policies and practices. As a framework, the article will use the structure of the UK counter-terrorism strategy that captures the different strands of most CT and CVE policies around the world. In short, the UK’s Contest strategy is made up of the following four pillars:

• Prevent: to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. This forward-looking work comprises of rehabilitation and de-radicalisation initiatives.

• Pursue: to stop terrorist attacks. This involves disrupting and arresting individuals involved in terrorist activity.

• Protect: to strengthen safety mechanisms against a terrorist attack, such as building up physical defences.

• Prepare: to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack. Here, societal resilience is emphasised to ensure society can bounce back from an incident.1

Overview of COVID-19’s Impact

Before going into a detailed analysis of the impact using the four P’s framework, some overarching themes need to be considered about the impact of COVID-19 on CT and CVE work. First is the re-evaluation of national risk assessment (and more importantly perceptions of risk) that will take place in the wake of the virus. Re-reading old national strategy documents or statements, it is possible to find evidence that numerous countries had identified pandemic disease as a major risk and threat – the UK’s National Risk Register, for example, identified ‘pandemic influenza’ as the event of greatest relative likelihood and impact.2 US President Donald Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy had also identified pandemics as a major danger,3 while President Xi Jinping had spoken of the threat in his speech to the 19th Communist Party of China (CPC)’s National Congress in 2017.4 The United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have of course been warning about these pandemic threats for years. Yet, notwithstanding these repeated warnings, it is not clear if sufficient resources and expertise were allocated into mitigating the risk.

This lack of focus (and in some cases, specific choice to reduce focus) was in part a product of the absence of political pressure around the issue.5 While the global commentariat is now full of chatter about how obvious this threat was, previously it was only experts in the scientific community who were genuinely concerned with little public discussion about the threat.6 Parts of Asia that had faced viruses before were more attuned to the concern than others, but largely, it was not a high ranking political issue.

The net result was other threats, like terrorism, cyberattacks, state conflicts and trade wars absorbed more attention and budget, alongside assessments of priority. Given the widespread impact of COVID-19, this balance is likely to change as governments realise the full potential extent and damage of a pandemic disease. This will in large part also be driven by public pressure as populations see extensive impact of the threat. For terrorism threats, it will highlight once again the relatively limited impact that they actually have to the average citizen (especially comparable to pandemic threats) and might make it harder to mobilise the same sort of national level concern around them in the short to medium term.7

The positive side to this will be a reduction in the noise around terrorist threats, which may have a corollary impact on the degree to which threats can multiply and reduce the copycat or lone actor phenomenon whereby individuals are drawn to terrorist ideologies more by the noise around attacks than the ideology. It will also potentially marginalise those drawn to such ideologies as people re-evaluate what matters to them and consequently refuse to simply accept the narratives advanced by terrorist groups about the global upheavals that merit terrorist mobilisation.

On the negative side, the massive expansion of online activity will produce its own problems of radicalisation with some vulnerable individuals becoming more isolated and getting more embroiled in extremist ideologies.8 National budgets will also shrink around the world. Governments will have to make harder decisions and redirect their resources and capabilities on economic revivals. This will mean pressure on security budgets at home and abroad, with more questions asked about importance and prioritisation. This is where public perceptions of risk will come into play. In the wake of COVID-19, the public will continually ask about policy steps to mitigate the next possible pandemic outbreak and this will lead to reallocations of budget from elsewhere.

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, there was already a noticeable shift away from concern around terrorist threats, with state- based conflicts or cyber threats getting the top priority. This trend will accelerate further making it harder for CT security officials to ensure their issues retain the level of attention and budget they require. This particular issue is one that is going to play across this article. Finally, how COVID-19 will impact extremist ideologies merit some brief thought. The economic downturn will create contexts in which anti-state groups can thrive. Racism has already emerged – in particular towards Asians, but also within Asian countries towards others – which may lead to different forms of violence.

The disenfranchised communities or inequalities that will emerge in the post- COVID-19 world will create some individuals or groups who see violence as the answer to their situation. In some contexts, the massive increase in government will produce its own problems. In America, for example, the long history of fear of federal government has generated terrorist atrocities in the past (like the Oklahoma City bombing which just passed its 25 year anniversary);9 some similar reactions seem to be already appearing.10 There is also the possibility that fringe groups will be able to take advantage of the ensuing world to find their own specific niche fears further exacerbated. For instance, the accelerated rise of tech during this moment may generate extremist luddites, or other fringe movements might emerge.

Prevent

At the best of times, preventing people from being drawn towards groups or persuading them to subsequently reject extremist ideologies is difficult. Governments find it almost impossible to eradicate, counter or stop the proliferation of extremist ideologies. In some countries, dealing with the root causes of any form of terrorism can go into deep social issues whose origins go back decades. Terrorist groups offer ideologies which are parasitic on these problems. This means that in order to eradicate the problem, governments have to deal with the underlying socio-economic issues, while at the same time prevent the spread of extremist ideas.

Fund allocation is key in dealing with these issues, be they at home or abroad. The problems far from home usually need resolution through social transformation, something which only happens through investment of resource. As budgets tighten, problems in places far from home, which are not directly linked to a threat back home, will be easily dispensable in favour of more immediate problems. This resource tightening for distant CVE work will be exacerbated by the fact that often aid work doubles as CVE work in some contexts – whether by chance or on purpose to mask its intent. This means not only will distant countries lose resource from direct CVE work, but also from a broader and likely budget tightening.

In societies with relatively limited numbers of people affected, CVE and de-radicalising work tends to be built around individual level interventions in which mentors work with individuals to steer them onto a better path. In countries with larger problems, this model is essentially enhanced, with interventions targeted at entire sectors or larger groups of people. In systems where the number of cases is limited, this will likely remain manageable, but countries where hundreds, if not thousands, need managing will require a considerable expenditure of resource which will come under pressure. While there is an ongoing debate about degrees of recidivism amongst terrorist offenders, there will be budgetary pressures on programmes in prisons.11 More generally, the lack of clear evidence of programme effectiveness will make it easy for such programmes to become targets for budget cuts.

Lastly, the online ideological space and counter-messaging will face greater scrutiny as a necessary expense. Already, there are concerns around the efficacy of online counter-messaging campaigns.12 It is likely that the entire counter-ideological space will come under budgetary pressure given the almost impossible task of showing causal effect of programmes to the issue they are seeking to address.

Pursue

National security questions are easy to mobilise public resource towards. The public sees government as their ultimate protector and will give fairly substantial lee-way in deploying resources to keep any threats at bay. The most visible expression of this within terrorism comes via Pursue work, which involves chasing down terrorists and using security and intelligence agencies to detain and arrest terrorist suspects. This strand of work may find some of its resources redirected into other tasks. But the underlying political reality of needing to maintain this capability at a high state of readiness will ensure these parts of the system remain funded.

Pursue actors are in fact already benefitting in a COVID-19 world. The mass imposition of quarantine conditions across societies creates a context in which monitoring and disruption becomes much easier. Security forces no longer need to develop complicated reasons to detain suspected individuals but can simply mask disruptions or inquiries under the veil of the quarantine monitoring. Furthermore, suspects of interest will find themselves as housebound as everyone else creating static targets requiring less resource to observe. And should they venture out, security agencies have a justified reason to inquire as to what they are doing.

Countries have also already pushed out apps seeking to track individuals and gather data to help monitor transmission of the virus. Whilst many legal systems will put in place strong measures to prevent their use beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, these apps are potential monitoring tools for security officials concerned about terrorist attacks or networks. Some countries may be less open about their subsequent use. It is also possible that the data generated will produce some interesting findings about human behaviour in crisis situations which might support future counter- terrorism activity.

Finally, the development of such tools will create learning within the technological space. This learning may be currently directed towards tracking COVID-19 spread, but the same tools might be later more useful in the counter-terrorism space. Analysing movement of people or potential disease transmission using multiple vectors and probabilities might generate a new set of analytical tools that might subsequently be turned towards countering terrorism or chasing terrorists online.

Protect

The Protect space is dominated by expenditure on security which seeks to cover every potential eventuality. Sometimes these are sunk costs which generate one-off expenditures, but others require regular reinvestment. Furthermore, they have a habit of increasing in a corollary manner to the terrorist threat evolution, as new counter- measures need to be deployed to reflect changing patterns of terror activity.

One positive effect to the Protect space might come in the form of more restrictive behaviour that will be imposed on citizens in order to mitigate further flare-ups of COVID-19. These measures will likely focus on preventing movement, or checking people’s temperatures or other indicators at regular intervals. This will create a potential Protect (and even Pursue) opportunities. For example, temperature checking posts would be a moment for security officials to check on members of public; they could be a deterrent in themselves. It has been observed that terrorists have changed attack locations due to the presence of Protect measures.

In some cases, governments seek to offset these costs by passing them on to the private sector which is at the front line of this threat. Private sector sites are often the targets of terrorist groups; consequently, they bear the expenses in making their locations safe. This discussion might become more complicated in an environment of contracted economic means, for any business sector. It will become more challenging for the governments to impose requirements for expenditure that do not answer an immediate security concern (like fire hazard) rather than a more abstract one like terrorism.

An additional challenge to the Protect space will come from the likely surge in transborder activity of goods and people that will take place in the wake of COVID-19 and the lifting of travel restrictions.13 For travel hubs where international travel is an integral part of existence, this will mean a sudden potential surge in work in different directions. This will be impacted by the urgency with which there will be a push to return to normality in terms of getting trade and international supply chains moving again. While there might be a push to nationalise supply chains in some countries, few will be able to effectively deliver this, meaning an expansive security cordon which will need to be developed with equal rapidity.

Prepare

Societies have for the most part demonstrated a remarkable resilience against terrorist attacks. Terrorists have largely failed to disrupt social orders in the wake of their attacks.14 Where they have caused damage, however, is in tearing the social fabric. And this could worsen in a post-COVID-19 world. While there have been globally remarkable demonstrations of collective civil mindedness and a push to help and celebrate fellow humans, there has also been a darker edge as people seek to apportion blame. Most obviously, this is visible against Asians in the west in particular with repeated reports of assaults on people of Asian appearance in response to what has been described by very senior government officials in the United States as the ‘Chinese virus.’15

This tension is visible in other contexts as well and is likely to generate its own counter- responses, both in terms of state-to-state tensions, but also amongst communities. Within China, there has additionally been a growing anger towards African communities.16 While this does not necessarily portend terrorism, it does raise the danger that as waves of the virus continue to express themselves and be reported in different parts of the world, this might lead to consequent targeted social tensions at different moments. This is significant in terms of shoring up social cohesion and resilience, a key component of long-term Prepare work.

The practical tools often used to advance Prepare goals are potentially ones impacted by broader budgetary cuts. Emergency services are essential amenities which people expect, but ensuring their resource levels are maintained to a high enough level to cover every contingency might come under pressure. While emergency response services will always be needed, the question will be whether the additional training and expense required to maintain a full-spectrum counter-terrorism response (which might include low probability events like CBRN attacks) can be justified or is essential in the same way as it was before.

Looking Ahead

The impact of COVID-19 on CT policy and practice will be complicated and varied. Overall, the pressure on direct CT measures will not necessarily be strong. Concerned publics will continue to expect governments to deliver adequate defences against terrorist threats. If security agencies are dynamic enough, ample opportunities avail to use the virus restrictions as an opportunity to enhance security blankets. But longer-term programmes focused on dealing with problems at root are likely to be impacted. This problem is magnified in third-world and poorer countries badly affected by the COVID- 19 fall-out, and has a knock-on effect on the threat picture emanating from these locations.

The danger will also come from a threat picture rendered even more complex in the wake of COVID-19; in part, driven by existing threats which will not resolve themselves and may even get worse and also, as a result of new emerging threats. With more people pushed deeper into online worlds, this might generate a new articulation of the lone actor terrorist threat under different ideologies. While much of broader society, focused on health security and economic recovery, will vie for greater government attention and resources, terrorists will not go away and likely multiply in new and confusing ways.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence, Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit within the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be contacted at israffaello@ntu.edu.sg.

1 “CONTEST: the United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism,” Home Office (UK), June 2018, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/ uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/71690 7/140618_CCS207_CCS0218929798- 1_CONTEST_3.0_WEB.pdf. A final caveat on this choice of structure is that the author will sometimes veer away from precise UK designations about what is covered under each pillar of Contest, but this is not relevant for the discussion at hand which is merely using Contest as a frame with which to structure a discussion.

2 “National Risk Register,” Cabinet Office (UK), 2008, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/ uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/61934/ national_risk_register.pdf.

3 “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” White House, December 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp- content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017- 0905.pdf.

4 “Full text of Xi Jinping’s report at 19th CPC National Congress,” Xinhua, October 18, 2017, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/special/2017- 11/03/c_136725942.htm.

5 Marisa Taylor, “Exclusive: U.S. slashed CDC staff inside China prior to coronavirus outbreak,” Reuters, March 26, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us- health-coronavirus-china-cdc-exclusiv/exclusive-u-s-slashed-cdc-staff-inside-china-prior-to-coronavirus-outbreak-idUSKBN21C3N5.

6 Tim Harford, “Why we fail to prepare for disasters,” Financial Times, April 16, 2020 https://www.ft.com/content/74e5f04a-7df1-11ea- 82f6-150830b3b99a.

7 Two caveats to this are the event of another major terror attack which might once again shift people’s perceptions of risk, and the fact that over time this perception will likely shift again.

8 Nikita Malik, “Self-isolation might stop Coronavirus, but it will speed the spread of extremism,” Foreign Policy, March 26, 2020 https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/26/self-isolation- might-stop-coronavirus-but-spread-extremism/.

9 Kelly-Leigh Cooper, “Oklahoma City bombing: The day domestic terror shook America,” BBC News, April 19, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-51735115.

10 The two separate cases of Edouard Moreno and Timothy Wilson illustrate this threat. Moreno tried to derail a train in the Port of Los Angeles and Wilson tried to attack a Kansas City hospital preparing to deal with COVID-19. Both claimed to highlight the dangerous expansion of government. For more on Moreno: “Train Operator at Port of Los Angeles Charged with Derailing Locomotive Near US Navy’s Hospital Ship Mercy,” Department of Justice Press Release, April 1, 2020, https://www.justice.gov/usao- cdca/pr/train-operator-port-los-angeles-charged- derailing-locomotive-near-us-navy-s-hospital and Wilson; Emily Rittman and Maggie Holmes, “Court documents reveal new details in Raymore man’s alleged hospital bombing plot,” KCTV News, April 8, 2020, https://www.kctv5.com/news/local_news/court-documents-reveal-new-details-in-raymore-mans-alleged-hospital-bombing-plot/article_53ac1f4c-7a01-11ea-a72a-1ba92e352c7b.html.

11 For example, Andrew Silke “Risk assessment of terrorist and extremist prisoners,” in A. Silke (ed.), Prisons, Terrorism and Extremism: Critical Issues in Management, Radicalisation and Reform, (London: Routledge, 2014), pp.108-121; Omi Hodwitz “The Terrorism Recidivism Study (TRS): Examining Recidivism Rates for Post-9/11 Offenders,” Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 13, No. 2 (April 2019) conclude the problem is limited; Mary Beth Altier, Emma Leonard Boyle & John G. Horgan (2019): Returning to the Fight: An Empirical Analysis of Terrorist Reengagement and Recidivism, Terrorism and Political Violence conclude the opposite.

12 Eric Rosand and Emily Winterbotham, “Do counter-narratives actually reduce violent extremism?” Brookings Institution, March 20, 2019 https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from- chaos/2019/03/20/do-counter-narratives-actually- reduce-violent-extremism/.

13 Officials in Wuhan noted an immediate surge in travel in the wake of the lifting of the strict quarantine there.

14 There are of course counter examples, with IS success in Syria-Iraq being the most recent example. But in many of the cases where success can be evaluated, it involves a level of contact resulting in taking on the state as a military force. Terrorism campaigns in otherwise peaceful societies have not for the most part resulted in the same level of impact.

15 “Trump defends calling coronavirus the Chinese virus,” Al-Jazeera, March 23, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/newsfeed/2 020/03/trump-defends-calling-coronavirus-chinese- virus-200323102618665.html.

16 Danny Vincent, “Africans in China: We face coronavirus discrimination,” BBC News, April 17, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa- 52309414.

More belated posting, this time a short comment for RSIS with excellent new colleague Sinan. We had actually written this a little while ago, but it got buried under the COVID-19 coverage. This is a potential problem which may yet express itself more dangerously.

ISIS in the Maldives?

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Raffaello PantucciMohammed Sinan Siyech

ICPVTR / RSIS / Commentaries / Country and Region Studies / East Asia and Asia Pacific / Global / South Asia / Southeast Asia and ASEAN / Terrorism Studies

03 APRIL 2020

Synopsis

The February 2020 stabbing of three tourists in the Maldives has raised the prospect of terror in paradise. There are numerous indicators to suggest a potential threat in the Maldives, but it remains unclear whether this incident was simply a one-off or the beginning of something more serious.

Commentary

THE STABBING of three tourists recently in the Maldives has raised the prospect of terrorism in the popular tourist destination. The style of the attack, the subsequent video aping ISIS’ style, and the broader backdrop against which it comes, point to being inspired by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

The attacks were reported as an isolated incident, though media has suggested authorities might be re-opening an earlier investigation into the stabbing of a Turkish tourist in December. The video emulating ISIS style and tone threatened more attacks, though the group itself has been quiet about the attack so far.

Long-time Coming?

The attack has been a long time coming. With roughly 250 fighters, and about 1400 alleged radicalised individuals, out of a population of 350,000, the Maldives has amongst the highest per capita instances of foreign terrorist fighters around the world. For some time, there has been fear that an exodus of fighters from the Maldives might return home bringing terrorist violence with them.

There is a history of foreign militant fighters from the Maldives going back to the war in Afghanistan. There have been killings of journalists and bloggers on the islands that have been blamed on violent Islamist groups, though questions have been raised around motivations.

The last major incident was an attempted bombing in 2007 in Male which injured a dozen tourists. The networks involved then were also present in supporting ISIS. Moreover, A couple of weeks after the stabbing incident, authorities raided properties in Naifaru island of Lhaviyani Atoll claiming to have disrupted a bomb-making plot. No charges were pressed.

Identifying Trends

There are a few indicators which bear attention. First, there have been incidents in the past few years where ISIS-linked or inspired attackers have launched attacks against visiting foreigners: Tunisia (2015), Tajikistan (2018) and Sri Lanka (2019) are prominent examples. The different sorts of attacks and the nature of the links to ISIS all show how tourists present themselves as easy targets for ISIS adherents (either inspired or directed).

In each of those cases, local tensions – including inequality, anger at government and a sense of injustice – translated into violence against foreigners. Striking visiting foreigners assuages some of this anger, brings international attention to the situation, and undermines local authorities. All of which makes it an easy fit into the ISIS playbook.

Second, there are existing violent operators in the Maldives like drug smugglers and other criminal gangs. There has been evidence of such individuals being specifically recruited into ISIS networks. ISIS narrative offers itself as a source of redemption for previous criminals. Their propensity for violence and access to criminal networks makes these recruits convenient assets within extremist networks.

Third, there is a problem of fundamentalism on the margins of society. During former president Abdul Gayoom’s rule (1978–2008), many scholars such as Muhammad Ibrahim who did not toe the official line were exiled to islands where they continued preaching their exclusivist messages. Over time, his influence has spread across Maldivian society with his students inspiring attacks such as the above mentioned 2007 bombing and having linkages to ISIS.

Closing the Maldivian Pandora’s Box

Currently, it is unclear as to the degree to which local authorities have the capability or experience to manage either violent networks at home or those that might return from Syria/Iraq or Afghanistan.

For instance, there are links and communications between those abroad and Maldivians back home via encrypted platforms, but there has been little coverage of rehabilitation or other programmes to engage returnees. Understanding the connectivity, the flows home and how to effectively manage such individuals is going to be a crucial task for the authorities.

The fact that not much support for this attack has been forthcoming is confusing; but it might reflect earlier divisions amongst the Maldivian radical community who were cleaved in two when ISIS broke from Jabhat al Nusra in the early days of the Syrian civil war. It might also simply reflect ISIS’ general state of chaos at the moment.

Key Question

The key question at this stage is whether the government has indeed been able to roll up the entirety of this network. Once the profiles are made public, it will be important to note whether any are returnees or the extent of their links to terrorist groups or networks. While the West has not suffered many attacks involving returnees, there have been lethal attacks in Southeast Asian countries involving battle hardened individuals. This escalates the risk profile in the Maldives.

The government has not been complacent so far about the potential danger. They have been identifying extremist preachers and raising threat levels across the nation while also engaging in religious counter messaging. However, despite arrests, they have not been able to prosecute returnees or address root causes such as corruption and lack of employment for youth.

Given their relative inexperience in managing such threats, it will be important to cooperate with international partners. The country has formulated a national action plan on preventing violent extremism with international support; it will be important to implement any work that flows from it.

Beyond this, it will be important to see whether terrorist or extremist networks gain access to better weaponry. Another indicator will be whether ISIS or Al Qaeda-affiliated groups start to raise the profile of the Maldives as a potential target in South Asia. Given that ISIS continues to face pressure on the battlefield, a major attack on a soft target like the Maldives, whether inspired or directed by the group, would provide a useful ideological boost.

About the Authors

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence, Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. Mohammed Sinan Siyech is Senior Analyst at ICPVTR.

Almost done with my slow catch up posting (and will do a media round-up in the next one), but here posting a recent piece for my new institutional home in Singapore, RSIS, for their online journal Counter Terrorist Trends and Analysis (CTTA). The piece focuses on the impact of General Soleimani’s death on the jihadist scene and Iran’s relationship with Sunni jihadists in general.

Soleimani’s Assassination: Could Jihadist Groups Benefit?

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Synopsis

While the geopolitical implications of General Qassim Soleimani’s killing have been well discussed, an understudied aspect is its impact on the jihadist terrorist milieu. The general assumption is that the act is either tangential to or undermines the fight against the Islamic State (IS), given Iran’s role in anti-IS operations on the ground in the Levant. However, it is not clear that either of these assumptions are true, or in what ways Soleimani’s death and its consequences might shape the future behaviour of jihadists.

The Current Milieu

On the surface, the global jihadist landscape remains dominated by two core factions – those aligned with al Qaeda (AQ) and those closer to IS. However, some jihadist factions continue to hedge against outwardly joining either side, and groups elsewhere around the world have pledged allegiance to IS, but with little evidence of a direct link or connection. At the ground level, it is sometimes not clear that individual adherents see the distinction in the same way that leadership cadres might, with arrests showing caches of radical material drawing from both pools. Similarly, in West Africa, there is growing evidence of cooperation between IS and AQ, though it is not clear if this is centrally mandated or coordinated.1

The growing importance of Africa in both groups’ global footprint is a more noticeable trend. For IS, that is represented through the growing influence and presence of IS-linked or inspired groups eager to brandish their connections – for example, there has been an increase in violence in the Sahel,2 Nigeria3 and Mozambique4 linked to groups that have been releasing videos through IS channels. AQ also continues to be represented on the battlefield through their own affiliates, though they appear less vocal. The growing reported alignment between AQ and IS-linked groups in the Sahel is an interesting regional development – unique globally according to senior US military officials serving in the region5 – whose larger significance is not yet clear.

Coherent Messaging

The exception in some ways for AQ is al Shabaab in East Africa, which has managed to demonstrate a constant capability and willingness to attempt ambitious attacks, while also maintaining a persistent public deference to AQ central.6 IS has recently also taken to pushing a pan-regional narrative in direct competition to al Shabaab.7 The link to AQ core is something that is reflected across the range of AQ affiliated groups who have in recent months shown a considerable degree of coherent messaging.8

IS in contrast continues to push to inspire wherever it can, with messages in support of its affiliates. While there is an equal degree of coherence in terms of style of messaging with AQ linked groups, it does not necessarily seem to fulfil the same role of seeking to bolster the centre and show higher levels of organisational coherence. In the wake of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s death, there appeared to be a rush from around the world of groups pledging allegiance to the new IS leader, with little clarity about how this affects the various groups or cells themselves.9 Given the continued questions around IS’ new leader – with some in the security community even doubting his existence – IS certainly appears to be less concerned about global organisational coherence than AQ.10

Focus on Local Conflicts

At the same time, neither group appears at the moment in a position to launch a strategically significant strike against the West or out of their immediate areas of operation. It is possible such plots are being disrupted, but, regardless, the net result is a loss in visible effectiveness. In some parts of the world, local authority weakness, societal fissures or external tensions have created a context where the group, or a cell pledging loyalty to them, might launch a strike.11 But evidence of centrally directed plots successfully launched by either group over the past year is lacking.

Rather, the groups appear to be focused on local conflicts in which they sometimes use the rhetoric of an international attack as a garb to shroud their attacks with greater meaning. For example, Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula’s (AQAP) most recent claim of responsibility of the Pensacola terrorist attack in Florida, showed little evidence of a connection beyond the group claiming the assailant as one of its own given his nationality as a Saudi.12

Iranian Manipulation

Contrary to popular consensus that it is the sworn enemy of Sunni jihadists, Iran has shown itself to be a pragmatic actor in dealing with violent Sunni groups. This partly stems from a well-spring of early support from across the Muslim divide for the Iranian revolution. In the early days of the revolution in 1979, the overthrow of the Shah was treated as an event in the same light as the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan or the Siege of Mecca – whereby dedicated believers, armed only with guns, the Koran and the zeal of their beliefs, were able to overthrow (or hurt) long-standing apostate regimes. The focus was on Islam and anti-imperialism rather than Sunni-Shia divides.13

Support of Violent Extremists

While Iran has continued to maintain its rhetoric of permanent revolution – something alluded to within its constitution14 – providing a logic that connected it with anti-imperialist movements around the world, for the most part, its links to violent groups have been highly pragmatic. For example, Iran has historically been supportive of Turkish Hezbollah, a Sunni group that has targeted Kurdish groups as well as Turkish authorities.15 From an Iranian perspective, supporting such a group is partly motivated by a desire to control Iran’s own Kurdish separatist regions as well as providing them a card to play against Turkey.

Since the early days of the revolution, Iran has also supported Hamas against Israel.16 Further, looking to Iran’s complicated border region with Pakistan, the long-standing Baluchi insurgency on both sides of the border has generated repeated accusations by Pakistan that Tehran is providing support to some Baluchi elements, specifically the Baloch Raji Aajoi Saangar (BRAS),17 a Sunni group that has targeted Pakistani security officials. Iran’s support appears tit-for-tat, but also an expression of concern against growing Saudi influence in Pakistan and particular investments in Baluchistan.

Iran’s relationship with the Taliban and AQ is also complicated. For years post-9/11, Iran hosted a number of senior AQ figures, alternatively jailing them and letting them run around under fairly loose supervision. This included senior figures like Saif al Adl and a number of Osama bin Laden’s close family. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the subsequent founder of al Qaeda in Iraq (the precursor to IS) was allowed to pass through Iran as he fled Afghanistan for northern Iraq.18 Iran appears to have held these individuals hostage as negotiating leverage as well as to protect themselves against future attacks by AQ. Nonetheless, relations between AQ and Iran have remained consistently antagonistic, something evidenced by comments within Osama bin Laden’s correspondence found in Abbottabad.19

In 1998, when the Taliban overran Mazar-e-Sharif, they reportedly massacred a group of 11 Iranians (including 9 diplomats), pushing the two sides to the brink of war.20 This soured relations such that following the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan by the United States, Tehran actively reached out to the US offering detailed maps of Taliban positions to aid in its attack plans.21 However, as the AmericanIranian relationship soured, the relationship between the Taliban and Tehran flourished. To the point that there was a Taliban Mashhad Shura formed, as well as Iranian support for Taliban groups in the north and west of Afghanistan.22 Iran’s calculations here appear to be driven by a desire to keep its hand in play in Afghanistan as well as formulate another way to frustrate the US.

Pragmatic Relations

The key takeaway from all of this interaction with the Sunni jihadist world is that Tehran is highly pragmatic in its relations with them. While there are clear moments of conflict, Iran is seemingly willing to overlook them in order to advance broader strategic goals. This perspective will unlikely change following the removal of Soleimani. Unlike a terrorist group, where the leader is a figure around whom great mystique, ideology and personal linkages flow, Soleimani was simply (albeit very charismatic) the leader of an army – an organisation with a fixed hierarchy and goals, promotion and division of labour. The overall approach may be massaged by a leader, but ultimately the institution will have political perspectives that are dictated elsewhere. This will not change with the removal of a general.

Jihadists’ View of Iran

While Iran may have a highly pragmatic and agnostic view of Sunni jihadist groups, it is equally clear that the groups themselves have fairly firm views on Iran. The clearest expression of this is in the numerous postings that appeared on extremist social media channels in the wake of Soleimani’s death. While AQ did not make a formal statement, its affiliate on the ground in Syria, Hurras al Din, celebrated his demise.23

In contrast, IS was more open in its gloating, with a message in late January from its new spokesman, Abu Hamza al Qarashi, celebrating Soleimani’s death, describing him as a ‘Safavid apostate’ and calling on God to curse him and all who supported him.24 The message followed an earlier one in IS’ newsletter al Naba, which hailed Soleimani’s death as a victory for the jihadist group.25 There was also substantial condemnation amongst the jihadist community for Hamas’ stance on Soleimani’s death.26

This does not mean jihadists would be averse to once again strike pragmatic deals with Iran if they advance broader strategic goals. They may shout anti-Iran rhetoric, and IS has in the past sought to accelerate its conflict with Iran with its June 2017 attack on the Parliament and Mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini, which followed its first ever Persian-language video.27 But outside this attack, the group has done little in advance of its animosity towards the Islamic Republic (though Iran has claimed numerous foiled attacks).

Moreover, while both IS and AQ might see Shi’ite apostates as enemies, it is not clear how much they are dependent on this narrative to generate supporters and recruits. It is notable, for example, that in IS’ messages claiming the 2017 attack in Tehran, they sought to emphasise the ethnicities of the various attackers – highlighting their Baluchi and Ahvazi heritage; two minorities within Iran with strained relations with Tehran.28 This suggests a narrative around the attack that attempts to manipulate local politics and tensions rather than rely solely on the simplistic Sunni-Shia divide.

