Posts Tagged ‘counter-terrorism’

Catching on a piece from a little while ago for the Times Thunderer column, looking at the effectiveness and issues around deradicalisation programmes. Got a bit of a reaction online. The title is a bit more robust than the piece itself, as my point was more that in some cases a more intense engagement may be able to catch and steer people off the past they are on. Ultimately, people will only really de-radicalise if they make the choice to reject or move on from the ideas. But making them engage with programmes might help catch some more, and that in itself would never be a bad thing.

Been doing some bigger writing which will still take a while to land, but hopefully have some effect. As ever, do get in touch with feedback or thoughts. In the meantime, spoke to Neue Zürcher Zietung about UK jihadis, Middle East Eye about UK jihadi links to Libya, South China Morning Post about China’s problems with jihadis, and randomly to AFP about the Philippines. This aside, the China Steps Out book in which Matt and myself co-authored a chapter looking at China in Central Asia got a substantial write-up by the Council on Foreign Relations in the US. Thanks again to Josh and Eric for their work and patience editing the volume.

Thunderer

 the times

 

The trial of the Parsons Green bomber Ahmed Hassan raises a fundamental question about how we tackle extremism. The court heard that Hassan was identified as a risk before attempting to blow up a Tube train but was never compelled to attend deradicalisation courses run by Prevent, the government’s anti-extremism programme.

Trying to make people attracted by violent Islamist ideology turn their back on it is extremely hard. Success is often only possible if they are identified early enough, when they are still questioning these poisonous ideas, and encouraged to change their minds themselves.

This is why Channel, the anti-extremism programme run by local authorities and the police, has for so long relied on people to take part voluntarily. But the Hassan case shows that if nascent extremists refuse to take part, then the authorities must take tougher action.

The case for compulsion particularly applies to those aged under 18 who are often the most vulnerable and susceptible to radicalisation. Children have more malleable minds and stand to benefit more from a strategy that compels them to attend courses and interviews as part of Prevent. In many cases, they do not have any real understanding of the ideas to which they have been exposed and can be easily turned around. Others may appear wise and manipulative beyond their years but can still be helped to see sense by compulsory deradicalisation.

Another lesson from the case of Hassan, 18, who last week was jailed for life, is that the different strands of counter-extremism strategy need to talk to each other. It is extraordinary that, having failed to engage with the Channel element of Prevent, nobody followed up on why Hassan had effectively dropped off their radar. Neither was there adequate investigation into several occasions when he expressed worrying behaviour. Nor were his foster parents warned of the concerns about him. Each individual failing might be explained away but cumulatively, they let a bomber run loose. The only thing that saved commuters at Parsons Green was the fact he failed to build a successful device. Without greater compulsion from now on, we may not be so lucky next time.

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

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Another short piece for the Evening Standard this past week after the anniversary of the Westminster attack and also linking the general strategy of asymmetry done by terrorists to that being deployed by Russia.

A careful but firm response is the way to stop attackers

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It is a year to the day since the murderous terrorist rampage that killed four innocent bystanders and a brave police officer in Westminster. The news is now dominated by a different menace. The attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter (which caught another policeman in its wake) is different in origin but similar in intent. Both involve an attempt to undermine our society by striking at soft targets through violence. We need to be firm in our response, but not rise to the bait and do our enemies’ jobs for them.

Though it may not feel like it, our security services are strong: and those who try to attack us know it. They fear an overwhelming response were they to launch a full military attack and, in the case of terror, their efforts are defeated, though at a terrible human cost. They are weak. But they aim to exploit divisions in our society, and how we respond affects our success in defeating them.

Individual terrorist motives are hard to understand but the overarching point of attacks is to awaken us to conflicts that those involved believe are already happening. Adversaries are eager to try to pry apart our alliances and undermine faith in our security.

While it is impossible for us to stop people taking aim at us, we can make sure that we do not play into their hands by doing their jobs for them. Exaggerated rhetoric in response to risk is exactly what they want.

Both terrorism and Russia pose dangers. But these threats have to be managed, and not made worse, rather than eradicated. This is not an admission of defeat. We will have to sustain some relationship with Russia in the longer term, though Moscow is gearing towards continued confrontation. But there are others there who do want to engage with us and we need to find ways of strengthening our links with them.

Terrorism, unfortunately, is a constant within our societies, and one that will be made worse if we respond with rhetoric that talks up the divisions and strengthens the claims of extremist groups. They think they are fighting a religious clash of civilisations — if we respond in similar terms, we risk making the very case they are advancing.

A year on from the Westminster attack, it feels as though the terrorist threat has calmed down to some extent. After a terrible year, security agencies appear to have been successful and arrests and attacks has slowed.

