Archive for the ‘BLOGS’ Category

A slight diversion from usual work here, this time in the form of an interview for my agent Artellus blog, talking to one of their excellent authors Michael Gillard who is a expert journalist looking at the world of organized crime in the UK. The interview is in honour of his new book Legacy which looks at corruption around the London Olympics, politics, organised crime and police corruption – a very interesting and readable book which I have almost finished. Would recommend!

Power, Corruption & Lies: The World of Michael Gillard

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Michael Gillard is an award-winning investigative journalist with decades of experience uncovering corruption, organised crime, and illegal activity at the heart of London’s establishment and beyond. 

His latest book LEGACY (Bloomsbury, 2019) traces the sinister underbelly of London’s acclaimed 2012 Olympics, where organised crime and corruption were more involved than most people imagined.

Director of International Security Studies at RUSI and Artellus Associate Raffaello Pantucci spoke to Gillard about his work….

R: This is not your first book on organised crime and corruption in London, but tell us a bit about how this particular book came about?

M: It came about when I was in a pub, strangely, in 1999 and a load of detectives were there some of whom I was going to meet and amongst them there were two who looked particularly mournful and I asked one of them what was up and he explained to me that they had just come off this operation, this secret operation in East London targeting an organised crime figure called David Hunt who I had never heard of and that this character had walked away from the operation without any conviction. He had been held on remand in prison for slashing the throat of an associate which had happened at a car show room that the police were bugging, but for reasons that they weren’t aware of, they suspected corruption, he had got off because the witness had withdrawn his evidence. And then we got talking about the level of criminality that Mr Hunt was supposed to be involved and it just intrigued me enormously and from that point on I made it my business to find who he was and what he was about.

This is the first time David Hunt was one of the subjects of your books? Did he come up in earlier ones?

He was covered briefly in my first book Untouchables, which came out in 2004, but that was based on work about police corruption that I had started in 1999.

Were you worried writing about such dark and secretive topics as police and political corruption and organised criminals? 

Not particularly, I am cautious. But if you look at the statistics British journalists by and large don’t face the types of threats that journalists in other countries, largely outside Europe, do face for reporting on this area. There have been two examples, interestingly enough in Northern Ireland and Ireland, of journalists being killed, not as a result of crossfire, but as a result of targeted assassination. One being Veronica Guerin in 1996 and the other being Martin O’Hagan in 2001. Veronica, who wrote about organised crime, and Marty, who wrote about the dirty war in Northern Ireland and the involvement of paramilitaries on either side in organised crime. But in general the idea of journalists being in danger for covering this area doesn’t really compute here, so there is not that kind of reason to be afraid. The bigger fear I feel about journalism in the UK is lawyers and the assault on freedom of expression through the rise of privacy law for the big rich, crooks and politicians.

Gillard’s 2004 book The Untouchables (Bloomsbury) covered corruption in London’s Metropolitan Police

So it was lawyers who scared you the most rather than any of the criminals or corrupt people you were looking at?

Rather than scare me, annoy me.

Could you tell us a bit more about Davey Hunt in particular?

David Hunt’s rise to the top of the gangster tree is typical of his generation – so he’s in his late fifties now – in terms of coming from a very hard, marginalised area in London, East London. And from a large family of brothers and sisters, I think he was the youngest who by the age of twenty-one had established himself as the top dog in his family which is no mean achievement.

I think there’s a misconception about gangster-ism in this country in particular. Very few gangsters are Robin Hood characters. Most of them are both moral conservatives and arch capitalists, and through heavy organised crime they want to legitimise themselves, and he was a classic example of that, and to do well for their family. And I think that at the time I started to look at him, he was on his way to becoming what they say in organised crime parlance, a legitimate businessman.

And he had done this through a number of means, through street cunning, a propensity for violence, psychological intimidation, and he is, you know, a street smart top gangster.

Some sociologists and writers try to look for environmental conditioning rather than the free will of some working class men to be career criminals. I think the very smart criminal Stephen Raymond said it best when he told me in an interview for Untouchables – “I’m a criminal by design not default.”

Raymond went on to tell me that he was “95% legitimate.” I asked about the other 5%, which he said he only did to piss off the police and show them how clever he was. Narcissism was his undoing and he eventually got a hefty sentence for a massive cocaine importation.

So by the time you were looking at Hunt he was a legit businessman rather than criminal anymore?

He was on his way to becoming a legitimate businessman. There had been quite incredible investments in a scrap metal yard on the Thames in Dagenham. He had bought himself a twenty-acre mansion in Essex. He had other business interests in entertainment – the infamous Epping Forest Country Club – and at the same time he was effectively a tax ghost. And when he did file any returns or make any mortgage applications, he lied about the size of his income; on paper he was a freelance scaffolder.

One of the fascinating things about reading the book is that you uncover all sorts of nefarious wrong doing and malfeasance, have you ever seen any prosecutions result from your work?

Unfortunately, I think I can say that I am a classic example of journalism having no effect whatsoever in terms of prosecutions. You can put it into the public domain, but at that point it’s down to the authorities. I think this country has a pretty poor record of prosecuting organised crime, its not because they don’t have the statutory tools, there are other problems with it. And also one of the things in this particular area is that after the events of 9/11 and the events in London of 7th of July, there was a wholesale disposition of policing away from organised crime work into counter-terrorism work. This combined with an anti-corruption campaign that took shape between 1994 and 2000 had a joint effect of stopping detectives having the necessary experience to tackle organised crime as the agenda moved elsewhere to tackling home-grown Jihadis and other issues around counter-terrorism.

Tell us a bit about your sources of information – how do you get people to tell you the ins and outs of these secretive worlds? And how do you assess/evaluate their reliability?

On the first part of that question, I think journalism is about getting out on the street, you can’t do it on the phone, you can’t do it on a computer alone. So I spend a lot of my time in pubs – obviously because I like drinking – but because it is a great leveller of getting police officers, criminals and people on the fringes of crime to talk to you. And they will talk to you in relaxed circumstances. That, however, has changed dramatically since the Leveson Inquiry into media standards and the effective criminalisation of relationships between journalists and police officers outside of a controlled press office environment. Therefore, the type of people I used to speak to for stories are terrified one of losing their pension if caught and two of possibly even going to prison. So it’s a lot more difficult now than it was before – but before, during the 90s and 2000s, because, as I mentioned earlier Scotland Yard was at war with itself over corruption issues, that created a lot of hurting detectives in that organisation. Any journalist worth their salt is able to exploit their pain for public gain, to get information about what’s going on and that’s certainly what I did.

And when it came to evaluating sources and their information?

In terms of evaluating, that’s a very interesting area – we’re currently in a sort of journalist policing space where believing fully in an alleged victim of crime has reaped some horrific results. For example, the recent imprisonment of Carl Beech for making up allegations about a VIP paedophile ring. That was the product of a swing in the pendulum towards police offers believing at the first instance anyone who comes in with an allegation of sex crime. Journalists have also suffered from that problem and I think that what we should do is neither believe or disbelieve but treat fairly and firmly. At the end of the day it is in our interests to establish whether we’re being lied to so that we don’t look like fools. When I’m dealing with criminals, who are notoriously slippery, or people on the edges of crime, I generally don’t believe anything they say until and unless they implicate themselves in the same crime they’re trying to implicate others in. That seems to me to be a good test; that criminals can gas on about any criminal activity that other people have done, but until they implicate themselves in crime to you they’re almost worthless. So I take that as a starting point. It’s interesting; when the police think about recruiting informants, who are largely and most effectively from the criminal world, they look at their motivations and they divide it into three main things: one is revenge, two is money – because police have an informant fund (I don’t and won’t) – three is to get rid of the opposition.

That’s how they gauge their effectiveness. Criminals aren’t going to speak to cops and implicate themselves in crime freely, whereas strangely the relationship between the journalist and the criminal is one where they can discuss their own criminality, sometimes boastfully, because they know that you’re not going to immediately arrest them or use that as leverage to make them become an informant. Basically, the first thing I look to is whether they implicate themselves in their own criminality, and then I look for corroboration, sometimes from police intelligence files and police officers and other criminals about that criminality.

For Queen And Currency (Bloomsbury, 2015) was Gillard’s exposé of Royal Protection Officers serving at Buckingham Palace

At various times the book reads like a film – are there plans to shoot the stories you have written?

The simple answer is that, quite interestingly, there is a mania in television and film land at the moment for true crime stories that can be turned into returnable multiple-episodic dramas. The problem in this country is we do it very badly compared to America, and there are other reasons for that, but the most obvious one for me is that crime is treated a lot more seriously and with respect in the US because they understand its implications for wider society from the lowest level to the highest level of government. In this country, we reduce it to a broken-nosed slap-dash Guy Ritchie-type approach. Within that, journalists trivialise their own patch by inventing stuff that they don’t need to and trying to apply the American mafia model to the UK. I’ve always said that we have a very unique organised crime climate here that lends itself brilliantly to drama. When I devised the idea of doing this book I wrote a synopsis and almost immediately it got optioned by a film and TV company in the UK looking for this multiple-episodic state of the nation drama who could see that something like ‘Legacy’ was effectively ‘The Long Good Friday’ 40 years on and in real life.

Talking of The Long Good Friday, it was written by Barry Keeffe who I had the pleasure of meeting and we discussed the poor state of affairs in how crime and cops and corruption are represented on the UK screen. He said it was because the writers write ‘from the outside in’ whereas Barry, a former crime reporter in East London, wrote ‘from the inside out.’ Broadcasters here commission from the same incestuous pool of writers who believe they can turn their hand to any genre with credibility when they can’t. On the other hand younger writers who’ve grown up with The Wire think they can write that here forgetting it was conceived and written by a former Baltimore crime reporter and a retired Baltimore detective – from the inside out – and that Britain has its own unique crime scene.

Talking of which, I was recently the victim of crime – a smash and grab raid on my copyrighted journalism to make a very clichéd British crime film with some high profile actors. It’s about to get ugly unless they make amends.

Do you prefer writing in book form or long-form journalism for daily outlets?

I think books are more enjoyable when you’ve got something to say, because the ability to combine your investigative skills with a writing space is quite attractive but difficult and I think that the carbonisation of news journalism makes it difficult sometimes to express the richness of the material you’ve already got, whereas books allow you to be a lot more expansive and draw the reader in. And I think that a narrative non-fiction style of telling true crime stories is great, which is why, if you have access to transcripts of covert conversations or surveillance logs they lend themselves greatly towards helping that narrative non-fiction storytelling which is essential in getting people to move across what are often very complex and dark criminal landscapes.

On a lighter note – who is the most interesting character you’ve written about or come across?

