Posts Tagged ‘lone actor’

More catching up, this time from this week’s Telegraph in the wake of this week’s still-unclear incident outside Parliament.

Also catching up on some media interviews, spoke to NPR, the Independent and il Foglio about the Westminster incident, to RFI about ISIS in Indonesia, to BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show about the news that emerged about Salman Abeidi’s evacuation from Libya, to the Independent again about the Toronto shooting, to Vice about ISIS returning into a guerrilla organisation, and on the other side of the substantive equation to Bloomberg about Turkey’s relations with China and the South China Morning Post about Kazakh-Chinese relations in the wake of the Sauytbay case in Kazakhstan (which was subsequently picked up by China Digital Times).

TELEMMGLPICT000171684858_trans_NvBQzQNjv4BqH8oGYaaASnJZUiuddQ1p_w4wRx7k9ixzqw8pl8JMpsMForensics officers work near the car that crashed into security barriers outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018 CREDIT: FRANK AUGSTEIN/AP

Despite the attack on Parliament, all signs suggest we are safer than we were last year

Since the attempted bombing in Parsons Green last year, we have had something of a lull in visible terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom. We have had a few panics, and when it first popped up on news feeds this morning, it may have seemed like the incident in Westminster was just another of those.

Clearly, the terrorist threat is still with us. But it has also shifted and, though we can’t be certain what is around the corner, it seems to have lessened. Once dominated by large-scale plots, it is now concentrated around isolated individuals advancing ideologies of different stripes in lo-tech and often uncoordinated ways.

Isil’s loss of territory in Iraq and Syria has made a big difference. Cells and individuals with experience of the battlefield in Syria and Iraq remain a concern, but the groups on the ground seem far more preoccupied with their activity in the Levant than in launching attacks against far-off capitals.

The brutal murder of four cyclists in Tajikistan and the use of a Moroccan suicide bomber in the Philippines show how Isil remains a worldwide player. But the scale and ambition of directed attacks that we saw with in Paris in 2015, and the networks around them, seem to have waned.

Instead, we have seen a fairly constant patter of small-scale incidents characterised by individuals with a wide range of backgrounds, mental faculties and links to extremist groups, who are driven as much about what is going on their lives as by whichever the terrorist ideology they may have associated themselves themselves with.

This community has been empowered in part by the fact that our definition of a terrorist attack has widened. Once upon a time, a car driving into a crowd would have been seen as a traffic incident. Now it is immediately considered as a possible attack, even if this is later disproved.

Think back to last October, when a car mounted the pavement in South Kensington near the Natural History Museum. The immediate concern was a terrorist incident had taken place, with speculation running wild that this was the case.

Ideologues with political axes to grind leaped to the scene and spewed out commentary, and the entire public discourse swerved in a charged direction. Yet soon it emerged that we were merely dealing with a taxi crashing into crowds. A month later in Covent Garden, another taxi crashing into people sparked a similar panic which also quickly died down.

Similarly, many groups are now quite happy to claim any sort of incident, even when the link is spurious. Look at the shooting in Toronto in July, or the shooting last October in Las Vegas, which were both claimed by Isil without much credibility. At the same time, some attacks are genuinely Isil-inspired and directed, and we only need to look back to the first half of last year to see genuine terrorists using vehicles to plough into crowds and murder people.

This is the complexity of the terrorist threat that we are now facing. Varied methods and fractured extremist movements create a very confusing environment for members of the public.  Nevertheless, it does seem, at least for now, to be a safer one.

Security services deserve some credit for the shift in threat. As they have become better attuned to disrupting networked plots, we consequently see less of them. For terrorist groups still keen to launch attacks, this requires a change in methodology (and consequently a similar reaction from security forces).

But we can also see the quality of the individuals involved seems to be going down. Does this mean that terrorist groups are no longer attracting the sort of people they were before (and therefore losing their power), or does it mean that the ideology has simply become more diffuse and accessible (so then a wider range of people can connect with it)? Or maybe both?

There are no easy answers. But what is certain is that the threat will go on, and that if we are not careful we can undo all this positive change.

We know that a politically fragile and febrile environment, where narratives of exclusion and separated societies are increasingly mainstream, is an optimal place for people to latch onto extreme ideas and impulses and act on them. In such an environment, mainstream figures who openly talk in exclusionary terms creating the perception of a “clash of civilizations” which extremist groups thrive on.

To drag these ideas into the mainstream is to create a context where extreme answers seem justified. That gives ideological cover to people who are really just angry at their government or angry at their life, and are lashing out.

A persistent number of people continue to find the answer to their personal crises in violence. We are now facing a terrorist threat whose methods are almost indistinguishable from the general violence that permeates organised societies. If our political discourse is confrontational and negative, it will increase that violence.

We may not be able to eradicate the ideas or the groups which drive terrorism, but we can certainly try to change the public discourse and create an environment in which we are not doing terrorist groups’ jobs for them.

 

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More catch-up posting, this time for the Telegraph looking at trying to understand the difficulties around intelligence and counter-terrorism. Got various media posting to also catch up on, but will do soon.

Intelligence is fragmented by nature – sometimes terrorists will slip through

Three knife-wielding assailants led a deadly rampage through central London on Saturday. One was known to UK intelligence, another to the Italian police
Three knife-wielding assailants led a deadly rampage through central London on Saturday. One assailant was known to UK intelligence, another to the Italian policeCREDIT:  MATTHEW CHATTLE/BARCROFT IMAGES

It has become habit that in the wake of a terrorist incident it is soon uncovered that security agencies were aware of the individuals in question. The immediate assumption therefore is that there was a clear failure, with questions understandably asked about why those involved had not been detained and prevented from carrying out the atrocity.

The problem is that this assumption is based on fragmentary information.

First, the wider picture is unknown. How many other people were there in view at that moment in time, and how did the behaviour of the individual who launched the attack match up to theirs?

Maybe he was not doing anything particularly suspect, while the others being watched were in the midst of undertaking suspicious behaviour which appeared far more menacing. The more menacing person will merit greater attention while the other will be observed in a slightly less intense fashion.

This is ultimately a process of prioritization, where choices to deploy resources are made on the basis of activity and information.

Second, someone who comes under the suspicion of intelligence agencies is not necessarily by default guilty. Security and intelligence agencies will gather a lot of information on a lot of people: but not all of them will require any deeper investigation.

Someone may appear in an investigation by default of who they live near, who they know or who they bump into for some reason. Some will require greater investigation to understand who they are, but the majority are irrelevant and simply passers-by who happen to have encountered someone who is malicious.

Those who are investigated to a greater extent, dealt with by the police and ultimately jailed are those who are undertaking activity that is against the law and against whom a specific criminal case can be made. We live in a country where due process and jury courts require the state to produce a burden of evidence to demonstrate guilt.

Third, security and intelligence agencies are not always very keen to demonstrate their methods. Consequently information that has maybe been gathered by covert agents or through technical means is not necessarily something that is usable in an open court.

In the case of the agent, their identity may be compromised, while the revelation of technical tools will give other terrorists the opportunity to learn about what they have to do to avoid detection in future. This means that sometimes information is gathered which cannot immediately be acted upon openly.

Clearly if suspects are moving towards violent or dangerous behaviour something will be done, but if they are not doing anything criminal, and there is no usable evidence of them planning something, then observation has to be the default.

Of course we have no clear idea at this moment whether any or all of these are the reason why the existing information on the various recent plotters was not acted upon.

Questions are being understandably asked about whether the process of prioritization is calibrated correctly. Three successful attacks from the broader pool of people known to the intelligence agencies is clearly a worrying reality. Have they adequately factored into the prioritization process patterns of behaviour by terrorist groups, new methodologies of attack and how radicalisation works these days?

It is worth noting that in many ways it is a good thing that intelligence agencies have knowledge of individuals who ultimately go on to commit terrorist atrocities. It would be even worse if they did not know who they were.