It has become something of a cliché to talk about standing strong in the face of terrorism and praising British resolve. Yet this is the best response to attacks which, while hideously damaging to those caught in the crossfire, are not going to bring our societies crashing down — unless we do our adversaries’ jobs for them and inflame the very fissures they are trying to pull apart.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute.

It was a rather frantic end to last year, lots on which is going to hopefully land in the form of a few things over the next few months. This is going to be a year of larger writing to try to get some big projects that have been hanging over my head for some time out of the way. Or that’s the plan. Started the year over the holidays writing a few op-eds. First up, the first time into the Mail on Sunday with a brief comment piece to their front page story about the UK government’s new plan for how to protect small ports.

Small ports are vital in the war against terrorism

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By RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI, director, International Security Studies, Royal United Services Institute

The threat to Britain from terrorists has never been so high.

Criminal groups have long used smaller harbours as points of entry for illicit products, while radicalised individuals regularly seek to sneak in and out of the country via less-obvious points of entry.

We have ample evidence that shows terrorists and suspects have used ferry terminals such as Dover to sneak out of the UK, sometimes while they were under investigation.

In September, the man accused of the Parsons Green attack, Ahmed Hassan, was arrested in the departures area of the Port of Dover.

Criminals have also sought to use smaller entry points around the country’s ports.

As an island nation close to the world’s most densely populated continent, securing our shores creates a huge challenge for UK border forces.

The use of special volunteers, who may not have powers of arrest, is not the answer to policing the more sleepy ports, harbours and marinas of the country.

We need a well-funded and well-trained Border Force, which can protect Britain’s ports and its thousands of miles of coastline from this unprecedented threat from both terrorists and criminals.

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

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

Comic explainer: what is lone-actor terrorism?

Wes Mountain/The ConversationCC BY-ND

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

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

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


 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Rachid Kassim is quoted from an interview with Jihadology.

Junaid Hussain’s quote is from court documents.


 


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

Illustrations by Wes Mountain for The Conversation.

Further catching up on posting, this time a piece from this Thursday’s Telegraph looking at the juxtaposition with the fall of Raqqa and MI5 head Andrew Parker’s menacing round of interviews about the nature of the threat that is currently faced. Additionally, spoke to the Independent around the story, the Wall Street Journal about the lack of more attacks with foreign fighters in Europe, the Arab News about the threat from peripherals on terrorist networks, the Financial Times about London’s preparations to counter terrorism, to Sky News about the UK government’s issues with social media companies and terrorism, to the Independent again about the Las Vegas shooter, and on the other side of the coin, to the Financial Times about a visit by the PLAN to the UK as part of a global tour and UK-China military relations.

It’s not Isil’s returning terrorists we should worry about. It’s those who are already here

An anti-Isil commander celebrates in the main square of Raqqa, October 17, 2017 CREDIT: BULENT KILIC/AFP/GETTY

On the same day that Raqqa fell, the head of MI5 Andrew Parker gave a set of interviews in which he talks about facing the most severe threat that he has seen in his over three decades working in the intelligence agencies. This dissonant set of messages highlights the degree to which the terrorist threat that the UK is facing has transformed.

From a terrifying but comprehensible phenomenon directed by surreptitious foreign networks, we are now facing a confusing and diffuse one whose link to terrorist organisations is ever looser.

Isil’s loss of territory has not produced the surge in terrorist plots that was expected. Since the beginning of the year, the UK has faced five successful terrorist attacks – and yet, with the possible exception of the Manchester bombing, none have involved foreign fighters. Rather than the individuals who went off to fight in Syria and Iraq, the threat comes from individuals who are still at home.

In some ways this lack of a sudden surge is not surprising. The notion of an uptick in threat from foreign fighters after the collapse of the Caliphate was predicated on the notion that Isil was somehow holding themselves back – saving the potential strikes back home until they were at their weakest point. This clearly lacks much connection with reality, where we can see that the group has been consistently shouting, directing and instigating terrorist plots in the West for the past three years.

What has changed, however, is the nature of the threat back home, where we continue to see individuals being mobilized by extreme ideologies but finding it harder to travel. Instead, a community of frustrated travellers is developing around the world, at a moment when the ideology and methodology of what constitutes a terrorist attack has become diffuse to the point that it is indistinguishable from random acts of social violence.

This helps explain the picture that we are seeing at the moment. A threat abroad appears to be decreasing (through loss of territory, capability and manpower) just as a different sort of threat is expressing itself at home. But there is still an important question to be asked about what is going to happen to those individuals who went abroad to fight. Even according to Andrew Parker’s latest figures, at least a few hundred are still out on the loose somewhere.

What these individuals will do is going to be determined in large part by their reasons for going to Syria in the first place. For some, the motivation to go and fight was ideologically pure and focused abroad. They were going to fight motivated by a sense of injustice, a driving sense of religious duty or a desire to defend the Syrian people. For them, it is possible that the fight in Syria and Iraq is just the first stage in a long life of constant struggle. Among the first foreign fighters to the battlefield in Syria were fighters who had toppled Libyan leader Gaddafi.

