Posts Tagged ‘terrorism’

Been doing a lot of writing for new outlets of late. Maybe part of the result of my moving to spend more time in Asia and having more time to write. Here is the first of a couple of new pieces for the Global Network on Extremism and Technology (GNET) a social media company supported project run by the lovely people at ICSR.

Abdullah el Faisal’s Persistent Screed

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By 

Insights

Ideas never die. At no point does this age old maxim seem more relevant than in the age of the Internet where they will literally live on in the panoply of media that we now have around us to communicate. The difficulty in eradicating such ideas was made visible this past month in the incarceration in the UK of Mohammed Ahad and Mohammed Kamali, two men found guilty of being webmasters for Abdullah el Faisal’s Authentic Tauheed online empire. But while both the webmasters and the preacher are now sitting in jail, until this past month the website lived on, with Faisal’s words of ‘entering the lizard hole’ providing the world with a constant reminder of his brutal perspectives. Now that it is down, Faisal’s words may be a little harder to find, but some quick digging shows how they live on scattered around the web.

Unlike most of the other radical preachers from Londonistan, it was Faisal’s words that got him incarcerated. On 14 December 2001, police in Dorset pulled over a car driven by Richard Chinyoka. A convert, Chinyoka was a brutal and manipulative misogynist – raping women, forcibly converting some, burning their feet, beating them and then rubbing salt in their wounds, and generally being a very nasty piece of work. As police went through his belongings, they found a bunch of cassette tapes (still a favoured medium at the time!) which included presentations by Abdullah el Faisal. Full of fire and brimstone the speeches advocated murder, robbery and stirred racial hatred. Shocked by what they heard, police investigated further and found similar cassettes widely available in some religious shops in London. This led to his arrest and eventual conviction on charges of stirring up racial hatred and inciting murder. Legislation, it should be added, that dated back to the 1860s.

It did not silence him, however, and his cassettes, and increasingly online versions of them, continued to live on. Either in copied CDs or cassettes, or shared around as MP3 files online. The July 7 bombers in the UK were fans, having heard him in person they listened to his recordings as they went around Pakistan preparing for their attack. One of the men accused of being a planner of the Airlines plot in 2006 was found to have in his spartan accommodation in Barking very little aside from jihadi material (in Arabic which he did not understand, but enjoyed the images) and MP3s of Abdullah el Faisal’s sermons. At the time Faisal was in jail and by the time of the trial against the airline plotters he had been released and sent to Jamaica.

In 2008 his website Authentic Tauheed started up, though for the first few years it appeared to largely be a repository for others’ work – including Anwar al Awlaki (a man who he had cast takfeer on in the past), and other prominent jihadists. It took until January 2011 for him to start posting his own material on there, including live sermons he was giving. He was, however, already using the site as a center point for his online PalTalk speeches and contacts with his radical flock around the world. He was also using the site as a way to host online conferences which brought together prominent al Muhajiroun and other extremists to speak alongside him.

The point at which he started to delegate responsibilities to others to run the site is unclear, but by the mid-2010s his webmasters were being arrested in the United States. Their role, as was shown in some detail during the recently concluded case in the UK, was to act as transcribers, connectors and filters of Faisal’s speeches and presentations. They would help manage the platforms he was using to communicate with his global flock and help get his ideas out in a form that others could read, listen to and disseminate.

This role stretched between the online and offline world, but it meant that for some time Abduallah el Faisal, by some counts one of the most derided of the Londonistani preachers, was the most followed. While the others were incarcerated or killed, Faisal’s new and old sermons and recordings continued to show up online. While many extremists were motivated by the ease with which they could access him online, once he was removed or silenced, it did little to stop his appeal. His fanatical screeds would continue to inspire and showed up repeatedly amongst the possessions of committed jihadists fighting alongside either Islamic State or al Qaeda. His arrest, his site’s removal and his webmasters’ incarceration may slow down the rate of dissemination, but his speeches, videos and tapes can still be found online, and will likely continue to feature on the playlists of violent extremists for a long time to come.

And finally in this catch up wave, a piece from earlier this week for Foreign Policy looking in some more detail at the recent burst of terrorist attacks in the UK. To also catch up on some media appearances, spoke to the Guardian about recidivism amongst terrorists in the UK, to Yahoo News and the Daily Mail about the vogue of using fake bombs and knives in attacks, the earlier RSIS piece on Streatham was picked up by Eurasian Review, on the other side of the coin spoke to CNN about China and Europe and the earlier Telegraph piece commenting in the wake of the UK’s Huawei decision was picked up by China Digital Times.

Tougher Sentencing Won’t Stop Terrorism
A string of attacks in Britain have led Boris Johnson’s government to seek simple remedies that won’t fix the problem.

Police assist an injured man in London, on Nov.  29, 2019 after reports of shots being fired on London Bridge.

Police assist an injured man in London, on Nov. 29, 2019 after reports of shots being fired on London Bridge. DANIEL SORABJI/AFP via Getty Images

In the wake of Britain’s third terrorist incident in two months—a stabbing carried out by a recently released terrorist offender in the South London neighborhood of Streatham—the U.K. government is reaching for the most obvious legislation at hand to prevent such attacks and seeking to extend the detention of convicted terrorist offenders.

Drafting policy in the wake of a terrorist attack is always fraught with danger. With emotions high, people will grasp at whatever flaw in the system seems obvious at that moment—police surveillance, parole leniency, sentencing laws—and use that as the basis for new policies. Yet the consequences of such knee-jerk reactions can be far-reaching, and undoing the damage later can be complicated. Most worryingly, quick fixes tend to overlook the real reasons behind the problem. While some of the government’s proposed responses—such as increasing investment in probation—deserve to be applauded, the push to simply extend detention won’t address the issue at hand.

It is helpful to start by looking at the three recent cases in detail. The first took place Nov. 29, 2019, when a released terrorist offender used knives and a fake suicide vest to attack a rehabilitation conference he was attending, murdering two people before being shot by police on London Bridge. On Jan. 9, a convicted terrorist prisoner in the HMP Whitemoor prison in Cambridgeshire led an attack using bladed weapons and fake suicide vests against prison wardens. And on Feb. 2, a recently released terrorist offender was shot down as he sought to pursue an attack on shoppers in Streatham using a knife and a fake suicide vest. Given these incidents happened within the span of a few months and appear similar on the surface, they have been treated as a trend. Yet a close examination reveals many differences.

While some of the government’s proposed responses—such as increasing investment in probation—deserve to be applauded, the push to simply extend detention won’t address the issue at hand.

All three cases involved individuals who had been convicted of terrorism offenses and had served or were serving time for them. But when they launched their attacks, they were at very different stages of their sentences—in HMP Whitemoor, the convicted terrorist offender still had years to go (and now will doubtless have many more), while the London Bridge and Streatham attackers had been released on license. The London Bridge attacker had been out of prison for about one year and had, during that time, participated in a deradicalization program. He had stopped in the months prior to the attack; the full story of what took place in the intervening months has not yet emerged.

In contrast, the Streatham attacker never engaged in any deradicalization programs while in prison and on release appears to have quite quickly decided to carry out an attack. Evidence of his determination was clear after his initial arrest on May 17, 2018, following an investigation into his online activity. Not only did police find voluminous amounts of extremist material that he had shared with his family and friends, but they also found notebooks full of expressions of his desire to be a martyr and bomb-making plans.

Following his arrest, he was interviewed 19 times, during which time he largely responded “no comment” to all of the questions posed. During his sentencing hearing on Dec. 17, 2018, the judge commented on his level of fanaticism, something also emphasized by the head of the U.K. counterterrorism command when he commented on him post-sentencing.

The three cases are therefore quite distinct: The HMP Whitemoor case involves an individual who is facing a long incarceration, the London Bridge attack concerns a man who started to engage with a deradicalization program and then stopped, and the Streatham attacker seemed very firmly set on a course toward committing a violent crime. A failure in deradicalization programs was only potentially an issue in the London Bridge attack. The attacker seemed to be on a positive path once out of prison but then veered off course for reasons that are still not clear.

Of the three, a longer prison sentence would be most clearly relevant in the Streatham case, though it is unclear that the additional year in prison he would have had to serve if he’d completed his full sentence would have been enough to deter him from carrying out an attack. He had not shown any evidence of abandoning his ideas and was of such concern to security services that they had maintained intense surveillance on him after his release. It is hard to imagine that another year in prison would have done much to deradicalize him.

History actually shows that recidivism among convicted terrorist offenders in the U.K. is quite rare.

For the attacker in HMP Whitemoor, an already heavy sentence will now likely double. Longer sentencing may not have much effect (except to increase his eagerness to attack more guards). In fact, reporting on the case suggests that he has been radicalizing other prisoners, leading ad hoc sharia courts, and causing problems for prison guards.

