Posts Tagged ‘counter-radicalization’

I had a feature piece in today’s Observer newspaper in the wake of the Foley murder this week. This time focusing on the online reactions amongst the jihadi twittersphere to the murder and putting it in a wider context. For some reason, the piece appeared in the Observer app and newspaper, but not online yet. However, the editors have generously allowed me to repost it here. I did a number of interviews around this as well, but many have not yet appeared online. One for the Sunday Mail has shown up and another for a Columbian magazine called Semana. More undoubtedly on this general topic to come.

Extremists preach to the converted and bid to provoke a global reaction

Observer screenshot_August 2014

“What a beautiful message to America!” said Qaqa Britani, a Mancunian jihadist fighting in Syria  in response to the videoed murder of James Foley last week. Agreeing with him, another British fighter using the twitter handle @muhajirbritanni proclaimed “Allahu akbar, the best IS video so far, a message to america, Masha Allah Allahu akbar”. While incomprehensible to most people, the justifications offered by these fighters provide a view into their thinking, one that while at odds with public opinion has a warped logic that sustains them as they fight alongside Isis.

It is not the first time that Qaqa Britani has found notoriety for posting pictures of beheadings. Earlier this month he posted a picture of someone holding up a decapitated Assad regime fighter with the declaration “another nusayri head. We strike terror into their hearts by Allah’s permission!” In a nod to the fact that he was doing this for an audience, he then offered an apology for the bad lighting, stating “sorry my camera doesn’t have a flash”.

A couple of weeks later, another British fighter, identified as former rap MC Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, posted a picture of himself in Raqqa holding up a severed head with the statement “chillin’ with my other homie, or what’s left of him”.

By highlighting that these deaths have been done in the name of their god, the men are pointing to the strength and purity of their cause. For them, the murder of James Foley was an act that taunted the world and showed their power and the relative weakness of the American government, which was unable to prevent it.

Others took a different reaction to the murder, falling back instead into spurious comparisons. One pro-Isis twitter account @abulooz22 said: “2035 Palestians killed….barely a reaction 1 American killed…..World on IS.”

A British fighter using the name Abu Abdullah Britani, who is linked to the Rayat al Tawheed cluster of Brits fighting in Syria who have been responsible for a number of gruesome videos that have attracted public attention, took a similar approach, stating: “A brother severed one body part and the world went nuts. A drone severes a body into a hundred pieces but no one says nothing. #cheapBlood.”

These kinds of comparisons are typical of extremist narratives. Seeing the world through a narrow lens of confrontation between the west and Sunni Islam, all they are interested in is supporting evidence they selectively find around them.

Most grim of the reactions found to the video of Foley’s murder was that of British extremists who revelled in pride at the fact that it appeared to be one of their number in the video. “Beheaded by a British brother! What an honour!’ declared Qaqa Britani, while Abul Muthanna, believed to be the account of one of a group from Cardiff, reacted to a question about the video saying “lol the bruddas went on a mad one here, that british brother allahumma barik alayh what a lion!”

For those fighting in Syria, the narratives they broadcast through social media are aimed at people who already agree with them, as well as provoking a reaction from the world at large. Their aim is to justify, and the more extreme the justification, the more likely it is to generate a reaction. In this way, their narrative becomes debated and increasingly brought into the public conversation. Suddenly their extreme ideas are being pulled into the mainstream.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies, Royal United Services Institute

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I had a piece in the weekend’s Sunday Times News Review section looking at the phenomenon of Brits going to foreign battlefields and coming back posing a terrorist threat. For some reason, it only shows up in their e-version of the newspaper and on the iPad version, but not online more generally. Anyway, they have allowed me to republish it here, so thank you to the editors for that.

Beyond this, I spoke to the Telegraph about this topic and the recent ISIS video to surface with Brits in it, about some Brits linked to al Muhajiroun who jumped bail and seem to have surfaced in Syria for the BBC, to Channel 4, NBC and Voice of America about ISIS and Iraq. On the other side of the equation, I spoke to Caixin about China in Afghanistan and South China Morning Post about Xinjiang.

Coming Back to Britain, Bringing Jihad

Sunday Times Review piece how terror comes home

It was the summer of 2001 and two British lads from Beeston, in Leeds, had made their way to a training camp in Pakistan, eager to fulfil their responsibility to support Muslims suffering elsewhere in the world. Having done two weeks’ training, the pair were debating heading back home when two Emiratis at the camp suggested they go to see Afghanistan and the Taliban.

Years later, in court on terrorism conspiracy charges, Waheed Ali recounted to a jury: “I’m thinking, ‘Whatever, innit, Afghanistan, let’s go for a little wander.’” Ali and his companion, Mohammed Siddique Khan — known as Sid — headed off by car to the front lines near Kabul. For Khan this was the beginning of a journey that ended four years later when he led an al Qaeda-directed cell in an attack on London on July 7, 2005.

Last week David Cameron spoke about the Sunni jihadist group the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (Isis). “The people in [Isis], as well as trying to take territory, are also planning to attack us here at home in the United Kingdom,” he said. It is a menace that becomes real through individuals such as Khan, who are first drawn to fighting in foreign fields and end up launching terrorist attacks back home.

British fighters have been a feature of almost every jihadist battlefield since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Seeing them in Iraq and Syria now is no surprise. What is equally certain is that some sort of terrorist plot will eventually emerge with links to the battlefields in Syria and Iraq. In fact it already has, in the form of a number of disrupted plots across Europe and the murderous rampage at a Jewish museum in Brussels last month.

While not every fighter who goes to Syria will return as a terrorist threat, the question is: how many more such attacks can we expect, and at what point might Isis or some other jihadist group in Syria decide that its crop of foreign fighters is a useful vehicle for launching punishing attacks against the West?

In late 2004 Ali and Khan set off again for Pakistan to return to training camps, this time in two separate groups. Before leaving, Khan recorded a video that featured Ali, along with Khan’s fellow 7/7 conspirator Shehzad Tanweer — whom they affectionately knew as Kaki — in which he said farewell to his baby daughter, telling her: “I have to do this for our future and it will be for the best.”

Arriving in Pakistan ahead of Ali, Khan and Tanweer told the British al-Qaeda connection they met there that they had come to train and ultimately go to Afghanistan “to fight against the Americans”. After a few days they were introduced to “Haji”, a senior al-Qaeda figure who, according to a report by their British al-Qaeda guide, “convinced the brothers [Khan and Tanweer] to return and do a martyrdom operation in UK”.

By the time Ali arrived at the Pakistani training camp, his friends’ behaviour had changed, and within a few weeks they announced to him that they had to go back to “do something for the brothers”. This proved to be the 7/7 bomb­ings in London, part of a chain of plots directed by al-Qaeda against the UK that used the pipeline of zealous young British men who had originally sought to fight in Afghanistan as weapons against the West.

Almost two years to the day after the 7/7 attacks, a pair of car bombs failed to go off in Haymarket, central London, saving unknown numbers of revellers at the Tiger Tiger nightclub. The next day Bilal Abdullah and Kafeel Ahmed attempted to drive a car bomb into Glasgow International airport’s main terminal. Fortunately for travellers, the attackers failed to get inside the building, and their bomb detonated outside, fatally wounding Ahmed and injuring Abdullah.

In court a year later the prosecution produced a letter that had been found on Abdullah’s computer, addressed to the “Soldiers of the Islamic State of Iraq”, in which he declared: “God knows that the days I spent with you were the best and most rewarding days of my life.”

Security officials believe that in 2006, on a trip to visit his family’s home in Iraq, Abdullah had linked up with elements connected to the anti-US insurgency. If the letter is to be believed, it was the Islamic State of Iraq, the precursor to Isis. What he did with the group is unclear, though the similarity of his device to bombs that were often going off in Iraq suggests he may have developed some ideas while there.

Certainly, on the stand at his trial Abdullah spoke of his anger over British foreign policy towards his mother country, but it was not clear that he had received any direction in launching his attack with Ahmed. Instead, online conversations between the two show them joking about “starting experiments” and discussing how to build detonators.

Plots by foreign fighters have also emerged from places where the link between the home country and the battlefield is harder to establish. Mohammed Muhidin Gelle was a Somali Dane who was drawn to the Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab and was picked up by the Kenyan authorities in 2009 as part of a cell plotting attacks during a visit to Nairobi by Hillary Clinton, then the US secretary of state.

He was repatriated to Denmark but did not renounce his extremist ideas and later attempted to murder with an axe the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who had created an image that he accused of mocking the prophet Muhammad. Al-Shabaab acknowledged it knew Gelle and praised him, saying “we appreciate the incident in which a Muslim Somali boy attacked the devil who abused our prophet”, but failed to claim Gelle’s act.

Track forward to today and authorities in Europe have already seen a number of worrying plots linked to Syria. Earlier this year French authorities arrested a man identified as Ibrahim B who had spoken in online communications of wanting to “punish France”. At his rented accommodation they found drink cans fashioned into nail bombs with about 2lb of triacetone triperoxide, or TATP — an explosive linked to the 7/7 bombings.

Part of a network of extremists in France that was connected to an attack on a Jewish grocer’s in Paris in 2012, Ibrahim B had fled a crackdown on the network and gone with two friends to Syria, where they had fought alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s representative group in the country.

The full details of what the alleged attacker at the Jewish museum, Mehdi Nemmouche, was doing are unclear, but when he was arrested, a machine­gun was found in his possession wrapped in an Isis flag. Soon after his arrest a French Isis fighter in Syria tweeted that Nemmouche had fought with Isis using the name Abu Omar al-Firansi. The tweet was rapidly deleted.

So far there has been no public evidence that these individuals or the plots that have been disrupted have been directed by Isis. However, as history has shown, clear command and direction by a jihadist group is not essential for people who to come back from foreign battlefields with murderous intent. Most chilling for western security watchers is a statement in January by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Isis, who, singling out America, declared: “Know, O de­fender of the Cross, that a proxy war will not help you in the Levant, just as it will not help you in Iraq. Soon, you will be in direct conflict — God permitting — against your will. The youths of Islam have steeled themselves for this day.”

The question that remains un­answered is whether the “youths of Islam” he was referring to are European fighters — and whether some of them have already been sent back to carry out his deadly threat.

Another piece that was published in Chinese this week, this time for BBC 中文 about the incident in Urumqi this past week as Xi Jinping was finishing up his tour of the province. I have re-published the Chinese at the top and the English version below. I did a few interviews around this including for South China Morning Post and the Associated Press. I also spoke to Global Post, Radio France Info and Asharq al Awsat about foreign fighters and Syria.
評論:新疆襲擊與中國對策

更新時間 2014年5月1日, 格林尼治標準時間17:26

潘圖奇

潘圖奇認為,烏魯木齊火車站的爆炸案,顯示新疆局勢惡化。

4月30日發生在新疆的襲擊,正值中國國家主席習近平結束在自治區的訪問。在那裏,習近平說新疆是中國「反恐與保持社會穩定的前線。」過去一年,新疆的暴力事件不斷增加,這次發生在烏魯木齊火車站的襲擊,再次凸顯了新疆的問題在升級。

雖然官方尚未公布此次襲擊的所有細節,但報道指出,兩名襲擊者在出站口接人處持刀砍殺群眾,同時引爆爆炸裝置。這其中,一名襲擊者被認定為來自阿克蘇的維族人色地爾丁-沙吾提。今年,在阿克蘇就已經發生過了幾起事件。

報道稱,這起事件已經造成三人死亡,其中兩名為襲擊者,第三人為普通路人。在新疆,這樣攜帶爆炸物品和使用道具的襲擊風格,已經不是第一次發生了。不過之前,類似的襲擊通常針對國家機關,也不都發生在首府烏魯木齊。但周三的襲擊發生在習近平結束新疆行之時,使得其影響力加大,也反映出這一已經被他多次提到的話題,仍然是中國一重大議題。

核心問題尚未解決

Xi Jinping in Xinjiang

事件發生在習近平巡視新疆的最後一天。

無論是針對新疆國家機關的襲擊,還是在北京和昆明的事件,或是報道說維吾爾人不斷試圖逃離中國至中亞或者東南亞,這些都說明,過去一年,中國的邊疆問題正在持續升級。

儘管在過去的襲擊中,襲擊者也會為了達到目的而甘願死亡,但中國媒體所描述的襲擊者在身上捆綁炸彈進行襲擊,還是一個新的現象。不過這也反映出,維族人認為,他們無法通過之前的襲擊措施傳遞自己的信息。

中國新疆問題的核心,是維吾爾群體感到異化與權利被剝奪。如果你去新疆走一遭,你會聽到當地人說自己沒有從國家受惠,並抱怨不斷湧入新疆的漢族人才是新疆財富的受益者云云。他們抱怨國家摧毀他們的文化,並且將喀什的舊城當作這一指責的例證。

目前,中國政府的反應是「雙軌制」的:大量的經濟投資和強硬的安全打壓。在習近平訪問期間,他到訪了喀什和水果工廠,這一「雙軌制」的信息,也在他的訪問期間不斷重現。

中國該怎麼做?

Xinjiang

中國當局加強了在新疆的戒備。

自從習近平上任以來,他已經反覆多次地講過中國的恐怖主義問題,並且新設了一個國家安全委員會,一個看似將恐怖主義當作工作一部分的中央安全機構。在中國邊界外,習近平也曾提出了「新絲綢之路」這一想法。這是一個從新疆至中亞的經貿走廊,也是一個部分關於改善新疆經濟狀況的想法。

目前的這一策略也與過去的努力相似,且這樣的策略比2010年的更加明確。當時的策略是在2009年那起導致200多人死亡的烏魯木齊襲擊後實行的。在那次襲擊後,北京對新疆自治區的領導層作了大批的更換,並且明確了將經濟發展作為焦點。

然而,儘管政府方面對此十分關注,他們的努力似乎並未得到回報。相反,新疆的暴力事件持續上升,不斷地發展,也開始蔓延到新疆以外的地區。

目前,人們對新疆的預測並不樂觀。事故的嚴重程度和發展正在變得更加糟糕,並且任何經濟策略不會立竿見影。與此同時,公眾對新疆問題的憤怒與關切,以及由新疆而起的恐怖主義行動正變得更甚。

對中國政府而言,究竟該如何處理這些問題,答案是十分複雜的。一方面,他們要不斷地找到讓維族人感到自己是當代中國的「持份者」;另一方面,北京方面還要找到應對愈發明顯和不斷隨機發生的恐怖襲擊的方法。

本文章不代表BBC的立場和觀點, 網友如要發表評論,請使用下表:

聯絡薦言

The attack in Xinjiang comes as President Xi Jinping completes a visit to the province in which he spoke of it being ‘the front line in anti-terrorism and maintaining social stability.’ Coming after a year in which violence in the province has been increasing, the incident at Urumqi train station highlights once again how the problems in the province are escalating.

While not all the details around the incident are available at the moment, official reports indicate that a pair of attackers armed with knives detonated explosives outside the exit of Urumqi South train station. One of the attackers was identified as an ethnic Uighur called Sedierding Shawuti from Aksu, a part of the province that has seen a number of incidents take place this year. Three people have been reported killed, two assailants and a third bystander. The style of attack, involving explosives and individuals using knives is something that has been seen before in the province, though usually it seems to be more targeted at symbols of state authority and it does not take place in Urumqi. The fact that the attack comes as Xi Jinping is concluding his trip to the province only increases the impact and highlights how the very problems he had come to speak about continue to be a major issue.

