Posts Tagged ‘terrorism’

And finally this evening, a new piece for the Telegraph exploring how the terrorist threat has evolved and how government’s need to be careful in their responses to not make it worse.

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One year since the Manchester bombing, the West risks playing into terrorists’ hands

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A longer essay this morning in the Observer looking at the impact of the murder of Lee Rigby on the face of terrorism five years on from when it looks place. Some reactions on twitter already, look forward to hearing more people’s thoughts (feel free to contact through comments or the contact page). I am careful about saying that this is the harbinger of the end in the conclusion of the piece, as it could be for this expression, though as I have written elsewhere, it is depressingly likely that things will evolve in other ideological directions.

How Lee Rigby’s murder changed the face of terror

Lee Rigby memory

The murder of Lee Rigby five years ago ushered in a wave of ‘easy’ extremist violence. But will such random acts result in radical Islam losing its malign ideological power?

by 

Just under five years ago, two men ran down and then butchered with knives Fusilier Lee Rigby as he walked back to his barracks in Woolwich, south London. Still covered in Rigby’s blood, the older of the two men calmly spoke to the cameraphones of those nearby, justifying his act, declaring it revenge for atrocities in “Muslim lands”. Armed police arrived soon afterwards, shooting the attackers and detaining them. But their act had already been memorialised and continues to resonate half a decade later.

Rigby’s murder was not the first time knives had been used in a violent Islamist act in the United Kingdom. In one example, three years earlier, a young east Londoner called Roshonara Choudhry walked into her MP’s constituency surgery and stabbed him, in revenge, she said, for voting for the war in Iraq. Stephen Timms survived his attack and the act was so strange at the time that it took quite a while for people properly to realise what had happened.

Terrorist groups had been urging such attacks for some time. Al-Qaida’s English-language magazine, Inspire, called for people to carry out such acts regularly under the title of “just do it” terrorism. It had been particularly proud of Choudhry’s act, highlighting how a woman had been stepping up to carry out acts that men, as the magazine put it, were failing to do.

But the important difference is that these previous acts had not “worked” – as in resulted in death. In contrast, Rigby’s murder was public, brutal and recorded for posterity. Shocking in its nature, it seemed a very different terrorist attack to those that we had been used to: such as the coordinated operations of 9/11 or 7/7 or the team of marauding gunmen who executed the Mumbai attack in 2008.

Yet, as time passes, it is clear that Rigby’s murder has had a substantial impact on the terrorist threat picture in the UK and around the world. It was the most public terrorist knife attack and it became something of a model. In the UK alone, at least 16 plots or incidents took place afterwards in which bladed weapons were either used or planned to be used.

The transmission of terrorist ideas and methodology is something that is hard to track precisely. But in the first instance, a public “success” such as this will breed emulation. This was most clearly visible in the immediate wake of the attack in two incidents. A few days after the murder in Woolwich, Alexandre Dhaussy, a French recent convert to Islam known to authorities for his radical views and petty criminal activity, stabbed a soldier in the neck as he patrolled in La Défense in Paris. A week later, after an imam called for prayers for Rigby’s family during a service at HMP Full Sutton in east Yorkshire, a group of radicalised prisoners kidnapped a guard, called for the release of other extremists and tried to take over part of the prison. In both cases, questions were asked about the degree of ideological commitment of the attackers, but it seems clear that their action was in part inspired by the murder of Rigby.

People leave the London Bridge area with their hands up after the 2017 terrorist attack
 People leave the London Bridge area with their hands up after the 2017 terrorist attack. Photograph: Neil Hall/Reuters

In the longer term, the Woolwich action and imagery provided people with an example to copy and perceived heroic figures to follow. Almost a year later, Brusthom Ziamani, a confused young man who had moved in (now banned) al-Muhajiroun circles and looked up to Adebolajo as an older brother – he described him to his girlfriend as a “legend” – was arrested by authorities as he went to carry out an attack similar to that of his idol.

For others, the act lives on in imagery and legend. Nadir Syed, another al-Muhajiroun extremist who was later convicted of planning a knife attackagainst authority figures, was found to have shared images of Rigby’s killers among his friends on social media.

On the other side of the ideological spectrum, in January 2015, Zack Davies started hacking at a South Asian man he saw in a Tesco supermarket in Mold, Wales, shouting “white power” and saying that he was undertaking the attack in revenge for Rigby. Later investigation showed he was an isolated and paranoid young man who was obsessed with the far right.

The drama of the act is transmitted through the media, which help magnify it and give it resonance. This brings it to others’ attention and gives them a sense of great acts of history at play. In the longer term, it generates a wealth of imagery that can be used and manipulated by groups to show the message they are advancing.

Ultimately, the key thing the Rigby murder showed was that there was no need to overcomplicate the terrorist act. Rather than build a bomb, go to a training camp in a far-off land, source expensive and elusive weapons or gather a large network of people, you could conduct a highly effective terrorist attack using tools sitting in your kitchen and your car.

Rigby’s murderers Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale were, in fact, committed and long-term extremists connected to the al-Muhajiroun network in the UK. They were linked to a group of British extremists in Yemen alongside the radical Islamist Anwar al-Awlaki (the preacher whose videos inspired Choudhry, she claimed, to attempt to kill Timms). Adebolajo was arrested in November 2010in Kenya trying to get into Somalia to join the militant al-Shabaab group. He had first appeared on security services’ radars in mid-2008 on the fringes of a network linked to individuals who were trying to obtain material to conduct a terrorist attack and had been in direct contact with core al-Qaida; he had in fact been active in the al-Muhajiroun community as early as 2003 when he was only 19.

Adebowale, the junior in the partnership, had a similar history. He was first investigated by MI5 in 2011, but is known to have had contact with a “subject of interest” to the security service as early as 2009. At the time, he was just coming out of a young offender institution where he had been incarcerated on narcotics charges. Leaving prison, he was reported to be wearing Islamic robes and had adopted a more hardline Islamist ideology. He then joined in the constant churn of activism that marks al-Muhajiroun, showing up at protests, attending events, shouting for cameras.

So while they might have been two jihadist drifters, they nevertheless managed to carry out a terrorist act that captured attention and set a new example. We still do not know the degree to which they were talking to others about doing this, but it does not completely matter. They were committed, long-term extremists who decided to act in a way that they could and, in the process, they changed the dynamic of how we saw terrorism and terrorist acts.

The UK had not experienced a successful violent Islamist terrorist attack since the 2005 bombings on London’s public transport system. Repeated cells had been disrupted, including the 2006 airlines plot, which would have probably killed more than the 9/11 attacks had it succeeded in bringing down up to eight airlines on transatlantic routes. In 2007, a double car bombing in the heart of London was thwarted (two bombs were discovered and disabled), as was a subsequent vehicle-borne explosive device at Glasgow international airport.

The pattern still seemed to be for terrorists to want to achieve large-scale spectaculars that brought mass casualties or caused massive economic damage.

This was not true across the ideological spectrum. Shortly before the Rigby attack, an elderly Muslim man had been stabbed and killed in Birmingham. At the time, it was not clear what had taken place in the murder of Mohammed Saleem. It later turned out to have been the act of a lone far-right extremist from Ukraine, Pavlo Lapshyn, who had arrived in the UK on a scholarship only five days earlier and set off on a one-man terror campaign. But after this stabbing, Lapshyn reverted to what he seemed to really enjoy doing and set off a series of bombs outside mosques in the West Midlands. At the time, questions were asked about whether the murder of Saleem might have inspired Adebolajo and Adebowale, but there was no evidence of this. Rather, they carried out a targeted act of terror in advance of the ideology to which they were dedicated.

The Woolwich attack was shocking for many reasons. There was an ease and randomness about it that seemed so much more brutal than anything that had been seen before. The fact that the men had undertaken their act, paused for the cameras, not attacked anyone else, all showed a level of calculation and menace that suggested something new was afoot.

While horrific, the suicide bombings on the London underground were comprehensible and left a distinct trail: training camps, terrorist leaders in far-off countries directing individuals and sophisticated plots involving hard-to-assemble bombs. Adebolajo and Adebowale changed this profile, showing how everyday household items were redeployable as terrorist weapons.

The wider effect was to lower the threshold of what constitutes a terrorist attack, suddenly making the act much more “accessible”. And this is reflected in what came next, with repeated attempted attacks using bladed weapons, as terrorists realised that this was all that was needed. In the UK alone, at least 16 plots of this type are identifiable on the violent Islamist end of the spectrum. On the continent, the pattern is similar, with the car and bladed weapon terrorist methodology becoming depressingly ubiquitous.

Terrorist groups tried to claim credit. Al-Shabaab, the group that Adebolajo had tried to join in 2010, released an hour-long video taking its title from his comments to camera. In it, al-Shabaab championed the Woolwich murder and elevated it into the pantheon of lone actor terrorist attacks. It called for others to emulate this and seemed to suggest targeting various individuals who were seen on film commenting in the wake of the murder.

Just over a year later, the methodology was given an extra jolt of life by the Isis leader Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s fatwa, which electrified the extremist community. It ran thus: “Kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian… and kill him in any manner or way however it may be. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car…” This was of a piece with an approach advanced by an al-Qaida theorist called Abu Bakr Naji. In his book The Management of Savagery, Naji advocates the use of persistent and extreme violence to grind an enemy down, using as crude tactics as possible. Adnani’s savage litany resonated and subsequent terrorist attacks have clearly drawn inspiration from it.

Numerous cells of plotters were shown to discuss its effect and appeared to accelerate plotting in response. At the same time, the speech was following a path that had already been trodden by Rigby’s murderers. The narrative tying Adebolajo and Adnani together was on display in the Nadir Syed case, where he discussed on social media the importance and inspirational impact of the Adnani fatwa, while praising Adebolajo’s act.

