Posts Tagged ‘terrorism’

A piece for the Observer newspaper this weekend, this time looking at the way the attack in Manchester fits into the broader threat picture in the UK. It was a busy period with the media around the attack with longer interviews captured online with the BBC’s Daily Politics (video), National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and Radio 24 (radio), as well as with Financial TimesTimes, Wall Street Journal, New York TimesLa Repubblica, Atlantic, AFP, Washington Post, and News Deeply.

Fighters who can’t travel to Syria pose growing threat

As Isis loses territory in Syria, the risks posed by would-be UK fighters must not be ignored
A police patrol in Hull for BBC Radio 1’s big weekend.
 A police patrol in Hull for BBC Radio 1’s big weekend. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

British security officials have long warned it was only a matter of time before there was another terrorist atrocity.

In late August 2014, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) raised the terror threat level to “severe” – meaning that, according to its independent assessment, the expectation was that a terrorist attack was highly likely. Responding to an increasingly menacing threat picture in Europe linked to the conflict in Syria and Iraq, that level stayed at severe until the attacks in Manchester, which caused JTAC to redo its calculations and raise it to critical – meaning an attack is imminent.

Once the level was raised to severe, there was a fairly constant pattern of terrorist plotting. In November 2015, as the world reeled from the attacks in Paris, David Cameron said seven plots had been disrupted in the UK over the previous year. At the beginning of March this year, Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley said in the past four years authorities had disrupted 13 plots. In the wake of the Manchester attacks, a further five have been added to this roster.

While the details of many of these plots have not been made public, most appear to have been lone individuals or small cells planning knife attacks. It is not clear how many have involved the sort of ambitious planning that went into Paris and Brussels or even Manchester. But groups – al-Qaida, Isis or some other affiliate – continue to want to wreak misery.

The reason for the recent increase in activity is hard to pin down. In part, it may be a case of Isis being on the back foot and seeking to push out attacks in every direction: something that correlates with it losing territory and its foreign fighter contingent scattering to the wind, creating a wave of potential problems around the world. And this comes as al-Qaida has started to rear its head once again, menacing the world through new messages by Hamza bin Laden.

But there are other dynamics at play as well. One of the more under-investigated phenomena is what is happening to those aspirant foreign fighters who are unable to travel. Inspired enough to want to join a group like Isis, they find it increasingly difficult to do so – due to proactive security measures in the UK or more simply a much harder environment in Syria to get into. But being unable to travel does not remove the radical impulse. Actually it may enhance it further, with the frustration making the individual feel the link to the group more strongly.

Consequently, when the group shouts for people to launch attacks at home, rather than come to the battlefield, they may see this as a call to arms. The phenomenon of the blocked traveller maturing into a terrorist threat at home is not new, but as things become tougher it is only likely to increase the pool of potential radicals at home.

Finally, there is the exceptionally low threshold for what constitutes a terrorist attack. No longer do you have to launch a complicated plot: if you can, then all the better. But a public stabbing or running people down with a car will also suffice. Targets are open and indiscriminate, with anyone living in a non-Isis state considered fair game. This makes it very easy for anyone to pick up a weapon and become a warrior – meaning that not all of those who do are necessarily as doctrinally pure as a group might want. All of this shows how easy it is to become a terrorist these days.

It was unlikely that the terror threat level would be kept at critical for long, and it has now been reduced to severe. Exhaustion might have set in at the security agencies had it continued much longer. But the tempo of the threat picture in the UK has noticeably sharpened of late: from last year, which was punctuated by the disruption of major plots but dominated by a steady stream of smaller-scale arrests for travelling to, fundraising for, or support of terrorist groups, to this year, which has seen two attacks and at least five or six plots derailed.

It is clear that the terrorist menace is not shrinking away and is likely to linger around for some time longer, in particular if the war in Syria and Iraq continues to drag on, providing a consistently fertile ground for training camps and extremist ideologies.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists

It has been a very busy week in the wake of the atrocity in Manchester. A few pieces coming over the next few days, but first up something for the New York Times looking at the intelligence spat between the US and UK around the sharing of information during counter-terrorism operations. More to come on the broader theme of the attack itself.

Why Britain Gets Angry When America Is Casual With Secrets

LONDON — The leaking of sensitive information about the investigation into Monday’s terrorist attack on the Manchester Arena, including forensic images of bomb apparatus, to United States media caused dismay and anger among British officials. The prime minister, Theresa May, went so far as to raise the issue directly with President Trump when they met at Thursday’s NATO conference in Brussels.

To modify George Bernard Shaw’s maxim, Britain and America appear to be two countries divided less by a common language than by common secrets. While British investigators jealously guard detailed information about their operations, seeking to run their leads to ground before they are exposed to view, their American counterparts seem more willing to put what they know directly into the public domain.

The Anglo-American security relationship has deep roots. Intelligence sharing and cooperation sits at its heart. Forged in history, it has deepened over time through a shared assessment of the threats they face around the world. A key part of this is countering terrorism, a mutual threat that our two countries work closely together to fight. And yet, in fighting it, they have different approaches.

A policeman in Manchester, England, on May 25. CreditJon Super/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images 

The current tensions over Manchester are the latest public expression of an issue that has arisen before. In May 2012, British intelligence officials were exasperated when their role in an operation to disrupt a plot by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — to repeat the 2009 underwear bomber plot with a more sophisticated device — was revealed. Before that, after the July 7, 2005 bombings in London, information about the nature of the bombs was leaked to the press by American sources early in the investigation. The chief of London’s Metropolitan Police at the time, Ian Blair, made a connection between that incident and the Manchester leak.

“I’m afraid it just reminds me exactly of what happened after 7/7,” he told the BBC, “when the U.S. published a complete picture of the way the bombs in 7/7 had been made up.” In 2005, he was concerned both about the impact of the images on victims of the bombing, and about how the disclosures could complicate the job of his officers investigating what had been the most serious Qaeda-inspired attack on Britain to date.

The frustrations have gone beyond the leaking of information being gathered after an attack. Back in 2006, British and American authorities disrupted the most extensive Qaeda plot they’d seen. Codenamed Operation Overt, the plan was to send a wave of up to eight suicide bombers on flights from Britain to North America using sophisticated liquid explosives they could smuggle on board. This is the root of the liquid ban on planes we still face today.

In close cooperation with their American counterparts, British authorities had been watching the cell, coordinated by a British Pakistani named Rashid Rauf who had risen up Al Qaeda’s ranks, for some time. They had discovered a bomb factory in East London where the group was making its devices. The moment was approaching to disrupt the plot, but the British authorities wanted to monitor it further to ensure they would sweep up the full network and have evidence that could be used in court.

But when the American authorities thought that someone connected to the network had managed to get onto a plane, they used their network in Pakistan to get Mr. Rauf picked up. This forced Britain’s hand. Such was the rush to action that unarmed surveillance officers had to step out of the shadows to grab the suspects before news spread about Mr. Rauf’s arrest.

One reason behind the divergence between British and American counterterrorism operations is that the British authorities prefer to watch and wait, gathering as much information as possible before moving into action. American agencies prefer a more aggressive approach to disrupting terrorist networks and plots. In part, this is a product of the legal system: Intelligence agencies in Britain closely guard the information they collect and do not usually allow it to be used in a court of law. This was visible during the subsequent trials of the Overt case, where prosecutors had to go three rounds with two hung juries before they were able to convict; one of the key figures was cleared and released notwithstanding his deeply suspicious links.

There are deeper cultural issues, too. This week, the government’s assessment of the threat of a further terrorist attack has led to the deployment of armed soldiers on the streets of Britain’s cities. This is something that would likely pass unnoticed in the United States, but it has caused great consternation here. British security officials are also uneasy about the number of American counterterrorism investigations that use undercover agents who often appear to act as agent provocateurs; in the British view, such operations would be regarded as entrapment by courts.

These tensions in the relationship seem to have intensified under the Trump administration. Some British counter-terrorism experts express concern that Mr. Trump’s rhetoric of aggressive confrontation may serve to bolster the very narrative of civilizational conflict the extremists use. The ties that bind Anglo-American intelligence cooperation are firm; the difficulty is how to maintain trust after this transatlantic spat. We face a common threat, and it would be dangerous to take for granted our common front in fighting it.

A short response piece to the horrible incident that happened in Manchester for the Telegraph. The threat level has now been raised to Critical which means this incident is going to take a while to resolve. In the wake of the incident, spoke to CNBCGuardian, and National Press Agency about bombs, and separately to Guardian, Washington Post, and The Australian about the bigger threat picture. Also did interview that was recorded on ABC’s Lateline.

Cars and knives are easier to use, but bombs will always be central to terrorist thinking

Survivors of the attack sit on the pavement
The successful use of a bomb is unusual among recent terror attacks CREDIT: JOEL GOODMAN/LNP

 

Terrorism has a predictable brutality to it. And yet, the idea of a bombing is something that still surprises us when it happens. The attack in Manchester in some ways appears a flashback to a different time when the terrorists we worried about detonated bombs, rather than using vehicles as rams or stabbing people. The reality is that terrorism’s only constant is its desire to shock and kill. For any group or ideology, the fundamental point is to make yourself heard as dramatically as possible. Groups and individuals will use whatever tools they have to gain that attention.

Making bombs that you know will reliably work is not as easy as it might sound. History is littered with attempted bomb-makers whose devices detonated too early or failed to go off. Unless you have had some training or practice, it is difficult to know for certain that you are making something that will go off exactly when you want it to.

There have been examples of lone bomb makers in the past, but they are rare. Anders Breivik, who killed 77 in Oslo in 2010, and David Copeland and Pavlo Lapshyn, who respectively launched one-man extreme right wing bombing campaigns in London and Birmingham, are examples. But in all cases, lone bomb makers choose to leave their devices behind rather than die in the detonation. This separates them from the Manchester bomber, though the degree to which we can conclude this means he acted alone is unclear.

Isil’s claim of responsibility would seem to strengthen the idea that the bomber was linked to someone. But care has to be paid to understand exactly what their claim means. On the one hand, it could be the group is merely claiming something to which it has a very loose link. The use of a bomb can also add confusion to the picture, especially when we consider that the majority of the incidents we have seen in Europe linked to the group of late have been stabbings or using vehicles to run down crowds. Yet this narrative assumes that the group is not keen to launch explosives attacks. This is incorrect – from the group’s perspective, anything that fulfills their goals of gaining attention and sowing terror is desirable.

The shift towards knives and cars was something that the group had encouraged in part as it realised that making bombs is difficult and prone to failure. Telling your aspirant warriors to keep it simple seems a more effective way to ensure success. One need only look at issues of the group’s magazine Rumiyah to see how rudimentary some of the forms of attack being promoted by Isil are.

The smashed up car used during the 2017 Westminster terror attack
Vehicles have been used as weapons, as in the Westminster attack earlier this year, for their ease and simplicity CREDIT: GEOFF PUGH FOR THE TELEGRAPH

But the key point to remember is that these groups, and Isil in particular, are not very discerning in their methodologies for terrorist attacks. Their aim is to cause chaos, draw attention to themselves and kill as many as they can. This brings attention to their cause and shows their commitment to their ideology. It is intended to sow divisions in our societies and strengthen the narrative of anger that is central to breathing life into their beliefs.

So whether they use a bomb and murder children, massacre people at airports, gun them down in concert halls, or stab elderly priests in their churches, they are getting their job done. And if we shout in horror at the methodology they employ, they simply brush this away by pointing to atrocities that they see happening around the world, and which they see as setting a precedent for violence.

The key issue from the rest of society’s perspective is to realise this is their deadly intent, and to ensure to not rise to the bait and do the group’s job for them. Terrorism’s only constant remains its perpetrators desire to shock and murder: the manner in which they do so is only secondary.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at  RUSI and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists

Another piece for the Telegraph after the St Petersburg terrorist attack, though the title is rather deceptive as the piece is mostly about the phenomenon of radicalisation amongst Central Asians, a topic that appears sadly relevant again after the incident Friday in Stockholm.

The Saint Petersburg attack is a reminder that sophisticated terror plots are still a real threat

A victim is carried in a soft stretcher

The Metro attack was the worst terror attack in Russia for several years CREDIT: ANTON VAGANOV/EPA

The attack on St Petersburg in some ways resembles a throwback to an earlier time. With the recent spate of low-tech incidents involving knife-wielding and car driving extremists, the perception was that the nature of the terrorist threat had evolved. The as of yet unclaimed atrocity in St Petersburg is a reminder of how terrorists continue to deploy explosives to advance their causes, and how Russia remains a priority target for international terrorist networks.

It is not yet clear who is responsible for the attack in Russia, though initial indicators suggest that it was by an individual of Central Asian origin who may have previously been radicalised. This comes after an arrest earlier in March at Moscow airport of a Tajik citizen who had reportedly been sent by Isil to launch an attack in Russia. According to reports in the Russian press, the Tajik had been deployed to connect with networks already in the country who were to supply him with equipment to launch a terrorist strike. Central Asians were also implicated in the attacks late last year on the Ataturk Airport and Reina nightclubs in Istanbul, and in an attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek last August.

None of this may appear surprising to the lay observer. Central Asia has long been perceived as a hotbed of radicalisation. And yet in reality, it is a threat that has never quite expressed itself. Central Asian warriors have been a feature of the conflict in Afghanistan and more recently Syria and Iraq, but they have not been responsible for many attacks beyond these battlefields. Increasingly this appears to have changed.

It is something that is of particular concern to Russia, which has deep human, economic and security links with Central Asia. In part through the large community of labour migrants working in Russia from the region, but also directly with the countries of the region. Reflecting this, the new President of Uzbekistan is paying his first formal visit to Moscow this week, an event that has been eagerly anticipated since his election as leader in December 2017. Undoubtedly security questions will now feature as a larger part of the conversation.

From Moscow’s perspective, the menace of international terrorism is something that has been a persistent concern for some time. Of late, it appeared as though Russian security forces had been able to, for the most part, keep a lid on the problem. The attack on the Metrojet plane flying from Sharm el Sheikh was something that was beyond their control in Egypt, and at home the last major attack was in 2013 at Volgograd in the run up to the Winter Olympic games in Sochi. But the attack on St Petersburg shows the threat that Russia faces persists, and it is one that is likely to continue to become more acute as the battlefield in Syria and Iraq shrinks and groups seek to apportion blame and punish the outside powers who are perceived to be fighting against them.

There is a further danger within Russia that this growing narrative of Central Asians being seen as responsible for the incidents will strengthen suspicion among the Russian public towards the hundreds of thousands of migrants from the area. This community provides a huge service to Russia in the form of essential labour, while also providing a huge economic boost back home in remittances. The perception of threat from this community may be high, but the reality of it is actually small, a balance that Moscow needs to manage very carefully.

Finally, this attack highlights once again how terrorism is a multifaceted and complex threat that will continually find ways to penetrate security and murder civilians in advance of a political message. In the wake of incidents in Europe including the Westminster attack, the sense was we were moving towards a threat which was more focused on low tech attacks involving weapons easily available in our everyday lives. The reality is that terrorist groups retain the intent and capacity to launch more sophisticated assaults. The recent threat against aviation and the ban on large electronic items on certain routes is a reflection of the continuing threat of highly sophisticated plots; the St Petersburg attack shows how bombs in bags are still an equally effective vehicle through which to murder and attract attention to your cause.

Security agencies around the world will continue to need to pay attention to a wide range of potential threats, expressed in a variety of forms, in many different locations. The threat may yet become more acute as Isil faces defeat in its homeland.

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

And another piece, this time for my institutional home RUSI after the Westminster atrocity. Also to catch up on a few conversations with the media, spoke to Financial Times, New York Times, The Times, Wall Street JournalLa Repubblica, Politico, Daily Record, NBC, Irish Times, L’Espresso, and Daily Mail amongst others about the incident. Separately, spoke to Voice of America, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post about ISIS released a video featuring Uighurs. Finally, to the Mail on Sunday about a British jihadi who was able to get in and out of the country, and to the Guardian about the laptop ban on planes and Brexit and the security negotiations.

London: The Latest Victim of Terrorism in Europe

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary24 March 2017
EuropeUKUK Counter-terrorismDomestic SecurityTerrorism

The security services face an enormous challenge in preventing these types of terrorist attacks.

The wave of terrorism that has been striking Europe has reached Britain’s shores as a single attacker tried on Wednesday to storm the British Parliament in the centre of London.

Dartford-born Khalid Masood, né Adrian Russell Ajao – killed four people when he rammed his car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and fatally stabbed police officer PC Keith Palmer. At least 50 other people were injured, some critically.

The choice of target and the method used to conduct the attack suggest, at the very least, political intent. Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that Masood was ‘a soldier of the Islamic state’.

The incident might also be linked to the wave of Daesh and Daesh-inspired plots seen in mainland Europe. However, the degree to which this reveals a substantial connection or not has yet to be uncovered.

Security forces have been preparing for such an attack for some time. Some of the 13 plots authorities stated having disrupted in the past three years showed evidence of plotting in the same direction.

It is also one that is increasingly hard to eradicate even with well-developed national surveillance and intelligence capabilities.

Protecting Open Democracy

The decision to strike at the heart of British democracy is a seemingly obvious choice: groups have long sought to strike public institutions and the Houses of Parliament are an international symbol.

The ease of striking at parliamentarians was illustrated last year with the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox at her Batley and Spen, Yorkshire, constituency surgery by right wing extremist Thomas Mair.

It was not the first time a parliamentarian had been attacked in this way – in May 2010 there was the stabbing of Labour’s East Ham MP Stephen Timms by Roshonara Choudhry in an Islamist-inspired attack. Timms was severely wounded, and Choudhry was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Democracy, by its nature, is open and its representatives accessible to the public. Yet, such openness can complicate protecting those representatives or institutions.

Nevertheless, there are some security measures that may be tightened as a result of the current events in London. The fact that the vehicle was able to mount the pavement in the areas around Parliament will raise questions about whether the protective bollards and barriers that surround the area should be further extended.

Indeed, the fact that the individual was able to get inside the parliamentary estate will undoubtedly raise questions about whether the sanitised zone needs to be extended further and more barriers erected in the vicinity.

It is also clear that authorities have discovered that Masood had featured historically in investigations. This will raise questions about why he was not prioritised for investigation and what decisions were made in other directions.

Making the Tough Choices

This is an equally difficult task. For the security services, the problem is in identifying the individual as a priority at this specific moment. It is possible that he should have been due to indicators that were missed. However, security forces are facing a complicated situation involving thousands of persons of interest while lacking the staff numbers to deal with them all.

Choices will have to made about who needs to be prioritised for deeper investigation. This necessitates more attention to some and less to others involving a process of carefully calibrated choice.

The nature of the attack also makes it hard to prevent. Attacks involving cars and knives make use of everyday tools, a tactic which in itself limits the opportunities for the security services to detect plots in advance.

This is not only a reflection of the relative difficulty of launching more sophisticated attacks, but also the fact that terrorist groups have lowered the methodology of a successful attack to this level.

Not only are the tools hard to identify prior to attack (unlike guns or explosives), but preparation time is very limited and can be hard to discern from someone’s ordinary pattern of behaviour.

Beware of an Exaggerated Response

Ultimately, it is the reaction to the carnage which ‘makes’ the attack. An exaggerated response will increase the impact of the incident and give it undue importance. On the other hand, suppressing discussion may feed a frenzy of speculation which is also harmful.

More on the attack will be heard in the days to come, shedding light on the lessons that need to be learned. The answer – as is often the case – is to step back and review processes, ensure societal resilience and brace for the potential for further incidents.

Banner image: Armed police on Victoria Embankment in London after Wednesday’s terror attack on Westminister Bridge and Parliament. Courtesy of Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images.

Catching up on some old posting, first a piece in the Telegraph after the murderous atrocity in Westminster last week.

The Westminster attack will place added scrutiny on Britain’s controversial Prevent programme

The attack on Westminster comes as Whitehall reviews Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy, known as Contest. Developed in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the strategy was aimed at creating a holistic, cross-government approach to countering terrorism. The logic was that as these individuals came from within, a whole of society approach would be required to counter them.

The strategy has undergone numerous tweaks and iterations, with most attention focused on “Prevent”, the strand of the strategy which aimed at trying to steer people off the radical path before they became violent: “addressing the problem in the pre-criminal space”, to use the jargon. The difficulty is that this is something that by its nature should not be handled by the security services, and yet the fundamental point of Contest is to address a security matter. This in part helps illustrate why this aspect of the counter-terrorismstrategy has remained so fundamentally controversial.

Contest was designed as a four pillar strategy – Prevent (stopping people from being drawn to extremist ideas), Prepare (building societal resilience to be able to bounce back from an attack), Pursue (the classic counter-terrorism work of disrupting and investigating individuals), and Protect (building the infrastructure to defend from attack).

The current Contest review was focused on looking across all four, but as a result of this most recent incident, attention will likely focus through the lens of what happened in Westminster.

Since the attacker had historically appeared on the authorities’ radar but dropped down their priority list, the question will be asked about whether more could have been done to re-engage him with society. Or could he have been engaged with earlier to dissuade him from going down this path? The difficulty would be identifying who it was who could actually undertake this, and when would have been the right time to engage. And this in many ways illustrates some of the major issues around Prevent.

Whether we are talking about people working in communities, or those in sectors like education, welfare or healthcare, we are often looking at people who do not traditionally see themselves as security agents. They have chosen to serve society, but don’t see themselves as responsible for pre-empting security threats.

Yet it is often exactly these sorts of people who are being asked to take to the frontline in Prevent; to try to keep the problem outside the criminal space. But their priorities will be different to those of security agents who are focused very narrowly on defending from terrorism and prosecuting offenders. The paradox for Prevent is finding ways of engaging with nationally important security issues before they have become criminal problems, and therefore before the police take a dominant role.

Ultimately, if Prevent is to work it is going to have to move further out of the criminal space, with civilian public servants taking the lead.

If we are going to dissuade people from extremist groups and ideologies, we are then we will have to do it before people have gone far enough as to be a police matter, by which time it is too late. But if we are doing this, then a longer leash will be needed for those who are working on these issues. And we must understand that the nature of what we are asking them to deal with is not what would ordinarily fall into their remit, and that therefore they will look at in a different light to a hard-nosed security agent.

In addition to all of this, we are also dealing with a problem in which success – an absence of threat – cannot easily be linked to a specific programme. Can you link a lack of attacks to specific Prevent programmes running in some part of the country?

Prevent will always be the most controversial aspect of our counter-terrorism strategy. The questions that will be asked around the current incident in Westminster will likely focus on why more was not done to prevent this person from becoming involved in the first place. The answer will inevitably be incomplete, and the grieving families will not gain much from them. But it remains the key to staying ahead of the terrorist threat that we currently face.

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

A new brief piece for the Telegraph looking at the new President’s options for countering terrorism.

Donald Trump doesn’t have a perfect answer to terrorism any more than Obama did