Posts Tagged ‘UK’

A longer report I have been working on for some time which builds on work about the terrorist threat in the UK as part of a series run by the German foundation the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung looking at the state of the terrorist threat in Europe in general. Have another big piece on this have been working on forever, just need to find time to finish. The entire report is available free online as a good looking PDF, so am not going to re-post in its entirety here, but will put the executive summary to give you a taste.

Jihadism in the United Kingdom

The UK’s jihadist terror threat picture has evolved compared to the 2000s, when the UK was a key target of al-Qaeda, and even more since the collapse of ISIS’s caliphate in 2017. That year, in fact, marked something of a recent apex which has heralded a period of regular lone actor plots – some of which demonstrate an inspiration from ISIS, but others where it is unclear. This paper seeks to better understand this transformation and the evolution of the threat in the UK, as part of the “Jihadist Terrorism in Europe” series published by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in which renowned experts analyse the current state of the jihadist threat in various countries, as well as the related counter-terrorism strategies and political debates.

In the present study, Raffaello Pantucci looks at the UK, which most recently in January 2022 saw a radicalised British national launch an attack against a synagogue in Texas in advance of the attempted liberation of Dr Aafia Siddiqui, the long-jailed female al-Qaeda member serving a lengthy sentence in a nearby jail.

› Although the UK jihadist threat has not produced any large-scale attacks recently, it has consistently produced lone actor plots.

› The paper outlines how the current threat links back to the past, and in particular the dangers posed to the UK by the reemergence of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

› The UK also still has a lingering problem of foreign fighters who went to Syria and Iraq. Passport deprivation – a preferred Home Office method of dealing with such cases – has not eliminated the problem but simply displaced it. Some individuals are still trying to return home, while others remain in Turkish or insecure Levantine jails.

› Authorities in the UK have consistently focused on trying to manage the threat through greater internal coordination.

› Larger problems around extremism continue to fester, though the degree to which they are linked to the jihadist threat remains unclear.

› The biggest problem for the UK is managing a problem which never seems to be entirely resolved, but only seems to grow in unpredictable and confusing ways, creating new cohorts of problems for authorities to manage. This, along with the growing problem of the extreme right wing, as well as sectarianism amongst South Asian communities points to a set of issues which will continue to trouble the UK.

Some time ago, the UK’s Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) published a report which provided an evaluation drawing on intelligence community thoughts and assessments about the nature and scale of the extreme right-wing threat in the UK. Its main recommendation seemed to be the security services needed more capability to manage this threat, which seemed dissonant to me with the wider discourse about the threat at the moment. Inspired I wrote the following for my UK institutional home, RUSI.

Extreme Right-Wing Terrorism in the UK: How Concerned Should We Be?

Worrying trends: the scene of a terror attack near Finsbury Park Mosque, London on 19 Jun 2017. Image: WENN / Alamy

A recent report indicates some worrying trends in extreme right-wing terrorism in the UK, but also highlights how the threat can sometimes be a product of its response.

The extreme right-wing terrorism (ERWT) threat in the UK is difficult to gauge. Often referred to as the fastest rising threat, the number of actual attacks and casualties the UK has experienced over the past decade can mercifully be counted on one hand. While attacks are a poor indicator of threat, the recent Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) report on the ERWT threat in the UK shined a light on the problem and made the key recommendation that MI5 would need more resources to manage the threat. Yet it is not entirely clear what this resource growth should look like, or how acute the ERWT threat actually is.

Since April 2020, MI5 has taken on lead responsibility for managing the extreme right-wing terror threat (referred to now formally as ERWT as opposed to the previous XRW). The decision to transfer from the police was made in 2018 in the wake of reviews after the surge of terrorist attacks in 2017. While only one of these was linked to the ERWT (the murder of 51-year-old Makram Ali outside Finsbury Park Mosque on 19 June 2017), the attack came after the proscription of National Action and the murder of Jo Cox MP. The threat from ERWT seemed to be rising and required a stronger response.

According to the then independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Sir David Anderson QC, at the time, he found a ‘lingering attachment in parts of MI5 to the notion that XRW [Extreme Right-Wing] plotting does not engage their national security function in the same way as Islamist plotting does’. He disputed this assessment, and the security establishment largely agreed, leading to the transfer of responsibility for the threat to MI5.

Yet reading the ISC report, it does not seem as though the actual threat from ERWT has notably increased in security assessments. In July 2019, MI5 is reported as saying: ‘Whilst we assess the ERWT threat to the UK is on a gradual upwards trajectory, we have not observed a significant increase in specific mobilisation or radicalisation during this reporting period, and ERWT investigations continue to constitute a significant minority of MI5’s CT [counterterrorism] casework’. This ‘minority’ was clarified by MI5’s Director General recently, who told the media earlier this month that ‘around one in five terrorism investigations in Great Britain were linked to neo-Nazi, racist ideology or other related extremism’, a rate he was reported to have said remained steady.

But the ISC report suggests that this might be a calm before the storm. It highlights research that suggests the coronavirus pandemic has materially strengthened the ERWT threat. Looking at online material, there is no doubt that the far right has adopted and absorbed narratives related to the pandemic to a greater degree than violent Islamists. In continental Europe, there has been a worrying growth in attacks, networks and plotting quite directly linking ERWT and the pandemic – the cases of Jurgen Conings in Belgium in May 2021 and a German network called the Vereinte Patrioten (United Patriots) that was disrupted in April this year highlighted some worrying trends. The involvement of serving armed forces members, the targeting of officials linked to healthcare, references to anti-vax narratives, and the wider networks around the plotters all indicated a problem that is moving in a dangerous direction. Europol’s latest annual report on the terrorist threat picture in Europe highlights how the number of attacks and plots in continental Europe has plateaued at around three per year, while the number of arrests continues to grow year-on-year.

But it is not clear how much this reflects what has been seen in the UK. There have been cases of serving police officers and soldiers being linked to ERWT groups, but these have been limited. The UK has not had to disband entire military units because of concerns about extreme right ideology as Germany has done, nor has the UK seen mobs linked in part to far-right groups attempt to storm or occupy public buildings (as seen in all other Five Eyes partners, to very different degrees). The UK has seen some hate crime and incidents such as 5G mast burnings which appear to be linked to online conspiracy theories, but these are not clear ERWT attacks.

Rather, the conclusion articulated by the ISC report, which seems to reflect the view of the wider security community, is that the threat in the UK from ERWT is for the most part dominated by Self-Initiated Terrorists (S-IT). While a number of ERWT groups have now been proscribed in the UK, only one attack has been linked to them. An interesting question raised by the ISC report is the degree to which the lone-actor threat and the ERWT threat might in fact be the same thing – or whether the ERWT threat is in large part an articulation of the lone-actor threat.

The report also highlights the significance of youth, autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and mental health issues among the ERWT caseload. While there is some internal dispute about these issues, the Homeland Security Group within the Home Office is quoted as highlighting how frontline services have reported an increase in ASD among their caseload, with a particular link to ERWT. The youth question is more obvious, with it becoming regular for very young teenagers to be arrested for ERWT offences (including most recently a 15-year-old boy from the Isle of Wight).

This poses a curious dissonance for authorities, who on the one hand have only seen actual ERWT attacks conducted by middle-aged men, while on the other hand teenagers increasingly dominate the arrest load. The question which was most recently alluded to by the Independent Terror Watchdog Jonathan Hall QC is whether these individuals are in fact simply ‘keyboard warriors’. Given most of their links and activity take place online, with few maturing to real-world plots, there is a question about the nature of the actual threat they pose – and by default, the wider threat ERWT poses if this is the majority of the arrests that are being seen.

There are also some curious aspects of the threat that are downplayed in the ISC paper, though it is difficult to draw too many conclusions on its threat assessments given the volume of redactions. Specifically, there are questions around the degree to which Russia and more recently the war in Ukraine have impacted the UK’s ERWT threat. Within the ISC report, suggestions are made about the far-right group Britain First’s connections to Moscow, but there are more worrying links out there. The Base, a proscribed organisation with deep roots across English-speaking countries, seems to be directed by an American based in Russia, while pro-Russian narratives are increasingly common among the ERWT community globally. This is interesting, as previously, ERWT individuals seeking training tended to go and fight alongside the far-right inclined Ukrainian Azov Battalion – though its current active support by Western authorities has confused things. It is not clear how many UK ERWT actors have actually gone to fight in the current conflict, and whether (if they have been fighting alongside Azov) they would actually pose a threat. How many (if any) have gone to fight on the Russian side is equally unclear.

The final point to consider and which the ISC paper alludes to is the degree to which this threat may be a product of its response. Early on, the report quotes MI5 as saying ‘it is difficult to establish an accurate historical trajectory of the ERWT threat on the grounds that the recent increase in focus by HMG and heightened public awareness of the ERWT threat has contributed to an increase in referrals and investigations’.

This raises the complicated interplay of threat and response. In the absence of attacks, terrorist threats are often defined by the response to them. Consequently, the ERWT threat in the UK is defined by the number of arrests, the volume of officials focused on it, and the proportion of capability that is being dedicated to looking at it. But none of these are objective metrics of the actual threat; rather, they are a reflection of the response. Were MI5 or the Police to dedicate more people to looking at the threat, doubtless they would find more things to look at. This is not to accuse them of artificially inflating the threat; it is simply that more resource would lower the general threshold for investigation.

This becomes relevant when looking at the wider threat picture and trying to objectively assess the degree of menace that is posed. It has been some time since the UK courts have seen any major terrorist case presented before them of the scale and ambition that used to be directed towards the country by al-Qa’ida or later Islamic State. There have not been any large-scale networks of the extreme right launching sophisticated and ambitious plots. National Action was stamped on by authorities before it could really mature, and before that one has to go back to the Aryan Strike Force, which in 2010 had mobilised people and one of its members had managed to produce ricinPatriotic Alternative may yet mature into a future threat, but as of yet it has not. The current threat picture that is seen consists of isolated individuals, shrinking numbers of arrests, and an ERWT threat that seems dominated by (though is not exclusive to) the very young.

The point is that it is not clear how much of a menace the ERWT threat actually is – or more generally how much it is a reflection of the attention it is getting rather than an increased threat. Most indicators suggest the UK’s general terror threat is down, and what plots are disrupted appear to be isolated lone actors often inspired by material they find or people they talk to online.

This is not to say that the threats from both violent Islamists or ERWT might not develop once again – the kindling is certainly in place at home and abroad. Nor is it to underplay the damage ERWT can do to the societal fabric in a way that a seemingly external threat like violent Islamists cannot. But it is to instead ask the question of whether the growing focus on an ERWT threat in the UK is appropriate. It has not yet matured to the state-level national security threat that it could have, but it is not clear if this is because of the security response to it, because the problem is decreasing, or because it is in fact a product of other societal issues which are now less linked to ERWT ideas than before (a possible explanation for the questions around ASD, mental health and youth). Finally, this comes back to the key recommendation made by the ISC for MI5 to receive more resources to deal with the ERWT threat. Is this a proportionate response to the threat, or might it actually have the counterproductive effect of highlighting or accentuating a more limited problem?

A shift away from book promotion (briefly!), to touch on the case of the murder of Sir David Amess, MP, who was brutally murdered by an ISIS acolyte in the most recent terrorist attack in the United Kingdom. As seems to be de rigeur, the case attracted a lot of attention to Prevent which has a long awaited review due out at some point. The piece was published by my British institutional home RUSI, thanks as ever to Jonathan for helping shepherd it through.

An MP’s Murder: The Failure of the Prevent Programme?

29 April 2022

The UK’s counterterrorism programme Prevent is once again under the spotlight. But can the programme ever really be expected to eradicate terrorism?


Main Image Credit Courtesy of Maureen McLean / Alamy Stock Photo

The conviction of Sir David Amess’s murderer has reignited the debate on counterterrorism practice in the UK. Much has been made of the fact that the MP’s murderer was someone who had been referred in his late teens to the government’s counterterrorism Prevent programme. It was the latest in a number of people referred to Prevent who have subsequently gone on to launch attacks, and comes as a major review of the programme is underway.

Prevent has consistently been the most publicly discussed aspect of the UK’s counterterrorism strategy, yet in budgetary terms it consumes the smallest amount of money of all of the ‘four Ps’ that make up the strategy (the other three are Pursue, Protect and Prepare). The other ‘Ps’ are focused on responding to events and pursuing networks, protecting targets and preparing the public, while Prevent is about stopping the terrorist threat from ever emerging. Within Prevent, there are a range of activities that take place, from preventative work to steer people off the path to radicalisation, to the work that is instead focused on trying to rehabilitate or de-radicalise people who have been convicted of terrorist activity.

Some of it is contentious work. While in principle, few would disagree with the notion of trying to stop people being drawn towards terrorist ideas and action, in practice this means engaging with people through the lens of a counterterrorist programme before they have actually committed any terrorist act. It can feel like people are being seen through a criminal lens before any criminal act has actually taken place. The film Minority Report with its Department of Pre-Crime is often invoked as a dystopian comparison.

In practice, Prevent is made up of thousands of referrals every year – made by police, educators, health workers and concerned citizens – to Prevent officers, who will then examine the case and determine whether it requires greater engagement. In the majority of instances, they will dismiss the case, concluding that the referral is incorrect. To give a sense of numbers, in the year ending 31 March 2021 there were 4,915 referrals, of which 1,333 were discussed at a Channel panel, and 688 were taken on as cases. The year before, there were 6,287 referrals, with 1,424 discussed at Channel and 697 taken on. While the proportions are not always identical, they are similar, and the key point is that in the overwhelming majority of cases a Prevent referral does not result in deeper investigation.

It is difficult to know why this is the case. It is possible that people are over-referring out of a lack of understanding of extremist ideas or out a sense of needing to be seen to be doing something. This is a possible impact of the Prevent duty which was brought in through legislation in 2015 which obligates educators in particular to play a role in preventing people from being drawn into terrorism (alongside the police they are the biggest source of referrals). It is possible that the system is misidentifying which of the referrals are genuine cases or not.

It is not clear exactly where in this process the recently identified failed cases were. But it is equally clear that they are outliers. While even one failure in this context is too many, it is notable that we have seen a decrease in the volume of overall terrorist arrests, and a drop in coordinated terrorist plots. The overwhelming majority of those that are currently disrupted are instead lone actors who seem to be inspired by groups, but have no real link to them. Police and intelligence services say the violent Islamist threat is the biggest terrorist problem they face. However, this does not appear to be translating into arrests or Prevent referrals, which instead suggest the growing threat of the extreme right wing. While the Home Office does not report ideology on arrest, the number in prisons identified as extreme right wing in prison is growing. In addition to this, there is a rise in cases that are identified as not having any clear ideological foundation. Whether any of this decrease in threats from Islamists is related to Prevent is difficult to know – a programme based around stopping things from happening is always going to struggle to prove its effectiveness.

The bigger question in some ways is a more existential one about Prevent. The initial concept of the UK’s counterterrorism strategy was to try to develop a programme which would seek to stop people from being drawn towards terrorist ideas and groups in the first place. It was an attempt to get ahead of the problem, rather than continually managing it – which is largely the role of the other three Ps in the strategy.

Yet, this pre-emptive approach was something that had never really been tried before. The UK had developed robust approaches to countering terrorism and defending targets to counter the threats of Irish-related terrorism and the various Middle Eastern factions that had launched attacks in the 1970s. But none of these sought to stop people from being drawn towards extremist ideas. It was more a case of disrupting networks and stopping people. De-radicalisation was also not something that had been tried with great vigour. In other forms of criminal behaviour, work had been done (and is being done) to try to stop people from choosing paths of crime and to rehabilitate them afterwards. But with terrorism, such an approach was new.

Two decades on from its inception, there are people who have abandoned extremist ideas, though in many cases they have done this as a result of their own choice and agency – sometimes prodded along by Prevent programmes. It is also likely that Prevent has steered some people away from bad choices, or that contact with the programme alone has scared them off the path they were on. Talk to people who have been engaged with by Prevent in communities, and you often find far more positive stories than media reporting would suggest. Surveys suggest attitudes in the broader public (amongst Muslim communities as well as the general public) are more positive than is suggested by the few voices that tend to dominate the public conversation. But it sometimes feels like another branch of social services, rather than a specific programme that is trying to stop terrorist incidents.

The problem Prevent is trying to deal with is a complex one. As we are learning with Sir David Amess’s murderer, in some cases, perpetrators stew in their ideas for some time, lashing out years after their first curiosity in extremist ideas arose. In many ways, this case is typical of a cohort that appeared around the fringes of the Syria traveller phenomenon – young men who often became radicalised alone (or started down the path alone), connected with others in person and online, and then sought to go to Syria. And in some cases – like this one – they failed to make it.

There were consistent warnings expressed by authorities at the time that the frustrated traveller community was of high concern. These were individuals who were radicalised enough to want to go and join Islamic State, but who were stumped by often quite simple hurdles in getting there. Their radicalisation did not decrease as a result of the failed journey (and might actually have gotten stronger), and they continued to be drawn to a group which would shout about people doing things at home if they could not come and join them in the Levant. It appears in this case that it took the perpetrator almost five years to decide to move towards action.

It is not entirely clear that Prevent would have been an effective vehicle to stop a culprit like this. Effective Prevent interventions require some agency and engagement by the individual. If they have no interest in being de-radicalised, then it is difficult to get them to move on from extremist ideas – imagine someone pressuring you to reject a strong belief you hold. In this case, the man was so committed that he kept the ideas to himself and launched an action years after he had first explored them. It is possible that consistent engagement by authorities during this time might have shifted him from this path – but it may have been difficult to tell whether he was someone who could be moved by this consistent level of engagement or if this would have been an appropriate use of potentially considerable public funds (or how many other cases might on paper look like this one but never materialise into an attack).

As with any major public incident, there is an eagerness to understand what went wrong and what needs to be changed as a result. The murder of an MP is a mercifully rare event, and merits attention to understand what went wrong. But it is equally clear that we need to think a bit harder about what our expectations are with Prevent, and some thought needs to go into whether it can ever be entirely foolproof in protecting society from terrorists. The answer to dealing with the reality of extremist tendencies might lie in some fundamental changes to our society. It is unclear that Prevent will be able to address this.

Another catch up piece, this time in the wake of the Sir David Amess murder for the Telegraph, looking at the incident through the lens of how COVID-19 has complicated counter-terrorism. A question that I have looked at a lot through various lenses, including a substantive assessment of the one-year impact of COVID-19 on terrorism and extremism for my institutional home in Singapore ICPVTR.

Lockdown has made the fight against terror even harder

The system relies on human contact, and people noticing those who might be going in the wrong direction

Countering radicalisation is a social activity. Most anti-extremism programmes are based on engagement with individuals, seeking to steer them back onto a path away from extremist ideas. This also applies to the efforts to get people to the attention of authorities.

The system relies on contacts and people noticing those who might be going in the wrong direction. So if human contact falls, the number of opportunities to notice radicalisation also declines. In the first months of lockdown, counter-terrorism police raised the alarm, noting that Prevent referrals had dropped by as much as 50 per cent. There seems little question that the pandemic and lockdown have made the fight against terror and extremism that much harder.

Prevent referrals are a random bunch, but the majority (according to the Home Office for the last available year) were either from police or the education sector. This is police officers, teachers or others who, in the course of their work, come across people who are exhibiting some sort of behaviour which might be indicative of radicalisation. Having noticed this, they flag it up and then an investigation is done to understand if the concern merits further attention. In the last year of reported data, 6,287 referrals were made, 1,424 merited deeper engagement, and 697 were adopted as part of a programme called Channel.

We have no idea where the suspect in the murder of Sir David Amess may have come on this spectrum after his Prevent referral five years ago. But we can be sure that many of the other societal contact points which are usually relied upon to generate these referrals disappeared during the pandemic. Repeated lockdowns, school and youth centre closures, and other restrictions will have made it harder for those watching out for these potential problems to come into contact with those veering in the wrong direction.

We also have no idea how many more people may have been radicalised while sitting at home, isolated, over the past two years. Those who were stuck on their computers and seeking answers while living in abusive environments at home may have been particularly vulnerable. Officials have warned of the threat the country faces from “lone actor” terrorists who may have been radicalised online during lockdown.

A number of horrible murders over the past year suggest distressed minds seemingly pushed to the brink. We will have to see how many will ultimately be linked to violent ideologies, though it seems clear that most extremist ones have received something of an uplift in online supporters during this strange period. On the extreme Right, for example, hundreds of anti-Semitic incidents have been reported, while at least 90 telephone mast burnings have been linked to anti-5G conspiracy theorists.

We have also seen a number of cases over the past few years where individuals with mental disorders or other social dysfunctions have launched attacks in the names of a violent Islamist ideology they barely comprehend. And it seems likely that the strangeness of the Covid-19 period has accelerated this trend.

The world may have stopped for Covid, but sadly extremist ideas did not.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at Rusi

Another Italian piece, this time an interview with La Repubblica newspaper which was done in the wake of the murder of Sir David Amess in the UK. Did a little bit of work on that story, but less than on some previous cases in part as a lot going on at home at the moment. In any case, going to catch up on a few pieces over the next few days, and then might be a little while before I am back up to pace. In the meantime, rest assured the new book is on schedule for April next year, and there are a few other interesting projects in the pipeline.

Pantucci: “Impossibile prevenire gli attacchi dei lupi solitari”

Intervista all’esperto di terrorismo del Royal United Services Institute: “Le democrazie devono aumentare i controlli ma senza rinunciare ai propri valori e principi”

Ansa

LONDRA – «Non è possibile prevenire del tutto il terrorismo a bassa intensità dei lupi solitari. Bisogna proteggere meglio i deputati, ma senza esagerare e senza limitare i loro contatti con i cittadini». È il parere di Raffaello Pantucci, esperto del Royal United Services Institute, prima think tank di problemi di sicurezza al mondo.  

Che cosa pensa dell’attacco contro il deputato David Amess? «Mi sembra il più recente di numerosi attentati dello stesso tipo, diventati in questo momento il focus della minaccia terroristica in Europa. Pochi giorni fa, in Norvegia abbiamo visto qualcosa di simile: un individuo con armi rudimentali, arco e frecce, che ha attaccato civili a caso».

Condivide la definizione di “terrorismo” fornita dalle autorità britanniche per questo attacco?«In parte sì, ma ancora non sappiamo quanto sia stato dettato da radicalismo politico e quanto da fattori psicologici che possono avere spinto questo individuo a un’azione del genere». 

Un altro precedente è il caso di Samuel Paty, l’insegnante francese decapitato nel 2020?«In quel caso sappiamo con maggiore certezza che era stato il radicalismo islamico a scatenare l’attacco. Ma il problema di fondo è simile: come affrontare la minaccia di lupi solitari o di piccole cellule che agiscono in modo autonomo da Isis, al Qaeda o altri gruppi terroristici». 

Si può definire terrorismo a bassa intensità?«Sì, e pone un problema molto complicato per le forze di sicurezza. Quando un individuo lancia un attacco con armi che tutti hanno in casa, come un coltello, o che è facile fabbricarsi da soli, come arco e frecce, è più difficile prevenirlo. Ancora più difficile se l’individuo non parla con nessuno delle sue intenzioni, non scrive messaggi che possano segnalarlo ai servizi antiterrorismo. Ma la risposta dipende anche da come lo definiamo. In passato un uomo che attacca con un coltello persone scelte a caso veniva considerato un pazzo o il risultato di rabbia sociale. Oggi la linea di demarcazione di atti del genere da attacchi terroristici è quasi scomparsa. Bisogna distinguere, perché se combatti il terrorismo devi ad esempio potenziare la polizia e i servizi segreti, ma se combatti la follia e la rabbia sociale ti servono più medici, psicologi e assistenti sociali».

Come limitare i rischi per i deputati senza limitare i loro contatti con i cittadini?«Nel 2016 la deputata laburista Jo Cox era stata assassinata nelle stesse circostanze di Amess, in quel caso da un estremista brexitiano di destra: i deputati presero qualche contro misura, stando più attenti a chi incontravano e preparando possibili vie di fuga. Con il tempo un po’ di quella cautela forse è andata persa». 

Ed è possibile prevenire il terrorismo a bassa intensità?«È impossibile scoprire tutti i lupi solitari e sarebbe antidemocratico considerare tutte le persone con problemi mentali come potenziali terroristi. La società democratica corre dei pericoli davanti a questo fenomeno: deve reagire aumentando i controlli di sicurezza ma senza esagerare, senza rinunciare ai propri valori e principi”.

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 September 11 anniversary linked piece, this time a short introductory essay for a collection of RUSI Journal articles assembled from the past twenty years which sketch out some of the main issues touched upon in the journal on terrorism. The request from the editors was to write something which tries to capture how research has evolved over this period. Re-reading the pieces (confess did not quite get to all of them), I realize that the Journal has really been a major outlet for various prominent voices for some time. Lots of interesting bits to read there and I would recommend taking time to read them while they are still open access until the end of the year.

The 9/11 Attacks: Two Decades of Countering Violent Extremism

Terrorism did not start with the attacks of 9/11, but there can be no doubt that these events changed the way that we think and look at the phenomenon. Terrorist spectaculars in themselves were not new – Carlos the Jackal had perfected the art, while seasoned terrorism watcher Brian Michael Jenkins had coined the phrase ‘terrorism is theater’ as early as 1974. But the magnitude and ambition that Al-Qa’ida displayed seemed to change things. For security experts, it pushed what had been largely seen as a niche specialisation into the centre ground of security thinking.

Within the research community it also engendered a new wave of thinking and research as people struggled to comprehend, explain and analyse the apparently new phenomenon that had burst on to our screens that clear September day. Much of the early discourse was an attempt to define what had just happened, both in terms of trying to comprehend who Al-Qa’ida was, but also to appropriately frame the response. The decision by the US to immediately move to a bellicose context meant a deeply conflictual stage was set early on. The decision to follow the invasion of Afghanistan with the invasion of Iraq only further complicated this discussion, steering us away from solely confronting Al-Qa’ida to taking on all adversaries out there. This muddying continues to ripple through the problems we see today.

Yet the truth that slapped the UK brutally in the face in July 2005 was that the threat was in fact one that came from within. Already in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the UK was shocked to discover there were young Britons fighting alongside the Taliban and Al-Qa’ida. The shoe bombers later in the year were evidence of what this could turn into. And in 2005, Londoners woke to the grim reality that these individuals were willing to come back and commit atrocities on their home soil. This exposed a key dimension that was going to be needed in the response: to find ways of better engaging with the wider communities within our societies from which these individuals came. The need for a holistic response had already been identified in 2003 in the early versions of the counterterrorism strategy CONTEST, but what this actually meant in practice and how essential this was only became apparent later.

But the converse of this holistic, all-of-society response, was to turn everyone into a security agent. Something that rankled parts of society who felt that the approach was overly intrusive and stepping all over civil liberties which a liberal-democratic society should cherish. While politics played some role in this discourse, the reality was that much of the political establishment was largely supportive of expansive powers being given to security services in their pursuit of shielding us from violent extremists.

The perennial conundrum this created, however, was that there was a conclusion that the problem came from within and we needed to work with Muslim communities in particular to deal with the problems. But at the same time, those very communities disliked the exaggerated negative attention they were receiving, feeling even more ostracised by the very policies purportedly developed to help them to better integrate.

These were unfortunately not debates that were ever really resolved, and took place against the backdrop of a threat that continued to evolve and develop. From being almost entirely directed by Al-Qa’ida using bases in Pakistan drawing on the UK’s deep human connection with that country, the terrorist threat spread to places such as Somalia and Yemen. Young Britons continued to get animated by extremist ideas and were drawn to an ever-expanding range of locations to join fundamentalist groups. This broadened the range of places the research community needed to understand. But it also highlighted the deep persistence of the problem even after senior figures and camps got hammered by the increasingly far-reaching UAV (drone) strike campaigns.

This particular tactic raised a new set of questions for the UK – around proportionality and state assassination. The US had clearly already set a path in this direction, but for the UK the discussion was a complex one which touched on a complicated history of the Irish troubles. The UAV capability provided a level of reach that was unparalleled, but it raised complicated ethical issues. Legal systems in the UK were already struggling with new legislation aiming to criminalise possession of material, ideas and conviction for acts which had not taken place.

And then the emergence of the Islamic State from the civil war in Syria appeared to suggest the entire cycle was repeating itself once again but closer to home. There were new tweaks to the Islamic State menace, whose exceptional online presence provided researchers with an extraordinary level of data and information which they could use to analyse the threats posed by the group. Individual terrorists could be spoken to from the battlefield. Group messaging became global and accessible instantaneously, something Osama bin Laden could only dream of achieving.

This also sharpened problems that were already emerging. The lone-actor threat had already started to appear in the UK in 2007. But by the time the war in Syria took off, it had become a more prominent part of the threat. In part no doubt as a result of an effective security response which made it harder for large-scale plots to get through, but also as a result of the fact that the ideas were now so diffuse that anyone could easily access them and react to them.

The research discourse also started to evolve. As we moved into a time of isolated terrorists, the question of ideology and group identity started to get overtaken by research focusing on individual stories, causes and narratives. This in turn created a wave of research trying to craft the nuanced responses that would be required to deal with a problem which was as unique as each individual who had become involved. This then opened up a focus on different sub-groups – be it on the basis of gender, age or mental health. This transformed the nature of communities that researchers were focused on.

But the grim reality is that the problem of terrorism has never really left us and is unlikely to. During this 20-year chapter defined by the opening salvo of the 9/11 attacks and closed (at least in political narrative terms) by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the world has gone through many contortions. The research community has found itself following and echoing these. But often the most frequent finding is that these problems are not new, the drivers are as much personal as societal, and the danger is that we continue to reinvent the wheel as we seek to find an answer to what is likely an intractable societal ill. Terrorism existed pre-9/11, and it is going to follow us deep into the future.

The RUSI Journal has published extensively on these themes over the past 20 years. This collection of articles traces how our understanding has evolved since that momentous day in September 2001.

A brief policy focused piece for a new outlet and institution called the UK National Committee on China (UKNCC) which they requested in the wake of the US led withdrawal from Afghanistan to try to focus on how the UK’s relationship with China needs to navigate this. It is part of a triumvirate of pieces they published including one by Alessandro and another by the Chinese Special Envoy for Afghan Affairs Yue Xiaoyong. Builds on something I wrote earlier for RUSI, and is likely to be an interesting and complicated policy question going forwards.

What are the implications of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan?

The world is increasingly defined by great power conflict. Escalating tensions between the US and China have grown to touch on almost every aspect of international relations. This reality has most recently been on display in Afghanistan. The US withdrawal from a two-decade long military commitment on China’s borders has thrown into question American security commitments and raised questions about what kind of a power China will be in its own backyard. For a power such as the United Kingdom that straddles the relationships between Beijing, Kabul and Washington, the question is how, in this complicated strategic equation, to ensure British interests. The balance is a complex one which highlights the nature of the challenges that the UK is going to face in trying to carve out its own path in the world.

The most prominent and immediate question to emerge from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is what it means for London’s much vaunted ‘special relationship’ with Washington. Senior officials, including the Defence Secretary, have openly questioned President Biden’s decision-making on the withdrawal, while the public discourse in London has focused on how events have shown the limits of British influence in Washington. Yet the reality remains that the US is the UK’s key strategic security ally on the world stage. The narrative of divergence in UK and US interests is exaggerated, even if it is clear that Washington is focusing on its confrontation with Beijing as the driving policy focus to the detriment of everything else.

At the same time, it is clear that the UK is unable to entirely disengage from Afghanistan. Quite aside from the deep commitments generated from twenty years of conflict, there are the human and historical connections that the UK has with South Asia. Large diaspora communities from Pakistan, and to a lesser extent from Afghanistan, give the UK a particular stake in the country and region. This also means that the UK needs to explore ways in which to engage and secure its interests in Afghanistan in the longer-term, including generating creative options that reflect the changing regional geopolitics.

The harsh geopolitical reality is that the United States-led withdrawal from Afghanistan will bolster Chinese influence in the region. This is not a reflection of a push by Beijing to fill an abstract security vacuum, but rather a demonstration of geographical reality. With the departure of American forces, Beijing is set to become the most consequential power in the Eurasian heartland. For the UK, threading the needle of a uninterested Washington and influential Beijing will require strategic thinking.

Chinese influence across Eurasia has been ascendant for some time. Yet until now, China has chosen to prioritize economic engagement, with security engagement placed a discrete but focused second. The American withdrawal from Afghanistan has complicated this approach. While parts of Beijing may have chafed at the idea of military bases on their borders, others sensibly reckoned that an American security presence was likely dealing with problems that otherwise Beijing might have to address.

The US withdrawal has therefore left Beijing seeking new partners in the region. The most pragmatic and logical choice from China’s perspective is the new Taliban-led government. However, there is still no clarity about the level of power and control the Taliban may command, their long-term stability in power, or whether they are interested in dealing with the issues that most concern Beijing. Recognizing this, China has also sought greater coordination with Russia, increased its bilateral discussion on Afghanistan with Iran, and continued its engagement with Pakistan.

Yet, while these relationships are more established than those with the Taliban, each has its own complications and mistrusts. This is most clear in the lack of any action or discussion recently by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) about doing anything concerning Afghanistan. Including as it does all of Afghanistan’s neighbours except Turkmenistan, and with a particular interest in terrorism, the SCO should theoretically be the obvious platform for greater engagement in Afghanistan.

Established with Chinese impetus, Beijing has long sought to get the SCO to do more in Afghanistan, but has struggled to get members to share its focus. For the most part, these other countries have rather sought to engage Afghanistan bilaterally or through other regional formats that they host and control.

In many ways, this is exactly the approach Beijing has itself taken. While China has done a great deal of multilateral engagement in the wider region and on Afghanistan, it has usually taken a bilateral approach to focus on its real interests, through selective security engagement, economic investment or developing political and social partnerships. In Afghanistan, the prime concern is that the country might become a base from which Uyghur militants (or other anti-Chinese elements) gather to try to attack China directly or its interests in the wider region. This has led to quite focused security and intelligence attention.

This focus on counter-terrorism is something that provides the UK with a first potential point of engagement. London is as concerned about terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan as Beijing is, though the degree of threat and the nature of them is slightly different. The degree of actual threat that China might face from militant Uyghurs in Afghanistan remains an open question. It is after all many years since a specific threat has been seen. There does though appear to be evidence of some presence and there is no doubt that its wider regional concerns are of relevance. In recent years, terrorists have targeted both China’s embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and its consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, part of a wider trend of targeting of Chinese interests.

But engagement on counterterrorism with China is a double-edged sword for the UK. There may be some concurrence in the assessment of threats abroad: for example, the UK continues to list the Turkestan Islamic Party (also known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement) as a proscribed terrorist entity in contrast to the US.

However, there is little agreement on domestic counter-terrorism policy. The UK has correctly been at the forefront of the global push to condemn Chinese action in Xinjiang which is done under the rubric of countering extremism. Threading the needle of engaging abroad while condemning at home will be difficult. But focusing on shared concerns about groups such as al Qaeda, ISIS, and other regional salafi-jihadi groups that are likely to play a major role in destabilizing the wider region would be something China and the UK might work on.

Focusing on cooperation through the Belt and Road Initiative is equally fraught, though for more prosaic reasons. Whilst Beijing talks a great deal about BRI cooperation, it is hard to find evidence of genuine action following this rhetoric.

The UK has tried, for example, a great deal in Pakistan with limited success. Meaningful BRI cooperation has been largely limited to the level of individual contracts where UK firms take on defined sub-contract roles within larger projects.

Humanitarian aid might offer itself as the most obvious first point of pressure and engagement. The Taliban take over has precipitated a frantic run for the door in all directions. Most visibly via Kabul International Airport, but in far larger numbers across the country’s land borders into Pakistan and Iran – places already swelled by years of Afghan emigration. These problems sit in addition to the larger humanitarian crisis that is likely coming in Afghanistan, if the country remains cut off from the international community and from the aid flows that dominated the economy. Beijing should be engaged and encouraged to expend more money and effort in alleviating these humanitarian crises that sit in its backyard.

What happens in Afghanistan matters to both the UK and China. It matters also to the United States, but Washington has clearly articulated that it is prioritizing efforts elsewhere. London should not step back in a similar way, but should instead explore whether targeted cooperation is possible to advance shared concerns and interests. While at the moment it increasingly looks like there is little appetite in Beijing for genuine cooperation, the problems that Afghanistan faces are likely to be with us for some time yet. Working towards encouraging Beijing to take a greater humanitarian role while recognizing the common terrorist threats offers a way of trying to strike the difficult strategic balance that the UK will need to find in a world of great power confrontation.

Still catching up on myself after a very busy period, this a quick policy note for RUSI picking up on some comments by the UK Foreign Secretary about the need to have to cooperate with China and Russia in Afghanistan. The idea of cooperating with China in particular in Afghanistan is something that lots of people have done over the years, and for those who may have been reading my stuff for a while will know I have done projects on since 2014 (looking at China-India cooperation), again in greater depth in 2016 and most recently last year between the UK and China. As Afghanistan’s wealthiest, and going forwards likely most influential, neighbour, it strikes that China is going to be playing a role or should be taking a more positive role. It makes sense to try to ensure some sort of cooperation can be maintained, while the larger relationships will continue to be incredibly challenging and confrontational. Of course all of this push towards engagement is something that only works if Beijing and Moscow also contribute, something that they have hesitated to do so far (in particular in China’s case).

Enlisting China and Russia in Managing Afghanistan

The UK foreign secretary is the first to raise what will soon become an imperative: engaging with China and Russia in containing the fallout from Afghanistan.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen leaves after a news conference in Moscow, 9 July 2021. Courtesy of Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo.

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s recent comments about enlisting the support of China and Russia to act as moderating influences in Afghanistan amounts to a sober admission of reality: the long-term answer to stability in Afghanistan is going to come from its immediate region. The snag with this assessment is that Afghanistan is a state entirely surrounded by countries that are in one way or another sanctioned by the West. It is this adversarial relationship with much of Afghanistan’s neighbourhood that makes it difficult for a power like the UK to influence events, especially when it comes to engaging Moscow and Beijing on something as sensitive as Afghanistan. So, what exactly can the West in general, and the UK in particular, expect in requesting support from China and Russia in the context of Afghanistan?

Not Exactly Enthused

The first fact to note is that, notwithstanding rhetoric, neither Beijing nor Moscow are pleased with the ultimate outcome of an unstable Afghanistan. They may enjoy the West’s perceived failure and ignominious departure, but an Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban is not an outcome they welcome with excitement. Violent Islamists imbued with a sense of victory present a potential inspiration to extreme groups within China and Russia. It is worth remembering that the Taliban has previously provided space from which militants targeting these countries could operate. Furthermore, any short- or medium-term terrorist threat that could emanate from Afghanistan is most likely to appear in its immediate region rather than further afield.

Neither are Beijing or Moscow attracted to an unstable Afghanistan with a weak or internally divided government without the stabilising force of US power. Such a situation would be an irritant which sits near their borders and could have other consequences for their broader spheres of influence and interests across the Eurasian heartland. Beijing and Moscow would rather have a Taliban government that found a way of creating a stable environment, most preferably through some political agreement. There is likely a divergence in views between London, Beijing and Moscow on what the specific composition of this government might look like, but there is probably an underlying agreement about the broad structure.

Keep it Simple, Keep it Focused

While this suggests a restriction to the degree to which China and Russia will cooperate on Afghan politics, it also indicates a certain alignment with Beijing and Moscow, as their goal is similar to that pursued by the UK. All three want stability. But, rather than expend political capital on precise deliverables that may be unattainable, the focus should be kept on larger goals.

A priority must be to apply whatever pressure is possible to get Beijing and Moscow to encourage the Taliban to facilitate a positive outcome to the current humanitarian crisis at Kabul airport. In the medium term, the UK should impress upon Beijing and Moscow the need to increase their humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and its neighbours. China has considerable wealth and influence in Pakistan, where numerous Afghan refugees are already flowing. Providing greater aid and support for this community, while also continuing the provision of coronavirus pandemic-related aid to Afghanistan, should be a priority. Similarly, Iran is experiencing a refugee influx it can ill afford to manage as it continues to suffer from the effects of the pandemic. Beijing and Tehran have recently started to strengthen their engagement, opening discussions on Afghanistan in particular.

Moscow has already demonstrated a desire to restrict US options in Central Asia, but Russia can still be pushed to step up its humanitarian support to help the countries of the region manage the humanitarian fallout. Before the fall of Kabul, Moscow was offering itself as a valued security bolster to the Central Asian powers, and it should be encouraged to build on this with greater humanitarian aid.

In order to help foster greater cooperation, a key plank of engagement is the joint concerns all three powers have about terrorist threats. Pressure needs to be maintained on the Taliban to ensure their territory is not used by militant groups to launch external attacks. The reality is that both China and Russia (through Central Asia) are under a greater threat than the West from such a development. The UK faces a clear risk through Pakistan, and the deep human links the two countries share, which unfortunately extends to South Asian militancy and extremism. Here, discussion between the UK, China and Russia should be easier. All three already agree in broad terms on the shape of the violent Islamist threat (though domestic assessments and counterterrorism approaches vary wildly). A dialogue with Beijing on the topic would be easier for the UK in particular, given it has not, unlike the US, removed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement from its roster of proscribed terrorist organisations, considering it another name for the Turkestan Islamic Party.

Looking to the future, both China and Russia should be encouraged to live up to their various promises of support for Afghanistan, from trying to work in a more collective and coordinated fashion to help impede the flow of narcotics to boosting cross-border trade and low-level economic activity.

At the moment, much of the discussion around the Afghan economy tends to focus on overly ambitious, long-term and frankly unviable economic visions for the country, be these China’s Belt and Road concept or the opportunity to mine Afghanistan’s potential mineral wealth. The reality is that none of this wealth was extracted during the relative stability of the past 20 years of US-led intervention, when there was a government that had the ability and knowledge necessary to help deliver complicated extractive projects. It is difficult to comprehend why this situation would now be improved or the country seem more appealing, even to more risk-tolerant Chinese firms. Furthermore, such projects take years to see benefits, and the people of Afghanistan need assistance now.

And Less of the ‘Great Game’

It would be useful for the UK to do everything it can to ensure that Afghanistan does not get caught in the grinding tectonic plates of international geopolitics once again. Beijing has already started to identify the country as a potential point of conflict with the US and India, and efforts should focus on disentangling these threads to try to encourage cooperation again. Afghanistan used to shine as a place where adversaries like the US, China and India could cooperate, even if only to a limited extent.

At this stage, any engagement on Afghanistan with other powers must be done with great care. The situation on the ground remains highly unstable and the tussles for power are febrile. Regardless of who ultimately takes and maintains control in Kabul, however, Beijing and Moscow will be highly influential players. Engaging with them in some form will be hard to avoid; the key objective is to do so meaningfully.

It has been a very busy month in the world and in work terms, and have been delinquent about posting. So quite a lot of catching up to do over the next few days. First up is a piece for an outlet I used to contribute to quite regularly, the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor on a topic that I used to cover annually for them, providing a short review of the annual Europol Annual Terrorist Threat report. This year’s highlighted the problem of lone actors in particular as the core of the terrorist threat. As with all these sorts of reports, the data collection requires caveats, but the trends are nonetheless very interesting.

New Europol Report Warns of Lone Actors and Analyzes Decrease in Terrorism in 2020

Terrorism Monitor: Volume 19, Issue: 15

Source: europarl.europa.eu

In late June, Abdirahman Jibril A, a 24-year-old Somali migrant legally residing in Germany, walked barefoot into a Woolworth shop in the center of Würzburg, Bavaria asking for the kitchenware department. Once there, he took a large kitchen knife and started attacking people. When he was finally brought down by police and pedestrians, he had murdered three people and injured seven others.

The attack came only a week after the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol) had launched its latest annual report, which highlighted that lone actor terrorism of this sort is the sharp end of the threat Europe faces. Most worrying for Europol chief, Catherine de Bolle, was the fact that “more jihadist terrorist attacks were completed than thwarted during 2020.” While absolute numbers of such attacks remain low at 15 attacks recorded over the year, the lone actor threat remains a critical gap in European counterterrorism.

Comparing the Attackers in Würzburg and France

At time of writing, details around the Würzburg attacker were lacking. Authorities in Germany seemed divided between whether he was a terrorist or suffering from some sort of mental crisis at the time of the attack. While he was reported as having shouted “Allahu Akhbar” during the attack, authorities appear not to have concluded that he consumed much jihadist or other radical material prior to the attack. Discussions with family members have also not clarified the extent of his radicalization (tagesspiegel, July 15). Some reports indicated a history of serious mental issues, including hearing voices and believing himself to be followed by the authorities (Welt, July 2). The attack seems part of a pattern of incidents highlighted in the Europol report whereby “some lone attackers in 2020 again displayed a combination of extremist ideology and mental health issues. This made it difficult at times to distinguish between terrorist attacks and violence caused by mental health problems.”

In some cases, authorities have gone so far as to blame COVID-19 for attacks. The Europol report mentions, “At an individual level, there is a risk that the situation created by the pandemic could be an additional stress factor for radicalized individuals with mental health problems. As a result, lone actors might turn to violence sooner than they would have done under different circumstances.” French authorities in particular have suggested that two cases almost exactly a year apart reflect this trend, with mental strain pushing individuals previously not known to authorities to launch extremist attacks.

The first attack in Romans-sur-Isère came just as lockdowns were starting in France in April 2020 and was conducted by a Sudanese migrant who murdered two people and injured five others waiting in a shop. He was found to have extremist material, though ultimately he was placed into a secure mental health unit (lemonde.com, May 11). Almost exactly a year later, a Tunisian man who had lived in France for several years attacked staff at a police station in Rambouillet, leading to one death. This attacker was as unknown to authorities as the man in Romans-sur-Isère and was listening to extremist material at the time of his attack. He was shouting “Allahu Akhbar” during his attack before being killed by police. Authorities are still unclear about his radicalization process, although indicators, including his online activity, appear to suggest it may have in part been triggered by COVID-19 lockdowns (lexpress.fr, April 25).

Diminishing Mainstream Jihadism and Right- and Left-Wing Terrorism?

Notwithstanding the attacks in Würzburg and France, the Europol report is notable for highlighting the more mainstream jihadist activity that might have been expected has not materialized. The report mentions that few people sought to travel to foreign terrorist battlefields in the past year, and downplayed the criminal-terrorism nexus. It stated, “In the EU, there is little evidence of systematic cooperation between criminals and terrorists…The nexus between crime and jihadist terrorism mainly manifested itself through financing sources as well as within prisons.”

The report highlighted that a third of the attacks identified during the reporting year involved individuals who had previous criminal charges for terrorism offences. However, it downplayed the link, stating that “recidivism among terrorism convicts in Europe is relatively low.” A lingering sense of threat from the western Balkans is felt throughout the report, however, as the successful Vienna attacker in November 2020 revealed a terrorist network linked to Islamic State (IS) and the Middle East (Terrorism Monitor, December 3, 2020).

Beyond violent Islamists, the report also discussed extreme right-wing terrorism as a threat, although reported numbers are relatively low. The report, for example, identified one successful extreme right-wing attack in Hanau, Germany in February 2020 (dw.com, February 20, 2020). However, it made the point that while that shooter was clearly racist, it was unclear the degree to which he was connected to any other networks.  The report also highlighted three other disrupted attacks in Belgium, Germany, and France, the growing trajectory right wing extremist youths, and the importance of online communities for this contingent (brusselstimes.com, July 28, 2020; euronews.com, January 28, 2020; francebleu.fr, May 29, 2020).

Also notable is that Europol reported that there were more actual attacks on the far-left and anarchist side of the coin than from right-wing extremists, although the former did not result in any fatalities. According to the report, some 24 attacks were reported in Italy, with another one disrupted in France. An example of the incidents in Italy was a parcel bomb sent to Giuseppe Pasini, the leader of the Brescia industry association and Chair of local Steelmaker Feralpi Group in September 2020 (Giornale di Brescia, September 23, 2020).

More recently, Italian authorities noted an increase in anarchist violence directed at authorities and COVID-19 response centers, television transmitters, ATMs, and other public defacements (Panorama, April 21). This reflects Europol reporting in 2019 where more than 20 incidents were recorded in Italy, as well as in Spain and Greece, and a broader trend in Europe whereby left-wing/anarchist groups tend to be more active in southern European countries (Europol, June 2020). While for the most part they are involved in letter bomb and firebombing campaigns that cause damage to property rather than life, the Council of the European Union held a discussion on July 7, 2021 to examine whether the seeming escalation of the threat required a greater focus from a higher level (Council of the European Union, July 1).

Conclusion

The overall narrative from Europol reporting is that terrorist threats in Europe are down, though the agency hesitates to say this is a result of lowered activity and speculates that the downturn might be linked to COVID-19-related restrictions. It states, “This decrease, however, is not necessarily linked to decreased terrorist activities. The UK cautioned that the decline in terrorism-related arrests and convictions can also be attributed to the operational changes necessary under government restrictions imposed in March 2020, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Published in the middle of 2021, it is notable that the trends highlighted in the report for 2020 appear to have carried forward. Thus far, few violent Islamist attacks have taken place in Europe, and those that have taken place are similar to the Würzburg attack, including an incident in Vetlanda, Sweden in March, another stabber in Dresden, Germany days after the Würzburg attack, and a former terrorist offender who attacked a police officer in France in May (politico.eu, March 4; tagesspiegel.de, July 6; France24.com, May 28). All were identified in reporting as individuals ideologically inspired and troubled. Meanwhile, the case in May of Jurgen Conings in Belgium, who tried to kill a virologist before dying while in hiding in the wilderness, highlighted the danger on the far right (politico.eu, June 20). Isolated individuals launching one-man terrorist campaigns appear to be the sharp end of the terrorist threat in Europe for the moment.