A View from the CT Foxhole: Edmund Fitton-Brown, Coordinator, ISIL (Daesh)/Al-Qaida/Taliban Monitoring Team, United Nations.

Author:Cruickshank, Paul

CTC: What role does the Monitoring Team play?

Fitton-Brown: Our mandate from the United Nations Security Council goes back to 1999 when sanctions were first imposed on the Taliban and al-Qa'ida, and then after 9/11, an analytical support and sanctions monitoring team was established to support the committee. Later, that evolved when they split the Taliban committee from al-Qa'ida and when they added ISIL to the al-Qa'ida committee. We're an entity that is subordinate to the Security Council and specifically to the committees that deal with al-Qa'ida and ISIL and the Taliban. As part of that mandate, we have two essential functions: one of which is to provide a threat assessment report twice a year on ISIL, al-Qa'ida, and once a year on the Taliban. The other essential part of the mandate is the maintenance of the sanctions list and dealing with that business, the technical advice that's required for member states and for the committee to add and remove individuals, entities, and groups from the sanctions list.

CTC: What is your process for making the threat assessment?

Fitton-Brown: We are specifically mandated by resolution to liaise in confidence with member states' CT agencies. We do not conduct investigations; we do not run sources. Our job is quite tidily encapsulated within that consultation with member states, and more specifically their CT agencies, on the threat and on the sanctions list. And of course, the two go together because it tends to be the CT agencies that are the repositories of the relevant information, whether it's about the threat or whether it's about specific individuals. We also do supporting work. We'll go to conferences, give addresses, interviews. We will train or participate in capacity-building to help member states' officials implement the sanctions.

In terms of our main mandate, we collectively as a team decide where we need to go in order to answer the key outstanding questions of the day. So, for obvious reasons, given that we serve the 1988 Committee (a) as well, we visit Afghanistan frequently--maybe approximately three times a year. We are a group of only 10 experts, which means that our time is somewhat scarce, and global coverage is hard work. So, we don't always get to countries as often as we would like. The kind of countries that we're always keen to go to would be firstly countries that had outstandingly good insights into global terrorism, and that would obviously include, for example, the United States. We conduct regular consultations in Washington, which is a relatively easy thing to do when you're based in New York. And then secondly, there are so many key countries [that] are either affected by terrorism or are very knowledgeable about terrorism--for example, the current chair of our committee, Indonesia. Pakistan would be another good example. Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria, for example, would have particularly valuable insights for us in certain areas.

CTC: As you are interfacing with counterterrorism agencies in many member states, presumably the art in making your assessment is using your expertise to weigh up what would be sometimes differing and even conflicting assessments from different member states.

Fitton-Brown: Yes. We have to triangulate effectively, and we don't use open-source but we're informed by open-source. We obviously read pretty widely. As you know, in addition to CTC Sentinel, there's an awful lot of source material out there, and we have to have a clear understanding of what is in the public domain because we need a threshold where we say, "OK, this is what's widely understood to be the case." Then we need to establish from our confidential consultations whether it is, in fact, the case. But equally, we can't be completely reliant upon a single member state because some member states may either have inaccurate understandings or may have politically driven perspectives.

CTC: In its 23rd report submitted in December 2018, your Monitoring Team concluded that while the Islamic State still has the ability to inspire terrorism in the West, "for now the ISIL core lacks the capability to direct international attacks." (1) With the group recently losing its last small piece of territory in Syria and Iraq, does this optimism continue?

Fitton-Brown: I characterize it as qualified optimism and also a reminder, I think, to member states that there's not going to be a world without terrorism. And they need to have an accurate understanding, and indeed their populations need to have an accurate understanding, of what success looks like in counterterrorism. Of course, a huge amount of effort went into the military defeat of ISIL, and perhaps because the CT community are professional pessimists and I lean that way myself, sometimes you almost have to force yourself not to allow yourself to be a lazy pessimist. I noticed that certain people said, "Ah, it's terrible because now that ISIL have been defeated militarily, they're really unpredictable. And everything is worse than it was." Now, I was very keen for us accurately, based on the insights we're given by member states--statistics and things of that sort--to issue a corrective of that, and say, "No, it's not worse than it was. It's better than it was." People shouldn't sound like nothing is ever good news. The defeat of ISIL militarily is incredibly good news both in terms of removing a monstrous pseudo-state from the face of the earth but it has also been a major boon for counterterrorism.

Now, what does that look like in detail? Yes, the threat is still there. Of course it is. We have to live with an ambient threat. That's the modern world, I think. I don't see that going away anytime soon, no matter how effectively member states or the international community conduct counterterrorism business.

The first key component of this reduced threat was that when ISIL had its back to the wall, starting really in 2017 and lasting all the way through 2018 and into 2019, they, for survival purposes, folded up their external terrorist attack planning capability in Iraq/Syria. That was, I think, essentially for survival purposes, but they also did it, I think, because they considered it was not very effective. Now, of course, how effective it was was probably a function of the circumstances in which it was operating. Its external attack apparatus probably was reasonably effective in 2015, to some degree in 2016. But as ISIL started to lose ground, to lose the planning space, the safe space in which to consider its global agenda and try and produce operational plans to support it, they started to see that function as ineffective.

When they were then facing being militarily eradicated in Iraq and subsequently in Syria, they made a conscious decision to wind it up, to fold it up, and to say, "that's no longer something that we have to have as an essential function. There are other things that are essential functions: security, finance, logistics, doctrine, media, all these things. But that one we don't need because we've just got to weather this storm." Now, at the same time, there was massive attrition of senior ISIL figures; a lot of their operational planners, a lot of key figures in ISIL leadership were killed. And these two dynamics happening at the same time decimated their external operational planning capability. And if you look at the statistics for directed attacks by ISIL, the statistics in 2015 and 2016 compared to the statistics in 2017/2018, it can be statistically termed a collapse.

So, we're in a position where ISIL at the moment is not capable of directing complex international attacks. Now, that's not to say there won't be ISIL attacks because there will be. But they're likely to be inspired attacks. This is where the message is being put out online; the propaganda is saying, "Go ahead and do these various things." It's angry, radicalized individuals responding to something they're seeing online.

CTC: So, in terms of having infrastructure on the ground in Syria/Iraq to plan international terror, there's intelligence that's come in indicating that the Islamic State wound that up.

Fitton-Brown: Yes. But of course, when you say "on the ground," the question is "what ground?" They didn't have much choice. They were losing ground. So, what you then have is this attempted shift from a pseudo-state to a covert, networked terrorist group/quasi-insurgency. They're preparing to bed down. They're preparing to be relatively less visible. But they're also conscious--and this is very clear from what they say and the insights that we have into them--that they have to demonstrate relevance. In other words, they may have wrapped up one department for the purposes of survival--you sort of fit yourself for survival--but their aspiration still is the so-called 'caliphate.' They talk sometimes about it as the caliphate of the mind or the virtual caliphate.

They occasionally get optimistic about developments in different parts of the world. At one point, they talked about the caliphate of East Asia, about Marawi, hoping that the insurgency in the southern Philippines was going to gather momentum. But, all of the time, they are conscious that their credibility; their brand depends on showing some kind of success. So, they took a conscious decision to become reliant upon inspired attacks. But they also know that those inspired attacks are not at the level that they really need. This is where we get to the qualified optimism. The optimism says that at the moment, we have an operational lull in terms of international-directed attacks. The qualifier to the optimism is that they have an established ambition to resurrect that capability as and when they have the breathing space or the permissive operational space in which to do so. And in order to do it, of course, they have to reinvest, they have to rebuild that capability. But they've got people with experience, and therefore, the rebuilding...

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