Posts Tagged ‘Al Qaeda’

A bit slow up as travel and events have been impeding my ability to post, but a new piece for my new think tank base RUSI looking at the news of the link up or not between Jabhat al Nusrah and the Islamic State of Iraq. I also did a longer interview for de Volkskrant about Syria and the foreign fighters question, something that I am developing a couple of projects about. I was also quoted in a BBC piece about the last British resident in Guantanamo, Shaker Aamer, and this broader Metro piece about al Qaeda globally.

The al-Nusra Front ‘Merger’: Underscoring the Growing Regionalisation of Al-Qa’ida
RUSI Analysis, 15 Apr 2013

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

There is much confusion over the supposed ‘merger between Syria’s Jabhet al-Nusra and the Islamic state of Iraq group. The confusion itself emphasises the erosion of Al-Qa’ida’s supra-national aims and the reduced focus on Western targets.

al-Nusra Front thumb

Confusion reigned in the Syrian jihad last week as it was first announced, then denied, with the caveat of a connection of some sort admitted to, that the Jabhet al-Nusra (or the al Nusra Front ) was officially aligning itself with the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, the given name of Al-Qa’ida’s Iraqi affiliate), al-Qa’ida’s bloodiest franchise.

The reasons for this clumsy uncovering of what was already known could be personality based as much as anything else, but the experience did highlight a growing lack of coherence amongst the global jihadist movement. ‘Al-Qa’idaism’ seems to have not completely recovered from the loss of Osama bin Laden.

The announcements out of Syria were preceded by the latest audio message by Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor and the leader of what is left of Al-Qa’ida-core in Pakistan, in which he praised the ‘lions of Islam’ in the Levant ‘who fight for the Ummah’s religion, dignity, glory and sanctities.’ He exhorted the fighters in the Levant to ‘do everything in your power to yield a jihadist Islamic state.’ A few days after this, a message appeared on the forums purporting to be from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of the Islamic State of Iraq (Al-Qa’ida’s Iraqi affiliate) declaring the establishment of the ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Sham’ (or greater Syria). In other words, unifying the Iraqi and Syrian groups into one unified force.

Making his statement, al-Baghdadi claimed to be revealing something that was always the case, but had been kept secret until now: ‘what is al-Nusrah Front but an extension of the Islamic State of Iraq, and a part of it?’ He clarified how the Iraqi group had been responsible for the establishment of Al-Nusra Front (ANF) – providing support and funding – and how they had dispatched Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, a leader of the Front’s, to get the group going.

A day later al-Jawlani responded with a message that seemed to push back against al-Baghdadi’s declaration. Praising the fellow jihadist leader as a warrior he had the honour of serving alongside and recognising that the Iraqi group had provided support for the Syrian fighters, he nonetheless prevaricated over the declaration of unity. He specifically stated that ANF would retain their standard and instead pledged allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri stating they would ‘listen to and obey him in hardship and ease.’ At the same time, he reassured ‘our people in the Levant that the Front policy of defending the faith, your honours, and your blood, and its kindness toward you and the fighting group will remain as before.’

The message from al-Jawlani is a confusing one. On the one hand he seems to be pushing back against an overt alliance with the Islamic State of Iraq(a group he has admitted connections to), but at the same time, he is pledging direct allegiance to Al-Qa’ida core. The intent seems to be to strengthen the link to the centre while distancing himself from the group that he is most likely to benefit from materially.

It is possible that the key to understanding this mixed message lies in al-Jawlani’s emphasis onAl-Nusra Front continuing to focus its work in Syria. The Front has gone to great lengths to be perceived as first and foremost a group fighting the Assad regime, bringing law, order and other public goods to people in the areas that it controls. The priority for the Front is Syria and toppling Bashar al Assad, rather than the struggle that the Islamic State of Iraq is still undertaking against the Shia governmentin Baghdad or any international goal.

Transnational Connections

This desire to focus on local struggles over distant fields is a message that has been echoed elsewhere as well. Earlier this year, Dokku Umarov, a senior figure in the jihadist struggle in north Caucasus seemed to walk back his earlier statements of praise of the Syrian jihad to tell people not to leave the battlefields in the north Caucasus for Syria as there was an unresolved conflict at home still to be fought. In March of this year, a similar call came out of north Africa where Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) emphasised the need for people to stay and fight there. Syria it seems is becoming a distraction to other jihadist struggles.

There are a number of key points to be drawn from this. In the first instance, it seems clear that Syria has become the brightest flame on the jihadi map. So much so that other regional groups in North Africa and the North Caucasus are telling people not to abandon their battlefields, while Islamic State in Iraqhas sought to try to co-opt the Al-Nusra Front’s success under its banner. Supporting this assessment, various national security services have all concluded that Syria is now the hottest jihadi battlefield around. Whether this is due to limited resources being stretched or mere displacement is unclear.

Secondly, the focus and unity of purpose that used to appear more obvious under Al-Qa’ida has faded. While these groups see each other as brothers and in some cases have clear connections with each other, they are more focused on their regional conflicts than any grander global struggle. Their interest is to win a local victory, something that they are apparently now willing to seek to the detriment of fellow travellers on other jihadi battlefields.

Implications for the Jihad Against the West

This regional focus also helps explain the drop-off in large-scale plots being orchestrated abroad targeting the West. Individual plots do appear, in the form of lone actors or small cells with links abroad. But in most cases there is very little evidence of much direction – this is of course not to say directed plots do not still exist, but there number seems to be lower.

None of this necessarily contradicts the message being sent out by Ayman al-Zawahiri. In his latest missive, he does the rounds of international jihad, highlighting and praising warriors around the globe. He warns them to be alert to Western interference – and in fact dedicates some considerable portion of his presentation to highlighting how Iran is a major enemy of the jihadist cause – but there is little about attacking the West. Rather, the focus seems to be on people to stand firm in their jihad, defend Islam and to seek greater unity amongst Muslims.

In this light, al-Jawlani’sdecision to pledge his allegiance to al-Zawahiri while distancing himself from al-Baghdadi can possibly be understood to make sense. Al-Zawahiri’s message is one of groups continuing their brave struggles in their respective fields, rather than a unified international fight against the West. This is a vision of Al-Qa’ida as the righteous global leader of those struggling in Islam’s name. A vision al-Jawlani sees as useful in advancing his struggle in Syria.

Sitting in a Western capital, this all augurs quite well. Al-Qa’ida and its affiliates seem to be more focused on their local struggles over the international enemy. To paraphrase al-Zawahiri – who spoke of the near enemy (the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East) versus the far enemy (America and the west that used to bolster them) – the focus now seems to be near enemy. But this shift in focus does not necessarily mean an end to all problems. These battlefields continue to draw in young Westerners, and what happens to these battle-hardened young men afterwards remains a dilemma (some come home and do nothing, while others come back with a desire to launch attacks). There are also groups that remain bent on attacking the West. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Al-Nusra Front may not currently have much interest in attacking the West, but individuals in Pakistan – both Al-Qa’ida-core and groups like the Pakistani Taliban  – as well as elements within Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remain fixated with trying to attack the West or instigate lone actor plots there.

But the broader trend is clear. For the time being at least, the priority has shifted back to the regions. ‘Al-Qa’idaism’ may still speak in global terms, but is increasingly regionally focused. For western government’s this merely strengthens the case of why counter-terrorism efforts need to maintain vigilance at home for potential backlash from these foreign fields, but increasingly need to focus their resources abroad.

An analytical piece for my new think tank home RUSI about the large British terrorist case that has concluded this week. A longer piece about them coming soon for a magazine, with lots of interesting detail.

The Birmingham Terrorist Plotters: Lessons for Counter-Terrorism Today

RUSI Analysis, 22 Feb 2013By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow
The convictions of three Birmingham residents of a terrorist plot reveal classic linkages between homegrown bombers and Pakistan. The supply side of the terrorist threat in the UK continues to prove a problem.
Birmingham Terrorist Conviction 2013

In what has been described by the Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) as the ‘most significant Counter-Terrorism investigation since the airlines bomb plot of 2006‘ a jury at Woolwich Crown Court yesterday found three Birmingham residents guilty of planning a terrorist campaign in the UK. The plot was unraveled in a landmark police surveillance operation, codenamed Pitsford.

The plot seems to be a throw back to an earlier time, where a group of radicalised young, British-born Muslims have links to Al-Qa’ida in Waziristan – a connection that seems to have flowed through Kashmiri oriented networks – and were caught seeking innovative ways of creating a bomb. The key difference is Al-Qa’ida in Pakistan is a very different entity today than it was in the mid-2000s, no longer able to exert the same sort of command and control over terrorist cells it has trained and sent to carry out attacks.

The men involved in the plot all fit a profile that has been perceived as being all too common in British counter-terrorism. Young men from Britain’s South Asian Muslim communities with some education, had elected to dedicate themselves to Al-Qa’ida’s cause rather than become productive members of society and to instead inflict ‘revenge for everything, what we’re doing is another 9/11‘ as Irfan Khalid put it within range of a security service listening device. Having decided what they were seeking to do, they headed to Pakistan where they sought and obtained connections to Al-Qa’ida.

How high these connections went is something that was made clear by cell leader Irfan Khalid ‘well you know the sheikh we’re on about, the Kuwaiti guy. You know about the top 5…..he’s the one who’s blessed this whole thing and he’s the one who is saying people are doing dua [praying] for you. Then, there’s other top people doing dua. They’ve done istekhara [religious prayer for guidance] from what we guess.’ The man they are referring to is Abu Zaid al-Kuwaiti, a senior Al-Qa’ida leader who was killed in a drone strike last December. Whether they met with him is unclear, but it is certain that they had made contact with one of his lieutenants who brought around Waziristan to training camps and helped them record their martyrdom videos.

Their story is reminiscent of a narrative that had been common in counter-terror investigations from a few years ago, in particular the 7 July bombers who killed fifty-two in an Al-Qa’ida directed attack on London’s public transport system. In both plots, radicalised young British Muslims went to Pakistan, were able to connect with Al-Qa’ida, were trained by the group in creative ways to make bombs, recorded martyrdom videos that they left behind and were then dispatched back to the UK to carry out an attack.


Looking back further, there were similarities in some of the influences on key plotters belonging to the two cells: in recorded conversations, the Pitsford cell, praised the work of now dead radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and would use his work to further radicalise individuals they were drawing into their network. While driving one group to the airport to go to Pakistan, one of the lieutenants who had previously pleaded guilty for his role in the cell asked how a fellow plotter had discovered the path of jihad: ‘how did you know this was the “haqq” [truth], Anwar al-Awlaki?’ Having affirmed this, he praised the cleric, ‘may Allah reward him. Cause of him so many people [have discovered the truth]’.

In material to have subsequently emerged around the 7 July plotters, it was revealed that their handler in Pakistan, another Birmingham man named Rashid Rauf, had realised that Mohammed Siddique Khan and his co-conspirator were serious and had ‘good knowledge’ as they used to listen to, amongst others, Anwar al-Awlaki. In the Pitsford case, Awlaki seems to have played an even more prominent role through the magazine that he created with a young American acolyte,Inspire. The men were found in possession of the magazine, but also recorded discussing some of the plots mentioned in it, including the idea of driving a harvester machine re-fitted with swords or blades into a crowd and the bomb-making recipes within it.

An even earlier ideological parallel can also be found in the fact that one of the men in the cell reported that he had his first encounter with extremist ideas at the age of eight when he found a book at his house by Maulana Masood Azhar. A prominent Pakistani preacher who is seen as a key figure in the Islamicisation of the nationalist campaign in Kashmir, Azhar stands as a shadow over the history of British jihadism, especially on Pakistani/South Asian communities.

In the early 1990s, Azhar visited the UK to raise money for the Kashmiri struggle, including a stop in Birmingham. He was later arrested and jailed by Indian authorities, only to be released (alongside another young Briton he had helped radicalised, LSE graduate Omar Saeed Sheikh) in exchange for a planeload of Indian passengers en route to Nepal. He went on to found a group called Jaish-e-Mohammed that claimed responsibility for the first reported British suicide bomber, another young Birmingham man called Asif Sadiq, who in December 2000 blew himself up in a car bomb in Srinagar, Kashmir. Jaish-e-Mohammed, alongside Harakut-ul-Mujahedeen – another similar group Azhar has also been linked to-became key conduits and training vehicles for British Muslims seeking jihad in Kashmir.

During the Pitsford case, one of the plotters, Rahin Ahmed, said he had first found extreme ideas through Azhar’s writing. For the 7 July cell, Azhar’s book The Virtues of Jihad, was an important text that they would read to each other at a training camp they shared with other young Britons who went on to be convicted of terrorist plots in the United Kingdom. Members of the group associated with the  7 July bombers also admitted to having gone and trained at camps managed by Harakat ul-Mujahedeen. The point being that the network of jihadist groups in Pakistan that had previously been focused on Kashmir provided a network that the young Britons were able to use to find not only radical ideas, but also obtain training.

Differences between 7/7 bombers and the Pitsford cell

Similarities notwithstanding, there were two key differences between the Pitsford group and the 7 July cell. First, of course, was the failure of the Pitsford cell to carry out their deadly duty. Second, however, was the degree to which Al-Qa’ida was able to direct them: the 7 July team remained in contact with their handlers in Pakistan right up to the point they carried out their operation. In the evidence to have emerged, there is no sign that the Pitsford cell were able to maintain this same level of communication, and were instead trained and then dispatched to spread the word and carry out an act. The level of command and control that has been visible in previous plots is clearly no longer able to exist in the same fashion. Al-Qa’ida has evolved as an entity: from being an organisation that could direct and communicate with its cells around the world, to one that dispatches footsoldiers from Pakistan with uncertainty about the final outcome.

The reasons for this shift are undoubtedly in part because of the pressure the group has come under in Pakistan through drone strikes and focused intelligence attention. But beyond this, it is also because the centre of gravity for jihadist ideas has shifted. Dissemination and conceptualisation of the Jihadist creed is no longer the preserve of Al-Qa’ida core in Pakistan. These ideas have found fertile ground in Somalia, the Sahel, parts of northern Nigeria, Yemen, wider Central Asia, and returned to parts of the Middle East and in particular Syria. These new battlefields have taken away some of the attention from Al-Qa’ida core and its ability to be the only draw for money and recruits. For a young Briton seeking the thrill of jihad in a foreign field, better the live fire battlefield of Syria fighting an oppressive dictator than hiding under trees from drone strikes in Waziristan.

Nevertheless, the plot unraveled by Operation Pitford highlights once again a fundamental problem before us. Eight years after the 7 July bombings, and almost 20 years after their ideas first inculcated themselves in the United Kingdom, we continue to see young Britons radicalised to the point of wanting to join terrorist groups and networks abroad. And in some cases they are willing to plot and carry out atrocities at home. The supply side of the terrorist threat in the UK continues to prove a problem.

A new post for my publisher’s blog, exploring the connections between extremist leader Masood Azhar and his links to the UK. Am quite pleased with this piece which has a bunch of new information in it, and will give people a further taster of what’s in the book! Some more on this topic landing soon from a slightly different angle.

Maulana Masood Azhar in the British Jihad

January 24, 2013   |   Raffaello Pantucci

Maqbool Butt

Maqbool Butt

Kashmir has always played an interesting role in Britain’s jihad. From its earliest days, the presence in the UK of a substantial Kashmiri population meant issues in the Indian sub-continent were important in the UK as well. Most prominently, in 1984, a group of Kashmiris abducted and murdered Rhavindra Mhatre, a diplomat serving at the Indian Consulate in Birmingham. Their demands included the release of imprisoned Kashmiri leader Maqbool Butt, who was instead executed by the Indian government in retribution. In later years, as tensions slowly escalated, a growing number of young Britons were drawn to the fight, following the streams of money that had long filtered from the UK to Kashmiri jihadi groups. In time, this well-trodden path became a direct line to al Qaeda, culminating in the attacks of 7 July 2005.

Fostering connections with the UK was important for Kashmiri groups (and for Pakistani political parties in general, most of whom had and still have offices in the UK). Leaders would regularly come to the UK to rattle fundraising cups and seek moral support. One individual who made this peregrination was Maulana Masood Azhar, a portly bespectacled preacher and the son of a Bahawalpur religious studies teacher, Master Allah Baksh Sabir Alvi. Born to a religious family in 1968, Azhar undertook the study of Islam from an early age. At four he was given awards for his capacity to recite long tracts from the Koran and was sent to the Darul Uloom Islamia Binori Town in Karachi—a centre of Deobandi learning. From here he slowly moved up the ladder, travelling to Afghanistan before taking on a prominent role as editor of the magazine Sadai Mujahid(‘Voice of the Mujahid’) that extolled the virtues of jihad in Afghanistan and then later Kashmir. In February 1994 he was captured by Indian forces in Kashmir and spent six years in jail before he was freed as part of a deal to obtain the release of a planeload of mostly Indian passengers on their way to Nepal.

Released alongside Azhar was a young Briton named Omar Saeed Sheikh, an LSE graduate, who had sought to fight alongside jihadists in Bosnia in the early 1990s. There he met a Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen fighter (HuM—Masood Azhar’s then outfit) who re-directed him to Kashmir. Upon arrival he attended a training camp in Waziristan near Miranshah where in late 1993 he met Masood Azhar. Seeing some particular value in the Briton, Azhar instructed him to try to obtain a visa to enter India—something Sheikh had difficulty with due to his dual citizenship. Foiled, he returned to the UK and applied for a British passport to replace his Pakistani one and was able to get a visa into India. Once in India he helped HuM attempt a number of kidnappings of foreigners to be held hostage in exchange for detained HuM fighters, until he was caught by Indian police (who stumbled across the cell holding the hostages while on a different mission). Later freed alongside Azhar, he became notorious when in 2003 he was arrested for his role in the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. He is still sitting on death row in Pakistan for this crime.

It seems possible that Azhar may have encountered Sheikh earlier. According to some accounts, Azhar knew Sheikh’s father and had met him on a trip to the UK—a trip Azhar may have made to seek support for HuM from Britain’s pro-Kashmir community. How many of these trips Azhar made is unclear, but it seems certain that he went at least once to the UK and spent some time in Birmingham as well as East London. In Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clarke’s recent book, The Meadow, they describe him meeting another young British man and future jihadist in Birmingham, Rashid Rauf. Arriving in Birmingham, Azhar is described as having befriended Rauf’s father Abdul, a baker, former shariah judge in Pakistan and prominent local supporter of the struggle in Kashmir. According to Levy and Scott-Clarke, Abdul Rauf introduced Azhar to ‘his rootless teenage son, Rashid, whom he said was in need of a mentor.’ Many years later in 2002, Rauf would flee the UK after being sought by police in relation to the murder of an uncle. In Pakistan he headed straight to Azhar’s hometown Bahawalpur where he married Azhar’s sister-in-law, the daughter of a prominent local madrassa head. He went on to become an important al Qaeda leader.

Other accounts from Azhar’s trip around the UK describe him as being a passionate and emotive speaker with women taking off their jewelry and handing it over to support the cause in Kashmir after listening to his speeches. The inspirational effect of Azhar’s speeches reportedly transcended linguistic barriers. Waheed Ali, a young Bangladeshi friend of July 7 bomber Shehzad Tanweer, reported that the two boys, from Beeston (near Leeds), would sit around and listen to tapes of Azhar’s speeches that had been given to them at the local Iqra bookshop. Ali said he only understood a little Urdu and was reliant on his friend Tanweer to translate. As Ali put it, ‘I can understand a little bit but what used to happen is me and Kaki [Tanweer] used to listen to it and what he’d do, he’d pause and he’d explain to me what he just said, yeah, and because Maulana Masood Azhar has got a really eloquent way of speaking and he used to be really, you know, like fiery and everything, yeah, so it sounds really nice and Kaki used to explain to me what he said.’

Azhar’s influence over the wider cell around the July 7 group, including the Operation Crevice group who were jailed in 2006 for their role in plotting an attack using a massive fertilizer bomb in Bluewater, is again intelligible in the accounts from a 2003 training camp in Malakand, Pakistan, given by Mohammed Junaid Babar. At this camp, alongside the Crevice plotters, was the leader of the July 7 cell, Mohammed Siddique Khan, and Mohammed Shakil, another Beestonite who helped with the Iqra bookshop and who was later jailed alongside Waheed Ali for trying to attend a training camp in Pakistan in 2007. According to Babar’s account, at this camp the group exercised, fired AK-47s and RPGs and, to wind down, would sit around and read aloud from Masood Azhar’s famous book The Virtues of Jihad. That the young men knew of Azhar is unsurprising. Khan and Ali had first come to Pakistan to train at a HuM camp in 2001, just before 9/11. In Ali’s account they were met at the airport by a vehicle festooned with HuM stickers before being taken by the organization to their camp in Manshera (and later to a base in Afghanistan). In 1999, as part of a year out from university, Mohammed Shakil spent some time in Kashmir near his family’s hometown and spent three days at a low-level training camp. Later that same year, Omar Khyam, the head of the Crevice cell who later helped establish the camp with Mohammed Junaid Babar, ran away from home, telling his parents he was on a school trip to France, when he instead went to join the struggle in Kashmir. His parents ended up sending an aged relation to persuade him to come home, where, he claims, he was welcomed as a hero.

But while Kashmir may have been the bait that drew the young Britons in, Azhar’s specific appeal to the young British jihadists was the fact that he seemed to transcend the often corrupt and confusing struggle in Kashmir, riddled with spies, intrigue and manipulation. In a book which describes his experiences fighting alongside Kashmiri warriors in the mid-1990s, Dhiren Barot, a British Hindu of Gujarati extraction who converted to Islam and fought in Kashmir, to later connect with al Qaeda’s senior leadership, compares Azhar to Abdullah Azzam. A Palestinian jihadi scholar who acted as one of the prime recruiters for the Afghan jihad, Azzam remains an inspirational figure to jihadists the world over. In his book, The Army of Madinah in Kashmir, Dhiren Barot (writing under the pseudonym Esa al Hindi) says ‘Sheikh Mohammed Mas’ood Azhar is one of the few revivers of Jihad in our time who mirrors in the Indian sub-continent what Abdullah Azzam was to the Arab world. His works in many languages have greatly inspired men and women in realizing the low state of the Muslim people and its duty to revive itself through jihad.’

By the end of the book, Barot seems to have taken against the struggle in Kashmir, worried that brave jihadis are being lost in a struggle manipulated by people with darker agendas. The shout-out to Azhar therefore is all the more significant, highlighting Azhar’s appeal to the community beyond Kashmiri nationalists. This appeal was still visible almost a decade later when in January 2006 Umm Musab al-Gharib, aka the ‘Lyrical Terrorist’ or Samina Malik, posted Azhar’s book (the same one read at the Malakand camp), The Virtues of Jihad, onto popular Muslim forum, adding the note ‘it will be of benefit to you all.’ Malik, whose conviction for ‘possessing records likely to be used for terrorism’ was eventually overturned, was in contact with Sohail Qureishi, a dental assistant who was arrested as he tried to go abroad to fight in Pakistan. Other groups from the UK, like the wider cell around Bradford native Aabid Khan, saw Azhar’s Jaish-e-Mohammed group as a good first point of contact when seeking to go fight in Pakistan. Apparently connected to the group, it is believed that Aabid Khan may have been a vetter for the organization, helping to identify suitable candidates to fight alongside it among the over-excited young westerners who drifted to Pakistan seeking jihad in the wake of 9/11.

Azhar is also believed to be responsible for dispatching Britain’s first known suicide bomber. On Christmas in 2000, 24 year old Birmingham native Asif Sadiq, using the pseudonym Mohammed Bilal, drove a car packed with explosives into a checkpoint outside an Indian army base in Kashmiri capital Srinagar, killing nine. Claimed by the newly-founded Jaish-e-Mohammed, the bombing (the first suicide attack in Srinagar) marked the violent birth of the new jihadist organization that Azhar established upon his release from Indian jail with Pakistani backing. Back in the UK, attention-seeking cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed (whose organization al Muhajiroun features as a backdrop to the radicalization of many of the Britons mentioned in this article) stated that his organization regularly sent ‘freedom fighters’ to Kashmir and that a group of 23-24 year olds had made this trip two weeks before Christmas. He thought it ‘quite possible’ that one of them had been involved in the Srinagar attack.

While Bakri Mohammed’s comments need to be taken with a pinch of salt, Azhar’s deadly intent and influence over young Britons, drawn to Kashmir and jihad, is unmistakable. And as time passed and Azhar’s group slowly faded, the connection that he helped nurture seems to have passed seamlessly over to al Qaeda. The archetypal example of this is Rashid Rauf, who Azhar was allegedly asked to mentor as a young man and who later married Azhar’s sister-in-law. Having re-connected with Azhar in 2002, Rauf seems to have moved effortlessly into al Qaeda’s ranks, going on to act as the coordinator for the July 7 attack, one of the key masterminds of the August 2006 plot to bring down about eight airliners on transatlantic routes (the plot that means we are still unable to take liquids onto planes) and involved in a whole series of later plots targeting the UK and US. Rauf is now believed to be dead, killed by a drone strike in November 2008 as he plotted with al Qaeda to carry out an attack on the New York subway.

What Azhar would have made of his young protégé’s demise is unknown. In fact, specifics on what Azhar is doing now are unclear. Wikileak’s Cablegate revealed that in late 2009 the Indian government had pushed for adding him to the list of known terrorists held by the UN, but this was stalled by Chinese objections—presumably to support their close allies in Islamabad. He remains at large in Pakistan regularly delivering speeches and with active personal and organization (Jaish-e-Mohammed) Facebook pages online. In late 2011 the fundraising wing of the group, the al Rahmat Trust, was identified as having made a push to raise money in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. But since the revelation in May 2011 that the Indian government continue to believe Azhar is at large in Pakistan, little more has been heard about him. For the UK, however, this is a moot point. Azhar has long since moved on from being directly implicated in Britain’s jihad, acting instead as an inspirational figurehead whose jihadi writings have entered the canon of required reading. Watching his slow transition into this role and his influence on the development of Britain’s jihad highlights the sometimes confusing role that Kashmir has played in its development.

Nowadays, jihad in Kashmir is a shadow of its former self. Largely burned out after the brutal battles of the 1990s, the struggle remains an issue, but it is no longer the focus amongst Britain’s jihadi community. Many of the young men initially drawn to it walked away disillusioned by the degree of influence the intelligence services held over it and how geopolitical games were being played by brave idealistic souls seeking to fight in God’s name to protect the Muslim ummah. But as the conflict wound down, as Dhiren Barot correctly predicted in his book, ‘there will of a surety be those who will feel cheated, humiliated and let down.’ And they developed into the community that connected with al Qaeda to launch repeated attacks against the West and helped kindle a civil war in Pakistan that rages to this day. While Masood Azhar may have gone into seclusion since his 1990s hey-day, his rhetorical influence can still be felt and his key role in bringing jihad to the UK seems clearer than ever.

More on current events in North Africa, this time for the BBC. I owe Virginia a note of thanks for reviewing it – grazie! I was also quoted briefly in this Financial Times article on the British government’s response. (UPDATE: have briefly tweaked it to reflect a commenter’s correct catch)

Islamists in Africa emerge as threat to West

By Raffaello Pantucci

Senior Research Fellow, Royal United Services Institute

An Islamist rebel is pictured on April 24, 2012 near Timbuktu in northern Mali
Militant Islamists are operating across the vast Sahara Desert

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has said that Islamist extremists in North Africa pose a “large and existential threat” – a comment he made following the siege of a gas facility in Algeria, where dozens of people, nearly all of them foreigners, were killed.

“It will require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months,” Mr Cameron said.

“What we face is an extremist, Islamist, al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group. Just as we had to deal with that in Pakistan and in Afghanistan so the world needs to come together to deal with this threat in north Africa.”

The group responsible for the incident in In Amenas in Algeria appears to have been led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a local jihadist-criminal who had been a commander of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

He left or was asked to leave AQIM late last year. Branching out, he founded an independent faction called the Signed-in-Blood Battalion that seems to have operated out of territory controlled by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) in northern Mali.

Belmokhtar’s faction claims that the assault in Algeria was conducted to avenge the French decision to attack northern Mali.

But, with his organisation reportedly having agents within the compound, it seems likely that this was a longer-term plot that was brought forward in response to the French assault.

It was in fact Belmokhtar’s close companion, Omar Ould Hamaha, a leader in Mujao, who declared in response to the French intervention in Mali that France “has opened the gates of hell [and] has fallen into a trap much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia”.

That Belmokhtar’s faction would want to attack a Western target is not entirely surprising.

He has a long form of kidnapping foreigners and AQIM – to which he belonged until last year – has a long and bloody history.

Originally born as the Armed Islamist Group (GIA) in the wake of the Algerian military annulling elections that the Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win Algeria in the early 1990s, the group evolved first into the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), before adopting the al-Qaeda mantle in 2007 to become AQIM.

Militant Islamists Mukhtar Abu Mansur  and Omar Hammami (R) in Mogadishu, Somalia,  on 11 May 2011
American-Syrian Omar Hammami (R) joined al-Shabab in Somalia in 2011

The GIA, in particular, has been linked to attacks in the mid-1990s on the Paris metro system, the GSPC to plots in Europe and North America prior to the attacks in New York on 11 September 2001, and the groups across North Africa have historically felt particular enmity towards former regional colonial power France.

What is worrying about events in Africa, however, is that violent groups espousing similarly extreme rhetoric can be found in a number of countries.

In Mali alone, alongside AQIM, Mujao and the Signed-in-Blood Battalion is Ansar Dine, another splinter from AQIM that has held large parts of the north since last year and has been imposing its version of Islamic law.

In Nigeria, Islamist group Boko Haram has conducted a destabilising and bloody campaign of terrorism in a fight that is rooted in longstanding local social and economic tensions.

Reports emerged last week that a leader from the group may have found his way to northern Mali, while American military commanders have long spoken about the connection between AQIM and Boko Haram.

Further demonstrating the potential links to Nigeria, back in July last year, a pair of men were accused in an Abuja court of being connected to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate.

And across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen is Somalia, a country that has been home to al-Shabab, a jihadist group that last year aligned itself officially with al-Qaeda.

There have been reports of Boko Haram fighters training alongside al-Shabab fighters and the Somali group is known to have deep connections with AQAP.

Particularly worrying for Western security planners, many of these groups have attracted an unknown number of foreign fighters.
In al-Shabab, some, like Omar Hammami, the American-Syrian who rose up in the Somali group’s ranks before recently falling out of favour, have become minor celebrities in their own right.

AQIM’s networks are known to stretch into France, Spain, Italy and even the UK.

Mujao’s Omar Ould Hamaha claims to have spent some 40 days towards the end of 2000 in France on a Schengen visa, whilst there have been numerous reports of Westerners being spotted or arrested trying to join the jihadists in northern Mali.

And now in In Amenas it appears a Canadian citizen may have been one of the attackers.

Seen from Western Europe, a dangerous picture emerges, potentially leading back home through fundraising networks and recruits.

But the risk is to overstate the threat and focus on the whole rather than the individual parts.

While links can often be drawn between these groups – and they can maybe be described as “fellow travellers” ideologically – it is not the case that they operate in unison or have similar goals.

Rescue workers carry the coffin of one of the hostages killed during a hostage crisis in a gas plant at the hospital in In Amenas, 21 January 2013.
Western interests in Africa will be reassessed as potential targets

Often local issues will trump international ones, even if they claim to be operating under the banner of an international organisation such as al-Qaeda.

And looking back historically, it has been a long time since AQIM-linked cells have been able to conduct or plot a major terrorist incident in Europe.

While a number of plots over the past few years have been connected to al-Shabab, so far there is little evidence that they have actually directed people to attack the West.

The bigger threat is to Western interests in Africa – sites such as In Amenas that will now be reassessed as potential targets for groups seeking international attention, or revenge for French-led efforts in Mali or Western efforts to counter groups elsewhere.

It has been an eventful weekend as the Algerian crisis appears to have finally wrapped up. I have been doing various bits of media, including a short interview that was used in this piece in the Sunday Telegraph, focusing in particular on the Algerian connection to the UK. As it becomes clearer what was the nationality the alleged ‘perfect English speakers’ was, this aspect will doubtless become more of a focus. For the time being, here is my latest for CNN on what the incident might mean for broader terrorism issues globally. Per CNN’s format, I have only posted the first bit of text, please follow links to read the whole thing.

Algeria hostage crisis may be future of terrorism

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

By Raffaello Pantucci, Special for CNN


At this still inconclusive stage it is difficult to know exactly what the aim of the groups involved in the attack on the gas installation in Algeria was. Did they truly want to ransom the hostages they took or massacre them, and was money or punishment to the Algerian or French government’s the driving motivation? What is clear is that the incident has immediately captured international attention, highlighting again how terrorism continues to be a tool that can be used by groups to bring focus to their causes. The deadly operation itself further highlights the direction that we are likely to see Islamist terrorism continue to go in over the next few years.

What seems clear is that the operation was conducted by a group of jihadist fighters under the command of Moktar Belmokhtar, a longtime fighter-criminal who had recently broken away from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to form a separate unit that was aligned with the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). Reports seem to suggest that Belmokhtar is likely somewhere in the region of Gao, a city in eastern Mali that has recently been targeted by French forces as they seek to reclaim the country from Islamist extremists.


An article for the website of my new employer, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), where I have been appointed a Senior Research Fellow. I just started and events in north Africa precipitated quite quickly resulting in the below article for the website, though this piece initially was more focused on the French decision to go into Mali. In the spike in media interest around events in Algeria, I did a short interview for ITN which was subsequently picked up by the PBS Newshour.

France Confronts Terror Threat in Africa, Risks Attack at Home

RUSI Analysis, 17 Jan 2013

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

The French assault on militant jihadists in Mali reflects a recognition in Paris that the long-brewing Islamist trouble in North Africa is something that has started to spiral out of control, and has potential to have a direct impact within France.

Mali Insurgents

France’s decision to deploy forces to Mali comes in the wake of a failed attempt to rescue a French operative captured by Somali group al Shabaab. This regional French show of strength has been treated as something of a surprise, but reflects a recognition in Paris that the long-brewing Islamist trouble in North Africa is something that has started to spiral out of control and has the potential to have a direct impact within France.

The Nature of the Threat

Islamist groups currently operating in northern Mali (and  wider North Africa) have, broadly speaking, evolved out of the chaos of Algeria in the 1990s. Following their expulsion from Pakistan, former Algerian mujahedeen fighters from Afghanistan returned home to a government that voided the election victory of the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS).

Mali Azawad

Amongst the violent groups to emerge was the Groupe Islamique Armée (GIA) that took up arms against the Algerian state as well as launching a campaign of attacks within France. As the decade wore on, the group’s brutality escalated leading to a splintering of factions. The GIA transformed into le Group Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat (GSPC), that then rebranded itself in January 2007 to become Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) following a video from September 2006 in which Al-Qa’ida number two Ayman al Zawahiri proclaimed a ‘blessed union’ between the two groups. This did not result, however, in a spate of international attacks as the group came under heavy pressure regionally and became more known for kidnapping foreigners for ransom rather than international terrorism.

Exploiting the Post-Arab Spring Weakness

The ‘Arab Spring’ seems to have revived the group. In particular the collapse of the Gadhafi regime in Libya gave Islamist and separatist networks across the region sudden access to a flood of high grade weaponry. Tuareg rebels in northern Mali seized the opportunity to take over increasingly substantial portions of territory. Sensing an opening, elements from AQIM profited from the situation to co-opt the rebellion, leading to the collapse of local military capacity as the rebels took ever-larger pieces of territory.

This result from the ‘Arab Spring’ was somewhat counterintuitive to the prevailing narrative at the time: that the largely secular mobs that took to the streets to chase Zine el Abidine Ben Ali from power in Tunis and ultimately depose Hosni Mubarak in Egypt were a sign of the lowering of the power of Islamist ideas in the region. In fact, the war in Libya provided militant groups with a place to practice their fighting skills, while the failure of secular groups to seize power sucked some of the ideological optimism from the ‘Arab Spring’.

As time has gone on, AQIM splintered and absorbed various illicit networks across the region to create groups Ansar Dine and Movement for Tawheed and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) – all of whom are now engaged in countering the French-led assault. These groups have been heavily armed with equipment taken from Libyan and Malian armories, with defenses built using earth moving equipment abandoned by foreign companies chased out of the area and money from ransoms provided to release foreign hostages. As a result, the groups have steadily transformed northern Mali into an ungoverned space where they can impose shariah law and work to establish an independent Islamic emirate.

This success has been noted by the international jihadist community, exemplified by the fact that he area has become one of the new battlefields drawing in excitable young foreigners seeking adventure and jihad. France, the former colonial power with a substantial Malian population resident at home, has been a particular source of such individuals, with reports varying as to the amount of French citizens being drawn to join in the fighting in Mali. French citizens have been apprehended in Niger, Mali and Mauritania believed to be on their way to join the fighting. Additionally, the FBI intercepted two Alabama natives allegedly heading to Morocco en route to Mali, and Mauritanian authorities captured a Briton trying to walk across the border through the Sahara desert. One Reuters reporter in Gao claimed to have seen at least three ‘white westerners’ amongst the Islamist fighters spotted there.

But it is not only foreign fighters alarming authorities. In late December last year, Tunisian authorities arrested some sixteen individuals suspected of being connected with AQIM who had established a camp and were training using weapons from Libyan armouries. In Libya, foreign consulates have come under repeated assault – in particular in Benghazi the American ambassador and three others were killed on the anniversary of the 11 September  attacks last year, and both the British and Italian Consul’s convoys have come under attack. And now in eastern Algeria on the border with Libya, an unknown group of foreign nationals working for oil companies seems to have been snatched by an armed group that claims to be linked to AQIM in Mali. Islamist insurgent networks across North Africa have had a new life breathed into them, something most prominently on display in northern Mali where they have managed to move beyond sporadic actions to hold large pieces of territory.

Just across the Mediterranean in Europe, the potential of this menace is clear, leading to France’s response and the willingness of other European powers to provide some support. The question, however, is whether this response comes too late. The potential for events to shift in this direction has been abundantly clear for a long time, with the news from northern Mali pointing to groups increasingly confident in their abilities and eager to consolidate control over territory and impose a hardline version of Sharia law. As the groups pushed southward towards the capital there were increasingly frantic calls by local authorities for outside intervention. As the power with closest links, France heeded this call, sending somewhere in the region of 2,500 soldiers to stem the Islamists advance in the south while using airpower to pound entrenched positions deeper in the Islamist controlled territory.

The War Could Come to France

At home, France has stepped up its security posture, with authorities alert to the potential for networks helping individuals to go and join AQIM or other groups in north Africa to attempt to carry out retaliatory attacks within France, as was done by a previous Islamist incarnation in the 1990s. Islamists in France have in the past year demonstrated an increasing level of violence, with Mohammed Merah – an terrorist trained in Pakistan who is likely to have had connections with north African networks – killing 3 off-duty soldiers, 3 Jewish children and a rabbi in Toulouse; a firebombing in November at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a newspaper that published cartoons of Mohammed; and a grenade attack in September on a Jewish supermarket in a Paris suburb.

Police launched a massive operation in the wake of this last assault, killing one of the two men suspected of carrying out the grenade attack when he resisted arrest. Another eleven individuals were arrested, weapons seized, extremist literature found as well as a list of other potential Israeli targets in Paris.

Whilst none of these operations has been directly linked with events in Mali, the increasing aggressiveness of such groups in Europe is no doubt fuelled by the perceived success of groups in North Africa, something that will be further accelerated now that France has taken such an active role in quashing the insurgency. The French government is alive to the potential for retaliatory attacks at home, though it seems more likely in the short-term that we are going to see more incidents like the alleged kidnapping in Algeria with Islamist networks looking for targets of opportunity closer to home.

French authorities have been keen to emphasise their deployment would be short-term and is merely a stopgap while African forces are mustered. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius declared French involvement would last ‘a matter of weeks.’ Unfortunately, this seems an optimistic perspective, and it is likely that France will have to contend with a situation that will take months rather than weeks.

The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

I have a review of Mitchell Silber’s book in the new International Affairs journal, I previously commented on it alongside Seth Jones book for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel. Unfortunately, it is behind a paywall, so I cannot just post it here, but have asked if I can. For those very eager, become Chatham House members or get in touch and I can try to help out…

A rather long-delayed book review for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, looking at a pair of books by Mitch Silber and Seth Jones. More book reviews coming out soon, as well as another more historical piece I am quite pleased with for AfPak Channel.

Appraising al-Qaeda: The practitioner’s perspective

By Raffaello Pantucci | Monday, November 5, 2012 – 3:55 PM

Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qaeda since 9/11 – Seth Jones

The Al Qaeda Factor: Plots Against the West – Mitchell D. Silber

What is the nature of al-Qaeda? Is it an organization with tight leadership structures and command and control, or is it an idea that takes harbor in the hearts and souls of disenfranchised or disillusioned young men and women seeking some greater meaning to their lives? Over time, the importance of these two schools of general thought has waxed and waned with various academics, authors, pundits and practitioners alternatively concluding the importance of one over the other largely depending on the nature of the latest plot to be disrupted. Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qaeda since 9/11 by Seth Jones and The al Qaeda Factor: Plots Against the West by Mitchell D. Silber offer different insights into this question, while reaching largely similar conclusions about what al-Qaeda is and how it has targeted the West.

Both of these books were published over a decade after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington bloodily thrust al-Qaeda into the public consciousness, meaning they are able to look back at a considerable amount of data. While Jones’ is the more narratively satisfying book, telling a story of al Qaeda around the world, there are omissions in the text that reflect its heavy American focus. Silber’s, on the other hand, is a case-by-case analysis that lacks a narrative storyline, but the accounts of the plots in question are drawn from primary sources that make them some of the most factually accurate versions yet told of the various plots, and bring new and interesting insights useful to analysts and researchers.

Gathering information from court documents, press, personal experience, and interviews the books focus on two different theses that ultimately reach the same goal. Silber sets out to find, “what is the “al Qaeda factor” in plots against the West?” For Jones, the central question is “what factors have caused al Qaeda waves and reverse waves?” “Waves” are “surges in terrorist violence” and “reverse waves” are “decreases in terrorist activity.” The underlying aim of both is to understand how it is that al-Qaeda has targeted the West, and to what degree we can ascribe responsibility to the core organization.

Silber argues that there is a distinction to be drawn between those plots he characterizes as “al-Qaeda command and control,” “al-Qaeda suggested/endorsed,” and “al Qaeda inspired.” As the definitions quite clearly imply, in each case there is some semblance of a connection to al-Qaeda or its ideas, but there is a distinct difference between the cases in which individuals sitting in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have provided direction, and those in which individuals internalized al-Qaeda ideas to try to carry out plots (or al-Qaeda-like ideas, given the inclusion of the 1993 attempt by Ramzi Yousef to bring down the World Trade Center, something he did after having been trained in Afghanistan and having plotted with his uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but prior to Mohammed’s swearing of bayat (allegiance) to bin Laden). The end result, however, of all three types is the same: a plot, or attempted plot, to attack the West in support of al-Qaeda’s ideology. The cases offered are a laundry list of some of the most prominent plots targeting Europe, North America and Australia.

Jones’ thesis is instead that al-Qaeda’s violence has come in waves, the product of more or less intense and effective focus by counterterrorism forces. Identifying three key prongs to an effective counterterrorism strategy – a light military footprint, helping local regimes and authorities in their counterterrorism efforts, and exploiting al Qaeda’s tendency to massacre civilians – Jones draws upon events in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, and Yemen, as well as al-Qaeda plots in America, Spain and the United Kingdom, to map out how these waves have crested and broken against determined counterterrorism efforts.

Al-Qaeda’s ability to shoot itself in the foot, as in the wholesale butchery by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), is highlighted as an example of where the group goes too far and causes a local resurgence from which American forces were able to profit. It also serves to highlight how al-Qaeda Central can lose control of affiliates and suffer as a result. AQI’s butchery not only appalled the general public, but it also led a number of scholars to write about the group’s brutality and the numbers of Muslims that it wantonly killed whilst claiming to be targeting the West.

Here we can see how the organization would have liked to have tighter control, but was unable to maintain it. As the ideas it has been advancing take root, they increasingly find themselves being used by groups that take them in directions that detract from the original strategy of using terrorist attacks to stimulate the broader ummah into rising up. In some cases, like the Madrid bombings of 2004, the inspiration approach seems to work, as a group loosely connected to — but not directed by — al-Qaeda managed to carry out a successful attack on the West. In Iraq, on the other hand, where a local affiliate became too bloodthirsty, massacres of civilians led to the “Anbar Awakening” against al-Qaeda.

While al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is not the focus of attention in either book, he lingers as a background presence, his letters and writings surfacing as he tries to assert authority over the network he has created. In Jones’ book we see others in the organization finding his leadership somewhat lacking. Jones quotes a letter in which top al-Qaeda operative Saif al-Adl expresses anger to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed about how Osama “‘had failed to develop a cogent strategy for what would happen after the September 11 attacks.” In Silber’s text, bin Laden features even less, mentioned only as being aware of the 9/11 attacks (though plotting is described as being led by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) and as meeting with some of the members of the ‘Lackawanna Cluster,’ a group of Yemeni-Americans who prior to 9/11 travelled to Afghanistan and trained at al-Qaeda camps. Some of these young men heard bin Laden speak, and soon afterwards concluded they were not interested in doing any more training.

One of them, Sahim Alwan, was invited to speak to bin Laden directly, and the al-Qaeda leader asked why he was leaving and more generally about what Muslims in America were like. But, as Silber points out, while this presented an opportunity for the group to recruit the men, “it did not happen.” Both authors conclude that bin Laden was important primarily as a figurehead. As Silber writes towards the end: “regardless of the nature of his precise operational role in the organization, in the ten years since 9/11, he had become a legendary and mythical source of inspiration to individuals in the West who aspired to join his movement, regardless of whether they were in London, New York, Toronto or Madrid.”

But the larger figures in these books are the operational leaders underneath bin Laden. Coming from authors with deep involvement in American counter-terrorism efforts, the books are highly tactical in their approaches. Silber’s is written from the perspective of a man who has spent many years tracking al-Qaeda’s threat to New York as Director of Intelligence Analysis for the NYPD, while Jones writes as a researcher at RAND, drawing heavily on interviews with key players from the American counter-terrorism community, including Bruce Hoffman, Philip Mudd, Art Cummings, and John Negroponte.

Both authors conclude that al-Qaeda Central has tried and failed repeatedly over the years to launch attacks against the West. September 11 was a thundering success in this regard, but since then, while we have seen surges of terrorist violence around the world linked to al-Qaeda affiliates, the core organization’s ability to effectively launch attacks has clearly been stymied by effective counterterrorism efforts. Heavy pressure means less time for people to be trained properly, and this means less effective operators and a reduced capacity to attack.

And while the spread of extremist ideas is important, it is not always going to produce great cells. While the Madrid group or the Hofstad Cell in Holland were reasonably productive cells that connected with peripheral al-Qaeda figures and led to results like the Madrid bombings or the murder of Theo van Gogh that impressed al-Qaeda, the Duka family in New Jersey or Russell Defreitas in New York (both highlighted in Jones’ text) produced half-baked plots like the effort to blow up the fuel pipeline to JFK airport with no proper training that are hardly the sort of activity that al-Qaeda would want to be associated with.

Both books are useful in painting a methodical picture of how al-Qaeda has tried to attack the West, but where they are maybe less effective is in identifying how it is that these individuals can be prevented from ever going down the path of seeking meaning in al Qaeda’s ideas. Jones does suggest finding ways to exploit the inconsistencies in al-Qaeda’s narrative in order to undermine their capacity to recruit, but the fact is that more than a decade since the group’s official creation, people are still being drawn to the flame. This suggests that we have still not figured out how to offer an appealing alternative narrative, and that the ideas that al-Qaeda advances are still able to draw recruits.

Jones’s Hunting in the Shadows could be described as an official history of sorts of al-Qaeda from the U.S. government perspective. This makes it a different beast to Silber’s The Al Qaeda Factor, in which a much more coldly analytical process draws a clear conclusion about the ‘al Qaeda factor’ in various terrorist plots.

Jones and Silber both conclude that it is becoming ever harder for al-Qaeda to effectively connect with and re-direct these recruits back home to carry out terrorist plots. Taking this conclusion a step further, we may assume that over time this sort of pressure will wear the network down. But if they are able to harness individuals drawn to them more effectively and enable a further wave of terrorist violence, the al-Qaeda ideology may survive longer. The solution advanced in both of these books, and echoed by the U.S. counterterrorism community, is to maintain heavy pressure through drone strikes as well as support to the host governments, and continue to focus on disrupting the groups’ capability to launch attacks on the West.

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

Am catching up a bit on late posting as have been rather busy of late, so a few coming in late. Here is a piece for the 东方早报 (Oriental Morning Post) about Syria. Takes a somewhat negative view which may be finally slipping into the past (and I had previously elaborated in a letter to the Financial Times and for CNN), but at the same time, it is hard to see rapid action taking place any time soon. As usual, I have posted the Chinese above, and the English I initially submitted below.


潘睿凡   英国伦敦国际激进主义化   研究中心副研究员









目前我们还不清楚叙利亚冲突将会行至多远。任何一天都有可能发生某种巨大变化,比如阿萨德被击毙,或者政府军决定采用化学武器。但是此刻,暴力正在残酷上演,而其他国家只是在利用代理人推进自己的利益,从而导致情况进一步恶化,叙利亚人认为自己已经被国际社会抛弃。这是一出我们曾多次经历过的故事,而最终结局总是大家各收恶果。简单地等待其自我结束也许要很多年,而且只会令恢复期拖得更长。(李鸣燕 译)

Syria’s Worsening Conflict

As we enter the 20th month of fighting in Syria, it is clear the situation is only deteriorating. Violence is increasingly spilling across borders, radical groups in the country are becoming better armed and more extreme, while atrocities by both sides continue unabated. And while this internal chaos continues to worsen, the international community stands by, with everyone supporting their respective proxies under the table. The result is a stalemate that is going to incubate problems that will haunt the world for years to come.

First, let us look at how the situation is deteriorating. From a low level civil conflict in which an overbearing government was trying to hold onto power using relatively limited force, we have now degenerated into a conflict in which increasingly brutal acts are being carried out by both sides. The government has taken to using cluster bomb munitions in cities as part of a heavy airborne bombing campaign that punishes rebel held areas, regardless of the possible civilian presence. From the rebel’s perspective, extremist factions within the confusing coalition that makes up the opposition have taken to releasing videos in which they coldly execute captured government prisoners, others in which they show prisoners who have been tortured and suicide bombers are no longer a rarity. And as the fighting drags on, both sides become better at carrying out such acts and surviving in such a brutal environment, further prolonging and rendering more gruesome the conflict.

But more menacing to the world than this internal escalation is the increasing evidence of regional overspill taking place. There are stories of the Syrian government supporting PKK rebels in Turkey in revenge for Turkey’s support of rebels inside Syria. It has been reported, with apparent documentary support, that Syrian forces may have executed a captured Turkish pilot whose plane was brought down by their air defense system. More clear than either of these stories was the shooting earlier this month of a missile from Syria into Turkey, killing five Turks. Turkey, a key staging post for rebels going into Syria, has struck back in different ways. Aside from continuing to allow its territory to be a conduit for rebels and the weapons, they have also acted to intercept supplies being shipped in to support the government, something that has angered both the Syrian government and their Russian suppliers.

Within Syria itself, these proxy dynamics continue, with Iranian forces and their Lebanese and Iraqi proxies mobilizing in support of the Assad regime. Facing off against them are rebel groups supported by Gulf Arab money, with recent reports highlighting that a high proportion of the weapons being provided to the rebels were ending up in the hands of jihadist factions whose vision is less focused on simply freeing the country from Assad than the creation of a shariah governed caliphate. Exactly the sort of ideology that drives groups like al Qaeda, as the old dynamic of Gulf money supporting Sunni extremists plays against the Shiite supported Iranian-Syrian coalition.

And so we have all the ingredients necessary for a toxic swamp. A sectarian conflict (let us not forget that at heart Syria is a struggle between an Alawite minority and the Sunni Arab majority they have brutally ruled over for decades), with the religious overtones of the never-ending Sunni-Shia struggle, that has increasingly become a staging ground for other powers to play out their proxy games.
This is a sad mess we have seen before: back in the 1990s, as Yugoslavia fell apart, a very similar dynamic played itself out with many of the same actors. The result was the creation of a jihadist battlefield in the middle of Europe that produced a number of terrorist cells and the creation of a pariah state – Serbia – that sits alone in the middle of the continent to this day. Eventually the outside world did step into that conflict, but by that time it was far too late and the scars will still take years to heal.

But rapid intervention can also have negative repercussions. At Britain and France’s instigation, NATO deployed relatively rapidly in Libya to support the rebellion against Colonel Gadhaffi. And while the end result was his deposition and the creation of a free government, it is clear that extremist factions have established themselves in the country and the transition will not be as clean as many hoped. There is some light at the end of this tunnel, however, as a public outcry against the groups has already started to build, suggesting that the picture remains a complex one with many in the country rejecting the extremist’s message. While it is too early to say, it is possible that the more rapid resolution of events in Libya left the nation less brutalized and prone to extremism.

The problem with Syria is that the longer the stalemate drags on, the more powerful these extremist groups become and the deeper becomes the hatred between the various factions. As more and more atrocities are committed and people killed, the harder it becomes to reconcile later when the country is being brought back together. This leads to a balkanization within the country with different areas ruled by different groups, a state of affairs that incubates problems for decades to come.

It is not clear how far along in the Syrian conflict we are at this point or how much longer it has to run. Any day a sudden shift could take place if Bashar al Assad was killed or the government chose to deploy chemical weapons. But at the moment it grinds brutally on with others advancing their interests by proxy and further worsening a situation while the people of Syria feel abandoned by the international community. This is a story we have seen played out many times before, and the end result is always further problems for everyone else down the road. Simply waiting for it to burn out can take years and will only make the recovery period longer. We have already let things run too long to avoid any subsequent negative repercussions, let us not continue to make this mistake for too much longer.

A brief letter in the Financial Times, in reaction to this op-ed in the paper. I have a longer piece focused on what I am talking about landing soon, I think the issue of fighters going to Syria is something which is only going to increase over time.

When the moral card fails it’s time to get personal

From Mr Raffaello Pantucci.

Sir, Rhonda Roumani’s emotional appeal to regional states to muster western support to end the lethal stalemate in Syria pulls at heartstrings that have been tugged into numbness (“A conflict that is staining the conscience of the world”, October 15). As we enter the 20th month of fighting with little sign of much active western intervention, it is abundantly clear that such emotive appeals are not the solution. A more pragmatic line must be taken.

The key is to remind people of what happened in Bosnia in the 1990s, where a civil war developed into a proxy struggle with Iranian, Saudi, Russian and western proxies sniping on the ground while a sectarian conflict gradually adopted greater religious overtones. The net result of Bosnia was to create a cauldron into which religious extremists could pour their ideas and ply their trade – to come back to plague leaders across the world in the form of a network of extremists connected to al-Qaeda and its extremist ideas. All sides came out worse than they went in, with even Iran and Saudi Arabia ultimately suffering from the resurgent extremist feeling that they helped stoke.

The point is that as Syria continues to drag on, we are increasingly seeing a similar dynamic play out on the ground. No resolution one way or the other only proves to extremists that the narrative they believe is true, and stokes fires that will invariably come back to haunt us. This quite blunt practical reality is the key to persuading people that more must be done. The moral card has been played already and has quite clearly been ignored. Appeal to people’s sense of personal security and you might be able to get through.

Raffaello Pantucci, Associate Fellow, International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College London, UK