Archive for March, 2012

Veering away from my recent spate of terrorism related articles, a new op-ed for the South China Morning Post, a newspaper I have written for before on China-Central Asia with the same co-author, my friend Li Lifan. This uses the recent Russian election as a spring-board for some analysis of China’s relations with Russia and Central Asia. This is a topic I am going to be doing a bunch of writing on in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, however, SCMP operate a firewall, so I cannot simply post this here, though I will ask my editorial contacts. In the meantime, feel free to write if you have any questions. (UPDATE, per SCMP’s approval, I have now reposted it all here).

Contest over Central Asia between allies

Li Lifan and Raffaello Pantucci say China and Russia are both adept strategists

Mar 20, 2012

Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in Russia was predictably controversial in Europe and America. In Beijing, the official read-out provided by Xinhua highlighted a positive conversation, with President Hu Jintao stating with “confidence that Putin’s new presidential term would see faster progress in building a stronger and richer nation”. That statement affirmed the importance of the Sino-Russian axis as a pole in international relations. Putin, the quintessential Russian chess master, has a very clear sense of where Russia’s future must lie, and needs Beijing onside if he wants to carry this out.

The Sino-Russian relationship has had its ups and downs. As Putin put it recently, “there are some sources of friction”. The joint Chinese-Russian veto last month of a UN resolution on Syria attracted attention. But, beyond this, tensions persist as Russia proves implacable in discussions over energy pricing, and tries to develop a “Eurasian Union” to counter China’s successful inroads into Central Asia. The resultant price increase is detrimental to Chinese interests and delays economic integration under the auspices of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO).

But these contradictions are perfectly adapted for both the Chinese and Russian political system, where shadow chess games are seen as the antidote to erratic Western policy strategies. Rather than make dramatic shifts and pronouncements, both sides forge long-term alliances of convenience, focusing on their mutual interests, where possible, while recognising unresolved tensions remain.

This malleable alliance is something that both countries will need in the next few years, as problems over Iran’s nuclear programme come to a head and the US withdraws from Afghanistan, leaving potential chaos in both China and Russia’s backyard. Neither China nor Russia have any interest in seeing the Iranian situation escalate.

In Afghanistan, neither is interested in seeing the nation fall back into chaos, but they will be relieved to see a reduced American military footprint in their immediate neighbourhood. Figuring out how to manage the situation post 2014, the deadline for US withdrawal, will probably require a joint effort, which Russia and China have started to explore within the SCO format. The security drills to be held in Tajikistan in June will showcase the grouping’s capacity to address threats regionally and help improve co-ordination ahead of the American withdrawal.

Domestically, the abutting regions of Xinjiang and Siberia are their respective nations’ most underdeveloped regions and will require close attention from Beijing and Moscow. Xinjiang is a cauldron of ethnic tensions that China is trying to calm with economic development, while Russia’s east is a largely empty space that gets ever more depopulated as its youth go west to Moscow and Europe.

Establishing better prospects and opportunity there will help stabilise the administration of both nations, and better economic co-operation and regional stability are key to long-term development. Of course, underlying this is a competition for resources and markets in Central Asia, with unresolved energy pricing issues and the Russian fear of mass Chinese immigration colouring debates.

But these are known tensions, and carefully managing them is something that leaders on both sides recognise as important.

The two are each other’s biggest allies in the United Nations Security Council and are members of the new BRICS club. As such, they see a close alignment on international issues. At the same time, regionally, they see elements of peer competition.

Striking a balance is the essence of realist international relations. The result is a considered game of chess between a Chinese leadership used to deliberative policymaking and a newly minted Russian leader who has long shown his capacity for an unemotional approach to international relations.

Li Lifan is a senior fellow and Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

 

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A new post for Free Rad!cals this time exploring in some depth documents I have not managed to see first hand yet (hint, if anyone feels like sharing or has more info about them, please don’t hesitate to write!). An admittedly slightly premature piece consequently, but it gives me an opportunity to extemporise about a subject I am very interested in, namely Britain’s jihad. It also gives me an opportunity to plug my pending book that will go into a lot more detail about all of the cases named in this piece. I should add that in the original post on Free Rad!cals the link to Florian’s blog didn’t work, and I have altered it here.

The British End of the German al Qaeda documents

View more articles by Raff Pantucci

Filed under: Europe, Homegrown extremism, Terrorism, UK

Over on his new blog, Abu Susu, aka Yassin Mubarash has provided a brief write-up of a series of alleged al Qaeda documents that have come to light as part of a terrorism trial in Germany, alongside a challenge for people to discuss the implications of the information if true. At around the same time or just before, another German journalist, Florian Flade, published a similar post on his site Jih@d, providing a slightly different description of the same documents.

The one that has most piqued my interest are the alleged British documents that are supposed to have been written by Rashid Rauf. From the understanding I have, the papers are essentially a post-operation report on the July 7, July 21, and Overt bomb plots (Overt was the codename for the 2006 attempt by Abdulla Ali and a bunch of his mates to bring down about eight planes as they made there way to America) and German intelligence seems pretty convinced that this was written by Rashid Rauf, the infamous British-Pakistani terrorist operator. This is apparently based on the detailed knowledge of the British plots and some biographical details that are mentioned.

