Posts Tagged ‘counter-terrorism’

Another edited interview with a senior security official for the excellent CTC Sentinel. I realize that it has been quite a while since I wrote an actual researched article for them. Been working on one for a long time which I really need to get finished. Huge thanks to Paul and his excellent team for their work.

A View from the CT Foxhole: Robert Hannigan, Former Director, GCHQ

Robert Hannigan was Director of GCHQ, the United Kingdom’s largest intelligence and security agency and NSA equivalent, between 2014 and 2017. He established the United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and was responsible with military colleagues for the United Kingdom’s national offensive cyber program.  

He was Prime Minister’s Security Adviser from 2007-2010, giving advice on counterterrorism and intelligence matters. Prior to that, he worked as principal adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair on the Northern Ireland peace process. He was awarded the U.S. Intelligence Distinguished Public Service Medal in 2017 and honored by Queen Elizabeth for services to U.K. national security in 2013.

Robert is currently Warden of Wadham College, Oxford, and European Chairman of the cyber security company BlueVoyant. He is a Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center, Harvard; Fellow of the Institution of Engineering & Technology; and Distinguished Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute. 

CTC: Shortly after you were appointed the director of GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) in 2014, the Islamic State declared a caliphate after taking control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria. When you retired as director in 2017, the group was well on the path to territorial defeat in Syria and Iraq. How would you describe the contribution GCHQ made to the global campaign against the Islamic State and protecting the United Kingdom from the group’s terrorism? How did GCHQ evolve to focus on the Islamic State threat, and what were the lessons learned?

Hannigan: There were two things in particular about ISIS that made it different. One was obviously the geographical hold: the fact that it had territory in northern Syria and northern Iraq—whether you want to call it a caliphate or not—which made it almost inaccessible from the ground in practice.

The other thing that made it different was generational. This was a group that understood the power of media, and particularly new media, in a way that previous Islamist extremist groups had not. Those were two big challenges. From GCHQ’s point of view, counterterrorism was at that stage the biggest single mission. There were, of course, lots of other missions, too, but [CT] was a huge investment of resources, for obvious reasons. To some extent, GCHQ was using the lessons it had learnt in Afghanistan, which had been a very strong counterinsurgency/counterterrorism effort where GCHQ had been embedded with the military. It was building on those lessons, but of course the SIGINT environment in Syria and Iraq was very different.

In Afghanistan, essentially the Allies owned the communications space, just as they owned the air space. That wasn’t the case in northern Syria, so it was a different kind of challenge. But a lot of the techniques and international cooperation had been well exercised in Afghanistan. To some extent, the first part was a traditional mission of ‘how do you disrupt and destroy a terrorist organization from its leadership downwards,’ but the second bit was genuinely new in the sense that ISIS was obviously trying to project attacks back, as well as recruit heavily from the West to travel into the caliphate. Both of those ISIS objectives, which were interconnected, were things which we needed to disrupt, and so a lot of the task was about understanding how ISIS media worked and trying to disrupt that. I cannot say how this was done from a U.K. perspective, but there is a great deal of media reporting and academic work on this available in the U.S.

ISIS were doing two things through their media campaigns. One was inspiring people and then actively grooming those they had inspired to either come to join the group or launch attacks. And both of the stages really needed disrupting. Disrupting global ISIS media was a much broader challenge, of course, but trying to prevent individual grooming and attack planning was traditional MI5 territory, supported by GCHQ. It would not be right to go into the details of how it was done, but I do not think there was anything conceptually different about how we went about doing that from disrupting traditional recruitment and attack planning. The big difference was that it was all at one remove.

I think there were two advantages [for ISIS] to having territory: one was the propaganda value and the fact that you can present, as you saw endlessly in Dabiq and the other glossy publications, what life in the caliphate was like. That gave them a romantic propaganda advantage to be able to say, ‘Here we have built this wonderful land for you, where you can live a religiously pure life.’ But it also gave them a safe place from which to mount operations, and all they needed apart from connectivity was the understanding of how to do that: How do you inspire, radicalize, and then manipulate people? So in a sense, it was a psychological campaign as much as a physical one.

CTC: How would you describe the counterterrorism cooperation between GCHQ and U.S. agencies such as the NSA as well as other members of the Five Eyesa and European allies?

Hannigan: It is incredibly close and always has been, in particular with the NSA. But I think what happened over the ISIS campaign was that counterterrorism really drove the cooperation between SIGINT agencies in Europe. Cooperation amongst European partners has always been good on particular cases, but I think the pressures of terrorism really drove that in a very constructive way. So now the SIGINT agencies are [working] closer together, probably more than they have ever been as a result of terrorism, and there was very active cooperation right through the attacks in Europe and beyond, as well as cooperation with other services around the world.

Fortunately, with European partners, Brexit did not make much of a difference in terms of maintaining cooperation, partly because of the threat of terrorism; these joint efforts were too important to be damaged. Different Five Eyes partners will have slightly different relationships with different European countries. But for the U.K., the French and German relationships, for example, were very important. And the U.K.’s traditional military and intelligence relationships with the Scandinavian countries have remained very strong and strengthened in the context of Russia.

CTC: What for you have been the key lessons learned in balancing democratic liberties with intelligence gathering in counterterrorism in the 21 years since 9/11?

Hannigan: It’s always been a balance. Access to data is the key for SIGINT in particular, but probably for all the agencies, and what’s changed is that there’s been an exponential rise in the amount of data being produced by the private sector on citizens. This gives undemocratic states new possibilities to do surveillance, and it’s right that in a democratic society you need to have an active and constant debate about whether you’ve got the balance right. In the U.K., the [2016] Investigatory Powers Act was an attempt to do that after the revelations by Edward Snowden, though I think the legislation was coming anyway at the time, probably accelerated a bit by Snowden. In the U.K. context, that legislation seems to strike a balance that people are comfortable with.

It’s quite interesting that very quickly after the Snowden revelations, the debate moved on, because terrorism, then the resurgence of Russian aggression, and what the tech companies were doing with data really made what governments had access to seem quite secondary. Of course, it is very important that government should be held to a higher standard, and I think that it is a debate that needs to be had all the time, particularly as data processing and data holding in the private sector changes. But it does feel like the public debate has moved on, moved on to what companies like Facebook/Meta and the other tech companies are doing.

So I think the lesson for the intelligence community is not to be afraid of the public debate. Probably one of the mistakes made towards the end of the last century, and at the beginning of this one as the internet became available widely, was not to have that debate openly enough. Because consent is crucial to intelligence operations in democratic countries, and I think there was probably an assumption that everyone understood what was happening within this context and I am not sure people did. So one of the lessons is to get better at having that debate more often, especially as it is not a static thing and you are never going to come to a conclusion on the issue, rather it has to be a dynamic debate. Ultimately, we want the minimum necessary powers for agencies. But as the technology evolves, you have to evolve in response.

CTC: If we could pull on a few threads there, what was the impact of Edward Snowden’s revelations on counterterrorism capability, and how responsible do you think the social media platforms have been in keeping terrorists and extremist content off their platforms?

Hannigan: There was a clear reaction from terrorist groups and hostile states in particular, to the revelations, and yes, there were specific counterterrorism consequences, which at the time my predecessor Iain Lobban and his counterpart at the NSA Keith Alexander talked about.b There were things going dark that probably wouldn’t have gone dark otherwise.

With the tech companies, things have changed, but when I came into the job in 2014 I had a go at the companies1 (something that was unusual at the time). I thought they were at that point being irresponsible, and we were in a slightly ridiculous position where the agencies were having to ask a company’s permission effectively to help on particular operations. The companies would decide whether this met their threshold for what constituted terrorism, and there seemed to be something completely anti-democratic about that. For all their failings, governments at least get elected. Tech companies are not, and they do not have any expertise in this, so it is quite weird to be expecting a bunch of probably well-meaning people in Silicon Valley to make decisions about what is and what is not terrorism in a far-flung part of London.

And, to be fair to the companies, I think they felt deeply uncomfortable, too. They are money-making enterprises. Most of them are effectively advertising companies, if we are honest; Meta is a massive advertising company, and so was part of Google. That is their business, and they did not really want to be drawn into CT, which is where the narrative about them being neutral conduits and just platforms with no editorial control came from. I think they actually believed that narrative, and they really did not think they were enabling terrorist activity.

I think over the years—under public pressure but also as a result of terrorism and other serious crime—they have realized that they are not neutral and they have to take some kind of position on this, and they have to find a better way of doing it. Every major country is now looking at legislating on this; in the U.K., through the Online Safety Bill.c The manipulation of democratic institutions and elections has accelerated the feeling that we have to do something and put even more pressure on the tech companies.

So it does look very different now from when I said those things about ‘big tech.’ It was unfashionable to have a go at tech companies back in 2014; now everybody piles in and, if anything, it is a little one-sided. I think they are, on the whole, trying to address the problems, with varying degrees of success. But nobody quite has the answer. We know in the West that we do not want state control of these things, but neither do we want an unregulated private sector-driven landscape.

CTC: GCHQ has long been associated with signals intelligence. But in recent decades, there has been an information revolution with deep implications for intelligence gathering and analysis. Not only is there vastly more information (and dis- and mis-information) to sift through than ever before but open-source intelligence has become much more important and “the government’s ability to collect and analyze information is nowhere near dominant compared to what it used to be.”2 How have and should agencies like GCHQ be adapting? How important is AI and machine learning (ML) in this new era? Given “secret agencies will always favor secrets,” and given the calls for an open-source agency to be set up in the United States,3 does the United Kingdom now need a dedicated open-source agency, a new sort of BBC Monitoring?

Hannigan: Well, it’s interesting you mentioned BBC Monitoring as the Americans had the Open Source Center, which was a much larger version of that. It has now changed and become the Open Source Enterprise.d It was taken very seriously by the U.S. and did a great job. As does BBC Monitoring, though it has gradually been pared down over the years, and in any case was traditionally more focused on broadcast media than on new media or social media.

[Dis/mis-information] is a huge challenge but is highlighted not so much by terrorism but by the attempts to subvert democratic processes by Russia. The U.K. and lots of countries were really caught napping here because there wasn’t any structural part of government whose responsibility was to monitor this. There were two reasons for this, I think. One is that the secret agencies have a lot of other things to do—countering terrorism, for example—and have limited resources. But secondly, it’s very uncomfortable for intelligence agencies to be doing open-source monitoring, particularly where social media is concerned. There is something instinctively difficult about secret agencies looking at mass social media use. The idea [of having] GCHQ or MI5 all over everybody’s Facebook accounts smacks too much of a surveillance state and would be unacceptable in a democratic society.

As a result, for both those reasons, lots of governments, including the U.K., have shied away from looking at this and attempted to do it in a tactical, well-meaning but arguably ineffective way in the Cabinet Officee or somewhere like that, where they are trying to get a small group of people to have a look at this information flow.

To me, the answer has to be a better use of the private sector. Most of this open-source material is being generated by the private sector. Look at Ukraine and the low-orbit satellite imagery that is being generated; it’s absolutely phenomenal, better in many cases than the military equivalent and available in theory to everybody. [The same applies to] the monitoring of social media trends. So I think the answer has to be government agencies using [private sector-generated data and analytics] better.

There are still lots of datasets that are secret, of course, and there are statutory-based accesses to data, which other people don’t have outside government. Focusing on that and what is genuinely secret and hidden is a much better use of agency time.

The real advantage comes from washing the secret and the open-source data together. In other words, you are, as a secret agency, doing your secret thing but you’re also washing that against the results of open source, and that’s where you get something particularly valuable and that’s where you ought to be able to spot some of the things we failed to spot: for example, Russian intervention in elections. But if I am honest, I do not know how much progress Western governments have made on this. The U.S. probably comes the closest because they have invested in it, but I think most governments have just danced around it, partly for resource reasons, but also because it is politically and ethically a very difficult area.

The answer is probably to use the private sector mechanisms that are there already and that are quite open; there are NGOs like Bellingcat that are already doing some extraordinary work in the public domain. They are not the only ones; there are plenty of academic NGOs and journalistic organizations who are doing really interesting work here and it is every bit as good as what governments do. So I do not think we need some huge new bureaucracy in government to look at open-source material; rather, we should synthesize what is already out there and use it intelligently with the secret insights that agencies generate to deliver some more effective results.

CTC: Another key part of this, which brings in the private sector, is encryption, and you regularly hear from politicians and serving security officials that end-to-end encryption is a danger that protects, among others, terrorists. What is your sense of the counterterrorism concerns around this?

Hannigan: The GCHQ view on this has always been slightly unusual because GCHQ is an agency that delivers strong encryption and, indeed, in the 1970s was involved in inventing some of the strongest encryption that is currently in use. So we think encryption is a good thing. It protects everybody—protects governments and protects business. I have always resisted the temptation to say encryption is bad somehow, and law enforcement and government should be given the key to everything, partly because I do not think that would be healthy and partly because it’s not practical. You cannot uninvent end-to-end encryption. It is a mathematical invention; it’s not something you can suddenly say is not going to be there.

What you have to do is keep it in proportion. Yes, it is misused by criminals and terrorists, but it is predominantly used by honest citizens and businesses who are protecting themselves, so we shouldn’t let the security tail wag the dog. As always, criminals and terrorists will use good technology for bad purposes. There are some ways around this. One is to work with the companies, as they themselves have offered to different degrees to do things that are short of decryption because, of course, they cannot decrypt it themselves if it’s genuinely end-to-end, but there are things they can do to help with the data around it. It is probably not helpful to go into the details here, but they themselves have said it is not all about the content.

Better relations between the companies and governments help. And there are some macro proposals that have been put out there but so far they have not found favor with the privacy lobby in the United States. And whatever you do, you will always have criminals who will use something else, move away from the big platforms and use something different, so you might just end up pushing the problem elsewhere. You already see a bit of that now, with, for example, a lot now coalescing around Telegram and away from some of the traditional Western platforms.

The short answer is that there is not an easy answer. And efforts should be focused on particular targets rather than trying to do anything at scale. I know some law enforcement people still hanker after large-scale solutions, but there is, frankly, no way that companies are going to give any kind of blanket access to law enforcement or governments in the future. And I cannot see any legislation that would actually compel them to do it. Of course, there are some countries that ban end-to-end services, for this reason. But I cannot see democracies agreeing to that, and I think it would be disproportionate. The task for the agencies in cooperation with the companies is to go after specific targets and help each other do that, where there’s general agreement that these are legitimate targets.

CTC: In July, FBI Director Chris Wray and MI5 Director Ken McCallum did a series of events in London in which, among other things, they identified the lone-actor threat as the heart of the terrorist threat both faced.4 Would you agree with this assessment, and how do you characterize the journey of how we got here?

Hannigan: They are much more current than I am on this, but it has been a trend for a while. In fact, it was ISIS and [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi himself that promoted the lone-wolf idea and propagandized it through their various channels, so it’s not unexpected. It was a perfectly logical response to better intelligence and law enforcement disruption because it’s extremely difficult to spot, disrupt, and prevent genuine lone actors. The thinking of the al-Baghdadi model was ‘we don’t need to control this. We do not even need necessarily to know who you are; if you go out and do something for ISIS, then you are part of the struggle.’ That’s quite a new departure for terrorist groups. They have always tended to be control freaks: The study of terrorist bureaucracy and leadership is instructive. By contrast, ISIS was crowdsourcing in quite an innovative way. The demise of the ‘caliphate’ made the lone wolf approach even more compelling for ISIS.

I would not write off organized terrorism in the future; I think there’s plenty of evidence that it has not gone away, but lone-actor terrorism does seem to be the trend at the moment and the thing that is hardest for agencies to spot. All I would say is, if you look at the lone wolves who have been successful or mounted successful attacks in a number of countries, they are very rarely completely ‘lone’ or completely unknown to their government agencies. And so it comes back to the age-old problem of prioritization. Most of them appear amongst the ranks of the many thousands of people of interest to police and law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and probably the task is to use data better to prioritize better.

Some of the criticisms around, for example, the London Bridge attacksf were about failures to do that and failures to use data better to understand where the priorities are and where the tipping points are. But all of this is very easy to say and very difficult to do, and it is never going to be [got] completely right. It is a constant struggle for MI5 in particular, but for all agencies to prioritize out of the thousands of people who might be a worry, who are the ones that you need to focus on now, and deploy your very, very limited surveillance resources on, because we all know how much it costs and how difficult it is to do.

But the reality is that even lone wolves usually display behavior and patterns of life [notwithstanding encrypted communications and the end-to-end problem] that says something about them; they are in touch with other people, even if they’re not involved in joint attack planning. The challenge has to be to use data to try to work out when they have reached a tipping point. You will never be successful 100 percent of the time, but it’s about trying to raise the percentage of success.

CTC: Not only does the West currently face the challenge of Russian aggression in Ukraine, but Directors Wray and McCallum identified China as the biggest long-term national security threat.5 Given the shift in resources on both sides of the Atlantic to great power competition, is there a danger of counterterrorism being underfunded? Where do you see the intersections between great power competition and counterterrorism?

Hannigan: It is a perennial problem of governments that you veer from one crisis to another, and [then] something has to be deprioritized. We have seen what happened after we deprioritized Russia after the Cold War. The ambition should be to try to reduce investment in particular areas without giving up your core capability and eroding the skills and knowledge that you have had on that subject. This applies to counterterrorism, too, because the threat hasn’t gone away.

It is clearly right to focus on China and Russia. When I started at GCHQ, I said I thought the two big challenges for the next 50 years in the West were managing a declining Russia and a rising China. We are seeing the declining Russia problem in the lashing out, and the nationalism, and the economic failure to reform, and the kleptocracy that has emerged as a result. We are experiencing that in Ukraine, and it’s a big challenge to confront and contain it, but I think it is a much easier challenge than a rising China, which is a complex mixture of opportunity and challenge. But there is a lot of threat there as well, as Wray and McCallum rightly said. So we should be focusing on that, and it is the right top priority, but that doesn’t mean we can neglect CT. There will have to be a difficult discussion about to balance resources. Quite a lot of the great power strategy is outside the remit of agencies. A lot of it is about industrial policy, investment decisions, and regulation. Regulating Chinese tech and Chinese tech ambition is not core intelligence work, so it doesn’t all fall on the agencies.

On the question of crossover, that is a potential worry because states obviously have used all sorts of proxies in the past. In the cyber world, they use criminal groups. And they have also used terrorist groups as proxies. It is not hard to imagine that in the future, they will do the same again to put pressure on Western countries either by using terrorist groups in whichever part of the world the conflict might be taking place, or even to target us at home. I do not know that we’re seeing a sudden upsurge in that yet, but it is certainly a concern for the future, and the more desperate a country like Russia gets, the more likely it is to be happy to foment that.

CTC: You led the creation of the United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), oversaw the country’s pioneering Active Cyber Defense Program, and helped create the United Kingdom’s first cyber security strategy.6 When it comes to cyber, much of the concern has focused on state actors such as China as well as criminal groups and the threat to critical infrastructure. How would you characterize the cyber threat posed by terror groups, including jihadi terror groups? Have we yet seen a cyber terror attack?

Hannigan: There have always been great scare stories about this, partly because the media loves the idea of cyber terrorism and terrorists being able to take down an entire infrastructure or electricity grid or something. Whether we have seen it or not depends on how you define it. You could say Hezbollah [cyber] attacks against Israel are cyber terrorist attacks.g You could say that Iranian attacks on water treatment plants in Israelh are a potential attack by a nation-state designed to instill terror.

So, it is certainly not unimaginable, but cyber is not necessarily the best weapon for terrorists to use. Firstly, it does require quite a degree of long-term commitment and knowledge. And terrorists in the past have been rather traditional in wanting spectaculars of one sort or another, so their mindset may not be geared towards it. This may change with the new generation. We certainly saw that with [their ability to exploit] social media, so there is a logic to saying, ‘Well, they might get good at this in the future.’ It has also got much cheaper and easier to do because [the technology] is something you can now buy as a service or commodity and use it. So, the trajectory suggests that it ought to be easier to do cyber terrorism in the future.

The other point, though, is that while you can disrupt things and you can make people’s lives difficult [through cyber-attacks], it is quite difficult to do destructive activity that is really long lasting. Having said that, I did notice that one of the American consultancies on tech that issues reports every so often, and is usually quite a cautious organization, projected that by 2025 operational technology would be weaponized to cause death.7 They were certainly thinking of nation-states rather than terrorists, but the fact that they were saying this is interesting.

These kinds of destructive cyber effects will be accidental for the most part. The first cyber homicide that I can think of is the case in Germany two years ago where a woman was being transferred to a hospital that had been paralyzed by ransomware and so she was diverted to another hospital and died on the way. German police decided to treat this as cyber homicide.8 Those sorts of things—ransomware out of control—might well cause people’s deaths, either through interfering with operational technology that is running power, water, or healthcare, or just by accident. But all of that is more likely than a planned cyber-terrorist event. But it is not unimaginable, and it is not unimaginable for the nation-state to find it convenient to false flag something [it has perpetrated against an adversary], to mask a cyber attack as a terrorist attack. We have, of course, seen the Russians doing that in their [2015] attack on [the French television station] TV5,i which they flagged as a terrorist attack.9 So cyber terrorism is not unimaginable but probably not top of the list of worries at the moment.

CTC: In the September 2021 issue of CTC Sentinel, former acting CIA Director Michael Morell assessed that following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, “the reconstruction of al-Qa`ida’s homeland attack capability will happen quickly, in less than a year, if the U.S. does not collect the intelligence and take the military action to prevent it.”10 It’s been a year since the Taliban assumed power. How do you assess the international terror threat from jihadi groups operating on its soil?

Hannigan: My biggest concerns are, do we know what the threat is and how would we know if it is growing? We have lost most of our insight into what’s going on in Afghanistan, for all the obvious reasons, and the biggest worry is we simply won’t see a problem—from ISIS in particular but also al-Qa`ida—until it’s well formed and mature. Now, I may be wrong; maybe we have great insight. But I have not seen it, and I doubt it is actually there. The successful U.S. attack on al-Zawahiri this summer seems to me to be about a determined long-term manhunt: It does not imply great understanding of Afghanistan in general. In addition, there are so many other things going on in the world that even if we had some insight, I doubt it’s top of the list for most governments. So I think it is a real concern from an intelligence point of view as to who actually knows what the CT threat emerging or growing in Afghanistan is, and how much of it might be projected outwards. Most of it is currently focused internally, but these things have a tendency to get externally directed over time.

CTC: According to the 2021 U.K. government integrated review, “It is likely that a terrorist group will launch a successful CBRN attack by 2030.”11 In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, what is your assessment of the CBRN terror threat?

Hannigan: It is a bigger worry to me than cyber terrorism by a long way. Partly because organizations have seen the chaos you can cause through CBRN, and whether it’s pandemics, chemical weapons in Syria, or the near disasters in Ukraine through radiological mismanagement during the war, there must be people thinking, ‘Well, if I want to cause an enormous amount of suffering and disable a country, this is a better route to go.’ A key problem is that the global instability tends to make the control of the substances more difficult. We have been pretty effective [in past decades] in having organizations like the OPCW [Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] that could control and monitor the materials you need to conduct such an attack. However, in a world of chaotic great power relationships, that gets much harder, and so the opportunity to get hold of this material, or to manufacture it, becomes easier. Afghanistan is one of those places where we have seen in the past, and could certainly see in the future, terrorist programs to this end. It is certainly a bigger worry to me than cyber terrorism.

CTC: Given the strong nexus to far-right extremism of Russian paramilitary groups involved in the fighting in Ukraine and given the history of such ties also on the Ukrainian side,12 do you see any terrorist or foreign fighter threat emanating from the war in Ukraine?

Hannigan: One of the lessons we should learn from ISIS is relevant to this discussion. One of the reasons the lone wolves or more often the small groups who were effective in launching attacks—for example, in [Paris in November] 2015—were so effective was that they were battle-hardened and they knew what to do. They knew how to withstand firefights. They were not just ideologically hardened; they actually had battlefield experience. You have to assume that the same could be true of other kinds of extremists returning from any conflict. We have seen similar things emerging from Chechnya in the past as well. It seems plausible that the many current theaters of conflict may produce battle-hardened and radicalized individuals.

CTC: What is your assessment of the current security outlook in Northern Ireland?

Hannigan: We obviously underestimated, in around 2007, the resilience of dissident Republicanism, and I think that was partly because nobody foresaw the economic downturn. People assumed that there would be a great tidal wave of economic benefits and a peace dividend for lots of communities that did not materialize. But you cannot just pin it all on economics. There is a cyclical side to Republican violence in Irish history that is unlikely to ever go completely away, but the problem now is that the politics can get destabilized relatively quickly. I do not foresee a sudden return to violence, but I think the more the politics frays, the more instability there is, and the more you tinker with what was a political settlement that everybody could just about buy into, the more you run the risk of the fringes becoming violent again. And all of this might start successfully radicalizing young people. It was never a particular concern that the older generation of dissidents were still there—diehards who never signed up to the peace process and were never going to change their minds—but what was concerning was young people being recruited in their teens and 20s into dissident activity. That’s much more worrying. It is the key thing you have to guard against for the future. And clearly, the best way to do that is through political stability and political progress.

CTC: What were you most proud of in your work in counterterrorism? From a CT perspective, what worries you most today?

Hannigan: I am very proud of what GCHQ did in preventing attacks in the U.K., with MI5 and others. Most of those are not seen because they are prevented, but that was great work that I do not take any personal credit for, but was done exceptionally well. Personally, the thing I found most rewarding in counterterrorism was in Northern Ireland because this was a domestic threat where pretty much all the levers were in the U.K.’s hands—security and intelligence, economic and political. It was probably the last time that the U.K.’s top national security threat, as it was then, was a domestic one. It taught me a lot about terrorism, not least through talking to members of the Provisional IRA and other organizations, which gave me a greater understanding of how terrorist organizations think and work, and how individuals are motivated. In the end, it was, over a 30- to 40-year period, a successful process. There were, of course, mistakes, but it was a good marriage of security policy and political process, that addressed the underlying causes of the Troubles and, partly through good CT work, created space for politics to work.

I do not think Islamist extremism has gone away and the rise of the extreme-right is clearly a concern, but terrorism will continue to bubble up in all sorts of areas that may not yet have been predicted: where people feel either disenfranchised or disadvantaged, or feel that their identity is threatened. In a chaotic international environment, where outrage can be generated and manipulated on a larger scale than ever before, not least through technology, there will be more of this, and it will be more unpredictable. Right-wing extremism is just the latest [threat to gain prominence], but in reality, it has been around a long time. I suspect there may be all sorts of new causes, and people may resort to violence more quickly than they did in the past.     CTC

Substantive Notes
[a] The Five Eyes (FVEY) is an intelligence alliance of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

[b] Editor’s Note: In a November 2013 hearing before the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (that provides oversight of the UK’s intelligence agencies), Sir Iain Lobban revealed “we have actually seen chat around specific terrorist groups, including close to home, discussing how to avoid what they now perceive to be vulnerable communications methods or how to select communications which they now perceive not to be exploitable.” “Uncorrected Transcript of Evidence Given By, Sir Iain Lobban, Mr Andrew Parker, Sir John Sawers,” November 7, 2013.

[c] Editor’s Note: The Online Safety Bill is a wide-ranging piece of legislation currently under consideration by the UK Parliament that will provide government with powers to regulate online content, as well as impose large fines on companies for failing to fulfill their responsibilities. The draft bill under consideration was submitted in May 2021 and can be found at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/985033/Draft_Online_Safety_Bill_Bookmarked.pdf

[d] Editor’s Note: In October 2015, the Open Source Center (OSC) was “redesignated the Open Source Enterprise and incorporated in CIA’s new Directorate of Digital Innovation. The Open Source Center, established in 2005, was tasked to collect and analyze open source information of intelligence value across all media – – print, broadcast and online. The OSC was the successor to the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), which gathered and translated world news coverage and other open source information for half a century.” Steven Aftergood, “Open Source Center (OSC) Becomes Open Source Enterprise (OSE),” Federation of American Scientists Blog, October 28, 2015.

[e] Editor’s Note: The Cabinet Office is a central U.K. government function that supports the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, drawing on input from across government to help deliver on policy goals.

[f] Editor’s Note: On June 3, 2017, three terrorists launched a knife and van ramming attack on London Bridge and in the nearby area of Borough Market, murdering eight before dying themselves. On November 29, 2019, Usman Khan, a formerly incarcerated terrorist attacked and murdered two people at an event at Fishmonger’s Hall, before being shot by police on the nearby London Bridge. In both attacks, subsequent investigations revealed that authorities were aware of the individuals and may have failed to prioritize the level of threat that they posed. For more on the 2017 attack, see the inquest page at https://londonbridgeinquests.independent.gov.uk/ and the 2019 attacks, its own inquest page at https://fishmongershallinquests.independent.gov.uk/

[g] Editor’s Note: For instance, “over the past decade, companies in the US, UK, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been targeted by a hacker group called ‘Lebanese Cedar’, also known as ‘Volatile Cedar,’ which seems to be linked to Hezbollah, ClearSky Cyber Security announced” in January 2021. Tzvi Joffre, “Israel targeted by Hezbollah hacker group, remained unnoticed for 5 years,” Jerusalem Post, January 28, 2021.

[h] Editor’s Note: Iran reportedly attempted to trick computers to increase chlorine levels in the treated water for residential areas during an April 2020 cyberattack against Israel’s water systems. Mehul Srivastava, Najmeh Bozorgmehr, and Katrina Manson, “Israel-Iran attacks: ‘Cyber winter is coming,’” Financial Times, May 31, 2020.

[i] Editor’s Note: In April 2015, TV5 Monde was taken off air in an attack carried out by a group of Russian hackers. It was reported that they “used highly targeted malicious software to destroy the TV network’s systems.” An Islamic State-linked group going by the name the Cyber Caliphate had first claimed responsibility. Gordon Corera, “How France’s TV5 was almost destroyed by ‘Russian hackers,’” BBC, October 10, 2016.

Citations
[1] Editor’s Note: Robert Hannigan, “The web is a terrorist’s command-and-control network of choice,” Financial Times, November 4, 2014.

[2] Don Rassler and Brian Fishman, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Amy Zegart, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University,” CTC Sentinel 15:1 (2022).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Gordon Corera, “Terrorism: Lone actors make stopping attacks harder, say FBI and MI5 chiefs,” BBC, July 8, 2022.

[5] Gordon Corera, “China: MI5 and FBI heads warn of ‘immense’ threat,” BBC, July 7, 2022.

[6] National Cyber Security Strategy 2016 to 2021, HM Government, November 1, 2016.

[7] Editor’s Note: “Gartner Predicts By 2025 Cyber Attackers Will Have Weaponized Operational Technology Environments to Successfully Harm or Kill Humans,” Gartner press release, July 21, 2021.

[8] Editor’s Note: See Joe Tidy, “Police launch homicide inquiry after German hospital hack,” BBC, September 18, 2020.

[9] Editor’s Note: “Hacking of French TV channel was ‘terror act,’” Local (France), April 9, 2015.

[10] Paul Cruickshank, Don Rassler, and Kristina Hummel, “Twenty Years After 9/11: Reflections from Michael Morell, Former Acting Director of the CIA,” CTC Sentinel 14:7 (2021).

[11] Global Britain in a competitive age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, HM Government, March 2021.

[12] Don Rassler, “External Impacts and the Extremism Question in the War in Ukraine: Considerations for Practitioners,” CTC Sentinel 15:6 (2022).

A short piece for the Financial Times looking forwards on how terrorism might evolve and melt into the wider greater great power conflict that currently consumes international affairs.

Terrorism fused with great power conflict may be the west’s next challenge

Some countries such as Iran persist in using armed proxies to advance their goals

Veteran al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed by a drone strike on a safe house in Kabul

The writer is senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies

Terrorism is the past and the future is great power conflict. In a moment of nearly perfect public narrative, the death of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was almost entirely overshadowed by the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan. Yet the risk is that we miss how the two problems can become entangled and make each one worse.

As national security agencies turn their focus to states, they will inevitably deprioritise terrorist threats. Yet the shift is unlikely to be as tidy as this suggests. Even more worrying than the risk of paying less attention to terrorist groups is the potential for the two threats to interact with each other. In a worst-case scenario, great power conflict might make global terrorism worse.

The use by states of terrorist groups as proxies is not new. Iran has a long history in this regard. Hizbollah in Lebanon is the largest of numerous proxies that Iran has used to attack its adversaries. In recent years, Tehran has become more overt about using terrorist tactics directly itself.

In July 2018, an Iranian diplomat was arrested in Germany alongside a pair of Iranians in Belgium for planning to bomb a high-profile dissident rally in Paris. Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump’s former lawyer, and several British MPs were due to attend the event. This month, the US Department of Justice charged a member of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards with directing agents in the US to murder John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser.

Tehran may be the most blatant about it, but it is not the only power to use such groups or engage in such plots. Moscow’s hand can be seen behind some extreme-right terrorist networks in

Europe. India detects Chinese intelligence playing in the shadows of some of its domestic conflicts. India and Pakistan have honed the art of manipulating such groups against each other, and sufunderlying fered the blowback as a result. Furthermore, all these powers see supposedly all-powerful western intelligence agencies lurking behind various networks and plots that they perceive as threats.

The second risk comes from how the war on terrorism has been pursued around the world. As the west grows frustrated with longstanding counterterrorism campaigns in distant places, resources have been pulled back or withheld. Clearly, some capability is retained, but in certain places a vacuum has emerged and Russia has frequently filled it. Private security group Wagner has stepped in to bolster local authorities and launch offensives in the name of counter-terrorism. It is questionable how much this helps. It often appears as though these campaigns exacerbate the anger that creates the terrorist groups in the first place.

Mali is the most obvious example, with the situation escalating to the point that the country’s government is now accusing France – a previous leader in providing counter-terrorism support – of working with jihadis. At the same time, Wagner is celebrated in the streets of Bamako, the capital. But Wagner forces have also been deployed in the Central African Republic, Libya and Mozambique, all places suffering from terrorism that the west has failed to address or is not focusing on.

According to one view, it is a relief to have someone else deal with such problems. But the risk is that they are only making the situation worse, or that they may try to manipulate groups on the ground to their own ends, with little regard for any backlash that might strike the west. Or, this could be their intention.

The other side to this shift in attention is that taking pressure off terrorist groups may end up with no one focusing on them. We do not really know whether the reason we are now seeing a lowered terrorist threat is because the threat has gone down or because of the pressure that was on it.

The exact nature of how threat and response play off against each other is poorly understood. But just because we have stopped worrying about a problem does not mean it no longer exists. It is hard to say with confidence that any of the underlying issues that spawned the international terrorist threat have been resolved. Some analysts think they have grown worse.

Twenty years of conflict have changed the international terrorist threat that we face. But it has not gone away, and in a nightmarish twist it may start to fuse with the great power conflict we find ourselves locked into. The world has a habit of throwing multiple problems at us. In a growing world of threat, disinformation, proxies and opacity, terrorist groups offer a perfect tool. The west may one day rue the fact that it no longer has the relative clarity of the early years of the war on terror.

Been a bit slow in posting of late, lots going on. New book, radio documentary replaying, and lots of projects am late on as well as new ones starting up. That on top of life has been keeping me occupied. But need to catch up here and plan for the next wave. First up, a new journal piece for Current History, the oldest current affairs journal which have written a few times before though mostly focused on China and connectivity in Central and South Asia.

“Perpetrators no longer seemed to have a coherent motivation based on only one ideology (or any external direction), but often created highly idiosyncratic ideologies that pulled in ideas from a wide range of sources.”

The Evolving Terrorism Threat in Europe

Europe: March 2022

Two decades on from September 11, 2001, the terrorist threat in Europe has been almost entirely transformed. Far from mass casualty spectaculars like the public transportation attacks in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005, the greater danger now is isolated individuals murdering politicians or stabbing random people in public places. Yet the dwindling scale of terrorism has only made plots harder to detect.

This was pointed out in the latest annual threat assessment by Europol (the European police coordinating agency), which noted that “more jihadist terrorist attacks were completed than thwarted” during 2020, the last year of reporting. Though less directly lethal, these low-scale attacks pick at social divisions in a way that can be even more dangerous than the large-scale, spectacular attacks directed by al-Qaeda or Islamic State (ISIS).

Europe has always seemed to be a secondary battlefield in the war on terrorism. But whereas the United States appears to have insulated itself from the threat at this point, Europe continues to confront a scenario that is noticeably more complicated and chronic. Terrorism’s evolving presence still poses a deep threat to European society.

POST-9/11 SPECTERS

In the immediate aftermath of the 2001 attacks on America, Europe became a key battlefield in the “Global War on Terrorism.” Revelations that a substantial part of the logistics, planning, and even recruitment for the al-Qaeda attacks had happened in Europe awakened the continent to a threat that it had inadvertently hosted. But only a few months later, Paris became a springboard for a follow-up attack on the United States. On December 22, as the world was just starting to return to normal, a radicalized young Briton, Richard Reid, unsuccessfully tried to bring down a transatlantic flight to Miami with a bomb concealed in the heel of his shoe. Reid was part of a two-man teamof Britons who had been sent by the al-Qaeda leader responsible for 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. His co-conspirator, Saajid Badat, had backed out at the last minute.

From a European perspective, these two failed attackers were in many ways even more terrifying than the 9/11 group, for which the blame could be laid on foreign shores. The notorious Hamburg cell that produced key 9/11 hijackers Mohammed Atta and Ziad Jarrah was, for the most part, made up of foreigners like them who were in Europe studying or seeking employment. Similarly, Europe was simply a backdrop for the planning meetings that took place in Spain, or the network in the United Kingdom that facilitated the dispatch of a pair of suicide bombers to Afghanistan to carry out the assassination of leading Taliban adversary Ahmed Shah Masood. In all these elements of the attack plan, Europe served as a convenient staging point for the conspirators, who drew on the continent’s Middle Eastern population.

These communities were the product of trends that had been playing out for some time. As authoritarian Arab countries cracked down on dissidents, many fled to Europe’s more liberal and protective environment, from where they could agitate for change back home. This diaspora was a constant source of tension between Arab and European governments. Arab authorities lobbied their European counterparts to crack down; Europeans pushed back, claiming that these dissidents were simply calling for legitimate political rights, in ways that were legally protected in Europe. The dissidents were often harbored in the former colonial powers that had once ruled their home countries, giving a historical resonance to the clash.

For more, go either to Current History or get in touch or download it here.

Almost caught up with myself now, this time with a short piece for the Times Red Box which sought to highlight the rather ill-advised comments by the UK Foreign Secretary which seemed to actively encourage people to go and join the fighting in Ukraine. Considering what we have learned about foreign fighting, the legislation that has been passed and the people who have been prosecuted for doing it (not also forgetting the optics of a minister calling for vigilantism), it seemed particularly unfortunate comment to make, and in fact a number of other senior figures have now come out pushing back on the comment. Unfortunately, I keep seeing it being referred to by people who say they want to go and fight so the damage is likely done.

Encouraging Britons to fight in Ukraine is hypocritical

Two foreign fighters from the UK asked to be identified as “Scouser” and “Jacks” pose for a picture as they are ready to depart towards the front line in the east of Ukraine following the Russian invasion, at the main train station in Lviv, Ukraine, March 5, 2022. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

The foreign secretary’s seeming encouragement for Britons to go and fight alongside the Ukrainian armed forces is a comprehensible impulse given current tensions, but is the wrong message for a government minister to be sending. The commentary creates potential legal problems, risks fostering divisions at home, fans the flames of emotion when calm is needed and is unlikely to materially help the conflict on the ground.

This is not the first time a foreign conflict has generated an emotional call to arms. Famous foreign fighters from the past include authors like George Orwell or Lord Byron.

There were the famous international brigades mobilised to fight the Franco regime in Spain in the pre-war period. There were the international Mujahideen who went to eject the Soviets from Afghanistan. During the civil wars that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, people mobilised from around the world to help the various governments that emerged.

More recently, however, we associate the phenomenon with those who went to fight in Syria, both alongside and against Islamic State, with the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, as well as other factions who were fighting against the cruel Assad regime.

The impulse for most of those who go to fight in these campaigns is the same. A sense of injustice being committed and the world watching as nothing is being done. There are some who are simply drawn to the excitement and violence of conflict, seeking the thrill of fighting and killing. But most are drawn by romantic narratives imagining themselves as latter-day Che Guevaras.

Yet in the UK, the government has chosen to prosecute some of those who have gone to fight alongside these groups. A number of people have been jailed for having fought alongside Isis, other jihadist groups in Syria and even some who joined the Kurdish forces fighting Isis (whom the government was actively supporting).

The act of going to fight itself was not illegal but the decision to join a proscribed terrorist organisation was.

This may feel different to the context in Ukraine, but there are some worrying precedents there as well. An unknown number of British nationals have in fact already been to fight in Ukraine (and may still be). Ever since the 2014 annexation of Crimea and war in the Donbas, Ukraine has been a hotspot for radicalised westerners, mostly of an extreme right-wing inclination, seeking to join a battlefield.

In Italy, people have gone to fight on both sides. Some alongside the Russian-backed separatists and others alongside the Ukrainian side. An investigation into one of these networks in 2019 uncovered a cell in northern Italy who had accumulated a vast cache of weapons including an air-to-air missile.

In the UK, Britons linked to the proscribed terrorist group National Action are believed to have gone, while a number of North Americans linked to far-right groups have tried to join the fighting in the Donbas but were turned back by Ukrainian authorities.

Nowadays it is doubtful they would be rejected, but the issues raised by their travel remain. Battle-hardened extreme right-wing group members are clearly worrying people to have running around.

And the bigger narrative issues this raises need consideration. While there is no doubt that going to join Isis is different to going to fight in Ukraine (Isis has openly spoken of attacking the UK), there are some similarities in the motivations that drive individuals.

The danger becomes that a racial analysis is used to distinguish the two. Government is seen as being eager to prosecute people who go to fight Muslim conflicts, but when it comes to European wars, they encourage it. This is hardly going to soothe tensions between communities.

We are in the midst of a major security crisis in Europe whose peak has not yet come. This is exactly the moment emotions need to be calmed rather than inflamed. And it is exactly not the moment to start encouraging activity which until now has been prosecuted and which in other contexts we would never dream of countenancing.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute

A different kind of post this time, to highlight a radio series that I worked on for BBC Radio 4 with excellent and patient producer Richard Fenton-Smith. We worked for some time on the series, with much of it remotely which was an interesting experience. Spoke to lots of interesting people as part of it, including practitioners, experts, offenders and family members. The idea was to try to dig into the question of how mental health intersects with the terrorist threat and to explore what is being done to try to mitigate threat. We ended up spending a lot of time looking into autism spectrum disorders in the end, and it feels like there might be more on this topic out there in the future. It is a complicated edge of the current threat picture which touches on a number of bigger issues. Many thanks to all of those who spoke to us as part of it, including the various family members of offenders who were willing to tell their stories. Anyway, the first of two big projects to land this year, and doubtless more on this particular topic to come. Download, listen and enjoy!

The series webpage can be found here: Terrorism and the Mind

While the three episodes can be found here:

The Mental Health Frontline: which looks in particular at the Vulnerability Hubs which have been developed to try to work alongside the UK’s Prevent counter-terrorism policy to steer people away and address mental health issues amongst some of those flagged to Prevent.

Talking to Terrorists: which tries to look at the history of the question of mental health and terrorism, trying to unpick the research which underpins thinking into how the two issues intersect.

Getting the Balance Right: which focuses on what is actually being done at the prosecutorial end, and spends a lot of time looking at questions around autism spectrum disorders in particular which appear to be a major part of the caseload that authorities (in the UK at least) find themselves dealing with.

Catch up posting which appears a bit incongruous with current events, with a title which was certainly not one I suggested, though in the interests of consistency I have kept it as the title of this post. In any case, a piece commissioned by the Telegraph in the wake of the death of the ISIS leader.

Strange though it sounds, America may come to regret killing the leader of ISIS

There is a danger that in the wake of a leader’s removal, different groups will compete to show they are the most worthy heirs to the crown

The death of Isis leader Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi is unlikely to be the end of the group. Terrorist group decapitation can sometimes generate a new series of problems as groups fragment, face internal competition and feel the need to prove themselves with even more dramatic attacks. Which raises the long-standing question about the actual value of eliminating terrorist leaders. 

Historically, there are very few groups that can be found where the removal of a leader led to the group’s disintegration. The one analysts most frequently point to is the Shining Path in Peru which largely shrank away after its leader was jailed. But it is exceptional with most other cases groups continuing on with someone new in charge.

This is not to say that leaders are not significant. In rising to the top they will establish a web of contacts and plans which will potentially fall apart with their removal. Funding contacts, plans in train, and grand visions will be sharply stopped, and will require picking up by whoever comes next.

But there is an interesting theory which suggests that in fact a more effective way of managing a terrorist leader is to find a way of cutting him off from his organisation. By making it hard for him (or her) to lead will potentially leave the group stymied and blocked. There is some evidence that the protective measures put between Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda actually may have led to group stasis. 

Hidden in his compound in Abbotabad, only able to get messages in and out through a complicated courier system, meant it was very difficult to get rapid decisions passed down. This in turn made it hard to direct a global organisation like al Qaeda but also meant that the organisation had to wait for the leader to answer when they made inquiries to him. And Osama was a hesitant leader who it appears was often blocking plans his fighters were eager to advance. Yet, the method of communications meant it was difficult to debate and discuss.

None of this of course eradicated the group, but it made it much harder to function. And likely played a role in its decline in the late 2010s. The leader who replaced him Ayman al Zawahiri seems equally aloof, but has the additional problem of suffering from a notable lack of charisma, creating a lethal combination for al Qaeda.

A danger in removing leaders is they become martyrs to their cause. But it also potentially creates an internal dynamic within the organisation as various factions vie for the top job. Given terrorist organisations ways of showing off is by launching large scale attacks, this presents a danger that in the wake of a leader’s removal, different groups will push themselves forwards with great violence to show they are the most worthy heirs to the crown.

It is not clear how internally fragmented Isis in Syria and Iraq is these days. The organisation has in recent days launched some notable large-scale incidents, including a mass prison break. While it is hard to link this uptick in activity with the death of the group’s leader, it does suggest a dynamism within the group which is quite menacing. 

What is unlikely is that any upward trajectory is going to be stopped with Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi’s death. Rather, it may be accelerated in an attempt to avenge him, or as different groups seek to push themselves forwards at a moment of flux. Isis in Syria and Iraq will undoubtedly come out of this stronger than it was before.

Catching up on posting from late last month on a longstanding topic of interest for Foreign Policy, China’s threat from international terrorist groups. Afghanistan has I think changed things a bit, and it will be interesting to see in many different ways how this develops going forwards.

How China Became Jihadis’ New Target

International terrorist organizations long considered Beijing a secondary focus. That’s changed.

A silhouette of a demonstrator is seen behind a Chinese flag outside the Chancellery in Berlin on May 31, 2019, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan are holding talks. (Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP) / ALTERNATIVE CROP (Photo by ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images)

In early October, an Islamic State-Khorasan bomber killed nearly 50 people at a mosque in Kunduz, Afghanistan. That the militant group claimed responsibility for the attack wasn’t surprising, but, in a worrying new twist for Beijing, it also decided to link the massacre to China: The group said that the bomber was Uyghur and that the attack was aimed at punishing the Taliban for their close cooperation with China despite its actions against Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

China was long seen as a secondary target by international terrorist organizations. Groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State were so focused on targeting the United States, the West more generally, or their local adversaries that they rarely raised their weapons toward China, even though they may have wanted to due to, for example, China’s mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims. But in Kunduz, this narrative was brought brutally to a close. China can now consider itself a clear target.

China’s history with violent Islamist groups is complicated. For a long time, Beijing’s ability to project a status as a “developing world” power meant it could hide to some degree behind a veneer of not being a “first world” former colonial power that antagonized the world’s downtrodden. Before 9/11, al Qaeda theorists went so far as to speak of Beijing as a possible partner. According to their logic, China was against the United States, al Qaeda’s sworn enemy, and therefore the old “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” trope might apply.

There’s very little evidence that happened. The tolerance China appeared to show in the late 1990s toward al Qaeda figures who occasionally used Chinese territory for transit and support operations was more likely due to ignorance than to plotting. By 2004, this dynamic had changed, and Chinese intelligence was willing to work with Western services to hand over suspected terrorists who passed through China’s airports.

During the first Taliban-led government in the 1990s, Chinese officials were hesitant but willing interlocutors with Mullah Mohammad Omar’s regime. China was never a full-throated Taliban supporter but instead preferred to find ways of working with the group in the background. This mostly took the form of China providing limited investment and support that was encouraged by Pakistan, with the expectation that the Taliban would restrain the Uyghur groups that had established themselves in Afghanistan under Mullah Omar’s protection from attacking China. Beijing didn’t seem to be very concerned about what the Taliban’s larger goals were, as long as Afghanistan’s leaders acted on this key request. Still, there is little evidence that Beijing linked this domestic problem to a broader international terrorist threat.

With the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, and later Iraq, the problem of international terrorism took off globally, with groups targeting an expanding range of countries. Yet China’s successful push to get some of its own domestic Uyghur groups added to the United Nations and U.S. roster of terrorist organizations did not bring the country much international jihadi attention. Meanwhile, in the years immediately after 9/11, China became wary of the Taliban. A Uyghur group reportedly fought alongside the Taliban for years, as a video by al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri highlighted in 2016 and as U.S. intelligence information from Guantánamo Bay indicated earlier.

As the 2010s went on, more Chinese citizens started to be harmed in terrorist incidents around the globe, but, for the most part, these seemed incidental—a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Al Qaeda and then Islamic State leaders released some statements that threatened Beijing for its treatment of Uyghurs—and indeed Muslims more generally—but for the most part, they were limited and didn’t lead to any major push to target China.

Now, it’s undeniable that China is being targeted, especially as its footprint in Afghanistan grows. Beijing has long skirted around formal engagement in Afghanistan, and while it continues to do this to some degree, it has also been the most willing of the major powers in the region to engage with the Taliban directly. The Islamic State-Khorasan clearly sees the Taliban bowing to Beijing as a weak point to capitalize on, and the group’s message is clear: It is offering itself as a home to Uyghurs who are unhappy with the Taliban regime, as well as others in Afghanistan appalled at China’s treatment of Muslim minorities.

The new Taliban government has publicly stated its desire to work with the Chinese government—something Beijing has made clear is conditional on action against Uyghur militants. Taliban leaders are especially keen to attract Chinese investment and economic partnerships. In late October, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with the group’s leaders in Doha, Qatar. Taliban Foreign Minister-designate Amir Khan Muttaqi presented Wang with a box of Afghan pine nuts, reflecting one of the many goods Afghanistan is hoping to export to the Chinese market. Wang, meanwhile, focused on the need for stable government in Afghanistan and appealed to the Taliban once again to sever their links with Uyghur militants.

But the degree to which the Taliban are able—or want—to entirely sever this Uyghur connection is an open question. Over the past few months, the group has said that they would not let their territory be used by militants to launch attacks abroad and that Uyghur militants had left the country. Yet while rumors circulate of anti-Uyghur action behind the scenes—and of the Taliban moving Uyghurs within Afghanistan away from China’s borders—Beijing is not entirely convinced. After the meeting in Doha, the Chinese foreign ministry wrote that Wang had expressed that China “hopes and believes” that the Taliban “will make a clean break with the ETIM” (the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement,” the name China uses to describe militant Uyghur networks), suggesting that the group hasn’t yet fulfilled Beijing’s desires.

It is this dynamic that the Islamic State-Khorasan capitalized on when it used a suicide bomber in the Kunduz attack with the battlefield name Muhammad al-Uighuri. In the message released by the Islamic State’s media channels claiming the attack, the group linked the attacker directly to the Taliban and China’s cooperation, stating, “the attacker was one of the Uyghur Muslims the Taliban has promised to deport in response to demands from China and its [China’s] policy against Muslims there.”

The message has many layers. First, it is a signal to the Taliban highlighting their inability to protect minorities in the country they now purport to control. Second, it is a message to China, attacking Beijing for its policies in Xinjiang and linking those to the group’s interests. Third, it is a message to other Uyghurs who feel abandoned or threatened by the Taliban and may be seeking to join other groups that will advance their interests. Finally, it is a message to the world, showing that the Islamic State-Khorasan is a capable organization that’s continuing the Islamic State traditions on the battlefield and speaking up for oppressed Muslims. These messages will resonate with potential supporters around the world.

Publicly, China was circumspect in its response, which decried the loss of life. No official comment was made about the attacker’s identity, though a Chinese academic published an opinion piece in the state-owned Global Times accusing the Associated Press of fabricating the narrative of the attacker being Uyghur. He instead advanced Taliban narratives that Uyghurs who had been fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan had left the country and praised the Taliban’s control and cooperation with China.

But Beijing likely knows that this is a dangerous development—especially in a region where it is facing greater threats. There have been new reports of a growing Chinese security presence in Tajikistan aimed at strengthening its ability to address potential threats from Afghanistan. A growing range of militant groups in Pakistan are targeting Chinese interests there, with attacks in Dasu and Karachi coming from local Baluchi and Sindhi separatists. China’s embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, was struck in 2016, as was its consulate in Karachi in 2018, an attack that killed four people (and three attackers). Local protest movementsmilitant groups, and politiciansare all looking at China as an adversary. Until now, however, most of the attacks were conducted by local separatist movements. The addition of the Islamic State-Khorasan to the roster finally brings the country firmly into jihadis’ crosshairs.

The problem for China is that it is ill prepared to handle such threats. Its military may be large and well equipped, but it has little experience countering militant organizations and often relies on other countries to do so for it. Yet, as Beijing is increasingly discovering in Pakistan—one of its more reliable allies—this is difficult to guarantee. Taliban leadership may project great strength and hubris, but they will face the same difficulties as others in the region in quelling militant groups in their territory, and they may find it difficult to entirely protect China from determined terrorist organizations.

In a sense, Beijing is stuck. China is Afghanistan’s most powerful and influential neighbor, which partly explains the growing attention toward its role in the country. Beijing is increasingly seen as the Taliban’s great supporter on the international stage. In assuming this role, China runs the risk of being seen as filing the vacuum the United States left in Afghanistan—something Beijing is keen to avoid. The reality, however, is that it is already getting sucked in. The Islamic State-Khorasan’s attack in Kunduz merely highlighted how far down this path Beijing has already gone.

Have been very delinquent in posting of late. Been consumed with a lot of bigger papers and stuff at home. Have a few to catch up on, first up is my latest column for local paper the Straits Times looking at the complexity of expecting a terrorist group to manage another terrorist group, this time the Taliban and the hope they will deal with ISKP. Been involved in a few conversations about Afghanistan of late which have been for the most part deeply depressing, something that is exacerbated by the clear absolute lack of interest that increasingly is visible in western capitals.

Terrorism is a war the Taliban cannot win

A Taliban fighter displays their flag at a checkpoint in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Nov 5, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

Winning a war is a confusing experience for an insurgent or terrorist group. The sudden crush of responsibility that follows taking over a country calls for a very different skill set from that required while trying to overthrow a government.

Not only are you now expected to deliver on a whole suite of basic public services, but you also have to provide security – the very thing you used to undermine. This can come in the form of defending borders, stopping criminality, or fighting terrorist groups; the last, ironically, is a growing headache for the Taliban, now that it is the ruler of Afghanistan.

Along with the outside world, the Taliban views with apprehension the growth of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-Khorasan (ISIS-K) group, the local affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group.

There is little love lost between the Taliban and ISIS-K. Since the emergence of ISIS-K in 2015, it has been a thorn in the Taliban’s side, competing for recruits, funding and influence. The two have fought each other regularly, with the Taliban usually winning.

However, since the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in August, this dynamic has changed. From being an insurgent group that was fighting against a competing faction as well as the government, the Taliban is now the government trying to squash a non-state group. In some ways this is not dissimilar to what it was doing before. Prior to taking over, the Taliban was quite effective in its fight against ISIS-K, using violence and intelligence. The problem now is that, as the ruling authority in Afghanistan, the Taliban is expected to protect people as well as fight.

GROWING VIOLENCE

This is a weakness that ISIS-K has ruthlessly exploited, launching not only a campaign of targeted assassinations of Taliban figures around the country, but also horrendous large-scale attacks on civilians. The dramatic assault at Kabul airport that killed over 180, including 13 US service members, in August has since been followed by attacks on Shi’ite worshippers at mosques in Kunduz and Kandahar that left dozens dead, as well as an assault late last month on the Daoud Khan Military Hospital in Kabul that killed 25, including at least one senior Taliban figure.

These brutal ISIS-K attacks are single-mindedly focused on undermining the Taliban’s authority by aiming at soft targets. Underscoring that intent, an ISIS video on the group’s Telegram channel on Sunday branded its rivals as “Biden hirelings” and gloated that “the Taliban militia are lost in panic, they do not know how to conceal their shame”.

ISIS-K, estimated to have some 4,000 fighters, has been very precise in its attacks, seeking maximum carnage and also to deploy suicide bombers whose battlefield names often identify them as being members of minority groups that might come into conflict with the Taliban. The aim is not only to undermine the Taliban’s claims of being in charge, but also to highlight to those minorities that ISIS-K is fighting alongside them.

The growing violence by ISIS-K worries the United States, the country’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West said on Monday. American officials reportedly believe that absent security pressure, ISIS-K could develop the ability to strike the West within six to 12 months.

However, outside powers have little faith in the Taliban’s capability to deal with the ISIS-K menace. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee late last month, US Under-Secretary for Defence Colin Kahl said “we would not count on the Taliban to be the ones responsible for disrupting (external threats from ISIS-K). We will have our own unilateral capabilities to do that.”

This is not to say that the US has not engaged with the Taliban. Central Intelligence Agency director Bill Burns was one of the first senior foreign officials to visit Kabul after the Taliban took over. ISIS-K was clearly on the agenda among other things. But it is clear that the US remains to be convinced that the Taliban has the capability to deliver not only on ISIS-K, but also in keeping all of its various factions in line.

MULTIPLE GROUPS, DIVERSE AGENDAS

There is still no clear evidence that the Taliban has ejected Al-Qaeda from its territory, nor has it visibly clamped down on any of the other non-Afghan factions that had been fighting alongside itself for years. These other groups are undoubtedly happy with the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, and are now keen to replicate this in their countries of origin. Pakistan, Central Asia, Iran, Russia, China and others are all looking askance at the situation.

For the Taliban, contending with multiple groups with diverse agendas is going to be a major problem going forward. It is going to have to find ways of moderating the impulses of groups it has been fighting alongside for years, as well as clash with competing terrorist organisations on the ground. It is also going to have to contend with external pressures as outside powers start to stir up its own proxies on the ground.

This sort of proxy meddling, using one faction to go after another, has a long history in Afghanistan and the wider region.

Neighbouring Iran has mastered the practice on the world stage through the development of Hizbollah as an international terrorist force which it uses against the US and Israel, while it recruited thousands of Shi’ite Afghans to fight on its behalf in Syria. Pakistan is another master of proxy group manipulation, regularly using jihadist groups as a deniable proxy in its conflict with India. In turn, Delhi is constantly accused of manipulating separatist groups in Pakistan against the state.

And it is not just a practice found in the wilds of Central and South Asia. In the tumult of post-World War II Europe, leftist terror groups, often supported by the communist bloc, would wreak campaigns of violence. In some cases, parts of the security apparatus in non-communist countries would manipulate right-leaning groups to either target the leftists, or commit atrocities in their name to force the government’s hand to clamp down harder.

More recently, the West has been quite openly using groups close to proscribed terror organisations to fight on the ground in Syria against ISIS. This was most obvious with the open support of the YPG, a Kurdish group closely linked to the PKK, a longstanding terrorist menace within Turkey.

But there was also a strange moment at the peak of the ISIS threat in Syria and Iraq when discussions in Western capitals circled around the idea that the West might want to explore cooperation with Jabhat al-Nusra – an organisation born out of Al-Qaeda – to fight ISIS, its implacable enemy; the logic being my enemy’s enemy is my friend. Today, Nusra’s successor Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is trying to remodel itself as the Salvation Government in parts of northern Syria which are not controlled by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It has openly lobbied for engagement with the West, this time offering itself as a responsible government and alternative to the brutal Assad regime or ISIS.

There is, of course, a rich irony in all of these contortions. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda were themselves born out of a context in which the West had sought to manipulate groups on the ground to fight against the Soviet Union. That succeeded beyond expectations, but has produced blowback that we are still feeling today. No doubt the choices that are being made now will resonate in unexpected ways in the years to come.

Terrorist groups are by definition extremists. Governments, political forces and others have always sought to manipulate other extremes in society to fight back against a terrorist group that is challenging their authority. Yet in doing this, they are invariably stoking the very fires they are trying to put out. And once these catch, it is almost impossible to entirely extinguish them.

Already representing a minority community and still not trusted by many outside Afghanistan, the Taliban is going to struggle to entirely rule its country. Similarly, it is going to find it hard to entirely eliminate the terrorist threats that might emerge.

More likely, as its fight against ISIS-K goes on, it will increasingly find that its rival will thrive, drawing in more and more of those who are alienated by Taliban rule. Credible stories are already emerging of former Afghan soldiers joining ISIS-K.

While this will undoubtedly undermine the Taliban government, it will also inflict greater suffering on the Afghan people, who will have to endure yet another chapter of seemingly endless conflict in their country’s history.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and author of a forthcoming book exploring China’s relations with Central Asia, titled Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire.

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.