Archive for April, 2012

A new piece for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, looking at the flow of British jihadists to Pakistan. A number that seems to have decreased and that is clearly not being as directed or tapped into as it was before. While plots still pop up with links to Pakistan (something that is not that surprising when we consider the UK’s South Asian population), it is nowhere near numbers before. This all of course happens as Saajid Badat testified in NYC. More on that later.

In Short Supply: The Britain-Pakistan jihadist trade flow

By Raffaello Pantucci | Tuesday, April 24, 2012 – 12:42 PM

This year, the United Kingdom hosts the Olympic Games, and security services are on particularly high alert. Magnifying an already tense environment, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and then al-Qaeda released videos in the past few weeks, threatening the United Kingdom if convicted jihadists serving sentences in the U.K. are not treated better. The TTP threatened, “we will show them how we take revenge for the mistreatment of our brothers.” Are these just empty threats, or are they, in fact, causes for genuine concern for British security services?

The first video threat was a speech by Waliur Rehman Mehsud (TTP’s deputy leader and a regular spokesman), who told British authorities to take better care of the jihadists that it was holding in prison, specifically highlighting the cases of Roshonara Choudhry, the woman who tried to kill a member of Parliament for his support of the Iraq War after watching Anwar al-Awlaki videos; Dhiren Barot, the Hindu convert who fought alongside Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, wrote about his experiences in a book, and was later arrested as part of a cell plotting unspecified attacks in the U.K.; and Bilal Abdullah, the Iraqi doctor who was jailed for first leaving a set of car bombs in central London in 2007, and then driving a jeep laden with explosive material into Glasgow airport. All three are serving long sentences in the U.K., and Barot and Abdullah have been linked to al-Qaeda Central to al-Qaeda in Iraq respectively.

Two weeks later, al-Qaeda released a statement telling the U.K. not to extradite Abu Qatada, the Jordanian-Palestinian imam who was one of the cornerstones of Londonistan, to Jordan. Though he has not been convicted of any offenses, security services have repeatedly highlighted his menace, and in March 2004 a British high court judge described him as “very heavily involved, indeed at the center in the United Kingdom of terrorist activities associate with al Qaeda. He is truly a dangerous individual.” He is currently still battling his extradition to Jordan on charges linked to a plot in that country from around the Millennium. In the statement, al-Qaeda demands that the British government send the cleric to one of the Arab Spring nations instead of Jordan. This threat was followed soon afterwards by similar messages from al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate (the Islamic State of Iraq), and another by al-Shabaab (the Somali group that recently pledged allegiance to al Qaeda).

Neither of these statements is in fact very new: TTP and Waliur Mehsud have repeatedly threatened the West, and have been linked to terrorist plots in Europe and America. Similarly, in June 2009 al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) demanded the British government release Abu Qatada, and executed captive British citizen Edwin Dyer when British officials refused to comply. Whether al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan are currently holding any British prisoners they can use as leverage this time around is unclear, but given the long-standing connection between jihad in Pakistan and the United Kingdom, British services will be watching these messages closely.

Whilst the British-Pakistani terrorist connection is no longer what it was — a source of most of Britain’s domestic terrorist plots as young British men went to fight in Afghanistan and were re-directed back home to carry out attacks — it has not completely dissipated. Earlier this year, a group of nine men pled guilty to a plot to plant a bomb in the London Stock Exchange. Four were directly implicated in the bombing plan, while the others were fulfilling a series of subsidiary roles, including developing a training camp in Pakistan that they could turn into a location for British citizens to prepare for jihad. And later this year we will see the trial of a group of Pakistani-Britons arrested in Birmingham last October. The group of seven has allegedly been linked to training in the AfPak region, and were reported to have recorded martyrdom videos. And these allegations are merely the most recent in a long list. British intelligence officers have broken up other cells containing individuals who have gone abroad to seek training, and their early intervention prevented the plots from advancing much beyond this point. And at least four British citizens have fallen foul of drone strikes in Waziristan since October 2010.

But the stream of money and fighters (according to British intelligence, prior to 2002 some 3,000 British citizens had gone to fight) that used to go back and forth has now died down to a trickle. Clearly, some sympathy still exists amongst Britain’s South Asian community for what many see as the plight of their brethren at home, but the number of young men willing to go fight alongside militants there has fallen. The intelligence community is unwilling to specify publicly, but told journalist Jason Burke that “never more than a few score in any one year, their number [of young Britons going to fight in South Asia] has now been reduced to a handful.” This has likely stunted the capacity of al-Qaeda and its affiliates to launch attacks in the United Kingdom with much ease. This is not to say that the U.K. is not a target – these latest statements are testament to the country’s continued presence on group’s priority list – but militants are now likely find their plots more difficult to put into action.

What is unclear is whether this difficulty of moving into action is a result of a lack of willingness from recruits or whether it is a lack of capacity from al-Qaeda to be able to manage plots and networks launching strikes abroad. According to a series of documents believed to be from al-Qaeda Central that were obtained by German security forces when they arrested a pair of fighters returning from Waziristan last year, al-Qaeda used to have a capacity to manage large networks of plotters in the United Kingdom using operational managers in Waziristan, who were in close contact with the cells on the ground. This capacity seems to have gone away, with the group taking a far more hands-off approach to managing cells. In neither of the aforementioned British plots (that on the London Stock Exchange and that involving a Birmingham cell) was there, from information currently available, evidence of management by al-Qaeda Central of the plot on the ground. The last major set of plots with a key manager in Waziristan were concocted by a group disrupted in northern England in April 2009 (who were allegedly planning a campaign in northern England), another cell led by Najibullah Zazi stopped in September 2009 in New York (one of whom is currently on trial in New York), and then in July 2010 in Norway (when a group of three was planning an unspecified attack in Oslo using hydrogen peroxide based bombs).

Since then, we have seen an increasingly loose set of individuals dispatched from Waziristan to the West (and in particular the U.K.) to attempt to carry out terrorist attacks. Some sort of network of people going back and forth from the U.K. continues to exist – it was only July last year that British Special Forces in Herat detained a British couple who had snuck into Afghanistan and were allegedly trying to connect with extremists to launch an unspecified attack either in Afghanistan or back in the U.K. The couple, at least one of whom was a British citizen, is currently in Afghanistan in unknown circumstances, having been released by British forces. However, we are no longer seeing the sorts of large-scale plots with connections right to the top that we saw coming along the British-Pakistani pipeline in the early/mid-2000s.

All of this suggests both a lowering in the volume of individuals going back and forth, and a degradation of the capacity of al-Qaeda or others in Afghanistan and Pakistan to effectively manage such individuals and turn them into operational cells. The days of the British-Pakistani connection’s role as the primary source of the terrorist threat in the West appear to have passed.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center 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). His writing can be found at:

Another short op-ed for the South China Morning Post (with Alex Petersen, co-editor of this other site), this time looking at Sino-Turkish relations in the wake of Erdogan’s recent visit, focusing particularly on how Central Asia figures between them. One of the most interesting things about this whole visit was Erdogan’s stop in Xinjiang which was quite a turn-around from his comments back during the riots of 2009. More on this subject coming soon. Unfortunately, this is again behind a firewall, but I have asked editors for permission to republish and will update duly. (UPDATE, have added full text after SCMP approval).

China and Turkey Reprise the Silk Road

Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen see China and Turkey forming a new Eurasian axis


Apr 23, 2012

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent visit to Urumqi, Xinjiang, was a dramatic turnaround for a leader who just over two years ago had characterised the Chinese response to riots in the same city as “simply put, a genocide”. Now he has shifted his pose, reaffirming “the one-China policy” and speaking in Shanghai of the “cultural similarities” between the two countries. Engendered by an increasingly eastern-facing Turkish posture, this shift highlights a Eurasian axis that invites closer attention.

As two developing countries with good manufacturing capacity and large labour forces, China and Turkey were long able to grow independently of one another. Both were export-driven economies, but they did not directly compete for markets.

Where they did meet on the international stage, there was often tension. This was bound up with Erdogan’s tendency to favour the Uygur side of China’s ethnic quagmire in Xinjiang.

But times change. Earlier this year, Chinese leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping stopped off in Turkey, and now Erdogan has become the first Turkish head of state to visit China in 27 years. Behind this is a recognition that trade between the two nations is picking up, and, increasingly, their global interests align.

Both are uncharacteristically active in diplomacy in the current Iranian and Syrian stand-offs. But more interesting is China’s eagerness to encourage Turkish investment in Xinjiang – very surprising given Erdogan’s previous statements.

A main rationale behind this shift is recognition of the complementary roles the two powers play in Central Asia. Economic development, and the political stability it produces, is one of China’s main goals in the region. This is seen as essential to ensuring future tranquility in Xinjiang. Turkey contributes to that, with aid and educational programmes to Central Asia.

Chinese state-owned enterprises are busy constructing the components of a so-called Eurasian Land Bridge across the region, an East-West network of road, rail and other trade infrastructure. Turkish trucking, construction companies and traders in the region will be some of the first to reap its benefits.

Perhaps at some point, Chinese and Turkish interests will end up awkwardly rubbing up against each other, but, for the moment, the two fastest growing economies in Eurasia are reprising their historical roles as the two ends of the fabled Silk Road.

Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West. Their joint research is available at


A slightly delayed piece for CNN on a topic I have covered repeatedly, the subject of Lone Wolves and specifically the case of Mohammed Merah in France. It has also been a quiet period of late as I am travelling in a rather far-flung place, but more on that later.

In France, a new type of Lone Wolf Threat

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

Analysis from Raffaello Pantucci, Special to CNN

Mohammed Merah’s death has done little to clarify what motivated him to carry out his terrorist act.

The assassination of a series of North African French soldiers, followed by the cold-blooded shooting of Jewish children as they went to school, all show evidence of a mind twisted by hate that was motivated by Islamist ideas:  The soldiers had the audacity to be members of an army fighting against Islam while the children had the misfortune of being born into the wrong religious family.

But what is most disquieting about this is that it is unclear that anyone told him to carry out his specific act. While it now seems clear that he was living within a radical milieu and had tried to go and fight jihad abroad, he seems to have chosen to carry out his act by himself.  This is the action of a terrorist operating by himself, a lone wolf; one who has so firmly imbued his ideology that he no longer feels the need to receive orders to act upon, but is able to self-activate. Screaming about being linked to al Qaeda as he battled police, Merah clearly thought of himself as a mujahedeen for their cause.

What we do know of Merah so far is that he was in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region twice. Which group he sought out specifically is unclear.

Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed to have trained numerous Frenchmen, while Jund-al-Khalifah, a primarily Kazakh terror group, made a somewhat dubious claim of responsibility. He had possibly also fought in Iraq – at least one family member was involved in running a network sending fighters to the country. Back in France, he appears to have visited other radicals in prison and existed on the fringes of French radical group Forsane Alizza. But it is not clear that any of these organizations actively directed him into action.

This is not the first time that we have seen individuals of this sort on the European jihadist scene. Back in the early morning of January 1, 2010, Mohamed Geele came crashing through the front door of cartoonist Kurt Westergaard’s house in Aarhus, Denmark.  He had shaved and perfumed himself in the manner of a fighter expecting to die in the course of his action and used Google Earth to find the cartoonist’s home. Westergaard was able to hide before Geele got to him, and Danish police swiftly arrived and apprehended him after a brief shootout.

He was later identified as being a key member of a Scandinavian support network that was helping send money and fighters to Somali Islamist group Al-Shabaab (“the youth”) and was spotted alongside another Somali-Dane who blew himself up in Mogadishu.  A few months before carrying out his attack, Geele had been repatriated after he was apprehended by Kenyan police on suspicion of being part of a plot to attack visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

But while Geele was clearly connected to the group, there is no particular evidence that it told him to act. When subsequently asked about the attack, Al-Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mahmud Raage said, “We appreciate the incident in which a Muslim Somali boy attacked the devil who abused our prophet” before going on to seemingly admit they knew of Geele, saying, “there could be some people who might say that boy was related to Shabaab.”  From information released during his trial, it seemed as though Geele was a radicalized young man who, once back in Denmark, fell back into his old ideologies and decided that it was his duty to punish the cartoonist.

While the whole story about Merah has not yet been told, there is a pattern like Geele’s that is possible to identify: Young men enraptured by the lure of jihad become involved in international terrorism, and then find themselves adrift and decide to act by themselves, following the outlines of what they considered to be a correct targeting package.  Like Geele, Merah seems to have been known within a community of radicals and was a known entity to local intelligence agencies.  Unlike Geele (who in court claimed it would be easy for him to get a gun), Merah seems to have been able to accumulate quite an arsenal.  And also unlike his Danish predecessor, he was able to carry out grim killings before he was caught. He was also planning on broadcasting his act posthumously, having created a video that he had sent to news organizations – though it is unclear whether Merah or someone else sent it.

Merah is also clearly quite distinct from some others who have been called lone wolf Islamist terrorists recently.  He is different from British student Roshonara Choudhry, who tried to stab an member of Parliament for his support of the Iraq War.  He is also different from Arid Uka, the 21-year-old Kosovar living in Germany who shot two American servicemen as they waited at Frankfurt Airport in revenge for what he believed American soldiers were doing in Afghanistan.  In both of those cases, the individuals involved were not particularly connected to any radical group (except through the Internet), but chose to carry out their acts of political violence by themselves, aiming at targets they thought would be justified.

Merah is clearly a more dangerous proposition; not only since he was more successful, but also because to some degree he seems to have been able to operate using effective operational security.  Clearly, French intelligence will have some explaining to do about how someone it was attentive to was able to accumulate such an arsenal, and also about how he was able to stay on the loose.  Whether this is the product of a more trained or a more dedicated mind is unclear, but what it does show is that intelligence services need to be more attentive to people who they may have considered peripheral figures on terrorist networks.  Previously, they would have been able to focus on the core, and leave the more fragmentary elements of the network on a looser leash.  But with the growing instance of individuals like Merah and Geele, and their increasing lethality, it will have to be reconsidered which individuals are of concern.

The question becomes how such individuals can be effectively focused on and how intelligence services can distinguish them from the large community of individuals that exist on the periphery of known terrorist networks but who never move into action.  While much has been made of the French tendency toward human rather than electronic intelligence as a potential reason why Merah was able to seemingly accumulate his armory and was able to stay below the radar for so long, it is unclear that greater electronic information would have necessarily uncovered him.

Within the United States, where electronic intelligence is the foundation of counter-terrorism work, individuals have managed to proceed quite far staying beneath the eyes of electronic watchers. Whatever the case, the key lesson is that it is increasingly becoming the norm that individuals less central to terrorist networks are going to move to the heart of terrorist operations. Figuring out how to distinguish them from the noise surrounding them is going to be a challenge for the next few years.