Posts Tagged ‘ISIS’

Another post for the lovely folk at GNET, who also recently appointed me one of their many Associate Fellows. It is a pen portrait of L Jinny or Abdul-Majed Abdul Bary, the former rapper and hacktivist who has now ended up arrested in Spain after sneaking out of ISIS-land trying to get back home to Europe. With his UK passport stripped he is likely to find himself getting shunted on to Egypt, but you can never quite predict these stories. In any case, doubtless more on the fall-out from Syria to come, including more of these sorts of short pieces drawing on a wide range of material.

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By 

in Insights

The line between protest and terrorism is clear, but can become complicated when one digs into the underlying ideas. Many would find themselves agreeing with some of the underlying sources of anger that drive terrorist groups, but they would not agree with their choice of action in responding to it. This proximity, however, has a habit of creating strange bedfellows and journeys – like the path taken by Lyricist Jinny, the Egyptian-British one-time rapper and former Islamic State (IS) member who was arrested in Spain last week. A counter-culture tale that flows from rapper and hacktivist to jihadist and (likely) jail.

Abdel-Majed Abdel-Bary (also known by his musical name Lyricist Jinny or L Jinny) was born into a large family whose father was missing for a good portion of his childhood. Fighting extradition from the UK to the US on charges of being involved in Al Qaeda’s 1998 bombings of US Embassies in Africa, Adel Abdel Bary was part of an earlier generation of jihadists. Showing he remembered with anger his father’s arrest, in one of his many raps still easily available online, L Jinny spits “Give me the pride and the honour like my father, I swear the day they came and took my dad, I could have killed a cop or two.” Like a lot of rap music, L Jinny’s is flavoured by a protest against the system and the hard knock life on the streets – something that was reflected in his own experience. While in Syria in March 2014 he tweeted about the incarceration back in the UK of one of his friends for his part in a brutal knife murder in Pimlico in January 2013. Giving a shout-out from the battlefield he wrote, “my lil brother ahmed got sentenced to life…26 years minimum….love lil bro see you in the afterlife inshallah #kasper.”

But there is a noticeably more political angle to some of his rap, with a couple of songs showing his support for the hacktivist collectives Anonymous and TeaMp0isoN. In 2011, L Jinny teamed up with the hacktivists to produce a rap song and video called #OpCensorDis which acted as an angry clarion call against censorship against a backdrop of protests and images from the riots that shook London in 2011. “Now i linked up with TeaMp0isoN they can’t censor me” he raps, protected supposedly by the hacktivist collective who trailed the song online with comments about how if it was censored they would launch merciless online attacks against the music industry. The money raised was supposedly given to the East Africa Crisis Appeal, though it was unclear how much was actually made or why the music industry would censor a fairly pedestrian rap song. Paradoxically, they also used the #OpCensorDis operation to launch a defacement attack on UN aid organizer UNDP’s sites.

This was not the only lyrical contribution to the operation that L Jinny offered. Alongside rappers Tabanacle and Proverbz, he produced another song imaginatively called Op Censor Dis 2. This time shot with a video of a group of lads rapping against the system in front of the Bank of England. Featured alongside the rappers in the music video was a rather smug looking young man called Junaid Hussain, one of the leaders of TeaMp0isoN who was active online using the handle TriCk. His Twitter handle had been the one to release #OpCensorDis in late 2011 and showing his growing arrogant confidence, he was willing to do anonymous interviews with the press over Skype boasting of his group’s skills. After a particularly prominent attack on the UK Metropolitan Police’s Counter-Terrorism reporting hotline he told the Telegraph, “We done it due to the recent events where the counter terrorist command and the UK court system have allowed the extradition of Babar Ahmad, Adel Abdel Bary and a few others – we also done it to due the new “snooping” laws where the GCHQ can “spy” on anyone and everyone.”

TeaMp0isoN as a collective were fairly scattered in their success and damage. They got into fights with fellow hacktivists Lulzsec whose real identities they threatened to out online. Angry at reports that Blackberry owner RIM were helping police track rioters during the 2011 UK riots, they attacked and defaced Blackberry’s blog. They brought down the English Defence League’s site. In an attack which finally got him jailed, Junaid Hussain got into the email account of one of Tony Blair’s aides and leaked Blair’s contact information and more online. Other attacks found them derided as ‘skiddies’, with some experts pointing out that their contribution to a big Anonymous driven hack against the Nigerian government was to hack into the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association and the Engineering Materials Development Institute. Neither very relevant to Nigeria. During another Anonymous led attack on Stratfor which TeaMp0isoN piggybacked they took stolen credit card details and used them to give money to a variety of charities. In a bit of a home goal, this money was reclaimed and the charities ended up having to cover payback fees.

Reflecting Hussain and Bary’s later life, there were various off-shoots of TeaMp0isoN which had a flavour of the struggle they were going to end up joining. This included their Operation Free Palestine series of hacks, and off-shoot groups ZCompany Hacking Crew (ZHC), which aimed to “end injustice, extremism, Zionism, illegal occupation” and focused on Kashmir and Pakistan. Both TeaMp0isoN and ZHC were also linked to the Mujahideen Hacking Unit (MHU) and Muslim Liberation Army (MLA). At this stage, however, the confluence was simply youthful protest being driven in lots of different directions.

When exactly Junaid Hussain’s shift to jihadism took place is unclear, but he seems to have been firmly on the path after his release from prison in 2013 for the hack on Tony Blair’s assistant. At around the same time, Bary started to reject his former life online posting on Facebook in July 2013 “the unknown mixtape with my bro tabanacle will be the last music I’m ever releasing. I have left everything for the sake of Allah.” In October that year he tweeted “for everyone that still asks me about where my videos have gone, like I said a while back I quit music & I took all the vids I can down….& if you own a channel that has any of my music up can you take it down also, appreciated. Bless.”

The two men were by then in Syria, fighting (or training) initially alongside the Army of Furqan before shifting over to IS using the same connection, Abu al Taj, to vouch for them. Reflecting their online pasts, in their IS entry forms they both identified themselves as having pasts in computers – with Bary saying that he used to work in a computer shop, while Hussain said he had a specialization in electronics.

In Junaid’s case at least we know that his online activity became a major driver of his contribution to IS, founding the Islamic State Hacking Division (ISHD) under which he drew notoriety and attention through his creative use of online activity to advance IS cause. In one of the more infamous attacks which attracted particular US government ire and drew on his TeaMp0isoN contacts, he worked with a young Kosovan studying in Malaysia to obtain and leak the contact information of 1,351 US government and military folk. Ardit Ferizi was another case of hacktivist turned jihadi supporter though he never actually made it to the Levant. Instead, using hacking skills he had perfected as the self-appointed leader of the Kosova Hacker’s Security (KHS) he attacked various sites and then passed along information he thought would be useful to IS. Ardit and Junaid knew each other from TeaMp0isoN days. Junaid enthusiastically circulated the hacked US government contacts under the ISHD accounts hoping followers would use the information to launch lone actor attacks in advance of IS cause.

FBI state that no damage was actually done through this leak. But two short weeks after he posted Ferizi’s information online, a drone strike killed Junaid at a petrol station in Raqqa. Ferizi was arrested in Malaysia in September and is now sitting in a US jail on a 20 year sentence.

Bary’s story went quiet at around the same time, with reports circulating he was unhappy with IS. He reportedly fled across the border into Turkey at which point he disappeared. Now that he has resurfaced in Spain, he will likely be looking at the inside of a prison cell for some time. In arresting him, Spanish police highlighted his “great ability to obtain funding and move like a fish in the water of the darknet” providing maybe a flavour of what he had been up to since he had disappeared. The UK has stripped him of his passport so he is most likely heading to Egypt. L Jinny’s counter-culture adventure has come to a close, but the arc shows what the journey can look like. From rapper and hacktivist to jihadist and jail.

Almost up to date, this time with a new piece for Foreign Policy. The piece has attracted a certain amount of attention, my suspicion is that the bleakness it paints appeals at this rather depressing moment in world affairs. More in this vein coming sorry to say, and the broader topic is one to which I will return.

After the Coronavirus, Terrorism won’t be the same

As big-government initiatives expand and leaders deflect blame, anti-establishment groups, angry Luddites, and China-haters could turn to violence.

By |April 22, 2020, 3:33 AM

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A picture taken during a guided tour organized by the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah shows volunteers sorting food aid that will be distributed during the coronavirus pandemic in Beirut’s southern suburbs on March 31. A poster on the wall shows the current leader of the movement, Hassan Nasrallah. AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

As the coronavirus pandemic has spread, terrorist groups have reacted in different ways.

Traditional terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda and its many affiliates are for the most part confused in their response to COVID-19. Some see chaos that they can take advantage of (in places such as West Africa), others divine retribution on nonbelievers (as the Islamic State and the Turkistan Islamic Party, a Uighur group, have suggested), while others an opportunity to show their governance capabilities (such as the Taliban and Hezbollah). Governments have redeployed some counterterrorism capabilities to support the coronavirus response while contorting legal definitions of terrorism to prosecute people committing antisocial acts such as coughing on others.

So far, the number of acts that could reasonably be called terrorism have been quite limited. It is for the most part generic anti-establishmentarianism fed by conspiracy theories. Fear of 5G technology being linked to the spread of the disease has led to the burnings of cell-phone towers across Europe.

In the United States, fear of big government has resulted in a bomb plan targeting a Kansas City, Kansas, hospital preparing for virus response and an attempt to derail a train in the Port of Los Angeles shipyard. Some more enterprising jihadis have sought to weaponize the coronavirus, while the extreme right wing has largely only talked about doing it.

These acts have a unifying theme. Like most terrorism, they are fundamentally acts of revolt against the established order. In the United States there is a rich tradition of anti-government activity, drawing on a broader narrative of libertarianism than runs through the American body politic.

Oklahoma City just marked the 25th anniversary of Timothy McVeigh’s attackon the Alfred P. Murrah building in 1995 that led to 168 deaths. McVeigh emerged from a broader U.S. movement called “Patriots” by federal investigators, who had long worried about these extreme libertarians’ potential for violence and their propensity for gathering lots of weapons. More recently, this movement has expressed itself through sovereign citizen groups, which reject federal regulations and target police.

For those whose mindset is shaped by this history of anti-government activity, the massive expansion of the state that follows a national crisis like a pandemic outbreak will be a concern. For such individuals, the fear is as much about expansion of the state as it is distrust in government’s activity in general. Some expressions of this anger are already visible in places such as Michigan, Kentucky, and North Carolina.

This sense of disenfranchisement is further exacerbated thanks to the growing distrust that is visible in government globally. Given the propensity of leaders to publicly utter untruths or half-truths, citizens’ collective faith in government is being eroded. Various criminal organizations have spotted this and sought to offer themselves as alternatives.

Terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, the Taliban, and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham that control pieces of territory have used the chaos to showcase their own public health capabilities, as thin as they are. Criminal groups in Brazil, El Salvador, and Mexico are seeking to display their power and resources. These moves are not particularly altruistic, however, with most groups undertaking them out of recognition of the battle for hearts and minds they could win through these acts.

Others on the fringes are taking this distrust to its violent extreme, and their number is likely to increase over time. The current COVID-19 response is going to expand the presence of the state, draw attention to inequalities that will be exacerbated in the post-coronavirus economy, and ultimately highlight the budget-tightening that is going to have to follow.

Some may fear big government, but others will instead grow angry if it is not seen to be dealing with their problems and concerns. These fissures all open up narratives ripe for exploitation by anti-government factions, racist groups, political extremists of every type, and extremist Luddites or other fringe groups.

The growing army of the disenfranchised will create a community of those who are open to placing the blame on someone else. In the West there has been a growing push to blame China—something that is happening among senior officials (such as Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger and Sen. Ted Cruz in the United States or the heads of the parliamentary defense and foreign select committees in the U.K.) and increasingly in the general population in countries where the tone of anti-Chinese sentiment is growing. This anger is also straining existing social tensions around migrants, something visible in the nasty racist tinge that colors a lot of COVID-19 discourse.

Unfortunately, once anti-Chinese sentiment catches on among the general public, it tends to be less discerning—resulting in abuse and violence toward all those who appear to be of East Asian ethnicity. And while hate crimes do not always equate to terrorism, they are often a precursor to it. The intercommunal tensions hate crimes produce provide fodder to those who are prone to violence to act out on their nasty impulses, as well as providing a rich environment for groups seeking to advance divisive ideologies.

This problem is not exclusive to the West. In Indonesia, researchers have warned of a growing tension toward Chinese nationals within the country. This draws on a rich seam of anger toward China more generally in the country—in part stemming from historical ethnic tensions, but more recently being exacerbated by Beijing’s treatment of its Muslim Uighur minority. There have even been warnings of this sentiment resulting in terrorism against Chinese residents of Indonesia, with a cell reported as having discussed targeting Chinese workers. This might lay the foundations for a more violent expression of anti-Chinese terrorism in Southeast Asia.

Chinese relations with Southeast Asia are often strained, and there are other expressions of anger against China more generally at the moment as well. Thailand became embroiled in an online spat with China when young Thais took umbrage at Chinese online warriors attacking prominent Thai actors for expressing views in solidarity with Taiwan and Hong Kong. The resulting “milk tea alliance”—so called because people in the countries are generally fans of sweet milk tea—has angered Beijing and dragged in the local embassy to express the usual Chinese anger at others recognizing the independence of places Beijing sees as part of China.

In Kazakhstan, a post on the Chinese internet that appeared to suggest that Kazakhstan wanted to become part of China drew enough ire to prompt the Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs to haul in the Chinese ambassador and demand an apology. In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, anti-Chinese sentiment coalesced around the idea of Chinese nationals being spreaders of the disease and has seen a member of parliament make statements about how Chinese citizens should be avoided.

None of this is terrorism, of course, but there is a clearer focus of public anger toward China. As China becomes a more dominant player in world affairs, it will increasingly become a target, something that is in part driven by Beijing’s treatment of minorities at home. This could crystallize into attacks on Chinese nationals or companies.

At the even darker fringes, even the 5G telephone pole-burning phenomenon might be a prelude to something else. The Luddites were a group of textile workers in the U.K. who emerged in the 19th centur. They were known for violently protesting as technology developed that was slowly displacing their jobs. In more modern times, Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, carried forward the Luddite mantle by leading an almost two-decade-long bombing campaign that culminated in the publication of his manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future”—a screed about how modern technology was eroding personal freedoms.

Today, the rapid shift to online work by a growing proportion of workers is going to dramatically accelerate in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Companies are shrinking volumes of staff and trying to work more online or remotely. Things that were previously done in person are now migrating online.

While many will return to working in the ways they did before the crisis, a surprisingly high number might find their work pattern permanently altered or face redundancy as a result of the cost savings that companies now see they can make while still achieving the same result. This might create an angry movement that draws together disgruntled ex-workers using the very tools that they are angry about for displacing them. Having been made redundant by online tools, they could very well repurpose them to mobilize a backlash.

Terrorism often emerges in the spaces where government is perceived to have failed or where people feel they are being excluded from the system. The pandemic is likely to lower people’s sense of trust in authority even further. The result will be increased problems from those who turn angry enough to want to use violence to articulate their grievances.

The world has already seen a failure in international cooperation when it comes to responding to the coronavirus, and while there have been innumerable acts of kindness between citizens, the larger sense of anger and disenfranchisement that will follow will create new forms of political violence. Some will draw on long-standing ideologies and groups, while others will emerge in surprising ways. Terrorism will not end in the wake of the coronavirus; instead, it is likely to evolve in ever more extreme ways.

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

A longer piece for a great new outlet, the Bookings Institution managed Lawfare Blog. This one is a longer story I have been trying to publish for some time about the last and in some ways most dangerous of the Londonistani preachers, Abdullah el Faisal. Touched on some of this in my earlier piece for GNET. It draws on some material that from my book, but goes on beyond that including digging into the many stories of plots and networks that have been linked to him around the world.

Abdullah al-Faisal’s Global Jihad

By Raffaello Pantucci

Sunday, April 19, 2020, 10:00 AM

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Editor’s Note: The history of the modern jihadist movement is often the tale of different charismatic preachers and fighters, whose inspiring words and deeds—and whose pettiness and divisions—shaped the movement. RUSI’s Raffaello Pantucci examines the life and times of Abdullah al-Faisal, the storied jihadist preacher whom the United States is trying to extradite. Faisal is a particularly militant jihadist, and his personal history captures the dangers of the movement and its many divisions.

Daniel Byman

When he was able to preach publicly, Abdullah al-Faisal enjoyed employing apocalyptic imagery. The current COVID-19 misery no doubt appeals to his taste for biblical pestilence. The drama of his preaching was such that others in London’s Muslim community would find his exaggerated rhetoric absurd and often dismiss him as a marginal figure. More than two decades on from his heyday in the United Kingdom, Faisal is now fighting extradition to the United States, where he stands accused of helping people join the Islamic State. His four-decade-long career around the world and online distinguishes him as among the most modern jihadist preachers in the West.

Born Trevor William Forrest to an evangelical Christian family in Jamaica, Faisal was introduced to Islam in his mid-teens by his business education teacher, Jolly McFarlane. When he graduated from secondary school in 1980 he changed his name to Abdullah el Faisal, and the next year took a Saudi government-sponsored six-week course in Islamic and Arabic studies in Trinidad. He also studied in Guyana before leaving in November 1984 for Riyadh, where he took up a scholarship in Arabic and Islamic studies at the Imam Mohammad Ibn Saud University. Years later, he told police he had been sent to the United Kingdom by his teacher, Sheikh Rajhi, and set himself up among the growing community of black converts in south London. Landing at around the same time that Spike Lee’s film “Malcolm X” was attracting attention, Faisal’s vigorous speeches, skin tincture, fluent Arabic and street style made him a hot commodity among young Muslims in the United Kingdom. In an interview with the Sunday Times in February 1993, Faisal boasted that he was able to transform this charisma into numbers at the south London mosque where he operated, claiming he had “received three converts a day for the past six years.”

Soon after this, however, he fell out of favor at the mosque because of his extreme preaching. By some accounts, it was after he was caught playing Abu Hamza tapes at the mosque. Another of the “Londonistan” preachers at the time, Hamza was already actively involved in jihadism by the mid-1990s, having been to Afghanistan, met Abdallah Azzam and started down his path to becoming the famous hook-handed cleric. At one point or another both Faisal and Hamza had been students of Abu Qatada al-Filistini, the famous Jordanian cleric who had provided spiritual guidance justifying some of the darkest acts during the brutal jihadist conflict that wracked Algeria during the 1990s. Faisal acted occasionally as an interpreter for Qatada, though this sometimes produced strange results.

In a screed attacking Faisal, titled “Be Aware of Takfir!”, Hamza provides an anecdote capturing the relationship Faisal had with his teacher (as well as the tensions among all the preachers). Qatada and Faisal had been invited to publicly debate the practice of takfir—a controversial act, whereby one excommunicates others for failing to act as a proper Muslim. It is a crucial concept among violent jihadists as it provides a context permitting violence against individuals once they are cast out, enabling the killing of Muslim civilians and other Islamists with whom one disagrees. Because Qatada had little English, he was reliant on Faisal as his translator. During the presentation, by Hamza’s account, Faisal was somewhat selective in his translations of Qatada’s words, meaning that while the Arabic speakers in the room felt that “the end of the debate left brother Faisal a broken man[,] … those that did not understand the Arabic [Faisal’s students] went away feeling the same about Qatada.”

Faisal was a particularly aggressive proponent of takfir, wantonly spraying it in any direction he could. The long and illustrious list of people with whom he fell out included everyone from Anwar al-Awlaki (whom Faisal accused of being too restrictive in his use of takfir and therefore a kafir worthy of takfir himself) to the “Tooting and Finsbury Park” Muslims he dismissed as “fake jihadis … using the word ‘jihad’ for fame and fortune and to line their pockets.” At one event with Qatada, he went so far as to call his audience “Jews” when they disagreed with his views—a perspective that even Qatada thought was over the top.

Notwithstanding this rather razed-earth approach to preaching, Faisal remained an attractive figure to jihadists and continued to interact with his fellow Londonistani preachers. One expert with whom I spoke spent considerable time among the jihadist milieu in the early 2000s and described how members of the community would go to Hamza for the religion and to Faisal for the fire. Young Muslims from that time have told me how much they enjoyed listening to Faisal thanks to his polished English, angry rhetoric and cool Jamaican accent. He claimed a street heritage in Jamaica that gave him a way of connecting with the lost men of color in the grimier parts of London where he would hold his teaching groups. He had a strong following across the United Kingdom’s young Muslim community but found that his messages resonated particularly with those who had criminal pasts or inclinations. A number of the black convert Muslims drawn into his circles were often successfully encouraged to move away from lifestyles revolving around drug and alcohol abuse. One respectable Deobandi Muslim leader in north London praised Faisal for this success and struggled to reconcile this history with what Faisal was ultimately accused of in court.

But Faisal was deeply engaged with the U.K. jihadist community. He was a regular at events where future terrorist plotters gathered. In the early 2000s, he appeared at an event with Hamza in Crawley at which the two men spoke before a group that included individuals from the “Operation Crevice” cell that was later disrupted in 2004, a Brit who went on to play a prominent role in the 2009 Camp Chapman attack in Afghanistan, as well as a preacher who was close to the pair who murdered Lee Rigby in Woolwich in 2013. Faisal was also an influential figure in the lives of Zacarias Moussaoui, the infamous 20th 9/11 hijacker, and “shoe bomber” Richard Reid.

Faisal was booted out of the United Kingdom and returned to Jamaica in 2007, having served four years in prison for inciting violence and racial hatred. He had been caught after police attention was drawn to his rantings in the course of their investigation of Richard Chinyoka, a brutal misogynist who was incarcerated for 12 years for raping and torturing a series of women. As police went through Chinyoka’s belongings, they discovered cassette tapes of Faisal’s sermons and were shocked by what they heard. They were even more stunned to discover that these tapes were fairly openly available when they investigated religious centers around London. This led to Faisal’s incarceration and eviction from the country—but not before he was able to help push a young convert named Germaine Lindsay along the path to radicalization. Lindsay then went on to be one of the bombers who attacked the London Underground on July 7, 2005, all of whom reportedly enjoyed listening to Faisal’s preaching.

Faisal’s links to the July 7 group continued after their deaths. Years later, Faisal reported that Samantha Lewthwaite, Germaine Lindsay’s widow, had visited him while he sat in Long Lartin prison. She told him she was happy and offered him money and supplies while he provided her with guidance. The two stayed connected, and soon afterward, when Faisal traveled to South Africa after his deportation to Jamaica, he met a young man, Fahmi Jamal Salim, who was looking for a white wife. Claiming to know him to be Lewthwaite’s type, Faisal put the two in touch and a relationship and children followed. Salim was a long-standing jihadist fighter close to al-Qaeda in East Africa (AQEA) and al-Shabaab. His sister was married to a fighter who was killed when Comorian AQEA cell leader Harun Fazul took a wrong turn in Mogadishu and ended up in front of a Somali security checkpoint. All of these individuals have links to the same groups and networks that hosted Faisal when he was in South Africa.

After a protracted deportation process that involved bouncing around a number of countries, Faisal was ejected from Africa and back to his native Jamaica. From there he became a keyboard warrior and magnet for journalists. The U.K. press in particular was drawn to him and eager to gather more details about his links to the United Kingdom. His influence at this stage had also grown considerably in the United States, and he was proving to be a draw for extremists from further afield through his website, Authentic Tauheed, and associated social media accounts.

Faisal continued to espouse his aggressive and uncompromising messages online, turning toward the Islamic State as the group gained prominence. He provided speeches and justifications about the validity of the Islamic State’s caliphate, arguing that part of the reason for the Islamic State’s rise was that al-Qaeda was not brutal enough. Showing his eagerness to continue to speak in favor of sexual violence, he declared that Islamic State fighters were allowed to rape women they captured. Additionally, he encouraged jihadists to sacrifice themselves in combat on behalf of the Islamic State, telling his audience that “some of you have lived a sinful life—the only way for you to go to paradise is to die on the battlefield.”

As it turned out, Faisal’s Authentic Tauheed site was managed by an array of extremists dotted around the world to whom he delegated responsibilities. Two of his online associates, 38-year-old Mohammed Abdul Ahad, from north London, and 31-year-old Muhammad Abdur Raheem Kamali, from Rochdale, were sentenced to four years each in February. Their roles were to help manage the website, translate parts of Faisal’s speeches, design posters, and disseminate links and information. They were part of a web of individuals involved in these activities, some of whom have also been arrested and pleaded guilty in the United States over the past few years.

Faisal’s audience was truly global. By one count, 10,000 people listened in during one of his talks. They could ask questions and engage with the preacher through the layer of support staff he built up around him. In October 2019, Singapore handed down its first conviction for terror financing. Ahmed Hussein Abdul Kadir Sheikh Uduman was a 35-year-old who had been following Faisal’s work online since 2013. Uduman reached out to Faisal, and the two swapped messages via WhatsApp, email and Facebook. Eventually, Uduman sent $840 to Faisal via an intermediary using the name Patrick Grey and Faisal’s wife. Uduman pleaded guilty to the financing charges, and the government claimed he was also eager to pursue armed jihad overseas.

In other cases, Faisal appears to have inspired people to more violent acts. Mohammad Kasim Stimberwala, a lab technician, and Ubed Ahmed Mirza, a practicing lawyer, were both reportedly in contact with Faisal and planning an atrocity aimed at Jewish targets in Mumbai. They had been active online radicals for years, and had even gone so far as to try to obtain weapons and scout potential targets. They were also communicating with Aadhil Ameez, an extremist recruiter in contact with Faisal as well as the 2019 Sri Lankan Easter bombers. His speeches were also reportedly played frequently in Trinidad and Tobago, where he stands accused of being a facilitator for people to go to Syria and Iraq.

