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A post for a long ignored outlet, ICSR’s Free Rad!cals blog. This one touches on my old hobby horse of Lone Wolves, looking at the spate of mass shootings in the US and the Breivik case a year on. Naturally, I would point you to my ICSR report on this topic for more, but also my earlier journal article on Breivik if you are looking for more detail on that specific case. A lot more on this subject in the pipeline.

Terrorist or Crazed Loner?

Filed under: Homegrown extremism, Terrorism

Almost a year to the day that Anders Behring Breivik carried out his deadly attack in Oslo, James Holmes donned his body armor, picked up the arsenal he had been accumulating over the previous months, primed a bomb at home designed to kill whoever walked in and headed off to the cinema. Once there he launched an as of now unexplained attack during a midnight screening of the new Batman movie.

Two weeks later, another tragedy struck America when Wade M. Page carried out a shooting at a Sikh Temple killing six members of its congregation. The question people have been asking since is whether any or all of these individuals are terrorists – or to be more precise, Lone Wolf terrorists.

In Holmes’ case, it is still unclear what drove him to carry out his action. Making his first appearance in a courtroom a couple of weeks ago, the immediate focus was on the color of Holmes hair and the fact that he is reported to have told arresting officers that he was the Joker – a fictional Batman nemesis. According to NYPD police chief Raymond Kelly, police apparently found some Batman paraphernalia in Holmes’ residence, and a local gun club owner said that ‘he got a “bizarre” Batman-inspired voice-mail message from Holmes that led him to issue a club-wide ban on the 24-year-old.’ All of this hints at a motive of some sort, but a tenuous one at best (the Joker, for example, did not have orange hair).

None of this points to any sort of a political motive. In fact, as time has passed, we have discovered Holmes was under psychiatric evaluation and that his doctor had tried to contact authorities about him. Whilst the case remains to be heard, it increasingly looks as though Holmes was a disjointed individual who found killing others as some sort of release.

On the other hand, with both Breivik and Page there was some sort of a political or ideological motive. This is important in defining whether this is an act of terrorism in the sense that we would commonly use it. If there was an underlying political motive, then it makes sense to characterise it as one-man political violence. If on the other hand there was no underlying motive beyond some imaginary world that the person has created, then it would seem to be missing the crucial element of political activism that is essential in an act of terrorism. This, put simply, is the action of a lunatic.

With both Breivik and Page there is a clear political motive. In Breivik’s case, we know about it since he wrote an epic and monotonous text telling us what he believed in, while with Page, we can only assume given his participation in white supremacist groups, musical tastes, and online activity. And both clearly come from an ideological ferment that seems to help explain their choice of targets. That in both cases, the communities they felt ideologically affiliated with have largely rejected them does not detract from the fact that the ideas influenced them.

The utility of understanding whether there is a political motive is that if there is, then it behooves national security services to understand it and be alert to the possible consequences. People had long watched the rise of the Eurabian fear mongering focused on conspiracy theories about a Muslim takeover of the West that was helped on by liberal governments weak on immigration, but the connection was never made that this could inspire people to violence. Not the radical right sort that most countries (except Germany it seems) have under good surveillance, but the new ideologies inspired in reaction to the rise of extremist Islamist ideas in Europe.

In the US, the notion of white supremacist/far-right groups moving into action seems to have been a concern, but resources were re-deployed from watching them in the wake of a scandal surrounding a report on the topic by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) back in 2009. More recently the single-minded focus on violent Islamists seems to have diverted people’s attention.

But what is confusing about these individuals who seem motivated by political ideology is that they decided to act on their own with such brutality and no direction. Terrorists see themselves as vanguard actors and they usually operate in a group that provides an echo chamber in which they can develop their identity. It helps them justify what they are doing and then gives them direction to do something about it. With Breivik and Page they seem to have been part of a broader community, but acted by themselves and did not necessarily expect anyone to rise up to follow them (Breivik even says he expects condemnation).

This is what makes them hard to understand. Their choice of target seems to have been dictated by their chosen ideologies. But the pointless nature of their assault and its subsequent lack of any follow-up makes it hard to comprehend. In the case of a terrorist cell performing an attack on behalf of al Qaeda, they are participating in an active global war in which their single attack is part of a bigger strike against society their group is conducting. And while Breivik and Page may see themselves in this role, from an outsiders perspective it is almost unfathomable that there is any sort of war on that these men see themselves part of and the absence of any direction seems to support this. At least with al Qaeda, we can see regular attacks by affiliates in Afghanistan, Iraq, North Africa, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, etc, as well as periodic attempts elsewhere with connections back to these hubs.

Instead with Breivik and Page we are facing two men who killed a group of people seemingly detached from any clear group, but driven by a violent set of ideas. The fact they had an ideology of some sort distinguishes them from Holmes. And it is this that defines them as Lone Wolf terrorists rather than simply a crazy kid with a gun. They were seeking a goal that has a framework that exists outside their minds. This is not to explain or justify or glorify their actions in some way, but rather to say that in categorical terms it is more useful to understand them as politically motivated actors rather than deranged people with guns who act for no reason. And if we can understand the ideology and refine our other markers to some degree, it might be possible to identify such individuals.

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A new post for Free Rad!cals this time exploring in some depth documents I have not managed to see first hand yet (hint, if anyone feels like sharing or has more info about them, please don’t hesitate to write!). An admittedly slightly premature piece consequently, but it gives me an opportunity to extemporise about a subject I am very interested in, namely Britain’s jihad. It also gives me an opportunity to plug my pending book that will go into a lot more detail about all of the cases named in this piece. I should add that in the original post on Free Rad!cals the link to Florian’s blog didn’t work, and I have altered it here.

The British End of the German al Qaeda documents

View more articles by Raff Pantucci

Filed under: Europe, Homegrown extremism, Terrorism, UK

Over on his new blog, Abu Susu, aka Yassin Mubarash has provided a brief write-up of a series of alleged al Qaeda documents that have come to light as part of a terrorism trial in Germany, alongside a challenge for people to discuss the implications of the information if true. At around the same time or just before, another German journalist, Florian Flade, published a similar post on his site Jih@d, providing a slightly different description of the same documents.

The one that has most piqued my interest are the alleged British documents that are supposed to have been written by Rashid Rauf. From the understanding I have, the papers are essentially a post-operation report on the July 7, July 21, and Overt bomb plots (Overt was the codename for the 2006 attempt by Abdulla Ali and a bunch of his mates to bring down about eight planes as they made there way to America) and German intelligence seems pretty convinced that this was written by Rashid Rauf, the infamous British-Pakistani terrorist operator. This is apparently based on the detailed knowledge of the British plots and some biographical details that are mentioned.

Now I have to preface what comes next with the comment that I have not seen the documents, and so am basing my read-out on second hand analysis. But on the assumption that these are the real deal, this is fascinating as it confirms that al Qaeda in fact directed all three British plots, though to varying degrees of success. In his new book The Al Qaeda Factor, NYPD Director of Intelligence Mitchell Silber, identifies the three plots as having connections, but ends up concluding that while Overt was likely a directed plot, the 7/7 and the 21/7 plots were what he considers as “suggested/endorsed” by al Qaeda. In his assessment, there was clearly a connection, but it is uncertain that the group was directing the cells in London.

To deal with the plots in order – the confirmation that al Qaeda directed the July 7, 2005 atrocity on London’s underground is not surprising. The video in which al Qaeda claimed it and included the will of leader Mohammed Siddique Khan, “Will of the Knights of the London Raid”, featured Ayman al Zawahiri, demonstrating a high level connection. Khan was also on the periphery of the large network around the Crevice group, who had connections right up to the number three in al Qaeda at the time, Abdul Hadi al Iraqi. Furthermore, as we saw during the Coroner’s Inquest into the incident, Khan was in contact with a number in Pakistan a great deal in the run-up to his attack, and a same number in Pakistan tried to call his phone after he had carried his bombing.

That the connection might flow through Rauf in some way is also not that surprising: when Khan went to Pakistan in mid-2001 to train, he and his young protégé Waheed Ali, went to a Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen (HuM) training camp. When Rauf went to Pakistan after fleeing police in the wake of the murder of his uncle in Birmingham in 2002, he seems to have connected quite quickly with Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a slightly different Kashmir oriented group (like HuM) that JeM’s leader Maulana Masood Azhar (a former leader in HuM) had founded after he was released from prison alongside another British jihadist Omar Saeed Sheikh (who later became famous for the murder of reporter Daniel Pearl and who also first found jihad in South Asia through HuM). HuM and JeM are parallel groups with some cross-pollination and so that Khan and Rauf’s networks intersected is unsurprising. Consequently, that Khan would have connected with Rauf on one of his later trips to Pakistan – either in 2003 when he attended a training camp with the Crevice cell, or in 2004 when he went back again expecting to die fighting in Afghanistan is not entirely surprising. It has long been believed that Rauf was involved in the July 7 plot in some way, this new information seems to confirm that.

The news of a stronger connection to the July 21, 2005 attempt on London’s underground is much more surprising and interesting. In this case, we have very little solid information on the connection to al Qaeda. The belief is that Muktar Said Ibrahim may have trained with the group in late 2004 when he Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer (of the July 7 group) and Abdulla Ali (of the Overt plot) were all in Pakistan at the same time learning how to make remarkably similar bombs. Ibrahim had initially headed out with two others from his circle of friends from London’s radical community in London to Pakistan to fight in Afghanistan (the two men’s passports were allegedly found in a house of Rauf’s in Bahawalpur). A man who was later identified as a key point of contact for the Overt group and as Rashid Rauf’s key man on the ground with the Overt cell allegedly sent them to Pakistan (or at least helped them with the contacts). And finally, Muktar Said Ibrahim called numbers linked to Abdulla Ali (the leader on the ground of Overt), and some dodgy numbers in Pakistan, while his co-conspirator Yassin Omar contacted a number linked to Rangzieb Ahmed, an admitted HuM fighter who is currently in jail for being a director of al Qaeda.

But it remained unclear to what degree the group had been directed by al Qaeda. Little information has been put into the public domain about Muktar Said Ibrahim’s time in Pakistan, beyond certain statements by security services that he had trained alongside the other cells, highlighting the surprising use of hydrogen peroxide in all three devices, something never seen before in the United Kingdom. Now it seems as though the group was in fact in contact with al Qaeda core, but managed to lose contact with their handler and as a result were unable to correct the crucial flaw in their devices that meant they harmlessly popped on London’s underground system. According to Abu Susu’s read-out, the group tried to reach out but was unable to contact their handler and as a result was unable to correct their mistake in mixing their devices. So the attempt failed.

This raises a number of questions: first, did the July 7 and July 21 groups have the same handlers? It seems unlikely that this would be the case, if for no other reason than the different way in which they were managed. Khan was in regular contact with someone in Pakistan who was helping him along. Presumably, the same handler would have done the same thing with Ibrahim if he was the manager of the contact and losing contact would be remarkably inept and quite a contrast. It would also have been quite lax operational security to have the same person handle the contacts with two cells that otherwise were kept so firmly apart. Having said this, it would not be the first time that this was done: the New York cell led by Najibullah Zazi became known to authorities because he reached out to the same email account that a cell in northern England had used in Pakistan to discuss their plot. An account linked to this one helped uncover another linked cell in Oslo. So such mistakes have been made. But in 2004/5 al Qaeda likely had much more freedom operating and as a result would probably have had more resources to deploy in managing the cells.

