Some catch up posting from this week, starting with a new piece for my institutional home RUSI with one of our Senior Distinguished Fellows, and former Assistant Commissioner for Specialist Operations (ACSO) for the Metropolitan Police Sir Mark Rowley.

Despite Territorial Defeat, Islamist Terrorism Will Continue to be a Threat

Mark Rowley and Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary14 March 2019
International Security StudiesNational SecurityTerrorism

Daesh, Al-Qa’ida and other terrorist organisations may appear to be in current retreat. But rather than being eradicated, they have scattered. The violent extremism they have spawned has not entirely disappeared and understanding how it might evolve is going to be a central preoccupation for security planners.

 

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A bomb in Derry/Londonderry, warnings about a political environment that is fertile ground for the extreme right, and a letter bombing campaign linked to Irish-related terrorists all show that the terrorist threat to the UK has more dimensions now than just the menace of violent Islamism. But jihadist threats persist and have changed from the more organised and conventional Al-Qa’ida network that was the prior focus of attention. We continue to face a persistent violent Islamist threat that exists in parallel to the noisier threats dominating the media. The open-source violent Islamist cult of terrorism that scattered its ideology across the web to hook the angry and the vulnerable is now showing signs of seeding new threats around the world.

Raqqa, the Syrian stronghold of Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS), may have fallen, but the ideas and people involved have not gone away. The nihilistic cult that the group promoted from its bases in Syria and Iraq was part social experiment in building a utopian state, and part mini social movement with global reach. Fostered through an easily accessible ideology with a low threshold to entry for membership, packaged around an easy explanation of how the world worked, and disseminated using social media and messages created in easily shareable fashion, it was and is an exceptionally diffuse ideology.

This was a major reason why Daesh was able to achieve its position on the world stage. Using extreme acts of performative violence while projecting the image of building a state to which all the believers were welcome, it became the dominant alternative ideology in the global discourse.

That power has waned; loss of territory and erosion of leadership have reduced the potency of the message. But Daesh has not gone away. Following defeat on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq, the remains of the organisation could still generate future conflict in the Levant. Internationally, the flames that the group was able to foster during its totemic moments have scattered still-burning embers around the world. Some of these will likely mature into the threats of tomorrow.

Consider a series of incidents and disruptions that took place across Europe last December. These started with the shooting in Strasbourg on December 11, where a radical former petty criminal who was known to authorities as a possible violent Islamist threat decided to go on a shooting rampage after he realised authorities might be about to arrest him. A week or so after his shooting, police in Italy detained Anas Khalil, a Somali national who was allegedly in contact with Daesh in Somalia and was allegedly talking of launching a bombing campaign against churches in Italy. And finally, in the UK, New Year’s celebrations were marred by a stabbing at Manchester’s main train station which led to an individual subsequently being held under the Mental Health Act while also being investigated for a terrorist offence – showing a different potential expression of the threat that we face.

In each of these three incidents a link of some sort can be found to Daesh. Yet the nature of this link is not the usual command and control connection (whereby the terrorist group uses specific direction to advance the plot) that we would ordinarily expect. Instead, it is through Daesh affiliates, individuals latching on to the ideology, or people who are part of a broader network. This is a reflection of a cult ideology that has scattered far and wide, and has now taken root in fertile ground. For the group, the level of link to the individual launching the attack is probably less important than the act itself.

Al-Qa’ida evolved in quite a different manner. After it was hammered by drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan the core of the threat shifted to Yemen, where its strongest affiliate with a deep personal connection to Osama bin Laden could be found. The various Al-Qa’ida affiliates all also stepped forwards into the public eye in their own local ways – leading to attacks like the murderous rampage by Al-Shabaab at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall or Al-Mourabitoun’s hostage-taking of Western oil men in the Algerian deserts at In Amenas. Each of these attacks reflected the group’s local interests, while nodding to the banner organisation’s vision. The degree of command and control from the centre was different, with the group ultimately losing a certain degree of control over the affiliates. It became a network with independent affiliates, rather than a centrally controlled network with a rigid hierarchy and core.

We are now seeing Daesh’s different approach leading to a very different global spread. Its cultish nature has fostered a scattering of its ideology on the wind of the internet. Unlike Al-Qa’ida which demanded some level of linkage and control, Daesh seems happiest letting things blossom and flourish wherever they find fertile conditions. There are examples of them connecting to groups and conflicts in the Philippines, West Africa and the Maldives. Daesh has acknowledged some of the groups as affiliates, while others it simply praises as conducting activities in advance of their ideology. But it is not clear which of these are the priorities for a group which seems just as willing to claim responsibility for things to which it has no link, as for those which it is quite clearly directing.

This poses a new kind of longer-term menace to those tasked with our security. We may be in a stage now when the various seeds scattered to the winds are in their germination stage. Some will wither and die, while others will be spotted and pruned before they can mature into a substantial threat.

This requires new approaches from governments. Identifying those trends which are going to develop into something more substantial is going to require constant attention. Building the resilience of the fragile states where this threat can get a foothold will be important, as aid efforts and security objectives will increasingly overlap.

This model of global Islamist terrorism with a cult-like ideology scattering and fostering independent mini-caliphates to grow will need constant effort to be effectively managed. The danger is that, just as some key Western governments are retreating from internationalism, new terrorist footholds will establish themselves, strengthen themselves and shock us. The surprise leaves us prone to overreaction that only exacerbates the problem. To counter terrorist threats, we need to not only fight them on the ground, but appreciate the reason why they have developed in the first place and calibrate our response appropriately. Only then will we be able to manage them effectively and guarantee our security.

Mark Rowley is former Assistant Commissioner for Specialist Operations at the Metropolitan Police and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at RUSI.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at RUSI.

BANNER IMAGE: A road in London Bridge remains closed after the 2017 terrorist attack. Courtesy of David Holt/Wikimedia

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Another piece for the Telegraph, this time a short analysis piece to go alongside their all page coverage on the announcement of the bounty on Hamza bin Laden’s head. The title does not totally reflect the rest of the text, but there we go.

Separately, spoke to the Daily Mail about Shamina Begum, to the Independent about the practice of stripping passports, to the Scottish Sunday Post about ISIS not going away, and then again to the Independent about what to do with returnees. On the other side of the coin, spoke to the Globe and Mail about what the UK was going to do about Huawei and 5G, to TRT World about China in Afghanistan, Live Mint quoted me about China in South Asia, and finally, I did a long conversation for the wonderful Majilis Podcast with an excellent panel including Muhammad Tahir, Bruce Pannier, and Nadege Rolland – the full podcast can be found here, and the Diplomat subsequently did a write up of the conversation.

Analysis: Can Hamza Bin Laden reinvigorate al-Qaeda as Islamic State falls back?

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We have a remarkably myopic view of terrorist organisations. If they are not on our news channels, the assumption is that they have gone away.

Yet, the reality is that these are organizations that are locked into struggles that they see on millenarian timelines in advance of God’s greater glory.

This is important to remember when thinking about the announcement of a bounty on Hamza bin Laden’s head.

Al-Qaeda as an organisation has not gone away, rather it has of late seemingly chosen to re-focus on fighting what it would describe as the ‘near enemy’ of regimes in the Middle East, rather than the ‘far enemy’ in the West who they see as supporting these apostate leaders in their neighbourhood.

The decision to place a $1 million bounty on his head now is something which more a product of our decision cycle than theirs.

Why this is happening now is difficult to divine without deeper insights into the US government’s decision-making processes.

It is possible that some information has emerged of him moving into a location where such a sum of money would make a difference in someone’s thinking.

It is also possible that this is part of a specific push around him – two days ago the UN added him to its proscribed list, and the Saudi government has now stripped him of his citizenship.

As we start to move away from worrying about Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), it could be a good moment to remind the world of someone identified by the UN “as the most probable successor of [current al-Qaeda leader] al-Zawahiri”.

Now in his late 20s, al-Qaeda seems to have decided it is an opportune moment to elevate Hamza’s profile within the organisation.

A fresh face to counter al-Qaeda’s aging Egyptian head Ayman al Zawahiri, Hamza offers a link to the group’s golden era, and a leader whose stature is still held in veneration around the world.

While yet to prove himself as a leader, Hamza can help refresh the organization through messaging that is shorn of the in-fighting that plagued al-Qaeda during the early years of the Syrian conflict when it fell out dramatically with Isil.

The bounty on his head will no doubt to some degree confirm his elevation amongst those interested in such ideologies – though it is worth noting that $1 million is a fairly paltry sum when put up against the $25 million that is on offer for al Qeada’s leader Ayman al Zawahiri or Isil leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

In fact, look at the US government’s rewards for justice page, and Hamza bin Laden sits firmly at the bottom in a group all of his own.

He has in fact done little to elevate himself to his father’s stature yet, though clearly has aspiration and ambition in that direction.

 

And finally in my catch-up blast, my latest piece this time for the Telegraph this past week after the revelation of Shamina Begum’s discovery in a camp in Syria. The story sparked off a wave of media attention on the topic of jihadi’s abroad. Likely a keen desire by the UK press to get away from the dreaded Brexit story.

Aside from this blast of articles, spoke to the Independent about a child who was questioned by counter-terrorism police, the Washington Post re-used an old interview about what happens when terrorist leaders are killed, spoke to Bloomberg about what was going on in Xinjiang, and in a definite break from ordinary service spoke to AFP about tourism in the Philippines. Finally my below piece for the Telegraph got picked up in AFP’s coverage of the debate around Shamina Begum in the UK and was translated into French and Spanish.

Don’t underestimate the role of female jiahdis like Shamina Begum

British teenagers Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase and Shamima Begum passing through security barriers at Gatwick Airport, south of London, on February 17, 2015. 

We have a dangerous habit of playing down the importance of women in extremist networks. Common prejudices about the ‘fairer sex’ often lead us to assume a passive role. Yet in reality, women are just as engaged as their male counterparts – if not more so. Our assumptions simply support a narrative that removes agency from them.

These facts should be acknowledged when we are deciding what to do with Shamima Begum, a young woman who has made a series of terrible choices but must also be dealt with in a just and transparent manner.

The conflict in Syria has thrown up innumerable questions for our society – chief among them, what to do with the cadre of young Britons initially drawn to fight alongside Isil, who now find themselves detained or lingering in refugee camps as the terrorist group dissolves. The government has so far given little indication or guidance on how to deal with such individuals. Although work is being done in some cases, overall, our strategy seem to be waiting to see how things play out, or else hoping someone else will deal with the problem.

As individual cases emerge, so do new moral conundrums. It is easy to make sweeping statements when we think of the group as an anonymous bloc of people. Yet, when we dig into individual examples, the complexity of the human experience comes to the fore. Each case merits a potentially different response.

Shamima Begum, for example, presents a contradictory narrative. A young woman who first went to Syria as a schoolgirl with two of her friends, she is now a 19-year-old who has married a fighter, buried two children, with a third on the way. Initially viewed as a naïf who was groomed or coerced into the process, she has, it seems, evolved into an unrepentant young ideologue. The truth is probably even more complex.

We have historically underestimated the role of women in extremist networks. Yet looking back on the London 7/7 bombings now, the most infamous and enduring figure remains Samantha Lewthwaite, the notorious ‘White Widow’ who was married to one of the bombers and went on to become a significant figure in East African jihadist networks. Her celebrity spiked during the 2013 attack on the Westgate Mall in Kenya, and her ultimate whereabouts have never been determined, though she remains one of the world’s most wanted terror suspects. Other women from the same network, in contrast, have returned to ordinary lives.

Throughout the history of jihad in Britain, women can be found in the background of networks and cells, supporting their men ideologically, in some cases quite clearly instigating their actions. Yet the overriding view remains that women have little agency in this process. This blind spot can partly be explained by a general failure to understand what draws people to these groups. We can broadly comprehend the male impulse to be involved in ‘exciting’ violent activity but often ignore the fact that these ideas can be as attractive to women as men. And, of course, women have made as much of a choice to be involved. Many will consider joining these groups a form of empowerment.

Samantha Louise Lewthwaite, also known as the White Widow, is one of the world's most wanted terrorism suspects

In fact, the reason so many more women were involved with Isil in Syria is a product of the more coherent and credible state-building narrative that Isil was able to project, alongside the much greater ease with which people could access this battlefield compared to previous conflicts in Afghanistan, Somalia or Yemen.

But all of this is now muddled by the example before us. The already tricky case of a young woman who joined Isil as a minor is further complicated by the presence of an unborn child. The degree to which we need to offer punishment over rehabilitation is mitigated by her age. And while she has clearly done wrong, at present it will prove near-impossible to implement a proper judicial process.

There are no obvious solutions to this emerging problem, but through it all we should remember that Shamina Begum made a conscious decision to join a group responsible for untold misery in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the world. While this should not necessarily condemn her to perpetual limbo, it does mean she should face punishment for her involvement in these crimes. Our priority must now be to establish what that process will look like.

More catch up posting for the South China Morning Post, this time looking again at China’s role in Afghanistan. I now realize a typo in here, specifically in when the attack that killed BLA leader Aslam Baloch took place. It was about a month after the attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi, rather than the ten days I had put here. Also, the phrase ‘Visiting Beijing earlier last year, the outrageous narrative being advanced around Afghanistan was that America was making things worse and was largely the source of problems within the country’ – was not exactly as I meant to phrase it. The word outrageous was one that I meant to be expunged, but I was late to the editorial process.

Does Beijing grasp the portent of embracing Afghanistan and the Taliban?

Raffaello Pantucci says it is not clear that Beijing fully appreciates the role it is taking on by trying to broker peace in strife-torn Afghanistan

The 2018-19 period has been noteworthy in one way: it has seen a flurry of activity between China and Afghanistan.

During that time, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his colleague, Ambassador Deng Xijun, have racked up the air miles doing shuttle diplomacy between Kabul, Islamabad and hosting people in Beijing.

The result of all this manoeuvring was a successful trilateral meeting in Kabul between the foreign ministers of Afghanistan, Pakistan and China – a parley which appears to have helped accelerate the latest round of peace negotiations in Afghanistan’s seemingly endless conflict.

Yet amid the positive mood, it is still not clear what China’s expectations and plans are for Afghanistan. Nor is it clear that Beijing has fully appreciated the central role into which it is increasingly stepping.

The first question to ask is: What has spurred this new surge of Chinese diplomacy?

The answer is simple, and sits in the White House.

Visiting Beijing earlier last year, the outrageous narrative being advanced around Afghanistan was that America was making things worse and was largely the source of problems within the country.

This view needs to be considered in context, as it was the moment at which the broader US-China relationship was going down the drain.

Everything involving the Americans was bad. But as the days have gone by, this anger has turned into an awareness that the US might actually be on the cusp of making a dramatic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

As this realisation took hold in Beijing, the next stage, therefore, was to comprehend that China needed to step up to play a more forward role in resolving the situation.

While the US stands detached from the conflict, Beijing remains hostage to geography and is obliged to maintain some engagement with Afghanistan – a commitment whose salience is only increasing through China’s long-term investments in Afghanistan’s neighbours – Pakistan and Central Asia.

This state of affairs helps explain Beijing’s new activism, and Ambassador to Pakistan Yao Jing’s willingness to increasingly champion the Taliban as a political group.

Talking to Chinese interlocutors about their country’s engagement with the Taliban used to be a taboo subject; now it has apparently become a topic of conversation.

Beijing has clearly concluded that the road to resolution in Afghanistan includes bringing the Taliban to the table – something that was likely discussed between Wang and Mohammad Umer Daudzai, secretary general of the Afghan High Peace Council, on his visit to Beijing late last week (a trip that followed Daudzai’s visit to Pakistan to meet Taliban representatives).

Beijing is seemingly using its contacts to expedite the peace discussions – a move that even the Taliban’s leaders have championed. What is not clear, however, is what incentives are being offered and whether Beijing has considered the consequences of its latest actions.

At this stage, it is likely that Beijing’s immediate security concerns around Afghanistan have been largely mitigated – not resolved, but managed.

China has invested in security forces along Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan; pumped money into similar structures in Gilgit Baltistan; provided training, funding and equipment to Afghan forces; and has hardened its own direct border with Afghanistan.

Sitting atop this activity, Beijing has created the Quadrilateral Coordination and Cooperation Mechanism, which brings together the chiefs of defence staff of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and Tajikistan. There has even been talk this year of the four countries taking part in joint military training exercises together.

China’s is concerned about how Afghanistan’s instability might affect that country’s neighbours and Beijing’s larger investments in Pakistan and Central Asia. But even these issues seem to have some answer to them.

Just 10 days after the attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi by a cell linked to the Baluchistan Liberation Army, the group’s leader (and admitted director of numerous attacks on Chinese targets), Aslam Baloch, was killed by a suicide bomber in Kandahar.

That ignominious end signalled that China had lethal friends in the region who were keen to show they could reach into the heart of China’s enemies and strike them.

It is still not clear what Beijing’s economic stake or interest is in Afghanistan.

Some of the routes of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” – Xi Jinping’s massive infrastructure plan – that cross the Eurasian continent would benefit from transit through Afghanistan. Beijing’s mineral extraction firms view the country’s natural resources with interest.

While talks continue about moving forward with belt and road projects, actual activity seems to be quite low. Trade routes are opening slowly, but the spigot of economic investment has not quite opened up.

Beijing seems to have concluded that for the time being, the answer to Afghanistan is to try to get a political structure in place that involves everybody and then see how things play out.

It will continue to dangle the carrot of economic investment, while knowing that its direct security equities are covered. This strategy will position Beijing fairly securely to let the consequences of a Taliban inclusive government play out.

The danger here is what a Taliban inclusive government might mean.

First, it is not clear that this arrangement would be acceptable to all other regional players. And even if it were, it is not clear it would help bring stability to Afghanistan. Much of the progress that has been made there might be wiped out, and the country might slip back into even greater chaos and warlordism.

Beijing may feel it has this eventuality covered through its current relationships, security structures and economic incentives, but this assumption is risky. Civil conflicts are by their nature brutal and unpredictable, especially in a country so intertwined with its region, and with such a sad and rich history of conflict.

Beijing may assume that by brokering a negotiation, it buys itself immunity from these problems. But as the US withdraws from the region, regional powers will increasingly look to China to resolve their issues.

It is not clear that Beijing fully appreciates the consequences of this potential responsibility.

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

 

More belated posting, this time a short piece for a larger report done by NSI, a company that seems to do reports and papers for the US Government. It looks at the question of Negotiated Settlement in Afghanistan: Elements of a Grand Bargain. The other chapters are done by various prominent Afghanistan experts.

What Role Might China Play in a Grand Bargain In Afghanistan?

Director, International Security Studies, RUSI

Chinese analysts have historically seen Afghanistan as the graveyard of empires. This basis has meant their willingness to engage in grand bargains based on negotiating with actors whom they realize may only have a fleeting grasp on power means that their preferred willingness has been to focus on making sure that they have good, or workable, relationships with as wide a range of actors as possible. At the same time, they have increasingly put in place a growing volume of tools to ensure that their own specific security equities are covered. From Beijing’s perspective, the idea of a grand bargain in Afghanistan is an interesting one, but will only be one they will invest effort into once it is demonstrated that it is going to work, and once everyone else is on board.

Beijing’s equities in Afghanistan are relatively narrow. Their principal concern used to be direct security threats from Uighur militants using the country as a base to launch attacks within China. Over time, they have strengthened their relations with the relevant parts of the Afghan security apparatus and hardened their specific border with Afghanistan. Nowadays, the assessment in Beijing is that the Uighur threat is one that is more relevant in a Syrian context than in Afghanistan. Their current preoccupations with Afghanistan are more regional in nature. Of greater concern than what is going on within Afghanistan is what impact Afghan instability might have in Central Asia and Pakistan.

Chinese investments in Afghanistan have continued to remain relatively small. There are two prominent large mining projects, while numerous Chinese infrastructure firms have delivered projects on behalf of international financial institutions in the country. Additionally, there is a relatively limited degree of lower level engagement, including gemstone trade, some import and export of white goods and agriculture products, as well as other household products and construction materials. None of this amounts to what Beijing perceives as a major stake.

This is reflected in Beijing’s approach towards the country, where it has visibly invested in hardening its own border as well as Afghanistan’s nearby border regions (in Pakistan and Tajikistan), while only providing relatively limited broader support to Afghanistan’s security forces.

This context is all important to understand to be able to properly evaluate Beijing’s willingness to be involved or support a grand bargain within the country. Beijing is interested and concerned about what happens in Afghanistan, but it sees this through a narrow regional lens, rather than a grander national security context. This is reflected in the fact it has yet to demonstrate a willingness to take a strong leadership role within the country.

This is not to say that Beijing has been entirely delinquent in its action within the country. Aside from the above mentioned efforts, and a growing willingness to seek to bring Afghanistan within the broader context of the Belt and Road Initiative, China has shown a strong appetite to engage with other regional powers in the country. China has sought to get institutions like the SCO and CiCA more involved, it has a greater plurality of regional configurations around the country—China-India, China-Afghanistan-Pakistan, as well as extra-regional partnerships like India, US, UK or Germany— and played a role in others regional efforts, for example Russia, Iran, or the Istanbul Process.

Yet none of these are decisive, and there is a sense that Beijing might be seeking to dilute its responsibility through this large range of engagements. In some cases, it is even possible that Beijing sees Afghanistan as a useful security policy case study to engage with a partner it cannot find other formats to positively engage with. This might help explain the highly positive, but ultimately indecisive, Chinese engagements with India and the US in the country. Beijing has deeply contentious and conflictual relationships with both Delhi and Washington, yet is able to use Afghanistan as a context in which it can attempt to develop a collaborative relationship. This is positive (but not decisive) for Afghanistan, and it is not yet clear that this is evidence of a strong commitment by Beijing.

Within the context of a grand bargain, the likely envisaged role for China would be to support bringing the harder partners to the table. For example, Beijing’s strong relationship with Pakistan could help ensure Islamabad played a positive role in any deal in the country, and that it ensured its proxies within Afghanistan played along. At the same time, Beijing could use its long-standing links to the Taliban to play a more direct role in this regard.

But what is important to note is that these connections and relationships that Beijing has are both long-standing and not as total as is sometimes painted. Beijing struggles to get Pakistan to provide adequate security to its interests within Pakistan, while at the same time being frustrated by some of the Pakistani state’s decisions and planning around CPEC. It is no more likely able to guarantee Islamabad’s acquiescence to control its proxies in Afghanistan than anyone else. At the same time, were Beijing able to exert such influence over the Taliban directly, why has it not used these relationships more forcefully before now? It has maintained a steady relationship to ensure its interests are protected, but as has been seen, Uighur militants have still historically been able to operate from Afghanistan.

The key point here is that Beijing is only willing to play a role insomuch as it advances its interests. And Beijing’s interests in Afghanistan at the moment are seen from Beijing as being manageable. They have a security situation that is problematic, but largely contained within Afghanistan, and they have hardened their borders around it. They continue to play a role, and are pushing some investment and economic activity in the country, but they have chosen not to showcase the country as a place in which they are going to take a leadership role. The commitment involved in taking that sort of a position is something that is beyond their interest.

This all highlights the role that China would play in any grand bargain. It would support a deal, as long as all the parties involved were agreed and in commitment to deliver it. It would likely be willing to play a role in supporting building this, but it will continue to maintain other relationships while it is doing this—in other words, Beijing is unlikely to cut off any links in favour of one deal over another (it has in past severed relationships with groups, but learned over time that this approach unless bound to a specific and achievable goal, is not sensible in the medium or longer-term). This helps explain Beijing’s willingness to play a role both in efforts in Afghanistan with both the US and Russia or India and Pakistan at the same time. China does not want to choose and to therefore set itself up for potential failure. It is better to continue to engage with everyone.

At the same time, this does not mean China is not willing to take a role, but it will avoid choosing sides or taking any leadership role. This reality is likely to persist until there is a blunt and clear western forces withdrawal from the country—something that might change Beijing’s calculus. Until that moment, China would continue to hedge and would play a similar role in any current grand bargain thinking.

Have been very delinquent in posting pieces on the site for a variety of reasons. So catching up a bit now. First up is a piece from early January for the Independent offering a view on some of the security information sharing concerns that might arise from the dreaded Brexit.

Hopeless Brexit planning has left Britain at risk from a new wave of terrorists

The twin threat of far-right extremists and Isis-inspired attackers can only be addressed with robust coordination across the continent

Largely unnoticed in the 2018 political chaos was a House of Commons Home Affairs Committee report on the security consequences of Brexit. In deeply concerned tones, the committee concluded that the government had not prepared sufficiently for the potential domestic security implications of Britain’s departure from the EU.

Against a backdrop of lone actor plots across the continent and growing right-wing extremism, this is not good enough. The terror threat remains as diffuse and transnational as ever.

Key to disrupting these threats is information sharing – something the committee specifically identifies as at risk from the current approach to Brexit. The Police Federation, which represents 120,000 rank-and-file officers, claimed the government has left it with “no idea” how they will protect the British public after Brexit.

Recent plots in Strasbourg, ManchesterBottrop, Tokyo, Sweden, Italy and Newcastle have repeated a pattern of lone individuals potentially, but not necessarily, linked to larger networks. They are hard to identify before an attack. They pop up across the continent and can occasionally get through, as was the case at the Strasbourg Christmas market.

In almost every case, investigations reveal the attackers were previously known to authorities. The positive we can draw from the larger picture is that a growing number are disrupted before the plot is enacted. The tough task for European authorities is to work out which of the many individuals monitored are genuinely prepared to commit murder.

To arrest them all would be vastly disproportionate. These individuals remain free not due to the authorities’ laxity, but rather because of a lack of evidence, or lack of guilt. Some will likely never become priority targets for authorities, or active terrorists.

So how do we keep improving the decision-making about who to focus on? In brief, we need a fuller understanding of the individuals, and that comes from gaining access to more data. The current arrangements around Brexit put that under threat. According to the government’s own figures, one database, the Second Generation Schengen Information System (SIS II), contains 76.5m records that were checked by UK enforcement more than 500m times last year.

In his evidence to the committee, deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Richard Martin highlighted the role of the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS). Martin quoted research that suggested “losing access to ECRIS would mean a response to a request about a foreign national’s criminal history would take an average of 66 days, compared to 10 days under ECRIS”.

At the same time as the threat from Isis-inspired terrorism has continued – despite talk of its “defeat” in Syria – we have seen a rise in extreme right-wing terrorism.

According to the 2018 Global Terrorism Index, right-wing groups and individuals killed 66 people in western Europe and north America between 2013 and 2017. In the UK alone the index tracked 12 far-right terror attacks in 2017, including the attack outside Finsbury Park mosque, where 47-year-old Darren Osborne drove a van into Muslim worshippers, killing one person and injuring at least nine others.

Perhaps most worrying are the potential links across Europe, where a more organised extreme right wing has long been visible in parts of Germany and is connecting across the continent. Groups in Central and Eastern European are making links to like-minded people in the UK, creating the alarming spectre of a transnational community.

Again, the only legitimate way to address this problem is closer connectivity and cooperation. Continental security partners will of course want to continue sharing information to counter a common threat, but in the absence of robust procedures and structures, information may slip through. It is all very good for security forces to want to share information, but this can only be done properly through appropriate and legally monitored channels to prevent abuse and protect civil liberties.

The combined threat of hard-to-track Isis sympathisers and international collaboration between far-right extremists present a relentless challenge to our security forces. They have had considerable success, but this is in part thanks to the shared information which builds difficult investigations to disrupt potential terrorists.

It is essential that they have the data to continue this task. Hard Brexit, soft Brexit or no Brexit at all, serious and concerted plans must be made to guarantee the seamless continuation of pan-European intelligence on the people that seek to do us harm. That there remains a lack of clarity here, despite expressions of concern by senior security officials, is a very worrying state of affairs.

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

And second up, a piece in the Sunday Times just as the year closed which looks at the growing divisions in the world. Draws on a lot of the travel and workshops I have been fortunate enough to attend over the past year, and themes touched on elsewhere in my writing. Given my current workload at the office, suspect there might be some more in this broader vein. Separately, spoke to France 24 in the wake of the Egypt attack late last year, and this piece was picked up by the Daily Express.

Don’t fear Putin’s hypersonic nuke. Fear the gulf in East-West understanding

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The rhetoric and imagery of the Cold War is back. The year has drawn to a close with President Vladimir Putin flexing Russia’s military might. The test of a new hypersonic missile, which Putin boasts is “invulnerable” to western defences, heralds a world that we had thought was consigned to history. Yet while our threat perception in the past year has shifted from a fear of non-state groups to great-power confrontation, we are still nowhere near the fearsome heights of the Cold War.