The list of attacks he is linked to in the United States is substantial, with the U.S. Treasury Department connecting him to “the Ohio State University attacker during Thanksgiving weekend in 2016; a Garland, Texas shooter at a Mohammed drawing contest in 2015; Faisal Shahzad, the attempted Times Square bomber in New York City in 2010; Mohammed Chowdury, who planned and attempted to bomb the London Stock Exchange in 2010; Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber who attempted to down an airliner over Detroit, Michigan in 2009.” Separately, Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan linked to al-Qaeda who sought to attack the New York subway system in 2009, told a jury in 2012 that Faisal had influenced his radicalization and that he had listened to Faisal’s tapes as he trained in Pakistan ahead of his attempted attack. In all cases, the individuals were active listeners to Faisal’s material, and in some cases—like the Garland, Texas, shooters—they were in direct contact with him.

Faisal was particularly influential among converts, among them Jason Brown, also known as Abdul Ja’Me. Brown was the head of a Chicago gang specializing in drug trafficking called AHK—a mutation of the Arabic “akhi,” meaning “brother”—that required members to convert to Islam. In June 2016, Brown was arrested in Clayton County, Georgia, on gun charges. When police searched his phones, they found evidence that he was an avid consumer of Faisal’s teachings. Brown continued his obsession with Faisal while in prison and, upon release, started to more actively recruit members of his gang to follow Faisal’s teachings and told them in early 2019 about his plan to travel abroad to join the Islamic State. He also told them that he had sent money to Faisal to support him during his extradition to the United States from Jamaica. He was ultimately arrested for sending money to someone he thought was an Islamic State fighter in Syria.

To this roster of Faisal’s adherents we can also add the two men killed in the United Kingdom as they launched terrorist knife and fake bomb attacks in London in November 2019 and January of this year. Usman Khan, responsible for the November attack on London Bridge, and Sudesh Amman, the man shot down in Streatham in January, were both listeners to Faisal’s teachings. Khan even had Faisal’s phone number.

When he was free, Faisal interacted frequently with his flock and took full advantage of modern technology as well as in-person contacts. His legal trouble in the United States is in part a product of helping one of his adherents join the Islamic State. While trying to impress one follower online, Faisal told her that he was adored in Raqqa and that the Islamic State was keen to fly him in to guide them. Now that he is jailed, he has fewer contacts, but his ideas continue to flourish online.

Faisal’s luck has finally run out. Given U.S. sentencing and conviction rates for terrorism offenses, it is highly likely he will eventually face a long stint in prison. His ideas, speeches and lessons, however, will continue to live on. Authentic Tauheed can still be found online with some digging. The website stopped updating in August 2017, roughly around the time that Jamaican authorities arrested Faisal on a U.S. warrant. His final posting is titled “Entering the Lizard Hole,” which he explains “means that the Muslims will imitate and follow the kuffar in their creed, culture and character. This issue is one of the signs of the Day of Judgement.” As Faisal awaits judgment, his ideas will continue to be perpetuated around the world online—making him likely the most enduringly and globally influential of the infamous Londonistani preachers.

More belated posting, this time a short comment for RSIS with excellent new colleague Sinan. We had actually written this a little while ago, but it got buried under the COVID-19 coverage. This is a potential problem which may yet express itself more dangerously.

ISIS in the Maldives?

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Raffaello PantucciMohammed Sinan Siyech

ICPVTR / RSIS / Commentaries / Country and Region Studies / East Asia and Asia Pacific / Global / South Asia / Southeast Asia and ASEAN / Terrorism Studies

03 APRIL 2020

Synopsis

The February 2020 stabbing of three tourists in the Maldives has raised the prospect of terror in paradise. There are numerous indicators to suggest a potential threat in the Maldives, but it remains unclear whether this incident was simply a one-off or the beginning of something more serious.

Commentary

THE STABBING of three tourists recently in the Maldives has raised the prospect of terrorism in the popular tourist destination. The style of the attack, the subsequent video aping ISIS’ style, and the broader backdrop against which it comes, point to being inspired by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

The attacks were reported as an isolated incident, though media has suggested authorities might be re-opening an earlier investigation into the stabbing of a Turkish tourist in December. The video emulating ISIS style and tone threatened more attacks, though the group itself has been quiet about the attack so far.

Long-time Coming?

The attack has been a long time coming. With roughly 250 fighters, and about 1400 alleged radicalised individuals, out of a population of 350,000, the Maldives has amongst the highest per capita instances of foreign terrorist fighters around the world. For some time, there has been fear that an exodus of fighters from the Maldives might return home bringing terrorist violence with them.

There is a history of foreign militant fighters from the Maldives going back to the war in Afghanistan. There have been killings of journalists and bloggers on the islands that have been blamed on violent Islamist groups, though questions have been raised around motivations.

The last major incident was an attempted bombing in 2007 in Male which injured a dozen tourists. The networks involved then were also present in supporting ISIS. Moreover, A couple of weeks after the stabbing incident, authorities raided properties in Naifaru island of Lhaviyani Atoll claiming to have disrupted a bomb-making plot. No charges were pressed.

Identifying Trends

There are a few indicators which bear attention. First, there have been incidents in the past few years where ISIS-linked or inspired attackers have launched attacks against visiting foreigners: Tunisia (2015), Tajikistan (2018) and Sri Lanka (2019) are prominent examples. The different sorts of attacks and the nature of the links to ISIS all show how tourists present themselves as easy targets for ISIS adherents (either inspired or directed).

In each of those cases, local tensions – including inequality, anger at government and a sense of injustice – translated into violence against foreigners. Striking visiting foreigners assuages some of this anger, brings international attention to the situation, and undermines local authorities. All of which makes it an easy fit into the ISIS playbook.

Second, there are existing violent operators in the Maldives like drug smugglers and other criminal gangs. There has been evidence of such individuals being specifically recruited into ISIS networks. ISIS narrative offers itself as a source of redemption for previous criminals. Their propensity for violence and access to criminal networks makes these recruits convenient assets within extremist networks.

Third, there is a problem of fundamentalism on the margins of society. During former president Abdul Gayoom’s rule (1978–2008), many scholars such as Muhammad Ibrahim who did not toe the official line were exiled to islands where they continued preaching their exclusivist messages. Over time, his influence has spread across Maldivian society with his students inspiring attacks such as the above mentioned 2007 bombing and having linkages to ISIS.

Closing the Maldivian Pandora’s Box

Currently, it is unclear as to the degree to which local authorities have the capability or experience to manage either violent networks at home or those that might return from Syria/Iraq or Afghanistan.

For instance, there are links and communications between those abroad and Maldivians back home via encrypted platforms, but there has been little coverage of rehabilitation or other programmes to engage returnees. Understanding the connectivity, the flows home and how to effectively manage such individuals is going to be a crucial task for the authorities.

The fact that not much support for this attack has been forthcoming is confusing; but it might reflect earlier divisions amongst the Maldivian radical community who were cleaved in two when ISIS broke from Jabhat al Nusra in the early days of the Syrian civil war. It might also simply reflect ISIS’ general state of chaos at the moment.

Key Question

The key question at this stage is whether the government has indeed been able to roll up the entirety of this network. Once the profiles are made public, it will be important to note whether any are returnees or the extent of their links to terrorist groups or networks. While the West has not suffered many attacks involving returnees, there have been lethal attacks in Southeast Asian countries involving battle hardened individuals. This escalates the risk profile in the Maldives.

The government has not been complacent so far about the potential danger. They have been identifying extremist preachers and raising threat levels across the nation while also engaging in religious counter messaging. However, despite arrests, they have not been able to prosecute returnees or address root causes such as corruption and lack of employment for youth.

Given their relative inexperience in managing such threats, it will be important to cooperate with international partners. The country has formulated a national action plan on preventing violent extremism with international support; it will be important to implement any work that flows from it.

Beyond this, it will be important to see whether terrorist or extremist networks gain access to better weaponry. Another indicator will be whether ISIS or Al Qaeda-affiliated groups start to raise the profile of the Maldives as a potential target in South Asia. Given that ISIS continues to face pressure on the battlefield, a major attack on a soft target like the Maldives, whether inspired or directed by the group, would provide a useful ideological boost.

About the Authors

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

Still catching up on myself. Got distracted with a few other things including the current chaos in real life and suddenly a wave of new short pieces landed. So will continue updating here. Have some longer ones still gently coming to the boil, but current events have confused everything. First up, a short commentary for my London institutional home RUSI.

Don’t Lose Sight of the Enduring Global Terrorist Threat

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Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary30 March 2020
UK Counter-terrorismTerrorismMiddle East and North Africa

As the world’s attention remains understandably concentrated on the Coronavirus pandemic, it is important to remember that other threats have not gone away.

Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), has started to tell its adherents to take advantage of the chaos in the West caused by the coronavirus pandemic to launch attacks. Beyond this, a series of worrying trends point to an international terrorist movement developing greater coherence and strength in preparation for another bout of violence. Largely unnoticed amongst the flood of information and disinformation about the global pandemic, a series of actions illustrates the persistent and chronic nature of the threat of international terrorism that the world still faces.

Daesh’s recommendation for its followers to take advantage of this moment to launch attacks was a shift in its narrative around the coronavirus pandemic. Previously, it had largely been passing instructions to its followers not dissimilar to what the WHO and governments were suggesting: to be careful in certain countries and practice good hygiene. It had also enjoyed the fact that China and Iran had been so badly hit, considering it ‘divine retribution’ for China’s treatment of Uighurs and for Iran’s Shia ‘apostasy’. This message was echoed by other groups, most prominently the Uighurs fighting in Syria, who appeared eager to celebrate China’s ‘punishment’. But until recently there had been little comment around the option of launching attacks under the cover of the coronavirus crisis.

In fact, international jihadist terrorism has been a receding concern for Western governments for some time. The absence of large-scale successful attacks directed by Daesh or Al-Qa’ida has removed the threat from the top of world leaders’ in-trays. And this was reinforced by two additional trends: the growing capability of security services to disrupt and counter organised terrorist plots, and an increased focus by terrorist groups towards their local environments rather than the preparation of international plots. The danger is that whenever we have witnessed similar trends in the past, they provided a lull which concluded with new and more creative threats coming back to strike us.

A growing coherence amongst terrorist organisations

There is evidence of growing coherence amongst the global jihadist movement. Rather than disintegrating, they appear to be developing and strengthening their connections. This has been most visible in Africa, where reporting from the Sahel suggests that Al-Qa’ida- and Daesh-aligned groups on the ground are working together. This cooperation is not entirely surprising. Ultimately, the two groups offer an ideology that is very similar and it is not uncommon to see adherents initially drawn into their orbits through a mix of ideological material from both. Yet, at a strategic level, the two have been in competition for some time, something that appears now to have been overcome within the Sahel, where a growing violent insurgency is displacing and killing thousands.

A similar, though maybe less surprising, level of coherence is visible within Al-Qa’ida’s various African factions. Lately, the group’s East African affiliate, Al-Shabaab, its West African representative, Jama’at Nasr Al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), and its Yemeni affiliate Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have all been releasing messages praising each other, marking the death of AQAP’s leader Qasim Al-Raymi, the death of a senior Tunisian jihadist, and generally demonstrating a high level of interaction. This has been seen and praised by Al-Qa’ida’s senior leadership, which has issued messages congratulating them on their operations.

Al-Shabaab has emphasised its fealty by emphasising that its attacks are being conducted in accordance with senior Al-Qa’ida figures orders, demonstrating a desire to connect with Al-Qa’ida’s global ambitions rather than simply be Africa-focused. Al-Shabaab has also been demonstrating a growing capability and ambition – attacking Western forces on their bases in East Africacontinuing to aim at targets in Kenya and even reportedly looking at international aviation as a potential target once again. JNIM has not quite achieved the same level of success, but a more worrying potential development for Al-Qa’ida was the recent agreement signed between the Taliban and the US government, in which the Taliban appeared to specifically agree to ensure the group could not use Afghanistan as a base of operations once again. While on the one hand, this statement might be moot (there have long been suspicions about Al-Qa’ida hiding in Iran or Pakistan), it is also yet to be proven how assiduous the Taliban will be in going after them. Assessing that this was something that they could game in their favour, Al-Qa’ida was quick to put out a statement praising the agreement and painting it – much like the Taliban’s leadership have – as a victory for the Afghan organisation, showing once again its ability to defeat empires.

Al-Qa’ida’s calculation is likely based on the fact that the Afghan government and the Taliban already appear to be facing difficulty coming to the table for the next stage of the process to conclude Afghanistan’s decades-long conflict. This fact, and the Taliban’s persistent willingness to let Al-Qa’ida elements operate in their territory, suggest that it is unlikely that any resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan is on the immediate horizon, or that Al-Qa’ida will find itself under greater pressure as a result of the agreement.

Iran tensions not helping

All of these moves are taking place against a backdrop of escalating US–Iran tensions. The brief intake of breath that took place in the wake of the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani has been filled by more strikes and deaths of Western forces in Iraq caused by Iranian-backed militias. The coronavirus pandemic may be the major focus in Tehran at the moment, but the Iranians have not forgotten the US and seem to now have moved beyond their self-imposed cease-fire in the wake of the mistaken downing of the Ukraine Airlines plane over Tehran on 8 January.

This is relevant to the context of Al-Qa’ida and Daesh for two reasons. First, Iran has regularly shown itself to be an agile manipulator of jihadist elements, able to pragmatically engage with them when it suited Tehran’s objectives. And at the moment, these groups will prove both a useful and deniable tool in Iran’s growing showdown with the US. Second, Iran’s interest in crushing Daesh in Syria and Iraq is likely receding so, as long as the group does not focus on Iran, Tehran is likely to look the other way.

Given Daesh’s growing profile in Africa in particular, the organisation still has some power of attraction, notwithstanding the loss of its ‘caliphate’. This continues to make the organisation dangerous, and any successful effort to rebuild its territorial structures in the Levant will give it a major boost internationally.

The danger is that these shifts will produce a dramatic terrorist attack which will shock the West out of its current collective coronavirus focus. Daesh’s suggestion to its adherents represents a first indication that the terrorist organisation sees the West as distracted, and may seize the opportunity to launch a dramatic attack. The broader trends that have been visible with Al-Qa’ida date back to before the current crisis, but show a threat picture which is developing in directions that warrant close attention.

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Tomasz “odder” Kozlowski/commons.wikimedia.org

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

Almost done with my slow catch up posting (and will do a media round-up in the next one), but here posting a recent piece for my new institutional home in Singapore, RSIS, for their online journal Counter Terrorist Trends and Analysis (CTTA). The piece focuses on the impact of General Soleimani’s death on the jihadist scene and Iran’s relationship with Sunni jihadists in general.

Soleimani’s Assassination: Could Jihadist Groups Benefit?

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Synopsis

While the geopolitical implications of General Qassim Soleimani’s killing have been well discussed, an understudied aspect is its impact on the jihadist terrorist milieu. The general assumption is that the act is either tangential to or undermines the fight against the Islamic State (IS), given Iran’s role in anti-IS operations on the ground in the Levant. However, it is not clear that either of these assumptions are true, or in what ways Soleimani’s death and its consequences might shape the future behaviour of jihadists.

The Current Milieu

On the surface, the global jihadist landscape remains dominated by two core factions – those aligned with al Qaeda (AQ) and those closer to IS. However, some jihadist factions continue to hedge against outwardly joining either side, and groups elsewhere around the world have pledged allegiance to IS, but with little evidence of a direct link or connection. At the ground level, it is sometimes not clear that individual adherents see the distinction in the same way that leadership cadres might, with arrests showing caches of radical material drawing from both pools. Similarly, in West Africa, there is growing evidence of cooperation between IS and AQ, though it is not clear if this is centrally mandated or coordinated.1

The growing importance of Africa in both groups’ global footprint is a more noticeable trend. For IS, that is represented through the growing influence and presence of IS-linked or inspired groups eager to brandish their connections – for example, there has been an increase in violence in the Sahel,2 Nigeria3 and Mozambique4 linked to groups that have been releasing videos through IS channels. AQ also continues to be represented on the battlefield through their own affiliates, though they appear less vocal. The growing reported alignment between AQ and IS-linked groups in the Sahel is an interesting regional development – unique globally according to senior US military officials serving in the region5 – whose larger significance is not yet clear.

Coherent Messaging

The exception in some ways for AQ is al Shabaab in East Africa, which has managed to demonstrate a constant capability and willingness to attempt ambitious attacks, while also maintaining a persistent public deference to AQ central.6 IS has recently also taken to pushing a pan-regional narrative in direct competition to al Shabaab.7 The link to AQ core is something that is reflected across the range of AQ affiliated groups who have in recent months shown a considerable degree of coherent messaging.8

IS in contrast continues to push to inspire wherever it can, with messages in support of its affiliates. While there is an equal degree of coherence in terms of style of messaging with AQ linked groups, it does not necessarily seem to fulfil the same role of seeking to bolster the centre and show higher levels of organisational coherence. In the wake of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s death, there appeared to be a rush from around the world of groups pledging allegiance to the new IS leader, with little clarity about how this affects the various groups or cells themselves.9 Given the continued questions around IS’ new leader – with some in the security community even doubting his existence – IS certainly appears to be less concerned about global organisational coherence than AQ.10

Focus on Local Conflicts

At the same time, neither group appears at the moment in a position to launch a strategically significant strike against the West or out of their immediate areas of operation. It is possible such plots are being disrupted, but, regardless, the net result is a loss in visible effectiveness. In some parts of the world, local authority weakness, societal fissures or external tensions have created a context where the group, or a cell pledging loyalty to them, might launch a strike.11 But evidence of centrally directed plots successfully launched by either group over the past year is lacking.

