Archive for the ‘CTC Sentinel’ Category

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.

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.

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.

My latest piece for CTC Sentinel has finally landed in timely fashion, about Bilal el Berjawi a British-Lebanese man who ended up connected with al Qaeda and al Shabaab in Somalia. Quite apt in the wake of events in Nairobi, about which I have done a few media hits. More on that later. I was on al Jazeera English’s channel talking about trouble in Sinai and Euronews on foreign fighters going to Syria.

Bilal al-Berjawi and the Shifting Fortunes of Foreign Fighters in Somalia

Sep 24, 2013

Author: Raffaello Pantucci
On September 21, 2013, al-Shabab militants attacked an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. The brazen operation comes in the aftermath of al-Shabab leader Ahmed “Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr” Godane’s consolidation of power. In June, Godane swept aside a raft of senior leaders in the group. His power grab marked a watershed event in a period of dramatic turmoil for al-Shabab.

One individual, Bilal al-Berjawi, whose death may have come as part of an early expression of this schism, returned to public attention when al-Shabab published a number of videos and materials celebrating him in early 2013. A British citizen who was drawn to Somalia before al-Shabab formally existed, he rose through the ranks of al-Shabab and the foreign fighter cell linked to al-Qa`ida to become a figure who was reportedly second only to the head of al-Qa`ida’s East Africa operations, Fazul Abdullah Mohammad (also known as Fadil Harun). Al-Berjawi’s death in January 2012 reportedly triggered tensions within al-Shabab, culminating in Godane’s takeover earlier this year. Yet al-Shabab emphasized that al-Berjawi’s death was the product of Western intelligence efforts, rather than an internal purge.[1]

The accuracy of al-Shabab’s claims in the videos remain to be proven, but the releases provide an interesting view on current developments within al-Shabab as well as illuminating al-Berjawi’s role within the group and his narrative as an epigraph for foreigners drawn to al-Shabab.

This article offers an in-depth look into al-Berjawi’s life, as well as some thoughts on how he may have become enmeshed within the contingent of al-Shabab that has been sidelined. Al-Berjawi’s death, the reported death of American al-Shabab fighter Omar Hammami alongside another Briton,[2] the death of long-time al-Shabab leader Ibrahim al-Afghani, the disappearance of Mukhtar Robow, and Hassan Dahir Aweys’ decision to turn himself in to authorities all point to a change within the organization that seems to have been punctuated by the ambitious attack in Nairobi. The ultimate result is still developing, but al-Berjawi’s rise and fall provides a useful window with which to look at the role of foreigners in the conflict in Somalia.

The Life of Bilal al-Berjawi
Bilal al-Berjawi was a Lebanon-born, British-educated young man also known as Abu Hafsa.[3] Born in Beirut in September 1984, his parents brought him to the United Kingdom when he was a baby.[4] Raised in west London, he lived as a young man near an Egyptian family whose son, Mohammed Sakr, became his close friend. Characterized as “two peas in a pod” by fellow Somalia-based foreign jihadist Omar Hammami, al-Berjawi’s and Sakr’s stories seem closely intertwined.[5] Sakr’s family reported that the two men met as boys when Sakr was 12-years-old, and then lived adjacent to each other.[6] Most references to the men in jihadist materials mention them as a pair.

In a martyrdom notice for al-Berjawi, al-Shabab said that he was from west London,[7] while the BBC identified him as being from St. Johns Wood in the northwest of the city.[8] A community worker who knew al-Berjawi in his teenage years said that he was involved in teenage gang violence in west London, specifically in clashes between Irish gangs and Muslim youth in the area.[9] He was not particularly religious, although he appeared to be a contemplative young man.[10] He had a wife of Somali origin who he married when he was 19- or 20-years-old, and a child who was conceived after he had risen up the ranks of al-Qa`ida’s East Africa cell.[11]

According to a longer martyrdom notice published almost a year after his death as part of a series called “Biographies of the Flags of the Martyrs in East Africa,”[12] al-Berjawi was trained by al-Qa`ida operatives Fazul Abdullah Mohammad and Salah Ali Salah Nabhan when he first arrived in Somalia in 2006.[13] Under their tutelage, he seems to have flourished, although when the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) fled as a result of the Ethiopian invasion, al-Berjawi returned to the United Kingdom to fundraise and find ways to send money back to East Africa.[14] Al-Berjawi’s martyr biography praised him in this role, calling him “brilliant” and able to set up many profitable projects.[15] According to his martyrdom video released by al-Shabab’s media wing, after the release of his written biography, he decided to travel back to Lebanon from London.[16]

In February 2009, al-Berjawi and Sakr headed to Kenya, telling their families their intention was to go on a “safari.”[17] They were detained in Nairobi because they “aroused the suspicions” of a hotel manager in Mombasa.[18] Both were deported back to the United Kingdom (as British passport holders) and told different accounts of their actions to awaiting security officials.[19] When Mohammed Sakr’s father confronted his son about his actions, Sakr said, “Daddy, it’s finished, it will never happen again. It’s all done and dusted.”[20]

By October 2009, the men decided to try to return to Somalia, and this time they were able to evade detection and slip out of the United Kingdom along with a third man. According to the “Biographies of the Flags of the Martyrs in East Africa,” they had to travel through a number of countries before they arrived in Somalia.[21] In November, they were reported by Ugandan authorities as being at the heart of a manhunt for individuals allegedly plotting terrorist acts in the country.[22] The two were identified alongside a third British national named Walla Eldin Abdel Rahman—a name that corresponds with British court documents.[23] Al-Berjawi, in particular, was identified as having three passports with him.[24]

According to his martyr biography, having returned to Baidoa in Somalia, al-Berjawi joined a camp and trained diligently alongside others, undertaking “difficult assignments” despite being reported as having a stomach condition.[25] He was described as being supportive of his colleagues and a lover of battles. As time passed, he seemed to have assumed greater responsibilities, helping to supply forces (with items such as clothing and weapons) and to take on responsibility for tending to families left behind by fallen warriors.[26] In early 2010, Mohammed Sakr called his parents from Somalia to reassure them that he was doing well.[27]

In July 2010, a cell linked to al-Shabab conducted a double suicide bombing in Kampala, Uganda, on two bars where people watched the soccer World Cup final. The attack claimed approximately 74 lives.[28] According to one report in the Ugandan press, al-Berjawi, Sakr and Rahman were detected entering the country in July 2010, although it remains unclear the exact role that they played, if any, in the Kampala attack.[29]

By this point, al-Berjawi was repeatedly referred to in the Ugandan press as being a direct deputy to Fazul Mohammad, the head of al-Qa`ida’s operations in East Africa, although he seems to have been close to others in al-Shabab as well.[30] The “Biographies of the Flags of the Martyrs in East Africa” identified him as being in regular direct contact with Fazul, and even helping him get into Somalia at one point.[31] A biography of Fazul released by al-Shabab and statements from American jihadist Omar Hammami corroborated this, with the biography stating that al-Berjawi was in regular contact with Fazul[32] and Hammami claiming in an interview that Fazul kept abreast of developments in Somalia through contacts with al-Berjawi and Sakr, both of whom “were very close to Fazul at the time prior to his martyrdom.”[33] In September 2010, the British home secretary sent letters to al-Berjawi’s and Sakr’s parents revoking their citizenships “on grounds of conduciveness to the public good.”[34]

In June 2011, a drone strike that may have been targeting senior al-Shabab figure Ibrahim al-Afghani supposedly injured al-Berjawi.[35] This came two weeks after Fazul took a wrong turn down a road in Mogadishu and drove straight into a Somali government roadblock. According to al-Shabab’s biography of Fazul, in the wake of his death concerns started to mount about the circumstances involved, and a number of al-Shabab commanders, alongside al-Berjawi, Sakr and others, fled the country.[36] In this version of events, as the group fled Somalia, they were targeted by the drone that injured al-Berjawi.[37] After being injured in the drone strike, al-Berjawi snuck into Kenya to recuperate with Sakr’s assistance.[38]

It is unclear at what point al-Berjawi returned to Somalia, but by early 2012 he seems to have been back in the country and is described in the regional press as having assumed Fazul’s position as the leader of al-Qa`ida in Somalia[39]—although given he had been injured so soon after Fazul’s death, it is not clear how much he would have been able to achieve in this role. Nevertheless, this would have made him a target for foreign intelligence services and, according to a video confession produced by al-Shabab and released by al-Kataib that was posted in May 2013 seemingly to affirm the narrative behind al-Berjawi’s death, it is at this time that unspecified foreign intelligence services allegedly recruited a young Somali named Isaac Omar Hassan.[40] According to Hassan’s confession to al-Shabab, he was recruited by foreign intelligence services to help them track al-Berjawi so that he could be killed in a drone strike.[41] Hassan said that al-Berjawi was the first person that the handlers asked him about.[42]

In Hassan’s telling, he recruited a friend, Yasin Osman Ahmed, who was to drive al-Berjawi that day.[43] Al-Berjawi allegedly called Ahmed on the morning of January 21, 2012, at around 9 or 10 AM as he wanted to go to the market to purchase a firearm.[44] Later, according to Hassan, al-Berjawi was driving to meet with the “amir of the mujahidin” when they stopped to make a phone call. It was at this point that the drone found its target, killing al-Berjawi.[45] In Hassan’s confessional, a month later an almost identical scenario played out, but this time with him recruiting a third man called Abdirahman Osman to act as the person who supposedly led the drone to its targets: Mohammed Sakr and another group of foreign fighters.[46]

Questions About Death
Bilal al-Berjawi’s death seems to have sparked a wave of concern within the community of al-Qa`ida in East Africa and foreigners in al-Shabab. After al-Berjawi death, hundreds of foreign fighters reportedly left Somalia. Shaykh Abuukar Ali Aden, an al-Shabab leader for Lower and Middle Jubba region, told Somalia Report that “yes, it is true that those brothers left us and went to Yemen due to some minor internal misunderstandings amongst ourselves. This started when we lost our brother Bilal al-Berjawi.”[47] An emergency meeting was held almost immediately after al-Berjawi’s death that was attended by al-Shabab leaders Ali Mohamed Rage, Hassan Dahir Aweys, Mukhtar Robow, Omar Hammami, Shaykh Fuad Mohammed Kalaf, and unidentified others.[48] Notably absent was Godane.[49] This seemed to echo another meeting that had been held prior to al-Berjawi’s death in December 2011 when al-Shabab leaders “opposed to Godane” gathered in Baidoa.[50]

Concerns seem to have focused around the fact that so many key players in al-Qa`ida’s East Africa cell and the foreign fighter community were being removed from the battlefield in quick succession. The fact that Fazul died in such odd circumstances for a man of his caliber and training,[51] followed by al-Berjawi’s death, all seemed to suggest an internal purge. When Sakr and others were killed a month after al-Berjawi, this sense seemed to harden, with Omar Hammami considering Sakr’s death “a strange incident.”[52] In between al-Berjawi’s and Sakr’s deaths, however, the new leader of al-Qa`ida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, announced al-Shabab’s official merger with the terrorist group.

The exact details of this possible leadership dispute remain unclear. Yet the recent executions of Ibrahim al-Afghani and Sheikh Maalim Burhan,[53] the reported death of American Omar Hammami,[54] Hassan Dahir Aweys’ decision to hand himself over to authorities in Mogadishu, and Mukhtar Robow’s abrupt move into hiding[55] all indicate that whatever leadership struggle was underway has now come into the open with Godane emerging victorious. What role al-Berjawi played in this remains unclear, although it seems as though his death may have been a catalyst to precipitate subsequent events. The emergence of the video confessional produced by al-Shabab seems a conscious effort to claim al-Berjawi’s death was solely the product of external intelligence efforts, rather than due to an internal purge.[56]

Al-Berjawi’s Links to Other Militants
What led Bilal al-Berjawi to fight in Somalia is uncertain. His decision to train in Somalia in 2006 when the ICU was in power suggests he was part of a larger community of London radicals who were drawn to Somalia before al-Shabab emerged as a powerful entity. The fact that he had a Somali wife likely acted as a stimulant to go to Somalia, rather than to Iraq or Afghanistan, which were popular destinations among British Islamists at the time. These individuals were part of the radical scene in London that were drawn by messages advanced by radical preachers who circled around the “Londonistan” community. Al-Berjawi was further connected, at least peripherally, to a group linked to the network that attempted to carry out a terrorist attack on London’s transportation system on July 21, 2005.

The links to this cell can be found through an individual mentioned in UK court documents as “J1.” An Ethiopian national born in 1980, J1 reportedly moved to the United Kingdom with his family in 1990 and is currently believed to be fighting deportation to Ethiopia.[57] He was part of a group that attended camps in the United Kingdom run by Mohammed Hamid, an older radical figure who took over responsibilities for the community around Finsbury Park after Abu Hamza al-Masri was taken into custody in 2003.[58]

In December 2004, J1 was picked up by police in Scotland near where Hamid was running a training camp, far away from their residences in London.[59] A former crack cocaine addict who had founded the al-Koran bookshop on Chatsworth Road, East London, Mohammed Hamid is currently in jail having been convicted of soliciting murder and providing terrorist training.[60] Most notoriously, in May 2004 he ran a training camp in Cumbria where four of the July 21, 2005, bombers attended.[61] Also at the camp was a pair of men who were later detected to have gone to Somalia in May 2005 with three other friends as part of what security services assessed was “for purposes relating to terrorism.”[62] J1 admitted knowing the men had gone to Somalia, although he claimed he thought it was for “religious purposes.”[63]

Around a month later, on July 21, 2005, J1 was in telephone contact with Hussain Osman—one of the men responsible for the attempted London bombings that day (also present at Mohammed Hamid’s camp).[64] His role in al-Berjawi’s tale is similar to that with the May 2005 group that went to Somalia. According to court documents, by 2009 J1 was a “significant member of a group of Islamist extremists in the UK” and in this role he provided support for al-Berjawi, Sakr and a third acquaintance when they went to Somalia in late 2009.[65]

Conclusion
The narrative around al-Berjawi shows the shifting relationship between al-Shabab and al-Qa`ida’s East Africa cell. His travel to the region in 2006, and then again in 2009, was during the period when jihad in East Africa was of great appeal to Western aspirants seeking jihadist adventures. The emergence of the ICU that at first seemed to emulate the Taliban provided inspiration that was then spurred on with the invasion of Somalia by U.S.-supported Ethiopian forces in 2006.[66] With the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces and the subsequent overstretch by al-Shabab, however, Somalia appears to have become a less welcoming place for foreigners seeking to advance a narrative of global jihad.[67]

This is not to say that the jihad in Somalia no longer has its foreign adherents. The elusive Samantha Lewthwaite, the convert wife of July 7, 2005, bomber Jermaine Lindsay, remains at large in East Africa and is accused of being a key figure in al-Shabab cells outside Somalia.[68] Canadian passport holder Mahad Ali Dhore was among those involved in the attack on the Mogadishu Supreme Court in April 2013.[69] Most significantly, al-Shabab claimed that a number of foreign fighters—including Americans—participated in the recent Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi.[70]

Yet Somalia has lost some of its luster, something that has been accelerated by the emergence of alternative battlefields like Syria or North Africa as places where young Western jihadist tourists can go. This is a situation that could reverse itself, but until some greater clarity is cast over Godane’s power grab in the organization and the status of al-Shabab, it seems likely that fewer foreigners will be drawn to that battlefield. The life and times of Bilal al-Berjawi offer a window with which to see the waxing and waning appeal of East Africa for Western jihadists.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of the forthcoming We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen (Hurst/Columbia University Press).

[1] “A Drone Strike Pronounces a Martyr,” al-Shabab, January 21, 2012.

[2] Tom Whitehead, Mike Pflanz and Ben Farmer, “British Terror Suspect Linked to ‘White Widow’ Samantha Lewthwaite Reportedly Killed,” Telegraph, September 12, 2013. In fact, it is not clear whether the individual identified in the article was the same Briton killed alongside Hammami, although it seems clear that the kunya identifying him as British was correct (Osama al-Britani).

[3] One Ugandan report also gave him the following pseudonyms: Hallway Carpet, Omar Yusuf and Bilal el Berjaour. See Barbara Among, “Police Foil Another Bomb Attack in Kampala,” New Vision, September 25, 2010. An online biography released about al-Berjawi also mentioned he liked to use the name Abu Dujana.

[4] Among; Chris Woods, “Parents of British Man Killed by US Drone Blame UK Government,” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, March 15, 2013.

[5] This quote is based on a Twitter conversation between this author and the @abumamerican Twitter handle, April 19, 2013. Omar Hammami is believed to be the owner of that handle.

[6] Woods.

[7] “A Drone Strike Pronounces a Martyr.”

[8] Secunder Kermani, “Drone Victim’s Somalia Visits Probed,” BBC, May 30, 2013.

[9] Personal interview, Tam Hussein, community worker who knew al-Berjawi, London, August 2013.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Woods.

[12] For the entire series “Biographies of the Flags of the Martyrs in East Africa,” see http://www.jihadology.net/category/biography-of-the-flags-of-the-martyrs-in-east-africa.

[13] See “Biography of the Martyred Figures in East Africa 4: ‘Abd Allah Fadil al-Qamari,’” available on Jihadology.net, which seems to draw on Fazul Mohammad’s own published biography, “War on Islam,” and interviews with individuals like al-Berjawi.

[14] “Biography of the Martyred Figures in East Africa 5: Bilal al-Birjawi al-Lubnani (Abu Hafs),” available on Jihadology.net.

[15] Ibid.

[16] This video is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dPQGhZaxD5A&feature=youtu.be.

[17] Woods.

[18] BX v. The Secretary of State for the Home Department, Royal Courts of Justice, 2010.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Woods.

[21] “Biography of the Martyred Figures in East Africa 5: Bilal al-Birjawi al-Lubnani (Abu Hafs).”

[22] Milton Olupot, “Security Hunts for Somali Terrorists,” New Vision, November 8, 2009.

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

[24] Olupot.

[25] “Biography of the Martyred Figures in East Africa 5: Bilal al-Birjawi al-Lubnani (Abu Hafs).”

[26] Ibid.

[27] Woods.

[28] Elias Biryabarema, “Uganda Bombs Kill 74, Islamists Claim Attack,” Reuters, July 12, 2010.

[29] Among.

[30] In fact, it is not entirely clear how separate the two organizations were at this point. The al-Qa`ida in East Africa cell seems to have been quite small and largely part of al-Shabab’s community.

[31] “Biography of the Martyred Figures in East Africa 5: Bilal al-Birjawi al-Lubnani (Abu Hafs).”

[32] “Biography of the Martyred Figures in East Africa 4: ‘Abd Allah Fadil al-Qamari,’” available on Jihadology.net.

[33] “Answers to the Open Interview with the Mujahid Shaykh [Omar Hammami] Abu Mansur al-Amiriki,’” The Islamic World Issues Study Center, May 2013, available at Jihadology.net.

[34] Woods.

[35] Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, “Senior Shabaab Commander Rumored to Have Been Killed in Recent Predator Strike,” The Long War Journal, July 9, 2011.

[36] “Biography of the Martyred Figures in East Africa 4: ‘Abd Allah Fadil al-Qamari,’” available at Jihadology.net.

[37] Ibid.

[38] “Biography of the Martyred Figures in East Africa 5: Bilal al-Birjawi al-Lubnani (Abu Hafs).”

[39] “Al Qaeda Leader Killed in Somalia Blast,” The Star [Nairobi], January 24, 2012.

[40] This confession video was purportedly filmed by al-Shabab. It is worth noting that in the video the group alternates between accusing the CIA or Britain’s MI6 of being responsible for handling Hassan. The video was posted in May 2013 and is available at http://ia600707.us.archive.org/22/items/3d-f7dhrhm-2/SoBeware2_HQ.m4v.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Rashid Nuune, “Al Qaeda, al-Shabaab Pledge Allegiance…Again,” Somalia Report, February 9, 2012.

[48] Mohammed Odowa, “Al Barjawi Assassination Widens Rift in Shabaab,” Somalia Report, January 23, 2012.

[49] Ibid.

[50] “Al Qaeda Commander Killed in Somalia Blast,” The Star, January 24, 2012.

[51] It is worth noting that in the East Africa martyrs biography about Berjawi, Fazul’s death is characterized as being a “planned” assassination, suggesting it was not an accident.

[52] This detail is based on a Twitter conversation between this author and the @abumamerican Twitter handle, April 19, 2013. Omar Hammami is believed to be the owner of that handle.

[53] “Godane Loyalists Reportedly Execute al-Shabaab Leader Ibrahim al-Afghani,” Sabahi, June 28, 2013.

[54] Whitehead et al.

[55] Hassan M. Abukar, “Somalia: The Godane Coup and the Unraveling of al-Shabaab,” African Arguments, July 3, 2013.

[56] This could certainly be true as al-Berjawi clearly was a focus of Western intelligence efforts.

[57] J1 v. The Secretary of State for the Home Department.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Duncan Gardham, “Airlines Plot: Al-Qaeda Mastermind ‘is Still Alive,’” Telegraph, September 10, 2009.

[61] Dominic Casciani, “Top Extremist Recruiter is Jailed,” BBC, February 26, 2008.

[62] J1 v. The Secretary of State for the Home Department.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Ibid.

[65] According to court documents: “In October 2009 Berjawi, Sakr and Rahman travelled from the UK to Somalia for the purpose of terrorist training and terrorist activity in Somalia. The appellant knew in advance about the travel plans of those three men and the purpose of their expedition.” See ibid. Confirmation of support is provided through a separate court document: J1 v. The Secretary of State for the Home Department, “Deportation – Substantive (National Security) – Dismissed,” 2011.

[66] It emulated the Taliban in the sense that it was an Islamically driven movement seeking to restore order to a land overrun by warlords.

[67] Most publicly, this has been seen in the struggle around the American Omar Hammami whose writings and online activity on YouTube and Twitter highlighted the disagreements between the various factions in al-Shabab, but traces of it can also be found in Bilal al-Berjawi’s tale.

[68] Mike Pflanz, “White Widow Samantha Lewthwaite ‘was Plotting to Free Jermaine Grant,’” Telegraph, March 13, 2013. It is worth noting, however, that it was her new husband, Habib Ghani, who died alongside Omar Hammami. See Whitehead et al.

[69] Michelle Shephard, “Probe Focuses on Canadian as Shabaab Leader of Somalia Courthouse Attack,” Toronto Star, April 15, 2013.

[70] David Simpson and Arwa Damon, “Smoke Rises Over Besieged Kenya Mall,” CNN, September 23, 2013

A new article for the CTC Sentinel that has been in the pipeline for a while. Looks at the phenomenon of British fighters going to Syria and the larger connections between the UK and fighting in Syria. A fascinating story that has not been dug into much, but is going to get bigger as time goes on. On other matters, I was quoted in a pair of Associated Press stories, here and here about the recent Ansaru Nigerian kidnappings.

British Fighters Joining the War in Syria

Feb 20, 2013

Author: Raffaello Pantucci

Since the start of the Syrian war, British police have arrested and charged three men for their roles in a terrorist conspiracy linked to the conflict. British security officials fear that these arrests may only be the tip of an iceberg as they watch Syria become the brightest flame drawing in young British radicals. As British Foreign Secretary William Hague recently said, “Syria is now the number one destination for jihadists anywhere in the world today. This includes a number of individuals connected with the United Kingdom and other European countries. They may not pose a threat to us when they first go to Syria, but if they survive some may return ideologically hardened and with experience of weapons and explosives.”[1]

The most striking aspect about the Syria-UK connection is its similarity to past events. Not only are there shades of Bosnia in the ease with which Britons can join the war in Syria,[2] but there are also similarities in the structures that have nurtured the conflict.[3] Longstanding London-based preachers have returned to join fighters on the frontlines, convoys run by Muslim charities take food and supplies while hosting events at which they criticize the lack of action by the international community, and young men are taking time off from their ordinary lives to join the fight. Atop all of this, a political debate in the United Kingdom—reflective of the broader global debate—about what action to take in Syria has failed to deliver meaningful results, providing more fodder for those who perceive that the West is turning a blind eye to the plight of Muslims.

In highlighting the complexity of this threat, this article identifies the current known links between the Syrian and British jihadist communities, as well as the broader context from which it is emerging. It also shows how fallout from Syria has the potential to have negative repercussions in the United Kingdom for years to come.

The Case of the Kidnapped Journalists
Attention was first drawn publicly to the issue of British jihadists operating in Syria when a British and Dutch journalist escaped from their captors in Syria and made it to safety in Turkey. The men, Jerome Oerlemans and John Cantlie, had entered Syria on July 19, 2012, on assignment, but had the misfortune to fall into the hands of a group of mostly foreign extremists.[4] Held captive for a week, the men were repeatedly threatened with death and beaten after an escape attempt.[5] They were eventually released by a group of Syrians who had initially helped them enter the country.[6] Yet the most surprising news to emerge from the event was that among the men’s captors had been almost a dozen British jihadists—nine of whom “had London accents” and at least one who claimed to be a National Health Service (NHS) doctor.[7]

The trainee doctor in question, Shajul Islam, was intercepted on October 9, 2012, when he returned on a flight from Egypt with his wife and child.[8] A Briton of Bangladeshi origin, little is known about Shajul Islam aside from his age, 26-years-old, that he is from Stratford in East London, and that he is a doctor.[9] A graduate of St. Bartholomew’s and a University of London hospital, he reportedly had a first class degree in biochemistry.[10] According to captive John Cantlie, he carried an NHS medical kit with him and planned to return to work as a trauma consultant after a two year sabbatical.[11] Less is known about his co-conspirator Jubayer Chowdhury, except that he is of Bangladeshi descent. Both are currently awaiting trial for their role in kidnapping the two journalists.

In what was reported as an expansion of the case, authorities arrested an additional six men in mid-January 2013 as part of a wide-ranging police investigation into links with Syria.[12] Authorities arrested one group of three men at addresses in east London, while a fourth man identified as being Portuguese was picked up at Gatwick airport.[13] All were detained “on suspicion of commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.”[14] Authorities arrested a second pair “outside a business” in west London, although no link was immediately drawn between the two cases.[15] In the end, all but Mohamed Elyasse Taleouine from Lisson Grove, north London, were cleared, while Taleouine was charged with possession of a blank-firing MAC-10 that had been converted into a live weapon.[16] A week later, police went back and re-arrested a man from the first set of arrests, revealing him to be Najul Islam, brother of Shajul Islam.[17]

Najul Islam was charged with a variety of offenses, including funding his brother’s travel to Syria, funding Jubayer Chowdhury’s return from Syria, and sending them money to support their activities.[18] Additionally, police believe he traveled by vehicle from the United Kingdom through Turkey to Syria to provide equipment including night vision goggles, air rifle optic mounts, and medical supplies.[19] Likely to come to trial next year, more information will then be released about the men and how they reached Syria.

A great deal more information, however, has emerged about an unconnected, separate case involving Nassim Terreri and Walid Blidi, two men of Algerian descent who were raised in London and died March 26, 2012, at Darkoush, a few miles from the Turkish border.[20] Respectively from west and south London, the men led relatively uneventful lives prior to their deaths.[21] Reported as a kind young man who worked hard at school, Nassim Terreri dropped out of a university course and had drifted into waiting tables.[22] In his early 20s, he found religion and traveled to Mecca, after which he began wearing traditional Arab dress.[23] He reportedly participated in an aid convoy to Gaza led by Minister of Parliament George Galloway.[24] By the end of 2011, however, his family noted he had shaved off his beard and met a girl—suggesting that his religious fervor may have passed.[25] In early 2012, he went on a vacation with Walid Blidi to France.[26] Two weeks later, he called his mother from the Syrian border and, according to a family friend, “told her he was going to find out what was really happening in Syria.”[27] After another two weeks, she received a call that he and Blidi were dead.[28] Much less is known about Blidi, except that in August 2007 he was arrested in Exeter alongside a pair of others during a police drug sting.[29]

Initially, reports from Syria indicated that Blidi and Terreri were journalists.[30] Little evidence, however, emerged of them having done any reporting, and the al-Assad regime included their names in a list to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as evidence foreign terrorists were involved in the insurgency.[31] The real story emerged when reporters interviewed fighters who claimed to have been with the men on the night they died.[32] The two British fighters apparently opened fire at a passing Syrian government convoy, attracting retaliatory fire and getting the group caught in a firefight between government and rebel forces.[33] During the clash, other Syrian fighters were killed, and another Briton known only as Hamza was injured.[34] His fate is unknown.[35] The brigade in which the men were fighting, the Hisham Haboub brigade of the Free Syrian Army, was not Salafi-jihadi, but the men’s actions and deaths highlight how easy it is for British nationals to participate in frontline fighting in Syria. Biographies published in the British media highlighted that Nassim Terreri in particular “favorited” videos of “extremist Australian preacher” Shaykh Feiz Mohammed.[36]

“Londonistan’s” Syrian Flavor
Young Britons fighting in Syria is not a surprising development. British fighters have been found on almost every jihadist battlefield since Afghanistan in the 1970s. This pipeline was nurtured by the unique combination of restive second-generation immigrant communities, dissident Arab populations—both secular and non-secular—who used bases in London to promote causes, including anti-government agendas, at home, with a seemingly passive British government response.[37] Captured in the public imagination with the shorthand term “Londonistan,” this community also provided a home for radical preachers who brought jihadist ideas to British shores and ended up radicalizing a portion of British youth. This led to young Britons becoming involved in international radical networks, including al-Qa`ida, leading ultimately to the July 7, 2005, bombings when a group of young Britons under orders from al-Qa`ida killed 52 people on London’s transport system.[38]

Since the advent of the Arab Spring, however, the larger connection between Arab dissidents based in London and their home nations has become more prominent. Libyan exiles from London and Manchester went back in unknown numbers to fight alongside the rebels against the Mu`ammar Qadhafi regime,[39] a number of key Tunisian Ennahda party members (including leader Rashid al-Ghannouchi[40]) relocated from Britain to help run the country in the wake of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s departure, and prominent former Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Kamal Helbawy was among a number of exiles who returned to Egypt as Hosni Mubarak was deposed.[41] The United Kingdom has a personal connection with the anti-government forces in many Arab Spring countries—whether they are secular, nationalist, or Islamist. This connection is also present with Syria, where dissidents and exiles from the Syrian community living in the United Kingdom (estimated at 13,000 strong[42]) have become a key support network for their brethren in the Middle East. Support includes providing funding and aid convoys, dissident groups providing a way for information to get out from the war raging in Syria, as well as fighters and spiritual leaders for the rebellion.

In addition to Syrians, British Muslims of other ethnicities have traveled to Syria as well. As highlighted by the previous examples, British fighters known to have fought in Syria are young men who have graduated from university, worked as waiters, trainee doctors, or even as former drug dealers. The exact numbers in terms of ethnic provenance are hard to determine, but a substantial amount seem to be drawn from communities other than Syrian. According to Birmingham Minister of Parliament Khalid Mahmood, as of August 2012 at least 30 young Britons not of Syrian descent had traveled to Syria.[43] A Sudanese community leader from west London reported that he had spoken to a younger member of his community who claimed to have at least 21 friends who were training to go to Syria, and spoke of joining formerly UK-based Moroccans and Somalis who had already gone to fight.[44] In August 2012, a British journalist in Aleppo met a British convert from Walthamstow who used the name “Abu Yacoub.”[45] He claimed to have converted five years earlier, having originally been born in Tanzania and brought to the United Kingdom as a child.[46] He came to Syria four months earlier and was found in the company of an Iraqi friend who had been injured. Both men claimed to be members of Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham (Free Men of Syria), an Islamist group involved in the war.[47]

Another report from later in the year instead highlighted a “pious” young Bangladeshi Briton who had risen in the ranks of foreign fighters and was responsible for about 50 Britons who went to fight in Syria.[48] Thus far, none of those reportedly arrested around the case linked to the kidnapping of the two journalists have been identified as being of Syrian descent.

Yet while the foot soldiers may come from different ethnicities, the older “Londonistani” warriors who have gone back to join the frontlines seem to be Syrian. Most prominent is Abu Basir al-Tartusi, a preacher formerly based in Poplar, east London. One of the few preachers with a following among radical communities to still operate in the United Kingdom, al-Tartusi was once quoted in the press as being “a leading jihadi theologian on a level with Abu Qatada.”[49]

His importance internationally had not translated into great acclaim among Britain’s young jihadist community. His lack of English and the fact that he condemned suicide bombing (including the July 7, 2005, London bombings), taking a more moderate line than most of the “Londonistani” preachers, meant he had less of a following among the radical community in the United Kingdom. The radical community tended to follow preachers such as Abu Hamza al-Masri[50] and Abdullah Faisal[51] (both of whom were incarcerated on charges of inciting racial hatred and murder), Abu Qatada (who openly boasted to British authorities about his power over the United Kingdom’s extremist Algerian community),[52] and Omar Bakri Mohammed (the Syrian preacher who founded al-Muhajiroun).[53] Al-Tartusi’s decision to travel to the Syrian frontlines surprised some, and likely elevated him in the eyes of the broader radical community.[54] While al-Tartusi’s exact activities since traveling to the front are unclear, he has maintained a steady production of materials and fatawa and has been spotted at least twice brandishing an AK-47.[55] Al-Tartusi responded angrily when the news emerged that he was at the front, with the implication being that he was consorting with terrorists, and he published a remonstration on his site in which he declared that he was there as “a servant and an adviser to all the heroic rebels and to all the Syrian people who are in defiance against the oppression and tyranny of Bashar al-Assad.”[56]

Another former “Londonistani” who appeared briefly toward the beginning of the Syrian conflict and then disappeared was Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, otherwise known as Abu Mus`ab al-Suri. A prominent jihadist theologian, U.S. and Pakistani forces captured him in Quetta in 2005 and eventually transferred him to Syrian authorities.[57] In the late 1990s, al-Suri was one of the prominent former Arab Afghan warriors to have landed in London as Afghanistan descended into civil war and the jihad against the Soviets concluded.[58] Alongside Abu Qatada, al-Suri managed the jihadist screed Ansar that openly supported extremist groups in Algeria. Following his time in London, he moved to Afghanistan from where he helped train fighters and authored literature until he was captured in late 2005.[59]

Al-Suri languished in Syrian custody until early February 2012, when news emerged on the Shumukh jihadist website that he had been freed.[60] While it is hard to independently verify this claim, the news has been widely accepted as true among the expert community and seemingly confirmed both by reliable extremists on forums and London-based extremists who knew him.[61] The logic behind the al-Assad regime’s decision to release him is unclear.

Humanitarian Support
Support for the war in Syria has not only come through fighters and warrior preachers. One of the more under-reported but highly important figures to have emerged from the United Kingdom is Muhammad Surur bin Nayif Zain al-Abidin. A British passport holder, Surur was based in the United Kingdom for almost two decades after moving there in the 1980s.[62] He has reportedly been characterized as a “Godfather-like” figure who had previously vetted individuals who had traveled to the United Kingdom to meet with Saad al-Faqih or Muhammad al-Massari. Al-Faqih and al-Massari are two prominent Saudi dissidents in London who have played senior roles in the “Londonistan” community. As well as individually running dissident groups aimed against the Saudi regime, al-Massari in particular was an active supporter of Britain’s nascent online jihadist community.[63]

A former Muslim Brotherhood activist, Surur was an innovator in Salafist thinking and established with his followers the Center for Islamic Studies in Birmingham, from where he published magazines and later ran the http://www.alsunnah.org website.[64] In 2004, Surur left the United Kingdom, moving to Jordan and later to Qatar, and it is from here that, according to one prominent Syrian journalist based in London, he has become an important figure in the flow of Qatari money to Syria.[65] As journalist Malik al-Abdeh alleged, “Surur has established himself as one of the key conduits for Qatari money to the anti-Assad rebels.”[66]

Other Syrians have remained in the United Kingdom and have taken roles publicly supporting the rebels in other ways, either through formal new Syrian National Council structures or Syrian-managed NGOs.[67] Beyond politics, a basic sense of feeling the need to support the Syrian refugees seen regularly on television screens has driven unknown numbers of Britons to give money and other forms of aid to support those living in refugee camps in Turkey or elsewhere. Support for Syrian refugees has come from traditional charitable entities from across Britain’s Muslim community. Using a blend of videos, magazines, flyers, stalls in city centers, charity boxes inside and outside mosques, and sponsored events, these charities turn the money they raise into goods which they then drive—in convoys usually with donated ambulances—to refugee camps in Turkey.[68] There is no evidence that these are anything but charitable enterprises, but some of the individuals involved are notable for more radical views.[69] More openly controversial groups such as Hizb al-Tahrir have also regularly held demonstrations or protest events at which they call for al-Assad’s downfall.[70] At these events, emotive language is used to encourage people to help support the refugees, with preachers often providing a religious explanation for why more should be done. These are all legitimate activities, yet it highlights the backdrop around which the issue is discussed in Britain’s Muslim community.

Demonstrating the ease with which British citizens are able to get close to the fighting—either for military or humanitarian purposes—former Guantanamo Bay prisoner and spokesman for the activist group Cage Prisoners, Moazzam Begg, made a trip to Syria as part of an aid convoy at some point in the first half of 2012. According to his own report, he traveled to “the outskirts of the city of Aleppo [where] I stayed with a group of pious, well-educated, relatively young and very hospitable fighters.”[71]

Conclusion
The trouble in Syria remains beyond British borders. Security officials are somewhat constrained about how to respond, and understandably only take action when specific cases linked to kidnapping or terrorism can be constructed. The question becomes what will happen to the young men who are bloodied in the conflict after the Syrian war winds down, as well as the networks that will have been established between radical groups in Syria and in the United Kingdom.

It took a few years before former Bosnian fighters were implicated in terrorist plots in the United Kingdom. In 1995, Andrew Rowe, an aimless former drug dealer, converted to Islam and went to Bosnia where he took up arms and was injured during fighting.[72] In 2003, he was arrested with unspecified terrorist plans after being connected with a number of French former Bosnian fighters who carried out a series of violent robberies across France.[73] Saajid Badat went to Sarajevo in 1998 and the next year to Afghanistan.[74] Two years later he was on his way back to the United Kingdom with Richard Reid and a set of “shoe bombs” with the intent to blow up transatlantic airlines.[75] Also in 1998, Omar Sharif answered the call to go and join Kosovar militants fighting Serbs, although he cut his trip short. He went to Damascus approximately a year later, then Afghanistan after 9/11, before his fatal trip in 2003 back to Damascus where he hoped to join the insurgency in Iraq and instead ended up as part of a two-man suicide cell operating on Hamas’ behalf in Tel Aviv.[76]

This is not a new narrative. Conflicts with a jihadist flavor attract idealistic young fighters who are sometimes redirected to other conflicts. At some point, if these fighters encounter certain groups or individuals, this energy can develop into plotting at home. Certainly this is not always the case, and most of those who go—either to fight or simply to do charity work—will return home and resume their lives. Yet the growing depth and complexity of the UK-Syria connection will perplex security services for years to come as they try to identify who is connected with Salafi-jihadi groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and who went for less nefarious reasons.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of the forthcoming We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen (Hurst/Columbia University Press).

[1] William Hague, “Foreign Secretary on Countering Terrorism,” speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), February 14, 2013.

[2] Bosnia was a bus or car ride away for British citizens, similar to Syria.

[3] Covered in greater detail later in the article, there are charitable organizations, as well as jihadist support networks, that help British Muslims become involved in Syria: either in providing aid as part of charity convoys, or more active roles as fighters. This is similar to Bosnia where similar structures existed. Evan Kohlmann’s Al-Qaeda’s Jihad in Europe: The Afghan-Bosnian Network provides a snapshot of British jihadist support structures in Bosnia.

[4] John Cantlie, “Are You Ready to Die?” Sunday Times, August 5, 2012.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] John-Paul Ford Rojas, “NHS Doctor ‘Led Extremist Cell in Syria,’” Telegraph, August 27, 2012.

[8] “British Police Arrest 2 at Heathrow Airport in Probe into Terrorist Activity in Syria,” Associated Press, October 9, 2012.

[9] Tom Whitehead, “NHS Doctor Accused of Being Part of a British Jihadi Group in Syria,” Telegraph, October 17, 2012.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Paul Peachey, “Four Men Arrested Over Syria Terror Fears,” Independent, January 10, 2012.

[13] Tom Whitehead, “Four Men Arrested Under Terror Laws After Kidnap of Journalist,” Telegraph, January 10, 2012.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Margaret Davis, “London Man Charged Over Sub Machine Gun Possession,” Independent, January 17, 2013.

[16] “Man, 20, is Held on Sub-Machine Gun Charge by Officers Investigating Alleged Support for Terrorism,” West End Extra, January 18, 2013.

[17] “Man Charged in UK Over Journalists’ Syria Kidnap,” Agence France-Presse, January 25, 2013.

[18] “Man at Court Charged with Terrorism Act 2006 Offence,” Crime & Justice, January 25, 2013.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Tom Coghlan and Laura Pitel, “The British Pals Who Died Waging Holy War in Syria,” Times, October 13, 2012.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] “Drug Squad Criticizes Jail Terms Handed out to Crack Cocaine Trio,” Express and Echo, February 10, 2008.

[30] “Two Independent Journalists Killed in Syria,” Committee to Protect Journalists, March 27, 2012.

[31] Laura Pitel and James Hider, “British ‘Terrorists’ Among Dead, Says Syria,” Times, May 18, 2012.

[32] Coghlan and Pitel.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] “Two Independent Journalists Killed in Syria.”

[36] Coghlan and Pitel.

[37] Omar Nasiri, Inside the Jihad: My Life with al Qaeda (London: Hurst, 2006), p. 16.

[38] Raffaello Pantucci, “A Biography of Rashid Rauf: Al-Qa`ida’s British Operative,” CTC Sentinel 5:7 (2012); Nic Robertson, Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, “Documents Give New Details on al Qaeda’s London Bombings,” CNN, April 30, 2012.

[39] Exact numbers are unknown, but anecdotal stories suggest that dozens went back to fight from Manchester’s Libyan community. See Jane Deith, “The Teenage Libyan Rebel from Manchester,” Channel 4 News, June 11, 2011; Edna Fernandes, “Why Do So Many Libyan Rebels Seen on TV Speak with British Accents?” Daily Mail, July 31, 2011.

[40] “Tunisian Islamist Leader Rashid Ghannouchi Returns Home,” BBC, January 30, 2011. Another key figure to have returned was Said Ferjani.

[41] Mohamed Elmeshad, “Profile: Kamal al-Helbawy, a Defector of Conscience,” Egypt Independent, September 4, 2012. For a longer overview of Britain’s “Londonistani” community and the impact of the Arab Spring, see James Brandon and Raffaello Pantucci, “UK Islamists and the Arab Uprisings,” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology 13 (2012).

[42] Zubeda Malik, “Britain’s ‘Fragmented’ Syrian Community,” BBC, August 24, 2012.

[43] Andrew Gilligan, “Security Services ‘Failing’ to Stop British Jihadis Heading to Syria,” Sunday Telegraph, August 25, 2012.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Richard Spencer, “British Convert to Islam Vows to Fight to the Death on Syrian Rebel Front Line,” Telegraph, August 16, 2012.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] David Brown, Sean O’Neill and Dominic Kennedy, “British Jihadi Recruits 50 Muslims for War in Syria,” Times, October 18, 2012.

[49] Duncan Gardham, “The Poplar Preacher Leading an Armed Gang of Jihadis in Syria,” Telegraph, October 19, 2012.

[50] “Abu Hamza Jailed for Seven Years,” BBC, February 7, 2006.

[51] “Hate Preaching Cleric Jailed,” BBC, March 7, 2003.

[52] Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, or Abu Qatada v. Secretary of State for the Home Department, Special Immigration Appeals Commission, March 8, 2004.

[53] Mahan Abedin, “Al-Muhajiroun in the UK: An Interview with Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed,” Spotlight on Terror 2:5 (2005); Shiv Malik, “The Missing Links,” New Statesman, May 7, 2007.

[54] This statement is drawn from conversations with London’s Muslim community, and discussions such as the following on the Islamic Awakening Forum: http://www.forums.islamicawakening.com/f18/sheikh-abu-basir-al-tartousi-hafidhahullah-liberates-61936.

[55] Ibid. Also see the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=uJfBkUgkSU8.

[56] For details, see his statement at http://www.abubaseer.bizland.com/hadath/Read/hadath%2093.pdf. By February 2013, al-Tartusi had returned to the United Kingdom.

[57] This abbreviated biography is drawn primarily from Brynjar Lia, Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al Qaeda Strategist Abu Mus`ab al-Suri (London: Hurst, 2009).

[58] Ibid.

[59]  Ibid.

[60]  Murad Batal al-Shishani, “Syria’s Surprising Release of Jihadi Strategist Abu Musab al Suri,” Terrorism Monitor 10:3 (2012).

[61]  Specifically, Egyptian Yasser al-Siri has claimed that he has information pertaining to Abu Mus`ab’s release. See “Abu Musab Al-Suri Speaks on His Pakistan Detention,” The Arab Digest, February 24, 2012.

[62] Details on Surur can be found in Lia.

[63] In 1999, a British man working for Railtrack, Mohammed Sohail, was revealed to be using his work account to fundraise for jihad abroad, in locations such as Kashmir, Algeria and Chechnya, among others. When confronted by reporters, he told them, “I work for two people really, Mr. Massari and Osama bin Laden.” See Chris Hastings and Jessica Berry, “Muslim Militia Training in Britain: Bin Laden Groups to Join Mujahedeen for Various Wars, Including Chechnya,” Ottowa Citizen, November 7, 1999. In later years, al-Massari would openly talk on the BBC about running jihad supporting websites and radio stations from the United Kingdom. See “The New al-Qaeda: jihad.com,” BBC, July 20, 2005; Philip Johnston, “Calls to Deport ‘the Voice of al-Qa’eda,’” Telegraph, July 27, 2005.

[64]  Jarret Brachman, Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice (London: Routledge, 2008), p. 38; Lia.

[65]   Ibid.; personal interview, Malik al-Abdeh, London, November 2012.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Two prominent examples are Walid Saffour and Rami Abdulrahman.

[68]  The author encountered one such convoy on its way to Ancona, Italy, in the Marche region of Italy heading to a boat to Turkey. With a bus branded from “Dudley [a British city in the west midlands] to Damascus,” the drivers reported being part of a six vehicle convoy including an ambulance and a heavy goods truck with clothes and children’s milk. They were linked to the charity United Muslims (www.unitedmuslims.co.uk). Other convoys have been sent from the Aid Convoy charity (www.aid-convoy.org.uk).

[69]  For example, on February 25, 2012, outside the Syrian Embassy, the group Aid Convoy 2 Syria (that later became the Aid Convoy) held an event called “Answer the Call: Charity Rally for Syria,” at which Shaykh Haithem al-Haddad and Imam Shakeel Begg spoke with the Qur’anic recitation provided by Sufyan Mustafa Kamal, the son of recently deported preacher Abu Hamza al-Masri. While none of these men have been convicted on any terrorism charges or fallen under suspicion of any crime, they have all attracted some controversy due to the tone in their preaching.

[70] For pictures of this demonstration, see http://www.demotix.com/news/1060472/hizb-ut-tahrir-march-through-london-support-syrian-uprising#media-1060346.

[71] Moazzam Begg, “Syria: My Journey to the Land of Blessing, and Torture,” Cage Prisoners, August 16, 2012.

[72]  Jeremy Britton, “Rowe ‘Bore al-Qaeda Hallmarks,’” BBC, September 23, 2005.

[73] “Al Qaeda Exploits ‘Blue-Eyed’ Muslim Converts,” Reuters, October 11, 2005.

[74] Martin Beckford, “Terrorist Supergrass Saajid Badat: The Shoe Bomber Who Got Cold Feet,” Telegraph, April 17, 2012.

[75] Paul Cruickshank, “Transatlantic Shoe Bomber Knew Bin Laden,” CNN, April 20, 2012.

[76] “World: Road to Martyrdom,” Journeyman Pictures, first broadcast on May 30, 2007.

I have a piece in this month’s CTC Sentinel, the journal of the West Point Combating Terrorism Center. It focuses on Rashid Rauf, a figure that has appeared in a number of other pieces that I have written – most prominently in these two (and will feature in the book) – but to my knowledge has not been profiled in such a comprehensive way yet. My initial inspiration for this was an old academic article about Dhiren Barot, another Briton who rose up the ranks, though I think the conclusion is that Rauf was more important. I was also quoted in this Birmingham (where he was from) press story about Rauf.

One detail that my friend Paul Cruickshank has pointed out to me since publication was that in court, Bryant Neal Vinas did not recognize a picture of Rauf that was shown to him, suggesting he may not have met him. The Rotella story that I quote in the piece indicates they did encounter each other, but apparently in court Vinas denied it. I had thought they met, but maybe not. In any case, comments and more welcome.

A Biography of Rashid Rauf: Al-Qa’ida’s British Operative

Jul 24, 2012

Author: Raffaello Pantucci

Like a ghost in the machine, the figure of British jihadist Rashid Rauf is one that continues to emerge on the fringes of terrorist plots. A Kashmiri Briton whose life story epitomizes the Pakistani connection to Britain’s jihadist community, Rauf was a young man who left the United Kingdom after the 9/11 attacks to connect with extremist networks in Pakistan. Having joined Kashmiri oriented networks that increasingly became intertwined with al-Qa`ida, he rose up the ranks, featuring in the background of a number of different plots—from the July 7, 2005, attacks in London to the 2006 liquid explosives plot targeting transatlantic airliners. After a brief period in Pakistani custody, Rauf escaped and once again played a role in a number of serious al-Qa`ida attempts against the West, including the 2009 plot by Najibullah Zazi to attack New York City’s subway system.

His exact role in al-Qa`ida, however, has not been carefully explored publicly, in particular to try to assess how important the Briton was within the organization and to see whether he was merely a point of contact or a more operational leader. Given the fact that plots connected to him continued to be uncovered almost two years after his reported death in a U.S. drone strike in Waziristan in November 2008, confusion continues to dominate his narrative. In an attempt to try to pry apart the man from the myth, this article provides a detailed assessment of what is known about Rashid Rauf before drawing some conclusions about his position in al-Qa`ida.

Birmingham Youth
Rashid Rauf was born in Mirpur, Pakistan, in 1981 and moved to Birmingham as a child.[1] His father, Abdul, moved with his family in the early 1980s as part of the chain of migrations from that part of Pakistan to the United Kingdom. Living in the Alum Rock part of Birmingham, the Rauf family settled quickly into a normal life within the fiercely nationalistic Kashmiri immigrant community. In 1984, a group of men from the community calling themselves members of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Army (a previously unknown group, they named the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, a known group, as their mediators) kidnapped Birmingham-based Indian Deputy Consul General Ravindra Mhatre and demanded the release of imprisoned leaders in India and £1 million sterling. When their demands were not met, they executed Mhatre and dumped his body outside a farm near the city.[2] While the murder was a shock to many, it highlighted the strength of pro-Kashmiri feeling among the community.

Throughout the 1990s, jihadist leaders from Kashmir would travel through Birmingham and other British Pakistani communities raising money. One such individual who made this journey was Maulana Masood Azhar, who in 1992-1993 was reported to have given fiery speeches in Birmingham at mosques near where Rauf was being brought up raising money for Kashmiri fighters.[3] An apparently impressive speaker, an attendee told local journalist Amardeep Bassey that they saw women taking off their jewelry after conferences and handing it over to the preacher in support of Kashmir.[4]

The Rauf family was not atypical in its activity support of the Kashmiri cause, and came from a long line of distinguished religious leadership.[5] Reports have stated Abdul Rauf was a religious judge back in Kashmir, a role he continued in Birmingham.[6] He also helped found Crescent Relief, a charitable organization that sent many thousands of British pounds to provide support in the wake of the October 2005 earthquake in Kashmir (although it is not clear Abdul Rauf was still involved then). The family’s mother apparently used a garden shed as a makeshift school in which she would give free Islamic classes to local children.[7] Rashid Rauf’s childhood home was near an Ahl-e-Hadith mosque,[8] the strict religious sect that has historically gone hand-in-hand with Lashkar-i-Tayyiba to provide religious indoctrination to their fighters.

Rauf attended Washwood Heath High School that became infamous in 1996 (while Rauf was a student) when a teacher, Israr Khan, leapt up after a rendition of carol-singing shouting “Who is your God? Why are you saying Jesus and Jesus Christ? God is not your God—it is Allah.”[9] Another teacher expressed little surprise at the revelation that Rauf had been to the school, saying, “I’m not at all surprised that someone from the school has been implicated. There were some very influential radical elements there.”[10] In 1999, he was awarded a place at Portsmouth University, although it remains unclear what he was studying.[11] Alongside him at the university was another Birmingham-Pakistani named Mohammed Gulzar, who while from the same background as Rauf appears to have come from a family far less involved in local politics.[12] A student at a nearby school in Birmingham, Gulzar lived a few streets away from Rauf and the two were apparently close as children.[13] The two are believed to have been involved in Islamic societies at the university and it is thought that this may have been at the root of why they never completed their studies. Gulzar and Rauf were reported to have started attending Tablighi Jama`at sessions in 2000,[14] and a childhood friend of Gulzar’s reported that after returning from a trip to Pakistan that year, Gulzar “was much more devout. He had grown a long beard and seemed a lot quieter and more focused.”[15]

During breaks in school, Rauf was reported to have been assisting his father’s bakery business delivering cakes to local shops.[16] He was also seen at the local gym, played football with other locals and prayed relatively regularly at the mosque.[17] At the time, Birmingham had a number of gangs involved in defending local minority communities from right-wing attacks, and while it is not clear that Rauf was a member, he was reportedly close to one of the key members of the Aston Panthers.[18] He is also understood to have been close to an uncle living in East London who was involved in the Kashmiri struggle.[19] It is uncertain whether this uncle was involved in the East London charity “Crescent Relief” that Rauf’s father had helped establish and that was reported by neighbors in 2005 (after Rauf’s father had stepped down from his role) to have started to distribute flyers highlighting the plight of Kashmiris.[20]

In April 2002, Rauf and Gulzar abruptly left the country to go to Pakistan, wanted for questioning in the murder of an uncle of Rauf’s named Mohammed Saeed.[21] The exact causes of the “frenzied stabbing” are unclear, with speculation that jihadist politics[22] or an arranged marriage[23] may have been causes. A couple of months prior to the murder, Gulzar and Rauf were reportedly spotted at an internet cafe in Portsmouth where they researched a U.S. aviation firm and purchased a GPS map receiver and “various compass/map CDs” using fraudulent credit cards.[24] It is unclear if they were traveling together, but this equipment would have proved useful to Rauf who by the middle of 2002 had reached Bahawalpur, Pakistan. Gulzar was ultimately acquitted of all charges against him.

Linking to Al-Qa`ida
Once Rauf reached Bahawalpur, his links to the Kashmiri jihad became clearer. Soon after arriving, he married the daughter of Ghulam Mustafa, the founder of the Darul Uloom Madina, a famous local Deobandi madrasa.[25] According to one report, Rauf knew Mustafa from when the preacher had stayed at the family home in Birmingham.[26] Another of Mustafa’s daughters is married to Masood Azhar,[27] the jihadist leader who visited Birmingham and who had since 1992 risen to establish his own Kashmir oriented jihadist group, Jaysh-i-Muhammad.

According to Rauf’s confessions to Pakistani interrogators in 2006, his intention in 2002 was to go and fight the United States in Afghanistan.[28] Arriving in Pakistan, Rauf claimed he connected with Amjad Hussein Farooqi, a senior Pakistani member of Jaysh-i-Muhammad with close links to al-Qa`ida.[29] Rauf claimed that he first went to Afghanistan with Farooqi in mid-2002 and from there was able to establish a close connection with a number of core al-Qa`ida members.[30] When Farooqi was killed in a police raid in 2004, Rauf’s connection within al-Qa`ida seems to have shifted to Abu Faraj al-Libi,[31] a senior member of al-Qa`ida described as head of external operations, who was reportedly in regular contact with operatives in the United Kingdom. Other Britons al-Libi is believed to have been in contact with include Mohammed al-Ghabra, a Syrian still living in East London who has been identified in British court documents as having stayed with al-Libi for a week in 2002.[32] Al-Ghabra was later accused of being involved in the 2006 transatlantic airliners plot (although no specific charges were laid against him) and is listed on the UN sanctions list as being associated with al-Qa`ida and al-Libi in particular.[33]

By 2004, Rauf was still a relatively low-level player within the organization, as he does not appear much in secondary reporting. For example, in the large Operation Crevice plot (which was disrupted by authorities in March 2004)—the first large-scale British plot in which a group of mostly second-generation Pakistani-Britons from London’s environs planned to explode a large fertilizer device at a shopping mall—Rashid Rauf does not feature. Behind the scenes, however, it seems it was around this time that Rauf’s first major plot came together.

Operationalizing
According to a post-operation report that European and U.S. security services believe was written by Rauf,[34] at around this time a young Pakistani-Briton known as Umar made his way to Waziristan and connected with an individual identified in documents as Haji, but believed to be Abu Ubaydah al-Masri.[35] According to Rauf, Haji persuaded Umar to train for a martyrdom operation back in Europe and was sent to the United Kingdom in June 2004 once he had been trained in how to use hydrogen peroxide as an explosive.[36] The connection, however, seems to have been through Haji, with Rauf playing a supportive role.

While Umar failed to carry out his attack, Rauf reported that he did pass on the contacts for Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, two men Umar knew and whom he trusted. Rauf waited a couple of weeks before making contact with the two men and assessed whether they seemed dedicated enough to the cause.[37] Having concluded the men were committed, he traveled with them into the tribal areas putting them in direct contact with Haji. Leaving them with the leader for a couple of days, by the time he returned Haji had persuaded them to carry out attacks in the United Kingdom.[38] Rauf then chaperoned the two men around the tribal regions to get explosives training, record their suicide videos, and instruct them on the targets they should aim for once back in the United Kingdom. At a certain point, he reported planning to travel back with the two to help them with their operation, but that he was unable to get a clean passport in time.[39] In any event, by February 8, 2005, Khan and Tanweer moved back to the United Kingdom.[40] Rauf continued to manage the plot from afar, using Yahoo messenger, e-mails and mobile phones to help them decide on targeting and helping them when they encountered problems, for example in the concentration of the hydrogen peroxide.[41]

In December 2004, Rauf reported receiving information that a new group of three Britons had arrived in the tribal areas—Muktar Said Ibrahim, Rizwan Majid and Shakeel Ismail (though they were all using cover names).[42] Ibrahim boasted to his roommate as he left that he was off to “do jihad” and that “maybe [he] wouldn’t see [Ibrahim] again, maybe [they] were going to see each other in heaven.”[43] Having waited a couple of weeks, Rauf made contact and spent some time with the men assessing their credentials and their potential use as plotters. He then dispatched them to meet with Haji who took them to be trained in explosives.[44] Likely more focused on the eventual July 7, 2005, plotters, Rauf spent less time with the men, reporting that while they were receiving their explosives training there was an accident during which Majid and Ismail were killed. When he met Ibrahim again, it was in Islamabad and the two had a short period in which to record his suicide video, arrange his return flight, organize codes and methods of communication and ensure that Ibrahim was ready for his operation.[45]

The shortened timeline was due to the need to get Ibrahim out of the country before his visa expired. Rauf reported that everything came together and he received a note from Ibrahim saying he had arrived safely in the United Kingdom.[46] After this, however, there was silence with no responses using the predetermined methods. Through other contacts, Rauf was able to reach out to Ibrahim, but all he heard back was that the operation was proceeding.[47]

In the end, the first plot succeeded and the second did not. Rauf ascribed the fact that he was able to keep contact with Khan as the key behind success, since he could manage the operation and help Khan work through the technical difficulties with the hydrogen peroxide. Based on Rauf’s assessments, it is possible to see that with both cells he acted as the first point of contact for the fighters having been passed their details, vetted them for suitability and then helped them connect with more senior members of al-Qa`ida who trained and persuaded them to become willing suicide bombers back in the United Kingdom. He also helped the plotters record their martyrdom videos and arranged their communication methods.[48] Clearly a key figure in the plots, he was nevertheless a middleman, and one who to some degree must have been viewed as expendable given the fact that he claimed to have attempted to go back to operate alongside the plotters in the United Kingdom, an operationally risky move. Furthermore, the fact that he played a different role with the July 21, 2005, plotters (spending less time with them) suggests that he was not the only operator shepherding cells around at the time.

Rising in the Ranks
The success of the July 7, 2005, operation in London—in which 52 people died on London’s public transportation system—is likely to have raised Rauf’s profile within al-Qa`ida. By the time he came to the transatlantic airliners plot in his post-operation report, Rauf referred to himself and Haji as peers and co-plotters. While it is clear that Haji was still the senior organizer, Rauf had taken on a far more hands-on leadership role in the plot. He described the technical details of how they decided to come to use liquid explosives on planes and other particular aspects of the chemical composition of the devices, suggesting deep involvement in this aspect.[49]

Rauf provided a lot less detail about shepherding the key figures in the plot around the tribal regions, and instead wrote about the individuals like pawns in an operation.[50] He described using methods of communication similar to those he deployed in the earlier plots, but instead this time had a set of mobile numbers he was using for the operation, one for each contact. He described how he had three numbers for contacts in the United Kingdom and one for Pakistan.[51] Court evidence of his control over the plot was provided in the form of e-mails that were supposedly from him (using the nickname “Paps”) or someone linked to him showing Rauf directing key figures on the ground. The language deployed was colloquial British slang, and clearly delivered by someone with good command of the language.[52]

In a separate case linked to the plot, Rauf instructed via e-mail Adam Khatib, one of the younger members of the network, to behave himself after he was arrested for driving illegally.[53] Furthermore, authorities alleged that he dispatched his old Birmingham friend Mohammed Gulzar back to the United Kingdom to act as his man on the ground.[54] During the time since Gulzar had fled from the United Kingdom, the only substantial activities he is identified as doing is traveling back and forth to South Africa to obtain a passport and a wife, and meeting with Mohammed al-Ghabra (which he admitted to in court).[55] Later court documents identified Gulzar as being “in contact with Rauf and with one of the convicted plotters, Assad Sarwar.”[56] As well as being in touch with at least one key figure on the ground in the United Kingdom linked to the airliners plot, authorities alleged that Gulzar was in touch with at least one other potential cell in the United Kingdom.[57] Rauf referred to two other individuals in his report who were not detected, as well as highlighting the purpose of Assad Sarwar to act as bombmaker and to stay undetected for use after the plot.[58]

While this plot has clear evidence of Rauf having moved up the value chain in al-Qa`ida—working to establish networks in Europe for future attacks, coordinating the plot seemingly on the same level as a senior al-Qa`ida leader, involved in most aspects from managing the individuals to the technical aspects of the bomb—it ended up with him being arrested in Pakistan. Largely kept from talking to the press, when he was brought before a court in December 2006 he declared, “I have done nothing wrong but I have been framed. I am not optimistic that I will be cleared…everything against me is based on lies, lies.”[59] Oddly, however, for an innocent man, he did not appear to ask for consular assistance.[60] In fact, the Pakistani courts were forgiving and a judge declared the charges against him “flimsy” and with “no substance,” dropping all the charges.[61] Less than a year later, he had still not been extradited to the United Kingdom, and in September 2007 was ordered released by a Pakistani court.[62] Before any of this could take place, however, in December that year he managed to escape from custody in very questionable circumstances.[63]

Returning to the Fight
Whether anything can be read into his escape and Pakistani unwillingness to extradite him to the United Kingdom is unclear. From an al-Qa`ida perspective, however, Rauf’s escape from custody was a blessing, and he almost immediately started to feature in reports from foreign fighters who joined al-Qa`ida. For example, Bryant Neal Vinas, a young American who came to the tribal belt to join the fighting in Afghanistan in September 2007, claimed to have met Rauf and senior al-Qa`ida ideologue Abu Yahya al-Libi at some point in 2008.[64] In November 2008, a few days before Rauf was allegedly killed in a drone strike, Vinas was captured in Peshawar by Pakistani forces. He claimed to have met senior al-Qa`ida leaders and to have plotted with them to attack the Long Island Rail Road in the United States.[65] Whether it was Rauf who directed him is unclear, but security services in the United Kingdom believe that during 2008 Rauf devised a plan to use a group of local Pashtuns who were to infiltrate the United Kingdom using student visas and allegedly carry out an attack in a northern British city.[66] The specifics of his involvement in the plot are uncertain given the fact that no one has been convicted of the plot and one of the key alleged figures is currently fighting extradition to the United States, obstructing the release of information.

Rauf’s hand was more prominently visible in another plot linked to this group: the cell led by Najibullah Zazi that was intercepted in September 2009 during an attempt to carry out a suicide bombing on the New York City subway system. According to Zazi’s co-conspirator Zarein Ahmedzay, having made contact with al-Qa`ida in Peshawar in September 2008 they were taken by “Ahmad” to Miran Shah in the tribal belt where one day a convoy of vehicles came to meet them bearing Salah al-Somali and Rashid Rauf. Rauf is reported to have told the men that “they would be presented with a serious decision” and had to decide whether they wanted to become suicide bombers.[67] A third cell, connected through an e-mail account that was managed by “Ahmad” who was in touch with individuals from all three groups, was uncovered in Oslo. It is unclear whether Rauf met with the key plotters, although on the presumption that he was indeed killed during a drone strike on November 22, 2008, it would have been difficult for him to meet with the lead plotter Mikael Davud since it was only November 20, 2008, that Davud left Turkey for Iran to make his journey to the tribal belt.[68]

What is clear is that Rauf was no longer the contact man reaching out and vetting recruits or shuttling them around. In both Vinas’ and Ahmedzay’s accounts, he was a figure brought in to talk to the aspirant plotters and then left them to be trained and prepared by others. In this set of cells, it appears as though it was “Ahmad” acting as the courier, bringing the aspirant warriors around, acting as their first point of contact with al-Qa`ida and then later managing the e-mail account through which they could communicate with the al-Qa`ida leaders—roles that Rauf played with the July 7 plotters. His elevation to the core of al-Qa`ida seemed complete, with him now only appearing to talk to foreign recruits alongside senior al-Qa`ida members and presumably acting as an English-speaking figure of importance who could talk to foreigners in their own terms. Having met them, he seemed to slip into the background from where he directed the men immediately handling the plotters—in this case “Ahmad” who acted as the go-between to the various cells. Once established, the plots were seemingly able to run without Rauf’s leadership, something necessary given his reported death on November 22, 2008. It was another five months before the plotters in northern England were uncovered, and almost a year before Najibullah Zazi and his cell were detected in New York.

Conclusion
Rashid Rauf’s body was never found, al-Qa`ida never officially recognized his death and plots with links to him were still being uncovered almost two years after his reported demise. His family is convinced he is alive and in the custody of Pakistani intelligence services,[69] while senior American sources are certain he is dead.[70] Whatever the case, it seems clear that Rashid Rauf was by his death a serious player in al-Qa`ida who had risen up the ranks from a British-Pakistani fixer and foot soldier to the key hub for a number of terrorist plots. His ascension was no doubt accelerated by his Kashmiri jihadist pedigree and his ability to develop close relationships with numerous senior al-Qa`ida figures. Having gained their trust, he was then used as a friendly foreign face who was able to vet and meet foreign fighters who arrived in the tribal belt seeking to connect with al-Qa`ida. For these foreigners, the contact with al-Qa`ida was likely made easier by the presence of someone like Rauf—a Westernized foreigner who could understand their backgrounds and their psychological journey. His death, if true, would have clearly been a loss to the group, although it does not seem as though it has necessarily stopped their capacity to train and dispatch fighters back to plot attacks.

Rauf’s trajectory from a Birmingham Pakistani involved in Kashmiri politics and Islamism to an al-Qa`ida militant is one that is typical of the British jihadist narrative, and one that echoes a number of other narratives. Where Rauf distinguished himself is in having survived within al-Qa`ida in the tribal belt for so long, slowly rising up to a rank of some importance within the group and not ultimately returning to the United Kingdom to attempt to carry out an attack. Instead, from his perch in the tribal belt he acted as a puppeteer to a series of plots that while only successful once, were able to strike fear and terror right into the heart of the West. The 2006 transatlantic airliners plot, with its innovative use of liquid explosives, led to the still current ban on liquids on airplanes. Rashid Rauf, dead or alive, clearly succeeded in making his mark on the world as a key al-Qa`ida figure.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College, and the author of the forthcoming We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen (Hurst/Columbia University Press).

[1] “Allegations of UK Complicity in Torture,” House of Lords and House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights, 23rd Report of Session 2008-2009, July 21, 2009, p. 109.

[2] Regina v. Abdul Quayyum Raja, Royal Courts of Justice, 2004.

[3]  Personal interview, Amardeep Bassey, June 2012. A West Midlands based journalist, Bassey has done a lot of work among Birmingham’s Muslim and gang community.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Cole Morton and Andrew Buncombe, “The Life and Death of Rashid Rauf,” Independent on Sunday, November 23, 2008.

[7]  Cahal Milmo, Ian Herbert, Jason Bennetto and Justin Huggler, “From Birmingham Bakery to Pakistani Prison, The Mystery of Rashid Rauf,” Independent, August 19, 2006.

[8]  Personal interview, Amardeep Bassey, June 2012.

[9]  “Muslim Teacher in Carol Concert Tirade is Made Ofsted Inspector,” Daily Mail, September 30, 2006.

[10] Daily Mirror, August 15, 2006.

[11]  Dominic Casciani, “Profile: Rashid Rauf,” BBC, November 22, 2008.

[12] Unpublished “Special Investigation” into Gulzar for the Sunday Mercury by Ben Goldby.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Mitchell D. Silber, The Al Qaeda Factor (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), p. 42.

[15]  Unpublished “Special Investigation” into Gulzar for the Sunday Mercury by Ben Goldby.

[16]  Morton and Buncombe.

[17]  Ibid.

[18] Personal interview, Amardeep Bassey, June 2012. More famous to readers than the Panthers in Birmingham was the Lynx gang of which Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg was a member. A number of individuals from these groups ended up involved in jihadist activity.

[19]  Personal interview, Amardeep Bassey, June 2012.

[20]  Ian Fisher and Serge Kovaleski, “In British Inquiry, a Family Caught in Two Worlds,” New York Times, August 20, 2006.

[21] Richard Greenberg, Paul Cruickshank and Chris Hansen, “Inside the Terror Plot that ‘Rivaled 9/11,’” Dateline NBC, September 14, 2009.

[22] Andrew Alderson, “Rashid Rauf: Profile of a Terror Mastermind,” Daily Telegraph, November 22, 2008.

[23]  Milmo et al.

[24]  Secretary of State for the Home Department and AY, Royal Courts of Justice, July 26, 2010.

[25]  “The Radical with Perfect Cover,” Sunday Times, August 20, 2006.

[26]  “Rashid Rauf,” Guardian, November 22, 2008.

[27]  The Radical with Perfect Cover.”

[28]  Asif Farooqi, Carol Grisanti and Robert Windrem, “Sources: UK Terror Plot Suspect Forced to Talk,” NBC News, August 18, 2006.

[29]  Ibid.

[30]  Ibid.

[31]  Silber,  p. 50.

[32]  Secretary of State for the Home Department and AY, Royal Courts of Justice, July 26, 2010.

[33]  “Security Council Committee Pursuant to Resolutions 1267 (1999) and 1989 (2011) Concerning Al-Qaida and Associated Individuals and Entities,” United Nations, October 2009.

[34]  The documents in question were found on German suspects believed linked to al-Qa`ida. They provide a post-operational assessment from al-Qa`ida’s perspective of what happened in the July 7, 2005, and July 21, 2005, plots to attack London and the 2006 transatlantic airliners plot. They were first reported by Yassin Musharbash, “In ihren eigenen worten,” Die Zeit, March 15, 2012. Subsequent quotes attributed to Rauf are drawn from author read-outs, and the following news pieces: Nic Robertson, Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, “Document Shows Origins of 2006 Plot for Liquid Bombs on Planes,” CNN, April 30, 2012; Nic Robertson, Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, “Documents Give New Details on al Qaeda’s London Bombings,” CNN, April 30, 2012; Duncan Gardham, “7/7 bombers Planned Attack on Bank of England,” Telegraph, April 30, 2012; Duncan Gardham, “Al Qaeda Commander’s Guide to Beating MI5,” Telegraph, May 1, 2012. Heretofore, all these articles are referred to as the “Rauf documents.”

[35]  Rauf documents.

[36]  Ibid.

[37]  Ibid.

[38]  Ibid.

[39]  Ibid.

[40]  “7 July Bombings,” BBC, July 8, 2008.

[41]  Rauf documents.

[42]  Ibid. “Terror: How a String of Blunders Left Bombers Free to Cause Carnage,” Daily Mail, July 10, 2007; Secretary of State for the Home Department and AH, Royal Courts of Justice, May 9, 2008.

[43]  “Profile: Muktar Said Ibrahim,” BBC, July 11, 2007.

[44]  Rauf documents.

[45]  Ibid.

[46]  Ibid.

[47]  Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] “Explosive Emails,” Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2009.

[53] Duncan Gardham, “Teenager Sentenced to 18 Years after Being Groomed as Suicide Bomber in Trans-Atlantic Airlines Plot,” Telegraph, December 10, 2009.

[54] Greenberg et al.

[55]  Secretary of State for the Home Department and AY, Royal Courts of Justice, July 26, 2010; Silber, p. 42.

[56]  Secretary of State for the Home Department and AM, Royal Courts of Justice, July 6, 2012.

[57]  Ibid. Secretary of State for the Home Department and AM, Royal Courts of Justice, December 21, 2009.

[58]  Rauf documents.

[59] David Williams, “It’s All Lies, Protests Suspected Air Bomber,” Daily Mail, December 22, 2006.

[60] “UK Request Being Considered: FO: Extradition of Rashid Rauf,” Dawn, August 28, 2006.

[61]  CNN, December 13, 2006.

[62] “Release of Two Britons including Rashid Rauf Sought,” Daily Times, September 1, 2007.

[63]  Massoud Ansari and Miles Erwin, “London Airline Bomb Plot Suspect Escapes,” Daily Telegraph, December 16, 2007.

[64]  Sebastian Rotella and Josh Meyer, “A Young American’s Journey into Al Qaeda,” Los Angeles Times, July 24, 2009.

[65]  USA v. John Doe, Eastern District of New York, 2009.

[66] “Arrest of ‘Easter Bombers’ Led to International al Qaeda Network,” Daily Telegraph, May 18, 2010.

[67] Silber, p. 160.

[68]  “Den offentlege patalemakta mot Mikael Davud, Shawan Sadek Saeed Bujak Bujak, David Jakobsen,” Oslo City Court, January 30, 2012.

[69]  Personal interview, Amardeep Bassey, June 2012.

[70]  Greenberg et al.