Broader Geopolitics

While Iran is seen as the heart of an alliance of apostates that is oppressing Sunni Muslims in the Middle East, the jihadist community still seems fixated on its enemies in the West and the regimes they are supporting around the world. The Shia may also be seen as adversaries, but arguably, they are not a principal focus of the jihadist community. Soleimani’s death is unlikely to change the calculations for both sides (Tehran and the jihadist community) a vast amount.

Continued Operations Across Middle East

This is not to say that in key theatres where AQ and IS operate, including in Iraq and Syria, Soleimani’s death will not have some effect. While physically decimated, IS is still estimated to carry out 60 attacks a month in Iraq alone targeting security forces and local rivals, as it seeks to regroup around an estimated 20,000 hardcore fighters across the Iraq-Syria theatre.29 While concerned about IS’ regrowth in Syria, Iran will likely continue to focus their efforts through either their forces on the ground or Iraqi or Syrian proxies. The removal of Soleimani is not going to change this approach.

Rather, the greater impact will be on the broader US-Iran clash, where the escalation marked by the removal of Soleimani will give Iran and its proxies a greater sense of latitude in their operations. This will concern Saudi Arabia, Iran’s principle adversary in the Gulf, who has been noticeably careful in official statements to downplay any gloating over Soleimani’s death.30

This perspective provides an interesting resonance to the broader question of the longer-term consequence of the strike for Sunni jihadist groups. For the US, this strike was part of a maximum pressure campaign against Iran that appears to be intended to topple the Tehran regime. It also came as the US continued to agitate to withdraw its troops from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. If US President Donald Trump is successful in his desire to pull US forces out of these Middle Eastern theatres, the resultant vacuum is one that will likely be filled by instability or Iran-Saudi tensions.

Filling the Security Vacuum

These tensions might express themselves through proxies like Sunni jihadist groups, but it is likely that these groups’ actions will be a combination of manipulation and individual agency. While IS and AQ (or other Sunni jihadist groups like the Taliban or those in Syria) might take advantage of the security vacuum that follows a US withdrawal to grow once again, their adversaries (including Iran) will likely retaliate. This will give Iran’s foes an opportunity to provide support to their enemies’ enemy. So, as IS advances and the Iraqi and Syrian sides push back against them with Iranian support, it would be unsurprising if some support flows towards IS from Gulf backers.31

Similarly, in Afghanistan in the peace deal that was signed, the Taliban seemed to appear willing to sever their links with AQ.32 While there has been much scepticism around this declaration and earlier intent by the Taliban to sever such links,33 the new agreement might provide a context in which Tehran could once again seek to play its cards with AQ to maintain some leverage against Taliban – a group with which they have deep historical enmity which may have only temporarily been put to one side. It might also be useful leverage in Iran’s broader conflict with the US – who by virtue of the latest agreement are (theoretically at least) now allied with the Taliban against AQ and IS.

Conclusion

The Sunni jihadist milieu is one that paints itself as ideologically pure. Yet it can be as brutally pragmatic as its state-based adversaries. In Tehran, the leadership also appears happy to cooperate with its perceived adversaries to ensure broader strategic goals. The death of General Soleimani will not alter such calculations, and rather may herald a period of greater confrontation between Iran and the world which will have the corollary effect of both weakening some of the alliances fighting against Sunni jihadist groups (for example in Iraq and Syria) while also increasing the willingness for Iran to use or manipulate proxies to launch attacks around the world.

Given the disruption or success of historical plots by Iranian linked networks in places as diverse as Thailand, India, Georgia, Cyprus, Argentina, Nigeria, Bulgaria, and the US, amongst others, the conflict against its enemies (Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia) from Tehran’s perspective has no borders. While a permanent alignment between Tehran and IS or AQ is unlikely, there is not likely to be much of a focused effort in eradicating either group by Tehran. In fact, it is possible and likely that Tehran will see IS, AQ and their various affiliates as useful potential assets to manipulate (if they are able) in their increasingly aggressive confrontation with the US.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence, Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit within the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be contacted at israffaello@ntu.edu.sg.

1 Eric Schmitt, “Terrorism Threat in West Africa Soars as US Weighs Troop Cuts,” New York Times, February 27, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/27/world/africa/ter rorism-west-africa.html.

2 Jason Burke, “Sahel faces surge in violence from terror attacks,” Guardian, January 22, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/22/sah el-faces-surge-in-violence-from-terror-attacks.

3 “Islamic State in Nigeria ‘beheads Christian hostages’,” BBC News, December 27, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-50924266.

4 Peter Fabricius, “Is Islamic State taking charge of Mozambique’s jihadist insurgency,” Institute for Security Studies Today, January 10, 2020, https://issafrica.org/iss-today/is-islamic-state-takingcharge-of-mozambiques-jihadist-insurgency.

5 Adrian Blomfield and Will Brown, “British troops back on front line against jihadists as war on terror spreads to Africa,” Telegraph, March 1, 2020, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/03/01/britishtroops-back-front-line-against-jihadists-war-terror/.

6 The attack on the Dusit hotel in Nairobi in January 2019 (James Kahongeh, “How Dusit terror attack unfolded,” Daily Nation, January 15, 2020, https://www.nation.co.ke/news/How-Dusit-terrorattack-unfolded/1056-5418518-bp715yz/index.html) and the attack on US and Italian forces in September 2019 (Caleb Weiss, “Sahabaab strikes American, Italian forces in Somalia,” Long War Journal, September 30, 2019, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2019/09/shabaab-strikes-american-italian-forces-in-somalia.php) show ambition, while their praise of AQAP’s Pensacola attack claim and the reference in the Dusit attack to being Zawahiri’s soldiers shows deference: “Blessing and Salutations for the Military Operation at the US navy base in Pensacola, Florida,” Al Kataib Media, February 2, 2020, https://twitter.com/Magdashi3/status/12249689 22329505792.

7 “Islamic State video seeks recruits in East Africa,” BBC Monitoring, February 28, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201hy23 – it is also notable how al Shabaab is being reported as broadening its recruitment base, Nicholas Komu, “AlShabaab changes tack, targets jobless youths in Nyeri slums,” Daily Nation, March 1, 2020, https://www.nation.co.ke/news/Al-Shabaab-targetsyouth-in-Nyeri-slums/1056-5474832- xagos9z/index.html.

8 This can be seen in some of the aforementioned incidents, but also see Caleb Weiss, “Al Qaeda’s general command praises recent Shabaab attacks,” Long War Journal, October 17, 2019, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2019/10/alqaeda-praises-recent-shabaab-attacks.php.

9 “Regional affiliates start pledging loyalty to new IS leader,” November 2, 2019, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c2017fwd; Mina al-Lami, “Analysis: Decoding Islamic State’s allegiance videos,” BBC Monitoring, October 7, 2019, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c20150sr

10 Mina al-Lami, “Analysis: Ongoing uncertainties about identity of new Islamic State leader,” BBC Monitoring, January 24, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201eozr and Martin Chulov and Mohammed Rasool, ISIS founding member confirmed by spies as group’s new leader,” Guardian, January 20, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/20/isisleader-confirmed-amir-mohammed-abdul-rahman-almawli-al-salbi; there appears to be a debate about his identity which even a report in the Guardian reportedly sourced from numerous intelligence sources has not cleared up. IS’ recent statement referred to the new leader again, without showing him.

11 The Easter 2019 attack in Sri Lanka is arguably an archetypal example of this.

12 Thomas Joscelyn, “AQAP claims ‘full responsibility’ for shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola,” Long War Journal, February 2, 2020, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2020/02/aq ap-claims-full-responsibility-for-shooting-at-naval-airstation-pensacola.php.

13 Emmanuel Sivan, “Sunni radicalism in the Middle East and the Iranian Revolution,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol.21, no.1, February 1989, pp.1-30.

14 “Chapter One: Tehran’s Strategic Intent,” Iran’s Networks of Influence in the Middle East, (IISS Strategic Dossier: London), November 2019, pp.11- 38, https://www.iiss.org/publications/strategicdossiers/iran-dossier/iran-19-03-ch-1-tehransstrategic-intent.

15 Fatih Altayli, “Is Iran Supporting Turkish Hezbollah?,” Al Monitor, April 16, 2013, https://www.almonitor.com/pulse/security/2013/04/turkey-iranhezbollah-support.html; there is a live debate about the degree to which Iran is involved with the group. People close to the group deny (“Huda-Pars emergence,” The Economist, November 23, 2013) while Turkish sources tend to highlight links (Mustafa Cosar Unal and Tuncay Unal, “Recruitment or enlistment? Individual integration into the Turkish Hezbollah,” Turkish Studies, vol. 19, No.3, 2018, pp.327-362)

16 Adnan Abu Amer, “The Hamas-Iran alliance remains and expands,” Middle East Monitor, January 14, 2019, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20190114-thehamas-iran-alliance-remains-and-expands/; “Chapter One: Tehran’s Strategic Intent,” Iran’s Networks of Influence in the Middle East, (IISS Strategic Dossier: London), November 2019, pp.11-38, https://www.iiss.org/publications/strategicdossiers/iran-dossier/iran-19-03-ch-1-tehransstrategic-intent.

17 Shahaburddin Shahab, “Pakistan asks Iran to act on militants behind Baluchistan killings,” Reuters, April 20, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/uspakistan-iran/pakistan-asks-iran-to-act-on-militantsbehind-baluchistan-killings-idUSKCN1RW0EQ.

18 Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden (UK: Bloomsbury), August 2017.

19 Nelly Lahoud, “Al-Qa’ida’s Contested Relationship with Iran: The View from Abbottabad,” New America Foundation, September 2018, https://s3.amazonaws.com/newamericadotorg/docu ments/AlQaidas_Contested_Relationship_with_Iran_2018- 08-20_151707.pdf.

20 Douglas Jehl, “Iran holds Taliban responsible for 9 diplomats’ deaths,” New York Times, September 11, 1998, https://www.nytimes.com/1998/09/11/world/iranholds-taliban-responsible-for-9-diplomatsdeaths.html.

21 Dexter Filkins, “The Shadow Commander,” New Yorker, September 23, 2013, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/09/30/th e-shadow-commander.

22 Javid Ahmad and Husain Haqqani, “What does Soleimani’s death mean for Afghanistan?,” The Hill, February 6, 2020, https://thehill.com/opinion/international/481884-whatdoes-soleimanis-death-mean-for-afghanistan.

23 “Syria-based jihadist group reportedly welcomes Soleimani’s death,” BBC Monitoring, January 12, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201dr8l.

24 “Text of IS spokesman’s message announcing new phase in jihad,” BBC Monitoring, January 27, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201f2pb.

25 “IS gloats at death of Soleimani in first comment on US-Iran crisis,” January 9, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201dfp7.

26 “Jihadist supporters condemn Hamas for mourning Soleimani,” BBC Monitoring, January 7, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201d54j.

27 Chris Zambelis, “Terror in Tehran: The Islamic State Goes to War with the Islamic Republic,” CTC Sentinel, vol.10, no.6, June/July 2017, https://ctc.usma.edu/terror-in-tehran-the-islamicstate-goes-to-war-with-the-islamic-republic/.

28 Ibid.

29 Loveday Morris and Louisa Loveluck, “Killing of ISIS leader has not hurt group’s operations, says Iraqi Kurdish prime minister,” Washington Post, February 15, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/killing-of-isisleader-has-not-hurt-groups-operations-says-iraqikurdish-leader/2020/02/15/d3e7303a-4ff8-11eaa4ab-9f389ce8ad30_story.html

30 Yasmine Farouk, “What does the US killing of Soeimani mean for Saudi Arabia?,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Commentary, January 7, 2020, https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/01/07/whatdoes-u.s.-killing-of-soleimani-mean-for-saudi-arabiapub-80722

31 Martin Williams, “Factcheck Q&A: Is Saudi Arabia funding ISIS?,” Channel 4 News, June 7, 2017, https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/factcheck -qa-is-saudi-arabia-funding-isis

32 “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America,” February 29, 2020, https://www.state.gov/wpcontent/uploads/2020/02/Agreement-For-BringingPeace-to-Afghanistan-02.29.20.pdf

33 This skepticism was well articulated by Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, “Trump’s Bad Deal with the Taliban,” Politico, March 18, 2019, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/03/18/ donald-trump-afghanistan-zalmay-khalilzad-225815 and was particularly illustrated in the death of Asim Umar in Afghanistan in September 2019, “Asim Umar: Al-Qaeda’s South Asia chief ‘killed in Afghanistan’,” BBC News, October 8, 2019 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-49970353.

Almost up to date, now my inaugural piece for my new Singaporean home RSIS in the form of one of their commentaries, this time looking at the recent spate of terrorist incidents in the UK using the Streatham attack as the peg.

Responding to Streatham: Managing Low-Tech Terrorist Threat

Raffaello Pantucci

ICPVTR / Commentaries / Country and Region Studies / Europe / Middle East and North Africa (MENA)

10 February 2020

Synopsis

The 2 Feb Streatham attack in south London does not appear to have been part of a larger plot. But it has once again shone a negative light on the UK’s approach to counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation, this time under the newly appointed government.

Commentary

ON 2 FEBRUARY 2020, the south London district of Streatham saw a knife-and-fake bomb attack in which a man was shot dead by police after stabbing two people. ISIS claim of responsibility has little credible evidence; despite the young man’s reported pledge of allegiance to ISIS, there is no proof they were in contact.

The attack, however, comes against a political context which will demand some reaction. The re-installed Tory government has now faced three incidents on its watch. The outward similarities in all three draws public attention. The United Kingdom fears that it could find itself in the midst of another 2017 when the country suffered five terrorist attacks in relatively quick succession.

More Copycat Attacks?

The most immediate concern for authorities will be the possibility of a copycat incident of some sort. The Streatham attack itself was already a copy. The knife-and-fake-bomb model is one that was deployed in 2017 on London Bridge, on London Bridge again in November 2019, and then in Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) Whitemoor in early January 2020 when a convicted terrorist offender and a prisonmate attacked prison guards with bladed weapons and fake suicide vests.

Further emulation might be possible given the simplicity and relative success (in media terms) of the attack. The approach of using knife-and-fake-bomb is a new innovation that has been proven to deliver easy success. The Streatham attack showed how you could wait until the moment of attack to arm yourself, completely compressing the time to attack.

It is hard to completely assess at this stage the exact nature of inspiration that the three plots played towards each other. But on the basis of previous chains it is likely that any subsequent spontaneous ones are likely to come sooner rather than later. More considered plots do not necessarily fall within this analytical framework.

Undirected “Campaign” of Lone Actors

At this stage, the Streatham attack appears as an isolated act. However, as 2017 showed in the UK, a terrorist campaign no longer needs to come in the form of a series of directed attacks; it can also happen to a series of incidents like this. Both Al Qaeda and ISIS have championed the lone actor model of attack repeatedly.

Understanding how to analyse potential lone actors from a pool of potential offenders was a major question to emerge from 2017, and it will likely now be revisited again.

It is worth noting that security authorities were very concerned about the Streatham attacker. The fact he was being monitored as he went about his Sunday business by an undercover armed response unit (armed response units are rare in the UK) shows a high level of risk management assessment.

The high level of concern was visible earlier as well. The counter-terrorism lead at the time of his detention and the sentencing judge all publicly expressed concern about his level of radicalisation. Reporting from his time in prison has suggested that he refused engagement with de-radicalisation programmes.

Offender Management in Prison

A running theme between the London Bridge, HMP Whitemoor and Streatham incidents is prison. However, there are differences that are important to highlight. While the Streatham incident took place days after the offender’s release, the London Bridge attacker waited over a year to launch his attack, for some part of which he engaged with a de-radicalisation programme.

In contrast, the HMP Whitemoor offender still has a number of years on his sentence (a sentence which is likely now to become longer). It is therefore hard to judge where the useful comparison is to assess where the problems might lie.

Recidivism is rare among UK terrorist offenders – prior to the London Bridge attack last year, no successful plots involving recidivists had been seen. While there is a cadre of radicalised individuals who consistently show up on charges for various related offences (often individuals drawn from the Al Muhajiroun community), actual attacks (or plots) by people previously convicted of terrorism offences is a relatively new innovation in the UK context.

Prior to the current cluster, the UK had only seen two since the conflict in Syria started (out of around 40 or so plots that have been disrupted or taken place).

Youth Radicalisation and Long-term Monitoring

Another similarity between the three recent cases is the relative youth at the time of first offence of the three men. The Streatham attacker was 17 when he first came to authorities’ attention, the London Bridge attacker’s house was first raided by counter-terrorism authorities when he was 17 and the HMP Whitemoor offender was 18 when he was arrested on his way to launch a knife attack.

Aside from what this means for radicalisation, it presents a long-term issue for authorities when it is considered alongside the fact that the UK has seen a terrorist attack by a 52-year-old (London Bridge, March 2017). Authorities may have decades of monitoring ahead of them with all of the expense and resource that entails.

Beyond Deradicalisation Programmes

The attacks have drawn attention to the effectiveness of de-radicalisation programmes. While the Streatham attacker refused to engage, the London Bridge attacker before him had been engaged for some time before stopping in the months prior to his attack. In other words, de-radicalisation programmes are not relevant across all of the cases and such dramatic failures are a new phenomenon in the UK.

The UK has had almost two decades of Islamist terror offenders, but only recently are we seeing such attacks from amongst recidivists. At the same time, it is clear that this is where the current heart of the problem lies given the growing number of people coming out of prisons or back from Syria.

This means more offenders (or people of concern) who will need attention for longer. The idea of using probation services better to manage such offenders is good, but this means probation needs a considerable uplift.

Streatham is now the 11th known attack with Islamist links that the UK has seen since the Conservatives took power in 2010. While the nature of the threat has changed, it is not clear that all aspects of the response have kept up.

Problematically, however, the current commentary emanating from Whitehall suggests that the response is likely to focus on punitive measures pandering to a political base.

About the Author

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence, Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.