Posts Tagged ‘AQ’

And finally in this catch up blast, a longer piece in the form of an interview with the former head of the UK’s JTAC Suzanne Raine for the excellent CTC Sentinel. Not the first of this form, and more longer pieces for CTC Sentinel to come soon. Thanks to Paul and his superb team for their support and work on these interviews.

Beyond this writing, spoke to the Telegraph about Hamza bin Laden’s death (which was picked up in the Canadian press), to the Daily Mail about British Airways suspension of flights from Cairo, an older interview with the Mail on Sunday was re-used to talk about the ISIS threat to the west, to the National about a network of heavily armed right wingers in Italy, while my recent Telegraph piece about Kashmir was picked up by Pakistani outlets. On the other side of the coin, spoke to the Economist about China in Central Asia which ran in a much bigger piece about China-Russia relations more broadly.

A View from the CT Foxhole: Suzanne Raine, Former Head of the United Kingdom’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre

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August 2019, Volume 12, Issue 7

Authors: Raffaello Pantucci

Suzanne Raine worked for the U.K. Foreign & Commonwealth Office from 1995 until 2019, specializing in counterterrorism. Between January 2015 and September 2017, she was head of the United Kingdom’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre.

CTC: What role does JTAC play in U.K. counterterrorism efforts?

Raine: JTAC stands for the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre. It was established in response to the 2002 Bali bombings, with the aim of having one central place within the U.K.’s system where terrorism threat assessments are made. It is staffed by analysts from about 16 different government departments who are brought together in a single place. These individuals are linked back into their own systems, reading all of the information available from all of their respective departments and feeding it into their assessments. This makes [for] a system which is greater than the sum of its parts and provides a way of pushing information in both directions. This helps support the threat assessment both in immediate tactical terms in the U.K. and abroad, but also the strategic development of the threat picture and trends within it. Its closest equivalent in the American system is NCTC [National Counterterrorism Center]. JTAC is also responsible for operating the U.K.’s national threat level system. It makes independent judgments free of any political influence, which informs the response posture either in advance of or after a terrorist attack.

CTC: What is your current evaluation of the threat from the Islamic State, especially in the wake of the Easter 2019 attacks in Sri Lanka? Did those particular attacks change your general assessment of the group’s trajectory?

Raine: It is a good time to ask that question because it is now five years since the declaration of the caliphate, and that should give us a moment to pause. It is quite a startling fact that the territorial caliphate survived that long. Not many things last five years. At the end of it all, just at the point where we were declaring territorial defeat, up pops Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a video to say, ‘I’m still here, guys.’1 It is an uncomfortable reminder that there still is a strategic mind at the heart of the group. It is not just a group engaged in a war in the desert, but it is an organization with leadership, structure, and organizational goals, however disrupted they have been.

Territory is nice for a terrorist group to have but is not a prerequisite. The establishment of the caliphate enabled them to become a massive global phenomenon, but territory brings with itself its own problems. It requires governance, policing, and defense, all of which requires lots of resource. The challenge for ISIS will be how they manage the transition away from (a) guerrilla state without disintegrating. Al-Baghdadi turning up five years later is their way of starting to think that through.

In terms of the threat from ISIS, the U.K. had a horrible year in 2017, and 2018 was much better. But this is sometimes an illusion. The question if we look at this five-year period and analyze it properly is, what does that show? To do this, we need to go back to the first three years of the group’s caliphate, which were a significant challenge for those of us whose job it was to counter it because it was growing so quickly; they had the impetus and the initiative. It is not true to say that the scale of the problem in 2015-17 took us by surprise, because we had watched it develop in 2013-14, but it is true to say that the way it changed, mobilized young people, generated spontaneity and common cause were exceptionally challenging to deal with. That put real demands on the instruments that we had at our disposal. A lot of things subsequently happened in response, but it took time and finally the coalition efforts in Syria and Iraq have pushed them back and kept them firmly on the back foot over the last couple of years. But it has been at significant cost to the coalition, and there is a huge debt of gratitude to the Syrian Kurds without whom it would not have been possible to push ISIS from their territory in Syria. Now ISIS is on the back foot; their media machine has been significantly disrupted; they’ve lost a lot of operational planners and have been substantially degraded.

In addition to this, we started to get on top of their networks in the West, leading to a lot of disruptions. This makes it much more difficult for them to conduct the kind of attacks they were conducting earlier on.

But there is a long legacy that the group has left behind. It can be categorized in two ways: their media and their network of foreign fighters. They have had more than five years as a group of living and fighting together, and we are talking about an unprecedented number of nationals from an unprecedented number of countries, including both men and women. The women are equally significant in this regard because I reject any suggestion that the women are less responsible for their decisions and actions than the men are. Foreign fighters are going to continue to pose a huge problem for the international security community because we are going to have to track them as well as find ways to monitor the effect that the inspirational ideas have on our domestic populations.

However weakened ISIS may now be, they are still a truly global movement, and we are globally vulnerable. Paradoxically, nothing should surprise us about what happens next, but we need to be prepared to be surprised. Sri Lanka is a good example of that, because whatever their exact connections, they were clearly inspired and connected to ISIS’ ideology at the very least. What Sri Lanka also showed was the difference between a lone-actor and a multiple-actor attack. There is no straightforward equation that says a lone actor will cause lower casualties and do less physical damage, but you can see from Sri Lanka that an attack with multiple actors who conduct their attack simultaneously is very effective. This is something that we see with alarming regularity in places like Afghanistan. We are going to continue to face both the lone-actor inspired attacks, as well as multiple-actor. The threat picture continues to contain almost every sort of threat within it.

CTC: Given the Islamic State is a globalized threat as you describe, are there any places that are of greater or lesser concern? Where might the next Sri Lanka come from?

Raine: There are multiple different factors at play. One is how many of the foreign fighters are left and whether they get home. And we still don’t really know the answer to how many we are talking about in total when it comes to those who left or survived, nor where they are. Local conditions are going to be a determining factor in how they settle. North Africa is clearly of concern, not least because of the numbers of foreign fighters from North Africa, but also as historically the region has tended to produce amongst the most committed and battle-hardened fighters. The environment is one into which they are able to return—either to continue the fight they started in Syria and Iraq, fit into existing groups, or start up something new. This is very concerning. I also continue to worry about Afghanistan, where returning fighters are an additional dimension to the political quagmire. It is possible that a deal done with the Taliban becomes not actually very useful anymore because, in fact, the problem is a whole new generation of people who have been radicalized by a different kind of extremist group. This might lead to new fighting and new groups. It is not a given that this is what is going to happen, but it has to be a concern. And then clearly there are a large number of fighters from Southeast Asia who are going to return somewhere and pose a threat. And finally, I worry about Syria and Iraq because once they cease to pose an international threat, the interest and resource will shift elsewhere while the internal problems remain as complex as they were before the war.

CTC: Part of the threat spectrum facing Western countries has been instigated or inspired attacks. The Islamic State’s use of this methodology was not new. Al-Qa`ida used to use it. But how was the Islamic State able to weaponize it so effectively?

Raine: As you point out, it is not new. AQAP [al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula] ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki was brilliant at it. He was an incredibly powerful voice in the British community and beyond because of his ability to speak in English about modern things. ISIS has upgraded this approach for the modern generation. They’ve been exceptionally innovative at exploiting the explosion of new ways of using social media that we use in society today. They had an army of young, dextrous, tech-savvy people who spoke multiple languages and who knew how to speak to people in their home countries. This was a major advantage they had over Anwar al-Awlaki since he only had a very small group of people supporting him. They were able to communicate directly, sitting together building a critical mass in the media center where they would learn from each other and experiment. A fascinating aspect was that they were communicating with us all the time as well. We were not always attentive to what was being said. I was often struck by the amount of humor and mischief they would use in their messaging. One well known example which resonated with a British audience was the Islamic State Health Service, for example, when the group took the National Health Service (NHS) logo and turned it into their own. It was creative and appealed to people.

The genius of what they did with the inspired attack was to elevate it into a sort of art form, so that anyone who did anything anywhere in the world that fitted their paradigm could be claimed by them. This created an idea of a mass movement without them actually needing to have one. And once you have this fictive mass movement, it gives greater appeal to the group. You create the impression of an organization that is bigger than it is. For those potential recruits sitting at home living their ‘boring’ lives, seeking ‘meaning,’ wanting to be part of something bigger and better, this provides them with a substantial organization to join.

At its height, ISIS had a media machine that was able to publish in 10 languages simultaneously. It has been significantly damaged through a concerted effort in both military and disruptive online terms by multiple actors. But it still exists, and one of the problems we have is that whenever an attack is conducted and a claim is issued, it is rebroadcast all over conventional media. All the group needs to do is get the claim out to create a sense of responsibility around the act without having to have done much work themselves. Sri Lanka was notable in this regard.

The other difference with al-Qa`ida was that ISIS was not afraid to use their media machine and to broadcast rapidly. During the first three years of the caliphate, they took particular advantage of this, as their media broadcasters were in far less danger than al-Qa`ida’s. Al-Qa`ida’s messengers learned that if you stand there with a telephone, somebody is going to bomb you. Anwar al-Awlaki had to go to enormous lengths to get Inspire magazine out there because he had to hide his identity and hide his location. The chaos in Syria meant that ISIS broadcasters were able to hide much more easily. For as long as they were not afraid, they could do it with real confidence, and they were able to maintain a strong voice in the public domain. This helped them create an identity online which they still take advantage of today. It is obviously not the same now, but it was an element of their game plan which took us a little bit of time to adapt and respond to.

CTC: Do you think the group’s brand was degraded because of spurious attack claims? For example, they claimed Stephen Paddock’s October 2017 Las Vegas massacre, an attack that clearly had no link to the group. How long can you claim such random things without people losing belief in you?

Raine: It is certainly true that in the early years, they did not make false claims. They put effort into making sure and verifying that attacks were conducted by their adherents. And then they became a bit sloppier. The only explanation I can offer is that while we may have noticed that their claims are no longer very accurate, the people who support them did not notice. All their claim does, however spurious, is create a hook into the public conversation. An ISIS claim reminds people about the organization’s presence and existence, even if they didn’t actually do it. And by the time everyone has proved that the claim was indeed spurious and the incident had nothing to do with them, everyone has forgotten and moved on to the next thing. The group, however, still gets some brief resonance in the public space.

CTC: There are some indications of a possible al-Qa`ida resurgence.a How is that materializing in terms of threats to the West? Where is the actual threat that we see from al-Qa`ida? And to tie into a bigger question, how do we ever know when a terrorist campaign is over?

Raine: This is a problem. One of the biggest difficulties we have with al-Qa`ida is latency—the ability of the group to exist without necessarily being constantly active and visible. We know al-Qa`ida is a thoughtful organization that has demonstrated strategic patience. The leadership has been absolutely consistent about its objectives for a very long time. And although they have been significantly degraded over the last nearly 20 years by a very persistent campaign against them, some of the key leaders are still around and hidden in very difficult to get to places like Yemen, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North Africa. We cannot be sure that we know what they are doing or even what their new generation looks like. We are aware of the group’s continued ability to exist, its committed leadership, but we are not clear on what the new generations are like or what they think.

Their experience in Syria has been a real roller coaster ride. On the one hand, it has given them a new purpose at various stages of the conflict and, of course, a lot of new recruits, including a lot of Britons who were always al-Qa`ida supporters, as well as other nationalities, like Chechens. And just as the ISIS foreign fighters have been with the group for around five years now, the al-Qa`ida ones have as well. On the other hand, al-Qa`ida is now completely bogged down with factional in-fighting about who is governing Idlib. This is just indicative of the difficulties of being in Syria. It has given al-Qa`ida a platform, and it has given them a massive headache. And we have insights into what is going on with the group with infighting and governance challenges, but we just don’t understand the whole picture.

This highlights the really big challenge for those working in counterterrorism, which is that we know they are there, we know their intent has not changed, we know they have got capability, and the underlying conditions in many parts of the world where they operate are no different now to how they were pre-9/11. In fact, in some parts of the world, they are worse. We know that we cannot get the kind of information that we would want around the group, so how do we interpret the lack of information? How will we know when the absence of information means that an attack is not being planned, or whether it is just that we are not good enough at collecting information on attack plans? And for me, this is the difficulty that we have got ourselves into with the War on Terror because the phrase implies at some point there is going to be a winner and a loser, closure and an end, a treaty. And I just do not see and cannot imagine the point where we are going to be confident enough to say: ‘they are still there, but we are confident that they do not mean us any harm.’

CTC: Is al-Qa`ida or the Islamic State the greater long-term threat to the United Kingdom?

Raine: Rather than one group or another being the long-term threat, the danger comes from the likelihood that they persist and expand—by which I mean, how receptive their target audience is in the long term to the alternative form of governance or ideology that they offer, which is based on a higher belief system and justification for action that is very different to that which secular Western governments offer. Rather than our political system, built on gradual change and reform, they offer a violent and rapid answer, which will consistently be a challenge for us because it is an alternative that will appeal to some people.

We also need to recognize how long some of the participants on their side, be it AQ or ISIL or whomever, have been involved in this fight already. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is my age, as is Abdulmalek Droukdel. Ayman al-Zawahiri and Saif al-`Adl are even older. Qasim al-Raymi is relatively young at the age of 41. And if we think about it at a rational human level, very few of us have fundamentally changed our core beliefs in decades, so why should we expect individuals involved in ideologically motivated groups to? And their children and grandchildren are being brought up with this mentality and ideology around them.

I absolutely agree with the need to prevent, de-radicalize, and counter the narrative that these groups espouse in whatever way we can. But I also feel very strongly that this is a very difficult thing to do, and I still can’t think of any significant examples where de-radicalization has been successful in serious numbers. Because we are trying to tell people to believe something other than that which they believe. And that’s really hard.

In terms of al-Qa`ida or ISIS posing the longer-term threat, it is not so much the groups but the conditions in the world at the moment which pose the threat. Syria, in particular, has created an environment where a whole new generation of threat can emerge. And that will ultimately express itself differently in different places. It may be for the moment that the individuals linked to ISIS or al-Qa`ida stay aligned to the local groups that already exist in the various contexts that they are operating in. It may be that returnees or off-shoots of these groups end up being subsumed into more local conflicts on the ground. Or it may be that they end up becoming part of groups which play a role in proxy conflicts in different parts of the world—for example, the Kashmiri groups that we have long seen active in South Asia, but there are plenty of others. We are likely entering a phase of everything been thrown up into the air. It will eventually settle down again, and we will have to adjust to whatever form that takes.

There are clearly going to be tactical problems dotted around. Somalia is an example of a tactical problem which is a long-term headache because of al-Shabaab, but also because there are ISIS supporters there. North Africa is really interesting because there is a lot of fluidity between groups across the entire region. While I am not a North African specialist, what is striking is the commitment to the ideology in that particular context, and then the pragmatic decision-making about how to act, which is hugely effective. I think we will see tactical, pragmatic, local reshaping, and then we have to bear in mind something that was noted in Ed Fitton-Brown’s recent interview with this publication,2 which is that it does not take very many people to come up with the big plot. The question for us is where they will be located when they decide that they want to launch an attack and where it will ultimately be that they find the time and space to plan something on that scale, rather than simply become subsumed into a local conflict.

CTC: You touched briefly on state-sponsored threats. Do you think they are going to become more significant than al-Qa`ida or Islamic State threats? Or will they merge? How will that relationship develop, and what is your assessment of what will become a greater threat going forward?

Raine: The two types of threat have co-existed for a long time. For example, LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba], the Kashmiri group behind the Mumbai attack, grew out of the jihad in Afghanistan and was linked initially more with Abdullah Azzam and UBL [Usama bin Ladin] before it became more focused on state-supported jihad in Kashmir. The dangerous bit is the overlap between the local and the global. For the U.K., the fusion that was seen in Kashmir was a particular problem, as the struggle in Kashmir provided a strong, local call to action that resonated deeply with Kashmiri diaspora communities in the U.K. At the same time, on the ground in South Asia, these groups were close to al-Qa`ida and ultimately became the connection that produced a series of terrorist plots in the U.K. It is entirely possible that the development of this sort of link could be a product of what emerges from what we have been observing in Syria.

The danger of these sorts of threats, and the many flashpoints in which they exist, is that if they become much more active conflicts, they can become places that draw more people in. The Kashmiri one is the obvious flashpoint that could really draw people in if the violence and conflict were to escalate. The Middle East is another source of potential danger in this regard and has numerous proxy groups and conflicts. In a way, the Syria war is a massive proxy group war, and the war in Yemen is another proxy group war. At the same time, the conflicts become a draw for outsiders and create an environment in which terrorist groups can fight, learn, and plot. States use terrorist groups for their own ends, but don’t forget that terrorist groups also use states for their own ends.

CTC: In a recent issue of this publication, Edmund Fitton-Brown, the Coordinator of the ISIL (Daesh)/Al-Qaida/Taliban Monitoring Team at the United Nations, highlighted the large numbers of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) that are still around.b Young and old, they all pose a potential risk. How do you manage a generational struggle of this scale?

Raine: This is a time bomb problem. To start with, none of us really know the exact figures of people who have gone out there and might still be there. It is difficult to know, as I mentioned earlier, the degree to which the threat they pose is something that is blended into a local threat picture or something new and different. What we do know is that there is nothing to suggest that many of them have changed their minds, and there is nothing to suggest that if we do nothing, they will change their mindset. So, we have got to do something. The big challenge for the global counterterrorism community is how do we create a globally coordinated response when we have all got our own domestic considerations and our own legal systems. In Western-allied countries, we have ended up managing this problem largely through defense and security, with the closest possible collaboration we can have. This means sharing data, which enables us to identify potential terrorists who can be disrupted before they do anything, and doing this according to our liberal values, which limits the amount of intrusion into people’s privacy or the length of time that people can be locked up.

There are other countries with different values that are applying different solutions to the problem of both foreign terrorist fighters and the broader problem of radicalization at home. The Chinese are locking up, if we believe the reports, around a million Uighurs.3 The Russians have taken some quite punitive measures in the Caucasus. Then there is a serious question about places which just remain completely lawless—though if we are honest, there is no such thing as an ungoverned space; rather it is governed by someone we do not like. Libya is an example of a place where Western governments have to cooperate with a confusing group of actors on the ground to ensure that the ungoverned spaces are not exploited by Islamist extremists. Then there are countries which are themselves making a complicated series of calculations about how to deal with terrorist problems which have deep local roots, as well as external links. Pakistan and Turkey would fall into that category. The West needs them to be a partner to deal with threats that we are worried about, but they are also trying to manage their own local dynamics. And then finally, there are the countries which cannot cope with these threats, need international support, and need to be part of a global counterterror coalition but are not. We are far from having a unified international response.

The problem is further complicated by the inevitability that the different sets of responses going on around the world will create different sets of unintended consequences. For example, it is not clear what effect repression of the Uighurs will have in terms of the globalist narrative that extremist groups use. It may well be that China’s response suppresses the problem to the extent that they are unable to respond, but it may well be that they then fight back in different ways. Or it may be that other groups will take up their banner. This highlights how there is a particular context in which we have to work together, but at the same time, this is rendered almost impossible nowadays because of the geopolitical environment in which we are operating.

A second question for us as liberal democracies is how we do this while also staying true to our values. So, for example, we struggle to convict those we suspect of terrorism-related crimes at home because we cannot collect evidence to the standards we would require in a war zone. At the same time, we expect other countries to manage them without the evidence. We end up asking more of other countries than we ask of ourselves. Additionally, we are rightly prohibited from sharing information with countries where there is too great a misalignment of our legal systems—which could be construed as lack of due process—or where there is a possibility that mistreatment will occur. We cannot cooperate with another state if the outcome might be an act which we would consider unlawful. How do we forge safe partnerships with countries whose approach to human rights is very different from our own without creating legal jeopardy for ourselves? We have not had the kind of conversation we need to about that.

The other big issue these longer-term threats throw up is predictability, something particularly illustrated by the Easter attack in Sri Lanka. People want to know what is safe and what is not. Sri Lanka demonstrated that it is impossible to have certainty. And this is a perennial problem. For example, it is very difficult to say that the conditions which allowed the October 2002 Bali bombings to happen in Indonesia have completely gone away or not been exacerbated by current conflicts in the region or elsewhere. But we cannot tell everybody not to go to Indonesia on holiday just because something bad might happen. This means that the strain of mitigating these risks is taken by protective security measures, and this requires increasing resources to manage these issues in a broad range of places, like North Africa, Turkey, or Southeast Asia to ensure that people are safe when they go there. But the result is that changes the way we live.

