Posts Tagged ‘jihad’

Slightly late posting here, but a longer review for my institutional journal RUSI Journal of two excellent recent books about terrorism – Al Qaeda’s Revenge by Fernando Reinares and The Exile by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark.

Al-Qaeda’s Revenge: The 2004 Madrid Train Bombings/The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden

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As an expression of human behaviour, politically motivated violence or terrorism is a constant. There will be extremists on most political spectrums and some of these will feel a need to use violence to awaken everyone else to their cause. Terrorists may occasionally come up with tactical innovations and ideological mutations, but their essential behaviour (the sorts of violence they will resort to) is generally repetitive. Although lone actors – instigated, inspired or directed by Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS) – have received much attention, the reality is that even this expression of terrorism is deeply linked to what has been previously enacted. Similarly, government reactions are remarkably repetitive, seemingly unaware of lessons from the past. This excellent pair of books highlights these realities, drawing on extensive research into well-trodden stories, generating new insights and clarifying the nature of past threats, those we are currently confronting and what they will look like in the future.

The new details and insights offered by these books are striking, especially since the subjects have been written about substantially. Fernando Reinares’s authoritative review of the 2004 Madrid bombings draws on a wealth of new material from security sources, court documents and more, to tell the story of the brutal attack that remains Europe’s most deadly terrorist atrocity linked to violent Islamists. Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy’s pacey volume reads like an action thriller, and draws on a wealth of interviews conducted with security officials, members of Al-Qa’ida and others, alongside an impressive wealth of new material to tell the story of Al-Qa’ida after the 9/11 attacks from the group’s perspective. Other books have dug into aspects of this tale, but this is the first work to provide details about what went on inside the Al-Qa’ida cluster that fled to Iran after the fall of Tora Bora in December 2001, and the centrality of Osama bin Laden’s family to the group’s post-Afghanistan journeys.

The shocking nature of individual terrorist attacks often leads to the conclusion that such attacks are a complete surprise. When these incidents occur, they seem to reflect a gap in the knowledge of security and intelligence agencies, which may seem unfathomable to the public. And indeed, the reality is that subsequent investigation usually uncovers connections, contacts and prior knowledge. Information that was previously ignored or overlooked assumes a greater importance, and with hindsight a clear story of how the attack slipped through undetected can be told. Whether the fault lies with inadequate oversight by relevant authorities or with the ability of the attackers to disguise their activities becomes a point of conjecture. Nonetheless, it usually emerges that security forces were aware of the groups that conducted the attack.

More recently this conventional pattern of how terrorists behave and how authorities respond has become more complex. The recent spate of lone-actor attacks, in which individuals appear to have acted on behalf of terrorist groups with which they have no discernible link, has started to confuse the picture. However, as research has shown, often the individual has some connections or demonstrated some activity that would show him or her to be less isolated than might initially appear.

After every incident there is a scramble to uncover what links exist and who might have known about them before the event took place. Ultimately, the aim is to apportion blame and explain the atrocity. However, often the information that comes out in the immediate aftermath of the incident is incomplete and incorrect.

These two books show in different ways how the consequences of this can be dramatic – something that was particularly visible in the wake of the Madrid bombings, when the government suggested that the atrocity might have been committed by ETA, the Basque separatist organisation. It soon emerged that the incident was in fact the product of a violent Islamist cell, which released messages claiming the attack. But many have linked this confusion and the degree to which the government was blamed for spreading the false rumour to the ultimate fall of the government of then Prime Minister José María Aznar. The most dramatic consequence was that Spain withdrew its forces from Iraq, in line with a campaign pledge by incoming Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Many have pointed to the link between the bombing and the withdrawal as evidence of successful political manipulation as a result of terrorism.

Yet, as Reinares shows in Al-Qaeda’s Revenge: The 2004 Madrid Train Bombings by drawing on previously less well-covered meetings of senior Al-Qa’ida figures, the planning of the plot went back further than Spain’s decision to participate in the US-led invasion of Iraq. He traces it to December 2001, when two North African Al-Qa’ida-linked men plotted in Karachi to make Spain suffer. Of Moroccan descent, Amer Azizi and Abdelatif Mourafik had jihadist pedigree and, in Reinares’s account, harboured anger towards Spain that was in part a reflection of their failed attempts at jihadist overthrow in North Africa. Linked to both the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group and Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the men felt deep anger towards Spain, a power with historical and current influence over North Africa. In February 2002, they met again in Istanbul and decided to strengthen and develop the necessary networks in Western Europe and their home countries to launch a terrorist campaign, coordinated with the acquiescence of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian extremist who established Al-Qa’ida in Iraq soon afterwards. Attacks in Casablanca followed in May 2003, and in Madrid in March 2004.

As is often the case, Spanish authorities were on to the network, but had clamped down on only part of it. As the attacks in Madrid took place, a major counterterrorism operation was being brought to its conclusion in court, with 24 men facing trial after Operation Datil led to them being charged with involvement in terrorist networks. Some of the key figures in the 3/11 cell (as the group responsible for the Madrid bombings is known) expected to be detained as part of this arrest, and arguably the failure of the Spanish authorities to capture them may have accelerated the cell’s activity. This pattern was repeated in August 2017 by the terrorist cell that attacked Barcelona.

There are further similarities with more contemporary events. Reinares identifies the cell as one that used robbery and the proceeds of drugs as a way to raise money for its jihadist activity. Describing them as ‘common delinquents turned into jihadists’, we hear how a number spent time in prison, where they were radicalised or made important connections. In general, there is a lack of clarity about the degree of direction from Al-Qa’ida Core: the strong connections between the cell and Al-Qaida’s leadership are repeatedly claimed, but specific direction is not always clear. The book points out that Osama bin Laden’s first threat message to reference Spain was released in October 2003. The day after the message emerges, the first known allusion to the bombing’s specific date is found in Molenbeek, Brussels: a date written on a piece of paper. A member of the Moroccan network affiliated with Al-Qa’ida is based there. The link to Molenbeek is relevant not only to the current wave of Daesh attacks, but also to the attack last year in Barcelona. The key preacher, Abdelbaki Es Satty, had spent some time in Molenbeek before the attack, something that highlights the persistence of certain locations as focuses for radicalisation and terrorism.

In the wake of the Madrid attack, the cell decided to first claim responsibility (after watching the confusion in the media about ETA’s responsibility), and then countermand a ceasefire declaration issued by Al-Qa’ida after the result of the Spanish election on 14 March, three days after the attack. Al-Qa’ida was keen to recognise the political message delivered through the election result, while the cell in Spain planned to continue its fight. This confusion highlights a key problem in the decentralised approach in terrorist plotting – by delegating responsibility and autonomy, control of the action on the ground is lost, which can lead to a perversion of the intended message. A similar confusion can be found in the attacks on London Bridge in 2017, when the acclamation expressed by Daesh-affiliated accounts online was matched by the opprobrium from accounts more closely linked with Al-Qa’ida.

This is a possible outcome of this sort of globalised insurgency. Abu Musab Al-Suri – whose whereabouts remain unclear – has achieved semi-mythical status in jihadist circles. This key ideologue is one of the few remaining senior figures in Al-Qa’ida whose death has not been confirmed and was last known to have been placed in a Syrian jail in 2014. Appearing in both books, he provides a link between the past and present, highlighting how the activities of Al-Qa’ida as a network have evolved from the pre-9/11 world, through the misery of the Madrid bombings to current-day Syria. In a particularly worrying hint of what might be, the leader of the Syrian jihadist group Jabhat Al-Nusrah, Abu Muhammad Al-Jawlani, is reported in Scott-Clark and Levy’s book as being a big fan of Al-Suri’s work, and while he eschewed Al-Suri’s push towards seeding Europe with lone-actor cells, he championed the theoretician’s approach to war and beseeches his fighters to read his texts.

Scott-Clark and Levy explicitly address this connection between past and present in their introduction. The text repeatedly shows the links between Al-Qa’ida, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Daesh and current events. The character of Hamza bin Laden is a key figure throughout the text, as Osama bin Laden’s clear heir among his many children, and the book ends by highlighting him as the group’s new figurehead. All of this happens as Hamza bin Laden assumes an increasingly prominent role in public, releasing videos calling others to arms and, most recently, eulogising his dead father. A growing number of profiles have now been written about him suggesting he might be the harbinger of a reborn Al-Qa’ida, and Scott-Clark and Levy show him being shuttled between safe houses and mentors as the group seeks to keep him and the rest of the Al-Qa’ida leadership and their families alive and safe.

The most striking part of The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden is the account of the time many members of Al-Qa’ida spent in prison in Iran. Quickly recognised by the Iranian authorities as useful pawns in a larger global strategic game, the Al-Qa’ida leaders and their families spent many years being moved between prisons, alternately given relatively lenient treatment and kept under tight control. The book reports occasional protests and escapes as the Iranian authorities try to play a game of controlling and using the people under their charge. This aspect of the Al-Qa’ida tale is one that has not previously been told in such detail; it is fascinating given that this is a story of a fundamentalist Sunni group aligning itself with a theocratic Shia regime – both of which have regularly condemned each other. Yet clearly Iran sees a bigger potential game at hand, and even figures such as the Qassem Soleimani, leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, feature in the Iranians’ discussion about what to do with the group of Al-Qa’ida men, women and children.

Scott-Clark and Levy also show how badly Iran played its hand in this story. Unable to control the group of Al-Qa’ida fighters, the Iranians tried to manipulate the members to advance their goals or do their bidding. But they failed, and instead, the group ended up using Iran as a staging point to undertake violence elsewhere. It is not always clear whether this was done with Iran’s full acquiescence, but it is just one instance the authors provide of how difficult it is to manipulate such groups. Similarly, Western (and particularly American) efforts frequently come under fire, as Scott-Clark and Levy condemn the Americans’ use of torture and show how these actions fed the radicals’ narrative. For example, Aafia Siddiqui, the US-educated Pakistani neuroscientist who was painted in public as a mastermind of Al-Qa’ida, is here depicted as an ethereal figure whose exact role in the organisation is never clear, but whose torture and disappearance become a cause célèbre for Islamists around the world.

The story, of course, has no conclusion except that this conflict is not going to end in the foreseeable future. In Scott-Clark and Levy’s interpretation of the Abbottabad documents (captured when US Navy SEALs stripped the property where they shot Osama bin Laden), they see a network that is regrouping and continuing on its trajectory of conflict. Incidentally, they are angry that these documents were released in choice leaks to friendly journalists, which they say was intended to paint a picture of a group in decline – something which by the time of publication of The Exile had been rectified through a massive data dump by the CIA. They see little optimism in Pakistan’s behaviour, or that of other supposed allies who are likely to be feeding the conflict for their own reasons. And when looking at what might be done to counter such groups, they add a healthy dose of scepticism to the idea that voices countering extremist ideologies might work. The totemic jihadist ideologue Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi made a substantial assault on Daesh by rebuking its ideas and approaches, but this had done little to stunt the group’s appeal. Rather, he spoke to an earlier generation whose ability to exert influence over the current wave of potential extremists may have passed.

And this in some ways is one of the bleaker conclusions to draw from these books: terrorist groups have long narratives and histories, and are focused on horizons that extend well beyond those of the security services and governments they are fighting against. The past determines the present, and the present determines the future. Thus far, the West has been unable to stay ahead of the curve, and there is little evidence that it will be able to in the future. Both of these books help to cast a clearer light on the past and its links to the present, and how persistent and dangerous the terrorist threat that we face from violent Islamist groups, and Al-Qa’ida in particular, remains. 

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A piece for the Observer newspaper this weekend, this time looking at the way the attack in Manchester fits into the broader threat picture in the UK. It was a busy period with the media around the attack with longer interviews captured online with the BBC’s Daily Politics (video), National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and Radio 24 (radio), as well as with Financial TimesTimes, Wall Street Journal, New York TimesLa Repubblica, Atlantic, AFP, Washington Post, and News Deeply.

Fighters who can’t travel to Syria pose growing threat

As Isis loses territory in Syria, the risks posed by would-be UK fighters must not be ignored
A police patrol in Hull for BBC Radio 1’s big weekend.
 A police patrol in Hull for BBC Radio 1’s big weekend. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

British security officials have long warned it was only a matter of time before there was another terrorist atrocity.

In late August 2014, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) raised the terror threat level to “severe” – meaning that, according to its independent assessment, the expectation was that a terrorist attack was highly likely. Responding to an increasingly menacing threat picture in Europe linked to the conflict in Syria and Iraq, that level stayed at severe until the attacks in Manchester, which caused JTAC to redo its calculations and raise it to critical – meaning an attack is imminent.

Once the level was raised to severe, there was a fairly constant pattern of terrorist plotting. In November 2015, as the world reeled from the attacks in Paris, David Cameron said seven plots had been disrupted in the UK over the previous year. At the beginning of March this year, Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley said in the past four years authorities had disrupted 13 plots. In the wake of the Manchester attacks, a further five have been added to this roster.

While the details of many of these plots have not been made public, most appear to have been lone individuals or small cells planning knife attacks. It is not clear how many have involved the sort of ambitious planning that went into Paris and Brussels or even Manchester. But groups – al-Qaida, Isis or some other affiliate – continue to want to wreak misery.

The reason for the recent increase in activity is hard to pin down. In part, it may be a case of Isis being on the back foot and seeking to push out attacks in every direction: something that correlates with it losing territory and its foreign fighter contingent scattering to the wind, creating a wave of potential problems around the world. And this comes as al-Qaida has started to rear its head once again, menacing the world through new messages by Hamza bin Laden.

But there are other dynamics at play as well. One of the more under-investigated phenomena is what is happening to those aspirant foreign fighters who are unable to travel. Inspired enough to want to join a group like Isis, they find it increasingly difficult to do so – due to proactive security measures in the UK or more simply a much harder environment in Syria to get into. But being unable to travel does not remove the radical impulse. Actually it may enhance it further, with the frustration making the individual feel the link to the group more strongly.

Consequently, when the group shouts for people to launch attacks at home, rather than come to the battlefield, they may see this as a call to arms. The phenomenon of the blocked traveller maturing into a terrorist threat at home is not new, but as things become tougher it is only likely to increase the pool of potential radicals at home.

Finally, there is the exceptionally low threshold for what constitutes a terrorist attack. No longer do you have to launch a complicated plot: if you can, then all the better. But a public stabbing or running people down with a car will also suffice. Targets are open and indiscriminate, with anyone living in a non-Isis state considered fair game. This makes it very easy for anyone to pick up a weapon and become a warrior – meaning that not all of those who do are necessarily as doctrinally pure as a group might want. All of this shows how easy it is to become a terrorist these days.

It was unlikely that the terror threat level would be kept at critical for long, and it has now been reduced to severe. Exhaustion might have set in at the security agencies had it continued much longer. But the tempo of the threat picture in the UK has noticeably sharpened of late: from last year, which was punctuated by the disruption of major plots but dominated by a steady stream of smaller-scale arrests for travelling to, fundraising for, or support of terrorist groups, to this year, which has seen two attacks and at least five or six plots derailed.

