Posts Tagged ‘foreign fighters’

A piece for the Observer newspaper this weekend, this time looking at the way the attack in Manchester fits into the broader threat picture in the UK. It was a busy period with the media around the attack with longer interviews captured online with the BBC’s Daily Politics (video), National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and Radio 24 (radio), as well as with Financial TimesTimes, Wall Street Journal, New York TimesLa Repubblica, Atlantic, AFP, Washington Post, and News Deeply.

Fighters who can’t travel to Syria pose growing threat

As Isis loses territory in Syria, the risks posed by would-be UK fighters must not be ignored
A police patrol in Hull for BBC Radio 1’s big weekend.
 A police patrol in Hull for BBC Radio 1’s big weekend. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

British security officials have long warned it was only a matter of time before there was another terrorist atrocity.

In late August 2014, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) raised the terror threat level to “severe” – meaning that, according to its independent assessment, the expectation was that a terrorist attack was highly likely. Responding to an increasingly menacing threat picture in Europe linked to the conflict in Syria and Iraq, that level stayed at severe until the attacks in Manchester, which caused JTAC to redo its calculations and raise it to critical – meaning an attack is imminent.

Once the level was raised to severe, there was a fairly constant pattern of terrorist plotting. In November 2015, as the world reeled from the attacks in Paris, David Cameron said seven plots had been disrupted in the UK over the previous year. At the beginning of March this year, Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley said in the past four years authorities had disrupted 13 plots. In the wake of the Manchester attacks, a further five have been added to this roster.

While the details of many of these plots have not been made public, most appear to have been lone individuals or small cells planning knife attacks. It is not clear how many have involved the sort of ambitious planning that went into Paris and Brussels or even Manchester. But groups – al-Qaida, Isis or some other affiliate – continue to want to wreak misery.

The reason for the recent increase in activity is hard to pin down. In part, it may be a case of Isis being on the back foot and seeking to push out attacks in every direction: something that correlates with it losing territory and its foreign fighter contingent scattering to the wind, creating a wave of potential problems around the world. And this comes as al-Qaida has started to rear its head once again, menacing the world through new messages by Hamza bin Laden.

But there are other dynamics at play as well. One of the more under-investigated phenomena is what is happening to those aspirant foreign fighters who are unable to travel. Inspired enough to want to join a group like Isis, they find it increasingly difficult to do so – due to proactive security measures in the UK or more simply a much harder environment in Syria to get into. But being unable to travel does not remove the radical impulse. Actually it may enhance it further, with the frustration making the individual feel the link to the group more strongly.

Consequently, when the group shouts for people to launch attacks at home, rather than come to the battlefield, they may see this as a call to arms. The phenomenon of the blocked traveller maturing into a terrorist threat at home is not new, but as things become tougher it is only likely to increase the pool of potential radicals at home.

Finally, there is the exceptionally low threshold for what constitutes a terrorist attack. No longer do you have to launch a complicated plot: if you can, then all the better. But a public stabbing or running people down with a car will also suffice. Targets are open and indiscriminate, with anyone living in a non-Isis state considered fair game. This makes it very easy for anyone to pick up a weapon and become a warrior – meaning that not all of those who do are necessarily as doctrinally pure as a group might want. All of this shows how easy it is to become a terrorist these days.

It was unlikely that the terror threat level would be kept at critical for long, and it has now been reduced to severe. Exhaustion might have set in at the security agencies had it continued much longer. But the tempo of the threat picture in the UK has noticeably sharpened of late: from last year, which was punctuated by the disruption of major plots but dominated by a steady stream of smaller-scale arrests for travelling to, fundraising for, or support of terrorist groups, to this year, which has seen two attacks and at least five or six plots derailed.

It is clear that the terrorist menace is not shrinking away and is likely to linger around for some time longer, in particular if the war in Syria and Iraq continues to drag on, providing a consistently fertile ground for training camps and extremist ideologies.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists

New piece for Newsweek looking at the potential threat from ISIS post-Mosul (which has still not yet fallen). The piece was actually drafted a little while ago, but took some time to land. Separately, spoke to Politico about Italy’s approach to counter-terrorism and a presentation at a UK Foreign Office conference got picked up. Finally, my piece for the Financial Times Beyond BRICS blog got picked up and translated into 中文 for those who can read it.

