Suzanne Raine worked for the U.K. Foreign & Commonwealth Office from 1995 until 2019, specializing in counterterrorism. Between January 2015 and September 2017, she was head of the United Kingdom’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre.
CTC: What role does JTAC play in U.K. counterterrorism efforts?
Raine: JTAC stands for the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre. It was established in response to the 2002 Bali bombings, with the aim of having one central place within the U.K.’s system where terrorism threat assessments are made. It is staffed by analysts from about 16 different government departments who are brought together in a single place. These individuals are linked back into their own systems, reading all of the information available from all of their respective departments and feeding it into their assessments. This makes [for] a system which is greater than the sum of its parts and provides a way of pushing information in both directions. This helps support the threat assessment both in immediate tactical terms in the U.K. and abroad, but also the strategic development of the threat picture and trends within it. Its closest equivalent in the American system is NCTC [National Counterterrorism Center]. JTAC is also responsible for operating the U.K.’s national threat level system. It makes independent judgments free of any political influence, which informs the response posture either in advance of or after a terrorist attack.
CTC: What is your current evaluation of the threat from the Islamic State, especially in the wake of the Easter 2019 attacks in Sri Lanka? Did those particular attacks change your general assessment of the group’s trajectory?
Raine: It is a good time to ask that question because it is now five years since the declaration of the caliphate, and that should give us a moment to pause. It is quite a startling fact that the territorial caliphate survived that long. Not many things last five years. At the end of it all, just at the point where we were declaring territorial defeat, up pops Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a video to say, ‘I’m still here, guys.’1 It is an uncomfortable reminder that there still is a strategic mind at the heart of the group. It is not just a group engaged in a war in the desert, but it is an organization with leadership, structure, and organizational goals, however disrupted they have been.
Territory is nice for a terrorist group to have but is not a prerequisite. The establishment of the caliphate enabled them to become a massive global phenomenon, but territory brings with itself its own problems. It requires governance, policing, and defense, all of which requires lots of resource. The challenge for ISIS will be how they manage the transition away from (a) guerrilla state without disintegrating. Al-Baghdadi turning up five years later is their way of starting to think that through.
In terms of the threat from ISIS, the U.K. had a horrible year in 2017, and 2018 was much better. But this is sometimes an illusion. The question if we look at this five-year period and analyze it properly is, what does that show? To do this, we need to go back to the first three years of the group’s caliphate, which were a significant challenge for those of us whose job it was to counter it because it was growing so quickly; they had the impetus and the initiative. It is not true to say that the scale of the problem in 2015-17 took us by surprise, because we had watched it develop in 2013-14, but it is true to say that the way it changed, mobilized young people, generated spontaneity and common cause were exceptionally challenging to deal with. That put real demands on the instruments that we had at our disposal. A lot of things subsequently happened in response, but it took time and finally the coalition efforts in Syria and Iraq have pushed them back and kept them firmly on the back foot over the last couple of years. But it has been at significant cost to the coalition, and there is a huge debt of gratitude to the Syrian Kurds without whom it would not have been possible to push ISIS from their territory in Syria. Now ISIS is on the back foot; their media machine has been significantly disrupted; they’ve lost a lot of operational planners and have been substantially degraded.
In addition to this, we started to get on top of their networks in the West, leading to a lot of disruptions. This makes it much more difficult for them to conduct the kind of attacks they were conducting earlier on.
But there is a long legacy that the group has left behind. It can be categorized in two ways: their media and their network of foreign fighters. They have had more than five years as a group of living and fighting together, and we are talking about an unprecedented number of nationals from an unprecedented number of countries, including both men and women. The women are equally significant in this regard because I reject any suggestion that the women are less responsible for their decisions and actions than the men are. Foreign fighters are going to continue to pose a huge problem for the international security community because we are going to have to track them as well as find ways to monitor the effect that the inspirational ideas have on our domestic populations.
However weakened ISIS may now be, they are still a truly global movement, and we are globally vulnerable. Paradoxically, nothing should surprise us about what happens next, but we need to be prepared to be surprised. Sri Lanka is a good example of that, because whatever their exact connections, they were clearly inspired and connected to ISIS’ ideology at the very least. What Sri Lanka also showed was the difference between a lone-actor and a multiple-actor attack. There is no straightforward equation that says a lone actor will cause lower casualties and do less physical damage, but you can see from Sri Lanka that an attack with multiple actors who conduct their attack simultaneously is very effective. This is something that we see with alarming regularity in places like Afghanistan. We are going to continue to face both the lone-actor inspired attacks, as well as multiple-actor. The threat picture continues to contain almost every sort of threat within it.
CTC: Given the Islamic State is a globalized threat as you describe, are there any places that are of greater or lesser concern? Where might the next Sri Lanka come from?
Raine: There are multiple different factors at play. One is how many of the foreign fighters are left and whether they get home. And we still don’t really know the answer to how many we are talking about in total when it comes to those who left or survived, nor where they are. Local conditions are going to be a determining factor in how they settle. North Africa is clearly of concern, not least because of the numbers of foreign fighters from North Africa, but also as historically the region has tended to produce amongst the most committed and battle-hardened fighters. The environment is one into which they are able to return—either to continue the fight they started in Syria and Iraq, fit into existing groups, or start up something new. This is very concerning. I also continue to worry about Afghanistan, where returning fighters are an additional dimension to the political quagmire. It is possible that a deal done with the Taliban becomes not actually very useful anymore because, in fact, the problem is a whole new generation of people who have been radicalized by a different kind of extremist group. This might lead to new fighting and new groups. It is not a given that this is what is going to happen, but it has to be a concern. And then clearly there are a large number of fighters from Southeast Asia who are going to return somewhere and pose a threat. And finally, I worry about Syria and Iraq because once they cease to pose an international threat, the interest and resource will shift elsewhere while the internal problems remain as complex as they were before the war.
CTC: Part of the threat spectrum facing Western countries has been instigated or inspired attacks. The Islamic State’s use of this methodology was not new. Al-Qa`ida used to use it. But how was the Islamic State able to weaponize it so effectively?
Raine: As you point out, it is not new. AQAP [al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula] ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki was brilliant at it. He was an incredibly powerful voice in the British community and beyond because of his ability to speak in English about modern things. ISIS has upgraded this approach for the modern generation. They’ve been exceptionally innovative at exploiting the explosion of new ways of using social media that we use in society today. They had an army of young, dextrous, tech-savvy people who spoke multiple languages and who knew how to speak to people in their home countries. This was a major advantage they had over Anwar al-Awlaki since he only had a very small group of people supporting him. They were able to communicate directly, sitting together building a critical mass in the media center where they would learn from each other and experiment. A fascinating aspect was that they were communicating with us all the time as well. We were not always attentive to what was being said. I was often struck by the amount of humor and mischief they would use in their messaging. One well known example which resonated with a British audience was the Islamic State Health Service, for example, when the group took the National Health Service (NHS) logo and turned it into their own. It was creative and appealed to people.
The genius of what they did with the inspired attack was to elevate it into a sort of art form, so that anyone who did anything anywhere in the world that fitted their paradigm could be claimed by them. This created an idea of a mass movement without them actually needing to have one. And once you have this fictive mass movement, it gives greater appeal to the group. You create the impression of an organization that is bigger than it is. For those potential recruits sitting at home living their ‘boring’ lives, seeking ‘meaning,’ wanting to be part of something bigger and better, this provides them with a substantial organization to join.
At its height, ISIS had a media machine that was able to publish in 10 languages simultaneously. It has been significantly damaged through a concerted effort in both military and disruptive online terms by multiple actors. But it still exists, and one of the problems we have is that whenever an attack is conducted and a claim is issued, it is rebroadcast all over conventional media. All the group needs to do is get the claim out to create a sense of responsibility around the act without having to have done much work themselves. Sri Lanka was notable in this regard.
The other difference with al-Qa`ida was that ISIS was not afraid to use their media machine and to broadcast rapidly. During the first three years of the caliphate, they took particular advantage of this, as their media broadcasters were in far less danger than al-Qa`ida’s. Al-Qa`ida’s messengers learned that if you stand there with a telephone, somebody is going to bomb you. Anwar al-Awlaki had to go to enormous lengths to get Inspire magazine out there because he had to hide his identity and hide his location. The chaos in Syria meant that ISIS broadcasters were able to hide much more easily. For as long as they were not afraid, they could do it with real confidence, and they were able to maintain a strong voice in the public domain. This helped them create an identity online which they still take advantage of today. It is obviously not the same now, but it was an element of their game plan which took us a little bit of time to adapt and respond to.
CTC: Do you think the group’s brand was degraded because of spurious attack claims? For example, they claimed Stephen Paddock’s October 2017 Las Vegas massacre, an attack that clearly had no link to the group. How long can you claim such random things without people losing belief in you?
Raine: It is certainly true that in the early years, they did not make false claims. They put effort into making sure and verifying that attacks were conducted by their adherents. And then they became a bit sloppier. The only explanation I can offer is that while we may have noticed that their claims are no longer very accurate, the people who support them did not notice. All their claim does, however spurious, is create a hook into the public conversation. An ISIS claim reminds people about the organization’s presence and existence, even if they didn’t actually do it. And by the time everyone has proved that the claim was indeed spurious and the incident had nothing to do with them, everyone has forgotten and moved on to the next thing. The group, however, still gets some brief resonance in the public space.
CTC: There are some indications of a possible al-Qa`ida resurgence.a How is that materializing in terms of threats to the West? Where is the actual threat that we see from al-Qa`ida? And to tie into a bigger question, how do we ever know when a terrorist campaign is over?
Raine: This is a problem. One of the biggest difficulties we have with al-Qa`ida is latency—the ability of the group to exist without necessarily being constantly active and visible. We know al-Qa`ida is a thoughtful organization that has demonstrated strategic patience. The leadership has been absolutely consistent about its objectives for a very long time. And although they have been significantly degraded over the last nearly 20 years by a very persistent campaign against them, some of the key leaders are still around and hidden in very difficult to get to places like Yemen, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North Africa. We cannot be sure that we know what they are doing or even what their new generation looks like. We are aware of the group’s continued ability to exist, its committed leadership, but we are not clear on what the new generations are like or what they think.
Their experience in Syria has been a real roller coaster ride. On the one hand, it has given them a new purpose at various stages of the conflict and, of course, a lot of new recruits, including a lot of Britons who were always al-Qa`ida supporters, as well as other nationalities, like Chechens. And just as the ISIS foreign fighters have been with the group for around five years now, the al-Qa`ida ones have as well. On the other hand, al-Qa`ida is now completely bogged down with factional in-fighting about who is governing Idlib. This is just indicative of the difficulties of being in Syria. It has given al-Qa`ida a platform, and it has given them a massive headache. And we have insights into what is going on with the group with infighting and governance challenges, but we just don’t understand the whole picture.
This highlights the really big challenge for those working in counterterrorism, which is that we know they are there, we know their intent has not changed, we know they have got capability, and the underlying conditions in many parts of the world where they operate are no different now to how they were pre-9/11. In fact, in some parts of the world, they are worse. We know that we cannot get the kind of information that we would want around the group, so how do we interpret the lack of information? How will we know when the absence of information means that an attack is not being planned, or whether it is just that we are not good enough at collecting information on attack plans? And for me, this is the difficulty that we have got ourselves into with the War on Terror because the phrase implies at some point there is going to be a winner and a loser, closure and an end, a treaty. And I just do not see and cannot imagine the point where we are going to be confident enough to say: ‘they are still there, but we are confident that they do not mean us any harm.’
CTC: Is al-Qa`ida or the Islamic State the greater long-term threat to the United Kingdom?
Raine: Rather than one group or another being the long-term threat, the danger comes from the likelihood that they persist and expand—by which I mean, how receptive their target audience is in the long term to the alternative form of governance or ideology that they offer, which is based on a higher belief system and justification for action that is very different to that which secular Western governments offer. Rather than our political system, built on gradual change and reform, they offer a violent and rapid answer, which will consistently be a challenge for us because it is an alternative that will appeal to some people.
We also need to recognize how long some of the participants on their side, be it AQ or ISIL or whomever, have been involved in this fight already. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is my age, as is Abdulmalek Droukdel. Ayman al-Zawahiri and Saif al-`Adl are even older. Qasim al-Raymi is relatively young at the age of 41. And if we think about it at a rational human level, very few of us have fundamentally changed our core beliefs in decades, so why should we expect individuals involved in ideologically motivated groups to? And their children and grandchildren are being brought up with this mentality and ideology around them.
I absolutely agree with the need to prevent, de-radicalize, and counter the narrative that these groups espouse in whatever way we can. But I also feel very strongly that this is a very difficult thing to do, and I still can’t think of any significant examples where de-radicalization has been successful in serious numbers. Because we are trying to tell people to believe something other than that which they believe. And that’s really hard.
In terms of al-Qa`ida or ISIS posing the longer-term threat, it is not so much the groups but the conditions in the world at the moment which pose the threat. Syria, in particular, has created an environment where a whole new generation of threat can emerge. And that will ultimately express itself differently in different places. It may be for the moment that the individuals linked to ISIS or al-Qa`ida stay aligned to the local groups that already exist in the various contexts that they are operating in. It may be that returnees or off-shoots of these groups end up being subsumed into more local conflicts on the ground. Or it may be that they end up becoming part of groups which play a role in proxy conflicts in different parts of the world—for example, the Kashmiri groups that we have long seen active in South Asia, but there are plenty of others. We are likely entering a phase of everything been thrown up into the air. It will eventually settle down again, and we will have to adjust to whatever form that takes.
There are clearly going to be tactical problems dotted around. Somalia is an example of a tactical problem which is a long-term headache because of al-Shabaab, but also because there are ISIS supporters there. North Africa is really interesting because there is a lot of fluidity between groups across the entire region. While I am not a North African specialist, what is striking is the commitment to the ideology in that particular context, and then the pragmatic decision-making about how to act, which is hugely effective. I think we will see tactical, pragmatic, local reshaping, and then we have to bear in mind something that was noted in Ed Fitton-Brown’s recent interview with this publication,2 which is that it does not take very many people to come up with the big plot. The question for us is where they will be located when they decide that they want to launch an attack and where it will ultimately be that they find the time and space to plan something on that scale, rather than simply become subsumed into a local conflict.
CTC: You touched briefly on state-sponsored threats. Do you think they are going to become more significant than al-Qa`ida or Islamic State threats? Or will they merge? How will that relationship develop, and what is your assessment of what will become a greater threat going forward?
Raine: The two types of threat have co-existed for a long time. For example, LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba], the Kashmiri group behind the Mumbai attack, grew out of the jihad in Afghanistan and was linked initially more with Abdullah Azzam and UBL [Usama bin Ladin] before it became more focused on state-supported jihad in Kashmir. The dangerous bit is the overlap between the local and the global. For the U.K., the fusion that was seen in Kashmir was a particular problem, as the struggle in Kashmir provided a strong, local call to action that resonated deeply with Kashmiri diaspora communities in the U.K. At the same time, on the ground in South Asia, these groups were close to al-Qa`ida and ultimately became the connection that produced a series of terrorist plots in the U.K. It is entirely possible that the development of this sort of link could be a product of what emerges from what we have been observing in Syria.
The danger of these sorts of threats, and the many flashpoints in which they exist, is that if they become much more active conflicts, they can become places that draw more people in. The Kashmiri one is the obvious flashpoint that could really draw people in if the violence and conflict were to escalate. The Middle East is another source of potential danger in this regard and has numerous proxy groups and conflicts. In a way, the Syria war is a massive proxy group war, and the war in Yemen is another proxy group war. At the same time, the conflicts become a draw for outsiders and create an environment in which terrorist groups can fight, learn, and plot. States use terrorist groups for their own ends, but don’t forget that terrorist groups also use states for their own ends.
CTC: In a recent issue of this publication, Edmund Fitton-Brown, the Coordinator of the ISIL (Daesh)/Al-Qaida/Taliban Monitoring Team at the United Nations, highlighted the large numbers of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) that are still around.b Young and old, they all pose a potential risk. How do you manage a generational struggle of this scale?
Raine: This is a time bomb problem. To start with, none of us really know the exact figures of people who have gone out there and might still be there. It is difficult to know, as I mentioned earlier, the degree to which the threat they pose is something that is blended into a local threat picture or something new and different. What we do know is that there is nothing to suggest that many of them have changed their minds, and there is nothing to suggest that if we do nothing, they will change their mindset. So, we have got to do something. The big challenge for the global counterterrorism community is how do we create a globally coordinated response when we have all got our own domestic considerations and our own legal systems. In Western-allied countries, we have ended up managing this problem largely through defense and security, with the closest possible collaboration we can have. This means sharing data, which enables us to identify potential terrorists who can be disrupted before they do anything, and doing this according to our liberal values, which limits the amount of intrusion into people’s privacy or the length of time that people can be locked up.
There are other countries with different values that are applying different solutions to the problem of both foreign terrorist fighters and the broader problem of radicalization at home. The Chinese are locking up, if we believe the reports, around a million Uighurs.3 The Russians have taken some quite punitive measures in the Caucasus. Then there is a serious question about places which just remain completely lawless—though if we are honest, there is no such thing as an ungoverned space; rather it is governed by someone we do not like. Libya is an example of a place where Western governments have to cooperate with a confusing group of actors on the ground to ensure that the ungoverned spaces are not exploited by Islamist extremists. Then there are countries which are themselves making a complicated series of calculations about how to deal with terrorist problems which have deep local roots, as well as external links. Pakistan and Turkey would fall into that category. The West needs them to be a partner to deal with threats that we are worried about, but they are also trying to manage their own local dynamics. And then finally, there are the countries which cannot cope with these threats, need international support, and need to be part of a global counterterror coalition but are not. We are far from having a unified international response.
The problem is further complicated by the inevitability that the different sets of responses going on around the world will create different sets of unintended consequences. For example, it is not clear what effect repression of the Uighurs will have in terms of the globalist narrative that extremist groups use. It may well be that China’s response suppresses the problem to the extent that they are unable to respond, but it may well be that they then fight back in different ways. Or it may be that other groups will take up their banner. This highlights how there is a particular context in which we have to work together, but at the same time, this is rendered almost impossible nowadays because of the geopolitical environment in which we are operating.
A second question for us as liberal democracies is how we do this while also staying true to our values. So, for example, we struggle to convict those we suspect of terrorism-related crimes at home because we cannot collect evidence to the standards we would require in a war zone. At the same time, we expect other countries to manage them without the evidence. We end up asking more of other countries than we ask of ourselves. Additionally, we are rightly prohibited from sharing information with countries where there is too great a misalignment of our legal systems—which could be construed as lack of due process—or where there is a possibility that mistreatment will occur. We cannot cooperate with another state if the outcome might be an act which we would consider unlawful. How do we forge safe partnerships with countries whose approach to human rights is very different from our own without creating legal jeopardy for ourselves? We have not had the kind of conversation we need to about that.
The other big issue these longer-term threats throw up is predictability, something particularly illustrated by the Easter attack in Sri Lanka. People want to know what is safe and what is not. Sri Lanka demonstrated that it is impossible to have certainty. And this is a perennial problem. For example, it is very difficult to say that the conditions which allowed the October 2002 Bali bombings to happen in Indonesia have completely gone away or not been exacerbated by current conflicts in the region or elsewhere. But we cannot tell everybody not to go to Indonesia on holiday just because something bad might happen. This means that the strain of mitigating these risks is taken by protective security measures, and this requires increasing resources to manage these issues in a broad range of places, like North Africa, Turkey, or Southeast Asia to ensure that people are safe when they go there. But the result is that changes the way we live.
CTC: Looking into the future, what terrorist ideologies are of greatest concern to you?
Raine: Islamist terrorism is not going to go away. It might change and become more local, fueled by proxy wars, but the underlying causes that drive these groups and ideologies have not changed and indeed go back a long way.
In addition to this, over the last few years, we have seen—certainly across the English-speaking and Western world—an increase in seriousness and coherence of extreme right-wing groups. It used to look like the extreme right was made up of political movements, and when they conducted violent acts, it was often a lone actor. What we are seeing now is groups of likeminded individuals coming together and talking in a type of language and approach that is used by violent Islamists, using words such as “embracing martyrdom.” In part, this is a response to the broader political context. The far-right parties and movements now have an increasingly coherent narrative, and stronger links to a shared philosophy. Books which espouse this extreme right-wing philosophy are readily available on Amazon, where they have multiple five-star reviews, very few negative reviews, and through algorithms lead the reader to other similarly extreme material. We have not yet worked out, as we did previously with violent Islamist material, what is and is not acceptable on the extreme right-wing side of the ideological equation. The New Zealand attack demonstrated this very clearly when he titled his manifesto “The Great Replacement,” drawing on a French right-wing philosophical tract of the same name.
But in many ways, my biggest concern with the future of terrorism is what we do in response to it. I am concerned that there is an expectation that this can be stopped, but we’re a long way from working out what the tools are that will enable us to deliver that outcome. Instead, we go through very predictable cycles of intervention and non-intervention overseas, with unclear results. We are committed to liberal values, but then how do we deal with people who we can’t lock up and whose minds we can’t change? In many ways, the challenge of getting our response right is as big as the problem itself.
CTC: Are there terrorist tactics that you’ve seen develop over your time in government and since that seem to be growing into more worrying problems?
Raine: There have been big changes in the threat picture. The inspired threat is a change that has already happened and is still happening. Then there are things which have not changed—for example, the determination to conduct a spectacular attack against aviation, something that is just a huge challenge for governments and the aviation industry. You don’t want to put people off flying by being overly protective. But global coordination of effective aviation security has been very slow. The recent conviction in relation to the 2017 Sydney passenger jet plot is a good example of the persistent nature of this threat.4
The two new things that everybody talks about are drones and chemical/biological weapons. The likelihood of their use has increased as a result of the war in Syria and as technology develops, because in Syria a significant amount of people have been able to experiment with both types of weapons on the battlefield. We saw in the United Kingdom what disruption drones could do to airports earlier in the year. But at the same time, while we can sometimes get carried away with our creativity about what terrorists might do, they still seem to revert to type. While the panic and disruption caused by the drones at Gatwick airport were hugely damaging,5 terrorists seem to continue to prefer incidents that cause horrible deaths and injuries. Notwithstanding the availability of new technology, they still continue to like to focus on trying to blow things up. CTC
[a] Editor’s note: See, for example, Tim Shipman, “Al-Qaeda terror group returns to target airliners and airports,” Sunday Times (U.K.), December 23, 2018, and Jami Forbes, “Does al-Qa`ida’s Increasing Media Outreach Signal Revitalization?” CTC Sentinel 12:1 (2019).
[b] Editor’s note: According to Fitton-Brown, out of the over 40,000 foreign terrorist fighters who joined the so-called caliphate, “We could have anything up to nearly 30,000 who remain alive, but nobody knows the true figure.” See Paul Cruickshank, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Edmund Fitton-Brown, Coordinator, ISIL (Daesh)/Al-Qaida/Taliban Monitoring Team, United Nations,” CTC Sentinel 12:4 (2019).