Posts Tagged ‘counter-terrorism’

A new brief piece for the Telegraph looking at the new President’s options for countering terrorism.

Donald Trump doesn’t have a perfect answer to terrorism any more than Obama did

A new piece in the wake of the revelation of Anjem Choudary’s conviction for the Guardian looking at the question of the importance of leadership in terrorist networks and what his detention means. The article is a bit less declarative as the title, but there we go. Also spoke to BBC Today about Choudary’s arrest and they have used the clip on their podcast which can be downloaded here and bits of it got subsequently picked up here. Separately, also spoke to NPR about his arrest and what it means for the UK.

Am also using this opportunity to catch up on some media comments, spoke to the Financial Times about lone actor terrorism, to Politico about the UK-China relationship and Hinkley Point, to Politico about Europol’s future, to TodayFM about terrorism in France, to Huffington Post about how the current wave of terrorism compares to history in Europe, to the BBC, France 24 and The Local about the spate of terrorist attacks in Germany,

Anjem Choudary was a leader. His conviction will damage terror networks

Figureheads give direction to what would otherwise be just a cluster of angry people. Imprisonment will keep his hateful ideology in check
Choudary

The conviction of Anjem Choudary marks a significant moment in the history of British jihadism, but it is unclear what kind of an impact it will have. Terrorist groups and networks do suffer when they lose charismatic leaders. Their removal is unlikely to completely destroy a group, but it does change the dynamic.

Terrorist networks are, at their core, groups of people gathering around an ideology. Individuals are drawn in for various (often deeply personal) reasons, but to function as an effective unit that works to advance an ideology requires organisation and leadership. Otherwise, it is just a cluster of angry people with no particular direction.

It is here that leadership figures are key. They provide direction and can help motivate others, as well as offering some practical experience and, crucially, contacts. An individual who has risen to the top of a terrorist network after a long period of time will develop an understanding of what works. The relationships they will have developed over time are hard to replicate.

Choudary is a prime example. Involved in the formation of the UK-based jihadist group al-Muhajiroun in the mid-1990s, Choudary had pedigree and trust among the community of individuals drawn to the group as well as the wider extremist community. This included those who joined the group pre- and post-9/11. He understood the mechanics of how to organise protests and attract media attention, providing the kinds of soundbites news organisations wanted to use. And he was a charming and charismatic fellow who would make people laugh while he told them about the brutal punishments that would be meted out in the perfect Islamic state he was seeking to achieve. All of this made him a very persuasive figure to the lost or curious young men and women who were drawn to him after seeing or hearing him in the press. In his absence there is no doubt that the network will suffer to some degree, even if Choudary’s own reputation is enhanced to some degree by the perception that he is martyr to the cause, possibly adding to his street cred among followers when he is released.

Other terrorist groups and networks have suffered as a result of the loss of such figures. The Shining Path in Peru largely shrank back into drug smuggling networks after its leader Abimael Guzman was arrested in 1992. Al-Qaida has never quite been the same since Osama bin Laden was killed and the less charismatic Ayman al-Zawahiri took over. After Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed, al-Qaida in Iraq faced a period of decline. In all of these cases, the groups did find ways of picking up or evolving subsequently, but the removal of leadership figures had a noticeable impact.

‘Al-Qaida has never quite been the same since Osama bin Laden was killed and the less charismatic Ayman al-Zawahiri (r) took over.’

The importance of these charismatic leaders is both inspirational and practical. Choudary was famous for being the face of al-Muhajiroun and knew the lines. But he was also an organiser – which is important in ideological networks that aim to get people excited about ideas. They need not only to deliver the ideology persuasively, but also to help others organise themselves to hold protests, send out messages and establish websites. Choudary was very aware of this role and used the ease of contact and travel around Europe as a way of further internationalising his cause. Describing his relationship with a pair of radicals in Norway who helped establish the local equivalent of al Muhajiroun, Profetens Ummah, Choudary said: “There are no administrative links between us, but I am a mentor and adviser for them.”

The jailing of Choudary for a few years will not end the story of British jihadism. Partially because there are others like him, but also because the narrative he was espousing has entered the mainstream to the extent that his role as a megaphone for radicalisation is less important. But his imprisonment will have an impact on his immediate group and some of the contacts he had developed over time. For some time at least, he will be silenced and unable to spread his hateful ideology so publicly. Unless he is managed carefully, it is possible he might end up causing some damage in prison by radicalising fellow inmates, but the mere fact of his removal from the public conversation for an extended period will certainly do no damage to the cause of countering terrorism in the UK. Meanwhile, some of the people who were drawn into Choudary’s orbit and subsequently groomed or recruited by jihadist networks will, thanks to his absence, have a new hurdle to cross.

Another piece of holiday writing, this time looking at China’s new counter-terrorism legislation and some of the preventative aspects that still may need to be worked on. It was published by the BBC both in Chinese and English and I have posted both below. Another topic that there will undoubtedly be more work on in the next year.

Will China’s new law tackle terror?

  • 2 January 2016
  • From the section China
paracops in Urumqi
China’s paramilitary police on recent operations in the Xinjiang autonomous region

China’s long-discussed counter-terrorism legislation, passed this week, frames the way the country will counter terrorist threats at home and abroad. But it is capable of getting to the root of the problem?

China faces a dual problem from terrorism; abroad, the picture is very similar to that faced by most Western countries, with Chinese nationals and interests increasingly threatened by groups affiliated with the so-called Islamic State group or al-Qaeda; at home, China has a problem with individuals angry at the state, who sometimes resort to violence against citizens and the state apparatus to express their anger.

Some domestic terrorism appears to be motivated by personal gripes, while some stems from a more general sense of disenfranchisement and alienation.

The latter can be found particularly in the westernmost region of China’s Xinjiang province, where the minority Uighur population resent the perceived encroachment by Beijing into their culture and identity.

There has also been some evidence that some Chinese nationals have gone abroad to fight alongside IS or al-Qaeda affiliates on the battlefield in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, while others have turned up in training camps in South-east Asia.

Underlying Anger

The new legislation attempts to deal with these dual problems but it does not appear to offer a clear framework for how to prevent people from being drawn to terrorist networks and ideologies in the first place. It does offer a formal framework for countering terrorism abroad, through sending Chinese security forces abroad to deal with the threat.

That is in itself a significant shift – offering Beijing an option to deploy forces abroad, in contrast to China’s longstanding principle of non-interference in foreign policy.

But then Chinese security forces are already increasingly going out into the world – be it as peacekeepers with more forward leaning mandates or to set up forward operating bases in places like Djibouti – and the new legislation merely strengthens this broader push.

chinacops tianshan
Chinese state media have publicised images of counter-terror troops searching Xinjiang

Where China’s problem becomes really complicated is in incidents such as the bombing in Bangkok, Thailand, earlier this year, when a cell linked to a Turkish-Uighur network left an explosive device outside a shrine popular with Chinese tourists. Twenty were killed, the majority ethnic Chinese.

The exact reason for the attack remains unclear, although it appeared to be part of a larger wave of anger against China and Thailand for the forced deportation of a large number of Uighurs who had fled China for South-east Asia.

In many ways, the attack was an extension of China’s domestic terrorist problem. The Uighur anger that initially mostly prompted attacks against the state in Xinjiang slowly spread around China (including prominent incidents in Beijing and Kunming) and now could be found abroad.

The problem is that, while it is clear the new legislation tries to deal with the mechanics of these issues – by establishing frameworks through which people can be detained and pursued abroad – it is not clear that it deals with the underlying anger behind the terror.

Lessons from the UK

Much has been done in the UK to address the problem of radicalisation, which is often as much a personal as political process. The state-sponsored Prevent programme aims to catch people before they are radicalised. Its focus is on developing strong ties to minority communities and trying to connect with individuals that feel alienated from the state.

Controversially, various bits of state apparatus from healthcare to education have been drafted into the effort, but the overall thrust of the government agenda has been to find ways to steer people away from violence before they start down the path towards it.

This is the key element missing from China’s new approach. While there is some discussion in China of involving other parts of the state beyond security officials, there is seemingly no discussion about how to tackle the underlying causes of radicalisation.

CameronXi
Xi Jinping visited David Cameron earlier this year

There is some evidence that the Chinese state is at least thinking about the issue. Leader Xi Jinping has discussed non-security approaches to countering terrorism, and Security Minister Meng Jianzhu has talked about expanding the country’s de-radicalisation efforts, but that thinking does not appear to be reflected in the legislation.

Instead, the legislation appears instead to be very focused on the practical side of countering terrorism – the use of blunt force to simply stop networks and the spread of ideas; some tools potentially so blunt that they may in fact cause collateral damage.

China is not alone in this – the UK approach faced accusations that it risks alienating young Muslims – but in the UK at least public debate and discussion about the problem is a key component of shaping public policy and the programme of work is one that is constantly evolving to respond to the threat and public reaction to it.

If China wants to be able to properly and effectively tackle its terrorism problems at home and abroad, it needs to start to think in this way too. It needs to find a way to not only disrupt terror networks but to understand why people are drawn to terror in the first place and how it can address the issue.

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

分析:中国新《反恐怖主义法》能起效吗?

潘睿凡
英国皇家联合军种国防研究所国际安全项目总监
2015年 12月 31日

151227111842_cn_beijing_sanlitun_swat_02_624x351_afp_nocredit
一如外国的反恐法,中国的《反恐法》能否应对中国面对的问题实在是疑问?它能在干扰活跃的恐怖主义网络之外,还防止未来的问题出现吗?

本周,中国全国人大通过《反恐怖主义法》,为中国面对来自海内外的恐怖主义威胁定下应对之术。但是一如外国的反恐法,这些做法能否应对中国面对的问题实在是疑问?它能在干扰活跃的恐怖主义网络之外,还防止未来的问题出现吗?

中国在恐怖主义问题上面对两个难题。在海外,与大部分西方国家所面临的一样,中国人与中国的利益越来越受到“伊斯兰国”组织或基地组织等支派组织的威胁。作为日益强大的国际超级力量,中国越发明白,作为主要外来投资者,中国国民和公司将会遭遇麻烦。

在国内,中国面对越来越大的问题,是个人对于国家的愤怒。因此常常一个人发动炸弹袭击或一大帮人刀伤其他个人与国家机构。一些可能是个人出于对国家的怨愤,其他似乎出于一般的恼怒或感到被国家疏离。

后一种原因尤其出现在新疆维吾尔人口中。他们中的一些怨恨北京侵蚀维族文化和身份。此外,还有证据显示,一些中国人到海外协助“伊斯兰国”组织或基地组织在叙利 亚和伊拉克战斗,另一些则出现在东南亚的训练营。

最尖锐的问题

151230145901_china_police_624x351_afp

中国最新的这部反恐法试图解决这些问题,但是似乎没有提供明确的框架,表明如何应付最尖锐的问题:如何防止人们被恐怖主义网络及思想吸引。

立法确实应付了应对海外恐怖主义的问题,但是却是通过允许中国保安部队到海外处理恐怖主义者的威胁。这个转变颇为重要,它让北京可以摆出有可能向海外派出安保部队的姿态,而不单单似乎长期以来中国所行使以不干预为原则的外交政策。

中国安保部队已经越来越多在全世界执行任务,无论是参与和平部队,或者在世界各地参与安保合作和训练。新的反恐法不过是加强这些,并提供特定方式在中国的海外利益受影响时,让部队出外应对。

但让问题变得复杂的,是诸如8月份的曼谷四面神爆炸案。虽然原因不明,但这似乎与中国和泰国遣返维吾尔人的事件有关。某种程度上,这一所为是中国本土恐怖主义问题在海外的延伸。维吾尔人的愤怒从袭击新疆目标,慢慢扩散到中国各地,现在更远至海外。

现在的问题是,这一新立法试图解决这些问题,但并不清楚它究竟是否能处理背后推动这些行为的愤怒。

英国经验

150109031040_police_security_uk_624x351_getty_nocredit
在英国,当局试图与社区建立联系,设法劝阻人们被恐怖主义网络吸引,尝试与个人联系,了解他们为何感到疏离,并介绍 以其他方法消解愤怒,而非诉诸暴力。

极端化是很一个复杂的过程,因人而异。但是根源是个人的身份认同。人们感到被疏离或对国家愤怒,会从外来的思想中寻找认同和联系,进而认为自己与国家作战。原因 很可能是个人问题,也可能是政治问题。

在英国,当局试图与社区建立联系,设法劝阻人们被恐怖主义网络吸引,尝试与个人联系,了解他们为何感到疏离,并介绍 以其他方法消解愤怒,而非诉诸暴力。

中国的新立法似乎缺乏这些元素,也没有讨论如何应对极端化问题,或人们被恐怖主义网络吸引的背后原因。新立法似乎非常集中于对付恐怖主义的实际操作,粗暴封杀网络和和思想的散播。但这些方法很可能适得其反。

在英国,这也是人们经常讨论的问题,是英国在国内阻止恐怖袭击努力的核心考量。不过,英国已经采取措施去防止其发生。另外,公众辩论与讨论也是英国公共政策成形前的重要一环。

如果中国希望适当而有效地应对海内外的恐怖主义问题,就应该也开始思考这些方法。不单封杀恐怖主义网络,还要明白人们被恐怖主义网络吸引的原因。

My contribution in the excellent magazine Prospect to the public conversation in the UK last week about bombing Syria in the wake of this week’s parliamentary vote. It tries to explore what exactly kinetic military campaigns can do to counter terrroist oranization, using a few historical examples to outline some successes.

Will Bombing Ever Get Rid of Islamic State?

FILE - In this Monday, Dec. 31, 2001 file picture, Marines with full battle gear prepare to board transport helicopters at the U.S. military compound at Kandahar airport for a mission to an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/John Moore, File) PHOTO PACKAGE FOR USE WITH AFGHANISTAN ANNIVERSARY STORIES

This week’s vote to bomb Syria brings to mind a question: can hard power destroy terrorist groups? While it often may not be able to completely eradicate the groups’ ideologies, hard power does have a role in countering terrorist organisations. Historically there have been a number of successes in using it to degrade and even destroy them. This success comes in three main forms: decapitation, eradication or targeted applied force. Yet while all three can cause a group to be substantially degraded, the reality is that often the underlying causes and problems remain, meaning that while the group can be temporarily displaced, it is often not completely destroyed.

The first approach is decapitation, whereby a terrorist group is struck in such a way that its leadership is eliminated. A prime example of this is the Shining Path group in Peru that in 1992 was dealt a deadly blow when its leader Abimael Guzmán was captured by Peruvian authorities. While in the immediate wake of the strike the group’s violence increased, over time the group degraded and gradually faded away. Elements linked to it mutated into a criminal organisation, but the group has now largely disappeared from public concerns.

The second approach is a razed-earth military campaign, destroying the group, its territory, and membership with no mercy or quarter. An example of this is the campaign waged by the Sri Lankan government after the breakdown of talks in 2006 with the Tamil Tigers which led to an aggressive military campaign and the defeat of the group in May 2009. Using an aggressive land and air war, the Sri Lankan government slowly pushed the group back until it was cornered and ultimately collapsed. Many thousands were captured, while others were killed with a few hardcore figures managing to flee the country. But since then, while the aspiration to freedom still remains amongst some Tamils, the organisation is no longer able to assassinate state leaders and control territory.

For the rest of the piece, please go to the Prospect site

 

A short reaction piece to events this week in San Bernadino, a strange terrorist attack that reflects a trend that has been visible for a while in terms of terrorist attacks taking an increasingly confusing aspect in terms of direction and ideology, but also adjacent to a reality in the United States of large-scale weapon ownership. The piece was published in a Spanish paper called La Razon, and so I have posted the Spanish, and below that the original English submitted. Undoubtedly more on this topic as time goes on.

La difusión del terrorismo

Con EE UU aún sacudido por los asesinatos de un agente de Policía y otras dos personas en una clínica de planificación familiar en Colorado, la localidad californiana de San Bernardino se ha convertido en escena de un nuevo tiroteo masivo. La naturaleza de lo sucedido en California no está clara todavía, pero los primeros datos apuntan a la creciente dificultad y naturaleza confusa de la amenaza a la que se enfrentan las sociedades modernas. Hasta ahora han salido a la luz las conexiones con Arabia Saudí de los sospechosos del tiroteo, que uno de ellos había trabajado en el centro de discapacitados donde sucedió el ataque y que había discutido con sus colegas hacía poco, y se considera claro que el ataque fue planeado. Este hecho unido a sus conexiones con el extranjero sugiere un posible móvil terrorista, pero al mismo tiempo, la discusión y la conexión personal con el centro podrían apuntar a otra causa.

Tampoco hay razones suficientes para descartar que ambos hechos estén relacionados. Existe la posibilidad de que los sospechosos hubieran estado expuestos a material radical y que estuvieran planeando algo; en este caso, la pelea con el resto de trabajadores habría sido el desencadenante de la acción. No obstante, como ambos sospechosos murieron, es posible que nunca lo sepamos con certeza.

Es probable que el mundo continúe presenciando tales atrocidades en el futuro. El aumento de la difusión de ideologías extremistas, junto a las reacciones de furia e imitación, además del fácil acceso a armamento pesado, apuntan al hecho de que continúe esta plaga de explosiones repentinas de ira. Entre éstas, están la matanza de Robert Dear en Colorado, la masacre en San Bernardino o los atentados más elaborados de París o Bamako. El terrorismo, en sus múltiples formas, continuará siendo una característica de la sociedad organizada durante los próximos años.

The Diffusion of Terrorism

With the United States still shaken by the murders of a police officer and two others at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, San Bernadino, California was the scene of another mass shooting this week. The exact nature of what went on in California was unclear, but the early contours of what is known point to the increasingly difficult and confusing nature of the threat that modern societies face. With news that the individuals involved in California had links to Saudi Arabia, that one of them had worked at the disabled home that was targeted and had recently fallen out with his colleagues, and at the same time the clear evidence that they had planned their attack – a whole series of analytical details are suggested at that leave no clear conclusion.

The pre-planning and the links abroad suggest a possible terrorist motive, but at the same time, the row and personal connection to the target suggest something else. And there is no reason to necessarily conclude that the two are not even linked in some way. The possibility exists that the individuals will now be discovered to have consumed some radical material and been considering doing something, and the row with co-workers was the trigger into action. Given both of the suspects are now dead, it is possible we will never really know.

Looking forwards, it is likely that the world will continue to see such confusing atrocities. The increasing diffusion of extremist ideologies and the rapidity with which people can adopt them, alongside the longstanding human reactions of anger and emulation, as well as the easy access to heavy weaponry all point to the fact that such sudden explosions of anger are headed to continue to plague us. Be this like Robert Dear’s slaughter in Colorado, the as of yet unclear massacre in San Bernadino or the more clearly calculated slaughter’s in Paris or Bamako. Terrorism in its many forms will continue to be a feature of organized society for some time to come.

Catching up on some old posting again, this from a piece that was co-authored with RUSI colleague Dr Sasha Jesperson for a special publication issued for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting that just took place in Malta. Thanks to Sasha for taking the lead on this one!

Calibrating a Commonwealth-wide response to Terrorism

Terrorism is a menace that resonates across the Commonwealth. From resident domestic violent extremist groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria or the LTTE in Sri Lanka, to groups launching cross-border attacks from neighbouring countries like Al Shabaab’s attacks in Kenya or Uganda, to lone actor attacks in Canada and Australia, terrorism can be found in some shape in most countries. Yet the reality is that when one looks at the cumulative numbers in comparison with other threats to human life, casualty counts are relatively low. This is not to dismiss the danger from terrorism, but given the current hyperventilation around ISIL (so-called Islamic State or ISIS) in particular, it is important to make sure that this is borne in mind; and furthermore, that care is taken to ensure that the expressions of violence which purport to be linked to ISIL are properly understood within their respective contexts.

Fears around terrorism are of course not baseless. Many West African countries have watched the growth of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) with concern, and there has been evidence of AQIM networks having particular influence over parts of Boko Haram. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, the threat of terrorism in the West spiked – and later materialised in the form of the attacks in Bali 2002 and London in 2005, to name just two. Yet the influence of Al Qaeda, the group behind much of these fears, has not been as significant as initially feared. The group has managed a number of attacks and continues to attempt to launch plots. It has further managed to help grow off-shoots in various countries, including Commonwealth countries, highlighting the dangers of such pernicious ideologies. But it has failed to transform and take over the world in the manner which it claimed to be attempting to do.

A New Set of Fears

ISIL appears to present a new set of fears. The group has a public relations strategy that makes Al Qaeda appear archaic and detached, finding innovative ways of engaging with social media to spread their messages, recruit and radicalise new members from as far as the UK, Canada and Australia, as well as the Western Balkans and West Africa. The increase in foreign fighters travelling to join ISIL from around the world has prompted many governments to act, implementing new legislation in an attempt to stop people leaving their country of origin and punish those returning. Concerns have also been raised that the current surge of people displaced by the conflict in Syria is potentially being used as a cover by the group to send its people around the globe.

But the greatest fear arises from ISIL’s state-building aspirations and the growth of its self-declared caliphate, and all the trappings of statehood and success that accompany this. Boko Haram’s recent pledge of allegiance to ISIL, and the adoption of the new name ‘Islamic State in West Africa’, has led to increased fears across West Africa about what this means for the group’s activity and impact in the region. This is only heightened by the ISIL’s claims of expanding their caliphate into West Africa. Yet, it is unclear the degree to which there has been much back and forth between the two groups – ISIL and Boko Haram – beyond rhetoric or some exchange of tips and capability in terms of developing a more professional media output. Since the formal pledge of bayat (allegiance) by Boko Haram to ISIL, there has been a noticeable improvement in the video output by the West African group. But beyond this, there has not been much more tangible evidence of fighters or money flowing between the two groups in a widely organised fashion.

The West African Dimension

In many ways, therefore, the link between Boko Haram and ISIL is an extension of Nigeria’s existing problem with violent extremism, rather than something new. A politically-minded terrorist organisation seeking to attract attention to itself, Boko Haram saw the advantage of adopting the ISIL name to bring the bright light of publicity and attention to their cause. Nevertheless, it represents a worrying trend for other Commonwealth nations in the region. While the problem may be largely an extension of an existing issue, the decision by Boko Haram to adopt the ISIL brand reflects both an eagerness to attract more attention and a consequent push towards an even more extremely divisive brand of violent rhetoric. This aspect is something that has worrying ramifications for countries across the Commonwealth,
and particularly in West Africa.

Ghana offers a particular case study within this context. Geographically close to Nigeria, it is therefore close to the expanding local ‘caliphate’. Ghana has a sizeable Muslim population (though accurate numbers are hard to find, with reports estimating it is somewhere between 18 and 45 per cent). Throughout history Muslims and Christians in Ghana have had a good relationship, but the spread of ISIL into West Africa is raising fears of domestic radicalisation. In early October, Ghana’s Deputy Education Minister, Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa, addressed Muslims in Accra about ISIL agents at Ghanaian universities seeking to recruit fighters. Two students have already been identified as joining ISIL and there are concerns among some in the international community based in Ghana that many more
have been recruited in the north of the country.

While these findings suggest that the fear of government ministers of ISIL infiltration is justified, there is a risk of over-reaction and polarisation. Northern Ghana, where the majority of Ghana’s Muslim population resides, has experienced violent clashes sparked by ethnicity, land disputes and chieftancy rights for over 20 years, as detailed by Emmanuel K Anekunabe in Modern Ghana (30 November 2009). Although this has historically not been centred on religion or a Muslim-Christian antipathy, there is a risk that fears of ISIL radicalisation may marginalise Muslim communities and create a divide, in turn driving more people into the hands of ISIL. As the brand is perceived to be more present in neighbouring countries like Nigeria, there will be a growing tendency for security forces to look for the problem; and in some extreme cases, this might have a self-fulfilling effect.

This phenomenon is most recently illustrated by Tom Parker, from the UN Counter Terrorism Centre, who highlights the strategy of terrorist groups in provoking an overreaction from affected governments, which then strengthens the cause of the terrorist group and increases support for their activities (‘It’s a Trap’, The RUSI Journal, 160(3), 2015) . Although the fear of ISIL penetration has not resulted in the draconian state responses described by Parker, there is potential for it to single out certain groups, putting them at greater risk of marginalisation. As Parker points out, “provoking an overreaction by the authorities helps to accelerate the polarisation of society by alienating potential security partners – such as moderate members of a minority community – and providing powerful support to terrorist narratives of victimhood and injustice.”

Underlying Grievances

Such a response links to the debate over the role of economic, political and social marginalisation. These forms of marginalisation have been linked to violent extremism, in many cases identified as a ‘push’ factor for radicalisation. Weiss and Hassan argue in their book on ISIL’s roots that the persistent marginalisation of the Sunni Arab majority in Iraq pushed large numbers into violent extremism (ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, 2015). Other cases in which substantial socio-economic grievances feature include northern Nigeria (where the Hausa speaking Muslim north has tended to experience political marginalisation and economic deprivation), Somalia (where Al Shabaab has been especially successful at recruiting from minority clans), and, in previous decades, Sri Lanka (where the Tamil population endured decades of marginalisation). Whether marginalisation is a necessary or sufficient factor for involvement in violent extremism is widely debated. Gupta argues that it is not a sufficient factor, that grievances need to be instrumentalised by charismatic individuals or ‘political entrepreneurs’, and social and psychological factors need to align as well (ILSA Journal of International Comparative Law, 11(3), 2005). With the case of ISIL, the use of social media and other methods to recruit members may fill that role.

This lesson is one that is not only salient in an African context. In the West, government’s choice of language has in some cases served to further strengthen the ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative that radical groups feed off to draw people to themselves. By talking of ISIL as an ‘existential threat’ or a ‘nihilistic death cult’, the government rhetoric is elevating the group in importance, but also speaking in terms that are not dissimilar to those deployed by the group. Taken adjacent to language that suggests that governments need to engage in countering not only the violent extremists who help recruit people into ISIL, but also non-violent extremist groups as well, there is a danger that a large section of society is being purposely marginalised. The danger is again of a self-fulfilling prophecy where the casting of the ISIL threat as part of a wider community of extremists means a broader community feel isolated – and consequently closer to ISIL.

The lesson is a simple one. Although the threat posed by ISIL is generating concern and fear across the globe, it is essential that governments do not overreact. While ISIL does appear to present a much more far-reaching threat than their predecessors through the use of social media and ability to engage with individuals that previously appeared out of reach, to date the expansion of the caliphate is more a product of local grievances expressing themselves through the adoption of the ISIL brand (and therefore the rejection of an old order that was perceived as a failure) rather than a strong and direct connection. This is not to say that it will not expand further (and has already made worrying inroads in various places around the globe), or that it is not a substantial problem that will pose a major headache for security officials for the next decade; but rather, that governments need to be sure that in addressing the problem they are focusing on the right issues. Finally, attention needs to be paid to overreaction, something that in many cases will only make the fundamental problem worse.

Final piece from last week, this time looking at whether the incident in Paris could take place in the United Kingdom for my home institution RUSI. While it is likely not the last on this topic, likely the last commentary at this point. In addition to commentary, spoke to Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Daily Mail, NBC, The Times, Bloomberg, while the Mirror ran an interview with a press agency as an interview. In the immediate wake of the incident, RUSI also recorded this brief interview for our site. Prior to the terrible events of last Friday, spoke to Wall Street Journal, Politico and La Repubblica about the large network of arrests linked to Ansar al Islam and Mullah Krekar, and more recently to Bloomberg and Voice of America about the impact of recent deaths on China’s contributions to the current war on terrorism.

Could Paris happen in the UK?

Trafalgar Sq_Paris_Nov 2015

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary, 20 November 2015
Europe, France, Terrorism, UK, UK Counter-terrorism, Tackling Extremism, International Security Studies, Terrorism

Soon after the Paris attacks, the prospect of similar massacres happening in the UK was raised. While the danger is serious, crucial contexts specific to the Continent mean the UK faces a different kind of threat.

In the wake of the horrific terrorist attack in Paris, the immediate question posed in the UK was whether this could happen here.The prime minister made a clear statement about the potential risks, stating that British security services had disrupted seven attacks in the past six months, ‘albeit on a smaller scale to what was seen in Paris’.

The potential threat is certainly present, but, at the same time, certain specific local contexts create slightly higher hurdles for a terrorist group to launch such a terrorist attack in the UK.

There are three principal reasons for this.

Limited access to weaponry

First, it is harder to obtain high-powered rifles in the UK. Looking at the massacre in Paris, it is clear that the greatest number of casualties were caused by the use of assault rifles, which the cell was able to acquire in worrying numbers. Such rifles appear to be more easily available on the continent. Whilst the investigation has yet to publicly uncover the source of the weapons, their availability is clearly a persistent problem in France and neighbouring countries.

Since the beginning of the year, three different cells have attempted and succeeded in launching attacks with such weapons in France alone. In January, a cell in Verviers, Belgium, was found to be in possession of a number of high-powered weapons and explosives. When police tried to arrest the group, the fighters did not hesitate to fight back; they were killed during the shootout with police. Beyond terrorists, criminal networks in places like Marseille quite regularly get involved in public shoot-outs using such weapons.

So far, in the UK, terrorist cells have not been able to access modern or high-powered weaponry. Fusilier Lee Rigby’s murderers Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo were able to get an antique pistol for their plot in 2013, but the weapon failed to work and blew up in Adebowale’s hands. A cell disrupted earlier this year and going on trial soon were only able to get their hands on a Soviet-era weapon to advance their plot.

Networks have certainly sought to obtain higher-powered weapons, but restrictive laws and availability mean it is harder to do so in the UK than in Continental Europe. There are some worrying indicators regarding the proximity between terrorist and criminal networks, but so far this has not placed the same kind of equipment in the hands of terrorists.

Greater control over borders

Second, unlike France, the UK has a greater degree of control over its borders. Natural geography means that there are fewer access points into the UK, making it relatively easier for authorities to watch entry and exit points (though the system is by no means perfect – news emerged this week that two well-known repeat terrorism offenders were caught trying to cross Hungary even though they were on no-travel lists).

On the continent, the situation is very different. French authorities may attempt to get firm control over their own territory, but they border a number of countries with substantial domestic problems and with different levels of government effectiveness and cover. Yet they have open borders between them, complicating France’s ability to completely control their situation and meaning they share open borders with countries with varying levels of weapons availability as well as different criminal-justice systems.

Links to the Levant

Finally, the conflict in the Levant is one with a greater draw and connection to Arab communities on the continent. This is a reality that has come at a moment when the centre of gravity of international jihadism has shifted from South Asia to the Levant.

The UK has seen over 700 people go and join the fighting in Syria and Iraq – but these numbers are higher in countries like France (where officials refer to around 700 or more) and Belgium (where most recently officials refer to up to 800 having gone), which have seen large numbers of extremists go and fight, while others have instead stayed at home and stewed in anger, with some of those who were prevented from going to fight instead choosing to launch attacks at home.

A different kind of threat

None of this is to say that the UK is not facing a dangerous menace. It has been featured regularly in ISIS propaganda as a target, is fighting in the coalition against ISIS and has launched drone strikes against key individuals in the group. Authorities in the UK are working at full pelt to disrupt networks, and, as highlighted before by the prime minister, some seven plots have already been disrupted in the past year.

But the nature of the threat appears different. Networked plots exist, but have so far been effectively penetrated and disrupted before moving into action – though this track record is something that has been shown to be imperfect in the past. Greater levels of concern are often expressed around more dispersed plots that seem to demonstrate less clear command and control from abroad, but seek to undertake attacks like the murder of Lee Rigby.

Whilst we now face the horror of a large-scale terrorist attack in Paris, the reality is that the murder of a single man in the UK almost three years ago in Woolwich had a quite substantial media impact, even if not on the scale of the atrocity in Paris.

*Header image: A vigil for the victims of the Paris attacks in Trafalgar Square, 14 November 2015. Image courtesy of Hannah McKay / PA Wire/Press Association Images