Posts Tagged ‘UK terrorism’

Second up this evening, a new piece for the Observer, this time in the wake of the atrocity in Christchurch, New Zealand. Draws on earlier work on the extreme right wing in the UK, though admittedly my work on the XRW has tended to look more at it through the lens of lone actor terrorism. Am sure the topic will rise as one of attention, as it has been for some time.

This aside, spoke to the Financial Times after a letter bombing campaign which appears to have been linked to Irish related terrorism, to Geo TV about the Pakistan-India clash, to the Financial Times again after the Christchurch attack (reproduced in the Irish Times), and my earlier Telegraph piece on Hamza bin Laden was reproduced in the Irish Independent. Also, did a longer interview with the BBC World Service’s excellent BBC NewsHour Programme on the massacre in Christchurch.

The Extreme Right Was Once a Loose Group of Loners. Not Any More

The pattern has changed and must not be ignored

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Christchurch has turned everyone’s attention to the phenomenon of extreme rightwing terrorism. But it is an alarm bell that authorities in the UK have been ringing for some time, having seen an ascendant extreme-right threat. Our collective attention, when thinking about terrorism, may be dominated by Isis, but given the rich vein of references to the UK in Brenton Tarrant’s screed, there are clearly other concerns to which we should pay attention.

Around the turn of the century and during the early noughties, the extreme-right threat in the UK tended to consist of a ragbag of isolated loners. For the most part middle-aged white men, they tended to be discovered by chance – violent characters with spotty employment histories, a few of them picked up as a result of investigations into online paedophilia. Some particularly shambolic cases, such as that of Neil Lewington, were uncovered by accident. Lewington was arrested by British Transport police after urinating on a train platform in 2008. Subsequent investigations uncovered an aspirant one-man terror campaign, planning pipe-bomb attacks and gathering Nazi memorabilia.

This pattern has now changed. An early indicator was Pavlo Lapshyn’s terror campaign in the West Midlands in 2013. Arriving from Ukraine on a scholarship, he immediately launched an attack on the Muslim community, starting by killing elderly Mohammed Saleem in a murder that baffled police. He then started building bombs of escalating potency that he left outside mosques in the West Midlands.

Fortunately, while Lapshyn was an expert bomb-maker, he got his timings wrong and all three of his devices failed to kill anyone. When police caught him they discovered that he had a history of bomb-making back home in Ukraine and was deeply embedded in online extremist communities.

The case marked a worrying evolution. Here was a well-organised young man with capability and ideology. The fact that he was from another part of Europe showed the potential for extreme ideologies to spread across the continent. He also reflected broader links between extreme rightwing communities in the UK and continental allies.

The threat in the UK became even more pronounced with the emergence of National Action. Part political action group, part online community, part terrorist group, NA brought together a cluster of angry men around a xenophobic ideology focused on committing acts of terror and fighting back against a society they believed had been overrun. In contrast to earlier iterations of the extreme right in the UK, National Action’s members were mostly younger men.

There is a distinct trajectory here: from disorganised loners to semi-structured networks, and ideologies that are no longer isolated in national geographies, but speak to global communities who feel left out. A narrative is developing of an ascendant extreme right that is becoming more organised on our shores and has links abroad.

More disturbing is the degree to which we can see evidence that these ideas have originated in our country. Prominent among Tarrant’s ramblings are references to British fascist leader Oswald Mosley. We have a sad history of intolerance in our public discourse, and its mainstreaming in an increasingly febrile public forum creates a context for violent extremists to believe the time for action is now. We have already witnessed the murder of Jo Cox, and Darren Osborne’s attack on Finsbury Park mosque. It is essential to clamp down on it before it tears further at society’s fragile fabric.

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

And finally in my catch-up blast, my latest piece this time for the Telegraph this past week after the revelation of Shamina Begum’s discovery in a camp in Syria. The story sparked off a wave of media attention on the topic of jihadi’s abroad. Likely a keen desire by the UK press to get away from the dreaded Brexit story.

Aside from this blast of articles, spoke to the Independent about a child who was questioned by counter-terrorism police, the Washington Post re-used an old interview about what happens when terrorist leaders are killed, spoke to Bloomberg about what was going on in Xinjiang, and in a definite break from ordinary service spoke to AFP about tourism in the Philippines. Finally my below piece for the Telegraph got picked up in AFP’s coverage of the debate around Shamina Begum in the UK and was translated into French and Spanish.

Don’t underestimate the role of female jiahdis like Shamina Begum

British teenagers Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase and Shamima Begum passing through security barriers at Gatwick Airport, south of London, on February 17, 2015. 

We have a dangerous habit of playing down the importance of women in extremist networks. Common prejudices about the ‘fairer sex’ often lead us to assume a passive role. Yet in reality, women are just as engaged as their male counterparts – if not more so. Our assumptions simply support a narrative that removes agency from them.

These facts should be acknowledged when we are deciding what to do with Shamima Begum, a young woman who has made a series of terrible choices but must also be dealt with in a just and transparent manner.

The conflict in Syria has thrown up innumerable questions for our society – chief among them, what to do with the cadre of young Britons initially drawn to fight alongside Isil, who now find themselves detained or lingering in refugee camps as the terrorist group dissolves. The government has so far given little indication or guidance on how to deal with such individuals. Although work is being done in some cases, overall, our strategy seem to be waiting to see how things play out, or else hoping someone else will deal with the problem.

As individual cases emerge, so do new moral conundrums. It is easy to make sweeping statements when we think of the group as an anonymous bloc of people. Yet, when we dig into individual examples, the complexity of the human experience comes to the fore. Each case merits a potentially different response.

Shamima Begum, for example, presents a contradictory narrative. A young woman who first went to Syria as a schoolgirl with two of her friends, she is now a 19-year-old who has married a fighter, buried two children, with a third on the way. Initially viewed as a naïf who was groomed or coerced into the process, she has, it seems, evolved into an unrepentant young ideologue. The truth is probably even more complex.

We have historically underestimated the role of women in extremist networks. Yet looking back on the London 7/7 bombings now, the most infamous and enduring figure remains Samantha Lewthwaite, the notorious ‘White Widow’ who was married to one of the bombers and went on to become a significant figure in East African jihadist networks. Her celebrity spiked during the 2013 attack on the Westgate Mall in Kenya, and her ultimate whereabouts have never been determined, though she remains one of the world’s most wanted terror suspects. Other women from the same network, in contrast, have returned to ordinary lives.

Throughout the history of jihad in Britain, women can be found in the background of networks and cells, supporting their men ideologically, in some cases quite clearly instigating their actions. Yet the overriding view remains that women have little agency in this process. This blind spot can partly be explained by a general failure to understand what draws people to these groups. We can broadly comprehend the male impulse to be involved in ‘exciting’ violent activity but often ignore the fact that these ideas can be as attractive to women as men. And, of course, women have made as much of a choice to be involved. Many will consider joining these groups a form of empowerment.

Samantha Louise Lewthwaite, also known as the White Widow, is one of the world's most wanted terrorism suspects

In fact, the reason so many more women were involved with Isil in Syria is a product of the more coherent and credible state-building narrative that Isil was able to project, alongside the much greater ease with which people could access this battlefield compared to previous conflicts in Afghanistan, Somalia or Yemen.

But all of this is now muddled by the example before us. The already tricky case of a young woman who joined Isil as a minor is further complicated by the presence of an unborn child. The degree to which we need to offer punishment over rehabilitation is mitigated by her age. And while she has clearly done wrong, at present it will prove near-impossible to implement a proper judicial process.

There are no obvious solutions to this emerging problem, but through it all we should remember that Shamina Begum made a conscious decision to join a group responsible for untold misery in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the world. While this should not necessarily condemn her to perpetual limbo, it does mean she should face punishment for her involvement in these crimes. Our priority must now be to establish what that process will look like.

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

Al Muhajiroun’s Long Shadow

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

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

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

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

 Muslims Against Crusades 30.7.2011-563 – Anjem Choudary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

September 26, 2018 / Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thunderer

 the times

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A careful but firm response is the way to stop attackers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new piece for an excellent outlet that I occasionally contribute to, the CTC Sentinel, which is an interview with Neil Basu, the Senior National Coordinator for Counterterrorism Policing in the UK. It is quite a wide-ranging discussion around the current threat picture, recent problems, and future threats that might mature. It got a bit of a bounce getting picked up by The Times, Daily Mail, The Sun, Asharq al Awsat, and some other local UK outlets. It was also suitably spun by RT. Thanks to editor Paul for all his hard work on it! Separately, spoke to Vice about the Jihadi Beatles, and Arab News about foreigners fighting with Kurds.

A View from the CT Foxhole: Neil Basu, Senior National Coordinator for Counterterrorism Policing in the United Kingdom

DAC-Neil-Basu-06-600x429

February 2018, Volume 11, Issue 2

Authors: Raffaello Pantucci

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu is Senior National Coordinator for Counterterrorism Policing in the United Kingdom, a role he was appointed to in October 2016. He is responsible for delivering the police response to the Pursue and Prevent elements of the Government’s CONTEST strategy. In this role, he coordinates the policing response to threats arising from terrorism and domestic extremism nationally and also manages the Metropolitan Police Service’s Counter Terrorism Command (SO15). In his career, Basu has worked as a detective in all ranks to Detective Superintendent, served as the Area commander for South East London, and headed London’s Armed Policing within Specialist Crime & Operation.

CTC: How has U.K. counterterrorism policing evolved to confront the changing threat?

Basu: 9/11 was the contemporary game changer. In the U.K., it started off with some plotting between 2002 and 2004, which wasn’t just concentrated in London. It was also regional. Then you get to 2005, and in the worst way possible, we were taught that this was actually embedded in local communities: domestic home-grown terrorism with some direction from abroad. So there was a need to build regional capability, and that was the start of the network that we have today. Now we have nine counterterrorism units—embedded regionally, collocated with MI5, building intelligence in local communities, [and] connected into local community policing.

Given the nature of the threat we now face, we need to be even more focused on communities and more focused on getting local information. While the ambition is still there for the mass spectacular—and the July 2017 airline plot in Sydney, Australia, was a recent example of that—IS [the Islamic State] has been encouraging supporters living in the West to carry out high-impact/low-complexity attacks. Because of the military push on the ground in Syria and Iraq and the effective eradication of IS’ geographical territory and their ability to project that abroad, it is much harder for them to send trained people back. Borders have closed. Turkey has done well with their border.

The big threat for us now is the ideology that’s been diffused onto the internet and the calls for attacks by its followers in the West by IS online. The caliphate may have been defeated militarily, but it has now become a virtual network. What we’re not seeing is a reduction in people’s willingness to align themselves with this ideology. So even though there is no caliphate to go and fight for, in the minds of some British extremists, the fight carries on because they can aspire to go to Libya or another ‘province.’

In confronting this evolving threat, we have to be more ‘fleet of foot’ at a time when ‘going dark,’ due to the widespread availability of encrypted apps, has become the new norm. We can no longer depend upon all the usual intelligence-gathering apparatus.

CTC: Has the locus of the threat abroad shifted? Syria and Iraq was where the threat was, but would you now look to Libya as a place where you could see the same sort of a threat emanating from?

Basu: You would be completely foolish not to worry about Libya. All of the coalition thinks that that is going to be a tremendous problem in years to come. Anywhere there is ungoverned space, anywhere there is fragile political governance is a potential source of threat. But it is not clear that it is going to be easy for terrorists to move from location to location. We already know of eight or nine IS affiliates around the world that have claimed allegiance, with [fighters in] Libya being one example. Libya is very close to home for Europe and our allies, but for a long time, it was not the focus for our attention. For us in the U.K., what happened in Manchester was a big wake-up call to the fact that there were people who had traveled back and forth to Libya doing much the same thing we were preventing people from doing in Iraq and Syria and who had a similar hatred for this country. And oddly enough, these travelers were second or third generation [immigrants], not necessarily the generation you would assume.

CTC: The Manchester attack and its links to Libya were particularly striking given the similarities with other networks and plots seen previously in the U.K., in particular historical networks linked back to terrorist groups in Pakistan.

Basu: You would have to take a huge leap of faith to say Salman Abedi [the Manchester suicide bomber] was not traveling to and from Libya with some malicious intent and that it was all just about family and socializing and not about training. We’ve long known that training overseas can battle-harden people. It’s not just being able to fire a gun; it’s the psychological bar that you overcome by being brutalized in theater. Once you get a taste for violence, the second time is much easier. And cops know that from dealing with violent criminals.

CTC: A year after the cluster of plots in the first half of 2017, do we have any more clarity on what precipitated all of that terrorist activity in the U.K.? 

Basu: JTAC [Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre] was very good at saying something is coming. Security analysts understood that once there was a military push on the ground against them [Islamic State fighters] in Syria and Iraq, they were going to start lashing out. Leaders like [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi and [Abu Muhammad] al-Adnani, before he was killed, were telling followers in the West they didn’t need to ask permission from an emir; they could just go ahead and launch attacks.

This was the backdrop that was making security forces nervous. Then, and this is a personal view, Khalid Masood [the March 2017 Westminster bridge attacker] launched his attack. He had no clear and obvious connection to either IS or al-Qa`ida. He was clearly someone who cherry-picked the bits of Islam that he believed justified what he did. Whether his particular religious interpretations was the actual driver for what he did, I am of two minds, but his motivation died with him. There is no concrete information that it was for the glory of the caliphate or for the glory of IS or for the glory of AQ. But what he did achieve was that he 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. Some violent extremists admired him for actually going ahead and doing it. Some criticized him for not doing a very ‘good job.’ But at the end of the day, what it did say to them was that ‘my plot could work. What I have been thinking of doing, I could actually do.’

CTC: Have you seen much of a change in the threat picture since Raqqa has fallen? Or has it had no effect?

Basu: What we’ve seen is a lot more chatter, a lot more people thinking that they have a chance of successfully carrying out attacks. So the pace and tempo, the number of leads that we think are concerning, the pace has gone up. Whether or not this is linked to the push in Raqqa is hard to tell.

In terms of plots, the trend is towards less sophistication, more amateurism. We’ve not seen a growth of extremists. We’ve seen more conversations among extremists expressing the belief they can launch successful attacks here. So definitely the pace of plotting activity we’re looking at has gone up. But then that was predictable as well. I don’t think anyone thought the military defeat of the group in Syria and Iraq was going to be the end of this. We are dealing with an ideology, which is being spread online and has global reach, and we to need to confront this by clamping down on what’s being spread through the internet and better engaging with people who are vulnerable to the extremist message.

CTC: Earlier this year, Minister of State for Security Ben Wallace stated a significant number of British nationals who signed up to fight with extremist groups in Syria and Iraq had gone missing somewhere in the region.1 What do we think has happened to those who are unaccounted for? Where have they ended up? 

Basu: I think there’s probably more in detention overseas, including in YPG or Kurdish or SDF detention, than we currently know. We obviously won’t know everyone who’s died. It’s a warzone and difficult to be definitively accurate. We estimate that 15 percent of the 850 foreign fighters that have traveled from the U.K. to Syria and Iraq have died. There are some we absolutely know died, and there are ones we guess are deceased because, for example, they are no longer communicating. Establishing the fate of the others is going to be very difficult.

I think we have made it very clear how hostile it would be for foreign fighters if they return here. The policy is very clear. You do not get to come back here if you did manage to get over there and you are a fighter.

About half of the 850 who traveled to Syria and Iraq since the onset of the Syrian civil war have returned to the UK. The large majority of these came back very quickly and early on. Some of those were genuine aid workers. Some were people who thought they were going to build a caliphate, not necessarily be immersed in a war. Generally speaking, the people who came back quickly are not where the bigger threat lies.

The larger threat is posed by the return of committed recruits who went there to be trained. When it comes to people who we know are back in the U.K. that we suspect fall into this category, we have either tried to build a case or we’ve monitored them or we have talked to people who know them. As far as those who are still overseas are concerned, we have been making it very clear that this will be a very hostile place to come back to, and I do not think most of these foreign fighters will want to come back. They will want to fight on, and that’s why they have been so committed to being in theater for this length of time.

We are still not seeing what many predicted was going to be a large reverse flow as the so-called ‘caliphate’ disintegrated. Instead, we are seeing just the odd person come back.

When it comes to those still unaccounted for—and who are not being held in detention in the region—I have no doubt a number might be trying to reach other IS strongholds. It is almost impossible to say what has happened to these people. I think we overestimated the stand-and-fight-until-you-die attitude. Some of these foreign fighters will want to fight another day. It is also too early to say where they will coalesce. Could it be the Philippines? Could it be Libya? But it is worth thinking about how practically easy it would be for somebody who is not Arab-speaking, doesn’t necessarily ‘look the part,’ to meld into society in a place like Libya. Very difficult, I would think.

If you crunch the figures: about 850 foreign fighters who went, about half who came back, 15 percent who died, you’re probably looking at a cohort of about 300 that we know traveled who are still out there. Not all of those are mono-Brits; a lot of those are dual nationals. Like other countries, we operate on the principle that we don’t want you back, and therefore we will deprive you of your British passport. And the government has done that. Because of this, the ones who could come back are about a third of this 300 number. And for those among these who end up coming back, we are absolutely waiting for them. That’s the bottom line.

CTC: British officials have said a residual risk is posed by about 20,000 individuals who were previously the subject of counterterrorism investigations. This is a very large number. How is it possible to manage the risk from such a large community of people? Who is going be responsible for managing this? Is this a job for the security services?

Basu: It’s impossible for any country to allocate resources for that kind of number. And every country will have a similar issue. That number will always grow. Because there will always be people who have been considered a national security threat but are no longer considered a national security threat. There is no way the security services or policing can manage all of those on their own. What we have to make sure is that there are ways of assessing whether the risks still exist or not in specific cases, and that’s going to involve something that the security agencies have never done before, which is sharing information from the secret space into multi-agency partners who may be able to help assess that risk. This is not a new concept. Multi-agency public protection arrangements for serious and violent offenders already exist. These individuals live in communities, and there are all kinds of measures in place to manage them. Local authorities need to be informed in a similar way as when people convicted of TACT [terrorism legislation] offenses return to their communities.

People get hung up on the full 20,000 number that is circulated, but what we need to be focused on is what the actual risk in that group is. The bigger risk to us are the additional 3,000 open cases that U.K. security minister Ben Wallace has talked about. That’s where the larger risk lies. A lot of the nervousness has come from the fact that we had two people come out of the 20,000 pot and attack us last year—Khalid Masood and Salman Abedi—while London Bridge attacker Khurram Butt was in the 3,000 who were being looked at. But we would be making a terrible mathematical mistake if we said that we need to swivel all of our guns onto the 20,000, when the 3,000 is where the big risk is.

What exists in that 20,000 is the possibility of people reengaging, like Abedi and Masood. How do you spot that reengagement? Do we have the right triggers in place so that when somebody who has previously shown signs of violent extremism reengages or does something or contacts someone of concern, it comes onto our radar screen?

The only way we are ever going to significantly improve coverage of this is by alerting a broader number of U.K. agencies about who is in the 20,000 pot. David Anderson [former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation in the United Kingdom] has stated this is something we are going to have to get much better at. We have already learned a great deal from the Operational Improvement Review in the wake of the attacks, and Mr. Anderson praised the work that had been done. But clearly more needs to be undertaken to tighten up our processes to prevent such attacks from taking place.

We are going to run pilot programs and see where we get to on this larger group, to see whether there are issues around reengagement. As a result in some of those cases, we will end up moving them deeper into the safeguarding space: they don’t want to be engaged in extremist activity, they might choose to volunteer, and they might want assistance in all kinds of ways, whether that’s mental health, education, or intervention providers providing religious instruction. There might be people who genuinely want to get off this extremism carousel. And there might be others who are reengaging who become a risk again, and we need to look at them from a law enforcement and security perspective. We are only going to be able to know this is the case if more people are helping us, and that includes my core policing colleagues outside of the specialism of counterterrorism policing. They will be used to the principles; they just need to learn to apply them to terrorism offenders. The key is information sharing and spreading the risk, but because we work in a top-secret world, that’s a cultural change, which is easy to call for out loud like this but really difficult to achieve.

CTC: We keep seeing TATP showing up in terrorist plotting. Is there more that could be done to stop that? 

Basu: A few very obvious things need to be done. We need much more help from the private sector. Anyone who sells materials that could be used in this process needs to be engaged with, and we need to be much quicker at spotting suspicious purchasing activity. Same with the banking sector and suspicious transactions—all of which has been in place for some time, but we need to be much better at it. And we need to make sure that we remove anything that looks like bomb-making instruction from anywhere on the internet. The difficulty is that some of this stuff is O-level [type] chemistry experimentationa that is available online and aimed at children and students. So some of it is not IS appearing online saying ‘this is how to blow people up.’ And so there is a danger is being disproportionate in what we take down and what we don’t. TATP is still dangerous, volatile, and difficult to make, but it is probably not as difficult as we thought it was. So you don’t need to be a chemical engineer to be able to do this kind of stuff.

CTC: When it comes to social media and its role in encouraging or directing terrorism, is there more, from the policing perspective, that you can do? 

Basu: This is principally a role for intelligence agencies rather than police. What it does require, however, is close cooperation from social media companies. And where there isn’t cooperation, we need to consider coercive measures. Governments need to consider legislation. In reality, 2017 was a wake-up for the U.K. and for a lot of companies, not just in the CSP [communication service provider] space. It is about corporate social responsibility [for] how they protect their clients. I do not think it is acceptable anymore to say, “I’m defending free speech” if free speech involves blowing people up. The companies need to be in that space. There are positive signs that they are in that space. They’ve been in front of various hearings and political leaders. I’ve no doubt that they are listening, but they need to make sure their business models are effective in dealing with this now. They’ve got the brainpower, and they’ve got the resources, and they need to help.

CTC: Turning to the threat posed by the Extreme Right Wing (XRW) in the U.K. It has been discussed as an escalating problem for some time. Has it now crossed the threshold of being a national security threat?

Basu: It is too early to see how much it should be escalated. The threat assessment should be looked at by JTAC, and where we think there is a national security threat, then the security services should be involved. The far-right group National Action was the first time we saw anybody who was organized in the XRW space in a way that would represent a national security threat. Thankfully, it is nowhere near the same scale or problem as we’ve had from the IS-inspired or -directed [threat] or the AQ [threat] prior to that or the IRA threat prior to that. That is really something to be proud of in the U.K. culture and tradition that we don’t have this mass wave of extreme right wing. So far, we have seen people try to get on the back of that and not be incredibly successful. They are still relatively small, relatively disconnected, relatively disorganized groups.

My biggest concern about the extreme right wing, which is not a national security threat, is the Darren Osbornesb of the world, the Thomas Mairs of the world [the murderer of Member of Parliament Jo Cox], and the lone actor with the mental health problems, depression, drugs, and the personal grievance who is acting alone. It is spotting people doing something like that which is very difficult.

The biggest concern for the country should [be] that violent Islamist extremism and violent right wing extremism will feed off each other. Islamophobia is something we have to be really clear about in policing: hate is hate. And we should be very, very robust and have a zero tolerance towards hate crime. And if we don’t do that, and Muslim communities are being stigmatized and attacked because of things a tiny minority of people are doing, I think we will create problems for ourselves. The Muslim community is going to be thinking that it is unfair and unjust. I think we don’t have parity at the moment in the way that we look at things. But we don’t have parity because at the moment, the scale of the threat is not the same. I do not want to wait for the scale of the threat to get to a point that something has to be done about it. You have seen a lot of the robust action we’ve taken against National Action, and that was because we were determined to stop this [from] becoming the next problem.

CTC: What about the policy side? The latest iteration of CONTEST [the U.K. counterterrorism strategy] is due out in a few months. What is your particular view on the “Prevent”c pillar of the strategy? 

Basu: Prevent is the hugely controversial part of the strategy. Government will not thank me for saying this, but an independent reviewer of Prevent, as suggested by David Anderson, would be a healthy thing. In fact, he would be excellent in the role. Prevent is, as a Prevent officer who used to work for me said, five percent of the budget but 85 percent of the conversation. Prevent is the most important pillar of the four pillar strategy.d There is no doubt in my mind about it. We’re pretty good at Pursue; we’re pretty good at Prepare, as people have seen in our response. What needs to be better in Protect is the private sector, and I think there’s a big willingness, like there is with CSPs, to understand that they need to protect their customer base better. And whether that’s insider threats, cyber threats, or security guards [in] crowded places, there is an understanding that they need to invest more in that. But Prevent is the key.

There is still this hangover of toxicity around the Prevent campaign that we need to stop, because people need to understand that this about stopping people in the pre-criminal space ever getting anywhere near criminality. And Prevent needs to concentrate on how it does that. That cannot be a job for the police and security services. That has got to be a wider societal pillar. The more that policing and security service could withdraw from Prevent in order to focus Prevent work on problem solving within communities and getting communities to deal with it, the better in the long-term. There will always be a role for policing because we are a frontline. And here I don’t mean counterterrorism policing but the other 115,000 or so police officers who are in the frontline working together with communities. But actually the big responsibility is how do we get everyone else interested and involved and talking positively about some of the brilliant work that is going on.

Prevent, at the moment, is owned by the government, but I think it should be outside central government altogether. I think people who are running their local communities should be taking the lead. Local leaders around the country should be standing up and talking about this, not central government, security services, and counterterrorism police. Communities should be talking about protecting themselves from the grassroots up. When you see Prevent working on the ground brilliantly, that’s where it’s working, and largely unsung and un-talked about. Substantial community resilience is produced by that sort of work, and giving people that resilience is important and communities have to help each other do that. I would love to see a professional communications company say, as part of their social responsibility programming, “I’ll give free training to anybody from youth or whoever who wants to start a conversation around this.” That would be great. Rather than the government handing over a sum of money and then it becoming state sponsored with accusations of demonizing communities, it should be locally generated. We have gotten all of that messaging the wrong way around, it should be grassroots up.

Previously, this was not being done. But there are increasingly some phenomenal voices who’ve got real gravitas in their communities who are beginning to talk about the issues. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is a really good example of that. He is not central government, he runs a city, and the protection of the city is his concern, he should be doing that, not MI5. Not the Cabinet, and the National Security Council and New Scotland Yard.

CTC: The threat picture we talked about is about a scattering of diffuse, random, isolated loners who latch onto ideologies, launching lone actor-style attacks. Have you seen any evidence in the attack planning of anything more substantial than that? Or is that really where the heart of the threat now sits? And is that where the threat picture going forward is going to be?

Basu: We will never eradicate the ambition [of extremists] to put a complicated network together to do a big, spectacular attack. The difficulty with that for a terrorist is that all that planning and all that preparation makes you very vulnerable. Where people aren’t vulnerable is when they are sitting in their bedrooms, using encrypted apps or not using any technology at all, and not having any contact with the outside world. Thomas Mair was a good example of that: no one spotted that happening because he was just a bit of an odd, loner, social misfit. No one saw any triggers that would be interpreted as leading him to that extreme level of violence. That is the bit that concerns me. We are seeing people who are vulnerable to suggestion, who have low-level mental health challenges, which probably don’t hit any clinical threshold. So even if they presented to the National Health Service, they would not look like they were someone of concern. It might be a low-level mental illness, but it’s a low-level mental illness with a lot of other red flag markers around it—for example a propensity towards violence. You can be seriously mentally ill and not violent. Nobody should ever stigmatize people with mental health, or put the two things together. But it is that kind of thing that concerns me most, and we are seeing more of that. And most disturbingly, very young and more female interest in violence.

That disturbs me and has got to have come from social media, if you think where kids get all of their information and how fast that they get it … and then how easy it is to go from—it’s a horrible expression—‘flash-to-bang,’ from having no understanding [of] what they are dealing with to a tiny, partial, ridiculous kind of notion of what religion or what violence, or what freedom of expression, or what these things mean because they picked it up in six-second soundbites on their phone. That malleability worries me a lot, and that concern seems to be being replayed around the world in my conversations with partner agencies across the European continent. So how we influence that younger, very vulnerable generation is going to be a key question. A revamped Prevent strategy is going to be a large part of the answer.     CTC

Substantive Notes
[a] O-levels are exams students in the United Kingdom used to take at age 16.

[b] Darren Osborne is the recently convicted extreme right-wing terrorist who drove into a crowd outside the Finsbury Park mosque in June 2017.

[c] “Prevent” is the forward-looking aspect of the strategy that focuses on preventing individuals from being drawn to extremist ideas.

[d] The other three pillars are “Pursue,” “Prepare,” and “Protect.”

Citations
[1] Roger Baird, “Government has lost track of hundreds of British jihadi fighters,” International Business Times, January 5, 2018.