Archive for the ‘Jane’s’ Category
Tags: China, terrorism, xinjiang
Tags: counter-radicalization, counter-terrorism, Europe, ISIL, ISIS, Syria, terrorism, UK
My latest for Jane’s Intelligence Review about European Foreign Fighters going to Syria. Unfortunately, its behind a firewall, so I cannot just post it here now, but they have agreed to let me put up what is below so far with the rest later in the month. Get in touch if you have any questions. In the meantime I did interviews for the Sunday Times on the same subject, something with Sky News about prison radicalisation and something for NBC about the Iraq-Syria troubles and its links back home. Many thanks to the Airey Neave Trust for their support of my work on this topic.
UPDATE: March 22, 2014 – per agreement with Jane’s I have now posted the entire article here. Thanks to my editors!
- Rising numbers of European citizens travelling to fight for Islamist groups in the Syrian civil war increase the domestic terrorism threat as they return home.
- European fighters in Syria are from a diverse range of nationalities and ethnicities, with the domestic threat seemingly most elevated in the Balkans, Belgium, and the United Kingdom.
- The risk of domestic militant attacks in European countries will rise further should Syria’s civil war continue.
Increasing numbers of European citizens have travelled to Syria to fight for Islamist groups in the civil war. Raffaello Pantucci examines the threat facing Europe from fighters returning home and the risk of domestic militant attacks as a result.
In 2013, this trend accelerated further, with an assessment published by researcher Aaron Zelin of King’s College London suggesting that over the period from April to December 2013 the number of Europeans heading to fight in Syria had almost tripled, and could total between 5,000 to 10,000.
More worryingly, in 2013, further evidence started to emerge suggesting that the return of these fighters home may have increased terrorist threats in Europe.
Little is known about Abu Huthaifa. The brief statement posted about him on JeM’s Facebook page indicated that he had entered Syria through Turkey and that he might be as young as 18 years old. Beyond this, he was a young Caucasian wearing traditional army garb. However, in his portrait there are a number of features observed among the European contingent fighting in Syria.
First, the lack of clarity about his ethnicity reflects the broad background of the European foreign fighter contingent in Syria. Unlike the civil conflict in Libya, which seemed to draw mostly, but not only, Libyan Europeans to fight, the civil war in Syria has attracted Europeans of various ethnic backgrounds, from Arabs and South Asians to converts of every ethnicity.
A review of available information about foreign fighters in Syria reveals that the broad base of fighters in the country reflects the ethnic breakdown of Muslims across Europe. According to the 2011 census, the majority of Muslims in the UK are of South Asian origin. Citizens of that origin equally represent the largest contingent of British foreign fighters in Syria.
Europeans of multiple ethnicities with distinct national accents appear in videos recorded by jihadist groups on the battlefield. One video discovered in early June 2013, which purported to have been taken in March, showed a group including Dutch-speaking individuals beheading someone identified as a Syrian government supporter, with at least one of those involved speaking Flemish (Belgian Dutch).
Other videos to emerge actively encourage individuals to join the fighting in their native languages: English – by a Briton of seemingly African origin talking by the side of the road as he loads a pistol; Swedish – by Swedes of Arab origin; Danish; French; and other languages.
German authorities have grown increasingly concerned about the activity of a 38-year-old former rapper, Denis Mamadou Cuspert. A Ghanaian-German convert, he was known by his stage name Deso Dogg or his battlefield kunya (an honorific title) Abu Talha al-Almani. Prominent for his radical views in Germany before going to Syria, Cuspert has become the face of German jihad in Syria, releasing videos of himself rapping and calling on others to join the fight. It is unknown whether or not he is still alive.
Second, Abu Huthaifa’s age reflects the fact that jihad in Syria remains primarily attractive to the younger demographic, with a large number of teenagers in particular drawn to the fight. In October, Burkhard Freier, head of the North Rhine-Westphalia branch of the German domestic intelligence agency Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), told the ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen) television network that his service had “observed adolescents who departed for Syria in order to fight there”.
In September, he reported that a group of more than 20 young German Muslims had gone from Germany to Turkey and onwards to Syria. Among the group there were five teenagers, including a 15-year-old. In December, the minister of the interior of the German federal state of Hesse, Boris Rhein, highlighted a study commissioned by his ministry, which suggested that of 23 males who had gone to fight in Syria, nine were still at school.
In Norway, a pair of Somali-born sisters aged 16 and 19 declared in an email to their parents, “Something needs to be done [about Syria]. We want to help the Muslims, and the only way to do so is to be with them in their pains and their joy.” The girls’ father tracked them down in Syria, but failed to persuade them to return. In Belgium, the worried parents of two teenagers – Jejoen Bontinck and Brian de Mulder – separately spoke to the international media in March and April of 2013, expressing their concerns about their sons, who had gone to fight in Syria.
However, the spectrum of fighters also includes those who are middle-aged. Abdal Munem Mustafa Halima (also known as Abu Basir al-Tartusi) – a London-based extremist preacher, believed to be in his 50s and originally from Syria – emerged in videos published online by the group Ansar al-Sham in October 2012, seemingly addressing crowds in Latakia. One video posted on the video-sharing website YouTube is dated 8 August 2012.
In February 2013, reports emerged that Slimane Hadj Abderrahmane, a 39-year-old former Guantánamo Bay camp detainee, had died fighting four months after arriving in Syria. Abderrahmane was born in Denmark. At the age of seven he moved to Algeria with his family and then returned to Denmark in his late teens. Formerly a popular techno DJ, he became concerned by the suffering of Muslims around the world and trained in Afghanistan. In February 2002, he was captured and handed over to the US forces, which held him in the Guantánamo Bay detention camp for two years before releasing him to Denmark, where he wrote a book about his experiences, protested against Danish support of American foreign policy, and was imprisoned for credit card fraud.
The reason for Abderrahmane’s decision to go to Syria was unclear, with the Facebook group Islamisk Budskab (Islamic Message), which posted news of his death, merely saying that he “packed his backpack, said goodbye to his wife and children, and gone off [sic] to Kastrup Airport [Copenhagen Airport]”.
However, the average age of foreign jihadists seems to be somewhere between the mid-teens and middle age. In his detailed public records study of 18 Swedish nationals who had fought in Syria, Swedish researcher and journalist Per Gudmundson found that the fighters’ average age was 23.5 years. The results of this study were published in the September 2013 edition of the New York City Combating Terrorism Center’s (CTC) monthly publication CTC Sentinel.
In June 2013, Belgian minister of the interior Joëlle Milquet stated that the average age of Belgian nationals fighting in Syria was between 23 and 25 years old. A BBC radio File on Four programme from October quoted UK officials who told Shiraz Maher, a researcher at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London, that the average age of Britons going to fight was in their 20s. Public data and specific instances across Europe suggest that the majority of those reported to be fighting in Syria are in their 20s, with a few more seasoned fighters in their 30s.
Moreover, although the overwhelming majority of those travelling to Syria are men, there has been some evidence of young women also going to the battlefield, but it remains unclear what roles they perform. The case of the teenage Norwegian sisters has already been mentioned, and a report for the UK’s Channel 4 television channel from July also highlighted the case of British citizens “Maryam” and “Aisha”. The two women were living with their husbands, who were fighting alongside the Sunni militia Katiba al Muhajireen in Syria.
Having converted to Islam four years before, Maryam decided to move to Syria in early 2013, where she met her Swedish-Arab husband. Aisha moved to Syria with her British husband, and the two families lived in the same building near the Syrian frontlines. According to the documentary, the men fought together, while the women stayed behind to look after their children.
There are more such cases of married partners moving to Syria. A report in the Bosnian press published in December highlighted the case of approximately 10 married couples who had gone to Syria, with some of them taking children who were as young as three months old.
Although many women appear to adopt domestic roles, some have died on the battlefield. In late May, the Syrian government published pictures of what purported to be the passport of a British man, an American woman, and a third individual killed in a car outside Idlib in the northwest. It transpired that the British man was in fact alive, because he had handed over his passport to his handlers, who then gave it to someone else – a typical practice for foreign fighters in Syria. The American woman was identified as Nicole Lynn Mansfield, a 33-year-old convert whose death was confirmed by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The details of her case remain unclear, but Mansfield’s death demonstrated that some foreign females who go to Syria also take on frontline roles.
Travel and recruitment
A third element that Abu Huthaifa’s case highlights is the method of travelling to Syria. Having entered the country through Turkey, his case reveals the main route used by European foreign fighters to the battlefield. In most cases, individuals travel to Turkey and from there cross the porous border into Syria, where they connect with Islamist groups on the ground.
Sometimes it is done by road under the auspices of aid convoys from Europe. The convoys often carry genuine medical supplies or other essential goods and are driven by individuals who have raised money with a genuine intent to hand it over to refugees. Yet often unwittingly, the convoys also transport individuals who seek to join jihadist groups in Syria. As a result, border authorities at the UK port of Dover frequently stop and search suspicious individuals in convoys under Schedule 7 on port and border controls of the UK Terrorism Act 2000.
Others fly into Turkey (sometimes on unused package holidays), using the country’s well-connected main cities as points of entry from where they travel to the Syrian border by internal transport. In other instances, individuals take circuitous routes across Europe, driving to a smaller European airport to then take a flight to Turkey. Some go through North African countries such as Egypt and then take flights on to Lebanon or Turkey.
A senior Turkish official at a presentation in London in late October 2013 reported that Turkish authorities had prevented several hundred individuals from crossing the border into Syria. However, given the reported number of European fighters on the ground, which could be in the low thousands, this highlights the porosity of the border. According to media reports from early December, Turkey informed its European partners that during 2013 it had arrested and deported approximately 1,110 EU citizens who had arrived in Turkey with the intention of joining jihadist groups in Syria; requests for their detention had been received from other countries or the sharing of intelligence through the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol).
The fourth element of Abu Huthaifa’s profile becomes salient once he arrived in the country. Given that his biography was posted on a Facebook page that is managed by a group close to one of Al-Qaeda’s affiliates – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – it seems likely that he was serving alongside this group. According to Zelin’s study, only 20% of subjects reported group affiliation; the two primary Al-Qaeda affiliates on the battlefield, based on their responses, were ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra.
Nevertheless, although these groups attract many of the foreign fighters, they are not the only ones that draw Europeans to their ranks. Numerous other groups also count on European members, including Jund al-Sham, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, and Jund al-Khilafah.
From a threat perspective, those sub-groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda are of the greatest concern as their rhetoric and approach hardly differ, and it is likely that a number of plots have been initiated by groups associated with them.
It is currently unclear how actively those groups are recruiting for the battlefield in Syria, or whether individuals are being drawn there by a compelling news narrative that attracts them to fight. It appears that extremist groups operating camps on the ground in Syria have a vetting system, as prospective jihadists often need to have a group connection back home to support them as they travel to the battlefield. Volunteers are usually expected to pay substantial amounts of money for their training and are required to hand over their documents upon arrival in Syria. These are often circulated among other individuals in the group for use as false identification.
Many of those travelling to Syria also appear to be individuals who have previously been involved in a terrorist act or criminal investigations in their home countries. Their exact number is not available, but many media reports suggest that such individuals have criminal records for either extremism or common criminality. Per Gudmundson’s study of Swedish fighters indicated that at least eight out of the 18 subjects had criminal records.
Those connected to recognised radical movements include a group in Bosnia that was linked to Mevludin JaÜarevic, who opened fire at the US embassy in Sarajevo in October 2011; and the extremist Belgian group Shariah4Belgium, which was associated with a number of cases of radicalisation of individuals who went to fight in Syria. In Europol’s TE-SAT 2013, the agency specifically identified Shariah4Belgium as contributing to “the radicalisation and engagement of EU citizens in the Syrian conflict”.
Shariah4Belgium has become notorious among European affiliates of the British group al-Muhajiroun – initially established in 1996 in the UK by now-excluded preacher Omar Bakri Mohammed and is currently overseen by preacher Anjem Choudary – because of allegations in the Belgian press that individuals connected to Shariah4Belgium in Syria had been recorded threatening attacks in Europe. For example, a Facebook message was sent to Dutch-language Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws listing a series of targets in Antwerp and Brussels to be attacked on 31 December 2013.
In July 2012, one of the leaders of Shariah4Belgium, 22-year-old Houssien Elouassaki, was sentenced to 200 hours of community service in Belgium for “insults, threats, and racist comments” to a police officer. He failed to serve his sentence and subsequently fled to Syria, where he became the leader of a group of approximately 35-40 Belgians who were connected with Jabhat al-Nusra.
In April 2013, Elouassaki’s younger brother Hakim returned home from Syria to Vilvoorde, Belgium, having been seriously injured. Houssien was killed fighting in Syria on 13 September, according to sources quoted in the Belgian press. Based on reports in Belgian media verified by official sources, Houssien was overheard talking about wanting to attack the Palais de Justice in Brussels. Whether or not these threats were anywhere near becoming actual plots remains unclear.
A far more dangerous militant cell was discovered in Kosovo in early November. Kosovar authorities conducted operations in the cities of Pristina and Gjilan, arresting six ethnic Albanians. A seventh suspect escaped. Two of the men were alleged to have attacked a pair of American Mormon missionaries in Pristina on 3 November, and those group members were arrested as they tried to purchase weapons from undercover officers. The status of legal proceedings against those detained was unknown at the time of going to press.
According to the authorities’ briefing with the Associated Press, the investigation into the cell had apparently lasted three months, and following the interception of a telephone call in which group members were heard discussing a possible attack in an unnamed European country, the group was arrested.
The group was found to have in its possession a sniper rifle, a carbine, an assault rifle, two handguns, 1,200 rounds for an AK-47 assault rifle, and explosive materials for possibly making an improvised explosive device (IED). According to officials talking to the press at the time, two of the detainees had fought in Syria, and the broader cell was linked to a wider community of radicals who had been travelling back and forth to Syria.
Far more mature than the threats emanating from the Belgian group, the Kosovo plot was of the type with links to Syria that concerns European security services, namely, individuals with battlefield experience and access to weapons who return home with the intent to carry out an attack. Kosovar authorities reported that following the arrests they received threats and demands to release the detainees, identified in the Serbian press as a group known as ‘Jihad of Kosovo’.
The Albanian group’s targeting was not clear, but a long tradition of jihadist fighting in the Balkans has made the region a source of concern for authorities across Europe, with the problem aggravated by the fact that an estimated 150 Albanians are believed by Kosovar authorities to be fighting in Syria.
Despite the apparent severity of the Albanian threat, the most serious warnings are increasingly coming from the UK. The director general of the Security Service (MI5), Andrew Parker, and the head of the Counter-Terrorism Command (CTC), or SO15, at the Metropolitan Police, Commander Richard Walton, have mentioned the fact that the jihad in Syria is increasingly becoming a security threat beyond its borders.
In his speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) on 8 October, Parker highlighted that MI5 had noted a substantial increase in cases with connections to Syria. According to Parker, “a growing proportion of our casework now has some link to Syria, mostly concerning individuals from the UK who have travelled to fight there or who aspire to do so”.
He also spoke of how MI5 judged that “[Jabhat] al-Nusra and other extremist Sunni groups there aligned with Al-Qaeda aspire to attack Western countries”.
This threat was brought into sharper domestic focus in December, when Walton told an audience in London that his officers were “starting to see signs” that Britons were returning from Syria tasked with carrying out attacks back at home.
The assessment of an expanding threat from the European contingent in Syria was also emphasised in December by Belgian authorities, which told the press that they were assessing a group of “Dutch-speaking Belgian jihadists” who had participated in an attack in Iraq. A source from the Belgian police believed that “the leaders of the Syrian networks are determined to export – in time – to Morocco and Tunisia the fighting capacity that is now assembled in Syria”.
The Belgian officials were also quoted saying, “Al-Qaeda has four to five thousand jihadist combatants at hand deployed in Syria who have passports from a Schengen area country”. This is a very high figure that exceeds most public assessments provided by European security officials so far.
There is a rising level of concern among security officials across Europe consulted by IHS Jane’s about the threat emanating from Syria. The plots highlighted to date probably represent only the beginning of a threat that will evolve in various ways in the coming years.
Although it is by no means the case that every individual returning from Syria will pose a domestic threat or will launch an attack, the high number of European jihadist fighters in Syria means that a threat of some sort is likely to emerge. Moreover, a protraction of Syria’s civil war would mean more individuals would be drawn to the battlefield, therefore increasing the pool of potential jihadist recruits who could be a threat back at home.
