Posts Tagged ‘lone actor terrorism’

And another new piece (from last month now), this time for the magazine Prospect. Tries to answer a complicated issue about terrorism that I hope to explore through some bigger projects soon.

The word “terrorism” no longer captures the threat we face

Violent attacks look less and less like terrorism as we know it

September 26, 2018 / Leave a comment

We think of terrorism as acts of violence in advance of a cause. Yet, look at recent attacks in the west and it is often hard to discern much evidence of ideological adherence or links to specific terrorist groups. In fact, the question is whether what is happening can still be genuinely considered terrorism at all. And if this is where the threat picture has gone, what does it mean for our response?

The nature of the threat is changing, with individuals increasingly acting with their own motivations rather than direct guidance from terrorist leaders. You can interpret this in a number of ways. It may be the product of an effective security response, as intelligence agencies get better at disrupting networks. It is also possible that this is part of a grand strategic plan by the terrorist groups themselves. They see a tougher operational environment and push their networks in this more diffuse direction as a result. Or maybe it is more random than that, with terrorist ideology in the public space drawing all sorts to it.

To those at the receiving end, this can all seem semantic. If you are stabbed by someone, you do not really care about the exact reason for it. The victims in London Bridge, outside parliament, in Barcelona and in Trappes will not have been focussing on this.

Yet these attackers were acting with wildly different kinds of reasons: the London Bridge terrorists came from a broader network of violent Islamists long known to authorities; all of the others appear to be individuals with personal or psycho-social reasons rather than any strict ideological motivation. It is very clear that there was an ideological steer in one while in the other three, it seems as though individuals were just latching onto the ideology as a cover for something else going on in their lives.

What does this mean for security services? What does it mean for terrorist cells? And does the word “terrorism” even apply at all?

The immediate problem is to the counter-terrorists who are struggling to manage this situation using their traditional tools. If terrorists are no longer clearly driven, ideological individuals from networks but isolated citizens with anger issues and troubled pasts, how are you going to come across them prior to their attempted attack, with the set of tripwires based around traditional networks you are watching? Something made even harder if the weapons they are going to use are all around us, like knives or cars.

There is also a problem for terrorist groups, who will have ever-lessening control over the plotters. These isolated loners or small cells might be adopting the terrorist group’s garb and methodology, but it is not very clear that they are actually advancing the group’s goals. Not if it now looks like a random catch-all for a variety of human problems, rather than an organised group driven by a plan.

More broadly: if the terrorist group’s cause (or any cause) is not being advanced, then can it still really be considered terrorism? Or are we in fact looking at an expression of human behaviour which is not really ideological terrorism, but something else. Random violence. Human rage. Expressions of anger through demonstrative public acts.

And if this is the case, what is the relevance of the terrorist group in this discussion? Seen in this light, the group could become a red herring which is distracting us from the actual problem that we are facing.

Of course, there are clearly still terrorist groups advancing plots with devastating consequences. The attack in Manchester fits this profile, and no doubt others have been disrupted by effective security forces, both in the UK and abroad. But this is often not what the counter-terrorism officers in the police or MI5 are facing. They are instead finding their time consumed by cases like Salih Kater (the Westminster car attacker) or Niamur Rahman (the slightly shambolic young man who had plans to storm Downing Street with a bomb to decapitate the prime minister, in part to avenge the death of a relation who had fought with Islamic State).

Neither of these people should be excused for their horrendous behaviour, but we do need to ask some more fundamental questions about whether this is terrorism and whether we should be attributing the responsibility to terrorist groups. This clarity is important, as once we have it, we will be in a better place to prevent further loss of life.

Advertisements

Been delinquent in posting stuff, doing some bigger writing and catching up with things takes time. First up, posting a piece for my institutional home RUSI’s Newsbrief publication looking at the extreme right wing and violent Islamist threat in the UK, through the lens of a few recent cases.

A Tale of Two Terrors: The British Extreme Right Organises While Islamists Scatter

Raffaello Pantucci
Newsbrief31 July 2018
UK Counter-terrorismTackling ExtremismInternational Security StudiesTerrorismUKDomestic SecurityRadicalisation and Countering Violent ExtremismIntelligenceNational SecurityTerrorism

Once again, the dividing lines that distinguish between variations of violent extremism in the UK have morphed, but addressing the similarities and differences between the extreme right and violent Islamists should help to ensure that the UK’s counter-terror strategy as synchronised as possible with the current threat picture.

far_right_protest_london_pa-30777462

Two contrasting terror trials were recently concluded in the UK. The separate convictions of Naa’imur Rahman and Mohammed Imran, and the sentencings of Christopher Lythgoe and Matthew Hankinson brought together two sides of the terrorist threat facing the UK. With one linked to Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS) and the other to the extreme right wing (XRW), the two cases highlighted the shifting nature of the two ends of the threat spectrum, with the XRW rallying around the threat of violent Islamists, while Islamists point to the XRW as evidence of the clash of civilisations they perceive as being at the heart of, but also the similarities that exist between these two threat sources. Given that both have been prioritised in the latest iteration of the UK’s counter-terror CONTEST strategy, it is unlikely that this is the last time we will see a similar temporal coincidence of the two types of cases.

Ostensibly, the two cases are very different. The Lythgoe and Hankinson convictions are part of a larger case linked to the proscribed XRW terrorist group National Action (NA). The first time in decades a right-wing organisation has been made illegal in the UK, the network they created was one of the first instances of an organised effort on the part of the British XRW. Illustrating their aspiration in a message to the group’s community on the communications app Mumble shortly before the group was formally proscribed by the Home Office, Lythgoe told the leadership to pass messages of sustenance along to ‘people further down the NA hierarchy’ to:

Make sure they understand that the SUBSTANCE of NA is the people, our talents, the bonds between us, our ideas, and our sustained force of will. All of that will continue into the future. We’re just shedding one skin for another. All genuinely revolutionary movements in the past have needed to exist partly underground. These are exciting times.

In stark contrast, the case against Rahman and Imran was a clear articulation of the chaotic and increasingly diffuse threat posed by violent Islamist extremism, where isolated individuals advancing the ideology have tenuous or limited links to the sharp end of the threat. Rahman claims that his uncle, who was killed in an American drone strike while fighting in Syria, was pushing him to launch an attack. Imran was eager to go fight abroad himself. Both were connected to each other through a variety of social media applications and had some links to fighters abroad – although it later emerged that some of these contacts were in fact undercover law-enforcement agents posing as Daesh supporters. The men believed that they were operating as part of a wider network but were in fact quite isolated. This is very much an articulation of the sort of disorganised terrorist threat that is opposite to what has been expressed in the more organised NA plot, with both Rahman and Imran being fairly detached from the extremist community but seeking to advance its ideology through individual action.

Looking back on the history of the XRW and violent Islamist threats in the UK, these plots show an almost complete role reversal between the two. During the mid to late 2000s, the XRW threat was characterised by isolated individuals like Neil LewingtonMartyn Gilleard or Terence Gavan, who accumulated massive amounts of weaponry, indulged in anti-social behaviour, or sought paedophilic material – all the while showing clear sympathies to the XRW cause – but who were largely loners. When attempted plots were uncovered, they were seen as shambolic at best. The exception to this was the Aryan Strike Force (ASF), disrupted in 2009, which boasted a global online network of around 350 individuals. Led by administrators in the UK, the group was largely an online community, although police uncovered evidence of limited training camps in Cumbria and that one member managed to make a substantial amount of the poison Ricin. But even then, the ASF was mostly an online network, while the NA group was more politically active both on and offline.

In contrast, the violent Islamist terror threat of the same period was characterised by sophisticated networks linked to Al-Qa’ida affiliates around the world. Leaders in distant countries provided training and direction to plotters in the UK and throughout the West. There were isolated loners that latched onto violent Islamist ideology to try to launch attacks, but this was the exception rather than the norm. Compare this to today: while Rahman and Imran had some links, these were distant and there is limited evidence of clear direction from foreign-based leaders.

This divergence is reflected in some ways by the men’s commitment to their plots. Jack Renshaw of NA, who had separately pled guilty, wanted to attack MP Rosie Cooper and a police officer who had angered him; he seemed fairly consistent in his commitment to this particular act. In contrast, from available evidence, Rahman was fairly scattered in his plotting. While the chief plot for which he was convicted – of wanting to detonate an explosive device in Downing Street and decapitate the prime minister – continually emerged in his planning, he had numerous other plots in mind. At one point he considered using a drone to attack the Wimbledon tennis tournament, while at other times he discussed going to fight abroad. Rahman had the idea of driving a truck into a crowd, or using one as a bomb and then using guns to shoot people in a hybrid active shooter plot. He was, however, unable to drive and did not know how to shoot (or source) guns.

But while the threat may have gone in divergent directions, there are a surprising number of similarities as well. Both plots targeted prominent political figures: Rahman had an ambitious plan to storm Downing Street and murder the prime minister, while Renshaw wanted to murder an MP and a police officer. At one point he considered the Home Secretary, but ultimately deemed this too difficult a target. This shows a collective anger against the political class and a desire to punish them on both sides of the XRW versus violent Islamist ideological spectrum.

Both plots were inspited in part by other attacks and would have served as revenge for personal attacks perceived to have been made against the individuals. In the case of Rahman, he saw the attempted Parsons Green bombing from earlier in 2017 as ‘the start’ and was impressed by the Manchester Arena bombing. He saw his attack in part as vindication for his uncle’s death in Syria at the hands of the International Coalition Against ISIL. Similarly, the NA cluster was inspired by the 2016 murder of MP Jo Cox and saw Zack Davies’ racially inspired attempted murder of a dentist in a Tesco supermarket as a precedent. Renshaw’s desire to target a particular police officer stemmed from an earlier arrest and a specific officer whom he blamed for his troubles. He hoped to murder her alongside MP Rosie Cooper. Both cases demonstrate clear inspiration from other attacks, highlighting the longer-term consequences to the threat picture of a successful attack, as well as an underlying desire for revenge in their intent.

Another curious similarity is the evidence of predatory sexual behaviour in both cases. Rahman first came onto the radars of the security services when authorities investigated him for sending indecent images to underage girls. In Renshaw’s case, after an initial detention on other charges linked to NA activity, his phone was downloaded and searched, at which point police allegedly found evidence of child sex offences. These alleged perversions are surprisingly common among offenders on both sides of the ideological spectrum and suggest a potential investigation point for security officials.

There are additional comparisons to be made between the investigations of the two cells. In both cases, undercover agents were key for securing convictions. Robbie Mullen, himself a member of the NA cell, turned against the group to work with Hope not Hate, a charity dedicated to fighting the group’s ideology. For Rahman and Imran, the two men believed that they were part of a Daesh network, yet it was largely made up of intelligence agents. The disruption of the Daesh network in particular is notable in this regard, as it reflects an approach by UK security forces that is reminiscent of the behaviour of US authorities, which some UK security officials have previously thought to be inappropriate. Given the broader chaos in Rahman’s life – he was homeless and unemployed at the time of his arrest, seemingly living out a deadly fantasy life through his Daesh-inspired activity and being incapable of doing many of the acts he said he wanted to do – it is an open question whether he would have been able to achieve his goals had he not been apprehended by the network of undercover intelligence agents around him.

Yet, his successful conviction shows that this methodology of securing a case against a perpetrator can work. It has been seen in other recent plots as well, as in the case of Safaa Boular, a young woman convicted of planning an attack on the British Museum who believed she was talking to extremists in Syria online, for example, and will likely be used again. With Renshaw, the fact that Mullen defected to a charity rather than turning himself into the police demonstrates the importance of such community organisations in countering terrorist threats.

The latest version of CONTEST highlighted that ‘Islamist terrorism is the foremost terrorist threat to the UK. Extreme right-wing terrorism is a growing threat’. These two cases show what these menaces look like in practice, and what similarities exist between the two. CONTEST pledged an increase in the volume of resources for targeting the XRW, while the broader violent Islamist threat is now characterised as a series of discrete and seemingly random terrorist plots. The tools needed to counter this sort of threat are included within the new Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, which necessitates longer sentences for terrorism offence convictions and gives authorities the tools needed to disrupt plots earlier on. There is of course a danger in this approach, as individuals may receive heavy sentences for relatively limited activity or involvement, but given the current threat picture, police and security services clearly feel a need to bolster their capabilities in this regard.

There are broader points to consider about the growth of these two threats. First, the rise of a more organised XRW is in many ways a reflection of the increased polarisation of political discourse in the UK. As far-right narratives increasingly creep into the mainstream conversation, the more extreme fringes become empowered, anticipating that the tide of debate is moving in their direction. Second, the problem of a more diffuse and complicated threat picture is not exclusively a problem with violent Islamists. Soon after the conclusion of these two terror trials, another member of NA, Jack Coulson, was sentenced to four years for downloading terrorist manuals. This was his second offence, with the first linked to building pipe bombs as a minor. There was little evidence provided that he coordinated his action with others in the NA group, illustrating how direction and coordination within the XRW is also quite loose.

Last year highlighted how the terrorist threat in the UK remains persistent and can abruptly catch security forces off guard. It may now be typified by more low-tech efforts using basic weaponry, but the ideological background has amplified and is only likely to become more complicated as time goes on. The new iteration of CONTEST reflects this threat picture, but it is important to consider how much the terrorist menace in the UK has evolved since CONTEST was first devised, and to raise the question of whether a more dramatic overhauling of the structure is required. The threat picture has progressed, from one characterised by an external threat touching the UK’s shores and using UK nationals, to one of homegrown actors focused on UK interests, to today’s threat picture driven by multiple ideologies with competing networks, and a broad footprint of isolated adherents conducting attacks without clear direction. Evidently, we are still at the stage of managing a threat rather than eradicating a problem, which is potentially all that will ever be achieved, emphasising the need to evaluate and adapt to a threat picture that does not stand still.

Raffaello Pantucci
Raffaello is the Director of International Security Studies at RUSI.

BANNER IMAGE: The April 2017 ‘London March Against Terrorism’ was organised by far-right groups Britain First and the English Defence League in response to the attack on Westminster that occured days before. Countering the threat of violent Islamists is a key rallying point for the British far-right. Courtesy of PA Images.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.

A longer essay this morning in the Observer looking at the impact of the murder of Lee Rigby on the face of terrorism five years on from when it looks place. Some reactions on twitter already, look forward to hearing more people’s thoughts (feel free to contact through comments or the contact page). I am careful about saying that this is the harbinger of the end in the conclusion of the piece, as it could be for this expression, though as I have written elsewhere, it is depressingly likely that things will evolve in other ideological directions.

How Lee Rigby’s murder changed the face of terror

Lee Rigby memory

The murder of Lee Rigby five years ago ushered in a wave of ‘easy’ extremist violence. But will such random acts result in radical Islam losing its malign ideological power?

by 

Just under five years ago, two men ran down and then butchered with knives Fusilier Lee Rigby as he walked back to his barracks in Woolwich, south London. Still covered in Rigby’s blood, the older of the two men calmly spoke to the cameraphones of those nearby, justifying his act, declaring it revenge for atrocities in “Muslim lands”. Armed police arrived soon afterwards, shooting the attackers and detaining them. But their act had already been memorialised and continues to resonate half a decade later.

Rigby’s murder was not the first time knives had been used in a violent Islamist act in the United Kingdom. In one example, three years earlier, a young east Londoner called Roshonara Choudhry walked into her MP’s constituency surgery and stabbed him, in revenge, she said, for voting for the war in Iraq. Stephen Timms survived his attack and the act was so strange at the time that it took quite a while for people properly to realise what had happened.

Terrorist groups had been urging such attacks for some time. Al-Qaida’s English-language magazine, Inspire, called for people to carry out such acts regularly under the title of “just do it” terrorism. It had been particularly proud of Choudhry’s act, highlighting how a woman had been stepping up to carry out acts that men, as the magazine put it, were failing to do.

But the important difference is that these previous acts had not “worked” – as in resulted in death. In contrast, Rigby’s murder was public, brutal and recorded for posterity. Shocking in its nature, it seemed a very different terrorist attack to those that we had been used to: such as the coordinated operations of 9/11 or 7/7 or the team of marauding gunmen who executed the Mumbai attack in 2008.

Yet, as time passes, it is clear that Rigby’s murder has had a substantial impact on the terrorist threat picture in the UK and around the world. It was the most public terrorist knife attack and it became something of a model. In the UK alone, at least 16 plots or incidents took place afterwards in which bladed weapons were either used or planned to be used.

The transmission of terrorist ideas and methodology is something that is hard to track precisely. But in the first instance, a public “success” such as this will breed emulation. This was most clearly visible in the immediate wake of the attack in two incidents. A few days after the murder in Woolwich, Alexandre Dhaussy, a French recent convert to Islam known to authorities for his radical views and petty criminal activity, stabbed a soldier in the neck as he patrolled in La Défense in Paris. A week later, after an imam called for prayers for Rigby’s family during a service at HMP Full Sutton in east Yorkshire, a group of radicalised prisoners kidnapped a guard, called for the release of other extremists and tried to take over part of the prison. In both cases, questions were asked about the degree of ideological commitment of the attackers, but it seems clear that their action was in part inspired by the murder of Rigby.

People leave the London Bridge area with their hands up after the 2017 terrorist attack
 People leave the London Bridge area with their hands up after the 2017 terrorist attack. Photograph: Neil Hall/Reuters

In the longer term, the Woolwich action and imagery provided people with an example to copy and perceived heroic figures to follow. Almost a year later, Brusthom Ziamani, a confused young man who had moved in (now banned) al-Muhajiroun circles and looked up to Adebolajo as an older brother – he described him to his girlfriend as a “legend” – was arrested by authorities as he went to carry out an attack similar to that of his idol.

For others, the act lives on in imagery and legend. Nadir Syed, another al-Muhajiroun extremist who was later convicted of planning a knife attackagainst authority figures, was found to have shared images of Rigby’s killers among his friends on social media.

On the other side of the ideological spectrum, in January 2015, Zack Davies started hacking at a South Asian man he saw in a Tesco supermarket in Mold, Wales, shouting “white power” and saying that he was undertaking the attack in revenge for Rigby. Later investigation showed he was an isolated and paranoid young man who was obsessed with the far right.

The drama of the act is transmitted through the media, which help magnify it and give it resonance. This brings it to others’ attention and gives them a sense of great acts of history at play. In the longer term, it generates a wealth of imagery that can be used and manipulated by groups to show the message they are advancing.

Ultimately, the key thing the Rigby murder showed was that there was no need to overcomplicate the terrorist act. Rather than build a bomb, go to a training camp in a far-off land, source expensive and elusive weapons or gather a large network of people, you could conduct a highly effective terrorist attack using tools sitting in your kitchen and your car.

Rigby’s murderers Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale were, in fact, committed and long-term extremists connected to the al-Muhajiroun network in the UK. They were linked to a group of British extremists in Yemen alongside the radical Islamist Anwar al-Awlaki (the preacher whose videos inspired Choudhry, she claimed, to attempt to kill Timms). Adebolajo was arrested in November 2010in Kenya trying to get into Somalia to join the militant al-Shabaab group. He had first appeared on security services’ radars in mid-2008 on the fringes of a network linked to individuals who were trying to obtain material to conduct a terrorist attack and had been in direct contact with core al-Qaida; he had in fact been active in the al-Muhajiroun community as early as 2003 when he was only 19.

Adebowale, the junior in the partnership, had a similar history. He was first investigated by MI5 in 2011, but is known to have had contact with a “subject of interest” to the security service as early as 2009. At the time, he was just coming out of a young offender institution where he had been incarcerated on narcotics charges. Leaving prison, he was reported to be wearing Islamic robes and had adopted a more hardline Islamist ideology. He then joined in the constant churn of activism that marks al-Muhajiroun, showing up at protests, attending events, shouting for cameras.

So while they might have been two jihadist drifters, they nevertheless managed to carry out a terrorist act that captured attention and set a new example. We still do not know the degree to which they were talking to others about doing this, but it does not completely matter. They were committed, long-term extremists who decided to act in a way that they could and, in the process, they changed the dynamic of how we saw terrorism and terrorist acts.

The UK had not experienced a successful violent Islamist terrorist attack since the 2005 bombings on London’s public transport system. Repeated cells had been disrupted, including the 2006 airlines plot, which would have probably killed more than the 9/11 attacks had it succeeded in bringing down up to eight airlines on transatlantic routes. In 2007, a double car bombing in the heart of London was thwarted (two bombs were discovered and disabled), as was a subsequent vehicle-borne explosive device at Glasgow international airport.

The pattern still seemed to be for terrorists to want to achieve large-scale spectaculars that brought mass casualties or caused massive economic damage.

This was not true across the ideological spectrum. Shortly before the Rigby attack, an elderly Muslim man had been stabbed and killed in Birmingham. At the time, it was not clear what had taken place in the murder of Mohammed Saleem. It later turned out to have been the act of a lone far-right extremist from Ukraine, Pavlo Lapshyn, who had arrived in the UK on a scholarship only five days earlier and set off on a one-man terror campaign. But after this stabbing, Lapshyn reverted to what he seemed to really enjoy doing and set off a series of bombs outside mosques in the West Midlands. At the time, questions were asked about whether the murder of Saleem might have inspired Adebolajo and Adebowale, but there was no evidence of this. Rather, they carried out a targeted act of terror in advance of the ideology to which they were dedicated.

The Woolwich attack was shocking for many reasons. There was an ease and randomness about it that seemed so much more brutal than anything that had been seen before. The fact that the men had undertaken their act, paused for the cameras, not attacked anyone else, all showed a level of calculation and menace that suggested something new was afoot.

While horrific, the suicide bombings on the London underground were comprehensible and left a distinct trail: training camps, terrorist leaders in far-off countries directing individuals and sophisticated plots involving hard-to-assemble bombs. Adebolajo and Adebowale changed this profile, showing how everyday household items were redeployable as terrorist weapons.

The wider effect was to lower the threshold of what constitutes a terrorist attack, suddenly making the act much more “accessible”. And this is reflected in what came next, with repeated attempted attacks using bladed weapons, as terrorists realised that this was all that was needed. In the UK alone, at least 16 plots of this type are identifiable on the violent Islamist end of the spectrum. On the continent, the pattern is similar, with the car and bladed weapon terrorist methodology becoming depressingly ubiquitous.

Terrorist groups tried to claim credit. Al-Shabaab, the group that Adebolajo had tried to join in 2010, released an hour-long video taking its title from his comments to camera. In it, al-Shabaab championed the Woolwich murder and elevated it into the pantheon of lone actor terrorist attacks. It called for others to emulate this and seemed to suggest targeting various individuals who were seen on film commenting in the wake of the murder.

Just over a year later, the methodology was given an extra jolt of life by the Isis leader Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s fatwa, which electrified the extremist community. It ran thus: “Kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian… and kill him in any manner or way however it may be. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car…” This was of a piece with an approach advanced by an al-Qaida theorist called Abu Bakr Naji. In his book The Management of Savagery, Naji advocates the use of persistent and extreme violence to grind an enemy down, using as crude tactics as possible. Adnani’s savage litany resonated and subsequent terrorist attacks have clearly drawn inspiration from it.

Numerous cells of plotters were shown to discuss its effect and appeared to accelerate plotting in response. At the same time, the speech was following a path that had already been trodden by Rigby’s murderers. The narrative tying Adebolajo and Adnani together was on display in the Nadir Syed case, where he discussed on social media the importance and inspirational impact of the Adnani fatwa, while praising Adebolajo’s act.

It is in many ways extraordinary that things have turned out like this. In the first instance, the attack by Adebolajo and Adebowale, while a tragedy for the murdered soldier’s family, was in some ways a reflection of how hard it had become to launch terrorist attacks in the UK. The security services had learned how to manage the threat. Complicated plots got disrupted; networks of extremists had been penetrated. Many of those in the al-Muhajiroun circle of friends were in jail or under surveillance. Out of this effective security response emerged the assault on Rigby.

But what could not be known at the time was how the simplicity of this attack would inspire others and show them an “easier” path to take, offering crazed individuals a path to perceived grandeur through others’ misery using tools they had lying around the house. The ideology was accessible through the internet and easy to regurgitate, the methodology and targeting was easy; suddenly, the idea of terrorism was no longer an elite activity for the select few who had access to specific groups and weapons.

In the wake of the Woolwich attack, there was a renewed crackdown on the extremists who make up al-Muhajiroun. It did not eliminate them, but it took some off the streets and a growing number went to Syria. For them, Islamic State’s declaration of the caliphate in June 2014 changed everything, forcing them to make a choice between joining what they had advocated for years or showing themselves up as empty loudmouths.

While there continued to be plots that were disrupted, the ideology spread beyond their tightknit community and sprang up in random circles and homes around the country. Khuram Butt, a known al-Muhajiroun extremist who was the focus of police investigation, was the leader of the cell who, using a van and knives, murdered eight people as they enjoyed a night out, close to London Bridge in June 2017. His act was one that had clear inspiration from his previous al-Muhajiroun comrades.

Yet while diffusion of the threat picture has made it more dangerous, it has also started to tear at its coherence. It becomes quite hard to maintain a consistent ideology when you are trying to bring together organised and ideologically motivated plots with what look like random acts of terror. The spectrum from the concert massacre in Manchester to the bafflingly incompetent attack attempted by Mohiussunnath Chowdhury against police at Buckingham Palace is wide.

An Uber driver angry at the world, Chowdhury entered the wrong co-ordinates into his satnav the first time and found himself stuck outside a pub before figuring out the way to Buckingham Palace. Once there, he drove at a police van, shouting: “Allahu Akbar” and was subdued by police officers with CS gas. One officer was injured as Chowdhury brandished the samurai sword he had with him.

The bus destroyed by a terrorist’s bomb in London’s Tavistock Square, July 2005
 The bus destroyed by a terrorist’s bomb in London’s Tavistock Square, July 2005. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images/PA

This is the issue difficult to assess: when terrorism has become so random, how does it still maintain any of its ideological power? The attacks of 11 September 2001 or the 2015 massacre at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris have an archetypal imagery about them. They capture the maxim advanced by Brian Michael Jenkins, a former US special forces officer and one of the early writers about modern terrorism, who argued that “terrorism is theatre”. The drama and scale of the act draws attention and advances a group’s message.

And this is important to remember: terrorists are fundamentally seeking to advance a political ideology and message. The terrorist act is a way to deliver this. Consequently, the act needs to have drama and effect. A large network plotting to carry out a mass atrocity is a terrifying concept, which will draw attention to itself.

The Rigby murder in its novelty had an equal drama. But as time went on, this approach lost its lustre. In a city where a campaign of stabbings is the major criminal activity preoccupying the police, what effect will a random ideologically motivated one have? If the act becomes indistinguishable from other murders that take place in our societies every day, how does the group continue to advance its message?

This is something that al-Qaida theorists have worried about. The godfather of the lone actor methodology, Abu Musab al-Suri, highlights in his text The Global Islamic Resistance Call that campaigns repeatedly failed because of a lack of proper “education” of ideologies among terrorists. As networks were ground down through confrontation with authorities, “the cadre of supporters that had been formed through lengthy education were expended and the level of education declined among the succeeding bases of cadre”, he writes. This resulted “in the complete failure [that] manifested itself in the inability to realise the goals of the general project”. In other words, as the terrorists committing the act became more detached from the core group, the strength of the ideology was weakened.

Seen in this light, it is possible that we might try to interpret the murder in Woolwich as the beginning of the end or, cleaving to caution, at least the beginning of a path that might take us towards the end. Isis, and its brutality, has extended the lifespan of this threat by years, but ultimately the trajectory will be downward.

Terrorist attacks that are indistinguishable from random murders that take place in our cities or from the brazen acts of lunatics will increasingly have less power to shock. And with no coherent movement, the truly dangerous ideological core will struggle to motivate the right people to launch an effective struggle that has a goal. Rather, it will be occasional lunatics who hurt ordinary citizens but ultimately are unable to change anything. Societies have survived sustained terror campaigns and while none of this is any sort of panacea to those who lose loved ones, the terrorist project is in decline.

Five years on from the murder in Woolwich, the act has achieved a totemic place in the jihadist canon. Yet, decades from now, it might be seen instead as a harbinger of the end of a movement.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (Rusi)

Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, one of the gunmen in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, which left 166 people dead
 Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, one of the gunmen in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, which left 166 people dead. Photograph: Sebastian D’souza/AP

Another piece to catch up from this past week, this time drawing on a previous project we worked on at RUSI looking at Lone Actor Terrorism. Co-authored with colleague Mo again, this one focuses on extreme right wing terrorism and its particular expression through lone actors for the BBC.

The clues right-wing terrorists give away

  • 9 February 2018
Police guard a street in Finsbury Park after a vehicle hit pedestriansGETTY IMAGES
Police guard a street in Finsbury Park after a van drove into a crowd near a mosque

Preventing terror attacks by lone individuals poses a serious challenge. But there are sometimes behaviours and actions that might give them away.

The growing problem of extreme right-wing terrorism in the UK has been highlighted by two high-profile cases in the past week.

First, Darren Osborne was sentenced to a minimum of 43 years in prison, after being found guilty of driving a van into a crowd of Muslims near a London mosque, killing one man and injuring nine other people.

In the second case, white supremacist Ethan Stables was convicted of preparing an act of terrorism, after planning a machete attack at a gay pride event in a pub in Barrow, Cumbria. He awaits sentencing.

Plans to kill by lone individuals such as these have been a persistent feature of the extreme right wing for many years.

Terrorists who act alone are often seen as particularly difficult for the authorities to spot.

Our research suggests that, more often than not, lone actors imagine that they belong to a wider movement – sometimes attending group activities such as rallies and conducting online research.

But it is often the case that they are not obviously connected to a wider group that might be under surveillance.

If they are planning to use weapons that are everyday items, such as knives or vehicles, it becomes even harder for the authorities to set up “trip wires” – the checks that might catch them before they act.

Ethan Stables, bare-chested with an air rifle
Ethan Stables was convicted of planning an attack on a gay pride event

However, it is not the case that these “lone actors” should be seen as entirely detached: there are often behaviours, or actions, that might act as a warning about their intentions.

It is significant that both Osborne and Stables spoke publicly of their intentions to carry out attacks, as many lone-actor terrorists are less secretive than might be expected.

A project led by the Royal United Services Institute examined “leakage” of intentions in 120 lone-actor terrorist cases of any type between 2000-14.

Individuals had leaked information about their plans in about half of all cases.

Osborne’s trial heard that he had told a soldier in a pub: “I’m going to kill all the Muslims. Muslims are all terrorists. Your families are all going to be Muslim. I’m going to take it into my own hands.”

Meanwhile, Stables was stopped because he decided to announce to the world via Facebook that he planned to carry out an attack, posting to a chat group the words: “I’m going to war tonight.”

This type of leakage was common among both the extreme right wing and violent Islamist perpetrators that we studied.

And among those on the extreme right wing, most of this leakage took place online, as in the Stables case.

The reasons for this are difficult to discern, but could be linked to the fact that many of those involved lead comparatively isolated lives.

Given the relative anonymity found on the internet, people can live out fantasies through their online profiles, to compensate for their unsatisfying offline lives.

In contrast, we found that among Islamist extremists, the leakage tended to take place among family members or friends.

Arrest picture of Darren OsborneMET POLICE
Darren Osborne was found guilty of murder and attempted murder

It was also the case that among a third of the lone-actor terrorists examined by the study – again, both right-wing extremists and violent Islamists – there were potential signs of underlying mental health conditions.

Osborne’s partner described him as a “loner and a functioning alcoholic” with an “unpredictable temperament”.

Stables said that his mother had told him to leave home as a result of his mental health difficulties.

The judge has requested further psychiatric assessments, to help assess whether Stables should be sent to a secure hospital, or prison.

Thomas Mair, the killer of MP Jo Cox, was also a loner described as having mental health problems.

Islamist extremist Nicholas Roddis, who left a hoax bomb on a bus, was described in court as “prone to fantasy” and the judge pointed to his “immaturity and isolation”.

Muslim convert Nicky Reilly, who tried to blow up a restaurant with a nail bomb and later died in prison, had learning difficulties and Asperger’s syndrome.

Clearly, only a tiny minority of people with such difficulties would go on to commit a terrorist act, but greater awareness might help spot some perpetrators before they act.

Health workers and police are now working together on a nationwide projectto help identify people referred to counter-terrorism programmes who are in need of treatment for mental health problems.

None of this paints a picture of particularly sophisticated terrorist plots, or networks, in particular among those on the extreme right.

Rather, it suggests isolated individuals acting out an extreme ideology – and, in most cases, this has been the nature of the plots.

Potentially more worrying for the UK is the emergence of a more organised extreme right wing, with the recent banning of the neo-Nazi group National Action, for example.

On continental Europe this problem has existed for some time. The German case of the National Socialist Underground – which is accused of the murders of 10 people – being just one example.

Across the continent, the ideology around far-right extremists is varied and diverse, but some common threads can be found.

Racial “purity” is often highlighted, as are claims that the world is run by powerful elites, including Marxists, liberals and Jews.

Some minority groups are presented as posing a threat to European culture and society.

These ideas were echoed in the choice of targets and the details in both Osborne’s and Stables’s respective trials.

On the stand, Osborne stated he wanted to murder London Mayor Sadiq Khan, or Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Once he had committed his act, he was heard to say: “I’ve done my bit,” in reference to his attempt to murder Muslims.

Children lay flowers in tribute to the victims of a van attack in the Finsbury Park area of north London.GETTY IMAGES
Flowers in tribute to victims of the 2017 Finsbury Park attack

Stables’s plan to attack a gay pride event reflected his desire to push back against what he saw as an “impure” homosexual culture.

As isolated individuals, they may be typical of the overriding majority of extreme right-wing terrorists in the UK.

But the continued existence of such people – often drawing on the ideology of a more organised extreme right wing, or the xenophobic beliefs of a vocal minority – has a damaging effect on society, causing frictions between communities and tearing at our social fabric.

Not only do their actions hurt those caught up in attacks, but they can drive others on the extreme right, as well violent Islamists – who use the sense of a divided society to justify their actions.

It is easy to simply dismiss Osborne and Stables as pathetic losers angry at society.

But they represent a broader trend that has worrying potential ramifications for the United Kingdom.

Presentational grey line

About this piece

This analysis piece was commissioned by the BBC from experts working for the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), an independent think tank specialising in defence and security research.

Raffaello Pantucci is its director of international security studies, and Dr Mohammed Elshimi is a research analyst in its national security and resilience team. Follow him @raffpantucci


Edited by Duncan Walker

And finally for the new year’s burst, a new piece for the Telegraph which looks more broadly at the threat from terrorism and how it is likely to evolve in the coming year and future.

TELEMMGLPICT000131089556_trans_NvBQzQNjv4BqPjDZOdMgceQ0ik-fUDgEdp1sx0nXfubHOP8MlV9Hm-Q

Terrorist activity in the UK last year was dominated by a significant shift both in volume of successful incidents, but also their nature. From networked plots, or large-scale attacks directed from abroad, it is now isolated individuals or small cells – some directed, some instigated and some independently latching on to ideologies – that have become the heart of the terrorist threat that the UK faces.

After a period of relative calm with sporadic incidents, in 2017 the country was struck by five terrorist attacks of varying effectiveness. Yet, with the exception of the atrocity in Manchester, it is not clear that any of the plots were products of a larger effort.

Given that it involved three people, the attack near London Bridge in June was by definition a conspiracy, but it is not clear that the perpetrators were being directed by others in launching their attack.

The much vaunted menace from foreign terrorist fighters being sent back from Syria and Iraq has not so far materialized, leaving security forces instead countering this confusing new threat made up of isolated, or loosely connected individuals who use low-tech methods – such as the vehicle and knives used at London Bridge – to seek to murder fellow citizens.

It is often not clear how closely these individuals are genuinely linked to terrorist groups, with mental health or other issues often emerging as the principal driver of action, with the terrorist ideology sometimes an excuse superimposed on top.

This is likely to remain where the core of the threat remains for the immediate future and while groups may attempt to harness the interconnected world, using increasingly creative digital methodologies to try to launch complicated attacks, this will remain difficult to deliver.

Networks require some degree of communication, providing useful fissures which attentive security agencies can take advantage of. The threat of returning foreign fighters will continue to pose a menace, but difficulties of getting back and then organizing will make it hard for groups to rely on them as effective attack vectors.

The lone actor threat has deep roots in the UK, going back to the late-2000s with the separate cases of Andrew Ibrahim and Nicky Reilly in 2008, but what was once considered peripheral has now become central.

This is the result of terrorist groups adapting to security approaches. Unable to get large coordinated plots through, they push individuals, or espouse ideas and methodologies towards lone actor attacks. In addition, we have seen a growing number of people reacting to the loud volume of terrorist ideologies and latching on to them as a way of expressing their anger at society, having at best a fairly limited link or sophisticated understanding of the group for which they purport to be committing terror.

This is likely to continue and become more complex, likely spilling into other ideologies beyond violent Islamism. A by-product of the internet is that people can now develop and advance intense beliefs with a community from the calm of their own homes. Online, they can also connect with others who share these ideas, or develop complicated micro-ideologies.

Pair this with the growing accessibility of fairly dangerous technology and simple attack methodologies, and you have the potential for something shocking to happen.

At the same time, the echo chamber of the internet and an increasingly polarized public conversation has shifted the bounds of what is acceptable for open discourse. This has mainstreamed and escalated some nasty views on foreigners and others in society who do not share the same perspectives as ourselves, giving people with violent inclinations a sense of justification for acting on their impulses.

A huge crowd of people hold placards with photographs of the murdered MP Jo Cox and others saying '#LoveLikeJo'
MP Jo Cox was murdered by a lone operator, with a history of mental health problems, and links to far-right groups  CREDIT: PAUL GROVER FOR THE TELEGRAPH/PAUL GROVER

We have already seen reactive terrorism in the form of the attack on Finsbury Park mosque, the murder of Jo Cox and some of the sectarian murders within the Muslim community – and such acts of violence only serve to inspire others.

Looking forward, the nature of terrorist threat is only going to become more complex as the global picture continues to be upended by demagogic leaders. The world remains an unstable place. The increasingly tense confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran will create problems globally, a resurgent al Qaeda has not given up, and ISIS is seeking out new battlefields to re-establish itself.

The grim roster of attacks over the holiday period – Egypt, Afghanistan and Russia – shows the diversity of locations where ISIS has some resonance, while the full effect of President Trump’s recent moves in Israel are also still to be seen, but are guaranteed to awaken global anger around the Palestinian cause.

And all of this is just to focus on the narrow lens of what is going on in the Middle East; the world is littered with unresolvable problems that might suddenly shock. Just look across the water to Ireland to see how protracted terrorist problems can drag on for generations with little evidence of slowing down or going away.

This all paints a bleak picture at the start of a fresh new year and it is worth stopping a moment to recognize a more positive side. Notwithstanding this past year being a particularly grim one in terms of attacks, the UK has not faced a large-scale atrocity on the scale of the London bombings of July 7, 2005, when 56 people died.

The attacks we have suffered are for the most part of a low calibre, driven by individuals of limited resources and ability. Although, of course, none of this is to reduce their impact and the pain and suffering of every family who has lost someone or seen someone’s life irrevocably changed.

But the changing picture is in part a testament to the effectiveness of the security apparatus that is in place, which – while clearly in need of some adjustment to reflect the changing nature of terrorist activity – has been able to protect us from around 10 attacks this past year.

Terrorism will not go away in 2018 – and it may seem to get worse and more confusing. We need to move forward bearing this grim truth in mind, while all the time focusing on making our societies more resilient against the brutal atrocities terrorists cast at us. This will help insulate us from their success and ensure that they do not achieve their goals of tearing our society apart.

Bit of a departure from usual activity, this is an animated interpretation for the website The Conversation of some of the lone actor work that I have been involved in. The numbers and detail of the work comes from the Countering Lone Actor Terrorism (CLAT) project that involved a range of excellent research institutions and colleagues (who are captured in one of the images). A HUGE thanks and applause is due to Wes Mountain who did the animation and was immensely patient with me in producing it.

This aside, spoke to Sky News for a special about a terror case in Manchester with links to the Manchester bomber, and the broader question of the terrorist threat to the UK linked to Libya, and for Canada’s Perspectives with Alison Smith on CPAC about what to do about returning foreign terrorist fighters.

Comic explainer: what is lone-actor terrorism?

Wes Mountain/The ConversationCC BY-ND

Security services and governments around the world remain vigilant to the threat of lone-actor terrorists in our cities.

But when there’s often no indication of an explicit intention or ideology, questions about mental health and with groups like Islamic State willing to encourage and claim responsibility for almost any attack, how do we define lone-actor terrorism?

In this comic explainer, Raffaello Pantucci, Associate Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Director of International Security Studies at RUSI, explains the theory behind lone-actor terrorism and what we know about lone actors’ effectiveness, motives and behaviours that could help us to better understand and disrupt future attacks.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Rachid Kassim is quoted from an interview with Jihadology.

Junaid Hussain’s quote is from court documents.


 


The full Countering Lone-Actor Terrorism Series is available at the Royal United Services Institute’s website.

Illustrations by Wes Mountain for The Conversation.

It has been a depressingly busy week for lone actor terrorism with atrocities in numerous places. In the wake of the events in Orlando, I wrote the below for the Times and there should be more to come specifically about the far right next week. Less on the media front, though spoke to the Financial Times about how to counter terrorism in cities ahead of the EuroCup, The Times after the US raised it terror threat level in Europe, and did some longer discussions with BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed show, the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs about radicalisation and jihadis more broadly, and my home institution RUSI about the spate of attacks in this past week.

The Times masthead

Terror threat grows more random by the day

Recent Islamist attacks will renew calls for sweeping surveillance powers but the cure might be worse than the disease

The massacre of clubbers in Orlando at the weekend is not the first time that terrorists have targeted the gay community. In 1999, the right-wing extremist David Copeland left a nail bomb in the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, London, that killed three people and injured about 70. In the weeks leading up to the attack, he had left devices targeting minorities in Brixton and Brick Lane that caused multiple injuries. Copeland, who had links to British far-right groups, said after his arrest that he wanted to spark a race war. His indiscriminate campaign showed how the ideology of the extreme right was aimed at the whole of society rather than any specific group.

There are similarities to be drawn with Islamic State. While the group has not yet taken concerted action against LGBT people in the West, it has executed dozens accused of homosexuality in Iraq and Syria. The fact that Orlando is the first attack of its kind outside the Middle East, therefore, is not for any lack of will on the part of Isis. It underlines the random way in which “lone actor” jihadists now pick their targets.

This approach was set out by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, a senior Isis commander, in 2014. Calling for attacks on the movement’s foreign foes that would “turn their worldly life into fear and fire”, he said that there was no need to “ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict. Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they have the same ruling.” This carte blanche electrified those drawn to Isis’s ideology. However, when your message is so omnidirectional, it will inspire not only hardened followers but also individuals with a range of motives — or illnesses. Take the case of Muhaydin Mire, who was convicted last week of trying to murder a man on the Underground while shouting that it was “for my brothers in Syria”. It emerged that he had been mentally unstable for some time and had been reading about Islamist ideology online.

When considering a response to such incidents, it is vital to remember that they can stem from a variety of motivations — from the personal to the ideological and all points in between — for which there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

It becomes harder still when the targets chosen by Isis and lone actors can be so diverse: from football stadia to music venues, as well as attempted attacks on churches, public transport networks and bars. In 2014, Isis acknowledged Man Haron Monis’s attack on a Sydney coffee shop that led to three deaths including his own, even though he turned up for his attack with the wrong banner. In contrast they failed to acknowledge Yassin Salhi, another troubled man with a history of links to extremist groups, who decapitated his boss last year before trying to cause an explosion at the gas factory in Lyon where he worked. French authorities said the attack bore the hallmarks of Isis, although no link with Salhi was ever uncovered. He hanged himself in prison before standing trial for murder.

This lack of clarity between terror groups and their foot soldiers is not actually as new as it might seem.

Al-Qaeda promoted the idea of lone wolves launching undirected attacks in its magazine Inspire, drawing on a methodology laid out by ideologue (and former London resident) Abu Musab al-Suri. And the far right has long called for lone wolves to rise up in their own societies and provoke race war by any means possible.

Other groups like the IRA, ETA or left-wing organisations during the 1970s were more structured but happy to use the broader community of radicals that were drawn by high-profile bomb attacks, assassinations or kidnappings.

There is, unfortunately, very little that can be done to counter the dissemination of terrorist ideology in our interconnected world.

Even countries with tight control of the internet such as China find it hard to prevent the spread of extremist messages to vulnerable or otherwise receptive minds.

And even if such control was possible, it is arguable that we would be doing the terrorists’ work for them by giving the state sweeping powers to monitor and control communications on a massive scale. While this is little comfort to those suffering in the wake of an attack such as Orlando, it is unclear that tightly-controlled societies are any better at dealing with terrorist threats than open ones. Instead, we should seek ways to distract those drawn to these messages in the first place (if they can be identified early enough), as well as continuing to attack the appeal of Isis and its ideology by degrading its capability on the ground.

European security agencies continue to worry about the possibility of an attack by Isis during the Euro 2016 tournament.

The only publicly disrupted plot was of a far-right Frenchman arrested coming back into his country from Ukraine, armed with guns and explosives intended for a series of attacks on synagogues, mosques, highways, bridges and football stadia. This underlines the increasingly random nature of terrorism. The goal is as much to sow shock and horror in the venues of everyday life as to bring attention to a specific cause.

Orlando joins the names on a long list of terrorist atrocities in the West since 9/11 and will, sadly, not be the last. Terrorist violence will continue to grow more indiscriminate.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)