A new piece for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, looking at the phenomenon of converts going to fight jihad in AfPak. I have looked at this a couple of times before, and keep considering a longer piece on it but haven’t quite figured it out yet. I know others are also looking at this, and I would welcome any ideas or thoughts on the subject.
BY RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI, MAY 13, 2011| Friday, May 13, 2011 – 2:59PM
Up in the north of England, a trial is being heard against a group of men allegedly at the core of a cell recruiting and radicalizing individuals to fight in Afghanistan. The group, part of an ongoing trickle of people from the U.K. attracted to fighting in South Asia, is notable because it counts amongst its ranks a white convert, the latest in a long line of such individuals who have been drawn to militancy in South Asia. These reports of white converts in the region are naturally of particular concern to Western security services: their capacity to blend effortlessly back into the West makes them highly attractive weapons for groups seeking to launch terrorist attacks.
Back in mid-2009, an older moderate Muslim convert in London told me that his theory behind converts in terrorist cells was that they played a key role as catalysts. The presence of a convert, usually a zealous individual who had moved from a troubled past as drug addict or petty criminal to Islamist extremist, would reinforce the group’s internal dialogue and help push them deeper into their militant ideologies.
The group who bombed London’s public transport system on July 7, 2005 is the archetypal example of this. Convert Germaine Lindsay, originally of Jamaican descent, was the most overtly violent and radical of the group and may have played a role stirring the others on. According to information released during the recent Coroner’s Inquest into the bombings, he was likely involved in a gun crime incident prior to the bombing, he was reported to have been active in promoting radical groups in Luton. Additionally, he was a close student of the radical preacher Abdullah el Faisal. His presence amongst the otherwise Pakistani-Beeston group would have been as an outsider, but one who was brought into the closest of confidence, suggesting an outsized influence.
In a separate case in East London, Mohammed Hamid, also known as “Osama bin London,” was a “revert” who found his religion after a life of drugs and became a key figure in a radicalizing network training, amongst others, the July 21 team who tried to bomb London two weeks after the successful July 7 cell. And there are other examples. Looking at other failed plots linked to Waziristan, the 2006 plot to bomb airlines concurrently on transatlantic routes counted a couple of converts amongst plotters, and the 2007 plot to attack a U.S. airbase in Germany was conducted by a group of mostly Caucasian German converts.
On the battlefields of Afghanistan and Pakistan, however, these light-skinned converts face a high degree of skepticism: for example, Rahman Adam, aka Anthony Garcia, one of the plotters involved in the 2004 plot to blow up a British mall using a fertilizer based explosive, was initially turned away from training camps for being “too white.” Adam was in fact of Algerian origin and a born Muslim; he was just very pale skinned.
Prior to al-Qaeda’s attacks of September 11, 2001, the route for converts to training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan was much easier to tread. James McLintock, nicknamed the “Tartan Taliban,” first joined the jihad against the Soviet Union in the late 1980s after, by his account, he met a group of young Saudi hotheads on a flight to Pakistan as he made his way to visit a University friend. Enjoying this first taste of jihad, McLintock became a feature of the European jihadi scene, joining the fighting again in Bosnia and returning regularly to Afghanistan. Back in the U.K. alongside fellow convert and jihadi traveler Martin “Abdullah” McDaid, McLintock began running study circles at the Iqra bookshop in Beeston, northern England and training camps in the nearby Lake District that were attended by some of the July 7, 2005 cell.
And in the years immediately before September 11, there was a stream of converts who showed up and were accorded quite high levels of trust by al-Qaeda. In 1997, having converted a few years earlier in Orange County, California, Adam Gadahn made his way to Pakistan and then to Afghanistan. Using contacts he had made in the U.S., he arrived and seems to have been able to fill a vital early role as translator of Arabic material into English. By 1999 converts seemed to be arriving into South Asia from all directions. Sometime in the middle of the year Christian Ganczarski, a German-Polish convert who used the same network to get to Afghanistan as theHamburg Cell that produced Mohammed Atta, a leader of the 9/11 group, arrived in Quetta, Pakistan and after a trip back to Germany to fetch his family, moved into Osama bin Laden’s compound in Afghanistan, where he acted as the I.T. guy. At around the same time, itinerant Australian jihadist David Hicks showed up and trained with Lashkar-e-Taiba near Lahore — he tried to go and fight in Kashmir, but ended up going to train at the Al Farouq camp near Kandahar the next year, where he met a bunch of fellow peripatetic westerners including British convert Richard “shoe bomber” Reid. Early 2000, Jack Roche, a burly Australian-Brit who had converted and joined the Indonesian al-Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah, showed up on the recommendation of Hambali, the operations chief for the Indonesian group, to train and learn explosives and got to sit down and eat with Osama bin Laden.
Post-9/11 converts have continued to play a role in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but few appear to have continued to rise into senior roles as they had before. According to British security sources, one of the most senior was British-born Hindu convert Dhiren Barot, who was incarcerated in November 2006 in the U.K. after a long career as a jihadist foot soldier. Starting with fighting with Lashkar-e-Taiba in Kashmir in 1995, an experience he wrote about in his 1999 magnum opus “The Army of Madinah in Kashmir,” Barot went on to help 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed with his global jihadist planning.
Since 9/11 instead white converts in Afghanistan and Pakistan have mostly been foot soldiers, with the militant groups there more skeptical of converts as potential Western intelligence agents. The Caucasian-seeming Rahman Adam was unable to go and train until he had connected with established jihadist Omar Khyam. An exception to this seems to have been Bryant Neal Vinas, a Queens, New York-born kid who converted to Islam, who made his way to training camps in Pakistan in September 2007 seemingly using networks from the U.S. to establish contact with radicals. It took him a bit longer to establish his bona fides, but eventually he got to meet with an array of high- and mid-ranking al-Qaeda fighters who immediately saw his potential as an operative who could easily blend back into the West.
The Waziristan-based Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) seems to have recognized this potential in a group of German converts who showed up to fight alongside them in the mid-2000s. Having trained a group of them, they sent a cell led by converts Fritz Gelowicz and Daniel Schneider to target the U.S. base in Ramstein, Germany. Other converts linked to the group instead fell in battle, includingEric Breininger who in April 2010 died in Pakistan, while the group was initially motivated by the death in Chechnya of fellow convert Thomas Fischer in late 2003. Another just disrupted allegedGerman network included another convert and helping funnel fighters to South Asia.
And the trickle goes on. In July 2010, Khalid Kelly, infamous Irish convert and former member of British extremist group Al Muhajiroun, returned home to Ireland having claimed he tried to join jihadists in Pakistan (although he was interviewed in the Times in November 2009 saying he was training to go to and fight in Afghanistan). In Kelly’s own words, however, “as a white convert, I stuck out like a sore thumb,” so he returned to Ireland instead. Others met with messier ends: according to Pakistani intelligence reports two white British converts were killed in a drone strike inDatta Khel in December 2010.
The pre-9/11 days of converts showing up and getting to meet al-Qaeda leaders are over, but these light-skinned jihadis remain a key potential threat that militant groups will attempt to actively recruit. They both help show off the group’s ongoing international appeal while also acting as excellent weapons to strike deep in the West. And until the overall threat has been eliminated, they will continue to be a feature of it.
Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR).