Archive for the ‘ELECTRONIC JOURNALS’ Category

A very short piece for an excellent Central Asian regional newsletter called the Conway Bulletin looking at Pakistan and India possibly joining the SCO.

SCO Expansion Should Not Threaten the West

Expanding the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) will strain its functions but could boost trade and relations between Central Asia and South Asia, writes Raffaello Pantucci.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has achieved remarkably little in its decade plus life.

Established formally in 2001, it grew out of a regional grouping aimed at seeking to define China’s borders with the former Soviet Union. Over time, it has expanded beyond its immediate neighbourhood to include countries as distant at Belarus and Sri Lanka as ‘dialogue partners’.

The current push to welcome both India and Pakistan is likely to further test the organisation’s already limited capability. The practical implications for Central Asia are unlikely to be dramatic, though in the longer term it may help bind Central and South Asia closer together and foster a greater sense of community across the Eurasian heartland.
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In practical terms, the SCO has always been a fairly limited organisation. Seen initially by Russia as a way of controlling Chinese activity in Central Asia, for Beijing it has provided a useful umbrella under which to pursue their stealthy expansion in the region. For Central Asian powers, it provided another format in which to engage their larger neighbours. While the primary thrust of its activity has been in the security space, China has regularly sought to push it in an economic direction.

Yet, at the same time, all of the countries involved have largely pursued their own national interests through other pathways. The most recent demonstration was the establishment by
Beijing of the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM). Focused on
managing the security threats from Afghanistan, the QCCM in many ways replicates a function which one would have expected the SCO to deliver.

The addition of Pakistan and India to the grouping is unlikely to change this dynamic.

All of the nations involved in the SCO will continue to function through their own bilateral and other multilateral engagements. But it will offer another forum in which India and Pakistan are obliged to interact and will also help further tie Central and South Asia together. These ties have been growing for some time. Kazakhstan has expressed an interest in participating in the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Indian President Narendra Modi visited Central Asia last year.

If India and Pakistan join the SCO, it will further help tie them together.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the London-based Royal United Service Institute (RUSI).

A new piece for the CTC Sentinel looking at recent terrorist attack planning in the UK, trying to identify the specific nature of the threats. For the most part, there has been little evidence at trial of direct attack planning though it certainly is something that lurks in the background of a couple. Undoubtedly a topic there will sadly be more on as time goes forwards.

The Islamic State Threat to Britain: Evidence from Recent Terror Trials

March 17, 2016

Author(s): Raffaello Pantucci

While clearly at the top of the Islamic State’s targeting list, the United Kingdom so far has been spared from any major terrorist atrocities at home with direct links to the Islamic State. A review of the trials of those accused of terrorist plotting in the country between 2013 and 2015 reveals that the violent Islamist threat picture has instead been dominated by lone-actor plots, with some demonstrating connections of some sort to individuals on the battlefield in Syria or Iraq. Going forward, however, the threat is likely to become more acute as the Islamic State pivots toward international terror.

In the wake of November’s terrorist attack in Paris, a series of Islamic State videos suggested the United Kingdom was next on the target list.[1] For British officials, the threat was not new. As British Prime Minister David Cameron put it days after the Paris attack, “Our security services have stopped seven attacks in the last six months, albeit on a smaller scale.”[2] Earlier this month, Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, who oversees counterterrorism efforts for the London Metropolitan Police, warned, “In recent months we’ve seen a broadening of that—much more plans to attack Western lifestyle, going from that narrow focus on police and military as symbols of the state to something much broader. And you see a terrorist group which has big ambitions for enormous and spectacular attacks, not just the types that we’ve seen foiled to date.”[3]

This article takes stock of the threat to the United Kingdom, drawing on court documents of recent British terror trials of those accused of plotting between 2013 and 2015. Currently, most of the cases that have passed through Britain’s courts have not shown clear evidence of Islamic State direction, though the plots covered in these cases for the most part predate the group’s active surge of international plotting last year that culminated in the Paris attacks in November. Up to this point, most plotting seen in the United Kingdom appears to demonstrate an ideological affinity to the Islamic State, with most plots fitting the lone-actor model and having no clear command and control from Islamic State operatives in Syria and Iraq. Going forward, however, security officials see a growing, direct threat from the Islamic State, with Richard Walton, the former head of the Metropolitan Police’s Counter-terrorism Command, stating in January, “We are concerned about Daesh’s external ambitions to project their terror overseas rather than them just trying to consolidate their so-called caliphate.”[4][a]

Alleged Instigation Overseas: The Erol Incedal Case 
In October 2013, as part of a series of coordinated arrests, four men were detained for allegedly plotting to launch a “Mumbai-style” attack in London. Two men were released soon afterward while Erol Incedal, a British passport holder of Turkish-Alawite descent, and Mounir Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, a British-Algerian were brought to trial. Rarmoul-Bouhadjar pleaded guilty to possession of a bomb-making manual and was sentenced to three years in prison while Incedal instead chose to fight the charges against him. In a first for the British judicial system, the trial was held partially under secret circumstances for reasons that were not publicly revealed.

The public part of this trial shed light on the accused’s travels and contacts. In late 2012 the two men tried to reach Syria through Turkey. Rather than getting across the border, however, they ended up in a safe house in Hatay full of people “engaged somewhat in the resistance against Assad.”[5] Here they met “Ahmed,” a British-Yemeni extremist who would become a key figure in the prosecution’s case. Ahmed had spent time in France, and he claimed to have fled to the Syrian-Turkish border area as he felt under pressure from security services in the United Kingdom. In court, Incedal described him as having ‘“sympathies with the global jihad”[6] though Incedal was also quick to highlight that he was angry at the West since some of his family members had reportedly been killed in drone strikes in Yemen.

By early March Incedal and Rarmoul-Bouhadjar were bored of the inactivity at the safe house and told Ahmed they were going to head back to the United Kingdom. According to Incedal, Ahmed told them, ““Bruv, you know, you are going back, I wish, you know, you could do something in the UK” do some – he actually said “shit,” “do some shit in the UK, blow these guys up” and, you know, basically do an attack in the UK.””[7] In court Incedal stated that Ahmed’s view was not shared by all in the safe house. “The majority of the people there were thinking more specific to Syria and not worried about the West,” he testified. Nevertheless, Ahmed apparently saw value in the men back in the United Kingdom, telling them, “It would be nice to keep in touch and maybe you can help us in this global cause in the U.K.”[8]

Once back in the United Kingdom, the men entered into a world of semi-criminal activity and partying. An Azerbaijani friend named Ruslan who was connected to wealthy Azeris provided them with an entrée into London’s high life. Incedal appears to have been close to the sons of the Egyptian extremist cleric Abu Hamza, who, according to Incedal, were now involved in post office robberies “because their father [had] given them the right to do it.”[9] Incedal appears to have considered ways of working with them and of raising money to buy guns for protection during drug deals.[10] During this time, Incedal appears to have maintained contact with Ahmed (who was either in Turkey or Syria) through Skype conversations during which they discussed sourcing weapon “straps,” getting detonators sent to the United Kingdom from Syria, and whether Rarmoul-Bouhadjar still remembered any bomb-making training he had received at the safe house.[11]

In the end the jury cleared Incedal of the charges of plotting a terrorist attack, he was found guilty of possessing a bomb-making manual and sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison.[12] Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, who had pleaded guilty to the same charge, served some time in prison and was discharged on restrictive release.

In the second half of 2014, British authorities disrupted several separate plots involving attack planning. The missing element from this cluster of cells, however, was clear direction from the Islamic State, though there were clear sympathies.

Stay-at-Home Jihadi: The Brusthom Ziamani Case
The first of these cases was that of Brusthom Ziamani, an 18-year-old extremist known as Mujahid Karim, from Peckham in south London. Raised a Jehovah’s Witness, Ziamani was thrown out of his family’s home after converting to Islam. He subsequently moved (or moved deeper) into the orbit of al Muhajiroun, a British extremist grouping supportive of the Islamic State. In June 2014 he was arrested on an unrelated charge, and during a search of his belongings police found a letter addressed to his parents in which he declared:

“Because I have no means ov gettin there [Syria and Iraq] I will wage war against the british government on this soil the british government will have a taste ov there own medicine they will be humiliated this is ISIB Islamic States of Ireland and Britain.”[13]

Under interview he confirmed that the letter was his but denied he was planning an attack in the United Kingdom. He praised Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, the murderers of the British soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich in May 2013, and stated that the letters were “written in case he went abroad and died fighting there, or if the U.K. became an Islamic state, in which case he would join in the uprising.[14] He was bailed, and officials working in the British government’s deradicalization program “Prevent” repeatedly tried to engage him to see if he could be moved off a path of violent extremism. These efforts failed, and Ziamani continued to seek out radical material online. On the morning of August 19 he appeared at his ex-girlfriend’s house with a black backpack in which he showed her he had a large knife, a hammer, and an Islamic flag. He told her, “Me and the brothers are planning a terrorist attack,” though not a bombing. “No, not like that, basically to kill soldiers.”[15]

Later that afternoon police stopped him as he was walking in the street in East London. Searching his belongings, they found his weapons and took him into custody, charging him with terrorist offenses. Months later he told a security officer in prison that he “loved” Michael Adebolajo and had handed out leaflets with him. He also confessed, “I was on my way to kill a British Soldier at an army barracks. I was going to behead the soldier and hold his head in the air so my friend could take a photograph.”[16] There was no evidence provided that Ziamani had any co-conspirators, though in passing a 22-year sentence, Justice Pontius stated that “he had little doubt that, like Adebolajo and Adebowale before him, he fell under the malign influence of al-Muhajiroun fanatics who were considerably older, and had been immersed in extremist ideology far longer, than him but he was, nevertheless, a willing student and all too ready to absorb and adopt their teaching.”[17]

The Power of the Fatwa: The Tarik Hassane Case 
In the second plot disrupted, police arrested a cluster of young men in West London in late September and early October 2014. Over a year later in January 2016, the trial began for four of the men arrested for planning to shoot a security officer with a Baikal gun and silencer that they had procured. The plot was alleged to have started on July 9, 2014, when one of the alleged co-conspirators—Tarik Hassane, then based in Sudan—announced to a Telegram group that some of the men were part of that he had made bay`a to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.[b]

Soon after this, Hassane came back to the United Kingdom via Jordan, and planning for an attack appears to have intensified. The group started to discuss obtaining something from “Umar,” later identified as Nyall Hamlett, a man currently on trial who was identified as being involved in London’s criminal fraternities and had access to weaponry. Using all sorts of coded references, Hassane, Suhaid Majeed (an accused co-conspirator also still being tried who was studying physics at King’s College in London), and others discussed trying to obtain “straps” or “creps.” They looked for a garage in Shepherd’s Bush using an online rental manager.[18] They also sought to obtain a moped.[19] By September 21, with Hassane still in Sudan, the group appears to have finally been close to obtaining a gun. Majeed told the group to “make serious dua [prayer] for me,” which the prosecution suggested was the moment at which the group knew they were obtaining their weapon.[20]

A day after senior Islamic State figure Muhammad al Adnani released his infamous fatwa calling on followers around the world who had pledged bay`a to kill disbelievers “in any manner” wherever they can find them, Majeed went through an elaborate transaction to obtain a Baikal gun, ammunition, and a silencer.[21] Once home, he searched for videos about how to handle the weapon on YouTube and spoke to his friends abroad. Not wanting to take any chances, British police moved in to arrest all of the individuals under surveillance. As Majeed’s parent’s property was being searched by armed police a gun and equipment were tossed out of the window.[22] During the search of co-defendant Nathan Cuffy’s premises they found a series of four different guns and ammunition.[23]

All of this activity was taking place as Hassane was still abroad. On September 30 he returned home and was arrested soon afterward. Hassane pleaded guilty to the charges against him, while the other three continue to fight their charges.[24]

Frustrated Travelers: The Nadir Syed Case 
The al-Adnani fatwa also provided an inflection point for a third plot disrupted in the second half of 2014. The alleged co-conspirators, Haseeb Hamayoun and cousins Nadir Syed[c] and Yousaf Syed, were all from London and of Pakistani origin. The story of their plot begins in December 2013 when Nadir Syed was arrested for public order incidents and released under strict bail conditions.[25] In breach of these, on January 19, 2014, he was stopped from boarding a plane trying to travel to Turkey, alongside his cousin Yousaf and a third man, Luqman Warsame. While Nadir was prevented from traveling, Yousaf and Warsame continued their journey. Yousaf Syed returned after spending some time in Turkey, but Warsame joined the Islamic State in Syria, from where he remained in contact with the two Syeds.[26] Warsame’s current status is unclear. Yousaf Syed was stripped of his freedom to travel in April 2014. Nadir Syed also remained stuck in the United Kingdom, but in October 2014 he applied for a new passport from the Home Office.[27]

Like Ziamani, the group appears to have had a fixation with the murder of Lee Rigby and knives. Evidence was introduced at trial of Nadir Syed talking to others about the two Woolwich killers in 2013. Also introduced into evidence were the trio’s September 2014 WhatsApp conversations in which they shared images of the Woolwich attackers and their activity.[28] In the wake of an attack in Australia on September 23, 2014, in which Numan Haider, a Melbourne teenager tried to stab a pair of policemen after his passport was canceled and was instead shot by the officers,[29] the men praised the attempt and compared it to Michael Adebolajo, praising Adebolajo as a “diamond geezer” in their discussions.[30] After a court appearance by Nadir Syed on November 6, 2014, for his public order offense charges, Haseeb Hamayoun met him outside the courtroom and the men seem to have gone straight to a kitchen shop.[31] Soon after this, authorities decided to intervene, and all three men were arrested separately later that same day.

In the end, the court was unable to reach a conclusion about Hamayoun and Yousaf Syed, though Nadir was found guilty of planning to murder a security official around Remembrance Day with a knife.[32] Hamayoon and Yousaf Syed face a retrial.[33] The reasoning behind Nadir Syed’s plot is best discerned from Nadir’s online commentary after Adnani’s September 2013 fatwa: “These governments need to rethink their policy…esp after Adnani’s speech, why the hell would you let an ISIS supporter stay here….in other words the muslim in the west is left with two choices, either turn back from your deen or end up in jail,” he stated.[34]

Other Cases: The Disconnected, the Very Young, and the Isolated 
The fourth plot thwarted in the second half of 2014 was that of Kazi Islam, the nephew of Kazi Rahman, a former jailed terrorist linked to the 7/7 cell. Arrested in November 2014, Islam was jailed in May 2015 for “grooming” another young man to try to build a bomb or conduct a terrorist attack. An apparent attendee of al Muhajiroun lectures, Islam was undone when the 18-year-old he was spurring on to launch an attack failed to get the right materials to build a bomb and told friends about the plan.[35] Although the exact nature of the plot is not entirely clear, Islam appears to have been pushing the boy to build bombs, obtain knives, and think about targeting security officials.[36]

In late March 2015 police in northwest England arrested a 14-year-old boy from Blackburn after he threatened to behead his teachers, accusing him of being involved in instigating a terrorist plot in Australia linked to attacking a security official on Australia’s day of remembrance, Anzac Day. The boy was accused of talking to Australian Sevdet Besim, a radicalized teenager who was part of a larger community of concern in Australia and spurring him on “to run a cop over or the anzac parade & then continue to kill a cop then take ghanimah and run to shahadah?”[37] Besim was further connected to Numan Haider, the Melbourne teen shot by police in September 2014.[38] While the exact role of Islamic State behind this network is unclear, the group was all connected to the now-deceased[39] Neil Prakash, a notorious Australian jihadi fighting alongside the group in Syria also known as Abu Khaled al Kambodi.[40] The boy was found guilty, becoming the youngest convicted terrorist in the United Kingdom.[d]

The shambolic nature of Kazi Islam’s November 2014 “grooming” plot was matched in May 2015 when police arrested the married couple Mohammed Rehman and Sana Ahmed Khan after Mohammed Rehman tweeted from his Twitter account,[e] “Silent Bomber,” the question “Westfield shopping center of London underground? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.”[41] The question—seeking suggestions about which target he should attempt to attack—caught the attention of authorities. Investigators uncovered Mohammed Rehman, an unemployed drug addict still living with his family. His wife, Sana Khan, also lived at home with her parents who disapproved of Rehman. The two decided that they wanted to launch a terrorist attack against the London Underground or a shopping center, with Rehman seeking chemicals online to detonate a bomb while Khan provided the funding. The couple discussed bomb tests, and Rehman eventually tested a bomb in his backyard. Two weeks after they were detected online, the couple was arrested, and after a short trial, they were given life sentences.[42]

In neither case was there any clear evidence of direction by a terrorist group overseas or links to any other plots. Both appear to be fairly classic, disconnected lone-actor plots with the only clear connections to the Islamic State being either through consumption of radical material (magazines like Dabiq), statements of intent to join the group (which apparently Kazi Islam made to his friends), or a letter that Rehman left pledging his allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.[43]

Alleged Communication with the Islamic State: The Junead and Shazib Khan Case 
An alleged plot targeting the RAF Lakenheath airbase, home of the U.S. Air Force 48th fighter wing, disrupted in July 2015 was more clearly linked to external networks, though any degree of external direction is unclear and the trials are ongoing.[44] Junead Khan and his uncle Shazib Khan (the two were so close in age, they refered to each other as cousins) from Luton are currently standing trial for planning to join the Islamic State, with Junead also accused of wanting to launch an attack in the United Kingdom against “military personnel” at military bases in Lakenheath or Molesworth.[45] Junead apparently knew and admired another local Luton man who had gone to fight (and was subsequently killed) named Rahin Aziz.[46] The men were allegedly in contact with a number of fighters in Syria, including the notorious British Islamic State operative Junaid Hussain who allegedly told Junead via the encrypted messaging app Surespot that “I can get u addresses but of British soldiers” and that “I can tell u how to make a bomb.”[47] There was further evidence presented at trial from his computer and phone that he was seeking instructions on how to make explosives. The case is ongoing and is due to conclude next month.

Conclusion
Since the emergence of the Islamic State as a major terrorist force in the Middle East, there has not been clear-cut evidence presented at trial of plots being directed by the leadership of the Islamic State against the United Kingdom. The cases formally prosecuted through the courts all suggest a threat picture that remains dominated by lone-actor terrorism, in some cases inspired by the Islamic State. The United Kingdom has also seen plots by extremists blocked from traveling to join the Islamic State, something also seen in Australia and Canada.[f]

The trials have not yet revealed clear direction by the group against the United Kingdom. There have been reports that Islamic State recruiters are seeking out Europeans with links to Germany or the United Kingdom to help facilitate attacks there,[48] but thus far, the evidence offered in courts is not as clear cut. Security authorities certainly see an escalating threat, something reflected in Assistant Commissioner Rowley’s warning that British authorities fear a spectacular Paris-style attack.

While the nature of the threat in the United Kingdom is different than in France in certain respects —for example, there is easier access to heavy weaponry and ammunition on the European continent—the Islamic State itself has made clear that the United Kingdom is a priority target. Until now the public threat picture has been dominated by lone-actor plots. Going forward, however, with the Islamic State appearing to pivot toward international terrorism and around 1000 British extremists having traveled to Syria and Iraq, half of whom are still there,[49] there is a growing danger of Islamic State-directed plots against the British homeland.

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. Follow @raffpantucci

Substantive Notes
[a] The British government refers to the Islamic State as Daesh.

[b] Hassane went on to post his pledge in full: statement that showed “that I, poor servant of Allah, Tariq Hassan (sic), swear allegiance to the Amir of [leader] of the faithful, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Abullah Ibrahim ibn Awad al-Quraishi al-Husseini, Caliph of the Muslims, he owes me to listen and obey him through thick and thin as much as I can.” Regina vs Tarik Hassane et al, January 15, 2016, p. 26.

[c] Nadir Syed was part of the broader community around the al Muhajiroun community in the U.K., most clearly as part of a WhatsApp group called ‘the lads’ with prominent figures Abu Waleed and Abu Haleema. See Lisa O’Carroll, “Man convicted of planning Isis-inspired Remembrance Sunday attack,” Guardian, December 14, 2015.

[d] He received a life sentence with a review in five years to see if he had been de-radicalized prior to him ascending into the adult prison population. “Anzac Day terror plot: Blackburn boy sentenced to life,” BBC News, October 2, 2015.

[e] His Twitter account profile photo was an image of Islamic State executioner “Jihadi John.”

[f] The Australian case was the aforementioned case of Numan Haider. In Canada, Quebec attacker Martin Couture-Rouleau was blocked from traveling to join the Islamic State, and Ottawa shooter Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was blocked from traveling to the region. See Allan Woods, “How Martin Couture-Rouleau became an aspiring Islamic State fighter,” Star, October 26, 2015; “How Michael Zehaf-Bibeau went from petty criminal to the face of homegrown terrorism,” National Post, November 7, 2014.

Citations
[1] Raya Jalabi, “Isis video threatening UK claims to show Paris attackers in Syria and Iraq,” Guardian, January 25, 2016.

[2] David Cameron interview with BBC Radio 4 Today program, November 16, 2015.

[3] Vikram Dodd, “Isis planning ‘enormous and spectacular attacks’, anti-terror chief warns,” Guardian, March 7, 2016.

[4] Paul Cruickshank, “A View from the CT Foxhole: An Interview with Richard Walton, Head, Counter Terrorism Command, London Metropolitan Police,” CTC Sentinel 9:1 (2016).

[5] Regina vs Incedal and Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, March 11, 2015, p. 13.

[6] Regina vs Incedal and Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, March 11, 2015, p. 16.

[7] Regina vs Incedal and Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, March 11, 2015, p. 41.

[8] Regina vs Incedal and Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, March 11, 2015, p. 49.

[9] Regina vs Incedal and Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, March 13, 2015, p. 49.

[10] Regina vs Incedal and Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, March 12, 2015, p. 41.

[11] Regina vs Incedal and Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, March 12, 2015, pp. 7-8.

[12] “Erol Incedal Jailed for 42 months over bomb-making manual,” BBC, April 1, 2015.

[13] (Typos as rendered in the document) Regina vs Ziamani, February 9, 2015, p. 4.

[14] Regina vs Ziamani, February 9, 2015, p. 6.

[15] Regina vs Ziamani, February 9, 2015.

[16] Regina vs Ziamani, February 9, 2015.

[17] Regina vs Brusthom Ziamani, Sentencing remarks of HHJ Pontius, Central Criminal Court, March 20, 2015.

[18] Regina vs Tarik Hassane et al., January 15, 2016, p. 68.

[19] Regina vs Tarik Hassane et al., January 15, 2016, p. 69.

[20] Regina vs Tarik Hassane et al., January 15, 2016, p. 87.

[21] Regina vs Tarik Hassane et al., January 15, 2016, p. 95.

[22] Regina vs Tarik Hassane et al., January 15, 2016, p. 101.

[23] Regina vs Tarik Hassane et al., January 15, 2016, p. 109.

[24] Sebastian Mann, “Terror accused have told ‘buffed and polished’ lies to mask guilt, court hears,” Evening Standard, March 8, 2016.

[25] Regina vs Hasib Hamayoon et al., October 8, 2015, p. 6.

[26] Regina vs Hasib Hamayoon et al., October 8, 2015, p. 9.

[27] Regina vs Hasib Hamayoon et al., October 8, 2015, p. 9.

[28] Regina vs Hasib Hamayoon et al., October 8, 2015, p. 11.

[29] Melissa Davey, “Police had no choice but to shoot Numan Haider, inquest hears,” Guardian, March 7, 2016.

[30] Regina vs Hasib Hamayoon et al., October 8, 2015, p. 21.

[31] Regina vs Hasib Hamayoon et al., October 8, 2015, p. 34.

[32] Lisa O’Carroll, “Man convicted of planning Isis-inspired Remembrance Sunday attack,” Guardian, December 14, 2015.

[33] Tom Whitehead, “Extremists allowed to leave UK to ease home terror threat,” Telegraph, December 15, 2015.

[34] Regina vs Hasib Hamayoon et al., October 8, 2015, p.20.

[35] Duncan Gardham and Amanda Williams, “Teenage Islamic terrorist who groomed man with learning difficulties to carry out Lee Rigby-style attack on British soldier is jailed for eight years,” Daily Mail, May 29, 2015.

[36] Ibid.

[37] “Anzac Day terror plot: Blackburn boy sentenced to life,” BBC News, October 2, 2015.

[38] Dan Oakes, “Numan Haider inquest: Anzac Day terror accused Sevdet Besim called to give evidence,” Australia Plus, March 7, 2016.

[39] Joshua Robertson, “Neil Prakash, Australia’s most senior operative in Islamic State, reported dead,” Guardian, January 31, 2016.

[40] Oakes.

[41] Regina vs Mohammed Rehman and Sana Ahmed Khan, November 14, 2015.

[42] Tom Whitehead, “7/7 suicide bomb plot couple jailed for life,” Telegraph, December 30, 2015.

[43] Tom Whitehead and David Barrett, “Middle class daughter of magistrate who turned to suicide bomb plotter,” Telegraph, December 30, 2015.

[44] “Man allegedly planned Lee Rigby-style attacks on US soldiers in UK,” Guardian, February 17, 2016.

[45] Regina vs Junead Ahmed Khan and Shazib Ahmed Khan, February 12, 2016.

[46] “Alleged extremist accused of ‘planning attack on RAF base in East Anglia’ takes stand in trial,” Cambridge News, March 4, 2016.

[47] Regina vs Junead Ahmed Khan and Shazib Ahmed Khan, February 12, 2016.

[48] “You will lose the feeling of being a human being,” BBC Radio 4 PM, February 22, 2016.

[49] Patrick Wintor and Shiv Malik, “Hundreds of Britain caught trying to join jihadis, says Foreign Secretary,” Guardian, January 15, 2016.

And more catch up posting, this time in Italian for the excellent think tank Twai’s publication Orizzonte Cina. This one was actually initially written a bit in English and a bit in Italian (thanks to Giovanni for commissioning and Simone for editing and translating!), so am not going to re-print here completely in English, but am sure people can figure this out or it gives you an opportunity to learn a beautiful language.

“Una cintura e una via”: il modello dell’Asia centrale

OC Oct 2015

Annunciata in due fasi dal presidente Xi Jinping e dal premier Li Keqiang, la strategia “Una cintura e una via” è il nuovo orientamento della politica estera di Pechino su cui oggi sembrano concentrarsi quasi tutte le discussioni tra esperti d’Asia. Presentata al mondo prima nel settembre del 2013 ad Astana come “Cintura economica della via della seta”, e poi mesi dopo in Indonesia come “Via della seta marittima del XXI secolo”, le finalità di questa nuova strategia non sono sempre ben definite. Per capire meglio l’indirizzo che la Cina sta prendendo bisogna guardare a ciò che Pechino sta facendo in Asia centrale: è l’Asia centrale, infatti, la pista di lancio di questa nuova iniziativa.

Xinjiang: l’Asia centrale cinese

Descritta dal geografo inglese Halford Mackinder come “il fulcro dell’Eurasia”, l’Asia centrale è al centro del pensiero strategico da secoli. Per la Cina essa ha un’importanza anche maggiore per via della sua vicinanza allo Xinjiang – a tutti gli effetti una parte di Asia centrale dentro ai confini della Cina. È una regione ricca di risorse naturali ma popolata da una minoranza uigura profondamente scontenta del governo di Pechino. Una rabbia che si è intensificata fino al punto di scatenare ripetuti episodi di violenza, con apice nel luglio del 2009, quando gruppi di uiguri ad Urumqi (la capitale regionale) aggredirono cinesi han. In seguito alle violenze, che sono durate un paio di giorni, il governo di Pechino ha dato attuazione a una strategia volta a migliorare la situazione regionale con un enorme investimento economico. Pechino scommette sul fatto che la promozione del benessere economico sia sufficiente a mitigare il malcontento sociale e a soddisfare le rivendicazioni della popolazione.

Il risultato è una corsa allo Xinjiang: altre province si sono date l’obiettivo di investire in aree dello Xinjiang, inviando funzionari del Partito a lavorare a fianco delle autorità locali per trasmettere le ricette applicate con successo nel resto del paese. Una percentuale del Pil di ogni provincia cinese viene dirottata verso lo Xinjiang e le grandi imprese statali che investono nella regione sono tenute a lasciarvi una quota dei loro profitti maggiore della norma. Questo sul fronte interno; le imprese straniere, a loro volta, sono incentivate ad aprire stabilimenti nella regione attraverso sostanziosi benefici e agevolazioni.

Il problema, però, è che – come il resto dell’Asia centrale – lo Xinjiang è lontano dalle rotte oceaniche e dalle vie commerciali tradizionali. Per rendere profittevoli gli investimenti nella regione la Cina deve perciò puntare sull’apertura dei mercati limitrofi tra I paesi dell’Asia centrale e costruire una nuova rete infrastrutturale che li colleghi tra loro. Il risultato è un’enorme spinta allo sviluppo regionale con le grandi banche statli cinesi (come la Exim Bank o la China Development Bank) pronte ad offrire ai governi dell’Asia centrale prestiti a tasso agevolato, a condizione che i progetti su cui vengono investiti vengano realizzati da aziende cinesi – generalmente con manodopera cinese e utilizzando prodotti cinesi.

Per i paesi dell’Asia centrale si tratta di proposte attraenti: la Cina rappresenta una fonte d’investimento più solida della Russia, più generosa di altri paesi asiatici come il Giappone e la Corea del Sud, e più affidabile dei paesi europei e degli Stati Uniti. È una dinamica in atto da più di un decennio: la Cina sta diventando la potenza che persegue con più efficacia i propri obiettivi in Asia centrale, mentre – poco per volta – le strade e le infrastrutture della regione si riorientano da Mosca verso Pechino, via Urumqi.

Il sogno cinese di Xi Jinping

È questa la situazione che la nuova amministrazione di Xi Jinping ha ereditato quando è andata al potere nel novembre del 2012: una relazione con l’Asia centrale costruita su finanziamenti e imprese cinesi, di cui entrambe le parti sono soddisfatte. I paesi della regione sono infatti favorevoli a questa nuova fonte di investimenti, con disponibilità economiche apparentemente illimitate e scevra dalle aspettative di dominazione politica che accompagnano invece gli investimenti russi, nonché dalle condizioni politiche poste da Europa e Stati Uniti. L’esperienza centrasiatica ha insegnato a Pechino quali siano le leve più efficaci per affermare gli interessi nazionali cinesi sulla scena internazionale. A Pechino prevale ancora un approccio incentrato sul principio di non interferenza negli affari altrui, che consente di operare all’estero senza crearsi nemici.

Vi è anche una spinta a riprodurre globalmente il modello sperimentato in Asia centrale: dalla “Cintura economica della via della seta” annunciata ad Astana alla “Via della seta marittima del XXI secolo”, al “Corridoio Bangladesh-Cina-India-Myanmar”, al “Corridoio economico Cina-Pakistan” e a una serie di proposte per altre vie che si sviluppano a partire dalla Cina. Nel loro insieme, questi progetti costituiscono l’iniziative ‘Una cintura e una via’, che mira a ridare alla Cina centralita nella rete internazionale di vie commerciali, aprendo nuovi mercati e riorientando le vie commerciali della regione per rafforzare il ruolo di pivot del paese.

Sin dall’inizio del suo mandato, Xi Jinping ha sottolineato l’importanza della diplomazia economica. Nel gennaio del 2013, in un discorso all’Ufficio politico del Comitato centrale, Xi ha sostenuto che la Cina non avrebbe “mai perseguito l’obiettivo del proprio sviluppo al costo di sacrificare gli interessi di altri paesi”. Questa dichiarazione evidenziava l’importanza degli interessi reciproci come nucleo centrale della strategia cinese verso l’esterno. Lo stesso aspetto veniva evidenziato in settembre ad Astana all’interno del famoso discorso sulla ‘Cintura economica della via della seta’ pronunciato da Xi all’Universita Nazarbayev, nel quale il presidente cinese auspicava che “la Cina e l’Asia centrale [unissero] i propri sforzi per costruire una cintura economica della via della seta che [rafforzasse] la cooperazione”. Lo stesso punto veniva nuovamente ribadito nell’ottobre di quello stesso anno, durante la Conferenza sul lavoro diplomatico nella regione, laddove Xi delineava una lista di priorità in politica estera verso l’“obiettivo di realizzare la grande rinascita della nazione cinese; sviluppare complessivamente le relazioni con i paesi della regione; consolidare l’amicizia con i vicini; approfondire forme di cooperazione reciprocamente vantaggiosa; preservare e impiegare al meglio l’importante periodo di opportunità strategica per lo sviluppo della Cina; preservare la sovranità nazionale, la sicurezza e gli interessi dello sviluppo; impegnarsi per migliorare la relazione politica della Cina con I paesi della regione; consolidare i legami economici, approfondire la cooperazione di sicurezza e intensificare gli scambi culturali tra la Cina e i paesi della regione”.

Le leve economiche del progetto

L’attrattiva di un simile modello è facile da comprendere, da un punto di vista cinese. La combinazione di vie commerciali, investimenti nelle infrastrutture, prestiti agevolati e mercati aperti fa leva su una serie di strumenti che I policy-maker cinesi conoscono bene. Si tratta di strumenti che corrispondono alla nozione cinese di benefici armoniosi e di vantaggi condivisi, e che mirano a ricollocare la Cina al centro della struttura economica globale. Sono strumenti che I policy-maker cinesi sanno come utilizzare: prestiti agevolati e finanziamenti vengono forniti attraverso banche quali la China Development Bank o la ExIm Bank, mentre l’attuazione dei progetti è affidata a imprese di Stato cinesi che hanno esperienza nella realizzazione di grandi progetti infrastrutturali in contesti difficili.

Nel quadro dell’iniziativa “Una cintura e una via”, ciò si è concretizzato in una forte proiezione finanziaria cinese. Sia la China Development Bank che la ExIm Bank hanno articolato una propria strategia per “Una cintura e una via”, ma – accanto a questi veicoli tradizionali – la Cina ha iniziato a promuovere la creazione di nuove partnership bilaterali. Non solo: oltre all’approccio bilaterale Pechino ha promosso un’intera rete di nuove istituzioni internazionali, costitute appositamente per finanziare la nuova iniziativa. Queste istituzioni assumono tre diverse forme. Alcune sono create su proposta e sotto la guida cinese; la più significativa è la Banca asiatica d’investimento per le infrastrutture (Aiib), con un capitale di 100 miliardi di dollari. Altre sono create con il sostegno di Pechino, come la Banca di sviluppo dei Brics (pure dotata di un capitale di 100 miliardi di dollari) e la Banca di sviluppo dell’Organizzazione per la cooperazione di Shanghai, ancora in attesa del varo; infine, crescono a ritmo sostenuto gli accordi bilaterali in materia commerciale e di investimento che la Cina sta concludendo con i suoi vicini – ad esempio l’accordo per l’investimento di 46 miliardi di dollari per il Corridoio economico Cina-Pakistan, annunciato da Xi Jinping durante la sua visita di quest’anno a Islamabad. In aggiunta, la Cina ha annunciato la creazione di un Fondo per la via della seta del valore di 40 miliardi di dollari con un board of advisors che include esperti della Urumqi Central Bank.

È attraverso questa rete di istituzioni finanziarie che viene fornita la liquidità necessaria a finanziare l’iniziativa “Una cintura e una via”. Destinatari dei finanziamenti sono i paesi vicini: per esempio, il progetto di Corridoio economico Cina-Pakistan, in particolare alcuni progetti “early harvest” nel settore dell’energia in Pakistan, saranno i primi beneficiari di finanziamenti dal Fondo della via della seta. Ma i finanziamenti finiscono per la maggior parte a imprese di Stato cinesi impegnate a dar sostanza alla retorica dei leader. Per avere un’idea di quali imprese il governo cinese intenda sostenere con l’iniziativa “Una cintura e una via” basta del resto guardare al progetto di China securities index e Shanghai stock exchange per la creazione di un “indice congiunto che rilevi le performance delle azioni che ricadono entro l’iniziativa ‘Una cintura e una via’”. Composta da 52 imprese attive nei settori di “costruzione di infrastrutture, trasporti, produzione di energia e comunicazioni”, la lista offre una chiara indicazione di quali siano – nelle aspettative di Pechino – i beneficiari dell’iniziativa.

La strategia potrà avere successo?

Ma quante concrete possibilità di successo ha questa ambiziosa strategia? Secondo il Ministero del commercio della Repubblica popolare cinese, nella prima metà del 2015 le imprese cinesi hanno investito circa 7,05 miliardi di dollari in 48 paesi collocate entro il perimetro dell’iniziativa. Ma ciò non elimina del tutto i dubbi sulla concreta realizzabilità della strategia. In Asia centrale, in particolare, ha colto alcuni successi, ma ha anche incontrato ostacoli destinati a manifestarsi altrove.

La logica sottesa alla strategia può apparire benevola. L’apertura di corridoi commerciali, con grandi investimenti e con il coinvolgimento di imprese in grado di realizzare i progetti, garantirà vantaggi in termini di nuove reti infrastrutturali ad alcuni dei paesi più poveri della regione. Ma vi sono dubbi sui vantaggi che questi paesi potranno trarre al di là del mero investimento in infrastrutture. Per i paesi dell’Asia centrale, per esempio, non è chiaro quanto la visione di nuovi corridoi commerciali che li attraversano possa realmente aiutarli nello sviluppo delle proprie economie nazionali. Questi paesi puntano a sviluppare industrie nazionali – ma se si parla con uomini d’affari e commercianti della regione, tutti esprimono la preoccupazione di essere espulsi dal mercato dall’arrivo delle più competitive imprese cinesi.

Un ulteriore dubbio è se i paesi della regione siano nelle condizioni di beneficiare realmente dell’iniziativa. L’apertura di corridoi commerciali è finalizzata a creare nuove vie di trasporto per i prodotti, ma nulla garantisce che ne derivino automaticamente vantaggi anche per i cittadini dei paesi di transito. In Pakistan si è cercato di ovviare a questo rischio attraverso l’istituzione di zone economiche lungo il Corridoio economico Cina-Pakistan, ma sarà necessario del tempo prima che queste decollino.

Infine, tutto ciò non risolve i problemi di sicurezza che avranno con ogni probabilità un impatto su molte delle vie di comunicazione create sotto l’egida di “Una cintura e una via”. In aggiunta alle tensioni nelle relazioni tra la Cina e buona parte dei suoi vicini marittimi (che in teoria dovrebbero cooperare nel progetto della Via marittima della seta), vi sono i problemi di sicurezza di Asia centrale e meridionale: instabilità in Belucistan e in Myanmar, gruppi terroristici attivi in Afghanistan e capaci di espandersi in altri paesi dell’Asia centrale. Alcuni di essi hanno contatti con gruppi dissidenti uiguri, il che rinvia a quelle stesse minacce che la Cina cerca di attenuare attraverso la propria strategia di investimenti in Asia centrale. Queste sono parti del mondo in cui è difficile per chiunque investire, non solo a causa della mancanza di infrastrutture ma anche per i diffusi problem di corruzione e per i gravi deficit di governance.

Nonostante ciò, la visione di “Una cintura e una via” è destinata a diventare la fondamentale direttrice della politica estera di Xi Jinping. Delineata in termini sempre più chiari, e sostenuta dai necessari finanziamenti, essa sta ora muovendo dall’elaborazione retorica all’azione. È presto per dire se sarà coronata da successo, ma la rotta è tracciata ed è già stata sperimentata in Asia centrale. Xi Jinping e la sua cerchia hanno certo letto Mackinder: l’Occidente farebbe bene a concentrarsi su come rispondere al meglio all’agenda di politica estera che la Cina sta articolando.

After a period of silence, a couple of new pieces, the first for the CTC Sentinel, West Point’s excellent counter-terrorism journal. This one looks at the pernicious influence of al Muhajiroun, Anjem Choudhary and Omar Bakri Mohammed’s group across Europe. It is a subject a lot more could be written about, and the volume of information is simply massive, but at the same time there is only limited space here. The topic will become more relevant again when Anjem and Mizanur’s trial comes about, and maybe around then something else could be done on the topic.

Beyond this, had a few media conversations in the past weeks. Will save the ones around the incident at the weekend on the Thalys train for the next post, but I spoke to the South China Morning Post about the bombing in Bangkok and some Chinese terror arrests, the Telegraph about the death of the last of the Portsmouth cluster of British jihadi’s in Syria/Iraq, the Daily Mail about the plan to use soldiers in cases of emergency on UK streets, the Times about the death of Muhsin al Fadhli in Syria, and the New York Times for a large piece they did about ISIS recruitment in the UK.

Al-Muhajiroun’s European Recruiting Pipeline

August 21, 2015
Author(s): Raffaello Pantucci

On August 5, 2015 Anjem Choudary and Mizanur Rahman appeared in court to be charged and detained without bail. Initially arrested September 24, 2014, the men had been free on bail as investigators dug into their histories.[1] When the decision to formally arrest and charge was made, the Crown Prosecution Service charged the men with inviting ”support for a proscribed terrorist organization, namely ISIL, also known as ISIS or the Islamic State, contrary to section 12 Terrorism Act 2000.”[2] The specific charges seemed to crystallize a reality that was increasingly observable across Europe that the various groups associated with the al-Muhajiroun (ALM) constellation of organizations were at the heart of current European recruitment networks sending radicals to fight in Syria and Iraq.

A long-standing feature of Europe’s extremist landscape, the al-Muhajiroun family of organizations is one that has been linked to a variety of terrorist organizations. One survey of plots linked to the group in the UK concluded that of 51 incidents and plots emanating from the UK from the late 1990s until 2013, 23 were linked to the group.[3] Britain’s first known suicide bomber in Syria, Abdul Waheed Majid, had been a feature at group events since the 1990s.[4] A similar French organization Forsane Alizza was disbanded after Mohammed Merah’s murderous rampage in 2012, while one of their associates Oumar Diaby ended up heading a French brigade in Syria.[5] The group’s tentacles and links reach across the continent and are increasingly showing up at the sharper end of the terrorist threat that Europe is facing.

Al-Muhajiroun’s European History

Al-Muhajiroun (the emigrants) was born in Europe in February 1996 when Omar Bakri Mohammed Fostok (hereon Omar Bakri) was ejected from the organization Hizb ut Tahrir (HuT) in the UK. A long-term HuT activist, Omar Bakri arrived in the United Kingdom in 1984 having fled Saudi Arabia where his activities as an Islamist activist clashed with the state. In the UK he sought political asylum and soon rose to public prominence through his willingness to make provocative statements at any opportunity to any available media outlet.[6] The birth of ALM in 1996 was likely the product of this style of leadership and media management clashing with the traditionally low-key and secretive HuT. The founding of ALM unleashed Omar Bakri, with the group ramping up its provocative actions and organizing an International Islamic Conference on September 8, 1996 to which Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam, and many other jihadi leaders were purportedly invited. The event was cancelled at the last minute, though the publicity it generated in terms of media coverage and a documentary about Omar Bakri entitled “Tottenham Ayatollah” likely served the organization’s initial intent to attract attention.[7]

Present in the background of the documentary is Anjem Choudary, at the time a lawyer who was working as Omar Bakri’s assistant. Over time, his role evolved and in the wake of the London bombings of 2005, when Omar Bakri chose to flee the country,[8] Choudary took over as UK leader for the group. A few months prior to Omar Bakri’s departure, the group announced its dissolution in an attempt to get ahead of security services, with a series of sub-groups emerging largely reflecting the same ideology as ALM with Choudary effectively at the helm. In the wake of the attacks, British authorities focused on the group, adding the sub-groups to the proscribed terror list at various points and seeking greater powers to restrict their ability to operate. The group, however, has continued to operate with the leadership remaining fairly constant. This became most prominently visible in around 2009 when the group adopted the name Islam4Uk, which was proscribed a year or so later.

This style of nomenclature was soon seen replicated across Europe with Shariah4Belgium, Shariah4Holland, Shariah4Denmark, Shariah4Italy, Shariah4Finland, and even briefly Shariah4Poland. In France a group called Forsane Alizza (Knights of Pride) emerged as the local clone of the group (sometimes using Shariah4France) and in Germany Millatu Ibrahim (the religious community of Ibrahim, a name drawing on the title of a book by Muhammad al Maqdisi) took on the mantle. Millatu Ibrahim is a name that has since appeared in Norway, Holland, and Denmark as well). In Scandinavia, Profetens Ummah (the Umma of the Prophet) represents the ideology in Norway and Kadet til Islam (Call to Islam) is the lead group in Denmark.

All of these groups adopted a narrative and approach clearly modeled on ALM, and in many cases this was allegedly the product of direct contact and training by Choudary. For example, in March 2013, he visited Helsinki, Finland where he spoke alongside Awat Hamasalih, a British national of Kurdish origin from Birmingham, at an event organized by Shariah4Finland to celebrate the tenth anniversary of local Iraqi radical leader Mullah Krekar’s incarceration.[9] Choudary reciprocated this generous hosting, inviting Hamasalih to speak when he was back in the UK.[10]

This example of travel is representative of Choudary’s contacts with affiliate groups, and there are reports that he and other key ALM members travelled around Europe to support their events.[11] Similarly, there are reports that key individuals from regional affiliates have come to London. And there are multiple reports of Choudary (and Omar Bakri) preaching to supporters in Europe over PalTalk using web cameras and interactive online messaging.[12] Both Choudary and Mizanur Rahman  have also communicated extensively with supporters over Twitter.[13]

In terms of how Choudary sees his role with these groups, some clarity is provided in his supportive comments towards his Norwegian clone Profetens Ummah:

I have regular contact with Hussain and Ibraheem (two group leaders). There are no administrative links between us, but I am a mentor and adviser for them. There are many people who claim they represent Islam, but I see the Prophet’s Umma as one of the few voices in Europe that speak the truth about Islam without compromise.[14]

Choudary helped Profetens publish videos and develop a style to preach and call people to their radical brand of Islam.[15]

In other contexts people reached out to Choudary having heard about him in the press. Anas el-Abboubi was a young man born in Morocco who moved to Italy when he was young. An up-and-coming rapper, he was featured on MTV Italia as one to watch under his rap nom-de-music MC Khalif. This lifestyle, however, seemed unappealing to him and instead he was drawn to violent Islamist ideas and began an online conversation with Choudary over social media in which he asked for his advice about how he could advance radical ideas in Italy. El-Abboubi also participated in PalTalk sessions led by the group’s creator Omar Bakri and he bought plane tickets to visit the Shariah4Belgium group who he had also connected with online.

Soon after this, el-Abboubi established Shariah4Italy, a short-lived organization that seemed to flourish and shrink with its founder.[16] By October 2013 he fled Italy to join the Islamic State along a route that took him through Albania. The degree of influence that Choudary had over his decision-making process is unclear from the public domain, but it is clear that he and ALM had some influence over the young man, something exemplified by his establishing of Shariah4Italy despite a background in Italy that was largely detached from extremist ideologies and groups.

The Current Picture

There increasingly appears to be a consensus across European security agencies that Choudary’s group plays a role in networks that provide new recruits to fight in Syria and Iraq. In both the 2013 and 2014 TE-SAT Terrorism Situation and Trends report issued by Europol, the agency depicted  “al-Muhajiroun and its latest incarnation the Sharia4 movement” as being a driver for people to go and fight in Syria and Iraq.[17] Watching a pan-European trend, Europol observed:

some salafist individuals and groups in the EU, such as the Sharia4 movement, seem to have heeded the advice of prominent jihadist ideologues to stop their controversial public appearances in Europe….instead, they have been encouraged to participate in what these ideologues describe as a ‘jihad’ against un-Islamic rule in Muslim countries.[18]

There is further evidence of Omar Bakri playing an active role in helping people go fight in Syria. This is evident in the case of Shariah4Belgium,[19] a clone established in 2010 after Fouad Belkacem, a Moroccan-Belgian who had served some time in prison for theft and fraud, came to the UK to learn about how “to start something in Belgium.” Drawn to the bright light of Choudary’s celebrity, Belkacem listened as the established Briton “went through the history of ALM, how we set it up.”[20] The Belgian took the lessons to heart and returned to establish a similarly confrontational organization back home. Choudary and others were occasional visitors and both Choudary and ALM “godfather” Omar Bakri would provide online classes for the group in Belgium.[21]

In 2011, one of Shariah4Belgium’s core members left Belgium to seek out their mentor Omar Bakri in Lebanon. Now formally excluded from the United Kingdom by the Home Secretary, Omar Bakri continued to draw journalists and radicals from across the world. Nabil Kasmi was one of these young men, arriving in Lebanon as the conflict in Syria was catching fire. He returned to Belgium a few months later, but then in March 2012 headed off to the Levant again, this time going through Lebanon to Syria.[22]

At around the same time, another group associated with Shariah4Belgium were intercepted traveling to Yemen on suspicion of trying to join a terrorist group. Nabil Kasmi’s success, however, highlighted the options offered by the conflict in Syria.[23] In August he returned to Europe, only to leave again on August 20, this time followed days later by a cluster of some five members from the group who all ended up fighting with the Islamic State in Syria.[24] Over time, more and more of the group went to Syria, drawing on their Belgian and other European contacts from the broad ALM family of organizations. The exact numbers are unclear, but it is believed that at least 50 Belgian fighters in Syria and Iraq have roots in Shariah4Belgium.[25]

One of the few who failed to travel to Syria or Iraq was Fouad Belkacem, who was instead jailed in February 2015 for 12 years for recruiting and radicalizing people to go fight in Syria and Iraq.[26] On trial with another 47 people (the majority of which failed to appear in court as they were believed to be fighting or dead in the Levant), Belkacem’s trial seemed to be the capstone in the story of ALM’s European links to the battlefield in Syria and Iraq.

European Plotting?

What is not yet completely clear is the degree to which these networks are ones that are producing terrorist plots back in Europe. There are growing numbers of plots being disrupted in Europe with links to the battlefield in Syria and Iraq, though it remains uncertain whether these are being directed by the Islamic State or other groups from their safe haven in Syria and Iraq. Some plots, like that in Verviers, Belgium and at least one of those in the UK, are reported by authorities to show clear evidence of connections to the battlefield, but the nature of these links remains somewhat opaque.[27]

Looking to the ALM-associated networks across Europe, it remains unclear the degree to which they have thus far been credibly associated with attack planning. Reports around the January raid in Verviers, suggested some possible linkages (especially given the timing near Fouad Belkacem’s trial), but they have yet to be confirmed publicly.[28]

What has been seen, however, is the emergence of lone actor-style terrorism on the periphery of the group’s networks. A case in point is that of Brusthom Ziamani in the UK. Ziamani was a troubled teenager who sought out Anjem Choudary and his friends as a surrogate family. Having tried to ingratiate himself with the group and even considering travel to Syria, Ziamani instead decided to emulate his heroes Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale and their murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in 2013. Taking a knife, axe, and Islamist flag, Ziamani was planning on butchering a member of the security forces before police intercepted him.[29] He was convicted of attempted murder and plotting to commit a terrorist act, and sentenced to 27 years incarceration.[30] There is no clear evidence that Ziamani told Choudary what he was going to do, but Ziamani’s case has been championed by ALM-associated Twitter accounts in the UK.[31]

In contrast, on the battlefield, individuals associated with ALM- related organizations appear in a number of both prominent and less high-profile roles. Reflecting their preference for noisy self-promotion and in-your-face dawa (proselytization), many are active on social media. One particularly prominent figure in this regard was Rahin Aziz, who fled to Syria after being sought in conjunction with an assault on a football fan in the UK. In Syria he quickly aligned himself with the Islamic State, and started to actively post across social media platforms. Among images to emerge were ones of him posing with weapons with Denis Cuspert, a prominent member of the German al-Mujahiroun linked group Millatu Ibrahim.[32]

For Aziz, the connection to ALM was instrumental in helping him build his networks in Syria and Iraq, as well as highlighting how interconnected the community across Europe was. In a conversation over Twitter he reported:

when I came to sham the amount of brothers from other countries who recognized me and agreed n even said were by us….what we did with demos etc aided the jihad, global awareness etc which motivated many to go fight jihad.[33]

Prior to going to the Levant, he reported going to:

Belgium many times, delivered lectures and me met from Europe there….many 3-4 times….France twice….Holland where we took part in a conference about khilafah…I knew the brothers from Germany….Their ameer abu usama al Ghareeb contacted me when he came out of prison….he asked me to do some videos for them….met Denmark guys in Belgium even in UK they came to visit us.[34]

It was a network fostered in Europe maturing and re-networking on the battlefield in the Levant.

Others seem to have taken to the battlefield to undertake activities largely similar to those they were carrying out previously in the United Kingdom. For example, Siddartha Dhar, a Hindu convert also known as Abu Rumaysah, was arrested alongside Anjem Choudary in September 2014. However, unlike his teacher, he took his passport and jumped on a bus to Paris with his pregnant wife and family, the first leg in a journey that ended with him living under the Islamic State a month later. In typical ALM style, Dhar decided to alert authorities to his presence through the posting of a photo of himself holding an AK-47 in one hand and his newborn baby in the other. Since then, Dhar has periodically re-emerged on Twitter and other social media, and in May 2015 became prominent once again when a book was published under his kunya (jihadi name) about life under the Islamic State.[35]

These are only a few of the men and women to have gone to join the Islamic State from the ALM networks. Exact numbers are difficult to know, but certainly from the UK alone, more than a dozen prominent individuals from these networks have gone over, while others have attempted to go. What remains worrying is that there continues to be a community of activists associated with these groups who are seeking to go fight in Syria and Iraq, and also that the pool of support in Europe remains fairly constant.

One illustration of this is that in the wake of the reports of Rahin Aziz’s death in a U.S. strike, a sweet shop in East London issued candies celebrating his martyrdom and a vigil was held for him that appeared to show a few dozen people praying in his honor.[36] A few days later, three men were arrested in the Luton area.[37] One was released while the other two (an uncle and nephew) were charged with plotting to carry out a terrorist attack in the UK intended to attack and kill military personnel.[38] Some reports suggested the plot was an attempted beheading of a U.S. serviceperson in revenge for Aziz’s death.[39] Details are unclear, though the men were allegedly also attempting to go to the Islamic State, and the case is working its way through the courts and is likely to come to trial in 2016.[40]

Conclusion

The arrest and charging of Anjem Choudary and his principal acolyte Mizanur Rahman is a significant moment in ALM’s history. The group has developed from its early days when London was a center of jihadist thinking with ALM at its core, drawing in radicals from across Europe and around the world. Since the prominence ALM achieved in the late 2000s, it has now become a net exporter organization around Europe, still drawing people to London, but then also watching as they return home to establish affiliate networks and communities. This European generation of ALM supporters is increasingly proving to be at the heart of Europe’s radical Islamist community connected with Islamic State and the conflict in Syria and Iraq. Given the volumes of plots that have emerged from these networks in the past in the United Kingdom in particular, it seems likely that similar problems are likely to emerge from the European ALM networks.

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 (UK: Hurst/US: Oxford University Press). You can follow him at @raffpantucci.

[1] In March 2014, Choudary and other ALM activists had been identified in a set of protests in London clearly inspired by the Islamic State. Dipesh Gadher, “Preacher Anjem Choudary investigated over ‘road show’ linked to jihadists,” Sunday Times, March 9, 2014 .

[2] Statement by Metropolitan Police, August 5, 2015 .

[3] Dominic Kennedy, “Radical al-Muhajiroun group is behind most UK terror plots,” Times, March 21, 2015.

[4] Morten Storm, Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, Agent Storm: A Spy Inside al-Qaeda, (London: Penguin, March 2015), p. 334.

[5] Olivier Tocser, “Les Secrets d’un Emir,” Le Nouvel Observateur, March 20, 2014.

[6] Memorably on November 12, 1991 he told The Mail on Sunday: “‘John Major [then Prime Minister] is a legitimate target. If anyone gets the opportunity to assassinate him, I don’t think they should save it. It is our Islamic duty and we will celebrate his death.”

[7] The documentary is available online, and was recounted in a chapter in Jon Ronson, Them (London: Picador, 2001). Ronson was also the director of the documentary.

[8] “Cleric Bakri ‘will return’ to UK,” BBC News, August 9, 2005.

[9] Mullah Krekar, the founder of the Ansar al Islam movement that was involved in fighting in Iraq, is an infamous radical preacher with whom Choudary has developed a link. Laura Helminen, “Radical Muslim Preacher Spoke in Helsinki,” Helsingin Sanomat, March 13, March 28, 2013.

[10]. In January 2015, authorities in Finland sought to eject Hamasalih. According to coverage around this time, Hamasalih, in contrast to most Kurds, was not seeking nationhood with his activity, but instead “his goal [was] jihad, an Islamic caliphate, and sharia, the law of Islam”  as the local newspaper said. Anu Nousiainen: “Finland Expelled Radical Extremist From Turku to UK – ‘Serious Threat to Public Security,’” Helsingin Sanomat, January 15, 2015.

[11] See Ben Taub, “Journey to Jihad,” New Yorker, June 1, 2015.

[12] Shortly prior to their arrest, Rahman and Choudary (alongside others), made a PalTalk video in which they answered questions from an American audience. Similar videos have been made for European audiences.

