Posts Tagged ‘ISIS’

Been a busy period for short pieces. Some longer ones are still working their way through the pipeline, and been doing more work on the new book, but all of that still to come, but watch this space. Returning to the present, a new piece for the Financial Times which is a rather morose contribution to the current conversation about Afghanistan looking at it from the perspective of the global jihadist movement. The problem may be reduced, but it certainly does not look like it has gone away. There is some more thinking that needs doing into why it is we are unable to ever resolve conflicts against such groups, and whether the problem is our fear of underestimating them. But that is for another day.

We might be done with jihadis but they are not done with us

Taliban fighters and villagers celebrate the peace deal in Laghman Province, in March last year © Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty

There is a wind of optimism sweeping through the global jihadist community. A narrative of victory is gaining momentum just as the west tries to turn the page and focus on great power conflict with China and Russia. 

Scanning the horizon, they see victories in Afghanistan and Mali as western forces announce their withdrawal. In north-western Nigeria and Mozambique, Isis-affiliated groups are gaining ground. And in north-eastern Syria, an al-Qaeda linked group is rebranding itself as an acceptable government. 

The decision to withdraw from Afghanistan has been made as the Taliban are ascendant on the battlefield. The deadline of September 11 this year only seems to highlight the inconclusive nature of what the west has tried to do there. In the wake of the attacks on the US in 2001, President Bush lumped the Taliban in with the responsible al-Qaeda terrorists they were hosting. He warned: “They [the Taliban] will hand over the terrorists or they will share in their fate.” Yet two decades later, the Taliban have not handed over any terrorists, broken with al-Qaeda or shared their fate. 

Al-Qaeda has suffered setbacks. A decade after 9/11, Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, by the US. His successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is in hiding and there is speculation of his demise. In contrast, Taliban leader Mullah Omar is believed to have died of natural causes. His successors are still fighting and their narrative is that they are going to take power in Kabul. Al-Qaeda’s media has praised the Taliban’s “historic” victory. 

This sense of success is bolstered by France announcing its withdrawal from Mali and Isis affiliates taking territory in Nigeria and Mozambique. In Idlib, Syria, al-Qaeda spawned Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is rebranding itself as a government willing to negotiate with the west. In an interview with US television, its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, presented himself as a politician who is simply trying to govern.

Yet none of these groups have given any indication that they have changed their views. Seen from the perspective of the jihadist community, the overall trajectory looks positive. Very few of the problems that created the groups in the first place — bad governance, inequality or ethnic tensions — have been addressed. Arguably, they have multiplied. Jihadist terrorism is erupting in more places than before. Prior to 2001, it was not a concern in some parts of Africa, where it now thrives. A 2018 report by US think-tank CSIS showed the number of groups have almost tripled since 2001. And the chaos following the announcement of withdrawal from Afghanistan raises questions about what has been achieved with 20 years of conflict. 

All of this is likely to rejuvenate the global jihadist movement. With creative reporting, it can portray itself as ascendant, with the US withdrawal giving it tangible evidence of success. This will motivate individuals and groups elsewhere around the world, who will see that their struggle is winnable if they just stick at it for long enough. 

While this may lead to suffering on the ground, it will not necessarily result in an immediate upsurge in terrorism in the west. The world is far more attentive to these threats, and Afghanistan is not the country it was pre-9/11. But in contexts where we see jihadist groups, a sense of triumph may animate them and push them forwards. 

Over time, this will probably evolve in ways that will surprise us. No one expected Isis to rise so abruptly from the ashes of Iraq’s insurgency. Violent Islamist terrorism in Africa has also spread in ways that were not immediately predictable. Few would have expected the growth of Isis affiliates in Congo or Mozambique. But all of these groups have a perspective and outlook which is anathema to the west, and support Isis’ global aims.

The threat is festering rather than going away. We may have tired of the groups and narratives of the war on terror — but those we are fighting have not. They will take this moment and savour what they see as their success. In the longer term they will present a new kind of problem that we will have to address. They will find a way of violently capturing our attention with dramatic attacks against western targets in unexpected places or new battlefields that draw in foreigners.

Whitehall and Washington may want to focus on China but jihadist conflicts are still very much with us. Given that we seem unable to resolve the issues that animate these movements, we are obliged to simply manage them. But handing them rhetorical victories is not helpful.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore.

My final piece in this most recent blast, this time for my London base RUSI looking at UK terrorist threats and matching up what the UK threat picture looks like with the growing focus the UK is placing on counter-terrorism deployments in parts of Africa. The point was really to raise questions about whether these deployments are going in the right places. Am aware the balance is always a complicated one between threats, capabilities and cost, but it does seem an odd set of choices to make at the moment. I think this is a set of questions I want to explore in more detail going forwards, but at the moment a bit overcommitted with other pieces which should be landing over the next few months.

One Down, Many More Challenges: The UK and Threats of African Terrorism

The UK is shifting its counterterrorism capability to Africa. Yet while the threat picture in Africa appears to be worsening, it remains unclear how outwardly menacing it actually is. The key question Whitehall needs to ask is whether the new deployments to Mali and Somalia appropriately reflect the global terrorist threat picture the UK faces.

For the ninth or tenth time, the leader of the Boko Haram terrorist group, Abubakar Shekau, has been reported killed. His death comes at a moment of growing attention towards terrorism in Africa. While last year saw a broader fall in terrorist violence around the world, in Africa it actually rose.

All of this comes as the UK appears to be increasing its counterterrorism focus on the continent. The prime minister has announced a deployment to Somalia to help address terrorist threats there, and the UK’s force in Mali has started to conduct operations on the ground. This suggests a shift in where the UK judges its main foreign terrorist threats to be coming from, as it follows the US out of the door in Afghanistan. The key question is whether this accurately reflects the threat picture to the UK and its interests.

Ironically enough, having been the target of authorities for many years, Shekau’s ultimate demise is reported to have come at his own hand while fighting the local Islamic State affiliate. An exceptionally violent man, Shekau led a brutal fighting force whose indiscriminate violence was considered too much even for Islamic State, leading to infighting among the jihadist groups on the ground. During his final stand, reports on the ground suggest that large numbers of his followers joined Islamic State rather than fight alongside him.

The death of terrorist leaders can often lead to fragmentation and greater levels of violence. However, Shekau’s death may actually accelerate a process of unification among the various violent groups in Nigeria under the Islamic State banner. This in turn could make the specific threat from Islamic State in the region worse.

What is less likely is that his death will particularly change the threat picture to the UK. As a global power with interests across Africa, the UK has an interest in stability in the region. But when looking at this region through a rigid counterterrorism lens, the threat appears far more local than international. And this is where questions might be asked about the current UK deployments to Mali and Somalia.

The threat picture in Somalia is one that has had direct links to the UK. We have just marked the eight-year anniversary of the death of Fusilier Lee Rigby. His murder was undertaken by individuals with links to terrorist networks in Somalia and their allies across the Gulf on the Arabian Peninsula. The current leader of Islamic State in Somalia is a former longstanding UK resident. There are fewer links to Mali, and no active plots that have been uncovered. Moreover, it has been a while since an active plot was prosecuted in the UK that had links to Somalia. Terrorism with links to networks in Africa that has affected the UK has tended to be connected to Libya – as we are discovering in some detail through the Manchester Arena bombing inquiry – as well as Tunisia, where some 30 UK holidaymakers were massacred in 2015.

There is no doubt that terrorist groups in Africa do have some connections to international networks, but they are not necessarily all connected in the same way. Nor is it entirely clear that they are all a threat to the UK or its interests equally – or that they pose the same level of menace as the groups that will continue to exist in Afghanistan.

While the UK has not seen a terrorist plot with direct links to South Asia for some time, a court in Germany is currently trying a network of Tajiks who are alleged to have been directed in part by Islamic State in Afghanistan. And the UK’s deep human connections with South Asia will always ensure that some echoes of tensions there will be felt in the UK.

But the UK is following the US’s decision on Afghanistan, and while some residual UK force will likely remain to support the more limited NATO mission on the ground, this is clearly not going to be a UK military focus. The key question, then, is whether the new UK mini-deployments to Africa are being targeted in the right places, and whether they are large enough to actually effect some change on the ground. So far, the reported numbers in both Somalia and Mali are in the low hundreds – certainly not enough to overturn longstanding jihadist threats or insurgencies that have been going on in some cases for generations.

This suggests the deployments are more demonstrative or focused on supporting limited kinetic counterterrorism goals rather than the long-term efforts that are needed to materially change the situation on the ground. This in turn highlights how the core of the UK’s security approach towards Africa in this regard still relies heavily on local forces.

Yet this has repeatedly been shown to be a fragile policy. One need only look at the fact that, at the same time as Shekau was dying fighting Islamic State, the Nigerian Army Chief died in a helicopter crash – or that just a month earlier, Chadian President Idriss Déby died fighting insurgents in his country – in order to see how fleeting African security arrangements can be. And this is before one factors in the latest coup d’état in Mali.

There is a growing terrorist threat in Africa. As the coronavirus pandemic afflicted the world last year, Africa was among the only places where violence associated with terrorist groups went up. And events in Mozambique earlier this year highlighted what a terrorist crisis in Africa could look like at its worst. Shekau’s death is likely to precipitate more violence in Nigeria. But it is not clear what kind of an outward-facing aspect these threats currently have.

By deploying small numbers of troops to Mali and Somalia, the UK is playing its part in tackling the broader regional issue. But the problems around terrorism in Africa are infinitely more complicated than these deployments suggest, and come at the same time as cuts in aid budgets to the same regions. If this light footprint reflects the fact that the threat picture to the UK is seen as limited, then questions should be asked as to whether scarce resources are being deployed optimally. The potential terrorist threat to the UK is still more likely to emanate from Libya, the Middle East or South Asia.

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

BANNER IMAGE: UK forces in Mali. Courtesy of Ministry of Defence/OGLv3.0

Had a busy week publishing with three short pieces out on a fairly disparate selection of topics, though all ones that I have done work on in the past. First up is a short piece with my excellent former RSIS colleague Sinan for the wonderful Indian think tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF). Big thanks to Kabir for helping get it published. It builds on a previous piece Sinan and myself did for RSIS, and is a topic which would merit much more work going forwards as the picture in the Maldives is very unclear.

Targeting of a former president highlights the growing challenge of extremism in Maldives

The attempted murder of the former Maldivian President and current Speaker Mohammed Nasheed has highlighted once again the challenges of extremism in the South Asian island nation. The Maldivian authorities have arrested 14 individuals in total, and as of May 29, the government has accused four individuals of planning a conspiracy to conduct terrorist attacks, supporting a foreign terrorist group, and recruiting individuals to partake in terrorist activity overseas.

The Home Affairs Minister, Imran Abdulla, has commented that there are numerous individuals in the islands who possess IED training, and the tiny nation has the unfortunate boast of being one of the countries with the highest per capita rates of jihadists who have left to fight in Iraq and Syria, all highlighting the depth and complexity of the violent Islamist threat that the Maldives faces. But at the same time, this threat background is not new, suggesting that a greater understanding is needed to understand the drivers of violence on the islands. Overreaction can be as dangerous as underreaction—calibrating that balance in the Maldives is going to be key.

A brief history of terrorism in the Maldives

Like much of the world, the Maldivian economy, which in ordinary times is reliant on tourism which contributes over 30 percent of GDP, has been depressed as a result of COVID-19. Coming out from the pandemic, it will need tourism numbers to pick up rapidly once again. But this beautiful tourist destination has also faced its fair share of terrorist complications. These date back to the war in Afghanistan and the jihad in Kashmir in the late 1990s, where individual Maldivians were found fighting alongside extremist organisations.

According to Maldivian specialists, there was a surge in the spread of extremist ideas in the wake of the 2004 Tsunami. In part, this was thanks to groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba taking advantage of the situation to establish a charitable foothold which then gave them an ability to recruit locally, but it was also thanks to the spread of a more exclusive form of Islam that flowed from different parts of the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia’s austere Salafi Islam, in particular, made its way to the nation giving the already disgruntled citizens a more intolerant religious ideology which mixed badly with the rampant corruption, poverty, and contrasting opulence reserved for tourists.

One result of this radicalisation was a bombing in 2007 that injured a group of mostly Chinese tourists at the Malé Sultan Park. This incident led to a crackdown on local Islamist networks, including the arrest of a number of preachers. After this, there was a reported silence in terms of incidents within the Maldives, though reports repeatedly emerged on Maldivians showing up in foreign battlefields or alongside other networks around the region.

Then in 2015, former President Abdullah Yameen was targeted in an explosion that took place on his boat; and in 2017 a prominent blogger, Yameen Rasheed, was stabbed to death near his home. Responsibility in both cases was unclear, with fingers being pointed at both extremists and political adversaries. In March 2020, a police boat was set on fire by Moosa Inaas, a man who was previously involved and jailed for the 2007 bombings.