It is clear that the terrorist menace is not shrinking away and is likely to linger around for some time longer, in particular if the war in Syria and Iraq continues to drag on, providing a consistently fertile ground for training camps and extremist ideologies.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists

Another catch up post, this time a piece for The Times in the wake of the horrible attack in Nice. Not sure the article totally corresponds with the piece, but the fundamental point about France facing a very acute problem definitely holds unfortunately.

France must learn from its intelligence failures

France_Times_July 2016

From the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January last year, the attack on Paris last November and Thursday’s outrage in Nice, it is clear that France is the western focus for Islamist terrorists.

The reasons lie in a unique combination of practical and historical factors. Back in the 1990s, the nascent terrorist threat to Europe came from north Africa, where France had been the big colonial power and a focus for hatred.

Algerian groups launched a series of attacks in France, and put in place networks that were nurtured on the jihadist battlefields of the Balkans war. These networks developed links with London, through preachers and terrorists who would enter the UK, and even with north America in the shape of, for example, Ahmed Ressam, who was arrested trying to cross the border from Canada into the US to bomb Los Angeles airport on New Year’s Eve 1999.

However, during the 2000s the focus shifted, with the UK bearing the brunt of attacks directed by al-Qaeda against the West, with the US often proving too difficult for terrorist networks to penetrate.

Today, France is once again at the centre of the threat. It has always been regarded by Islamists as one of the old imperial powers at the heart of the western alliance against them. But what’s changed is that the terror threat comes increasingly from the Arab Levant, a part of the world encompassing the eastern Mediterranean and north Africa that France has stronger links with than any other European power.

Previously, the heart of global jihadism was in south Asia, a region that Britain had a greater connection to. Nowadays, both France and Britain have jihadists going to fight in Syria and Iraq.

France does, however, have noticeably more.

There are practical issues that have exposed France to a greater threat. Its open borders with fellow EU nations, through the Schengen free movement area, give it the benefits of free trade, but make it harder to secure against terrorism.

With an almost uncontrolled flow of people and weapons, French authorities are dealing with a threat that is much more heavily armed than anything in the UK. In an echo of the British experience after the 7/7 attacks, French MPs recently lambasted the performance of their intelligence agencies and the institutional rivalries that prevent them from collaborating effectively.

Since the intelligence failures of 7/7, Britain has invested huge sums in personnel and technology. France needs to learn the same lesson to ensure that its squabbling agencies focus on the job in hand. We should be careful not to blame the attacks in France on the country’s large Muslim population. It’s clear that Muslims in France feel alienated, but so do Muslims in many other countries in Europe that are much less tolerant of religious and ethnic minorities. Before some French politicians seek to blame the attacks on their fellow citizens, they should realise that fomenting civil strife is what these atrocities are designed to do.

France may be in the crosshairs of Islamist terrorism, but once it develops a response, the scourge will seek new countries in which to carry out attacks.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute

More belated catch up posting. It has been a very busy few weeks between travel and the horrible events in Brussels. The below piece is one that Foreign Policy commissioned to look specifically at ISIS use of tactics, pointing out that while the Brussels and Paris attacks are part of a specific campaign and cell, the problem of Lone Actor terrorism as a threat from the group persists.

The Age of the Lone Wolf is Far From Over

Even as the Islamic State evolves into a more sophisticated network, it will still cultivate unhinged, solo actors to further its fanatical ends.

By Raffaello Pantucci | March 30, 2016

Policemen work into a marked out perimeter in Colline street in Verviers, eastern Belgium, on January 15, 2015, after two men were reportedly killed during an anti-terrorist operation. Belgian police launched a "jihadist-related" anti-terrorism operation in the eastern town of Verviers on January 15. According to the Belgian prosecutor's office, the group which police targeted was about to commit a terror attack. AFP PHOTO / BELGA PHOTO / BRUNO FAHY ** BELGIUM OUT ** (Photo credit should read BRUNO FAHY/AFP/Getty Images)

AFP Photo / Bruno Fahy/Getty Images

Terrorist groups thrive on attention. Keen to bring the world screeching to a horrified halt, they launch brutal attacks against civilian targets with whatever tools they have at their disposal. Until last November’s attack in Paris, it seemed the biggest menace the Islamic State posed to the West was the threat of so-called lone-actor terrorists, striking without any clear direction from the group’s leaders. Using a relatively simple form of messaging to strike wherever they could, the group bombarded its followers through social media with calls to launch random attacks against the societies in which they lived. That nihilistic messaging continues. But now, in the wake of Brussels and Paris, the Islamic State has also demonstrated an alarming capacity to launch large-scale, coordinated plots far from its territory. The threat the Islamic State poses is multifaceted and multidirectional.

In the eight days since the Brussels attack left 35 dead, counterterrorism and national security experts have decried the end of the Islamic State-inspired lone-wolf attack. The fanatical band, they say, has crossed a new threshold, evolving into something more complex: an organized terror network capable of coordinated, multifaceted operations. And though this is true, the experts must take care not to dismiss what has long constituted the Islamic State’s essential fiber. Because regardless of its evolution, the Islamic State will remain committed to lone actor plots.

Radicalizing minds from afar has, after all, always been core to its identity. Calling attackers — the young, the socially, politically, and economically disenfranchised, the disturbed — to action shows that the Islamic State’s ideology has global reach, inspiring adherents who were unconnected to the group but desperate to launch terrorist plots in its name. Cultivating lone actors also gives the Islamic State the perfect means to distract the West, which finds itself devoting resources to identifying these isolated plotters. It is also a way to ensure that Washington, London, and Paris remain off balance, uncertain about how aggressive a response to mount against the group’s base in the Levant. Forgetting the centrality of lone wolfism to the Islamic State’s very foundations would be a dangerous mistake.

Of course, the Islamic State is not the first violent Islamist terrorist group to call for lone-actor attacks. Lone actors committed to jihadist terror, including Andrew Ibrahim and Roshonara Choudhry, first emerged in the 2000s. In 2010, Inspire, the magazine published by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, offered aspiring terrorists a specific outline for carrying out such attacks. Asserting a direct connection between any plots and the magazine, however, remained difficult, because there was never any clear link between a specific actor and Inspire. In fact, the most prominent cases came before the publication’s emergence. Rather than instigating the tactic, the group appeared to be riding a wave.

The Islamic State changed this dynamic. On Sept. 22, 2014, Abu Mohammed al Adnani, identified by the United States as the head of the Islamic State’s external operations, issued a fatwa calling on the group’s followers in the West to “kill a disbelieving American or European — especially the spiteful and filthy French — or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war… [to] kill him in any manner or way however it may be.” This chilling call became something of a marker in the group’s history. Around the world, the Islamic State’s followers read and absorbed it. In some cases, they decided to act.

Adnani’s call certainly appears to have spurred on a network of cells in Britain that had already been discussing potential terror plots in the West without any clear direction from the group’s leaders. Nadir Syed, a British extremist who was prevented from traveling to Syria, shared the fatwa with his fellow plotters as they discussed the idea of decapitating a soldier. Tarik Hassane, a medical student, and Suhaib Majeed, a physics student, shared it over the secure communications app Telegram as they talked about a plot to shoot a random security officer on the streets of London. Authorities disrupted both plots soon after the fatwa’s release.

Only days after Adnani issued his fatwa, Numan Haider walked into his local police station in Melbourne, Australia, and attacked police with a knife; he was gunned down and killed. Although authorities never publicly established a direct relationship between the fatwa and Haider’s attack, his wider circle — including prominent Islamic State fighters Neil Prakash and Sevdet Becim, who are on trial for planning to attack Australian soldiers during a national day parade — had clear ties to the group.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the Islamic State’s calls for lone-actor attacks is how deeply they have resonated. There are the dedicated warriors, who see such attacks as their chief ambition — the San Bernadino killers may be an example of this. In other cases, lone wolf attacks have become the default option for those who are unable to join the group in Syria or Iraq. Authorities had, in fact, taken away Haider’s passport not long before his attack, in response to concerns that he was planning to head to the Levant. This is not unique: Canada has blocked several aspiring fighters from heading to the Middle East, who then chose instead to launch attacks at home. Their actual links to the Islamic State remain unclear, but both took out their rage on the communities around them.

The Islamic State has, of course, also exploited the mentally unwell, preying on their vulnerabilities to turn them into lone-wolf actors. In late 2014, Sydney came to a terrified standstill when Man Haroun Monis, a disturbed Shia convert with a record of run-ins with authorities, held up a coffee bar in the middle of the city. He claimed to be carrying out an attack on behalf of the Islamic State. But he was so underprepared that he brought the wrong flag with him and asked authorities to bring him the flag of the Islamic State. Police eventually stormed the café once he began executing the hostages. The Islamic State later praised Monis in its publications, though no evidence emerged of any clear direction or instigation from the group. Other disturbed individuals like Yassine Salhi, who decapitated his boss and then tried to drive a truck into a chemical factory in France, or Muhaydin Mire, who tried to kill a random Underground passenger in London on Dec. 5 of last year, seem to have been disturbed individuals who simply latched onto the ideology or concept of launching a solo attack.

For the Islamic State, the overarching strategy is to both draw mentally unstable people while continuing to cultivate balanced individuals capable of pulling off more audacious attacks. For a group that is trying to make as much noise as possible, any vector through which this can be delivered is positive. It will further inspire others, leading to new plots that will keep security agencies and politicians busy and distracted.

Even more worrisome than these lone-actor plots are attempts by the Islamic State to actually tap into and direct this negative energy. For the most part, lone actors tend to be fairly low impact — a lone individual armed with little more than a basic bomb or knife can’t kill too many, after all. But the Islamic State wants to capitalize on the fact that, thanks to its social media prowess, it has planted the seeds of chaos.

The most prominent example of this is the Birmingham-born hacker Junaid Hussain, whose discussions with aspirant fighters in the West included instructions on how to launch lone-actor plots. Again, it is not entirely clear the degree to which he succeeded. There is some evidence that Hussain, from his base in Syria, was in contact with both the Garland, Texas, shooters and with the terror cell on trial in Britain for allegedly planning an attack on a local military base. But the specificity of his instructions had security services sufficiently worried that they decided to eliminate him through a drone strike. It is not clear if others have taken up Hussain’s mantle, but there is little evidence that the Islamic State has stopped encouraging lone-actor terrorist plotting.

Lone-actor terrorism is not new. Traditionally, it has been the domain of far-right activists and patriot movements the world over. A recent EU consortium research project led by the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI), a British think tank, found that right-wing lone-actor terrorists are actually almost as active in Europe as their Islamist counterparts. Of the 120 cases over the past 15 years analyzed by RUSI, about an equal third were Islamist and far-right in origin. In other words, European security agencies were disrupting as many lone-actor Islamists as they were far-right terrorists, a detail often missed in coverage of Islamist terrorist plots.

In this new reality, the Islamic State will continue to encourage lone-actor plots while investing in large-scale, spectacular operations. From being a one-track group focused on building a state in the sands of the Levant, it is now an active global terrorist group aggressively pushing forward on two clear threat tracks. It is a group that cannot be ignored or disregarded, both as a traditional terrorist organization, but also one that is able to instigate and inspire random assassins advancing its cause around the world. Fomenting the sort of fanaticism that underlies its very existence is, in the end, the only way it will continue to thrive.

It has been a busy week after the sad events in Brussels. A lot of links and posting to catch up on, but am on the road so not so easy to do. For the time being, here is my preliminary thoughts on the attack for the Financial Times. More to come soon.

Brussels Attacks Show That Terrorists Can Strike at Will

The surveillance problems can no longer be described as Belgian alone, writes Raffaello Pantucci

Brussels cops post attack

It is still unclear exactly what Brussels has faced just prior to Easter. The random nature of the date and targeting suggests a plot that may have been brought forward, while the scale of the attack suggests it must have been in the pipeline for some time. The Isis network, also linked to November’s Paris attacks, has claimed responsibility. The bigger issue, however, is not who is to blame for this atrocity but rather how much Europe will warp to address an acute terrorist threat, with cells apparently able to launch large-scale atrocities on an increasingly regular basis.

The first questions raised will focus on Belgium’s response to the problem on their home ground. Authorities may have scored a victory by capturing Salah Abdeslam, one of the Isis-aligned plotters linked to the Paris attacks, but they missed a network planning an atrocity with heavy weapons and explosives. This suggests gaps in the understanding and surveillance of the terrorist threat. Given that Brussels sits at the political heart of Europe, this points to a problem that can no longer be described as Belgian alone.

While for some the terrorist atrocities in Paris was a wake-up call, for security forces it had been expected for a while. Terrorist groups, from al-Qaeda to Isis, have long sought to launch a terrorist attack in the style of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and a string of plots have been disrupted or launched from a francophone network emanating from Brussels. The Paris attack was the realisation of these fears from a depressingly predictable place.

The networks of radicalised individuals with links to Isis have grown as the group continues to hold sway on the battlefield and send back peopleand plots to their original bases in western Europe. Given the tempo of attacks and the ease with which the networks appear able to acquire weapons and move freely around the continent, Europeans will ask themselves how much longer they will face this threat. Is this the start of a regular diet of such atrocities or the breaking of a wave? Given that terrorist groups have been able to launch three big, ambitious plots in Europe in the past year and half, the sense will be that we are in the thick of this threat with no end in sight.

The choice of targets is predictable. Terrorist groups have long fetishised aviation as a target, both as a way of visibly lashing out against the globalised political establishment but also for the high impact. Mass transport systems by their very nature have to be open to the public, which makes them tempting targets as they offer an easy opportunity to strike at the heart of a society. Questions will be asked about ramping up security levels but this will bring costs and further inconvenience to the daily lives of citizens. Think of the ramifications of a plot in 2006 where a cell planned to use liquid bombs on a series of transatlantic flights. Liquids are still banned on aircraft today.

The Brussels attacks will also play badly against the backdrop of Europe’s migration crisis. It will not be entirely surprising if elements close to the recent attacks found ways of slipping into the country alongside refugees from the Middle East. An already tense situation in Europe will grow more fraught, and this will have inevitable political ramifications too.

This is the biggest problem with which security planners will have to contend. It is often said that the best response to a terrorist threat is to keep calm and carry on. This is sage advice but in the face of a network that appears able to strike with impunity, and a political environment growing more toxic by the day, it will be ever harder for security forces and politicians to ensure that Europe maintains its values in the face of the terrorist threat from within.

The writer is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute and author of ‘We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists’

A new piece as part of a Room for Debate conversation on the New York Times opinion pages. This one looking at the phenomenon of radicalisation in the west and how to counter it. Honoured to be in the company of friends and distinguished academics on the topic. The surge in attention around Brits in Syria and Iraq has led to a spike in media requests and conversations, including the New York Times, Economist, Voice of America, Los Angeles Times, AFP, and Press Association among others. I also spoke to Voice of America about the Shanghai Cooperation Organization counter-terror ‘Peace Mission’ exercise last week as well as USA Today about the China’s attempt to use the new Silk Road Economic Belt to ameliorate the situation in Xinjiang.

There Are Ways to Address Radicalism Early

British nationals (and many from other Western countries) have been a feature of jihadist battlefields for almost two decades. Some are drawn for idealistic reasons – going to fight for a cause, defend a people, or for some religious vision. Others go for more prosaic reasons, fleeing trouble at home, or seeking redemption for a criminal past. And yet others are simply young people at a juncture in their lives where the idea of going to run around a training camp and shooting guns seems quite appealing.

Countering this complicated mix of motivations is difficult. Part of it is developing programs that give people alternatives in their lives. These are not dissimilar to programs to help dissuade people from being drawn to gang culture. Part of it is also countering the spread of ideas in communities. While the Internet and social media play a role in drawing people to think about Syria and Iraq and find ways of getting there, it is often through real-world interactions that they will meet individuals who help provide the push, contacts or motivations to actually go to fight. Communities need to reject such people, but in addition, alternative pillars within society need to be developed to provide voice to credible alternative narratives.

A great deal of pressure is often put on communities within this context – the expectation is that they will somehow police themselves and this will resolve the problem. But at the same time, the reality is that sometimes people within communities simply do not know what they are dealing with. Families find themselves dealing with children or siblings who are becoming drawn to ideas, but it is difficult to know whether they are being drawn to dangerous ideas or simply going through a phase.

A partial answer to this problem can be found in a program initially developed in Germany, now being introduced in Britain, where a special hotline is established within communities and provides people with a place to ask questions without having to resort to the authorities. Creating spaces in which people can ask about what they should do if a relation is starting to flirt with radical ideas, without actually having to report it to the police, offers a moment at which an intervention could be made. This is something that will be more appealing to people within communities who are fearful of destroying someone’s life by reporting something innocuous to the police.

Ultimately, the phenomenon of young Britons (or Westerners more generally) being drawn to Syria and Iraq is not one that is going to be resolved overnight. There will ultimately be no longterm solution to this problem until the respective civil conflicts in Syria and Iraq are drawn to some definitive conclusion. This will involve creative diplomacy and bolstering of regional allies, as well as a recrafting of the current status quo across the broader Middle East. But until this happens, the battlefields will continue to be a draw to a certain community of young Westerners seeking adventure, meaning and ideals.

A new book review for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, looking at quite a fun book I read a little while ago about a piece of history with all links to today. Also quite timely given the recent troubles in Kashmir to highlight how long this problem has been hanging over things. In an interesting and in some ways related case (for reasons that I will go into in a separate piece), I have been doing a bit of press around the recently concluded large terror trial at Woolwich Crown Court against a group of British Muslims who connected with al Qaeda were planning an incident in the UK. I was quoted in the Associated Press, Press AssociationCNN, Channel 4, and on BBC Newsnight (which is only available for the next six days to those in the UK). Longer piece on that case coming soon.

The Meadow: Kashmir 1995 – Where the Terror Began
By Raffaello Pantucci
Thursday, February 21, 2013 – 4:16 PM

Conflict in Kashmir has been back in the news recently. In January, a series of attacks and counter-attacks by Indian and Pakistani soldiers were reportedly sparked by a grandmother who crossed the Line of Control to be near her children and their families, resulting in the deaths of soldiers on both sides. What is striking about recent events and seems to be a particular throw back to earlier times, is the apparent brutality with which two Indian soldiers involved were killed. One was reportedly beheaded, whilst another ‘mutilated.’ This particular detail seems to belong to an earlier time highlighted in Adrian Levy’s and Cathy Scott-Clark’s book about the kidnapping of a group of western tourists in July 1995 in Kashmir, when the full insurgency was underway between Pakistan and India over the disputed province.

The portrait that Levy and Scott-Clark paint of the 1990s insurgency in Kashmir is a brutal one: locals living in fear as groups and alliances shift around them. No one is certain who is on whose side, as idealistic Kashmiri freedom fighters are manipulated by Pakistani ISI agents and their families are punished by Indian authorities. Local warlords change sides regularly, turning on each other with ready brutality at the right price. Police and intelligence agents on the same side end up working against each other, each with a different goal in mind. And caught up in the middle of this is a group of foreign hikers, drawn by the beauty of the countryside and kept in the dark about potential danger by inept local authorities eager for the much-needed tourist revenue.

The Meadow is written in the style of a thriller, with an investigative journalist’s eye for detail. It uncovers new information, offering definitive conclusions about what happened to the unfortunate foreigners entangled in the kidnapping. It has attracted less attention than previous books the authors have written about the region – their earlier book Deception, about the Pakistani nuclear program, has been widely praised – but nonetheless comes to some dramatic conclusions about what happened to the group of tourists.

At the heart of this narrative are six western (American, British, German and Norwegian) nationals. Snatched by a group of Kashmiri warriors supported by Pakistan, the intention was for the men to be traded for a group of supporters of the Kashmiri jihad, including Maulana Masood Azhar, an increasingly important preacher who had managed to get himself caught by Indian authorities some weeks before. This was in the days prior to Azhar’s later fame as the founder and head of Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Led by a Kashmiri called Sikander who fought in Afghanistan during the 1980s, the team was a mix of raw recruits and experienced fighters. Sikander had participated in an operation involving foreigners before, abducting two British citizens, Kim Housego and David Mackie, in June 1994 in an operation that ended in failure. Under intense international pressure, Sikander’s cell had given the hostages up to Kashmiri journalists. The second time around they hoped to avoid this pressure by creating a shell group, al Faran, which people would be unable to link so easily to the group’s well-known organizers, the Pakistani-supported, Kashmiri-oriented Harakat ul Ansar (HuA). According to the book, the new group name was chosen ‘randomly…. by someone in Islamabad that had vague Islamic connotations, being a mountain in Saudi Arabia’ (p.95).

The kidnappers were initially planning on snatching foreign workers at infrastructure projects, but as they got sidetracked in other operations time pushed on and they decided instead to go after a group of foreign tourists. By the time they were able to get moving on the plot it was June 1995 and it was only by July 1995 that they made it into the eponymous ‘Meadow’ above and around Pahalgam in the Anantnag district of Kashmir. Here, they wandered around the various campsites, capturing two British (Paul Wells and Keith Mangan) and two American (John Childs and Don Hutchings) trekkers they found, sending the women they were travelling with back down the mountain with a note demanding the release of Masood Azhar and other leaders. When one of the Americans, John Childs, managed to escape, the group panicked and snatched another two foreigners they found, this time a Norwegian (Hans Christian Ostrø) and a German (Dirk Hastert). Sikander’s father recalls his son telling him ‘human cargo’ was not ‘like transporting bullets of rice’ requiring all sorts of attention and care (p.93).

At this point, the story becomes murkier. Intrepid journalists, Levy and Scott-Clark rounded up as many different contacts as they could, but patching together what happened to the hostages while they were in captivity is something that is always going to be shrouded in mystery and reserved primarily to the hostages and their captors, none of whom are able to talk now. Using interviews with locals, family members, subsequent intelligence reports, and gathering the pieces of information that the hostages managed to leave secreted with locals as they were transported around the region, the authors piece a compelling narrative together. They uncover how particularly vivacious and infuriating a captive Hans Christian Ostrø was, apparently trying repeatedly to escape whilst charming locals with his enthusiasm. Eventually, a brutal faction within the cell tires of him and leaves his beheaded body to be found with the words ‘al Faran’ engraved on his chest.

The others were never found; their family members remain uncertain of their end to this day. For the women who had been trekking with the men before they were snatched, the nightmare was made all the worse by the seemingly limited and incompetent assistance they report receiving from Indian authorities. Having come down the mountain to disbelieving and slow-moving authorities, they then find themselves sidelined as geopolitics overtake the incident.

It is here that Levy and Scott-Clark are able to bring the most new information to light, digging into the grim world of the Kashmiri insurgency to offer a novel conclusion of what happened to the hapless trekkers. After Childs escaped, he lobbied for U.S. Special Forces to go back and rescue the others. But he was ignored, as Indian authorities refused to let foreign boots on the ground or accept much international assistance, eager to keep foreign eyes from the awkward domestic insurgency. And so, the captives were left in an isolated area where, as the authors paint it, India had full control. Even though authorities were in contact with the group, and according to the negotiators had managed to obtain a fixed amount of $250,000 to secure the foreigners release, no exchange actually took place. As the book portrays it, elements within India preferred a grim conclusion to highlight Pakistani perfidy. So once the demand had been made through a private communication between a local officer and the group – who allegedly told the officer ‘the movement [those who had sent him to carry out the kidnapping] can go to hell’ (p.325) – someone promptly leaked it, rendering it void as the move had not been approved al Faran’s superiors.

Instead, the men are sold to a local warlord fighting for the Indians, who then has them executed and disposed of. Indian authorities (or elements within the Indian power structures) are implied to have had full knowledge of everything that was going on, and to have actively pushed events in this direction, a searing indictment that has attracted ire within India.

The Meadow connects this incident to the larger events of September 11, highlighting the proximity of elements linked to al-Qaeda and the subsequent group that Masood Azhar founded when he was eventually released in exchange for a planeload of Indians held hostage while en route to Nepal. That group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, has been responsible for a number of major atrocities, including the first use of suicide bombers in Kashmir: on Christmas Day 2000, Asif Sadiq, a 24 year old Birmingham student blew himself up at a checkpoint in Srinagar. A year later, as the world was still rocking from the September 11 attacks, a JeM team joined by fighters from Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) launched an attack on India’s parliament that almost brought the sub-continent to nuclear conflict.

Levy and Scott-Clark push this web of shadowy links even further, pointing out a connection between Masood Azhar and Rashid Rauf, the British al Qaeda leader who would go on to act as the overseer of the July 7 and July 21 plots against London, before helping mastermind the aborted August 2006 plot to bring down some eight airplanes on transatlantic routes. In their book, Rauf is a bit part, with Azhar meeting Rauf’s father on a trip to Birmingham and being introduced to young Rashid as ‘his rootless teenage son…whom he said was in need of a mentor’ (p.296). But the connection nonetheless cements Azhar’s importance in helping provide links for a man who went on to be one of al Qaeda’s most dynamic foreign leaders.

A hefty book at almost 500 pages, the text sometimes gets lost in its own detail and in the numerous, long and detailed interviews the authors conducted. But drawing on a wealth of primary interviews, it tells a compelling narrative about a specific incident, while also painting a picture of a brutal conflict that, as we saw recently, has all the kindling in place to light up again.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of the forthcoming ‘We Love Death As You Love Life; Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen’ (Hurst/Columbia University Press).