Posts Tagged ‘counter-terrorism’

With this am now up to date on published work, though have various other pieces that are now working their way through the publication process which should emerge soon in various forms. This last piece was done rather last minute after an invitation to present before an online session of joint hearing by two US House of Representative Committees. Consequently my statement, published below, was not footnoted and probably needed a bit of tidying. Here is the actual recording of the session, and forgive any doziness, it was very early morning for me.

Raffaello Pantucci

Senior Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), UK

Joint Committee Hearing of House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Energy, the Environment and Cyber & House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism

Transatlantic Cooperation on Countering Global Terrorism and Violent Extremism

September 21, 2021

The terrorist threat picture faced by Europe and North America is one that has only become more complicated as time has gone on. While the overall numbers of casualties may have gone down, the variety of ideologies, places of origin and nature of plots has only become more complicated in the past two decades. At the same time, cooperation between North America and Europe in countering these threats has only become tighter. To provide a survey of the entire picture in the time available would be an exercise in futility, and as a consequence, I am going to focus on two principal threat areas that that face the Transatlantic Alliance in the short term. First is the menace of lone actor terrorism which is repeatedly spoken of as the priority menace on both sides of the Atlantic (and further afield), and second the fall-out from events in Afghanistan. These remarks will be concise given space restrictions, but will hopefully provide some broader food for thought.

Lone Actor Terrorism

Since its early expressions in the late 2000s (though some would trace it back even further), lone actor terrorism as a methodology has become the principal source of terrorist attacks in Europe and North America. Whilst there can be no doubt that sophisticated terrorist networks are still keen to launch large-scale plots, it has become increasingly difficult for them to penetrate western security barriers. This is a clear source of success for the Transatlantic Alliance that has been able to construct a set of security perimeters that regularly frustrate attempts by terrorist groups to successfully attack on a larger-scale. But it has also exposed the reality that lone actor plots are exceptionally hard to detect and prevent.

The reasons for this difficulty are multi-faceted. The most obvious aspect is the fact that such attacks involve low technology weapons that are often fashioned from tools from every day life, with short flash-to-bang periods, and are often undertaken by highly volatile individuals who are difficult to legally detain pre-attack. The growing dominance of knives and vehicles in terrorist attack planning makes it difficult for security agencies to use traditional tripwires to try to prevent such incidents, and in the United States the easy availability of high grade firearms amplifies the effect of such attacks. Europe is to some degree protected from this particular aspect of the threat, given the lower availability (though this is not always the case as exemplified by attackers in Hanau or Oslo, or even further afield, Christchurch).

At the same time, terrorist ideologies have increasingly pushed their adherents towards the lone actor attack methodology. Al Qaeda, ISIS and parts of the extreme right wing (XRW) have all advanced the lone actor methodology of attack through their publications and narratives. Likely in part realizing the complexity of successfully launching large-scale plots and recognizing the potential impact a successful lone actor attack can have, terrorist groups have sought to make it easier for individuals to launch attacks in support of their ideology. ISIS in particular fashioned a very simple narrative for people to launch incidents that could be associated with their ideology, thereby providing a frame which many different individuals could use to add meaning to acts of violence that they might otherwise have committed anyway out of their own personal rage.

But the problem with these ideas is that they have a habit of drifting beyond your intended audience. They become common currency which is widely accepted and discussed, creating an easy template that anybody (or any group) can adopt. It is noticeable for example the degree to which right wing groups have taken on similar narratives, seeking to persuade their own followers to consider similar attack methodologies to those being advanced by their putative ideological adversaries in ISIS. While it is clear that this typology is not new to the extreme right – the idea of lone wolf terrorism is something that has long been embedded in extreme right thinking – the success of it in recent years for groups like ISIS or al Qaeda has awakened the effectiveness of its use to a wider audience.

And even more problematically than this, the methodology is now entirely accessible even to an audience whose ideological frame is absent or confused. In recent years, the UK’s Home Office has started to note an increase in cases of individuals who appear to have an ideological framing which is defined as “mixed, unstable or unclear.” This group have a habit of being radicalised in the classical sense, but when investigators dig into their ideological leanings, they find a confused collection of sometimes directly contradictory ideas. These highly idiosyncratic ideologies are clearly coherent in the individual’s mind, but nowhere else. Some have identified that some school shooters are similar in their outlooks, drafting manifestos prior to their attacks. Yet the attack methodology they all lean towards is a simple one, using weapons that are easily accessible and clearly aping the approach that has been popularized by ISIS or the extreme right. They appear to be ISIS or XRW attacks and yet in reality are probably something different.

Even more complicated than the ideological aspect is the mental state of some of these individuals. Whilst one has to pay attention to not entirely remove agency from the culprit, it is clear that a growing volume of offenders are people with histories of mental health disorder or neuropsychological disorders. This means you have a growing cohort of lone actor attacks that are being conducted by individuals who appear to have a confused ideological leaning, and whose mental faculties are not entirely competent. While there is a larger discussion to be had about the degree to which we should even be considering these individuals as part of the terrorism cohort (operating on the assumption that perpetrators defined as terrorists should at least have a clear political motivation inspiring them, something entirely confused in this group), from a security agency perspective this poses a major problem. A successful lone actor in this mould will in the first instance be considered a terrorist actor, leading to all of the societal tensions and complications that generates. And for first response authorities and those being injured or murdered in the attack, there is little distinction to them in a lone actor that is linked to ISIS to one that is instead inspired by a confusing mess of ideas.

But this is where the larger transatlantic alliance might want to start to explore greater cooperation and consideration. This is a problem we have seen in Europe just as much as in North America (or even further afield in alliance countries like New Zealand or Singapore). Cooperation in this space is however highly complicated as ultimately the battle is one which is not going to be successfully fought on battlefields.

In cooperative terms, three key areas identify themselves as places to focus attention going forwards. These build on years of effective counter-terrorism cooperation across the Atlantic, and reflect the complicated nature of the lone actor threat in particular.

First is on the ideological side. There is a growing interweaving of ideas and groups across the Atlantic (and more widely) online. This spread has meant that ideologies can be spawned in the United States which resonate widely across the world. In part these ideologies are able to grow in countries where rules around free speech are interpreted with a wider latitude than in others. This is not a new problem, but when looking at the extreme right and propagators of some new ideologies like QAnon, it is a problem which is increasingly found as emanating from part of the Transatlantic Alliance. This requires greater coordination to both ensure rapid takedown (something to be done in conjunction with social media companies in particular) as well as efforts to detain and prevent ideologues advancing such ideas wherever they might be. Key to this is also recognition that while an individual may not be crossing a legal boundary in the jurisdiction where they are based, they may be pushing others to cross it in foreign lands. Greater coordination in managing this, and in closing down these online networks and communities would in part help stem the problem.

Second is on the tactical side. It is clear that the United States has an online capability that is vastly superior to most European powers. While the United Kingdom, France and Germany have grown their own capabilities, they are still very dependent on the US. Greater coordination should be undertaken amongst a wider community of security agencies across the Atlantic to try to counter lone actor plots. While it is true that most lone actors operate alone, there is a growing body of evidence showing that they do in fact communicate or tell others about their attacks or plans pre-incident. Much of this communication happens online, sometimes in very public forums. This suggests a point of interdiction that Transatlantic partners should work more closely on detecting and preventing.

Third is on the preventative side – one of the key problems with lone actor terrorism as a methodology is its easy adoption. This means the range of individuals who are perpetrating such attacks is becoming ever wider, with individuals deciding to use it as a method of expression with little sense of connection to the ideology that initially spawned it as a tactic. The key point here is the wide ranging nature of profiles of those involved, and the growing instances or neuropsychological or mental health issues amongst this cohort. This generates a new form of preventative response and post-arrest management. While the sui generis nature of each case means lessons are not always easily translatable, the cumulative effect of the volume of cases seen around the world is likely to generate some new ideas and approaches which others would benefit from learning from. Creating a more regular exchange of ideas across the Atlantic about how to manage these cases in prisons, in society or elsewhere would likely generate some successful new approaches to deal with this threat.

Afghanistan

Another major terrorist issue which has raised it head for the Transatlantic Alliance in recent months is the change in government in Afghanistan, where the collapse of the Islamic Republic has led to the rise of an Islamic Emirate controlled by the Taliban. While it remains unclear the degree to which the Taliban will be able to maintain control in the longer-term, it does seem they are going to be able to hold power for the short to medium term. Given their close connections to al Qaeda, and previous support for groups and networks which have generated terrorist plots in the west and elsewhere, this is clearly a source of concern to the Transatlantic Alliance. But what is the exact nature of this threat, and what tensions has this generated in the broader alliance framework which need to be addressed.

In terms of responding to the potential threat, the first key element to focus on is that few assessments have pointed to the change in government in Afghanistan generating an immediate or medium term threat to the west. While it is impossible to predict how things will play out in the longer-term, for the time being it seems unlikely that al Qaeda will be able to rebuild its capabilities to launch large-scale terrorist attacks against western interests for at least the next two years (and possibly even further in the future). The group is a vastly reduced form of its former self, and has for the past few years appeared to focus more on regional conflicts that striking at far enemies in the west. This likely creates problems in other parts of the globe where al Qaeda linked or inspired groups exist, but not as much in the west.

A far larger and immediate threat is likely present in Pakistan, and to a lesser degree in Central Asia. India also faces the potential for threats, as do China, Russia and Iran. The key here, however, is that when looking at how threats from Afghanistan might emerge, it is imperative that the west move away from focusing single-mindedly on how problems might directly come home. The last major plot reported publicly as having links to Afghanistan, was a group of Tajiks arrested in April 2020 in Germany. Yet the extent of their connection to Afghanistan was a remote one through mobile phone applications. Far more immediate is the danger of groups starting to use Afghanistan as a base to destabilize Pakistan or even more inspiring groups in Pakistan to rise up against the government in Islamabad. A similar (though more remote) possibility presents itself in parts of Central Asia, as well as Iran, Russia and China – though all of them have more effective police apparatus that is likely able to contain threats.

The key for the Transatlantic Alliance is to focus on managing the spread of problems from Afghanistan into its neighbourhood rather than single-mindedly focusing on the not impossible, but unlikely, outcome that groups start to immediately launch attacks against the west.

The second major issue within this context is geopolitical. The withdrawal from Afghanistan by the United States was long telegraphed, but not heard in other capitals. This led to a chaotic withdrawal which raised concerns about American security guarantees. While these are likely overstated, they have highlighted once again the reality that Europe in particular has somewhat taken for granted American security support. The answer here is clearly for Europe to increase its efforts, but these should be done in conjunction with American partners who remain key enablers in counter-terrorism operations around the globe. Finding a way of better cooperating in establishing over the horizon presence in South Asia in particular is going to be an area of key cooperation going forwards. European partners like the United Kingdom have strong relations in Pakistan in particular, while France and Germany have a deep footprint in parts of Central Asia. This provides a useful point of engagement for the Transatlantic Alliance going forwards.

Finally, both sides of the Atlantic should work to try to extricate the problem of countering terrorist groups in the region in particular (and more widely) from the larger great power conflict that is currently consuming the Transatlantic Alliance. In Afghanistan in particular, the insertion of great power conflict narratives creates a context to replicate the immensely damaging and counter-productive history of using proxy groups in Afghanistan to fight against each other. Focusing on the terrorist threats as problems that menace not only the western alliance, but also regional adversaries provides a way to actually deal with the threats rather than making them worse.

The last with resonances of the September 11 anniversary, this time trying to cast a wide net looking at the impact of the Taliban takeover on problems of jihadism around the world. Probably a little too short to do such a large topic justice, but such are the exigencies of the RSIS in-house journal Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses. Another collaboration with my brilliant RSIS colleague Basit (our earlier one on China’s regional terrorism problems in South Asia got some good attention).

Post-Taliban Takeover: How the Global Jihadist Terror Threat May Evolve

Synopsis

The Taliban’s victory and restoration of their self-styled Islamic Emirate following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is a watershed moment for the global jihadist movement. Existing terrorist threats are likely to evolve in a qualitatively different manner than those witnessed before the September 11, 2001 attacks. However, the threat picture is unlikely to return to the pre-9/11 status quo. The Taliban’s victory may have reinvigorated proAl-Qaeda (AQ) jihadist groups around the world, but they face an international security response which is qualitatively different to the pre-9/11 environment, alongside a world which is confronted with other challenges, including from competing ideologies and groups. Though AQ and its associated groups will undoubtedly continue to paint this as a glorious victory, and their trust in the jihadist doctrine of strategic patience may have been resuscitated, it is not clear they have the operational capability to translate that into violent extremist attacks.

Introduction

Though the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan marks a watershed in the evolution of global jihadism, the situation is unlikely to return to the pre-9/11 status quo. The existing threat landscape is more complex, fractious, and different from what it was in 2001. Therefore, the likely implications will also be different, notwithstanding the fact that the Taliban’s victory has emboldened AQ jihadist doctrine of strategic patience. In parallel to this transformation, the world has become much more attuned to jihadist terrorism, meaning it is harder for organisations to plan and execute the sort of attacks that were visible in the early years of AQ’s struggle against the west. In short, while the extremist threat has not dissipated, it is now more subtle and diffuse.

For AQ and its associated movements, the desire and intent to launch large-scale spectacular attacks against the West persists. However, undertaking an operation on the scale of the 9/11 attacks, or even the 2005 London attacks, remains a moot prospect. The most recent large-scale sophisticated attack in Europe was conducted by the Islamic State (IS) in France in November 2015. Since then, large-scale violence in Europe or North America has been conducted by isolated lone attackers, with some tenuous links or connection to groups abroad.

Rather, the focus for both AQ and IS, and their affiliates, has been the various regional conflicts in which they are present. In these regional conflicts, they have achieved some degree of success. Indubitably, the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan will animate them further. But it remains to be seen if this will help them expand in the short or medium term, or create the conditions to launch a global campaign once again. Consolidation on the ground in parts of Africa, the Middle East or South Asia may strengthen regional terror networks, but it is not obvious that this will recreate a coherent global movement, or lead to an upsurge in attacks in faraway targets.

Global Threat

South Asia

Paradoxically, the Taliban’s, and by extension AQ’s, victory in Afghanistan has emboldened both pro-AQ jihadist groups in South Asia and their arch-foe, the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (IS-K), the IS’ franchise in the country.1 Following the US withdrawal and the Taliban’s return to power, IS-K has positioned itself as the Taliban and AQ rejectionist group.2

Since its ejection from Afghanistan in 2001, AQ has entrenched itself in South Asia’s complex jihadist landscape, offering strategic guidance and ideological mentoring to local groups. For instance, AQ played a pivotal role in reorganising, reviving and subsequently supporting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan against the US.3 In Pakistan, AQ was instrumental in the formation of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in 2007 and its own South Asian franchise, AQ in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), in 2014. AQ commands the loyalty and respect of the South Asian jihadist groups, while in turn AQ pledges allegiance to the Taliban.4 The Taliban’s victory is their win as well and validation of the jihadist doctrine of strategic patience, i.e., that a local focus pursued with perseverance can succeed.5 This triumphant jihadist narrative, coupled with the Bagram and Pul-e-Charki jailbreaks freeing 5,000 jihadists, could potentially speed AQ’s regional revival.6

As Afghanistan’s immediate neighbour, Pakistan would be the most affected country, having already lost 80,000 civilians in the war on terror. Pakistan’s own complicated history and relationships with a plethora of jihadist groups will not only undermine its internal security, but regional security dynamics with adversary India as well.7 AQ appears eager to play on these tensions, and may seek to deploy effort in Kashmir in this regard. Admittedly, however, it can be hard to separate state supported militant activity there from those of AQ linked groups, complicating the nature of the link to events in Afghanistan. AQIS publications already appear to have responded to events in Afghanistan, with the group’s Urdu language magazine changing its name to Nawa-e-Ghazwa-e-Hind, following the US Taliban deal in Doha.8

In India, the Taliban’s victory has negatively energised right-wing Hindu extremists, who are furthering their domestic Islamophobic narratives in response to the perception of being encircled by Muslim states with growing numbers of extremists within them.9 The exacerbation of communal fault lines could benefit AQ through radicalising the radical fringes of the Indian Muslim community, which hitherto have proven relatively resilient to extremist recruitment efforts.

AQ has an elaborate network of like minded groups in South Asia like Ansarullah Bangla Team and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh in Bangladesh, Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind in Indian Held Kashmir and TTP in Pakistan.10 There are 8,000 to 10,00011 foreign jihadists from Pakistan, Xinjiang and Central Asia in Afghanistan, while another 5,000 have come out of prisons.12 These jihadists will be a critical factor in AQ’s regional strategy in South Asia. According to AQ’s weekly newspaper, Tabhat, the group has a presence in Afghanistan’s 18 provinces, where it fought alongside the Taliban against the US.13 Presently, both groups publicly downplay their ties, so as to not jeopardise the Doha Agreement and allow the Taliban space to consolidate their grip on power.14

For its part, IS-K has positioned itself as the anti-Taliban and AQ group in the region, in the hope of attracting the disenfranchised elements of these and other groups to its fold. IS-K’s recent attack on the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, in which 12 US marines were killed, in addition to 170 Afghan civilians and 28 Afghan Taliban fighters, potentially heralds the start of a bloody phase of the jihadist civil war in Afghanistan. This was IS’ largest-ever direct strike on an American military target, and the largest loss of American life in Afghanistan in years. The attack has created waves amongst the jihadist community in Afghanistan, illustrating the potential effective power of a group that they have been trying to eject with little success for years.

The danger in South Asia is that both AQ and IS might now be able to grow in parallel to each other. AQ offers an establishment perspective on jihad, while IS propagates an uncompromising and violent alternative. Given the absence of western forces and their allies to focus on, these groups could increasingly face off against each other, potentially giving them space to grow and develop. The AQ-IS rivalry in this context will likely stay regional for the medium term, but assessing its trajectory over the long-term is harder.

Southeast Asia

While historical links between Southeast Asian militant groups and AQ and the Taliban in Afghanistan form the backdrop of a potential reinvigorating effect on the former, the actual impact is likely to be limited.15 The Taliban’s victory may tangentially inspire the pro-AQ radical Islamist and jihadist groups in Southeast Asia, who will celebrate the group’s success and use it in their regional recruitment campaigns.16

The impact, however, will be limited due to a fractious Southeast Asian militant landscape split between pro-IS and pro-AQ groups; the presence of other conflict hotspots in the Middle East in particular and Africa to a lesser degree, diluting the pre-eminence of Afghanistan as an attractive conflict theatre; and the advent of social media which has eliminated physical hurdles and lowered entry barriers for jihadist recruitment and radicalisation.17 In the near future, the prospect of Southeast Asian jihadists travelling to Afghanistan in large numbers are low, given the COVID-19-related travel restrictions, better immigration and border controls instituted between 2015 and 2018 to stem the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria.18

At any rate, the Taliban’s victory will inspire these Islamist and jihadist groups to constantly strive for the ideological goal of creating an Islamic State by imitating the Taliban’s model. For instance, an Indonesian radical Islamist group, Jamaah Muslimin Hizbullah, has debated establishing a Taliban-styled Islamic government in Indonesia, starting with the island of Sumatra.19 Malaysia’s largest Islamist political party, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), has also congratulated the Taliban on their victory.20 Later on, facing public censure, PAS removed the message from its social media pages. The social media channels of Southeast Asian militants have also been euphoric over the Taliban’s victory. For instance, Jemaah Islamiyah, which has historical ties to both AQ and the Taliban, has distributed an Arabic language manual detailing the latter’s operational strategies and fighting tactics through WhatsApp groups.21 A proposal to invite the Taliban to establish a branch in Indonesia to help jihadists in Indonesia to create an Islamic State has also been discussed.22 It is not entirely clear, however, the degree to which any of this rhetoric and discourse will be followed by action.

Middle East and North Africa

In recent years, AQ leader Ayman al Zawahiri’s speeches and statements have focused on developments in the Middle East, while referring to Afghanistan as peripheral to AQ’s future goals.23 Since the onset of the Arab spring in 2011 and the advent of the IS in 2014, which broke off from the former as its Iraqi branch, AQ has paid closer attention to developments in the Middle East. The split of the global jihadist movement was a huge setback for AQ, while the Taliban’s victory has given a boost to AQ’s brand of jihadism.24

AQ’s franchises and affiliates in the Middle East have been energised by the Taliban takeover, calling it a magnificent victory.25 For instance, AQ in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), while felicitating the Taliban, said, “it is the beginning of a pivotal transformation worldwide.”26 Similarly, Syrian jihadist group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham has termed the Taliban’s victory “a model to follow.”27

In its two-page statement released after the Taliban’s victory, AQ leadership has particularly mentioned devoting its attention to the “near enemy.”28 The near-enemy in AQ’s jihadist strategy refers to the so called “apostate” governments in the Muslim world, particularly the Middle Eastern dictatorships and monarchies, which have assisted the US to the detriment of the “suppressed” Muslim communities in the region.29 The Middle East is the birthplace of Islam, and where the two holiest sites of Mecca and Medina are located. It is also where much of the organization’s key leadership is originally from. Without a strong footprint in the Middle East, AQ’s plans of creating a global Muslim Caliphate sound hollow. The Taliban’s victory therefore provides an opportunity for AQ to refocus on the Middle East, using the victory narrative to draw new recruits and expand its footprint.30

More success for AQ’s affiliates can be found in North Africa and the Sahel, where the group’s presence has developed a stronger footprint. Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) has for some time managed to develop a presence across the wider Sahelian region and project a force on the ground, which has created a challenge that western forces have sought to push back against. The French decision to scale back its presence, at around the same time the US announced its formal withdrawal from Afghanistan, was seized upon as evidence of a global victory by jihadists, although again, it is not clear how this will translate into action.

Africa

Looking more widely across Africa, a victory narrative can similarly be drawn, but it is for the most part linked to IS affiliated groups. In Nigeria, Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP) has managed to dramatically defenestrate Boko Haram’s key leader and recruit many of his former followers, taking the leadership position in the regional struggle.31 In the Central African Republic,32 Congo33 and Mozambique34, a similar narrative of success is built not off what the Taliban have achieved in Afghanistan, but their own triumphs on the battlefield as various subsidiaries of IS or as violent Islamist groups winning against their local adversaries.

The one place where an AQ affiliate remains dominant is East Africa, where Al-Shabaab continues to prove a hard enemy to eradicate. Whilst it has recently toned down its level of ambition, it has still demonstrated a desire to attack western targets regionally – including hotels hosting foreigners35, and even western military bases36, and continues to discuss its allegiance to AQ core. Of the many groups in Africa, Al-Shabaab is most likely to use the narrative of victory in Afghanistan to try to develop into a larger threat. Having said this, there is little reason that the group would not have already been doing this, but it might seek to more overtly link itself to the Taliban’s victory. A notable point here is that much of sub-Saharan African terrorism has stayed on the Continent, with Al-Shabaab the only one which appears to have links that could help it stretch further.

Central Asia

Looking north of Afghanistan to Central Asia, it is notable that it has been some time since a concerted terrorist campaign has been visible within the region. What attacks have taken place have been largely linked to IS (in Tajikistan)37, or remained unclaimed (the 2016 attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek).38 Whilst networks across the region continue to be disrupted, there has been a growing level of concern about the return of Central Asian jihadists to northern Afghanistan,39 and them potentially using the area as a base to attack the region. Certainly, this model had plagued the region pre-2001. The various Central Asian focused violent Islamist groups certainly retain the interest and appetite to launch attacks, though it is not clear that their capability has materially changed. Nonetheless, a permissive milieu in Afghanistan might provide a propitious environment for them, and they appear eager to try to take advantage of this (with reports emerging of fighters returning from Syria and Iraq40).

Europe/North America

Looking further afield to the West, notwithstanding hysterical predictions about a threat escalation and return to a September 11, 2001 scenario,41 the capability of violent Islamist groups to launch attacks in the West is vastly reduced, even as there are some indications that problems could emerge. Since the late 2015 attacks in Paris and Brussels, groups have been unable to get any largescale networked plots through. Rather, the field has been littered with lone actor plots, or small cells operating seemingly without any clear direction or instruction by an organised group. While there has been some evidence of individuals being inspired by the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, the threat picture is unlikely to change in the short term. In the medium term, as we see large numbers of migrants fleeing Afghanistan, it is possible some individual attackers may slip in through the groups – previous waves of migrants have brought some individuals who went on to commit attacks around Europe in particular (for example, in Germany in July 2016).42 However, it remains unclear if AQ will be able to take advantage of this flow in some way, and whether this will provide a vector through which an escalated threat beyond lone actors might strike Europe or North America (even less likely).

Conclusion

Undoubtedly, the global jihadist movement has been invigorated by the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan. Through their ejection of the US in Afghanistan, the Taliban have demonstrated the success of their model of conflict and dedication to their holy cause. However, it is unlikely to lead to an American collapse, like the implosion of the Soviet Union that followed their withdrawal from Afghanistan in the late 1980s.

It is uncertain that the global jihadist movement will be able to take advantage of this situation, notwithstanding their excited rhetoric. Certainly, Afghanistan’s near region has become more dangerous, but further afield, other elements are likely to contain any major expansions. Security forces have become more attuned to jihadist threats and created measures which are likely to complicate any action. Furthermore, the fragmenting of the global jihadist movement into two broad factions (pro-IS and pro-AQ), as well as the reality that most of these groups are now more focused on their own local contexts than the global struggle, means the threat picture over the longer-term will likely continue to stagnate.

It is not clear that the jihadist threat is the same as the global circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001 attacks. The concatenation of events that led to those attacks and the wider AQ threat against the West that followed was the product of a series of events and links that would be hard to replicate today. While this cannot lead to laxity in attention, the reality is that despite the glaring failures in the American-led effort in Afghanistan, the threat picture to America is lower and no group has credibly managed to replicate the ambition and success shown in September 2001. AQ remains a shadow of its former self, with its leader rumoured to be dead or in hiding, and other senior figures equally elusive. Nevertheless, it remains an influential brand around the world. IS has peaked and is now focusing on parts of the world where its impact is most likely to be local rather than global. And the world has also moved on, with issues concerning great power conflict, the extreme right wing, and many other expressions of violent activity taking on greater salience. The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan will undoubtedly reinvigorate jihadism in the country’s immediate neighbourhood, and prolong the ideas of a global struggle for another decade at least. However, the Taliban victory has not turned back the clock to 2001.

About the authors

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

Abdul Basit is a Research Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at isabasit@ntu.edu.sg.

1 Rita Katz,” Future of Al Qaeda, ISIS & Jihadism,” Wilson Centre, August 27, 2021, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/future-al-qaeda-isis-jihadism.

2 Asfandyar Mir, “Biden Didn’t See the ISIS-K Threat in Afghanistan Until Too Late,” The New York Times, August 31, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/31/opinion/bidenisis-k.html.

3 Lydia Khalil, “The Taliban’s Return to Power in Afghanistan Will Be a Boon for International jihadism,” The Guardian, August 21, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/aug/21/the-talibans-return-to-power-in-afghanistanwill-be-a-boon-for-international-jihadism.

4 Farhan Zahid, “Jihadism in South Asia: A Militant Landscape in Flux,” The Middle East Institute, January 8, 2020, https://www.mei.edu/publications/jihadism-southasia-militant-landscape-flux.

5 Collin P. Clarke, “Al-Qaeda Is Thrilled That the Taliban Control Afghanistan — But Not for the Reason You Think,” Politico, September 7, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/09/07/al-qaeda-taliban-complex-relationship-509519.

6 “Taliban Frees Prisoners in Bagram and Pul-eCharkhi Prisons,” Andalou, August 15, 2021, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/vg/video-gallery/talibanfrees-prisoners-in-bagram-and-pul-e-charkhiprisons/0.

7 Bruce Riedel, “Pakistan’s Problematic Victory in Afghanistan,” Brookings Institute, August 24, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-fromchaos/2021/08/24/pakistans-problematic-victory-in-afghanistan/.

8 Warren P. Strobel and Dustin Volz, “Taliban Takeover of Afghanistan Celebrated by Extremists on Social Media,” The Wall Street Journal, August 17, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/extremistscelebrate-taliban-takeover-of-afghanistan-on-socialmedia-11629192600.

9 Furqan Ameen, “How Taliban Return in Afghanistan Triggered Islamophobia in India,” AlJazeera, September 1, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/9/1/islamophobia-india-hindu-right-wing-taliban-afghanistan.

10 Abdul Sayed, “The Past, Present, and Future of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” The Soufan Centre, August 20, 2021, https://thesoufancenter.org/intelbrief-2021-august20/.

11 Jason Burke, “Taliban in Power May Find Themselves Fighting Islamist Insurgents,” The Guardian, August 18, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/usnews/2021/aug/18/bidens-over-the-horizon-counterterrorism-strategy-comes-with-new-risks.

12 Ivana Saric, “Thousands of Prisoners Freed by Taliban Could Pose Threat to U.S,” Axios, August 15, 2021, https://www.axios.com/taliban-bagramprisoners-release-87ec6885-6930-46d6-9e96-473a252dcf7d.html.

13 Asfandyar Mir, “Untying the Gordian Knot: Why the Taliban is Unlikely to Break Ties with Al-Qaeda,” Modern War Institute, August 8, 2021, https://mwi.usma.edu/untying-the-gordian-knot-whythe-taliban-is-unlikely-to-break-ties-with-al-qaeda/.

14 Driss El-Bay, “Afghanistan: The Pledged Binding Al-Qaeda to the Taliban,” BBC News, September 8, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia58473574.

15 Hariz Baharudin, “How Will the Taleban’s Comeback in Afghanistan Affect Singapore and the Region?” The Straits Times, August 16, 2021, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/how-will-the-talebans-comeback-in-afghanistan-affect-singapore-and-the-region.

16 Ibid.

17 Ralph Jennings, “How Taliban’s Win Might Influence Radical Muslims in Southeast Asia,” Voice of America, September 3, 2021, https://www.voanews.com/extremism-watch/howtalibans-win-might-influence-radical-muslimssoutheast-asia.

18 Jolene Jerard, “Taliban’s Return in Afghanistan Cements Southeast Asia Extremist Strategy of Strategic Patience,” Channel News Asia, August 26, 2012, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/commentary/taliban-terrorism-al-qaeda-southeast-asia-2132656.

19 Amy Chew, “Afghanistan: Taliban’s Return ‘Boosts Morale’ of Militant Groups in Southeast Asia,” South China Morning Post, August 20, 2021, https://www.scmp.com/weekasia/politics/article/3145856/talibans-returnafghanistan-boosts-morale-militant-groups.

20 J.S. Lee, “PAS Leader Congratulates the Taliban for Taking Over Afghanistan,” Malay Trends, August 18, 2021, https://www.malaysiatrend.com/pasleader-congratulates-the-taliban-for-taking-overafghanistan/.

21 Amy Chew, “Afghanistan: Taliban’s Return ‘Boosts Morale’ of Militant Groups in Southeast Asia.”

22 Ibid.

23 Andrew Hanna & Garrett Nada, “Jihadism: A Generation After 9/11,” Wilson Centre, September 10, 2020, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/jihadismgeneration-after-911.

24 Nelly Lahoud, “Bin Laden’s Catastrophic Success,” Foreign Affairs, September-October 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/afghanistan/2021-08-13/osama-bin-ladens-911-catastrophicsuccess.

25 Aron Y. Zelin, “Return of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan: The Jihadist State of Play,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, August 18, 2021, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policyanalysis/return-islamic-emirate-afghanistan-jihadist-state-play.

26 Rita Katz,” Future of Al Qaeda, ISIS & Jihadism.”

27 Ibid.

28 “Al Qaeda’s Kashmir Message to Taliban, Says US Humiliated in Afghanistan,” Hindustan Times, September 1, 2021, https://www.hindustantimes.com/videos/worldnews/al-qaeda-s-kashmir-message-to-taliban-saysus-humiliated-in-afghanistan101630504866523.html.

29 Joe Macron, “What Will the Taliban Victory Mean for the Middle East?” Al-Jazeera, August 19, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/8/19/whatwill-the-taliban-victory-mean-for-the-middle-east.

30 Kathryn Wheelbarger, Aaron Y. Zelin, Patrick Clawson, “From Afghanistan to the Middle East: Implications of the U.S. Withdrawal and Taliban Victory,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, August 26, 2021, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policyanalysis/afghanistan-middle-east-implications-uswithdrawal-and-taliban-victory.

31 Obi Anyadike, “Quit While You Are Ahead: Why Boko Haram Fighters Are Surrendering,” The New Humanitarian, August 13, 2021, https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/analysis/2021/8/12/why-boko-haram-fighters-are-surrendering.

32 Benoit Faucon and Gordon Lubold, “U.S. Sanctions Islamic State’s Central African Franchise for First Time,” The Wall Street Journal, March 10, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-to-sanctionislamic-states-central-african-franchise-for-first-time11615406777.

33 “The Murky Link Between DR Congo’s ADF and Islamic State,” France 24, July 07, 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210707-the-murky-link-between-dr-congo-s-adf-and-islamic-state.

34 Emily Estelle, “The Islamic State Resurges in Mozambique,” Foreign Policy, June 16, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/06/16/mozambiqueislamic-state-terrorism-france-total/.

35 Matt Bryden and Premdeep Bahra, “East Africa’s Terrorist Triple Helix: The Dusit Hotel Attack and the Historical Evolution of the Jihadi Threat,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, July 2019, https://ctc.usma.edu/east-africas-terrorist-triple-helixdusit-hotel-attack-historical-evolution-jihadi-threat/.

36 Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Eric Schmitt, Charlie Savage, and Helene Cooper, “Chaos as Militants Overran Airfield, Killing 3 Americans in Kenya,” The New York Times, January 22, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/22/world/africa/shabab-kenya-terrorism.html.

37 “When ISIS Killed Cyclists on Their Journey Around the World,” The New York Times, June 21, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/21/theweekly/isis-bike-attack-tajikistan.html ; “Tajikistan: 17 Killed in Border Outpost Attack,” DW.COM, November 06, 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/tajikistan-17-killed-in-borderoutpost-attack/a-51129060.

38 “Kyrgyzstan Sentences Three Over Chinese Embassy Attack,” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, June 28, 2017, https://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstanchina-embassy-jailed/28583623.html.

39 Mumin Ahmadi, Mullorajab Yusufi and Nigorai Fazliddin, “Exclusive: Taliban Puts Tajik Militants Partially in Charge of Afghanistan’s Northern Border,” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, July 28, 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/taliban-tajik-militantsborder/31380071.html.

40 “Twelfth Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team Submitted Pursuant to Resolution 2557 (2020) Concerning the Taliban and Other Associated Individuals and Entities Constituting a Threat to the Peace Stability and Security of Afghanistan,” United Nations Security Council (UNSC), June 1, 2021, https://www.undocs.org/pdf?symbol=en/S/2021/486

41 Alan McGuinness, “Afghanistan: Al Qaeda ‘Will Probably Come Back’ as Situation in Country Deteriorates, Says Defence Secretary,” Sky News, August 13, 2021, https://news.sky.com/story/afghanistan-al-qaeda-willprobably-come-back-as-situation-in-country-deteriorates-says-defence-secretary-12380142.

42 German Train Attack: IS Releases Video of Afghan Knifeman,” BBC News, July 19, 2016, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe36832909.

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

Shape-shifting terrorism: The new challenge

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

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

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

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

LESSONS FROM THE PAST

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

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

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

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

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

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

MEANING-SEEKING, SHAPE-SHIFTING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE RESPONSE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE NEW CHALLENGES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another September 11 anniversary linked piece, this time a short introductory essay for a collection of RUSI Journal articles assembled from the past twenty years which sketch out some of the main issues touched upon in the journal on terrorism. The request from the editors was to write something which tries to capture how research has evolved over this period. Re-reading the pieces (confess did not quite get to all of them), I realize that the Journal has really been a major outlet for various prominent voices for some time. Lots of interesting bits to read there and I would recommend taking time to read them while they are still open access until the end of the year.

The 9/11 Attacks: Two Decades of Countering Violent Extremism

Terrorism did not start with the attacks of 9/11, but there can be no doubt that these events changed the way that we think and look at the phenomenon. Terrorist spectaculars in themselves were not new – Carlos the Jackal had perfected the art, while seasoned terrorism watcher Brian Michael Jenkins had coined the phrase ‘terrorism is theater’ as early as 1974. But the magnitude and ambition that Al-Qa’ida displayed seemed to change things. For security experts, it pushed what had been largely seen as a niche specialisation into the centre ground of security thinking.

Within the research community it also engendered a new wave of thinking and research as people struggled to comprehend, explain and analyse the apparently new phenomenon that had burst on to our screens that clear September day. Much of the early discourse was an attempt to define what had just happened, both in terms of trying to comprehend who Al-Qa’ida was, but also to appropriately frame the response. The decision by the US to immediately move to a bellicose context meant a deeply conflictual stage was set early on. The decision to follow the invasion of Afghanistan with the invasion of Iraq only further complicated this discussion, steering us away from solely confronting Al-Qa’ida to taking on all adversaries out there. This muddying continues to ripple through the problems we see today.

Yet the truth that slapped the UK brutally in the face in July 2005 was that the threat was in fact one that came from within. Already in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the UK was shocked to discover there were young Britons fighting alongside the Taliban and Al-Qa’ida. The shoe bombers later in the year were evidence of what this could turn into. And in 2005, Londoners woke to the grim reality that these individuals were willing to come back and commit atrocities on their home soil. This exposed a key dimension that was going to be needed in the response: to find ways of better engaging with the wider communities within our societies from which these individuals came. The need for a holistic response had already been identified in 2003 in the early versions of the counterterrorism strategy CONTEST, but what this actually meant in practice and how essential this was only became apparent later.

But the converse of this holistic, all-of-society response, was to turn everyone into a security agent. Something that rankled parts of society who felt that the approach was overly intrusive and stepping all over civil liberties which a liberal-democratic society should cherish. While politics played some role in this discourse, the reality was that much of the political establishment was largely supportive of expansive powers being given to security services in their pursuit of shielding us from violent extremists.

The perennial conundrum this created, however, was that there was a conclusion that the problem came from within and we needed to work with Muslim communities in particular to deal with the problems. But at the same time, those very communities disliked the exaggerated negative attention they were receiving, feeling even more ostracised by the very policies purportedly developed to help them to better integrate.

These were unfortunately not debates that were ever really resolved, and took place against the backdrop of a threat that continued to evolve and develop. From being almost entirely directed by Al-Qa’ida using bases in Pakistan drawing on the UK’s deep human connection with that country, the terrorist threat spread to places such as Somalia and Yemen. Young Britons continued to get animated by extremist ideas and were drawn to an ever-expanding range of locations to join fundamentalist groups. This broadened the range of places the research community needed to understand. But it also highlighted the deep persistence of the problem even after senior figures and camps got hammered by the increasingly far-reaching UAV (drone) strike campaigns.

This particular tactic raised a new set of questions for the UK – around proportionality and state assassination. The US had clearly already set a path in this direction, but for the UK the discussion was a complex one which touched on a complicated history of the Irish troubles. The UAV capability provided a level of reach that was unparalleled, but it raised complicated ethical issues. Legal systems in the UK were already struggling with new legislation aiming to criminalise possession of material, ideas and conviction for acts which had not taken place.

And then the emergence of the Islamic State from the civil war in Syria appeared to suggest the entire cycle was repeating itself once again but closer to home. There were new tweaks to the Islamic State menace, whose exceptional online presence provided researchers with an extraordinary level of data and information which they could use to analyse the threats posed by the group. Individual terrorists could be spoken to from the battlefield. Group messaging became global and accessible instantaneously, something Osama bin Laden could only dream of achieving.

This also sharpened problems that were already emerging. The lone-actor threat had already started to appear in the UK in 2007. But by the time the war in Syria took off, it had become a more prominent part of the threat. In part no doubt as a result of an effective security response which made it harder for large-scale plots to get through, but also as a result of the fact that the ideas were now so diffuse that anyone could easily access them and react to them.

The research discourse also started to evolve. As we moved into a time of isolated terrorists, the question of ideology and group identity started to get overtaken by research focusing on individual stories, causes and narratives. This in turn created a wave of research trying to craft the nuanced responses that would be required to deal with a problem which was as unique as each individual who had become involved. This then opened up a focus on different sub-groups – be it on the basis of gender, age or mental health. This transformed the nature of communities that researchers were focused on.

But the grim reality is that the problem of terrorism has never really left us and is unlikely to. During this 20-year chapter defined by the opening salvo of the 9/11 attacks and closed (at least in political narrative terms) by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the world has gone through many contortions. The research community has found itself following and echoing these. But often the most frequent finding is that these problems are not new, the drivers are as much personal as societal, and the danger is that we continue to reinvent the wheel as we seek to find an answer to what is likely an intractable societal ill. Terrorism existed pre-9/11, and it is going to follow us deep into the future.

The RUSI Journal has published extensively on these themes over the past 20 years. This collection of articles traces how our understanding has evolved since that momentous day in September 2001.

Another piece linked to the September 11 anniversary, this time another interview of the series that I have been doing for CTC Sentinel. There are a few more recent pieces to publish, and some bigger research pieces for CTC in the pipeline. The interview was done initially before the fall of Kabul and then we revisited some of the questions afterwards.

Twenty Years After 9/11: Reflections from Alex Younger, Former Chief of the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6)

Sir Alex Younger was a career intelligence officer in Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, for 30 years. He served in Europe, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. He was appointed as Director of Counter Terrorism in 2009, and as Chief from 2014 to 2020. Prior to SIS, he served in the British Army as an infantry officer.

Editor’s Note: The following is the transcript of an oral interview conducted ahead of the 20th anniversary of 9/11. It has been lightly edited by CTC Sentinel.

CTC: Take us back to 9/11. You were already working in SIS (the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6) at the time. How much of a shock was the attack to SIS and to U.K. intelligence more broadly?

Younger: Clearly, it was a shock, and it was designed to shock. Visually, it was an extraordinarily traumatic and shocking sight, and that was the point. The attack was designed to be the ultimate provocation, and that was the effect that it had. It also engendered huge uncertainty because at the time we had none of the knowledge we now have with hindsight, and it seemed eminently probable that this was the first of a number of such attacks. To this day, I am pleasantly surprised that it did not lead to a series of similar outrages. In fact, on that day, I remember thinking that the very building I was sitting in could be on the list. So it also had a very personal effect. And it was clear that it did change everything.

CTC: How did 9/11 change the work and thinking at SIS? Did change occur immediately after the attack itself, or did it take some time for it to filter through the organization?

Younger: No, it was pretty quick. I think if you looked at the situation on the day before September 11, by and large terrorism was still treated as a discrete set of regional but probably even national phenomena rather than something strategic. When you looked at our version of terrorism in the U.K., for example, it felt very different to what was being faced in France. By and large, it was our domestic colleagues [at MI5] who were in the lead on all of this in the U.K. International partnership was less important. Secondly, and this may have been a failure of imagination as much as anything else, people did not conceive of things going on in far off places, like in failed states like Afghanistan, as actively threatening their homelands. That connection wasn’t considered adequately. It was obviously there theoretically, but I do not think it was properly internalized.

Bear in mind that we, as the U.K., were somewhat ahead of the pack in many respects for the very sad reason that we had dealt with terrorism for decades generated by the IRA [Irish Republican Army]. That was a quintessential domestic, politically orientated problem—all the things that the attack of September 11 was not.

So the main changes were two-fold. One, a pretty instant ovenight understanding that what happened in Afghanistan obviously mattered to the security of our people, and that, of course, put my service properly into the fight. And then secondly, an understanding of the premium on partnership. We realized that, by and large, we all had the same problem and it was coming from similar places. The days where you could take a not-my-problem or, worse, beggar my neighbour approach to terrorism were well and truly over.

CTC: You are one of many SIS officers who served in Afghanistan. You’ve stated that after 9/11, you and your colleagues had a “profound impulse to step forward into the line of danger” and that you felt that your organization was “one of the few that could make a difference, faced with a wholly new, and open-ended, threat from international terrorism.”1 Talk us through the role SIS played in going after al-Qa`ida in Afghanistan and has played in detecting and [working to thwart] jihadi terrorist plotting around the world.

Younger: It’s an odd thing to say, but in some ways, we were the lucky ones; terrorist attacks are awful things, but we are in a position to do something about them. I think one of the most difficult experiences after something like 9/11 or 7/7 [the al-Qa`ida attack of July 2005 on London’s transport system] must have been a sense of helplessness in the face of this hidden menace, set against [the] very human wish and need to get involved and do something. In SIS, we had the privilege, if you can call it that, to be in a position to do something about attacks in however small a way. That also, of course, conferred a frightening responsibility, which I would not pretend was a light burden for anyone. Our mission intensified in this new and difficult context. But it was our traditional mission. Put simply, we discovered that groups of people in far-off lands, predominantly in failed states which constituted a permissive environment for terrorists, were organizing to kill our citizens. It was our job specifically to get inside those groups, to reveal what was going on, and to work in partnership to stop it—a task, albeit in different contexts, that is as old as SIS.

CTC: How shocking was it to discover that there were British nationals involved in these networks? The July 7 attacks of 2005 were the archetypal example of this link, but there were also many other plots, as well as Brits fighting with the Taliban when the Americans went into Afghanistan. How much did that particular community become a focus of work?

Younger: It was not a shock in the sense that we had already seen al-Qa`ida rather successfully—the ideology, that is—appear within communities that should otherwise call the United Kingdom home. People born here and who nonetheless conceive for various complex reasons to be in a state of war with their own country. So, it was not intellectually out of kilter, but speaking as a British citizen, someone who lives here and cherishes the values the U.K. espouses, it still remains a profoundly shocking fact. I am a huge beneficiary of all of the things that are good about this country, and I make it a principle of life to try to put myself in other people’s positions to try to understand their choices. But I nonetheless find it extraordinary that a country that has provided succor to people is turned upon in this way.

But what I think is not the important thing. The important thing is for us to properly understand the thought processes and conditions that lead to people making these choices. To deal with this problem in the longer term, we have to understand these underlying issues and deal with them. We in the CT [counterterrorism] community working in the Pursue strand of our strategya are not the solution here. What we are is the means for buying time and a way to suppress the problem, to provide space so that the political, psychological, social, and cultural aspects that lie at the heart of this problem can be fully addressed.

CTC: Beyond Afghanistan, were there any parts of the world SIS was particularly focused on when it was going after the threat?

Younger: I always thought we had two jobs. One was to join the community of nations in bearing down on the networked jihadi threat; be part of a networked solution to a networked threat. Additionally, I was very conscious of our need to play our part as a globally engaged power across the globe in dealing with these problems. Things that happened in far-off countries affected us and others. It was very difficult to isolate the terrorist problem to a specific geography, and it was our job to be making a contribution to counter the problem.

But I also felt that we are a medium-sized power, and it would be a huge mistake to set ourselves up as a global policeman. We are just not suited for that, and I do not think there is a particular appetite within the U.K. to play that role. It simply is not practical. So our priority needed to be to bear down on places and people that were generating a direct threat, either to the U.K. or to our citizens and allies. The most forbidding and essential aspect to a successful counterterrorism campaign is to prioritize. You naturally prioritize on the threats to the lives of our citizens and those of our allies. So that takes you to places where we have a contiguous geography in all senses of the word, not just physical but human and societal, and so in particular South Asia: India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Our links to that whole region are profoundly enriching for our country, but sadly, there is a negative aspect. These links are exploited by extremists.


CTC: How did SIS change its practices of working with other agencies and allies in the United States and elsewhere as a result of 9/11? What were the most significant changes you observed in its wake?

Younger: To extend my recipe about effective CT, I would say it is one percent inspiration and 99 percent teamwork. Suddenly, and bear in mind intelligence services are broadly configured around the need-to-know principle, counterterrorism forced us to rapidly shift to a dare-to-share principle. It became evident that the risks of not sharing frequently in counterterrorism were far more forbidding than the risks of sharing. It was a complete inversion of our normal paradigm.

We embarked—it has to be said, led by the United States—in an aggressive pursuit of effective partnership with the countries where the threat was coming from. Which, of course, immediately generated a set of really serious ethical and legal considerations because normally you are partnering with a country that’s very different from a prototypical Western liberal democracy, and this brings a whole set of challenges with it. And that was the thing that hit us pretty quickly. There was a lot that was familiar about the task, which for SIS since 1909 has been about finding out what is going on and doing something about it. But there is something about counterterrorism and the need to share to be effective, and the need to do something with what you find while remaining consistent with your laws and values, that brought with it a set of really new and very difficult disciplines into play almost overnight. That was tough because it was matched with the impulse I described in the speech you mentioned earlier, which is to do stuff. And our absolute impulse, which I’m still proud of, was to get out there and be shoulder to shoulder with the United States, which had suffered the most grievous attack.

CTC: 9/11 happened as we were on the cusp of the current information revolution. Al-Qa`ida was quite an early adopter of the internet. Could you talk us through the complexities of adopting to this new world and how it might have impacted intelligence collection and counterterrorism in particular?

Younger: I think it was most important on the CT capability side: information sharing, data discovery, recognizing that huge holdings of data would very rarely make any sense unless they were compared with other huge holdings of data. That was the really big issue and change. It was actually on our side of the fence rather than the terrorists’ where the data and technology was most important. When it comes to our adversaries, it is worth remembering this was 2002. The internet as a means of propagating ideas was still pretty nascent. You have to fast forward to Daesh [the Islamic State] before you get to the profoundly internet-enabled terrorist phenomenon that is such a major preoccupation today. And there wasn’t any cyber component to the threat; I think there were a couple of small attempts at cyber-terrorism, but I don’t think anyone seriously attempted that with any great effort or impact.

Predominantly for me, the bigger change was the astonishing revolution that took place in the latter part of my career where we had access to abundant information, technical data, and other things, and struggled to figure out how to manage and decipher it all. The real issue was, again ensuring it was done in a manner that was lawful and consistent with our values, using that information to get the right answer before terrorists acted.

CTC: With the Arab Spring and the death of Usama bin Ladin, there was a sense 10 years ago that the global jihadi terror threat was waning. But within just a few years, the Islamic State had taken control of vast swaths of Syria and Iraq and embarked on a global terror campaign. Was SIS surprised by the speed and extent of the rise of the Islamic State? What for you are the lessons learned for the future when it comes to identifying and confronting such gathering threats as early as possible?

Younger: I don’t think the phenomenon of Daesh itself was a surprise insofar as you could see in the situation in Iraq a sort of textbook environment for radicalization. The speed of it was absolutely a surprise, and the asymmetric success that Daesh enjoyed in 2014 was pretty stunning. I am sure you will remember those images. That was a shock. However, a significant galvanizing factor was quite particular to that time and place. Essentially, hardline elements of Saddam’s former intelligence apparatus rapidly changed sides and brought a pretty hardcore level of security expertise to what I think otherwise would have been quite a disparate insurgency. It was a really evil combination of a rapidly intensifying and mutating jihadist ideology galvanized in a pretty cynical way by a lot of former Soviet-trained Iraqi operatives. And that produced what we subsequently saw, which was an incredibly intractable and difficult security problem. Allied to this was the more modern phenomenon that we have just been talking about, which is their realization and capacity to conduct a digital campaign and propagate the jihadist single narrative in a far more sophisticated way than had been possible hitherto.

It was also profoundly worrying to see the caliphate set up as a working example of the jihadist ideology on earth, operating and to the extent that it did. And that success, while it lasted, pulled people in, which was a significant source of threat to us as those people were pulled from their host communities, including here in the U.K., and retained links back home alongside the capacity to use those links. I remember thinking at the time that this was an open-ended, toxic, and extraordinarily dangerous situation. One of the things I am most proud of is the role we played in removing the caliphate from Syria. It remains in many important ways an unfinished and very open situation, but if I cast my mind back to, say, 2014 and you had told me we would ultimately prevail over the caliphate, that would have been, in my mind, a very good outcome. Not least because specific British operators within Daesh were very prominent in the group’s campaign and a source of extreme national shame and embarrassment.

CTC: Could you tell us a bit more about the indicators you saw for the rise of the Islamic State? Looking at that experience, are there any other parts of the world where you could envision something similar happening?

Younger: I remember at the time being very concerned about the way that [Syrian leader Bashar al-] Assad was behaving towards his own people and the brutality he was meting out. I think this in large part was what would feed the Daesh phenomenon. But even with hindsight, we can’t beat ourselves up for failing to see the speed and scale with which it happened, because it is quite a dramatic butterfly effect, in the sense that small changes to the inputs made a large difference to the outputs. There were several different, unrelated factors that coincided to put Daesh’s development at the worse end of anybody’s expectations of what might happen. In large part, this surprise is why they were so militarily successful, because they were just moving so much faster than anyone’s understanding of the threat.

CTC: What is interesting looking back is that in the end, the United Kingdom did not face the same sort of threat as continental Europe from the Islamic State terrorist organization in Syria and Iraq. What plots we did see were of a much smaller magnitude than, for example, the November 2015 Paris attacks. It could be that you and your colleagues were just doing a fantastic job and that’s what kept the threat away, but I wonder was there anything else to it. Was there anything about the way the United Kingdom was connected to the battlefield that seemed different to the earlier wave of al-Qa`ida-linked threats from South Asia? Can you tell us why you think the United Kingdom did not end up with the same sort of threat?

Younger: Well, I think we had a head start in terms of doing counterterrorism for decades and learning some very hard lessons in part through mistakes. We learned early the importance of being joined up within our various security services, which placed us ahead of the pack. We therefore likely did pose a more difficult environment for terrorists to operate in than the average in Europe. But I would not want to exaggerate that lead. The reality is that we were all vulnerable and we all faced this phenomenon together.

Looking back, however, the role of charismatic and prominent individuals should not be underestimated, so part of the reason that brought the particular intensity of threat to both France and Belgium was that their nationals happened to be in influential and capable positions within the caliphate. And so in that sense, for them it was really a case of bad luck. But that’s how it was. And if you take that reality alongside the fact that those countries are not islands and that firearms are therefore more accessible than they are in the U.K., then you have some part of the answer to the question. We will not ever, of course, absolutely know the answer, but I would also highlight that European counterterrorism capabilities at that time were growing much more effective and continued to [do] so.

CTC: Twenty years on from 9/11, there is again this sense that the global jihadi threat is in retreat. What is your assessment? Have you been surprised by the growth of the Islamic State in Africa in particular? Where do you think we may see jihadi threats coming from next?

Younger: It is really difficult to speculate. Broadly speaking, I would say that the threat is less than it was, and I would link that to the successes we have had in terms of suppressing the networks in Syria and Afghanistan. This is combined with a much more effective counterterrorism machine across the technical, foreign, and domestic spaces that are much better integrated than they were. Our counterterrorism capability is an order of magnitude more effective and capable than it was in the past.

Set against this reality are two issues. One, as the Manchester attack illustrated,b a spontaneous, non-directed attack is just as devastating as networked plots. Terrorism is now more spontaneous and delegated, but that does not mean it is less dangerous, something the Manchester attack sadly showed. But terrorism of this sort is a different type of problem, and in some ways, it has now reverted to being much more conditioned or sensitive to the domestic conditions in the target country, rather than being primarily something that is directed from abroad (in the U.K. at least). It is still fundamentally underpinned by a single narrative, which is very effectively propagated online by groups like Daesh and al-Qa`ida.

Yet, at the same time, it is also at the moment pleasing to see that international terrorist networks, both al-Qa`ida and Daesh, are to some extent in abeyance because we have been successful against them. There is no real cause to pause and celebrate that fact because Africa and the Sahel are looking dangerous and difficult. In addition, there is, of course, Afghanistan.

CTC: MI5 Director General Ken McCallum recently warned that terrorists will seek to take advantage from the U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.2 In the wake of the fall of Kabul, how concerned are you by this, and what needs to be done to ensure that Western intelligence is best placed to detect and thwart any future international attack plotting from the country?

Younger: The sudden collapse of the Afghan government was brought on by [a] set of unforgivable unforced errors. Trump’s inexplicable decision to abandon any political conditionality in his withdrawal “negotiations,” his immoral pact with the Taliban that essentially made it OK to attack Afghans, if Americans were left alone, creating a dynamic that led directly to the collapse of the Afghan Army. And the Biden administration’s tactical missteps: the abrupt removal of all enablers, and the decision to do this in the middle of the fighting season. All without any meaningful allied consultation.

The consequences are [evident]: harrowing scenes at the airport; Afghans who chose to support us left behind; and the loved ones of our fallen soldiers asking what it was all for.

And they are strategic: this sends a damaging message. It is a humiliation for the “West” and represents encouragement for despots and autocrats everywhere who know they can simply wait for Western democratic resolve to weaken with the passage of time. I was in Afghanistan in the period after the Soviets left. Najibullah’s government proved to have far more staying power [than] the one we chose to underpin at vastly higher cost. What does that say?

Even in these circumstances, though, it is important to retain some balance. The idea that this somehow represents the end of American power is grossly overdone. When it comes to counterterrorism, we would be wise to remember that U.S. agencies, particularly the CIA, have been at the forefront of developing the most powerful global CT network ever known; there are people alive in all of our countries who would not be, were it not for their efforts. Their work, capability, and partnership will become more important, not less.

Most importantly, however crass U.S. policy might appear, it does represent a welcome if belated realization that there is rarely a pure military solution to a terrorist problem. The causes are ultimately political, and so must be the end game. It became obvious a number of years ago that nation building, Western style, was either wholly impracticable or beyond the resources allied nations were prepared to commit. A way had to be found to integrate politically the powerful Pashtun nationalist faction represented by the Taliban. But the leadership to do this, including in Afghanistan, was not there. I do believe that the comparatively light Western military presence could have been maintained much longer and used much more effectively as a bargaining chip. But it was not the solution.

What does this mean for the threat? That depends on what the Taliban do next. They have sought to project a reassuring message, but history teaches us to approach this with caution. We discussed earlier what it was like in 2001/2002: how stunning it was to discover the degree of terrorist infrastructure that existed in Afghanistan, specifically in the Tora Bora complex. There had been a wholesale state capture by al-Qa`ida of Afghanistan, to a degree that none of us could have really imagined. Right there you have a worked example of what happens when Afghanistan is left unsupported and to its own devices. The Taliban took over and were wholly permissive to al-Qa`ida, who, in turn, organized at almost military-scale capability to attack our countries. You have to ask yourself why that wouldn’t happen again, because obviously it could as it has happened before. There are a few factors that make the current situation different. Clearly the Taliban are not stupid and will have noticed what happens to them when they allow people to operate out of their territory in the manner that al-Qa`ida did before 2001. So while they might be conflicted, I imagine this will weigh on their considerations. Afghanistan itself is also a very different place and the population has very different expectations than they would have had in the 1990s. So not everything is the same, making a clean comparison complicated.

My main plea is that we remain engaged across the intelligence, defense, security, diplomatic, humanitarian piece. That’s much more difficult if you do not have a security or even diplomatic presence on the ground, but history shows us what happens when you turn your back on Afghanistan.

Above all, we need an approach by regional states that rises above their narrow struggle to assert sectoral interests that it has been Afghanistan’s tragedy to host.

CTC: With the U.S. and NATO militarily withdrawal from Afghanistan and the resulting Taliban takeover of the country, how do you think regional powers like China, Russia, Iran, and of course Pakistan will react going forward? What is their long-term view of Afghanistan and the terrorist threats there, and how do you think they will try to mitigate them?

Younger: I think this is a very good example of ‘be careful what you wish for.’ All of those powers in their different guises have been campaigning for NATO to leave for some time, and we are now where we are. They will undoubtedly enjoy the reputational damage that this causes the Western coalition, but beyond that, I cannot see how this is going to improve their security situation in any way. Most obviously, China has a border with Afghanistan. We do not have any physical border there. We are a long way away, and yet we have been the ones essentially being custodians of security. Clearly, there is going to be a lot of thought going on in Beijing about how what is now an open flank is going to be dealt with. There has been a lot of speculation about how Belt and Road [Initiative] can be used to exploit what at one level is a new opportunity in Afghanistan, but the reality is that this is a highly unstable and radicalized place that borders one of China’s most sensitive regions.

With Russia and Iran, it is a pretty similar story. With Pakistan, we have just seen exactly the successful, radicalized, Pashtun Islamist takeover [in Afghanistan], that much of their security apparatus has facilitated and worked for over years, seeing, as they did, a stable Afghanistan as a source of strength to India. Wiser heads have pointed out that Pakistan’s stability depends on successful control of its own radicalized Pashtun elements, a task that will be rendered close to impossible with a radicalized Islamist takeover of their western neighbor.

CTC: In this era of great power competition, there is concern that countries might start to use (or increase their use of) terrorist groups as proxies to strike against each other, especially in a situation with an asymmetrically powerful United States. How do you see this issue? To what degree might shifting prioritization away from counterterrorism to great power competition impact counterterrorism capability?

Younger: I think states and terrorism have always been intertwined to some degree because terrorism happens in geographies. You could also argue that the al-Qa`ida phenomenon distorted all of our longer-term security priorities, but most specifically those of the United States. When the history is written, you will probably see that the U.S. response to a rising China was more muted because it was prioritizing the terrorist threat posed by al-Qa`ida. I think we’re still a bit too close to that to be able to really judge this balance. But what is certain is that great power competition introduces a potential existential threat in a way that counterterrorism does not. What terrorism does, which is almost as difficult and certainly as pernicious, is undermine the social fabric of our countries. This is why governments take it so seriously and why there is so little tolerance of it. But clearly when it comes to conventional destructive power, an international conflict is a far more significant issue.

To look at the question of use of terrorist proxies: With the advent of hybrid warfare, states, and most prominently non-democratic states, have become adept at integrating all aspects of national power into their security toolkit. Relationships with militant groups can and have become another of those tools. You cannot rule out the possibility of these things being used to attack us. Look at the way Russia has used militant groups in the Ukraine.

CTC: The recent U.K. Integrated Review stated that “It is likely that a terrorist group will launch a successful CBRN attack by 2030.”3 According to a May 2021 report by an U.N. investigative team looking at Islamic State activity in Syria and Iraq, “evidence already secured indicates that ISIL tested biological and chemical agents and conducted experiments on prisoners as part of [a biological and chemicals weapons] programme, causing death.”4 Given the intelligence you saw come out of Syria and Iraq, how concerned are you about this threat vector?

Younger: These are difficult attacks to mount, so I would say they are unlikely, but they are very high impact. So it is a classic example of low-likelihood, high-impact threat, which is the sort of problem that is very difficult to deal with. That is, however, our life in the intelligence business. Particularly the issue of how you prioritize your effort against that specifically is hard. My way of getting out of that conundrum is to observe that, broadly speaking, it is the same individuals who are involved in the broad range of all terrorist activity. So insofar as your strategy needs to, and I believe it does need to, be focusing on key individuals and networks and key geographies, I do not think that this approach is invalidated by any expectation of the CBRN threat being more or less likely. You could, if it got sufficiently serious, take the completely opposite view and start going after it as a particular category of problem and look at it in those terms, but I think my advice would still, broadly speaking, be it is the same thing and the same people coming to attack us, just in a very wide variety of different ways, which will include CBRN. Clearly, they are hankering after the most spectacular impact they possibly can achieve.

