Posts Tagged ‘terrorism’

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. 

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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

And finally for the new year’s burst, a new piece for the Telegraph which looks more broadly at the threat from terrorism and how it is likely to evolve in the coming year and future.

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Terrorist activity in the UK last year was dominated by a significant shift both in volume of successful incidents, but also their nature. From networked plots, or large-scale attacks directed from abroad, it is now isolated individuals or small cells – some directed, some instigated and some independently latching on to ideologies – that have become the heart of the terrorist threat that the UK faces.

After a period of relative calm with sporadic incidents, in 2017 the country was struck by five terrorist attacks of varying effectiveness. Yet, with the exception of the atrocity in Manchester, it is not clear that any of the plots were products of a larger effort.

Given that it involved three people, the attack near London Bridge in June was by definition a conspiracy, but it is not clear that the perpetrators were being directed by others in launching their attack.

The much vaunted menace from foreign terrorist fighters being sent back from Syria and Iraq has not so far materialized, leaving security forces instead countering this confusing new threat made up of isolated, or loosely connected individuals who use low-tech methods – such as the vehicle and knives used at London Bridge – to seek to murder fellow citizens.

It is often not clear how closely these individuals are genuinely linked to terrorist groups, with mental health or other issues often emerging as the principal driver of action, with the terrorist ideology sometimes an excuse superimposed on top.

This is likely to remain where the core of the threat remains for the immediate future and while groups may attempt to harness the interconnected world, using increasingly creative digital methodologies to try to launch complicated attacks, this will remain difficult to deliver.

Networks require some degree of communication, providing useful fissures which attentive security agencies can take advantage of. The threat of returning foreign fighters will continue to pose a menace, but difficulties of getting back and then organizing will make it hard for groups to rely on them as effective attack vectors.

The lone actor threat has deep roots in the UK, going back to the late-2000s with the separate cases of Andrew Ibrahim and Nicky Reilly in 2008, but what was once considered peripheral has now become central.

This is the result of terrorist groups adapting to security approaches. Unable to get large coordinated plots through, they push individuals, or espouse ideas and methodologies towards lone actor attacks. In addition, we have seen a growing number of people reacting to the loud volume of terrorist ideologies and latching on to them as a way of expressing their anger at society, having at best a fairly limited link or sophisticated understanding of the group for which they purport to be committing terror.

This is likely to continue and become more complex, likely spilling into other ideologies beyond violent Islamism. A by-product of the internet is that people can now develop and advance intense beliefs with a community from the calm of their own homes. Online, they can also connect with others who share these ideas, or develop complicated micro-ideologies.

Pair this with the growing accessibility of fairly dangerous technology and simple attack methodologies, and you have the potential for something shocking to happen.

At the same time, the echo chamber of the internet and an increasingly polarized public conversation has shifted the bounds of what is acceptable for open discourse. This has mainstreamed and escalated some nasty views on foreigners and others in society who do not share the same perspectives as ourselves, giving people with violent inclinations a sense of justification for acting on their impulses.

A huge crowd of people hold placards with photographs of the murdered MP Jo Cox and others saying '#LoveLikeJo'
MP Jo Cox was murdered by a lone operator, with a history of mental health problems, and links to far-right groups  CREDIT: PAUL GROVER FOR THE TELEGRAPH/PAUL GROVER

We have already seen reactive terrorism in the form of the attack on Finsbury Park mosque, the murder of Jo Cox and some of the sectarian murders within the Muslim community – and such acts of violence only serve to inspire others.

Looking forward, the nature of terrorist threat is only going to become more complex as the global picture continues to be upended by demagogic leaders. The world remains an unstable place. The increasingly tense confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran will create problems globally, a resurgent al Qaeda has not given up, and ISIS is seeking out new battlefields to re-establish itself.

The grim roster of attacks over the holiday period – Egypt, Afghanistan and Russia – shows the diversity of locations where ISIS has some resonance, while the full effect of President Trump’s recent moves in Israel are also still to be seen, but are guaranteed to awaken global anger around the Palestinian cause.

And all of this is just to focus on the narrow lens of what is going on in the Middle East; the world is littered with unresolvable problems that might suddenly shock. Just look across the water to Ireland to see how protracted terrorist problems can drag on for generations with little evidence of slowing down or going away.

This all paints a bleak picture at the start of a fresh new year and it is worth stopping a moment to recognize a more positive side. Notwithstanding this past year being a particularly grim one in terms of attacks, the UK has not faced a large-scale atrocity on the scale of the London bombings of July 7, 2005, when 56 people died.

The attacks we have suffered are for the most part of a low calibre, driven by individuals of limited resources and ability. Although, of course, none of this is to reduce their impact and the pain and suffering of every family who has lost someone or seen someone’s life irrevocably changed.

But the changing picture is in part a testament to the effectiveness of the security apparatus that is in place, which – while clearly in need of some adjustment to reflect the changing nature of terrorist activity – has been able to protect us from around 10 attacks this past year.

Terrorism will not go away in 2018 – and it may seem to get worse and more confusing. We need to move forward bearing this grim truth in mind, while all the time focusing on making our societies more resilient against the brutal atrocities terrorists cast at us. This will help insulate us from their success and ensure that they do not achieve their goals of tearing our society apart.

It was a rather frantic end to last year, lots on which is going to hopefully land in the form of a few things over the next few months. This is going to be a year of larger writing to try to get some big projects that have been hanging over my head for some time out of the way. Or that’s the plan. Started the year over the holidays writing a few op-eds. First up, the first time into the Mail on Sunday with a brief comment piece to their front page story about the UK government’s new plan for how to protect small ports.

Small ports are vital in the war against terrorism

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By RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI, director, International Security Studies, Royal United Services Institute

The threat to Britain from terrorists has never been so high.

Criminal groups have long used smaller harbours as points of entry for illicit products, while radicalised individuals regularly seek to sneak in and out of the country via less-obvious points of entry.

We have ample evidence that shows terrorists and suspects have used ferry terminals such as Dover to sneak out of the UK, sometimes while they were under investigation.

In September, the man accused of the Parsons Green attack, Ahmed Hassan, was arrested in the departures area of the Port of Dover.

Criminals have also sought to use smaller entry points around the country’s ports.

As an island nation close to the world’s most densely populated continent, securing our shores creates a huge challenge for UK border forces.

The use of special volunteers, who may not have powers of arrest, is not the answer to policing the more sleepy ports, harbours and marinas of the country.

We need a well-funded and well-trained Border Force, which can protect Britain’s ports and its thousands of miles of coastline from this unprecedented threat from both terrorists and criminals.

Bit of a departure from usual activity, this is an animated interpretation for the website The Conversation of some of the lone actor work that I have been involved in. The numbers and detail of the work comes from the Countering Lone Actor Terrorism (CLAT) project that involved a range of excellent research institutions and colleagues (who are captured in one of the images). A HUGE thanks and applause is due to Wes Mountain who did the animation and was immensely patient with me in producing it.

This aside, spoke to Sky News for a special about a terror case in Manchester with links to the Manchester bomber, and the broader question of the terrorist threat to the UK linked to Libya, and for Canada’s Perspectives with Alison Smith on CPAC about what to do about returning foreign terrorist fighters.

Comic explainer: what is lone-actor terrorism?

Wes Mountain/The ConversationCC BY-ND

Security services and governments around the world remain vigilant to the threat of lone-actor terrorists in our cities.

But when there’s often no indication of an explicit intention or ideology, questions about mental health and with groups like Islamic State willing to encourage and claim responsibility for almost any attack, how do we define lone-actor terrorism?

In this comic explainer, Raffaello Pantucci, Associate Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Director of International Security Studies at RUSI, explains the theory behind lone-actor terrorism and what we know about lone actors’ effectiveness, motives and behaviours that could help us to better understand and disrupt future attacks.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Rachid Kassim is quoted from an interview with Jihadology.

Junaid Hussain’s quote is from court documents.


 


The full Countering Lone-Actor Terrorism Series is available at the Royal United Services Institute’s website.

Illustrations by Wes Mountain for The Conversation.

Further catching up on posting, this time a piece from this Thursday’s Telegraph looking at the juxtaposition with the fall of Raqqa and MI5 head Andrew Parker’s menacing round of interviews about the nature of the threat that is currently faced. Additionally, spoke to the Independent around the story, the Wall Street Journal about the lack of more attacks with foreign fighters in Europe, the Arab News about the threat from peripherals on terrorist networks, the Financial Times about London’s preparations to counter terrorism, to Sky News about the UK government’s issues with social media companies and terrorism, to the Independent again about the Las Vegas shooter, and on the other side of the coin, to the Financial Times about a visit by the PLAN to the UK as part of a global tour and UK-China military relations.

It’s not Isil’s returning terrorists we should worry about. It’s those who are already here

An anti-Isil commander celebrates in the main square of Raqqa, October 17, 2017 CREDIT: BULENT KILIC/AFP/GETTY

On the same day that Raqqa fell, the head of MI5 Andrew Parker gave a set of interviews in which he talks about facing the most severe threat that he has seen in his over three decades working in the intelligence agencies. This dissonant set of messages highlights the degree to which the terrorist threat that the UK is facing has transformed.

From a terrifying but comprehensible phenomenon directed by surreptitious foreign networks, we are now facing a confusing and diffuse one whose link to terrorist organisations is ever looser.

Isil’s loss of territory has not produced the surge in terrorist plots that was expected. Since the beginning of the year, the UK has faced five successful terrorist attacks – and yet, with the possible exception of the Manchester bombing, none have involved foreign fighters. Rather than the individuals who went off to fight in Syria and Iraq, the threat comes from individuals who are still at home.

In some ways this lack of a sudden surge is not surprising. The notion of an uptick in threat from foreign fighters after the collapse of the Caliphate was predicated on the notion that Isil was somehow holding themselves back – saving the potential strikes back home until they were at their weakest point. This clearly lacks much connection with reality, where we can see that the group has been consistently shouting, directing and instigating terrorist plots in the West for the past three years.

What has changed, however, is the nature of the threat back home, where we continue to see individuals being mobilized by extreme ideologies but finding it harder to travel. Instead, a community of frustrated travellers is developing around the world, at a moment when the ideology and methodology of what constitutes a terrorist attack has become diffuse to the point that it is indistinguishable from random acts of social violence.

This helps explain the picture that we are seeing at the moment. A threat abroad appears to be decreasing (through loss of territory, capability and manpower) just as a different sort of threat is expressing itself at home. But there is still an important question to be asked about what is going to happen to those individuals who went abroad to fight. Even according to Andrew Parker’s latest figures, at least a few hundred are still out on the loose somewhere.

What these individuals will do is going to be determined in large part by their reasons for going to Syria in the first place. For some, the motivation to go and fight was ideologically pure and focused abroad. They were going to fight motivated by a sense of injustice, a driving sense of religious duty or a desire to defend the Syrian people. For them, it is possible that the fight in Syria and Iraq is just the first stage in a long life of constant struggle. Among the first foreign fighters to the battlefield in Syria were fighters who had toppled Libyan leader Gaddafi.

For others, the motivation was more selfish – seeking to flee a chequered past back home and gain redemption on the battlefield. Still others were drawn by friends, family, a sense of adventure or some other reason which now leaves them stranded in a conflict zone. Some will possibly change sides to continue fighting in Syria; some will settle down in some ungoverned space; others will die, and yet others will move on to further zones of conflict. Few went out in the first instance to come back home and be terrorists. Most were driven by a desire to do something abroad.

Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and Iraqi army members in a series of armoured vehicles gather on the outskirts of Hawija, Iraq October 4, 2017. Thick smoke billows on the horizon in front of them
Iraqi forces and Shi’ite militia gather on the outskirts of Hawija during a campaign against IsilCREDIT: STRINGER/REUTERS

In many ways it is to the affiliates that we should most worry about the foreign fighter flow. In places like Sinai, the Philippines, Libya, parts of Central or Southeast Asia or Afghanistan, there are locations were Isil affiliates are taking root. Those that can accept these battle-hardened warriors will welcome them, enhancing a range of problems that until now have appeared deeply localised. Local governments have varying degrees of capability to manage these problems. In the fullness of time, one of these affiliates may pick up the banner of the global organization and become the new Isil core.

The threat comes from when these affiliates decide to launch attacks against the West, either in their immediate neighbourhood, or further afield. The base in Libya has already produced a number of problems in Europe – this may grow. Others may start to express themselves too. But MI5’s attention is apparently on the domestic situation, where instead the difficulty lies in the fact that they are facing a threat that is increasingly hard to predict. A community of individuals who once seemed peripheral are now becoming the main danger.

Raqqa has now fallen. Isil is not yet finished. But at the same time, terrorism has already evolved into a new form that security services are struggling to manage. Foreign fighters will undoubtedly be part of the picture, but, currently at least, they are not where the core of the problem lies.