The new terror

In the wake of the failed terror attacks in London and Glasgow Shiv Malik reports on an unforeseen t

The foiled terrorist attacks in London on 29 June, and the subsequent attack at Glasgow Airport, differ from previous British Islamic terrorist plots in two important ways.

First, in terms of their tactics. These were car bombs. The Iraqi insurgency, it seemed, had for the first time been outsourced to British soil.

Second, according to police, those involved in the plot or plots were not British-born or bred. With the notable exception of the Algerian Kamel Bourgass, the lead figure behind the so-called ricin plot in 2003 (a suspected plan to create havoc using home-made poison), pretty much every recent UK-based Islamic terrorist plot has had a British-bred rump at its centre.

But the Brit factor is not the only one that links those behind the 2001 "shoe bombing", the 2003 bombings in Tel Aviv, the Bluewater plot, the 7/7 and failed 21/7 bombings and the 2006 plot to blow up aircraft on transatlantic flights. Almost all of those involved in these incidents were associated with a network of jihadis who were radicalised during the time of the Bosnian conflict, and/or were ex-members of the British Islamist group al-Muhajiroun who went to Pakistan before or just after the 11 September 2001 attacks (see Observations, NS, 7 May 2007).

In the past few days, attention has focused around the profession of the suspects in the latest attacks: foreign doctors working in British hospitals. Much astonishment has been expressed that highly educated, affluent family men could perpetrate acts of terrorism. Yet this comes as no surprise to those close to the jihadi networks. These groups have long attracted people from all professional and social classes, not just the poor and socially deprived. It is often forgotten, for example, that Mohammad Sidique Khan, leader of the 7/7 bombers, was university-educated, as was Omar Sheikh (who masterminded the murder of Daniel Pearl) - and, indeed, so were the 9/11 terrorists themselves. Dhiren Barot, the British al-Qaeda plotter, was also middle-class. Hassan Butt, a former fundraiser for al-Muhajiroun, commented this past week that many of his donors in Manchester and the north-west of England were professionals. Junaid Babar, supergrass in the Operation Crevice case, also stated that in 2002 he travelled "to the north of England to see a doctor to raise money for jihad". The doctor donated several hundred pounds.

In all but the most vicious of police states, it is possible to radicalise and indoctrinate terrorists with the right kind of ideology and mentality anywhere. Thankfully, however, there are very few places in the world where aspiring terrorists can equip themselves with the skills necessary to commit mass murder effectively. An audacious attempt to do so in the wilds of Oregon, where the Islamist British cleric Abu Hamza and his henchmen set up an ad hoc camp between 1999 and 2000, was quickly spotted by US law-enforcement authorities. And whatever is said about the vast amount of weapons information on the internet, nothing compares to being taught in person. Setting up an effective terror cell involves more than just knowing how to construct a bomb.

Basic mistakes

Those with inside knowledge tell me that if a cell is to be effective, it needs to learn discipline (in British jihadi circles this is known as amarship), as well as anti-surveillance techniques, how to operate secure funding structures, and the art of reconnaissance (so the jihadists don't make basic mistakes such as parking their improvised explosive device in a Westminster council tow zone).

And then there are the lessons that can only be learned through experience. For example, the Bluewater plotters wasted weeks trying to devise methods of smuggling nitrogen fertiliser through Pakistani customs, when they should have realised that it can be purchased quite easily in Britain (but not, of course, if you want half a tonne of it in one go). This learning of lessons is one reason why armed forces are far more effective at killing people than terrorists; institutions are much better at remembering their mistakes.

In Britain, the vast majority of home-grown terrorists are of south Asian descent and acquired their skills to kill in Afghanistan during the Taliban era (the 1990s) or during the few years after 9/11, when the Pakistani authorities were still grappling to take control of their historically lawless tribal regions. With filial links and few language barriers, aspiring British terrorists found that Pakistan was an easy place to manoeuvre around. The sterling in their pockets, raised from donors in Britain's Muslim com munities, also helped to elevate them into the ranks of Pakistani terrorist networks faster than their experience should have warranted. However, as President Pervez Musharraf made genuine attempts to crack down on foreign terrorist camps, it became much harder for Brits to travel to Pakistan to receive training.

