Posts Tagged ‘Paris attacks’

Final piece from last week, this time looking at whether the incident in Paris could take place in the United Kingdom for my home institution RUSI. While it is likely not the last on this topic, likely the last commentary at this point. In addition to commentary, spoke to Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Daily Mail, NBC, The Times, Bloomberg, while the Mirror ran an interview with a press agency as an interview. In the immediate wake of the incident, RUSI also recorded this brief interview for our site. Prior to the terrible events of last Friday, spoke to Wall Street Journal, Politico and La Repubblica about the large network of arrests linked to Ansar al Islam and Mullah Krekar, and more recently to Bloomberg and Voice of America about the impact of recent deaths on China’s contributions to the current war on terrorism.

Could Paris happen in the UK?

Trafalgar Sq_Paris_Nov 2015

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary, 20 November 2015
Europe, France, Terrorism, UK, UK Counter-terrorism, Tackling Extremism, International Security Studies, Terrorism

Soon after the Paris attacks, the prospect of similar massacres happening in the UK was raised. While the danger is serious, crucial contexts specific to the Continent mean the UK faces a different kind of threat.

In the wake of the horrific terrorist attack in Paris, the immediate question posed in the UK was whether this could happen here.The prime minister made a clear statement about the potential risks, stating that British security services had disrupted seven attacks in the past six months, ‘albeit on a smaller scale to what was seen in Paris’.

The potential threat is certainly present, but, at the same time, certain specific local contexts create slightly higher hurdles for a terrorist group to launch such a terrorist attack in the UK.

There are three principal reasons for this.

Limited access to weaponry

First, it is harder to obtain high-powered rifles in the UK. Looking at the massacre in Paris, it is clear that the greatest number of casualties were caused by the use of assault rifles, which the cell was able to acquire in worrying numbers. Such rifles appear to be more easily available on the continent. Whilst the investigation has yet to publicly uncover the source of the weapons, their availability is clearly a persistent problem in France and neighbouring countries.

Since the beginning of the year, three different cells have attempted and succeeded in launching attacks with such weapons in France alone. In January, a cell in Verviers, Belgium, was found to be in possession of a number of high-powered weapons and explosives. When police tried to arrest the group, the fighters did not hesitate to fight back; they were killed during the shootout with police. Beyond terrorists, criminal networks in places like Marseille quite regularly get involved in public shoot-outs using such weapons.

So far, in the UK, terrorist cells have not been able to access modern or high-powered weaponry. Fusilier Lee Rigby’s murderers Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo were able to get an antique pistol for their plot in 2013, but the weapon failed to work and blew up in Adebowale’s hands. A cell disrupted earlier this year and going on trial soon were only able to get their hands on a Soviet-era weapon to advance their plot.

Networks have certainly sought to obtain higher-powered weapons, but restrictive laws and availability mean it is harder to do so in the UK than in Continental Europe. There are some worrying indicators regarding the proximity between terrorist and criminal networks, but so far this has not placed the same kind of equipment in the hands of terrorists.

Greater control over borders

Second, unlike France, the UK has a greater degree of control over its borders. Natural geography means that there are fewer access points into the UK, making it relatively easier for authorities to watch entry and exit points (though the system is by no means perfect – news emerged this week that two well-known repeat terrorism offenders were caught trying to cross Hungary even though they were on no-travel lists).

On the continent, the situation is very different. French authorities may attempt to get firm control over their own territory, but they border a number of countries with substantial domestic problems and with different levels of government effectiveness and cover. Yet they have open borders between them, complicating France’s ability to completely control their situation and meaning they share open borders with countries with varying levels of weapons availability as well as different criminal-justice systems.

Links to the Levant

Finally, the conflict in the Levant is one with a greater draw and connection to Arab communities on the continent. This is a reality that has come at a moment when the centre of gravity of international jihadism has shifted from South Asia to the Levant.

The UK has seen over 700 people go and join the fighting in Syria and Iraq – but these numbers are higher in countries like France (where officials refer to around 700 or more) and Belgium (where most recently officials refer to up to 800 having gone), which have seen large numbers of extremists go and fight, while others have instead stayed at home and stewed in anger, with some of those who were prevented from going to fight instead choosing to launch attacks at home.

A different kind of threat

None of this is to say that the UK is not facing a dangerous menace. It has been featured regularly in ISIS propaganda as a target, is fighting in the coalition against ISIS and has launched drone strikes against key individuals in the group. Authorities in the UK are working at full pelt to disrupt networks, and, as highlighted before by the prime minister, some seven plots have already been disrupted in the past year.

But the nature of the threat appears different. Networked plots exist, but have so far been effectively penetrated and disrupted before moving into action – though this track record is something that has been shown to be imperfect in the past. Greater levels of concern are often expressed around more dispersed plots that seem to demonstrate less clear command and control from abroad, but seek to undertake attacks like the murder of Lee Rigby.

Whilst we now face the horror of a large-scale terrorist attack in Paris, the reality is that the murder of a single man in the UK almost three years ago in Woolwich had a quite substantial media impact, even if not on the scale of the atrocity in Paris.

*Header image: A vigil for the victims of the Paris attacks in Trafalgar Square, 14 November 2015. Image courtesy of Hannah McKay / PA Wire/Press Association Images

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And in a second piece, this time from Monday’s Times, looking at the phenomenon of homegrown radicalisation, this time in the context of Mohammed Emwazi, as well as the Paris attacks.

Radicals become the killers within

Mohammed EmwaziMohammed Emwazi was drawn to radical ideas in his youth

Last updated at 12:01AM, November 16 2015

As the full horror from Paris is revealed, the inevitable news has emerged that at least one of the gunmen had deep links and history as a radical in France (Raffaello Pantucci writes).

This came in the week that news emerged from Syria that an American drone had killed Mohammed Emwazi, a west Londoner who joined Isis and rose to become the group’s public executioner. The concept of the homegrown jihadist, the killer from within, only accentuates the horror of the terrorist act — something of which terrorist groups are fully aware and capitalise on to drive their brutal message home.

The concept of the homegrown jihadist is not new. For the most part they are drawn to extreme ideologies in their youth as they are exploring their individual identities and for one reason or another find salafi jihadism the most attractive.

It is a problem that has been faced in Europe for almost two decades. The problem is one that is not going away, and is becoming more complex as we see people drawn to these ideas but in some cases not ultimately acting on their terrorist impulse for years. In the case of both Omar Mostefai, the Bataclan murderer, and Emwazi, the revelation of their names uncovered news that they were people the authorities had long noticed as individuals attracted to radical ideas. For the public, this is almost as shocking as the news of the individuals’ western backgrounds. How is it possible that these young men could have been allowed to carry out their atrocities if they were known to authorities?

It is important to look at their individual histories to address the issue. For the Frenchman, the authorities had noticed as far back as 2010 that he appeared to be interested in radical ideas. However, they did not feel that he was part of what they identified as terrorist networks. He appears to have been a higher priority as a petty criminal.

While circulating in a milieu that was not dissimilar, Emwazi seems to have been drawn to radical ideas in his youth. Graduating from the University of Westminster in 2009, he tried to join al-Shabaab in Somalia, part of a larger community of west Londoners drawn to the internationalist jihadist message advanced by that group.

While these men chose a life of violence, what is not known is how many others with similar narratives drop off security services’ radar as they move on to peaceful lives.

For the authorities the problem is a thorny one. The maturation of an individual from young person interested in radical ideas to active terrorist-murderer is something that can take years (or in some cases an alarmingly short period of time) and is not necessarily something that happens in tidy isolation or with clear markers. The Charlie Hebdo killers were also of longstanding interest to the authorities, but had been relegated to secondary priorities, given their lack of overt terrorist activity. It was the same for the murderers of Lee Rigby in Woolwich. Emwazi and Mostefai are likely to be in this category too: background concerns who were superseded by more active plotters.

Unfortunately, ideologies are patient. And as long as these ideas continue to exist, the long tail of terrorist radicalisation will occasionally brutally lash our societies.

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