Posts Tagged ‘converts’

More on an old theme that continues to be unresolved, Lone Wolf terrorism, this time for Jane’s. I have a few more academic pieces on the pipeline on this topic and am possibly exploring some larger projects on the theme. Apologies as this one is behind a paywall. Am asking whether I can repost it here, but in the meantime let me know if you really want to read it. UPDATE (10/26/2012): Thanks to Jane’s IHS for agreeing to let me re-post the text here!

The Power  of One – Western Lone Wolf Terrorism

10/4/2012

The sentencing of Mohammed and Shasta Khan – a recently married couple convicted in July of plotting an attack on the local Jewish community in Oldham in the north of the UK – marked the end of a case which offered a new perspective on the problem of so-called lone wolf terrorism.

The trial uncovered little evidence that the pair had been directed to carry out their attack by anyone, and what direction they had appeared to have come from Inspire – an English-language jihadist magazine produced by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) with precisely the aim of encouraging and facilitating the kind of ‘individual jihad’ against the West being planned by the Khans.

The case was merely the latest of a number in Europe and the United States in recent years in which prosecutors have cited the role played by Inspire in facilitating plots by home-grown, grassroots jihadists, and individual jihad waged by lone wolves or hybrid ‘lone wolf packs’ such as the Khans currently represents a significant potential threat.

The Khans

The case against the Khans came together in a somewhat haphazard fashion. Police were initially called to their residence in the Waterhead area of Oldham late on 22 July 2011 in response to an alleged assault by Mohammed Khan against his father-in-law. While questioning the family, one of Shasta Khan’s brothers reportedly told police he suspected Mohammed was “a home-grown terrorist”. When questioned, Shasta confirmed the allegation and accused her husband of planning an attack against the local Jewish community.

The North West Counter Terrorism Unit launched an investigation into the allegations, but as they dug into the couple’s lives they uncovered a far more complicated picture. The pair apparently met sometime in mid-2010 through the Muslim dating website singlemuslim.com. After corresponding a few times online they met at a Bradford food court on 19 July 2010, and a month later they were married. Although they met through a website that seeks to connect people for whom Islam is important, it is not entirely clear how pious the couple were prior to meeting. A photograph of the pair enjoying a boat trip during their honeymoon in Turkey shows Mohammed clean-shaven and Shasta wearing a short-sleeved top with her hair down, and it was revealed in court that Mohammed had previously been incarcerated for violent crime. On the other hand, in her account to police Shasta claimed to have started to read the Quran, pray five times a day, and wear a hijab six months before meeting Mohammed.

Irrespective, once married the process of radicalisation seems to have been relatively rapid. Mohammed told Shasta to reject western dress and the pair started to download and watch radical material together. Among their possessions were recordings of Al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, AQAP ideologue Anwar al-Awlaqi, and radical Australian-Lebanese preacher Feiz Mohammed. The largest number of recordings in the couple’s collection was by Abdullah el-Faisal, the Jamaican preacher who has admitted that Germaine Lindsay, one of the 7 July 2005 London bomb plotters, was a student of his. Faisal was previously jailed in the UK and currently lives in Jamaica from where he broadcasts regularly. The couple also possessed at least two issues of Inspire magazine, as well as a profile of Mustafa Setmariam Nasar alias Abu Musab al-Suri, a Syrian jihadist ideologue noted for advocating “the jihad of individual terrorism” in which self-forming cells would carry out independent attacks without the need for any central command and control structure.

The Prestwich plot

Central to the prosecution’s case was the presence of Inspire magazine – particularly issues one and six which featured suggestions on how to construct explosive devices using easily sourced materials. Many of these materials, including Christmas lights that could be fashioned into a detonator, were found among the Khans’ possessions. There was further evidence on a laptop that someone had watched YouTube video clips that showed how to make potassium chlorate using bleach and salt substitute products with a high potassium chloride content. When police searched the couple’s premises they found a bowl and a metal pot in the garden with high levels of liquid chloride, sodium, potassium, and chlorate. When mixed with sugars, chlorates can be very explosive. According to forensic investigation, the chlorate in the vessels had been made three weeks prior to discovery.

The pair had further access to explosive ingredients through Shasta Khan’s work as a hairdresser. Inspire issue six includes detailed information about how to manufacture explosives from acetone peroxide, and in her initial confession to police Shasta claimed her husband had repeatedly asked her to source peroxide through her work. At the time of arrest, the pair were found to have at least five bottles of peroxide in their possession, as well as various items of safety wear that would be useful in concentrating the peroxide and mixing chemicals.

As a target, the pair appear to have chosen the Jewish community in the nearby town of Prestwich. In her initial confession – which she later retracted – Shasta Khan claimed her husband had a “massive problem” with Jews and would regularly make anti-Semitic comments. She claimed he had made her drive to the Jewish part of Prestwich to sit and watch Jews going in and out of the synagogue. This was confirmed by evidence discovered on a GPS device found in their possession, which showed that the pair had made a number of trips around Prestwich’s Jewish community and had specifically marked out the current and previous locations of the Jewish Agency, and the central location of the Jewish community.

UK lone wolves

The Khans are merely the latest in a growing list of UK nationals who have chosen to plot home-grown terrorist attacks with no outside direction. In May 2008, Nicky Reilly, an Asperger’s sufferer who had become radicalised after converting to Islam, attempted to blow himself up in a restaurant in Exeter with a device he had fashioned using recipes from the internet, but which failed to detonate properly. While police found Reilly had loose links to radical elements in his local community, it was ultimately concluded that he acted alone, albeit with some guidance from unknown individuals he appeared to have met online through YouTube discussion chains.

A month prior to Reilly’s attempt, police in Bristol were alerted by the local community to another young Muslim convert, Andrew Ibrahim, who had appeared at his local mosque talking about jihad and with very nasty burns on his hands. When police searched his home they found peroxide-based explosive Hexamethylene triperoxide diamine (HMTD) which he had made using online recipes, along with videos of him testing it, a suicide vest he had fashioned himself, and evidence on his mobile phone of him conducting reconnaissance at a local shopping mall.

Although Reilly and Ibrahim failed in their attempts, in May 2010 Roshonara Choudhry succeeded in carrying out an act of individual jihad when she stabbed MP Stephen Timms during his regular constituency meeting, narrowly failing to kill him. Choudhry subsequently explained she had targeted Timms for his support of the Iraq war, and claimed her inspiration came from having watched many hours of YouTube videos of Awlaqi and Abdullah Azzam. Again, there was no evidence Choudhry had been directed by anyone in conducting her attack, and Choudhry told police she had kept her plans secret “because nobody would understand, and… because I knew that if anybody else knew they would get in trouble because then they would be implicated in whatever I do”.

Choudhry’s act was widely celebrated within the online radical community, and a week after her conviction, Bilal Zaheer Ahmad, 23, was arrested in Wolverhampton for posting lists of MPs to be targeted on a website – revolutionmuslim.com – that Choudhry had frequented. Praising her actions, Ahmad not only offered a list of potential targets, but also provided a link to a supermarket website which sold the kind of knife Choudhry had used in her attack. Ahmad was later jailed for 12 years for soliciting murder, intent to stir up religious hatred, and collecting information likely to be of use to a terrorist.

Inspire

Choudhry’s attack was also celebrated by the editors of Inspire as an example of the kind of individual jihad – referred to as “open source jihad” – that AQAP had founded the magazine to encourage. An article dedicated to her in Inspire issue four, released online in January 2011, praised Choudhry as an example of “borderless loyalty” to Al-Qaeda’s cause, and stated: “The ummah [global Muslim community], and specifically its mujahedeen, are waiting to see more people of her calibre. No it is not the highly technical skills that we are referring to… it is the willpower to kill the disbelievers.”

This concept of open source jihad is something that Inspire has repeatedly advanced since its first issue. Drawing heavily on the work of Abu Musab al-Suri, it has argued that organised groups are not necessary and that individuals should simply take up the mantle of jihad and carry out attacks wherever they can. Such grassroots jihadists would operate according to the principle of commander’s intent, acting in accordance with strategic principles publicised by Al-Qaeda but without any actual contact with the group, which might expose them to security services.

However, while Inspire has become something of a feature among the possessions of recently arrested aspirant jihadists in Europe and the US in recent years, there is little evidence that the magazine’s call for individual jihad was what inspired them to act. Instead, other factors appear to have served as the motivation, with Inspire serving rather as a trusted and accessible bomb-making manual.

For example, in December 2010 police arrested a group of UK citizens – who later pleaded guilty to planning to bomb the London Stock Exchange – after hearing them discussing an infamous Inspire article entitled Make a bomb in the kitchen of your Mom. They had only recently downloaded the magazine and appeared to be figuring out how to source the materials it listed.

The same article was found in the possession of Naser Jason Abdo, a US soldier who went AWOL during the 4 July weekend in 2011, and who was arrested later that month after police found weapons and explosive materials in his hotel room. Abdo later confessed to planning to bomb a Chinese restaurant near the Fort Hood military base, Texas, and shooting survivors as they ran from the blast. In his court testimony, Abdo claimed he had been inspired by an earlier act of individual jihad allegedly carried out by Nidal Hassan Malik, a US Army major who is suspected of killing 13 people in a small-arms attack at Fort Hood in 2009, an act Abdo said he had hoped to “outdo”.

The company of wolves

Malik himself has become something of a celebrity in the roster of lone wolf jihadists as one of the most successful examples of the trend. However, despite the surface appearance of the case – in which Malik, driven to distraction by his pending posting to Afghanistan, decided to carry out an act of terrorism instead – the reality was more complex, and it was subsequently revealed that he had previously come to the attention of US intelligence after entering into email correspondence with Awlaqi.

As in the Malik case, there are a number of apparent lone wolf attacks where subsequent investigations reveal a level of networking inconsistent with the principles of open source jihad espoused by AQAP in Inspire. Indeed, the very Inspire article that celebrated Choudhry’s “borderless loyalty” to Al-Qaeda’s cause also highlighted the case of Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, a young Iraqi who blew himself up in Stockholm in December 2010 in an unsuccessful attempt to attack a local shopping mall. Although the article represented him as a lone wolf like Choudhry, Iraqi officials have claimed that he was connected with insurgent groups in the country – although it is unclear with which particular group – and prior to the attack he allegedly telephoned several numbers in the country. In addition, a friend Abdaly had made while living in the UK – Naserine Menni – was convicted at Glasgow High Court in August 2012 of helping fund the attack as well as supporting Abdaly in building his device and sharing radical material with him.

Indeed, a distinctive feature of many lone wolf cases is that they do not in fact act entirely in isolation. This was also evident in the case of Mohammed Merah, who carried out a series of shootings in Toulouse, France, in March. Although repeatedly identified in the press as a lone wolf, Merah had familial connections to militant networks supporting the insurgency in Iraq as well as links to radicals in Algeria. According to US investigators, he also attended training camps in Pakistan. Indeed, in the aftermath of his attacks the North Waziristan-based Kazakh militant Islamist group Jund alKhilafah (JaK) claimed that Merah was affiliated with the group. US investigators later concluded that it was likely Merah had spent some time with the group in North Waziristan – although perhaps as little as an hour. While he may have chosen his targets and carried out his attacks alone, Merah was clearly on the periphery of a known network of extremists.

Even where no connection to militant networks exists, some connection can often be drawn to local radical communities or groups. The individuals who carry out lone wolf attacks tend not to be core members of these communities, but instead exist on their peripheries. For example, among the belongings of Mohammed and Shasta Khan was a black hooded top printed with the words “Al-Ghuraba” – the name of a proscribed UK Islamist extremist group which is descended from another proscribed group, Al-Muhajiroun – and their computer was found to have repeatedly been used to visit sites by UK radical preacher and Al-Muhajiroun alumni Anjem Choudhary. Similarly, Nicky Reilly was in contact with elements in the Plymouth radical scene, and Andrew Ibrahim repeatedly tried to make contact with radicals in the UK, who rebuffed him.

This trend is also evident beyond the community of jihadist lone wolves, with similar patterns of behaviour evident among right-wing extremists. Notably, Anders Behring Breivik, convicted in August 2012 of the July 2011 Utøya mass shooting and Oslo bombing, had previously been on the periphery of radical far-right and anti-Islamist communities, and also attended rallies in the UK. His unsupported claim that he was operating as part of a clandestine organisation, and his decision to email his 1,500 page manifesto to some 5,000 individuals he had identified as potential sympathisers, also suggests that despite acting alone Breivik sought to reach out to this particular community.

Tracking the threat

The apparent desire of many lone wolves to seek out the company of like-minded individuals offers security officials an avenue into countering the phenomenon. While the lone wolf is unlikely to be known to the security services, those they come into contact with may well be, and in some cases may be being monitored. Although the large number of people existing on the periphery of known radical circles would mean identifying the potential lone wolves among them would remain a significant challenge for the security services, in seeking out the company of others the lone wolf increases the risk of being exposed by those around him – as occurred in the cases of Reilly and Ibrahim – emphasising the importance of effective community policing.

However, not all lone wolves can be relied on to seek out company in this way. For example, in the cases of Choudhry and Abdo there is no evidence of contact with extremist communities – although further investigation may eventually uncover some connections. Nevertheless, even such true lone wolves remain vulnerable to exposure from within the community, with their very isolation presenting them with additional challenges and risks in preparing their operation. For example, the police search that uncovered Abdo’s plot was triggered by a tip-off from a local gun shop concerned by a recent purchase Abdo had made.

This was also evident in the case of Khalid M. Aldawsari, a Saudi student in the US who was arrested in Texas in February 2011 as he tried to build a bomb using chemicals purchased on the internet. Prior to his arrest Aldawsari had demonstrated no outward signs of radicalisation and he seems to have been operating alone and with no outside direction or contacts. In a diary recovered after his arrest, Aldawsari had written: “After mastering the English language, learning how to build explosives and continuous planning to target the infidel Americans, it is time for jihad.” However, Aldawsari’s reliance on personally acquiring the materials he needed from regular commercial channels meant he raised the suspicions of his suppliers, and both a shipping company and a chemicals firm notified the FBI of their concerns, precipitating the investigation that uncovered his plot.

In an interesting parallel, Anders Behring Breivik had also triggered a similar warning to the Norwegian authorities following his attempt to purchase chemicals online from a Polish company. Although the alert was disregarded at the time, it again shows that the need for lone wolves to interact with others during the planning and preparation phase of their operation provides an opportunity for their plot to be uncovered, and provides another example of the value of effective education of chemical suppliers and other purveyors of products and logistics which may be of use in terrorist operations.

However, some cases seem almost impossible to detect, and illustrate the challenges lone wolves can potentially pose even the most vigilant of security services. Choudhry’s attempted murder of MP Stephen Timms is instructive in this regard. Seemingly in complete isolation, she radicalised, obtained her weapon, and selected her target. That the weapon she chose was a knife available at any number of shops meant security services would have had no way of detecting her through this purchase.

According to her own account, the only observably radical thing she did prior to her attack was to watch extremist videos online – an act so common as to have no intelligence significance when taken in isolation. Other potential signifiers that have been cited are that shortly before her attack she dropped out of a university course she had almost successfully completed, and that she had taken steps to pay off all her debts. Again, however, such actions were too commonplace to raise suspicion in themselves.

Furthermore, even if analysing all these factors together might conceivably have raised a flag, the level of surveillance of ordinary citizens required to achieve such a feat would almost certainly be rejected by Western electorates. As such, the problem of lone wolf terrorism, much like the broader problem of terrorism, is something that will require management rather than eradication for the immediate future.

©2012 IHS, all rights reserved. Reproduced with permission from IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor.

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A new piece for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, looking at the phenomenon of converts going to fight jihad in AfPak. I have looked at this a couple of times before, and keep considering a longer piece on it but haven’t quite figured it out yet. I know others are also looking at this, and I would welcome any ideas or thoughts on the subject.

The White Man’s Jihad

BY RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI, MAY 13, 2011| Friday, May 13, 2011 – 2:59PM

Up in the north of England, a trial is being heard against a group of men allegedly at the core of a cell recruiting and radicalizing individuals to fight in Afghanistan. The group, part of an ongoing trickle of people from the U.K. attracted to fighting in South Asia, is notable because it counts amongst its ranks a white convert, the latest in a long line of such individuals who have been drawn to militancy in South Asia. These reports of white converts in the region are naturally of particular concern to Western security services: their capacity to blend effortlessly back into the West makes them highly attractive weapons for groups seeking to launch terrorist attacks.

Back in mid-2009, an older moderate Muslim convert in London told me that his theory behind converts in terrorist cells was that they played a key role as catalysts. The presence of a convert, usually a zealous individual who had moved from a troubled past as drug addict or petty criminal to Islamist extremist, would reinforce the group’s internal dialogue and help push them deeper into their militant ideologies.

The group who bombed London’s public transport system on July 7, 2005 is the archetypal example of this. Convert Germaine Lindsay, originally of Jamaican descent, was the most overtly violent and radical of the group and may have played a role stirring the others on. According to information released during the recent Coroner’s Inquest into the bombings, he was likely involved in a gun crime incident prior to the bombing, he was reported to have been active in promoting radical groups in Luton. Additionally, he was a close student of the radical preacher Abdullah el Faisal. His presence amongst the otherwise Pakistani-Beeston group would have been as an outsider, but one who was brought into the closest of confidence, suggesting an outsized influence.

In a separate case in East London, Mohammed Hamid, also known as “Osama bin London,” was a “revert” who found his religion after a life of drugs and became a key figure in a radicalizing network training, amongst others, the July 21 team who tried to bomb London two weeks after the successful July 7 cell. And there are other examples. Looking at other failed plots linked to Waziristan, the 2006 plot to bomb airlines concurrently on transatlantic routes counted a couple of converts amongst plotters, and the 2007 plot to attack a U.S. airbase in Germany was conducted by a group of mostly Caucasian German converts.

On the battlefields of Afghanistan and Pakistan, however, these light-skinned converts face a high degree of skepticism: for example, Rahman Adam, aka Anthony Garcia, one of the plotters involved in the 2004 plot to blow up a British mall using a fertilizer based explosive, was initially turned away from training camps for being “too white.” Adam was in fact of Algerian origin and a born Muslim; he was just very pale skinned.

Prior to al-Qaeda’s attacks of September 11, 2001, the route for converts to training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan was much easier to tread. James McLintock, nicknamed the “Tartan Taliban,” first joined the jihad against the Soviet Union in the late 1980s after, by his account, he met a group of young Saudi hotheads on a flight to Pakistan as he made his way to visit a University friend. Enjoying this first taste of jihad, McLintock became a feature of the European jihadi scene, joining the fighting again in Bosnia and returning regularly to Afghanistan. Back in the U.K. alongside fellow convert and jihadi traveler Martin “Abdullah” McDaid, McLintock began running study circles at the Iqra bookshop in Beeston, northern England and training camps in the nearby Lake District that were attended by some of the July 7, 2005 cell.

And in the years immediately before September 11, there was a stream of converts who showed up and were accorded quite high levels of trust by al-Qaeda. In 1997, having converted a few years earlier in Orange County, California, Adam Gadahn made his way to Pakistan and then to Afghanistan. Using contacts he had made in the U.S., he arrived and seems to have been able to fill a vital early role as translator of Arabic material into English. By 1999 converts seemed to be arriving into South Asia from all directions. Sometime in the middle of the year Christian Ganczarski, a German-Polish convert who used the same network to get to Afghanistan as theHamburg Cell that produced Mohammed Atta, a leader of the 9/11 group, arrived in Quetta, Pakistan and after a trip back to Germany to fetch his family, moved into Osama bin Laden’s compound in Afghanistan, where he acted as the I.T. guy. At around the same time, itinerant Australian jihadist David Hicks showed up and trained with Lashkar-e-Taiba near Lahore — he tried to go and fight in Kashmir, but ended up going to train at the Al Farouq camp near Kandahar the next year, where he met a bunch of fellow peripatetic westerners including British convert Richard “shoe bomber” Reid. Early 2000, Jack Roche, a burly Australian-Brit who had converted and joined the Indonesian al-Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah, showed up on the recommendation of Hambali, the operations chief for the Indonesian group, to train and learn explosives and got to sit down and eat with Osama bin Laden.

Post-9/11 converts have continued to play a role in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but few appear to have continued to rise into senior roles as they had before. According to British security sources, one of the most senior was British-born Hindu convert Dhiren Barot, who was incarcerated in November 2006 in the U.K. after a long career as a jihadist foot soldier. Starting with fighting with Lashkar-e-Taiba in Kashmir in 1995, an experience he wrote about in his 1999 magnum opus “The Army of Madinah in Kashmir,” Barot went on to help 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed with his global jihadist planning.

Since 9/11 instead white converts in Afghanistan and Pakistan have mostly been foot soldiers, with the militant groups there more skeptical of converts as potential Western intelligence agents. The Caucasian-seeming Rahman Adam was unable to go and train until he had connected with established jihadist Omar Khyam. An exception to this seems to have been Bryant Neal Vinas, a Queens, New York-born kid who converted to Islam, who made his way to training camps in Pakistan in September 2007 seemingly using networks from the U.S. to establish contact with radicals. It took him a bit longer to establish his bona fides, but eventually he got to meet with an array of high- and mid-ranking al-Qaeda fighters who immediately saw his potential as an operative who could easily blend back into the West.

The Waziristan-based Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) seems to have recognized this potential in a group of German converts who showed up to fight alongside them in the mid-2000s. Having trained a group of them, they sent a cell led by converts Fritz Gelowicz and Daniel Schneider to target the U.S. base in Ramstein, Germany. Other converts linked to the group instead fell in battle, includingEric Breininger who in April 2010 died in Pakistan, while the group was initially motivated by the death in Chechnya of fellow convert Thomas Fischer in late 2003. Another just disrupted allegedGerman network included another convert and helping funnel fighters to South Asia.

And the trickle goes on. In July 2010, Khalid Kelly, infamous Irish convert and former member of British extremist group Al Muhajiroun, returned home to Ireland having claimed he tried to join jihadists in Pakistan (although he was interviewed in the Times in November 2009 saying he was training to go to and fight in Afghanistan). In Kelly’s own words, however, “as a white convert, I stuck out like a sore thumb,” so he returned to Ireland instead. Others met with messier ends: according to Pakistani intelligence reports two white British converts were killed in a drone strike inDatta Khel in December 2010.

The pre-9/11 days of converts showing up and getting to meet al-Qaeda leaders are over, but these light-skinned jihadis remain a key potential threat that militant groups will attempt to actively recruit. They both help show off the group’s ongoing international appeal while also acting as excellent weapons to strike deep in the West. And until the overall threat has been eliminated, they will continue to be a feature of it.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR). 

I have a longer article in the latest Jane’s Intelligence Review exploring the phenomenon of young men (and even if reports are to be believed one woman) going to join the Shabaab in Somalia. The focus of the article is on the phenomenon more recently, using court docs from cases in the US, UK, Sweden and Denmark and trying to explore the shift from people being drawn from ethnic duty at their homeland being invaded by Ethiopia to jihadist rhetoric espoused by al Shabaab which seems to be drawing a more diverse community. At the end it looks at some of the plots that seem to have emerged from the Shabaab networks in the west (something I have touched upon before). I have written a growing amount on this topic which I find fascinating, as we appear to be watching live the evolution of a group from regional to global jihadists. The question is how much it is pushing itself in this direction, or how much is it happening because the networks are going violent by themselves and dragging the group with them.

Unfortunately, the article is behind a firewall (the link is below for those who have access). I have asked for a copy to distribute here, and will hopefully be able to post it once it has been cleared by them.

Youth movement – Somalia’s foreign fighters

Key Points
  • Somali jihadist group the Shabab is continuing its efforts to recruit foreign fighters who can be moulded into ideologically committed units for its war against the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and African Union peacekeepers in Mogadishu.
  • Radical networks in Western countries have channelled recruits and money to the group since January 2009, when the Ethiopian military withdrew from Somalia and some moderate Islamists were given prominent positions in the TFG.
  • While the Shabab used recruits from other East African countries to carry out the Kampala bombings in July 2010, there is currently little evidence to suggest it is sponsoring attacks on the West, although its support networks in Europe and Australia have been implicated in domestic terrorism.

The latest video from militant Islamist group the Shabab showcases recruits from all over the world. Raffaello Pantucci discusses why the Somali organisation has such wide appeal and what implications this jihadist cross-fertilisation may have for Western governments.

In late November 2010, Somali militant Islamist group Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen released its latest video from the battlefields of Somalia. Like previous films, this one featured foreign fighters (known as the ‘muhajirin’ or emigrants) from various countries, who called on fellow Muslims to join the ‘jihad’ in Somalia. In the process, they highlighted how the failed state has become a leading destination for radicalised young men from around the world.
The Shabab’s keenness to recruit foreigners can be at least partly attributed to its desire to raise ideologically committed units that are loyal solely to the group’s leaders and immune to the clan rivalries that have divided Somalis for the past two decades. The Shabab is also in a far better position to process foreign volunteers than its counterparts in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. Its control of virtually all southern Somalia is now uncontested and its activities behind the front lines are rarely disrupted by air strikes, allowing it to set up training facilities.
One such camp was seen in the video, which showed masked fighters training with individual and crew-served weapons. The video then introduced a multilingual cast of foreign fighters serving on the front lines in Mogadishu. The video also implied that recruits would be well-fed and generally looked after. Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, the Shabab’s official spokesman, said: “Almighty Allah has blessed us out of his bounty with a handful of noble muhajirin… we pledge to Allah to protect them with our blood, and to carry them upon our shoulders, and protect them from that which we protect ourselves and our families.”
While the Shabab appears to be recruiting foreigners primarily for street fighting in Mogadishu, the radical networks that are channelling volunteers and material support to the group are also becoming involved in terrorist conspiracies in their home countries.
Invasion
When it first emerged, the Shabab was a small hardline Islamist militia in Mogadishu with links to Al-Qaeda operatives wanted in connection with terrorist attacks in Kenya and Tanzania. It subsequently became part of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) that rapidly took control of much of southern Somalia in 2006. While often described as the UIC’s military wing, it represented the most extreme part of what was an alliance of courts and their affiliated militias.
In December 2006, the Ethiopian military invaded to topple the UIC and install a Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Mogadishu. However, after their initial victories the Ethiopians became bogged down, and as resistance grew the Shabab re-emerged as an independent organisation that became Somalia’s most potent insurgent group, using suicide bombing tactics, sometimes with devastating results. In its increasingly slick propaganda, the group claimed that the United States had encouraged Christian-dominated Ethiopia to invade Somalia in what was yet another example of “crusader” aggression against Muslims.
Meanwhile, young ethnic Somali men living in Western countries began leaving for their ancestral homeland. A small number of them subsequently appeared in Shabab propaganda.
In March 2008, the group released a video featuring Abu Ayub al-Muhajir, a young English-speaking Somali whom the video said carried out a suicide bombing at an Ethiopian checkpoint on 10 October 2007. The UK media subsequently identified him as a UK national who had studied business at Oxford Brookes University.
The US-Somali Shirwa Ahmed has been identified by the US authorities as one of several Shabab suicide bombers who attacked targets in northern Somalia in October 2008.
Abdulrahman Ahmed Haji, a Danish-Somali who moved to Somalia in 2008 with his wife and children, was held responsible by TFG officials for a suicide bombing at a graduation ceremony for medical students at Mogadishu’s Shamo Hotel on 3 December 2009, an attack that the Shabab disowned after it provoked widespread outrage.
When journalists began investigating why Western Somalis were travelling to fight in Somalia, it became apparent that there was widespread opposition to the Ethiopian invasion in the diaspora communities. In a paper titled Al Shabab: the internationalisation of militant Islam in Somalia and the implications for radicalisation processes in Europe , published in February 2010 for the Danish Ministry of Justice, Danish researchers Michael Taarnby and Lars Hallundbaek stated: “The intense dislike and suspicion of the Ethiopians materialised in a high level of community support to the armed struggle intended to liberate the country from foreign invaders.”
This suggested that the support for the insurgency was largely an expression of the Somali nationalism that had been fostered by former president Muhammad Siad Barre (1969 to 1991), who wanted to establish a ‘greater Somalia’ at the expense of neighbouring countries. The result was the 1978 to 1979 Ogaden war in which Ethiopia inflicted a heavy defeat on Somalia.
Indeed, two Somalis put on trial in the UK in 2008 on charges of raising tens of thousands of pounds for the Shabab emphasised their nationalist motives for supporting the war against the Ethiopian invaders. However, at the same time they were accused of using the Al-Qimmah website, a predominantly Somali language jihadist forum that supports the Shabab, as well as Al-Qaeda and other affiliated groups. It was also stated during the trial that they had accumulated a vast volume of radical material from the internet, which they said they wanted to take to the resistance fighters in Somalia.
The key defendant, who faced two juries after the first failed to reach a verdict, was identified in the Swedish press as being known to the Swedish authorities as a member of a radical network they had encountered years earlier in a separate case. In court, it was revealed that when he was first arrested by British police in 2008 he apparently said: “Is it the British or Swedish police who want me? In Sweden we were active with the Islamic Courts.”
The juries did not find either of the defendants guilty.
It appears the Shabab’s radical Islamist message was resonating with young diaspora Somalis. For example, in his video released in March 2008 the English-speaking Abu Ayub said: “Know that I am doing this martyrdom operation only for the sake of Allah and his religion [not] for nationalism, tribe, and money or fame.”
He was not the only one to be motivated by ideology. According to court documents released by the US Department of Justice, US-Somali suicide-bomber Shirwa Ahmed left Minneapolis as part of a group of radicalised young men in December 2007 to train with the Shabab. These documents also stated they were the first in a wave of young US citizens in Minneapolis who were drawn to Somalia, spurred on by older former fighters who assured them they would find “true brotherhood” and that “to fight jihad will be fun”. The FBI believes that at least 20 young men have been persuaded by this rhetoric, a number of whom are still thought to be in Somalia, according to statements made when indictments against a Shabab support network in Minnesota’s sizeable Somali community were unsealed in August 2010.
Swedish networks
More details about the Shabab’s radical diaspora support networks emerged in the form of documents released in December 2010 after a Swedish court convicted Mohamoud Jama and Bille Ilias Mohamed of plotting to carry out terrorist attacks in Somalia. In their mid-20s, the two Swedish-Somalis admitted travelling to Somalia, but stated that they did not support terrorist activity.
Prior to 2010, the two men were subject to a long-term investigation by the Swedish Security Service (Säkerhetspolisen: SAPO) into a network of extremists that had developed in and around Rinkeby, a part of Stockholm nicknamed ‘Little Mogadishu’ by locals. The radical cleric Sheikh Fuad Mohamed Qalaf (alias Shangole) was based at the Rinkeby mosque before returning to Somalia in 2004. He has since emerged as a senior leader in the Shabab.
According to court documents published after Jama and Mohamed’s convictions, the main contact between the Shabab and Sweden was a Somali-Swede named Ismail Ahmed Yassin who was born in Somalia in 1979. He migrated to Sweden in 1994 and became a Swedish citizen in 2007. Well-integrated into Sweden’s Somali community, he worked as a youth leader around the Rinkeby mosque and nearby Creative House community centre. While working there, others in the community noticed that he started to adopt more radical views, leading to his eventual dismissal. According to court documents, Yassin continued to organise events and raise awareness of the situation in Somalia, including a conference on Islam in July 2008 that was attended by more than 90 young men.
A few months later, in October 2008, Yassin travelled via Kenya to join the Islamist fighters in Somalia. According to intercepts and court documents released by Swedish authorities, having moved to Somalia, he established himself as the main conduit for Swedes seeking to join the Shabab. Describing himself as ‘amir al-muhajirin’ (leader of the foreign fighters) in intercepted conversations, Yassin exhorted others to swear allegiance to the group and raise money, and provided updates on the group’s activities on the front line.
Using the pro-Shabab Al-Qimmah internet forum and telephone calls through a network of friendly interlocutors, Yassin maintained regular communication with individuals in Sweden who sent money and fighters to the group, according to Swedish court documents.
Among those to travel along this pipeline was Shoaib Ali Sheikh Mohamed, a Somali born in 1981 who moved to Sweden in 1992 and became a Swedish citizen in 1998. In October 2008, Sheikh Mohamed returned to Somalia via Kenya to join the Shabab. In an intercepted August 2010 telephone conversation released in court documents, Yassin and an associate in Sweden discussed the ‘martyrdom’ of Sheikh Mohamed in a clash with Ugandan forces in July 2009.
In December 2008, two months after Yassin and Sheikh Mohamed moved to Somalia, they were followed by Ali Yasin Ahmed, a slightly younger Swedish-Somali, about whom less is known. Intercepted telephone conversations used in the trial against Jama and Mohamed indicate that he witnessed an attack led by Sheikh Qalaf and that he was familiar with the Danish-Somali alleged suicide-bomber Abdulrahman Ahmed Haji. In January 2010, the Swedish press cited officials as saying that around 20 Swedes had joined the Shabab.
Withdrawal symptoms
In January 2009, the Ethiopian military withdrew from Somalia, leaving the TFG under the protection of the Ugandan-led African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping force. This facilitated an agreement that led to some of the more moderate UIC Islamists joining the TFG. Their leader, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, became the TFG’s president. With the foreign invaders gone and the new president promising to introduce Islamic law, there was widespread hope that the Shabab’s appeal would be significantly undermined.
The group was forced to shift the focus of its rhetoric towards AMISOM, claiming that its Ugandan and Burundian soldiers were continuing to perform the same role as the Ethiopians. The Shabab also denounced its erstwhile UIC colleagues who had joined the TFG as apostates who had sold out their religion.
There are signs of a general decline in diaspora support for the insurgency in the wake of the Ethiopian withdrawal. For example, the Swedish authorities recorded a conversation on 10 August 2010 in which Jama complained to a fellow Somali-Swede that “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.”
While diaspora Somali support may have declined after the withdrawal, more radicalised individuals remained committed to the cause. Both Jama and Bille Ilias Mohamed, for example, travelled to Somalia after the Ethiopian withdrawal. Mohamed led the way, attempting to enter through Kenya in February 2009 and Uganda in March 2009 and finally succeeding on his third attempt in late April 2009. Jama appears to have had less difficulty, managing to get to Somalia with his wife and one-year-old daughter on their first attempt on 11 March 2009. Conversations intercepted between the men and their own confessions show a high degree of focus on religion and violent jihad and both admitted supporting the Shabab.
They were not the only Western Somalis to travel to Somalia that year. In November 2010, BBC radio broadcast an interview with a British-Somali woman who claimed that her brother, a biology graduate, announced in late 2009 that he and a friend were going to travel to Egypt to study religion. Leaving with few possessions or explanations as to where he had got the money for such travel, the young man telephoned his family sporadically over the next year saying first that he was in Egypt and then in Somalia. In mid-September 2010, the family received word through his travelling companion that he had been killed “by a flying missile”. The family has heard nothing more about his fate.
In addition, networks that allegedly raised funds for the Shabab continued to operate in the US after the Ethiopian withdrawal. Amina Farah Ali and Hawo Mohamed Hassan, both naturalised Somali women, were arrested in August 2010 as part of the Minnesota investigation into Shabab support networks. They await trial on charges of knowingly providing material support to a designated terrorist group and making a false statement when questioned by federal agents.
According to court documents, the two women maintained contact with key leaders in Somalia with whom they regularly held teleconferences to raise money for the group. The published indictments quote Ali telling an unindicted person in Columbus, Ohio, in an intercepted telephone conversation on 12 January 2009, to “always collect under the name of the poor” when gathering funds “for the mujahideen in Somalia”. The same indictments state that a month later, during a 10 February 2009 teleconference fundraiser, Ali told listeners to “forget about the other charities” and instead to focus on “the jihad”.
Ali is alleged to have raised enough funds to send at least USD2,750 to Somalia in February 2009, her most successful month, according to the figures listed in her indictment. Such a figure could indicate there was not a notable decline in the amount of money Ali was allegedly able to raise in the wake of the Ethiopian departure. However, the intercepted telephone call to Columbus suggests it was not always clear to the donors who the recipients of the money would be.
Both Ali and Hassan have pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Another Shabab fundraising network allegedly remained active until it was disrupted by arrests in July 2009, according to court documents. Their indictment states that Abdi Mahdi Hussein of Richfield, Minnesota, and Mohamud Abdi Yusuf of St Louis, Missouri were involved in sending money to the Shabab, mainly in 2008. The indictment also states that a payment of USD1,000 was sent to the Shabab in March 2009, after the Ethiopian withdrawal. The men are currently awaiting trial on charges relating to providing material assistance to the Shabab. Both have yet to register a plea.
Diversification
There are also signs that the war in Somalia continues to be seen as a legitimate jihad by non-Somali radicals as well as diaspora Somalis. In June 2010, police in New York arrested Mohamed Alessa, a Jordanian-Palestinian, and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, a Dominican convert, as they prepared to board flights to Egypt, allegedly with the intention of travelling to Somalia to join the Shabab. According to their indictment, the two men had previously attempted to get through Jordan into Iraq to join jihadists there in 2007. Both await trial on charges of conspiring to kill, kidnap or injure persons outside the US and have yet to register a plea.
A month later, in July 2010, federal agents intercepted convert Zachary Chesser, a US citizen, as he attempted to board a flight from New York to Uganda. In a statement published as part of his indictment, Chesser said this was his second attempt to join the Shabab, the first being in November 2009, and that he had previously produced “things” for the group (most likely online material). He pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges in October 2010.
Less than a month later in August 2010, agents similarly intercepted Shaker Masri, a young Jordanian resident of Chicago who claimed to know Chesser and was also allegedly on his way to join the Shabab. He awaits trial on charges of supporting the Shabab and Al-Qaeda and has not yet registered a plea.
Examples of non-Somalis joining the Shabab have been seen elsewhere, with the UK authorities in particular saying the group is attracting people of various ethnicities. Having been shown classified reporting on the subject, the UK Conservative Party MP Patrick Mercer was quoted in September 2009 as saying: “There is now a mixture of British people, from numerous backgrounds, who are heading out there [to Somalia] and that is causing great concern.”
The Shabab seems to be encouraging this diversification. Eight of the nine masked foreign fighters who featured in the recruitment video released in November 2010 were identified as coming from Ethiopia, Kenya, Pakistan, Sudan, Sweden, Tanzania and the UK. The ninth spoke English with a North American accent. While some may be ethnic Somalis, the use of English and Swahili subtitles throughout the video suggests it was intended to appeal primarily to Anglophone and East African audiences. This may be an attempt to recruit foreigners with even less attachment to the clan system than their Somali diaspora counterparts.
The emphasis on Swahili could also reflect the Shabab’s desire to further carry out regional attacks such as the 11 July 2010 bombings in the Ugandan capital Kampala. In the wake of the Shabab’s first major operation outside Somalia, Ugandan military intelligence held a press conference in which three Ugandans and a Rwandan confessed to organising and carrying out the attack.
The danger of returnees
The Kampala bombings seemed to be a direct extension of the fighting in Mogadishu, with the Shabab trying to justify them as retaliation against the deployment of Ugandan troops. Nevertheless, counter-terrorism officials fear the Shabab’s Western recruits could carry out similar attacks in their countries of origin. Noting there are a “significant number of UK residents training in Shabab camps”, Jonathan Evans, the director general of the UK’s Security Service (MI5), said in a September 2010 speech to security professionals in London: “I am concerned that it is only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside the Shabab.”
While the Shabab does not currently appear to be sponsoring terrorist conspiracies against the West, there is already evidence that the radical networks that have formed to channel recruits and material support to the group are becoming involved in domestic terrorism.
In one of the more prominent cases, on 1 January 2010, Mohammed Muhideen Geele, a Danish-Somali in his mid-20s, broke through the front door of cartoonist Kurt Westergaard’s Aarhus home in Denmark armed with an axe. When he appeared in court in January, Geele was charged with terrorism and attempting to murder Westergaard, who had drawn a controversial cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, and a policeman who responded to the incident. He denied the charges, saying he only intended to frighten Westergaard. On 4 February he was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison.
Geele had previously been picked up in Kenya by counter-terrorism authorities conducting a sweep against Shabab networks ahead of a visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in August 2009. According to a report in the Swedish press, Geele was also seen in Sweden alongside the Danish-Somali Abdulrahman Ahmed Haji.
In the wake of the attack, Shabab spokesman Rage told the AFP: “I tell you that this incident is not something that could be related only to the Shabab or other Islamic organisations. It is a general obligation for all Muslims to defend their religion and the Prophet.”
Rage issued a much stronger denial when confronted with claims that the Shabab had sponsored a mixed Somali-Lebanese group arrested and detained in August 2009 in Australia in connection with a plot to attack the Holsworthy Army Barracks outside Sydney. The case emerged from an investigation by Australian security services into a network allegedly channelling funds and fighters to the Shabab. According to detailed Australian press reports based on police briefings, the security services became aware of the network after Wissam Fattal, a Lebanese former kick-boxer, attracted attention in his local mosque with his radical proclamations.
Fattal and four other men were tried on charges relating to the Holsworthy Barracks plot in 2010. During the trial, it was revealed that mosque-goers overheard Fattal trying to arrange travel to Somalia through Saney Aweys, a Somali refugee living in Australia. Fattal later described the conflict in Somalia as a “true jihad” to a police informant who had infiltrated the group. However, while Aweys was able to organise travel for others, Fattal could not get the visas he needed. The prosecution claimed that this rejection prompted him to begin planning an attack in Australia.
Among those Aweys sent to Somalia was Yacqub Khayre, a young former drug addict he had taken under his wing. According to the prosecution, Aweys tasked Khayre with obtaining a fatwa from a scholar in Somalia to justify the attack that Fattal was planning in Australia. However, Khayre proved an unreliable recruit, apparently running away from his training camp at least twice, leading Aweys’ contacts to tell him that the young man was “a risk to you, us and the whole thing”, according to recordings played in court.
Aweys also tried to obtain such rulings from clerics with whom he was in telephone contact, including Sheikh Hayakallah in Somalia, to whom he outlined the firearms attack they were planning on the army base. The jury found Fattal, his Lebanese lieutenant Nayef el Sayed and Aweys guilty of conspiracy to commit a terrorist act in December 2010. Khayre and another man of Somali descent were acquitted.
In a more recent case, Munir Awad, a Lebanese-born Swede, was arrested and charged along with two others by Danish police on 29 December 2010 for his role in an alleged plot to attack the Copenhagen offices of Jyllands-Posten , the Danish newspaper that published Westergaard’s cartoon.
Awad was first detained in Somalia in 2007 along with his 17-year-old pregnant wife Safia Benaouda, the daughter of the leader of Sweden’s Muslim Council. The two were part of a group of foreigners picked up by Kenyan troops as they fled the fighting in Somalia. In explaining why the couple had found themselves in the middle of such violence with Safia pregnant, she told The New York Times : “We wanted [to do] something more authentic.”
Awad and his wife appeared in Pakistan in September 2009, when they were stopped at a checkpoint as they travelled to South Waziristan. Again, the Swedish authorities intervened to bring them home.
Awad pleaded not guilty to charges relating to the Copenhagen plot in December 2010 and is now awaiting trial in Denmark.
Awad’s arrest came just days after Dutch security forces moved to disrupt what they believed was a network of Somalis in Rotterdam who were plotting a terrorist attack in the Netherlands. While all but one of the men were released and handed over to immigration authorities, the arrests highlighted the concerns of the Dutch authorities about radicalisation in the country’s estimated 20,000-strong Somali community.
According to one community leader in the Netherlands quoted in Dubai-based newspaper The National , a new radical element comprising young men who “use religion purely for political purposes” has “recently” entered the community. There were also instances in 2009 of the Somali community reporting their concerns about radicalisation among its youth to the authorities in an attempt to prevent them from travelling to Somalia to fight.
Conclusion
There do not appear to be any reliable estimates of the numbers of foreign fighters in Somalia, with some figures in the hundreds and others in the thousands. It is also unclear whether the flow of recruits has increased or decreased since the Ethiopian withdrawal. What is clear is that some continue to travel to Somalia and the Shabab is keen to recruit more, presumably to fill out the ranks of its core units, but possibly also to ensure that radical networks in the West continue to raise funds on its behalf.
There is currently little evidence that the Shabab is following the example of the Al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan’s tribal areas who are directing their Western recruits to return home to carry out attacks. However, the Shabab’s supporters have already been implicated in a number of conspiracies in Western countries, suggesting that the conflict in Somalia is helping to forge and radicalise networks that are committed to a so-called ‘global jihad’ against anyone or anything they perceive to be anti-Islam.
This means that the Shabab has the necessary human resources should it decide to cement its reputation as a transnational jihadist organisation by carrying out attacks against the US and its allies. The bombings it carried out in northern Somalia in October 2008 and in Kampala in July 2010, beyond its normal areas of operation, showed the results could be devastating.