Indeed, the gravity of the situation was highlighted by a US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assessment reported in The Wall Street Journal on 31 December, that drew on analysis of previous insurgencies, concluding that the civil war in Syria “could last another decade or more”.
The foreign fighter contingent in Syria is likely to match this timescale and is therefore also likely to be at the heart of Europe’s militant threat for the next five years at least – a period of time that will only increase the longer the conflict continues.
Case Study: Abu Huthaifa
Abu Huthaifa’s profile appears on the Facebook page of the “Army of Mohammad Peace and Blessings be upon him – Abu Ubaidah al-Muhajir” (which translates as the migrant – meaning that the fighter is or was outside his homeland). Abu Ubaidah al-Muhajir appears to be the name of one of the units fighting in the conflict.
IHS Jane’s assesses that the Arabic-language page has an international jihadist tenor, rather than exclusively Syrian jihadist.
Unusually, most of its updates are about members who have been killed in action rather than about major victories or battles, with a particular bias towards recording the deaths of Tunisian citizens.
According to the Facebook account, the ‘brother’ and media activist from Luxembourg, Abu Huthaifa, left his family back home. He entered Turkey to study, then moved to Syria to support the religion of Allah. He was not more than 18 years old. He was martyred in al-Safira, Aleppo governorate.
The comments following the entry about Abu Huthaifa’s death are all blessings calling for Allah to rest his soul. Two more individuals who had been killed and mentioned on the page were a Tunisian called Abu Maryam, and media activist Abu Usama. The comments also include links to YouTube videos that allegedly were produced by Abu Huthaifa.
Tags: Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, AQIM, Europe, Pakistan, radicalization, terrorism, UK
A longer piece I did for Jane’s, this time exploring the importance of training camps for British jihadists.
- UK jihadists engaged in militant training in the UK and abroad during the 1990s, with training camps providing a core element the necessary preparation for jihad.
- Despite a crackdown on such activities, a series of disrupted jihadist plots in the UK over the past three years have highlighted the persistence of key elements in militant training.
- Most notable was the continuing importance attached to training by aspirant jihadists and the preference for travelling abroad to train with existing jihadist networks.
A series of convictions of Islamist militants in the United Kingdom in early 2013 has underlined the continuing importance attached to militant training camps in the UK and abroad by aspirant jihadists.Raffaello Pantucci investigates.
The investigation into the bombing of the Boston marathon in the United States on 15 April has refocused attention on the issue of training in terrorist plots in the West, in particular whether plotters are able to rely on militant publications – such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) English-language magazine Inspire – to learn how to make explosive devices, or if they need to actually physically attend a training camp. In the case of the alleged perpetrators of the Boston attack – brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – it remains unclear, but a recent series of failed and disrupted attack plots in the United Kingdom indicated in some detail the ongoing importance attributed to training and the role of camps by Western jihadist cells.Although these plots are ultimately historical, and it is difficult to accurately assess the degree to which they reflect the ongoing reality of current training camps, they nonetheless have a number of similarities with longstanding trends seen among jihadists not only in the UK but also in the West more broadly. Additionally, the features of the training camps that the individuals are eager to attend, or are establishing themselves, are broadly similar to previous jihadist training camps, illustrating the persistence of certain patterns.
In the 1990s, UK jihadists were urged to prepare to fight by radical Islamist clerics such as Mustafa Kamel Mustafa (alias Abu Hamza al-Masri) – who was subsequently extradited to the US in October 2012 to face terrorism charges – and Omar Bakri Mohammed, a former leader of now-banned UK Islamist activist group Al-Muhajiroun, who is currently residing in Lebanon. As part of an investigation by UK newspaperThe Sunday Telegraph in November 1999, a number of UK nationals confessed to training both in the UK and abroad. Abdul Wahid Majid – current status unknown – was quoted as stating: “After my basic training with swords and sticks at the mosque [in the UK], I then went on a number of courses, where I was taught how to use firearms and live ammunition.”
Abu Hamza al-Masri stated toThe Sunday Telegraph : “We do use weapons which have been decommissioned by the police,” while senior Islamist activist and former Al-Muhajiroun spokesman Anjem Choudary confirmed to the paper: “Before they go abroad to fight for organisations like the IIF [a reference to the International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders, an entity consisting of Al-Qaeda and several allied militant Islamist groups that was first mentioned by now-deceased Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a February 1998 statement and which facilitated UK Muslims to travel to fight in Bosnia and Chechnya], the volunteers are trained in Britain. Some of the training does involve guns and live ammunition.”
While these statements may have been brash pronouncements overstating what may have been little more than adventure camps, they highlighted the importance of training camps to UK jihadists at that point. The speeches by Omar Bakri Mohammed and Abu Hamza al-Masri in this period appear to constantly exhort their students to prepare and train. Individuals would seemingly train in the UK and then travel abroad to train further or fight, a trend that continued even after the arrest of Abu Hamza al-Masri in August 2003 and the expulsion of Islamist groups from the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London.
In May 2004, Mohammed Hamid – a senior member of the Finsbury Park Mosque community who was jailed indefinitely in March 2008 after being convicted of organising terrorist training and soliciting murder – organised a training camp in the county of Cumbria in the northwest of the UK, which was attended by four men who were jailed for life in 2007 over the failed 21 July 2005 London bomb plot (in which five bombs were placed in London Underground stations, but failed to detonate properly). A year later, two other men who attended the same camp travelled to Somalia “for purposes relating to terrorism”, according to court documents. In footage that emerged subsequent to Hamid’s trial, images were seen of the men exercising together, walking around with heavy packs, and camping in the Welsh countryside.
The jihadist cell around these camps was largely disrupted, with some members arrested as part of the 21 July 2005 attack network or alongside Hamid in September 2007. Others were reported to have died in air strikes in Somalia – deaths confirmed by both families and militant groups. One such figure, Bilal Berjawi, re-emerged in January 2012 when his official biography and a video were released by the Al-Kataib Media branch of Somali militant Islamist group the Shabab.
Berjawi was a UK citizen of Lebanese origin who rose through the ranks of the community of Al-Qaeda fighters in East Africa to purportedly become a key fighter and leader of the Shabab. According to his official biography, Berjawi travelled back and forth from Somalia to the UK, raising funds between bouts of fighting in Somalia. In addition, the video of Berjawi showed him training with other Islamist militants in Somalia, including his close friend Mohammed Sakr. Friends since they were 12 years old, the two young men went to Somalia more than once and – after being stripped of their UK citizenship by the government in 2010 – both were subsequently killed in suspected US unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) missile strikes in Somalia; Berjawi in January 2012 and Sakr the following month.
These cases highlight that UK jihadist cells are seemingly fixated with carrying out training, whether in the UK or abroad, particularly connecting with jihadist groups, be it in Somalia like Berjawi; or in the UK like Muktar Said Ibrahim, the leader of the 21 July 2005 cell. Ibrahim attended one of Hamid’s camps in the UK and then later met with Rashid Rauf – a UK national of Pakistani descent who was linked to a UK plot to bomb transatlantic airliners in 2006, and reportedly killed in a 2008 UAV strike in Pakistan – and other senior Al-Qaeda figures in Pakistan. Training in the UK provides a framework to demonstrate a certain level of commitment to Islamist militancy and to develop contacts, while linking up with groups abroad for training frequently proves a more operational shift.
The significance of these trends is underlined by the way they have persisted through to more recent plots. A series of attack plots by UK jihadist cells through the late 2000s and early 2010s seem to confirm that, as late as early 2012, this modus operandi remained in play. In all of the plots disrupted by security services, the cells consistently gave an indication of seeking training, or attempting to develop their own training camps. These are traits that reflect longstanding plotting methodology and highlight the ongoing importance of training for groups of UK jihadists.
A four-member militant cell based in the UK city of Luton headed by Zahid Iqbal pleaded guilty to preparing for acts of terrorism in March 2013. Police observed the men undertaking hiking expeditions in Wales, and according to recordings used by the prosecution during their trial, on returning from one of these trips to Snowdonia in March 2011, one of the men in the group was overheard saying the trip was “good jihad training”. During another trip later in the month, convicted cell members Mohammed Sarfraz Ahmed and Umar Arshad were overheard discussing how Scafell Pike – the highest mountain in England – was similar in conditions to the parts of Pakistan that Ahmed had visited as part of an earlier trip in pursuit of militant training.
During the trial, Ahmed in particular was identified by the prosecution as being “actively engaged in the radicalisation and recruitment of others for extremist purposes”, adding that he “engaged in physically and mentally training these others [the other cell members]”. During a trip to Snowdonia, Ahmed was observed by police leading groups in what was described by the prosecution as “regimental walking, press-ups, running in formation, and using logs perhaps as mock firearms”. These activities had been observed by police in earlier camps run by Hamid.
Another similarity with earlier attack plots was the use of gyms as places in which individuals would undergo physical training in preparation for future activities. Iqbal was recorded by police telling others that he had joined a gym to help himself train. In a separate conversation, Ahmed was overheard saying: “A lot of the stuff we do, you can do at home, say your press-up, burpees [a physical exercise] and stuff,” but while he stated the value of training with others, he highlighted the risks associated with doing military-style exercises and group training at public gyms.
One such gym in the UK city of Birmingham, the Darul Ihsaan, or Abode of Excellence, gym – also known to locals as Jimmy’s Gym – was used as a focus of congregation by two separate militant Islamist cells in the city, members of both of which were later convicted on terrorism charges.
The first cell was headed up by Irfan Naseer, with support from Irfan Khalid and Ashik Ali. The three were convicted in February 2013 of plotting suicide attacks in Birmingham. According to a 22 February 2013 report in UK newspaperThe Daily Telegraph , Naseer first met Khalid and Ali at “premises known as the 24/7 Gym” in Birmingham in 2007 and 2008, although the men later collectively changed to the Darul Ihsaan gym.
In addition, Anzal Hussain and Mohammed Saud – two members of a six-man cell that pleaded guilty in April 2013 to planning to bomb a far-right English Defence League (EDL) rally in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, in June 2012 – were identified in local media reports as being employed at the Darul Ihsaan gym.
For Naseer, the Darul Ihsaan gym was also a source of recruits, including the four members of a cell who pleaded guilty in October 2012 to travelling to training camps in Pakistan. The group ended up being part of Naseer’s downfall as their absence was noted by their families who vociferously complained to another prominent local individual – identified as Ahmed Faraz (alias Abu Bakr), who was convicted in December 2011 on charges of possessing terrorist material – and accused him of facilitating the men’s travel. A regular at the Darul Ihsaan gym, Faraz denied responsibility and pointed the angered families in Naseer’s direction.
For Naseer, like all of the other cells, the priority seems to have been travelling overseas to train. However, while Naseer and Khalid twice travelled to Pakistan for training, from March-November 2009 and from December 2010 to mid-2011, not all of the cells appear to have been able to
In the case of one such cell – nine members of which were arrested in December 2010 and pleaded guilty in February 2012 to planning to bomb the London Stock Exchange – the solution was instead to build their own camp using land one of their families already owned. A member of the cell, Usman Khan, had a piece of family land in Pakistani-administered Kashmir on which – according to the prosecution – the cell was planning to build a madrassah (religious seminary) that could be used to train people for terrorism. Adjacent to an already existing mosque, the prosecution claimed the cell had long-term ambitions to fundraise and build a camp around the madrassah that could become a base for UK Muslims seeking training in a secure environment.
It remains unclear whether members of this cell had been able to establish any connection to known militant Islamist organisations in the region, although at least one member of the cell was believed by authorities to have had contact with other radical Islamists in prison, and cell leader Mohammed Chowdhury had been widely identified in media reports as being present at a number of marches organised by off-shoots of Al-Muhajiroun. By contrast, Naseer had been able to make contact with elements linked to Al-Qaeda and to arrange training at a Harakat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) camp in North Waziristan in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
To a lesser extent, Iqbal, leader of the Luton cell, was identified by the prosecution as being in contact with an individual, identified only by the Security Service codename ‘Modern Sleeve’, who facilitated fellow cell member Ahmed’s travel to Pakistan for training in early 2011. While a 15 April 2013Daily Telegraph report described ‘Modern Sleeve’ as an “Al-Qaeda contact”, his group affiliation remains unconfirmed in open sources. At another point, Iqbal was recorded by police telling another cell member that “Mauritania has got thing now innit, it’s got an AQ [Al-Qaeda] group innit. AQ of the Islamic Maghreb” – a likely reference to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – to which Ahmed replied: “If they (the brothers) are still saying wait, I don’t want to keep waiting here, do you understand? I want to get out of this place and I’ll wait over there, at least then I’m close by sort of thing.” Whether the cell actually had any contact with the Al-Qaeda affiliate in North Africa remains unclear.
Similarly, it is unclear whether Richard ‘Salahuddin’ Dart and Jahangir Alom – two members of a three-man cell who pleaded guilty in April 2013 to plotting a series of bomb attacks – were able to actually make the connections with the militant Islamist groups they were hoping for. In an online conversation between Dart and the third cell member, Imran Mahmood – who the prosecution claimed had come into contact with explosives, as evidenced by traces of explosive materials found on his possessions – Mahmood told Dart: “Tare [sic] with TTP [Pakistani militant Islamist group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan] and AQ, no its not Swat Valley but they got connection and I try get u close to the people who are close to them amir and thats rare.” Mahmood is admitting difficulty in connecting Dart but is selling it to him that he has an ability to reach out to the TTP and Al-Qaeda. Dart’s response illustrated where his interest lay: “Yer al hamdulilah [praise be to Allah] that would be excellent. We would want to be active and with the right people.”
However, when training abroad could be arranged, the training camps were not always the exciting adventure camps the men expected. Court documents described how the four cell members from Birmingham were shocked when they arrived in Pakistan in August 2011 to find themselves dumped in a bare camp on a mountainside with no toilets, beds, or protection from the stifling heat and mosquitoes. The entire trip seemingly quickly lost its romantic appeal and the group first called one of the cell back in the UK before reaching out to their families, who commanded them to leave the camp and meet with Pakistani relations in a nearby city.
Despite suffering a rather ignominious expulsion from his second training trip to Pakistan, Naseer was able to obtain some useful training. When he was arrested in September 2011, he was found to be in possession of quite capable bomb and detonator designs, and while it is sometimes hard to separate reality from bluster, it seems he was able to make connections with Al-Qaeda-linked individuals in Pakistan – with whom he and Khalid left martyrdom videos that they were later heard discussing and re-enacting for others. This separates the Birmingham cell somewhat from the other cells previously identified, who were unable to firmly establish connections with militant personnel in Pakistan and whose training was either self-created or aspirational.
Another commonality across some of the cells was the desire to masquerade as observers of non-violent Deobandi Islamic reform and propagation movement Tablighi Jamaat to hide their movements. During the trial of the Luton cell, the prosecution stated: “Iqbal and Ahmed discussed using the Tablighi sect as a cover for travel… It is generally considered to eschew controversy hence the defendants’ belief that it provided good cover.” In a separate conversation in Birmingham, Naseer was recorded by police giving fellow cell member Ishaq Hussain – one of the four who pleaded guilty to travelling to Pakistani training camps in October 2012 – a list of madrassahs he was to say he attended if he was questioned by police about his activities in Pakistan, one of which was a “Tablighi” madrassah. This habit of using Tablighi Jamaat as cover, both in terms of travelling and also in Pakistan, seems to be fairly standard among UK jihadists, some of whom have spent time at Tablighi mosques in the UK and all of whom recognise the travelling missionary cover provided by the sect as one that is hard for security services to dispute as well as providing them access to a community of missionaries that will always welcome fellow believers.
The key conclusions from many of these plots appear clear: UK patterns in jihadist training persist and have largely remained unchanged as time has passed. Jihadist cells continue to be eager to use the UK’s highlands and gyms as places to train, and remain eager to participate in some form of training overseas – particularly in Pakistan. What has changed, though, is the increasing difficulty cells face in achieving this, with security forces increasingly identifying and intercepting those who attempt to travel overseas for militant training.
While the ongoing anti-government uprising in Syria has somewhat provided an additional venue for UK nationals to receive militant training, the strong UK connection to South Asia and the persistence of groups like HuM who are quite mercenary in their willingness to train people for money means that Pakistan will likely continue to attract aspirant Western jihadists for training. As such, it seems likely that training at camps in the UK and abroad will continue to be a feature of the UK jihadist scene for the foreseeable future.
Tags: Afghanistan, counter-radicalization, counter-terrorism, Pakistan, radicalization, terrorism, UK
Finally posting my longer piece for Jane’s about the Birmingham plotters who were convicted last month. I have already done a piece for my new institutional home RUSI on this plot, and in the fullness of time will probably do more as it is a group with interesting links. Unrelated to this plot, but on terrorism more generally, I did interviews with Aftenposten on Anjem Choudary in Norway, Die Volkskrant on Europeans going to Syria and the Toronto Star about converts in the wake of the news about the Canadians linked to the In Amenas incident. Thanks to IHS Janes for agreeing to let me republish this.
- Three men were convicted of plotting to carry out suicide attacks by a court in London on 21 February.
- The three were ringleaders of a wider cell; six other members have pleaded guilty to terrorism offences, while three others face trial later this year.
- While elements of the plot were amateurish, cell members connected with Al-Qaeda personnel in Pakistan for training and were intent on a mass-casualty operation.
The trial and conviction of three men in the UK unveiled an Al-Qaeda-linked plot to carry out a series of suicide attacks in Birmingham. Raffaello Pantucci investigates.
“You know this operation they’ve done though, did it go a bit wrong or something or what? It didn’t do that much damage.” Referring to the 7 July 2005 London bombings that killed 52 people, the conversation recorded by police officers on 18 September 2011 conveyed the ambition of Irfan Khalid, 27, Irfan Naseer, 31, and Ashik Ali, 27. These three men were found guilty on 21 February of plotting to carry out suicide attacks in the UK city of Birmingham.
At their trial, the prosecution argued that the three had trained and communicated with Al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan and were directed to carry out a terrorist attack in Europe. The foiled plot was a seeming return to an earlier period when UK counter-terrorism was almost singly focused on the connection between the UK and Pakistan. There was a strong reason for this, as major attacks disrupted by UK authorities in 2004, 2005, and 2006 – let alone the July 2005 attacks – were all driven by plotters drawn from the UK South Asian community who had connected directly with Al-Qaeda personnel in Pakistan.
After 2006, the intensity of the threat from this South Asian link diminished, although by no means went away, with threats from different addresses rising up security agencies’ list of concerns. As such, there was a measure of surprise when, in September 2011, police officers in Birmingham conducted a series of arrests and claimed to have disrupted a plot they described as “Al-Qaeda linked” and at “an advanced stage of planning”.
Following the conclusion of the trial almost 18 months later, the details of the plot have emerged, with evidence indicating that the plotters had made connections with Al-Qaeda, received explosives training in Pakistan, were seeking to launch an attack in the UK, and had purportedly recorded martyrdom videos that had been left behind with contacts in Al-Qaeda. The weight of evidence was such that six individuals who were linked to the three core ringleaders pleaded guilty to the charges against them. Four men – Naweed Ali, 24; Ishaaq Hussain, 20; Khobaib Hussain, 20; and Shahid Khan, 20 – pleaded guilty to engaging in conduct in preparation for terrorism by travelling to Pakistan for training. Known to police as “the travellers”, they were recruited by others in the cell to go to training camps in Pakistan. Two other men – Rahin Ahmed, 28, and Mujahid Hussain, 21 – pleaded guilty to fundraising for the cell.
The leader of the cell was Irfan Naseer, known to the others as ‘Big Irfan’. During the trial, his lawyer described his client as an “overweight, lazy mummy’s boy” who was obsessed with “food and farting”. Still living with his parents, Naseer was the youngest of three sons born to a family that had moved to the UK from Pakistan in 1975. He graduated from a Birmingham school with sufficient qualifications to allow him to study for an undergraduate pharmacy degree at Aston University.
He completed his degree in 2003, although by his own account one of the more important things to happen during his studies was his rediscovery of Islam. Claiming to have memorised the Quran when he was 19, Naseer told police that during this time he also started to discover more radical Islamist clerics and their ideology. On graduation, he failed to settle into working life, dropping out of a work placement at a pharmacy in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham. Instead, he took a series of jobs at religious institutions in the area, including a stint from 2007-08 as a science teacher at the Darul Uloom Islamic High School and College in Birmingham.
Naseer’s deputy in the plot was Irfan Khalid, known as ‘Little Irfan’ to distinguish him from Naseer. Born in the UK to a father from the disputed region of Kashmir, Khalid was the oldest of three children who were raised at his maternal grandparents’ residence in the Sparkbrook area of Birmingham. An underachiever, he attended Solihull College between 2001 and 2003, taking courses on information technology that he failed to complete. In 2005, he travelled to Kashmir – staying with his paternal family – to assist in aid efforts following the recent earthquake in the area. After returning to the UK, at one point he worked as a security officer, although the details are unclear. At the time of the plot, he was living with his parents in Sparkbrook.
The third convicted plotter was Ashik Ali, a visually-impaired man who was born in the UK to a father who lived with his two wives in Sparkbrook. Ali underachieved at school, and performed poorly in his examinations. After leaving school, his father helped him get a job in food processing, although he left this job after nine months to work as a receptionist at a gym – one of the many locations the cell members used to frequent. By September 2009, he had enrolled on an Open University science foundation course, although he subsequently failed to complete any of the course requirements.
Perhaps most salient regarding the plot, in February 2008 Ali married Salma Kabal and the couple lived with Kabal’s family while they waited to be assigned council housing. In January 2011 they were given a one-bedroom flat but, according to Ali, the relationship had ended by then and he elected to move in by himself. In the narrative advanced during the trial, he purposely split from Kabal in order to distance her from the plot and prevent her being implicated. Instead, he seemed determined to use the flat as a safe-house for the cell.
Around the three core cell members, there were a further nine people. In addition to the six men who pleaded guilty to their involvement in the plot, three others are due to face trial this year after pleading not guilty to terrorism-related charges. Mohammed Rizwan, 33, and Bahader Ali (Ashik Ali’s brother), 29, face charges of supporting the cell in attack planning and helping them recruit others, while Kabal, 23, faces charges of failing to notify the authorities of what her supposedly estranged husband was planning
Going to train
When police first started investigating the cell in April 2011, Naseer and Khalid were in Pakistan on their second trip seeking training. They both first travelled to Pakistan in 2009, departing together from Birmingham International Airport (BIA) on 24 March and returning separately in mid-to-late November that year. Evidence subsequently indicated that while they were in Pakistan they received money from fellow cell member Rahin Ahmed, and the prosecution’s assertion was that during this period Naseer and Khalid spent time at a training camp. However, details of the nature of the alleged training they received, or who they reportedly trained with, were not made publicly available.
Just over a year later, on 26 December 2010, Naseer and Khalid made a second trip to Pakistan, again allegedly to train, according to prosecutors. By their own admission, the two were able to connect with the Pakistan-based Kashmiri militant Islamist group Harakat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM). In a statement on 17 September 2011 – which was recorded by UK authorities, used as evidence in the trial, and is presented here unedited – Naseer stated: “We had learnt our firing in Hurcut mujahideen [sic]… in a camp, that was inside Pakistan though, that was one of the Hurcut camps, see you get the best training there because the government doesn’t attack them, because those mujahideen say ‘we’re not going to attack Pakistani government’ and they say ‘ok you can send people [to] Kashmir and Afghanistan but don’t do nothing here’.”
In an attempt to mask what they were talking about, Naseer and Khalid would refer to the Waziristan region of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where their training allegedly took place, as “W”, with Naseer recorded as telling Mohammed Rizwan on 17 September 2011: “‘W’ hasn’t got no more camps now… there’s no camps, no training what they do, this is what they do out here, you living in houses like this, yeah, because you know the brothers use to be in the mountains… the brothers in the mountains the drones [unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)] just get them straight away, they just bomb the camps, so what they do is they stay, you know all this what they taught us was inside houses.”
Their activities at the camps seem to have been restrained due to pressure from the use of UAVs by the United States over Pakistan’s tribal region. Naseer was recorded on 18 September describing the nature of the training: “They keep [us] in a house like this, just these two rooms like that and a toilet. And after being there like for two or three weeks and then move you up to another place.”
