Archive for December, 2010

Another short piece in Chinese, this time exploring the evolution of terrorism over the year. It is for the newspaper at my home institution in China. I will have translations for this and the previous one in Chinese soon. Please write directly at my contact page if you have any questions.

6 国际恐怖主义出现新变化

自“9·11”事件后,恐怖主义日益成为世界各国不得不面对的一种非传统威胁。2010年的国际恐怖主义发生了一个明显的转向,即由奥萨马·本·拉登直接指挥的全球性攻击转变为基地组织策划的局部袭击,这种袭击没有固定的时间、地点和方式。以去年圣诞节炸机事件为起点,今年的国际恐怖袭击一直吸引着各国学者和媒体的广泛关注。1月24日,阿拉伯半岛电视台播放的视频称,圣诞炸机案是拉登对美国总统奥巴马宣战,未来还将发生更多针对美国的袭击行动。尽管美国予以否认,针对美国的恐怖袭击却接二连三。5月,费萨尔·沙赫扎德制造了纽约时报广场爆炸案。前不久,基地组织也门分支的恐怖组织试图把一些装有炸弹的邮包通过国际航空寄往美国。除了美国,在俄罗斯、阿富汗、伊拉克、巴基斯坦和其他国家也接连发生了一系列恐怖袭击事件。12月,一名由基地组织伊拉克安全专家新近招募的伊拉克裔瑞典人制造了爆炸事件。对于如此集中的恐怖主义袭击,美国《新闻周刊》、《时代周刊》、英国《泰晤士报》、《每日电讯报》,以及德国《南德意志报》等媒体纷纷发表专家评论,认为尽管策划实施袭击的组织声称他们隶属于基地组织,但这些袭击与基地组织的直接关联并不紧密,许多事件与本·拉登也基本无关。这表明对藏身于巴基斯坦的基地组织核心人物的军事打击非常有效,基地组织已经十分脆弱。文章还指出,恐怖袭击的这种由全球到局部的转变令人担忧,因为地区性恐怖组织的袭击行为有时更具创新性,国际恐怖主义思想在全球将会滋生更多危险行为。

(潘睿凡Raffaello Pantucci)

 

Update, here is the text I initially drafted in English:

International Terrorism: From Global to Local

While unable to score any major strikes on the scale of September 11, global Islamist terrorism nevertheless managed to keep up a steady stream of attacks over the past year. There has been a noticeable shift from global terrorism directed by Osama bin Laden in his cave in Pakistan to opportunistic attacks conducted by Al Qaeda affiliates that strike when and where they are able using any means at their disposal.

The year started last Christmas with an attack directed by Al Qaeda in Yemen when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to bring down an airline on its way to Detroit, USA. Then on New Year’s, a young Somali-Dane linked to al Shabaab, an East African group linked to Al Qaeda, attempted to kill a Danish cartoonist responsible for some of the infamous cartoons which angered the Islamic world in 2006. Then in May, Faisal Shahzad, having trained with Al Qaeda’s Pakistani affiliate Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, attempted to detonate a car bomb in New York’s busy Times Square. Another series of bombers linked to al Shabaab were successful in the wake of the World Cup final in blowing themselves up in Kampala, Uganda, killing scores of innocent football fans. More recently, Al Qaeda in Yemen tried again when they sent a series of letter bombs on international airfreight flights destined for the United States. And finally, in the first weeks of December a young Iraqi-Swede detonated his bomb prematurely in an attack that has been tentatively linked by security experts with Al Qaeda in Iraq. And none of this is to list the long series of attacks and scares in Afghanistan, Africa, Iraq and elsewhere that are linked to Al Qaeda’s many local affiliates.

While some of these attacks have been linked loosely to Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda’s ideology, the truth is that much of the planning and logistical infrastructure linked to their preparation was conducted by groups which have claimed links to Al Qaeda but are largely independent of Osama bin Laden. This shift from global to local is a worrying shift for security planners as it highlights that while the battle against Al Qaeda core hiding in Pakistan is seemingly quite effective, the threat has now shifted to regional groupings which are showing an ever more creative vision in trying to carry out terrorist attacks. The core’s structure appears degraded, but the ideas implanted in the global memory after September 11 continue to generate harmful reactions.

 

A new article in Chinese on Sino-Pak relations for a Chinese paper called the Oriental Morning Post. It tries to explain to a Chinese audience why it is the West is so worried about Afghanistan and Pakistan and why they would like the Chinese to do more to help. Unfortunately for the time being, all I can provide here is a link to it for those who want to try to read me in Chinese. I will get the text to post as soon as possible, but in the meantime for those very eager and unable to read Chinese, please drop me a note through the contact page.

Update, here is the English text I initially submitted:

Chinese Premier Wen Jiaobao’s visit to Pakistan marks another high point in Sino-Pak relations. With billions of dollars in trade deals and bilateral loans signed, the visit confirmed China as Pakistan’s closest ally in Asia. Frustratingly for the NATO Alliance, however, the issue of Afghanistan and terrorist training camps did not seem to be a top element on the agenda, suggesting China was unlikely to be applying much pressure to Pakistan on this sensitive issue.

It is easy to understand China’s perspective on this matter. First of all, this was a visit to Pakistan by Premier Wen, and while Afghanistan is a major regional security issue, the priority was clearly the Sino-Pak relationship that predates current troubles in Afghanistan. Secondly, Pakistan is a state beset with domestic problems: the Chinese government’s calculus is that more pressure is unlikely to stabilize the situation. Thirdly, the simple fact is that for China, Afghanistan ranks as a secondary security concern. While sitting on China’s Western border, the nation has thus far not exported many security threats to China, with militants seemingly more eager to target Western forces and cities in Europe and North America than China and her interests.

But China underestimates the degree to which the west is concerned about Afghanistan and terrorist training camps. In the week prior to Premier Wen’s visit, an unmanned drone strike destroyed a vehicle in Pakistan’s lawless North Waziristan allegedly killing, amongst others, two British converts who were in the region connecting with Al Qaeda militants. It is unlikely that we are ever going to know what exactly they were up to, but they do highlight the ongoing threat that is posed by Al Qaeda and affiliated groups to the West. Previous individuals who trained in Pakistani camps have returned to Europe to carry out the July 7, 2005 bombings on London’s public transport system that killed 52 people as they were going about their daily business. Earlier this year, a similar tragedy was only barely averted when Faisal Shahzad incorrectly assembled the car bomb he left in Times Square New York. Shahzad had spent time the previous year training alongside the Pakistani Taliban in Waziristan. Earlier plots with links to the region have been disrupted targeting other British cities, as well as cities in Spain, Germany and Belgium to name but a few.

Clearly, this link is still alive and well, and while some responsibility clearly lies with the West where much of these individuals radicalization takes place, it still remains the case that they are training at camps in Pakistan. In addition to this, the camps in Pakistan provide Taliban elements in Afghanistan with a secure refuge that they can use to mount attacks that continue to result in the deaths of Afghan civilians and NATO soldiers. And while Western leaders continue to apply pressure to Pakistan to do more about this, stories from the region still point to the fact that the problem has not gone away.

But what role might China play in this already complicated situation? Clearly, Chinese forces on the ground in either Afghanistan or Pakistan are not really an option. NATO warmly appreciates current support that China provides to both countries, but there is a strong sense in the West that China could play an even larger, possibly game-changing role, if it wanted to. As this latest visit by Premier Wen highlights, the connection between China and Pakistan remains “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, sweeter than honey and stronger than steel.” What the West hopes is that China were able to use this political influence to stiffen Pakistani resolve in countering and eliminating the network of terrorist training camps that continue to act as a haven for radicals worldwide.

Additionally, while China’s support of Afghanistan is appreciated, it is clearly much less than China could provide. Premier Wen’s single visit to Islamabad has resulted in deals or aid worth almost $30billion, a sum that eclipses the $3.5billion investment China’s MCC has put into the Aynak Copper mine in Afghanistan and the roughly $200million China has given and pledged to the nation so far.

Like any sensible policy choice, this is not one that China would do for selfless reasons. Extremists targeting China continue to also be present to some degree or another in Pakistan’s lawless regions, and the presence of camps in Pakistan keeps the global extremist Islamist movement alive, threatening China’s other western border states like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Furthermore, a stabilized and extremist free South Asia would provide a region of prosperity that would directly benefit China’s underdeveloped Western Xinjiang province.

Additional to this there is the easy policy victory that China would score with the West. An active move towards helping the situation in South Asia and resolving trouble in Afghanistan would win China plaudits throughout the West and would lower the growing tensions around what is perceived as being a more assertive China globally. As State Councilor Dai Bingguo recently wrote while explaining China’s new path of Peaceful Development, “if a country wants to have security, it must make others feel safe too.” By taking more proactive positive steps in South Asia, China could play the role of change agent in the region, enhancing everyone’s sense of security and stability.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and a China Program Associate at the European Council of Foreign Relations.

 

A new post for Free Rad!cals, this exploring once again the issue of Lone Wolves. I have written a number of pieces about them previously, and am working on publishing a longer report for ICSR about them. Any pointers or thoughts on Lone Wolves I may have missed would be hugely appreciated.

Catching Lone Attackers

Whatever is discovered about Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly’s links to extremist groups, we are still left with the growing problem of lone attackers and the issues that security services have in interdicting them. While it seems as though, like an increasing amount of his earlier comrades, al-Abdaly has left something of an electronic footprint demonstrating his radicalization, from a security perspective this is an almost impossible element to latch onto given the sheer volume of similar jihobbyists around online who are simply bored teenagers showing off.
Or is this really the case? In the United States, a more proactive approach seems to have been taken with tracking and capturing such individuals. The two most recent cases are Mohamed Osman Mohamud in Oregon and Muhammad Hussain, aka Antonio Martinez, in Maryland. In both cases, it seems as though following an online alert (in Osman’s case he tried to contact extremists abroad, for Hussain he was apparently noted because of radical things on his Facebook page), FBI agents set up elaborate operations to capture the individuals as they were attempting to blow up in a public place what they thought were vehicle borne explosive devices. I have argued elsewhere about the conduct of these operations and their efficacy in stamping out the problem of radicalisation, but it is interesting that while the US arrests two of these chaps in quick succession, Taimour was able to almost carry out his operation in Europe.

But does this mean that the United States has cracked the code of capturing such attackers? I am unsure this is really the case. While on the one hand, it does seem as though they are able to capture more of these chaps, they have also had some very close calls, like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and Faisal Shahzad in the past year alone. Admittedly in the former of these cases, he was not actually able to get to the US, but with Shahzad, it is clear that he was not on any radars and was in the US. Both men also left some semblance of an electronic trace that was found subsequently, though again, it would be hard to point to this as the element which should have alerted security agencies of the pending menace these men posed.

In Europe, there have been numerous cases similar to these. In the UK alone, Nicky Reilly in Exeter almost managed to blow himself and a restaurant full of people up in May 2008. Much of his radicalization appears to have taken place online, and afterwards his YouTube page was discovered to be filled with radical images and ideas. More recently, by her own admission, Roshonara Choudhry’sdecision to try to kill Stephen Timms MP, was for the most part the product of ideas she got online.

If it emerges that al-Abdaly did have contact with extremist groups and training, then it would appear he joins Abdulmutallab and Shahzad, as individuals who can be termed lone attackers with links to extremist groups. This is rather than a Lone Wolf, in the sense of being an autodidact extremist who decides to do something of his own activation (like Choudhry or the earlier case of Isa Ibrahim). Both are dangerous, though in different ways.

The point is that it now seems as though there is a new need to actively pursue individuals who have expressed extreme ideas online, but at the same time to find ways of separating out who is dangerous and who is not. Certainly the American approach seems effective in catching people, but it is hard to know whether these are the correct ones to be catching, or whether there is a more dangerous body of individuals out there who are being missed. Is it really important to capture people like Osman or Hussain, while individuals like Shahzad and Nidal Hassan Malik slip past?

This is not to absolve either Osman or Hussain of their responsibility. In both cases, I do not doubt that the court cases against them will show them calculating how to kill innocent people in a callous and cold-hearted manner. But it does seem necessary to ask whether either was going to continue on to become like Nicky Reilly or whether they were instead going to continue to be online aspirants who would grow out of this fad. The distinction between these chaps and the ones who actually almost carry out attacks is very hard to draw, but is clearly at the heart of understanding what exactly it is that the new radical profile looks like.

In the New Year, ICSR will publish Raffaello’s latest paper, which offers a framework for formulating a typology for lone-wolf terrorists

 

My latest for the ECFR blog looking at the internet in China. This is a fascinating subject for those either side of it, confusing as it is. For example, this site is actually the wrong side at the moment, though for a while it was accessible. I have no idea for the rationale behind either case.

Shanghai View: Welcome back BBC and hello Wikileaks!

Date: 16th December 2010  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci

Categories: China
Tags: BbcChinaNobel Peace PrizeWikileaks

The Chinese censorship of western news organizations including the BBC around last week’s Nobel peace prize ceremony was not a surprise. More unexpected was the speed with which they were back up and running. Meanwhile, WikiLeaks is easier to access from China than ever before.

Things have been tense in China since the decision to award Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize. These tensions reached something of an apex last Friday with the actual awards ceremony, as China went into full attack mode against the decision by the committee to award the prize to an individual who is incarcerated in China.

In China itself, however, one could be mistaken for not noticing that this was all going on. While everyone seemed to have heard about it (and I encountered a couple of tense meetings in which it came up), the story was blocked from the airwaves and netwaves. In particular, the BBC and CNN came under heavy assault as they broadcast stories about the event and the Chinese reaction. A friend working for CNN in Beijing reported they were experiencing trouble with their systems, and the channel kept getting blacked out whenever stories came up about events in Oslo. The BBC came under heavy online attack, with all of its sites blocked.

The BBC is now, however, back. As of Monday, the sites were accessible again, though there was no explanation or reasoning offered why they had been pulled or why they returned. This is not the first time the BBC has experienced this: prior to the Olympic games it was blocked, and since then there have been sporadic issues. For example, after the Xinjiang riots last year, the internet and television were sporadically blocked. When Hilary Clinton gave a particularly sensitive speech on web freedom, I recall watching in Beijing as my screen went black.

What is intriguing about this most recent instance is the rapidity with which the BBC has been unblocked. It appears that three days is ample punishment in the PRC’s mind. I am uncertain about whether this is the product of behind-the-scenes lobbying, but would be unsurprised to hear that the change was a pleasant surprise to everyone at the BBC as well. This is the most perplexing thing about being the wrong side of the Great Firewall: it is totally erratic and uncertain. No-one really knows what is blocked and why; there is no apparent rationale to the blocks.

Internally, people tend to be quite exasperated about blockages to the net. One student told me during the troubles with Google earlier in the year that he liked Google because it was less censored and had less advertising. The Chinese equivalent, Baidu, he said, was useless as you had to skip about 10 pages of search results before you got beyond the advertising. However most people, when confronted with blocked pages, tend to operate on the assumption that the site in question was doing something illegal and that therefore they should not be surprised that it is blocked.

Recently released Wikileaks cables have given us some hints about how Chinese media censorship operates. One cable suggested that a Politboro member was behind the attack on Google earlier in the year. Others point to possible motivations. While internet censorship is a nuisance in China, it has had the effect of blocking the Chinese system to foreign companies allowing local ones to flourish.  It struck me as somewhat ironic that the BBC was blocked the same week that Youkou and Dangdang (Chinese versions of Youtube and Amazon) listed on the NYSE to spectacular openings. Youkou at least has profited from the fact that YouTube is blocked in China.

Oddly, the WikiLeaks site, which is usually blocked here, appears at the moment to be open to the public in China. I have had little difficulties for the last two weeks reading what is emerging, whereas before the cable dump the site was only accessible through virtual private networks or proxy servers. Maybe the Chinese government has decided that it actually rather enjoys the embarrassment that US diplomacy is undergoing at the moment and has decided to not shield its public from it, or maybe Wikileaks is now switching servers so rapidly that the PRC monitors are not able to keep up. I would venture, however, that no-one would really be able to answer this question.

A new piece for HSToday.us, this was originally meant for the magazine, but instead went up on the website. A very quick response to the Stockholm attempt. More on this as information comes to light.

Stockholm Bomber: Sign of a New Syndrome?

by Raff Pantucci

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Suicide bombing attempt raises perplexing questions

News has been coming out of Stockholm of an attempted suicide bombing by Iraqi-born Swede Taimour al-Abdaly. At this early stage in the investigation it is dangerous to draw any absolute conclusions, but it does seem possible to draw some preliminary thoughts on the attack and its repercussions.

First, Taimour appears to have been a lone attacker. It may later emerge that he had contact with other people, but it appears as though the intention was to conduct a solo operation. Whether this was intended to be a suicide attack seems unclear. The relatively clumsy nature of the operation confuses this picture: a car bomb for the most part fizzled out destroying only the car, while the pipe bombs Taimour himself was carrying blew up prematurely killing only himself.

A second conclusion that seems possible to draw is that Taimour’s radicalization took place, at least in part, in the UK and specifically a suburb of London called Luton. According to various sources, Taimour received a BSc in sports sciences from the local University of Bedfordshire. A friend quoted in the British Telegraph newspaper said, “there is no doubt that Taimour changed when he went to Britain…when he came back he had grown a beard and he was very serious. He talked about Afghanistan and religion and did not want to hang out with his friends.”

More famous for the nearby low budget airport which is a major employer for the city, Luton has latterly achieved a sort of notoriety as a center of radicalization in the United Kingdom. The first major plot disrupted of what could be termed the British jihad emanated from the city: key fertilizer plotter Omar Khyam was brought up in nearby Crawley and security surveillance later released into the public domain showed a network of radicals operating in the area.

A man initially identified as “Q” in the press and later officially outed as being called Mohammed Quayum Khan in a Parliamentary report about the failures of intelligence in the July 7, 2005 bombing, still apparently lives in the area, apparently three roads over from where Taimour was staying.

Khan was identified by the Parliamentary report as being “the leader of an Al Qaeda facilitation network in the UK.” This was also not the first time the area made the presses as a center of radicalization: in October 2001 a couple of local men were identified as having been killed by US bombers in Afghanistan having left the city a few weeks before to go and fight alongside the Taliban.

Earlier than that, British jihadi Omar Saeed Sheikh, who currently sits in a Pakistani jail for murdering Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, reported in his diary that in early 1994 he went around the area to “encourage people to go for training. In this time, I collect many items of interest for the camp and also given funds by people (though I don’t ask for them).”

At this early stage it is almost impossible to definitively say Taimour can be characterized as a “Lone Wolf” in the sense that he had no connections whatsoever. A claim of responsibility suspected to have come from Taimour went to official agencies in the minutes prior to the attack, saying “our actions will speak for themselves. Now your children, daughters and sisters will die like our brothers and sisters and children are dying.” It then went on to specifically threaten Sweden for having soldiers in Sweden and for hosting “Lars Vilks the pig,” in reference to the controversial cartoonist who was responsible for one of the infamous Muhammad cartoons. A further subsequent claim was published on extremist websites from the Islamic State of Iraq, heralding Taimour as a “mujahedeen.”

All of this serves to highlight two things: terrorists are increasingly looking for ever lower hanging fruit. From large-scale plots like the August 2006 plot to bring down eight flights on transatlantic routes from London, they are now attempting to carry out low-tech, random attacks on third tier supporters of NATO operations in Afghanistan. That the cartoons continue to also resonate as a radicalizing influence is interesting, but this is likely the product of opportunity more than anything else.

Secondly, the shift towards lone attackers is something which is increasingly worrying planners. These individuals are popping up with an ever-growing regularity, confusing traditional security dragnets due to their lack of distinct connections to other radicals. In 2010 alone we have seen Mohammed Gelle, a Somali-Dane attempt to attack Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard with an axe, American-Pakistani Faisal Shahzad attempt to blow up Times Square, British-Bangladeshi Roshonara Choudhry stab a British Member for Parliament, and Lors Dukayev, a Chechen living in Belgium, attempt to carry out an unspecified bombing campaign in Denmark.

In all of these cases it is unclear to what degree we are dealing with loners, crazy people, or lone attackers dispatched by known networks – but it seems clear that there is a shift towards individual such attacks. This is not an entirely new phenomenon, but its increasing preponderance suggests that operations to disrupt large networks are working, but also that there is an increasing level of radicalization occurring at an ever more diffuse rate. As former Metropolitan Police Counter-Terrorism Head Peter Clarke put it in interview to HSToday.us, “the counter-narrative is not getting through,” something which should concern security planners as they look forwards to countering terrorism in the near future.


Quotes in the Press

Posted: December 13, 2010 in Quotes
Tags: , , ,

I have been traveling hence the radio silence this week. However, I have done a couple of interviews while moving around which I thought I would share. The first is with a Russian outlet, Rosbolt.ru, looking at terrorism in Germany. The second is with a Romanian paper, Adevarul, on China’s reactions to events in Osl0. And finally, the Economist picked up a quote from my Survival “China’s Afghan Dilemma” article. As ever, if you would like to read more of the article and cannot get to it, drop me a note and I may be able to help out.

My latest for the Jamestown Foundation’s Global Terrorism Monitor, this time exploring the odd case of Roshonara Choudhry, which friends in the UK tell me is a really rather concerning sign about the levels of radicalization in the UK. It remains to be seen what actually ends up happening in the broader frame, but it is certainly an extraordinary story about how far one can push oneself when persuaded by dangerous ideas. It will be interesting to see what happens with this girl as time goes on. Should anyone see any interesting stories emerge, please let me know. More on the topic of Lone Wolves more generally soon. Thanks also to Peter for taking time to talk to me.

Trial of Would-be Assassin Illustrates al-Awlaki’s Influence on the British Jihad

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 44
December 2, 2010 01:45 PM Age: 7 hrs

By: Raffaello Pantucci

Roshonara Choudhry 

The conclusion in early November of the trial against 21-year-old Roshonara Choudhry, convicted of attempting to murder British member of Parliament Stephen Timms, marked the end of a case that dealt with the importation of the concept of the “lone jihadi” as espoused by American-Yemeni jihad ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki.  According to Peter Clarke, the former head of London’s Counter Terrorism Command, Choudhry’s actions highlighted the fact that “we are nowhere near getting the counter-narrative [to jihad] through,” and were described by British police as the first instance in which an al-Qaeda inspired Briton attempted an assassination on British soil (Guardian, November 3). [1]

The strange case of Roshonara Choudhry first came to the public’s attention on May 14, 2010, when she walked into MP Stephen Timms’ constituency office for an appointment she had made. Specifying that she had to see the MP rather than an assistant, when she arrived for her appointment Choudhry seemed “anxious” to the security guard working in the office (Telegraph, November 2).

After a short wait, Mr. Timms came out of his office to greet the young woman, who approached him as though to shake his hand. All dressed in black and wearing traditional Muslim garb, Timms “was a little puzzled because a Muslim woman dressed in that way wouldn’t normally be willing to shake a man’s hand, still less take the initiative to do so” (Telegraph, November 2). In fact, as described by Choudhry, the outstretched hand was a ruse: “I walked towards him with my left hand out as if I wanted to shake his hand. Then I pulled the knife out of my bag and I hit him in the stomach with it. I put it in the top part of his stomach like when you punch someone” (Telegraph, November 2).

The security guard and one of Timms’ assistants quickly restrained the young girl, and police and ambulance services were summoned. In an interview conducted hours after her arrest, Choudhry was open in describing her desire to die in the course of her action: “I wanted to be a martyr,” since “that’s the best way to die… It’s an Islamic teaching.” [2] Prior to her attack, Choudhry decided to clear all of her debts, something typical of aspirant Islamist martyrs (Guardian, November 2). When asked why she targeted Timms in her attack, Choudhry responded, “I thought that it’s not right that he voted for the declaration of war in Iraq,” adding that the ideas for this path of vengeance came from “listening to lectures by Anwar al-Awlaki” she found on the internet.

