Posts Tagged ‘AQ’

Still catching up posting material from around the September 11 anniversary. Will get around to a media round up soon, as did a lot on various topics over the past couple of months. Have a lot of work also in the pipeline which is going to be keeping me busy, but also a few bigger projects on the horizon which should be interesting. First though a piece with one of my excellent RSIS colleagues Shashi for our local paper the Straits Times, who runs a team focused on various national security threats and whom I have done some work on Singapore’s CVE strategy in the past.

Shape-shifting terrorism: The new challenge

Terrorism predated the 9/11 attacks and continues to evolve, posing new difficulties for those who seek to identify and counter its new protean form

New Zealand police officers outside a mall in Auckland where a man who stabbed six people in a supermarket was shot and killed last Friday. PHOTO: REUTERS

Two decades on from the atrocity of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks, terrorism continues to metastasise. Terrorist spectaculars like the brutal attack at Kabul’s international airport – claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – Khorasan (ISIS-K) – continue, as do attacks like those carried out by individuals inspired by ISIS ideology, the recent Auckland stabbings being a case in point.

But to properly understand and track terrorism’s future evolutions, it is important to consider where we have come from, and where new expressions of the terror threat emerge from. Going forward, they will matter just as much as existing ones.

LESSONS FROM THE PAST

The emergence of Al-Qaeda appeared to herald an age of more brutal but in some ways clear-cut terrorism. In the immediate wake of 9/11, some other groups were forced to reconsider their use of the tactic of terrorism, not least on account of the now unacceptable nature of violence as a legitimate means to further their cause.

There now seems a sharp division between those fighting on the side of the religiously motivated terrorists, and those against them. Around the world, parties to conflicts that had a vaguely Islamist flavour would suddenly associate themselves with the jihadist notions that Al-Qaeda espoused. Often this was done less for reasons of credo than to provide an animating recruiting and fund-raising tool.

For their part, experts, practitioners and policymakers invented an entire vocabulary in the years following 9/11 – home-grown, lone wolf, self-radicalised, CVE (countering violent extremism) and – the most problematic – “deradicalisation”, as they sought to grapple with Islamist terror. An entire clubby academic circuit developed around the issue that gave the appearance of deeply pondering these constructs largely of their own making.

Curiously, this vocabulary was not in evidence when it came to earlier waves of terrorists. These ranged from those driven by ethno-separatist concerns, like the Basque separatists of ETA or the republican or nationalist groups in Ireland.

Religion sometimes featured as well – for example, the Catholic/Protestant divide that separated the two Irelands. But more often, it was driven by narcissistic individuals advancing their own grandeur and glory, like Carlos the Jackal or Shoko Asahara, leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult that sought to poison Tokyo’s citizenry as they used their public transport system, or individuals who believed deeply in the extreme cause they had chosen and enjoyed the celebrity it gave them – German leftist Red Army Faction leaders Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader come to mind.

No one talked about deradicalising these individuals. The authorities then used an aggressive counter-terrorism approach focused on traditional methods. Some of the terrorists from this earlier age were killed. A largely hidden cohort became disillusioned by the violence (sometimes when confronted by the consequences of their actions). Some became disenchanted with their leaderships, and still others had time to reflect in prison. Others simply matured and began to ponder more deeply the risks involved in what they were doing. Many remained ideologically committed and were mentors for the next generation, while staying one step removed from the violence.

MEANING-SEEKING, SHAPE-SHIFTING

ISIS heralded a new moment in the narrative of global terror. While ISIS managed to trump Al-Qaeda in many ways – including in terms of building and holding a caliphate-shaped territory for some time – perhaps its most striking innovation was to effectively harness the phenomenon of lone actor terrorism, which moved centre stage from the fringe of violent extremism. Isolated individuals, in some cases directed, but often acting entirely independently, launched attacks – and ISIS perfected the narratives to inspire the individuals and claim such incidents.

In harnessing this methodology, the group was tapping into something deeper. Some of the most compelling recent academic research into extremism has shown the importance of the individual’s quest for significance. People are no longer necessarily committing acts of terrorism solely to advance a political or religious ideology. Some of this may still be present, but what stands out is young people in this social media-inflected age drawn towards extremist ideas or acts of performative violence to give their lives meaning and significance.

What might seem like a textbook case of “radicalisation”, or steps preparatory to an attack, is interpreted by analysts and by society in a specific way, providing meaning to an act that might in fact have more complex, multidimensional drivers with little to do with the ideology the individual is purporting to be acting on behalf of.

Our age will see an increasing number of these types of individuals, as well as individuals who shape-shift with mixed ideologies, grabbing from a selection of ideas that in some cases can even directly contradict each other. In the West, there have been individuals who espouse neo-Nazi thinking and then militant Islamist ideas (or vice versa). Some groups consciously adopt each other’s paraphernalia.

Examples can be found in some of the recent pro-ISIS youth cases in Singapore. Some of these individuals faced stressors in their lives. Many appeared to be less deeply versed in their religion, at least compared with an earlier generation of Singapore extremists from the Jemaah Islamiah.

Their infatuation with ISIS was in some ways a substitute activity that created new sources of satisfaction that distracted from the original stressor. For some of these individuals, involvement with ISIS ideology formed part of a coping mechanism that helped them avoid facing problems, such as those involving personal relationships, realistically.

These are the sorts of attacks increasingly seen in Western and Westernised societies – confused individuals (some, but not all, with mental health issues) latching on to ideas and demonstrative forms of violence as a way to excise personal issues, including alienation, anomie and disenfranchisement.

And it is no longer something that is exclusive to the violent Islamist side of the coin. Rather, ideologies become blended together in a confusing mix.

Our age will see an increasing number of these types of individuals, as well as individuals who shape-shift with mixed ideologies, grabbing from a selection of ideas that in some cases can even directly contradict each other. In the West, there have been individuals who espouse neo-Nazi thinking and then militant Islamist ideas (or vice versa). Some groups consciously adopt each other’s paraphernalia.

Far-right groups call for “White Jihad”, and adopt snazzy imagery (partly as a recruiting tool) that borrows from the visuals of ISIS propaganda. This mimicry is partly because ISIS was able to capture a greater share of public attention that these groups crave. This, alongside a skill in projecting narratives in bite-sized pieces that are highly attractive to a generation brought up with limited attention spans, created a highly toxic brew.

This new generation of terrorists or would-be terrorists is almost impossible to define and categorise. Crucially, it is not clear that ideology is the overriding factor defining the individual’s actions. Rather, the individual’s personality and psychology become the key factor.

Take, for example, the 16-year-old youth who was reportedly planning to attack two mosques in Singapore. Having imbibed right-wing ideology, and imagining himself as part of this community, he planned to murder Muslims in what was clearly an imitation of Brenton Tarrant’s 2019 Christchurch attacks. He was a Protestant, and to a degree felt the need to defend his religion from what he saw as an existential threat (Islam), but what seems to have been at least as important was his being motivated by a fascination with gore and violence, and ideas of the “Great Replacement”. The belief, associated with white supremacists that non-whites are taking over their homeland, appears to have been useful in giving him an outlet, but it is far from clear whether any one of these motivational strands should be privileged above others.

THE RESPONSE

Singapore’s Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) has done a sterling job of rehabilitating extremists who had misunderstood fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. But there is a noticeable falling off in success when it comes to self-radicalised individuals in the age of social media.

The issue now is how the relevant agencies go about creating a coherent structure around ideologies that mix and merge, and which might have inherent contradictions within them. Related to this is how to engage and deconstruct at a logical level individual ideologies that might exist within the same person, if the Western case studies are anything to go by – elements of far-right thought, far-left thinking (less prevalent, but still a concern) and, increasingly, misogynistic views.

Our future may well be one where all sorts of people will be radicalised.

Agencies in the West grappling with these issues are beginning to go upstream – in some cases, very far upstream, with a degree of success. Some of the most promising initiatives elsewhere are not about deradicalisation, but rather early intervention work – by schools, social workers, healthcare workers and, where needed, the security apparatus – building an ecosystem of diversion and off-ramps that seeks to address potential issues even before individuals have been radicalised.

It is likely that more attention should be paid to the psychological element that, in the Singapore model, has always been present alongside the religious aspect of rehabilitation.

Mentoring and teaching life skills will likely have to come into play in a bigger way. This approach helps to impart mental resilience that helps individuals cope with life stressors. Where it has been tried elsewhere in similar contexts, it has been able to help the vulnerable individual build faculties to understand shades of nuance. It holds promise as part of a larger toolkit against exclusivist, polarised or monochromatic thinking.

Some of this work already goes on, in a way, in Singapore. When it comes to the recent case of the right-wing youth who planned to murder Muslims here, it has been made known that a mentor will be assigned, with the aim of providing a positive influence and keeping the youth focused on pro-social goals.

The Internal Security Department also works with schools to hold workshops dealing with extremism. Other organisations work cooperatively in this space. The RRG also conducts outreach activities aimed at students.

These efforts aim at tackling the issue at its very wellsprings and, in the longer term, should be seen as an important complement to disengagement or deradicalisation, which will remain necessary when the individual has already proceeded down a negative trajectory.

THE NEW CHALLENGES

The challenge will be to keep this space relatively unsecuritised. If the intention is to stop angry teenagers who are reading violent but persuasive propaganda online, or catch fringe ideologies that are hard to detect or observe online, where do we draw the limits of where the security state can intrude into our lives? No one would deny the need to protect people from violence, but how far do we go in policing teenagers who might just be exploring ideas out of curiosity with no intention to act? And how to separate the angry person who might do something, from the one who is simply venting online’

There may well be setbacks along the way. Within the multi-agency triage, there will need to be acceptance that the “pattern” may well be that there is no pattern. What works for one individual, to alter his or her trajectory, may not work for another individual who in all respects seems to follow the same template.

In this type of future, it might seem that we lack clear answers about these and other related questions to eradicate the problem, but are instead stuck in a treadmill of management.

But progress would still be made if we aim now for the construction of a resilient, cohesive society that has within itself the elements of a counter-radicalisation strategy, including within agencies that traditionally have not considered themselves players in the security space.

Terrorism has transformed during these past two decades; we should ensure our response keeps up. But rather than overheatedly preparing for the next attack and assuming it will simply be like what we saw before, we should be ensuring we have properly tracked how things have evolved in order to understand where they are going next.

The threat from Al-Qaeda, ISIS and their affiliates will remain, but it is now supplemented by a series of even more complicated issues that we are likely to spend the next decade untangling.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

Dr Shashi Jayakumar is head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security and executive coordinator, future issues and technology at RSIS.

Have had a few pieces emerge over the past few days and weeks looking at the anniversary of September 11, 2001. Amidst the surfeit of material that is going to emerge, I worry about saying something new, but I guess that will be for readers to decide. In any case, first up, catching up on posting an article for the Financial Times a week or so ago now which tried to sketch out the point that it does not look like the Taliban government is going to make for a safer environment or one that is hostile to jihadists. Later pieces will explore in more detail what this is actually likely to look like in practice.

Jihadis will remain a threat under the Taliban government

Neighbouring countries are the most at risk in the short term, but western states should not be complacent

A man looks at the aftermath of the Kabul airport suicide bombing. A surge in high-quality weaponry and suddenly idle militants could lead to more violence in the region © Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty

The writer is a Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore

The attack on Kabul airport by Isis Afghan affiliate Isis-K provided a grim bookend for the west’s involvement in Afghanistan. An intervention that started in response to the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks ended with a massacre of Americans and Afghans alike. It also highlighted the complexity of the terrorist threat in south Asia. From being driven principally by al-Qaeda, it now involves a range of different organisations posing threats that are likely to stay regional in the short to medium term but will undoubtedly create instability affecting the west in the longer term. 

In many ways, the threat from al-Qaeda was fairly coherent. Osama bin Laden’s organisation used its money and resources to support the Taliban. This enabled it to establish terrorist infrastructure in Afghanistan which it then used in its holy war against the west and its “apostate” supporters in the Muslim world. Other groups operating from Afghanistan’s territory focused on alternative adversaries, but operated on the same principle. 

There is concern that this could happen again. It is an open question whether the Taliban will turn on organisations such as al-Qaeda that have fought and bled alongside them in their two-decade struggle against the US. But even if we assume that they find a way of containing them, this is no longer the only threat that might emerge.

While there is a certain level of hysteria around Isis-K, it has proved to be resilient and is the local affiliate of an organisation that still commands considerable sway among the global jihadist community. Whispers can be found in online chatter that people may be leaving the Levant to go to Afghanistan now that it offers itself as a propitious environment for jihad. Taken to its extreme, this could mean Isis dedicating more resources to establishing a mini-caliphate in part of Afghanistan. Or simply using violence in the region to rebuild its tarnished global brand.

However, these threats need to be kept in perspective. Security forces in the west have become much better at detecting activity that could mature into attacks on home ground. The bigger danger is regional. Pakistan in particular is likely to find its domestic problems exacerbated as local extremists draw inspiration from what the Taliban has achieved. A surge in high-quality weaponry and suddenly idle militants could lead to more violence in the country (and possibly in India, with knock-on effects for Islamabad). 

Central Asia also has reason to worry. The 1990s and early 2000s saw a number of incidents in the region linked to groups in Afghanistan. Iran appears to be pragmatically bolstering its relations with the Taliban, but there is little love lost between Tehran and Kabul. China and Russia may be revelling in western humiliation, but recognise they are much closer to the potential threats that might spill over. Groups targeting these countries are likely to try to take advantage of the Taliban’s control (or lack thereof) and re-establish some sort of presence in Afghanistan.

The west is less at risk. This is not to dismiss the potential threat. The UK in particular has deep links to south Asia that have left it exposed to terrorist violence in the past, something that probably helps explain the MI6 chief’s recent visit to Pakistan. There are hints that terrorist groups are rebuilding their capabilities, with reports of jihadis looking to move from Syria to Afghanistan. Possible links to the UK can be found in stories of British voices being overheard on Taliban radio intercepts. But in the short to medium term the sort of atrocity New Zealand has just faced is a more likely threat: lone, undirected extremists attacking fellow citizens.

The most immediate threat from Afghanistan will be local. Be it Isis-K spreading its wings regionally, extremists using Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks in neighbouring countries, or groups being inspired by the Taliban’s victory to have a go at toppling their own local superpower. This poses a very different and less immediate set of threats to western security planners at a moment when interest and focus on terrorist threats is reducing. 

But therein lies the key lesson that needs to be learned from the 20-year engagement in Afghanistan. If governments are not paying attention, problems can fester and suddenly strike. This happened in Iraq, when the American withdrawal in the late 2000s left behind an environment which helped brew Isis. And while it is unlikely that exactly the same narrative will play out in Afghanistan, the context is there for a terrorist problem to develop. The US and its allies may have left Afghanistan, but they cannot disengage from it. 

Been a busy period for short pieces. Some longer ones are still working their way through the pipeline, and been doing more work on the new book, but all of that still to come, but watch this space. Returning to the present, a new piece for the Financial Times which is a rather morose contribution to the current conversation about Afghanistan looking at it from the perspective of the global jihadist movement. The problem may be reduced, but it certainly does not look like it has gone away. There is some more thinking that needs doing into why it is we are unable to ever resolve conflicts against such groups, and whether the problem is our fear of underestimating them. But that is for another day.

We might be done with jihadis but they are not done with us

Taliban fighters and villagers celebrate the peace deal in Laghman Province, in March last year © Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty

There is a wind of optimism sweeping through the global jihadist community. A narrative of victory is gaining momentum just as the west tries to turn the page and focus on great power conflict with China and Russia. 

Scanning the horizon, they see victories in Afghanistan and Mali as western forces announce their withdrawal. In north-western Nigeria and Mozambique, Isis-affiliated groups are gaining ground. And in north-eastern Syria, an al-Qaeda linked group is rebranding itself as an acceptable government. 

The decision to withdraw from Afghanistan has been made as the Taliban are ascendant on the battlefield. The deadline of September 11 this year only seems to highlight the inconclusive nature of what the west has tried to do there. In the wake of the attacks on the US in 2001, President Bush lumped the Taliban in with the responsible al-Qaeda terrorists they were hosting. He warned: “They [the Taliban] will hand over the terrorists or they will share in their fate.” Yet two decades later, the Taliban have not handed over any terrorists, broken with al-Qaeda or shared their fate. 

Al-Qaeda has suffered setbacks. A decade after 9/11, Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, by the US. His successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is in hiding and there is speculation of his demise. In contrast, Taliban leader Mullah Omar is believed to have died of natural causes. His successors are still fighting and their narrative is that they are going to take power in Kabul. Al-Qaeda’s media has praised the Taliban’s “historic” victory. 

This sense of success is bolstered by France announcing its withdrawal from Mali and Isis affiliates taking territory in Nigeria and Mozambique. In Idlib, Syria, al-Qaeda spawned Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is rebranding itself as a government willing to negotiate with the west. In an interview with US television, its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, presented himself as a politician who is simply trying to govern.

Yet none of these groups have given any indication that they have changed their views. Seen from the perspective of the jihadist community, the overall trajectory looks positive. Very few of the problems that created the groups in the first place — bad governance, inequality or ethnic tensions — have been addressed. Arguably, they have multiplied. Jihadist terrorism is erupting in more places than before. Prior to 2001, it was not a concern in some parts of Africa, where it now thrives. A 2018 report by US think-tank CSIS showed the number of groups have almost tripled since 2001. And the chaos following the announcement of withdrawal from Afghanistan raises questions about what has been achieved with 20 years of conflict. 

All of this is likely to rejuvenate the global jihadist movement. With creative reporting, it can portray itself as ascendant, with the US withdrawal giving it tangible evidence of success. This will motivate individuals and groups elsewhere around the world, who will see that their struggle is winnable if they just stick at it for long enough. 

While this may lead to suffering on the ground, it will not necessarily result in an immediate upsurge in terrorism in the west. The world is far more attentive to these threats, and Afghanistan is not the country it was pre-9/11. But in contexts where we see jihadist groups, a sense of triumph may animate them and push them forwards. 

Over time, this will probably evolve in ways that will surprise us. No one expected Isis to rise so abruptly from the ashes of Iraq’s insurgency. Violent Islamist terrorism in Africa has also spread in ways that were not immediately predictable. Few would have expected the growth of Isis affiliates in Congo or Mozambique. But all of these groups have a perspective and outlook which is anathema to the west, and support Isis’ global aims.

The threat is festering rather than going away. We may have tired of the groups and narratives of the war on terror — but those we are fighting have not. They will take this moment and savour what they see as their success. In the longer term they will present a new kind of problem that we will have to address. They will find a way of violently capturing our attention with dramatic attacks against western targets in unexpected places or new battlefields that draw in foreigners.

Whitehall and Washington may want to focus on China but jihadist conflicts are still very much with us. Given that we seem unable to resolve the issues that animate these movements, we are obliged to simply manage them. But handing them rhetorical victories is not helpful.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore.

A new piece for my Singaporean institutional home’s keynote journal, Counter-Terrorism Trends and Analyses (CTTA), this time trying to put some hard data on the question of what has the actual impact of COVID-19 been on terrorist threats. Whilst acknowledging it is hard to draw any hard and fast lessons, or really understand the causal links, the piece tries to explore the question using databases and existing information. This is part of a broader stream of work on this topic, including earlier pieces looking at how ideologies might adapt or develop going forwards, and some more data based projects that are in the pipeline. Watch this space.

Mapping the One-Year Impact of COVID-19 on Violent Extremism

Synopsis

One year since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, looking across militant violence, ideological narratives, recruitment and funding, it is evident that so far the impact of the contagion on violent extremism has been relatively limited. Notwithstanding COVID-19, the downward trajectory of global militant violence which started in 2016 continued through 2020 as well. Likewise, in the ideological realm, after initial incorporation of COVID-19 in their narratives as divine punishment or seeking to demonstrate capability to manage the virus, the subsequent messaging by violent extremist groups was more mundane about day-to-day developments. Looking at recruitment and fundraising trends, no significant change is visible except for the fact that lockdowns and travel restrictions have constrained extremist groups’ physical mobility and the ability to collect funds. In conclusion, the article notes that COVID-19 has been more of an enabler and accelerant of existing violent extremist trends but it is difficult to conclude whether, in the post-pandemic scenario (whenever that arrives), it will result in greater violence or if the downward trajectory which started in 2016 will persist.

Introduction

This article investigates the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on violent extremism since its outbreak one year ago. Notwithstanding vaccination rollouts, large parts of the world are still dealing with the virus as a very immediate problem with no clear end in sight. Methodologically, this fluid situation makes the actual assessment of the virus’ impact on violent extremism a difficult task. We are still in the midst of the pandemic, so it is hard to conclusively assess what its full impact has been as it has not yet been entirely felt. It is already difficult absent the pandemic to draw clear causal links to explain why people become motivated by terrorist ideologies. To try to understand the specific impact of COVID-19 as it is still surging around the world is an  even harder task.

In an attempt to sketch out some preliminary understanding on the nature of the impact, this paper will focus on four broad areas of terrorist activity and explore what available research and information indicates about the impact of COVID-19 on violent extremism. First, the paper will explore how terrorist violence has changed over the past year. Then, it will probe the evolution of how extremist ideologies and narratives have coopted, altered or responded to COVID-19. Lastly, it will look at how the coronavirus has impacted terrorist fundraising and recruitment.[1] Though this does not capture the full spectrum and detail of terrorist activity, it does hopefully provide a perspective on the impact of COVID-19 on violent extremism.

The author has consulted multiple reports and databases for this paper, though the information has not always been methodically collected. Where the author is aware of openly accessible databases, they have been used to corroborate analysis or speculative writing that has been produced.

The overall picture is – as might be expected given we are still only in the midst of the pandemic – unclear at the moment. There is some evidence to suggest terrorist groups have profited from the pandemic, but nothing conclusive has been produced yet which shows how it has translated into longer-term material benefit. However, it is highly likely that over a lengthier trajectory the impact of COVID-19 will be to make terrorism trends worse, though exactly how this plays out (whether through new ideologies emerging or existing ones getting graver) is yet to be determined.

Violence

Violence is the most obvious indicator to measure the impact of COVID-19 on terrorism over the past year. A number of databases exist looking at conflicts, counting incidents of violence and death. Of course, each of these has its own limitations and focuses on slightly different aspects of the conflict. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) is distinct for having mapped various conflict indicators for a few years. ACLED started in the late 1990s by focusing on Africa; it now appears that most conflict regions around the world have been measured from 2018 until the present, though most of Europe appears to have only been added to the dataset in 2020.[2] While there are other similarly substantial datasets in existence like the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP)[3] or the Global Terrorism Database (GTD),[4] neither of these appears to have data through the pandemic period available yet with both concluding in 2019.[5]

The most up-to-date public analysis of violence data during the pandemic year appears to have been produced by the University of Chicago’s Chicago Projects on Security & Threats (CPOST). Published in March 2021, the CPOST report draws on ACLED and their own Suicide Attack Database and concludes that across “The Middle East; Sub-Saharan Africa; North Africa; South-Central Asia (including Pakistan and Afghanistan)”, there was a drop in violence in 2020. “All four regions saw attacks fall on aggregate by 5 percent. That fall was sharp in the first six months and rose again in the next six months.”[6]

But CPOST’s overall conclusion is consistent with ACLED’s cumulative annual data that is clear on the broader global trends, which show that by almost every metric calculated, violent activity is down year-on-year between 2019 and 2020. The exceptions to this trend in their data are what ACLED terms as “strategic developments” which show some limited growth and “protests” showing a much sharper rise.[7]

ACLED Overall Numbers:

ACLED Overall Numbers. Source: ACLED dashboard (accessed March 2021)[8]:

The broader trajectory on most of the violent indicators that ACLED gathers data on shows a downward trend from 2018 (with some exceptions). Removing “protest” data in particular reveals this trend more clearly. Looking at this against terrorism data more specifically, this downward trajectory is corroborated by the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Terrorism Index (GTI) for 2020. Using data from 2019, GTI reports that “deaths from terrorism fell for the fifth consecutive year, after peaking in 2014. The total number of deaths fell by 15.5 percent to 13,826. The fall in deaths was mirrored by a reduction in the impact of terrorism.”[9] CPOST analysis of ACLED data identifies a similar trend in 2020, highlighting a 5 percent overall decline in violence year-on-year. At the same time, it specifies that in the first two quarters of 2020, this drop was noticeable, but by the third quarter of the year, violence was rising again, and by fourth quarter, the numbers were the same as a year earlier in quarter four.[10]

ACLED overall numbers without “protest data”:

Figure 2: ACLED overall numbers without “protest data”. Source ACLED dashboard, accessed March 2021.

The broader fall in violence that ACLED records since 2018 drawing on all conflict data is even sharper when focused just on violent acts. The two data points which ACLED notes as increasing, “protests” and “strategic developments”, suggest potential precursors to terrorist violence.[11] In both cases, they suggest that there is a continuing anger, or brewing tensions, which could later express themselves as violence. Anecdotally, in the Philippines there has been some suggestion that groups are using this moment to re-group and refresh,[12] while in Indonesia, there were reports that groups had seen the arrival of COVID-19 as a signal of impending apocalypse and had consequently stopped their operations and sat at home waiting for the end of days.[13] More frequently, however, reporting has suggested that repeated lockdowns have complicated groups’ physical mobility and ability to carry out attacks.[14]

When compared with other available datasets, a generally static picture in violence year-on-year appears. For instance, the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) annual assessment of 2020 shows across regions covered in the report (South, Southeast, Central Asia, as well as the Middle East broadly) that violence year-on-year has reduced or remained the same during the pandemic year.[15] An IS-specific Southeast Asia dataset maintained by ICPVTR shows a year-on-year drop.[16] Noted Middle East terrorism scholar Aaron Zelin’s dataset tracking IS-claimed attacks during 2020 in Syria and Iraq has remained relatively static.[17] Likewise, the Deep South Watch, which monitors violence in Southern Thailand, illustrates a dip in terrorist attacks during the first half of 2020, but by the end of the year violence had returned to roughly the same level as 2019.[18] The South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) also recorded a drop in terrorist activity from 2019 to 2020 in South Asia, but it broadly appeared to be on roughly the same pattern as the fall from earlier years. There was a more pronounced drop in SATP’s figures for Afghanistan, but this is likely attributable to the US-Taliban deal signed in February 2020.[19] An exception to this trajectory can be found in Europe, where according to research by the International Center for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) in the Hague, there was a spike in violent Islamist incidents in Europe in 2020 – though the rates of casualties or incidents remain in the low double digits.

Critically, there is little evidence to show that COVID-19 had a material impact on militant violence – trajectories over the year were for the most part with some specific drops which might be linked to restrictions on movements or activity that came from COVID-19. The spike in Europe of violent Islamist attacks still requires greater research and understanding, but there has been very little evidence presented that COVID-19 might have been a driver in some way. Rather, it is possible that the incidents might in part have been inspired by each other and broader social tensions (amongst different communities, as well as in the form of extreme right-wing violence) in Europe.

Ideologies

An absence of violence does not equate to an absence of threat. There are many reasons why violence could have gone down and it is not clear that they are necessarily linked to COVID-19. Some experts even note that lulls in violent activity are in fact more dangerous moments as it is during these moments that groups are able to prepare and plan for more attacks away from security services’ attention.[20] Clearly, extremist groups have brought COVID-19 related ideas and commentary into their narratives. However, the degree to which these narrative shifts have materially changed group capabilities or how long these narrative shifts will last is hard to assess.

There has been a lot of writing and analysis on how violent Islamist groups have talked about COVID-19, blending it into their worldviews or talking up the opportunities that it might afford them. There have even been examples of cells talking about trying to weaponise COVID-19 in some way – for example, a cell linked to IS in Tunisia was discussing coughing and spitting at security forces,[21] while Indonesian authorities reported overhearing a cell harbouring similar intentions.[22] However, there is little evidence indicating that COVID-19 has materially changed extremist ideologies.

For example, in its regular six-monthly report on IS(IL), Al Qaeda and associated individuals’ activity, the UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team notes:

“IS(IL) continues to emphasise the “divine punishment of arrogance and unbelief” narrative regarding the pandemic that it adopted in March 2020, and to exhort followers to attack the enemy while counter-terrorist defences are supposedly weakened. (It should be noted that some Member States have observed a shift in recent months away from the “divine punishment” narrative as the pandemic’s impact has spread.) However, no developed IS(IL) strategy has evolved for the pandemic. This includes weaponisation of the virus by using contagious supporters to infect opponents, which was mooted within IS(IL) in March but has not progressed as a practical proposition.”[23]

The Monitoring Group’s commentary on al-Qaeda is focused on the high level of leadership attrition that the group has suffered, with little evidence of the group focusing much on the pandemic. The group in fact waited until late March to issue some comment on the pandemic, and this was largely a broad commentary on how badly the west was handling the virus.[24] Later comments focused instead on the fact that western governments had failed to protect their elderly and infirm, though much of al-Qaeda’s commentary during this period seemed focused on proving their leader was alive or that they were not going to be negatively affected by the fact that the Taliban were seeking to strike a deal with the US in Afghanistan which would specifically eject them from Afghanistan.

