Posts Tagged ‘AQIM’

Catching up on some old posting again, this from a piece that was co-authored with RUSI colleague Dr Sasha Jesperson for a special publication issued for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting that just took place in Malta. Thanks to Sasha for taking the lead on this one!

Calibrating a Commonwealth-wide response to Terrorism

Terrorism is a menace that resonates across the Commonwealth. From resident domestic violent extremist groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria or the LTTE in Sri Lanka, to groups launching cross-border attacks from neighbouring countries like Al Shabaab’s attacks in Kenya or Uganda, to lone actor attacks in Canada and Australia, terrorism can be found in some shape in most countries. Yet the reality is that when one looks at the cumulative numbers in comparison with other threats to human life, casualty counts are relatively low. This is not to dismiss the danger from terrorism, but given the current hyperventilation around ISIL (so-called Islamic State or ISIS) in particular, it is important to make sure that this is borne in mind; and furthermore, that care is taken to ensure that the expressions of violence which purport to be linked to ISIL are properly understood within their respective contexts.

Fears around terrorism are of course not baseless. Many West African countries have watched the growth of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) with concern, and there has been evidence of AQIM networks having particular influence over parts of Boko Haram. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, the threat of terrorism in the West spiked – and later materialised in the form of the attacks in Bali 2002 and London in 2005, to name just two. Yet the influence of Al Qaeda, the group behind much of these fears, has not been as significant as initially feared. The group has managed a number of attacks and continues to attempt to launch plots. It has further managed to help grow off-shoots in various countries, including Commonwealth countries, highlighting the dangers of such pernicious ideologies. But it has failed to transform and take over the world in the manner which it claimed to be attempting to do.

A New Set of Fears

ISIL appears to present a new set of fears. The group has a public relations strategy that makes Al Qaeda appear archaic and detached, finding innovative ways of engaging with social media to spread their messages, recruit and radicalise new members from as far as the UK, Canada and Australia, as well as the Western Balkans and West Africa. The increase in foreign fighters travelling to join ISIL from around the world has prompted many governments to act, implementing new legislation in an attempt to stop people leaving their country of origin and punish those returning. Concerns have also been raised that the current surge of people displaced by the conflict in Syria is potentially being used as a cover by the group to send its people around the globe.

But the greatest fear arises from ISIL’s state-building aspirations and the growth of its self-declared caliphate, and all the trappings of statehood and success that accompany this. Boko Haram’s recent pledge of allegiance to ISIL, and the adoption of the new name ‘Islamic State in West Africa’, has led to increased fears across West Africa about what this means for the group’s activity and impact in the region. This is only heightened by the ISIL’s claims of expanding their caliphate into West Africa. Yet, it is unclear the degree to which there has been much back and forth between the two groups – ISIL and Boko Haram – beyond rhetoric or some exchange of tips and capability in terms of developing a more professional media output. Since the formal pledge of bayat (allegiance) by Boko Haram to ISIL, there has been a noticeable improvement in the video output by the West African group. But beyond this, there has not been much more tangible evidence of fighters or money flowing between the two groups in a widely organised fashion.

The West African Dimension

In many ways, therefore, the link between Boko Haram and ISIL is an extension of Nigeria’s existing problem with violent extremism, rather than something new. A politically-minded terrorist organisation seeking to attract attention to itself, Boko Haram saw the advantage of adopting the ISIL name to bring the bright light of publicity and attention to their cause. Nevertheless, it represents a worrying trend for other Commonwealth nations in the region. While the problem may be largely an extension of an existing issue, the decision by Boko Haram to adopt the ISIL brand reflects both an eagerness to attract more attention and a consequent push towards an even more extremely divisive brand of violent rhetoric. This aspect is something that has worrying ramifications for countries across the Commonwealth,
and particularly in West Africa.

Ghana offers a particular case study within this context. Geographically close to Nigeria, it is therefore close to the expanding local ‘caliphate’. Ghana has a sizeable Muslim population (though accurate numbers are hard to find, with reports estimating it is somewhere between 18 and 45 per cent). Throughout history Muslims and Christians in Ghana have had a good relationship, but the spread of ISIL into West Africa is raising fears of domestic radicalisation. In early October, Ghana’s Deputy Education Minister, Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa, addressed Muslims in Accra about ISIL agents at Ghanaian universities seeking to recruit fighters. Two students have already been identified as joining ISIL and there are concerns among some in the international community based in Ghana that many more
have been recruited in the north of the country.

While these findings suggest that the fear of government ministers of ISIL infiltration is justified, there is a risk of over-reaction and polarisation. Northern Ghana, where the majority of Ghana’s Muslim population resides, has experienced violent clashes sparked by ethnicity, land disputes and chieftancy rights for over 20 years, as detailed by Emmanuel K Anekunabe in Modern Ghana (30 November 2009). Although this has historically not been centred on religion or a Muslim-Christian antipathy, there is a risk that fears of ISIL radicalisation may marginalise Muslim communities and create a divide, in turn driving more people into the hands of ISIL. As the brand is perceived to be more present in neighbouring countries like Nigeria, there will be a growing tendency for security forces to look for the problem; and in some extreme cases, this might have a self-fulfilling effect.

This phenomenon is most recently illustrated by Tom Parker, from the UN Counter Terrorism Centre, who highlights the strategy of terrorist groups in provoking an overreaction from affected governments, which then strengthens the cause of the terrorist group and increases support for their activities (‘It’s a Trap’, The RUSI Journal, 160(3), 2015) . Although the fear of ISIL penetration has not resulted in the draconian state responses described by Parker, there is potential for it to single out certain groups, putting them at greater risk of marginalisation. As Parker points out, “provoking an overreaction by the authorities helps to accelerate the polarisation of society by alienating potential security partners – such as moderate members of a minority community – and providing powerful support to terrorist narratives of victimhood and injustice.”

Underlying Grievances

Such a response links to the debate over the role of economic, political and social marginalisation. These forms of marginalisation have been linked to violent extremism, in many cases identified as a ‘push’ factor for radicalisation. Weiss and Hassan argue in their book on ISIL’s roots that the persistent marginalisation of the Sunni Arab majority in Iraq pushed large numbers into violent extremism (ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, 2015). Other cases in which substantial socio-economic grievances feature include northern Nigeria (where the Hausa speaking Muslim north has tended to experience political marginalisation and economic deprivation), Somalia (where Al Shabaab has been especially successful at recruiting from minority clans), and, in previous decades, Sri Lanka (where the Tamil population endured decades of marginalisation). Whether marginalisation is a necessary or sufficient factor for involvement in violent extremism is widely debated. Gupta argues that it is not a sufficient factor, that grievances need to be instrumentalised by charismatic individuals or ‘political entrepreneurs’, and social and psychological factors need to align as well (ILSA Journal of International Comparative Law, 11(3), 2005). With the case of ISIL, the use of social media and other methods to recruit members may fill that role.

This lesson is one that is not only salient in an African context. In the West, government’s choice of language has in some cases served to further strengthen the ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative that radical groups feed off to draw people to themselves. By talking of ISIL as an ‘existential threat’ or a ‘nihilistic death cult’, the government rhetoric is elevating the group in importance, but also speaking in terms that are not dissimilar to those deployed by the group. Taken adjacent to language that suggests that governments need to engage in countering not only the violent extremists who help recruit people into ISIL, but also non-violent extremist groups as well, there is a danger that a large section of society is being purposely marginalised. The danger is again of a self-fulfilling prophecy where the casting of the ISIL threat as part of a wider community of extremists means a broader community feel isolated – and consequently closer to ISIL.

The lesson is a simple one. Although the threat posed by ISIL is generating concern and fear across the globe, it is essential that governments do not overreact. While ISIL does appear to present a much more far-reaching threat than their predecessors through the use of social media and ability to engage with individuals that previously appeared out of reach, to date the expansion of the caliphate is more a product of local grievances expressing themselves through the adoption of the ISIL brand (and therefore the rejection of an old order that was perceived as a failure) rather than a strong and direct connection. This is not to say that it will not expand further (and has already made worrying inroads in various places around the globe), or that it is not a substantial problem that will pose a major headache for security officials for the next decade; but rather, that governments need to be sure that in addressing the problem they are focusing on the right issues. Finally, attention needs to be paid to overreaction, something that in many cases will only make the fundamental problem worse.

A piece on kidnapping by terrorist groups for Italian magazine Panorama, a kind of more tabloidy version of the Economist. It basically makes the case for why paying is a bad idea, though I must say that I am maybe a bit more ambivalent on the topic than the article might suggest. I fully understand families and others difficulties in deciding whether to pay or not, but it is clear that paying does propagate the phenomenon. The counter-point would be if we didn’t pay, would people not get kidnapped? Maybe it simply make kidnapping an even more dangerous experience since it would in essence be a deadly journey each time. It is very difficult to know. This was actually written and published prior to the emergence of the James Foley video, and I have been doing various bits of media around that. More on that soon.

Guerra al terrore: ma è giusto pagare i riscatti?

Il rapimento delle due ragazze italiane in Siria e la decapitazione del giornalista Usa riaprono la polemica sui soldi versati agli estremisti in cambio della liberazione degli ostaggi. 
Un immenso flusso di denaro. Che va bloccato

27-08-2014

Guerra al terrore: ma è giusto pagare i riscatti?

James Foley a Idlib, in Siria, nel 2012

Credits: ANSA /EPA /Nicole Tung /Courtesy of GlobalPost

di Raffello Pantucci*

Vantandosi in una recente lettera con il collega leader di al Qaeda nel Maghreb islamico (Aqim), Nasser al Wuhayshi, numero 2 del movimento islamista nella penisola arabica (Aqap), gongolava per il fatto che «la maggior parte dei costi della battaglia erano pagati dai bottini: quasi la metà dei quali proveniente da riscatti. I rapimenti costituiscono un facile bottino, un affare vantaggioso e un tesoro prezioso». Per quanto l’affermazione di Wuhayshi possa apparire vanagloriosa, mette in evidenza le ragioni per cui il pagamento dei riscatti è qualcosa che i terroristi e i gruppi estremisti considerano un’attività fondamentale per la continuazione delle loro azioni.

Le organizzazioni terroristiche e gli insorti hanno bisogno di soldi. Operando in ambienti ostili, dove rifornimenti e fondi scarseggiano, il denaro è necessario per comprare cibo, vestiario e armi, per pagare le spese di trasporto e i combattenti, e per assicurarsi il transito in aree governate da signori della guerra e capi tribali che altrimenti potrebbero denunciare le attività sospette alle autorità. Le attività criminali come contrabbando o estorsioni consentono di incassare soltanto parte dei fondi, ma richiedono forti investimenti e un grande impiego di uomini. Mentre fare soldi con i rapimenti è decisamente più facile e veloce.

I gruppi armati sono sempre più consapevoli degli ingenti profitti che è possibile realizzare sequestrando persone di paesi noti per correre in soccorso dei propri cittadini, e puntano individui provenienti da stati più disposti a pagare per la loro liberazione. È un’operazione puramente economica, nella quale l’ideologia c’entra poco. I soldi ricevuti sono indispensabili per le attività terroristiche e si può tracciare la parabola delle varie formazioni a seconda della loro capacità di assicurarsi fonti di finanziamento. Così mentre il nodo attorno al nucleo di al Qaeda si è stretto e l’attività della rete terroristica è diminuita, quella di gruppi come al Qaeda nel Maghreb islamico, al Qaeda nella Penisola arabica, o Isis prosperano grazie alla loro abilità nell’ottenere denaro dalle attività criminali.

La situazione per coloro che sono prigionieri in Siria è sfortunatamente ancora più complicata, perché non sono chiare le motivazioni per cui i miliziani dell’Isis trattengono gli ostaggi. Stanno chiedendo soldi per rimetterli in libertà o hanno soltanto intenzione di usarli come scudi contro attacchi esterni? Ciò che è chiaro, tuttavia, è che gli ostaggi resteranno pedine dei gruppi che cercano fondi e attenzione. Il fatto che famiglie, aziende e governi alla fine decidano di pagare è solo un modo per perpetuare questo circolo vizioso, aumentando il numero di gruppi che guardano al rapimento come un’attività lucrosa.

Per interromperlo è necessario che tutti si rifiutino di pagare. È una decisione difficile da mettere in pratica, e anche difficile da fare accettare a famiglie e opinione pubblica. Ma è l’unico modo per chiudere la «fabbrica dei sequestri».

*Esperto di sicurezza e terrorismo al Royal united services institute (Rusi) di Londra

My contribution about the Westgate attack for my home institution RUSI. Tries to put the incident within the bigger context of trends we are seeing within al Qaeda and terrorism internationally. I did quite a bit of media around the Nairobi attack, a lot of questions about the mythical ‘White Widow’ Samantha Lewthwaite: the New York Times, ABC, NBCNew Statesman, Guardian, Daily Beast, Sky News, BBC, Times, as well as others I cannot find and a video for RUSI.

The Westgate Nairobi Attack: A Sign of the Diversified Threat from Al-Qa’ida

RUSI Analysis, 4 Oct 2013

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow, Counter-Terrorism

The locus of countering Al-Qa’ida style terrorism has now shifted overseas, with Western governments facing a new and complex set of issues that have been brought into particular focus by recent events at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
Westgate Terror attacks Kenya Nairobi

Al-Shabaab’s audacious attack in central Nairobi came in the wake of Al-Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s latest message entitled ‘General Guidelines for Jihad.’ His communication laid out an attack plan for his global movement which focused on two main themes: the growing geographical diversity of the struggle that he is trying to lead and the need to be more careful in targeting. Neither is a particularly new. But the message seems all the more salient following a year that so far has seen large-scale operations at In Amenas in Algeria, a scare against Western targets in Yemen, a brutal massacre at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, and all alongside a constant patter of death in Syria, Iraq and Pakistan

The threat from international terrorism is one that has become more diverse and complicated, posing Western security officials with a growing array of risks and dangers across a wider geographical space. Complicated terrorist plots no longer solely emanate from Pakistan’s badlands targeting Europe or the United States.

Regional Al-Qa’ida affiliates instead seek Western targets near their home bases, focusing on the subsequent media attention. Places such as In Amenas, Western Embassies in Yemen or the Westgate Mall in Nairobi are the future of terrorism. For Western security officials, the problem is to develop strategies to protect, prepare and prevent terrorist attacks that are targeting nationals and interests abroad.  They will have to deal with a complicated basket of issues that will require developing local capacity and ability, as well as improving regional and international coordination, in particular within the European Union. The locus of countering terrorism has now shifted overseas and developing capacity to address this new and complicated threat will be the focus for the medium term future.

Al Qa’ida Diversifying

As is his wont, Zawahiri talked at length about the confrontation with the ‘far enemy’ the United States, but also focused in some detail on the numerous live jihadi battlefields where his group has some connection. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Algeria, the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia, Syria and ‘the environs of Jerusalem’ – an interesting allusion to one of the most active Sinai based groups that has been responsible for the attack on the Egyptian Interior Minister in Cairo on 5 September 2013. He also voiced sympathy for ‘brothers’ in Kashmir, Xinjiang, the Philippines and Burma, where al-Zawahiri sees potential supporters, but no specific allied groups and so restricts himself to simply calling for support for these people in their struggle against their oppressors.

The signal is that Al-Qa’ida is diversifying its branches and regions of influence. Since the Arab Spring, Al-Qa’ida core has found itself preoccupied less on the West and more on the Muslim world, where there seems to be more room for rallying support and potential inflection points for social change. Whether this is a sign of the movement’s weakness in the West, or an inability of the centre to control its branches, the strengthened development of its networks and ideas in an increasingly diverse geographical space presents a clear and present danger to Western interests in the regions.

From being a relatively monolithic beast, Al-Qa’ida has evolved into a complicated beast with branches, affiliates and sympathisers around the globe. From a counter-terrorism perspective, this presents a more dangerous creation in many ways, though one that seems to have less ability to reach directly into Western capitals except through the tool of uncontrolled ‘lone actor’ terrorists. The threat to Western capitals continues to exist in Al-Qa’ida rhetoric and aspiration, but in practice they find it easier to hit targets full of Westerners closer to home.

Al-Zawahiri’s missive also emphasised the need for caution in the Jihadi struggle, reflecting a broader ongoing internal debate within Al-Qa’ida. Ever since the debacle of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s brutality in Iraq and the public backlash this led to in the mid-2000s, al-Zawahiri has sought to rein in more savage acts. This particular aspect was seen on display in both the In Amenas and Westgate attacks where the groups made efforts to avoid killing Muslims. These may have been more demonstrative than practical (and Muslims perished in both incidents), but at the same time, some effort was made and this was publicised, with the affiliates responsible for those attacks keen on overtly implying that they seem to have learned some lessons from others experiences.

Drawing on lessons learned during the grim struggle in Algeria during the 1990s, al-Zawahiri realises that in order to be an effective vanguard you need to have a potential pool of support behind you. A message he further hammered home in his emphasis on the importance of educating and creating awareness within the masses, and of conducting ‘dawa’ (preaching) and spreading their message throughout Muslim lands and beyond. He emphasises a basic principle: ‘to avoid entering in any conflict with them [so-called proxies of America], except in countries where confronting them becomes inevitable.’

The New Locus of Threat

It is within this context that Western counter-terrorism officials will see recent events in Nairobi and what this means for the threat from international terrorism. No longer are Al-Qa’ida or its affiliates targeting the West, but rather they are pursuing Western interests in their near neighbourhoods.

The centre of gravity as fragmented away from the West itself. Regional groups like al-Shabaab, Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula or Boko Haram now seek to attack Western interests in their immediate surrounding.  Hence, the choice of attacking a Western company site in Algeria, the Westgate Mall, Western embassies or kidnapping individuals in the broader Sahel. In all of these instances, Westerners were part of the thinking in target choice, but the action was carried out abroad. It remains attractive to attack Westerners given the international focus and attention that it brings and westerners can increasingly be found in almost every corner of the globe. It is worth highlighting that these target choices are not that new, but increasingly they seem the focus.

The dilemma is two-fold: how far can Western security forces push the boundaries of the security umbrella under which nationals can operate? And on the assumption that it cannot extend universally, what can be done to either strengthen locals to respond to the threat or to work with locals to eradicate the underlying problems that provide a fertile ground for extremist ideas to grow. In other words, how do we develop and successfully implement counter-terrorism strategies across the board far from national borders?

At one level, the response to this can be found by forging stronger local relationships between relevant security officials. This needs to be through training in response, but also in the preventative aspect of counter-terrorism. Fostering a culture of observance to questions of justice and human rights can be just as important as strengthening technical capability to respond to an incident. Furthermore, encouraging greater cooperation at an international level with European or other international partners to coordinate local efforts, while at the same time fostering regional cooperation (for example through AMISOM in Somalia or the African Union effort in Mali) are all going to be key in controlling the threat.

Learning Lessons?

Perhaps Al-Zawahiri’s approach in diversifying Al-Qa’ida’s efforts to vulnerable geographies and proceeding cautiously and with due regard for local issues should be mirrored by the West.  The complexity of Islamist extremist networks and their ability to draw on local issues to strengthen their narrative makes them difficult to understand and counter. The circumstances under which they manage to thrive are different. A one-size-fits-all approach to countering them is headed for failure.

At the same time, international cooperation to counter the development of these terrorist networks overseas requires caution as it is linked to issues of sovereignty, human rights and local legitimacy, to name a few. Unintended consequences such as the strengthening of resentment against the West is a constant concern, as many counter-terrorism efforts are still deemed to be a form of imperialism rather than a genuine effort to improving human and community security and justice.

In that sense, a partnership with legitimate local actors is a requirement for success, but identifying the correct ones and finding effective ways to working with them presents difficulties for policymakers. An additional layer of complexity is that assessing ‘illegitimate’ local actors and their intent is also problematic: the number of worldwide groups and individuals affiliated with or potentially influenced by Al-Qa’ida is vast. Some may be more proximate to thresholds of legitimacy than others.  New movements and mergers within Syria as well as so-called lone wolves who might emerge present a further challenge.

How an adequate response to the transnational influence of this group can be formulated is an on-going debate. The trend towards transnationalism, ‘globalised’ local partnerships and disaggregation is something that al-Zawahiri has recognised and is eager to harness. It remains uncertain that he has been successful in this.  But in countering this strategy, tackling the feeling of local anger that the Al-Qa’ida’s narrative continues to be able to tap into remains a challenge for more nuanced and sophisticated counter-radicalisation and counter-extremism work.  Managing this work across broad geographies presents as complex a management challenge as al-Zawahiri faces.

Twelve years after Al-Qa’ida’s keynote attack on the West, the organisation continues to survive and, in some battlefields, thrive. Attacks like the incident in Nairobi highlight that often it is not the core that is the biggest threat, but the regional affiliates that might be discounted as simply local problems. No longer the monolith it once was, it has latched on to local narratives and anger on a global scale, initiating bottom up dynamics that are far beyond Al-Qa’ida core’s ability to control or even influence.  Al-Zawahiri’s message is a call for coherence. Coherence coupled with caution may also be what’s needed at the core of policymakers’ and practitioners’ approach to countering the Islamist extremist threat across the globe.

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.

A longer piece I did for Jane’s, this time exploring the importance of training camps for British jihadists.

Fuelling the campfire – the importance of training camps to aspirant UK jihadists

  • UK jihadists engaged in militant training in the UK and abroad during the 1990s, with training camps providing a core element the necessary preparation for jihad.
  • Despite a crackdown on such activities, a series of disrupted jihadist plots in the UK over the past three years have highlighted the persistence of key elements in militant training.
  • Most notable was the continuing importance attached to training by aspirant jihadists and the preference for travelling abroad to train with existing jihadist networks.

A series of convictions of Islamist militants in the United Kingdom in early 2013 has underlined the continuing importance attached to militant training camps in the UK and abroad by aspirant jihadists.Raffaello Pantucci investigates.

The investigation into the bombing of the Boston marathon in the United States on 15 April has refocused attention on the issue of training in terrorist plots in the West, in particular whether plotters are able to rely on militant publications – such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) English-language magazine Inspire – to learn how to make explosive devices, or if they need to actually physically attend a training camp. In the case of the alleged perpetrators of the Boston attack – brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – it remains unclear, but a recent series of failed and disrupted attack plots in the United Kingdom indicated in some detail the ongoing importance attributed to training and the role of camps by Western jihadist cells.Although these plots are ultimately historical, and it is difficult to accurately assess the degree to which they reflect the ongoing reality of current training camps, they nonetheless have a number of similarities with longstanding trends seen among jihadists not only in the UK but also in the West more broadly. Additionally, the features of the training camps that the individuals are eager to attend, or are establishing themselves, are broadly similar to previous jihadist training camps, illustrating the persistence of certain patterns.

Precedents

In the 1990s, UK jihadists were urged to prepare to fight by radical Islamist clerics such as Mustafa Kamel Mustafa (alias Abu Hamza al-Masri) – who was subsequently extradited to the US in October 2012 to face terrorism charges – and Omar Bakri Mohammed, a former leader of now-banned UK Islamist activist group Al-Muhajiroun, who is currently residing in Lebanon. As part of an investigation by UK newspaperThe Sunday Telegraph in November 1999, a number of UK nationals confessed to training both in the UK and abroad. Abdul Wahid Majid – current status unknown – was quoted as stating: “After my basic training with swords and sticks at the mosque [in the UK], I then went on a number of courses, where I was taught how to use firearms and live ammunition.”

Abu Hamza al-Masri stated toThe Sunday Telegraph : “We do use weapons which have been decommissioned by the police,” while senior Islamist activist and former Al-Muhajiroun spokesman Anjem Choudary confirmed to the paper: “Before they go abroad to fight for organisations like the IIF [a reference to the International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders, an entity consisting of Al-Qaeda and several allied militant Islamist groups that was first mentioned by now-deceased Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a February 1998 statement and which facilitated UK Muslims to travel to fight in Bosnia and Chechnya], the volunteers are trained in Britain. Some of the training does involve guns and live ammunition.”

While these statements may have been brash pronouncements overstating what may have been little more than adventure camps, they highlighted the importance of training camps to UK jihadists at that point. The speeches by Omar Bakri Mohammed and Abu Hamza al-Masri in this period appear to constantly exhort their students to prepare and train. Individuals would seemingly train in the UK and then travel abroad to train further or fight, a trend that continued even after the arrest of Abu Hamza al-Masri in August 2003 and the expulsion of Islamist groups from the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London.

In May 2004, Mohammed Hamid – a senior member of the Finsbury Park Mosque community who was jailed indefinitely in March 2008 after being convicted of organising terrorist training and soliciting murder – organised a training camp in the county of Cumbria in the northwest of the UK, which was attended by four men who were jailed for life in 2007 over the failed 21 July 2005 London bomb plot (in which five bombs were placed in London Underground stations, but failed to detonate properly). A year later, two other men who attended the same camp travelled to Somalia “for purposes relating to terrorism”, according to court documents. In footage that emerged subsequent to Hamid’s trial, images were seen of the men exercising together, walking around with heavy packs, and camping in the Welsh countryside.

Recurring trends

The jihadist cell around these camps was largely disrupted, with some members arrested as part of the 21 July 2005 attack network or alongside Hamid in September 2007. Others were reported to have died in air strikes in Somalia – deaths confirmed by both families and militant groups. One such figure, Bilal Berjawi, re-emerged in January 2012 when his official biography and a video were released by the Al-Kataib Media branch of Somali militant Islamist group the Shabab.

Berjawi was a UK citizen of Lebanese origin who rose through the ranks of the community of Al-Qaeda fighters in East Africa to purportedly become a key fighter and leader of the Shabab. According to his official biography, Berjawi travelled back and forth from Somalia to the UK, raising funds between bouts of fighting in Somalia. In addition, the video of Berjawi showed him training with other Islamist militants in Somalia, including his close friend Mohammed Sakr. Friends since they were 12 years old, the two young men went to Somalia more than once and – after being stripped of their UK citizenship by the government in 2010 – both were subsequently killed in suspected US unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) missile strikes in Somalia; Berjawi in January 2012 and Sakr the following month.

These cases highlight that UK jihadist cells are seemingly fixated with carrying out training, whether in the UK or abroad, particularly connecting with jihadist groups, be it in Somalia like Berjawi; or in the UK like Muktar Said Ibrahim, the leader of the 21 July 2005 cell. Ibrahim attended one of Hamid’s camps in the UK and then later met with Rashid Rauf – a UK national of Pakistani descent who was linked to a UK plot to bomb transatlantic airliners in 2006, and reportedly killed in a 2008 UAV strike in Pakistan – and other senior Al-Qaeda figures in Pakistan. Training in the UK provides a framework to demonstrate a certain level of commitment to Islamist militancy and to develop contacts, while linking up with groups abroad for training frequently proves a more operational shift.

The significance of these trends is underlined by the way they have persisted through to more recent plots. A series of attack plots by UK jihadist cells through the late 2000s and early 2010s seem to confirm that, as late as early 2012, this modus operandi remained in play. In all of the plots disrupted by security services, the cells consistently gave an indication of seeking training, or attempting to develop their own training camps. These are traits that reflect longstanding plotting methodology and highlight the ongoing importance of training for groups of UK jihadists.

Gyms

A four-member militant cell based in the UK city of Luton headed by Zahid Iqbal pleaded guilty to preparing for acts of terrorism in March 2013. Police observed the men undertaking hiking expeditions in Wales, and according to recordings used by the prosecution during their trial, on returning from one of these trips to Snowdonia in March 2011, one of the men in the group was overheard saying the trip was “good jihad training”. During another trip later in the month, convicted cell members Mohammed Sarfraz Ahmed and Umar Arshad were overheard discussing how Scafell Pike – the highest mountain in England – was similar in conditions to the parts of Pakistan that Ahmed had visited as part of an earlier trip in pursuit of militant training.

During the trial, Ahmed in particular was identified by the prosecution as being “actively engaged in the radicalisation and recruitment of others for extremist purposes”, adding that he “engaged in physically and mentally training these others [the other cell members]”. During a trip to Snowdonia, Ahmed was observed by police leading groups in what was described by the prosecution as “regimental walking, press-ups, running in formation, and using logs perhaps as mock firearms”. These activities had been observed by police in earlier camps run by Hamid.

Another similarity with earlier attack plots was the use of gyms as places in which individuals would undergo physical training in preparation for future activities. Iqbal was recorded by police telling others that he had joined a gym to help himself train. In a separate conversation, Ahmed was overheard saying: “A lot of the stuff we do, you can do at home, say your press-up, burpees [a physical exercise] and stuff,” but while he stated the value of training with others, he highlighted the risks associated with doing military-style exercises and group training at public gyms.

One such gym in the UK city of Birmingham, the Darul Ihsaan, or Abode of Excellence, gym – also known to locals as Jimmy’s Gym – was used as a focus of congregation by two separate militant Islamist cells in the city, members of both of which were later convicted on terrorism charges.

The first cell was headed up by Irfan Naseer, with support from Irfan Khalid and Ashik Ali. The three were convicted in February 2013 of plotting suicide attacks in Birmingham. According to a 22 February 2013 report in UK newspaperThe Daily Telegraph , Naseer first met Khalid and Ali at “premises known as the 24/7 Gym” in Birmingham in 2007 and 2008, although the men later collectively changed to the Darul Ihsaan gym.

In addition, Anzal Hussain and Mohammed Saud – two members of a six-man cell that pleaded guilty in April 2013 to planning to bomb a far-right English Defence League (EDL) rally in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, in June 2012 – were identified in local media reports as being employed at the Darul Ihsaan gym.

Overseas training

For Naseer, the Darul Ihsaan gym was also a source of recruits, including the four members of a cell who pleaded guilty in October 2012 to travelling to training camps in Pakistan. The group ended up being part of Naseer’s downfall as their absence was noted by their families who vociferously complained to another prominent local individual – identified as Ahmed Faraz (alias Abu Bakr), who was convicted in December 2011 on charges of possessing terrorist material – and accused him of facilitating the men’s travel. A regular at the Darul Ihsaan gym, Faraz denied responsibility and pointed the angered families in Naseer’s direction.

For Naseer, like all of the other cells, the priority seems to have been travelling overseas to train. However, while Naseer and Khalid twice travelled to Pakistan for training, from March-November 2009 and from December 2010 to mid-2011, not all of the cells appear to have been able to

In the case of one such cell – nine members of which were arrested in December 2010 and pleaded guilty in February 2012 to planning to bomb the London Stock Exchange – the solution was instead to build their own camp using land one of their families already owned. A member of the cell, Usman Khan, had a piece of family land in Pakistani-administered Kashmir on which – according to the prosecution – the cell was planning to build a madrassah (religious seminary) that could be used to train people for terrorism. Adjacent to an already existing mosque, the prosecution claimed the cell had long-term ambitions to fundraise and build a camp around the madrassah that could become a base for UK Muslims seeking training in a secure environment.

It remains unclear whether members of this cell had been able to establish any connection to known militant Islamist organisations in the region, although at least one member of the cell was believed by authorities to have had contact with other radical Islamists in prison, and cell leader Mohammed Chowdhury had been widely identified in media reports as being present at a number of marches organised by off-shoots of Al-Muhajiroun. By contrast, Naseer had been able to make contact with elements linked to Al-Qaeda and to arrange training at a Harakat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) camp in North Waziristan in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

To a lesser extent, Iqbal, leader of the Luton cell, was identified by the prosecution as being in contact with an individual, identified only by the Security Service codename ‘Modern Sleeve’, who facilitated fellow cell member Ahmed’s travel to Pakistan for training in early 2011. While a 15 April 2013Daily Telegraph report described ‘Modern Sleeve’ as an “Al-Qaeda contact”, his group affiliation remains unconfirmed in open sources. At another point, Iqbal was recorded by police telling another cell member that “Mauritania has got thing now innit, it’s got an AQ [Al-Qaeda] group innit. AQ of the Islamic Maghreb” – a likely reference to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – to which Ahmed replied: “If they (the brothers) are still saying wait, I don’t want to keep waiting here, do you understand? I want to get out of this place and I’ll wait over there, at least then I’m close by sort of thing.” Whether the cell actually had any contact with the Al-Qaeda affiliate in North Africa remains unclear.

Similarly, it is unclear whether Richard ‘Salahuddin’ Dart and Jahangir Alom – two members of a three-man cell who pleaded guilty in April 2013 to plotting a series of bomb attacks – were able to actually make the connections with the militant Islamist groups they were hoping for. In an online conversation between Dart and the third cell member, Imran Mahmood – who the prosecution claimed had come into contact with explosives, as evidenced by traces of explosive materials found on his possessions – Mahmood told Dart: “Tare [sic] with TTP [Pakistani militant Islamist group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan] and AQ, no its not Swat Valley but they got connection and I try get u close to the people who are close to them amir and thats rare.” Mahmood is admitting difficulty in connecting Dart but is selling it to him that he has an ability to reach out to the TTP and Al-Qaeda. Dart’s response illustrated where his interest lay: “Yer al hamdulilah [praise be to Allah] that would be excellent. We would want to be active and with the right people.”

Adventure’s end

However, when training abroad could be arranged, the training camps were not always the exciting adventure camps the men expected. Court documents described how the four cell members from Birmingham were shocked when they arrived in Pakistan in August 2011 to find themselves dumped in a bare camp on a mountainside with no toilets, beds, or protection from the stifling heat and mosquitoes. The entire trip seemingly quickly lost its romantic appeal and the group first called one of the cell back in the UK before reaching out to their families, who commanded them to leave the camp and meet with Pakistani relations in a nearby city.

Despite suffering a rather ignominious expulsion from his second training trip to Pakistan, Naseer was able to obtain some useful training. When he was arrested in September 2011, he was found to be in possession of quite capable bomb and detonator designs, and while it is sometimes hard to separate reality from bluster, it seems he was able to make connections with Al-Qaeda-linked individuals in Pakistan – with whom he and Khalid left martyrdom videos that they were later heard discussing and re-enacting for others. This separates the Birmingham cell somewhat from the other cells previously identified, who were unable to firmly establish connections with militant personnel in Pakistan and whose training was either self-created or aspirational.

Another commonality across some of the cells was the desire to masquerade as observers of non-violent Deobandi Islamic reform and propagation movement Tablighi Jamaat to hide their movements. During the trial of the Luton cell, the prosecution stated: “Iqbal and Ahmed discussed using the Tablighi sect as a cover for travel… It is generally considered to eschew controversy hence the defendants’ belief that it provided good cover.” In a separate conversation in Birmingham, Naseer was recorded by police giving fellow cell member Ishaq Hussain – one of the four who pleaded guilty to travelling to Pakistani training camps in October 2012 – a list of madrassahs he was to say he attended if he was questioned by police about his activities in Pakistan, one of which was a “Tablighi” madrassah. This habit of using Tablighi Jamaat as cover, both in terms of travelling and also in Pakistan, seems to be fairly standard among UK jihadists, some of whom have spent time at Tablighi mosques in the UK and all of whom recognise the travelling missionary cover provided by the sect as one that is hard for security services to dispute as well as providing them access to a community of missionaries that will always welcome fellow believers.

The key conclusions from many of these plots appear clear: UK patterns in jihadist training persist and have largely remained unchanged as time has passed. Jihadist cells continue to be eager to use the UK’s highlands and gyms as places to train, and remain eager to participate in some form of training overseas – particularly in Pakistan. What has changed, though, is the increasing difficulty cells face in achieving this, with security forces increasingly identifying and intercepting those who attempt to travel overseas for militant training.

While the ongoing anti-government uprising in Syria has somewhat provided an additional venue for UK nationals to receive militant training, the strong UK connection to South Asia and the persistence of groups like HuM who are quite mercenary in their willingness to train people for money means that Pakistan will likely continue to attract aspirant Western jihadists for training. As such, it seems likely that training at camps in the UK and abroad will continue to be a feature of the UK jihadist scene for the foreseeable future.

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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