Posts Tagged ‘AQ’

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.

 

london_bridge_after_terrorist_attack

 

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.

 

A longer essay this morning in the Observer looking at the impact of the murder of Lee Rigby on the face of terrorism five years on from when it looks place. Some reactions on twitter already, look forward to hearing more people’s thoughts (feel free to contact through comments or the contact page). I am careful about saying that this is the harbinger of the end in the conclusion of the piece, as it could be for this expression, though as I have written elsewhere, it is depressingly likely that things will evolve in other ideological directions.

How Lee Rigby’s murder changed the face of terror

Lee Rigby memory

The murder of Lee Rigby five years ago ushered in a wave of ‘easy’ extremist violence. But will such random acts result in radical Islam losing its malign ideological power?

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Just under five years ago, two men ran down and then butchered with knives Fusilier Lee Rigby as he walked back to his barracks in Woolwich, south London. Still covered in Rigby’s blood, the older of the two men calmly spoke to the cameraphones of those nearby, justifying his act, declaring it revenge for atrocities in “Muslim lands”. Armed police arrived soon afterwards, shooting the attackers and detaining them. But their act had already been memorialised and continues to resonate half a decade later.

Rigby’s murder was not the first time knives had been used in a violent Islamist act in the United Kingdom. In one example, three years earlier, a young east Londoner called Roshonara Choudhry walked into her MP’s constituency surgery and stabbed him, in revenge, she said, for voting for the war in Iraq. Stephen Timms survived his attack and the act was so strange at the time that it took quite a while for people properly to realise what had happened.

Terrorist groups had been urging such attacks for some time. Al-Qaida’s English-language magazine, Inspire, called for people to carry out such acts regularly under the title of “just do it” terrorism. It had been particularly proud of Choudhry’s act, highlighting how a woman had been stepping up to carry out acts that men, as the magazine put it, were failing to do.

But the important difference is that these previous acts had not “worked” – as in resulted in death. In contrast, Rigby’s murder was public, brutal and recorded for posterity. Shocking in its nature, it seemed a very different terrorist attack to those that we had been used to: such as the coordinated operations of 9/11 or 7/7 or the team of marauding gunmen who executed the Mumbai attack in 2008.

Yet, as time passes, it is clear that Rigby’s murder has had a substantial impact on the terrorist threat picture in the UK and around the world. It was the most public terrorist knife attack and it became something of a model. In the UK alone, at least 16 plots or incidents took place afterwards in which bladed weapons were either used or planned to be used.

The transmission of terrorist ideas and methodology is something that is hard to track precisely. But in the first instance, a public “success” such as this will breed emulation. This was most clearly visible in the immediate wake of the attack in two incidents. A few days after the murder in Woolwich, Alexandre Dhaussy, a French recent convert to Islam known to authorities for his radical views and petty criminal activity, stabbed a soldier in the neck as he patrolled in La Défense in Paris. A week later, after an imam called for prayers for Rigby’s family during a service at HMP Full Sutton in east Yorkshire, a group of radicalised prisoners kidnapped a guard, called for the release of other extremists and tried to take over part of the prison. In both cases, questions were asked about the degree of ideological commitment of the attackers, but it seems clear that their action was in part inspired by the murder of Rigby.

People leave the London Bridge area with their hands up after the 2017 terrorist attack
 People leave the London Bridge area with their hands up after the 2017 terrorist attack. Photograph: Neil Hall/Reuters

In the longer term, the Woolwich action and imagery provided people with an example to copy and perceived heroic figures to follow. Almost a year later, Brusthom Ziamani, a confused young man who had moved in (now banned) al-Muhajiroun circles and looked up to Adebolajo as an older brother – he described him to his girlfriend as a “legend” – was arrested by authorities as he went to carry out an attack similar to that of his idol.

For others, the act lives on in imagery and legend. Nadir Syed, another al-Muhajiroun extremist who was later convicted of planning a knife attackagainst authority figures, was found to have shared images of Rigby’s killers among his friends on social media.

On the other side of the ideological spectrum, in January 2015, Zack Davies started hacking at a South Asian man he saw in a Tesco supermarket in Mold, Wales, shouting “white power” and saying that he was undertaking the attack in revenge for Rigby. Later investigation showed he was an isolated and paranoid young man who was obsessed with the far right.

The drama of the act is transmitted through the media, which help magnify it and give it resonance. This brings it to others’ attention and gives them a sense of great acts of history at play. In the longer term, it generates a wealth of imagery that can be used and manipulated by groups to show the message they are advancing.

Ultimately, the key thing the Rigby murder showed was that there was no need to overcomplicate the terrorist act. Rather than build a bomb, go to a training camp in a far-off land, source expensive and elusive weapons or gather a large network of people, you could conduct a highly effective terrorist attack using tools sitting in your kitchen and your car.

Rigby’s murderers Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale were, in fact, committed and long-term extremists connected to the al-Muhajiroun network in the UK. They were linked to a group of British extremists in Yemen alongside the radical Islamist Anwar al-Awlaki (the preacher whose videos inspired Choudhry, she claimed, to attempt to kill Timms). Adebolajo was arrested in November 2010in Kenya trying to get into Somalia to join the militant al-Shabaab group. He had first appeared on security services’ radars in mid-2008 on the fringes of a network linked to individuals who were trying to obtain material to conduct a terrorist attack and had been in direct contact with core al-Qaida; he had in fact been active in the al-Muhajiroun community as early as 2003 when he was only 19.

Adebowale, the junior in the partnership, had a similar history. He was first investigated by MI5 in 2011, but is known to have had contact with a “subject of interest” to the security service as early as 2009. At the time, he was just coming out of a young offender institution where he had been incarcerated on narcotics charges. Leaving prison, he was reported to be wearing Islamic robes and had adopted a more hardline Islamist ideology. He then joined in the constant churn of activism that marks al-Muhajiroun, showing up at protests, attending events, shouting for cameras.

So while they might have been two jihadist drifters, they nevertheless managed to carry out a terrorist act that captured attention and set a new example. We still do not know the degree to which they were talking to others about doing this, but it does not completely matter. They were committed, long-term extremists who decided to act in a way that they could and, in the process, they changed the dynamic of how we saw terrorism and terrorist acts.

The UK had not experienced a successful violent Islamist terrorist attack since the 2005 bombings on London’s public transport system. Repeated cells had been disrupted, including the 2006 airlines plot, which would have probably killed more than the 9/11 attacks had it succeeded in bringing down up to eight airlines on transatlantic routes. In 2007, a double car bombing in the heart of London was thwarted (two bombs were discovered and disabled), as was a subsequent vehicle-borne explosive device at Glasgow international airport.

The pattern still seemed to be for terrorists to want to achieve large-scale spectaculars that brought mass casualties or caused massive economic damage.

This was not true across the ideological spectrum. Shortly before the Rigby attack, an elderly Muslim man had been stabbed and killed in Birmingham. At the time, it was not clear what had taken place in the murder of Mohammed Saleem. It later turned out to have been the act of a lone far-right extremist from Ukraine, Pavlo Lapshyn, who had arrived in the UK on a scholarship only five days earlier and set off on a one-man terror campaign. But after this stabbing, Lapshyn reverted to what he seemed to really enjoy doing and set off a series of bombs outside mosques in the West Midlands. At the time, questions were asked about whether the murder of Saleem might have inspired Adebolajo and Adebowale, but there was no evidence of this. Rather, they carried out a targeted act of terror in advance of the ideology to which they were dedicated.

The Woolwich attack was shocking for many reasons. There was an ease and randomness about it that seemed so much more brutal than anything that had been seen before. The fact that the men had undertaken their act, paused for the cameras, not attacked anyone else, all showed a level of calculation and menace that suggested something new was afoot.

