Archive for the ‘CTC Sentinel’ Category

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.

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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.

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.