Archive for May, 2010

More for Free Rad!cals, this time returning to my previous theme of Lone Wolves in Italy. It covers a bit more ground around the theme, and the trials will be worth watching as they go forwards as they present a possible irritant that security services will be having to watch for a while. It has also given me some more thoughts for a longer piece I continue to trudge through on the theme.

Italian Lone Wolf Cells

Filed under: Europe, Radicalisation

My first substantive post to this blog was on the topic of terrorism in Italy and the attempt by Mohammed Game to blow himself up at a barracks in Milan. Fortunately, no-one was killed in Game’s attempt and he remains in custody along with two alleged accomplices – the three are going on trial (in two separate cases) May 12 and June 26.

While undoubtedly more information will come out during the trials, it would appear from what is already in the public domain as though Game and his contacts were a relatively free-standing “Lone Wolf” terror cell. A phenomenon which appears to be increasingly common in Italy, where details have just been revealed about the reasons behind the expulsion of a couple of Moroccan students from Perugia University towards the end of April. The two students, now apparently living freely in Rabat, were thrown out of Italy following an assessment that they were a threat to public safety.

It has now been revealed that Mohammed Hlal, 27, was overheard saying that he wanted to kill the Pope in order to guarantee himself a place in paradise, part of a regular digest of anger apparently directed at the Catholic Church. It is unclear what role his accomplice 22-year old Ahmed Errahmouni had in the plot, though a wide array of images of famous Italian locations were found in their possession, alongside numerous maps, and an instruction manual on how to build bombs. No actual weapons or explosives were located, though apparently confiscated computers had encryption programs installed.

Italian services had been alerted to the two in October of last year, following unspecified leads about concerns being expressed of radical views heard amongst some Moroccan students in Perugia. An investigation was launched, and in late April a series of arrests were made, allegedly because the group was becoming more isolated and radical and there were concerns that some action might be on the horizon. In the initial sweep another four Moroccans, a Tunisian and a Palestinian with an Israeli passport were also picked up: the group apparently used to attend the same mosque in Perugia.

Reporting to have emerged from the cell appears to point to the fact that it was a largely self-contained group who self-radicalized – much like the narrative being painted around Mohammed Game and his cell. This is a phenomenon which Italian investigators are seeing an increasing amount, including in the case further north of Abdelkader Ghafir, 44, and Rachid Ilhami, 31, two Moroccan laborers accused by security head Bruno Megale of being in a cell like Game’s atlthough in an earlier phase (two others stand charged of immigration offences alongside them). Those men’s trial is currently ongoing. And Game’s cell has been repeatedly referred to in the context of the Perugia cell that threatened the Pope.

In all cases, the groups appear to be self-contained and have (according to reporting) no connections to Al Qaeda core or a regional affiliate. The individuals involved appear to be mostly of North African extraction (like most Muslim migrants in Italy) and male, but aside from this they tend to defy uniform classification. Their radicalization appears for the most part to be self-generated, though they appear to also operate on the fringes of known networks. In the case with the Game group who were also linked to the radical Viale Jenner mosque in Milan, a former Imam of which was incarcerated last month, while Ghafir and Ilhami were also apparently helping run a local Islamic center. According to the press, the other students involved in the Perugia sweep are being looked into for connections.

In my earlier post on Game I described the group as a Lone Wolf Pack – something I have been exploring in greater detail in a longer paper that I am currently working on. The phenomenon is not in fact isolated to Italy, both the Fort Dix group in the United States from 2007 and Jihad Hamad and Youssef el Hajdib, who in July 2006 left a set of suitcase bombs on a Cologne train, have elements similar to the Italian groups. What is interesting, however, is the apparent high instance of these sorts of groups in Italy – I have yet to see any analysis as to exactly why this is (of course, it has to be said that all of these Italian groups are being tried or are on trial (or have not been tried and simply ejected from the country) – so they are in fact still innocent until proven guilty. Only Game would appear to be conclusively guilty of something).

What is not clear is to me yet is whether these sorts of groups coming together is something which needs to be analyzed within the context of Al Qaeda plots or if it should be analyzed within the context of trying to understand the impact of the internet as an accelerant of the ideology. Or maybe it is something which is a social phenomenon which needs to be understood using the sort of social network analysis that Marc Sageman deploys. Whichever is the case, it would not surprise me if this sort of phenomenon in one way or another becomes an increasingly important element of counter-terrorism in the West that will require deeper understanding and research.

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My latest for HSToday, looking at the British election fall-out from a counter-terrorism perspective (following my earlier post about the manifestos). This subject hopefully will get more interesting, rather than continue to fester as it is at the moment with no new ideas. Though I suppose I need to start to developing some good new ones too. Any thoughts or reactions appreciated as ever.

UK Challenge: Depoliticizing Security

by Raffaello Pantucci

Monday, 17 May 2010

New coalition government must work to forge consensus on terror.

While much of the UK has been focused on what the implications will be of the first coalition government since the Second World War, the question of what this means for counter-terrorism policy has largely slipped under the radar. Last time there was a political handover like this in Britain; terrorists attempted an attack, immediately setting the headlines for the new government.

Fortunately, so far, Britain has been spared a repeat of the attempted car bombings in London and Glasgow in late June 2007. However, the new coalition Conservative-Liberal government wasted no time in taking the pulse of the current threat level during the maiden meeting of the newly formed National Security Council. According to the official Downing Street report, during the session the Prime Minister “received briefings on the political and military situation in Afghanistan, including from his new National Security Adviser, Sir Peter Ricketts and from the Chief of the Defence Staff. The Prime Minister was then updated on the wider UK security situation.”

Unlike the United States, the UK has only now created a special cabinet group which will become the decision-making focus of British security strategy and interests. The appointment of a senior civil servant, Sir Peter Ricketts, to the post of National Security Adviser was seen as a slight surprise, given the belief that this remit might be handed to Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, who served as security adviser in the shadow Conservative cabinet. Ricketts, a long-time apolitical civil servant, has previously served as UK Ambassador to NATO, Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and most recently as Permanent Under Secretary at the Foreign Office. Dame Neville-Jones, another former Chairman of the JIC, instead assumed the role of Minister for Security.

The split appointment likely reflects the desire to impose some semblance of de-politicization to the area of security, which has otherwise largely been taken over by the Conservative side of the coalition. Cameron stalwarts William Hague at the Foreign Office and Liam Fox at Defence retain the roles they had shadowed. Other key security appointments include Theresa May to become Home Secretary; Conservative heavy-weight Ken Clarke to the role of Justice Minister and Eric Pickles to the role of running the Department for Communities and Local Government. A few Liberals received lower ranking appointments in relevant ministries, though no Liberals have been sent to the Home Office at all. Conservative Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the daughter of Pakistani migrants, was appointed to be Minister without Portfolio and Chairman of the Conservative Party, making her the first female Muslim to serve in Britain’s cabinet.

At the same time this almost complete Conservative domination of security policy (and counter-terrorism policy in particular) does not particularly cast a light on what changes might be on the way under the new administration. In an election that was largely dominated by domestic economic issues and the novelty of televised leadership debates, there was almost no mention of counter-terrorism policy. In their href=”http://icsr.info/blog/The-Big-Three-Counter-Terrorism-Strategies “>manifestoes none of the three main parties identified any great changes in strategy though the Conservatives did say that they would ban Hizb-ut-Tahrir – following through on a threat first made by Prime Minister Blair in the wake of the July 2005 London bombings.

This does not necessarily presage some sort of grand agreement. As James Brandon of the Quilliam Foundation counter-radicalization think tank put it, “Over the past few years it has been clear that there are significant policy differences between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats when it comes to the detail of counter-extremism strategy. Under a coalition government compromises will no doubt have to be made on both sides – although at the moment it is anyone’s guess as to what exactly these will be.”

