A new piece on recent plotting in the UK for HSToday, a few editorial choices I might not have made, but the overall point was to cover a couple of recent plots in the UK. Once the book finally lands, a lot more on this topic. In the meantime, in Bucharest recently for the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, a local news outlet wrote a piece on a presentation I gave for those who can read Romanian (or any of the romance languages).
Western jihadism may have suffered a serious blow with the deaths of Anwar Al Awlaki and Samir Khan, but the war in the United Kingdom to counter terrorist networks continues. In the week prior to Awlaki’s reported death in Yemen, an operation against a group of seven Birmingham natives resulted in serious charges leveled against them as part of an alleged Pakistani-connected plot to carry out a terrorist operation in the UK.
In addition, charges were brought against a pair of German converts to jihad who had attempted to enter the UK to connect with radicals there who were intercepted at the border with copies of articles from Awlaki and Khan’s Inspire magazine.
The separate arrests were made following intelligence-led operations that disclosed not only the degree in which British security services are in close contact with their counterparts around the world, but their vigilance in identifying potential terrorist networks at home. In both cases, links abroad showed how the UK remains a hub of radical activity in Europe.
The arrests in Birmingham appear to have come after a long-term operation by a local counterterrorism unit and MI5 to pinpoint a cell of individuals they believe were providing support for terrorist networks in Pakistan and planning a “bombing campaign.”
The arrested men are between 20 and 32 years old, and their names indicate they are Pakistani natives. In the immediate aftermath of the arrests, the police said only that the men were part of a “large operation” that was “Al Qaeda inspired” and was the most “significant” counter-terrorism operation so far this year.
Since then, charges have been filed that reveal a network with links to Pakistan that involved a “suicide bombing campaign/event.” According to court documents, since last December 25, two of the men, Irfan Nasser (30) and Irfan Khalid (26), plotted to commit “acts of terrorism within the UK or assisting another to commit such acts.”
The men allegedly travelled to Pakistan for training that “include[ed] bomb making, weapons and poison making” and professed their “intention to be[come] a suicide bomber,” according to West Midlands Police. They also allegedly made martyrdom films, planned a bombing campaign, sought to purchase chemicals and build explosives detonators, recruited others and provided advise to other wannabe jihadists on how to travel to Pakistan.
Another man, 26-year-old Ashik Ali, also is suspected of having been involved in the conspiracy and having expressed his “intention to be[come] a suicide bomber.” He does not, however, appear to have made the trip to Pakistan. His older brother, Bahader (28), was charged with fundraising and not reporting the plot to authorities. Twenty-five year-old Rahin Ahmed was charged with supporting others to go to Pakistan to train and raise funds. Mujahid Hussain (20) was charged with fundraising and failing to inform police of the alleged terrorist plot . Hussain was not initially arrested, but turned himself into police a week after the initial arrests.
While the charges against the group are serious, unarmed officers conducted the initial raids, suggesting the police knew that the men did not possess weapons or explosives. Authorities have acknowledged that the group was under law enforcement surveillance in the run-up to the arrests.
Given previous problems that police have had in charging terrorism suspects, it’s unlikely they would have moved to arrest all the suspected terrorists unless they were certain they had evidence that would stand up in court. It’s unclear how, exactly, the links to Pakistan were identified, but reportedly they were overheard during conversations monitored by British security forces, who were able to ascertain the mens’ intentions. However, because intercepted communications cannot be used in court, it’s likely police uncovered incriminating evidence during the raids on the mens’ various properties.
Among the community in which the men lived, they reputedly were known as radicals, though no one suspected they were violent. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, a neighbor reported that Ashik Ali was “incredibly intense and devoutly religious.”
While it’s unclear whether the men have links to Islamists previously arrested on charges of plotting attacks, numerous counter-terrorism operations have been conducted in the areas of Birmingham where the men are from.
One of the first properties searched by police was registered to a man involved with a network that sent supplies to Taliban forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The leader of the network, Parviz Khan, is a former football player who’d hatched a plot to kidnap and behead a British Muslim serviceman. While Khan was able to lure others into his alleged conspiracy, one, Mohammed Irfan, is alleged to have only been involved in helping manage the supply network Khan is suspected of operating.
The discovery in the same area of Birmingham of another network that allegedly was established to get people to South Asia for training and fundraising has raised concerns about Muslim radicalization in the area.
As authorities focused on the other cases involving apparent links to jihadist networks in Pakistan, a separate case was unfolding in another London court room. There, charges were leveled against a pair of alleged German jihadist converts who’d been caught trying to enter Britain at the border in Dover. According to authorities, they allegedly intended to connect with radicals already in England. The two men, Christian Emde (28) and Robert Baum (23), were intercepted during an intelligence-led operation as they attempted to enter the UK through the port at Dover.
When border security agents searched their luggage, they found a computer and a hard drive full of material that’s become indicative of radicalized Muslims, including articles from Inspire, the slick magazine published by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The articles were, “Destroying Buildings” and, “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.”
Authorities also found the essay, “44 Ways to Support Jihad,” by Anwar Al Awlaki, who was AQAP’s external terrorism operations chief until he was killed in a CIA-directed drone strike in Yemen on a convey he was travelling in late last month.
The two men initially claimed they were trying to get from Brussels to Egypt, but were dissuaded by the cost of flights.
In an interview with Der Spiegel, Baum’s mother said her son had made a gradual shift towards radicalization. As a child, he reportedly sought to join the Army to serve in Afghanistan but ended up in a desk job. He apparently converted in January 2009 and ended up in a number of dead-end jobs. In October 2010, he announced his intention to go to Egypt with other Muslims to learn Arabic. It was a suspicious change in behavior that panicked his mother, who alerted authorities.
Although law enforcement paid him a visit, it didn’t appear to discourage him – he continued to operate in Salafist circles and allegedly went to hear the sermon of a radical preacher. He also continued on his trip to Egypt, returning to Germany in February 2011.
Baum’s travel partner was a man known to be active among local jihadist circles and was under surveillance by German intelligence services. At one point, police approached the imam at a mosque in Solingen, Germany where the two regularly attended, warning him that the two men might be extremists. The imam asked the men to stop attending the mosque.
What Baum and Emde were planning in the UK is unclear, but according to a German journalist, the two men were in contact with British extremists via Facebook and websites like Salafimedia.net. The disclosure indicated British extremists appeal to a broader community of radicals in Europe and that the UK is a haven for hardcore, domestic radicals.
While the activities of the two Germans seems relatively low on the ladder of terrorist activity, prior to their arrests evidence allegedly indicated that they had a resolute interest in becoming involved with radicals. And when combined with the case in Birmingham, it could be construed that there’s a community of extremists living in the West Midlands who have connections to radical groups in Pakistan.
If true, it would mean the UK has been unable to eliminate its domestic terrorist threat. While the quality and quantity of the threat certainly has subsided, evidence strongly suggests it hasn’t yet gone away.
Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) at King’s College, London. He is Homeland Security Today’s London correspondent.