I don’t believe in glorifying criminals or cops. This binary narrative that you get in drama and true crime books of cop vs. robber is quite dull; I’m more interested in the professional journeys of flawed people who try to do good but do good for doing bad or vice-versa. Many have a very odd redemptive arc, are never perfect, fatally flawed and when I see that in individuals, if you can then interview them thoroughly to get into the elements of their life, how they think, you can try and do justice to them as individuals. Of those characters, the two I’ve most enjoyed writing about are Paul Page, a royal protection officer at Buckingham Palace who was the subject of my 2nd book, and Jimmy Holmes who was a criminal associate of David Hunt who then decided after they fell out to become a guerrilla gangster and do a lot of hit and run activity against Hunt to try and get back at him for what he felt was his self-emasculation under Hunt. Those two characters plus a third I would add, a black armed robber from West London called Hector Harvey, who was so smooth and clever he was able to have over his criminal associates, the Flying Squad and the anti-corruption squad in a masterful piece of duplicity.

Those 3 characters probably are the ones I’d say are ready-made films. In fact, I have written a pilot drama with my two colleagues Michael Holden and David Whitehouse about Paul Page, who ran a Ponzi scheme at Buckingham Palace during the great housing bubble, so the story is bookended between the death of Princess Diana in 1997 and the global financial crisis of 2008.

Finally – what’s the next story you’re going to tackle?

I’m interested in how after the Leveson Inquiry into the so-called hacking scandal the media is being put back in its cage and on the back foot while big business and politicians are unfettered in their greed and corruption – I spoke earlier about the criminalisation of sources in the police – while this all happened, print journalists are becoming risk averse and controlled largely by lawyers worried about data protection and privacy issues. Meanwhile in the private sector, corporate intelligence companies are breaking the law willy-nilly and sucking up all your personal data instructed by pukka law firms on behalf of very ugly and dodgy clients here and abroad, be they corporations, oligarchs or captains of industry and I find that a very interesting area to look at for a book – the decline of journalism and the rise of corporate intelligence firms stealing your privacy and the revolving door with state intelligence and policing agencies.

Separately, and again with Michael and David, we are developing a drama around this idea of a newspaper investigations unit in an upmarket right-wing broadsheet operating in a post Leveson world. It’s called Monster.⬛️

Many thanks to Michael Gillard for this deep-dive into his world, and for the honour of being his literary agents. This interview has been edited for clarity.

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Trying to stay on top of my posting this time – wrote something earlier this week for my publisher Hurst’s excellent blog. A great place to do slightly longer form writing on the topic of Al Muhajiroun given the current attention it is getting. Of course much more of this in my book!

Al Muhajiroun’s Long Shadow

Many years ago I had coffee with Anjem Choudary. Ensconced in the Desert Rose Café in Walthamstow where he would hold court, he joked about the punishments that would be meted out to homosexuals in his imagined Caliphate as he brushed off my questions.

As he is released from prison in the United Kingdom, it is one of Choudary’s followers who is most on my mind – a young man he introduced as ‘Saiful Islam’. At the time, Anjem was clearly quite proud of his eager and well-spoken young acolyte, telling me how his name meant ‘Sword of Islam’.

I later realised that this young man was Abu Rumaysah or Siddartha Dhar, who is now more notoriously known as Jihadi Sid. Reportedly on American targeted killing lists, he is among the British jihadis still at large in Syria. His presence reflects the long shadow that al-Muhajiroun still casts. The latter remains more visible than you would necessarily expect. The persistent appearance of al-Muhajirounis on the security services radar exemplifies the chronic nature of the terrorist problem that Britain and other countries face.

The recently concluded Westminster Bridge attack inquest exemplifies this phenomenon. During the course of the investigation into the 2017 March terrorist attack on Parliament, it was revealed that Khalid Masood had shown up repeatedly on the fringes of investigations into al-Muhajiroun related networks. Back in 2004, his number was found on the phone of Waheed Mahmood, one of the key figures in the first large-scale bombing plot in the United Kingdom, referred to by the police as ‘Operation Crevice’. At around the time he was in touch with Mahmood, he reported to one of his wives much later that he also met Abdul Wahid Majid, another Crawley man who had been involved with al-Muhajiroun and who subsequently blew himself up in Syria in 2014.

 Muslims Against Crusades 30.7.2011-563 – Anjem Choudary 

Moving to Luton from Crawley in 2009, Khalid Masood slipped seamlessly back into the al-Muhajiroun milieu – living yards from both Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly and Abu Rahin Aziz. Al Abdaly blew himself up in Stockholm, while Aziz was killed by a drone strike in Syria. Following his death, al-Muhajiroun supporters in Luton distributed sweets in celebration of Aziz’s death. A separate cell from Luton became so incensed at his demise that they explored the possibility of targeting an American airbase in Britain as a potential target.

It is important to note that it is not clear from the evidence presented in the inquest that Masood knew any of these people well – but the coincidence and his previous contacts with the group suggest he would have likely known who they were. He was close to Ibrahim Anderson, a local al-Muhajirouni who was jailed in 2016 for canvassing support for ISIS. By February 2010, Masood’s activity had escalated to the point that MI5 opened an investigation into him. During the inquest, information was uncovered that between “2012 and 2016…he was appearing as contacts of SOIs [subjects of Interest] who were linked to ALM [Al-Muhajiroun],” reportedly, however, there were no “notable ALM figures” amongst this group.

Although a peripheral figure to the al-Muhajiroun community, he was active on its fringes. According to one of his wives, he participated in dawah stalls in Luton, and sought to spread the Holy Word, recruiting one young convert who seems to have been a close acolyte of his. While this is behaviour typical of al-Muhajiroun members – it is admittedly also not out of character for a more generally religiously inclined person.