New actors

Most worryingly, in 2020, there were stabbings of tourists; these incidents were claimed by Islamists with alleged links to the Islamic State in the nation, prompting further fear. This was in addition to some government-owned boats being set on fire (April 2020) in an incident that the ISIS claimed responsibility for.

The picture that is left is an opaque one. The attacks that have taken place appear to focus largely on politically connected figures or on tourists. While suspicions have repeatedly fallen on Islamists, it is not always clear that they are responsible. Since the establishment of the Islamic State in 2014, the country has been pushed into the spotlight. Evidence of this is seen in Sawt al-Hind’s (Voice of India)  publications where this regional online propoganda magazine has been used to claim or laud attacks that have taken place in the Maldives.

But while there has yet been no clear claim of responsibility for the attack on Speaker Nasheed (ISIS has yet to comment on the incident at all), there is a clear and growing concern around the threat from ISIS or al-Qaeda-inspired extremists. The government accuses the four men who were allegedly involved in the attack on Speaker Nasheed of  supporting and recruiting people for overseas terrorist groups in the name of ‘jihad’; it  is more than likely that  their assessments point to one of the two.

In the aftermath of this bombing, Maldivian Home Affairs Minister Imran Abdulla also noted that over 1,400 extremists were living freely in the Maldives, and some of them had improvised explosive device training. He used this opportunity to call for greater legal powers to detain and rehabilitate extremists.

Uncomfortable questions (and answers)

The bigger problem that the incident casts a light on is the continuing lack of any clear plan in the Maldives about how to address the still lingering question of radicalisation amongst some members of the island’s community. The Home Affairs Minister’s reference to the 1,400 extremists is a worrying set of statistics for a security force which is apparently struggling to provide tight security to one of its most senior politicians. Authorities appear to be willing to repatriate individuals who fought in Syria and Iraq, but it is not clear if there are processes in place to manage their effective de-radicalisation.

In January this year, authorities released a 34-year-old man who had been brought back from Syria the year before with police saying they would merely continue to monitor him. This follows a pattern in which police reportedly undertake arrests and disrupts plots, but infrequently appear to follow up with trials. Moosa Inaas’s case demonstrates the weaknesses in the processes to de-radicalise terrorist convicts.

But in a similar way, the government appears to be struggling on how to manage this threat­—a threat they do not fully comprehend. The ISIS has passed comments about a few incidents in the Maldives, but it is not clear as to why they are not claiming the others. Given the large number of per capita extremists in the islands, the rich number of potential targets in the forms of foreign tourists, the tensions that exist between conservative Muslims on the islands and some of these tourists, and finally the questionable capability of the security force, it is surprising in some ways that more attacks have not been seen.

This highlights an uncomfortable conclusion that has to be explored in the Maldivian context. While it is probable that more incidents are likely to take place, care needs to be taken to not overstate and overreact. There is clearly an intangible balance that exists within the Maldives that has so far kept an explosive situation to a limited (and highly targeted) set of incidents. Understanding this complicated balance is essential before a large-scale counter-extremism and counter-terrorism programming is deployed. Otherwise, a spark might set off something far worse.

Another short comment piece, this time for the Telegraph, looking at the withdrawal announcement from Afghanistan. Suppose we still have to see what actually transpires, but this decision does feel different. There’s another piece in the pipeline on this topic from a different angle, which you will have to check back and see.

Withdrawal from Afghanistan is the right call, but at what price?

The invasion became a Sisyphean endeavour but many Afghans worry about what it means for the Taliban’s return of power and influence

The Taliban has learned that by simply holding on, victory against even the mightiest military machine is possible CREDIT: Jim Hollander /REUTERS

As emotionally challenging as it might seem, President Biden’s decision to end the United States commitment to Afghanistan is probably the right call.

Many American Presidents have come into power declaring they will end their country’s involvement in the conflict, only to find themselves continually stuck in the mire. Having repeatedly pushed for a shrunken US presence during the Obama administration, Mr Biden is now finally in a position to force the decision through. 

It is exaggerated to say this is the end of American power, but it does highlight the limitations of a form of conflict that dominated the 2000s.

While the initial impetus for going into Afghanistan was to destroy Al-Qaeda and punish those who supported it, as time went on it became clear that what the Western alliance was getting into was in fact merely the latest phase in a conflict that has been troubling Afghanistan for decades.

Trying to resolve the larger conflict was something that would likely take generations of state building and transformation – none of which was necessarily wanted or accepted by everybody in Afghanistan.

The invasion became a Sisyphean endeavour being carried out while people died, vast sums of money were spent and political capital slowly ebbed away.

The other key lesson is being learned by insurgent and terrorist organizations, who can see once again that by simply holding on, victory against even the mightiest military machine is possible.

While the direct threat to the west from terrorist groups in Afghanistan is vastly reduced (though not entirely gone away, there is a case currently on trial in Germany of a cell who were talking to the Islamic State in Afghanistan), Al-Qaeda will undoubtedly celebrate the victory loudly and the Taliban will no doubt present themselves as victors. Terrorists may gather again in the ungoverned spaces that emerge from the withdrawal. 

Nevertheless, it is far from clear that we will see another attack on the scale of September 11, 2001. Intelligence agencies are far savvier about the potential of such threats and while withdrawal means coverage of Afghanistan will go down, it will not entirely go away. 

Within Afghanistan, people are concerned about the Taliban’s return of power and influence.

An organization with a medievalist outlook that has not significantly changed in the past twenty years, it still clearly has substantial appeal among Afghans.

Many in the country are doubtless concerned about a return to the civil war and warlordism that scourged the country during the 1990s. Both of these are sadly possible outcomes.

But this is not the same country as it was before. And it is not clear that all the gains of the past two decades will immediately be lost.

Regional powers still have a vested interest in ensuring that some stability exists, and that violence in the country does not get too out of hand.

The key question in all of this, however, is what the Afghan people want and how their leaders will help them achieve it. The ultimate answer to Afghanistan’s long troubles will only ever come from within the country.

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

A new piece for my Singaporean institutional home’s keynote journal, Counter-Terrorism Trends and Analyses (CTTA), this time trying to put some hard data on the question of what has the actual impact of COVID-19 been on terrorist threats. Whilst acknowledging it is hard to draw any hard and fast lessons, or really understand the causal links, the piece tries to explore the question using databases and existing information. This is part of a broader stream of work on this topic, including earlier pieces looking at how ideologies might adapt or develop going forwards, and some more data based projects that are in the pipeline. Watch this space.

Mapping the One-Year Impact of COVID-19 on Violent Extremism

Synopsis

One year since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, looking across militant violence, ideological narratives, recruitment and funding, it is evident that so far the impact of the contagion on violent extremism has been relatively limited. Notwithstanding COVID-19, the downward trajectory of global militant violence which started in 2016 continued through 2020 as well. Likewise, in the ideological realm, after initial incorporation of COVID-19 in their narratives as divine punishment or seeking to demonstrate capability to manage the virus, the subsequent messaging by violent extremist groups was more mundane about day-to-day developments. Looking at recruitment and fundraising trends, no significant change is visible except for the fact that lockdowns and travel restrictions have constrained extremist groups’ physical mobility and the ability to collect funds. In conclusion, the article notes that COVID-19 has been more of an enabler and accelerant of existing violent extremist trends but it is difficult to conclude whether, in the post-pandemic scenario (whenever that arrives), it will result in greater violence or if the downward trajectory which started in 2016 will persist.

Introduction

This article investigates the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on violent extremism since its outbreak one year ago. Notwithstanding vaccination rollouts, large parts of the world are still dealing with the virus as a very immediate problem with no clear end in sight. Methodologically, this fluid situation makes the actual assessment of the virus’ impact on violent extremism a difficult task. We are still in the midst of the pandemic, so it is hard to conclusively assess what its full impact has been as it has not yet been entirely felt. It is already difficult absent the pandemic to draw clear causal links to explain why people become motivated by terrorist ideologies. To try to understand the specific impact of COVID-19 as it is still surging around the world is an  even harder task.

In an attempt to sketch out some preliminary understanding on the nature of the impact, this paper will focus on four broad areas of terrorist activity and explore what available research and information indicates about the impact of COVID-19 on violent extremism. First, the paper will explore how terrorist violence has changed over the past year. Then, it will probe the evolution of how extremist ideologies and narratives have coopted, altered or responded to COVID-19. Lastly, it will look at how the coronavirus has impacted terrorist fundraising and recruitment.[1] Though this does not capture the full spectrum and detail of terrorist activity, it does hopefully provide a perspective on the impact of COVID-19 on violent extremism.

The author has consulted multiple reports and databases for this paper, though the information has not always been methodically collected. Where the author is aware of openly accessible databases, they have been used to corroborate analysis or speculative writing that has been produced.

The overall picture is – as might be expected given we are still only in the midst of the pandemic – unclear at the moment. There is some evidence to suggest terrorist groups have profited from the pandemic, but nothing conclusive has been produced yet which shows how it has translated into longer-term material benefit. However, it is highly likely that over a lengthier trajectory the impact of COVID-19 will be to make terrorism trends worse, though exactly how this plays out (whether through new ideologies emerging or existing ones getting graver) is yet to be determined.

Violence

Violence is the most obvious indicator to measure the impact of COVID-19 on terrorism over the past year. A number of databases exist looking at conflicts, counting incidents of violence and death. Of course, each of these has its own limitations and focuses on slightly different aspects of the conflict. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) is distinct for having mapped various conflict indicators for a few years. ACLED started in the late 1990s by focusing on Africa; it now appears that most conflict regions around the world have been measured from 2018 until the present, though most of Europe appears to have only been added to the dataset in 2020.[2] While there are other similarly substantial datasets in existence like the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP)[3] or the Global Terrorism Database (GTD),[4] neither of these appears to have data through the pandemic period available yet with both concluding in 2019.[5]

The most up-to-date public analysis of violence data during the pandemic year appears to have been produced by the University of Chicago’s Chicago Projects on Security & Threats (CPOST). Published in March 2021, the CPOST report draws on ACLED and their own Suicide Attack Database and concludes that across “The Middle East; Sub-Saharan Africa; North Africa; South-Central Asia (including Pakistan and Afghanistan)”, there was a drop in violence in 2020. “All four regions saw attacks fall on aggregate by 5 percent. That fall was sharp in the first six months and rose again in the next six months.”[6]

But CPOST’s overall conclusion is consistent with ACLED’s cumulative annual data that is clear on the broader global trends, which show that by almost every metric calculated, violent activity is down year-on-year between 2019 and 2020. The exceptions to this trend in their data are what ACLED terms as “strategic developments” which show some limited growth and “protests” showing a much sharper rise.[7]

ACLED Overall Numbers:

ACLED Overall Numbers. Source: ACLED dashboard (accessed March 2021)[8]:

The broader trajectory on most of the violent indicators that ACLED gathers data on shows a downward trend from 2018 (with some exceptions). Removing “protest” data in particular reveals this trend more clearly. Looking at this against terrorism data more specifically, this downward trajectory is corroborated by the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Terrorism Index (GTI) for 2020. Using data from 2019, GTI reports that “deaths from terrorism fell for the fifth consecutive year, after peaking in 2014. The total number of deaths fell by 15.5 percent to 13,826. The fall in deaths was mirrored by a reduction in the impact of terrorism.”[9] CPOST analysis of ACLED data identifies a similar trend in 2020, highlighting a 5 percent overall decline in violence year-on-year. At the same time, it specifies that in the first two quarters of 2020, this drop was noticeable, but by the third quarter of the year, violence was rising again, and by fourth quarter, the numbers were the same as a year earlier in quarter four.[10]

ACLED overall numbers without “protest data”:

Figure 2: ACLED overall numbers without “protest data”. Source ACLED dashboard, accessed March 2021.

The broader fall in violence that ACLED records since 2018 drawing on all conflict data is even sharper when focused just on violent acts. The two data points which ACLED notes as increasing, “protests” and “strategic developments”, suggest potential precursors to terrorist violence.[11] In both cases, they suggest that there is a continuing anger, or brewing tensions, which could later express themselves as violence. Anecdotally, in the Philippines there has been some suggestion that groups are using this moment to re-group and refresh,[12] while in Indonesia, there were reports that groups had seen the arrival of COVID-19 as a signal of impending apocalypse and had consequently stopped their operations and sat at home waiting for the end of days.[13] More frequently, however, reporting has suggested that repeated lockdowns have complicated groups’ physical mobility and ability to carry out attacks.[14]

When compared with other available datasets, a generally static picture in violence year-on-year appears. For instance, the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) annual assessment of 2020 shows across regions covered in the report (South, Southeast, Central Asia, as well as the Middle East broadly) that violence year-on-year has reduced or remained the same during the pandemic year.[15] An IS-specific Southeast Asia dataset maintained by ICPVTR shows a year-on-year drop.[16] Noted Middle East terrorism scholar Aaron Zelin’s dataset tracking IS-claimed attacks during 2020 in Syria and Iraq has remained relatively static.[17] Likewise, the Deep South Watch, which monitors violence in Southern Thailand, illustrates a dip in terrorist attacks during the first half of 2020, but by the end of the year violence had returned to roughly the same level as 2019.[18] The South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) also recorded a drop in terrorist activity from 2019 to 2020 in South Asia, but it broadly appeared to be on roughly the same pattern as the fall from earlier years. There was a more pronounced drop in SATP’s figures for Afghanistan, but this is likely attributable to the US-Taliban deal signed in February 2020.[19] An exception to this trajectory can be found in Europe, where according to research by the International Center for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) in the Hague, there was a spike in violent Islamist incidents in Europe in 2020 – though the rates of casualties or incidents remain in the low double digits.

Critically, there is little evidence to show that COVID-19 had a material impact on militant violence – trajectories over the year were for the most part with some specific drops which might be linked to restrictions on movements or activity that came from COVID-19. The spike in Europe of violent Islamist attacks still requires greater research and understanding, but there has been very little evidence presented that COVID-19 might have been a driver in some way. Rather, it is possible that the incidents might in part have been inspired by each other and broader social tensions (amongst different communities, as well as in the form of extreme right-wing violence) in Europe.

Ideologies

An absence of violence does not equate to an absence of threat. There are many reasons why violence could have gone down and it is not clear that they are necessarily linked to COVID-19. Some experts even note that lulls in violent activity are in fact more dangerous moments as it is during these moments that groups are able to prepare and plan for more attacks away from security services’ attention.[20] Clearly, extremist groups have brought COVID-19 related ideas and commentary into their narratives. However, the degree to which these narrative shifts have materially changed group capabilities or how long these narrative shifts will last is hard to assess.

There has been a lot of writing and analysis on how violent Islamist groups have talked about COVID-19, blending it into their worldviews or talking up the opportunities that it might afford them. There have even been examples of cells talking about trying to weaponise COVID-19 in some way – for example, a cell linked to IS in Tunisia was discussing coughing and spitting at security forces,[21] while Indonesian authorities reported overhearing a cell harbouring similar intentions.[22] However, there is little evidence indicating that COVID-19 has materially changed extremist ideologies.

For example, in its regular six-monthly report on IS(IL), Al Qaeda and associated individuals’ activity, the UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team notes:

“IS(IL) continues to emphasise the “divine punishment of arrogance and unbelief” narrative regarding the pandemic that it adopted in March 2020, and to exhort followers to attack the enemy while counter-terrorist defences are supposedly weakened. (It should be noted that some Member States have observed a shift in recent months away from the “divine punishment” narrative as the pandemic’s impact has spread.) However, no developed IS(IL) strategy has evolved for the pandemic. This includes weaponisation of the virus by using contagious supporters to infect opponents, which was mooted within IS(IL) in March but has not progressed as a practical proposition.”[23]

The Monitoring Group’s commentary on al-Qaeda is focused on the high level of leadership attrition that the group has suffered, with little evidence of the group focusing much on the pandemic. The group in fact waited until late March to issue some comment on the pandemic, and this was largely a broad commentary on how badly the west was handling the virus.[24] Later comments focused instead on the fact that western governments had failed to protect their elderly and infirm, though much of al-Qaeda’s commentary during this period seemed focused on proving their leader was alive or that they were not going to be negatively affected by the fact that the Taliban were seeking to strike a deal with the US in Afghanistan which would specifically eject them from Afghanistan.

Affiliates of al-Qaeda commented about the pandemic, and in some cases suggested that they were going to offer healthcare to help local affected communities, but it was not clear how useful or realistic this was.[25] According to UN reporting, al-Shabaab found itself obliged to provide some response after local communities and followers highlighted their failure to effectively respond.[26] Syrian Hayat Tahrir al Sham has continued to support the Salvation Government in the parts of Northern Syria where they exert control and have offered reporting on COVID-19, as well as limited medical care service.[27] And in any case, it was clear that the groups were simply seeking to advance a narrative of offering themselves as alternatives to the state in tune with their broader visions of their goals, rather than something new.[28]

In contrast, extreme right-wing groups in the West not only talked a great deal about the pandemic but even changed their behaviours or ideologies to absorb COVID-19 related narratives.[29] US and UK authorities separately noted an uptick in threats towards Jews and attacks using COVID-19.[30] In some cases, there has been credible evidence that this surge in right-wing propaganda has resulted in forms of violence. The most obvious example of this is the growing instances of violence against 5G masts, emerging from conspiracy theories related to the development of such masts and the spread of COVID-19.[31] In the US, narratives around COVID-19 restrictions became caught up in anti-federal government discourses, inflaming already angry groups.[32] In April 2020, an individual tried to derail a train in the Los Angeles Port Yard in an attempt to stop a US Navy vessel bringing aid to other parts of the country.[33] In Australia, there were reports that the local branch of the Proud Boys was using anti-lockdown protests as opportunities to specifically attack police.[34] Australian security forces repeatedly pointed out that they had seen an increase in their far right activity during COVID-19.[35] UK authorities also expressed concern about young people being radicalised as they were stuck online during lockdowns,[36] a concern which might have materialised in the growing numbers of teenagers being charged with extreme right terror offences.[37]

In some instances, however, far right groups have sought to use the pandemic as an opportunity to instead push themselves further into the mainstream and used the pandemic as an opportunity to show their civic mindedness. In Ukraine, the Azov Movement and its offshoots have sought to offer training videos for people caught in lockdowns, support for those who are unable to get their shopping or need other forms of assistance.[38] This approach is similar to the modus operandi of violent Islamists who offer themselves as aid or healthcare providers during the pandemic. The key difference being that the violent Islamists need to control the territory in which they are doing it, while the extreme right (in Ukraine at least) are doing it within the broader societies in which they live. The idea is to generate more sympathy for their cause, rather than demonstrate governance capability.

Beyond these two core ideologies, it is very difficult to discern much of a change in other ideologies or groups as a result of COVID-19. In part this is due to a lack of data and research, but also as it is not even very clear that COVID-19 has produced the specified change in the two principal ideologies to receive attention. The extreme right was ascendant prior to COVID-19, while violent Islamists have always held escatalogical narratives and sought to demonstrate governance capabilities. The only discernible shift in violence that could be credibly linked to COVID-19 is from the extreme right that has incorporated the pandemic into its radicalising narratives more convincingly and with greater impact than violent Islamists. The fact that the far right in the US has managed to penetrate the mainstream, and that conspiracy theories have now developed such a wide-ranging impact including driving people towards terrorist violence, opens the door to future potential ideologies.[39]

At the same time, it has to be remembered that the year 2020 was also the final year of the Trump presidency. This is important to bear in mind as with President Trump in the White House, the world’s most powerful leader was using his platform to provide oxygen to elements of the extreme right narrative – be this in terms of his tendency to fail to condemn the extreme right in the United States[40] or re-tweet far right extremist material.[41] Rather than being a fringe ideology, it became associated with the mainstream, an intoxicating elevation which may also help explain the level of fury and activity around the global extreme right. Seen in this light, COVID-19 may have simply been further fuel into an already inflamed global situation.

Recruitment and Fundraising

Very little published data has been released highlighting the impact of COVID-19 on terrorist group recruitment. There has been some reporting around the impact on terrorist fundraising. The UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team February 2021 report provides some references to member states noting changes in fundraising patterns. Specifically, they point to enhanced difficulties of transporting money across borders due to travel restrictions complicating money transfers. But at the same time, the report indicates a growing level of use of cryptocurrencies and online transfers suggesting the impact might be mitigated through alternative cyber-routes.[42] Showing how these issues can intersect with COVID-19 specifically, there was the reported case of an ISIS fundraising network that was selling fake personal protective equipment (PPE) online.[43]

These concerns echo those articulated by the Eurasian Group (EAG) on combating money laundering and the financing of terrorism, though very few cases were provided to illustrate the particular terrorism financing concerns.[44] These findings were in turn similar to those generated by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)’s report, which again mentioned terrorism financing as a potential issue and highlighted how charitable money flows in particular could be abused by terrorist organisations.[45] Both the FATF and EAG reports, however, pointed to the far greater risk coming from COVID-19 related fraud, be it in terms of fake (or non-existent) medical equipment, as well as abuse of COVID-19 relief packages offered by governments.[46] A sense of the potential scale of the fraud involved is illustrated by the UK case, where some reports suggested that as much as half of the £46 billion being doled out by the government could be lost to defaults and fraud.[47] While theoretically some of this money could have been taken by terrorists, no clear examples have been presented yet of this taking place in the UK or elsewhere.

Looking at more specific examples of where these threats intersect, the UN Monitoring Team report also points to a decrease in maritime kidnapping for ransom in the tri-border Southeast Asian region between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.[48] However, this contrasts with reporting by the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre (IMB-PRC) which reports that there has been an increase in maritime piracy, with a particular growth in the Philippines and the Singapore Strait.[49] IMB-PRC does not specify whether there is a link to terrorism in this criminal activity, but the contrast to the UN report underscores this is an area where there is inadequate research at the moment.

Recruitment is equally challenging to track. While repeated reports show an increase in online activity, especially amongst extreme right wing groups[50], it is not yet clear whether this is pulling through to recruitment. UN reporting indicates how Eurasian member states have reported groups using the pandemic as an opportunity to offer individuals support and money, something which increases popularity and recruitment.[51] In most cases, however, the reporting is non-specific, suggesting that groups are increasing their propaganda and this theoretically translates into more recruits. However, there have been no evidence based reports showing this link successfully delivering new recruits in practice. There is repeated reporting and discussion around the threats from the increased amount of time that people spent online during the pandemic and the increased opportunities this presented for online radicalisation, but so far there has been no evidence based assessment of what the actual impact was.

Many of the specific cases of terrorism linked to COVID-19 that have emerged during the pandemic  are in fact individuals who had been involved or interested in extremist activity prior to COVID-19. For example, an early prominent attack which was linked to the pandemic in the US against a hospital focused on COVID-19 care was undertaken by an American extreme right wing adherent who had long been on FBI radars.[52] Even the very young followers in Europe who have emerged through arrest and conviction during this past year appear in many cases to be young men who had already been active on extreme right wing forums pre-pandemic.[53] COVID-19 related lockdowns may have been an accelerant towards more violent online rhetoric or given groups greater opportunities to reach out to captive audiences online, but so far it is not clear if it has translated into more violence from them. Overall, it is still inconclusive how terrorist group fundraising and recruitment have been impacted yet and whether the increased online rhetoric or activity has resulted in material change to groups’ coffers or numbers.

Conclusion

A year into the pandemic, it remains entirely unclear the exact impact that COVID-19 will have on violent extremism in the longer-term. It is clear that it has affected groups’ behaviour and action in the same way that it has affected everyone else, but it is not clear that it has materially changed things in a way that is utterly unique to the pandemic. Previous natural disasters have produced contradictory comparisons. For example, the Spanish Flu of 1918 was followed by a spate of anarchist violence which did not appear linked to the pandemic, while the 2004 Asian tsunami helped bring peace to Aceh and accelerated violence in Sri Lanka.[54] A RAND study from 2011 which sought to apply some methodological rigour to the question found that there was in fact an increase in terrorism-related death in the wake of natural disasters.[55] The same report explored the impact of natural disasters on government capacity to respond to terrorist threats and showed a dip in capability following the disaster which groups take advantage of, but within two years authorities are usually able to regain the upper hand.[56] This suggests something to pay attention to once the pandemic has been definitively brought under control.

At the moment, the most noticeable change in behaviour to have been generated by the pandemic has been the acceleration to prominence and wider acceptance of the use of violence to advance conspiracy theories. While at the moment this violence is an irritant, it is a first step on an escalatory path. Furthermore, the indicators in ACLED data that protests and groups’ preparatory action has persisted and even grown during the pandemic, suggest that while COVID-19 seems to have acted as an inhibitor of major terrorist activity during the first pandemic year, it has most certainly not gone away and might even be biding its time rather than in retreat. COVID-19 has in fact appeared to be something of an enabler and accelerator of existing trends and threats. The key question which has yet to be addressed is whether this means that terrorist violence will continue on the downward trajectory that most indicators appeared to show over the past few years, or whether in fact the COVID-19 pandemic will result in an increase in threats. In the longer-term, it is likely that COVID-19 will help foster a new wave of ideologies, though whether the pandemic is entirely to blame might be difficult to conclude. The end of the pandemic will expose a world which is likely to be even more divided than before, alongside a likely global economic recession. All of which will create a context in which the threat picture from terrorism might start on a gradual path upwards again in contrast to the trends over the past few years.

About the author Raffaello Pantucci is a 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] The author is grateful for his ICPVTR colleagues’ comments during a brainstorming session in late 2020 which helped inform the creation of this list.

[2] “ACLED coverage to date” https://acleddata.com/acleddatanew/wp-content/uploads/dlm_uploads/2019/01/ACLED_Country-and-Time-Period-Coverage_updFeb2021.pdf

[3] Uppsala Conflict Data Program: Department of Peace and Conflict Research https://ucdp.uu.se/#/

[4] Global Terrorism Database: START https://www.start.umd.edu/research-projects/global-terrorism-database-gtd

[5] It is further worth noting that the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) annual terrorism review the Global Terrorism Index draws on data primarily from the GTD meaning it has also not provided any analysis or data for 2020 yet (https://www.visionofhumanity.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/GTI-2020-web-1.pdf).

[6] “Political Violence: January 1 – December 31, 2020,” Review, Chicago Project on Security & Threats, March 2021

[7] ACLED Full Dashboard: https://acleddata.com/dashboard/#/dashboard; In ACLED terms, “strategic developments” is classified as events which are linked to politically motivated groups that usually indicate a precursor to possible violence, but do not involve violence, while “protests” are classified as peaceful events. In other words, the two indicators that ACLED sees as having increased during the pandemic are non-violent ones.

[8] ACLED Full Dashboard: https://acleddata.com/dashboard/#/dashboard

[9] “Global Terrorism Index 2020: Measuring the Impact of Terrorism,” Institute for Economics and Peace, November 2020 https://www.visionofhumanity.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/GTI-2020-web-1.pdf (p.2)

[10] “Political Violence: January 1 – December 31, 2020,” Review, Chicago Project on Security & Threats, March 2021

[11] Peaceful protests are events which articulate mass public political anger, while “strategic developments” are activities which groups are undertaking (or experiencing, given arrests are also included within this category) that reflect non-violent action which could be interpreted as preparatory. “Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) Codebook” https://acleddata.com/acleddatanew/wp-content/uploads/dlm_uploads/2019/01/ACLED_Codebook_2019FINAL.docx.pdf .

[12] “The Fusion of Offline and Online Interventions against Extremism in the Philippines,” GNET-CENS workshop report, 16 December 2020 https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/GNET-CENS-Workshop-2-Philippines-210114.pdf

[13] “IPAC Short Briefing No.1: COVID-19 and ISIS in Indonesia,” Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), April 2, 2020 http://file.understandingconflict.org/file/2020/04/COVID-19_and_ISIS_fixed.pdf

[14] “The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on terrorism, counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism: Update” UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, December 2020 https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/CTED_Paper_The-impact-of-the-COVID-19-pandemic-on-counter-terrorism-and-countering-violent-extremism_Dec2020.pdf

[15] Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, vol.13, no. 1, January 2021 https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/CTTA-January-2021.pdf – there are exceptions to this, like Myanmar where the report suggests an “intensification” of violence (p. 34). In other cases, the data is less categorical, but the characterization is of problems over 2020 that have either remained the same or reduced in violence.

[16] Closed database maintained by ICPVTR, February 2021

[17] Aaron Y. Zelin, @azelin, February 2, 2021 https://twitter.com/azelin/status/1356361479881183234

[18] “Summary of incidents in Southern Thailand, January 2021” Deep South Watch Database, February 15, 2021 https://deepsouthwatch.org/en/node/11973

[19] “Number of terrorism related incidents year wise” March 14, 2021 https://www.satp.org/datasheet-terrorist-attack/incidents-data/southasia

[20] “What Happens Now? Terrorism and the challenges of counter-terrorism in the next decade” ICPVTR webinar by Suzanne Raine, Affiliate lecturer, Centre for Geopolitics at Cambridge University, January 27, 2021 https://www.rsis.edu.sg/event/icpvtr-webinar-on-what-happens-now-terrorism-and-the-challenges-of-counter-terrorism-in-the-next-decade-by-suzanne-raine/#.YC9oFHczZ5w

[21] “Terrorists plotting COVID-19 contamination attack on Tunisian security forces arrested,” North African Post, April 17, 2020 https://northafricapost.com/40082-terrorists-plotting-covid-19-contamination-attack-on-tunisian-security-forces-arrested.html

[22] “Adjustment and Resilience: Preventing Violent Extremism in Indonesia during COVID-19 and beyond,” UNODC and Guyub Project, February 2021 (primary author Cameron Sumpter) https://www.unodc.org/documents/southeastasiaandpacific/Publications/2021/indonesia/Main_COVID_CT_Indonesia_PRINT_EN.pdf

[23] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities” United Nations Security Council, February 3, 2021 https://undocs.org/S/2021/68

[24] “Al-Qaeda invites ‘Western nations’ to Islam amid COVID-19,” BBC Monitoring reporting Rocketchat messaging service in Arabic, April 1, 2020 https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201l1q3

[25] “The Limits of ‘Shabaab-CARE’: Militant Governance amid COVID-19,” CTC Sentinel, vol.13, No.6, June 2020 https://ctc.usma.edu/the-limits-of-shabaab-care-militant-governance-amid-covid-19/

[26] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities” United Nations Security Council, February 3, 2021 https://undocs.org/S/2021/68

[27] “Coronavirus and The Salvation Government – Hay’at Tahir al-Sham,” Jihadology.com, March 1, 2021 https://jihadology.net/coronavirus-and-the-salvation-government-hayat-tahir-al-sham/

[28] Kabir Taneja and Raffaello Pantucci “Beware of terrorists offering COVID-19 aid,” Raisina Debates, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), April 17, 2020 https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/beware-of-terrorists-offering-covid19-aid-64731/

[29] “Member States concerned by the growing and increasingly transnational threat of extreme right wing terrorism,” CTED Trends Alert, July 2020 https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/CTED_Trends_Alert_Extreme_Right-Wing_Terrorism_JULY.pdf

[30] “COVID-19: How Hateful extremists are exploiting the pandemic,” Commission for Countering Extremism, July 2020 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/906724/CCE_Briefing_Note_001.pdf and “Lauder: National Guard must protect Jews from Neo-Nazi coronavirus threat,” Jerusalem Post, March 25, 2020 https://www.jpost.com/International/FBI-Neo-Nazi-groups-encouraging-spread-coronavirus-to-police-and-Jews-622006

[31] Amongst the many conspiracy theories circulating was one which linked the expansion of 5G to the spread of the virus – in part technophobia, in part anti-Chinese sentiment. The result has been a spike in destruction of 5G infrastructure (usually masts) in parts of Europe in particular, though also in North America. Michael Loadenthal, “Anti-5G, Infrastructure Sabotage, and COVID-19,” GNET Insight, January 19, 2021 https://gnet-research.org/2021/01/19/anti-5g-infrastructure-sabotage-and-covid-19/

[32] Blyth Crawford, “Coronavirus and conspiracies: how the far right is exploiting the pandemic,” The Conversation, September 15, 2020 https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-and-conspiracies-how-the-far-right-is-exploiting-the-pandemic-145968

[33] “Train Operator at Port of Los Angeles Charged with Derailing Locomotive Near US Navy’s Hospital Ship Mercy,” US Department of Justice, Central District of California, April 1, 2020 https://www.justice.gov/usao-cdca/pr/train-operator-port-los-angeles-charged-derailing-locomotive-near-us-navy-s-hospital

[34] Michael McGowan, “Australian Proud Boys sought to combat-trained supporters to ‘arrest’ police at COVID lockdown protests,” Guardian, February 15, 2021 https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/feb/15/australian-proud-boys-leader-sought-combat-trained-supporters-to-arrest-police-at-covid-lockdown-protests

[35] Samaya Borom, “Increased visibility of Far-Right movements in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic,” GNET Insights, September 24, 2020 https://gnet-research.org/2020/09/24/increased-visibility-of-far-right-movements-in-australia-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/

[36] Caleb Spencer, “Coronavirus: ‘children may have been radicalised in lockdown’,” BBC News, June 30, 2020 https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-53082476

[37] Lizzie Dearden, “Boy, 14, started making bombs during lockdown after watching ISIS propaganda, court hears,” Independent, September 29, 2020 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/terror-plots-uk-teenage-boy-eastleigh-bottle-bombs-isis-online-radicalisation-b693441.html

[38] Michael Colborne, “For the Far Right, the COVID-19 crisis is a PR opportunity,” Fair Observer, April 13, 2020 https://www.fairobserver.com/region/europe/michael-colborne-far-right-coronavirus-pandemic-assistance-covid-19-crisis-pr-news-10109/

[39] Raffaello Pantucci, “After the Coronavirus, Terrorism won’t be the same,” Foreign Policy, April 22, 2020 https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/22/after-coronavirus-terrorism-isis-hezbollah-5g-wont-be-the-same/

[40] David Smith, Lois Beckett, Maanvi Singh and Julia Carrie Wong, “Donal Trump refuses to condemn white supremacists at presidential debate,” Guardian, September 30, 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/sep/29/trump-proud-boys-debate-president-refuses-condemn-white-supremacists

[41] “Donal Trump retweets far-right group’s anti-Muslim videos,” BBC News, November 29, 2017 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-42166663

[42] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities” United Nations Security Council, February 3, 2021 https://undocs.org/S/2021/68

[43] USA vs Facemaskcenter.com and Four Facebook Pages, Case 1:20-cv-02142-RC, Filed 08/05/20 https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/1304296/download

[44] “Information Note: Concerning the COVID-19 impact on the EAG countries’ AML-CFT efforts and measures taken to mitigate the ML/TF risks stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic” Eurasian Group (EAG), https://eurasiangroup.org/files/uploads/files/%D0%9C%D0%B5%D1%80%D1%8B_%D0%B2_%D1%81%D0%B2%D1%8F%D0%B7%D0%B8_%D1%81_COVID-19/Information_note_on_COVID-19_measures_eng_rev4.pdf

[45] “Update: COVID-19-related Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing,” FATF, December 2020 https://www.fatf-gafi.org/media/fatf/documents/Update-COVID-19-Related-Money-Laundering-and-Terrorist-Financing-Risks.pdf

[46] “Update: COVID-19-related Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing,” FATF, December 2020 https://www.fatf-gafi.org/media/fatf/documents/Update-COVID-19-Related-Money-Laundering-and-Terrorist-Financing-Risks.pdf

[47] Daniel Thomas and Stephen Morris, “A giant bonfire of taxpayers money: fraud and the UK pandemic loan scheme,” Financial Times, December 20, 2020 https://www.ft.com/content/41d5fe0a-7b46-4dd7-96e3-710977dff81c

[48] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities” United Nations Security Council, February 3, 2021 https://undocs.org/S/2021/68

[49] “Maritime piracy hotspots persist during 2020,” Hellenic Shipping News, Febrary 1, 2020 https://www.hellenicshippingnews.com/maritime-piracy-hotspots-persist-during-2020/

[50] “Member States concerned by the growing and increasingly transnational threat of extreme right wing terrorism,” CTED Trends Alert, July 2020 https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/CTED_Trends_Alert_Extreme_Right-Wing_Terrorism_JULY.pdf

[51] “The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on terrorism, counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism: Update” UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, December 2020 https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/CTED_Paper_The-impact-of-the-COVID-19-pandemic-on-counter-terrorism-and-countering-violent-extremism_Dec2020.pdf

[52] Pete Williams, “Missouri man planned to bomb hospital during pandemic to get attention for white supremacist views,” NBC News, March 31, 2020 https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/missouri-man-planned-bomb-hospital-during-pandemic-get-attention-white-n1172346

[53] Lizzie Dearden, “Boy, 14, started making bombs during lockdown after watching ISIS propaganda, court hears,” Independent, September 29, 2020 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/terror-plots-uk-teenage-boy-eastleigh-bottle-bombs-isis-online-radicalisation-b693441.html

[54] Abdul Basit, “COVID-19: a challenge or opportunity for terrorist groups?” Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism, vol.15, No.3, October 2020 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/18335330.2020.1828603?needAccess=true

[55] Claude Berrebi and Jordan Ostwald, “Earthquakes, Hurricanes and Terrorism: Do Natural Disasters Incite Terror?” RAND Working Paper, 2011 https://www.rand.org/pubs/working_papers/WR876.html

[56] Claude Berrebi and Jordan Ostwald, “Earthquakes, Hurricanes and Terrorism: Do Natural Disasters Incite Terror?” RAND Working Paper, 2011 https://www.rand.org/pubs/working_papers/WR876.html


I have a few longer papers that are due to land over the next few weeks, mostly on terrorism for a variety of different outlets. Some bigger China ones coming after that. First up is this piece which was actually written last year and was commissioned by the lovely people at the Vienna based European Institute for Counter-Terrorism and Conflict Prevention (EICTP), and which draws on ideas which were first loosely sketched out in this earlier Foreign Policy piece. It is a bit of a forward looking piece trying to explore where trends might end up going. There are a couple of more empirically based pieces coming looking at the impact of COVID-19 on terrorism and extremism.

Terrorist Threats Post-COVID-19

It is too early at this stage to draw any definitive conclusions about what the impact on terrorism from COVID will be, but some early sketches can be drawn of problems which appear to be being exacerbated. The causal link to COVID is hard to tell. But there has been a noticeable shift in various terrorist ideologies in COVID’s shadow which merit a stock-take. The aim of this article is to dig into these shifts and try to offer some broad thoughts about where the longer- term threat picture might be going.

