Archive for March, 2010

My latest for FreeRad!cals, looking at a largely unexplored case up north against a group calling themselves the Blackburn Resistance. Most of the chaps have already been released, and there is a bigger unexplored story here in how they were all picked up in the first place. Am working on something larger about this. Any pointers or thoughts welcome as ever!

The Blackburn Resistance

Filed under: Radicalisation, Terrorism, UK

Up North at Manchester Crown Court, brothers Abbas and Ilyas Iqbal have been found guilty this weekof charges relating to their the dissemination of material useful to terrorists and preparation of acts of terrorism. A third man, a white Muslim convert, was cleared of charges against him.

The men became dubbed the “Blackburn Resistance” after a video was uncovered on a mobile SIM card in Abbas Iqbal’s luggage as he tried to board a plane at Manchester airport. The clip showed the men running around a park in Blackburn in camouflage and seemingly imitating command training with As Sahab-type music in the background. At the beginning of the video the words the “Blackburn Resistance” featured prominently, and a voice intoned “They are fighting against oppression, they are The Blackburn Resistance.”

Alongside this footage and a wide array of other photos of the men brandishing or trying weapons out, a variety of knives, BB guns, an air rifle and pistol, crossbows and live ammunition were found with the men. Two documents entitled “attack planning” and “urban combat” were also found bearing the brothers fingerprints.

But while some of the pictures of the group are quite dramatic looking, the reality is that it is very hard to imagine this group as a cell of hardened terrorists. Cognizant of this, the prosecution was very careful to not paint the men in too heavy a light, recognizing that “some aspects of the material may at first blush seem almost comical in [their] amateurishness.” Nonetheless, they saw the group as “intoxicated by the evil of terrorism,” and actively preparing to disseminate recruiting material abroad.

The men ultimately received relatively light sentences, Abbas Iqbal, 24, was sentenced to two years in prison for the dissemination of terrorist publications, while his younger brother Ilyas, 23, was incarcerated for 18 months for possessing a document likely to be useful to a terrorist. Given he has spent almost that amount of time already on remand, Ilyas was released, while his older brother will still serve another three to four months. Their co-defendant was cleared on all charges having spent 387 days in custody. A fourth man picked up with them at the airport is still on trial in a separate case.

But it is hard to judge exactly how much of a victory this really is for counter-terrorists. This is not a cell of global travelers with contacts to Al Qaeda core, but rather a group of young men who through the internet and home computers were able to create an imitation set of videos and pictures of themselves dressing up as terrorists. That they may have later gone on to do something is of course perfectly possible, but as the prosecutor pointed out: “at the stage when they were stopped by police, they had not got very far.”

It is easy to see how this could play badly in the court of public opinion, where what even the prosecution described as “larking around in a park in Blackburn,” was painted as potential terrorist training. The fact they seem not to have been receiving much coverage in the press is a good thing, and probably the product of the fact that very few editors would have taken the group very seriously.

A final point I would add about these chaps, however, is how lucky they are to have been caught doing these acts in the UK – had they been nabbed for similar things in the U.S., they would probably be looking at very long stints inside.

New piece for Jamestown covering the proscription of the Shabaab in the UK and Canada. I am working on a much larger piece about this topic, but it is likely to be a while before that lands. Any tips in the meantime of course appreciated.

Al-Shabaab Proscribed in Canada and the United Kingdom

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 11

By: Raffaello Pantucci

In the first week of March, the British and Canadian governments both added the Somali al-Shabaab group to their respective list of proscribed terror groups. [1] The decisions mean that it will now be illegal to fundraise or support al-Shabaab in both nations, while Canadian Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews specified, “The Government is taking this step to help protect Canadian families from the activities of this organization. The Government received reports from the Somali community that al-Shabaab has attempted to radicalize and recruit young Canadians. The listing of al-Shabaab will help the Government of Canada to better support the Somali community of Canada.” [2]

The respective decisions follow previous proscriptions in Australia, Norway, Sweden and the United States. They reflect a growing trepidation amongst Western governments regarding the growing threat from the Somali group – in particular their ability to attract young men with local passports to their cause and the movement’s growing regional assertiveness. Furthermore, reports indicate that the group appears to be increasingly attracting fighters from the Somali diaspora and other sources in the West (Independent on Sunday, September 13, 2009; see Terrorism Monitor, January 14).

For Canada and the United Kingdom in particular, the decision to proscribe follows a series of stories indicating that steady streams of young men are going abroad to fight in East Africa. In autumn 2009, a group of six young Somalis disappeared from their local community in Toronto, with reports suggesting they had ended up fighting in Somalia (National Post, December 12, 2009). A report from earlier in the year in the U.K. indicated that most recently “almost a dozen” British Muslims had left the U.K. to join the Shabaab in Somalia, including some students from the prestigious London School of Economics and King’s College London (Sunday Times, January 24).

Furthermore, plots have emerged from the Somali diaspora community in both nations; at least two of the attempted bombers and a substantial number of the support network involved in the July 21, 2005 plot to attack London’s public transport system were of Somali extraction. In Canada, two Somalis were among the 18 suspects arrested for planning a series of bombings and assassinations in Toronto and Ottawa (National Post [Toronto], June 5, 2006; September 21, 2009; see also Terrorism Focus, June 6, 2006). [3] However, in neither case was the al-Shabaab group implicated in any way, nor was Somalia a feature on the broad canvas offered by each plot. Rather, individuals from the diaspora were drawn into plots fostered by local networks to prepare for large-scale domestic attacks.

More recently, however, there has been a greater law-enforcement focus on Shabaab. Aside from the Toronto cells, the RCMP and FBI ramped up their efforts after an informant told overseas U.S. embassy staff that a group of Somalis had crossed the border from Canada with the intention of launching an attack on President Obama’s inauguration ceremony. The information proved to be a hoax, but it highlighted the reality of security concerns (CanWest News Service, February 4). [4] In the U.K., on the other hand, the government attempted to shut down what it believed was an al-Shabaab fundraising and support network last year, though the case against the two Somali-Britons did not stand up in court (Press Association, July 28, 2009).

Beyond this, there is a clear sense of growing trepidation surrounding Somalia’s al-Shabaab; its decision to formalize the connection to the Ras Kamboni group, the declaration of allegiance to al-Qaeda and its connection to al-Qaeda operative Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan (killed by a U.S. Special Forces raid in September 2009 while helping train Shabaab fighters), all point to a strengthening network (for Ras Kamboni, see Shabelle Media Network, February 1; Garowe Online, February 2; Terrorism Monitor, February 10). Its influence can increasingly be seen abroad; examples include an alleged plot to target Secretary of State Hilary Clinton when she was visiting neighboring Kenya in August 2009, the recruitment of Somali youths in Minneapolis, the attempted assassination of Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard and an alleged plot to attack a military base in Melbourne (see Terrorism Monitor, January 14; Terrorism Monitor, September 10, 2009).

Reaction from Somalia to the terrorist designations was swift; al-Shabaab spokesman Ahmad Dayib Mursal held a press conference in Mogadishu to announce the group was “saddened” by the British decision (Holy Koran Radio [Mogadishu], March 2). Senior al-Shabaab spokesman Shaykh Ali Mahmud Raage (a.k.a. Shaykh Ali Dheere) condemned the Canadian and British designations, claiming some Western nations were trying to find ways of looting the properties of Somali Muslims living in their countries (Radio Simba [Mogadishu], March 8). More favorable reaction came from the deputy prime minister of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, Professor Abdirahman Haji Adan Ibi, who welcomed the British decision (Shabelle Media Network, March 4).

As of yet, no major plots appear to have been hatched in the West drawing specifically on this network and direction from Somalia. However, given previous experiences of threats emerging from radicals with Western passports associated with groups fighting abroad, as well as the rather abrupt shift from the near enemy to the far enemy by the previously regionally-focused al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Shabaab is clearly a threat that needs to be watched with some care. The respective proscriptions give British and Canadian authorities further legislative tools to deal with this threat.


1. For the complete British order effective from March 4, 2010, please; and the Canadian announcement, effective March

2. “The Government of Canada lists Al-Shabaab as a terrorist organization,” Ministry of Public Safety Press Release, March 7, 2010,

3. Of the “Toronto 18,” seven suspects have pled guilty or been convicted, seven have had their charges stayed and three remain to be tried.

4. The alleged plot was first described in Martha Joynt Kumar, “The 2008-2009 presidential transitions through the voices of its participants,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 39(4), December 1, 2009

My latest over at Free Rad!cals, already attracted some remarkably insightful comments. I mean where do they come from? Of course, any thoughts or reactions hugely appreciated,  in particular from those at DSTL who produced this.

What do we think of CT legislation?

Filed under: Terrorism, UK

The UK is often seen at both the forefront of the violent Islamist threat and also the legislation that is being crafted in the West to counter it. Consequently, it was very interesting to see the Home Office publish a paper by DSTL (which I always thought was a more tech-based lab) that provides an overview and analysis of the current research that has been undertaken in the UK looking at counter-terrorism legislation and its impact on public opinion and opinion forming.

