Posts Tagged ‘US’

Trying to be a bit more rapid about my updates this time, here is a brief Telegraph commentary that came out looking at the geopolitics of Coronavirus and the impact it is having on the west and China in particular.

China is losing the geopolitical battle of coronavirus. Unfortunately, the West is too

The more dominant public narrative is of

The Chinese government has embarked on a highly-publicised campaign to supply medical supplies to European nations as they contend with their own domestic outbreaks of coronavirus. But for all the noise Beijing is making about its “medical diplomacy”, it is hard to see how many new friends it has won.

So far, expressions of gratitude have come from predictable places, while China’s critics have focused on the unreliability of Chinese data or conspiracy theories advanced by Foreign Ministry spokesmen. It is not clear that China is winning the geopolitical conflict around Covid-19. Unfortunately, neither is the United States, which leaves a dangerous vacuum at the top.

But while China might not be winning this narrative, it is strengthening itself at home, creating a context which will leave Beijing well-placed to paint itself as a successful government in comparison to others around the world, when the short-term nightmare of covid-19 has passed.

This will have repercussions for China’s future behaviour, and for parts of the world that were already inclined in Beijing’s direction. China may not be winning new geopolitical space, but it is shoring itself up at home. This will make it even more assertive in the future.

One narrative that has caught on in public discourse is that China has ramped up its medical aid in a cynical attempt to use the current chaos to win new influence. Countries like Italy are described as being abandoned by their European brothers while the friendly Chinese sweep in with aid and gifts, in a clear geopolitical “win” for China.

The reality is far more complicated. The EU has mobilised considerable resources to support its member states. EU rules around state aid have been relaxed to allow countries to support affected industries better. Medical aid has flowed around the continent, and a growing number of intensive care cases from the hardest stricken countries like Italy are being sent to neighbouring countries. And while there is no denying the Chinese support, it happened after considerable volumes of European aid flowed to China when the country was in the heat of its own crisis – all delivered with much less fanfare.

This is not unknown in the halls of power. European governments know that their first port of call will always be their neighbours. Those who shout about Chinese aid are for the most part using it to score political points against adversaries, either at home or in Brussels. Leaders who have thanked China in more modest tones have only done the courteous thing which is expressed gratitude when someone offers you support.

Media reports have instead focused on Chinese equipment being delivered either with caveats or outright defective or faulty. Conspiracy theories advanced by Chinese foreign ministry officials about the virus being a product of some US military plan have failed to gain traction, and there is open doubt about data around the virus reported by Beijing.

There is little evidence that we are seeing a groundswell of positive perspectives on China sweeping across Europe. For all Beijing’s efforts, it has failed to win hearts and minds through medical outreach and aid.

Where these narratives have worked is at home, where the conspiracy theories in particular, as well as the stories of munificence and the improved domestic situation, have shaped Chinese domestic perceptions of the virus. The narrative in China is that Beijing has controlled the virus domestically, but now faces a second wave from irresponsible European countries who failed to control their own outbreaks and are exporting trouble back to China.

Such narratives also focus on domestic success and external enemies stirring up trouble within China, something already visible in the conspiracy theories about the virus emanating from the United States military. The rally to the flag effect this produces is only exacerbated when Chinese people see the dominant narrative in Europe being of defective Chinese equipment and cynicism about Chinese motives. The sense of hurt this generates could widen the gulf between China and Europe. None of this is strengthening China geopolitically, but it is certainly strengthening the Chinese leadership at home.

This is not dissimilar to what is happening in Washington, where the government has slowly let the crisis overwhelm it, used anti-Chinese narratives to apportion blame and has failed to take a global leadership role. The result is a situation which could be wide open for middle powers – including Britain – to step forward. But this has not yet happened; everyone is understandably distracted with their own problems. The result is a rudderless moment in international geopolitics, at a moment when great conflict was already the keynote.

This is where the real danger of Chinese influence could lie. It is not in China influencing new parts of Europe, but instead becoming even more detached. Building a nationalist narrative at home will make even greater aggression abroad politically possible in the future. An already confident China will feel even more emboldened while the rest of the world lacks any clear way forward and will be left reeling by the economic damage Covid-19 will unleash.

We are entering a moment of even greater geopolitical uncertainty, with adversarial behaviour all around and no clear leader. Nature abhors a vacuum, and Covid-19 has torn a big hole in our already confused order.

A new piece for the Financial Times Beyond BRICS site, looking at the wake of Secretary Pompeo’s trip to Central Asia. Covers ground that I have trodden a bit before, but also sets up some of the ideas in an upcoming much bigger book project. This aside, an earlier Foreign Policy piece on the UK’s response to the new terrorist threat was picked up in the I newspaper in the UK.

US unlikely to change minds by shouting at China’s neighbours
Washington needs more sophisticated narrative to break central Asia’s pragmatic ties to Beijing
February 24 2020

Workers outside the perimeter fence of what is officially an education centre in Xinjiang, China

Workers outside what is officially an education centre in Xinjiang, China. The plight of the Uighurs is not the only plank of Washington’s push against Beijing in the region © REUTERS

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to central Asia was the latest stop on his global push against China. It comes amid visits to Africa, Latin America and Europe where China featured high on the agenda.

As the confrontation with Beijing slowly spills into every facet of relations — from trade and technology to social media, scientific exchange and business of every sort — China has become a top talking point everywhere US officials go.

The problem is that this uniform and loud hostility will work to different degrees around the world. And nowhere is it likely to be less effective than among China’s neighbours, which are bound by geography to have a relationship with Beijing.

Mr Pompeo’s visit to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan followed a session on the fringes of the UN General Assembly meeting last year when he pressed those countries on their relationship with China and zeroed in on China’s mistreatment of its Uighur minority as an issue of common concern.

While the central Asians made the right noises, none of them was willing to be as forward in their criticism of China as Mr Pompeo. This was repeated on his visit to central Asia, when the secretary of state had a meeting with families of people with relations caught up in Xinjiang’s grim detention camp system. While he kept pushing for condemnation by local authorities, he was met with silence.

The plight of the Uighurs was not the only plank of Mr Pompeo’s push against China in the region. He also spoke of the dangers of Chinese investment, railing against the Belt and Road Initiative concept in particular. This is a tune which his colleague Alice Wells, the principal deputy assistant secretary for the region, has been pushing in south Asia, most prominently in comments before a congressional committee on Afghanistan and during a think-tank event in Washington.

Talking of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as “debt trap” diplomacy, and complaining about the lack of Chinese economic support in Afghanistan, Ms Wells has been replicating in south Asia her secretary’s push in central Asia.

Partners across China’s western flank are being told off by senior US officials for their relations with Beijing, and increasingly being pressured into confronting China more aggressively. The problem is that while these countries may respect the raw power Washington represents, they are also neighbours of China with strong economic and human ties.

These human ties are particularly relevant when it comes to what is happening in Xinjiang where there is evidence that central and south Asian family members are getting caught up in the camp system. But while countries feel some level of concern about their people, they are sensitive to the fact that this is taking place within China to Chinese nationals.

From their perspective, Beijing has not meddled in their affairs, so why should they violate this and meddle in those of Beijing? The central Asians in particular share with China a broadly similar assessment of what constitutes terrorism and extremism, and they are almost all bound together through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. They have little incentive to pick a fight with Beijing over what is happening.

In fact, the central Asia-China relationship is one with many layers. There is very little love lost between the peoples of the two regions at a public level — in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan there has been a noticeable increase in the past year of protests and clashes between Chinese populations and locals.

However, at a security level, they are getting closer. In economic terms — where almost all the attention is — their relationship is growing. The US is largely an irrelevance in trade terms for the region. Foreign direct investment is a similar story, though the US is more represented through international financial institutions. Nevertheless, none of these countries see their economic future as realistically bound up with Washington.

And the US has shown itself to be relatively uninterested in the region more generally. Mr Pompeo’s visit was the first by a senior US official since secretary of state John Kerry visited in 2015.

Aside from China (and Russia and Iran to a lesser degree), Washington’s principal preoccupation with the region appears to be to exit Afghanistan. creating a potentially major security issue on the borders of some central Asian states.

The US is also locked in an increasingly aggressive conflict with another of their neighbours, Iran, and has passed sanctions against another, Russia, as well. Living in this neighbourhood means the central Asians have to take a more pragmatic view.

The US continues to have a deep wellspring of admirers around the globe. They are increasingly finding this affection tested by the lectures about China. Nowhere is this more so than among China’s neighbours — all of whom are concerned about China’s rise but see that as an opportunity and a challenge they have to engage with rather than cut off from.

Washington needs to develop a more sophisticated and consistent narrative if it is to persuade them to work with it more closely.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a UK think-tank

Been quiet for a few weeks as I try to crack on with some much longer and larger writing commitments. They should land eventually and cover a few issues I look at. In the meantime, however, I have been doing a bit around the current threat pulse that is passing through the system. I did a few media bits, including a longer interview for ITN that was used by the Telegraph. Below is my contribution to the conversation from the yesterday for my institutional home, RUSI. More on this story as it emerges.

Al-Qa’ida’s August Surprise?

RUSI Analysis, 5 Aug 2013
By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

US officials are speaking of a level of terrorist chatter as high as that prior to 11 September 2001. With Embassy closures across the Muslim world, large-scale prison breaks in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan, the threat tempo is rising. Is Al-Qa’ida planning an August surprise?

AQAP Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula

The weekend announcement by the American government that nineteen embassies should remain closed through the next week, alongside a travel advisory for US citizens travelling in the region, seems to emanate from a threat linked to Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Coming hot on the heels of a series of large-scale prison breaks in IraqLibya and Pakistan, the fear is that this is part of some co-ordinated effort. The reality is probably far more complicated than this, with the larger point being that the threat from Al-Qa’ida affiliated and associated terrorism continues to be a major concern.

The Threat from Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula

The first aspect to focus on is the danger from Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the driver of the threat reporting this past weekend. It seems to be focused on Sana’a in particular, with American, British, French, and German embassies all electing to close in Yemen last weekend. This was extended for the US, UK and German Embassies at least through Eid at the end of the week. French Foreign Minister Fabius announced the French mission would reopen Wednesday. Beyond this, the US closed a further twenty embassies across the Muslim world, while Canada decided to close its in Dhaka, Bangladesh – all relating to the same stream of threat reporting.

The level of specificity around the threat suggests that intelligence agencies have intercepted something particular, but the link to AQAP is not surprising. It is just over two weeks since Transport Security Administration (TSA) Administrator John Pistole confirmed a story that had been circulating for some time that AQAP master bomb-maker Ibrahim al-Asiri had managed to successfully train a number of students. This knowledge transfer was seen as particularly dangerous given that al-Asiri has been responsible for a number of cunning devices that were able to penetrate airport security – Umar ‘underpants bomber’ Farouk Abdulmutallab, the dual printer bombs that were intercepted in Dubai and the UK while en route to the US, and the ‘underpants 2‘ bomb that was handed over to authorities by an agent that had penetrated AQAP. In addition, we have seen a growing volume of drone strikes in Yemen in the past few weeks withthree in quick succession since July 28, suggesting a growing focus by US intelligence.

A year has now passed since a bomb with al-Asiri’s touch had been publicly detected, but he remains on the loose and eager to strike the US. Most recently, there has been a particular tempo of threat warnings from Al-Qa’ida in particular with leader Ayman al Zawahiri vowing to ‘spare no effort’ to free the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, whilst also condemning the use of drones. Guantanamo has a particular resonance with the leadership of AQAP, with recently deceased senior member Saaed al Shirhi having spent time in the jail before being released in 2007. His death by drone was recently confirmed by Ibrahim al Rubaish, another senior AQAP member who had been in Guantanamo. The group vowed to avenge his death. AQAP leader Nasir al Wuhaishi, a former confidant of Osama bin Laden is reported to have been promoted to a senior role within the global Al-Qa’idaorganisation. The close links between what is left of Al-Qa’ida core in Waziristan and AQAP in Yemen, its technical capabilities, as well as its ability to control pieces of territory in Yemen, all point to it being one of the most dangerous of the Al-Qa’ida affiliates in terms of wanting and being able to launch attacks in the West.

As Al-Qa’ida-Core Fades, Al-Qa’ida Affiliates Consolidate

All of this comes in parallel to the large-scale prison breaks that we have seen in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. The exact implications of the Libya break-out is unclear. But in Iraq and Pakistan the hand of Al-Qa’ida linked groups can be seen. In Pakistan, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) demonstrated an ability to once again launch targeted operations with relative impunity in Pakistan – this time leading to the release of some 250 prisoners. It is unclear whether any of them were particularly high value targets, but doubtless the influx of people will be a boost to the organisation’s capabilities regionally.

The Iraqi break seems far more alarming, especially given the reporting that a number of individuals of high concern have escaped. This comes as the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham (ISIS, the Iraqi affiliate of Al-Qa’ida that has spread its wings deep into Syria), the group that claimed responsibility for the prison break, demonstrates an increasing ability on the field in Syria, while the death toll in Iraq last month is creeping up to the levels of the brutal insurgency of a few years ago. The almost 1,000 killed in the past month is a five year high. The influx of hardened fighters in the wake of the prison break will only further bolster its capabilities and raise the potential risk of the group launching attacks against targets in the broader region.

And atop this, we have seen a growing tempo of violence from the long brewing insurgency in the Egyptian Sinai and an open question hanging over what will happen now that the military has deposed the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring, has seen gradually escalating violence and instability with targeted political assassinations, a number ofdeadly clashes between militants and authorities, and a man blowing himself up by accident in the capital while preparing a device. A recent report on foreign fighters being drawn to the battlefield in Syria highlighted the fact that in the dataset examined by the authors of death notices posted by groups, Tunisians accounted for the second-most number of foreign nationals killed at the front. This is a surprising evolution, further suggesting that jihadi fervor is strong in the country. And across North and West Africa, brewing hotspots and roving networks continue to launch sporadic attacks. In Somalia, a group that had largely been counted out, al-Shabaab, continues to be able to function with a relatively regular flow of incidents attributed to the group.

It seems, therefore, that there are many facets to this complicated threat picture, but it is not clear as to the degree to which all of these are connected. Even in the cases where there are clear and known links between the groups, it is not certain that all of these activities can be seen as part of a campaign.

Instead, a conclusion that can be drawn is the fact that some terrorist groups abroad are growing in strength and capability. At the moment, they remain relatively disparate with occasional links and connections though the co-ordination and global drive that used to underline Al-Qa’ida seems to have gone. But the connections cannot be completely discounted – in particular with AQAP – and the unifying impact of the conflict in Syria may yet bring some coherence back to the group.

There is a longer-term concern here. The more groups are able to consolidate their hold on pieces of territory, replenish their ranks through prison breaks and gain greater experience on the battlefield, the more experience and capability they develop. At the moment this seems something that is of greater regional than international concern, but the worry remains that eventually they might decide to live up to their international aspirations and rhetoric. Alternatively, individuals or groups with global ambition or anti-Western views might use these groups as a springboard to launch attacks against the West, drawing on their replenished capacity to attack.

Al-Qa’ida may now be a shadow of its former self, but the ideology and, more importantly, the affiliates it helped nurture remain. As they benefit from the chaos stirred by the Arab Spring, the long tail left after the 11 September, 2001 attacks gets longer. Countering terrorism overseas is clearly going to be key for Western policymakers for the next few years

Finally catching up on some old posting – this is a second piece I wrote for my new Institute RUSI.