What have terrorists said about COVID-19?

As a start point, it is useful to explore what terrorist groups have actually said and done about COVID. In the early days of the virus, groups were commenting on it in much the same way as everyone else was. In some cases, they drew the ideas into the larger conspiracies they are signed up to seeking to explain it as part of a master plan to destroy the world and advance their ideology. Less apocalyptic responses focused instead on the practical things that groups could do to help populations fend off the virus. This form of social services was an attempt to win over hearts and minds to demonstrate how governments were failing. In many cases it built on a history of offering social services to their communities, and merely served to further endear them. And yet others instead chose to make the strategically sensible point that the net result was likely to be less attention by security forces and distracted authorities, therefore offering a useful moment to strike or take territory.216

There was also considerable discussion around the idea of trying to weaponize the virus, though the evidence around this happening has been very thin. Extremist forums churned out propaganda about what could be done, but very few actually moved forwards with their plans. One plan was dramatically uncovered in Tunisia, where a preacher was telling his followers to cough or sneeze on security forces in advance of an attack.217 For the most part, security services have not reported much change in the threat picture as a result of COVID.218 In the US some people have been prosecuted under terrorism legislation for threatening to actively spread the virus, though it is not clear there was any political motive behind their act.219

Having said this, there has been a noticeable increase in the volume of noise around terrorist groups,220 though it is not clear this has actually resulted in an increase in violence. While metrics are hard to get, using the data offered by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), it would appear that all of the conflict and political violence metrics that they follow are down year on year across the world, and in particular in regions where terrorist groups are dominant.221 This is not an entirely surprising outcome. Given the general lockdowns and difficulties in travelling, it has become harder to practically mobilize in the same way as before. And while online activity has made the spread and virulence of extremist ideas and disinformation alongside it easier, it is not yet in a state to replace the physical act of violence.

But a lack of violence does not unfortunately necessarily equate to the absence of a problem. The underlying issues that can cause radicalization can take considerable time to turn into a visible terrorist threat. And the current immediate news environment can telescope our ability to properly assess the timeline required for problems to develop. Given the constant noise of threat that is now produced by groups, alongside constant reporting of threats globally at the same time, it can be harder to assess longer-term changes and patterns. The constant coverage gives an impression of an accelerating threat. This results in an expectation that threats materialize immediately, when in fact they can take time to mature.

This is not an entirely new phenomenon, nor is it one that is exclusive to the study of terrorism and political violence. In general, societal expectations around issues are wildly accelerated by a relentless news cycle which requires a constant digest of new information and news. The net result is a lack of patience in tracing consequences and impact from specific actions. From an analytical perspective, it can make it more complicated to appropriately describe problems and threats as the expectation is often that causal impact will be rapid and immediate. In fact, problems often take time to develop and ultimately articulate themselves in violence. The confusion that this reality creates is augmented in a static situation like that created by COVID-19 which has brought vast sections of human activity around the world to a standstill. Objectively standing back, it is hard to assess that COVID-19 has materially changed for the better many situations that were affected by terrorism, in fact, it can appear that the longer- term situation has likely been made worse.

A current stocktake

A complete overview of all terrorist threats globally for such a short paper would be by its nature incomplete and incorrect. Consequently, the author will focus on two dominant threat ideologies (violent Islamists and the extreme right wing) and provide a brief overview of their current status with some broad analysis of how things are advancing in the shadow of COVID.

Within the violent Islamist cohort, al Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated organizations are the dominant representatives. And in both cases, an assessment with relation to the impact of COVID on them is fairly limited at this stage. Both groups continue to thrive in their different ways, though they appear to be facing issues related to their respective broader operating environments rather than anything linked specifically to COVID. Outside rhetoric, at this stage it is very difficult to find many studies that have conclusively pointed to any major change in behavior.222

For example, in 2020 al Qaeda marked the nineteenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attack. This was communicated across al Qaeda publications and media channels, though the outputs were for the most part repetitive of previous years and revealed little that was new. The key message from leader Ayman al Zawahiri was an attack on an Al Jazeera documentary made about the attack.223 This reflects a broader stasis around the group which while not defunct, has largely faded from the high points of the past few decades. A useful overview of the organization by BBC Monitoring’s Mina Al Lami showed how its affiliates in Mali and Somalia are its best beacons of success, while its other affiliates are under considerable pressure.224

Similarly, while ISIS continues to exist as a global organization, it is very different to the organization which dominated the airwaves during its peak years of controlling territory in Syria and Iraq. Its core entity in the Levant is a shrunken version of its former self but is gradually gaining some space on the ground in Iraq in particular.225 Its global network of affiliates remains loose, with different ones showing greater degrees of effectiveness and connection to the core. Some are reduced in effectiveness, while others appear ascendant.226 As an overall organization, however, it appears to be in a stage of being an irritant in most of the environments it is present, rather than the existential threat it previously posed when controlling vast pieces of territory in the Levant.

This is certainly not to say that either organization is completely down. Key for the current paper, however, is the fact that neither group appears to have been impacted particularly by COVID. Rather, both persist on roughly the same trajectory that they did before the outbreak of the virus. The threat from them remains relatively constant, with some parts of the threat rising and others falling. The key point, however, is persistence with security agencies still prioritizing the threat from violent Islamist actors.227

More dynamic and impacted to a greater degree in some ways by the virus is the extreme right wing. A threat which was ascendant across Europe, North America and select parts of Asia (Australia and New Zealand) before the outbreak of COVID-19, white supremacist terrorism was something which has been an escalating concern for some time.228 However, in the shadow of the virus, the problem appears to have mushroomed in a number of different directions. Most prominently in the United States there has been a growth in prominence of a number of different groups, ideas and violence. Whilst their individual strains might be slightly different, there are key themes which appear to tie many of them together. From the anti-state Boogaloo Bois who are expecting an impending civil war, the now-prominent Proud Boys (a drinking club dedicated to fighting leftist protestors), to more classic far right groups stoking race war or the constellation of new groups clustering around aspects of the far right like the Incel movement, QAnon conspiracy theorists or angry online communities gathering on sites like 8kun, 4chan or Gab. The world of far right in the United States has achieved greater prominence recently.

These have all been exacerbated in recent times, though it is not clear whether this is related to the virus, or more simply American politics which have gone in a deeply divisive direction under President Trump. His active inflaming of racial tensions and anger towards left-wing protestors feeds the extreme right, groups he has actively promoted from his position as President of the United States of America. During the first Presidential debate, his comments about the Proud Boys group quite specifically brought prominence to them229, while his earlier tweeting has brought international prominence to a far-right British group Britain First.230

But he is not solely responsible for this rising right-wing. Under the auspices of COVID, some aspects of the acceleration of extreme right anger can be linked to the expansion of the state, something that has been happening in some parts of the country in response to COVID- 19.231 And there has been a growth in conspiracy theories linked to COVID-19 response – like fears around vaccines or the impact of 5G technology – which have often stoked some of the growing constellation of groups gathered on the extreme right.232 This will be covered again later, but they are clearly playing into long-standing US narratives of an overbearing federal state which is seeking to disenfranchise groups, removing their guns, infringing on their liberties and generally becoming a menace to the free state as defined in the US constitution. Such Patriot or Sovereign Citizen groups have long been a feature of the American discourse, but recent political clashes, somewhat exacerbated by the further expansion of the state in response to COVID and polarized political narratives, have strengthened their hold amongst fringe communities.

In Europe, a more classic extreme right tends to dominate, with racist networks flourishing in the shadows of a growth of far-right political movements and a polarized debate around immigration. This phenomenon has been developing for some time, with Germany facing the National Socialist Underground (NSU) in the late 2000s, while angry protest groups like the UK’s English Defence League (EDL) spawned imitators across Europe. Annual Europol reports point to a growing extreme right wing threat in Europe, while individual security forces point to disrupted plots.233 Renaud Camus totemic text The Great Replacement has captured a particular mood across the continent234, while mass violence associated with such ideas can be found earlier in Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 attack in Oslo and Utoya Island.235 Europe has also seem an emergence of conspiracy theorists, QAnon236 and Incels,237 and a growing rumbling of anti-government anger similar to that in the US.238

But similar to the narrative on the violent Islamist side, what has been happening on the extreme right is in many ways merely an extension of what was going on before. Extreme right- wing terrorism had been a growing phenomenon for the past few years and its fragmentation had started even before the outbreak of COVID-19 and the lockdowns that followed. For some countries, the return to dominance of the extreme right was a reflection of a balance of threat that existed pre-September 11, 2001.239

Future threats

COVID-19 has, however, changed how society is functioning and this will have some sort of effect on terrorist threats. In particular, the change to society that is going to be wrought in the longer time by the virus or existing issues whose impact was accelerated by the virus will have some effect on terrorist threats.

As stated at the outset, it is at this stage quite difficult to measure the exact causal effect, but some trends appear to be accelerated in the shadow of the virus which point to how this moment might impact the longer-term threat picture. While life is returning to some semblance of normality, the constant fear of new waves of the virus and the consequent disruption to society that follows continues to hang over things. The economic damage done by the virus has still not been calculated and may be being artificially suppressed temporarily due to economic stimulus programs. But their impact will be felt in many different ways in terms of government budgets both at home and abroad. The abrupt shift online is likely to permanently change some industries and eliminate others. The effect on the workforces will be dramatic and abrupt, creating potentially large unemployed or underemployed communities.

The potential impact on political violence and terrorism is hard to gauge, but three areas stand out as potential spaces in which political violence may grow in the future in part as a result of the impact of COVID-19’s ravaging the planet. In many ways these are also extensions of previous problems, but their acceleration against other trends impacted by COVID is potentially going to create greater problems than might otherwise have emerged.

A web spun by COVID

One of the biggest winners of COVID-19 is the Internet. With the advent of lockdowns and working from home, people found themselves increasingly spending time online. The impact of this on terrorism is complicated and goes in many different directions. In the first instance there is the impact on online radicalization. Something that used to be seen as a peripheral aspect of the problem, with the majority of radicalization still requiring physical contact with other extremists, the last few years have seen a growth in cases involving individuals who are choosing to move towards terrorist ideas and then into action solely on the basis of contacts or material they have found online.

In some cases, this is simply a shift online of what used to happen offline. The phenomenon of remote direction as popularized by ISIS is a shifting of the relationship between group and individual attacker online. Whereas previously individuals would head to a training camp and then be directed to launch an attack back home, now the approach was to simply direct people from a distance to launch their attacks using the many encrypted applications that exist. Individuals like Junaid Hussain240 or Rachid Kassim241 became infamous for the networks of young westerners they directed from ISIS held territory to launch terrorist attacks.

But more recently this has developed differently where people are now seemingly ready to launch attacks in advance of ideas they have found online with little to no connection with the actual group itself. In some cases, the individuals are not even joining a group. In the case of something like Incel or QAnon, they are simply following an online phenomenon or chat group and stirring themselves onto violence. The connection between terrorist violence and organized networks and hierarchies is shifting. This has been described as ‘post-organizational’ terrorist plotting where groups, their links and structures are no longer as clear as they used to be.242 While structured organizations still exist, the growth of ideologies online which people can piece together themselves, connect with as imprecisely as they would like, and ultimately interpret in any way that they would like has created a range of problems which live beyond our current interpretations of political violence.

The expression of this can be found in how security services find themselves talking about threats. In the United Kingdom, there has been a growth in individuals who are radicalizing with an ideology which appears to be a mix of contradictory issues and ideas, they are being bracketed by the Home Office as being “mixed, unstable or unclear”.243 In the United States, terrorism is now handled by the Department for Homeland Security (DHS) alongside “Targeted Threats”.244 In Canada they talk of “ideologically motivated violent extremism”.245 The key point is that there is a growth of individuals who are acting out in a manner which is reminiscent of terrorism, and yet when some investigation is done into their ideological motivation, it is unclear exactly what it is. It is even possible to question whether this should properly be called terrorism or whether it is in fact simply an expression of personal anger using the vernacular of terrorism to give it greater meaning.246

Whatever the case, this cohort of individuals is a growing phenomenon. There is a number of individuals who are becoming involved in terrorist activity who are suffering from mental health issues, others that are being identified as having autism spectrum disorders and a growing proportion of very young individuals being drawn into violent activity. Again, absolute numbers are hard to identify, but the number of studies looking into the question has grown while security agencies have increasingly expressed concerns. And while none of these phenomena are new, there is some evidence that the cases are being exacerbated as a result of the lockdown from COVID. In the UK there is the case of the fourteen-year-old boy who reportedly became fascinated with ISIS videos while stuck at home in lockdown, and started to make bombs off models he found online (he was ultimately cleared by a court).247 In Spain, a radical who had been under observation by security services, was arrested after authorities started to grow concerned about the fact that he was radicalizing further and moving towards action during lockdown.248 Finally, there have been lower level cases, like individuals who were going through periods of probation and suddenly found themselves underemployed who instead turned back to online activity.

