Archive for the ‘Foreign Policy’ Category

More belated catch up posting. It has been a very busy few weeks between travel and the horrible events in Brussels. The below piece is one that Foreign Policy commissioned to look specifically at ISIS use of tactics, pointing out that while the Brussels and Paris attacks are part of a specific campaign and cell, the problem of Lone Actor terrorism as a threat from the group persists.

The Age of the Lone Wolf is Far From Over

Even as the Islamic State evolves into a more sophisticated network, it will still cultivate unhinged, solo actors to further its fanatical ends.

By Raffaello Pantucci | March 30, 2016

Policemen work into a marked out perimeter in Colline street in Verviers, eastern Belgium, on January 15, 2015, after two men were reportedly killed during an anti-terrorist operation. Belgian police launched a "jihadist-related" anti-terrorism operation in the eastern town of Verviers on January 15. According to the Belgian prosecutor's office, the group which police targeted was about to commit a terror attack. AFP PHOTO / BELGA PHOTO / BRUNO FAHY ** BELGIUM OUT ** (Photo credit should read BRUNO FAHY/AFP/Getty Images)

AFP Photo / Bruno Fahy/Getty Images

Terrorist groups thrive on attention. Keen to bring the world screeching to a horrified halt, they launch brutal attacks against civilian targets with whatever tools they have at their disposal. Until last November’s attack in Paris, it seemed the biggest menace the Islamic State posed to the West was the threat of so-called lone-actor terrorists, striking without any clear direction from the group’s leaders. Using a relatively simple form of messaging to strike wherever they could, the group bombarded its followers through social media with calls to launch random attacks against the societies in which they lived. That nihilistic messaging continues. But now, in the wake of Brussels and Paris, the Islamic State has also demonstrated an alarming capacity to launch large-scale, coordinated plots far from its territory. The threat the Islamic State poses is multifaceted and multidirectional.

In the eight days since the Brussels attack left 35 dead, counterterrorism and national security experts have decried the end of the Islamic State-inspired lone-wolf attack. The fanatical band, they say, has crossed a new threshold, evolving into something more complex: an organized terror network capable of coordinated, multifaceted operations. And though this is true, the experts must take care not to dismiss what has long constituted the Islamic State’s essential fiber. Because regardless of its evolution, the Islamic State will remain committed to lone actor plots.

Radicalizing minds from afar has, after all, always been core to its identity. Calling attackers — the young, the socially, politically, and economically disenfranchised, the disturbed — to action shows that the Islamic State’s ideology has global reach, inspiring adherents who were unconnected to the group but desperate to launch terrorist plots in its name. Cultivating lone actors also gives the Islamic State the perfect means to distract the West, which finds itself devoting resources to identifying these isolated plotters. It is also a way to ensure that Washington, London, and Paris remain off balance, uncertain about how aggressive a response to mount against the group’s base in the Levant. Forgetting the centrality of lone wolfism to the Islamic State’s very foundations would be a dangerous mistake.

Of course, the Islamic State is not the first violent Islamist terrorist group to call for lone-actor attacks. Lone actors committed to jihadist terror, including Andrew Ibrahim and Roshonara Choudhry, first emerged in the 2000s. In 2010, Inspire, the magazine published by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, offered aspiring terrorists a specific outline for carrying out such attacks. Asserting a direct connection between any plots and the magazine, however, remained difficult, because there was never any clear link between a specific actor and Inspire. In fact, the most prominent cases came before the publication’s emergence. Rather than instigating the tactic, the group appeared to be riding a wave.

The Islamic State changed this dynamic. On Sept. 22, 2014, Abu Mohammed al Adnani, identified by the United States as the head of the Islamic State’s external operations, issued a fatwa calling on the group’s followers in the West to “kill a disbelieving American or European — especially the spiteful and filthy French — or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war… [to] kill him in any manner or way however it may be.” This chilling call became something of a marker in the group’s history. Around the world, the Islamic State’s followers read and absorbed it. In some cases, they decided to act.

Adnani’s call certainly appears to have spurred on a network of cells in Britain that had already been discussing potential terror plots in the West without any clear direction from the group’s leaders. Nadir Syed, a British extremist who was prevented from traveling to Syria, shared the fatwa with his fellow plotters as they discussed the idea of decapitating a soldier. Tarik Hassane, a medical student, and Suhaib Majeed, a physics student, shared it over the secure communications app Telegram as they talked about a plot to shoot a random security officer on the streets of London. Authorities disrupted both plots soon after the fatwa’s release.

Only days after Adnani issued his fatwa, Numan Haider walked into his local police station in Melbourne, Australia, and attacked police with a knife; he was gunned down and killed. Although authorities never publicly established a direct relationship between the fatwa and Haider’s attack, his wider circle — including prominent Islamic State fighters Neil Prakash and Sevdet Becim, who are on trial for planning to attack Australian soldiers during a national day parade — had clear ties to the group.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the Islamic State’s calls for lone-actor attacks is how deeply they have resonated. There are the dedicated warriors, who see such attacks as their chief ambition — the San Bernadino killers may be an example of this. In other cases, lone wolf attacks have become the default option for those who are unable to join the group in Syria or Iraq. Authorities had, in fact, taken away Haider’s passport not long before his attack, in response to concerns that he was planning to head to the Levant. This is not unique: Canada has blocked several aspiring fighters from heading to the Middle East, who then chose instead to launch attacks at home. Their actual links to the Islamic State remain unclear, but both took out their rage on the communities around them.

The Islamic State has, of course, also exploited the mentally unwell, preying on their vulnerabilities to turn them into lone-wolf actors. In late 2014, Sydney came to a terrified standstill when Man Haroun Monis, a disturbed Shia convert with a record of run-ins with authorities, held up a coffee bar in the middle of the city. He claimed to be carrying out an attack on behalf of the Islamic State. But he was so underprepared that he brought the wrong flag with him and asked authorities to bring him the flag of the Islamic State. Police eventually stormed the café once he began executing the hostages. The Islamic State later praised Monis in its publications, though no evidence emerged of any clear direction or instigation from the group. Other disturbed individuals like Yassine Salhi, who decapitated his boss and then tried to drive a truck into a chemical factory in France, or Muhaydin Mire, who tried to kill a random Underground passenger in London on Dec. 5 of last year, seem to have been disturbed individuals who simply latched onto the ideology or concept of launching a solo attack.

For the Islamic State, the overarching strategy is to both draw mentally unstable people while continuing to cultivate balanced individuals capable of pulling off more audacious attacks. For a group that is trying to make as much noise as possible, any vector through which this can be delivered is positive. It will further inspire others, leading to new plots that will keep security agencies and politicians busy and distracted.

Even more worrisome than these lone-actor plots are attempts by the Islamic State to actually tap into and direct this negative energy. For the most part, lone actors tend to be fairly low impact — a lone individual armed with little more than a basic bomb or knife can’t kill too many, after all. But the Islamic State wants to capitalize on the fact that, thanks to its social media prowess, it has planted the seeds of chaos.

The most prominent example of this is the Birmingham-born hacker Junaid Hussain, whose discussions with aspirant fighters in the West included instructions on how to launch lone-actor plots. Again, it is not entirely clear the degree to which he succeeded. There is some evidence that Hussain, from his base in Syria, was in contact with both the Garland, Texas, shooters and with the terror cell on trial in Britain for allegedly planning an attack on a local military base. But the specificity of his instructions had security services sufficiently worried that they decided to eliminate him through a drone strike. It is not clear if others have taken up Hussain’s mantle, but there is little evidence that the Islamic State has stopped encouraging lone-actor terrorist plotting.

Lone-actor terrorism is not new. Traditionally, it has been the domain of far-right activists and patriot movements the world over. A recent EU consortium research project led by the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI), a British think tank, found that right-wing lone-actor terrorists are actually almost as active in Europe as their Islamist counterparts. Of the 120 cases over the past 15 years analyzed by RUSI, about an equal third were Islamist and far-right in origin. In other words, European security agencies were disrupting as many lone-actor Islamists as they were far-right terrorists, a detail often missed in coverage of Islamist terrorist plots.

In this new reality, the Islamic State will continue to encourage lone-actor plots while investing in large-scale, spectacular operations. From being a one-track group focused on building a state in the sands of the Levant, it is now an active global terrorist group aggressively pushing forward on two clear threat tracks. It is a group that cannot be ignored or disregarded, both as a traditional terrorist organization, but also one that is able to instigate and inspire random assassins advancing its cause around the world. Fomenting the sort of fanaticism that underlies its very existence is, in the end, the only way it will continue to thrive.

A new book review for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, looking at quite a fun book I read a little while ago about a piece of history with all links to today. Also quite timely given the recent troubles in Kashmir to highlight how long this problem has been hanging over things. In an interesting and in some ways related case (for reasons that I will go into in a separate piece), I have been doing a bit of press around the recently concluded large terror trial at Woolwich Crown Court against a group of British Muslims who connected with al Qaeda were planning an incident in the UK. I was quoted in the Associated Press, Press AssociationCNN, Channel 4, and on BBC Newsnight (which is only available for the next six days to those in the UK). Longer piece on that case coming soon.

The Meadow: Kashmir 1995 – Where the Terror Began
By Raffaello Pantucci
Thursday, February 21, 2013 – 4:16 PM

Conflict in Kashmir has been back in the news recently. In January, a series of attacks and counter-attacks by Indian and Pakistani soldiers were reportedly sparked by a grandmother who crossed the Line of Control to be near her children and their families, resulting in the deaths of soldiers on both sides. What is striking about recent events and seems to be a particular throw back to earlier times, is the apparent brutality with which two Indian soldiers involved were killed. One was reportedly beheaded, whilst another ‘mutilated.’ This particular detail seems to belong to an earlier time highlighted in Adrian Levy’s and Cathy Scott-Clark’s book about the kidnapping of a group of western tourists in July 1995 in Kashmir, when the full insurgency was underway between Pakistan and India over the disputed province.

The portrait that Levy and Scott-Clark paint of the 1990s insurgency in Kashmir is a brutal one: locals living in fear as groups and alliances shift around them. No one is certain who is on whose side, as idealistic Kashmiri freedom fighters are manipulated by Pakistani ISI agents and their families are punished by Indian authorities. Local warlords change sides regularly, turning on each other with ready brutality at the right price. Police and intelligence agents on the same side end up working against each other, each with a different goal in mind. And caught up in the middle of this is a group of foreign hikers, drawn by the beauty of the countryside and kept in the dark about potential danger by inept local authorities eager for the much-needed tourist revenue.

The Meadow is written in the style of a thriller, with an investigative journalist’s eye for detail. It uncovers new information, offering definitive conclusions about what happened to the unfortunate foreigners entangled in the kidnapping. It has attracted less attention than previous books the authors have written about the region – their earlier book Deception, about the Pakistani nuclear program, has been widely praised – but nonetheless comes to some dramatic conclusions about what happened to the group of tourists.

At the heart of this narrative are six western (American, British, German and Norwegian) nationals. Snatched by a group of Kashmiri warriors supported by Pakistan, the intention was for the men to be traded for a group of supporters of the Kashmiri jihad, including Maulana Masood Azhar, an increasingly important preacher who had managed to get himself caught by Indian authorities some weeks before. This was in the days prior to Azhar’s later fame as the founder and head of Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Led by a Kashmiri called Sikander who fought in Afghanistan during the 1980s, the team was a mix of raw recruits and experienced fighters. Sikander had participated in an operation involving foreigners before, abducting two British citizens, Kim Housego and David Mackie, in June 1994 in an operation that ended in failure. Under intense international pressure, Sikander’s cell had given the hostages up to Kashmiri journalists. The second time around they hoped to avoid this pressure by creating a shell group, al Faran, which people would be unable to link so easily to the group’s well-known organizers, the Pakistani-supported, Kashmiri-oriented Harakat ul Ansar (HuA). According to the book, the new group name was chosen ‘randomly…. by someone in Islamabad that had vague Islamic connotations, being a mountain in Saudi Arabia’ (p.95).

The kidnappers were initially planning on snatching foreign workers at infrastructure projects, but as they got sidetracked in other operations time pushed on and they decided instead to go after a group of foreign tourists. By the time they were able to get moving on the plot it was June 1995 and it was only by July 1995 that they made it into the eponymous ‘Meadow’ above and around Pahalgam in the Anantnag district of Kashmir. Here, they wandered around the various campsites, capturing two British (Paul Wells and Keith Mangan) and two American (John Childs and Don Hutchings) trekkers they found, sending the women they were travelling with back down the mountain with a note demanding the release of Masood Azhar and other leaders. When one of the Americans, John Childs, managed to escape, the group panicked and snatched another two foreigners they found, this time a Norwegian (Hans Christian Ostrø) and a German (Dirk Hastert). Sikander’s father recalls his son telling him ‘human cargo’ was not ‘like transporting bullets of rice’ requiring all sorts of attention and care (p.93).

At this point, the story becomes murkier. Intrepid journalists, Levy and Scott-Clark rounded up as many different contacts as they could, but patching together what happened to the hostages while they were in captivity is something that is always going to be shrouded in mystery and reserved primarily to the hostages and their captors, none of whom are able to talk now. Using interviews with locals, family members, subsequent intelligence reports, and gathering the pieces of information that the hostages managed to leave secreted with locals as they were transported around the region, the authors piece a compelling narrative together. They uncover how particularly vivacious and infuriating a captive Hans Christian Ostrø was, apparently trying repeatedly to escape whilst charming locals with his enthusiasm. Eventually, a brutal faction within the cell tires of him and leaves his beheaded body to be found with the words ‘al Faran’ engraved on his chest.

The others were never found; their family members remain uncertain of their end to this day. For the women who had been trekking with the men before they were snatched, the nightmare was made all the worse by the seemingly limited and incompetent assistance they report receiving from Indian authorities. Having come down the mountain to disbelieving and slow-moving authorities, they then find themselves sidelined as geopolitics overtake the incident.

It is here that Levy and Scott-Clark are able to bring the most new information to light, digging into the grim world of the Kashmiri insurgency to offer a novel conclusion of what happened to the hapless trekkers. After Childs escaped, he lobbied for U.S. Special Forces to go back and rescue the others. But he was ignored, as Indian authorities refused to let foreign boots on the ground or accept much international assistance, eager to keep foreign eyes from the awkward domestic insurgency. And so, the captives were left in an isolated area where, as the authors paint it, India had full control. Even though authorities were in contact with the group, and according to the negotiators had managed to obtain a fixed amount of $250,000 to secure the foreigners release, no exchange actually took place. As the book portrays it, elements within India preferred a grim conclusion to highlight Pakistani perfidy. So once the demand had been made through a private communication between a local officer and the group – who allegedly told the officer ‘the movement [those who had sent him to carry out the kidnapping] can go to hell’ (p.325) – someone promptly leaked it, rendering it void as the move had not been approved al Faran’s superiors.

