And my second post for the day, this time for an Observer article I wrote for the weekend’s paper in the wake of the near-miss terrorist incident in France on Friday. The piece oddly only appears in the iPad edition and the hardcopy, but here is the text below and a screenshot from the iPad. Worth pointing out the title was the papers choice. I also spoke to the Financial Times about the repercussions of the attack and had a longer interview with AFP which has been picked up in a number of different ways.

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The Blend of high impact and low preparation means everyone in Europe is a potential target

Raffaello Pantucci

Royal United Services Institute

With the attempted train attack on Friday, the threat of terrorism in Europe rears its head again. It is still early days in the investigation, but the early indicators are of an attempted lone shooter with some links to Syria, known by intelligence agencies launching a random act of terror to sow fear into the continent. It is a pattern of facts that is increasingly the norm globally.

Ever since 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, terrorist groups have sought to launch mass casualty shootings on soft targets. The blend of high impact and low preparation required makes it an appealing way of getting your message across.

The potential targets are limitless, and the only requirement is to obtain a gun – something that is easier in continental Europe than in the UK. In addition, Islamic State’s leadership has been shouting to anyone who would listen or read their material that it considers anything a target. The result has been a spate of similar attacks in Europe and abroad.

The attack in Sousse saw a marauding gunmen massacre holidaymakers as they enjoyed Tunisia’s heritage and beaches. In Brussels, visitors to a Jewish museum were gunned down by a terrorist linked to ISIS as they enjoyed an afternoon tour.

In Copenhagen, a lone shooter opened fire at a public event featuring cartoonist Lars Viks, killing a bystander, before heading to a nearby synagogue where he murdered guards that had been put there to protect the institution from people like him.

In Canada a gunman shot a soldier as he stood on parade in Ottawa. And in January this year, two brothers murdered their way through the editorial staff of the magazine Charlie Hebdo and shot a policeman in the street as an acquaintance held a group of shoppers hostage in a Jewish supermarket.

And then there are the numerous other plots that did not involve guns, or those that were prevented from coming to fruition by alert authorities.

With strict gun controls, the UK has been fortunate in not having faced many such incidents. But authorities have considered and trained for the possibility, and armed response units are increasingly visible on our streets.

On the continent, individual member states have varied legislation around weapons, and the free movement of citizens between countries requiring ever-tighter cooperation between agencies whose default mode is secretive. Visit Brussels today and armed soldiers stand prominently on display in their camouflage outside most public buildings.

In many ways these displays are a signal of terrorist victory, a sign that we have had to militarize our response to a criminal justice problem at home. But the sad truth is that they reflect the reality of the current threat picture where a growing number of Europeans and young men globally have first hand experience of guns and a battlefield, while terrorist groups are exhorting them constantly to launch such attacks.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director, International Security Studies at RUSI and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists

After a period of silence, a couple of new pieces, the first for the CTC Sentinel, West Point’s excellent counter-terrorism journal. This one looks at the pernicious influence of al Muhajiroun, Anjem Choudhary and Omar Bakri Mohammed’s group across Europe. It is a subject a lot more could be written about, and the volume of information is simply massive, but at the same time there is only limited space here. The topic will become more relevant again when Anjem and Mizanur’s trial comes about, and maybe around then something else could be done on the topic.

Beyond this, had a few media conversations in the past weeks. Will save the ones around the incident at the weekend on the Thalys train for the next post, but I spoke to the South China Morning Post about the bombing in Bangkok and some Chinese terror arrests, the Telegraph about the death of the last of the Portsmouth cluster of British jihadi’s in Syria/Iraq, the Daily Mail about the plan to use soldiers in cases of emergency on UK streets, the Times about the death of Muhsin al Fadhli in Syria, and the New York Times for a large piece they did about ISIS recruitment in the UK.

Al-Muhajiroun’s European Recruiting Pipeline

August 21, 2015
Author(s): Raffaello Pantucci

On August 5, 2015 Anjem Choudary and Mizanur Rahman appeared in court to be charged and detained without bail. Initially arrested September 24, 2014, the men had been free on bail as investigators dug into their histories.[1] When the decision to formally arrest and charge was made, the Crown Prosecution Service charged the men with inviting ”support for a proscribed terrorist organization, namely ISIL, also known as ISIS or the Islamic State, contrary to section 12 Terrorism Act 2000.”[2] The specific charges seemed to crystallize a reality that was increasingly observable across Europe that the various groups associated with the al-Muhajiroun (ALM) constellation of organizations were at the heart of current European recruitment networks sending radicals to fight in Syria and Iraq.

A long-standing feature of Europe’s extremist landscape, the al-Muhajiroun family of organizations is one that has been linked to a variety of terrorist organizations. One survey of plots linked to the group in the UK concluded that of 51 incidents and plots emanating from the UK from the late 1990s until 2013, 23 were linked to the group.[3] Britain’s first known suicide bomber in Syria, Abdul Waheed Majid, had been a feature at group events since the 1990s.[4] A similar French organization Forsane Alizza was disbanded after Mohammed Merah’s murderous rampage in 2012, while one of their associates Oumar Diaby ended up heading a French brigade in Syria.[5] The group’s tentacles and links reach across the continent and are increasingly showing up at the sharper end of the terrorist threat that Europe is facing.