And this roster accounts only for those of violent Islamist inclination. There is a growing concern around these issues for other ideologies as well. Focusing on the UK, there have been the disturbing cases in recent history of a deeply disturbed man arrested on charges related to left-wing terrorist activity who committed suicide while incarcerated.249 Online extreme right networks in Europe have been found to have been led by very young teenagers.250 There have been Incels found in Europe making explosives, including very young teenagers who have been identified as suffering from autism spectrum disorders.251 And then there is the confusing phenomena of very young individuals whose ideology appears to be a self-created mix of ideas drawing on a wide pool of extreme material they find online.

Such individuals who are self-assembling extremist ideas are often drawn towards conspiracy theories, or dark holes on the internet where such ideas can lurk. And the strength and potency of such online conspiracies has only grown – enhanced by the uncertainty and instability that COVID and geopolitics has created. Conspiracy theories like fears of the dangers of 5G, the threats from vaccines, super-conspiracies like those underpinning QAnon about dark cabals of pedophiles ruling the world are all now circulating online amongst communities of people who are spending ever larger volumes of time online on social media. While work has gone into trying to change or break the algorithms, companies are still struggling to completely control them and often these ideas grow in spaces beyond the big social media companies.

All of this is further exacerbated by active government disinformation campaigns that are working to stir up tensions online. In part this is directed against elections, but it is also simply a way of causing trouble. Sometimes it is not even clear the degree to which it is directed by states, rather than angry groups or bored children. But whatever the case, its impact is felt much more deeply part as a result of the general polarization that is taking place in politics, but also by the fact that an ever-increasing volume of people are spending time online.

Left, luddism and environmentalism

Tracking all of this forwards, the time spent online is not only something which is transforming our methods of communication and absorption of information, but it is further likely to have longer-term repercussions on the shape of our economies and workforces. As lockdowns and restrictions continue, entire industries are suffering and likely to be closing down. Physical retail, already in retreat thanks to the boom in online markets, is likely to take a further beating, while the food and beverage industry is going to continue to suffer for some time to come. The fundamental point is that a growing number of these services will shift online in some capacity, meaning that the physical jobs needed in shops or restaurants to serve people will not necessarily exist anymore. This will create a growing community of unemployed people, or people who end up under-employed or forced to take even more menial jobs. It is hard to gauge exactly what the volume of this shift will be, but it might start to inspire a backlash against the technology and firms that are abetting this shift.

Luddism, a concept first advanced in the 19th century by textile workers angry at the advance of modern technology which was rendering their jobs redundant, could make a comeback. This is not new. Theodore Kaczyinski, the infamous Unabomber, was an earlier luddite whose anger at technology’s dominance of society was something which led him to launch a one-man letter bombing campaign from 1978 to 1995 from a remote cabin in Montana.252 His manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future” was published September 1995 in the Washington Post and started with the premise that “the industrial revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.”253 He may have been twenty years early, but many of the issues he raises in his manifesto are relevant today. As we enter an ever more interconnected and online world, not only are we likely to see more people reacting negatively to it, but also we will see more people becoming disenfranchised as a result. Stories have already emerged about the horrors of working for some of the big online retail companies,254 and these are likely to be exaggerated further in COVID’s wake as we see them assume an even more dominant place within our society.

It is not only a modern form of luddism that may emerge in reaction. Many of the ideas rejecting society or large industrial take over is reminiscent of ideas emanating from the left – where capitalism’s imposing structures crush individuals in advance of profit. These fundamental ideas which are often appropriated by groups on both sides. Consequently, the massive expansion of some companies, of an internet which is controlled by large firms and which is ultimately disempowering people and eliminating employment has the potential to be attractive as an adversary to those on the far left as well. Anti-globalization groups that used to have prominence in the pre-September 11 world,255 have in the past two decades been dominated by a terrorist narrative which focuses on the threat from violent Islamist groups and latterly those on the extreme right wing. The left has receded as a dominant threat, notwithstanding President Trump’s declarations otherwise.256 Yet, within the chaos wrought by COVID-19, it is possible to see a re-emergence of elements of a far-left threat, angry at the rampant far-right and seeing inequality deepening.

Atop this, issues around environmentalism may have been pushed to one side due to COVID-19 concerns, but the problems remain. From a governmental perspective, there is still a need to resolve them, though the pace of change is one that is not happening fast enough for a number of activists. Whilst violence associated with the environmental movement is rare, the fall-out from COVID and the likely de-prioritization of environmental issues in favor of healthcare and repairing stricken economies, may stir more violence. An interesting phenomenon of the past few years has in fact been the mainstreaming of environmental anger into other ideologies. In some cases, like al Shabaab’s banning of plastic bags, it appears banal and almost comical,257 but in others, like the attackers in El Paso and Christchurch declaring they are eco-fascists,258 it shows how environmental ideas can be absorbed into more mainstream violent ideologies in a way that enhances the narrative. Suggesting that for environmental issues to become a terrorist problem, they do not necessarily have to emerge solely from the environmental movement’s mainstream or fringe. Played against the broader backdrop of instability and likely environmental degradation which will continue in the post-COVID-19 world, it is possible such narratives will gain greater salience.

China

A final threat which is likely to rise further, accelerated by COVID-19, is the growth of China as a target for violence and terrorism. Already a trend that was visible pre-COVID-19, it was something which was likely in part a product of China’s rise to a preeminent place on the international stage, as well as a reaction to China’s domestic and foreign policy. At home, the treatment of its Uighur minority has long-spurred anger rhetoric against China, but it has generated surprisingly little terrorism. Domestic violence within China associated with Uighur extremism is often rather expressions of anger at the state, with only some incidents justifiably considered terrorism.259 China’s heavy-handed crackdown has largely suppressed these instances of violence at home, but there have been a few abroad associated with Uighur networks.260 More dominant has been the growing targeting of Chinese nationals and interests by groups elsewhere – more often than not local networks rather than international ones.

For example, in Pakistan, China has increasingly become the target of Baluchi and Sindhi separatists. While there is a consistent level of concern around violent Islamist groups within the country, they have for the most part not targeted Chinese specifically.261 When they have hit Chinese targets, it has tended to be incidental and as part of a larger assault against foreigners or the state. In contrast, Sindhi and Baluchi groups have specifically targeted Chinese institutions and repeatedly put out messaging saying that China was their target. Similarly, in Indonesia, there may be a long history of anti-Chinese sentiment, but recently there has been a growth in specific thinking about targeting Chinese nationals within the country by violent Islamist groups. In part they consider this retribution for the treatment of Uighurs, but it also reflects an anger towards China as an invading colonial force.262

This particular anger is something that is only likely to grow going forwards. Beijing will find that as China rises to become an ever more central pillar in international affairs, it will attract as many detractors as it will supporters. And some of these detractors will be infuriated at Chinese behavior enough to want to commit acts of violence against Chinese interests. This trend is likely to be accelerated by the COVID-19 moment the world is going through. Beijing’s unapologetic response to its links to the origin of the virus, subsequent aggressive public relations diplomacy captured under the moniker ‘wolf warrior’263 and forceful posture on the world stage has done little to endear China to the international community.264 All of this is likely to attract different levels of public anger, some of which is likely to articulate itself as terrorism.

In some parts of the world this has already taken something of an ugly twist with the growing targeting of East Asian nationals in racist attacks.265 Taken alongside the growing levels of tension towards China, this is the sort of violence that has in other contexts ended up expressing itself through violence. China and ethnic East Asians are likely to find themselves increasingly potential targets of violence going forwards.

Conclusions

Much of this is of course speculative at this point. The world is still battling COVID with no clear timeline for when we will be able to talk about being in a post-COVID-19 world. And the longer the world suffers from COVID, the deeper the consequences touched upon in this paper are likely to be. The societal divisions, the economic damage, the transformed economies, and societies are all issues where impact is already visible, and this will only become more acute as more time passes. Society will change and this will have some sort of knock-on effect on the world of terrorism and political violence.

It will likely take some time, even years, before a clear causal link will be possible between the current events and the longer-term changes that might take place in terms of politically motivated violence and terrorism. Some of these effects might in fact be mere accelerations of what was already happening. This is something that is visible already in the growing prominence of the extreme right. Its rise was already visible pre-COVID, with the pattern tracing back years. But in the shadow of the disease and the societal, political and economic impact it has wrought we are seeing its rise sped up and worsened. Of course, this has to be played against the polarized political environment in Washington, DC in particular, which has amplified the noise around the far-right, something which has also likely been made worse by COVID-19. The point being that separating out effects and causal links will be something which is going to be hard to measure and quantify.

One issue which is likely to change in the west in particular in the wake of COVID-19 is the role of state in society. The massive bailouts, new healthcare and security infrastructure which will be needed to ensure future pandemics are better managed, and large public debt that will follow will require management. They will generate unhappiness in unexpected quarters, and in some cases, outright rejection. Given terrorism is at its root a form of anti-establishmentarianism, the massive growth of the state that is likely to result in post-COVID world could be a key underlying issue to look at when trying to explore how terrorism might evolve in the future. This is already most prominently visible in the United States, where it builds on a long history of libertarian and anti-federal government activity, but it is possible that similar strains may start to emerge elsewhere. In some ways, the anti-Chinese anger which may become exacerbated is another expression of this, with China becoming such a dominant figure globally that it is consequently attracting ire.

All of this needs to be kept into perspective of course. While COVID may have some effect on terrorism and political violence, its principal impact will most immediately and dramatically be felt in other aspects of human behavior. However, understanding how these ripples will echo in terrorism remains an important aspect to observe.

Sources

[216] https://d2071andvip0wj.cloudfront.net/B004-covid-19-seven-trends.pdf

[217] https://northafricapost.com/40082-terrorists-plotting-covid-19-contamination-attack-on-tunisian-security-forces-arrested.html

[218] https://apcss.org/assessing-the-impact-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-on-terrorism-and-counter-terrorism-practitioner-insights/

[219] https://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/us-charges-terror-crimes-threats-spread-virus-70052376

[220] https://gnet-research.org/2020/04/27/comparing-jihadist-and-far-right-extremist-narratives-on-covid-19/

[221] https://acleddata.com/#/dashboard

[222] There has been considerable work, however, looking at the potential risks. For example, IPAC in Indonesia has written a number of useful papers looking at threats there: http://www.understandingconflict.org/en.html and the UN has summarized what has been happening in CT and CVE terms: https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/CTED-Paper%E2%80%93-The-impact-of-the-COVID-19-pandemic-on-counter-terrorism-and-countering-violent-extremism.pdf, and finally, Abdul Basit has provided a useful summary of a number of trends across the terrorism space and the threat and opportunity it provides for terrorist organizations: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/18335330.2020.1828603

[223] https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2020/09/zawahiri-asserts-al-qaedas-independence-in-new-message.php

[224] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-54102404

[225] https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/iraq/when-measuring-isiss-resurgence-use-right-standard

[226] ISIS Somalia has had a very bad year so far: https://public.tableau.com/profile/fddmaps#!/vizhome/SomaliaClaims/Dashboard1 while its affiliate group in Mozambique has been increasingly effective: http://www.open.ac.uk/technology/mozambique/sites/www.open.ac.uk.technology.mozambique/files/files/CEEI_Security_Brief_3.pdf 

[227] The US intelligence community is one prominent example: https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Testimonies/20200917_HCHS_Miller_SFR_Final.pdf, though it is not clear that this applies internationally and domestically to the same degree. A recent DHS assessment pointed to an expanded White Supremacist Threat in particular at home: https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/2020_10_06_homeland-threat-assessment.pdf

[228] Australia has recorded a particular rise: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/sep/22/asio-reveals-up-to-40-of-its-counter-terrorism-cases-involve-far-right-violent-extremism as well as the United States: https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/2020_10_06_homeland-threat-assessment.pdf

[229] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/09/30/politics/proud-boys-trump-debate-trnd/index.html

[230] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-42166663

[231] The case of Eduardo Moreno is instructive in this regard: https://www.justice.gov/usao-cdca/pr/train-operator-port-los-angeles-charged-derailing-locomotive-near-us-navy-s-hospital

[232] https://public-assets.graphika.com/reports/Graphika_Report_Covid19_Infodemic.pdf

[233] file:///Users/raffaellopantucci/Downloads/european_union_terrorism_situation_and_trend_report_te-sat_2020_0.pdf

[234] https://www.lemonde.fr/les-decodeurs/article/2019/03/15/la-theorie-du-grand-remplacement-de-l-ecrivain-renaud-camus-aux-attentats-en-nouvelle-zelande_5436843_4355770.html

[235] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-14259989

[236] https://slate.com/technology/2020/09/qanon-europe-germany-lockdown-protests.html

[237] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/the-filter/rise-women-haters-inside-dark-world-british-incels/

[238] https://raffaellopantucci.files.wordpress.com/2021/03/f1810-source_d3.7_assr4.pdf

[239] Australia is a case in point where far right violence was the dominant threat pre-9/11. Similarly, within Europe, while various separatist groups were the dominant terrorist threat, the far right was a problem that sometimes spilled into violence.