For others, the motivation was more selfish – seeking to flee a chequered past back home and gain redemption on the battlefield. Still others were drawn by friends, family, a sense of adventure or some other reason which now leaves them stranded in a conflict zone. Some will possibly change sides to continue fighting in Syria; some will settle down in some ungoverned space; others will die, and yet others will move on to further zones of conflict. Few went out in the first instance to come back home and be terrorists. Most were driven by a desire to do something abroad.

Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and Iraqi army members in a series of armoured vehicles gather on the outskirts of Hawija, Iraq October 4, 2017. Thick smoke billows on the horizon in front of them
Iraqi forces and Shi’ite militia gather on the outskirts of Hawija during a campaign against IsilCREDIT: STRINGER/REUTERS

In many ways it is to the affiliates that we should most worry about the foreign fighter flow. In places like Sinai, the Philippines, Libya, parts of Central or Southeast Asia or Afghanistan, there are locations were Isil affiliates are taking root. Those that can accept these battle-hardened warriors will welcome them, enhancing a range of problems that until now have appeared deeply localised. Local governments have varying degrees of capability to manage these problems. In the fullness of time, one of these affiliates may pick up the banner of the global organization and become the new Isil core.

The threat comes from when these affiliates decide to launch attacks against the West, either in their immediate neighbourhood, or further afield. The base in Libya has already produced a number of problems in Europe – this may grow. Others may start to express themselves too. But MI5’s attention is apparently on the domestic situation, where instead the difficulty lies in the fact that they are facing a threat that is increasingly hard to predict. A community of individuals who once seemed peripheral are now becoming the main danger.

Raqqa has now fallen. Isil is not yet finished. But at the same time, terrorism has already evolved into a new form that security services are struggling to manage. Foreign fighters will undoubtedly be part of the picture, but, currently at least, they are not where the core of the problem lies.

Another short comment piece for London’s Evening Standard in the wake of the Parsons Green incident, and a brief discussion with Sky News.

Low-level plots like Parsons Green need even more vigilance


Armed police patrol in Westminster Underground station following the attack last week Getty Images

London has now faced its fourth terrorist attack this year. As details emerge, new peculiarities are uncovered. The brutal reality, though, is that low-level terror plots like that at Parsons Green are becoming the norm.

This is not a tacit admission of defeat, but rather a warning that we are facing an increasingly diffuse threat. This means we all have to be alert, while the authorities need to maintain and even step up the tempo of their effort to stay ahead of the threat.

There are some novel peculiarities around the Parsons Green attack. A bomb left on an Underground train with a timer is something that had not been seen for some time. Most recent bombers seemed to have had suicidal intent.

While most recent plots have been conducted by UK-born individuals, the potential presence of refugees in this attack is not entirely new.  IS’s pro-forma claim to be behind the attack lacks evidence of prior knowledge, but it is perfectly possible those responsible may have assimilated some of its ideology.

This is the larger context that the authorities are contending with: a threat made up of disparate individuals launching attacks using rudimentary and home-made means. The time it takes for them to be galvanised into action continues to shrink, and terrorist groups are emitting an ever more basic message to encourage sympathisers to launch attacks.

Given the easy access and diffuse nature of the ideology and attack methods it becomes very difficult to maintain complete cover. On top of this, the authorities are seeing more individuals who were previously under suspicion moving back into current investigations, and a continuing inflow of people from troubled areas — a limited number of whom may arrive with lethal intent.

The good news is that all terrorists are finding it increasingly difficult to launch large-scale coordinated plots.

The greater danger appears to be among the broader community from whom terrorists come. More work needs to be done tying together the many different information streams that authorities have access to and more thought given to how to prioritise them. And the pressure needs to be kept up in keeping known figures under adequate surveillance.

But there is a role for the public too. There is an onus on us Londoners to keep our eyes open.

As a child in London, I recall constant public campaigns about potential IRA devices on public transport. Tubes were held up by abandoned bags, but many attacks were prevented. There needs to be a return to this approach. We all need to keep our eyes open to protect the society in which we live.

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

A final piece after a busy week, this time in a first time for London’s Evening Standard. A somewhat downbeat piece, part of a series like this over the week that try to take a longer view on the current threat picture. Undoubtedly, there will be more on this topic to come.

Spoke to a few media outlets over the past few weeks. To Politico about al Muhajiroun after the London Bridge attack, to the National about the disrupted Sydney airplane plot, to Newsweek about Israel’s views on the war in Syria, and to ABC, ITV, New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian and the Globe and Mail about the Barcelona attacks.

Using vehicles in crowded streets is a desperate tactic by fanatics struggling to make a lasting impact

High alert: Spanish police patrol the streets of Barcelona the morning after the vehicle attack which killed 13 people
High alert: Spanish police patrol the streets of Barcelona the morning after the vehicle attack which killed 13 people Getty Images

A balmy summer’s evening once again disrupted by terrorism. Tourists mowed down as they enjoy their well-deserved holidays. The incidents in Las Ramblas, Barcelona, and later in the seaside resort of Cambrils — and the wider network that is being uncovered around it — reminds us once again of the threat from international terrorism that European cities face. It is only two months since London faced its last attack. It is unlikely that this will be the last.

Given that launching an “IS-style” attack is as easy as getting a knife or car and attacking random citizens, suddenly the group has sanctioned a vast range of potential activities. For the perpetrators this model is deeply appealing as it will elevate them from being individuals simply stabbing or driving people down to a holy warrior advancing a global cause. This is a classic win-win, with the organisation and individual benefiting from the atrocity without any particular demonstration of connection beyond the individual having possibly read the group’s material online at some point.

But in this case, the other incidents that authorities have confirmed, including the deaths of five men in Cambrils who were reportedly wearing fake suicide vests and a number of other arrests, suggest something more substantial. This could be IS, which has claimed responsibility, though it could also be al Qaeda or some other network — Barcelona, it is worth remembering, was the focus of a plot in January 2008 when a cell connected to the Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was believed to be planning a suicide bomb attack on the city’s metro using perpetrators sent from Pakistan.

Yet it is not clear that it really matters any more who is responsible for such acts. Jihadist groups may have some sectarian and leadership differences but seen from the victims’ perspective they are all the same. The point is that terrorist groups are substantial and consistent in their desire to launch attacks against us. There is no actual dichotomy within IS or any terrorist group about launching either small-scale or large-scale attacks. These groups are dedicated to their cause and will do whatever they can deliver their brutal message to us. For them, launching small-scale attacks does not mean stopping attempting larger ones. From the security perspective, the appearance of more lower level-style attacks suggests a degree of success by security agencies as it suggests it has become too difficult to get bigger plots through.

Second attack: Armed police in Cambrils following a second attack in Spain (EPA)

Understanding attribution when it comes to the so-called Islamic State is not as easy as it sounds. The group has made an art out of spreading its extremist ideas and very basic attack methodologies as widely as possible. This means there are often terrorist attacks where individuals will launch an attack model emulating what is widely perceived as “IS-style”, without demonstrating any particular link to the group, and yet at the same time the group will claim them.

Al Qaeda first advocated the notion of using a car in mowing down the public in the October 2010 edition of its magazine Inspire. This methodology was in fact considered too much for the al Qaeda leadership, with Osama bin Laden reportedly reading the magazine in disgust and telling other acolytes that he did not consider this “proper terrorism”. Yet the methodology stuck in its simplicity, and while we saw a number of attempted or semi-attempted attacks deploying it, it was in Nice last year that its success was crystalised. The extremists leapt on this idea and issued repeated declarations in advance of this style of attack.

The difficulty for terrorist groups, however, is that as we see this patter of small-scale attacks become more regular, they will lose impact among the public. Clearly, individuals who have suffered directly in such incidents will never be the same after seeing such an incident close up. The sheer brutality of watching random fellow citizens mown down by a truck or stabbed in front of you will leave unspeakable psychological damage.

Armed police officers patrol a deserted street in Las Ramblas, in Barcelona, on Friday morning. (AP)

But while the individual may suffer, society overall will move on. And over time, lose interest in such atrocities. This is not a reflection of a lack of humanity but rather of the fact that for terrorism to be effective it must be shocking so the low-level campaign being waged now will lose its impact, something that will make individuals question whether they are willing to sacrifice themselves for this cause. Undoubtedly some still will, but increasingly this will be confused and damaged individuals whose ideological purity will be limited, and therefore will prove to be poor carriers of the extremist message that groups such as al Qaeda or IS are seeking to deliver.

This suggests that there is an end in sight for this style of attack. While it is doubtful that it will ever completely disappear (its simplicity suggests it will always prove to be a last resort for desperate individuals), it is also likely that we will see groups pushing towards more targeted or sophisticated efforts to re-assert their authority and deliver their message in a coherent fashion.

None of this will, of course, change the misery wrought in Barcelona. Terrorism has been a feature of organised human society for a long time — in Spain, prior to the current wave of Islamist terrorism, the separatist group ETA murdered hundreds in a campaign that lasted decades. But it is not clear that this path is sustainable for the terrorist organisations. While it provides a useful way of distracting security services and raising a cause, with limited broader public effect it is not advancing a strategic goal.

This ultimately is what terrorist groups are seeking to do: change the world and persuade us all of their message. If they cannot do this, they will fade away as supporters lose interest in such a clearly losing cause.

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