Choudhry appears to have been something of a model student, working up from humble beginnings in East London as one of five children of a Bangladeshi tailor. At the time of her attack, the family was largely living off of benefits and monies the children were able to raise through work. Her background did not prevent Choudhry from earning a place at the prestigious King’s College, London, where she studied English and Communications. In her spare time, she volunteered at an Islamic school and was seen as a prize student on course to achieve a first-class degree (the highest level in the British university system) (Guardian, November 2).

Sometime during her third and final year, Choudhry underwent a transformation and decided to drop out of her course: “Because King’s College is involved in things where they work against Muslims….they gave an award to [Israeli politician] Shimon Peres and they also have a department for tackling radicalization….So I just didn’t wanna go there anymore…cos it would be against my religion.” By her own account, the path that led her to attacking Timms was set in motion prior to her decision to drop out. She discovered Anwar al-Awlaki’s speeches sometime in November 2009, claiming that she found them through her “own research.” From his lectures she got the idea that “as Muslims we’re all brothers and sisters and we should all look out for each other and we shouldn’t sit back and do nothing while others suffer.” She was particularly taken by al-Awlaki’s speeches as “he explains things really comprehensively and in an interesting way so I thought I could learn a lot from him and I was also surprised at how little I knew about my religion so that motivated me to learn more.”

According to Choudhry, it was a video featuring the late Shaykh Abdullah Azzam (1941-1989) and his instruction that it is “obligatory on everyone [i.e. every Muslim] to defend [Muslim] land” that pushed her into the decision to act sometime in April 2010. At this point she decided to seek revenge on a member of the British parliament who had supported the invasion of Iraq using public information websites and a radical website called RevolutionMuslim.com that provided a list of MPs who had voted in favor of the Iraq invasion. Timms was specifically chosen because according to websites she had found, “he very strongly agreed with the invasion of Iraq.” Another factor was Choudhry’s own experience of meeting the MP as part of a school trip sometime in 2006 or 2007.

What is striking about the choice of Timms is that during this first meeting with the MP, Choudhry recalled a fellow student questioning Timms over his support of the war and of feeling that “she [the student] should be quiet and that she’s embarrassing herself.” Four years later, Choudhry had been radicalized to the point that she was willing to murder the same MP.

In the wake of Choudhry’s arrest, there was a spike of attention in the British media about the radicalizing impact of websites. In a speech in Washington, DC, Security Minister Lady Pauline Neville-Jones raised the issue of YouTube hosting videos by radical preachers and other US websites that hosted material she described as “inciting cold blooded murder” (Guardian, November 3). On November 17, British police arrested 23-year-old Bilal Zaheer Ahmand from Dunstall, Wolverhampton for soliciting murder and possessing information likely to be useful to terrorists. The young man was allegedly linked to RevolutionMuslim.com, which published the list of MPs who had voted for the Iraq war and a post which praised Choudhry as a “heroine” (BBC, November 17; Telegraph, November 17). Whether Ahmand will be successfully convicted is still in question. A trial in July against Mohammed Gul, a 22-year-old London student who was allegedly uploading radical videos to a website and who was in contact with extremists abroad, concluded with a hung jury and will go to retrial next year (Romford Recorder, July 27, 2010; Daily Mail, February 24, 2009). For Choudhry, however, the future is clear; on November 3 she was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum of 15 years. She is currently being held as a “Category A” prisoner, meaning she is subject to intrusive strip-search regimes every time someone visits, something she finds demeaning and against her faith and which has, as a result, kept her in isolation since her incarceration (Guardian, November 2).

Notes:

1. Peter Clarke, interview with author, November 2010.
2. Unless otherwise indicated, Choudhry’s quotes are taken from her police interview, published by the Guardian, November 3, 2010:http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/nov/03/roshonara-choudhry-police-interview.