Archive for the ‘CTC Sentinel’ Category

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.

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My latest for the CTC Sentinel, this time looking at UK’s online counter-jihad. Some more detail on this story is going to appear in my forthcoming book. It is also the subject of a much bigger publication which I will eventually get around to doing. Understanding how to counter online terrorist activity is going to be a key question that needs answering.

The UK’s Efforts to Disrupt Jihadist Activity Online

Sep 26, 2011

The desire to find ways to moderate the internet as a tool for the spread of violence and radical ideas is not new or unique to the United Kingdom. This fight, however, is becoming more important as networks involved in terrorist activity increasingly turn to the internet as a vehicle through which to conduct planning, operations and radicalization.[1]

This article maps out this fight within a British context to shed light on how the problematic nexus of the internet and radical ideas is evolving, as well as how its importance has grown as traditional al-Qa`ida networks find themselves under even heavier pressure.

Historical Roots
The United Kingdom has long been a hub of online jihadist activity.[2] One of the earliest networks was the http://www.azzam.com family of sites that from 1994 to early 2002 provided interested people with a way of reaching out to jihadist groups fighting in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya.[3] Its believed webmaster, a British Pakistani named Babar Ahmad who has admitted to engaging in militant activities in Bosnia, is currently in a British prison fighting extradition to the United States.[4]

A couple of years after Ahmad was arrested, police in London disrupted a group of three young men who appeared to be involved with a cell of Bosnian extremists planning an attack on a NATO base in the former Yugoslavia. The men were in fact part of a much wider network that stretched across the United Kingdom, and had links in Canada, Denmark, Sweden and the United States. Key cells in the United Kingdom were using the internet to draw in recruits and provide connections to extremist camps in Pakistan, while also acting as an online media center for al-Qa`ida in Iraq.[5] This network particularly alarmed British security planners who had never seen anything like it before, with then-Metropolitan Police counterterrorism head Peter Clarke saying “it was the first virtual conspiracy to murder that we had seen.”[6]

Yet the larger menace seems to be the way that the internet is able to act as a catalyst for information dissemination to extremists who have then gone on to conduct terrorist attacks. Two specific cases stand out as particularly worrying. First, Roshonara Choudhry, the seemingly well-integrated East London woman who self-radicalized online listening to Anwar al-`Awlaqi and then tried to kill a Member of Parliament for voting in support of the Iraq war. Second, Nicky Reilly, the mentally challenged young man who was persuaded by extremists he encountered online to attempt a suicide attack in an Exeter chain restaurant; diners were only saved by the fact that the bomb blew up in his face as he attempted to assemble it in the restaurant’s toilet.

The United Kingdom’s Reaction
In the face of this threat, the United Kingdom has launched a string of counter operations that seek to address the problem of terrorists using the internet from upstream disruption, to downstream arrests and trying to develop a strategy that is able to focus on this problem in a new way. In the recently refreshed Contest counterterrorism strategy, the British government identified that terrorists used the internet for “propaganda,” “radicalization and recruitment,” “communication,” “attack planning” and “cyber attack.”[7] The last of these, “cyber attack,” was identified as being of “low” probability, with the document identifying an incident in 2010 as the “first recorded incident of a terrorist ‘cyber’ attack on corporate computer systems.”[8] In that incident, a computer worm called “here you have” spread a virus that crashed computers and provided its creators with backdoor access to infected systems.[9] While security planners continue to watch this threat and expect it to grow “as the tools and techniques needed for cyber attack become more widely available,” it is largely the other ideological and operational aspects of support that the internet provides that British planners are targeting.[10]

According to the annual report by the parliamentary committee with oversight of Britain’s intelligence agencies, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ, the United Kingdom’s version of the American National Security Agency) spent a third of its efforts during the past two cycles on counterterrorism. The “bulk of this effort” was spent in “Pursue…namely, to stop terrorist attacks.” As with much of the British intelligence community, the focus shifted from solely “British Pakistani operations” to growing threats in Yemen and East Africa. The report also mentions that GCHQ’s work helped disrupt al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) plans in the previous year as well as specific “hostage-taking plans” by an anonymous group.[11]

In a particularly notable incident from mid-2010, British government-supported hackers penetrated AQAP systems and were able to insert a garbled code into the first edition of Inspire magazine, delaying its release by a few weeks.[12] In the operation, which was apparently separately considered by Pentagon planners but rejected by the Central Intelligence Agency,[13] British intelligence operatives inserted a code later revealed to be a list of cupcake recipes.[14] In a separate AQAP linked operation earlier in the year, British officers had arrested a Bangladeshi national named Rajib Karim who was working in information technology at British Airways while in direct contact with AQAP ideologue Anwar al-`Awlaqi. It is unclear how Karim was first picked up, but his electronic communications with al-`Awlaqi were one of the main planks of the prosecution’s case against him—showing as they did his intent to help the group launch attacks against aviation.[15]

In January 2008, British officers launched a more traditional operation in the wake of a posting on the al-ekhlaas.com forum proclaiming the creation of an al-Qa`ida branch in the United Kingdom.[16] After investigation, MI5 identified the source as a Blackburn native named Ishaq Kanmi, who local officers were able to video as he openly downloaded information off extremist forums at the local library.[17] Connected to Kanmi was a pair of local brothers convicted on other charges and Krenar Lusha, an Albanian immigrant who was identified from online chats he had been having with Kanmi. The conversations were enough to alarm officers who investigated further. When they burst into his home in August 2008, they found large amounts of radical material (including documents about how to build bombs and detonators), 71 liters of petrol, two kilograms of potassium nitrate and 14 mobile telephones.[18] While police and prosecutors were unable to ascertain exactly what Lusha was planning, they concluded that he was likely a “lone wolf” that they had happened to catch early.[19] His only connections to extremists came from his online contacts—similar in many ways to Nicky Reilly, the young man who attempted to detonate a bomb in an Exeter restaurant in May 2008.

This sort of approach was again seen in November 2010, when about a week after Roshonara Choudhry was convicted of attempting to kill a Member of Parliament, police in Wolverhampton arrested Bilal Zaheer Ahmad for posting inflammatory comments on a variety of English-language forums praising Choudhry and calling for others to emulate her. A long-time extremist, Ahmad went so far as to post lists of other MPs who had voted for the war, as well as providing their contact information and a link to buying knives at Tesco (a British retailer). He pled guilty and was jailed for 12 years.[20]

More significant in many ways, however, was the case against Mohammed Gul, a London-based student who was active on extremist forums and created videos that he published on YouTube celebrating the deaths of U.S. soldiers, highlighting the plight in Gaza and demonstrating how to make IEDs. While it took two attempts to convict him (the first jury was unable to reach a verdict), he was in the end jailed for five years in a case that was described by a senior officer as being “one of the first successful prosecutions relating to disseminating terrorist publications via the internet.”[21] Unlike many of the cases listed in this article that involved the internet as the main plank of the prosecution’s case to show the individual’s involvement in terrorism, Gul did not plead guilty. His successful conviction is likely to be followed by a further set of cases as police and prosecutors now see it is possible to convict individuals on such charges.

On the other end of the scale, there has been an effort by British security services to find ways of countering the spread of radical ideas using the internet. This has been met with mixed success. In one instance, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) sponsored the production of a short film that was to be released online that was intended to provide a dissuading narrative for young people drawn toward jihadist ideas. Called Wish You Waziristan, the film told the story of two young British-Pakistanis who end up in a training camp in Waziristan.[22] Independently produced with £33,000 of government funds, clips from the animated short were released onto YouTube in April-May 2011 with endings telling people to come back on May 29 to see the entire story. When a British Sunday newspaper discovered the provenance of the film’s funding, however, the FCO suddenly became concerned and instead put the film’s release on hiatus.[23] In a separate case, the FCO funded British online activists to go into jihadist forums such as al-Shamouk and challenge radical messages.[24]

The United Kingdom has also created a number of organizations that try to help counter the spread of radical ideas online by either providing a counternarrative through the Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), or through trying to get the public to help alert them to extremist material they find online through the Counterterrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU), a specialist police unit. Success, however, has been mixed, with Contest branding the four year old RICU’s work “not…as successful as we want.”[25] Only created in 2010, CTIRU remains a young organization, although it has removed unidentified material from the internet on 165 occasions between July 2010-July 2011.[26]

Conclusion
Britain’s cyber-spooks and cyber-cops are highly adaptive and active in trying to counter the threat from Islamist radicalization online.[27] In doing so, they have conducted disruption operations, helped U.S. authorities (most notably with the case of Najibullah Zazi where it is understood that British intelligence agencies provided the key first hint of danger to New York authorities), and have now started to arrest some of the many online extremists that live in the United Kingdom. The successful prosecution of Mohammed Gul is instructive in this regard as it carves a path that British authorities are likely to increasingly use in the future to counter this threat.

The larger significance of this increasing focus on the online threat is two-fold. On the one hand, it demonstrates the growing level of concern about online extremists. As President Barack Obama and others have said, it is increasingly the threat of “lone wolf” extremists that concern them most—individuals who tend to be spurred to violence by material they find online rather than by traditional terrorist recruitment networks. Yet this is taking place as the general assessment about the capacity of traditional violent Islamist terrorist groups is going down. The open question that remains is whether these two trends are linked—and whether al-Qa`ida and affiliated groups are trying to increasingly turn to an online jihad as they see their efforts offline continuing to be disrupted.

Supporting the notion of the shift online being the product of increasing entropy among al-Qa`ida and affiliated groups is the fact that the British government is increasingly willing to expend its scarce counterterrorism resources on individuals like Mohammed Gul. While it was later revealed that Gul was in contact with more dangerous extremists in Germany, his case would unlikely have received any particular attention if security forces had large-scale plots to focus on instead. Consequently, while it would be unwise to conclude that Britain’s jihad has been wrapped up (and recent arrests in Birmingham indicate it remains a live concern), it does seem clear that it has moved into a new phase that is going to be characterized by plots with a strong online presence like many of those listed in this article. It is safe to conclude that Britain’s jihad is increasingly shifting online.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and the author of the forthcoming We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen (C.Hurst & Co.).

[1] “Contest: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism,” HM Government, July 2011, available at http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/counter-terrorism/counter-terrorism-strategy/contest-summary?view=Binary.

[2] For an excellent early primer on British Muslim identity online that includes a discussion on the more extreme elements, see Gary R. Bunt, “ten.niatirb@malsi: ‘British Muslim’ Identities in Cyberspace,” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 10:3 (1999).

[3] For information on azzam.com’s illegal activities, see U.S.A. v. Babar Ahmad, “Affadavit in Support of Request for Extradition of Babar Ahmad,” District Court of Connecticut, 2004.

[4]  “Terror Suspect Babar Ahmad is ‘No al Qaeda Rambo,’” BBC, May 9, 2011.

[5]  Raffaello Pantucci, “Operation Praline: The Realization of al-Suri’s Nizam, la Tanzim?” Perspectives on Terrorism 2:12 (2008).

[6] “The World’s Most Wanted Cyber-Jihadist,” BBC, January 16, 2008.

[7] “Contest: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism,” p. 73.

[8] Ibid., p. 34.

[9] “Cyber Jihad Group Linked to ‘Here You Have’ Worm,” IDG News Service, September 10, 2010.

[10] “Contest: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism,” p. 74.

[11] “Annual Report 2010-2011,” UK Intelligence and Security Committee, July 2011.

[12] “MI6 Attacks al Qaeda in ‘Operation Cupcake,’” Telegraph, June 2, 2011.

[13] “List of Cyber-Weapons Developed by Pentagon to Streamline Computer Warfare,” Washington Post, June 1, 2011.

[14] “Al Qaeda Magazine is a Cupcake Recipe Book,” PublicIntelligence.net, July 12, 2010.

[15] “Rajib Karim: The Terrorist Inside British Airways,” BBC, February 28, 2011. For more on what Karim was actually plotting, it is instructive to read his e-mails with al-`Awlaqi, available at http://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/news/8880903.Excerpts_from_Rajib_Karim_terror_plot_messages/?ref=rss.

[16] “Skepticism Greets ‘Al Qaeda in Britain’ Founding,” Reuters, January 16, 2008.

[17]  “Man Jailed for Urging Blair and Brown Assassinations,” Press Association, June 24, 2010.

[18] “Would-be Terrorist who had Positively Reveled in Violence, Death and Destruction,” Derby Evening Telegraph, December 16, 2009.

[19] Ibid.

[20] “Blogger Who Encouraged Murder of MPs Jailed,” BBC, July 29, 2011.

[21] “Man Jailed for Creating Extremist Videos and Uploading Them to the Internet,” Metropolitan Police Press Release, February 25, 2011.

[22] The film’s website is available at http://www.wishyouwaziristan.com, although it remains devoid of much content.

[23] “Foreign Office Faces Flak over Axed Counter-Terrorism Video,” Guardian, May 30, 2011.

[24] Personal interview, British activist, London, September 2011.

[25] “Contest: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism,” p. 64.

[26] Ibid., p. 76.

[27] Additionally, this article does not touch on the United Kingdom’s ongoing fight against online right-wing extremists.

Back on the topic of terrorism in the West, my latest for the CTC Sentinel of West Point, exploring the network of plots from apparently send out by Al Qaeda in late 2008 – the Pathway group in Northern England from April 2009, the Najibullah Zazi cell in New York (who I have already covered a bit here), and the recently disrupted cell in Oslo. The Oslo one is the least clear – though admittedly the Brits were unable to convict anyone for Pathway – fortunately, others from Norway have a good detailed article in this edition of the Sentinel about it in addition to mine. There is also a good article about the emergence of Al Muhajiroun in the US from Paul Cruickshank.

Am trying something new here trying to link a pdf, as CTC have not put it up on their website yet. Do please drop me a note through the contact sheet if you have any problems or want a copy. If it works you should find it here: CTCSentinel-Vol3Iss8-1

UPDATE: And just to make sure every base is covered, here is the link on their website: http://www.ctc.usma.edu/sentinel/CTCSentinel-Vol3Iss8.pdf

My latest article for a new outlet, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, which explores the current state of radicalization in London. It should be found at this link, though it does not appear to be up yet: http://ctc.usma.edu/sentinel/CTCSentinel-Vol3Iss2.pdf

I also have the pdf for anyone who cannot find it. Here is the first couple of paragraphs to give you a taster….

The Changing Scene in Londonistan

By Raffaello Pantucci

In the first month of 2010, the world was reminded of the terrorism threat in the United Kingdom. Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab’s partial radicalization in London, the decision to finally proscribe the extremist group al-Muhajiroun and the ratcheting up of the terrorism threat level ahead of the Summit on Afghanistan all highlighted once again how the United Kingdom remains the focus of the terrorism threat to the West. The nature of this threat, however, has changed since the days before 9/11, when London was often called “Londonistan” due to the heavy presence of extremist groups in the city. Today, radicalization and extremist activity in the United Kingdom no longer occurs at the level it once did. Nevertheless, the activity still taking place is harder to legislate against and more difficult to combat.

This article will explain how “Londonistan” has changed during the last decade. Overtly violent extremist preaching has become much more discrete, while the internet has become a major feature in radicalizing young people. The article will also show how old and new threats have melded together to create a threat matrix that presents a new set of legislative challenges for British authorities.