Posts Tagged ‘terrorism’

Another post, this time being published in a slightly more timely manner for my publisher Hurst’s blog. It looks at the links with history in the recent terrorist attacks in the UK, and specifically ties into al Muhajiroun. For lots more stories like this, of course read my book!

Al-Muhajiroun and the simmering divisions in British society

‘You know, the Qur’an even tells me which direction I must break wind in,’ declared Omar Bakri Mohammed in the late 1990s. Taking the bait, roving reporter Jon Ronson asked, ‘And which direction do you break wind in?’ leading Omar to break into hysterical laughter as he announced, ‘In the direction of the non-believer!’ Omar is the founder of al-Muhajiroun, the group linked to the London Bridge terror attack ringleader Khuram Butt and numerous other terrorist plots. His joke does not seem as funny 20 years later.

The interview with Omar Bakri Mohammed was part of a series of entertaining pieces by Jon Ronson that tracked a variety of extremists convinced that dark conspiratorial forces ruled the world. At its culmination, Omar unmasked Jon as a Jew to an audience of his jihadist acolytes at a training camp in Crawley. This dark conclusion to the encounter was a portent in some ways of what was to come. The group that Omar was fostering, al-Muhajiroun, became what another reporter characterized as an ‘old boys network’ for British jihad. Men from the community in Crawley were linked to a training camp attended by the 7 July bombers. Britain’s first known suicide bomber in Syria came from Crawley and supposedly knew Omar Bakri Mohammed personally. The gym that Khuram Butt worked at was managed by one of the supporters of the Crawley network. My own research has found clear links to the group in at least half of the jihadist terrorist plots in the UK, while a senior security official I once spoke to shrugged and pointed out that a link of some sort was ‘almost always there’ in every investigation.


From Hurst and Getty.

The first hints of trouble came soon after Omar’s then comical interview with Jon Ronson. In December 1998 one of the leaders of al-Muhajiroun, Amer Mirza, angered by the resumption of bombing in Iraq, threw a petrol bomb at a Territorial Army barracks in West London. Later that month authorities in Yemen arrested six Britons from a competing faction of violent extremists in London, linked to the infamous hook-handed cleric Abu Hamza. Arrested with explosives and guns, they were accused of planning a series of New Year’s Eve atrocities in Sana’a. These two communities were to become the beating heart of Britain’s international terrorist threat, producing a thread that links history right up to the current day.

The pattern of where the threat came from in the UK is consistent. Abu Hamza’s community produced a pair of shoe bombers, the murderer of a policeman in Manchester and fighters for the Taliban. Al-Muhajiroun helped to build an infrastructure in Pakistan for those going to fight in Afghanistan. The group was also responsible for the pair of suicide bombers who blew up a bar in Tel Aviv, provided access to training camps for the 7 July bombers, and orchestrated an attack on the CIA base in Afghanistan at Camp Chapman. Far closer to home it stirred hatred in the community from which the murderers of Lee Rigby emerged. And many more in between.

Radicalized young Britons with links back to these communities have been a regular feature of jihadist battlefields across the world. Their radicalization has led them to fight and train in Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, Libya, Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, parts of Southeast Asia and more.

Syria, however, was the real game-changer. Attracting feverous support across the world, it seemed to hearken back to the golden age of ‘just jihad’ against oppressive regimes, much like the struggle of the brave warriors in Afghanistan. Here there were people oppressed while the West did nothing about it. Only the brave muhajireen were willing to stand up to the cruel Assad regime.

Some of those drawn to this endeavour were on their way to becoming career warriors, such as Ibrahim al Mazwagi, one of the first reported British fighters to die in Syria. Prior to Syria, he had faced combat in Libya, as part of the British-Libyan mobilization who returned to Libya as the Arab Spring took hold there. For a short period they were fighting on the same side as the British government against the Gadhafi regime. Within this contingent were long-term anti-Gadhafi activists and members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a salafi-jihadi anti-Gadhafi group who had taken refuge in the UK, and who saw in the wake of the Arab Spring an opportunity to finally achieve their long-desired goal. Having been in the UK for decades, many had settled and had children who they swept up along with them, showing them that armed struggle against unjust governance was acceptable and sometimes necessary.

Initially the assessment of the Arab Spring was a relatively benign one. Long-awkward partners across the Arab world were headed for civilian overthrow as people around the world reacted to Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia. Western governments cheered, and President Obama demanded that President Mubarak of Egypt step down. But rebellions tend not to play out the way we want them to. And it was not long before the jihadist narratives started to resonate across the various battlefields born out of the Arab Spring. Young Britons and their European counterparts alike started to mobilize in substantial numbers, in particular drawn by what was happening in Syria.