Boston Bombers Highlight Difficulties of Countering Isolated Terror Cells

RUSI Analysis, 24 Apr 2013

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

As motives and operational set-up of the Boston bombers become known, urgent questions will be asked about how US intelligence agencies are prioritising threats in the United States. The case reveals the huge dilemma faced in collecting, evaluating and acting on credible intelligence leads.

Boston Bombers

We do not yet know with absolute clarity what motivated the Boston bombers, who last week so dramatically caught the public’s attention. It also remains unclear the extent to which the two may or may not have been connected to international terrorist networks. What is clear, however, is the danger that such small and disconnected terrorist cells pose and the difficulties that security services face in countering them.

Questions are now being asked about the degree to which the Boston brothers’ were connected or directed by any outside forces. Their Chechen heritage, recent travels to the restive Dagestan part of Russia and their online footprint showing an interest in Chechen jihadism all point to a possible link through the northern Caucasus to international jihadi networks. The fact that Russia appears to have flagged their concerns on older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev to the FBI suggests that there may have been more to this connection than simple coincidence. However, given Russia’s robust approach to counter-terrorism, it seems unlikely they would have let a suspect of serious concern travel in and out of their country without some form of action. Furthermore, while there have been instances of Chechen individuals being involved in plots outside Russia, for the most part Chechen jihadist networks have focused on Russia with some links to battlefields in Afghanistan and Syria.

Instead, it seems more likely that the Tsarnaev brothers are a ‘lone’ or ‘solo’ actors that were partially radicalized online and carried out their attacks without direction from overseas.. While there seem to be some investigative strands that suggest others – specifically a mysterious figure named Misha – may have facilitated on Tamerlan’s radicalisation, the investigation does not seem to be pointing to a wider terrorist cell with many external connections. The conclusion seems to be that the men found and absorbed radical ideas largely by themselves, before deciding to launch a terrorist campaign to punish America for wars against Islam and in line with ideas they found in publications like Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Inspire magazine, advanced by preachers like Sheikh Feiz Mohammed and possibly explained by individuals like the mysterious Misha.

Reportedly, Dzhokhar, the younger brother, told investigators that they got their bomb design and ideas from Inspire magazine, the publication put out by Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It seems that the reported pressure cooker device used at the Boston bombing may have been drawn from a design suggested in the first edition of the magazine from Summer of 2010 . Moreover, it appears that this was merely the first incident in an intended campaign of further destruction. According to investigators, the brothers told a man whose car they hijacked that ‘we just killed a cop. We blew up the marathon. And now we’re going to New York.’ But so far no evidence has emerged that there was anyone orchestrating this plot, telling the men what to do and who to attack. The targeting of a marathon, a random policeman and then heading to New York is all very evocative of Inspire magazine’s brand of terrorism against society at large rather than symbols of government or authority.

The Dilemma of Identifying an Isolated Threat

From a security analysis perspective, it is often connections that make it possible for authorities to become alert to individuals or terrorist cells. Intercepted communications or contact with known extremists will place cells or individuals on official radars, leading to possible deeper investigation that may uncover the existence of a threat. Networks tend to trip over intelligence leads directing authorities to focus on them as particular potential threats.

The particular problem, however, posed by ‘lone’ or ‘solo actor’ individuals – that is a terrorist cell that conduct attacks without any clear direction or command and control from external groups – is that oftentimes they may throw up subsequent connections, but these are hidden amongst a mass of other information. For example, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s travel to Chechnya and his online activity may be something that now seem deeply suspicious, but it is possible that at the time they would have been pieces of evidence that are fairly common amongst young North Caucasians. The fact that the extent of the Russian follow-up was to warn American counterparts of their concerns suggests that these links did not draw bright red flags.

One is faced with the dilemma of identifying which of these strands of information or intelligence will result in an unravelling of a terrorist cell, versus information of people simply flirting with radical material online. This is clearly a very difficult job, and in some cases it seems likely that it would be almost impossible to identify people pre-event. For example, Roshonara Choudhry, the King’s College London student who in May 2010 tried to kill MP Stephen Timms for his support of the Iraq war, would have been very difficult to detect prior to carrying out her attack. Thus far, all that is known about the extent of her radicalisation was that she was watching videos by Anwar al-Awlaki and Abdullah Azzam online.

Other cases, however, like Khalid Aldawsari in Texas, show how tripwires can catch potential ‘lone’ or ‘solo actor’ terrorists. In that case, Aldawsari attempted to purchase chemicals from the Carolina Biological Supply company, using a commercial shipping company to have them delivered to his home in Lubbock, Texas. Both the chemical company and the shipping company flagged the purchase as one of concern to authorities, leading to an investigation by the FBI that uncovered Aldawsari as a loner terrorist cell building a bomb whose diary was full of menacing jihadist ideas. He was convicted in November last year and sentenced to life imprisonment.

‘Inspiring’ Terrorism

Recognition of the difficulty to detect such cells is exactly why Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been actively pushing, through its magazine Inspire, towards the idea of people carrying out terrorist attacks on this basis. By simply using everyday items, they are able to launch whatever sort of incident they are able to against the West. What has loosely been called ‘Just Do It’ terrorism in the press and has been referred to as ‘Open Source Jihad’ by AQAP inInspire. It is all aimed at detaching operational command and control from the terrorist cell in recognition of the fact that it is this element which most often proves the compromising element.

But while AQAP has been actively pushing this through their publications and messages, andInspire has repeatedly shown up in investigations in Europe and North America, there is little evidence that the magazine has in itself been a generator of cells. It is a regular feature of terrorist investigations, but it does not seem as though simply reading the publication is turning people into terrorists. Rather, people have used it for ideas – with already radicalised individuals using it as a way to figure out how to build a device. From an investigative perspective, it is difficult to know how to identify the individuals using it for operational purposes versus curious young men and women is difficult without a fuller intelligence picture. Even if individuals have downloaded the magazine, it is not necessarily the case that they are worth the resources of an investigation by authorities.

However, the picture becomes more interesting for investigators if the magazine appears alongside other potentially incriminating evidence. For example, that the individual is consuming increasingly radical material, is planning travel to parts of the world where Al-Qa’ida or affiliated movements are particularly active or is seeking connections with other radicals or groups. And it is here that intelligence and police agencies clearly need to focus when they are trying to pre-emptively identify Lone or Solo Actor terrorist cells. No doubt a difficult prospect, but given the growing propensity of terrorist cells to look like this, something that requires deeper understanding.

A final note to touch upon is the fact that the Boston cell appears to be made up of two people rather than an isolated individual. However, as brothers with the older leaving a more radical footprint, it is possible that he was the radicalising agent who influenced his younger brother.Stories are emerging of the older brother’s influence over his younger sibling. While such isolated cells with no external connections are rare, they are not unheard of: for example, in October 2009 Mohammed Game blew himself up at the gates of a Milan barracks. While later investigation uncovered links to two others who were subsequently prosecuted, no wider connections from the cell were ever uncovered. Similarly, in May 2007, a group in New Jersey were arrested for plotting some sort of attack against the Fort Dix barracks – at the heart of the cell were the three Duka brothers, Albanian-Americans, and their brother-in-law Mohammed Shenwer, who were apparently Anwar al-Awlaki fans and were plotting some sort of incident in New Jersey. These sorts of isolated ‘solo’ or ‘lone actor’ (or as the author has previously referred to them ‘Lone Wolf Packs’) cells tend to be easier to locate given their tendency to have more external links or tripwires for authorities to come across them. However, as shown in the Boston and Milan cases, these cells can also slip by undetected.

The key conclusion for security agencies is that such terrorist cells are notoriously difficult to uncover prior to event. Some work can be done in targeted public information campaigns aimed at chemical companies, storage firms or other industries that might be conduits for individuals to obtain transformative material for homemade explosives. This will help give authorities leads like those that led to Khalid Aldawsari’s detention. As the tendency towards ‘lone’ or ‘solo actor’ cells becomes a pattern, a more comprehensive pattern may emerge of such lone/solo actor individuals or cells, providing authorities with a better profile that they can test information against to see if individuals are moving in a direction of concern.

Policy Options

The main policy conclusion that can be usefully drawn is that as such cells are hard to detect, greater work needs to be focused on subsequent response and management of information that would allow analysts to determine whether a terrorist plot is part of an externally directed or self-directed campaign.

Furthermore, a concerted effort will be required to remove the mystique around such attackers. The first step would be to encourage a public culture that equates would-be attackers to mass shooters rather than a heroic terrorist. If this is done successfully, it is possible they will consider other avenues of expression and Inspire’s message will be less inspiring.

A rather quick response piece to events in Boston with a colleague at RUSI in response to the inevitable surge in inquiries after the sad incident. Undoubtedly more about this as it emerges, though I am wary of ascribing responsibility at this point. My own sense is that it is likely a lone individual, something I say based on the sort of device, the random target and the lack of any subsequent ideological messaging, but until more information emerges it is dangerous to speculate too much.

Boston Marathon: ‘Keep Calm and Carry on Running’

RUSI Analysis, 16 Apr 2013By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow; Jennifer Cole, Senior Research Fellow, Resilience & Emergency Management

The authorities in the United States are rightly cautious in ascribing blame to yesterday’s incident in Boston. The explosions – killing three and injuring over 140 – highlight the importance of securing public events without being governed by fear.

Boston Marathon

With no claims of responsibility and no ideological leads that authorities are visibly pursuing, it is almost impossible to know why yesterday’s attack in Boston took place.

The early facts are clear: the target was the Boston Marathon; the use of two devices, and their location, suggests the intention was to kill as many people as possible; and the devices appear to have been homemade, possibly with black powder. None of these details conclusively point to a particular individual or a group.

Sporting events in the United States have been targeted before. Most prominently during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, Eric Rudolph targeted the games with a homemade explosive, killing two and injuring more than a hundred. Looking further afield, of course, the Munich Olympics of 1972 stand out as a major incident conducted by international terrorists taking advantage of the spotlight that the games brought. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, attacks on public places with the aim of causing mass casualties – such as those in Madrid, London, Mumbai and Norway – have become the favoured modus operandi of terrorists around the world, regardless of the ideologies to which they subscribe.

The choice of two explosive devices, timed to detonate within seconds of one another, and the use of shrapnel inside them suggest the perpetrator(s) wanted to harm as many people as possible. Eyewitnesses record that the second explosion happened as they were running from the first. In addition, choosing the finishing line of the Boston Marathon as a target ensures that media coverage of the attack will reach the eyes of the world within seconds: television cameras and press photographers were already on site, while a plethora of social media was available with which both the media and the public could broadcast the incident far and wide.

Fortunately for many of the runners and spectators caught up in the attack, there was a large emergency-response team on hand. A marathon – or any other large public event – by necessity has high numbers of volunteer and professional paramedics on standby, as well as large numbers of crowd stewards and police to help keep the situation as calm as possible. Command-and-control centres – ready to deal with any incident that arises – will already have been established to manage the marathon and will be able to respond to the incident quickly.

Just as fortunately, perhaps, the improvised explosive devices seem to have produced a relatively limited explosion and to have caused few fatalities.

Who Perpetrated These Attacks?

The key questions that remain are who was responsible for this incident and what they hoped to achieve. Given there was no specific intelligence regarding an attack, it will take time for the US authorities to determine the identity of the culprit(s).

There are numerous terrorist groups who could have conducted an attack, including domestic groups. For example, the forthcoming twentieth anniversary of the climax of the Waco siege, centred on a cult based in Texas, could prompt such an attack by a sympathetic domestic group; while those on the far political right and Patriot movements in America should not be immediately or instinctively discounted as potential perpetrators. It may even be a lone individual.

But the truth is that at this stage we do not know, and it is not useful to speculate over who was responsible and whether or not the choice of a marathon run on Patriots’ Day as the target is significant. The incident highlights how rapidly and easily it is possible to grip the world’s attention with a single act of violence. Whether the perpetrator is a lone wolf, right wing, jihadist or other, this terror plot has once again caught the world’s attention.

Implications

However tragic the event, from a resilience perspective it is important to guard against allowing the psychological damage to outweigh the physical and material. Whoever the perpetrators and whatever their specific aim, their real victory is counted not in the number of people killed or injured in Boston, but in the impact the attacks may have on, to quote the UK National Security Strategy, the ability of those targeted ‘to go about their daily lives freely and with confidence’. The more this freedom is undermined, the greater the success of the act of terrorism.

Questions have already been raised about the security of the forthcoming London Marathon, taking place within days of its Boston counterpart, on 21 April. In his 2007 review of security in crowded public places, Lord West (then Under-Secretary of State for Security and Counter-Terrorism at the Home Office) made clear that while the threat to such events has increased in recent years, lockdown is neither practical nor prudent.

Nonetheless, it is worth reviewing security arrangements in advance of the London Marathon this weekend. Such security arrangements are made up of two workstreams: to ‘protect’ and ‘prepare’, both of which the government sees as a high priority and which have also been practised extensively in recent months – an feature of the Olympic legacy. During the 2012 Olympics, London hosted a marathon for which security arrangements were ramped up considerably from those in place for previous London Marathons. As one of the few events not completely contained within the Olympic Park or dedicated venues, the vulnerabilities will have been scrutinised extensively and plans will have been made for the mitigation of an attack. The planning for this and the Olympic Torch relay route is still fresh in the minds of all those involved, as are the skills and techniques used in implementing the plans – from protecting transportation routes without imposing airport-style security measures, to using CCTV camera software to pick up suspicious behaviour in crowds.

Such preparation has to be done in advance; additional personnel cannot be sourced and trained in days. They need to be ready to go – and they will be. It is likely that some of the security infrastructure put in place for Baroness Thatcher’s funeral tomorrow will now remain in place over the weekend, including the numbers of personnel on high-readiness to deploy, for example, and the incident control rooms fully staffed and ready to respond immediately.

Similarly, there will be an increased security focus on any intelligence that may suggest a threat to the marathon and on anything that might be known by then about the perpetrators of the Boston attacks or their networks. Luckily, ramping command-and-control networks and intelligence-sharing back up to Olympic-period levels will still be based on personal memory and experience; new technology paid for out of Olympic budgets is still state-of-the-art. Such solid preparation brings with it as high a level of protection as possible. Everything that can be done will be done to ensure the safety and security of the London Marathon, and especially so in the aftermath of the tragic events in Boston.

As one participant in the Boston Marathon was heard to say, we need to ‘keep calm and carry on running.’

This is going up a bit late, since have been a bit distracted with other obligations. It also ended up being published after Intelwire and Red State articles on the topic, though I had written it before reading them both (honest!). A long post for Free Rad!cals, something I am trying to return to with some regularity. This is exploring the subject of Lone Wolves that I have long been going on about, and in fact was quoted in a CNN story on the topic and a Christian Science Monitor one. It has been a while since I posted for a variety of reasons, but in the meantime, I was quoted a fair bit in this story linked to the London Somalia conference in the Danish newspaper Information and separately (and unrelated) on Chinese influence in Central Asia in an article that was written for Eurasianet and reprinted in the Atlantic.

When is a Lone Wolf a Lone Wolf?

View more articles by Raff Pantucci

Filed under: Anwar al-Awlaki, Homegrown extremism

The arrest last Friday of Amine el Khalifi as he strode towards the US Capitol Building with what he thought was a functioning MAC-10 submachine gun and explosive suicide vest marks the latest in a growing list of individuals who have been incarcerated in the United States in cases involving intelligence agents. As with many previous cases, this one has already been called a “lone wolf” by officialdom in the US. But does this definition really hold water in a case like Khalifi’s?

The problem with using this definition in Khalifi’s case is that central to the plot seems to be at least one law enforcement agent and a confidential informant. Individuals who hinted to him that they were connected with al Qaeda and ultimately provided him with what he thought were the tools to conduct a Fedayeen-style terrorist attack on the Capitol Building. All of which suggests that in Khalifi’s mind he was not actually a “lone wolf,” but rather an individual who was part of a terrorist cell.

This distinction is important since it raises a subsidiary question of whether Khalifi would have actually done something if he hadn’t had the community of agents around him to both provide him with what he thought was a cell, as well as the weapons to carry out his terrorist attack. Khalifi was clearly a disjointed fellow – a former landlord is quoted as saying he was suspicious of Khalifi and found him to be a very troublesome tenant suspecting he may have been building bombs – but how dangerous was he and did he have the wherewithal to launch a terrorist plot by himself?

At this point, we shall never know. Given Khalifi was captured as he marched up to his intended target armed with a machine gun and suicide vest, it is hard to envisage any jury finding him innocent or to disagree with this conclusion. And it is perfectly possible that Khalifi is indeed a deranged individual who may have been prone to going down a path of violence. But the dilemma is the degree to which the cell of agents empowered him, and whether they could have used the information to dissuade him instead of helping him in this direction.

His case is very similar to that of Jose Pimental, a New Yorker arrested earlier this year by NYPD as he was supposedly building a bomb with what emerged to be a police agent. In that case, Pimental was also described as something of an oddball who would broadcast his radical views loudly online, was part of the community of individuals involved in the Revolution Muslim website and decided to get involved in a plot once he came across what he thought was a fellow radical. Pimental was seemingly obsessed with Anwar al Awlaki, and had apparently tried to reach out to him, but to no avail. Oddly enough, in that case the FBI declined to become involved leaving the case in the NYPD’s jurisdiction hinting that Pimental was not that dangerous (an odd conclusion given the similarities to the Khalifi case). Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly backed their forces, however, declaring Pimental a “ total lone wolf.”

This approach to capturing violent Islamist cells is not a particularly new one for American forces. While I may have missed some cases, scanning old reports and lists on the topic of disrupted terrorist plots in the US, it seems to me as though the first plot involving unaffiliated individuals who were caught using a confidential informant involved Shahawar Matin Siraj and James Elshafay who were planning to bomb a subway station in New York City in August 2004. In that case, a police agent, who allegedly offered his services to trawl through New York’s Muslim community to identify Muslims who were bringing a bad name to his religion, was key in securing the convictions.

However, it seems as though Siraj had voiced his ideas to others prior to the agent and had another co-conspirator James Elshafay, a mentally troubled individual who volunteered to plant a bomb. In other words, Siraj was moving in a dangerous direction with others even prior to meeting the agent. While it is true that the agent might have acted like a final trigger into moving him into action, he was not operating in a total vacuum with the agents acting as his only contacts to other extremists prepared to do something.

When we look at a case like Khalifi’s, there are a number of key differences. In his case, Khalifi’s entire connection to the al Qaeda cell he thought he was part of was fictitious. Unlike Siraj whom it seems was both voicing his opinions, but also in contact with others willing to carry out violence, Khalifi seems to have been willing to voice his radical ideas but was not in contact with any others eager to follow the path he eventually took, until he encountered the federal agents.

But the purpose here is not to condemn the use of confidential informants or undercover agents – but instead to focus on whether we can really call such individuals lone wolves and what effect this approach is having on reducing this problem.

The answer to the first question is clearly negative: these individuals cannot really be called “lone wolves” since they were really not acting alone. They were part of what they thought was a cell. That this turned out to be mostly federal agents is important as it complicates whether we can confidently say that they would have chosen this path independently and acted as “lone wolf” terrorists. The answer is we cannot – we shall never know whether they would have chosen this path without the group around them. Certainly we can look at the individual’s readiness to move into action with some level of concern, but we cannot confidently say they would have done this absent the contacts with agents.

It is easy to understand why enforcement agencies favor this sort of an approach. Lone Wolf terrorists are very hard to spot and identify before they move into action – this approach draws out individuals who seem to be moving in this direction and merely gives them the tools to hang themselves by their own petards. In this way it is pre-emptive. For example, someone like Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the 19-year-old Portland, Oregon Somali who tried to blow up a vehicle bomb at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in late 2010. According to court documents, Osman was trying to make contact with radicals in Pakistan to try to join them to fight jihad. Having identified him, federal agents moved in and in the end Osman decided to try to carry out an attack within America.

In a case like Osman’s it is easy to see the logic behind a pre-emptive approach. Osman was clearly interested in making contact and joining radicals abroad. Conviction on the basis of this sort of contact is no doubt hard to prove; so sending agents in to understand the individual better makes some sense. That this then led to him wanting to carry out a plot within the US is one outcome this can lead to – whether Osman suggested it or the agents did is something that will no doubt come out in trial. Pimental had tried to reach out to other radicals (including Anwar al Awlaki allegedly), but it is not clear whether this is also the case with Khalifi.

The other logic behind such operations is the notion of deterrence. If you catch and convict some individuals like this, it serves as an example to the other potential ones out there. Siraj received a 30-year sentence for his crime, and Osman, Pimental and Khalifi are looking at similar sentences. And unlike Europe, where long sentences can be reduced with good behavior, etc, in the United States, long terms means a long time in a prison where prosecutors openly admit same sex rape is common.

But the deterrence case somewhat falls down when we consider how long the United States has been pursuing such individuals and how they continue to appear. If we take the Siraj case as a first example – we can see how since 2006 (on the basis of when he was incarcerated versus arrested) examples have been publicly made of what is going to happen to you if you wander down this path and how there are agents out there seeking to catch you. And yet we have continued to see cases occur with this latest pair merely the most recent in a long list. Of course it is possible that there would have been many more, and that in fact the relatively small number we see is a reflection that in fact this deterrent effect is working, but this is another statistic that will be impossible to ever prove.

There is no clean answer to this discussion. One solution I have advocated is that police and intelligence agencies should identify such people and then instead of moving in with a team to catch them doing something bad, send in a team to dissuade them from doing anything. Make it obvious to them that they are wandering down a dangerous path and they should get off it. This might scare some sense into them and lead them to choosing another path. It might also have the opposite effect in some cases, but I am certain if an intervention is handled properly, it could save a lot of time and effort from courts, prisons and intelligence agencies.

But to return to the question I started this whole post off with: when is a lone wolf a lone wolf? He can be considered a “lone wolf” terrorist when he tries to carry out a terrorist act by himself or herself, without any support or command and control from known or unknown networks. To call individuals like Jose Pimental or Amine el Khalifi “Lone Wolves” is a misinterpretation of the term that is only going to complicate the struggle in identifying such individuals that really are “Lone Wolves.” The real “lone wolves” are people like Khalid Aldawsari, the Saudi student in Texas whose romantic and poetic blog masked a desire to build a bomb to attack America. He quietly worked away on his plot until he tried to purchase chemicals from an attentive seller. They reported him to authorities and he was subsequently arrested and is now awaiting trial. People like Jose Pimental or Amine el Khalifi may indeed have been potential “lone wolves” in the future, but the reality is we shall never know whether they were actually going to go down this path or not.

Another short blogpost for Free Rad!cals, this time on a topic that has been bugging me for a while. It seems as though the US is making a few unfortunate choices in counter-radicalisation terms that emulate earlier mistakes Europe made, something particularly silly given how much attention they have lavished on studying and criticising Europe’s mistakes. This was already up, but I see now that guru Brian Michael Jenkins has written an excellent piece for Foreign Affairs attacking another mistaken American policy choice. Of course, not everything the US has done is negative in this regard, but there are a few silly mistakes that seem to be being made.

Muslim Integration: America Must Avoid Europe’s Mistakes

Filed under: Europe, Homegrown extremism, UK

Americans love to berate Europe and its failings. Youthful America looks to its European progenitor and sees post-colonial stagnation and sclerotic economies that are unwilling to face up to their problems. A bugbear of the past few years has been criticism of Europe’s approach to its resident Muslim population. Commentaries have focused on a problem that is seen by many as an incubator of anger that has expressed itself in the form of attacks by European, or European-based, terrorists against America – most notably on September 11, 2001.

But while Europe has in the past provided a depressingly productive Petri dish for Muslim rage with contradictory policies that have had an alienating effect on parts of the broader community, it is increasingly the case that America is simply following Europe in the same direction. Recent stories of New York’s police department using inflammatory videos about Islamist extremism in training come in the wake of stories of possibly CIA assisted intelligence operations against Muslim communities. Whatever the tactical utility of such operations, it is clear that from a hearts-and-minds perspective they can be seen to be a failure.

More absurdly, states have tried to pass laws preventing shariah law from being imposed on them – a highly unlikely outcome, but reflective of the high levels of paranoia and anti-Muslim feeling amongst the American public. Something also seen in stories of Muslim leaders being disembarked from domestic flights with little reason given, in some cases as they were on their way to conferences about “Islamophobia”.

At a political level the conversation has been just as poisonous as in Europe. Potential Republican candidate Newt Gingrich has spoken of “the mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it” posed by shariah. In Congress, Representative Peter King has held hearings accusing America’s Muslim community of failing to regulate itself and producing homegrown terrorists. And while a direct correlation with this polarizing narrative is of course impossible to draw, there has been an increase in young Americans drawn by the lure of jihad abroad or into becoming involved in what they believe are terror plots within the US in the past few years.

Europe has hardly covered itself in glory in integrating its Muslim communities. But neither has America, and the current approach is increasingly emulating many of Europe’s failed policies. It is all very good to shout about Europe’s failings, but the United States needs to increasingly look within before it allows its problems to get too out of hand.

America has a long tradition of being a national melting pot, able to absorb people of all cultures and creeds and accepting of diversity as a crucial element of its identity. For years, the belief was that America would be immune to the sort of problems that Europe faced with homegrown extremism. As time has shown, however, this is clearly not the case with numerous young men drawn to the flame of extremism. The United States should focus on learning positive lessons from Europe’s problematic experience and avoid emulating its failed policies.