At a certain point, they were brought to a madrassah (religious school) in Binori near the city of Karachi, where they were sent to classes to learn about “J” [jihad], an experience that the men apparently did not enjoy. Naseer was recorded telling Ashik Ali on 18 September 2011: “I was like rolling around with pain and that in my stomach. [But] they still go, ‘go lesson’. So what it is – guess what we start doing? We go forget it man. If these lot [sic] throw us out, they throw us out. We went upstairs and we got wireless internet… So we were just watching ‘J’ videos all day. After Fajr [dawn prayers] they used to come to our room. We used to be knocked out – say we were ill. They would come up again. Then, they eventually got fed up after two months and threw us out.”
Who exactly trained the men is unclear, although in conversations recorded by police the cell members referred to having received orders from the upper reaches of Al-Qaeda and in particular Sheikh Khalid bin Abdul Rahman al-Hussainan (alias Abu Zaid al-Kuwaiti), a senior figure in the group who was reportedly killed in a US UAV missile strike in North Waziristan on 6 December 2012.
Naseer told Mohammed Rizwan: “You know him, he’s in the top five of AQ after Ayman al-Zawahiri… well you know the sheikh we’re on about, the Kuwaiti guy, you know about the top five… bro, there is no more proof than him saying it, that, do it.”
As with previous plots, the Al-Qaeda personnel allegedly training foreigners in explosives seem focused on teaching innovative and original ways of sourcing materials, evidently impressing Naseer. He was recorded on 17 September 2011 as stating: “They got such knowledge that, for example, in this country, they know yeah, that, different, different place where you can get, achieve like, for example, like, from [inaudible] where you can make a bomb from [inaudible] yeah like, they make it easy for you.”
One innovation of the plot was to use cold packs – used by athletes to soothe injuries – as a source of ammonium nitrate for explosives. While at one point Naseer was recorded assuring Ali that the packs contained the necessary ingredients, the information was faulty as cold packs have been manufactured without ammonium nitrate for several years for safety reasons. Nevertheless, they continued to search for other methods of obtaining the necessary materials.
Recruitment and fundraising
One of the clear messages that Naseer and Khalid allegedly received from their contacts during training in Pakistan was to disseminate the message and training further. Naseer was recorded on 17 September 2011, stating: “They said yeah, the knowledge they gave us, they want that to spread in Europe.” They successfully persuaded the four-man group, referred to by police as “the travellers”, to go to Pakistan for training and aimed to persuade Mohammed Rizwan to do the same. While this was ultimately unsuccessful, Rizwan still faces charges related to his alleged involvement with the cell and in particular providing support and encouragement in the planned operation.
Among those who pleaded guilty, Ahmed, the self-described “taxi driver” of the group, was tasked with multiplying the cell’s money through online foreign exchange trading. The seed money that he used in this enterprise was obtained by the cell through a series of fake charitable drives that they undertook on Birmingham’s streets, claiming to raise money for UK-based charity Muslim Aid and the local Madrassah-e-Ashraful Uloom. Using official green Muslim Aid T-shirts and high visibility tabards, the group carried green Muslim Aid-labelled buckets around Birmingham and briefly Leicester, and had leaflets and other merchandise from the organisation to make them seem credible.
This material was obtained by a cell member who volunteered for Muslim Aid, but there is no suggestion that the charity supported or was aware of the cell’s fundraising efforts. Indeed, a statement released by Muslim Aid following the conviction of Naseer, Khalid, and Ali on 21 February read: “We welcome the conviction and sentencing of the individuals who… used our name and property to collect funds illegally for their intended criminal activity. A volunteer of the charity who pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing assisted these individuals and abused the name of Muslim Aid without our knowledge.”
Having collected around GBP14,000 (USD21,000), Ahmed reportedly stated that there was a “next to impossible chance of losing the money”. However, his optimism was misplaced. Between 17 August and 16 September 2010, he managed to lose around GBP9,000. Of that amount, GBP 3,000 was lost when he left his computer to make a cup of tea, missing a key market shift. This led the others to distrust Ahmed and to cut him out of some elements of the plot. They castigated him and told him that he would have to sell his car and take out loans that he did not intend to repay to cover the losses.
Influences and targets
There is seemingly little doubt about the cell’s contact with Al-Qaeda personnel in Pakistan, and Naseer and Khalid appear to have at least somewhat adopted the group’s ideology. During a conversation with Rizwan as part of his effort to persuade him to join the cell, Naseer was recorded on 17 September 2011 describing what he said in the martyrdom video that he left behind in Pakistan: “It was Sheikh Osama [bin Laden] who we mentioned, and the torture of [the] Muslim people.” Khalid was also recorded as stating: “Don’t you think you can mess with the Muslims, don’t you think you can mess with the Muslims and get away with it because we’re coming to your house.”
What is less certain is what they were intending to do in terms of the attack in the UK. In a conversation on 17 September 2011, which was recorded by police, members of the cell discussed using poison creams, something that they had been taught by their Al-Qaeda trainers. They stated: “He goes that like make it and put it inside like, you know like Vaseline or cream like that, like Nivea cream and put it on people’s cars, you know like the door handles on a whole, imagine putting it on [the] whole like area overnight and when they come in the morning to work they start touching the, they open the door and then five minutes [later] they die man, all of them start dying and that, kill about 1,000 people.”
Although the main focus of the plot appeared to be the use of explosive devices, the cell spoke of the possibility of using guns in some form of attack, and were recorded by police on 17 September 2011 as stating: “Even if you can’t make a bomb, get guns yeah from the black geezers, Africans, and charge into some like synagogue or charge into different places.” However, this, like many of the other plans, seemed largely fanciful. The most likely one seemed to be collecting chemicals and testing out recipes to establish the best way to build an explosive device from readily sourced materials.
Indeed, when the three ringleaders were convicted on 21 February, the judge told Naseer: “You were seeking to recruit a team of somewhere between six and eight suicide bombers to carry out a spectacular bombing campaign, one which would create an anniversary along the lines of 7/7 or 9/11 [the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US].” However, there was no indication at the time of their arrest that the cell members had made any credible progress towards producing a viable explosive device.
The sometimes amateurish nature of the plotters has led to them being painted by the UK media as figures from the film satire Four Lions. Ahmed’s trading losses, alongside the news that Ali had eBay accounts named TerrorShop and Shop Terror, all seemed to point to a rather clownish operation.
However, this should not detract from the cell’s genuine intent. Not only were cell members able to connect with Al-Qaeda personnel, Naseer and Khalid were able to attend training camps in Pakistan on at least two separate occasions, raise substantial funds, dispatch another team of recruits to Pakistan, and start to deploy their training back in the UK. When Khalid was recorded by police, joking as he drove around Birmingham with a group of fellow plotters, stating “it’s the four suicide bombers driving around ready to take on England, oh my God take them out”, he was only half joking.
It was also notable that this vocal group of extremists was not reported earlier to authorities by the local Muslim community. In particular, it was highlighted that even though community members discovered “the travellers” had been sent to a training camp, and forced Naseer to make sure they got back safely, no one reported this to the authorities.
In retrospect, it is somewhat surprising that there was less awareness of the cell. In their own recordings, they refer to interaction with radical elements in Birmingham, and there are connections between the broader cell and at least three separate terrorist investigations. It is difficult to know if this was simply the background chatter visible in a tight-knit community such as Birmingham’s Sparkbrook and Sparkhill. Plots of varying degrees of seriousness are periodically disrupted in this area of the country, with at least one important trial expected later in the year. The underlying lesson from this plot seems to be that terrorism in the UK continues to have a strong Pakistani connection, something that has clearly managed to outlive Bin Laden and the disaggregation of Al-Qaeda’s senior hierarchy.
Tags: AQAP, converts, counter-radicalization, counter-terrorism, Lone wolf, lone wolves, online, radicalization, terrorism
More on an old theme that continues to be unresolved, Lone Wolf terrorism, this time for Jane’s. I have a few more academic pieces on the pipeline on this topic and am possibly exploring some larger projects on the theme. Apologies as this one is behind a paywall. Am asking whether I can repost it here, but in the meantime let me know if you really want to read it. UPDATE (10/26/2012): Thanks to Jane’s IHS for agreeing to let me re-post the text here!
The sentencing of Mohammed and Shasta Khan – a recently married couple convicted in July of plotting an attack on the local Jewish community in Oldham in the north of the UK – marked the end of a case which offered a new perspective on the problem of so-called lone wolf terrorism.
The trial uncovered little evidence that the pair had been directed to carry out their attack by anyone, and what direction they had appeared to have come from Inspire – an English-language jihadist magazine produced by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) with precisely the aim of encouraging and facilitating the kind of ‘individual jihad’ against the West being planned by the Khans.
The case was merely the latest of a number in Europe and the United States in recent years in which prosecutors have cited the role played by Inspire in facilitating plots by home-grown, grassroots jihadists, and individual jihad waged by lone wolves or hybrid ‘lone wolf packs’ such as the Khans currently represents a significant potential threat.
The case against the Khans came together in a somewhat haphazard fashion. Police were initially called to their residence in the Waterhead area of Oldham late on 22 July 2011 in response to an alleged assault by Mohammed Khan against his father-in-law. While questioning the family, one of Shasta Khan’s brothers reportedly told police he suspected Mohammed was “a home-grown terrorist”. When questioned, Shasta confirmed the allegation and accused her husband of planning an attack against the local Jewish community.
The North West Counter Terrorism Unit launched an investigation into the allegations, but as they dug into the couple’s lives they uncovered a far more complicated picture. The pair apparently met sometime in mid-2010 through the Muslim dating website singlemuslim.com. After corresponding a few times online they met at a Bradford food court on 19 July 2010, and a month later they were married. Although they met through a website that seeks to connect people for whom Islam is important, it is not entirely clear how pious the couple were prior to meeting. A photograph of the pair enjoying a boat trip during their honeymoon in Turkey shows Mohammed clean-shaven and Shasta wearing a short-sleeved top with her hair down, and it was revealed in court that Mohammed had previously been incarcerated for violent crime. On the other hand, in her account to police Shasta claimed to have started to read the Quran, pray five times a day, and wear a hijab six months before meeting Mohammed.
Irrespective, once married the process of radicalisation seems to have been relatively rapid. Mohammed told Shasta to reject western dress and the pair started to download and watch radical material together. Among their possessions were recordings of Al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, AQAP ideologue Anwar al-Awlaqi, and radical Australian-Lebanese preacher Feiz Mohammed. The largest number of recordings in the couple’s collection was by Abdullah el-Faisal, the Jamaican preacher who has admitted that Germaine Lindsay, one of the 7 July 2005 London bomb plotters, was a student of his. Faisal was previously jailed in the UK and currently lives in Jamaica from where he broadcasts regularly. The couple also possessed at least two issues of Inspire magazine, as well as a profile of Mustafa Setmariam Nasar alias Abu Musab al-Suri, a Syrian jihadist ideologue noted for advocating “the jihad of individual terrorism” in which self-forming cells would carry out independent attacks without the need for any central command and control structure.
The Prestwich plot
Central to the prosecution’s case was the presence of Inspire magazine – particularly issues one and six which featured suggestions on how to construct explosive devices using easily sourced materials. Many of these materials, including Christmas lights that could be fashioned into a detonator, were found among the Khans’ possessions. There was further evidence on a laptop that someone had watched YouTube video clips that showed how to make potassium chlorate using bleach and salt substitute products with a high potassium chloride content. When police searched the couple’s premises they found a bowl and a metal pot in the garden with high levels of liquid chloride, sodium, potassium, and chlorate. When mixed with sugars, chlorates can be very explosive. According to forensic investigation, the chlorate in the vessels had been made three weeks prior to discovery.
The pair had further access to explosive ingredients through Shasta Khan’s work as a hairdresser. Inspire issue six includes detailed information about how to manufacture explosives from acetone peroxide, and in her initial confession to police Shasta claimed her husband had repeatedly asked her to source peroxide through her work. At the time of arrest, the pair were found to have at least five bottles of peroxide in their possession, as well as various items of safety wear that would be useful in concentrating the peroxide and mixing chemicals.
As a target, the pair appear to have chosen the Jewish community in the nearby town of Prestwich. In her initial confession – which she later retracted – Shasta Khan claimed her husband had a “massive problem” with Jews and would regularly make anti-Semitic comments. She claimed he had made her drive to the Jewish part of Prestwich to sit and watch Jews going in and out of the synagogue. This was confirmed by evidence discovered on a GPS device found in their possession, which showed that the pair had made a number of trips around Prestwich’s Jewish community and had specifically marked out the current and previous locations of the Jewish Agency, and the central location of the Jewish community.
UK lone wolves
The Khans are merely the latest in a growing list of UK nationals who have chosen to plot home-grown terrorist attacks with no outside direction. In May 2008, Nicky Reilly, an Asperger’s sufferer who had become radicalised after converting to Islam, attempted to blow himself up in a restaurant in Exeter with a device he had fashioned using recipes from the internet, but which failed to detonate properly. While police found Reilly had loose links to radical elements in his local community, it was ultimately concluded that he acted alone, albeit with some guidance from unknown individuals he appeared to have met online through YouTube discussion chains.
A month prior to Reilly’s attempt, police in Bristol were alerted by the local community to another young Muslim convert, Andrew Ibrahim, who had appeared at his local mosque talking about jihad and with very nasty burns on his hands. When police searched his home they found peroxide-based explosive Hexamethylene triperoxide diamine (HMTD) which he had made using online recipes, along with videos of him testing it, a suicide vest he had fashioned himself, and evidence on his mobile phone of him conducting reconnaissance at a local shopping mall.
Although Reilly and Ibrahim failed in their attempts, in May 2010 Roshonara Choudhry succeeded in carrying out an act of individual jihad when she stabbed MP Stephen Timms during his regular constituency meeting, narrowly failing to kill him. Choudhry subsequently explained she had targeted Timms for his support of the Iraq war, and claimed her inspiration came from having watched many hours of YouTube videos of Awlaqi and Abdullah Azzam. Again, there was no evidence Choudhry had been directed by anyone in conducting her attack, and Choudhry told police she had kept her plans secret “because nobody would understand, and… because I knew that if anybody else knew they would get in trouble because then they would be implicated in whatever I do”.
Choudhry’s act was widely celebrated within the online radical community, and a week after her conviction, Bilal Zaheer Ahmad, 23, was arrested in Wolverhampton for posting lists of MPs to be targeted on a website – revolutionmuslim.com – that Choudhry had frequented. Praising her actions, Ahmad not only offered a list of potential targets, but also provided a link to a supermarket website which sold the kind of knife Choudhry had used in her attack. Ahmad was later jailed for 12 years for soliciting murder, intent to stir up religious hatred, and collecting information likely to be of use to a terrorist.
Choudhry’s attack was also celebrated by the editors of Inspire as an example of the kind of individual jihad – referred to as “open source jihad” – that AQAP had founded the magazine to encourage. An article dedicated to her in Inspire issue four, released online in January 2011, praised Choudhry as an example of “borderless loyalty” to Al-Qaeda’s cause, and stated: “The ummah [global Muslim community], and specifically its mujahedeen, are waiting to see more people of her calibre. No it is not the highly technical skills that we are referring to… it is the willpower to kill the disbelievers.”
This concept of open source jihad is something that Inspire has repeatedly advanced since its first issue. Drawing heavily on the work of Abu Musab al-Suri, it has argued that organised groups are not necessary and that individuals should simply take up the mantle of jihad and carry out attacks wherever they can. Such grassroots jihadists would operate according to the principle of commander’s intent, acting in accordance with strategic principles publicised by Al-Qaeda but without any actual contact with the group, which might expose them to security services.
However, while Inspire has become something of a feature among the possessions of recently arrested aspirant jihadists in Europe and the US in recent years, there is little evidence that the magazine’s call for individual jihad was what inspired them to act. Instead, other factors appear to have served as the motivation, with Inspire serving rather as a trusted and accessible bomb-making manual.
For example, in December 2010 police arrested a group of UK citizens – who later pleaded guilty to planning to bomb the London Stock Exchange – after hearing them discussing an infamous Inspire article entitled Make a bomb in the kitchen of your Mom. They had only recently downloaded the magazine and appeared to be figuring out how to source the materials it listed.
The same article was found in the possession of Naser Jason Abdo, a US soldier who went AWOL during the 4 July weekend in 2011, and who was arrested later that month after police found weapons and explosive materials in his hotel room. Abdo later confessed to planning to bomb a Chinese restaurant near the Fort Hood military base, Texas, and shooting survivors as they ran from the blast. In his court testimony, Abdo claimed he had been inspired by an earlier act of individual jihad allegedly carried out by Nidal Hassan Malik, a US Army major who is suspected of killing 13 people in a small-arms attack at Fort Hood in 2009, an act Abdo said he had hoped to “outdo”.