It is in many ways extraordinary that things have turned out like this. In the first instance, the attack by Adebolajo and Adebowale, while a tragedy for the murdered soldier’s family, was in some ways a reflection of how hard it had become to launch terrorist attacks in the UK. The security services had learned how to manage the threat. Complicated plots got disrupted; networks of extremists had been penetrated. Many of those in the al-Muhajiroun circle of friends were in jail or under surveillance. Out of this effective security response emerged the assault on Rigby.

But what could not be known at the time was how the simplicity of this attack would inspire others and show them an “easier” path to take, offering crazed individuals a path to perceived grandeur through others’ misery using tools they had lying around the house. The ideology was accessible through the internet and easy to regurgitate, the methodology and targeting was easy; suddenly, the idea of terrorism was no longer an elite activity for the select few who had access to specific groups and weapons.

In the wake of the Woolwich attack, there was a renewed crackdown on the extremists who make up al-Muhajiroun. It did not eliminate them, but it took some off the streets and a growing number went to Syria. For them, Islamic State’s declaration of the caliphate in June 2014 changed everything, forcing them to make a choice between joining what they had advocated for years or showing themselves up as empty loudmouths.

While there continued to be plots that were disrupted, the ideology spread beyond their tightknit community and sprang up in random circles and homes around the country. Khuram Butt, a known al-Muhajiroun extremist who was the focus of police investigation, was the leader of the cell who, using a van and knives, murdered eight people as they enjoyed a night out, close to London Bridge in June 2017. His act was one that had clear inspiration from his previous al-Muhajiroun comrades.

Yet while diffusion of the threat picture has made it more dangerous, it has also started to tear at its coherence. It becomes quite hard to maintain a consistent ideology when you are trying to bring together organised and ideologically motivated plots with what look like random acts of terror. The spectrum from the concert massacre in Manchester to the bafflingly incompetent attack attempted by Mohiussunnath Chowdhury against police at Buckingham Palace is wide.

An Uber driver angry at the world, Chowdhury entered the wrong co-ordinates into his satnav the first time and found himself stuck outside a pub before figuring out the way to Buckingham Palace. Once there, he drove at a police van, shouting: “Allahu Akbar” and was subdued by police officers with CS gas. One officer was injured as Chowdhury brandished the samurai sword he had with him.

The bus destroyed by a terrorist’s bomb in London’s Tavistock Square, July 2005
 The bus destroyed by a terrorist’s bomb in London’s Tavistock Square, July 2005. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images/PA

This is the issue difficult to assess: when terrorism has become so random, how does it still maintain any of its ideological power? The attacks of 11 September 2001 or the 2015 massacre at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris have an archetypal imagery about them. They capture the maxim advanced by Brian Michael Jenkins, a former US special forces officer and one of the early writers about modern terrorism, who argued that “terrorism is theatre”. The drama and scale of the act draws attention and advances a group’s message.

And this is important to remember: terrorists are fundamentally seeking to advance a political ideology and message. The terrorist act is a way to deliver this. Consequently, the act needs to have drama and effect. A large network plotting to carry out a mass atrocity is a terrifying concept, which will draw attention to itself.

The Rigby murder in its novelty had an equal drama. But as time went on, this approach lost its lustre. In a city where a campaign of stabbings is the major criminal activity preoccupying the police, what effect will a random ideologically motivated one have? If the act becomes indistinguishable from other murders that take place in our societies every day, how does the group continue to advance its message?

This is something that al-Qaida theorists have worried about. The godfather of the lone actor methodology, Abu Musab al-Suri, highlights in his text The Global Islamic Resistance Call that campaigns repeatedly failed because of a lack of proper “education” of ideologies among terrorists. As networks were ground down through confrontation with authorities, “the cadre of supporters that had been formed through lengthy education were expended and the level of education declined among the succeeding bases of cadre”, he writes. This resulted “in the complete failure [that] manifested itself in the inability to realise the goals of the general project”. In other words, as the terrorists committing the act became more detached from the core group, the strength of the ideology was weakened.

Seen in this light, it is possible that we might try to interpret the murder in Woolwich as the beginning of the end or, cleaving to caution, at least the beginning of a path that might take us towards the end. Isis, and its brutality, has extended the lifespan of this threat by years, but ultimately the trajectory will be downward.

Terrorist attacks that are indistinguishable from random murders that take place in our cities or from the brazen acts of lunatics will increasingly have less power to shock. And with no coherent movement, the truly dangerous ideological core will struggle to motivate the right people to launch an effective struggle that has a goal. Rather, it will be occasional lunatics who hurt ordinary citizens but ultimately are unable to change anything. Societies have survived sustained terror campaigns and while none of this is any sort of panacea to those who lose loved ones, the terrorist project is in decline.

