Archive for April, 2014

A new piece for an outlet I have not contributed to in a while, Jamestown’s Terrorism Monitor, this time looking at the brewing trouble there has been in Mombasa, Kenya and more generally the spread of Shabaab from Somalia into that country. The initial nub of this came from looking more at the cases of Germaine Grant and Samantha Lewthwaite, both significant British figures who have featured in this network. More broadly than them it is clear that the trends in Mombasa are going in a negative direction.

Beyond al Shabaab, Syria continues to be a major focus of people’s attention.  I have longer work coming on this, but in the meantime did interviews on the foreign fighter question with the Sunday Independent and Guardian as well as a more longer-term piece with BBC on the Return to Londonistan. You can also see me talking about foreign fighters and the link to Europe at Chatham House.

Terrorist Campaign Strikes Mombasa as Somali Conflict Spreads South

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 8

April 18, 2014 08:04 PM Age: 4 hrs
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Kenyan authorities in the coastal city of Mombasa arrested two individuals on March 17 as they drove a vehicle laden with explosives into the city. Authorities believed that the two men were part of a larger cell of 11 who were planning a campaign of terror that would have culminated in the deployment of a “massive” VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) against “shopping malls, beaches or tourist hotels” (Capital FM [Nairobi], March 17; Standard [Nairobi], March 17; March 20). A day later, Ugandan authorities announced they had heightened their security in response to a threat from al-Shabaab aimed at fuel plants in the country (Africa Report, March 19).

The VBIED was built into the car, with ball bearings and other shrapnel welded into its sides and a mobile phone detonator wired to the device (Standard [Nairobi], March 20). The men were also caught with an AK-47, 270 rounds of ammunition, six grenades and five detonators (Capital FM [Nairobi], March 18). The suspects, Abdiaziz Abdillahi Abdi and Isaak Noor Ibrahim, were both born in 1988, with Abdiaziz allegedly “a cattle trader and renowned navigator of old caravan trade routes based in Garissa town,” while Noor was described as “a long distance truck driver or conductor who often travelled to South Sudan through Uganda” (Standard [Nairobi], March 23). Their ethnicity was unclear with conflicting reports in the press, though the names suggest a Somali heritage, with Abdiaziz in particular being identified as a member of the Degodia, a sub-clan of the Hawiye of Somalia (Standard [Nairobi], March 23).

Later leaked reports indicated that another possible target was the Mombasa International Airport (Standard [Nairobi], March 23). On January 16, a bomb went off at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. Initially dismissed as a light bulb blowing up, authorities later admitted an IED had caused the explosion in a bin in the airport and reported capturing a car with further explosives onboard after a shootout near the airport. One man was killed in the gunfire and four others were subsequently charged in connection to the plot. One of those charged, Ilyas Yusuf Warsame, was identified by his lawyers as being accredited as a third secretary at the Somali Embassy in Nairobi (AP, February 4).

Authorities claimed to have been tracking a larger cell of individuals targeting Mombasa for around a month prior to the arrests with international assistance. One senior intelligence officer told the Kenyan press that five of the group had gone to Nairobi and the rest to Mombasa. The group allegedly included “foreign fighters” described as members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) by the Kenyan press (Standard [Nairobi], March 23). Official accounts around the plot were somewhat undermined by a report that Kenyan police had initially kept the VBIED parked outside their headquarters after seizing the vehicle without realizing it had a live device wired up within it (Daily Telegraph [London], March 19).

There is little independent corroboration of the international connection to the plot, though one name to appear repeatedly in the press was Fuad Abubakar Manswab, a Nairobi-born man connected by authorities to a number of plots in the past. Most notably, Manswab was arrested and charged alongside Briton Germaine Grant in Mombasa in December 2011. The two were accused of being involved in a bombing campaign in the city that was directed by Ikrima al-Muhajir, a Somalia-based al-Shabaab leader with close ties to al-Qaeda (for Ikrima, see Militant Leadership Monitor, November 2013). Manswab jumped bail in that case and a year later was almost killed in a shootout with Kenyan authorities in the Majengo neighborhood of Mombasa. Two others were killed in the confrontation with authorities and a cache of weapons uncovered, though Manswab managed to escape by jumping out a window with bullet wounds in his shoulder (Star [Nairobi], June 12, 2013). The group was alleged by prosecutors to have been plotting to free other al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab prisoners being held in Mombasa, as well as launching a series of assassinations of security officials and grenade attacks on bars (Daily Nation [Nairobi], October 30, 2012). Manswab was later reported to have joined al-Shabaab in Somalia (Star [Nairobi], June 12, 2013).

This targeting of Mombasa comes as a popular radical preacher was mysteriously gunned down in the street. Shaykh Abubakar Shariff Ahmed (a.k.a. Makaburi) was gunned down alongside another man as he left a courtroom within the Shimo la Tewa maximum security prison (Daily Nation [Nairobi], April 1). Long reported by official and media sources to be close to al-Shabaab, Makaburi was on U.S. and UN sanctions lists for his connections via funding and support to terrorist networks in East Africa. [1] He had also been connected to the transit of over 100 British nationals to join al-Shabaab, including the elusive Samantha Lewthwaite and Germaine Grant (Daily Mail, April 2). Close to slain radical clerics Shaykh Aboud Rogo and Shaykh Ibrahim Ismael, Makaburi was the leader of the radical Masjid Shuhada (Martyrs Mosque), previously known as the Masjid Musa. Similar to events in the wake of the deaths of the other two clerics, rioting broke out in Mombasa, though local authorities repeatedly called for calm and the violence was markedly less than in the wake of the deaths of the other clerics (Kenyan Broadcasting Corporation, April 2).

Following Makaburi’s death, another controversial cleric known as Shaykh Amir (a.k.a.  Mahboob) took control of the mosque and called for “total war against non-Muslims” to a packed house (The People [Nairobi], April 8). Sectarian violence was already visible in Mombasa prior to Makaburi’s death, when gunmen tied to the Masjid Shuhada by the Kenyan press were accused of opening fire on a mass in the Joy in Jesus church in the Likoni district, killing seven (Star[Nairobi], March 23).  The attackers attempted to go on to target another local church, but dropped the necessary ammunition before they got there (Daily Nation [Nairobi], March 23). The attack on the church was believed to be a reaction to a police raid on the Masjid Musa in early February in which two youths from the mosque and a policeman were killed. Among the 129 people arrested in the raid, police claimed to have arrested an individual alleged to be close to the late al-Qaeda in East Africa leader, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed. (Daily Nation [Nairobi] February 4).

At present, tensions remain high in the city and the government seemed to have responded to the recent spike in trouble with mass arrests and the threatened deportation of foreign nationals. A day prior to Makaburi’s shooting, some 657 people were arrested in sweeps in Eastleigh, a mostly Somali neighborhood in Nairobi, as part of the government’s response to grenade attacks on restaurants in the city that killed six (Daily Nation [Nairobi], April 1). A week after Makaburi’s death, some 4,000 Somalis were reportedly being held in Nairobi’s Kasarani stadium as authorities sifted through who was a Kenyan and who was not (Standard, [Nairobi], April 8). Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku stated that 3,000 had been detained, with 82 deported to Mogadishu (AFP, April 10). On April 12-13, Mombasa police rounded up 60 foreign suspects as part of an ongoing operation (KTN TV [Nairobi], April 13).

This focus on foreigners, however, may be a distraction from the larger problem of radicalization in Kenya, epitomized by the goings on around the mosques in Mombasa where there is evidence of connections to Somalia through Somali youth attending the mosque and connections through preachers like Makaburi, but it is not as clear that it is a solely foreign problem. The connection between the mosque and the community around it in Mombasa and foreign elements (including a trio of Algerian, Belgian and French nationals deported to Belgium on charges of being part of a Belgian-based network sending people to fight in Syria and Somalia) and reports of possible plotting in Uganda all highlight how these problems in Mombasa could have an international dimension (AFP, March 23; Africa Report, March 19).