Sitting in London, it quickly became clear that the groups going were the same ones who had been active for years. For instance whilst aid convoys heading to Syria from the UK had with them food, aid and ambulances, they were also used by young men as cover to go and fight. This was only the latest example of a long tradition of convoys being used as a method to enter these conflicts; for some young men this was not their first experience with activism. For example, a number of those who went on convoys with George Galloway’s Viva Palestina charity to Gaza ended up fighting in Syria. Others were arrested at protests outside the Israeli Embassy in London or had been caught trying to go to battlefields in Africa earlier. Even more had been involved in al-Muhajiroun’s constant cycle of protests and marches around London. Previously convicted activists showed up on convoys heading out to Syria, and from his new home in Syria, Omar Bakri claimed to have recruited innumerable young men to fight in the country.


From Hurst and Getty.

Whilst the stakes were raised abroad the threat in the UK seemed to have evolved. After the murder of Lee Rigby, authorities constantly kept people on edge. The government reacted in August 2014 and raised the threat level to ‘Severe’ – meaning ‘an attack is highly likely’ – but nothing seemed to materialize. In the wake of the Paris attacks in 2015, David Cameron announced an uplift in security agencies’ capacity, highlighting that the agencies had disrupted at least seven plots in the past six months, ‘albeit attacks planned on a smaller scale.’ Contrarily, right wing extremists began to slip through the security services net. A notable incident was the Ukrainian Pavlo Lapshyn’s one-man murder campaign in the West Midlands in 2013, in which he stabbed Mohammed Saleem in the street and targeted three mosques with bombs. This was succeeded by one of the most politically prominent actions of the far right during the run-up to the Brexit vote — the murder of Jo Cox by Tommy Mair as she attended MPs surgery in Birstall.

What exactly was going on was not clear, but it seemed as though the far right was a growing menace. In a piece of research by a consortium led by my think tank RUSI, we found that in the 14 years since the 11 September attacks, there have been as many extreme right-wing lone wolf terrorist incidents as there have been individual acts of terrorism driven by violent Islamist ideology. This is coupled with evidence of something more substantial and organized simmering as well. The rise of groups like the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First, both in part explicitly reacting to al-Muhajiroun’s loud and ugly protests, were one facet to this. On the continent in Europe, Anders Behring Breivik’s massacre of young political activists in Norway in July 2011 and the uncovering of the National Socialist Underground showed how the extreme right in Europe was not just organizing, but was also willing to use violence.


From Hurst and Getty

And then we had 2017. The year was off to a confusing start with the UK still reeling from Brexit, but in quick succession attacks came from both sides. The sequence of atrocities began one quiet morning in Westminster, followed by a concert in Manchesterstabbings on a busy Saturday night in London Bridge and a vehicle attack on worshippers outside the Finsbury Park mosque in London. The first still seems like an outlier, a loner not connected to any particular group. We still do not have the whole story of why Khalid Masood did what he did. But the others all touched directly on history: Salman Abedi, a child of LIFG-linked parents, and Khuram Butt with his long and public history with al-Muhajiroun. And while we still do not know exactly why Finsbury Park was targeted, the choice of the mosque where hook-handed Abu Hamza had led his acolytes gives us a connection to history that is unmistakable.

It has now been two decades since Omar Bakri established al-Muhajiroun in the UK. The days of seeing Omar as a clown have long passed, and doubtless he is not laughing from his cell in Lebanon. But the grim reality is of a threat that appears persistent, evolving and sparking counter action and response on the other side of the ideological equation. The government has launched another review of its counter-terrorism policy, seeing where there are gaps that need plugging or updating needs to be done. More attention is focused on the extreme right wing, though it remains something that is left to the police rather than intelligence agencies. But the reality is that they are addressing the same threat that has been managed for the past two decades. Incremental improvements are made in our response, some bad policies are binned, and some are steered off a path to violence, but it is not clear that we are materially eradicating the ideas and groups that are ultimately behind the violence on our streets.

But maybe this is what the end state of this conflict looks like. History tells us that on most political spectrums there is a radical edge, and some of those will turn to violence. Previously it was a struggle of the left and right, now the opposite ends appear to be the extreme right and violent Islamists. For societies stuck in the middle it seems imperative to ensure that we all come together and reject these extremes while also realizing that to some degree they are always likely to exist. Unfortunately, these are threats that we are going to have manage rather than eradicate.


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 Terrorists.

More late posting, this time on China’s posture with regard to international terrorism for the South China Morning Post. Am also catching up on some media appearances over the past couple of months. Spoke to the LA Times, AFP, and Washington Post about the Finsbury Park attack. To the  New York TimesNewsweek, Financial Times, Guardian, and Ireland Herald about the London Bridge attack. To the New York Times about ISIS long distance direction. On the broader question of the current threat picture and UK history with The TimesObserverBloomberg, the Australian, and Newsweek. And finally, on the difficulties countering online terror and European sharing with the Washington Post and US News Report. More on this final topic to come in an interesting new format soon. And absolutely finally, on the other side of the coin, about the Belt and Road causing frictions between China and Russia for RFE/RL. As ever a lot more on this to come soon as well (including a very substantial couple of new pieces).

‘Why China must do more to fight international terrorism’

China is increasingly becoming a target for militant groups, but by cooperating more with other countries Beijing can help combat the threat, writes Raffaello Pantucci

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 July, 2017, 2:03pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 July, 2017, 2:49am

A darker side to China’s Belt and Road Initiative is starting to reveal itself.

As China’s profile rises and its investments and interests globally grow, China is finding itself in the terrorists’ cross hairs. This means Beijing needs a more considered counterterrorism policy with greater international cooperation.

Back in July 2015, the Islamist militant group al-Shabab launched an attack on the Jazeera Palace Hotel in Mogadishu, Somalia. Apparently revenge for an assault by Ethiopian soldiers that killed civilians, the attack also happened to hit the Chinese embassy in the building, killing a security guard.

Al-Shabab was reminded of the impact of its action in a message from the Turkestan Islamic Party, a Uygur jihadi group that China has blamed for a series of attacks in its western region of Xinjiang. It sent a message saying: “We the mujahideen in the Turkestan Islamic Party congratulate the Islamic Ummah for this blessed operation, we endorse it and we encourage the Shabab al-Mujahideen Movement in Somalia to carry out more such jihadi operations.”

But there was little evidence that the group had meant to target the Chinese embassy.

Just over a year later, another Chinese embassy was hit by a terrorist attack. This time a suicide car bomber crashed through the gates of the embassy compound in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, before detonating explosives in the vehicle. The damage was limited, although local employees were hurt. But the attack this time was far more targeted. Nobody claimed responsibility, but reports strongly suggest the attack was linked to an Islamist militant group operating in Syria. What was not in doubt was it clearly targeted China.

This shift comes after a period when China could relax as a second-order priority for international terrorist groups. While al-Qaeda and others would occasionally issue threats to China, it was not clear that they were dedicating material resources to target Beijing or its interests. The principal link China had to international jihadist networks was the militant Uygur community angry at Beijing’s domination of Xinjiang. Some were connected with international jihadi networks. Yet this group was largely seen as weak and not one that could command much more from the international jihadist community beyond rhetorical statements.

Turn to today, and as China reaches out to the world through President Xi Jinping’s belt and road plan, Beijing is becoming more of a terrorist target.

Many of these forces intersect in Pakistan, where large-scale infrastructure investment into the conflict-prone country is directly exposing Chinese interests and citizens to the dangers of armed groups. In part, this is a product of China’s support for the Pakistani state – the main target of many Pakistan-based groups. But it is also a result of China’s ongoing problems in Xinjiang and an angry Uygur minority who are finding more active support in the international jihadist milieu. Recent statements by Islamic State and other militant groups in Pakistan link strikes and anger against China to their treatment of Uygurs.

But what can China do about this? In the first instance, Beijing needs to find some way to resolve its problems in Xinjiang – letting the situation fester there is not going to improve China’s standing in the eyes of the international jihadist community. Looking abroad, Beijing still officially stands behind its sacred principle of non-interference but it is clearly starting to build a legislative framework to provide a mandate for its forces to go out into the world and protect its national interests. This can be seen in new counterterrorism and intelligence legislation. It is also apparent in the People’s Liberation Army’s growing assertiveness and international presence – be it more aggressive peacekeeping mandates, overseas bases, or growing direct military support for countries dealing with militant groups at home.

Yet there is more that can be done. China continues to be a hesitant player in international cooperation. This is in part the product of a lack of trust and different views on the root causes of terrorist problems, but there are a number of places around the world where China and the West share a common threat.

Sharing assessments and specific intelligence linked to respective national interests is one cooperative way forwards, but these both need to be two-way streets. Historically, China has acted in a more passive manner in such engagements, taking information without giving much in return. More could also be done to think through the impact of support for government forces on the ground – in particular to make sure there is a greater level of common effort in this direction.

For example, coordinating support to the Philippines as it deal with its growing problem with militants. Currently, numerous powers – both Western and Asian – provide support for the Philippine government. Making sure this support is complementary and that both sides are highlighting the same problems to the Philippine government is key in establishing long-term stability in the country.

