And another late post up to the site, also for RUSI, this time touching upon the disrupted plot to attack an English Defence League (EDL) march in Dewsbury. The cell was linked to the other Birmingham plot I mentioned in these two pieces. Looking back in light of recent events, it looks like some of the points I made here are relevant in relations to Woolwich.
RUSI Analysis, 9 May 2013
By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow
Last week, Islamist extremists were found guilty of plotting a terrorist attack on a rally of the English Defence League. The case shows how extremists from both sides are turning to violent means. It also shows how Jihadists in the United Kingdom are focusing on domestic targets.
The plan was to attack an English Defence League (EDL) march in Dewsbury and possibly leader Tommy Robinson using knives, machetes, shotguns and explosives. A number of the figures in the plot had appeared on the periphery of other investigations: at least one was already on bail (having served time) for possession of terrorist material, another was a fundraiser in a separate plot to carry out an unspecified suicide bombing and another was the brother of a plotter from the same investigation. The case highlights a number of issues for British security, intelligence agencies and the police. This includes understanding the multiple strands of potential terrorist activity in the Birmingham’network of networks’; understanding the dynamic between Islamist extremists and the Far right and living with the embedded domesticization of the terrorist threat in the United Kingdom.
The particular plot to target the EDLwas one that was part of a phenomenon of growing concern to security officials. The plotters actions seem to be part of an apparent escalation that the two sides share in the press and at events: the group of Islamist extremists from Birmingham were planning to drive north and launch an attack against a planned EDL march in Dewsbury on 30 June 2012. They had gathered knives, machetes, sawn-off shotguns, a partially constructed pipe bomb, a fireworks based improvised explosive device and had in their possession a letter addressed to Prime Minister David Cameron, the Queen and the ‘English Drunkards League.’ The men had allegedly aborted their attack after being late for the EDL rally, returning home having done nothing. Had they been able to carry out their attack, the casualties could have been high and police were unable to rule out that the group had been planning a suicide attack.
This is the first plot in which a group of Islamist terrorists has chosen to take measures to directly target members of the EDL, an extremist group that ‘was founded in the wake of the shocking actions of a small group of Muslim extremists who, at a homecoming parade in Luton, openly mocked the sacrifices of our service personnel without any fear of censure.’ The parade in question was in March 2009 and was conducted by a group that was praised by self-appointed preacher AnjemChoudhry – one of the leading figures in the now-banned al Muhajiroun – and involved a number of individuals who had been affiliated with the group in Luton. Similarly inflammatory incidents have been carried out on Remembrance Days in 2010 (during which a protester burned a symbolic poppy) and 2011 (when the protest used the headline ‘Hell for Heroes’), and a planned protest at Wootton Basset in 2010 was cancelled after much publicity.
The EDL’sresponse to this has been a series of protest marches up and down the country, all of which attract varying degrees of support and attention. The group has not been linked to any terrorist plots, though a number of its members have been arrested over time for various public order offences – usually involving violence at protests. Separately there have also been arrests of far right activists allegedly planning bombings of some kind, though their group affiliation (if any) remains unclear.
The picture from a government perspective is a negative one. An already polarised public political conversation is taking a more violent tone. The danger of a cyclical reaction and counter-reaction between the two sides of an extreme equation seems increasingly tangible, with already heightened tensions between different communities now finding acts of terrorism palatable. The question becomes whether this particular event will spark a possible counter-reaction or simply prove a one off.
Local Targeting, Less Command and Control
From a solely violent Islamist perspective, this plot highlights both the ongoingand embedded nature of the domestic threat, and the growing evidence of a lack of command and control from overseas. Whilst individuals in this plot were involved in a separate cell, there is little in the public domain to suggestthat they received instruction from Al-Qa’ida. Rather, the plot seems to have been one that was concocted amongst networks based in the United Kingdom, loosely using publications like Inspire magazine as guides to build devices, but targeted at domestic, almost ‘local’ grievance issues. The choice of the EDL as a target is not actually that new: in a recent case in Luton the group mentioned the EDL on a list of potential targets that included the Security Service, MI5, and the US Air Force (USAF). In a separate case, radicalised convert Richard Dart mentioned attacking a protest at Wootton Basset as a possible target while also being in possession of a recording of himself delivering a video ‘Message to the EDL’ on a ‘Muslims Against Crusades’ video. But in neither of these cases had individuals done more than include the group as one of a number of possible targets they were interested in exploring within the UK.
This choice of targeting reflects a growing trend in British violent Islamist networks where they have chosen targets of a very domestic British nature rather than international. Is it the case that much like politics, all terrorism is local? Rather than public transport, international targets or large shopping arenas, this group intended to target a domestic British political organisation. Similar efforts in the past include the attempt in September 2008 to firebomb the home of the publisher of the book The Jewel of Medina, a book that had attracted some controversy for its portrayal of the Prophet Muhammed or Roshonara Choudhry’s attempted murder of MP Stephen Timms for his vote in favour of the Iraq War after she had watched a series of videos by Anwar al Awlaki. In both of these cases, the ideology that was underpinning the choice of targets was support for a global jihadist cause, but the end result was a choice of target that was more a reflection of local concerns that international targeting. This reflects, at least in part, the fact that none of these cells had any clear connections to outside plotters who might have steered them towards more prominent targets with an international profile.
A Complex Intelligence Picture
The product of this approach is a set of plots that demonstrate less external direction and more haphazard targeting. This complicates traditional threat assessments of targeting choices, as well as making harder the job of identifying cells pre-emptively. Traditionally, security and intelligence services and police find cells or plotters through their communication or contacts with others: if a cell lacks any direct command and control from abroad or is a Lone Actor, then this becomes a harder proposition. This also means that it is harder to identify and assess individuals within a broad community of interest who are either involved or on the periphery of a terrorist cell.
If individuals are all radicalising within a broader community and the targeting decisions are coming around in a more random manner – using easily accessible weapons and focused on domestic political targets – officials observing may find it difficult to distinguish which are moving towards a terrorist atrocity versus those who are simply expressing extreme political views. Additionally, when the targeting picture is one focused on domestic British extremist political entities, it means that a potentially much wider group of people are affected: there are many individuals who talk loudly about being angry about the EDL or other similar groups, but which are those who are talking with potentially terrorist intent versus those simply expressing anger and opposition? A Sheffield man was charged with threatening the EDL with an attack after he sent a threatening message through their website: a jury was unable to reach a conclusion in a case where the defendant claimed to have sent the message out of personal spite with no intent.
Finally, it is worth noting that this cell targeting the EDL was one that was actively part of the extremistcommunity in Birmingham that has been the source of a number of serious terrorism cases of late. Jewel Uddin, one of the key figures in the group targeting the EDL was a fundraiser for a cell convicted recently for planning to carry out an unspecified suicide bombing in the United Kingdom. Uddin was in fact mentioned during the previous trial as an individual who appeared on a number of wiretaps and was at least briefly under direct intelligence surveillance:whilehe purchased knives that were subsequently discovered in a vehicle with other weapons the cell was going to use in attacking the EDL march.
Another member of the group, Zohaib Kamran Ahmad was previously incarcerated on charges of possessing radical material, while AnzalHussain was the brother of one of the individuals involved in the previous Birmingham case. This means that in total 17 Birmingham men have pled guilty of terrorism offences in quick succession, highlighting ongoing radicalisation within the city. Locals point to the fact that families in Birmingham tried to resolve some of the issues themselves rather than alert authorities as a good sign about trends in recognizing and accepting the danger of radicalisation in the city. Nevertheless, it is becoming apparent that Birmingham isa rising as a source of concern for British security authorities.
Overall, there is a complicated domestic picture that is matched by an equally confused map abroad where Al-Qa’ida’s increased fracturing offers numerous new regions where potential threats might brew – like parts of the Sahel, Nigeria, Syria and so on. The terrorist threat in the UK may seem increasingly amateurish and domestic, but it maintains the potential to produce sudden, sharp blows. Understanding where these may come and how they express themselves will continue to be a concern for the next few years.