Posts Tagged ‘Anwar al awlaki’

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.

Influencers

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.

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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).

A short article for a new outlet, this time an interesting student run website called E-International Relations. They contacted me looking for a piece, and I am always happy to write for places that ask nicely (well, within reason, at the moment am trying to avoid taking on new commitments as am desperately trying to catch up on myself). A somewhat larger strategic overlook at the terrorist threat that I hope to hear some reactions to.

Grinding Terrorist Networks Down in 2012

By  on February 26, 2012

In an age of persistent conflict, terrorism will continue to be a threat confronting governments. However, the nature of this threat is shifting and the question that has not been properly answered is whether we are seeing a threat that is finally in decline or continues to ascend.

The general tendency is to answer this question with a shrug of the shoulders and say the threat seems to have “plateaued” – in other words, the threat is persistent but seems not to be increasing in volume. But this response is less than satisfying for numerous reasons – not least because it attempts to put a standard answer on a threat that has diversified considerably in the past few years.

In some parts of Africa and Asia, while major strides have been made against the variety of terrorist organizations that come under the al Qaeda brand, or ascribe to a violent Islamist ideology, the groups have proven impressively resistant and refuse to be eradicated. There continues to be a steady patter of violence emanating from them as local forces, often with the support of western intelligence and military, mount operations targeting leaders and disrupting networks. While some pose a threat to the west, the majority poses a more direct threat to local international interests or local targets. For example, beyond the depressing list of attacks targeting local forces or civilians across Asia, the Middle East or Africa, the al Shabaab instigated plot in August 2009 to target American Secretary of State Hilary Clinton while she was visiting Kenya; al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s persistent targeting of western tourists or aid workers in North Africa; or the targeting of western hotels and tourist destinations in Southeast Asia by local Islamist networks. [1]

When looking instead at the direct threat in the west, outside directed networks continue to pose a threat with individuals and groups periodically disrupted with connections to Pakistan. But intelligence capacity (and electronic intercepts) has reached such a point that these networks are disrupted before they are able to move towards any operational capacity. Instead, we have seen the larger danger emanate from unaffiliated networks and individuals that self-radicalize and self-activate, loosely following what they believe to be the al Qaeda playbook. Often this is something that they have found in reading from the Internet or in the form of American-Yemeni preacher Anwar al Awlaki’s preaching or writing.

The result has been while we continue to see a steady stream of threats emanating from abroad, these have declined in number and quality. A certain volume of young men and women choose to go and join radical networks abroad, but few end up returning home (and often they are on security services radars). Heightened vigilance has also made it hard for external networks to penetrate the west, but nevertheless some are able to get through though so far they have been caught prior to being able to do anything. Instead, when terrorist plots or attacks are perpetrated, they tend to be from groups or individuals who are almost completely homegrown and auto-didactic in nature. For example, the loner Islamist plotters Arid Uka of Germany who shot two American servicemen as they waited to be taken to a flight in Frankfurt or Roshonara Choudhry who tried to stab a Member of Parliament Stephen Timms for his support of the Iraq war. Both were clearly inspired by ideas that could be described as spawned from al Qaeda, but neither was being directed by anyone in or near the organization. Similarly, the nine men convicted for a series of offenses in the United Kingdom early this year including attempting to leave an explosive device in the London Stock Exchange were not connected to al Qaeda, though they were involved in radical groups in the UK and had made moves towards establishing a terrorist training camp in Pakistan.

The quality and degree of threat posed by such groups and individuals is clearly of a different level than the group that perpetrated the July 7, 2005 bombing in London, the September 11, 2001 group or the plotters who planned in summer 2006 to bring down as many as eight airlines on transatlantic routes using ingeniously designed liquid bombs. There we saw groups trained abroad and then directed to conduct operations in the west using counter-surveillance techniques, coded emails and cleverly designed explosive devices. Close contact was maintained between the cell on the ground and operators abroad, highlighting the degree to which the plots can be described as al Qaeda directed. The newer wave display much less contact and much less operational guile and savvy. [2]

But what is to be read from this? Is the point that intelligence services have gotten so much better at detecting and disrupting externally directed networks, or that they have stopped trying to get in as much? And is the fact that we are now seeing self-started local plots as the main driver of threat an expression of the fact that we are looking at a threat that is in terminal decline since it cannot get in or merely that this is the only aspect of the menace that security services have not quite managed to get their heads around disrupting?

Difficult questions all, but to give a general answer, it is clear that some of the heat has gone out of the violent Islamist terrorist threat. The persistent hammering of leaders with drone strikes and Special Forces operations has reduced capacity, while enhanced intelligence focus has given a much better over watch position from which to ensure that networks are not able to dispatch cells to conduct attacks. The fact that the most active plots now come from groups that are self-started and self-directed is a reflection of two things: that these individuals are unable to make contact with known networks (because it is now harder to do so due to a lack of options and security) and that the ideas are incredibly diffuse in society’s general consciousness. But the ideas are clearly only inspiring small groups of individuals, so the threat is reduced and less capable than before.

But having said all of this, there still remains a rump of individuals in the west who are drawn to violent radical ideas, something indicative of the fact that, counter-radicalisation programmes notwithstanding, progress has been relatively limited in devising effective ways to deter people from choosing this path. What has been reduced however is the capability of networks abroad to connect with these individuals undetected. And when this is coupled with the fact that these networks are being vigorously shrunk through aggressive counter-terrorism operations abroad, it is possible to determine that the terrorist threat to the west from radical Islamist groups is in decline. Not necessarily in absolute and terminal decline, but certainly a far less capable and direct threat than it was in the mid-2000s and before when large-scale networks that had been developing for decades were able to repeatedly attempt to carry out plots in the west.

Terrorism has always come in cycles . The current menace from violent Islamists targeting the west is no different. Entropic forces tend to wind down violent political networks that are unable to achieve their immediate goals in a short-to-medium term timeline, and over time networks are degraded and their ideas lose some force or evolve in new directions. Al Qaedaism as we currently know it is clearly facing a downward trajectory, but the sparks as it winds down will trouble the world for years to come.

This article was commissioned in response to Dr Gunaratna’s piece.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR). His writing can be found here:http://www.raffaellopantucci.com

[1] Raffaello Pantucci, “The Islamist Terrorist Threat to Europe after Osama bin Laden’s death,” Chatham House Workshop Paper, July 1, 2011,http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/public/Research/International%20Security/010811wr_terrorism.pdf

[2] Bruce Hoffman, “Radicalization and Subversion: Al Qaeda and the 7 July 2005 Bombings and the 2006 Airline Bombing Plot,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, vol.32, no.12, 2009

This is going up a bit late, since have been a bit distracted with other obligations. It also ended up being published after Intelwire and Red State articles on the topic, though I had written it before reading them both (honest!). A long post for Free Rad!cals, something I am trying to return to with some regularity. This is exploring the subject of Lone Wolves that I have long been going on about, and in fact was quoted in a CNN story on the topic and a Christian Science Monitor one. It has been a while since I posted for a variety of reasons, but in the meantime, I was quoted a fair bit in this story linked to the London Somalia conference in the Danish newspaper Information and separately (and unrelated) on Chinese influence in Central Asia in an article that was written for Eurasianet and reprinted in the Atlantic.

When is a Lone Wolf a Lone Wolf?

View more articles by Raff Pantucci

Filed under: Anwar al-Awlaki, Homegrown extremism

The arrest last Friday of Amine el Khalifi as he strode towards the US Capitol Building with what he thought was a functioning MAC-10 submachine gun and explosive suicide vest marks the latest in a growing list of individuals who have been incarcerated in the United States in cases involving intelligence agents. As with many previous cases, this one has already been called a “lone wolf” by officialdom in the US. But does this definition really hold water in a case like Khalifi’s?

The problem with using this definition in Khalifi’s case is that central to the plot seems to be at least one law enforcement agent and a confidential informant. Individuals who hinted to him that they were connected with al Qaeda and ultimately provided him with what he thought were the tools to conduct a Fedayeen-style terrorist attack on the Capitol Building. All of which suggests that in Khalifi’s mind he was not actually a “lone wolf,” but rather an individual who was part of a terrorist cell.

This distinction is important since it raises a subsidiary question of whether Khalifi would have actually done something if he hadn’t had the community of agents around him to both provide him with what he thought was a cell, as well as the weapons to carry out his terrorist attack. Khalifi was clearly a disjointed fellow – a former landlord is quoted as saying he was suspicious of Khalifi and found him to be a very troublesome tenant suspecting he may have been building bombs – but how dangerous was he and did he have the wherewithal to launch a terrorist plot by himself?

At this point, we shall never know. Given Khalifi was captured as he marched up to his intended target armed with a machine gun and suicide vest, it is hard to envisage any jury finding him innocent or to disagree with this conclusion. And it is perfectly possible that Khalifi is indeed a deranged individual who may have been prone to going down a path of violence. But the dilemma is the degree to which the cell of agents empowered him, and whether they could have used the information to dissuade him instead of helping him in this direction.

His case is very similar to that of Jose Pimental, a New Yorker arrested earlier this year by NYPD as he was supposedly building a bomb with what emerged to be a police agent. In that case, Pimental was also described as something of an oddball who would broadcast his radical views loudly online, was part of the community of individuals involved in the Revolution Muslim website and decided to get involved in a plot once he came across what he thought was a fellow radical. Pimental was seemingly obsessed with Anwar al Awlaki, and had apparently tried to reach out to him, but to no avail. Oddly enough, in that case the FBI declined to become involved leaving the case in the NYPD’s jurisdiction hinting that Pimental was not that dangerous (an odd conclusion given the similarities to the Khalifi case). Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly backed their forces, however, declaring Pimental a “ total lone wolf.”

This approach to capturing violent Islamist cells is not a particularly new one for American forces. While I may have missed some cases, scanning old reports and lists on the topic of disrupted terrorist plots in the US, it seems to me as though the first plot involving unaffiliated individuals who were caught using a confidential informant involved Shahawar Matin Siraj and James Elshafay who were planning to bomb a subway station in New York City in August 2004. In that case, a police agent, who allegedly offered his services to trawl through New York’s Muslim community to identify Muslims who were bringing a bad name to his religion, was key in securing the convictions.

However, it seems as though Siraj had voiced his ideas to others prior to the agent and had another co-conspirator James Elshafay, a mentally troubled individual who volunteered to plant a bomb. In other words, Siraj was moving in a dangerous direction with others even prior to meeting the agent. While it is true that the agent might have acted like a final trigger into moving him into action, he was not operating in a total vacuum with the agents acting as his only contacts to other extremists prepared to do something.

When we look at a case like Khalifi’s, there are a number of key differences. In his case, Khalifi’s entire connection to the al Qaeda cell he thought he was part of was fictitious. Unlike Siraj whom it seems was both voicing his opinions, but also in contact with others willing to carry out violence, Khalifi seems to have been willing to voice his radical ideas but was not in contact with any others eager to follow the path he eventually took, until he encountered the federal agents.

But the purpose here is not to condemn the use of confidential informants or undercover agents – but instead to focus on whether we can really call such individuals lone wolves and what effect this approach is having on reducing this problem.

The answer to the first question is clearly negative: these individuals cannot really be called “lone wolves” since they were really not acting alone. They were part of what they thought was a cell. That this turned out to be mostly federal agents is important as it complicates whether we can confidently say that they would have chosen this path independently and acted as “lone wolf” terrorists. The answer is we cannot – we shall never know whether they would have chosen this path without the group around them. Certainly we can look at the individual’s readiness to move into action with some level of concern, but we cannot confidently say they would have done this absent the contacts with agents.

It is easy to understand why enforcement agencies favor this sort of an approach. Lone Wolf terrorists are very hard to spot and identify before they move into action – this approach draws out individuals who seem to be moving in this direction and merely gives them the tools to hang themselves by their own petards. In this way it is pre-emptive. For example, someone like Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the 19-year-old Portland, Oregon Somali who tried to blow up a vehicle bomb at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in late 2010. According to court documents, Osman was trying to make contact with radicals in Pakistan to try to join them to fight jihad. Having identified him, federal agents moved in and in the end Osman decided to try to carry out an attack within America.

In a case like Osman’s it is easy to see the logic behind a pre-emptive approach. Osman was clearly interested in making contact and joining radicals abroad. Conviction on the basis of this sort of contact is no doubt hard to prove; so sending agents in to understand the individual better makes some sense. That this then led to him wanting to carry out a plot within the US is one outcome this can lead to – whether Osman suggested it or the agents did is something that will no doubt come out in trial. Pimental had tried to reach out to other radicals (including Anwar al Awlaki allegedly), but it is not clear whether this is also the case with Khalifi.

The other logic behind such operations is the notion of deterrence. If you catch and convict some individuals like this, it serves as an example to the other potential ones out there. Siraj received a 30-year sentence for his crime, and Osman, Pimental and Khalifi are looking at similar sentences. And unlike Europe, where long sentences can be reduced with good behavior, etc, in the United States, long terms means a long time in a prison where prosecutors openly admit same sex rape is common.

But the deterrence case somewhat falls down when we consider how long the United States has been pursuing such individuals and how they continue to appear. If we take the Siraj case as a first example – we can see how since 2006 (on the basis of when he was incarcerated versus arrested) examples have been publicly made of what is going to happen to you if you wander down this path and how there are agents out there seeking to catch you. And yet we have continued to see cases occur with this latest pair merely the most recent in a long list. Of course it is possible that there would have been many more, and that in fact the relatively small number we see is a reflection that in fact this deterrent effect is working, but this is another statistic that will be impossible to ever prove.

There is no clean answer to this discussion. One solution I have advocated is that police and intelligence agencies should identify such people and then instead of moving in with a team to catch them doing something bad, send in a team to dissuade them from doing anything. Make it obvious to them that they are wandering down a dangerous path and they should get off it. This might scare some sense into them and lead them to choosing another path. It might also have the opposite effect in some cases, but I am certain if an intervention is handled properly, it could save a lot of time and effort from courts, prisons and intelligence agencies.

But to return to the question I started this whole post off with: when is a lone wolf a lone wolf? He can be considered a “lone wolf” terrorist when he tries to carry out a terrorist act by himself or herself, without any support or command and control from known or unknown networks. To call individuals like Jose Pimental or Amine el Khalifi “Lone Wolves” is a misinterpretation of the term that is only going to complicate the struggle in identifying such individuals that really are “Lone Wolves.” The real “lone wolves” are people like Khalid Aldawsari, the Saudi student in Texas whose romantic and poetic blog masked a desire to build a bomb to attack America. He quietly worked away on his plot until he tried to purchase chemicals from an attentive seller. They reported him to authorities and he was subsequently arrested and is now awaiting trial. People like Jose Pimental or Amine el Khalifi may indeed have been potential “lone wolves” in the future, but the reality is we shall never know whether they were actually going to go down this path or not.

A post for the long-ignored Free Rad!cals at ICSR. This one looking at the stories around Abu Musab al-Suri’s possible release and the implications of it. Brynjar was kind enough to give me some time to talk about it and I would recommend everyone read his book on the subject if they find the time.

Whither al Suri?

Towards the end of last year a story emerged that suggested that infamous al Qaida ideologue Mustafa Setmariam Nasr, aka Abu Musab al- Suri, had been released from the Syrian jail in which it was believed he had been languishing. Picked up in Quetta in October 2005, al-Suri was a longtime jihadist who during his career had served as a trainer in Afghanistan, married a Spanish woman, and worked as a propagandist from Londonistan. He is most well-known, however, as an author and ideologue and particularly for his massive tome, Global Islamic Resistance Call, a text that laid out his idea for al-Qaeda’s structure as “nizam, la tanzim” (system, not organization). Most recently, his writing had gotten increased traction as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had very publicly taken up his ideas as part of their push in Inspire magazine to try to stir up Lone Wolf terrorism.

While the unconfirmed announcement of his release has not gotten much traction, the story was interesting given the importance al-Suri’s work is often given by researchers (and the fact that he was amongst the individuals whom Zawahiri asked for in exchange for kidnapped American Warren Weistein). Intrigued by the story, I reached out to Dr. Brynjar Lia of FFI in Norway, the world’s foremost expert of al-Suri, having written the excellent biography “Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al Qaeda Strategist Abu Musab al Suri,” to see what he thought of the story and its potential consequences:

I think it is quite likely that al-Suri was transferred to Syria and has been held there, judging by the various reports pointing in that direction over the past few years. However, I am not sure whether Syrian authorities would have much to gain by releasing him. He is no friend of the Syrian regime to say the least, and he consistently denounced the Syrian regime both politically and religiously, labeling them “a Nusayri [another word for the Alawi, Bashar al Assad’s ethnic community] occupation”. The only thing I could think of is that the regime is trying to send a signal to the West, and the U.S. in particular, that if they push the Assad regime too hard, they will lose a partner in “the war on terrorism”, to use an outdated term. Al-Zawahiri mentioned al-Suri as one of several jihadis he wanted to see released in return for a U.S. citizen, reportedly held hostage by al-Qaida in Pakistan. However, in the current climate it is hard to imagine U.S.-Syrian cooperation on swapping al-Suri for the U.S. hostage.

“The impact of al-Suri’s release, if true, will not necessarily be dramatic, although it depends on the circumstances of his release. I don’t really see him in any operational role in the jihadi organisations in the region such as al-Qaida in Iraq, Ansar al-Islam, Fatah al-Islam or others. As for the Syrian opposition in exile, they will probably view him as a liability and they seem to believe that he might have been released as part of the Syrian regime’s orchestrated efforts to portray the opposition as an al-Qaida supported insurgency. Furthermore, al-Suri has few friends among the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, whom he singled out for very harsh criticism in his early writings. He did not have a large crowd of dedicated disciples, but was mostly a theoretician and a writer and was admired for his writings and his seniority as a jihadist.

For my own two cents, it would be strange for the Syrians to take such an action for a man who was so clearly their enemy and unlikely to ever do them any favors – but then again, as the Shia Iranian experience with allowing Sunni al Qaida to stay in their territory has shown, the geopolitics of the war on terrorism are complex. But I also wonder whether it would necessarily be the case that his release would be some sort of a boon to the notion of Lone Wolf jihad as espoused by AQAP. Clearly Inspiremagazine saw al-Suri as their ideological godfather and repeatedly held up his image and writing as key in their thinking, but I wonder if al-Suri would equally embrace the notions as they have advanced it.

To start with, it is unclear to me on the basis of his work that al Suri would be that impressed by the religious and ideological knowledge displayed by the army of young people who are taking up arms in response to AQAP’s call. In the early 1990s as he was first advancing his ideas in Peshawar, al Suri spoke of being unimpressed by the lack of “necessary doctrinal, programmatic, ideological and political guidance” amongst his fellow Arab-Afghans. Furthermore, in his magum opus, the Global Islamic Resistance Call, where he praises “the school of individual jihad and small cells” and a group of lone individuals who took up the cause of jihad, he highlights how while these attacks may be a military, security and agitation success, their political and educational impact is relatively low. It is hard to imagine that he would see greater ideological fervor or wider political success amongst the young people claiming his heritage.

Beyond this, it is unclear that he would necessarily approve of the sort of random targeting that is suggested by Inspire magazine’s ideas of taking down apartment blocs full of people by renting out one on a lower floor and letting the gas run freely or the idea to use a combine harvester to literally mow through crowds. While al-Suri’s writing does recognise the validity of targeting civilians, he does say that this needs to be done in a discriminating fashion. This is reflected in information to have emerged from Abbotabad where it is claimed that bin-Laden was “taken aback” by the Inspire proposal to use a harvester “he complains that this tactical proposal promotes indiscriminate slaughter. He says he rejects this and it is not something that reflects what al-Qaeda does.”

It is unclear whether al-Suri will be able to react in any sort of a public way to the children of the jihad who have claimed his legacy, not least because we have no idea at the moment of whether he has even been released (or if he has what limitations he may be under). But should he have been released and be able to become an active jihadi ideologue once again, it will undoubtedly prove a coup for al-Qaeda’s battered ideology and forces (as Jarret Brachmann has pointed out). What is less clear, however, is what kind of an impact it would have on the AQAP driven push towards indiscriminate, undirected Lone Wolf terrorism. It is uncertain to what degree the group is responsible for the growth in such events, and it is even less certain whether al-Suri would necessarily appreciate the interpretation of his work that they have been advancing.

Lone Wolf terrorism will no doubt continue to emerge whether al-Suri has been released or not. Al Suri’s potential addition to this mix will be to breathe new life into a group whose ideology and leadership has taken a sound beating, offering a leader whose ideas at the time were not paid much attention to, but since his arrest have increasingly become the vogue amongst terrorist tacticians.

Latest for Jamestown’s Terrorism Monitor, looking at a trial that is about to start in the UK. The case is going to be an interesting one, and I am hoping to be there for parts of it and will report back.

Bringing London’s “Christmas Bombers” to Trial

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 46
December 16, 2011 03:46 PM Age: 2 hrs

Double Decker Burns During August London 2011 Riots

Almost a year after their arrests just before Christmas 2010, a group of young British Muslims denied charges of “conspiring to cause explosions likely to endanger life or damage property” (BBC, December 2, 2011). The men, described as being of South Asian origin, are alleged to be part of a plot to strike “iconic targets” in London that was disrupted before Christmas (Telegraph, December 20, 2010).

Initially, twelve individuals were arrested in connection to the case with cells identified by police in Birmingham, Cardiff, East London and Stoke-on-Trent (Guardian, December 20, 2010). However, in the end the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) chose to only proceed with charges against nine men, identified as Gurukanth Desai, 28 of Cardiff; Omar Sharif Latif, 26 of Cardiff; Abdul Malik Miah, 24 of Cardiff; Mohammed Moksudur Rahman Chowdhury, 20 of London; Shah Mohammed Luftar Rahman, 28 of London;  and Nazam Hussain, 25, Usman Khan, 19, Mohibur Rahman, 26 and Abul Bosher Mohammed Shahjahan, 26, all of Stoke-on-Trent. [1] All stand accused of conspiring to cause an explosion and preparing for acts of terrorism. Five of the men are also accused of possessing material useful in the preparation of terrorism, and four are charged with owning two editions of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Inspire magazine and a copy of Saudi ideologue Muhammad bin Ahmad as-Salim’s famous tract “39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad (AFP, December 2).

The details of what exactly the men were planning will emerge during the course of the trial, but according to information already released the men were allegedly planning to target the London Stock Exchange, the American Embassy, the London Eye Ferris wheel and prominent religious and political leaders as well as secondary targets like restaurants, pubs and nightclubs (Channel 4, December 27, 2010; Daily Mail, December 28, 2010). The men stand accused of “igniting and testing incendiary material,” suggesting a plot in a relatively advanced state, but local sources told Jamestown that police conducted the arrests in Stoke and Birmingham unarmed, indicating they did not expect a very dangerous operation. The operation, codenamed “Guava,” was revealed to have been part of a long-term surveillance effort by Britain’s security services when the then-Independent Reviewer of Counter-Terrorism Legislation, Lord Carlile, told a Parliamentary committee that he had been aware of the operation for some time and had been invited to participate in observing the surveillance (Telegraph, December 21, 2010).

The group’s connection with core al-Qaeda is unclear; while sources indicate that at least one of the suspects was believed to have traveled to Pakistan with the intent of connecting with the group, their connection to other radical groups in the United Kingdom is clearer. According to sources in Stoke-on-Trent, the men were known to have been active in the broader network of individuals connected to the now-banned radical group al-Muhajiroun and had attended protests organized by the group (Telegraph, December 20, 2010). [2] Locals in Cardiff identified some of the group as having attended a meeting organized around previously jailed al-Muhajiroun leader Trevor Brooks (a.k.a. Abu Izzadeen) and claimed that the men were part of a group of 15 boys that the community was aware were involved in meetings organized locally by al-Muhajiroun. They said they had mentioned their concerns to authorities, but the security services were apparently already alert to the group’s existence (Telegraph, December 22, 2010).

Another interesting detail to emerge about the Cardiff group was that the three Cardiff men had served time in prison for petty drugs and theft offenses. According to a neighbor, the men “went to prison as petty criminals and came out expressing extreme views,” suggesting some level of radicalization in prison – a problem that has long concerned British authorities (Telegraph, December 22, 2010). There was also confusion about one of the Cardiff men, Gurukanth Desai, whose name indicates an Indian origin, though it was reported that he had changed it recently by deed poll. The reason for this change was unclear, though his chosen name is the same as that of a fictional Indian character in a 2007 hit Bollywood movie (Calcutta Telegraph, December 30, 2010; Times of India, December 28, 2010).

The trial against the men is due to start in late January, 2012 and is likely to prove to be a major case in highlighting the potential danger of radical groups like al Muhajiroun providing a space for groups of radicals to congregate. In addition, much is likely to be made of the group’s use ofInspire magazine as early evidence suggests they were attempting to use the magazine’s bomb-making recipes to construct their devices. The fusion of these elements shows how the more traditional aspects of Britain’s jihad continue to have strength: A hardcore of extremists still exists in the UK, eager to try to connect with radicals abroad and interested in planning attacks on the homeland. Absolute numbers are hard to come by, but with at least two large terrorist plots (including this case) and a number of terrorist support network cases currently working their way through the British legal system, British security services will have to remain on high alert through next year’s London Olympic Games.

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).

Notes:

1. See: http://www.cps.gov.uk/news/press_releases/150_10/.

2. For more on the banning of al Muhajiroun and its successor groups, see: Terrorism Monitor, January 21, 2010 and November 23, 2011

Have been travelling where this is unaccessible for some reason, so there is going to be a bit of a blast now as I catch up with posting a bunch of things that were recently published in other places. First up, a longer article for Homeland Security Today magazine from their October edition, teeing up the current state of terrorism and other problems in the UK in the run up to next year’s Olympics in London. A longer piece next year focusing on that is in the works.

Seeking Balance In Britain

Just when it seemed the jihadist threat had faded, British authorities are facing challenges from both old and new sources.

By: Raffaello Pantucci

10/21/2011 (12:00am)

On July 11, Britain’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) reduced its threat level from “severe” to “substantial.”

“This means that a terrorist attack is a strong possibility and might well occur without further warning,” Home Secretary Theresa May cautioned while announcing the decision. “The change in the threat level to ‘substantial’ does not mean the overall threat has gone away—there remains a real and serious threat against the United Kingdom, and I would ask the public to remain vigilant.”

But it was not an organized terrorist act that would rock Britain this summer. On Aug. 4, in the Tottenham neighborhood of north London, police shot Mark Duggan, 29, an alleged gangster and drug dealer, when they attempted to arrest him. Police said he was resisting arrest, fired first and was killed in the exchange. The next evening crowds from the African and Caribbean communities in North London gathered to protest what they saw as a racially motivated shooting and general police persecution of local youth. However, some violent elements chose to hijack the peaceful protest and it rapidly raced out of control.

It was a stunning turn of events for a country that thought it had its threats under control and could even relax—even as it geared up security for the July 2012 Olympic Games.

Driven by crowds of marauding youths in London, then in Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool, the riots quickly escalated into mass-scale looting and burglary with police seemingly helpless to stop them. With costs in London alone estimated to be about £200 million ($330 million) and thousands arrested for their involvement, the rioting cast a shadow on the country as it prepared for the games.

The Olympics have long been identified as a potential terrorist target. As Jonathan Evans, director general of MI5, put it to the parliamentary committee tasked with oversight of the security services, “The eyes of the world will be on London during the Olympics…[and] those eyes will include some malign ones that will see an opportunity to gain notoriety and to inflict damage.” But the riots showed that it was not only terrorist threats that were a potential spoiler.

At press time, it remained unclear what exactly sparked the riots. Unsurprisingly, politicians tended to cast blame as it suited their political constituencies. Prime Minister David Cameron deployed a stern conservative response highlighting how “broken families” were to blame and that there was a “moral collapse” going on in the country. This reflected a line taken by Home Secretary Theresa May in the immediate wake of the riots when she referred to the rioting as “looting and thuggery” and promised a firm police response.

Opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband, on the other hand, hinted that poverty likely played a role and that the excessive greed shown by bankers during the financial crisis fed the public rage that erupted so violently in early August. This echoed Labour’s London mayoral candidate (and former mayor) Ken Livingstone’s repeated claims on television as the riots took place that the austerity package passed by the government and the lack of job creation underlaid the troubles.

But while there was a lack of clarity about what caused the riots, it was clear that British police failed to maintain order in the capital city for considerable periods of time. As rioting spread beyond London to Birmingham, Manchester and other major cities, people started doubting the government’s capacity to maintain public order.

Regaining control

After the initial evening’s chaos in London, police took a heavy hand. The Metropolitan Police force flooded the streets with an additional 10,000 officers. Auxiliary officers were called in to support full-time staff and were asked to pull 12-hour, all-night shifts. Once the streets were reclaimed, the next move was to release thousands of still photos from closed circuit television cameras in city centers, asking the public to identify individual rioters.

Nevertheless, questions were asked about why things got so out of hand in the first place. One suggested reason was that the police had been distracted by the recent loss of a number of senior leaders in a tabloid newspaper phone hacking  and bribery scandal.

Acting police head Tim Goodwin reassured the public that police had the situation under control, but politicians concluded that not enough was being done and asked Bill Bratton, former head of both the New York and Los Angeles police departments, to come and provide his advice.

Meanwhile, former London Police Chief and current mayoral candidate Brian Paddick argued that Bratton’s hard-line approach was unlikely to work in the United Kingdom and may contravene the European Court of Human Rights. Instead, Paddick advocated a more holistic approach to policing in the UK. Underpinning all of this was a need “to give everyone enough of a stake in society that they feel they want to work within its norms and values … and a belief that the police can and will protect them,” said Paddick in an interview on CNN.

But overall, the general sense in London was that this spasm of violence was largely beyond comprehension. As reports came in of schoolteachers and affluent residents among those convicted for involvement in the rioting, the economic rationales became further confused. Londoners interviewed byHomeland Security Today varied in apportioning blame, with most calling it criminal youth taking advantage of a chaotic situation, while others pointed out how much more dramatic events were on television than in real life. What was clear, however, was there had been a dramatic loss of control by Britain’s police services—something they compensated for during the August Notting Hill carnival in central London. The annual festival has been a target for troublemakers in the past, but this time police arrived in heavy numbers in a show of strength—deploying as many officers as they did in the wake of the rioting and forcing the event to close an hour early.

An unchanging assessment

Security services felt on much surer ground when looking at the terrorist threat from Islamist extremists. For all the disorder of the riots, the government’s basic assessment of the jihadist terrorist threat did not change. On July 12, the Home Office issued CONTEST, its third Counterterrorism Strategy.

CONTEST highlighted that “international counterterrorism work since 9/11 has made considerable progress in reducing the threats we face. Al Qaeda is now significantly weaker than it has been for ten years.”

But at the same time, the threat has fragmented in a variety of different directions. Heightened threats emanate from al Qaeda affiliates globally and from Northern Irish dissident groups, as documented both by CONTEST and Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), which oversees Britain’s intelligence community.

CONTEST was the culmination of a series of reviews of British counterterrorism strategy. In the weeks prior to its publication, the government published its review of the key “prevent” aspect of the strategy—the part that attempts to stop individuals from choosing a path of terrorism. It concluded that the strategy needed to be redefined.

This came in the wake of the coroner’s inquest into the July 7, 2005, bombings, which absolved the security services of blame for not preventing them, but also showed that more could have been done.

No surprise

The lowering of the general threat assessment by CONTEST and the Home Office was not surprising. Counterterrorism experts and watchers had long noted that the foreign threat in the United Kingdom seemed to have gone down.

Security agencies remained on high alert, as highlighted in February 2011 when MI5 Director Evans stated “the amount of surveillance that we undertook with police colleagues [in the past year] was the highest at any point that we have ever had to put out to the streets,” but this translated to fewer plots coming to fruition and a general sense that the threat was in hand.

At the same time, however, the government remained concerned that “we continue to identify far more people engaged in terrorist activity in this country than we can successfully prosecute and convict,” Evans said. He added the alarming fact that, “we know that some of those [terrorist] prisoners are still committed extremists who are likely to return to their terrorist activities.”

For example, in a plot currently working its way through the courts, a member of a network planning a series of attacks in London is believed to have been radicalized in prison. Afghan security services, meanwhile, were shocked to discover that a man responsible for an April suicide bombing of the defense ministry in Kabul was radicalized in a British prison. In the next few years a number of other individuals implicated in serious terrorist plots will be released onto the streets.

What changed in the minds of the security services, though, was the provenance of the terrorist threat to the UK. According to CONTEST, “over the last year the threat to the UK and to UK interests from terrorists in Yemen and Somalia has significantly increased. People from this country [the UK] are also traveling to these areas to fight. Some are returning here to plan and conduct operations.”

An ISC report quoted MI5 as assessing “that any short-term attacks against Western targets in retaliation for the death of [O]sama bin Laden are more likely to be carried out by AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen] than al-Qaeda core.”

Additionally, there has been a noticeable increase in Northern-Irish-related terrorism. According to CONTEST, in 2009 there were 22 attacks. In 2010 there were 40, and this year so far there have been 16, with “many more successfully disrupted.” This comes alongside a spike in rioting in the region, most recently in Portadown, County Armagh, that resulted in a series of arrests and numerous police and civilian injuries.

But this story of threat diversification is not new. Nor is a general sense in the United Kingdom that the country still faces danger from terrorism, albeit from many sources. As James Brandon, director of research at UK counter-radicalization think tank Quilliam, told Homeland Security Today in an interview: “The threat has clearly now evolved. It is no longer the traditional threat that emanated from people of Pakistani origin going to train in South Asia. This is no longer going on to the same scale. But there are new challenges.”

Among them, Al Shabaab in Somalia has attracted Western recruits, Brandon said, while instability continues to mount in Yemen, which has a long-established link with jihadists in the UK. Beyond those countries, terrorists potentially could exploit the widespread instability across the Middle East.

But, he added, “at present something seems to be missing from the equation to translate this into visible terrorism and violence.”

Islamic radicalization is not taking place on the scale it was, he said. Hard-core salafism and deobandism remain a significant force, but by Brandon’s analysis, many of the key groups that fed Al Qaeda in the past no longer have the reach in the community they once did.

“The reason for this is two-fold. First, there is no current-affairs catalyst pushing people from non-violence into violence. Previously, there were issues like Iraq, Afghanistan or the Danish cartoons that would push them over the edge. The catalyst to push them to go the final yard is simply not there today.

“Secondly, pro-jihadist voices are a lot subtler than they used to be. They may still be around, but they do not reach the same audience and have to play their cards more carefully,” he said.

From the observations of counterterrorism experts and UK government reports, it seems the overall terrorist threat is ongoing, but it’s hard to say whether it is on the wane or on the increase.

Instead, they point to the fact that the UK has not faced a successful attack since July 2005, though there have been a number of very near misses. Most expect that this is likely to remain the general trend for the foreseeable future, with a particular spike in attention around the upcoming Olympic Games.

Lone wolves and the right wing

An unpredictable element in the mix is the potential threat posed by lone-wolf or lone-actor terrorists. CONTEST specifically singles them out as a “significant” threat, and the potential menace seemed to crystallize in the form of Anders Behring Breivik’s attack on Oslo, Norway. In a methodically planned attack in late July, Breivik pulled the trigger on a plan he had been cogitating for nine years. In the ensuing chaos 69 people were shot to death at a summer camp and another eight killed in a bombing outside government offices during a lone-wolf terrorist attack that has made European security officials reconsider their planning for such threats. As one official put it to Homeland Security Today, the previous focus was on “monitoring groups,” and Breivik showed that such single-minded attention sometimes missed very dangerous elements.

The Breivik attack alarmed British security officials because his claims and history seemed to have strong links to Britain’s right-wing community. Born in the UK to a Norwegian diplomat, he signed his manifesto with the English-sounding name Andrew Berwick. He was reported to have attended rallies organized by the English Defense League (EDL) that formed in response to the perceived threat from Islam in the UK. While the EDL denied he was a member, and Breivik criticizes the group as naïve in his manifesto, the incident awakened people’s concerns about the right wing in the UK. As Matthew Feldman, a lecturer at the University of Northampton and a regular prosecution witness in right-wing terror cases, put it in an interview with Homeland Security Today, this nexus of lone-wolf terrorism and the right wing was particularly concerning.

“I think there is an important connection between individually undertaken acts of terrorism and links to the wider culture of intolerance on the far-right,” said Feldman. He added that understanding how lone wolves draw upon a “wider culture of intolerance” will be key to ensuring such acts do not take place elsewhere in Europe.

Analysis

The overall message from the most recent raft of reports is that the menace of international terrorism to the United Kingdom is decreasing. There has not been attack planning on the scale seen previously.

At the same time a constant patter of smaller-scale terrorist threats continues to plague the UK. Irish dissidents continue to battle on, and right-wing extremists may be emboldened by the actions of Anders Behring Breivik in Oslo.

And while the August chaos shook Britons, it remains unclear whether it was anything more than a temporary eruption. The hard-line response and the speed with which political leaders on all sides used the situation to bolster their own causes did not shed any further light on what drove the chaos. While the loss of control alarmed British security officials as they prepare London for next year’s Olympics, the fact they are getting to learn the lessons a year out should mean they are better prepared for domestic threats while maintaining vigilance to foreign dangers.

_____________________________________________

The Internet Threat

The jihadist threat from the Internet continues to remain complex, acting as both a radicalizing agent but also providing terrorists with operational support beyond simply instructions on how to make bombs.

In a speech to a London think tank, Home Secretary May highlighted how groups were using tools like Google Earth, Google Street View, cloud computing and peer-to-peer networks to plot terrorist attacks. She particularly highlighted AQAP’s use of online parcel tracking to time where the devices the group planted on DHL transport planes last October were intended to explode.

At the same time, however, CONTEST specifies, “we continue to see no evidence of systematic cyberterrorism.” It points to a specific instance of an attack called the “here you have” virus that was claimed by the Tariq Bin Ziyad Brigades for Electronic Jihad as an example of a terrorist assault launched online, but the relatively low impact of the virus showed the immaturity of the threat. (Tariq Bin Ziyad was a Muslim Berber general who led the conquest of Spain in the year 711.)

The biggest menace to online counterterrorism capacity identified by CONTEST was the loss of individual operatives and experts to the private sector. Commenting to the ISC, Ian Lobhain, head of Britain’s Government Communications Head Quarters—Britain’s equivalent of the US National Security Agency—pointed out his biggest problem was losing staff because he was simply not able to compete with the private sector’s salaries.

_____________________________________________

Preventing terrorism

While recent reports on the terrorist threat to the UK do address right-wing terrorism—albeit to a lesser degree than some experts like Feldman would advise—the focus remains on Islamist radicalization. The reports highlight a number of current problems in Britain’s counterterrorism strategy, with much of the focus on its “prevent” component. The key element of discussion is the fact that “prevent’s” current broad scope has both diluted it and confused things by supporting non-violent extremists in the hope that they might be able to rein in the violent fringe.

In what has been seen as a direct repudiation of this approach, CONTEST stated, “the focus of prevent to date has been on violent extremism and terrorism. It has not explicitly considered non-violent extremism. However a significant percentage of people who engage in terrorism have previously been associated with extremist groups. Some terrorist organizations—of all kinds—also share and make use of ideas which are popularized by extremists.”

The new approach will be widened to “address radicalization to all forms of terrorism,” according to the report, while also narrowed in focus to ensure the government does “not securitize its integration work.”

It seems unclear how things have been going so far, with next to no clear monitoring of the effectiveness of more than 1,800 projects conducted under the auspices of “prevent.” Additionally, there are concerns about the Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), a cross-departmental unit set up in 2007 to improve the government’s capacity to broadcast “hearts and minds” messages in its counterterrorism operations. As CONTEST lays out, “RICU’s counter-narrative work has not been as successful as we want. RICU must do more to identify credible partners and to develop powerful and specific narratives across a range of communications channels, especially the Internet.”