Rather, the groups appear to be focused on local conflicts in which they sometimes use the rhetoric of an international attack as a garb to shroud their attacks with greater meaning. For example, Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula’s (AQAP) most recent claim of responsibility of the Pensacola terrorist attack in Florida, showed little evidence of a connection beyond the group claiming the assailant as one of its own given his nationality as a Saudi.12

Iranian Manipulation

Contrary to popular consensus that it is the sworn enemy of Sunni jihadists, Iran has shown itself to be a pragmatic actor in dealing with violent Sunni groups. This partly stems from a well-spring of early support from across the Muslim divide for the Iranian revolution. In the early days of the revolution in 1979, the overthrow of the Shah was treated as an event in the same light as the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan or the Siege of Mecca – whereby dedicated believers, armed only with guns, the Koran and the zeal of their beliefs, were able to overthrow (or hurt) long-standing apostate regimes. The focus was on Islam and anti-imperialism rather than Sunni-Shia divides.13

Support of Violent Extremists

While Iran has continued to maintain its rhetoric of permanent revolution – something alluded to within its constitution14 – providing a logic that connected it with anti-imperialist movements around the world, for the most part, its links to violent groups have been highly pragmatic. For example, Iran has historically been supportive of Turkish Hezbollah, a Sunni group that has targeted Kurdish groups as well as Turkish authorities.15 From an Iranian perspective, supporting such a group is partly motivated by a desire to control Iran’s own Kurdish separatist regions as well as providing them a card to play against Turkey.

Since the early days of the revolution, Iran has also supported Hamas against Israel.16 Further, looking to Iran’s complicated border region with Pakistan, the long-standing Baluchi insurgency on both sides of the border has generated repeated accusations by Pakistan that Tehran is providing support to some Baluchi elements, specifically the Baloch Raji Aajoi Saangar (BRAS),17 a Sunni group that has targeted Pakistani security officials. Iran’s support appears tit-for-tat, but also an expression of concern against growing Saudi influence in Pakistan and particular investments in Baluchistan.

Iran’s relationship with the Taliban and AQ is also complicated. For years post-9/11, Iran hosted a number of senior AQ figures, alternatively jailing them and letting them run around under fairly loose supervision. This included senior figures like Saif al Adl and a number of Osama bin Laden’s close family. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the subsequent founder of al Qaeda in Iraq (the precursor to IS) was allowed to pass through Iran as he fled Afghanistan for northern Iraq.18 Iran appears to have held these individuals hostage as negotiating leverage as well as to protect themselves against future attacks by AQ. Nonetheless, relations between AQ and Iran have remained consistently antagonistic, something evidenced by comments within Osama bin Laden’s correspondence found in Abbottabad.19

In 1998, when the Taliban overran Mazar-e-Sharif, they reportedly massacred a group of 11 Iranians (including 9 diplomats), pushing the two sides to the brink of war.20 This soured relations such that following the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan by the United States, Tehran actively reached out to the US offering detailed maps of Taliban positions to aid in its attack plans.21 However, as the AmericanIranian relationship soured, the relationship between the Taliban and Tehran flourished. To the point that there was a Taliban Mashhad Shura formed, as well as Iranian support for Taliban groups in the north and west of Afghanistan.22 Iran’s calculations here appear to be driven by a desire to keep its hand in play in Afghanistan as well as formulate another way to frustrate the US.

Pragmatic Relations

The key takeaway from all of this interaction with the Sunni jihadist world is that Tehran is highly pragmatic in its relations with them. While there are clear moments of conflict, Iran is seemingly willing to overlook them in order to advance broader strategic goals. This perspective will unlikely change following the removal of Soleimani. Unlike a terrorist group, where the leader is a figure around whom great mystique, ideology and personal linkages flow, Soleimani was simply (albeit very charismatic) the leader of an army – an organisation with a fixed hierarchy and goals, promotion and division of labour. The overall approach may be massaged by a leader, but ultimately the institution will have political perspectives that are dictated elsewhere. This will not change with the removal of a general.

Jihadists’ View of Iran

While Iran may have a highly pragmatic and agnostic view of Sunni jihadist groups, it is equally clear that the groups themselves have fairly firm views on Iran. The clearest expression of this is in the numerous postings that appeared on extremist social media channels in the wake of Soleimani’s death. While AQ did not make a formal statement, its affiliate on the ground in Syria, Hurras al Din, celebrated his demise.23

In contrast, IS was more open in its gloating, with a message in late January from its new spokesman, Abu Hamza al Qarashi, celebrating Soleimani’s death, describing him as a ‘Safavid apostate’ and calling on God to curse him and all who supported him.24 The message followed an earlier one in IS’ newsletter al Naba, which hailed Soleimani’s death as a victory for the jihadist group.25 There was also substantial condemnation amongst the jihadist community for Hamas’ stance on Soleimani’s death.26

This does not mean jihadists would be averse to once again strike pragmatic deals with Iran if they advance broader strategic goals. They may shout anti-Iran rhetoric, and IS has in the past sought to accelerate its conflict with Iran with its June 2017 attack on the Parliament and Mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini, which followed its first ever Persian-language video.27 But outside this attack, the group has done little in advance of its animosity towards the Islamic Republic (though Iran has claimed numerous foiled attacks).

Moreover, while both IS and AQ might see Shi’ite apostates as enemies, it is not clear how much they are dependent on this narrative to generate supporters and recruits. It is notable, for example, that in IS’ messages claiming the 2017 attack in Tehran, they sought to emphasise the ethnicities of the various attackers – highlighting their Baluchi and Ahvazi heritage; two minorities within Iran with strained relations with Tehran.28 This suggests a narrative around the attack that attempts to manipulate local politics and tensions rather than rely solely on the simplistic Sunni-Shia divide.

Broader Geopolitics

While Iran is seen as the heart of an alliance of apostates that is oppressing Sunni Muslims in the Middle East, the jihadist community still seems fixated on its enemies in the West and the regimes they are supporting around the world. The Shia may also be seen as adversaries, but arguably, they are not a principal focus of the jihadist community. Soleimani’s death is unlikely to change the calculations for both sides (Tehran and the jihadist community) a vast amount.

Continued Operations Across Middle East

This is not to say that in key theatres where AQ and IS operate, including in Iraq and Syria, Soleimani’s death will not have some effect. While physically decimated, IS is still estimated to carry out 60 attacks a month in Iraq alone targeting security forces and local rivals, as it seeks to regroup around an estimated 20,000 hardcore fighters across the Iraq-Syria theatre.29 While concerned about IS’ regrowth in Syria, Iran will likely continue to focus their efforts through either their forces on the ground or Iraqi or Syrian proxies. The removal of Soleimani is not going to change this approach.

Rather, the greater impact will be on the broader US-Iran clash, where the escalation marked by the removal of Soleimani will give Iran and its proxies a greater sense of latitude in their operations. This will concern Saudi Arabia, Iran’s principle adversary in the Gulf, who has been noticeably careful in official statements to downplay any gloating over Soleimani’s death.30

This perspective provides an interesting resonance to the broader question of the longer-term consequence of the strike for Sunni jihadist groups. For the US, this strike was part of a maximum pressure campaign against Iran that appears to be intended to topple the Tehran regime. It also came as the US continued to agitate to withdraw its troops from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. If US President Donald Trump is successful in his desire to pull US forces out of these Middle Eastern theatres, the resultant vacuum is one that will likely be filled by instability or Iran-Saudi tensions.

Filling the Security Vacuum

These tensions might express themselves through proxies like Sunni jihadist groups, but it is likely that these groups’ actions will be a combination of manipulation and individual agency. While IS and AQ (or other Sunni jihadist groups like the Taliban or those in Syria) might take advantage of the security vacuum that follows a US withdrawal to grow once again, their adversaries (including Iran) will likely retaliate. This will give Iran’s foes an opportunity to provide support to their enemies’ enemy. So, as IS advances and the Iraqi and Syrian sides push back against them with Iranian support, it would be unsurprising if some support flows towards IS from Gulf backers.31

Similarly, in Afghanistan in the peace deal that was signed, the Taliban seemed to appear willing to sever their links with AQ.32 While there has been much scepticism around this declaration and earlier intent by the Taliban to sever such links,33 the new agreement might provide a context in which Tehran could once again seek to play its cards with AQ to maintain some leverage against Taliban – a group with which they have deep historical enmity which may have only temporarily been put to one side. It might also be useful leverage in Iran’s broader conflict with the US – who by virtue of the latest agreement are (theoretically at least) now allied with the Taliban against AQ and IS.

Conclusion

The Sunni jihadist milieu is one that paints itself as ideologically pure. Yet it can be as brutally pragmatic as its state-based adversaries. In Tehran, the leadership also appears happy to cooperate with its perceived adversaries to ensure broader strategic goals. The death of General Soleimani will not alter such calculations, and rather may herald a period of greater confrontation between Iran and the world which will have the corollary effect of both weakening some of the alliances fighting against Sunni jihadist groups (for example in Iraq and Syria) while also increasing the willingness for Iran to use or manipulate proxies to launch attacks around the world.

Given the disruption or success of historical plots by Iranian linked networks in places as diverse as Thailand, India, Georgia, Cyprus, Argentina, Nigeria, Bulgaria, and the US, amongst others, the conflict against its enemies (Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia) from Tehran’s perspective has no borders. While a permanent alignment between Tehran and IS or AQ is unlikely, there is not likely to be much of a focused effort in eradicating either group by Tehran. In fact, it is possible and likely that Tehran will see IS, AQ and their various affiliates as useful potential assets to manipulate (if they are able) in their increasingly aggressive confrontation with the US.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence, Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit within the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be contacted at israffaello@ntu.edu.sg.

1 Eric Schmitt, “Terrorism Threat in West Africa Soars as US Weighs Troop Cuts,” New York Times, February 27, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/27/world/africa/ter rorism-west-africa.html.

2 Jason Burke, “Sahel faces surge in violence from terror attacks,” Guardian, January 22, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/22/sah el-faces-surge-in-violence-from-terror-attacks.

3 “Islamic State in Nigeria ‘beheads Christian hostages’,” BBC News, December 27, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-50924266.

4 Peter Fabricius, “Is Islamic State taking charge of Mozambique’s jihadist insurgency,” Institute for Security Studies Today, January 10, 2020, https://issafrica.org/iss-today/is-islamic-state-takingcharge-of-mozambiques-jihadist-insurgency.

5 Adrian Blomfield and Will Brown, “British troops back on front line against jihadists as war on terror spreads to Africa,” Telegraph, March 1, 2020, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/03/01/britishtroops-back-front-line-against-jihadists-war-terror/.

6 The attack on the Dusit hotel in Nairobi in January 2019 (James Kahongeh, “How Dusit terror attack unfolded,” Daily Nation, January 15, 2020, https://www.nation.co.ke/news/How-Dusit-terrorattack-unfolded/1056-5418518-bp715yz/index.html) and the attack on US and Italian forces in September 2019 (Caleb Weiss, “Sahabaab strikes American, Italian forces in Somalia,” Long War Journal, September 30, 2019, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2019/09/shabaab-strikes-american-italian-forces-in-somalia.php) show ambition, while their praise of AQAP’s Pensacola attack claim and the reference in the Dusit attack to being Zawahiri’s soldiers shows deference: “Blessing and Salutations for the Military Operation at the US navy base in Pensacola, Florida,” Al Kataib Media, February 2, 2020, https://twitter.com/Magdashi3/status/12249689 22329505792.

7 “Islamic State video seeks recruits in East Africa,” BBC Monitoring, February 28, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201hy23 – it is also notable how al Shabaab is being reported as broadening its recruitment base, Nicholas Komu, “AlShabaab changes tack, targets jobless youths in Nyeri slums,” Daily Nation, March 1, 2020, https://www.nation.co.ke/news/Al-Shabaab-targetsyouth-in-Nyeri-slums/1056-5474832- xagos9z/index.html.

8 This can be seen in some of the aforementioned incidents, but also see Caleb Weiss, “Al Qaeda’s general command praises recent Shabaab attacks,” Long War Journal, October 17, 2019, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2019/10/alqaeda-praises-recent-shabaab-attacks.php.

9 “Regional affiliates start pledging loyalty to new IS leader,” November 2, 2019, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c2017fwd; Mina al-Lami, “Analysis: Decoding Islamic State’s allegiance videos,” BBC Monitoring, October 7, 2019, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c20150sr

10 Mina al-Lami, “Analysis: Ongoing uncertainties about identity of new Islamic State leader,” BBC Monitoring, January 24, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201eozr and Martin Chulov and Mohammed Rasool, ISIS founding member confirmed by spies as group’s new leader,” Guardian, January 20, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/20/isisleader-confirmed-amir-mohammed-abdul-rahman-almawli-al-salbi; there appears to be a debate about his identity which even a report in the Guardian reportedly sourced from numerous intelligence sources has not cleared up. IS’ recent statement referred to the new leader again, without showing him.

11 The Easter 2019 attack in Sri Lanka is arguably an archetypal example of this.

12 Thomas Joscelyn, “AQAP claims ‘full responsibility’ for shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola,” Long War Journal, February 2, 2020, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2020/02/aq ap-claims-full-responsibility-for-shooting-at-naval-airstation-pensacola.php.

13 Emmanuel Sivan, “Sunni radicalism in the Middle East and the Iranian Revolution,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol.21, no.1, February 1989, pp.1-30.

14 “Chapter One: Tehran’s Strategic Intent,” Iran’s Networks of Influence in the Middle East, (IISS Strategic Dossier: London), November 2019, pp.11- 38, https://www.iiss.org/publications/strategicdossiers/iran-dossier/iran-19-03-ch-1-tehransstrategic-intent.

15 Fatih Altayli, “Is Iran Supporting Turkish Hezbollah?,” Al Monitor, April 16, 2013, https://www.almonitor.com/pulse/security/2013/04/turkey-iranhezbollah-support.html; there is a live debate about the degree to which Iran is involved with the group. People close to the group deny (“Huda-Pars emergence,” The Economist, November 23, 2013) while Turkish sources tend to highlight links (Mustafa Cosar Unal and Tuncay Unal, “Recruitment or enlistment? Individual integration into the Turkish Hezbollah,” Turkish Studies, vol. 19, No.3, 2018, pp.327-362)

16 Adnan Abu Amer, “The Hamas-Iran alliance remains and expands,” Middle East Monitor, January 14, 2019, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20190114-thehamas-iran-alliance-remains-and-expands/; “Chapter One: Tehran’s Strategic Intent,” Iran’s Networks of Influence in the Middle East, (IISS Strategic Dossier: London), November 2019, pp.11-38, https://www.iiss.org/publications/strategicdossiers/iran-dossier/iran-19-03-ch-1-tehransstrategic-intent.

17 Shahaburddin Shahab, “Pakistan asks Iran to act on militants behind Baluchistan killings,” Reuters, April 20, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/uspakistan-iran/pakistan-asks-iran-to-act-on-militantsbehind-baluchistan-killings-idUSKCN1RW0EQ.

18 Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden (UK: Bloomsbury), August 2017.

19 Nelly Lahoud, “Al-Qa’ida’s Contested Relationship with Iran: The View from Abbottabad,” New America Foundation, September 2018, https://s3.amazonaws.com/newamericadotorg/docu ments/AlQaidas_Contested_Relationship_with_Iran_2018- 08-20_151707.pdf.

20 Douglas Jehl, “Iran holds Taliban responsible for 9 diplomats’ deaths,” New York Times, September 11, 1998, https://www.nytimes.com/1998/09/11/world/iranholds-taliban-responsible-for-9-diplomatsdeaths.html.

21 Dexter Filkins, “The Shadow Commander,” New Yorker, September 23, 2013, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/09/30/th e-shadow-commander.

22 Javid Ahmad and Husain Haqqani, “What does Soleimani’s death mean for Afghanistan?,” The Hill, February 6, 2020, https://thehill.com/opinion/international/481884-whatdoes-soleimanis-death-mean-for-afghanistan.

23 “Syria-based jihadist group reportedly welcomes Soleimani’s death,” BBC Monitoring, January 12, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201dr8l.

24 “Text of IS spokesman’s message announcing new phase in jihad,” BBC Monitoring, January 27, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201f2pb.

25 “IS gloats at death of Soleimani in first comment on US-Iran crisis,” January 9, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201dfp7.

26 “Jihadist supporters condemn Hamas for mourning Soleimani,” BBC Monitoring, January 7, 2020, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201d54j.

27 Chris Zambelis, “Terror in Tehran: The Islamic State Goes to War with the Islamic Republic,” CTC Sentinel, vol.10, no.6, June/July 2017, https://ctc.usma.edu/terror-in-tehran-the-islamicstate-goes-to-war-with-the-islamic-republic/.

