On Raff Pantucci’s paper: A Death in Woolwich

Raffaello Pantucci has a new article out in the RUSI Journal (open access):

A Death in Woolwich: The Lone-Actor Terrorist Threat in the UK

It’s partly about the Lee Rigby murder, but also about the difficulties of addressing the UK’s changing terror threat:

From a security perspective, it is clear that lone-actor plots are, by their very individualised nature, those that are harder to penetrate, detect and disrupt. Fortunately for the security services, these individual cases are rare, and the majority of those who are drawn to extremist ideologies prefer to fight abroad or, if plotting at home, to become involved in complicated networked plots that security services are more easily able to penetrate and disrupt.

The case of Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, however, presents a new concern, hinting at a fusion of a long term radical community and the lone actor approach. Previously, most of the individuals who had been involved with Al-Muhajiroun had gone on to attempt to fight and train abroad, or set up networks to try to carry out complicated plots. The concept of lone-actor terrorism had not clearly entered their activity flow. Should the actions of Adebolajo and Adebowale prove to be the beginning of a trend, the security services will suddenly find their caseload multiplying as they try to work out who, within their broader intelligence networks, might be moving towards launching an attack similar to the murder of Lee Rigby and, once identified, how they can be detained, if their actions at that point are restricted to the usual digest of extremist activity associated with the group. It is worth noting that, almost two years on, there has not been a repeat of the Woolwich incident, though a number of individuals within the wider network have been arrested on various charges, including some related to terrorist activity. There could be many reasons for this lull, and given the longevity and persistence of the ideology and group it is impossible to discount a repeat or an imitation as yet.

Yet overreacting may prove equally counterproductive. Repeated arrests and intimidation through legal means may cause frustration and lead to extreme reactions. This appears to have already happened in some cases, but it is far from a universal reaction, and often long term activists remain just that, continuing to show up at protests without ever transitioning to terrorist violence. These individuals may present a problem because they help an ultimately violent ideology to persist and spread, but if they stay on the right side of the line of legality then they remain within their rights to express these views, as unpalatable and unpleasant as they may be.

The article is relevant to Australia’s situation, even though we face a much smaller threat than the UK does. The dilemmas he describes are common to security services in liberal democracies, and three recent incidents suggest Australia’s jihadist threat is evolving in a similar way to the UK’s.

In Melbourne, two police officers were stabbed by a suspected Islamic State (IS) supporter whose passport had been confiscated by ASIO.

In Sydney, an alleged terror plot was uncovered that involved members of a suspected IS support network, several of whom had also had their passports confiscated. Police claim senior Australian IS recruiter Mohammad Ali Baryalei ordered conspirators in Australia to kidnap and murder a randomly chosen non-Muslim member of the Australian public, film the killing, and place the video on social media.

In Brisbane, a man named Agim Kruezi was charged over a separate alleged terror plot. He had already been arrested for allegedly recruiting people for IS, but further investigations led to new charges including transportation of a firearm in preparation for a terrorist act, and possessing machetes, knives, balaclavas, military fatigues and fuel in preparation for a terrorist act.

Much about these incidents remains unproven, and we will have to see what comes out in court. However, so far these incidents suggest a shift away from the sorts of large-scale plots (involving many participants and developing over a long period of time) that were foiled by operations Pendennis and Neath, towards smaller scale attempts at violence involving fewer people and less sophisticated methods.This apparent shift is consistent with the two recent attacks in Canada, and IS’s repeated calls for ad-hoc attacks in the countries taking part in military action against it:

If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be…. Do not ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict.

I’ve previously argued for scepticism towards the idea that ad-hoc attacks represent the future of jihadism, but with IS’s leadership explicitly adopting this approach, these type of attacks will likely be prominent for at least the next couple of years. Australia will likely see more of these increasingly unpredictable (but hopefully low-impact) plots, and security services will be continually called on to take action.

Raffaello Pantucci’s article does a great job explaining this evolving threat and the counter-terrorism dilemmas it creates.

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