Posts Tagged ‘chechnya’

Finally catching up on some old posting – this is a second piece I wrote for my new Institute RUSI.

Boston Bombers Highlight Difficulties of Countering Isolated Terror Cells

RUSI Analysis, 24 Apr 2013

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

As motives and operational set-up of the Boston bombers become known, urgent questions will be asked about how US intelligence agencies are prioritising threats in the United States. The case reveals the huge dilemma faced in collecting, evaluating and acting on credible intelligence leads.

Boston Bombers

We do not yet know with absolute clarity what motivated the Boston bombers, who last week so dramatically caught the public’s attention. It also remains unclear the extent to which the two may or may not have been connected to international terrorist networks. What is clear, however, is the danger that such small and disconnected terrorist cells pose and the difficulties that security services face in countering them.

Questions are now being asked about the degree to which the Boston brothers’ were connected or directed by any outside forces. Their Chechen heritage, recent travels to the restive Dagestan part of Russia and their online footprint showing an interest in Chechen jihadism all point to a possible link through the northern Caucasus to international jihadi networks. The fact that Russia appears to have flagged their concerns on older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev to the FBI suggests that there may have been more to this connection than simple coincidence. However, given Russia’s robust approach to counter-terrorism, it seems unlikely they would have let a suspect of serious concern travel in and out of their country without some form of action. Furthermore, while there have been instances of Chechen individuals being involved in plots outside Russia, for the most part Chechen jihadist networks have focused on Russia with some links to battlefields in Afghanistan and Syria.

Instead, it seems more likely that the Tsarnaev brothers are a ‘lone’ or ‘solo’ actors that were partially radicalized online and carried out their attacks without direction from overseas.. While there seem to be some investigative strands that suggest others – specifically a mysterious figure named Misha – may have facilitated on Tamerlan’s radicalisation, the investigation does not seem to be pointing to a wider terrorist cell with many external connections. The conclusion seems to be that the men found and absorbed radical ideas largely by themselves, before deciding to launch a terrorist campaign to punish America for wars against Islam and in line with ideas they found in publications like Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Inspire magazine, advanced by preachers like Sheikh Feiz Mohammed and possibly explained by individuals like the mysterious Misha.

Reportedly, Dzhokhar, the younger brother, told investigators that they got their bomb design and ideas from Inspire magazine, the publication put out by Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It seems that the reported pressure cooker device used at the Boston bombing may have been drawn from a design suggested in the first edition of the magazine from Summer of 2010 . Moreover, it appears that this was merely the first incident in an intended campaign of further destruction. According to investigators, the brothers told a man whose car they hijacked that ‘we just killed a cop. We blew up the marathon. And now we’re going to New York.’ But so far no evidence has emerged that there was anyone orchestrating this plot, telling the men what to do and who to attack. The targeting of a marathon, a random policeman and then heading to New York is all very evocative of Inspire magazine’s brand of terrorism against society at large rather than symbols of government or authority.

The Dilemma of Identifying an Isolated Threat

From a security analysis perspective, it is often connections that make it possible for authorities to become alert to individuals or terrorist cells. Intercepted communications or contact with known extremists will place cells or individuals on official radars, leading to possible deeper investigation that may uncover the existence of a threat. Networks tend to trip over intelligence leads directing authorities to focus on them as particular potential threats.

The particular problem, however, posed by ‘lone’ or ‘solo actor’ individuals – that is a terrorist cell that conduct attacks without any clear direction or command and control from external groups – is that oftentimes they may throw up subsequent connections, but these are hidden amongst a mass of other information. For example, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s travel to Chechnya and his online activity may be something that now seem deeply suspicious, but it is possible that at the time they would have been pieces of evidence that are fairly common amongst young North Caucasians. The fact that the extent of the Russian follow-up was to warn American counterparts of their concerns suggests that these links did not draw bright red flags.

One is faced with the dilemma of identifying which of these strands of information or intelligence will result in an unravelling of a terrorist cell, versus information of people simply flirting with radical material online. This is clearly a very difficult job, and in some cases it seems likely that it would be almost impossible to identify people pre-event. For example, Roshonara Choudhry, the King’s College London student who in May 2010 tried to kill MP Stephen Timms for his support of the Iraq war, would have been very difficult to detect prior to carrying out her attack. Thus far, all that is known about the extent of her radicalisation was that she was watching videos by Anwar al-Awlaki and Abdullah Azzam online.

Other cases, however, like Khalid Aldawsari in Texas, show how tripwires can catch potential ‘lone’ or ‘solo actor’ terrorists. In that case, Aldawsari attempted to purchase chemicals from the Carolina Biological Supply company, using a commercial shipping company to have them delivered to his home in Lubbock, Texas. Both the chemical company and the shipping company flagged the purchase as one of concern to authorities, leading to an investigation by the FBI that uncovered Aldawsari as a loner terrorist cell building a bomb whose diary was full of menacing jihadist ideas. He was convicted in November last year and sentenced to life imprisonment.

‘Inspiring’ Terrorism

Recognition of the difficulty to detect such cells is exactly why Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been actively pushing, through its magazine Inspire, towards the idea of people carrying out terrorist attacks on this basis. By simply using everyday items, they are able to launch whatever sort of incident they are able to against the West. What has loosely been called ‘Just Do It’ terrorism in the press and has been referred to as ‘Open Source Jihad’ by AQAP inInspire. It is all aimed at detaching operational command and control from the terrorist cell in recognition of the fact that it is this element which most often proves the compromising element.

But while AQAP has been actively pushing this through their publications and messages, andInspire has repeatedly shown up in investigations in Europe and North America, there is little evidence that the magazine has in itself been a generator of cells. It is a regular feature of terrorist investigations, but it does not seem as though simply reading the publication is turning people into terrorists. Rather, people have used it for ideas – with already radicalised individuals using it as a way to figure out how to build a device. From an investigative perspective, it is difficult to know how to identify the individuals using it for operational purposes versus curious young men and women is difficult without a fuller intelligence picture. Even if individuals have downloaded the magazine, it is not necessarily the case that they are worth the resources of an investigation by authorities.

However, the picture becomes more interesting for investigators if the magazine appears alongside other potentially incriminating evidence. For example, that the individual is consuming increasingly radical material, is planning travel to parts of the world where Al-Qa’ida or affiliated movements are particularly active or is seeking connections with other radicals or groups. And it is here that intelligence and police agencies clearly need to focus when they are trying to pre-emptively identify Lone or Solo Actor terrorist cells. No doubt a difficult prospect, but given the growing propensity of terrorist cells to look like this, something that requires deeper understanding.

A final note to touch upon is the fact that the Boston cell appears to be made up of two people rather than an isolated individual. However, as brothers with the older leaving a more radical footprint, it is possible that he was the radicalising agent who influenced his younger brother.Stories are emerging of the older brother’s influence over his younger sibling. While such isolated cells with no external connections are rare, they are not unheard of: for example, in October 2009 Mohammed Game blew himself up at the gates of a Milan barracks. While later investigation uncovered links to two others who were subsequently prosecuted, no wider connections from the cell were ever uncovered. Similarly, in May 2007, a group in New Jersey were arrested for plotting some sort of attack against the Fort Dix barracks – at the heart of the cell were the three Duka brothers, Albanian-Americans, and their brother-in-law Mohammed Shenwer, who were apparently Anwar al-Awlaki fans and were plotting some sort of incident in New Jersey. These sorts of isolated ‘solo’ or ‘lone actor’ (or as the author has previously referred to them ‘Lone Wolf Packs’) cells tend to be easier to locate given their tendency to have more external links or tripwires for authorities to come across them. However, as shown in the Boston and Milan cases, these cells can also slip by undetected.

The key conclusion for security agencies is that such terrorist cells are notoriously difficult to uncover prior to event. Some work can be done in targeted public information campaigns aimed at chemical companies, storage firms or other industries that might be conduits for individuals to obtain transformative material for homemade explosives. This will help give authorities leads like those that led to Khalid Aldawsari’s detention. As the tendency towards ‘lone’ or ‘solo actor’ cells becomes a pattern, a more comprehensive pattern may emerge of such lone/solo actor individuals or cells, providing authorities with a better profile that they can test information against to see if individuals are moving in a direction of concern.

Policy Options

The main policy conclusion that can be usefully drawn is that as such cells are hard to detect, greater work needs to be focused on subsequent response and management of information that would allow analysts to determine whether a terrorist plot is part of an externally directed or self-directed campaign.

Furthermore, a concerted effort will be required to remove the mystique around such attackers. The first step would be to encourage a public culture that equates would-be attackers to mass shooters rather than a heroic terrorist. If this is done successfully, it is possible they will consider other avenues of expression and Inspire’s message will be less inspiring.

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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.

A longer article in the latest HSToday, that predates the current chaos regarding a certain person who was killed in Pakistan. Looks at why terrorists remain fixated with aviation. The whole article can be found below, but those who want to read it in the magazine can find it here or at your local newsagents (if you are in the US).

Airport Security: Aiming At Aviation

Why terrorists continue to focus on planes as their number one target.

By: Raffaello Pantucci

05/04/11
A suicide bomber in the reception hall at Moscow’s Domodevo International, a shooter randomly targeting US servicemen as they wait for a bus outside Frankfurt International airport, parcel bombs placed upon international freight carriers heading for the United States intercepted in Dubai and the UK’s East Midlands Airport—aviation and airports have never seemed to be a higher priority target for terrorist groups.
This is not in itself a new phenomenon, but given estimated costs and disruption for each plot veering into millions of dollars and the guaranteed media attention that they bring, it seems equally clear that this is a problem that is only likely to get larger over time.

A short history of explosive flight

Terrorists have long sought out airlines as priority targets. Sept. 11, 2001, stands out as a major recent watershed, but this was merely a tactical fusion of two separate strands in terrorist targeting that had gone on before.

For groups seeking quite specific tactical aims, the idea of kidnapping aircraft laden with passengers provided a group of hostages that could be bartered for money or fellow comrades sitting in jails, all the while advancing their political cause before a global audience. Throughout the 1960s-1990s, terrorist groups of many different stripes would target aircraft, from the Japanese Red Army who in 1970 hijacked an internal Japanese flight that they redirected to North Korea, to Kashmiri extremists who in December 1999 hijacked a Kathmandu, Nepal, to Delhi flight and ended up securing the release of three fellow comrades sitting in Indian jails. The international nature of air travel meant that groups were guaranteed global media attention that would often translate into successful media operations whether or not the specific tactical aims were achieved.

This global attention and disruption was also at the heart of targeting aircraft with bombs to bring them down mid-flight. On June 22, 1985, Sikh extremists placed suitcases full of explosives on Air India flights originating from Canada. One exploded over the Atlantic Ocean near Ireland while the other went off on the ground at Tokyo’s Narita airport, both bombs killing a total of 331 people. The campaign was part of a radical Sikh campaign to seek separation for an Indian state. Three years later, a bomb placed in a suitcase on Pan Am flight 103 from London Heathrow to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York brought down that aircraft over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 on board and a further 11 on the ground. The bombing was part of a Libyan sponsored campaign that also included the bombing in September 1989 of a flight from Brazzaville, Congo, to Paris, killing 170, and the hijacking in 1986 of another Pan Am flight on the ground in Karachi, Pakistan. All these attacks were part of the shadow war between Colonel Muammar Gadaffi’s Libya and the United States.

The Sept. 11 attacks, however, brought these two deadly strands together in a manner that had not yet been seen—turning a hijacked craft into a flying bomb.

Echoes of the plot could be found earlier. In December 1994, a cell of Algerian Islamists linked to the Armed Islamic Group (known by its French acronym GIA) hijacked a flight from Algiers to Paris and, according to a French intelligence asset, intended to crash it full of fuel into the Eiffel Tower. The plotters were taken out on the ground in Marseilles by French special forces, and as a result their final intentions will never be known.

Weeks after the raid in Marseilles, police in Manila, Philippines, reported to an apartment fire and caught Pakistani national Abdul Hakim Murad in an apartment full of terrorist material. Murad later confessed to being part of a conspiracy masterminded by Ramzi Youssef to bring down about a dozen flights en route from Asia to the United States with undetectable bombs left on board the flights. The plotters had already tested out one of their devices on a Manila to Tokyo flight, killing a Japanese businessman. Youssef, who a year earlier had masterminded the 1993 attempt to topple the World Trade Center towers, was the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and continued to plot with his uncle until he was captured in Islamabad, Pakistan, in February 1995. Upon capture he was found to have US flight plans in his possession.

These dots were never connected until after September 2001. Some security planners were reported by the 9/11 Commission to have considered scenarios along the lines of 9/11 prior to the event, but no one had considered the implications of what might be required to respond.

Post-Sept. 11, however, there has been a noticeable drop off in attempts to hijack aircraft. While passengers with personal agendas or mental disorders threaten sporadic aircraft, there has not been an organized hijacking since September 2001, something that is a testament to the effectiveness of the 9/11 plotters. Having seen what can happen, it is now unlikely that a flight full of passengers will sit docilely by while they are flown to certain death.

None of this has, however, reduced the attraction of airlines and aircraft as a target for Al Qaeda. Subsequent to his arrest in March 2003, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed revealed plans to attack Heathrow airport in London either using a hijacked craft or a mortar. Three months after his successful 9/11 strike, he had dispatched Richard Reid and Saajid Badat—two British Muslims who had been directed to Al Qaeda camps in the years prior to 2001 through the network around the Finsbury Park mosque in London—with bombs in their shoes to bring down transatlantic flights. Badat backed out at the last minute with a message to his handler saying “you will have to tell Van Damme that he could be on his own,” while Reid attempted to board a flight in Paris. Showing up looking unwashed and with no baggage, he was initially turned back by security but was able on the second day to board a Paris to Miami flight.

Russian terrorism takes flight

Even in the wake of the more stringent checks placed on aircraft and passengers caused by 9/11, Al Qaeda remained fixated on airlines, a consistency also visible among terror networks in Russia that targeted aircraft both before and after 2001.

In March 2001, a team of three Chechens armed with knives and what they claimed was a bomb hijacked a flight from Istanbul to Moscow, redirecting it to Medina in Saudi Arabia where they released some of the passengers and demanded refueling, supposedly to go on to Afghanistan. Fearing a bloody resolution if the terrorists blew the plane up as they threatened, Saudi authorities decided to storm the craft, resulting in the death of a hijacker, a passenger and one of the crew. The two captured terrorists were quickly identified as Aslanbek Arsayev, a prominent Chechen who had served previously as minister for state security in Chechnya, and his brother Supian Arsayev. Both men were eventually extradited to Russia and their current whereabouts are unknown.

Subsequent to the September 2001 attacks, Russian Military Air Forces Commander in Chief General Anatoly Kornukov was quoted as saying that “it would be impossible for terrorists to hijack several aircraft simultaneously in Russia.” Showing a certitude born from previous experience when he ordered the shooting down of a South Korean passenger plane that had accidentally violated Russian airspace, Kornukov told a Russian reporter, “if I knew for a fact that there were hostages aboard the hijacked plane and the terrorists were heading straight towards the Kremlin I would report so to the defense minister and suggest he destroy the aircraft. That would be the lesser evil. And then let others judge my actions as they will.”

As it turned out, it was not hijacking on which the Chechens focused. Three years later, Chechen fighters bribed their way onto a pair of planes leaving Moscow’s Domodevo airport on internal routes. Waiting patiently until they knew both flights would be in the air, the bombers detonated their explosives at 11 p.m. on Aug. 24, 2004, bringing both craft down and killing a total of 89 people.

Posthumously identified as Satsita Dzhebirkhanova and Amanta Nagayeva, the “black widows” were identified as Chechens who had suffered family losses as a result of the war and who had been dispatched by Chechen leader Shamil Basayev as part of a campaign called “Operation Boomerang.” According to Cerwyn Moore, an expert on Russian Islamist terrorism at the University of Birmingham, UK, the entire operation was “designed to demonstrate the weakness of Russian security measures … breaching security Domodevo not only caused embarrassment for the Putin administration, it also posed a security dilemma for the Russian authorities.” And as we saw in January, it is one that they have not yet managed to resolve.

For Russians, terrorism from Chechnya and the Northern Caucasus has become something of a routine affair. Aside from the targeting of airplanes, there have been takeovers by terrorists of hospitals, schools and theaters as well as periodic bombings of everything from the Moscow subway to outdoor concerts and the grim apartment bombings of September 1999 that claimed 293 dead. The decision, however, to target the international airport’s arrivals lounge in January 2011 was, according to Moore, specifically “to send a message to both the Russian authorities but also to the outside world … that the Russian authorities’ most secure transport hubs could be attacked.” The subsequent international media coverage guaranteed that this message reached a wider audience, though it is unclear that it will have any tangible impact on the group’s aims.

Al Qaeda’s innovative wing

In August 2006, British and Pakistani forces moved in to arrest a network of plotters that they had under surveillance as part of a large-scale plot, directed by Al Qaeda’s upper echelons, to bring down as many as eight aircraft on transatlantic routes.

Coordinated using a network of British extremists, six of whom had recorded martyrdom videos, the plotters were planning on using devices ingeniously devised to pass airport security. Using highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide hidden in soft drink bottles as the main charge, hollowed out batteries filled with explosive to provide the detonator and a disposable camera light bulb as the trigger, the bombs would have been likely to pass airport security and killed thousands. According to former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, the attack “would have rivaled 9/11 in terms of the number of deaths and in terms of the impact on the international economy,” a statement that highlights quite precisely the double-impact that terrorist groups try to achieve through attacking airplanes.

Since this point, however, the Al Qaeda core has seemingly backed away from aviation, preferring more traditional targets like bombs in city centers. The Najibullah Zazi plot in New York, the April 2009 plot in Northern England and the July 2010 plot in Oslo, Norway, all seemed to target buildings in city centers. And the rumors swirling around the global intelligence community in late 2010 were that Al Qaeda was hoping to stage a Mumbai-style attack on an unspecified European city.

Instead, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemeni affiliate connected to Yemeni-American preacher Anwar Al Awlaki, has eagerly taken up the mantle of targeting aviation. Echoing their ideological leader Osama bin Laden in their English-language Inspire magazine, they declared, “if our messages can reach you by words, then they wouldn’t have traveled by planes.”

The group was behind the attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to bring down a flight en route from Amsterdam to Detroit in December 2009, and then just under a year later for the double-parcel bomb on airfreight craft en route to the United States.

Both attempts were directed and claimed by the group, with Anwar Al Awlaki seen as the ideological and operational leader and Ibrahim Al Asiri, a Saudi bomb maker, as the designer of the devices. Al Asiri had previously designed the bomb that his brother Abdullah had hidden in his rectal cavity and tried to use to kill Saudi security chief Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef. Showing his ongoing capacity to design devices able to get past airport-style security, in December 2009 he constructed the device that Abdulmutallab carried in his underwear, first on a plane from Ghana to Amsterdam and then on to Detroit. It is also believed that he designed the devices secreted in printers that were intercepted in October 2010.

This final operation was celebrated by the group in a special November 2010 edition of Inspire in which they provided images and details of what they dubbed “Operation Hemorrhage.” Alongside claiming responsibility for the two parcel bombs hidden in printers that had been intercepted at the Dubai airport and the UK’s East Midlands airport following a tip passed on by Saudi intelligence, the group also claimed responsibility for the downing of a United Parcel Service plane that crashed in early September 2010 near the Dubai airport. The plane went down for unspecified reasons, and the group claimed responsibility, declaring that “we have succeeded in bringing down the UPS plane but because the enemy’s media did not attribute the operation to us we have remained silent so we may repeat the operation.”

Non-government academic experts, who requested anonymity, told Homeland Security Today that, more likely than not, the group was simply claiming responsibility for something it had not done. But one former British official verified the impressive technical quality of the devices that were found in Dubai and the UK. While international air cargo has long been known as a security weakness in the international supply chain, these devices were able to penetrate security and then were only identifiable to British security officials who were looking for them after they were specifically told where to look by their Emirati counterparts who had located the other device. The bombs showed a new level of technical proficiency.

How the group had achieved this seems to be a combination of human and technical intelligence, something boasted by the “Head of Foreign Operations” in Inspire magazine. In preparing for the attack he claimed that, “we have researched the various security systems employed by airports. We looked into X-ray scanners, full body scanners, sniffing dogs and other aspects of security. The resulting bomb was a device that we were confident that, with the will of Allah, it would pass through the most stringent and up-to-date security equipment.” Later in the magazine the authors highlight in detail how they sealed the device in plastic and then cleaned the bag afterwards so that the device would be undetectable.

While much of the magazine remains anonymous (or penned under what look like pseudonyms), according to Thomas Hegghammer, a prominent scholar of Al Qaeda, this article “is almost certainly written by Awlaki.” Citing a number of references typical of Awlaki’s writing and the “long-held suspicions of intelligence analysts,” Hegghammer believed that this article signaled Awlaki’s “coming out.” Significantly, it also highlighted Awlaki’s personal obsession with targeting aviation—something born out by the parcel bomb attempts and the Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempt, both of which he is believed to have played a key role in directing.

Analysis

In a seminal 1974 article written for the RAND Corporation, “International Terrorism: A New Kind of Warfare,” (http://www.rand.org/pubs/papers/2008/P5261.pdf) renowned terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins discussed the threat of terrorism and the then-increasingly common form of international air travel.

“Jet air travel furnishes unprecedented mobility and with it the ability to strike anywhere in the world. Recent developments in news broadcasting—radio, television, communication satellites—are also a boon to publicity-seeking terrorists,” he wrote.

It is a nexus that current terrorist groups have been targeting with regularity, recognizing the publicity and chaos that disrupting air travel can cause for relatively low cost. While likely overestimating the cost of their disruptions (they claim it will “cost America and other Western countries billions of dollars in new security measures”), AQAP proudly boasted that “Operation Hemorrhage” cost the group merely $4,200—a more credible figure that highlights how cheap terrorism can be.

What is equally likely is that the groups will learn from their mistakes in targeting international travel, but also that they are likely to learn from the lessons of the two more successful attacks carried out in early 2011—the Moscow Domodevo bombing and the shooting at Frankfurt Airport.

Unlike AQAP’s efforts, these two attacks were effective in killing people and likely required a lot less planning. It is in fact likely that there will be an increase in attacks like that at Frankfurt airport—random acts of violence pursued by loners who believe they are part of an international movement—but whether they take place at airports will not be something that security planners can factor in any more than they can factor in similar attacks in other places. Heightened states of security already exist at most international hubs, and doubtless in the wake of the Frankfurt and Moscow incidents the security perimeter will be pushed out further in much the same way that a July 2007 attempt to drive a car bomb through the departures hall of Glasgow International Airport resulted in increased security at regional British airports.

But for terrorists the optimal target will continue to be aircraft in transit. The problem from a terrorist’s perspective is that a bomb at an airport is very similar to a bomb in any other public place, except the security is tighter (the exception would seem to be Russian airports where, at least in the case of the double-plane downing, individuals at the airport have been corrupted with small, on-the-spot bribes). Consequently, it can seem easier to simply deposit a device on a public transport system where security will be far less. Furthermore, it lacks the drama of an attack on an international flight.

As Brian Michael Jenkins put it in 1974, “terrorism is theater” and an airplane full of people traveling between two developed economies remains the only sure way to guarantee a large media splash, dramatic economic damage and intense attention for your cause. Given AQAP’s continuing fixation with aviation, security in the air will continue to be a major headache in the years to come.

_________________________________________________

Evil by e-mail

Further evidence of Anwar Al Awlaki’s obsession with aviation and the United States was seen in e-mails that emerged in the trial of a Bangladeshi man employed as a British Airways information technology worker who was incarcerated in February for plotting with Awlaki.

In an e-mail to the Bangladeshi in early 2010, Awlaki wrote that he “was excited by hearing your profession” and that “I pray Allah may grant us a breakthrough through you. As a starter, can you please answer these questions in as much elaboration as possible: can you please specify your role in the airline industry, how much access do you have to airports, what information do you have on the limitations and cracks in present airport security systems.”

In responding to the preacher, Karim stated he knew “two brothers, one who works in baggage handling at Heathrow and another who works in airport security. Both are good practicing brothers and sympathise towards the cause of the mujahideen.” Two men were picked up by police in Slough in the wake of Rajib Karim’s arrest, though neither was charged with anything. One was subsequently fired from his job at Heathrow.

A later note from Awlaki highlighted the preacher’s overriding desire to attack the United States using planes. “Our highest priority is to attack the US. Anything, even on a smaller scale compared to what we may do in the UK, would be our choice. So the question is: with the people you have is it possible to get a package or a person with a package on board a flight heading to the US?”

Two weeks after this e-mail was received in February 2010, Karim was arrested at his desk at a British Airways office in Newcastle. Awlaki went on to plan “Operation Hemorrhage” and clearly found other ways to gather information about airport security. Showing how this might have taken place, in late 2010 British intelligence officials released a story to the media that highlighted their belief that terrorist networks were “periodically testing” security at some of Britain’s regional airports. Images were released to the Guardian newspaper that appeared to show improvised explosive devices as seen through airport X-ray machines.

I have pulled this trick before, asking Ces to provide some insights on what is going on with terrorism in Russia. He kindly did this interview with me a while ago, but it got a bit lost and he kindly agreed to update it for Free Rad!cals. The links I had included have not made it, but the previous post can be found here, and Ces’s bio can be found here.

Interview: Terror in Russia

The attack on Moscow’s Domodevo airport earlier this year was the latest in a long litany of terrorism in Russia emanating from the troubled Caucuses region. While it is a subject I follow, I do not follow it in nearly enough detail and have in the past turned to Ces Moore of Birmingham University for more detailed analysis. In the wake of the recent attacks I have been sharing emails with Ces on the subject, and he kindly accepted to answer a few questions on the subject for this site – for Ces’s complete bio, please see his site at Birmingham. My questions in italics:

1. Who do you think might be responsible, and why did it take them so long to claim it?

In the past, groups involved in launching suicide operations in Russia have claimed responsibility in statements, in the days and weeks following attacks. As such, it is not surprising that two statements were released in quick succession in February by the leader of the Caucasus Emirate – a loosely connected group of militants fighting in the North Caucasus (for more on the ‘third wave’ of attacks). In recent years Doku Umarov has vowed to launch attacks in Russian cities. The video statements suggested that the leader of the Emirate, Umarov, and his supporters played a role in the Domodedovo attack, although that must be read in the context of ongoing operations by the militant underground across the North Caucasus.

Obviously it is difficult to ascertain which faction from the North Caucasus, if indeed any, were responsible. Significantly, although Al Qaeda have offered endorsements for attacks, they don’t have a track record of launching operations targeting Russia, so, as the statements indicate; it likely that indigenous groups with the willingness and capability may have been involved in the attack. Given the target – a key transport hub and symbol of Russia – and the nature and form of the attack – a suicide operation – it is likely that Umarov and his supporters were involved in the airport bombing.

These groups often wait a few days before issuing statements, partly in order to ratchet up pressure on the Russian authorities and partly because their systems of communication, command and control are a being closely monitored by the Russian authorities, making it difficult for them to operate. For example, in the past, rebel websites have been subjected to cyber attacks. It may well be that this attack is only loosely linked to the core of the insurgency – many attacks in the past were launched almost as independent operations – under the framework of a loose network of affiliates. For instance, in the wave of terrorism between 2002 and 2004 called Operation Boomerang, groups approached rebel leaders for funding to launch attacks – almost as a franchise operation – while other attacks were launched independently, as acts of retaliation. The claim of responsibility will shed some light on the groups involved, and help unpack if there is a link to the North Caucasus.

2. This is not the first time this airport has been targeted: is this in part a message to the outside world? What is the message if it is? Should other countries be concerned about these groups going international?

This again, is a very interesting set of questions. The airport itself has not been attacked in the past, although its security was breached when two female bombers boarded domestic flights in August 2004. They detonated their explosives destroying two planes, killing scores of people. These attacks were part of the aforementioned campaign of terrorism called Operation Boomerang, by Shamil Basayev, and were followed shortly afterwards by the hostage-taking tragedy in the Ossetian town of Beslan. These attacks were all designed to demonstrate the weakness of Russian security measures, and occurred against the background of political normalisation and elections in Chechnya proper. In 2004 then, breaching security measures at Domodedovo not only caused embarrassment for the Putin administration, it also posed a security dilemma for the Russian authorities.

On this occasion, the explosion occurred in the part of the airport terminal itself. Given that the explosion caused mass casualties, and given that many of those who died or were injured had recently arrived on international flights, it is likely that the attack was designed to garner international news coverage. In short then, yes, in part the attack appears to have been designed to send a message to both the Russian authorities but also to the outside world – that is that the Russian authorities most secure transport hubs could be attacked; that mass casualty attacks have returned to Russia, and more particularly to Moscow and its environs; and that the continued statements about the elimination of rebel groups in North Caucasus has by no means been successful.

In 2010 the Russian authorities had a series of notable successes, killing and capturing key members in the militant underground. In the simplest terms, the attack appears to have been timed to coincide with a trip by the Russian President, Dimtri Medyedev to Davos, at which he was tasked with giving a keynote speech. Meanwhile the attack also occurred against the backdrop of increasing inter-ethnic tensions in Moscow between Caucasian gangs and Russia youth groups.

Whether the international community should read more into the attack then these more localised messages – and whether these groups could adopt a more international agenda – is something of a moot point. The Russian authorities repeatedly claim that rebels in the North Caucasus are intimately linked to Al Qaeda – although little if any evidence of these links has ever been provided. That is not to say that groups in the North Caucasus have not adopted increasingly radical agendas – or indeed, that Chechnya and the North Caucasus have not been viewed by radicals as one focal point in a broader Jihadi movement. Indeed, very small splinter groups and factions from the North Caucasus may well have become involved in a Turkic militant movement – known as the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) – which maintains links to Afghanistan, Turkey, Uzbekistan and parts of Europe. But the aim of this group – and its outlook are international – while the aims of those fighting in the North Caucasus remain focused on a set of localised, indigenous issues. Indeed, the IJU is responsible for radicalisation in the Islamic community in Germany, and may have played a background role – radicalising Islamists and members of the Turkic community in Germany for example in the recent ‘lone wolf’ attack on American pilots near Frankfurt. Importantly though, like the militants in the North Caucasus, the IJU needs to contextualised, if attacks attributed to them are to be properly

3. How come these attacks continue in Russia? Is it a question of a lack of security or a determined force being deployed against them?

I would say it is a bit of both. These attacks have re-emerged in Russia as a new generation of volunteers have come to the fore in the North Caucasus – and while Russia, and the Russian-backed administrations in Ingushetia, Chechnya, Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria maintain a measure of control and security, rebel factions will use attacks against a broader range of targets across Russia. Targets – given Russia’s size – which will be difficult to secure, and which therefore creates a dilemma for the Medyedev administration. These attacks continue in Russia because of internal radicalisation within the movement in the North Caucasus; because a new generation of militants appear to be coming to the fore; because the groups behind the attacks have a willingness and capability; and because it is incredibly difficult to ensure security across such as vast area.

4. One hears more about Dagestan than Chechnya these days when thinking about insurgent extremist movements in Russia: what is behind this shift?

Dagestan is certainly one of two focal point of the insurgency at present (the other being Kabardino-Balkaria). Throughout 2010, a number of audacious attacks occurred in Chechnya, but the form, targets and relentless nature of attacks have wracked Dagestan. On the one hand this results from years of violent pacification and repression in Chechnya – including, of course, two brutal wars. This has done much to destroy any vestiges of the separatist cause which flared up in the early 1990s. On the other hand, poverty and the systematic abuse by the elites in neighbouring republics – in Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan have created the conditions in which a nascent underground movement could not only gain a foothold, but which could also undergo a process of internal radicalisation.

While brutal, the security measures in Ingushetia and Dagestan were piecemeal in 2008 and 2009, compared to the counter-terrorist operations in Chechnya. Corruption, inter-ethnic and inter-clan rivalries, alongside the fact that Dagestan has always hosted a radical militant movement, has meant that it has once again become the centre of the regional insurgency. Freedom of movement has also facilitated this growth in the militant underground in Dagestan. Tellingly, groups in Dagestan and small factions in North Ossetia, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria were relatively quick in pledging allegiance to Dokku Umarov as he sought to reo-organise the militant underground following the death of the Chechen leader Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev. Umarov integrated a host of different commanders into the hierarchy of his movement, shifting the focus of the militant underground away from separatism in Chechnya, to a more radical regional narrative of anti-Russian resistance. This included the adoption of a regional agenda, and gave Umarov a measure of influence over the groups in Dagestan. The slightly younger generation of commanders in Sharia Jamaat in Dagestan pledged allegiance to Umarov, while in Ingushetia the militant underground was led by Emir Magas (Ali Taziyev), a seasoned militant, and Emir Astemirov in Kabardino-Balkaria, a respected scholar and charismatic leader. In Chechnya, seasoned fighters – notably the jamaats led by the Gakaev Brothers – remained in control of the militant underground. Thus, while all pledged some allegiance to Umarov (known by the nom de guerre – Emir Abu Usman), his influence was at its most marked in Dagestan – the groups elsewhere operated in a loosely connected fashion largely orchestrating their own campaigns of resistance, drawing on their own jamaats. In fact, in 2010 a split of sorts also occurred when the jamaats in Chechnya sought to wrest control of the movement from Umarov, in what some experts have labelled a ‘palace coup.’ The relationship between Umarov and the small militant underground in Chechnya remains problematic.

The federal authorities captured Emir Magas and killed Emir Astemirov in 2010, making Dagestan an even more important front in the regional insurgency. In recent months there has also been a shift in tactics by groups in another republic in the North Caucasus – Kabardino-Balkaria. While the former leadership of the jamaats operating in KB advocated the creation of a clandestine support network, launching sporadic attacks, statements by the current leadership have called for a more systematic and violent campaign – which has been borne out by a real upsurge in attacks in the republic.

Dagestan continues to be a focal point of the insurgency at present – the two bombers who struck in Moscow in March 2010 came from Dagestan, and targeted suicide attacks have also continued in the republic, including twin attacks on the 14th of February. Sweep operations targeting militant strongholds continue in Dagestan, while the jamaats therein continue to pose a credible threat to the ruling elite, given that poverty and corruption is rife in the republic.

5. What kind of a role does Islam play in Caucasian groups thinking?

The question of religious influence in the movements in the Caucasus remains something of a moot point. By this I mean that different factions have variously deployed radical Islam – as a rallying cry; as an alternative to Sufi norms; as a way of countering the poverty and corruption in the region – but each group has been sensitive to local conditions. Emir Astemirov retained support because of his theological education, but also because he was a descendant of nobility in Kabardino-Balkaria; Emir Magas, sought to encourage support from the youth in Ingushetia, whether Sufi or if they had a radical agenda, in response to the harsh measures adopted by the Ingush authorities, the poverty and corruption; the jamaats in Chechnya, while radical, retain a focus on fighting in the republic; whereas in Dagestan, the radical strain of Islam has a deeper lineage. And so Islam plays a variety of roles unifying some factions of the resistance; it provides an overarching narrative which has been used to re-organise the insurgency, creating a regional social movement which had its genesis in the inter-war years in Chechnya.

6. Is there a role being played by outside actors in this violence, or is this purely an internal Russian question?

This is perhaps one of the questions which has received the most attention – along with readings (and in many cases mis-readings) of suicide attacks linked to the North Caucasus – but which are largely misunderstood by commentators. Outside actors have always played a role in the violence – although the vast majority have been linked to the broader Diaspora community. As aforementioned, Chechnya became a focal point for jihadis in the latter part of the 1990s, although many foreign jihadis were not accepted, nor became integrated into Chechen military formations. By 2000 many foreign volunteers had left Chechnya, although a staunch group of Arab fighters – numbering a few dozen – did remain in the region and did continue to operate in support of the insurgency. This included Jordanian, Saudi, Kuwati and Yemeni individuals, amongst others. The majority were linked to Ibn Khattab – and included a number of North African militants – although the ranks of the jihadi volunteer movement, including members of Khattab’s inner circle were decimated by 2000. As I have argued elsewhere, a fissure existed in the Salafi-Jiahdi movement in radical circles in the Middle East; in one sense groups in places like Saudi Arabia variously supported foreign fighters in Chechnya, placing Khattab as a traditional jiahdi volunteer fighting the ‘near enemy’ while others, such as the group linked to Bin Laden, targeted the near enemy (See Moore & Tumelty, 2008; Moore & Tumelty, 2009). Although the foreign fighter movement numbered around a few dozen by 2002 (Moore & Tumelty, 2008 & 2009), it has to be contextualised in the context of a broader Diaspora community, which included radical elements that overlapped with the Salafi-Jihadi movement and the indigenous militant movement.

Turkish volunteers also provided active manpower, in support of the then nascent military jamaats. The vast majority of volunteers did, however, come from the ethnic and sub-ethnic groups in the North Caucasus, although again, the number of volunteers remains unclear. The fact that the violence has continued, in varying degrees of intensity for nearly twenty years, indicates that the movements in the region have a social base – and are largely indigenous. Since 2007, the movement has adopted a more regional character – but can only exist through local support.

 

A slightly belated article on the recent events in Moscow for HSToday (belated in that there are now hints it has been figured out who the culprits are). There should be a longer interview I have done with Ces that should appear soon (and of course, thanks for taking the time to talk to me about it!).

Culprits Behind Latest Moscow Bombings Still A Mystery

By: Raff Pantucci

02/04/2011 (12:00am)

The New Year started with a deadly explosion in Moscow. Terrorists detonated a powerful bomb inside Moscow’s Domodevo international airport, killing 35 persons and injuring more than one hundred. Moscow had barely dodged an earlier attack on revelers in Red Square on the night of December 31.

News of the earlier failed attack emerged in the wake of the investigation into the bombing at the Domodevo airport. According to Russian media that quoted intelligence sources, the attackers were gathered in a rented house in Kuzminki Park where they were assembling an explosive device that they reportedly intended to explode at Red Square.

But the bomb detonated prematurely, when the cell phone that was to be used as the trigger was left turned on and received a text message from the phone company, setting off the bomb. The explosion killed the bomber and destroyed the safe house they were using. Two or three other suspected bombers were seen fleeing the scene who are believed to have been responsible for the later bombing at Domodevo airport.

Russian authorities have been tight lipped about sharing information on the plotters involved in the airport attack. In a particularly blunt statement, a spokesman for the National Anti-Terrorism Committee (NAK) said “the investigation is ongoing, and only the [investigators] can say what’s what. Everyone else needs to shut up.”

That pronouncement though had not stopped speculation that the bombers had ties to the North Caucasus and Islamist fighters from Chechnya or neighboring Dagestan.

In an attempt to allay speculation, Prime Minister Vladmir Putin said “this terrorist act, according to preliminary data, has no relation to the Chechen Republic.” Putin’s statement, however, increasingly has been contradicted by reports that individuals from the region were behind the bombing. According to Russian terrorism expert, Cerwyn Moore of the University of Birmingham, the most likely culprits were Islamists in the North Caucasus led by Dokku Umarov, who “has vowed to launch attacks in Russian cities.”

According to Moore, it was not necessarily the case that this was a plot that was centrally directed. “It may well be that this attack is only loosely linked to the core of the insurgency – many attacks in the past were launched almost as independent operations – under the framework of a loose network of affiliates.”

The affiliate that’s under suspicion is a group called Nogaisky Jamaat near Dagestan, a neighboring province of Chechnya. A number of suspects were leaked that support this speculation. An ethnic Russian convert named, Vitaly Razdobudko, from Stavropol near where Nogaisky Jamaat is from, are being sought in connection with the plots, and reports suggested that the woman who was blown up prematurely was the widow of Temerlan Gadzhiyev, a dead leader of the group.

Whoever proves to be culpable, it is unlikely that this is going to be the last such attack in Russia. In 2004, two female suicide bombers who’d bribed their way onto planes from Domodevo brought both aircraft down, killing 88. It was a particularly grim year that started with a suicide bombing in the Moscow underground in February which killed 39, and ended in September with the Beslan school massacre, which killed 331. The carnage has continued regularly since then, with two more female suicide bombers blowing themselves up in Moscow’s underground last March, killing 40.

Among the speculation about outside terrorist connections, one report from Pakistani stated that Russian agents had been in contact with sister services in Pakistan in connection with the incident. The suspicion is that some of the individuals might have trained in Waziristan – a development that is supported by media interviews of European radicals regarding Chechens who were at training camps in Pakistan.

The decision to target the international arrivals area at Domodevo airport would suggest that the group responsible for the bombing there intended to send a message beyond Russia. However, the lack of a claim for responsibility would seem to contradict this theory and denote that the bombers’ key constituency is on the home front. As Moore put it, “the fact that the violence has continued, in varying degrees of intensity for nearly twenty years, indicates that the movements in the region have a social base – and is largely indigenous.”

The underlying problem that has kept violence brewing for almost two decades has not dissipated, and it is uncertain that the response to the latest attack is going to do anything to bring these issues to a close.

 

A new post at Free Rad!cals, this time stepping on Tim’s turf a bit (though he has gone very quiet of late). It looks at a couple of cases on individuals in Spain and Canada being chased for support activities online. Since this was published, I had discovered that it looks as though the Spanish-Moroccan chap may have in fact been sent back to Morocco, which I suppose supports the case that the Spanish were unsure what to do with him and thought it best just to get rid of him.

Chasing Web Jihadists

View all Raff Pantucci Blogs

Filed under: Online Extremism, Terrorism

This post needs to be prefaced with a note that it is based on court documents rather than any convictions. Unless specified, those mentioned are innocent until proven guilty. But this caveat also serves the purpose of providing a useful intro into this post that explores the complexities of pursuing individuals’ active supporting terrorism online.

The phenomenon of online jihadists is probably the most curious innovation to exist in the world of terrorism studies. The idea that individuals with no physical connection to their chosen group can be an integral part of a terrorist organization is something that seems anathema to a politico-terrorist movement. Traditionally terrorist networks were made up of individuals who knew each other and fought alongside each other. In the current conflict we can see people convicted at the same time for being in the same network with no clear evidence that they ever actually met in person (Younis Tsouli, aka Irhabi007, and pals for example).

But what actually is it that these individuals do online which is in support of terrorism? For Tsouli and his cell the evidence they faced overwhelmed them, and they pled guilty to inciting terrorism. In activities it seemed largely as though they helped Al Qaeda in Iraq upload videos onto the Internet and committed fraud to obtain the funds to manage to continue this activity. Tsouli may also have played a role in a cell in Bosnia and another group spanning from Bradford to Toronto, though how this worked operationally is unclear. A series of recent cases, however, seem to be pushing a bit beyond this in attempting to interdict individuals who were remotely linked to networks sending fighters and funds to battlefields in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Iraq.

Back in August last year, Spanish Guardia Civil forces in sunny Alicante raided the home of Faical Errai, a 26 year-old Moroccan resident in Spain who was allegedly one of the administrator’s and the creator of the Ansar al Mujahedeen website (www.ansaraljihad.net). Documents released at the time of his arrest highlighted Spanish police’s belief that Errai was one of the key players in the website and had helped raise funds, provide ideological sustenance and direct fighters to camps in (at least) Chechnya and Waziristan. He was recorded as having boasted on the site to other forum organizers that he had personally helped at least six Libyans get to Waziristan.

Then earlier this week, Canadian forces arrested on an American warrant, Faruq Khalil Muhammad ‘Isa, a 38 year-old Iraqi-Canadian who was allegedly involved in a network sending fighters and equipment to Iraq. According to the complaintreleased by the US Department of Justice, ‘Isa was in contact electronically with a network which sent at least four fighters from Tunisia to Iraq and which was trying to send a second team of four when it was disrupted by security forces from April 2009 onwards. Having watched these networks get closed down from Canada, it seems as though ‘Isa decided that he too wanted to join in the fighting and by early 2010 was asking to talk to the “boss” and vouching for his “not just 100% but 1,000,000%” commitment to the cause. The final paragraph in the complaint against ‘Isa highlights him telling his sister in Iraq on May 28, 2010 “go learn about weapons and go attack the police and Americans. Let it be that you die.”

Both cases are examples of individuals using the Internet to supposedly direct and conduct operations or the flow of fighters on the other side of the globe. To what degree they were the key players is unclear, but certainly in the case of Errai it seemed as though an important online player was taken out of action. Monitors noticed a substantial up-tick in online threats directed at Spain and calling for the “reconqista” in the wake of his arrest – something that was further read as evidence of his importance. For ‘Isa on the other hand, he claimed surprise at the charges at his first hearing. His role in the network is unclear from the complaint beyond having played some sort of a role in supporting ideologically, and maybe practically, a team get from Tunisia to Iraq – a team which was responsible for two separate suicide bombings, one of which killed five US service people on April 10, 2009 in Mosul. There was no immediate evidence of massive retaliation in the wake of ‘Isa’s arrest.

The cases against both men seem to focus on their capacity through the Internet to play a critical role in networks that were helping fighters get to the battlefield along with funds to support the groups hosting them. There is no suggestion that either man actually went to fight and while some of ‘Isa’s intercepts seem to hint that he may be thinking in that direction, he had not yet acted on this impulse at time of arrest.

This fact is likely to result in difficulties for prosecutors. For Errai, I believe he is still in jail in Spain waiting trial, while the U.S. and Canadian governments are settling in for a long-term extradition tangle. ‘Isa’s case could end up something like Babar Ahmad’s, the British-Pakistani sitting in prison in UK unconvicted as he fights extradition to the US on charges for the most part linked with his role in the www.azzam.com family of websites and helping send support to fighters in Afghanistan and Chechnya. The key difference being that the US wants ‘Isa in specific connection to an attack in Iraq that killed five Americans, giving them a clear set of victims to show a court of law.

Herein lies the nub of the problem: how is it possible to link in a legally satisfying way individuals who are supporting extremists and networks online without actually doing anything which contravenes the law in the way that a terrorist attack does. Using a computer can seem a very detached way of supporting a terrorist act for a jury. Laws can be adapted, as has happened in the UK, to adopt charges of “incitement” to terrorism, but this remains very hard to pursue in a court of law. So the question remains how can one actively and successfully chase and convict people online who are playing a seemingly important role in fostering networks on the other side of the globe. It remains to be seen how this game will play out.

More for the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor, this time exploring the odd case in Lithuania of Egle Kusiate, the alleged aspirant suicide bomber who wanted to go to Chechnya. This has received very little coverage outside the Baltics, and it is hard to know exactly what is going on. It will be interesting to see how it all develops – if anyone sees any interesting stories on this proceeding, please forward them on.

Strange Case of Suspect Lithuanian Suicide Bomber Complicated by Alleged Role of Security Services

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 35

September 16, 2010 04:33 PM Age: 2 days

By: Raffaello Pantucci

Buried in this year’s Europol report on terrorism trends was a reference to “a 20 year-old Lithuanian woman” who was “arrested before she traveled to Russia to commit a suicide attack there. She had converted to Islam and was self-radicalized via the internet” (for the report, see Terrorism Monitor, June 4). [1] This rather conclusive narrative provided to Europol by Lithuania’s security forces was seemingly contradicted in early August when the suspect, Egle Kusaite, was released from custody by a court of appeals pending a trial whose date has not yet been set (Baltic News Service, August 6).

The strange case of Egle Kusaite first came to public attention in late April/early May 2010 when security forces were obliged to reveal information about her in open court after nearly six months in custody (AP, May 4). Having admitted that she was in custody, prosecutor Justas Laucius told the court that “Egle Kusaite performed illegal actions, and was likely ordered by someone to go to Russia and blow herself up at a military object” (AP, May 4). Laucius later defined the target as “a strategic site,” namely “a military barracks holding Russian troops who had fought in Chechnya” (Kauno Diena (Kaunas), July 20).

Arrested on October 29, 2009 as she tried to board a plane with a new passport, a one-way ticket and $500 she had obtained from radicals for the trip, Kusaite was picked up as part of an intelligence-led operation and has been in Vilnius’ Lukiskes Prison ever since (Baltic News Service, June 11; Baltic Times, July 28). According to the Russian press, Kusaite had been on Lithuanian security’s radar for some time as a result of “anti-Russian messages” she had been posting online (RussiaToday, May 4). Kusaite had repeatedly applied for visas to enter Russia, and was in online contact with extremists in Azerbaijan, the United Kingdom and Uzbekistan as well as a cell in Russia (Baltic News Service, May 4). She had also downloaded manuals about making explosives, which were found in her possession alongside maps of the Moscow underground system as she attempted to board the plane to Russia.

In 2007, the then 18 year-old Kusaite had been reported missing by her family. According to a former teacher, she had developed a close relationship with a man from the North Caucasus, whom she later married in Germany (AP, May 4; Kavkazcenter.com, May 4). Her husband apparently returned to Chechnya and was killed in the fighting, allegedly providing Kusaite with personal motivation to become involved in the conflict (Baltic News Service, August 5). Kusaite’s mother, Virginija Kusiene, claimed she had been obsessed with Chechens, conversing with individuals online before running away to Germany where she had lived in a Chechen couple’s flat “in a room without windows and furniture except for a dirty mattress where she would spend entire days” (Baltic Report, August 6). According to the suspect’s mother, Kusaite lived in her home town of Klaipeda in a flat rented by the Lithuanian State Security Department after her return from Germany and associated with Muslim fundamentalists who were, in reality, agents of the security service (Baltic Times, July 28).

Having been detained by security forces, Kusaite confessed in June “that her goal was to go to Russia and then Chechnya, were she would have performed a suicide bombing in a public area.” It was also revealed that a Chechen brother and sister detained in Russia had admitted to providing her with guidance, offering training and sending her the $500 required for the trip to Russia (Baltic News Service, June 11). The mother of the two Russians admitted the three were in touch, but suggested that Kusaite and her daughter talked only of “girly things” during their internet conversation (Baltic News Service, July 19). On the other hand Kusaite’s family denied her confession altogether, declaring that it had been forced – something she herself now claims (Baltic News Service, August 5).

This is not the only inconsistency with the case, which has stirred up a fierce internal debate in Lithuania about its counterterrorism policy. When the case was first announced, Russian forces denied all knowledge of it, though it had been simultaneously reported that individuals in Russia had been detained and that the arrest was a joint Lithuanian-Russian operation (Interfax, May 5; AP, May 4). Lithuanian forces also claimed to have connived with the Russian Embassy to have Kusaite’s visa application rejected in an attempt to prevent her from going to Russia, suggesting some level of prior contact with Russian authorities (Baltic News Service, June 10).

Lithuanian human rights activists including European Parliament MP Darius Kuolys have even suggested State Security Department operatives tried to convince Kusaite to undertake a suicide bombing in Egypt (Baltic Times, July 28). The activists also claimed that Kusaite had been in the security services thrall for around two years, apparently working as some sort of agent for them. This was confirmed by Lithuanian press sources contacted by Terrorism Monitor who suggested that the case has been complicated by the fact that she had worked in some capacity for the security services. Her family claimed that she had undergone physical and psychological abuse while in custody and that Russian agents had been involved in beating her while in Lithuanian custody, a charge the suspect later repeated in court (Baltic News Service, June 22; Baltic Times, July 28). On the way to her July 20 court appearance, Kusaite shouted to journalists, “I was beaten by three Russians!” (15min.lt [Lithuania], July 26). An investigation into the charges determined the Russians had acted only as observers during the interrogation.

The Kusaite case comes in the wake of a separate case in which it is claimed a Lithuanian agent had attempted to gain information on a Chechen family suspected of radical activity through their foster daughter, whom he had gotten pregnant and then forced to plant listening devices (Baltic News Service, May 12).

Amidst claims that the prosecutor in Kusaite’s case had intimidated the defendant, the court gave way to public and political pressure and dismissed the lead prosecutor (Baltic News Service, July 22). Just over two weeks later the decision was made to allow Ms. Kusaite to leave prison pending her trial, though her documents were seized and she is obliged to report regularly to a police station (Baltic News Service, August 6). It is currently unclear when her trial will be held, though a decision is expected imminently. However, given her alleged involvement with the security services and the fact that she was effectively held in secret detention for approximately six months, a conviction is far from a foregone conclusion. In the meantime, the case highlights the ongoing anxiety that exists among European security services regarding the potential for the North Caucasus to act as a drawing force for aspiring young jihadis.

Note:

1. TE-SAT 2010: EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, April 28, 2010, available at:www.europol.europa.eu/publications/EU_Terrorism_Situation_and_Trend_Report_TE-SAT/TESAT2010.pdf, p.15.