Posts Tagged ‘UK terrorism’

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

Al Muhajiroun’s Long Shadow

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

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

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

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

 Muslims Against Crusades 30.7.2011-563 – Anjem Choudary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

September 26, 2018 / Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More catching up, this time from this week’s Telegraph in the wake of this week’s still-unclear incident outside Parliament.

Also catching up on some media interviews, spoke to NPR, the Independent and il Foglio about the Westminster incident, to RFI about ISIS in Indonesia, to BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show about the news that emerged about Salman Abeidi’s evacuation from Libya, to the Independent again about the Toronto shooting, to Vice about ISIS returning into a guerrilla organisation, and on the other side of the substantive equation to Bloomberg about Turkey’s relations with China and the South China Morning Post about Kazakh-Chinese relations in the wake of the Sauytbay case in Kazakhstan (which was subsequently picked up by China Digital Times).

TELEMMGLPICT000171684858_trans_NvBQzQNjv4BqH8oGYaaASnJZUiuddQ1p_w4wRx7k9ixzqw8pl8JMpsMForensics officers work near the car that crashed into security barriers outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018 CREDIT: FRANK AUGSTEIN/AP

Despite the attack on Parliament, all signs suggest we are safer than we were last year

Since the attempted bombing in Parsons Green last year, we have had something of a lull in visible terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom. We have had a few panics, and when it first popped up on news feeds this morning, it may have seemed like the incident in Westminster was just another of those.

Clearly, the terrorist threat is still with us. But it has also shifted and, though we can’t be certain what is around the corner, it seems to have lessened. Once dominated by large-scale plots, it is now concentrated around isolated individuals advancing ideologies of different stripes in lo-tech and often uncoordinated ways.

Isil’s loss of territory in Iraq and Syria has made a big difference. Cells and individuals with experience of the battlefield in Syria and Iraq remain a concern, but the groups on the ground seem far more preoccupied with their activity in the Levant than in launching attacks against far-off capitals.

The brutal murder of four cyclists in Tajikistan and the use of a Moroccan suicide bomber in the Philippines show how Isil remains a worldwide player. But the scale and ambition of directed attacks that we saw with in Paris in 2015, and the networks around them, seem to have waned.

Instead, we have seen a fairly constant patter of small-scale incidents characterised by individuals with a wide range of backgrounds, mental faculties and links to extremist groups, who are driven as much about what is going on their lives as by whichever the terrorist ideology they may have associated themselves themselves with.

This community has been empowered in part by the fact that our definition of a terrorist attack has widened. Once upon a time, a car driving into a crowd would have been seen as a traffic incident. Now it is immediately considered as a possible attack, even if this is later disproved.

Think back to last October, when a car mounted the pavement in South Kensington near the Natural History Museum. The immediate concern was a terrorist incident had taken place, with speculation running wild that this was the case.

Ideologues with political axes to grind leaped to the scene and spewed out commentary, and the entire public discourse swerved in a charged direction. Yet soon it emerged that we were merely dealing with a taxi crashing into crowds. A month later in Covent Garden, another taxi crashing into people sparked a similar panic which also quickly died down.

Similarly, many groups are now quite happy to claim any sort of incident, even when the link is spurious. Look at the shooting in Toronto in July, or the shooting last October in Las Vegas, which were both claimed by Isil without much credibility. At the same time, some attacks are genuinely Isil-inspired and directed, and we only need to look back to the first half of last year to see genuine terrorists using vehicles to plough into crowds and murder people.

This is the complexity of the terrorist threat that we are now facing. Varied methods and fractured extremist movements create a very confusing environment for members of the public.  Nevertheless, it does seem, at least for now, to be a safer one.

Security services deserve some credit for the shift in threat. As they have become better attuned to disrupting networked plots, we consequently see less of them. For terrorist groups still keen to launch attacks, this requires a change in methodology (and consequently a similar reaction from security forces).

But we can also see the quality of the individuals involved seems to be going down. Does this mean that terrorist groups are no longer attracting the sort of people they were before (and therefore losing their power), or does it mean that the ideology has simply become more diffuse and accessible (so then a wider range of people can connect with it)? Or maybe both?

There are no easy answers. But what is certain is that the threat will go on, and that if we are not careful we can undo all this positive change.

We know that a politically fragile and febrile environment, where narratives of exclusion and separated societies are increasingly mainstream, is an optimal place for people to latch onto extreme ideas and impulses and act on them. In such an environment, mainstream figures who openly talk in exclusionary terms creating the perception of a “clash of civilizations” which extremist groups thrive on.

To drag these ideas into the mainstream is to create a context where extreme answers seem justified. That gives ideological cover to people who are really just angry at their government or angry at their life, and are lashing out.

A persistent number of people continue to find the answer to their personal crises in violence. We are now facing a terrorist threat whose methods are almost indistinguishable from the general violence that permeates organised societies. If our political discourse is confrontational and negative, it will increase that violence.

We may not be able to eradicate the ideas or the groups which drive terrorism, but we can certainly try to change the public discourse and create an environment in which we are not doing terrorist groups’ jobs for them.

 

Been delinquent in posting stuff, doing some bigger writing and catching up with things takes time. First up, posting a piece for my institutional home RUSI’s Newsbrief publication looking at the extreme right wing and violent Islamist threat in the UK, through the lens of a few recent cases.

A Tale of Two Terrors: The British Extreme Right Organises While Islamists Scatter

Raffaello Pantucci
Newsbrief31 July 2018
UK Counter-terrorismTackling ExtremismInternational Security StudiesTerrorismUKDomestic SecurityRadicalisation and Countering Violent ExtremismIntelligenceNational SecurityTerrorism

Once again, the dividing lines that distinguish between variations of violent extremism in the UK have morphed, but addressing the similarities and differences between the extreme right and violent Islamists should help to ensure that the UK’s counter-terror strategy as synchronised as possible with the current threat picture.

far_right_protest_london_pa-30777462

Two contrasting terror trials were recently concluded in the UK. The separate convictions of Naa’imur Rahman and Mohammed Imran, and the sentencings of Christopher Lythgoe and Matthew Hankinson brought together two sides of the terrorist threat facing the UK. With one linked to Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS) and the other to the extreme right wing (XRW), the two cases highlighted the shifting nature of the two ends of the threat spectrum, with the XRW rallying around the threat of violent Islamists, while Islamists point to the XRW as evidence of the clash of civilisations they perceive as being at the heart of, but also the similarities that exist between these two threat sources. Given that both have been prioritised in the latest iteration of the UK’s counter-terror CONTEST strategy, it is unlikely that this is the last time we will see a similar temporal coincidence of the two types of cases.

Ostensibly, the two cases are very different. The Lythgoe and Hankinson convictions are part of a larger case linked to the proscribed XRW terrorist group National Action (NA). The first time in decades a right-wing organisation has been made illegal in the UK, the network they created was one of the first instances of an organised effort on the part of the British XRW. Illustrating their aspiration in a message to the group’s community on the communications app Mumble shortly before the group was formally proscribed by the Home Office, Lythgoe told the leadership to pass messages of sustenance along to ‘people further down the NA hierarchy’ to:

Make sure they understand that the SUBSTANCE of NA is the people, our talents, the bonds between us, our ideas, and our sustained force of will. All of that will continue into the future. We’re just shedding one skin for another. All genuinely revolutionary movements in the past have needed to exist partly underground. These are exciting times.

In stark contrast, the case against Rahman and Imran was a clear articulation of the chaotic and increasingly diffuse threat posed by violent Islamist extremism, where isolated individuals advancing the ideology have tenuous or limited links to the sharp end of the threat. Rahman claims that his uncle, who was killed in an American drone strike while fighting in Syria, was pushing him to launch an attack. Imran was eager to go fight abroad himself. Both were connected to each other through a variety of social media applications and had some links to fighters abroad – although it later emerged that some of these contacts were in fact undercover law-enforcement agents posing as Daesh supporters. The men believed that they were operating as part of a wider network but were in fact quite isolated. This is very much an articulation of the sort of disorganised terrorist threat that is opposite to what has been expressed in the more organised NA plot, with both Rahman and Imran being fairly detached from the extremist community but seeking to advance its ideology through individual action.

Looking back on the history of the XRW and violent Islamist threats in the UK, these plots show an almost complete role reversal between the two. During the mid to late 2000s, the XRW threat was characterised by isolated individuals like Neil LewingtonMartyn Gilleard or Terence Gavan, who accumulated massive amounts of weaponry, indulged in anti-social behaviour, or sought paedophilic material – all the while showing clear sympathies to the XRW cause – but who were largely loners. When attempted plots were uncovered, they were seen as shambolic at best. The exception to this was the Aryan Strike Force (ASF), disrupted in 2009, which boasted a global online network of around 350 individuals. Led by administrators in the UK, the group was largely an online community, although police uncovered evidence of limited training camps in Cumbria and that one member managed to make a substantial amount of the poison Ricin. But even then, the ASF was mostly an online network, while the NA group was more politically active both on and offline.

