Posts Tagged ‘terrorism’

Trying to stay on top of my posting this time – wrote something earlier this week for my publisher Hurst’s excellent blog. A great place to do slightly longer form writing on the topic of Al Muhajiroun given the current attention it is getting. Of course much more of this in my book!

Al Muhajiroun’s Long Shadow

Many years ago I had coffee with Anjem Choudary. Ensconced in the Desert Rose Café in Walthamstow where he would hold court, he joked about the punishments that would be meted out to homosexuals in his imagined Caliphate as he brushed off my questions.

As he is released from prison in the United Kingdom, it is one of Choudary’s followers who is most on my mind – a young man he introduced as ‘Saiful Islam’. At the time, Anjem was clearly quite proud of his eager and well-spoken young acolyte, telling me how his name meant ‘Sword of Islam’.

I later realised that this young man was Abu Rumaysah or Siddartha Dhar, who is now more notoriously known as Jihadi Sid. Reportedly on American targeted killing lists, he is among the British jihadis still at large in Syria. His presence reflects the long shadow that al-Muhajiroun still casts. The latter remains more visible than you would necessarily expect. The persistent appearance of al-Muhajirounis on the security services radar exemplifies the chronic nature of the terrorist problem that Britain and other countries face.

The recently concluded Westminster Bridge attack inquest exemplifies this phenomenon. During the course of the investigation into the 2017 March terrorist attack on Parliament, it was revealed that Khalid Masood had shown up repeatedly on the fringes of investigations into al-Muhajiroun related networks. Back in 2004, his number was found on the phone of Waheed Mahmood, one of the key figures in the first large-scale bombing plot in the United Kingdom, referred to by the police as ‘Operation Crevice’. At around the time he was in touch with Mahmood, he reported to one of his wives much later that he also met Abdul Wahid Majid, another Crawley man who had been involved with al-Muhajiroun and who subsequently blew himself up in Syria in 2014.

 Muslims Against Crusades 30.7.2011-563 – Anjem Choudary 

Moving to Luton from Crawley in 2009, Khalid Masood slipped seamlessly back into the al-Muhajiroun milieu – living yards from both Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly and Abu Rahin Aziz. Al Abdaly blew himself up in Stockholm, while Aziz was killed by a drone strike in Syria. Following his death, al-Muhajiroun supporters in Luton distributed sweets in celebration of Aziz’s death. A separate cell from Luton became so incensed at his demise that they explored the possibility of targeting an American airbase in Britain as a potential target.

It is important to note that it is not clear from the evidence presented in the inquest that Masood knew any of these people well – but the coincidence and his previous contacts with the group suggest he would have likely known who they were. He was close to Ibrahim Anderson, a local al-Muhajirouni who was jailed in 2016 for canvassing support for ISIS. By February 2010, Masood’s activity had escalated to the point that MI5 opened an investigation into him. During the inquest, information was uncovered that between “2012 and 2016…he was appearing as contacts of SOIs [subjects of Interest] who were linked to ALM [Al-Muhajiroun],” reportedly, however, there were no “notable ALM figures” amongst this group.

Although a peripheral figure to the al-Muhajiroun community, he was active on its fringes. According to one of his wives, he participated in dawah stalls in Luton, and sought to spread the Holy Word, recruiting one young convert who seems to have been a close acolyte of his. While this is behaviour typical of al-Muhajiroun members – it is admittedly also not out of character for a more generally religiously inclined person.

This was not the only legal process underway involving men from the al-Muhajiroun orbit going on last week. Two others featured in trials, albeit for very different reasons. Late last week, Hassan Butt, from Manchester, was jailed for at least nine years for various fraud offences. On the other side of Europe, at a court in Bolzano, Alto Adige, a trial is scheduled with British based Kurdish extremist Awat Karkuky (currently in jail in Britain) on the docket.

Hassan Butt appears to have been perpetrating fairly basic online fraud: selling things that he never despatched (but took payment for), purchasing other goods from companies and then claiming they never arrived, demanding refunds. Finally, he took loans and credit out to supposedly support his online business, and refused to pay them back, claiming to have been defrauded himself – going so far as to provide a false police number related to the fraud. Not the high capers of an Ocean’s 11 style robbery, but rather the more mundane fraud that clogs up police time around the modern world.

This digression seems to bear little relevance to al-Muhajiroun till we delve into the organization’s history and its heady post-September 11 days. Still headed in Britain by Omar Bakri Mohammed, the group jumped from relative obscurity onto the front pages as stories of British fighters dying alongside the Taliban appeared in the British press. A regular feature in this coverage was the then al-Muhajiroun spokesman, Hassan Butt. A loud Prestwich lad, Butt would talk with pride about his martyred friends, and the numerous fighters and funders who were ‘lining up’ to support their cause. He had been back and forth between al-Muhajiroun’s Pakistan and UK branches – who were in the midst of some tension at the time – and features in many stories from the period. In 2002, he returned to the UK offering his story to the press for £100,000 – only to be ignored and then become a subject of police interest. He fled to Pakistan where others in the group got irritated by his behaviour and reported on his constant pursuit of money.

Finally, Omar Bakri told the BBC after some particularly inflammatory commentary that Hassan had provided: “Hassan Butt no longer represents al-Muhajiroun in Pakistan. We are an ideological, political party. We do not recruit people to go and fight on behalf of anybody or to indulge in any military activities…In what he is doing he does not have our support. That is prohibited by Islam – to launch attacks against people just because they are British, just because you happen to disagree with them here and there.”

Yet, years later, it was revealed that Omar Bakri had been pushing Hassan to reach out to the British press. The story emerged as Hassan testified against one of his friends from al-Muhajiroun, Habib Ahmed, with whom he tried to trick a few newspapers into paying for his story. Earlier in 2007, Hassan had a turnaround in which he claimed to have rejected his violent Islamist past and instead become a model citizen – going so far as to meet with a government minister and advancing ideas about how to de-radicalize British Muslims. He became the rent-a-quote for the international media seeking an extremist voice – showing up across the UK news, but also appearing on the American flagship broadcast show 60 Minutes. At one point he claimed that he had so angered his former extremist colleagues that one of them had stabbed him in the street. Yet by 2009 he was in the courts admitting publicly that he was a liar and a fantasist, and that he had stabbed himself. One journalist with whom he had co-authored a book reportedly based on Butt’s life found himself in a serious legal quandary. Now Hassan has finally had his comeuppance and is going to jail. Not, it is worth noting, for his extremist behaviour but for far more mundane criminal activity. However there can be no doubt that he was for a while a relatively significant figure within the community of al-Muhajiroun, for both good and bad reasons, from their perspective.

Inside the British penal system he will be joining an ever-growing roster of al-Muhajirouni cadres serving jail sentences. One of this group is Awat Karkuky (also known as Awat Wahab Hamasalih), a violent Islamist extremist jailed two years ago for his links to ISIS, and who is back on trial (remotely) in Italy, as mentioned above, for his role in a European network of extremists called Rawti Shax. Uncovered a couple of years ago, it focused on radicalised Iraqi Kurds and was ideologically headed by Mullah Krekar. Krekar himself is also not appearing in the Italian court in person, but is instead on trial remotely from Norway where he is in hiding, refusing to appear in court.

Not a direct al-Muhajirouni (though it is often hard to see or understand the difference), Karkuky was hosted by Anjem Choudary when he visited the UK, and before that helped facilitate Choudary’s visit to Finland where he spoke in 2013 under the ‘Shariah4Finland’ banner. Karkuky was thrown out of Finland for this and other behaviour, and later jailed in Britain for his role in recruiting for and supporting ISIS. He was a figure of enough significance amongst extremist Kurdish groups that his life story was used as a heroic narrative to recruit others.

It is not clear what will happen to Karkuky. Currently he is serving a six year sentence, at the end of which he may face another extradition to Italy, which he has contested in the past. Butt will serve a longer sentence in prison for his various non-extremist offences. It seems hard to imagine that either will return to be productive members of society at any point soon, but more likely that, like Choudary, they will retain some problematic attitudes and now will have long prison sentences on their CVs. This will mean they will stay individuals of concern to the security services for the foreseeable future. All are charismatic in their different ways and have drawn others into violent Islamist behaviour.

Other recently released long-term al-Muhajirounis certainly seem regularly to drift back within its orbit of behaviour. Ricardo MacFarlane, of Muslim Patrols fame, has apparently been appearing at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, while former prize boxer Anthony Small has also left prison and continues to rage against the system, broadcasting on YouTube his intention to continue his struggle. Neither of these men are doing anything illegal in either of these acts, and this may be where their activism remains.

But experience has shown us that figures from the al-Muhajiroun network remain of concern to the security services. As the cases of Masood, Karkuky and Butt show, they can take a long time to work their way through our judicial and penal systems and may ultimately express themselves as problems in ways different from what we might suspect. For a while this was something that the security services relied on – most of these individuals in the wider al-Muhajiorun community are infringing the law in some way or other, hence the authorities simply focused on arresting them on any charges they could, thereby keeping them off the streets. But people get savvy to these tactics and act more circumspectly, albeit without necessarily abandoning their ideology.

For Anjem Choudhary, it is likely that he will continue to be a magnet for young people or other lost souls seeking easy explanations of the world around them, and it is hard to see him rejecting his ideology any time soon. It will also be difficult for him to return to his old ways given the highly restrictive conditions of his release. Choudhary’s potential for de-radicalization and redemption should not however be entirely discounted (some radical young men who used to be at the forefront of the group seem to have undergone fairly dramatic turnarounds), although one ought to regard such a possibility with a healthy dose of scepticism.

This is in many ways the heart of the al-Muhajiroun problem, one that shows no sign of disappearing. Not all its cadres get involved in violence, but many terrorist plots and networks uncovered in the past have snared individuals long associated with the group. And, more worryingly, analysts and the authorities in Britain continue to observe such patterns of behaviour more than two decades after the group enjoyed its heyday. The same faces and individuals consistently show up, and engage in violent or extremist behaviour, often many years after their first encounter with the group.

While Anjem Choudhury’s return will doubtless give al-Muhajiroun a brief burst of publicity, it is unlikely to change the group’s current behaviour. As long as he struggles to interact with wide numbers of people, he will pose less of a threat. But how long can such security cover be maintained? The group’s broader network remains seeded amongst Europe’s Muslim communities and will re-emerge as a problem for the authorities across the Continent for the foreseeable future, with or without him visibly at the helm of al-Muhajiroun.

 

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

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Finally this evening, a piece for the Telegraph which they have given a title which clashes pretty wildly with what I have written. The point I seek to make in the article was that Anjem Choudhry needs stringent detention, but we need to be careful that we do not start to set some sort of precedents which we then start to over employ. Anyway.

Beyond this to conclude my catch up, spoke recently to El Pais about ISIS, spoke to the New Arab about ISIS in Central Asia, and my earlier piece about China’s security problems in Pakistan was picked up by the Economic Times.

Clamping down on hate preachers like Anjem Choudary will only make things worse

In a picture taken on April 3, 2015 British muslim cleric Anjem Choudary poses for a photograph after attending a rally calling for muslims to refrain from voting in the 2015 general election during outside the Regents Park mosque in London. British radical preacher Anjem Choudary was charged under anti-terror laws on August 5, 2015 with inviting support for the Islamic State jihadist group. Choudary was denied bail at Westminster Magistrates court and remanded into custody to re-appear at a London court on August 28. AFP PHOTO / NIKLAS HALLE'N (Photo credit should read NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP/Getty Images)
Extremists like Mr Choudary are a long-term management problem CREDIT: NIKLAS HALLE’N/ AFP
 

Anjem Choudary is imminently back on our streets. The panic that his release has engendered is likely an exaggeration of the threat he poses. But the bigger issue his case raises is the persistent and chronic responsibility that he is to the police and security services.

Given he is unlikely to recant his abhorrent views, he, and a select few around him, will continue to be an expensive and long-term burden. The answer is a pointed strategy to manage them, while also making sure not to create a parallel system of justice that damages our liberties in the long run.

There has been scant evidence provided that Mr Choudary has moved on with his life. While some committed and long-term extremists do change their minds over time, these are unfortunately the exception rather than the norm.

Were he allowed to, Mr Choudary would undoubtedly return to his earlier pattern of behaviour: advancing his extremist views, recruiting followers to the cause and providing a microphone for violent Islamist ideologies in the West. He has been on this journey for his entire adult life, merely adapting his rhetoric to reflect how legislation has changed around him.

He is not, however, simply being turned back onto the streets. Mr Choudary will be placed under highly restrictive conditions. He will be kept offline, away from centres of radicalisation and his old networks, away from children, and have to report to authorities on a regular basis. This will have an effect on his ability to propagate his message.

But in many ways the bigger problem is not that he returns to his old ways. His high profile almost guarantees he will be unable to move without being observed or controlled. The political ramifications of him doing something embarrassing mean police and security services will ensure he is on a very short leash. Security services will try to extend this tight control to those in the immediate circle around him – though as we have seen with other recent releases, this is difficult to do for a community that does not get smaller.

This is a chronic management problem. Dedicated extremists like Mr Choudary are unlikely to recant their views any time in the near or medium-term future. And as we have seen with cases like Khalid Masood, the Westminster Bridge attacker; Ronald Fiddler, the former Guantanamo detainee who blew himself up in Iraq last year; Abdul Wahid Majid, the Crawley man involved in the al Muhajiroun community since the late 1990s, who was the first reported British suicide bomber in Syria in 2014; or Terrence Kelly, more famously known as Khalid Kelly, who first fell into al Muhajiroun’s orbit in 2002 and then blew himself up in an ISIS attack in Iraq in November 2016 (to name a few).

People can take a long time to move from moving in extremist circles to being involved in attacks. Of course the radicalisation trajectory is not the same for everyone. But the point for security services is that radicalised individuals can remain of potential concern for some time.

Inevitably, the answer is complicated, but has to be individual specific. For persistent long-term radicals who show little evidence of recanting their views or moving on with their lives, restrictive conditions that control who they fraternise with, what information they access, and where they are able to go is the answer.

New technologies may be able to help alleviate the burden of how this is carried out (monitoring technology may enable methods of keeping tabs on people and their behaviour without having physical officers in permanent observation). This needs to also be accompanied by intense efforts to get people to disengage and de-radicalise. All of this may appear draconian, but it is a limited number of people that we are talking about.

For those who break these terms or refuse to move on, escalating levels of punitive sentencing will keep them off the streets. This reduces the burden on security services for a period, but also is an important deterrent to others.

But, most importantly in some ways, we have to be careful that legislation or tools we put in place to control Mr Choudary (and the relatively small group around him) do not completely warp our legal system.

As irritating and consistently dangerous he and parts of his group might be – they represent a fringe of a fringe. Overreaction will only strengthen their sense of victimhood and bolster their cause.

Managing this as a chronic problem with no clear conclusion is unfortunately going to be the only way to deal with a core group of individuals who trouble our society. Letting them simply run rampant or punishing them in an extreme way will not make the problem go away, it might in fact make it even worse.

 

And another new piece (from last month now), this time for the magazine Prospect. Tries to answer a complicated issue about terrorism that I hope to explore through some bigger projects soon.

The word “terrorism” no longer captures the threat we face

Violent attacks look less and less like terrorism as we know it

September 26, 2018 / Leave a comment

We think of terrorism as acts of violence in advance of a cause. Yet, look at recent attacks in the west and it is often hard to discern much evidence of ideological adherence or links to specific terrorist groups. In fact, the question is whether what is happening can still be genuinely considered terrorism at all. And if this is where the threat picture has gone, what does it mean for our response?

The nature of the threat is changing, with individuals increasingly acting with their own motivations rather than direct guidance from terrorist leaders. You can interpret this in a number of ways. It may be the product of an effective security response, as intelligence agencies get better at disrupting networks. It is also possible that this is part of a grand strategic plan by the terrorist groups themselves. They see a tougher operational environment and push their networks in this more diffuse direction as a result. Or maybe it is more random than that, with terrorist ideology in the public space drawing all sorts to it.

To those at the receiving end, this can all seem semantic. If you are stabbed by someone, you do not really care about the exact reason for it. The victims in London Bridge, outside parliament, in Barcelona and in Trappes will not have been focussing on this.

Yet these attackers were acting with wildly different kinds of reasons: the London Bridge terrorists came from a broader network of violent Islamists long known to authorities; all of the others appear to be individuals with personal or psycho-social reasons rather than any strict ideological motivation. It is very clear that there was an ideological steer in one while in the other three, it seems as though individuals were just latching onto the ideology as a cover for something else going on in their lives.

What does this mean for security services? What does it mean for terrorist cells? And does the word “terrorism” even apply at all?

The immediate problem is to the counter-terrorists who are struggling to manage this situation using their traditional tools. If terrorists are no longer clearly driven, ideological individuals from networks but isolated citizens with anger issues and troubled pasts, how are you going to come across them prior to their attempted attack, with the set of tripwires based around traditional networks you are watching? Something made even harder if the weapons they are going to use are all around us, like knives or cars.

There is also a problem for terrorist groups, who will have ever-lessening control over the plotters. These isolated loners or small cells might be adopting the terrorist group’s garb and methodology, but it is not very clear that they are actually advancing the group’s goals. Not if it now looks like a random catch-all for a variety of human problems, rather than an organised group driven by a plan.

More broadly: if the terrorist group’s cause (or any cause) is not being advanced, then can it still really be considered terrorism? Or are we in fact looking at an expression of human behaviour which is not really ideological terrorism, but something else. Random violence. Human rage. Expressions of anger through demonstrative public acts.

And if this is the case, what is the relevance of the terrorist group in this discussion? Seen in this light, the group could become a red herring which is distracting us from the actual problem that we are facing.

Of course, there are clearly still terrorist groups advancing plots with devastating consequences. The attack in Manchester fits this profile, and no doubt others have been disrupted by effective security forces, both in the UK and abroad. But this is often not what the counter-terrorism officers in the police or MI5 are facing. They are instead finding their time consumed by cases like Salih Kater (the Westminster car attacker) or Niamur Rahman (the slightly shambolic young man who had plans to storm Downing Street with a bomb to decapitate the prime minister, in part to avenge the death of a relation who had fought with Islamic State).

Neither of these people should be excused for their horrendous behaviour, but we do need to ask some more fundamental questions about whether this is terrorism and whether we should be attributing the responsibility to terrorist groups. This clarity is important, as once we have it, we will be in a better place to prevent further loss of life.

Quite a bit of catch up posting to do. Been distracted with various projects, so going to do it all in one sweep this evening. First up is an article for the South China Morning Post looking at the threats to Chinese interests in Pakistan from separatist groups in the country.

The lesson of the Pakistan suicide attack: China will have to pay a high price for its infrastructure plan

China’s greatest security problem in strife-torn Pakistan is that it is increasingly becoming the focus of separatists’ attention, Raffaello Pantucci writes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 August, 2018, 12:16pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 August, 2018, 9:54pm

 

The attempted suicide bombing against a bus carrying Chinese engineers in Dalbandin, Balochistan highlights the complexity of the security problems China faces in Pakistan.

The attack was a rare suicide bombing for the Balochistan Liberation Army and was specifically targeting China. It showed how Beijing is finding itself dragged into a clash whose answer lies in the resolution of fundamental issues within Pakistan.

In February this year, The Financial Times ran a story which claimed that Chinese officials had been negotiating for years with Baluchi separatists.

At around the same time, the Chinese ambassador to Islamabad gave an interview to BBC Urdu in which he proclaimed that Baluchi separatists “were not real Pakistanis” and did not pose a threat to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

The negotiations story was denied by senior Baluchi leaders as well as the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. BLA leader Aslam Baloch, whose son blew himself up at Dalbandin, dismissed the talks, stating: “Our people are [disappearing] every day. They are being killed. Their houses are being looted and burned. In such a situation, any dialogue with China is impossible. We reject such a proposal.”

None of this is that surprising, nor is it impossible that China (or Chinese entities) have been in contact with Baluchi groups.

Since the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor was announced, at least two publicised incidents have occurred in which Chinese nationals were almost killed by Baluchi separatists; other, similar occurrences likely have received less attention. Furthermore, many have taken place where Pakistanis have lost their lives.

In September 2016, the Pakistani government announced that at least 44 Pakistanis had lost their lives on CPEC projects. Since then, there have been many more reported incidents by the BLA specifically targeting CPEC projects – incidents they publicly link afterwards to CPEC –, leading mostly to the deaths of Pakistani guards or workers. Prior to the announcement of CPEC, at least seven Chinese workers had died at the hands of Baluchi separatists, as well as numerous Pakistanis.

And China’s problems have expanded beyond Balochistan. Since CPEC’s announcement, the targeting of Chinese interests and nationals by Sindh separatist groups has increased noticeably. After one bombing that injured a Chinese worker and his companion in May 2016 in Karachi, a note was found stating that “we will oppose every anti-Sindh project, including the China-Pakistan economic corridor”.

Just over a year later, a bomb detonated after a Chinese convoy passed in Port Qasim. A message issued soon afterwards declared: “Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army claims the responsibility of the bomb attacks on Chinese engineers in Karachi today and warns the Chinese that they should not become the part of any project in Sindh which may be against the national interest of Sindhis.”

In fact, the specific threat to China seems to emanate more from separatists than Islamists. It is true that since CPEC’s announcement, four Chinese nationals have lost their lives in Pakistan to violent Islamists, but it is not clear that China was a target in the incidents. In contrast, Baluchi or Sindhi groups loudly state that they are targeting China.

There are obvious reasons for this. For separatist groups, the Pakistani state is the ultimate enemy. As Islamabad’s closest friend, Beijing becomes a target by association. And the people of these regions do not feel like they are getting their piece of the CPEC bounty.

At a conference in Islamabad shortly before the election, I listened as representatives from Gwadar complained publicly (before numerous security officials) to a Chinese official sitting on a panel about the issues they were having accessing fresh water.

This example illustrates a problem that Beijing faces in Pakistan and can be found in other BRI countries as well. The problems of separatism and central government anger in Balochistan and Sindh are not new. Violence in the country is not new (and is in fact in decline), but China is increasingly becoming the focus of attention as the biggest outside player who is focusing on supporting the central state.

And while the Pakistani government can provide some support and security for Chinese nationals sent to deliver CPEC in the hope that the economic prosperity it may generate will help alleviate these issues in the longer term, this is only part of the answer.

The longer-term answer to the problems of separatism in these regions are to be found in political solutions: issues that infrastructure and mining investment will not resolve, and may in fact be exacerbating.

As Rehan Baloch stated in his message before he tried to murder a busload of Chinese engineers: “Through this act, I want to make China and its people realise [that] whosoever will try to meddle in Baloch issues without Baloch nation’s consent, will face the wrath of Baloch nation.”

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

 

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

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

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

How Lee Rigby’s murder changed the face of terror

Lee Rigby memory

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

by 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thunderer

 the times

 

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

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

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

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

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

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