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Dr. Alexander Evans
Coordinator of the al-Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring Team
United Nations Security Council
Chaired by George Howarth MP
Wednesday 24th June 2014
House of Commons, London
George Howarth, Member of Parliament for Knowsley
Good evening ladies and gentlemen.
I am George Howarth; I should begin by introducing myself. I am the Labour Member of Parliament for Knowsley. For those who’ve never heard of it, it’s just outside of Liverpool.
In addition to which, I’ve, for the last ten years, been a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and so I think I may have some slight understanding of some of these issues having spent those years overseeing MI5, GCHQ, and MI6.
We are very fortunate – on my left, by the way, is Robin Simcox who deals with counter terrorism for The Henry Jackson Society, who is here purely, he tells me, for decorative purposes, and certainly will not be – he might take part in the discussion – but will not be leading off at all.
Well, we are very fortunate tonight to have Dr. Alexander Evens. Alex – is Alex okay?
Dr. Alexander Evans – Coordinator of the al-Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring Team, United Nations Security Coucil
Yeah it’s fine.
George Howarth MP
Alex is the co-ordinator of the United Nations Security Council’s al-Qaeda and Taliban monitoring team, and has been since January 2013. Previously he’s been a member of the British diplomatic service, and has serviced in India, Pakistan and the United States, where he was senior adviser to the late ambassador, Richard Holbrooke.
So he has got a wealth of experience in these matters. You know the best thing I can do is to hand over straight to him, and make the best use of the time available. So: Alex.
Dr. Alexander Evans
Well thank you much, and thank you to The Henry Jackson Society for chairing this. The Henry Jackson Society I will give a little shout out to, I promise I wasn’t paid for this endorsement, but I think it’s been a vigorous part of reanimating a debate about security, and foreign policy in the UK. It’s a very welcome element of a sort of intellectual scene as well as the policy advice scene here.
Let me briefly explain, if I may, who we are and what we do, because the idea of the United Nations and counter terrorism sometimes conjures up ideas of Bruce Willis movies. To the eternal regret of my wife I am not Bruce Willis.
So one of the challenges is explaining: what’s the UN role in all of this, and in particular, what is the UN Security Council’s role in all of this.
So we are a tiny little shop that works for the United Nations al-Qaeda Sanctions Committee. We consist of a group of people from fifteen different nationalities, a mix of experts appointed by the secretary general, and some professional UN staff.
Like all parts of the UN, we have a laundry list of activities that we dually try to set forth, but in essence they distil into three discreet activities. We provide analysis on the changing nature of the threat from al-Qaeda, and from ISIL globally, and that means as much about what’s a threat from the perspective of Tajikistan as the threat from the perspective of the United States or the Russian Federation. So it’s very much taking a global assessment rather than a party pre-assessment for a particular member state.
The second thing we do is we advise on the sanctions regime, the [UNSC resolution] 1267 sanctions regime against al-Qaeda and associates, and how to make that as crunchy as possible, and to have a destructive as well as a signalling effect.
The third thing we do is slightly eccentric but crucial to what we do. We are the bit of the UN that’s mandated to liaise with national security and intelligence services. So we both go meet with those services in a range of different countries, but also organise multilateral meetings of those services in different parts of the world. So in West Africa, in the Maghreb, in Asia, in the Middle East; and we use those meetings both to share our analysis, but also to try and inform our analysis from the people who actually really know about the subject, which are going to be member state officials on the ground.
So let me touch on how we see the threat from al-Qaeda and ISIL. The first thing is to note the challenge of recent-ism. We all love to reach for the most recent analogy, we all love to focus on the latest horror, and think it’s very easy to lose one’s sense of perspective, and to lose one’s sense of history, in terms of thinking about the problem of terrorism in general, and of al-Qaeda or ISIL associated terrorism in particular.
So I think it’s worth remembering that actually there is an awful lot about ISIL that is not new, that actually tracks back to al-Qaeda in Iraq, and that actually tracks back to the al-Qaeda movement more generally.
So our argument would be, we are looking as much continuity, as change, in the nature of the threat. That having been said, there is no doubt that the threat globally is changing. It’s becoming more complex, and it’s becoming more troubling for a wide number of member states.
So what’s old? Well, clearly Zawahiri is pretty old. He still delivers occasional messages, rather like 1970s state television, straight at the camera, a rictus like expression, and a long fifty five minute message.
Whereas what’s new is the fact that a new generation of violent radicals are tweeting, and using soundbites, and more compelling video to communicate their agenda. I think a lot of that is not about ISIL versus al-Qaeda, it’s about the difference that a twenty year old makes.
One of the least assuming scenes that you’d want to see is my group discussing social media, because having a group that is largely above the age of forty discus social media is awkward at best, and rapidly turns into a John Stewart show at worst. “Can somebody tell us about snapchat? Can somebody tell a bit more about Ask FM?” We all have, of course, studiously downloaded all these systems to our mobile phones, and try and use the sort of the large typed entrance so that we can actually use it.
