My latest for HSToday, which I have not contributed to for a while, though as well as this one I now have another one coming up in the latest magazine as well. This one explores the connection between the UK and Al Qaeda in Pakistan, the second attempt at the trial against the airline plotters, and also touches upon the new stories to have emerged about Britons going to fight abroad. Not something new, but given what has happened in the past, potentially dangerous.
UK Jihadists’ Have Ties to Al Qaeda in Pakistan, Afghanistan
by Raffaello Pantucci Friday, 06 March 2009
Authorities are concerned hardened fighters may return to plot attacks in Britain
The conclusion last year in the British trial of jihadists who allegedly were planning to bring down as many as 18 eighteen passenger jets in transit from London to North America with liquid explosives was a disappointment to the British security services.
It was this plot that resulted in the current ban on large amounts of liquids being allowed in carry-on luggage.In the first trial of the alleged terrorists said to have been tasked with carrying out the biggest Al Qaeda-planned attack since 9/11, the jury concluded that some terrorist conspiracy existed, but they were unclear about the contours of the plot or the degree of involvement of the men on trial.
Last month, the trial resumed with prosecutor Peter Wright opening his case by declaring that the leader of the plot “received his instructions from elsewhere.”
The prosecution’s case is focused around an alleged plot in which the accused men (Abdulla Ahmed Ali, aka Ahmed Ali Khan, 28; Assad Sarwar, 28; Tanvir Hussain, 27; Ibrahim Savant, 28; Arafat Waheed Khan, 27; Waheed Zaman, 24; Umar Islam, aka Brian Young, 30; and Donald Stewart-Whyte, 22) formed a terrorist cell that received its guidance and training from Al Qaeda in Pakistan. It’s aim was to bring down between eight and 18 planes using liquid-based explosives.
The men allegedly targeted a series of flights that would all be in the air at the same time and thus impossible to save or divert once the first explosive was detonated.
Former US National Security Council staff member Bruce Reidel pointed out in his 2008 book, “The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future,” that had the plot succeeded, the masterminds who were responsible – and other terrorists – could re-deploy the same horrific tactic with almost total impunity. The reason, Reidel said, was because this new form of explosive would have effectively been smuggled on board undetected as a bomb and detonated over the Atlantic, thereby making it nearly impossible to recover any forensic evidence.
Fortunately, the plotters were distinguished before they were able to transition into the operational phase of their plot, although the timing of their arrests has been the cause of contention between some counterterrorism experts in the US and UK.
Codenamed “Operation Overt” by British intelligence services, the plot allegedly was linked to British-Pakistani militant Rashid Rauf, who possibly was killed by a Predator strike last November. Rauf’s guilt, however, was never proven and his death has not been officially confirmed. Pakistani intelligence reported overhearing radio chatter after a successful Predator strike in Waziristan that targeted Al Qaeda planner, Egyptian Abu Zubair Al Masri, that indicated Rauf was amongst the dead.
Operation Overt was rather abruptly brought to a close in August 2006 when news reached Britain that Pakistani intelligence had arrested Rauf apparently under guidance from American intelligence services. The details remain unclear, but some, like American author and journalist Ron Suskind, speculated that the arrest was accelerated at the behest of the Bush administration who wanted to use the plot as evidence of the continued terrorist threat during the 2006 Congressional campaigns.
However, then Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said in an interview for British television that the arrest was pushed by the US because intelligence indicated Rauf was heading into an ungoverned part of Pakistan beyond the reach of the Intelligence Community.
What ever the truth is, the end result was frustrating to the UK. Peter Clarke, former head of the Counter Terrorism Command, said, “this was not good news. We were at a critical point in building our case against them.”
Many in the UK’s counterterrorism community attributed the subsequent insufficient data collection as the reason why the first trial reached an incomplete conclusion.
While rigid British sub judice legislation that inhibits publication of potentially prejudicial material before trial means it is impossible to go into detail about the evidence, the opening statement by the prosecution suggests that the prosecution is seeking a case which directly connects the plotters to foreign handlers.
The Operation Overt trial is seen as the last major Al Qaeda core-driven plot targeting the United Kingdom.
Previous plots included the July 7, 2005 attack, the copy-cat July 21, 2005 attack attempt and the earlier Operation Crevice plot from 2004 in which a group of British Muslims planned to detonate a massive fertilizer based bomb at an unspecified location.
While details about the current plot have not yet come to light, it would appear that the previous plots involved individuals who had travelled to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban and eventually were trained by Al Qaeda in Pakistan before being re-directed to target the United Kingdom.
Since then, the UK has continued to be targeted by more localized plotters, such as the attempted car bombings of central London and Glasgow international airport by a pair of British medical doctors in the summer of 2007, and a series of “lone wolf” attempts by individuals who used Al Qaeda’s jihadist call as a pretext to attempt attacks on fellow citizens.
Nevertheless, the channel through which jihadist fighters from the United Kingdom travel to fight in Afghanistan would appear to remain active. Stories have emerged in the British press about electronic communications eavesdropping on the battlefields of Afghanistan intercepting “radio chatter” involving jihadi fighters with “West Midlands and Yorkshire accents.”
This situation apparently has a parallel in Somalia where it’s suspected that some British-Somali’s have returned to join the Al Shabab militant organization, drawn by the pan-Islamist ideology they espouse. Indeed. A British man from west London blew himself up in Baidoa in October 2007, killing nearly two dozen. Similarly, Shirwa Ahmed from Minnesota met his fate as a suicide bomber in the jihad in Somalia.
The total number of individuals from the UK who are going to fight jihad on foreign battlefields is not known, but experts suspect it’s a relatively small figure. However, what’s most worrying for security planners is they do not know whether any of these young men are being re-directed to carry out attacks in the UK.