Posts Tagged ‘abu qatada’

A new post for RUSI earlier in the week, this one touching upon the fact that the infamous Abu Qatada was deported on the anniversary of the July 7, 2005 London bombings. Likely a coincidence, but an interesting one nonetheless that helps mark out a period of British jihadist history. Unrelated, but showing how the threat continues to evolve, I was quoted in this BBC piece about the decision to add Nigerian Boko Haram and British Minbar Ansar Deen to the proscribed terror list in the UK.

Abu Qatada Leaves the United Kingdom

RUSI Analysis, 9 Jul 2013By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

Abu Qatada symbolised an era of British jihadism that relied on radical preachers to motivate a generation of terrorists. Alongside a general degradation of Al-Qa’ida’s capacity to launch large-scale plots, Qatada’s departure marks an end of an era that peaked during the 7 July 2005 attacks on London.

Abu Qatada cropped

The departure of Abu Qatada from British soil on the eighth anniversary of the 7 July bombings in London marks something of a marker for a period of British jihadism. From a coordinated threat directed by Al-Qa’ida that drew on a community of young British Muslims fostered by radical preachers leading to plots like the 7/7 attack, the menace has now evolved. Expressions in the form of attempted attacks or thwarted plots continue to appear, but gone is both the easy and public coordination at home epitomised by the radical preacher community in the UK, and gone is ability of Al-Qaida core in Waziristan in particular to manipulate large scale plots through this particular network to strike on British soil.

Radical Preachers

Abu Qatada was the last of four prominent preachers in the United Kingdom around whom young radicals from around the world gathered and who formed the nub of what was publicly derided as ‘Londonistan.’ A period in the 1990s when Britain became the home away from home for a number of preachers and activists from across the Muslim world agitating for change, both violent and non-violent, in their home countries. Many of these individuals presented (and continue to present) no specific threat to the UK, and are focused very much on events abroad.

Abu Qatada’s role within this community was an interesting one. Largely focused abroad, he nevertheless had authority over this sub-community in the UK. In particular, he was reported to have told security services that he could ‘wield powerful, spiritual influence over the Algerian community in London.’ He also acted as a teacher figure to younger men Abu Hamza and Abdullah el-Faisal, both of whom were characterised as his students at one time or another. He seems to have had a less direct relationship with Omar Bakri Mohammed, the fourth of the radical preachers, though it seems clear the men moved in similar circles in London. Abu Qatada’s credentials as a scholar and his links to one the fathers of modern Salafism, Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani set him apart from the other three who lacked such credentials. Unlike the other three, his impact seems to have been more ideological, while the others fostered networks and communities from which a number of terrorist plots emerged.

Al Qa’ida Orchestration

The most successful of these plots was 7/7 bombings carried out by four men, at least two of whom had been trained by Al-Qa’ida in Waziristan. This plot, like a number of others that were disrupted before and since, involved Britons who had been radicalised in part under the tutelage of the radical preacher community, managed to establish connections with Al Qa’ida core and were directed to carry out attacks in the West. Numerous other plots were disrupted from this network, including the August 2006 plot codenamed ‘Overt‘ that aimed to bring down somewhere in the region of eight flights on transatlantic routes with a potential casualty count higher than the 11 September 2001 attacks.

These plots drew their footsoldiers from the radical communities that the UK-based preachers fostered. Recruiters for Al-Qa’ida or other extremists used this space  to seek out funding and followers. Going abroad, most of these men were initially seeking to fight and die on foreign battlefields. However, once there, some were re-directed back to conduct attacks at home as Al-Qa’ida realised their potential as a community that could penetrate deep into Western society. Key individuals like British national Rashid Rauf became the connective tissue providing a link between the senior echelons of Al-Qa’ida and the British recruits, helping them get around Waziristan and then providing managerial control over operations.

Over time, however, this connection has come under increasing scrutiny as  Western intelligence services realised its magnitude and increasingly became able to intercept its communications, penetrate its structures and remove key players from the field. This led to a gradual degradation of the network, though there is evidence that the community of individuals eager to travel back and forth to seek training continues to exist.

Most recently this connection was seen in a case in Birmingham in which a number of Britons travelled to Pakistan’s lawless provinces, trained alongside groups close to Al-Qa’ida before receiving loose direction to return home to carry out an incident of some sort. This is a world apart from the Operation Overt cell from 2006 where multiple elements were in repeated contact with masterminds back in Pakistan who had provided specific training and targeting and helped them along the trajectory of the plot. By 2011, the level of orchestration from afar was much harder to identify with Irfan Naseer – the plot leader of the Birmingham cell – giving little indication of being in regular touch with someone abroad. In a comment overheard by a security listening device he said that his guidance was more rudimentary than that: ‘they said yeah, the knowledge they gave us, they want that to spread to Europe.’ There was little evidence offered during the case (or any of the other cases linked to the core cell around IrfanNaseer) that anything was being orchestrated from afar. As was commented at the time, the approach seemed to be ‘fire and forget.’

Threat Shifting Overseas

But as groups in Pakistan in particular come under increasing pressure and lose their reach back to the UK, the threat elsewhere abroad has been growing, and the potential remains for foreign networks to use the continuing flow of British fighters to places like Syria to launch attacks back home. Currently, groups leading the fight in Syria have demonstrated no interest in launching a terrorist attack in the UK (or anywhere else in particular for that matter – their interest seems focused on toppling Bashar al Assad’s regime), but it is an open question how this will develop in the future.

Beyond foreign battlefields, the Internet has helped spread radical ideas and made them more accessible. Lone actor terrorism is a novel phenomenon that has shown an ability to express itself in a random and violent manner. And actions by extremist Islamist groups in Europe have led to a counter-reaction by extremists on the other end of the spectrum. We have now evolved, though not entirely passed, from a time when people sought out the community of radical preachers such as Abu Qatada, and from them were recruited by groups to go and fight abroad.

This evolution has come about for a number of reasons. Primary amongst these was the removal of the radical preachers (Abu Hamza through jail and then deportation to the US, Abdulla el Faisal through jail and then deportation to Jamaica, and Omar Bakri Mohammed through a self-imposed exile) and the removal of the open space in which they could operate. Abu Qatada’s departure from Britain for Jordan’s courts marks the conclusion of a long process by successive British governments that sought to expel these figures from the UK. New charismatic leaders and preachers have since emerged, but current legislation means that they are much more circumspect in their comments and openness in actively pushing people to go and fight abroad. Individuals are still drawing ideas from this ideological pool and some are electing to go and fight abroad, but the direct linkages are now far more discreet.

The other side to this coin is found in Pakistan where Al-Qa’ida’s ability to direct plots and plotters has been substantially degraded. The pressure of drone strikes and a growing western intelligence footprint means that key figures like Rauf and numerous other Al-Qa’ida figures have been taken off the battlefield. Those that are left are having to provide guidance and training in far more constrained environment, and once people have left the camps they are largely being left to simply get on with attempting to carry out attacks. The age of large-scale orchestrated plots from Pakistan seems to have passed.

Additionally, the emergence of Al-Qa’ida affiliates and battlefields of competing interest has given individuals a number of different locations where they can seek to find the adventure and thrill of jihad or play their role in fighting to protect the ‘ummah.’ How these different battlefields will impact the threat picture in the UK is a developing story, but at the moment they do not pose the same sort of threat that Al-Qa’ida’s grand plans directed from Pakistan did.

Coming exactly eight years after Al-Qa’ida’s last successful attack on the west, Abu Qatada’s deportation marks the end of an era in British counter-terrorism. But as one era seems to come to a close, a new one may be being forged on foreign battlefields and the internet marking an evolution of a problem many in the UK may consider removed with Abu Qatada’s departure.

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A new piece for the HS Today website this time exploring the implications of Abu Qatada being featured in a number of videos or messages by extremists ahead of his possible expulsion from the UK. It looks more generally at the terrorist threat to the UK, something I explore in specific detail for the Olympics in the latest magazine (which is currently available here in the online version of the magazine, but has not been fully posted online yet. Will re-post once it is). In the meantime, all of this work on the UK jihad presages my long awaited book which should land soon.

Al Qaeda’s Threats Against UK Show Britain Still A Top Target Of Jihadists

By: Raffaello Pantucci

05/08/2012 ( 6:35pm)

With menacing pomp and circumstance, Al Qaeda and five of its key affiliates have directly threatened the United Kingdom, this time specifically berating Britain for its treatment of Islamist prisoners.

The new Al Qaeda threats — published on Islamist forums — once again underscore that the UK continues to be at the top of the terrorist group’s list of high-priority targets. And with the impending Olympics painted with a crosshair, the spike in Al Qaeda’s attention undoubtedly isn’t a welcome development to the occupants at Thames House or New Scotland Yard.

Parsing threat from fiction is difficult, but this latest sustained series of threats highlights the fact that the terrorist menace facing the UK will not end at the same time as the Olympics’ closing ceremony on August 12.

Numerous statements from Al Qaeda and its affiliates — the Islamist State of Iraq, Al Shabaab, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — all have warned the UK that it will suffer dire consequences if Palestinian cleric Abu Qatada is deported to Jordan for his involvement in a series of plots there.

Known formally as Omar Mahmoud Othman, Abu Qatada was born in Bethlehem in 1960 and in the late 1980s ended up in Peshawar, where he is believed to have first encountered Al Qaeda. Although he claims that he was schooling Afghan children in Peshawar, according to Abu Musab Al Suri, a Syrian jihadist ideologue also in Peshawar, Qatada was an active proselyte with many followers who in 1992 elected to cross the border into Kabul.

Within a year, though, he was among a number of extremists who were evicted from Pakistan as part of a wider push by the Pakistani government to try to rid itself of the troublesome jihadi contingent that had lingered in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the wake of the fight against the Soviet Union.

“Al Qaeda sold everything in Peshawar,” according to an Egyptian Islamist who was around at the time, adding that Osama Bin Laden had led a contingent of fighters to Sudan where he established his base of operations for the next few years.

For Qatada, the UK was more appealing, and on Sept. 16, 1993, he showed up in London claiming asylum after having entered the country on a false Emirati passport. Once in Britain he established himself as a cornerstone of the global jihadist scene, becoming editor of Al Ansar, the fiery Islamist newsletter supportive of jihad in Algeria at the time.

This was the beginning of an illustrious career as a jihadist ideologue, a role he fulfilled while living on Britain’s welfare state. In March, 1995, he achieved particular notoriety when he issued a fatwa that seemed to justify the murder of the families of Algerian security officials. Then, in June 1996 he boasted to MI5 that he wielded “powerful, spiritual influence over the Algerian community in London.” But in February 1997 he told MI5 that “he had nothing but contempt for Bin Laden’s distant financing of the jihad.” When he was arrested in October 2002, however, he was found with £170,000 in cash and £805 in an envelope marked “for the mujahidin in Chechnya.”

Not bad for a man on welfare supporting jihad through long-distant financing.
Qatada served as a beacon for global jihadists. One young Muslim Londoner told Homeland Security Todayabout attending a meeting hosted by the preacher in the late 1990s at which one-legged and one-eyed men would attend in combat outfits, clearly fresh from fighting abroad.

Djamel Beghal, a charismatic Algerian who helped recruit shoe bomber Richard Reid into the Al Qaeda fold while he worshipped at the Finsbury Park mosque, first came to the UK to specifically study under Qatada. Many of Qatada’s books, recordings and publications are venerated among the extremist community as justifications for violence, and he’s reported to have been teacher to both hook-handed Abu Hamza (his favorite student), and Abdulla El Faisal (the anti-Semitic preacher whose cassettes Mohammed Siddique Khan liked to collect and who currently continues to preach from his residence in Jamaica).

Recordings of Qatada’s sermons were found at the house of September 11 jihadists, and in 2004, the Spanish Al Qaeda cell responsible for the Madrid bombings a few days earlier attempted to call Qatada prior to blowing themselves up to avoid capture by Spanish authorities. They sought, and apparently got, sanction from Qatada to carry out their suicidal final act.

It comes as little surprise that such a popular preacher would inspire statements from the extremist community when it seems he might finally be deported to Jordan where the government is likely to punish him for his actions.

While denying the cleric has any connection organizationally with Al Qaeda or its franchises, Al Qaeda nevertheless claims that as a fellow Muslim, Qatada deserves its support, which is a sentiment echoed by other jihadist groups. Al Qaeda in particular has warned that the deportation of Qatada to Jordan “will open the door of evil on it [the UK] and its citizens wherever they are.”

Meanwhile, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb offered to release Stephen Malcolm, a dual South African-British national they currently hold if the British government “deports Abu Qatada to one of the Arab Spring countries.”

Clearly, elevated attention is warranted by these specific threats, yet, these groups also are known to generate a lot of these sorts of warnings, cluttering extremist forums. What should be more worrisome to the United Kingdom is the earlier warning published in video form by the Tehrik E Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a group that has provided training for a number of recent Al Qaeda linked plots in the West. Through the group’s spokesman, Waliur Rehman Mehsud, they warned that the “British government is mistreating our Muslim brothers and sisters who are living in Britain.”

TTP told Britain to treat its prisoners better, referring to the cases of Bilal Abdulla, the Iraqi responsible for the 2007 attempted attacks in central London and at the Glasgow airport; Roshonara Choudhry, the young woman who tried to stab MP Stephen Timms; and Dhiren Barot, a senior Al Qaeda figure who planned unknown attacks in the UK.

Equally worrisome for the UK is that if jihadist groups are going to start venerating all jailed British jihadists in this way, then the United Kingdom is going to have to worry about terrorists seeking revenge for decades to come. Barot, for example, was given 40 years in jail, and since then nearly 200 others have been sentenced on terrorism charges.

While there are a few notable examples of individuals de-radicalizing while inside prison, there is just as much evidence that others are either emerging more radicalized or continue to believe the ideology they harbored when they went in. In the recent case of a group who pleaded guilty to trying to detonate a bomb in the London Stock Exchange, one of the key figures was a convicted petty criminal who was reported by neighbors to have been released from prison radicalized.

Compounding the problem is the international community of Al Qaeda-affiliated groups that has decided to take up the cause of the jailed British terrorists by providing them with sustenance and support while they’re doing their time behind bars. This very likely will extend a problem that Britain’s security services are expecting to stop focusing on in the wake of the Olympic Games. Terrorism in the UK may have burst into Britain’s consciousness on July 7, 2005, the day before the awarding of the Olympics to London, but it isn’t going to end on Aug. 13, 2012.

A frequent contributor to Homeland Security Today, Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College, London, and author of the forthcoming book, “We Love Death as You Love Life:” Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen.