Posts Tagged ‘global terrorism’

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

Suzanne-Raine-1200x800

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.

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Got a bit of catch-up posting to do, and now another atrocity in Barcelona. Here is something from yesterday’s Financial Times taking a longer view of the terrorist threat in general.

Terrorism will always be with us

Once we have dealt with the Islamist strain, it will morph into a new form


AUGUST 15, 2017

by: Raffaello Pantucci

Most organised human societies are plagued by terrorism. Within any structured system there will be a political spectrum, and at the ends of this spectrum there will be extremes populated by people who feel the rest of the society is not hearing a political message they need to be awoken to.

Last week, Jonathan Evans, the former head of the UK security service MI5, said he believes that Britain will have to confront Islamist terrorism for at least another 20 years. And the reality is that once we have dealt with that strain of the virus, it will simply morph into a new form.

To get to the origins of violent Islamist terrorism, one has to go back far beyond the spectacular attacks on the US on September 11 2001 to 1979, a year that rocked the Muslim world. The Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the siege at the Grand Mosque in Mecca by a group of fanatics all showed the violent force of fundamentalist ideas and their power to upend the established order. These three events showed how violent political movements inspired by Islamic theology could threaten superpowers. This was the lesson drawn by the architects of al-Qaeda’s confrontation with the west that culminated on 9/11. Isis is in many ways simply an evolution from that.

The attacks on New York and Washington DC almost 16 years ago were not the first time that terrorism had been visited on the west, of course. Before 9/11, Europe had endured successive waves of terrorist violence. Those responsible included right and leftwing groupuscules, separatist outfits such as the IRA and Eta, Middle Eastern networks often linked to the intelligence services of hostile states, and (in the case of France in particular) violent Islamists linked to Algeria and the conflict in Bosnia.

The US, for its part, saw numerous violent groups active throughout the postwar period — from white supremacists through leftist organisations such as the Weather Underground to the rightwing “patriot” movement to which the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh had connections.

But all this was superseded by the 9/11 attacks. They transformed our understanding of terrorist violence. Overnight, Islamist terrorism became the main concern of western security services. And with good reason — al-Qaeda’s organisational effectiveness and ambition, demonstrated by the 9/11 attacks, was like nothing that had been seen before.

Previously active movements appeared to fade away or retreat, their activity dwarfed by the magnitude of what al-Qaeda had done. But they did not disappear. While some turned to the negotiating table, very few gave up. Leftwing groups continue to wage letter-bombing campaigns in parts of Europe, while the extreme right is enjoying a renaissance across the west. Eta and the IRA have for the most part given up violence, but Irish-related terrorism remains a major concern for British security services. And many other groups continue to exist in reduced but still active forms. Terrorism, it seems, never quite goes away.

More salient, the individuals involved do not go away. Some die fighting, some move on and some are incarcerated, but others stay free and continue the struggle even as they grow older. The recent attack at London Bridge showed how a specific group, al-Muhajiroun, continues to pose problems over 20 years after it was launched in the UK.

Older preachers talk to younger acolytes, creating a self-supporting structure in which followers eventually become leaders and in turn find their own recruits. This self-generating cycle means that eradicating these groups is a lengthy process that only really comes to an end when one ideological wave is overtaken by another.

For that to happen, an ideology must first wear itself out. But there are no signs of that happening with the current wave of violent Islamism. Al-Qaeda is reconstituting itself on the battlefield in Syria, while its affiliates in north Africa, Yemen and east Africa continue to thrive. Isis may be losing its capitals in Syria and Iraq but, as continued attacks around the world show, it retains some potency.

Terrorism did not start with Isis or al-Qaeda. Nor will it end with them. The current reigning Islamist ideology and groups may be overtaken by events, but they will undoubtedly be replaced by others. And, as Mr Evans pointed out, the long tail left by generations of followers means that security services will be watching people warily for some time yet.

The writer is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute

More catch-up posting, this time a piece for my institutional home RUSI’s magazine Newsbrief, looking at how the threat from ISIS/Daesh may evolve over the next few years.

Daesh: What Happens Next?

May 24, 2017

As the battle for Mosul rages on and Daesh is put under increasing pressure in other parts of Iraq and Syria, how will the threat from the group evolve? Will Daesh end up following the path of Al-Qa’ida, with regional affiliates becoming more prominent? 

In the wake of 9/11, Al-Qa’ida was sharply ejected from its base in Afghanistan. Re-establishing itself in Pakistan’s border areas, the leadership continued their bitter struggle against the world, launching and coordinating a series of attacks. Most immediately these included: an attempt on transatlantic airlines using British shoe bombers; an attack on the Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba, Tunisia; the bombing of a nightclub in Bali; a rocket attack on an Israeli passenger aircraft leaving Mombasa, Kenya; and ship-borne suicide bombers targeting the French-flagged Petronas oil tanker MV Limburg off the coast of Yemen. Scattered around the world, these plots included a mix of local Al-Qa’ida affiliates and people who had trained at camps in Afghanistan, but all showed a clear link to the group’s leadership.

This set a pattern for the next few years, where the group continued to manipulate its networks from a distance, as well as send out cells of plotters to launch attacks around the world. In some cases, largely autonomous local networks took some seed support (or had a few key individuals return from the training camps), leading to a spate of attacks.

A good example of this was in Indonesia, where Jemaah Islamiah, the Southeast Asian Al-Qa’ida affiliate, launched a series of attacks in Bali and Jakarta. In other cases, such as the UK, the group had a steady supply of radicalised young men travel to its camps in Pakistan where they were indoctrinated and then directed to commit atrocities back home. This pipeline generated a string of plots directed from the core with escalating ambition that culminated in the August 2006 plot to bring down eight transatlantic flights with liquid bombs. This ideology received a boost from the invasion of Iraq, with random individuals seeking to launch attacks to advance the group with little evidence of a clear link to the leadership.

This pattern really started to change only in 2008–2010, when an extensive drone and Special Forces campaign was launched against the Al-Qa’ida leadership in Pakistan. This persistent hammering had an effect and led to a noticeable drop in Al-Qa’ida’s capacity to train and send out jihadis, as well as communicate with its international network. A Birmingham network, disrupted in 2011, was overheard talking about how the extent of their training camp was hanging about indoors hiding from drones and watching extremist videos. In 2010, French jihadist Mohammed Merah sought out training camps in Pakistan and appeared only able to spend a day at one before being sent quickly back on his way. The Birmingham cell was disrupted while Merah went on to launch a campaign in southern France, murdering off-duty soldiers and Jewish schoolchildren. Bin Laden senior was able to issue only occasional messages to his network and the world, leading to growing strategic stagnation.

But as the leadership took a beating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al-Qa’ida’s regional affiliates assumed a more prominent role in launching attacks. Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) raised its profile, becoming a greater draw to the community of radicalised young westerners seeking to connect with jihadist groups. This brought a new wave of young aspiring Western warriors to Yemen, in particular through the attraction of its American-Yemeni preacher Anwar Al-Awlaki. These warriors were further indoctrinated, trained and then dispatched to launch attacks back home. This led to repeated attempts on international aviation, including: the ‘underwear bomber’; the printer cartridge bombs; concerns over an attempt to launch an attack with surgically implanted explosives: and a threat from a radicalised IT worker at British Airways. AQAP became the standard bearer for Al-Qa’ida globally, continuing the international struggle as the core lost its capacity to manage such attacks.

But the core organisation continued to exist and exert influence and direction over the network. As was evidenced by the many letters to have leaked from the correspondence seized in Abbottabad, Osama was a controlling leader. In one letter, for example, he expressed disappointment and disapproval of methods of attacks advocated by AQAP in its influential English-language magazine Inspire. Elsewhere, it seems clear that he was responsible for the continuing refusal to formally recognise Somali affiliate Al-Shabaab as part of the global organisation. However, his ability to control the group was weakening and as regional affiliates became more prominent or others developed, the nature of the ideology that Osama had launched changed. His death at the hands of US Special Forces at his Abbottabad compound in 2011 changed the group, with his successor Ayman Al-Zawahiri offering a different style of leadership and direction.

The result of this was a clear shift towards regionalisation by the group. Attacks and campaigns became much more localised. The 2013 attacks at In Amenas in Algeria and Al-Shabaab’s assault on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi are the best examples of this. In both cases, the attackers were linked to Al-Qa’ida, but there was a mix of local dynamics and new leadership figures establishing themselves at play in both cases. Despite Al-Qa’ida’s celebrations and announcements, it was not clear the degree to which the attacks were directed from Afghanistan or Pakistan, if at all. The incident advanced the global cause, although appeared much more about local than international dynamics. The regional affiliates still used Al-Qa’ida’s rhetoric and ideology, though their motivations appeared to be driven by a different set of drivers than the core leadership or ideology would necessarily advocate. More focused on local enemies, they were retreating to confront the ‘near enemy’ rather than the ‘far enemy’.

Daesh appears to be undergoing the same process, albeit in a more compressed timeframe than the decade or so it has taken Al-Qa’ida. Plots linked to the Daesh’s core continue to show up around the world, with some evidence of individual former fighters returning home to plant the seeds of a network. There is also evidence of attackers being directed, instigated or inspired by the group’s core in Syria and Iraq.

At the same time, Daesh’s regional affiliates – for instance, its groups in Afghanistan, Egypt, Nigeria or Libya – are taking a much more forward and aggressive position. The core group claims responsibility for these attacks and releases images through formal information channels linked to its Amaq or Nashir news agencies. The attacks themselves, however, often appear to be far more locally oriented and directed. That is to say, they are focused on striking enemies in their immediate environments, rather than using their bases to launch the large-scale attacks on the West that the core seems interested in wanting to do. Daesh’s Afghan affiliate, for example, has repeatedly launched attacks against Shia or government targets in Kabul. The group’s Egyptian affiliate continues to strike against minorities or the state in Egypt. Libya is possibly the exception to this rule, given the disorder in the state, the group has often used its training camps or footprint there to launch attacks or attempted plots in nearby North African countries such as Morocco or Tunisia.

This local focus suggests a far looser network of groups whose allegiance may be more limited, or at the very least a narrative by the core organisation that allows for far greater autonomy by regional affiliates. But this strategy carries with it risks for the core. If a regional affiliate has been operating autonomously for some time and is merely carrying the banner locally, then its loyalty may over time become frayed. Members of the leadership with personal links to the affiliate may get killed off, leading to the rise of new individuals whose ties may lie elsewhere. This will change the power dynamic between the core and the affiliate as the historical kinship links which tie the groups together get lost and new ones are harder to develop over long distances. This is a dynamic that has already played out to some degree with Al-Qa’ida, but it is happening with Daesh over a much shorter timeline as the core organisation continues to hold territory in the Levant and directs, instigates and inspires terrorist plots around the world.

Therefore, the potential threat from Daesh is one that is an enhanced version of what was seen with Al-Qa’ida. And the dangers from these patterns are similar to those seen with Al-Qa’ida. The growing prominence of affiliates is something that became a threat not only to Western countries or their nationals abroad, but also means that the core ideology and threat from the group is transferred from the core to affiliates at moments when the former comes under particular stress. The rise of AQAP to prominence in the late 2000s is a reflection of this, and it is possible that we could see a similar displacing as Daesh comes under greater pressure in the Levant.

At the same time, it is equally possible to draw some lessons from Al-Qa’ida’s weakening to understand how to damage Daesh and manage its growth. First, the core needs to be hammered and deprived of territory. This pressure clearly degrades capacity. Second, the West needs to be vigilant against more confident and strong affiliates as they can become the core threat. Third, it needs to understand the nature of individual links between groups. Targeting key individuals may disrupt connections between groups. However, according to the law of unintended consequences, there might be some instances of degrading, while in some other cases there may be individuals whose rise will pose a greater menace. All of this provides a pen portrait for how aggressive counterterrorism activity, as well as careful management of regional affiliates is at the core of understanding how to manage the threat from the group.

All of this is taking place as the threat from Al-Qa’ida core continues to exist. As Hamza bin Laden’s latest message illustrates, the progenitor organisation continues to want to stay relevant and is trying to re-appropriate the concept of lone-actor terrorist attacks (an attack methodology it had long advocated but was unable to weaponise as effectively as Daesh), showing the longevity of these sorts of threats. While Daesh seeks to distinguish itself in many ways from Al-Qa’ida and there are strong tensions between the two groups, their ideologies and outlooks remain similar. Daesh’s methods of attack, direction and radicalisation may have developed from Al-Qa’ida’s, but in many ways this is due to changes in the way people communicate since Al-Qa’ida’s heyday in the mid-2000s. And while Daesh’s relative youth and wanton brutality have somewhat distinguished it from Al-Qa’ida, the biggest danger in many ways is that the two threats may end up fusing.

While this may seem a far-fetched notion at the moment given the leadership tensions, it is not an outcome that can be completely discounted, especially if we see a Daesh that fragments back to its affiliates as the core becomes weakened. In this scenario, we could see enhanced affiliates drawing on both groups support to launch concerted regional campaigns both in their immediate areas, but also against the West.

The unfortunate reality is that it is likely that both threats will be with us for some time yet. While there are some clear lessons in how to manage the threat down from the struggle against Al-Qa’ida, that conflict has shown how hard it is to eradicate such groups. Patience, focus and a long-term plan will be the only way to manage the threats from such international terrorist organisations.

Raffaello Pantucci
Director, International Security Studies, RUSI.

 

 

A new brief reaction piece for my home institute RUSI looking at some of the current trends in ISIS and jihadism. My preference is to use ISIS, but it appears as though the institutional choice is Daesh. Undoubtedly more on this topic to come. In the meantime, I have been doing book promotion events around town, thanks to those who have hosted me and am looking forward to future ones. For those interested, here is me talking to the Henry Jackson Society. I am going to be at the Bradford Literature Festival this weekend, the Hay Festival on the 31st May, and the Lewes Festival on July 18th. And hopefully more of those to come! Please also feel free to leave comments on Amazon about the book should you read it!
The Texas Attack: An Expression of Daesh’s Reach
RUSI Analysis, 11 May 2015 | By Raffaello Pantucci, Director of International Security Studies
The jihadist movement known as Daesh has claimed responsibility for the aborted attack on an art contest in Texas. But other than shared motives, there are hardly anyreal  linkages. Overreaction and misreading of the threat will merely play into their hands.
Garland Shooting Perpetrators 2015

The claim by Daesh (or ISIS, as it is also known as) of some connection and responsibility for the attempted attack on Sunday 3 May 2015 in Texas is credible. While it is unlikely that the senior leadership within the group tasked the American pair or saw the event in Texas as a globally significant target, it is perfectly possible that it will emerge that the two men had at least some online connection to the group and were spurred into action by a combination of this contact and the group’s regular exhortations to its followers to launch attacks in the West.

At the same time, it is not clear that this is in any way an expression of the beginning of a campaign by the group to launch terrorist attacks outside its territory or that we need to worry about Daesh anymore now than before. Rather, Daesh continues to show itself to be an opportunistically canny organisation that is able to read global trends and stoke public debates at the right moment to maximise their apparent reach and power.

The threat picture for the immediate future is likely to be a continuing pattern of similar attacks, alongside a continuing potential menace of more classically directed terrorist cells. This seemingly enhanced threat, however, has to be kept in perspective and care needs to be paid not to overreact. A measured response will help deal with the problem in the longer term, while an exaggerated response will only fuel it.

Daesh Going Out?

Daesh remains a primarily Middle Eastern focused organisation, intent on growing and consolidating its territorial gains in Iraq and Syria. At the same time, over the past few months there has been an increasing level of connectivity and interaction between its core in Mosul/Raqqa and its regional Wilayats (provincial governorates) in Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan and Yemen. The degree of strength of these regional connections is not always clear, though looking at the Libyan case in particular, it is clear that there is some strong link between the centre and what is happening in that country in terms of ideology, means and direction.

A series of attacks on foreign targets in Tripoli, grim beheading videos being done to a schedule dictated from Syria/Iraq and stories of fighters and money flowing from the Levant to Libya point to something more than just an ideological affiliation.

In Egypt, Afghanistan and Yemen at least there is some evidence of ideological and possibly individual, but less clear is the degree to which this is a strong flow with much direction, rather than exploratory links. On the purely aspirational end of the scale, there is the link to Boko Haram – an organisation that has shown itself to be even more opportunistic than Daesh and has proclaimed links to Al-Qa’ida and others repeatedly over the years with little tangible evidence of much by way of strong connections.

In parallel to this there has been the growth in inspired and instigated attacks in the lone actor model: plots undertaken by individuals or small cells lacking any clear command and control from an outside organisation. Choosing soft targets that can broadly be captured under the aegis of the global struggle between Islam and the West, these individuals get caught up in the fervour and hysteria around Daesh and launch attacks at home in the West under their own direction.

Some cases appear to demonstrate links back to Syria (like Mehdi Nemmouche in Brussels) some may be reacting to travel restrictions (like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau in Ottawa), while others appear  simply to be attracted by the allure and hysteria of the group (like the spate of incidents in France late last year or Man Haroun Monis in Australia). For some of these individuals, Daesh’s narrative is simply the loudest in the public conversation for them to draw on.

Lone actor or copy-cat, whichever model it is, Daesh can subsequently claim it or praise the incident and appear as though it is somehow responsible for a global wave of terror.

Extensions of longer-term trends

In reality, both trends are extensions of what has been going on with jihadist terrorism for the past few years. Since around 2010 al Qaeda core’s capability and links globally have shrunk as the group’s ideology has increasingly found that the local causes that it would parasitically attach itself to increasingly moved towards advancing their own more local agendas rather than the group’s global directives. When launching attacks, regional affiliates would still use the jihadist rhetoric and targeting choices, but it was increasingly hard to see strong levels of command and control from the core. There were of course exceptions to this like Yemen where AQAP retains a strong core following loyal to the movement’s globalist perspective. But for the most part regional affiliate groups increasingly drifted away from the core’s orbit as Al-Qa’ida’s remnant leadership spent its time hiding from drones in Pakistan’s hinterlands.

The result has been a fracturing of the global jihadist movement operating under Al-Qa’ida’s ideological banner. As leaders have been killed, it has led to groups splintering into different factions. Furthermore, with a weakened core, regional affiliates have shifted in their targeting and intent back towards their own regions. In launching attacks they will still choose international targets as these bring attention and appear to be part of a global cause. Often, however, the degree to which they have been directed from the core is limited. Examples include the In Amenas attack in Algeria by an off-shoot of AQIM, or the al Shabaab linked attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.

Into this fractured scene steps Daesh, offering a more hardline ideology, a new leader claiming to be Amir al Mu’mineen (commander of the faithful) who commands a territory he declares a Caliphate. Here is a narrative of success that stands in contrast to Al-Qa’ida’s declining fortunes. This quickly offers an appealing alternate power base that becomes the opposite pole to the current established jihadist narrative directed by Al-Qa’ida and draws in many of the disaffected and detached affiliate groups. Daesh appeal to them is not necessarily the ideology of the group, but rather the fact the group offers an alternate expression and successful banner to the status quo for them to attach themselves to.

The lone actor phenomenon is also not one that Daesh can claim stake to owning. Lone actor plots started to emerge in 2007/2008 (arguably Bilal Abdulla and Kafeel Ahmed’s attempted double bombing in London and Glasgow in 2007 was an early expression demonstrating no level of direction by a group, though some connectivity to terrorist networks in Iraq), and have been an increasingly regular feature of the terrorist threat picture since then. In 2010 Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) sought to try to harness the growing wave of such attacks and spur them further on through Inspire magazine and its ideology of ‘just do it’ attacks and ‘open source jihad’ that made jihadi terrorism accessible and actionable by everybody.

But there was little tangible evidence the magazine did much more than stoke fires that were already burning. The magazine became a staple feature of terrorism investigations. A growing number of plotters tried to build bombs to the magazines design and in online forums extremists increasingly talked proudly of being ‘lone wolves.’ But the trend towards this type of terrorism was underway prior to the magazine and there has been little clear evidence that the magazine can be singularly blamed for any specific plot.

Daesh has merely taken this strategy to the next level through its active promotion of the idea of such attacks through speeches, magazines and increasingly through individual fighters who connect through social media to the aspirant keyboard warriors who have not chosen to make the trip to the Levant, but seek it out instead online. By creating more noise around the idea of such attacks, they become more attractive and the group creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in its narrative.

This results in more people hearing it and more disaffected folk concluding that if they want to make themselves heard (for whatever reason) then Daesh’s ideology is the one to attach themselves to. All of this needs to be borne in mind against the backdrop that the ideology of violent Islamist inspired terrorism as one of the dominant global anti-establishment ideologies of the moment. Previously disaffected folk might be drawn to other movements, Al-Qa’ida or Daesh are now the alternative global movement. Again, rather than creating something new, Daesh (and Al-Qa’ida before it), have simply harnessed and attempted to spur on a trend that was already underway.

The Danger of Over-reaction

The importance of understanding the proper roots of these trends is to mitigate against the dangers of overreaction to them. If the Western reaction to the attack in Texas (and other future possible attacks) is to attack the organisation in a large fashion involving deployed armies and forces, this will have exactly the effect the group is likely hoping for.

An overreaction draws it into more direct conflict with the West making it both seem more powerful than it is, showing it able to stand up and fight directly with the world’s superpowers. It feeds into the group’s narrative of where it stands in the world and helps it become more important than it really is.

Instead, the focus needs to be on fixing the underlying reasons behind the contexts where the group’s ideology is able to take root. In Syria this means finding ways of bringing the brutal civil war to a close. In Iraq it involves building a participatory government so that the country’s Sunni’s do not look to groups like Daesh as defenders. In Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan and Egypt it involves solving local problems that will help reduce the space in which the group is able to permeate.

And in the West, it involves engaging with people who are so disaffected from societies that they feel they want to rebel violently against them. None of this is easy, and for Western government’s to succeed the reality is they need to target limited resources on specific countries abroad in a global division of labour, and at home need to find ways of developing grass roots programmes to engage with specific individuals who are drifting towards extremist ideologies. But key to making sure that we do not prolong this problem any longer than it needs to be is a clear understanding of the nature of the threat that is faced.