Archive for January, 2011

A short piece for HSToday looking at the decision in the UK to list TTP – still unclear to me why they did it now, except that US also announced it was going to add Qari Hussain to their list of targeted individuals. Any ideas or thoughts on why always welcome.

Britain Goes After Tehrik E Taliban Pakistan

By: Raff Pantucci

On January 19, 2011, Britain joined Pakistan and the US in putting the Pakistani-based Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on the list of terrorist organizations.
UK Immigration Minister Damien Green said the decision means “the proscribed organization is outlawed and is unable to operate in the UK. Proscription means that it is a criminal offence for a person to belong to, or invite support for, a proscribed organization. It is also a criminal offence to arrange a meeting in support of a proscribed organization or to wear clothing or carry articles in public which arouse reasonable suspicion that an individual is a member or supporter of the proscribed organization.”

In essence, proscription means it is now easier for British prosecutorial services to go after individuals and groups providing support for TTP from the UK.

It was not immediately clear why the government moved now to officially proscribe TTP as a terrorist organization, and questions were repeatedly raised in the House about the timing of the decision. Green refused to answer these questions, highlighting the sensitive nature of the intelligence connected to the government’s decision-making process.

In discussing the proscription, ministers’ repeatedly emphasized that the terrorist group’s murderous record in Pakistan, along with the fact that it was connected to Faisal Shahzad’s aborted attempt to detonate a car bomb in Times Square, the organization clearly has shown a capacity to go global. Furthermore, it has directly threatened British aid workers in Pakistan, which poses a direct threat to British interests.

But proscription powers can also present problems. Last year, the government made the controversial move of banning the group Al Muhajiroun and a network of connected organizations.  Unlike TTP, Al Muhajiroun was loudly active in the UK in organizing protests, websites and other activities protesting government policy at home and abroad. Its leader in the UK, Anjem Choudhry, was quite open in talking about the ease with which one can sidestep the proscription orders.

“Unless the government can prove that you are ostensibly exactly the same organisation, doing the same things at the same time, it’s very difficult to clamp down,” Choudhry stated.

Security officials said at the time that there were mechanisms to prevent this sort of activity from taking place, but others stressed that it is a waste of security officials’ time in chasing such low level loudmouths.

As the minister put it: “proscribing the TTP will enable the police to carry out disruptive action more effectively against any supporters in the UK.”

However, it remains unclear how large these sorts of support networks are in Britain. It seems clear that there are support networks in the UK that are providing funding and support for Lashkar-e-Toiba and other networks primarily seen as fomenting jihad in Kashmir and Afghanistan, but it is unclear the degree to which a group like TTP, which seems to operate with brutal ruthlessness within Pakistan, is equally effective in the UK.

But with the decision to proscribe, it seems clear the UK is operating on the assumption that some level of activity is taking place, or at least that the potential exists for such networks to operate. It remains to be seen, though, just how soon the Crown Prosecution Service lines up a case to pursue the organization for such activity.


A new post at Free Rad!cals, this time stepping on Tim’s turf a bit (though he has gone very quiet of late). It looks at a couple of cases on individuals in Spain and Canada being chased for support activities online. Since this was published, I had discovered that it looks as though the Spanish-Moroccan chap may have in fact been sent back to Morocco, which I suppose supports the case that the Spanish were unsure what to do with him and thought it best just to get rid of him.

Chasing Web Jihadists

View all Raff Pantucci Blogs

Filed under: Online Extremism, Terrorism

This post needs to be prefaced with a note that it is based on court documents rather than any convictions. Unless specified, those mentioned are innocent until proven guilty. But this caveat also serves the purpose of providing a useful intro into this post that explores the complexities of pursuing individuals’ active supporting terrorism online.

The phenomenon of online jihadists is probably the most curious innovation to exist in the world of terrorism studies. The idea that individuals with no physical connection to their chosen group can be an integral part of a terrorist organization is something that seems anathema to a politico-terrorist movement. Traditionally terrorist networks were made up of individuals who knew each other and fought alongside each other. In the current conflict we can see people convicted at the same time for being in the same network with no clear evidence that they ever actually met in person (Younis Tsouli, aka Irhabi007, and pals for example).

But what actually is it that these individuals do online which is in support of terrorism? For Tsouli and his cell the evidence they faced overwhelmed them, and they pled guilty to inciting terrorism. In activities it seemed largely as though they helped Al Qaeda in Iraq upload videos onto the Internet and committed fraud to obtain the funds to manage to continue this activity. Tsouli may also have played a role in a cell in Bosnia and another group spanning from Bradford to Toronto, though how this worked operationally is unclear. A series of recent cases, however, seem to be pushing a bit beyond this in attempting to interdict individuals who were remotely linked to networks sending fighters and funds to battlefields in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Iraq.

Back in August last year, Spanish Guardia Civil forces in sunny Alicante raided the home of Faical Errai, a 26 year-old Moroccan resident in Spain who was allegedly one of the administrator’s and the creator of the Ansar al Mujahedeen website ( Documents released at the time of his arrest highlighted Spanish police’s belief that Errai was one of the key players in the website and had helped raise funds, provide ideological sustenance and direct fighters to camps in (at least) Chechnya and Waziristan. He was recorded as having boasted on the site to other forum organizers that he had personally helped at least six Libyans get to Waziristan.

Then earlier this week, Canadian forces arrested on an American warrant, Faruq Khalil Muhammad ‘Isa, a 38 year-old Iraqi-Canadian who was allegedly involved in a network sending fighters and equipment to Iraq. According to the complaintreleased by the US Department of Justice, ‘Isa was in contact electronically with a network which sent at least four fighters from Tunisia to Iraq and which was trying to send a second team of four when it was disrupted by security forces from April 2009 onwards. Having watched these networks get closed down from Canada, it seems as though ‘Isa decided that he too wanted to join in the fighting and by early 2010 was asking to talk to the “boss” and vouching for his “not just 100% but 1,000,000%” commitment to the cause. The final paragraph in the complaint against ‘Isa highlights him telling his sister in Iraq on May 28, 2010 “go learn about weapons and go attack the police and Americans. Let it be that you die.”

Both cases are examples of individuals using the Internet to supposedly direct and conduct operations or the flow of fighters on the other side of the globe. To what degree they were the key players is unclear, but certainly in the case of Errai it seemed as though an important online player was taken out of action. Monitors noticed a substantial up-tick in online threats directed at Spain and calling for the “reconqista” in the wake of his arrest – something that was further read as evidence of his importance. For ‘Isa on the other hand, he claimed surprise at the charges at his first hearing. His role in the network is unclear from the complaint beyond having played some sort of a role in supporting ideologically, and maybe practically, a team get from Tunisia to Iraq – a team which was responsible for two separate suicide bombings, one of which killed five US service people on April 10, 2009 in Mosul. There was no immediate evidence of massive retaliation in the wake of ‘Isa’s arrest.

The cases against both men seem to focus on their capacity through the Internet to play a critical role in networks that were helping fighters get to the battlefield along with funds to support the groups hosting them. There is no suggestion that either man actually went to fight and while some of ‘Isa’s intercepts seem to hint that he may be thinking in that direction, he had not yet acted on this impulse at time of arrest.

This fact is likely to result in difficulties for prosecutors. For Errai, I believe he is still in jail in Spain waiting trial, while the U.S. and Canadian governments are settling in for a long-term extradition tangle. ‘Isa’s case could end up something like Babar Ahmad’s, the British-Pakistani sitting in prison in UK unconvicted as he fights extradition to the US on charges for the most part linked with his role in the family of websites and helping send support to fighters in Afghanistan and Chechnya. The key difference being that the US wants ‘Isa in specific connection to an attack in Iraq that killed five Americans, giving them a clear set of victims to show a court of law.

Herein lies the nub of the problem: how is it possible to link in a legally satisfying way individuals who are supporting extremists and networks online without actually doing anything which contravenes the law in the way that a terrorist attack does. Using a computer can seem a very detached way of supporting a terrorist act for a jury. Laws can be adapted, as has happened in the UK, to adopt charges of “incitement” to terrorism, but this remains very hard to pursue in a court of law. So the question remains how can one actively and successfully chase and convict people online who are playing a seemingly important role in fostering networks on the other side of the globe. It remains to be seen how this game will play out.

A new piece for Jamestown’s Terrorism Monitor, exploring once again the supposedly Shabaab linked plot in Australia. I might do more work on this plot as it seems like it could be an interesting case study. Should you note any new tips or stories emerge from it, please drop me a note.

Operation Neath: Is Somalia’s al-Shabaab Movement Active in Australia?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 3
January 20, 2011 02:58 PM Age: 6 hrs
Lebanese-Australian Wissam Mahmoud Fattal, accused in the 2009 bomb plot against Holsworthy Army base outside of Sydney.

“Islam is the true religion. Thank you very much.” So declared Wissam Mahmoud Fattal, a 34-year-old Lebanese Australian former kick-boxer after he was convicted of participating in a plot to attack the Holsworthy Army base just outside Sydney (The Age [Melbourne], December 23, 2010; Australian Associated Press, December 23, 2010). The statement stood in contrast to Fattal’s earlier comments following his arrest when he shouted at the court, “Your army kills innocent people in Afghanistan and Iraq. You call us terrorists – that’s not true” (Daily Telegraph, August 5, 2009).

Fattal’s statement came at the conclusion of a lengthy trial that began after the August 2009 arrests and raids of 19 properties that concluded Operation Neath, one of Australia’s most substantial terrorism investigations to date (see Terrorism Monitor, September 10, 2009).  Convicted alongside Fattal were Saney Edow Aweys, 27, and Nayef el-Sayed, 26, Somali and Lebanese naturalized Australians, respectively. Cleared of charges related to the plot were Yacqub Khayre, 23, and Abdirahman Ahmed, 26, both Somali-Australians.

Prosecutors alleged that the men were in the process of planning a fidayin or suicide-style attack on the Australian army base, in which they would use automatic weapons to wreak havoc until they were brought down. In a recorded conversation between Saney Aweys and a cleric in Somalia, Aweys outlined the plotters’ intention of attacking a barracks; “There are about six guys…20 minutes will be enough for us to take out five, six, ten…I don’t know. Until they will use up their weapons” (The Age, December 23, 2010).

Much of the media attention around the plot focused on the cell’s apparent connection to al-Shabaab militants in Somalia. Three of the men charged were of Somali descent and it was alleged that the group had sought to obtain a fatwa from clerics in Somalia to justify their actions. Furthermore, the case uncovered a network that was apparently responsible for funneling fighters and funding to the Somali extremist group.

At the center of the plot was Saney Aweys, a Somali refugee who retained a strong connection to his native land and the conflict it currently endures. In an attempt to deflect attention from his client Fattal, lawyer Patrick Tehan pointed an accusing finger at Aweys, declaring his “tentacles seem to be all over the place…he seems to be up to all sorts of activities” (The Age, December 24, 2010). Using seven different mobile phones registered under a variety of names, Aweys was the one who provided contacts with al-Shabaab networks in Somalia.  It was apparently a phone call between Fattal and Aweys which first alerted Australian authorities to the danger posed by the cell (Australian, August 4, 2009). Fattal had expressed to an undercover officer his desire to achieve martyrdom fighting abroad in Somalia, which he described as the “true jihad.” Fattal, however, was unable to travel due to visa problems (Australian, September 23, 2010).