Instead, the men are sold to a local warlord fighting for the Indians, who then has them executed and disposed of. Indian authorities (or elements within the Indian power structures) are implied to have had full knowledge of everything that was going on, and to have actively pushed events in this direction, a searing indictment that has attracted ire within India.

The Meadow connects this incident to the larger events of September 11, highlighting the proximity of elements linked to al-Qaeda and the subsequent group that Masood Azhar founded when he was eventually released in exchange for a planeload of Indians held hostage while en route to Nepal. That group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, has been responsible for a number of major atrocities, including the first use of suicide bombers in Kashmir: on Christmas Day 2000, Asif Sadiq, a 24 year old Birmingham student blew himself up at a checkpoint in Srinagar. A year later, as the world was still rocking from the September 11 attacks, a JeM team joined by fighters from Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) launched an attack on India’s parliament that almost brought the sub-continent to nuclear conflict.

Levy and Scott-Clark push this web of shadowy links even further, pointing out a connection between Masood Azhar and Rashid Rauf, the British al Qaeda leader who would go on to act as the overseer of the July 7 and July 21 plots against London, before helping mastermind the aborted August 2006 plot to bring down some eight airplanes on transatlantic routes. In their book, Rauf is a bit part, with Azhar meeting Rauf’s father on a trip to Birmingham and being introduced to young Rashid as ‘his rootless teenage son…whom he said was in need of a mentor’ (p.296). But the connection nonetheless cements Azhar’s importance in helping provide links for a man who went on to be one of al Qaeda’s most dynamic foreign leaders.

A hefty book at almost 500 pages, the text sometimes gets lost in its own detail and in the numerous, long and detailed interviews the authors conducted. But drawing on a wealth of primary interviews, it tells a compelling narrative about a specific incident, while also painting a picture of a brutal conflict that, as we saw recently, has all the kindling in place to light up again.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Research 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).

A rather long-delayed book review for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, looking at a pair of books by Mitch Silber and Seth Jones. More book reviews coming out soon, as well as another more historical piece I am quite pleased with for AfPak Channel.

Appraising al-Qaeda: The practitioner’s perspective

By Raffaello Pantucci | Monday, November 5, 2012 – 3:55 PM

Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qaeda since 9/11 – Seth Jones

The Al Qaeda Factor: Plots Against the West – Mitchell D. Silber

What is the nature of al-Qaeda? Is it an organization with tight leadership structures and command and control, or is it an idea that takes harbor in the hearts and souls of disenfranchised or disillusioned young men and women seeking some greater meaning to their lives? Over time, the importance of these two schools of general thought has waxed and waned with various academics, authors, pundits and practitioners alternatively concluding the importance of one over the other largely depending on the nature of the latest plot to be disrupted. Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qaeda since 9/11 by Seth Jones and The al Qaeda Factor: Plots Against the West by Mitchell D. Silber offer different insights into this question, while reaching largely similar conclusions about what al-Qaeda is and how it has targeted the West.

Both of these books were published over a decade after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington bloodily thrust al-Qaeda into the public consciousness, meaning they are able to look back at a considerable amount of data. While Jones’ is the more narratively satisfying book, telling a story of al Qaeda around the world, there are omissions in the text that reflect its heavy American focus. Silber’s, on the other hand, is a case-by-case analysis that lacks a narrative storyline, but the accounts of the plots in question are drawn from primary sources that make them some of the most factually accurate versions yet told of the various plots, and bring new and interesting insights useful to analysts and researchers.

Gathering information from court documents, press, personal experience, and interviews the books focus on two different theses that ultimately reach the same goal. Silber sets out to find, “what is the “al Qaeda factor” in plots against the West?” For Jones, the central question is “what factors have caused al Qaeda waves and reverse waves?” “Waves” are “surges in terrorist violence” and “reverse waves” are “decreases in terrorist activity.” The underlying aim of both is to understand how it is that al-Qaeda has targeted the West, and to what degree we can ascribe responsibility to the core organization.

Silber argues that there is a distinction to be drawn between those plots he characterizes as “al-Qaeda command and control,” “al-Qaeda suggested/endorsed,” and “al Qaeda inspired.” As the definitions quite clearly imply, in each case there is some semblance of a connection to al-Qaeda or its ideas, but there is a distinct difference between the cases in which individuals sitting in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have provided direction, and those in which individuals internalized al-Qaeda ideas to try to carry out plots (or al-Qaeda-like ideas, given the inclusion of the 1993 attempt by Ramzi Yousef to bring down the World Trade Center, something he did after having been trained in Afghanistan and having plotted with his uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but prior to Mohammed’s swearing of bayat (allegiance) to bin Laden). The end result, however, of all three types is the same: a plot, or attempted plot, to attack the West in support of al-Qaeda’s ideology. The cases offered are a laundry list of some of the most prominent plots targeting Europe, North America and Australia.

Jones’ thesis is instead that al-Qaeda’s violence has come in waves, the product of more or less intense and effective focus by counterterrorism forces. Identifying three key prongs to an effective counterterrorism strategy – a light military footprint, helping local regimes and authorities in their counterterrorism efforts, and exploiting al Qaeda’s tendency to massacre civilians – Jones draws upon events in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, and Yemen, as well as al-Qaeda plots in America, Spain and the United Kingdom, to map out how these waves have crested and broken against determined counterterrorism efforts.

Al-Qaeda’s ability to shoot itself in the foot, as in the wholesale butchery by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), is highlighted as an example of where the group goes too far and causes a local resurgence from which American forces were able to profit. It also serves to highlight how al-Qaeda Central can lose control of affiliates and suffer as a result. AQI’s butchery not only appalled the general public, but it also led a number of scholars to write about the group’s brutality and the numbers of Muslims that it wantonly killed whilst claiming to be targeting the West.

Here we can see how the organization would have liked to have tighter control, but was unable to maintain it. As the ideas it has been advancing take root, they increasingly find themselves being used by groups that take them in directions that detract from the original strategy of using terrorist attacks to stimulate the broader ummah into rising up. In some cases, like the Madrid bombings of 2004, the inspiration approach seems to work, as a group loosely connected to — but not directed by — al-Qaeda managed to carry out a successful attack on the West. In Iraq, on the other hand, where a local affiliate became too bloodthirsty, massacres of civilians led to the “Anbar Awakening” against al-Qaeda.

While al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is not the focus of attention in either book, he lingers as a background presence, his letters and writings surfacing as he tries to assert authority over the network he has created. In Jones’ book we see others in the organization finding his leadership somewhat lacking. Jones quotes a letter in which top al-Qaeda operative Saif al-Adl expresses anger to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed about how Osama “‘had failed to develop a cogent strategy for what would happen after the September 11 attacks.” In Silber’s text, bin Laden features even less, mentioned only as being aware of the 9/11 attacks (though plotting is described as being led by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) and as meeting with some of the members of the ‘Lackawanna Cluster,’ a group of Yemeni-Americans who prior to 9/11 travelled to Afghanistan and trained at al-Qaeda camps. Some of these young men heard bin Laden speak, and soon afterwards concluded they were not interested in doing any more training.

One of them, Sahim Alwan, was invited to speak to bin Laden directly, and the al-Qaeda leader asked why he was leaving and more generally about what Muslims in America were like. But, as Silber points out, while this presented an opportunity for the group to recruit the men, “it did not happen.” Both authors conclude that bin Laden was important primarily as a figurehead. As Silber writes towards the end: “regardless of the nature of his precise operational role in the organization, in the ten years since 9/11, he had become a legendary and mythical source of inspiration to individuals in the West who aspired to join his movement, regardless of whether they were in London, New York, Toronto or Madrid.”

But the larger figures in these books are the operational leaders underneath bin Laden. Coming from authors with deep involvement in American counter-terrorism efforts, the books are highly tactical in their approaches. Silber’s is written from the perspective of a man who has spent many years tracking al-Qaeda’s threat to New York as Director of Intelligence Analysis for the NYPD, while Jones writes as a researcher at RAND, drawing heavily on interviews with key players from the American counter-terrorism community, including Bruce Hoffman, Philip Mudd, Art Cummings, and John Negroponte.

Both authors conclude that al-Qaeda Central has tried and failed repeatedly over the years to launch attacks against the West. September 11 was a thundering success in this regard, but since then, while we have seen surges of terrorist violence around the world linked to al-Qaeda affiliates, the core organization’s ability to effectively launch attacks has clearly been stymied by effective counterterrorism efforts. Heavy pressure means less time for people to be trained properly, and this means less effective operators and a reduced capacity to attack.

And while the spread of extremist ideas is important, it is not always going to produce great cells. While the Madrid group or the Hofstad Cell in Holland were reasonably productive cells that connected with peripheral al-Qaeda figures and led to results like the Madrid bombings or the murder of Theo van Gogh that impressed al-Qaeda, the Duka family in New Jersey or Russell Defreitas in New York (both highlighted in Jones’ text) produced half-baked plots like the effort to blow up the fuel pipeline to JFK airport with no proper training that are hardly the sort of activity that al-Qaeda would want to be associated with.

Both books are useful in painting a methodical picture of how al-Qaeda has tried to attack the West, but where they are maybe less effective is in identifying how it is that these individuals can be prevented from ever going down the path of seeking meaning in al Qaeda’s ideas. Jones does suggest finding ways to exploit the inconsistencies in al-Qaeda’s narrative in order to undermine their capacity to recruit, but the fact is that more than a decade since the group’s official creation, people are still being drawn to the flame. This suggests that we have still not figured out how to offer an appealing alternative narrative, and that the ideas that al-Qaeda advances are still able to draw recruits.

Jones’s Hunting in the Shadows could be described as an official history of sorts of al-Qaeda from the U.S. government perspective. This makes it a different beast to Silber’s The Al Qaeda Factor, in which a much more coldly analytical process draws a clear conclusion about the ‘al Qaeda factor’ in various terrorist plots.

Jones and Silber both conclude that it is becoming ever harder for al-Qaeda to effectively connect with and re-direct these recruits back home to carry out terrorist plots. Taking this conclusion a step further, we may assume that over time this sort of pressure will wear the network down. But if they are able to harness individuals drawn to them more effectively and enable a further wave of terrorist violence, the al-Qaeda ideology may survive longer. The solution advanced in both of these books, and echoed by the U.S. counterterrorism community, is to maintain heavy pressure through drone strikes as well as support to the host governments, and continue to focus on disrupting the groups’ capability to launch attacks on the West.

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).

A new post for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel again with Alex as part of our broader research on Chinese interests and influence in Central Asia. More on this topic later in the month.

Finding common ground in Afghanistan
By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen | Thursday, August 16, 2012 – 5:02 PM

A beat was missed on U.S. National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon’s late July visit to Beijing. Described in the Chinese press as a “fire extinguisher visit,” it came as tensions continue to ratchet up in the South China Sea and the United States continues to butt heads with China over Iran, Syria and theoretical war plans. These disputes obscure the one area with scope for much greater cooperation between China and the United States: Afghanistan. Building on mutual goals in Afghanistan could have a positive effect on the overall relationship, showing that the distance between the two sides is not the Pacific-sized gulf that it is sometimes made out to be.

In discussions with Chinese officials about their objectives, the uniform answer is “a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan.”  This is almost identical to answers given by their American counterparts.  That said, there is a difference in tone that reflects the underlying concerns that craft it.

For Beijing, Afghanistan is primarily a domestic problem. With a common border in the sometimes lawless Wakhan Corridor, what happens in Afghanistan can potentially spill over into some of China’s most sensitive spots. This past spring, we visited China’s border in Wakhan and witnessed the ease with which militants or smugglers can cross over. Even if trouble from Afghanistan does not cross directly into Chinese territory it is likely to have a destabilizing effect in Central Asia to the north, and Pakistan to the south. China has invested heavily in both, and both have strong trade and cultural links to China’s underdeveloped and at times restive Xinjiang province. Beijing’s interest in Afghanistan turning out positively is first and foremost about China’s internal cohesion.

For Washington, the problem of Afghanistan is physically far away. The decision has been made to withdraw all combat troops by 2014, so the discussion is no longer what to do about the country, but how to exit in a dignified manner.  What security concerns the United States continues to have will be covered by the residual force left behind, but the overriding priority is for the draw down from Afghanistan to not descend into chaos as soon as the majority of American and NATO forces leave.  In our recent visit to Kabul, we could not help but note the principal focus of U.S. officials on this one goal.  Washington’s interest in Afghanistan turning out positively is about leaving behind a country more hopeful than when U.S. forces arrived.

This clear confluence has led American diplomats to encourage their Chinese counterparts to invest in Afghanistan’s future.  Beijing has responded in its own way.  Chinese state owned enterprises (SOEs) have invested in a copper mine southeast of Kabul at Mes Aynak and an oil field in Amu Darya.  China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) is seriously looking into a trans-Afghan natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China that does not necessarily rival U.S.-backed plans for a similar line to Pakistan and India.

China’s engagement is not only economic.  It made Afghanistan an ‘observer’ member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) at its June summit. While in Beijing, President Karzai also signed a strategic partnership agreement with his Chinese counterpart.  Last week, China’s Central Military Commission publically called for closer ties with the Afghan Defense Ministry.

There is also increasing evidence of low-profile cooperation with the United States on the ground in Afghanistan. There have been joint U.S.-China training programs for Afghan diplomats, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton providing a recorded message to open one session. Beijing has also indicated that it would be willing to provide counter-terrorism training for Afghan forces, coordinated with U.S. efforts.  Chinese officials we spoke to in Beijing and Kabul were quick to downplay their potential role in the future of Afghanistan.  But, their actions show that they understand the regional implications of the looming U.S. withdrawal.

A neighbor will always be more aware of the blighted house next door than will someone living across town.  The limited collaboration between American and Chinese officials on the ground in Afghanistan is a pragmatic and sensible step.  Their principals in Beijing and Washington should support them by discussing the modalities of a partnership for Afghanistan’s future.

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 can be found at www.chinaincentralasia.com.

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:http://www.raffaellopantucci.com.

A new piece for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, this time looking in some detail at a plot that was disrupted in the UK last week. The chaps are about to get sentenced this week, and I may cover another aspect of this in another upcoming piece some point soon. On another note the friendly team at the International Center for the Study of Terrorism (ICST) at Penn State recently used my old article looking at Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri Mohammed and their links to terror plots as the basis of a statistical analysis exploring what information can be drawn when using network analysis models on the data I had gathered. A fascinating idea and I was very pleased to see it had sparked off such interest in them, and in such a prominent journal! Unfortunately, the article is behind a firewall, and here is the link….

