Posts Tagged ‘European terrorism’

Have been very delinquent in posting pieces on the site for a variety of reasons. So catching up a bit now. First up is a piece from early January for the Independent offering a view on some of the security information sharing concerns that might arise from the dreaded Brexit.

Hopeless Brexit planning has left Britain at risk from a new wave of terrorists

The twin threat of far-right extremists and Isis-inspired attackers can only be addressed with robust coordination across the continent

Largely unnoticed in the 2018 political chaos was a House of Commons Home Affairs Committee report on the security consequences of Brexit. In deeply concerned tones, the committee concluded that the government had not prepared sufficiently for the potential domestic security implications of Britain’s departure from the EU.

Against a backdrop of lone actor plots across the continent and growing right-wing extremism, this is not good enough. The terror threat remains as diffuse and transnational as ever.

Key to disrupting these threats is information sharing – something the committee specifically identifies as at risk from the current approach to Brexit. The Police Federation, which represents 120,000 rank-and-file officers, claimed the government has left it with “no idea” how they will protect the British public after Brexit.

Recent plots in Strasbourg, ManchesterBottrop, Tokyo, Sweden, Italy and Newcastle have repeated a pattern of lone individuals potentially, but not necessarily, linked to larger networks. They are hard to identify before an attack. They pop up across the continent and can occasionally get through, as was the case at the Strasbourg Christmas market.

In almost every case, investigations reveal the attackers were previously known to authorities. The positive we can draw from the larger picture is that a growing number are disrupted before the plot is enacted. The tough task for European authorities is to work out which of the many individuals monitored are genuinely prepared to commit murder.

To arrest them all would be vastly disproportionate. These individuals remain free not due to the authorities’ laxity, but rather because of a lack of evidence, or lack of guilt. Some will likely never become priority targets for authorities, or active terrorists.

So how do we keep improving the decision-making about who to focus on? In brief, we need a fuller understanding of the individuals, and that comes from gaining access to more data. The current arrangements around Brexit put that under threat. According to the government’s own figures, one database, the Second Generation Schengen Information System (SIS II), contains 76.5m records that were checked by UK enforcement more than 500m times last year.

In his evidence to the committee, deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Richard Martin highlighted the role of the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS). Martin quoted research that suggested “losing access to ECRIS would mean a response to a request about a foreign national’s criminal history would take an average of 66 days, compared to 10 days under ECRIS”.

At the same time as the threat from Isis-inspired terrorism has continued – despite talk of its “defeat” in Syria – we have seen a rise in extreme right-wing terrorism.

According to the 2018 Global Terrorism Index, right-wing groups and individuals killed 66 people in western Europe and north America between 2013 and 2017. In the UK alone the index tracked 12 far-right terror attacks in 2017, including the attack outside Finsbury Park mosque, where 47-year-old Darren Osborne drove a van into Muslim worshippers, killing one person and injuring at least nine others.

Perhaps most worrying are the potential links across Europe, where a more organised extreme right wing has long been visible in parts of Germany and is connecting across the continent. Groups in Central and Eastern European are making links to like-minded people in the UK, creating the alarming spectre of a transnational community.

Again, the only legitimate way to address this problem is closer connectivity and cooperation. Continental security partners will of course want to continue sharing information to counter a common threat, but in the absence of robust procedures and structures, information may slip through. It is all very good for security forces to want to share information, but this can only be done properly through appropriate and legally monitored channels to prevent abuse and protect civil liberties.

The combined threat of hard-to-track Isis sympathisers and international collaboration between far-right extremists present a relentless challenge to our security forces. They have had considerable success, but this is in part thanks to the shared information which builds difficult investigations to disrupt potential terrorists.

It is essential that they have the data to continue this task. Hard Brexit, soft Brexit or no Brexit at all, serious and concerted plans must be made to guarantee the seamless continuation of pan-European intelligence on the people that seek to do us harm. That there remains a lack of clarity here, despite expressions of concern by senior security officials, is a very worrying state of affairs.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI)

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Last catch up for something that was published today in the Sunday Telegraph, this time in the wake of the Munich attack specifically but looking more broadly at the rather odd spate of semi-terror attacks that have taken place.

The piece was re-published in the Gulf News, and separately an interview with one of the newswires was picked up by the Express, spoke to the LA Times, the newswires (picked up in the Mirror) and Middle East Eye in the wake of the Nice attack, spoke to the Wall Street Journal about the current terror threat that Europe is facing, spoke to PBS about Lone Actors, spoke to CNN about the recent terror arrests in Brazil, to AFP about the recent incidents in Kazakhstan, whilst an old piece about Breivik was cited in the New York Times.

What Does a Modern Terrorist Look Like and What Motivates Them?