Five years on from the murder in Woolwich, the act has achieved a totemic place in the jihadist canon. Yet, decades from now, it might be seen instead as a harbinger of the end of a movement.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (Rusi)

Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, one of the gunmen in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, which left 166 people dead
 Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, one of the gunmen in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, which left 166 people dead. Photograph: Sebastian D’souza/AP

Catching on a piece from a little while ago for the Times Thunderer column, looking at the effectiveness and issues around deradicalisation programmes. Got a bit of a reaction online. The title is a bit more robust than the piece itself, as my point was more that in some cases a more intense engagement may be able to catch and steer people off the past they are on. Ultimately, people will only really de-radicalise if they make the choice to reject or move on from the ideas. But making them engage with programmes might help catch some more, and that in itself would never be a bad thing.

Been doing some bigger writing which will still take a while to land, but hopefully have some effect. As ever, do get in touch with feedback or thoughts. In the meantime, spoke to Neue Zürcher Zietung about UK jihadis, Middle East Eye about UK jihadi links to Libya, South China Morning Post about China’s problems with jihadis, and randomly to AFP about the Philippines. This aside, the China Steps Out book in which Matt and myself co-authored a chapter looking at China in Central Asia got a substantial write-up by the Council on Foreign Relations in the US. Thanks again to Josh and Eric for their work and patience editing the volume.

Thunderer

 the times

 

The trial of the Parsons Green bomber Ahmed Hassan raises a fundamental question about how we tackle extremism. The court heard that Hassan was identified as a risk before attempting to blow up a Tube train but was never compelled to attend deradicalisation courses run by Prevent, the government’s anti-extremism programme.

Trying to make people attracted by violent Islamist ideology turn their back on it is extremely hard. Success is often only possible if they are identified early enough, when they are still questioning these poisonous ideas, and encouraged to change their minds themselves.

This is why Channel, the anti-extremism programme run by local authorities and the police, has for so long relied on people to take part voluntarily. But the Hassan case shows that if nascent extremists refuse to take part, then the authorities must take tougher action.

The case for compulsion particularly applies to those aged under 18 who are often the most vulnerable and susceptible to radicalisation. Children have more malleable minds and stand to benefit more from a strategy that compels them to attend courses and interviews as part of Prevent. In many cases, they do not have any real understanding of the ideas to which they have been exposed and can be easily turned around. Others may appear wise and manipulative beyond their years but can still be helped to see sense by compulsory deradicalisation.

Another lesson from the case of Hassan, 18, who last week was jailed for life, is that the different strands of counter-extremism strategy need to talk to each other. It is extraordinary that, having failed to engage with the Channel element of Prevent, nobody followed up on why Hassan had effectively dropped off their radar. Neither was there adequate investigation into several occasions when he expressed worrying behaviour. Nor were his foster parents warned of the concerns about him. Each individual failing might be explained away but cumulatively, they let a bomber run loose. The only thing that saved commuters at Parsons Green was the fact he failed to build a successful device. Without greater compulsion from now on, we may not be so lucky next time.

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

Another short piece for the Evening Standard this past week after the anniversary of the Westminster attack and also linking the general strategy of asymmetry done by terrorists to that being deployed by Russia.

A careful but firm response is the way to stop attackers

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It is a year to the day since the murderous terrorist rampage that killed four innocent bystanders and a brave police officer in Westminster. The news is now dominated by a different menace. The attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter (which caught another policeman in its wake) is different in origin but similar in intent. Both involve an attempt to undermine our society by striking at soft targets through violence. We need to be firm in our response, but not rise to the bait and do our enemies’ jobs for them.

Though it may not feel like it, our security services are strong: and those who try to attack us know it. They fear an overwhelming response were they to launch a full military attack and, in the case of terror, their efforts are defeated, though at a terrible human cost. They are weak. But they aim to exploit divisions in our society, and how we respond affects our success in defeating them.

Individual terrorist motives are hard to understand but the overarching point of attacks is to awaken us to conflicts that those involved believe are already happening. Adversaries are eager to try to pry apart our alliances and undermine faith in our security.

While it is impossible for us to stop people taking aim at us, we can make sure that we do not play into their hands by doing their jobs for them. Exaggerated rhetoric in response to risk is exactly what they want.

Both terrorism and Russia pose dangers. But these threats have to be managed, and not made worse, rather than eradicated. This is not an admission of defeat. We will have to sustain some relationship with Russia in the longer term, though Moscow is gearing towards continued confrontation. But there are others there who do want to engage with us and we need to find ways of strengthening our links with them.

Terrorism, unfortunately, is a constant within our societies, and one that will be made worse if we respond with rhetoric that talks up the divisions and strengthens the claims of extremist groups. They think they are fighting a religious clash of civilisations — if we respond in similar terms, we risk making the very case they are advancing.

A year on from the Westminster attack, it feels as though the terrorist threat has calmed down to some extent. After a terrible year, security agencies appear to have been successful and arrests and attacks has slowed.

It has become something of a cliché to talk about standing strong in the face of terrorism and praising British resolve. Yet this is the best response to attacks which, while hideously damaging to those caught in the crossfire, are not going to bring our societies crashing down — unless we do our adversaries’ jobs for them and inflame the very fissures they are trying to pull apart.