This was not the only legal process underway involving men from the al-Muhajiroun orbit going on last week. Two others featured in trials, albeit for very different reasons. Late last week, Hassan Butt, from Manchester, was jailed for at least nine years for various fraud offences. On the other side of Europe, at a court in Bolzano, Alto Adige, a trial is scheduled with British based Kurdish extremist Awat Karkuky (currently in jail in Britain) on the docket.

Hassan Butt appears to have been perpetrating fairly basic online fraud: selling things that he never despatched (but took payment for), purchasing other goods from companies and then claiming they never arrived, demanding refunds. Finally, he took loans and credit out to supposedly support his online business, and refused to pay them back, claiming to have been defrauded himself – going so far as to provide a false police number related to the fraud. Not the high capers of an Ocean’s 11 style robbery, but rather the more mundane fraud that clogs up police time around the modern world.

This digression seems to bear little relevance to al-Muhajiroun till we delve into the organization’s history and its heady post-September 11 days. Still headed in Britain by Omar Bakri Mohammed, the group jumped from relative obscurity onto the front pages as stories of British fighters dying alongside the Taliban appeared in the British press. A regular feature in this coverage was the then al-Muhajiroun spokesman, Hassan Butt. A loud Prestwich lad, Butt would talk with pride about his martyred friends, and the numerous fighters and funders who were ‘lining up’ to support their cause. He had been back and forth between al-Muhajiroun’s Pakistan and UK branches – who were in the midst of some tension at the time – and features in many stories from the period. In 2002, he returned to the UK offering his story to the press for £100,000 – only to be ignored and then become a subject of police interest. He fled to Pakistan where others in the group got irritated by his behaviour and reported on his constant pursuit of money.

Finally, Omar Bakri told the BBC after some particularly inflammatory commentary that Hassan had provided: “Hassan Butt no longer represents al-Muhajiroun in Pakistan. We are an ideological, political party. We do not recruit people to go and fight on behalf of anybody or to indulge in any military activities…In what he is doing he does not have our support. That is prohibited by Islam – to launch attacks against people just because they are British, just because you happen to disagree with them here and there.”

Yet, years later, it was revealed that Omar Bakri had been pushing Hassan to reach out to the British press. The story emerged as Hassan testified against one of his friends from al-Muhajiroun, Habib Ahmed, with whom he tried to trick a few newspapers into paying for his story. Earlier in 2007, Hassan had a turnaround in which he claimed to have rejected his violent Islamist past and instead become a model citizen – going so far as to meet with a government minister and advancing ideas about how to de-radicalize British Muslims. He became the rent-a-quote for the international media seeking an extremist voice – showing up across the UK news, but also appearing on the American flagship broadcast show 60 Minutes. At one point he claimed that he had so angered his former extremist colleagues that one of them had stabbed him in the street. Yet by 2009 he was in the courts admitting publicly that he was a liar and a fantasist, and that he had stabbed himself. One journalist with whom he had co-authored a book reportedly based on Butt’s life found himself in a serious legal quandary. Now Hassan has finally had his comeuppance and is going to jail. Not, it is worth noting, for his extremist behaviour but for far more mundane criminal activity. However there can be no doubt that he was for a while a relatively significant figure within the community of al-Muhajiroun, for both good and bad reasons, from their perspective.

Inside the British penal system he will be joining an ever-growing roster of al-Muhajirouni cadres serving jail sentences. One of this group is Awat Karkuky (also known as Awat Wahab Hamasalih), a violent Islamist extremist jailed two years ago for his links to ISIS, and who is back on trial (remotely) in Italy, as mentioned above, for his role in a European network of extremists called Rawti Shax. Uncovered a couple of years ago, it focused on radicalised Iraqi Kurds and was ideologically headed by Mullah Krekar. Krekar himself is also not appearing in the Italian court in person, but is instead on trial remotely from Norway where he is in hiding, refusing to appear in court.

Not a direct al-Muhajirouni (though it is often hard to see or understand the difference), Karkuky was hosted by Anjem Choudary when he visited the UK, and before that helped facilitate Choudary’s visit to Finland where he spoke in 2013 under the ‘Shariah4Finland’ banner. Karkuky was thrown out of Finland for this and other behaviour, and later jailed in Britain for his role in recruiting for and supporting ISIS. He was a figure of enough significance amongst extremist Kurdish groups that his life story was used as a heroic narrative to recruit others.

It is not clear what will happen to Karkuky. Currently he is serving a six year sentence, at the end of which he may face another extradition to Italy, which he has contested in the past. Butt will serve a longer sentence in prison for his various non-extremist offences. It seems hard to imagine that either will return to be productive members of society at any point soon, but more likely that, like Choudary, they will retain some problematic attitudes and now will have long prison sentences on their CVs. This will mean they will stay individuals of concern to the security services for the foreseeable future. All are charismatic in their different ways and have drawn others into violent Islamist behaviour.

Other recently released long-term al-Muhajirounis certainly seem regularly to drift back within its orbit of behaviour. Ricardo MacFarlane, of Muslim Patrols fame, has apparently been appearing at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, while former prize boxer Anthony Small has also left prison and continues to rage against the system, broadcasting on YouTube his intention to continue his struggle. Neither of these men are doing anything illegal in either of these acts, and this may be where their activism remains.

But experience has shown us that figures from the al-Muhajiroun network remain of concern to the security services. As the cases of Masood, Karkuky and Butt show, they can take a long time to work their way through our judicial and penal systems and may ultimately express themselves as problems in ways different from what we might suspect. For a while this was something that the security services relied on – most of these individuals in the wider al-Muhajiorun community are infringing the law in some way or other, hence the authorities simply focused on arresting them on any charges they could, thereby keeping them off the streets. But people get savvy to these tactics and act more circumspectly, albeit without necessarily abandoning their ideology.

For Anjem Choudhary, it is likely that he will continue to be a magnet for young people or other lost souls seeking easy explanations of the world around them, and it is hard to see him rejecting his ideology any time soon. It will also be difficult for him to return to his old ways given the highly restrictive conditions of his release. Choudhary’s potential for de-radicalization and redemption should not however be entirely discounted (some radical young men who used to be at the forefront of the group seem to have undergone fairly dramatic turnarounds), although one ought to regard such a possibility with a healthy dose of scepticism.

This is in many ways the heart of the al-Muhajiroun problem, one that shows no sign of disappearing. Not all its cadres get involved in violence, but many terrorist plots and networks uncovered in the past have snared individuals long associated with the group. And, more worryingly, analysts and the authorities in Britain continue to observe such patterns of behaviour more than two decades after the group enjoyed its heyday. The same faces and individuals consistently show up, and engage in violent or extremist behaviour, often many years after their first encounter with the group.

While Anjem Choudhury’s return will doubtless give al-Muhajiroun a brief burst of publicity, it is unlikely to change the group’s current behaviour. As long as he struggles to interact with wide numbers of people, he will pose less of a threat. But how long can such security cover be maintained? The group’s broader network remains seeded amongst Europe’s Muslim communities and will re-emerge as a problem for the authorities across the Continent for the foreseeable future, with or without him visibly at the helm of al-Muhajiroun.

 

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute and the author of “We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists”

Another post, this time being published in a slightly more timely manner for my publisher Hurst’s blog. It looks at the links with history in the recent terrorist attacks in the UK, and specifically ties into al Muhajiroun. For lots more stories like this, of course read my book!

Al-Muhajiroun and the simmering divisions in British society

‘You know, the Qur’an even tells me which direction I must break wind in,’ declared Omar Bakri Mohammed in the late 1990s. Taking the bait, roving reporter Jon Ronson asked, ‘And which direction do you break wind in?’ leading Omar to break into hysterical laughter as he announced, ‘In the direction of the non-believer!’ Omar is the founder of al-Muhajiroun, the group linked to the London Bridge terror attack ringleader Khuram Butt and numerous other terrorist plots. His joke does not seem as funny 20 years later.

The interview with Omar Bakri Mohammed was part of a series of entertaining pieces by Jon Ronson that tracked a variety of extremists convinced that dark conspiratorial forces ruled the world. At its culmination, Omar unmasked Jon as a Jew to an audience of his jihadist acolytes at a training camp in Crawley. This dark conclusion to the encounter was a portent in some ways of what was to come. The group that Omar was fostering, al-Muhajiroun, became what another reporter characterized as an ‘old boys network’ for British jihad. Men from the community in Crawley were linked to a training camp attended by the 7 July bombers. Britain’s first known suicide bomber in Syria came from Crawley and supposedly knew Omar Bakri Mohammed personally. The gym that Khuram Butt worked at was managed by one of the supporters of the Crawley network. My own research has found clear links to the group in at least half of the jihadist terrorist plots in the UK, while a senior security official I once spoke to shrugged and pointed out that a link of some sort was ‘almost always there’ in every investigation.


From Hurst and Getty.

The first hints of trouble came soon after Omar’s then comical interview with Jon Ronson. In December 1998 one of the leaders of al-Muhajiroun, Amer Mirza, angered by the resumption of bombing in Iraq, threw a petrol bomb at a Territorial Army barracks in West London. Later that month authorities in Yemen arrested six Britons from a competing faction of violent extremists in London, linked to the infamous hook-handed cleric Abu Hamza. Arrested with explosives and guns, they were accused of planning a series of New Year’s Eve atrocities in Sana’a. These two communities were to become the beating heart of Britain’s international terrorist threat, producing a thread that links history right up to the current day.

The pattern of where the threat came from in the UK is consistent. Abu Hamza’s community produced a pair of shoe bombers, the murderer of a policeman in Manchester and fighters for the Taliban. Al-Muhajiroun helped to build an infrastructure in Pakistan for those going to fight in Afghanistan. The group was also responsible for the pair of suicide bombers who blew up a bar in Tel Aviv, provided access to training camps for the 7 July bombers, and orchestrated an attack on the CIA base in Afghanistan at Camp Chapman. Far closer to home it stirred hatred in the community from which the murderers of Lee Rigby emerged. And many more in between.

Radicalized young Britons with links back to these communities have been a regular feature of jihadist battlefields across the world. Their radicalization has led them to fight and train in Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, Libya, Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, parts of Southeast Asia and more.

Syria, however, was the real game-changer. Attracting feverous support across the world, it seemed to hearken back to the golden age of ‘just jihad’ against oppressive regimes, much like the struggle of the brave warriors in Afghanistan. Here there were people oppressed while the West did nothing about it. Only the brave muhajireen were willing to stand up to the cruel Assad regime.

Some of those drawn to this endeavour were on their way to becoming career warriors, such as Ibrahim al Mazwagi, one of the first reported British fighters to die in Syria. Prior to Syria, he had faced combat in Libya, as part of the British-Libyan mobilization who returned to Libya as the Arab Spring took hold there. For a short period they were fighting on the same side as the British government against the Gadhafi regime. Within this contingent were long-term anti-Gadhafi activists and members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a salafi-jihadi anti-Gadhafi group who had taken refuge in the UK, and who saw in the wake of the Arab Spring an opportunity to finally achieve their long-desired goal. Having been in the UK for decades, many had settled and had children who they swept up along with them, showing them that armed struggle against unjust governance was acceptable and sometimes necessary.

Initially the assessment of the Arab Spring was a relatively benign one. Long-awkward partners across the Arab world were headed for civilian overthrow as people around the world reacted to Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia. Western governments cheered, and President Obama demanded that President Mubarak of Egypt step down. But rebellions tend not to play out the way we want them to. And it was not long before the jihadist narratives started to resonate across the various battlefields born out of the Arab Spring. Young Britons and their European counterparts alike started to mobilize in substantial numbers, in particular drawn by what was happening in Syria.

Sitting in London, it quickly became clear that the groups going were the same ones who had been active for years. For instance whilst aid convoys heading to Syria from the UK had with them food, aid and ambulances, they were also used by young men as cover to go and fight. This was only the latest example of a long tradition of convoys being used as a method to enter these conflicts; for some young men this was not their first experience with activism. For example, a number of those who went on convoys with George Galloway’s Viva Palestina charity to Gaza ended up fighting in Syria. Others were arrested at protests outside the Israeli Embassy in London or had been caught trying to go to battlefields in Africa earlier. Even more had been involved in al-Muhajiroun’s constant cycle of protests and marches around London. Previously convicted activists showed up on convoys heading out to Syria, and from his new home in Syria, Omar Bakri claimed to have recruited innumerable young men to fight in the country.


From Hurst and Getty.

Whilst the stakes were raised abroad the threat in the UK seemed to have evolved. After the murder of Lee Rigby, authorities constantly kept people on edge. The government reacted in August 2014 and raised the threat level to ‘Severe’ – meaning ‘an attack is highly likely’ – but nothing seemed to materialize. In the wake of the Paris attacks in 2015, David Cameron announced an uplift in security agencies’ capacity, highlighting that the agencies had disrupted at least seven plots in the past six months, ‘albeit attacks planned on a smaller scale.’ Contrarily, right wing extremists began to slip through the security services net. A notable incident was the Ukrainian Pavlo Lapshyn’s one-man murder campaign in the West Midlands in 2013, in which he stabbed Mohammed Saleem in the street and targeted three mosques with bombs. This was succeeded by one of the most politically prominent actions of the far right during the run-up to the Brexit vote — the murder of Jo Cox by Tommy Mair as she attended MPs surgery in Birstall.

What exactly was going on was not clear, but it seemed as though the far right was a growing menace. In a piece of research by a consortium led by my think tank RUSI, we found that in the 14 years since the 11 September attacks, there have been as many extreme right-wing lone wolf terrorist incidents as there have been individual acts of terrorism driven by violent Islamist ideology. This is coupled with evidence of something more substantial and organized simmering as well. The rise of groups like the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First, both in part explicitly reacting to al-Muhajiroun’s loud and ugly protests, were one facet to this. On the continent in Europe, Anders Behring Breivik’s massacre of young political activists in Norway in July 2011 and the uncovering of the National Socialist Underground showed how the extreme right in Europe was not just organizing, but was also willing to use violence.


From Hurst and Getty

And then we had 2017. The year was off to a confusing start with the UK still reeling from Brexit, but in quick succession attacks came from both sides. The sequence of atrocities began one quiet morning in Westminster, followed by a concert in Manchesterstabbings on a busy Saturday night in London Bridge and a vehicle attack on worshippers outside the Finsbury Park mosque in London. The first still seems like an outlier, a loner not connected to any particular group. We still do not have the whole story of why Khalid Masood did what he did. But the others all touched directly on history: Salman Abedi, a child of LIFG-linked parents, and Khuram Butt with his long and public history with al-Muhajiroun. And while we still do not know exactly why Finsbury Park was targeted, the choice of the mosque where hook-handed Abu Hamza had led his acolytes gives us a connection to history that is unmistakable.

It has now been two decades since Omar Bakri established al-Muhajiroun in the UK. The days of seeing Omar as a clown have long passed, and doubtless he is not laughing from his cell in Lebanon. But the grim reality is of a threat that appears persistent, evolving and sparking counter action and response on the other side of the ideological equation. The government has launched another review of its counter-terrorism policy, seeing where there are gaps that need plugging or updating needs to be done. More attention is focused on the extreme right wing, though it remains something that is left to the police rather than intelligence agencies. But the reality is that they are addressing the same threat that has been managed for the past two decades. Incremental improvements are made in our response, some bad policies are binned, and some are steered off a path to violence, but it is not clear that we are materially eradicating the ideas and groups that are ultimately behind the violence on our streets.

But maybe this is what the end state of this conflict looks like. History tells us that on most political spectrums there is a radical edge, and some of those will turn to violence. Previously it was a struggle of the left and right, now the opposite ends appear to be the extreme right and violent Islamists. For societies stuck in the middle it seems imperative to ensure that we all come together and reject these extremes while also realizing that to some degree they are always likely to exist. Unfortunately, these are threats that we are going to have manage rather than eradicate.


Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists.

New piece for the Lowy Institute of Australia’s Interpreter blog, drawing on a batch of Eurasian travel from the end of the year.

Central Asian connectivity: Going beyond China

Central Asia is experiencing a connectivity boom, with China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ the most dominant vision for the region. Yet this dominance has started to worry Central Asian powers, leading to the emergence of a new narrative – that of diversification. With China becoming the region’s most influential economic actor, steadily increasing its role in local security and politics, Central Asian powers are seeking to broaden their engagement and bring to life a long-advocated ‘multi-vector’ diplomatic approach.

