Posts Tagged ‘terrorism’

Finally, in my latest catch-up, a piece for my new local paper the Straits Times, this time exploring the phenomenon of QAnon and its straying back and forth across the line between terrorism and politics.

Am also taking advantage of this opportunity to do a catch up media posting. On the terrorism side of the coin, spoke to the Mail on Sunday about the reported death in a new book of al Muhajiroun leader Siddartha Dhar fighting with ISIS in Syria, to the Telegraph about the situation of the women and children in the Kurdish camps in Syria which was picked up by Arab News, and my interview for CTC Sentinel with Gilles de Kerchove was picked up by the UK’s Independent and their sister paper in Ireland. On the other side of the coin, spoke to CNBC18 in India ahead of the EU-China Summit, to the South China Morning Post about Mongolia and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and separately the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Reasons for the Rise and Rise of QAnon

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How did an online conspiracy theory become so strong that it is influencing the politics of the party ruling the world’s most powerful country while inspiring terrorists at the same time’

The rise of QAnon – an online conspiracy theory that has the trappings of a religious cult – is reflective of broader trends in society, notably how technology is blunting our ability to know what is real while driving existing tendencies for politics to head into ever more extreme directions.

QAnon seems an improbable platform for political office.

It claims, among other things, that a powerful cabal of paedophiles and cannibals within the “deep state” is engaged in a global fight to take down US President Donald Trump.

No one knows who Q is (hence the Anon tag) but his (or her) cryptic messages have led to actions that are sufficiently worrying for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to flag QAnon as a potential domestic terror threat.

The movement has not merely survived its infamous early fiasco (involving a gunman attacking a Washington pizza outlet in the belief that it was a front for a Hillary Clinton-run paedophile ring) but has thrived.

QAnon has increasingly grown in popularity in Republican political circles, with several supporters winning recent congressional primaries. One of them, Ms Marjorie Taylor Greene, is likely to land a seat in the House of Representatives.

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Reddit have shut down numerous QAnon accounts and communities, Republican politicians have voiced misgivings – Senator Lindsey Graham has called it “batsh*t crazy” – but notably Mr Trump has seemed to welcome its supporters, claiming that they “like me very much” and “love America”.

QAnon’s success comes from a strangely modern brew.

It lacks a leadership, beyond an imagined one online (in which Mr Trump is an unknowing leader and anonymous individuals working within the government are leaking information to the world), but this almost complete lack of structure helps explain why a series of online posts has become a movement that encompasses everything from domestic terrorists to people running for Congress.

To be sure, openness at an ideological level is not unique to QAnon. Most movements are inherently evangelical.

If you are advancing a world-transforming idea, you are usually seeking adherents or followers. This requires an ability to broadcast and a method by which people can join and participate.

But the point at which they move from becoming merely a listener to being a more active member is the point at which a barrier usually needs to exist.

Here, a comparison with violent Islamist groups can offer insights.

For groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the ideas can initially be found online or at public gatherings where preachers speak or teach. This provides an initial point of contact which the individual can then follow up and, if he is assiduous enough, eventually leads to his recruitment after some “vetting”.

QAnon is different. Rather than being a structured organisation that has individuals who control entry, QAnon provides access online through discussion forums such as 4chan and 8chan where ideas and conspiracy theories can be followed and developed.

More active adherents produce documentary films or write long articles which expound and explain links to others.

But the fundamental ideas are out there for anyone to find.

And similar to those of other such movements, they offer an answer.

But unlike ideologies with a core text which requires interpretation by trained subject matter experts, here the core text is one that is self-assembled, drawing on the limitless volume of information that exists in our online world.

The core ideas of QAnon – that the world is ruled by a dark cabal which Mr Trump is fighting – are perennial, but how you get to them and where you see the links are up to the individual and his own interpretation.

The ideology becomes one that you partially assemble yourself. This gives the ideas greater salience and strength for the individual, helping to explain the appeal.

As Q followers say: “Do your own research, make up your own mind.”

The idea that humans need an explanation for how the world works is not new.

In dark and confusing times, people will regularly turn to more extreme explanations and strong messengers.

We are living through a moment of great political disruption alongside an explosion in information and disinformation. Certainties no longer exist.

Deepfakes mean that even moving images can be credibly altered. We struggle to know what we know and what we do not know.

The one certainty many people seem to have is that the world is getting worse and entropic forces are taking us down towards some catastrophic end.

Messianic or demagogic leadership becomes important at a moment like this as it appears to provide clarity amid confusion.

Problematically, QAnon’s leader is the ether.

Unlike ISIS, JI or Al-Qaeda in their heyday with clear hierarchies, plans and direction which their followers were steered towards, QAnon offers an idea and sense of belonging to an entirely leaderless organisation.

This makes the tipping point to violence much harder to identify, as it is located within each individual rather than the organisation itself.

QAnon offers itself as an idea that adherents can build themselves.

Some individuals get so worked up they end up like the Illinois woman who threatened to kill Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden over claims of sex trafficking.

Others organise, either by running for public office or taking part in a pro-police protest in Portland, Oregon.

Many are content amplifying the elliptical messages online and, at Trump rallies, flashing symbols and slogans.

Being such a broad-spectrum, DIY movement, QAnon is able to embrace both the mainstream and the extreme.

It also helps explain why the FBI can identify it as a source of concern while numerous Republican party members can run on campaigns that openly reference it.

It is also why it will be impossible to eradicate. Scattered online, it is unlikely to go away until something else comes along and replaces it.

Humankind is always seeking leadership and explanation, and QAnon offers both in an almost limitless, crowdsourced and reinterpretable form.

It provides a haven for those angry at the world who can interpret it as a rationale for going towards violence, while it also creates a large enough community that is attractive to politicians seeking supporters.

QAnon is a cult for our troubled times, bringing religion, explanation, leadership and identity to its followers at the same time.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Next a piece for the South China Morning Post looking at what’s happening to China in its immediate neighbourhood.

Why China is becoming the bogeyman in its border lands

Chinese people, embassies and projects are increasingly the target of separatist and terrorist violence as protests against Uygur treatment grow

As a big player, China’s mere presence and support for the authorities in the region makes it a target for local anger

Raffaello Pantucci

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

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

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August 2020, Volume 13, Issue 8

Authors: Raffaello Pantucci

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Substantive Notes

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

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

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

[d] Editor’s note: Passenger Name Recognition

[e] Editor’s note: Advance passenger Information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very belatedly a review for RUSI Journal of Christine Fair’s recent book on Lashkar-e-Toiba. Well worth a read for those interested in the group.

Also taking this opportunity to catch up on media appearances as it has been a while. On the terrorism side of the equation spoke to the Independent about extreme right wing proscriptions in the UK, NBC about the growing right wing problem in Europe, and Matt Feldman cited some of my earlier work in this very interesting piece on the radical right and lone actors. On the China and the world side of the equation spoke to CNN about UK-China relations, to the Austrian Der Kurier about 5G, China and Europe, the Daily Express picked up an earlier piece for the Sunday Times about China/Russia geopolitics, Asia Times quoted some earlier work on China and Central Asia, while spoke to RFE/RL at some length for this bigger piece about China-Central Asia.

In Their Own Words: Understanding Lashkar-e-Tayyaba

Fair-NEW-WEB-REVISED

C Christine Fair Hurst, 2019

Considered by some to be one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) emerged from the ‘fag end’ (p. 57) of the Afghan Civil War that more famously produced Al-Qa’ida. Responsible for the 2008 attacks on Mumbai, arguably the most audacious terrorist attacks since 9/11 and likely one of the key inspirations for the November 2015 attacks by the Islamic State on Paris, LeT is in fact one of the most sophisticated terrorist groups around. As C Christine Fair points out in In Their Own Words: Understanding Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, an impressive and detailed history of the group, the organisation has long since moved from being a simple terrorist organisation to becoming a political party, charity and branch of the Pakistani deep state (Pakistan’s solid and consistent ruling structures formed mostly from its security structures) that continues to be a factor in regional politics. Given the centrality to local and international security affairs of its host country, Pakistan, this gives the group an outsized relevance on the international stage. Being a potential spark between two nuclear powers that have long been at each other’s throats gives weight to LeT’s actions.

The group’s link to the UK has always been complex. Back in the 1990s, its senior leadership would openly visit the UK to raise money for its cause from the large Kashmiri diaspora. Its narrative of being at the forefront of the fight to liberate Kashmir appealed to much of the UK’s Kashmiri-Pakistani community. Some British citizens went to fight alongside the group, leading to the first trial against a Muslim imam in the UK in 1997, when then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw sought to deport an Oldham-based Ahl-e-Hadith (the sect which provides LeT’s ideological basis) preacher who was assessed by MI5 as raising money, recruiting and facilitating travel of young Britons to fight alongside LeT in Kashmir. The path to liberate Kashmir that the preacher was accused of fostering was the same one along which the 7 July 2005 London bombers started their journey to infamy. Written from an American perspective, Fair’s book tends to see the Mumbai attacks as the moment when US officialdom really started to focus attention on the ground – the UK was already deeply concerned about the group long before this. Fair also shows the importance of the UK, partition and post-colonialism in the group’s mythology (p. 21). A heavily Punjabi organisation, LeT recruits in the part of Pakistan which was most badly impacted following partition (p. 115).

Fair is a well-established scholar of LeT and Pakistan, and an author of numerous books and academic texts on the country and the terrorist groups within it. Her mastery of the languages, and social and political dynamics of the region, is on clear display in this book, which uses LeT’s own texts to explain the group. Through this, she opens up a number of interesting new aspects.

One particular phenomenon she highlights using these texts is the role of women within LeT, and their importance in the group’s dynamic. This stands in contrast to other Kashmiri-focused jihadi groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed (p. 135) and is what helps strengthen the organisation as a national institution. ‘LeT is the only jihadiorganization in Pakistan that has an active women’s wing that issues its own publications’ (p. 135). This is significant given the large number of jihadi organisations in the country. In the various LeT texts Fair cites, she quotes stories about women’s support for the group, their pride in their sons or husbands fighting and dying for the group – calling on their menfolk’s ‘brothers’ to not ‘let his Kalashnikov fall’ (p. 144). She also identifies how the group goes out of its way to permit and encourage female support at its events, including creating a separate section where they can gather at public events. The fact the group does this at some monetary cost reflects the importance it assigns to women’s participation. Most recruitment Fair identifies takes place among family and friends (p. 125). While she does not explicitly identify any countermeasures that might deal with the role of women as radicalisers for the group, she does propose the idea of women being a vector for future countering violent extremism engagements. Fair is clearly interested in the role of women in the group, and sees some value in looking in the future into understanding how they might be used to help deradicalise cadres.

The book is also persuasive in illustrating the importance of Kashmir to the overall Pakistani national mythology and its centrality to the Pakistani security state. She quotes Chief of Army Staff (often referred to as the most important figure in the country given the dominance of the army in national affairs) Raheel Sharif who during his Martyr’s Day speech in 2014 ‘explained that Kashmir is Pakistan’s sheh rag, or jugular vein … Kashmir is “nothing less than a struggle for [the] very existence of Pakistan as a viable nation-state”’ (p. 36). Within this context, LeT, one of the key foot soldiers in the struggle for Kashmir, is characterised as a central institution of Pakistan’s deep state. The emergence of a political branch (the Milli Muslim League, MML), its emphasis on charity and support in disaster-stricken areas (in particular during the 2005 earthquake, though Fair points out how the Pakistani state has sought to exaggerate its role (p.190)), as well as its well-funded and effective security apparatus, make it a very useful and deniable proxy in the ongoing tensions between Pakistan and India.

In contrast to the many other proxies that the Pakistani state is accused of supporting, in the book LeT is shown to be one that the state supports both practically and ideologically in many different ways. For example, it refrains from launching attacks within the country, it has refused to stir up the sectarianism that is popular within Pakistan against the Ahmadiyya community (a minority Muslim sect that is believed by many to be apostate) and it tells its followers that they are not permitted to overthrow Muslim leaders. This is something the group finds itself talking about a lot as followers ask why the organisation is so fixated on fighting enemies of Islam abroad when the government in Pakistan is hurting Muslims through its corrupt behaviour. The group’s line is that such leaders do not deserve to be overthrown, but rather to be persuaded through active proselytisation. In her book, Fair cites a number of LeT thinkers who say ‘violence is never a legitimate response with which to contend with an illegitimate Muslim leader no matter how dissolute he may be’ (p. 172). As with many things, the LeT thinkers see ‘any argument for jihad in Pakistan as a conspiracy, fostered by India or other enemies of Pakistan’ (p. 172).

