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British counterterrorism: Combatting Daesh

‘Attempts to recreate Old War prevent us from dealing with the realities of today’s globalised world’, noted Mary Kaldor, Professor of Global Governance at the London School of Economics, in her Old Wars, Cold Wars, New Wars and the War on Terror. Indeed, with all British and American troops expected to leave Afghanistan by September 2021, there is reason to believe, with respect to Kaldor, that the geopolitical and global security order which emerged overnight following the Twin Towers’ collapse is drawing to a close.

Yet even as the post-9/11 era’s twilight approaches, terrorism- specifically jihadist terrorism- remains a key transnational security challenge. The Integrated Review’s provision of greater funds for the newly-established  Counterterrorism Operations Centre in London as well as its prediction of ‘a successful CBRN terrorist attack by 2030’ against the United Kingdom (UK) demonstrates that Her Majesty’s (HM) Government continues to view the terrorist threat as serious. The threat to British interests by Daesh has grown in the post-Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi era, and under his successor, Mohammad Rahman al-Salbi.

Under Salbi’s leadership, Daesh’s strategy has shifted away from high-casualty terror attacks in European cities – which it was known for perpetrating under Baghdadi – towards more individualised lone-wolf attacks, such as stabbing attacks like those carried out on London Bridge in November 2019 and Streatham in February 2020, for which it claimed responsibility, or more recently, the mass shooting in Vienna in November 2020 by a Daesh sympathiser. While these are admittedly more difficult to prevent, modern British counterterrorism strategies will need to account for them as a major security challenge.

Daesh’s shift away from its previous notorious strategy of high-casualty terrorist attacks involving shootings and suicide bombings in European metropolises came early on during Salbi’s leadership. Although Daesh told its members in March 2020 to avoid traveling to the European continent to carry out terror attacks, just as the Covid-19 pandemic was picking up pace, it was as much a health precaution as it was a reflection of Daesh seeking new pastures. However, this must not serve to lower the UK’s guard when it comes to Daesh terrorist attacks. While improved intelligence practices and surveillance makes wide-scale, high-casualty terror attacks less likely to occur, they remain possible. 

Domestically speaking, Britain will also need to formally include prison security as an integral part of her counterterrorism strategy against Daesh. Among the new strategies formally enunciated by Salbi since his accession has been that of ‘breaking the walls’, or prison breaks by Daesh terrorists to free its imprisoned members. While no such instances have occurred in Europe yet, being confined to Syria, Iraq and the DRC, it is possible that Daesh will attempt such operations in the UK, with its large population of convicted and imprisoned jihadists.

Another aspect of Daesh’s strategy under Salbi having a direct impact on British interests has been its rapid territorial growth beyond its traditional hinterland in the Middle East and North African region. Particularly, Daesh’s expansion in various regions of Africa, from Mozambique to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and even West Africa, poses a significant security threat to the UK. A recent example was recently seen in Nigeria. The death of Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, reportedly at the hands of a more radical and pro-ISWAP (Islamic State West African Province) faction within his organisation reflects Daesh’s rapid rise as Africa’s dominant jihadist organisation. 

The Integrated Review’s acknowledgment of the need for closer economic and security/counterterrorism cooperation between HM Government and key African countries reiterates the security consequences for Britain as a result of Daesh’s rise on the continent. Apart from securing existing economic interests in conjunction with African countries under the ‘Global Britain’ project, countering Daesh’s rise in Africa would also enable the UK to identify root causes of migratory and refugee flows from across the Mediterranean and tackle them – a problem outlined in the Integrated Review. Britain is already doing this, working alongside allies such as France in West Africa as part of Operation Barkhane against ISWAP. The success of British operations against ISWAP in Mali, as seen in the capture of a large cache of Daesh’s weaponry and intelligence equipment last month by British troops of the Light Dragoons and Royal Anglian Regiment demonstrates Britain’s success in such operations. 

However, the political instability of certain host countries threatens to jeopardise the success of such operations, underscoring the need for closer political cooperation between the UK and African countries to facilitate stability and effective counterterrorism measures. Mali’s recent military coup, one of the countries where Britain is conducting operations against ISWAP alongside the national government, has been condemned by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and has compelled France, which leads Operation Barkhane, to withdraw troops from the country. If the UK is serious about maintaining its security via military efforts against ISWAP, playing a role in maintaining regional political stability – alongside multilateral organisations such as the African Union, which has suspended Mali’s membership after the coup – is crucial, not only to maintain an immediate strategic advantage against such groups, but also to build up her diplomatic influence on the continent as the Integrated Review envisions.

In the post-War on Terror era of geopolitics, British counterterrorism stands at a crossroads. Jihadist terrorism as exemplified by Daesh continues to pose a significant security challenge to the UK and endangers the country’s long-term strategic objectives, both at the domestic and international levels. As such, British counterterrorism and intelligence agencies will need to adapt to identify and tackle the novel challenges posed by more contemporary forms of terrorism perpetrated by ISIS, which is expected to take on new and more dangerous forms under the leadership of Salbi. Recognising this will make for more effective preservation of British security and geostrategic interests.

Archishman Goswami is Charles Pasley Intern at the Council on Geostrategy and Vice-President of the Geopolitical Risk Society at King’s College, London.

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