Affiliates of al-Qaeda commented about the pandemic, and in some cases suggested that they were going to offer healthcare to help local affected communities, but it was not clear how useful or realistic this was.[25] According to UN reporting, al-Shabaab found itself obliged to provide some response after local communities and followers highlighted their failure to effectively respond.[26] Syrian Hayat Tahrir al Sham has continued to support the Salvation Government in the parts of Northern Syria where they exert control and have offered reporting on COVID-19, as well as limited medical care service.[27] And in any case, it was clear that the groups were simply seeking to advance a narrative of offering themselves as alternatives to the state in tune with their broader visions of their goals, rather than something new.[28]

In contrast, extreme right-wing groups in the West not only talked a great deal about the pandemic but even changed their behaviours or ideologies to absorb COVID-19 related narratives.[29] US and UK authorities separately noted an uptick in threats towards Jews and attacks using COVID-19.[30] In some cases, there has been credible evidence that this surge in right-wing propaganda has resulted in forms of violence. The most obvious example of this is the growing instances of violence against 5G masts, emerging from conspiracy theories related to the development of such masts and the spread of COVID-19.[31] In the US, narratives around COVID-19 restrictions became caught up in anti-federal government discourses, inflaming already angry groups.[32] In April 2020, an individual tried to derail a train in the Los Angeles Port Yard in an attempt to stop a US Navy vessel bringing aid to other parts of the country.[33] In Australia, there were reports that the local branch of the Proud Boys was using anti-lockdown protests as opportunities to specifically attack police.[34] Australian security forces repeatedly pointed out that they had seen an increase in their far right activity during COVID-19.[35] UK authorities also expressed concern about young people being radicalised as they were stuck online during lockdowns,[36] a concern which might have materialised in the growing numbers of teenagers being charged with extreme right terror offences.[37]

In some instances, however, far right groups have sought to use the pandemic as an opportunity to instead push themselves further into the mainstream and used the pandemic as an opportunity to show their civic mindedness. In Ukraine, the Azov Movement and its offshoots have sought to offer training videos for people caught in lockdowns, support for those who are unable to get their shopping or need other forms of assistance.[38] This approach is similar to the modus operandi of violent Islamists who offer themselves as aid or healthcare providers during the pandemic. The key difference being that the violent Islamists need to control the territory in which they are doing it, while the extreme right (in Ukraine at least) are doing it within the broader societies in which they live. The idea is to generate more sympathy for their cause, rather than demonstrate governance capability.

Beyond these two core ideologies, it is very difficult to discern much of a change in other ideologies or groups as a result of COVID-19. In part this is due to a lack of data and research, but also as it is not even very clear that COVID-19 has produced the specified change in the two principal ideologies to receive attention. The extreme right was ascendant prior to COVID-19, while violent Islamists have always held escatalogical narratives and sought to demonstrate governance capabilities. The only discernible shift in violence that could be credibly linked to COVID-19 is from the extreme right that has incorporated the pandemic into its radicalising narratives more convincingly and with greater impact than violent Islamists. The fact that the far right in the US has managed to penetrate the mainstream, and that conspiracy theories have now developed such a wide-ranging impact including driving people towards terrorist violence, opens the door to future potential ideologies.[39]

At the same time, it has to be remembered that the year 2020 was also the final year of the Trump presidency. This is important to bear in mind as with President Trump in the White House, the world’s most powerful leader was using his platform to provide oxygen to elements of the extreme right narrative – be this in terms of his tendency to fail to condemn the extreme right in the United States[40] or re-tweet far right extremist material.[41] Rather than being a fringe ideology, it became associated with the mainstream, an intoxicating elevation which may also help explain the level of fury and activity around the global extreme right. Seen in this light, COVID-19 may have simply been further fuel into an already inflamed global situation.

Recruitment and Fundraising

Very little published data has been released highlighting the impact of COVID-19 on terrorist group recruitment. There has been some reporting around the impact on terrorist fundraising. The UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team February 2021 report provides some references to member states noting changes in fundraising patterns. Specifically, they point to enhanced difficulties of transporting money across borders due to travel restrictions complicating money transfers. But at the same time, the report indicates a growing level of use of cryptocurrencies and online transfers suggesting the impact might be mitigated through alternative cyber-routes.[42] Showing how these issues can intersect with COVID-19 specifically, there was the reported case of an ISIS fundraising network that was selling fake personal protective equipment (PPE) online.[43]

These concerns echo those articulated by the Eurasian Group (EAG) on combating money laundering and the financing of terrorism, though very few cases were provided to illustrate the particular terrorism financing concerns.[44] These findings were in turn similar to those generated by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)’s report, which again mentioned terrorism financing as a potential issue and highlighted how charitable money flows in particular could be abused by terrorist organisations.[45] Both the FATF and EAG reports, however, pointed to the far greater risk coming from COVID-19 related fraud, be it in terms of fake (or non-existent) medical equipment, as well as abuse of COVID-19 relief packages offered by governments.[46] A sense of the potential scale of the fraud involved is illustrated by the UK case, where some reports suggested that as much as half of the £46 billion being doled out by the government could be lost to defaults and fraud.[47] While theoretically some of this money could have been taken by terrorists, no clear examples have been presented yet of this taking place in the UK or elsewhere.

Looking at more specific examples of where these threats intersect, the UN Monitoring Team report also points to a decrease in maritime kidnapping for ransom in the tri-border Southeast Asian region between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.[48] However, this contrasts with reporting by the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre (IMB-PRC) which reports that there has been an increase in maritime piracy, with a particular growth in the Philippines and the Singapore Strait.[49] IMB-PRC does not specify whether there is a link to terrorism in this criminal activity, but the contrast to the UN report underscores this is an area where there is inadequate research at the moment.

Recruitment is equally challenging to track. While repeated reports show an increase in online activity, especially amongst extreme right wing groups[50], it is not yet clear whether this is pulling through to recruitment. UN reporting indicates how Eurasian member states have reported groups using the pandemic as an opportunity to offer individuals support and money, something which increases popularity and recruitment.[51] In most cases, however, the reporting is non-specific, suggesting that groups are increasing their propaganda and this theoretically translates into more recruits. However, there have been no evidence based reports showing this link successfully delivering new recruits in practice. There is repeated reporting and discussion around the threats from the increased amount of time that people spent online during the pandemic and the increased opportunities this presented for online radicalisation, but so far there has been no evidence based assessment of what the actual impact was.

Many of the specific cases of terrorism linked to COVID-19 that have emerged during the pandemic  are in fact individuals who had been involved or interested in extremist activity prior to COVID-19. For example, an early prominent attack which was linked to the pandemic in the US against a hospital focused on COVID-19 care was undertaken by an American extreme right wing adherent who had long been on FBI radars.[52] Even the very young followers in Europe who have emerged through arrest and conviction during this past year appear in many cases to be young men who had already been active on extreme right wing forums pre-pandemic.[53] COVID-19 related lockdowns may have been an accelerant towards more violent online rhetoric or given groups greater opportunities to reach out to captive audiences online, but so far it is not clear if it has translated into more violence from them. Overall, it is still inconclusive how terrorist group fundraising and recruitment have been impacted yet and whether the increased online rhetoric or activity has resulted in material change to groups’ coffers or numbers.

Conclusion

A year into the pandemic, it remains entirely unclear the exact impact that COVID-19 will have on violent extremism in the longer-term. It is clear that it has affected groups’ behaviour and action in the same way that it has affected everyone else, but it is not clear that it has materially changed things in a way that is utterly unique to the pandemic. Previous natural disasters have produced contradictory comparisons. For example, the Spanish Flu of 1918 was followed by a spate of anarchist violence which did not appear linked to the pandemic, while the 2004 Asian tsunami helped bring peace to Aceh and accelerated violence in Sri Lanka.[54] A RAND study from 2011 which sought to apply some methodological rigour to the question found that there was in fact an increase in terrorism-related death in the wake of natural disasters.[55] The same report explored the impact of natural disasters on government capacity to respond to terrorist threats and showed a dip in capability following the disaster which groups take advantage of, but within two years authorities are usually able to regain the upper hand.[56] This suggests something to pay attention to once the pandemic has been definitively brought under control.

At the moment, the most noticeable change in behaviour to have been generated by the pandemic has been the acceleration to prominence and wider acceptance of the use of violence to advance conspiracy theories. While at the moment this violence is an irritant, it is a first step on an escalatory path. Furthermore, the indicators in ACLED data that protests and groups’ preparatory action has persisted and even grown during the pandemic, suggest that while COVID-19 seems to have acted as an inhibitor of major terrorist activity during the first pandemic year, it has most certainly not gone away and might even be biding its time rather than in retreat. COVID-19 has in fact appeared to be something of an enabler and accelerator of existing trends and threats. The key question which has yet to be addressed is whether this means that terrorist violence will continue on the downward trajectory that most indicators appeared to show over the past few years, or whether in fact the COVID-19 pandemic will result in an increase in threats. In the longer-term, it is likely that COVID-19 will help foster a new wave of ideologies, though whether the pandemic is entirely to blame might be difficult to conclude. The end of the pandemic will expose a world which is likely to be even more divided than before, alongside a likely global economic recession. All of which will create a context in which the threat picture from terrorism might start on a gradual path upwards again in contrast to the trends over the past few years.

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


[1] The author is grateful for his ICPVTR colleagues’ comments during a brainstorming session in late 2020 which helped inform the creation of this list.

[2] “ACLED coverage to date” https://acleddata.com/acleddatanew/wp-content/uploads/dlm_uploads/2019/01/ACLED_Country-and-Time-Period-Coverage_updFeb2021.pdf

[3] Uppsala Conflict Data Program: Department of Peace and Conflict Research https://ucdp.uu.se/#/

[4] Global Terrorism Database: START https://www.start.umd.edu/research-projects/global-terrorism-database-gtd

[5] It is further worth noting that the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) annual terrorism review the Global Terrorism Index draws on data primarily from the GTD meaning it has also not provided any analysis or data for 2020 yet (https://www.visionofhumanity.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/GTI-2020-web-1.pdf).

[6] “Political Violence: January 1 – December 31, 2020,” Review, Chicago Project on Security & Threats, March 2021

[7] ACLED Full Dashboard: https://acleddata.com/dashboard/#/dashboard; In ACLED terms, “strategic developments” is classified as events which are linked to politically motivated groups that usually indicate a precursor to possible violence, but do not involve violence, while “protests” are classified as peaceful events. In other words, the two indicators that ACLED sees as having increased during the pandemic are non-violent ones.

[8] ACLED Full Dashboard: https://acleddata.com/dashboard/#/dashboard

[9] “Global Terrorism Index 2020: Measuring the Impact of Terrorism,” Institute for Economics and Peace, November 2020 https://www.visionofhumanity.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/GTI-2020-web-1.pdf (p.2)

[10] “Political Violence: January 1 – December 31, 2020,” Review, Chicago Project on Security & Threats, March 2021

[11] Peaceful protests are events which articulate mass public political anger, while “strategic developments” are activities which groups are undertaking (or experiencing, given arrests are also included within this category) that reflect non-violent action which could be interpreted as preparatory. “Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) Codebook” https://acleddata.com/acleddatanew/wp-content/uploads/dlm_uploads/2019/01/ACLED_Codebook_2019FINAL.docx.pdf .

[12] “The Fusion of Offline and Online Interventions against Extremism in the Philippines,” GNET-CENS workshop report, 16 December 2020 https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/GNET-CENS-Workshop-2-Philippines-210114.pdf

[13] “IPAC Short Briefing No.1: COVID-19 and ISIS in Indonesia,” Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), April 2, 2020 http://file.understandingconflict.org/file/2020/04/COVID-19_and_ISIS_fixed.pdf

[14] “The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on terrorism, counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism: Update” UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, December 2020 https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/CTED_Paper_The-impact-of-the-COVID-19-pandemic-on-counter-terrorism-and-countering-violent-extremism_Dec2020.pdf

[15] Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, vol.13, no. 1, January 2021 https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/CTTA-January-2021.pdf – there are exceptions to this, like Myanmar where the report suggests an “intensification” of violence (p. 34). In other cases, the data is less categorical, but the characterization is of problems over 2020 that have either remained the same or reduced in violence.

[16] Closed database maintained by ICPVTR, February 2021

[17] Aaron Y. Zelin, @azelin, February 2, 2021 https://twitter.com/azelin/status/1356361479881183234

[18] “Summary of incidents in Southern Thailand, January 2021” Deep South Watch Database, February 15, 2021 https://deepsouthwatch.org/en/node/11973

[19] “Number of terrorism related incidents year wise” March 14, 2021 https://www.satp.org/datasheet-terrorist-attack/incidents-data/southasia

[20] “What Happens Now? Terrorism and the challenges of counter-terrorism in the next decade” ICPVTR webinar by Suzanne Raine, Affiliate lecturer, Centre for Geopolitics at Cambridge University, January 27, 2021 https://www.rsis.edu.sg/event/icpvtr-webinar-on-what-happens-now-terrorism-and-the-challenges-of-counter-terrorism-in-the-next-decade-by-suzanne-raine/#.YC9oFHczZ5w

[21] “Terrorists plotting COVID-19 contamination attack on Tunisian security forces arrested,” North African Post, April 17, 2020 https://northafricapost.com/40082-terrorists-plotting-covid-19-contamination-attack-on-tunisian-security-forces-arrested.html

[22] “Adjustment and Resilience: Preventing Violent Extremism in Indonesia during COVID-19 and beyond,” UNODC and Guyub Project, February 2021 (primary author Cameron Sumpter) https://www.unodc.org/documents/southeastasiaandpacific/Publications/2021/indonesia/Main_COVID_CT_Indonesia_PRINT_EN.pdf

[23] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities” United Nations Security Council, February 3, 2021 https://undocs.org/S/2021/68

[24] “Al-Qaeda invites ‘Western nations’ to Islam amid COVID-19,” BBC Monitoring reporting Rocketchat messaging service in Arabic, April 1, 2020 https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201l1q3

[25] “The Limits of ‘Shabaab-CARE’: Militant Governance amid COVID-19,” CTC Sentinel, vol.13, No.6, June 2020 https://ctc.usma.edu/the-limits-of-shabaab-care-militant-governance-amid-covid-19/

[26] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities” United Nations Security Council, February 3, 2021 https://undocs.org/S/2021/68

[27] “Coronavirus and The Salvation Government – Hay’at Tahir al-Sham,” Jihadology.com, March 1, 2021 https://jihadology.net/coronavirus-and-the-salvation-government-hayat-tahir-al-sham/

[28] Kabir Taneja and Raffaello Pantucci “Beware of terrorists offering COVID-19 aid,” Raisina Debates, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), April 17, 2020 https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/beware-of-terrorists-offering-covid19-aid-64731/

[29] “Member States concerned by the growing and increasingly transnational threat of extreme right wing terrorism,” CTED Trends Alert, July 2020 https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/CTED_Trends_Alert_Extreme_Right-Wing_Terrorism_JULY.pdf

[30] “COVID-19: How Hateful extremists are exploiting the pandemic,” Commission for Countering Extremism, July 2020 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/906724/CCE_Briefing_Note_001.pdf and “Lauder: National Guard must protect Jews from Neo-Nazi coronavirus threat,” Jerusalem Post, March 25, 2020 https://www.jpost.com/International/FBI-Neo-Nazi-groups-encouraging-spread-coronavirus-to-police-and-Jews-622006

[31] Amongst the many conspiracy theories circulating was one which linked the expansion of 5G to the spread of the virus – in part technophobia, in part anti-Chinese sentiment. The result has been a spike in destruction of 5G infrastructure (usually masts) in parts of Europe in particular, though also in North America. Michael Loadenthal, “Anti-5G, Infrastructure Sabotage, and COVID-19,” GNET Insight, January 19, 2021 https://gnet-research.org/2021/01/19/anti-5g-infrastructure-sabotage-and-covid-19/

[32] Blyth Crawford, “Coronavirus and conspiracies: how the far right is exploiting the pandemic,” The Conversation, September 15, 2020 https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-and-conspiracies-how-the-far-right-is-exploiting-the-pandemic-145968

[33] “Train Operator at Port of Los Angeles Charged with Derailing Locomotive Near US Navy’s Hospital Ship Mercy,” US Department of Justice, Central District of California, April 1, 2020 https://www.justice.gov/usao-cdca/pr/train-operator-port-los-angeles-charged-derailing-locomotive-near-us-navy-s-hospital

