Posts Tagged ‘ISIS’

And finally in this catch up blast, a longer piece in the form of an interview with the former head of the UK’s JTAC Suzanne Raine for the excellent CTC Sentinel. Not the first of this form, and more longer pieces for CTC Sentinel to come soon. Thanks to Paul and his superb team for their support and work on these interviews.

Beyond this writing, spoke to the Telegraph about Hamza bin Laden’s death (which was picked up in the Canadian press), to the Daily Mail about British Airways suspension of flights from Cairo, an older interview with the Mail on Sunday was re-used to talk about the ISIS threat to the west, to the National about a network of heavily armed right wingers in Italy, while my recent Telegraph piece about Kashmir was picked up by Pakistani outlets. On the other side of the coin, spoke to the Economist about China in Central Asia which ran in a much bigger piece about China-Russia relations more broadly.

A View from the CT Foxhole: Suzanne Raine, Former Head of the United Kingdom’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre

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August 2019, Volume 12, Issue 7

Authors: Raffaello Pantucci

Suzanne Raine worked for the U.K. Foreign & Commonwealth Office from 1995 until 2019, specializing in counterterrorism. Between January 2015 and September 2017, she was head of the United Kingdom’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre.

CTC: What role does JTAC play in U.K. counterterrorism efforts?

Raine: JTAC stands for the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre. It was established in response to the 2002 Bali bombings, with the aim of having one central place within the U.K.’s system where terrorism threat assessments are made. It is staffed by analysts from about 16 different government departments who are brought together in a single place. These individuals are linked back into their own systems, reading all of the information available from all of their respective departments and feeding it into their assessments. This makes [for] a system which is greater than the sum of its parts and provides a way of pushing information in both directions. This helps support the threat assessment both in immediate tactical terms in the U.K. and abroad, but also the strategic development of the threat picture and trends within it. Its closest equivalent in the American system is NCTC [National Counterterrorism Center]. JTAC is also responsible for operating the U.K.’s national threat level system. It makes independent judgments free of any political influence, which informs the response posture either in advance of or after a terrorist attack.

CTC: What is your current evaluation of the threat from the Islamic State, especially in the wake of the Easter 2019 attacks in Sri Lanka? Did those particular attacks change your general assessment of the group’s trajectory?

Raine: It is a good time to ask that question because it is now five years since the declaration of the caliphate, and that should give us a moment to pause. It is quite a startling fact that the territorial caliphate survived that long. Not many things last five years. At the end of it all, just at the point where we were declaring territorial defeat, up pops Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a video to say, ‘I’m still here, guys.’1 It is an uncomfortable reminder that there still is a strategic mind at the heart of the group. It is not just a group engaged in a war in the desert, but it is an organization with leadership, structure, and organizational goals, however disrupted they have been.

Territory is nice for a terrorist group to have but is not a prerequisite. The establishment of the caliphate enabled them to become a massive global phenomenon, but territory brings with itself its own problems. It requires governance, policing, and defense, all of which requires lots of resource. The challenge for ISIS will be how they manage the transition away from (a) guerrilla state without disintegrating. Al-Baghdadi turning up five years later is their way of starting to think that through.

In terms of the threat from ISIS, the U.K. had a horrible year in 2017, and 2018 was much better. But this is sometimes an illusion. The question if we look at this five-year period and analyze it properly is, what does that show? To do this, we need to go back to the first three years of the group’s caliphate, which were a significant challenge for those of us whose job it was to counter it because it was growing so quickly; they had the impetus and the initiative. It is not true to say that the scale of the problem in 2015-17 took us by surprise, because we had watched it develop in 2013-14, but it is true to say that the way it changed, mobilized young people, generated spontaneity and common cause were exceptionally challenging to deal with. That put real demands on the instruments that we had at our disposal. A lot of things subsequently happened in response, but it took time and finally the coalition efforts in Syria and Iraq have pushed them back and kept them firmly on the back foot over the last couple of years. But it has been at significant cost to the coalition, and there is a huge debt of gratitude to the Syrian Kurds without whom it would not have been possible to push ISIS from their territory in Syria. Now ISIS is on the back foot; their media machine has been significantly disrupted; they’ve lost a lot of operational planners and have been substantially degraded.

In addition to this, we started to get on top of their networks in the West, leading to a lot of disruptions. This makes it much more difficult for them to conduct the kind of attacks they were conducting earlier on.

But there is a long legacy that the group has left behind. It can be categorized in two ways: their media and their network of foreign fighters. They have had more than five years as a group of living and fighting together, and we are talking about an unprecedented number of nationals from an unprecedented number of countries, including both men and women. The women are equally significant in this regard because I reject any suggestion that the women are less responsible for their decisions and actions than the men are. Foreign fighters are going to continue to pose a huge problem for the international security community because we are going to have to track them as well as find ways to monitor the effect that the inspirational ideas have on our domestic populations.

However weakened ISIS may now be, they are still a truly global movement, and we are globally vulnerable. Paradoxically, nothing should surprise us about what happens next, but we need to be prepared to be surprised. Sri Lanka is a good example of that, because whatever their exact connections, they were clearly inspired and connected to ISIS’ ideology at the very least. What Sri Lanka also showed was the difference between a lone-actor and a multiple-actor attack. There is no straightforward equation that says a lone actor will cause lower casualties and do less physical damage, but you can see from Sri Lanka that an attack with multiple actors who conduct their attack simultaneously is very effective. This is something that we see with alarming regularity in places like Afghanistan. We are going to continue to face both the lone-actor inspired attacks, as well as multiple-actor. The threat picture continues to contain almost every sort of threat within it.

CTC: Given the Islamic State is a globalized threat as you describe, are there any places that are of greater or lesser concern? Where might the next Sri Lanka come from?

Raine: There are multiple different factors at play. One is how many of the foreign fighters are left and whether they get home. And we still don’t really know the answer to how many we are talking about in total when it comes to those who left or survived, nor where they are. Local conditions are going to be a determining factor in how they settle. North Africa is clearly of concern, not least because of the numbers of foreign fighters from North Africa, but also as historically the region has tended to produce amongst the most committed and battle-hardened fighters. The environment is one into which they are able to return—either to continue the fight they started in Syria and Iraq, fit into existing groups, or start up something new. This is very concerning. I also continue to worry about Afghanistan, where returning fighters are an additional dimension to the political quagmire. It is possible that a deal done with the Taliban becomes not actually very useful anymore because, in fact, the problem is a whole new generation of people who have been radicalized by a different kind of extremist group. This might lead to new fighting and new groups. It is not a given that this is what is going to happen, but it has to be a concern. And then clearly there are a large number of fighters from Southeast Asia who are going to return somewhere and pose a threat. And finally, I worry about Syria and Iraq because once they cease to pose an international threat, the interest and resource will shift elsewhere while the internal problems remain as complex as they were before the war.

CTC: Part of the threat spectrum facing Western countries has been instigated or inspired attacks. The Islamic State’s use of this methodology was not new. Al-Qa`ida used to use it. But how was the Islamic State able to weaponize it so effectively?

Raine: As you point out, it is not new. AQAP [al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula] ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki was brilliant at it. He was an incredibly powerful voice in the British community and beyond because of his ability to speak in English about modern things. ISIS has upgraded this approach for the modern generation. They’ve been exceptionally innovative at exploiting the explosion of new ways of using social media that we use in society today. They had an army of young, dextrous, tech-savvy people who spoke multiple languages and who knew how to speak to people in their home countries. This was a major advantage they had over Anwar al-Awlaki since he only had a very small group of people supporting him. They were able to communicate directly, sitting together building a critical mass in the media center where they would learn from each other and experiment. A fascinating aspect was that they were communicating with us all the time as well. We were not always attentive to what was being said. I was often struck by the amount of humor and mischief they would use in their messaging. One well known example which resonated with a British audience was the Islamic State Health Service, for example, when the group took the National Health Service (NHS) logo and turned it into their own. It was creative and appealed to people.

The genius of what they did with the inspired attack was to elevate it into a sort of art form, so that anyone who did anything anywhere in the world that fitted their paradigm could be claimed by them. This created an idea of a mass movement without them actually needing to have one. And once you have this fictive mass movement, it gives greater appeal to the group. You create the impression of an organization that is bigger than it is. For those potential recruits sitting at home living their ‘boring’ lives, seeking ‘meaning,’ wanting to be part of something bigger and better, this provides them with a substantial organization to join.

At its height, ISIS had a media machine that was able to publish in 10 languages simultaneously. It has been significantly damaged through a concerted effort in both military and disruptive online terms by multiple actors. But it still exists, and one of the problems we have is that whenever an attack is conducted and a claim is issued, it is rebroadcast all over conventional media. All the group needs to do is get the claim out to create a sense of responsibility around the act without having to have done much work themselves. Sri Lanka was notable in this regard.

The other difference with al-Qa`ida was that ISIS was not afraid to use their media machine and to broadcast rapidly. During the first three years of the caliphate, they took particular advantage of this, as their media broadcasters were in far less danger than al-Qa`ida’s. Al-Qa`ida’s messengers learned that if you stand there with a telephone, somebody is going to bomb you. Anwar al-Awlaki had to go to enormous lengths to get Inspire magazine out there because he had to hide his identity and hide his location. The chaos in Syria meant that ISIS broadcasters were able to hide much more easily. For as long as they were not afraid, they could do it with real confidence, and they were able to maintain a strong voice in the public domain. This helped them create an identity online which they still take advantage of today. It is obviously not the same now, but it was an element of their game plan which took us a little bit of time to adapt and respond to.

CTC: Do you think the group’s brand was degraded because of spurious attack claims? For example, they claimed Stephen Paddock’s October 2017 Las Vegas massacre, an attack that clearly had no link to the group. How long can you claim such random things without people losing belief in you?

Raine: It is certainly true that in the early years, they did not make false claims. They put effort into making sure and verifying that attacks were conducted by their adherents. And then they became a bit sloppier. The only explanation I can offer is that while we may have noticed that their claims are no longer very accurate, the people who support them did not notice. All their claim does, however spurious, is create a hook into the public conversation. An ISIS claim reminds people about the organization’s presence and existence, even if they didn’t actually do it. And by the time everyone has proved that the claim was indeed spurious and the incident had nothing to do with them, everyone has forgotten and moved on to the next thing. The group, however, still gets some brief resonance in the public space.

CTC: There are some indications of a possible al-Qa`ida resurgence.a How is that materializing in terms of threats to the West? Where is the actual threat that we see from al-Qa`ida? And to tie into a bigger question, how do we ever know when a terrorist campaign is over?

