Archive for the ‘Hurst’ Category

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

Al-Muhajiroun and the simmering divisions in British society

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

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


From Hurst and Getty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


From Hurst and Getty.

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

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


From Hurst and Getty

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

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

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


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

Advertisements

A new post for my publisher’s blog, exploring the connections between extremist leader Masood Azhar and his links to the UK. Am quite pleased with this piece which has a bunch of new information in it, and will give people a further taster of what’s in the book! Some more on this topic landing soon from a slightly different angle.

Maulana Masood Azhar in the British Jihad

January 24, 2013   |   Raffaello Pantucci

Maqbool Butt

Maqbool Butt

Kashmir has always played an interesting role in Britain’s jihad. From its earliest days, the presence in the UK of a substantial Kashmiri population meant issues in the Indian sub-continent were important in the UK as well. Most prominently, in 1984, a group of Kashmiris abducted and murdered Rhavindra Mhatre, a diplomat serving at the Indian Consulate in Birmingham. Their demands included the release of imprisoned Kashmiri leader Maqbool Butt, who was instead executed by the Indian government in retribution. In later years, as tensions slowly escalated, a growing number of young Britons were drawn to the fight, following the streams of money that had long filtered from the UK to Kashmiri jihadi groups. In time, this well-trodden path became a direct line to al Qaeda, culminating in the attacks of 7 July 2005.

Fostering connections with the UK was important for Kashmiri groups (and for Pakistani political parties in general, most of whom had and still have offices in the UK). Leaders would regularly come to the UK to rattle fundraising cups and seek moral support. One individual who made this peregrination was Maulana Masood Azhar, a portly bespectacled preacher and the son of a Bahawalpur religious studies teacher, Master Allah Baksh Sabir Alvi. Born to a religious family in 1968, Azhar undertook the study of Islam from an early age. At four he was given awards for his capacity to recite long tracts from the Koran and was sent to the Darul Uloom Islamia Binori Town in Karachi—a centre of Deobandi learning. From here he slowly moved up the ladder, travelling to Afghanistan before taking on a prominent role as editor of the magazine Sadai Mujahid(‘Voice of the Mujahid’) that extolled the virtues of jihad in Afghanistan and then later Kashmir. In February 1994 he was captured by Indian forces in Kashmir and spent six years in jail before he was freed as part of a deal to obtain the release of a planeload of mostly Indian passengers on their way to Nepal.

Released alongside Azhar was a young Briton named Omar Saeed Sheikh, an LSE graduate, who had sought to fight alongside jihadists in Bosnia in the early 1990s. There he met a Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen fighter (HuM—Masood Azhar’s then outfit) who re-directed him to Kashmir. Upon arrival he attended a training camp in Waziristan near Miranshah where in late 1993 he met Masood Azhar. Seeing some particular value in the Briton, Azhar instructed him to try to obtain a visa to enter India—something Sheikh had difficulty with due to his dual citizenship. Foiled, he returned to the UK and applied for a British passport to replace his Pakistani one and was able to get a visa into India. Once in India he helped HuM attempt a number of kidnappings of foreigners to be held hostage in exchange for detained HuM fighters, until he was caught by Indian police (who stumbled across the cell holding the hostages while on a different mission). Later freed alongside Azhar, he became notorious when in 2003 he was arrested for his role in the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. He is still sitting on death row in Pakistan for this crime.

