Posts Tagged ‘lone actors’

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

Fighters who can’t travel to Syria pose growing threat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last catch up for something that was published today in the Sunday Telegraph, this time in the wake of the Munich attack specifically but looking more broadly at the rather odd spate of semi-terror attacks that have taken place.

The piece was re-published in the Gulf News, and separately an interview with one of the newswires was picked up by the Express, spoke to the LA Times, the newswires (picked up in the Mirror) and Middle East Eye in the wake of the Nice attack, spoke to the Wall Street Journal about the current terror threat that Europe is facing, spoke to PBS about Lone Actors, spoke to CNN about the recent terror arrests in Brazil, to AFP about the recent incidents in Kazakhstan, whilst an old piece about Breivik was cited in the New York Times.

What Does a Modern Terrorist Look Like and What Motivates Them?

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There is no perfect profile of a terrorist. This is one of the main findings in the growing body of literature around terrorism. Terrorists and those who are radicalised towards extremist ideologies come in all shapes and sizes. Yet, one of the key features that appeared to distinguish terrorists from mass murderers was the fact that they were motivated more clearly by an ideology than by personal motivations. Increasingly, this line is becoming harder to draw. The last two cases to afflict Europe – the massacres in Nice and  more recently in Munich – highlight this difficulty with both cases appearing to have elements of both within them.

It is still unfortunately too early to categorically know what was going on in Nice and Munich. Whilst the early coverage around both focused on the fact that the Nice murderer was operating alone, and the speculation around the Munich shooter that he may have been motivated by some violent Islamist ideology, we are now instead seeing confusing indicators in other directions. French authorities have now arrested five others in conjunction with the Nice attack, whilst it now appears that the Munich shooter was someone who may have had a fixation with mass shootings and was possibly more inspired by Anders Behring Breivik (who exactly five years earlier murdered 77 people in Oslo in anger at the government’s immigration policies) rather than Isil.

But what both cases do appear to have in common is disturbed young men who are angry at the world around them. In both cases, stories have now emerged of potentially confused sexuality, confused religious identity, anger management issues and family disputes. Rather than being ideologically committed terrorists, they may simply using be the method of a terrorist attack – under whatever ideology – to excise personal demons.

This appears to be an increasingly common phenomenon. It is difficult to know exactly why this is happening. Certainly, the methodological approach of “lone wolf” terrorists is on the increase and groups like Isil and al Qaeda have advocated for their adherents to undertake it for some time. But in many of these cases it is not clear that the “lone wolves” in question are totally bought into the ideology they claim to be fighting for. Man Haron Monis, the Australian-Iranian who held up a coffee shop in downtown Sydney in 2014, was an only recent convert to Sunni Islam and brought the wrong flag with him to his allegedly Isil-inspired attack. Omar Mateen, the shooter who killed 50 in Orlando, apparently claimed some allegiance to al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Isil – competing Islamist organisations.

But it is possible that the amount of noise surrounding groups like Isil is drawing lost souls towards it. It is almost impossible to turn on the television or open a newspaper without hearing about Isil, terrorism or political violence. If you are a socially awkward individual with violent tendencies who is seeking some sort of meaning in your life, then the methodology of a “lone wolf” spree under the banner of such a group may be appealing. It will provide you with a way to punish the world around you whilst also giving meaning to your act. And given the manner in which Isil and other groups push out their omnidirectional message of violence and offer a very low bar for entry to the group, it is very easy to latch on to the ideology as you may loosely understand it and use it as an excuse to express your anger.

There is also an element of “copy catting” within such attacks. It increasingly seems as though Munich shooter Ali Sonboly may have drawn some inspiration for his attack from Anders Behring Breivik. This emulation is not new to such incidents – the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013 by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale is an attack that has generated numerous copies. The day after the attack Alexandre Dhaussy, a recent convert to Islam and known to authorities more for his petty criminal activity that than his violent Islamist links, stabbed soldier Cedric Cordier in the La Defense part of Paris. In August 2014, Brutschom Ziamani, a young man who had fallen into the orbit of violent extremists after he had been thrown out of his family home, was arrested on his way to carry out an attack emulating the Woolwich murder. In January 2015, Zack Davies started hacking at a South Asian man he saw in Tesco’s  shouting “white power” and that he was undertaking the attack in revenge for Lee Rigby. Later investigation showed he was an isolated and paranoid young man who was obsessed with the far Right and claimed to have drawn inspiration from the Jihadi John videos.

The profile of what we consider a terrorist attack is becoming increasingly hard to define. In the same way that the specifics of what our terrorists look like is becoming ever harder to grasp. Fundamentally, a terrorist is someone who is motivated by a political ideology rather than personal anger – but increasingly this line is becoming blurred. The profile of your average terrorist is increasingly becoming melted into the profile of a mass killer presenting authorities with an almost impossible mountain to climb to prevent them all.

And another RUSI research report landing, part of a separate large project looking this time at Lone Actor terrorism. An earlier Literature Review paper was part of the same project and we have a couple more papers to come on this. The project has its own page on the RUSI site, and we are now exploring how to continue digging on this particular theme. Huge thanks are due to my colleague Clare on this project for really keeping the whole thing moving and providing excellent insights. This particular paper explores the issues around the fact that Lone Actors tend to leak information about their intentions.

In addition to this paper, we also published a large analysis paper which was the product of the entire consortium’s work, so I am not going to republish it in its entirety here. However, to read that please follow this link.

Lone-Actor Terrorism Policy Paper 4: ‘Leakage’ and Interaction with Authorities

Clare Ellis and Raffaello Pantucci

RUSI Publications, 29 February 2016

UK Counter-terrorism, Lone-Actor Terrorism, National Security and Resilience Studies, International Security Studies, Domestic Security, Terrorism

This fourth policy paper of the Countering Lone-Actor Terrorism series examines how lone-actor terrorists reveal their intent to commit attacks and recommends a targeted approach based on the characteristics and motivations of the specific threat.

Countering Lone-Actor Terrorism Series: No. 8

The aim of the Countering Lone-Actor Terrorism (CLAT) project is to understand lone-actor terrorism in a European context. The project will develop a database of lone-actor cases from across Europe. Its overall objective is to see if it is possible to discern any trends or patterns that could be translated into useful observations or recommendations for practitioners and policy-makers.

This is the fourth and final policy paper in the CLAT series. It outlines the policy implications of analysis in relation to changes in perpetrator behaviour, ‘leakage’ of extreme views or intention to act, and interactions with public authorities in the time leading up to an attack. It provides a series of practical policy recommendations in order to develop an effective response to various lone-actor threats.

A short response to last Friday’s incident in Leytonstone for the Guardian where an apparently mentally troubled man attacked some people on the tube. Unclear case, though his expression of ideology suggests a possible terrorist connection in there somewhere. A depressing event that will highlight the persistent problem of both loud ideologies and lone actor terrorists. Anyway, the piece looks at the strange effect of people choosing to video such events instinctively these days. Beyond this, spoke to Financial Times and AFP about the event, though AFP slightly misunderstood what I had said – my suspicion around the police making the link to terrorism so quickly was that they knew him before, not that it was linked to Syria as written.

Flight or film? How cameraphones made the bystander key to spreading terror message

Leytonstone attack footage demonstrates the way witnesses are a tool in the terrorists’ arsenal – but also how it can backfire

Sunday 6 December 2015
Last modified on Monday 7 December 2015 00.50

In the 1970s, an American special forces officer turned academic called Brian Michael Jenkins declared that ‘terrorism is theatre.’ The logic was that politically minded terrorist organisations were keener to disseminate their message than cause deaths. The deaths were part of the way to attract attention, with the priority being visibility to advance their message. High-profile hijackings or public murders were the norm, with the 9/11 attacks the apex of this approach.

Previously the medium to disseminate this message was the television news. Now, with video cameras ubiquitous in our phones, we are all mediums through which terrorists can transmit and broadcast.

The brutal murder of Lee Rigby in May 2013 was a turning point in terrorist messaging. Using basic weaponry, the two murderers butchered the off-duty solider before stating their creed to anyone who was standing around to listen. Having prepared no clear video or other statement of intent, the two men were entirely reliant on the wider public around them to help spread their message through short video clips recorded on telephones. And yet this medium worked to the point that, in some ways, that particularly brutal but low-casualty attack had more impact than larger terrorist plots that followed.

Woolwich was not the first low-tech terror attack in the UK. In 2010, a young woman from east London entered the office of her local MP, Stephen Timms, armed with a knife from Tesco and attempted to kill him for his vote years earlier in support of the Iraq war. And in the days prior to the murder of Rigby, a Ukrainian far-right terrorist murdered Mohammed Saleem in Birmingham.

Yet neither of these two incidents had the same sort of resonance as the murder of Rigby as there was no audience to capture them on their cameraphones. The internet was not immediately flooded with images, meaning that everyone could immediately latch onto the attack and shout about its awfulness or tweak and rebroadcast them advancing their own narrative.

On Saturday night in Leytonstone, just as in Woolwich, the attacker’s stated intent and actions were captured on camera. The subsequent broadcasting of the message around the world meant that the attack and its message resonated almost immediately. It remains to be seen whether extremist groups will capitalise on the footage in the same way that al-Shabaab did in the wake of the Woolwich incident and make it the centrepiece of an hour-long film lauding the act and calling for others to emulate it. But doubtless some of the images that were captured of the attacker on Saturday night will find their way into terrorist publications and media.

This phenomenon is in some ways the reflection of the increasingly diffuse terrorist threat that is faced. Previously, you had to go to specific locations or people to find radical material. Now it is widely available and accessible, meaning all sorts of people can latch on and express the ideology without having any contact with a terror group. But now things have gone a step further, where we are all broadcasters for the group, capturing and advancing their message through our personal recording devices that offer unvarnished views of incidents as they happen.

The one positive side to this diffuse and random form of messaging is that the attacker no longer completely controls their message. He or she can shout about Syria, but cannot stop the stalwart Londoner shouting back ‘You ain’t no Muslim bruv’ – a catchphrase that is likely to resonate as widely as the failed attack.

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

A short reaction piece to events this week in San Bernadino, a strange terrorist attack that reflects a trend that has been visible for a while in terms of terrorist attacks taking an increasingly confusing aspect in terms of direction and ideology, but also adjacent to a reality in the United States of large-scale weapon ownership. The piece was published in a Spanish paper called La Razon, and so I have posted the Spanish, and below that the original English submitted. Undoubtedly more on this topic as time goes on.

La difusión del terrorismo

Con EE UU aún sacudido por los asesinatos de un agente de Policía y otras dos personas en una clínica de planificación familiar en Colorado, la localidad californiana de San Bernardino se ha convertido en escena de un nuevo tiroteo masivo. La naturaleza de lo sucedido en California no está clara todavía, pero los primeros datos apuntan a la creciente dificultad y naturaleza confusa de la amenaza a la que se enfrentan las sociedades modernas. Hasta ahora han salido a la luz las conexiones con Arabia Saudí de los sospechosos del tiroteo, que uno de ellos había trabajado en el centro de discapacitados donde sucedió el ataque y que había discutido con sus colegas hacía poco, y se considera claro que el ataque fue planeado. Este hecho unido a sus conexiones con el extranjero sugiere un posible móvil terrorista, pero al mismo tiempo, la discusión y la conexión personal con el centro podrían apuntar a otra causa.

Tampoco hay razones suficientes para descartar que ambos hechos estén relacionados. Existe la posibilidad de que los sospechosos hubieran estado expuestos a material radical y que estuvieran planeando algo; en este caso, la pelea con el resto de trabajadores habría sido el desencadenante de la acción. No obstante, como ambos sospechosos murieron, es posible que nunca lo sepamos con certeza.

Es probable que el mundo continúe presenciando tales atrocidades en el futuro. El aumento de la difusión de ideologías extremistas, junto a las reacciones de furia e imitación, además del fácil acceso a armamento pesado, apuntan al hecho de que continúe esta plaga de explosiones repentinas de ira. Entre éstas, están la matanza de Robert Dear en Colorado, la masacre en San Bernardino o los atentados más elaborados de París o Bamako. El terrorismo, en sus múltiples formas, continuará siendo una característica de la sociedad organizada durante los próximos años.

The Diffusion of Terrorism

With the United States still shaken by the murders of a police officer and two others at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, San Bernadino, California was the scene of another mass shooting this week. The exact nature of what went on in California was unclear, but the early contours of what is known point to the increasingly difficult and confusing nature of the threat that modern societies face. With news that the individuals involved in California had links to Saudi Arabia, that one of them had worked at the disabled home that was targeted and had recently fallen out with his colleagues, and at the same time the clear evidence that they had planned their attack – a whole series of analytical details are suggested at that leave no clear conclusion.

The pre-planning and the links abroad suggest a possible terrorist motive, but at the same time, the row and personal connection to the target suggest something else. And there is no reason to necessarily conclude that the two are not even linked in some way. The possibility exists that the individuals will now be discovered to have consumed some radical material and been considering doing something, and the row with co-workers was the trigger into action. Given both of the suspects are now dead, it is possible we will never really know.

Looking forwards, it is likely that the world will continue to see such confusing atrocities. The increasing diffusion of extremist ideologies and the rapidity with which people can adopt them, alongside the longstanding human reactions of anger and emulation, as well as the easy access to heavy weaponry all point to the fact that such sudden explosions of anger are headed to continue to plague us. Be this like Robert Dear’s slaughter in Colorado, the as of yet unclear massacre in San Bernadino or the more clearly calculated slaughter’s in Paris or Bamako. Terrorism in its many forms will continue to be a feature of organized society for some time to come.