Al-Muhajiroun’s European History

Al-Muhajiroun (the emigrants) was born in Europe in February 1996 when Omar Bakri Mohammed Fostok (hereon Omar Bakri) was ejected from the organization Hizb ut Tahrir (HuT) in the UK. A long-term HuT activist, Omar Bakri arrived in the United Kingdom in 1984 having fled Saudi Arabia where his activities as an Islamist activist clashed with the state. In the UK he sought political asylum and soon rose to public prominence through his willingness to make provocative statements at any opportunity to any available media outlet.[6] The birth of ALM in 1996 was likely the product of this style of leadership and media management clashing with the traditionally low-key and secretive HuT. The founding of ALM unleashed Omar Bakri, with the group ramping up its provocative actions and organizing an International Islamic Conference on September 8, 1996 to which Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam, and many other jihadi leaders were purportedly invited. The event was cancelled at the last minute, though the publicity it generated in terms of media coverage and a documentary about Omar Bakri entitled “Tottenham Ayatollah” likely served the organization’s initial intent to attract attention.[7]

Present in the background of the documentary is Anjem Choudary, at the time a lawyer who was working as Omar Bakri’s assistant. Over time, his role evolved and in the wake of the London bombings of 2005, when Omar Bakri chose to flee the country,[8] Choudary took over as UK leader for the group. A few months prior to Omar Bakri’s departure, the group announced its dissolution in an attempt to get ahead of security services, with a series of sub-groups emerging largely reflecting the same ideology as ALM with Choudary effectively at the helm. In the wake of the attacks, British authorities focused on the group, adding the sub-groups to the proscribed terror list at various points and seeking greater powers to restrict their ability to operate. The group, however, has continued to operate with the leadership remaining fairly constant. This became most prominently visible in around 2009 when the group adopted the name Islam4Uk, which was proscribed a year or so later.

This style of nomenclature was soon seen replicated across Europe with Shariah4Belgium, Shariah4Holland, Shariah4Denmark, Shariah4Italy, Shariah4Finland, and even briefly Shariah4Poland. In France a group called Forsane Alizza (Knights of Pride) emerged as the local clone of the group (sometimes using Shariah4France) and in Germany Millatu Ibrahim (the religious community of Ibrahim, a name drawing on the title of a book by Muhammad al Maqdisi) took on the mantle. Millatu Ibrahim is a name that has since appeared in Norway, Holland, and Denmark as well). In Scandinavia, Profetens Ummah (the Umma of the Prophet) represents the ideology in Norway and Kadet til Islam (Call to Islam) is the lead group in Denmark.

All of these groups adopted a narrative and approach clearly modeled on ALM, and in many cases this was allegedly the product of direct contact and training by Choudary. For example, in March 2013, he visited Helsinki, Finland where he spoke alongside Awat Hamasalih, a British national of Kurdish origin from Birmingham, at an event organized by Shariah4Finland to celebrate the tenth anniversary of local Iraqi radical leader Mullah Krekar’s incarceration.[9] Choudary reciprocated this generous hosting, inviting Hamasalih to speak when he was back in the UK.[10]

This example of travel is representative of Choudary’s contacts with affiliate groups, and there are reports that he and other key ALM members travelled around Europe to support their events.[11] Similarly, there are reports that key individuals from regional affiliates have come to London. And there are multiple reports of Choudary (and Omar Bakri) preaching to supporters in Europe over PalTalk using web cameras and interactive online messaging.[12] Both Choudary and Mizanur Rahman  have also communicated extensively with supporters over Twitter.[13]

In terms of how Choudary sees his role with these groups, some clarity is provided in his supportive comments towards his Norwegian clone Profetens Ummah:

I have regular contact with Hussain and Ibraheem (two group leaders). There are no administrative links between us, but I am a mentor and adviser for them. There are many people who claim they represent Islam, but I see the Prophet’s Umma as one of the few voices in Europe that speak the truth about Islam without compromise.[14]

Choudary helped Profetens publish videos and develop a style to preach and call people to their radical brand of Islam.[15]

In other contexts people reached out to Choudary having heard about him in the press. Anas el-Abboubi was a young man born in Morocco who moved to Italy when he was young. An up-and-coming rapper, he was featured on MTV Italia as one to watch under his rap nom-de-music MC Khalif. This lifestyle, however, seemed unappealing to him and instead he was drawn to violent Islamist ideas and began an online conversation with Choudary over social media in which he asked for his advice about how he could advance radical ideas in Italy. El-Abboubi also participated in PalTalk sessions led by the group’s creator Omar Bakri and he bought plane tickets to visit the Shariah4Belgium group who he had also connected with online.

Soon after this, el-Abboubi established Shariah4Italy, a short-lived organization that seemed to flourish and shrink with its founder.[16] By October 2013 he fled Italy to join the Islamic State along a route that took him through Albania. The degree of influence that Choudary had over his decision-making process is unclear from the public domain, but it is clear that he and ALM had some influence over the young man, something exemplified by his establishing of Shariah4Italy despite a background in Italy that was largely detached from extremist ideologies and groups.

The Current Picture

There increasingly appears to be a consensus across European security agencies that Choudary’s group plays a role in networks that provide new recruits to fight in Syria and Iraq. In both the 2013 and 2014 TE-SAT Terrorism Situation and Trends report issued by Europol, the agency depicted  “al-Muhajiroun and its latest incarnation the Sharia4 movement” as being a driver for people to go and fight in Syria and Iraq.[17] Watching a pan-European trend, Europol observed:

some salafist individuals and groups in the EU, such as the Sharia4 movement, seem to have heeded the advice of prominent jihadist ideologues to stop their controversial public appearances in Europe….instead, they have been encouraged to participate in what these ideologues describe as a ‘jihad’ against un-Islamic rule in Muslim countries.[18]

There is further evidence of Omar Bakri playing an active role in helping people go fight in Syria. This is evident in the case of Shariah4Belgium,[19] a clone established in 2010 after Fouad Belkacem, a Moroccan-Belgian who had served some time in prison for theft and fraud, came to the UK to learn about how “to start something in Belgium.” Drawn to the bright light of Choudary’s celebrity, Belkacem listened as the established Briton “went through the history of ALM, how we set it up.”[20] The Belgian took the lessons to heart and returned to establish a similarly confrontational organization back home. Choudary and others were occasional visitors and both Choudary and ALM “godfather” Omar Bakri would provide online classes for the group in Belgium.[21]

In 2011, one of Shariah4Belgium’s core members left Belgium to seek out their mentor Omar Bakri in Lebanon. Now formally excluded from the United Kingdom by the Home Secretary, Omar Bakri continued to draw journalists and radicals from across the world. Nabil Kasmi was one of these young men, arriving in Lebanon as the conflict in Syria was catching fire. He returned to Belgium a few months later, but then in March 2012 headed off to the Levant again, this time going through Lebanon to Syria.[22]

At around the same time, another group associated with Shariah4Belgium were intercepted traveling to Yemen on suspicion of trying to join a terrorist group. Nabil Kasmi’s success, however, highlighted the options offered by the conflict in Syria.[23] In August he returned to Europe, only to leave again on August 20, this time followed days later by a cluster of some five members from the group who all ended up fighting with the Islamic State in Syria.[24] Over time, more and more of the group went to Syria, drawing on their Belgian and other European contacts from the broad ALM family of organizations. The exact numbers are unclear, but it is believed that at least 50 Belgian fighters in Syria and Iraq have roots in Shariah4Belgium.[25]

One of the few who failed to travel to Syria or Iraq was Fouad Belkacem, who was instead jailed in February 2015 for 12 years for recruiting and radicalizing people to go fight in Syria and Iraq.[26] On trial with another 47 people (the majority of which failed to appear in court as they were believed to be fighting or dead in the Levant), Belkacem’s trial seemed to be the capstone in the story of ALM’s European links to the battlefield in Syria and Iraq.

European Plotting?

What is not yet completely clear is the degree to which these networks are ones that are producing terrorist plots back in Europe. There are growing numbers of plots being disrupted in Europe with links to the battlefield in Syria and Iraq, though it remains uncertain whether these are being directed by the Islamic State or other groups from their safe haven in Syria and Iraq. Some plots, like that in Verviers, Belgium and at least one of those in the UK, are reported by authorities to show clear evidence of connections to the battlefield, but the nature of these links remains somewhat opaque.[27]

Looking to the ALM-associated networks across Europe, it remains unclear the degree to which they have thus far been credibly associated with attack planning. Reports around the January raid in Verviers, suggested some possible linkages (especially given the timing near Fouad Belkacem’s trial), but they have yet to be confirmed publicly.[28]

What has been seen, however, is the emergence of lone actor-style terrorism on the periphery of the group’s networks. A case in point is that of Brusthom Ziamani in the UK. Ziamani was a troubled teenager who sought out Anjem Choudary and his friends as a surrogate family. Having tried to ingratiate himself with the group and even considering travel to Syria, Ziamani instead decided to emulate his heroes Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale and their murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in 2013. Taking a knife, axe, and Islamist flag, Ziamani was planning on butchering a member of the security forces before police intercepted him.[29] He was convicted of attempted murder and plotting to commit a terrorist act, and sentenced to 27 years incarceration.[30] There is no clear evidence that Ziamani told Choudary what he was going to do, but Ziamani’s case has been championed by ALM-associated Twitter accounts in the UK.[31]

In contrast, on the battlefield, individuals associated with ALM- related organizations appear in a number of both prominent and less high-profile roles. Reflecting their preference for noisy self-promotion and in-your-face dawa (proselytization), many are active on social media. One particularly prominent figure in this regard was Rahin Aziz, who fled to Syria after being sought in conjunction with an assault on a football fan in the UK. In Syria he quickly aligned himself with the Islamic State, and started to actively post across social media platforms. Among images to emerge were ones of him posing with weapons with Denis Cuspert, a prominent member of the German al-Mujahiroun linked group Millatu Ibrahim.[32]

For Aziz, the connection to ALM was instrumental in helping him build his networks in Syria and Iraq, as well as highlighting how interconnected the community across Europe was. In a conversation over Twitter he reported:

when I came to sham the amount of brothers from other countries who recognized me and agreed n even said were by us….what we did with demos etc aided the jihad, global awareness etc which motivated many to go fight jihad.[33]

Prior to going to the Levant, he reported going to:

Belgium many times, delivered lectures and me met from Europe there….many 3-4 times….France twice….Holland where we took part in a conference about khilafah…I knew the brothers from Germany….Their ameer abu usama al Ghareeb contacted me when he came out of prison….he asked me to do some videos for them….met Denmark guys in Belgium even in UK they came to visit us.[34]

It was a network fostered in Europe maturing and re-networking on the battlefield in the Levant.

Others seem to have taken to the battlefield to undertake activities largely similar to those they were carrying out previously in the United Kingdom. For example, Siddartha Dhar, a Hindu convert also known as Abu Rumaysah, was arrested alongside Anjem Choudary in September 2014. However, unlike his teacher, he took his passport and jumped on a bus to Paris with his pregnant wife and family, the first leg in a journey that ended with him living under the Islamic State a month later. In typical ALM style, Dhar decided to alert authorities to his presence through the posting of a photo of himself holding an AK-47 in one hand and his newborn baby in the other. Since then, Dhar has periodically re-emerged on Twitter and other social media, and in May 2015 became prominent once again when a book was published under his kunya (jihadi name) about life under the Islamic State.[35]

These are only a few of the men and women to have gone to join the Islamic State from the ALM networks. Exact numbers are difficult to know, but certainly from the UK alone, more than a dozen prominent individuals from these networks have gone over, while others have attempted to go. What remains worrying is that there continues to be a community of activists associated with these groups who are seeking to go fight in Syria and Iraq, and also that the pool of support in Europe remains fairly constant.

One illustration of this is that in the wake of the reports of Rahin Aziz’s death in a U.S. strike, a sweet shop in East London issued candies celebrating his martyrdom and a vigil was held for him that appeared to show a few dozen people praying in his honor.[36] A few days later, three men were arrested in the Luton area.[37] One was released while the other two (an uncle and nephew) were charged with plotting to carry out a terrorist attack in the UK intended to attack and kill military personnel.[38] Some reports suggested the plot was an attempted beheading of a U.S. serviceperson in revenge for Aziz’s death.[39] Details are unclear, though the men were allegedly also attempting to go to the Islamic State, and the case is working its way through the courts and is likely to come to trial in 2016.[40]

Conclusion

The arrest and charging of Anjem Choudary and his principal acolyte Mizanur Rahman is a significant moment in ALM’s history. The group has developed from its early days when London was a center of jihadist thinking with ALM at its core, drawing in radicals from across Europe and around the world. Since the prominence ALM achieved in the late 2000s, it has now become a net exporter organization around Europe, still drawing people to London, but then also watching as they return home to establish affiliate networks and communities. This European generation of ALM supporters is increasingly proving to be at the heart of Europe’s radical Islamist community connected with Islamic State and the conflict in Syria and Iraq. Given the volumes of plots that have emerged from these networks in the past in the United Kingdom in particular, it seems likely that similar problems are likely to emerge from the European ALM networks.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists (UK: Hurst/US: Oxford University Press). You can follow him at @raffpantucci.