A detailed and academic text, Fair’s book is written in the form of chapters which can each stand alone. While this might impede narrative flow across the book as a whole, it does make for a rich text which draws on an impressive array of primary texts including a number of LeT’s own magazines, books and reports to paint a detailed picture of the group. Given LeT’s continuing importance, such insightful work is to be welcomed and shows the complex and diverse array of extremist groups that the world continues to face.

Have not posted for a while. Delivered a book project which should ultimately emerge sometime next year, which kept me busy. But have been writing, including this piece for Prospect magazine in the UK on the fifteen year anniversary of the July 7, 2005 bombing which was the big lynchpin event of my earlier book.

Also have numerous projects in motion at the moment pulling me in lots of directions at the same time. Going to do a media catch up in the next post, but for the time being here is a video of a webinar with my Singaporean hosts RSIS looking at the evolution of the UK threat picture.

 

 

Fifteen years on from 7/7, terrorism has changed but the jihadist threat persists

Ideologies have fragmented and dangers become more difficult to track
by Raffaello Pantucci / July 7, 2020

Court artist sketch by Elizabeth Cook of Safiyya Amira Shaikh, 37, of Hayes, West London, who pleaded guilty to preparation of terrorist acts Picture: Elizabeth Cook/PA Wire/PA Images:
Court artist sketch of Safiyya Amira Shaikh, 37, of Hayes, West London, who pleaded guilty to preparation of terrorist acts Picture: Elizabeth Cook/PA Wire/PA Images

It often feels like we have moved into a new era of terrorist threats. Gone are the days when we faced large organised plots involving networks linking the UK to dark corners of faraway lands: now terrorist attacks are made up of random mass stabbings in public places like the attack near London Bridge in 2017. The terrorists being processed through our courts are former drug addicts with troubled pasts, like convert Safiyya Shaikh who was jailed recently for plotting to blow up St Paul’s.

At the ideological end it is equally confusing, with violent Islamists seemingly replaced by a gaggle of extreme right wingers, involuntary celibates (Incels) and individuals whose ideological leaning is so confused the Home Office brackets them together as “mixed, unstable or unclear.” Yet there is more consistency than you might expect. Terrorist threats come in ebbs and flows, sometimes receding but rarely disappearing. Instead, they tend to morph and create new problems. What is constant, however, is our inability to learn from the mistakes of the past.

The most talked about threat on the rise is the extreme right wing. But it is not clear how much of a threat it actually poses. Prior to the 7th July bombings 15 years ago, the most lethal non-Irish related terrorist attack the UK had faced was David Copeland’s one-man bombing campaign targeting London’s minority communities in 1999. Leaving devices in locations targeting London’s black, South Asian and gay communities, his homemade bombs murdered three and injured 140. While Copeland seemed to plan and execute his campaign by himself, he was part of the extreme right in the UK (albeit on the fringes), and a former member of the British National Party, the National Socialist Movement and even the neo-Nazi Combat 18 group.

For years the extreme right was largely the remit of the police, but in the late 1990s it was also coming into MI5’s crosshairs. As Jonathan Evans, a former director-general of MI5, told me earlier this year: “the service worked closely with police to undertake some disruptions in the late 1990s of Combat 18 associated individuals who were consorting with people of a similar cast of mind in eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc. These groups had explicitly decided that terrorism was part of the way forward in order to try to destabilise what they characterised as the Zionist Organised Government (ZOG).” The attacks were disrupted, and soon after MI5 ended up getting almost completely overwhelmed focusing on the violent Islamist terror threat that erupted so violently in 2001.

But the extreme right never went away, and in some ways went mainstream with a rise in far-right parties across Europe. At the terrorist end of the scale, throughout the 2000s police were disrupting extreme right-wing plots. While the majority were fairly shambolic, some more organised ones would occasionally emerge. The Aryan Strike Force (ASF) was a group built around a father and son core who were bent on race war, were running training camps in Cumbria and managed to make enough ricin to kill nine people. But for the most part, they were, as Evans put it to me, “zoological” curiosities who were distinguishing mostly in their oddness.

The emergence of the English Defence League (EDL) and subsequently National Action (NA) changed the picture. From being a scattered group of individuals who were as likely to be involved in child pornography as they were extreme right-wing terrorism, these two groups instead spoke to something more organised coming together. It was also confusing ideologically, with both groups quite explicitly reacting against the violent Islamist groups that dominated public attention, yet also clearly using their tactics and language. National Action speaks of launching a “white jihad” while the EDL was born in reaction to now banned Islamist group Al Muhajiroun’s presence in Luton. And while there is a clear white supremacist tone to both groups, the EDL promoted non-white members.

More explicitly, political far-right group Britain First provided another wrinkle within this fabric, espousing a white supremacist ideology using Christian iconography. There is a palpable religious overtone to their narratives which feels more reminiscent of the violent Islamist threat that brought together religion and totalitarian views about society. This mix of ideas helped give them a strong base of support in parts of eastern Europe.

This confusing ideological background has been matched by the emergence of online ideologies drawing on fears of the “Great Replacement” of white communities. This has become the backdrop against which a whole range of ideologies have developed, spinning the extreme right in numerous different directions: ideas like the Incels movement, made up of young men who feel themselves rejected sexually. The QAnon movement, which has not only appeared at Trump rallies but now also appears to have three adherents among American congressional candidates, is made up of conspiracy theorists drawing on the vast information pool now available online to concoct narratives about controlling deep states, the dangers of 5G technology and stories of powerful paedophiles. And in one of the stranger threats to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, a growth in groups fearing the increased role of the state. Groups like the Sovereign Citizen movement have become more influential as some fear the virus response is simply an excuse to expand the power of the state to ultimately oppress them.

But notwithstanding this increasingly baffling threat picture, it has still not eclipsed the violent Islamist threat in the UK. In a recent interview, the UK’s top counter-terrorism police officer Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said that the extreme right wing took up about 10 per cent of his officers’ time. While it is, as he put it, the “fastest-growing” aspect of the threat picture, and cases have managed to rise to the very top of the terrorist “matrix” that MI5 uses to prioritise its threat picture, it is not the majority yet. The biggest threats continue to come from those inspired or linked to groups like al-Qaeda or Islamic State (IS).

This is something you hear consistently from security officials. Yes, the extreme right is a growing concern, but the violent Islamist threat persists and there is little evidence that the pool of problems that created it have gone away. They point to foreign battlefields like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq or parts of north, west or east Africa, where al-Qaeda- and IS-linked groups continue to thrive. These are the sorts of environments that produced the 7/7 attacks. Just last month, security officials in Germany disrupted a plot in which a group of Tajiks stand accused of being directed by IS networks in Syria and Afghanistan to launch an attack in Europe.

In the UK it has been a while since we have had a major public disruption like this. Instead, incidents like last year’s attack at Fishmongers’ Hall or the attempted stabbing in Streatham—when a recently released terrorist convict launched a one-man attack—are the norm. In these and other more recent cases still winding their way through the courts, isolated individuals, sometimes with links to violent Islamist networks, and usually with histories that have brought them to MI5’s attention at some point, launch one-man campaigns with no outside direction and weapons such as knives found in every household. A growing proportion of them have serious mental health or social problems, making them deeply volatile and unpredictable people. This makes them almost impossible to stop, but nevertheless results in a vast outpouring of noise from politicians and the public demanding that something must be done.

It is never a good idea to legislate in the immediate wake of a disaster. Objectivity will go out of the window, leading to ill-considered choices. We saw this in the wake of the 7/7 attacks—when the shock to the country led to a surge in focus and attention on the UK’s Muslim community. Politicians’ rhetoric sharpened, demanding they “do something.” A money spigot was opened which gave the security services more resources to manage the problem—including developing community profiling tools like Project Rich Picture, which aimed to develop a detailed understanding of the UK’s Muslim community, identifying them as the source of the threat. Self-appointed leaders (or “professional Muslims” as one colleague once sarcastically put it) popped up everywhere speaking for no one but themselves, but nevertheless able to garner grants from the government to bolster their so-called community work. Some did positive work. Others it was less clear.

All this did little to improve Muslim community relations and instead created a sense among many Muslims that they were being unfairly targeted. Paradoxically, it also created animosity among white communities who were angered by the austerity and economic marginalisation they were facing in contrast to this visible push in support to Muslim communities. We have not seen a similar outpouring of money or attention towards deprived white communities in the wake of the growing rise of the extreme right.

A decade and a half since July 2005, we seem not to have learned some of these lessons. Politicians appear unwilling to acknowledge that part of the problem of the resurgent extreme right is a product of the racially-tinged politics that have been stoked by mainstream voices in the past few years, while the growing presence of seriously troubled individuals at the sharp end of the terror threat as lone actors reflects years of under-investment in mental health services, probation and social services. The recently convicted Safiyya Shaikh, formerly Michelle Ramsden, in some ways fits this mould perfectly—a deeply troubled woman whose online life developed into her becoming a webmaster and coordinator for IS-supporting groups and plots across Europe.

We have gone from networks directing plots against our public transport to lone actors lashing out at people going about their daily lives. The underlying ideologies remain the same, though their expression has become more confusing. In many ways little has changed except for the volume of people affected and our security services’ capability to manage terrorist threats (one of the biggest reasons why we have not seen anything larger than a lone actor attack in a while). But our politicians seem unable to grasp the difficult nettles that are required to deal with these issues in a sophisticated fashion. Either we learn to live with the problem or focus on the real underlying issues.

 

A new piece for a place have been contributing to increasingly of late, the Indian Observer Research Foundation (ORF), this time a piece on the extreme right wing in Europe with RSIS colleague Kyler.

Going to start catching up on other media or webinar appearances as well, including a new format I have not used before which is the embedded YouTube feature. Here below is a video of the webinar that I did with Marlene and her Central Asia Program on China and Central Asia during COVID-19, which drew on a paper of mine they kindly published.

 

From fringe to mainstream: The extreme rightwing in Europe

This ideological confusion between violence and politics has become even more opaque with the growth of ideologically overlapping subcultures online.

Screen Shot 2020-07-09 at 06.41.30

Europe has long suffered from far-right politics and extreme right terrorism. Over the past decade, however, the terrorism associated with the ideology has grown in influence and potency. The increasing mainstreaming of racist narratives which hold non-whites culpable for the current dire state of affairs has brought fringe views into broader public view. At the same time, Europe has seen a growth in an increasingly networked and armed extreme rightwing, showing a threat picture evolving in worrying directions.

Mainstreaming far-right narratives

In Europe, just as in some other parts of the world, governments’ bid to contain the spread of COVID-19 brought rightwing extremists to the forefront of anti-lockdown protests. In Germany, for instance, extremists have attended rallies organised by a mainstream far-right political party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), and leveraged the pandemic to spread anti-semitic and racist conspiracy theories. Many of these theories have attributed Jews as the source of the crisis and reason for lockdown, and blamed migrants for being the original carriers of the virus.

Separately, the killing of a Black American man, George Floyd, on 25 May 2020 by a police officer in Minnesota, has ignited anti-racist protests and counter-protests globally. Rightwing extremists in Europe are exploiting the chaos to conduct counter-protests against “white racism” in Paris, the tearing down of national monuments linked to slavery and colonialism in London, and ultimately to incite violence.

This trend of the extreme right taking advantage of the chaos generated during COVID-19 and the race protests is not surprising. But it comes after a general trend in European politics of the mainstreaming of far-right voices. Be it France’s Front Nationale, Germany’s AFD, UKIP in the UK, Italy’s Lega Nord, Spain’s Vox or Victor Orban in Hungary, there has been a growing trend across Europe in the past decade or more of parties mainstreaming far-right narratives. Mostly focused on immigration, they tap into racist sentiment dressing it up as nationalism to move closer to power. In some cases, they have achieved their goal and won political office, but in others they have served to simply drag the existing mainstream right deeper towards their narratives as they attempt to reclaim the political territory.

The net result of this shift is previously fringe narratives and parties being brought closer to the center. In turn, this means the extreme right is also brought in, empowering those on the hard edges who see the winds blowing in their direction and an opportunity to capitalise. In Germany, this link has been quite explicit, with the radical wing of AfD (known as Der Flügel) placed under surveillance by German domestic intelligence. The growing mainstreaming of nativism is also not exclusive to the rightwing, and is visible at the other end of the political spectrum as well. Some leftist parties are fighting to “bring back” populist votes by championing “ours first” policies in their electoral campaigns. This is visible in the Danish Social Democrats or Italy’s leftist Five Star movement which has been willing to enter into coalition with far-right parties to get into power.

A European Union of hate

Somewhat paradoxically given their tendency to oppose the European Union, these far-right political groups have found themselves networking across the continent. Drawing on each other’s successes, they have held rallies together, spoken admiringly of each other as a way of highlighting the substance to their movement across the Continent, and even formed political blocs in the Union. This connectivity is something that is equally visible on the extreme right, where groups like the English Defence League (EDL) have been emulated across Europe. And on the even harder edge, we can see how terrorist groups or individuals are linking up across the continent. Anders Behring Breivik, a man who presented himself as the forefront of a movement with his attack in Norway in 2011 and has subsequently become something of an icon to parts of the extreme right, reported contacts with extremists in the Balkans, as well as attended EDL marches in the UK.

In the UK, the case of Pavlo Lapshyn, a Ukrainian student who moved to Birmingham in 2013 and launched a one-man terror campaign against the West Midlands Muslim community, was an early indicator of what could come. Britain First, the fringe far-right group, has found support in Eastern Europe with its leadership going to rallies in Poland, posting materials in Polish and hosting Poles in London. Some of their Polish followers have launched attacks in the UK. This link draws on the 1990s when UK far right extremists made connections with their counterparts in Eastern Europe. Networks of extremists from Germany, Eastern Europe and Nordic countries have long formed sub-cultures around the white power music scene. This has provided a backdrop for networks of extreme right-wing terrorists like the Nationalist Socialist Underground (NSU) in Germany.

Further multiplying concerns has been the growth in links to battlefields and training camps. Rightwing extremists in Europe have travelled and developed relations with individuals and networks within and outside of the continent, and vice versa. White supremacist groups originating from the United States, such as The Base, also have presence in Europe. The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has turned it into a battlefield pitting pro-Russian separatist against ultra-nationalist groups, and turning it into a transnational hub attracting foreign fighters to join both sides. The Azov Battalion is known to have conducted recruitment outside of Ukraine and trained white supremacists who have travelled to Ukraine. Fighters from across Europe have shown up, with a number tracing links to far-right groups back home.

 rightwing extremism, far-right politics, extreme right terrorism, white racism, fringe narratives, political spectrum, right terrorism, English Defence League, Britain First, ideological strands, fringe ideologies, white supremacism, ideological construction, Great Replacement, indigenous European population, extreme right ideologies, radicalisation, anti-semitic, rightwing terrorism in Europe

The growing cooperation is not only restricted to Ukraine. The Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), a Russian ultra-nationalist, quasi-paramilitary organisation, has hosted training camps that have attracted Swedish, Finnish and German extremists. Some went to Ukraine, but others returned home. German neo-Nazis, particularly the youth wings of two neo-Nazi German political parties, the National Democratic Party and The Third Path, attended camps before returning home to promulgate far-right ideas. Two Swedish members of the Nordic Resistance Movement who trained with RIM went on to construct explosive devices which they used to target sites in Sweden associated with migrants in 2016 and 2017. The US has recently designated RIM as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entity, partly for its role in these attacks.

Ideological twist and shout

There is also a growing confusion at the ideological end of the spectrum. The nexus between far-right political ideologies and extreme rightwing, non-affiliated lone terrorists, is murky and has in some cases led to acts of extremism and terrorism perpetrated by lone terrorists being politicised. Germany’s AfD was initially blamed for Tobias Rathjen’s 19 February shootings at a series of shisha bars in Hanau, though there was no evidence of a link and ultimately questions were raised around Rathjen’s mental state. Similarly, the murder of UK MP Jo Cox by Thomas Mair was initially associated with the group Britain First, given his past involvement with the group and reports of him shouting the group’s name during his attack. The link was ultimately revealed to be unclear and denied by the group.

This ideological confusion between violence and politics has become even more opaque with the growth of ideologically overlapping subcultures online. While the classic extreme right of neo-Nazi’s, skinheads and hooligans still exist, they are now joined by fringe ideologies such as “incel” (which is shorthand for “involuntary celibate,” an adherent who believes that attractive women and men are to be blamed for their inability to find a romantic or sexual partner), anti-government movements such as Sovereign Citizens (which already has sizable membership in Europe), QAnon or conspiracy theorists focused on the dangers of 5G technology. These ideas, ideologies, online sub-cultures all merge together and have produced terrorist attacks. A growing number of European cases draw on a range of these ideologies, with a strong extreme right undertone tying them together. Philip Manshaus (August 2019 Bærum mosque attack), Stephan Balliet (attempted October 2019 Halle synagogue attack), and Tobias Rathjen (February 2020 shisha bars attack), were all triggered by their hatred for immigrants, but showed incel refrains in their manifestos. Even if the fringe ideology may not have been the main driver to the act of terror, the convergence of rightwing extremist ideologies (e.g., white supremacism), inceldom and conspiracy theory driven movements is increasing.

At the other end of the ideological construction there is a problem of reciprocal radicalisation where elements of the extreme right draw their motivation from ideological adversaries on the far-left or violent Islamists. But there has also been a growth of groups subsuming ideological strands or messaging from opposing groups into their own ideologies — in part out of acknowledgement of success others have had in projecting their messages. For example, the UK’s National Action talked of white jihad, used tactics and imagery aping ISIS, while stirring up neo-Nazi messaging and using the direct-action political activism reminiscent of al-Muhajiroun.

Overall, however, an underlying narrative that tends to drive the extreme right in Europe is the “Great Replacement” theory, which promulgates that “indigenous European population is replaced by non-European migrants.” Anders Brevik and Tobias Rathjen have cited the incipient threat of white genocide in their manifestos as reasons for taking up arms to fight against the colonisation of western civilisation. This is a narrative also popular amongst some far-right and libertarian politicians across Europe.

What the future holds

Extreme rightwing terrorism in Europe has contributed an increased share of total terrorist attacks in the last five years (in some years, it even represented the largest threat). According to Europol’s figures, notwithstanding reporting issues (member states have a habit of reporting in different ways), there has been a consistent increase in reported arrests on the extreme right since 2015 (coinciding with the migrant crisis), and these numbers have more than doubled between 2017 and 2018, potentially demonstrating heightened counter-terrorism efforts. Just in June this year, the German Interior Ministry placed a ban on the anti-semitic rightwing extremist group, Nordadler. In the same month, the Belgian government reported that some 20 of its citizens have participated in paramilitary training camps in Eastern Europe in recent years. As reciprocal radicalisation, lone actor attacks drawing on a mixture of warped extreme right ideologies, and mainstreaming of far-right ideas continue to grow, the problem is not going away. With violent Islamist threat appearing to retreat, rightwing extremism and terrorism remain amongst the most dangerous ideologies on the continent, and a growing force to be reckoned with.

A short op-ed for the Financial Times in response to President Trump’s ill-advised Tweet threat to proscribe the anti-facist grouping antifa. Have a few bigger projects on terrorism in the pipeline, including a bigger existential one in the longer-term future. The big question am keen to try to understand is how terrorism ideologies and current technology will intersect going forwards.

Drifting definitions of terrorism endanger us all

Donald Trump’s threat to outlaw antifa could lead to the criminalising of dissent

There is a distinction to be drawn between protests and terrorism

There is a distinction to be drawn between protests and terrorism © AFP via Getty Images

The writer is a visiting senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies

It is tempting to ignore US president Donald Trump’s tweets. But his recent declaration that he intends to proscribe antifa as a terrorist organisation will empower those around the world inclined to see any threat to their power as terrorist.

The US previously designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp as terrorists leading to the assassination of a top Iranian general. If America starts considering an anti-fascist idea to be a terrorist group, it would be leaning in a direction that can be interpreted as criminalising dissent. When America leads, others will follow.

There is a distinction to be drawn between protests and terrorism. The sometimes violent American demonstrations after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd are not terrorism. Nor are the violent acts that have been troubling Hong Kong. This does not mean that some individuals are not using the protests as a cover to try to commit terrorist acts. But the overall movements are not terrorists in the same way that al-Qaeda is. Terrorists use violence, but not all public violence is terrorism.

The distinction is confusing when we look beyond rioting. Like his predecessors, Mr Trump has explored proscribing Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organisations. Yet, they are motivated by money not ideology, and theoretically their supporters include millions of US narcotics consumers.

There is also a growing enthusiasm for proscribing online subcultures as terrorist organisations because of the ideological motivation that the individuals draw from being part of an online chatroom. Yet, there is little evidence of coherent structures, rather these are violent online subcultures that reflect the times in which we live.

The danger in the US letting definitions drift is that others push the boundaries in their own anti-terrorist legislation. The Philippines’ new law expands police power to detain and conduct investigations and demand data from telecoms companies, while removing punishment for wrongful investigation. Activists and the opposition worry that the legislation will be used against them.

Europe is struggling with a definitional problem around the extreme right. How you define far-right political versus extreme right terrorist varies by country. Some states have parties in or near power whose ideological pronouncements are close to those considered terrorist groups in others. This causes practical problems and also raises issues about the way different security forces categorise and respond to extreme rightwing groups.

It is difficult to define a terrorist. The old cliché that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter is not useful. Some of the ideologies or individuals who emerge in terrorist garb move into the mainstream and our own definitions shift over time. The now-ruling African National Congress in South Africa is an example of the former. Afghanistan’s Taliban remains a proscribed organisation committing atrocious acts of violence even though a number of states are negotiating with them to find a way to take some political power in Kabul.

Adding an inchoate idea like antifa — a loose constellation of anarchists whose only clear connecting ideology is a revulsion towards fascists — to the roster of terrorist groups whilst ignoring some of the extreme right groups active in the US further clouds this picture. But Mr Trump’s threats are giving global authoritarians carte blanche to go after groups they consider dangerous.

Terrorism is useful as a legal term that describes non-state actors using violence against civilians to a coherent political goal. Using it too liberally allows it to be exploited to the detriment of not only free speech and open societies, but also those who are seeking to right genuine wrongs in the world. Violence must be prosecuted but separated from angry dissent.

Not quite a new article, but a short letter in the Financial Times, restating a point I made in an earlier article for the Straits Times. Generally feeling quite pessimistic at the moment and suspect that it is coming through in my writing.

Lessons of Covid-19 for defence spending have still to be learnt

FT image

Helen Warrell’s point about the defence industry facing a shrunken environment in the wake of Covid-19 is unfortunately likely but reflects an over-optimistic assessment of the international security environment (Opinion, May 6). While government budgets will undoubtedly shrink in general, the threats that are faced have not gotten any smaller.

Arguably, they are getting worse. The US-China confrontation is taking an ever more bellicose tone, while the Iran-US showdown is escalating. Russia continues to be an armed irritant buzzing UK shores and neighbours’ armed forces, showing no interest in backing down from its persistent confrontation with the west. And the confusion around Kim Jong Un’s disappearance highlights a nuclear confrontation that has yet to be resolved. At the other end of the scale, militant groups are spotting an opportunity and pushing forwards as governments look elsewhere at home to manage their healthcare problems.

We are entering a world of ever more great power confrontation. The answer will unfortunately be to increase defence spending, as illogical as it might be in the face of a realisation that there are far more dangerous things to us than conflict between states. Assessments of risk before Covid-19 pointed to a pandemic virus being the most likely and most disruptive threat that we might face and we failed to prepare. There is little reason to think we have learnt that lesson yet.

Raffaello Pantucci
Senior Associate Fellow,
Royal United Services Institute,
London SW1, UK

Another post for the lovely folk at GNET, who also recently appointed me one of their many Associate Fellows. It is a pen portrait of L Jinny or Abdul-Majed Abdul Bary, the former rapper and hacktivist who has now ended up arrested in Spain after sneaking out of ISIS-land trying to get back home to Europe. With his UK passport stripped he is likely to find himself getting shunted on to Egypt, but you can never quite predict these stories. In any case, doubtless more on the fall-out from Syria to come, including more of these sorts of short pieces drawing on a wide range of material.

Jihadactivist

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By 

in Insights

The line between protest and terrorism is clear, but can become complicated when one digs into the underlying ideas. Many would find themselves agreeing with some of the underlying sources of anger that drive terrorist groups, but they would not agree with their choice of action in responding to it. This proximity, however, has a habit of creating strange bedfellows and journeys – like the path taken by Lyricist Jinny, the Egyptian-British one-time rapper and former Islamic State (IS) member who was arrested in Spain last week. A counter-culture tale that flows from rapper and hacktivist to jihadist and (likely) jail.

Abdel-Majed Abdel-Bary (also known by his musical name Lyricist Jinny or L Jinny) was born into a large family whose father was missing for a good portion of his childhood. Fighting extradition from the UK to the US on charges of being involved in Al Qaeda’s 1998 bombings of US Embassies in Africa, Adel Abdel Bary was part of an earlier generation of jihadists. Showing he remembered with anger his father’s arrest, in one of his many raps still easily available online, L Jinny spits “Give me the pride and the honour like my father, I swear the day they came and took my dad, I could have killed a cop or two.” Like a lot of rap music, L Jinny’s is flavoured by a protest against the system and the hard knock life on the streets – something that was reflected in his own experience. While in Syria in March 2014 he tweeted about the incarceration back in the UK of one of his friends for his part in a brutal knife murder in Pimlico in January 2013. Giving a shout-out from the battlefield he wrote, “my lil brother ahmed got sentenced to life…26 years minimum….love lil bro see you in the afterlife inshallah #kasper.”

But there is a noticeably more political angle to some of his rap, with a couple of songs showing his support for the hacktivist collectives Anonymous and TeaMp0isoN. In 2011, L Jinny teamed up with the hacktivists to produce a rap song and video called #OpCensorDis which acted as an angry clarion call against censorship against a backdrop of protests and images from the riots that shook London in 2011. “Now i linked up with TeaMp0isoN they can’t censor me” he raps, protected supposedly by the hacktivist collective who trailed the song online with comments about how if it was censored they would launch merciless online attacks against the music industry. The money raised was supposedly given to the East Africa Crisis Appeal, though it was unclear how much was actually made or why the music industry would censor a fairly pedestrian rap song. Paradoxically, they also used the #OpCensorDis operation to launch a defacement attack on UN aid organizer UNDP’s sites.

This was not the only lyrical contribution to the operation that L Jinny offered. Alongside rappers Tabanacle and Proverbz, he produced another song imaginatively called Op Censor Dis 2. This time shot with a video of a group of lads rapping against the system in front of the Bank of England. Featured alongside the rappers in the music video was a rather smug looking young man called Junaid Hussain, one of the leaders of TeaMp0isoN who was active online using the handle TriCk. His Twitter handle had been the one to release #OpCensorDis in late 2011 and showing his growing arrogant confidence, he was willing to do anonymous interviews with the press over Skype boasting of his group’s skills. After a particularly prominent attack on the UK Metropolitan Police’s Counter-Terrorism reporting hotline he told the Telegraph, “We done it due to the recent events where the counter terrorist command and the UK court system have allowed the extradition of Babar Ahmad, Adel Abdel Bary and a few others – we also done it to due the new “snooping” laws where the GCHQ can “spy” on anyone and everyone.”

TeaMp0isoN as a collective were fairly scattered in their success and damage. They got into fights with fellow hacktivists Lulzsec whose real identities they threatened to out online. Angry at reports that Blackberry owner RIM were helping police track rioters during the 2011 UK riots, they attacked and defaced Blackberry’s blog. They brought down the English Defence League’s site. In an attack which finally got him jailed, Junaid Hussain got into the email account of one of Tony Blair’s aides and leaked Blair’s contact information and more online. Other attacks found them derided as ‘skiddies’, with some experts pointing out that their contribution to a big Anonymous driven hack against the Nigerian government was to hack into the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association and the Engineering Materials Development Institute. Neither very relevant to Nigeria. During another Anonymous led attack on Stratfor which TeaMp0isoN piggybacked they took stolen credit card details and used them to give money to a variety of charities. In a bit of a home goal, this money was reclaimed and the charities ended up having to cover payback fees.

Reflecting Hussain and Bary’s later life, there were various off-shoots of TeaMp0isoN which had a flavour of the struggle they were going to end up joining. This included their Operation Free Palestine series of hacks, and off-shoot groups ZCompany Hacking Crew (ZHC), which aimed to “end injustice, extremism, Zionism, illegal occupation” and focused on Kashmir and Pakistan. Both TeaMp0isoN and ZHC were also linked to the Mujahideen Hacking Unit (MHU) and Muslim Liberation Army (MLA). At this stage, however, the confluence was simply youthful protest being driven in lots of different directions.

When exactly Junaid Hussain’s shift to jihadism took place is unclear, but he seems to have been firmly on the path after his release from prison in 2013 for the hack on Tony Blair’s assistant. At around the same time, Bary started to reject his former life online posting on Facebook in July 2013 “the unknown mixtape with my bro tabanacle will be the last music I’m ever releasing. I have left everything for the sake of Allah.” In October that year he tweeted “for everyone that still asks me about where my videos have gone, like I said a while back I quit music & I took all the vids I can down….& if you own a channel that has any of my music up can you take it down also, appreciated. Bless.”

The two men were by then in Syria, fighting (or training) initially alongside the Army of Furqan before shifting over to IS using the same connection, Abu al Taj, to vouch for them. Reflecting their online pasts, in their IS entry forms they both identified themselves as having pasts in computers – with Bary saying that he used to work in a computer shop, while Hussain said he had a specialization in electronics.

In Junaid’s case at least we know that his online activity became a major driver of his contribution to IS, founding the Islamic State Hacking Division (ISHD) under which he drew notoriety and attention through his creative use of online activity to advance IS cause. In one of the more infamous attacks which attracted particular US government ire and drew on his TeaMp0isoN contacts, he worked with a young Kosovan studying in Malaysia to obtain and leak the contact information of 1,351 US government and military folk. Ardit Ferizi was another case of hacktivist turned jihadi supporter though he never actually made it to the Levant. Instead, using hacking skills he had perfected as the self-appointed leader of the Kosova Hacker’s Security (KHS) he attacked various sites and then passed along information he thought would be useful to IS. Ardit and Junaid knew each other from TeaMp0isoN days. Junaid enthusiastically circulated the hacked US government contacts under the ISHD accounts hoping followers would use the information to launch lone actor attacks in advance of IS cause.

FBI state that no damage was actually done through this leak. But two short weeks after he posted Ferizi’s information online, a drone strike killed Junaid at a petrol station in Raqqa. Ferizi was arrested in Malaysia in September and is now sitting in a US jail on a 20 year sentence.

Bary’s story went quiet at around the same time, with reports circulating he was unhappy with IS. He reportedly fled across the border into Turkey at which point he disappeared. Now that he has resurfaced in Spain, he will likely be looking at the inside of a prison cell for some time. In arresting him, Spanish police highlighted his “great ability to obtain funding and move like a fish in the water of the darknet” providing maybe a flavour of what he had been up to since he had disappeared. The UK has stripped him of his passport so he is most likely heading to Egypt. L Jinny’s counter-culture adventure has come to a close, but the arc shows what the journey can look like. From rapper and hacktivist to jihadist and jail.

Another piece looking at how COVID-19 is impacting international security questions, somewhat emphasizing a point made in an earlier RUSI piece focusing in on how existing terrorist threats were evolving while the world was not paying attention. This time it is for my new local paper the Straits Times and takes a wider lens to look at how adversaries are actively taking advantage of distraction to advance their own interests. Given the dominance of COVID-19 on international affairs writ large at the moment suspect there are a few more pieces in me on this topic in some shape or form. In other matters, while not doing much media, am doing various webinars including one later this week (April 29 at 6PM Indian Standard Time) with the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) about the excellent Kabir’s very readable recent book on ISIS in South Asia. Last week spoke with a panel at the Pakistani Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research (CSCR) on impact of COVID-19 on Belt and Road – the entire event was recorded and can be found on YouTube.

Covid-19 is fuel to the flames of security threats

Raffaello Pantucci For The Straits Times
PUBLISHED | APR 27, 2020, 5:00 AM SGT

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An Afghan security officer stopping motorists at a checkpoint in Kabul on April 8, during a government-imposed lockdown as a preventive measure against Covid-19. The virus may have brought much of the world to a standstill, but it has not ended conflict, says the writer. In Afghanistan, the peace process appears to be barely holding together amid continuing violence. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The Covid-19 virus may have brought much of the world to a standstill, but it has not ended conflict.

In fact, there is a growing danger that some are exploiting people’s distraction to advance their own interests. Coming at a time when there is not the capacity to either respond directly to the threats or marshal the diplomatic wherewithal to stop problems from escalating, there is a real danger that it is not just the world’s economies that will be irrevocably damaged in the post-Covid-19 world, but our national security environment as well.

The problem is articulating itself in different ways, among adversaries large and small.

In many cases, the activity is an extension of existing issues – part of the general feeling of acceleration that is being driven by the crisis. But coming when most governments are focused on disease relief at home, there is little surge capability available to respond adequately.

Those who can respond – for the most part, the United States – are moving quickly to escalation, with all the risks that come with it.

China’s recent activity in the South China Sea is a good example of this. Beijing’s behaviour is not in itself new. With its nine-dash map, China has long made claims to much of the waterway and the atolls, reefs and islands that some countries in South-east Asian consider theirs.

But the recent decision to push at them by renaming sea features and establishing districts over disputed areas suggests that China sees an opportunity in further changing the realities on the ground and creating a context that will be difficult for others to push back on without engaging in some form of conflict.

Beijing’s behaviour has not gone unnoticed, with the US dispatching vessels to support South-east Asian partners. But this comes at a difficult moment, when South-east Asian countries are seeking to work with China to help manage the pandemic they face, and also hopeful for the country to rapidly turn its economy back on to boost regional growth once again.

The danger of confrontation is high given that managing relations between the two big powers is not the easiest in the best of times, even more so now with the region in the grip of the pandemic.

Big power rivalry aside, the pandemic is undermining the fight against terrorism.

Terrorist-fuelled conflicts in Africa have seen a rise in violence as Western forces find themselves increasingly stretched by the Covid-19 crisis. In Mali, Spain drew down a substantial proportion of its forces there, while France has seen some of its forces in West Africa fall sick and suspended some maritime operations. Over in East Africa, Interpol was forced by Covid-19 to suspend its regional intelligence coordination mission.

Terrorist groups have been quick to take advantage.

In West Africa, Al-Qaeda’s local affiliate gleefully celebrated the foreigners’ difficulties as reports from Mali suggest that militants are getting within reach of the capital Bamako. In East Africa, an Islamist-fuelled insurgency in northern Mozambique continues to escalate and is taking a trajectory that increasingly resembles that of Boko Haram, the terrorist group that continues to ravage Nigeria’s north and neighbours. Groups across the Sahel are becoming more ambitious and aggressive, with soldiers, civilians and fighters killed in growing numbers.

This pattern is also visible in Asia. In the holiday spot of the Maldives, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has claimed responsibility for its first attack amid a growing number of violent incidents in the country, including attacks on foreign visitors. In Afghanistan, the peace process appears to be barely holding together amid continuing violence.

Both the Maldives and Afghanistan also face Covid-19 outbreaks of unknown magnitude and are likely going to struggle to manage both a pandemic and terrorist attacks at the same time.

Again, outsiders have tried to step in to help, but the assistance is sporadic and mostly focused on providing medical aid, without focusing on the escalating security problems. A brief visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo showed the US’ concern with the Afghan security situation, but was not enough. In fact, the rush to exit from Afghanistan by the US risks leaving chaos in its wake that will have wider repercussions across the region.

In the meantime, Western powers have to contend with sabre-rattling and other provocative actions from the likes of Russia, Iran or North Korea. In a time of great distraction elsewhere, there are few moderating influences available to try to de-escalate these situations.

What Covid-19 has done is to act as an accelerant to the fires already burning in various hot spots around the world. If not contained, the conflicts will be hard to unwind. With the US and China on a path towards collision, there is increasingly little space for diplomacy.

Material changes on the ground, like claimed territories or cities taken over by terrorists, will not be easily reversed without conflict.

It is understandably difficult to get governments to focus on much else at the moment. Controlling the virus, saving lives at home and finding ways of getting economies moving again are clearly the immediate priorities.

But we are in danger of missing shifts happening in our national security environment that could lead to conflict or escalation beyond the point of control.

Without more attention being paid to these other problems, when the world starts up again after the contagion is over, we may find the geopolitical environment strategically altered for the worse.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.