28 Ibid.

29 Loveday Morris and Louisa Loveluck, “Killing of ISIS leader has not hurt group’s operations, says Iraqi Kurdish prime minister,” Washington Post, February 15, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/killing-of-isisleader-has-not-hurt-groups-operations-says-iraqikurdish-leader/2020/02/15/d3e7303a-4ff8-11eaa4ab-9f389ce8ad30_story.html

30 Yasmine Farouk, “What does the US killing of Soeimani mean for Saudi Arabia?,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Commentary, January 7, 2020, https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/01/07/whatdoes-u.s.-killing-of-soleimani-mean-for-saudi-arabiapub-80722

31 Martin Williams, “Factcheck Q&A: Is Saudi Arabia funding ISIS?,” Channel 4 News, June 7, 2017, https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/factcheck -qa-is-saudi-arabia-funding-isis

32 “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America,” February 29, 2020, https://www.state.gov/wpcontent/uploads/2020/02/Agreement-For-BringingPeace-to-Afghanistan-02.29.20.pdf

33 This skepticism was well articulated by Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, “Trump’s Bad Deal with the Taliban,” Politico, March 18, 2019, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/03/18/ donald-trump-afghanistan-zalmay-khalilzad-225815 and was particularly illustrated in the death of Asim Umar in Afghanistan in September 2019, “Asim Umar: Al-Qaeda’s South Asia chief ‘killed in Afghanistan’,” BBC News, October 8, 2019 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-49970353.

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

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

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

March 2020, Volume 13, Issue 3

Authors: Raffaello Pantucci

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More catch up posting, this one from a couple of weeks back for an excellent local Singaporean newspaper the Straits Times. This one draws on a theme touched on before which might be a much larger project at some point in the future. Watch this space as ever!

Running amok in an age of meaningless terror

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The shooting last month that left nine people dead in the German city of Hanau is being described as an extreme right-wing terrorist attack. Yet a close examination of the shooter’s manifesto shows an odd mishmash of ideas that draw on extreme-right ideology, but also blend in elements of misogyny and off-the-wall conspiracy theories.

These include the belief that the United States was “under the control of invisible secret societies” and that little children were being detained, tortured and killed by satanists in “deep underground military bases”. Tobias Rathjen, who subsequently killed his mother and himself, also believed in remote mind control and accused US President Donald Trump of stealing his ideas, including the America First slogan.

The gunman’s victims – mostly people of Turkish descent in shisha bars – suggest he was driven by racist, right-wing beliefs, and indeed his manifesto is full of rants against non-whites and Islam. But what is also true is that he is part of a growing cohort of terrorists whose ideology is a muddled grab bag of ideas, and that requires us to rethink some of our assumptions about terrorists. We may be moving from sacred terror into an age of meaningless terror.

For some people, there is no such thing as meaningful terrorism. The idea of murdering other people to advance the cause of some political ideology or religion is hard to comprehend. Yet, we are usually at least able to grasp the ideological underpinnings or interpretations of faith that underpin their actions, however warped. But we are now moving into a situation where the police and security forces are increasingly finding themselves confronting individuals whose ideology is confused, to say the least.

In Britain, the Home Office flagged in its report last year at least 19 cases involving individuals with “mixed, unstable or unclear ideology” who “may still pose a terrorism risk”.

In the US, the Department of Homeland Security’s strategy to counter terrorism now talks about “terrorism and targeted violence” that includes “attacks otherwise lacking a clearly discernible political, ideological, or religious motivation”.

Including the 2017 Las Vegas shooter in this group, the department notes that “terrorists and perpetrators of targeted violence may be motivated by different ideologies or narratives of personal grievance, and in some cases by none at all”, but “they attack targets with similar characteristics, often with similar tactics”.

In the case of the Las Vegas attack, Stephen Paddock, 64, opened fire from his hotel suite on a crowd gathered for a music festival on the night of Oct 1, 2017. He shot dead 58 people and wounded another 413 before killing himself. The motive remains officially undetermined.

In continental Europe, the habit is still to classify people under different known ideologies, but the many variants of beliefs across the continent and their cross-linkages can be confusing. The line between extreme right-wing ideology and personals act of violence is also not always easy to discern.

And then there are the incels – the involuntary celibate movement of men whose defining characteristic is their inability to attract the women they want. What started off as an online subculture of resentful young men has shown its potential for violence in mass shootings in Canada and the US. The Hanau killer identified himself as an incel.

The incels are typical of the growing group of extremists who seem solely linked to others through conversations on grim online forums where they share grievances and radical solutions, all the while stoking one another’s anger.

As the number of groups engaged in online hate speech grows, there is an accompanying rise in individuals with serious mental health or social disorders appearing among the roster of terrorists of all ideologies. In some cases, obsessive personalities are going down ideological rabbit holes on the Internet and building identities online with such power and force that they persuade themselves to act in the real world.

The question then is, what does this all mean? We are now seeing how individuals – some troubled, some rational – are using the garb of a terrorist incident to externalise their anger. And given the ease with which a terrorist act can be performed, we are reaching a situation where any act of mass violence becomes terrorism.

We are seeing acts of performative violence in the appearance of terrorist acts. This might help the individual give meaning to an act of violence that they might want to perform anyway for some other personal reason.

This form of “running amok” – a Malay term that has made it into the English language – is in some ways not new. The original term described the phenomenon of individuals who would suddenly go into a frenzy, attacking all those around them. The phenomenon was sometimes blamed on demonic possession.

The individuals we are seeing today are performing acts of essentially meaningless violence, but using an outward appearance we translate and recognise as acts of terrorism. This imbues the act with greater meaning. Terrorist groups have learnt how to offer people methodologies that can be easily emulated and delivered. This makes it easy to carry out attacks. It also means that these groups are able to subsequently try to claim the attacks.

The problem this presents is a complicated one. There is the danger we are over-ascribing acts to terrorist groups and increasing their power and mystique. We might also be deploying our expensive security services in pursuing essentially disturbed individuals who, if recognised in a different context, might be manageable through other public services.

Prosecuting such individuals is also complicated – on the one hand, if they have performed a violent criminal act, a law has been broken. But on the other hand, how do we prosecute those who are caught before they launch their attack and how do we handle those who are genuinely ill’

There is also a danger in how we respond. Terrorist acts that attract attention draw others to their bright light. Some go on to attack and murder others, emulating an act they have just seen – seeing it as an appropriate moment to support their interpretation of an ideology or, more simply, because they like the attention and want some of it.

For those tasked to monitor the ever-changing phenomenon that is terrorism, it can be difficult when the terrorist act appears to have lost a larger strategic goal and there is no clear ideology driving the violence. Rather than groups of acolytes following ideas, we are seeing moths bouncing between flames until they burn themselves and those around them. The act becomes the ideology and any meaningful political statement decoration on top of what is ultimately a deeply personal act of anger at society.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Somewhat belatedly, posting a book chapter that emerged in Jihadist terror: New Threats, New Responses, edited by Dr Anthony Richards, Devorah Margolin and Nicolo Scremin, a book that came out of a big project and conference in London last year. A very big event with lots of interesting people, resulting in a very interesting looking edited volume. Given it is a book, the entire text is not published below, but I have pasted the abstract and feel free to get in touch if you would like to read more.

In media, my recent Wall Street Journal piece on how terrorism might evolve post-Baghdadi’s death generated an amusing epistolary response in the paper , and was also translated into Spanish. Also spoke to the National about the new allegiance pledges to the ISIS, to NBC about foreign fighters, AFP about the attack claimed by ISIS in Tajikistan, and earlier comments about the threat picture in the UK were used by Press Association and the Independent after JTAC lowered the terror threat level in the UK. Finally, Dr Philip Lewis quoted my book in a very interesting review essay in Church Times. On the other side of the coin, the IPI Global Observatory republished another recent piece for the East Asia Forum on China and Central Asia.

Personal and Organisational Patterns of Known Terrorists and Related Groups in the UK Since 1998

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As the UK’s domestic jihadist threat enters its fourth decade, the threat picture is one that is radically transformed from its early days. Drawing on information from just under 70 separate plots in the UK since 1998, this chapter sketches out the changing nature of the external threat picture, the nature of the individuals involved in the plots and the sorts of attacks that they were planning. Given the relatively limited space and discursive nature of the set thesis, the following is necessarily superficial in some ways, but sketches out a trajectory in the threat picture in the UK. The chapter breaks the time period down into four separate phases (1998-2004; 2004-2009; 2009-2013; 2013-2018), which capture four distinct moments in the nature of the violent Islamist terrorist threat to the UK. In concluding, it observes that the arc of threat has shifted from the UK being a launchpad for threats abroad, to a threat picture which is characterized by lone-actor style plots with greater inspiration, rather than clear direction, from foreign groups.

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

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

After Baghdadi, Terrorism Without Ideology

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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