Raine: This is a problem. One of the biggest difficulties we have with al-Qa`ida is latency—the ability of the group to exist without necessarily being constantly active and visible. We know al-Qa`ida is a thoughtful organization that has demonstrated strategic patience. The leadership has been absolutely consistent about its objectives for a very long time. And although they have been significantly degraded over the last nearly 20 years by a very persistent campaign against them, some of the key leaders are still around and hidden in very difficult to get to places like Yemen, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North Africa. We cannot be sure that we know what they are doing or even what their new generation looks like. We are aware of the group’s continued ability to exist, its committed leadership, but we are not clear on what the new generations are like or what they think.

Their experience in Syria has been a real roller coaster ride. On the one hand, it has given them a new purpose at various stages of the conflict and, of course, a lot of new recruits, including a lot of Britons who were always al-Qa`ida supporters, as well as other nationalities, like Chechens. And just as the ISIS foreign fighters have been with the group for around five years now, the al-Qa`ida ones have as well. On the other hand, al-Qa`ida is now completely bogged down with factional in-fighting about who is governing Idlib. This is just indicative of the difficulties of being in Syria. It has given al-Qa`ida a platform, and it has given them a massive headache. And we have insights into what is going on with the group with infighting and governance challenges, but we just don’t understand the whole picture.

This highlights the really big challenge for those working in counterterrorism, which is that we know they are there, we know their intent has not changed, we know they have got capability, and the underlying conditions in many parts of the world where they operate are no different now to how they were pre-9/11. In fact, in some parts of the world, they are worse. We know that we cannot get the kind of information that we would want around the group, so how do we interpret the lack of information? How will we know when the absence of information means that an attack is not being planned, or whether it is just that we are not good enough at collecting information on attack plans? And for me, this is the difficulty that we have got ourselves into with the War on Terror because the phrase implies at some point there is going to be a winner and a loser, closure and an end, a treaty. And I just do not see and cannot imagine the point where we are going to be confident enough to say: ‘they are still there, but we are confident that they do not mean us any harm.’

CTC: Is al-Qa`ida or the Islamic State the greater long-term threat to the United Kingdom?

Raine: Rather than one group or another being the long-term threat, the danger comes from the likelihood that they persist and expand—by which I mean, how receptive their target audience is in the long term to the alternative form of governance or ideology that they offer, which is based on a higher belief system and justification for action that is very different to that which secular Western governments offer. Rather than our political system, built on gradual change and reform, they offer a violent and rapid answer, which will consistently be a challenge for us because it is an alternative that will appeal to some people.

We also need to recognize how long some of the participants on their side, be it AQ or ISIL or whomever, have been involved in this fight already. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is my age, as is Abdulmalek Droukdel. Ayman al-Zawahiri and Saif al-`Adl are even older. Qasim al-Raymi is relatively young at the age of 41. And if we think about it at a rational human level, very few of us have fundamentally changed our core beliefs in decades, so why should we expect individuals involved in ideologically motivated groups to? And their children and grandchildren are being brought up with this mentality and ideology around them.

I absolutely agree with the need to prevent, de-radicalize, and counter the narrative that these groups espouse in whatever way we can. But I also feel very strongly that this is a very difficult thing to do, and I still can’t think of any significant examples where de-radicalization has been successful in serious numbers. Because we are trying to tell people to believe something other than that which they believe. And that’s really hard.

In terms of al-Qa`ida or ISIS posing the longer-term threat, it is not so much the groups but the conditions in the world at the moment which pose the threat. Syria, in particular, has created an environment where a whole new generation of threat can emerge. And that will ultimately express itself differently in different places. It may be for the moment that the individuals linked to ISIS or al-Qa`ida stay aligned to the local groups that already exist in the various contexts that they are operating in. It may be that returnees or off-shoots of these groups end up being subsumed into more local conflicts on the ground. Or it may be that they end up becoming part of groups which play a role in proxy conflicts in different parts of the world—for example, the Kashmiri groups that we have long seen active in South Asia, but there are plenty of others. We are likely entering a phase of everything been thrown up into the air. It will eventually settle down again, and we will have to adjust to whatever form that takes.

There are clearly going to be tactical problems dotted around. Somalia is an example of a tactical problem which is a long-term headache because of al-Shabaab, but also because there are ISIS supporters there. North Africa is really interesting because there is a lot of fluidity between groups across the entire region. While I am not a North African specialist, what is striking is the commitment to the ideology in that particular context, and then the pragmatic decision-making about how to act, which is hugely effective. I think we will see tactical, pragmatic, local reshaping, and then we have to bear in mind something that was noted in Ed Fitton-Brown’s recent interview with this publication,2 which is that it does not take very many people to come up with the big plot. The question for us is where they will be located when they decide that they want to launch an attack and where it will ultimately be that they find the time and space to plan something on that scale, rather than simply become subsumed into a local conflict.

CTC: You touched briefly on state-sponsored threats. Do you think they are going to become more significant than al-Qa`ida or Islamic State threats? Or will they merge? How will that relationship develop, and what is your assessment of what will become a greater threat going forward?

Raine: The two types of threat have co-existed for a long time. For example, LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba], the Kashmiri group behind the Mumbai attack, grew out of the jihad in Afghanistan and was linked initially more with Abdullah Azzam and UBL [Usama bin Ladin] before it became more focused on state-supported jihad in Kashmir. The dangerous bit is the overlap between the local and the global. For the U.K., the fusion that was seen in Kashmir was a particular problem, as the struggle in Kashmir provided a strong, local call to action that resonated deeply with Kashmiri diaspora communities in the U.K. At the same time, on the ground in South Asia, these groups were close to al-Qa`ida and ultimately became the connection that produced a series of terrorist plots in the U.K. It is entirely possible that the development of this sort of link could be a product of what emerges from what we have been observing in Syria.

The danger of these sorts of threats, and the many flashpoints in which they exist, is that if they become much more active conflicts, they can become places that draw more people in. The Kashmiri one is the obvious flashpoint that could really draw people in if the violence and conflict were to escalate. The Middle East is another source of potential danger in this regard and has numerous proxy groups and conflicts. In a way, the Syria war is a massive proxy group war, and the war in Yemen is another proxy group war. At the same time, the conflicts become a draw for outsiders and create an environment in which terrorist groups can fight, learn, and plot. States use terrorist groups for their own ends, but don’t forget that terrorist groups also use states for their own ends.

CTC: In a recent issue of this publication, Edmund Fitton-Brown, the Coordinator of the ISIL (Daesh)/Al-Qaida/Taliban Monitoring Team at the United Nations, highlighted the large numbers of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) that are still around.b Young and old, they all pose a potential risk. How do you manage a generational struggle of this scale?

Raine: This is a time bomb problem. To start with, none of us really know the exact figures of people who have gone out there and might still be there. It is difficult to know, as I mentioned earlier, the degree to which the threat they pose is something that is blended into a local threat picture or something new and different. What we do know is that there is nothing to suggest that many of them have changed their minds, and there is nothing to suggest that if we do nothing, they will change their mindset. So, we have got to do something. The big challenge for the global counterterrorism community is how do we create a globally coordinated response when we have all got our own domestic considerations and our own legal systems. In Western-allied countries, we have ended up managing this problem largely through defense and security, with the closest possible collaboration we can have. This means sharing data, which enables us to identify potential terrorists who can be disrupted before they do anything, and doing this according to our liberal values, which limits the amount of intrusion into people’s privacy or the length of time that people can be locked up.

There are other countries with different values that are applying different solutions to the problem of both foreign terrorist fighters and the broader problem of radicalization at home. The Chinese are locking up, if we believe the reports, around a million Uighurs.3 The Russians have taken some quite punitive measures in the Caucasus. Then there is a serious question about places which just remain completely lawless—though if we are honest, there is no such thing as an ungoverned space; rather it is governed by someone we do not like. Libya is an example of a place where Western governments have to cooperate with a confusing group of actors on the ground to ensure that the ungoverned spaces are not exploited by Islamist extremists. Then there are countries which are themselves making a complicated series of calculations about how to deal with terrorist problems which have deep local roots, as well as external links. Pakistan and Turkey would fall into that category. The West needs them to be a partner to deal with threats that we are worried about, but they are also trying to manage their own local dynamics. And then finally, there are the countries which cannot cope with these threats, need international support, and need to be part of a global counterterror coalition but are not. We are far from having a unified international response.

The problem is further complicated by the inevitability that the different sets of responses going on around the world will create different sets of unintended consequences. For example, it is not clear what effect repression of the Uighurs will have in terms of the globalist narrative that extremist groups use. It may well be that China’s response suppresses the problem to the extent that they are unable to respond, but it may well be that they then fight back in different ways. Or it may be that other groups will take up their banner. This highlights how there is a particular context in which we have to work together, but at the same time, this is rendered almost impossible nowadays because of the geopolitical environment in which we are operating.

A second question for us as liberal democracies is how we do this while also staying true to our values. So, for example, we struggle to convict those we suspect of terrorism-related crimes at home because we cannot collect evidence to the standards we would require in a war zone. At the same time, we expect other countries to manage them without the evidence. We end up asking more of other countries than we ask of ourselves. Additionally, we are rightly prohibited from sharing information with countries where there is too great a misalignment of our legal systems—which could be construed as lack of due process—or where there is a possibility that mistreatment will occur. We cannot cooperate with another state if the outcome might be an act which we would consider unlawful. How do we forge safe partnerships with countries whose approach to human rights is very different from our own without creating legal jeopardy for ourselves? We have not had the kind of conversation we need to about that.

The other big issue these longer-term threats throw up is predictability, something particularly illustrated by the Easter attack in Sri Lanka. People want to know what is safe and what is not. Sri Lanka demonstrated that it is impossible to have certainty. And this is a perennial problem. For example, it is very difficult to say that the conditions which allowed the October 2002 Bali bombings to happen in Indonesia have completely gone away or not been exacerbated by current conflicts in the region or elsewhere. But we cannot tell everybody not to go to Indonesia on holiday just because something bad might happen. This means that the strain of mitigating these risks is taken by protective security measures, and this requires increasing resources to manage these issues in a broad range of places, like North Africa, Turkey, or Southeast Asia to ensure that people are safe when they go there. But the result is that changes the way we live.

CTC: Looking into the future, what terrorist ideologies are of greatest concern to you?

Raine: Islamist terrorism is not going to go away. It might change and become more local, fueled by proxy wars, but the underlying causes that drive these groups and ideologies have not changed and indeed go back a long way.