CTC: Looking into the future, what terrorist ideologies are of greatest concern to you?

Raine: Islamist terrorism is not going to go away. It might change and become more local, fueled by proxy wars, but the underlying causes that drive these groups and ideologies have not changed and indeed go back a long way.

In addition to this, over the last few years, we have seen—certainly across the English-speaking and Western world—an increase in seriousness and coherence of extreme right-wing groups. It used to look like the extreme right was made up of political movements, and when they conducted violent acts, it was often a lone actor. What we are seeing now is groups of likeminded individuals coming together and talking in a type of language and approach that is used by violent Islamists, using words such as “embracing martyrdom.” In part, this is a response to the broader political context. The far-right parties and movements now have an increasingly coherent narrative, and stronger links to a shared philosophy. Books which espouse this extreme right-wing philosophy are readily available on Amazon, where they have multiple five-star reviews, very few negative reviews, and through algorithms lead the reader to other similarly extreme material. We have not yet worked out, as we did previously with violent Islamist material, what is and is not acceptable on the extreme right-wing side of the ideological equation. The New Zealand attack demonstrated this very clearly when he titled his manifesto “The Great Replacement,” drawing on a French right-wing philosophical tract of the same name.

But in many ways, my biggest concern with the future of terrorism is what we do in response to it. I am concerned that there is an expectation that this can be stopped, but we’re a long way from working out what the tools are that will enable us to deliver that outcome. Instead, we go through very predictable cycles of intervention and non-intervention overseas, with unclear results. We are committed to liberal values, but then how do we deal with people who we can’t lock up and whose minds we can’t change? In many ways, the challenge of getting our response right is as big as the problem itself.

CTC: Are there terrorist tactics that you’ve seen develop over your time in government and since that seem to be growing into more worrying problems?

Raine: There have been big changes in the threat picture. The inspired threat is a change that has already happened and is still happening. Then there are things which have not changed—for example, the determination to conduct a spectacular attack against aviation, something that is just a huge challenge for governments and the aviation industry. You don’t want to put people off flying by being overly protective. But global coordination of effective aviation security has been very slow. The recent conviction in relation to the 2017 Sydney passenger jet plot is a good example of the persistent nature of this threat.4

The two new things that everybody talks about are drones and chemical/biological weapons. The likelihood of their use has increased as a result of the war in Syria and as technology develops, because in Syria a significant amount of people have been able to experiment with both types of weapons on the battlefield. We saw in the United Kingdom what disruption drones could do to airports earlier in the year. But at the same time, while we can sometimes get carried away with our creativity about what terrorists might do, they still seem to revert to type. While the panic and disruption caused by the drones at Gatwick airport were hugely damaging,5 terrorists seem to continue to prefer incidents that cause horrible deaths and injuries. Notwithstanding the availability of new technology, they still continue to like to focus on trying to blow things up.     CTC

Substantive Notes
[a] Editor’s note: See, for example, Tim Shipman, “Al-Qaeda terror group returns to target airliners and airports,” Sunday Times (U.K.), December 23, 2018, and Jami Forbes, “Does al-Qa`ida’s Increasing Media Outreach Signal Revitalization?” CTC Sentinel 12:1 (2019).

[b] Editor’s note: According to Fitton-Brown, out of the over 40,000 foreign terrorist fighters who joined the so-called caliphate, “We could have anything up to nearly 30,000 who remain alive, but nobody knows the true figure.” See Paul Cruickshank, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Edmund Fitton-Brown, Coordinator, ISIL (Daesh)/Al-Qaida/Taliban Monitoring Team, United Nations,” CTC Sentinel 12:4 (2019).

Citations
[1] “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: IS leader appears in first video in five years,” BBC, April 30, 2019.

[2] See Paul Cruickshank, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Edmund Fitton-Brown, Coordinator, ISIL (Daesh)/Al-Qaida/Taliban Monitoring Team, United Nations,” CTC Sentinel 12:4 (2019).

[3] Stephanie Nebehay, “U.N. says it has credible reports that China holds million Uighurs in secret camps,” Reuters, August 10, 2018.

[4] “Australian guilty of plane bomb plot involving meat grinder,” BBC, May 1, 2019.

[5] Hallie Detrick, “Gatwick’s December Drone Closure Cost Airlines $64.5 million,” Fortune, January 22, 2019.

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More belated posting, this time another book review for Literary Review. It looks at Joan Smith’s thought-provoking Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists. Very pleased to be contributing regularly to this publication and look forward to doing more of it.

Murderers in the Making

Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists

By Joan Smith

Issue-478-Aug-2019-200x266

While the process by which a person becomes part of a terrorist group is different in every case, there are patterns and similarities in the ways people are radicalised. Identifying them is a big part of what our security services do nowadays, looking at individual behaviour to try to understand who may end up taking a path towards violence. Joan Smith’s new book, Home Grown, seeks to identify one set of indicators, focusing on misogyny and domestic violence. It is not based on data-driven research. Rather, it relies on anecdotal evidence, drawing on a somewhat random set of case studies from Western societies in recent years. But that does not stop it from being a very stimulating meditation on a topic on which gallons of ink have already been spilled. 

Understanding the ‘close link between private and public violence’, Smith suggests, can provide a ‘new way’ of identifying potential terrorists. Her main point is that if you dig into the backgrounds of those who commit terrorist acts, you will find life stories littered with abuse at home – angry men beating their wives and children – and a litany of misogynistic behaviours. She cites as an example the case of the Kouachi brothers, responsible for the January 2015 massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. Their sister Aicha told the police after the massacre, ‘My father used to beat us, my mother neglected us.’ Both men were openly misogynistic too. While on trial a few years earlier for suspected terrorism-related offences, one of them refused to stand up in court because the judge was a woman. Smith also cites the case of Darren Osborne, who drove a truck into congregants outside the Finsbury Park mosque in 2017. Osborne was a repeated abuser of women and at the time of the attack was effectively homeless, having been thrown out of his house by his long-suffering partner. 

There is now an awareness in the security establishment of the importance of studying the inner lives of the people who become involved in terrorism. In the past few years there has been a growth in the number of psychologists and social scientists working on countering terrorism. MI5 has had a dedicated behavioural sciences unit for some time. The part played by broken homes and abusive fathers in radicalisation has certainly been noticed by the security services. What is more interesting and thought-provoking is the question of where misogyny and violence against women fit into the picture. This is the question that most animates Smith, who is a longtime campaigner for women’s rights and co-chair of the mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board. For her, the underlying problem of misogyny in societies contributes to an environment in which terrorism can germinate. She refers to Salman Abedi, the perpetrator of the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing, who belonged to a social group in which misogyny was commonplace. After the attack, one of his contemporaries at college told the authorities that ‘he would hang around with other lads who would smoke weed and harass girls. They’d say really inappropriate things, he just had no respect for women.’ In 2012 he assaulted a young woman at his college.

There is surely some truth to Smith’s claim of a connection between misogyny and terrorism – societies in which the victimisation and abuse of one half of the population is a daily occurrence are likely to create a range of problems for themselves. Violent Islamism and right-wing extremism, the two terrorist ideologies that most bother us today, are both fundamentally male-supremacist, and Smith reminds us that forced marriages, rape and sex slavery are widespread within ISIS. But the matter is complicated by the fact that some women are drawn towards such organisations. For them, joining an extremist group that advocates the subordination of women can, paradoxically, foster a feeling of agency over the future.

Even more complicated is the question of whether the phenomena Smith describes have long been present and under-observed or are new developments. Here Home Grown is frustrating, as the case studies Smith offers are all relatively recent – she draws particularly heavily on the explosion of violence in the West that began with ISIS’s proclamation of a caliphate in 2014. The other frustration with this book is that it is hard to know what practical conclusions to draw from it, aside from the need to pay more attention to people who come from abusive homes. The recommendations Smith offers at the end of the book are for the most part about improving the reporting of abuse of women in general. Only two out of twelve of them relate specifically to terrorism or radicalisation. And this in some ways captures the essence of Smith’s book. While it uses the topic of terrorism as a way of approaching these subjects, it is in fact more about misogyny and domestic abuse in society as a whole.

Have a few posts to catch up on getting up, been travelling a bit which slows me down. First up, re-posting a piece from last week for my institutional home RUSI about Hamza bin Laden’s reported death, placing it in the wider context of what it means when terrorist leaders are removed and how we struggle to judge terrorist group’s ends.

Hamza bin Laden Dead
Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary2 August 2019
Tackling ExtremismThe decade after 9/11International Security StudiesCounterinsurgencyTerrorismThe War on TerrorAl-Qa’idaTerrorism

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But decapitating a terrorist organisation is not proven to result in a lower threat from terrorism.

The reported death of Hamza bin Laden, the son of Al-Qa’ida founder Osama bin Laden, isunlikely to do much to the terrorist threat picture. Still, his removal illustrates the challenging question governments face when they try to understand whether a terrorist campaign has finally come to an end or a terrorist group has been liquidated. Just as security forces seem incapable of entirely accurately predicting or preventing a terrorist group’s rise, they seem unable to derive its demise.

‘Decapitation’ as a strategy for eliminating terrorist groups has never really been proven as an effective method. The most common example in favour of decapitation that is often quoted is the removal of Abimael Guzman, the leader of the Shining Path in Peru; after his incarceration, the group seemed to wither. However, in most cases the removal of one leader merely contributes to group fracturing and the rise of more radical leaders in their stead. So, rather than confronting a reduced problem, one can end up with an enlarged and angrier one. The repeated strikes against the Taliban’s leadership, for example, have done little to weaken or de-radicalise the group.

And even when one believes that a terrorist group is being substantially degraded by airstrikes, it is not always clear that the strikes have that effect, or that one can effectively judge what is happening. The Shining Path, for example, may have been deemed decapitated with the loss of its leader, but some of its networks persisted as criminal groups, and only last month Peruvian security forces proudly proclaimed the capture of another senior figure. In such situations it is difficult to judge the degree to which an enduring terrorist group remains a threat.

The conundrum is the result of a number of challenges. There is the reality that people who are part of an ideologically motivated group tend not to forget or discard their ideas, and over time may in fact become more committed to them. Does one think that Ayman Al-Zawahiri or Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi will ever forget their extremist ideas? As time passes and the cause they believe in continues to fail to deliver on its promise, believers of this sort may only get more desperate. Or they may believe that the path they are on is a long one and the hardship is to be expected. It appears that in some cases, people move on from these ideas for a variety of reasons mostly to do with their own person experiences. But in the case of senior or core figures in a movement, once they are on the path of violence, they are unlikely to step off.

Additionally, the ideas that motivate terrorist groups tend to be perennial ones embedded in fundamental problems or injustices within societies. And that means that the ideas advanced by such groups and their leaders will always retain some pulling power.

This presents security forces with a complicated dilemma. They may be able to box a leader and their core cadre in, but unable to remove them entirely. And even if they do, someone else may rise up to fill that space. At what point can they judge that they are being effective in containing a group to the point that they can take the pressure off? Reach that conclusion too early, and one risks being exposed to new terrorist attacks; do it too late and one misses an opportunity at resolution and squanders scarce security resources.

Hamza bin Laden’s coronation as a potential Al-Qa’ida boss and now his likely death is merely a reminder of just how meteoric and unpredictable the lives of such terrorists are. It also illustrates the bigger problem in judging when terrorist problems are effectively eliminated. Just like Daesh did not go away with the loss of its caliphate, Al-Qa’ida will not disappear with the loss of its putative crown prince.

BANNER IMAGE: US Marines clear an abandoned building during Operation Defeat Al-Qa’ida in northern Al Anbar province, Iraq, 11 June 2008. Courtesy of Cpl. Tyler Hill/US Marine Corps

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at RUSI.

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

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

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

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

By 

IMG_0111

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

How Lee Rigby’s murder changed the face of terror

Lee Rigby memory

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

by 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daesh: What Happens Next?

May 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raffaello Pantucci
Director, International Security Studies, RUSI.