It seems possible that Azhar may have encountered Sheikh earlier. According to some accounts, Azhar knew Sheikh’s father and had met him on a trip to the UK—a trip Azhar may have made to seek support for HuM from Britain’s pro-Kashmir community. How many of these trips Azhar made is unclear, but it seems certain that he went at least once to the UK and spent some time in Birmingham as well as East London. In Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clarke’s recent book, The Meadow, they describe him meeting another young British man and future jihadist in Birmingham, Rashid Rauf. Arriving in Birmingham, Azhar is described as having befriended Rauf’s father Abdul, a baker, former shariah judge in Pakistan and prominent local supporter of the struggle in Kashmir. According to Levy and Scott-Clarke, Abdul Rauf introduced Azhar to ‘his rootless teenage son, Rashid, whom he said was in need of a mentor.’ Many years later in 2002, Rauf would flee the UK after being sought by police in relation to the murder of an uncle. In Pakistan he headed straight to Azhar’s hometown Bahawalpur where he married Azhar’s sister-in-law, the daughter of a prominent local madrassa head. He went on to become an important al Qaeda leader.

Other accounts from Azhar’s trip around the UK describe him as being a passionate and emotive speaker with women taking off their jewelry and handing it over to support the cause in Kashmir after listening to his speeches. The inspirational effect of Azhar’s speeches reportedly transcended linguistic barriers. Waheed Ali, a young Bangladeshi friend of July 7 bomber Shehzad Tanweer, reported that the two boys, from Beeston (near Leeds), would sit around and listen to tapes of Azhar’s speeches that had been given to them at the local Iqra bookshop. Ali said he only understood a little Urdu and was reliant on his friend Tanweer to translate. As Ali put it, ‘I can understand a little bit but what used to happen is me and Kaki [Tanweer] used to listen to it and what he’d do, he’d pause and he’d explain to me what he just said, yeah, and because Maulana Masood Azhar has got a really eloquent way of speaking and he used to be really, you know, like fiery and everything, yeah, so it sounds really nice and Kaki used to explain to me what he said.’

Azhar’s influence over the wider cell around the July 7 group, including the Operation Crevice group who were jailed in 2006 for their role in plotting an attack using a massive fertilizer bomb in Bluewater, is again intelligible in the accounts from a 2003 training camp in Malakand, Pakistan, given by Mohammed Junaid Babar. At this camp, alongside the Crevice plotters, was the leader of the July 7 cell, Mohammed Siddique Khan, and Mohammed Shakil, another Beestonite who helped with the Iqra bookshop and who was later jailed alongside Waheed Ali for trying to attend a training camp in Pakistan in 2007. According to Babar’s account, at this camp the group exercised, fired AK-47s and RPGs and, to wind down, would sit around and read aloud from Masood Azhar’s famous book The Virtues of Jihad. That the young men knew of Azhar is unsurprising. Khan and Ali had first come to Pakistan to train at a HuM camp in 2001, just before 9/11. In Ali’s account they were met at the airport by a vehicle festooned with HuM stickers before being taken by the organization to their camp in Manshera (and later to a base in Afghanistan). In 1999, as part of a year out from university, Mohammed Shakil spent some time in Kashmir near his family’s hometown and spent three days at a low-level training camp. Later that same year, Omar Khyam, the head of the Crevice cell who later helped establish the camp with Mohammed Junaid Babar, ran away from home, telling his parents he was on a school trip to France, when he instead went to join the struggle in Kashmir. His parents ended up sending an aged relation to persuade him to come home, where, he claims, he was welcomed as a hero.

But while Kashmir may have been the bait that drew the young Britons in, Azhar’s specific appeal to the young British jihadists was the fact that he seemed to transcend the often corrupt and confusing struggle in Kashmir, riddled with spies, intrigue and manipulation. In a book which describes his experiences fighting alongside Kashmiri warriors in the mid-1990s, Dhiren Barot, a British Hindu of Gujarati extraction who converted to Islam and fought in Kashmir, to later connect with al Qaeda’s senior leadership, compares Azhar to Abdullah Azzam. A Palestinian jihadi scholar who acted as one of the prime recruiters for the Afghan jihad, Azzam remains an inspirational figure to jihadists the world over. In his book, The Army of Madinah in Kashmir, Dhiren Barot (writing under the pseudonym Esa al Hindi) says ‘Sheikh Mohammed Mas’ood Azhar is one of the few revivers of Jihad in our time who mirrors in the Indian sub-continent what Abdullah Azzam was to the Arab world. His works in many languages have greatly inspired men and women in realizing the low state of the Muslim people and its duty to revive itself through jihad.’

