Posts Tagged ‘UK counter-terrorism’

It has been a busy day. Events in Barcelona are still a bit unclear, but it sounds like we are moving towards some resolution. In the meantime, catching up on posting latest contribution for the excellent West Point Combating Terrorism Center’s journal CTC Sentinel. Thanks to Paul for his excellent and patient editing. More to come on this topic invariably, and some more catch up to do after this week’s atrocities in Spain.

Britain on Alert: The Attacks in London and Manchester and the Evolving Threat

Abstract: After a respite from mass-casualty terrorism for more than a decade, thus far in 2017 the United Kingdom has suffered three such attacks and a higher tempo of jihadi terrorist plotting than ever before. Absent from the threat picture so far are any Paris-style plots in which the Islamic State has dispatched operatives to launch attacks in the United Kingdom. At this early stage of the investigations, it appears that the Westminster attacker had no contact with the Islamic State and that the Manchester and London Bridge attackers were at most loosely connected to the group. The current threat environment is mostly made up of individuals and smaller scattered cells planning lower-tech attacks with very short planning and operational cycles—sometimes remotely guided by the Islamic State—rather than cells trained and dispatched by the group. But this could change as more British Islamic State recruits return home. With over 20,000 British nationals and residents subject to counterterrorism investigations since 9/11, a growing number of ‘frustrated travelers,’ and a complex and unpredictable set of threats, the United Kingdom faces an unprecedented security challenge. 

It has been a difficult year so far in the United Kingdom. After a period of relative stability, the United Kingdom has abruptly faced a period of deep political turmoil and a series of terrorist strikes that killed 36 people. While the full story around the terrorist plots that rocked the country during the first half of the year is not yet entirely clear—with multiple public and confidential reviews currently underway—the series of cases has led to deep introspection about how the United Kingdom manages the risk posed by the growing number of radicalized individuals at home. In July, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Cressida Dick stated that “since March this year, the [threat] tempo has changed. What we are seeing is now being described by the experts as a ‘shift’ in threat, not a spike.”1

This article argues this shift has to be understood as a permanent adjustment in the threat. There has been significant continuity in recent years in the nature of the threat faced by the United Kingdom, with a noticeable move away from large-scale plots to smaller scattered cells, with the tempo of plotting increasing noticeably. The article builds on a previous article in this publication in March 2016, which laid out the United Kingdom’s threat picture through analysis of a series of disrupted terror plots.2 The conclusion then was that “the public threat picture has been dominated by lone-actor plots”3 rather than more ambitious plots directed by the Islamic State like the Paris and Brussels attacks, an assessment that has not been challenged by the attacks in London and Manchester this year. Although only tentative conclusions can be made at this stage, the information that has come to light suggests these plots were significantly less ambitious and complex than some of the conspiracies seen in continental Europe and were carried out by men with at most loose connections to the Islamic State.

This article first outlines what is now known about the March 2017 Westminster Bridge attack, the May 2017 Manchester bombing, and the June 2017 attack on London Bridge and Borough Market. It then assesses what these attacks and other thwarted plots reveal about the broader threat picture in the United Kingdom and the challenges faced by security services.

The return of terrorism to the headlines in the United Kingdom this year was all too predictable. After a period of almost three years with the threat level at the second-highest level of ‘severe,’ British authorities had long warned that an attack was highly likely. Disruptions took place regularly. In early March 2017, the Metropolitan Police Service’s Assistant Commissioner for Specialist Operations Mark Rowley, who is also the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead for counterterrorism, stated that since the murder of Lee Rigby in May 2013, authorities had disrupted 13 terrorist plots. In defining the nature of the plots, Rowley stated “some of them have been more sophisticated [in their] planning looking to attack public spaces, or police offices or the military, not that dissimilar to some of the attacks we have seen in Belgium and France and elsewhere. There is a whole range from the simple to the complicated.”4 This built on comments by then-Prime Minister David Cameron in the wake of the Paris attacks of 2015 in which he stated that agencies had disrupted at least seven plots in the previous six months, “albeit attacks planned on a smaller scale.”5

The Westminster Bridge Attack
Notwithstanding this tempo of disruptions and public statements about the terrorist menace, Khalid Masood’s attack on Parliament on March 22, 2017, still shocked the British public. Using a Hyundai Tucson SUV rented in Birmingham a day earlier,6 Masood drove through the crowds of mostly tourists crossing Westminster Bridge at 2.40 PM. Hitting numerous pedestrians and knocking some into the river, he drove into the gates in front of the Houses of Parliament and then ran at a police officer standing guard, stabbing him with a knife. Masood was then shot dead by the close protection team of Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, who happened to be leaving Parliament at that moment.7

In the wake of the attack, which killed five people, authorities undertook a number of arrests near locations where Masood had lived, detaining 12 people in total. All were subsequently released.8 Born Adrian Russell Elms, Masood was a troubled 52-year-old who had lived an itinerant life, married three times, and had four children by two different women. He appears to have converted in prison while serving time for assault.9 He was twice incarcerated and arrested numerous other times for incidents involving attacking others. His case was of such concern to Sussex Police that in 2009, they filed a report highlighting the escalating nature of his violent behavior.10

In addition, Masood had featured in counterterrorism investigations. Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed that he had surfaced on the fringes of previous cases, stating “he was once investigated by MI5 in relation to concerns about violent extremism. He was a peripheral figure. The case is historic. He is not part of the current intelligence picture.”11 He was investigated after his telephone number was found among the contacts of a member of a cell of individuals from Luton who were jailed in 2013 for planning to bomb an Army barracks.12But he was not a priority of the investigation, and greater attention has been placed on his further radicalization more recently in Birmingham.13

Nevertheless, there has been little evidence produced that Masood was linked to any other co-conspirators or that he had conducted his assault with any external direction. He sent a WhatsApp message shortly before his assault reportedly stating his attack was a response to Western interventions in the Middle East, but the person he sent it to was cleared by authorities of any prior knowledge of the attack or culpability.14 A claim issued by the Islamic State in the wake of the attack was also dismissed as it showed no evidence of being anything but opportunistic. The group has praised Masood in subsequent publications, including quite specific incitement to people to emulate his attack, but the group has never demonstrated any access to information pertaining to him that was not already in the public domain. Authorities have concluded that Masood most likely acted alone and that the full extent of his motivations may never be known.15 As Neil Basu, NPCC’s senior national coordinator for counterterrorism, put it, while the police “found no evidence of an association with Islamic State or al-Qa`ida, there is clearly an interest in jihad.”16 While it is unlikely that Masood was completely isolated, the lack of any subsequent arrests or any charges issued as well as some fairly telling statements by police that his motivations may never be known highlights that, for authorities, the case is largely closed.

The Manchester Bombing 
The contrast between the Westminster attack and the bombing exactly two months later on May 22 in Manchester by Salman Abedi is stark. Using a device that he appears to have constructed himself in Manchester using tools that are publicly available,17 Salman Abedi, a 22-year-old British national of Libyan descent, walked into a crowd of families and children as they left an Ariana Grande concert and detonated a well-built bomb made of TATP and packed with shrapnel.18 Killing himself and 22 others, Abedi’s attack immediately sparked something of a panic among U.K. authorities. Concerned about the sophisticated nature of the device and the fact that Abedi was a known figure with deep extremist contacts, counterterrorism agencies immediately feared that a bomb maker might be on the loose. A wide net was cast, and the terrorist threat level was raised by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Center (JTAC) to its highest level, ‘critical,’ meaning an “attack is expected imminently.”19


Emergency response vehicles parked outside the scene of the terror attack in Manchester, England, on May 23, 2017. (Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images)

Nevertheless, while over 20 arrests were carried out, no charges have been issued. In early July, Greater Manchester Police held a press conference at which they highlighted that while they believed Abedi may not have acted alone, he was not part of a larger network. “We don’t have evidence of a large network. We do, however, suspect others were either aware [of] or complicit in the knowledge of this attack … We do believe that there are other people potentially involved in this … further arrests are possible,” Detective Chief Superintendent Russ Jackson, head of the North-West Counter Terrorism Unit (NWCTU), stated. 20

Abedi is reported to have had significant connections in radical circles in Manchester. Many of Abedi’s links tie back to the community of young men from the city going to fight in Syria. He reportedly visited wheelchair-bound (following injuries sustained during his involvement in the 2011 uprising in Libya) Abdal Raouf Abdallah, another Libyan-British national, in jail a number of times in early 2017. Abdallah had been jailed for his role in facilitating the travel of others to Syria.21 He was also reportedly in close contact with Raphael Hostey, a prominent British Islamic State fighter from nearby in Manchester, who used the kunya Abu Qaqaa and was the sponsor for numerous Britons who joined the group.22

It is, however, Abedi’s links in Libya that have raised the most scrutiny. His father, Ramadan Abedi, a prominent onetime member of the now-defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), reportedly returned to fight—bringing his son Salman with him—in the revolution that overtook the country in 2011.23 A long-time and committed member of the LIFG, he was well-connected in the community around the jihadi group and was also reportedly seen in Bosnia a number of times during the civil war in that country in the 1990s.24

British authorities have made clear they wish to question Abedi’s brother Hashem.25 On May 24, 2017, the Special Deterrence Force, a Tripoli-based militia under the nominal control of the Interior Ministry, released a statement saying it had detained Abedi’s father and brother Hashem. The militia claimed that Hashem had confessed while in detention that both he and Salman were members of the Islamic State and that Hashem had admitted he had been in the United Kingdom during the planning phase of the attack, had been aware of the plot, and had been “constantly in touch” with his brother. Hashem also reportedly admitted to helping to purchase the bomb components. On May 25, a spokesperson for the militia stated on Libyan television that the two brothers had been in contact by phone just 15 minutes before the bombing.26 Questions remain over these confessions, including over whether they were made under duress. Hashem is still in Libya and has not been charged in the United Kingdom. Analysis of his social media accounts show he was in contact with Hostey’s brother.27

According to the Greater Manchester Police, the two Abedi brothers both left for Libya on April 15, with Salman returning to the United Kingdom on May 18, just four days before the bombing. It was the latest in a number of trips Abedi had made back and forth to Libya. Investigators believe bomb-making materials were obtained before the trip to Libya and stored in a car and that when Salman Abedi returned to Manchester, he purchased other materials for the device including nuts as shrapnel and quickly assembled the bomb.28 The high volatility of TATP—the quick speed at which it evaporates or sublimes and thus becomes useless as an explosive—meant he almost certainly made the explosive substance in the days between his return from Libya and the attack, sources told CNN.29

It remains unclear whether Abedi received training while in Libya. Abedi appeared to be single-mindedly focused on building the bomb when he returned to the United Kingdom, suggesting it is possible he received training or final instructions on his last trip.

Similar to Masood’s attack, the Islamic State issued a statement praising Abedi’s act, but it demonstrated no proof of any prior knowledge.30 Notwithstanding the alleged declarations by his brother to the Tripoli militia, had Salman been closely linked to the Islamic State in Libya, it would be surprising that he would not have recorded a martyrdom video and left it with the group, or least some photographic evidence showing his connections. At the same time, investigators continue to believe that he had some greater degree of links to terrorist groups abroad than Masood. However, the exact nature of these links remains unclear.

The London Bridge and Borough Market Attack 
On June 3, 2017, less than two weeks after the Manchester bombing, London was struck once again. On a balmy evening, Khuram Butt, Rachid Redouane, and Youssef Zaghba drove a van they had rented earlier in the afternoon into the Saturday night crowds gathered near London Bridge. Ramming the van into a fence adjacent to the pavement near the end of the bridge, the trio then leapt out of the vehicle and started attacking passersby in the adjoining Borough Market area with long knives they had bound to their wrists with leather straps. They wore plastic bottles covered in black tape wrapped around their bodies to give the impression of wearing suicide vests and had a number of Molotov cocktails made up in the van.31 Within eight minutes of police receiving the call, armed response officers arrived and shot and killed the three men, though not before eight revelers had been killed and 48 injured.32

One of the attackers was almost immediately identified as a figure well-known to the security services. Butt, who authorities believe was the ringleader of the group, was a prominent and active member of the al Muhajiroun network of extremists that has been at the center of the United Kingdom’s violent Islamist terrorist threat for the past two decades. Butt himself had been repeatedly featured at the center of investigations and was most recently on bail for ‘low-level’ fraud for which he was not ultimately going to be prosecuted.33 More embarrassingly for British authorities, he had been featured in a widely viewed documentary called The Jihadis Next Door, which followed a number of prominent al Muhajiroun members, including Siddartha Dhar, also known as Abu Rumaysah (who fled to Syria with his family soon after filming and was believed to have become a new “Jihadi John” figure in Islamic State films34), as well as others who have been convicted of a variety of terrorism and extremism charges.35

The other two were less well known to British investigators, though it rapidly emerged that the Moroccan-Italian Zaghba had been flagged to British authorities through a European intelligence sharing system as someone of concern to Italian authorities after he was stopped at Bologna airport in March 2016 on his way to Turkey. Carrying a small bag, little money, a telephone with Islamic State videos on it, and a one-way ticket, he raised suspicions by telling authorities that he wanted to head to Syria.36 Nevertheless, he was released after being turned back. He subsequently traveled onto his native Morocco and then ultimately London, where he took on part-time work in the services industry.37 The third attacker, Redouane, appears to have led an equally peripatetic life, alternatively claiming to be Moroccan or Libyan and stating his birthdate was in 1986 and 1991 on different documents.38 He had married an Irish woman and had a child with her, who he appears to have visited at his estranged partner’s home in Barking the night prior to the attack after a lengthy hiatus.39

Planning for the event appears to have taken place over a two- to three-week period prior to the attack.40Police believe Redouane’s bedsit in Barking was the location where plotting occurred,41 though the men appear to have also congregated in a number of sporting locations, including an outdoor pool42 and a gym that was established by a pair of brothers who had previously been identified as being involved in al Muhajiroun activity.43

It remains unclear the degree to which the London Bridge attackers may have been directed by the Islamic State or any other extremist group, though the Islamic State did again claim the attack.44 Given Butt’s known association with individuals who have gone on to become prominent figures within the Islamic State, like Abu Rumaysah (who is still suspected to be at large and was featured in the same British television documentary), he would have had ample opportunities to establish contact with the group. Senior leadership figures within al Muhajiroun, like Anjem Choudary and Mizanur Rahman, have been prosecuted for supporting the Islamic State.45 Others like Abu Rahin Aziz,46 Shahan Choudhury,47 Mohammed Reza Haque,48 and Hamza Yaqub49have been publicly identified as having fled to join the group. Many others have tried going to Syria and been caught at various stages of their journeys. Given the close contact the group’s members maintain with those back in the United Kingdom even after they have gone over to Syria, it seems likely that Butt would have had at least some contact at some point with Islamic State operatives in Syria.

While the Islamic State’s immediate claim contained no information that was not already in the public domain, the group’s subsequent mention of the attack in the 10th edition of its magazine Rumiyah did offer battlefield names (kunyas) for the fighters, which had not been discussed in the public domain, identifying them as Abu Sadiq al-Britani, Abu Mujahid al-Britani, and Abu Yusuf al-Britani.50 The accuracy of this information is unclear, however, with it contrasting with Butt’s known kunya of Abu Zeitoun.