Should terrorists emerge completely from the void, questions would have to be asked about how it was they had no knowledge of them. Awareness demonstrates that they are looking at the right people and places.

The reality is that intelligence information is by its nature fragmentary. Unable to see inside people’s minds, security and intelligence agencies rely on assorted inputs to develop a picture on the basis of which they make judgements and assessments about who they should devote attention to watching.

The process by which these choices are made are subject to fairly constant revision and consideration, but unfortunately, they are not perfect.

None of this will of course provide comfort to those who have lost loved ones in an atrocity, but it is something that is important to bear in mind when considering what should be done in its wake.

Clearly security and intelligence agencies will have to review their processes, but care should be paid to not move to more extreme and draconian measures that will ultimately foster the very narrative that extremists advance.

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

And another piece, this time for my institutional home RUSI after the Westminster atrocity. Also to catch up on a few conversations with the media, spoke to Financial Times, New York Times, The Times, Wall Street JournalLa Repubblica, Politico, Daily Record, NBC, Irish Times, L’Espresso, and Daily Mail amongst others about the incident. Separately, spoke to Voice of America, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post about ISIS released a video featuring Uighurs. Finally, to the Mail on Sunday about a British jihadi who was able to get in and out of the country, and to the Guardian about the laptop ban on planes and Brexit and the security negotiations.

London: The Latest Victim of Terrorism in Europe

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary24 March 2017
EuropeUKUK Counter-terrorismDomestic SecurityTerrorism

The security services face an enormous challenge in preventing these types of terrorist attacks.

The wave of terrorism that has been striking Europe has reached Britain’s shores as a single attacker tried on Wednesday to storm the British Parliament in the centre of London.

Dartford-born Khalid Masood, né Adrian Russell Ajao – killed four people when he rammed his car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and fatally stabbed police officer PC Keith Palmer. At least 50 other people were injured, some critically.

The choice of target and the method used to conduct the attack suggest, at the very least, political intent. Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that Masood was ‘a soldier of the Islamic state’.

The incident might also be linked to the wave of Daesh and Daesh-inspired plots seen in mainland Europe. However, the degree to which this reveals a substantial connection or not has yet to be uncovered.

Security forces have been preparing for such an attack for some time. Some of the 13 plots authorities stated having disrupted in the past three years showed evidence of plotting in the same direction.

It is also one that is increasingly hard to eradicate even with well-developed national surveillance and intelligence capabilities.

Protecting Open Democracy

The decision to strike at the heart of British democracy is a seemingly obvious choice: groups have long sought to strike public institutions and the Houses of Parliament are an international symbol.

The ease of striking at parliamentarians was illustrated last year with the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox at her Batley and Spen, Yorkshire, constituency surgery by right wing extremist Thomas Mair.

It was not the first time a parliamentarian had been attacked in this way – in May 2010 there was the stabbing of Labour’s East Ham MP Stephen Timms by Roshonara Choudhry in an Islamist-inspired attack. Timms was severely wounded, and Choudhry was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Democracy, by its nature, is open and its representatives accessible to the public. Yet, such openness can complicate protecting those representatives or institutions.

Nevertheless, there are some security measures that may be tightened as a result of the current events in London. The fact that the vehicle was able to mount the pavement in the areas around Parliament will raise questions about whether the protective bollards and barriers that surround the area should be further extended.

Indeed, the fact that the individual was able to get inside the parliamentary estate will undoubtedly raise questions about whether the sanitised zone needs to be extended further and more barriers erected in the vicinity.

It is also clear that authorities have discovered that Masood had featured historically in investigations. This will raise questions about why he was not prioritised for investigation and what decisions were made in other directions.

Making the Tough Choices

This is an equally difficult task. For the security services, the problem is in identifying the individual as a priority at this specific moment. It is possible that he should have been due to indicators that were missed. However, security forces are facing a complicated situation involving thousands of persons of interest while lacking the staff numbers to deal with them all.