I was fortunate enough to spend the end of last year travelling the Eurasian heartland, with stops in Ashgabat, Astana, Beijing and Islamabad. It was a variety of different trips, covering different projects, but one overriding message about China shone through at every stop: the expansion of Chinese investment into its immediate neighbourhood is having a game-changing impact on the ground. This is positive, but it is also worrying those on the ground and is changing the way that Beijing is thinking about its external investments.

Talk to any Central Asian foreign policy planner and you will almost invariably hear about a ‘multi-vector’ approach to foreign relations. Sitting at the centre of Halford Mackinder’s ‘World-Island’, Central Asians envisage themselves as commanding vast power from the heart of the Silk Road. Yet it’s not always clear the degree to which they actually control the options on the table before them, or whether these great powers move around them to their own tune. Nowhere is this balance highlighted more acutely than in regards to foreign investment. Ideally, Central Asian states would want a multitude of options on the table before them, but while their FDI figures are more diverse than is sometimes given credit for, it is clear that Chinese money is increasingly the principal source.

This is increasingly the story across Eurasia, where everyone is both clamouring for Chinese investment and finding themselves uncertain about relying too heavily on a single investor. In Beijing, officials at state policy banks and private companies worry about the countries they are investing in and the fact they do not know the environments, yet at the same time find themselves under great pressure to deliver on Xi Jinping’s vaunted ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ through commercially viable projects. This leads them to trying to puzzle out how to deliver these projects effectively and seek partners to share the burden.

For landlocked Central Asians, however, the story is a different one. Trapped by geography between a sanctioned Russia, a still-recovering Iran and the disputed Caspian, they are only able to find China as a substantial and long-term investor and partner. India has tried and thus far not delivered, and while they discuss with Pakistan, Europe, Korea and Japan, projects as big as China’s have been slow in arriving. In contrast, Beijing signs contracts and infrastructure appears.

But all are aware of the dangers of having a single customer. In Ashgabat, they link Turkmenistan’s most recent push on breaking ground with the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline and alternate energy partners to a sharp slowdown in Chinese interest in their gas, as China’s economy slowed down. In Astana, President Nursultan Nazarbayev links Kazakhstan’s Nurly Zhol (Shining Road) economic vision to the Chinese Silk Road Economic Belt, in that the local strategy is intended to build on the Chinese infrastructure, showing how they are making the Chinese investment work for them.

But they also discuss the many other partnerships they are developing. Kazakhstan is planning a consulate in Bandar Abbas, the Iranian port city that provides Central Asia a different route to international markets. This was reinforced in Astana, where senior officials spoke of ‘connectivity being the number one point for Kazakhstan’ and that the country ‘will look in any direction with no discrimination’. At the same time, according to the Kaznex Invest Chairman Borisbiy Zhangurazov, China is set to undertake around 50 investment projects in Kazakhstan worth more than $24 billion, an amount almost equal ($26 billion) to all US investment in the country in the past 10 years.

In Pakistan, people worry about the degree to which they are becoming dependent on Chinese loans. Figures published earlier this year indicate that in Q1 FY17, net loan and FDI inflows from China were $1.1 billion (of which $700 million was a loan). Total FDI inflow is down from $192 million a year ago to $91 million this year. Trends that worry people who on the ground express a high level of concern about the transparency of the projects being undertaken as part of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the excessive reliance on Chinese investment.

What is interesting about Pakistan, however, is that it is clear that China is finding itself mired in as many problems as others have previously experienced in the country. As a Dawn editorial flagged at the start of this year, ‘for China, the year 2016 was when the country began to discover the complexities of doing business in Pakistan’. Beijing’s answer is to encourage others to become involved to share the burden. Russia is seeking a role. The UK is interested (an idea my institute is currently working on). Other parts of the Belt and Road, such as Kazakhstan, are equally keen. During my recent visit to Astana, senior figures intimated they were contemplating even going so far as opening a consulate in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’s crown jewel, the port of Gwadar in Baluchistan.

Connectivity remains the keyword in Eurasian geopolitics. Talk of Silk Roads continue to dominate regional conversations. Yet diversification will be essential to realise the visions that are being advanced. It will only work if it is a collective project, something even Beijing appears to be beginning to consider as well.

Another short piece off the longer interview with Andrew for the new site The Question, this time looking at ISIS in its Gulf regional context.

How can we fight Islamic State when our allies Saudi Arabia are also extreme Islamic fundamentalists?

There was a moment, which was very embarrassing, when people noticed that some Islamic State schools in Syria were using official Saudi school textbooks – which certainly suggests some proximity of outlook, at the very least, between the two places.

But they key difference is that Saudi Arabia is not at war with us. Saudi Arabia is actually helping to disrupt these terror networks, to counter these problems, and is ultimately a strategic ally – with many flaws and many problems, but an ally which fights with us.

Saudi Arabia realises that an organisation like Islamic State is going to come after them, at some point. For an Islamist organisation like Islamic State or al-Qa’ida, the Saudi regime is one of the most evil things on the planet. They see these guys not as austere practising Muslims who are living according to the prophet’s Sharia, but as a group of very rich people who are stealing money, and leading these incorrect, impure lives.

If you think back to al-Qa’ida, they had two levels of enemy that they were focused on: the near enemy and the far enemy. The far enemy was the West, and the near enemy was the various regimes in the Gulf, who they saw as impure, and incorrect, and puppets of the West. So Saudi realises that Islamic State are a problem, and that they’ve got a huge problem with their people going to fight in Syria and Iraq – and with what might happen when those people come home.

I’ve not seen categoric evidence that Saudi Arabia is supporting terrorist plots against the West. I have seen evidence that they have disrupted terrorist plots against the West. But are there potentially people in senior positions who may actually be more interested in supporting the other side because that’s who they’re more ideologically aligned with? I don’t discount that. But do I think that the state of Saudi Arabia is hell-bent on fighting against us? No.

Saudi Arabia is one of many important elements involved in the fight against Islamic State. They’re a very important power in the region, so which way they go on any issue is influential. They’re very significant when we look at Syria, especially. Islamic State will only be able to survive as an organisation as long as there’s chaos and trouble in Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia can certainly play a role in stabilising that.

And because of the unfortunate reality that Saudi Arabia has so many young men who’ve gone to fight alongside groups like Islamic State, they’ve got very good intelligence capacities about these organisation,. That’s very important when it comes to preventing them striking against the West, or elsewhere.

 

And another post as part of an interview for The Question, this time looking at the threat to the UK. Also realize I never posted the fact spoke to the Telegraph about trouble in Morocco, and the Express about a baggage handler who had an ISIS logo.

Is Islamist terrorism a genuine danger to me in Britain?

The government sees a threat level that is very substantial. At the moment the threat level is at ‘Severe’, which means that an attack is expected at some point, but they don’t have any immediate intelligence pointing to it. I think that reflects the reality of the threat picture at the moment linked to Islamist terrorism.

I think that in the UK, because of natural borders, because it’s slightly harder to get guns in this country, and because the police and intelligence services work so closely together to counter these threats, it is harder for people to launch attacks here. It wouldn’t be unexpected if something did happen here – there is quite a lot of active plotting going on – but I think the threat on the European continent is much greater.

The most likely attack that’s going to get through is the individual with the knife, or the home-made bomb. Those are the hardest to prevent because the flash-to-bang time of an attack like that is so short that it’s hard for the security services to catch it. But the big concern is the attack on multiple sites, multiple targets, with multiple weapons. The Anders Behring Breivik-style attack, the Paris-style attack, on targets in Britain.

What the police and security services are worried about is the system getting suddenly and completely overwhelmed by a group which has the savvy to launch multiple attacks over an extended period. The model of the Charlie Hebdo attack was small-scale version of that, the Paris attacks a bigger one. The one everyone looks at with great fear is the Mumbai attack of 2008, where ten men basically took over a city. That would be incredibly difficult to deal with.

A short piece (that was done in the form of an interview with Andrew Mueller who then published it) for a new site called The Question that is focused on answering key questions about specific topics of the day.

Is Islamic State losing its war?

In the short term, at least, they seem to be on the back foot. The land they control in Syria in Iraq is shrinking – and they controlled, for a time, a territory the size of the United Kingdom. Their leading people on the battlefield, quite senior people, are being killed. Their capability to launch the sort of attacks they have before is ebbing away, which suggests a period of relative decline.

Their goal was always to turn the entire planet to God’s greater glory – to bring about the end of days and the second coming of the Lord. This is a group that ultimately has a milleniarian vision of transforming the world in God’s image. That’s a very high bar to clear, but they start with what they start with, and build upwards. For IS, they were always very focused on their Levantine space, and if you read the ancient texts, you’ll see that those lands are very important, as the place where the war that will transform everything will start. So they had a vision of the world as it should be, but they’re also people who don’t much like the governments in those places, which leads to this mesh of personal angers and a bigger ideology which knit quite tightly together.

What is still going well for them is that they continue to exist, and are able to launch some quite substantial attacks, and to control a certain amount of territory. For a group like this, survival is important. And the attacks outside their territory are important, in a number of ways. They’re attacks on an enemy – you’re fighting us, so we’ll fight you. And there’s a political idea behind it as well – they’re trying to stir an ultimate clash of civilisations between the West and Islam and bring about the end of days.

With the taking out of their leaders, there’s a debate in the counter-terrorism community about what it actually means. Some people think decapitation of a terrorist organisation leads to bigger problems – what you’ll sometimes see is that after the removal of a senior figure, factions within the organisation will want to rise up and prove themselves, which they’ll do by doing something more atrocious than the last guy.

You look at al-Shabab in Somalia for example – their leader was killed, the next guy comes in, and you see the Westgate mall attack. The other model is that if you decapitate groups, they sometimes wither and die. You think of the Shining Path in Peru – their leader was taken out, and it kind of disappeared, because it turns out it was really a one-man band.

But an aggressive attrition of the middle ranks of people does have an impact on a group’s ability to function. If you keep hammering that middle level, you break the fighters away from the leadership, and that’s what we’ve seen happening to Islamic State recently. The leaders have to stay hidden, and aren’t in contact with many people. But if you take out the people around them, their ability to direct the organisation changes – if the guy who was looking after the accounts gets killed, who has that information now? Maybe there was a guy who knew where all the safe houses were. Look at Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who was very involved with Islamic State’s external operations – when he was killed, a lot of those would have been lost, or confused. A lot of these relationships are built on trust, and that doesn’t automatically transfer to the next guy.

The numbers which have been circulating recently suggest that the numbers of people from Europe going to fight with Islamic State is down to 10% of what it was last year. There are two main reasons for that. One is that security forces in Europe and elsewhere have a much better understanding of how recruitment networks function, and how to disrupt them. The other is the fact that the attraction of the group has reduced: Islamic State is no longer as powerful and successful as it was. If I’m going to go off and fight for someone, I don’t want to fight with a bunch of losers.

Raffaello Pantucci is the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists.