Posts Tagged ‘Syria’

As ever, I have been very delinquent in my posting, so am going to do a catch up blast on a Sunday. First up is my latest interview for the CTC Sentinel’s series with the EU’s Counter-terror coordinator Gilles de Kerchove.

A View From the CT Foxhole: Gilles de Kerchove, European Union (EU) Counter-Terrorism Coordinator

DE-KERCHOVE-Gilles-1

August 2020, Volume 13, Issue 8

Authors: Raffaello Pantucci

Gilles de Kerchove has been the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator since September 2007. From 1995 to 2007, he was Director for Justice and Home Affairs at the Council Secretariat. From 1999 to 2000, he was deputy secretary of the convention that drafted the charter of the fundamental rights of the European Union. Between 1986 and 1995, he worked for the Belgian government. He is also a European law professor at the Catholic University of Louvain, the Free University of Brussels, and the Université Saint Louis-Brussels, and has published a number of books and articles on European law and security issues.

CTC: What role does the European Union’s Counter-Terrorism Coordinator play?

De Kerchove: The position was created by the Heads of State and Government in the wake of the 2004 Madrid bombings, and I am the second incumbent, having been in the job for 13 years. The aim is to contribute to the implementation and evaluation of the E.U.’s counterterrorism strategy as well as to ensure coordination between the various relevant policy strands. This implies, on the one hand, to support coherence between the E.U.’s internal and external counterterrorism (CT) policies and to foster better communication and cooperation between the E.U., third countries,a and international organizations such as U.N., NATO, IMF, WB, etc.; and, on the other, to present policy recommendations and propose priority areas for action to the European Council and to the Council,b informed by threat analysis and reports not least from INTCENc and Europol.1

Heads of State and Government wanted someone to look into every aspect of CT and identify loopholes in cooperation, not only at the E.U. institutions level in Brussels, but also between Brussels and member states. Additionally, they wanted an independent voice to assess policy and inject new ideas as well as identify and anticipate problems. I have always tried to spot looming problems to allow the system to start to prepare. I think I was probably the first to raise the issue of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) within an E.U. context, and I presented a package of ideas as early as 2013. Now I am focusing on what I call the effect of disruptive tech and extremist ideology, but I will explain that later. Our goal in the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator’s office is to alert the system and come up with relevant policy proposals.

In doing so, I am engaging with many different communities (intelligence, law enforcement, criminal justice, diplomats, development, humanitarian, Defence, Finance, private sector, non-profit sector, academia) inside Europe with its 27 member states, close allies, international organizations, as well as other external partner nations.

I do not really have a single counterpart in the American system. My counterpart in Washington could be said to be within the State Department, but when I visit, I also have meetings with senior officials in several other departments, depending on the issues: DOJ (access to digital evidence, encryption, cooperation between the FBI and Europol), DHS (aviation security, access to travel data (PNR,d APIe), counter violent extremism), Treasury (sanctions, terrorism financing). And then I also interact with the relevant parts of the intelligence community, including the ODNI [Office of the Director of National Intelligence], the NCTC [National Counter Terrorism Center], and the relevant counterterrorism person within the White House.

At the end of the day, I am not involved in operations but am rather looking at policy. But it is extremely important to be very close to the operational people, from intelligence, law enforcement, and prosecution. When I visit member states of the E.U., I always see the head of police, the head of the prosecution service, the head of the internal security service, and sometimes the head of the external intelligence service as well. The difference between the U.S. and E.U. is that the E.U. is not a federal state, as most of the policies in the areas that I am looking at are in the member states’ hands. The role is one that is very much in support of member states, but it has transformed a great deal in the past five years. After the Daesh [the Islamic State] attacks in Paris and Brussels, member states asked for a much more ambitious involvement of the E.U. in CT, which led to an increase in my office’s role and responsibilities to help coordination, as those attacks highlighted deficiencies in the system.

CTC: What is the biggest terrorist threat you see to Europe at the moment?

De Kerchove: The threat from terrorist organizations like Daesh and al-Qa`ida remains high, but it has morphed in different forms. The fact that the number of Daesh-inspired attacks has declined in the E.U. does not mean that the threat has disappeared. It primarily means that we have got better at detecting and breaking up terrorist plots, as demonstrated by continuing arrests of terrorist suspects in E.U. member states. Home-grown radicalization remains a challenge. Daesh’s presence on the internet remains strong. Extremist Islamist proselytization and violent right-wing propaganda create a fertile ground for terrorism. There are several additional risks which are of growing concern such as the hundreds of prison leavers convicted for terrorism-related offenses but who have served short sentences, FTF returnees, and FTFs and families still in Syria and Iraq, who—be they E.U. nationals or otherwise—need to be prevented from entering the E.U. undetected.

Over the course of the last two or three years, we have become increasingly concerned about the rise of attacks perpetrated by right-wing violent extremists. In 2019, Europe faced several terrorist attacks motivated by right-wing violent extremism. We’re also witnessing a dramatic rise of right-wing violent extremist propaganda on the internet and increasing cross-border connectivity (notably online) between right-wing violent extremists. Right-wing extremist terrorists in Norway, Germany, the United States, and New Zealand have all referenced previous atrocities and attempted to broadcast their own attacks online.

Finally, I worry about instability in Europe’s immediate neighborhood in the Middle East and North and West Africa, especially in Syria and Iraq as well as in Libya and the Sahel because the presence of terrorist groups there constitutes a threat to the EU’s security.

The threats from violent separatists in Europe is much reduced. In Northern Ireland, there is still a low level of what the British call national security incidents (attacks on police and prison officers), but these threats do not seem to have extended across the sea to Great Britain. Whilst the numbers of incidents have been low in recent years, the level of capability retained by terrorist groups in Northern Ireland remains serious. There was a concern that the potential reestablishment of a border between the north and the Republic of Ireland would maybe have a negative impact on security and inflame tensions; this has not materialized significantly to date, but concerns remain and recent arrests indicate that police and security services continue to work hard to keep the threat under control. The Spanish terrorist group ETA is completely over as an entity, thanks to the relentless efforts of the Spanish security apparatus. Two E.U. instruments have helped in this fight: the European Arrest Warrant (EAW), which changed completely the way Spain was able to secure arrests and deal with Basque terrorists hidden in other member states, and the Joint Investigation Teams (JITs), which facilitated the way in which the French and Spanish were able to crack down on the organization.

And I hope that I am wrong, but we may see the development of other forms of extremism like technophobia or something like that in the coming years. With the development of disruptive technologies, some people may feel disenfranchised or marginalized by this rapid evolution of technology and its impact on society, and they might react violently. We have maybe already started to see this develop during the COVID crisis, where we have seen 5G masts being burned2 and the offices of telecom companies being attacked. This is something that we have to monitor; it may evolve in a more worrying direction. And let us suppose that it is linked to environmental violence, people who believe that the world is close to collapsing and government is not taking the right decisions to address the warnings on global warming. They might believe that they need to use violence to wake the government up. You could see developments around this technophobia linked with some sort of ecological extremism. But this is not the core of the threat, which remains foremost violent Islamists and to a much lesser extent the rising right-wing violent extremism.

CTC: Thousands of Europeans are believed to have joined the Islamic State or al-Qa`ida-affiliated terrorist groups as foreign terrorist fighters (FTF) in Syria and Iraq. How is the European Union working to manage the potential threat they pose?

De Kerchove: This is a priority for me. Tens of thousands of people have left their own countries and joined Daesh, including about 5,000 Europeans. About 25 percent of them have returned to Europe and another 25 percent have died on the battlefield, but others could in the future perpetrate terrorist attacks at home or in third countries.

Internally within the European Union, we are working to implement agreed arrangements on our border security to ensure that known foreign terrorist fighters (both E.U. citizens and non-citizens) are detected and stopped at the EU’s external borders. Furthermore, as part of an interoperability project, the E.U. is connecting six centralized E.U. databases in the fields of security, migration, and borders so that border guards and police officers can, under precisely defined circumstances, check data in a comprehensive fashion, detect identity fraud, and hence better spot third-country terrorist suspects. The E.U. is also strengthening the use of biometric data in this context. For those who already returned, E.U. supports sharing of good practices (through a Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN)f handbook). And a number of member states have specialized programs for children.

The E.U. has also been working on better access to battlefield information to support investigations, prosecutions of FTF returnees, and border security. We must ensure that foreign terrorist fighters can be investigated and tried in a court of law. To this end, we are studying how information gathered by coalition armed forces on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq can be made available to investigators and prosecutors, in ways that are useful during trial procedures. For the material collected by the Iraqi forces, we have been pushing a program for all the information collected to be indexed and digitalized so that it can be analyzed and processed properly. One of the reasons our member states are so wary of repatriating FTFs is a lack of evidence of the acts they committed on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq, which can be used against them in a court of law. If someone gets back to Europe and we do not have enough evidence, the best you can secure is three or four years in prison for the crime of participation in a terrorist organization, even if, based on intelligence information, you know he or she may have killed people. So, it is very difficult to tell the population that you are bringing back someone who is a real murderer and he will be back on the streets of Paris, Brussels, or Madrid three years after his return. The more we can get access to evidence, the more likely we will be to secure long-term sentences and the more likely the public and governments are to accept repatriation.

As this is material and information primarily collected by coalition military personnel on the battlefield, it is not easy for investigators and prosecutors in Europe to locate it and then introduce it into criminal proceedings in courts in member states. Prosecutors and judges are used to a specific forensic treatment of material, which battlefield information often lacks as it is not collected by police officers who are forensically trained but rather is picked up in a battle situation. The material or information is often fragmented and can only be used as a lead or supplement to other evidence. U.S. authorities have gained a lot of experience in the use of battlefield information in criminal proceedings since 9/11. In addition, the U.S. military has been able to collect battlefield information from important theaters such as Afghanistan and Iraq. For these reasons, the U.S. government is an important partner for us in this particular issue.

It is also important to address the legacy of the caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Member states are deciding on repatriations on a case-by-case basis; the E.U. is not involved. Some member states do seek to repatriate children but on a case-by-case basis, and they try to start with orphans. But the problem here is that sometimes the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces do not want to repatriate the children alone and want to send them back with their mothers.

Several member states are working to find a solution so that their nationals can be tried in the region where they committed their crimes. There is currently an ongoing negotiation between these member states and Iraq to try them in Baghdad courts. There are numerous challenges: the death penalty, fair trial, what to do post-conviction, who will detain them, and who will pay for all of this. The Kurds in Syria recently suggested they could do it themselves. They want to get international support to set up a court themselves, but this is not something the E.U. is involved in.

While we wait for an outcome of this negotiation or possible repatriation, the E.U. is exploring how to improve the situation in the camps and prisons in Kurdish-held territory in northeastern Syria. It is indeed important to reduce radicalization in the camps, in particular Al-Hol and its international annex, which is in the hands of the most radical women, and prevent them from becoming a time bomb for radicalization. The camps are a mess, and there is some money that is coming in through crowdfunding so the women can bribe the guards and arrange escapes. The kids are forced to follow sharia classes and are getting more and more radicalized in some cases. We should focus on trying to reduce these particular problems, as some of these children may end up going home one day and they will be a lot more radicalized than they were at the beginning. In addition, the sanitary conditions in the camps and prisons are very bad, including problems around tuberculosis, and we are very worried that COVID-19 may enter.3 This may lead to riots and prison breaks. We know Daesh is very keen to support flights and prison breaks.

The E.U. has just adopted a support package for the prevention of radicalization in northeastern Syria, which does include support for the camps. The following additional measures are currently being analyzed. First, we are trying to find ways to decongest Al-Hol by helping the return of Syrian women and children to their Sunni tribes in northeast Syria. There is a system of sponsorship for their return, similar to something that was run in Afghanistan, and we can support that process. I am also in contact with senior officials in Iraq to see if we can speed up the return of some of the Iraqi women and children currently in Al-Hol to Iraq. Second, we have been working to encourage a Prevent-type programg in Al-Hol through NGOs, focused in particular on children. Third, we are working to improve the detention conditions in the prison, something that the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) in particular has asked us to do. There are currently several hundred young people detained with adults. They should never have been placed in a prison facility. The global coalition suggests that an existing youth rehabilitation center is expanded to be able to receive these young people. Fourth, an evaluation of the women in the international annex of Al-Hol would allow us to obtain a better picture of what is actually going on and to separate the most radicalized women from the rest, and offer more assistance, including psycho-social support and rehabilitation to the less radicalized women and their children.

There is still a window of opportunity to act right now. A new escalation could lead to the dispersal of terrorists, including possible travel of some FTFs to Europe. My efforts are focused on what we can do in the short- and medium-term to make sure the situation does not worsen.

The E.U. is also providing assistance to third countries to deal with FTF returnees and their families, including via the U.N. We have developed several programs to help Tunisia, the Western Balkans, and many other countries to do that in the best way possible.

CTC: In April 2020, German authorities thwarted a plot against U.S. military facilities by a network of Central Asians who, according to prosecutors, had contacts with high-ranking Islamic State figures in both Syria and Afghanistan.4 Can you talk us through how this plot fits into your sense of the threat in Europe, including from the Islamic State in Afghanistan?

De Kerchove: This plot shows, once again, that we should remain vigilant about the threat of Daesh attacks in Europe and that the threat does not come only from individuals who are inspired by terrorist propaganda online and act independently. Daesh continues to seek contact with potential attackers in Europe whenever it spots an opportunity to do so, to guide them in their attack plans. This should inform our response as well. The threat from Daesh remains diverse, and we need to prepare for a range of attack methodologies with widely divergent levels of sophistication and for attackers whose profiles vary a great deal.

Afghanistan does not represent the same level of terrorist threat to Europe as Syria. That said, we should never be complacent about the threat of armed terrorist groups, even if they are located far away from the E.U. Many Daesh and AQ affiliates do not currently focus on attacks in the West but would not hesitate to support or facilitate one if they had the chance. This applies to Daesh in Afghanistan, but also to Daesh and al-Qa`ida affiliates in Africa.

We have been working on the Central Asian threat picture for some years. Part of the problem of why a lot of Central Asians were joining Daesh in Syria and Iraq was that a lot of them were working in Russia and lost their jobs because of the economic crisis there. Many of the Central Asian countries they come from are not wealthy, making it difficult for them to return home to find employment or continue to support their families remotely with remittances. When these individuals lost their jobs and became disenfranchised, they started to become attracted by Daesh rhetoric. There was a very active Russian language propaganda effort from Daesh in Syria and Iraq, which drew some people there. That was not the E.U.’s top priority in 2015. The main focus was on the E.U.’s immediate neighborhood. Now there is a wide consensus to do a lot more in Central Asia. We have deployed a CT expert in the region, we have supported a number of UN projects in the region, and I have myself visited many of these countries.

CTC: There has long been concern about al-Qa`ida reemerging as a global threat, and it appears the group’s Yemeni affiliate had a significant role in the December 2019 shooting in Pensacola, Florida.5 What kind of threat does al-Qa`ida pose today? Would you place it as a higher or lower risk than the Islamic State or an ideology like the extreme right-wing?

De Kerchove: This is an important question because we sometimes underestimate the continuing threat from al-Qa`ida. AQ remains an important threat to Europe today. Core AQ, as well as affiliates such as AQ in the Arabian Peninsula, have long planned for mass-casualty attacks in the West, notably on aviation. Core AQ is still present in Afghanistan. Admittedly, the peace agreement between the Americans and the Taliban has explicitly foreseen that the link between AQ and the Taliban should be completely severed, but I do not know if this will happen. History shows that the Taliban have always lied on that front, so it is still a concern. AQ in the Islamic Maghreb and the organizations it controls are killing European soldiers in the Sahel through sophisticated attacks. They constitute a serious threat to countries in the region. In some regions, AQ’s branches are often stronger than Daesh affiliates.

Ranking the threat of terrorist organizations is not an exact science. There is little point in stating that one terrorist group represents a slightly higher threat than another. My general assessment is that the threat from Daesh and AQ to Europe remains high and that the threat from right-wing violent extremism has risen quite significantly.

The current threat within Europe is mainly from people who have no formal link to Daesh or al-Qa`ida and are inspired by the ideology. For these groups, attacks by people who endorse their ideology and who they later praise represent a low-cost attack strategy. The threat now comes more from inspired attacks rather than the kind of directed attacks we saw in the 2015 and 2016 attacks in Paris and Brussels.

In the past, the threat from AQ in the Arabian Peninsula, in particular to aviation, was very strong. At the moment, my assessment is that neither AQ nor Daesh have the capability to launch a major attack in Europe, but they still have the intent. They will not hesitate to attack if we let down our guard. There is still a threat to European citizens when they travel to other countries, and of course, there is a threat to the countries themselves where the groups are still active. If they are able to destabilize and make countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso ungovernable, it would pose a serious problem for everyone. This is why we have to help countries overseas to address the threats from al-Qa`ida and Daesh.

There are several places around the world where AQ keeps developing, and in fact, they have learned from their mistakes and become much more patient than Daesh. They understood that using extreme and indiscriminate violence was not the best way to attract hearts and minds. In the period when we focused on Daesh, AQ continued building, focusing on local grievances

In Syria, and Idlib in particular, where HTS [Hayat Tahrir al-Sham] and Hurras al-Din are active, there are a lot of violent people who are AQ related. And of course, you have AQ affiliated al-Shabaab in East Africa.

CTC: There is a lot of talk of a reemergent extreme right-wing as a major threat, yet the attacks we have seen remain predominantly lone-actor type attacks. Can you sketch out whether you see the potential for this escalating into something more organized?

De Kerchove: Right-wing violent extremist groups realize that lone-actor terrorism is more beneficial to them than any form of violence that they organize themselves. Structured right-wing violent extremist groups often know exactly how far they can go in their statements and in their activities to remain just within the limits of what is legal. In the meantime, they leave it to ‘fanboys’ on the internet to take action by themselves, without any risk to the organization.

Unorganized right-wing violent extremists, who used to get together at concerts, motorcycle gatherings and other events in the past, now meet online. I do not know whether the spate of lone-actor attacks could escalate into something more organized, but I think that—from the perspective of the violent right-wing extremist scene—a sustained campaign of lone-actor attacks can be far more effective. I am certainly expecting more of those.

In recent years, we have witnessed a growing number of right-wing violent extremist attacks. The extent of violent acts motivated by racism, xenophobia, and other forms of bigotry may actually be underestimated in Europe, as we do not have a uniform method of classification. Some attacks are counted as hate crimes; others are treated as ordinary forms of criminality. At [the] E.U. level, we need to agree on a methodology to systematically count and classify these attacks in order to appreciate the extent of the problem and to combat it better.

We see increased international connectivity between right-wing extremists, notably via the internet. Individual right-wing violent extremists often imitate and reference previous attackers when carrying out a violent act. A formerly disparate group of marginal extremists thus increasingly turn themselves into a well-connected movement with a coherent ideology structured around the notion of the “Great Replacement.”

There are some differences between the right-wing violent extremism in the U.S. and Europe, but I think they all share the common rhetoric with the Great Replacement book written by Renaud Camus.6 It is also notable how much jihadi rhetoric and ideology share with right-wing violent extremism rhetoric. It is often about misogyny, with Incel7 a good example of this particular aspect of the phenomenon. It is a lot about a rejection of globalization. It is often about projecting a black-and-white vision of the world, hatred of Jews and anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is not just linked to the right-wing, by the way; Islamist extremism is a case in point, but there is a strong strain of anti-Semitism on the far left as well, but this is linked to anti-Zionism and an anti-Netanyahu feeling rather than the exact same strands of ideology linked to the far right. There are some survivalists amongst those on the far right, and I acknowledge there is a wide diversity of elements in the right-wing violent ideology, but what is interesting is that there are some key ideas that tie them together—hatred toward Arabs and Jews, misogyny, anti-globalization, for example.

There are also foreign powers that are playing into this and extending their outreach into Europe as part of a hybrid warfare, which focuses on destabilizing Europe. There is an interesting confluence in online ideas at the moment. Terrorism speech, hate speech, and disinformation are all coming together. Disinformation has been pushed both by state actors and non-state actors. One of the policy answers I draw from that is that we need to have a greater coordination between various strands of policy work in the online space. We currently have three separate dialogues with internet companies: one on terrorism speech, which we will soon result in legislation; a separate one on hate speech; and a third one on disinformation. To be more efficient in our dialogue with technology companies, we should be bringing these three together, as the strands and necessary responses are likely interlinked.