Early on in the case, Aweys was accused of facilitating the travel to Somalia of other Australian Somali’s, including the missing Walid Osman Mohamed (believed to be in Somalia) and fellow defendant Yacqub Khayre, as well as sending money to the group. However, a decision not to prosecute was made on the grounds that the amounts were small and that al-Shabaab was not proscribed in Australia at the time (Australian, August 6, 2009). It is also possible that he was in contact with missing Australian-Somali suspect Hussein Hashi Farah, a man described in the press as the “mastermind” of the plot, who was last seen when he escaped from Kenyan custody after being picked up as he attempted to cross the Ugandan-Kenyan border (AAP, March 23, 2010; AAP, June 28, 2010).

Aweys was the key figure in seeking a fatwa from shaykhs abroad to condone their intended actions in Australia. As well as being in direct contact with Shaykh Hayakallah in Somalia, he also dispatched Yacqub Khayre, a young Somali-Australian and former drug addict he had taken under his wing, to Somalia to obtain the fatwa and (allegedly) to train with al-Shabaab. Khayre was something of an unreliable recruit, regularly fleeing from the camp and was described in an intercept between Somalia and Aweys as “a risk to you, us and the whole thing” (Australian, September 16, 2010).  Khayre’s defense successfully argued that the fatwa Khayre sought when he went to Somalia in April 2009 was merely to condone the conduct of fraud in obtaining money to support al-Shabaab (The Age, December 24, 2010).

These connections aside, it does not seem as though al-Shabaab was directly responsible for tasking the men to carry out jihad in Australia. Shortly after the initial arrests, al-Shabaab spokesman Shaykh Ali Mahmud Raage (a.k.a. Shaykh Ali Dheere) issued a statement dismissing reports that the detainees were in any way members of al-Shabaab, claiming the men were arrested solely because they were Muslims (Dayniile, August 6). While it seems clear that Australian police have disrupted a network providing support for al-Shabaab from their nation, it is not clear that this plot was indeed the beginning of a shift in the group’s profile. This is somewhat tangential, however, from the perspective of Western security services, as what the case does highlight is that networks providing support for terrorist groups abroad can pose a potential threat at home. Described repeatedly as the key figure in the plot, the narrative painted by the prosecution was that Fattal had decided to turn his attention to Australia after having been thwarted in his attempts to conduct jihad abroad. He then used his connections to a network sending fighters and money to Somalia to turn those dreams into action, highlighting the very real risk that fundraising networks can pose for their host nations. The men are to be officially sentenced later this month and are likely to receive heavy terms.


A short and slightly journalistic piece for Whose World Order? over at ECFR, based around a conversation I was quite pleased with myself for having on a train in Italy. A fascinating topic I know that others are doing far more complex and interesting work on than this.

Shanghai View: Mr. Wang’s Children

Date: 18th January 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: None

Shanghai View has been on the road for much of the last month, hence the protracted silence. However, during my travels I had the good fortune of travelling through Italy and in particular of going through the Tuscan region near Florence and Pisa. While the slow pace and clear sky is about as far away from China as you can get, Beijing came back to me as I sat on a train from Empoli to Florence and Mr Wang came and sat down next to me.

Mr Wang was originally from a village just outside Xiamen in Southern China. He had moved to Italy almost 10 years ago and though still unable to speak much Italian, he had nevertheless set up shop with a wife and two children and worked in a leather factory near Prato. His son was apparently bilingual, but wanted to move to England to study, while his daughter now lived in China where she was fiercely proud of being Chinese (his characterisation) and had no interest in leaving the country. Typical of Fujianese, Mr Wang came from a large family that had left China to pursue opportunity around the world. He had a sister in Aberdeen, a brother in New Zealand and some others scattered elsewhere that I was not quite able to catch.

He had come to Italy to work, and while he didn’t go into the specifics of how he got there, once there he had clearly worked hard to achieve what he had. He seemed ambivalent about Italy and found there were problems with the locals that he could not understand. While initially bashful, he eventually blurted out that it was because the Italians were resentful of the long hours that the Chinese were willing to put in. This rang true with some stories I have read and heard elsewhere where locals in the textile manufacturing area of Prato have been overwhelmed by the volume of Chinese migrants coming to the city and this has led to tensions. Stories abound in Italy that this is part of a precise strategy by the Chinese government to “get a foothold in Europe,” but going on my conversation with Mr Wang, this seems like an unlikely scenario.

Instead, this phenomenon should be viewed through the prism of human migrations throughout history, as part of which people leave less prosperous areas to reach more prosperous ones. The difference with China is the sheer volumes involved, and the seemingly endless potential for more to come that exists. The issue of the Chinese in Prato is almost half a decade old now, but clearly no resolution has been found and nor is it likely that a tidy one will be. As long as there are Chinese citizens who want to migrate and are willing to take the low paid opportunities offered by Chinese firms in Prato, then this flow will likely continue (with or without government sanction). The same can be said for a vast array of other immigrant communities that are out there and eager to come to Europe or anywhere else.

What struck me as more interesting, however, were the different paths being pursued by Mr. Wang’s two children – one was clearly eager to stay in the West and in fact move to the UK, while the other was staunchly Chinese and had no desire to leave the Middle Kingdom. This dichotomy seems to reflect the reality of an increasingly cosmopolitan and internationalised young China that is torn between a keen interest in the world and a strong sense of national pride. What will be interesting is how the world reacts to this new international Chinese class, and whether it might prove to be the face of future Chinese soft power. What vision are this group going to project of their country in the world as it continues its upward trajectory?


A new article in this month’s HSToday magazine, which you can buy on the newstands if you are in the US, or can see here free online. If I get the whole text later, I will post it here, but it is easily accessible through the link, so do try. It provides an overview of what happened last year in terrorism in Europe and looks forwards to what the next year holds. Thanks to Guido, Peter, Brynjar, John, Lorenzo and others for informing my research for it.

UPDATE, I see they have now placed the text all directly onto the website as well. It is thus cut and pasted below:

Europe’s Hard Choices

It’s a question of money versus safety as European authorities try to cope with new conditions

By: Raffaello Pantucci

01/24/2011 (12:00am)


The threat is fragmenting and budgets are shrinking.

These are the key messages to emerge from discussions with counterterrorism experts across Europe as they review the year’s threat and look forward to assess what the future holds in Islamist terrorism terms. It’s a combination that highlights the significance of MI5 Director General Jonathan Evans’ warning in 2007: “Every decision to investigate someone entails a decision not to investigate someone else.”

Up until the parcel bomb plot emanating from Yemen was discovered at Britain’s East Midlands Airport in late October, it seemed as though the choices made were all the correct ones. And even there, the discovery of the plot was in part due to the attentive efforts of British spooks monitoring the airwaves and overhearing messages passing between Al Qaeda in Pakistan and their Yemeni affiliate Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

The plot itself surfaced at a moment when Europe was in a heightened state of alert following a spike in media attention about a wave of Mumbai-style attacks on European cities. The alleged plot seemed to be focused around a group of cells with links to Pakistan’s badlands that were all apparently being tasked with operations that emulated the successful Mumbai attack in November 2008 undertaken by Al Qaeda synonym Lashkar E Taiba.

The possibility of Al Qaeda networks undertaking a Mumbaistyle attack was something that had worried terrorism analysts for some time. In an interview with Homeland Security Today, Brynjar Lia of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, a Norwegian military-linked think tank, highlighted an article published on an extremist website, “Pulpit of Monotheism and Jihad,” in Arabic by influential Al Qaeda theorist Abu Saad al Ameli titled “The Gains of The Battle Of Mumbai” ( Written in the months after the Mumbai attacks, the article pointed out the success of the operation and suggested that they should be emulated in the future. For Lia, this alleged plot and the parcel bomb plot were all “quite rational when we consider the growth of these groups. This is an incremental shift in their modus operandi. They are trying to find ways around the security measures.”

Lia was also quick to point out that, while this threat clearly alarmed security officials across the continent, it remained unclear how advanced it really was. While he did not deny that the threat was likely real, it is not certain that a Mumbai-style plot was what was actually being planned in this case.

One former British Security source interviewed by Homeland Security Today who requested anonymity, pointed out that it was likely the information was put into the public domain since security services may have been concerned they did not have complete coverage of the plot. As is the case with plots that are disrupted before they can reach conclusion, it is never certain what exactly the plotters were up to, a situation emphasized here, where an unknown number of the supposed plotters were killed during unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes in Pakistan.

The German angle

Much of the information available about the possible Mumbai-style plot appears to have come from confessions supplied by Ahmed Sidiqui, an Afghan-German national who was captured by American forces in Kabul in July 2010. Sidiqui is alleged to have supplied a wealth of information about his fellow plotters in Pakistan, including the fact that he had met Mohammed Ilyas Kashmiri, Younis Al Mauretani and Mohammed Al Quso, senior Al Qaeda figures who apparently mentioned to him that they had units already deployed in Europe preparing for a Mumbai-style attack. Further information was also received from an anonymous German extremist who was reportedly providing authorities with information in an attempt to barter his safe return home.

This information, alongside intercepts collected by British monitoring services and doubtless other sources, was behind a spike in UAV strikes in September 2010 apparently in an effort to disrupt the plot. However, aside from the confessions supplied by Sidiqui and intercepts, the only tangible proof that cells were armed and ready to strike European cities came when French police busted a set of cells in Avignon and Marseille with links to networks sending fighters to Afghanistan. Those arrested had an AK-47 and a pump action shotgun in their possession. All sources for this article suggested that others may still be out there, and security forces in France, Germany and the United Kingdom made numerous public displays of strength through the deployment of heavily armed police in public places.

While the weapons were found in France, the biggest component of the plot, according to Guido Steinberg of the German think-tank Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, was actually in Germany. Steinberg, a former counterterrorism official in the German chancellor’s office, has been watching the threat in Germany with growing alarm. From being a small feature of the jihadist scene linking Europe to the badlands in Pakistan, Germany has now become one of the major loci of European terrorism. According to Steinberg, “There is now a Turkish and Germanspeaking infrastructure in place,” something that was absent “before 2006,” making it easier for young Germans to go and fight.

But as the dates suggest, this is not an entirely new phenomenon, and German fighters have been a feature of the jihadist threat spectrum for a few years. However, what surprised Steinberg was the dedication of the young fighters.

“I used to think that they would not want to go somewhere where they were likely to be killed,” he toldHomeland Security Today, something that would have become ever clearer as stories emerged of German citizens dying on the battlefield. Most prominently, in May 2010, a few days after his death on the battlefield, as reported on extremist websites, the diary of Eric Brenninger was published online. A long and rambling tract, the memoirs provided the clearest publicly available insight yet into the minds of the community of young Germans serving alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Starting by describing his life as a dissolute young man in Germany, Brenninger’s memoirs tracked his embrace of Islam in 2007 and his decision four months later to go and join the fighters in Afghanistan.

As he put it, “I knew my duty. I wanted to join the jihad. … We followed the events which were unfolding in the regions of jihad and watched films of mujahedin battling the crusaders. Hate of the kuffar [unbeliever] grew in me.” It is hard to provide a precise figure on the number of angry young men in Germany, but according to official figures, there are some 30 returned fighters who are on a list of some 200 “dangerous persons” at liberty in Germany. There is a second list of some 1,000-plus individuals who are on the radars of the security services, but according to Steinberg, “They don’t know who is really dangerous.” Some of these people, like Brenninger, are clearly little more than cannon fodder, but their motivation and capacity for free movement in the West means they pose a potential threat.

But, according to Lorenzo Vidino, a visiting fellow at the Rand Corporation and a US-based Italian terrorism analyst and most recently author of The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West, while it is the growth in the threat from Germany that has been one of the most interesting features of recent times, 2010 was most clearly marked out by a noticeable up-tick in the threat in France.

The French connection

In September, in providing an explanation for a beefing up of security measures at tourist sites, French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux declared, “This is a real threat, and this threat today is at an undoubtedly high level which calls for reinforced vigilance.”

It was subsequently revealed that his services had received a series of quite specific warnings from their Algerian counterparts about the threat from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Then, in October, he took to the airwaves once again to talk about a “new message, from the Saudi services, indicating to us that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was certainly active, or expecting to be active, in Europe, especially France.” Statements from heads of French intelligence services repeated much the same message as these worrying calls, while AQIM kidnapped groups of French nationals in North Africa.

The threat in France, according to Vidino, is three-pronged. “They are worried about the threat out of Yemen, AQIM and Pakistan. The rhetoric and operational threat from AQIM is something that has been constant, but the others are relatively new.” One reason for this up-tick in particularly French targeting was suggested in a message to emerge on the forums in October in which Osama Bin Laden threatened France, warning, “If you deemed it right to ban women from wearing the hijab, then should it not be our right to expel your invading men by striking their necks?”

But while this seemed to be in direct support of AQIM attempts in North Africa, in late 2010 it seemed as though on the French mainland it was networks of returnees from the Afghan-Pakistan battlefields that were of greatest concern to the French authorities.

Following an unspecified intelligence tip-off, French authorities alerted their Italian counterparts of the arrival in September of Ryad Hannouni, a young man of Franco-Algerian origin who was involved in a network sending fighters to South Asia. His arrest in Naples led a month later to a further series of arrests in France that appeared in part to be linked to the Mumbai-style attack threat menacing Europe.

Then, in early November, a group of four men and one woman was arrested in Paris as part of a “conspiracy to prepare a terror attack.” At least one of them was prepared “to die in their fanatical attack,” and one had recently been to Afghanistan: Two of the men were intercepted at the Paris airport returning on a flight from Egypt.

There are apparently 25 individuals of grave concern to French authorities who have trained in Afghanistan and may be on their way home.

Britain’s reprieve

For the United Kingdom, on the other hand, it would seem as though the threat has entered a relatively calm period—at least on the surface. The new British coalition entered into government with great expectations of shifts in counterterrorism policy, but has instead opted to change very little. Most notably, the controversial “control order” regime remains in place – by which individuals are kept under strict conditions of house arrest when they are of great concern to the security services, but cannot be convicted of any crime – and the government has not yet made any great changes to the much maligned “Prevent” strategy. Late in the year, the government announced an overhaul of Prevent, but as with the control order regime, it was unclear that the government had managed to clarify its position, clearly now seeing the issue in the same light as the previous government, which had been unable to find a solution.

British spooks continue to be concerned by the same array of threats as before, but things have now slightly shifted. In September 2010, MI5 head Evans declared, “The percentage of the priority plots and leads we see in the UK linked to Al Qaeda in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where Al Qaeda senior leadership is still based, has dropped from around 75 percent two or three years ago to around 50 percent now. This does not mean that the overall threat has reduced, but that it has diversified. The reduction in cases linked to the tribal areas of Pakistan is partly attributable to the pressure exerted on the Al Qaeda leadership there.”

Information published by the Associated Press suggested that Government Communications Headquarters, the British equivalent of the US National Security Agency, estimated there were some 20 Britishborn militants in the North Waziristan district, with phone calls being traced between the region and the Midlands, home to many of Britain’s South Asian minorities. According to Pakistani intelligence, the British end of the previously mentioned Mumbai-style attack apparently centered around a pair of British-Pakistani brothers, either from east London or the Midlands.

But as Evans’ speech suggested, the growing threat for the United Kingdom is seen from the other fields of jihad: specifically, Somalia and Yemen. Neither of these threats are new, but, according to Evans, “There are a significant number of UK residents training in Al Shabaab camps to fight in the insurgency there,” and his service has also “seen a surge in Yemen related casework.”

There is a long history of young Britons going to both locations – and in the past, this has resulted in terror plots both at home and abroad. In late 1998, a group of young British Muslims linked to Abu Hamza Al Masri, an Egyptian militant now in British prison, was arrested in Yemen as part of an alleged bomb plot and a series of kidnappings that resulted in the deaths of foreign tourists. In May 2005, shortly before the London bombings, a group of young men who were part of the network of extremists that attempted the July 21, 2005, copycat bombings of London’s public transport system, traveled to Somalia as part of an unlikely pilgrimage to a war zone. Furthermore, two of the subsequent 21/7 bombers were of Somali origin, while the support network was made up of a number of individuals from Britain’s Somali community.

Denmark and Scandinavia

This network aside, the closest a Somali network has gotten to striking in Europe was the attempted murder of Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard on Jan. 1, 2010, by Mohammed Gelle, a young Somali-Dane who was previously linked to Shabaab networks in Kenya. Gelle’s frenzied assault on Westergaard’s house with an ax was in revenge for the cartoonist’s contributions to the infamous Danish cartoons that have made Denmark one of the many European targets for Islamists.

Westergaard survived the attempt, and in its wake Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mahmud Raage said, “We appreciate the incident in which a Muslim Somali boy attacked the devil who abused our prophet.” However, in what appeared to be an admission of Gelle’s links, he went on to say, “There could be some people who might say that boy was related to Shabaab.”

According to sources in Denmark, it seems as though security services had attempted to recruit Gelle in the wake of his arrest and release in Kenya as part of an alleged network targeting US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s visit to that country. Having helped him get home, it seems the security services lost control of the young man and were simply too overloaded to maintain full surveillance. In late 2009, Danes were shocked to discover that another Somali-Dane, likely an acquaintance of Gelle, was behind a suicide bombing in Mogadishu.

Nevertheless, according to Norwegian expert Brynjar Lia, the problem is seen “as something far away and complicated” and in a place “where there has always been war.” Most cases linked to Shabaab in Scandinavia are related to fundraising, meaning they remain “far away and irrelevant” in the public mind. Similarly, until the parcel bomb attempt emanating from Yemen, the threat had seemingly stayed away from Britain’s shores. In March, British police arrested Bangladeshi-Briton Rajib Karim for plotting in the United Kingdom, fundraising and providing information to networks abroad – allegedly AQAP. The case is currently rumbling through the courts and in initial statements police claimed he was planning suicide bombings in the United Kingdom.

Still aiming for America

Karim was arrested before he could do much, and even the device found in a printer cartridge at East Midlands Airport was most likely aiming for the United States. In a terse announcement released Nov. 10, 2010, Scotland Yard said, “Forensic examination has indicated that if the device had activated it would have been at 10:30 British Standard Time on Friday, 29 October 2010. If the device had not been removed from the aircraft the activation could have occurred over the eastern seaboard of the US.”

The threat, it seems, remains primarily targeted to the United States, confirming a report, the Europol EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2010 ( Situation_and_Trend_Report_TE-SAT/TESAT2010.pdf), published by Europol earlier in the year, that said, in surveying the Islamist threat in Europe, “The [European Union] can be used as a platform for launching attacks on the United States.”

Published in April 2010, the same report also highlighted that, while “Islamist terrorism is still perceived as the biggest threat to most member states,” it is in fact other terrorist groups that are more active in conducting operations. In 2009, Europol tracked only one effective Islamist-inspired attack in Europe (a lone bomber attempting an attack on an army barracks in Milan, Italy), while there were 237 “separatist” attacks, 40 by left-wing groups and an additional 124 in Northern Ireland. This last number is the one that is of increasing concern to British security services, which have watched in the past few years as violence in the province has quietly grown into a “low level drumbeat of attacks with beatings, petrol bombs, shootings of Catholic police officers and more.”

According to John Bew of the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College, the groups are “trying something every day” and have a desire to strike in London, “absolutely no question.” The fact they have not is likely a reflection of the deep penetration by the security services, though the increasing violence is something that has taken everyone by surprise. As MI5 Director Jonathan Evans put it, “We have seen a persistent rise in terrorist activity and ambition in Northern Ireland over the last three years.”


This is unlikely a harbinger of violence on the scale seen previously, but the increasing attention these networks will command is going to distract already stretched resources to the limit.

In July, John Yates, the head of British counterterrorism police, announced that the levels of cuts the police were facing was going to “raise the terror risk,” though he was quickly condemned by government officials, who told him to avoid shroud-waving and raising public alarm.

In fact, individuals interviewed by Homeland Security Today in both Germany and the United Kingdom have told of stories of counterterror units being oversupplied and officers with nothing to do being reassigned to other tasks. But it is almost impossible to know what this actually means: Is there a lack of intelligence or genuinely no threat? Vidino, the Italian counterterrorism expert at the Rand Corp., recounts the situation in Italy where forces have noticed stagnation in the domestic threat, and parallel budgetary pressures to focus on the threat of organized crime.

The biggest danger, in fact, probably lies in the known unknowns in the shape of lone wolves. For Peter Clarke, the former head of Counter-Terrorism Command in the United Kingdom, the most interesting case in 2010 was the attempted assassination by Roshonara Choudhry of UK Member of Parliament (MP) Stephen Timms. Using the Internet to identify Timms as an MP who had “strongly supported” the invasion of Iraq and radicalized by videos she found on YouTube of Abdullah Azzam and Anwar Al Awlaki, Choudhry stopped attending her university course, bought some knives, cleared her debts and made an appointment to see Timms. Arriving at Timms’ constituency surgery (an allocated period of time when MPs make themselves available to people living in their areas) on the afternoon of May 14, Choudhry patiently waited her turn before stabbing him repeatedly when he came to greet her. Claiming that she hoped to become martyred in the course of her operation, Choudhry did little to resist detention and openly confessed her actions to police.

What worries Clarke about this attack is both its random nature and the fact that it marks the first time a non-military individual has been targeted in such a fashion by Islamists in the United Kingdom. There have been hints of these sorts of attacks in previous investigations, but this is the first time a lone jihadist attempted to carry out an action. Given the tendency for copycats to follow, this may mark a new threshold in the threat in the United Kingdom, a nation that has already repeatedly faced the threat of lone wolf terrorists. None, however, was as coherent as Choudhry, who, while clearly warped, did not seem as mentally deranged as some of the others.

And where the United Kingdom leads, the rest of Europe and North America has tended to follow. The United States has already faced the menace of American citizens stirred on by Anwar Al Awlaki into carrying out action in the homeland, and the past two years have been marred by a series of terrorist plots with links emanating from Al Qaeda groups passing through Europe targeting the United States. With the budget cuts faced in Europe also likely to be reflected in the United States, it remains to be seen when the threat level will finally lower. HST


My good friend David was kind enough to hook me up with a guest slot at the prestigious Kings of War blog which is run out of the King’s College, London War Studies department. It explores the issue of Predator strike attacks (which I have touched on before) and looks at what alternatives there are open to policymakers. I am hoping to hear reactions or thoughts on this and please feel free through the contacts page or in the comments.

Raffaello Pantucci on targeted killings: what are the alternatives?


Raffaello Pantucci, a dear friend of mine, has penned a guest post for Kings of War on targeted killings (TK). The post is a lengthy response to aprevious guest post on KoW, by Adam Stahl. Below, Raff hardnosedly (39th use of this word online) asks what the alternatives are to the current use of drone strikes. He seeks to move away from the discussion as to whether their use constitutes a strategy or a tactic, to consider instead how we have gotten to the situation we are now in, and what the options may be for the future. Engaging with this question, he makes the case for recasting the rhetoric surrounding the use of drone strikes, to take us back to talking and thinking about ‘war’, with all the gravitas implied by that term. Yet as Raff concludes, all may not be fair in war, and even in such a context, the continued use of drone strikes would require a serious investment in information operations so as to mitigate their potentially counter-productive side-effects.

My own take on this question is that the very logic presented by Raff in paragraph 3 is too compelling to the powers that be to prompt any real change, even in rhetoric. Changes surrounding the use of drones will be incremental and largely symbolic until such a day as it is demonstrated, in no uncertain terms, that they not only radicalise but that such radicalisation directly leads to terrorist attacks at home. And it is uncertain to me whether such a causality will ever be sufficiently stark to defame this ‘quick and easy’ fix to the problem of terrorism. That is not to say that change is not necessary. So, Raff, take it away…

Hand wringing over the strategic utility or definition of targeted killings is all very well and good, but if we are concerned with drone strikes (the current most prominent TKs), then a sensible idea would be to start to try to formulate some alternatives. After all, drone strikes have become the US default strategy in AfPak for a while now, and one could see how it might start to take on a similar role in Yemen or Somalia if, as appears to be the case, the perceived externally oriented threat continues to grow.
First of all, let us think about how we got to this situation. The rationale behind the deployment of drones in ever-increasing numbers was an awareness that key members of terrorist organisations or insurgent networks were operating in areas from where, for either a lack of forces or of local support, allied forces were unable to easily go and get them. Not wanting a political mess or a lot of dead soldiers, pilotless drones seem a safe option by which enemies could be dispatched without causing a messy political backlash at home. This is clearly not a perfect solution: aside from regular official complaints from the Pakistani government, there is nowthe case of a man who is suing the US government for $500 million for killing his brother and son in a predator strike in Waziristan on New Year’s Eve 2009 (a case that led indirectly to the unmasking of the CIA station chief in Islamabad). It has also angered some in Europe who are appalled at the notion of the US killing its citizens, with impunity, on the other side of the globe. A German MP in particular is making a lot of noise about a case where a predator strike may have killed a German citizen, and similar issues have been raised in the UK in the past and may again surface if the true identities of Abu Bakr and Mansoor Ahmed are uncovered. The US has its own domestic problem with the targeting of Anwar al-Awlaki, whose case was taken up by the ACLU. Finally, it is unclear whether this solution is resulting in too many civilians deaths and possibly inflaming the very rage that fuels the enemies later targeted in these attacks.

Clearly, the political solution that has been reached is not a perfect one, but for the leadership in Washington (whose finger is, in this case, on the trigger), the problems are manageable: they manifest themselves on the other side of the globe and not amongst a community with a vote in the US. There are some attempts to placate the discontents, but for the most they remain ignored by policymakers, who conclude that as long as domestic terrorist attacks are staved off and the body count for friendly soldiers stays relatively low, the public won’t really question government policy abroad.

What other solutions might there be?

One alternative is the deployment of units of soldiers to go snatch these individuals once they have been located, to whisk them away to places where they could be tried and convicted for their crimes. But this presents a number of problems. First, there is the likely death of friendlies, as the sought-after individuals can be expected to resist arrest. It is equally likely that these individuals would be retrieved from areas where civilians and hostiles are hard to distinguish. Any such action would likely hand a propaganda bonanza to the targeted enemy, who will loudly present any casualties resulting from the action as civilian victims (a claim that may be difficult to refute).

And even when the wanted individual is sequestered, what then? Interrogation and then presumably a trial leading to incarceration. Problematically, these interventions would often target culprits before they commit a readily convictable terrorist offense. Meanwhile, to gather evidence along with the culprit would add to an already demanding mission for the snatch team, particularly in an environment likely to be hostile. All of this would also cost money and time: court cases in the UK against groups of plotters linked to al Qaeda go on for years and cost tens of millions of pounds. If individuals are to be taken back to Europe or North America for trial, consider the costs of doing so at the frequency at which drone attacks are currently being launched. If these trials are instead held in, or near theatre, it is still going to be very expensive, and also involve additional security costs to guarantee the trial space.

Finally, even if a case was effectively carried out and a sentence passed, there is the question of long-term incarceration. Jails, presumably high-security detention facilities like Supermax, would rapidly fill up and need replacements. Then the possibility has to be considered that some of these people would live out their sentences and need releasing back into society: how would that work? Would it involve sending them back to where they came from? A lawyer may make the case that upon release a convict be naturalised as a citizens and granted the requisite rights and freedoms. We have already seen how problematic this can be with the US government’s attempt to close down Guantanamo.

The other solution is to go the other way and to ramp up strikes in the face of political opposition, on the assumption that this will be a short-term expedient to a temporary problem. This is the path currently pursued, but it is equally riven with problems. Aside from the political issues highlighted above, it is unclear whether it will resolve the situation in some permanent way. Predator drones have been deployed for over half a decade now and while they clearly instill fear in our enemies, they have not gotten rid of them, as evidenced by the continued need for drone strikes in theatre. If this tactic were a strategy by which to resolve the problem, then presumably at some point we would have run out of targets. Instead, it may be that despite, or because of these drone strikes, our enemy’s numbers are growing (something that may in turn explain their increased use and provide a worrying answer to Donald Rumsfeld’s question as to whether terrorists are being killed quicker than they are being produced).

So is there a third way?

A third way would need to maintain low casualties amongst friendlies and civilians while also capturing bad guys in a sanitised way that nonetheless takes them out of circulation. It would also need some way of addressing the political problems that plague the use of this tactic.

Maybe the solution lies in using the drones as eyes in the sky rather than as killers hovering above. Use the intelligence gathered from the drones to track enemies until they reach a location where they can be snatched by friendlies, and then placed before courts of law. The idea would be to have almost total coverage over a restricted space where the enemy was known to operate, and to grab them when they venture beyond this space – presumably on their way to carry out terrorist acts. This would keep down the amount of friendlies in danger’s way, along with the level of collateral damage.

There are a number of problems with this solution, however: first, it would require a considerable number of drones and of intelligence operators to monitor these drones. Secondly, it is hard to ensure complete cover. Intelligence is never perfect and a failure to focus on the right region or hot-spot may lead to a terrorist attack. Insurgents and terrorists are by their nature adaptive, and eventually they would figure out ways to avoid the watchers in the sky (doubtlessly they are already working on this and may already have made some headway). And none of this addresses the question of what to do once the suspects are in custody – if they are extradited to the US or a European country, we return to the problems of trials and incarcerations.

Another alternative is to focus instead on the killing capacity of the drones. Switch the weaponry on the drones; turn them into flying sniper rifles rather than flying missile carriers (I have to concede that this concept was first suggested to me by KoW blogger Tim Stevens). This would save on the collateral damage and on the number of friendlies in the line of danger. Yet aside from the technical aspects (of which I am no expert), what of the question of culpability and guilt, and the political issue of whether it is acceptable to launch assassination missions across the globe? Given the difficulties of ascertaining and proving whether it was a civilian or a terrorist who was killed, the narrative of civilians caught in the crossfire would continue. The Taliban have repeatedly shown how effective their information operations can be, and you need only have a brief conversation with people in the UK to see how effectively this message of civilian casualties spreads, often without a shred of evidence either way.

Maybe the solution lies in producing information packs to be published or released immediately after any strike, detailing who was targeted and why, including the evidence against them and of having hit the right target. This is the nightmare suggestion for intelligence or security professionals who would blanch at the prospect of sharing their jealously cherished intelligence (at least until Wikileaks gets their hands on it!). More seriously, it is of course likely that someone with a knowing eye would be able to identify informants from amongst the information released, something that would endanger their lives and probably stop the flow of useful information. It would also require the admission of local collusion in the strikes, on the part of host governments, which may complicate the political situation on the ground. The Wikileaks cables from Yemen, which show the government’s collusion with the US in masquerading drone attacks, is something that would put unsustainable pressure on any Western government found in a similar position.

Maybe the solution is much simpler: the conflict needs to be recast as a ‘war’. People die in wars, usually for a rationale that a majority of the population accepts, or which it needs to be persuaded of. NATO went to Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 to get those who carried out that heinous act, in a move that most supported (in the West at least). Let us refocus the rhetoric and language on this fact and that the drone war is an extension of this conflict. This is not to advocate the conflict’s indefinite continuance, but let us phrase the debate about strikes within that context and continue the discussion along these lines. This framework would also force a serious public conversation on the war in Afghanistan, rather than a debate about a tactic. It would furthermore provide a better context for understanding the path that the West is now on: slowly withdrawing troops from Afghanistan while continuing with drone strikes against set targets.

Having refocused the rhetoric, the US should establish a high-level committee that includes at least one human-rights judge, a known independent (ideally foreign, UN-employed) judge or prosecutor, and another from the nation in which the strikes are taking place (probably therefore Pakistani). This committee should be given access to the targeting package information for each drone killing and should publish an annual report verifying and detailing what has taken place the year before in a fashion accessible to the public (and scrubbed of sensitive intelligence information).

There are problems in this solution: the Pakistanis (or whoever) would be admitting publicly to something they continue to condemn in rhetoric, and the recasting of drones and the Afghan conflict in the language of ‘war’ may once again inflame matters à la ‘Clash of Civilizations’. But, frankly, both of these complications are already in place. No one really believes the Pakistanis’ statements (and thanks to Wikileaks we can now see how the leadership in Yemen is also speaking out of one side of its mouth in public and another in private), and al Qaeda and the Taliban already think that they are at war (and at least for the Taliban, one they are winning). The only people who might get infuriated would be anti-war types at home, but then their anger tends to be a guaranteed byproduct of any military activity abroad. As for the argument about drone strikes deepening radicalisation: governments would need to conduct major information operations to ensure the committee’s findings are published and disseminated effectively. And clearly, drones and their impact is not the sole radicalising agent at play.

The question and permissibility of drones and targeted killings as a weapon in combat is one that the Israeli Supreme Court has wrestled with before. I would recommend reading its findings for a good debate about the issues at hand. Hopefully, all of this will serve to stimulate some more thinking on these questions, and I look forward to hopefully engaging further in this discussion on- or off-line.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), his writing can be found here.