Posts Tagged ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Levant’

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

Is ISIS a Threat to the UK?

RUSI Analysis, 21 Aug 2014

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

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

British jihadists, Isis recruitment video

image from here

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

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

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

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

The Threat Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More for my institutional home RUSI as I use August to catch up on longer pieces of writing I owe. This looks at the increasingly studied question of foreign fighters, one that we are currently a specific research project on. Results due later in the year! Oh and for those who want to hear me babbling away about terrorism with John Amble and Robin Simcox for the new War on the Rocks, listen here.

How Might Syria Come Back to the UK?

RUSI Analysis, 0 Aug 2013By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow, Counter-Terrorism
al-mazwagi Syria foreign fighter

British citizen Ibrahim al-Mazwagi killed earlier in the year

The ongoing intractable civil war in Syria has become a magnet for foreign fighters of every stripe. Unlike previous jihadist battlefields that have drawn foreigners in, however, this has not so far produced a terrorist threat back in the West. This is not same regionally. Across the border in Jordan, a terrorist network with connections to the battlefield has been disrupted, while in Iraq,Lebanon and Turkey, bombs have gone off with return addresses in Syria. The question now preoccupying European policymakers in particular is whether the pipeline of European nationals going to fight on the battlefield in Syria may eventually transform into a similar set of incidents in Europe.

The first thing to understand is how we have seen terrorist threats emanate from battlefields in the past. Historically speaking, jihadi battlefields have produced three types of terrorist threats (with an unknown number choosing to come back return to ordinary lives): directed plots by individuals sent back with instruction; terrorist plots conducted by individuals who decide to carry out attacks without direction; and networks of individuals that provide support and infrastructure for other terrorist plots.

Directed Plots

The archetypal example of this is Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shezhad Tanweer, the pair of young men at the core of the 7 July 2005 attack on London’s transport system. Khan in particular was a regular to fighting and training abroad, and made at least three known trips to join with extremist groups with whom he conducted some sort of training, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Initially drawn to the battlefield by mythology around Kashmir, he seems to have quickly moved into preferring the Afghan struggle and ultimately believing that he was going to fight and die in Afghanistan. Once there on what he thought would be his final trip in 2004, he was instead re-directed by Al-Qa’ida to return to the UK to launch his infamous terrorist attack.

The clear lesson in foreign fighter terms here was that Khan was drawn initially to the battlefield to fight there, and was then persuaded by groups there to launch an attack back home. The driver of this seems to have largely been the eagerness of the group on the ground, Al-Qa’ida, to strike the West. The arrival of British passport holders seeking to support the cause was a gift to the group that they were able to transform into a tool to conduct a successful operation. The 7 July  cell may have been the only ones to have succeeded, but a number of other plots have been detected that bear similar hallmarks.

Self-Started Plots

Security officials on both sides of the Atlantic have spoken of concern about the growth of lone wolf or small cell terror plots. Usually involving single individuals or tight-knit units of individuals who demonstrate no direction from either Al-Qa’ida or one of its affiliates, expressions of this threat can be found in recent incidents in Boston, Paris, Toulouse, and Woolwich.

In some of these cases, a trace connection can be found to a known terrorist organisation, though there is little evidence of any direction in the choice of targets or other operational specifics. The foreign fighters phenomenon has some linkeage here: in both the Toulouse and Woolwich cases, for example, there is evidence that the individuals involved sought to make connections with radical groups abroad. Specifically, in Toulouse, Mohammed Merah went to Pakistan, trained with Al-Qa’ida linked groups and was then apparently sent back with some loose direction. However, his subsequent attack against off-duty French soldiers and then against Jewish school children seems to have been carried outlargely under his own steam.

Almost five years before Merah committed his bloody acts, a similar dynamic played out in the UK when Bilal Abdulla and Kafeel Ahmed first left a pair of car bombs in central London before launching an attempted suicide attack on Glasgow’s international airport. Ahmed died during the attempt in Scotland, but Bilal Abdulla was arrested and convicted, with his case uncovering a link between him and Al-Qa’ida’s Iraqi affiliate, with whom it is believed he had undertaken some training. Seemingly undirected by the group, Abdulla seems to have taken it upon himself to punish the UK for its involvement in the war that tore his country apart.

Networks

In some ways it is the networks that foreign battlefields create that are of the greatest longer-term concern. The danger is not that individuals who are drawn to foreign battlefields may actually come back and launch anti-Western attacks, rather, they might instead provide support networks for individuals who have been tasked to launch attacks or help radicalise others.

With experience and contacts from the battlefield, they present the potential for providing soft support for networks intending to launch attacks as well as becoming potential radicalisers who persuade others of the salience of the global jihadi narrative, using their own personal experience as an example. In most terrorist plots that have been uncovered in the West, links to such radicalisers can be found – either in terms of loud public preachers such as Abu Hamza or more locally radicalising figures who do not appear on the public radar but feature in the background of security investigations.

This last group is deeply intangible, but in many ways can present itself as the most dangerous long-term menace, providing a natural incubator for global jihadist ideas in the West. Those going abroad to fight may have no intention to come back and launch attacks, but through connections they might find themselves drawn into supporting others and invariably through transmission of their experience will act as radicalising agents. Groups eager to launch attacks against the West continue to exist abroad, and it is perfectly possible that they will use these networks and communities to eventually try to direct other attacks.

New Ungoverned Spaces Presents Long-Term Problem

At this point the flow  of Europeans going to Syria to fight has not produced any threats back home, though there have been a number of related arrests across the continent. In the UK a group is facing trial later in the year in connection to the kidnapping of a pair of European journalists in July 2012. A cell in Belgium appears to have been overheard talking about attacking the Palais de Justice in Brussels, but it is unclear that this had moved anything beyond the discussion phase.

Other networks can be found across Europe, and as security agencies focus on them, it is likely that other echoes will be heard. The bigger problem, however, is the situation in Syria where an inability to topple the regime and an incoherent opposition means that we are slowly seeing a Balkanisation of the country with radical groups  taking hold of pieces of territory and are creating parallel governance structures. This presents the danger of new safe havens allowing groups to train and plot. This is all the more menacing when one considers the heavy presence of the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham (ISIS, the latest incarnation of Al-Qa’ida’s Iraqi affiliate) on the field, as well as other Salafi-jihadi groups. Atop this, there are the reports of growing numbers of foreigners from across the Muslim world some of whom are connected to other Al-Qa’ida affiliates being drawn to Syria. Networks linking these spaces and groups to the West are of clear concern and rightly alarm security services.

Syria’s slow slide into chaos and civil war is tearing at the fabric of the Muslim world. The already tense Sunni-Shia divide now has a battlefield in which to brutally play itself out and has already provided overspill into neighbouring countries. The West remains divided over what to do, and age-old rivalries are playing themselves out in the UN Security Council. European foreign fighters provide a direct link between Europe and a battlefield that is developing in so many different directions that it is difficult to know what the repercussions in the longer-term will be.  What does seem clear though is that the community of foreign fighters is likely to prolong the incubation of extreme and violent Islamist ideas in Europe for the foreseeable future.

RUSI is currently undertaking a research project looking at the phenomenon of foreign fighters in Europe and how this can express itself as a terrorist threat back home.