[34] Michael McGowan, “Australian Proud Boys sought to combat-trained supporters to ‘arrest’ police at COVID lockdown protests,” Guardian, February 15, 2021 https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/feb/15/australian-proud-boys-leader-sought-combat-trained-supporters-to-arrest-police-at-covid-lockdown-protests

[35] Samaya Borom, “Increased visibility of Far-Right movements in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic,” GNET Insights, September 24, 2020 https://gnet-research.org/2020/09/24/increased-visibility-of-far-right-movements-in-australia-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/

[36] Caleb Spencer, “Coronavirus: ‘children may have been radicalised in lockdown’,” BBC News, June 30, 2020 https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-53082476

[37] Lizzie Dearden, “Boy, 14, started making bombs during lockdown after watching ISIS propaganda, court hears,” Independent, September 29, 2020 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/terror-plots-uk-teenage-boy-eastleigh-bottle-bombs-isis-online-radicalisation-b693441.html

[38] Michael Colborne, “For the Far Right, the COVID-19 crisis is a PR opportunity,” Fair Observer, April 13, 2020 https://www.fairobserver.com/region/europe/michael-colborne-far-right-coronavirus-pandemic-assistance-covid-19-crisis-pr-news-10109/

[39] Raffaello Pantucci, “After the Coronavirus, Terrorism won’t be the same,” Foreign Policy, April 22, 2020 https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/22/after-coronavirus-terrorism-isis-hezbollah-5g-wont-be-the-same/

[40] David Smith, Lois Beckett, Maanvi Singh and Julia Carrie Wong, “Donal Trump refuses to condemn white supremacists at presidential debate,” Guardian, September 30, 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/sep/29/trump-proud-boys-debate-president-refuses-condemn-white-supremacists

[41] “Donal Trump retweets far-right group’s anti-Muslim videos,” BBC News, November 29, 2017 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-42166663

[42] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities” United Nations Security Council, February 3, 2021 https://undocs.org/S/2021/68

[43] USA vs Facemaskcenter.com and Four Facebook Pages, Case 1:20-cv-02142-RC, Filed 08/05/20 https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/1304296/download

[44] “Information Note: Concerning the COVID-19 impact on the EAG countries’ AML-CFT efforts and measures taken to mitigate the ML/TF risks stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic” Eurasian Group (EAG), https://eurasiangroup.org/files/uploads/files/%D0%9C%D0%B5%D1%80%D1%8B_%D0%B2_%D1%81%D0%B2%D1%8F%D0%B7%D0%B8_%D1%81_COVID-19/Information_note_on_COVID-19_measures_eng_rev4.pdf

[45] “Update: COVID-19-related Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing,” FATF, December 2020 https://www.fatf-gafi.org/media/fatf/documents/Update-COVID-19-Related-Money-Laundering-and-Terrorist-Financing-Risks.pdf

[46] “Update: COVID-19-related Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing,” FATF, December 2020 https://www.fatf-gafi.org/media/fatf/documents/Update-COVID-19-Related-Money-Laundering-and-Terrorist-Financing-Risks.pdf

[47] Daniel Thomas and Stephen Morris, “A giant bonfire of taxpayers money: fraud and the UK pandemic loan scheme,” Financial Times, December 20, 2020 https://www.ft.com/content/41d5fe0a-7b46-4dd7-96e3-710977dff81c

[48] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities” United Nations Security Council, February 3, 2021 https://undocs.org/S/2021/68

[49] “Maritime piracy hotspots persist during 2020,” Hellenic Shipping News, Febrary 1, 2020 https://www.hellenicshippingnews.com/maritime-piracy-hotspots-persist-during-2020/

[50] “Member States concerned by the growing and increasingly transnational threat of extreme right wing terrorism,” CTED Trends Alert, July 2020 https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/CTED_Trends_Alert_Extreme_Right-Wing_Terrorism_JULY.pdf

[51] “The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on terrorism, counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism: Update” UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, December 2020 https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/CTED_Paper_The-impact-of-the-COVID-19-pandemic-on-counter-terrorism-and-countering-violent-extremism_Dec2020.pdf

[52] Pete Williams, “Missouri man planned to bomb hospital during pandemic to get attention for white supremacist views,” NBC News, March 31, 2020 https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/missouri-man-planned-bomb-hospital-during-pandemic-get-attention-white-n1172346

[53] Lizzie Dearden, “Boy, 14, started making bombs during lockdown after watching ISIS propaganda, court hears,” Independent, September 29, 2020 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/terror-plots-uk-teenage-boy-eastleigh-bottle-bombs-isis-online-radicalisation-b693441.html

[54] Abdul Basit, “COVID-19: a challenge or opportunity for terrorist groups?” Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism, vol.15, No.3, October 2020 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/18335330.2020.1828603?needAccess=true

[55] Claude Berrebi and Jordan Ostwald, “Earthquakes, Hurricanes and Terrorism: Do Natural Disasters Incite Terror?” RAND Working Paper, 2011 https://www.rand.org/pubs/working_papers/WR876.html

[56] Claude Berrebi and Jordan Ostwald, “Earthquakes, Hurricanes and Terrorism: Do Natural Disasters Incite Terror?” RAND Working Paper, 2011 https://www.rand.org/pubs/working_papers/WR876.html


I have a few longer papers that are due to land over the next few weeks, mostly on terrorism for a variety of different outlets. Some bigger China ones coming after that. First up is this piece which was actually written last year and was commissioned by the lovely people at the Vienna based European Institute for Counter-Terrorism and Conflict Prevention (EICTP), and which draws on ideas which were first loosely sketched out in this earlier Foreign Policy piece. It is a bit of a forward looking piece trying to explore where trends might end up going. There are a couple of more empirically based pieces coming looking at the impact of COVID-19 on terrorism and extremism.

Terrorist Threats Post-COVID-19

It is too early at this stage to draw any definitive conclusions about what the impact on terrorism from COVID will be, but some early sketches can be drawn of problems which appear to be being exacerbated. The causal link to COVID is hard to tell. But there has been a noticeable shift in various terrorist ideologies in COVID’s shadow which merit a stock-take. The aim of this article is to dig into these shifts and try to offer some broad thoughts about where the longer- term threat picture might be going.

What have terrorists said about COVID-19?

As a start point, it is useful to explore what terrorist groups have actually said and done about COVID. In the early days of the virus, groups were commenting on it in much the same way as everyone else was. In some cases, they drew the ideas into the larger conspiracies they are signed up to seeking to explain it as part of a master plan to destroy the world and advance their ideology. Less apocalyptic responses focused instead on the practical things that groups could do to help populations fend off the virus. This form of social services was an attempt to win over hearts and minds to demonstrate how governments were failing. In many cases it built on a history of offering social services to their communities, and merely served to further endear them. And yet others instead chose to make the strategically sensible point that the net result was likely to be less attention by security forces and distracted authorities, therefore offering a useful moment to strike or take territory.216

There was also considerable discussion around the idea of trying to weaponize the virus, though the evidence around this happening has been very thin. Extremist forums churned out propaganda about what could be done, but very few actually moved forwards with their plans. One plan was dramatically uncovered in Tunisia, where a preacher was telling his followers to cough or sneeze on security forces in advance of an attack.217 For the most part, security services have not reported much change in the threat picture as a result of COVID.218 In the US some people have been prosecuted under terrorism legislation for threatening to actively spread the virus, though it is not clear there was any political motive behind their act.219

Having said this, there has been a noticeable increase in the volume of noise around terrorist groups,220 though it is not clear this has actually resulted in an increase in violence. While metrics are hard to get, using the data offered by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), it would appear that all of the conflict and political violence metrics that they follow are down year on year across the world, and in particular in regions where terrorist groups are dominant.221 This is not an entirely surprising outcome. Given the general lockdowns and difficulties in travelling, it has become harder to practically mobilize in the same way as before. And while online activity has made the spread and virulence of extremist ideas and disinformation alongside it easier, it is not yet in a state to replace the physical act of violence.

But a lack of violence does not unfortunately necessarily equate to the absence of a problem. The underlying issues that can cause radicalization can take considerable time to turn into a visible terrorist threat. And the current immediate news environment can telescope our ability to properly assess the timeline required for problems to develop. Given the constant noise of threat that is now produced by groups, alongside constant reporting of threats globally at the same time, it can be harder to assess longer-term changes and patterns. The constant coverage gives an impression of an accelerating threat. This results in an expectation that threats materialize immediately, when in fact they can take time to mature.

This is not an entirely new phenomenon, nor is it one that is exclusive to the study of terrorism and political violence. In general, societal expectations around issues are wildly accelerated by a relentless news cycle which requires a constant digest of new information and news. The net result is a lack of patience in tracing consequences and impact from specific actions. From an analytical perspective, it can make it more complicated to appropriately describe problems and threats as the expectation is often that causal impact will be rapid and immediate. In fact, problems often take time to develop and ultimately articulate themselves in violence. The confusion that this reality creates is augmented in a static situation like that created by COVID-19 which has brought vast sections of human activity around the world to a standstill. Objectively standing back, it is hard to assess that COVID-19 has materially changed for the better many situations that were affected by terrorism, in fact, it can appear that the longer- term situation has likely been made worse.

A current stocktake

A complete overview of all terrorist threats globally for such a short paper would be by its nature incomplete and incorrect. Consequently, the author will focus on two dominant threat ideologies (violent Islamists and the extreme right wing) and provide a brief overview of their current status with some broad analysis of how things are advancing in the shadow of COVID.

Within the violent Islamist cohort, al Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated organizations are the dominant representatives. And in both cases, an assessment with relation to the impact of COVID on them is fairly limited at this stage. Both groups continue to thrive in their different ways, though they appear to be facing issues related to their respective broader operating environments rather than anything linked specifically to COVID. Outside rhetoric, at this stage it is very difficult to find many studies that have conclusively pointed to any major change in behavior.222

For example, in 2020 al Qaeda marked the nineteenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attack. This was communicated across al Qaeda publications and media channels, though the outputs were for the most part repetitive of previous years and revealed little that was new. The key message from leader Ayman al Zawahiri was an attack on an Al Jazeera documentary made about the attack.223 This reflects a broader stasis around the group which while not defunct, has largely faded from the high points of the past few decades. A useful overview of the organization by BBC Monitoring’s Mina Al Lami showed how its affiliates in Mali and Somalia are its best beacons of success, while its other affiliates are under considerable pressure.224

Similarly, while ISIS continues to exist as a global organization, it is very different to the organization which dominated the airwaves during its peak years of controlling territory in Syria and Iraq. Its core entity in the Levant is a shrunken version of its former self but is gradually gaining some space on the ground in Iraq in particular.225 Its global network of affiliates remains loose, with different ones showing greater degrees of effectiveness and connection to the core. Some are reduced in effectiveness, while others appear ascendant.226 As an overall organization, however, it appears to be in a stage of being an irritant in most of the environments it is present, rather than the existential threat it previously posed when controlling vast pieces of territory in the Levant.

This is certainly not to say that either organization is completely down. Key for the current paper, however, is the fact that neither group appears to have been impacted particularly by COVID. Rather, both persist on roughly the same trajectory that they did before the outbreak of the virus. The threat from them remains relatively constant, with some parts of the threat rising and others falling. The key point, however, is persistence with security agencies still prioritizing the threat from violent Islamist actors.227

More dynamic and impacted to a greater degree in some ways by the virus is the extreme right wing. A threat which was ascendant across Europe, North America and select parts of Asia (Australia and New Zealand) before the outbreak of COVID-19, white supremacist terrorism was something which has been an escalating concern for some time.228 However, in the shadow of the virus, the problem appears to have mushroomed in a number of different directions. Most prominently in the United States there has been a growth in prominence of a number of different groups, ideas and violence. Whilst their individual strains might be slightly different, there are key themes which appear to tie many of them together. From the anti-state Boogaloo Bois who are expecting an impending civil war, the now-prominent Proud Boys (a drinking club dedicated to fighting leftist protestors), to more classic far right groups stoking race war or the constellation of new groups clustering around aspects of the far right like the Incel movement, QAnon conspiracy theorists or angry online communities gathering on sites like 8kun, 4chan or Gab. The world of far right in the United States has achieved greater prominence recently.

These have all been exacerbated in recent times, though it is not clear whether this is related to the virus, or more simply American politics which have gone in a deeply divisive direction under President Trump. His active inflaming of racial tensions and anger towards left-wing protestors feeds the extreme right, groups he has actively promoted from his position as President of the United States of America. During the first Presidential debate, his comments about the Proud Boys group quite specifically brought prominence to them229, while his earlier tweeting has brought international prominence to a far-right British group Britain First.230

But he is not solely responsible for this rising right-wing. Under the auspices of COVID, some aspects of the acceleration of extreme right anger can be linked to the expansion of the state, something that has been happening in some parts of the country in response to COVID- 19.231 And there has been a growth in conspiracy theories linked to COVID-19 response – like fears around vaccines or the impact of 5G technology – which have often stoked some of the growing constellation of groups gathered on the extreme right.232 This will be covered again later, but they are clearly playing into long-standing US narratives of an overbearing federal state which is seeking to disenfranchise groups, removing their guns, infringing on their liberties and generally becoming a menace to the free state as defined in the US constitution. Such Patriot or Sovereign Citizen groups have long been a feature of the American discourse, but recent political clashes, somewhat exacerbated by the further expansion of the state in response to COVID and polarized political narratives, have strengthened their hold amongst fringe communities.

In Europe, a more classic extreme right tends to dominate, with racist networks flourishing in the shadows of a growth of far-right political movements and a polarized debate around immigration. This phenomenon has been developing for some time, with Germany facing the National Socialist Underground (NSU) in the late 2000s, while angry protest groups like the UK’s English Defence League (EDL) spawned imitators across Europe. Annual Europol reports point to a growing extreme right wing threat in Europe, while individual security forces point to disrupted plots.233 Renaud Camus totemic text The Great Replacement has captured a particular mood across the continent234, while mass violence associated with such ideas can be found earlier in Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 attack in Oslo and Utoya Island.235 Europe has also seem an emergence of conspiracy theorists, QAnon236 and Incels,237 and a growing rumbling of anti-government anger similar to that in the US.238

But similar to the narrative on the violent Islamist side, what has been happening on the extreme right is in many ways merely an extension of what was going on before. Extreme right- wing terrorism had been a growing phenomenon for the past few years and its fragmentation had started even before the outbreak of COVID-19 and the lockdowns that followed. For some countries, the return to dominance of the extreme right was a reflection of a balance of threat that existed pre-September 11, 2001.239

Future threats

COVID-19 has, however, changed how society is functioning and this will have some sort of effect on terrorist threats. In particular, the change to society that is going to be wrought in the longer time by the virus or existing issues whose impact was accelerated by the virus will have some effect on terrorist threats.

As stated at the outset, it is at this stage quite difficult to measure the exact causal effect, but some trends appear to be accelerated in the shadow of the virus which point to how this moment might impact the longer-term threat picture. While life is returning to some semblance of normality, the constant fear of new waves of the virus and the consequent disruption to society that follows continues to hang over things. The economic damage done by the virus has still not been calculated and may be being artificially suppressed temporarily due to economic stimulus programs. But their impact will be felt in many different ways in terms of government budgets both at home and abroad. The abrupt shift online is likely to permanently change some industries and eliminate others. The effect on the workforces will be dramatic and abrupt, creating potentially large unemployed or underemployed communities.

The potential impact on political violence and terrorism is hard to gauge, but three areas stand out as potential spaces in which political violence may grow in the future in part as a result of the impact of COVID-19’s ravaging the planet. In many ways these are also extensions of previous problems, but their acceleration against other trends impacted by COVID is potentially going to create greater problems than might otherwise have emerged.

A web spun by COVID

One of the biggest winners of COVID-19 is the Internet. With the advent of lockdowns and working from home, people found themselves increasingly spending time online. The impact of this on terrorism is complicated and goes in many different directions. In the first instance there is the impact on online radicalization. Something that used to be seen as a peripheral aspect of the problem, with the majority of radicalization still requiring physical contact with other extremists, the last few years have seen a growth in cases involving individuals who are choosing to move towards terrorist ideas and then into action solely on the basis of contacts or material they have found online.

In some cases, this is simply a shift online of what used to happen offline. The phenomenon of remote direction as popularized by ISIS is a shifting of the relationship between group and individual attacker online. Whereas previously individuals would head to a training camp and then be directed to launch an attack back home, now the approach was to simply direct people from a distance to launch their attacks using the many encrypted applications that exist. Individuals like Junaid Hussain240 or Rachid Kassim241 became infamous for the networks of young westerners they directed from ISIS held territory to launch terrorist attacks.

But more recently this has developed differently where people are now seemingly ready to launch attacks in advance of ideas they have found online with little to no connection with the actual group itself. In some cases, the individuals are not even joining a group. In the case of something like Incel or QAnon, they are simply following an online phenomenon or chat group and stirring themselves onto violence. The connection between terrorist violence and organized networks and hierarchies is shifting. This has been described as ‘post-organizational’ terrorist plotting where groups, their links and structures are no longer as clear as they used to be.242 While structured organizations still exist, the growth of ideologies online which people can piece together themselves, connect with as imprecisely as they would like, and ultimately interpret in any way that they would like has created a range of problems which live beyond our current interpretations of political violence.

The expression of this can be found in how security services find themselves talking about threats. In the United Kingdom, there has been a growth in individuals who are radicalizing with an ideology which appears to be a mix of contradictory issues and ideas, they are being bracketed by the Home Office as being “mixed, unstable or unclear”.243 In the United States, terrorism is now handled by the Department for Homeland Security (DHS) alongside “Targeted Threats”.244 In Canada they talk of “ideologically motivated violent extremism”.245 The key point is that there is a growth of individuals who are acting out in a manner which is reminiscent of terrorism, and yet when some investigation is done into their ideological motivation, it is unclear exactly what it is. It is even possible to question whether this should properly be called terrorism or whether it is in fact simply an expression of personal anger using the vernacular of terrorism to give it greater meaning.246

Whatever the case, this cohort of individuals is a growing phenomenon. There is a number of individuals who are becoming involved in terrorist activity who are suffering from mental health issues, others that are being identified as having autism spectrum disorders and a growing proportion of very young individuals being drawn into violent activity. Again, absolute numbers are hard to identify, but the number of studies looking into the question has grown while security agencies have increasingly expressed concerns. And while none of these phenomena are new, there is some evidence that the cases are being exacerbated as a result of the lockdown from COVID. In the UK there is the case of the fourteen-year-old boy who reportedly became fascinated with ISIS videos while stuck at home in lockdown, and started to make bombs off models he found online (he was ultimately cleared by a court).247 In Spain, a radical who had been under observation by security services, was arrested after authorities started to grow concerned about the fact that he was radicalizing further and moving towards action during lockdown.248 Finally, there have been lower level cases, like individuals who were going through periods of probation and suddenly found themselves underemployed who instead turned back to online activity.

And this roster accounts only for those of violent Islamist inclination. There is a growing concern around these issues for other ideologies as well. Focusing on the UK, there have been the disturbing cases in recent history of a deeply disturbed man arrested on charges related to left-wing terrorist activity who committed suicide while incarcerated.249 Online extreme right networks in Europe have been found to have been led by very young teenagers.250 There have been Incels found in Europe making explosives, including very young teenagers who have been identified as suffering from autism spectrum disorders.251 And then there is the confusing phenomena of very young individuals whose ideology appears to be a self-created mix of ideas drawing on a wide pool of extreme material they find online.

Such individuals who are self-assembling extremist ideas are often drawn towards conspiracy theories, or dark holes on the internet where such ideas can lurk. And the strength and potency of such online conspiracies has only grown – enhanced by the uncertainty and instability that COVID and geopolitics has created. Conspiracy theories like fears of the dangers of 5G, the threats from vaccines, super-conspiracies like those underpinning QAnon about dark cabals of pedophiles ruling the world are all now circulating online amongst communities of people who are spending ever larger volumes of time online on social media. While work has gone into trying to change or break the algorithms, companies are still struggling to completely control them and often these ideas grow in spaces beyond the big social media companies.

All of this is further exacerbated by active government disinformation campaigns that are working to stir up tensions online. In part this is directed against elections, but it is also simply a way of causing trouble. Sometimes it is not even clear the degree to which it is directed by states, rather than angry groups or bored children. But whatever the case, its impact is felt much more deeply part as a result of the general polarization that is taking place in politics, but also by the fact that an ever-increasing volume of people are spending time online.

Left, luddism and environmentalism

Tracking all of this forwards, the time spent online is not only something which is transforming our methods of communication and absorption of information, but it is further likely to have longer-term repercussions on the shape of our economies and workforces. As lockdowns and restrictions continue, entire industries are suffering and likely to be closing down. Physical retail, already in retreat thanks to the boom in online markets, is likely to take a further beating, while the food and beverage industry is going to continue to suffer for some time to come. The fundamental point is that a growing number of these services will shift online in some capacity, meaning that the physical jobs needed in shops or restaurants to serve people will not necessarily exist anymore. This will create a growing community of unemployed people, or people who end up under-employed or forced to take even more menial jobs. It is hard to gauge exactly what the volume of this shift will be, but it might start to inspire a backlash against the technology and firms that are abetting this shift.

Luddism, a concept first advanced in the 19th century by textile workers angry at the advance of modern technology which was rendering their jobs redundant, could make a comeback. This is not new. Theodore Kaczyinski, the infamous Unabomber, was an earlier luddite whose anger at technology’s dominance of society was something which led him to launch a one-man letter bombing campaign from 1978 to 1995 from a remote cabin in Montana.252 His manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future” was published September 1995 in the Washington Post and started with the premise that “the industrial revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.”253 He may have been twenty years early, but many of the issues he raises in his manifesto are relevant today. As we enter an ever more interconnected and online world, not only are we likely to see more people reacting negatively to it, but also we will see more people becoming disenfranchised as a result. Stories have already emerged about the horrors of working for some of the big online retail companies,254 and these are likely to be exaggerated further in COVID’s wake as we see them assume an even more dominant place within our society.

It is not only a modern form of luddism that may emerge in reaction. Many of the ideas rejecting society or large industrial take over is reminiscent of ideas emanating from the left – where capitalism’s imposing structures crush individuals in advance of profit. These fundamental ideas which are often appropriated by groups on both sides. Consequently, the massive expansion of some companies, of an internet which is controlled by large firms and which is ultimately disempowering people and eliminating employment has the potential to be attractive as an adversary to those on the far left as well. Anti-globalization groups that used to have prominence in the pre-September 11 world,255 have in the past two decades been dominated by a terrorist narrative which focuses on the threat from violent Islamist groups and latterly those on the extreme right wing. The left has receded as a dominant threat, notwithstanding President Trump’s declarations otherwise.256 Yet, within the chaos wrought by COVID-19, it is possible to see a re-emergence of elements of a far-left threat, angry at the rampant far-right and seeing inequality deepening.

Atop this, issues around environmentalism may have been pushed to one side due to COVID-19 concerns, but the problems remain. From a governmental perspective, there is still a need to resolve them, though the pace of change is one that is not happening fast enough for a number of activists. Whilst violence associated with the environmental movement is rare, the fall-out from COVID and the likely de-prioritization of environmental issues in favor of healthcare and repairing stricken economies, may stir more violence. An interesting phenomenon of the past few years has in fact been the mainstreaming of environmental anger into other ideologies. In some cases, like al Shabaab’s banning of plastic bags, it appears banal and almost comical,257 but in others, like the attackers in El Paso and Christchurch declaring they are eco-fascists,258 it shows how environmental ideas can be absorbed into more mainstream violent ideologies in a way that enhances the narrative. Suggesting that for environmental issues to become a terrorist problem, they do not necessarily have to emerge solely from the environmental movement’s mainstream or fringe. Played against the broader backdrop of instability and likely environmental degradation which will continue in the post-COVID-19 world, it is possible such narratives will gain greater salience.

China

A final threat which is likely to rise further, accelerated by COVID-19, is the growth of China as a target for violence and terrorism. Already a trend that was visible pre-COVID-19, it was something which was likely in part a product of China’s rise to a preeminent place on the international stage, as well as a reaction to China’s domestic and foreign policy. At home, the treatment of its Uighur minority has long-spurred anger rhetoric against China, but it has generated surprisingly little terrorism. Domestic violence within China associated with Uighur extremism is often rather expressions of anger at the state, with only some incidents justifiably considered terrorism.259 China’s heavy-handed crackdown has largely suppressed these instances of violence at home, but there have been a few abroad associated with Uighur networks.260 More dominant has been the growing targeting of Chinese nationals and interests by groups elsewhere – more often than not local networks rather than international ones.

For example, in Pakistan, China has increasingly become the target of Baluchi and Sindhi separatists. While there is a consistent level of concern around violent Islamist groups within the country, they have for the most part not targeted Chinese specifically.261 When they have hit Chinese targets, it has tended to be incidental and as part of a larger assault against foreigners or the state. In contrast, Sindhi and Baluchi groups have specifically targeted Chinese institutions and repeatedly put out messaging saying that China was their target. Similarly, in Indonesia, there may be a long history of anti-Chinese sentiment, but recently there has been a growth in specific thinking about targeting Chinese nationals within the country by violent Islamist groups. In part they consider this retribution for the treatment of Uighurs, but it also reflects an anger towards China as an invading colonial force.262

This particular anger is something that is only likely to grow going forwards. Beijing will find that as China rises to become an ever more central pillar in international affairs, it will attract as many detractors as it will supporters. And some of these detractors will be infuriated at Chinese behavior enough to want to commit acts of violence against Chinese interests. This trend is likely to be accelerated by the COVID-19 moment the world is going through. Beijing’s unapologetic response to its links to the origin of the virus, subsequent aggressive public relations diplomacy captured under the moniker ‘wolf warrior’263 and forceful posture on the world stage has done little to endear China to the international community.264 All of this is likely to attract different levels of public anger, some of which is likely to articulate itself as terrorism.

In some parts of the world this has already taken something of an ugly twist with the growing targeting of East Asian nationals in racist attacks.265 Taken alongside the growing levels of tension towards China, this is the sort of violence that has in other contexts ended up expressing itself through violence. China and ethnic East Asians are likely to find themselves increasingly potential targets of violence going forwards.

Conclusions

Much of this is of course speculative at this point. The world is still battling COVID with no clear timeline for when we will be able to talk about being in a post-COVID-19 world. And the longer the world suffers from COVID, the deeper the consequences touched upon in this paper are likely to be. The societal divisions, the economic damage, the transformed economies, and societies are all issues where impact is already visible, and this will only become more acute as more time passes. Society will change and this will have some sort of knock-on effect on the world of terrorism and political violence.

It will likely take some time, even years, before a clear causal link will be possible between the current events and the longer-term changes that might take place in terms of politically motivated violence and terrorism. Some of these effects might in fact be mere accelerations of what was already happening. This is something that is visible already in the growing prominence of the extreme right. Its rise was already visible pre-COVID, with the pattern tracing back years. But in the shadow of the disease and the societal, political and economic impact it has wrought we are seeing its rise sped up and worsened. Of course, this has to be played against the polarized political environment in Washington, DC in particular, which has amplified the noise around the far-right, something which has also likely been made worse by COVID-19. The point being that separating out effects and causal links will be something which is going to be hard to measure and quantify.

One issue which is likely to change in the west in particular in the wake of COVID-19 is the role of state in society. The massive bailouts, new healthcare and security infrastructure which will be needed to ensure future pandemics are better managed, and large public debt that will follow will require management. They will generate unhappiness in unexpected quarters, and in some cases, outright rejection. Given terrorism is at its root a form of anti-establishmentarianism, the massive growth of the state that is likely to result in post-COVID world could be a key underlying issue to look at when trying to explore how terrorism might evolve in the future. This is already most prominently visible in the United States, where it builds on a long history of libertarian and anti-federal government activity, but it is possible that similar strains may start to emerge elsewhere. In some ways, the anti-Chinese anger which may become exacerbated is another expression of this, with China becoming such a dominant figure globally that it is consequently attracting ire.

All of this needs to be kept into perspective of course. While COVID may have some effect on terrorism and political violence, its principal impact will most immediately and dramatically be felt in other aspects of human behavior. However, understanding how these ripples will echo in terrorism remains an important aspect to observe.

Sources

[216] https://d2071andvip0wj.cloudfront.net/B004-covid-19-seven-trends.pdf

[217] https://northafricapost.com/40082-terrorists-plotting-covid-19-contamination-attack-on-tunisian-security-forces-arrested.html

[218] https://apcss.org/assessing-the-impact-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-on-terrorism-and-counter-terrorism-practitioner-insights/

[219] https://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/us-charges-terror-crimes-threats-spread-virus-70052376

[220] https://gnet-research.org/2020/04/27/comparing-jihadist-and-far-right-extremist-narratives-on-covid-19/

[221] https://acleddata.com/#/dashboard

[222] There has been considerable work, however, looking at the potential risks. For example, IPAC in Indonesia has written a number of useful papers looking at threats there: http://www.understandingconflict.org/en.html and the UN has summarized what has been happening in CT and CVE terms: https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/CTED-Paper%E2%80%93-The-impact-of-the-COVID-19-pandemic-on-counter-terrorism-and-countering-violent-extremism.pdf, and finally, Abdul Basit has provided a useful summary of a number of trends across the terrorism space and the threat and opportunity it provides for terrorist organizations: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/18335330.2020.1828603

[223] https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2020/09/zawahiri-asserts-al-qaedas-independence-in-new-message.php

[224] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-54102404

[225] https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/iraq/when-measuring-isiss-resurgence-use-right-standard

[226] ISIS Somalia has had a very bad year so far: https://public.tableau.com/profile/fddmaps#!/vizhome/SomaliaClaims/Dashboard1 while its affiliate group in Mozambique has been increasingly effective: http://www.open.ac.uk/technology/mozambique/sites/www.open.ac.uk.technology.mozambique/files/files/CEEI_Security_Brief_3.pdf 

[227] The US intelligence community is one prominent example: https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Testimonies/20200917_HCHS_Miller_SFR_Final.pdf, though it is not clear that this applies internationally and domestically to the same degree. A recent DHS assessment pointed to an expanded White Supremacist Threat in particular at home: https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/2020_10_06_homeland-threat-assessment.pdf

[228] Australia has recorded a particular rise: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/sep/22/asio-reveals-up-to-40-of-its-counter-terrorism-cases-involve-far-right-violent-extremism as well as the United States: https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/2020_10_06_homeland-threat-assessment.pdf

[229] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/09/30/politics/proud-boys-trump-debate-trnd/index.html

[230] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-42166663

[231] The case of Eduardo Moreno is instructive in this regard: https://www.justice.gov/usao-cdca/pr/train-operator-port-los-angeles-charged-derailing-locomotive-near-us-navy-s-hospital

[232] https://public-assets.graphika.com/reports/Graphika_Report_Covid19_Infodemic.pdf

[233] file:///Users/raffaellopantucci/Downloads/european_union_terrorism_situation_and_trend_report_te-sat_2020_0.pdf

[234] https://www.lemonde.fr/les-decodeurs/article/2019/03/15/la-theorie-du-grand-remplacement-de-l-ecrivain-renaud-camus-aux-attentats-en-nouvelle-zelande_5436843_4355770.html

[235] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-14259989

[236] https://slate.com/technology/2020/09/qanon-europe-germany-lockdown-protests.html

[237] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/the-filter/rise-women-haters-inside-dark-world-british-incels/

[238] https://raffaellopantucci.files.wordpress.com/2021/03/f1810-source_d3.7_assr4.pdf

[239] Australia is a case in point where far right violence was the dominant threat pre-9/11. Similarly, within Europe, while various separatist groups were the dominant terrorist threat, the far right was a problem that sometimes spilled into violence.

[240] https://ctc.usma.edu/british-hacker-became-islamic-states-chief-terror-cybercoach-profile-junaid-hussain/

[241] https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-islamic-state-weaponized-the-chat-app-to-direct-attacks-on-the-west-1476955802

[242] https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/confronting-the-challenge-of-post-organisational-extremism/

[243] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/763254/individuals-referred-supported-prevent-programme-apr2017-mar2018-hosb3118.pdf

[244] https://www.dhs.gov/tvtp

[245] https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/csis-scrs/documents/publications/PubRep-2019-E.pdf

[246] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/09/22/who-is-a-terrorist-actually/ ; https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/running-amok-in-an-age-of-meaningless-terror

[247] https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-hampshire-54450013

[248] https://www.catalannews.com/society-science/item/man-arrested-in-barcelona-for-allegedly-plotting-terrorist-attack

[249] https://www.leeds-live.co.uk/news/leeds-news/dominic-noble-huddersfield-dies-prison-18812989

[250] https://apnews.com/article/7067c03e1af0b157be7c15888cbe8c27

[251] https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/uk-news/fantasist-obsessed-incels-jailed-over-17998017

[252] https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/unabomber

[253] https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/unabomber/manifesto.text.htm

[254] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/11/hired-six-months-undercover-in-low-wage-britain-zero-hours-review-james-bloodworth

[255] https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/01/the-dark-side-of-globalization-why-seattles-1999-protesters-were-right/282831/

[256] https://www.ft.com/content/fdf5e423-4a4e-482c-8ca8-e0bf71fcfbcd, it is also worth noting that some left-wing terrorism still exists in parts of southern Europe – for example, Italy and Greece.

[257] https://www.businessinsider.com/al-shabab-bans-plastic-bags-as-a-serious-threat-to-people-2018-7

[258] https://www.gq.com/story/what-is-eco-fascism

[259] https://raffaellopantucci.com/2014/07/24/chinas-domestic-insurgency/

[260] https://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstan-china-embassy-jailed/28583623.html and https://www.reuters.com/article/us-thailand-blast-idUSKBN13A0FR

[261] https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2160918/lesson-pakistan-suicide-attack-china-will-have-pay-high

[262] https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3099151/indonesian-terrorists-planned-attack-shop-owners-areas-chinese

[263] https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/beware-the-spirit-of-the-wolf-warrior

[264] https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/10/06/unfavorable-views-of-china-reach-historic-highs-in-many-countries/

[265] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52714804

A new post for my Singaporean home institute, RSIS which tries to look at the two parallel issues of the reported decimations of al Qaeda’s leadership alongside the trail of terrorist attacks in Europe we have seen in the past year. More on both issues to come.

End of Al Qaeda Era?

The reported passing of more of Al Qaeda’s senior leadership marks the almost complete passing of a generation. Yet a series of attacks in Europe point to a threat now happening beyond directed terrorist networks. Thus while Al Qaeda might be withering, the problems driving its emergence in the first place persist.

The reported deaths of Ayman al Zawahiri and a number of other senior Al Qaeda figures suggests we are approaching the end of an era. At the same time, a series of events in Europe point to a terror threat that remains as ingrained and dangerous as ever. None of this is about the persistence of Al Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated groups around the world.

These parallel sets of events illustrate the reality that terrorist groups are not the ultimate problem in themselves, but are an articulation of broader societal issues. The core group may be withering, but the problems driving their emergence remain.

Other Fires Burn, Different Set of Problems

Much like their initial emergence, Al Qaeda’s senior leadership’s slow disintegration has been shrouded in mystery. The deaths of Abu Muhsin al-Masri (Husam Abd-al-Rauf) in Afghanistan, Abu Muhammad al-Masri (Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah) in Tehran and the possible passing of leader Ayman al Zawahiri have all taken place off stage.

Some, like Abu Muhammad’s dramatic shooting in Tehran, seem cinematic in their drama. Others, like Ayman al Zawahiri’s possible passing, suggest a quiet exit. But this series of deaths leaves very few men standing amongst the initial cohort who assembled around Osama bin Laden as he launched his jihad against the West.

Yet as this light dims, other fires burn. Around the world, Al Qaeda or ISIS-affiliated or -inspired groups continue to operate; but they now have turned inwards on their local contexts, focused on whichever regional struggle they have emerged from. Global goals now seem secondary priorities. And in the West a very different threat troubles security forces.

The spate of attacks and plots that Europe has seen over the past few months illustrate a different set of problems. Not the large-scale terrorist attacks of 2001, but rather a constant patter of rage articulated through pin-prick attacks. And there is no connection to Al Qaeda in any of these attacks.

Some jihadi strategists would argue that this is the fulfilment of the vision laid out by one of their visionaries, Abu Musab al Suri, who wrote at length of a global insurgency made up of attacks and cells with no direct link to each other but all driven by the same aim and goal.

Yet the seeming incoherence of the attacks and their planning suggest otherwise. Few of the attackers seem driven by genuine belief, more often are stirred by personal or confused rage which they have attached to a jihadi ideology. None show a tangible link to the initial core of Al Qaeda, and in many cases, show little link to some of the group’s many subsequent expressions.

Al Qaeda’s heir ISIS seems to be the most effective at connecting and inspiring this new generation, but there is very little evidence usually of cases having specific direction and planning organised by the group.

The Disentangling of Two Threads

The most recent European case, carried out by a woman who started stabbing at passersby at a shopping mall in Lugano, Switzerland, appears to be have been done by someone who wanted to connect with ISIS but failed to. She tried to go to Syria in 2017 and failed.

The earlier attacks this year in Europe appear equally uncoordinated – some (like in Austria) show links to networks around ISIS, while others (like the young man who decapitated a teacher in Paris suburbs) show no clear links to groups, but a deep personal rage that was seeking an outlet. But it is unclear that ISIS directed any of them.

Rather than seeing the realisation of a plan set in motion by Al Qaeda, we are seeing the disentangling of two threads. On the one side, an organisation that launched a war is being eradicated, while on the other a series of tensions in Europe (and elsewhere) are articulating themselves through a terminology articulated by the group.

The many expressions of Al Qaeda will not go away, but the core organisation is no longer able to project its power and force in the same way. A continuing disintegration will take place as the various groups using the name around the world continue to focus their attention on local conflicts rather than the global clash the core group was advancing. Their language will remain the same to give them gravitas, but their interests will likely stay local.

Deeper Issues Must Be Addressed

ISIS and Al Qaeda successors and affiliates will continue to want to strike at the West, but are unlikely to dedicate too much resource towards realising these goals. Years of successful security force penetration and management have likely dampened their enthusiasm, though they will continue to look for opportunistic moments and individuals to take advantage of.

At the same time, the divisions and cultural clashes in Europe and elsewhere will remain and likely worsen. A rising extreme right in Western societies reflects how anger at difference in society in the West in particular is deepening. The repeated attacks by militant Islamists we have seen in Europe show that a deep anger amongst Europe’s Muslim community persists.

The targets they chose are ones which reflect a desire to strike society in its every form. The manner of attack they choose is clearly inspired by Al Qaeda or ISIS, but there is very little evidence of a direct link. Nevertheless, these attacks will stir the extreme right further, exacerbating circular tensions and deepening divisions.

The passing of an earlier generation of jihadists is not the end of the problem. It is the end of an expression of a problem. The deeper issues which Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups fed off in the first place to grow remain. And until these are addressed, the world is likely going to continue to see a steady patter of incidents. The difficulty will come in ensuring we are focused on managing the right expressions of the problem, and not making these tensions worse.

About the Author

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

Have not posted for a while. Delivered a book project which should ultimately emerge sometime next year, which kept me busy. But have been writing, including this piece for Prospect magazine in the UK on the fifteen year anniversary of the July 7, 2005 bombing which was the big lynchpin event of my earlier book.

Also have numerous projects in motion at the moment pulling me in lots of directions at the same time. Going to do a media catch up in the next post, but for the time being here is a video of a webinar with my Singaporean hosts RSIS looking at the evolution of the UK threat picture.

 

 

Fifteen years on from 7/7, terrorism has changed but the jihadist threat persists

Ideologies have fragmented and dangers become more difficult to track
by Raffaello Pantucci / July 7, 2020

Court artist sketch by Elizabeth Cook of Safiyya Amira Shaikh, 37, of Hayes, West London, who pleaded guilty to preparation of terrorist acts Picture: Elizabeth Cook/PA Wire/PA Images:
Court artist sketch of Safiyya Amira Shaikh, 37, of Hayes, West London, who pleaded guilty to preparation of terrorist acts Picture: Elizabeth Cook/PA Wire/PA Images

It often feels like we have moved into a new era of terrorist threats. Gone are the days when we faced large organised plots involving networks linking the UK to dark corners of faraway lands: now terrorist attacks are made up of random mass stabbings in public places like the attack near London Bridge in 2017. The terrorists being processed through our courts are former drug addicts with troubled pasts, like convert Safiyya Shaikh who was jailed recently for plotting to blow up St Paul’s.

At the ideological end it is equally confusing, with violent Islamists seemingly replaced by a gaggle of extreme right wingers, involuntary celibates (Incels) and individuals whose ideological leaning is so confused the Home Office brackets them together as “mixed, unstable or unclear.” Yet there is more consistency than you might expect. Terrorist threats come in ebbs and flows, sometimes receding but rarely disappearing. Instead, they tend to morph and create new problems. What is constant, however, is our inability to learn from the mistakes of the past.

The most talked about threat on the rise is the extreme right wing. But it is not clear how much of a threat it actually poses. Prior to the 7th July bombings 15 years ago, the most lethal non-Irish related terrorist attack the UK had faced was David Copeland’s one-man bombing campaign targeting London’s minority communities in 1999. Leaving devices in locations targeting London’s black, South Asian and gay communities, his homemade bombs murdered three and injured 140. While Copeland seemed to plan and execute his campaign by himself, he was part of the extreme right in the UK (albeit on the fringes), and a former member of the British National Party, the National Socialist Movement and even the neo-Nazi Combat 18 group.

For years the extreme right was largely the remit of the police, but in the late 1990s it was also coming into MI5’s crosshairs. As Jonathan Evans, a former director-general of MI5, told me earlier this year: “the service worked closely with police to undertake some disruptions in the late 1990s of Combat 18 associated individuals who were consorting with people of a similar cast of mind in eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc. These groups had explicitly decided that terrorism was part of the way forward in order to try to destabilise what they characterised as the Zionist Organised Government (ZOG).” The attacks were disrupted, and soon after MI5 ended up getting almost completely overwhelmed focusing on the violent Islamist terror threat that erupted so violently in 2001.

But the extreme right never went away, and in some ways went mainstream with a rise in far-right parties across Europe. At the terrorist end of the scale, throughout the 2000s police were disrupting extreme right-wing plots. While the majority were fairly shambolic, some more organised ones would occasionally emerge. The Aryan Strike Force (ASF) was a group built around a father and son core who were bent on race war, were running training camps in Cumbria and managed to make enough ricin to kill nine people. But for the most part, they were, as Evans put it to me, “zoological” curiosities who were distinguishing mostly in their oddness.

The emergence of the English Defence League (EDL) and subsequently National Action (NA) changed the picture. From being a scattered group of individuals who were as likely to be involved in child pornography as they were extreme right-wing terrorism, these two groups instead spoke to something more organised coming together. It was also confusing ideologically, with both groups quite explicitly reacting against the violent Islamist groups that dominated public attention, yet also clearly using their tactics and language. National Action speaks of launching a “white jihad” while the EDL was born in reaction to now banned Islamist group Al Muhajiroun’s presence in Luton. And while there is a clear white supremacist tone to both groups, the EDL promoted non-white members.

More explicitly, political far-right group Britain First provided another wrinkle within this fabric, espousing a white supremacist ideology using Christian iconography. There is a palpable religious overtone to their narratives which feels more reminiscent of the violent Islamist threat that brought together religion and totalitarian views about society. This mix of ideas helped give them a strong base of support in parts of eastern Europe.

This confusing ideological background has been matched by the emergence of online ideologies drawing on fears of the “Great Replacement” of white communities. This has become the backdrop against which a whole range of ideologies have developed, spinning the extreme right in numerous different directions: ideas like the Incels movement, made up of young men who feel themselves rejected sexually. The QAnon movement, which has not only appeared at Trump rallies but now also appears to have three adherents among American congressional candidates, is made up of conspiracy theorists drawing on the vast information pool now available online to concoct narratives about controlling deep states, the dangers of 5G technology and stories of powerful paedophiles. And in one of the stranger threats to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, a growth in groups fearing the increased role of the state. Groups like the Sovereign Citizen movement have become more influential as some fear the virus response is simply an excuse to expand the power of the state to ultimately oppress them.

But notwithstanding this increasingly baffling threat picture, it has still not eclipsed the violent Islamist threat in the UK. In a recent interview, the UK’s top counter-terrorism police officer Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said that the extreme right wing took up about 10 per cent of his officers’ time. While it is, as he put it, the “fastest-growing” aspect of the threat picture, and cases have managed to rise to the very top of the terrorist “matrix” that MI5 uses to prioritise its threat picture, it is not the majority yet. The biggest threats continue to come from those inspired or linked to groups like al-Qaeda or Islamic State (IS).

This is something you hear consistently from security officials. Yes, the extreme right is a growing concern, but the violent Islamist threat persists and there is little evidence that the pool of problems that created it have gone away. They point to foreign battlefields like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq or parts of north, west or east Africa, where al-Qaeda- and IS-linked groups continue to thrive. These are the sorts of environments that produced the 7/7 attacks. Just last month, security officials in Germany disrupted a plot in which a group of Tajiks stand accused of being directed by IS networks in Syria and Afghanistan to launch an attack in Europe.

In the UK it has been a while since we have had a major public disruption like this. Instead, incidents like last year’s attack at Fishmongers’ Hall or the attempted stabbing in Streatham—when a recently released terrorist convict launched a one-man attack—are the norm. In these and other more recent cases still winding their way through the courts, isolated individuals, sometimes with links to violent Islamist networks, and usually with histories that have brought them to MI5’s attention at some point, launch one-man campaigns with no outside direction and weapons such as knives found in every household. A growing proportion of them have serious mental health or social problems, making them deeply volatile and unpredictable people. This makes them almost impossible to stop, but nevertheless results in a vast outpouring of noise from politicians and the public demanding that something must be done.

It is never a good idea to legislate in the immediate wake of a disaster. Objectivity will go out of the window, leading to ill-considered choices. We saw this in the wake of the 7/7 attacks—when the shock to the country led to a surge in focus and attention on the UK’s Muslim community. Politicians’ rhetoric sharpened, demanding they “do something.” A money spigot was opened which gave the security services more resources to manage the problem—including developing community profiling tools like Project Rich Picture, which aimed to develop a detailed understanding of the UK’s Muslim community, identifying them as the source of the threat. Self-appointed leaders (or “professional Muslims” as one colleague once sarcastically put it) popped up everywhere speaking for no one but themselves, but nevertheless able to garner grants from the government to bolster their so-called community work. Some did positive work. Others it was less clear.

All this did little to improve Muslim community relations and instead created a sense among many Muslims that they were being unfairly targeted. Paradoxically, it also created animosity among white communities who were angered by the austerity and economic marginalisation they were facing in contrast to this visible push in support to Muslim communities. We have not seen a similar outpouring of money or attention towards deprived white communities in the wake of the growing rise of the extreme right.

A decade and a half since July 2005, we seem not to have learned some of these lessons. Politicians appear unwilling to acknowledge that part of the problem of the resurgent extreme right is a product of the racially-tinged politics that have been stoked by mainstream voices in the past few years, while the growing presence of seriously troubled individuals at the sharp end of the terror threat as lone actors reflects years of under-investment in mental health services, probation and social services. The recently convicted Safiyya Shaikh, formerly Michelle Ramsden, in some ways fits this mould perfectly—a deeply troubled woman whose online life developed into her becoming a webmaster and coordinator for IS-supporting groups and plots across Europe.

We have gone from networks directing plots against our public transport to lone actors lashing out at people going about their daily lives. The underlying ideologies remain the same, though their expression has become more confusing. In many ways little has changed except for the volume of people affected and our security services’ capability to manage terrorist threats (one of the biggest reasons why we have not seen anything larger than a lone actor attack in a while). But our politicians seem unable to grasp the difficult nettles that are required to deal with these issues in a sophisticated fashion. Either we learn to live with the problem or focus on the real underlying issues.

 

Almost up to date, this time with a new piece for Foreign Policy. The piece has attracted a certain amount of attention, my suspicion is that the bleakness it paints appeals at this rather depressing moment in world affairs. More in this vein coming sorry to say, and the broader topic is one to which I will return.

After the Coronavirus, Terrorism won’t be the same

As big-government initiatives expand and leaders deflect blame, anti-establishment groups, angry Luddites, and China-haters could turn to violence.

By |April 22, 2020, 3:33 AM

LEBANON-HEALTH-VIRUS-HEZBOLLAH

A picture taken during a guided tour organized by the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah shows volunteers sorting food aid that will be distributed during the coronavirus pandemic in Beirut’s southern suburbs on March 31. A poster on the wall shows the current leader of the movement, Hassan Nasrallah. AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

As the coronavirus pandemic has spread, terrorist groups have reacted in different ways.

Traditional terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda and its many affiliates are for the most part confused in their response to COVID-19. Some see chaos that they can take advantage of (in places such as West Africa), others divine retribution on nonbelievers (as the Islamic State and the Turkistan Islamic Party, a Uighur group, have suggested), while others an opportunity to show their governance capabilities (such as the Taliban and Hezbollah). Governments have redeployed some counterterrorism capabilities to support the coronavirus response while contorting legal definitions of terrorism to prosecute people committing antisocial acts such as coughing on others.

So far, the number of acts that could reasonably be called terrorism have been quite limited. It is for the most part generic anti-establishmentarianism fed by conspiracy theories. Fear of 5G technology being linked to the spread of the disease has led to the burnings of cell-phone towers across Europe.

In the United States, fear of big government has resulted in a bomb plan targeting a Kansas City, Kansas, hospital preparing for virus response and an attempt to derail a train in the Port of Los Angeles shipyard. Some more enterprising jihadis have sought to weaponize the coronavirus, while the extreme right wing has largely only talked about doing it.

These acts have a unifying theme. Like most terrorism, they are fundamentally acts of revolt against the established order. In the United States there is a rich tradition of anti-government activity, drawing on a broader narrative of libertarianism than runs through the American body politic.

Oklahoma City just marked the 25th anniversary of Timothy McVeigh’s attackon the Alfred P. Murrah building in 1995 that led to 168 deaths. McVeigh emerged from a broader U.S. movement called “Patriots” by federal investigators, who had long worried about these extreme libertarians’ potential for violence and their propensity for gathering lots of weapons. More recently, this movement has expressed itself through sovereign citizen groups, which reject federal regulations and target police.

For those whose mindset is shaped by this history of anti-government activity, the massive expansion of the state that follows a national crisis like a pandemic outbreak will be a concern. For such individuals, the fear is as much about expansion of the state as it is distrust in government’s activity in general. Some expressions of this anger are already visible in places such as Michigan, Kentucky, and North Carolina.

This sense of disenfranchisement is further exacerbated thanks to the growing distrust that is visible in government globally. Given the propensity of leaders to publicly utter untruths or half-truths, citizens’ collective faith in government is being eroded. Various criminal organizations have spotted this and sought to offer themselves as alternatives.

Terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, the Taliban, and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham that control pieces of territory have used the chaos to showcase their own public health capabilities, as thin as they are. Criminal groups in Brazil, El Salvador, and Mexico are seeking to display their power and resources. These moves are not particularly altruistic, however, with most groups undertaking them out of recognition of the battle for hearts and minds they could win through these acts.

Others on the fringes are taking this distrust to its violent extreme, and their number is likely to increase over time. The current COVID-19 response is going to expand the presence of the state, draw attention to inequalities that will be exacerbated in the post-coronavirus economy, and ultimately highlight the budget-tightening that is going to have to follow.

Some may fear big government, but others will instead grow angry if it is not seen to be dealing with their problems and concerns. These fissures all open up narratives ripe for exploitation by anti-government factions, racist groups, political extremists of every type, and extremist Luddites or other fringe groups.

The growing army of the disenfranchised will create a community of those who are open to placing the blame on someone else. In the West there has been a growing push to blame China—something that is happening among senior officials (such as Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger and Sen. Ted Cruz in the United States or the heads of the parliamentary defense and foreign select committees in the U.K.) and increasingly in the general population in countries where the tone of anti-Chinese sentiment is growing. This anger is also straining existing social tensions around migrants, something visible in the nasty racist tinge that colors a lot of COVID-19 discourse.

Unfortunately, once anti-Chinese sentiment catches on among the general public, it tends to be less discerning—resulting in abuse and violence toward all those who appear to be of East Asian ethnicity. And while hate crimes do not always equate to terrorism, they are often a precursor to it. The intercommunal tensions hate crimes produce provide fodder to those who are prone to violence to act out on their nasty impulses, as well as providing a rich environment for groups seeking to advance divisive ideologies.

This problem is not exclusive to the West. In Indonesia, researchers have warned of a growing tension toward Chinese nationals within the country. This draws on a rich seam of anger toward China more generally in the country—in part stemming from historical ethnic tensions, but more recently being exacerbated by Beijing’s treatment of its Muslim Uighur minority. There have even been warnings of this sentiment resulting in terrorism against Chinese residents of Indonesia, with a cell reported as having discussed targeting Chinese workers. This might lay the foundations for a more violent expression of anti-Chinese terrorism in Southeast Asia.

Chinese relations with Southeast Asia are often strained, and there are other expressions of anger against China more generally at the moment as well. Thailand became embroiled in an online spat with China when young Thais took umbrage at Chinese online warriors attacking prominent Thai actors for expressing views in solidarity with Taiwan and Hong Kong. The resulting “milk tea alliance”—so called because people in the countries are generally fans of sweet milk tea—has angered Beijing and dragged in the local embassy to express the usual Chinese anger at others recognizing the independence of places Beijing sees as part of China.

In Kazakhstan, a post on the Chinese internet that appeared to suggest that Kazakhstan wanted to become part of China drew enough ire to prompt the Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs to haul in the Chinese ambassador and demand an apology. In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, anti-Chinese sentiment coalesced around the idea of Chinese nationals being spreaders of the disease and has seen a member of parliament make statements about how Chinese citizens should be avoided.

None of this is terrorism, of course, but there is a clearer focus of public anger toward China. As China becomes a more dominant player in world affairs, it will increasingly become a target, something that is in part driven by Beijing’s treatment of minorities at home. This could crystallize into attacks on Chinese nationals or companies.

At the even darker fringes, even the 5G telephone pole-burning phenomenon might be a prelude to something else. The Luddites were a group of textile workers in the U.K. who emerged in the 19th centur. They were known for violently protesting as technology developed that was slowly displacing their jobs. In more modern times, Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, carried forward the Luddite mantle by leading an almost two-decade-long bombing campaign that culminated in the publication of his manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future”—a screed about how modern technology was eroding personal freedoms.

Today, the rapid shift to online work by a growing proportion of workers is going to dramatically accelerate in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Companies are shrinking volumes of staff and trying to work more online or remotely. Things that were previously done in person are now migrating online.

While many will return to working in the ways they did before the crisis, a surprisingly high number might find their work pattern permanently altered or face redundancy as a result of the cost savings that companies now see they can make while still achieving the same result. This might create an angry movement that draws together disgruntled ex-workers using the very tools that they are angry about for displacing them. Having been made redundant by online tools, they could very well repurpose them to mobilize a backlash.

Terrorism often emerges in the spaces where government is perceived to have failed or where people feel they are being excluded from the system. The pandemic is likely to lower people’s sense of trust in authority even further. The result will be increased problems from those who turn angry enough to want to use violence to articulate their grievances.

The world has already seen a failure in international cooperation when it comes to responding to the coronavirus, and while there have been innumerable acts of kindness between citizens, the larger sense of anger and disenfranchisement that will follow will create new forms of political violence. Some will draw on long-standing ideologies and groups, while others will emerge in surprising ways. Terrorism will not end in the wake of the coronavirus; instead, it is likely to evolve in ever more extreme ways.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute and a visiting senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists. Twitter: @raffpantucci

A longer piece for a great new outlet, the Bookings Institution managed Lawfare Blog. This one is a longer story I have been trying to publish for some time about the last and in some ways most dangerous of the Londonistani preachers, Abdullah el Faisal. Touched on some of this in my earlier piece for GNET. It draws on some material that from my book, but goes on beyond that including digging into the many stories of plots and networks that have been linked to him around the world.

Abdullah al-Faisal’s Global Jihad

By Raffaello Pantucci

Sunday, April 19, 2020, 10:00 AM

faisal

Editor’s Note: The history of the modern jihadist movement is often the tale of different charismatic preachers and fighters, whose inspiring words and deeds—and whose pettiness and divisions—shaped the movement. RUSI’s Raffaello Pantucci examines the life and times of Abdullah al-Faisal, the storied jihadist preacher whom the United States is trying to extradite. Faisal is a particularly militant jihadist, and his personal history captures the dangers of the movement and its many divisions.

Daniel Byman

When he was able to preach publicly, Abdullah al-Faisal enjoyed employing apocalyptic imagery. The current COVID-19 misery no doubt appeals to his taste for biblical pestilence. The drama of his preaching was such that others in London’s Muslim community would find his exaggerated rhetoric absurd and often dismiss him as a marginal figure. More than two decades on from his heyday in the United Kingdom, Faisal is now fighting extradition to the United States, where he stands accused of helping people join the Islamic State. His four-decade-long career around the world and online distinguishes him as among the most modern jihadist preachers in the West.

Born Trevor William Forrest to an evangelical Christian family in Jamaica, Faisal was introduced to Islam in his mid-teens by his business education teacher, Jolly McFarlane. When he graduated from secondary school in 1980 he changed his name to Abdullah el Faisal, and the next year took a Saudi government-sponsored six-week course in Islamic and Arabic studies in Trinidad. He also studied in Guyana before leaving in November 1984 for Riyadh, where he took up a scholarship in Arabic and Islamic studies at the Imam Mohammad Ibn Saud University. Years later, he told police he had been sent to the United Kingdom by his teacher, Sheikh Rajhi, and set himself up among the growing community of black converts in south London. Landing at around the same time that Spike Lee’s film “Malcolm X” was attracting attention, Faisal’s vigorous speeches, skin tincture, fluent Arabic and street style made him a hot commodity among young Muslims in the United Kingdom. In an interview with the Sunday Times in February 1993, Faisal boasted that he was able to transform this charisma into numbers at the south London mosque where he operated, claiming he had “received three converts a day for the past six years.”

Soon after this, however, he fell out of favor at the mosque because of his extreme preaching. By some accounts, it was after he was caught playing Abu Hamza tapes at the mosque. Another of the “Londonistan” preachers at the time, Hamza was already actively involved in jihadism by the mid-1990s, having been to Afghanistan, met Abdallah Azzam and started down his path to becoming the famous hook-handed cleric. At one point or another both Faisal and Hamza had been students of Abu Qatada al-Filistini, the famous Jordanian cleric who had provided spiritual guidance justifying some of the darkest acts during the brutal jihadist conflict that wracked Algeria during the 1990s. Faisal acted occasionally as an interpreter for Qatada, though this sometimes produced strange results.

In a screed attacking Faisal, titled “Be Aware of Takfir!”, Hamza provides an anecdote capturing the relationship Faisal had with his teacher (as well as the tensions among all the preachers). Qatada and Faisal had been invited to publicly debate the practice of takfir—a controversial act, whereby one excommunicates others for failing to act as a proper Muslim. It is a crucial concept among violent jihadists as it provides a context permitting violence against individuals once they are cast out, enabling the killing of Muslim civilians and other Islamists with whom one disagrees. Because Qatada had little English, he was reliant on Faisal as his translator. During the presentation, by Hamza’s account, Faisal was somewhat selective in his translations of Qatada’s words, meaning that while the Arabic speakers in the room felt that “the end of the debate left brother Faisal a broken man[,] … those that did not understand the Arabic [Faisal’s students] went away feeling the same about Qatada.”

Faisal was a particularly aggressive proponent of takfir, wantonly spraying it in any direction he could. The long and illustrious list of people with whom he fell out included everyone from Anwar al-Awlaki (whom Faisal accused of being too restrictive in his use of takfir and therefore a kafir worthy of takfir himself) to the “Tooting and Finsbury Park” Muslims he dismissed as “fake jihadis … using the word ‘jihad’ for fame and fortune and to line their pockets.” At one event with Qatada, he went so far as to call his audience “Jews” when they disagreed with his views—a perspective that even Qatada thought was over the top.

Notwithstanding this rather razed-earth approach to preaching, Faisal remained an attractive figure to jihadists and continued to interact with his fellow Londonistani preachers. One expert with whom I spoke spent considerable time among the jihadist milieu in the early 2000s and described how members of the community would go to Hamza for the religion and to Faisal for the fire. Young Muslims from that time have told me how much they enjoyed listening to Faisal thanks to his polished English, angry rhetoric and cool Jamaican accent. He claimed a street heritage in Jamaica that gave him a way of connecting with the lost men of color in the grimier parts of London where he would hold his teaching groups. He had a strong following across the United Kingdom’s young Muslim community but found that his messages resonated particularly with those who had criminal pasts or inclinations. A number of the black convert Muslims drawn into his circles were often successfully encouraged to move away from lifestyles revolving around drug and alcohol abuse. One respectable Deobandi Muslim leader in north London praised Faisal for this success and struggled to reconcile this history with what Faisal was ultimately accused of in court.

But Faisal was deeply engaged with the U.K. jihadist community. He was a regular at events where future terrorist plotters gathered. In the early 2000s, he appeared at an event with Hamza in Crawley at which the two men spoke before a group that included individuals from the “Operation Crevice” cell that was later disrupted in 2004, a Brit who went on to play a prominent role in the 2009 Camp Chapman attack in Afghanistan, as well as a preacher who was close to the pair who murdered Lee Rigby in Woolwich in 2013. Faisal was also an influential figure in the lives of Zacarias Moussaoui, the infamous 20th 9/11 hijacker, and “shoe bomber” Richard Reid.

Faisal was booted out of the United Kingdom and returned to Jamaica in 2007, having served four years in prison for inciting violence and racial hatred. He had been caught after police attention was drawn to his rantings in the course of their investigation of Richard Chinyoka, a brutal misogynist who was incarcerated for 12 years for raping and torturing a series of women. As police went through Chinyoka’s belongings, they discovered cassette tapes of Faisal’s sermons and were shocked by what they heard. They were even more stunned to discover that these tapes were fairly openly available when they investigated religious centers around London. This led to Faisal’s incarceration and eviction from the country—but not before he was able to help push a young convert named Germaine Lindsay along the path to radicalization. Lindsay then went on to be one of the bombers who attacked the London Underground on July 7, 2005, all of whom reportedly enjoyed listening to Faisal’s preaching.

Faisal’s links to the July 7 group continued after their deaths. Years later, Faisal reported that Samantha Lewthwaite, Germaine Lindsay’s widow, had visited him while he sat in Long Lartin prison. She told him she was happy and offered him money and supplies while he provided her with guidance. The two stayed connected, and soon afterward, when Faisal traveled to South Africa after his deportation to Jamaica, he met a young man, Fahmi Jamal Salim, who was looking for a white wife. Claiming to know him to be Lewthwaite’s type, Faisal put the two in touch and a relationship and children followed. Salim was a long-standing jihadist fighter close to al-Qaeda in East Africa (AQEA) and al-Shabaab. His sister was married to a fighter who was killed when Comorian AQEA cell leader Harun Fazul took a wrong turn in Mogadishu and ended up in front of a Somali security checkpoint. All of these individuals have links to the same groups and networks that hosted Faisal when he was in South Africa.

After a protracted deportation process that involved bouncing around a number of countries, Faisal was ejected from Africa and back to his native Jamaica. From there he became a keyboard warrior and magnet for journalists. The U.K. press in particular was drawn to him and eager to gather more details about his links to the United Kingdom. His influence at this stage had also grown considerably in the United States, and he was proving to be a draw for extremists from further afield through his website, Authentic Tauheed, and associated social media accounts.

Faisal continued to espouse his aggressive and uncompromising messages online, turning toward the Islamic State as the group gained prominence. He provided speeches and justifications about the validity of the Islamic State’s caliphate, arguing that part of the reason for the Islamic State’s rise was that al-Qaeda was not brutal enough. Showing his eagerness to continue to speak in favor of sexual violence, he declared that Islamic State fighters were allowed to rape women they captured. Additionally, he encouraged jihadists to sacrifice themselves in combat on behalf of the Islamic State, telling his audience that “some of you have lived a sinful life—the only way for you to go to paradise is to die on the battlefield.”

As it turned out, Faisal’s Authentic Tauheed site was managed by an array of extremists dotted around the world to whom he delegated responsibilities. Two of his online associates, 38-year-old Mohammed Abdul Ahad, from north London, and 31-year-old Muhammad Abdur Raheem Kamali, from Rochdale, were sentenced to four years each in February. Their roles were to help manage the website, translate parts of Faisal’s speeches, design posters, and disseminate links and information. They were part of a web of individuals involved in these activities, some of whom have also been arrested and pleaded guilty in the United States over the past few years.

Faisal’s audience was truly global. By one count, 10,000 people listened in during one of his talks. They could ask questions and engage with the preacher through the layer of support staff he built up around him. In October 2019, Singapore handed down its first conviction for terror financing. Ahmed Hussein Abdul Kadir Sheikh Uduman was a 35-year-old who had been following Faisal’s work online since 2013. Uduman reached out to Faisal, and the two swapped messages via WhatsApp, email and Facebook. Eventually, Uduman sent $840 to Faisal via an intermediary using the name Patrick Grey and Faisal’s wife. Uduman pleaded guilty to the financing charges, and the government claimed he was also eager to pursue armed jihad overseas.

In other cases, Faisal appears to have inspired people to more violent acts. Mohammad Kasim Stimberwala, a lab technician, and Ubed Ahmed Mirza, a practicing lawyer, were both reportedly in contact with Faisal and planning an atrocity aimed at Jewish targets in Mumbai. They had been active online radicals for years, and had even gone so far as to try to obtain weapons and scout potential targets. They were also communicating with Aadhil Ameez, an extremist recruiter in contact with Faisal as well as the 2019 Sri Lankan Easter bombers. His speeches were also reportedly played frequently in Trinidad and Tobago, where he stands accused of being a facilitator for people to go to Syria and Iraq.

The list of attacks he is linked to in the United States is substantial, with the U.S. Treasury Department connecting him to “the Ohio State University attacker during Thanksgiving weekend in 2016; a Garland, Texas shooter at a Mohammed drawing contest in 2015; Faisal Shahzad, the attempted Times Square bomber in New York City in 2010; Mohammed Chowdury, who planned and attempted to bomb the London Stock Exchange in 2010; Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber who attempted to down an airliner over Detroit, Michigan in 2009.” Separately, Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan linked to al-Qaeda who sought to attack the New York subway system in 2009, told a jury in 2012 that Faisal had influenced his radicalization and that he had listened to Faisal’s tapes as he trained in Pakistan ahead of his attempted attack. In all cases, the individuals were active listeners to Faisal’s material, and in some cases—like the Garland, Texas, shooters—they were in direct contact with him.

Faisal was particularly influential among converts, among them Jason Brown, also known as Abdul Ja’Me. Brown was the head of a Chicago gang specializing in drug trafficking called AHK—a mutation of the Arabic “akhi,” meaning “brother”—that required members to convert to Islam. In June 2016, Brown was arrested in Clayton County, Georgia, on gun charges. When police searched his phones, they found evidence that he was an avid consumer of Faisal’s teachings. Brown continued his obsession with Faisal while in prison and, upon release, started to more actively recruit members of his gang to follow Faisal’s teachings and told them in early 2019 about his plan to travel abroad to join the Islamic State. He also told them that he had sent money to Faisal to support him during his extradition to the United States from Jamaica. He was ultimately arrested for sending money to someone he thought was an Islamic State fighter in Syria.

To this roster of Faisal’s adherents we can also add the two men killed in the United Kingdom as they launched terrorist knife and fake bomb attacks in London in November 2019 and January of this year. Usman Khan, responsible for the November attack on London Bridge, and Sudesh Amman, the man shot down in Streatham in January, were both listeners to Faisal’s teachings. Khan even had Faisal’s phone number.

When he was free, Faisal interacted frequently with his flock and took full advantage of modern technology as well as in-person contacts. His legal trouble in the United States is in part a product of helping one of his adherents join the Islamic State. While trying to impress one follower online, Faisal told her that he was adored in Raqqa and that the Islamic State was keen to fly him in to guide them. Now that he is jailed, he has fewer contacts, but his ideas continue to flourish online.

Faisal’s luck has finally run out. Given U.S. sentencing and conviction rates for terrorism offenses, it is highly likely he will eventually face a long stint in prison. His ideas, speeches and lessons, however, will continue to live on. Authentic Tauheed can still be found online with some digging. The website stopped updating in August 2017, roughly around the time that Jamaican authorities arrested Faisal on a U.S. warrant. His final posting is titled “Entering the Lizard Hole,” which he explains “means that the Muslims will imitate and follow the kuffar in their creed, culture and character. This issue is one of the signs of the Day of Judgement.” As Faisal awaits judgment, his ideas will continue to be perpetuated around the world online—making him likely the most enduringly and globally influential of the infamous Londonistani preachers.

Still catching up on myself. Got distracted with a few other things including the current chaos in real life and suddenly a wave of new short pieces landed. So will continue updating here. Have some longer ones still gently coming to the boil, but current events have confused everything. First up, a short commentary for my London institutional home RUSI.

Don’t Lose Sight of the Enduring Global Terrorist Threat

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Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary30 March 2020
UK Counter-terrorismTerrorismMiddle East and North Africa

As the world’s attention remains understandably concentrated on the Coronavirus pandemic, it is important to remember that other threats have not gone away.

Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), has started to tell its adherents to take advantage of the chaos in the West caused by the coronavirus pandemic to launch attacks. Beyond this, a series of worrying trends point to an international terrorist movement developing greater coherence and strength in preparation for another bout of violence. Largely unnoticed amongst the flood of information and disinformation about the global pandemic, a series of actions illustrates the persistent and chronic nature of the threat of international terrorism that the world still faces.

Daesh’s recommendation for its followers to take advantage of this moment to launch attacks was a shift in its narrative around the coronavirus pandemic. Previously, it had largely been passing instructions to its followers not dissimilar to what the WHO and governments were suggesting: to be careful in certain countries and practice good hygiene. It had also enjoyed the fact that China and Iran had been so badly hit, considering it ‘divine retribution’ for China’s treatment of Uighurs and for Iran’s Shia ‘apostasy’. This message was echoed by other groups, most prominently the Uighurs fighting in Syria, who appeared eager to celebrate China’s ‘punishment’. But until recently there had been little comment around the option of launching attacks under the cover of the coronavirus crisis.

In fact, international jihadist terrorism has been a receding concern for Western governments for some time. The absence of large-scale successful attacks directed by Daesh or Al-Qa’ida has removed the threat from the top of world leaders’ in-trays. And this was reinforced by two additional trends: the growing capability of security services to disrupt and counter organised terrorist plots, and an increased focus by terrorist groups towards their local environments rather than the preparation of international plots. The danger is that whenever we have witnessed similar trends in the past, they provided a lull which concluded with new and more creative threats coming back to strike us.

A growing coherence amongst terrorist organisations

There is evidence of growing coherence amongst the global jihadist movement. Rather than disintegrating, they appear to be developing and strengthening their connections. This has been most visible in Africa, where reporting from the Sahel suggests that Al-Qa’ida- and Daesh-aligned groups on the ground are working together. This cooperation is not entirely surprising. Ultimately, the two groups offer an ideology that is very similar and it is not uncommon to see adherents initially drawn into their orbits through a mix of ideological material from both. Yet, at a strategic level, the two have been in competition for some time, something that appears now to have been overcome within the Sahel, where a growing violent insurgency is displacing and killing thousands.

A similar, though maybe less surprising, level of coherence is visible within Al-Qa’ida’s various African factions. Lately, the group’s East African affiliate, Al-Shabaab, its West African representative, Jama’at Nasr Al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), and its Yemeni affiliate Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have all been releasing messages praising each other, marking the death of AQAP’s leader Qasim Al-Raymi, the death of a senior Tunisian jihadist, and generally demonstrating a high level of interaction. This has been seen and praised by Al-Qa’ida’s senior leadership, which has issued messages congratulating them on their operations.

Al-Shabaab has emphasised its fealty by emphasising that its attacks are being conducted in accordance with senior Al-Qa’ida figures orders, demonstrating a desire to connect with Al-Qa’ida’s global ambitions rather than simply be Africa-focused. Al-Shabaab has also been demonstrating a growing capability and ambition – attacking Western forces on their bases in East Africacontinuing to aim at targets in Kenya and even reportedly looking at international aviation as a potential target once again. JNIM has not quite achieved the same level of success, but a more worrying potential development for Al-Qa’ida was the recent agreement signed between the Taliban and the US government, in which the Taliban appeared to specifically agree to ensure the group could not use Afghanistan as a base of operations once again. While on the one hand, this statement might be moot (there have long been suspicions about Al-Qa’ida hiding in Iran or Pakistan), it is also yet to be proven how assiduous the Taliban will be in going after them. Assessing that this was something that they could game in their favour, Al-Qa’ida was quick to put out a statement praising the agreement and painting it – much like the Taliban’s leadership have – as a victory for the Afghan organisation, showing once again its ability to defeat empires.

Al-Qa’ida’s calculation is likely based on the fact that the Afghan government and the Taliban already appear to be facing difficulty coming to the table for the next stage of the process to conclude Afghanistan’s decades-long conflict. This fact, and the Taliban’s persistent willingness to let Al-Qa’ida elements operate in their territory, suggest that it is unlikely that any resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan is on the immediate horizon, or that Al-Qa’ida will find itself under greater pressure as a result of the agreement.

Iran tensions not helping

All of these moves are taking place against a backdrop of escalating US–Iran tensions. The brief intake of breath that took place in the wake of the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani has been filled by more strikes and deaths of Western forces in Iraq caused by Iranian-backed militias. The coronavirus pandemic may be the major focus in Tehran at the moment, but the Iranians have not forgotten the US and seem to now have moved beyond their self-imposed cease-fire in the wake of the mistaken downing of the Ukraine Airlines plane over Tehran on 8 January.

This is relevant to the context of Al-Qa’ida and Daesh for two reasons. First, Iran has regularly shown itself to be an agile manipulator of jihadist elements, able to pragmatically engage with them when it suited Tehran’s objectives. And at the moment, these groups will prove both a useful and deniable tool in Iran’s growing showdown with the US. Second, Iran’s interest in crushing Daesh in Syria and Iraq is likely receding so, as long as the group does not focus on Iran, Tehran is likely to look the other way.

Given Daesh’s growing profile in Africa in particular, the organisation still has some power of attraction, notwithstanding the loss of its ‘caliphate’. This continues to make the organisation dangerous, and any successful effort to rebuild its territorial structures in the Levant will give it a major boost internationally.

The danger is that these shifts will produce a dramatic terrorist attack which will shock the West out of its current collective coronavirus focus. Daesh’s suggestion to its adherents represents a first indication that the terrorist organisation sees the West as distracted, and may seize the opportunity to launch a dramatic attack. The broader trends that have been visible with Al-Qa’ida date back to before the current crisis, but show a threat picture which is developing in directions that warrant close attention.

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Tomasz “odder” Kozlowski/commons.wikimedia.org

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.