[13] There has been no comprehensive mapping of ALM’s online links and contacts, but almost all of the prominent members (in Syria and Iraq or back in Europe) have accounts and numerous others who aspire to be involved in these groups’ proselytization create accounts that are very similar. The best sense of outreach and effectiveness of this online contact is suggested in the fact that Choudary has 32.9K followers on Twitter, while Rahman has 29K. Of course, number of followers does not equate to contact and influence, but both are very active online and respond to people’s questions and contacts.

[14] Andreas Bakke Foss, “British Extremist Calls Himself a Mentor for Norwegian Islamists,” Aftenposten, March 3, 2013.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Lorenzo Vidino, Home-Grown Jihadism in Italy: Birth, Development and Radicalization Dynamics, (Milan: Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale, 2015), pp. 63-67.

[17] European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2014, (The Hague: Europol, 2014), p. 21.

[18] Ibid, p.23.

[19] Paul Cruickshank, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Interview with Alain Grignard,”  CTC Sentinel,  8:8 (August, 2015).

[20] Taub.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] J. La. Avec Belga, “Sharia4Belgium qualifie de groupe terroriste, 12 ans de prison pour Fouad Belkacem,” La Libre, February 11, 2015.

[27] Paul Cruickshank, Steve Almasy, and Deborah Feyerick, “Source: Belgium terror cell has links to ISIS, some members still at large,” CNN, January 17, 2015.

[28] “Aantal radicalen in Wallonie wordt onderschat,” Het Laatste Nieuws, January 16, 2015.

[29] Tom Whitehead, “Brusthom Ziamani: the former Jehovah’s Witness who was radicalised within weeks,” Telegraph, February 19, 2015; Prosecution Opening Note, Regina vs. Brusthom Ziamani, Central Criminal Court, February 9. 2015.

[30] Regina vs Brusthom Ziamani, Sentencing Remarks of HHJ Pontius, Central Criminal Court, March 20, 2015.

[31] Tweet from @muslimprisoners, January 5, 2015 3:06pm

[32] Also known as Deso Dogg or Abu Talha al-Almani, Cuspert was a prominent German former rap star turned jihadi and activist for German ALM equivalent Millatu Ibrahim. He was one of several Miltatu Ibrahim figures to travel Syria. The Austrian founder of the group Mohammed Mahmoud was one of Cuspert’s close contacts. Mahhmoud left home aged 17 in 2002 to train in an Ansar al-Islam camp in Iraq. After his return to Europe he played a major role in the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF), a source for non-Arabic language translations of jihadi material. In 2007 he was arrested by authorities, leading to a four year jail sentence. On his release he moved to Berlin and founded Millatu Ibrahim, which rapidly became the center of Germany’s Salafi scene. In 2012 he fled to Egypt before becoming a senior figure in the insurgency in Syria. He  is now considered one of the most senior figures in the German and European foreign fighter contingent, helping produce the Islamic State propaganda magazine Dabiq and al-Hayat media center releases. He is believed to continue to draw on his ALM-linked European contacts to recruit. See “In Search of ‘True’ Islam: Salafists Abandon Germany for Egypt,” Der Spiegel, August 13, 2002; Souad Mekhennet, “Austrian Returns, Unrepentant, to Online Jihad,” New York Times, November 15, 2011; Petra Ramsauer, “Mohamed Mahmoud: A Holy Warrior’s Book,” Profil, August 17, 2015.

[33] Author archive: Twitter conversation between Secunder Kermani and Rahin Aziz.

[34] Author archive: Twitter conversation between Secunder Kermani and Rahin Aziz.

[35] “New Brit propaganda guide by Brit sells ‘Costa’ caliphate,” Channel 4, May 19, 2015.

[36] Tweet with pictures by @TawheedNetwrk July 8, 2015 4:41pm

[37] “Three in terror-related arrests in Luton and Letchworth,” BBC News, July 14, 2015.

[38] “Man charged with US military terrorist plot,” Sky News, July 21, 2015.

[39] Mike Sullivan, “Foiled: British terror attacks in days,” Sun, July 14, 2015.

[40] “Man charged with US military terrorist plot,” Sky News, July 21, 2015.

A very belated posting of an article that came out a while ago for the CTC Sentinel. It has been a very hectic and busy time and I have let things slip, but am going to try to finally catch up. A few longer pieces are working their way through the system and should land soon, and far more exciting my book on Jihad in the UK is finally done and printed. So look to a lot more in that direction soon. To catch up on a few conversations I had with the media, I spoke to ITN about a recent case which is featured in this article, Brutschom Ziamani, to the Washington Post about terrorists getting guns in Europe, to Channel 4 about ISIS, Aftenposten about UK terrorism, spoke to Foreign Policy about terrorism in Xinjiang, to McClatchy about Uighurs going to join ISIS, and a longer interview for NPR in the US about responses and the threat in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Britain’s Terror Threat From The Levant

January 20, 2015

Author(s): Raffaello Pantucci

On January 8, 2014, in the immediate wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, MI5 Director-General Andrew Parker gave his second public speech, during which, among other things, he outlined the nature of the threat that the United Kingdom faces from Syria. As he put it, “Terrorists based in Syria harbour [terrorist] ambitions towards the United Kingdom, trying to direct attacks against our country and exhorting extremists here to act independently.”[1] He highlighted how the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has tried to “direct terrorist attacks in the UK and elsewhere from Syria” as well as “seeking through propaganda to provoke individuals in the UK to carry out violent acts here.”[2] He also highlighted how the threat faced was one that comes not only from ISIL extremists, but also “that a group of core al-Qa’ida terrorists in Syria is planning mass casualty attacks against the West.”[3]

So far, there have been five publicly identifiable, alleged plots disrupted in the United Kingdom as well as a number of scares. The alleged plotting dates back to October 14, 2013, when British police in London conducted a series of dramatic arrests to foil what was at the time characterized as a “suspected Islamist terror plot to attack London.”[4] Almost exactly a year later, the trial against the two defendants charged in the wake of the arrests (two other individuals were released without charge) took place, providing Britain with the most detailed look yet into the nature of the threat that Britain’s security services see emanating from Syria. Ultimately, one of the men pleaded guilty while the jury could not reach a verdict in the other case. Amplifying the perception of the threat to the United Kingdom, as the trial was underway, police arrested another group of individuals who stand accused of plotting terrorism,[5] and the United Kingdom experienced its first reported suicide bomber in Iraq.[6]

This article will examine the current landscape of Islamist terror activity linked to Syria and Iraq in the United Kingdom, examining both recent plotting on the domestic front and the growing role of Britons in Syria and Iraq. It concludes that the lines and links between these two categories of radicalized Britons present a fluid and complicated community that is continuing to produce a steady stream of plots and networks of concern to security services. Both are building on significant challenges that have been extant in the United Kingdom for some time and that were most recently highlighted in a parliamentary report into the May 2013 murder of Lee Rigby by Islamist extremists.[7] That plot, and the parliamentary investigation, showed the complexity of the lone-actor terrorist threat the United Kingdom faces from both isolated individuals and those already on the radar screen of intelligence services, something that is increasingly also seen among the pool of potential threats emerging from radicalization of Britons in the wake of the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).[8]

The threat from Syria and Iraq is increasingly maturing and following a trajectory that reflects broader trends that have been visible in the United Kingdom for some time. Syria and Iraq and the associated foreign fighter flow is something that British security services expect will occupy their attention for the immediate future.

Mumbai-Style Plot
The trial of Mounir Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, a 26-year-old British national of Algerian descent, and Erol Incedal, a 26-year-old of Turkish origin, opened October 8, 2014, at the Old Bailey. Initially, the trial was to be held in secret with the two defendants listed anonymously as AB and CD, but after a media-led battle in the courts, it was decided that only some of the trial would be held in secret and that the two defendants would be named.[9] On the eve of the trial, Rarmoul-Bouhadjar pleaded guilty to possessing a “document containing information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, namely a document entitled ‘Bomb making.’”[10] A second charge of improperly obtaining an identity document was dropped.[11] Incedal, on the other hand, fought the case, and after a month long trial a jury was unable to reach a verdict. The judge dismissed the jury and the Crown Prosecution Services (CPS) declared it would seek a retrial.

Much of Incedal’s defense was held behind closed doors, while the prosecution was able to lay its case out publicly. Incedal had been in possession of a Secure Digital card taped to his mobile phone, in which the same bomb-making material that Rarmoul-Bouhadjar owned was saved, labeled “good stuff.” According to expert-witness testimony provided during the trial, the instructions contained in the document would have made an extremely sensitive mix of triacetone triperoxide (TATP). As the witness stated on the stand, the document “generally contains correct information that could be used to produce viable devices. However, it lacks detail and further information might be required.”[12] In a further reference to bomb-making, another file on the memory card stated, “The first rule of bomb-making is that your first mistake will be your last.”[13]

Incedal was born to a Kurdish family in Turkey, where his father, an active communist, died when he was six weeks old. His mother, an Alawite, moved to Britain when Incedal was a year old, leaving her children to join her later in the UK. His older sister joined the Kurdistan Workers’ Party[14] and died fighting alongside the group, while his older brother was later sectioned (taken into a secure mental hospital) under the mental health act. As a young man in the United Kingdom, Incedal was involved in gangs and arrested for attempted theft in October 2001. A year or so later he became religious, and soon afterward was drawn to Tablighi Jamaat,[15] enjoying the brotherhood it provided. He traveled with the group to Greece, India, Bangladesh, and New York, and met his co-defendant Rarmoul-Bouhadjar in Tablighi Jamaat.[16] Sometime in 2011 he became connected to the now-jailed sons of cleric Abu Hamza, Hamza, Sufyan, and Yaasir, with whom he was allegedly planning frauds and armed robberies of post offices.[17] It is not clear what became of these plans.

The prosecution’s case centered on the accusation that the defendants were planning a Mumbai-style attack[18]or possibly a targeted assassination of former Prime Minister Tony Blair.[19] In Skype conversations in which he used the name Fatima Hamoodi to communicate with an individual abroad who called himself Zaynab Alawi, Incedal wrote, “These straps are not the little ones, they are like the ones we have here – y knw k 1122aa shhh etc.” “Straps” was believed to refer to guns (a traditional terminology amongst urban youth in London) and “k 1122aa shhh” to Kalashnikov.[20] Later in the Skype conversation the two Skype accounts were recorded discussing, “If they’re able to get these type and it works, may want you to MO 88M 55BAY style,” something the prosecution interpreted as being a reference to the Mumbai attacks of 2008.[21] However, at the time of their arrests the men were not found in possession of any guns, though they were overheard through a police listening device discussing purchasing one in their car, using the slang “sausage” to refer to a gun and “sauce” for bullets.[22]

The plotting around the assassination of Tony Blair was far more circumstantial. Incedal was pulled over under the guise of a traffic stop in September, during which time authorities searched his car. In the process they found a Versace glasses case, which contained one of Tony Blair’s addresses. This same case was then later found at a second flat that Incedal failed to report to authorities when he was arrested. They also found evidence of multiple inhabitants and the computer on which Incedal was talking to someone abroad.[23]

At another moment during the trial, the two defendants were overheard seeming to refer to their time in Syria. In a conversation recorded in their vehicle Rarmoul-Bouhadjar was heard saying, “In Syria the weather was . . .” before Incedal interrupts saying, “Wallahi [I swear] it was like minus 20 degrees because we were on a mountain.”[24] At another moment while the men were overheard watching extremist videos in which men were shooting, Incedal comments “we used that,” while in another moment Incedal reports that ISIL undertakes a lot of “drive by shootings” that he finds inspiring: “They do it a love bruv. And they’ve got this special like machine Uzi gun like and silence on it – its nuts.”[25]

It is unclear why the jury returned an inconclusive verdict, though likely the absence of weaponry or a clearly defined plan of attack left some major gaps in the prosecution’s case. It is likely that Incedal’s defense will eventually be revealed, though at this point it is being kept behind the veil of secrecy. The re-trial is expected to occur sometime this year.

Targeting of Officials
This is the not the only plot that British security services believe they have intercepted. In early October 2014, police arrested five individuals believed to be involved in a plot targeting police officers with a Russian-made Baikal machine gun and ammunition.[26] Tarik Hassane, 21, a medical student at university in Sudan; Suhaib Majeed, 20, a physics student at King’s College London; Momen Motasim, 21; and Nyall Hamlett, 24, all stand accused of planning to use the gun and a moped to conduct a drive-by shooting of security officers. A fifth man charged alongside them was accused of supplying the gun.[27] The men were believed to be inspired by ISIL and had allegedly downloaded ISIL spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s fatwa calling on followers to launch attacks, taken pictures of police officers, discussed ISIL online, undertaken online reconnaissance of a police station in west London, and pledged allegiance to the group.[28] Charged with planning a terrorist attack, the men face trial this year.

More recently, on the eve of the 2014 November 11th Remembrance Day celebrations in the United Kingdom, police arrested a further four men in raids that were believed to be linked to a plot to target security officials at a public event.[29] The main suspect in the case, Yousaf Syed, is a 19-year-old who had his passport canceled after security services believed he tried to travel to Pakistan in 2013 for “terrorist purposes” and then in 2014 attempted to go to Syria.[30] On November 20, 2014, three men (Yousaf Syed, Yousaf’s cousin Nadir Ali Sayed, and Haseeb Hamayoon) were charged with plotting to behead a member of the public on the streets of Britain.[31] The men were reported to have “laughed hysterically” as the charges against them were read out in court and were reported in court to have been inspired by ISIL.[32] They also face trial this year.

Reflecting a threat picture that from the security services’ perspective has widened beyond networks of people plotting attacks to include “lone actor” terrorists, police separately arrested 19-year-old Brustchom Ziamani and 18-year-old Kazi Jawad Islam. Both men stand accused of planning to launch attacks against government security forces, though in different ways. Jawad Islam was arrested in east London on August 13, 2014, having reportedly given the order to unknown others to kill a British soldier. In court he was reported to have been overheard saying, “When I give the order I want you to kill a soldier.” He is alleged to have searched for materials to help him produce an improvised explosive device as well as possessed a document entitled “How to Make Semtex.”[33]

A Congolese-British convert, Ziamani was also arrested in August in the wake of the release of the ISIL video in which the American reporter James Foley was beheaded. Accused of planning an attack similar to the one against British soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich in May 2013, Ziamani was arrested with a knife and a hammer wrapped in an Islamic flag in a bag on his back. In presenting Ziamani to the court, the prosecution stated that “he is 19 and of previous good character. He said to (a female teenager) he is going to commit a … terrorist atrocity either on troops or members of the government.”[34] He was further accused of wanting to go to Syria to fight alongside ISIL. Both men are due to stand trial this year.

The lone-actor plot, in particular targeting authorities, has become the heart of the threat that British security services currently see. In early December 2014, a threat believed to have come through social media ignited concern that police officers in Birmingham were to be targeted for attack. One man was arrested as a result.[35] This concern escalated further around Christmas with armed police standing guard outside prominent locations in London where formal sentries stand to attention in dress uniform (such as Buckingham Palace or the famous Horseguards Parade), while service personnel were told not to wear their uniforms to and from work.[36]

Britain’s Levantine Connection Strengthens
This escalating number of plots took place against a backdrop of revelations that British fighters were killed in U.S. airstrikes against Khorasan Group camps near Aleppo on September 23, 2014;[37] that a number of Britons died fighting alongside ISIL in Kobane, Syria;[38] and that a Briton was involved in a suicide bombing attack alongside the group in Iraq. The suicide bomber was Derby-born Kabir Ahmed, who was revealed to have been previously convicted of hate crimes, and had gone to Syria in 2012.[39] Ahmed is the second British suicide bomber to have been publicly revealed as dying in Iraq or Syria, though it is believed more than 30 Britons have died in total during the conflict so far.[40]

Furthermore, British-linked fighters are believed to be rising in the ranks of groups fighting in Syria and Iraq, most prominently in the case of the infamous “Jihadi John,” who is accused of being the executioner in the ISIL beheading videos and separately as the leader of a group called Kateeba al Kawthar. In proscribing the latter group, British Minister James Brokenshire described its leader as an individual with a British accent who is featured in recruitment videos under the name Abu Musab but whose true name was revealed as Rabah Tahari.[41] Tahari’s wife and son were arrested and charged in Birmingham, accused of sending goods to him in Syria.[42] Ultimately, charges against both of them were dropped, and Tahari is believed to continue to be out of  the United Kingdom. All of this presents a worrying picture for security services who are concerned about the fact that British nationals are being radicalized, are fighting alongside numerous different groups, and are taking leadership roles in some cases.

At the same time, the public debate in the United Kingdom has been increasingly colored by and focused on the question of what to do with returning fighters. This debate became livelier with the revelations in early September 2014 that a group of British fighters in Syria contacted researchers at King’s College and asked them to facilitate their return to the UK.[43] Other groups of fighters have also allegedly been identified, though it is unclear the degree to which these clusters of individuals are real fighters or are British nationals who went out under the auspices of aid work and ended up becoming embroiled in the fighting and now find themselves with nowhere to go. The dilemma of what to do with returnees is something that security forces balance against the number of disrupted plots that they have faced. One report to emerge in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris stated that “more than 30 ISIS fighters in the UK have been placed under surveillance by MI5 because they are considered a serious threat” and that “a further 120 who retain ‘extremist’ views but have escaped detailed scrutiny will be reassessed amid fears that they have the firearms training to commit a copycat attack.”[44]

Conclusion
It is not clear whether the plots discussed in this article were directed by foreign groups or networks like ISIL, al-Nusra Front, or the cluster identified as the Khorasan Group on the battlefield in Syria or Iraq. In Incedal’s case, it seems that he was discussing his plans with someone abroad, but in the other cases no evidence of direction from overseas has yet been provided, though clearly the head of MI5 has identified that his service has seen such active plotting. Instead, the publicly identified and detailed plots appear to bear the hallmarks of being inspired by ISIL or potentially loosely linked to individuals with direct experience on the battlefield.

The plots appear to be the product of a fusion of trends, of lone actors and foreign fighters, with some individuals seemingly heeding al-Adnani’s call to “kill a disbelieving American or European–especially the spiteful and filthy French–or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be….Do not ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict. Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they have the same ruling. Both of them are disbelievers.”[45]

Having already experienced the Woolwich incident, in which a pair of radicalized individuals who were longstanding subjects of counterterrorism investigations abruptly decided to run over in a car and brutally butcher an off-duty soldier, British forces are already alert to the possible threat from such small-cell or lone-actor terrorist activity. But given the potential numbers of individuals of concern connected with Syria and Iraq (of whom about 250-300 are believed to have returned home), the threat picture is one that has multiplied significantly.

Distinguishing the fighters who are genuine in their desire to return home to ordinary lives from those who might pose a terrorist threat is a major challenge. However, given the current trend of plots that appear to have loose connections to the battlefield but limited direction, British security forces seem to be dealing with two distinct groups. One group within the United Kingdom seems to be radicalizing and, inspired by narratives that ISIL is broadcasting, is choosing to plot terrorist attacks at home. The other is choosing to go abroad to fight with some possibly returning home to plan attacks. The line between these two groups is unclear, but what does seem clear is that these two parallel trends, and their increasing collision together, will cause major counterterrorism challenges for the next several years at least.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

[1] Andrew Parker, “Terrorism, Technology and Accountability,” Address by the Director-General of the Security Service, Andrew Parker, to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Thames House, January 9, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Justin Davenport, “Police foil ‘major Islamist terror plot’ after armed raids across London,” The Evening Standard, October 15, 2013.
[5] Patrick Sawer, Nicola Harley, and Tom Whitehead, “Armed police arrest four men amid fears of Islamist Remembrance Day terror plot,” The Telegraph, November 7, 2014.
[6] Martin Naylor, “Suicide Bomber: report claims Islamic State suicide bomber in Kabir Ahmed, of Normanton, Derby,” Derby Telegraph, November 10, 2014.
[7] “Report on the intelligence relating the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby,” Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, November 25, 2014.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Guardian News and Media Ltd vs AB CD, Royal Courts of Justice, Strand, Case No: 2014/02393C1, judgment handed down June 12, 2014.
[10] “Defendant in UK’s first secret trial pleads guilty,” The Telegraph, October 9, 2014.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Duncan Gardham, “Terror suspect had ‘reasonable excuse’ for having bomb-making plans,’” The Times, October 27, 2014.
[13] Sean O’Neill, “Armed police hunted Mercedes of terror suspect and blew out tires,” The Times, October 15, 2014.
[14] In Kurdish, Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK).
[15] Tablighi Jamaat is a Muslim movement whose name literally translates as “society for spreading faith” and is an off-shoot of the Deobandi movement in South Asia.
[16] Duncan Gardham, “Terror suspect had ‘reasonable excuse’ for having bomb-making plans,” The Times, October 27, 2014.
[17] Tom Whitehead, “Secret terror trial hears Erol Incedal considered joining forces with Abu Hamza’s sons,” The Telegraph, November 3, 2014.
[18] This refers to the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, India, during which teams of Lashkar-i-Tayyiba attackers assaulted multiple targets in Mumbai using small arms and taking hostages, ultimately killing 164 people (including 10 attackers).
[19] Sean O’Neill, “Tony Blair was a ‘terror target,’” The Times, October 14, 2014.
[20] Tom Whitehead, “Erol Incedal secret terror trial: jury discharged and retrial ordered,” The Telegraph, November 11, 2014.
[21] Sean O’Neill, “Armed police hunted Mercedes of terror suspect and blew out tires,” The Times, October 15, 2014.
[22] Victoria Ward, “Secret terror trial hears Erol Incedal used code word ‘sausage’ to buy a gun,” The Telegraph, October 16, 2014.
[23] Victoria Ward, “Tony and Cherie Blair named in secret terror trial as potential targets,” The Telegraph, October 14, 2014.
[24] Sean O’Neill and Duncan Gardham, “Terror suspect ‘discussed Syria and buying firearm,’” The Times, October 17, 2014.
[25] “Terror accused ‘praised jihadist battles in Syria and Iraq,’” BBC News, October 15, 2014.
[26] Fiona Hamilton and Sean O’Neill, “Terror suspects charged with moped plot to shoot police,” The Times, October 18, 2014.
[27] Fiona Hamilton and Sean O’Neill, “Terror suspects charged with moped plot to shoot police,” The Times, October 18, 2014.
[28] Victoria Ward and Nicola Harley, “ISIL terror suspect Tarik Hassane offered place at top UK university,” The Telegraph, October 8, 2014.
[29] Michael Powell and Duncan Gardham, “Teenage suspect in ‘Poppy terror plot’ tried to travel to Syria six months ago to ‘take part in extremist activity,’” The Mail on Sunday, November 8, 2014.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Martin Evans, “Terror suspects plotted to behead member of the public, court hears,” The Telegraph, November 20, 2014.
[32] Ibid.
[33] “Islam: Teenager Gave ‘Kill Solider’ Order,” Court News UK, December 4, 2014.
[34] Martin Robinson, “British-born Muslim convert ‘plotted atrocity and had a knife and hammer wrapped in an Islamic flag,’” Daily Mail, August 21, 2014.
[35] Vikram Dodd, “Man arrested in West Midlands after police warning of security threat,” The Guardian, December 9, 2014.
[36] Abul Taher and Mark Nichol, “Retreating of the Queen’s Guard: End of an era as palace sentries fall back in face of mounting fears of new ‘lone wolf’ terrorist attack,” The Mail on Sunday, December 27, 2014.
[37] Secunder Kermani, “Friend of British jihadist Ibrahim Kamara tells of fight,” BBC Newsnight, September 25, 2014.
[38] Patrick Sawer and Duncan Gardham, “Portsmouth private school jihadi killed in Syria,” The Telegraph, October 25, 2014.
[39] Martin Naylor, “Derby would-be suicide bomber: He is dad Kabir Ahmed with gay-hatred convictions,” Derby Telegraph, July 24, 2014.
[40] Tom Whitehead, John Bingham, and Sarah Knapton, “Up to 30 British jihadists now dead in Syria but toll will rise with ISIS lure,” The Telegraph, October 15, 2014.
[41] Hansard Parliamentary record, June 19, 2014.
[42] “Tahari: Mum and Son Bailed Over Syria Terrorism Charges,” Court News UK, March 17, 2014.
[43] Tom Coghlan, “Let us come home, say young British jihadists,” The Times, September 5, 2014.
[44] Tim Shipman, Richard Kerbaj, Dipesh Gadher, and Tom Harper, “Terror alert over 150 UK jihadists,” The Sunday Times, January 11, 2015.
[45] Helen Davidson, “ISIS instructs followers to kill Australians and other ‘disbelievers,’” The Guardian, September 23, 2014.

A new piece for China Outlook, an excellent online magazine that I have actually written for before, but failed to post here for some reason. For my previous piece for them, please see here, it looked at foreign investment into Xinjiang and the difficulties the Chinese government was encountering in persuading people to come. This one instead draws and expands considerably on a presentation I did in Beijing. It draws on my time honoured theme of China’s push into Central Asia, and of course, much of my work on this topic can also be found on the site I co-run, China in Central Asia. Special thanks to editor Nick at China Outlook for his work on this and for allowing me to repost here and on my other site.

Related, I spoke to the Associated Press about Xinjiang and how the Chinese government tries to control the narrative, and unrelated, to NBC about the new video featuring European fighters to emerge from ISIS in Syria.

China’s inexorable drive into Central Asia

August 5, 2014

by Raffaello Pantucci

Central-Asia-270x167

Picture from China Outlook

In a speech last September at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan, China’s President Xi Jinping coined a new strategic vision for his country’s relations with Central Asia, calling for the creation of a Silk Road Economic Belt. Coming at the culmination of a sweep through Central Asia during which he signed deals worth $56bn and touched down in four out of five capitals, the declaration may be something that has now received a new moniker from President Xi, but the economic and geopolitical reality that it characterizes is one that has been underway for some time.

President Xi’s declaration of the Silk Road Economic Belt needs to be understood within a wider context, particularly in his October 2013 speech at a work conference on diplomacy in which he set out his first formal statement on foreign policy. There he highlighted the priority he wanted his administration to place on border diplomacy: “We must strive to make our neighbours more friendly in politics, economically more closely tied to us, and we must have deeper security cooperation and closer people-to-people ties.”

The emphasis has continued and China has placed great store by the events it is hosting which focus on regional coordination and connectivity: the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) was elevated from being an unheard-of conference to a spectacle of international importance; whilst the Heart of Asia process (focused on re-connecting Afghanistan to its region) is being hosted in Tianjin later in August to equal fanfare. On the international stage, China has prioritized creating a new development bank to reflect both its increasing rejection of the old global financial structures, but also to increase its ability to influence growth and development in the world.

The clearest expression of the Xi administration’s newly attentive border diplomacy, however, can be found in the focus on economic corridors. The declaration of the Silk Road Economic Belt has been matched by an enhanced focus on three other major economic corridors emanating from China: the Maritime Silk Road, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor.

Talk to Chinese officials or experts and they will talk of these corridors as strings of the same instrument, highlighting the focus on economics, connectivity and the stability that flows from prosperity as the end goal of this ‘corridor’ diplomacy. Officials talk of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ strategy that focuses in particular on the Maritime Silk Road and the Silk Road Economic Belt as the two core elements.

For President Xi’s administration, the aim is to recreate China as the heart and hub of regional politics and economics, to develop China’s poorer border regions and to provide prosperity and opportunity for Chinese firms that are increasingly being pushed to go out into the world. In diplomatic terms, it is the beginnings of a realization in Beijing that it can no longer sit by and let international affairs happen in its neighborhood without taking any role. But as with all Chinese initiatives, it starts by focusing on confidence-building measures, discussion and economics.

China’s rise in Central Asia at the expense of Russian influence and power is not new, but has been underway for almost a decade. President Xi’s visit to Astana came off the back of a number of regional visits by his predecessor President Hu where China had signed a number of huge deals and demonstrated that it was the coming power in Central Asia. As Russian influence has stagnated and infrastructure rotted, Chinese firms have moved in to secure energy fields and mining concessions, as well as rebuilding Central Asia’s physical infrastructure.

Travel along the routes from Kashgar or Urumqi in Xinjiang into Central Asia and you will find roads and rail links that have been refurbished or newly built by Chinese firms. Pipelines from Kazakhstan’s oil fields in Atyrau or Turkmenistan’s super-giant Galkynysh gas field have been built in record time to bring the fuel back to China. Mining concessions across Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been snapped up by Chinese firms, while Chinese companies burrow roads and rail links through mountains in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Visit downtown Dushanbe in Tajikistan, and you will now find a city that has had its main roads refurbished in time for a national anniversary by Chinese firms, a Presidential home and library built by Chinese companies, a CCTV traffic system paid for by a China Development Bank loan and built by Huawei, fields of cranes manned by Chinese workers erecting new buildings around the city, and all of this powered by a giant thermal electricity plant built by PowerChina that ensures that Dushanbe’s power shortages during winter are a thing of the past.

China’s relationship with Central Asia can no longer be caricatured as being built on extracting mineral wealth to feed insatiable Chinese factories. Chinese companies build infrastructure and are increasingly becoming regional energy suppliers, as well as supplying Chinese goods into Central Asian markets. From Kyrgyzstan’s southern entrepots of Kara-Suu and Osh to the Caspian Sea at Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan, Chinese goods fill the markets.

Talk to young students at the Confucius Institutes in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere and they will often speak of learning Mandarin at their parents’ demand to help them cut better deals in Chinese markets in Urumqi or Guangzhou. Language training at a more formal level extends to officialdom in Kyrgyzstan, with scholarships offered to bureaucrats in the Presidential administration, ministry of foreign affairs and ministry of the interior. Beijing, Shanghai and Urumqi universities are full of Central Asian officials’ children who are learning Mandarin. When Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov visited Beijing in November 2011 he was greeted by around 1,000 Turkmen students on scholarships at Chinese higher education establishments.

These scholarships are part of the Chinese soft power push into the region, one that is matched with strong political relations that are advanced at a bilateral basis as well as through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). And as this multifaceted push develops, its economic force and gravity becomes a draw for random Chinese traders and adventurers seeking prosperity.

One couple in Bishkek reported initially arriving as officials working for a state owned firm and as a travel agent: 15 years later, they owned stalls in Kyrgyzstan’s markets, a Chinese restaurant in Bishkek, as well as a biscuit factory outside the city. In downtown Dushanbe, a generous Chinese businessman who had been in the country for about seven years proudly showed off the factory into which he had designed purpose-built flats for Chinese workers coming into the country. His main industry was a fireworks factory and on his wall he displayed a calendar with pictures of himself with senior leaders and events at which he had supplied the fireworks.

The drive behind all this activity is both directed and haphazard. The latter is mostly the product of industrious Chinese following the economic gravity in the region. At a more directed level, however, the effort is part of a longstanding effort by the Chinese government to increase development and prosperity in the under-developed western regions. Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province that accounts for a sixth of the nation’s land mass, has an under-developed infrastructure with an angry Uighur minority who are increasingly expressing their anger through attacks against state institutions.

The Chinese government’s solution to this is a heavy-handed security response matched with focused economic investment. But for landlocked Xinjiang to be able to prosper it will require trade links through Central Asia to Russian and ultimately European markets, or through Afghanistan or Pakistan to Arab and Iranian markets or to the Indian Ocean.

The push in this direction has been in existence for some time. It was late 2011 when Peking University’s dean of international studies, Wang Jisi, first floated his ‘March Westward’ concept. And it is one that President Xi Jinping appears to have harnessed as one of the cores of his foreign policy direction as he looks out at the world.

Building on the success of this drive into Central Asia and its economic and trade push, with politics and security coming as secondary consequences, the model is now being replicated elsewhere, with the four corridors fundamentally echoing the New Silk Road that had been underway for some time.

For anyone trying to understand China’s foreign policy under Xi Jinping, it is in Central Asia that the first glimmers of understanding can be found. The larger focus on border diplomacy and its short and medium-term impacts and consequences can all be found in Central Asia where China is rapidly becoming the most influential player on the ground.

The region is being re-wired so that all roads go to China, and the economics are slowly becoming increasingly dependent on China. The longer-term implications of this shift have yet to be completely understood, but they will likely strike a path that we will slowly see China following along its other economic corridors.

My new piece for CTC’s Sentinel, this one an update for a piece I did for them last February looking at the UK-Syria connection. Lots more on this topic coming.

The British Foreign Fighter Contingent in Syria

45

In mid-April 2014, the British government released its latest annual report on CONTEST, the British counterterrorism strategy. Focusing on the persistent threat from international terrorism faced by the United Kingdom, the document highlighted how the British government is “concerned about the threat to the UK from Syria based groups and the threat from foreign fighters returning to this country.”[1] Officials spoke of 33-50% of security service casework having a Syria component to it.[2]

The threat of returning fighters from Syria is one that British security officials already believe they have seen and disrupted, specifically in the form of a “Mumbai-style” plot targeting the United Kingdom in October 2013 that reportedly had links to Syria.[3] On the ground in Syria, British fighters continue to die and broadcast their activities through a variety of social media platforms, while publicly denying the accusation of wanting to launch attacks in the United Kingdom.[4] The community of Britons in Syria, however, reveals a group with strong links to criminal networks in the United Kingdom, as well as a growing willingness to publicize violent activity that might constitute war crimes.

Taken alongside the fact that Britons appear to be fighting with a multiplicity of groups (many British fighters who announce their affiliation claim to be members of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, although others appear in images fighting alongside groups connected to Jabhat al-Nusra or even other smaller units), it seems that the threat to the United Kingdom is growing. The actual number of British fighters in Syria is an imprecise science, with French President Francois Hollande saying in January 2014 that some 700 Britons were fighting in Syria, a figure downplayed by the British government who stood by 350 fighters.[5] The International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) estimated in December 2013 that there were somewhere between 43-366 British fighters who had traveled to Syria.[6] A more recent figure was offered by Helen Ball, the senior national coordinator for counterterrorism in the Metropolitan Police, who admitted that as many as 700 Britons might be fighting in Syria.[7]

This article offers a brief background on the alleged Mumbai-style plot that was disrupted in October 2013, and then looks more specifically at the community of British fighters in Syria. It finds that while most British foreign fighters in Syria may not pose a domestic threat to the United Kingdom, it appears likely that some might, especially in light of the recent Mumbai-style plot that reportedly had connections to the Syrian battlefield.

Mumbai-Style Plot
On the evening of October 14, 2013, police staged a dramatic series of arrests across London.[8] Four men, all allegedly long-term investigative suspects, were picked up in the sweep after authorities believed the group might have had access to firearms.[9] Two individuals were arrested in a “hard stop” involving shotgun rounds used to blow out the wheels of the car they were driving, a third at his home in Peckham and a final suspect outside an Iranian restaurant in Westbourne Grove.[10]

The identities of the four men were not confirmed beyond their ethnicities and ages: all were British nationals, but one each of Algerian, Azerbaijani, Pakistani and Turkish ethnicity. Ultimately, charges were only brought against the Algerian and Turkish individuals, who were both charged with “making record of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism or possessing a document or record containing information of that kind.”[11] The Turkish individual was also accused of “preparing a terrorist act,” while the Algerian was accused of “possession with a false document.”[12] It is believed the other two were released.

There has been a tight hold on further information allowed in the public domain, although the understanding is that the men were believed to be planning a “Mumbai-style” shooting spree attack and the plot was one which had connections to Syria.[13] One report suggested the men may have met in Syria.[14] Information around the case has been limited with the names of the charged men kept out of the public domain. The case is due to go to trial later in the year.

British Fighters Increasingly Bold in Syria
Syria continues to have connections to Britain’s longstanding Islamist community, and the police have moved to clamp down heavily on the foreign fighter phenomenon at home. In the first three months of 2014, authorities made more than 40 arrests connected to Syria-related activity.[15] At the same time, the groups in Syria have become more bold, with British fighters communicating with the media to discuss their intentions and even going so far as to establish their own media outlet and group in December 2013 known as Rayat al-Tawhid.

The Rayat al-Tawhid branding has become an increasingly prominent feature of reporting in the United Kingdom around Syria, with the group publishing a series of videos and pictures through YouTube, Instagram and Twitter accounts that offer insights into personal experiences on the battlefield. The videos have glorified the fighting, calling on people to leave “the gangster life behind and join the life of jihad.”[16] Other more recent videos have shown the background of their lives near the battlefield, characterizing it as “Five Star Jihad”—a likely ironic reference to earlier images that emerged off the battlefield in which Britons described the luxurious lives they were leading with sweets from home and abandoned mansions with swimming pools in which to live.[17] Rayat al-Tawhid videos reflect a harder life on the battlefield, illustrating the basic living conditions, while also using the videos to solicit funding from the United Kingdom.[18] The group has also posted images of members involved in the apparent execution of an individual identified as a rapist, and in another image one of them is seen with a bag of heads that are apparently from a group of regime soldiers.[19]

It is not clear who is behind Rayat al-Tawhid, although their activities and publicity are reminiscent of longstanding British extremist groups. They speak with British accents, and their references to gang culture suggest at least a working knowledge of that life. What is somewhat disturbing about the group is their ease with the extreme violence and brutality of the battlefield in Syria, including involvement in battlefield executions, beheadings and possibly torture. The men all seem eager to maintain their anonymity and only appear in videos with their faces covered, which suggests that they want to protect their families back home from the attention of the authorities, or that they might plan to eventually return to the United Kingdom. This latter prospect is of great concern to British authorities, given their brutalization and apparent ability to manufacture explosives (a skillset suggested in images in which they show homemade bombs).

Kataib al-Muhajirin/Kataib al-Kawthar
This is not the first time that Britons have emerged in such a public way on the Syrian battlefield. In early 2013, a group called Kataib al-Kawthar began to produce tweets under the handle @KAlKawthar and established a Facebook page that on March 31, 2013, released a video entitled Commander Abu Musab’s Weekly Address, purporting to be “the first weekly address of Abu Musab, a western Mujaahid commander who is currently leading his forces against the oppressive regime of al-Assad.”[20] Delivered in fluent, but accented, English, the blurb promised regular weekly updates, although it is not clear if any more statements emerged. At around the same time as the video’s publication, Kataib al-Kawthar released a hagiographical video of Abu Kamal al-Swedee in both English and Arabic, with the English language delivered in native sounding English.[21] Abu Kamal was identified as a Finnish-born Swede with a convert Finnish mother and Swedish father.[22]

The video about Abu Kamal appeared to be produced by a parallel or sister group to Kataib al-Kawthar called Kataib al-Muhajirin, a grouping composed of foreign fighters in Syria apparently led by the Georgian Omar al-Shishani. The divisions between the group are unclear, with Abu Musab being referred to in a video released by Kataib al-Muhajirin as one of Omar al-Shishani’s commanders. The Abu Musab in the second video speaks only in Arabic, although prominent in the video are also Sayfullah al-Shishani and Ibrahim al-Mazwagi, a Libyan-Brit who was the first confirmed Briton killed in Syria.[23] A prominent figure who shows up repeatedly in Kataib al-Muhajirin videos, al-Mazwagi (also known as Abu Fidaa) fought previously in Libya and appeared to have enjoyed being filmed fighting in Syria.[24] Subsequent to his death, for example, a mini-film emerged showing his activities on the battlefield, joking around with fellow foreign fighters and marrying a Swedish woman who had come to the front.[25] In the Abu Kamal video, Abu Fidaa is referred to alongside suspected British national Abu Qudamah as carrying their fallen Swedish comrade’s body back to an ambulance.[26] Abu Qudamah seems to be the battlefield name of another British man from London who was later killed and who features prominently in images released by Kataib al-Muhajirin.

Abu Qudamah and Ibrahim al-Mazwagi feature in a number of images together, as well as with other individuals. Al-Mazwagi is later photographed alongside Omar al-Shishani, while Abu Qudamah is instead featured in a montage set of images published on Facebook by a now closed account in which a group of individuals were heralded as “Green Birds.”[27] What is particularly striking about this collection of images is that alongside Abu Qudamah, the montages feature Mohammed el-Araj, Bilal al-Berjawi and Mohammed Sakr. Al-Berjawi and Sakr were two Britons who came from west London and were killed in Somalia fighting alongside al-Shabab.[28] Mohammed el-Araj, on the other hand, was a Briton of Palestinian descent from Ladbroke Grove in west London who was killed in Syria in August 2013.[29] El-Araj was an engineering student who was arrested in January 2009 at a protest outside the Israeli Embassy.[30] Also arrested at the protest were Mohammed Sakr and Walla Rehman, although both received far lighter punishments than el-Araj—Sakr and Rehman were charged with affray under the public order act, while el-Araj was charged with handling stolen goods. Rehman’s significance within this context comes from the fact that he was identified as being involved in the same network as al-Berjawi and Sakr in East Africa.[31]

It is of course impossible to know the extent or importance of these connections, although it is notable that the men all come from a relatively similar part of London. It is possible that the young men all knew each other and the grouping behind them is one that has previously helped fighters reach Somalia and is now directing people toward Syria.[32] What is certainly concerning about this grouping is that it has clearly pledged allegiance and fought alongside Omar al-Shishani, a man who was the leader of foreign fighters in Syria and has now moved over to be a sub-commander to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)—one of the most violent groups in Syria. The other Chechen visible in the aforementioned video featuring Omar and Abu Musab, Sayfullah al-Shishani, appears to have broken away from Omar to set up a more independent faction fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra.[33] He was killed in early February 2014 in an attack on Aleppo prison where the first recorded British suicide bomber, Abdul Waheed Majid, killed himself.[34] A long-term activist himself, Abdul Waheed Majid had featured on the periphery of serious terrorist investigations in the United Kingdom for some time, including the large 2004 plot called Crevice that intended to target a shopping mall outside London with a large fertilizer-based explosive device.[35]

Historical and Criminal Networks
The war in Syria also has connections to longstanding members of the jihadist community in the United Kingdom. British foreign fighter Abdel Majed Abdel Bary, for example, is the son of Adel Abdel Bary, who was extradited to the United States in 2012 after spending years in British custody.[36] He stands accused of being the leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad’s cell in London in the 1990s and of providing support to Usama bin Ladin by helping to run a media outpost for al-Qa`ida.[37] He is also accused of involvement in the 1998 East Africa U.S. Embassy bombings.[38] The younger Bary, a former grime music rapper from west London, seems to have had a radical damascene moment in mid-2013, and in July declared on his Facebook page that “the unknown mixtape with my bro tabanacle will be the last music I’m ever releasing. I have left everything for the sake of Allah.”[39] In October 2013, he used his Twitter feed to ask “for everyone that still asks me about where my videos have gone, like I said a while back I quit music & I took all the vids I can down….& if you own a channel that has any of my music up can you take it down also, appreciated. Bless.”[40]

In other moments, the younger Bary referred to his missing father, pushed back against those who defamed the ISIL, and repeatedly denied accusations that he was in some way connected to prominent British extremist preacher Anjem Choudary. Mentioned in an early profile that exposed him publicly as fighting in Syria,[41] Bary seemed offended by the prospect, stating at one point “why linking me to anjem choudary again though, I dont know the man and we aint on the same wave lol hes on that microphone jihad.”[42] In another post, he reported how he and a fellow Briton were “kidnapped/tortured by FSA/IF scum they stole our ak’s and a 7mm, my vehicle & our phones and cash.”[43] Highlighting the circles in which he operated back in the United Kingdom, in mid-March 2014 he declared that “my lil brother ahmed got sentenced to life…26 years minimum….love lil bro see you in the afterlife inshallah #kasper.”[44] He appears to be referring to Ahmed Kasper Mikhaimar, a convicted burglar who in January 2014 was sentenced to 26 years incarceration for the murder of a teenager on London’s streets.[45]

This link to serious criminality can be found elsewhere among Britain’s community of fighters in Syria. Choukri Ellekhlifi, a Briton of Moroccan descent from Paddington west London who used the name Abu Hujama, was killed in August 2013 alongside his brother-in-arms Mohammed el-Araj.[46] Prior to coming to Syria, Ellekhlifi had been arrested with Mohammed Elyasse Taleouine and Mohammed Ibrahim in August 2012 after a series of brutal robberies in London’s affluent Belgravia district where masked men on bicycles attacked people walking the streets, threatening them with a taser while they stole their possessions.[47] In two cases, they used the taser on their victims.[48] The men were released on bail, and it appears that at this point Ellekhlifi fled the country and traveled to Syria where he joined the fighting.[49] Taleouine was re-arrested on January 10, 2013, when counterterrorism officers undertook an “intelligence-led operation” into “alleged facilitation of travel overseas for terrorism.”[50] Searching Taleouine’s property, police discovered a converted 9mm MAC-10 submachine gun, and he ultimately pleaded guilty to firearms offenses and robbery charges.[51] Taleouine was sentenced to 10 years in jail.[52]

Abdel Majed Abdel Bary also provides a connection to another relation of a prominent British individual previously accused of involvement with radical circles. On April 18, 2014, Bary tweeted “Subhanallah just seen the brother less than 2 weeks ago, may Allah accept his shahada, Abdullah Deghayas, martyr inshallah.”[53] This was a reference to Abdullah Deghayes, an 18-year-old Briton of Libyan descent who was killed fighting in Kassab, Latakia.[54] The nephew of former Guantanamo detainee Omar Deghayes, Abdullah is the middle child of three brothers who have left their homes in Brighton to fight alongside a Libyan unit in Syria called al-Battar.[55] His older brother Amer was shot in the stomach during the same clash, while his younger brother Jaffer is the youngest publicly confirmed Briton fighting in Syria at 16 years of age.[56] Their father has since pleaded for his two remaining sons to return home, although it seems uncertain whether this will be possible.[57]

The final connection to longstanding members of the UK jihadist scene is the case of Moazzam Begg, the former Guantanamo Bay detainee and founder of the Azzam Publications bookshop in Birmingham.[58] UK authorities arrested Begg on February 25, 2014, and charged him with providing terrorist training as well as funding terrorism overseas.[59] Arrested alongside him were Gerrie and Mouloud Tahari, a mother and son who are also charged with supporting terrorism overseas.[60] Begg’s arrest elicited substantial public outcry and his trial later in the year is likely to prove a major spectacle as he fights against perceived persecution.

Portsmouth’s Bangladeshi Bad Boys
Another cluster of Britons drawn to Syria can be found in Portsmouth where a group that seems to in part echo a local da`wa (propagation) community has gone to fight in Syria alongside the ISIL. The Portsmouth Da`wa Team continues to carry out its peaceful activities in the city center, and there has been no evidence presented that it is connected to terrorism. A number of former members, however, have gone to fight in Syria. Most prominently, Iftekar Jaman, a former call center employee and son of fast food restaurant owners, became something of a celebrity jihadist through his online media profile.[61] In November 2013, he achieved particular notoriety when he was interviewed by the BBC’s flagship Newsnight program.[62] He was also responsible for helping to facilitate travel to Syria for two other Britons who used the pseudonyms Abu Qaqa and Abu Layth al-Khorasani.[63] Abu Layth was later revealed to be a Manchester-born student at Liverpool University and part-time amateur boxer called Anil Khalil Raoufi.[64] Both Raoufi and Iftekar Jaman have since been killed fighting.[65]

Others from the Portsmouth cluster who are still fighting in Syria include former private schoolboy and fitness fanatic Muhammad Hassan.[66] Hassan, another participant in the Portsmouth da`wa group, is a regular on social media and promotes the ISIL’s cause.[67] In mid-November 2013, another Portsmouth man, Muhammad Hamidur Rahman, a manager at a local retail clothing store, told his family he was heading to Syria as part of an aid convoy only to reemerge weeks later as a fighter alongside the ISIL.[68] Both men are believed to still be fighting in Syria.

In contrast, Mashudur Choudhury, who recently became the first Briton to be convicted of terrorism charges related to the conflict in Syria,[69] was arrested upon his return to the United Kingdom on October 26, 2013.[70] He had left for Syria on October 8 with four other Portsmouth men on a commercial flight to Turkey (including Muhammad Hamidur Rahman and Muhammad Hassan) after long conversations via various social media and online communication methods, including Skype, with Iftekar Jaman.[71] In one of these messages, Choudhury suggested that the group he was traveling with should call themselves the “Britani brigade Bangladeshi bad boys,” which elicited a “lol sounds long” from Jaman.[72] Choudhury was also revealed to have argued about his activity with his wife who saw him as a fantasist and who finally told him in a July text message to “go die in battlefield. Go die, I really mean it just go. I’ll be relieved. At last. At last.”[73]

Conclusion

The flow of foreign fighters to Syria from the United Kingdom continues, although the scale is difficult to determine. The trends are worrisome, with the preponderance of longstanding networks of individuals involved in radical activity, the continued featuring of British nationals fighting alongside the ISIL, and the fact that a number of these nationals are connected to serious criminal networks in the United Kingdom. These factors highlight a trend that is likely to develop into future threats. The twin incidents of the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich by longstanding activist Michael Adebolajo and the suicide bombing in Aleppo by Abdul Waheed Majid, a man with almost two decades of radical activity, serve to highlight the persistent and long-term threat that such radicalized individuals can pose.

Thus far, only one domestic terrorist plot in the United Kingdom has been reported as having a connection to Syria, but there is an expectation that more will emerge.[74] While most fighters who return from Syria may not pose a threat, it is likely that some will. British fighters state that they have no intention of carrying out attacks in the United Kingdom, but the indicators from across Europe (including the recently foiled Mumbai-style plot) suggest that future domestic threats connected to the war in Syria are likely to emerge.[75]

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) and is grateful for the support of the Airey Neave Trust in his work on foreign fighters.

[1] “CONTEST: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism, Annual Report,” UK Home Office, April 9, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Duncan Gardham, “Police Foil ‘Mumbai-Style’ Terrorist Plot in London, Say Security Sources,” Guardian, October 14, 2013.

[4] “British Fighters in Syria ‘Not Planning UK Attacks,’” ITV News, April 8, 2014.

[5] Tom Whitehead, “700 Britons Fighting in Syria Terror Groups, Warns Hollande,” Telegraph, January 31, 2014.

[6] “Up to 11,000 Foreign Fighters in Syria; Steep Rise Among Western Europeans,” The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, December 17, 2013.

[7] Tom Whitehead, “Up to 700 Britons Feared to be in Syria,” Telegraph, April 24, 2014.

[8] Sean O’Neill and David Brown, “Syria Link to Terror Arrests in London Raids,” Times, October 15, 2014.

[9] Justin Davenport, “Police Foil ‘Major Islamist Terror Plot’ After Armed Raids Across London,” Evening Standard, October 14, 2013.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Two Men Charged with Terrorism Offences,” Press Association, October 20, 2013.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Gardham, “Police Foil ‘Mumbai-Style’ Terrorist Plot in London, Say Security Sources”; Justin Davenport, “Islamist Terror Suspects Could Have Met During Syria Conflict,” Evening Standard, October 15, 2013; Amanda Williams, “Hundreds of British Jihadis Returning From Fight in Syria Spark Terror Alert After Police and MI5 Thwart Mumbai-Style Attack on London,” Mail Online, February 16, 2014.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Tom Whitehead, “Syria-Related Arrests Soar as Police Urge Mothers and Wives to Stop Would-be Jihadis,” Telegraph, April 24, 2014.

[16] Steve Swann, “British Man Recruits for Syria Jihad,” BBC, December 20, 2013.

[17] Aris Roussinos, “Jihad Selfies: These British Extremists in Syria Love Social Media,” Vice, December 5, 2013.

[18] Know Your Role, Rayat al-Tawhid, April 25, 2014, available on Instagram.

[19] The image of the severed heads was posted on Instagram. The execution video was made public through the reporting of Tom Rayner, “British Fighters Filmed in Syria ‘War Crime,’” Sky News, May 2, 2014.

[20] Commander Abu Musab’s Weekly Address, Kataib al-Kawthar, March 30, 2013, available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wE0VWLgQnA.

[21] Shaheed Abu Kamal English Version, Kataib al Muhajirin, March 13, 2013, available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vn_8Ul4K_Gc.

[22] Per Gudmundson, “The Swedish Foreign Fighter Contingent in Syria,” CTC Sentinel 6:9 (2013).

[23] Richard Kerbaj and Malik al-Abdeh, “Dead at 21: Britain’s Veteran Jihadist,” Sunday Times, March 3, 2013.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Inigo Gilmore, “Britons Fighting with Syria’s Jihadi ‘Band of Brothers,’” Channel 4 News, June 14, 2013.

[26] Shaheed Abu Kamal English Version.

[27] Roussinos.

[28] For a more complete story about al-Berjawi’s and Sakr’s adventures in Somalia, see Raffaello Pantucci, “Bilal al-Berjawi and the Shifting Fortunes of Foreign Fighters in Somalia,” CTC Sentinel 6:9 (2013).

[29] Shiv Malik and Haroon Siddique, “Briton Killed Fighting in Syria Civil War,” Guardian, November 20, 2013.

[30] Ibid.

[31] J1 v. The Secretary of State for the Home Department, Royal Courts of Justice, 2013.

[32] It is possible that there is a similar structure at play in Belgium in a case currently working its way through the system in which fighters were being sent to both Somalia and Syria. See “L’epouse de Rachid Benomari lui envoyait de l’argent en Somalie,” La Libre, March 10, 2014.

[33] “An In-Depth Look At Chechen Fighters in Syria – Part I: Sayfullah Al-Shishani and His Circle,” Middle East Media Research Institute, December 6, 2013.

[34] “UK ‘Suicide Bomber’ Abdul Waheed Majid Video Posted Online,” BBC, February 14, 2014.

[35] Raffaello Pantucci, “Syria’s First British Suicide Bomber: The UK Jihadist Backdrop,” Royal United Services Institute, February 14, 2014.

[36] Chris Greenwood, “Fighting Jihad in Syria, The British ‘Grime’ Rapper from £1m Home in Maida Vale, West London, Who is the Son of a Suspected Al Qaeda Mastermind,” Daily Mail, December 31, 2013.

[37] “Fact Sheet on Extradition of 5 Terrorism Suspects to US: Information on Charges,” U.S. Embassy London, October 5, 2012.

[38] Ibid.

[39] This post, dated July 1, 2013, is available at http://www.facebook.com/LyricistJinn/posts/634492946562118.

[40] Twitter feed @ItsLJinny, October 9, 2013.

[41] Greenwood.

[42] Twitter feed @ItsLJinny, March 9, 2014.

[43] “The Scum Stole our Cash,” Daily Mail, March 9, 2014.

[44] Twitter feed @ItsLJinny, March 13, 2014.

[45] William Turvill, “Five Thugs who Killed a Schoolboy Stabbing Him with Swords and Meat Cleavers in one of Britain’s Wealthiest Postcodes are Jailed for 131 Years,” Daily Mail, January 31, 2014.

[46] Amie Keeley, “Four Britons ‘Killed Fighting in Syrian Civil War With Al Qaeda Rebels,’” Mail Online, November 20, 2013.

[47] Duncan Gardham, ‘The Al Qaeda Fanatic from Britain who Funded Jihad Trip to Syria by Mugging Londoners with a Taser,” Mail on Sunday, November 30, 2013.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Metropolitan Police statement, undated, available at http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.538475426199901.1073741856.423306314383480&type=3.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Twitter feed @ItsLJinny, April 18, 2014.

[54] “Father Scared for Sons in Syria,” Press Association, April 21, 2014.

[55] Conal Urquhart and Shiv Malik, “Teenager From Brighton Killed Within Weeks of Joining Syrian Conflict,” Guardian, April 18, 2014.

[56] Urquhart and Malik.

[57] Shiv Malik, “Father of UK Teenager Killed in Syria Implores his Other Sons to Return,” Guardian, April 20, 2014.

[58] “UK Ex-Guantanamo Detainee Moazzam Begg Remanded in Custody,” BBC, March 1, 2014.

[59] Ibid.

[60] “Mouloud Tahari: Briton, 20, Charged over Funding Syria Terrorism,” Independent, March 4, 2014.

[61] Edward Malnick and Richard Spencer, “British ‘Celebrity Jihadi’ and Chef Dies in Syria,” Telegraph, December 17, 2013.

[62] Richard Watson, “Briton ‘Doing his Duty’ by Fighting with Group Linked to al Qaeda in Syria,” BBC, November 21, 2013.

[63] Tam Hussein, “Social Media Jihadi: The Inside Story of a Briton who Died Fighting for ISIS,” Huffington Post, February 6, 2014.

[64] Yakub Qureshi, “Anil Khalil Raoufi, 20, Killed Fighting in Syria Thought War was ‘Like Star Wars,’” Manchester Evening News, February 13, 2014.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Dipesh Gadher, David Leppard, Hala Jaber, Toby Harnden and Laura Molyneaux, “‘We Need to Start Taking Heads Off’: The YouTube Jihadists who Pose a Risk to Britain,” Sunday Times, January 12, 2014.

[67] Dipesh Gadher and Laura Molyneaux, “Portsmouth’s Primark Jihadist Surfaces in Syria,” Sunday Times, December 1, 2013.

[68] Ibid.

[69] Dominic Casciani, “Mashudur Choudhury: Serial Liar and Jihadist,” BBC, May 20, 2014.

[70] Tom Whitehead, “Man Travelled to Syrian Terror Training Camp After Angry Wife Said ‘Go Die on Battlefield,’ Court Told,” Telegraph, May 7, 2014.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Ibid.

[74] O’Neill and Brown.

[75] Raffaello Pantucci, “Thick as Thieves: European Criminals Take to Syria’s Battlefield,” Royal United Services Institute, March 31, 2014.