We already know a lot more about the final cell identified here, the Overt group were long known to have had a strong connection to al Qaeda core, and specifically Rashid Rauf. What is fascinating from the discovery of these documents is that we can now see how the contacts apparently evolved. With the July 2005 bombers, al Qaeda seems to have kept them on a relatively long leash. By the time we get to the Overt group, we have Rauf himself managing the connection, through phone calls and emails. But this was not enough, with him deciding to send a close confidant in to manage things on the ground and guarantee that things went off without a hitch. Having said that, it also seems as though this individual was in contact with other potential cells around the country, suggesting that his job was not solely to manage the Overt group.

So what can be drawn from this information?

Well, first of all, it is interesting the degree to which we see the groups requiring help in building their devices once back in the UK. Clearly, an inability to check with their bosses was the key flaw that stymied the 21/7 group. Khan needed a lot of handholding and it seems had faced a similar difficulty prior to his attempt, something he was able to resolve with his handler. For the Overt chaps, we can see from emails that have been released that they discussed in some detail their progress in developing a device.

Secondly, it is fascinating that by the end of 2004, al Qaeda was willing to have quite high level leaders meet with Briton’s on jihadi tourism in South Asia and then trust these individuals to go back home and build cells. In all three cases, we can see how the key ‘emir’ in the UK (Khan, Ibrahim and Ali) trained with al Qaeda and then came back to the UK where they were able to assemble quite substantial cells of individuals willing to offer themselves as suicide bombers without having had direct contact themselves with al Qaeda. This is a testament to the volume of radicals around in the UK at the time, and the confidence of these cell leaders to be able to transform their wider networks in the UK into teams of suicide bombers. The wider cell around the 7/7 is somewhat unclear, the 21/7 group was large and included a number of individuals around the Finsbury Park mosque, and the Overt cell was always most worrying because of the large number of individuals who had seemingly offered themselves as suicide bombers and the six who had recorded martyrdom videos.

And then there is a timing question. It is fascinating to now see that al Qaeda was indeed likely directing the three cells. They came after the Crevice group who seem to have been amongst the pathfinders in terms of building connections to al Qaeda’s broader network from the UK. But based on Mohammed Junaid Babar’s testimony and other bits in the public domain, the cell there was very eager to connect with al Qaeda core (and cell leader Omar Khyam was quite noisy about his supposed connection with Abdul Hadi al Iraqi), but it seems largely to have elected to go and do something back in the UK by themselves. Whether we can read anything into the lack of inclusion of the cell in the post-event reports is unclear, but certainly they were using a different type of device and it seems as though they found their bomb training from another source. Based on what information exists, it seems as though the Crevice lot were in fact a supply network in the first place that expressed eagerness to do something, rather than a tasked cell. What contact the group did have seems to have flowed though Salahuddin Amin who was their contact in Pakistan and whom they asked for details about how to build their device. But demonstrative maybe of how far from the core he was, Amin had to spent some days going to find the answer to the question from cell leader Omar Khyam, presumably unlike the handlers for the other British plots who were directly hardwired into al Qaeda core.

So one possibility is that after the failure of the Crevice cell, al Qaeda decided to try to actually redirect some of these Brits who were showing up to more useful activities rather than let them just die in Afghanistan or go back to concoct half-baked plots. They now believed that these Brits were dedicated to the cause and were willing to trust them both with high level contacts, but also with plans that would involve them going to recruit a high number of dedicated warriors in the UK who had never trained alongside the group. The point being that maybe it took until 2004 to realise that these foreigners were trustworthy and the real thing – something confirmed by the efforts of the Crevice cell and the growing presence of increasingly senior Brits in their ranks (Rashid Rauf and Omar Saeed Sheikh being just two).

There is a final point to touch upon. German authorities seem quite convinced that Rashid Rauf wrote these documents, but he has theoretically been dead for over three years now. Were these part of some electronic brain-trust of the organisation (maybe the mysterious Office of Services Abu Susu refers to?), or is he simply not dead? Or maybe these were multi-authored documents? The common belief is that Rauf was killed by drone strike in November 2008, but no tangible evidence has ever been produced and plots with his fingerprints have emerged a number of times since then. While quite logical explanations exist for this (his contacts were passed on to someone else), you have to wonder why his name keeps showing up.

This is going up a bit late, since have been a bit distracted with other obligations. It also ended up being published after Intelwire and Red State articles on the topic, though I had written it before reading them both (honest!). A long post for Free Rad!cals, something I am trying to return to with some regularity. This is exploring the subject of Lone Wolves that I have long been going on about, and in fact was quoted in a CNN story on the topic and a Christian Science Monitor one. It has been a while since I posted for a variety of reasons, but in the meantime, I was quoted a fair bit in this story linked to the London Somalia conference in the Danish newspaper Information and separately (and unrelated) on Chinese influence in Central Asia in an article that was written for Eurasianet and reprinted in the Atlantic.

When is a Lone Wolf a Lone Wolf?

View more articles by Raff Pantucci

Filed under: Anwar al-Awlaki, Homegrown extremism

The arrest last Friday of Amine el Khalifi as he strode towards the US Capitol Building with what he thought was a functioning MAC-10 submachine gun and explosive suicide vest marks the latest in a growing list of individuals who have been incarcerated in the United States in cases involving intelligence agents. As with many previous cases, this one has already been called a “lone wolf” by officialdom in the US. But does this definition really hold water in a case like Khalifi’s?

The problem with using this definition in Khalifi’s case is that central to the plot seems to be at least one law enforcement agent and a confidential informant. Individuals who hinted to him that they were connected with al Qaeda and ultimately provided him with what he thought were the tools to conduct a Fedayeen-style terrorist attack on the Capitol Building. All of which suggests that in Khalifi’s mind he was not actually a “lone wolf,” but rather an individual who was part of a terrorist cell.

This distinction is important since it raises a subsidiary question of whether Khalifi would have actually done something if he hadn’t had the community of agents around him to both provide him with what he thought was a cell, as well as the weapons to carry out his terrorist attack. Khalifi was clearly a disjointed fellow – a former landlord is quoted as saying he was suspicious of Khalifi and found him to be a very troublesome tenant suspecting he may have been building bombs – but how dangerous was he and did he have the wherewithal to launch a terrorist plot by himself?

At this point, we shall never know. Given Khalifi was captured as he marched up to his intended target armed with a machine gun and suicide vest, it is hard to envisage any jury finding him innocent or to disagree with this conclusion. And it is perfectly possible that Khalifi is indeed a deranged individual who may have been prone to going down a path of violence. But the dilemma is the degree to which the cell of agents empowered him, and whether they could have used the information to dissuade him instead of helping him in this direction.

His case is very similar to that of Jose Pimental, a New Yorker arrested earlier this year by NYPD as he was supposedly building a bomb with what emerged to be a police agent. In that case, Pimental was also described as something of an oddball who would broadcast his radical views loudly online, was part of the community of individuals involved in the Revolution Muslim website and decided to get involved in a plot once he came across what he thought was a fellow radical. Pimental was seemingly obsessed with Anwar al Awlaki, and had apparently tried to reach out to him, but to no avail. Oddly enough, in that case the FBI declined to become involved leaving the case in the NYPD’s jurisdiction hinting that Pimental was not that dangerous (an odd conclusion given the similarities to the Khalifi case). Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly backed their forces, however, declaring Pimental a “ total lone wolf.”

This approach to capturing violent Islamist cells is not a particularly new one for American forces. While I may have missed some cases, scanning old reports and lists on the topic of disrupted terrorist plots in the US, it seems to me as though the first plot involving unaffiliated individuals who were caught using a confidential informant involved Shahawar Matin Siraj and James Elshafay who were planning to bomb a subway station in New York City in August 2004. In that case, a police agent, who allegedly offered his services to trawl through New York’s Muslim community to identify Muslims who were bringing a bad name to his religion, was key in securing the convictions.

However, it seems as though Siraj had voiced his ideas to others prior to the agent and had another co-conspirator James Elshafay, a mentally troubled individual who volunteered to plant a bomb. In other words, Siraj was moving in a dangerous direction with others even prior to meeting the agent. While it is true that the agent might have acted like a final trigger into moving him into action, he was not operating in a total vacuum with the agents acting as his only contacts to other extremists prepared to do something.

When we look at a case like Khalifi’s, there are a number of key differences. In his case, Khalifi’s entire connection to the al Qaeda cell he thought he was part of was fictitious. Unlike Siraj whom it seems was both voicing his opinions, but also in contact with others willing to carry out violence, Khalifi seems to have been willing to voice his radical ideas but was not in contact with any others eager to follow the path he eventually took, until he encountered the federal agents.

But the purpose here is not to condemn the use of confidential informants or undercover agents – but instead to focus on whether we can really call such individuals lone wolves and what effect this approach is having on reducing this problem.

The answer to the first question is clearly negative: these individuals cannot really be called “lone wolves” since they were really not acting alone. They were part of what they thought was a cell. That this turned out to be mostly federal agents is important as it complicates whether we can confidently say that they would have chosen this path independently and acted as “lone wolf” terrorists. The answer is we cannot – we shall never know whether they would have chosen this path without the group around them. Certainly we can look at the individual’s readiness to move into action with some level of concern, but we cannot confidently say they would have done this absent the contacts with agents.

It is easy to understand why enforcement agencies favor this sort of an approach. Lone Wolf terrorists are very hard to spot and identify before they move into action – this approach draws out individuals who seem to be moving in this direction and merely gives them the tools to hang themselves by their own petards. In this way it is pre-emptive. For example, someone like Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the 19-year-old Portland, Oregon Somali who tried to blow up a vehicle bomb at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in late 2010. According to court documents, Osman was trying to make contact with radicals in Pakistan to try to join them to fight jihad. Having identified him, federal agents moved in and in the end Osman decided to try to carry out an attack within America.

In a case like Osman’s it is easy to see the logic behind a pre-emptive approach. Osman was clearly interested in making contact and joining radicals abroad. Conviction on the basis of this sort of contact is no doubt hard to prove; so sending agents in to understand the individual better makes some sense. That this then led to him wanting to carry out a plot within the US is one outcome this can lead to – whether Osman suggested it or the agents did is something that will no doubt come out in trial. Pimental had tried to reach out to other radicals (including Anwar al Awlaki allegedly), but it is not clear whether this is also the case with Khalifi.

The other logic behind such operations is the notion of deterrence. If you catch and convict some individuals like this, it serves as an example to the other potential ones out there. Siraj received a 30-year sentence for his crime, and Osman, Pimental and Khalifi are looking at similar sentences. And unlike Europe, where long sentences can be reduced with good behavior, etc, in the United States, long terms means a long time in a prison where prosecutors openly admit same sex rape is common.

But the deterrence case somewhat falls down when we consider how long the United States has been pursuing such individuals and how they continue to appear. If we take the Siraj case as a first example – we can see how since 2006 (on the basis of when he was incarcerated versus arrested) examples have been publicly made of what is going to happen to you if you wander down this path and how there are agents out there seeking to catch you. And yet we have continued to see cases occur with this latest pair merely the most recent in a long list. Of course it is possible that there would have been many more, and that in fact the relatively small number we see is a reflection that in fact this deterrent effect is working, but this is another statistic that will be impossible to ever prove.

There is no clean answer to this discussion. One solution I have advocated is that police and intelligence agencies should identify such people and then instead of moving in with a team to catch them doing something bad, send in a team to dissuade them from doing anything. Make it obvious to them that they are wandering down a dangerous path and they should get off it. This might scare some sense into them and lead them to choosing another path. It might also have the opposite effect in some cases, but I am certain if an intervention is handled properly, it could save a lot of time and effort from courts, prisons and intelligence agencies.

But to return to the question I started this whole post off with: when is a lone wolf a lone wolf? He can be considered a “lone wolf” terrorist when he tries to carry out a terrorist act by himself or herself, without any support or command and control from known or unknown networks. To call individuals like Jose Pimental or Amine el Khalifi “Lone Wolves” is a misinterpretation of the term that is only going to complicate the struggle in identifying such individuals that really are “Lone Wolves.” The real “lone wolves” are people like Khalid Aldawsari, the Saudi student in Texas whose romantic and poetic blog masked a desire to build a bomb to attack America. He quietly worked away on his plot until he tried to purchase chemicals from an attentive seller. They reported him to authorities and he was subsequently arrested and is now awaiting trial. People like Jose Pimental or Amine el Khalifi may indeed have been potential “lone wolves” in the future, but the reality is we shall never know whether they were actually going to go down this path or not.

A new post for Free Rad!cals, this time using the case of Umar Patek, the Bali bomber just going on trial in Indonesia, to explore some bigger themes about terrorist networks that I wrote about in an earlier journal article. I should add that it was also sparked off by the fact that I happened to catch late last week the National Geographic show Seconds from Disaster: Bali Bombing that highlighted a detail I had not really noticed before about the plot, and that was that a device also blew up in front of the US Consulate in Bali at the same time as the bombings. The show seemed to conclude that there was a connection. As usual reactions or thoughts welcome.

Peripatetic Jihadi

View more articles by Raff Pantucci

Filed under: Philippines, Terrorism

The case opens this week in Jakarta against Umar Patek, aka Hisyam Bin Alizein also known as “Demolition Man,” one of the supposed key bomb-makers in the 2002 Bali bombings that killed some 202 people. Captured just over a year ago in Abbotabad, the start of his trial is being referred to as that of the “last remaining” terrorists responsible for that attack, and therefore possibly bringing closure to that case. It also seems to be another nail in the coffin for his much degraded al-Qaeda affiliated network Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the formerly menacing Southeast Asian terror network that was responsible for the Bali bombings and a number of other attacks on Western interests and Christians in the region.

The purpose of this post, however, is not to focus on Patek’s group (for that I would recommend the work of Sidney Jones of the International Crisis GroupZachary Abuza of Simmons College and Ken Conboy’s book The Second Front), but rather to focus on the individual as a figure within a terrorist network and use him as a case study for examination of different roles such individuals can play. My thinking was set off by a line in this excellent AP report that claims to draw on police interrogation and other documents that detail the “peripatetic life Patek led.” A truly global jihadi, Patek seems to have been fluent in English, computer savvy, recruited early into JI, and travelled extensively amongst radical groups across Asia setting up cells and support networks wherever he went. His role in the Bali bombing seems to have been as the explosives expert who arrived in Denpasar weeks prior to the attack to assemble the device, before leaving two days prior to the actual bombing.

But the question is whether we should view Patek as a lone wanderer who simply travelled through the parallel world of global jihadism, or whether we should see him as a key fixer whose movements reflected a calculated set of opportunities that all furthered his organisation’s goals. Or in other words, should we see him as a “middle manager” (as PeterRyan and myself laid out in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism) or is he in fact more of a Ramzi Yousef figure (the man responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing who seems to have wandered the world seeing himself as something of an international playboy terrorist figure). The distinction is interesting as it serves to highlight the importance of the different figures within terrorist networks – the middle manager versus the itinerant fighter.

It is not immediately clear which group Patek falls into. Apparently recruited by fellow Bali plotter Dulmatin in the early 1990s/late 1980s, Patek claims to have been trained at a militant camp in Sadda province, Pakistan and then in Turkhom, Afghanistan from 1991-1994. He describes his courses as being “from basic to very difficult.” Following this, he returned to Indonesia from where he was dispatched to neighboring Philippines where he helped run a joint training camp JI established with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Mindanao. According to regional expert Zachary Abuza, he helped build the camp into a major centre, and in 1999-2000, following the fall of President Suharto, he seems to have been part of a group of exiled JI leaders who came home to Indonesia from where he is believed to have helped in a number of bombings. In 2002, Imam Samudra, the man described as the “commander” of the Bali operation, asked him to help the group build a bomb. He moved to Bali and spent around a month there mixing explosives while fellow radical Dulmatin built the timers. He then left the island prior to the attacks and ended up in the Philippines with his wife and fellow plotter Dulmatin and his family.

According to one report quoting Dulmatin’s wife, they stayed with MILF helping train the group and providing a support network for operatives back in Indonesia until 2004 when peace talks between the MILF and government meant they could no longer host them. The men transferred themselves to the protection of the Abu Sayyaf group, another Philippine Islamist terrorist network. From here they continued to plot and help train networks until 2009 when they separately snuck back into Indonesia. Dulmatin appears to have decided that Aceh was an area ripe for establishing a training camp and set off to develop al-Qaeda in Aceh while Patek instead told investigators that he wanted to fight on a bigger battlefield and instead headed towards Afghanistan-Pakistan. A temporarily smart choice as Indonesian forces reacted rapidly and heavily to the news of al-Qaeda affiliate in Aceh, killing Dulmatin in a shoot-out in March 2010.

Using false identities, Patek and his wife snuck to Lahore sometime in 2010, though the details of his journey there are not entirely clear. One report pointed to him attending a mysterious meeting of Southeast Asian jihadists in Mecca in between. However, by early 2011 he was in Abbotabad where he was in contact with a known al-Qaeda operative whom Pakistani authorities had become aware of (or their American friends were watching and telling them about). Trailing this connector, Tahir Shehzad, the Pakistanis were first able to grab a pair of French jihadis who were heading to the lawless Northwest Frontier Province and then eventually catch Patek.

So we can see how Patek was a key plotter, bomb-maker, trainer, terrorist with connections to JI’s networks as well as al-Qaeda networks in Pakistan. But does this make him a “middle manager” or something else? In our previous article, Peter, Ryan and myself define the “middle management” in al-Qaeda as:

 

The middle management combines several of the characteristics of the top leadership and the grass-roots. Like the top leadership, middle managers are experienced and skilled, and maintain contact with members of the leadership. They may have met bin Laden, but do not necessarily have a close, personal relationship. Importantly, they are not permanently based in the tribal areas but have returned to their home countries or other non-battlefront states, sometimes travelling back and forth, building support networks and raising money for the global jihad. Like the grass-roots, then, their outlook and ideology is global but most of their activities are focused locally.

 

In many ways Patek would fit this profile: he was clearly in contact with top leaders (it would be surprising if his presence in Abbotabad, where bin Laden was killed was merely a coincidence, and the fact he was able to hide for so long in Indonesia with such a substantial bounty on his head must have meant he was well connected there), he was widely travelled and helped establish support networks for his organization, and was certainly a skilled and experienced warrior.

But the distinction of him from the “middle management” community comes into play when we focus on him as a figure who travelled around a lot aligning himself with whatever local terrorist network he was able to connect with. Clearly, his first allegiance lay with his home group, JI, but he seems to have been at ease building up MILF and Abu Sayyaf – though in both cases he appears to have also been supporting JI networks from a distance. However, when his old comrade Dulmatin asked him to join him in Aceh, he declined, instead wanting to join the jihad in Afghanistan. Something suggestive of a personality more inclined to jihadist activity in support of a global movement than the maybe more parochial Indonesian focus suggested by establishing operations in Aceh. Seen in this light, we can view Patek as part of the community of itinerant jihadists to have emerged from the mess of Afghanistan in the late 1980s and early 1990s focused on bringing murder and mayhem wherever they could in advance of their vision of violent Islamism. Travelling around Southeast Asia, Patek provided support and his bomb construction skills wherever he could; aiding whichever group he was with at the time.

The importance of this distinction is not simply academic. The “middle manager” figure can be hard to identify, but is crucial in providing connective tissue between a radical group’s leadership and the warriors in the field carrying out operations, while the freewheeling itinerant jihadist is a dangerous figure who simply has to be tracked down and captured. The latter figure can sometimes act as a “middle manager” but is a far more operational individual who is dangerous as a highly trained terrorist with a global grudge. The middle manager probably lacks this operational edge, but this will make them a harder figure to identify.

Of course, the specifics of Umar Patek’s case may come out further in the course of his trial. His long career and close affiliation with various terrorist networks point to an individual that is best kept off the streets – whether he was a “middle manager” or something else.

There are two unrelated loose ends to Patek’s tale I will end on. Specifically, his capture in the same town as bin Laden is a curiosity and makes one wonder whether he was on his way to meet the leader or whether al-Qaeda simply use the city as a way point with the junior leadership having no idea that they are in the same city as their leader (something that would be a particularly audacious approach to protecting bin Laden). I wonder if more on this will ever come out. And secondly, whatever happened to the two Frenchmen who were supposedly captured prior to Patek’s capture by following the same courier that led to Patek? The story of his capture is still a bit murky, but from what I can tell, those two individuals (described as “of Pakistani origin [and] the other described as a white Muslim convert”) are still out there somewhere, presumably in custody. If anyone has come across any stories about them, please feel free to send them my way.

 

Another short blogpost for Free Rad!cals, this time on a topic that has been bugging me for a while. It seems as though the US is making a few unfortunate choices in counter-radicalisation terms that emulate earlier mistakes Europe made, something particularly silly given how much attention they have lavished on studying and criticising Europe’s mistakes. This was already up, but I see now that guru Brian Michael Jenkins has written an excellent piece for Foreign Affairs attacking another mistaken American policy choice. Of course, not everything the US has done is negative in this regard, but there are a few silly mistakes that seem to be being made.

Muslim Integration: America Must Avoid Europe’s Mistakes

Filed under: Europe, Homegrown extremism, UK

Americans love to berate Europe and its failings. Youthful America looks to its European progenitor and sees post-colonial stagnation and sclerotic economies that are unwilling to face up to their problems. A bugbear of the past few years has been criticism of Europe’s approach to its resident Muslim population. Commentaries have focused on a problem that is seen by many as an incubator of anger that has expressed itself in the form of attacks by European, or European-based, terrorists against America – most notably on September 11, 2001.

But while Europe has in the past provided a depressingly productive Petri dish for Muslim rage with contradictory policies that have had an alienating effect on parts of the broader community, it is increasingly the case that America is simply following Europe in the same direction. Recent stories of New York’s police department using inflammatory videos about Islamist extremism in training come in the wake of stories of possibly CIA assisted intelligence operations against Muslim communities. Whatever the tactical utility of such operations, it is clear that from a hearts-and-minds perspective they can be seen to be a failure.

More absurdly, states have tried to pass laws preventing shariah law from being imposed on them – a highly unlikely outcome, but reflective of the high levels of paranoia and anti-Muslim feeling amongst the American public. Something also seen in stories of Muslim leaders being disembarked from domestic flights with little reason given, in some cases as they were on their way to conferences about “Islamophobia”.

At a political level the conversation has been just as poisonous as in Europe. Potential Republican candidate Newt Gingrich has spoken of “the mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it” posed by shariah. In Congress, Representative Peter King has held hearings accusing America’s Muslim community of failing to regulate itself and producing homegrown terrorists. And while a direct correlation with this polarizing narrative is of course impossible to draw, there has been an increase in young Americans drawn by the lure of jihad abroad or into becoming involved in what they believe are terror plots within the US in the past few years.

Europe has hardly covered itself in glory in integrating its Muslim communities. But neither has America, and the current approach is increasingly emulating many of Europe’s failed policies. It is all very good to shout about Europe’s failings, but the United States needs to increasingly look within before it allows its problems to get too out of hand.

America has a long tradition of being a national melting pot, able to absorb people of all cultures and creeds and accepting of diversity as a crucial element of its identity. For years, the belief was that America would be immune to the sort of problems that Europe faced with homegrown extremism. As time has shown, however, this is clearly not the case with numerous young men drawn to the flame of extremism. The United States should focus on learning positive lessons from Europe’s problematic experience and avoid emulating its failed policies.

A post for the long-ignored Free Rad!cals at ICSR. This one looking at the stories around Abu Musab al-Suri’s possible release and the implications of it. Brynjar was kind enough to give me some time to talk about it and I would recommend everyone read his book on the subject if they find the time.

Whither al Suri?

Towards the end of last year a story emerged that suggested that infamous al Qaida ideologue Mustafa Setmariam Nasr, aka Abu Musab al- Suri, had been released from the Syrian jail in which it was believed he had been languishing. Picked up in Quetta in October 2005, al-Suri was a longtime jihadist who during his career had served as a trainer in Afghanistan, married a Spanish woman, and worked as a propagandist from Londonistan. He is most well-known, however, as an author and ideologue and particularly for his massive tome, Global Islamic Resistance Call, a text that laid out his idea for al-Qaeda’s structure as “nizam, la tanzim” (system, not organization). Most recently, his writing had gotten increased traction as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had very publicly taken up his ideas as part of their push in Inspire magazine to try to stir up Lone Wolf terrorism.

While the unconfirmed announcement of his release has not gotten much traction, the story was interesting given the importance al-Suri’s work is often given by researchers (and the fact that he was amongst the individuals whom Zawahiri asked for in exchange for kidnapped American Warren Weistein). Intrigued by the story, I reached out to Dr. Brynjar Lia of FFI in Norway, the world’s foremost expert of al-Suri, having written the excellent biography “Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al Qaeda Strategist Abu Musab al Suri,” to see what he thought of the story and its potential consequences:

I think it is quite likely that al-Suri was transferred to Syria and has been held there, judging by the various reports pointing in that direction over the past few years. However, I am not sure whether Syrian authorities would have much to gain by releasing him. He is no friend of the Syrian regime to say the least, and he consistently denounced the Syrian regime both politically and religiously, labeling them “a Nusayri [another word for the Alawi, Bashar al Assad’s ethnic community] occupation”. The only thing I could think of is that the regime is trying to send a signal to the West, and the U.S. in particular, that if they push the Assad regime too hard, they will lose a partner in “the war on terrorism”, to use an outdated term. Al-Zawahiri mentioned al-Suri as one of several jihadis he wanted to see released in return for a U.S. citizen, reportedly held hostage by al-Qaida in Pakistan. However, in the current climate it is hard to imagine U.S.-Syrian cooperation on swapping al-Suri for the U.S. hostage.

“The impact of al-Suri’s release, if true, will not necessarily be dramatic, although it depends on the circumstances of his release. I don’t really see him in any operational role in the jihadi organisations in the region such as al-Qaida in Iraq, Ansar al-Islam, Fatah al-Islam or others. As for the Syrian opposition in exile, they will probably view him as a liability and they seem to believe that he might have been released as part of the Syrian regime’s orchestrated efforts to portray the opposition as an al-Qaida supported insurgency. Furthermore, al-Suri has few friends among the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, whom he singled out for very harsh criticism in his early writings. He did not have a large crowd of dedicated disciples, but was mostly a theoretician and a writer and was admired for his writings and his seniority as a jihadist.

For my own two cents, it would be strange for the Syrians to take such an action for a man who was so clearly their enemy and unlikely to ever do them any favors – but then again, as the Shia Iranian experience with allowing Sunni al Qaida to stay in their territory has shown, the geopolitics of the war on terrorism are complex. But I also wonder whether it would necessarily be the case that his release would be some sort of a boon to the notion of Lone Wolf jihad as espoused by AQAP. Clearly Inspiremagazine saw al-Suri as their ideological godfather and repeatedly held up his image and writing as key in their thinking, but I wonder if al-Suri would equally embrace the notions as they have advanced it.

To start with, it is unclear to me on the basis of his work that al Suri would be that impressed by the religious and ideological knowledge displayed by the army of young people who are taking up arms in response to AQAP’s call. In the early 1990s as he was first advancing his ideas in Peshawar, al Suri spoke of being unimpressed by the lack of “necessary doctrinal, programmatic, ideological and political guidance” amongst his fellow Arab-Afghans. Furthermore, in his magum opus, the Global Islamic Resistance Call, where he praises “the school of individual jihad and small cells” and a group of lone individuals who took up the cause of jihad, he highlights how while these attacks may be a military, security and agitation success, their political and educational impact is relatively low. It is hard to imagine that he would see greater ideological fervor or wider political success amongst the young people claiming his heritage.

Beyond this, it is unclear that he would necessarily approve of the sort of random targeting that is suggested by Inspire magazine’s ideas of taking down apartment blocs full of people by renting out one on a lower floor and letting the gas run freely or the idea to use a combine harvester to literally mow through crowds. While al-Suri’s writing does recognise the validity of targeting civilians, he does say that this needs to be done in a discriminating fashion. This is reflected in information to have emerged from Abbotabad where it is claimed that bin-Laden was “taken aback” by the Inspire proposal to use a harvester “he complains that this tactical proposal promotes indiscriminate slaughter. He says he rejects this and it is not something that reflects what al-Qaeda does.”

It is unclear whether al-Suri will be able to react in any sort of a public way to the children of the jihad who have claimed his legacy, not least because we have no idea at the moment of whether he has even been released (or if he has what limitations he may be under). But should he have been released and be able to become an active jihadi ideologue once again, it will undoubtedly prove a coup for al-Qaeda’s battered ideology and forces (as Jarret Brachmann has pointed out). What is less clear, however, is what kind of an impact it would have on the AQAP driven push towards indiscriminate, undirected Lone Wolf terrorism. It is uncertain to what degree the group is responsible for the growth in such events, and it is even less certain whether al-Suri would necessarily appreciate the interpretation of his work that they have been advancing.

Lone Wolf terrorism will no doubt continue to emerge whether al-Suri has been released or not. Al Suri’s potential addition to this mix will be to breathe new life into a group whose ideology and leadership has taken a sound beating, offering a leader whose ideas at the time were not paid much attention to, but since his arrest have increasingly become the vogue amongst terrorist tacticians.

A long lost post for ICSR looking at terrorism in China, something that I had actually drafted initially prior to the recent events out in Hotan. There it now seems as though the government is saying that a “flag of jihad” was being flown, though I have not seen reference to the East Turkestan groups anywhere. Any tips or pointers always welcome.

Jihad in China

Islamist terrorism and extremism in China is a very difficult subject to research. A general sense of paranoia casts a shadow over the it and a great paucity in direct and accurate information means that people often have very little that is empirical or tangible to add.

None of this is to say that the problem does not exist. Recently a video emerged on the forums that by my count is the first to be released that is primarily in Chinese (Mandarin that is, the main Chinese language) – previous videos have been later translated into Chinese, but this is the first one to boast a speaker clearly using Chinese. Others have been released threatening China ahead of the Olympics, and a video from April 2008 showed three Chinese men being executed, most likely somewhere in Waziristan. There have also been a number of half-formed plots, including an attempt to bring down a plane going from Urumqi (a regional capital) to Guangzhou (a regional the capital) using a petrol bomb,a series of bus bombings for whom no satisfactory explanation has ever been provided and aseemingly suicidal attack against security forces in Aksu, Xinjiang in August last year.

In all of these cases, the Chinese authorities blamed what are called East Turkestan groups. East Turkestan refers to what China’s westernmost Xinjiang province is considered by those who call for independence of their province. These people tend to be Uighur, a Turkic minority mostly resident in China that used to be the most populous in that province: Han Chinese migration has completely changed the ethnic demographics of the province. This migration has been accompanied by what is seen locally as a slow erosion of Uighur culture and a general sense that Han China is taking advantage of the province’s considerable natural resources with little benefit to the locals. Uighur’s are a predominantly Muslim minority and some splinters of the al-Qaedaist narrative have managed to find a home amongst the disaffected communities. And these groups are either referred to as, or self-call themselves, East Turkestan Islamist Movement (ETIM) or Turkestan Islamist Party (TIP).

But whether these attacks are actually carried out by organised groups is very hard to confirm. Some individuals have in the past made connections with al Qaeda and affiliated networks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and broader Central Asia. According to Camille Tawil’s recent authoritative book Brothers in Arms, in Afghanistan prior to 9/11 ETIM “pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar and stopped all paramilitary activity against China (which the Taliban could ill-afford to upset), as requested.” And the existence of the connection is further confirmed by a quick review of the Chinese listed Wikileak’d Guantanamo detainee files that show a whole series of Uighur men who left China for reasons mostly to do with what they felt was Chinese oppression and ended up in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whether they were all connected to terrorist groups is unclear, but certainly the path they took seems to have been a well-trodden one. There are regular reports that the Pakistani government trumpets of “Turkestan” fighters being killed in operations in Waziristan. And last May, interior minister Rehman Malik referred to the back having been “broken” of the “East Turkestan” groups. He was rewarded with substantial contracts and investment from China.

More recently, while the regional Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was undertaking one of its joint counter-terrorism exercises, Chinese minister Meng Hongwei declared that, “signs are the ‘East Turkestan’ terrorists are flowing back.” But while this declaration sounded like it was founded in some sort of direct threat intelligence, nothing has since materialized. This could of course be due to the fact that it is sensitive information and consequently suppressed, but at the same time, Chinese authorities like to trumpet success in counter-terrorism operations.

But now we have had what seems to be a genuine expression of violence in Xinjiang, with the news that a mob of “thugs” attacked a police station in Hotan, one of the few majority Uighur cities left in the province. While this attack does not seem on the scale of the grim July 2009 riots that led to around 200 deaths, reports indicate that at least a handful of people have been killed. So far blame has not been attributed to the East Turkestan groups, but the local information bureau has already referred to the event as “an organised terrorist attack.”

The East Turkestan groups and the threat from them are also often quoted as one of China’s driving motivations behind engagement with Central/South Asia. But what is interesting is that there is often little evidence of a successful terrorist attack being carried out in China. Consequently, there is a certain amount of skepticism about the size and nature of the threat. Curious, I recently asked a series of high profile researchers and officials what size they considered the threat to be and got broadly similar responses, though very different senses of how dangerous the ETIM/TIP groups are.

One told me that in the past year some 100 had been killed in Afghanistan/Pakistan and that he estimated there were some 1,000 more. Someone affiliated with a research institution linked to the state security ministry played the threat down, declaring that there were some 100/200 people and that the networks had been largely disrupted. The only reason he thought they would be able to make a turn-around was if things in Afghanistan got a lot worse providing the group with a new space to operate in. In a larger conference space I posed the same question to a University academic who had just given a very doom and gloom assessment of security in Central Asia and he guesstimated numbers were in the “hundreds” and that they were very active in the “border regions.” He expressed particular concern about Tajikistan and the porous borders that the nation had as a potential conduit for terrorist networks in the region.

Often, however, the bigger threat that is referred to are groups like Hizb ut- Tahrir, whom are present in Central Asia and apparently amongst the communities of cross-border traders that go back and forth between Xinjiang and the bordering states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. One high estimate that was given me was of some 50,000 HuT members in China spread out from Xinjiang all the way down to Sichuan province with people seeing the group as part of a dangerous Islamicization that is taking place in broader Central Asia and consequently in China too. More conservative estimatessay there are some 20,000 HuT members in China.

It seems that there is some sort of a terrorist threat to China from violent Islamist networks. But what remains unclear is to what degree this threat is able to conduct any sorts of operations within China or to what degree al Qaeda and affiliate networks are able (or want) to manipulate it for their own ends. Currently, the jihad in China seems more aspirational than operational. At the same time, if events in Hotan are confirmed, it looks like the tinderbox of ethnic friction and disenfranchisement that might offer an outlet for such extremism to latch on to continues to exist.