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The day after ISIS: the Middle East after the Islamic State | How ISIS has changed the terrorist threat in the UK: an interview with David Wells

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In this conversation on the future of the Middle East after the Islamic State (IS), we bring together experts to debate the prospects for reconstruction and governance in IS-held territory, the future of the Jihadi movement, how to mitigate against the return of IS fighters, and the future regional security framework. We ask the experts what policymakers need to start thinking and planning after the territorial defeat of the most dangerous terrorist group to date.

BICOM research analyst Samuel Nurding spoke with David Wells about the emerging domestic threat posed by ISIS and returning Jihadists. Wells is Associate Director at S-RM – Business Intelligence, Risk Management & Cyber Security and a former counter-terrorism official for the UK and Australian governments.

Samuel Nurding: Has the terrorist threat in the UK changed with the emergence of ISIS, and if so, how?

David Wells: The terrorist threat has changed, although we should be specific about what that means in reality. Firstly, the threat is greater, and secondly, the type of threat we face today is different than before. Since ISIS declared a Caliphate in 2014, we’ve seen a rise in low-level sophisticated attacks across Europe, using knives and vehicles as weapons; previously, leading Jihadi terrorist groups like al-Qaeda were known for carrying out, or attempting to carry out, spectacular high-level sophisticated attacks against high profile targets. But we should be very clear that whilst ISIS is getting the credit, or blame, for that change, these types of attacks are something al-Qaeda and its most successful franchise, Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, have been looking to promote for quite some time now via their magazine Inspire. However, while al-Qaeda encouraged this type of attack, they were unable to actually make it happen in the West.

The other real change is the sheer scale of the problem – the thousands of foreign fighters who have travelled to and from the Middle East, and thousands of others that have tried to travel, but been unable to do so. In a way, it’s a democratisation of Jihad. Al-Qaeda were traditionally very selective in who they associated themselves with; they took a very bureaucratic process to who got access to membership and training. Whereas ISIS say: ‘Here are the types of attacks and targets we’re on board with, and we will give you credit and eulogise you afterwards’.

So in summary, although the intent to carry out attacks in the UK was always there, the number of people attempting to do so has grown, the types of attacks have changed, and the terrorists’ expertise has developed too.

SN: You mention two things here: the evolution from low level sophisticated attacks to high-level sophisticated attacks, and the return of the foreign fighters. On the second point, following the territorial decline of ISIS there have been an unprecedented number of foreign terrorist fighters returning to the EU and more may follow in due course. What makes this issue so challenging, and the scale of the problem so uncertain? 

DW: There are two elements: the immediate threat that foreign fighters pose because of the intent they may hold and the training they received, and the wider networks of terrorists they developed abroad. Thomas Hegghammer, a specialist on violent Islamism and senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, has done some great research showing that attacks in which foreign fighter returnees are involved are typically deadlier, because they not only have gained specific skills abroad, such as bomb-making, but because they developed a greater awareness about tactics and weaponry in conflict zones. We saw this with the terrorists who carried out the Paris attacks in late 2015.

The second element is the network and radicalising impact that returned foreign fighters can have when they return. If you look at the different terrorist threats over the last 20 years – within the UK specifically, but also across the EU more generally – you typically find individuals with experiences in war zones at the centre, such as the individuals responsible for the London 2005 attacks, who had been trained in Pakistan. These individuals are able to radicalise others easier and faster because they have this kind of ‘street credibility’. And in terms of organising and directing attacks, returnees are also able to use their overseas networks to help carry out attacks.

Traditionally foreign fighter returnees have been relatively small in number; but even if only 25% of the 400 or so foreign fighters that have returned to the UK represent an ongoing threat, or potentially radicalise other people, this number is far more than we’ve ever previously dealt with. So on a basic level it is a numbers game, but one where the potential networking opportunities and the immediate danger of returnees exacerbate the problem. And given that the returnees are predominately males aged 20-30, the threat is a long-term problem.

SN: How has the flow of foreign fighters affected the counter-terrorism environment in the UK? Has this flow been an important eye opener for governments in understanding just how big the scale of the threat is?

DW: What became a major focus after 2014 – preventing citizens from flowing into Syria with better enforcement on the Turkish border or by limiting travel of those attempting to leave to travel to the Middle East – could in hindsight have been more vigorously pursed at the onset of the conflict.

The challenge since then, however, has been what to do with the people who were prevented from leaving but are still interested in pursuing Jihad. The UK government has been left with a growing group of radicalised people within its borders who share Jihadi ideology, at the same time as foreign fighters have begun to return, the worst of both worlds.

The scale of both of these problems is undoubtedly the most challenging part; the threshold for someone to become a priority for the intelligence services is now incredibly high, and it’s been difficult for media and the general public to deal with the idea that someone being reported for advocating a particular set of ideas is no longer sufficient to start an investigation. Ten years ago, anyone with any experience in fighting abroad, any sort of training, or contacts with known terrorist networks would have been looked at. Now, there are individuals who have been investigated in the past – including some of those who carried out recent attacks – who are no longer deemed a high priority, relative to those who have greater intent and capability to carry out attacks.

SN: You mention preventing people leaving for war zones, and now we’re at the stage of pre-empting their return. You wrote about a plea-bargain/amnesty idea, what did you mean?

 DW: At the moment, part of the problem with returning foreign fighters is that countries are not aware when their fighters are going to return, nor do they have any confidence in knowing what their intent will be. It is that uncertainty that is most difficult, particularly for countries in the EU Schengen Plan. What I’ve suggested is that countries could offer citizens known to be fighting abroad a route home with certain terms and conditions – i.e. pleading guilty to a range of terrorist offences – in exchange for a reduction in jail time, compared to if they returned covertly and are subsequently arrested and charged. It’s a degree of leniency in exchange for removing some uncertainty, and allowing governments to focus on the threats that it needs to. Countries are already thinking about these issues and options, but the idea aims to help manage the scale of the problem.

It is only a short-term solution, because you then have the issue of further radicalisation in prisons. But a key part of the rationale for offering an ‘amnesty’ for foreign fighters would be improving the chances of conviction. Intelligence services know that even if someone has been to Syria or Iraq and fought with ISIS, securing that conviction in court is incredibly difficult.

SN: The other threat you mentioned was the rise of low level sophisticated attacks. In the last 4 months the UK has witnessed a number of attacks in which perpetrators have used everyday objects, i.e. cars, lorries, knives etc. Can these types of attacks ever be prevented? Are there any clear signs that intelligence agencies can look out for?

DW: One potential idea is to add enhanced background checks around vehicle hire. But people can buy second hand trucks instead of renting them, or they can get other people to rent the vehicle. The ‘lead time’ and the indicators visible to intelligence services are important here, but unless you have ongoing access to an individual –whether by technical surveillance or human access to the group – you don’t have any meaningful way to trace the nature and time of a person’s change in behaviour. Without that access, the lead time is so short that it becomes a very difficult challenge. This will unfortunately be an ongoing threat.

One suggestion is that governments could do more in communicating the difference between attacks directed by ISIS, versus attacks where a self-starter has taken it upon themselves to carry it out, and ISIS subsequently takes the credit. If governments discredit these attacks, and refuse to give them the cache of an ISIS attack, the logical implication is that individuals with no meaningful connection to the group may be encouraged to try to carry out direct, high-level sophisticated attacks, and reach out to ISIS for operational guidance. And that could give intelligence services more opportunities to pick it up and prevent it.

As an idea is has some merit, but it is potentially something a lot easier said than done, particularly given the role that media plays once an attack has been carried out.

SN: Given that the fear of terrorism largely outstrips the likelihood of it occurring, how important is the role of communication for government in counter-terrorism policy? Has the UK been successful in communicating an effective counter-terrorism policy?

DW: It’s an interesting question because the attack in Westminster in March occurred completely out of the blue – we hadn’t had an attack of that nature for quite a long time. Over the last two years the UK government has been communicating on a very regular basis about how likely an attack was. Many governments have tried to apply rationality and logic about the likelihood of being killed or injured in an attack, but its very power lies in the fact that it encourages irrational feeling. The UK government has tried very hard to communicate that it is doing its best in extremely challenging circumstances, but now that we’ve had four attacks in as many months, regaining the public’s trust in the government’s handling of the threat will be very difficult.

There is something about the notion that as soon as the media or police say an attack is not terrorist-related, people are immediately reassured and switch off. The word terrorism has an incredible amount of power. It is very tempting to wonder if there’s a way of taking this power away. But a democratic government has to be transparent with its citizens, particularly as social media and smart phones mean that you can’t really prevent information about an attack appearing within seconds. It isn’t as simple as saying ‘if we don’t mention it or call it terrorism, then people won’t react to it,’ So it has become a question of how we frame a particular event.

The issue of competence is also very important. In March, people felt safe because they knew the UK was very good at counter-terrorism and hadn’t suffered an attack for a long time. The challenge is that it doesn’t look like that anymore. So how does the UK government re-build the population’s trust that it has the situation under control? The risk here is that if you talk too much about how much you’re doing and how many people you’re arresting, and an attack happens, you undermine the message you’re trying to communicate in the first place. Publics need reassurance and that reassurance comes from their confidence in the government’s ability to keep them safe, so rebuilding that trust is going to be very hard if another attack occurs.

Given the media fascination with terrorism, which is also borne out in public fascination with it, you have to get on front foot with a communications strategy.

SN: Last year then US Secretary of State John Kerry said that combatting terrorism requires “economic opportunities for marginalised youth at risk of recruitment”. Yet, one large-scale study found a correlation between high unemployment and high foreign fighter flows from within the Muslim world, but found the opposite correlation for foreign fighters from non-Muslim countries. Other large-scale studies have found that higher levels of education consistently correlated to higher levels of participation in violent extremism. Are we in the West still not fully aware of the motives of terrorism and extremism in our societies?

DW: The danger here is applying a global model to motives for terrorism. Whilst there are a lot of commonalities that we can learn from in different countries and contexts, it is very difficult to compare the radicalisation process of someone who has been to university in the UK and has a job and family, to a 14-year-old child from Afghanistan or Pakistan. Poverty and lack of opportunity is undoubtedly a motivating factor for terrorism in certain parts of the world, but it’s not as simple as saying that if we invest in jobs, education and housing, then the problem will go away.

What we have learnt over the past few decades is that the sense of injustice and a personal connection with other parts of the world can be as much a motivating factor for terrorism as the structural problems mentioned earlier. For example, an Afghani fighting for the Taliban might be doing so because relative to the alternatives, it’s a well-paid job; a young and educated Western person going out to Syria has very different motivation.

There is definitely also the degree of agency that an individual has when making a choice of whether to go to a war zone; someone from the West who decides to fly half way across the world to join a terrorist group has a lot more agency than some of the alternatives I’ve mentioned.

There have been different waves of threats over the decades that have different defining factors and the international community needs to keep up with the current wave and its next shift. There’s a danger that some governments are still dealing with the wave of 10-15 years ago, where people in the West fitted the model of ‘radicalisation due to the lack of opportunity and education’. Unfortunately, this model (which I’m simplifying here) isn’t necessarily widely applicable today.

This blog is part of the BICOM research series The day after ISIS: the Middle East after Islamic State. You can read the other entries in the series here.