And beyond these three cases, it is important to remember that there is a large number of terrorist offenders in prisons, many of whom are due to be released soon. These are the ones who might be affected by the government’s rushed policies. Yet no evidence has been produced that they are all in the same bracket as either the Streatham or London Bridge attacker. History actually shows that recidivism among convicted terrorist offenders in the U.K. is quite rare.

According to my research, since 2013, out of approximately 40 known plots, there have been just six plots involving people who had previously been charged with or convicted of terrorism offenses. Two plots involved people who had been charged for prior extremist activity: a group from 2014 that wanted to stab a poppy seller during Remembrance Day and a group known as the Three Musketeers that was arrested in 2016 plotting a knife and bomb attack. One of the three had been previously arrested alongside the London Bridge attacker, while the other two were part of a failed 2011 attempt to travel to a terrorist training camp in Pakistan.

According to Home Office figures, during the year ending June 2019, 53 prisoners held for terrorism-related offenses were released. Most, as far as authorities know, have not reoffended. It is therefore clear that not every terrorist offender who is released from prison will behave like the Streatham attacker.

A more salient similarity among the three cases is the attackers’ relative youth at the moment of first being arrested.

The London Bridge attacker’s house was first raided when he was 17 years old, the Streatham attacker was arrested for the offense for which he was jailed at 17, and the HMP Whitemoor attacker was picked up for involvement in a terrorist plot when he was 18.

While this is not a new phenomenon—two of the 2005 London bombers were 18 and 19 years old—there has recently been an increase in very young people becoming involved in active terrorist plotting. One of the cases of concern in the press at the moment is of an anonymous boy who was arrested at the age of 14 for being involved in an Islamic State-linked plot to attack security officials in Australia and is due for release soon.

This growing cohort of young offenders suggests that the process of radicalization is taking place at a very young age, when people are more susceptible to negative influences. In other contexts, young people who are drawn into violent or criminal activity are dealt with through criminal sanctions and engagement in rehabilitation programs, given that the young tend to be more susceptible to influencing. If such young people are being radicalized, the government needs to reconsider how it is handling such cases. Long prison sentences are undoubtedly justified in some cases, but the youth of the offender might mean that, in other cases, a more intensive rehabilitation program might help place them on a better path.

Finally, there is the question of copycat attacks. It is clear that the three attacks were in part inspired by each other—the attackers all chose to use the same methodology of knives and fake suicide vests, which is a relatively new innovation on the U.K. terrorist scene. In the wake of five terrorist attacks in 2017, Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu commented how the first attack using a car against tourists on Westminster Bridge and knives on police in front of Parliament had to some degree inspired the others. As he put it, the March 2017 Westminster Bridge attacker “gave fellow violent extremists the understanding that the U.K. was not such a hostile place to launch attacks and that by using this simple methodology you could succeed.”

The dilemma law enforcement officials face is how to stop attacks from inspiring other attacks. The question is likely around coverage of incidents, rather than anything to do with the incidents themselves.

The vogue for knife attacks started in 2013 after two radicalized individuals murdered an off-duty soldier by running him down and then trying to decapitate him on a street in South London.

Covered in the victim’s blood, they then declaimed their radical message to bystanders’ smartphones and the world, filling news broadcasts for weeks afterward and showing other terrorists how easily successful attacks could go viral and grab the world’s attention. The answers will not be found in prisons; to effectively break these chains of attacks, governments and journalists need to think carefully about how terrorist incidents are covered and reported.

The questions of the effectiveness of deradicalization programs, occasional recidivism, very young offenders, and the inspirational effect of attacks will not be answered by a simple extension of sentencing. While there may well be cases where offenders should be imprisoned for longer, it is not a solution that is applicable to all. And it is counterproductive to publicize certain cases in the press when it is clear from history that the majority of individuals who have served sentences for terrorism offenses have not returned to terrorist activity. Having their names and faces splashed in the press is unlikely to help with their rehabilitation and might leave them feeling ostracized and motivate them to return to terrorism.

Judicial and policy decisions must be objective and delivered without emotion. If a government chooses to pass new legislation on terrorism at a moment when the country is reeling from attacks, it is unlikely to make sensible and dispassionate judgments. There may well be gaps in legislation, but the British government must be careful to ensure that any new legislation addresses real problems, rather than simply pandering to the public’s fears.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute and a visiting senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists. Twitter: @raffpantucci

Almost up to date, now my inaugural piece for my new Singaporean home RSIS in the form of one of their commentaries, this time looking at the recent spate of terrorist incidents in the UK using the Streatham attack as the peg.

Responding to Streatham: Managing Low-Tech Terrorist Threat

Raffaello Pantucci

ICPVTR / Commentaries / Country and Region Studies / Europe / Middle East and North Africa (MENA)

10 February 2020

Synopsis

The 2 Feb Streatham attack in south London does not appear to have been part of a larger plot. But it has once again shone a negative light on the UK’s approach to counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation, this time under the newly appointed government.

Commentary

ON 2 FEBRUARY 2020, the south London district of Streatham saw a knife-and-fake bomb attack in which a man was shot dead by police after stabbing two people. ISIS claim of responsibility has little credible evidence; despite the young man’s reported pledge of allegiance to ISIS, there is no proof they were in contact.

The attack, however, comes against a political context which will demand some reaction. The re-installed Tory government has now faced three incidents on its watch. The outward similarities in all three draws public attention. The United Kingdom fears that it could find itself in the midst of another 2017 when the country suffered five terrorist attacks in relatively quick succession.

More Copycat Attacks?

The most immediate concern for authorities will be the possibility of a copycat incident of some sort. The Streatham attack itself was already a copy. The knife-and-fake-bomb model is one that was deployed in 2017 on London Bridge, on London Bridge again in November 2019, and then in Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) Whitemoor in early January 2020 when a convicted terrorist offender and a prisonmate attacked prison guards with bladed weapons and fake suicide vests.

Further emulation might be possible given the simplicity and relative success (in media terms) of the attack. The approach of using knife-and-fake-bomb is a new innovation that has been proven to deliver easy success. The Streatham attack showed how you could wait until the moment of attack to arm yourself, completely compressing the time to attack.

It is hard to completely assess at this stage the exact nature of inspiration that the three plots played towards each other. But on the basis of previous chains it is likely that any subsequent spontaneous ones are likely to come sooner rather than later. More considered plots do not necessarily fall within this analytical framework.

Undirected “Campaign” of Lone Actors

At this stage, the Streatham attack appears as an isolated act. However, as 2017 showed in the UK, a terrorist campaign no longer needs to come in the form of a series of directed attacks; it can also happen to a series of incidents like this. Both Al Qaeda and ISIS have championed the lone actor model of attack repeatedly.

Understanding how to analyse potential lone actors from a pool of potential offenders was a major question to emerge from 2017, and it will likely now be revisited again.

It is worth noting that security authorities were very concerned about the Streatham attacker. The fact he was being monitored as he went about his Sunday business by an undercover armed response unit (armed response units are rare in the UK) shows a high level of risk management assessment.

The high level of concern was visible earlier as well. The counter-terrorism lead at the time of his detention and the sentencing judge all publicly expressed concern about his level of radicalisation. Reporting from his time in prison has suggested that he refused engagement with de-radicalisation programmes.

Offender Management in Prison

A running theme between the London Bridge, HMP Whitemoor and Streatham incidents is prison. However, there are differences that are important to highlight. While the Streatham incident took place days after the offender’s release, the London Bridge attacker waited over a year to launch his attack, for some part of which he engaged with a de-radicalisation programme.

In contrast, the HMP Whitemoor offender still has a number of years on his sentence (a sentence which is likely now to become longer). It is therefore hard to judge where the useful comparison is to assess where the problems might lie.

Recidivism is rare among UK terrorist offenders – prior to the London Bridge attack last year, no successful plots involving recidivists had been seen. While there is a cadre of radicalised individuals who consistently show up on charges for various related offences (often individuals drawn from the Al Muhajiroun community), actual attacks (or plots) by people previously convicted of terrorism offences is a relatively new innovation in the UK context.

Prior to the current cluster, the UK had only seen two since the conflict in Syria started (out of around 40 or so plots that have been disrupted or taken place).

Youth Radicalisation and Long-term Monitoring

Another similarity between the three recent cases is the relative youth at the time of first offence of the three men. The Streatham attacker was 17 when he first came to authorities’ attention, the London Bridge attacker’s house was first raided by counter-terrorism authorities when he was 17 and the HMP Whitemoor offender was 18 when he was arrested on his way to launch a knife attack.

Aside from what this means for radicalisation, it presents a long-term issue for authorities when it is considered alongside the fact that the UK has seen a terrorist attack by a 52-year-old (London Bridge, March 2017). Authorities may have decades of monitoring ahead of them with all of the expense and resource that entails.

Beyond Deradicalisation Programmes

The attacks have drawn attention to the effectiveness of de-radicalisation programmes. While the Streatham attacker refused to engage, the London Bridge attacker before him had been engaged for some time before stopping in the months prior to his attack. In other words, de-radicalisation programmes are not relevant across all of the cases and such dramatic failures are a new phenomenon in the UK.

The UK has had almost two decades of Islamist terror offenders, but only recently are we seeing such attacks from amongst recidivists. At the same time, it is clear that this is where the current heart of the problem lies given the growing number of people coming out of prisons or back from Syria.

This means more offenders (or people of concern) who will need attention for longer. The idea of using probation services better to manage such offenders is good, but this means probation needs a considerable uplift.

Streatham is now the 11th known attack with Islamist links that the UK has seen since the Conservatives took power in 2010. While the nature of the threat has changed, it is not clear that all aspects of the response have kept up.

Problematically, however, the current commentary emanating from Whitehall suggests that the response is likely to focus on punitive measures pandering to a political base.

About the Author

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence, Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

With considerable delay, doing a bunch of catch up posting. A lot has changed in the offline world, with a change in my role at RUSI and a new position in Singapore at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) reflecting the fact that am spending more time out in Asia. Still working on much the same things, but with a slightly different geographical orientation. First up, a book review in the RUSI Journal for Shiv Malik’s long-delayed book The Messenger.

The Messenger

In early October 2018, the Metropolitan Police issued a press release detailing the conviction of a grim-faced man called Hassan Butt for some amateurish online fraud. On the surface, this was a fairly pedestrian case. It was, however, the culmination of years of investigations involving networks linked to Al-Qa’ida in the UK, the destruction of a journalist’s career, a High Court debate about the protection of journalistic sources, and the role and links of MI5 in the terrorist networks it was investigating.

Shiv Malik was the journalist at the heart of this story. After almost a decade of work, he has produced a gripping account of his experiences being caught up in the frenzied early days of the British discovery of a homegrown terrorist threat.

The story told in this book is part of an earlier time in Britain’s exposure to violent Islamist terror, when the threat everyone was focused on was articulated most severely in the July 2005 bombings: young men who had decided to turn so brutally against their community. Shiv Malik’s The Messenger tells the detailed story of one such case. It focuses on Hassan Butt, an individual whose extremist views gained prominence within the public discourse and who ultimately spoke out and turned against his former comrades. The book gradually reveals, however, that Butt might also have been working for the Security Services all along as part of a complex undercover operation.

Butt’s story has always raised more questions than it has answered. He first emerged in the public eye after the 9/11 attacks as a spokesman for Al-Muhajiroun, a militant Islamist organisation based in London and Lahore. After moving to Pakistan, Butt headed a group of British extremists who supported Al-Qa’ida and claimed to have mobilised over 200 young British men to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan. He communicated with the British public through press releases and extremist statements, acting as a one-stop shop for foreign journalists seeking pro-Al-Qa’ida perspectives. Butt thrived in this role and enjoyed his heavy influence on the public discourse so much that his Al-Muhajiroun leader – the notorious Omar Bakri Mohammed – started to joke about how he had eclipsed him in infamy.

Despite having achieved this celebrity status, Butt turned on his former colleagues by deciding to work against Al-Qa’ida: the organisation he had previously so fervently supported. His own reported reasons are explored in the book, and they appear to stem from encounters with serious Al-Qa’ida figures in Pakistan whom he helped to launch a series of brutal attacks in Karachi. When he challenges one of them about the innocent people killed in the attacks, he is simply told that ‘they’ll be carried by Allah for their good deeds’. For Butt, this is an unsatisfactory answer. He finds himself appalled by the fact that ‘they’d decided when to end other, innocent people’s lives’. This appears to have been Butt’s Damascene moment.

Malik, the author, entered Butt’s life at the same time. He was initially pointed to Butt as someone under evaluation by the BBC as a potential source of information regarding the July 2005 bombings. Malik developed a strong relationship with Butt, even deciding to help write his biography. He quickly became wrapped up in Butt’s adventure, partly on the basis of their shared history as two young South Asian men growing up in England.

In the years immediately following the July 2005 bombings, the two worked together in discussing the threat the UK faces and attempting to develop Butt’s story into a book. Malik found himself ‘truly believing in [Butt]’ and claimed that ‘[he] was willing to give almost anything to see him succeed’. This honesty and candour sets up the book’s climax: in May 2008, Butt was arrested and denied much of the story that he had shared with Malik under questioning.

It is safe to say that Butt’s tale is confusing. As well informing Greater Manchester Police that he had lied to Malik after his arrest, he faked his own stabbing and claimed that former colleagues had attacked him for his betrayal. This came after Malik had launched an expensive High Court appeal to protect the manuscript and notes that he and Butt had been working on – a reaction to police demands to use the text for prosecution.

But, as the book shows, the twists and turns do not end there. We still do not know what Butt’s real role was. The theory that he might have been working for the Security Services all along is repeatedly alluded to alongside the importance that Malik attaches to Butt’s contact with some of the most dangerous jihadist figures in the UK. The latter is evidenced by his widely recorded contacts, interviews and appearances by independent observers. Despite his proximity to numerous investigations, however, he was never prosecuted for terrorism offences.

In light of this evidence, Malik tentatively concludes that Butt was manipulated by the Security Services so they could control his narrative and distract journalists from more serious investigations. The author alleges that he was warned about such tactics by an older colleague who had similar experiences in Northern Ireland; a tip-off which arguably strengthens the credibility of his argument.

But Malik takes his conclusion even further. In the wake of 9/11, Britain’s security services were deeply alarmed by the new threat they faced. They could not, however, mobilise the public support or resources necessary to counter it. By purposefully introducing such an extremist voice into public discourse, they would alarm and excite the public, thereby giving them the opportunity to secure the resources they needed. While such extremist voices had previously been caricatures – like Omar Bakri Mohammed or Abu Hamza – Butt offered a young, eloquent and homegrown alternative which was far more disturbing.

Of course, there are holes in this narrative. One simply has to think back to the tabloid headlines used to describe the two radical preachers just mentioned to see the appeal they provided to newspaper publishers. Why the authorities would need to add another voice to this narrative is unclear, but this ambiguity is exactly the space that intelligence forces like to work within. As time has gone by, it has become increasingly clear that – despite a slow start – the UK’s intelligence services have been able to penetrate the violent Islamist networks that threaten the country.

We are unlikely to know whether Malik’s conclusion accurately reflects Butt’s real role for a long time, if ever. A narcissistic and creative megalomaniac, Butt is a complex character who once mixed with some of the most dangerous men in the UK. And while, if he was associated with the Security Services, such people are essential to enable our security forces to protect us, this book reveals some of the consequences of these people’s actions on those around them. For example, many of Butt’s reported friends are now serving long prison sentences because of evidence he provided against them, while others are dead due to links he appears to have helped nurture.

While Malik had to take a break from journalism after this experience, Butt moved in networks responsible for encouraging and practicing violence. Though he may have secretly been working against them, it is hard to know how strong his loyalties were.

In the murky world of intelligence gathering and informers, lines of trust and reliability regularly blur – this story reveals what this reality looked like within the context of the UK’s struggle against violent Islamist terrorism. Written in the fast-paced style of an investigative report, this book is an excellent journey through a historical case which filled our front pages. It provides a fascinating account of the early wave of jihad in Britain.

 

Once again a bit late posting, but here is a short piece for the Telegraph in the wake of the London Bridge incident with Usman Khan. While on the topic, spoke to the Observer, Financial Times, Independent about the incident, to the Irish Times about the complexity of prosecuting returnees and the Guardian about the current state of the terror threat. Separately, also spoke to Global Finance magazine and the South China Morning Post about China-Russia, and Suddeutsche Zeitung about Xinjiang.

Politicians don’t understand the true nature of the terror threat

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The almost immediate political spat that arose from the London Bridge incident has occluded some of the bigger lessons to be drawn from the attack. The focus on prisons, probation and who exactly passed the legislation responsible for the terrorist’s release has ignored the wider points raised by this case.

Perhaps the most important is the longer-term question of how exactly we plan to manage an ever-growing cohort of people who, in some cases, appear to decide to re-engage with extremist activity almost a decade after they first encountered it.

As a society we have to face a chronic threat which includes Syria-Iraq returnees, the growing mainstreaming of extremist narratives, and the possibility of an abrupt drop off in our intelligence and security cooperation with key European partners. This is where the focus of the discussion around terrorism should be.

After almost two decades of facing a domestic extremist Islamist community, we have an ever-growing cohort of young men and women who have been attracted to these ideas and in some cases appear not to shake them. This number only grows over time, and given the fact that often people start to engage in their teenage years, the tail of this problem is one that is going to stretch far into the future.

It is not the case that all of these individuals are going to pose a persistent threat. Some people do grow out of these ideas which they adopt in their early adulthood and move on. Lives change, partners are met, new jobs are taken; people move on. In some cases, intense engagement with deradicalisation programmes or mentors help move them into a different space mentally, encouraging them to leave behind the extremist ideas.