The Perils of Leaderless Jihad

By Raffaello Pantucci | Tuesday, February 7, 2010 – 12:47 PM

Just over a year ago a group of twelve men were arrested as part of a long-term investigation led by British intelligence agency MI5 into a network of cells of British Muslims suspected of plotting acts of terrorism. Last week, just as the jury trial was about to get underway, the nine defendants eventually charged in the case chose to plead guilty in the hope of getting reduced sentences. Codenamed Operation Guava and featuring British radical groups, the Internet, Inspire magazine, training camps in Pakistan, prison radicalization and a mysterious character known as “the Bengali,” this case brings together a number of different strands in British jihadist terrorism.

The accused plotters were rounded up in four different locations: Birmingham, Cardiff, East London and Stoke-on-Trent, though charges against the Birmingham group were dropped. Four of the men have now admitted to planning on leaving a bomb inside the restroom of the London Stock Exchange (LSE), while the other five pled guilty to various charges of terrorist fundraising, attending terrorist attack planning meetings, or possessing al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Inspire magazine. In summing up, the prosecutor highlighted that the group had not actually planned to kill anyone; “their intention was to cause terror and economic harm and disruption.” However, “their chosen method meant there was a risk people would be maimed or killed.”

The various cells of the plot met independently in their various locations before connecting nationally through radical networks, Dawah (proselytization) stalls run by extremist groups in cities like Cardiff and webforums like PalTalk. They had all met together in person just a couple of times. The prosecution characterized Mohammed Chowdhury of London as the “ring leader” of the network, though it seems to have been less structured than that. The Stoke group in particulardeveloped plans on its own to carry out a bombing campaign in Stoke, and were eager to recruit more members and train in Kashmir. Stories in the media indicated that members of the Cardiffand Stoke groups had been seen at meetings and protests organized by successor groups of al Muhajiroun (the infamous group established in the late 1990s by a cleric now-banned from Britain, Omar Bakri Mohammed). And a picture has emerged of central plotter Mohammed Chowdury holding an Islam4UK placard at one of the organization’s events (Islam4UK was a name adopted by al Muhajiroun after a former appellation was added to the list of proscribed terror groups by British authorities). While the role of al Muhajiroun — or whatever the name of the successor group may be; at other times they have used the names Saved Sect, al Ghurabaa, Muslims Against Crusades, and the one in vogue currently, Ummah United — as a radicalizer in networks that have produced terrorists has somewhat receded from that of its heyday, this plot showed the potential risks that still linger from the network.

Neighbors of the men detained in Cardiff reported that some members of the group had apparently served time in prison, where it seemed they had picked up radical ideas. A longstanding concern of Western authorities, the potential for prison radicalization had already reared its head this year in the U.K. when it was revealed last month that a British man who had been converted while serving in Feltham Young Offenders Institution was a key figure in an alleged terrorist plot that was disrupted in December in Mombasa, Kenya. He was not the first terrorist to have done time in Feltham; both ‘shoe bomber’ Richard Reid and leader of the July 21, 2005 follow-up attempt to attack London’s underground system, Muktar Said Ibrahim, passed through their gates.

But the element that has caught the most media attention is the group’s use of AQAP’s English-language jihadi manual Inspire. The group had downloaded copies of the magazine and were apparently following its advice in trying to plan a terrorist plot. They discussed the idea of copying the parcel bombs sent by the group in October 2010 and using the Royal Mail or DHLto send bombs within the United Kingdom. Where they were planning on sending them was hinted at in a list they had compiled of the addresses of London Mayor Boris Johnson and at least two prominent British rabbis. Members of the group were also trailed as they reconnoitered a number of locations in London, including the London Stock Exchange, the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster, Houses of Parliament, Blackfriars Bridge and the Church of Scientology. The Stoke group discussed leaving bombs in local pubs and clubs. They seemed to have taken Anwar al-Awlaki’s injunctions (of which they had collected substantial amounts) to heart, and were eager to strike in the West at any targets that they could find.

But the group also appears to have maintained some connections with more classic aspects of theBritish jihadi story, and sought to train abroad in Kashmir. Initially, they claimed that their meetings were to find ways of raising money for Kashmir. Indeed, the Stoke group (predominantly made up of Pakistani-Britons, unlike the London and Cardiff groups, which were made up of Bangladeshi-Britons) had decided to travel abroad to obtain training and had already funded the construction of a madrassa in Kashmir that they spoke of using as a training camp for British radicals. Furthermore, they made connections to a mysterious figure named in court only as “the Bengali,” after which they had moved forward with putting their ideas into practice, scoping out targets and trying out making bombs.

This plot is not the only one currently making its way through British courts. Late last year, police in Birmingham arrested a group they claimed had discussed suicide bombs and had allegedly made connections with groups in Pakistan. Operation Guava’s significance lies in the fact that it brings together a number of different strands in current counter-terrorism concerns in the UK, creating a complex hybrid plot that seems to have been hatched and conceived entirely at home. A textbook example of Leaderless Jihad.
Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), and his writing can be found: http://www.raffaellopantucci.com.

A new post for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, exploring western jihobbyists use of the Internet and their connections with radical groups. I have a longer book chapter on a similar topic forthcoming – exploring the history of use of the Internet. A topic ripe for further contemplation I think – any tips for interesting articles warmly appreciated.

The jihad will be YouTubed

By Raffaello Pantucci | Thursday, December 15, 2011 | 11:23AM

Two weeks ago, 24-year-old Pakistani-American Jubair Ahmad admitted that he had been making videos for Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) from his Woodbridge, Virginia home under the direction of LeT leader Hafiz Saeed’s son Talha. Around the same time, governments on both sides of the Atlantic published findings into the link between online activity and terrorism. In the United Kingdom, the Home Office published a paper that concluded “the internet does not appear to play a significant role in AQIR [al Qaeda influenced radicalization],” while in the United States, at a hearing on the Hill, RAND terrorism guru Brian Michael Jenkins concluded that jihadist websites “may create virtual armies, but these armies remain virtual.” But while the link between turning individuals from passive consumers into active terrorists may be weak, cases like that of Jubair Ahmad show the important role this virtual army can play in magnifying the message of al-Qaeda and affiliated groups.

Jubair Ahmed is not the first Western individual who has helped establish websites or created video content in support of radical groups. One of the earliest was U.K.-based www.azzam.com, established in 1996, which provided a point from which groups in Afghanistan and Chechnya could broadcast their message while also telling potential recruits how to contact the groups. In addition,www.azzam.com  (using the moniker Azzam Publications) helped produce a series of videos and cassette tapes about the fighting in Bosnia and Chechnya that venerated fighters in the field.

By the mid-2000s, the Internet had become a more viable vehicle through which videos could not only be sold, but also streamed and downloaded. Recognizing the value of getting footage from the field out as quickly as possible, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was at the forefront of a new practice, turning videos into slick packages that could be uploaded onto radical forums. But what was most interesting was the revelation in late 2005 that British police in London had found a young Moroccan who turned out to be the infamous online jihadist known as Irhabi007 (terrorist007). Using this online handle, Younis Tsouli had set himself up as a key webmaster and designer for AQI, and was notorious for being able to find the webspace needed to publish the grim video American contractor Nicholas Berg’s beheading.

The novel aspect in Tsouli’s case was the fact that AQI leaders noticed his online abilities and started to use him as a key outlet for their material. There have been numerous other Western webmasters for important al-Qaeda linked websites – for example, in Belgium, Malika el-Aroud ran MinbarSoS, a website that provided a forum to recruit French-speaking Muslims to fight in Afghanistan. From the sunny Costa Blanca in Spain, Faical Errai helped run ansaraljihad.net, and provided assistance for radicals seeking to get to Afghanistan and Chechnya. But Tsouli appears to have been one of the first Western residents to have been actively solicited by groups in the field for his technical abilities.

And since Tsouli, we have seen al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) use the skills of a young Pakistani-American radical blogger, Samir Khan, to help them produce Inspire magazine – a publication that has repeatedly shown up in the hands of recently arrested terrorist plotters. Khan and his American-Yemeni mentor Anwar al-Awlaki are now both dead, but in a reflection of the importance that AQAP placed upon al-Awlaki’s capacity to reach a Western audience through new media, communications found during the U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani compound allegedly include an offer from AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi to put al-Awlaki in charge of the regional group. Bin Laden declined the request, possibly highlighting the different level of importance he placed upon new media capabilities in comparison to his regional affiliate leader.

A particularly surprising aspect of the Jubair Ahmad case is the volume of micromanagement that Talha Saeed put into creating the video. He tells Ahmad what images to include (not ones from the group’s infamous Mumbai attack), where to insert images of his father, the LeT leader, and what music to have over the video. Saeed is obliged to get someone in America to do the technical work for him – quite a long distance from which to direct the production of a short YouTube video using easily available technology – which likely reflects a greater facility with such technology had by people brought up in the West.

Just how easy it is to create these videos was seen recently in a case in the United Kingdom in which a law student, Mohammad Gul, was convicted of producing YouTube videos that glorified terrorist violence. While clearly the technology to make such videos is something that is universal, it does seem as though it is aspirant jihadists in the West who find it easiest to use. There was no evidence that Gul was being directed by foreign terrorist organizations to produce his material, and his case shows the continued existence of young Westerners producing radical material on their own. It may indeed be the case that the virtual armies have yet to fully emerge as active warriors on the battlefield, but in the meantime they are doing a great deal to keep the jihadist flame alive on the Web, either by themselves or at the direction of organized parties.

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:http://www.raffaellopantucci.com.