The key difference is not the size of our weaponry, but rather the lack of a clear ideological confrontation and greater economic interdependence. Traditional thinking about deterrence no longer provides a frame with which to understand our enemies, leaving us open to the risk of dangerous miscalculation.

The clearest indication of the different level of global confrontation is military spending. Notwithstanding Russia’s new weapons and a blockbuster Pentagon budget this year, both sides remain far from the lavish spending of the Cold War. The US is nowhere near the roughly 10% of GDP it was devoting to defence at the height of that confrontation, and Moscow is far from the expenditure that brought the Soviet Union crashing down. It is also a long way from catching up with American defence spending.

While these new Russian weapons appear a terrifying development in the global arsenal, there is little clear evidence that they materially change the balance of power. Putin has over the past year announced a number of hypersonic and other menacing-sounding weapons, but these announcements are intended more for domestic consumption and for weapons sales abroad than for making Russia seem an invincible military power.

Moscow feels compelled to demonstrate a sense of global confrontation to enhance national power and to explain at home the imposition of economic sanctions and the vilification of Russia in the international media.

This need is vastly different from the ideological boundaries that used to divide the world during the Cold War. In contrast to that earlier world, we now inhabit countries that are deeply economically interdependent.

Moscow’s rich — despite sanctions — own property in London, while China’s national wealth is tied up in American Treasury bonds. This transforms national perceptions of enemies and means that even when countries such as Russia and China try to change the international order, they are hesitant to sever the links. This may change in time, but it has not yet. We live in a world that can at best be described as divided by forms of governance, rather than by ideology.

Ideologies do continue to dominate, however, at the non-state level, where constellations of individuals come together around a utopian vision to threaten the old order. Countries and governments, on the other hand, still inhabit traditional structures. Moscow still thinks in these terms and therefore has to create a sense of narrative with traditional tools.

None of this should leave us complacent. There is a growing sense of confrontation in the world. Non-state groups such as al-Qaeda and Isis have not gone away. China is confused about the limits of the pushback it is facing. Its new national economic champions, such as the telecoms and electronics company Huawei, are targets of international ire. Beijing is struggling to interpret a world that wants its economic investment but at the same time fears its growing weight.

Moscow sees the current confused order as a prime environment in which to assert its meddlesome influence abroad and build a narrative at home of international power and importance. And Iran’s mullahs fail to understand why they are cast as an enemy or what the parameters of the current confrontation are.

There is a distinct, if fractured, axis coming together between Beijing, Moscow and Tehran. And while it takes little to find fissures between them — Beijing dislikes Moscow’s tendency to disrupt defined national borders and recognise stateless peoples; Moscow is no fan of Tehran’s use of proxy groups or Beijing’s encroachment into its back yard in central Asia — they all regard a democracy-promoting West as an adversary they need to worry about.

The threat they see is to their leadership structures rather than national ideologies. But this is not a popular narrative to sell at home: hence the need for confrontation abroad.

But these fissures also undermine the West’s ability to respond to them in a coherent way. With no unifying ideology and coherent enemy, it is hard to rally western capitals together in a clear and consistent fashion.

We are able to respond in only a piecemeal fashion and struggle to maintain a unified line for long. Previously, the clarity of a structured order between the Soviet and western blocs defined who the enemy was and what we would need to do in response to the weapons they were developing. Today we have a messy order, where we are as economically tied to our adversaries as we are locked into preparing ourselves for the possibility of confronting them.

Even worse, while our world is ever more interconnected, the gulf in understanding between our governments has deepened. On both sides there is a surprising lack of insight into what the other is thinking. Narrow lenses suited to domestic concerns and power plays are ill suited to understanding how people in faraway capitals think.

Travel to Beijing, Moscow or Tehran and you hear views we would dismiss as conspiracy theories being shared among some of the most sophisticated thinkers as mainstream perspectives. Doubtless they observe the same phenomenon when they visit us.

Notwithstanding the current rhetoric and bombast, we are far from a new Cold War. The past year may feel as though we are returning to the 1970s, but the biggest danger we face is not large-scale military conflict fuelled by hypersonic weapons. It is a miscalculation of one another’s aims and intentions that precipitates confrontation and spirals out of control into conflict.

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