But some only do this half-heartedly, never really shake the idea or find that the alternative to the extremist ideology is not a particularly exciting world. Their lives might never move forwards (or not to the level they were expecting), or other things happen around them which mean they do not leave the radical milieu.

In some extreme cases, the individuals seem to enjoy the violence. Some of these can be diverted through intense activity which channels their energy, but this requires a constant level of engagement.

The difficulty is understanding how each case is going to play out. In retrospect cases that go bad can appear obvious but this is not always so at the time. And given the easy terrorist methodologies deployed at the moment (cars and knives), it has become almost impossible for security forces to effectively and completely police this group.

Clearly more resource will help manage this problem, but it is unlikely to get rid of it. It is also key to remember that this is not a short-term investment. The London Bridge attacker first got involved in extremist activity in his late teens and then turned to violence a decade later.

When this timeline is put against the case of 2017’s 52-year-old Westminster attacker, this means you have a potential window of more than 30 years in which the state needs to potentially monitor extremists. And that resource requirement needs to be placed against the many other issues which call upon the public purse.

Ultimately, this is a problem which is going to require a long-term engagement and investment. And eradication is unlikely to succeed.

This is not a call for despair, just an acknowledgement of the reality that until some of the bigger perceptions and cases of injustice around the world are eliminated, we will continue to see some people drawn to using violence to try to rectify these issues.

In the short-term what we can do is tackle some of the immediate problems, such as dealing with the British nationals in Turkish, Iraqi or Kurdish custody. They require repatriation, detention and rehabilitation (or longer-term conviction if the legal case is met).

We also need to check the habit of mainstream politicians feeding and supporting extremist narratives. This is either through their unhelpful demonisation of others, pandering to baser narratives in the public discourse, or more simply politicising issues that should be handled more carefully.

Finally, there is a need to ensure that whoever enters government ensures that the information links that we share with European security partners are maintained. Given the increasingly diffuse, multi-ideology and international threat that we face, sharing data and information amongst our security forces is going to be a crucial tool.

It is unsurprising that the London Bridge attack has generated the sort of political debate we have seen. Coming during a tense election campaign it has immediately tapped into bigger tensions. Yet we need to be careful that we learn the right lessons and ensure that any ensuing policy change is dealing with the actual problem rather than the hysteria around it.

This is the only way to maintain the resilience of our society to dealing with the long-term problem that terrorists and extremists pose.

Raffaello Pantucci is Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

Somewhat belatedly, posting a book chapter that emerged in Jihadist terror: New Threats, New Responses, edited by Dr Anthony Richards, Devorah Margolin and Nicolo Scremin, a book that came out of a big project and conference in London last year. A very big event with lots of interesting people, resulting in a very interesting looking edited volume. Given it is a book, the entire text is not published below, but I have pasted the abstract and feel free to get in touch if you would like to read more.

In media, my recent Wall Street Journal piece on how terrorism might evolve post-Baghdadi’s death generated an amusing epistolary response in the paper , and was also translated into Spanish. Also spoke to the National about the new allegiance pledges to the ISIS, to NBC about foreign fighters, AFP about the attack claimed by ISIS in Tajikistan, and earlier comments about the threat picture in the UK were used by Press Association and the Independent after JTAC lowered the terror threat level in the UK. Finally, Dr Philip Lewis quoted my book in a very interesting review essay in Church Times. On the other side of the coin, the IPI Global Observatory republished another recent piece for the East Asia Forum on China and Central Asia.

Personal and Organisational Patterns of Known Terrorists and Related Groups in the UK Since 1998

9781788315548

As the UK’s domestic jihadist threat enters its fourth decade, the threat picture is one that is radically transformed from its early days. Drawing on information from just under 70 separate plots in the UK since 1998, this chapter sketches out the changing nature of the external threat picture, the nature of the individuals involved in the plots and the sorts of attacks that they were planning. Given the relatively limited space and discursive nature of the set thesis, the following is necessarily superficial in some ways, but sketches out a trajectory in the threat picture in the UK. The chapter breaks the time period down into four separate phases (1998-2004; 2004-2009; 2009-2013; 2013-2018), which capture four distinct moments in the nature of the violent Islamist terrorist threat to the UK. In concluding, it observes that the arc of threat has shifted from the UK being a launchpad for threats abroad, to a threat picture which is characterized by lone-actor style plots with greater inspiration, rather than clear direction, from foreign groups.

And now back up to date with writing as far as can tell, my most recent late last week on Baghdadi’s death trying to look further to the future about what is happening with terrorism more broadly for the Wall Street Journal. Some bigger ideas in here that need greater exploration in the future, but here is a short start.

