Assessing threat of terrorism during Ramadan

Muslims around the world will celebrate the holy month of Ramadan between 15 May and 14 June. This analysis piece, first published before Ramadan in 2017, looks at how over the past few years, Islamist non-state armed groups (NSAG) have increased terrorist operations during this time.

Attacks during Ramadan in 2017 included the London Bridge attack in London in which eight people were killed; a suicide bomb attack in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul in which more than 150 people died; and a series of bomb attacks that claimed scores of victims in Iraq’s capital Baghdad, including an attack on an ice cream shop where customers were enjoying late-night Ramadan snacks.

The ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan is a holy month during which Muslims fast in commemoration of God’s revelation of their central holy text, the Koran, to the Prophet Muhammad. Between dawn and sunset, Muslims avoid drink, food, sex and smoking, with a single large meal served after sundown.

Over the past few years, Islamist non-state armed groups (NSAG) have increased terrorist operations during Ramadan. In particular, Islamic State has interpreted religious demands on Muslims during Ramadan as a theological basis on which to encourage acts of mass political violence.

Calls for violence were cloaked in Islamic language, such as when Islamic State officials claimed that the heightened religiosity of the Ramadan season meant spiritual rewards for terrorist acts would be even greater than normal. In May 2016, an Islamic State spokesman explicitly encouraged worldwide attacks against non-Muslims, supported by details of how to inflict mass casualties.

Kinetic attacks subsequently occurred in multiple countries. In 2016 Ramadan began on 6 June and ended on 5 July. On 12 June Omar Mateen shot dead 49 people in a Florida nightclub in what was one of the worst acts of political violence in the U.S. since the 9/11 attacks. On 28 June in Turkey three gunmen attacked Istanbul Atatürk Airport, killing at least 45 people before detonating suicide vests.

‘There are already indications that terrorist groups or individuals are preparing Ramadan attacks’

Meanwhile, on 1 July gunmen attacked a café in the wealthy Gulshan district of Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, killing 24 people, including 18 foreign nationals; all five attackers were also killed. On 3 July, Islamic State detonated a number of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED) in the Iraqi capital Baghdad’s Karrada district killing over 300 people and injuring hundreds more.

The 2016 attacks were the most recent examples of an emergent trend. On 26 June 2015, during Ramadan, multiple attacks occurred in France, Kuwait, Syria, Somalia and Tunisia.

These incidents ranged from suicide attacks, IEDs, assaults with firearms and a public decapitation. As result of these attacks over two sequential Ramadan periods, A2 assesses that an escalation in violence is also likely to occur during this year’s month-long celebration.

There are already initial indications that terrorist groups or individuals are preparing Ramadan attacks. On 30 April Tunisian security forces raided a house in the interior city of Sidi Bouzid. According to a National Guard source, the house was used by a cell planning to conduct a terrorist attack during Ramadan. During the raid, the group leader detonated a suicide belt and another man was shot dead by the security forces.

Analysis

Security

Low-threat environments
It is likely that 2017’s Ramadan will see an increased number of terrorist events worldwide, including in areas with generally benign security environments.

This is particularly the case as Islamic State, one of the most capable and influential Islamist NSAGs, seeks to distract attention from severe territorial losses in Iraq – particularly around the city of Mosul, which is almost fully reclaimed by Iraqi military units – and increasing kinetic pressure in Syria.

Whilst this is true outside of Ramadan, the spiritual and symbolic significance of the holy month means that Islamic State commanders are particularly likely to encourage terrorist operations to occur during this time period. The heightened religious fervour of Ramadan, furthermore, likely will lead to increased receptivity for militant propaganda amongst individuals at-risk of radicalisation.

‘This creates challenges for intelligence agencies to identify and neutralise such individuals before they can become a direct threat.’

Terrorist attacks act as a force multiplier, creating an impression of global reach and strategic capability with very little investment in resources or manpower. The individuals responsible for last year’s attacks overwhelmingly tended to be people radicalised over the internet, with little or no formal training or command-and-control links with Islamic State or other Islamist NSAGs.

The encouragement of radicalised individuals to commit acts of political violence can be expected to be a particular priority for Islamic State this year, as it will allow the group to project force and counter its diminished prestige amongst the jihadist community without re-tasking resources tied up in the defence of its remaining territory. This creates challenges for intelligence agencies to identify and neutralise such individuals before they can become a direct threat.

2016’s terror attacks overwhelmingly occurred against ‘soft’ civilian targets, such as entertainment venues, posing substantial difficulties for commercial interests. In countries with overall low threat levels, introducing extensive non-state security arrangements are unrealistic.

Furthermore, even minor protective measures, such as stricter controlled access-and-egress procedures, could substantially undermine the attraction and function of entertainment-based venues. The universality of the threat adds further layers of complexity as it is not possible for many companies to assess whether their activities or profile makes them vulnerable to being targeted by NSAGs.

As a result, A2 advises companies in the entertainment sector to seek to mitigate terrorism risk by ensuring staff are briefed and trained on the actions to take in the event of discovering unattended bags or encountering suspicious personnel or behaviour.

This should include being instructed on how to evacuate customers as effectively and quickly as possible, ensuring staff are able to lock down the premises quickly without management authorisation and that all personnel are able to quickly contact management and the emergency services in the event of an incident.

High-threat environments
Ramadan does not only mark an increased risk to personnel in traditionally more secure countries, such as those in Western Europe. NSAG operational tempos appear to increase in even the most extreme conflict-risk environments, such as Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Syria. The Karrada attack was one of the deadliest single incidents in Iraq, second only to the 2007 co-ordinated strikes against Yazidi communities in the north.

The challenge this poses is considerable. Although companies in extreme-risk zones will have advanced private security precautions and strategies in place, they can still be expected to face a heightened threat level during Ramadan.

The majority of current extreme-risk countries, by A2 metrics, are Muslim-majority nations, where it is therefore likely that most of a company’s workforce, including security personnel, will be fasting throughout Ramadan. This will leave security managers with guard contingents operating at less-than-optimal strength given the physical challenges fasting entails at precisely the time when there is the greatest threat.

A2 advises companies with Ramadan-observant guard contingents in extreme-risk environments seek to ensure security can be maintained during the holy month. This could include adding additional personnel while reducing guard shift times and providing regular rest breaks.

For facilities of critical commercial importance, site security managers should consider temporarily reinforcing guard units with non-Muslim trained and trusted security professionals, ideally who have served with distinction in Western armed forces.

Backlash
Major acts of Islamist violence during Ramadan pose secondary risks to Muslim personnel deployed in the affected country. There is a demonstrable link between Islamist political violence and attacks against Muslim individuals and religious buildings. In January 2015, following an attack by two gunmen on the Paris offices of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, unidentified perpetrators opened fire on or planted IEDs outside several mosques.

This threat is acute during Ramadan, when fasting and greater mosque attendance increases the visibility of observant Muslims. Following an Islamist terrorist attack, A2 recommends that companies in the affected country consult with Muslim employees on how best to ensure duty-of-care requirements.

These could include creating safe areas inside company premises where Muslim staff can pray without having to attend mosque and the creation of communications plans whereby Muslim employees can quickly contact management should they feel threatened or intimidated.

Forecast

Ramadan will likely lead to a spike in Islamist political violence worldwide. Companies, particularly in countries with lower threat levels, will be unable to fully guard against this threat due to the impracticality and expense of extensive non-state security arrangements.

However, reasonable steps can mitigate this risk to within acceptable parameters. Companies should reassess whether their operational security budget is adequate, analyse their corporate risk profile and situational environment in the light of the potentially heightened threat and create a security plan that is realistic, effective and easily implementable.