Archive for October, 2010

Another post for Free Rad!cals this time looking at the rather depressing case of Farooque Ahmed in Washington, DC. Be interesting to see how this case develops and if he turns out to be serious or not. If anyone comes across anything interesting related to this, please forward it on.

Filed under: Radicalisation, Terrorism

While European security services continue to monitor the networks connected to the recent up-tick in threat warnings from across the spectrum of terrorist groups. Federal agents in the Washington, DC area arrested 34 year-old Pakistani-American Farooque Ahmed on charges of conspiring to carry out multiple terrorist attacks on the Washington Metrorail stations. According to court documents, Ahmed was the target of a six-month sting operation and believed that he was working with individuals connected to al-Qaeda.

According to an affidavit submitted to the courts, Ahmed first came to the FBI’s attention in January 2010 when he was “inquiring about making contact with a terrorist organization in order to participate in jihad by travelling overseas with an unnamed associate” It then took agents until April 2010 to establish some sort of cover story by which to lure Ahmed into meeting someone whom he believed was “a representative of a terrorist organization.” This was the first of a number of meetings in which Ahmed met with individuals whom he believed were members of Al Qaeda and with whom he apparently believed he was conspiring to conduct a multiple bombing on the Washington, DC subway system.

In the process of the investigation, Ahmed is reported to have declared a desire to strike a subway station frequented by U.S. military personnel, to have suggested that they use trolley bags as more effective purveyors of explosive than rucksacks, and to have expressed a desire to go and fight in Afghanistan in January 2011 after going on Hajj to Saudi Arabia. When he was finally arrested on October 25, Ahmed was accused of “attempting to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization; collecting information to assist in planning a terrorist attack on a transit facility; and attempting to provide material support to terrorists.”

While the court documents make for pretty damning reading, it is worth remembering that they remain unproven in a court of law. It also seems as though Ahmed was the only actual plotter in a network of up to four or so people – the others were either not as involved as him or were undercover agents. Which does raise some questions about how much Ahmed was seeking to be a terrorist or how much he was spurred on and entrapped by the team of undercover agents who had deployed against him.

On the one hand, it is hard to know whether this is relevant or not – Ahmed seems to have been caught bang to rights and was apparently seeking to go and fight abroad even before the FBI became involved. But at the same time, would he necessarily have attempted to carry out a terrorist attack if he had not encountered the undercover agents masquerading as Al Qaeda operatives?

This is not the first time that the FBI has seemingly caught such hapless plotters. In other instances, the plotters proceeded much further than Ahmed apparently did – but the fact they are caught in these ways diminishes the sense of threat from them. From an observer’s perspective it seems hard to understand how individuals would be so gullible as to believe that some random person they have encountered is genuinely a terrorist plotter and that they are willing to trust them so completely. One can only assume that the federal agents are very good at their jobs.

It remains to be seen whether Ahmed is guilty or not. In court, he was reported as sporting “a full beard” and “shook his head and let out a deep sigh in apparent disbelief as the charges against him were read. ‘Yes, yes,’ Ahmed said, as the judge told him the charges were serious.” For British observers there is a connection in press reports that indicate that his wife was from Birmingham and a neighbour who recalled that Ahmed might have been brought up in London before he moved to the US at 17 years old.

The first in a new series for the Lowy’s Interpreter, drawing on my recent trip out West. Look forward to hearing feedback on these, and please be sure to check out my wonderful photographer’s site while you are at it.

Notes on the Silk Road: Urumqi

By Guest Blogger – 28 October 2010 2:56PM

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Photos by Sue Anne Tay, a freelance photographer in Shanghai; see more of her work at Shanghai Street Stories.

Made infamous by riots in July 2009, when Han Chinese and Uighur mobs started fighting and killing each other in the streets, Urumqi is in fact hard to distinguish from many other second- or third-tier Chinese cities, and is mostly a massive urban concrete sprawl. The only things that really highlight that you are somewhere different is the Uighur areas of the city, which are teeming with non-Han people and Arab-inspired architecture. Also, most signs are in Mandarin and Uighur (which is an Arabic-looking script), with the occasional Russian and almost no English.

During our trip west to explore China’s fabled Xinjiang (‘New Frontier’) province, we visited the city twice, with the first stop coinciding with National Day festivities. There was a noticeable police presence, with heavily armed young officers marching around sites (though not all policemen seemed this menacing; there were an equal number who seemed like locals in ill-fitting uniforms). Most buildings open to the public had a guard at the door checking bags.

On our second visit we went through the bazaar while a group of young men in military uniform with batons and shields marched through, setting themselves up in small formations among the mass of people buying and selling stuff while megaphones scream at the crowd in Uighur with offers on shoes or crockery.

The city seems to have cut itself in half. The Uighur and other minorities stick to their areas, while the Han live in parts which are not unlike many other Chinese cities. The Han Chinese we spoke to said they mostly avoided Uighur areas after the riots, and spoke with a sort of casual racism ingrained through years of misunderstanding (we did not get an opportunity to talk to many Uighurs in the city).

But it was also intriguing to see a degree of integration. At the night market, while eating plates heaped with grilled meats and fish, we watched as a group of early/mid 20s Han and Uighur laughed and chatted much as any other group would. On National Day itself, we went to the Hongshan Park in the middle of the city, which was teeming with families of all ethnicities enjoying the fairground rides, cotton candy and more grilled meat.

A new post over at Free Rad!cals as I finally catch up on some of my writing after weeks on the road. I have a few pieces in the pipeline, a couple dealing with themes similar to this one. In the meantime, David has been so kind as to give me a shout-out on his latest piece looking at NATO and Article 5 for World Politics Review – even though I frankly have much more to learn from him on this topic. Thanks also to Satay for her great pics for this post.

Dispatch: A Journey to China’s West

Filed under: Central Asia, ICSR

I recently returned from a trip out to China’s Western province (hence the prolonged silence), Xinjiang. Bordering Central Asia, the name literally translates as New Frontier and it accounts for a sixth of China’s landmass while less than two percent of the total population. It is covered with vast tracts of empty land, much of which produces energy helping fuel China’s exponential growth: open coal mines dot the countryside and the roads are littered with pieces of coal that have fallen off trucks, giant fields of windmills stretch as far as the eye can see, and for an hour and a half we crossed a flat piece of country covered with methodically bobbing oil derricks.

But of greatest interest to readers of this blog is that the region is also the source of many of China’s terrorism concerns. The province is home to the majority of China’s Uighur population – an officially recognised minority who share more with the Turkic people’s of Central Asia than with their Han Chinese brethren who make up the majority of what people traditionally think of as Chinese people. In the past the community has even managed to rule itself (though usually with outside support), with parts claiming themselves the Republic of East Turkestan in 1933-1934 and again in 1944-1949. Since 1949, the province has firmly been ruled by Beijing, and these days dreams of independence live on in the minds of some Uighurs and in the actions of a select few who comprise one of China’s main domestic terrorism concerns.

Ethnic tensions in the province remain and last July the capital erupted into international attention when ethnic Han and Uighurs clashed on the streets of Urumqi the capital resulting in some 200 deaths. When we visited, the most visible sign of tension was the heavy police presence, and in the main Uighur part of the city groups of People’s Armed Police paraded menacingly. Locals we spoke to in Urumqi talked of the separate lives the different communities led and spoke with suspicion of the “others”. In Kashgar, the main southern city which is currently undergoing an overhaul to become a “special economic zone,” Uighur and Han Chinese locals told us of local anger at the growing outsiders presence in the province and ominously that “Han are all the same.” All around the vast empty countryside are large signs displaying propaganda messages – one particularly memorable one near Kashgar announced something along the lines of “People from outside the province are a boon to the state.”

Avoiding Shirk: Face Removed from Advertising

Travelling along the Karakoram highway to the Pakistani border the most interesting thing to see is the wide array of different communities that live out West. We passed Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Uighur villages, all clearly displaying very different traditions and of clearly different ethnicities: at the Tajik city of Tashkorgan just before the border it felt as though we were in Eastern Europe. At other points up north we met communities of Russian origin who had migrated to China decades before and were now Chinese. Everywhere there were small road blocks checking to see who was travelling around.

Uighur Mosque

During a later discussion in Shanghai, an academic working on counter-terrorism issues told me that the root of the problems was that Uighurs, unlike other Muslim minorities in China, felt apart from the Chinese mainstream. They feel alienated and retreat into a blend of ethno-religious ideology to provide perspective. While it is certainly impossible to take my brief trip as a scientifically complete investigation, anecdotal conversations certainly supported this analysis.


A new post for HSToday, a bit delayed as I have been traveling somewhere even more remote than usual. My computer has also come crashing down which has set me up with some serious problems. More on this plot to come.

Europe on High Alert

by Raffaello Pantucci

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Recent string of incidents have elevated level of concern across the European continent

Across Europe there has been a noticeable up-tick in threat tempo. From a series of intelligence-led operations across the continent, to high level statements by the French Interior Minister and US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano – those paid to protect us are very concerned about something.

It is unclear at which point this specific set of alarm bells went off, but they have been ringing for some time. In the United Kingdom, in the wake of a series of arrests back in July in Oslo it was revealed that a British jihadist who had disappeared off radars for a few years had re-emerged in the form of a series of passport photographs found in the possession of the alleged leader of a cell of plotters that was planning an unspecified campaign at the orders of possibly dead Al Qaeda leader Saleh al Somali. The pictures showed the British-Algerian Ibrahim Adam in a variety of different haircuts and had apparently been obtained by the cell leader, Uighur-Norwegian Mikael Davud, from a contact in Turkey in September 2009. The discovery caused a spike in concern for British counter-terrorists, leading them to suspect that Adam, whose brother Anthony Garcia (the family all changed their names to integrate better) was incarcerated as part of the Al Qaeda directed plot to explode a large fertilizer bomb at a British mall, may be on his way back to Europe to conduct operations.

Nothing materialized, until, concurrent with the first day of the Pope’s visit to the United Kingdom on September 16th; police raided a series of properties in London arresting a group of six men working for a city garbage disposal company. One of the men was described as being “of North African appearance” and the BBC has since revealed that at least five of them were “thought to be Algerian.” The men were questioned by police but ultimately released as it was revealed that the intelligence that had led to the arrest had been only picked up recently and was not part of a long-term operation. Unconfirmed reports suggested that the intelligence had been garnered by the police from someone who had overheard the men talking in a staff canteen.

However, the police reaction to the threat showed the elevated concern around the current threat level. The day before the arrests, the head of the Security Service (MI5) had warned that “the main effort for the Security Service remains international terrorism, particularly from Al Qaeda, its affiliates and those inspired by its ideology.” He highlighted the particular growth in the threat from Somalia, stating “there are a significant number of UK residents training in Al Shabaab camps” and highlighting that the threat from the tribal areas of Pakistan now only accounted for about 50% of the “priority plots and leads” coming into the Service.

The evening before the men supposedly behind the threat to the Pope were released, British intelligence passed on information to their Dutch counterparts about an individual on a flight from Liverpool transiting through Amsterdam on his way to Entebbe, Uganda. The man, described by a Dutch spokesman as “a British man of Somali origin,” was pulled off a KLM plane which was about to depart on suspicion of “possible involvement in a terrorist organization.” He was also released a few days later cleared of any charges and it is unclear where he has since gone. This was the second time in less than a month that individuals going through Schipol airport had been picked up as a result of terrorist concerns. At the end of August two Yemeni men were pulled off a flight landing in the airport from Chicago after a tip-off from U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This also did not result in any charges being made.

In France in the meantime, the Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux joined the head of the domestic intelligence agency, Bernard Squarcini, in highlighting the level of threat the country faced. On September 16th, visiting the Eiffel Tower after the latest in a number of bomb scares on the site had further stepped up the security presence, Mr. Hortefeux said, “these last days and hours, a number of events have reminded us that we find ourselves in a period which calls for an elevated level of attention in the particular face of terrorist threats.” This echoed earlier statements the week before by Mr. Squarcini who said that the “all the red lights were flashing” and a story that surfaced in the French press which revealed that, “a female suicide bomber was plotting to commit a terrorist act in a busy part of Paris.” The information was allegedly passed on from Algerian intelligence and resulted in mobile anti-terror units being mobilized across the city searching for the woman. This comes in the wake of a series of kidnappings in Niger of French citizens by the group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the North African Al Qaeda affiliate.

French authorities have apparently attempted to reach out to the group in North Africa to get their citizens back, but little more is known about the alleged female bomber. The threat echoes an alert from earlier in the year published by British newspaper the Daily Telegraph which suggested that security services were concerned that a team of female suicide bombers were being dispatched by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) targeting the United States. In that case too, nothing ultimately emerged but it set the tone for a year which has been plagued with repeated alerts.

But amidst this sea of unrealized threats, on the eve of the anniversary of September 11, Danish police leapt into action when a bomb went off in a hotel toilet in central Copenhagen. The responsible individual was rapidly caught in a nearby park, but refused to provide his identity leaving Danish police with a puzzle to establish who the one-legged multi-lingual individual was. He was eventually identified as a Chechen former boxer who for unspecified reasons was apparently trying to send a bomb to the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten (infamous for publishing the Muhammad cartoons in 2006). Picked up with a gun, a very rudimentary explosive and a number of false identities, the initial fear was that Lors Dukayev, who maintained his anonymity for some time while under arrest and was only identified after someone saw his picture in the press, was possibly more than he initially seemed. Currently, however, he appears to have been a “Lone Wolf” with no connections.

And then on the morning of September 21st, Italian police intercepted a container-load of explosives at the port of Goia Tauro. Hidden amongst powdered milk were 7 tons of military grade RDX explosive, a massive amount which resulted in the Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini calling his American counterpart Hilary Clinton to discuss the matter directly. Believed to be en route from Iran to Syria, the cargo had in transit when Italian forces acted on intelligence believed to have been passed on by Israel.

The year has already seen a number of plots dispatched by Al Qaeda affiliates or fellow travelers reach fairly advanced stages (Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and Faisal Shahzad to name but two), showing the capacity exists for such attack planning. Whether this new wave of concern from Europe’s services is going to translate into a similar attack remains to be seen, but it seems as though intelligence services across the continent are operating at full tilt.

Raffaello Pantucci is Homeland Security Today’s London correspondent.