Posts Tagged ‘Bosnia’

A new article for the CTC Sentinel that has been in the pipeline for a while. Looks at the phenomenon of British fighters going to Syria and the larger connections between the UK and fighting in Syria. A fascinating story that has not been dug into much, but is going to get bigger as time goes on. On other matters, I was quoted in a pair of Associated Press stories, here and here about the recent Ansaru Nigerian kidnappings.

British Fighters Joining the War in Syria

Feb 20, 2013

Author: Raffaello Pantucci

Since the start of the Syrian war, British police have arrested and charged three men for their roles in a terrorist conspiracy linked to the conflict. British security officials fear that these arrests may only be the tip of an iceberg as they watch Syria become the brightest flame drawing in young British radicals. As British Foreign Secretary William Hague recently said, “Syria is now the number one destination for jihadists anywhere in the world today. This includes a number of individuals connected with the United Kingdom and other European countries. They may not pose a threat to us when they first go to Syria, but if they survive some may return ideologically hardened and with experience of weapons and explosives.”[1]

The most striking aspect about the Syria-UK connection is its similarity to past events. Not only are there shades of Bosnia in the ease with which Britons can join the war in Syria,[2] but there are also similarities in the structures that have nurtured the conflict.[3] Longstanding London-based preachers have returned to join fighters on the frontlines, convoys run by Muslim charities take food and supplies while hosting events at which they criticize the lack of action by the international community, and young men are taking time off from their ordinary lives to join the fight. Atop all of this, a political debate in the United Kingdom—reflective of the broader global debate—about what action to take in Syria has failed to deliver meaningful results, providing more fodder for those who perceive that the West is turning a blind eye to the plight of Muslims.

In highlighting the complexity of this threat, this article identifies the current known links between the Syrian and British jihadist communities, as well as the broader context from which it is emerging. It also shows how fallout from Syria has the potential to have negative repercussions in the United Kingdom for years to come.

The Case of the Kidnapped Journalists
Attention was first drawn publicly to the issue of British jihadists operating in Syria when a British and Dutch journalist escaped from their captors in Syria and made it to safety in Turkey. The men, Jerome Oerlemans and John Cantlie, had entered Syria on July 19, 2012, on assignment, but had the misfortune to fall into the hands of a group of mostly foreign extremists.[4] Held captive for a week, the men were repeatedly threatened with death and beaten after an escape attempt.[5] They were eventually released by a group of Syrians who had initially helped them enter the country.[6] Yet the most surprising news to emerge from the event was that among the men’s captors had been almost a dozen British jihadists—nine of whom “had London accents” and at least one who claimed to be a National Health Service (NHS) doctor.[7]

The trainee doctor in question, Shajul Islam, was intercepted on October 9, 2012, when he returned on a flight from Egypt with his wife and child.[8] A Briton of Bangladeshi origin, little is known about Shajul Islam aside from his age, 26-years-old, that he is from Stratford in East London, and that he is a doctor.[9] A graduate of St. Bartholomew’s and a University of London hospital, he reportedly had a first class degree in biochemistry.[10] According to captive John Cantlie, he carried an NHS medical kit with him and planned to return to work as a trauma consultant after a two year sabbatical.[11] Less is known about his co-conspirator Jubayer Chowdhury, except that he is of Bangladeshi descent. Both are currently awaiting trial for their role in kidnapping the two journalists.

In what was reported as an expansion of the case, authorities arrested an additional six men in mid-January 2013 as part of a wide-ranging police investigation into links with Syria.[12] Authorities arrested one group of three men at addresses in east London, while a fourth man identified as being Portuguese was picked up at Gatwick airport.[13] All were detained “on suspicion of commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.”[14] Authorities arrested a second pair “outside a business” in west London, although no link was immediately drawn between the two cases.[15] In the end, all but Mohamed Elyasse Taleouine from Lisson Grove, north London, were cleared, while Taleouine was charged with possession of a blank-firing MAC-10 that had been converted into a live weapon.[16] A week later, police went back and re-arrested a man from the first set of arrests, revealing him to be Najul Islam, brother of Shajul Islam.[17]

Najul Islam was charged with a variety of offenses, including funding his brother’s travel to Syria, funding Jubayer Chowdhury’s return from Syria, and sending them money to support their activities.[18] Additionally, police believe he traveled by vehicle from the United Kingdom through Turkey to Syria to provide equipment including night vision goggles, air rifle optic mounts, and medical supplies.[19] Likely to come to trial next year, more information will then be released about the men and how they reached Syria.

A great deal more information, however, has emerged about an unconnected, separate case involving Nassim Terreri and Walid Blidi, two men of Algerian descent who were raised in London and died March 26, 2012, at Darkoush, a few miles from the Turkish border.[20] Respectively from west and south London, the men led relatively uneventful lives prior to their deaths.[21] Reported as a kind young man who worked hard at school, Nassim Terreri dropped out of a university course and had drifted into waiting tables.[22] In his early 20s, he found religion and traveled to Mecca, after which he began wearing traditional Arab dress.[23] He reportedly participated in an aid convoy to Gaza led by Minister of Parliament George Galloway.[24] By the end of 2011, however, his family noted he had shaved off his beard and met a girl—suggesting that his religious fervor may have passed.[25] In early 2012, he went on a vacation with Walid Blidi to France.[26] Two weeks later, he called his mother from the Syrian border and, according to a family friend, “told her he was going to find out what was really happening in Syria.”[27] After another two weeks, she received a call that he and Blidi were dead.[28] Much less is known about Blidi, except that in August 2007 he was arrested in Exeter alongside a pair of others during a police drug sting.[29]

Initially, reports from Syria indicated that Blidi and Terreri were journalists.[30] Little evidence, however, emerged of them having done any reporting, and the al-Assad regime included their names in a list to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as evidence foreign terrorists were involved in the insurgency.[31] The real story emerged when reporters interviewed fighters who claimed to have been with the men on the night they died.[32] The two British fighters apparently opened fire at a passing Syrian government convoy, attracting retaliatory fire and getting the group caught in a firefight between government and rebel forces.[33] During the clash, other Syrian fighters were killed, and another Briton known only as Hamza was injured.[34] His fate is unknown.[35] The brigade in which the men were fighting, the Hisham Haboub brigade of the Free Syrian Army, was not Salafi-jihadi, but the men’s actions and deaths highlight how easy it is for British nationals to participate in frontline fighting in Syria. Biographies published in the British media highlighted that Nassim Terreri in particular “favorited” videos of “extremist Australian preacher” Shaykh Feiz Mohammed.[36]

“Londonistan’s” Syrian Flavor
Young Britons fighting in Syria is not a surprising development. British fighters have been found on almost every jihadist battlefield since Afghanistan in the 1970s. This pipeline was nurtured by the unique combination of restive second-generation immigrant communities, dissident Arab populations—both secular and non-secular—who used bases in London to promote causes, including anti-government agendas, at home, with a seemingly passive British government response.[37] Captured in the public imagination with the shorthand term “Londonistan,” this community also provided a home for radical preachers who brought jihadist ideas to British shores and ended up radicalizing a portion of British youth. This led to young Britons becoming involved in international radical networks, including al-Qa`ida, leading ultimately to the July 7, 2005, bombings when a group of young Britons under orders from al-Qa`ida killed 52 people on London’s transport system.[38]

Since the advent of the Arab Spring, however, the larger connection between Arab dissidents based in London and their home nations has become more prominent. Libyan exiles from London and Manchester went back in unknown numbers to fight alongside the rebels against the Mu`ammar Qadhafi regime,[39] a number of key Tunisian Ennahda party members (including leader Rashid al-Ghannouchi[40]) relocated from Britain to help run the country in the wake of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s departure, and prominent former Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Kamal Helbawy was among a number of exiles who returned to Egypt as Hosni Mubarak was deposed.[41] The United Kingdom has a personal connection with the anti-government forces in many Arab Spring countries—whether they are secular, nationalist, or Islamist. This connection is also present with Syria, where dissidents and exiles from the Syrian community living in the United Kingdom (estimated at 13,000 strong[42]) have become a key support network for their brethren in the Middle East. Support includes providing funding and aid convoys, dissident groups providing a way for information to get out from the war raging in Syria, as well as fighters and spiritual leaders for the rebellion.

In addition to Syrians, British Muslims of other ethnicities have traveled to Syria as well. As highlighted by the previous examples, British fighters known to have fought in Syria are young men who have graduated from university, worked as waiters, trainee doctors, or even as former drug dealers. The exact numbers in terms of ethnic provenance are hard to determine, but a substantial amount seem to be drawn from communities other than Syrian. According to Birmingham Minister of Parliament Khalid Mahmood, as of August 2012 at least 30 young Britons not of Syrian descent had traveled to Syria.[43] A Sudanese community leader from west London reported that he had spoken to a younger member of his community who claimed to have at least 21 friends who were training to go to Syria, and spoke of joining formerly UK-based Moroccans and Somalis who had already gone to fight.[44] In August 2012, a British journalist in Aleppo met a British convert from Walthamstow who used the name “Abu Yacoub.”[45] He claimed to have converted five years earlier, having originally been born in Tanzania and brought to the United Kingdom as a child.[46] He came to Syria four months earlier and was found in the company of an Iraqi friend who had been injured. Both men claimed to be members of Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham (Free Men of Syria), an Islamist group involved in the war.[47]

Another report from later in the year instead highlighted a “pious” young Bangladeshi Briton who had risen in the ranks of foreign fighters and was responsible for about 50 Britons who went to fight in Syria.[48] Thus far, none of those reportedly arrested around the case linked to the kidnapping of the two journalists have been identified as being of Syrian descent.

Yet while the foot soldiers may come from different ethnicities, the older “Londonistani” warriors who have gone back to join the frontlines seem to be Syrian. Most prominent is Abu Basir al-Tartusi, a preacher formerly based in Poplar, east London. One of the few preachers with a following among radical communities to still operate in the United Kingdom, al-Tartusi was once quoted in the press as being “a leading jihadi theologian on a level with Abu Qatada.”[49]

His importance internationally had not translated into great acclaim among Britain’s young jihadist community. His lack of English and the fact that he condemned suicide bombing (including the July 7, 2005, London bombings), taking a more moderate line than most of the “Londonistani” preachers, meant he had less of a following among the radical community in the United Kingdom. The radical community tended to follow preachers such as Abu Hamza al-Masri[50] and Abdullah Faisal[51] (both of whom were incarcerated on charges of inciting racial hatred and murder), Abu Qatada (who openly boasted to British authorities about his power over the United Kingdom’s extremist Algerian community),[52] and Omar Bakri Mohammed (the Syrian preacher who founded al-Muhajiroun).[53] Al-Tartusi’s decision to travel to the Syrian frontlines surprised some, and likely elevated him in the eyes of the broader radical community.[54] While al-Tartusi’s exact activities since traveling to the front are unclear, he has maintained a steady production of materials and fatawa and has been spotted at least twice brandishing an AK-47.[55] Al-Tartusi responded angrily when the news emerged that he was at the front, with the implication being that he was consorting with terrorists, and he published a remonstration on his site in which he declared that he was there as “a servant and an adviser to all the heroic rebels and to all the Syrian people who are in defiance against the oppression and tyranny of Bashar al-Assad.”[56]

Another former “Londonistani” who appeared briefly toward the beginning of the Syrian conflict and then disappeared was Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, otherwise known as Abu Mus`ab al-Suri. A prominent jihadist theologian, U.S. and Pakistani forces captured him in Quetta in 2005 and eventually transferred him to Syrian authorities.[57] In the late 1990s, al-Suri was one of the prominent former Arab Afghan warriors to have landed in London as Afghanistan descended into civil war and the jihad against the Soviets concluded.[58] Alongside Abu Qatada, al-Suri managed the jihadist screed Ansar that openly supported extremist groups in Algeria. Following his time in London, he moved to Afghanistan from where he helped train fighters and authored literature until he was captured in late 2005.[59]

Al-Suri languished in Syrian custody until early February 2012, when news emerged on the Shumukh jihadist website that he had been freed.[60] While it is hard to independently verify this claim, the news has been widely accepted as true among the expert community and seemingly confirmed both by reliable extremists on forums and London-based extremists who knew him.[61] The logic behind the al-Assad regime’s decision to release him is unclear.

Humanitarian Support
Support for the war in Syria has not only come through fighters and warrior preachers. One of the more under-reported but highly important figures to have emerged from the United Kingdom is Muhammad Surur bin Nayif Zain al-Abidin. A British passport holder, Surur was based in the United Kingdom for almost two decades after moving there in the 1980s.[62] He has reportedly been characterized as a “Godfather-like” figure who had previously vetted individuals who had traveled to the United Kingdom to meet with Saad al-Faqih or Muhammad al-Massari. Al-Faqih and al-Massari are two prominent Saudi dissidents in London who have played senior roles in the “Londonistan” community. As well as individually running dissident groups aimed against the Saudi regime, al-Massari in particular was an active supporter of Britain’s nascent online jihadist community.[63]

A former Muslim Brotherhood activist, Surur was an innovator in Salafist thinking and established with his followers the Center for Islamic Studies in Birmingham, from where he published magazines and later ran the http://www.alsunnah.org website.[64] In 2004, Surur left the United Kingdom, moving to Jordan and later to Qatar, and it is from here that, according to one prominent Syrian journalist based in London, he has become an important figure in the flow of Qatari money to Syria.[65] As journalist Malik al-Abdeh alleged, “Surur has established himself as one of the key conduits for Qatari money to the anti-Assad rebels.”[66]

Other Syrians have remained in the United Kingdom and have taken roles publicly supporting the rebels in other ways, either through formal new Syrian National Council structures or Syrian-managed NGOs.[67] Beyond politics, a basic sense of feeling the need to support the Syrian refugees seen regularly on television screens has driven unknown numbers of Britons to give money and other forms of aid to support those living in refugee camps in Turkey or elsewhere. Support for Syrian refugees has come from traditional charitable entities from across Britain’s Muslim community. Using a blend of videos, magazines, flyers, stalls in city centers, charity boxes inside and outside mosques, and sponsored events, these charities turn the money they raise into goods which they then drive—in convoys usually with donated ambulances—to refugee camps in Turkey.[68] There is no evidence that these are anything but charitable enterprises, but some of the individuals involved are notable for more radical views.[69] More openly controversial groups such as Hizb al-Tahrir have also regularly held demonstrations or protest events at which they call for al-Assad’s downfall.[70] At these events, emotive language is used to encourage people to help support the refugees, with preachers often providing a religious explanation for why more should be done. These are all legitimate activities, yet it highlights the backdrop around which the issue is discussed in Britain’s Muslim community.

Demonstrating the ease with which British citizens are able to get close to the fighting—either for military or humanitarian purposes—former Guantanamo Bay prisoner and spokesman for the activist group Cage Prisoners, Moazzam Begg, made a trip to Syria as part of an aid convoy at some point in the first half of 2012. According to his own report, he traveled to “the outskirts of the city of Aleppo [where] I stayed with a group of pious, well-educated, relatively young and very hospitable fighters.”[71]

Conclusion
The trouble in Syria remains beyond British borders. Security officials are somewhat constrained about how to respond, and understandably only take action when specific cases linked to kidnapping or terrorism can be constructed. The question becomes what will happen to the young men who are bloodied in the conflict after the Syrian war winds down, as well as the networks that will have been established between radical groups in Syria and in the United Kingdom.

It took a few years before former Bosnian fighters were implicated in terrorist plots in the United Kingdom. In 1995, Andrew Rowe, an aimless former drug dealer, converted to Islam and went to Bosnia where he took up arms and was injured during fighting.[72] In 2003, he was arrested with unspecified terrorist plans after being connected with a number of French former Bosnian fighters who carried out a series of violent robberies across France.[73] Saajid Badat went to Sarajevo in 1998 and the next year to Afghanistan.[74] Two years later he was on his way back to the United Kingdom with Richard Reid and a set of “shoe bombs” with the intent to blow up transatlantic airlines.[75] Also in 1998, Omar Sharif answered the call to go and join Kosovar militants fighting Serbs, although he cut his trip short. He went to Damascus approximately a year later, then Afghanistan after 9/11, before his fatal trip in 2003 back to Damascus where he hoped to join the insurgency in Iraq and instead ended up as part of a two-man suicide cell operating on Hamas’ behalf in Tel Aviv.[76]

This is not a new narrative. Conflicts with a jihadist flavor attract idealistic young fighters who are sometimes redirected to other conflicts. At some point, if these fighters encounter certain groups or individuals, this energy can develop into plotting at home. Certainly this is not always the case, and most of those who go—either to fight or simply to do charity work—will return home and resume their lives. Yet the growing depth and complexity of the UK-Syria connection will perplex security services for years to come as they try to identify who is connected with Salafi-jihadi groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and who went for less nefarious reasons.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Research 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).

[1] William Hague, “Foreign Secretary on Countering Terrorism,” speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), February 14, 2013.

[2] Bosnia was a bus or car ride away for British citizens, similar to Syria.

[3] Covered in greater detail later in the article, there are charitable organizations, as well as jihadist support networks, that help British Muslims become involved in Syria: either in providing aid as part of charity convoys, or more active roles as fighters. This is similar to Bosnia where similar structures existed. Evan Kohlmann’s Al-Qaeda’s Jihad in Europe: The Afghan-Bosnian Network provides a snapshot of British jihadist support structures in Bosnia.

[4] John Cantlie, “Are You Ready to Die?” Sunday Times, August 5, 2012.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] John-Paul Ford Rojas, “NHS Doctor ‘Led Extremist Cell in Syria,’” Telegraph, August 27, 2012.

[8] “British Police Arrest 2 at Heathrow Airport in Probe into Terrorist Activity in Syria,” Associated Press, October 9, 2012.

[9] Tom Whitehead, “NHS Doctor Accused of Being Part of a British Jihadi Group in Syria,” Telegraph, October 17, 2012.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Paul Peachey, “Four Men Arrested Over Syria Terror Fears,” Independent, January 10, 2012.

[13] Tom Whitehead, “Four Men Arrested Under Terror Laws After Kidnap of Journalist,” Telegraph, January 10, 2012.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Margaret Davis, “London Man Charged Over Sub Machine Gun Possession,” Independent, January 17, 2013.

[16] “Man, 20, is Held on Sub-Machine Gun Charge by Officers Investigating Alleged Support for Terrorism,” West End Extra, January 18, 2013.

[17] “Man Charged in UK Over Journalists’ Syria Kidnap,” Agence France-Presse, January 25, 2013.

[18] “Man at Court Charged with Terrorism Act 2006 Offence,” Crime & Justice, January 25, 2013.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Tom Coghlan and Laura Pitel, “The British Pals Who Died Waging Holy War in Syria,” Times, October 13, 2012.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] “Drug Squad Criticizes Jail Terms Handed out to Crack Cocaine Trio,” Express and Echo, February 10, 2008.

[30] “Two Independent Journalists Killed in Syria,” Committee to Protect Journalists, March 27, 2012.

[31] Laura Pitel and James Hider, “British ‘Terrorists’ Among Dead, Says Syria,” Times, May 18, 2012.

[32] Coghlan and Pitel.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] “Two Independent Journalists Killed in Syria.”

[36] Coghlan and Pitel.

[37] Omar Nasiri, Inside the Jihad: My Life with al Qaeda (London: Hurst, 2006), p. 16.

[38] Raffaello Pantucci, “A Biography of Rashid Rauf: Al-Qa`ida’s British Operative,” CTC Sentinel 5:7 (2012); Nic Robertson, Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, “Documents Give New Details on al Qaeda’s London Bombings,” CNN, April 30, 2012.

[39] Exact numbers are unknown, but anecdotal stories suggest that dozens went back to fight from Manchester’s Libyan community. See Jane Deith, “The Teenage Libyan Rebel from Manchester,” Channel 4 News, June 11, 2011; Edna Fernandes, “Why Do So Many Libyan Rebels Seen on TV Speak with British Accents?” Daily Mail, July 31, 2011.

[40] “Tunisian Islamist Leader Rashid Ghannouchi Returns Home,” BBC, January 30, 2011. Another key figure to have returned was Said Ferjani.

[41] Mohamed Elmeshad, “Profile: Kamal al-Helbawy, a Defector of Conscience,” Egypt Independent, September 4, 2012. For a longer overview of Britain’s “Londonistani” community and the impact of the Arab Spring, see James Brandon and Raffaello Pantucci, “UK Islamists and the Arab Uprisings,” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology 13 (2012).

[42] Zubeda Malik, “Britain’s ‘Fragmented’ Syrian Community,” BBC, August 24, 2012.

[43] Andrew Gilligan, “Security Services ‘Failing’ to Stop British Jihadis Heading to Syria,” Sunday Telegraph, August 25, 2012.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Richard Spencer, “British Convert to Islam Vows to Fight to the Death on Syrian Rebel Front Line,” Telegraph, August 16, 2012.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] David Brown, Sean O’Neill and Dominic Kennedy, “British Jihadi Recruits 50 Muslims for War in Syria,” Times, October 18, 2012.

[49] Duncan Gardham, “The Poplar Preacher Leading an Armed Gang of Jihadis in Syria,” Telegraph, October 19, 2012.

[50] “Abu Hamza Jailed for Seven Years,” BBC, February 7, 2006.

[51] “Hate Preaching Cleric Jailed,” BBC, March 7, 2003.

[52] Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, or Abu Qatada v. Secretary of State for the Home Department, Special Immigration Appeals Commission, March 8, 2004.

[53] Mahan Abedin, “Al-Muhajiroun in the UK: An Interview with Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed,” Spotlight on Terror 2:5 (2005); Shiv Malik, “The Missing Links,” New Statesman, May 7, 2007.

[54] This statement is drawn from conversations with London’s Muslim community, and discussions such as the following on the Islamic Awakening Forum: http://www.forums.islamicawakening.com/f18/sheikh-abu-basir-al-tartousi-hafidhahullah-liberates-61936.

[55] Ibid. Also see the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=uJfBkUgkSU8.

[56] For details, see his statement at http://www.abubaseer.bizland.com/hadath/Read/hadath%2093.pdf. By February 2013, al-Tartusi had returned to the United Kingdom.

[57] This abbreviated biography is drawn primarily from Brynjar Lia, Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al Qaeda Strategist Abu Mus`ab al-Suri (London: Hurst, 2009).

[58] Ibid.

[59]  Ibid.

[60]  Murad Batal al-Shishani, “Syria’s Surprising Release of Jihadi Strategist Abu Musab al Suri,” Terrorism Monitor 10:3 (2012).

[61]  Specifically, Egyptian Yasser al-Siri has claimed that he has information pertaining to Abu Mus`ab’s release. See “Abu Musab Al-Suri Speaks on His Pakistan Detention,” The Arab Digest, February 24, 2012.

[62] Details on Surur can be found in Lia.

[63] In 1999, a British man working for Railtrack, Mohammed Sohail, was revealed to be using his work account to fundraise for jihad abroad, in locations such as Kashmir, Algeria and Chechnya, among others. When confronted by reporters, he told them, “I work for two people really, Mr. Massari and Osama bin Laden.” See Chris Hastings and Jessica Berry, “Muslim Militia Training in Britain: Bin Laden Groups to Join Mujahedeen for Various Wars, Including Chechnya,” Ottowa Citizen, November 7, 1999. In later years, al-Massari would openly talk on the BBC about running jihad supporting websites and radio stations from the United Kingdom. See “The New al-Qaeda: jihad.com,” BBC, July 20, 2005; Philip Johnston, “Calls to Deport ‘the Voice of al-Qa’eda,’” Telegraph, July 27, 2005.

[64]  Jarret Brachman, Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice (London: Routledge, 2008), p. 38; Lia.

[65]   Ibid.; personal interview, Malik al-Abdeh, London, November 2012.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Two prominent examples are Walid Saffour and Rami Abdulrahman.

[68]  The author encountered one such convoy on its way to Ancona, Italy, in the Marche region of Italy heading to a boat to Turkey. With a bus branded from “Dudley [a British city in the west midlands] to Damascus,” the drivers reported being part of a six vehicle convoy including an ambulance and a heavy goods truck with clothes and children’s milk. They were linked to the charity United Muslims (www.unitedmuslims.co.uk). Other convoys have been sent from the Aid Convoy charity (www.aid-convoy.org.uk).

[69]  For example, on February 25, 2012, outside the Syrian Embassy, the group Aid Convoy 2 Syria (that later became the Aid Convoy) held an event called “Answer the Call: Charity Rally for Syria,” at which Shaykh Haithem al-Haddad and Imam Shakeel Begg spoke with the Qur’anic recitation provided by Sufyan Mustafa Kamal, the son of recently deported preacher Abu Hamza al-Masri. While none of these men have been convicted on any terrorism charges or fallen under suspicion of any crime, they have all attracted some controversy due to the tone in their preaching.

[70] For pictures of this demonstration, see http://www.demotix.com/news/1060472/hizb-ut-tahrir-march-through-london-support-syrian-uprising#media-1060346.

[71] Moazzam Begg, “Syria: My Journey to the Land of Blessing, and Torture,” Cage Prisoners, August 16, 2012.

[72]  Jeremy Britton, “Rowe ‘Bore al-Qaeda Hallmarks,’” BBC, September 23, 2005.

[73] “Al Qaeda Exploits ‘Blue-Eyed’ Muslim Converts,” Reuters, October 11, 2005.

[74] Martin Beckford, “Terrorist Supergrass Saajid Badat: The Shoe Bomber Who Got Cold Feet,” Telegraph, April 17, 2012.

[75] Paul Cruickshank, “Transatlantic Shoe Bomber Knew Bin Laden,” CNN, April 20, 2012.

[76] “World: Road to Martyrdom,” Journeyman Pictures, first broadcast on May 30, 2007.

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A new post for CNN, this one expanding on some brief comments in my earlier letter to the Financial Times. I see it has inspired a certain amount of vitriol on their comments. The overall point here is to highlight the fact that a bad situation is being allowed to simply get worse to no-one’s benefit and the long-term implications are going to be negative. Per CNN’s agreement, I have only posted the first 150 odd words here, please follow the hyperlinks to read the whole piece. UPDATE (Oct 20, 2012): I realize I owe Shashank a note of thanks for reading an earlier draft of this.

Analysis: The Lure of the Jihad and the Danger to Europe

By Raffaello Pantucci, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Raffaello Pantucci is an associate fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College and the author of the forthcoming “We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen” (Hurst).

A growing number of young Europeans drawn to protect their abandoned Muslim brethren have taken up arms in Syria. It’s a dynamic that Europe has witnessed before.

In the 1990s, young Europeans were enticed by the idea of fighting jihad in Bosnia. Spurred on by radical preachers, young men and women were drawn to fight to protect their Muslim brethren merely a bus ride away.

Before the September 11 attack in 2001, the notion of fighting in a holy war was something far from most people’s minds and reserved for history books about the Crusades. Occasional appearances by fearsome looking radical preachers at rallies where people would shout about holy war were shown every so often on television, but that was the extent of public knowledge of the issue.

But there was more going on, mostly unseen to the average citizen in Europe. In the mid-1990s as Yugoslavia started to fall apart, stories emerged of middle-class Europeans being killed fighting and of Western forces finding groups of fighters with British accents among the Bosnian ranks.

More

A longer post for a new outlet, the blog of my excellent English publisher, Hurst. Draws on material that I have gone into in much more depth in the text of my book, and touches upon the theme of Shabaab’s use of media for recruitment that I have written about before (and am working on a bit at the moment as well).

The Ballads of Global Jihad

When 17-year old Saajid Badat first moved to London in 1997 he was given a cassette tape – still a popular medium then – by some new friends he had made in Tooting. Called ‘In the Hearts of Green Birds’ and produced by Azzam Publications, the tape relayed the stories of jihadist warriors who had fallen fighting for the Muslim ummah in Bosnia. An impressionable young man who had attained the status of hafiz (memorised the Koran) by the time he was twelve, Badat was moved by the stories he heard on the tape and ‘tried to meet with different people with similar view in respect of jihad.’ Within a year, he used these same contacts to go and train, setting him down a path which in 2001 led him to agree to be deployed by al Qaeda as one half of a ‘shoe bomb’ suicide mission targeting transatlantic flights. In the event, Badat backed out at the last minute, while his co-conspirator Richard Reid attempted to bring down a Paris-Miami flight.

Stories and myths have always been important in the history of Britain’s jihad, be they delivered by cassette, video or in written form. In the 1990s at Abu Hamza’s Finsbury Park mosque, young men would crowd around and watch videos from the front in Algeria or Chechnya. Up in Beeston, young Waheed Ali, who later attended a training camp in Pakistan with Mohammed Siddique Khan (one of the four men who carried out the 7th July 2005 London bombings), recalled getting videos of fighting from a friend at the Iqra bookshop in Beeston and taking them round to his friend Shehzad Tanweer’s house. ‘Watching the brothers fighting in Chechnya against the Russians…was really inspirational.’ As he later told a courtroom, ‘it really brought a sense of brotherhood to a different level [….] if you get a Chechen Muslim or you get a Russian civilian you can’t tell the difference, they both look the same and you’re getting one people who are annihilating another people and you’re getting Muslims from all round the world, Arabs, you’re getting Pakistanis, you’re getting Africans going to Chechnya, a foreign land, to help their Muslim brothers and it was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe it. I thought ‘this is beautiful’. Ali was eventually jailed for trying to return to a training camp in Pakistan in 2007.

Others found motivation in books, like that written by Dhiren Barot, a convert who in the mid 1990s left his job working for an airline in London to go and fight alongside Kashmiri jihadists. He later wrote up his experience in a book called The Army of Madinah in Kashmir that has featured repeatedly among the collections of men jailed for terrorism in the UK. Clearly impressed by the author’s experiences, the anonymous editor Abu Umamah tells readers in the preface, ‘what is most unusual about this book is the author himself. It is so rare for people in our age to take on the struggle for the sake of Allah. So imagine someone who comes from a non-Muslim background, struggling first against himself, then those around him from friends and family to take on the most noble of duties in Allah’s cause’.

The importance of these narratives has not shrunk and extremist groups abroad have become adept at producing accessible material that tell glorious hagiographies and of a united ummah fighting against oppression. Al-Shabaab has become particularly good at this, producing videos that look professionally made, highlighting what the group has achieved in Somalia. Most recently, they released what promises to be the first in a series called ‘The Life under the Shade of Islamic Sharia in Somalia.’ Produced by al-Khataib (which translates as the person who delivers the sermon), the film was made in the style of a documentary about what life was like under sharia law in Baidoa, a city Shabaab used to control. In the film we see the English-speaking narrator (with a slight foreign accent, but clearly someone who has spent considerable time in the UK), acting like a documentary narrator on the BBC ‘travelling back to find out’ more about how Baidoa fared under al-Shabaab rule. He talks to the camera, poses against the backdrop of scenes of battles he is describing, and conducts on-screen interviews with citizens. Preceding his trip to Baidoa with a brief history lesson, we hear about dictator Siad Barre whose socialist republic collapsed in 1991, leading to a period in which, he tells us, the country descended into tribal conflicts and warlordism with Ethiopian funding.

Animosity towards Ethiopia is something that pervades the video and the more general Shabaab narrative; a majority Christian country that is repeatedly accused of being a crusader army come to oppress Somalia’s Muslim community – either with outside support or simply for its own nefarious reasons. Talking to a Somali social worker in Ealing on the topic of Shabaab a few years ago, I was surprised to hear first-hand about the strength of the Ethiopian invasion as a narrative that spurred anger among young Somalis. The importance of this narrative to Shabaab in particular can be seen in a recorded telephone conversation from August 2010 between two Somali-Swede’s accused of fundraising and recruiting for the group: ‘the diaspora helped us before, when the Ethiopians came, so that we could drive them away…because they hated Ethiopia so much…when they left, then came the Ugandans….but they hate the Ethiopians more than the Ugandans…they have never heard of the Ugandans…and now we get no help because they do not know what the war is about.’ Without this narrative to tap, the men were having difficulty raising money from the community in Scandinavia.

Hence the need to produce videos explaining their narrative and highlighting successes, and the narrator’s trip to sharia-governed Baidoa to show what Shabaab are achieving. In the video, he goes around like a reporter interviewing shop owners (one of whom breaks off during the interview to go to prayer) and asking locals what they think of sharia rule. We visit madrassas filled with eager children learning the Koran and see teams of religious police wandering around the city during prayer time to make sure everyone has closed business and gone to pray. At other times we see a bustling city apparently thriving under the group’s control with markets and new construction sites, all courtesy of foreign investment that has supposedly come to the city in the wake of the stability al-Shabaab had brought. A big point is made of talking about the role that women play in the markets – in supposed contrast to the evil democratic narrative that says they are oppressed under sharia – though at no point are we shown any women’s faces.

This particular narrative may be new and unique to the Somali situation, but there are universal elements in the video and other Shabaab productions that hearken back to earlier videos. The Chechen and Bosnian videos were infamous for their depiction of butchered civilians and while the Shabaab videos are not quite as gruesome, we see a Shabaab warrior showing us a selection of skulls that are purportedly civilians beheaded by Ethiopian soldiers. In contrast to the earlier Chechen videos, however, these ones are less bloodthirsty. In ‘Russian Hell’ – also an Azzam production – it is relatively common to see mujahedeen fighters cutting the throats of Russian prisoners and executing them for the camera. Shabaab chooses a tamer version of the violence, something likely learned from the experiences of other groups where the excessively visible spilling of blood had a negative effect on the general perception of the group.

We also see clips of heroic fallen fighters – Abu Ayyub, Britain’s first suicide bomber in Somalia, is venerated in the video and we see a clip from the film he recorded prior to driving a truck bomb into an Ethiopian checkpoint in October 2007. And throughout the documentary we see footage of fighters talking to the camera, some of whose names are followed up with ‘may Allah accept him.’ This is an almost exact replica of earlier videos and cassettes where we see and hear footage of fallen fighters with a brief description of where they are from and their victorious actions. Supposedly the first in a series, the film is one of a number the group has produced, though it is of unusually high quality.

But heroes are not only conjured through film. In much the same way that Dhiren Barot wrote his story as a warrior in Kashmir, young American Omar Hamammi wrote an autobiography which he self-published online. Telling his life story as a young American in Alabama who found religion and then ran away to Egypt with his Canadian-Somali wife and then on with a friend to Somalia, the book is intended as an inspiration to others to follow in his path. He does not stint from telling about the difficulties encountered, but it is all painted in the manner of an exciting adventure in which our intrepid hero gets by on his wits. At the end of the text (which promises sequels by calling itself ‘The story of an American Jihaadi Part One’), Hammami undertakes an interview with a fellow extremist looking in some depth at some of the questions raised in the text and the justifications of what he is doing. He also reveals himself during the book to be a prolific strategist, claiming to be ‘Abu Jihad al-Shami,’ the author of four previous texts about jihad in Somalia.

The impact of these narratives is hard to judge in absolute terms. Looking back at the 1990s and the impact of the videos from Algeria, Bosnia and Chechnya, it is easy to see the influence they had in helping inspire young men to go and find out what jihad was about and how they could participate. Bosnia in particular had a transformative effect on the British Muslim narrative. Nowadays the narrative of jihad and fighting for the Muslim community in faraway lands is fairly well known, with most having at least a cursory knowledge of what it is about simply by looking in the media. But stories with heroic figures are important and showing potential fighters that what they are signing up for is a righteous adventure in a foreign land rather than an anonymous death by drone strike is essential if these groups are to maintain the flow of support and attention from the affluent west.

The importance of such material was highlighted recently in a series of cases in the London where Shabaaz Hussain from Stepney pled guilty to sending more than £9,000 to a group who had gone to fight in Somalia. According to the prosecution, his home was ‘practically dripping’ with radical material, including jihadist manifestos, speeches by Osama bin Laden and recordings of hook-handed preacher Abu Hamza. A pair of identical twins, Mohammed Shabir Ali and Mohammed Shakif Ali, were later convicted on similar charges. They had sent £3,000 to Somalia through Hussain. For these two, the narrative of what was going on in Somalia was particularly personal, as their brother Shamim Ali had gone to fight in Somalia in 2008. Among their possessions was a recording of a call he had made to them from abroad appealing for money – according to the prosecutor, he told them ‘the need is relayed by their brother for fighters to dedicate their lives to jihad, and if needs be to sacrifice life.’ Ali is believed to still be in Somalia, while his two brothers face another year of incarceration for sending him money to fight the war. The story of jihad in Somalia appealed to these men, something reinforced in the twin’s case through the direct involvement of their brother.

The threat from new battlefields like Somalia is one that keeps British security services awake at night. As MI5 head Jonathan Evans put it in June, ‘al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel have become more dangerous as al Qaeda in Pakistan has declined….in back rooms and in cars and on the streets of this country there is no shortage of individuals talking about wanting to mount terrorist attacks here.’ These individuals are motivated and inspired by stories from the battlefields, either as books, videos or recordings. In the religious conflict these groups see themselves at the vanguard of, epic stories and myths are essential to maintain support and draw others into the fray. And while the stories may come from new locations, their underlying intention remains the same and their impact can be measured in the continuing arrests and convictions we see in Europe and North America. As long as jihadi stories find an audience, radical groups will find a voice and weave mythical legends for young Britons to emulate. Stories will remain a crucial part of the British jihad.

After a bit of a delay a new piece over at Free Rad!cals, this time looking at the comparisons between Bosnia and Libya. An underexplored topic and not one I am being intentionally alarmist about, but more I wonder whether there is much attention being paid to this. Should anyone come across any interesting stories or anecdotes, do please pass on.

Wars Next Door

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Filed under: AfricaRadicalisation

Lord Ashdown may have a good point when he accuses the west of suffering from “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” allowing Bosnia to “slide back towards the status of a failed state” while attention is so focused on Libya, but I wonder if there is not another comparison that can be made between the two: that of jihadi battlefields within easy reach of Europe.

It remains unclear how many jihadists linked to al-Qaeda are fighting alongside the rebels in Libya. NATO Supreme Allied Commander Admiral James Stavridisspoke of “flickers” of Al Qaeda and Hezbollah being present in the country and rebel commanders have been quoted saying how some of the men they initially recruited to go and fight in Iraq have returned to fight Gadaffi’s forces. There have also been reports of former Guantanamo detainees showing up in leadership roles, and one report claimed that the jihadist units that were making it to the front were amongst the most effective fighters. On the more alarmist end of the scale, leader of nearby Chad has claimed that al-Qaeda linked elements have plundered the Colonel’s weapons supplies and run away with surface-to-air missiles.

Amidst this all, there have been stories of British Libyans deciding to return home to fight to overthrow the leader. According to James Brandon and Noman Benotman’s authoritative account, “some” former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) have returned to fight against Gadaffi, with at least one being killed and another captured. In the meantime, “Sam’s” story in the Telegraph seems to highlight that the fighting bug is catching amongst the younger generation. Othershave told of how they are returning to take on roles as doctors of aid workers.

All of which is very understandable. Rather than watch their nation implode on their television screens, these expatriate Libyans are going back home to do something. And they are doing this all with the support of NATO bombing campaign from the air and western intelligence agents on the ground directing fire.

But what happens when the NATO campaign eventually stops and what if Gadaffi does not fall. What if the nation descends, like Bosnia did, into a protracted and grim civil war into which jihadist elements were able to move in and offer a live fire training ground for aspirant warriors from around the world? Last time this happened in Bosnia, an unknown number of young Europeans went to fight. As the story of Sayyad al Falastini shows, the battlefield was a coach ride away for young men in London, and Libya is not really that much farther away (not sure if it is a coach ride, but it is certainly easier than getting to Somalia or Waziristan).

This may all be an exaggerated concern. One friend pointed out that of greater concern was the fact that jails in a number of north African countries had emptied, turning god knows who on the street. While intelligence headquarters had all been pillaged, destroying a wealth of knowledge on Islamists from across the region. But as the situation in Libya continues to drift into something less than a conclusive solution with Colonel Gadaffi continuing to hold on, some consideration should be given for it as a potential risk as a jihadi battlefield next door. Given the fact that until recently the West was quite firmly on the wrong side of history in Libya, and we are still uncertain as to what the plan is to support the rebels while allied bombers are accidentally killing some of them, this is by no means necessarily a revolution which will completely go the West’s way. Looking back at footage or coverage of Islamists rallying troops to go to Bosnia, it is easy to see that even in the wake of action by the West they remained angry and the end result was a group of cells some of which ended up targeting the their home nations. Extremists in the UK are already talking about how this is just another western war in a Muslim land.

There are many good reasons for the fighting in Libya to be brought to some positive resolution quickly, not allowing a war with a potentially jihadist flavor to fester on Europe’s doorstep is clearly amongst them. Unfortunately, at the moment the end strategy seems uncertain leading to a potentially dangerous period of intractable conflict that could turn into a Bosnia-style jihadist battlefield. Lets hope some resolution can be effectively brought and enforced before such a situation arises.