Choices will have to made about who needs to be prioritised for deeper investigation. This necessitates more attention to some and less to others involving a process of carefully calibrated choice.

The nature of the attack also makes it hard to prevent. Attacks involving cars and knives make use of everyday tools, a tactic which in itself limits the opportunities for the security services to detect plots in advance.

This is not only a reflection of the relative difficulty of launching more sophisticated attacks, but also the fact that terrorist groups have lowered the methodology of a successful attack to this level.

Not only are the tools hard to identify prior to attack (unlike guns or explosives), but preparation time is very limited and can be hard to discern from someone’s ordinary pattern of behaviour.

Beware of an Exaggerated Response

Ultimately, it is the reaction to the carnage which ‘makes’ the attack. An exaggerated response will increase the impact of the incident and give it undue importance. On the other hand, suppressing discussion may feed a frenzy of speculation which is also harmful.

More on the attack will be heard in the days to come, shedding light on the lessons that need to be learned. The answer – as is often the case – is to step back and review processes, ensure societal resilience and brace for the potential for further incidents.

Banner image: Armed police on Victoria Embankment in London after Wednesday’s terror attack on Westminister Bridge and Parliament. Courtesy of Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images.

Catching up on some old posting, first a piece in the Telegraph after the murderous atrocity in Westminster last week.

The Westminster attack will place added scrutiny on Britain’s controversial Prevent programme

The attack on Westminster comes as Whitehall reviews Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy, known as Contest. Developed in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the strategy was aimed at creating a holistic, cross-government approach to countering terrorism. The logic was that as these individuals came from within, a whole of society approach would be required to counter them.

The strategy has undergone numerous tweaks and iterations, with most attention focused on “Prevent”, the strand of the strategy which aimed at trying to steer people off the radical path before they became violent: “addressing the problem in the pre-criminal space”, to use the jargon. The difficulty is that this is something that by its nature should not be handled by the security services, and yet the fundamental point of Contest is to address a security matter. This in part helps illustrate why this aspect of the counter-terrorismstrategy has remained so fundamentally controversial.

Contest was designed as a four pillar strategy – Prevent (stopping people from being drawn to extremist ideas), Prepare (building societal resilience to be able to bounce back from an attack), Pursue (the classic counter-terrorism work of disrupting and investigating individuals), and Protect (building the infrastructure to defend from attack).

The current Contest review was focused on looking across all four, but as a result of this most recent incident, attention will likely focus through the lens of what happened in Westminster.

Since the attacker had historically appeared on the authorities’ radar but dropped down their priority list, the question will be asked about whether more could have been done to re-engage him with society. Or could he have been engaged with earlier to dissuade him from going down this path? The difficulty would be identifying who it was who could actually undertake this, and when would have been the right time to engage. And this in many ways illustrates some of the major issues around Prevent.

Whether we are talking about people working in communities, or those in sectors like education, welfare or healthcare, we are often looking at people who do not traditionally see themselves as security agents. They have chosen to serve society, but don’t see themselves as responsible for pre-empting security threats.

Yet it is often exactly these sorts of people who are being asked to take to the frontline in Prevent; to try to keep the problem outside the criminal space. But their priorities will be different to those of security agents who are focused very narrowly on defending from terrorism and prosecuting offenders. The paradox for Prevent is finding ways of engaging with nationally important security issues before they have become criminal problems, and therefore before the police take a dominant role.

Ultimately, if Prevent is to work it is going to have to move further out of the criminal space, with civilian public servants taking the lead.

If we are going to dissuade people from extremist groups and ideologies, we are then we will have to do it before people have gone far enough as to be a police matter, by which time it is too late. But if we are doing this, then a longer leash will be needed for those who are working on these issues. And we must understand that the nature of what we are asking them to deal with is not what would ordinarily fall into their remit, and that therefore they will look at in a different light to a hard-nosed security agent.

In addition to all of this, we are also dealing with a problem in which success – an absence of threat – cannot easily be linked to a specific programme. Can you link a lack of attacks to specific Prevent programmes running in some part of the country?

Prevent will always be the most controversial aspect of our counter-terrorism strategy. The questions that will be asked around the current incident in Westminster will likely focus on why more was not done to prevent this person from becoming involved in the first place. The answer will inevitably be incomplete, and the grieving families will not gain much from them. But it remains the key to staying ahead of the terrorist threat that we currently face.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute

New piece for Newsweek looking at the potential threat from ISIS post-Mosul (which has still not yet fallen). The piece was actually drafted a little while ago, but took some time to land. Separately, spoke to Politico about Italy’s approach to counter-terrorism and a presentation at a UK Foreign Office conference got picked up. Finally, my piece for the Financial Times Beyond BRICS blog got picked up and translated into 中文 for those who can read it.

How Big is the Threat to Europe from Jihadis Fleeing Mosul?

10_30_mosul_01Members of the Iraqi special forces police unit fire their weapons at Islamic State fighters in al-Shura, south of Mosul, Iraq October 29.  GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS

There is a presumption that the fall of Mosul will result in a surge in attacks and terrorism back in the West. Europe in particular feels like it is in the group’s crosshairs, with the refugee flow potentially masking a threat that will only magnify as the group loses territory on the battlefield in Iraq and more fighters want to leave the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). But this presumption is based on a potentially flawed set of assumptions about what will happen next and an understanding of how the terrorist threat has been evolving. Europe may face some terrorist incidents linked to a failing ISIS or other groups, but this threat is likely to simply continue much as before. It is unclear why ISIS would have waited until now to launch a surge of attacks.

Historically speaking it is hard to know where to look for a comparison with what we see happening in Iraq, and therefore what a precedent might look like. The most obvious comparison is the conflict in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. In wake of Moscow’s defeat, there was a chaotic situation in Afghanistan from which a flow of trained and ideologically motivated revolutionary warriors headed around the world. This produced extremist networks that expressed themselves in attacks for years to come under the banner of Al-Qaeda as well as insurgencies and civil wars in North Africa.

Yet this comparison is not completely accurate for the case of ISIS post-Mosul. The group may be losing one its major cities, but it still has a battlefield in Syria into which it can flow. Its territory there may be in retraction, but even if it loses it, the ungoverned spaces in the country mean it will be impossible to completely eradicate. And to look at a micro-level the individual fighters may make a varied set of choices: some may try to head home; some may seek other battlefields to continue the revolution; and yet others may simply change sides and continue to fight against the Assad regime under a different banner.

But more convincing still is the question of why the group would wait until now to mount some sort of attack. The Paris and Brussels attacks showed the group’s capability and intention, and a number of subsequently disrupted plots show the group has been persistently trying, but so far seems to have failed to deliver any more blows. Instead, it has resorted to stirring plots from afar in the form of young people directed through encrypted communications to launch shocking low-tech plots. Some, like the murder of Jacques Harmel in Rouen, worked, while others, like the attempted attack outside Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, failed. And while a lot of these appear to be in France (and in that particular set of cases, directed by the same Rachid Kassim), there have been incidents in Australia, Germany, Indonesia and the U.K. that have similarities.

All of this suggests that the group is having difficulty pulling off another large-scale spectacular like Paris or Brussels, and is having to resort to instigating things from a distance. These can be equally atrocious and it is not, of course, impossible something large might still get through, but it is a question as to why the group would have waited until now to launch such an attack.

During Ramadan, the highly significant moment in the Islamic calendar that historically has been a depressing magnet for terrorist atrocities, the horrors the group was able to muster were a brutal bombing in Baghdad, alongside an attack on Istanbul’s international airport. Horrors, yes, but in countries where they had substantial presence and ability to launch attacks—clearly something that they were unable at that moment to pull off in Europe.

Why the group is encountering this difficulty is likely a product of a number of things. In the first instance, it is clear that one of the attractions of the group was its success and strength on the battlefield. As this has waned, the number of those attracted has gone down. Second, coordination among security and intelligence agencies has likely gotten better; while there are still clear problems within some countries and coordination between their various security forces, they have also learned over time. Which of these is preeminent is unclear, but both will have an impact on the flow of fighters.

This is not to downplay the potential threat. One of the under-explored problems is the question of what to do with blocked travelers. As security authorities have faced the threat of terrorism from the battlefield in Syria and Iraq, they have learned and developed a deeper understanding of the nature of the threat and the networks getting people there. This has led to a growing number of people being prevented from traveling. The dilemma, however, is what to do with them then. In many cases, these are individuals who are motivated enough to want to go and fight, but find themselves abruptly unable to. This pent-up frustration can express itself in violence as people feel they want to do something, but are incapable of doing it. A number of attacks around the world have been linked to this phenomenon, including incidents in Canada, Australia, and France. This aspect of the threat may become larger as time goes on and the group becomes more inaccessible, while trying to stir people on further, but again, this is a trend that has been underway for some time already and it is not entirely clear why people would be more keen to do something for a group that was in recession.

Of greater concern instead is the potential ramifications to terrorist networks in third countries, like parts of southeast Asia, central Asia, the Middle East or north Africa. While forces in some of these countries are also improving, this has not been uniform and some notable gaps remain. In these places, the relatively easier trip may mean more decide to head home (rather than seek other battlefields or change sides in Syria) and this could produce instability and attacks.

ISIS’s potential loss of Mosul is going to prove a significant moment for the group. But the threat from it is unlikely to change abruptly. Rather, the threat is likely to mutate and evolve, continuing to be a part of the fabric of the terrorist threat the world faces for some time to come.

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

A late posting of a recent piece for my institutional home RUSI exploring the question of al Qaeda versus ISIS/Daesh/ISIL and the degree to which they are able to advance the lone actor strategy. Lots of longer form writing going on at the moment which is keeping me busy and will eventually land.

Why is Daesh Able to Inspire More Attacks Than Al-Qa’ida?

The fact that there are more and more Daesh-inspired lone-actor terrorist attacks may be the product of technological changes, rather than a different approach to terror.
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Daesh appears to have intensified its efforts to encourage individuals to carry out lone-actor terrorist attacks, as events over the weekend in the US indicate. But this trend has been observed for quite some time, and it may be the product of technological changes, rather than a different approach to terror.

The US was rocked this weekend by a series of terrorist attacks. While Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS or IS) claimed responsibility for the stabbing spree in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the New York and New Jersey explosions have not yet been claimed by any terrorist group. Given the uncertainties at this stage in the investigation, it is unclear if there is any deeper meaning to this distinction, but the speed with which Daesh claimed responsibility for one terrorist attack and not the other suggests a rationale. The Minneapolis attack was an example of the lone-actor methodology that Daesh has managed to appropriate from Al-Qa’ida with a high degree of success. A key unanswered question is this: why has Daesh has proven so much more effective at delivering this sort of attack than Al-Qa’ida?

The first thing to note is that the approach which Daesh appears to be so good at promoting is not novel. Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Inspire magazine used to advocate a similar methodological approach. It aped various prominent mainstream advertising campaigns – including Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ campaign – and offered easily accessible attack methodologies for aspirant warriors. And there was some evidence that it worked, with the bomb recipe offered in the magazine repeatedly showing up in terrorist plots. From the limited available evidence at the moment, the latest New York bombs seem to emulate a recipe in Inspire.

Yet it was never clear that the group was able to instigate and steer such attacks. Numerous Al-Qa’ida leaders spoke of the lone-actor methodology as one that adherents in the West should copy, but very few terrorist attacks seem to have actually taken place as a result. Occasional plots seemed to hint in this direction, but it was almost impossible to draw a direct causal link between Al-Qa’ida and these attacks. And, according to one letter found in his lair in Abbottabad, Osama Bin Laden did not entirely approve of all of the various random mass murder methodologies Inspire used to offer its readers.

Fast-forward to today, and we see repeated attacks using small bombs, knives, guns and other weapons to attack innocent citizens in the West, with Daesh regularly claiming responsibility for them. And while some appear to be over-eager claims by the group – like the case of Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people in a mass shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June – in a growing number of cases there appears to be clear evidence of some sort of connection with Daesh.

Three factors appear to have changed since the heyday of Inspire magazine that may help explain Daesh’s effectiveness in inspiring lone-actor terrorist attacks.

First, the ideology that Daesh espouses comes in the wake of Al-Qa’ida and it is louder, brasher and more attractive, projecting an image of power and control of territory; markedly different to Al-Qa’ida’s image of a secretive menacing organisation.

Second, the definition of ‘terrorist attack’ has been diluted, with the range of actions that are considered terrorist attacks now broader. Whereas in the past only large-scale bomb or plane attacks would be considered terrorist attacks, now using a vehicle or knives against other citizens can constitute a terrorist attack. Furthermore, the targets have now become diffuse – cafés, churches, people’s houses,  among others, are all in the crosshairs. This means that a terror attack is no longer the complicated large-scale endeavour that it used to be. And if it is easier to carry out a terrorist attack, then there are a wider range of attacks for Daesh to be able to claim. This lower threshold is something that Daesh has eagerly embraced, in contrast to Al-Qa’ida, which has allegedly had reservations about this approach.

Third, it turns out that a number of these attacks are not actually as lone or detached as they seem prima facie. After an investigation, the German authorities uncovered clear evidence of contact with Daesh in an axe attack on a train in Wuerzburg and an attempted bombing in Ansbach in July this year. The June murder of a police officer and his girlfriend at their home in Magnaville, 55 km west of Paris, and the subsequent July murder of a priest in Rouen, as well as the attempted car bombing in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, were all linked back to the same French Daesh leader: Rachid Kassim. Previously, a network of British plotters in the Syrian city of Raqqa – Junaid Hussain, Reeyad Khan and Sally Jones – were talking and instigating various attempted attackers in the West.

In many of these cases, it was subsequently discovered that the plotters on the ground were involved in quite intense conversations with Daesh handlers or directors. Apparently using apps such as WhatsApp, Kik or Telegram, the attackers were communicating with their Daesh handlers. The Ansbach bomber, for example, was quite literally directed in his attack by his handler outside Germany. So, although the perpetrators may seem to have been alone in their actions, they both had some backing and plenty of connections.

In some ways, this is likely a product of the way we communicate these days. Daesh, therefore, appears to be in part a product of its time; the communication apps that are now available were not accessible to Al-Qa’ida when it was promoting a similar message, and Daesh’s more contemporary audience is simply using the tools in everyday life. The phenomenon also builds on what came before it: Al-Qa’ida had already started to sketch out the path of lone-actor attacks that Daesh has so eagerly embraced. And in part it is a product of a leadership in Daesh that sees value and strategy in low-grade random attacks, in contrast to Al-Qa’ida, which appears fixated on more large-scale, dramatic attacks.

Daesh has not invented a new strategy of launching attacks; what we are witnessing instead seems to be an attempt on the part of Daesh to increase the incidence of a particular form of terrorism, lone-actor terrorism, an upward trajectory that was most likely to happen anyway. Daesh’s attacks seem a product of their times, rather than a completely novel strategic approach.

Catching up on posting late again, this time an article for Newsweek looking at why the UK has not yet faced an attack in the current wave we see sweeping across Europe.

How Long Will the UK be Spared an Extremist Attack?

nice-terror-attack-0715

The United Kingdom threat level from international terrorism is currently set at “severe.” This means that the security and intelligence agencies believe that “an attack is highly likely.” It has been at this level since August 2014 when it was raised in response to developments in Iraq and Syria including the increased number of foreign fighters travelling to the Middle East from Britain and Europe. Since then we have seen the extremist threats in Europe mature and become more acute, while the U.K. has so far been spared an attack.