[240] https://ctc.usma.edu/british-hacker-became-islamic-states-chief-terror-cybercoach-profile-junaid-hussain/

[241] https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-islamic-state-weaponized-the-chat-app-to-direct-attacks-on-the-west-1476955802

[242] https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/confronting-the-challenge-of-post-organisational-extremism/

[243] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/763254/individuals-referred-supported-prevent-programme-apr2017-mar2018-hosb3118.pdf

[244] https://www.dhs.gov/tvtp

[245] https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/csis-scrs/documents/publications/PubRep-2019-E.pdf

[246] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/09/22/who-is-a-terrorist-actually/ ; https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/running-amok-in-an-age-of-meaningless-terror

[247] https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-hampshire-54450013

[248] https://www.catalannews.com/society-science/item/man-arrested-in-barcelona-for-allegedly-plotting-terrorist-attack

[249] https://www.leeds-live.co.uk/news/leeds-news/dominic-noble-huddersfield-dies-prison-18812989

[250] https://apnews.com/article/7067c03e1af0b157be7c15888cbe8c27

[251] https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/uk-news/fantasist-obsessed-incels-jailed-over-17998017

[252] https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/unabomber

[253] https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/unabomber/manifesto.text.htm

[254] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/11/hired-six-months-undercover-in-low-wage-britain-zero-hours-review-james-bloodworth

[255] https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/01/the-dark-side-of-globalization-why-seattles-1999-protesters-were-right/282831/

[256] https://www.ft.com/content/fdf5e423-4a4e-482c-8ca8-e0bf71fcfbcd, it is also worth noting that some left-wing terrorism still exists in parts of southern Europe – for example, Italy and Greece.

[257] https://www.businessinsider.com/al-shabab-bans-plastic-bags-as-a-serious-threat-to-people-2018-7

[258] https://www.gq.com/story/what-is-eco-fascism

[259] https://raffaellopantucci.com/2014/07/24/chinas-domestic-insurgency/

[260] https://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstan-china-embassy-jailed/28583623.html and https://www.reuters.com/article/us-thailand-blast-idUSKBN13A0FR

[261] https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2160918/lesson-pakistan-suicide-attack-china-will-have-pay-high

[262] https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3099151/indonesian-terrorists-planned-attack-shop-owners-areas-chinese

[263] https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/beware-the-spirit-of-the-wolf-warrior

[264] https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/10/06/unfavorable-views-of-china-reach-historic-highs-in-many-countries/

[265] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52714804

A new post for my Singaporean home institute, RSIS which tries to look at the two parallel issues of the reported decimations of al Qaeda’s leadership alongside the trail of terrorist attacks in Europe we have seen in the past year. More on both issues to come.

End of Al Qaeda Era?

The reported passing of more of Al Qaeda’s senior leadership marks the almost complete passing of a generation. Yet a series of attacks in Europe point to a threat now happening beyond directed terrorist networks. Thus while Al Qaeda might be withering, the problems driving its emergence in the first place persist.

The reported deaths of Ayman al Zawahiri and a number of other senior Al Qaeda figures suggests we are approaching the end of an era. At the same time, a series of events in Europe point to a terror threat that remains as ingrained and dangerous as ever. None of this is about the persistence of Al Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated groups around the world.

These parallel sets of events illustrate the reality that terrorist groups are not the ultimate problem in themselves, but are an articulation of broader societal issues. The core group may be withering, but the problems driving their emergence remain.

Other Fires Burn, Different Set of Problems

Much like their initial emergence, Al Qaeda’s senior leadership’s slow disintegration has been shrouded in mystery. The deaths of Abu Muhsin al-Masri (Husam Abd-al-Rauf) in Afghanistan, Abu Muhammad al-Masri (Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah) in Tehran and the possible passing of leader Ayman al Zawahiri have all taken place off stage.

Some, like Abu Muhammad’s dramatic shooting in Tehran, seem cinematic in their drama. Others, like Ayman al Zawahiri’s possible passing, suggest a quiet exit. But this series of deaths leaves very few men standing amongst the initial cohort who assembled around Osama bin Laden as he launched his jihad against the West.

Yet as this light dims, other fires burn. Around the world, Al Qaeda or ISIS-affiliated or -inspired groups continue to operate; but they now have turned inwards on their local contexts, focused on whichever regional struggle they have emerged from. Global goals now seem secondary priorities. And in the West a very different threat troubles security forces.

The spate of attacks and plots that Europe has seen over the past few months illustrate a different set of problems. Not the large-scale terrorist attacks of 2001, but rather a constant patter of rage articulated through pin-prick attacks. And there is no connection to Al Qaeda in any of these attacks.

Some jihadi strategists would argue that this is the fulfilment of the vision laid out by one of their visionaries, Abu Musab al Suri, who wrote at length of a global insurgency made up of attacks and cells with no direct link to each other but all driven by the same aim and goal.

Yet the seeming incoherence of the attacks and their planning suggest otherwise. Few of the attackers seem driven by genuine belief, more often are stirred by personal or confused rage which they have attached to a jihadi ideology. None show a tangible link to the initial core of Al Qaeda, and in many cases, show little link to some of the group’s many subsequent expressions.

Al Qaeda’s heir ISIS seems to be the most effective at connecting and inspiring this new generation, but there is very little evidence usually of cases having specific direction and planning organised by the group.

The Disentangling of Two Threads

The most recent European case, carried out by a woman who started stabbing at passersby at a shopping mall in Lugano, Switzerland, appears to be have been done by someone who wanted to connect with ISIS but failed to. She tried to go to Syria in 2017 and failed.

The earlier attacks this year in Europe appear equally uncoordinated – some (like in Austria) show links to networks around ISIS, while others (like the young man who decapitated a teacher in Paris suburbs) show no clear links to groups, but a deep personal rage that was seeking an outlet. But it is unclear that ISIS directed any of them.

Rather than seeing the realisation of a plan set in motion by Al Qaeda, we are seeing the disentangling of two threads. On the one side, an organisation that launched a war is being eradicated, while on the other a series of tensions in Europe (and elsewhere) are articulating themselves through a terminology articulated by the group.

The many expressions of Al Qaeda will not go away, but the core organisation is no longer able to project its power and force in the same way. A continuing disintegration will take place as the various groups using the name around the world continue to focus their attention on local conflicts rather than the global clash the core group was advancing. Their language will remain the same to give them gravitas, but their interests will likely stay local.

Deeper Issues Must Be Addressed

ISIS and Al Qaeda successors and affiliates will continue to want to strike at the West, but are unlikely to dedicate too much resource towards realising these goals. Years of successful security force penetration and management have likely dampened their enthusiasm, though they will continue to look for opportunistic moments and individuals to take advantage of.

At the same time, the divisions and cultural clashes in Europe and elsewhere will remain and likely worsen. A rising extreme right in Western societies reflects how anger at difference in society in the West in particular is deepening. The repeated attacks by militant Islamists we have seen in Europe show that a deep anger amongst Europe’s Muslim community persists.

The targets they chose are ones which reflect a desire to strike society in its every form. The manner of attack they choose is clearly inspired by Al Qaeda or ISIS, but there is very little evidence of a direct link. Nevertheless, these attacks will stir the extreme right further, exacerbating circular tensions and deepening divisions.

The passing of an earlier generation of jihadists is not the end of the problem. It is the end of an expression of a problem. The deeper issues which Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups fed off in the first place to grow remain. And until these are addressed, the world is likely going to continue to see a steady patter of incidents. The difficulty will come in ensuring we are focused on managing the right expressions of the problem, and not making these tensions worse.

About the Author

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

Last in my catch up posting blast a more recent piece for Foreign Policy looking at a question that has been on my mind for a while which is the growing appearance of Central Asians and Indians in international jihadist attacks. The piece got some traction in the Pakistani press in particular who got quite excited about the focus on India as a source of terrorism including editorials in the Daily Times, the Associated Press of Pakistan, Express Tribune, while Capital TV interviewed me about it and I did a brief recording for the Ambassador’s Brief using Conversation Six platform with the excellent Sam Mullins. This aside, spoke to the South China Morning Post about China-Kyrgyzstan, RFE/RL about China-Afghanistan, and earlier piece with Kyler about Incels for RSIS was reproduced by Eurasian Review.

Indians and Central Asians are the new face of the Islamic State

Terrorists from India, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan were never at the forefront of global jihad before – now they are.

Raffaello Pantucci | October 8, 2020, 6:32 AM

Members of the Islamic State stand alongside their weapons, following their surrender to Afghanistan's government in Jalalabad on Nov. 17, 2019.

As white nationalists across the world have gained prominence through racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic acts, the world’s focus on terrorism seems to have shifted. Many experts on extremism now focus heavily on the far-right in its many incarnations as an important driver of terrorist threat. But this myopic approach ignores the dynamism that the Islamic State injected into the international jihadist movement, and the long-term repercussions of the networks it built. In particular, the Indian and Central Asian linkages that the group fostered are already having repercussions beyond the region.

This threat emerged most recently with the attack by the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) on Jalalabad prison in early August. The attack showed a level of ambition that distinguished the group from many of the Islamic State’s other regional affiliates. Part of a bigger global push to do something about colleagues rotting in prisons, it was also a way of signaling how the group’s approach to freeing its prisoners differed from the Taliban’s. In ISKP’s eyes, the Taliban are in essence surrendering in their peace negotiations with the U.S. government. But the most interesting aspect of the attack was the roster of fighters involved—a multinational group that included Afghans, Indians, Tajiks, and Pakistanis.

While at first glance this seems unsurprising, the presence of Central Asians and Indians in transnational attacks is a relatively new phenomenon that reflects a shifting pattern in jihadism linked to the Islamic State. Some of the group’s most dramatic attacks—like the Easter 2019 Sri Lanka bombings, the attack on a Turkish nightclub on New Year’s Eve 2017, or the 2017 truck attacks in New York City and Stockholm—revealed jihadism’s persistent appeal to a global audience. Indeed, the rise of Central and South Asian cohorts to the front rank of attack planning is a development with potentially worrying consequences.

Jihadist ideas are not new to Central Asia or India. The civil war in 1990s Tajikistan that broke out in the wake of the country’s emancipation from the Soviet Union was an early post-Cold War battlefield which included jihadist elements. Fighters used northern Afghanistan as a base from which to fight in Tajikistan.

While most of the support for the fighting in Tajikistan emerged from communities in northern Afghanistan who went on to fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban, some disillusioned fighters in the conflict ended up fighting alongside al Qaeda. And for a while, assessments of where al Qaeda would go after its ejection from Afghanistan post-9/11 focused on the Fergana Valley, a region spanning Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan that is home to conservative communities who have clashed with their respective capitals. Groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Jund al Khilafah, the Islamic Jihad Union or various Tajikistani groups provided networks that helped Central Asians get involved in fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But these networks were relatively limited in their impact.

India’s history of jihadism goes back even further. The country was the birthplace of the Deobandi movement, a sect that was a source of ideas for the Taliban among others. And the conflict in Kashmir has long been held up by extremist groups as one of the world’s most long-standing unresolved jihadi conflicts. While most Kashmiris are nationalists furious at New Delhi, their conflict is one that is regularly adopted as a rallying cry by extremists who point to it as one of the many places where Muslims are being abused.

Yet notwithstanding this heritage, neither India nor Central Asia has historically produced many figures in the international jihadist movement, launching attacks far from their borders. Indians have stayed involved in networks in India, or occasionally Pakistan. Central Asians have shown up in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but rarely farther afield. That is changing.


A major attraction drawing young men and women to jihadism has always been the idea of participating in a transnational religious movement and an epic global struggle. To focus only on a parochial local level misses the larger canvas of their narratives. This appears to be a gap that the Islamic State identified and filled.

A major turning point in Indian and Central Asian involvement in the global jihadist movement was Syria.

A cauldron that continues to draw people in, it is a clear and significant marker in the international jihadist story. The battlefield was one that drew in Muslims from almost 100 different countries and from every continent. This included Indians and Central Asians, though their experiences were markedly different.

The Central Asians integrated well into the conflict, serving alongside both Islamic State and al Qaeda-affiliated groups. For example, Tajikistani former Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov rose to be a senior Islamic State commander. Large groups of Central Asians fought on the battlefield. In contrast, the few Indians who made it to the Levant had a different experience. Many received bad treatment at the hands of their Arab hosts, who tended to look down on them—reflecting the status of South Asians as poor laborers in much of the Arab world. This racism did not stop a significant number of Indians being drawn to the group, however. A more thriving community of Indian fighters made it to the conflict in Afghanistan to fight alongside ISKP there.

Since the Islamic State’s emergence, Central Asians have been involved in repeated attacks in Turkey, including the assault on Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport in June 2016 and the high-profile massacre at the city’s Reina nightclub on New Year’s Eve 2017, as well as attacks using vehicles that were driven into crowds in 2017 in Stockholm in April, and New York City on Halloween that year, as well as an underground bombing in St. Petersburg.

For Indians, the international role has been more limited, with Indians for the most part appearing in attacks in Afghanistan and in limited numbers on the battlefield in Syria. The attack on the prison in Jalalabad follows the earlier decision by ISKP to use an Indian fighter to attack a Sikh gurdwara—a place of worship—in Kabul. Seen as “polytheists,” Sikhs are regarded as an acceptable target by the Islamic State like many other religious groups, though the decision to use an Indian attacker likely reflected a desire by the group to highlight their connection to India in particular.


The Islamic State officially announced the creation of an affiliate in India last year but has been hinting about involvement in Kashmir for years. The group was likely in part rejected by local Kashmiris who have long seen foreign Islamists as complicating factors in their struggles against the Indian state. However, it now seems as though the group is quite openly talking about its involvement. Al Naba, the Islamic State’s regular publication, recently listed the martyrdom notices of three Kashmiris who had reportedly fallen fighting for the group. These individuals join the growing numbers of Keralans and other Indians who are now reported to have died or fought alongside the Islamic State.

While the absolute numbers are small, this is an entirely new trend. Indians involved in external jihadist attacks have until now been the exception. The few Indians who pursued jihad tended to do it at home in a limited fashion, often with links across the border to Pakistan. Only a few ventured beyond, like Dhiren Barot, a British-raised Hindu convert who was close to 9/11 organizer Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and was ultimately jailed for a plot to detonate a bomb in the U.K. in 2005.

This is surprising, considering that India is home to the world’s third-largest Muslim community. However, today’s new generation of jihadists, is driven by a range of economic, political, and ideological factors.

Both Central Asia and India are home to large communities of young men who go and work abroad, sending home remittances that are a crucial pillar of local economies. It is often among these diaspora communities where radicalization takes place—for the Indians in the Gulf, for the Central Asians in Russia. In the COVID-blighted world, this workflow has slowed down, hurting economies, but also creating a pool of underemployed young men at home and abroad.

This comes in the context of a tense political environment. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has advanced a series of policies promoting a Hindu nationalist narrative openly hostile toward Muslims. There has since been a notable uptick in jihadist propaganda toward India. In Central Asia, governments may not be stoking the same fires, but there has been an active pursuit of political opponents across the region. While there are numerous programs in place seeking to counter violent extremism, it is not always clear how effective they are, nor is it clear they are able to deal with problems of radicalization amongst diaspora communities.

And there is the continuing question of what will happen to the fighters from these countries who went to Syria and Iraq. Some may try to come home, but others may end up fostering new networks which create problems elsewhere.

The danger is that there may be an increasing number of Indian and Central Asian links to plots outside their regions. Earlier this year, German authorities disrupted a network of Tajiks linked to cells in Albania and in contact with the Islamic State in both Afghanistan and Syria. They were reportedly under orders to launch an attack in Europe. Other Central Asian cells have been reportedly disrupted across Europe, and authorities in Ukraine have made numerous arrests of fighters fleeing the collapsing battlefield in Syria.

India has seen less such activity, though there were Indian links to the 2019 Sri Lanka Easter attacks. Like many violent Islamist extremists, a Southern Indian cell involved appears to have followed the sermons of Indian prominent extremist preacher Zakir Naik, whose speeches have helped radicalize numerous different jihadists around the world.

Most of the current attention on new terrorist groups focuses on the extreme right—something that is understandable given the deeply polarized political environment in the western world. But violent Islamist threats have not gone away, and are transforming. The story of Central Asian and Indian jihadism is one that has historically received too little attention. Emerging from domestic environments that are creating more opportunities for disenfranchisement and radicalization to take place, they are exactly the sort of threats which may slip under the radar until it is too late.

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

Have not posted for a while. Delivered a book project which should ultimately emerge sometime next year, which kept me busy. But have been writing, including this piece for Prospect magazine in the UK on the fifteen year anniversary of the July 7, 2005 bombing which was the big lynchpin event of my earlier book.

Also have numerous projects in motion at the moment pulling me in lots of directions at the same time. Going to do a media catch up in the next post, but for the time being here is a video of a webinar with my Singaporean hosts RSIS looking at the evolution of the UK threat picture.

 

 

Fifteen years on from 7/7, terrorism has changed but the jihadist threat persists

Ideologies have fragmented and dangers become more difficult to track
by Raffaello Pantucci / July 7, 2020

Court artist sketch by Elizabeth Cook of Safiyya Amira Shaikh, 37, of Hayes, West London, who pleaded guilty to preparation of terrorist acts Picture: Elizabeth Cook/PA Wire/PA Images:
Court artist sketch of Safiyya Amira Shaikh, 37, of Hayes, West London, who pleaded guilty to preparation of terrorist acts Picture: Elizabeth Cook/PA Wire/PA Images

It often feels like we have moved into a new era of terrorist threats. Gone are the days when we faced large organised plots involving networks linking the UK to dark corners of faraway lands: now terrorist attacks are made up of random mass stabbings in public places like the attack near London Bridge in 2017. The terrorists being processed through our courts are former drug addicts with troubled pasts, like convert Safiyya Shaikh who was jailed recently for plotting to blow up St Paul’s.

At the ideological end it is equally confusing, with violent Islamists seemingly replaced by a gaggle of extreme right wingers, involuntary celibates (Incels) and individuals whose ideological leaning is so confused the Home Office brackets them together as “mixed, unstable or unclear.” Yet there is more consistency than you might expect. Terrorist threats come in ebbs and flows, sometimes receding but rarely disappearing. Instead, they tend to morph and create new problems. What is constant, however, is our inability to learn from the mistakes of the past.

The most talked about threat on the rise is the extreme right wing. But it is not clear how much of a threat it actually poses. Prior to the 7th July bombings 15 years ago, the most lethal non-Irish related terrorist attack the UK had faced was David Copeland’s one-man bombing campaign targeting London’s minority communities in 1999. Leaving devices in locations targeting London’s black, South Asian and gay communities, his homemade bombs murdered three and injured 140. While Copeland seemed to plan and execute his campaign by himself, he was part of the extreme right in the UK (albeit on the fringes), and a former member of the British National Party, the National Socialist Movement and even the neo-Nazi Combat 18 group.

For years the extreme right was largely the remit of the police, but in the late 1990s it was also coming into MI5’s crosshairs. As Jonathan Evans, a former director-general of MI5, told me earlier this year: “the service worked closely with police to undertake some disruptions in the late 1990s of Combat 18 associated individuals who were consorting with people of a 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 destabilise what they characterised as the Zionist Organised Government (ZOG).” The attacks were disrupted, and soon after MI5 ended up getting almost completely overwhelmed focusing on the violent Islamist terror threat that erupted so violently in 2001.

But the extreme right never went away, and in some ways went mainstream with a rise in far-right parties across Europe. At the terrorist end of the scale, throughout the 2000s police were disrupting extreme right-wing plots. While the majority were fairly shambolic, some more organised ones would occasionally emerge. The Aryan Strike Force (ASF) was a group built around a father and son core who were bent on race war, were running training camps in Cumbria and managed to make enough ricin to kill nine people. But for the most part, they were, as Evans put it to me, “zoological” curiosities who were distinguishing mostly in their oddness.

The emergence of the English Defence League (EDL) and subsequently National Action (NA) changed the picture. From being a scattered group of individuals who were as likely to be involved in child pornography as they were extreme right-wing terrorism, these two groups instead spoke to something more organised coming together. It was also confusing ideologically, with both groups quite explicitly reacting against the violent Islamist groups that dominated public attention, yet also clearly using their tactics and language. National Action speaks of launching a “white jihad” while the EDL was born in reaction to now banned Islamist group Al Muhajiroun’s presence in Luton. And while there is a clear white supremacist tone to both groups, the EDL promoted non-white members.

More explicitly, political far-right group Britain First provided another wrinkle within this fabric, espousing a white supremacist ideology using Christian iconography. There is a palpable religious overtone to their narratives which feels more reminiscent of the violent Islamist threat that brought together religion and totalitarian views about society. This mix of ideas helped give them a strong base of support in parts of eastern Europe.

This confusing ideological background has been matched by the emergence of online ideologies drawing on fears of the “Great Replacement” of white communities. This has become the backdrop against which a whole range of ideologies have developed, spinning the extreme right in numerous different directions: ideas like the Incels movement, made up of young men who feel themselves rejected sexually. The QAnon movement, which has not only appeared at Trump rallies but now also appears to have three adherents among American congressional candidates, is made up of conspiracy theorists drawing on the vast information pool now available online to concoct narratives about controlling deep states, the dangers of 5G technology and stories of powerful paedophiles. And in one of the stranger threats to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, a growth in groups fearing the increased role of the state. Groups like the Sovereign Citizen movement have become more influential as some fear the virus response is simply an excuse to expand the power of the state to ultimately oppress them.

But notwithstanding this increasingly baffling threat picture, it has still not eclipsed the violent Islamist threat in the UK. In a recent interview, the UK’s top counter-terrorism police officer Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said that the extreme right wing took up about 10 per cent of his officers’ time. While it is, as he put it, the “fastest-growing” aspect of the threat picture, and cases have managed to rise to the very top of the terrorist “matrix” that MI5 uses to prioritise its threat picture, it is not the majority yet. The biggest threats continue to come from those inspired or linked to groups like al-Qaeda or Islamic State (IS).

This is something you hear consistently from security officials. Yes, the extreme right is a growing concern, but the violent Islamist threat persists and there is little evidence that the pool of problems that created it have gone away. They point to foreign battlefields like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq or parts of north, west or east Africa, where al-Qaeda- and IS-linked groups continue to thrive. These are the sorts of environments that produced the 7/7 attacks. Just last month, security officials in Germany disrupted a plot in which a group of Tajiks stand accused of being directed by IS networks in Syria and Afghanistan to launch an attack in Europe.

In the UK it has been a while since we have had a major public disruption like this. Instead, incidents like last year’s attack at Fishmongers’ Hall or the attempted stabbing in Streatham—when a recently released terrorist convict launched a one-man attack—are the norm. In these and other more recent cases still winding their way through the courts, isolated individuals, sometimes with links to violent Islamist networks, and usually with histories that have brought them to MI5’s attention at some point, launch one-man campaigns with no outside direction and weapons such as knives found in every household. A growing proportion of them have serious mental health or social problems, making them deeply volatile and unpredictable people. This makes them almost impossible to stop, but nevertheless results in a vast outpouring of noise from politicians and the public demanding that something must be done.

It is never a good idea to legislate in the immediate wake of a disaster. Objectivity will go out of the window, leading to ill-considered choices. We saw this in the wake of the 7/7 attacks—when the shock to the country led to a surge in focus and attention on the UK’s Muslim community. Politicians’ rhetoric sharpened, demanding they “do something.” A money spigot was opened which gave the security services more resources to manage the problem—including developing community profiling tools like Project Rich Picture, which aimed to develop a detailed understanding of the UK’s Muslim community, identifying them as the source of the threat. Self-appointed leaders (or “professional Muslims” as one colleague once sarcastically put it) popped up everywhere speaking for no one but themselves, but nevertheless able to garner grants from the government to bolster their so-called community work. Some did positive work. Others it was less clear.

All this did little to improve Muslim community relations and instead created a sense among many Muslims that they were being unfairly targeted. Paradoxically, it also created animosity among white communities who were angered by the austerity and economic marginalisation they were facing in contrast to this visible push in support to Muslim communities. We have not seen a similar outpouring of money or attention towards deprived white communities in the wake of the growing rise of the extreme right.

A decade and a half since July 2005, we seem not to have learned some of these lessons. Politicians appear unwilling to acknowledge that part of the problem of the resurgent extreme right is a product of the racially-tinged politics that have been stoked by mainstream voices in the past few years, while the growing presence of seriously troubled individuals at the sharp end of the terror threat as lone actors reflects years of under-investment in mental health services, probation and social services. The recently convicted Safiyya Shaikh, formerly Michelle Ramsden, in some ways fits this mould perfectly—a deeply troubled woman whose online life developed into her becoming a webmaster and coordinator for IS-supporting groups and plots across Europe.

We have gone from networks directing plots against our public transport to lone actors lashing out at people going about their daily lives. The underlying ideologies remain the same, though their expression has become more confusing. In many ways little has changed except for the volume of people affected and our security services’ capability to manage terrorist threats (one of the biggest reasons why we have not seen anything larger than a lone actor attack in a while). But our politicians seem unable to grasp the difficult nettles that are required to deal with these issues in a sophisticated fashion. Either we learn to live with the problem or focus on the real underlying issues.

 

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.

Jihadactivist

Screen Shot 2020-05-04 at 07.07.28

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.