Posts Tagged ‘algeria’

A longer piece that I wrote a little while ago that is testimony I offered to the British Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, but has only been published now. It explores the threat in relation to the UK and how British interests are affected by what is happening in the evolution of terrorism in North and West Africa. It may re-emerge in parts in a future RUSI piece I have been working on, but for the time being here we go. The title is not of my choosing, but was the one offered by the call for submissions.

The UK’s Response to Extremism and Political instability in North and West Africa

Written evidence from Raffaello Pantucci Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

1. The threat of North African terrorism to UK interests at home and overseas is not new to the British Security and Intelligence Agencies (SIA). Recent events, however, have highlighted how the threat has evolved and in particular how this threat might express itself back to the United Kingdom or as a threat to national interests abroad.

2. As the more general threat from Al-Qa’ida terrorism has disaggregated and diversified, the particular menace from North and West African has developed into a higher profile priority. All of this poses a problem for the SIA who have limited resources that had focused on other parts of the globe.

3. With North Africa in particular, the Prime Minister staked out a particular rhetoric in the wake of the terrorist incident at In Amenas when he told parliament ‘we face a large and existential terrorist threat from a group of extremists based in different parts of the world who want to do the biggest possible amount of damage to our interests and way of life…. those extremists thrive when they have ungoverned spaces in which they can exist, build and plan.’ [1] But what exactly is the threat to the United Kingdom from networks in North Africa that have so far not presented a clear and present danger to British domestic interests? Moreover, how does this feed into the larger picture of the terrorist threat faced by the country?

The Threat Back Home

4. In the years immediately after 11 September 2001, British security forces were less concerned about the threat from South Asia than about Algerian terrorist networks operating or present in the UK in cities like London, Manchester and Birmingham.

5. This concern was premised on an expectation that these networks were closely aligned to Al-Qa’ida ideologically and that individuals from these groups had formative experience and expertise from undertaking jihad in Afghanistan and/or Bosnia. As such, British security services were monitoring a number of North Africans living in the UK, including Amar Makhlulif – also known as Abu Doha – Rachid Ramda and Rabah Kadre. Abu Doha was believed to be a key figure in a network of plots that stretched across Europe, North America and as far as the Khalden training camp in Afghanistan. He was also connected to fellow Algerian Ahmed Ressam who was intercepted on 14 December 1999, headed from Canada to detonate a device at Los AngelesInternationalAirport to mark the millennium. Abu Doha also knew Rachid Ramda and Rabah Kadre, both of whom were extradited to France where they were convicted for their involvement in terror plots in France with links to Algerian networks. [2]

6. All of these men used to frequent the community established by Abu Hamza Al-Masri at the Finsbury Park Mosque in North London. This was a place where Al-Qa’ida-linked recruiters would operate and which Kamel Bourgass used as a postal address and photocopy shop for his poison recipes. Linked to a broader network of Algerians, Bourgass went on to murder DC Stephen Oake and was convicted of plotting to carry out a terrorist incident involving ricin. Whether he was directly connected to Al-Qa’ida remains unclear, though it is evident that he was involved in Algerian networks that had supported fighters from the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) and the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC). Whilst his ultimate targets and aims –and even, possibly, his name – have never been definitely clarified, the plot and the network around him seemed to indicate that the threat to the UK from Al-Qa’ida networks was most likely to emanate from the North African community that gravitated around Abu Hamza’s Finsbury Park Mosque.

7. Beyond Algerians, post-2001 the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), another North African group, were certainly part of the UK threat environment as were other Islamist organizations with their roots in Algeria and Tunisia (En Nada for example). However, threats did not appear to materialize from these groups in the same way as from the Algerian community.

8. This profile was turned on its head when just over a year after Stephen Oake’s murder, when a cell known by their police codename ‘Crevice’, was arrested as part of a plot within the UK. They hailed mostly (though not exclusively) from second-generation Southern Asian backgrounds, and had close connections to British extremist groups like Al-Muhajiroun, as well as to Abu Hamza’s Finsbury Park Mosque. Operation Crevice and a number of cells connected to it highlighted the way in which elements mostly from Britain’s South Asian community had made connections directly to Al-Qa’ida. While the connection was not exclusively South Asian by any means, they constituted the largest group involved in the networks in the UK and the connection to Afghanistan and Pakistan became an intelligence focus.

Diversification

9. As time has passed the threat has adapted. As Jonathan Evans, the director-general of the Security Service put it last June, ‘whereas a few years ago 75% of the priority casework addressed by my Service had some sort of Pakistan and/or Afghanistan dimension, thanks to our efforts and those of our international partners that figure has reduced and now stands at less than 50%. We appear to be moving from a period of deep and focused threat to one where the threat is less monolithic but wider. Al-Qa’ida affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel have become more dangerous as Al-Qa’ida in Pakistan has declined and we see increasing levels of co-operation between Al-Qa’ida groups in various parts of the world.’[3]

10. The nature of these foreign battlefields and their draw to Britons has also changed. The numbers may be small, but the flow of Western individuals drawn to participate in fighting abroad has continued unabated. In the case of North Africa and the Sahel in particular, it is not clear how many British citizens have traveled to the fight there. There is already one reported instance of a young Briton trying to walk across the Sahara from Mauritania to Mali, and it is unlikely that he is the only one. [4] In Libya, a number of British residents and nationals of Libyan descent returned to fight alongside the rebels, though most seemed drawn by a nationalist, rather than a jihadist, narrative. And it is likely that some vestige of the previous connection between Algeria and groups in the UK continues to exist. But so far, none of this has translated into a direct threat of terrorism in the UK.

11. The most prominent international terrorist network in North Africa, Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has singled out the UK for direct punishment in its rhetoric only a few times. These threats have for the most part been connected to Abu Qatada – also known as Omar Mahmoud Othman – the radical cleric currently in British detention facing extradition to Jordan for his alleged role in terrorist plots in the country. [5] On 22 January 2009, for example, an AQIM cell snatched a group of tourists that included British national Edwin Dyer, and while Swiss and German nationals taken with Dyer were eventually released, Dyer was brutally executed in late May 2009 after the group made repeated statements demanding the British government pay a ransom and release Abu Qatada. In April 2012, the group repeated this request when they demanded Britain release the cleric and send him to an ‘Arab Spring’ country in exchange for Stephen Malcolm, a dual British-South African national who was snatched by the group in November 2011.

12. In contrast, France has some fifteen nationals currently being held by various groups in the Sahel, [6] alongside an unspecified number of nationals or residents fighting alongside the various Islamist networks operating in the region. On 5 February, French security forces arrested four people on the outskirts of Paris for their association with a network sending fighters to join AQIM. The four were linked to Cedric Lobo, a twenty-seven-year old social worker arrested in Niamey, Niger for trying to join the fighters in Timbuktu. This was merely one in a number of investigations the French are undertaking as they try to get a handle on the connections between North African jihadists and other networks at home.

13. However, while there are networks in North Africa with tentacles back in Europe, it is not currently clear that these groups have either the capacity or intention to use them to launch attacks. In fact, the far more likely impact might continue to revolve around regional incidents in which foreigners are targeted as a means of gaining attention and as reprisals for Western involvement in northern Mali. These are not likely to be on the scale of In Amenas, but more along the lines of kidnappings or the targeting of Western corporate interests. Of particular concern in this regard are Mali’s neighbours Niger and Mauritania. Niger in particular appears to be in the cross-hairs with a number of alarming incidents of late, including the double suicide attack in late May in which bombers targeted a military base in Agadez and a French run (the company Areva) uranium mine in Arlit, killing 21 people. The attack was claimed by the potentially resurrected MokhtarBelmokhtar’s ‘Signed in Blood Battalion’ that was also responsible for the In Amenas incident. [7]

14. Moreover, following the 2011 intervention in Libya, a new area of instability has opened up with a growing menace also posed by training camps in the lawless southern parts of the country. A further threat is apparent in Benghazi, where Western interests have been repeatedly targeted, including the assault on the British ambassador in June 2012 and the death of the American ambassador Christopher Stevens in September 2012. These particular dangers have resulted in the issuance of a number of alerts by the Foreign Office advising against travel to the city by British nationals.

15. But potential regional repercussions may stretch beyond the immediate borders of Mali and the Sahel. There have been reports of Nigerian extremists training at camps in Timbuktu, and Boko Haram leader, AbubakarShekaku, was believed to have been spotted in Gao in mid-January. Reflecting potential concern from this link, in January, France issued an alert to its citizens in northern Nigeria and those living around Abuja fearing potential reprisals for French action in Mali. Again, there is potential evidence that the Boko Haram link may have stretched into Niger with a recent incident at a prison in Niamey allegedly involving Boko Haram prisoners who were trying to escape and had managed to arm themselves with guns. [8]

16. Indeed, the connection between Nigerian Islamists and Sahel-based groups seems to be more than occasional, and in December 2011 a group calling itself ‘Al-Qa’ida in the Land Beyond the Sahel’ – a group that seems likely to have been a precursor of sorts of the Boko Haram splinter group Ansaru – claimed to be holding British national Chris McManus who had been snatched in Birnin-Kebbi, northwest Nigeria. In March 2012, British Special Forces mounted an assault to save Mr McManus and fellow hostage Italian national Franco Lamolinara, an incident that ended with the deaths of numerous captors including the two Europeans. This sort of kidnapping was repeated again in February 2013, when a group of British, Italian, Greek and Lebanese nationals were snatched from a construction site in northwestern Nigeria, and then soon after the seizing of a French family of seven in northern Cameroon. The first incident was believed to be linked to Ansaru, with the group claiming responsibility and who later executed the prisoners on the basis of a claimed visible British support for the government in Nigeria. Responsibility for the second incident remains unclear though appears to fall to elements close to Boko Haram, and the group was ultimately released unharmed in April 2013, two months after their abduction. The danger to such individuals and companies is clearly going to increase in the near future in the broader region, though again, this keeps the threat at a regional, rather than international level.

17. The resolution of these two kidnappings highlights the particular danger, however, from groups that are espousing a globalist jihadist rhetoric. While Boko Haram appears willing to have negotiated the release of the group, Ansaru chose instead to execute its hostages. This poses a serious consideration for governments and companies operating in the region. Hostage negotiations that can be concluded peacefully, involving exchanges of money or something else, are one issue. If on the other hand, as it increasingly seems likely with Ansaru, the group is seeking to make a point – then the insurance costs and willingness of individuals to work in areas where the group is active will increase. Fortunately, thus far incidents of kidnapping by such groups remain relatively few in number, however, this shift in methodology requires close attention given the potential implication to foreign interests investing money and materiel into the region.

Recommendations

18. While the prime minister may have struck a dramatic tone when he spoke of ‘existential’ and ‘generational’ struggle, the underlying problems have long tails. A pragmatic British counter-terrorism response needs to focus on a number of aspects that strike the balance between protecting national interest and political realities at home. The British public – and most other Western publics and governments – will no longer support long-term heavy military engagement in foreign nations from where the direct threat to their country seems opaque. The result must be a light-footprint approach focused on training to develop local capacity and on understanding how the threat is set to develop. In the longer term, this would involve a clear focused on stabilization and development that will help resolve age-old regional disputes, and in turn reduce the space available for Islamist groups to move in. [9]

19. More practically and immediately, such an approach should seek to:

Strengthen and Develop Local Links

The Prime Minister’s visit to Algeria and Libya is an example of how this approach should work in practice: developing strong links to local security forces and bolstering their capacity to address domestic issues through the provision of training and equipment. Going forwards, training future leadership cadres in regional militaries will have the added bonus of allowing for the early development of strong local contacts.

20. Help Foster Stronger Regional Connections and Develop Border Security

The lessons of In Amenas and the subsequent incidents that have been seen across the region is that terrorist networks in this region are highly mobile and adaptable, and are able to slip back and forth across porous borders. Helping foster greater regional co-operation and interaction is therefore essential in countering these groups’ ability to act. Developing regional confidence-building measures and brokering regular interactions between regional security forces will help cross-border governmental relationships develop into effective counter-terrorist tools.

21. Improve British Regional Intelligence Capacity

British foreign intelligence capacity, and in particular defence intelligence, has been shrunk in recent years. This poses a problem when the armed forces are asked to deploy in previously uncovered parts of the world. Developing and maintaining this capacity across the board in at-risk regions will be crucial in identifying future threats, as well as understanding them better when incidents occur. How DIS and other SIA collaborate in sharing intelligence and pre-empting threats is also a point to consider

22. Develop a Deeper Understanding of the Threat These Groups Pose and How They Connect Together

International terrorism is no longer the monolith it was in the period immediately after 11 September 2001. In order to continue to counter it, it is crucial that we understand the various groups and sub-groups involved, their nature and aims, their complexity and how they relate to, and communicate with, each other. By better understanding these relationships, it will also be easier to develop counter-strategies that focus on identifying fissures between groups and ways of pulling them apart.

23. Recognising the role of local communities

The growing priority and focus placed upon North and West Africa in counter-terrorism terms requires a parallel push in Prevent terms. Prevent – the forward looking aspect of counter-terrorism that seeks to stop people from adopting radical narratives – policy will play a key role in ensuring that Britain’s North and West African communities understand British foreign policy in the region and feel that their views in turn are being heard and understood. If engaged with positively, they can play a key role in protecting Britain’s interests. Without robust counter-narrative work and effective CT-informed community policing, there is a risk that the issue of the ‘home grown’ South Asian terrorism of 2005 onwards will be witnessed again in the North and West African community.

24. Yet all of this presents a further potential long-term problem: that of how the UK should balance a strategy of encouraging local people to deal with local problems whilst guaranteeing that human rights and due process are observed (support for which governments might undermine efforts at engaging with local communities in the UK). The foreign secretary highlighted this problem during a speech at RUSI on 14 February 2013, observing that alliances of convenience based on a common threat perception can lead to political backlash that can also inflame the very narrative they seek to address. The answer to this is unclear, and is likely to be found in a pragmatic approach that ensures that certain red lines are not crossed by British authorities, while also recognising that allies using methods that Britain may disapprove of may end up turning up information that helps to address the threat. As such, efforts should be made to train local authorities in improving their methods and agencies should be proactive in advancing this perspective; simply cutting off contact is not a workable response.

Conclusion

25. The time in which threats abroad could be seen as detached from threats at home has passed. Terrorist networks in North Africa may have difficulty reaching Britain’s streets, but the potential for such groups to threaten British nationals and interests overseas is high, and the intent to strike in the UK continues to lurk in the background of their rhetoric. The region is rich in energy and other commodities that make it a key target for a range of groups. Regional instability is set to result in upward pressure on energy prices and other commodities sourced from the region, something that will have a direct economic impact on the UK.

26. The British government’s current response focuses on intelligence co-operation and local capacity-building as a means of countering the threat posed by such groups. However, countries in the region have very different abilities to address such problems at present. The reality is that groups like AQIM, Ansar Dine, Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), Signed in Blood Battalion,Ansaru and Boko Haram operate in a territory that is almost the size of Europe. Groups in northern Mali in particular have strong smuggling and nomadic traditions, making them adept at slipping back and forth across porous desert borders. None of this is new to foreign security services, which have increasingly come to view AQIM as a criminal-terrorist network focused on drugs and smuggling rather than on perpetrating international terrorist attacks.

27. Furthermore, nations in the Sahel in particular lack the capacity to implement long-term strategies to counter the underlying issues that facilitate recruitment into terrorist groups. Establishing ‘Prevent’ and ‘Combating Violent Extremism’-style programmes in these countries will be important, but is something that is currently hard to envisage. The focus at present is on countering immediate threats, and clamping down on emerging crises, rather than on a long-term vision for dealing with national issues whose roots are deep.

28. The threat to the UK remains offshore. However, it is not impossible, for example, to imagine a group or individual deciding, without direction, to launch an attack within British borders, or elsewhere within Europe with links to the region. Fed off a diet of grim images from Mali, radical messages online and a perception that the British government is complicit in the deaths of Muslims abroad, a group or individual might decide to launch a lone actor-style operation. But there are many potential sources of motivation for such an incident, and this would not necessarily have to be linked to North Africa.

29. Additional to this, the danger exists that British jihadists may start to see the region as an alternate battlefield where they can receive training. There is already some evidence of this shift at least in notional terms. In a plot disrupted in April 2012 in Luton – a group who later pled guilty to plotting to carry out a terrorist attack and training – spoke in January 2011 of potentially going to join al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) as an alternative to going to Pakistan. The group were ultimately able to make some connections in Pakistan, but had they not, the Sahel may have been an alternative for them. While Syria currently offers a more tempting and active battlefield for aspirant British jihadists, given the ongoing British connections to Libya and opportunities offered in the broader Sahel, it is possible that more individuals may choose this path.

30. It is also possible that groups in North Africa decide to launch an incident themselves, or that their networks come to be directed by individuals with a more aggressively anti-Western agenda. Again, both scenarios are possible, but the absence, so far, of any evidence of plotting, or indeed of anything more than rhetorical intent against the West, suggests that, at present, this threat seems distant. This might abruptly change in the future, but the tipping point is hard to judge in every case.

31. If the dynamics of conflict and instability continues, flow of refugees from the area also may provide AQIM or other groups with an opportunity to send operatives to Europe and the UK.

32. More likely, trouble will continue to brew in North Africa, with the periodic targeting of foreign interests continuing to be used as a means to attract attention, as well as to punish the West for its involvement in Mali and elsewhere. That the problem remains regional does not preclude the need for a response, however, as simply ignoring it will not make it go away and indeed will simply store up problems that will need to be confronted later. The current impasse faced by Europe is the direct result both of years of neglect of the problem, and of the fall of a number of authoritarian regimes in North Africa. To step back from North and West Africa now could provide an opportunity for Al-Qa’ida affiliates to establish themselves in a region closer to Europe than ever before.

NOTES


[1] David Cameron to parliament, 18 January 2013, < http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmhansrd/cm130118/debtext/130118-0001.htm >, accessed 26 February 2013.

[2] These men were not the only ones; others included DjamelBeghal and KamelDaoudi , a pair who belonged to London’s Algerian community before they were extradited to France (from Dubai and London respectively), where they were convicted for their roles in planning an attack on the American Embassy in Paris.

[3] Jonathan Evans, Address at the Lord Mayor’s Annual Defence and Security Lecture, Mansion House, City of London , 25 June 2012.

[4]

[5] Within this context it is worth noting that Abu Qatada used to boast to British intelligence services of his hold over Britain ’s radical Algerian community. He claimed to be able to rein in any potentially negative repercussions that might occur as a result of the extradition of Rashid Ramda . See Special Immigration Appeals Commission, AQ v Secretary of State for the Home Department, Open judgment before the Honorable Mr Justice Collins, [2004] UKSIAC 15/2002, 8 March 2004.

[6] Lori Hinnant , ‘Why Are So Many French Held by al- Qaida?’ , Associated Press , 21 February 2013.

[7] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-22654584

[8] http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/niger-official-boko-haram-prisoners-tried-to-escape-from-niamey-jail-killed-2-guards/2013/06/02/6b25b6b8-cb78-11e2-8573-3baeea6a2647_story.html

[9] This is apart from the Prime Minister’s recent statements about increasing the volume of DfID’s budget that is used for peace and stability operations.

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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

ALGERIA-MALI-CONFLICT

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.

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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.

A new post for Free Rad!cals, looking at the recently concluded investigation in the UK by the independent reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation that looked into the case of a group of “environment cleaners” who were picked up ahead of the Pope’s visit to London. The investigation has thrown up some interesting information about the case, but more broadly some questions about these sorts of investigations. In many ways a very similar piece to the last reviewer’s investigation into Pathway, but the information that has been revealed this time shows more about policing tactics than the intelligence behind them which was the focus of the last one.

Operation Gird – Counter-Terrorism Policing in Tense Times

The new Independent Reviewer for Terrorism Legislation David Anderson QC has published his first review of counter-terrorism legislation, conducting a full inquiry into the case of six street cleaners working in London who were arrested on the eve of the Pope’s visit to London in September of last year. The report exonerates the police concluding, “I consider that the police acted responsibly and within the law in arresting the six men when they did.”

The report lays out in detail the evidential case behind the police decision to arrest the men. Apparently, at 4:30pm in the afternoon on September 16th, the day before the Pope’s visit to the UK, police received a tip off from an unnamed source who told them that they had overheard five of the men “talking about a possible attack on the Pope’s vehicle on the following day.” The source’s information is summarized thus:

· The five men were looking at a picture in the Metro newspaper of the Pope’s motor vehicle.

· They discussed a recent incident where the Koran was burnt and stated that a Christian should be killed for every page that was damaged.

· The view was expressed that whilst the Pope’s vehicle was protected, it could be stopped and that even if he survived, those around him would die.

· Comments were made to the effect that it would be wonderful if the Pope was killed and that there were virgins waiting for them.

· The men could all be working on the day of the Pope’s visit to London.

· The depot had recently taken delivery of new uniforms, ten of which had been stolen.

Additionally, police were told that ‘a close associate of one of the men’ was arrested and released under terrorism legislation some 3-4 months previously. Somewhat more speculatively, one of the men was reported to have recently returned from Paris (one of the men, a 26 year-old, held dual Algerian and French nationality, though it is unclear if this is the man that is referred to), with his head shaven ‘and to have become radicalised.’ Background checks on the men revealed one of them shared a name with an individual who had been arrested and then released during the course of the investigation into the Madrid bombings. The five men under suspicion were aged between 26 and 44, all worked for Veolia Environment Services, and were all of Algerian descent except for one who was Sudanese. The Algerians were all either married to European’s or held European citizenships as well – one British, one Spanish and another French.

After the decision was made to arrest the men in the morning, a sixth man (Subject F) described ‘as being a friend of the suspects’ arrived to the company HQ later in the day and became agitated saying ‘I’m not working now. Does everyone think we’re fucking terrorists? They’re treating us like animals with our hands on our heads.’ He then stormed off. The same person who reported this statement also said that he recalled Subject F requesting to work on the Pope’s route during the visit. Investigation into the company’s files uncovered that a number of men had requested to work together on the Pope’s visit and that a couple had taken holiday time at the same time.

All of which would I suppose paint an incriminating picture to a suspicious mind. It is worth remembering that at the time, security in the UK and Europe was on high alert after the information came out of Afghanistan/Pakistan that cells of Europeans had been activated to carry out Mumbai-style terrorist operations. Cells were swept up in Germany, France and Denmark – in some cases turning up weapons. Plotters had not yet emerged in the UK, though a report from Waziristan pointed to an individual allegedly called Abdul Jabber who was tasked to establish an al Qaeda cell in the UK. He was apparently killed in a drone strike. Another element to emerge at around this time was that a Norwegian-Uighur who was allegedly plotting something in Oslo was found to have in his possession a photo of Ibrahim Adam, a brother to Anthony Garcia, aka Rahman Adam, one of the plotters linked to the Crevice cell. The passport-sized photos showed him in a variety of different haircuts and were taken as evidence that he was trying to obtain fake identification to get back into Europe to possibly carry out some sort of plot (possibly further darkening the picture, Adam was of Algerian descent, the family changed their names years before).

So within this context, it is easy to imagine why police would react as they did. It is a bit surprising that Mr. Anderson fails to mention all this, though he does highlight that the “requirement for reasonable suspicion” needs to “be kept firmly in mind by all forces during future operations….particularly in view of the security pressures that are likely to attend the forthcoming London Olympics.” This element seems to have been leapt upon by today’s Independent.

Nevertheless, it is worth taking a moment to cast a further skeptical eye over this case – the evidence for the plot appears to be single-sourced and not fitting with any other direct intelligence that the security services received. Mr. Anderson himself describes parts of it as “barely credible.” It may be understandable that the police reacted as they did given the context, but the operation will have done little to win them support amongst the Muslim community. As Subject F so eloquently put it, “does everyone think we’re fucking terrorists?” Doubtless, this experience has confirmed this to him and the others. For Subject E, a 27-year-old Sudanese man, the case concluded with it being discovered that he had had his application for asylum turned down and was currently operating using a false identity. According to the investigation “this has resulted in further action under the immigration laws.” One imagines this might include expulsion from the country, though I am uncertain of whether the UK can send people back to Sudan. None of which will endear HMG to him or his friends and family.

It remains unclear whether the chap who had returned from Paris “radicalized” with a shaved head was still a cause for concern, though I imagine he will remain on police radars. Unlike the previous Operation Pathway plot that has been linked to a series of plots in New York and Oslo and with key plotters back in Waziristan, this lot seems not to have had any serious links and their release back into society is likely going to do little to increase the terrorist threat. The fact that the Security Services (MI5, MI6 and GCHQ) did not feature in the investigation confirms that they were not involved and therefore did not have the intelligence.

Instead, it seems as though this was a case of a bad tip-off at a tense time, and hopefully lessons have been learned from this. It of course almost impossible to know to what degree this will have improved or worsened community relations – though doubtless it will be noted how loudly the arrests were reported and how quietly the report that declares “there is no reason to believe, with the benefit of hindsight, that any of the arrested men was involved in a plot to kill the Pope, or indeed that any such plot existed” was covered. But to blame the media is often a bit of a cheap shot, as ultimately, it only caters to the public’s desires and the discovery some people were innocent is less news grabbing than a dramatic arrest.

The purpose of this system of regulation with independent reviewers and inquests is intended to provide the citizenry with a way of watching the watchers. What might be perceived as being a problem, however, is that they continue to largely exonerate those they are overseeing. In the various investigations that have been carried out they continue to say the security services are doing a good job and that broadly speaking nothing is going wrong. Human mistakes are made and that is it. Now this may be the case, but in some cases one has to wonder about whether this might not be stoking further skepticism. Certainly with the Pathway lot, the absolute certainty with which everyone up to the Prime Minister claimed they were linked to al Qaeda was not supported by evidence that was subsequently released. I do not mean to doubt that the Pathway chaps were up to something (I have written a whole article detailing their supposed links to al Qaeda), but the problem of a presentational gap remains when no explosives or evidence of a bomb plot were actually found. In this case where six innocent men were swept up the cause seems to have been bad intelligence and a high level of background chatter.

Admittedly, it is unclear to what degree those who still doubt are a majority or whether it is merely conspiratorially minded obsessive’s or bereaved individuals for whom no comfort will be enough, but at the same time it is equally uncertain that the current structures the UK has set in place to watch the watchers are necessarily assuaging the concerns they set out to calm.

I have a couple of book reviews in the latest Terrorism and Political Violence journal. They seem to enjoy my reviews and I greatly enjoy reading, especially for a purpose like this. I have a few more in the pipeline. This first one looks at a book published in the UK called “Ricin!” by the former jury foreman and a journalist which focuses on the disrupted ricin plot from 2003. It was a very useful book from the perspective of understanding a specific plot better, though parts of its conclusions seem a little skewed. Some interesting insights into the Algerian community in London and the legal contortions that had to be gone into in this case. It also gives detail on the information that the Algerians passed on to the Brits when they picked up one of the Algerians who had run away from the UK. Quite a messy pile of intel by the looks of it and none of which was obtained using polite questions.

Unfortunately, the review can only be found behind a firewall here. I am asking the publisher if I can place it here, but in the meantime feel free to write if you are specifically interested.