Posts Tagged ‘counter-terrorism’

More belated posting, this time of another interview with CTC Sentinel of a senior UK counter-terrorism official, this time Jonathan Evans the former head of MI5. Previous ones have been with the current head of Counter-Terrorism Command and the former head of JTAC. Lots of interesting thoughts, insights and a few new details which might appeal to some.

A View from the CT Foxhole: Jonathan Evans, Former Director General, MI5

Lord-Jonathan-Evans-preferred-1-1200x800

March 2020, Volume 13, Issue 3

Authors: Raffaello Pantucci

Lord Evans of Weardale served as Director General of the U.K. Security Service MI5 between April 2007 and April 2013. He joined the Security Service in 1980, and he first worked on counter-espionage investigations. During the late 1980s and 1990s, he had various postings in Irish-related counterterrorism. From 1999 onward, Evans was directly involved in countering the threat from international terrorism. In 2001, he was appointed to the Security Service’s Management Board as Director of international counter terrorism, 10 days before the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Evans became Deputy Director General in 2005. It was announced in October 2014 that he would become a Cross Bench life peer, after a personal nomination by the Prime Minister for his public service.

CTC: Your career in the Security Service, MI5, spanned a series of terrorist threats. Could you tell us which were the biggest evolutions you noted across ideologies and groups?

Evans: There were a number of key developments over the period I was in the Service [MI5]. First amongst them was the rise of Irish terrorism as a strategic threat rather than just something that was of concern in Northern Ireland. During my time in the Service, it became very central to London government concerns, and the Service was very involved in countering it. But it was very political terrorism, carefully calibrated to try to have a specific policy impact on the British government in contrast to the different focus of some other groups.

At the same time, we were also looking at a variety of other smaller—from the U.K. point of view—threats in terms of Palestinian terrorism in the late 70s and particularly into the 80s, and terrorism arriving from the various diaspora communities in the U.K. At one stage, we were putting a lot of focus on Sikh extremism, as there was quite a lot of support activity here which was important to the Sikh extremist activities in India. The same with the PKKa who were doing a lot of fundraising in the U.K. from Kurdish communities. A lot was done through intimidation, basically racketeering, by PKK elements in north London.

But the other really big development was the emergence of al-Qa`ida as an issue in the 1990s. From a U.K. point of view, this issue impacted us through the fact that quite a lot of the ideologues from whom groups sought fatwas were based in the U.K., like Abu Qatada, Abu Hamza, and so on. A number of people involved in the Algerian GIA—the early forerunners of what then became al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM]—were based in the U.K., and so we were looking at al-Qa`ida from that point of view. Partly because the Americans were so focused on it, because of the attack on the USS Cole and the Africa embassy attacks, and then that transferring into the domestic threat in the period after 9/11. After then, it became by far the biggest terrorism threat that we were facing.

The initial turning point at which we took this seriously was in the second half of the 1990s, when we found that some of our European partners—in particular, the French—were very focused on the Algerian threat. Their view was that there were significant elements of this based in the U.K. This is the Londonistan period. They assessed that the Algerian elements in London were feeding into the threat that expressed themselves through the metro bombings in 1995 in Paris. So, in a sense, our initial response was in support of European friends, rather than on our own account.

There are various conspiracy theories about the Londonistan period including the notion that Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) in some way gave a free pass to the terrorist sympathizers in the U.K. on the basis that they would not attack us. This is a complete fabrication. The problem was that we didn’t actually know what was going on because we were not looking. There was all sorts of stuff going on that we just were not aware of. It was not that we were deliberately turning a blind eye, just that we had not noticed. With the creation of al-Qa`ida, the threats in the Middle East, and the problems in France particularly from the Algerians, we started to pay more attention, and once we started looking, the more we found. But at that stage, it was not actually plots to mount attacks in the U.K.

The first indication that we had an actual, live, real threat in the U.K. was in November 2000 with the arrest of Moinul Abedin and a co-conspirator in Birmingham.1 The co-conspirator was completely exonerated by the courts and subsequently rearrested on other charges. There was some precursor activity by them in Manchester some years before the attempt.

The lead that started the Birmingham investigation came to us from another European country, where, because they had come across an attempt to purchase terrorist equipment through criminal circles, they tipped us off and said “we came across this; you probably ought to look at these people.” That was the first time we’d come across them. We investigated and eventually realized that they were doing something which was immediately threatening. They were arrested on the 23rd of November [2000], which was the first arrest of anybody in the U.K. linked to al-Qa`ida who was planning an attack here. We knew they had to be planning an attack here because they had a large quantity of very volatile homemade explosive in their apartment, although we [still] don’t know the target.

At the time, we couldn’t directly link it into al-Qa`ida, although it looked as though it probably was. However, with the fall of the Taliban and the Afghan camps in 2001/2002, evidence came to light which demonstrated that this was an at least inspired al-Qa`ida plot of some sort. A few individuals such as Tariq Mahmood, known as T-Bone, who subsequently became very instrumental in fomenting terrorism out of Pakistan’s tribal areas into the West, appear to be have been involved in the margins of that operation.b

CTC: Having been involved in the investigation into the United Kingdom’s first al-Qa`ida-linked plot, you then watched as the threat evolved and matured through a whole series of plots including the July 7, 2005, attack on the London public transport system. Could you tell us about how that pre-9/11 investigation was similar or different to subsequent plot investigations?

Evans: That particular pre-9/11 investigation was the only one that appeared to have an element of direct threat to the U.K. in it. After 9/11, obviously, there was a lot of pressure on MI5 to provide assurance to HMG that if there were anything like a 9/11 being planned in the U.K., that that was identified. And in fact, there was not, as far as I recall, a huge amount of directly threatening activity that we could identify immediately after 9/11. We had a lot of resources given to us, but it was entirely proportionate to the threat we found. We were able to put the resources to good use. But in the immediate wake of 9/11, it was certainly not the sort of level of threat that developed later.

We started to see attempted attacks from 2002/2003 onwards, the most visible and probably the best known of which was the attack plan that we called Operation Crevice. It was a complex interlocking set of activities involving individuals in the U.K. home counties based out of Crawley and up into Luton. They were mostly likely planning to attack the Bluewater shopping center, but they had also talked in some detail about central London. They did not appear to have necessarily pinned down exactly what their target was going to be. But there was also a separate leg to the plot, which was an attempt to purchase what they thought was radiological material in Belgium. In fact, they were unable to source anything radiological, and it turned out to be a relatively common scam at the time, which was called Red Mercury.

The plot itself, however, appeared to be encouraged and fomented by al-Qa`ida in the tribal areas. It was one of the early ones we saw. It involved predominantly British citizens or British residents of Pakistani heritage, something which became something of a theme for this period.

One of the people who appeared in the margins of Operation Crevice was Mohammed Siddique Khan. At the time, we assessed him—probably rightly actually—as not being a terrorist himself but being a criminal who had some little scam going on at the edges of the Crevice group. He was noted and not prioritized because there was a lot going on and there were a whole series of investigations running at that point. We saw a very significant change in temperature between the second half of 2001 and the second half of 2003/2004. We saw a lot more apparent attack planning of various sorts, some of which was clear to us as a result of the questioning of American detainees who were giving information on networks in the U.K. Prioritization became very acute during this period, and unfortunately, one of the individuals who was prioritized out was Mohammed Siddique Khan, who went on to be the primary instigator of the 7 July [2005] bombings in London.

One notable thing about the July 7 bombings is that while they were an appalling and ambitious attack that killed many, the group of plotters did not fundamentally differ from all the other plans that failed to come to fruition. The only difference between the July 7 cell and all the others was that the police weren’t able to arrest them beforehand.

What you had that was different about the threat picture then versus now was the deliberate initiation or promulgation of plans from Pakistan, using intermediaries from al-Qa`ida Central into the U.K., using U.K. residents or citizens as the people who mounted the attack. Rashid Rauf is the most obvious of these intermediaries.2 Tariq Mahmood, T-Bone, became another of them, and there were one or two others. And that was characteristic of the period. From an intelligence point of view, this was a vulnerability because they were planning and trying to have an element of command and control over what was going on, which gives you some attack surface from an investigative perspective.

Whereas if you are merely facing the sort of terrorism that one has been seeing in the last few years involving low ambition and technology, without a command and control network, there is not nearly as much to investigate. On top of this all, the ‘flash to bang’ [in this more recent type of terrorism] can be very rapid.

After the July 7, 2005, attack, the next lowlight—so to speak—was the liquid bomb plot, Operation Overt, in 2006. With the police and the other agencies, we developed very good coverage of the plot as it matured. Again, it was fomented from Pakistan, there was command and control back into al-Qa`ida senior leadership in the tribal areas, and we were able to watch carefully and then move to intervene at the critical point in order to stop anything happening. That plot felt like some of the later-stage investigations into Irish terrorism that we had been doing. Because we had good intelligence coverage of what the Irish terrorist cells were doing, we could intervene at the relevant point, and we felt like we had a good insight into individual plots that were being prepared. Had that plot come to fruition, it would have possibly killed more people than were killed by 9/11 and would have been extremely difficult in terms of Anglo-U.S. relations. At the time, we were working extremely closely with the U.S., and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude for the support they were giving to us over that period. The U.S. have a quite extraordinary scale and spread of intelligence capabilities, and those were being used very regularly to help safeguard the U.K. There were some tensions in the run-up to the conclusion of Overt, but the fact of the matter is that actual arrest decision was triggered maybe just 24 hours earlier than might have been the case had we not had that American pressure. But it was a matter of judgment; I do not think it was a very critical issue.

CTC: To move to the present day, could we turn to the topic of resource allocation? If you think back to 2017, the volume of people being investigated for Islamist terrorism in the United Kingdom was around 3,000, and there was discussion of another 20,000 posing a residual risk.3 Could you talk through the capability to manage this kind of threat volume?

Evans: The question of managing the volume of threat intelligence, or potential threat intelligence, has been one of the continuing themes of the last 20 years. As you grow your intelligence capability, as the public become aware of the fact that they need to be alert and not alarmed, as the police are very focused on terrorism cases, then that does create a lot of incoming material that may indicate potential threats. But you cannot, despite the enormous investment in capacity that the British government has made over the past 15-20 years, follow up everything with equal speed and attention. So, you have to make judgments.

We developed quite a lot of resource into what one might call triage: looking at the whole flow of incoming intelligence, deciding what was most credible and most indicative of a threat, and focusing on that. This helped us decide how to deploy resources to deal with the most credible and threatening material in order to chase down any threats, which is the only logical way of dealing with it. During the time that I was involved in counterterrorism, I do not think we ever had a successful terrorist attack that came about from one of the top priority operations we were focused on. This was because we were able to put a lot of resources into priority investigations, get insight into what was going on, and make sure that the threat did not materialize. The problem was always with the material that had been assessed to be of a lesser priority, because it was in there that risks would suddenly eventuate. Because even though it was entirely logical and sensible to not focus on them on the basis of what you knew, actually you never have perfect insight.

As you grow the intelligence machinery, we started to know something about everybody who did something threatening on the streets of the U.K. And having this information but not acting upon it could be said to be a demonstration of the reach and effectiveness of the intelligence service or it could be interpreted as a blunder. But it is almost intrinsic to the nature of intelligence prioritization that the most important decision made is what not to do. And it is there that the risk lies. That is now well recognized, and post the 2017 attacks in the U.K., there was a review into this area, some work done on additional resources and further work into whether there are ways in which you can provide a degree of automation of this process. The idea being that it becomes an anomaly detection issue: you have normal activity taking place, then something changes, and this provides you with some direction about where in the potential target population you should look for a threat. Logically, this makes a lot of sense, as long as you’ve got good enough intelligence coverage to be able to detect anomalous or changed behavior. But again, if what you are looking for is a 9/11-sized plot, then you have quite a lot of opportunity to gather intelligence. If you’ve got somebody who’s been self-radicalized and whose weapon of choice is a hire [rental] car, then what is it that you’re going to spot? Hiring a car and driving to London does not necessarily suggest that there is a threat, but it does mean you could if you choose to kill people.

It is surprising to me it has taken so long for terrorist groups to get to this stage. I can remember talking 10 or 12 years ago and saying if al-Qa`ida stopped trying to outdo themselves with a plot that was even more dramatic than 9/11 and just got on with killing some people, that would be really difficult for us. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. But what I would say—and this sounds rather a harsh point, but it is an important one—as a society, we can, if we choose to, continue with normal life relatively unaffected by occasional stabbings and vehicles being driven into the general public. Horrible and terrible as those events are, they are not a strategic threat to us. We are speaking soon after the atrocious events on London Bridge where [on November 29, 2019] two individuals were killed through stabbing by a known terrorist. I don’t know for certain, but I suspect if you look across London that week, there were probably other people killed in stabbings that have nothing to do with terrorism and do not get the publicity. We give the terrorists something of what they want in the way in which we react to their terrorism, which of course is classic terrorism theory from the 1960s. We need to think about how we respond to this and just not play up to what the terrorists are trying to get us to do.

CTC: Looking at the case of the November 2019 London Bridge attacker Usman Khan in particular, this raised a whole series of issues about people who have been in prison. A lot of those you were investigating are now coming toward the end of their prison sentences, if they have not already. How do you think HMG can manage or mitigate this problem, and do you think there are adequate measures in place to deal with it?

Evans: I do not think there are adequate measures in place to deal with this problem. I personally feel that we should have considerably longer sentences for terrorist aggravation where there are offenses. Deradicalization and the whole Prevent agenda is absolutely critical, but it is also by far the most difficult for government of the four pillars of the Contest strategy.c Because, from a government perspective, if you want more of the Pursue pillar, which is the part of the response which is following terrorists around and stopping them [from] doing nasty things, then you give more money to the Security Service, Police, and so on, and it happens. The Protect pillar, which focuses on hardening targets and building defenses, is similar: if you want to reduce vulnerability in the environment you allocate adequate resources, and it happens. But Prevent is about changing people’s minds. It is about arguing with them about their theology, something Western governments are peculiarly badly equipped to do. It is also very difficult to tell whether it’s working because how do you know whether somebody has genuinely repented or whether they are merely saying it because they want to be released from prison? There are clear successes in the Prevent strategy, but equally, there are some pretty spectacular failures.

We need to keep trying to find the best way of working on deradicalization [and] anti-radicalization. Anti-radicalization might be a bit easier than deradicalization, but it is always going to be something which is difficult for a secular Western government to engage with. I believe that there is a strong religious element in some of the Islamist terrorism. In the early days, [the U.K.] government was very uncomfortable about anything that had religion in it and did not want to talk about it and did not want to see it as a religious issue. They would much rather see it as an issue to do with politics, economic deprivation, or whatever. And while I am sure all those have a contributory element to them, religion does as well. However, having an argument about religion is something which government departments are not that great at. It is much easier for the Emiratis who used to be very puzzled as to why we didn’t do more about this. They would issue the sermons for mosques from their government to be read out in the mosques every Friday. I do not think the British government has many people who could write credible sermons for the mosques around the U.K. even if they had the ambition to do so.

There is also the question about what is the definition of success. The British government has been slightly in two minds about this over the years. Is the measure of success that people stop terrorism, or is it that they stop adopting what might be perceived as extremist views? Government has changed its mind periodically on that question. It is probably easier to stop people adhering to terrorism than it is stopping them adhering to views that be might be not aligned to what might be perceived as British values.

A number of the programs in the Middle East [that] seem to have had some success are successful in giving strong theological support to the idea that people should not be attacking the regime because it is an Islamic government and deserves at least their acquiescence. But this acceptance is (a) very different thing from saying that somebody necessarily signs up to what might be seen as mainstream British values on rights of women and so on. The government has chopped and changed a bit on where it stands. Some of what appeared to be fairly successful anti-radicalization measures that were being implemented at one stage were dependent upon support and engagement from some parts of the Muslim community that had extremely conservative views on issues such as women, and may have had views on Israel that diverged from the British government’s. But crucially, on the issue of whether Muslims have a moral and religious duty to attack the United Kingdom, they and the U.K. government had come to the same conclusion. All this complicated things: you are giving government support to a group who, in a number of their areas of their belief, are very far from the mainstream and whose views might be seen as extremist. As a result, I am always slightly skeptical of the viability in the U.K. of the counter-radicalization efforts some Arab countries have proclaimed to be successful, because it is not always clear to me that this is transferable to the U.K. And even if it was, it would probably be struck down by the courts in the U.K.

CTC: Turning to the question of foreign terrorist fighters [FTFs], what kind of a threat do you see from the contingent of people who went to Syria and Iraq, those who are still at large? And what do you think the government should be doing with the ones in SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] custody?

Evans: I think there is a threat. I have considerable sympathy for the view that Ed Husain takes,d which is that if people have been involved in violent extremism and then decide that this actually has been an error and a mistake on their part, we could reasonably expect them to actively seek to counter extremism in this country rather than just saying “oh I made a mistake, I’m very sorry.” If there is genuine belief that they made an error and they have seen the error of their ways, then I do not know why you would not expect them to be giving evidence against people with whom they were cooperating and who took part in appalling crimes in Iraq and Syria. There has been a problem with getting evidence from those areas that could be accessible in the British courts. The question is why are the repentant members of that group not giving evidence and audibly reaching out to the community in saying that they want to help push back against extremism. Some people are contributing in this way, but many are not. I would like to see actions as well as words if we are going to accept that people have changed their minds.

CTC: On the FTF question, how does this compare to the earlier flows that you saw going? For example, those who went to Afghanistan.

Evans: There are some parallels. If you look at the history of radicalization in the U.K., there are similarities with earlier flows. The whole Kashmir dispute and conflict was very important in pushing people towards political, in fact relatively extreme political, positions and then across into more general extremism. Then there was the Balkans conflict, which radicalized a broader pool, where quite a lot of the grand old men of British Islamism were involved, and then went on to be very influential in bringing those sorts of messages back to the U.K. Then finally you had the same process in Afghanistan in 1999-2001 with the al-Qa`ida camps there [being] a sort of university of terrorism. From that, 9/11 was spawned alongside lots of the attacks that we saw in 2003-2010 period.

Syria has many of the same characteristics. There were people going out knowingly and actively taking extremist positions, others instead taking humanitarian positions to get out there. But once they are there and have the experience of being out there, the teaching they receive on the battlefield, the bonds of comradeship they form, the actual physical experience of battle, all work together to make them more radicalized and then ultimately bringing the threat back with them. It was absolutely clear during the post-9/11 period that this threat had been exported from Afghanistan and by those that had gone to Afghanistan, and I think that even from my slightly more distant position today, Iraq/Syria has many of the same characteristics.

The unique selling proposition for IS [the Islamic State] was the fact that it presented itself [as] a caliphate and it held territory. I always took the view that the very first thing you have to do in this particular case is take the territory away from them so as to demolish their claim to a status of a caliphate. But you needed a military process to take away some of their legitimacy. And now we will go, I guess, into a long period of threat from the [jihadi] alumni of Iraq/Syria.

CTC: I did want to pick up on your mention of the Kashmir issue and its capacity to be a push-factor toward radicalization in the United Kingdom, given the recent tensions in the region.

Evans: My main point there was that because of the particular shape of the Pakistan-Kashmiri diaspora in the U.K., Kashmir is a real hot-button issue. Inevitably, the recent actions of the Indians in Kashmir are likely to further have inflamed tempers. People care desperately about Kashmir in places like Bradford, and it is a radicalizing issue. So I would have thought that it is an exacerbating factor, although I don’t have a particular reason to believe that it will then turn itself against the U.K., given the fact this is an India-Pakistan conflict point. I can certainly see it as an intercommunal issue, although on the whole over the years, intercommunal issues haven’t really played out very heavily in the U.K. People have very strong views, but surprisingly, they don’t tend, for the most part, to play out on the streets of our cities.

CTC: An ideology that has increasingly worried people and has come under greater focus recently is the extreme right wing. Has its rise as a threat surprised you? Was it something you were focused on?

Evans: Yes, I was focused on right-wing extremism. I have always taken an interest in the far right, partly zoologically, because some of the individuals involved are so wacky that it is quite fascinating to watch them. I can remember back in the 1980s and 1990s, the saving grace of far-right extremists is that because they had such extreme and odd views, they tended to be extreme and odd people who did not tend to be very good at working with each other. You saw groups that tended to fragment and split like something out of a Monty Python film into smaller and purer groups. So, they never quite managed to get their act together into something more substantial. But from the early 2000s, and in those days it was mostly a police focus, from time to time individuals would come to light who were on the fringes of the far-right groups, who had been building bombs in their garden sheds, and who hated Muslims and so on. These cases were redolent of other earlier cases such as the London nail bomber, David Copeland, who went on a bombing campaign in London in 1999.4 He was on the fringes of the far right, not an active member of any particular organization, but took it upon himself to build bombs which he used to attack the ethnic and gay communities in London. Around the same time, there was a group called Combat 18, which was quite active and was itself a fragment of the far right. There were a few individuals in that group who started to espouse the idea of terrorism The [Security] Service worked closely with police to undertake some disruptions in the late 1990s of Combat 18 associated individuals who were consorting with people of similar cast of mind in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc. These groups had explicitly decided that terrorism was part of the way forward in order to try to destabilize what they characterized as the Zionist Organized Government (ZOG).

We’re seeing similar sorts of actors again now in the far-right scene. Partly I suspect it is a reflection of the social pressures on communities as a result of austerity measures [in the U.K. in the years after the 2008 financial crisis]. There seems to be a constituency of disaffected males (for the most part, but not entirely) who find extreme right-wing beliefs attractive. And they have started to get their acts together to organize into groups and plot. And there is some evidence that they have been consciously and deliberately inspired by the perceived success of the violent Islamists in getting their grievances on the table as a result of violence and thought and thinking “well, we can do something like that.” Certainly during my time, it was the English Defence League (EDL) who had started to develop this narrative. The EDL was not quite the same as other extreme right-wing groups, but they were a reactionary group that fed off and were mutually symbiotic with [the British Islamist extremist grouping] Al Muhajiroun (ALM). The EDL emerged explicitly in response to ALM activity, though in fact they both needed each other ideologically to advance. ALM needed the EDL because they gave them justification for their position and vice versa. So, they were both mutually beneficial to each other. Looking at the threat picture now and how it is evolving, I am not surprised that we have an extreme right-wing threat. We have seen signs of it emerging for 10 years-plus, and the fact that it is now more organized with groups like National Action [a proscribed U.K. extreme right-wing group] was almost predictable.

CTC: Turning to the threat from Irish terrorism and its current state, you mentioned the importance of the threat when you joined the Service. Currently, the threat to Northern Ireland from Northern Ireland-related terrorism is assessed to be higher than the terrorist threat facing the United Kingdom as a whole from all forms of terrorism.e Could you give us some reflections on the current state of this threat?

Evans: MI5 took over primacy for national security in Northern Ireland when devolution took place in 2007, given national security cannot be devolved.f This led to greater responsibilities for MI5 in the region, and it became fairly evident quite quickly that despite the tremendous political success of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, there was a rather fissiparous, but significant group of dissidents who did not accept the political settlement and wanted to foment terrorism. The solution, insofar as it was a solution, to IRA terrorism at the time was a political solution, which was to reach a negotiated accommodation between the different communities which both sides could just about manage to accept. There was a deliberate decision back then on the part of the republican groups to go down the political route because they saw that as a more effective way of achieving their aims, and as a result of that, there was also a diminution of support for terrorism for violence by the loyalist groups.

The current problem is that there is not a similar deal to be done with the dissidents that are left because they are irreconcilables and therefore the response to them over past 10 years has been a straight security response. During the time I was the Director General of MI5, we had more officers pro rata in Northern Ireland than we had in the rest of the U.K. because of the fact that there were many potentially lethal plots being fomented by the dissident groups. And from time to time, one of those would succeed. There has been a periodic drumbeat of terrorism for the last 10 or 15 years in Northern Ireland, with occasional attacks or attempted attacks on police or prison officers. There was a bomb outside our headquarters just outside Belfast in 20105 [and then subsequently another in 20156]. This hasn’t gone away. And there is the additional problem that because of the link between criminality and terrorism, various people have an interest in it not entirely going away.

The question of the moment is whether the political tensions in Northern Ireland around Brexit and the potential for a hard border with the Republic will mean terrorism will rebound? My view on this [is that] it will give probably a little twist and boost to the dissident groups. They will be able to say that the entire settlement that created the more stable current situation was based on the false premise of European unity. But I would be completely astonished if Sinn Fein [the political party that was closely associated with the IRA] decided to go back to terrorism because the Good Friday Agreement has worked well for them; they are the only political party which has got significant and substantial representation north and south of the border [in both Northern Ireland and Ireland]. If anything, the recent developments with regard [to] Brexit probably give them more hope that a future poll might lead to reunification through the ballot box, so why spoil that potential opportunity by going back to violence. So I would totally discount the idea that the IRA might decide to return to terrorism. The dissidents will probably get a boost, but they [would] struggle to get things back to where they stood in 1985. Partly because security capabilities have developed considerably over that period and [because] there is much greater investment, and therefore I think it would be harder for them. And also, I don’t think they have a core of community support which is sufficient to sustain a big, long-term terrorism threat in the way that Sinn Fein were able to do for the IRA during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.

CTC: To talk briefly about Brexit, you’ve been vocal about the negative consequences on U.K. security. Could you comment on that more broadly than Ireland? And how it will impact the United Kingdom’s response to terrorism?

Evans: I think the narrow question of intelligence sharing in Europe will not be immediately impacted by Brexit because intelligence sharing and intelligence matters have never been within European Community (E.C.) competence, and therefore the structures for enabling that are not E.U. structures. Those relationships will continue. The U.K. has been an overall net contributor to those relationships, and it is valuable to both sides that those relationships continue. But when it comes to interventions [disruption operations], those are very often law enforcement interventions. And law enforcement, policing, is within E.C. competence, and therefore things like Europol will be impacted. Whilst I would imagine that we will be able to negotiate sensible engagement with Europol, we will not be part of the core Europol community because we will not be part of the European Union. So, remaining involved with Europol will, at the very least, require extensive negotiation; it is not simply a case of people saying, “well, we want them in, so we let them in.” It would be a legal question, and it is unlikely we will be in as advantageous a position in terms of law enforcement cooperation as when we were members. The net effect will be a less effective response, in my view.

Secondly, and very importantly, the U.K. has been for some time a voice in political discussions within Europe for the security dimension of problems to be given appropriate weight. On issues such as data sharing, data protection, and so on, the fact that the U.K. has very forcefully promoted the importance of national security, as well as data privacy, has meant that the overall policy positions that the E.U. have come to have tended to be ones which were different than would have been the case if the U.K. had not been there. The U.K. has had allies in achieving these outcomes, of course, but we have been very vocal and effective in lobbying to get these goals. Now we are not going to be at the table in the same way, and while we have a wonderful diplomatic service who will excellently represent our interests and seek to influence others, it will not be the same as being at the table with a vote. From that point of view, one of the dangers is that the E.U. will take policy positions which are less security-friendly than they would otherwise have been had the U.K. been there in the debate as a full member. And whilst we will not be a member of the European Union, we will still be deeply affected by the decisions they make because we are a close neighbor and we are still going to be closely connected. The danger is that we get a policy framework which is less facilitative of information sharing and security concerns than would otherwise have been the case, something that will be a net negative in national security terms.

CTC: Finally, a more future-looking question. You mentioned earlier the attention you historically paid to the PKK and Sikh extremism, and we have talked about the threat from extreme right-wing terrorism. Are there any other issues or ideologies out there which you see as brewing terrorist threats?

Evans: I do find that a very difficult question. I suppose the question is whether there is an unspoken-for political movement out there which could become the fuel for future terrorist threats. There was a kind of canary in the mineshaft in regard to what happened with Islamism in the U.K. in the Salman Rushdie affairg because it demonstrated that there was a very vigorously held strand of thought out there which was in tension with the assumptions of the way in which British society should work in the 1980s and 90s. And I’m not trying to overemphasize the linkage, but the protests and anger around the Rushdie Affair amongst Britain’s Muslims did show that there was an issue here, which, because of circumstances, grew. The problem is identifying similar issues in the future. Predicting the future is an unsatisfactory process, because the truth is you do not know what is going to happen and how things will develop. I cannot identify here and now what the next such issue might be, but the key to establishing what might emerge in the future is to look at the areas where there is political tension which is not being addressed as this is where problems are likely to emerge.

CTC: Some have, in the past, expressed concern that the radicalization of [elements of] the environmental movement might lead to violence. Do you think this is a possible risk?

Evans: I suspect it is not an area where terrorism would be the response. The truth is that non-violent activism by [environmental activists] has had an impact over the last few months and is changing people’s political minds. Within this context, terrorism would be counterproductive. It is like animal rights in many ways: there will always be a small group of people who will go for violence because they have a predilection for it. Animal rights was quite a concern 15 years ago, and there were moves in the late 1990s towards terrorism by some of the extremists amongst the movement. And you could maybe see something like that emerge amongst the more extreme environmental position, but that’s different to mainstream environmentalism. So you might see individuals going down the route of violence, but I doubt that it will develop into the major phenomenon that Irish terrorism was for a generation, that Islamist terrorism has been, or even the far right, because you need a particular set of issues to take place to it for it to mature to that point. Key to this is a large, unaddressed political issue.

So whatever you think of the outcome of the recent election in the U.K., the fact that some of the legitimate concerns, that were being used as a pretext by English nationalists, have now been formally acknowledged at the ballot box might be a good outcome, even though it is sort of disconcerting for southern liberals. There was a significant alienated and disenfranchised group out there who didn’t think the system was taking any notice of them. And that’s where you need to be concerned about extremists exploiting legitimate concerns. Disaffected English nationalists were manifesting themselves at the extremes in things like the British National Party (BNP) and National Action, which fed the undertone that articulated itself as extreme right-wing terrorism. And attention still needs to be paid to this group, as it is not clear that they will feel entirely assuaged as a result of the fact that people are paying wider attention to them now. Terrorist problems emerge when you have a significant population who feel alienated and nobody takes notice of them, causing frustration and anger.     CTC

Substantive Notes
[a] Editor’s note: The PKK is the Kurdish Workers Party, a Kurdish militant group based in Turkey focused on creating a free Kurdish state. They have recently become known for their links to Kurdish groups fighting against the Islamic State, but are more prominently known for their decades-long terrorist campaign against the Turkish state.

[b] Editor’s note: Tariq Mahmood, a U.K. national from Birmingham, was announced arrested by Pakistani authorities in late 2003 and accused of links to al-Qa`ida. “Pakistan holds British al-Qa’eda suspect,” The Telegraph, November 17, 2003.

[c] Editor’s note: There are four pillars to CONTEST, the U.K. government’s counterterrorism strategy. These are: “Prevent: to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism; Pursue: to stop terrorist attacks; Protect: to strengthen our protection against a terrorist attack; Prepare: to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attacks.” See “CONTEST: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism June 2018,” p. 8.

[d] Editor’s note: See Ed Husain, “Take these claims of ‘rehabilitation’ with a bucket of salt,” Daily Telegraph, December 7, 2019. Ed Husain is a British commentator who rose to prominence in 2007 when he published The Islamist, an account of his experiences as a member of Hizb ut Tahrir in the United Kingdom. Having left the group and repudiated extremism, he rose to prominence as a commentator, author, and activist speaking, writing, and advising on Islam around the world.

[e] At the time of publication, the assessed threat to the United Kingdom from terrorism is “substantial” and the threat to Northern Ireland from Northern Ireland-related terrorism is “severe.” See “Threat Levels,” Security Service MI5.

[f] Editor’s note: The United Kingdom is made up of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland but administered from London. Devolution has occurred over time and meant that greater powers have passed to regional assemblies like the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the London Assembly, and the Northern Ireland executive. This grants these regional legislatures and their executives powers over certain legislation. National security sits outside this system, however, and is controlled and implemented centrally across the entire country.

[g] Editor’s note: Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel Satanic Verses resulted in anger among a significant number of Muslims around the world, including inside the United Kingdom. In 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie. In 1998, the Iranian government declared that it no longer sought Rushdie’s death. For more, see “Satanic Verses, Novel by Rushdie,” Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Citations
[1] Editor’s note: For more on this case, see Phil Mackie, “Moinul Abedin: UK’s first al-Qaeda inspired bomber,” BBC, March 2, 2012.

[2] Editor’s note: Rauf’s involvement in al-Qa`ida plots against the United Kingdom is outlined in detail in Raffaello Pantucci, “A Biography of Rashid Rauf: Al-Qa’ida’s British Operative,” CTC Sentinel 5:7 (2012).

[3] Andrew Parker, “Director General Andrew Parker – 2017 Speech,” Security Service MI5, October 17, 2017.

[4] Editor’s note: For more on this case, see Sarah Lee, “London nail bombings remembered 20 years on,” BBC, April 30, 2019.

[5] Editor’s note: “Bomb explodes outside MI5 headquarters in Northern Ireland,” Reuters, April 12, 2010.

[6] Editor’s note: Henry McDonald, “Police investigate explosion at MI5 headquarters in Northern Ireland,” Guardian, August 14, 2015.

More catch up posting, this time for my old London base RUSI’s Newsbrief publication with an excellent colleague Shashi from my new Singapore base RSIS. It tries to offer some ideas from Singapore about how the UK might want to deal with some of the problems it is trying to manage at moment around radicalised offenders (though admittedly this problem has slipped from the front and center amidst the current COVID-19 mess).

The Singapore Model: A New Deradicalisation Approach for the UK?

masjid_sultan_0

Shashi Jayakumar and Raffaello Pantucci
RUSI Newsbrief13 March 2020
UK Counter-terrorismTackling ExtremismUKTerrorism

The UK is currently going through a process of re-evaluating and rethinking some of its key approaches to managing terrorism offenders. Looking at Singapore’s model would be a good start for policymakers.

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Recent terrorist attacks in the UK have highlighted key problems in the country’s counterterrorism systems and policies. Chief among them is the need to manage terrorism offenders for substantial periods of time, and what programmes need to be in place to ensure that society is protected. As the UK considers refreshing its strategy, some lessons from the Singaporean experience might be helpful. The contexts are different, but the long-term engagement model employed by Singapore might offer useful lessons for the UK.

One key piece of legislation is Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA) which facilitates detention orders. The ISA is in fact, with several modifications, a remnant of British colonialism, which was drawn up as part of emergency regulations when Singapore and Malaya were embroiled in a communist insurgency during the 1950s and 1960s. Despite periodic criticism by human rights organisations that the ISA is simply detention without trial, there are numerous safeguards – for example, a detention order must be reviewed by an independent ISA advisory board headed by a Supreme Court judge – and independent checks and routes of appeal that exist to protect its abuse by the government.

The first use of the ISA in the post-9/11 era in Singapore took place when a cell of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Al-Qa’ida’s chief affiliate in Southeast Asia, who were responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings, was discovered in Singapore in December 2001. All members of the cell came from the Singaporean Muslim community. One of the plots they had under development was the bombing of diplomatic missions in Singapore including the UK High Commission.

The government calculated that putting these individuals on trial would have been detrimental for ethnic relations in Singapore. Consequently, they instead chose to use the ISA to manage the offenders. The use of the ISA within this context is seen by detractors as punitive, but from the authorities’ point of view it is an effective way of managing rehabilitation in a controlled environment. As Singapore’s Home Affairs minister K Shanmugam has observed, ‘we have a clear process, detention, rehabilitate and release. You detain them and you don’t do anything else with them and you put them away, then their lives are not going to get better. And you’re not doing anything to deal with the situation really’.

The point is not to lock the door on people and throw the key away. Detainees are engaged and counselled one-on-one by Ustadz (Islamic scholars) in an intensive manner. In separate sessions, psychologists from the Home Affairs ministry regularly engage these individuals, with their assessments, as well as those by the Ustadz, forming a key part of the decision to eventually release detainees.

This programme, called the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), was developed and staffed by concerned and well-respected Ustadz in concert with the authorities. These religious leaders had realised after their initial interactions with the detainees that the vast majority had completely mistaken understandings of key concepts like ‘jihad’, ‘al-wala al-bara’ (loyalty and disavowal), ‘hijrah’ (migration), and living in ‘dar ul-kufr’ (non-Muslim land). Many, misled by the charismatic leaders of their cell, had come to believe that it was proscribed by Islamic law to live in a Westernised society like Singapore.

Throughout this process a path to release is open – should detainees show that they have been responsive to counselling, demonstrate genuine contrition and evince a change of perspective. Assessments of effectiveness are undertaken through repeated and continual engagement.

Social support is a critical element of the overall approach. Vocational training or job placements are given to detainees to facilitate social reintegration. In addition, during detention, families of offenders are given help as often the sole breadwinner is incarcerated. This aspect should not be underestimated as it plays a part in ensuring that the family is not radicalised; it may also alter the mindset of the detainee, seeing that their ‘enemy’ is offering support and help to their family, including, for example, school bursaries for children. A number of assistance schemes for the individual and family continue well after release. This ‘aftercare’ aspect, handled by the Inter-Agency Aftercare Group, which works closely with the RRG and the authorities, plays a role in keeping the recidivism rate low. Only two out of approximately 100 individuals who have been through the ISA’s preventive detention and RRG counselling have had to be detained again.

The RRG has gained acceptance from the Malay-Muslim community over time. This is partly to do with the fact that a large part of RRG efforts are organic and stand on their own, without funding from the state. The family and community support structures which have developed over time to deal with other social problems within the Malay-Muslim community, such as drugs, have been adapted to aid families affected by radicalisation.

Upon release, many individuals are, depending on the assessment of the authorities, kept on a Restriction Order (RO) for some time afterwards. This places restrictions on the movements of the individual. Other conditions of the RO might include needing approval prior to joining any organisation, or mandatory further religious counselling. Those who demonstrate further progress eventually (typically after a few years) have their RO lapse.

This approach delivered some success with the first wave of jihadists that Singapore faced post-9/11. For around 90% of the JI cases this meant eventual release. The remaining 10% (fewer than 10 individuals) were key influencers, or hardened radicals whose ideas are unlikely to change. They remain incarcerated. Engagement with them continues.

Things have changed since 2013 with the start of the war in Syria and the growth of the Islamic State. Rather than networked individuals, the threat picture has been made up of isolated individuals, often young ‘meaning seekers’ or those seeking diversion from their own personal problems, radicalised through online connections and in some cases seeking and succeeding to travel to Syria and Iraq.

The radicalisation process has also been compressed considerably. Whereas with the first cohort the time taken from initial contact with ideas to action was years, with the new cohort it is closer to nine months. The RRG’s success rate amongst this new cohort is nearer to 25 per cent at the moment.

The exact reasons for this are unclear. One possible explanation might be the changing salience of religious ideology. The Islamic State’s emphasis on online radicalisation creates a very different social environment around the individual where religion plays a changed role. Another crucial difference is that the Islamic State actually had a territorial ‘caliphate’ it controlled meaning the idea of hijrah was more important than in the previous phase of Singaporean extremists as they had a place to migrate to.

This new generation of Islamic State recruits seem to have a less thorough grounding in the core tenets of Islam than their JI predecessors. They learn about Islam from online sources – ‘Sheikh Google’ as it is known – and are partial to more radical preachers like Anwar Al-Awlaki or Abdullah el Faisal than classical preachers. Given this, RRG religious advisers may have less influence over the detainees.

The ‘Singapore model’ has concomitantly had to evolve. There are younger, more tech-savvy counsellors who are familiar with online vocabularies, and who can attempt to engage with younger individuals who self-educate online, but actually may know a lot less about their religion than the first batch of JI detainees. It appears Singaporean authorities are starting to refine their programme. A 17-year old boy was recently detained and assigned a mentor. This mentor will help him to focus on his rehabilitation, studies and family, and also guide him to develop ‘life skills’.

The pool of radicalised individuals has become more diverse. Aside from Islamic State recruits, several Singaporean citizens have travelled to Yemen to fight against the Houthi. Women have travelled to Syria from Singapore and married Islamic State fighters. In response, the RRG now has female counsellors to advise female detainees.

The key principle of the programme remains that no individual is released until the state has confidence they will not re-offend. This does not guarantee success, and as has been highlighted, there have been some cases of recidivism, but it does provide a measure of protection.

Looking at this experience from a UK perspective, there are some immediate similarities. First, offenders are more likely to be radicalised online. There is also a growing volume of individuals with mental health issues or autism spectrum disorders who are becoming embroiled in terrorist networks. This presents a very complicated problem to manage, both in terms of the direct threat and subsequent rehabilitation.

The UK has developed a number of programmes focused on trying to rehabilitate offenders. The Desistance and Disengagement Programme, seeks to engage with individuals using a range of psychological, theological and social supports to provide them with a new path. Similarly, programmes have been developed which seek to engage with offenders on an individual level to understand their specific path to radicalisation. One such programme, Operation Constrain, met considerable pushback when it emerged in the press. The UK also has an overworked probation service whose responsibility it is to engage with offenders when they are released and ensure that they do not slip back into their old ways.

But there are also significant differences from the Singaporean context. Much of the UK’s programming in this space was developed or co-opted by the government. While elements of the UK’s Muslim community engage with specific programmes to help with delivery – for example, counter-extremism programmes like Building a Stronger Britain Together – many organisations have become dependent on government support to survive. In fact, it is often contact with the government that creates problems for effective programmes as the link undermines the perceived independence of the programme. It is crucial to find ways of encouraging community leadership and be seen to maintain independence.

The UK also does not have indeterminate sentencing for terrorist offenders. However, in the past the UK had a system of imprisonment for public protection (IPP). In these cases, an individual served a specific sentence and then following that appeared regularly before a parole board who determined their suitability for release. The IPP system was first introduced in 2005 and then abolished in 2012. The key failing of the system was that there were not adequate rehabilitative programmes in place to help offenders make the appropriate behavioural changes needed for the parole board to permit their release.

Finally, a crucial distinction to draw between the two contexts is one of volume. While Singapore detained approximately 70 individuals from the JI and close to 30 self-radicalised individuals since 2001, with several dozen individuals judged to pose less of a threat if placed directly on RO, the UK has hundreds of cases. This places a much greater burden on the resources required for the intensive engagement that this rehabilitation method requires.

However, it must be remembered that only a small fraction of individuals convicted of terrorist offences go back to commit further terrorist offences. This highlights a key strength of the Singaporean model – long-term engagement with extremists. This may mean that with particularly hard cases long detention periods, with all the adequate judicial protections around it, are necessary. Given that UK courts are unlikely to permit the introduction of the detention orders permissible under Singapore’s ISA (and the even less likely situation that the government would be able to retroactively impose this on individuals currently in jail where most of the problem currently lies), what instead needs to be created is a more intensive probation system around certain offenders which focuses on continually trying to push them in the right direction while ensuring they do not revert to violence.

None of this will necessarily create a completely fullproof system. And it is one that will require constant adapting and updating. The problem of radicalisation does not have any easy or simple solutions. Numerous other countries have tried approaches which have shown some levels of success – Denmark for example, which uses a very different approach to Singapore. Taking inspiration from other countries might provide the UK with a more effective model to deal with radicalised individuals. But whatever the case, a key lesson is that in order to effectively manage the problem, a substantial long-term investment will be required.

Shashi Jayakumar
Shashi is a Senior Fellow and Head of Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

Raffaello Pantucci
Raffaello is a Senior Associate Fellow at RUSI and a Visiting Senior Fellow at RSIS.

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

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Terence Ong/Wikimedia Commons.

And finally in this catch up wave, a piece from earlier this week for Foreign Policy looking in some more detail at the recent burst of terrorist attacks in the UK. To also catch up on some media appearances, spoke to the Guardian about recidivism amongst terrorists in the UK, to Yahoo News and the Daily Mail about the vogue of using fake bombs and knives in attacks, the earlier RSIS piece on Streatham was picked up by Eurasian Review, on the other side of the coin spoke to CNN about China and Europe and the earlier Telegraph piece commenting in the wake of the UK’s Huawei decision was picked up by China Digital Times.

Tougher Sentencing Won’t Stop Terrorism
A string of attacks in Britain have led Boris Johnson’s government to seek simple remedies that won’t fix the problem.

Police assist an injured man in London, on Nov.  29, 2019 after reports of shots being fired on London Bridge.

Police assist an injured man in London, on Nov. 29, 2019 after reports of shots being fired on London Bridge. DANIEL SORABJI/AFP via Getty Images

In the wake of Britain’s third terrorist incident in two months—a stabbing carried out by a recently released terrorist offender in the South London neighborhood of Streatham—the U.K. government is reaching for the most obvious legislation at hand to prevent such attacks and seeking to extend the detention of convicted terrorist offenders.

Drafting policy in the wake of a terrorist attack is always fraught with danger. With emotions high, people will grasp at whatever flaw in the system seems obvious at that moment—police surveillance, parole leniency, sentencing laws—and use that as the basis for new policies. Yet the consequences of such knee-jerk reactions can be far-reaching, and undoing the damage later can be complicated. Most worryingly, quick fixes tend to overlook the real reasons behind the problem. While some of the government’s proposed responses—such as increasing investment in probation—deserve to be applauded, the push to simply extend detention won’t address the issue at hand.

It is helpful to start by looking at the three recent cases in detail. The first took place Nov. 29, 2019, when a released terrorist offender used knives and a fake suicide vest to attack a rehabilitation conference he was attending, murdering two people before being shot by police on London Bridge. On Jan. 9, a convicted terrorist prisoner in the HMP Whitemoor prison in Cambridgeshire led an attack using bladed weapons and fake suicide vests against prison wardens. And on Feb. 2, a recently released terrorist offender was shot down as he sought to pursue an attack on shoppers in Streatham using a knife and a fake suicide vest. Given these incidents happened within the span of a few months and appear similar on the surface, they have been treated as a trend. Yet a close examination reveals many differences.

While some of the government’s proposed responses—such as increasing investment in probation—deserve to be applauded, the push to simply extend detention won’t address the issue at hand.

All three cases involved individuals who had been convicted of terrorism offenses and had served or were serving time for them. But when they launched their attacks, they were at very different stages of their sentences—in HMP Whitemoor, the convicted terrorist offender still had years to go (and now will doubtless have many more), while the London Bridge and Streatham attackers had been released on license. The London Bridge attacker had been out of prison for about one year and had, during that time, participated in a deradicalization program. He had stopped in the months prior to the attack; the full story of what took place in the intervening months has not yet emerged.

In contrast, the Streatham attacker never engaged in any deradicalization programs while in prison and on release appears to have quite quickly decided to carry out an attack. Evidence of his determination was clear after his initial arrest on May 17, 2018, following an investigation into his online activity. Not only did police find voluminous amounts of extremist material that he had shared with his family and friends, but they also found notebooks full of expressions of his desire to be a martyr and bomb-making plans.

Following his arrest, he was interviewed 19 times, during which time he largely responded “no comment” to all of the questions posed. During his sentencing hearing on Dec. 17, 2018, the judge commented on his level of fanaticism, something also emphasized by the head of the U.K. counterterrorism command when he commented on him post-sentencing.

The three cases are therefore quite distinct: The HMP Whitemoor case involves an individual who is facing a long incarceration, the London Bridge attack concerns a man who started to engage with a deradicalization program and then stopped, and the Streatham attacker seemed very firmly set on a course toward committing a violent crime. A failure in deradicalization programs was only potentially an issue in the London Bridge attack. The attacker seemed to be on a positive path once out of prison but then veered off course for reasons that are still not clear.

Of the three, a longer prison sentence would be most clearly relevant in the Streatham case, though it is unclear that the additional year in prison he would have had to serve if he’d completed his full sentence would have been enough to deter him from carrying out an attack. He had not shown any evidence of abandoning his ideas and was of such concern to security services that they had maintained intense surveillance on him after his release. It is hard to imagine that another year in prison would have done much to deradicalize him.

History actually shows that recidivism among convicted terrorist offenders in the U.K. is quite rare.

For the attacker in HMP Whitemoor, an already heavy sentence will now likely double. Longer sentencing may not have much effect (except to increase his eagerness to attack more guards). In fact, reporting on the case suggests that he has been radicalizing other prisoners, leading ad hoc sharia courts, and causing problems for prison guards.

And beyond these three cases, it is important to remember that there is a large number of terrorist offenders in prisons, many of whom are due to be released soon. These are the ones who might be affected by the government’s rushed policies. Yet no evidence has been produced that they are all in the same bracket as either the Streatham or London Bridge attacker. History actually shows that recidivism among convicted terrorist offenders in the U.K. is quite rare.

According to my research, since 2013, out of approximately 40 known plots, there have been just six plots involving people who had previously been charged with or convicted of terrorism offenses. Two plots involved people who had been charged for prior extremist activity: a group from 2014 that wanted to stab a poppy seller during Remembrance Day and a group known as the Three Musketeers that was arrested in 2016 plotting a knife and bomb attack. One of the three had been previously arrested alongside the London Bridge attacker, while the other two were part of a failed 2011 attempt to travel to a terrorist training camp in Pakistan.

According to Home Office figures, during the year ending June 2019, 53 prisoners held for terrorism-related offenses were released. Most, as far as authorities know, have not reoffended. It is therefore clear that not every terrorist offender who is released from prison will behave like the Streatham attacker.

A more salient similarity among the three cases is the attackers’ relative youth at the moment of first being arrested.

The London Bridge attacker’s house was first raided when he was 17 years old, the Streatham attacker was arrested for the offense for which he was jailed at 17, and the HMP Whitemoor attacker was picked up for involvement in a terrorist plot when he was 18.

While this is not a new phenomenon—two of the 2005 London bombers were 18 and 19 years old—there has recently been an increase in very young people becoming involved in active terrorist plotting. One of the cases of concern in the press at the moment is of an anonymous boy who was arrested at the age of 14 for being involved in an Islamic State-linked plot to attack security officials in Australia and is due for release soon.

This growing cohort of young offenders suggests that the process of radicalization is taking place at a very young age, when people are more susceptible to negative influences. In other contexts, young people who are drawn into violent or criminal activity are dealt with through criminal sanctions and engagement in rehabilitation programs, given that the young tend to be more susceptible to influencing. If such young people are being radicalized, the government needs to reconsider how it is handling such cases. Long prison sentences are undoubtedly justified in some cases, but the youth of the offender might mean that, in other cases, a more intensive rehabilitation program might help place them on a better path.

Finally, there is the question of copycat attacks. It is clear that the three attacks were in part inspired by each other—the attackers all chose to use the same methodology of knives and fake suicide vests, which is a relatively new innovation on the U.K. terrorist scene. In the wake of five terrorist attacks in 2017, Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu commented how the first attack using a car against tourists on Westminster Bridge and knives on police in front of Parliament had to some degree inspired the others. As he put it, the March 2017 Westminster Bridge attacker “gave fellow violent extremists the understanding that the U.K. was not such a hostile place to launch attacks and that by using this simple methodology you could succeed.”

The dilemma law enforcement officials face is how to stop attacks from inspiring other attacks. The question is likely around coverage of incidents, rather than anything to do with the incidents themselves.

The vogue for knife attacks started in 2013 after two radicalized individuals murdered an off-duty soldier by running him down and then trying to decapitate him on a street in South London.

Covered in the victim’s blood, they then declaimed their radical message to bystanders’ smartphones and the world, filling news broadcasts for weeks afterward and showing other terrorists how easily successful attacks could go viral and grab the world’s attention. The answers will not be found in prisons; to effectively break these chains of attacks, governments and journalists need to think carefully about how terrorist incidents are covered and reported.

The questions of the effectiveness of deradicalization programs, occasional recidivism, very young offenders, and the inspirational effect of attacks will not be answered by a simple extension of sentencing. While there may well be cases where offenders should be imprisoned for longer, it is not a solution that is applicable to all. And it is counterproductive to publicize certain cases in the press when it is clear from history that the majority of individuals who have served sentences for terrorism offenses have not returned to terrorist activity. Having their names and faces splashed in the press is unlikely to help with their rehabilitation and might leave them feeling ostracized and motivate them to return to terrorism.

Judicial and policy decisions must be objective and delivered without emotion. If a government chooses to pass new legislation on terrorism at a moment when the country is reeling from attacks, it is unlikely to make sensible and dispassionate judgments. There may well be gaps in legislation, but the British government must be careful to ensure that any new legislation addresses real problems, rather than simply pandering to the public’s fears.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute and a visiting senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists. Twitter: @raffpantucci

Almost up to date, now my inaugural piece for my new Singaporean home RSIS in the form of one of their commentaries, this time looking at the recent spate of terrorist incidents in the UK using the Streatham attack as the peg.

Responding to Streatham: Managing Low-Tech Terrorist Threat

Raffaello Pantucci

ICPVTR / Commentaries / Country and Region Studies / Europe / Middle East and North Africa (MENA)

10 February 2020

Synopsis

The 2 Feb Streatham attack in south London does not appear to have been part of a larger plot. But it has once again shone a negative light on the UK’s approach to counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation, this time under the newly appointed government.

Commentary

ON 2 FEBRUARY 2020, the south London district of Streatham saw a knife-and-fake bomb attack in which a man was shot dead by police after stabbing two people. ISIS claim of responsibility has little credible evidence; despite the young man’s reported pledge of allegiance to ISIS, there is no proof they were in contact.

The attack, however, comes against a political context which will demand some reaction. The re-installed Tory government has now faced three incidents on its watch. The outward similarities in all three draws public attention. The United Kingdom fears that it could find itself in the midst of another 2017 when the country suffered five terrorist attacks in relatively quick succession.

More Copycat Attacks?

The most immediate concern for authorities will be the possibility of a copycat incident of some sort. The Streatham attack itself was already a copy. The knife-and-fake-bomb model is one that was deployed in 2017 on London Bridge, on London Bridge again in November 2019, and then in Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) Whitemoor in early January 2020 when a convicted terrorist offender and a prisonmate attacked prison guards with bladed weapons and fake suicide vests.

Further emulation might be possible given the simplicity and relative success (in media terms) of the attack. The approach of using knife-and-fake-bomb is a new innovation that has been proven to deliver easy success. The Streatham attack showed how you could wait until the moment of attack to arm yourself, completely compressing the time to attack.

It is hard to completely assess at this stage the exact nature of inspiration that the three plots played towards each other. But on the basis of previous chains it is likely that any subsequent spontaneous ones are likely to come sooner rather than later. More considered plots do not necessarily fall within this analytical framework.

Undirected “Campaign” of Lone Actors

At this stage, the Streatham attack appears as an isolated act. However, as 2017 showed in the UK, a terrorist campaign no longer needs to come in the form of a series of directed attacks; it can also happen to a series of incidents like this. Both Al Qaeda and ISIS have championed the lone actor model of attack repeatedly.

Understanding how to analyse potential lone actors from a pool of potential offenders was a major question to emerge from 2017, and it will likely now be revisited again.

It is worth noting that security authorities were very concerned about the Streatham attacker. The fact he was being monitored as he went about his Sunday business by an undercover armed response unit (armed response units are rare in the UK) shows a high level of risk management assessment.

The high level of concern was visible earlier as well. The counter-terrorism lead at the time of his detention and the sentencing judge all publicly expressed concern about his level of radicalisation. Reporting from his time in prison has suggested that he refused engagement with de-radicalisation programmes.

Offender Management in Prison

A running theme between the London Bridge, HMP Whitemoor and Streatham incidents is prison. However, there are differences that are important to highlight. While the Streatham incident took place days after the offender’s release, the London Bridge attacker waited over a year to launch his attack, for some part of which he engaged with a de-radicalisation programme.

In contrast, the HMP Whitemoor offender still has a number of years on his sentence (a sentence which is likely now to become longer). It is therefore hard to judge where the useful comparison is to assess where the problems might lie.

Recidivism is rare among UK terrorist offenders – prior to the London Bridge attack last year, no successful plots involving recidivists had been seen. While there is a cadre of radicalised individuals who consistently show up on charges for various related offences (often individuals drawn from the Al Muhajiroun community), actual attacks (or plots) by people previously convicted of terrorism offences is a relatively new innovation in the UK context.

Prior to the current cluster, the UK had only seen two since the conflict in Syria started (out of around 40 or so plots that have been disrupted or taken place).

Youth Radicalisation and Long-term Monitoring

Another similarity between the three recent cases is the relative youth at the time of first offence of the three men. The Streatham attacker was 17 when he first came to authorities’ attention, the London Bridge attacker’s house was first raided by counter-terrorism authorities when he was 17 and the HMP Whitemoor offender was 18 when he was arrested on his way to launch a knife attack.

Aside from what this means for radicalisation, it presents a long-term issue for authorities when it is considered alongside the fact that the UK has seen a terrorist attack by a 52-year-old (London Bridge, March 2017). Authorities may have decades of monitoring ahead of them with all of the expense and resource that entails.

Beyond Deradicalisation Programmes

The attacks have drawn attention to the effectiveness of de-radicalisation programmes. While the Streatham attacker refused to engage, the London Bridge attacker before him had been engaged for some time before stopping in the months prior to his attack. In other words, de-radicalisation programmes are not relevant across all of the cases and such dramatic failures are a new phenomenon in the UK.

The UK has had almost two decades of Islamist terror offenders, but only recently are we seeing such attacks from amongst recidivists. At the same time, it is clear that this is where the current heart of the problem lies given the growing number of people coming out of prisons or back from Syria.

This means more offenders (or people of concern) who will need attention for longer. The idea of using probation services better to manage such offenders is good, but this means probation needs a considerable uplift.

Streatham is now the 11th known attack with Islamist links that the UK has seen since the Conservatives took power in 2010. While the nature of the threat has changed, it is not clear that all aspects of the response have kept up.

Problematically, however, the current commentary emanating from Whitehall suggests that the response is likely to focus on punitive measures pandering to a political base.

About the Author

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence, Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

With considerable delay, doing a bunch of catch up posting. A lot has changed in the offline world, with a change in my role at RUSI and a new position in Singapore at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) reflecting the fact that am spending more time out in Asia. Still working on much the same things, but with a slightly different geographical orientation. First up, a book review in the RUSI Journal for Shiv Malik’s long-delayed book The Messenger.

The Messenger

In early October 2018, the Metropolitan Police issued a press release detailing the conviction of a grim-faced man called Hassan Butt for some amateurish online fraud. On the surface, this was a fairly pedestrian case. It was, however, the culmination of years of investigations involving networks linked to Al-Qa’ida in the UK, the destruction of a journalist’s career, a High Court debate about the protection of journalistic sources, and the role and links of MI5 in the terrorist networks it was investigating.

Shiv Malik was the journalist at the heart of this story. After almost a decade of work, he has produced a gripping account of his experiences being caught up in the frenzied early days of the British discovery of a homegrown terrorist threat.

The story told in this book is part of an earlier time in Britain’s exposure to violent Islamist terror, when the threat everyone was focused on was articulated most severely in the July 2005 bombings: young men who had decided to turn so brutally against their community. Shiv Malik’s The Messenger tells the detailed story of one such case. It focuses on Hassan Butt, an individual whose extremist views gained prominence within the public discourse and who ultimately spoke out and turned against his former comrades. The book gradually reveals, however, that Butt might also have been working for the Security Services all along as part of a complex undercover operation.

Butt’s story has always raised more questions than it has answered. He first emerged in the public eye after the 9/11 attacks as a spokesman for Al-Muhajiroun, a militant Islamist organisation based in London and Lahore. After moving to Pakistan, Butt headed a group of British extremists who supported Al-Qa’ida and claimed to have mobilised over 200 young British men to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan. He communicated with the British public through press releases and extremist statements, acting as a one-stop shop for foreign journalists seeking pro-Al-Qa’ida perspectives. Butt thrived in this role and enjoyed his heavy influence on the public discourse so much that his Al-Muhajiroun leader – the notorious Omar Bakri Mohammed – started to joke about how he had eclipsed him in infamy.

Despite having achieved this celebrity status, Butt turned on his former colleagues by deciding to work against Al-Qa’ida: the organisation he had previously so fervently supported. His own reported reasons are explored in the book, and they appear to stem from encounters with serious Al-Qa’ida figures in Pakistan whom he helped to launch a series of brutal attacks in Karachi. When he challenges one of them about the innocent people killed in the attacks, he is simply told that ‘they’ll be carried by Allah for their good deeds’. For Butt, this is an unsatisfactory answer. He finds himself appalled by the fact that ‘they’d decided when to end other, innocent people’s lives’. This appears to have been Butt’s Damascene moment.

Malik, the author, entered Butt’s life at the same time. He was initially pointed to Butt as someone under evaluation by the BBC as a potential source of information regarding the July 2005 bombings. Malik developed a strong relationship with Butt, even deciding to help write his biography. He quickly became wrapped up in Butt’s adventure, partly on the basis of their shared history as two young South Asian men growing up in England.

In the years immediately following the July 2005 bombings, the two worked together in discussing the threat the UK faces and attempting to develop Butt’s story into a book. Malik found himself ‘truly believing in [Butt]’ and claimed that ‘[he] was willing to give almost anything to see him succeed’. This honesty and candour sets up the book’s climax: in May 2008, Butt was arrested and denied much of the story that he had shared with Malik under questioning.

It is safe to say that Butt’s tale is confusing. As well informing Greater Manchester Police that he had lied to Malik after his arrest, he faked his own stabbing and claimed that former colleagues had attacked him for his betrayal. This came after Malik had launched an expensive High Court appeal to protect the manuscript and notes that he and Butt had been working on – a reaction to police demands to use the text for prosecution.

But, as the book shows, the twists and turns do not end there. We still do not know what Butt’s real role was. The theory that he might have been working for the Security Services all along is repeatedly alluded to alongside the importance that Malik attaches to Butt’s contact with some of the most dangerous jihadist figures in the UK. The latter is evidenced by his widely recorded contacts, interviews and appearances by independent observers. Despite his proximity to numerous investigations, however, he was never prosecuted for terrorism offences.

In light of this evidence, Malik tentatively concludes that Butt was manipulated by the Security Services so they could control his narrative and distract journalists from more serious investigations. The author alleges that he was warned about such tactics by an older colleague who had similar experiences in Northern Ireland; a tip-off which arguably strengthens the credibility of his argument.

But Malik takes his conclusion even further. In the wake of 9/11, Britain’s security services were deeply alarmed by the new threat they faced. They could not, however, mobilise the public support or resources necessary to counter it. By purposefully introducing such an extremist voice into public discourse, they would alarm and excite the public, thereby giving them the opportunity to secure the resources they needed. While such extremist voices had previously been caricatures – like Omar Bakri Mohammed or Abu Hamza – Butt offered a young, eloquent and homegrown alternative which was far more disturbing.

Of course, there are holes in this narrative. One simply has to think back to the tabloid headlines used to describe the two radical preachers just mentioned to see the appeal they provided to newspaper publishers. Why the authorities would need to add another voice to this narrative is unclear, but this ambiguity is exactly the space that intelligence forces like to work within. As time has gone by, it has become increasingly clear that – despite a slow start – the UK’s intelligence services have been able to penetrate the violent Islamist networks that threaten the country.

We are unlikely to know whether Malik’s conclusion accurately reflects Butt’s real role for a long time, if ever. A narcissistic and creative megalomaniac, Butt is a complex character who once mixed with some of the most dangerous men in the UK. And while, if he was associated with the Security Services, such people are essential to enable our security forces to protect us, this book reveals some of the consequences of these people’s actions on those around them. For example, many of Butt’s reported friends are now serving long prison sentences because of evidence he provided against them, while others are dead due to links he appears to have helped nurture.

While Malik had to take a break from journalism after this experience, Butt moved in networks responsible for encouraging and practicing violence. Though he may have secretly been working against them, it is hard to know how strong his loyalties were.

In the murky world of intelligence gathering and informers, lines of trust and reliability regularly blur – this story reveals what this reality looked like within the context of the UK’s struggle against violent Islamist terrorism. Written in the fast-paced style of an investigative report, this book is an excellent journey through a historical case which filled our front pages. It provides a fascinating account of the early wave of jihad in Britain.

 

Once again a bit late posting, but here is a short piece for the Telegraph in the wake of the London Bridge incident with Usman Khan. While on the topic, spoke to the Observer, Financial Times, Independent about the incident, to the Irish Times about the complexity of prosecuting returnees and the Guardian about the current state of the terror threat. Separately, also spoke to Global Finance magazine and the South China Morning Post about China-Russia, and Suddeutsche Zeitung about Xinjiang.

Politicians don’t understand the true nature of the terror threat

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The almost immediate political spat that arose from the London Bridge incident has occluded some of the bigger lessons to be drawn from the attack. The focus on prisons, probation and who exactly passed the legislation responsible for the terrorist’s release has ignored the wider points raised by this case.

Perhaps the most important is the longer-term question of how exactly we plan to manage an ever-growing cohort of people who, in some cases, appear to decide to re-engage with extremist activity almost a decade after they first encountered it.

As a society we have to face a chronic threat which includes Syria-Iraq returnees, the growing mainstreaming of extremist narratives, and the possibility of an abrupt drop off in our intelligence and security cooperation with key European partners. This is where the focus of the discussion around terrorism should be.

After almost two decades of facing a domestic extremist Islamist community, we have an ever-growing cohort of young men and women who have been attracted to these ideas and in some cases appear not to shake them. This number only grows over time, and given the fact that often people start to engage in their teenage years, the tail of this problem is one that is going to stretch far into the future.

It is not the case that all of these individuals are going to pose a persistent threat. Some people do grow out of these ideas which they adopt in their early adulthood and move on. Lives change, partners are met, new jobs are taken; people move on. In some cases, intense engagement with deradicalisation programmes or mentors help move them into a different space mentally, encouraging them to leave behind the extremist ideas.

But some only do this half-heartedly, never really shake the idea or find that the alternative to the extremist ideology is not a particularly exciting world. Their lives might never move forwards (or not to the level they were expecting), or other things happen around them which mean they do not leave the radical milieu.

In some extreme cases, the individuals seem to enjoy the violence. Some of these can be diverted through intense activity which channels their energy, but this requires a constant level of engagement.

The difficulty is understanding how each case is going to play out. In retrospect cases that go bad can appear obvious but this is not always so at the time. And given the easy terrorist methodologies deployed at the moment (cars and knives), it has become almost impossible for security forces to effectively and completely police this group.

Clearly more resource will help manage this problem, but it is unlikely to get rid of it. It is also key to remember that this is not a short-term investment. The London Bridge attacker first got involved in extremist activity in his late teens and then turned to violence a decade later.

When this timeline is put against the case of 2017’s 52-year-old Westminster attacker, this means you have a potential window of more than 30 years in which the state needs to potentially monitor extremists. And that resource requirement needs to be placed against the many other issues which call upon the public purse.

Ultimately, this is a problem which is going to require a long-term engagement and investment. And eradication is unlikely to succeed.

This is not a call for despair, just an acknowledgement of the reality that until some of the bigger perceptions and cases of injustice around the world are eliminated, we will continue to see some people drawn to using violence to try to rectify these issues.

In the short-term what we can do is tackle some of the immediate problems, such as dealing with the British nationals in Turkish, Iraqi or Kurdish custody. They require repatriation, detention and rehabilitation (or longer-term conviction if the legal case is met).

We also need to check the habit of mainstream politicians feeding and supporting extremist narratives. This is either through their unhelpful demonisation of others, pandering to baser narratives in the public discourse, or more simply politicising issues that should be handled more carefully.

Finally, there is a need to ensure that whoever enters government ensures that the information links that we share with European security partners are maintained. Given the increasingly diffuse, multi-ideology and international threat that we face, sharing data and information amongst our security forces is going to be a crucial tool.

It is unsurprising that the London Bridge attack has generated the sort of political debate we have seen. Coming during a tense election campaign it has immediately tapped into bigger tensions. Yet we need to be careful that we learn the right lessons and ensure that any ensuing policy change is dealing with the actual problem rather than the hysteria around it.

This is the only way to maintain the resilience of our society to dealing with the long-term problem that terrorists and extremists pose.

Raffaello Pantucci is Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

And now back up to date with writing as far as can tell, my most recent late last week on Baghdadi’s death trying to look further to the future about what is happening with terrorism more broadly for the Wall Street Journal. Some bigger ideas in here that need greater exploration in the future, but here is a short start.

Beyond this, spoke to various news outlets over the past month since last providing an update. Starting most recently with the Baghdadi death with the Financial Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Guardian about its impact on the UK threat picture (which was also picked up by an outlet called Go Tech, the Mirror and Sputnik) and this Norwegian site Klasse Kampen seems to have picked up my comments about the defunct terrorist leader from somewhere. Subsequent to his death, spoke to the Independent about his successor. Earlier, spoke to the Financial Times about Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria and its impact on ISIS, to the Sun about Syria returnees in the UK, and to the Independent about the shooting in Halle, Germany and the broader threat from XRW. On the other side of the coin, spoke to Foreign Policy/Newsweek about China-Russia, to Asia Times about China-Iran, and to Bloomberg about Russian pipeline politics.

After Baghdadi, Terrorism Without Ideology

ISIS provided a template for attacks. Now isolated people reproduce them as meaningless spectacle.

Raffaello Pantucci
Oct. 30, 2019 6:44 pm ET

 

French soldiers stand guard after a knife attack in Paris, Oct. 3. PHOTO: GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead, a few weeks after Europe was racked by four separate incidents classified as terrorism: a truck-ramming in Limburg, Germany; a series of stabbings at a police station in Paris; a shooting at a synagogue in Halle, Germany; and another set of stabbings at a shopping mall in Manchester, England. While the investigations are still under way, at this stage it doesn’t appear that any of these attacks had any structured link to a terrorist group like Baghdadi’s Islamic State. Most of the perpetrators displayed some awareness of an extremist ideology, but we don’t know that any of them were directed to do what they did.

What relevance does the death of Baghdadi have to any of these attackers, or to the terror threat at large? There is little historical evidence that decapitating terrorist groups destroys them. Leaders have networks around them built on personal contacts, and their deaths change those dynamics. Some particularly charismatic leaders drive groups forward by force of personality or personal narrative. Their removal can weaken the aura around their organizations, but it can’t promise eradication.

When leaders are abruptly lopped off, terror groups tend to fragment and become more radical. Pretenders to the throne or anointed successors want to establish their own brands and often use a spectacular attack to do it. One can look to Afghanistan, where repeated strikes against the Taliban’s leadership have only made the group more violent, or to the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, attacked in 2013 by a rising al-Shabaab terrorist leader stamping his imprint on the world. Earlier that year, an attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria followed a similar pattern. Different factions often will forge their own paths away from the core organization, seizing the opportunity to change directions and employ new tactics.

But this tells us only about the classical terror threat—the large-scale plot, often directed from abroad. Such conspiracies still exist, and authorities are fighting them with success. Where they have found more difficulty, however, is in stopping the smaller incidents, in which attacks appear in sync with terrorist ideologies while lacking clear links to the groups propagating them. ISIS honed the art of directing lost individual acolytes around the globe to launch attacks in their immediate environments with whatever tools were at their disposal. This group was supplemented by a further cadre who launched attacks drawing on the ISIS methodology and interpreting its ideology without ever establishing contact with the organization.

Then there is the terrorist without an ideology, such as Salih Khater. On Aug. 14, 2018, he drove his car into pedestrians outside the Houses of Parliament. Coming more than a year after Khalid Masood launched a similar attack near the same location, the attack set London on edge again.

In sentencing Mr. Khater, Justice Maura McGowan concluded that he had committed a terrorist act, but she couldn’t identify a clear ideology he was advancing: “You replicated the acts of others who undoubtedly have acted with terrorist motives. You deliberately copied those others. . . . You have never explained your actions and have not given any account, before or today, that is capable of dissuading me from drawing the conclusion that this offending had a terrorist connection.”

In a growing number of terrorism cases, ideology is at best an appendage to an act of planned, performative violence. These terrorists are people driven by personal demons or interactions on chat forums or online communities, people with social disorders or mental-health issues, or people with a desire to make statements in a world on which they have failed to make an impression.

Where was Baghdadi in Mr. Khater’s attempted car-ramming attack and others like it? In this new age of terror, ISIS provided only the background idea by popularizing the method of driving cars into pedestrians. The group generated the meme, or at least helped it become viral, making it easy for others to replicate.

It is too early to dismiss the structured terror of groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS. Undoubtedly other groups, leaders and followers will emerge. But the West is moving into an age of isolated and even meaningless terrorism, an age when leaders contribute more conceptually than tactically. Before long, we may look back through rose-tinted glasses to the time when terrorism was made up of easily comprehensible networks and leaders.

Mr. Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

 

 

More catching up, this one a bit more recently after Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s death over the weekend for the Telegraph.

The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi could make a fragmented Isil more dangerous

Baghdadi

Notwithstanding President Trump’s declarations, Islamic State (Isil) has not been destroyed by the death of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Like most terrorist groups, the organisation is more than its leader.

There are three key questions to consider when considering his death and what it means for Isil and terrorist threats more broadly.

The most immediate concern will be the army of fanboys that exist around the group and its ideology across the world. For some of these isolated individuals, his death might read as the moment at which they should leap into action to conduct a terrorist atrocity.

The group will undoubtedly claim these attacks as planned revenge, when in reality they are at best opportunistic. But given the growing preponderance of copycat incidents after major terrorist events, it is going to be a major preoccupation of security forces around the world.

For Isil, the question will be whether the group can continue to maintain its coherence in the absence of its iconic leader who led them at their most totemic moment. He may not have had the same personal charisma and back story as Osama bin Laden, but he was the significant figure when the group was at its apex.

This kept the group coherent under him. In his absence there will be a question about whether his successor can maintain this narrative.

The danger will be fragmentation among the regional affiliates who may decide to now re-prioritise their local concerns over the group’s globalist agenda.

But a greater question might exist between the group’s Syrian and Iraqi followers.  Isil is a group made up of Iraqis who took advantage of the conflict in Syria to grow and expand. As they grew in Syria, more locals flocked to their cause.

Over time this will have created two groups who were driven together by the joint cause of building a Levantine (and global) caliphate led by Baghdadi, their longstanding leader. His removal might precipitate a clash between the two groups which might lead it to fragment as the Syrian or Iraqi factions disagree over where they should focus their attention.

This fragmentation might make it more dangerous. Historically, the removal of terrorist leaders gives rise to eager pretenders who use dramatic violence to announce their arrival and eclipse their predecessor. It can also lead to in-fighting which can have a knock on effect on their environment.

At the same time, his removal might raise some interesting questions about Isil more broadly and its historical conflicts with al-Qaeda and other groups in Syria.

Some early commentary by jihadist groups who were against Isil on the ground in Syria suggests they are dancing on his grave and mocking his group. But cooler heads might prevail at a strategic level and try to use this as an opportunity to forge a rapprochement between the two groups in some way.

Lots of death and bad blood between Isil and al-Qaeda stands between this potential outcome, but the death of a significant leader like this does potentially change the dynamic in such a way that might create an opportunity for a renewed alliance or agreement between the two groups.

Whatever the case, Baghdadi’s death is undoubtedly a victory for the West. It may be cliché to say that it does not mean the end of Isil, but it is certainly a successful strike and further evidence of the importance of maintaining a strong war of attrition against such groups.

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

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

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

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August 2019, Volume 12, Issue 7

Authors: Raffaello Pantucci

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murderers in the Making

Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists

By Joan Smith

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

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

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

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

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