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of the forthcoming We Love Death as You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen (Hurst/Columbia University Press).

Note

1. www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg1630.aspx; https://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2012/sc10748.doc.htm.

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An earlier version of this piece appeared in the South China Morning Post and was re-posted on China in Central Asia, however, this expanded version was done for my institutional home RUSI. An interesting topic a bit adjacent to my core interests, an aspect I may return to is the impact of events in Ukraine on Central Asia and China’s relations with the region.

Tensions Over Ukraine: Where Does China Sit?

RUSI Analysis, 11 Apr 2014

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

On the growing crisis over Ukraine, China has remained quietly supportive of Russia. Yet, Russia overestimates and exaggerates China’s level of support that is closer to acquiescence rather than actual support for the turmoil that Russia is engendering.

Putin and Xi Jinping

China has largely sat on the sidelines of the current dispute over Ukraine. Hawkish Chinese commentators have stated that this approach of standing aside and watching is part of a bigger Chinese strategy to encourage a multipolar world, while the official position has largely been quite bland. In contrast, Russian commentators and officials have used every opportunity to highlight the fact that Beijing was on the same page as Moscow.

Recently, in an interview on Russian state television, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov characterised China as ‘our very close partners’ of whom he has no doubts. For Russia, asPresident Putin put it when he formally announced Crimea’s annexing in the Duma, ‘we are grateful to the people of China, whose leaders have always, when considering the situation in Ukraine and Crimea, taken into account the full historical and political context.’

Chinese Conern

On the face of it, these interpretations of China’s support are accurate, but the reality is far more complex, with China uneasy about Russia’s actions though it may share Moscow’s concerns.

For all the bombast in its Pacific seawaters, it could be argued that China remains largely a status quo power that sees advantage in letting the current global order proceed along what it perceives as a natural trajectory in which it is ascendant. For policymakers in Beijing, this is a path that ends with China atop a constellation of new and old power centres from the UN Security Council to the G20 and BRICS.

China can see that its economic might and physical size places it in a position that current global trends favour. The question is how to manage this rise in a smooth manner so as to ensure the Communist Party can maintain supremacy in this complicated world.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine do little to smooth this path. In fact, they cause chaos and instability in a number of key Chinese markets, from Russia to Europe, as well as stirring up concerns in adjacent Central Asia.The former Soviet states of Central Asia worry about Russia’s long-term intent and the implications to them of sanctions. They have little interest in becoming involved in Russia’s spats with the West and are concerned that Moscow may try to exert its considerable leverage over them in some manner contrary to their interests.

China is the ascendant power in the region, but the Central Asians have little interest in completely re-aligning themselves towards Beijing and, in any case, China lacks the weight (and interest) to become the main regional security guarantor. In Europe, markets are in turmoil as leaders fret about how to punish Russia in a way that is not damaging to themselves while also worrying about the longer term implications of growing tensions between themselves and Russia.

All of this will doubtless have a knock-on effect on Chinese markets, be this through shrunken global trade or weakened regional trade: these factors might damage China’s already slowing economic growth. The Chinese leadership has little interest in such tensions that do nothing but disrupt markets.

Moreover, China does not look favourably on people recognising separatist states and has traditionally maintained, at least rhetorically, to its sacred non-interference principle (though this is in fact an increasingly obsolete principle). China fears the dangerous precedent that has been set in recognising a separatist province. Previously, when Russia carried out similar behaviour in Georgia in 2008, China was clear in using the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) to block a call of support for Russia’s actions. Both China and the Central Asian members of the SCO have their own set of concerns about separatist or minority communities – the last thing that they are interested in is supporting a new international trend of recognising breakaway states.

Explaining Chinese Acquiescence

Yet behind all these concerns, there is also a sense of agreement with Russia’s actions, something that helps explain China’s quiescent pose on Ukraine.These are captured in an attentive reading of Lavrov’s comments. As he put it: ‘Our contacts with Chinese partners have shown that they not only understand the lawful interests of Russia in this entire affair but that we have the identical understanding of the initial causes of the current deep crisis in Ukraine’

This is a more nuanced comment than it might sound, explaining in part how China recognises the validity of Russian concerns, but does not express its own views of Russian actions. China fundamentally agrees that the chaotic governance that led to the collapse of the Yanukovich regime and subsequent trouble is a bad thing. China, like Russia, sees great potential danger in public protests that culminate in the overthrow of a government.

Both countries were appalled at the chaos stirred up by the ‘colour revolutions’ in Ukraine (2004), Georgia (2003) and Kyrgyzstan (2005) and have looked on unhappily as the West has watched the Arab world implode in response to public protests during the Arab spring:as emphasised in particular in Syria. The Arab world has yet to really recover, while arguably, the ‘colour revolutions’ in former Soviet countries are still resonating today with difficult governments in all three.

In this analysis, Ukraine today is merely the latest iteration of this trend, and it is one that both China and Russia fear might lead to repercussions or even emulation at home. This fear, added to China’s unwillingness to turn completely against Moscow seeing it as a long-term geostrategic ally on important international issues like Iran, Syria or others, will ultimately bind the two countries together and will see China continuing to play a largely observer role in events in Ukraine.

For outside observers, the lesson is an important one. China is a passive ally of Russia over Ukraine, something borne out of an ideological and geopolitical concerns rather than an appreciation of the Russian heavy-handed response.

How Best to Appeal to China?

This difference is key to note if the West is going to find a way to get China to grow into a bigger role internationally. China is not the same sort of difficult global power like Russia, it is rather a power that sees trends going in its direction and is happy to continue to nurture them along.

This means that China’s interests can be appealed to if care is taken to understand China’s motivations. In the longer-term China wants a stable Ukraine, Europe and EU-Russia relationship. All of these will provide it with the sort of economic partners that it can profit and grow from. China may be sitting on the sidelines in the current difficulties, but their eye is on longer-term global picture where they see themselves triumphant.

A new piece with former colleague Laura looking at the phenomenon of criminals showing up on the battlefield in Syria. More on the topic of foreign fighters from Europe in the near future – including something longer that will eventually land! Thanks to the Airey Neave Trust for their generous support of this work.

Thick As Thieves: European Criminals Take to Syria’s Battlefield

RUSI Analysis, 31 Mar 2014 | By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

Individuals with known criminal histories are a surprisingly common feature of the current Syrian battlefield. While their motives may be a combination of redemption and opportunism, returnees in this mode pose a complicated threat picture for security services to process if they return.

By Raffaello Pantucci and Laura Dawson

Syria Report

Since the conflict began in 2011, Syria has become a magnet for European foreign fighters. Determining exact numbers is an imprecise science, but the most recent alarming figure to emerge in the UK is the anonymous government claim that some 250 British fighters are now back on UK shores having experienced the battlefield.

Although there is no single profile of those who decide to leave their homes to join the fighting in Syria, an interesting feature is the seemingly high proportion of individuals with criminal pasts who are appearing on the battlefield. This is an aspect of particular concern to security services since it gives them access to criminal networks for whom weapons are easier to obtain, helping them climb over a crucial hurdle when putting together a terrorist plot.

Hardened Criminals and Low Level Jihadists

There are three broad criminal profiles seen among those travelling to Syria: those with a history of petty crime; those who have been incarcerated for extremist Islamist behaviour; and career criminals.

Petty criminals are amongst the most common feature of the battlefield in Syria. 23-year-old Ali Almanasfi was born into a Syrian family in West London and had a troubled childhood involving gangs, theft, drug and alcohol abuse. His father – a bus driver originally from Syria – had sent Almanasfi back to Syria in an attempt to change his behaviour.

In 2009, however, Almanasfi was arrested and sentenced to prison after he attacked an older man while drunk. He was initially sent to Feltham Young Offenders institution, a prison that has had the leader of the 21/7 London bomb plot cell, Muktar Said Ibrahim and Shoe Bomber Richard Reid pass through its gates. It is believed that it was in prison that he grew religious, and in January 2013, he left for Syria.

Falsely believed to have died in May after Syrian security services showed images of a mangled body and his (previously lost) passport, Almanasfi was last heard from in June when he confirmed he had fought with the Ahrar Shaam brigade of fighters under the Islamic Front umbrella organisation.

Others draw on their criminal pasts to fund their travel to Syria. Last September, five Frenchmen – including one who claimed to have recently returned from Syria – stole €2500 from a fast-food restaurant in Paris to fund their travel to Syria. Choukri Ellekhlifi, a 22-year-old Londoner was alleged to have funded his travels to Syria by mugging people in London’s affluent Belgravia with a taser-style gun. His fellow mugger, 21-year-old Mohamed ElyasseTaleouine, is currently serving a ten-year sentence in part for possession of a converted 9mm machine gun and 24 rounds of live ammunition. Ellekhlifi was sentenced in absentia to 6 years in prison but escaped to Syria when on bail. He went on to fight with Jabhat al-Nusra and was eventually killed in an August 2013 battle against pro-Assad forces.

In addition to petty criminals, Europeans with Islamist-related arrests have also appeared in Syria. The 23-year-old Mohammed el-Araj (who trained in Syria alongside Choukri Ellekhlifi) from Notting Hill was the second Briton confirmed dead in Syria in mid-August last year. A mechanical engineering student, el-Araj served 18 months of a two-year sentence in prison for violently protesting outside the Israeli embassy in London in 2009. Others arrested alongside him at the protest later died in Somalia alongside al Shabaab.

In some ways most alarming, however, is the presence of hardened criminals on the battlefield. Danish Abderrozak Benarabe was the leader of the recently disbanded, notorious Blågårdsgade gang, commonly known as ‘Big A’. In 2006 he was acquitted of hiring two hit men to kill five others and instead charged with aggravated assault and blackmail, serving four and a half years in prison. After his release, he traveled to Syria accompanied by a journalist to apply his skills in a war setting before returning again to Denmark. He is currently in custody on more recent charges of assault and robbery.

Coming Home

Some of these fighters will die in battle in Syria,or stay out in the region. Hundreds, however, are returning home where in some cases they are returning to criminal activity. Two Dutch returnees from Syria who are understood to have been involved in youth criminal gangs prior to their travel were part of a five-person cell arrested last month for planning an armed robbery in the Netherlands. Genc Selimi, a 19-year-old Kosovar, was one of the six arrested for plotting a terrorist attack on a major European city after he returned from a stint in Syria. Prior to leaving for the conflict, he had been arrested in 2012 for gun possession. A number of other, less public, cases have emerged in the UK of fighters in Syria with already strong connections to hardened criminals who have already flirted with radical ideas and had access to weaponry, though so far it is unclear whether these have translated into plots. In some cases, there is evidence thatthese connections providing useful logistical support for those trying to leave. The one plot that has publicly emerged in any detail in the UK is the cell that had allegedly come back with plans to launch a Mumbai-style attack, though it is unclear that they had secured any weapons.

The terror-crime nexus is not a new one. People with criminal pasts are often drawn to extremist ideologies as a way of atoning for past sins, though often they donot leave their pasts completely behind. But the high instance of people going to Syria with criminal pasts of every sort adds a further worrying dimension to the phenomenon of foreign fighters going to Syria.

RUSI is grateful for the support of the Airey Neave Trust in its work on foreign fighters and Syria