How Big is the Threat to Europe from Jihadis Fleeing Mosul?

10_30_mosul_01Members of the Iraqi special forces police unit fire their weapons at Islamic State fighters in al-Shura, south of Mosul, Iraq October 29.  GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS

There is a presumption that the fall of Mosul will result in a surge in attacks and terrorism back in the West. Europe in particular feels like it is in the group’s crosshairs, with the refugee flow potentially masking a threat that will only magnify as the group loses territory on the battlefield in Iraq and more fighters want to leave the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). But this presumption is based on a potentially flawed set of assumptions about what will happen next and an understanding of how the terrorist threat has been evolving. Europe may face some terrorist incidents linked to a failing ISIS or other groups, but this threat is likely to simply continue much as before. It is unclear why ISIS would have waited until now to launch a surge of attacks.

Historically speaking it is hard to know where to look for a comparison with what we see happening in Iraq, and therefore what a precedent might look like. The most obvious comparison is the conflict in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. In wake of Moscow’s defeat, there was a chaotic situation in Afghanistan from which a flow of trained and ideologically motivated revolutionary warriors headed around the world. This produced extremist networks that expressed themselves in attacks for years to come under the banner of Al-Qaeda as well as insurgencies and civil wars in North Africa.

Yet this comparison is not completely accurate for the case of ISIS post-Mosul. The group may be losing one its major cities, but it still has a battlefield in Syria into which it can flow. Its territory there may be in retraction, but even if it loses it, the ungoverned spaces in the country mean it will be impossible to completely eradicate. And to look at a micro-level the individual fighters may make a varied set of choices: some may try to head home; some may seek other battlefields to continue the revolution; and yet others may simply change sides and continue to fight against the Assad regime under a different banner.

But more convincing still is the question of why the group would wait until now to mount some sort of attack. The Paris and Brussels attacks showed the group’s capability and intention, and a number of subsequently disrupted plots show the group has been persistently trying, but so far seems to have failed to deliver any more blows. Instead, it has resorted to stirring plots from afar in the form of young people directed through encrypted communications to launch shocking low-tech plots. Some, like the murder of Jacques Harmel in Rouen, worked, while others, like the attempted attack outside Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, failed. And while a lot of these appear to be in France (and in that particular set of cases, directed by the same Rachid Kassim), there have been incidents in Australia, Germany, Indonesia and the U.K. that have similarities.

All of this suggests that the group is having difficulty pulling off another large-scale spectacular like Paris or Brussels, and is having to resort to instigating things from a distance. These can be equally atrocious and it is not, of course, impossible something large might still get through, but it is a question as to why the group would have waited until now to launch such an attack.

During Ramadan, the highly significant moment in the Islamic calendar that historically has been a depressing magnet for terrorist atrocities, the horrors the group was able to muster were a brutal bombing in Baghdad, alongside an attack on Istanbul’s international airport. Horrors, yes, but in countries where they had substantial presence and ability to launch attacks—clearly something that they were unable at that moment to pull off in Europe.

Why the group is encountering this difficulty is likely a product of a number of things. In the first instance, it is clear that one of the attractions of the group was its success and strength on the battlefield. As this has waned, the number of those attracted has gone down. Second, coordination among security and intelligence agencies has likely gotten better; while there are still clear problems within some countries and coordination between their various security forces, they have also learned over time. Which of these is preeminent is unclear, but both will have an impact on the flow of fighters.

This is not to downplay the potential threat. One of the under-explored problems is the question of what to do with blocked travelers. As security authorities have faced the threat of terrorism from the battlefield in Syria and Iraq, they have learned and developed a deeper understanding of the nature of the threat and the networks getting people there. This has led to a growing number of people being prevented from traveling. The dilemma, however, is what to do with them then. In many cases, these are individuals who are motivated enough to want to go and fight, but find themselves abruptly unable to. This pent-up frustration can express itself in violence as people feel they want to do something, but are incapable of doing it. A number of attacks around the world have been linked to this phenomenon, including incidents in Canada, Australia, and France. This aspect of the threat may become larger as time goes on and the group becomes more inaccessible, while trying to stir people on further, but again, this is a trend that has been underway for some time already and it is not entirely clear why people would be more keen to do something for a group that was in recession.

Of greater concern instead is the potential ramifications to terrorist networks in third countries, like parts of southeast Asia, central Asia, the Middle East or north Africa. While forces in some of these countries are also improving, this has not been uniform and some notable gaps remain. In these places, the relatively easier trip may mean more decide to head home (rather than seek other battlefields or change sides in Syria) and this could produce instability and attacks.

ISIS’s potential loss of Mosul is going to prove a significant moment for the group. But the threat from it is unlikely to change abruptly. Rather, the threat is likely to mutate and evolve, continuing to be a part of the fabric of the terrorist threat the world faces for some time to come.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and author of We Love Death as You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists.

A new piece for my institutional home RUSI and Sky News, which is part of a collaboration we are doing with them institutionally looking at the Daesh documents which were leaked recently. The piece was both published on the RUSI site and Sky News. My excellent colleague Clare Ellis was the lead on this work, so thanks to her for pulling it all together. More on this topic to come!

Friends, Sponsors and Bureaucracy: An Initial Look at the Daesh Database
Clare Ellis and Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary, 3 May 2016
Terrorism, Al-Qa’ida, Terrorism

isis-recruitment-forms

A preliminary analysis of leaked Daesh recruitment files by RUSI experts suggests that the social processes underlying the radicalisation and mobilisation of foreign fighters still mirrors those of Al-Qa’ida.

In March 2016 it was revealed that a defector from Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS or IS) had obtained a memory drive containing the personal details of thousands of foreign fighter recruits. Sky News has shared the information with RUSI, and while its researchers are still conducting detailed analysis of the records, a preliminary examination has revealed a number of insights.

The majority of the documents appear to be arrival forms, completed by or for Daesh recruits as they sought entry into Daesh-controlled territory between early 2013 and late 2014. They are bureaucratic in nature, with 23 fields recording details from basic biodata to level of Sharia-related knowledge; there is even a space on the form where the date of the individual’s death can be entered, should the recruit die while fighting with Daesh.

While of evident value, it is important to acknowledge the limitations of this database. They offer only a partial snapshot of those who travelled to Syria and Iraq – it is impossible to know how many others travelled during this period, or how this specific dataset compares against the broader picture. Nevertheless, they provide important details not only about individuals but also about how Daesh administers its territory; about the recruitment, radicalisation and mobilisation of foreign fighters; and about how the group has learned from the experiences of its precursor organisation, Al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI).

A Militant Bureaucracy

Examining the format of the documents, it is clear that they represent an attempt to impose control and implement state administration. There are some similarities with AQI’s practices: these forms record similar information to that found in the AQI archive known as the ‘Sinjar records’, including the recruit’s route of entry, his or her facilitator and the personal belongings being deposited.There are also indications that AQI’s initial model has been further developed to record the knowledge and experience of incoming fighters. There are additional fields, not found in the Sinjar documents, to record the recruit’s level of Sharia knowledge and his or her previous experience of jihad. There is also evidence that further notes were made to record any potentially relevant skills or knowledge beyond those relevant to combat.

The bureaucracy of ‘state’ administration points to the dual nature of Daesh. As the group has come under increasing military pressure in Syria and Iraq, it has amplified its efforts to inspire, instigate and direct attacks against the West. Former Director General of MI5 and RUSI Senior Associate Fellow Jonathan Evans has categorised this strategy as ‘chaotic terrorism’, with some attacks directed by the group, but many undertaken by ‘disparate individuals who may have no actual contact with the group but are encouraged through its propaganda’. There are therefore stark contrasts between these dual roles: Daesh is simultaneously a tightly controlled and bureaucratic ‘state’, and a loosely controlled ‘chaotic’ global terrorist movement.

With a Little Help from My Friends

Examining Al-Qa’ida’s recruitment practices, Marc Sageman encapsulated the importance of social bonds in what became known as his ‘bunch of guys’ theory. He showed that bonds of kinship, or friendship, often predate recruitment and radicalisation. Similarly, anthropologist Scott Atran’s research finds that kinship and friendship are crucial to understanding why people radicalise and embrace violence: ‘people don’t simply kill and die for a cause. They kill and die for each other.’Daesh has skilfully exploited social media to spread their message to a global audience; however, as Peter Neumann at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) has argued, social media is a powerful propaganda tool but it has not displaced the importance of these real-world connections in mobilising people to action. Initial analysis of the leaked documents reinforces this insight, revealing evident geographic clustering within foreign fighter recruitment.

Just as analysis by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) of the Sinjar records revealed a high proportion of AQI recruits arriving on the same day as others from their hometown, these documents show many British fighters arriving in groups. The fact that some of these groups hail from the same place, with notable concentrations from Coventry, Cardiff and Portsmouth, underlines the importance of offline interactions in radicalisation; were social media the crucial element, then (as Neumann has explained) recruits would be dispersed across the country rather than clustered in specific locations.

A Word from the Sponsors

Moreover, the documents confirm that in gaining admittance to Daesh-controlled territory, it is necessary to declare a sponsor. Like Al-Qa’ida before it, Daesh seeks to verify the identity of its new recruits to limit possible infiltration. One individual who appears in this role is particularly noteworthy: Omar Bakri Mohammed, the Syrian preacher who founded the group Al-Muhajiroun in the UK in the late 1990s (an extremist group that was later proscribed in 2010). In the wake of the July 2005 bombings, he fled the UK, and was subsequently barred from returning by the Home Secretary.From his base in Lebanon, Omar Bakri appears to have continued his radicalising activity. While this is not a new revelation, it is striking that he is cited as a sponsor numerous times in the Daesh database. Previously dismissed as a ‘loud-mouth’ – most amusingly characterised as the ‘Tottenham Ayatollah’ in Jon Ronson’s 1996 television documentary – Bakri now appears able to facilitate access to Daesh. This highlights the continuing threat from charismatic extremists, as well as the persistence of jihadist networks – in this case both still posing a threat more than two decades after their emergence.

Conclusion

Daesh has clearly learned lessons from Al–Qa’ida, and AQI in particular, so that it can hold territory more successfully and more effectively utilise the skills of its recruits. However, the evidence from the Daesh database suggests that the fundamental mechanisms of terrorist recruitment and radicalisation are still the same.Social media has given the group greater access to a global audience, but the social processes underlying the radicalisation and mobilisation of foreign fighters still mirrors that seen among the recruits of Al-Qa’ida. Behind the bureaucracy, foreign fighters are still just a bunch of guys.

A new piece for my institutional home RUSI, looking at something I have been wondering about for a while, which is whether there is anything to be learned from the fact that the flow of foreign fighters between the two places seems to be the same stream. It is something worth a deeper study than this, but look forward to hearing people’s reactions to this stab at the topic.

From Al-Shabaab to Daesh

RUSI Analysis, 23 Jun 2015

By Raffaello Pantucci, Director of International Security Studies

Following the announcement of British deaths in Iraq and Somalia, it has become clear that foreign fighters are attracted to various battlefields. However, there has been a noticeable shift away from Somalia to Syria/Iraq in travel patterns from the UK. Understanding why and how this has taken place might offer some ideas for how to stifle some of the attraction of Syria and Iraq.

ISIS convoy

Thomas Evans’s death fighting against Kenyan forces in Lamu the same weekend that it was revealed that Talha Asmal was involved in a suicide bombing in Iraq reminds us once again that Syria/Iraq is not the only battlefield drawing British foreign fighters. There has always been a curious connection between the Somali and Levantine battlefields, with both conflicts proving able to project a global narrative that appealed to excitable young Britons. However, over time, Somalia’s attraction has shrunk while Syria and Iraq’s has grown: it is therefore an interesting question to try to understand this shift better to see if there are policy lessons that can be learned to counter Daesh’s current draw.

Al-Shabaab’s draw

Emerging from the ashes of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) Al-Shabaab was an organization that had a strong link to the Al Qa’ida cell operating in East Africa (AQEA). Led by prominent jihadists Saleh Ali Nabhan Saleh and Fazul Mohammed, the AQEA cell was a key draw and conduit for Western fighters going to the Horn of Africa. Amongst those who went was Bilal el Berjawi, a Lebanese West Londoner who, alongside his close childhood friend Mohammed Sakr, ended up fighting alongside the group before both were killed in drone strikes. They were both were young men brought up in West London and excited by the narratives of global struggle and jihad that had most prominently taken root in East Africa in the mid-to-late 2000s. Al-Shabaab had managed to show itself as a key point in the global struggle championed by Al- Qa’ida and, as Afghanistan/Pakistan became harder to travel to, Somalia offered itself as an alternative location with a strong link to Al-Qa’ida core. At the same time, the popular radical preacher Anwar al Awlaki championed Al-Shabaab’s fight from his base in Yemen, amplifying its attraction to the young international warriors.

And for a brief while, Somalia was the big draw to excitable young men and women seeking the glories of jihad in foreign fields. The group would release videos with good production values venerating their dead or re-playing their battles using actors and graphics reminiscent of Hollywood productions. They were even active online (with some who still are now), with their warriors taking to Twitter to communicate with the world and spread ideas, videos and information. All of which is very reminiscent of what ISIS and the battlefield in Syria and Iraq are currently producing.

Shifting networks

It is therefore not that surprising that over time it was observable that the networks sending people to Somalia started to show up in the background stories of those going to fight in Syria. Repeated videos and narratives have emerged in which tales tell of people finding Somalia too difficult and instead turning to Syria. Mohammed Emwazi is the most prominent example of this, who first tried to go to East Africa, but instead ended up in Syria after getting turned back. Others include dead West Londoners like Mohammed el Araj or Choukri Ellekhfi, who came from the same networks that had produced Bilal el Berjawi and Mohammed Sakr. Up in North London, a group that included TPIM absconders Ibrahim Magag and Mohammed Ali Mohammed started off sending people to Somalia and Afghanistan, to more recently helping people go fight in Syria. On the continent of Europe, a network sending people from Belgium to Somalia also ended up re-directing fighters to Syria. In many ways, Thomas Evans’ death is a left over from this earlier time when Somalia was the main conflict and he seems to have simply been one of the few Brits still left fighting out there, as the fight in the Levant slowly became the biggest draw for those seeking jihadi battlefields.

Lessons Learned?

The key policy question here is why did Somalia start to lose its appeal? And are there lessons that can be learned from that experience that might help with Daesh and the appeal of Syria and Iraq? In this light, four aspects are worth considering.

First, sometime in 2011, Al-Shabaab started to undergo internal ructions. Different factions vied for control, leading to others getting killed off. There was widespread belief that Bilal el Berjawi’s death, for example, was the product of these internal tensions, and other prominent foreigners were believed to have been felled in similar ways. The result was to scare some foreign fighters off as they saw prominent contacts getting killed and Al Shabaab turning it on itself.

Second, the conflict in Somalia was always a difficult one to get to. Direct flights to Somalia are hard to get, and even getting to neighbouring countries does not make it easy to get to Shabaab’s camps. Over time, this became harder as regional security forces focused ever more on foreigners travelling to neighboring countries with the intention of trying to get into Somalia.

Third, over time, it became increasingly obvious that Al-Shabaab was losing territory and land. No longer able to project an image of success and ruling territory, the narrative around the conflict instead became of internal struggles, a group on the run and headlines about strikes taking out key leaders.

Fourth, the conflict in Syria took off in late 2011 and soon after that became the brightest light on the jihadi map. Over time, this slowly sucked all the air out of other fields and when taken in conjunction with the previous points, made Syria overall far more attractive than what was going on in Somalia.

The lessons learned are blunt. An unstable conflict in which groups are under substantial external pressure is one that is less attractive to the foreign warriors. Difficulty in getting to the field, a fractured leadership and a narrative of failure is important in reducing the groups’ appeal. Media output – which Al-Shabaab continues to produce with high production values, but no longer attracts attention – is not the key factor. This is important to consider in the sometimes excessive focus on online activity as the key aspect of Daesh that needs countering. In fact, more traditional responses of making life difficult for groups to operate is in fact key in stemming growth. Daesh needs to be seen to be losing and fracturing on the ground before it loses its appeal to the foreign warriors drawn to fight alongside it.

 

A new piece as part of a Room for Debate conversation on the New York Times opinion pages. This one looking at the phenomenon of radicalisation in the west and how to counter it. Honoured to be in the company of friends and distinguished academics on the topic. The surge in attention around Brits in Syria and Iraq has led to a spike in media requests and conversations, including the New York Times, Economist, Voice of America, Los Angeles Times, AFP, and Press Association among others. I also spoke to Voice of America about the Shanghai Cooperation Organization counter-terror ‘Peace Mission’ exercise last week as well as USA Today about the China’s attempt to use the new Silk Road Economic Belt to ameliorate the situation in Xinjiang.

There Are Ways to Address Radicalism Early

British nationals (and many from other Western countries) have been a feature of jihadist battlefields for almost two decades. Some are drawn for idealistic reasons – going to fight for a cause, defend a people, or for some religious vision. Others go for more prosaic reasons, fleeing trouble at home, or seeking redemption for a criminal past. And yet others are simply young people at a juncture in their lives where the idea of going to run around a training camp and shooting guns seems quite appealing.

Countering this complicated mix of motivations is difficult. Part of it is developing programs that give people alternatives in their lives. These are not dissimilar to programs to help dissuade people from being drawn to gang culture. Part of it is also countering the spread of ideas in communities. While the Internet and social media play a role in drawing people to think about Syria and Iraq and find ways of getting there, it is often through real-world interactions that they will meet individuals who help provide the push, contacts or motivations to actually go to fight. Communities need to reject such people, but in addition, alternative pillars within society need to be developed to provide voice to credible alternative narratives.

A great deal of pressure is often put on communities within this context – the expectation is that they will somehow police themselves and this will resolve the problem. But at the same time, the reality is that sometimes people within communities simply do not know what they are dealing with. Families find themselves dealing with children or siblings who are becoming drawn to ideas, but it is difficult to know whether they are being drawn to dangerous ideas or simply going through a phase.

A partial answer to this problem can be found in a program initially developed in Germany, now being introduced in Britain, where a special hotline is established within communities and provides people with a place to ask questions without having to resort to the authorities. Creating spaces in which people can ask about what they should do if a relation is starting to flirt with radical ideas, without actually having to report it to the police, offers a moment at which an intervention could be made. This is something that will be more appealing to people within communities who are fearful of destroying someone’s life by reporting something innocuous to the police.

Ultimately, the phenomenon of young Britons (or Westerners more generally) being drawn to Syria and Iraq is not one that is going to be resolved overnight. There will ultimately be no longterm solution to this problem until the respective civil conflicts in Syria and Iraq are drawn to some definitive conclusion. This will involve creative diplomacy and bolstering of regional allies, as well as a recrafting of the current status quo across the broader Middle East. But until this happens, the battlefields will continue to be a draw to a certain community of young Westerners seeking adventure, meaning and ideals.

I had a feature piece in today’s Observer newspaper in the wake of the Foley murder this week. This time focusing on the online reactions amongst the jihadi twittersphere to the murder and putting it in a wider context. For some reason, the piece appeared in the Observer app and newspaper, but not online yet. However, the editors have generously allowed me to repost it here. I did a number of interviews around this as well, but many have not yet appeared online. One for the Sunday Mail has shown up and another for a Columbian magazine called Semana. More undoubtedly on this general topic to come.

Extremists preach to the converted and bid to provoke a global reaction

Observer screenshot_August 2014

“What a beautiful message to America!” said Qaqa Britani, a Mancunian jihadist fighting in Syria  in response to the videoed murder of James Foley last week. Agreeing with him, another British fighter using the twitter handle @muhajirbritanni proclaimed “Allahu akbar, the best IS video so far, a message to america, Masha Allah Allahu akbar”. While incomprehensible to most people, the justifications offered by these fighters provide a view into their thinking, one that while at odds with public opinion has a warped logic that sustains them as they fight alongside Isis.

It is not the first time that Qaqa Britani has found notoriety for posting pictures of beheadings. Earlier this month he posted a picture of someone holding up a decapitated Assad regime fighter with the declaration “another nusayri head. We strike terror into their hearts by Allah’s permission!” In a nod to the fact that he was doing this for an audience, he then offered an apology for the bad lighting, stating “sorry my camera doesn’t have a flash”.

A couple of weeks later, another British fighter, identified as former rap MC Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, posted a picture of himself in Raqqa holding up a severed head with the statement “chillin’ with my other homie, or what’s left of him”.

By highlighting that these deaths have been done in the name of their god, the men are pointing to the strength and purity of their cause. For them, the murder of James Foley was an act that taunted the world and showed their power and the relative weakness of the American government, which was unable to prevent it.

Others took a different reaction to the murder, falling back instead into spurious comparisons. One pro-Isis twitter account @abulooz22 said: “2035 Palestians killed….barely a reaction 1 American killed…..World on IS.”

A British fighter using the name Abu Abdullah Britani, who is linked to the Rayat al Tawheed cluster of Brits fighting in Syria who have been responsible for a number of gruesome videos that have attracted public attention, took a similar approach, stating: “A brother severed one body part and the world went nuts. A drone severes a body into a hundred pieces but no one says nothing. #cheapBlood.”

These kinds of comparisons are typical of extremist narratives. Seeing the world through a narrow lens of confrontation between the west and Sunni Islam, all they are interested in is supporting evidence they selectively find around them.

Most grim of the reactions found to the video of Foley’s murder was that of British extremists who revelled in pride at the fact that it appeared to be one of their number in the video. “Beheaded by a British brother! What an honour!’ declared Qaqa Britani, while Abul Muthanna, believed to be the account of one of a group from Cardiff, reacted to a question about the video saying “lol the bruddas went on a mad one here, that british brother allahumma barik alayh what a lion!”

For those fighting in Syria, the narratives they broadcast through social media are aimed at people who already agree with them, as well as provoking a reaction from the world at large. Their aim is to justify, and the more extreme the justification, the more likely it is to generate a reaction. In this way, their narrative becomes debated and increasingly brought into the public conversation. Suddenly their extreme ideas are being pulled into the mainstream.

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

A new piece for my institutional home RUSI, looking at the threat from ISIS in the context of the history of the group. In the wake of the brutal Foley murder, there was a spike in media interest and I spoke on related topics to the Australian, Metro, Global PostGuardian, NBCSlate, in this conversation with USA Today, they drew the conclusion I meant poverty was a driver of why people would go and join to fight in Syria/Iraq. Not quite my intention, it is more about blocked mobility sometimes providing people with an opening to radical ideas rather than deprivation driving them towards it. Were poverty a driver of terrorism, there would be many more terrorists in the world. Earlier I spoke to Channel 4 about ISIS camps in Syria/Iraq, to Voice of America about the group more broadly, about British gangsta’s going to fight to the Sunday Express, as well as to the Evening Standard about gangsta rapper MC now fighting in Syria/Iraq Abdel Bary. Beyond ISIS and Iraq/Syria, I spoke to Voice of America about Xinjiang and with the South China Morning Post about this coming week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) counter-terror drill

Is ISIS a Threat to the UK?

RUSI Analysis, 21 Aug 2014

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

The murder of American journalist James Foley brought global attention to the menace of ISIS. But what kind of a threat does the group actually post beyond the Levant?

British jihadists, Isis recruitment video

image from here

The cruel beheading by a possibly British ISIS fighter of American journalist James Foley is the latest act of brutality by a group whose willingness to use such violence continues to reach new depths.

However, in the understandable consternation around the group and its activity, care should be taken to understand better the exact nature of the threat that this group poses. ISIS is working hard to try to overturn the current Westphalian order with its repeated invocations of destroying the Sykes-Picot borders of the Middle East and has quite successfully taken over an ever-expanding chunk of the Levant. The question is whether the group remains principally a regional threat or an international one.

The best answer is to look more closely at the group’s history. ISIS (or Islamic State as they refer to themselves) is a group that has waxed and waned over the years. Borne out of Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s group that he founded in Herat, Afghanistan in the late 1990s, it came to more international prominence in in August 2003 when they attacked the Jordanian Embassy and UN Headquarters in Baghdad and a Shia shrine in Najaf. In the process they killed hundreds including UN Special Envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, the leader of the SCIRI Party and one of the leaders of Shia Iraq. In time, the group, which in 2006 changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) to make it sound more Iraqi, suffered public blowback at its unremitting and brutal violence with the Sahwa ‘awakening’ movement as Sunni’s grew tired of the unremitting murder and sectarian tensions that ISI was stirring up.

But for all its brutality within Iraq, the group did not much stretch beyond its domestic borders. Under Zarqawi’s watch in November 2005 they launched a series of three coordinated attacks on Western hotels in Amman, Jordan, killing 60 and injuring over 100. It was possibly linked to some attempts to attack Israel, but these amounted to little. This notwithstanding the fact that the group had the technical expertise, contacts, and fighters to use as tools to launch attacks against the West or elsewhere.

The Threat Today

Cut to today and we have a group that has formally severed its links with Al Qa’ida and established a dominion of sorts over chunks of Iraq and Syria. A decade on, it is still resorting to sending political messages through the brutal and public beheading of American hostages. We have yet, however, to see confirmed evidence of the group actually launching attacks outside its immediate territory (beyond possible links to incidents elsewhere in the Levant). This is not to say that we have not seen plots emanate from foreign fighter networks linked to the group. Mehdi Nemmouche, a French national, had allegedly fought alongside ISIS for some time prior to returning to Europe where he took it upon himself to murder four people at the Jewish museum in Brussels. And while his was the only successful attack, at least four other plots have been disrupted within European borders in which individuals fought in Syria (and possibly Iraq) before coming back home and undertaking plotting clearly in the direction of trying to do something within Europe rather than back in the Levant.

But absent from these reported plots is much evidence of direction by ISIS. There have been suggestions of directed plots linked to Jabhat al Nusrah, but the information around these has been sketchy. Rather, it seems as though these plots for the most part seem to be undertaken by individuals who have battlefield experience and decide to come back and do something under their own steam. In many ways, this actually reflects the historical experience with foreigners who fight or train alongside groups in Iraq: Bilal Abdulla and Taimour Abdulwahab al Abdaly both spent some time in Iraq alongside the insurgency before heading back to the UK and Sweden respectively to try to carry out attacks. In neither case was their evidence produced of direction off the battlefield, though their cases illustrate clear examples of individuals that a group like ISIS could have used had it wanted to launch attacks against Europe.

A Menace, Yes. But is ISIS a Threat to the West?

It is clear that ISIS is a menace that leaders rightly focus on. It has the potential to upend the Middle East and cause death and misery to thousands. But it is not as of yet clear that it is a group with the desire and intent to launch itself against the West and Europe in particular. It has the means at its disposal to launch such attacks and has rhetorically threatened such attacks, but so far we have not seen these clearly materialise.

This is of course not to say that they might not take place. Clearly, ISIS is a group that has evolved over time, and it might yet evolve in a strategic direction that leads to a concerted effort to launch attacks against the West. But as we can see from the fact that in a decade of unleashing brutality, its approach to attracting publicity has little changed, it is possible that its aims and goals have equally shifted little and it continues to be more interested in regional ambitions.

The significance of this distinction lies in the subsequent official reaction in Western capitals to the group. Foley’s brutal murder, like the group’s earlier gains in Iraq, were predictable, but were greeted with shock which mandated major response – a product of the relative inattention that was being paid to what was happening in Syria and Iraq. The danger is that in the absence of a clear plot linked to the group, attention might fade and the group will be seen as a regional irritation that can be managed, rather than an organisation that requires focused extrication and where possible eradication.

This difficult conclusion is one that will only be achieved over a lengthy and committed timeline involving a complicated array of bolstering local forces, cutting deals with tribes to undermine the group, as well as focused counter-terrorism efforts to eliminate leaders and cut off supply routes. More strategically, an inclusive government needs to be fostered in Iraq and the civil war in Syria needs to be brought to some resolution. None of these are easy solutions, but they are long-term solutions to what is necessary to finally bring some peace to the brutalised Levant.