By the end of the book, Barot seems to have taken against the struggle in Kashmir, worried that brave jihadis are being lost in a struggle manipulated by people with darker agendas. The shout-out to Azhar therefore is all the more significant, highlighting Azhar’s appeal to the community beyond Kashmiri nationalists. This appeal was still visible almost a decade later when in January 2006 Umm Musab al-Gharib, aka the ‘Lyrical Terrorist’ or Samina Malik, posted Azhar’s book (the same one read at the Malakand camp), The Virtues of Jihad, onto popular Muslim forum www.forums.islamicawakening.com, adding the note ‘it will be of benefit to you all.’ Malik, whose conviction for ‘possessing records likely to be used for terrorism’ was eventually overturned, was in contact with Sohail Qureishi, a dental assistant who was arrested as he tried to go abroad to fight in Pakistan. Other groups from the UK, like the wider cell around Bradford native Aabid Khan, saw Azhar’s Jaish-e-Mohammed group as a good first point of contact when seeking to go fight in Pakistan. Apparently connected to the group, it is believed that Aabid Khan may have been a vetter for the organization, helping to identify suitable candidates to fight alongside it among the over-excited young westerners who drifted to Pakistan seeking jihad in the wake of 9/11.

Azhar is also believed to be responsible for dispatching Britain’s first known suicide bomber. On Christmas in 2000, 24 year old Birmingham native Asif Sadiq, using the pseudonym Mohammed Bilal, drove a car packed with explosives into a checkpoint outside an Indian army base in Kashmiri capital Srinagar, killing nine. Claimed by the newly-founded Jaish-e-Mohammed, the bombing (the first suicide attack in Srinagar) marked the violent birth of the new jihadist organization that Azhar established upon his release from Indian jail with Pakistani backing. Back in the UK, attention-seeking cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed (whose organization al Muhajiroun features as a backdrop to the radicalization of many of the Britons mentioned in this article) stated that his organization regularly sent ‘freedom fighters’ to Kashmir and that a group of 23-24 year olds had made this trip two weeks before Christmas. He thought it ‘quite possible’ that one of them had been involved in the Srinagar attack.

While Bakri Mohammed’s comments need to be taken with a pinch of salt, Azhar’s deadly intent and influence over young Britons, drawn to Kashmir and jihad, is unmistakable. And as time passed and Azhar’s group slowly faded, the connection that he helped nurture seems to have passed seamlessly over to al Qaeda. The archetypal example of this is Rashid Rauf, who Azhar was allegedly asked to mentor as a young man and who later married Azhar’s sister-in-law. Having re-connected with Azhar in 2002, Rauf seems to have moved effortlessly into al Qaeda’s ranks, going on to act as the coordinator for the July 7 attack, one of the key masterminds of the August 2006 plot to bring down about eight airliners on transatlantic routes (the plot that means we are still unable to take liquids onto planes) and involved in a whole series of later plots targeting the UK and US. Rauf is now believed to be dead, killed by a drone strike in November 2008 as he plotted with al Qaeda to carry out an attack on the New York subway.

What Azhar would have made of his young protégé’s demise is unknown. In fact, specifics on what Azhar is doing now are unclear. Wikileak’s Cablegate revealed that in late 2009 the Indian government had pushed for adding him to the list of known terrorists held by the UN, but this was stalled by Chinese objections—presumably to support their close allies in Islamabad. He remains at large in Pakistan regularly delivering speeches and with active personal and organization (Jaish-e-Mohammed) Facebook pages online. In late 2011 the fundraising wing of the group, the al Rahmat Trust, was identified as having made a push to raise money in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. But since the revelation in May 2011 that the Indian government continue to believe Azhar is at large in Pakistan, little more has been heard about him. For the UK, however, this is a moot point. Azhar has long since moved on from being directly implicated in Britain’s jihad, acting instead as an inspirational figurehead whose jihadi writings have entered the canon of required reading. Watching his slow transition into this role and his influence on the development of Britain’s jihad highlights the sometimes confusing role that Kashmir has played in its development.

Nowadays, jihad in Kashmir is a shadow of its former self. Largely burned out after the brutal battles of the 1990s, the struggle remains an issue, but it is no longer the focus amongst Britain’s jihadi community. Many of the young men initially drawn to it walked away disillusioned by the degree of influence the intelligence services held over it and how geopolitical games were being played by brave idealistic souls seeking to fight in God’s name to protect the Muslim ummah. But as the conflict wound down, as Dhiren Barot correctly predicted in his book, ‘there will of a surety be those who will feel cheated, humiliated and let down.’ And they developed into the community that connected with al Qaeda to launch repeated attacks against the West and helped kindle a civil war in Pakistan that rages to this day. While Masood Azhar may have gone into seclusion since his 1990s hey-day, his rhetorical influence can still be felt and his key role in bringing jihad to the UK seems clearer than ever.

A longer post for a new outlet, the blog of my excellent English publisher, Hurst. Draws on material that I have gone into in much more depth in the text of my book, and touches upon the theme of Shabaab’s use of media for recruitment that I have written about before (and am working on a bit at the moment as well).

The Ballads of Global Jihad

When 17-year old Saajid Badat first moved to London in 1997 he was given a cassette tape – still a popular medium then – by some new friends he had made in Tooting. Called ‘In the Hearts of Green Birds’ and produced by Azzam Publications, the tape relayed the stories of jihadist warriors who had fallen fighting for the Muslim ummah in Bosnia. An impressionable young man who had attained the status of hafiz (memorised the Koran) by the time he was twelve, Badat was moved by the stories he heard on the tape and ‘tried to meet with different people with similar view in respect of jihad.’ Within a year, he used these same contacts to go and train, setting him down a path which in 2001 led him to agree to be deployed by al Qaeda as one half of a ‘shoe bomb’ suicide mission targeting transatlantic flights. In the event, Badat backed out at the last minute, while his co-conspirator Richard Reid attempted to bring down a Paris-Miami flight.

Stories and myths have always been important in the history of Britain’s jihad, be they delivered by cassette, video or in written form. In the 1990s at Abu Hamza’s Finsbury Park mosque, young men would crowd around and watch videos from the front in Algeria or Chechnya. Up in Beeston, young Waheed Ali, who later attended a training camp in Pakistan with Mohammed Siddique Khan (one of the four men who carried out the 7th July 2005 London bombings), recalled getting videos of fighting from a friend at the Iqra bookshop in Beeston and taking them round to his friend Shehzad Tanweer’s house. ‘Watching the brothers fighting in Chechnya against the Russians…was really inspirational.’ As he later told a courtroom, ‘it really brought a sense of brotherhood to a different level [….] if you get a Chechen Muslim or you get a Russian civilian you can’t tell the difference, they both look the same and you’re getting one people who are annihilating another people and you’re getting Muslims from all round the world, Arabs, you’re getting Pakistanis, you’re getting Africans going to Chechnya, a foreign land, to help their Muslim brothers and it was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe it. I thought ‘this is beautiful’. Ali was eventually jailed for trying to return to a training camp in Pakistan in 2007.

Others found motivation in books, like that written by Dhiren Barot, a convert who in the mid 1990s left his job working for an airline in London to go and fight alongside Kashmiri jihadists. He later wrote up his experience in a book called The Army of Madinah in Kashmir that has featured repeatedly among the collections of men jailed for terrorism in the UK. Clearly impressed by the author’s experiences, the anonymous editor Abu Umamah tells readers in the preface, ‘what is most unusual about this book is the author himself. It is so rare for people in our age to take on the struggle for the sake of Allah. So imagine someone who comes from a non-Muslim background, struggling first against himself, then those around him from friends and family to take on the most noble of duties in Allah’s cause’.