Some of these guesses were answered in the grand agreement document that the coalition government published which highlighted a list of “civil liberties” which they felt had been suppressed under Labour. Key amongst these was the announcement of a “Freedom or Great Repeal Bill” which would scrap the ID cards scheme, re-establish the “protection of historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury,” ensure anti-terrorism legislation was not misused, and improve regulation of internet, email and CCTV storage. While both parties raised the question of what to do about controversial control orders in their manifesto’s, there is no mention of it here suggesting the possibility of future clashes over the topic. Overall there is an interesting confluence in opinion between the two parties appears to have been found around the issue of infringements in civil liberties that many perceive were allowed under the previous government in the pursuit of security in the UK.

Looking back further, the Conservative party had in the past proposed to  “conduct a review of the Government’s Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) Strategy, which is supposed to stop vulnerable people from becoming terrorists but which has been accused of spying on innocent Muslims.” The PVE strategy is intended to be the cornerstone of the long-term British answer to countering terrorism, but it has of late lagged.. It remains unclear how the new coalition government will take this forwards, though discussions with officials in the UK in the year before the election highlighted a general sense that a change of government was imminent and that some accounting of how counter-terrorism money was being spent was highly likely.

For the US the major concern is no doubt the perceived anti-Americanism of the Liberal Democrat party. This has in fact been overplayed, and in counter-terrorism terms, the biggest concern was likely to be the threatened Liberal Democrat “full judicial inquiry into allegations of British complicity in torture and state kidnapping.” The complete lack of any mention of it thus far is not necessarily indicative of the fact that it is going to go away, but it is clear that the Liberal Democrats are simply not going to have the upper hand when it comes to governing counter-terrorism policy and its pursuit.

Beyond counter-terrorism, Europe remains one of the major sticking points in the coalition, with a deeply Euro-skeptic wing of the Conservative party unlikely to sit well with the pro-European Liberal Democrat party. For an America that is eager to see Europe stand strong together, this may prove an irritant, but the strategic centrality of the Anglo-American “special relationship” (especially to the Conservative Party) means that there is unlikely to be any major shift in transatlantic relations between the US and UK.

Raff Pantucci is a UK corrspondent for HSToday.us and frequent contributor to Homeland Security Today magazine.

My latest for the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor, this time looking in some detail at the disrupted plot in the U.S. from late last year around the Afghan Najibullah Zazi. The particular focus here is on the ever-elusive Rashid Rauf who in recently published U.S. court documents was identified as a key Al Qaeda contact. While it seems as though he might now be dead, though no-one seems absolutely sure, he continues to pop up, a sort of ghost in the machine.

Rashid Rauf and the New York City Subway Bombing Plot

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 18

May 7, 2010 11:31 AM

By: Raffaello Pantucci

As security agencies pursue ethnic Pakistani suspects in the attempted Times Square bombing, another New York City bomb plot with connections to Pakistan and the U.K. is working its way through U.S. courts. The case involves an aborted attempt by natives of Pakistan and Afghanistan to mount suicide attacks on the New York subway system in September 2009 to mark the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

In November 2009, British newspapers broke the story that counterterrorism officers had been responsible for the intelligence that had alerted the FBI to the cell around Afghan immigrant Najibullah Zazi, the plot’s main conspirator. New Scotland Yard officers watching an email account connected to an investigation codenamed “Operation Pathway” noticed some new traffic in September that apparently provided instructions for a New York bomb plot and passed the lead onto their American counterparts (Telegraph, November 9, 2009). The tip provided American agents with a crucial break in the Zazi plot, and led to a series of arrests, followed by admissions of guilt from both Zazi and co-conspirator Zarein Ahmedzay related to an attempt to carry out a bombing campaign in New York City (alongside a third suspect, Adis Medunjanin) on September 14, 15 or 16, 2009. [1]

That the link came from the United Kingdom has in retrospect proved to be somewhat appropriate, given the centrality in the plot of Rashid Rauf, the mysterious British-born ethnic-Pakistani who has been repeatedly referred to as a key operative in a series of plots targeting the West. According to prosecutors, the suspects met with Rashid Rauf and al-Qaeda operative Saleh al-Somali in Pakistan in August, 2008. The suspects allegedly told Rauf and al-Somali that they wished to fight in Afghanistan, but as holders of U.S. resident’s documents, the al-Qaeda operatives suggested it would be more valuable if they were to return to America to carry out mass casualty attacks in New York City (Daily Times [Lahore], April 24; Indo-Asian News Service, April 24). Saleh al-Somali is believed to have been killed in a December, 2009 missile attack by a CIA-operated drone   (Dawn [Karachi], December 13, 2009). Rashid Rauf was similarly said to have been killed in a November, 2008 drone attack, but his death has never been confirmed and remains a subject of dispute (Guardian, November 25, 2008, September 8, 2009; Asia Times Online, August 11, 2009; Telegraph, September 10, 2009).

Rauf first came to notice in the wake of the August 2006 Transatlantic Airline plot in which a group of British nationals plotted to bring down eight or more airliners on transatlantic routes. After the plot was disrupted by British security services, Rauf was identified as one of the main planners. [2] Since then, Rauf has been connected to the July 7 and 21, 2005 plots against London’s public transport system. More recently, he was the alleged contact for a 2008 plot in which British security services believe a group of individuals were sent from Pakistan to carry out a terrorist plot in the U.K. (Telegraph, September 8, 2009). [3]

In September 2008, Pakistani forces intercepted Bryant Neal Vinas, an American-Hispanic convert to Islam who had trained at al-Qaeda camps and fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. Vinas revealed he had been in contact with Rauf and may have ultimately been the source for information which led to his possible death by a Predator strike. It would also appear as though information from Vinas may have set events in motion that led to the discovery of the New York City subway plot. In December 2008, Belgian police arrested a group of individuals around Malika al-Aroud, the former wife of one of the men who killed Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud in 2001 (Radio Télévision Belge Francophone, December 11, 2008). Vinas admitted having met some of these individuals at al-Qaeda training camps. An informer amongst this group warned investigators that Rauf had dispatched a number of cells throughout the West. This led in the first instance to Operation Pathway, and later to the New York City plot (Sunday Times, April 12, 2009).

According to information released after Ahmedzay’s admission of guilt, Ahmedzay, Zazi, Medunjanin and a fourth conspirator (arrested in Pakistan in April, but as of yet unnamed) went to Pakistan in August 2008 (AFP, April 12). After being advised to carry out attacks in New York, the men underwent further training in Waziristan and discussed possible targets with al-Qaeda leaders. By July, 2009 they had returned to the United States and procured the necessary elements from beauty supply stores to build hydrogen peroxide-based bombs, similar to those used in the July 7, 2005 London bombings. By early September of the same year they were ready to carry out suicide operations. However, upon arriving in New York for the final stages, Zazi was alerted by a New York-based Afghan immigrant imam (Ahamad Wais Afzali) that he was under police surveillance (AFP, April 15). Realizing the FBI was alert to his activities Zazi quickly left the city to return to Denver. Soon afterwards, the FBI swooped in and the cell was rapidly rolled up. The revelations linked to Ahmedzay’s confession show how close they had come to carrying out a major terrorist attack. [4]

Notes:

1. Department of Justice Press Release, April 23, 2010, www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2010/April/10-ag-473.html

2. For the ringleaders, seecms.met.police.uk/news/convictions/three_men_found_guilty_of_airline_bomb_plot; and for the support group: cms.met.police.uk/met/news/convictions/airline_bomb_plotter_jailed_for_life

3. See also Lord Carlile’s report: security.homeoffice.gov.uk/news-publications/publication-search/legislation/terrorism-act-2000/operation-pathway-report

4. Department of Justice Press Release, April 23, 2010, www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2010/April/10-ag-473.html.