Posts Tagged ‘British counter-terrorism’

It has been a very busy week in the wake of the atrocity in Manchester. A few pieces coming over the next few days, but first up something for the New York Times looking at the intelligence spat between the US and UK around the sharing of information during counter-terrorism operations. More to come on the broader theme of the attack itself.

Why Britain Gets Angry When America Is Casual With Secrets

LONDON — The leaking of sensitive information about the investigation into Monday’s terrorist attack on the Manchester Arena, including forensic images of bomb apparatus, to United States media caused dismay and anger among British officials. The prime minister, Theresa May, went so far as to raise the issue directly with President Trump when they met at Thursday’s NATO conference in Brussels.

To modify George Bernard Shaw’s maxim, Britain and America appear to be two countries divided less by a common language than by common secrets. While British investigators jealously guard detailed information about their operations, seeking to run their leads to ground before they are exposed to view, their American counterparts seem more willing to put what they know directly into the public domain.

The Anglo-American security relationship has deep roots. Intelligence sharing and cooperation sits at its heart. Forged in history, it has deepened over time through a shared assessment of the threats they face around the world. A key part of this is countering terrorism, a mutual threat that our two countries work closely together to fight. And yet, in fighting it, they have different approaches.

A policeman in Manchester, England, on May 25. CreditJon Super/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images 

The current tensions over Manchester are the latest public expression of an issue that has arisen before. In May 2012, British intelligence officials were exasperated when their role in an operation to disrupt a plot by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — to repeat the 2009 underwear bomber plot with a more sophisticated device — was revealed. Before that, after the July 7, 2005 bombings in London, information about the nature of the bombs was leaked to the press by American sources early in the investigation. The chief of London’s Metropolitan Police at the time, Ian Blair, made a connection between that incident and the Manchester leak.

“I’m afraid it just reminds me exactly of what happened after 7/7,” he told the BBC, “when the U.S. published a complete picture of the way the bombs in 7/7 had been made up.” In 2005, he was concerned both about the impact of the images on victims of the bombing, and about how the disclosures could complicate the job of his officers investigating what had been the most serious Qaeda-inspired attack on Britain to date.

The frustrations have gone beyond the leaking of information being gathered after an attack. Back in 2006, British and American authorities disrupted the most extensive Qaeda plot they’d seen. Codenamed Operation Overt, the plan was to send a wave of up to eight suicide bombers on flights from Britain to North America using sophisticated liquid explosives they could smuggle on board. This is the root of the liquid ban on planes we still face today.

In close cooperation with their American counterparts, British authorities had been watching the cell, coordinated by a British Pakistani named Rashid Rauf who had risen up Al Qaeda’s ranks, for some time. They had discovered a bomb factory in East London where the group was making its devices. The moment was approaching to disrupt the plot, but the British authorities wanted to monitor it further to ensure they would sweep up the full network and have evidence that could be used in court.

But when the American authorities thought that someone connected to the network had managed to get onto a plane, they used their network in Pakistan to get Mr. Rauf picked up. This forced Britain’s hand. Such was the rush to action that unarmed surveillance officers had to step out of the shadows to grab the suspects before news spread about Mr. Rauf’s arrest.

One reason behind the divergence between British and American counterterrorism operations is that the British authorities prefer to watch and wait, gathering as much information as possible before moving into action. American agencies prefer a more aggressive approach to disrupting terrorist networks and plots. In part, this is a product of the legal system: Intelligence agencies in Britain closely guard the information they collect and do not usually allow it to be used in a court of law. This was visible during the subsequent trials of the Overt case, where prosecutors had to go three rounds with two hung juries before they were able to convict; one of the key figures was cleared and released notwithstanding his deeply suspicious links.

There are deeper cultural issues, too. This week, the government’s assessment of the threat of a further terrorist attack has led to the deployment of armed soldiers on the streets of Britain’s cities. This is something that would likely pass unnoticed in the United States, but it has caused great consternation here. British security officials are also uneasy about the number of American counterterrorism investigations that use undercover agents who often appear to act as agent provocateurs; in the British view, such operations would be regarded as entrapment by courts.

These tensions in the relationship seem to have intensified under the Trump administration. Some British counter-terrorism experts express concern that Mr. Trump’s rhetoric of aggressive confrontation may serve to bolster the very narrative of civilizational conflict the extremists use. The ties that bind Anglo-American intelligence cooperation are firm; the difficulty is how to maintain trust after this transatlantic spat. We face a common threat, and it would be dangerous to take for granted our common front in fighting it.

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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 piece for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, this time looking in some detail at a plot that was disrupted in the UK last week. The chaps are about to get sentenced this week, and I may cover another aspect of this in another upcoming piece some point soon. On another note the friendly team at the International Center for the Study of Terrorism (ICST) at Penn State recently used my old article looking at Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri Mohammed and their links to terror plots as the basis of a statistical analysis exploring what information can be drawn when using network analysis models on the data I had gathered. A fascinating idea and I was very pleased to see it had sparked off such interest in them, and in such a prominent journal! Unfortunately, the article is behind a firewall, and here is the link….

The Perils of Leaderless Jihad

By Raffaello Pantucci | Tuesday, February 7, 2010 – 12:47 PM

Just over a year ago a group of twelve men were arrested as part of a long-term investigation led by British intelligence agency MI5 into a network of cells of British Muslims suspected of plotting acts of terrorism. Last week, just as the jury trial was about to get underway, the nine defendants eventually charged in the case chose to plead guilty in the hope of getting reduced sentences. Codenamed Operation Guava and featuring British radical groups, the Internet, Inspire magazine, training camps in Pakistan, prison radicalization and a mysterious character known as “the Bengali,” this case brings together a number of different strands in British jihadist terrorism.

The accused plotters were rounded up in four different locations: Birmingham, Cardiff, East London and Stoke-on-Trent, though charges against the Birmingham group were dropped. Four of the men have now admitted to planning on leaving a bomb inside the restroom of the London Stock Exchange (LSE), while the other five pled guilty to various charges of terrorist fundraising, attending terrorist attack planning meetings, or possessing al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Inspire magazine. In summing up, the prosecutor highlighted that the group had not actually planned to kill anyone; “their intention was to cause terror and economic harm and disruption.” However, “their chosen method meant there was a risk people would be maimed or killed.”

The various cells of the plot met independently in their various locations before connecting nationally through radical networks, Dawah (proselytization) stalls run by extremist groups in cities like Cardiff and webforums like PalTalk. They had all met together in person just a couple of times. The prosecution characterized Mohammed Chowdhury of London as the “ring leader” of the network, though it seems to have been less structured than that. The Stoke group in particulardeveloped plans on its own to carry out a bombing campaign in Stoke, and were eager to recruit more members and train in Kashmir. Stories in the media indicated that members of the Cardiffand Stoke groups had been seen at meetings and protests organized by successor groups of al Muhajiroun (the infamous group established in the late 1990s by a cleric now-banned from Britain, Omar Bakri Mohammed). And a picture has emerged of central plotter Mohammed Chowdury holding an Islam4UK placard at one of the organization’s events (Islam4UK was a name adopted by al Muhajiroun after a former appellation was added to the list of proscribed terror groups by British authorities). While the role of al Muhajiroun — or whatever the name of the successor group may be; at other times they have used the names Saved Sect, al Ghurabaa, Muslims Against Crusades, and the one in vogue currently, Ummah United — as a radicalizer in networks that have produced terrorists has somewhat receded from that of its heyday, this plot showed the potential risks that still linger from the network.

Neighbors of the men detained in Cardiff reported that some members of the group had apparently served time in prison, where it seemed they had picked up radical ideas. A longstanding concern of Western authorities, the potential for prison radicalization had already reared its head this year in the U.K. when it was revealed last month that a British man who had been converted while serving in Feltham Young Offenders Institution was a key figure in an alleged terrorist plot that was disrupted in December in Mombasa, Kenya. He was not the first terrorist to have done time in Feltham; both ‘shoe bomber’ Richard Reid and leader of the July 21, 2005 follow-up attempt to attack London’s underground system, Muktar Said Ibrahim, passed through their gates.

But the element that has caught the most media attention is the group’s use of AQAP’s English-language jihadi manual Inspire. The group had downloaded copies of the magazine and were apparently following its advice in trying to plan a terrorist plot. They discussed the idea of copying the parcel bombs sent by the group in October 2010 and using the Royal Mail or DHLto send bombs within the United Kingdom. Where they were planning on sending them was hinted at in a list they had compiled of the addresses of London Mayor Boris Johnson and at least two prominent British rabbis. Members of the group were also trailed as they reconnoitered a number of locations in London, including the London Stock Exchange, the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster, Houses of Parliament, Blackfriars Bridge and the Church of Scientology. The Stoke group discussed leaving bombs in local pubs and clubs. They seemed to have taken Anwar al-Awlaki’s injunctions (of which they had collected substantial amounts) to heart, and were eager to strike in the West at any targets that they could find.

But the group also appears to have maintained some connections with more classic aspects of theBritish jihadi story, and sought to train abroad in Kashmir. Initially, they claimed that their meetings were to find ways of raising money for Kashmir. Indeed, the Stoke group (predominantly made up of Pakistani-Britons, unlike the London and Cardiff groups, which were made up of Bangladeshi-Britons) had decided to travel abroad to obtain training and had already funded the construction of a madrassa in Kashmir that they spoke of using as a training camp for British radicals. Furthermore, they made connections to a mysterious figure named in court only as “the Bengali,” after which they had moved forward with putting their ideas into practice, scoping out targets and trying out making bombs.

This plot is not the only one currently making its way through British courts. Late last year, police in Birmingham arrested a group they claimed had discussed suicide bombs and had allegedly made connections with groups in Pakistan. Operation Guava’s significance lies in the fact that it brings together a number of different strands in current counter-terrorism concerns in the UK, creating a complex hybrid plot that seems to have been hatched and conceived entirely at home. A textbook example of Leaderless Jihad.
Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), and his writing can be found: http://www.raffaellopantucci.com.