Archive for the ‘Free Rad!cals’ Category

A new post for Free Rad!cals, looking at the recently concluded investigation in the UK by the independent reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation that looked into the case of a group of “environment cleaners” who were picked up ahead of the Pope’s visit to London. The investigation has thrown up some interesting information about the case, but more broadly some questions about these sorts of investigations. In many ways a very similar piece to the last reviewer’s investigation into Pathway, but the information that has been revealed this time shows more about policing tactics than the intelligence behind them which was the focus of the last one.

Operation Gird – Counter-Terrorism Policing in Tense Times

The new Independent Reviewer for Terrorism Legislation David Anderson QC has published his first review of counter-terrorism legislation, conducting a full inquiry into the case of six street cleaners working in London who were arrested on the eve of the Pope’s visit to London in September of last year. The report exonerates the police concluding, “I consider that the police acted responsibly and within the law in arresting the six men when they did.”

The report lays out in detail the evidential case behind the police decision to arrest the men. Apparently, at 4:30pm in the afternoon on September 16th, the day before the Pope’s visit to the UK, police received a tip off from an unnamed source who told them that they had overheard five of the men “talking about a possible attack on the Pope’s vehicle on the following day.” The source’s information is summarized thus:

· The five men were looking at a picture in the Metro newspaper of the Pope’s motor vehicle.

· They discussed a recent incident where the Koran was burnt and stated that a Christian should be killed for every page that was damaged.

· The view was expressed that whilst the Pope’s vehicle was protected, it could be stopped and that even if he survived, those around him would die.

· Comments were made to the effect that it would be wonderful if the Pope was killed and that there were virgins waiting for them.

· The men could all be working on the day of the Pope’s visit to London.

· The depot had recently taken delivery of new uniforms, ten of which had been stolen.

Additionally, police were told that ‘a close associate of one of the men’ was arrested and released under terrorism legislation some 3-4 months previously. Somewhat more speculatively, one of the men was reported to have recently returned from Paris (one of the men, a 26 year-old, held dual Algerian and French nationality, though it is unclear if this is the man that is referred to), with his head shaven ‘and to have become radicalised.’ Background checks on the men revealed one of them shared a name with an individual who had been arrested and then released during the course of the investigation into the Madrid bombings. The five men under suspicion were aged between 26 and 44, all worked for Veolia Environment Services, and were all of Algerian descent except for one who was Sudanese. The Algerians were all either married to European’s or held European citizenships as well – one British, one Spanish and another French.

After the decision was made to arrest the men in the morning, a sixth man (Subject F) described ‘as being a friend of the suspects’ arrived to the company HQ later in the day and became agitated saying ‘I’m not working now. Does everyone think we’re fucking terrorists? They’re treating us like animals with our hands on our heads.’ He then stormed off. The same person who reported this statement also said that he recalled Subject F requesting to work on the Pope’s route during the visit. Investigation into the company’s files uncovered that a number of men had requested to work together on the Pope’s visit and that a couple had taken holiday time at the same time.

All of which would I suppose paint an incriminating picture to a suspicious mind. It is worth remembering that at the time, security in the UK and Europe was on high alert after the information came out of Afghanistan/Pakistan that cells of Europeans had been activated to carry out Mumbai-style terrorist operations. Cells were swept up in Germany, France and Denmark – in some cases turning up weapons. Plotters had not yet emerged in the UK, though a report from Waziristan pointed to an individual allegedly called Abdul Jabber who was tasked to establish an al Qaeda cell in the UK. He was apparently killed in a drone strike. Another element to emerge at around this time was that a Norwegian-Uighur who was allegedly plotting something in Oslo was found to have in his possession a photo of Ibrahim Adam, a brother to Anthony Garcia, aka Rahman Adam, one of the plotters linked to the Crevice cell. The passport-sized photos showed him in a variety of different haircuts and were taken as evidence that he was trying to obtain fake identification to get back into Europe to possibly carry out some sort of plot (possibly further darkening the picture, Adam was of Algerian descent, the family changed their names years before).

So within this context, it is easy to imagine why police would react as they did. It is a bit surprising that Mr. Anderson fails to mention all this, though he does highlight that the “requirement for reasonable suspicion” needs to “be kept firmly in mind by all forces during future operations….particularly in view of the security pressures that are likely to attend the forthcoming London Olympics.” This element seems to have been leapt upon by today’s Independent.

Nevertheless, it is worth taking a moment to cast a further skeptical eye over this case – the evidence for the plot appears to be single-sourced and not fitting with any other direct intelligence that the security services received. Mr. Anderson himself describes parts of it as “barely credible.” It may be understandable that the police reacted as they did given the context, but the operation will have done little to win them support amongst the Muslim community. As Subject F so eloquently put it, “does everyone think we’re fucking terrorists?” Doubtless, this experience has confirmed this to him and the others. For Subject E, a 27-year-old Sudanese man, the case concluded with it being discovered that he had had his application for asylum turned down and was currently operating using a false identity. According to the investigation “this has resulted in further action under the immigration laws.” One imagines this might include expulsion from the country, though I am uncertain of whether the UK can send people back to Sudan. None of which will endear HMG to him or his friends and family.

It remains unclear whether the chap who had returned from Paris “radicalized” with a shaved head was still a cause for concern, though I imagine he will remain on police radars. Unlike the previous Operation Pathway plot that has been linked to a series of plots in New York and Oslo and with key plotters back in Waziristan, this lot seems not to have had any serious links and their release back into society is likely going to do little to increase the terrorist threat. The fact that the Security Services (MI5, MI6 and GCHQ) did not feature in the investigation confirms that they were not involved and therefore did not have the intelligence.

Instead, it seems as though this was a case of a bad tip-off at a tense time, and hopefully lessons have been learned from this. It of course almost impossible to know to what degree this will have improved or worsened community relations – though doubtless it will be noted how loudly the arrests were reported and how quietly the report that declares “there is no reason to believe, with the benefit of hindsight, that any of the arrested men was involved in a plot to kill the Pope, or indeed that any such plot existed” was covered. But to blame the media is often a bit of a cheap shot, as ultimately, it only caters to the public’s desires and the discovery some people were innocent is less news grabbing than a dramatic arrest.

The purpose of this system of regulation with independent reviewers and inquests is intended to provide the citizenry with a way of watching the watchers. What might be perceived as being a problem, however, is that they continue to largely exonerate those they are overseeing. In the various investigations that have been carried out they continue to say the security services are doing a good job and that broadly speaking nothing is going wrong. Human mistakes are made and that is it. Now this may be the case, but in some cases one has to wonder about whether this might not be stoking further skepticism. Certainly with the Pathway lot, the absolute certainty with which everyone up to the Prime Minister claimed they were linked to al Qaeda was not supported by evidence that was subsequently released. I do not mean to doubt that the Pathway chaps were up to something (I have written a whole article detailing their supposed links to al Qaeda), but the problem of a presentational gap remains when no explosives or evidence of a bomb plot were actually found. In this case where six innocent men were swept up the cause seems to have been bad intelligence and a high level of background chatter.

Admittedly, it is unclear to what degree those who still doubt are a majority or whether it is merely conspiratorially minded obsessive’s or bereaved individuals for whom no comfort will be enough, but at the same time it is equally uncertain that the current structures the UK has set in place to watch the watchers are necessarily assuaging the concerns they set out to calm.

A longer post for Free Rad!cals, looking in detail at the case of the Tipton Taliban (the title I had initially gone with) in the wake of the latest Wikileaks information dump. I do not think that these chaps were very serious jihadists, but more likely your archetypal jihadi tourists. Be very interested to hear the version from the chaps themselves and they should feel free to contact me should they come across this and feel so inclined.

The Tipton Three: Things Not Quite Adding Up

I have in the past touched upon the case of the Tipton Taliban (or the Tipton Three), the three chaps from the West Midlands who were picked up in November 2001 by Northern Alliance forces and eventually transferred into US custody at Guantanamo Bay. They were amongst the first detainees to be repatriated from Gitmo in March 2004 and went on to produce, with award winning filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, a film of their experience in Afghanistan, The Road in Guantanamo.

The film painted the men’s experience in a very naïf way – as four young men who headed to Pakistan for a friend’s wedding and while there, wandered into Afghanistan out of curiosity to see what was going on. In a petition submitted to the US Supreme Court Shafiq Rasul claimed that he had travelled to Pakistan in the first place “to visit relatives, explore his culture, and continue his computer studies.” Asif Iqbal instead said that he was going with the intention of marrying “a woman from his father’s small village.”

By November 2001 they were in Afghanistan and were captured amongst the many former Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters fleeing the overwhelming US and Northern Alliance onslaught. In a long confessionalthey published with the Center for Constitutional Rights, they recounted the toughness of their detention, first at the hands of General Rashid Dostum’s forces, then in a Kandahar prison before they were handed over to U.S. forces that moved them to Guantanamo, This made them into poster-children for those angry at Guantanamo and the way the US was pursuing its war on terror until in June 2007 when they agreed to participate in a Channel 4 show in which Rhuhel Ahmed admitted to having visited an Islamist training camp and to having learned how to handle weapons like AK-47s. In January 2010they confirmed this story during an interview about a BBC show which reunited two of them with one of their Guantanamo jailers, saying that “we all went to the Taliban training camp on many occasions to find out what was happening” and later “being in Afghanistan, we were at that age where….seeing a gun….you’d never seen a gun in the UK…you want to hold it.”

Now with the latest Wikileaks information release we have the version of their tale that they told their American interrogators and that was collated into a detainee assessment in late October 2003 (just under five months prior to their release). It must of course prefaced that some parts of their stories may have been obtained under duress, but nevertheless, the background stories that the Gitmo detainee assessments provide have the ring of truth to them – the consistencies between them, some of the very specific details about their pre-departure experiences in the UK, and especially in light of the men’s subsequent admissions (admittedly, it is mostly Rhuhel Ahmed who has done the on-air admissions since).

According to the newly published reports, in late 1999-2000 the men started to get interested in jihad. In Shafiq Rasul’s account, in 1999 they started to attend the Muslim community center in Tipton where “they were encouraged from the start, as Muslim youth, to fight jihad.” He reported that “a well-respected cleric named Sheikh Faisal visited the Tipton Mosque and encouraged the detainee and his friends to commit themselves to the armed struggle against the west.” In Rhuhel Ahmed’s telling, “he started thinking about jihad during the summer of 2000, after reading books on Afghanistan and the Taliban. He also listened to tapes and watched videos on the Chechnya Jihad,” all of which he obtained from the Maktabah al-Ansaar bookstore in Birmingham, UK (that was set up by Moazzam Begg a few years earlier). Asif Iqbal merely reports that “he was a member of the Tipton mosque” and “that he became interested in Jihad in 2000.

Inspired, in September 2000, Asif Iqbal and Rhuhel Ahmed both headed (a week apart) to, in Iqbal’s report “receive military training, to help him fulfill his desire to fight Jihad.” According to Ahmed, the two met in Karachi and stayed at a mosque in the city until they left for Quetta and then onto Kandahar where they “attended a forty-day training session sponsored by the Harakat al-Islami Bangladeshi.” Having completed their training, in November 2000 they headed to the frontlines staying “a few weeks between the front and Kabul.” Apparently this was not very exciting, as according to Ahmed, “their frontline tour mainly consisted of guard duty.” By late November they had had enough and on the 26ththey returned to the UK.

Until 9/11 when all three men (and a fourth man Munir Ali, also from Tipton who is believed to have died in Afghanistan) headed off to Afghanistan once again. Asif Iqbal is the most forthcoming on reasons behind this decision with his interrogators telling them that “he left on 27 September 2003 [I believe this is a typo which is meant to be 2001] to go and fight against the ‘crusades’…Bin Laden was being blamed for the attacks and that he wanted to ‘fight for Bin Laden.” He went on say that President Bush was responsible “for the conspiracy against the Taliban” and that “the Jews had been the ones who attacked America.” Clearly fired up with zeal, he grabbed a flight “first class, one way.” The others (Rhuhel Ahmed, Munir Ali, and Shafiq Rasul) joined him just over a week later, leaving the UK on October 5th, 2001, and, according to Rhuhel, “basically took the same route from the previous trip.” Shafiq Rasul fills in more details saying that once in Karachi they met up with Abdul Rahman, “a known member of Harakat ul Jihad al Islami.” He organised their trip to Afghanistan, where the three of them met up again with Asif Iqbal.

At this point, their stories diverge a bit. According to Shafiq Rasul they were near the frontlines in Kabul for about ten days hiding in caves “with other Pakistanis, while coalition forces bombed the area.” Rhuhel Ahmed and Asif Iqbal instead say that following their meeting they went to a training camp near Kabul (an analyst speculates in Asif Iqbal’s statement that this might be the al Faruq camp), which Ahmed describes as “an old Russian military camp.” According to Iqbal, they stayed here for four weeks and were “bored.” So much so that they headed back into Pakistan for “sightseeing.” In his telling, after a couple of weeks drifting “they decided to return to Afghanistan, to rejoin the Jihad” – returning to Kabul they went to Bagram “to fight” for a couple of weeks. They then returned to Kabul and were instructed to head to the mountains where the frontline had been established. In Rhuhel Ahmed’s account, at the end of October they finished their training and went to Kandahar, then Kunduz before ending up in the mountains outside Kabul.

From this position in the mountains, the men appear to agree that they realised they were in a bad spot. According to Rhuhel Ahmed “they witnessed heavy US bombing raids” while Asif Iqbal recalls “one bomb landed approximately 50 meters away and ‘wiped out a whole mountain’.” They decided to try to get out to Pakistan, and as they were ended up getting caught with other Taliban aligned fighters by Uzbek General Rashid Dostum’s forces. Having been incarcerated and recognised as foreigners, the General’s forces sold them to the Americans for a reward and the men eventually ended up in Guantanamo.

It is highly likely that while in the custody of General Dostum’s forces, they underwent some nasty experiences, and no doubt Guantanamo was pretty harsh. But this new version of events goes a bit further in discrediting the rose-tinted version that they portrayed in their movie. Undoubtedly, US intelligence seems faulty and determined to conclude that they are more than they say. The American assessments for Ahmed and Iqbal lock onto the fact that they believe the men were at a rally in Afghanistan in winter 2000/2001 where Osama bin Laden spoke and “several of the 9/11 hijackers were present.” As it turns out, British intelligence was able to prove that all three were in the UK at the time; Rasul was in fact working at a Curry’s in the West Midlands. That he appears to have confessed to being in Afghanistan at the time is likely evidence of his mistreatment – all of which seems a bit excessive for an individual who while clearly misguided, was not an Al Qaeda kingpin.

No doubt this will not be the last that we hear from these men. They seem to enjoy the spotlight of publicity and their cause has been taken up by others as a way of shining a light on American misdeeds. Unfortunately, little digging has been done into their reasons for being in Afghanistan in the first place and it would be good to get a more candid version from them of their story at some point – especially in light of these new documents.

After a bit of a delay a new piece over at Free Rad!cals, this time looking at the comparisons between Bosnia and Libya. An underexplored topic and not one I am being intentionally alarmist about, but more I wonder whether there is much attention being paid to this. Should anyone come across any interesting stories or anecdotes, do please pass on.

Wars Next Door

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Filed under: AfricaRadicalisation

Lord Ashdown may have a good point when he accuses the west of suffering from “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” allowing Bosnia to “slide back towards the status of a failed state” while attention is so focused on Libya, but I wonder if there is not another comparison that can be made between the two: that of jihadi battlefields within easy reach of Europe.

It remains unclear how many jihadists linked to al-Qaeda are fighting alongside the rebels in Libya. NATO Supreme Allied Commander Admiral James Stavridisspoke of “flickers” of Al Qaeda and Hezbollah being present in the country and rebel commanders have been quoted saying how some of the men they initially recruited to go and fight in Iraq have returned to fight Gadaffi’s forces. There have also been reports of former Guantanamo detainees showing up in leadership roles, and one report claimed that the jihadist units that were making it to the front were amongst the most effective fighters. On the more alarmist end of the scale, leader of nearby Chad has claimed that al-Qaeda linked elements have plundered the Colonel’s weapons supplies and run away with surface-to-air missiles.

Amidst this all, there have been stories of British Libyans deciding to return home to fight to overthrow the leader. According to James Brandon and Noman Benotman’s authoritative account, “some” former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) have returned to fight against Gadaffi, with at least one being killed and another captured. In the meantime, “Sam’s” story in the Telegraph seems to highlight that the fighting bug is catching amongst the younger generation. Othershave told of how they are returning to take on roles as doctors of aid workers.

All of which is very understandable. Rather than watch their nation implode on their television screens, these expatriate Libyans are going back home to do something. And they are doing this all with the support of NATO bombing campaign from the air and western intelligence agents on the ground directing fire.

But what happens when the NATO campaign eventually stops and what if Gadaffi does not fall. What if the nation descends, like Bosnia did, into a protracted and grim civil war into which jihadist elements were able to move in and offer a live fire training ground for aspirant warriors from around the world? Last time this happened in Bosnia, an unknown number of young Europeans went to fight. As the story of Sayyad al Falastini shows, the battlefield was a coach ride away for young men in London, and Libya is not really that much farther away (not sure if it is a coach ride, but it is certainly easier than getting to Somalia or Waziristan).

This may all be an exaggerated concern. One friend pointed out that of greater concern was the fact that jails in a number of north African countries had emptied, turning god knows who on the street. While intelligence headquarters had all been pillaged, destroying a wealth of knowledge on Islamists from across the region. But as the situation in Libya continues to drift into something less than a conclusive solution with Colonel Gadaffi continuing to hold on, some consideration should be given for it as a potential risk as a jihadi battlefield next door. Given the fact that until recently the West was quite firmly on the wrong side of history in Libya, and we are still uncertain as to what the plan is to support the rebels while allied bombers are accidentally killing some of them, this is by no means necessarily a revolution which will completely go the West’s way. Looking back at footage or coverage of Islamists rallying troops to go to Bosnia, it is easy to see that even in the wake of action by the West they remained angry and the end result was a group of cells some of which ended up targeting the their home nations. Extremists in the UK are already talking about how this is just another western war in a Muslim land.

There are many good reasons for the fighting in Libya to be brought to some positive resolution quickly, not allowing a war with a potentially jihadist flavor to fester on Europe’s doorstep is clearly amongst them. Unfortunately, at the moment the end strategy seems uncertain leading to a potentially dangerous period of intractable conflict that could turn into a Bosnia-style jihadist battlefield. Lets hope some resolution can be effectively brought and enforced before such a situation arises.

Another interview for Free Rad!cals this time with my old friend Guido Steinberg, the most reliable authority on jihad in Germany. I believe that he is developing a book on this topic, and has worked on a lot of the cases built against the jihadi network in Germany.

Terror in Germany: An interview with Guido Steinberg

Given the shootings at Frankfurt airport by Arid Uka, and a series of arrests and convictions recently, it seems as though jihad in Germany is continuing to be a thorn in the side that is not going away. Last week I asked Ces to comment on events in Russia. This week, I have reached out to Dr. Guido Steinberg of the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) in Berlin, the most prominent expert on the topic of radicalisation in Germany, to give us some thoughts on the current state of jihad in Germany.

RP: Can you give us an overview of the current state of Islamism and Jihadi ideology in Germany at the moment? What sort of numbers are we talking about?

GS: The number of German jihadists has risen substantially since 2005/2006. Before then, Germany used to be more of a safe haven and logistics base for al-Qaeda and other organisations. Today, it has become a target and German citizens of different backgrounds have joined different organisations including al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihad Union.

Germany is under threat today because these organisations aim at perpetrating attacks on German soil in order to force the German government to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. At the same time, al-Qaeda and its allies now have the necessary recruits who have been trained in Pakistan and know Germany well.

According to official information, about 220 persons from Germany are on their way to, are currently in, or have recently been to jihadist training camps. Of these, 110 are back in Germany and 10 are in jail. In more concrete terms, there are currently more than 50 Germans in Pakistan. This is a substantial increase from previous years and the jihadist scene in Germany still seems to be growing.

RP: The recent case of Arid Uka and the shootings in Frankfurt is particularly disturbing- do you think this is the beginning of a trend?

GS: There has been a trend towards independent action in Germany just like in other European countries since 2005. At that time, most independent jihadists in Germany radicalised because of the Danish cartoon crisis. For instance, there have been the so-called suitcase bombers, two students from Lebanon who planted bombs in suitcases on two regional trains in Western Germany in July 2006. The bombs did not detonate because of a technical error. It might be that the trend towards independent action will gain traction as it has all over Europe and in the US in 2010. However, as of yet, there are no clear indications regarding this in Germany.

RP: What brought about the creation of the German Taliban Mujahedeen in Waziristan? Not many other European or Western communities have similar organisations out there.

GS: The German Taliban Mujahedeen has been more of a propaganda tool than an organisation. It seems as if it was founded by the IJU in 2009 after an increasing number of Germans arrived in its headquarters in Mir Ali, North Waziristan. Together with a Turkish-Azerbaijani group called Taifetul Mansura they formed a kind of jihadist international brigade. However, the organisation never consisted of more than a dozen fighters and after the death of its founding emir, Ahmet Manavbasi, the group disintegrated. Some were killed with him, some joined the IJU, and others returned to Germany. Its remnants today seem to consist of a small group of young men from Berlin.

RP: From the Hamburg Cell to the Sauerland Group and Arid Uka. Why has jihadism found such a rich soil to grow in Germany?

GS: The members of the Hamburg cell were in their majority Arab students who had only arrived in Germany during the 1990s and had not struck deep roots here. Therefore, I think that the history of a distinct German scene only began with the Sauerland group. It began when an increasing number of ethnic Turks and Kurds were radicalised. The Sauerland group was part of a wider network, which was predominantly Turkish. As it seems, it took the Turks longer than most Arabs to get attracted by jihadist thought. When that happened, Germany was affected because it is home to some 2 million ethnic Kurds and at least 500.000 ethnic Kurds from Turkey – the biggest Turkish diaspora community worldwide. Once the first Turks had joined, the German jihadist scene expanded rapidly. This to me seems to be the result of an internationalisation processes affecting the jihadist scene worldwide. However, the German example seems to be especially striking.

RP: Are there any particular trends in Germany that particularly worry you in the short to medium term?

GS: The most worrying trend is the growth of the salafist scene in Germany. Some years ago, there were only two or three prominent preachers. Today, there are dozens. Official estimates count some 4000-5000 salafists here. This is particularly worrying because all the German individuals who went to join al-Qaeda, IMU and IJU in Pakistan first attended salafist mosques. This is where they were radicalised and recruited. Visiting the al-Nur mosque in Berlin, the al-Quds mosque in Hamburg or the multicultural house in Neu-Ulm was the first step on their journey to jihad. The fact that the salafist scene is growing likely means that the number of sympathisers, potential supporters and active jihadists will grow as well. It is no coincidence that Germany-based salafist preachers also influenced Uka

 

I have pulled this trick before, asking Ces to provide some insights on what is going on with terrorism in Russia. He kindly did this interview with me a while ago, but it got a bit lost and he kindly agreed to update it for Free Rad!cals. The links I had included have not made it, but the previous post can be found here, and Ces’s bio can be found here.

Interview: Terror in Russia

The attack on Moscow’s Domodevo airport earlier this year was the latest in a long litany of terrorism in Russia emanating from the troubled Caucuses region. While it is a subject I follow, I do not follow it in nearly enough detail and have in the past turned to Ces Moore of Birmingham University for more detailed analysis. In the wake of the recent attacks I have been sharing emails with Ces on the subject, and he kindly accepted to answer a few questions on the subject for this site – for Ces’s complete bio, please see his site at Birmingham. My questions in italics:

1. Who do you think might be responsible, and why did it take them so long to claim it?

In the past, groups involved in launching suicide operations in Russia have claimed responsibility in statements, in the days and weeks following attacks. As such, it is not surprising that two statements were released in quick succession in February by the leader of the Caucasus Emirate – a loosely connected group of militants fighting in the North Caucasus (for more on the ‘third wave’ of attacks). In recent years Doku Umarov has vowed to launch attacks in Russian cities. The video statements suggested that the leader of the Emirate, Umarov, and his supporters played a role in the Domodedovo attack, although that must be read in the context of ongoing operations by the militant underground across the North Caucasus.

Obviously it is difficult to ascertain which faction from the North Caucasus, if indeed any, were responsible. Significantly, although Al Qaeda have offered endorsements for attacks, they don’t have a track record of launching operations targeting Russia, so, as the statements indicate; it likely that indigenous groups with the willingness and capability may have been involved in the attack. Given the target – a key transport hub and symbol of Russia – and the nature and form of the attack – a suicide operation – it is likely that Umarov and his supporters were involved in the airport bombing.

These groups often wait a few days before issuing statements, partly in order to ratchet up pressure on the Russian authorities and partly because their systems of communication, command and control are a being closely monitored by the Russian authorities, making it difficult for them to operate. For example, in the past, rebel websites have been subjected to cyber attacks. It may well be that this attack is only loosely linked to the core of the insurgency – many attacks in the past were launched almost as independent operations – under the framework of a loose network of affiliates. For instance, in the wave of terrorism between 2002 and 2004 called Operation Boomerang, groups approached rebel leaders for funding to launch attacks – almost as a franchise operation – while other attacks were launched independently, as acts of retaliation. The claim of responsibility will shed some light on the groups involved, and help unpack if there is a link to the North Caucasus.

2. This is not the first time this airport has been targeted: is this in part a message to the outside world? What is the message if it is? Should other countries be concerned about these groups going international?

This again, is a very interesting set of questions. The airport itself has not been attacked in the past, although its security was breached when two female bombers boarded domestic flights in August 2004. They detonated their explosives destroying two planes, killing scores of people. These attacks were part of the aforementioned campaign of terrorism called Operation Boomerang, by Shamil Basayev, and were followed shortly afterwards by the hostage-taking tragedy in the Ossetian town of Beslan. These attacks were all designed to demonstrate the weakness of Russian security measures, and occurred against the background of political normalisation and elections in Chechnya proper. In 2004 then, breaching security measures at Domodedovo not only caused embarrassment for the Putin administration, it also posed a security dilemma for the Russian authorities.

On this occasion, the explosion occurred in the part of the airport terminal itself. Given that the explosion caused mass casualties, and given that many of those who died or were injured had recently arrived on international flights, it is likely that the attack was designed to garner international news coverage. In short then, yes, in part the attack appears to have been designed to send a message to both the Russian authorities but also to the outside world – that is that the Russian authorities most secure transport hubs could be attacked; that mass casualty attacks have returned to Russia, and more particularly to Moscow and its environs; and that the continued statements about the elimination of rebel groups in North Caucasus has by no means been successful.

In 2010 the Russian authorities had a series of notable successes, killing and capturing key members in the militant underground. In the simplest terms, the attack appears to have been timed to coincide with a trip by the Russian President, Dimtri Medyedev to Davos, at which he was tasked with giving a keynote speech. Meanwhile the attack also occurred against the backdrop of increasing inter-ethnic tensions in Moscow between Caucasian gangs and Russia youth groups.

Whether the international community should read more into the attack then these more localised messages – and whether these groups could adopt a more international agenda – is something of a moot point. The Russian authorities repeatedly claim that rebels in the North Caucasus are intimately linked to Al Qaeda – although little if any evidence of these links has ever been provided. That is not to say that groups in the North Caucasus have not adopted increasingly radical agendas – or indeed, that Chechnya and the North Caucasus have not been viewed by radicals as one focal point in a broader Jihadi movement. Indeed, very small splinter groups and factions from the North Caucasus may well have become involved in a Turkic militant movement – known as the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) – which maintains links to Afghanistan, Turkey, Uzbekistan and parts of Europe. But the aim of this group – and its outlook are international – while the aims of those fighting in the North Caucasus remain focused on a set of localised, indigenous issues. Indeed, the IJU is responsible for radicalisation in the Islamic community in Germany, and may have played a background role – radicalising Islamists and members of the Turkic community in Germany for example in the recent ‘lone wolf’ attack on American pilots near Frankfurt. Importantly though, like the militants in the North Caucasus, the IJU needs to contextualised, if attacks attributed to them are to be properly

3. How come these attacks continue in Russia? Is it a question of a lack of security or a determined force being deployed against them?

I would say it is a bit of both. These attacks have re-emerged in Russia as a new generation of volunteers have come to the fore in the North Caucasus – and while Russia, and the Russian-backed administrations in Ingushetia, Chechnya, Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria maintain a measure of control and security, rebel factions will use attacks against a broader range of targets across Russia. Targets – given Russia’s size – which will be difficult to secure, and which therefore creates a dilemma for the Medyedev administration. These attacks continue in Russia because of internal radicalisation within the movement in the North Caucasus; because a new generation of militants appear to be coming to the fore; because the groups behind the attacks have a willingness and capability; and because it is incredibly difficult to ensure security across such as vast area.

4. One hears more about Dagestan than Chechnya these days when thinking about insurgent extremist movements in Russia: what is behind this shift?

Dagestan is certainly one of two focal point of the insurgency at present (the other being Kabardino-Balkaria). Throughout 2010, a number of audacious attacks occurred in Chechnya, but the form, targets and relentless nature of attacks have wracked Dagestan. On the one hand this results from years of violent pacification and repression in Chechnya – including, of course, two brutal wars. This has done much to destroy any vestiges of the separatist cause which flared up in the early 1990s. On the other hand, poverty and the systematic abuse by the elites in neighbouring republics – in Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan have created the conditions in which a nascent underground movement could not only gain a foothold, but which could also undergo a process of internal radicalisation.

While brutal, the security measures in Ingushetia and Dagestan were piecemeal in 2008 and 2009, compared to the counter-terrorist operations in Chechnya. Corruption, inter-ethnic and inter-clan rivalries, alongside the fact that Dagestan has always hosted a radical militant movement, has meant that it has once again become the centre of the regional insurgency. Freedom of movement has also facilitated this growth in the militant underground in Dagestan. Tellingly, groups in Dagestan and small factions in North Ossetia, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria were relatively quick in pledging allegiance to Dokku Umarov as he sought to reo-organise the militant underground following the death of the Chechen leader Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev. Umarov integrated a host of different commanders into the hierarchy of his movement, shifting the focus of the militant underground away from separatism in Chechnya, to a more radical regional narrative of anti-Russian resistance. This included the adoption of a regional agenda, and gave Umarov a measure of influence over the groups in Dagestan. The slightly younger generation of commanders in Sharia Jamaat in Dagestan pledged allegiance to Umarov, while in Ingushetia the militant underground was led by Emir Magas (Ali Taziyev), a seasoned militant, and Emir Astemirov in Kabardino-Balkaria, a respected scholar and charismatic leader. In Chechnya, seasoned fighters – notably the jamaats led by the Gakaev Brothers – remained in control of the militant underground. Thus, while all pledged some allegiance to Umarov (known by the nom de guerre – Emir Abu Usman), his influence was at its most marked in Dagestan – the groups elsewhere operated in a loosely connected fashion largely orchestrating their own campaigns of resistance, drawing on their own jamaats. In fact, in 2010 a split of sorts also occurred when the jamaats in Chechnya sought to wrest control of the movement from Umarov, in what some experts have labelled a ‘palace coup.’ The relationship between Umarov and the small militant underground in Chechnya remains problematic.

The federal authorities captured Emir Magas and killed Emir Astemirov in 2010, making Dagestan an even more important front in the regional insurgency. In recent months there has also been a shift in tactics by groups in another republic in the North Caucasus – Kabardino-Balkaria. While the former leadership of the jamaats operating in KB advocated the creation of a clandestine support network, launching sporadic attacks, statements by the current leadership have called for a more systematic and violent campaign – which has been borne out by a real upsurge in attacks in the republic.

Dagestan continues to be a focal point of the insurgency at present – the two bombers who struck in Moscow in March 2010 came from Dagestan, and targeted suicide attacks have also continued in the republic, including twin attacks on the 14th of February. Sweep operations targeting militant strongholds continue in Dagestan, while the jamaats therein continue to pose a credible threat to the ruling elite, given that poverty and corruption is rife in the republic.

5. What kind of a role does Islam play in Caucasian groups thinking?

The question of religious influence in the movements in the Caucasus remains something of a moot point. By this I mean that different factions have variously deployed radical Islam – as a rallying cry; as an alternative to Sufi norms; as a way of countering the poverty and corruption in the region – but each group has been sensitive to local conditions. Emir Astemirov retained support because of his theological education, but also because he was a descendant of nobility in Kabardino-Balkaria; Emir Magas, sought to encourage support from the youth in Ingushetia, whether Sufi or if they had a radical agenda, in response to the harsh measures adopted by the Ingush authorities, the poverty and corruption; the jamaats in Chechnya, while radical, retain a focus on fighting in the republic; whereas in Dagestan, the radical strain of Islam has a deeper lineage. And so Islam plays a variety of roles unifying some factions of the resistance; it provides an overarching narrative which has been used to re-organise the insurgency, creating a regional social movement which had its genesis in the inter-war years in Chechnya.

6. Is there a role being played by outside actors in this violence, or is this purely an internal Russian question?

This is perhaps one of the questions which has received the most attention – along with readings (and in many cases mis-readings) of suicide attacks linked to the North Caucasus – but which are largely misunderstood by commentators. Outside actors have always played a role in the violence – although the vast majority have been linked to the broader Diaspora community. As aforementioned, Chechnya became a focal point for jihadis in the latter part of the 1990s, although many foreign jihadis were not accepted, nor became integrated into Chechen military formations. By 2000 many foreign volunteers had left Chechnya, although a staunch group of Arab fighters – numbering a few dozen – did remain in the region and did continue to operate in support of the insurgency. This included Jordanian, Saudi, Kuwati and Yemeni individuals, amongst others. The majority were linked to Ibn Khattab – and included a number of North African militants – although the ranks of the jihadi volunteer movement, including members of Khattab’s inner circle were decimated by 2000. As I have argued elsewhere, a fissure existed in the Salafi-Jiahdi movement in radical circles in the Middle East; in one sense groups in places like Saudi Arabia variously supported foreign fighters in Chechnya, placing Khattab as a traditional jiahdi volunteer fighting the ‘near enemy’ while others, such as the group linked to Bin Laden, targeted the near enemy (See Moore & Tumelty, 2008; Moore & Tumelty, 2009). Although the foreign fighter movement numbered around a few dozen by 2002 (Moore & Tumelty, 2008 & 2009), it has to be contextualised in the context of a broader Diaspora community, which included radical elements that overlapped with the Salafi-Jihadi movement and the indigenous militant movement.

Turkish volunteers also provided active manpower, in support of the then nascent military jamaats. The vast majority of volunteers did, however, come from the ethnic and sub-ethnic groups in the North Caucasus, although again, the number of volunteers remains unclear. The fact that the violence has continued, in varying degrees of intensity for nearly twenty years, indicates that the movements in the region have a social base – and are largely indigenous. Since 2007, the movement has adopted a more regional character – but can only exist through local support.

 

A post over at Free Rad!cals which focuses on the fascinating phenomenon of Lone Wolves. I have a longer article coming out about this later in the month. Keep your eyes out for this, and drop me a note if you find anything interesting about the subject.

It increasingly seems as though the young Kosovar who forced his way onto a bus of US servicemen yesterday at Frankfurt Airport may have had Islamist leanings. Investigators have apparently located his Facebook account and, according Der Spiegel, on it “the young man makes little attempt to conceal his Islamist beliefs.” The question now on security services minds is whether he is a Lone Wolf or a Lone Attacker.

The distinction is an important one to make. If he is a Lone Wolf, then he is likely going to be a one-off crazy who for reasons which will become the focus of much speculation in the near-future, decided to launch an attack on a bus load of US service people. If instead he proves to be a Lone Attacker, then he might be the beginning of a wave of attacks or plots which might finally be Al Qaeda or affiliated groups carrying out (or attempting to carry out) the long-awaited Mumbai-style attack that security forces have been dreading. And which he is will very much determine how security services respond.

Aftermath of the Attack at Frankfurt Airport (Courtesy of AP)

What does seem clear, however, is that the notion of the lone jihadist warrior has been normalized, in every sense of the word. Over Christmas, Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly tried to carry out an attack in Stockholm. There has been all sorts of speculation about his contacts with Al Qaeda in Iraq, but it remains unclear what role they played in his attempt. Last year we saw Roshonara Choudhry attempt to kill an MP seemingly with no outside instigation beyond what she found online, and then a week ago we saw federal agents in Texas grab Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, a Saudi student in Lubbock, Texas who was on his way to building a bomb. Again, there is at this stage no evidence he had any outside drivers.

And the list goes on. But the point is that it seems as though individual jihadists is increasingly the norm, be they ones sent and connected to organizations or ones who decide to move forwards of their own volition. This is not to say we have seen the end of larger-scale plots: soon after Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly blew himself up in Stockholm, police in the UK swooped and arrested a network of mostly British-Bangladeshi’s who it was claimed were plotting to attack a large site in London. And soon after that, Danish police disrupted another plot to attack Jyllands Posten with a team of people armed with firepower.

So the age of ambitious attacks and plots has by no means ended, but it seems as though increasingly the one-man terror team – either dispatched by a group or self-started – is becoming the norm. This presents a complicated threat for a number reasons, but how we address and then define this problem is increasingly going to be a focus of attention.

Later this month, ICSR will publish a paper by Raff offering a typology of Lone Wolves.

 

A slightly longer post for Free Rad!cals looking at the Shabaab’s new television channel and trying to explore its gradual evolution towards international violence. I have a longer piece on the topic of Shabaab and foreign fighters coming up soon for Jane’s.

A Threat Coming to Your TV Screen

In September last year, the Director General of the Security Service (MI5) made a speech in which he highlighted,

In Somalia, for example, there are a significant number of UK residents training in al-Shabaab camps to fight in the insurgency there. al-Shabaab, an Islamist militia in Somalia, is closely aligned with al-Qaeda and Somalia shows many of the characteristics that made Afghanistan so dangerous as a seedbed for terrorism in the period before the fall of the Taliban. There is no effective government, there is a strong extremist presence and there are training camps attracting would be jihadists from across the world.

This speech was the latest proof of high-level concern about the Islamist al-Shabaab (the youth) militia in Somalia, which has evolved quite rapidly from regional insurgency to aspirant regional al-Qaeda affiliate. The most recent evidence of its evolution was the revelation last week that the group both had a new logo and was launching its own television channel. As the official press release put it,

The “al-Kataib News Channel” came to teach.. to tell.. and to incite.. in honor of the martyrs who covered battlefields with their blood in various fronts; east and west, south and north. This came in defense of the victories of the Mujahideen who broke the pride of the infidel West, scattered its papers and made their senior commanders lose their minds. This in support of the Muwahideen’s patience and persistence in the land of pride.

This news comes in the wake of a continuing escalation in activity from the group. I have written in the past about the group in a number of different formats, each highlighting different aspects of the group’s morph from regional insurgent to global actor. It has gone from being one amongst many in the civil war in Somalia, to being an actor able to launch attacks first in semi-autonomous Puntland, to being able and willing to launch attacks in neighboring Uganda, to maybe even being connected to international attacks. There has been an almost constant digest of stories of al-Qaeda leaders hiding out amongst the group in East Africa, rhetorical video exchanges between al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab, and evidence of other al-Qaeda affiliates moving to set up shop in Somalia. On the ground, stories point to the group’s increasing extremism and imposition of Shariah law, now a television channel, and all the while it seems able to draw a wide community of foreigners to its ranks.

International Threat? Members of al-Shabaab in Training

The trajectory it seems to be headed is an attack on the international stage. As Evans put it, the group ‘shows many of the characteristics that made Afghanistan so dangerous as a seedbed for terrorism,’ and consequently it understandable that it is high on the list of threats that keeps him up at night. But at the same time, the question that should be asked is whether we are wishing ourselves towards a conclusion that in fact is not in the interests of the group?

Yes, it does seem as though the Shabaab’s trajectory is invariably taking it towards attacking the West, and at least one of its leaders has openly threatened America. As Omar Hammami, aka Abu Mansour,put it to the New York Times, “it’s quite obvious that I believe America is a target.”

But why would the group attack the West? On the one hand it would give it a greater profile and prestige, all which would invariably bring it a greater degree of support and contacts, but at the same time such an attack would bring the additional nuisance of foreign interference and attention. It already has a great deal, but compared to AQAP or AQ core in Waziristan it remains a secondary issue for western counter-terrorists. So much so that aspiring Western fighters wanting to go to jihad consider Somalia an easier place to go than the other jihadi battlefields. As far as Western security services are concerned, the greatest concern is from radicalised networks affiliated with the group that chose to move into action in their home states, rather than going to Somalia to fight. Examples of this would be in Denmark in the case of young Somali-Dane who tried to kill Kurt Westegaard, one of the cartoonists responsible for the infamous Mohammed cartoons, and the cell in Australia who were trying to get to Somalia, but failed and instead decided to try to do something at home. In addition, there is the mixed group in Demark who were apparently targeting Jyllands-Posten, and at least one of whom had tried to link up with Somali networks in the past.

But in all three cases, it is unclear to what degree al-Shabaab central command was involved. This does not mean that they are absolved of activity outside Somalia – certainly the Kampala attack seems to have had a high degree of Shabaab involvement – but it remains uncertain that the group wants to start attacks in the west. The risk it would seem is from radicalized networks who decide to do things at home of their own volition (like the Australian or Danish networks), or might be coopted by groups like Al Qaeda to carry out attacks in the west (maybe the mixed network of attackers in Denmark).

This nonetheless means the group is a threat, but it is different from the threat posed by groups whose leadership appears to have made a conscious decision to attack the west. At the moment its attacks outside Somali borders have focused on nations involved in the AMISOM force, rather than any “kaffir” state. The danger is that we wish ourselves into facing a threat from the group by focusing too much attention on it. While it seems clear that radicalized networks are a threat, it is not clear that the group itself is eager to launch attacks against the west. This is not to say that it might not happen (I am wary of making any concrete assumptions, aware of how these groups mutate and how easy it is for affiliate networks to be coopted by others), but it is unclear that we are there yet in terms of core command targeting cities in America or Europe.

The Director General of MI5 seems very aware of this, and chose his words carefully about the group. “I am concerned that it is only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside al-Shabaab,” is how he put it. But maybe this should be more delicately put saying “connected” rather than “inspired.” The point is not that the group is not dangerous or a threat, but that it is not quite at the stage of being an AQAP or AQ core threat. To think strategically it would seem as though we need to find a better way by which to assess which affiliates are direct and indirect threats and what are the signs they are moving in an increasingly dangerous direction. All of which might help identify what moves might be made to send them down a different path.