[1] In March 2014, Choudary and other ALM activists had been identified in a set of protests in London clearly inspired by the Islamic State. Dipesh Gadher, “Preacher Anjem Choudary investigated over ‘road show’ linked to jihadists,” Sunday Times, March 9, 2014 .

[2] Statement by Metropolitan Police, August 5, 2015 .

[3] Dominic Kennedy, “Radical al-Muhajiroun group is behind most UK terror plots,” Times, March 21, 2015.

[4] Morten Storm, Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, Agent Storm: A Spy Inside al-Qaeda, (London: Penguin, March 2015), p. 334.

[5] Olivier Tocser, “Les Secrets d’un Emir,” Le Nouvel Observateur, March 20, 2014.

[6] Memorably on November 12, 1991 he told The Mail on Sunday: “‘John Major [then Prime Minister] is a legitimate target. If anyone gets the opportunity to assassinate him, I don’t think they should save it. It is our Islamic duty and we will celebrate his death.”

[7] The documentary is available online, and was recounted in a chapter in Jon Ronson, Them (London: Picador, 2001). Ronson was also the director of the documentary.

[8] “Cleric Bakri ‘will return’ to UK,” BBC News, August 9, 2005.

[9] Mullah Krekar, the founder of the Ansar al Islam movement that was involved in fighting in Iraq, is an infamous radical preacher with whom Choudary has developed a link. Laura Helminen, “Radical Muslim Preacher Spoke in Helsinki,” Helsingin Sanomat, March 13, March 28, 2013.

[10]. In January 2015, authorities in Finland sought to eject Hamasalih. According to coverage around this time, Hamasalih, in contrast to most Kurds, was not seeking nationhood with his activity, but instead “his goal [was] jihad, an Islamic caliphate, and sharia, the law of Islam”  as the local newspaper said. Anu Nousiainen: “Finland Expelled Radical Extremist From Turku to UK – ‘Serious Threat to Public Security,’” Helsingin Sanomat, January 15, 2015.

[11] See Ben Taub, “Journey to Jihad,” New Yorker, June 1, 2015.

[12] Shortly prior to their arrest, Rahman and Choudary (alongside others), made a PalTalk video in which they answered questions from an American audience. Similar videos have been made for European audiences.

[13] There has been no comprehensive mapping of ALM’s online links and contacts, but almost all of the prominent members (in Syria and Iraq or back in Europe) have accounts and numerous others who aspire to be involved in these groups’ proselytization create accounts that are very similar. The best sense of outreach and effectiveness of this online contact is suggested in the fact that Choudary has 32.9K followers on Twitter, while Rahman has 29K. Of course, number of followers does not equate to contact and influence, but both are very active online and respond to people’s questions and contacts.

[14] Andreas Bakke Foss, “British Extremist Calls Himself a Mentor for Norwegian Islamists,” Aftenposten, March 3, 2013.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Lorenzo Vidino, Home-Grown Jihadism in Italy: Birth, Development and Radicalization Dynamics, (Milan: Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale, 2015), pp. 63-67.

[17] European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2014, (The Hague: Europol, 2014), p. 21.

[18] Ibid, p.23.

[19] Paul Cruickshank, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Interview with Alain Grignard,”  CTC Sentinel,  8:8 (August, 2015).

[20] Taub.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] J. La. Avec Belga, “Sharia4Belgium qualifie de groupe terroriste, 12 ans de prison pour Fouad Belkacem,” La Libre, February 11, 2015.

[27] Paul Cruickshank, Steve Almasy, and Deborah Feyerick, “Source: Belgium terror cell has links to ISIS, some members still at large,” CNN, January 17, 2015.

[28] “Aantal radicalen in Wallonie wordt onderschat,” Het Laatste Nieuws, January 16, 2015.

[29] Tom Whitehead, “Brusthom Ziamani: the former Jehovah’s Witness who was radicalised within weeks,” Telegraph, February 19, 2015; Prosecution Opening Note, Regina vs. Brusthom Ziamani, Central Criminal Court, February 9. 2015.

[30] Regina vs Brusthom Ziamani, Sentencing Remarks of HHJ Pontius, Central Criminal Court, March 20, 2015.

[31] Tweet from @muslimprisoners, January 5, 2015 3:06pm

[32] Also known as Deso Dogg or Abu Talha al-Almani, Cuspert was a prominent German former rap star turned jihadi and activist for German ALM equivalent Millatu Ibrahim. He was one of several Miltatu Ibrahim figures to travel Syria. The Austrian founder of the group Mohammed Mahmoud was one of Cuspert’s close contacts. Mahhmoud left home aged 17 in 2002 to train in an Ansar al-Islam camp in Iraq. After his return to Europe he played a major role in the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF), a source for non-Arabic language translations of jihadi material. In 2007 he was arrested by authorities, leading to a four year jail sentence. On his release he moved to Berlin and founded Millatu Ibrahim, which rapidly became the center of Germany’s Salafi scene. In 2012 he fled to Egypt before becoming a senior figure in the insurgency in Syria. He  is now considered one of the most senior figures in the German and European foreign fighter contingent, helping produce the Islamic State propaganda magazine Dabiq and al-Hayat media center releases. He is believed to continue to draw on his ALM-linked European contacts to recruit. See “In Search of ‘True’ Islam: Salafists Abandon Germany for Egypt,” Der Spiegel, August 13, 2002; Souad Mekhennet, “Austrian Returns, Unrepentant, to Online Jihad,” New York Times, November 15, 2011; Petra Ramsauer, “Mohamed Mahmoud: A Holy Warrior’s Book,” Profil, August 17, 2015.

[33] Author archive: Twitter conversation between Secunder Kermani and Rahin Aziz.

[34] Author archive: Twitter conversation between Secunder Kermani and Rahin Aziz.