While horrific, the suicide bombings on the London underground were comprehensible and left a distinct trail: training camps, terrorist leaders in far-off countries directing individuals and sophisticated plots involving hard-to-assemble bombs. Adebolajo and Adebowale changed this profile, showing how everyday household items were redeployable as terrorist weapons.

The wider effect was to lower the threshold of what constitutes a terrorist attack, suddenly making the act much more “accessible”. And this is reflected in what came next, with repeated attempted attacks using bladed weapons, as terrorists realised that this was all that was needed. In the UK alone, at least 16 plots of this type are identifiable on the violent Islamist end of the spectrum. On the continent, the pattern is similar, with the car and bladed weapon terrorist methodology becoming depressingly ubiquitous.

Terrorist groups tried to claim credit. Al-Shabaab, the group that Adebolajo had tried to join in 2010, released an hour-long video taking its title from his comments to camera. In it, al-Shabaab championed the Woolwich murder and elevated it into the pantheon of lone actor terrorist attacks. It called for others to emulate this and seemed to suggest targeting various individuals who were seen on film commenting in the wake of the murder.

Just over a year later, the methodology was given an extra jolt of life by the Isis leader Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s fatwa, which electrified the extremist community. It ran thus: “Kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian… and kill him in any manner or way however it may be. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car…” This was of a piece with an approach advanced by an al-Qaida theorist called Abu Bakr Naji. In his book The Management of Savagery, Naji advocates the use of persistent and extreme violence to grind an enemy down, using as crude tactics as possible. Adnani’s savage litany resonated and subsequent terrorist attacks have clearly drawn inspiration from it.

Numerous cells of plotters were shown to discuss its effect and appeared to accelerate plotting in response. At the same time, the speech was following a path that had already been trodden by Rigby’s murderers. The narrative tying Adebolajo and Adnani together was on display in the Nadir Syed case, where he discussed on social media the importance and inspirational impact of the Adnani fatwa, while praising Adebolajo’s act.

It is in many ways extraordinary that things have turned out like this. In the first instance, the attack by Adebolajo and Adebowale, while a tragedy for the murdered soldier’s family, was in some ways a reflection of how hard it had become to launch terrorist attacks in the UK. The security services had learned how to manage the threat. Complicated plots got disrupted; networks of extremists had been penetrated. Many of those in the al-Muhajiroun circle of friends were in jail or under surveillance. Out of this effective security response emerged the assault on Rigby.

But what could not be known at the time was how the simplicity of this attack would inspire others and show them an “easier” path to take, offering crazed individuals a path to perceived grandeur through others’ misery using tools they had lying around the house. The ideology was accessible through the internet and easy to regurgitate, the methodology and targeting was easy; suddenly, the idea of terrorism was no longer an elite activity for the select few who had access to specific groups and weapons.

In the wake of the Woolwich attack, there was a renewed crackdown on the extremists who make up al-Muhajiroun. It did not eliminate them, but it took some off the streets and a growing number went to Syria. For them, Islamic State’s declaration of the caliphate in June 2014 changed everything, forcing them to make a choice between joining what they had advocated for years or showing themselves up as empty loudmouths.

While there continued to be plots that were disrupted, the ideology spread beyond their tightknit community and sprang up in random circles and homes around the country. Khuram Butt, a known al-Muhajiroun extremist who was the focus of police investigation, was the leader of the cell who, using a van and knives, murdered eight people as they enjoyed a night out, close to London Bridge in June 2017. His act was one that had clear inspiration from his previous al-Muhajiroun comrades.

Yet while diffusion of the threat picture has made it more dangerous, it has also started to tear at its coherence. It becomes quite hard to maintain a consistent ideology when you are trying to bring together organised and ideologically motivated plots with what look like random acts of terror. The spectrum from the concert massacre in Manchester to the bafflingly incompetent attack attempted by Mohiussunnath Chowdhury against police at Buckingham Palace is wide.

An Uber driver angry at the world, Chowdhury entered the wrong co-ordinates into his satnav the first time and found himself stuck outside a pub before figuring out the way to Buckingham Palace. Once there, he drove at a police van, shouting: “Allahu Akbar” and was subdued by police officers with CS gas. One officer was injured as Chowdhury brandished the samurai sword he had with him.

The bus destroyed by a terrorist’s bomb in London’s Tavistock Square, July 2005
 The bus destroyed by a terrorist’s bomb in London’s Tavistock Square, July 2005. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images/PA

This is the issue difficult to assess: when terrorism has become so random, how does it still maintain any of its ideological power? The attacks of 11 September 2001 or the 2015 massacre at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris have an archetypal imagery about them. They capture the maxim advanced by Brian Michael Jenkins, a former US special forces officer and one of the early writers about modern terrorism, who argued that “terrorism is theatre”. The drama and scale of the act draws attention and advances a group’s message.

And this is important to remember: terrorists are fundamentally seeking to advance a political ideology and message. The terrorist act is a way to deliver this. Consequently, the act needs to have drama and effect. A large network plotting to carry out a mass atrocity is a terrifying concept, which will draw attention to itself.

The Rigby murder in its novelty had an equal drama. But as time went on, this approach lost its lustre. In a city where a campaign of stabbings is the major criminal activity preoccupying the police, what effect will a random ideologically motivated one have? If the act becomes indistinguishable from other murders that take place in our societies every day, how does the group continue to advance its message?

This is something that al-Qaida theorists have worried about. The godfather of the lone actor methodology, Abu Musab al-Suri, highlights in his text The Global Islamic Resistance Call that campaigns repeatedly failed because of a lack of proper “education” of ideologies among terrorists. As networks were ground down through confrontation with authorities, “the cadre of supporters that had been formed through lengthy education were expended and the level of education declined among the succeeding bases of cadre”, he writes. This resulted “in the complete failure [that] manifested itself in the inability to realise the goals of the general project”. In other words, as the terrorists committing the act became more detached from the core group, the strength of the ideology was weakened.

Seen in this light, it is possible that we might try to interpret the murder in Woolwich as the beginning of the end or, cleaving to caution, at least the beginning of a path that might take us towards the end. Isis, and its brutality, has extended the lifespan of this threat by years, but ultimately the trajectory will be downward.

Terrorist attacks that are indistinguishable from random murders that take place in our cities or from the brazen acts of lunatics will increasingly have less power to shock. And with no coherent movement, the truly dangerous ideological core will struggle to motivate the right people to launch an effective struggle that has a goal. Rather, it will be occasional lunatics who hurt ordinary citizens but ultimately are unable to change anything. Societies have survived sustained terror campaigns and while none of this is any sort of panacea to those who lose loved ones, the terrorist project is in decline.

Five years on from the murder in Woolwich, the act has achieved a totemic place in the jihadist canon. Yet, decades from now, it might be seen instead as a harbinger of the end of a movement.

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

Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, one of the gunmen in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, which left 166 people dead
 Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, one of the gunmen in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, which left 166 people dead. Photograph: Sebastian D’souza/AP

More catch-up posting, this time a piece for my institutional home RUSI’s magazine Newsbrief, looking at how the threat from ISIS/Daesh may evolve over the next few years.

Daesh: What Happens Next?

May 24, 2017

As the battle for Mosul rages on and Daesh is put under increasing pressure in other parts of Iraq and Syria, how will the threat from the group evolve? Will Daesh end up following the path of Al-Qa’ida, with regional affiliates becoming more prominent? 

In the wake of 9/11, Al-Qa’ida was sharply ejected from its base in Afghanistan. Re-establishing itself in Pakistan’s border areas, the leadership continued their bitter struggle against the world, launching and coordinating a series of attacks. Most immediately these included: an attempt on transatlantic airlines using British shoe bombers; an attack on the Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba, Tunisia; the bombing of a nightclub in Bali; a rocket attack on an Israeli passenger aircraft leaving Mombasa, Kenya; and ship-borne suicide bombers targeting the French-flagged Petronas oil tanker MV Limburg off the coast of Yemen. Scattered around the world, these plots included a mix of local Al-Qa’ida affiliates and people who had trained at camps in Afghanistan, but all showed a clear link to the group’s leadership.

This set a pattern for the next few years, where the group continued to manipulate its networks from a distance, as well as send out cells of plotters to launch attacks around the world. In some cases, largely autonomous local networks took some seed support (or had a few key individuals return from the training camps), leading to a spate of attacks.

A good example of this was in Indonesia, where Jemaah Islamiah, the Southeast Asian Al-Qa’ida affiliate, launched a series of attacks in Bali and Jakarta. In other cases, such as the UK, the group had a steady supply of radicalised young men travel to its camps in Pakistan where they were indoctrinated and then directed to commit atrocities back home. This pipeline generated a string of plots directed from the core with escalating ambition that culminated in the August 2006 plot to bring down eight transatlantic flights with liquid bombs. This ideology received a boost from the invasion of Iraq, with random individuals seeking to launch attacks to advance the group with little evidence of a clear link to the leadership.

This pattern really started to change only in 2008–2010, when an extensive drone and Special Forces campaign was launched against the Al-Qa’ida leadership in Pakistan. This persistent hammering had an effect and led to a noticeable drop in Al-Qa’ida’s capacity to train and send out jihadis, as well as communicate with its international network. A Birmingham network, disrupted in 2011, was overheard talking about how the extent of their training camp was hanging about indoors hiding from drones and watching extremist videos. In 2010, French jihadist Mohammed Merah sought out training camps in Pakistan and appeared only able to spend a day at one before being sent quickly back on his way. The Birmingham cell was disrupted while Merah went on to launch a campaign in southern France, murdering off-duty soldiers and Jewish schoolchildren. Bin Laden senior was able to issue only occasional messages to his network and the world, leading to growing strategic stagnation.

But as the leadership took a beating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al-Qa’ida’s regional affiliates assumed a more prominent role in launching attacks. Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) raised its profile, becoming a greater draw to the community of radicalised young westerners seeking to connect with jihadist groups. This brought a new wave of young aspiring Western warriors to Yemen, in particular through the attraction of its American-Yemeni preacher Anwar Al-Awlaki. These warriors were further indoctrinated, trained and then dispatched to launch attacks back home. This led to repeated attempts on international aviation, including: the ‘underwear bomber’; the printer cartridge bombs; concerns over an attempt to launch an attack with surgically implanted explosives: and a threat from a radicalised IT worker at British Airways. AQAP became the standard bearer for Al-Qa’ida globally, continuing the international struggle as the core lost its capacity to manage such attacks.

But the core organisation continued to exist and exert influence and direction over the network. As was evidenced by the many letters to have leaked from the correspondence seized in Abbottabad, Osama was a controlling leader. In one letter, for example, he expressed disappointment and disapproval of methods of attacks advocated by AQAP in its influential English-language magazine Inspire. Elsewhere, it seems clear that he was responsible for the continuing refusal to formally recognise Somali affiliate Al-Shabaab as part of the global organisation. However, his ability to control the group was weakening and as regional affiliates became more prominent or others developed, the nature of the ideology that Osama had launched changed. His death at the hands of US Special Forces at his Abbottabad compound in 2011 changed the group, with his successor Ayman Al-Zawahiri offering a different style of leadership and direction.

The result of this was a clear shift towards regionalisation by the group. Attacks and campaigns became much more localised. The 2013 attacks at In Amenas in Algeria and Al-Shabaab’s assault on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi are the best examples of this. In both cases, the attackers were linked to Al-Qa’ida, but there was a mix of local dynamics and new leadership figures establishing themselves at play in both cases. Despite Al-Qa’ida’s celebrations and announcements, it was not clear the degree to which the attacks were directed from Afghanistan or Pakistan, if at all. The incident advanced the global cause, although appeared much more about local than international dynamics. The regional affiliates still used Al-Qa’ida’s rhetoric and ideology, though their motivations appeared to be driven by a different set of drivers than the core leadership or ideology would necessarily advocate. More focused on local enemies, they were retreating to confront the ‘near enemy’ rather than the ‘far enemy’.

Daesh appears to be undergoing the same process, albeit in a more compressed timeframe than the decade or so it has taken Al-Qa’ida. Plots linked to the Daesh’s core continue to show up around the world, with some evidence of individual former fighters returning home to plant the seeds of a network. There is also evidence of attackers being directed, instigated or inspired by the group’s core in Syria and Iraq.

At the same time, Daesh’s regional affiliates – for instance, its groups in Afghanistan, Egypt, Nigeria or Libya – are taking a much more forward and aggressive position. The core group claims responsibility for these attacks and releases images through formal information channels linked to its Amaq or Nashir news agencies. The attacks themselves, however, often appear to be far more locally oriented and directed. That is to say, they are focused on striking enemies in their immediate environments, rather than using their bases to launch the large-scale attacks on the West that the core seems interested in wanting to do. Daesh’s Afghan affiliate, for example, has repeatedly launched attacks against Shia or government targets in Kabul. The group’s Egyptian affiliate continues to strike against minorities or the state in Egypt. Libya is possibly the exception to this rule, given the disorder in the state, the group has often used its training camps or footprint there to launch attacks or attempted plots in nearby North African countries such as Morocco or Tunisia.

This local focus suggests a far looser network of groups whose allegiance may be more limited, or at the very least a narrative by the core organisation that allows for far greater autonomy by regional affiliates. But this strategy carries with it risks for the core. If a regional affiliate has been operating autonomously for some time and is merely carrying the banner locally, then its loyalty may over time become frayed. Members of the leadership with personal links to the affiliate may get killed off, leading to the rise of new individuals whose ties may lie elsewhere. This will change the power dynamic between the core and the affiliate as the historical kinship links which tie the groups together get lost and new ones are harder to develop over long distances. This is a dynamic that has already played out to some degree with Al-Qa’ida, but it is happening with Daesh over a much shorter timeline as the core organisation continues to hold territory in the Levant and directs, instigates and inspires terrorist plots around the world.

Therefore, the potential threat from Daesh is one that is an enhanced version of what was seen with Al-Qa’ida. And the dangers from these patterns are similar to those seen with Al-Qa’ida. The growing prominence of affiliates is something that became a threat not only to Western countries or their nationals abroad, but also means that the core ideology and threat from the group is transferred from the core to affiliates at moments when the former comes under particular stress. The rise of AQAP to prominence in the late 2000s is a reflection of this, and it is possible that we could see a similar displacing as Daesh comes under greater pressure in the Levant.

At the same time, it is equally possible to draw some lessons from Al-Qa’ida’s weakening to understand how to damage Daesh and manage its growth. First, the core needs to be hammered and deprived of territory. This pressure clearly degrades capacity. Second, the West needs to be vigilant against more confident and strong affiliates as they can become the core threat. Third, it needs to understand the nature of individual links between groups. Targeting key individuals may disrupt connections between groups. However, according to the law of unintended consequences, there might be some instances of degrading, while in some other cases there may be individuals whose rise will pose a greater menace. All of this provides a pen portrait for how aggressive counterterrorism activity, as well as careful management of regional affiliates is at the core of understanding how to manage the threat from the group.

All of this is taking place as the threat from Al-Qa’ida core continues to exist. As Hamza bin Laden’s latest message illustrates, the progenitor organisation continues to want to stay relevant and is trying to re-appropriate the concept of lone-actor terrorist attacks (an attack methodology it had long advocated but was unable to weaponise as effectively as Daesh), showing the longevity of these sorts of threats. While Daesh seeks to distinguish itself in many ways from Al-Qa’ida and there are strong tensions between the two groups, their ideologies and outlooks remain similar. Daesh’s methods of attack, direction and radicalisation may have developed from Al-Qa’ida’s, but in many ways this is due to changes in the way people communicate since Al-Qa’ida’s heyday in the mid-2000s. And while Daesh’s relative youth and wanton brutality have somewhat distinguished it from Al-Qa’ida, the biggest danger in many ways is that the two threats may end up fusing.

While this may seem a far-fetched notion at the moment given the leadership tensions, it is not an outcome that can be completely discounted, especially if we see a Daesh that fragments back to its affiliates as the core becomes weakened. In this scenario, we could see enhanced affiliates drawing on both groups support to launch concerted regional campaigns both in their immediate areas, but also against the West.

The unfortunate reality is that it is likely that both threats will be with us for some time yet. While there are some clear lessons in how to manage the threat down from the struggle against Al-Qa’ida, that conflict has shown how hard it is to eradicate such groups. Patience, focus and a long-term plan will be the only way to manage the threats from such international terrorist organisations.

Raffaello Pantucci
Director, International Security Studies, 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 short piece (that was done in the form of an interview with Andrew Mueller who then published it) for a new site called The Question that is focused on answering key questions about specific topics of the day.

Is Islamic State losing its war?

In the short term, at least, they seem to be on the back foot. The land they control in Syria in Iraq is shrinking – and they controlled, for a time, a territory the size of the United Kingdom. Their leading people on the battlefield, quite senior people, are being killed. Their capability to launch the sort of attacks they have before is ebbing away, which suggests a period of relative decline.

Their goal was always to turn the entire planet to God’s greater glory – to bring about the end of days and the second coming of the Lord. This is a group that ultimately has a milleniarian vision of transforming the world in God’s image. That’s a very high bar to clear, but they start with what they start with, and build upwards. For IS, they were always very focused on their Levantine space, and if you read the ancient texts, you’ll see that those lands are very important, as the place where the war that will transform everything will start. So they had a vision of the world as it should be, but they’re also people who don’t much like the governments in those places, which leads to this mesh of personal angers and a bigger ideology which knit quite tightly together.

What is still going well for them is that they continue to exist, and are able to launch some quite substantial attacks, and to control a certain amount of territory. For a group like this, survival is important. And the attacks outside their territory are important, in a number of ways. They’re attacks on an enemy – you’re fighting us, so we’ll fight you. And there’s a political idea behind it as well – they’re trying to stir an ultimate clash of civilisations between the West and Islam and bring about the end of days.

With the taking out of their leaders, there’s a debate in the counter-terrorism community about what it actually means. Some people think decapitation of a terrorist organisation leads to bigger problems – what you’ll sometimes see is that after the removal of a senior figure, factions within the organisation will want to rise up and prove themselves, which they’ll do by doing something more atrocious than the last guy.

You look at al-Shabab in Somalia for example – their leader was killed, the next guy comes in, and you see the Westgate mall attack. The other model is that if you decapitate groups, they sometimes wither and die. You think of the Shining Path in Peru – their leader was taken out, and it kind of disappeared, because it turns out it was really a one-man band.

But an aggressive attrition of the middle ranks of people does have an impact on a group’s ability to function. If you keep hammering that middle level, you break the fighters away from the leadership, and that’s what we’ve seen happening to Islamic State recently. The leaders have to stay hidden, and aren’t in contact with many people. But if you take out the people around them, their ability to direct the organisation changes – if the guy who was looking after the accounts gets killed, who has that information now? Maybe there was a guy who knew where all the safe houses were. Look at Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who was very involved with Islamic State’s external operations – when he was killed, a lot of those would have been lost, or confused. A lot of these relationships are built on trust, and that doesn’t automatically transfer to the next guy.

The numbers which have been circulating recently suggest that the numbers of people from Europe going to fight with Islamic State is down to 10% of what it was last year. There are two main reasons for that. One is that security forces in Europe and elsewhere have a much better understanding of how recruitment networks function, and how to disrupt them. The other is the fact that the attraction of the group has reduced: Islamic State is no longer as powerful and successful as it was. If I’m going to go off and fight for someone, I don’t want to fight with a bunch of losers.

Raffaello Pantucci is 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.