But I think what we are seeing here is actually, at one level, a much bigger piece of generational change across the al-Qaeda movement. We shouldn’t mistake that generational change for something completely new.
We’re also talking about a movement that’s been reanimated by the fact that ISIL is impatient in a way that al-Qaeda, and many al-Qaeda affiliates, have been patient; made most obvious by Baghdadi’s declaration of the Caliphate, by the way in which ISIL has moved quickly to seize territory, not just in Iraq and Syria (which I think still consumes a disproportionate amount of our attention), but also in parts of Libya, and also in the parts of the minds, the imaginary, of young radicals whether violent or not, everywhere from Thailand to Timbuktu. It’s a sense of moving into that transnational, digital space, being part of this imagined world of radicalisation as well.
What else is new? Well al-Qaeda core, even back in the 1990s, never had as much money as we like to think it did. There was an assumption that bin Laden himself was a billionaire, and in fact al-Qaeda’s revenues in the 1990s, from what we now know probably amounted to some thirty odd million dollars a year rather than the much larger sums that were banded about at the time.
The good thing about international action after 9/11 is al-Qaeda’s finances were really, truly, squeezed. It became more difficult to use the formal banking system, it became more difficult to raise money, it became more difficult to move money, and that element of the international response is technical and sometimes dull, but I think it’s actually extremely important in terms of the preventative effect it’s had over time.
The bad news of course is that ISIL has recapitalised the global terrorist threat. And even if we don’t know the exact sum of money that they’ve managed to seize, through central bank seizures, through seizing gold reserves, through seizing other valuables, we do know that ISIL is the private equity fund to the small, you know, multipurpose company that al-Qaeda core was in the 1990s. That is a worry because you now have a fount of funding that can be used, not just for ISIL’s activities in the Middle East, but could also be used to pump, prime, and fund activities elsewhere.
But otherwise there is an awful lot that is old: the use of extreme violence, the use of the media to try and communicate that violence to a wide variety of audiences, the belief in a global transnational campaign focused on the near enemy and the far enemy, even if there are differences between the two on which you would chose to go for first.
Added into this is a problem that is also old, and yet new, which is the problem of foreign terrorist fighters. Now there have been foreign terrorist fighters for an awful long time. My summer reading is some books on the thirty years war in Europe, and actually an awful lot of the thirty years war was conducted using foreign fighters. We can debate whether they can be called terrorist or not.
Foreign terrorist fighters were a part of the al-Qaeda movement evident in the 1990s as well as after 9/11. But the difference now is one of scale, and its both horizontal scale and vertical scale.
So one of the tasks that we were given by the Security Council, in September, in a meeting chaired by President Obama, was to try and work up the first global analytics of the foreign terrorist fighter problem, which we delivered to the Security Council in March this year, and we had submissions from over 40 member states, giving quite detailed analytics. The global assessment, now this is including al-Qaeda core, the various al-Qaeda affiliates as well as ISIL. We estimated conservatively, in March this year, was more than 25,000, and that’s from the base of probably a few thousand in the 1990s. So the verticals numbers are just higher than they were before.
But so too is the range of counties from which these fighters come. Again, as of March this year, it’s more than a hundred states across the world, and while we haven’t published a list, because strangely enough some countries aren’t always as enthusiastic about acknowledging their admission rate [as] others.
To give you some sense, we focus a lot in the media, I think, on the countries with large numbers, the problem the UK is facing, countries like Morocco, Tunisia, France, others. But actually I think another way of looking at this is looking is, what about the countries that have never had a problem with this before, and so may not have a legal framework in place? Who may not have security and intelligence capabilities that are fit for purpose, who may not have law enforcement with any experience with this, and who will almost certainly lack the counter radicalisation, and the rehabilitation screening capabilities to deal with the problem preventatively beforehand problem, and systematically and sensibly when these individuals return, if they return from conflict zones?
So there we should worry, I would argue, about the countries like Slovenia, and Senegal, and Singapore, and Cambodia, as much as some of the countries that tend to occupy the media framework more.
The problem with these foreign terrorist fighters is they are difficult to detect before they go, and they are difficult to deal with when they return, and by the way they do also do a range of harm when they are present in the zones to which they travel. I think we are all familiar, from the level to attention to these issues, with some of the problems that that raises.
I think one of the keenest problems that it raises is the fact that historically, we know from both government and academic research, that roughly between one in seven, and one in nine, foreign terrorist fighters historically went on to conduct a later terrorist attack, in either their country of origin or in a third country. So there is a residual risk from those that come back. Now as my wife, who is the person who sensibly makes money in my family, frequently says, “Past performance is no guarantee of future return”.
What we don’t know is whether this historical data can actually be an effective guide to the level of risk that we will face in future. But when we’re looking at 25,000 plus individuals, from a hundred plus countries, this is by no means an exclusively British problem. It’s a problem though that will touch British citizens, and potentially touch the security of Britain from many different points of the compass.
So, in a sense, we then have a collective transnational interest in a collective international response to what is the problem that affects many countries, and affects many more citizens besides. The problem here is the most important piece, probably, is detecting and preventing people going people going in the first place, and screening afterwards. Here we’re a little bit like medieval map makers, that we have the map, we know some details in the map, but there is an awful lot of parts were we mark on it “there be dragons”.
One of the dragons is we simply don’t understand a typical typology of radicalisation, and all the theories that have been postulated to date aren’t sustained systematically by the evidence. So yes sure, we know that mostly its young males, we know that some people are driven by ideology, we know that some people are driven by boredom, we know that some people are driven by thrills seeking (it’s the base jumping problem in international affairs). But we don’t yet have is a typology that we can apply as a risk matrix to kind of dedicate whether three or four people in this room might be most venerable to radicalisation.
However we do know something that I think is very important. We know that for all the impact of social media and the internet, that most people who are being radicalised to travel as foreign terrorist fighters have some social contact directly with another human being who helps forge their radicalisation. This is not just true in the United Kingdom, it’s true in the Maghreb, it’s true in South East Asia, it’s true with some of the cases from North, and even South America. By the way, Chile has a case and Trinidad and Tobago has considerable numbers. So this is a problem that’s even touching the Pacific continent of Latin American.
Why is that human touch so important? Because it’s a little bit like dominos – by which, I don’t mean to go all Dr. Strangelove on you – but it’s the sense that when one person goes, the likelihood of other people in their immediate social network going, whether that’s family members, friends, associates, dramatically increases.
The further problem that many states face in varying quantities is that many of these individuals are unknown to national law enforcement or intelligence and security services before they travel. So one of the only ways to detect people, other than by screening folks who turn up at airports asking for one way to Istanbul, and by the way most people are not doing that nowadays, is to try to quickly understand the social networks of individuals who’ve already gone, or who are clearly radicalising to encouraging people to go. And that social network data, I think for many countries, is going to depend not on what is already known to authorities, but what we share with our mobile telephones.
So its social network data, its internet data, and in many cases it may also be intelligence data, that may or may not be available to national authorities. I think that raises some really tricky policy challenges for all governments grappling between the liberty/security divide, grappling with how to respond to a problem that is either new to them or familiar but growing in scale. Which is “what are the right boundaries for properly using such data in the prevention and protection agenda?”, as well as in the screening returnees to work out whose going to be rehabilitated in Duxbury or elsewhere, and who actually might pose some form of continuing threat. So some tough policy choices.
This is still a national security problem for many countries, but it has a transnational dimension. Because even if somebody radicalises in Finland, you might think that the issues only really for the Finns, and maybe for the, Iraqis, or the Syrians, or the Libyans, if that Finnish resident travels there. But if that individuals travels indirectly, let’s say they take a flight via Dubai, and they break their travel to disguise their intent, or if that individual travels to train and fight in Libya for example, but then instead of returning to Finland goes to live in Portugal, there is a third country element here that is relevant both in terms of detection, and distribution, but also in terms of risk. That’s not just risk to Portuguese citizens in Portugal it might well be a risk to British, and other citizens active or present in Portugal.
So there’s some really tricky issues here not just about how to counter violence extremism and how to screen. But also how do you build a multilateral architecture in a very sensitive space of national sovereignty around national security that is fit for purpose, that is also respectful of the fact that an Algerian perspective, or a Russian perspective on this, maybe somewhat different to a Belgian perspective.
So finally let me conclude by saying that we also need to do something – if recent-ism is a problem, and the challenge of always focusing on the problem in front of our nose – the other problem is keeping it in perspective, and there are very useful lobbying organisations in America that always remind us to keep things in perspective. One such organisation is the American Furniture Safety Association. I’m very grateful to them. Their data is out of date, I haven’t empirically tested it, but they issued a press release a couple of years ago pointing out as an average resident of North America you were still more likely to be killed by falling furniture in your own home than by al-Qaeda or ISIL. Clearly a pitch for furniture safety there; I have not been paid for this infomercial.
I think it is very important for us to recognise the seriousness of the problem, recognise the issues of public confidence, recognise the perplexity of generating a multilateral as well as national response, but also keeping it perspective. So I’ll leave it there, thank you.
George Howarth MP
Thank you. Alex has achieved something I have very rarely come across, and that is somebody who said he would be twenty minutes actually took twenty minutes. Usually when I chair things, when somebody says “I’ll only be twenty minutes”, they’re normally still going on after forty. So well done for that, but also it was a very tight analysis of some quite complex problems, as well as thought-provoking about some of the response we’ve got, and how we might, in public policy terms, in different places, respond.
If I could abuse the privilege of being in the chair, and perhaps start off, then I’m going to open it up then for questions and brief comments.
One of the things that continuously strikes me on programmes like Question Time is that they have these debates about the process of how do you become radicalised to the point of violence, and people trout out all of the clichés about the path, and they’ll say “well, of course, they’re poorly educated”. Actually if you do an analysis of many of the people who carried out atrocities, they are quite well educated. Or that they are “subjects of social deprivation”, and in fact some are, but equally some come from quite comfortable backgrounds.
I suppose that the question that arises from that is, how do we get a better understanding of what’s going on amongst people that should know better? Never mind the wider public. You would expect someone who appears on a national flagship programme for an organisation like the BBC to talk about these things, would be able to move beyond the clichés, but in fact what happens is the clichés still get trotted out.
So how do we get a better understanding amongst the commentariat?
Dr. Alexander Evans
Well I am of course deeply respectful of all members of the commentariat, particularly members of that commentariat that might be present here tonight. The challenge of people saying things that are not evidence-based is not limited to the debate on terrorism. Indeed, evidence-based public policy, even if it’s a party that we all trout out, is not necessarily as deeply accepted by policy makers or commentators.
I do think it’s important to have the confidence, and the humility, to be clear about what we do not know. Even after fifteen years of quite a lot of expenditure on research, academic research, policy research, detailed analysis of case work. We genuinely do not yet have a holy grail, apologies for the metaphor, in terms of being able to detect radicalisation.
There was one piece of research that was suggestive, and I’m going to mention this. It’s by Mark Sageman, who was a former CIA case officer and physiatrist, who looked at a range of cases a few years ago, I think perhaps as long as eight to ten years ago. One of his interesting findings was that – and he trotted through all of these: is it poverty, no its not; is it education, no its not. And you look at the case work and it doesn’t tell you that. One thing did seem true, that there was a food preference involved. Because most people tend to radicalise through friendship networks, or through family networks, so you’re much more likely to network with people you break bread with, or eat curry with, or eat roast chicken with.
So what you tended to have, it was unusual to have people with West African food preferences working with people who had Middle Eastern food preferences, it was unusual to have people with South East Asian food preferences working with people with South Asian food preferences. Even when you had foreign terrorist fighters together, as you had in Afghanistan, or with tribal areas of Pakistan, in which I’ve worked quite a lot, often there was still a degree of social segregation when it came to what people would prefer to eat if they could.
I think one of the worries now about the ISIL phenomena is you have true globalisation taking place in places like Raqqa. I have a guy who has an awful job in our team, who watches all these horrible videos, and then decides which ones we should watch as well. Don’t worry he is screened regularly. [Chuckles from the audience] But one of the videos he flagged about eighteen months ago was quite interesting in the UN context. Jokes, by the way, don’t work in translation as I’ve found to my deep cost, in the UN context. This was just an ISIL related video where somebody was saying “how do you work Russian, French and English speakers in the same group?” And they said “don’t worry we have an interpreter”.
So I think one of the things that is also happening as a result of the changed framework for foreign terrorist fighters is happening on two fronts. One is much more cosmopolitan, and that actually is then a feeding zone for people to learn from each other much more quickly, and for bad ideas to spread much more quickly, but also for alliances to develop that could be much more transnational in scope.
The other thing is, unlike when I was a student in India in the early 1990s, I would go to the post restante to pick up a letter from my parents, and then to write a long hand letter back. Well, now you can keep in touch with these networks when you disperse to where ever you might go. So the death of distance has implications for how those relationships may yet be sustained in future, and that is also very different to the 1990s.
George Howarth MP
Thank you very much. Could people indicate anybody who wants to either comment, briefly, or ask a question? I have two hands up. The gentlemen with his pen in the air, and the gentlemen on the front row there.
I would like to draw two points for discussion, and comments by the speaker. My first one, [inaudible] and now offers political asylum for people whose life is endangered aboard. These people who when they come here, they play a radicalising effect with them, especially from the second generation Muslim, and others poorly. This is point one, how do you address?
The second point is that this Tory government was dragging their feet, with curbing the travel of potential fighters in Muslim countries like Syria or elsewhere. What was the reason for that? Were they thinking that these people will go outside somewhere else, and get killed at the hands of someone else will get rid of them? Do they not understand that the chickens will come home to roost?
George Howarth MP
Is it okay if we take two questions?
The gentleman on the front row, for the benefit of those of us who are struggling to hear a little bit, I wonder if people could either speak in a very loud voice, or sometimes if you stand up it projects better.
The British National Party in the 1970s reached its peak with about 17,000 members. I think they’re the closest thing we have to a contemporary equivalent, and I think it’s a legitimate equivalent, because even if people look horrified by mentioning the BNP – and left-wing people who I mention this to will very, very quickly almost support the BNP by saying “no, it’s nothing like it” – when in fact the difference between the two is that the BNP, no sorry, IS, were living the dream, or are living the dream, even when they don’t have power, whereas perhaps the BNP were not living their dream.
The thing that frightens me most is that these IS fighters are people, or even the three women who took their nine children to Syria, are people who for whatever reason, have made an intellectual choice. They have decided to embrace a philosophy that celebrates beheading, crucifixion, mass murder, whatever. For better or for worse that’s their lifestyle choice.
I’ve read that there are up to seven hundred people, who from Britain, adults, who have gone out, who from Britain have gone over to Iraq and Syria. Two hundred and fifty of them have returned here. I don’t care who says that they can be -what do you call it? Brought into some sort of some of re-education camp or whatever, I don’t believe in it.
I know Australia announced here yesterday that there is to be legislation to revoke the citizenship of people with dual citizenship, whether they are in Australia or overseas. I don’t think that is far enough. For anybody who embraces such an abhorrent philosophy has to be permanently barred from ever returning to Europe, to anywhere in the US because they are a contagion, and I don’t there is any way to cure it.
George Howarth MP
Thank you, do you want to..?
Yeah, well let me to respond to the second point if I may first.
I think positions on things like do you take away passports, citizenships, so one, I think those are sovereign policies for each country. I would say that as a UN person wouldn’t I?
But I think there is something to focus on here which is very important. One of the most detailed studies on both al-Qaeda and ISIL propaganda shows two dominant themes recurring again and again. One is a claim to legitimacy, to speak on behalf of all Muslims. So it’s a legitimacy claim, which is obviously illegitimate. But the other is a claim to be the virtuous. Which may seem odd against the sort of video nasties that have consumed media attention, but these twin claims to legitimacy and virtue are extremely important in building the ISIL brand. I think one of the challenges that we have is how do you, basically, de-legitimatize both of those claims, particularly among the target audiences for ISIL propaganda.
Now as much as I celebrate the enormous competence of government officials, and international officials, officials often aren’t the most adept communicators. They’re certainly not necessarily the most adept communicators to reach the audiences that need to be reached in authentic and emphatic way. So I think of the one key messages here is, if we know this about the communications we should really be designing counter communications that focus on challenging those two elements in particular.
In terms of a question about asylum and radicalisation: the past is the past, it’s important to learn from it, and remember it. All I would say is yes, there were people I think that were present not just in the UK, but in many other countries in the 1990s who perhaps had we thought more, and reflected more, we might have thought differently about. But it’s easy to say that with hindsight, and perhaps it’s more difficult to say that at the time.
In terms of the response to the threat of foreign terrorist fighters travelling, particularly from Europe: I think some have argued that the response was too slow. This may sound like a curious thing to say as a Briton working for all fifteen members of the Security Council very equally. Venezuela definitely gets one fifteenth of my time.
Actually here it’s worth noting, I think one of the people who saw this most keenly, most early, was the Russian Federation. Credit where credit is due, I think the Russians, and the Russian FSB, actually identified the strategic threat of the scale, and range of foreign terrorist fighters, earlier than everyone else did. But I also think that everyone else has come round to that, so, I don’t necessarily think that’s because…there may be all sorts of reasons for that.
On the European side there has been a significant change since the summer of 2014. I’ve been travelling out to the countries that are most effected, I’ve been in Ankara, I’ve been in Beirut, I’ve been in Oman, our team has been in Iraq, I’ve been in Damascus. So we go and talk to the countries that are most directly affected as well as the countries who are sending people. I think intelligence sharing has significantly improved among member states, and that’s the piece that doesn’t always enter the newspapers.
I think on data sharing it’s often much trickier, because there are privacy issues, there are legal constraints on data sharing, and there is also the question, how do you share? Do you share through police data bases? Do you share through passenger information? Do you share watch lists? What might happen in human rights terms if you share watch list information with countries where we might not necessarily wish to be the most immediate guest in their prisons?
I think the other thing that made a big difference was resolution 2178. UN Security Council resolution passed in September last year in this meeting chaired by president Obama. Very important, because it mandated under chapter seven of the UN charter for all countries to criminalise travel to be a foreign terrorist fighter, and I think that was effectively trying to speed up and bypass where possible some of the impediments to encouraging more national action on this.
George Howarth MP
Can we have an indication of, I’ve got, two, three more hands. The gentleman here, the gentleman at the back, and there was a hand up, and the lady over there. So starting with you sir.
In Afghanistan, Taliban and IS fighting each other. In Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra fighting against ISIS. Many, many similar groups fighting together right now against each other, any comment? Any network with them? Or without their leadership, like you said, any differences exactly in these three groups, Taliban, IS and Nusra in Syria?
George Howarth MP
The gentleman -I’m going to take all three if that’s okay? The gentleman at the back.
My name is Joseph. I came from Lebanon, from political party called the Lebanese Forces. Originally it was an organisation to defend the Christian society when it was in danger, before years ago, the same type of terrorism that is existing now in Syria and the surrounding countries, and we know how dangerous they could be when they had the chance. We know that they had infrastructure everywhere. 7/7 was one of the results of their actions.
What I’m calling it, or what I suggest is, the Muslim world is trying to do something against those peoples. Some of the moderate Muslims they don’t want that, and most. But I think they cannot do enough, what I think should be, it should be some political policy to protect the infrastructure in the Western countries. If all of sudden goes well, by not supporting Free Syrian Army when they were fighting against Assad, which opened the door very wide for organisations like ISIS, and stuff like that.
So my suggestion is, maybe there should be more collaboration with the people that understand the language, and the mentality, and the facts. Just for the protection of the society. That’s all.
George Howarth MP
Thank you, the lady there.
You talked about monitoring the social networks of foreign terrorist fighters, and I was wondering how we can balance between a productive intervention that can protect and prevents travel for foreign terrorist fighters, and a counterproductive intervention? I’m thinking of Mohammed Emwazi, where in fact the intervention by the state ended up radicalising him further…
George Howarth MP
Right, three fairly meaty topics come out of that, so perhaps we could spend a few minutes on those.
Sure. Well let me take this question of the Taliban and ISIL first. We also have a mandate, I live schizophrenia every day because we have a mandate on al-Qaeda, and ISIL, but we also have a separate mandate on the Taliban. So we spend quite a lot of time in Afghanistan. I swoop in for a few days, I actually have a team who speak Pashtu, Dari, who actually know the subject, who I borrow my glibness from.
On the Taliban, ISIL fighting I think one the interesting things there is, there [is] a large range of foreign terrorist fighters in Afghanistan; Lashkar-e-Taiba fighters, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Jamaat Ansarullah -a group many people will not have heard of, a Tajiks, ethnic Tajik group- the Haqqani network, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Most of those are still al-Qaeda affiliated or aligned rather than ISIL aligned. What we’ve seen is a greater noise around ISIL activity in Afghanistan, just like many other spaces, and the challenge there is to distinguish between how much of these is noise?
The ultimate selfie of choice at the moment is to have yourself, an ISIL flag and, you know, an international landmark for your Instagram post. That doesn’t necessarily mean there is an ISIL operational cell present in fill-in-location-of-choice.
The other dynamic, I think that’s very important, in Afghanistan is some of the rejectionist factions within the Taliban who are most opposed to any political engagement with the government of Afghanistan are those that have been most associated with ISIL, or making noises of association, or sympathy with ISIL. So I think the dynamic in Afghanistan, from what I understand, and a team of ours came back from Afghanistan – I think about three weeks ago – having done some very detailed work on this in different provinces, is that actually it’s much more integrated into some of the internal differences in the broader Taliban movement.
So I think, just as in Afghanistan, granularity is key, we need to really properly understand what’s going on, on the ground, and try and aim off of the noise, the white noise around it. I think that’s why I very much endorse the comments of the second speaker in terms of this is where knowledge is crucial, we really need to know what we can, and that knowledge is not going to be from a bald guy from Portsmouth who may know a little bit about South Asia, but I’m certainly not an expert on Boko Haram for example or al-Shabaab.
So I think it’s crucial that we really take quite a heterodox approach to learning about what the problem is on the ground, and understanding the social context in which radicalisation takes place. Both in the real world and moving on the internet space, in the internet space as well.
Here I think there’s something, there’s a tweet, a rather interesting tweet from last year that I thought was interesting on this, which was from somebody who’s associated with one of the factions of foreign terrorist fighters, who was being asked by an associate, “Why are you mujahedeen online so much?” And he said “well this is Sham, not Afghan, and its 1435 not 1405 [in the Islamic calendar].” Which speaks, I think, to two things: one is the generational change point I made earlier; but the other thing is, that’s basically gangster rap turned into a tweet. So you’re talking also about the use of social media, and the internet very much influenced by a range of other cosmopolitan trends.
What can we do about the internet? I think this is really tricky. Some states would argue that we should, regulate, police, remove material, even material that might be considered legitimate political expression in other environments. Some argue for an approach based on terms and conditions, and it’s certainly true that many of the social media companies have enormously grown their architecture in the last two years. Particularly in Ireland, I don’t why everybody places a lot of these screeners in Ireland? I would imagine those jobs should be coming to Britain!
George Howarth MP
It’s the low tax regime.
I shall leave that to those who know to divine, but there has been a significant upgrade in screening capabilities by social media companies, and they are trying to do more.
One of the problems is there’s such a volume of content, can you detect it quickly? Can you take it down quickly? How do you screen it? How do you make sure that you are policing boundaries in a way that is appropriate to each sovereign jurisdiction? Occasionally it might be quite interesting to see whose visiting a particular website. There was a joke I think about the 1990s, that there was one jihadi message board where some ninety percent of the people on it were all government agents or investigative journalists, and there was one bewildered extremist wondering how he had gained so many friends.
So I think there is this challenge of, again balancing sometimes the operational needs of counter terrorism with regulatory action as well.
George Howarth MP
If I could just make a brief comment on that, I mean, on two of those points really. The first one is that we now know that a social internet provider knew that one of the people who killed fusilier Lee Rigby had said that he was going to kill, not Lee Rigby, said that he was going to kill a soldier. It’s not that they ignored it, it’s just that they didn’t even know about it. They only found it themselves after the event. So the task was, the former head of GCHQ described it as looking for a needle in a hay stack, and that’s exactly what it is, it is a real problem.
The cultural point is a really interesting one. I had to, for a report I was involved in, listen to some of the telephone exchanges involving the London bombers, Mohammad Sidique Khan and the others. The language that they used was not, I mean you know, apart from the odd use of the word inshallah, it was very much like sort of almost London West Indian, you know, “innit”… very modern. They communicated in what is, certainly to me, is a very modern way, and that is just easily segued into social media. We think of those cultures as being based on very old theologies and ways of doing things, but it’s not quite like that at all.
Anyway, anybody else? Right I’ve got four people. The woman there, the gentleman at the back, another woman, and the chap there. Oh five, right I think I better take two, and then we will take the last three. So starting with you.
In reference to the evolution that you discussed from al-Qaeda to ISIL it seems like one of the really big distinctions is just the massive populist appeal that ISIS seems to have, whereas al-Qaeda was much more elitist and selective in terms of who it would accept into its ranks.
So in terms of the counter narrative that you were discussing especially de-legitimising ISIL and also poking a hole, basically, in their claims to virtue, given this populist appeal what do you think is the best form that counter narrative should go through? Is it on social media? Is it the form of a government policy? Is it the more traditional routes of media? What do you think would be the most effective in terms of reaching this big audience, this transnational audience that they’re attracting?
George Howarth MP
Right, I’m going to take the lady over there.
Yes, so I was just wondering if you thought there would be any value in challenging the belief systems of the Qur’an? Because having read the Bible, and the Qur’an, I could see that there could be a way of undermining the strength of the book. Because as long as the book is read or these verses are there, it’s going to keep arising for terrorist to take it on board in a wrong manner.
George Howarth MP
Shall we take those two, and then I’ll take three more, and then that should pretty much take up the rest of our time.
Well let me take the question of Islam first. I’ve lived in Muslim countries, and in fact I went to primary school in northern Nigeria, in town that’s not now very easy to go to, I’ve lived in Pakistan, I’ve lived in Afghanistan briefly. I think the biggest danger in Muslim countries is green tea, and the numerous amounts of it, although not during Ramadan until the fast is broke.
So I don’t see this as particularly associated with – I don’t see terrorism as particularly associated with one religion. Now that is a piety that you will hear frequently in the UN context, but I think it’s also true. I think if we look at where terrorism comes, I lived in Greece in the late 1980s and one of my father’s friends was blown up by November 17th, a terrorist group in Greece. In fact there’s still more right wing terrorist incidents in North America than Islamists related terrorist incidents.
So I do think that, again, a sense of history gives us a sense of perspective. That having been said we should be evidence-based and think about what we actually, properly, know.
In terms of strategic communications, and what’s most effective, I don’t know. But I do know that governments aren’t always the most adept at this. If some of this is guerrilla marketing to multiple audiences by ISIL associated radicals, probably the response needs to be something that includes guerrilla marketing by way of return.
I do think that sometimes the private sector [is] going to be more adept at constructing messages, and market-eers will be more adept at that then officials will be. I think we should measure what works, and there are ways to do that. If you want to sell skinny jeans in Brooklyn via the internet you measure your demographic, you see what rate of return you get of internet advertising, you know exactly what type of communication has been successful or not. Why can’t we do that for government’s strategic communications in multiple arenas including this one?
So that I think it’s a threat in the same way as the commentariat issue comes up, which is occasionally people who want to sell these programmes into generous founders don’t always want too many questions keenly asked about what actually works, or what doesn’t.
George Howarth MP
Well I’ve got… I think there were three, if people could, those who want to speak, one, two, and there was one over there. So we’ll start there go to the back and then…
So with foreign fighters from such a multitude of countries, I wonder if you see any evidence of financial support? In such a board range of countries, mainly from outside of the Gulf, so from Western Europe, or even, sort of, East Asia.