CTC: In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been renewed concern that terrorists or other bad actors could obtain or engineer and then deploy a more dangerous virus than even SARS-CoV-2. As the 2018 U.S. Strategy for Countering WMD Terrorism noted, “advances in biotechnology could theoretically allow even a single individual working in a laboratory to engineer pathogens that could have catastrophic effects.”5 What is your assessment of the biological threat landscape and what role can intelligence agencies play in preventing an engineered pandemic from materializing?

Younger: Clearly you have got a worked example in front of us. I have no idea if terrorist leaders noticed and wanted to do something similar, but I would be very surprised if that thought has not occurred to them. I would have thought, though, that the same logic applied as we were just discussing about CBRN threats more broadly. Having said that, we clearly do not want to suffer from a lack of imagination about what might happen, as arguably was the case before 9/11. We need to conceive that something like that could happen, but sadly, that is all too easy to do. I hope that as our intelligence services are collecting throughout the world, they are staying highly sensitized to this possibility, but what the signatures of that activity would be and if they would essentially be different to all the stuff that we ordinary do, I do not know.

CTC: In the wake of the events of January 6, there has been growing concern around the world about the threat posed by far-right extremism and its increasing transnational interconnectivity. According to MI5 Director General McCallum, “Of the 29 late-stage attack plots disrupted [in the United Kingdom] over the last four years, fully 10 have been Extreme Right Wing.”6 To what extent has going after violent extreme far-right networks been a priority for SIS, and do you think it will be a priority in the future?

Younger: I think it is incredibly serious. The concerns I have about terrorism writ large, but hitherto Islamist terrorism, are the effect that they have in degrading trust between citizens. It is trust that underpins our democracy and our social cohesion. So it is nothing to be taken lightly. In some ways, maybe the rising extreme right is the reaction that terrorists have sought to precipitate, but I actually think it is much broader than that and a function of a whole set of phenomena that we see in the modern age—most specifically, the internet.

The extreme right would become an issue for people like me while I was working for SIS if it was predominantly organized overseas and was done in an organized way, and unless those two facts are true, frankly there is not a lot we can bring to the party. My view is that it probably is not the situation at the moment. So in that sense, and you will have heard it from what Ken said, it remains a really significant and rising domestic preoccupation.

CTC: The lack of much external direction and links makes it less of a focus and role for SIS?

Younger: Were we to see a replica of the scenario we saw in 2001, when a group of terrorists that were organizing in a failed state, successfully radicalizing people within the U.K. to carry out attacks here, that would change things undoubtedly and bring it front and center for SIS. But that’s not how I would characterize it at the moment. There have been some individuals going to foreign battlefields like Ukraine, and we saw the same thing happen with elements of the Yugoslavia civil war. I am not ruling it out as a possibility, but I do not think at the moment we see that.     CTC

Substantive Notes
[a] Editor’s Note: The United Kingdom’s counterterrorism strategy (called Contest) has four pillars:
Prevent: to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism
Pursue: to stop terrorist attacks
Protect: to strengthen protection against a terrorist attack
Prepare: to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack

[b] Editor’s Note: On May 22, 2017, 22 people were murdered when Salman Abedi detonated a bomb in a crowd leaving a music concert at Manchester Arena. “Manchester attack: Who were the victims?” BBC, June 17, 2021.

Citations
[1] Alex Younger, “MI6 ‘C’ speech on fourth generation espionage,” U.K. Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Secret Intelligence Service, December 3, 2018.

[2] “Director General Ken McCallum gives annual threat update 2021,” MI5, July 14, 2021.

[3] “Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy,” Cabinet Office, updated July 2, 2021.

[4] “Sixth report of the Special Adviser and Head of the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant,” United Nations Security Council, May 3, 2021, p. 9.

[5] “U.S. National Strategy for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism,” December 2018, p. 1.

[6] “Director General Ken McCallum gives annual threat update 2021.”

It has been a very busy month in the world and in work terms, and have been delinquent about posting. So quite a lot of catching up to do over the next few days. First up is a piece for an outlet I used to contribute to quite regularly, the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor on a topic that I used to cover annually for them, providing a short review of the annual Europol Annual Terrorist Threat report. This year’s highlighted the problem of lone actors in particular as the core of the terrorist threat. As with all these sorts of reports, the data collection requires caveats, but the trends are nonetheless very interesting.

New Europol Report Warns of Lone Actors and Analyzes Decrease in Terrorism in 2020

Terrorism Monitor: Volume 19, Issue: 15

Source: europarl.europa.eu

In late June, Abdirahman Jibril A, a 24-year-old Somali migrant legally residing in Germany, walked barefoot into a Woolworth shop in the center of Würzburg, Bavaria asking for the kitchenware department. Once there, he took a large kitchen knife and started attacking people. When he was finally brought down by police and pedestrians, he had murdered three people and injured seven others.

The attack came only a week after the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol) had launched its latest annual report, which highlighted that lone actor terrorism of this sort is the sharp end of the threat Europe faces. Most worrying for Europol chief, Catherine de Bolle, was the fact that “more jihadist terrorist attacks were completed than thwarted during 2020.” While absolute numbers of such attacks remain low at 15 attacks recorded over the year, the lone actor threat remains a critical gap in European counterterrorism.

Comparing the Attackers in Würzburg and France

At time of writing, details around the Würzburg attacker were lacking. Authorities in Germany seemed divided between whether he was a terrorist or suffering from some sort of mental crisis at the time of the attack. While he was reported as having shouted “Allahu Akhbar” during the attack, authorities appear not to have concluded that he consumed much jihadist or other radical material prior to the attack. Discussions with family members have also not clarified the extent of his radicalization (tagesspiegel, July 15). Some reports indicated a history of serious mental issues, including hearing voices and believing himself to be followed by the authorities (Welt, July 2). The attack seems part of a pattern of incidents highlighted in the Europol report whereby “some lone attackers in 2020 again displayed a combination of extremist ideology and mental health issues. This made it difficult at times to distinguish between terrorist attacks and violence caused by mental health problems.”

In some cases, authorities have gone so far as to blame COVID-19 for attacks. The Europol report mentions, “At an individual level, there is a risk that the situation created by the pandemic could be an additional stress factor for radicalized individuals with mental health problems. As a result, lone actors might turn to violence sooner than they would have done under different circumstances.” French authorities in particular have suggested that two cases almost exactly a year apart reflect this trend, with mental strain pushing individuals previously not known to authorities to launch extremist attacks.

The first attack in Romans-sur-Isère came just as lockdowns were starting in France in April 2020 and was conducted by a Sudanese migrant who murdered two people and injured five others waiting in a shop. He was found to have extremist material, though ultimately he was placed into a secure mental health unit (lemonde.com, May 11). Almost exactly a year later, a Tunisian man who had lived in France for several years attacked staff at a police station in Rambouillet, leading to one death. This attacker was as unknown to authorities as the man in Romans-sur-Isère and was listening to extremist material at the time of his attack. He was shouting “Allahu Akhbar” during his attack before being killed by police. Authorities are still unclear about his radicalization process, although indicators, including his online activity, appear to suggest it may have in part been triggered by COVID-19 lockdowns (lexpress.fr, April 25).

Diminishing Mainstream Jihadism and Right- and Left-Wing Terrorism?

Notwithstanding the attacks in Würzburg and France, the Europol report is notable for highlighting the more mainstream jihadist activity that might have been expected has not materialized. The report mentions that few people sought to travel to foreign terrorist battlefields in the past year, and downplayed the criminal-terrorism nexus. It stated, “In the EU, there is little evidence of systematic cooperation between criminals and terrorists…The nexus between crime and jihadist terrorism mainly manifested itself through financing sources as well as within prisons.”

The report highlighted that a third of the attacks identified during the reporting year involved individuals who had previous criminal charges for terrorism offences. However, it downplayed the link, stating that “recidivism among terrorism convicts in Europe is relatively low.” A lingering sense of threat from the western Balkans is felt throughout the report, however, as the successful Vienna attacker in November 2020 revealed a terrorist network linked to Islamic State (IS) and the Middle East (Terrorism Monitor, December 3, 2020).

Beyond violent Islamists, the report also discussed extreme right-wing terrorism as a threat, although reported numbers are relatively low. The report, for example, identified one successful extreme right-wing attack in Hanau, Germany in February 2020 (dw.com, February 20, 2020). However, it made the point that while that shooter was clearly racist, it was unclear the degree to which he was connected to any other networks.  The report also highlighted three other disrupted attacks in Belgium, Germany, and France, the growing trajectory right wing extremist youths, and the importance of online communities for this contingent (brusselstimes.com, July 28, 2020; euronews.com, January 28, 2020; francebleu.fr, May 29, 2020).

Also notable is that Europol reported that there were more actual attacks on the far-left and anarchist side of the coin than from right-wing extremists, although the former did not result in any fatalities. According to the report, some 24 attacks were reported in Italy, with another one disrupted in France. An example of the incidents in Italy was a parcel bomb sent to Giuseppe Pasini, the leader of the Brescia industry association and Chair of local Steelmaker Feralpi Group in September 2020 (Giornale di Brescia, September 23, 2020).

More recently, Italian authorities noted an increase in anarchist violence directed at authorities and COVID-19 response centers, television transmitters, ATMs, and other public defacements (Panorama, April 21). This reflects Europol reporting in 2019 where more than 20 incidents were recorded in Italy, as well as in Spain and Greece, and a broader trend in Europe whereby left-wing/anarchist groups tend to be more active in southern European countries (Europol, June 2020). While for the most part they are involved in letter bomb and firebombing campaigns that cause damage to property rather than life, the Council of the European Union held a discussion on July 7, 2021 to examine whether the seeming escalation of the threat required a greater focus from a higher level (Council of the European Union, July 1).

Conclusion

The overall narrative from Europol reporting is that terrorist threats in Europe are down, though the agency hesitates to say this is a result of lowered activity and speculates that the downturn might be linked to COVID-19-related restrictions. It states, “This decrease, however, is not necessarily linked to decreased terrorist activities. The UK cautioned that the decline in terrorism-related arrests and convictions can also be attributed to the operational changes necessary under government restrictions imposed in March 2020, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Published in the middle of 2021, it is notable that the trends highlighted in the report for 2020 appear to have carried forward. Thus far, few violent Islamist attacks have taken place in Europe, and those that have taken place are similar to the Würzburg attack, including an incident in Vetlanda, Sweden in March, another stabber in Dresden, Germany days after the Würzburg attack, and a former terrorist offender who attacked a police officer in France in May (politico.eu, March 4; tagesspiegel.de, July 6; France24.com, May 28). All were identified in reporting as individuals ideologically inspired and troubled. Meanwhile, the case in May of Jurgen Conings in Belgium, who tried to kill a virologist before dying while in hiding in the wilderness, highlighted the danger on the far right (politico.eu, June 20). Isolated individuals launching one-man terrorist campaigns appear to be the sharp end of the terrorist threat in Europe for the moment.

A new piece which I recognize has a certain level of irony imbued within it – making the point that an extremist leader is best starved of the oxygen of publicity by writing about him in a national newspaper. But still, it felt a significant point to make. I noted during his press conference announcing the end of his restrictions apparently someone walked past and shouted at him. As quoted in the Telegraph, “one passerby, of South Asian origin, shouted: “You don’t speak for us”.” So maybe he is finally on his way out. But I suspect this is not the last we have heard from Anjem Choudary I am afraid. In any case, here is my short comment for the Times Red Box column.

How do we silence Anjem Choudary? Start by switching off the microphone

David Rose for The Telegraph


As the rest of the UK celebrated the end of Covid restrictions, Anjem Choudary celebrated his return to free speech. Having been jailed for inviting people to support Islamic State, he was freed in 2018 and had been living under restrictive licence conditions until now.

But being able to speak is not the same as a return to influence. This is not something that will be entirely determined by the restrictions he is living under. The real determinant is the degree to which he is welcomed back into the public debate as a figure representing a part of society.

This is something we can all determine around him and something he will struggle to control.

There is no denying the damage his organisation, al Muhajiroun, has done. The last two violent Islamist terrorist attacks in this country to kill innocent people were conducted by individuals that had some contact with the organisation.

This is the latest chapter in an almost three-decade history for the group. Go back to before September 11, 2001 and the group and its people are a regular feature of most terrorist investigations.

Yet it is also the case that it is not clear how much the organisation has managed to grow and develop further in the past few years. Choudary was the most prominent leader of an organisation that struggles to mobilise in the same way as it used to.

One of its more prominent remaining leaders, Shakil Chopra, was jailed a couple of weeks ago for sharing extremist videos. Others are living under restrictive conditions that are designed to consume their time and constrain their ability to meet with others or radicalise further.

Of course no system is perfect, but these restrictive measures do have a corrosive effect on capability.

It has been some time since we have seen a large-scale terrorist plot prosecuted in our courts of a scale comparable to those that were being disrupted in the mid-2000s when al Qaeda used a pipeline of followers that al Muhajiroun had helped build to direct a series of attacks towards the UK.

Rather we have seen atrocities that have been sporadic and occasional with no clarity about the role of terrorist groups or al Muhajiroun. It is not clear how many new followers the group is generating in the same way as it did before.

Security services continue to worry about violent Islamists, but it is not clear how much of this threat is still linked to al Muhajiroun in the same way as before.

The residual parts of the network continue to exist, but are under continual scrutiny. Choudary’s release provides a moment at which it could try to regenerate, but he will be watched closely and will struggle to mobilise people in the same way as before.

And anyway, in some ways the world has moved on. Al Muhajiroun’s narrative does not work in the same way as it used to. They used to shout about an Islamic State — it was built by Isis and there was considerable criticism for those in the organisation who did not go and join it.

Those being drawn towards extremist narratives today have not always heard of Choudary in the same way. Some in extremist communities ridicule his ilk as “microphone jihadis” who are all talk.

A key to him not getting back to the position he was in before is to starve him of his microphone and ensure that he is not the dominating news figure that he was. While this will not get rid of him, it will reduce his attractiveness.

His provocative interviews would draw people to him and create an aura of influence and power, which he was adept at manipulating to open up people to ideas that in some cases would lead them down a path towards violence.

There is of course a certain irony in writing this in an article about him for a major national website, but it is worth stating nonetheless: starving Anjem Choudary of his microphone will reduce his power and influence. Without it, he will simply become another aging ideologue whose followers are jailed, dead or drifting away.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at Royal United Services Institute

Had a busy week publishing with three short pieces out on a fairly disparate selection of topics, though all ones that I have done work on in the past. First up is a short piece with my excellent former RSIS colleague Sinan for the wonderful Indian think tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF). Big thanks to Kabir for helping get it published. It builds on a previous piece Sinan and myself did for RSIS, and is a topic which would merit much more work going forwards as the picture in the Maldives is very unclear.

Targeting of a former president highlights the growing challenge of extremism in Maldives

The attempted murder of the former Maldivian President and current Speaker Mohammed Nasheed has highlighted once again the challenges of extremism in the South Asian island nation. The Maldivian authorities have arrested 14 individuals in total, and as of May 29, the government has accused four individuals of planning a conspiracy to conduct terrorist attacks, supporting a foreign terrorist group, and recruiting individuals to partake in terrorist activity overseas.

The Home Affairs Minister, Imran Abdulla, has commented that there are numerous individuals in the islands who possess IED training, and the tiny nation has the unfortunate boast of being one of the countries with the highest per capita rates of jihadists who have left to fight in Iraq and Syria, all highlighting the depth and complexity of the violent Islamist threat that the Maldives faces. But at the same time, this threat background is not new, suggesting that a greater understanding is needed to understand the drivers of violence on the islands. Overreaction can be as dangerous as underreaction—calibrating that balance in the Maldives is going to be key.

A brief history of terrorism in the Maldives

Like much of the world, the Maldivian economy, which in ordinary times is reliant on tourism which contributes over 30 percent of GDP, has been depressed as a result of COVID-19. Coming out from the pandemic, it will need tourism numbers to pick up rapidly once again. But this beautiful tourist destination has also faced its fair share of terrorist complications. These date back to the war in Afghanistan and the jihad in Kashmir in the late 1990s, where individual Maldivians were found fighting alongside extremist organisations.

According to Maldivian specialists, there was a surge in the spread of extremist ideas in the wake of the 2004 Tsunami. In part, this was thanks to groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba taking advantage of the situation to establish a charitable foothold which then gave them an ability to recruit locally, but it was also thanks to the spread of a more exclusive form of Islam that flowed from different parts of the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia’s austere Salafi Islam, in particular, made its way to the nation giving the already disgruntled citizens a more intolerant religious ideology which mixed badly with the rampant corruption, poverty, and contrasting opulence reserved for tourists.

One result of this radicalisation was a bombing in 2007 that injured a group of mostly Chinese tourists at the Malé Sultan Park. This incident led to a crackdown on local Islamist networks, including the arrest of a number of preachers. After this, there was a reported silence in terms of incidents within the Maldives, though reports repeatedly emerged on Maldivians showing up in foreign battlefields or alongside other networks around the region.

Then in 2015, former President Abdullah Yameen was targeted in an explosion that took place on his boat; and in 2017 a prominent blogger, Yameen Rasheed, was stabbed to death near his home. Responsibility in both cases was unclear, with fingers being pointed at both extremists and political adversaries. In March 2020, a police boat was set on fire by Moosa Inaas, a man who was previously involved and jailed for the 2007 bombings.

New actors

Most worryingly, in 2020, there were stabbings of tourists; these incidents were claimed by Islamists with alleged links to the Islamic State in the nation, prompting further fear. This was in addition to some government-owned boats being set on fire (April 2020) in an incident that the ISIS claimed responsibility for.

The picture that is left is an opaque one. The attacks that have taken place appear to focus largely on politically connected figures or on tourists. While suspicions have repeatedly fallen on Islamists, it is not always clear that they are responsible. Since the establishment of the Islamic State in 2014, the country has been pushed into the spotlight. Evidence of this is seen in Sawt al-Hind’s (Voice of India)  publications where this regional online propoganda magazine has been used to claim or laud attacks that have taken place in the Maldives.

But while there has yet been no clear claim of responsibility for the attack on Speaker Nasheed (ISIS has yet to comment on the incident at all), there is a clear and growing concern around the threat from ISIS or al-Qaeda-inspired extremists. The government accuses the four men who were allegedly involved in the attack on Speaker Nasheed of  supporting and recruiting people for overseas terrorist groups in the name of ‘jihad’; it  is more than likely that  their assessments point to one of the two.

In the aftermath of this bombing, Maldivian Home Affairs Minister Imran Abdulla also noted that over 1,400 extremists were living freely in the Maldives, and some of them had improvised explosive device training. He used this opportunity to call for greater legal powers to detain and rehabilitate extremists.

Uncomfortable questions (and answers)

The bigger problem that the incident casts a light on is the continuing lack of any clear plan in the Maldives about how to address the still lingering question of radicalisation amongst some members of the island’s community. The Home Affairs Minister’s reference to the 1,400 extremists is a worrying set of statistics for a security force which is apparently struggling to provide tight security to one of its most senior politicians. Authorities appear to be willing to repatriate individuals who fought in Syria and Iraq, but it is not clear if there are processes in place to manage their effective de-radicalisation.

In January this year, authorities released a 34-year-old man who had been brought back from Syria the year before with police saying they would merely continue to monitor him. This follows a pattern in which police reportedly undertake arrests and disrupts plots, but infrequently appear to follow up with trials. Moosa Inaas’s case demonstrates the weaknesses in the processes to de-radicalise terrorist convicts.

But in a similar way, the government appears to be struggling on how to manage this threat­—a threat they do not fully comprehend. The ISIS has passed comments about a few incidents in the Maldives, but it is not clear as to why they are not claiming the others. Given the large number of per capita extremists in the islands, the rich number of potential targets in the forms of foreign tourists, the tensions that exist between conservative Muslims on the islands and some of these tourists, and finally the questionable capability of the security force, it is surprising in some ways that more attacks have not been seen.

This highlights an uncomfortable conclusion that has to be explored in the Maldivian context. While it is probable that more incidents are likely to take place, care needs to be taken to not overstate and overreact. There is clearly an intangible balance that exists within the Maldives that has so far kept an explosive situation to a limited (and highly targeted) set of incidents. Understanding this complicated balance is essential before a large-scale counter-extremism and counter-terrorism programming is deployed. Otherwise, a spark might set off something far worse.

Two more longer pieces to get the year going, this time part of my new institutional home ICPVTR at RSIS‘s annual Counter-Terrorist Trends and Analysis (CTTA) which provides an overview of the threat picture in a series of jurisdictions over the past year with some brief thoughts about where things might go. I worked with colleagues Nodir and Kyler separately on two of the pieces, looking at Central Asia and the Extreme Right Wing respectively. Will post both, but would encourage people to read the whole document as it provides a useful overview of threats around the region. First up, however, the Central Asia paper with Nodir.

Central Asia

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan

There were no reported terror attacks in Central Asia (referring to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) in 2020, although the threat of terrorism and radicalisation persisted in the region. The current jihadist threat to Central Asia can be categorised in three ways: i) threats associated with Central Asian nationals fighting in the Afghan and Syrian conflicts and the security implications posed by their potential return home or move to a third country to continue engaging in violent activities; ii) prospective attacks orchestrated by self-radicalised individuals or cells of supporters within Central Asia; and iii) radicalisation of members of Central Asian diaspora communities and their involvement in terror plots.

Central Asian fighters in Syria and Afghanistan

Official estimates indicate that up to 5,650 individuals from the region – 2,000 Tajik, 2,000 Uzbek, 850 Kyrgyz and 800 Kazakh nationals respectively – have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside jihadist groups to date.698 Some foreign newspapers and international organisations have also alluded to the potential presence of fighters from Turkmenistan in the Syrian conflict, although officials in Ashgabat have refrained thus far from publicly addressing the issue.699

Based on observations of online materials released by Central Asian jihadists based in Syria and Iraq, it appears that large segments of Kazakh and Tajik operatives are fighting alongside IS, while Kyrgyz and Uzbek nationals appear to have mostly aligned themselves with Al Qaeda-linked groups.700 To date, an estimated 1,633 (29 percent) of the reported Central Asian nationals have been killed in battle, while another 1,715 (30 percent) individuals, comprising mostly women and children, have been captured (or surrendered) and placed in detention facilities across Syria and Iraq.701 As far as is known, the remaining IS fighters from the region have either gone into hiding or are scattered across ungoverned parts of Syria and Iraq continuing fighting. Others have relocated to conflict zones elsewhere. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda-linked Central Asian groups remain active in the north of Syria.

In Afghanistan, Central Asian fighters continue to appear occasionally, with local authorities regularly referencing their presence. For example, in a November 2020 address at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Leaders’ Summit, Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) Director Jumakhon Giyosov informed that his organisation, a permanent body within the SCO that focuses on terrorist issues, had received intelligence of growing numbers of Central Asian fighters in northern Afghanistan.702 A threat appeared to materialise just over a week later, when a Tajik-led Taliban cell in Badakhshan attacked a police station near the Tajik border, killing 19 Afghan policemen. Following the attack, the cell’s leader made threatening comments in a propaganda video towards Tajikistan, suggesting the group may seek to launch attacks there too.703 Additional threats from Tajik fighters affiliated to the Taliban were also visible elsewhere in Afghanistan, with media reports in August identifying four Tajik nationals as members of a cell involved in an IS-claimed attack on a prison in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad.704

IS’ External Operations Arm Has Weakened

IS-linked Central Asian nationals presently detained in Kurdish prisons include prominent Tajik members of the “Amniyat alKharji” (or “Emni”) – IS’ external operations arm dedicated to organising terrorist attacks outside of Syria and Iraq. In January 2020, Tajik prosecutors revealed that two highranking Tajik IS militants, Parviz Saidrakhmonov (“Abu Dovud”) and Tojiddin Nazarov (“Abu Osama Noraki”), were being held in Syrian prisons, along with several other Tajik IS militants, following capture by Kurdish forces.705 The duo were wanted in Russia and Tajikistan respectively for their alleged links to a number of terror plots in both countries. Swedish authorities claimed the two militants are also part of a Syriabased IS attack network reported to be behind the 2017 Stockholm truck attack.706 Their extradition is still being sought.

There have also been conflicting reports on the fate of Gulmurod Khalimov, Tajikistan‘s former police special operations colonel, who defected to IS in May 2015, and was later promoted as the group‘s ‘War Minister’ in Syria.707 In August 2020, Tajikistan’s Minister of Internal Affairs, Ramazon Rahimzoda Hamro, stated that some IS Tajik fighters who had returned home from Syria testified that Khalimov and his family had been killed in an air strike in Syria.708 However, the minister highlighted that without hard evidence, such testimonies were insufficient to officially declare Khalimov as dead. Tajik authorities had earlier alleged that Khalimov and some of his associates could have relocated to the northeastern Afghan province of Badakhshan.709 In October 2020, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) announced the inclusion of Khalimov in its updated sanctions list, suggesting that official confirmation of his death remains elusive.710

The possible loss of senior figures such as Saidrakhmanov, Nazarov and Khalimov highlights the degree to which IS’ core cadre of Tajik operatives appears to have been weakened. Nonetheless, the recent detention of Tajik nationals over IS-linked terror plots in countries such as Germany and Albania has shown that IS remains connected to its Tajik support base, and is still able to direct supporters to carry out attacks, including, for example by providing them with the necessary operational guidance through dedicated online tutorials or communications via encrypted Internet applications. Throughout the year, the group also continued to produce propaganda material aimed at its Central Asian constituency.

KTJ Stuck in a Rivalry Between HTS and HAD

Al-Qaeda-linked Central Asian combat units such as Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ) and Katibat Imam Al Bukhari (KIB) have remained active in Syria. Both groups, operating under the umbrella of the Al Qaeda-linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist alliance, are predominantly made up of ethnic Uzbek fighters from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

In 2020, both KTJ and KTB were caught in the middle of escalating tensions between HTS, the dominant Islamist militant group in Idlib, and Hurras ad-Din (HAD), one of several other jihadist factions operating in the area. HAD is currently Al Qaeda’s main affiliate in Syria. In June 2020, KTJ’s founder and former leader, “Abu Saloh”, along with two accomplices, defected to Jabhat Ansar al-Din (JAD), a newly-formed jihadist faction closely aligned with HAD.711 Prior to 2016, when it formally severed ties with the global jihadist group, HTS’ predecessor al Nusra Front had been regarded as the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda, and they had fought together under the same umbrella. HAD and HTS have since fallen out.

Since HAD’s inception, hardline elements have criticised HTS, arguing it had abandoned the Al Qaeda agenda, and was alienating itself further by showing a willingness to endorse the ceasefire agreements over Idlib put forward by Turkey and Russia. HAD and other Al Qaeda-linked factions have rejected the Idlib agreement, which they view as “a conspiracy of the occupiers”.712 The accusation, it appears, has undermined HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani’s authority and inspired some of the more hardline factions within HTS to break away from the group.713

Abu Saloh’s defection to JAD triggered a larger migration of fighters. Following in his stead, around 50 KTJ members defected to JAD.714 Al-Julani would later respond to these defections by launching a manhunt for Abu Saloh and other defectors. Soon after, Abu Saloh and the other dissenting fighters were arrested and jailed by HTS in Idlib. Some media reports have speculated that Abu Saloh’s defection might have occurred after the KTJ’s new leadership accused him of stealing a significant amount of money from the baytumal (common budget) of the group.715 Regardless of the true motive, Abu Saloh’s arrest was a significant coup for al Julani. Had he gone unpunished, it could have inspired more defections from KTJ as well as possibly precipitated a fracturing of HTS. Later, al-Julani announced that Abu Saloh and his accomplices could be released, on condition they agreed to return to the HTS fold. Failing this, the HTS leader threatened to charge and punish Abu Saloh for a series of crimes, including embezzlement of group funds and property as well as apostasy.716 His ultimate fate remains unknown.

Abu Saloh’s arrest came as he was stepping back from a leadership role in KTJ. In April 2019, he announced his resignation as leader of the group “to focus on recruitment and fundraising following an injury in a terrorist operation”.717 At the same time, he has maintained a high degree of visibility online, continuing his radical preaching activities under KTJ’s banner and endorsing Al Qaeda’s ideology. Despite his present troubles, some of Abu Saloh’s audio and video preaching materials still exist on the KTJ’s website.

Following its recent leadership reshuffle, some new figures have emerged within KTJ’s upper echelon. The group’s online propaganda materials have introduced “Abdul Aziz” as a successor to Abu Saloh. While referencing his family name as “Khikmatov”, a UN report disclosed that he had fought alongside the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), the Al Qaeda-linked Central Asian group fighting in Afghanistan, for close to two decades prior to joining KTJ in Syria.718 It was later reported that Abu Saloh’s role as the group’s key ideologue was taken over by Akhliddin Novkatiy (Navqotiy), who reportedly arrived from Turkey at the personal invitation of Abdul Aziz.719 The “Navqotiy” name is synonymous with the southern Kyrgyz town of Novqat (or Nookat), hinting it could be his original birthplace. As the new ideological leader of the group, Navqotiy has appeared in a series of audio and video propaganda lectures.

KIB and Other Central Asian Groups in Syria/Afghanistan

KIB is assessed in UN reporting to have a total of 220 fighters in Syria, while about 70 fighters from its military wing are active in Afghanistan.720 In Syria, KIB together with other groups such as KTJ and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) have played a crucial role in defending HTS’ territorial positions in Idlib from the Syrian government’s offensives. KIB’s Afghan wing, while known to operate under the umbrella of the Taliban, has maintained close contact with its central core in Syria.721 It conducts militant operations against Afghan government forces in Faryab and Jowzjan provinces, where ethnic Uzbeks constitute a large portion of the indigenous population. According to data from the United Nations Monitoring Team, KIB’s Afghan wing leader Jumaboi is reported to receive funding from the group’s cell in Istanbul, Turkey via the hawala system.722

In July 2020, KIB released photos on its Telegram channel in which it claimed to have undertaken a joint operation with the Taliban that led to the capture of several Afghan government soldiers.723 Soon after, however, this claim was disputed by the Taliban’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, who countered that the footage circulated by KIB had been stolen from the Taliban’s archive and falsified by “anti-peace elements for
propaganda”.724 It is difficult to interpret this divergence in claims. Notwithstanding KIB overall leader Abu Yusuf Muhajir’s welcoming of the Taliban’s peace agreement with the United States, which he described as “the great victory of the Islamic Ummah”, some elements within KIB clearly oppose the pact.725 Other Central Asian groups based in Afghanistan include the IJU, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and Jamaat Ansarullah (JA). These groups continue operating under the banner of the Taliban, while receiving sanctuary, protection, and training from the movement in return. Their status, however, could be thrown into doubt if the Taliban follows through on its agreement to stop foreign groups from using Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks.

Terrorist Developments Within Central Asia

Despite the global shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, terrorist activities have persisted in many parts of the world, including Central Asia. In 2020, Central Asian countries continued to foil attack plots and arrest several suspected jihadists. In October, Kazakh authorities revealed they had thwarted five terrorist attacks since the beginning of the year, resulting in the arrest of ten suspects.726 The foiled attacks included a reported plot by an IS supporter planning to target mass gatherings with grenades during the Navruz spring festival in Almaty. Another reported plot involved an IS supporter planning to detonate an explosive device in the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan. Both plots were thwarted in March 2020.727

Uzbekistan saw a relative increase in arrests for terrorist recruitment and funding compared to 2019. Uzbek authorities in June 2020 arrested 15 residents in Surkhandarya province, who were reportedly part of an extremist recruitment and fundraising cell linked to KTJ.728 The cell’s ringleader was reportedly radicalised while working as a seasonal worker in Russia, and later recruited members from among his compatriots. While in Russia, the cell members regularly met up to listen to and discuss online audio and video propaganda preached by extremist ideologues such as Abu Saloh, Abdulloh Zufar, and Sodiq Samarqandiy. The suspects, all of whom were reportedly detained upon their return home, were allegedly planning to travel to Syria and had also sent money there to finance KTJ’s activities.729

A similar case emerged in the Uzbek province of Jizzakh, where counterterrorism agencies arrested a group of 23 young men reportedly part of a virtual extremist cell linked to KTJ. The leader of the cell had reportedly been radicalised by extremist ideologies in Turkey and, in turn, began recruiting via the Odnoklassniki and Telegram social networks.730 Later, during two rounds of additional arrests conducted in Tashkent city and Tashkent Province, the police arrested a further 36 men, also with links to KTJ. They had reportedly planned to travel to Syria to fight for the group.731

In August 2020, Tajik authorities revealed that in the first half of the year, the country’s counterterrorism agencies had thwarted two terrorist plots by IS followers targeting police officers in the Rasht and Shakhrinav provinces.732 Authorities used the opportunity of the announcement of the two plots to declare that over the year they had detained 274 people and detected around 900 extremism-related crimes.733

While similar cumulative data is hard to come by in the context of Kyrgyzstan, there was a steady patter of terrorist related activity reported in the country throughout 2020. In February, authorities detained a 23-year-old Kyrgyz citizen who had returned home from abroad intent on recruiting others. The individual had allegedly failed previously to travel to Syria via an unnamed foreign country.734 In October, a foreign individual was arrested, having entered the country also reportedly with the intent to partake in radicalisation activities. He had previously served time for terrorism offences in another Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) country.735 Two others detained in the same month had reportedly undertaken robberies in the southwestern Jalal-Abad Province on behalf of an unnamed militant group. Both had previously fought in Syria for the same group, before returning to Kyrgyzstan.736

Overall, security risks to Central Asia persist, with authorities continuing to report detentions. While the full scope and nature of the terror networks and plots disrupted are rarely made public, strands of reporting repeatedly point to radicalisation taking place in Russia, the significance of social media and regular efforts to send money to Syria.

Central Asia Diaspora Radicalisation Abroad

There continue to be worrying signals of the expansion of a threat from Central Asians outside their home region. More particularly, Central Asian migrant and diaspora communities based in the Republic of Korea, Russia, Turkey, and other parts of Europe, continue to be a target for online jihadi propaganda and recruitment737. In the past year, plots featuring Central Asians were uncovered by authorities in parts of Europe and Russia.

In mid-April 2020, German authorities detained four Tajik nationals over an IS linked terror plot to attack US military facilities and personnel stationed in the country.738 According to the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office, the detainees and their ringleader, who has been in pre-trial custody since his arrest in March 2019, were in a regular contact with two senior IS militants in Syria and Afghanistan, from whom they had reportedly received instructions. While the attacks were not planned for the immediate term, the cell members had already ordered bomb parts online and were stocking up on firearms and ammunition in preparation.739 The reported plan was to target the US air base in Spangdahlem and the NATO AWACS air base near Geilenkirchen, potentially using remote-controlled drones or paragliders armed with explosives.740 Reports also suggested that the individuals had initially sought to return to Tajikistan to launch attacks, but had been re-directed to Europe by their external handlers.741

The detainees were also accused of raising and channeling funds for IS’ core operations in Syria. As part of these fundraising missions, they had reportedly partaken in a murder-for-hire operation in Albania and collected money from Chechens from France who were working on a construction site in Germany. The team deployed for the attempted contract killing operation in Albania had included two Russian-born Chechens from Austria.

All the suspects involved in the plot to attack the US air bases were Tajik citizens residing in Germany as migrants, although much remains unclear about their exact path towards radicalisation. It is believed that none had previously travelled to jihadist conflict zones. The said plot was announced shortly before authorities in Poland detained another group of four Tajiks, reportedly also connected to IS. Along with a fifth individual, who was detained later, they were deported to Tajikistan in September.742 The details of this group’s suspected activities remain sketchy, though they were reportedly accused of recruiting others and potentially being linked to another extremist arrested by Polish authorities in December 2019.743 In October, an IS-linked Tajik national who had been granted asylum in Greece was arrested following an international search operation.744

As in recent years, Russia in 2020 saw a regular diet of arrests involving Central Asians reportedly plotting terrorist activity in the country. In October, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) disrupted a cell reportedly linked to KTJ which was planning terrorist attacks in Volgograd. The cell members, alleged to be in contact with others in Syria, were seeking to attack government buildings, military personnel residences, enterprises and a famous Motherland Calls statue, possibly using firearms and an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). According to the FSB, two members of the cell, who were migrants from an unnamed Central Asian country, were killed at the scene as they resisted surrender. FSB later arrested the other cell members in operations across Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ufa and Maikop, but did not disclose their nationalities.745 Earlier in July, an IS-linked cell that reportedly included Central Asians was disrupted in Rostov-on-Don. The cell leader was killed in a shoot-out with authorities, with narcotics reported subsequently found alongside weapons.746

Most other arrests during the year were, however, of a smaller scale involving isolated individuals. For example, in October, the FSB in Moscow arrested a Central Asian planning an explosion in the city.747 Three months earlier, another individual was shot when he opened fire on officers trying to arrest him. He was reportedly planning a mass shooting in Moscow.748 These arrests, in addition to other arrests and attack plots foiled over the past year, reflect a persistent level of concern by Russian authorities of potential threats from radicalised members of the substantial Central Asian diaspora living within the country.

Responses

On 8 December, Uzbek authorities announced that they brought back 25 women and 73 children from Syria in the latest round of the “Mehr” (‘Kindness’) humanitarian rescue operation.749 However, other countries with similar plans have had to hold back such plans, largely owing to the global pandemic. For example, Tajikistan halted plans to repatriate a group of women and children (about 300) from Syria due to the ongoing lockdowns and other challenges in dealing with the health crisis.750 In spite of this, the relevant governmental and nongovernmental organisations in the three Central Asian states, namely Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, that in recent years have conducted large-scale repatriations, continued to offer the necessary material and social support for the repatriated women and children, to facilitate their reintegration into their respective communities. However, such efforts remain a work in progress given, as various experts have pointed out, transforming the extreme beliefs of some ideologically hardened repatriates has been notoriously slow.

Responses to terrorism have increasingly incorporated soft measures. Governments are tapping on civil society institutions as part of efforts to bolster their populations’ resistance against extremism. For instance, Kazakhstan announced increased funding for projects aimed at preventing online extremism,751 while the government also announced that 13,000 pieces of material propagating extremism and terrorism had been blocked online.752 In Uzbekistan, a police department in Tashkent launched a consultative centre in 2020 as a pilot project. Staffed with experienced religious clerics and theologians, the centre can anonymously arrange consultations for people who find themselves confused about specific religious doctrines – such as jihad – that are often misinterpreted and distorted by extremist groups.753

Regional governments also increasingly sought international collaborations in countering terrorism. During the SCO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) meetings, terrorism was mentioned as a source of mutual concern and, throughout the year, various UN bodies hosted workshops focused on the Central Asian experience. The Uzbek government is planning to host a large conference in 2021 reflecting on the experience of cooperating on a joint regional action plan for countering terrorism. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and UNDP have also collaborated with various youth organisations and civil society institutions around the region on training programmes, reflecting a desire among regional authorities to continue promoting their work related to Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). Central Asian governments have also conducted bilateral exchanges with numerous western states throughout the year, with many championing the region’s particular approach to the repatriation of foreign fighters in Syria as a model to emulate.

However, varying perceptions in the west of the human rights records of some Central Asian states could complicate potential cooperation between the latter and the EU in particular. In Europe, the September repatriation of a group of Tajik nationals accused by Poland of involvement in terrorist activity followed attempts by lawyers to block the repatriations on the basis of human rights concerns that were upheld for some time. Earlier attempts by Sweden to deport Uzbeks who had served time for terrorism offences failed on this same count, suggesting a potential impediment in smooth EU-Central Asia cooperation in particular counterterrorism objectives. All of these issues may become more significant going forward, given the numbers of Central Asians arrested in Europe linked to alleged terrorist activity and the need for greater regional cooperation to effectively manage such threats.

Outlook

The worrying prominence of Central Asian jihadists on the international jihadist scene will persist. While the biggest contingents of Central Asian fighters remain on battlefields in Syria and Afghanistan, the recent disruptions of terror plots and arrests in Europe, in particular, point to a rapidly evolving and expanding threat landscape. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on this problem will be difficult to track, given the lack of access to real-time intelligence and data, although the common history of migrant labour that many of the radicalised Central Asians share, and the likely setbacks this workforce will experience in COVID-blighted economies, could exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. In the near term, Central Asian nationals are likely to remain a significant component of the global jihadist milieu, highlighting the importance of buttressing domestic responses and greater international cooperation in the regional security sphere.

About The Authors

Nodirbek Soliev is a Senior Analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at isnsoliev@ntu.edu.sg.

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

698 i) Tokhir Safar and Mumin Ahmadi, “Istochniki: v Sirii arestovany tadzhikskiye «dzhikhadisty» Abu Dovud i Abu Usama Noraki,” Radio Ozodi – RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, 19 December 2019, https://rus.ozodi.org/a/30332766.html; ii) The figure on Uzbek fighters, was revealed by a counterterrorism officer from Uzbekistan during an Interpol regional experts meeting held in Tbilisi, Georgia in September 2018. The stated figure constitutes the total number of Uzbek militants fighting in armed conflicts abroad, including the Iraqi-Syrian and Afghanistan theatres; iii) “Nuzhno li vozvrashat kyrgyzstantsev iz Sirii. Chto dumayut MID i eksperti?” (‘Is it necessary to repatriate Kyrgyz militants from Syria. What do the Foreign Ministry and experts think?’), Kaktus Media, 1 June 2019, https://kaktus.media/doc/392271_nyjno_li_vozvrash_at_kyrgyzstancev_iz_sirii._chto_dymaut_mid_i_eksperty.h tml; and iv) “Za rubezh vyiekhalo svyishe 800 kazakhstantsev – posledovateley destruktivnykh ideologiy” (‘Over 800 Kazakhstanis – followers of destructive ideologies traveled abroad’), Khabar 24, 6 November 2019, https://24.kz/ru/news/social/item/352893-za-rubezhvyekhalo-svyshe-800-kazakhstantsevposledovatelej-destruktivnykh-ideologij.

699 There have also been occasional references to Turkmenistani fighters in other contexts – for example, Cypriot authorities reported to the UN they had captured a Turkmenistani national amongst a group of individuals “linked to either ISIL-or Al-Qaidaaffiliated groups”. See: “Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” United Nations Security Council, p.15, 23 July 2020, https://undocs.org/S/2020/717.

700 This conclusion has been drawn by the first author based on his systematic monitoring and analysis of online extremist content in Central Asian languages.

701 These figures have been compiled by the first author based on local newspaper reports. The data also shows that since 2019, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan have separately repatriated a total of 1,003 of their detained citizens from Syria and Iraq. According to news reports a substantial number of these repatriated citizens were associated with IS.

702 He spoke at the SCO Heads of State Summit held online on November 10, livestream recorded here: https://eng.scorussia2020.ru/video/20201110/1080285/Livestreaming-of-the-SCO-Heads-of-State-CouncilMeeting.html (he spoke at 2: 01).

703 “Afghan Taliban said planning to attack Tajikistan,” BBC Monitoring, 11 December 2020; Andrey Serenko, “Tadzhikskiye taliby anonsirovali perenos dzhikhada iz Afganistana na rodinu” (‘The Tajik Taliban have announced the transfer of jihad from Afghanistan to their homeland’), Nezavisimaya gazeta, 11 December 2020, https://www.ng.ru/world/2020-12-11/100_afgan111220.html.

704 “Indian doctor suspected of having been Jalalabad prison car bomber,” Ariana News, 5 August 2020, https://ariananews.af/indian-doctorsuspected-of-having-been-jalalabad-prison-carbomber/.

705 “Genprokuratura: iz tyurem Sirii v Tadzhikistan ekstradiruyut terroristov-verbovshchikov” (‘Prosecutor General’s Office: terrorist recruiters to be extradited from prisons in Syria to Tajikistan’), Sputnik Tochikiston/Tajiki, 28 January 2020, https://tj.sputniknews.ru/country/20200128/1030615883/tajikistan-syria-ekstradiciya-terroristy.html.

706 Sirojiddin Islom, “Ozodlik tekshiruvi xulosalari Shved matbuotining bosh xabariga aylandi” (‘The findings of an investigation conducted by Ozodlik grabs the headlines of the Swedish press’), Ozodlik Radiosi, 10 February 2018, https://www.ozodlik.org/a/29032493.html.

707 Amir Abdallah, “Former Tajikistan police chief appointed ISIS minister of war,” Iraqi News, 5 September 2016, https://www.iraqinews.com/iraqwar/former-tajikistan-police-chief-appointed-isisminister-war/.

708 Avaz Yuldashev, “Glava MVD Tadzhikistana: Gibel’ eks-komandira OMON ostayetsya na urovne slukhov” (‘Tajik Interior Minister: The death of the exOMON commander remains at the level of rumors’), Asia-Plus, 4 August 2020, https://asiaplustj.info/ru/news/tajikistan/security/20200804/glava-mvd-gibel-eks-komandira-omonostaetsya-na-urovne-sluhov.

709 “Tadzhikskiy «igilovets» Gulmurod Khalimov zainteresovalsya situatsiyey v Gornom Badakhshane” (‘Tajik IS militant Gulmurod Khalimov became interested in the situation in Gorno-Badakhshan’), Fergana, 11 January 2019, https://fergana.agency/news/104222/.

710 Bakhmaner Nadirov, “Zhiv ili net? Sovbez OON prodlil sanktsii v otnoshenii Gulmuroda Khalimova” (‘Alive or not? UN Security Council extended sanctions against Gulmurod Halimov’), ASIA-Plus, 22 October 2020, https://asiaplustj.info/ru/news/tajikistan/security/20201022/zhiv-ili-net-sovbez-oon-prodlil-sanktsii-votnoshenii-gulmuroda-halimova.

711 Abu Saloh is the nom de guerre of Sirojiddin Mukhtarov, a Kyrgyzstan-born ethnic Uzbek.

712 Sirwan Kajjo, “Jihadists in Syria’s Idlib Form New ‘Operations Room’,” The Voice of America, 15 June 2020, https://www.voanews.com/extremismwatch/jihadists-syrias-idlib-form-new-operationsroom.

713 Rami Jameel, “HTS Leader al-Julani’s New Strategy in Northwestern Syria,” Terrorism Monitor, 13 October 2020, https://jamestown.org/program/hts-leader-al-julanisnew-strategy-in-northwestern-syria/.

714 “Tahrir al-Sham arrests a leader of the Ansar alDin Front. Who is Abu Salah the Uzbek,” Step News Agency, 18 June 2020, https://stepagencysy.net/2020/06/18/%d9%85%d9%86-%d9%87%d9%88-%d8%a3%d8%a8%d9%88-%d8%b5%d9%84%d8%a7%d8%ad-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%a3%d9%88%d8%b2%d8%a8%d9%83%d9%8a/.

715 Viktor Mikhaylov, “V Siriyskom Idlibe arestovan odin iz liderov boyevikov iz TSA – Abu-Salokha” (‘In the Syrian Idlib, one of the leaders of the militants from Central Asia, Abu Saloh, was arrested’), Novosti Uzbenistana, 23 June 2020, https://nuz.uz/antiterror/1157170-v-sirijskom-idlibe-arestovan-odin-iz-liderov-boevikov-iz-cza-abusaloha.html.

716 “Siriya novosti 7 iyulya 22.30: predotvrashchen terakt v Afrine, Dzhulani ozvuchil svoi usloviya dlya osvobozhdeniya Abu Salakha Al’-Uzbeki” (‘News from Syria, July 7 22.30: terrorist attack in Afrin prevented, Giulani announced his conditions for the release of Abu Salah al-Uzbeki’), RIA FAN, 7 July 2020, https://riafan.ru/1291658-siriya-novosti-7-iyulya-22-30-predotvrashen-terakt-v-afrine-dzhulaniozvuchil-svoi-usloviya-dlya-osvobozhdeniya-abusalakha-al-uzbeki.

717 “Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” United Nations Security Council, p.15, 20 January 2020, https://undocs.org/S/2020/53.

718 Ibid.

719 Viktor Mikhaylov, “Idlibskiy peredel ili kak grazhdane Kyrgyzstana i Uzbekistan raskololi v Sirii mezhdunarodnuyu terroristicheskuyu organizatsiyu” (‘Idlib redistribution or how citizens of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan split an international terrorist organization in Syria’), 31 March 2020, CSRT, https://crss.uz/2020/03/31/idlibskij-peredel-ili-kakgrazhdane-kyrgyzstana-i-uzbekistan-raskololi-v-siriimezhdunarodnuyu-terroristicheskuyu-organizaciyu/.

720 “Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” United Nations Security Council,
p.15, 20 January 2020, https://undocs.org/S/2020/53.

721 Ibid.

722 Ibid.

723 Viktor Mikhaylov, “Ozhidayemyye provaly v uzbekskikh etnicheskikh terroristicheskikh gruppirovkakh” (‘Expected failures in Uzbek ethnic terrorist groups’), Novosti Uzbekistana, 24 July 2020, https://nuz.uz/antiterror/1160924-ozhidaemye-provaly-v-uzbekskih-etnicheskihterroristicheskih-gruppirovkah.html.

724 Gulabudin Ghubar, “Uzbek Militant Group Claims it Conducted Operation with Taliban,” TOLOnews,
9 July 2020, https://tolonews.com/afghanistan/uzbek-militantgroup-claims-it-conducted-operation-taliban.

725 “Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” United Nations Security Council,
p.15, 23 July 2020, https://undocs.org/S/2020/717.

726 “V Kazakhstane soobshchili o predotvrashchenii pyati teraktov s nachala goda” (‘Kazakhstan reported on the prevention of five terrorist attacks since the beginning of the year’), RT, 16 October 2020, https://russian.rt.com/ussr/news/793267-kazahstan-predotvraschenie-terakty.

727 i) “Spetssluzhby Kazakhstana predotvratili terakt v Nur-Sultane” (‘Kazakhstan’s special services prevent terrorist attack in Nur-Sultan’), RT, 26 March 2020, https://russian.rt.com/ussr/news/732030-kazahstanzaderzhanie-terrorizm; ii) “V Kazakhstane spetssluzhby zaderzhali podozrevayemogo v podgotovke terakta” (‘In Kazakhstan, special services detained a suspect preparing a terrorist attack’), RT, 14 March 2020, https://russian.rt.com/ussr/news/728393-kazahstanzaderzhanie-terakt.

728 “Surkhondaryo va Jizzakh viloyatlarida noqonuniy guruhlar faoliyatiga chek qo’yildi” (“The activity of illegal groups have been eliminated in Surkhandarya and Jizzakh provinces”), Xalq so’zi, 9 July 2020, http://xs.uz/uzkr/post/surkhondaryo-vazhizzakh-viloyatlarida-noqonunij-guruhlarfaoliyatiga-chek-qojildi.

729 Ibid.

730 Ibid.

731 “V Tashkente presekli deyatel’nost’ 11 uchastnikov terroristicheskoy gruppy” (‘The activity of 11 members of a terrorist group has been crashed in Tashkent’), RIA Novosti, 30 June 2020, https://ria.ru/20200630/1573707230.html.

732 “V Tadzhikistane predotvratili dva terakta” (‘Two terrorist attacks were prevented in Tajikistan’), Sputnik Tochikiston/Tajiki, 3 August 2020, https://tj.sputniknews.ru/country/20200803/1031674398/tajikistan-predotvratili-dva-terakta-2020.html.

733 “V Tadzhikistane za posledniye polgoda predotvratili dva terakta” (‘Two terrorist attacks were prevented in Tajikistan over the past six months’), Mir24.TV, http://tj.mir24.tv/news/103295.

734 Mokrenko, Anastasia, “Propagandista terrorizma zaderzhali v Kyrgyzstane” (‘A terrorist propagandist was detained in Kyrgyzstan’), 24.KG, 5 February 2020, https://24.kg/proisshestvija/142685_propagandista_terrorizma_zaderjali_vkyirgyizstane_/.

735 “Zaderzhan inostrannyy verbovshchik v ryady terroristov” (‘A foreign terrorist recruiter was arrested’), Kabar, 3 October 2020, http://kabar.kg/news/gknb-zaderzhan-inostrannyiverbovshchik-v-riady-terroristov/.

736 “Zaderzhany chleny terroristicheskoy organizatsii – GKNB KR. Chto u nikh nashli” (‘Members of a terrorist organisation were detained – the SCNS of the Kyrgyz Republic. What they found’), Sputnik Kyrgyzstan, 29 October 2020, https://ru.sputnik.kg/society/20201020/1050127498/kyrgyzstan-mto-terrorizm-zaderzhanie.html.

737 The precise targeting of foreign diaspora in jihadist material is hard to trace. But it is clear that some members of the Central Asian diaspora are consumers of extremist material given the growing volume of overall arrests from these communities outside Central Asia. Security services have reported finding volumes of extremist material on their personal electronic devices.

738 “Festnahme fünf mutmaßlicher Mitglieder einer Terrorzelle der ausländischen terroristischen Vereinigung „Islamischer Staat (IS)“,” An arrest warrant, the Office of the German Federal Public Prosecutor, 15 April 2020, https://www.generalbundesanwalt.de/SharedDocs/Pressemitteilungen/DE/aktuelle/Pressemitteilungvom-15-04-2020.html.

739 “Festnahme fünf mutmaßlicher Mitglieder einer Terrorzelle der ausländischen terroristischen Vereinigung „Islamischer Staat (IS)“,” An arrest warrant, the Office of the German Federal Public Prosecutor, 15 April 2020, https://www.generalbundesanwalt.de/SharedDocs/Pressemitteilungen/DE/aktuelle/Pressemitteilungvom-15-04-2020.html.

740 i) Axel Spilcker, “Zugriff nach Hinweis vom FBI,” Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, 08 September 2020, https://advance.lexis.com/document/?pdmfid=1516831&crid=e182b99c-42e8-46c0-92abab1ea56e4a06&pddocfullpath=%2Fshared%2Fdocument%2Fnews%2Furn%3AcontentItem%3A60SSJCH1-JBR8-40RX-00000-00&pdcontentcomponentid=360784&pdteaserkey=sr0&pditab=allpods&ecomp=tzg2k&earg=sr0&prid=568b144a-b4d0-4fe1-977a-907dc44a0d5a; ii) Matthias Gebauer, “Traum vom Fliegen,” Der Spiegel, 18 April 2020, https://advance.lexis.com/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:5YPB-8SG1-DYJRP2HN-00000-00&context=1516831.

741 “Germany arrests IS suspects plotting attacks on US bases,” Deutsche Welle, 15 April 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/germany-arrests-is-suspects-plotting-attacks-on-us-bases/a-53129563

742 i) “Four Tajik Nationals Detained For Alleged Militant Recruitment In Poland,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 11 May 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/four-tajik-nationals-detainedfor-alleged-militant-recruitment-inpoland/30605951.html; ii) “Poland Deports Five Tajiks Suspected Of Terrorism,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 29 September 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/poland-deports-five-tajikssuspected-of-terrorism/30863940.html.

743 Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska, “Deporting Muslim Immigrants Won’t Make Poland Safer,” Foreign Policy, 19 October 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/10/19/deport-muslimimmigrants-poland-counterterrorism-pis-islamistradicalization/.

744 Paul Antonopoulos, “Leading member of ISIS that was granted asylum status has been arrested
in Greece,” Greek City Times, 5 October 2020, https://greekcitytimes.com/2020/11/05/isis-asylumgreece/.

745 “Boyeviki pokushalis’ na «Rodinu-mat’»: FSB predotvratila terakt” (‘Militants attempted to destroy the Motherland Calls statue: FSB prevented the attack’) Gazeta, 15 October 2020, https://www.gazeta.ru/army/2020/10/15/13320667.shtml.

746 Vusala Abbasova, “Russian Security Service Detains IS Cell In Rostov Region,” Caspian News, 14 July 2020, https://caspiannews.com/newsdetail/russian-security-service-detains-is-cell-inrostov-region-2020-7-13-15/.

747 “Terrorist attack reportedly thwarted in Moscow region as FSB arrests suspect & seizes ISIS flag (VIDEO),” 22 October 2020, RT, https://www.rt.com/russia/504264-terrorist-attackthwarted-moscow-region/.

748 “Russia says it has foiled a militant attack in Moscow,” Deutsche Welle, 27 July 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/russia-says-it-has-foiled-amilitant-attack-in-moscow/a-54331742.

749 ““Mehr-3″ operaciyasi doirasida Suriyadan 25 nafar ayollar va 73 nafar bolalar yurtimizga olib kelindi” (‘As part of the “Mehr-3” operation, 25 women and 73 men were brought back to our homeland’), Xalq so’zi, 8 December 2020, http://xs.uz/uzkr/post/mehr-3-operatsiyasi-doirasidasuriyadan-25-nafar-ayollar-va-73-nafar-bolalaryurtimizga-olib-kelindi

750 “Nearly 300 Tajik women and children ready to return home from Syria,” Asia-Plus, 28 July 2020, https://asiaplustj.info/en/news/tajikistan/society/20200728/nearly-300-tajik-women-and-children-readyto-return-home-from-syria.

751 Asel Sultan, “Countering Extremism in Kazakhstan: Where Do They Waste Millions?” CABAR.asia, 16 January 2020, https://cabar.asia/en/countering-extremism-inkazakhstan-where-do-they-waste-millions.

752 Torgyn Nurseitova, “Boleye tysyachi kazakhstantsev poluchili tyuremnyy srok za terrorizm i ekstremizm” (‘More than 1,000 Kazakhstanis received prison sentences for terrorism and extremism’), Zakon, 30 November 2020, https://www.zakon.kz/5049486-boleetysyachi-kazahstantsev-poluchili.html

753 Navruz Melibaev, “Policy of Countering Terrorism and Extremism in Uzbekistan: How Did It Change Over the Past Few Years?” CABAR.asia, 4 May 2020, https://cabar.asia/en/policy-ofcountering-terrorism-and-extremism-in-uzbekistanhow-did-it-change-over-the-past-few-years.

Happy holidays to everyone out there who is celebrating! Have a few pieces that have landed during this period and will post them over the next few days. A few longer pieces due out in January which with hope will set the pace for what will be a busy and interesting year. As ever, appreciate comments, criticisms, or whatever else you feel the need to share (though abuse is never particularly pleasant). This is a short policy recommendation piece for RUSI in London which joins the flood of material being pumped in the general direction of the incoming administration in Washington, this time focusing on the extreme right wing.

Cooperating in Tackling Extreme Right-Wing Ideologies and Terrorism

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary, 18 December 2020
United StatesTackling ExtremismUKTerrorism

Europe and the Biden administration in the US should be ready to expand their cooperation on combating right-wing violent movements.

Recent international counterterrorism cooperation has for the most part focused on dealing with threats from violent Islamist groups such as the Islamic State or Al-Qa’ida. And this will likely remain a priority for security officials on both sides of the Atlantic. Looking forward, however, the transatlantic alliance should focus in a more considered way on the growing menace from the extreme right wing. This threat has been rising on both sides of the Atlantic for the past few years, has growing international connections and is a problem which was difficult to address during the Trump administration, as the president often appeared to prevaricate on far-right extremist activity in the US and re-tweeted Britain First (a UK extreme right group) material. Focusing on it in a Biden administration would provide an excellent springboard into cooperation in an area of clear joint concern and help to strengthen security bonds that may have weakened during the turbulent Trump years.

Different Roots

The roots of extreme right-wing ideologies in Europe and North America are traditionally different. The extreme right in the US is a mix of classic white supremacists and neo-Nazis, alongside survivalists and extreme libertarians with a deep resentment directed towards the Federal government. In Europe, the movement is characterised by deep xenophobia and anti-immigrant feeling, which has most recently coalesced around the idea of Muslim ‘hordes’ replacing settled European white communities. The exact interpretation of this supposedly apocalyptic shift varies depending on where you are in Europe. The modern extreme right (reflecting a pattern visible across extremist ideologies – from the far left, to violent Islamists, and others, ideologies are increasingly fusions which draw on multiple different sources) is a confusing kaleidoscope of ideas, including anti-globalists, misogynists, societal rejectionists, and conspiracy theorists. Yet what broadly unifies the extreme right on both sides of the Atlantic is a sense that their supposed (and often racially defined) ‘supremacy’ in their country is being challenged.

This is reflected in an increasingly shared ideology, networks and activity across the Atlantic and around Europe. The UK has already seen extreme right-wing incidents with links to Poland and Ukraine, while some Americans (as well as numerous individuals from around Europe) have gone and fought in Ukraine. Imagery, ideas and texts are widely shared on chat groups that are run from around Europe or the US with members from across the transatlantic community and beyond. Groups like The Base or the Order of the Nine Angels cast a net with members across Europe and North America, online groups like Feuerkrieg or Atomwaffen Division boast members around the world. Meanwhile, organisations like the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) have provided physical training camps for extreme right adherents from across Europe and even North America.

Links to Russia

The repeated appearance of links to Russia are a notable feature of the growing contemporary extreme right wing. Earlier this year the US proscribed the RIM for its links to active terrorist networks, while the leader of The Base is reportedly an American living in St Petersburg. And the number of foreigners that went to fight in Ukraine provides another point of connection with Russian-supported groups on the ground. Exact numbers and volume of flow are unclear, but the expulsion from Ukraine in October of two American members of Atomwaffen Division shows it is ongoing. Finally, Russian interference campaigns have regularly focused on seeking to exacerbate societal tensions in the West – including focusing on racial tensions, feeding an underlying rhetoric that sustains the extreme right wing.

Transatlantic Cooperation

All of this points to a common problem that would benefit from greater transatlantic cooperation. Furthermore, the shared networks and ideologies and the implications of the links to Russia add a further dimension to the already challenging relationship with Moscow.

This aspect in particular is something that a Biden administration will find easier to address than a Trump one. President Trump’s hesitant relationship towards Russia, his retweeting of UK far right ideologues’ material, and his refusal during presidential debates (and before) to bluntly condemn white supremacist groups and, when pressured, his ambivalent corrections, made him an awkward partner in such a fight.

However, his departure from office will not address the broader issue of ideological overlap between the extreme right and narratives that are often raised by mainstream politicians in both Europe and North America. In some parts of Europe, for example, the anti-immigrant rhetoric used by mainstream politicians is not far off the same narratives advanced by extreme right groups in others. This ideological overspill is visible in other ways as well. Both the UK and Germany, for instance, have recently undertaken major investigations after uncovering adherents of extreme right ideologies within the ranks of their security forces.

None of this will be easy to unpick, but it is clearly a subject of growing importance on both sides of the Atlantic which should provide a basis for closer security cooperation. The growing networking of the different parts of the movement and individuals across the Atlantic provides a direct point of engagement for intelligence and security officials at every level, while the links to Russia tie into a broader threat narrative of confrontation with state actors.

Finally, the larger problem of trying to deal with the overlap between the extreme right, far right and mainstream politics is going to be very difficult to address. Managing rhetoric in this space will immediately start to tread on issues of freedom of speech. The issues and where the ideological bleed takes place, are clearly different on both sides of the Atlantic, but the complex mix of legislation and enforcement that will be needed to deal with it would benefit from transatlantic coordination and engagement. Disrupting these networks provides a platform to rebuild a transatlantic security relationship and reverse some of the damage of the Trump years.

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

BANNER IMAGE: A neo-nazi rally. Courtesy of ARNO BURGI/DPA/PA Images