Beyond this, spoke to various news outlets over the past month since last providing an update. Starting most recently with the Baghdadi death with the Financial Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Guardian about its impact on the UK threat picture (which was also picked up by an outlet called Go Tech, the Mirror and Sputnik) and this Norwegian site Klasse Kampen seems to have picked up my comments about the defunct terrorist leader from somewhere. Subsequent to his death, spoke to the Independent about his successor. Earlier, spoke to the Financial Times about Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria and its impact on ISIS, to the Sun about Syria returnees in the UK, and to the Independent about the shooting in Halle, Germany and the broader threat from XRW. On the other side of the coin, spoke to Foreign Policy/Newsweek about China-Russia, to Asia Times about China-Iran, and to Bloomberg about Russian pipeline politics.

After Baghdadi, Terrorism Without Ideology

ISIS provided a template for attacks. Now isolated people reproduce them as meaningless spectacle.

Raffaello Pantucci
Oct. 30, 2019 6:44 pm ET

 

French soldiers stand guard after a knife attack in Paris, Oct. 3. PHOTO: GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead, a few weeks after Europe was racked by four separate incidents classified as terrorism: a truck-ramming in Limburg, Germany; a series of stabbings at a police station in Paris; a shooting at a synagogue in Halle, Germany; and another set of stabbings at a shopping mall in Manchester, England. While the investigations are still under way, at this stage it doesn’t appear that any of these attacks had any structured link to a terrorist group like Baghdadi’s Islamic State. Most of the perpetrators displayed some awareness of an extremist ideology, but we don’t know that any of them were directed to do what they did.

What relevance does the death of Baghdadi have to any of these attackers, or to the terror threat at large? There is little historical evidence that decapitating terrorist groups destroys them. Leaders have networks around them built on personal contacts, and their deaths change those dynamics. Some particularly charismatic leaders drive groups forward by force of personality or personal narrative. Their removal can weaken the aura around their organizations, but it can’t promise eradication.

When leaders are abruptly lopped off, terror groups tend to fragment and become more radical. Pretenders to the throne or anointed successors want to establish their own brands and often use a spectacular attack to do it. One can look to Afghanistan, where repeated strikes against the Taliban’s leadership have only made the group more violent, or to the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, attacked in 2013 by a rising al-Shabaab terrorist leader stamping his imprint on the world. Earlier that year, an attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria followed a similar pattern. Different factions often will forge their own paths away from the core organization, seizing the opportunity to change directions and employ new tactics.

But this tells us only about the classical terror threat—the large-scale plot, often directed from abroad. Such conspiracies still exist, and authorities are fighting them with success. Where they have found more difficulty, however, is in stopping the smaller incidents, in which attacks appear in sync with terrorist ideologies while lacking clear links to the groups propagating them. ISIS honed the art of directing lost individual acolytes around the globe to launch attacks in their immediate environments with whatever tools were at their disposal. This group was supplemented by a further cadre who launched attacks drawing on the ISIS methodology and interpreting its ideology without ever establishing contact with the organization.

Then there is the terrorist without an ideology, such as Salih Khater. On Aug. 14, 2018, he drove his car into pedestrians outside the Houses of Parliament. Coming more than a year after Khalid Masood launched a similar attack near the same location, the attack set London on edge again.

In sentencing Mr. Khater, Justice Maura McGowan concluded that he had committed a terrorist act, but she couldn’t identify a clear ideology he was advancing: “You replicated the acts of others who undoubtedly have acted with terrorist motives. You deliberately copied those others. . . . You have never explained your actions and have not given any account, before or today, that is capable of dissuading me from drawing the conclusion that this offending had a terrorist connection.”

In a growing number of terrorism cases, ideology is at best an appendage to an act of planned, performative violence. These terrorists are people driven by personal demons or interactions on chat forums or online communities, people with social disorders or mental-health issues, or people with a desire to make statements in a world on which they have failed to make an impression.

Where was Baghdadi in Mr. Khater’s attempted car-ramming attack and others like it? In this new age of terror, ISIS provided only the background idea by popularizing the method of driving cars into pedestrians. The group generated the meme, or at least helped it become viral, making it easy for others to replicate.

It is too early to dismiss the structured terror of groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS. Undoubtedly other groups, leaders and followers will emerge. But the West is moving into an age of isolated and even meaningless terrorism, an age when leaders contribute more conceptually than tactically. Before long, we may look back through rose-tinted glasses to the time when terrorism was made up of easily comprehensible networks and leaders.

Mr. Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.