[35] “New Brit propaganda guide by Brit sells ‘Costa’ caliphate,” Channel 4, May 19, 2015.

[36] Tweet with pictures by @TawheedNetwrk July 8, 2015 4:41pm

[37] “Three in terror-related arrests in Luton and Letchworth,” BBC News, July 14, 2015.

[38] “Man charged with US military terrorist plot,” Sky News, July 21, 2015.

[39] Mike Sullivan, “Foiled: British terror attacks in days,” Sun, July 14, 2015.

[40] “Man charged with US military terrorist plot,” Sky News, July 21, 2015.

Finally posting my second piece from last week around the SCO Summit, this time for the South China Morning Post. Focuses more on the China-Russia side of things. Beyond this, spoke to the Independent about the elusive Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, the Daily Mail about ISIS and women, and Reuters about Chinese intelligence dealing with the counter-terrorism questions outside the country.

Russia holds the door to Central Asia open for China

russia-sco_nem589_51321653

Raffaello Pantucci says to a region in need, the Chinese offer of funds and expertise is too attractive to resist, as agreements at the Moscow-hosted BRICS and SCO meetings show

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 July, 2015, 12:05pm

Late last week, the leaders of almost half the world’s population gathered in Ufa, Russia. The collision of the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summits was orchestrated by Russia to guarantee exposure and attention, and highlight to the world how many friends Russia has. Dig below the shallow surface, however, and the links between the countries of the two international organisations are barely skin deep, with everyone attending for their own reasons.

For China, the two summits provide another opportunity for global engagement, as well as helping Beijing advance two international financial institutions. A timid player in many ways on the international stage, Beijing has found that its capital is one lever that it can use without raising too many hackles, and the meetings in Ufa gave it another opportunity to flex these financial muscles.

Fixating on the slow path to SCO membership for India and Pakistan, the world largely missed the key takeaway from the summits: China’s growing financial domination of Russia and its immediate backyard.

In the wake of the first Ufa summit, greater clarity was cast around the BRICS development bank, a new financial entity to emerge from the grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, with an initial market capitalisation of US$50 billion. The leaders also created a US$100 billion currency exchange reserve, of which US$41 billion was offered by China, while Russia, Brazil and India each gave US$18 billion, and South Africa contributed US$5 billion.

A day or so later, the SCO members agreed once again to try to advance the concept of an SCO development bank or at least a joint fund.

China has been pushing the idea of an SCO financial institution for some time.

Seeing economic engagement as its major advantage in Central Asia, many years passed before Chinese interlocutors first presented the idea of an SCO development bank.

However, the idea has never quite taken off, with Russia in particular concerned that the vehicle would simply leave the door to Central Asia wide open for Beijing.

We live now, however, in different times, and, rather than be concerned, Russia has opened the door to Beijing. Indeed, Moscow appears to be helping to hold the doors open as China uses its lever in Russia’s backyard. Already endowed with the Silk Road Fund (focused on China’s western partners in Central and South Asia) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China’s external constellation of economic firepower has been further enhanced by Ufa.

Russia itself has further opened up its own economy to Chinese investment, offering Chinese state-owned firms majority stakes in its oil and gas fields.

Eager for foreign investment and unable to look west anymore, Moscow is reaching east and apparently willing to throw open not only its backyard, but also Central Asia’s.

The result is a further strengthening of China’s hand in Central Asia, as the country pours finance and infrastructure into a part of the world that is crying out for it.

While in the short term there is little to worry about this investment (these are infrastructure-poor countries that will benefit from China’s appealing combination of low-cost construction firms and cheap loans), over the longer term, Chinese leverage will certainly offer Beijing a grip over the region. The lesson from Ufa is that the region’s one great resistor, Russia, has largely lifted its objections and is now welcoming all the Chinese investment it can attract.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Russia holding the door to Central Asia open for China

In honour of this week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Ufa, I have a new piece for a new outlet, the Indian think tank Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. It explores how India might (or might not) benefit from its joining the organization. Related, spoke to Bloomberg about Sino-American cooperation on Afghanistan and unrelated to Newsweek about the revelation that a couple of Indonesian pilots had gone to join ISIS.

India and SCO: the real benefit

India becoming a becoming a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation will be a significant moment in its engagement with Central Asia. However, there are not a lot of security or other benefits to be gained

post imageIndia’s path to membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) now seems certain. It is not clear that the Ufa Summit will conclude with the organization admitting both Pakistan and India, but the next step in membership will be taken with Delhi formally being admitted into the SCO structures next year.

But what will this new membership actually mean for India?

The short answer: not much.

An often misunderstood and overblown entity, the SCO was founded in 2001 and evolved from a grouping born out of the end of the Cold War to define China’s western borders. Over time, the grouping discovered a common set of interests in countering terrorism, agreeing broadly on what constitutes terrorist activity and then developed structures to try to counter it collectively.

In reality, the organization has done little in practical terms to counter terrorism, except for holding regular meetings, establishing the unfortunately-achronymed RATS (Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure) center in Tashkent – really just a repository of information of proscribed individuals – and organizing large-scale joint military exercises under the rubric of counter-terrorism. There has been discussion of a number of other entities being created (like an SCO Bank, most recently raised again by the Kyrgyz leadership), as well as an SCO University (a constellation of universities across the member states where students can earn joint degrees), and various other forms of cooperation.

Little has been practically done, however, with the most visible contribution of the SCO being that at least once a year the leaders of the Central Asian countries will have to sit down with each other. This is not, in itself, a bad thing given how toxic relations are between some of the regional leaders. But considering that it appears to be the grouping’s central achievement, there is a somewhat questionable return on investment in the effort.

There is some benefit to this for India. The regular leadership and other meetings around the SCO now means that both Indian and Pakistani officials at a senior level (from Prime Minister and head of state meetings to Health Ministers, Foreign Ministers and Interior Minister meetings) will now have to encounter each other at least once a year, away from the glare of the annual September UN General Assembly meeting. This is not negative as it will provide another neutral forum in which the two rival powers have an opportunity to interact. Participation in RATS may bring some new levels of intelligence sharing, as well as help the others develop counter-terrorism strategies based on India’s long experience of it.

Beyond this, India’s principal benefit from joining the SCO will be geopolitical. It will help bring India closer to China by supporting the only multilateral security entity outside the United Nations that China has both created, is a part of and refuses India entry into. It will also help clarify India’s growing interest in Central Asia – something already highlighted in President Modi’s visit to the five countries on the fringes of his visit to Russia.

This may be the longer-term gain for India. The sometime fractious China-India relationship has been on a broadly positive trajectory for a while, notwithstanding the periodic border spats, thanks to a concerted charm offensive by the Xi Jinping administration. China and India are able to hold constructive conversations on a wide range of issues, from AIIB membership to joint counter-terrorism exercises. The relationship is moving in a positive, though still slightly tentative, direction. Perhaps the principal exchange emerging from India’s accession to the SCO, will be a new push by China to be admitted into SAARC.

The relationship with Central Asia, however, is one of India’s untapped opportunities. Indian soft power already has considerable influence in Central Asia, far more than China. Bollywood movies are much enjoyed, compared with Chinese entertainment, for instance. But it is unclear whether India has really found ways to profit beyond that. In Tajikistan, Indian doctors and military support play an interesting bilateral role, but Indian companies have not participated in the way they should have in the region.

The main problem for India is the physical impediment of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This reality complicates relations, but India has sought to overcome it by developing the Chahabar Port in Iran – an alternative route for Indian products from Central Asia.

The bigger issue is political attention. The Central Asian powers are sandwiched between China and Russia and find themselves increasingly drawn into China’s economic thrall, in the face of a declining Russia to which they are still bound by history and physical and linguistic infrastructure. They constantly seek new partners and India offers an alternative they can appreciate and work with.

India can surely gain from access to Central Asia’s minerals and energy, as also market access to Russia and ultimately Europe. Central Asia is still deeply underdeveloped, offering an entree for Indian construction firms and others. This will require formal support, something that Chinese leaders have long recognized through their regular visits to the region. Indian leaders seem not to have recognized that yet.

SCO membership will go some way towards changing this, though it will still need a concerted effort by New Delhi if India is to capitalize effectively on the opportunity that Central Asia offers. Indian membership of the SCO will undoubtedly be trumpeted as a major change in regional geopolitics; it will only become A reality if India follows through with its offers to Central Asia.

Raffaello Pantucci is the Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute 

This feature was written exclusively for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations

Marking the sad anniversary of ten years on from the July 7, 2005 attack on London, Prospect asked for an article about where we stand today as compared to a decade ago. Sitting in London writing this and seeing all the coverage today has been quite sad and moving. The threat has really evolved from a decade ago, but in some ways is far more complicated and dangerous. I spoke to quite a few journalists in the run up to today, including Sky News about the threat 10 years on and the 21/7 plot two weeks later, to Al Jazeera English about the impact on Muslim communities, to the BBC about where we stand today, and the New York Times has quoted my book in its write-up on the day.

Ten years after 7/7, is Islamic state plotting to attack the west?

British IS fighters returning from Syria are a potentially deadly threat

Three British recruits for Islamic State (IS) Reyaad Khan with Nasser Muthana and Abdul Raqib Amin

In November 2004, a pair of lads from Beeston met with a young man from Birmingham in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Far from home, the three were linked by a common hatred of the west. For the Beeston pair, Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shezhad Tanweer, their plan was to stay and fight in Afghanistan against Americans (a notion Khan himself was not entirely new to, having previously attended a camp in Kashmir and visited Afghanistan). By the end of their trip, the Brummie, Rashid Rauf, had introduced them to a senior al Qaeda figure known as Haji who had convinced the Beeston pair to turn around and launch an attack back home. The aged jihadi fighter had persuaded the trio that if they really wanted to play a role in the struggle they had come to fight and die for, they would be better served going back home. From foreign fighters to homegrown terrorists, the 7th July bombers’ journey shows how the transition can be made.

Nowadays, the focus of our attention is on the travellers. Stories like the family from Luton, heading en masse with grandparents to live under the Islamic State (IS) black banner. The Bethnal Green trio of girls thought to have been lured in part by a Scottish woman who had gone over before them and the handsome warriors stroking cats on social media pages. Or Talha Asmal, from Mohammed Sidique Khan’s hometown of Dewsbury, who was drawn from his family to earn the dubious distinction of being the UK’s youngest reported suicide bomber at the age of 17. The centre of our attention has moved from the terrorist plots back home to those who are travelling abroad to participate in foreign conflicts.

Why does this matter? If these people want to go abroad and live under IS or fight against the Assad regime, who are they hurting beyond themselves and their families? A sympathetic eye might read these stories as those of idealists who are going to fight in foreign fields to protect or fight for brother Muslims suffering as the world does little. While traditional news broadcasts tend to be dominated by stories of headline-grabbing IS atrocities, online you can also find plenty of horror stories of acts committed by the Assad regime and propaganda images of an idealised Islamic state being created in the Levant.

A more sceptical eye would instead focus on the fact that they are going to join terrorist organisations that are either part of al Qaeda (or are led by men close to the group) like Jabhat al Nusrah, or continue to spout rhetoric that seeks to inspire and instigate terrorism, like IS. At the moment these two groups appear to differ in their goals—IS seems to be railing against the world as it builds its caliphate in the sand, while Jabhat al Nusrah seems to have put al Qaeda’s global ambitions to one side while it focuses on the fight in Syria. But this is only their current state and these are groups with millennarial perspectives. Seen in this light, these travellers might eventually be deployed as weapons. For an organisation with the ideological ambitions of a group such as IS, foreign fighters are a gift. The stories of people going over strengthen their narrative of success. Later on, however, they might also provide a useful network with which to launch strikes against the west, North Africa, or elsewhere.

In fact, we may have already seen this. The slaughter in Sousse last month and the preceding attack on tourists at the Bardo Museum in Tunis were both carried out by individuals linked to IS training camps in Libya. In Verviers, Belgium this January, the authorities had a dramatic shoot-out with a group who they suspected of having recently returned from fighting in Syria. When confronted by authorities—they whipped out their weapons and in the subsequent gunfight two of the fighters were gunned down. A few days prior to this incident, the Kouachi brothers attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices while their friend Amedy Coulibaly stormed a Jewish supermarket in Paris. Coulibaly claimed in a pre-recorded  video to be undertaking the attack on behalf of IS and his wife, Hayat Boumeddiene, was later featured in IS propaganda alongside the group in Syria.

In the UK we have not seen such advanced planning yet, though authorities believe they have disrupted several plots with links to Syria and Iraq in some way. In at least two cases, it is believed the plots include individuals who were foreign fighters at some point. In all of these cases, it is highly unlikely that these young men started out with intentions to launch attacks back at home. People eager to kill do not need to travel to foreign fields to find justification to carry out their acts. More likely, they were eager to see what was happening and were drawn by the excitement of the conflict or the narrative of seeing what a supposed Islamic state looks like up close. Once there, it is unclear what happens to them: some seem to head back disillusioned by the experience, others revel in what they find there, and yet some appear to come back with deadly intent. Where and why this intent spawns is unclear.

This curiosity of visiting an Islamic state is familiar from Mohammed Sidique Khan’s narrative. In the summer of 2003, he was part of a group of Britons who met at the airport in Islamabad, Pakistan. Connected to the same networks in the UK, one group from Crawley were gathering to go and set up their own terrorist training camp where they sought to teach themselves to fight. Mohammed and his close friend from Beeston had instead become curious about what was going on in Afghanistan.

He had travelled previously to Afghanistan just before 11th September 2001 and seen the Taliban for himself. Impressed by the state they were building, he wanted to see how it was now surviving the American-led assault. After the 2003 training camp, Mohammed Sidique Khan’s plot took years to mature, showing the long tail of radical ideas that can sit within a person for some time.

A decade on from the 7th July bombings and we are still as confused as before as to what really draws young British men and women to fight for groups like IS or al Qaeda and launch terror attacks at home. There is an understanding of the ideology and subsequently how individuals are drawn to it. But this does not make prediction any easier. And it does not resolve the horror that these young Britons feel a greater loyalty to transnational groups espousing eschatological narratives than they do their country of birth. Today, as the nation commemorates the lives of the 52 Londoners who died in the attack, we are still seeking understanding as a new generation of foreign fighters head abroad to Syria and beyond.

A new piece off the book ahead of what is likely to be a busy week in this regard, looking at the concept of the ‘Suburban Terrorist’ for the Sunday Telegraph. There are a few other pieces around the book that are going to be emerging this week as we hit the ten year anniversary of the sad events of July 7, 2005. Some news articles have already started to emerge, including this interview I did with Sky News about Mohammed Siddique Khan’s under-explored visit to Israel. In other subjects, I spoke to AFP about China-Central Asia and Voice of America about the AIIB.

The Rise of the Suburban Terrorist

Ten years on from the 7/7 bombings, Britain’s towns and cities are spawning a new wave of homegrown terrorists

“Jihadi John”, unmasked recently as Mohammed Emwazi

“Jihadi John”, unmasked recently as Mohammed Emwazi
By Raffaello Pantucci

But there is one often forgotten player who masterminded the attacks on the capital ten years ago this week. Rashid Rauf was the son of a Birmingham baker who progressed up the ranks of al Qaeda to become jihadi royalty. When the London bombings took place, he was in Pakistan, and it was from here that he co-ordinated the bombings and compiled a post-action report.

“A few months after the operation, I saw a dream, which Sidique and Shehzad are sitting and smiling, looking very happy,” he wrote at the time.

“Sidique” referred to 30-year-old Mohammed Sidique Khan, a married-father-of-one and teaching assistant from Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. “Shehzad” was 22-year-old sports science graduate Shehzad Tanweer, from nearby Beeston in Leeds. Between them, they had murdered 13 people after detonating suicide bombs on the Circle Line on a Thursday morning 10 years ago. The other explosives set off that day by their teenage accomplices, Germaine Lindsay and Hasib Hussain, ensured that 52 innocent lives were lost in total.

The attack was not just al Qaeda’s most successful ever on British soil, but also breathed vivid life into the concept of the homegrown terrorist, born and raised in town and city suburbs and beneficiaries of our schools and universities who suddenly turn murderously against the state. Rauf epitomises this story.

A young Brummie born to a Pakistani family that had migrated to the UK, Rauf grew up in a terraced house in east Birmingham. He helped out at his father’s bakery during breaks at the local Washwood Heath High School, which itself achieved some notoriety in 1996 when a teacher leapt up after a carol singing shouting “Who is your God? Why are you saying Jesus and Jesus Christ? God is not your God – it is Allah!”. From there, he got a place at Portsmouth University.

In 2002, Rauf fled the UK for Pakistan where he quickly rose up the ranks and became a conduit for al Qaeda attempting to draw in excitable young British men. By the time he was killed in a drone strike in 2008, he had moved into a senior role in al Qaeda and was married into a prominent jihadi family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Talha Asmal fled his home in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, in March

A decade on from 7/7, the rise of the suburban mujahedeen has become an all-too familiar tale. Last month, 17-year-old Talha Asmal – who, like Sidique Khan, also hailed from Dewsbury – became the youngest suicide bomber Britain has ever produced. The former student at Mirfield Free Grammar and Sixth Form blew himself up in a car bomb in Iraq alongside three other jihadis in a coordinated Isil attack. His devastated parents have said he was the victim of the terrorist group’s perverse ideology; they had no idea he was being exploited to make the transition from “ordinary Yorkshire lad” to suicide bomber.

A new wave of terrorism is building in the sands of Syria and Iraq that is already giving birth to the next generation of British terrorists. What ties them all together are their relatively ordinary backgrounds. They see little appeal in the middle-class lives they are headed for, and instead are being drawn to fight in god’s name in the great struggle of their age in the Levant.

There are numerous motivations as to why so many young British men and women are being lured to jihad 10 years after the terrorist atrocity of 7/7. Some are drawn by religious ideology; long term activists and people interested in Islamic ideas who seize upon the end of days narrative which is being peddled by Isil propagandists. Others are attracted to the sheer excitement of participating in a foreign conflict.

Then there is a redemptive value of the fight in Syria and Iraq, perceived by some troubled young Britons as a way of earning respect and shedding troubled pasts. When growing up in Britain, Rashid Rauf and a friend allegedly skirted on the fringes of the local gang community, ending up involved with the Aston Panthers. This is something one sees often among British jihadis, not least Thomas Evans, a 25-year-old from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, killed in Kenya last month while fighting for the terror group al-Shabaab. Evans floated around in local gangs, a petty criminal who re-invented himself as an international warrior for god.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thomas Evans, who died in Kenya

Richard Reid, who was jailed in 2001 after attempting to ignite a shoe bomb on American Airlines flight 63 from Paris to Miami, who grew up in the London suburb of Bromley and spent time in Feltham Young Offenders institution for petty crime. The 7/7 bomber Germaine Lindsay, who killed 26 on the Piccadilly Line, also came from a broken home and had dabbled in petty crime before focusing on religion.

Others, however, just want to escape their banal, middle-class lives – and it is this which is so difficult for the authorities and families to predict. Glasgow teenager Aqsa Mahmood, who fled to join Isil in 2013, was privately educated and grew up in a happy, close-knit home. Mohammed Sidique Khan wanted to travel and ended up working at a desk job with a degree from a local university. Shehzad Tanweer had a nice car and enjoyed playing cricket. Samantha Lewthwaite, Lindsay’s wife and the so-called “White Widow”, was born to a military family in Aylesbury, Bucks. The decision to go and fight is a reaction against your environment. In many ways, it’s a reflection of young people trying to explore their identities.

What has changed in recent years, as the recent recruitment of schoolboy Talha Asmal shows, is the power of online propaganda and connections to help recruit would be jihadists and persuade young Britons of their connection to the cause and others involved in it. On the internet you can have these multiple identities and completely fictitious online profiles which have no connection with real life. Shami Witness, who ran the most influential pro-Isil Twitter account before it was shut down last year, turned out to be an executive in Bangalore working for an Indian conglomerate. It is easy to reinvent yourself online.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase and Shamima Begum

The other interesting aspect that persists is the sense of shared camaraderie that can be a strong lure for young men and women. The 7/7 bombers supposedly laughed and hugged at Kings Cross before embarking on their final, separate journeys. A close bond of friendship is also what motivated the teenage Bethnal Green Academy pupils Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana to travel to Istanbul in February and on to Syria. In 2013, the Pompey Lads, the group of six jihadis from Portsmouth who travelled out to fight for Isil, discussed their upcoming trip as if preparing for any holiday away.

Ten years on from 7/7, we are continuing to see young men and women drawn by extremist narratives to fight in foreign fields. At some point, it is possible they will return to launch attacks in the UK. The next generation of British suburban mujahedeen have yet to completely mature into threats like Rashid Rauf and Mohammed Siddique Khan, but it is likely only a matter of time before they do.

• Raffaello Pantucci is Director, International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen (Hurst, £15.99). To order your copy for £13.99 plus p&p, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk

A new review essay for my home institution RUSI’s own RUSI Journal. It covers a series of books written by three different individuals who managed to penetrate different parts of al Qaeda on behalf of security forces, and lived to tell their tales. The books are written with journalists and are all a good read – for different reasons in each case. I particularly enjoyed the pacey nature of Morten Storm’s account which ducks and weaves around al Qaeda globally, as well as the detailed and deeply personal look at some of the history around Finsbury Park Mosque that I had covered in my book in Reda Hassaine’s (that one would have been useful while I was working on the book I  should add, in fact Morten Storm’s as well given the interesting revelations about some historical cases like Hassan Tabbakh), while Mubin Shaikh’s is a very personal and emotional read. The point of the review was both to try to explore the particular cases and stories, but also more generally the phenomenon of these men who are drawn to serve in this dangerous role. The article is behind a paywall, but can be accessed here, and I have pasted the first few paragraphs below. If you cannot access it, do get in touch and I can see what I might do to help. This aside, been doing bits of talking to the media, but been travelling a lot too. So far, can only find some comments I made to Voice of America on the recent Tunisia attacks and the New Scientist on online radicalisation.

Radicalism and Terrorism

Raffaello Pantucci reviews

Agent Storm: My Life Inside al-Qaeda
By Morten Storm with Tim Lister and Paul Cruickshank

and

Abu Hamza: Guilty; The Fight Against Radical Islam
By Réda Hassaïne and Kurt Barling

and

Undercover Jihadi: Inside the Toronto 18 – Al Qaeda Inspired, Homegrown Terrorism in the West
By Anne Speckhard and Mubin Shaikh

Paranoia, fantasy, omniscience and glory are a combustible mix of emotions. Stoked by handlers keen to advance their own goals, this list provides a snapshot insight into the mindset driving individuals who choose to become undercover agents. Drawn into action through disaffection, a sense of need to improve the world around them or through manipulation by others, they have repeatedly played key roles in the War on Terror. At the heart of almost every disrupted plot is an undercover agent. The three books under review tell a clutch of these tales, exposing the seamy side of the intelligence war against Al-Qa’ida.
The agents at the heart of these tales all became undercover agents through different routes and at different times, though the enemy remains, broadly speaking, the same throughout. Morten Storm (an agent for Danish, British and American intelligence) and Mubin Shaikh (an agent for Canadian authorities) were drawn towards Al-Qa’idist ideology in Europe and Canada respectively in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This marked the beginning of their struggle to counter Al-Qa’ida and its offshoots from within. For Morten Storm this was the beginning of a globetrotting life focused on Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Shabaab and their European contacts, while for Mubin Shaikh it was the entry point into an immersion into Canada’s radicalised community. In contrast, Réda Hassaïne (who worked for Algerian, French and British services) was coerced into the world of espionage and counter-terrorism by a manipulative and brutal Algerian state that saw the young journalist and sometime political activist as a useful tool to be used and disposed of at will. All three had begun with little intention of becoming agents, but after being drawn into radical milieus, found themselves being targeted by security agencies.