It is difficult to know why that is the case. It could be thanks to effective efforts by security and intelligence agencies, or it could be because the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), Al-Qaeda or other groups do not currently have the capacity to launch an attack on British soil. It is known that ISIS would like to launch attacks in the U.K.—aside from European returnees from the group such as the British former militant Harry Sarfo telling us, there is also the question of the links to the U.K. of the network that carried out the Paris Attacks on November 13 2015, as well as the regular appearance of British imagery in ISIS videos. The U.K. is seen as one of the key western powers that are fighting the group, and striking it would be an attractive option.

So far, the threat picture has been quite disparate. There have been plots that appear to show evidence of some external direction and coordination, others in which individuals appear to be working in conjunction with contacts abroad including the infamous ISIS hacker and recruiter Junaid Hussain, and plots which appear more in the lone wolf mold.

In the wake of the current spate of incidents in France and Germany, it is clear that intelligence agencies and police forces in the U.K. will be ramping up their capability. The use of new—and very basic—methodologies like a truck to run down crowds, will lead to a re-think on how best to prepare and conceptualize against such an attack. One solution is to build more heavy street furniture like bollards that prevent vehicles from driving on pavements.

The tactic of publicly decapitating someone has already been seen in Britain, with the murder of the soldier Lee Rigby in 2013. It was also mooted even earlier in 2006 when a man named Parviz Khan planned to kidnap and decapitate on video an off-duty British soldier. Security forces are alert to this threat, and beyond raising concerns among a larger community—with religious establishments now an even bigger target than before—there is not a huge amount that can be done. Synagogues have had security guards for some time, and they have started to appear at some mosques, but it is unlikely that we will see them at every religious establishment in Britain.

The biggest lesson to be drawn from the current spate of attacks is the contagious nature of this phenomenon.This is not a new phenomenon—when dramatic extremist incidents take place, they tend to generate copycat attacks—success breeds emulation. The British reaction should be to try to understand better how these events are triggered and to identify those plotting similar attacks in the U.K.

British authorities will also be exploring the implications of the fact that the 19-year-old who attacked the priest in Rouen was already on the security services radar, was subject to some form of electronic tagging and had already been incarcerated. The fact that an individual who tried to travel to Syria twice was not considered a priority case either suggests that the system in France is dangerously overloaded, or that the question of correct prioritization remains a concern. This is something all intelligence agencies face. In a world of incomplete information, multiple potential threats and targets and limited resources, prioritization is essential. Choices are made on the basis of available information and this means some individuals are given less attention. In this case, as with the Charlie Hebdo shooters and the Lee Rigby murderers, the decision was made to pay less attention to the eventual terrorists than others on watch lists because their activity did not seem to merit it. This question of who to focus on is a continual problem for the intelligence services and this particular failure will undoubtedly make British agencies re-consider some of their approach.

Greater attention will also be paid to reforming the U.K.’s existing Terrorist Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs) system. So far a number of people on them have been able to abscond to Syria, though fortunately none have launched attacks like that seen in Rouen. The latest incident has shown what failure can look like, and making sure similar slips do not occur in the U.K. is going to be a priority.

While Britain has been lucky so far, the intent by groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda continues to cause serious concern. The U.K. has at least 800 foreign fighters who went to Syria and Iraq, and has a constituency of radicalized individuals at home who support ISIS. Lone wolf attacks can occur at any time, in any place and no security service has yet found the perfect solution to counter them. While some practical realities are different—the ease of access to high powered weapons for example or the completely open borders—between the U.K. and Continental Europe, as the Nice and Rouen attack showed you do not need a sophisticated weapon to cause a successful high profile incident, and it is not always clear if closed borders would have stopped anything.

Currently, British security services will be focused on supporting their continental counterparts who are facing a particularly acute threat that could still be escalating. Until we know more about the trajectory of this wave of attacks, it will be difficult to know why the U.K. has been fortunate so far been spared.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies, Royal United Services Institute.