The importance of these narratives has not shrunk and extremist groups abroad have become adept at producing accessible material that tell glorious hagiographies and of a united ummah fighting against oppression. Al-Shabaab has become particularly good at this, producing videos that look professionally made, highlighting what the group has achieved in Somalia. Most recently, they released what promises to be the first in a series called ‘The Life under the Shade of Islamic Sharia in Somalia.’ Produced by al-Khataib (which translates as the person who delivers the sermon), the film was made in the style of a documentary about what life was like under sharia law in Baidoa, a city Shabaab used to control. In the film we see the English-speaking narrator (with a slight foreign accent, but clearly someone who has spent considerable time in the UK), acting like a documentary narrator on the BBC ‘travelling back to find out’ more about how Baidoa fared under al-Shabaab rule. He talks to the camera, poses against the backdrop of scenes of battles he is describing, and conducts on-screen interviews with citizens. Preceding his trip to Baidoa with a brief history lesson, we hear about dictator Siad Barre whose socialist republic collapsed in 1991, leading to a period in which, he tells us, the country descended into tribal conflicts and warlordism with Ethiopian funding.

Animosity towards Ethiopia is something that pervades the video and the more general Shabaab narrative; a majority Christian country that is repeatedly accused of being a crusader army come to oppress Somalia’s Muslim community – either with outside support or simply for its own nefarious reasons. Talking to a Somali social worker in Ealing on the topic of Shabaab a few years ago, I was surprised to hear first-hand about the strength of the Ethiopian invasion as a narrative that spurred anger among young Somalis. The importance of this narrative to Shabaab in particular can be seen in a recorded telephone conversation from August 2010 between two Somali-Swede’s accused of fundraising and recruiting for the group: ‘the diaspora helped us before, when the Ethiopians came, so that we could drive them away…because they hated Ethiopia so much…when they left, then came the Ugandans….but they hate the Ethiopians more than the Ugandans…they have never heard of the Ugandans…and now we get no help because they do not know what the war is about.’ Without this narrative to tap, the men were having difficulty raising money from the community in Scandinavia.

Hence the need to produce videos explaining their narrative and highlighting successes, and the narrator’s trip to sharia-governed Baidoa to show what Shabaab are achieving. In the video, he goes around like a reporter interviewing shop owners (one of whom breaks off during the interview to go to prayer) and asking locals what they think of sharia rule. We visit madrassas filled with eager children learning the Koran and see teams of religious police wandering around the city during prayer time to make sure everyone has closed business and gone to pray. At other times we see a bustling city apparently thriving under the group’s control with markets and new construction sites, all courtesy of foreign investment that has supposedly come to the city in the wake of the stability al-Shabaab had brought. A big point is made of talking about the role that women play in the markets – in supposed contrast to the evil democratic narrative that says they are oppressed under sharia – though at no point are we shown any women’s faces.

This particular narrative may be new and unique to the Somali situation, but there are universal elements in the video and other Shabaab productions that hearken back to earlier videos. The Chechen and Bosnian videos were infamous for their depiction of butchered civilians and while the Shabaab videos are not quite as gruesome, we see a Shabaab warrior showing us a selection of skulls that are purportedly civilians beheaded by Ethiopian soldiers. In contrast to the earlier Chechen videos, however, these ones are less bloodthirsty. In ‘Russian Hell’ – also an Azzam production – it is relatively common to see mujahedeen fighters cutting the throats of Russian prisoners and executing them for the camera. Shabaab chooses a tamer version of the violence, something likely learned from the experiences of other groups where the excessively visible spilling of blood had a negative effect on the general perception of the group.

We also see clips of heroic fallen fighters – Abu Ayyub, Britain’s first suicide bomber in Somalia, is venerated in the video and we see a clip from the film he recorded prior to driving a truck bomb into an Ethiopian checkpoint in October 2007. And throughout the documentary we see footage of fighters talking to the camera, some of whose names are followed up with ‘may Allah accept him.’ This is an almost exact replica of earlier videos and cassettes where we see and hear footage of fallen fighters with a brief description of where they are from and their victorious actions. Supposedly the first in a series, the film is one of a number the group has produced, though it is of unusually high quality.

But heroes are not only conjured through film. In much the same way that Dhiren Barot wrote his story as a warrior in Kashmir, young American Omar Hamammi wrote an autobiography which he self-published online. Telling his life story as a young American in Alabama who found religion and then ran away to Egypt with his Canadian-Somali wife and then on with a friend to Somalia, the book is intended as an inspiration to others to follow in his path. He does not stint from telling about the difficulties encountered, but it is all painted in the manner of an exciting adventure in which our intrepid hero gets by on his wits. At the end of the text (which promises sequels by calling itself ‘The story of an American Jihaadi Part One’), Hammami undertakes an interview with a fellow extremist looking in some depth at some of the questions raised in the text and the justifications of what he is doing. He also reveals himself during the book to be a prolific strategist, claiming to be ‘Abu Jihad al-Shami,’ the author of four previous texts about jihad in Somalia.

The impact of these narratives is hard to judge in absolute terms. Looking back at the 1990s and the impact of the videos from Algeria, Bosnia and Chechnya, it is easy to see the influence they had in helping inspire young men to go and find out what jihad was about and how they could participate. Bosnia in particular had a transformative effect on the British Muslim narrative. Nowadays the narrative of jihad and fighting for the Muslim community in faraway lands is fairly well known, with most having at least a cursory knowledge of what it is about simply by looking in the media. But stories with heroic figures are important and showing potential fighters that what they are signing up for is a righteous adventure in a foreign land rather than an anonymous death by drone strike is essential if these groups are to maintain the flow of support and attention from the affluent west.

The importance of such material was highlighted recently in a series of cases in the London where Shabaaz Hussain from Stepney pled guilty to sending more than £9,000 to a group who had gone to fight in Somalia. According to the prosecution, his home was ‘practically dripping’ with radical material, including jihadist manifestos, speeches by Osama bin Laden and recordings of hook-handed preacher Abu Hamza. A pair of identical twins, Mohammed Shabir Ali and Mohammed Shakif Ali, were later convicted on similar charges. They had sent £3,000 to Somalia through Hussain. For these two, the narrative of what was going on in Somalia was particularly personal, as their brother Shamim Ali had gone to fight in Somalia in 2008. Among their possessions was a recording of a call he had made to them from abroad appealing for money – according to the prosecutor, he told them ‘the need is relayed by their brother for fighters to dedicate their lives to jihad, and if needs be to sacrifice life.’ Ali is believed to still be in Somalia, while his two brothers face another year of incarceration for sending him money to fight the war. The story of jihad in Somalia appealed to these men, something reinforced in the twin’s case through the direct involvement of their brother.

The threat from new battlefields like Somalia is one that keeps British security services awake at night. As MI5 head Jonathan Evans put it in June, ‘al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel have become more dangerous as al Qaeda in Pakistan has declined….in back rooms and in cars and on the streets of this country there is no shortage of individuals talking about wanting to mount terrorist attacks here.’ These individuals are motivated and inspired by stories from the battlefields, either as books, videos or recordings. In the religious conflict these groups see themselves at the vanguard of, epic stories and myths are essential to maintain support and draw others into the fray. And while the stories may come from new locations, their underlying intention remains the same and their impact can be measured in the continuing arrests and convictions we see in Europe and North America. As long as jihadi stories find an audience, radical groups will find a voice and weave mythical legends for young Britons to emulate. Stories will remain a crucial part of the British jihad.