Posts Tagged ‘UK terrorism’

Have a lot of catching up to do. Been dealing with a lot of late, so as ever slow here. First up, a brief note from last month for Prospect which sought to show the importance of Afghanistan to the story of British jihadism. Lots more stories like this in my first book, and more to come on the lone actor side of the problem.

The Britons who fought for the Taliban

Since 9/11, British citizens have continued to travel to Afghanistan to fight western forces. Now the Taliban are back in charge, the authorities fear more terrorist plots could be hatched in the country

By Raffaello Pantucci September 28, 2021

In 2018, Khalid Ali was convicted of planning a terrorist attack in London and of making bombs for the Taliban. Credit: Met Police handout

In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, Britons were shocked to discover that some of their own were fighting for the Taliban. Broadcasting to the world from a safehouse in Lahore, Hassan Butt, the British spokesman for radical group al-Muhajiroun, reported that a group of Britons had been executed by Northern Alliance fighters in Afghanistan for “being pro-Taliban.” Posing in front of shelves of books he had likely never read, Butt spoke with a Mancunian twang as he celebrated his fellow Britons’ deaths: “we’re very envious and we would like to be like them because to live and die and walk and talk Islam is every Muslim’s role in life.” As journalist Shiv Malik has revealed, Butt’s story later turned out to be more complicated than it first seemed. But it is true to say Butt and others like him exposed a reality that still haunts Britain.  

A number of Britons who were in Afghanistan after 9/11 ended up being sent to Guantanamo Bay, like the famous Tipton Taliban. The trio of West Midlanders claimed to have set off for a friend’s wedding in Pakistan and wandered into Afghanistan out of curiosity, only to get caught by the Northern Alliance. Their story was dramatised in a somewhat forgiving 2006 film called The Road to Guantanamo, which focused on their torture at the detention camp. The backstory they appear to have confessed to US interrogators (admittedly an account made under duress) showed, in contrast, a path peppered with extremist preachers, radical communities in northern England and a stop at al-Qaeda’s al-Faruq camp in Afghanistan. Though they were not convicted of anything on their return to the UK after being freed from Guantanamo, the group seemed to fit the profile of other Brits who did go to train and fight in Afghanistan. 

The US-led invasion did not seem to deter British nationals or residents from fighting alongside the Taliban—if anything, it encouraged some. RAF Nimrod operators regularly reported overhearing Taliban fighters in Helmand talking to each other with “broad Midlands and Yorkshire accents.” One Taliban corpse was reportedly found with an Aston Villa tattoo. In 2010, the Guardian interviewed an East London cabbie in Dhani-Ghorri, northern Afghanistan, who claimed to return to Afghanistan for a few months each year to fight western forces. In June 2011, Atiqullah Mangal died during a brazen attack on the Afghan Defence Ministry. Subsequent investigation revealed he had been radicalised in a British prison, where he was jailed for violent assault in Aston after being smuggled into the UK in 2001 from Afghanistan. Following deportation, he had joined the insurgency and recruited others.

In November 2012, a video emerged which included images of “Umar the British,” a Taliban fighter in Pakistan who was, reportedly, one of the planners of the 2009 attack on Camp Chapman in Afghanistan, which led to the deaths of seven CIA agents. In the video he spoke with a London accent. He is now believed to be a long-missing British jihadist from East London, who was reported to have been killed in a US drone strike in 2010.

While these worrying stories continued to appear over the years, the actual depth of support in the UK for the Taliban was never clear. The UK is home to a population of around 100,000 Pashtuns with ancestry in Pakistan, rather than Afghanistan. According to the ONS there were some 33,000 people in the UK from Afghanistan as of June 2020 (the number will have increased since then.) Support for the Taliban, however, tended to come from a wider pool than just the Pashtun or Afghan communities. 

Key to the connection is the Deobandi movement, a conservative religious strain that emerged in India in the late 19th century, that helped in part give birth to the Taliban. The Deobandi creed is followed by around half of the mosques in the UK. Aimen Dean, a former member of al-Qaeda who worked undercover for MI5 and MI6, told the BBC that “pre-9/11 there was no question that the Deobandis supported the Taliban of Afghanistan and the regime of Mullah Mohammed Omar to the hilt, because it was a purely Deobandi regime… even after 9/11 there were many mosques still stubborn in their support of the Taliban because of the Deobandi solidarity.” 

While it is unfair to tarnish all Deobandis with the Taliban brush, there is little doubt there are ideological crossovers. Writing in 1999, Taliban expert Ahmed Rashid described the group as having emerged from Deobandi madrassahs in Pakistan. As he put it in Foreign Affairs, “The Taliban’s anomalous interpretation of Islam emerged from an extreme and perverse interpretation of Deobandism, preached by Pakistani mullahs (clerics) in Afghan refugee camps.” Former Taliban leader Mullah Omar wrote to the sect’s leadership in Pakistan asking for guidance, though he does not seem to have gotten a direct response. 

It is hard to know in absolute terms how much Taliban support there is in the UK. And it is impossible to know with any certainty for how many people this translated into travelling to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban. But there have been a few other high-profile cases. Omar Khyam, the brains behind the 2004 fertiliser bomb plot, had been home to Afghanistan in 2001 and reported finding the Taliban highly hospitable. In 2006, Parviz Khan was arrested for plotting to kidnap a Muslim British soldier in Birmingham, and then planning to video his decapitation. He had previously been running a regular supply line for Taliban militants in Pakistan, sending money and equipment. He was jailed for life.

Taliban-linked plots have continued until relatively recently. In April 2017, police made a dramatic arrest in Whitehall of a smiling young man with three large knives suspected of planning an assault on police officers. Khalid Ali was a sometime plumber who disappeared from his home in Edmonton, north London, in 2011, only to reappear in 2016 at the British Consulate in Istanbul trying to get temporary travel documents to get home. When he landed back in the UK police found 42 matches with an FBI database of prints found on explosives in Afghanistan. Under questioning, he stated he was a Taliban soldier and that he had pressed the button detonating bombs in Afghanistan “more than 300 times.” On the stand later he changed his story, but his phones were not all recovered and the prosecution speculated that he appeared to be planning to launch his attack concurrent with the Taliban’s Spring offensive. He was convicted of planning a terror attack and making bombs for the Taliban, and jailed for 40 years.

The plot was a strange one that took place in a year in which the UK saw four successful violent Islamist plots and around a dozen disrupted ones. But it distinguished itself with its links to the Taliban and Afghanistan—in contrast to the Islamic State links that had by then become the norm.

This all returned to the headlines again after the recent fall of Kabul, when military intelligence sources leaked to the Sun that they had “received some intercepts of two British men, probably below 30, talking openly on mobiles… One had a London accent, what you might call a street accent.” This kind of intelligence leak about homegrown militants appears to be one British authorities enjoy doing—so the timing of its appearance now (in a tabloid) must of course raise eyebrows. But it is not surprising that British nationals might be fighting or be present in Afghanistan. 

Yet the bigger danger for the UK is the Pakistan connection. The 7th July, 2005 cell started off interested in jihad in Kashmir, only to get re-directed to train in Afghanistan where (after some time) they were directed by al-Qaeda to murder 52 Londoners.

While the danger from terrorist networks in Pakistan striking the UK appears to have reduced, extremism originating in Pakistan has grown in different ways in the UK. In February 2016, Jalal Uddin, a 71-year-old imam, was bludgeoned to death with a hammer by an extremist who then fled to Syria to join Islamic State. (Another man was found guilty in the UK.) Uddin was accused of spreading witchcraft through taweez faith healing and had stirred the anger of fundamentalists in Rochdale. A month later, a Bradford cabbie drove up to Glasgow and murdered Asad Shah, an Ahmadiyya shopkeeper who had posted videos online which the fundamentalist cabbie found blasphemous. 

The Ahmadiyya are a widely persecuted minority Muslim sect (in Pakistan they are officially considered non-Muslims). Numerous investigations by the BBC and others found cases around the UK of anti-Ahmadiyya sentiment or openly sectarian Pakistani groups in the UK. Even from jail Asad Shah’s killer has maintained his connection with extremists, finding ways of releasing audio recordings encouraging people to attend events linked to his sect in Pakistan. He has, in fact, become something of a folk hero amongst the Sufi Barelvi community in Kashmir.

The support network for such extremist sentiment in the UK is clearly already present. A stridently sectarian political organisation called Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) made an appearance in the streets outside the Pakistani High Commission in London in April 2021, protesting the government’s refusal to eject the French Ambassador in the wake of President Macron’s calls for new laws to control extremism after the murder of schoolteacher Samuel Paty. Notwithstanding being banned in Pakistan, the group appears an irritant that the authorities in the UK cannot dismiss.

Colonial history ties South Asia and the UK together in a way that is unique. It is a rich connection that generates a huge amount of good for both sides. Unfortunately, it also has a darker edge: for the UK a regular stream of support for the Taliban and associated extremist groups in Pakistan, as well as radicalised young men and terrorist plots. Now we have a Taliban government in power, some of the more covert aspects of this connection are likely to become more prominent. And as MI5 chief Ken McCallum put it recently, this time “we will have neither the advantages nor the risks of having our own forces on the ground.”

Another piece linked to the September 11 anniversary, this time another interview of the series that I have been doing for CTC Sentinel. There are a few more recent pieces to publish, and some bigger research pieces for CTC in the pipeline. The interview was done initially before the fall of Kabul and then we revisited some of the questions afterwards.

Twenty Years After 9/11: Reflections from Alex Younger, Former Chief of the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6)

Sir Alex Younger was a career intelligence officer in Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, for 30 years. He served in Europe, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. He was appointed as Director of Counter Terrorism in 2009, and as Chief from 2014 to 2020. Prior to SIS, he served in the British Army as an infantry officer.

Editor’s Note: The following is the transcript of an oral interview conducted ahead of the 20th anniversary of 9/11. It has been lightly edited by CTC Sentinel.

CTC: Take us back to 9/11. You were already working in SIS (the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6) at the time. How much of a shock was the attack to SIS and to U.K. intelligence more broadly?

Younger: Clearly, it was a shock, and it was designed to shock. Visually, it was an extraordinarily traumatic and shocking sight, and that was the point. The attack was designed to be the ultimate provocation, and that was the effect that it had. It also engendered huge uncertainty because at the time we had none of the knowledge we now have with hindsight, and it seemed eminently probable that this was the first of a number of such attacks. To this day, I am pleasantly surprised that it did not lead to a series of similar outrages. In fact, on that day, I remember thinking that the very building I was sitting in could be on the list. So it also had a very personal effect. And it was clear that it did change everything.

CTC: How did 9/11 change the work and thinking at SIS? Did change occur immediately after the attack itself, or did it take some time for it to filter through the organization?

Younger: No, it was pretty quick. I think if you looked at the situation on the day before September 11, by and large terrorism was still treated as a discrete set of regional but probably even national phenomena rather than something strategic. When you looked at our version of terrorism in the U.K., for example, it felt very different to what was being faced in France. By and large, it was our domestic colleagues [at MI5] who were in the lead on all of this in the U.K. International partnership was less important. Secondly, and this may have been a failure of imagination as much as anything else, people did not conceive of things going on in far off places, like in failed states like Afghanistan, as actively threatening their homelands. That connection wasn’t considered adequately. It was obviously there theoretically, but I do not think it was properly internalized.

Bear in mind that we, as the U.K., were somewhat ahead of the pack in many respects for the very sad reason that we had dealt with terrorism for decades generated by the IRA [Irish Republican Army]. That was a quintessential domestic, politically orientated problem—all the things that the attack of September 11 was not.

So the main changes were two-fold. One, a pretty instant ovenight understanding that what happened in Afghanistan obviously mattered to the security of our people, and that, of course, put my service properly into the fight. And then secondly, an understanding of the premium on partnership. We realized that, by and large, we all had the same problem and it was coming from similar places. The days where you could take a not-my-problem or, worse, beggar my neighbour approach to terrorism were well and truly over.

CTC: You are one of many SIS officers who served in Afghanistan. You’ve stated that after 9/11, you and your colleagues had a “profound impulse to step forward into the line of danger” and that you felt that your organization was “one of the few that could make a difference, faced with a wholly new, and open-ended, threat from international terrorism.”1 Talk us through the role SIS played in going after al-Qa`ida in Afghanistan and has played in detecting and [working to thwart] jihadi terrorist plotting around the world.

Younger: It’s an odd thing to say, but in some ways, we were the lucky ones; terrorist attacks are awful things, but we are in a position to do something about them. I think one of the most difficult experiences after something like 9/11 or 7/7 [the al-Qa`ida attack of July 2005 on London’s transport system] must have been a sense of helplessness in the face of this hidden menace, set against [the] very human wish and need to get involved and do something. In SIS, we had the privilege, if you can call it that, to be in a position to do something about attacks in however small a way. That also, of course, conferred a frightening responsibility, which I would not pretend was a light burden for anyone. Our mission intensified in this new and difficult context. But it was our traditional mission. Put simply, we discovered that groups of people in far-off lands, predominantly in failed states which constituted a permissive environment for terrorists, were organizing to kill our citizens. It was our job specifically to get inside those groups, to reveal what was going on, and to work in partnership to stop it—a task, albeit in different contexts, that is as old as SIS.

CTC: How shocking was it to discover that there were British nationals involved in these networks? The July 7 attacks of 2005 were the archetypal example of this link, but there were also many other plots, as well as Brits fighting with the Taliban when the Americans went into Afghanistan. How much did that particular community become a focus of work?

Younger: It was not a shock in the sense that we had already seen al-Qa`ida rather successfully—the ideology, that is—appear within communities that should otherwise call the United Kingdom home. People born here and who nonetheless conceive for various complex reasons to be in a state of war with their own country. So, it was not intellectually out of kilter, but speaking as a British citizen, someone who lives here and cherishes the values the U.K. espouses, it still remains a profoundly shocking fact. I am a huge beneficiary of all of the things that are good about this country, and I make it a principle of life to try to put myself in other people’s positions to try to understand their choices. But I nonetheless find it extraordinary that a country that has provided succor to people is turned upon in this way.

But what I think is not the important thing. The important thing is for us to properly understand the thought processes and conditions that lead to people making these choices. To deal with this problem in the longer term, we have to understand these underlying issues and deal with them. We in the CT [counterterrorism] community working in the Pursue strand of our strategya are not the solution here. What we are is the means for buying time and a way to suppress the problem, to provide space so that the political, psychological, social, and cultural aspects that lie at the heart of this problem can be fully addressed.

CTC: Beyond Afghanistan, were there any parts of the world SIS was particularly focused on when it was going after the threat?

Younger: I always thought we had two jobs. One was to join the community of nations in bearing down on the networked jihadi threat; be part of a networked solution to a networked threat. Additionally, I was very conscious of our need to play our part as a globally engaged power across the globe in dealing with these problems. Things that happened in far-off countries affected us and others. It was very difficult to isolate the terrorist problem to a specific geography, and it was our job to be making a contribution to counter the problem.

But I also felt that we are a medium-sized power, and it would be a huge mistake to set ourselves up as a global policeman. We are just not suited for that, and I do not think there is a particular appetite within the U.K. to play that role. It simply is not practical. So our priority needed to be to bear down on places and people that were generating a direct threat, either to the U.K. or to our citizens and allies. The most forbidding and essential aspect to a successful counterterrorism campaign is to prioritize. You naturally prioritize on the threats to the lives of our citizens and those of our allies. So that takes you to places where we have a contiguous geography in all senses of the word, not just physical but human and societal, and so in particular South Asia: India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Our links to that whole region are profoundly enriching for our country, but sadly, there is a negative aspect. These links are exploited by extremists.


CTC: How did SIS change its practices of working with other agencies and allies in the United States and elsewhere as a result of 9/11? What were the most significant changes you observed in its wake?

Younger: To extend my recipe about effective CT, I would say it is one percent inspiration and 99 percent teamwork. Suddenly, and bear in mind intelligence services are broadly configured around the need-to-know principle, counterterrorism forced us to rapidly shift to a dare-to-share principle. It became evident that the risks of not sharing frequently in counterterrorism were far more forbidding than the risks of sharing. It was a complete inversion of our normal paradigm.

We embarked—it has to be said, led by the United States—in an aggressive pursuit of effective partnership with the countries where the threat was coming from. Which, of course, immediately generated a set of really serious ethical and legal considerations because normally you are partnering with a country that’s very different from a prototypical Western liberal democracy, and this brings a whole set of challenges with it. And that was the thing that hit us pretty quickly. There was a lot that was familiar about the task, which for SIS since 1909 has been about finding out what is going on and doing something about it. But there is something about counterterrorism and the need to share to be effective, and the need to do something with what you find while remaining consistent with your laws and values, that brought with it a set of really new and very difficult disciplines into play almost overnight. That was tough because it was matched with the impulse I described in the speech you mentioned earlier, which is to do stuff. And our absolute impulse, which I’m still proud of, was to get out there and be shoulder to shoulder with the United States, which had suffered the most grievous attack.

CTC: 9/11 happened as we were on the cusp of the current information revolution. Al-Qa`ida was quite an early adopter of the internet. Could you talk us through the complexities of adopting to this new world and how it might have impacted intelligence collection and counterterrorism in particular?

Younger: I think it was most important on the CT capability side: information sharing, data discovery, recognizing that huge holdings of data would very rarely make any sense unless they were compared with other huge holdings of data. That was the really big issue and change. It was actually on our side of the fence rather than the terrorists’ where the data and technology was most important. When it comes to our adversaries, it is worth remembering this was 2002. The internet as a means of propagating ideas was still pretty nascent. You have to fast forward to Daesh [the Islamic State] before you get to the profoundly internet-enabled terrorist phenomenon that is such a major preoccupation today. And there wasn’t any cyber component to the threat; I think there were a couple of small attempts at cyber-terrorism, but I don’t think anyone seriously attempted that with any great effort or impact.

Predominantly for me, the bigger change was the astonishing revolution that took place in the latter part of my career where we had access to abundant information, technical data, and other things, and struggled to figure out how to manage and decipher it all. The real issue was, again ensuring it was done in a manner that was lawful and consistent with our values, using that information to get the right answer before terrorists acted.

CTC: With the Arab Spring and the death of Usama bin Ladin, there was a sense 10 years ago that the global jihadi terror threat was waning. But within just a few years, the Islamic State had taken control of vast swaths of Syria and Iraq and embarked on a global terror campaign. Was SIS surprised by the speed and extent of the rise of the Islamic State? What for you are the lessons learned for the future when it comes to identifying and confronting such gathering threats as early as possible?

Younger: I don’t think the phenomenon of Daesh itself was a surprise insofar as you could see in the situation in Iraq a sort of textbook environment for radicalization. The speed of it was absolutely a surprise, and the asymmetric success that Daesh enjoyed in 2014 was pretty stunning. I am sure you will remember those images. That was a shock. However, a significant galvanizing factor was quite particular to that time and place. Essentially, hardline elements of Saddam’s former intelligence apparatus rapidly changed sides and brought a pretty hardcore level of security expertise to what I think otherwise would have been quite a disparate insurgency. It was a really evil combination of a rapidly intensifying and mutating jihadist ideology galvanized in a pretty cynical way by a lot of former Soviet-trained Iraqi operatives. And that produced what we subsequently saw, which was an incredibly intractable and difficult security problem. Allied to this was the more modern phenomenon that we have just been talking about, which is their realization and capacity to conduct a digital campaign and propagate the jihadist single narrative in a far more sophisticated way than had been possible hitherto.

It was also profoundly worrying to see the caliphate set up as a working example of the jihadist ideology on earth, operating and to the extent that it did. And that success, while it lasted, pulled people in, which was a significant source of threat to us as those people were pulled from their host communities, including here in the U.K., and retained links back home alongside the capacity to use those links. I remember thinking at the time that this was an open-ended, toxic, and extraordinarily dangerous situation. One of the things I am most proud of is the role we played in removing the caliphate from Syria. It remains in many important ways an unfinished and very open situation, but if I cast my mind back to, say, 2014 and you had told me we would ultimately prevail over the caliphate, that would have been, in my mind, a very good outcome. Not least because specific British operators within Daesh were very prominent in the group’s campaign and a source of extreme national shame and embarrassment.

CTC: Could you tell us a bit more about the indicators you saw for the rise of the Islamic State? Looking at that experience, are there any other parts of the world where you could envision something similar happening?

Younger: I remember at the time being very concerned about the way that [Syrian leader Bashar al-] Assad was behaving towards his own people and the brutality he was meting out. I think this in large part was what would feed the Daesh phenomenon. But even with hindsight, we can’t beat ourselves up for failing to see the speed and scale with which it happened, because it is quite a dramatic butterfly effect, in the sense that small changes to the inputs made a large difference to the outputs. There were several different, unrelated factors that coincided to put Daesh’s development at the worse end of anybody’s expectations of what might happen. In large part, this surprise is why they were so militarily successful, because they were just moving so much faster than anyone’s understanding of the threat.

CTC: What is interesting looking back is that in the end, the United Kingdom did not face the same sort of threat as continental Europe from the Islamic State terrorist organization in Syria and Iraq. What plots we did see were of a much smaller magnitude than, for example, the November 2015 Paris attacks. It could be that you and your colleagues were just doing a fantastic job and that’s what kept the threat away, but I wonder was there anything else to it. Was there anything about the way the United Kingdom was connected to the battlefield that seemed different to the earlier wave of al-Qa`ida-linked threats from South Asia? Can you tell us why you think the United Kingdom did not end up with the same sort of threat?

Younger: Well, I think we had a head start in terms of doing counterterrorism for decades and learning some very hard lessons in part through mistakes. We learned early the importance of being joined up within our various security services, which placed us ahead of the pack. We therefore likely did pose a more difficult environment for terrorists to operate in than the average in Europe. But I would not want to exaggerate that lead. The reality is that we were all vulnerable and we all faced this phenomenon together.

Looking back, however, the role of charismatic and prominent individuals should not be underestimated, so part of the reason that brought the particular intensity of threat to both France and Belgium was that their nationals happened to be in influential and capable positions within the caliphate. And so in that sense, for them it was really a case of bad luck. But that’s how it was. And if you take that reality alongside the fact that those countries are not islands and that firearms are therefore more accessible than they are in the U.K., then you have some part of the answer to the question. We will not ever, of course, absolutely know the answer, but I would also highlight that European counterterrorism capabilities at that time were growing much more effective and continued to [do] so.

CTC: Twenty years on from 9/11, there is again this sense that the global jihadi threat is in retreat. What is your assessment? Have you been surprised by the growth of the Islamic State in Africa in particular? Where do you think we may see jihadi threats coming from next?

Younger: It is really difficult to speculate. Broadly speaking, I would say that the threat is less than it was, and I would link that to the successes we have had in terms of suppressing the networks in Syria and Afghanistan. This is combined with a much more effective counterterrorism machine across the technical, foreign, and domestic spaces that are much better integrated than they were. Our counterterrorism capability is an order of magnitude more effective and capable than it was in the past.

Set against this reality are two issues. One, as the Manchester attack illustrated,b a spontaneous, non-directed attack is just as devastating as networked plots. Terrorism is now more spontaneous and delegated, but that does not mean it is less dangerous, something the Manchester attack sadly showed. But terrorism of this sort is a different type of problem, and in some ways, it has now reverted to being much more conditioned or sensitive to the domestic conditions in the target country, rather than being primarily something that is directed from abroad (in the U.K. at least). It is still fundamentally underpinned by a single narrative, which is very effectively propagated online by groups like Daesh and al-Qa`ida.

Yet, at the same time, it is also at the moment pleasing to see that international terrorist networks, both al-Qa`ida and Daesh, are to some extent in abeyance because we have been successful against them. There is no real cause to pause and celebrate that fact because Africa and the Sahel are looking dangerous and difficult. In addition, there is, of course, Afghanistan.

CTC: MI5 Director General Ken McCallum recently warned that terrorists will seek to take advantage from the U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.2 In the wake of the fall of Kabul, how concerned are you by this, and what needs to be done to ensure that Western intelligence is best placed to detect and thwart any future international attack plotting from the country?

Younger: The sudden collapse of the Afghan government was brought on by [a] set of unforgivable unforced errors. Trump’s inexplicable decision to abandon any political conditionality in his withdrawal “negotiations,” his immoral pact with the Taliban that essentially made it OK to attack Afghans, if Americans were left alone, creating a dynamic that led directly to the collapse of the Afghan Army. And the Biden administration’s tactical missteps: the abrupt removal of all enablers, and the decision to do this in the middle of the fighting season. All without any meaningful allied consultation.

The consequences are [evident]: harrowing scenes at the airport; Afghans who chose to support us left behind; and the loved ones of our fallen soldiers asking what it was all for.

And they are strategic: this sends a damaging message. It is a humiliation for the “West” and represents encouragement for despots and autocrats everywhere who know they can simply wait for Western democratic resolve to weaken with the passage of time. I was in Afghanistan in the period after the Soviets left. Najibullah’s government proved to have far more staying power [than] the one we chose to underpin at vastly higher cost. What does that say?

Even in these circumstances, though, it is important to retain some balance. The idea that this somehow represents the end of American power is grossly overdone. When it comes to counterterrorism, we would be wise to remember that U.S. agencies, particularly the CIA, have been at the forefront of developing the most powerful global CT network ever known; there are people alive in all of our countries who would not be, were it not for their efforts. Their work, capability, and partnership will become more important, not less.

Most importantly, however crass U.S. policy might appear, it does represent a welcome if belated realization that there is rarely a pure military solution to a terrorist problem. The causes are ultimately political, and so must be the end game. It became obvious a number of years ago that nation building, Western style, was either wholly impracticable or beyond the resources allied nations were prepared to commit. A way had to be found to integrate politically the powerful Pashtun nationalist faction represented by the Taliban. But the leadership to do this, including in Afghanistan, was not there. I do believe that the comparatively light Western military presence could have been maintained much longer and used much more effectively as a bargaining chip. But it was not the solution.

What does this mean for the threat? That depends on what the Taliban do next. They have sought to project a reassuring message, but history teaches us to approach this with caution. We discussed earlier what it was like in 2001/2002: how stunning it was to discover the degree of terrorist infrastructure that existed in Afghanistan, specifically in the Tora Bora complex. There had been a wholesale state capture by al-Qa`ida of Afghanistan, to a degree that none of us could have really imagined. Right there you have a worked example of what happens when Afghanistan is left unsupported and to its own devices. The Taliban took over and were wholly permissive to al-Qa`ida, who, in turn, organized at almost military-scale capability to attack our countries. You have to ask yourself why that wouldn’t happen again, because obviously it could as it has happened before. There are a few factors that make the current situation different. Clearly the Taliban are not stupid and will have noticed what happens to them when they allow people to operate out of their territory in the manner that al-Qa`ida did before 2001. So while they might be conflicted, I imagine this will weigh on their considerations. Afghanistan itself is also a very different place and the population has very different expectations than they would have had in the 1990s. So not everything is the same, making a clean comparison complicated.

My main plea is that we remain engaged across the intelligence, defense, security, diplomatic, humanitarian piece. That’s much more difficult if you do not have a security or even diplomatic presence on the ground, but history shows us what happens when you turn your back on Afghanistan.

Above all, we need an approach by regional states that rises above their narrow struggle to assert sectoral interests that it has been Afghanistan’s tragedy to host.

CTC: With the U.S. and NATO militarily withdrawal from Afghanistan and the resulting Taliban takeover of the country, how do you think regional powers like China, Russia, Iran, and of course Pakistan will react going forward? What is their long-term view of Afghanistan and the terrorist threats there, and how do you think they will try to mitigate them?

Younger: I think this is a very good example of ‘be careful what you wish for.’ All of those powers in their different guises have been campaigning for NATO to leave for some time, and we are now where we are. They will undoubtedly enjoy the reputational damage that this causes the Western coalition, but beyond that, I cannot see how this is going to improve their security situation in any way. Most obviously, China has a border with Afghanistan. We do not have any physical border there. We are a long way away, and yet we have been the ones essentially being custodians of security. Clearly, there is going to be a lot of thought going on in Beijing about how what is now an open flank is going to be dealt with. There has been a lot of speculation about how Belt and Road [Initiative] can be used to exploit what at one level is a new opportunity in Afghanistan, but the reality is that this is a highly unstable and radicalized place that borders one of China’s most sensitive regions.

With Russia and Iran, it is a pretty similar story. With Pakistan, we have just seen exactly the successful, radicalized, Pashtun Islamist takeover [in Afghanistan], that much of their security apparatus has facilitated and worked for over years, seeing, as they did, a stable Afghanistan as a source of strength to India. Wiser heads have pointed out that Pakistan’s stability depends on successful control of its own radicalized Pashtun elements, a task that will be rendered close to impossible with a radicalized Islamist takeover of their western neighbor.

CTC: In this era of great power competition, there is concern that countries might start to use (or increase their use of) terrorist groups as proxies to strike against each other, especially in a situation with an asymmetrically powerful United States. How do you see this issue? To what degree might shifting prioritization away from counterterrorism to great power competition impact counterterrorism capability?

Younger: I think states and terrorism have always been intertwined to some degree because terrorism happens in geographies. You could also argue that the al-Qa`ida phenomenon distorted all of our longer-term security priorities, but most specifically those of the United States. When the history is written, you will probably see that the U.S. response to a rising China was more muted because it was prioritizing the terrorist threat posed by al-Qa`ida. I think we’re still a bit too close to that to be able to really judge this balance. But what is certain is that great power competition introduces a potential existential threat in a way that counterterrorism does not. What terrorism does, which is almost as difficult and certainly as pernicious, is undermine the social fabric of our countries. This is why governments take it so seriously and why there is so little tolerance of it. But clearly when it comes to conventional destructive power, an international conflict is a far more significant issue.

To look at the question of use of terrorist proxies: With the advent of hybrid warfare, states, and most prominently non-democratic states, have become adept at integrating all aspects of national power into their security toolkit. Relationships with militant groups can and have become another of those tools. You cannot rule out the possibility of these things being used to attack us. Look at the way Russia has used militant groups in the Ukraine.

CTC: The recent U.K. Integrated Review stated that “It is likely that a terrorist group will launch a successful CBRN attack by 2030.”3 According to a May 2021 report by an U.N. investigative team looking at Islamic State activity in Syria and Iraq, “evidence already secured indicates that ISIL tested biological and chemical agents and conducted experiments on prisoners as part of [a biological and chemicals weapons] programme, causing death.”4 Given the intelligence you saw come out of Syria and Iraq, how concerned are you about this threat vector?

Younger: These are difficult attacks to mount, so I would say they are unlikely, but they are very high impact. So it is a classic example of low-likelihood, high-impact threat, which is the sort of problem that is very difficult to deal with. That is, however, our life in the intelligence business. Particularly the issue of how you prioritize your effort against that specifically is hard. My way of getting out of that conundrum is to observe that, broadly speaking, it is the same individuals who are involved in the broad range of all terrorist activity. So insofar as your strategy needs to, and I believe it does need to, be focusing on key individuals and networks and key geographies, I do not think that this approach is invalidated by any expectation of the CBRN threat being more or less likely. You could, if it got sufficiently serious, take the completely opposite view and start going after it as a particular category of problem and look at it in those terms, but I think my advice would still, broadly speaking, be it is the same thing and the same people coming to attack us, just in a very wide variety of different ways, which will include CBRN. Clearly, they are hankering after the most spectacular impact they possibly can achieve.

CTC: In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been renewed concern that terrorists or other bad actors could obtain or engineer and then deploy a more dangerous virus than even SARS-CoV-2. As the 2018 U.S. Strategy for Countering WMD Terrorism noted, “advances in biotechnology could theoretically allow even a single individual working in a laboratory to engineer pathogens that could have catastrophic effects.”5 What is your assessment of the biological threat landscape and what role can intelligence agencies play in preventing an engineered pandemic from materializing?

Younger: Clearly you have got a worked example in front of us. I have no idea if terrorist leaders noticed and wanted to do something similar, but I would be very surprised if that thought has not occurred to them. I would have thought, though, that the same logic applied as we were just discussing about CBRN threats more broadly. Having said that, we clearly do not want to suffer from a lack of imagination about what might happen, as arguably was the case before 9/11. We need to conceive that something like that could happen, but sadly, that is all too easy to do. I hope that as our intelligence services are collecting throughout the world, they are staying highly sensitized to this possibility, but what the signatures of that activity would be and if they would essentially be different to all the stuff that we ordinary do, I do not know.

CTC: In the wake of the events of January 6, there has been growing concern around the world about the threat posed by far-right extremism and its increasing transnational interconnectivity. According to MI5 Director General McCallum, “Of the 29 late-stage attack plots disrupted [in the United Kingdom] over the last four years, fully 10 have been Extreme Right Wing.”6 To what extent has going after violent extreme far-right networks been a priority for SIS, and do you think it will be a priority in the future?

Younger: I think it is incredibly serious. The concerns I have about terrorism writ large, but hitherto Islamist terrorism, are the effect that they have in degrading trust between citizens. It is trust that underpins our democracy and our social cohesion. So it is nothing to be taken lightly. In some ways, maybe the rising extreme right is the reaction that terrorists have sought to precipitate, but I actually think it is much broader than that and a function of a whole set of phenomena that we see in the modern age—most specifically, the internet.

The extreme right would become an issue for people like me while I was working for SIS if it was predominantly organized overseas and was done in an organized way, and unless those two facts are true, frankly there is not a lot we can bring to the party. My view is that it probably is not the situation at the moment. So in that sense, and you will have heard it from what Ken said, it remains a really significant and rising domestic preoccupation.

CTC: The lack of much external direction and links makes it less of a focus and role for SIS?

Younger: Were we to see a replica of the scenario we saw in 2001, when a group of terrorists that were organizing in a failed state, successfully radicalizing people within the U.K. to carry out attacks here, that would change things undoubtedly and bring it front and center for SIS. But that’s not how I would characterize it at the moment. There have been some individuals going to foreign battlefields like Ukraine, and we saw the same thing happen with elements of the Yugoslavia civil war. I am not ruling it out as a possibility, but I do not think at the moment we see that.     CTC

Substantive Notes
[a] Editor’s Note: The United Kingdom’s counterterrorism strategy (called Contest) has four pillars:
Prevent: to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism
Pursue: to stop terrorist attacks
Protect: to strengthen protection against a terrorist attack
Prepare: to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack

[b] Editor’s Note: On May 22, 2017, 22 people were murdered when Salman Abedi detonated a bomb in a crowd leaving a music concert at Manchester Arena. “Manchester attack: Who were the victims?” BBC, June 17, 2021.

Citations
[1] Alex Younger, “MI6 ‘C’ speech on fourth generation espionage,” U.K. Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Secret Intelligence Service, December 3, 2018.

[2] “Director General Ken McCallum gives annual threat update 2021,” MI5, July 14, 2021.

[3] “Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy,” Cabinet Office, updated July 2, 2021.

[4] “Sixth report of the Special Adviser and Head of the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant,” United Nations Security Council, May 3, 2021, p. 9.

[5] “U.S. National Strategy for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism,” December 2018, p. 1.

[6] “Director General Ken McCallum gives annual threat update 2021.”

A new piece which I recognize has a certain level of irony imbued within it – making the point that an extremist leader is best starved of the oxygen of publicity by writing about him in a national newspaper. But still, it felt a significant point to make. I noted during his press conference announcing the end of his restrictions apparently someone walked past and shouted at him. As quoted in the Telegraph, “one passerby, of South Asian origin, shouted: “You don’t speak for us”.” So maybe he is finally on his way out. But I suspect this is not the last we have heard from Anjem Choudary I am afraid. In any case, here is my short comment for the Times Red Box column.

How do we silence Anjem Choudary? Start by switching off the microphone

David Rose for The Telegraph


As the rest of the UK celebrated the end of Covid restrictions, Anjem Choudary celebrated his return to free speech. Having been jailed for inviting people to support Islamic State, he was freed in 2018 and had been living under restrictive licence conditions until now.

But being able to speak is not the same as a return to influence. This is not something that will be entirely determined by the restrictions he is living under. The real determinant is the degree to which he is welcomed back into the public debate as a figure representing a part of society.

This is something we can all determine around him and something he will struggle to control.

There is no denying the damage his organisation, al Muhajiroun, has done. The last two violent Islamist terrorist attacks in this country to kill innocent people were conducted by individuals that had some contact with the organisation.

This is the latest chapter in an almost three-decade history for the group. Go back to before September 11, 2001 and the group and its people are a regular feature of most terrorist investigations.

Yet it is also the case that it is not clear how much the organisation has managed to grow and develop further in the past few years. Choudary was the most prominent leader of an organisation that struggles to mobilise in the same way as it used to.

One of its more prominent remaining leaders, Shakil Chopra, was jailed a couple of weeks ago for sharing extremist videos. Others are living under restrictive conditions that are designed to consume their time and constrain their ability to meet with others or radicalise further.

Of course no system is perfect, but these restrictive measures do have a corrosive effect on capability.

It has been some time since we have seen a large-scale terrorist plot prosecuted in our courts of a scale comparable to those that were being disrupted in the mid-2000s when al Qaeda used a pipeline of followers that al Muhajiroun had helped build to direct a series of attacks towards the UK.

Rather we have seen atrocities that have been sporadic and occasional with no clarity about the role of terrorist groups or al Muhajiroun. It is not clear how many new followers the group is generating in the same way as it did before.

Security services continue to worry about violent Islamists, but it is not clear how much of this threat is still linked to al Muhajiroun in the same way as before.

The residual parts of the network continue to exist, but are under continual scrutiny. Choudary’s release provides a moment at which it could try to regenerate, but he will be watched closely and will struggle to mobilise people in the same way as before.

And anyway, in some ways the world has moved on. Al Muhajiroun’s narrative does not work in the same way as it used to. They used to shout about an Islamic State — it was built by Isis and there was considerable criticism for those in the organisation who did not go and join it.

Those being drawn towards extremist narratives today have not always heard of Choudary in the same way. Some in extremist communities ridicule his ilk as “microphone jihadis” who are all talk.

A key to him not getting back to the position he was in before is to starve him of his microphone and ensure that he is not the dominating news figure that he was. While this will not get rid of him, it will reduce his attractiveness.

His provocative interviews would draw people to him and create an aura of influence and power, which he was adept at manipulating to open up people to ideas that in some cases would lead them down a path towards violence.

There is of course a certain irony in writing this in an article about him for a major national website, but it is worth stating nonetheless: starving Anjem Choudary of his microphone will reduce his power and influence. Without it, he will simply become another aging ideologue whose followers are jailed, dead or drifting away.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at Royal United Services Institute

My final piece in this most recent blast, this time for my London base RUSI looking at UK terrorist threats and matching up what the UK threat picture looks like with the growing focus the UK is placing on counter-terrorism deployments in parts of Africa. The point was really to raise questions about whether these deployments are going in the right places. Am aware the balance is always a complicated one between threats, capabilities and cost, but it does seem an odd set of choices to make at the moment. I think this is a set of questions I want to explore in more detail going forwards, but at the moment a bit overcommitted with other pieces which should be landing over the next few months.

One Down, Many More Challenges: The UK and Threats of African Terrorism

The UK is shifting its counterterrorism capability to Africa. Yet while the threat picture in Africa appears to be worsening, it remains unclear how outwardly menacing it actually is. The key question Whitehall needs to ask is whether the new deployments to Mali and Somalia appropriately reflect the global terrorist threat picture the UK faces.

For the ninth or tenth time, the leader of the Boko Haram terrorist group, Abubakar Shekau, has been reported killed. His death comes at a moment of growing attention towards terrorism in Africa. While last year saw a broader fall in terrorist violence around the world, in Africa it actually rose.

All of this comes as the UK appears to be increasing its counterterrorism focus on the continent. The prime minister has announced a deployment to Somalia to help address terrorist threats there, and the UK’s force in Mali has started to conduct operations on the ground. This suggests a shift in where the UK judges its main foreign terrorist threats to be coming from, as it follows the US out of the door in Afghanistan. The key question is whether this accurately reflects the threat picture to the UK and its interests.

Ironically enough, having been the target of authorities for many years, Shekau’s ultimate demise is reported to have come at his own hand while fighting the local Islamic State affiliate. An exceptionally violent man, Shekau led a brutal fighting force whose indiscriminate violence was considered too much even for Islamic State, leading to infighting among the jihadist groups on the ground. During his final stand, reports on the ground suggest that large numbers of his followers joined Islamic State rather than fight alongside him.

The death of terrorist leaders can often lead to fragmentation and greater levels of violence. However, Shekau’s death may actually accelerate a process of unification among the various violent groups in Nigeria under the Islamic State banner. This in turn could make the specific threat from Islamic State in the region worse.

What is less likely is that his death will particularly change the threat picture to the UK. As a global power with interests across Africa, the UK has an interest in stability in the region. But when looking at this region through a rigid counterterrorism lens, the threat appears far more local than international. And this is where questions might be asked about the current UK deployments to Mali and Somalia.

The threat picture in Somalia is one that has had direct links to the UK. We have just marked the eight-year anniversary of the death of Fusilier Lee Rigby. His murder was undertaken by individuals with links to terrorist networks in Somalia and their allies across the Gulf on the Arabian Peninsula. The current leader of Islamic State in Somalia is a former longstanding UK resident. There are fewer links to Mali, and no active plots that have been uncovered. Moreover, it has been a while since an active plot was prosecuted in the UK that had links to Somalia. Terrorism with links to networks in Africa that has affected the UK has tended to be connected to Libya – as we are discovering in some detail through the Manchester Arena bombing inquiry – as well as Tunisia, where some 30 UK holidaymakers were massacred in 2015.

There is no doubt that terrorist groups in Africa do have some connections to international networks, but they are not necessarily all connected in the same way. Nor is it entirely clear that they are all a threat to the UK or its interests equally – or that they pose the same level of menace as the groups that will continue to exist in Afghanistan.

While the UK has not seen a terrorist plot with direct links to South Asia for some time, a court in Germany is currently trying a network of Tajiks who are alleged to have been directed in part by Islamic State in Afghanistan. And the UK’s deep human connections with South Asia will always ensure that some echoes of tensions there will be felt in the UK.

But the UK is following the US’s decision on Afghanistan, and while some residual UK force will likely remain to support the more limited NATO mission on the ground, this is clearly not going to be a UK military focus. The key question, then, is whether the new UK mini-deployments to Africa are being targeted in the right places, and whether they are large enough to actually effect some change on the ground. So far, the reported numbers in both Somalia and Mali are in the low hundreds – certainly not enough to overturn longstanding jihadist threats or insurgencies that have been going on in some cases for generations.

This suggests the deployments are more demonstrative or focused on supporting limited kinetic counterterrorism goals rather than the long-term efforts that are needed to materially change the situation on the ground. This in turn highlights how the core of the UK’s security approach towards Africa in this regard still relies heavily on local forces.

Yet this has repeatedly been shown to be a fragile policy. One need only look at the fact that, at the same time as Shekau was dying fighting Islamic State, the Nigerian Army Chief died in a helicopter crash – or that just a month earlier, Chadian President Idriss Déby died fighting insurgents in his country – in order to see how fleeting African security arrangements can be. And this is before one factors in the latest coup d’état in Mali.

There is a growing terrorist threat in Africa. As the coronavirus pandemic afflicted the world last year, Africa was among the only places where violence associated with terrorist groups went up. And events in Mozambique earlier this year highlighted what a terrorist crisis in Africa could look like at its worst. Shekau’s death is likely to precipitate more violence in Nigeria. But it is not clear what kind of an outward-facing aspect these threats currently have.

By deploying small numbers of troops to Mali and Somalia, the UK is playing its part in tackling the broader regional issue. But the problems around terrorism in Africa are infinitely more complicated than these deployments suggest, and come at the same time as cuts in aid budgets to the same regions. If this light footprint reflects the fact that the threat picture to the UK is seen as limited, then questions should be asked as to whether scarce resources are being deployed optimally. The potential terrorist threat to the UK is still more likely to emanate from Libya, the Middle East or South Asia.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: UK forces in Mali. Courtesy of Ministry of Defence/OGLv3.0

Back on my one of my more traditional topics which has become a lot less newsworthy of late in a new short piece for UK’s The Times Red Box about the never ending Shamima Begum case. Am sure this is not the last we will hear of this case, and my sense is that the subsequent problems that might emerge from the case are only likely to get longer the more she is left out in Syria. Hard to see how this is going to end well sadly.

Ignoring UK terrorists like Shamima Begum is not the answer

As she has for almost three years, Shamima Begum continues to sit in a dusty camp in Syria waiting for some resolution to her stage in life. Having made a catastrophically bad decision at 15, she is bound in a limbo to which there likely seems no end. The problems around her case, however, have not been resolved by the Supreme Court’s decision that simply prolongs her stasis.

There are numerous questions around her case, but three in particular distinguish themselves as needing immediate attention. First is the problem of her age. When she ran away to Syria at 15, she was committing a criminal terrorist act at an age younger than an anonymous Cornwall boy who pleaded guilty a few weeks ago to being a key UK figure of the online extreme right-wing group Feuerkrieg Division.

As a key organiser for the group online, he helped recruit others, vet members, and pushed followers online to move forwards to committing online acts of terrorism. Having pleaded guilty, he was given a two-year youth rehabilitation order, while a 17-year-old he had recruited and stirred into action was given a five-year custodial sentence for planning a terrorist attack.

It is difficult to compare the cases of course in part as we do not know what Begum did while she was in Syria. However, it does seem odd that our criminal justice system is able to handle teenage terrorists with relatively light custodial sentences while this young woman who started down a path when younger than them is on the receiving end of a literal life sentence.

We seem able to handle murderers, rapists, and other serious criminals through our ordinary criminal justice system, but we are incapable of managing a fanatical young woman.

Putting this to one side, it is also important to realise how utterly porous and unstable the situation in which Begum finds herself is. The camps in Syria are managed by a Kurdish fighting group that is ill-suited to keeping them and is far more pre-occupied with its own survival than the fate of those sitting in the camps. From their perspective, the foreigners are useful in that they keep the world’s attention on them, but they do not much care what actually happens to them.

The result has been regular escapes and clear evidence of support from networks back in the homes where they came from. In February, Turkish authorities detained French, Russian and New Zealand Isis women who had managed to sneak out of Syria. Investigations by UK newspapers have shown how online funding networks exist with links to the UK to raise money to help Isis women in these camps.

The point is that as static as the camps are, the people within them are not. This means that the method of simply leaving people over there and hoping the problem will go away is not an answer. And far more dangerous than leaving them in the camp is the prospect of them escaping unfettered and unobserved.

There is a final American angle to this dilemma. While President Biden is doubtless going to be focused on other things for the time being, it is a source of continued irritation in Washington that Europe has not found a way of managing its nationals in these camps.

While under Trump this complaint joined a long list of irritants with an administration that most wanted to try to avoid having to deal with, under Biden, the question will become more pressing and harder to ignore. Europeans spent a lot of time telling Washington off for Guantanamo Bay. How long before some in Washington start to draw similar comparisons?

There is no doubt that managing the return of Begum and the many others who joined Isis will be complicated. But the answer to this problem is to deal with it head on and on a case by case basis, rather than uniformly strip passports and dump on someone else people who are British responsibilities. Doubtless some of these individuals are hardened and irredeemable criminals who should serve long sentences for their crimes, but it is equally likely that some may be people who can be rehabilitated after some punishment. In this way they are similar to the many of thousands of others who have been through the British criminal justice system.

The answer to terrorism is to treat it like an ordinary criminal act rather than an extraordinary behaviour. We seem able to do that with teenage terrorists at home, it is not clear why we cannot with Begum.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute

Happy holidays to everyone out there who is celebrating! Have a few pieces that have landed during this period and will post them over the next few days. A few longer pieces due out in January which with hope will set the pace for what will be a busy and interesting year. As ever, appreciate comments, criticisms, or whatever else you feel the need to share (though abuse is never particularly pleasant). This is a short policy recommendation piece for RUSI in London which joins the flood of material being pumped in the general direction of the incoming administration in Washington, this time focusing on the extreme right wing.

Cooperating in Tackling Extreme Right-Wing Ideologies and Terrorism

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary, 18 December 2020
United StatesTackling ExtremismUKTerrorism

Europe and the Biden administration in the US should be ready to expand their cooperation on combating right-wing violent movements.

Recent international counterterrorism cooperation has for the most part focused on dealing with threats from violent Islamist groups such as the Islamic State or Al-Qa’ida. And this will likely remain a priority for security officials on both sides of the Atlantic. Looking forward, however, the transatlantic alliance should focus in a more considered way on the growing menace from the extreme right wing. This threat has been rising on both sides of the Atlantic for the past few years, has growing international connections and is a problem which was difficult to address during the Trump administration, as the president often appeared to prevaricate on far-right extremist activity in the US and re-tweeted Britain First (a UK extreme right group) material. Focusing on it in a Biden administration would provide an excellent springboard into cooperation in an area of clear joint concern and help to strengthen security bonds that may have weakened during the turbulent Trump years.

Different Roots

The roots of extreme right-wing ideologies in Europe and North America are traditionally different. The extreme right in the US is a mix of classic white supremacists and neo-Nazis, alongside survivalists and extreme libertarians with a deep resentment directed towards the Federal government. In Europe, the movement is characterised by deep xenophobia and anti-immigrant feeling, which has most recently coalesced around the idea of Muslim ‘hordes’ replacing settled European white communities. The exact interpretation of this supposedly apocalyptic shift varies depending on where you are in Europe. The modern extreme right (reflecting a pattern visible across extremist ideologies – from the far left, to violent Islamists, and others, ideologies are increasingly fusions which draw on multiple different sources) is a confusing kaleidoscope of ideas, including anti-globalists, misogynists, societal rejectionists, and conspiracy theorists. Yet what broadly unifies the extreme right on both sides of the Atlantic is a sense that their supposed (and often racially defined) ‘supremacy’ in their country is being challenged.

This is reflected in an increasingly shared ideology, networks and activity across the Atlantic and around Europe. The UK has already seen extreme right-wing incidents with links to Poland and Ukraine, while some Americans (as well as numerous individuals from around Europe) have gone and fought in Ukraine. Imagery, ideas and texts are widely shared on chat groups that are run from around Europe or the US with members from across the transatlantic community and beyond. Groups like The Base or the Order of the Nine Angels cast a net with members across Europe and North America, online groups like Feuerkrieg or Atomwaffen Division boast members around the world. Meanwhile, organisations like the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) have provided physical training camps for extreme right adherents from across Europe and even North America.

Links to Russia

The repeated appearance of links to Russia are a notable feature of the growing contemporary extreme right wing. Earlier this year the US proscribed the RIM for its links to active terrorist networks, while the leader of The Base is reportedly an American living in St Petersburg. And the number of foreigners that went to fight in Ukraine provides another point of connection with Russian-supported groups on the ground. Exact numbers and volume of flow are unclear, but the expulsion from Ukraine in October of two American members of Atomwaffen Division shows it is ongoing. Finally, Russian interference campaigns have regularly focused on seeking to exacerbate societal tensions in the West – including focusing on racial tensions, feeding an underlying rhetoric that sustains the extreme right wing.

Transatlantic Cooperation

All of this points to a common problem that would benefit from greater transatlantic cooperation. Furthermore, the shared networks and ideologies and the implications of the links to Russia add a further dimension to the already challenging relationship with Moscow.

This aspect in particular is something that a Biden administration will find easier to address than a Trump one. President Trump’s hesitant relationship towards Russia, his retweeting of UK far right ideologues’ material, and his refusal during presidential debates (and before) to bluntly condemn white supremacist groups and, when pressured, his ambivalent corrections, made him an awkward partner in such a fight.

However, his departure from office will not address the broader issue of ideological overlap between the extreme right and narratives that are often raised by mainstream politicians in both Europe and North America. In some parts of Europe, for example, the anti-immigrant rhetoric used by mainstream politicians is not far off the same narratives advanced by extreme right groups in others. This ideological overspill is visible in other ways as well. Both the UK and Germany, for instance, have recently undertaken major investigations after uncovering adherents of extreme right ideologies within the ranks of their security forces.

None of this will be easy to unpick, but it is clearly a subject of growing importance on both sides of the Atlantic which should provide a basis for closer security cooperation. The growing networking of the different parts of the movement and individuals across the Atlantic provides a direct point of engagement for intelligence and security officials at every level, while the links to Russia tie into a broader threat narrative of confrontation with state actors.

Finally, the larger problem of trying to deal with the overlap between the extreme right, far right and mainstream politics is going to be very difficult to address. Managing rhetoric in this space will immediately start to tread on issues of freedom of speech. The issues and where the ideological bleed takes place, are clearly different on both sides of the Atlantic, but the complex mix of legislation and enforcement that will be needed to deal with it would benefit from transatlantic coordination and engagement. Disrupting these networks provides a platform to rebuild a transatlantic security relationship and reverse some of the damage of the Trump years.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: A neo-nazi rally. Courtesy of ARNO BURGI/DPA/PA Images

Have not posted for a while. Delivered a book project which should ultimately emerge sometime next year, which kept me busy. But have been writing, including this piece for Prospect magazine in the UK on the fifteen year anniversary of the July 7, 2005 bombing which was the big lynchpin event of my earlier book.

Also have numerous projects in motion at the moment pulling me in lots of directions at the same time. Going to do a media catch up in the next post, but for the time being here is a video of a webinar with my Singaporean hosts RSIS looking at the evolution of the UK threat picture.

 

 

Fifteen years on from 7/7, terrorism has changed but the jihadist threat persists

Ideologies have fragmented and dangers become more difficult to track
by Raffaello Pantucci / July 7, 2020

Court artist sketch by Elizabeth Cook of Safiyya Amira Shaikh, 37, of Hayes, West London, who pleaded guilty to preparation of terrorist acts Picture: Elizabeth Cook/PA Wire/PA Images:
Court artist sketch of Safiyya Amira Shaikh, 37, of Hayes, West London, who pleaded guilty to preparation of terrorist acts Picture: Elizabeth Cook/PA Wire/PA Images

It often feels like we have moved into a new era of terrorist threats. Gone are the days when we faced large organised plots involving networks linking the UK to dark corners of faraway lands: now terrorist attacks are made up of random mass stabbings in public places like the attack near London Bridge in 2017. The terrorists being processed through our courts are former drug addicts with troubled pasts, like convert Safiyya Shaikh who was jailed recently for plotting to blow up St Paul’s.

At the ideological end it is equally confusing, with violent Islamists seemingly replaced by a gaggle of extreme right wingers, involuntary celibates (Incels) and individuals whose ideological leaning is so confused the Home Office brackets them together as “mixed, unstable or unclear.” Yet there is more consistency than you might expect. Terrorist threats come in ebbs and flows, sometimes receding but rarely disappearing. Instead, they tend to morph and create new problems. What is constant, however, is our inability to learn from the mistakes of the past.

The most talked about threat on the rise is the extreme right wing. But it is not clear how much of a threat it actually poses. Prior to the 7th July bombings 15 years ago, the most lethal non-Irish related terrorist attack the UK had faced was David Copeland’s one-man bombing campaign targeting London’s minority communities in 1999. Leaving devices in locations targeting London’s black, South Asian and gay communities, his homemade bombs murdered three and injured 140. While Copeland seemed to plan and execute his campaign by himself, he was part of the extreme right in the UK (albeit on the fringes), and a former member of the British National Party, the National Socialist Movement and even the neo-Nazi Combat 18 group.

For years the extreme right was largely the remit of the police, but in the late 1990s it was also coming into MI5’s crosshairs. As Jonathan Evans, a former director-general of MI5, told me earlier this year: “the service worked closely with police to undertake some disruptions in the late 1990s of Combat 18 associated individuals who were consorting with people of a similar cast of mind in eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc. These groups had explicitly decided that terrorism was part of the way forward in order to try to destabilise what they characterised as the Zionist Organised Government (ZOG).” The attacks were disrupted, and soon after MI5 ended up getting almost completely overwhelmed focusing on the violent Islamist terror threat that erupted so violently in 2001.

But the extreme right never went away, and in some ways went mainstream with a rise in far-right parties across Europe. At the terrorist end of the scale, throughout the 2000s police were disrupting extreme right-wing plots. While the majority were fairly shambolic, some more organised ones would occasionally emerge. The Aryan Strike Force (ASF) was a group built around a father and son core who were bent on race war, were running training camps in Cumbria and managed to make enough ricin to kill nine people. But for the most part, they were, as Evans put it to me, “zoological” curiosities who were distinguishing mostly in their oddness.

The emergence of the English Defence League (EDL) and subsequently National Action (NA) changed the picture. From being a scattered group of individuals who were as likely to be involved in child pornography as they were extreme right-wing terrorism, these two groups instead spoke to something more organised coming together. It was also confusing ideologically, with both groups quite explicitly reacting against the violent Islamist groups that dominated public attention, yet also clearly using their tactics and language. National Action speaks of launching a “white jihad” while the EDL was born in reaction to now banned Islamist group Al Muhajiroun’s presence in Luton. And while there is a clear white supremacist tone to both groups, the EDL promoted non-white members.

More explicitly, political far-right group Britain First provided another wrinkle within this fabric, espousing a white supremacist ideology using Christian iconography. There is a palpable religious overtone to their narratives which feels more reminiscent of the violent Islamist threat that brought together religion and totalitarian views about society. This mix of ideas helped give them a strong base of support in parts of eastern Europe.

This confusing ideological background has been matched by the emergence of online ideologies drawing on fears of the “Great Replacement” of white communities. This has become the backdrop against which a whole range of ideologies have developed, spinning the extreme right in numerous different directions: ideas like the Incels movement, made up of young men who feel themselves rejected sexually. The QAnon movement, which has not only appeared at Trump rallies but now also appears to have three adherents among American congressional candidates, is made up of conspiracy theorists drawing on the vast information pool now available online to concoct narratives about controlling deep states, the dangers of 5G technology and stories of powerful paedophiles. And in one of the stranger threats to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, a growth in groups fearing the increased role of the state. Groups like the Sovereign Citizen movement have become more influential as some fear the virus response is simply an excuse to expand the power of the state to ultimately oppress them.

But notwithstanding this increasingly baffling threat picture, it has still not eclipsed the violent Islamist threat in the UK. In a recent interview, the UK’s top counter-terrorism police officer Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said that the extreme right wing took up about 10 per cent of his officers’ time. While it is, as he put it, the “fastest-growing” aspect of the threat picture, and cases have managed to rise to the very top of the terrorist “matrix” that MI5 uses to prioritise its threat picture, it is not the majority yet. The biggest threats continue to come from those inspired or linked to groups like al-Qaeda or Islamic State (IS).

This is something you hear consistently from security officials. Yes, the extreme right is a growing concern, but the violent Islamist threat persists and there is little evidence that the pool of problems that created it have gone away. They point to foreign battlefields like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq or parts of north, west or east Africa, where al-Qaeda- and IS-linked groups continue to thrive. These are the sorts of environments that produced the 7/7 attacks. Just last month, security officials in Germany disrupted a plot in which a group of Tajiks stand accused of being directed by IS networks in Syria and Afghanistan to launch an attack in Europe.

In the UK it has been a while since we have had a major public disruption like this. Instead, incidents like last year’s attack at Fishmongers’ Hall or the attempted stabbing in Streatham—when a recently released terrorist convict launched a one-man attack—are the norm. In these and other more recent cases still winding their way through the courts, isolated individuals, sometimes with links to violent Islamist networks, and usually with histories that have brought them to MI5’s attention at some point, launch one-man campaigns with no outside direction and weapons such as knives found in every household. A growing proportion of them have serious mental health or social problems, making them deeply volatile and unpredictable people. This makes them almost impossible to stop, but nevertheless results in a vast outpouring of noise from politicians and the public demanding that something must be done.

It is never a good idea to legislate in the immediate wake of a disaster. Objectivity will go out of the window, leading to ill-considered choices. We saw this in the wake of the 7/7 attacks—when the shock to the country led to a surge in focus and attention on the UK’s Muslim community. Politicians’ rhetoric sharpened, demanding they “do something.” A money spigot was opened which gave the security services more resources to manage the problem—including developing community profiling tools like Project Rich Picture, which aimed to develop a detailed understanding of the UK’s Muslim community, identifying them as the source of the threat. Self-appointed leaders (or “professional Muslims” as one colleague once sarcastically put it) popped up everywhere speaking for no one but themselves, but nevertheless able to garner grants from the government to bolster their so-called community work. Some did positive work. Others it was less clear.

All this did little to improve Muslim community relations and instead created a sense among many Muslims that they were being unfairly targeted. Paradoxically, it also created animosity among white communities who were angered by the austerity and economic marginalisation they were facing in contrast to this visible push in support to Muslim communities. We have not seen a similar outpouring of money or attention towards deprived white communities in the wake of the growing rise of the extreme right.

A decade and a half since July 2005, we seem not to have learned some of these lessons. Politicians appear unwilling to acknowledge that part of the problem of the resurgent extreme right is a product of the racially-tinged politics that have been stoked by mainstream voices in the past few years, while the growing presence of seriously troubled individuals at the sharp end of the terror threat as lone actors reflects years of under-investment in mental health services, probation and social services. The recently convicted Safiyya Shaikh, formerly Michelle Ramsden, in some ways fits this mould perfectly—a deeply troubled woman whose online life developed into her becoming a webmaster and coordinator for IS-supporting groups and plots across Europe.

We have gone from networks directing plots against our public transport to lone actors lashing out at people going about their daily lives. The underlying ideologies remain the same, though their expression has become more confusing. In many ways little has changed except for the volume of people affected and our security services’ capability to manage terrorist threats (one of the biggest reasons why we have not seen anything larger than a lone actor attack in a while). But our politicians seem unable to grasp the difficult nettles that are required to deal with these issues in a sophisticated fashion. Either we learn to live with the problem or focus on the real underlying issues.

 

Another post for the lovely folk at GNET, who also recently appointed me one of their many Associate Fellows. It is a pen portrait of L Jinny or Abdul-Majed Abdul Bary, the former rapper and hacktivist who has now ended up arrested in Spain after sneaking out of ISIS-land trying to get back home to Europe. With his UK passport stripped he is likely to find himself getting shunted on to Egypt, but you can never quite predict these stories. In any case, doubtless more on the fall-out from Syria to come, including more of these sorts of short pieces drawing on a wide range of material.

Jihadactivist

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By 

in Insights

The line between protest and terrorism is clear, but can become complicated when one digs into the underlying ideas. Many would find themselves agreeing with some of the underlying sources of anger that drive terrorist groups, but they would not agree with their choice of action in responding to it. This proximity, however, has a habit of creating strange bedfellows and journeys – like the path taken by Lyricist Jinny, the Egyptian-British one-time rapper and former Islamic State (IS) member who was arrested in Spain last week. A counter-culture tale that flows from rapper and hacktivist to jihadist and (likely) jail.

Abdel-Majed Abdel-Bary (also known by his musical name Lyricist Jinny or L Jinny) was born into a large family whose father was missing for a good portion of his childhood. Fighting extradition from the UK to the US on charges of being involved in Al Qaeda’s 1998 bombings of US Embassies in Africa, Adel Abdel Bary was part of an earlier generation of jihadists. Showing he remembered with anger his father’s arrest, in one of his many raps still easily available online, L Jinny spits “Give me the pride and the honour like my father, I swear the day they came and took my dad, I could have killed a cop or two.” Like a lot of rap music, L Jinny’s is flavoured by a protest against the system and the hard knock life on the streets – something that was reflected in his own experience. While in Syria in March 2014 he tweeted about the incarceration back in the UK of one of his friends for his part in a brutal knife murder in Pimlico in January 2013. Giving a shout-out from the battlefield he wrote, “my lil brother ahmed got sentenced to life…26 years minimum….love lil bro see you in the afterlife inshallah #kasper.”

But there is a noticeably more political angle to some of his rap, with a couple of songs showing his support for the hacktivist collectives Anonymous and TeaMp0isoN. In 2011, L Jinny teamed up with the hacktivists to produce a rap song and video called #OpCensorDis which acted as an angry clarion call against censorship against a backdrop of protests and images from the riots that shook London in 2011. “Now i linked up with TeaMp0isoN they can’t censor me” he raps, protected supposedly by the hacktivist collective who trailed the song online with comments about how if it was censored they would launch merciless online attacks against the music industry. The money raised was supposedly given to the East Africa Crisis Appeal, though it was unclear how much was actually made or why the music industry would censor a fairly pedestrian rap song. Paradoxically, they also used the #OpCensorDis operation to launch a defacement attack on UN aid organizer UNDP’s sites.

This was not the only lyrical contribution to the operation that L Jinny offered. Alongside rappers Tabanacle and Proverbz, he produced another song imaginatively called Op Censor Dis 2. This time shot with a video of a group of lads rapping against the system in front of the Bank of England. Featured alongside the rappers in the music video was a rather smug looking young man called Junaid Hussain, one of the leaders of TeaMp0isoN who was active online using the handle TriCk. His Twitter handle had been the one to release #OpCensorDis in late 2011 and showing his growing arrogant confidence, he was willing to do anonymous interviews with the press over Skype boasting of his group’s skills. After a particularly prominent attack on the UK Metropolitan Police’s Counter-Terrorism reporting hotline he told the Telegraph, “We done it due to the recent events where the counter terrorist command and the UK court system have allowed the extradition of Babar Ahmad, Adel Abdel Bary and a few others – we also done it to due the new “snooping” laws where the GCHQ can “spy” on anyone and everyone.”

TeaMp0isoN as a collective were fairly scattered in their success and damage. They got into fights with fellow hacktivists Lulzsec whose real identities they threatened to out online. Angry at reports that Blackberry owner RIM were helping police track rioters during the 2011 UK riots, they attacked and defaced Blackberry’s blog. They brought down the English Defence League’s site. In an attack which finally got him jailed, Junaid Hussain got into the email account of one of Tony Blair’s aides and leaked Blair’s contact information and more online. Other attacks found them derided as ‘skiddies’, with some experts pointing out that their contribution to a big Anonymous driven hack against the Nigerian government was to hack into the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association and the Engineering Materials Development Institute. Neither very relevant to Nigeria. During another Anonymous led attack on Stratfor which TeaMp0isoN piggybacked they took stolen credit card details and used them to give money to a variety of charities. In a bit of a home goal, this money was reclaimed and the charities ended up having to cover payback fees.

Reflecting Hussain and Bary’s later life, there were various off-shoots of TeaMp0isoN which had a flavour of the struggle they were going to end up joining. This included their Operation Free Palestine series of hacks, and off-shoot groups ZCompany Hacking Crew (ZHC), which aimed to “end injustice, extremism, Zionism, illegal occupation” and focused on Kashmir and Pakistan. Both TeaMp0isoN and ZHC were also linked to the Mujahideen Hacking Unit (MHU) and Muslim Liberation Army (MLA). At this stage, however, the confluence was simply youthful protest being driven in lots of different directions.

When exactly Junaid Hussain’s shift to jihadism took place is unclear, but he seems to have been firmly on the path after his release from prison in 2013 for the hack on Tony Blair’s assistant. At around the same time, Bary started to reject his former life online posting on Facebook in July 2013 “the unknown mixtape with my bro tabanacle will be the last music I’m ever releasing. I have left everything for the sake of Allah.” In October that year he tweeted “for everyone that still asks me about where my videos have gone, like I said a while back I quit music & I took all the vids I can down….& if you own a channel that has any of my music up can you take it down also, appreciated. Bless.”

The two men were by then in Syria, fighting (or training) initially alongside the Army of Furqan before shifting over to IS using the same connection, Abu al Taj, to vouch for them. Reflecting their online pasts, in their IS entry forms they both identified themselves as having pasts in computers – with Bary saying that he used to work in a computer shop, while Hussain said he had a specialization in electronics.

In Junaid’s case at least we know that his online activity became a major driver of his contribution to IS, founding the Islamic State Hacking Division (ISHD) under which he drew notoriety and attention through his creative use of online activity to advance IS cause. In one of the more infamous attacks which attracted particular US government ire and drew on his TeaMp0isoN contacts, he worked with a young Kosovan studying in Malaysia to obtain and leak the contact information of 1,351 US government and military folk. Ardit Ferizi was another case of hacktivist turned jihadi supporter though he never actually made it to the Levant. Instead, using hacking skills he had perfected as the self-appointed leader of the Kosova Hacker’s Security (KHS) he attacked various sites and then passed along information he thought would be useful to IS. Ardit and Junaid knew each other from TeaMp0isoN days. Junaid enthusiastically circulated the hacked US government contacts under the ISHD accounts hoping followers would use the information to launch lone actor attacks in advance of IS cause.

FBI state that no damage was actually done through this leak. But two short weeks after he posted Ferizi’s information online, a drone strike killed Junaid at a petrol station in Raqqa. Ferizi was arrested in Malaysia in September and is now sitting in a US jail on a 20 year sentence.

Bary’s story went quiet at around the same time, with reports circulating he was unhappy with IS. He reportedly fled across the border into Turkey at which point he disappeared. Now that he has resurfaced in Spain, he will likely be looking at the inside of a prison cell for some time. In arresting him, Spanish police highlighted his “great ability to obtain funding and move like a fish in the water of the darknet” providing maybe a flavour of what he had been up to since he had disappeared. The UK has stripped him of his passport so he is most likely heading to Egypt. L Jinny’s counter-culture adventure has come to a close, but the arc shows what the journey can look like. From rapper and hacktivist to jihadist and jail.

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

Abdullah el Faisal’s Persistent Screed

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By 

Insights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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