George Howarth MP
I’ll go to the back.
My question is on the foreign fighter front, is whether this mention of a fighter being foreign is itself useful? Because let’s say from valley to the next could be seen as foreign as opposed to across another continent so, and whether that actually in itself is the major flaw or major strength of these groups.
George Howarth MP
And then the gentleman over there.
My curiosity lies in the transition between al-Qaeda, and ISIS. We talked about a de-territorialised, networked jihad, moving into a hierarchical territorial structure that we are seeing in, Syria, and, Iraq, and Libya. To what extent is the territorial success serviced by this recruitment process that’s using social media, and other communications technologies? And is that successful to furthering this? Is it propagating, making it more successful? That’s my question.
George Howarth MP
Right I think that’s our questions, now for the responses.
Terrific. On financial support: I think on the financing of foreign terrorist fighters, many of them are self-financing their travels. I will not be company specific, particularly in this country, but it’s the low cost airline terrorist problem. I think the ease with which that people can get there, and in a sense the lighting rod of one particular conflict in the Middle East means that in some ways this is the Spanish Civil War of the generation. I think that’s not an un-useful analogy to reach for, and that helps animate the movement, but also the ease of air travel and the relative lack of expense of travelling is relevant too.
It’s notable that we see far fewer foreign terrorist fighters travelling very long distances, from Latin America, from South East Asia, and that may reflect some of the differentials in terms of cost.
Also ISIL has a lot of money. Now what we do hope is that ISIL’s spending a lot more of it so quickly that its expenditure is significantly outgunning income at the moment, and that’s part of where sanctions in the UN context can be useful. People sometimes think “are sanctions just rhetorical?”, but I think they can help just nudge the boundaries a little bit, and have some disruptive affect as well as rhetorical and de-legitimising affect.
Second question, is even the phrasing on foreign terrorist fighters useful? Today I’m back in my country of origin; living in New York, I’m a foreigner. The difference is one transatlantic flight. That’s even more pronounced I think when you’re talking about people moving between Niger and Nigeria, or between Afghanistan and Pakistan. I think it is helpful because I think one of the issues around foreign terrorist fighters is this cosmopolitan fusion, and the fact you’re often gaining skills that might then be ported back to a country of origin, or to a third country.
So I think the nature of the threat generated by many, not all, foreign terrorist fighters is a little bit different to the nature of the threat posed by a home grown group. The issues of definition are, of course, ever tricky.
Does success matter to ISIL? Of course it does! A perception of success is also linked into this appeal of legitimacy, this question of virtue. So set backs are very helpful, continued successes are unhelpful.
But I don’t think we should argue that al-Qaeda never did this. Let’s take three parts of al-Qaeda that did have territorial control. Al-Qaeda core had some degree of territorial control in North Waziristan, until the Pakistani Army went in the latest operations, and I was in North Waziristan in January looking at the results of some of those operations. An al-Qaeda affiliate, Al-Shabaab, did have some territorial control, still has some in Somalia. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continues to have some territorial control in the Hadhramaut.
So the question is not the principle of territorial control, or indeed hierarchy (and al-Qaeda core has hierarchy, as do a range of al-Qaeda affiliates), the question is the scale and extent of that control, and in a sense whether that is then used as a lightning rod to bring people in. So I mean, to conclude I think the challenge here is the scale of the problem is different, and the nature of the problem has changed, but some of the challenge from both ISIL and al-Qaeda affiliates (and let’s not forget that there still active too, thank you very much), is a continuation in many ways of the threat that we’ve been facing for some years.
Perhaps one of the lessons on the back of this is we need a degree of strategic patience, and resilience, and that’s a tough sell in every country, but it’s probably going to be a necessary sell in what is likely to be a long range campaign to respond to both groups.
George Howarth MP
Thank you very much. Could I conclude by first of all thanking again The Henry Jackson Society for organising this event. Secondly I’d like to thank all of those who have contributed to the debate from the floor. I think that all of the questions have been relevant. And finally to thank Alex for, I think not only sometimes telling us what we already knew but in slightly different way of putting it, but also for shining fresh light on some of the areas that people have got concerns about. I for one, and I’m sure that’s true of everybody in the room, have learned something tonight to add to what we already knew.
Finally, before I ask to show your appreciation to Alex, I just wanted to…David Cameron is fond of saying that this problem will take a generation to solve, he’s talking generally speaking about homegrown radical terrorists, but actually I think what you just concluded in saying is that this is going to be a long term problem for all sorts of reasons, some of which we’ve touched on and some of which we haven’t.
I just think that [is] why having these events so relevant because we’re not dealing with some flash in the pan issue that will go away, we’re dealing with something that is in the structure in the way the world works now, and something that we’ve got to understand better.
So thank you for shining that light better for us. I’d like if you could all join me in saying thank you in the traditional way.