The conclusions are pretty bleak for those actually seeking to obtain useful information from the sea of research that has been produced on the topic (as someone in HMG put it to me late last year, much of what has been pumped out under the aegis of research on countering terrorism is “dross.”), but I suppose are quite positive for those who are in fact planning to produce more of this research: the report concludes highlighting “the need for further research”.

This would I suppose discount reams of speculative articles essentially re-treading what are believed to be public perceptions based on reading the press or Comment is Free (one can only hope that previous pieces I have done do not fall into this category, apologies if they do).

Here are a few quick points I took away from the DSTL paper:

Perceptions are at the heart of what this paper is trying to probe and government is clearly trying to understand: the very title “What perceptions do the UK public have concerning the impact of counter-terrorism legislation implemented since 2000?” shows this, but at the same time, the report highlights how this is something that has not been analyzed or measured effectively at all. In part this is a problem since more generally the report concludes this is a topic that is hard to measure.

But with regards terrorism legislation, it is an even harder thing to measure practically when we consider the low number of actual terrorist attacks (though this is a good problem to have), and thus measuring reactions to legislation which can appear to be targeting individuals who, in practical point of fact, have failed yet to carry out their murderous plans.

A big tangible take-away is that people don’t like stop and search and think that it is targeting groups unfairly, etc. In fact, according to the paper stop and search is the only demonstrable policy which can conclusively said to be unpopular in implementation (conclusions about reactions to other policies are mostly anecdotal). Hardly a surprising conclusion to reach, and one that increasingly makes me feel as though I need to see some conclusive evidence that it actually helps or does anything if we are to continue it – under certain circumstances maybe it is necessary, but blanket stop and search for terrorism issues cannot have stopped or disrupted many terrorist plots.

In a way connected to this, it seems as though the public has absolutely no faith in the government on terrorist matters, though this likely is exacerbated by my earlier point about perceptions. While apparently if something has a judicial stamp on it, it is seen in a more positive light, I have a feeling people are in fact equally skeptical about that if pushed.

I recall giving a presentation in which I highlighted that in fact police had to present a suspect before a judge every 7 days while he was being held in a pre-charge state on terrorism charges to present their case for keeping him longer, I was met with a wave of skeptical hems and haws about the fairness of this.

Two statistical details highlighted which I rather enjoyed: it turns out we really don’t like the government getting their hands on our DNA unless we have done something very naughty. An understandably high degree of paranoia I would have thought, but good to see in numbers. Secondly, and less amusing, apparently 45% of people think that denying people a trial for terrorism charges is a “price worth paying.” Admittedly the date the poll was taken is relatively soon after 7/7, but it seems to me that this is a fundamental thing that we need to hold on to if we are planning on marking long-term success in this conflict.

We will only do this if we fight it on terms that we have laid out before we step on to the battlefield, not making it up as we go along. We may have to build some flexibility into this in the long-term, but nonetheless there are certain key elements we have to establish agreement on before we proceed too far.

Another journal article, this time based on an old presentation I had the pleasure of doing up at Leeds University as part of a series organized by John Schwartzmantel and Hendrik Kraetzschmar. The paper is a bit dated now to those who follow these topics closely, but I hope it lays out some thinking that is useful.

It is featured in the latest edition of Democratization, and is unfortunately behind a firewall again (so cannot simply be posted here), but if you drop me a note I can probably help. Here, in the meantime, is the abstract to whet your appetite:

Britain’s ‘Contest’ counter-terrorism strategy with its ‘4 Ps’ codification is often held up as a paradigm of an effective liberal democratic counter-terror strategy. However, while the strategy has had some success and been widely emulated internationally, questions remain about the ‘generational’ aspect frequently referred to by government and what kind of an impact such a wide-ranging approach might be having in the long-term upon the United Kingdom. This article seeks to explore the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the British counter-terrorism strategy while probing some of the areas which may offer themselves as problematic in the longer term. In particular the author explores the ‘Prevent’ part of the strategy which seeks to prevent radicalization leading to terrorism from ever taking place, asking questions about how defined the strategy appears to be and how much the UK might in fact be setting itself up to counter a war without end.

The whole paper can be found here:

I have a book review in the latest issue of the Terrorism and Political Violence journal covering Stephen Grey’s fascinating and detailed book Ghost Plane. It is behind a firewall so I cannot simply post it, but as usual if you get in touch I can help out getting a copy probably..

The book is worth a read, and has stood the test of time thus far. It will be interesting to see if someone does an update of this story confirming whether it has been discontinued or is still going on. Any pointers for stories out there greatly appreciated!

The review can be found here: