Posts Tagged ‘Al Qaeda’

A new piece for an excellent outlet that I occasionally contribute to, the CTC Sentinel, which is an interview with Neil Basu, the Senior National Coordinator for Counterterrorism Policing in the UK. It is quite a wide-ranging discussion around the current threat picture, recent problems, and future threats that might mature. It got a bit of a bounce getting picked up by The Times, Daily Mail, The Sun, Asharq al Awsat, and some other local UK outlets. It was also suitably spun by RT. Thanks to editor Paul for all his hard work on it! Separately, spoke to Vice about the Jihadi Beatles, and Arab News about foreigners fighting with Kurds.

A View from the CT Foxhole: Neil Basu, Senior National Coordinator for Counterterrorism Policing in the United Kingdom

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February 2018, Volume 11, Issue 2

Authors: Raffaello Pantucci

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu is Senior National Coordinator for Counterterrorism Policing in the United Kingdom, a role he was appointed to in October 2016. He is responsible for delivering the police response to the Pursue and Prevent elements of the Government’s CONTEST strategy. In this role, he coordinates the policing response to threats arising from terrorism and domestic extremism nationally and also manages the Metropolitan Police Service’s Counter Terrorism Command (SO15). In his career, Basu has worked as a detective in all ranks to Detective Superintendent, served as the Area commander for South East London, and headed London’s Armed Policing within Specialist Crime & Operation.

CTC: How has U.K. counterterrorism policing evolved to confront the changing threat?

Basu: 9/11 was the contemporary game changer. In the U.K., it started off with some plotting between 2002 and 2004, which wasn’t just concentrated in London. It was also regional. Then you get to 2005, and in the worst way possible, we were taught that this was actually embedded in local communities: domestic home-grown terrorism with some direction from abroad. So there was a need to build regional capability, and that was the start of the network that we have today. Now we have nine counterterrorism units—embedded regionally, collocated with MI5, building intelligence in local communities, [and] connected into local community policing.

Given the nature of the threat we now face, we need to be even more focused on communities and more focused on getting local information. While the ambition is still there for the mass spectacular—and the July 2017 airline plot in Sydney, Australia, was a recent example of that—IS [the Islamic State] has been encouraging supporters living in the West to carry out high-impact/low-complexity attacks. Because of the military push on the ground in Syria and Iraq and the effective eradication of IS’ geographical territory and their ability to project that abroad, it is much harder for them to send trained people back. Borders have closed. Turkey has done well with their border.

The big threat for us now is the ideology that’s been diffused onto the internet and the calls for attacks by its followers in the West by IS online. The caliphate may have been defeated militarily, but it has now become a virtual network. What we’re not seeing is a reduction in people’s willingness to align themselves with this ideology. So even though there is no caliphate to go and fight for, in the minds of some British extremists, the fight carries on because they can aspire to go to Libya or another ‘province.’

In confronting this evolving threat, we have to be more ‘fleet of foot’ at a time when ‘going dark,’ due to the widespread availability of encrypted apps, has become the new norm. We can no longer depend upon all the usual intelligence-gathering apparatus.

CTC: Has the locus of the threat abroad shifted? Syria and Iraq was where the threat was, but would you now look to Libya as a place where you could see the same sort of a threat emanating from?

Basu: You would be completely foolish not to worry about Libya. All of the coalition thinks that that is going to be a tremendous problem in years to come. Anywhere there is ungoverned space, anywhere there is fragile political governance is a potential source of threat. But it is not clear that it is going to be easy for terrorists to move from location to location. We already know of eight or nine IS affiliates around the world that have claimed allegiance, with [fighters in] Libya being one example. Libya is very close to home for Europe and our allies, but for a long time, it was not the focus for our attention. For us in the U.K., what happened in Manchester was a big wake-up call to the fact that there were people who had traveled back and forth to Libya doing much the same thing we were preventing people from doing in Iraq and Syria and who had a similar hatred for this country. And oddly enough, these travelers were second or third generation [immigrants], not necessarily the generation you would assume.

CTC: The Manchester attack and its links to Libya were particularly striking given the similarities with other networks and plots seen previously in the U.K., in particular historical networks linked back to terrorist groups in Pakistan.

Basu: You would have to take a huge leap of faith to say Salman Abedi [the Manchester suicide bomber] was not traveling to and from Libya with some malicious intent and that it was all just about family and socializing and not about training. We’ve long known that training overseas can battle-harden people. It’s not just being able to fire a gun; it’s the psychological bar that you overcome by being brutalized in theater. Once you get a taste for violence, the second time is much easier. And cops know that from dealing with violent criminals.

CTC: A year after the cluster of plots in the first half of 2017, do we have any more clarity on what precipitated all of that terrorist activity in the U.K.? 

Basu: JTAC [Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre] was very good at saying something is coming. Security analysts understood that once there was a military push on the ground against them [Islamic State fighters] in Syria and Iraq, they were going to start lashing out. Leaders like [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi and [Abu Muhammad] al-Adnani, before he was killed, were telling followers in the West they didn’t need to ask permission from an emir; they could just go ahead and launch attacks.

This was the backdrop that was making security forces nervous. Then, and this is a personal view, Khalid Masood [the March 2017 Westminster bridge attacker] launched his attack. He had no clear and obvious connection to either IS or al-Qa`ida. He was clearly someone who cherry-picked the bits of Islam that he believed justified what he did. Whether his particular religious interpretations was the actual driver for what he did, I am of two minds, but his motivation died with him. There is no concrete information that it was for the glory of the caliphate or for the glory of IS or for the glory of AQ. But what he did achieve was that he gave fellow violent extremists the understanding that the U.K. was not such a hostile place to launch attacks and that by using this simple methodology you could succeed. Some violent extremists admired him for actually going ahead and doing it. Some criticized him for not doing a very ‘good job.’ But at the end of the day, what it did say to them was that ‘my plot could work. What I have been thinking of doing, I could actually do.’

CTC: Have you seen much of a change in the threat picture since Raqqa has fallen? Or has it had no effect?

Basu: What we’ve seen is a lot more chatter, a lot more people thinking that they have a chance of successfully carrying out attacks. So the pace and tempo, the number of leads that we think are concerning, the pace has gone up. Whether or not this is linked to the push in Raqqa is hard to tell.

In terms of plots, the trend is towards less sophistication, more amateurism. We’ve not seen a growth of extremists. We’ve seen more conversations among extremists expressing the belief they can launch successful attacks here. So definitely the pace of plotting activity we’re looking at has gone up. But then that was predictable as well. I don’t think anyone thought the military defeat of the group in Syria and Iraq was going to be the end of this. We are dealing with an ideology, which is being spread online and has global reach, and we to need to confront this by clamping down on what’s being spread through the internet and better engaging with people who are vulnerable to the extremist message.

CTC: Earlier this year, Minister of State for Security Ben Wallace stated a significant number of British nationals who signed up to fight with extremist groups in Syria and Iraq had gone missing somewhere in the region.1 What do we think has happened to those who are unaccounted for? Where have they ended up? 

Basu: I think there’s probably more in detention overseas, including in YPG or Kurdish or SDF detention, than we currently know. We obviously won’t know everyone who’s died. It’s a warzone and difficult to be definitively accurate. We estimate that 15 percent of the 850 foreign fighters that have traveled from the U.K. to Syria and Iraq have died. There are some we absolutely know died, and there are ones we guess are deceased because, for example, they are no longer communicating. Establishing the fate of the others is going to be very difficult.

I think we have made it very clear how hostile it would be for foreign fighters if they return here. The policy is very clear. You do not get to come back here if you did manage to get over there and you are a fighter.

About half of the 850 who traveled to Syria and Iraq since the onset of the Syrian civil war have returned to the UK. The large majority of these came back very quickly and early on. Some of those were genuine aid workers. Some were people who thought they were going to build a caliphate, not necessarily be immersed in a war. Generally speaking, the people who came back quickly are not where the bigger threat lies.

The larger threat is posed by the return of committed recruits who went there to be trained. When it comes to people who we know are back in the U.K. that we suspect fall into this category, we have either tried to build a case or we’ve monitored them or we have talked to people who know them. As far as those who are still overseas are concerned, we have been making it very clear that this will be a very hostile place to come back to, and I do not think most of these foreign fighters will want to come back. They will want to fight on, and that’s why they have been so committed to being in theater for this length of time.

We are still not seeing what many predicted was going to be a large reverse flow as the so-called ‘caliphate’ disintegrated. Instead, we are seeing just the odd person come back.

When it comes to those still unaccounted for—and who are not being held in detention in the region—I have no doubt a number might be trying to reach other IS strongholds. It is almost impossible to say what has happened to these people. I think we overestimated the stand-and-fight-until-you-die attitude. Some of these foreign fighters will want to fight another day. It is also too early to say where they will coalesce. Could it be the Philippines? Could it be Libya? But it is worth thinking about how practically easy it would be for somebody who is not Arab-speaking, doesn’t necessarily ‘look the part,’ to meld into society in a place like Libya. Very difficult, I would think.

If you crunch the figures: about 850 foreign fighters who went, about half who came back, 15 percent who died, you’re probably looking at a cohort of about 300 that we know traveled who are still out there. Not all of those are mono-Brits; a lot of those are dual nationals. Like other countries, we operate on the principle that we don’t want you back, and therefore we will deprive you of your British passport. And the government has done that. Because of this, the ones who could come back are about a third of this 300 number. And for those among these who end up coming back, we are absolutely waiting for them. That’s the bottom line.

CTC: British officials have said a residual risk is posed by about 20,000 individuals who were previously the subject of counterterrorism investigations. This is a very large number. How is it possible to manage the risk from such a large community of people? Who is going be responsible for managing this? Is this a job for the security services?

Basu: It’s impossible for any country to allocate resources for that kind of number. And every country will have a similar issue. That number will always grow. Because there will always be people who have been considered a national security threat but are no longer considered a national security threat. There is no way the security services or policing can manage all of those on their own. What we have to make sure is that there are ways of assessing whether the risks still exist or not in specific cases, and that’s going to involve something that the security agencies have never done before, which is sharing information from the secret space into multi-agency partners who may be able to help assess that risk. This is not a new concept. Multi-agency public protection arrangements for serious and violent offenders already exist. These individuals live in communities, and there are all kinds of measures in place to manage them. Local authorities need to be informed in a similar way as when people convicted of TACT [terrorism legislation] offenses return to their communities.

People get hung up on the full 20,000 number that is circulated, but what we need to be focused on is what the actual risk in that group is. The bigger risk to us are the additional 3,000 open cases that U.K. security minister Ben Wallace has talked about. That’s where the larger risk lies. A lot of the nervousness has come from the fact that we had two people come out of the 20,000 pot and attack us last year—Khalid Masood and Salman Abedi—while London Bridge attacker Khurram Butt was in the 3,000 who were being looked at. But we would be making a terrible mathematical mistake if we said that we need to swivel all of our guns onto the 20,000, when the 3,000 is where the big risk is.

What exists in that 20,000 is the possibility of people reengaging, like Abedi and Masood. How do you spot that reengagement? Do we have the right triggers in place so that when somebody who has previously shown signs of violent extremism reengages or does something or contacts someone of concern, it comes onto our radar screen?

The only way we are ever going to significantly improve coverage of this is by alerting a broader number of U.K. agencies about who is in the 20,000 pot. David Anderson [former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation in the United Kingdom] has stated this is something we are going to have to get much better at. We have already learned a great deal from the Operational Improvement Review in the wake of the attacks, and Mr. Anderson praised the work that had been done. But clearly more needs to be undertaken to tighten up our processes to prevent such attacks from taking place.

We are going to run pilot programs and see where we get to on this larger group, to see whether there are issues around reengagement. As a result in some of those cases, we will end up moving them deeper into the safeguarding space: they don’t want to be engaged in extremist activity, they might choose to volunteer, and they might want assistance in all kinds of ways, whether that’s mental health, education, or intervention providers providing religious instruction. There might be people who genuinely want to get off this extremism carousel. And there might be others who are reengaging who become a risk again, and we need to look at them from a law enforcement and security perspective. We are only going to be able to know this is the case if more people are helping us, and that includes my core policing colleagues outside of the specialism of counterterrorism policing. They will be used to the principles; they just need to learn to apply them to terrorism offenders. The key is information sharing and spreading the risk, but because we work in a top-secret world, that’s a cultural change, which is easy to call for out loud like this but really difficult to achieve.

CTC: We keep seeing TATP showing up in terrorist plotting. Is there more that could be done to stop that? 

Basu: A few very obvious things need to be done. We need much more help from the private sector. Anyone who sells materials that could be used in this process needs to be engaged with, and we need to be much quicker at spotting suspicious purchasing activity. Same with the banking sector and suspicious transactions—all of which has been in place for some time, but we need to be much better at it. And we need to make sure that we remove anything that looks like bomb-making instruction from anywhere on the internet. The difficulty is that some of this stuff is O-level [type] chemistry experimentationa that is available online and aimed at children and students. So some of it is not IS appearing online saying ‘this is how to blow people up.’ And so there is a danger is being disproportionate in what we take down and what we don’t. TATP is still dangerous, volatile, and difficult to make, but it is probably not as difficult as we thought it was. So you don’t need to be a chemical engineer to be able to do this kind of stuff.

CTC: When it comes to social media and its role in encouraging or directing terrorism, is there more, from the policing perspective, that you can do? 

Basu: This is principally a role for intelligence agencies rather than police. What it does require, however, is close cooperation from social media companies. And where there isn’t cooperation, we need to consider coercive measures. Governments need to consider legislation. In reality, 2017 was a wake-up for the U.K. and for a lot of companies, not just in the CSP [communication service provider] space. It is about corporate social responsibility [for] how they protect their clients. I do not think it is acceptable anymore to say, “I’m defending free speech” if free speech involves blowing people up. The companies need to be in that space. There are positive signs that they are in that space. They’ve been in front of various hearings and political leaders. I’ve no doubt that they are listening, but they need to make sure their business models are effective in dealing with this now. They’ve got the brainpower, and they’ve got the resources, and they need to help.

CTC: Turning to the threat posed by the Extreme Right Wing (XRW) in the U.K. It has been discussed as an escalating problem for some time. Has it now crossed the threshold of being a national security threat?

Basu: It is too early to see how much it should be escalated. The threat assessment should be looked at by JTAC, and where we think there is a national security threat, then the security services should be involved. The far-right group National Action was the first time we saw anybody who was organized in the XRW space in a way that would represent a national security threat. Thankfully, it is nowhere near the same scale or problem as we’ve had from the IS-inspired or -directed [threat] or the AQ [threat] prior to that or the IRA threat prior to that. That is really something to be proud of in the U.K. culture and tradition that we don’t have this mass wave of extreme right wing. So far, we have seen people try to get on the back of that and not be incredibly successful. They are still relatively small, relatively disconnected, relatively disorganized groups.

My biggest concern about the extreme right wing, which is not a national security threat, is the Darren Osbornesb of the world, the Thomas Mairs of the world [the murderer of Member of Parliament Jo Cox], and the lone actor with the mental health problems, depression, drugs, and the personal grievance who is acting alone. It is spotting people doing something like that which is very difficult.

The biggest concern for the country should [be] that violent Islamist extremism and violent right wing extremism will feed off each other. Islamophobia is something we have to be really clear about in policing: hate is hate. And we should be very, very robust and have a zero tolerance towards hate crime. And if we don’t do that, and Muslim communities are being stigmatized and attacked because of things a tiny minority of people are doing, I think we will create problems for ourselves. The Muslim community is going to be thinking that it is unfair and unjust. I think we don’t have parity at the moment in the way that we look at things. But we don’t have parity because at the moment, the scale of the threat is not the same. I do not want to wait for the scale of the threat to get to a point that something has to be done about it. You have seen a lot of the robust action we’ve taken against National Action, and that was because we were determined to stop this [from] becoming the next problem.

CTC: What about the policy side? The latest iteration of CONTEST [the U.K. counterterrorism strategy] is due out in a few months. What is your particular view on the “Prevent”c pillar of the strategy? 

Basu: Prevent is the hugely controversial part of the strategy. Government will not thank me for saying this, but an independent reviewer of Prevent, as suggested by David Anderson, would be a healthy thing. In fact, he would be excellent in the role. Prevent is, as a Prevent officer who used to work for me said, five percent of the budget but 85 percent of the conversation. Prevent is the most important pillar of the four pillar strategy.d There is no doubt in my mind about it. We’re pretty good at Pursue; we’re pretty good at Prepare, as people have seen in our response. What needs to be better in Protect is the private sector, and I think there’s a big willingness, like there is with CSPs, to understand that they need to protect their customer base better. And whether that’s insider threats, cyber threats, or security guards [in] crowded places, there is an understanding that they need to invest more in that. But Prevent is the key.

There is still this hangover of toxicity around the Prevent campaign that we need to stop, because people need to understand that this about stopping people in the pre-criminal space ever getting anywhere near criminality. And Prevent needs to concentrate on how it does that. That cannot be a job for the police and security services. That has got to be a wider societal pillar. The more that policing and security service could withdraw from Prevent in order to focus Prevent work on problem solving within communities and getting communities to deal with it, the better in the long-term. There will always be a role for policing because we are a frontline. And here I don’t mean counterterrorism policing but the other 115,000 or so police officers who are in the frontline working together with communities. But actually the big responsibility is how do we get everyone else interested and involved and talking positively about some of the brilliant work that is going on.

Prevent, at the moment, is owned by the government, but I think it should be outside central government altogether. I think people who are running their local communities should be taking the lead. Local leaders around the country should be standing up and talking about this, not central government, security services, and counterterrorism police. Communities should be talking about protecting themselves from the grassroots up. When you see Prevent working on the ground brilliantly, that’s where it’s working, and largely unsung and un-talked about. Substantial community resilience is produced by that sort of work, and giving people that resilience is important and communities have to help each other do that. I would love to see a professional communications company say, as part of their social responsibility programming, “I’ll give free training to anybody from youth or whoever who wants to start a conversation around this.” That would be great. Rather than the government handing over a sum of money and then it becoming state sponsored with accusations of demonizing communities, it should be locally generated. We have gotten all of that messaging the wrong way around, it should be grassroots up.

Previously, this was not being done. But there are increasingly some phenomenal voices who’ve got real gravitas in their communities who are beginning to talk about the issues. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is a really good example of that. He is not central government, he runs a city, and the protection of the city is his concern, he should be doing that, not MI5. Not the Cabinet, and the National Security Council and New Scotland Yard.

CTC: The threat picture we talked about is about a scattering of diffuse, random, isolated loners who latch onto ideologies, launching lone actor-style attacks. Have you seen any evidence in the attack planning of anything more substantial than that? Or is that really where the heart of the threat now sits? And is that where the threat picture going forward is going to be?

Basu: We will never eradicate the ambition [of extremists] to put a complicated network together to do a big, spectacular attack. The difficulty with that for a terrorist is that all that planning and all that preparation makes you very vulnerable. Where people aren’t vulnerable is when they are sitting in their bedrooms, using encrypted apps or not using any technology at all, and not having any contact with the outside world. Thomas Mair was a good example of that: no one spotted that happening because he was just a bit of an odd, loner, social misfit. No one saw any triggers that would be interpreted as leading him to that extreme level of violence. That is the bit that concerns me. We are seeing people who are vulnerable to suggestion, who have low-level mental health challenges, which probably don’t hit any clinical threshold. So even if they presented to the National Health Service, they would not look like they were someone of concern. It might be a low-level mental illness, but it’s a low-level mental illness with a lot of other red flag markers around it—for example a propensity towards violence. You can be seriously mentally ill and not violent. Nobody should ever stigmatize people with mental health, or put the two things together. But it is that kind of thing that concerns me most, and we are seeing more of that. And most disturbingly, very young and more female interest in violence.

That disturbs me and has got to have come from social media, if you think where kids get all of their information and how fast that they get it … and then how easy it is to go from—it’s a horrible expression—‘flash-to-bang,’ from having no understanding [of] what they are dealing with to a tiny, partial, ridiculous kind of notion of what religion or what violence, or what freedom of expression, or what these things mean because they picked it up in six-second soundbites on their phone. That malleability worries me a lot, and that concern seems to be being replayed around the world in my conversations with partner agencies across the European continent. So how we influence that younger, very vulnerable generation is going to be a key question. A revamped Prevent strategy is going to be a large part of the answer.     CTC

Substantive Notes
[a] O-levels are exams students in the United Kingdom used to take at age 16.

[b] Darren Osborne is the recently convicted extreme right-wing terrorist who drove into a crowd outside the Finsbury Park mosque in June 2017.

[c] “Prevent” is the forward-looking aspect of the strategy that focuses on preventing individuals from being drawn to extremist ideas.

[d] The other three pillars are “Pursue,” “Prepare,” and “Protect.”

Citations
[1] Roger Baird, “Government has lost track of hundreds of British jihadi fighters,” International Business Times, January 5, 2018.

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Slightly late posting here, but a longer review for my institutional journal RUSI Journal of two excellent recent books about terrorism – Al Qaeda’s Revenge by Fernando Reinares and The Exile by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark.

Al-Qaeda’s Revenge: The 2004 Madrid Train Bombings/The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden

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As an expression of human behaviour, politically motivated violence or terrorism is a constant. There will be extremists on most political spectrums and some of these will feel a need to use violence to awaken everyone else to their cause. Terrorists may occasionally come up with tactical innovations and ideological mutations, but their essential behaviour (the sorts of violence they will resort to) is generally repetitive. Although lone actors – instigated, inspired or directed by Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS) – have received much attention, the reality is that even this expression of terrorism is deeply linked to what has been previously enacted. Similarly, government reactions are remarkably repetitive, seemingly unaware of lessons from the past. This excellent pair of books highlights these realities, drawing on extensive research into well-trodden stories, generating new insights and clarifying the nature of past threats, those we are currently confronting and what they will look like in the future.

The new details and insights offered by these books are striking, especially since the subjects have been written about substantially. Fernando Reinares’s authoritative review of the 2004 Madrid bombings draws on a wealth of new material from security sources, court documents and more, to tell the story of the brutal attack that remains Europe’s most deadly terrorist atrocity linked to violent Islamists. Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy’s pacey volume reads like an action thriller, and draws on a wealth of interviews conducted with security officials, members of Al-Qa’ida and others, alongside an impressive wealth of new material to tell the story of Al-Qa’ida after the 9/11 attacks from the group’s perspective. Other books have dug into aspects of this tale, but this is the first work to provide details about what went on inside the Al-Qa’ida cluster that fled to Iran after the fall of Tora Bora in December 2001, and the centrality of Osama bin Laden’s family to the group’s post-Afghanistan journeys.

The shocking nature of individual terrorist attacks often leads to the conclusion that such attacks are a complete surprise. When these incidents occur, they seem to reflect a gap in the knowledge of security and intelligence agencies, which may seem unfathomable to the public. And indeed, the reality is that subsequent investigation usually uncovers connections, contacts and prior knowledge. Information that was previously ignored or overlooked assumes a greater importance, and with hindsight a clear story of how the attack slipped through undetected can be told. Whether the fault lies with inadequate oversight by relevant authorities or with the ability of the attackers to disguise their activities becomes a point of conjecture. Nonetheless, it usually emerges that security forces were aware of the groups that conducted the attack.

More recently this conventional pattern of how terrorists behave and how authorities respond has become more complex. The recent spate of lone-actor attacks, in which individuals appear to have acted on behalf of terrorist groups with which they have no discernible link, has started to confuse the picture. However, as research has shown, often the individual has some connections or demonstrated some activity that would show him or her to be less isolated than might initially appear.

After every incident there is a scramble to uncover what links exist and who might have known about them before the event took place. Ultimately, the aim is to apportion blame and explain the atrocity. However, often the information that comes out in the immediate aftermath of the incident is incomplete and incorrect.

These two books show in different ways how the consequences of this can be dramatic – something that was particularly visible in the wake of the Madrid bombings, when the government suggested that the atrocity might have been committed by ETA, the Basque separatist organisation. It soon emerged that the incident was in fact the product of a violent Islamist cell, which released messages claiming the attack. But many have linked this confusion and the degree to which the government was blamed for spreading the false rumour to the ultimate fall of the government of then Prime Minister José María Aznar. The most dramatic consequence was that Spain withdrew its forces from Iraq, in line with a campaign pledge by incoming Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Many have pointed to the link between the bombing and the withdrawal as evidence of successful political manipulation as a result of terrorism.