The company of wolves
Malik himself has become something of a celebrity in the roster of lone wolf jihadists as one of the most successful examples of the trend. However, despite the surface appearance of the case – in which Malik, driven to distraction by his pending posting to Afghanistan, decided to carry out an act of terrorism instead – the reality was more complex, and it was subsequently revealed that he had previously come to the attention of US intelligence after entering into email correspondence with Awlaqi.
As in the Malik case, there are a number of apparent lone wolf attacks where subsequent investigations reveal a level of networking inconsistent with the principles of open source jihad espoused by AQAP in Inspire. Indeed, the very Inspire article that celebrated Choudhry’s “borderless loyalty” to Al-Qaeda’s cause also highlighted the case of Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, a young Iraqi who blew himself up in Stockholm in December 2010 in an unsuccessful attempt to attack a local shopping mall. Although the article represented him as a lone wolf like Choudhry, Iraqi officials have claimed that he was connected with insurgent groups in the country – although it is unclear with which particular group – and prior to the attack he allegedly telephoned several numbers in the country. In addition, a friend Abdaly had made while living in the UK – Naserine Menni – was convicted at Glasgow High Court in August 2012 of helping fund the attack as well as supporting Abdaly in building his device and sharing radical material with him.
Indeed, a distinctive feature of many lone wolf cases is that they do not in fact act entirely in isolation. This was also evident in the case of Mohammed Merah, who carried out a series of shootings in Toulouse, France, in March. Although repeatedly identified in the press as a lone wolf, Merah had familial connections to militant networks supporting the insurgency in Iraq as well as links to radicals in Algeria. According to US investigators, he also attended training camps in Pakistan. Indeed, in the aftermath of his attacks the North Waziristan-based Kazakh militant Islamist group Jund alKhilafah (JaK) claimed that Merah was affiliated with the group. US investigators later concluded that it was likely Merah had spent some time with the group in North Waziristan – although perhaps as little as an hour. While he may have chosen his targets and carried out his attacks alone, Merah was clearly on the periphery of a known network of extremists.
Even where no connection to militant networks exists, some connection can often be drawn to local radical communities or groups. The individuals who carry out lone wolf attacks tend not to be core members of these communities, but instead exist on their peripheries. For example, among the belongings of Mohammed and Shasta Khan was a black hooded top printed with the words “Al-Ghuraba” – the name of a proscribed UK Islamist extremist group which is descended from another proscribed group, Al-Muhajiroun – and their computer was found to have repeatedly been used to visit sites by UK radical preacher and Al-Muhajiroun alumni Anjem Choudhary. Similarly, Nicky Reilly was in contact with elements in the Plymouth radical scene, and Andrew Ibrahim repeatedly tried to make contact with radicals in the UK, who rebuffed him.
This trend is also evident beyond the community of jihadist lone wolves, with similar patterns of behaviour evident among right-wing extremists. Notably, Anders Behring Breivik, convicted in August 2012 of the July 2011 Utøya mass shooting and Oslo bombing, had previously been on the periphery of radical far-right and anti-Islamist communities, and also attended rallies in the UK. His unsupported claim that he was operating as part of a clandestine organisation, and his decision to email his 1,500 page manifesto to some 5,000 individuals he had identified as potential sympathisers, also suggests that despite acting alone Breivik sought to reach out to this particular community.
Tracking the threat
The apparent desire of many lone wolves to seek out the company of like-minded individuals offers security officials an avenue into countering the phenomenon. While the lone wolf is unlikely to be known to the security services, those they come into contact with may well be, and in some cases may be being monitored. Although the large number of people existing on the periphery of known radical circles would mean identifying the potential lone wolves among them would remain a significant challenge for the security services, in seeking out the company of others the lone wolf increases the risk of being exposed by those around him – as occurred in the cases of Reilly and Ibrahim – emphasising the importance of effective community policing.
However, not all lone wolves can be relied on to seek out company in this way. For example, in the cases of Choudhry and Abdo there is no evidence of contact with extremist communities – although further investigation may eventually uncover some connections. Nevertheless, even such true lone wolves remain vulnerable to exposure from within the community, with their very isolation presenting them with additional challenges and risks in preparing their operation. For example, the police search that uncovered Abdo’s plot was triggered by a tip-off from a local gun shop concerned by a recent purchase Abdo had made.
This was also evident in the case of Khalid M. Aldawsari, a Saudi student in the US who was arrested in Texas in February 2011 as he tried to build a bomb using chemicals purchased on the internet. Prior to his arrest Aldawsari had demonstrated no outward signs of radicalisation and he seems to have been operating alone and with no outside direction or contacts. In a diary recovered after his arrest, Aldawsari had written: “After mastering the English language, learning how to build explosives and continuous planning to target the infidel Americans, it is time for jihad.” However, Aldawsari’s reliance on personally acquiring the materials he needed from regular commercial channels meant he raised the suspicions of his suppliers, and both a shipping company and a chemicals firm notified the FBI of their concerns, precipitating the investigation that uncovered his plot.
In an interesting parallel, Anders Behring Breivik had also triggered a similar warning to the Norwegian authorities following his attempt to purchase chemicals online from a Polish company. Although the alert was disregarded at the time, it again shows that the need for lone wolves to interact with others during the planning and preparation phase of their operation provides an opportunity for their plot to be uncovered, and provides another example of the value of effective education of chemical suppliers and other purveyors of products and logistics which may be of use in terrorist operations.
However, some cases seem almost impossible to detect, and illustrate the challenges lone wolves can potentially pose even the most vigilant of security services. Choudhry’s attempted murder of MP Stephen Timms is instructive in this regard. Seemingly in complete isolation, she radicalised, obtained her weapon, and selected her target. That the weapon she chose was a knife available at any number of shops meant security services would have had no way of detecting her through this purchase.
According to her own account, the only observably radical thing she did prior to her attack was to watch extremist videos online – an act so common as to have no intelligence significance when taken in isolation. Other potential signifiers that have been cited are that shortly before her attack she dropped out of a university course she had almost successfully completed, and that she had taken steps to pay off all her debts. Again, however, such actions were too commonplace to raise suspicion in themselves.
Furthermore, even if analysing all these factors together might conceivably have raised a flag, the level of surveillance of ordinary citizens required to achieve such a feat would almost certainly be rejected by Western electorates. As such, the problem of lone wolf terrorism, much like the broader problem of terrorism, is something that will require management rather than eradication for the immediate future.
©2012 IHS, all rights reserved. Reproduced with permission from IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor.
Tags: converts, counter-radicalization, counter-terrorism, Europe, shabaab, shabab, Somalia, terrorism
I have a longer article in the latest Jane’s Intelligence Review exploring the phenomenon of young men (and even if reports are to be believed one woman) going to join the Shabaab in Somalia. The focus of the article is on the phenomenon more recently, using court docs from cases in the US, UK, Sweden and Denmark and trying to explore the shift from people being drawn from ethnic duty at their homeland being invaded by Ethiopia to jihadist rhetoric espoused by al Shabaab which seems to be drawing a more diverse community. At the end it looks at some of the plots that seem to have emerged from the Shabaab networks in the west (something I have touched upon before). I have written a growing amount on this topic which I find fascinating, as we appear to be watching live the evolution of a group from regional to global jihadists. The question is how much it is pushing itself in this direction, or how much is it happening because the networks are going violent by themselves and dragging the group with them.
Unfortunately, the article is behind a firewall (the link is below for those who have access). I have asked for a copy to distribute here, and will hopefully be able to post it once it has been cleared by them.
- Somali jihadist group the Shabab is continuing its efforts to recruit foreign fighters who can be moulded into ideologically committed units for its war against the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and African Union peacekeepers in Mogadishu.
- Radical networks in Western countries have channelled recruits and money to the group since January 2009, when the Ethiopian military withdrew from Somalia and some moderate Islamists were given prominent positions in the TFG.
- While the Shabab used recruits from other East African countries to carry out the Kampala bombings in July 2010, there is currently little evidence to suggest it is sponsoring attacks on the West, although its support networks in Europe and Australia have been implicated in domestic terrorism.
The latest video from militant Islamist group the Shabab showcases recruits from all over the world. Raffaello Pantucci discusses why the Somali organisation has such wide appeal and what implications this jihadist cross-fertilisation may have for Western governments.