We have not looked enough at the phenomenon of foreign fighters going to Ukraine. I was very impressed by the figures produced by the Soufan Center recently about the many hundreds of right-wing Europeans who had gone to fight in Ukraine on both sides of the conflict.8 There are more and more people traveling in Europe to rally and train around right-wing violent extremism groups in different parts of Europe. Fears around globalization, migration, “the Great Replacement,” and the threat to the white community are key elements that tie the right-wing violent extremists together on both sides of the Atlantic.

CTC: What other ideologies do you see on the horizon or at the moment that have the potential to pose a major terrorist threat to Europe?

De Kerchove: The potential future rise of new forms of terrorism, rooted in conspiracy theories and technophobia, is a cause for concern. Disinformation is not necessarily rooted in political ideologies, although it is often amplified by right-wing and left-wing extremists. We have already seen small-scale acts of violence caused by a belief in conspiracy theories—for example, as I already noted, against telecom masts—and given the amount of disinformation online, we could see more serious examples of this in the future. I am also concerned about increasingly violent ecologist and animal rights groups.

In parts of Europe, left-wing violent extremism is already a threat. Left-wing violent extremists are responsible for a large number of non-lethal attacks. Depending on how the economic crisis develops in the wake of the health crisis we are currently facing, inequality is going to be exacerbated, and this might inspire more violent left-wing extremism that could have the potential to become more lethal and more geographically dispersed than it currently is.

CTC: What indicators do you see of these kind of threats that are developing as a result of the impact of COVID-19?

De Kerchove: I do not have many indicators around these threats at the moment. But if I take only my country, Belgium, it is one which is always split along the border between the Flemish part and the Walloon. It is interesting to see that telecom company Proximus has had a lot of problems trying to deploy 5G in the southern part of the country, in contrast to the more economically dynamic northern part. This could be an interesting indicator.

We are just at the beginning of a major change in society. I do not think we realize how different the world will be in five years’ time thanks to artificial intelligence. A lot of it we can see coming very quickly and will have deep-reaching impacts. The way justice will be delivered in the future will no longer be the same. The delineation between law enforcement and intelligence might be a bit blurred, and the digitalization of everything will have an impact across society and security.

In the last two decades, the left-wing violent extremism menace was more located in Italy and Greece, and we still have some groups there, but the truth is Europe is not homogenous when it comes to left-wing and right-wing violent extremism. Right-wing violent extremism is, for the time being, a major concern in the northern part of Europe, Scandinavia, Germany, and the U.K., on top of what is happening in the United States, where some assess it is now a bigger threat than jihadism. Other countries, like France, emphasize left-wing violent extremism, like the ultra-gilets jaunes, the violent segment of the group.h

It is interesting because there was something like that going on just before 9/11, in the form of a very active anti-globalization movement. This was the main topic on the agenda when discussing emergent extremisms in Europe. You had groups of violent left-wing extremists traveling all over Europe to disturb G7 meetings, meetings of the European Council, and so on, and it was definitely a growing movement. And then 9/11 happened, and this disappeared completely for many years. But now we can see left-wing violent extremism coming once again. We have seen it in Germany last year, we see it at some big international events, and the French in particular are raising the issue as one of growing concern. And we may see, but of course this is just speculation for the time being, that it starts to grow once again because of the COVID-19 crisis and the economic fallout. I am in the midst of doing some work on this, in much the same way as I did some work on the right-wing violent extremism threat before. It is not at the same level of intensity as the right-wing violent extremism, but if you take the economic concerns and add those to some of the criticism that we see online with the debate around COVID-19 tracing apps and the perception that there is a big-brother society that is gathering data on people to control everything, we could maybe see this develop into something more coherent and growing dramatically.

CTC: We are entering a moment of great-power tension. This can have repercussions in the non-state actor space through the use of proxies. Do you see a rising threat in Europe from state-supported terrorist actors? For example, from Russia or Iran?

De Kerchove: No. But that is not to say that there are no violent consequences resulting from some third countries’ deliberate interference to weaken our democracy and undermine the European Union. While they do not use terrorist proxies, some foreign powers deliberately spread disinformation and conspiracy theories to divide us. Their support to ultra-nationalist and right-wing extremist worldviews indirectly fosters violence because this sort of propaganda also fuels the actions of violent extremists and terrorists.

The current stance of the E.U. is that we only placed the military branch of Hezbollah in Lebanon on the E.U. list of terrorist organizations in the wake of the attack in Burgas and a plot in Cyprus.i Some of our member states have chosen recently to go further than just the military branch.9 In Germany, it is not a formal listing, like in the U.S., but a ban, which is legally a bit different. I am not sure we would follow our American friends and expand to a listing for the whole organization, but it is important to note that the E.U. proscription is not a precondition for prosecution and anyhow we are active and vigilant on the organized crime aspect of the organization. The organization is indeed collecting money from all over the world with sophisticated money-laundering schemes with links to Africa, Latin America, using drugs and the like. Europol, working closely with the American law enforcement agencies, conducted a major operation called Cedarj a few years ago in which millions, if not hundreds of millions, of euro being laundered between cartels in America, Latin America, Europe, and Africa were traced and linked to the Lebanese Hezbollah group. We are not soft on the organization, but there is no unanimous decision to list the whole organization.

On Iran, the E.U. put a directorate within the Ministry of Intelligence [and Security] (MOIS) on the list of terrorist organizations, as well as two members of the Iranian government.10 This was done after a foiled attempt to murder an exiled Iranian from the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA)k in Denmark, and the disruption of a plot to blow up the yearly meeting of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalk (MeK)l in Paris, which was due to be attended by Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s close adviser. This is a new development, placing a part of the State of Iran and officials of Iran on the EU’s list. We have had several recent cases of proxy fights between Gulf States and Iran in the Scandinavian countries.11 This does not quite qualify as terrorism, but it is criminal behavior. It is, of course, unacceptable that other states use European soil as a place to target each other by proxy.

As to Russia, we have had several cases of major concern around killings of Chechens in Europe. The Germans are currently prosecuting someone for the killing of a Chechen commander on their soil.12 And there are cases like Sergei Skripal.m But these again are cases which do not meet the criteria of being terrorism. They are not done to influence the population or the host government into changing its policy. These incidents and attacks are more about internal Russian and Iranian domestic politics, targeting dissidents, with Europe simply the location where they are taking place.

CTC: Could you talk us through some of the impact of Brexit on European counterterrorism?

De Kerchove: It is always a bit difficult for me to express myself on this topic because we are in the middle of a difficult negotiation and I do not want to say anything which could have a negative impact on these negotiations. The starting point is what former Prime Minister Theresa May said, “Brexit means Brexit.” Brexit has consequences. Once you are no longer a member state, this means you no longer have the same rights as a member state. So that is the starting point, and I am sorry for that. The relationship will have to be different to that of other non-E.U. states who are in Europe like Norway or Switzerland as they are part of the Schengen free-movement space within Europe.

The second aspect, a lot of what we have been developing over the past 20 years in the field of justice and home affairs, like mutual recognition of criminal justice decisions or the availability of information, have only been able to develop as a result of very strong safeguards in place, and these safeguards are linked to human rights. We have the charter of fundamental rights, the human rights convention, and very strong rules on data protection and privacy. Some believe we are going too far in this direction, but that is where we are. And so it is difficult to have the same agreements in place with non-E.U. members who might not have the same safeguards in place in the future.

Having said this, I have spent the last 25 years of my life working in the field of security and justice in transatlantic affairs, going back to when Janet Reno was the U.S. Attorney General. During that time, we have built an amazing amount of cooperation between the U.S. and Europe. I would be very surprised if we did not do the same with the U.K. outside the European Union. I do not see why the U.K. would end up in a lesser position than the U.S. in this regard. So, it could be a U.S.-type relationship, and it is in our mutual interest to have a strong relationship. But there are legal constraints on what we can do, and I am sorry for that.

It is worth noting that intelligence is outside the E.U. framework. The E.U. 27 member states plus Norway, Switzerland, and the U.K. are working outside the E.U. framework already through the Counter-Terrorism Group (CTG) where they all meet. They have developed common platforms and databases, and there will not be any impact on this from Brexit. So, on the intel front, I do not see any impact. Where we will lose something—and I hope the negotiator will find a smart way to compensate for this—is the outstanding and very impressive input of the Brits on the policy side. I have myself worked very closely for the past 13 years with the U.K. in this regard, with numerous Home Secretaries, National Security Advisers, MI5, MI6, and others. In terms of ideas and shaping the policy, they were very creative and helpful. But we will keep talking to each other.

The U.K. has been and will remain an important partner in the fight against terrorism. Counterterrorism depends on swift and effective exchange of information, and on close operational and political cooperation. The E.U. and the U.K. are currently negotiating their future relationship, including a framework for cooperation in law enforcement and judicial cooperation in criminal matters, which will be the basis for future CT cooperation between the E.U. and the U.K. as a third country.

A lot of technical details are being addressed in the negotiations. Many E.U. instruments relevant for CT are based on the principles of mutual recognition and availability of information, which require certain essential safeguards (such as equivalent data protection standards, respect of the E.U. Charter of Fundamental Rights, supervision by the European Court of Justice), some of which are redlines for the U.K., which means that different ways for cooperation need to be found. As I already noted, there are models for cooperation with third countries in a similar situation, such as the U.S., where we have created a strong CT partnership over time. The Union’s ambition is clearly that the counterterrorism relationship with the U.K. will remain strong; it is in the interest of both sides.

CTC: You recently wrote a paper for the Council of the European Union looking at how terrorist threats were evolving as a result of COVID-19. What are the key takeaways?

De Kerchove: While the current health crisis appears to have had only a limited impact on the terrorist threat to date, there is an increased risk of terrorism in the future. We must prevent the current health and economic crisis from becoming a security crisis as well.

The terrorist threat depends on three factors: intent, capabilities, and resilience. Terrorists had the intent to stage mass-casualty attacks long before the current crisis. The diminished resilience of targeted countries as a result of the pandemic is already a cause for concern, and this could reinforce terrorists’ capabilities in the longer term. Extremist propaganda could resonate more as a result of the economic and sanitary crisis, strengthen terrorists’ morale, and expand the breeding ground for radicalization. COVID-19 might result in a diminished focus on CT among our law enforcement and armed forces and disrupt military and intelligence operations.

Right-wing violent extremism and terrorism was already on the rise before the pandemic. Violent right-wing extremists have been particularly shrewd in exploiting the coronavirus crisis, blaming minority groups, and spreading disinformation. Right-wing extremist hate speech and incitement to violence on the internet has increased dramatically since the start of the coronavirus crisis. Violence against minorities—particularly Jews—has increased during the pandemic. We need to tackle these problems and counter anti-Semitic hate speech and violence.

The pandemic has also sparked conspiracy theories that have no direct link to existing extremist ideologies. As I’ve already noted, as a result of such theories, telecommunications masts have been set on fire in several member states. The motivation behind this is linked to a movement of technophobes with indirect links to right-wing and left-wing violent extremists, which is gaining in strength.

CTC: Do you think there will be a reduction in CT and CVE (countering violent extremism) funding and attention post-COVID-19?

De Kerchove: I acknowledge that allocating the same level of resources to CT and CVE post-COVID-19 might be challenging, but I hope that policymakers will recognize that the prevention of terrorism remains crucially important. The E.U. is analysing the impact of COVID on terrorism and security more broadly in our neighborhood and beyond, and is providing COVID-related additional assistance. Given the probable rise in radicalization resulting from the health and socio-economic crisis, prevention and CVE will be even more important than before. Money spent on CVE is money well spent, especially in a time of crisis. Health, the economy, and security influence each other. Hence, we should prevent the emergence of a vicious circle of mutually reinforcing sanitary, socio-economic, and security problems.

CTC: Technology continues to advance rapidly, with disruptive technologies increasingly the norm from online innovations, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, robotics, novel materials, the internet of things (IoT), space, and more. These are impacting our daily lives with ever greater frequency. How do you think this will impact the terrorist threat picture and E.U. response?

De Kerchove: Around three years ago, I began to worry that at the E.U. level, not necessarily at the member state level, we may have overlooked the impact of digitalization and disruptive tech on security and criminal justice. We have not properly assessed the threats that they potentially pose. Nor have we understood or yet maximized the opportunities they provide for delivering security and justice in the future.

Disruptive technologies can be indeed looked at under three different angles: the threat that they create/amplify, the potential they offer to increase the effectiveness of the law enforcement agencies/justice, and the impact they have on the way we will provide security and justice in the future. It is important therefore that the security community devotes more attention to these techs.

From a threat perspective, terrorist and violent extremist groups are harnessing new technologies. For example, those groups use increasingly cryptocurrencies to raise funds in an undetected way. Online gaming is another new field which deserves to be looked at. The scale is unbelievable, with about two billion people playing games online, who could be potentially targeted by terrorist and violent extremist propaganda. Another example, COVID may inspire people to use bioweapons, having seen the impact that the virus has had.13 If I were the head of a terrorist organization, I would say, that is clearly the best way to cause chaos and disrupt the West. But at the moment, it is quite difficult to weaponize the virus. You may send some ricin or anthrax by letter, which people have tried, but with COVID, this is going to be much harder.

But I do not exclude that in the coming years, it will be possible for a lone actor to mount an attack with catastrophic consequences. The current assessment is that the lone actor will just use a knife or a car and mount a low-cost attack. But for someone with the relevant education, armed with the democratization of knowledge, it might be much easier to process a virus in a cloud lab.n So, when you look at the convergence of these threats, you see a quite dangerous potential threat on the horizon. Someone could process a virus in a cloud lab, take a drone and use a GPS geolocation system to steer the drone, and go to a football stadium to spread the virus created and kill 50,000 people. So, my point is that we need to properly assess every possible threat that these new disruptive techs might pose.

At the same time, the opportunities provided by big data analytics, notably to find weak signals on the internet, artificial intelligence, facial recognition technology, robots, drones, and more are already helping police as well as justice, and will likely do more in the future. From a European perspective, the key will be to make sure this takes place across the E.U.

There is also the transformative impact. For instance, within five years, we might lose a significant percentage of the workforce in the field of justice because machines will do some jobs better than humans. I have worked hard to try to convince E.U. institutions to invest a lot more on this, because we were a bit lagging behind.

Disruptive techs raise several huge challenges. First, we should ensure that law enforcement and the judiciary maintain their lawful tools of interception. On 5G, the E.U. is working towards ensuring that lawful interception remains possible, and is active in standardizing processes for such interception across the continent. The E.U. has worked on encryption for several years, in particular device encryption, via Europol and the European Commission’s JRC.o I believe there is a need for a more comprehensive, legislative solution.

Second, we see more and more the importance of data protection and privacy, with consequences on security. The question is, how much can we rebalance this relationship? One of the reasons why the Americans or the Chinese are much more advanced in AI than Europe is because every day, their firms get billions of data points from you and me. They get this information for free and can process it to help with their machine learning. In Europe, it is much harder for companies to get access to the volume of data necessary to train their algorithms because they are protected by GDPR [the European Union General Data Protection Regulation]. GDPR is a great achievement to curb the loss of control on personal data by Europeans, but its implementation should at the same time seek to foster innovation. It is then important to work closely with regulators and supervisors of data protection and fundamental rights, to take full profit of GDPR’s flexibilities to experiment, through regulatory sandboxes and testing facilities (where companies can test out new potentially disruptive technologies, and reflect on adapting/adopting regulation), [and] see how this might be used in the justice space as well as putting oversight mechanisms.

Third, disruptive techs also raise issues of sovereignty, and where information and data are kept. The COVID crisis has highlighted what current supply chains and dependencies look like with greater clarity, and in particular how dependent Europe had become on non-E.U. countries like China. To some degree, we are lagging behind the Americans and Chinese in most of these disruptive techs, and there is therefore a need to bolster transatlantic cooperation on this. Fortunately, this European Commission has decided to invest a lot into research technology and digitalization to catch up.

Turning back again to the threat that disruptive technologies create/amplify, there is a direct impact from internet companies and the degree to which social media companies have amplified the jihadist and right-wing violent extremist propaganda. We have started working on this, but not enough.

I’m worried by what I call algorithm amplification, whereby these companies—YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, and so on—design their algorithm in a way that they keep you online as long as possible because their business model is based on watch time for selling ads. And the issue is to hook people by giving them a lot more problematic content. I am not suggesting illegal content, but a lot more conspiracy theories, a lot more titillating material. It is like junk food. It is not by coincidence that junk food is full of salt to keep you coming back. It is the same with the internet; they bring stuff that is exciting and interesting and will draw you in. If you are interested in violent, hateful speeches, you will get more of the same and often more and more extremist content. It creates a common dynamic between disinformation, hate speech, and terrorist content.

There is a lot more we can do in this space. I have been working with the European Commission on looking at how we can bring the law enforcement and criminal justice community more into all these files and create an innovation hub at Europol which brings together all the interior and justice ministries from member states, as well as all the many European agencies that cover related security issues (Europol, Eurojust,p Frontex,q CEPOL,r eu-LISA,s etc.), with the ambition to later connect to cyber, space, and defense actors. We need people (at policy as well as operational levels) who understand all of the different issues to be able to deal with them.

CTC: There has been considerable debate about the threat posed by terrorist recidivism and whether prison sentences for terrorism offenders should be extended. A recent study in this publication by Thomas Renard that focused on Belgium argued that the phenomenon of terrorist recidivism, while a problem, has been “overblown.”14 What is your view on this issue?

De Kerchove: It is good that Thomas Renard has systematically looked at recidivism rates among terrorist convicts. His conclusions are reassuring, but of course, any terrorist attack committed by somebody previously convicted for a terrorist offense is one too many. In this context, it should also be borne in mind that terrorist acts have a very serious impact on society—more serious, in fact, than most ordinary crimes.

The fact that several hundred inmates convicted for terrorist-related offenses will be released from European prisons in the very near future also compels us to prioritize rehabilitation and disengagement efforts. Even if only a small number of them reoffend, then the sheer magnitude of the wave of prison releases still creates a significant additional security risk and pressure on security forces.

That is why I think the EU Council conclusions of 6 June 2019 on “preventing and combatting radicalisation in prisons, and on dealing with terrorist and violent extremist offenders after release”15 are important. The E.U. is supporting risk assessment and rehabilitation programs in prisons in member states and sharing of good practices and lessons learned.

CTC: What is the role of mental health and other personality disorders, and how does this affect the threat picture and response?

De Kerchove: This is a subject that attracts increasing attention among CT practitioners and policymakers, including at E.U. level. There is no clear profile or prototype of a terrorist. It is clear that mental disorders do not cause terrorist acts, but they sometimes influence terrorist behavior in connection with other—political, sociological—factors. There may be a greater than average prevalence of mental disorders notably among lone-actor terrorists. A number of lone actor terrorist attacks in Europe in the last two years—for example, in France, the U.K., and the Netherlands—were committed by lone actors with underlying mental health problems.

Given the increase in lone-actor attacks in the West, we should pay more attention to mental health issues in our policy response. The COVID-19 crisis, which is likely to exacerbate mental health problems in some individuals and to make them spend more time online, makes this an even more important topic.

How can we use knowledge on mental health in CT? We can, for instance, look at risk assessment tools: while psychopathology in itself is not predictive of terrorist behavior, mental health issues play a useful role in risk assessments, in combination with other factors. It is worth looking at it in rehabilitation and disengagement programs—using customized treatment to rehabilitate former terrorists or to achieve disengagement of radicalized individuals.

I know that much research on the role of mental health issues in radicalization and terrorism has been conducted with regard to jihadist radicalization. But we need to understand better what role mental health problems play in driving the men responsible for right-wing violent extremist attacks as well. The E.U.-sponsored Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) recently published a very useful handbook for practitioners on dealing with mental health in the context of CT.16

Finally, I am concerned about the mental health of the women and children in the camps in northeastern Syria with a risk of future radicalization and involvement in terrorism. I already talked about what we’re doing to prevent this from happening and why. On a case-by-case basis, member states are repatriating minors from the camp. It is important that they receive good psychiatric and psychological care.

CTC: What do you see as the biggest outstanding problems in CT and CVE?

De Kerchove: I have touched upon several of the biggest outstanding issues in CT during this interview. The fight against the rising threat of right-wing violent extremism and terrorism is certainly one of those. Contrary to the U.S., the E.U. legal framework applies to all forms of terrorism. I expect that the EU Internet Referral Unit at Europol will soon start flagging violent right-wing extremist content in addition to its current work on jihadi content. We also need to look into ways to curtail financing of right-wing violent extremist propaganda and step up prevention, rehabilitation, and exit programs; some member states have an interesting experience in this context.

We have been working for many years in the area of prevention of terrorism. The E.U. has been funding projects, for instance, among vulnerable youngsters to prevent radicalization. The E.U. is facilitating exchange of best practices between policymakers and practitioners (such as teachers, social workers, police personnel, etc.). We have always included all forms of radicalization in these programs, but we need to focus even more on right-wing and left-wing violent extremism in the near future.

Additionally, we need to do more to counter the ideologies that fuel terrorism, in particular Islamist extremism. While there is a range of factors that drive people to become terrorists, terrorism would not exist at all without underlying extremist ideology. Hence, we should not avoid this difficult subject, but talk about it. Many mainstream Muslims are worried about Islamist extremism dominating the dissemination of Islamic religious texts, supported by wealthy donors from the Gulf area. This is a problem for integration in the E.U., which the E.U. has started to analyse within its borders and beyond, and has initiated a dialogue with relevant third countries. It is important to take note of the many European Muslims raising concern about extremist Islamist influences which challenge the values, fundamental rights, and rule of law which bind Europe together.

We should do more to combat terrorist content, hate speech, and disinformation online while protecting the right to free speech. The E.U. is working on a new Regulation on Terrorist Content Online, which will oblige digital companies to block terrorist content within one hour when they are alerted to such content. At the same time, digital companies should do more to enforce their own terms and conditions on hate speech and disinformation. They need to stop the amplification of sensationalist hateful content via algorithms aimed at generating as much user traffic as possible.

Last but not least, the many threats that stem from the rapid digitalization of our society and the quick development of disruptive technologies, as I have explained above, call for a major investment of the security community in this field. The excellent communication on the EU Security Union Strategy that the European Commission adopted at the end of July17 illustrates the strong determination of the E.U. to rise to the challenges.     CTC

Substantive Notes

[a] Editor’s note: Defined by the European Union as “a country that is not a member of the European Union as well as a country or territory whose citizens do not enjoy the European Union right to free movement.”

[b] Editor’s note: The European Council consists of “the heads of State or Government of the 27 EU Member States, the European Council President and the President of the European Commission” and “defines the EU’s overall political direction and priorities.” See https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/european-council/. The ‘Council’ (full name: The Council of the E.U.) “is the institution representing the member states’ governments. Also known informally as the EU Council, it is where national ministers from each EU country meet to adopt laws and coordinate policies.” See https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/council-eu/

[c] Editor’s note: INTCEN is the EU Intelligence and Situation Centre, a central intelligence collection and assessment body that works with the European Union’s foreign service, the European External Action Service (EEAS).

[d] Editor’s note: Passenger Name Recognition

[e] Editor’s note: Advance passenger Information

[f] Editor’s note: The Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) is an E.U.-sponsored network of practitioners across Europe that seeks to bring together best practices in counterterrorism and countering violent extremism (CVE) work.

[g] Editor’s note: “Prevent” is the pillar of the U.K. counterterrorism strategy that seeks to stop people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.

[h] Editor’s note: The gilets jaunes (literally, yellow jackets) are a protest movement active across France.

[i] Editor’s note: In July 2012, a Hezbollah-linked suicide bomber targeted a busload of Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria, killing seven, including the bomber. The same month, Israel accused Hezbollah of plotting to attack Israeli citizens in Cyprus. Angel Krasimirov, “Bulgaria says clear signs Hezbollah behind Burgas bombing,” Reuters, July 18, 2013; Dan Williams, “Israel PM accuses Hezbollah of Cyprus attack plot,” Reuters, July 15, 2012.

[j] Editor’s note: According to congressional testimony by analyst Emanuele Ottolenghi, “DEA revealed the full extent of Hezbollah’s terror-crime nexus and its centrality to Hezbollah’s organizational structure in 2016, when it announced multiple Hezbollah arrests across Europe in an operation, codenamed Operation Cedar, involving seven countries. According to a former U.S. official familiar with the case, the targeted ring involved shipments of cocaine to Europe, which were paid for in euro, and were then transferred to the Middle East by couriers. Hezbollah made more than €20 million a month selling its own cocaine in Europe. It also laundered tens of millions of euro of cocaine proceeds on behalf of the cartels via the Black Market Peso Exchange, retaining a fee.” Emanuele Ottolenghi, “State Sponsors of Terrorism: An Examination of Iran’s Global Terrorism Network,” Testimony Before the House Homeland Security Committee Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, April 17, 2018.

[k] Editor’s note: The Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA) was established in 1999 seeking to establish an independent Arab state from Iran’s southwest. Iran classifies ASMLA as a terrorist group, and it has been linked to violent incidents within Iran, as well as in Europe where a number of the group’s members reportedly reside. For more information, see “The Story behind Iran’s ‘murder plot’ in Denmark,” BBC, October 31, 2018, and Nada Bashir, Euan McKirdy, and Kara Fox, “Denmark arrests suspect over Iranian ‘assassination’ plot,” CNN, October 31, 2018.

[l] Editor’s note: MeK is an Iranian group that opposes the regime in Tehran.

[m] Editor’s note: Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer recruited by the British as a spy, was, according to the U.K. government, targeted for assassination by Russian military intelligence agents in the United Kingdom, but he survived the attempt to kill him with a military grade nerve agent. “UK blames Russian military intelligence agents for Skripal attack,” Financial Times, September 5, 2018; Michael Schwirtz and Ellen Barry, “A Spy Story: Sergei Skripal Was a Little Fish. He Had a Big Enemy,” New York Times, September 9, 2018.

[n] Editor’s note: Cloud labs refer to automated labs using AI to synthetize genetic sequences that can become the basis to produce a toxin or a bio-agent. See Eleonore Pauwels, “The new geopolitics of converging risks – The UN and prevention in the era of AI,” UN University, 2019.

[o] Editor’s note: The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (DG JRC)

[p] Editor’s note: European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation

[q] Editor’s note: European Union Border and Coast Guard Agency

[r] Editor’s note: European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Training

[s] Editor’s note: European Union Agency for the Operational Management of Large-Scale IT Systems in the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice​

Citations
[1] Editor’s note: For more on Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, see Paul Cruickshank, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Catherine De Bolle, Executive Director, Europol,” CTC Sentinel 12:6 (2019).

[2] Editor’s note: See, for example, Nazia Parveen and Jim Waterson, “UK phone masts attacked amid 5G-coronavirus conspiracy theory,” Guardian, April 4, 2020.

[3] Editor’s note: For more on this issue, see Audrey Alexander, “The Security Threat COVID-19 Poses to the Northern Syria Detention Camps Holding Islamic State Members,” CTC Sentinel 13:6 (2020).

[4] “Germany arrests IS suspects plotting attacks on US bases,” DW, April 15, 2020.

[5] “Attorney General William P. Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray Announce Significant Developments in the Investigation of the Naval Air Station Pensacola Shooting,” U.S. Department of Justice, May 18, 2020.

[6] Editor’s note: For more on Camus, see Norimitsu Onishi, “The Man Behind a Toxic Slogan Promoting White Supremacy,” New York Times, September 20, 2019.

[7] Editor’s note: For more on the Incel subculture, see Zack Beauchamp, “Our incel problem: How a support group for the dateless became one of the internet’s most dangerous subcultures,” Vox, April 23, 2019.

[8] Editor’s note: See “White Supremacy Extremism: The Transnational Rise of the Violent White Supremacist Movement,” Soufan Center, September 27, 2019, p. 29.

[9] Editor’s note: For more on this, see Christopher F. Schuetze and Melissa Eddy, “Germany Hardens Ban on Hezbollah,” New York Times, April 30, 2020.

[10] Editor’s note: “Fight against terrorism: Council renews the designations on the EU terrorist list and adds two Iranian individuals and one Iranian entity in response to recent foiled attacks on European soil,” European Council press release, January 9, 2019. See also Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen, Robin Emmott, Anthony Deutsch, “In shift, EU sanctions Iran over planned Europe attacks,” Reuters, January 8, 2019.

[11] Editor’s note: For example, see Sune Engel Rasmussen, “Trial Exposes Iran-Saudi Battle in Europe,” Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2020.

[12] Editor’s note: Bojan Pancevski, “German prosecutors say man charged in Berlin murder was acting for Moscow,” Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2020.

[13] Editor’s note: For more on the potential implications of COVID-19 for counterterrorism, including in relation to bioterrorism, see Paul Cruickshank and Don Rassler, “A View from the CT Foxhole: A Virtual Roundtable on COVID-19 and Counterterrorism with Audrey Kurth Cronin, Lieutenant General (Ret) Michael Nagata, Magnus Ranstorp, Ali Soufan, and Juan Zarate,” CTC Sentinel 13:6 (2020).

[14] Thomas Renard, “Overblown: Exploring the Gap Between the Fear of Terrorist Recidivism and the Evidence,” CTC Sentinel 13:4 (2020).

[15] Editor’s note: See “Radicalisation in prisons: Council adopts conclusions,” European Union Council press release, June 6, 2019.

[16] Editor’s note: Jordy Krasenberg and Lieke Wouterse, “Understanding the mental health disorders pathway leading to violent extremism,” RAN Ex Post Paper, March 13, 2019.

[17] Editor’s note: “Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on the EU Security Union Strategy,” COM(2020) 605 final, July 24, 2020.

A slightly limited post just to flag up a chapter I have written in a new book that has been published by my publisher Hurst on Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in China: Domestic and Foreign Policy Dimensions. The book is the product of an excellent conference hosted by the wonderful Michael Clarke at the Australian National University in Canberra, which brings together a number of the top experts on the topic, covering China and terrorism from a number of different angles. Given the nature of the publication I cannot just repost here, but am sure you can all purchase copies and enjoy the wonderful text in its entirety.

My particular chapter covers the question of how Uighur terrorism has intersected with Middle Eastern jihadism over time, bringing it right up to day with what is going on in Syria at the moment (though it was delivered much earlier in the year). Here is the abstract for it:

Uyghur Terrorism in a Fractured Middle East

What is the relationship between Uyghur terrorism and the current troubles in the Middle East? The aim of this chapter is to explore this question and attempt to define the impact of Middle Eastern jihadist terrorism on Uyghur terrorism. It will look in particular at what is going on at the moment in Syria and Iraq; it will try to understand the nature of the groups that are there; and, where possible, what activities they appear to be involved in. There are three sections to this chapter: first, a historical study of the links between Middle Eastern jihadis and Uyghurs; second, an investigation of the links between Uyghur extremists and the current conflict in Syria; and finally, some conclusions on how this might all impact on China’s future policies.

Clarke-–-Terrorism-and-Counter-Terrorism-in-China-RGB-Web

Undoubtedly a subject I will return to more in the future, especially given the current context around Xinjiang. This aside, spoke to DW about the Huawei crackdown and the relation this has to the US-China clash more broadly which appears to have also been picked up in Polish by Business Insider for those who can read that.

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

Slightly belated piece for the New Statesman to kick the year off looking at ISIS, tries to sketch out what is likely to happen with the group this year. Separately spoke to the Neue Zircher Zeitung about the threat that Germany faced in the context of the broader European threat.

What Islamic State will do in 2017

In retreat across Syria and Iraq, will the newer terror group emulate the strategy honed by al-Qaeda?

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Any predictions of Islamic State’s demise are premature. During the surge towards Mosul at the end of last year, commentators repeatedly suggested this marked the beginning of the end for the extremist group. Yet, it still has the ability to launch attacks against its enemies both within Iraq and Syria, but also further afield. These trends are likely to continue, although security forces are increasingly learning how to mitigate the threat the group poses. The risk, however, is that the threat will continue to mutate.

The prospect of IS finding a way to regroup on the ground in Syria and Iraq can’t be ruled out. While Iraqi forces are pursuing a systematic approach to retaking Mosul, it is possible the group will melt into the countryside and wait for attention to shift before surging back. How the Iraqi forces take back the city and whether they provide those in Sunni areas with reassurance over their political future will determine whether IS is able to find a supportive base from which it can rebuild. In Syria, while confusion continues to reign, it will continue to find a way to embed somewhere.

But there is no doubt that the group has lost some of its lustre and power. While there are still some individuals choosing to go and fight alongside the group, the numbers have fallen dramatically. A report in September last year from US intelligence indicated that from a peak of 2,000 a month, only about 50 individuals were assessed as crossing the border each month to go and fight alongside a range of groups including IS in Syria and Iraq.

In fact, the biggest concern is the flow of people back. Foreign fighters disenfranchised by losses on the ground or tired after years of conflict are heading home. Some are no doubt eager to seek a conflict-free life, but others are being sent back to build networks or launch attacks. German authorities believe they disrupted at least two such cells in June and September of last year, linking them to the Paris bombers and unclear whether they were sent back to launch attacks or prepare ground for others. Similarly, Italian intelligence has raised concerns about the return of Balkan jihadists as a threat to Europe, pointing to the believed return to the region of Kosovan IS leader Lavdrim Muhaxheri with somewhere between 300-400 ISIS fighters. They have already been linked to one specific plot against a football game, and suspected of potentially again laying ground for others.

These individuals will join the continuing ranks of “lone wolf” or “failed traveller” attackers that we have seen in Europe and around the world in the past year. In Anis Amri’s attack in Berlin, or the murder of the priest in Rouen, we see individuals who apparently aspired to travel to Syria, failed to do so, and instead perpetrated attacks in Europe. We also see individuals latching on to the group’s violent ideology to launch attacks. This includes Omar Mateen, who butchered 50 in a shooting at an Orlando nightclub which he claimed to be doing on behalf of the group – although no clear link was uncovered. Given the basic methods used and the broad range of targets, it is highly likely that more of these loners (either instigated or self-starting) will emerge to wreak havoc in the coming year.

Finally, it is important to not forget IS affiliates around the world like Boko Haram in Nigeria, IS in Khorasan (Afghanistan), Sinai, Libya, or Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. There has always been some element of scepticism around the legitimacy of the links these groups have to the core operation, with speculation that some of their pledges of allegiance are more an expression of anger at al Qaeda or some other local group. Yet there is usually some evidence to support the association – most prominently with IS core in the Levant acknowledging them in their material. As we see the group’s core shrink in strength, these regional affiliates could rise up to take greater prominence or to take on a greater leadership mantle.

It is also possible that the core group in Syria/Iraq will use these affiliates to launch attacks or re-establish themselves. We have already seen how individuals linked to the Paris attacks were reportedly killed in Libya, and there is growing evidence that IS in Khorasan, the Afghan affiliate, has seen some back and forth of fighters. In future, it is possible that we may see these groups rise up in a more pronounced way. More acute problems might start to emerge from Libya, Afghanistan and Sinai where substantial affiliates appear to operate, or Nigeria, Pakistan or Southeast Asia where there is a more confusing aspect to the ISIS affiliates. There, the degree of strong connection with the core organisation is unclear, with it sometimes seeming that the adoption of the IS banner is rather an expression of local divisions between militant groups. If the pressure on the group in the Levant intensifies over the next year, these groups might look like tempting ways of distracting western security agencies through attacks that cause governments to re-allocate resources away from the Levant and thereby take some pressure off the group’s leadership in Syria and Iraq.

This would emulate al-Qaeda’s strategy. There have been moments historically when the core organisation pushed its affiliates to launch attacks to try to take pressure off the core group. This happened between al-Qaeda core in Pakistan and its Yemeni affiliate between 2003-2009. Similarly, al-Qaeda has realised that sometimes not declaring loud Caliphates and committing public atrocities such as televised beheadings, but instead committing targeted acts of terror and endearing itself to local populations to build support from the ground up, is a more productive way forwards.

How the outside world will react is a further unknown element. Donald Trump has stated he will eliminate the group, but he has not outlined a strategy for how he will achieve this. There is little evidence that the US could do much more than deploy greater force on the ground (whose ultimate goal and success would be unclear). The announced Saudi alliance to counter the group has not so far done a huge amount, and European powers remain secondary players. It is unclear that any country is preparing a Russian-style push with the potential human and political risks attached, meaning we are unlikely to see a dramatic change.

For IS, the conflict they are fighting is a millennial one for God’s greater glory and temporal timelines like our calendar are largely irrelevant. Dramatic events like the loss of cities or leadership figures may change its dynamic, and in some cases significantly degrade its capacity, but are unlikely to eradicate the group. Rather, it will continue to evolve and grow regionally primarily, but also internationally, with attacks against western targets a continuing interest.

Once the war in Syria settles down, and Iraq becomes unified, discussions may be possible about how to eradicate the group, but this is unlikely to take place in the next 12 months given the continuing fighting on the ground in the face of a ceasefire which in any case includes neither IS or al-Qaeda affiliates, meaning another year of the world remaining in state of high alert is likely. Were peace to break out, IS would find itself in a complicated situation, but this would require a very substantial change of situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq. That, unfortunately, looks some way off.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of ‘We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen’

And another new piece, again for the Telegraph this time looking at the wave of terror incidents around the world over the past days. Also spoke to the National press agency wire and Handelsblatt about the incidents.

This worldwide day of terror shows that in the age of globalisation, nowhere is safe

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Ankara, Berlin, Zurich, New York. In these cities on Tuesday four scattered but brutal events illustrated the diffuse and confusing nature of the terrorist threat we now face.

The murder of a diplomat, the driving of a truck into a crowd at a Christmas market, a shooting at a mosque and the conviction of an attempted mass murderer of Muslims in New York will all have different consequences and they involve very different groups and ideologies. Yet they are all part of the same phenomenon, both predictable and confusing at the same time. Together they show how acts of terror on random civilians now appear to have no borders, with events in far flung lands tied inextricably to our daily lives at home.

All four events are in their own ways forseeable. Anger has been building for some time across the Middle East over the siege of Aleppo, and Russia has quite clearly put itself at the forefront of supporting the Assad regime in crushing the rebellion. Such action always has consequences, especially when it is accompanied by a daily digest of civilian misery. Armed groups fighting on the ground in Syria – including the former Jabhat al-Nusra, whose slogan the Turkish assassin is reported to have shouted – they have shown they have the ability to launch asymmetric attacks behind the front lines too.

Even if the attacker only proves to have limited connections to such groups, it is not surprising that the anger stirred up by the Syrian war, only exacerbated by the apparent inability of anyone to protect its civilian population, would boil over into a lone attack. The Russian Ambassador in Turkey is, unfortunately, an obvious and relatively unfortunately soft target for such people to strike.

The full details of what has gone on in Germany and Zurich, meanwhile, are uncertain at the time of writing. What appears to be latest vehicle attack on a crowd of civilians – this time in Berlin – does not as yet have any clear attribution. But it comes after a history of such incidents, both brutally murderous like the incident in Nice in July 2016 and a series prior that were seen in the United States and in France around Christmas 2014. The idea of using a vehicle is one that has been championed by both Isil and al Qaeda (though it was rejected by the group’s leader Osama bin Laden as mass murder rather than considered terrorism); its simple horror makes it appealing. The shooting at the mosque also remains without attribution, though the choice of target suggests some grander motive than mere murder.

Finally comes a quieter but perhaps just as significant event. The sentencing of Glendon Scott Crawford of Galway, New York to 30 years’ incarceration for plotting to use a radiological device against Muslims in America shows how extreme right-wing ideologies are also growing in strength. His case is novel because he is the first to be convicted of “attempting to acquire and use a radiological dispersal device.” Yet his desire to strike minorities and the government, and claim some connection with the Ku Klux Klan, all have their roots far back in America’s history. It feels all too predictable in the wake of the hatred being stoked across the world today.

Yet what can be concluded from this roster of misery? That no place is safe – from art galleries to Christmas markets to places of worship, all are now targets for those eager to kill in the name of a cause. The reach of extremist ideologies and causes is a reflection of the intensely globalized world which we inhabit. And while distance has been shortened and international connections tightened, this brings troubles from afar increasingly into our homes and daily lives, either through news or terrorist action.

It is not clear that this new threat is more dangerous than previous ones, rather than just noisier. Some calculations show that terrorist casualties in the West are lower since the 1960s and 1970s, but we don’t know whether this means the threat is decreasing, that we are counting it differently, or that security forces have become more adept at preventing incidents. But the situation certainly appears more acute, and when dealing with a phenomenon like terrorism – for which the perception of menace and fear is essential – this can be enough.

Undoubtedly this will not be last brutal day in our time. Terrorist groups and those using terrorist methodologies to advance personal anger will continue to strike, each time more brutally, to get attention for their cause. The key question is how society responds. To respond too hard may damage the fabric of a free society, but to respond inadequately will let more people die and perhaps tear it apart entirely. This is a dilemma with no clear answer – but it is increasingly the dominant question of our time.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the defence think tank Rusi

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.

New piece for an outlet to which I haven’t contributed for some time, The National Interest. This time looking at trying to explain China’s enhanced engagement and interest in Syria with Michael Clarke of Australian National University. We are hopefully working on a longer writing related project along these lines in the future, and the topic is undoubtedle one there will more on.

China Is Supporting Syria’s Regime. What Changed?

Michael Clarke | Raffaello Pantucci
Beijing’s motivations are close to home.

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On August 14, Guan Youfei, a rear admiral in China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, visited the Syrian capital of Damascus, escorted around the city under heavy guard. Guan’s visit reportedly included meetings with senior military officials and Russian officers, as well as pledges that the Chinese military would provide medical training for Syrian medical staff. The question is why China is increasing this engagement now.

Admiral Guan’s engagement contrasts with previous Chinese behavior during the Syrian crisis. While China has been one of the few powers to maintain an embassy in Damascus throughout the current crisis, Beijing’s engagements have been fairly limited, and mostly focused on attempts from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to insert itself into peace negotiations and occasional expressions of concern around individual nationals who appear on the battlefield (either as hostages or fighters). The approach has been driven by a mix of motives, including Beijing’s long-standing principle of “non-interference,” aversion to what China sees as largely Western-led regime change in the guise of humanitarian intervention and a Chinese desire to insulate its growing economic interests in the Middle East from the continuing consequences of the Arab Spring.

That dynamic may now be about to change. China has started to become a participant in the many international discussions around countering terrorism, and ISIS in particular. China has participated in the Global Counterterrorism Forum and hosted sessions about terrorists’ use of the internet, while engaging in discussions at home about contributing more to the fight against ISIS. Last year, a decision was made to alter national legislation to allow Chinese security forces to deploy abroad as part of a counterterrorism effort, and China has sought to establish overseas bases in Djibouti. In neighboring Afghanistan, it has established a new sub-regional alliance between Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and China to discuss and coordinate the fight against militancy and terrorist groups in the area. All these actions highlight the degree to which China is slowly pushing its security apparatus out into the world in a more aggressive posture than before. Seen within this light, Admiral Guan’s visit to Damascus is another piece in this puzzle, and the most ambitious yet in many ways for a power that has historically preferred to play a more standoffish role in addressing hard military questions.

Looking to the Syrian context in particular, there are two major reasons for China’s apparent decision to begin playing a more forward role in engaging in Syria. One is China’s concern at the numbers and links of Uighur militants from its restive province of Xinjiang participating in the Syrian conflict. The other is its desire for geostrategic stability in the Middle East as it seeks to consummate its “One Belt, One Road” strategy.

Of particular importance on the first count is the presence of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) on the Syrian battlefield. TIP is a successor organization of sorts to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group that Beijing has blamed for violence linked to Xinjiang after 9/11. Beijing has claimed that Al Qaeda directly “funded and supported” ETIM, and while the scale of Al Qaeda’s direct support of ETIM has been widely disputed, the relationship between TIP and Al Qaeda has only grown closer since, with TIP garnering more Uighur recruits from 2009 onward and Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri praising Uighur contributions to the global jihad in a recent message.

Chinese suppression in Xinjiang, especially after the interethnic riots and violence in the capital, Urumqi, in July 2009, has resulted in the development of what Chinese state media has dubbed an “underground railway” of Uighurs seeking to flee the region. Some of those have ultimately found their way to Turkey and onward to Syria to fight with TIP and other jihadist groups. By 2015, TIP had established a well-documented presence on the battlefield in Syria, with the group releasing a number of videos detailing its combat role fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, until recently Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. (TIP does not fight alongside ISIS; its leadership has released statements in which it condemns ISIS’s activities.) TIP is increasingly showing itself to be an effective force, participating in many major fights (including the breaking of the Aleppo siege) and showing off its skill, manpower and equipment.

Historically, China has not had much economic interest in Syria, a country that prior to the civil war was more closely linked economically to its region, Iran and Russia. And more recently, China has continued to play a second-tier role. While it has had numbers of nationals join ISIS, others kidnapped and killed by the group, and the group has threatened it in some of its rhetoric, it does not appear to be much of a focus for the group. On the non-ISIS side fighting the regime, the numbers fighting alongside TIP seem to be quite substantial, whilst the group’s leadership and a core of the group continues to fight in Afghanistan. And, according to Kyrgyz authorities, this connection may have now matured into the attack that took place in late August against the Chinese embassy in Bishkek.

This threat from TIP in particular is one that is therefore becoming of much greater concern for Beijing. Yet it is not clear who is focused on fighting TIP on the ground in Syria. Western powers fighting in Syria are for the most part focused on ISIS and less focused on the groups fighting against the Assad regime, like TIP. Turkey’s historical proximity to the Uighur cause has raised concerns with Beijing; Uighurs are a people whose culture and language are very close to Turkey’s, and Uighur flags and symbols are regular features during AKP rallies. Erdogan himself has expressed support for the Uighur cause, and back in 2009, in the wake of rioting in Xinjiang that led to some two hundred deaths, he referred to Chinese activity on the ground as “a sort of genocide.” Since 2012, Uighurs have been found traveling on forged Turkish passports in transit countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, raising questions of Turkish complicity. Leaked ISIS documents show a consistent flow of individuals through Kuala Lumpur, as well as other Southeast Asian routes to Turkey.

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On the second count, Beijing faces multiple challenges in the current Middle East for its “One Belt, One Road” strategy. In brief, OBOR is Beijing’s attempt to facilitate Eurasian economic connectivity through the development of a web of infrastructure and trade routes linking China with South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Key parts of this project, such as the $45 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the proposed Yiwu-Tehran high-speed rail link, according to James M. Dorsey, “illustrate the politics of its One Belt, One Road Initiative. Xi Jinping believes that he can achieve Chinese dominance through investment and interconnected infrastructure.”

The current fracturing of the Middle East as a result of the Syrian crisis, however, poses a central roadblock to China’s ability to make this vision a reality. In this context, Beijing views the United States’ approach to Syria as driven by Washington’s desire to use the civil war as a pretext to overthrow the Assad regime in order to weaken Iran’s growing power and influence in the Middle East. In contrast, Russia has been firm in its commitment to root out what it calls the “terrorist” threat there in support of the regime in Damascus, and Beijing has been impressed by the manner in which Russia’s decisive moves have had an effect that years of attrition on the battlefield failed to achieve.

So Beijing may now have arrived at the conclusion that supporting Assad and taking sides with Russia is the most viable option to effectively combat the growth of TIP. Increasing its involvement in Syria via military-to-military cooperation can also be seen in the wider context of a PLA keen to develop its overseas experience, in areas from peacekeeping to antipiracy missions to counterterrorism.

David Shambaugh eloquently argued in 2013 that China remained a “partial power” whose diplomacy “often makes it known what it is against, but rarely what it is for” and that this made its foreign policy in many regions of the world “hesitant, risk averse and narrowly self-interested.” This calculus is now changing under pressure from developments in the Middle East and Afghanistan that directly threaten core Chinese interests and are metastasizing into the very terrorist threat that China has long said it is concerned about. The response from China is relatively predictable—an outward security push. The question that remains, however, is how deeply China wishes to plunge into troubled waters to defend these interests.

Dr. Michael Clarke is Associate Professor at the National Security College at Australian National University. Raffaello Pantucci is Director of the International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

Image: Chinese tanks in formation at Shenyang training base in China. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force

It has been rather busy of late, so a bit behind on posting. First up, I wrote a longer piece in the Independent on Sunday at the weekend on the atrocity last Friday in Paris.

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Paris terror attacks: The lessons of Mumbai were learned – by the jihadis
For Isis to distinguish itself from al-Qaeda it must create greater misery

In November 2008, a new form of terrorism filled our television screens as a 10-man cell dispatched by Pakistan-based terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba wreaked murder and mayhem across Mumbai. Choosing prominent targets filled with foreigners and Indians, the terrorists opened fire on anyone they came across, butchering 266 before dying fighting the authorities.

In so doing, they took over global headlines for days as well as bringing one of Asia’s super-cities to a standstill. Terrorist groups around the world celebrated this horror and began to discuss how they might try to emulate this success. Seven years later in Paris, the playbook has been copied.

This has been the longstanding fear of Western security agencies. Aware of the perceived success of the Mumbai attack, police and intelligence services across Europe have been ramping up their preparedness and training. Most recently, in June, the UK’s emergency and intelligence agencies did a dry run for a marauding shooter attack in London. And there have been scares. In 2010, a network of European cells that seemed to indicate al-Qaeda was attempting a Mumbai-style assault, with training camps in Pakistan’s badlands, was apparently disrupted.

Then earlier this year, Paris was racked by the Charlie Hebdo murders. But whereas those attacks, initially at least, were selective in their targets, Friday’s were utterly indiscriminate. The bombers at the stadium must have known the French President was in the environs, though they blew themselves up outside, killing whoever happened to be nearby. The other cell liberally targeted Parisians on a Friday night out. This is a markedly different form of horror and one that requires deep indoctrination, preparation and training. It is also a step up in terms of atrocity from what we had seen before in Europe. Mumbai-style terrorism has reached European shores.

At least one of the attackers has been uncovered as having some French background. While unsurprising given the threat picture that we have seen, this is particularly disturbing within the context of the sort of attack they undertook. To brutally shoot and execute fellow nationals pleading for their lives is something which would have required intense commitment. This training may have occurred in Syria, but in many ways this no longer matters. Islamic State (Isis) has shown an interest in stirring chaos and misery around the world with little apparent concern for its strategic impact.

Unlike the Madrid bombings, which had the effect of prying apart the coalition in Iraq, the attacks that Isis has inspired, instigated or directed, have been aimed at killing as many as possible in “enemy” countries and stirring tensions in societies. France in particular has been at the epicentre of this threat. In May 2014, Frenchman Mehdi Nemmouche opened fire at a Jewish Museum in Brussels killing three. He was later reported to have fought alongside Isis. In August this year, another young man with links to France, Ayoub el Khazzani, was barely prevented from shooting at passengers on a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris.

His background remains unclear, but he was linked to a network in Turkey that was linked to Isis and connected to Sid Ahmed Ghlam, a 24-year-old Algerian French resident who was reportedly plotting to attack churches in Paris. He was detained after he called an ambulance to his home having shot himself accidentally in the leg. He was already of concern to French security services.

And none of this is to talk about the numerous plots that French authorities have faced where individuals have launched attacks in advance of jihadist ideologies with no clear evidence of any sort of network. Around Christmas last year there was a spate of random attacks using knives or cars, and in June, Yassin Salhi decapitated his boss and tried to drive a car bomb into a chemical factory in Lyon. He strung up his boss’s head on a fence, took pictures of it with an Islamist flag and sent them to a fighter he knew in Syria.

This, sadly, is the nature of the current threat. And while obtaining the high-powered rifles required to cause such mass slaughter is much harder in the UK, it could strike here. Each wave of terrorism has to cause greater mayhem to have the same impact over time, and consequently for Isis to distinguish itself from al-Qaeda, it must create greater impact and misery.

While the UK can draw comfort from the fact weapons are harder to get here, British people abroad have fallen foul of these plots. The massacre in Sousse particularly affected British nationals, and at least one Briton was caught up in Friday’s Paris attacks. Terrorism has to continually evolve and cause greater brutality to maintain impact and attract attention. And while France is currently the epicentre, the ideology and groups are ones that are keen to equally target the UK

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

A new piece off the book ahead of what is likely to be a busy week in this regard, looking at the concept of the ‘Suburban Terrorist’ for the Sunday Telegraph. There are a few other pieces around the book that are going to be emerging this week as we hit the ten year anniversary of the sad events of July 7, 2005. Some news articles have already started to emerge, including this interview I did with Sky News about Mohammed Siddique Khan’s under-explored visit to Israel. In other subjects, I spoke to AFP about China-Central Asia and Voice of America about the AIIB.

The Rise of the Suburban Terrorist

Ten years on from the 7/7 bombings, Britain’s towns and cities are spawning a new wave of homegrown terrorists

“Jihadi John”, unmasked recently as Mohammed Emwazi

“Jihadi John”, unmasked recently as Mohammed Emwazi
By Raffaello Pantucci

But there is one often forgotten player who masterminded the attacks on the capital ten years ago this week. Rashid Rauf was the son of a Birmingham baker who progressed up the ranks of al Qaeda to become jihadi royalty. When the London bombings took place, he was in Pakistan, and it was from here that he co-ordinated the bombings and compiled a post-action report.

“A few months after the operation, I saw a dream, which Sidique and Shehzad are sitting and smiling, looking very happy,” he wrote at the time.

“Sidique” referred to 30-year-old Mohammed Sidique Khan, a married-father-of-one and teaching assistant from Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. “Shehzad” was 22-year-old sports science graduate Shehzad Tanweer, from nearby Beeston in Leeds. Between them, they had murdered 13 people after detonating suicide bombs on the Circle Line on a Thursday morning 10 years ago. The other explosives set off that day by their teenage accomplices, Germaine Lindsay and Hasib Hussain, ensured that 52 innocent lives were lost in total.

The attack was not just al Qaeda’s most successful ever on British soil, but also breathed vivid life into the concept of the homegrown terrorist, born and raised in town and city suburbs and beneficiaries of our schools and universities who suddenly turn murderously against the state. Rauf epitomises this story.

A young Brummie born to a Pakistani family that had migrated to the UK, Rauf grew up in a terraced house in east Birmingham. He helped out at his father’s bakery during breaks at the local Washwood Heath High School, which itself achieved some notoriety in 1996 when a teacher leapt up after a carol singing shouting “Who is your God? Why are you saying Jesus and Jesus Christ? God is not your God – it is Allah!”. From there, he got a place at Portsmouth University.

In 2002, Rauf fled the UK for Pakistan where he quickly rose up the ranks and became a conduit for al Qaeda attempting to draw in excitable young British men. By the time he was killed in a drone strike in 2008, he had moved into a senior role in al Qaeda and was married into a prominent jihadi family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Talha Asmal fled his home in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, in March

A decade on from 7/7, the rise of the suburban mujahedeen has become an all-too familiar tale. Last month, 17-year-old Talha Asmal – who, like Sidique Khan, also hailed from Dewsbury – became the youngest suicide bomber Britain has ever produced. The former student at Mirfield Free Grammar and Sixth Form blew himself up in a car bomb in Iraq alongside three other jihadis in a coordinated Isil attack. His devastated parents have said he was the victim of the terrorist group’s perverse ideology; they had no idea he was being exploited to make the transition from “ordinary Yorkshire lad” to suicide bomber.

A new wave of terrorism is building in the sands of Syria and Iraq that is already giving birth to the next generation of British terrorists. What ties them all together are their relatively ordinary backgrounds. They see little appeal in the middle-class lives they are headed for, and instead are being drawn to fight in god’s name in the great struggle of their age in the Levant.

There are numerous motivations as to why so many young British men and women are being lured to jihad 10 years after the terrorist atrocity of 7/7. Some are drawn by religious ideology; long term activists and people interested in Islamic ideas who seize upon the end of days narrative which is being peddled by Isil propagandists. Others are attracted to the sheer excitement of participating in a foreign conflict.

Then there is a redemptive value of the fight in Syria and Iraq, perceived by some troubled young Britons as a way of earning respect and shedding troubled pasts. When growing up in Britain, Rashid Rauf and a friend allegedly skirted on the fringes of the local gang community, ending up involved with the Aston Panthers. This is something one sees often among British jihadis, not least Thomas Evans, a 25-year-old from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, killed in Kenya last month while fighting for the terror group al-Shabaab. Evans floated around in local gangs, a petty criminal who re-invented himself as an international warrior for god.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thomas Evans, who died in Kenya

Richard Reid, who was jailed in 2001 after attempting to ignite a shoe bomb on American Airlines flight 63 from Paris to Miami, who grew up in the London suburb of Bromley and spent time in Feltham Young Offenders institution for petty crime. The 7/7 bomber Germaine Lindsay, who killed 26 on the Piccadilly Line, also came from a broken home and had dabbled in petty crime before focusing on religion.

Others, however, just want to escape their banal, middle-class lives – and it is this which is so difficult for the authorities and families to predict. Glasgow teenager Aqsa Mahmood, who fled to join Isil in 2013, was privately educated and grew up in a happy, close-knit home. Mohammed Sidique Khan wanted to travel and ended up working at a desk job with a degree from a local university. Shehzad Tanweer had a nice car and enjoyed playing cricket. Samantha Lewthwaite, Lindsay’s wife and the so-called “White Widow”, was born to a military family in Aylesbury, Bucks. The decision to go and fight is a reaction against your environment. In many ways, it’s a reflection of young people trying to explore their identities.

What has changed in recent years, as the recent recruitment of schoolboy Talha Asmal shows, is the power of online propaganda and connections to help recruit would be jihadists and persuade young Britons of their connection to the cause and others involved in it. On the internet you can have these multiple identities and completely fictitious online profiles which have no connection with real life. Shami Witness, who ran the most influential pro-Isil Twitter account before it was shut down last year, turned out to be an executive in Bangalore working for an Indian conglomerate. It is easy to reinvent yourself online.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase and Shamima Begum

The other interesting aspect that persists is the sense of shared camaraderie that can be a strong lure for young men and women. The 7/7 bombers supposedly laughed and hugged at Kings Cross before embarking on their final, separate journeys. A close bond of friendship is also what motivated the teenage Bethnal Green Academy pupils Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana to travel to Istanbul in February and on to Syria. In 2013, the Pompey Lads, the group of six jihadis from Portsmouth who travelled out to fight for Isil, discussed their upcoming trip as if preparing for any holiday away.

Ten years on from 7/7, we are continuing to see young men and women drawn by extremist narratives to fight in foreign fields. At some point, it is possible they will return to launch attacks in the UK. The next generation of British suburban mujahedeen have yet to completely mature into threats like Rashid Rauf and Mohammed Siddique Khan, but it is likely only a matter of time before they do.

• Raffaello Pantucci is Director, International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen (Hurst, £15.99). To order your copy for £13.99 plus p&p, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk

A new review essay for my home institution RUSI’s own RUSI Journal. It covers a series of books written by three different individuals who managed to penetrate different parts of al Qaeda on behalf of security forces, and lived to tell their tales. The books are written with journalists and are all a good read – for different reasons in each case. I particularly enjoyed the pacey nature of Morten Storm’s account which ducks and weaves around al Qaeda globally, as well as the detailed and deeply personal look at some of the history around Finsbury Park Mosque that I had covered in my book in Reda Hassaine’s (that one would have been useful while I was working on the book I  should add, in fact Morten Storm’s as well given the interesting revelations about some historical cases like Hassan Tabbakh), while Mubin Shaikh’s is a very personal and emotional read. The point of the review was both to try to explore the particular cases and stories, but also more generally the phenomenon of these men who are drawn to serve in this dangerous role. The article is behind a paywall, but can be accessed here, and I have pasted the first few paragraphs below. If you cannot access it, do get in touch and I can see what I might do to help. This aside, been doing bits of talking to the media, but been travelling a lot too. So far, can only find some comments I made to Voice of America on the recent Tunisia attacks and the New Scientist on online radicalisation.

Radicalism and Terrorism

Raffaello Pantucci reviews

Agent Storm: My Life Inside al-Qaeda
By Morten Storm with Tim Lister and Paul Cruickshank

and

Abu Hamza: Guilty; The Fight Against Radical Islam
By Réda Hassaïne and Kurt Barling

and

Undercover Jihadi: Inside the Toronto 18 – Al Qaeda Inspired, Homegrown Terrorism in the West
By Anne Speckhard and Mubin Shaikh

Paranoia, fantasy, omniscience and glory are a combustible mix of emotions. Stoked by handlers keen to advance their own goals, this list provides a snapshot insight into the mindset driving individuals who choose to become undercover agents. Drawn into action through disaffection, a sense of need to improve the world around them or through manipulation by others, they have repeatedly played key roles in the War on Terror. At the heart of almost every disrupted plot is an undercover agent. The three books under review tell a clutch of these tales, exposing the seamy side of the intelligence war against Al-Qa’ida.
The agents at the heart of these tales all became undercover agents through different routes and at different times, though the enemy remains, broadly speaking, the same throughout. Morten Storm (an agent for Danish, British and American intelligence) and Mubin Shaikh (an agent for Canadian authorities) were drawn towards Al-Qa’idist ideology in Europe and Canada respectively in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This marked the beginning of their struggle to counter Al-Qa’ida and its offshoots from within. For Morten Storm this was the beginning of a globetrotting life focused on Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Shabaab and their European contacts, while for Mubin Shaikh it was the entry point into an immersion into Canada’s radicalised community. In contrast, Réda Hassaïne (who worked for Algerian, French and British services) was coerced into the world of espionage and counter-terrorism by a manipulative and brutal Algerian state that saw the young journalist and sometime political activist as a useful tool to be used and disposed of at will. All three had begun with little intention of becoming agents, but after being drawn into radical milieus, found themselves being targeted by security agencies.