A new post over at Free Rad!cals, which is in the middle of a relaunch. Lets hope it goes well! In the meantime, the piece looks at two films I recently saw about terrorism in the West – both worth watching. One thing I would add is that I provide a link in it to my earlier Studies in Conflict and Terrorism piece, which is behind a firewall. There are a few pieces on this site like that – apologies, but if you want to read them, use the contact form to drop me a note and I can see what I can do.

Filed under: Afghanistan, Bin Laden, ICSR, Radicalisation, UK

I have recently indulged in watching a couple of films which in different ways handle contemporary terrorism. One is serious and one is less so, but both did inspire me to think about issues around some of the questions they raise. While my aim is not to provide a substantive critique on the films themselves, undoubtedly some opinion will slip in.

First up (in alphabetical order) is Four Lions, British satirist Chris Morris’s take on Islamist terrorism in the UK. In true Morris style it is a mordant comedy which pulls no punches in highlighting the sheer stupidity and inadequacy of the majority of young men who become involved in jihadist terrorism in the UK. The men are religiously illiterate and lead meaningless lives which are focused around whatever banal things fill the average middle Englander’s day.

Clueless: Three of the Four Lions

Morris claims much of the material he has used came from amongst the reams of research into court documents and interviews he has done with people who have become involved in Islamist terrorism in the UK. I have no doubt that this is true – I have spoken to a number of security professionals who have at various points in my endless questioning about various plots and plotters highlighted to me what morons these chaps actually are. And in some cases, you really have to wonder. Omar Khyam, the leader of the Crevice plot, was busted after he forgot the bomb-making recipe he had learned and emailed his friend in Pakistan a rather blatant note inquiring about the specific volumes. Eventual “super-grass” Mohammed Junaid Babar was so discrete that he thought it would be a good idea to go straight to the hotel where all the foreign journalists were staying in Lahore and announce that he had radical ideas and was willing to do interviews about it. This landed him a prime-time slot on international TV and arrest as soon as he stepped back onto U.S. soil. Rangzieb Ahmed, the first man to be jailed in the UK for being an “Al Qaeda director,” was unclear what exactly a bidet was and thought it might be a bath for small people. And the list goes on. One case which Morris highlighted in interviews is of a plotter who snorted some TATP thinking it was cocaine – I have been unable to pin down exactly who this was and would appreciate any pointers.

But for me, the fact that they are idiots is not all that relevant. Some of them may not be all that smart, but they are nonetheless playing with dangerous toys which can lead to innocent deaths. That they have no idea what they are doing, are religiously illiterate and are buffoons is somewhat tangential if they are able to actually follow through on what they are attempting to do, albeit in their half-baked way. Morris hints at this towards the end, but it is an important point to remember when considering these people as idiots. People treated Abu Hamza like a clown who had been delivered by central casting to act as a real-life Captain Hook until it became clear exactly what he was facilitating. This is not to exaggerate the menace, but neither is it a good idea to completely dismiss it – the real point is that hopefully such satire will help demystify these groups a bit.

The second film, which is probably less well-known outside a specialist audience, is called “La Prima Linea” (translation: the first line – it was the name of the group). It is an Italian film which looks at a terrorist group that existed in Italy during the Anni di Piombo (years of lead) during which left and right wing terror groups shot and blasted their way around the country. The group was second only to the more notorious Brigate Rosse (red brigades) in number of activities and members. Based on the memoirs of one of the group’s commanders, the film does for the group much the same as “The Baader Meinhof Complex” did for the Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Fraction).

Unlike Four Lions, this film takes its subject matter very seriously, and is told from the perspective of one of the leading members who relates his story from prison. It shows how the group evolved from small-time protesters, to murder and beyond. In many ways it is a story telling a piece of Italian history – but in the same way as something can be learned from examining old groups which is applicable today, the group dynamics highlighted in the film offer some lessons which seem relevant to our time

In the film we see how the group launches a massive assault on a prison to release their comrades. A rather foolhardy act in many ways, but nonetheless it does provide evidence of how strong the bonds are between the members of the group – a dynamic which is part of Marc Sageman’s “bunch of guys” theory. Much is made of the emotional bond between the individuals in the group (in true Italian style, two fall in love), and the fact that over time, the political content of what they are doing starts to lose its power and not wanting to let down your comrades takes over as a driving motivation. Early on we also see how, though they don’t think that they are necessarily going to achieve their goals, they are certain that something should be done and a vanguard needs to lead the way with action.

In an earlier post looking at the RAF, I (in a highly caveated fashion) pointed out some of the similarities between these leftist groups and current Islamist groups. This film adds some depth to this discussion in showing how the dynamics of the relationships in such groups might work – though it is unclear that current groups are necessarily structured in as hierarchical a fashion.

Another post over at FreeRad!cals, this time drawn from a good article I read on a plane. It particularly struck me as it sparked off a long conversation about these issues with someone who really usually is not engaged in them – so it reached out. In retrospect it feels a little unfinished at the end, but oh well.

Bruce Hoffman in the National Interest

Filed under: Terrorism

Counter-terrorism sage Bruce Hoffman has an article in the latest issue of the National Interest which I would recommend as a sanguine assessment of the threat that the U.S. faces from domestic Islamist terrorists.

The article opens with a cold-eyed assessment based on insider conversations of the intelligence disaster that took place around Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt to bring down an airliner in December 2009. Highlighting a number of missed connections that were likely in part for Admiral Denny Blair’s resignation recently, the main point appears to be that the dots were simply not put together in time to stop Abdulmutallab getting on the plane in Amsterdam. Apparently, preparations had been built around the assumption that AQAP was about to launch an attack on a U.S. target abroad, not that an attack was about to be launched on the homeland.

The broader point of the article, however, is the lack of imagination which has led the U.S. to treat a tactic as a strategy (Predator strikes) and a mistaken belief that America was somehow immune to the sort of domestic radicalization which has become the primary preoccupation of many European planners. A list of events, plots, and groups is provided showing how short-sighted this analysis has been, showing how links to various AQ affiliates can be found in a long list of plots, as well as a larger pool of low-level attempts all carried out by American citizens. A lack of imagination which is also found in the inability to recognize that AQ is a multifaceted organization with many different locations and iterations, rather than a monolith which can be focused on in an organized fashion in one location at a time, “we rivet our attention on only one trouble spot at a time, forgetting that Al Qaeda has always been a networked transnational movement.”

This is coupled with an ongoing failure to admit that the Predator strategy which is regularly trumpeted as crippling Al Qaeda’s ability to carry out attacks has done nothing to stem the flow of foreigners going to train in the camps in Pakistan (he cites a figure of about 100 who have graduated from the camps and now returned home). Something that is only a tactic appears to have become the only show in town when it comes to strategic planning in addressing the threat from Al Qaeda in Pakistan. As has been repeatedly said by numerous experts, it is unlikely that you will be able to kill your way of this problem. As Hoffman puts it: “until we dissemble the demand side….we will never be able to staunch the supply side.”

So simply hammering AQ or its affiliates in local insurgencies abroad is not going to get rid of the problem, especially as the ideology continues to appear to have deep resonance amongst a community of individuals living in the West. Management is key, and making sure that we are able to contain the problem from exploding as it did in the case of Abdulmutallab or some of the other plots that have managed to come to fruition in the U.S., is likely the best we can do in terms of stopping AQ or the ideology it inspires. This is not going to eradicate the problem in the immediate term, but neither is the current approach. But admitting to this will hopefully open doors which maybe lead in a better direction.

There was one point in the article which bothered me, which was when he refers to Abdulmutallab’s profile as defying “conventional wisdom about the stereotypical suicide terrorist being poor, uneducated and provincial.” My question would be: whose conventional wisdom is this still? Given the laundry list of well-educated and assimilated terrorists, who out there still sees simpletons from the provinces as the main incubator of radicalization in the West? I do not actually disagree with what Professor Hoffman says, but it bothers me that there might still be those out there looking for such a profile.

One final point which struck me as interesting is the assertion that Lone Wolves might be part of a strategy by AQ to “flood already-stressed intelligence systems with ‘noise’.” The suggestion, if I am reading it correctly, is that low-tech attacks by “lone wolves and other jihadi hangers-on,” are more coordinated than one might think and are in fact an effort to keep security planners busy and distracted from focusing on serious directed plots from abroad.

My latest for FreeRad!cals, looking at a largely unexplored case up north against a group calling themselves the Blackburn Resistance. Most of the chaps have already been released, and there is a bigger unexplored story here in how they were all picked up in the first place. Am working on something larger about this. Any pointers or thoughts welcome as ever!

The Blackburn Resistance

Filed under: Radicalisation, Terrorism, UK

Up North at Manchester Crown Court, brothers Abbas and Ilyas Iqbal have been found guilty this weekof charges relating to their the dissemination of material useful to terrorists and preparation of acts of terrorism. A third man, a white Muslim convert, was cleared of charges against him.

The men became dubbed the “Blackburn Resistance” after a video was uncovered on a mobile SIM card in Abbas Iqbal’s luggage as he tried to board a plane at Manchester airport. The clip showed the men running around a park in Blackburn in camouflage and seemingly imitating command training with As Sahab-type music in the background. At the beginning of the video the words the “Blackburn Resistance” featured prominently, and a voice intoned “They are fighting against oppression, they are The Blackburn Resistance.”

Alongside this footage and a wide array of other photos of the men brandishing or trying weapons out, a variety of knives, BB guns, an air rifle and pistol, crossbows and live ammunition were found with the men. Two documents entitled “attack planning” and “urban combat” were also found bearing the brothers fingerprints.

But while some of the pictures of the group are quite dramatic looking, the reality is that it is very hard to imagine this group as a cell of hardened terrorists. Cognizant of this, the prosecution was very careful to not paint the men in too heavy a light, recognizing that “some aspects of the material may at first blush seem almost comical in [their] amateurishness.” Nonetheless, they saw the group as “intoxicated by the evil of terrorism,” and actively preparing to disseminate recruiting material abroad.

The men ultimately received relatively light sentences, Abbas Iqbal, 24, was sentenced to two years in prison for the dissemination of terrorist publications, while his younger brother Ilyas, 23, was incarcerated for 18 months for possessing a document likely to be useful to a terrorist. Given he has spent almost that amount of time already on remand, Ilyas was released, while his older brother will still serve another three to four months. Their co-defendant was cleared on all charges having spent 387 days in custody. A fourth man picked up with them at the airport is still on trial in a separate case.

But it is hard to judge exactly how much of a victory this really is for counter-terrorists. This is not a cell of global travelers with contacts to Al Qaeda core, but rather a group of young men who through the internet and home computers were able to create an imitation set of videos and pictures of themselves dressing up as terrorists. That they may have later gone on to do something is of course perfectly possible, but as the prosecutor pointed out: “at the stage when they were stopped by police, they had not got very far.”

It is easy to see how this could play badly in the court of public opinion, where what even the prosecution described as “larking around in a park in Blackburn,” was painted as potential terrorist training. The fact they seem not to have been receiving much coverage in the press is a good thing, and probably the product of the fact that very few editors would have taken the group very seriously.

A final point I would add about these chaps, however, is how lucky they are to have been caught doing these acts in the UK – had they been nabbed for similar things in the U.S., they would probably be looking at very long stints inside.

My latest over at FreeRad!cals, this one looking at a couple of convert stories which caught my eye. Khalid Kelly is the most fascinating, as I really wonder whether he is what he says he is, or whether this is bluster.

Crazy Convert Capers

Filed under: Europe, Radicalisation

Two stories surfaced over last weekend which I have only now gotten around to processing properly – first is the case of Jan Schneider, the latest convert linked to the infamous Sauerland group that has the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA) on high alert, and second is the case of Khalid Kelly, former head of Al Muhajiroun in Ireland (or at least one of its more prominent activists) who has now surfaced in the Swat valley.
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