In addition to this, over the last few years, we have seen—certainly across the English-speaking and Western world—an increase in seriousness and coherence of extreme right-wing groups. It used to look like the extreme right was made up of political movements, and when they conducted violent acts, it was often a lone actor. What we are seeing now is groups of likeminded individuals coming together and talking in a type of language and approach that is used by violent Islamists, using words such as “embracing martyrdom.” In part, this is a response to the broader political context. The far-right parties and movements now have an increasingly coherent narrative, and stronger links to a shared philosophy. Books which espouse this extreme right-wing philosophy are readily available on Amazon, where they have multiple five-star reviews, very few negative reviews, and through algorithms lead the reader to other similarly extreme material. We have not yet worked out, as we did previously with violent Islamist material, what is and is not acceptable on the extreme right-wing side of the ideological equation. The New Zealand attack demonstrated this very clearly when he titled his manifesto “The Great Replacement,” drawing on a French right-wing philosophical tract of the same name.

But in many ways, my biggest concern with the future of terrorism is what we do in response to it. I am concerned that there is an expectation that this can be stopped, but we’re a long way from working out what the tools are that will enable us to deliver that outcome. Instead, we go through very predictable cycles of intervention and non-intervention overseas, with unclear results. We are committed to liberal values, but then how do we deal with people who we can’t lock up and whose minds we can’t change? In many ways, the challenge of getting our response right is as big as the problem itself.

CTC: Are there terrorist tactics that you’ve seen develop over your time in government and since that seem to be growing into more worrying problems?

Raine: There have been big changes in the threat picture. The inspired threat is a change that has already happened and is still happening. Then there are things which have not changed—for example, the determination to conduct a spectacular attack against aviation, something that is just a huge challenge for governments and the aviation industry. You don’t want to put people off flying by being overly protective. But global coordination of effective aviation security has been very slow. The recent conviction in relation to the 2017 Sydney passenger jet plot is a good example of the persistent nature of this threat.4

The two new things that everybody talks about are drones and chemical/biological weapons. The likelihood of their use has increased as a result of the war in Syria and as technology develops, because in Syria a significant amount of people have been able to experiment with both types of weapons on the battlefield. We saw in the United Kingdom what disruption drones could do to airports earlier in the year. But at the same time, while we can sometimes get carried away with our creativity about what terrorists might do, they still seem to revert to type. While the panic and disruption caused by the drones at Gatwick airport were hugely damaging,5 terrorists seem to continue to prefer incidents that cause horrible deaths and injuries. Notwithstanding the availability of new technology, they still continue to like to focus on trying to blow things up.     CTC

Substantive Notes
[a] Editor’s note: See, for example, Tim Shipman, “Al-Qaeda terror group returns to target airliners and airports,” Sunday Times (U.K.), December 23, 2018, and Jami Forbes, “Does al-Qa`ida’s Increasing Media Outreach Signal Revitalization?” CTC Sentinel 12:1 (2019).

[b] Editor’s note: According to Fitton-Brown, out of the over 40,000 foreign terrorist fighters who joined the so-called caliphate, “We could have anything up to nearly 30,000 who remain alive, but nobody knows the true figure.” See Paul Cruickshank, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Edmund Fitton-Brown, Coordinator, ISIL (Daesh)/Al-Qaida/Taliban Monitoring Team, United Nations,” CTC Sentinel 12:4 (2019).

Citations
[1] “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: IS leader appears in first video in five years,” BBC, April 30, 2019.

[2] See Paul Cruickshank, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Edmund Fitton-Brown, Coordinator, ISIL (Daesh)/Al-Qaida/Taliban Monitoring Team, United Nations,” CTC Sentinel 12:4 (2019).

[3] Stephanie Nebehay, “U.N. says it has credible reports that China holds million Uighurs in secret camps,” Reuters, August 10, 2018.

[4] “Australian guilty of plane bomb plot involving meat grinder,” BBC, May 1, 2019.

[5] Hallie Detrick, “Gatwick’s December Drone Closure Cost Airlines $64.5 million,” Fortune, January 22, 2019.

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More belated posting, this time another book review for Literary Review. It looks at Joan Smith’s thought-provoking Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists. Very pleased to be contributing regularly to this publication and look forward to doing more of it.

Murderers in the Making

Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists

By Joan Smith

Issue-478-Aug-2019-200x266

While the process by which a person becomes part of a terrorist group is different in every case, there are patterns and similarities in the ways people are radicalised. Identifying them is a big part of what our security services do nowadays, looking at individual behaviour to try to understand who may end up taking a path towards violence. Joan Smith’s new book, Home Grown, seeks to identify one set of indicators, focusing on misogyny and domestic violence. It is not based on data-driven research. Rather, it relies on anecdotal evidence, drawing on a somewhat random set of case studies from Western societies in recent years. But that does not stop it from being a very stimulating meditation on a topic on which gallons of ink have already been spilled. 

Understanding the ‘close link between private and public violence’, Smith suggests, can provide a ‘new way’ of identifying potential terrorists. Her main point is that if you dig into the backgrounds of those who commit terrorist acts, you will find life stories littered with abuse at home – angry men beating their wives and children – and a litany of misogynistic behaviours. She cites as an example the case of the Kouachi brothers, responsible for the January 2015 massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. Their sister Aicha told the police after the massacre, ‘My father used to beat us, my mother neglected us.’ Both men were openly misogynistic too. While on trial a few years earlier for suspected terrorism-related offences, one of them refused to stand up in court because the judge was a woman. Smith also cites the case of Darren Osborne, who drove a truck into congregants outside the Finsbury Park mosque in 2017. Osborne was a repeated abuser of women and at the time of the attack was effectively homeless, having been thrown out of his house by his long-suffering partner. 

There is now an awareness in the security establishment of the importance of studying the inner lives of the people who become involved in terrorism. In the past few years there has been a growth in the number of psychologists and social scientists working on countering terrorism. MI5 has had a dedicated behavioural sciences unit for some time. The part played by broken homes and abusive fathers in radicalisation has certainly been noticed by the security services. What is more interesting and thought-provoking is the question of where misogyny and violence against women fit into the picture. This is the question that most animates Smith, who is a longtime campaigner for women’s rights and co-chair of the mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board. For her, the underlying problem of misogyny in societies contributes to an environment in which terrorism can germinate. She refers to Salman Abedi, the perpetrator of the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing, who belonged to a social group in which misogyny was commonplace. After the attack, one of his contemporaries at college told the authorities that ‘he would hang around with other lads who would smoke weed and harass girls. They’d say really inappropriate things, he just had no respect for women.’ In 2012 he assaulted a young woman at his college.

There is surely some truth to Smith’s claim of a connection between misogyny and terrorism – societies in which the victimisation and abuse of one half of the population is a daily occurrence are likely to create a range of problems for themselves. Violent Islamism and right-wing extremism, the two terrorist ideologies that most bother us today, are both fundamentally male-supremacist, and Smith reminds us that forced marriages, rape and sex slavery are widespread within ISIS. But the matter is complicated by the fact that some women are drawn towards such organisations. For them, joining an extremist group that advocates the subordination of women can, paradoxically, foster a feeling of agency over the future.

Even more complicated is the question of whether the phenomena Smith describes have long been present and under-observed or are new developments. Here Home Grown is frustrating, as the case studies Smith offers are all relatively recent – she draws particularly heavily on the explosion of violence in the West that began with ISIS’s proclamation of a caliphate in 2014. The other frustration with this book is that it is hard to know what practical conclusions to draw from it, aside from the need to pay more attention to people who come from abusive homes. The recommendations Smith offers at the end of the book are for the most part about improving the reporting of abuse of women in general. Only two out of twelve of them relate specifically to terrorism or radicalisation. And this in some ways captures the essence of Smith’s book. While it uses the topic of terrorism as a way of approaching these subjects, it is in fact more about misogyny and domestic abuse in society as a whole.

A new article for the South China Morning Post which seeks to offer a broader lens with which to consider the recent spate of terrorist incidents in South Asia. There is an interesting running theme of them all having global consequences, something that has now been made even more relevant by the death of Zakir Musa (AQIS head) and ISIS’s announcements of affiliates in Pakistan and India. Related to this story, spoke to the Wall Street Journal about the Sri Lanka attacks.

Time for South Asia to more closely monitor regional terrorism with global reach

  • Raffaello Pantucci writes that growing regional anger must be kept from spiralling out of control and creating broader havoc
  • Recent terror attacks in Kashmir, Sri Lanka and Gwadar have worrisome implications for global security
Topic |   Pakistan

Some catch up posting from this week, starting with a new piece for my institutional home RUSI with one of our Senior Distinguished Fellows, and former Assistant Commissioner for Specialist Operations (ACSO) for the Metropolitan Police Sir Mark Rowley.

Despite Territorial Defeat, Islamist Terrorism Will Continue to be a Threat

Mark Rowley and Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary14 March 2019
International Security StudiesNational SecurityTerrorism

Daesh, Al-Qa’ida and other terrorist organisations may appear to be in current retreat. But rather than being eradicated, they have scattered. The violent extremism they have spawned has not entirely disappeared and understanding how it might evolve is going to be a central preoccupation for security planners.

 

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A bomb in Derry/Londonderry, warnings about a political environment that is fertile ground for the extreme right, and a letter bombing campaign linked to Irish-related terrorists all show that the terrorist threat to the UK has more dimensions now than just the menace of violent Islamism. But jihadist threats persist and have changed from the more organised and conventional Al-Qa’ida network that was the prior focus of attention. We continue to face a persistent violent Islamist threat that exists in parallel to the noisier threats dominating the media. The open-source violent Islamist cult of terrorism that scattered its ideology across the web to hook the angry and the vulnerable is now showing signs of seeding new threats around the world.

Raqqa, the Syrian stronghold of Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS), may have fallen, but the ideas and people involved have not gone away. The nihilistic cult that the group promoted from its bases in Syria and Iraq was part social experiment in building a utopian state, and part mini social movement with global reach. Fostered through an easily accessible ideology with a low threshold to entry for membership, packaged around an easy explanation of how the world worked, and disseminated using social media and messages created in easily shareable fashion, it was and is an exceptionally diffuse ideology.

This was a major reason why Daesh was able to achieve its position on the world stage. Using extreme acts of performative violence while projecting the image of building a state to which all the believers were welcome, it became the dominant alternative ideology in the global discourse.

That power has waned; loss of territory and erosion of leadership have reduced the potency of the message. But Daesh has not gone away. Following defeat on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq, the remains of the organisation could still generate future conflict in the Levant. Internationally, the flames that the group was able to foster during its totemic moments have scattered still-burning embers around the world. Some of these will likely mature into the threats of tomorrow.

Consider a series of incidents and disruptions that took place across Europe last December. These started with the shooting in Strasbourg on December 11, where a radical former petty criminal who was known to authorities as a possible violent Islamist threat decided to go on a shooting rampage after he realised authorities might be about to arrest him. A week or so after his shooting, police in Italy detained Anas Khalil, a Somali national who was allegedly in contact with Daesh in Somalia and was allegedly talking of launching a bombing campaign against churches in Italy. And finally, in the UK, New Year’s celebrations were marred by a stabbing at Manchester’s main train station which led to an individual subsequently being held under the Mental Health Act while also being investigated for a terrorist offence – showing a different potential expression of the threat that we face.

In each of these three incidents a link of some sort can be found to Daesh. Yet the nature of this link is not the usual command and control connection (whereby the terrorist group uses specific direction to advance the plot) that we would ordinarily expect. Instead, it is through Daesh affiliates, individuals latching on to the ideology, or people who are part of a broader network. This is a reflection of a cult ideology that has scattered far and wide, and has now taken root in fertile ground. For the group, the level of link to the individual launching the attack is probably less important than the act itself.

Al-Qa’ida evolved in quite a different manner. After it was hammered by drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan the core of the threat shifted to Yemen, where its strongest affiliate with a deep personal connection to Osama bin Laden could be found. The various Al-Qa’ida affiliates all also stepped forwards into the public eye in their own local ways – leading to attacks like the murderous rampage by Al-Shabaab at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall or Al-Mourabitoun’s hostage-taking of Western oil men in the Algerian deserts at In Amenas. Each of these attacks reflected the group’s local interests, while nodding to the banner organisation’s vision. The degree of command and control from the centre was different, with the group ultimately losing a certain degree of control over the affiliates. It became a network with independent affiliates, rather than a centrally controlled network with a rigid hierarchy and core.

We are now seeing Daesh’s different approach leading to a very different global spread. Its cultish nature has fostered a scattering of its ideology on the wind of the internet. Unlike Al-Qa’ida which demanded some level of linkage and control, Daesh seems happiest letting things blossom and flourish wherever they find fertile conditions. There are examples of them connecting to groups and conflicts in the Philippines, West Africa and the Maldives. Daesh has acknowledged some of the groups as affiliates, while others it simply praises as conducting activities in advance of their ideology. But it is not clear which of these are the priorities for a group which seems just as willing to claim responsibility for things to which it has no link, as for those which it is quite clearly directing.

This poses a new kind of longer-term menace to those tasked with our security. We may be in a stage now when the various seeds scattered to the winds are in their germination stage. Some will wither and die, while others will be spotted and pruned before they can mature into a substantial threat.

This requires new approaches from governments. Identifying those trends which are going to develop into something more substantial is going to require constant attention. Building the resilience of the fragile states where this threat can get a foothold will be important, as aid efforts and security objectives will increasingly overlap.

This model of global Islamist terrorism with a cult-like ideology scattering and fostering independent mini-caliphates to grow will need constant effort to be effectively managed. The danger is that, just as some key Western governments are retreating from internationalism, new terrorist footholds will establish themselves, strengthen themselves and shock us. The surprise leaves us prone to overreaction that only exacerbates the problem. To counter terrorist threats, we need to not only fight them on the ground, but appreciate the reason why they have developed in the first place and calibrate our response appropriately. Only then will we be able to manage them effectively and guarantee our security.

Mark Rowley is former Assistant Commissioner for Specialist Operations at the Metropolitan Police and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at RUSI.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at RUSI.

BANNER IMAGE: A road in London Bridge remains closed after the 2017 terrorist attack. Courtesy of David Holt/Wikimedia

Another piece for the Telegraph, this time a short analysis piece to go alongside their all page coverage on the announcement of the bounty on Hamza bin Laden’s head. The title does not totally reflect the rest of the text, but there we go.

Separately, spoke to the Daily Mail about Shamina Begum, to the Independent about the practice of stripping passports, to the Scottish Sunday Post about ISIS not going away, and then again to the Independent about what to do with returnees. On the other side of the coin, spoke to the Globe and Mail about what the UK was going to do about Huawei and 5G, to TRT World about China in Afghanistan, Live Mint quoted me about China in South Asia, and finally, I did a long conversation for the wonderful Majilis Podcast with an excellent panel including Muhammad Tahir, Bruce Pannier, and Nadege Rolland – the full podcast can be found here, and the Diplomat subsequently did a write up of the conversation.

Analysis: Can Hamza Bin Laden reinvigorate al-Qaeda as Islamic State falls back?

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We have a remarkably myopic view of terrorist organisations. If they are not on our news channels, the assumption is that they have gone away.

Yet, the reality is that these are organizations that are locked into struggles that they see on millenarian timelines in advance of God’s greater glory.

This is important to remember when thinking about the announcement of a bounty on Hamza bin Laden’s head.

Al-Qaeda as an organisation has not gone away, rather it has of late seemingly chosen to re-focus on fighting what it would describe as the ‘near enemy’ of regimes in the Middle East, rather than the ‘far enemy’ in the West who they see as supporting these apostate leaders in their neighbourhood.

The decision to place a $1 million bounty on his head now is something which more a product of our decision cycle than theirs.

Why this is happening now is difficult to divine without deeper insights into the US government’s decision-making processes.

It is possible that some information has emerged of him moving into a location where such a sum of money would make a difference in someone’s thinking.

It is also possible that this is part of a specific push around him – two days ago the UN added him to its proscribed list, and the Saudi government has now stripped him of his citizenship.

As we start to move away from worrying about Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), it could be a good moment to remind the world of someone identified by the UN “as the most probable successor of [current al-Qaeda leader] al-Zawahiri”.

Now in his late 20s, al-Qaeda seems to have decided it is an opportune moment to elevate Hamza’s profile within the organisation.

A fresh face to counter al-Qaeda’s aging Egyptian head Ayman al Zawahiri, Hamza offers a link to the group’s golden era, and a leader whose stature is still held in veneration around the world.

While yet to prove himself as a leader, Hamza can help refresh the organization through messaging that is shorn of the in-fighting that plagued al-Qaeda during the early years of the Syrian conflict when it fell out dramatically with Isil.

The bounty on his head will no doubt to some degree confirm his elevation amongst those interested in such ideologies – though it is worth noting that $1 million is a fairly paltry sum when put up against the $25 million that is on offer for al Qeada’s leader Ayman al Zawahiri or Isil leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

In fact, look at the US government’s rewards for justice page, and Hamza bin Laden sits firmly at the bottom in a group all of his own.

He has in fact done little to elevate himself to his father’s stature yet, though clearly has aspiration and ambition in that direction.

 

And finally in my catch-up blast, my latest piece this time for the Telegraph this past week after the revelation of Shamina Begum’s discovery in a camp in Syria. The story sparked off a wave of media attention on the topic of jihadi’s abroad. Likely a keen desire by the UK press to get away from the dreaded Brexit story.

Aside from this blast of articles, spoke to the Independent about a child who was questioned by counter-terrorism police, the Washington Post re-used an old interview about what happens when terrorist leaders are killed, spoke to Bloomberg about what was going on in Xinjiang, and in a definite break from ordinary service spoke to AFP about tourism in the Philippines. Finally my below piece for the Telegraph got picked up in AFP’s coverage of the debate around Shamina Begum in the UK and was translated into French and Spanish.

Don’t underestimate the role of female jiahdis like Shamina Begum

British teenagers Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase and Shamima Begum passing through security barriers at Gatwick Airport, south of London, on February 17, 2015. 

We have a dangerous habit of playing down the importance of women in extremist networks. Common prejudices about the ‘fairer sex’ often lead us to assume a passive role. Yet in reality, women are just as engaged as their male counterparts – if not more so. Our assumptions simply support a narrative that removes agency from them.

These facts should be acknowledged when we are deciding what to do with Shamima Begum, a young woman who has made a series of terrible choices but must also be dealt with in a just and transparent manner.

The conflict in Syria has thrown up innumerable questions for our society – chief among them, what to do with the cadre of young Britons initially drawn to fight alongside Isil, who now find themselves detained or lingering in refugee camps as the terrorist group dissolves. The government has so far given little indication or guidance on how to deal with such individuals. Although work is being done in some cases, overall, our strategy seem to be waiting to see how things play out, or else hoping someone else will deal with the problem.

As individual cases emerge, so do new moral conundrums. It is easy to make sweeping statements when we think of the group as an anonymous bloc of people. Yet, when we dig into individual examples, the complexity of the human experience comes to the fore. Each case merits a potentially different response.

Shamima Begum, for example, presents a contradictory narrative. A young woman who first went to Syria as a schoolgirl with two of her friends, she is now a 19-year-old who has married a fighter, buried two children, with a third on the way. Initially viewed as a naïf who was groomed or coerced into the process, she has, it seems, evolved into an unrepentant young ideologue. The truth is probably even more complex.

We have historically underestimated the role of women in extremist networks. Yet looking back on the London 7/7 bombings now, the most infamous and enduring figure remains Samantha Lewthwaite, the notorious ‘White Widow’ who was married to one of the bombers and went on to become a significant figure in East African jihadist networks. Her celebrity spiked during the 2013 attack on the Westgate Mall in Kenya, and her ultimate whereabouts have never been determined, though she remains one of the world’s most wanted terror suspects. Other women from the same network, in contrast, have returned to ordinary lives.

Throughout the history of jihad in Britain, women can be found in the background of networks and cells, supporting their men ideologically, in some cases quite clearly instigating their actions. Yet the overriding view remains that women have little agency in this process. This blind spot can partly be explained by a general failure to understand what draws people to these groups. We can broadly comprehend the male impulse to be involved in ‘exciting’ violent activity but often ignore the fact that these ideas can be as attractive to women as men. And, of course, women have made as much of a choice to be involved. Many will consider joining these groups a form of empowerment.

Samantha Louise Lewthwaite, also known as the White Widow, is one of the world's most wanted terrorism suspects

In fact, the reason so many more women were involved with Isil in Syria is a product of the more coherent and credible state-building narrative that Isil was able to project, alongside the much greater ease with which people could access this battlefield compared to previous conflicts in Afghanistan, Somalia or Yemen.

But all of this is now muddled by the example before us. The already tricky case of a young woman who joined Isil as a minor is further complicated by the presence of an unborn child. The degree to which we need to offer punishment over rehabilitation is mitigated by her age. And while she has clearly done wrong, at present it will prove near-impossible to implement a proper judicial process.

There are no obvious solutions to this emerging problem, but through it all we should remember that Shamina Begum made a conscious decision to join a group responsible for untold misery in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the world. While this should not necessarily condemn her to perpetual limbo, it does mean she should face punishment for her involvement in these crimes. Our priority must now be to establish what that process will look like.

A new format for a publication have contributed to before, the Financial Times, this time a book review of Walter Laqueur’s last book (co-authored with Christopher Wall) in a title that seems appropriate for the end of the year. It is a good short primer on the topic of terrorism which is widely available and worth reading. In addition, spoke to Neue Zürcher Zeitung about Syria and France 24 about the recent attack in Egypt.

The Future of Terrorism by Walter Laqueur and Christopher Wall

An account of the persistent allure of political violence to ‘purify society’

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