Since the 7 July 2005 attacks on London, with Pakistan largely closed off, south Asian British radicals have found it extremely difficult to get training in other parts of the world, such as Iraq. For a start, they don't speak the pan-jihadi language - Arabic. (Sources tell me that although the Iraqi insurgents take on foot soldiers, they don't yet have any substantial capacity to train non-Arabic speakers in terrorist methods.) And so, as the men of the 1990s-to-2004 generation of trained jihadists have been arrested, fled the UK or, more horrifyingly, died succeeding, the overall skills base of the British terrorist network has dwindled rapidly.

In theory, if all other factors remained equal, the security services would just have to pick off the rest of the pre-2004 generation. The bad news is that all factors have not remained equal.

In recent months, there have been two major developments on the training front. First, before the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia last December, there was a window of roughly six months when the pro-jihadist Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) was in control of the capital, Mogadishu. During that time, I am told, it was possible for British Somalis to travel back to Somalia to receive terrorist training. "If the UIC hadn't been removed, Britain would have had another nightmare," said a source who asked not to be identified.

The second problem is even more worrying. In Pakistan, as President Mu sharraf has tried to tackle the liberal opposition, he has had, out of necessity, to drop the ball of fighting extremism. The summer training season has been in full swing. "Musharraf," said another source, "has turned a blind eye to what Islamists and jihadists are doing there because he can't tackle everything. It has totally opened up." Under pressure, the Pakistani military has begun to clamp down again on hardline mosques. The potential for violence, and further grievance, is great.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The new terror

Edel Rodriguez for New Statesman
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Rehearsing for war

From the Middle East to North Korea, Donald Trump is reasserting US military strength and intensifying the rivalry among the great powers.

As Vice-President Mike Pence arrived in South Korea from Washington on Sunday, he announced that the “era of strategic patience”, in which the US sought to monitor and manage the nuclear threat from North Korea without pushing the matter for fear of escalation, was over. “President Trump has made it clear that the patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out and we want to see change,” Pence declared. The heat under a crisis that had already been bubbling ominously was turned up another notch.

Much has been written in recent years about the stability provided by the post-1945 world order and the dangers of letting it crumble. The conflict in Korea provided the first big test of that order almost 70 years ago, but the difficulty was never really resolved. It remains the proverbial “wicked problem” in international affairs, “frozen” in an obsessively monitored and deeply uneasy stalemate, demarcated by the Demilitarised Zone: a line 160 miles long and roughly two and a half miles wide scored across the middle of the Korean Peninsula, drawn with superpower supervision in 1953. Partition has allowed a strong and ­successful state to flourish in the South while the North has survived in a state of ­arrested development.

The problem has been passed down from generation to generation because attempting to solve the issue risked opening a Pandora’s box. The risks included the unleashing of huge military force, potential world war and a refugee crisis on a scale that could severely destabilise even China. By the 1990s, it was clear that the North Korean regime had fastened upon another strategy for survival as the Cold War passed into history and its sponsors in Beijing and Moscow began to question the value of such an ally: the acquisition of nuclear warheads. Pyongyang has long had the firepower to flatten Seoul in a matter of hours. The mission since has been to develop its missile technology to carry that material as far as possible – certainly to Japan, but ideally also to the west coast of the United States.

The day after Pence’s announcement, the US and South Korea undertook a joint air and army exercise to ensure readiness in the event of an attack from the North. This followed a joint naval war game earlier in the week and the US decision to send a navy group led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which Donald Trump described as an “armada”, to the region. No sooner had the fleet appeared than Japanese sources reported that it had been followed by Chinese and Russian submarines as it entered North Korean waters. Such are the great-power manoeuvres of the 21st century – whether on air, sea or land – in which the world’s most potent military machines shadow the moves of their competitors, and openly rehearse for war.

***

Asia has not had a major inter-state war since the 1970s but it is not immune from the tragedies of power politics that have beset other rapidly developing parts of the world. Across the region, military spending is rising fast as states jostle in anticipation of a changing balance of power.

The purpose of Pence’s Asia-Pacific tour is to offer reassurance to America’s allies in the region, which have been watching the rise of China, in particular, with trepidation. The stark change of tone emanating from the White House – and change of gear – has been noted. After years of steady consistency in US grand strategy, there is a sense of a building crisis and the Americans are being watched in anticipation of their next move more closely than they have been scrutinised in many years.

