Posts Tagged ‘Britain’s Jihad’

A piece for the Observer newspaper this weekend, this time looking at the way the attack in Manchester fits into the broader threat picture in the UK. It was a busy period with the media around the attack with longer interviews captured online with the BBC’s Daily Politics (video), National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and Radio 24 (radio), as well as with Financial TimesTimes, Wall Street Journal, New York TimesLa Repubblica, Atlantic, AFP, Washington Post, and News Deeply.

Fighters who can’t travel to Syria pose growing threat

As Isis loses territory in Syria, the risks posed by would-be UK fighters must not be ignored
A police patrol in Hull for BBC Radio 1’s big weekend.
 A police patrol in Hull for BBC Radio 1’s big weekend. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

British security officials have long warned it was only a matter of time before there was another terrorist atrocity.

In late August 2014, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) raised the terror threat level to “severe” – meaning that, according to its independent assessment, the expectation was that a terrorist attack was highly likely. Responding to an increasingly menacing threat picture in Europe linked to the conflict in Syria and Iraq, that level stayed at severe until the attacks in Manchester, which caused JTAC to redo its calculations and raise it to critical – meaning an attack is imminent.

Once the level was raised to severe, there was a fairly constant pattern of terrorist plotting. In November 2015, as the world reeled from the attacks in Paris, David Cameron said seven plots had been disrupted in the UK over the previous year. At the beginning of March this year, Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley said in the past four years authorities had disrupted 13 plots. In the wake of the Manchester attacks, a further five have been added to this roster.

While the details of many of these plots have not been made public, most appear to have been lone individuals or small cells planning knife attacks. It is not clear how many have involved the sort of ambitious planning that went into Paris and Brussels or even Manchester. But groups – al-Qaida, Isis or some other affiliate – continue to want to wreak misery.

The reason for the recent increase in activity is hard to pin down. In part, it may be a case of Isis being on the back foot and seeking to push out attacks in every direction: something that correlates with it losing territory and its foreign fighter contingent scattering to the wind, creating a wave of potential problems around the world. And this comes as al-Qaida has started to rear its head once again, menacing the world through new messages by Hamza bin Laden.

But there are other dynamics at play as well. One of the more under-investigated phenomena is what is happening to those aspirant foreign fighters who are unable to travel. Inspired enough to want to join a group like Isis, they find it increasingly difficult to do so – due to proactive security measures in the UK or more simply a much harder environment in Syria to get into. But being unable to travel does not remove the radical impulse. Actually it may enhance it further, with the frustration making the individual feel the link to the group more strongly.

Consequently, when the group shouts for people to launch attacks at home, rather than come to the battlefield, they may see this as a call to arms. The phenomenon of the blocked traveller maturing into a terrorist threat at home is not new, but as things become tougher it is only likely to increase the pool of potential radicals at home.

Finally, there is the exceptionally low threshold for what constitutes a terrorist attack. No longer do you have to launch a complicated plot: if you can, then all the better. But a public stabbing or running people down with a car will also suffice. Targets are open and indiscriminate, with anyone living in a non-Isis state considered fair game. This makes it very easy for anyone to pick up a weapon and become a warrior – meaning that not all of those who do are necessarily as doctrinally pure as a group might want. All of this shows how easy it is to become a terrorist these days.

It was unlikely that the terror threat level would be kept at critical for long, and it has now been reduced to severe. Exhaustion might have set in at the security agencies had it continued much longer. But the tempo of the threat picture in the UK has noticeably sharpened of late: from last year, which was punctuated by the disruption of major plots but dominated by a steady stream of smaller-scale arrests for travelling to, fundraising for, or support of terrorist groups, to this year, which has seen two attacks and at least five or six plots derailed.

It is clear that the terrorist menace is not shrinking away and is likely to linger around for some time longer, in particular if the war in Syria and Iraq continues to drag on, providing a consistently fertile ground for training camps and extremist ideologies.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists

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A new piece for my institutional home RUSI, looking at the threat from ISIS in the context of the history of the group. In the wake of the brutal Foley murder, there was a spike in media interest and I spoke on related topics to the Australian, Metro, Global PostGuardian, NBCSlate, in this conversation with USA Today, they drew the conclusion I meant poverty was a driver of why people would go and join to fight in Syria/Iraq. Not quite my intention, it is more about blocked mobility sometimes providing people with an opening to radical ideas rather than deprivation driving them towards it. Were poverty a driver of terrorism, there would be many more terrorists in the world. Earlier I spoke to Channel 4 about ISIS camps in Syria/Iraq, to Voice of America about the group more broadly, about British gangsta’s going to fight to the Sunday Express, as well as to the Evening Standard about gangsta rapper MC now fighting in Syria/Iraq Abdel Bary. Beyond ISIS and Iraq/Syria, I spoke to Voice of America about Xinjiang and with the South China Morning Post about this coming week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) counter-terror drill

Is ISIS a Threat to the UK?

RUSI Analysis, 21 Aug 2014

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

The murder of American journalist James Foley brought global attention to the menace of ISIS. But what kind of a threat does the group actually post beyond the Levant?

British jihadists, Isis recruitment video

image from here

The cruel beheading by a possibly British ISIS fighter of American journalist James Foley is the latest act of brutality by a group whose willingness to use such violence continues to reach new depths.

However, in the understandable consternation around the group and its activity, care should be taken to understand better the exact nature of the threat that this group poses. ISIS is working hard to try to overturn the current Westphalian order with its repeated invocations of destroying the Sykes-Picot borders of the Middle East and has quite successfully taken over an ever-expanding chunk of the Levant. The question is whether the group remains principally a regional threat or an international one.

The best answer is to look more closely at the group’s history. ISIS (or Islamic State as they refer to themselves) is a group that has waxed and waned over the years. Borne out of Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s group that he founded in Herat, Afghanistan in the late 1990s, it came to more international prominence in in August 2003 when they attacked the Jordanian Embassy and UN Headquarters in Baghdad and a Shia shrine in Najaf. In the process they killed hundreds including UN Special Envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, the leader of the SCIRI Party and one of the leaders of Shia Iraq. In time, the group, which in 2006 changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) to make it sound more Iraqi, suffered public blowback at its unremitting and brutal violence with the Sahwa ‘awakening’ movement as Sunni’s grew tired of the unremitting murder and sectarian tensions that ISI was stirring up.

But for all its brutality within Iraq, the group did not much stretch beyond its domestic borders. Under Zarqawi’s watch in November 2005 they launched a series of three coordinated attacks on Western hotels in Amman, Jordan, killing 60 and injuring over 100. It was possibly linked to some attempts to attack Israel, but these amounted to little. This notwithstanding the fact that the group had the technical expertise, contacts, and fighters to use as tools to launch attacks against the West or elsewhere.

The Threat Today

Cut to today and we have a group that has formally severed its links with Al Qa’ida and established a dominion of sorts over chunks of Iraq and Syria. A decade on, it is still resorting to sending political messages through the brutal and public beheading of American hostages. We have yet, however, to see confirmed evidence of the group actually launching attacks outside its immediate territory (beyond possible links to incidents elsewhere in the Levant). This is not to say that we have not seen plots emanate from foreign fighter networks linked to the group. Mehdi Nemmouche, a French national, had allegedly fought alongside ISIS for some time prior to returning to Europe where he took it upon himself to murder four people at the Jewish museum in Brussels. And while his was the only successful attack, at least four other plots have been disrupted within European borders in which individuals fought in Syria (and possibly Iraq) before coming back home and undertaking plotting clearly in the direction of trying to do something within Europe rather than back in the Levant.

But absent from these reported plots is much evidence of direction by ISIS. There have been suggestions of directed plots linked to Jabhat al Nusrah, but the information around these has been sketchy. Rather, it seems as though these plots for the most part seem to be undertaken by individuals who have battlefield experience and decide to come back and do something under their own steam. In many ways, this actually reflects the historical experience with foreigners who fight or train alongside groups in Iraq: Bilal Abdulla and Taimour Abdulwahab al Abdaly both spent some time in Iraq alongside the insurgency before heading back to the UK and Sweden respectively to try to carry out attacks. In neither case was their evidence produced of direction off the battlefield, though their cases illustrate clear examples of individuals that a group like ISIS could have used had it wanted to launch attacks against Europe.

A Menace, Yes. But is ISIS a Threat to the West?

It is clear that ISIS is a menace that leaders rightly focus on. It has the potential to upend the Middle East and cause death and misery to thousands. But it is not as of yet clear that it is a group with the desire and intent to launch itself against the West and Europe in particular. It has the means at its disposal to launch such attacks and has rhetorically threatened such attacks, but so far we have not seen these clearly materialise.

This is of course not to say that they might not take place. Clearly, ISIS is a group that has evolved over time, and it might yet evolve in a strategic direction that leads to a concerted effort to launch attacks against the West. But as we can see from the fact that in a decade of unleashing brutality, its approach to attracting publicity has little changed, it is possible that its aims and goals have equally shifted little and it continues to be more interested in regional ambitions.

The significance of this distinction lies in the subsequent official reaction in Western capitals to the group. Foley’s brutal murder, like the group’s earlier gains in Iraq, were predictable, but were greeted with shock which mandated major response – a product of the relative inattention that was being paid to what was happening in Syria and Iraq. The danger is that in the absence of a clear plot linked to the group, attention might fade and the group will be seen as a regional irritation that can be managed, rather than an organisation that requires focused extrication and where possible eradication.

This difficult conclusion is one that will only be achieved over a lengthy and committed timeline involving a complicated array of bolstering local forces, cutting deals with tribes to undermine the group, as well as focused counter-terrorism efforts to eliminate leaders and cut off supply routes. More strategically, an inclusive government needs to be fostered in Iraq and the civil war in Syria needs to be brought to some resolution. None of these are easy solutions, but they are long-term solutions to what is necessary to finally bring some peace to the brutalised Levant.

A new post for Free Rad!cals this time exploring in some depth documents I have not managed to see first hand yet (hint, if anyone feels like sharing or has more info about them, please don’t hesitate to write!). An admittedly slightly premature piece consequently, but it gives me an opportunity to extemporise about a subject I am very interested in, namely Britain’s jihad. It also gives me an opportunity to plug my pending book that will go into a lot more detail about all of the cases named in this piece. I should add that in the original post on Free Rad!cals the link to Florian’s blog didn’t work, and I have altered it here.

The British End of the German al Qaeda documents

View more articles by Raff Pantucci

Filed under: Europe, Homegrown extremism, Terrorism, UK

Over on his new blog, Abu Susu, aka Yassin Mubarash has provided a brief write-up of a series of alleged al Qaeda documents that have come to light as part of a terrorism trial in Germany, alongside a challenge for people to discuss the implications of the information if true. At around the same time or just before, another German journalist, Florian Flade, published a similar post on his site Jih@d, providing a slightly different description of the same documents.

The one that has most piqued my interest are the alleged British documents that are supposed to have been written by Rashid Rauf. From the understanding I have, the papers are essentially a post-operation report on the July 7, July 21, and Overt bomb plots (Overt was the codename for the 2006 attempt by Abdulla Ali and a bunch of his mates to bring down about eight planes as they made there way to America) and German intelligence seems pretty convinced that this was written by Rashid Rauf, the infamous British-Pakistani terrorist operator. This is apparently based on the detailed knowledge of the British plots and some biographical details that are mentioned.

Now I have to preface what comes next with the comment that I have not seen the documents, and so am basing my read-out on second hand analysis. But on the assumption that these are the real deal, this is fascinating as it confirms that al Qaeda in fact directed all three British plots, though to varying degrees of success. In his new book The Al Qaeda Factor, NYPD Director of Intelligence Mitchell Silber, identifies the three plots as having connections, but ends up concluding that while Overt was likely a directed plot, the 7/7 and the 21/7 plots were what he considers as “suggested/endorsed” by al Qaeda. In his assessment, there was clearly a connection, but it is uncertain that the group was directing the cells in London.

To deal with the plots in order – the confirmation that al Qaeda directed the July 7, 2005 atrocity on London’s underground is not surprising. The video in which al Qaeda claimed it and included the will of leader Mohammed Siddique Khan, “Will of the Knights of the London Raid”, featured Ayman al Zawahiri, demonstrating a high level connection. Khan was also on the periphery of the large network around the Crevice group, who had connections right up to the number three in al Qaeda at the time, Abdul Hadi al Iraqi. Furthermore, as we saw during the Coroner’s Inquest into the incident, Khan was in contact with a number in Pakistan a great deal in the run-up to his attack, and a same number in Pakistan tried to call his phone after he had carried his bombing.

That the connection might flow through Rauf in some way is also not that surprising: when Khan went to Pakistan in mid-2001 to train, he and his young protégé Waheed Ali, went to a Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen (HuM) training camp. When Rauf went to Pakistan after fleeing police in the wake of the murder of his uncle in Birmingham in 2002, he seems to have connected quite quickly with Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a slightly different Kashmir oriented group (like HuM) that JeM’s leader Maulana Masood Azhar (a former leader in HuM) had founded after he was released from prison alongside another British jihadist Omar Saeed Sheikh (who later became famous for the murder of reporter Daniel Pearl and who also first found jihad in South Asia through HuM). HuM and JeM are parallel groups with some cross-pollination and so that Khan and Rauf’s networks intersected is unsurprising. Consequently, that Khan would have connected with Rauf on one of his later trips to Pakistan – either in 2003 when he attended a training camp with the Crevice cell, or in 2004 when he went back again expecting to die fighting in Afghanistan is not entirely surprising. It has long been believed that Rauf was involved in the July 7 plot in some way, this new information seems to confirm that.

The news of a stronger connection to the July 21, 2005 attempt on London’s underground is much more surprising and interesting. In this case, we have very little solid information on the connection to al Qaeda. The belief is that Muktar Said Ibrahim may have trained with the group in late 2004 when he Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer (of the July 7 group) and Abdulla Ali (of the Overt plot) were all in Pakistan at the same time learning how to make remarkably similar bombs. Ibrahim had initially headed out with two others from his circle of friends from London’s radical community in London to Pakistan to fight in Afghanistan (the two men’s passports were allegedly found in a house of Rauf’s in Bahawalpur). A man who was later identified as a key point of contact for the Overt group and as Rashid Rauf’s key man on the ground with the Overt cell allegedly sent them to Pakistan (or at least helped them with the contacts). And finally, Muktar Said Ibrahim called numbers linked to Abdulla Ali (the leader on the ground of Overt), and some dodgy numbers in Pakistan, while his co-conspirator Yassin Omar contacted a number linked to Rangzieb Ahmed, an admitted HuM fighter who is currently in jail for being a director of al Qaeda.

But it remained unclear to what degree the group had been directed by al Qaeda. Little information has been put into the public domain about Muktar Said Ibrahim’s time in Pakistan, beyond certain statements by security services that he had trained alongside the other cells, highlighting the surprising use of hydrogen peroxide in all three devices, something never seen before in the United Kingdom. Now it seems as though the group was in fact in contact with al Qaeda core, but managed to lose contact with their handler and as a result were unable to correct the crucial flaw in their devices that meant they harmlessly popped on London’s underground system. According to Abu Susu’s read-out, the group tried to reach out but was unable to contact their handler and as a result was unable to correct their mistake in mixing their devices. So the attempt failed.

This raises a number of questions: first, did the July 7 and July 21 groups have the same handlers? It seems unlikely that this would be the case, if for no other reason than the different way in which they were managed. Khan was in regular contact with someone in Pakistan who was helping him along. Presumably, the same handler would have done the same thing with Ibrahim if he was the manager of the contact and losing contact would be remarkably inept and quite a contrast. It would also have been quite lax operational security to have the same person handle the contacts with two cells that otherwise were kept so firmly apart. Having said this, it would not be the first time that this was done: the New York cell led by Najibullah Zazi became known to authorities because he reached out to the same email account that a cell in northern England had used in Pakistan to discuss their plot. An account linked to this one helped uncover another linked cell in Oslo. So such mistakes have been made. But in 2004/5 al Qaeda likely had much more freedom operating and as a result would probably have had more resources to deploy in managing the cells.

We already know a lot more about the final cell identified here, the Overt group were long known to have had a strong connection to al Qaeda core, and specifically Rashid Rauf. What is fascinating from the discovery of these documents is that we can now see how the contacts apparently evolved. With the July 2005 bombers, al Qaeda seems to have kept them on a relatively long leash. By the time we get to the Overt group, we have Rauf himself managing the connection, through phone calls and emails. But this was not enough, with him deciding to send a close confidant in to manage things on the ground and guarantee that things went off without a hitch. Having said that, it also seems as though this individual was in contact with other potential cells around the country, suggesting that his job was not solely to manage the Overt group.

So what can be drawn from this information?

Well, first of all, it is interesting the degree to which we see the groups requiring help in building their devices once back in the UK. Clearly, an inability to check with their bosses was the key flaw that stymied the 21/7 group. Khan needed a lot of handholding and it seems had faced a similar difficulty prior to his attempt, something he was able to resolve with his handler. For the Overt chaps, we can see from emails that have been released that they discussed in some detail their progress in developing a device.

Secondly, it is fascinating that by the end of 2004, al Qaeda was willing to have quite high level leaders meet with Briton’s on jihadi tourism in South Asia and then trust these individuals to go back home and build cells. In all three cases, we can see how the key ‘emir’ in the UK (Khan, Ibrahim and Ali) trained with al Qaeda and then came back to the UK where they were able to assemble quite substantial cells of individuals willing to offer themselves as suicide bombers without having had direct contact themselves with al Qaeda. This is a testament to the volume of radicals around in the UK at the time, and the confidence of these cell leaders to be able to transform their wider networks in the UK into teams of suicide bombers. The wider cell around the 7/7 is somewhat unclear, the 21/7 group was large and included a number of individuals around the Finsbury Park mosque, and the Overt cell was always most worrying because of the large number of individuals who had seemingly offered themselves as suicide bombers and the six who had recorded martyrdom videos.

And then there is a timing question. It is fascinating to now see that al Qaeda was indeed likely directing the three cells. They came after the Crevice group who seem to have been amongst the pathfinders in terms of building connections to al Qaeda’s broader network from the UK. But based on Mohammed Junaid Babar’s testimony and other bits in the public domain, the cell there was very eager to connect with al Qaeda core (and cell leader Omar Khyam was quite noisy about his supposed connection with Abdul Hadi al Iraqi), but it seems largely to have elected to go and do something back in the UK by themselves. Whether we can read anything into the lack of inclusion of the cell in the post-event reports is unclear, but certainly they were using a different type of device and it seems as though they found their bomb training from another source. Based on what information exists, it seems as though the Crevice lot were in fact a supply network in the first place that expressed eagerness to do something, rather than a tasked cell. What contact the group did have seems to have flowed though Salahuddin Amin who was their contact in Pakistan and whom they asked for details about how to build their device. But demonstrative maybe of how far from the core he was, Amin had to spent some days going to find the answer to the question from cell leader Omar Khyam, presumably unlike the handlers for the other British plots who were directly hardwired into al Qaeda core.

So one possibility is that after the failure of the Crevice cell, al Qaeda decided to try to actually redirect some of these Brits who were showing up to more useful activities rather than let them just die in Afghanistan or go back to concoct half-baked plots. They now believed that these Brits were dedicated to the cause and were willing to trust them both with high level contacts, but also with plans that would involve them going to recruit a high number of dedicated warriors in the UK who had never trained alongside the group. The point being that maybe it took until 2004 to realise that these foreigners were trustworthy and the real thing – something confirmed by the efforts of the Crevice cell and the growing presence of increasingly senior Brits in their ranks (Rashid Rauf and Omar Saeed Sheikh being just two).

There is a final point to touch upon. German authorities seem quite convinced that Rashid Rauf wrote these documents, but he has theoretically been dead for over three years now. Were these part of some electronic brain-trust of the organisation (maybe the mysterious Office of Services Abu Susu refers to?), or is he simply not dead? Or maybe these were multi-authored documents? The common belief is that Rauf was killed by drone strike in November 2008, but no tangible evidence has ever been produced and plots with his fingerprints have emerged a number of times since then. While quite logical explanations exist for this (his contacts were passed on to someone else), you have to wonder why his name keeps showing up.