Now I have to preface what comes next with the comment that I have not seen the documents, and so am basing my read-out on second hand analysis. But on the assumption that these are the real deal, this is fascinating as it confirms that al Qaeda in fact directed all three British plots, though to varying degrees of success. In his new book The Al Qaeda Factor, NYPD Director of Intelligence Mitchell Silber, identifies the three plots as having connections, but ends up concluding that while Overt was likely a directed plot, the 7/7 and the 21/7 plots were what he considers as “suggested/endorsed” by al Qaeda. In his assessment, there was clearly a connection, but it is uncertain that the group was directing the cells in London.

To deal with the plots in order – the confirmation that al Qaeda directed the July 7, 2005 atrocity on London’s underground is not surprising. The video in which al Qaeda claimed it and included the will of leader Mohammed Siddique Khan, “Will of the Knights of the London Raid”, featured Ayman al Zawahiri, demonstrating a high level connection. Khan was also on the periphery of the large network around the Crevice group, who had connections right up to the number three in al Qaeda at the time, Abdul Hadi al Iraqi. Furthermore, as we saw during the Coroner’s Inquest into the incident, Khan was in contact with a number in Pakistan a great deal in the run-up to his attack, and a same number in Pakistan tried to call his phone after he had carried his bombing.

That the connection might flow through Rauf in some way is also not that surprising: when Khan went to Pakistan in mid-2001 to train, he and his young protégé Waheed Ali, went to a Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen (HuM) training camp. When Rauf went to Pakistan after fleeing police in the wake of the murder of his uncle in Birmingham in 2002, he seems to have connected quite quickly with Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a slightly different Kashmir oriented group (like HuM) that JeM’s leader Maulana Masood Azhar (a former leader in HuM) had founded after he was released from prison alongside another British jihadist Omar Saeed Sheikh (who later became famous for the murder of reporter Daniel Pearl and who also first found jihad in South Asia through HuM). HuM and JeM are parallel groups with some cross-pollination and so that Khan and Rauf’s networks intersected is unsurprising. Consequently, that Khan would have connected with Rauf on one of his later trips to Pakistan – either in 2003 when he attended a training camp with the Crevice cell, or in 2004 when he went back again expecting to die fighting in Afghanistan is not entirely surprising. It has long been believed that Rauf was involved in the July 7 plot in some way, this new information seems to confirm that.

The news of a stronger connection to the July 21, 2005 attempt on London’s underground is much more surprising and interesting. In this case, we have very little solid information on the connection to al Qaeda. The belief is that Muktar Said Ibrahim may have trained with the group in late 2004 when he Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer (of the July 7 group) and Abdulla Ali (of the Overt plot) were all in Pakistan at the same time learning how to make remarkably similar bombs. Ibrahim had initially headed out with two others from his circle of friends from London’s radical community in London to Pakistan to fight in Afghanistan (the two men’s passports were allegedly found in a house of Rauf’s in Bahawalpur). A man who was later identified as a key point of contact for the Overt group and as Rashid Rauf’s key man on the ground with the Overt cell allegedly sent them to Pakistan (or at least helped them with the contacts). And finally, Muktar Said Ibrahim called numbers linked to Abdulla Ali (the leader on the ground of Overt), and some dodgy numbers in Pakistan, while his co-conspirator Yassin Omar contacted a number linked to Rangzieb Ahmed, an admitted HuM fighter who is currently in jail for being a director of al Qaeda.

But it remained unclear to what degree the group had been directed by al Qaeda. Little information has been put into the public domain about Muktar Said Ibrahim’s time in Pakistan, beyond certain statements by security services that he had trained alongside the other cells, highlighting the surprising use of hydrogen peroxide in all three devices, something never seen before in the United Kingdom. Now it seems as though the group was in fact in contact with al Qaeda core, but managed to lose contact with their handler and as a result were unable to correct the crucial flaw in their devices that meant they harmlessly popped on London’s underground system. According to Abu Susu’s read-out, the group tried to reach out but was unable to contact their handler and as a result was unable to correct their mistake in mixing their devices. So the attempt failed.

This raises a number of questions: first, did the July 7 and July 21 groups have the same handlers? It seems unlikely that this would be the case, if for no other reason than the different way in which they were managed. Khan was in regular contact with someone in Pakistan who was helping him along. Presumably, the same handler would have done the same thing with Ibrahim if he was the manager of the contact and losing contact would be remarkably inept and quite a contrast. It would also have been quite lax operational security to have the same person handle the contacts with two cells that otherwise were kept so firmly apart. Having said this, it would not be the first time that this was done: the New York cell led by Najibullah Zazi became known to authorities because he reached out to the same email account that a cell in northern England had used in Pakistan to discuss their plot. An account linked to this one helped uncover another linked cell in Oslo. So such mistakes have been made. But in 2004/5 al Qaeda likely had much more freedom operating and as a result would probably have had more resources to deploy in managing the cells.

We already know a lot more about the final cell identified here, the Overt group were long known to have had a strong connection to al Qaeda core, and specifically Rashid Rauf. What is fascinating from the discovery of these documents is that we can now see how the contacts apparently evolved. With the July 2005 bombers, al Qaeda seems to have kept them on a relatively long leash. By the time we get to the Overt group, we have Rauf himself managing the connection, through phone calls and emails. But this was not enough, with him deciding to send a close confidant in to manage things on the ground and guarantee that things went off without a hitch. Having said that, it also seems as though this individual was in contact with other potential cells around the country, suggesting that his job was not solely to manage the Overt group.

So what can be drawn from this information?

Well, first of all, it is interesting the degree to which we see the groups requiring help in building their devices once back in the UK. Clearly, an inability to check with their bosses was the key flaw that stymied the 21/7 group. Khan needed a lot of handholding and it seems had faced a similar difficulty prior to his attempt, something he was able to resolve with his handler. For the Overt chaps, we can see from emails that have been released that they discussed in some detail their progress in developing a device.

Secondly, it is fascinating that by the end of 2004, al Qaeda was willing to have quite high level leaders meet with Briton’s on jihadi tourism in South Asia and then trust these individuals to go back home and build cells. In all three cases, we can see how the key ‘emir’ in the UK (Khan, Ibrahim and Ali) trained with al Qaeda and then came back to the UK where they were able to assemble quite substantial cells of individuals willing to offer themselves as suicide bombers without having had direct contact themselves with al Qaeda. This is a testament to the volume of radicals around in the UK at the time, and the confidence of these cell leaders to be able to transform their wider networks in the UK into teams of suicide bombers. The wider cell around the 7/7 is somewhat unclear, the 21/7 group was large and included a number of individuals around the Finsbury Park mosque, and the Overt cell was always most worrying because of the large number of individuals who had seemingly offered themselves as suicide bombers and the six who had recorded martyrdom videos.

And then there is a timing question. It is fascinating to now see that al Qaeda was indeed likely directing the three cells. They came after the Crevice group who seem to have been amongst the pathfinders in terms of building connections to al Qaeda’s broader network from the UK. But based on Mohammed Junaid Babar’s testimony and other bits in the public domain, the cell there was very eager to connect with al Qaeda core (and cell leader Omar Khyam was quite noisy about his supposed connection with Abdul Hadi al Iraqi), but it seems largely to have elected to go and do something back in the UK by themselves. Whether we can read anything into the lack of inclusion of the cell in the post-event reports is unclear, but certainly they were using a different type of device and it seems as though they found their bomb training from another source. Based on what information exists, it seems as though the Crevice lot were in fact a supply network in the first place that expressed eagerness to do something, rather than a tasked cell. What contact the group did have seems to have flowed though Salahuddin Amin who was their contact in Pakistan and whom they asked for details about how to build their device. But demonstrative maybe of how far from the core he was, Amin had to spent some days going to find the answer to the question from cell leader Omar Khyam, presumably unlike the handlers for the other British plots who were directly hardwired into al Qaeda core.

So one possibility is that after the failure of the Crevice cell, al Qaeda decided to try to actually redirect some of these Brits who were showing up to more useful activities rather than let them just die in Afghanistan or go back to concoct half-baked plots. They now believed that these Brits were dedicated to the cause and were willing to trust them both with high level contacts, but also with plans that would involve them going to recruit a high number of dedicated warriors in the UK who had never trained alongside the group. The point being that maybe it took until 2004 to realise that these foreigners were trustworthy and the real thing – something confirmed by the efforts of the Crevice cell and the growing presence of increasingly senior Brits in their ranks (Rashid Rauf and Omar Saeed Sheikh being just two).

There is a final point to touch upon. German authorities seem quite convinced that Rashid Rauf wrote these documents, but he has theoretically been dead for over three years now. Were these part of some electronic brain-trust of the organisation (maybe the mysterious Office of Services Abu Susu refers to?), or is he simply not dead? Or maybe these were multi-authored documents? The common belief is that Rauf was killed by drone strike in November 2008, but no tangible evidence has ever been produced and plots with his fingerprints have emerged a number of times since then. While quite logical explanations exist for this (his contacts were passed on to someone else), you have to wonder why his name keeps showing up.

A new book review for International Affairs, this time of Dr Fawaz Gerges The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda for Oxford University Press. Another short book that reads like a long essay, and has some interesting detail in it. Unfortunately, the review itself is behind a firewall, so you’ll have to reach out to me directly if you want a copy. Should they decide to post it openly like previous ones, I will be sure to add it here. For those with a password, you will be able to find the review here.

The rise and fall of Al-Qaeda. By Fawaz A. Gerges. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2011. 214pp. Index. £15.99. ISBN 978 0 19979 065 4.

I have a chapter featured in this latest book Al Qaeda After Bin Laden published by the Al Mesbar Studies & Research Centre. My chapter focuses on the evolution of the Internet as a tool for al Qaeda and affiliated groups in the west, looking in turn at the cases of the Islamic Gateway and http://www.azzam.com (two portals run out of the UK established in the mid-1990s), then the networks around Younis Tsouli and the Blackburn Resistance, before focusing on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al Shabaab’s use of the Internet. It ends looking at AQAP’s push towards Lone Wolf terrorism.

Thus far the book has only been published in Arabic, and I have pasted below the summary they published in English. I have not gotten a copy in Arabic, but believe it is available online if you contact them. If instead you would like a copy of the English text, drop me a note and I can see about getting a version to you. There is discussion of maybe publishing an English version, but it has not come together yet as far as I know.

63 Al-Qaeda after Bin Laden

The sixty-third Monthly book aims to highlight and focus on al-Qaeda after bin Laden, and whether it will endure and remain in the arena, or disappear from sight by the disappearance of its founder, due to his death.

This issue is gaining more importance in the light of major events and developments that do not only include disorders in the Arab region since a year and more, but also the withdrawal of American troops out of Iraq, and the expected withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan.

In this rare Arabic version, we offer multiple views of prominent researchers and experts.

In the preface written by Manuel Almeida, lecturer at the London School of Economics and Political Science, it was shown that it is not easy to answer if whether Al-Qaeda will remain on the scene and endure after the death of bin Laden as it requires exploring hidden facts and details concerning Bin Laden and his inspiration to Al-Qaeda organization which he intended to form in Afghanistan.

Almeida illustrates that the role of bin Laden in recent years have been important in terms of strategy, funding, recruitment and polarization, as he was the great symbol of the jihadist movement, and therefore it is important to tackle the consequences of his death as well as implications of his disappearance from the scene.

Understanding the implications of the death of bin Laden and its reflections on Al-Qaeda as well as the continuous transformation process taking place in the organization, was discussed by a professor of Middle East Studies at the University (Science Po) in Paris, Jean-Pierre Filho.

He discussed the meaning of forced change in Al-Qaeda leadership, by tackling areas of agreement between bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s new Prince Ayman al-Zawahiri. Jean-Pierre addressed aspects that differentiated bin Laden as well as his uniqueness, and how his absence will affect the future of the Organization, leading to make Al-Zawahiri’s task very rugged, and complex.

Alia Brahimi, a researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of Oxford, shows the process of change that began before the death of bin Laden, explaining that it will influence the strategy and overall objectives of the organization.

She addresses traditional goals of the organization in order to understand whether AlQaeda succeed or failed on it. Also, she tackles change in al-Qaeda, specifically democratic power within the organization, and whether it is an indicator of power or a crisis plaguing the organization.

The professor at the International Centre for the Study of radicalization (ICSR) at the Kings College University in London, Raffaello Pantucci, addressed Al Qaeda’s strategy with more depth in the evolving nature of jihadist movement.

Raffaello tackles the jihadist movement that found the internet an online tool that enabled it to play a role in the network of global jihad.

The Yemeni journalist, Nasser Al-Rubaiee, addressed the threat posed by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as it related to the global concerns about the situation of chronic instability in Yemen.

Furthermore he discusses the implications of Awlaki death and explains that al-Qaeda is not the only beneficiary of the chronic instability in Yemen, it is also tribesmen and sympathizers with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the Yemeni government and the political opposition.

All these actors in the Yemeni political arena perceived the existence of Al-Qaeda to achieve their own agenda.

Although there are a number of armed groups in Punjab province, the Pakistani group, “Lashkar-e-Taiba”, is one of the groups most powerful and dangerous of all.

Rashmi Singh, lecture at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV) at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, explains the reasons why this group is different from other armed groups in Pakistan.

She analyzed links that combine this group and al-Qaeda, and provides an overview of its emergence and its involvement in the context of Pakistan’s war against India.

There is no doubt that the Somali Youth movement has close links with al Qaeda. The associate professor in international relations, and the President of International Relations Program at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Stig Jarle Hansen, shows that tackling this relationship is not easy, especially when looking at Somali movement’s ideology and al Qaeda, as well as the daily aspects of interaction between them.

The long war on terror, which United States has engaged in, along with its allies against al-Qaeda by its organized central and local branches, sparks a long list of ethical, legal and strategic aspects.

Jorge Lasmar, an international lawyer and professor of international relations at the University of (PUC), in Menas (Brazil), outlined a set of practices included human rights and democratic values that took place in the war against terrorism.

The director of Middle East Center at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Fawaz Gerges, explores the possibilities behind the outbreak of Arab revolutions, in terms of its ability to put an end to terrorism, specifically the mania which the United States possesses regarding the threat posed by al Qaeda.

Gerges also deals in depth with Arab spring events and their ties with Al-Qaeda, and how it led to marginalize Al-Qaeda and other Jihadist leaders.

Omar Al-Bashir Al-Turabi read the book entitled, “The rise and fall of Al-Qaeda”, by Fawaz Gerges, which was released after the death of bin Laden. Gerges finds out that when decision makers in the United States end the war against terrorism, thoughts will expand to more available alternatives.

Furthermore he calls for concerted efforts to reveal the forgery novel of terrorism and to put an end to the acquisition of Al-Qaeda in the imagination of Americans.

This book presented different visions and was praised by intellectuals who demanded it to be among the list read by world leaders and presidents.

This book came up as a result of the supervision, coordination and communication carried out by Manuel Almeida for a period of seven months, supported by the follow-up of our colleague, Omar Al-Bashir Al-Turabi. We thank and appreciate them for their efforts.

A new post for CNN on the British connection with al Shabaab. Have been talking to a lot of people about this of late, and am wondering when the story is going to take off. It may  be on the cusp of turning into something, but we shall see. For previous bits on the topic, see this for information on one of the clerics I refer to below, this for more on the pipelines of people going back and forth and this and this for bigger views of Shabaab’s internationalization (many of those I now realize are behind firewalls – drop me a note if you want copies, or look through my site using the Shabaab tag to see other non-firewalled bits I have written about the group).

Al Shabaab’s British Accent

Editor’s note: Raffaello Pantucci is an associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and the author of the forthcoming “We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen” (Hurst/Columbia University Press).

By Raffaello Pantucci, Special for CNN

Friday’s conviction of Shabaaz Hussain, a former British teaching assistant for donating thousands to Al Shabaab is just the latest reason the Somali terrorist group is increasingly a priority for British security services.

With news stories of somewhere in the region of 50 British passport holders fighting alongside Al Shabaab, British officials are vigilant to the potential for terrorist plots that might emanate from Somalia in the future.The security of the region was in the spotlight last month at an international conference that drew top government officials from around the world.

It came on the heels of Al Shabaab’s announcement that it has officially joined the family of organizations under the al Qaeda banner.

The UK-Somalia terrorist connection is not a particularly new one.

As early as 2005 there was evidence that British citizens were going over to connect with Islamist networks in the country, and that same year, two radicalized Somalis living in the United Kingdom were involved in the failed July 21 bombing attempt on London’s public transportation system.

In the wake of the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in December 2006, there was a surge of young Somali expatriates rallying to the nationalist flag, something that was clearly in evidence in the diaspora community.

In 2007 came the first confirmed British suicide bomber in Somalia.

But more recently it has become clear that preachers who were formerly based in London have now taken on important roles in Al Shabaab in Somalia. British-sounding voices have started to appear with greater frequency in Al Shabaab videos, and the government prosecuted – albeit unsuccessfully – a pair of Somalis living in Leicester who it was believed were involved in running Al Shabaab’s website.

Last month it was revealed that a longstanding jihadist with family in the United Kingdom was killed by a drone strike in Somalia.

And another Brit is currently on trial in Kenya on charges of being involved in a plot to carry out bombings in that country.

In that case, British security concerns come clearly into focus.

Jermaine Grant is a former inmate of Feltham Young Offenders Institution, the same prison that U.S. “shoe bomber” Richard Reid was allegedly radicalized in, and where July 21 attack leader Muktar Said Ibrahim did time. Grant is accused of having connected with Al Shabaab and then being dispatched as part of a cell to carry out attacks in Mombasa.

This is not the first time that Al Shabaab has been connected to terrorist plots outside Somalia’s borders. The attack during the World Cup final in Kampala that killed more than 70 was directed by the group, and links have been traced back to the group in connection with disrupted attacks in Australia and Denmark.

In September 2009, a cell including at least one Somali-Dane was connected to a plot to carry out an attack in Kenya while U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was visiting.

And throughout all of this, authorities say they continue to see small groups of young British men trying to connect with the organization in Somalia. A pair from Cardiff was turned back last year, officials said, while three Bangladeshi-Brits stopped by Kenyan authorities were allegedly being sent money by Shabaaz Hussain of East London.

The evidence indicates it is not a mono-ethnic community of Somalis that is being drawn back, but rather a diverse group that reflects every aspect of the British Muslim community.

Preachers and websites from the United Kingdom are providing fundraising and ideological cover, individuals are sneaking over to join the fighting, and suicide bombers and now British citizens are embroiled in plots outside Somalia.

It is a repetition of a pattern already seen in Afghanistan that culminated in the London bomb attacks of July 7, 2005. The clear concern is that a similar trend is playing out in connection with Somalia, involving a group that has now been welcomed into the al Qaeda fold and therefore sees the world, and not simply Somalia, as its battlefield.

The difference is that, hopefully, the lesson has been learned from Afghanistan, and the West is unlikely to leap into large-scale military action.

The fact that the connection is on people’s radars and the group has so far restricted itself somewhat in what it has done abroad is a positive sign, but recently the group seems to have stepped up its external operations and stories of recruitment and foreign fighters are becoming more frequent.

The recent London conference on Somalia highlights the United Kingdom’s key role in rebuilding that country – exactly the opposite of what Al Shabaab wants – but Britain’s problem is that it has also played a key role on the supply side for the terrorist network’s development. That took place during a time when Britain was investing untold millions of pounds into counter-radicalization programs.

The lesson appears to be clear: the West has still not figured out domestic counter-radicalization and the British-Somali connection is one that needs to be watched very carefully. Large-scale invasion of Somalia would be counterproductive in terms of reducing the threat to the United Kingdom, as it would only anger the group in Somalia more, as well as feed the underlying narrative that the West is at war with Islam.

But, in any case, Al Shabaab’s connection with al Qaeda now means the United Kingdom is seen as an active target.

A short article for a new outlet, this time an interesting student run website called E-International Relations. They contacted me looking for a piece, and I am always happy to write for places that ask nicely (well, within reason, at the moment am trying to avoid taking on new commitments as am desperately trying to catch up on myself). A somewhat larger strategic overlook at the terrorist threat that I hope to hear some reactions to.

Grinding Terrorist Networks Down in 2012

By  on February 26, 2012

In an age of persistent conflict, terrorism will continue to be a threat confronting governments. However, the nature of this threat is shifting and the question that has not been properly answered is whether we are seeing a threat that is finally in decline or continues to ascend.

The general tendency is to answer this question with a shrug of the shoulders and say the threat seems to have “plateaued” – in other words, the threat is persistent but seems not to be increasing in volume. But this response is less than satisfying for numerous reasons – not least because it attempts to put a standard answer on a threat that has diversified considerably in the past few years.

In some parts of Africa and Asia, while major strides have been made against the variety of terrorist organizations that come under the al Qaeda brand, or ascribe to a violent Islamist ideology, the groups have proven impressively resistant and refuse to be eradicated. There continues to be a steady patter of violence emanating from them as local forces, often with the support of western intelligence and military, mount operations targeting leaders and disrupting networks. While some pose a threat to the west, the majority poses a more direct threat to local international interests or local targets. For example, beyond the depressing list of attacks targeting local forces or civilians across Asia, the Middle East or Africa, the al Shabaab instigated plot in August 2009 to target American Secretary of State Hilary Clinton while she was visiting Kenya; al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s persistent targeting of western tourists or aid workers in North Africa; or the targeting of western hotels and tourist destinations in Southeast Asia by local Islamist networks. [1]

When looking instead at the direct threat in the west, outside directed networks continue to pose a threat with individuals and groups periodically disrupted with connections to Pakistan. But intelligence capacity (and electronic intercepts) has reached such a point that these networks are disrupted before they are able to move towards any operational capacity. Instead, we have seen the larger danger emanate from unaffiliated networks and individuals that self-radicalize and self-activate, loosely following what they believe to be the al Qaeda playbook. Often this is something that they have found in reading from the Internet or in the form of American-Yemeni preacher Anwar al Awlaki’s preaching or writing.

The result has been while we continue to see a steady stream of threats emanating from abroad, these have declined in number and quality. A certain volume of young men and women choose to go and join radical networks abroad, but few end up returning home (and often they are on security services radars). Heightened vigilance has also made it hard for external networks to penetrate the west, but nevertheless some are able to get through though so far they have been caught prior to being able to do anything. Instead, when terrorist plots or attacks are perpetrated, they tend to be from groups or individuals who are almost completely homegrown and auto-didactic in nature. For example, the loner Islamist plotters Arid Uka of Germany who shot two American servicemen as they waited to be taken to a flight in Frankfurt or Roshonara Choudhry who tried to stab a Member of Parliament Stephen Timms for his support of the Iraq war. Both were clearly inspired by ideas that could be described as spawned from al Qaeda, but neither was being directed by anyone in or near the organization. Similarly, the nine men convicted for a series of offenses in the United Kingdom early this year including attempting to leave an explosive device in the London Stock Exchange were not connected to al Qaeda, though they were involved in radical groups in the UK and had made moves towards establishing a terrorist training camp in Pakistan.

The quality and degree of threat posed by such groups and individuals is clearly of a different level than the group that perpetrated the July 7, 2005 bombing in London, the September 11, 2001 group or the plotters who planned in summer 2006 to bring down as many as eight airlines on transatlantic routes using ingeniously designed liquid bombs. There we saw groups trained abroad and then directed to conduct operations in the west using counter-surveillance techniques, coded emails and cleverly designed explosive devices. Close contact was maintained between the cell on the ground and operators abroad, highlighting the degree to which the plots can be described as al Qaeda directed. The newer wave display much less contact and much less operational guile and savvy. [2]

But what is to be read from this? Is the point that intelligence services have gotten so much better at detecting and disrupting externally directed networks, or that they have stopped trying to get in as much? And is the fact that we are now seeing self-started local plots as the main driver of threat an expression of the fact that we are looking at a threat that is in terminal decline since it cannot get in or merely that this is the only aspect of the menace that security services have not quite managed to get their heads around disrupting?

Difficult questions all, but to give a general answer, it is clear that some of the heat has gone out of the violent Islamist terrorist threat. The persistent hammering of leaders with drone strikes and Special Forces operations has reduced capacity, while enhanced intelligence focus has given a much better over watch position from which to ensure that networks are not able to dispatch cells to conduct attacks. The fact that the most active plots now come from groups that are self-started and self-directed is a reflection of two things: that these individuals are unable to make contact with known networks (because it is now harder to do so due to a lack of options and security) and that the ideas are incredibly diffuse in society’s general consciousness. But the ideas are clearly only inspiring small groups of individuals, so the threat is reduced and less capable than before.

But having said all of this, there still remains a rump of individuals in the west who are drawn to violent radical ideas, something indicative of the fact that, counter-radicalisation programmes notwithstanding, progress has been relatively limited in devising effective ways to deter people from choosing this path. What has been reduced however is the capability of networks abroad to connect with these individuals undetected. And when this is coupled with the fact that these networks are being vigorously shrunk through aggressive counter-terrorism operations abroad, it is possible to determine that the terrorist threat to the west from radical Islamist groups is in decline. Not necessarily in absolute and terminal decline, but certainly a far less capable and direct threat than it was in the mid-2000s and before when large-scale networks that had been developing for decades were able to repeatedly attempt to carry out plots in the west.

Terrorism has always come in cycles . The current menace from violent Islamists targeting the west is no different. Entropic forces tend to wind down violent political networks that are unable to achieve their immediate goals in a short-to-medium term timeline, and over time networks are degraded and their ideas lose some force or evolve in new directions. Al Qaedaism as we currently know it is clearly facing a downward trajectory, but the sparks as it winds down will trouble the world for years to come.

This article was commissioned in response to Dr Gunaratna’s piece.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR). His writing can be found here:http://www.raffaellopantucci.com

[1] Raffaello Pantucci, “The Islamist Terrorist Threat to Europe after Osama bin Laden’s death,” Chatham House Workshop Paper, July 1, 2011,http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/public/Research/International%20Security/010811wr_terrorism.pdf

[2] Bruce Hoffman, “Radicalization and Subversion: Al Qaeda and the 7 July 2005 Bombings and the 2006 Airline Bombing Plot,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, vol.32, no.12, 2009

This is going up a bit late, since have been a bit distracted with other obligations. It also ended up being published after Intelwire and Red State articles on the topic, though I had written it before reading them both (honest!). A long post for Free Rad!cals, something I am trying to return to with some regularity. This is exploring the subject of Lone Wolves that I have long been going on about, and in fact was quoted in a CNN story on the topic and a Christian Science Monitor one. It has been a while since I posted for a variety of reasons, but in the meantime, I was quoted a fair bit in this story linked to the London Somalia conference in the Danish newspaper Information and separately (and unrelated) on Chinese influence in Central Asia in an article that was written for Eurasianet and reprinted in the Atlantic.

When is a Lone Wolf a Lone Wolf?

View more articles by Raff Pantucci

Filed under: Anwar al-Awlaki, Homegrown extremism

The arrest last Friday of Amine el Khalifi as he strode towards the US Capitol Building with what he thought was a functioning MAC-10 submachine gun and explosive suicide vest marks the latest in a growing list of individuals who have been incarcerated in the United States in cases involving intelligence agents. As with many previous cases, this one has already been called a “lone wolf” by officialdom in the US. But does this definition really hold water in a case like Khalifi’s?

The problem with using this definition in Khalifi’s case is that central to the plot seems to be at least one law enforcement agent and a confidential informant. Individuals who hinted to him that they were connected with al Qaeda and ultimately provided him with what he thought were the tools to conduct a Fedayeen-style terrorist attack on the Capitol Building. All of which suggests that in Khalifi’s mind he was not actually a “lone wolf,” but rather an individual who was part of a terrorist cell.

This distinction is important since it raises a subsidiary question of whether Khalifi would have actually done something if he hadn’t had the community of agents around him to both provide him with what he thought was a cell, as well as the weapons to carry out his terrorist attack. Khalifi was clearly a disjointed fellow – a former landlord is quoted as saying he was suspicious of Khalifi and found him to be a very troublesome tenant suspecting he may have been building bombs – but how dangerous was he and did he have the wherewithal to launch a terrorist plot by himself?

At this point, we shall never know. Given Khalifi was captured as he marched up to his intended target armed with a machine gun and suicide vest, it is hard to envisage any jury finding him innocent or to disagree with this conclusion. And it is perfectly possible that Khalifi is indeed a deranged individual who may have been prone to going down a path of violence. But the dilemma is the degree to which the cell of agents empowered him, and whether they could have used the information to dissuade him instead of helping him in this direction.

His case is very similar to that of Jose Pimental, a New Yorker arrested earlier this year by NYPD as he was supposedly building a bomb with what emerged to be a police agent. In that case, Pimental was also described as something of an oddball who would broadcast his radical views loudly online, was part of the community of individuals involved in the Revolution Muslim website and decided to get involved in a plot once he came across what he thought was a fellow radical. Pimental was seemingly obsessed with Anwar al Awlaki, and had apparently tried to reach out to him, but to no avail. Oddly enough, in that case the FBI declined to become involved leaving the case in the NYPD’s jurisdiction hinting that Pimental was not that dangerous (an odd conclusion given the similarities to the Khalifi case). Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly backed their forces, however, declaring Pimental a “ total lone wolf.”

This approach to capturing violent Islamist cells is not a particularly new one for American forces. While I may have missed some cases, scanning old reports and lists on the topic of disrupted terrorist plots in the US, it seems to me as though the first plot involving unaffiliated individuals who were caught using a confidential informant involved Shahawar Matin Siraj and James Elshafay who were planning to bomb a subway station in New York City in August 2004. In that case, a police agent, who allegedly offered his services to trawl through New York’s Muslim community to identify Muslims who were bringing a bad name to his religion, was key in securing the convictions.

However, it seems as though Siraj had voiced his ideas to others prior to the agent and had another co-conspirator James Elshafay, a mentally troubled individual who volunteered to plant a bomb. In other words, Siraj was moving in a dangerous direction with others even prior to meeting the agent. While it is true that the agent might have acted like a final trigger into moving him into action, he was not operating in a total vacuum with the agents acting as his only contacts to other extremists prepared to do something.

When we look at a case like Khalifi’s, there are a number of key differences. In his case, Khalifi’s entire connection to the al Qaeda cell he thought he was part of was fictitious. Unlike Siraj whom it seems was both voicing his opinions, but also in contact with others willing to carry out violence, Khalifi seems to have been willing to voice his radical ideas but was not in contact with any others eager to follow the path he eventually took, until he encountered the federal agents.

But the purpose here is not to condemn the use of confidential informants or undercover agents – but instead to focus on whether we can really call such individuals lone wolves and what effect this approach is having on reducing this problem.

The answer to the first question is clearly negative: these individuals cannot really be called “lone wolves” since they were really not acting alone. They were part of what they thought was a cell. That this turned out to be mostly federal agents is important as it complicates whether we can confidently say that they would have chosen this path independently and acted as “lone wolf” terrorists. The answer is we cannot – we shall never know whether they would have chosen this path without the group around them. Certainly we can look at the individual’s readiness to move into action with some level of concern, but we cannot confidently say they would have done this absent the contacts with agents.

It is easy to understand why enforcement agencies favor this sort of an approach. Lone Wolf terrorists are very hard to spot and identify before they move into action – this approach draws out individuals who seem to be moving in this direction and merely gives them the tools to hang themselves by their own petards. In this way it is pre-emptive. For example, someone like Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the 19-year-old Portland, Oregon Somali who tried to blow up a vehicle bomb at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in late 2010. According to court documents, Osman was trying to make contact with radicals in Pakistan to try to join them to fight jihad. Having identified him, federal agents moved in and in the end Osman decided to try to carry out an attack within America.

In a case like Osman’s it is easy to see the logic behind a pre-emptive approach. Osman was clearly interested in making contact and joining radicals abroad. Conviction on the basis of this sort of contact is no doubt hard to prove; so sending agents in to understand the individual better makes some sense. That this then led to him wanting to carry out a plot within the US is one outcome this can lead to – whether Osman suggested it or the agents did is something that will no doubt come out in trial. Pimental had tried to reach out to other radicals (including Anwar al Awlaki allegedly), but it is not clear whether this is also the case with Khalifi.

The other logic behind such operations is the notion of deterrence. If you catch and convict some individuals like this, it serves as an example to the other potential ones out there. Siraj received a 30-year sentence for his crime, and Osman, Pimental and Khalifi are looking at similar sentences. And unlike Europe, where long sentences can be reduced with good behavior, etc, in the United States, long terms means a long time in a prison where prosecutors openly admit same sex rape is common.

But the deterrence case somewhat falls down when we consider how long the United States has been pursuing such individuals and how they continue to appear. If we take the Siraj case as a first example – we can see how since 2006 (on the basis of when he was incarcerated versus arrested) examples have been publicly made of what is going to happen to you if you wander down this path and how there are agents out there seeking to catch you. And yet we have continued to see cases occur with this latest pair merely the most recent in a long list. Of course it is possible that there would have been many more, and that in fact the relatively small number we see is a reflection that in fact this deterrent effect is working, but this is another statistic that will be impossible to ever prove.

There is no clean answer to this discussion. One solution I have advocated is that police and intelligence agencies should identify such people and then instead of moving in with a team to catch them doing something bad, send in a team to dissuade them from doing anything. Make it obvious to them that they are wandering down a dangerous path and they should get off it. This might scare some sense into them and lead them to choosing another path. It might also have the opposite effect in some cases, but I am certain if an intervention is handled properly, it could save a lot of time and effort from courts, prisons and intelligence agencies.

But to return to the question I started this whole post off with: when is a lone wolf a lone wolf? He can be considered a “lone wolf” terrorist when he tries to carry out a terrorist act by himself or herself, without any support or command and control from known or unknown networks. To call individuals like Jose Pimental or Amine el Khalifi “Lone Wolves” is a misinterpretation of the term that is only going to complicate the struggle in identifying such individuals that really are “Lone Wolves.” The real “lone wolves” are people like Khalid Aldawsari, the Saudi student in Texas whose romantic and poetic blog masked a desire to build a bomb to attack America. He quietly worked away on his plot until he tried to purchase chemicals from an attentive seller. They reported him to authorities and he was subsequently arrested and is now awaiting trial. People like Jose Pimental or Amine el Khalifi may indeed have been potential “lone wolves” in the future, but the reality is we shall never know whether they were actually going to go down this path or not.