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There is no perfect profile of a terrorist. This is one of the main findings in the growing body of literature around terrorism. Terrorists and those who are radicalised towards extremist ideologies come in all shapes and sizes. Yet, one of the key features that appeared to distinguish terrorists from mass murderers was the fact that they were motivated more clearly by an ideology than by personal motivations. Increasingly, this line is becoming harder to draw. The last two cases to afflict Europe – the massacres in Nice and  more recently in Munich – highlight this difficulty with both cases appearing to have elements of both within them.

It is still unfortunately too early to categorically know what was going on in Nice and Munich. Whilst the early coverage around both focused on the fact that the Nice murderer was operating alone, and the speculation around the Munich shooter that he may have been motivated by some violent Islamist ideology, we are now instead seeing confusing indicators in other directions. French authorities have now arrested five others in conjunction with the Nice attack, whilst it now appears that the Munich shooter was someone who may have had a fixation with mass shootings and was possibly more inspired by Anders Behring Breivik (who exactly five years earlier murdered 77 people in Oslo in anger at the government’s immigration policies) rather than Isil.

But what both cases do appear to have in common is disturbed young men who are angry at the world around them. In both cases, stories have now emerged of potentially confused sexuality, confused religious identity, anger management issues and family disputes. Rather than being ideologically committed terrorists, they may simply using be the method of a terrorist attack – under whatever ideology – to excise personal demons.

This appears to be an increasingly common phenomenon. It is difficult to know exactly why this is happening. Certainly, the methodological approach of “lone wolf” terrorists is on the increase and groups like Isil and al Qaeda have advocated for their adherents to undertake it for some time. But in many of these cases it is not clear that the “lone wolves” in question are totally bought into the ideology they claim to be fighting for. Man Haron Monis, the Australian-Iranian who held up a coffee shop in downtown Sydney in 2014, was an only recent convert to Sunni Islam and brought the wrong flag with him to his allegedly Isil-inspired attack. Omar Mateen, the shooter who killed 50 in Orlando, apparently claimed some allegiance to al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Isil – competing Islamist organisations.

But it is possible that the amount of noise surrounding groups like Isil is drawing lost souls towards it. It is almost impossible to turn on the television or open a newspaper without hearing about Isil, terrorism or political violence. If you are a socially awkward individual with violent tendencies who is seeking some sort of meaning in your life, then the methodology of a “lone wolf” spree under the banner of such a group may be appealing. It will provide you with a way to punish the world around you whilst also giving meaning to your act. And given the manner in which Isil and other groups push out their omnidirectional message of violence and offer a very low bar for entry to the group, it is very easy to latch on to the ideology as you may loosely understand it and use it as an excuse to express your anger.

There is also an element of “copy catting” within such attacks. It increasingly seems as though Munich shooter Ali Sonboly may have drawn some inspiration for his attack from Anders Behring Breivik. This emulation is not new to such incidents – the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013 by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale is an attack that has generated numerous copies. The day after the attack Alexandre Dhaussy, a recent convert to Islam and known to authorities more for his petty criminal activity that than his violent Islamist links, stabbed soldier Cedric Cordier in the La Defense part of Paris. In August 2014, Brutschom Ziamani, a young man who had fallen into the orbit of violent extremists after he had been thrown out of his family home, was arrested on his way to carry out an attack emulating the Woolwich murder. In January 2015, Zack Davies started hacking at a South Asian man he saw in Tesco’s  shouting “white power” and that he was undertaking the attack in revenge for Lee Rigby. Later investigation showed he was an isolated and paranoid young man who was obsessed with the far Right and claimed to have drawn inspiration from the Jihadi John videos.

The profile of what we consider a terrorist attack is becoming increasingly hard to define. In the same way that the specifics of what our terrorists look like is becoming ever harder to grasp. Fundamentally, a terrorist is someone who is motivated by a political ideology rather than personal anger – but increasingly this line is becoming blurred. The profile of your average terrorist is increasingly becoming melted into the profile of a mass killer presenting authorities with an almost impossible mountain to climb to prevent them all.

Another very belated post coming after the Brussels terrorist attack, this time for the Spanish daily El Pais. I have pasted the published Spanish below, alongside the English I submitted below it.

To also catch up on some media interviews, had a conversation with La Repubblica about the terror threat to Europe, to the New York TimesGuardian, Wall Street JournalIndependent, Daily Mail, CNBC, Telegraph about the terror threat after the Brussels attacks and the impact to the UK, as well as to the Daily Mail about the recently concluded Tarik Hassane case in the UK and some weapons adverts that were being posted from Libya onto Facebook to the Daily Mail and BBC.

El espionaje es clave enate el terror

Los servicios de espionaje necesitan establecer nuevas prioridades para enfrentarse a las crecientes amenazas

Spanish cops

Ahora que ha pasado la tormenta de los atentados de Bruselas, se levantan los dedos acusadores que preguntan cómo una gran red, responsable de dos gravísimos atentados terroristas, pudo atravesar el cordón de seguridad europeo. Poco a poco se ha ido filtrando información que muestra que los servicios de seguridad tenían en sus radares a individuos que formaban parte de esa red y, a toro pasado, parece que nuestros servicios de inteligencia tenían una imagen muy detallada del panorama. Sin embargo, ese a posteriori resulta una lente defectuosa para analizar los fallos del espionaje, que requieren una lectura mucho más profunda para comprender correctamente cómo pudieron producirse unos errores que, en apariencia, se podrían haber evitado.

El descubrimiento, tras un atentado terrorista, de que se disponía de información sobre las personas involucradas puede resultar deprimente. Después del atentado del 7 de julio de 2005 en Londres, salió a luz que al menos dos de los implicados habían pasado por campos de entrenamiento en Pakistán cuya existencia conocían los servicios de espionaje. De hecho, el líder de la célula y su mano derecha venían apareciendo en los márgenes de las investigaciones desde casi cuatro años antes del atentado, e incluso había fotos de ellos junto a un grupo de condenados por planear un atentado en Reino Unido. También en el caso de los atentados del 11-S en Estados Unidos, las investigaciones posteriores revelaron que los servicios de seguridad ya habían señalado a los individuos implicados como elementos preocupantes. Dos de los miembros de la célula del 11-M que reventó los trenes de Atocha en 2004 eran viejos conocidos de los agentes que seguían la huella del salafismo en España.

Si los servicios de seguridad tenían fichados a esos individuos, ¿por qué no impidieron que siguiesen adelante tendiéndoles una emboscada y atrapándolos? El problema radica en que este planteamiento olvida cómo funciona el espionaje.

Aunque a posteriori estos detalles pueden parecer significativos y una señal clara de un peligro inminente, es posible que quedaran enterrados bajo otra cascada de detalles, hechos e hilos. Volviendo al ejemplo de los terroristas de Reino Unido, existía información de años atrás que los situaba en un campo de entrenamiento hablando sobre su marcha al extranjero para combatir. Pero formaban parte de un grupo de 12 sospechosos y, en aquel entonces, otros colectivos constituían una amenaza mayor. Es una cuestión de prioridades. Los servicios de espionaje disponen de recursos limitados y se ven obligados a elegir y descartar. Unas pistas que más tarde parecerán enormemente significativas, en el momento se juzgan menos importantes y bajan peldaños en el rango de prioridad.

Por desgracia, el establecimiento de prioridades es una ciencia imperfecta que necesita evolucionar para reflejar la amenaza a la que se hace frente. Parte del error de cálculo sobre los conspiradores del 7 de julio en Reino Unido fue obviar que unos ciudadanos británicos pudieran cometer atentados suicidas en su país. Parte del error de cálculo sobre los terroristas del 11-S fue pasar por alto que Al Qaeda pudiera ejecutar una conspiración tan ambiciosa y sofisticada en territorio estadounidense. Parte del fallo en los atentados de París fue infravalorar la intensidad con que el Estado Islámico (ISIS, en inglés) se organizaba para atentar en Europa. Parte del fallo con relación a la célula de Bruselas fue desconocer su tamaño y pensar que París constituía su punto final. Ahora, a posteriori, esa red y sus objetivos pueden verse parcialmente en una serie de atentados e intentos previos, como el tiroteo de Mehdi Nemmouche en el museo judío de Bruselas o la confesión de Reda Hame de que había vuelto a Europa con la intención de abrir fuego en una sala de conciertos.

También hay fallos menos abstractos que pueden verse en el caso de la célula de Bruselas y París. El hecho de que ahora podamos ver la mano de Abdelhamid Abaaouden conspiraciones en Europa que se remontan a 2014 demuestra que debería haber sido una prioridad mayor en todo el continente. Eso apunta a un fallo en los servicios fronterizos y en la forma en que los diferentes países del continente comparten información secreta. Schengen crea un espacio común en el que los terroristas pueden actuar con impunidad, y del que por desgracia no se benefician los servicios de seguridad que los persiguen. La cooperación y la coordinación son esenciales para los servicios europeos de seguridad y espionaje, habida cuenta de que su jurisdicción solo llega hasta sus fronteras. Al mismo tiempo, la prioridad también varía entre los distintos países: mientras que para Bélgica y Francia este problema es el más acuciante, ya que existen células activas listas para atentar, es posible que para otros Estados miembros, como Portugal o los países del centro y este de Europa, la amenaza no parezca tan inminente.

Por último, las diferencias legislativas entre los Estados miembros son otra dificultad añadida. Es difícil detectar la ubicación de armas peligrosas, como las pistolas, porque la legislación es muy diferente entre países. Además, las competencias de la policía y los servicios secretos son dispares entre Estados y no siempre está claro con qué organismo homólogo hay que colaborar, con lo que es más que posible que resulte más difícil compartir información. En algunos países, la policía lleva las riendas de las investigaciones, pero en otros los servicios secretos recelan a la hora de compartir información por miedo a poner en peligro una fuente de información al exponerla a un proceso judicial. Esta es una diferencia clave entre los servicios de espionaje y la policía: mientras que la segunda trabaja con un procesamiento judicial como meta, los primeros se mueven en las sombras, evitando el foco de los tribunales. Eso provoca problemas, dentro de los Estados y entre ellos.

Y, sin embargo, estamos ante una amenaza ­paneuropea. En las semanas previas a los atentados de París, las autoridades italianas llevaron a cabo una investigación más amplia en todo el continente contra un grupo que se hacía llamar Rawti Shax: una comunidad compuesta en su mayoría por extremistas kurdos suníes, vinculada a Ansar al Islam, un grupo extremista de kurdos iraquíes muy cercano al ISI, precursor del ISIS. Su desmantelamiento, con arrestos en Escandinavia, Italia, Reino Unido y Bélgica, mostró todo el potencial de la cooperación judicial y entre los servicios secretos en toda Europa.

Pero el éxito duró poco. Al cabo de pocas semanas se produjo la masacre de París y se descubrió que una red más amplia de terroristas llevaba un tiempo activa y operando en todo el continente. Desde entonces se redobló la atención, pero una célula logró colarse en Bruselas. Aunque esta red marcará sin duda un punto de inflexión para los servicios belgas y franceses, la cuestión es si la lección tendrá eco en todo el continente. Toda Europa tiene que aprender las lecciones de París y Bruselas, ya que los grupos y redes vinculados al ISIS (y a Al Qaeda) siguen queriendo atentar en el continente. El espionaje, siempre una ciencia imperfecta, es en última instancia una de las últimas barreras contra la amenaza compleja y sofisticada que representa el ISIS.

Raffaello Pantucci es responsable de estudios de seguridad internacional en el Royal United Services Institute y autor de We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists.

How Was ISIS in Europe Missed?

As the dust has settled on the Brussels attacks, fingers of accusation have been pointed asking why a large network that produced two major terrorist attacks was able to get through Europe’s security cordon. News has slowly filtered out showing how security agencies had individuals who were part of the network on their radars, and in retrospect a growing intelligence picture looks rich in indicative detail. But hindsight is an imperfect lens through which to look at such intelligence failures, which requires much closer reading to properly understand how such apparently obvious failures could have happened.

It can appear a depressing indictment when in the wake of a terrorist attack, information is discovered to have been already in the possession of intelligence agencies about individuals involved in the attack. In the wake of the July 7, 2005 attack in London it was discovered that at least two of the individuals involved had attended training camps in Pakistan that had been known about by intelligence agencies. The cell lead and his principle support had in fact shown up on the periphery of investigations for almost four years prior to the attack, including pictures of them alongside a group who had been convicted of planning an attack in the United Kingdom. Similarly, for the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States, subsequent investigation uncovered how the individuals had been flagged up as of concern by security officials. One agent in the FBI had written a memo in which he worried about the fact that so many individuals who were of concern as terrorist suspects were showing up at flight schools seeking to learn how to fly.

But if security services knew, then why did they not act? If they had these individuals in their sites, why did they not prevent them from moving forwards and sweep them up in their dragnets?

The problem is that this is an incomplete way to consider these details and strands of intelligence. Whilst in retrospect, these details can appear massively significant and indicative of the pending plot, at the time they would have come in they would have been buried in a flood of other details, facts and strands of intelligence. To use the example of the July 7 plotters in the United Kingdom again: the strands of information that linked the plotters to a previously disrupted plot and placed them at a training camp as well as discussing going abroad to fight meant that the plotters Mohammed SIddique Khan and Shezhad Tanweer were two of twelve different individuals who were being followed up on by investigators after the earlier set of arrests was undertaken. Investigators did not unfortunately get to follow up on them in time.

At the time Khan and Tanweer were two of a large pool of people, with the two of them appearing more prominently involved in discussions about petty fraud and criminal activity to go abroad rather than try to launch attacks in the United Kingdom. At the same time, security agencies were stretched. Not only were they concerned with the wide network of people they had discovered in the earlier investigation, but also focused on a number of other high profile individuals and cases that appeared more menacing at the time.

The question is one of prioritization. Intelligence agencies have limited resources and are obliged to prioritize what they focus on at any given time. Some strands of intelligence can appear more significant and get more attention. Pieces that later appear hugely meaningful, at the time appear less important and get pushed down the rank of things to focus on. This might be the explanation for why intelligence agencies appeared to largely know about the individuals involved in the terrorist attacks yet seemed unable to do anything about the information.

Prioritization is unfortunately an imperfect science and one that needs to evolve to reflect the threat that is being faced. Part of the mis-calculation behind the July 7 plotters in the United Kingdom was the fact that British nationals would launch suicide attacks in the UK. Part of the miscalculation around the September 11 attackers was that al Qaeda would try such an ambitious and sophisticated plot within the American homeland. Part of the failure around the Paris attacks was a misunderstanding of the intensity of plotting that was underway by ISIS to attack in Europe. Part of the failure around the Brussels cell was to fail to understand the size of the cell and the fact that Paris was not the conclusion of their effort. The larger network and their ambition was in retrospect partially visible in a string of previous attacks or attempted attacks from Mehdi Nemmouche’s shooting at the Brussels Jewish museum, in Reda Hame’s confession of coming back with direction and intent to shoot up a music hall, in Ayoub el Khazzani’s attempted massacre on a Thalys train or a heavily armed cell in Verviers, Belgium. A series of plots that now appear linked and set the groundwork for what happened in Brussels and Paris.

There are also less abstract failures that are clearly observable in the specific Brussels and Paris cell. The fact that now in retrospect it is possible to see Abaaoud’s hand in plots in Europe dating back to 2014 shows how he should have been a higher priority across the continent and not someone who should have been able to slip in and out of ISIS controlled territory and Europe. This speaks to a failure of borders agencies, as well as intelligence sharing across the continent. The fact that for terrorists Schengen creates a common space across which they can operate with impunity is not unfortunately matched by the security agencies who are pursuing them. For European security and intelligence agencies, cooperation and coordination is key, as their mandates only stretch as far as their borders. And at the same time, questions of prioritization are true between states. Whilst for Belgium and France the problem is the most pressing security dilemma of the moment with active cells seeking to launch attacks, for Portuguese or Central and Eastern European member states may not feel as immediate a threat.

Finally, legislative and structural difference across member states adds another layer of difficulty to this problem. Different levels of legislation around dangerous weapons like guns make it a difficult threat to mitigate in a pan-European way. Different mandates for police and intelligence agencies, usually due to history or the power of local federal governments, mean that it is not always clear which partner agency needs to be engaged with and makes it potentially harder to share information with each other. In some countries, it is police who lead such investigations but in others intelligence agencies are wary of sharing with police for fear of compromising a source of information through exposing them to a judicial process. This is a key difference between intelligence agencies and police: police work towards prosecutions, whereas intelligence agencies work in the shadows avoiding the spotlight of courtrooms. These cause problems between and within member states.

And yet, the threat is one that is pan-European. In the weeks before the Paris attacks, authorities in Italy led a larger investigation across the continent against a group calling itself Rawti Shax. A community of largely Kurdish Sunni extremists they were linked to the Ansar al Islam group, an Iraqi Kurdish extremist group aligned closely with ISIS precursor group ISI. With arrests in Scandinavia, Italy, the UK and Belgium, the disruption showed the power of the possible with intelligence and judicial cooperation across Europe.

Success proved short lived. A few short weeks later, the massacre in Paris took place and a larger network of plotters was discovered to have been active and operating across the continent for some time. Since then, attention has been ramped up, but a cell managed to slip through in Brussels. Whilst undoubtedly this network will prove to be a turning point for Belgian and French agencies, the question will be whether the lessons will resonate across the continent. The lessons from Paris and Brussels need to be learned across the continent as the groups and networks emanating from ISIS (and al Qaeda) continue to want to attack Europe. Intelligence, always an imperfect science, is ultimately one of the last barriers against the complicated and sophisticated threat that ISIS poses.

More belated catch up posting. It has been a very busy few weeks between travel and the horrible events in Brussels. The below piece is one that Foreign Policy commissioned to look specifically at ISIS use of tactics, pointing out that while the Brussels and Paris attacks are part of a specific campaign and cell, the problem of Lone Actor terrorism as a threat from the group persists.

The Age of the Lone Wolf is Far From Over

Even as the Islamic State evolves into a more sophisticated network, it will still cultivate unhinged, solo actors to further its fanatical ends.

By Raffaello Pantucci | March 30, 2016

Policemen work into a marked out perimeter in Colline street in Verviers, eastern Belgium, on January 15, 2015, after two men were reportedly killed during an anti-terrorist operation. Belgian police launched a "jihadist-related" anti-terrorism operation in the eastern town of Verviers on January 15. According to the Belgian prosecutor's office, the group which police targeted was about to commit a terror attack. AFP PHOTO / BELGA PHOTO / BRUNO FAHY ** BELGIUM OUT ** (Photo credit should read BRUNO FAHY/AFP/Getty Images)

AFP Photo / Bruno Fahy/Getty Images

Terrorist groups thrive on attention. Keen to bring the world screeching to a horrified halt, they launch brutal attacks against civilian targets with whatever tools they have at their disposal. Until last November’s attack in Paris, it seemed the biggest menace the Islamic State posed to the West was the threat of so-called lone-actor terrorists, striking without any clear direction from the group’s leaders. Using a relatively simple form of messaging to strike wherever they could, the group bombarded its followers through social media with calls to launch random attacks against the societies in which they lived. That nihilistic messaging continues. But now, in the wake of Brussels and Paris, the Islamic State has also demonstrated an alarming capacity to launch large-scale, coordinated plots far from its territory. The threat the Islamic State poses is multifaceted and multidirectional.

In the eight days since the Brussels attack left 35 dead, counterterrorism and national security experts have decried the end of the Islamic State-inspired lone-wolf attack. The fanatical band, they say, has crossed a new threshold, evolving into something more complex: an organized terror network capable of coordinated, multifaceted operations. And though this is true, the experts must take care not to dismiss what has long constituted the Islamic State’s essential fiber. Because regardless of its evolution, the Islamic State will remain committed to lone actor plots.

Radicalizing minds from afar has, after all, always been core to its identity. Calling attackers — the young, the socially, politically, and economically disenfranchised, the disturbed — to action shows that the Islamic State’s ideology has global reach, inspiring adherents who were unconnected to the group but desperate to launch terrorist plots in its name. Cultivating lone actors also gives the Islamic State the perfect means to distract the West, which finds itself devoting resources to identifying these isolated plotters. It is also a way to ensure that Washington, London, and Paris remain off balance, uncertain about how aggressive a response to mount against the group’s base in the Levant. Forgetting the centrality of lone wolfism to the Islamic State’s very foundations would be a dangerous mistake.

Of course, the Islamic State is not the first violent Islamist terrorist group to call for lone-actor attacks. Lone actors committed to jihadist terror, including Andrew Ibrahim and Roshonara Choudhry, first emerged in the 2000s. In 2010, Inspire, the magazine published by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, offered aspiring terrorists a specific outline for carrying out such attacks. Asserting a direct connection between any plots and the magazine, however, remained difficult, because there was never any clear link between a specific actor and Inspire. In fact, the most prominent cases came before the publication’s emergence. Rather than instigating the tactic, the group appeared to be riding a wave.

The Islamic State changed this dynamic. On Sept. 22, 2014, Abu Mohammed al Adnani, identified by the United States as the head of the Islamic State’s external operations, issued a fatwa calling on the group’s followers in the West to “kill a disbelieving American or European — especially the spiteful and filthy French — or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war… [to] kill him in any manner or way however it may be.” This chilling call became something of a marker in the group’s history. Around the world, the Islamic State’s followers read and absorbed it. In some cases, they decided to act.

Adnani’s call certainly appears to have spurred on a network of cells in Britain that had already been discussing potential terror plots in the West without any clear direction from the group’s leaders. Nadir Syed, a British extremist who was prevented from traveling to Syria, shared the fatwa with his fellow plotters as they discussed the idea of decapitating a soldier. Tarik Hassane, a medical student, and Suhaib Majeed, a physics student, shared it over the secure communications app Telegram as they talked about a plot to shoot a random security officer on the streets of London. Authorities disrupted both plots soon after the fatwa’s release.

Only days after Adnani issued his fatwa, Numan Haider walked into his local police station in Melbourne, Australia, and attacked police with a knife; he was gunned down and killed. Although authorities never publicly established a direct relationship between the fatwa and Haider’s attack, his wider circle — including prominent Islamic State fighters Neil Prakash and Sevdet Becim, who are on trial for planning to attack Australian soldiers during a national day parade — had clear ties to the group.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the Islamic State’s calls for lone-actor attacks is how deeply they have resonated. There are the dedicated warriors, who see such attacks as their chief ambition — the San Bernadino killers may be an example of this. In other cases, lone wolf attacks have become the default option for those who are unable to join the group in Syria or Iraq. Authorities had, in fact, taken away Haider’s passport not long before his attack, in response to concerns that he was planning to head to the Levant. This is not unique: Canada has blocked several aspiring fighters from heading to the Middle East, who then chose instead to launch attacks at home. Their actual links to the Islamic State remain unclear, but both took out their rage on the communities around them.

The Islamic State has, of course, also exploited the mentally unwell, preying on their vulnerabilities to turn them into lone-wolf actors. In late 2014, Sydney came to a terrified standstill when Man Haroun Monis, a disturbed Shia convert with a record of run-ins with authorities, held up a coffee bar in the middle of the city. He claimed to be carrying out an attack on behalf of the Islamic State. But he was so underprepared that he brought the wrong flag with him and asked authorities to bring him the flag of the Islamic State. Police eventually stormed the café once he began executing the hostages. The Islamic State later praised Monis in its publications, though no evidence emerged of any clear direction or instigation from the group. Other disturbed individuals like Yassine Salhi, who decapitated his boss and then tried to drive a truck into a chemical factory in France, or Muhaydin Mire, who tried to kill a random Underground passenger in London on Dec. 5 of last year, seem to have been disturbed individuals who simply latched onto the ideology or concept of launching a solo attack.

For the Islamic State, the overarching strategy is to both draw mentally unstable people while continuing to cultivate balanced individuals capable of pulling off more audacious attacks. For a group that is trying to make as much noise as possible, any vector through which this can be delivered is positive. It will further inspire others, leading to new plots that will keep security agencies and politicians busy and distracted.

Even more worrisome than these lone-actor plots are attempts by the Islamic State to actually tap into and direct this negative energy. For the most part, lone actors tend to be fairly low impact — a lone individual armed with little more than a basic bomb or knife can’t kill too many, after all. But the Islamic State wants to capitalize on the fact that, thanks to its social media prowess, it has planted the seeds of chaos.

The most prominent example of this is the Birmingham-born hacker Junaid Hussain, whose discussions with aspirant fighters in the West included instructions on how to launch lone-actor plots. Again, it is not entirely clear the degree to which he succeeded. There is some evidence that Hussain, from his base in Syria, was in contact with both the Garland, Texas, shooters and with the terror cell on trial in Britain for allegedly planning an attack on a local military base. But the specificity of his instructions had security services sufficiently worried that they decided to eliminate him through a drone strike. It is not clear if others have taken up Hussain’s mantle, but there is little evidence that the Islamic State has stopped encouraging lone-actor terrorist plotting.

Lone-actor terrorism is not new. Traditionally, it has been the domain of far-right activists and patriot movements the world over. A recent EU consortium research project led by the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI), a British think tank, found that right-wing lone-actor terrorists are actually almost as active in Europe as their Islamist counterparts. Of the 120 cases over the past 15 years analyzed by RUSI, about an equal third were Islamist and far-right in origin. In other words, European security agencies were disrupting as many lone-actor Islamists as they were far-right terrorists, a detail often missed in coverage of Islamist terrorist plots.

In this new reality, the Islamic State will continue to encourage lone-actor plots while investing in large-scale, spectacular operations. From being a one-track group focused on building a state in the sands of the Levant, it is now an active global terrorist group aggressively pushing forward on two clear threat tracks. It is a group that cannot be ignored or disregarded, both as a traditional terrorist organization, but also one that is able to instigate and inspire random assassins advancing its cause around the world. Fomenting the sort of fanaticism that underlies its very existence is, in the end, the only way it will continue to thrive.

It has been a busy week after the sad events in Brussels. A lot of links and posting to catch up on, but am on the road so not so easy to do. For the time being, here is my preliminary thoughts on the attack for the Financial Times. More to come soon.

Brussels Attacks Show That Terrorists Can Strike at Will

The surveillance problems can no longer be described as Belgian alone, writes Raffaello Pantucci

Brussels cops post attack

It is still unclear exactly what Brussels has faced just prior to Easter. The random nature of the date and targeting suggests a plot that may have been brought forward, while the scale of the attack suggests it must have been in the pipeline for some time. The Isis network, also linked to November’s Paris attacks, has claimed responsibility. The bigger issue, however, is not who is to blame for this atrocity but rather how much Europe will warp to address an acute terrorist threat, with cells apparently able to launch large-scale atrocities on an increasingly regular basis.

The first questions raised will focus on Belgium’s response to the problem on their home ground. Authorities may have scored a victory by capturing Salah Abdeslam, one of the Isis-aligned plotters linked to the Paris attacks, but they missed a network planning an atrocity with heavy weapons and explosives. This suggests gaps in the understanding and surveillance of the terrorist threat. Given that Brussels sits at the political heart of Europe, this points to a problem that can no longer be described as Belgian alone.

While for some the terrorist atrocities in Paris was a wake-up call, for security forces it had been expected for a while. Terrorist groups, from al-Qaeda to Isis, have long sought to launch a terrorist attack in the style of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and a string of plots have been disrupted or launched from a francophone network emanating from Brussels. The Paris attack was the realisation of these fears from a depressingly predictable place.

The networks of radicalised individuals with links to Isis have grown as the group continues to hold sway on the battlefield and send back peopleand plots to their original bases in western Europe. Given the tempo of attacks and the ease with which the networks appear able to acquire weapons and move freely around the continent, Europeans will ask themselves how much longer they will face this threat. Is this the start of a regular diet of such atrocities or the breaking of a wave? Given that terrorist groups have been able to launch three big, ambitious plots in Europe in the past year and half, the sense will be that we are in the thick of this threat with no end in sight.

The choice of targets is predictable. Terrorist groups have long fetishised aviation as a target, both as a way of visibly lashing out against the globalised political establishment but also for the high impact. Mass transport systems by their very nature have to be open to the public, which makes them tempting targets as they offer an easy opportunity to strike at the heart of a society. Questions will be asked about ramping up security levels but this will bring costs and further inconvenience to the daily lives of citizens. Think of the ramifications of a plot in 2006 where a cell planned to use liquid bombs on a series of transatlantic flights. Liquids are still banned on aircraft today.

The Brussels attacks will also play badly against the backdrop of Europe’s migration crisis. It will not be entirely surprising if elements close to the recent attacks found ways of slipping into the country alongside refugees from the Middle East. An already tense situation in Europe will grow more fraught, and this will have inevitable political ramifications too.

This is the biggest problem with which security planners will have to contend. It is often said that the best response to a terrorist threat is to keep calm and carry on. This is sage advice but in the face of a network that appears able to strike with impunity, and a political environment growing more toxic by the day, it will be ever harder for security forces and politicians to ensure that Europe maintains its values in the face of the terrorist threat from within.

The writer is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute and author of ‘We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists’

Still catching up after a busy week. This a short piece for the BBC on how vulnerable Europe is to attacks like that we saw last Friday. The point here is not to say it is impossible, but to try to keep things in perspective.

How vulnerable is Europe to Paris-style attacks?
By Raffaello Pantucci
Royal United Services Institute (Rusi)
18 November 2015
From the section Europe

French authorities_BBC

AP The French authorities have stepped up security following the deadly attacks in Paris
Paris attacks

The cancellation of the football match in Hannover on Tuesday night was the latest expression of a terrorist fear that currently wracks Europe.

Coming after a long month in which major attacks were seen in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, Beirut, Baghdad, Ankara and Paris, the febrile environment has generated an understandable level of concern among people in major cities across Europe.

Yet, the reality is that people face a greater daily danger from using their cars than they do from falling foul of terrorist plots in a European capital.

While the current environment is of heightened concern given attempts by Islamic State (IS) and its affiliates to massacre innocents, the reality is that plots on the scale of Paris are a rarity.
In response, European security agencies will step up their already highly vigilant posture and move to disrupt networks at increasingly earlier stages.

Outside the norm

Terrorism in European capitals is not unheard of.
London bomb_BBC Nov

AFP Four suicide bombers struck in central London on 7 July 2005, killing 52 people

Since the attacks of 11 September 2001 in Washington and New York, there have been large-scale atrocities in Madrid, London, Moscow, Oslo and now Paris.

Yet, these events are outside the usual norm.

In contrast, cities in Africa, parts of Asia and the Middle East face such attacks on a more regular basis.

Plots in the West are often disrupted – especially large-scale ones involving big networks of individuals.

While the 7 July 2005 bombers succeeded in killing 52 people in London, at least four or five other large-scale plots with links to al-Qaeda which aimed to strike the UK between 2004 and 2006 were disrupted by authorities.

‘Lone actors’
More recently, concerns had focused around the phenomenon of “lone actor” terrorism – acts undertaken by individuals who did not demonstrate any clear direction from a terrorist group or network.
Breivik_BBC_Nov

AP Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in two attacks in Norway, was a “lone actor”
Sometimes the individuals proved to be part of a known radical community, but in other cases they were unknowns who had driven themselves towards terrorist activity.

And yet, while numerous such cases were disrupted, only three people were able to murder fellow citizens – Pavlo Lapshyn stabbed Mohammed Saleem to death in Birmingham, while Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo murdered Lee Rigby in Woolwich.

In most other cases, the individuals were only able to injure themselves in their attempted attacks.
Difficult to disrupt

IS had noticed this phenomenon and one of the major concerns of the past few months has been the ability of individuals in the group to inspire and instigate people in the West to launch such isolated attacks.

France had faced a number of these, including a spate of attempted murders around Christmas last year.

Paris post_BBC_Nov
AFP The French government has called the Paris attacks an act of war by a “terrorist army”

From the authorities’ perspectives, plots are inherently harder to disrupt, given the individuals’ lack of connections and links to known networks, meaning intelligence tripwires were harder to identify.
Yet at the same time, these plots also tend to be less menacing in their ability to cause mass murder.
Anders Behring Breivik was an exception to this, but he remains unique in his attacks in Norway in 2011 that left 77 people dead.
In most cases, the individuals are only able to attempt to murder one or two in their immediate periphery.

Shifting focus
Clearly, recent events in continental Europe show that the current threat picture there is more heightened than this, but plots on the scale of the slaughter in Paris remain a rarity.

While IS is clearly a terrorist organisation that has shifted its attention from state building in its core in the sands of the Levant to causing mass murder globally, the degree to which the group is able to get such large-scale plots through European security nets remains unclear.
ISIS_BBC_Nov

Manbar.me Islamic State has warned European countries that they will be unable to stop further attacks
In the wake of the atrocities in Paris, it will become even harder for the group as authorities move to disrupt plots earlier rather than let something like this reoccur.
At the same time, the current threat picture is complicated – with hundreds of Europeans and others fighting alongside IS having absorbed the groups ideology.
It is unclear how many more plotters will need to be stopped and for how long Europe will face this menace.
Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at Rusi in London. His research focuses on counter-terrorism and he is the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists. Follow him @raffpantucci