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...