International terrorism is a common problem facing the world. While there are always going to be disagreements and difficulties in countering these threats, there are some things which can be done together.

China can no longer hide in the shade of terrorist groups’ desire to strike primarily at the West. As it expands its international footprint, it is going to be increasingly exposed and will need to build relations with friends around the world to manage this growing menace effectively.

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

Late to post this, as it was published over a week ago in the Telegraph on the anniversary of the July 7 bombings.

Twelve years on from the 7/7 atrocities, the terror threat has evolved. Have our defences?

We are always fighting the last war. As we reach the twelve year anniversary of the July 7, 2005 attacks it is worth taking stock of how much the threat picture from terrorism we face has changed, and ask whether our response has kept pace. From a terrorist threat that was directed by al-Qaeda using radicalised British nationals trained at camps in Pakistan, we are facing a threat of lone individuals launching confusing attacks with household weapons. It is not yet clear that our response has caught up.

Prior to 7/7 it was hard to conceptualize the fact that British nationals would commit suicide bombings at home. But once it happened, it became the norm, with security services spending much of the next decade countering similar plots. In doing so, they began to understand how the networks worked, what the processes and communications methods were, and how al-Qaeda saw British nationals as useful tools to strike against the West. Having understood the threat, they were able to develop measures to counter it, and find ways of getting into networks. What was once a source of strength, was steadily uncovered as a source of weakness, and security services adapted their practice to disrupt such networked plots.

But having closed one door, another opened. Still determined to launch attacks, terrorist groups have adapted and individuals now are instigated, inspired or directed remotely. The plots they are advancing are low tech and require little training. This shrinks the plotters footprint, making it much harder for security agencies to catch them in their nets. A link abroad still exists – and in some cases, like Salman Abedi in Manchester, a strong link – but the majority of cases appear to be more isolated with trace links abroad or to a broader radical milieu.

To counter this evolving menace a new posture needs to be taken. In the first instance, it is clear that more capacity is needed. This is something that has been clear for some time, and security agencies are growing – but this takes time to mature into useful capacity.

Second, we need to find a way of re-focusing and sharpening the way that residual or peripheral cases are managed. As we have seen in all three of the recent violent Islamist attacks in the UK, the individuals involved were people who had featured in previous investigations, but were never the main targets. Over time, the pool of individuals who fit into this category will only grow. While undoubtedly the Security Service will have to keep some attention on them, a new agency or cross-departmental team could be formed to instead focus on each case in a more intense fashion and to make sure they are getting off a path towards radicalisation. A methodical and refreshed look at them by a non-secret agency in light of the current threat picture might be useful and clear time for security agencies to focus on other priority cases.

Third, we need to get ahead of ideologies and methodologies. There are two parts to this: first, greater attention needs to be paid to the extreme right wing. It has a capacity to shock, cause misery and greater tensions that in turn exacerbate the violent Islamist threat. At the moment our focus is on violent Islamists, and yet we can see on the right wing a consistent pattern of threat and hints towards coordination and competence. Second, we need to explore new ways of mining and managing the data that is collected. The security agencies are clearly tracking new technologies that can support counter-terrorism analysis, but using AI may help throw up leads which are currently being missed among the mass of information. While this will never be completely accurate, given the disparate nature of the threat that is faced, and the manner in which it has recently kept popping out of the woodwork, it is worth considering whether something like this might help pick up some hidden leads.

Fourth, we need to have a more mature public conversation about the nature and reality of the threat that is faced and how safe we are from it. Statistically, there are innumerably more things that are threats to your health than terrorism. We are also not facing an existential threat. And we are unlikely to eradicate it in the near term future. All of these realities need to be discussed in a way that steers clear of the polemical side of the conversation that tends to crowd the public forum. Most organized human societies have faced terrorism in their histories – and in most cases they have survived. The few that have been changed have usually done so because of the overwhelming nature of the failures of governance by the power that was overthrown.

Finally, we need to make sure we do not make obvious missteps and exacerbate the very threat we are trying to counter. This means not cutting off (or threatening to) intelligence sharing with crucial allies in Europe. Not talking in the same clash of civilization terms that the extremists do. Not politicising counter-terrorism work in a way that means its effectiveness becomes stunted. And not standing idle while terrorist groups gather abroad. As we have repeatedly seen, they will come back and strike us in due course. None of these measures will likely eradicate terrorism in the medium term future, but they will set us on a course that will go in that direction and keep us even safer than we already are from terrorist attacks.

Raffaello Pantucci is the Director of International Security Studies at RUSI

More catch-up posting, this time a piece for my institutional home RUSI’s magazine Newsbrief, looking at how the threat from ISIS/Daesh may evolve over the next few years.

Daesh: What Happens Next?

May 24, 2017

As the battle for Mosul rages on and Daesh is put under increasing pressure in other parts of Iraq and Syria, how will the threat from the group evolve? Will Daesh end up following the path of Al-Qa’ida, with regional affiliates becoming more prominent? 

In the wake of 9/11, Al-Qa’ida was sharply ejected from its base in Afghanistan. Re-establishing itself in Pakistan’s border areas, the leadership continued their bitter struggle against the world, launching and coordinating a series of attacks. Most immediately these included: an attempt on transatlantic airlines using British shoe bombers; an attack on the Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba, Tunisia; the bombing of a nightclub in Bali; a rocket attack on an Israeli passenger aircraft leaving Mombasa, Kenya; and ship-borne suicide bombers targeting the French-flagged Petronas oil tanker MV Limburg off the coast of Yemen. Scattered around the world, these plots included a mix of local Al-Qa’ida affiliates and people who had trained at camps in Afghanistan, but all showed a clear link to the group’s leadership.

This set a pattern for the next few years, where the group continued to manipulate its networks from a distance, as well as send out cells of plotters to launch attacks around the world. In some cases, largely autonomous local networks took some seed support (or had a few key individuals return from the training camps), leading to a spate of attacks.

A good example of this was in Indonesia, where Jemaah Islamiah, the Southeast Asian Al-Qa’ida affiliate, launched a series of attacks in Bali and Jakarta. In other cases, such as the UK, the group had a steady supply of radicalised young men travel to its camps in Pakistan where they were indoctrinated and then directed to commit atrocities back home. This pipeline generated a string of plots directed from the core with escalating ambition that culminated in the August 2006 plot to bring down eight transatlantic flights with liquid bombs. This ideology received a boost from the invasion of Iraq, with random individuals seeking to launch attacks to advance the group with little evidence of a clear link to the leadership.

This pattern really started to change only in 2008–2010, when an extensive drone and Special Forces campaign was launched against the Al-Qa’ida leadership in Pakistan. This persistent hammering had an effect and led to a noticeable drop in Al-Qa’ida’s capacity to train and send out jihadis, as well as communicate with its international network. A Birmingham network, disrupted in 2011, was overheard talking about how the extent of their training camp was hanging about indoors hiding from drones and watching extremist videos. In 2010, French jihadist Mohammed Merah sought out training camps in Pakistan and appeared only able to spend a day at one before being sent quickly back on his way. The Birmingham cell was disrupted while Merah went on to launch a campaign in southern France, murdering off-duty soldiers and Jewish schoolchildren. Bin Laden senior was able to issue only occasional messages to his network and the world, leading to growing strategic stagnation.

But as the leadership took a beating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al-Qa’ida’s regional affiliates assumed a more prominent role in launching attacks. Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) raised its profile, becoming a greater draw to the community of radicalised young westerners seeking to connect with jihadist groups. This brought a new wave of young aspiring Western warriors to Yemen, in particular through the attraction of its American-Yemeni preacher Anwar Al-Awlaki. These warriors were further indoctrinated, trained and then dispatched to launch attacks back home. This led to repeated attempts on international aviation, including: the ‘underwear bomber’; the printer cartridge bombs; concerns over an attempt to launch an attack with surgically implanted explosives: and a threat from a radicalised IT worker at British Airways. AQAP became the standard bearer for Al-Qa’ida globally, continuing the international struggle as the core lost its capacity to manage such attacks.

But the core organisation continued to exist and exert influence and direction over the network. As was evidenced by the many letters to have leaked from the correspondence seized in Abbottabad, Osama was a controlling leader. In one letter, for example, he expressed disappointment and disapproval of methods of attacks advocated by AQAP in its influential English-language magazine Inspire. Elsewhere, it seems clear that he was responsible for the continuing refusal to formally recognise Somali affiliate Al-Shabaab as part of the global organisation. However, his ability to control the group was weakening and as regional affiliates became more prominent or others developed, the nature of the ideology that Osama had launched changed. His death at the hands of US Special Forces at his Abbottabad compound in 2011 changed the group, with his successor Ayman Al-Zawahiri offering a different style of leadership and direction.

The result of this was a clear shift towards regionalisation by the group. Attacks and campaigns became much more localised. The 2013 attacks at In Amenas in Algeria and Al-Shabaab’s assault on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi are the best examples of this. In both cases, the attackers were linked to Al-Qa’ida, but there was a mix of local dynamics and new leadership figures establishing themselves at play in both cases. Despite Al-Qa’ida’s celebrations and announcements, it was not clear the degree to which the attacks were directed from Afghanistan or Pakistan, if at all. The incident advanced the global cause, although appeared much more about local than international dynamics. The regional affiliates still used Al-Qa’ida’s rhetoric and ideology, though their motivations appeared to be driven by a different set of drivers than the core leadership or ideology would necessarily advocate. More focused on local enemies, they were retreating to confront the ‘near enemy’ rather than the ‘far enemy’.

Daesh appears to be undergoing the same process, albeit in a more compressed timeframe than the decade or so it has taken Al-Qa’ida. Plots linked to the Daesh’s core continue to show up around the world, with some evidence of individual former fighters returning home to plant the seeds of a network. There is also evidence of attackers being directed, instigated or inspired by the group’s core in Syria and Iraq.

At the same time, Daesh’s regional affiliates – for instance, its groups in Afghanistan, Egypt, Nigeria or Libya – are taking a much more forward and aggressive position. The core group claims responsibility for these attacks and releases images through formal information channels linked to its Amaq or Nashir news agencies. The attacks themselves, however, often appear to be far more locally oriented and directed. That is to say, they are focused on striking enemies in their immediate environments, rather than using their bases to launch the large-scale attacks on the West that the core seems interested in wanting to do. Daesh’s Afghan affiliate, for example, has repeatedly launched attacks against Shia or government targets in Kabul. The group’s Egyptian affiliate continues to strike against minorities or the state in Egypt. Libya is possibly the exception to this rule, given the disorder in the state, the group has often used its training camps or footprint there to launch attacks or attempted plots in nearby North African countries such as Morocco or Tunisia.

This local focus suggests a far looser network of groups whose allegiance may be more limited, or at the very least a narrative by the core organisation that allows for far greater autonomy by regional affiliates. But this strategy carries with it risks for the core. If a regional affiliate has been operating autonomously for some time and is merely carrying the banner locally, then its loyalty may over time become frayed. Members of the leadership with personal links to the affiliate may get killed off, leading to the rise of new individuals whose ties may lie elsewhere. This will change the power dynamic between the core and the affiliate as the historical kinship links which tie the groups together get lost and new ones are harder to develop over long distances. This is a dynamic that has already played out to some degree with Al-Qa’ida, but it is happening with Daesh over a much shorter timeline as the core organisation continues to hold territory in the Levant and directs, instigates and inspires terrorist plots around the world.

Therefore, the potential threat from Daesh is one that is an enhanced version of what was seen with Al-Qa’ida. And the dangers from these patterns are similar to those seen with Al-Qa’ida. The growing prominence of affiliates is something that became a threat not only to Western countries or their nationals abroad, but also means that the core ideology and threat from the group is transferred from the core to affiliates at moments when the former comes under particular stress. The rise of AQAP to prominence in the late 2000s is a reflection of this, and it is possible that we could see a similar displacing as Daesh comes under greater pressure in the Levant.

At the same time, it is equally possible to draw some lessons from Al-Qa’ida’s weakening to understand how to damage Daesh and manage its growth. First, the core needs to be hammered and deprived of territory. This pressure clearly degrades capacity. Second, the West needs to be vigilant against more confident and strong affiliates as they can become the core threat. Third, it needs to understand the nature of individual links between groups. Targeting key individuals may disrupt connections between groups. However, according to the law of unintended consequences, there might be some instances of degrading, while in some other cases there may be individuals whose rise will pose a greater menace. All of this provides a pen portrait for how aggressive counterterrorism activity, as well as careful management of regional affiliates is at the core of understanding how to manage the threat from the group.

All of this is taking place as the threat from Al-Qa’ida core continues to exist. As Hamza bin Laden’s latest message illustrates, the progenitor organisation continues to want to stay relevant and is trying to re-appropriate the concept of lone-actor terrorist attacks (an attack methodology it had long advocated but was unable to weaponise as effectively as Daesh), showing the longevity of these sorts of threats. While Daesh seeks to distinguish itself in many ways from Al-Qa’ida and there are strong tensions between the two groups, their ideologies and outlooks remain similar. Daesh’s methods of attack, direction and radicalisation may have developed from Al-Qa’ida’s, but in many ways this is due to changes in the way people communicate since Al-Qa’ida’s heyday in the mid-2000s. And while Daesh’s relative youth and wanton brutality have somewhat distinguished it from Al-Qa’ida, the biggest danger in many ways is that the two threats may end up fusing.

While this may seem a far-fetched notion at the moment given the leadership tensions, it is not an outcome that can be completely discounted, especially if we see a Daesh that fragments back to its affiliates as the core becomes weakened. In this scenario, we could see enhanced affiliates drawing on both groups support to launch concerted regional campaigns both in their immediate areas, but also against the West.

The unfortunate reality is that it is likely that both threats will be with us for some time yet. While there are some clear lessons in how to manage the threat down from the struggle against Al-Qa’ida, that conflict has shown how hard it is to eradicate such groups. Patience, focus and a long-term plan will be the only way to manage the threats from such international terrorist organisations.

Raffaello Pantucci
Director, International Security Studies, RUSI.

 

 

Catching up on various bits of writing from the past few weeks that haven’t had a chance to re-publish. Starting with this longer piece for the Italian English-language geopolitical publication Longitude looking at the threat from Islamic State and how it might evolve going forwards. Am not republishing the text here, as it was in a magazine, so instead there is a link to the PDF in the title below.

The Islamic State’s Four Layers of Threat

Pantucci_Longitude 72

Although IS keeps losing territory rapidly, it is by no means about to disappear. Rather, it will probably spread out from its core in the Levant and morph into local terrorist groups loosely connected through ideological affinity.

 

Another short piece from this weekend in the wake of the atrocity in London Bridge this time for the Financial Times. Will catch up on other posting as soon as possible, though things at the moment are quite busy.

The Chilling Effect of a Brutally Simple Style

London attack comes as Isis is losing territory, making life harder for security forces

Back in May 2013 two radicalised young Britons ran a car into an off-duty soldier outside his London barracks, leapt out and butchered Lee Rigby as he lay in the street. Brutal in its simplicity and effectiveness, this has become a style terrorist groups champion as they seek to bring horror to our streets. It was used in Saturday’s London attack, in which at least seven were murdered — and has made security agencies’ lives markedly harder.

As low-tech attacks have proliferated, the terror threat facing the UK has escalated. Since Khalid Masood staged his car and knife offensive on Westminster in late March, there have been two successful attacks and five failed ones.

The Manchester suicide bomb last month and the London attack appear to have been produced by conspiracy rather than lone individuals. This is a worrying development given that until recently the analysis of the threat picture suggested the latter were the greatest concern. The use of a sophisticated device in Manchester suggests Salman Abedi had contact with others before killing himself and 22 others at an Ariana Grande concert. The London atrocity involved at least three people — the suspected attackers killed by police.

Looking abroad, terrorist groups have been pushing people to launch attacks whenever and however they can — particularly in this holy month of Ramadan. Isis pumps out a stream of messages, exhorting the use of knives, cars or other tools to kill “crusaders”. In a recent post, the group told people to wear fake suicide vests to confuse authorities — just as the London attackers are reported to have done.

Two weeks ago Hamza bin Laden — the son of Osama bin Laden, who is trying to reinvent himself as the leader of al-Qaeda — issued his own advice for “martyrdom seekers” in the west. They need not use “a military tool. If you are able to pick a firearm, well and good; if not, the options are many”.

All this comes as Isis is losing territory and it is becoming harder for prospective jihadis to travel to such battlefields. This denies terrorist groups space to plan but also creates two new categories of concern: returnees who have fought on these battlefields and blocked travellers who retain the radical impulse. These categories are added to the long list of individuals already of concern to security agencies. In the UK there are 500 under investigation, according to Ben Wallace, security minister, and 3,000 of active interest. There are a further 20,000 in a wider ring including people on the fringes of investigations going back years. In other words, security agencies are managing a roster of dangerous extremists from which it is almost impossible ever to remove names. Individuals such as Masood, investigated a decade ago on the edge of plots, may return to strike years later so agencies must stay alert to them.

A successful attack is by definition a failure by security agencies. In the case of London and Manchester, it is not yet clear whether we are looking at a lack of analysis, intelligence or capacity — or whether the threat has suddenly grown more acute and overwhelming. Whatever the answer, the question will become central to political debate, particularly given the proximity of the attacks to the general election.

Prime Minister Theresa May has pointed to the need to deal with ideology and “safe space” — online and offline. There will also be ever-louder questions about whether the security agencies have the resources to manage an engorged threat — as well as how they manage sometimes fraught relations with allies in Washington and Europe.

But it is clear that the current strategy — seeking to deal with the threats through a four-pillar approach of “prevent, pursue, protect and prepare” — is merely managing a problem that appears to be getting worse.

The writer is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute and author of ‘We Love Death As You Love Life’

Trying to catch up on various recent posts, though am a bit behind, so apologies. A few longer pieces have landed now as well. In the short term, here is something for my institutional home RUSI about what policy ideas could be advanced to manage the long-term threat that the UK faces.

What Policy Changes Are Needed after the Manchester Attack?

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary31 May 2017
UK Counter-terrorismTackling ExtremismSecuring BritainTerrorism

A week after the atrocity in Manchester, it is now possible to draw some preliminary conclusions: there clearly was a breakdown in the intelligence flow that led to suicide bomber Salman Abedi slipping through the net; there are enduring questions about the UK’s Prevent anti-terrorism strategy; and, finally, there are the weaknesses of ‘soft targets’ that such an attack invariably expose.

It is, of course, impossible, without full access to information, to properly understand exactly the nature of the intelligence breakdown that led to last week’s suicide attack on an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester.

Still the fact that the bomber, Salman Abedi, was flagged up to authorities a number of times, by locals in Manchester, was travelling back and forth to a country that is a warzone and came from a family with strong militant pedigrees all indicate – without the benefit of hindsight – that he was someone who should have attracted attention.

If, as suggested, he was someone who had featured in previous investigations but was sidelined in favour of what were deemed to be more menacing targets, then the attack in which 22 people were killed and dozens wounded highlights what for the intelligence services remains a perennial question: how do you determine who seems more menacing when resources are limited?

This is not only a difficult calibration to make, it is also not a way to remove someone from concerns altogether. For, as we have seen repeatedly, individuals will sometimes rise back out of this pool of downgraded threats to pose an immediate danger.

And the challenge is immense. According to Security Minister Ben Wallace, there are about 20,000 in this larger pool of people who are not seen as an immediate danger but who, like Abedi, can suddenly become one.

What can be done to manage this problem? Additional resources would help, as well as new technologies such as super computers using artificial intelligence to manage the challenge through data-crunching looking for particular patterns of behaviour. Another method is to continually challenge previous assessments about the security risks that certain individuals may pose, a determination which is bound to shift over time.

However, the principle of proportionality also has to be borne in mind: having lots of security forces chasing those individuals not only requires more resources than are currently available, but may also end up exacerbating the very problem that they are trying to manage.

Other, more extreme ideas have been advanced: internment or enhanced restrictive movement orders. The first proposal is so clearly counterproductive that it bears no consideration; internment in Northern Ireland during the early 1970s became part of the problem, rather than the solution to terrorism troubles.

The second proposal – house arrests – has greater value, except in that it does not necessarily reduce the burden on security officials. An individual who has been placed under house arrest is not actually being dealt with; rather, he or she is being put in a very publicly visible ‘holding pattern’.

Similarly, excluding people from the UK – either through passport denial or exclusion orders – is not actually dealing with the challenge; it simply postpones a determination, and pushes the individual on to another country to be dealt with.

A proportion of the work managing this pool of 20,000 ‘lower-grade’ suspects will come under the contentious Prevent strategy of counterterrorism activity. And this raises another strand of debate to emerge from the Manchester atrocity: how to reform Prevent.

One aspect that should be undertaken is to separate out the different strands of the strategy. The work of managing dangerous offenders or suspects clearly needs to stay attached to the security realm, possibly through the creation of a new specifically developed and tailored service, modelled on the probation service.

Combining probation, welfare, police and intelligence, the new agency could be staffed by individuals who are each managing a specific case-load of former offenders or suspects.

Each case will require a different sort of engagement, but this may provide a way of both keeping an eye on such cases while also focusing on trying to get them on a different path.

A version of the Channel programme, which provides early support to individuals who are at risk of being drawn into terrorism, could be used; this will be a way of providing an individually tailored ‘light touch’ over-watch.

But other parts of the Prevent that are focused on more forward-looking efforts to steer people away from radical paths before they get on to them, should instead be moved firmly out of the criminal space.

Prevent is intended to be about keeping people away from ever getting to terrorism, and this means, among other measures, actually keeping them out of the criminal justice arena. Consequently, it would seem imperative that these programmes are not handled by a security department such as the Home Office.

Finally, there are some very understandable questions about the fact that the bomber was able to walk his device into a crowded space and kill so many. Most arenas nowadays are heavily guarded and people are subject to bag checks on entry.

Clearly, some additional thought must be given to reviewing entry and exit points to such sites, with the usual difficulties of agreeing where to draw the ultimate line of the security cordon.

Much work has gone into managing security in crowded spaces: the lessons learned need to be applied more rigorously and around the entire country. Sports events or concerts that by their very nature aim to be open and accessible will continue to pose a potential problem.

It is unlikely that this will be the last terrorist attack the UK faces. Coming during an election cycle, however, this incident offers an occasion for both introspection and new ideas as future governments continue to confront the challenge.

Banner image: Armed police stand guard at Manchester Arena after Salman Abedi’s suicide bomb attack during a Ariana Grande gig. Courtesy of PA Images.