Yet, as Reinares shows in Al-Qaeda’s Revenge: The 2004 Madrid Train Bombings by drawing on previously less well-covered meetings of senior Al-Qa’ida figures, the planning of the plot went back further than Spain’s decision to participate in the US-led invasion of Iraq. He traces it to December 2001, when two North African Al-Qa’ida-linked men plotted in Karachi to make Spain suffer. Of Moroccan descent, Amer Azizi and Abdelatif Mourafik had jihadist pedigree and, in Reinares’s account, harboured anger towards Spain that was in part a reflection of their failed attempts at jihadist overthrow in North Africa. Linked to both the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group and Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the men felt deep anger towards Spain, a power with historical and current influence over North Africa. In February 2002, they met again in Istanbul and decided to strengthen and develop the necessary networks in Western Europe and their home countries to launch a terrorist campaign, coordinated with the acquiescence of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian extremist who established Al-Qa’ida in Iraq soon afterwards. Attacks in Casablanca followed in May 2003, and in Madrid in March 2004.

As is often the case, Spanish authorities were on to the network, but had clamped down on only part of it. As the attacks in Madrid took place, a major counterterrorism operation was being brought to its conclusion in court, with 24 men facing trial after Operation Datil led to them being charged with involvement in terrorist networks. Some of the key figures in the 3/11 cell (as the group responsible for the Madrid bombings is known) expected to be detained as part of this arrest, and arguably the failure of the Spanish authorities to capture them may have accelerated the cell’s activity. This pattern was repeated in August 2017 by the terrorist cell that attacked Barcelona.

There are further similarities with more contemporary events. Reinares identifies the cell as one that used robbery and the proceeds of drugs as a way to raise money for its jihadist activity. Describing them as ‘common delinquents turned into jihadists’, we hear how a number spent time in prison, where they were radicalised or made important connections. In general, there is a lack of clarity about the degree of direction from Al-Qa’ida Core: the strong connections between the cell and Al-Qaida’s leadership are repeatedly claimed, but specific direction is not always clear. The book points out that Osama bin Laden’s first threat message to reference Spain was released in October 2003. The day after the message emerges, the first known allusion to the bombing’s specific date is found in Molenbeek, Brussels: a date written on a piece of paper. A member of the Moroccan network affiliated with Al-Qa’ida is based there. The link to Molenbeek is relevant not only to the current wave of Daesh attacks, but also to the attack last year in Barcelona. The key preacher, Abdelbaki Es Satty, had spent some time in Molenbeek before the attack, something that highlights the persistence of certain locations as focuses for radicalisation and terrorism.

In the wake of the Madrid attack, the cell decided to first claim responsibility (after watching the confusion in the media about ETA’s responsibility), and then countermand a ceasefire declaration issued by Al-Qa’ida after the result of the Spanish election on 14 March, three days after the attack. Al-Qa’ida was keen to recognise the political message delivered through the election result, while the cell in Spain planned to continue its fight. This confusion highlights a key problem in the decentralised approach in terrorist plotting – by delegating responsibility and autonomy, control of the action on the ground is lost, which can lead to a perversion of the intended message. A similar confusion can be found in the attacks on London Bridge in 2017, when the acclamation expressed by Daesh-affiliated accounts online was matched by the opprobrium from accounts more closely linked with Al-Qa’ida.

This is a possible outcome of this sort of globalised insurgency. Abu Musab Al-Suri – whose whereabouts remain unclear – has achieved semi-mythical status in jihadist circles. This key ideologue is one of the few remaining senior figures in Al-Qa’ida whose death has not been confirmed and was last known to have been placed in a Syrian jail in 2014. Appearing in both books, he provides a link between the past and present, highlighting how the activities of Al-Qa’ida as a network have evolved from the pre-9/11 world, through the misery of the Madrid bombings to current-day Syria. In a particularly worrying hint of what might be, the leader of the Syrian jihadist group Jabhat Al-Nusrah, Abu Muhammad Al-Jawlani, is reported in Scott-Clark and Levy’s book as being a big fan of Al-Suri’s work, and while he eschewed Al-Suri’s push towards seeding Europe with lone-actor cells, he championed the theoretician’s approach to war and beseeches his fighters to read his texts.

Scott-Clark and Levy explicitly address this connection between past and present in their introduction. The text repeatedly shows the links between Al-Qa’ida, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Daesh and current events. The character of Hamza bin Laden is a key figure throughout the text, as Osama bin Laden’s clear heir among his many children, and the book ends by highlighting him as the group’s new figurehead. All of this happens as Hamza bin Laden assumes an increasingly prominent role in public, releasing videos calling others to arms and, most recently, eulogising his dead father. A growing number of profiles have now been written about him suggesting he might be the harbinger of a reborn Al-Qa’ida, and Scott-Clark and Levy show him being shuttled between safe houses and mentors as the group seeks to keep him and the rest of the Al-Qa’ida leadership and their families alive and safe.

The most striking part of The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden is the account of the time many members of Al-Qa’ida spent in prison in Iran. Quickly recognised by the Iranian authorities as useful pawns in a larger global strategic game, the Al-Qa’ida leaders and their families spent many years being moved between prisons, alternately given relatively lenient treatment and kept under tight control. The book reports occasional protests and escapes as the Iranian authorities try to play a game of controlling and using the people under their charge. This aspect of the Al-Qa’ida tale is one that has not previously been told in such detail; it is fascinating given that this is a story of a fundamentalist Sunni group aligning itself with a theocratic Shia regime – both of which have regularly condemned each other. Yet clearly Iran sees a bigger potential game at hand, and even figures such as the Qassem Soleimani, leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, feature in the Iranians’ discussion about what to do with the group of Al-Qa’ida men, women and children.

Scott-Clark and Levy also show how badly Iran played its hand in this story. Unable to control the group of Al-Qa’ida fighters, the Iranians tried to manipulate the members to advance their goals or do their bidding. But they failed, and instead, the group ended up using Iran as a staging point to undertake violence elsewhere. It is not always clear whether this was done with Iran’s full acquiescence, but it is just one instance the authors provide of how difficult it is to manipulate such groups. Similarly, Western (and particularly American) efforts frequently come under fire, as Scott-Clark and Levy condemn the Americans’ use of torture and show how these actions fed the radicals’ narrative. For example, Aafia Siddiqui, the US-educated Pakistani neuroscientist who was painted in public as a mastermind of Al-Qa’ida, is here depicted as an ethereal figure whose exact role in the organisation is never clear, but whose torture and disappearance become a cause célèbre for Islamists around the world.

The story, of course, has no conclusion except that this conflict is not going to end in the foreseeable future. In Scott-Clark and Levy’s interpretation of the Abbottabad documents (captured when US Navy SEALs stripped the property where they shot Osama bin Laden), they see a network that is regrouping and continuing on its trajectory of conflict. Incidentally, they are angry that these documents were released in choice leaks to friendly journalists, which they say was intended to paint a picture of a group in decline – something which by the time of publication of The Exile had been rectified through a massive data dump by the CIA. They see little optimism in Pakistan’s behaviour, or that of other supposed allies who are likely to be feeding the conflict for their own reasons. And when looking at what might be done to counter such groups, they add a healthy dose of scepticism to the idea that voices countering extremist ideologies might work. The totemic jihadist ideologue Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi made a substantial assault on Daesh by rebuking its ideas and approaches, but this had done little to stunt the group’s appeal. Rather, he spoke to an earlier generation whose ability to exert influence over the current wave of potential extremists may have passed.

And this in some ways is one of the bleaker conclusions to draw from these books: terrorist groups have long narratives and histories, and are focused on horizons that extend well beyond those of the security services and governments they are fighting against. The past determines the present, and the present determines the future. Thus far, the West has been unable to stay ahead of the curve, and there is little evidence that it will be able to in the future. Both of these books help to cast a clearer light on the past and its links to the present, and how persistent and dangerous the terrorist threat that we face from violent Islamist groups, and Al-Qa’ida in particular, remains. 

Bit of a departure from usual activity, this is an animated interpretation for the website The Conversation of some of the lone actor work that I have been involved in. The numbers and detail of the work comes from the Countering Lone Actor Terrorism (CLAT) project that involved a range of excellent research institutions and colleagues (who are captured in one of the images). A HUGE thanks and applause is due to Wes Mountain who did the animation and was immensely patient with me in producing it.

This aside, spoke to Sky News for a special about a terror case in Manchester with links to the Manchester bomber, and the broader question of the terrorist threat to the UK linked to Libya, and for Canada’s Perspectives with Alison Smith on CPAC about what to do about returning foreign terrorist fighters.

Comic explainer: what is lone-actor terrorism?

Wes Mountain/The ConversationCC BY-ND

Security services and governments around the world remain vigilant to the threat of lone-actor terrorists in our cities.

But when there’s often no indication of an explicit intention or ideology, questions about mental health and with groups like Islamic State willing to encourage and claim responsibility for almost any attack, how do we define lone-actor terrorism?

In this comic explainer, Raffaello Pantucci, Associate Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Director of International Security Studies at RUSI, explains the theory behind lone-actor terrorism and what we know about lone actors’ effectiveness, motives and behaviours that could help us to better understand and disrupt future attacks.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Rachid Kassim is quoted from an interview with Jihadology.

Junaid Hussain’s quote is from court documents.


 


The full Countering Lone-Actor Terrorism Series is available at the Royal United Services Institute’s website.

Illustrations by Wes Mountain for The Conversation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raffaello Pantucci is the Director of International Security Studies at RUSI

And another new piece, again for the Telegraph this time looking at the wave of terror incidents around the world over the past days. Also spoke to the National press agency wire and Handelsblatt about the incidents.

This worldwide day of terror shows that in the age of globalisation, nowhere is safe

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Ankara, Berlin, Zurich, New York. In these cities on Tuesday four scattered but brutal events illustrated the diffuse and confusing nature of the terrorist threat we now face.

The murder of a diplomat, the driving of a truck into a crowd at a Christmas market, a shooting at a mosque and the conviction of an attempted mass murderer of Muslims in New York will all have different consequences and they involve very different groups and ideologies. Yet they are all part of the same phenomenon, both predictable and confusing at the same time. Together they show how acts of terror on random civilians now appear to have no borders, with events in far flung lands tied inextricably to our daily lives at home.

All four events are in their own ways forseeable. Anger has been building for some time across the Middle East over the siege of Aleppo, and Russia has quite clearly put itself at the forefront of supporting the Assad regime in crushing the rebellion. Such action always has consequences, especially when it is accompanied by a daily digest of civilian misery. Armed groups fighting on the ground in Syria – including the former Jabhat al-Nusra, whose slogan the Turkish assassin is reported to have shouted – they have shown they have the ability to launch asymmetric attacks behind the front lines too.

Even if the attacker only proves to have limited connections to such groups, it is not surprising that the anger stirred up by the Syrian war, only exacerbated by the apparent inability of anyone to protect its civilian population, would boil over into a lone attack. The Russian Ambassador in Turkey is, unfortunately, an obvious and relatively unfortunately soft target for such people to strike.

The full details of what has gone on in Germany and Zurich, meanwhile, are uncertain at the time of writing. What appears to be latest vehicle attack on a crowd of civilians – this time in Berlin – does not as yet have any clear attribution. But it comes after a history of such incidents, both brutally murderous like the incident in Nice in July 2016 and a series prior that were seen in the United States and in France around Christmas 2014. The idea of using a vehicle is one that has been championed by both Isil and al Qaeda (though it was rejected by the group’s leader Osama bin Laden as mass murder rather than considered terrorism); its simple horror makes it appealing. The shooting at the mosque also remains without attribution, though the choice of target suggests some grander motive than mere murder.

Finally comes a quieter but perhaps just as significant event. The sentencing of Glendon Scott Crawford of Galway, New York to 30 years’ incarceration for plotting to use a radiological device against Muslims in America shows how extreme right-wing ideologies are also growing in strength. His case is novel because he is the first to be convicted of “attempting to acquire and use a radiological dispersal device.” Yet his desire to strike minorities and the government, and claim some connection with the Ku Klux Klan, all have their roots far back in America’s history. It feels all too predictable in the wake of the hatred being stoked across the world today.

Yet what can be concluded from this roster of misery? That no place is safe – from art galleries to Christmas markets to places of worship, all are now targets for those eager to kill in the name of a cause. The reach of extremist ideologies and causes is a reflection of the intensely globalized world which we inhabit. And while distance has been shortened and international connections tightened, this brings troubles from afar increasingly into our homes and daily lives, either through news or terrorist action.

It is not clear that this new threat is more dangerous than previous ones, rather than just noisier. Some calculations show that terrorist casualties in the West are lower since the 1960s and 1970s, but we don’t know whether this means the threat is decreasing, that we are counting it differently, or that security forces have become more adept at preventing incidents. But the situation certainly appears more acute, and when dealing with a phenomenon like terrorism – for which the perception of menace and fear is essential – this can be enough.

Undoubtedly this will not be last brutal day in our time. Terrorist groups and those using terrorist methodologies to advance personal anger will continue to strike, each time more brutally, to get attention for their cause. The key question is how society responds. To respond too hard may damage the fabric of a free society, but to respond inadequately will let more people die and perhaps tear it apart entirely. This is a dilemma with no clear answer – but it is increasingly the dominant question of our time.

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

Slightly late posting of a new piece for the Telegraph which was written a little while back and finally got up last week. I am not in total agreement with the title chosen by the editors which explicitly suggests that the sectarianism was something linked to Kashmir which was not my intent. My point, which I hope the article shows, was to say that violence and militancy in South Asia tends to resonate in the UK.

Sectarian violence in Kashmir is increasingly spilling over onto the streets of Britain

An Indian policeman fires tear gas shells towards the demonstrators during an anti-India protest in Srinagar, October 4, 2016
An Indian policeman fires tear gas shells towards the demonstrators during an anti-India protest in Srinagar, October 4, 2016 Credit: Danish Ismail/Reuters

 

Two of the world’s nuclear powers almost went to war recently to little notice in the UK. And yet the group accused of being the spark for the violence and the countries involved are ones with deep historical links to this country.

Violence in South Asia has a habit of resonating in Britain, be it in the form intra-communitarian clashes, terrorist violence or familial murder. And while it is unclear in what way the current clashes in Kashmir will resonate, Britain’s historical connection with South Asia mean that rising violence and sectarianism over there will have an impact here.

The group that stands accused of being behind the recent cross-border incursions from Pakistan into India that generated a violent ‘surgical’ response by India is Jaish-e-Mohammed (the army of Mohammed) a group established in the late 1990s by Maulana Masood Azhar. A long-standing jihadist and Kashmiri independence ideologue, Masood Azhar has a history of links to the UK.

In 1993, when he was involved in a precursor group called Hizbul Mujahedeen, he came on a fundraising tour of the UK, giving emotional speeches about jihad, raising money for training camps in Pakistan and recruiting young men to join his cause. His speeches were reportedly so stirring that women would take off their jewellery there and then to contribute to the cause. In 1999 he was released from captivity in India alongside Briton Omar Saeed Sheikh (a young man he knew from their time together in Hizbul Mujahedeen), an LSE graduate who went on to play an important role in his group and who currently sits on death row in Pakistan guilty of involvement in the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

Maulana Masood Azhar, Muslim cleric and leader of the militant group fighting in Indian-held Kashmir against Indian forces, arrives at Karachi airport in January, 2000, after being released by Indian authorities in a prisoner exchange
Maulana Masood Azhar, Muslim cleric and leader of the militant group fighting in Indian-held Kashmir against Indian forces, arrives at Karachi airport in January, 2000, after being released by Indian authorities in a prisoner exchange Credit: Athar Hussain/AP Photo

On Christmas Day 2000, Masood Azhar’s group Jaish-e-Mohammed (which he founded on his release from Indian jail) claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Srinagar that was undertaken by a Birmingham born 24 year-old using the name Mohammed Bilal. In 2005 Masood Azhar’s brother in law, Rashid Rauf, another Birmingham-born lad, took Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer around al Qaeda training camps in Pakistan as they learned how to make bombs, recorded suicide videos and prepared to launch the July 2005 attack on London on behalf of al Qaeda.

A year prior to launching his attack, Mohammed Siddique Khan attended a training camp in Pakistan at which a group of radicalised Brits learned how to make bombs and shoot guns. At night the young men would entertain themselves reading Masood Azhar’s tracts to each other around the campfire.

Rashid Rauf is escorted by police commandos during his appearance in court in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, 2006
Rashid Rauf is escorted by police commandos during his appearance in court in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, 2006 Credit: Mian Khursheed/Reuters

South Asian militancy and violence has resonated in other ways as well. In 1984 a pair of Kashmiri men living in Birmingham murdered the Indian Deputy Consul General in retaliation for the jailing of one of their leaders in India. And more recently there have been sectarian murders which have more in common with intra-ethnic hatred in South Asia than anything in the UK.

The murder of Jalal Uddin in Rochdale in February was done by a pair of angry young men, one of whom subsequently ran away to Syria to fight alongside Isil, who thought Uddin’s practice of taweez, turning pieces of the Koran into amulets, was blasphemous. A month later Bradford cab driver Tanveer Ahmed drove to Glasgow and brutally stabbed shopkeeper Asad Shah to death, apparently angered by videos he found online of Mr Shah suggesting he was the prophet.

While in the Uddin murder there was some evidence that the men had absorbed Isil ideology, it was also clear that the men’s anger against Mr Uddin’s behaviour had a deeper root. Mr Shah was a member of a minority Ahmaddiya sect, and while it seemed as though Mr Ahmed was angry about specific videos Mr Shah had put of himself online, the fact of his Ahmaddiya background played substantially into the narrative around his murder.In many ways, both the Uddin and Shah murders were a product in part of sectarian hatreds that have their roots in South Asia. The Ahmaddiya community is frequently persecuted in Pakistan, with senior figures often calling for them be declared apostates. The practice of taweez is equally controversial amongst conservative Muslims who believe the worship of amulets is a form of idolatry. Most disturbingly as Mr Ahmed was sent down to life imprisonment for the murder of Mr Shah, supporters in the public gallery chanted “god is great.” In the wake of both deaths, there were public conversations amongst Britain’s Muslim community about the practices the men were accused of being involved in, and the degree to which they might be considered properly Muslim.

Looking beyond the problem of violence and conflict with neighbouring countries, militancy and crime within the country, one of the biggest problems Pakistan currently faces is rising sectarianism. In 2010, two Ahmaddiya mosques in Lahore were targeted with bombs leading to almost 100 deaths and over a hundred injuries. On March 27 this year a suicide bomber detonated explosives at an Easter celebration in Lahore killing 75. Both attacks were claimed by militant groups and were targeting minority communities in the country. Visiting Pakistan late last year, a security official told me how one of the number one security concerns his country faced was “sectarianism.”

Seen in this light, the Shah and Uddin murders are echoes from South Asia. Narratives from the region regularly appear on Britain’s streets, be in the form of political protests marching along Whitehall, religious or political murders or terrorist plots – often linked through long-standing networks and communities that tie the UK to South Asia. Now we are seeing sectarian murders.

Politicians and militant leaders from the sub-continent have long noticed and profited from this proximity of the now long-settled South Asian communities in the UK and the sub-continent and used it as a source of fundraising and support. Violence over there tends to resonate here. And while it will be impossible and incorrect to try to cut this umbilical cord linking us together, greater attention needs to be paid to understanding how this connection is evolving.

The danger otherwise is the gradual importation of escalating violence from South Asia to the UK’s streets.

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

A late posting of a recent piece for my institutional home RUSI exploring the question of al Qaeda versus ISIS/Daesh/ISIL and the degree to which they are able to advance the lone actor strategy. Lots of longer form writing going on at the moment which is keeping me busy and will eventually land.

Why is Daesh Able to Inspire More Attacks Than Al-Qa’ida?

The fact that there are more and more Daesh-inspired lone-actor terrorist attacks may be the product of technological changes, rather than a different approach to terror.
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Daesh appears to have intensified its efforts to encourage individuals to carry out lone-actor terrorist attacks, as events over the weekend in the US indicate. But this trend has been observed for quite some time, and it may be the product of technological changes, rather than a different approach to terror.

The US was rocked this weekend by a series of terrorist attacks. While Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS or IS) claimed responsibility for the stabbing spree in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the New York and New Jersey explosions have not yet been claimed by any terrorist group. Given the uncertainties at this stage in the investigation, it is unclear if there is any deeper meaning to this distinction, but the speed with which Daesh claimed responsibility for one terrorist attack and not the other suggests a rationale. The Minneapolis attack was an example of the lone-actor methodology that Daesh has managed to appropriate from Al-Qa’ida with a high degree of success. A key unanswered question is this: why has Daesh has proven so much more effective at delivering this sort of attack than Al-Qa’ida?

The first thing to note is that the approach which Daesh appears to be so good at promoting is not novel. Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Inspire magazine used to advocate a similar methodological approach. It aped various prominent mainstream advertising campaigns – including Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ campaign – and offered easily accessible attack methodologies for aspirant warriors. And there was some evidence that it worked, with the bomb recipe offered in the magazine repeatedly showing up in terrorist plots. From the limited available evidence at the moment, the latest New York bombs seem to emulate a recipe in Inspire.

Yet it was never clear that the group was able to instigate and steer such attacks. Numerous Al-Qa’ida leaders spoke of the lone-actor methodology as one that adherents in the West should copy, but very few terrorist attacks seem to have actually taken place as a result. Occasional plots seemed to hint in this direction, but it was almost impossible to draw a direct causal link between Al-Qa’ida and these attacks. And, according to one letter found in his lair in Abbottabad, Osama Bin Laden did not entirely approve of all of the various random mass murder methodologies Inspire used to offer its readers.

Fast-forward to today, and we see repeated attacks using small bombs, knives, guns and other weapons to attack innocent citizens in the West, with Daesh regularly claiming responsibility for them. And while some appear to be over-eager claims by the group – like the case of Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people in a mass shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June – in a growing number of cases there appears to be clear evidence of some sort of connection with Daesh.

Three factors appear to have changed since the heyday of Inspire magazine that may help explain Daesh’s effectiveness in inspiring lone-actor terrorist attacks.

First, the ideology that Daesh espouses comes in the wake of Al-Qa’ida and it is louder, brasher and more attractive, projecting an image of power and control of territory; markedly different to Al-Qa’ida’s image of a secretive menacing organisation.

Second, the definition of ‘terrorist attack’ has been diluted, with the range of actions that are considered terrorist attacks now broader. Whereas in the past only large-scale bomb or plane attacks would be considered terrorist attacks, now using a vehicle or knives against other citizens can constitute a terrorist attack. Furthermore, the targets have now become diffuse – cafés, churches, people’s houses,  among others, are all in the crosshairs. This means that a terror attack is no longer the complicated large-scale endeavour that it used to be. And if it is easier to carry out a terrorist attack, then there are a wider range of attacks for Daesh to be able to claim. This lower threshold is something that Daesh has eagerly embraced, in contrast to Al-Qa’ida, which has allegedly had reservations about this approach.

Third, it turns out that a number of these attacks are not actually as lone or detached as they seem prima facie. After an investigation, the German authorities uncovered clear evidence of contact with Daesh in an axe attack on a train in Wuerzburg and an attempted bombing in Ansbach in July this year. The June murder of a police officer and his girlfriend at their home in Magnaville, 55 km west of Paris, and the subsequent July murder of a priest in Rouen, as well as the attempted car bombing in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, were all linked back to the same French Daesh leader: Rachid Kassim. Previously, a network of British plotters in the Syrian city of Raqqa – Junaid Hussain, Reeyad Khan and Sally Jones – were talking and instigating various attempted attackers in the West.

In many of these cases, it was subsequently discovered that the plotters on the ground were involved in quite intense conversations with Daesh handlers or directors. Apparently using apps such as WhatsApp, Kik or Telegram, the attackers were communicating with their Daesh handlers. The Ansbach bomber, for example, was quite literally directed in his attack by his handler outside Germany. So, although the perpetrators may seem to have been alone in their actions, they both had some backing and plenty of connections.

In some ways, this is likely a product of the way we communicate these days. Daesh, therefore, appears to be in part a product of its time; the communication apps that are now available were not accessible to Al-Qa’ida when it was promoting a similar message, and Daesh’s more contemporary audience is simply using the tools in everyday life. The phenomenon also builds on what came before it: Al-Qa’ida had already started to sketch out the path of lone-actor attacks that Daesh has so eagerly embraced. And in part it is a product of a leadership in Daesh that sees value and strategy in low-grade random attacks, in contrast to Al-Qa’ida, which appears fixated on more large-scale, dramatic attacks.

Daesh has not invented a new strategy of launching attacks; what we are witnessing instead seems to be an attempt on the part of Daesh to increase the incidence of a particular form of terrorism, lone-actor terrorism, an upward trajectory that was most likely to happen anyway. Daesh’s attacks seem a product of their times, rather than a completely novel strategic approach.