In contrast, the violent Islamist terror threat of the same period was characterised by sophisticated networks linked to Al-Qa’ida affiliates around the world. Leaders in distant countries provided training and direction to plotters in the UK and throughout the West. There were isolated loners that latched onto violent Islamist ideology to try to launch attacks, but this was the exception rather than the norm. Compare this to today: while Rahman and Imran had some links, these were distant and there is limited evidence of clear direction from foreign-based leaders.

This divergence is reflected in some ways by the men’s commitment to their plots. Jack Renshaw of NA, who had separately pled guilty, wanted to attack MP Rosie Cooper and a police officer who had angered him; he seemed fairly consistent in his commitment to this particular act. In contrast, from available evidence, Rahman was fairly scattered in his plotting. While the chief plot for which he was convicted – of wanting to detonate an explosive device in Downing Street and decapitate the prime minister – continually emerged in his planning, he had numerous other plots in mind. At one point he considered using a drone to attack the Wimbledon tennis tournament, while at other times he discussed going to fight abroad. Rahman had the idea of driving a truck into a crowd, or using one as a bomb and then using guns to shoot people in a hybrid active shooter plot. He was, however, unable to drive and did not know how to shoot (or source) guns.

But while the threat may have gone in divergent directions, there are a surprising number of similarities as well. Both plots targeted prominent political figures: Rahman had an ambitious plan to storm Downing Street and murder the prime minister, while Renshaw wanted to murder an MP and a police officer. At one point he considered the Home Secretary, but ultimately deemed this too difficult a target. This shows a collective anger against the political class and a desire to punish them on both sides of the XRW versus violent Islamist ideological spectrum.

Both plots were inspited in part by other attacks and would have served as revenge for personal attacks perceived to have been made against the individuals. In the case of Rahman, he saw the attempted Parsons Green bombing from earlier in 2017 as ‘the start’ and was impressed by the Manchester Arena bombing. He saw his attack in part as vindication for his uncle’s death in Syria at the hands of the International Coalition Against ISIL. Similarly, the NA cluster was inspired by the 2016 murder of MP Jo Cox and saw Zack Davies’ racially inspired attempted murder of a dentist in a Tesco supermarket as a precedent. Renshaw’s desire to target a particular police officer stemmed from an earlier arrest and a specific officer whom he blamed for his troubles. He hoped to murder her alongside MP Rosie Cooper. Both cases demonstrate clear inspiration from other attacks, highlighting the longer-term consequences to the threat picture of a successful attack, as well as an underlying desire for revenge in their intent.

Another curious similarity is the evidence of predatory sexual behaviour in both cases. Rahman first came onto the radars of the security services when authorities investigated him for sending indecent images to underage girls. In Renshaw’s case, after an initial detention on other charges linked to NA activity, his phone was downloaded and searched, at which point police allegedly found evidence of child sex offences. These alleged perversions are surprisingly common among offenders on both sides of the ideological spectrum and suggest a potential investigation point for security officials.

There are additional comparisons to be made between the investigations of the two cells. In both cases, undercover agents were key for securing convictions. Robbie Mullen, himself a member of the NA cell, turned against the group to work with Hope not Hate, a charity dedicated to fighting the group’s ideology. For Rahman and Imran, the two men believed that they were part of a Daesh network, yet it was largely made up of intelligence agents. The disruption of the Daesh network in particular is notable in this regard, as it reflects an approach by UK security forces that is reminiscent of the behaviour of US authorities, which some UK security officials have previously thought to be inappropriate. Given the broader chaos in Rahman’s life – he was homeless and unemployed at the time of his arrest, seemingly living out a deadly fantasy life through his Daesh-inspired activity and being incapable of doing many of the acts he said he wanted to do – it is an open question whether he would have been able to achieve his goals had he not been apprehended by the network of undercover intelligence agents around him.

Yet, his successful conviction shows that this methodology of securing a case against a perpetrator can work. It has been seen in other recent plots as well, as in the case of Safaa Boular, a young woman convicted of planning an attack on the British Museum who believed she was talking to extremists in Syria online, for example, and will likely be used again. With Renshaw, the fact that Mullen defected to a charity rather than turning himself into the police demonstrates the importance of such community organisations in countering terrorist threats.

The latest version of CONTEST highlighted that ‘Islamist terrorism is the foremost terrorist threat to the UK. Extreme right-wing terrorism is a growing threat’. These two cases show what these menaces look like in practice, and what similarities exist between the two. CONTEST pledged an increase in the volume of resources for targeting the XRW, while the broader violent Islamist threat is now characterised as a series of discrete and seemingly random terrorist plots. The tools needed to counter this sort of threat are included within the new Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, which necessitates longer sentences for terrorism offence convictions and gives authorities the tools needed to disrupt plots earlier on. There is of course a danger in this approach, as individuals may receive heavy sentences for relatively limited activity or involvement, but given the current threat picture, police and security services clearly feel a need to bolster their capabilities in this regard.

There are broader points to consider about the growth of these two threats. First, the rise of a more organised XRW is in many ways a reflection of the increased polarisation of political discourse in the UK. As far-right narratives increasingly creep into the mainstream conversation, the more extreme fringes become empowered, anticipating that the tide of debate is moving in their direction. Second, the problem of a more diffuse and complicated threat picture is not exclusively a problem with violent Islamists. Soon after the conclusion of these two terror trials, another member of NA, Jack Coulson, was sentenced to four years for downloading terrorist manuals. This was his second offence, with the first linked to building pipe bombs as a minor. There was little evidence provided that he coordinated his action with others in the NA group, illustrating how direction and coordination within the XRW is also quite loose.

Last year highlighted how the terrorist threat in the UK remains persistent and can abruptly catch security forces off guard. It may now be typified by more low-tech efforts using basic weaponry, but the ideological background has amplified and is only likely to become more complicated as time goes on. The new iteration of CONTEST reflects this threat picture, but it is important to consider how much the terrorist menace in the UK has evolved since CONTEST was first devised, and to raise the question of whether a more dramatic overhauling of the structure is required. The threat picture has progressed, from one characterised by an external threat touching the UK’s shores and using UK nationals, to one of homegrown actors focused on UK interests, to today’s threat picture driven by multiple ideologies with competing networks, and a broad footprint of isolated adherents conducting attacks without clear direction. Evidently, we are still at the stage of managing a threat rather than eradicating a problem, which is potentially all that will ever be achieved, emphasising the need to evaluate and adapt to a threat picture that does not stand still.

Raffaello Pantucci
Raffaello is the Director of International Security Studies at RUSI.

BANNER IMAGE: The April 2017 ‘London March Against Terrorism’ was organised by far-right groups Britain First and the English Defence League in response to the attack on Westminster that occured days before. Countering the threat of violent Islamists is a key rallying point for the British far-right. Courtesy of PA Images.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.

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

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

Thunderer

 the times

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another short piece for the Evening Standard this past week after the anniversary of the Westminster attack and also linking the general strategy of asymmetry done by terrorists to that being deployed by Russia.

A careful but firm response is the way to stop attackers

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It is a year to the day since the murderous terrorist rampage that killed four innocent bystanders and a brave police officer in Westminster. The news is now dominated by a different menace. The attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter (which caught another policeman in its wake) is different in origin but similar in intent. Both involve an attempt to undermine our society by striking at soft targets through violence. We need to be firm in our response, but not rise to the bait and do our enemies’ jobs for them.

Though it may not feel like it, our security services are strong: and those who try to attack us know it. They fear an overwhelming response were they to launch a full military attack and, in the case of terror, their efforts are defeated, though at a terrible human cost. They are weak. But they aim to exploit divisions in our society, and how we respond affects our success in defeating them.

Individual terrorist motives are hard to understand but the overarching point of attacks is to awaken us to conflicts that those involved believe are already happening. Adversaries are eager to try to pry apart our alliances and undermine faith in our security.

While it is impossible for us to stop people taking aim at us, we can make sure that we do not play into their hands by doing their jobs for them. Exaggerated rhetoric in response to risk is exactly what they want.

Both terrorism and Russia pose dangers. But these threats have to be managed, and not made worse, rather than eradicated. This is not an admission of defeat. We will have to sustain some relationship with Russia in the longer term, though Moscow is gearing towards continued confrontation. But there are others there who do want to engage with us and we need to find ways of strengthening our links with them.

Terrorism, unfortunately, is a constant within our societies, and one that will be made worse if we respond with rhetoric that talks up the divisions and strengthens the claims of extremist groups. They think they are fighting a religious clash of civilisations — if we respond in similar terms, we risk making the very case they are advancing.

A year on from the Westminster attack, it feels as though the terrorist threat has calmed down to some extent. After a terrible year, security agencies appear to have been successful and arrests and attacks has slowed.

It has become something of a cliché to talk about standing strong in the face of terrorism and praising British resolve. Yet this is the best response to attacks which, while hideously damaging to those caught in the crossfire, are not going to bring our societies crashing down — unless we do our adversaries’ jobs for them and inflame the very fissures they are trying to pull apart.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute.