Archive for May, 2011
Tags: Afghanistan, China, Chinese foreign policy, Pakistan, radicalization, US-China relations, US-Pakistan relations
Tags: algeria, counter-radicalization, counter-terrorism, Europe, Pope, radicalization, terrorism, UK, UK counter-terrorism
A new post for Free Rad!cals, looking at the recently concluded investigation in the UK by the independent reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation that looked into the case of a group of “environment cleaners” who were picked up ahead of the Pope’s visit to London. The investigation has thrown up some interesting information about the case, but more broadly some questions about these sorts of investigations. In many ways a very similar piece to the last reviewer’s investigation into Pathway, but the information that has been revealed this time shows more about policing tactics than the intelligence behind them which was the focus of the last one.
The new Independent Reviewer for Terrorism Legislation David Anderson QC has published his first review of counter-terrorism legislation, conducting a full inquiry into the case of six street cleaners working in London who were arrested on the eve of the Pope’s visit to London in September of last year. The report exonerates the police concluding, “I consider that the police acted responsibly and within the law in arresting the six men when they did.”
The report lays out in detail the evidential case behind the police decision to arrest the men. Apparently, at 4:30pm in the afternoon on September 16th, the day before the Pope’s visit to the UK, police received a tip off from an unnamed source who told them that they had overheard five of the men “talking about a possible attack on the Pope’s vehicle on the following day.” The source’s information is summarized thus:
· The five men were looking at a picture in the Metro newspaper of the Pope’s motor vehicle.
· They discussed a recent incident where the Koran was burnt and stated that a Christian should be killed for every page that was damaged.
· The view was expressed that whilst the Pope’s vehicle was protected, it could be stopped and that even if he survived, those around him would die.
· Comments were made to the effect that it would be wonderful if the Pope was killed and that there were virgins waiting for them.
· The men could all be working on the day of the Pope’s visit to London.
· The depot had recently taken delivery of new uniforms, ten of which had been stolen.
Additionally, police were told that ‘a close associate of one of the men’ was arrested and released under terrorism legislation some 3-4 months previously. Somewhat more speculatively, one of the men was reported to have recently returned from Paris (one of the men, a 26 year-old, held dual Algerian and French nationality, though it is unclear if this is the man that is referred to), with his head shaven ‘and to have become radicalised.’ Background checks on the men revealed one of them shared a name with an individual who had been arrested and then released during the course of the investigation into the Madrid bombings. The five men under suspicion were aged between 26 and 44, all worked for Veolia Environment Services, and were all of Algerian descent except for one who was Sudanese. The Algerians were all either married to European’s or held European citizenships as well – one British, one Spanish and another French.
After the decision was made to arrest the men in the morning, a sixth man (Subject F) described ‘as being a friend of the suspects’ arrived to the company HQ later in the day and became agitated saying ‘I’m not working now. Does everyone think we’re fucking terrorists? They’re treating us like animals with our hands on our heads.’ He then stormed off. The same person who reported this statement also said that he recalled Subject F requesting to work on the Pope’s route during the visit. Investigation into the company’s files uncovered that a number of men had requested to work together on the Pope’s visit and that a couple had taken holiday time at the same time.
All of which would I suppose paint an incriminating picture to a suspicious mind. It is worth remembering that at the time, security in the UK and Europe was on high alert after the information came out of Afghanistan/Pakistan that cells of Europeans had been activated to carry out Mumbai-style terrorist operations. Cells were swept up in Germany, France and Denmark – in some cases turning up weapons. Plotters had not yet emerged in the UK, though a report from Waziristan pointed to an individual allegedly called Abdul Jabber who was tasked to establish an al Qaeda cell in the UK. He was apparently killed in a drone strike. Another element to emerge at around this time was that a Norwegian-Uighur who was allegedly plotting something in Oslo was found to have in his possession a photo of Ibrahim Adam, a brother to Anthony Garcia, aka Rahman Adam, one of the plotters linked to the Crevice cell. The passport-sized photos showed him in a variety of different haircuts and were taken as evidence that he was trying to obtain fake identification to get back into Europe to possibly carry out some sort of plot (possibly further darkening the picture, Adam was of Algerian descent, the family changed their names years before).
So within this context, it is easy to imagine why police would react as they did. It is a bit surprising that Mr. Anderson fails to mention all this, though he does highlight that the “requirement for reasonable suspicion” needs to “be kept firmly in mind by all forces during future operations….particularly in view of the security pressures that are likely to attend the forthcoming London Olympics.” This element seems to have been leapt upon by today’s Independent.
Nevertheless, it is worth taking a moment to cast a further skeptical eye over this case – the evidence for the plot appears to be single-sourced and not fitting with any other direct intelligence that the security services received. Mr. Anderson himself describes parts of it as “barely credible.” It may be understandable that the police reacted as they did given the context, but the operation will have done little to win them support amongst the Muslim community. As Subject F so eloquently put it, “does everyone think we’re fucking terrorists?” Doubtless, this experience has confirmed this to him and the others. For Subject E, a 27-year-old Sudanese man, the case concluded with it being discovered that he had had his application for asylum turned down and was currently operating using a false identity. According to the investigation “this has resulted in further action under the immigration laws.” One imagines this might include expulsion from the country, though I am uncertain of whether the UK can send people back to Sudan. None of which will endear HMG to him or his friends and family.
It remains unclear whether the chap who had returned from Paris “radicalized” with a shaved head was still a cause for concern, though I imagine he will remain on police radars. Unlike the previous Operation Pathway plot that has been linked to a series of plots in New York and Oslo and with key plotters back in Waziristan, this lot seems not to have had any serious links and their release back into society is likely going to do little to increase the terrorist threat. The fact that the Security Services (MI5, MI6 and GCHQ) did not feature in the investigation confirms that they were not involved and therefore did not have the intelligence.
Instead, it seems as though this was a case of a bad tip-off at a tense time, and hopefully lessons have been learned from this. It of course almost impossible to know to what degree this will have improved or worsened community relations – though doubtless it will be noted how loudly the arrests were reported and how quietly the report that declares “there is no reason to believe, with the benefit of hindsight, that any of the arrested men was involved in a plot to kill the Pope, or indeed that any such plot existed” was covered. But to blame the media is often a bit of a cheap shot, as ultimately, it only caters to the public’s desires and the discovery some people were innocent is less news grabbing than a dramatic arrest.
The purpose of this system of regulation with independent reviewers and inquests is intended to provide the citizenry with a way of watching the watchers. What might be perceived as being a problem, however, is that they continue to largely exonerate those they are overseeing. In the various investigations that have been carried out they continue to say the security services are doing a good job and that broadly speaking nothing is going wrong. Human mistakes are made and that is it. Now this may be the case, but in some cases one has to wonder about whether this might not be stoking further skepticism. Certainly with the Pathway lot, the absolute certainty with which everyone up to the Prime Minister claimed they were linked to al Qaeda was not supported by evidence that was subsequently released. I do not mean to doubt that the Pathway chaps were up to something (I have written a whole article detailing their supposed links to al Qaeda), but the problem of a presentational gap remains when no explosives or evidence of a bomb plot were actually found. In this case where six innocent men were swept up the cause seems to have been bad intelligence and a high level of background chatter.
Admittedly, it is unclear to what degree those who still doubt are a majority or whether it is merely conspiratorially minded obsessive’s or bereaved individuals for whom no comfort will be enough, but at the same time it is equally uncertain that the current structures the UK has set in place to watch the watchers are necessarily assuaging the concerns they set out to calm.
Tags: Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, australia, converts, Europe, France, Germany, lashkar e toiba, Pakistan, radicalization, terrorism, UK
A new piece for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, looking at the phenomenon of converts going to fight jihad in AfPak. I have looked at this a couple of times before, and keep considering a longer piece on it but haven’t quite figured it out yet. I know others are also looking at this, and I would welcome any ideas or thoughts on the subject.
BY RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI, MAY 13, 2011| Friday, May 13, 2011 – 2:59PM
Up in the north of England, a trial is being heard against a group of men allegedly at the core of a cell recruiting and radicalizing individuals to fight in Afghanistan. The group, part of an ongoing trickle of people from the U.K. attracted to fighting in South Asia, is notable because it counts amongst its ranks a white convert, the latest in a long line of such individuals who have been drawn to militancy in South Asia. These reports of white converts in the region are naturally of particular concern to Western security services: their capacity to blend effortlessly back into the West makes them highly attractive weapons for groups seeking to launch terrorist attacks.
Back in mid-2009, an older moderate Muslim convert in London told me that his theory behind converts in terrorist cells was that they played a key role as catalysts. The presence of a convert, usually a zealous individual who had moved from a troubled past as drug addict or petty criminal to Islamist extremist, would reinforce the group’s internal dialogue and help push them deeper into their militant ideologies.
The group who bombed London’s public transport system on July 7, 2005 is the archetypal example of this. Convert Germaine Lindsay, originally of Jamaican descent, was the most overtly violent and radical of the group and may have played a role stirring the others on. According to information released during the recent Coroner’s Inquest into the bombings, he was likely involved in a gun crime incident prior to the bombing, he was reported to have been active in promoting radical groups in Luton. Additionally, he was a close student of the radical preacher Abdullah el Faisal. His presence amongst the otherwise Pakistani-Beeston group would have been as an outsider, but one who was brought into the closest of confidence, suggesting an outsized influence.
In a separate case in East London, Mohammed Hamid, also known as “Osama bin London,” was a “revert” who found his religion after a life of drugs and became a key figure in a radicalizing network training, amongst others, the July 21 team who tried to bomb London two weeks after the successful July 7 cell. And there are other examples. Looking at other failed plots linked to Waziristan, the 2006 plot to bomb airlines concurrently on transatlantic routes counted a couple of converts amongst plotters, and the 2007 plot to attack a U.S. airbase in Germany was conducted by a group of mostly Caucasian German converts.
On the battlefields of Afghanistan and Pakistan, however, these light-skinned converts face a high degree of skepticism: for example, Rahman Adam, aka Anthony Garcia, one of the plotters involved in the 2004 plot to blow up a British mall using a fertilizer based explosive, was initially turned away from training camps for being “too white.” Adam was in fact of Algerian origin and a born Muslim; he was just very pale skinned.
Prior to al-Qaeda’s attacks of September 11, 2001, the route for converts to training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan was much easier to tread. James McLintock, nicknamed the “Tartan Taliban,” first joined the jihad against the Soviet Union in the late 1980s after, by his account, he met a group of young Saudi hotheads on a flight to Pakistan as he made his way to visit a University friend. Enjoying this first taste of jihad, McLintock became a feature of the European jihadi scene, joining the fighting again in Bosnia and returning regularly to Afghanistan. Back in the U.K. alongside fellow convert and jihadi traveler Martin “Abdullah” McDaid, McLintock began running study circles at the Iqra bookshop in Beeston, northern England and training camps in the nearby Lake District that were attended by some of the July 7, 2005 cell.
And in the years immediately before September 11, there was a stream of converts who showed up and were accorded quite high levels of trust by al-Qaeda. In 1997, having converted a few years earlier in Orange County, California, Adam Gadahn made his way to Pakistan and then to Afghanistan. Using contacts he had made in the U.S., he arrived and seems to have been able to fill a vital early role as translator of Arabic material into English. By 1999 converts seemed to be arriving into South Asia from all directions. Sometime in the middle of the year Christian Ganczarski, a German-Polish convert who used the same network to get to Afghanistan as theHamburg Cell that produced Mohammed Atta, a leader of the 9/11 group, arrived in Quetta, Pakistan and after a trip back to Germany to fetch his family, moved into Osama bin Laden’s compound in Afghanistan, where he acted as the I.T. guy. At around the same time, itinerant Australian jihadist David Hicks showed up and trained with Lashkar-e-Taiba near Lahore — he tried to go and fight in Kashmir, but ended up going to train at the Al Farouq camp near Kandahar the next year, where he met a bunch of fellow peripatetic westerners including British convert Richard “shoe bomber” Reid. Early 2000, Jack Roche, a burly Australian-Brit who had converted and joined the Indonesian al-Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah, showed up on the recommendation of Hambali, the operations chief for the Indonesian group, to train and learn explosives and got to sit down and eat with Osama bin Laden.
Post-9/11 converts have continued to play a role in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but few appear to have continued to rise into senior roles as they had before. According to British security sources, one of the most senior was British-born Hindu convert Dhiren Barot, who was incarcerated in November 2006 in the U.K. after a long career as a jihadist foot soldier. Starting with fighting with Lashkar-e-Taiba in Kashmir in 1995, an experience he wrote about in his 1999 magnum opus “The Army of Madinah in Kashmir,” Barot went on to help 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed with his global jihadist planning.
Since 9/11 instead white converts in Afghanistan and Pakistan have mostly been foot soldiers, with the militant groups there more skeptical of converts as potential Western intelligence agents. The Caucasian-seeming Rahman Adam was unable to go and train until he had connected with established jihadist Omar Khyam. An exception to this seems to have been Bryant Neal Vinas, a Queens, New York-born kid who converted to Islam, who made his way to training camps in Pakistan in September 2007 seemingly using networks from the U.S. to establish contact with radicals. It took him a bit longer to establish his bona fides, but eventually he got to meet with an array of high- and mid-ranking al-Qaeda fighters who immediately saw his potential as an operative who could easily blend back into the West.
The Waziristan-based Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) seems to have recognized this potential in a group of German converts who showed up to fight alongside them in the mid-2000s. Having trained a group of them, they sent a cell led by converts Fritz Gelowicz and Daniel Schneider to target the U.S. base in Ramstein, Germany. Other converts linked to the group instead fell in battle, includingEric Breininger who in April 2010 died in Pakistan, while the group was initially motivated by the death in Chechnya of fellow convert Thomas Fischer in late 2003. Another just disrupted allegedGerman network included another convert and helping funnel fighters to South Asia.
And the trickle goes on. In July 2010, Khalid Kelly, infamous Irish convert and former member of British extremist group Al Muhajiroun, returned home to Ireland having claimed he tried to join jihadists in Pakistan (although he was interviewed in the Times in November 2009 saying he was training to go to and fight in Afghanistan). In Kelly’s own words, however, “as a white convert, I stuck out like a sore thumb,” so he returned to Ireland instead. Others met with messier ends: according to Pakistani intelligence reports two white British converts were killed in a drone strike inDatta Khel in December 2010.
The pre-9/11 days of converts showing up and getting to meet al-Qaeda leaders are over, but these light-skinned jihadis remain a key potential threat that militant groups will attempt to actively recruit. They both help show off the group’s ongoing international appeal while also acting as excellent weapons to strike deep in the West. And until the overall threat has been eliminated, they will continue to be a feature of it.
Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR).
Tags: arab spring, counter-radicalization, counter-terrorism, Europe, France, immigration to Europe, Italy, Libya, north africa, terrorism
A new piece for Jamestown about the latest Europol annual terrorism report, focusing on the elements linked to North Africa and specifically Libya. There are a whole raft of issues in here that I really only touch on. The tensions this is causing within Schengen are fascinating to me. I wonder if retrospectively Libya is going to prove to be a major turning point for European foreign policy – the shift to coalitions of the willing outside, while internally a receding of free movement.
Without food, employment or security, thousands of sub-Saharan Africans are taking to the sea in overcrowded and unseaworthy boats in desperate attempts to escape the violence in Libya. They are joining some 25,000 Tunisians who have already fled to the Italian islands of Lampedusa and Linosa in hopes of gaining a foothold in Europe. Many boats have been lost in the Mediterranean crossing, at the cost of hundreds of lives (AP, May 9; EU Observer, May 3).
Last year, Mu’ammar Qaddafi struck a €50 billion deal with the European Union to regulate its borders as a “transit country” for refugees and economic migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa. Despite this payoff, Qaddafi has not hesitated to use it against Europe, threatening to “turn Europe black” if various demands are not satisfied (Der Spiegel, February 24). The French minister of foreign affairs, Laurent Wauquiez, has warned: “Libya is the funnel of Africa. Flows of illegal immigrants from countries such as Liberia, Somalia and Eritrea pass through Libya… We must defend our frontiers on a European level. What we’re talking about isn’t a few tens of thousands of illegal immigrants who could arrive in Europe; it’s a potential 200,000 to 300,000 this year” (Radio France Internationale, March 2).
Taking a quite traditional view on events in North Africa, the recently published annual Europol (European Law Enforcement Agency) report on terrorist and counter-terrorist activity in Europe concludes early on that “in the short term, the absence of terrorist organizations amongst the mass Arab protests across the region has left al-Qaeda struggling for a response.” For Europol, however, there is a danger in the longer term that if the expectations of those on the streets are not met, “it could result in more powerful terrorist organizations impacting the European Union.”  Paired with the current tensions between Italy and France over boatloads of North African migrants who arrived in Europe via Italy and then headed immediately for their linguistic homeland in France only to be stopped by police at the French border – something infringing the free movement of even those possessing only temporary papers within the Schengen zone in Europe – the threat posed by a potential overspill of the Arab Spring into Europe becomes evident. The report mentions this potential threat early on, highlighting that “the current and future flow of immigrants originating from North Africa could have an influence on the EU’s security situation” by offering an easy way for terrorists to slip onto the continent.
Events in North Africa are not, however, the only focus of the overall report and the main conclusions are, as usual, that separatist and left-wing terrorists are the most active in Europe. In total the report covers 249 attacks, with 160 considered separatist, 45 left-wing, three Islamist and one “single-issue.” Forty of the attacks were for “unspecified reasons” – all of these coming from the UK, which does not specify the ideological driver of British-based terrorist attacks.
The numbers in the annual Europol report are notoriously unreliable given the different ways in which member states classify terrorism and the growing variety of criminal legislation under which terrorists suspects are charged. Nonetheless, the report opens its key judgments with a statement that “the threat of attacks by Islamist terrorists in the EU remains high and diverse,” a blunt declaration that shows the priority European police forces continue to place on Islamist terrorism. 
In fact, based on the numbers in the report, it is far more likely that European citizens are going to come into contact with separatist terrorists – 349 suspects are reported to have been arrested in the past year. In the UK in particular, this has become increasingly obvious as Irish dissident groups become ever more deadly – in April, a car bomb in Omagh, Northern Ireland killed Roman Catholic policeman Ronan Kerr, an act believed to have been carried out by the Oglaigh na hEireann (ONH – Volunteers/Soldiers of Ireland), a splinter group of the Real IRA (Telegraph [London], April 3; BBC, April 3). ONH operatives are reported to have been under surveillance recently by the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) while scouting potential targets believed to be related to the 2010 London Olympics (Belfast Telegraph, April 21). Dissident Republican factions have returned to violence to protest the recruitment of growing numbers of Roman Catholics to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the replacement for the formerly Protestant-dominated Royal Ulster Constabulary.
A few days after Kerr’s murder, a 500 lb truck bomb was found in Londonderry, and in the week before the royal wedding, the Real IRA paraded in a show of force through a cemetery in Londonderry. They concluded by delivering a speech in which they threatened police officers “regardless of their religion, cultural background or motivation,” as well as announcing that “the Queen of England is wanted for war crimes in Ireland and is not wanted on Irish soil” (BBC, April 25).
But even within the resurgent Irish militancy in the UK there are hints of the threat from North Africa. Those with a keen sense of history will recall that Colonel Qaddafi gave Irish dissidents large quantities of Semtex explosives and it was being investigated whether some of this might have been used to kill Constable Kerr. Defecting Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa is believed to have played a major role in supplying Republican terrorists with Semtex. Conservative MP Robert Halfon said: “If this is true then we must take every step to indict Mr. Koussa in the international war crimes courts or in the British courts for allegedly supplying the IRA with weapons which appear to have killed a policeman on Saturday” (Telegraph, April 3, 2011).
The EUROPOL report also touches upon the bigger strategic question that has been bothering experts about what the Arab Spring means for al-Qaeda’s global narrative. As the report puts it, developments in Tunisia and Egypt show that “peaceful demonstrations by ordinary people may be more effective than terrorist attacks” in effecting political change. However, the resulting “democratic space” could provide room for groups to “expand their activities,” using the “instability of state security forces” as an opportunity to launch attacks. The report notes the “clear contradiction to what al-Qaeda has insisted is the only means of defeating entrenched regimes is likely to result in a notable setback for terrorist organizations in terms of support and recruitment.”  So a short-term gain for terrorist groups may be overshadowed by a long-term loss.
This conclusion, however, is based on data prior to the descent of chaos on Libya. It is unclear to what degree that state might become a new jihadist battlefield that spills back into Europe like Algeria or Bosnia did in the 1990s, or like Iraq and Afghanistan more recently. The overriding nationalist flavor of the fighters in Libya and the continuing presence of the rich target of Qaddafi and his clique is likely to keep fighters busy for the immediate future, but in the longer term it is unclear what the implications of this might be for European security. The report highlights “ongoing concern” about “the number of predominantly young EU nationals travelling to conflict areas that include Afghan/Pakistani border, Somalia and Yemen with the intent to take part in armed combat,” it remains to be seen if Libya will soon need to also be added to this list.
1. “TE-SAT 2011 – EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report,” Europol, April 19, 2011:www.europol.europa.eu/publications/EU_Terrorism_Situation_and_Trend_Report_TE-SAT/TE-SAT2011.pdf.
2. Europol Report, p.6.
3. Europol Report, p.7.
Tags: Anwar al awlaki, AQAP, AQIM, counter-radicalization, counter-terrorism, Europe, lone wolves, Pakistan, shabab, Tehrik-e-taliban pakistan, terrorism, UK, Yemen
A new post for the Telegraph, intended to be a response to the July 7 Coroner’s Inquest. It also tees up some ideas that will be gone into detail in my forthcoming book.
The conclusion that the Security Services could have done more to investigate the leader of the July 7, 2005 bombings on London’s transport system is not a surprising one. Some key mistakes seem to have been made that allowed Mohammed Siddique Khan and his friends to continue to operate along a well-trodden pipeline feeding zealous young Brits to training camps in Pakistan. The excuse that this was merely one cell of many that was operating using this pipeline is worrying but to some degree a reasonable excuse. The danger is that this result is the main lesson being learned from this process. A danger since while the path they took is one that has been now for the most part disrupted and compromised, the threat in the UK has scattered in a variety of different directions meaning we have failed to effectively address the ideological roots of the problem.
None of this is to say that the link to training camps in South Asia does not still exist but at the same time, more recently the threat from violent Islamism in the UK has had return addresses in places like Iraq, Yemen, Somalia or the Internet. This is similar to the way that Osama’s death confirmed that Al Qaeda, a force that has been quite heavily reduced from its previous level, is no longer the main global expression of violent Islamism, but rather the array of regional groups that flocked to his banner are now the main threat.
This trend is not that new. It was last September that the Director General of MI5 said that the volume of the threat that his service was watching from Pakistan had decreased to be about 50% of their workload. From being solely concerned with training camps and networks in Pakistan, they are now worrying about schools in Yemen which cover for training camps or are recruiting grounds for Anwar al-Awlaki’s Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In Somalia, “there are a significant number of UK residents training in Al Shabaab camps to fight in the insurgency there.” And it seems as though Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, the Luton educated man who blew himself up in Stockholm at around Christmas time last year, spent some time with fighters in Iraq. Less geographically, the Internet has become a global purveyor of extreme ideas that has allowed a number of individuals, sometimes of questionable mental health but for the most part simply socially awkward, carry out disruptive activities that have come very close to causing mass death.
None of which are threats that will be effectively countered by following policies that focus on the old networks that incubated the July 7 team and their copycat team two weeks later. Some lessons learned are transferable, but having been through a process of self-flagellation and learned the lessons of 7/7 years ago, the security services have hopefully penetrated the necessary networks and hardened against this particular threat. And yet the ideological expressions remain. While the visible head of the violent Islamist movement ideology has been eradicated, the ideas that flow from it continue to cause flare-ups. Until we have dried the kindling that feeds these flames we are set to continue to have to address expressions of the problem that may be as effective as 7/7.
Tags: China, China domestic, china security, Orwell
A somewhat inflammatory title for my latest for Whose World Order? – but oh well. Daily life feels pretty far from a police state to be honest. Addresses some points I have touched upon previously, and I am going into greater detail about in an upcoming longer piece.
Date: 10th May 2011 | Author: Raffaello Pantucci,
Things are strange in China at the moment. This past week there was the announcement that the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) had told broadcasters not to show TV dramas related to spying, criminal cases, romance or time-travel during May, June and July. The reason is the upcoming 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the desire of the organs of state that the public is entertained appropriately. This came on the heels of an article published in the magazine of the Central Party School by Zhou Yongkang, the powerful politburo member in charge of State Security, in which he proposed the creation of a massive ID card database including all adult citizens on the mainland to ensure “perfection of citizen identification registration and management.” Orwellian sounding stuff indeed.
Of course, some objectivity needs to be maintained here – the ID card system has only been proposed, and many Chinese already have something similar (though this new version would contain more information). SARFT, on the other hand, was quite quick in clarifying that “we aimed not at forbidding but delaying the broadcast of TV shows relating to spies, crime and time-travel.” Their intention was solely to encourage channels “to play dozens of excellent shows on revolution and development of the Communist Party of China.” So that’s ok then – but I leave it to your vivid imaginations to imagine what would happen if any of this was proposed in Europe.
Additionally, on the eve of the big US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue happening in Washington, the New York Times ran a story detailing the growing number of problems that diplomats and journalists have been encountering in China. With regard to both groups, I can testify from a conference I attended last week, and from speaking to friends in Beijing, that things seem particularly glum at the moment. Many of those I spoke to talked of a prevailing tense wind in the air. In one visible demonstration of this, after crowds got unruly at the Apple store in Beijing while queuing frantically for the new iPad2, a foreign store owner came out and ended up getting into a fight with scalpers. Rather than even try to thrash out the case in court, the Apple store chose to quickly settle, giving the aggrieved party (a likely scalper, as even reported now in the state press) 20,000RMB to go away – that’s about £2,000. It is a testament to the company’s fear of generating a bad name for itself in China that it so quickly capitulated to make the story go away.
But not everything is bad and scary. On a more positive note, while researching this post, I came across the reassuring news that the “PLA denies rumours of massive cutbacks.” We were, of course, all very concerned that the People’s Liberation Army was shrinking.
Tags: Al Qaeda, Anwar al awlaki, AQAP, aviation security, chechnya, India, Indian terrorism, Russia, terror on airplanes, terrorism, US
A longer article in the latest HSToday, that predates the current chaos regarding a certain person who was killed in Pakistan. Looks at why terrorists remain fixated with aviation. The whole article can be found below, but those who want to read it in the magazine can find it here or at your local newsagents (if you are in the US).
Why terrorists continue to focus on planes as their number one target.
By: Raffaello Pantucci
A short history of explosive flight
Terrorists have long sought out airlines as priority targets. Sept. 11, 2001, stands out as a major recent watershed, but this was merely a tactical fusion of two separate strands in terrorist targeting that had gone on before.
For groups seeking quite specific tactical aims, the idea of kidnapping aircraft laden with passengers provided a group of hostages that could be bartered for money or fellow comrades sitting in jails, all the while advancing their political cause before a global audience. Throughout the 1960s-1990s, terrorist groups of many different stripes would target aircraft, from the Japanese Red Army who in 1970 hijacked an internal Japanese flight that they redirected to North Korea, to Kashmiri extremists who in December 1999 hijacked a Kathmandu, Nepal, to Delhi flight and ended up securing the release of three fellow comrades sitting in Indian jails. The international nature of air travel meant that groups were guaranteed global media attention that would often translate into successful media operations whether or not the specific tactical aims were achieved.
This global attention and disruption was also at the heart of targeting aircraft with bombs to bring them down mid-flight. On June 22, 1985, Sikh extremists placed suitcases full of explosives on Air India flights originating from Canada. One exploded over the Atlantic Ocean near Ireland while the other went off on the ground at Tokyo’s Narita airport, both bombs killing a total of 331 people. The campaign was part of a radical Sikh campaign to seek separation for an Indian state. Three years later, a bomb placed in a suitcase on Pan Am flight 103 from London Heathrow to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York brought down that aircraft over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 on board and a further 11 on the ground. The bombing was part of a Libyan sponsored campaign that also included the bombing in September 1989 of a flight from Brazzaville, Congo, to Paris, killing 170, and the hijacking in 1986 of another Pan Am flight on the ground in Karachi, Pakistan. All these attacks were part of the shadow war between Colonel Muammar Gadaffi’s Libya and the United States.
The Sept. 11 attacks, however, brought these two deadly strands together in a manner that had not yet been seen—turning a hijacked craft into a flying bomb.
Echoes of the plot could be found earlier. In December 1994, a cell of Algerian Islamists linked to the Armed Islamic Group (known by its French acronym GIA) hijacked a flight from Algiers to Paris and, according to a French intelligence asset, intended to crash it full of fuel into the Eiffel Tower. The plotters were taken out on the ground in Marseilles by French special forces, and as a result their final intentions will never be known.
Weeks after the raid in Marseilles, police in Manila, Philippines, reported to an apartment fire and caught Pakistani national Abdul Hakim Murad in an apartment full of terrorist material. Murad later confessed to being part of a conspiracy masterminded by Ramzi Youssef to bring down about a dozen flights en route from Asia to the United States with undetectable bombs left on board the flights. The plotters had already tested out one of their devices on a Manila to Tokyo flight, killing a Japanese businessman. Youssef, who a year earlier had masterminded the 1993 attempt to topple the World Trade Center towers, was the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and continued to plot with his uncle until he was captured in Islamabad, Pakistan, in February 1995. Upon capture he was found to have US flight plans in his possession.
These dots were never connected until after September 2001. Some security planners were reported by the 9/11 Commission to have considered scenarios along the lines of 9/11 prior to the event, but no one had considered the implications of what might be required to respond.
Post-Sept. 11, however, there has been a noticeable drop off in attempts to hijack aircraft. While passengers with personal agendas or mental disorders threaten sporadic aircraft, there has not been an organized hijacking since September 2001, something that is a testament to the effectiveness of the 9/11 plotters. Having seen what can happen, it is now unlikely that a flight full of passengers will sit docilely by while they are flown to certain death.
None of this has, however, reduced the attraction of airlines and aircraft as a target for Al Qaeda. Subsequent to his arrest in March 2003, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed revealed plans to attack Heathrow airport in London either using a hijacked craft or a mortar. Three months after his successful 9/11 strike, he had dispatched Richard Reid and Saajid Badat—two British Muslims who had been directed to Al Qaeda camps in the years prior to 2001 through the network around the Finsbury Park mosque in London—with bombs in their shoes to bring down transatlantic flights. Badat backed out at the last minute with a message to his handler saying “you will have to tell Van Damme that he could be on his own,” while Reid attempted to board a flight in Paris. Showing up looking unwashed and with no baggage, he was initially turned back by security but was able on the second day to board a Paris to Miami flight.
Russian terrorism takes flight
Even in the wake of the more stringent checks placed on aircraft and passengers caused by 9/11, Al Qaeda remained fixated on airlines, a consistency also visible among terror networks in Russia that targeted aircraft both before and after 2001.
In March 2001, a team of three Chechens armed with knives and what they claimed was a bomb hijacked a flight from Istanbul to Moscow, redirecting it to Medina in Saudi Arabia where they released some of the passengers and demanded refueling, supposedly to go on to Afghanistan. Fearing a bloody resolution if the terrorists blew the plane up as they threatened, Saudi authorities decided to storm the craft, resulting in the death of a hijacker, a passenger and one of the crew. The two captured terrorists were quickly identified as Aslanbek Arsayev, a prominent Chechen who had served previously as minister for state security in Chechnya, and his brother Supian Arsayev. Both men were eventually extradited to Russia and their current whereabouts are unknown.
Subsequent to the September 2001 attacks, Russian Military Air Forces Commander in Chief General Anatoly Kornukov was quoted as saying that “it would be impossible for terrorists to hijack several aircraft simultaneously in Russia.” Showing a certitude born from previous experience when he ordered the shooting down of a South Korean passenger plane that had accidentally violated Russian airspace, Kornukov told a Russian reporter, “if I knew for a fact that there were hostages aboard the hijacked plane and the terrorists were heading straight towards the Kremlin I would report so to the defense minister and suggest he destroy the aircraft. That would be the lesser evil. And then let others judge my actions as they will.”
As it turned out, it was not hijacking on which the Chechens focused. Three years later, Chechen fighters bribed their way onto a pair of planes leaving Moscow’s Domodevo airport on internal routes. Waiting patiently until they knew both flights would be in the air, the bombers detonated their explosives at 11 p.m. on Aug. 24, 2004, bringing both craft down and killing a total of 89 people.
Posthumously identified as Satsita Dzhebirkhanova and Amanta Nagayeva, the “black widows” were identified as Chechens who had suffered family losses as a result of the war and who had been dispatched by Chechen leader Shamil Basayev as part of a campaign called “Operation Boomerang.” According to Cerwyn Moore, an expert on Russian Islamist terrorism at the University of Birmingham, UK, the entire operation was “designed to demonstrate the weakness of Russian security measures … breaching security Domodevo not only caused embarrassment for the Putin administration, it also posed a security dilemma for the Russian authorities.” And as we saw in January, it is one that they have not yet managed to resolve.
For Russians, terrorism from Chechnya and the Northern Caucasus has become something of a routine affair. Aside from the targeting of airplanes, there have been takeovers by terrorists of hospitals, schools and theaters as well as periodic bombings of everything from the Moscow subway to outdoor concerts and the grim apartment bombings of September 1999 that claimed 293 dead. The decision, however, to target the international airport’s arrivals lounge in January 2011 was, according to Moore, specifically “to send a message to both the Russian authorities but also to the outside world … that the Russian authorities’ most secure transport hubs could be attacked.” The subsequent international media coverage guaranteed that this message reached a wider audience, though it is unclear that it will have any tangible impact on the group’s aims.
Al Qaeda’s innovative wing
In August 2006, British and Pakistani forces moved in to arrest a network of plotters that they had under surveillance as part of a large-scale plot, directed by Al Qaeda’s upper echelons, to bring down as many as eight aircraft on transatlantic routes.
Coordinated using a network of British extremists, six of whom had recorded martyrdom videos, the plotters were planning on using devices ingeniously devised to pass airport security. Using highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide hidden in soft drink bottles as the main charge, hollowed out batteries filled with explosive to provide the detonator and a disposable camera light bulb as the trigger, the bombs would have been likely to pass airport security and killed thousands. According to former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, the attack “would have rivaled 9/11 in terms of the number of deaths and in terms of the impact on the international economy,” a statement that highlights quite precisely the double-impact that terrorist groups try to achieve through attacking airplanes.
Since this point, however, the Al Qaeda core has seemingly backed away from aviation, preferring more traditional targets like bombs in city centers. The Najibullah Zazi plot in New York, the April 2009 plot in Northern England and the July 2010 plot in Oslo, Norway, all seemed to target buildings in city centers. And the rumors swirling around the global intelligence community in late 2010 were that Al Qaeda was hoping to stage a Mumbai-style attack on an unspecified European city.
Instead, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemeni affiliate connected to Yemeni-American preacher Anwar Al Awlaki, has eagerly taken up the mantle of targeting aviation. Echoing their ideological leader Osama bin Laden in their English-language Inspire magazine, they declared, “if our messages can reach you by words, then they wouldn’t have traveled by planes.”
The group was behind the attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to bring down a flight en route from Amsterdam to Detroit in December 2009, and then just under a year later for the double-parcel bomb on airfreight craft en route to the United States.
Both attempts were directed and claimed by the group, with Anwar Al Awlaki seen as the ideological and operational leader and Ibrahim Al Asiri, a Saudi bomb maker, as the designer of the devices. Al Asiri had previously designed the bomb that his brother Abdullah had hidden in his rectal cavity and tried to use to kill Saudi security chief Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef. Showing his ongoing capacity to design devices able to get past airport-style security, in December 2009 he constructed the device that Abdulmutallab carried in his underwear, first on a plane from Ghana to Amsterdam and then on to Detroit. It is also believed that he designed the devices secreted in printers that were intercepted in October 2010.
This final operation was celebrated by the group in a special November 2010 edition of Inspire in which they provided images and details of what they dubbed “Operation Hemorrhage.” Alongside claiming responsibility for the two parcel bombs hidden in printers that had been intercepted at the Dubai airport and the UK’s East Midlands airport following a tip passed on by Saudi intelligence, the group also claimed responsibility for the downing of a United Parcel Service plane that crashed in early September 2010 near the Dubai airport. The plane went down for unspecified reasons, and the group claimed responsibility, declaring that “we have succeeded in bringing down the UPS plane but because the enemy’s media did not attribute the operation to us we have remained silent so we may repeat the operation.”
Non-government academic experts, who requested anonymity, told Homeland Security Today that, more likely than not, the group was simply claiming responsibility for something it had not done. But one former British official verified the impressive technical quality of the devices that were found in Dubai and the UK. While international air cargo has long been known as a security weakness in the international supply chain, these devices were able to penetrate security and then were only identifiable to British security officials who were looking for them after they were specifically told where to look by their Emirati counterparts who had located the other device. The bombs showed a new level of technical proficiency.
How the group had achieved this seems to be a combination of human and technical intelligence, something boasted by the “Head of Foreign Operations” in Inspire magazine. In preparing for the attack he claimed that, “we have researched the various security systems employed by airports. We looked into X-ray scanners, full body scanners, sniffing dogs and other aspects of security. The resulting bomb was a device that we were confident that, with the will of Allah, it would pass through the most stringent and up-to-date security equipment.” Later in the magazine the authors highlight in detail how they sealed the device in plastic and then cleaned the bag afterwards so that the device would be undetectable.
While much of the magazine remains anonymous (or penned under what look like pseudonyms), according to Thomas Hegghammer, a prominent scholar of Al Qaeda, this article “is almost certainly written by Awlaki.” Citing a number of references typical of Awlaki’s writing and the “long-held suspicions of intelligence analysts,” Hegghammer believed that this article signaled Awlaki’s “coming out.” Significantly, it also highlighted Awlaki’s personal obsession with targeting aviation—something born out by the parcel bomb attempts and the Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempt, both of which he is believed to have played a key role in directing.
In a seminal 1974 article written for the RAND Corporation, “International Terrorism: A New Kind of Warfare,” (http://www.rand.org/pubs/papers/2008/P5261.pdf) renowned terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins discussed the threat of terrorism and the then-increasingly common form of international air travel.
“Jet air travel furnishes unprecedented mobility and with it the ability to strike anywhere in the world. Recent developments in news broadcasting—radio, television, communication satellites—are also a boon to publicity-seeking terrorists,” he wrote.
It is a nexus that current terrorist groups have been targeting with regularity, recognizing the publicity and chaos that disrupting air travel can cause for relatively low cost. While likely overestimating the cost of their disruptions (they claim it will “cost America and other Western countries billions of dollars in new security measures”), AQAP proudly boasted that “Operation Hemorrhage” cost the group merely $4,200—a more credible figure that highlights how cheap terrorism can be.
What is equally likely is that the groups will learn from their mistakes in targeting international travel, but also that they are likely to learn from the lessons of the two more successful attacks carried out in early 2011—the Moscow Domodevo bombing and the shooting at Frankfurt Airport.
Unlike AQAP’s efforts, these two attacks were effective in killing people and likely required a lot less planning. It is in fact likely that there will be an increase in attacks like that at Frankfurt airport—random acts of violence pursued by loners who believe they are part of an international movement—but whether they take place at airports will not be something that security planners can factor in any more than they can factor in similar attacks in other places. Heightened states of security already exist at most international hubs, and doubtless in the wake of the Frankfurt and Moscow incidents the security perimeter will be pushed out further in much the same way that a July 2007 attempt to drive a car bomb through the departures hall of Glasgow International Airport resulted in increased security at regional British airports.
But for terrorists the optimal target will continue to be aircraft in transit. The problem from a terrorist’s perspective is that a bomb at an airport is very similar to a bomb in any other public place, except the security is tighter (the exception would seem to be Russian airports where, at least in the case of the double-plane downing, individuals at the airport have been corrupted with small, on-the-spot bribes). Consequently, it can seem easier to simply deposit a device on a public transport system where security will be far less. Furthermore, it lacks the drama of an attack on an international flight.
As Brian Michael Jenkins put it in 1974, “terrorism is theater” and an airplane full of people traveling between two developed economies remains the only sure way to guarantee a large media splash, dramatic economic damage and intense attention for your cause. Given AQAP’s continuing fixation with aviation, security in the air will continue to be a major headache in the years to come.
Evil by e-mail
Further evidence of Anwar Al Awlaki’s obsession with aviation and the United States was seen in e-mails that emerged in the trial of a Bangladeshi man employed as a British Airways information technology worker who was incarcerated in February for plotting with Awlaki.
In an e-mail to the Bangladeshi in early 2010, Awlaki wrote that he “was excited by hearing your profession” and that “I pray Allah may grant us a breakthrough through you. As a starter, can you please answer these questions in as much elaboration as possible: can you please specify your role in the airline industry, how much access do you have to airports, what information do you have on the limitations and cracks in present airport security systems.”
In responding to the preacher, Karim stated he knew “two brothers, one who works in baggage handling at Heathrow and another who works in airport security. Both are good practicing brothers and sympathise towards the cause of the mujahideen.” Two men were picked up by police in Slough in the wake of Rajib Karim’s arrest, though neither was charged with anything. One was subsequently fired from his job at Heathrow.
A later note from Awlaki highlighted the preacher’s overriding desire to attack the United States using planes. “Our highest priority is to attack the US. Anything, even on a smaller scale compared to what we may do in the UK, would be our choice. So the question is: with the people you have is it possible to get a package or a person with a package on board a flight heading to the US?”
Two weeks after this e-mail was received in February 2010, Karim was arrested at his desk at a British Airways office in Newcastle. Awlaki went on to plan “Operation Hemorrhage” and clearly found other ways to gather information about airport security. Showing how this might have taken place, in late 2010 British intelligence officials released a story to the media that highlighted their belief that terrorist networks were “periodically testing” security at some of Britain’s regional airports. Images were released to the Guardian newspaper that appeared to show improvised explosive devices as seen through airport X-ray machines.