Observations on the Three Attacks 
One key question for authorities is the degree to which the three cases were connected.51 Thus far, no evidence has been made public to show any level of connectivity, beyond the potential that the three plotters were somehow inspired in their timing by each other’s actions.a The available evidence suggests the attacks were carried out by individuals or small cells who, though possibly inspired by the Islamic State’s ideology, were either not connected to the group (Westminster) or only loosely connected (Manchester and London Bridge). There is no indication that the Westminster and London Bridge attackers trained overseas. In the London Bridge plot, at least two of the attackers, Butt52 and Zaghba, were frustrated travelers to Syria. In the Manchester plot, Abedi is known to have traveled to Libya a number of times (though the exact nature of these trips is complicated by his Libyan heritage). Abedi’s single-minded focus in constructing a device just a few days after returning from Libya suggests it is possible he traveled to Libya for the purpose of learning how to build a device.53 The New York Times, citing U.S. and European intelligence sources, reported Abedi met with members of Katiba al-Battar, a Libyan Islamic State brigade, at some point while in Libya and kept in touch with the group on trips back to the United Kingdom, but this has not been confirmed by British authorities.54Given that Abedi reportedly participated in fighting against Muammar Qaddafi, one possibility is he received bomb-making training while spending time with a militia group in Libya. There was some public speculation Abedi may have traveled to Syria as well, but this has not been substantiated.55 No evidence has yet surfaced of external direction, and it cannot be ruled out that Abedi learned to build the bomb off the internet given there is evidence he viewed various online videos on bomb making.56 But the relative sophistication and effectiveness of the device, and the trickiness of making TATP, points to the possibility of at least some bomb-making training or practice overseas.

Increased Tempo
In the wake of the Westminster attack, there was a noticeable uptick in the tempo of arrests being conducted by police disrupting active attack planning. In June, Commissioner Dick said about one person a day was being arrested in counterterrorism investigations.57 The reasons for this increase are not totally clear, but it is likely the result of both lower tolerance of risk by British authorities and a growing threat. In the first instance, a successful attack highlighting a failure in intelligence would change counterterrorism agencies’ perspectives on ongoing investigations, making them reconsider various subjects of concern. Second, police concerns of copycat attacks likely sped up arrests of subjects of interest who had been under surveillance for some time. A third likely reason is the increasing push and resonance of Islamic State messaging about individuals staying home to launch attacks. This is a phenomenon that has been obvious since Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s speech in May 2016 in which he stated, “The smallest action you do in the heart of their land is dearer to us than the largest action by us, and more effective and more damaging to them … And if one of you wishes and tries hard to reach the Islamic State, then one of us wishes to be in your place to hurt the Crusaders.”58 As it has become harder to travel to Syria and the group has been losing territory, more supporters of the group in the United Kingdom are becoming frustrated travelers who are responding to this messaging.

British police thwarted five plots in between the Westminster Bridge and Manchester attacks.59 Just over a week after Masood’s attack, police in Birmingham arrested brother and sister Ummariyat Mirza and Zainub Mirza, who were accused of planning a beheading attack.60 Two weeks later, Ummariyat Mirza’s wife, Madihah Taheer, was arrested and charged with supporting her husband in his plot.61 At around the same time, police arrested a 17-year-old girl of Moroccan origin from London for allegedly plotting to launch some sort of attack under direction of a fighter from Coventry who was killed in April by a drone strike in Syria. The teenager, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was apparently married to the fighter through Skype and had sought to obtain guns and grenades to launch an attack in the United Kingdom under explicit direction from the Islamic State.62

Even more alarmingly, 27-year-old Khalid Ali was detained in Whitehall, a short month after Khalid Masood’s attack on Westminster, in a dramatic mid-afternoon swoop as he walked around with a bag full of knives and shortly after throwing his phone into the river. He was charged with bomb making linked to activity he undertook in Afghanistan years before, as well as the alleged plan he was in the midst of when he was arrested in Whitehall.63

The same day that Ali was detained along Whitehall, police in Willesden in northwest London and Kent undertook a series of raids, detaining six people in what they believed was another cell actively plotting attacks. The case was deemed of such concern that authorities stormed the premises using CS gas and guns. One woman was shot during the entry.64 The initial reporting indicated a cell of six were involved, including an individual who had been stopped in Turkey alongside two teenagers who were reportedly en route to Syria.65 In the end, however, the failed traveler was not charged, and three women (including a mother and daughter) were presented in court for allegedly planning an unspecified knife attack.66 Finally, five days prior to Abedi’s attack, police in East London arrested four men for planning an alleged car bomb and knife attack in central London reportedly inspired by Masood’s actions.67 The four men were arrested on May 17.b

This intense spate of arrests presaged the Manchester and London Bridge attacks and reflected a changed threat assessment by authorities as they sought to roll up a number of cells that had been under surveillance for some time. As noted above, in many cases, authorities feared that Masood’s abrupt success might stimulate others to emulate him—something that had been seen historically after successful attacks. The murder of Lee Rigby in May 2013 by two extremists linked to al Muhajiroun helped stimulate others to attack, including an extremist who the very next day attacked a French soldier patrolling in the La Defence area of Paris. More generally, the attack model deployed against Rigby is one that has become a template many British extremists seek to emulate, often themselves making direct reference to that 2013 attack.

Arrests have continued at a high rate in recent weeks. Three men were picked up on the day of the general election, June 8, with one charged on an unspecified plot. The 33-year-old man in question, Irfan Khan, was allegedly a long-time consumer of online radical material and had allegedly recently viewed material linked to the London Bridge attack when he was arrested, demonstrating the potential inspirational effect of that attack.68 Later in June, police in Birmingham arrested Tarik Chadlioui, a 43-year-old Moroccan cleric who was wanted on terrorism charges in Spain for being the spiritual leader of a cell supporting the Islamic State.69 One of his followers in Majorca is accused of planning a stabbing attack of pedestrians on the island.70

A Constant Threat 
None of this, however, points to large-scale attack planning in the United Kingdom. While a number of the disruptions suggest plots approaching the scale of the London Bridge or Manchester attacks, there was little evidence presented in court of conspiracies with the capability to launch larger Paris-style assaults. Unlike disruptions on the continent in Europe, where cells in possession of automatic weapons and with clear evidence of individuals who have been to foreign battlefields are regularly disrupted, so far there is no evidence that has been made public of this model of plot in the United Kingdom.

More typical have been plots similar to that mounted by a cell of individuals from Birmingham who were planning a knife and bomb attack in the United Kingdom before their arrest in late 2016. Although the so-called “three Musketeers” behind this plot were potentially dangerous, and two had, five years previously, very briefly made it to a training camp in Pakistan, there was no evidence presented at the trial that their plot was directed from overseas; it emerged at trial that the conspirators joked about their inadequate skills, with one likened to one of the useless extremist characters from the film Four Lions, a satirical movie that pokes fun at some of more inept practices of British jihadis.c

The earliest disrupted plot linked to Syria, that of Erol Incedal, included accusations of a planned marauding gunman scenario with some direction from overseas.71 Incedal was cleared of these charges and ultimately convicted of possession of a bomb-making manual.72 But beyond this, the attack planning seen in the United Kingdom has been fairly consistently small cells or isolated individuals seeking to launch low-grade attacks on soft targets around the country. While there are often links to known extremists or networks, where there has been direction, it has been in the form of remote guidance by extremists based in Syria and Iraq.73

None of this is to say that authorities do not continue to see aspiration and intent by terrorist groups to launch more sophisticated plots in the United Kingdom. Thus far, however, the threat has mainly consisted of small-scale unsophisticated plots. While this suggests terrorist groups like the Islamic State have been facing difficulties in infiltrating directed cells into the United Kingdom, authorities are still confronted by a challenging threat picture and one that is in many ways more complicated with these scattered and disparate cells, which are difficult to track. Adding to the challenge is the unpredictability of individuals or small cells autonomously deciding to act using very low-tech methods and weapons, which makes it a very difficult to manage and prioritize threats accurately.

Managing Risk 
The question of prioritization is the key issue at the heart of considerations about how to manage the current U.K. threat picture.d In all three of the cases featured in this article, attackers were known and had been investigated—to varying degrees—by authorities. In at least two cases, Abedi and Butt, they had been a focus of investigations, but no prosecutable case had materialized, leading investigators to move on to other cases that appeared to be of higher priority. With limited resources, such choices have to be made.

The volume of activity that U.K. security services are currently focused on was illustrated most clearly in the wake of the Manchester bombing when Security Minister Ben Wallace revealed on the BBC’s flagship Today program that authorities had 500 investigations underway, involving some 3,000 subjects of interest. In addition, he revealed, there were a further 20,000 former subjects of interest (i.e. former targets of counterterrorism investigations in the post-9/11 period) who remained of peripheral interest to the security services. The numbers have since grown even higher, according to British police. Butt, the London Bridge ringleader, was among the 3,000 current subjects of interest. But it was from the 20,000 considered to be only a residual risk that the Manchester and Westminster attackers had come.74 This larger pool includes individuals who have featured in investigations over the past almost two decades of counterterrorism cases in the United Kingdom. Some are individuals who were on the fringes of plots; others are those who have been charged, convicted, served their sentences, and are now free once again. However, due to their observed activity, they are not deemed to be current priorities and have therefore been relegated by security services who instead focus their attention on those who have been demonstrating a higher level of alarming activity or potential attack planning. Given limitations in security services resources, only about 3,000 individuals can be focused on, and while the others are not forgotten, they are allocated a lower prioritization.75

In the wake of the two London and Manchester attacks, questions are being raised about whether this prioritization has been accurately calibrated.76 After the London Bridge attack, Prime Minister May stressed police and the Security Service MI5 would be reviewing their methods and more generally “how the terror threat is evolving, the way that terrorism is breeding terrorism and the increased tempo of attacks … in a way we haven’t seen before.”77 It has been reported that after the Manchester bombings, Britain’s security services began reevaluating the risk level of individuals categorized as former subjects of interest. One idea reportedly under consideration is to create systems for counterterrorism agencies to share information about former subjects of interest with the broader police force, taking advantage of the general police’s greater numbers of eyes and ears inside local communities. “It’s that wider cohort [of 20,000] that we have to keep an eye on as well; to see if any of them that reactivate, so to speak, and become dangerous again,” Mark Rowley, head of National Counter Terrorism Policing, stated in an interview earlier this month. “We’re going to have to improve what we do, but it is going to take a whole system effect—not simply counter terrorist specialists and MI5, but local policing, councils, and the public—to be able to deal with something which is becoming more of a cultish movement and less of a small terrorist organisation.”78

The U.K. threat picture is populated with seemingly disparate cells of individuals or clusters who are in some cases receiving direction from abroad through encrypted applications or social media, but in many cases are made up of perpetrators, as Prime Minister May stated, “inspired to attack not only on the basis of carefully constructed plots after years of planning and training—and not even as lone attackers radicalized online—but by copying one another and often using the crudest of means of attack.”79 The fact that the United Kingdom is also grappling with a threat from right-wing and anti-Muslim extremism risks provoking the sort of social tensions the Islamic State has long hoped would boost its appeal in the West.

It is, of course, still early days in the investigations into the London Bridge and Manchester attacks. It is possible more will be uncovered to show their connectivity to wider networks and plots. The plotting activity observed so far in 2017 points to a deeply diffuse and complicated threat picture in the United Kingdom, which is causing security services to revisit their methodologies and leading to arrests at increasingly early stages of the attack cycle. This can complicate subsequent convictions, but it is an imperative at a time when many plots are being carried out through low-tech means already in most citizens’ possession—cars and knives—and at a time when the flash-to-bang in plots can be counted in days rather than years.

Atop this complex domestic picture is the potential threat posed by the growing number of British jihadis who are expected to be returning home from Syria and Iraq. Exact numbers are impossible to know, but with hundreds already back,e authorities are already bracing themselves for an even more challenging threat environment when these battle-hardened veterans and their families return.     CTC

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists. Follow @raffpantucci

Substantive Notes
[a] This certainly seems to have been the case in the subsequent anti-Muslim terrorist attack launched by Darren Osborne, a 47-year-old who drove a van into the crowd outside Finsbury Park mosque on the morning of June 19, killing one. A long-troubled individual, Osborne was reported by neighbors to have been incensed by the London Bridge attack. No evidence has publicly surfaced that he was linked to extreme right groups. And it is suspected that Osborne may have intended to strike an al-Quds, pro-Palestine march through central London earlier in the day, but had been too late and chose the mosque instead. Osborne was reported to have been raving drunkenly at a local pub the night before the attack and to have been flagged to police as drunk and asleep in his vehicle later the same evening. Martin Evans, Ben Farmer, Hayley Dixon, and Hannah Furness, “Finsbury Park terror suspect ‘planned to attack’ Muslim march in London but was too late, it is claimed,” Telegraph, June 20, 2017.

[b] The four were charged on May 25. One was not charged with terror offenses but instead for seeking to “possess any firearm or imitation firearm with intent to cause fear of violence.” “Update: Four charged following Counter Terrorism investigation,” Metropolitan Police press release, May 25, 2017.

[c] The most disturbing aspect of the plot was that three of the plotters had been convicted and served time for previous terrorism offenses. Two of those convicted, Naweed Ali and Khobaib Hussain, had been previously arrested for going to training camps in Pakistan. They were also linked to a cell arrested in 2011 in Birmingham that was seeking to launch an al-Qa`ida-directed attack in the United Kingdom and helping others get to training camps in Pakistan. Mohibur Rahman, the third convicted “Musketeer,” had been previously convicted for possession of extremist material. He was initially arrested as part of a cell that pleaded guilty of plotting in 2010 to bomb the London Stock Exchange. The three “Musketeers” had met and re-radicalized during their prison sentences, raising questions around prison radicalization. “Operation Pitsford: The 11 men,” BBC News, April 26, 2013; “Terrorism gang jailed for plotting to blow up London Stock Exchange,” Telegraph, February 9, 2012; “Three Musketeers’ guilty of planning UK terror plot,” BBC News, August 2, 2017; Dominic Casciani, “Birmingham terror plot: Inside the sting that caught four jihadis,” BBC News, August 2, 2017.

[d] The issue of prioritization is also key in several other Western countries facing a significant threat, including the United States. For example, Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen had been the subject of an FBI counterterrorism investigation, but the case was closed before he carried out the attack. Matt Apuzzo and Eric Lichtblau, “After FBI’s Enquiry into Omar Mateen, A Focus on What Else Could Be Done,” New York Times,June 14, 2016.

[e] While there are no official figures, most reports say that some half of the 850 U.K. nationals reported to have gone to Syria and Iraq have returned home. Martin Chulov, Jamie Grierson, and Jon Swaine, “ISIS faces exodus of foreign fighters as its ‘caliphate’ crumbles,” Guardian, April 26, 2017.

Citations
[1] Cressida Dick, “Commissioner gives key note speech at Mansion House,” MetPolice Blog, July 20, 2017.

[2] Raffaello Pantucci, “The Islamic State Threat to Britain: Evidence from Recent Terror Trials,” CTC Sentinel9:3 (2016).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Matthew Weaver, “UK police have thwarted Paris-style terror plots, top officer says,” Guardian, March 6, 2017.

[5] Matt Dathan, “David Cameron to recruit 2,000 new spies amid claims UK foiled seven terror attacks in six months,” Independent, November 16, 2015.

[6] “Car used in Westminster terror attack was hired from Enterprise in Spring Hill,” Birmingham Updates, March 23, 2017.

[7] Ewan MacAskill, “Westminster attacker acted alone and motive may never be known, say police,” Guardian, March 25, 2017.

[8] Chris Johnston, “All 12 people arrested over Westminster attack released without charge,” Guardian, April 1, 2017.

[9] “Killer Khalid Masood left jail a Muslim, says childhood friend,” Press Association, March 25, 2017.

[10] Alice Ross, “Westminster attacker had record of increasingly violent attacks,” Guardian, May 15, 2017.

[11] Rowena Mason, “Theresa May’s statement – key extracts,” Guardian, March 23, 2017.

[12] “Four ‘planned to bomb Territorial Army base’ with toy car,” BBC NewsApril 15, 2013.

[13] Xantha Leatham and Omar Wahid, “Westminster terror attacker was radicalised in Birmingham in the past 12 months, sources claim,” Mail on Sunday, April 2, 2017.

[14] Kim Sengupta, “Last message left by Westminster attacker Khalid Masood uncovered by security agencies,” Independent, April 27, 2017.

[15] Vikram Dodd, “Westminster attack: Masood did act alone, police conclude,” Guardian, April 13, 2017.

[16] Robert Booth, “Westminster attacker Khalid Masood had interest in jihad, say police,” Guardian, March 27, 2017.

[17] Nick Hudson, “Manchester suicide attack: Abedi bought most bomb parts ‘himself,’” Policeprofessional.com, May 31, 2017.

[18] Paul Cruickshank, “London attack ringleader was under active investigation at time of assault,” CNN, June 8, 2017; C.J. Chivers, “Found at the Scene in Manchester: Shrapnel, a Backpack and a Battery,” New York Times, May 24, 2017.

[19] “Threat levels,” Security Service, MI5.

[20] “Manchester Arena suicide bomber Salman Abedi may not have acted alone, police say,” Telegraph, July 6, 2017; Neal Keeling, “Police suspect others were involved in Manchester Arena attack – and may make further arrests,” Manchester Evening News, July 6, 2017.

[21] Joe Thomas, “Manchester Arena bomber visited terror convict in Liverpool prison,” Liverpool Echo, June 25, 2017.

[22] Andy Hughes, “Manchester suicide bomber Salman Abedi linked to key UK IS recruiter,” May 25, 2017.

[23] Nazia Parveen, “Bomber’s father fought against Gaddafi regime with ‘terrorist’ group,” Guardian, May 24, 2017; Jonathan Ungoed-Thomas and Dipesh Gadher, “Salman Abedi: the Manchester killer who was bloodied on the battlefields of Libya and brought evil back home,” Sunday Times, May 28, 2017.

[24] “Otac teroriste iz Mancestera bio kod mudzahedina u BiH,” Glas Srpske, May 31, 2017.

[25] “Manchester Arena suicide bomber Salman Abedi may not have acted alone, police say.”

[26] Bel Trew, “Salman Abedi’s brother bought parts for Manchester bomb,” Times, June 9, 2017; “Manchester bomber’s brother and father arrested in Tripoli,” Libya Herald, May 24, 2017; Laura Smith-Spark and Hala Gorani, “Manchester suicide bomber spoke with brother 15 minutes before attack,” CNN, May 26, 2017.

[27] Josie Ensor, “Manchester bomber’s brother was ‘plotting attack on UN envoy in Libya,’” Telegraph, May 27, 2017.

[28] “Latest Statement from Detective Chief Superintendent Russ Jackson, Greater Manchester Police,” June 11, 2017. The statement is available at https://twitter.com/gmpolice/status/873926655059927041 and https://twitter.com/gmpolice/status/873926742553112578; Lizzie Dearden, “Salman Abedi travelled through Turkey and Germany four days before launching Manchester suicide attack,” Independent, May 25, 2017.

[29] Cruickshank, “London attack ringleader was under active investigation at time of assault.”

[30] SITE Intel Group, “#ISIS releases English-language version of claim for #Manchester bombing,” Twitter, May 23, 2017.

[31] “Terror ringleader ‘tried to hire 7.5 tonne lorry hours before London attack,’” ITV News, June 10, 2017.

[32] “London attack: What happened where in eight minutes of terror,” Sky News, June 5, 2017.

[33] Ralph Blackburn, “London Bridge terrorist Khuram Butt taught primary school children in Ilford,” Barking and Dagenham Post, August 2, 2017.

[34] Richard Kerbaj, “Jihadi Sid told sister: I’ll die for ISIS,” Sunday Times, January 10, 2016.

[35] “The Jihadis Next Door,” Channel 4; Vikram Dodd, Matthew Taylor, Alice Ross, and Jamie Grierson, “London Bridge attackers were regulars at Sunday afternoon pool sessions,” Guardian, June 7, 2017.

[36] Fiorenza Sarzanini, “L’Italia segnalo il killer di Londra fermato a Bologna per terrorismo,” Corriere della Sera, June 6, 2017.

[37] Ibid.

[38] “Update: London Bridge terror attack investigation,” Metropolitan Police press release, June 16, 2017.

[39] Sarah Knapton, Martin Evans, Nicola Harley, Harry Yorke, Ben Farmer, and Robert Mendick, “Khuram Butt, Rachid Redouane and Youssef Zaghba named: Everything we know about the London Bridge terrorists,” Telegraph, June 6, 2017.

[40] Paul Cruickshank and Nic Roberts, “London ringleader Khuram Butt was intensely investigated,” CNN, June 6, 2017.

[41] “Appeal for information on knives used in London Bridge terrorist attack,” Metropolitan Police Press Release, June 9, 2017.

[42] Dodd, Taylor, Ross, and Grierson.

[43] Neil Johnston, Georgie Keate, John Simpson, and Katie Gibbons, “Police were warned two years ago that gym was ‘training jihadists,’” Times, June 9, 2017.

[44] Francesca Gillet, “London attack: ISIS claims responsibility for London Bridge horror which left seven dead, Islamist State media agency confirms,” Evening Standard, June 4, 2017.

[45] Raffaello Pantucci, “Al-Muhajiroun’s European Recruiting Pipeline,” CTC Sentinel 8:8 (2015).

[46] Ruth Sherlock, “British man who joined Islamic State to skip bail ‘killed’ in Syria,” Telegraph, July 5, 2015.

[47] Dipesh Gadher, “Housing benefit funds family’s dash to ISIS,” Sunday Times, March 19, 2017.

[48] Josh Barrie, “The Giant: Second British extremist ‘identified in ISIS video,’” Independent, January 17, 2017.

[49] C vs. HM Treasury, before The Hon Mr Justice Cranston, judgment handed down August 5, 2016.

[50] Rumiyah 10, June 2017.

[51] “PM statement following London terror attack,” Downing Street press release, June 4, 2017.

[52] Damien Gayle and Jamie Grierson, “London attack: Khuram Butt’s family stopped him going to Syria, says cousin,” Guardian, June 8, 2017.

[53] Cruickshank, “London attack ringleader was under active investigation at time of assault.”

[54] Rukmini Callimachi, “Manchester Bomber met with ISIS unit in Libya, Officials say,” New York Times, June 3, 2017.

[55] Saim Saeed, “French interior minister: Salman Abedi had ‘proven’ links with Islamic State,” Politico, May 24, 2017.

[56] Fiona Hamilton and Alexi Mostrous, “Manchester Arena killer Salman Abedi used YouTube to build bomb,” Times, June 24, 2017.

[57] “London Bridge attack latest: Terrorists named as police say they were not under surveillance as they posed ‘low risk,’” Telegraph, June 6, 2017.

[58] Paul Cruickshank, “Orlando shooting follows ISIS call for U.S. Ramadan attacks,” CNN, June 13, 2016.

[59] “UK security services have thwarted five plots since March Westminster attack: source,” Reuters, May 25, 2017.

[60] Darren Campbell, “Two arrested in Alum Rock Road charged with multiple terror offences,” Birmingham Mail, April 5, 2017.

[61] Charlotte Paxton, “Birmingham wife of alleged extremist is charged with terror offenses,” Birmingham Mail, April 25, 2017.

[62] Vikram Dodd, “Teenage girl accused in court of plotting terror attack in UK,” Guardian, July 26, 2017.

[63] Martin Evans, “Westminster terror suspect appears in court charged with bomb making offences,” Telegraph, May 10, 2017.

[64] “Willsden shooting: Police foil ‘active terror plot,’” BBC News, April 28, 2017.

[65] Dipesh Gadher, Robin Henry, Rebecca Myers, and Luke Mintz, “Banned Saudi preacher link to raided ‘house of terror,’” Sunday Times, April 30, 2017.

[66] Danny Boyle, “Mother and daughter in terror plot case ordered to lift veils by magistrate who demands to see their eyes,” Telegraph, May 11, 2017.

[67] Steve Robson and Rachel Burnett, “Three men ‘plotted London terror attack involving car bomb driven through Westminster Bridge inspired by Khalid Masood atrocity,’” Mirror, May 27, 2017.

[68] “Man arrested in east London charged with terror offences,” Metropolitan Police press release, June 20, 2017, and “Terror suspect viewed London Bridge attack material before arrest,” Court News UK, June 21, 2017.

[69] Ben Farmer and James Badcock, “Birmingham counter-terror arrest: Alleged ‘spiritual leader’ of Majorca-based cell is held,” Telegraph, June 28, 2017.

[70] Fernando J. Perez, “Uno de los yihadistas detenidos en Mallorca planeo una ‘matanza’ en Inca,” El Pais, June 30, 2017.

[71] “Erol Incedal: terror accused enjoyed billionaire’s lifestyle secret trial files reveal,” Telegraph, December 11, 2015.

[72] Tom Whitehead, “Erol Incedal jailed for three-and-a-half years over bomb-making manual,” Telegraph, April 1, 2015.

[73] See Raffaello Pantucci, “The Islamic State Threat to Britain: Evidence from Recent Terror Trials,” CTC Sentinel 9:3 (2016).

[74] “23,000 people have been ‘subjects of interest’ as scale of terror threat emerges after Manchester attack,” Telegraph, May 27, 2017; Cruickshank, “London attack ringleader was under active investigation at time of assault;” “AC Mark Rowley discusses the threat of terrorism,” Metropolitan Police, August 11, 2017.

[75] Dominic Casciani, “Manchester attack: The bewildering complexity of a terror inquiry,” BBC News, May 25, 2017; Sean O’Neill, “Spies gather to focus on biggest threats,” Times, June 8, 2017.

[76] Francis Elliott and Sean O’Neill, “May tells MI5 to ‘keep up’ with changing terror threat,” Times, June 5, 2017.

[77] Rowena Mason, “MI5 to review handling of London Bridge attack, says Theresa May,” Guardian, June 6, 2017.

[78] Cruickshank, “London attack ringleader was under active investigation at time of assault;” “AC Mark Rowley discusses the threat of terrorism.”

[79] “PM statement following London terror attack.”

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Trying to catch up on various recent posts, though am a bit behind, so apologies. A few longer pieces have landed now as well. In the short term, here is something for my institutional home RUSI about what policy ideas could be advanced to manage the long-term threat that the UK faces.

What Policy Changes Are Needed after the Manchester Attack?

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary31 May 2017
UK Counter-terrorismTackling ExtremismSecuring BritainTerrorism

A week after the atrocity in Manchester, it is now possible to draw some preliminary conclusions: there clearly was a breakdown in the intelligence flow that led to suicide bomber Salman Abedi slipping through the net; there are enduring questions about the UK’s Prevent anti-terrorism strategy; and, finally, there are the weaknesses of ‘soft targets’ that such an attack invariably expose.

It is, of course, impossible, without full access to information, to properly understand exactly the nature of the intelligence breakdown that led to last week’s suicide attack on an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester.

Still the fact that the bomber, Salman Abedi, was flagged up to authorities a number of times, by locals in Manchester, was travelling back and forth to a country that is a warzone and came from a family with strong militant pedigrees all indicate – without the benefit of hindsight – that he was someone who should have attracted attention.

If, as suggested, he was someone who had featured in previous investigations but was sidelined in favour of what were deemed to be more menacing targets, then the attack in which 22 people were killed and dozens wounded highlights what for the intelligence services remains a perennial question: how do you determine who seems more menacing when resources are limited?

This is not only a difficult calibration to make, it is also not a way to remove someone from concerns altogether. For, as we have seen repeatedly, individuals will sometimes rise back out of this pool of downgraded threats to pose an immediate danger.

And the challenge is immense. According to Security Minister Ben Wallace, there are about 20,000 in this larger pool of people who are not seen as an immediate danger but who, like Abedi, can suddenly become one.

What can be done to manage this problem? Additional resources would help, as well as new technologies such as super computers using artificial intelligence to manage the challenge through data-crunching looking for particular patterns of behaviour. Another method is to continually challenge previous assessments about the security risks that certain individuals may pose, a determination which is bound to shift over time.

However, the principle of proportionality also has to be borne in mind: having lots of security forces chasing those individuals not only requires more resources than are currently available, but may also end up exacerbating the very problem that they are trying to manage.

Other, more extreme ideas have been advanced: internment or enhanced restrictive movement orders. The first proposal is so clearly counterproductive that it bears no consideration; internment in Northern Ireland during the early 1970s became part of the problem, rather than the solution to terrorism troubles.

The second proposal – house arrests – has greater value, except in that it does not necessarily reduce the burden on security officials. An individual who has been placed under house arrest is not actually being dealt with; rather, he or she is being put in a very publicly visible ‘holding pattern’.

Similarly, excluding people from the UK – either through passport denial or exclusion orders – is not actually dealing with the challenge; it simply postpones a determination, and pushes the individual on to another country to be dealt with.

A proportion of the work managing this pool of 20,000 ‘lower-grade’ suspects will come under the contentious Prevent strategy of counterterrorism activity. And this raises another strand of debate to emerge from the Manchester atrocity: how to reform Prevent.

One aspect that should be undertaken is to separate out the different strands of the strategy. The work of managing dangerous offenders or suspects clearly needs to stay attached to the security realm, possibly through the creation of a new specifically developed and tailored service, modelled on the probation service.

Combining probation, welfare, police and intelligence, the new agency could be staffed by individuals who are each managing a specific case-load of former offenders or suspects.

Each case will require a different sort of engagement, but this may provide a way of both keeping an eye on such cases while also focusing on trying to get them on a different path.

A version of the Channel programme, which provides early support to individuals who are at risk of being drawn into terrorism, could be used; this will be a way of providing an individually tailored ‘light touch’ over-watch.

But other parts of the Prevent that are focused on more forward-looking efforts to steer people away from radical paths before they get on to them, should instead be moved firmly out of the criminal space.

Prevent is intended to be about keeping people away from ever getting to terrorism, and this means, among other measures, actually keeping them out of the criminal justice arena. Consequently, it would seem imperative that these programmes are not handled by a security department such as the Home Office.

Finally, there are some very understandable questions about the fact that the bomber was able to walk his device into a crowded space and kill so many. Most arenas nowadays are heavily guarded and people are subject to bag checks on entry.

Clearly, some additional thought must be given to reviewing entry and exit points to such sites, with the usual difficulties of agreeing where to draw the ultimate line of the security cordon.

Much work has gone into managing security in crowded spaces: the lessons learned need to be applied more rigorously and around the entire country. Sports events or concerts that by their very nature aim to be open and accessible will continue to pose a potential problem.

It is unlikely that this will be the last terrorist attack the UK faces. Coming during an election cycle, however, this incident offers an occasion for both introspection and new ideas as future governments continue to confront the challenge.

Banner image: Armed police stand guard at Manchester Arena after Salman Abedi’s suicide bomb attack during a Ariana Grande gig. Courtesy of PA Images.

It has been a quiet holiday period so far, though I kept busy catching up on work and doing a couple of solicited op-eds. This first one was in response to the British Defence Secretary’s announcement of the deployment of more British forces to help Nigeria fight Boko Haram for Newsweek. Another out later in the week on something else. Also, spoke to the Guardian about recent events in Afghanistan and a long ago interview with Washington Post finally emerged in this great overview of Chinese relations with Central Asia and what this means for the Sino-Russian relationship by Simon Denyer.

Britain’s Support Could Be Key To Beating Boko Haram

1224_Cameron_Buhari
Prime Minister David Cameron, left, shakes hands with Nigeria’s then-President-elect Muhammadu Buhari in London, England, May 23. The U.K. has promised to double its deployment of military personnel to Nigeria to help with the fight against Boko Haram. Neil Hall / Reuters

 

Back in March, Nigeria’s Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). The announcement was met with concern both in terms of what this meant about ISIS’ global spread, but also what it might mean for one of Africa’s most brutal terrorist groups. In reality, very little changed, with the exception that Boko’s media output professionalized somewhat. What the declaration highlighted, however, was the group’s persistence as a feature of the international terrorist landscape, and how clearly more needed to be done to counter the group.On December 21, the U.K. showed its commitment to this goal with the announcement that it would increase its deployment of soldiers to 300 to support Nigeria’s fight against the group. Taken against a backdrop of increasing deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq and potentially Syria, the U.K. can appear to be spreading itself very thin, but in reality the approach being undertaken in Nigeria is likely the most sensible way for outside powers to play a role in countering regional terrorist groups.Boko Haram is unlikely to develop into a direct threat to the British mainland. It can never be discounted that individuals somehow linked to the group might end up becoming involved in plotting in the U.K., but the threat from the group is far more pronounced regionally. Born out of a longstanding tension between north and south Nigeria, blended with local tribal differences and with an overlay of violent international Islamist ideology, Boko Haram is a product of local history narratives being co-opted by adopting a global ideology.

Given the U.K.’s strong historical links to the region, it makes sense that Britain would see the fight against Boko Haram as an important foreign policy priority. The deployment of forces to act as trainers for the Nigerian authorities is the most logical contribution to make. Ultimately, the U.K. does not have the necessary forces to deploy in substantial numbers to operate on the ground and eradicate the group, and, in any case, it is not clear that this would be the most effective way to deal with the militants.International terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda or ISIS have attempted to reach out to the group to support it, but have encountered problems in trying to operate in Nigeria. Notwithstanding this, Boko Haram has developed links with other regional terror organizations (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Somalia’s Al-Shabab), though this is usually instigated by the group seeking connections and training outside its borders. It has also increasingly demonstrated an interest in launching attacks across Nigeria’s borders in Cameroon, Niger and Chad. This is where the biggest threat from the group lies: What was at first a local northeastern Nigerian problem is slowly developing into a regional menace.

As with many conflicts dealing with groups that are born out of local problems with an international ideology overlaid on top, the reality is that the fundamental causes for the group’s existence are only ones that local forces and politicians will be able to properly deal with. An external force may be able to provide some support and play a role in eliminating key leaders or disrupting networks, but this is merely managing the problem.

To deal with the underlying issues that Boko Haram is able to feed off for its support, the Nigerian government will have to find ways of alleviating the gross inequalities that exist between the north and south of the country and the longstanding tensions that exist between different tribal communities in Nigeria. Additionally, it will now have to find ways of working with neighboring powers to ensure that the problem is one that is contained and eliminated, rather than simply displaced across borders.

None of this is something that an outside power like the U.K. will be able to undertake by itself. At best, the U.K. can play a supporting role to local efforts. And this is where the role of trainers is key. Whilst regionally the Nigerian Army has a fairly good reputation, it has faced capability problems—both in terms of funding and equipment, but also corruption and problems with alleged human-rights abuses. The contribution of some British trainers will help not only provide Nigerian forces with a higher degree of professionalism, but also act as a signal of support to the (relatively) new government of Muhammadu Buhari.

More broadly, it is also increasingly the manner in which Western countries will find themselves trying to fight terrorist groups around the world. Rather than sending in ground forces to take and hold territory as an outside force, the effort will be focused on growing a local capability to deal with their own domestic problems. Local forces are more likely to be accepted by the local populations, and will have a more attuned sense of on-the-ground dynamics. This is the approach that has been tried in Afghanistan and is very much the focus of efforts in Iraq and Syria.

Building up local capacity to deal with local problems is the heart of the West’s response to foreign terrorist organizations. But at the same time, as has been seen in Afghanistan recently, it is also not clear that this is always the most effective solution or the degree to which local forces are able to overcome historical tensions to deal with longstanding problems. Whether it proves to be the answer for Nigeria will take time to tell, but by deploying more forces in a training capacity, the U.K. is demonstrating that London thinks it is the best approach.

Raffaello Pantucci is the Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a U.K.-based defense thinktank. He tweets @raffpantucci

 

A new post for Free Rad!cals, looking at the recently concluded investigation in the UK by the independent reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation that looked into the case of a group of “environment cleaners” who were picked up ahead of the Pope’s visit to London. The investigation has thrown up some interesting information about the case, but more broadly some questions about these sorts of investigations. In many ways a very similar piece to the last reviewer’s investigation into Pathway, but the information that has been revealed this time shows more about policing tactics than the intelligence behind them which was the focus of the last one.

Operation Gird – Counter-Terrorism Policing in Tense Times

The new Independent Reviewer for Terrorism Legislation David Anderson QC has published his first review of counter-terrorism legislation, conducting a full inquiry into the case of six street cleaners working in London who were arrested on the eve of the Pope’s visit to London in September of last year. The report exonerates the police concluding, “I consider that the police acted responsibly and within the law in arresting the six men when they did.”

The report lays out in detail the evidential case behind the police decision to arrest the men. Apparently, at 4:30pm in the afternoon on September 16th, the day before the Pope’s visit to the UK, police received a tip off from an unnamed source who told them that they had overheard five of the men “talking about a possible attack on the Pope’s vehicle on the following day.” The source’s information is summarized thus:

· The five men were looking at a picture in the Metro newspaper of the Pope’s motor vehicle.

· They discussed a recent incident where the Koran was burnt and stated that a Christian should be killed for every page that was damaged.

· The view was expressed that whilst the Pope’s vehicle was protected, it could be stopped and that even if he survived, those around him would die.

· Comments were made to the effect that it would be wonderful if the Pope was killed and that there were virgins waiting for them.

· The men could all be working on the day of the Pope’s visit to London.

· The depot had recently taken delivery of new uniforms, ten of which had been stolen.

Additionally, police were told that ‘a close associate of one of the men’ was arrested and released under terrorism legislation some 3-4 months previously. Somewhat more speculatively, one of the men was reported to have recently returned from Paris (one of the men, a 26 year-old, held dual Algerian and French nationality, though it is unclear if this is the man that is referred to), with his head shaven ‘and to have become radicalised.’ Background checks on the men revealed one of them shared a name with an individual who had been arrested and then released during the course of the investigation into the Madrid bombings. The five men under suspicion were aged between 26 and 44, all worked for Veolia Environment Services, and were all of Algerian descent except for one who was Sudanese. The Algerians were all either married to European’s or held European citizenships as well – one British, one Spanish and another French.

After the decision was made to arrest the men in the morning, a sixth man (Subject F) described ‘as being a friend of the suspects’ arrived to the company HQ later in the day and became agitated saying ‘I’m not working now. Does everyone think we’re fucking terrorists? They’re treating us like animals with our hands on our heads.’ He then stormed off. The same person who reported this statement also said that he recalled Subject F requesting to work on the Pope’s route during the visit. Investigation into the company’s files uncovered that a number of men had requested to work together on the Pope’s visit and that a couple had taken holiday time at the same time.

All of which would I suppose paint an incriminating picture to a suspicious mind. It is worth remembering that at the time, security in the UK and Europe was on high alert after the information came out of Afghanistan/Pakistan that cells of Europeans had been activated to carry out Mumbai-style terrorist operations. Cells were swept up in Germany, France and Denmark – in some cases turning up weapons. Plotters had not yet emerged in the UK, though a report from Waziristan pointed to an individual allegedly called Abdul Jabber who was tasked to establish an al Qaeda cell in the UK. He was apparently killed in a drone strike. Another element to emerge at around this time was that a Norwegian-Uighur who was allegedly plotting something in Oslo was found to have in his possession a photo of Ibrahim Adam, a brother to Anthony Garcia, aka Rahman Adam, one of the plotters linked to the Crevice cell. The passport-sized photos showed him in a variety of different haircuts and were taken as evidence that he was trying to obtain fake identification to get back into Europe to possibly carry out some sort of plot (possibly further darkening the picture, Adam was of Algerian descent, the family changed their names years before).

So within this context, it is easy to imagine why police would react as they did. It is a bit surprising that Mr. Anderson fails to mention all this, though he does highlight that the “requirement for reasonable suspicion” needs to “be kept firmly in mind by all forces during future operations….particularly in view of the security pressures that are likely to attend the forthcoming London Olympics.” This element seems to have been leapt upon by today’s Independent.

Nevertheless, it is worth taking a moment to cast a further skeptical eye over this case – the evidence for the plot appears to be single-sourced and not fitting with any other direct intelligence that the security services received. Mr. Anderson himself describes parts of it as “barely credible.” It may be understandable that the police reacted as they did given the context, but the operation will have done little to win them support amongst the Muslim community. As Subject F so eloquently put it, “does everyone think we’re fucking terrorists?” Doubtless, this experience has confirmed this to him and the others. For Subject E, a 27-year-old Sudanese man, the case concluded with it being discovered that he had had his application for asylum turned down and was currently operating using a false identity. According to the investigation “this has resulted in further action under the immigration laws.” One imagines this might include expulsion from the country, though I am uncertain of whether the UK can send people back to Sudan. None of which will endear HMG to him or his friends and family.

It remains unclear whether the chap who had returned from Paris “radicalized” with a shaved head was still a cause for concern, though I imagine he will remain on police radars. Unlike the previous Operation Pathway plot that has been linked to a series of plots in New York and Oslo and with key plotters back in Waziristan, this lot seems not to have had any serious links and their release back into society is likely going to do little to increase the terrorist threat. The fact that the Security Services (MI5, MI6 and GCHQ) did not feature in the investigation confirms that they were not involved and therefore did not have the intelligence.

Instead, it seems as though this was a case of a bad tip-off at a tense time, and hopefully lessons have been learned from this. It of course almost impossible to know to what degree this will have improved or worsened community relations – though doubtless it will be noted how loudly the arrests were reported and how quietly the report that declares “there is no reason to believe, with the benefit of hindsight, that any of the arrested men was involved in a plot to kill the Pope, or indeed that any such plot existed” was covered. But to blame the media is often a bit of a cheap shot, as ultimately, it only caters to the public’s desires and the discovery some people were innocent is less news grabbing than a dramatic arrest.

The purpose of this system of regulation with independent reviewers and inquests is intended to provide the citizenry with a way of watching the watchers. What might be perceived as being a problem, however, is that they continue to largely exonerate those they are overseeing. In the various investigations that have been carried out they continue to say the security services are doing a good job and that broadly speaking nothing is going wrong. Human mistakes are made and that is it. Now this may be the case, but in some cases one has to wonder about whether this might not be stoking further skepticism. Certainly with the Pathway lot, the absolute certainty with which everyone up to the Prime Minister claimed they were linked to al Qaeda was not supported by evidence that was subsequently released. I do not mean to doubt that the Pathway chaps were up to something (I have written a whole article detailing their supposed links to al Qaeda), but the problem of a presentational gap remains when no explosives or evidence of a bomb plot were actually found. In this case where six innocent men were swept up the cause seems to have been bad intelligence and a high level of background chatter.

Admittedly, it is unclear to what degree those who still doubt are a majority or whether it is merely conspiratorially minded obsessive’s or bereaved individuals for whom no comfort will be enough, but at the same time it is equally uncertain that the current structures the UK has set in place to watch the watchers are necessarily assuaging the concerns they set out to calm.

My latest for HSToday, though a bit belatedly posted. A quick overview of the debate about a shift in counter-terrorism policy in the UK.

By Raffaello Pantucci

02/25/2011 (12:00am)
Nine months on the job, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government finally announced its long awaited review of its counterterrorism policy. He used a keynote speech at the annual Munich Security Conference to advance the ideas that underpin the government’s renewed direction for combating international terrorism.

 

Cameron said the problem Britain faces “cannot be ignored or contained,” but rather must be confronted “with confidence” by way of addressing “the issues of identity that sustain it by standing for a much broader and generous vision of citizenship in our countries.”

The Prime Minister’s bold language masked a long-standing internal debate in the UK about how to confront the threat of international terrorism within the kingdom.

Cameron’s address was the culmination of a series of policy announcements on counterterrorism that started with a discussion in Parliament on January 20 that focused on the prickly issue of detention without charge.

Under the old system, police could detain a person for up to 28 days without charging him of anything while authorities attempted to assemble a case against the person.

Every seven days the individual would be brought before a judge who would adjudicate on their continued detention, but the principle was that in increasingly complex cases, police would need more time to dig through the reams of documents and data that police were turning up in the process of their terrorism investigations.

Not only was this process controversial, but both ruling parties had complained loudly about it.

Announcing its cessation of the policy and a return to previous legislation that gave police only 14 days, Minister for Immigration, Damien Green, said “since July 2007, no one has been held for longer than 14 days, despite many terrorists arrested since then … I can announce that the Government will not be seeking to extend the order allowing the maximum 28-day limit.”

A week later, Home Secretary Theresa May, delivered a more comprehensive announcement to the House on the government’s counterterrorism policy.

May highlighted that, in addition to the change in pre-charge detention, the government also was changing the policies on control orders to focus on surveillance rather than house arrest. It also was going to give the new policy a two-year shelf life; restricting use of stop and search powers to instances when there is an immediate threat; and to stop councils from using surveillance techniques without first clearing them with a magistrate.

Contentious issues like the further proscription of groups like Hizb ut Tahrir, the use of phone intercepts in court and further defining what can be constituted as terrorism or promotion of terrorism, were, in the end, not concluded. Further analysis of these issues apparently is required.

While he was in Munich, Cameron announced that “under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives … we’ve failed to provide a vision of a society.”

The policy that had allowed non-violent extremists to flourish and to receive public funds had failed and, “instead of ignoring this extremist ideology,” the government now must “confront it, in all its forms,” Cameron stated.

Calling for the rebirth of a British identity, the Prime Minister said, “instead of encouraging people to live apart, we need a clear sense of shared national identity that is open to everyone.”

Cameron’s speech awakened a heated debate in the British commentariat, where, on one hand, individuals like Douglas Murray, a prominent rightwing commentator and director of the Center for Social Cohesion, spoke of “Europe’s mainstream party leaders” finally “realizing what others have long noticed: Multiculturalism has been the more pernicious and divisive policy pursued by Western governments since World War II.”

On the other hand, Dr. Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed, a professor at the University of Sussex and a skeptic of the government’s counterterrorism policy, decried the speech.

“By blaming ‘state multiculturalism’, Cameron is … missing the point,” Ahmed said. The real issue, he continued, is deepening inequalities, something that will “deepen under coalition cuts” and “an interventionist foreign policy that has been heavily disfigured under the influence of short-sighted (and self-interested) US geostrategy.”

In a radio interview following the speech, the assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain said, “again, it just seems the Muslim community is very much in the spotlight, being treated as part of the problem as opposed to part of the solution.”

The opposing views provide a snapshot of the tense debate that’s taking place in the UK regarding its shift in counterterrorism policy. In the midst of the Prime Minister’s announcement, Lord Carlile of Berriew Q.C., the outgoing head of Parliament’s Independent Review of certain Terrorism Legislation, issued his final report on control orders. The report concluded that the cumulative effect of Britain’s counterterrorism legislative architecture is “to make the UK a safe haven for some individuals whose determination is to damage the UK and its citizens.”

While the government dismissed this as emotive language, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats who had vigorously campaigned against a wide range of counter-terrorism policies, was obliged to defend himself against accusations of having completely reversed his position on a number of counterterrorism issues.

The cumulative effect of the counterterrorism review is going to be hard to measure in any practical way. Already some entities that were previously receiving funding for counterterrorism under the banner of preventing violent extremism, have announced that their funding will be cut.

Meanwhile, other issues are being sidestepped. For example, the ongoing inability of Britain to deport individuals wanted on terrorism charges to the US is not addressed in the review.

In the weeks prior to the recent varied announcements about changes to UK counterterrorism policies, a British judge announced it would be permissible for Abid Naseer – a Pakistani accused of having been involved with the network that allegedly supported Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan-American who pled guilty to trying to carry out a suicide bombing on New York’s subway – to be deported to the US to face charges.

But there is no evidence that this has actually happened, or is going to happen anytime soon.

So, while Cameron has finally laid out his markers on how he plans to counter terrorism in the UK going forward, and while there is a clear rhetorical shift, it still is unclear that there’s been much practical change.