Before he left South Korea, Pence also visited Panmunjom, where the 1953 armistice was signed at the end of the Korean War, as well as Camp Bonifas, a UN military compound near the Demilitarised Zone, set up to monitor the ceasefire that followed. It is an eerie echo from the past that Pence’s own father served in the war that divided the country. Edward Pence was awarded the Bronze Star on 15 April 1953 for heroic service. The vice-president proudly displays the medal, and a photo of his father receiving it, in his office. He is no doubt aware of the costs of a conflict in which an estimated 36,000 of his countrymen were killed.

Just over a thousand British soldiers also lost their lives in the Korean War after being sent to fight in a joint UN force. But it was far more deadly still for the peoples of the Korean Peninsula, killing more than a million people, including 400,000 troops for the People’s Volunteer Army, among whom was Mao Anying, the eldest son of Chairman Mao, the leader of the Communist Party of China and protector of the North.

History throws up strange parallels. When the Korean War began in 1950 it was understood to be the first serious test of the international system established after the Second World War. It is striking just how many of the same ingredients remain, including the identity of some of the main protagonists. On 25 June 1950, a border conflict between North and South Korea escalated into full-scale war when Kim Il-sung’s Korean People’s Army – backed by China, and with the tacit support of the Soviet Union – invaded the Republic of Korea in the south, claiming that it represented the legitimate government of all Korea. This is a claim that the regime of his grandson Kim Jong-un has not abandoned to this day.

Two days after the invasion, on 27 June, the UN Security Council voted to send a joint force, under General Douglas MacArthur of the US, the former supreme commander of Allied forces in the south-west Pacific area, to protect the sovereignty of the South and repel the invaders. Much more was at stake than the question of territorial integrity or preserving international law. By bringing the Americans into confrontation with the Chinese – and with the Russians seen to be the steering hand in the background – the conflict had all the ingredients for rapid escalation.

From the start, there were concerns that the Americans might overdo the brinkmanship, even under the cautious leadership of Harry Truman. Fears that the self-confident MacArthur would exceed his brief were confirmed when the UN forces pushed back into North Korea in October. In response, the Chinese Communists, who believed that MacArthur had designs on China itself, flooded across the Yalu River in their tens of thousands.

It was in the autumn of 1950 that the danger of another world war, this one involving nuclear weapons, reached its peak. On 28 November, after a grave reverse for the UN forces, MacArthur stated that the advent of 200,000 Chinese had created “an entirely new war”, with much higher stakes than before. Suddenly, the prospect that the US might resort to using an atomic bomb against the North Koreans, or even the Chinese forces, seemed plausible.

While the nuclear scare passed, the war rumbled on towards an ugly stalemate over the next three years. A temporary solution of sorts was found with the 1953 armistice. But there was no resolution to Korea’s frozen war. In a way that no other totalitarian state has managed, the North zipped itself into a hermetically sealed chamber, preserving a three-generation dictatorship that is both comically anachronistic and frighteningly modern in its missile technology.

***

Some of this complicated backstory was explained to Donald Trump by China’s president, Xi Jinping, during his recent visit to the United States. Trump – who had been pressuring China to do more to deal with the North Korean regime – appears to have been receptive to what he heard.

“After listening for ten minutes,” he said, “I realised it’s not so easy.”

This is the first critical test of the “new era in great-power relations” which Xi has been floating for a number of years, but Trump has now decided to put to the test. According to Trump’s most recent tweets, Beijing has continued to work with the US on the North Korea problem. He has welcomed its contribution but insisted that America’s own willingness to deal with the problem does not depend on China. In other words, there is no master plan being played out here, even if – as seems credible – America did hack North Korea’s latest missile launch to make it a damp squib.

The Trump administration is not creating the conditions for a new long game, building a fresh multilateral consensus to contain the North Korean threat. Instead, with a newfound sense of momentum serving as a tail wind, it senses a moment to “solve” one of the longest-running and most treacherous problems in international affairs. It has decided, at the very least, to severely clip the wings of Kim Jong-un’s regime. And in doing so, it has set out to demonstrate that when America speaks, it speaks with effect.

Like much current presidential policy, “the Trump doctrine” is being made on the hoof. Much of the hyperactivity of the past month or so was not scripted but emerged in response to overt challenges – beginning in Damascus and panning to Pyongyang – to the United States and the “red lines” it has laid down in the past. One foundation stone of Trump’s approach to the world is firmly in place, however: the willingness to reassert US military power with swift and decisive effect. The idea that the “America First” slogan implied anything resembling isolationism is crumbling. The growing sense that it does imply unsentimental and unvarnished power politics in the name of the US interest rather than multilateral niceties is closer to the truth.

Under Barack Obama, the US sought to withdraw from those areas in which he felt that the US had overstretched itself under his predecessor. Obama opted for a more rapier-like and cost-effective form of power projection. He drew down from formal military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, while presiding over a huge uptick in drone warfare, cyber capabilities and selective but deadly use of special operations. Much of the full range of US power was submerged in various “secret wars”, and the diplomatic compass was reset to pivot east. This was because, as a legacy of the 9/11 attacks, national security was geared towards the containment of an elusive and amorphous enemy – various offshoots of the global jihad movement – that operated on the periphery of America’s radar.

But the real metrics of great power are those now on display off the coast of North Korea. For all the advances in drone technology, the missiles that cause the gravest threats to humanity are those on the scale that the North Korean regime is attempting to build. Trump’s test was one that a president of the United States would have to face sooner rather than later.

Not since Ronald Reagan has the US been so willing to engage in naked displays of its own military potency in quick succession – and seek to gather diplomatic yields from them as swiftly as possible. The past fortnight brought a missile attack on an airbase manned by the Assad regime – changing the tenor of US-Russian relations overnight – and the dropping of the so-called Moab (“mother of all bombs”) on an Isis affiliate in Afghanistan. The latter was a far cry from the “clear, hold, build” counterinsurgency operations in vogue half a decade ago. But it did fit with a campaign promise by the new president that he would “bomb the shit out of Isis” should the opportunity arise.

Does this fit into a wider pattern or constitute a new approach? The Trump administration is eager to leverage any opening that might have been created. In Seoul, Pence wasted no time in joining the dots: “the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan”. North Korea, he continued, “would do well not to test his resolve, or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region”.

It is the generals who have increasingly set the tone for Trump’s foreign policy. During the 2016 election campaign, he promised to give the Pentagon more leeway than it had under Obama to focus on “winning”. The new national security adviser, H R McMaster, and the defence secretary, General James Mattis, are now the steering hands.

Neither man has followed the rather crass and short-sighted fashion for running down diplomacy. Mattis once said that if the state department budget was cut, he would need more ammunition. McMaster is an urbane thinker who knows that the use of force must always be carefully calibrated and is just one tool in a continuum of factors. In this respect, it is a problem that so many jobs in the state department remain unfilled. Now that muscle has been flexed, the experienced negotiators and diplomats should be flooding through the door.

***

The policy of “strategic patience” was based on an understandable calculation. But, in hindsight, it does appear that North Korea has suffered from neglect. Mitchell B Reiss, one of the most experienced diplomats who led efforts on North Korea in the 1990s, notes that, despite unprecedented co-operation between the US and China in recent weeks, including open threats of economic pressure and military action, they were still unable to prevent North Korea from testing ballistic missiles on 16 April. Even though the missiles exploded immediately after lift off, “The failure of Washington and Beijing to stop the test in the first place has important implications for the Trump administration’s future policy options and for stability in north-east Asia.”

In Reiss’s view, it is “highly unlikely that the North can be cajoled, threatened or given incentives to surrender its nuclear weapons”. The uncomfortable truth is that “short of regime change, which could inflame the entire Korean Peninsula in war”, the US cannot halt the North’s nuclear weapons programme. But that does not mean there are no options. Slowing the pace and raising the costs would be “prudent steps”. More, too, could be done, Reiss says, to “interdict imports of sensitive technologies, to sanction Chinese and other nationals who act as purchasing agents for the nuclear and missile programmes, and to punish Chinese banks that help finance these programmes through so-called secondary sanctions”.

In the end, so much comes down to US-China relations. Could this be the basis for a reset and a new accommodation between Beijing and Washington? How much further is China willing to go to use its leverage on the North, which depends on it for energy and food? And how patient will the Trump administration be if its new strategy does not yield tangible results of the sort that are sometimes elusive in the long and often open-ended game of deterrence? 

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of “Realpolitik: a History” (Oxford University Press)

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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