Achieving a post-landmine world: The decades-old threat that just won’t go away


Photo credit: Rodney Evans/AusAID, via Wikimedia Commons

What is currently being reused and deployed by so-called Islamic State and also threatens anyone playing the game Pokémon Go on their smartphones in Bosnia, Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam? The answer: landmines.

Antipersonnel landmines were first used in the Second World War, and continued to be deployed in conflicts ranging from the Vietnam War to the Gulf War. They are now used in only a handful of conflicts, meaning that the vast majority of mines contaminating land today were laid before the turn of the current century. Continue reading

Defending the private sector against cyber attack

google-76522_640In 2009, Google was the victim of a cyber attack, later dubbed Operation Aurora, that left attackers with access to confidential information related to active investigations by the FBI and other US law enforcement agencies.  An article published in Vanity Fair magazine in 2011 said of the attack: ‘Google called the National Security Agency (NSA) and said, “You were supposed to protect us from this!” The NSA guys just fell out of their chairs. They could not believe how naive the `Google guys had been.’

But should the NSA have protected Google? How far should government security agencies go to help strengthen the defence of private companies against cyber attacks?  In this blog post, Ashley Sweetman draws on his PhD research and the writings of Gordon Corera in his new book, Intercept, launched by the Strand Group in July 2015, to consider these questions.               Continue reading

If British defence industry shrinks any more, the special relationship could be doomed

The new Conservative party’s pre-election manifesto included a commitment “to seek value for money in defence procurement, recognising the important contribution that the UK defence industry makes to our prosperity”. It also reminded us that Britain is currently meeting NATO’s target of spending 2% of gross domestic product on defence.

However, given what some see as inevitable post-election austerity cuts, the defence industry has good reason to worry. If austerity starts to eat into it, there will be real and pressing implications for the “special relationship” with the US.

We recently produced a study of the available evidence concerning the economic and strategic value of the UK’s defence industry. The study tested the basic premise that the UK’s domestic defence industry can contribute positively to the UK, not merely in terms of security benefits, but also in terms of economic benefits through increased employment, taxes, exports and spin-off effects. Continue reading

Analysing the Network of an ISIS Twitter Account

It is well documented that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has an active and well-developed media presence, especially on social networks. Recently, Robert Hannigan, director of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), wrote in the Financial Times that social networks have become the “command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals”.

We tested the conclusion reached in other studies that far from being a tightly controlled mouthpiece for ISIS propaganda, Twitter’s structure has resulted in a fragmented network of fighters, sympathisers and disseminators competing for attention. We used open-source tools and techniques to visualise and analyse an ISIS Twitter network centred around a search of mentions and replies for one particular account, @ISTimes2, on the 11th November 2014.*

NodeXL was used to scrape and structure the information from Twitter with the resulting file exported into Gephi, an open-source network visualisation platform. This research worked within certain constraints. Notably, Twitter imposes “rate limiting” when accessing its application programming interface (API) and so a Twitter network based on 1,000 mentions and replies (but excluding follows) was extracted to minimise its impact.

Screenshot 1 shows the extracted network with distinct communities forming in clusters around important nodes. Force Atlas was selected as the layout with average path length and betweeness centrality used to refine the network. Communities were identified using the modularity function which resulted in a network comprised of three main communities.

The community coloured purple is formed around the @ISTimes2 account with the network of users forming a spiral around this central node. The orange community is centred on another important ISIS account, @ISL103. Notably, it has relatively few links to the ISTimes2 network with just six accounts visibly acting as a bridge between the two communities. Finally, the third community, coloured blue, is more diffuse with a multiple important nodes around which the network has formed. These critical nodes include influential and emerging ISIS disseminators such as @ShamiWitness@NusantarWitness and @ShamBreaking3.

Screenshot 1: The complete network with three clearly identified communities

Screenshot 1: The complete network with three clearly identified communities

Screenshot 2 shows the community centred on the @ISTimes2 account with the community of users spiralling around this node. The majority of these users are ISIS supporters but this community also includes a number of journalists and opponents of ISIS engaging with other users.

Screenshot 2: The community centred on the @ISTimes2 account.

Screenshot 2: The community centred on the @ISTimes2 account.

Screenshot 3 shows the @ISL103 account and the largely distinct community that has formed around it.

Screenshot 3: The community formed around the @ISL103 account

Screenshot 3: The community formed around the @ISL103 account

Screenshot 4 shows the third identified community. Unlike the other two it is more diffuse and based around multiple influential disseminators of ISIS propaganda and messages. These accounts have multiple links to the members of the @ISTimes2 community reflecting greater interaction through Twitter mentions and replies.

Screenshot 4: The diffuse third community centred on important ISIS disseminators

Screenshot 4: The diffuse third community centred on important ISIS disseminators

All three communities were composed of very similar members often including a mixture of ISIS fighters (and those claiming to be fighters), sympathisers and disseminators. The majority of the accounts identified in this network analysis were therefore broadly supportive of the message and actions of ISIS. However, a minority of nodes were Twitter users opposed to the group and their ideology. For example @ShameSheep, a user who engages with ISIS supporters and attacks their beliefs and claims.

This network visualisation of the communities interacting with @ISTimes2, confirms findings from prior studies. It demonstrates that ISIS lacks formal centralised control over the communications activities of its fighters and supporters. Instead it exerts indirect control through spreading propaganda messages, often in video or image form that are then shared by its supporters and disseminators to a wider audience. Therefore, although Robert Hannigan is right to identify social networks as crucial elements in the command and control structure of ISIS; the group’s leadership lack the ability to directly control the communication of their ideology.

This analysis also shows that the ability of ISIS to communicate beyond its narrow audience of supporters is fundamentally reliant on disseminators such as @ShamiWitness. As our colleagues at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) noted in #Greenbirds a significant proportion of foreign fighters consume information regarding the conflicts in Iraq and Syria from disseminators rather than exclusively through official ISIS channels.

Finally, the ever-shifting landscape of ISIS twitter accounts presents a number of challenges to analysing their networks of communication. Twitter routinely suspends and deletes the accounts of ISIS users for breaching the terms and conditions of the site while ISIS fighters and sympathisers delete their accounts in periodic bouts of paranoia and suspicion. Network analysis can therefore only provide a static glimpse of how these users communicate between themselves and to the outside world. Nevertheless, it provides valuable insights into the diffuse nature of ISIS’s Twitter presence and the importance of disseminating nodes around which communities form.

*Note: many of the Twitter accounts referred to in this piece post graphic text, images and videos.

Post by Mick Endsor, Research Assistant, International Centre for Security Analysis (ICSA). Originally posted on ICSA’s blog – 14 November 2014

Old wine in new bottles? How innovative is the National Security Council?

Dr Joe Devanny, Research Associate at the Institute for Government and the Policy Institute at King’s

Billed as a break with the recent past of opaque, ‘sofa’ government, the National Security Council (NSC) was one of the coalition government’s first creations in May 2010. Its regular meetings, chaired by the prime minister, have brought together senior ministers and top officials to discuss the full spectrum of national security issues, ranging from foreign and defence policy to intelligence and civil contingencies. Several officials with direct experience of the NSC process have praised it for improving the clarity and accessibility of the decision making process.

But just how new is the NSC? That’s a question we try to answer in our new report, The National Security Council: national security at the centre of government. If our perspective extends only to the dawn of New Labour in 1997, then the NSC does indeed look different in its composition, the frequency of its meetings and in sustained prime ministerial commitment to coordinating national security through this formal, central committee process. But if we adopt a longer view, we see many connections between the NSC and its predecessors.

Like its predecessors, the NSC is a cabinet committee, albeit with a different name. Its longest-running predecessor was the Overseas and Defence Cabinet Committee, though many prime ministers have resorted to actual, or de facto, war cabinets to handle military crises or wars.

It is difficult to believe today, but prior to the First World War the Cabinet lacked a secretariat to support its meetings, write and disseminate minutes throughout government. Ministers could leave Cabinet meetings with little idea of what, if anything, had been decided.

National security was the first area in which the need for secretariat support was recognised. The Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) was created in 1902 and augmented with a permanent secretariat in 1904 to coordinate national security more systematically. It was chaired by the prime minister and brought together ministers and senior serving military officers.
During Lloyd George’s premiership, the CID secretariat not only provided the support for his War Cabinet but also formed the model for the Cabinet Secretariat, the precursor to today’s Cabinet Office.

The CID secretary, Maurice Hankey, was the first (and is still the longest serving) Cabinet Secretary. Hankey was a kind of proto-National Security Adviser and Cabinet Secretary combined, a combination which bequeathed significant national security responsibilities to his successors as Cabinet Secretary. Indeed, successive Cabinet Secretaries have been important advisers to the prime minister on security issues, especially during the Cold War era on nuclear and intelligence issues.

Indeed, for many prime ministers, their choice of advisers was more important than the committee structure. Much depends on whether prime ministers feel content with the service they receive from departments: if they find support lacking, or they don’t trust departments or ministers, they can enhance central capacity.
Following the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher boosted the foreign policy capacity inside Downing St – which had consisted of one foreign affairs private secretary – by employing a senior Foreign Policy Adviser.

The longest serving occupant of this role was Sir Percy Cradock, who combined it with the Chairmanship of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC). Foreshadowing the Butler Inquiry’s criticisms of the relationship between policy and intelligence in the early 2000s, Cradock was aware that his dual policy and intelligence roles existed in a certain tension, but he felt nonetheless that the Assessment Staff was an enabler, without which he would have been much less effective and useful to the prime minister.

Though she increased central capacity, Thatcher took decisions with ever smaller circles of advisers. John Major reversed both trends, reverting to a leaner Downing St and more discursive Cabinet meetings. In 1997, Tony Blair quickly expanded the size and scope of Downing St operations, including in foreign affairs, but Cabinet and Cabinet committees began again to play a smaller role in decision making.

In June 2001 Blair placed Cabinet Office secretariats behind his Europe and Foreign Affairs Advisers. After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, Blair also upgraded the long-standing Intelligence Coordinator post to incorporate security within its portfolio.

These changes meant a significant increase in capacity at the centre. Blair’s first Europe Adviser, Sir Stephen Wall, felt that this actually made No.10 too powerful in foreign policy, upsetting the delicate balance between the centre and the Foreign Office. Questions of central co-ordination and the overlap between intelligence and policy were central to the Iraq War criticisms.
As prime minister, Gordon Brown continued Blair’s practice of employing three senior officials as advisers on Europe, Foreign Policy and Security, but David Cameron’s NSC reforms combined these advisory functions in one new post, the National Security Adviser, supported by a well-resourced national security secretariat.

The NSC therefore bears strong resemblance to previous iterations of national security co-ordination at the centre of government. It continues a post-9/11 trend under Blair and Brown that focused on ‘security’ as a more salient co-ordinating factor than other aspects of defence and foreign policy. Yet it still deserves to be regarded as new in marking a significant further step in both streamlining and upgrading central support for the prime minister. The NSC has also met more frequently and benefited from more sustained prime ministerial attention than its recent predecessors.

It would be wrong to imagine that there is one, timeless and perfect way of co-ordinating national security from the centre. Like any other area, national security co-ordination depends greatly on a prime minister’s personal style and approach. As we consider the future of the national security machinery we should examine how well it is currently operating. But it is also worthwhile to ponder how it has been shaped by – and whether it can learn from – its own history.