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UK ـ How can you hold the intelligence and security services accountable, when what they do is secret?

Mar 5, 2023 | Studies & Reports

European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies, Germany & Netherlands – ECCI

Inquiries differ on why the 2017 Manchester bombing wasn’t prevented – here’s why

theconversation – How can you hold the intelligence and security services accountable, when what they do is secret? The third and final report from the public inquiry into the 2017 Manchester arena bombing is a useful guide.Sir John Saunders, the retired judge in charge of the inquiry, has given a damning verdict on how government agencies handled the case of Salman Abedi, the man who set off a bomb at an Ariana Grande concert. His conclusions differed significantly from earlier reviews and the reasons why are important.Abedi had been known to the authorities for years before he went on to kill 22 people and injure over 800 more. So the question must be why he was not prevented from carrying out the atrocity. Saunders highlighted individual failings that other reviews appear to have missed.

Past reports
There have been multiple investigations into the Manchester attack. The security service (MI5) and counter-terrorism police reviewed their own work soon after the atrocity. Further investigations were carried out by David Anderson, the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, and parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee.These reports noted that officials could have made different decisions and recommended various actions to change future practice. The Intelligence and Security Committee argued that Abedi should have been referred to Prevent, the government’s deradicalisation programme.

Anderson suggested the decision to end his designation as a “subject of interest” – which would have involved more intense investigation – was wrong but ultimately concluded the mistake was understandable. The failure to thwart the attack was portrayed as a matter of bad luck. Anderson concluded: “MI5 and CT [counter-terrorism] Policing got a great deal right … they could have succeeded had the cards fallen differently.”Such conclusions are typical of many reviews of the intelligence and security agencies. Too often, failures are portrayed as largely down to chance, the difficulties of intelligence gathering are emphasised, and individual mistakes are glossed over.

Saunders gives a very different version of events and it’s important to understand how that came about. A key difference lies in the evidence Saunders gathered. Previous reviews relied upon accounts from senior figures, summarising the position of their organisations from a high level. By contrast, the Saunders inquiry interviewed junior officers, the people actually making decisions on the ground. Their perspective differed significantly.

Who gives evidence?
In his 2017 review, Anderson had accepted MI5’s narrative that intelligence related to Abedi was mistakenly “interpreted … as to do probably with drugs or organised crime and not something to do with terrorism or national security”. After interviewing the relevant officers, Saunders disagreed, saying: “I do not consider that these statements present an accurate picture.”He found that officers had identified two pieces of intelligence about Abedi which were of concern on national security grounds. The first was not shared with counter-terrorism police. The second was not dealt with promptly.As Saunders puts it, the officer reviewing the intelligence “should have discussed it with other Security Service officers straight away. Moreover, s/he should have written the report on the same day, but in fact did not do so.” Furthermore, the report the officer produced on the second piece of intelligence was said to lack sufficient context.

Meanwhile, Abedi had collected material for the bomb and stored it in a car, where it sat for over a month while he travelled to Libya (presumably for training on preparing the device). Although there is no certainty about what difference these errors made, Saunders argues that had security services followed Abedi to the car, the bombing might have been prevented.As such, individual as well as systemic failings were in play. What this underscores is the need to speak to officials at all levels of these agencies.

Identifying failures is not scapegoating
Senior officials can give a useful sense of the overall environment in which decisions are made. One witness for the inquiry notes that at the time they were running around 500 investigations into Islamist terrorism, about 3,000 people were designated subjects of interest and 40,000 were closed subjects. This context should be borne in mind but we now know that errors of judgement were made by individuals and addressing these is important.Organisations can learn from individual mistakes. Was the officer who failed to share vital information underperforming across the board and it wasn’t picked up? Did they wrongly interpret guidance? Were there personal or interpersonal issues affecting their decisions? Were they overstretched? How did the individual and their managers respond when errors came to light? The answers to these questions could have vital implications for recruitment, training, operational decision making and management.

For too long apportioning blame has been associated with scapegoating. In reality, people doing immensely challenging jobs will make errors. GPs, surgeons, social workers, police officers, regularly have to make decisions with potentially life-changing consequences. Intelligence and security agencies are no different.The Saunders inquiry underscores the need for oversight bodies like the Intelligence and Security Committee, as well as ad-hoc reviews, to be able to speak freely with all those involved, including frontline officers, so as to gain a full picture of what happened and how they can learn for the future.

Violent Extremism in the Sahel the area from Senegal to Eritrea, situated between the Sahara to the north and the African tropics to the south, the Sahel region has long faced severe, complex security and humanitarian crises. Since gaining independence in the 1960s, many countries in the Sahel have experienced violent extremism due to the confluence of weak and illegitimate governance, economic decline, and the worsening effects of climate change. Violence, conflict, and crime have surged over the last decade, transcending national borders and posing significant challenges to countries both in and outside the region. The epicenters of violence and humanitarian disaster are in the Liptako-Gourma and Lake Chad Basin subregions.

Liptako-Gourma is in the central Sahel, in the borderlands of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Current instability is associated with the collapse of the Libyan state in 2011, which led to the proliferation of weapons and armed fighters in the region. The influx of extremists into northern Mali reignited the dormant Tuareg rebellion [PDF] in 2012, which had previously surfaced in 1963, 1990, and 2006. Representing only 10 percent of the Malian population, the Tuareg people, organized under the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), sought an autonomous state and aligned themselves with multiple Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Ansar Dine to push government forces out of the north. Then-President Amadou Toumani Touré was deposed in a March 2012 coup by the army, which disapproved of the government’s failure to suppress the rebellion. The consequent collapse of state institutions in the north enabled the MNLA to capture the regional capitals of Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu; the group had declared the independent state of Azawad [PDF] in northern Mali by April. The MNLA quickly split from al-Qaeda and other allied Islamist groups in June following their attempt to impose Islamic law and declare an Islamic caliphate over the northern territory.

After a period of relative calm, the crisis deteriorated in January 2013 as AQIM, MUJAO, and Ansar Dine pushed further south to capture Konna in central Mali. In August, Mali transitioned back to a civilian-led government under Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, which later signed a peace agreement with a coalition of Tuareg independence groups including the MNLA in 2015. The coalition excluded Islamist organizations, which quickly took advantage of the agreement to expand their control, spreading further into central Mali and neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger. Liptako-Gourma has since become a hotbed for violent extremism in the Sahel.

Notable attacks [PDF] targeting the Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali, the Splendid Hotel in Burkina Faso, and L’Etoule du Sud Hotel in Ivory Coast in 2015 and 2016 demonstrated the extent of the Islamist threat to the Sahel and West Africa. In September 2016, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) surfaced in Burkina Faso, launching its first major attack on a border post near the Burkinabe city of Markoye. In 2017, several al-Qaeda affiliates merged to form Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM). The emergence of ISGS and JNIM—as well as the often contentious, occasionally cooperative relationship between the two—have intensified violence in the Sahel. Both JNIM and ISGS have pushed farther south in Liptako-Gourma, threatening the security of West Africa’s relatively stable coastal states. JNIM has more recently gained control over territory in northern and central Mali, while ISGS has been confined to northern Burkina Faso and western Niger due to clashes with JNIM that began in 2020.

Violent extremism in the Lake Chad Basin at the intersection of Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria prevailed in the same period with the reemergence of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. Founded by Muhammed Yusuf in northeastern Nigeria in 2002, Boko Haram was forced underground in 2009 after Nigerian police forces killed over seven hundred members, including Yusuf, during a raid that July. Remaining members dispersed [PDF] to Afghanistan, Algeria, Chad, northern Mali, Niger, and Somalia. In June and August 2011, Boko Haram indicated its more expansive and aggressive strategy by launching suicide attacks [PDF] on police and the UN headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria. The group gained international notoriety following its abduction of 276 girls from the town of Chibok, Nigeria, giving rise to the global Bring Back Our Girls movement in April 2014.

In 2015, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State and rebranded as the Islamic State in the West African Province (ISWAP). A splinter faction of the original Boko Haram was active until 2021, when ISWAP killed its leader, absorbed its territory, and relegated its members to remote islands in Lake Chad. ISWAP has since established control of northeastern Nigeria and parts of Niger.

Experts attribute the expansion of violent extremism in the Sahel to persistently weak governance, characterized by corruption, democratic backsliding, legitimacy deficits, and human rights violations. Many countries in the region share similar internal dynamics of inequality [PDF]—state power tends to be concentrated in southern, urban regions while rural, northern areas remain underdeveloped and ripe for exploitation by extremist groups. Thus, Sahel countries are consistently ranked high on the Fragile State Index, particularly Chad, Mali, and Nigeria. Frequent transfers of power are also a problem: Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger experienced a combined twenty-five successful coups d’état between 1960 and 2022, most often resulting in the military overthrow of democratically elected civilian governments. Consecutive military coups in Mali in 2020 and 2021, resulting in Mali’s current interim government under the military junta, launched the region’s most recent so-called coup epidemic, which saw similar occurrences in Burkina Faso, Chad, and Niger.

The death of Chadian President Idriss Déby on April 20, 2021, created a leadership crisis in regional counterterrorism efforts. Under Déby, Chad and its military acted as a linchpin in regional security coalitions across both Liptako-Gourma and the Lake Chad Basin. The Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF)—comprised of Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria—was activated in 2014 to respond to the threat of Boko Haram, organized crime, and banditry in the Lake Chad Basin. In February 2017, France and the Group of Five for the Sahel (G5) countries—Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger—announced the creation of the G5 Sahel Force, a five-thousand-troop-strong counterterrorism force aimed at fighting militant groups with an expanded mandate to cross borders in the Sahel region. Increasing civilian casualties and severe human rights violations by security forces in Chad, Mali, and Nigeria have further undermined regional and national efforts.

In 2013, international involvement began in earnest when French forces entered Mali at the request of the Malian government. Operation Serval, later transformed into Operation Barkhane, became a three-thousand-strong force based in N’Djamena, Chad, focused on rooting out violent extremists in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, in partnership with local governments and with the support of Chad and Mauritania. In 2015, Operation Barkhane’s mandate expanded to provide additional support to the MNJTF [PDF] in its fight against Boko Haram. Operation Barkhane was quickly succeeded by the establishment of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and, in 2020, support from the European Union–led Task Force Takuba. By 2020, France had deployed 5,100 troops supported by 15,000 UN peacekeepers from around the world. The United States has also provided logistics and advisory support [PDF] to both the MNJTF and G5 Sahel Force. In addition, the U.S. military has increased its presence in the Sahel, deploying approximately 1,500 troops to the region and building a drone base in Niger as a platform for strikes against groups across West and North Africa. Despite the relatively small contingency of U.S. forces, American service members have been in the direct line of fire. On October 4, 2017, members of the U.S. Special Operations Task Force were ambushed by an Islamic State–affiliate group in Tongo Tongo, Niger, leading to the deaths of four servicemen.

Despite increased international involvement, the campaign against militants has instead caused the spread of militancy to countries across the Sahel. That failure, coupled with France’s growing tensions with and unpopularity in its former colonies, led French President Emmanuel Macron to announce on July 13, 2021, that Operation Barkhane would end in the first quarter of 2022. Violent extremists exploited the resulting security vacuum with heightened attacks across the Sahel. Many attacks have specifically targeted MINUSMA, which has been dubbed the United Nations’ most dangerous peacekeeping mission. In lieu of French support, the Malian military junta sought security assistance from the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary organization involved in other fragile contexts including the Central African Republic, Libya, Mozambique, Sudan, Syria, and Ukraine. Since its introduction in December 2021, the Wagner Group has deployed one thousand mercenaries to Mali housed at fifteen outposts, including former French bases.

An acute humanitarian crisis is exacerbating violent extremism’s threat to regional stability. The last decade of conflict has displaced 2.6 million people in Liptako-Gourma and 2.8 million people in the Lake Chad Basin, with hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring into neighboring countries. Sahel countries consistently rank [PDF] among the world’s poorest with compounding issues [PDF] of poverty, food insecurity, high unemployment, and the world’s fastest-growing population. The Lake Chad Basin crisis has long been recognized as one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world due to the severe harm of climate change and weak governance in rural areas. Temperatures in the Sahel are rising 1.5 times faster than the global average, directly damaging the livelihoods of millions dependent upon natural resources. Diminishing land and water resources have led to increasingly frequent clashes between herding, farming, and fishing communities. Violent extremist organizations have not only helped worsen humanitarian conditions, including by targeting humanitarian workers, but have also exploited insecure conditions to recruit and control populations in the Sahel. In addition, the weakened economies and proliferating violent extremists have increased illicit activity and criminal organizations in the region, further contributing to instability.

The persistent and growing strength of violent extremist organizations in the Sahel threatens to exacerbate the humanitarian crisis and spread instability across Africa, posing significant security and financial risks to the United States and Europe. The impending collapse of international counterterrorism support, as well as weakening leadership in regional efforts, has created a vacuum in which violent extremism can expand. The Wagner Group has already taken advantage of that vacuum, moving into Mali and launching indiscriminate operations against Malian civilians. The possible convergence [PDF] of security threats, including increased cooperation amongst terrorist organizations, principally ISGS and ISWAP, and between terrorist and criminal organizations, could intensify the danger those groups pose in the region and beyond.

In addition, the Sahel remains a principal transit point for migrants traveling from sub-Saharan Africa to northern coastal states and on to Europe. Further violence could exponentially increase the rate of displacement and migration from the region, compounding pressures on northern and coastal African states and Europe. A worsening humanitarian situation would further strain U.S. and international aid efforts, particularly as the United States continues to have long-standing development and security commitments in the region. The United States remains a top donor of humanitarian assistance; to have long-standing development and security commitments in the region. The United States remains a top donor of humanitarian assistance; continues to provide military training, such as the Flintlock program; and has delivered millions of dollars in arms sales to the region.

Recent Developments
In February 2022, France and its European allies comprising Task Force Takuba announced their intent to withdraw all troops from Mali, ending their decades-long intervention. Emboldened by the removal of foreign forces, extremist organizations have stepped up violence in the region. The first six months of 2022 saw a dramatic increase in attacks, particularly in the Liptako-Gourma area and spilling into coastal West Africa. More than two thousand civilians were killed during this period, an over 50 percent increase from 2021. March 2022 was the deadliest month recorded by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project since 1997—coinciding with renewed activism by ISGS along the Niger-Mali border and the Moura massacre in central Mali. On March 23, Malian soldiers accompanied by Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group launched a five-day attack on the town to root out Islamist militants, killing more than three hundred civilians. The United Nations has since called for an investigation into the incident, which has been part of a larger pattern of increasing human rights violations by the Malian security forces since the introduction of the Wagner Group in December 2021.

In May 2022, the Malian government officially terminated its Defense Cooperation Treaty with France alongside the Status of Force Agreement formerly governing France and the European Union’s operations in the country. Mali’s military government also pulled out of the G5 Sahel—greatly diminishing the organization’s counterterrorism capacity. In June, JNIM killed 132 villagers in central Mali, the deadliest attack on civilians since the coup. Regional patterns have indicated a marked increase in civilian targeting across Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger in particular.

Following violent protests over the government’s counterterrorism efforts, a military coup in Burkina Faso led by Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba overthrew democratically elected President Roch Marc Christain Kaboré on January 24, 2022. The Economic Community of West African States subsequently banned Burkina Faso, and the African Union followed suit. Since then, ISGS has launched a series of deadly attacks, including the massacre of one hundred civilians in the northern village of Seytenga in June. In September, Damiba was deposed by Captain Ibrahim Traoré in a second military coup. Traoré has since dissolved the government, suspended the constitution, and closed the country’s borders. Speculation regarding Traoré’s connection to the U.S. military has prompted investigations into the role of U.S. military training in the region’s coup epidemic, as the Pentagon has been unable to confirm or deny the link to Traoré.

On October 24, 2022, the United States and United Kingdom announced the recall of embassy officials from Abuja, citing a heightened risk of a significant terrorist attack. That decision came after several spates of gun violence across northern Nigeria not officially attributed to extremist organizations—including an incident that same month where a gunman opened fire on villagers in Nigeria’s Benue State, leaving thirty-six people dead.

In January 2023, UN experts advocated for an independent investigation into potential war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by government forces and the Wagner Group in Mali. The experts claimed a “climate of terror and complete impunity” characterized the Wagner Group’s activities in the country, pointing to the Moura massacre in March 2022.

French woman ‘obsessed’ with joining Islamic State in Syria jailed for 12 years – A Paris court sentenced a French woman to 12 years in prison for two stays in Syria and territory controlled by the Islamic State armed groupDouha Mounib, 32, was found guilty of associating with terrorists in her two stays in Syria, between 2013 and 2017.The special court noted her “uncommon determination” to join the Islamic State armed group.In court Mounib detailed her radicalisation in 2012 and her desire to go to Syria that turned into an “obsession”.

In 2012, after watching propaganda videos, se quit her midwife studies and started wearing a veil. She first went to Syria in 2013, traveling from Morocco to Turkey, where she married a smuggler, who helped her cross the border.The stay was cut short after two months, but she never stopped wanting to go back and join the Islamic State.After several attempts, she crossed the Turkish border with Syria with her second husband in 2015, and they spent 15 months between Mossul, in Iraq and Raqqa, in Syria, both under IS control.

Mounib left the territory at the end of 2016 and was arrested in March 2017 on the Turkish border with her infant daughter and her husband’s young son.After nine months in a Turkish detention centre, she was sent back to France at the end of 2017 and incarcerated.Radicalised French woman who left child in Syria sentenced to 14 yearsFrance repatriates women and children from jihadist camps in SyriaWhen the presiding judge asked Mounib if she understood the sentence and the decision, she answered that she “expected a sentence of more than ten years”.

National antiterrorist prosecutors had asked for 14 years of prison, but the court took into account what they called the “evolution” of Mounib’s attitude towards the IS, which she promised was part of her past.Though her attempt to escape from the Fresnes prison in November 2021 did not help her case.

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