Posts Tagged ‘UK counter-terrorism’

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.