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

Slightly late posting here, but a longer review for my institutional journal RUSI Journal of two excellent recent books about terrorism – Al Qaeda’s Revenge by Fernando Reinares and The Exile by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark.

Al-Qaeda’s Revenge: The 2004 Madrid Train Bombings/The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden

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As an expression of human behaviour, politically motivated violence or terrorism is a constant. There will be extremists on most political spectrums and some of these will feel a need to use violence to awaken everyone else to their cause. Terrorists may occasionally come up with tactical innovations and ideological mutations, but their essential behaviour (the sorts of violence they will resort to) is generally repetitive. Although lone actors – instigated, inspired or directed by Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS) – have received much attention, the reality is that even this expression of terrorism is deeply linked to what has been previously enacted. Similarly, government reactions are remarkably repetitive, seemingly unaware of lessons from the past. This excellent pair of books highlights these realities, drawing on extensive research into well-trodden stories, generating new insights and clarifying the nature of past threats, those we are currently confronting and what they will look like in the future.

The new details and insights offered by these books are striking, especially since the subjects have been written about substantially. Fernando Reinares’s authoritative review of the 2004 Madrid bombings draws on a wealth of new material from security sources, court documents and more, to tell the story of the brutal attack that remains Europe’s most deadly terrorist atrocity linked to violent Islamists. Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy’s pacey volume reads like an action thriller, and draws on a wealth of interviews conducted with security officials, members of Al-Qa’ida and others, alongside an impressive wealth of new material to tell the story of Al-Qa’ida after the 9/11 attacks from the group’s perspective. Other books have dug into aspects of this tale, but this is the first work to provide details about what went on inside the Al-Qa’ida cluster that fled to Iran after the fall of Tora Bora in December 2001, and the centrality of Osama bin Laden’s family to the group’s post-Afghanistan journeys.

The shocking nature of individual terrorist attacks often leads to the conclusion that such attacks are a complete surprise. When these incidents occur, they seem to reflect a gap in the knowledge of security and intelligence agencies, which may seem unfathomable to the public. And indeed, the reality is that subsequent investigation usually uncovers connections, contacts and prior knowledge. Information that was previously ignored or overlooked assumes a greater importance, and with hindsight a clear story of how the attack slipped through undetected can be told. Whether the fault lies with inadequate oversight by relevant authorities or with the ability of the attackers to disguise their activities becomes a point of conjecture. Nonetheless, it usually emerges that security forces were aware of the groups that conducted the attack.

More recently this conventional pattern of how terrorists behave and how authorities respond has become more complex. The recent spate of lone-actor attacks, in which individuals appear to have acted on behalf of terrorist groups with which they have no discernible link, has started to confuse the picture. However, as research has shown, often the individual has some connections or demonstrated some activity that would show him or her to be less isolated than might initially appear.

After every incident there is a scramble to uncover what links exist and who might have known about them before the event took place. Ultimately, the aim is to apportion blame and explain the atrocity. However, often the information that comes out in the immediate aftermath of the incident is incomplete and incorrect.

These two books show in different ways how the consequences of this can be dramatic – something that was particularly visible in the wake of the Madrid bombings, when the government suggested that the atrocity might have been committed by ETA, the Basque separatist organisation. It soon emerged that the incident was in fact the product of a violent Islamist cell, which released messages claiming the attack. But many have linked this confusion and the degree to which the government was blamed for spreading the false rumour to the ultimate fall of the government of then Prime Minister José María Aznar. The most dramatic consequence was that Spain withdrew its forces from Iraq, in line with a campaign pledge by incoming Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Many have pointed to the link between the bombing and the withdrawal as evidence of successful political manipulation as a result of terrorism.

Yet, as Reinares shows in Al-Qaeda’s Revenge: The 2004 Madrid Train Bombings by drawing on previously less well-covered meetings of senior Al-Qa’ida figures, the planning of the plot went back further than Spain’s decision to participate in the US-led invasion of Iraq. He traces it to December 2001, when two North African Al-Qa’ida-linked men plotted in Karachi to make Spain suffer. Of Moroccan descent, Amer Azizi and Abdelatif Mourafik had jihadist pedigree and, in Reinares’s account, harboured anger towards Spain that was in part a reflection of their failed attempts at jihadist overthrow in North Africa. Linked to both the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group and Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the men felt deep anger towards Spain, a power with historical and current influence over North Africa. In February 2002, they met again in Istanbul and decided to strengthen and develop the necessary networks in Western Europe and their home countries to launch a terrorist campaign, coordinated with the acquiescence of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian extremist who established Al-Qa’ida in Iraq soon afterwards. Attacks in Casablanca followed in May 2003, and in Madrid in March 2004.

As is often the case, Spanish authorities were on to the network, but had clamped down on only part of it. As the attacks in Madrid took place, a major counterterrorism operation was being brought to its conclusion in court, with 24 men facing trial after Operation Datil led to them being charged with involvement in terrorist networks. Some of the key figures in the 3/11 cell (as the group responsible for the Madrid bombings is known) expected to be detained as part of this arrest, and arguably the failure of the Spanish authorities to capture them may have accelerated the cell’s activity. This pattern was repeated in August 2017 by the terrorist cell that attacked Barcelona.

There are further similarities with more contemporary events. Reinares identifies the cell as one that used robbery and the proceeds of drugs as a way to raise money for its jihadist activity. Describing them as ‘common delinquents turned into jihadists’, we hear how a number spent time in prison, where they were radicalised or made important connections. In general, there is a lack of clarity about the degree of direction from Al-Qa’ida Core: the strong connections between the cell and Al-Qaida’s leadership are repeatedly claimed, but specific direction is not always clear. The book points out that Osama bin Laden’s first threat message to reference Spain was released in October 2003. The day after the message emerges, the first known allusion to the bombing’s specific date is found in Molenbeek, Brussels: a date written on a piece of paper. A member of the Moroccan network affiliated with Al-Qa’ida is based there. The link to Molenbeek is relevant not only to the current wave of Daesh attacks, but also to the attack last year in Barcelona. The key preacher, Abdelbaki Es Satty, had spent some time in Molenbeek before the attack, something that highlights the persistence of certain locations as focuses for radicalisation and terrorism.

In the wake of the Madrid attack, the cell decided to first claim responsibility (after watching the confusion in the media about ETA’s responsibility), and then countermand a ceasefire declaration issued by Al-Qa’ida after the result of the Spanish election on 14 March, three days after the attack. Al-Qa’ida was keen to recognise the political message delivered through the election result, while the cell in Spain planned to continue its fight. This confusion highlights a key problem in the decentralised approach in terrorist plotting – by delegating responsibility and autonomy, control of the action on the ground is lost, which can lead to a perversion of the intended message. A similar confusion can be found in the attacks on London Bridge in 2017, when the acclamation expressed by Daesh-affiliated accounts online was matched by the opprobrium from accounts more closely linked with Al-Qa’ida.

This is a possible outcome of this sort of globalised insurgency. Abu Musab Al-Suri – whose whereabouts remain unclear – has achieved semi-mythical status in jihadist circles. This key ideologue is one of the few remaining senior figures in Al-Qa’ida whose death has not been confirmed and was last known to have been placed in a Syrian jail in 2014. Appearing in both books, he provides a link between the past and present, highlighting how the activities of Al-Qa’ida as a network have evolved from the pre-9/11 world, through the misery of the Madrid bombings to current-day Syria. In a particularly worrying hint of what might be, the leader of the Syrian jihadist group Jabhat Al-Nusrah, Abu Muhammad Al-Jawlani, is reported in Scott-Clark and Levy’s book as being a big fan of Al-Suri’s work, and while he eschewed Al-Suri’s push towards seeding Europe with lone-actor cells, he championed the theoretician’s approach to war and beseeches his fighters to read his texts.

Scott-Clark and Levy explicitly address this connection between past and present in their introduction. The text repeatedly shows the links between Al-Qa’ida, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Daesh and current events. The character of Hamza bin Laden is a key figure throughout the text, as Osama bin Laden’s clear heir among his many children, and the book ends by highlighting him as the group’s new figurehead. All of this happens as Hamza bin Laden assumes an increasingly prominent role in public, releasing videos calling others to arms and, most recently, eulogising his dead father. A growing number of profiles have now been written about him suggesting he might be the harbinger of a reborn Al-Qa’ida, and Scott-Clark and Levy show him being shuttled between safe houses and mentors as the group seeks to keep him and the rest of the Al-Qa’ida leadership and their families alive and safe.

The most striking part of The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden is the account of the time many members of Al-Qa’ida spent in prison in Iran. Quickly recognised by the Iranian authorities as useful pawns in a larger global strategic game, the Al-Qa’ida leaders and their families spent many years being moved between prisons, alternately given relatively lenient treatment and kept under tight control. The book reports occasional protests and escapes as the Iranian authorities try to play a game of controlling and using the people under their charge. This aspect of the Al-Qa’ida tale is one that has not previously been told in such detail; it is fascinating given that this is a story of a fundamentalist Sunni group aligning itself with a theocratic Shia regime – both of which have regularly condemned each other. Yet clearly Iran sees a bigger potential game at hand, and even figures such as the Qassem Soleimani, leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, feature in the Iranians’ discussion about what to do with the group of Al-Qa’ida men, women and children.

Scott-Clark and Levy also show how badly Iran played its hand in this story. Unable to control the group of Al-Qa’ida fighters, the Iranians tried to manipulate the members to advance their goals or do their bidding. But they failed, and instead, the group ended up using Iran as a staging point to undertake violence elsewhere. It is not always clear whether this was done with Iran’s full acquiescence, but it is just one instance the authors provide of how difficult it is to manipulate such groups. Similarly, Western (and particularly American) efforts frequently come under fire, as Scott-Clark and Levy condemn the Americans’ use of torture and show how these actions fed the radicals’ narrative. For example, Aafia Siddiqui, the US-educated Pakistani neuroscientist who was painted in public as a mastermind of Al-Qa’ida, is here depicted as an ethereal figure whose exact role in the organisation is never clear, but whose torture and disappearance become a cause célèbre for Islamists around the world.

The story, of course, has no conclusion except that this conflict is not going to end in the foreseeable future. In Scott-Clark and Levy’s interpretation of the Abbottabad documents (captured when US Navy SEALs stripped the property where they shot Osama bin Laden), they see a network that is regrouping and continuing on its trajectory of conflict. Incidentally, they are angry that these documents were released in choice leaks to friendly journalists, which they say was intended to paint a picture of a group in decline – something which by the time of publication of The Exile had been rectified through a massive data dump by the CIA. They see little optimism in Pakistan’s behaviour, or that of other supposed allies who are likely to be feeding the conflict for their own reasons. And when looking at what might be done to counter such groups, they add a healthy dose of scepticism to the idea that voices countering extremist ideologies might work. The totemic jihadist ideologue Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi made a substantial assault on Daesh by rebuking its ideas and approaches, but this had done little to stunt the group’s appeal. Rather, he spoke to an earlier generation whose ability to exert influence over the current wave of potential extremists may have passed.

And this in some ways is one of the bleaker conclusions to draw from these books: terrorist groups have long narratives and histories, and are focused on horizons that extend well beyond those of the security services and governments they are fighting against. The past determines the present, and the present determines the future. Thus far, the West has been unable to stay ahead of the curve, and there is little evidence that it will be able to in the future. Both of these books help to cast a clearer light on the past and its links to the present, and how persistent and dangerous the terrorist threat that we face from violent Islamist groups, and Al-Qa’ida in particular, remains. 

Another piece to catch up from this past week, this time drawing on a previous project we worked on at RUSI looking at Lone Actor Terrorism. Co-authored with colleague Mo again, this one focuses on extreme right wing terrorism and its particular expression through lone actors for the BBC.

The clues right-wing terrorists give away

  • 9 February 2018
Police guard a street in Finsbury Park after a vehicle hit pedestriansGETTY IMAGES
Police guard a street in Finsbury Park after a van drove into a crowd near a mosque

Preventing terror attacks by lone individuals poses a serious challenge. But there are sometimes behaviours and actions that might give them away.

The growing problem of extreme right-wing terrorism in the UK has been highlighted by two high-profile cases in the past week.

First, Darren Osborne was sentenced to a minimum of 43 years in prison, after being found guilty of driving a van into a crowd of Muslims near a London mosque, killing one man and injuring nine other people.

In the second case, white supremacist Ethan Stables was convicted of preparing an act of terrorism, after planning a machete attack at a gay pride event in a pub in Barrow, Cumbria. He awaits sentencing.

Plans to kill by lone individuals such as these have been a persistent feature of the extreme right wing for many years.

Terrorists who act alone are often seen as particularly difficult for the authorities to spot.

Our research suggests that, more often than not, lone actors imagine that they belong to a wider movement – sometimes attending group activities such as rallies and conducting online research.

But it is often the case that they are not obviously connected to a wider group that might be under surveillance.

If they are planning to use weapons that are everyday items, such as knives or vehicles, it becomes even harder for the authorities to set up “trip wires” – the checks that might catch them before they act.

Ethan Stables, bare-chested with an air rifle
Ethan Stables was convicted of planning an attack on a gay pride event

However, it is not the case that these “lone actors” should be seen as entirely detached: there are often behaviours, or actions, that might act as a warning about their intentions.

It is significant that both Osborne and Stables spoke publicly of their intentions to carry out attacks, as many lone-actor terrorists are less secretive than might be expected.

A project led by the Royal United Services Institute examined “leakage” of intentions in 120 lone-actor terrorist cases of any type between 2000-14.

Individuals had leaked information about their plans in about half of all cases.

Osborne’s trial heard that he had told a soldier in a pub: “I’m going to kill all the Muslims. Muslims are all terrorists. Your families are all going to be Muslim. I’m going to take it into my own hands.”

Meanwhile, Stables was stopped because he decided to announce to the world via Facebook that he planned to carry out an attack, posting to a chat group the words: “I’m going to war tonight.”

This type of leakage was common among both the extreme right wing and violent Islamist perpetrators that we studied.

And among those on the extreme right wing, most of this leakage took place online, as in the Stables case.

The reasons for this are difficult to discern, but could be linked to the fact that many of those involved lead comparatively isolated lives.

Given the relative anonymity found on the internet, people can live out fantasies through their online profiles, to compensate for their unsatisfying offline lives.

In contrast, we found that among Islamist extremists, the leakage tended to take place among family members or friends.

Arrest picture of Darren OsborneMET POLICE
Darren Osborne was found guilty of murder and attempted murder

It was also the case that among a third of the lone-actor terrorists examined by the study – again, both right-wing extremists and violent Islamists – there were potential signs of underlying mental health conditions.

Osborne’s partner described him as a “loner and a functioning alcoholic” with an “unpredictable temperament”.

Stables said that his mother had told him to leave home as a result of his mental health difficulties.

The judge has requested further psychiatric assessments, to help assess whether Stables should be sent to a secure hospital, or prison.

Thomas Mair, the killer of MP Jo Cox, was also a loner described as having mental health problems.

Islamist extremist Nicholas Roddis, who left a hoax bomb on a bus, was described in court as “prone to fantasy” and the judge pointed to his “immaturity and isolation”.

Muslim convert Nicky Reilly, who tried to blow up a restaurant with a nail bomb and later died in prison, had learning difficulties and Asperger’s syndrome.

Clearly, only a tiny minority of people with such difficulties would go on to commit a terrorist act, but greater awareness might help spot some perpetrators before they act.

Health workers and police are now working together on a nationwide projectto help identify people referred to counter-terrorism programmes who are in need of treatment for mental health problems.

None of this paints a picture of particularly sophisticated terrorist plots, or networks, in particular among those on the extreme right.

Rather, it suggests isolated individuals acting out an extreme ideology – and, in most cases, this has been the nature of the plots.

Potentially more worrying for the UK is the emergence of a more organised extreme right wing, with the recent banning of the neo-Nazi group National Action, for example.

On continental Europe this problem has existed for some time. The German case of the National Socialist Underground – which is accused of the murders of 10 people – being just one example.

Across the continent, the ideology around far-right extremists is varied and diverse, but some common threads can be found.

Racial “purity” is often highlighted, as are claims that the world is run by powerful elites, including Marxists, liberals and Jews.

Some minority groups are presented as posing a threat to European culture and society.

These ideas were echoed in the choice of targets and the details in both Osborne’s and Stables’s respective trials.

On the stand, Osborne stated he wanted to murder London Mayor Sadiq Khan, or Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Once he had committed his act, he was heard to say: “I’ve done my bit,” in reference to his attempt to murder Muslims.

Children lay flowers in tribute to the victims of a van attack in the Finsbury Park area of north London.GETTY IMAGES
Flowers in tribute to victims of the 2017 Finsbury Park attack

Stables’s plan to attack a gay pride event reflected his desire to push back against what he saw as an “impure” homosexual culture.

As isolated individuals, they may be typical of the overriding majority of extreme right-wing terrorists in the UK.

But the continued existence of such people – often drawing on the ideology of a more organised extreme right wing, or the xenophobic beliefs of a vocal minority – has a damaging effect on society, causing frictions between communities and tearing at our social fabric.

Not only do their actions hurt those caught up in attacks, but they can drive others on the extreme right, as well violent Islamists – who use the sense of a divided society to justify their actions.

It is easy to simply dismiss Osborne and Stables as pathetic losers angry at society.

But they represent a broader trend that has worrying potential ramifications for the United Kingdom.

Presentational grey line

About this piece

This analysis piece was commissioned by the BBC from experts working for the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), an independent think tank specialising in defence and security research.

Raffaello Pantucci is its director of international security studies, and Dr Mohammed Elshimi is a research analyst in its national security and resilience team. Follow him @raffpantucci


Edited by Duncan Walker

Have some catch up posting to do, starting with a piece for the Diplomat magazine that draws on a bigger project we have been doing at my institutional home, RUSI, looking at radicalisation amongst Central Asian labour migrants in Russia. The project has been quite a complicated one, and many excellent colleagues have played a role, with Mo in particular playing an important driving role on the methodology and co-authoring this piece. This piece draws out that methodology in some greater detail and the longer report should be out soon. Given it is behind a paywall, I cannot just post it all here, but get in touch if you are interested, and I can see what I can do help.

Explaining the Radicalization of Central Asian Migrants

Explaining the Radicalization of Central Asian Migrants
Image Credit: Associated Press, Ivan Sekretarev

Radicalization in Central Asia has been a long-standing concern. Yet, historically, violence from the region has been relatively rare. While the immediate post-Soviet period was marked by internal conflict, including the civil war in Tajikistan, these conflicts largely remained local.

This appears to be changing. The past couple of years have been marked by a noticeable increase in instances of international terrorism linked to Central Asians. A further number have shown up as foreign terrorist fighters. The New York City truck attack, the attack on a nightclub in Istanbul, a vehicle attack in Stockholm, and the bombing of the St. Petersburg metro system were all linked to Central Asians. While the exact reasons for this pattern are still being uncovered by investigators, one feature that appears common among Central Asians who end up in Syria and Iraq, at least, is a history of working as labor migrants in Russia. This provokes the following question: why do a minority of labor migrants from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan leave Russia (a second country) to take part in somebody else’s violent conflict (a third country)?

In order to try to address this lacuna in understanding, the authors worked with a group of researchers from Central Asia and Russia to try to understand this phenomenon through a data-rich approach driven by interviews of Central Asians working in Russia.

Read the full story here, in The Diplomat