In Xinjiang over the past year problems have been escalating. Be this in terms of attacks against state authority in Xinjiang, incidents linked to the province in Beijing and Kunming or increasing reports of ethnic Uighurs (a Turkic minority mostly resident in Xinjiang) trying to flee the country into Central Asia or Southeast Asia.  The escalation now of an attack involving individuals who according to local reports were using bombs strapped to their persons is new, though in previous attacks it has certainly seemed as though individuals were expecting to die in pursuit of their act. This determination atop the previous incidents demonstrates a level of dedication by the individuals involved that is clearly founded in a sense of their message not getting through.

The key problem at the heart of China’s issues in Xinjiang is a sense of alienation and disenfranchisement amongst the Uighur community. Go around the province and you will find individuals who do not feel they benefit from the Chinese state and complain about in-flows to the province of ethnically Han Chinese who are perceived as being the primary beneficiaries of the province’s wealth. People complain about the state destroying their culture and point to the destruction of the old city of Kashgar as evidence.

The Chinese government’s response so far has been a dual track: heavy economic investment and a hardline security crackdown. Messages that resonated throughout President Xi’s visit, with him pictured talking to police officers in Kashgar and visiting fruit factories. Since President Xi came into power he has spoken repeatedly about terrorism as an issue, and also introduced a new National Security Council – a central security organ that seems to have terrorism as one of the issues it will focus on. Beyond China’s borders, he has spoken of the New Silk Road Economic belt, an economic and trade corridor that flows from the province into Central Asia and is in part about trying to improve the economic situation in the province.

The current strategic approach echoes previous efforts in the province, but was brought into clearer focus in the wake of a strategy that was introduced in 2010 in the wake of rioting in July 2009 in Urumqi that led to more than 200 deaths. There was a substantial change-over in leadership in the province, and a renewed economic focus in particular. But while the government is clearly very focused on the issue, it is not totally clear that what it has been doing has been paying off. Rather, violence in the province has continued, developed further and started to spread around the country.

The prognosis for Xinjiang at the moment is not positive. The level and tenor of incidents is getting worse and any economic strategy will not bear fruit for some time. Furthermore, public anger and concern around the problems in Xinjiang and terrorism emanating from the province is getting worse. The answer for the Chinese government is a complicated one that is founded in continuing to try to find ways to make Uighurs feel like they have a stake in modern China. At the same time, Beijing has to find ways of addressing the growing tenor and increasing random nature of terrorism attacks in China.

 

A new piece for an outlet I have not contributed to in a while, Jamestown’s Terrorism Monitor, this time looking at the brewing trouble there has been in Mombasa, Kenya and more generally the spread of Shabaab from Somalia into that country. The initial nub of this came from looking more at the cases of Germaine Grant and Samantha Lewthwaite, both significant British figures who have featured in this network. More broadly than them it is clear that the trends in Mombasa are going in a negative direction.

Beyond al Shabaab, Syria continues to be a major focus of people’s attention.  I have longer work coming on this, but in the meantime did interviews on the foreign fighter question with the Sunday Independent and Guardian as well as a more longer-term piece with BBC on the Return to Londonistan. You can also see me talking about foreign fighters and the link to Europe at Chatham House.

Terrorist Campaign Strikes Mombasa as Somali Conflict Spreads South

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 8

April 18, 2014 08:04 PM Age: 4 hrs
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Kenyan authorities in the coastal city of Mombasa arrested two individuals on March 17 as they drove a vehicle laden with explosives into the city. Authorities believed that the two men were part of a larger cell of 11 who were planning a campaign of terror that would have culminated in the deployment of a “massive” VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) against “shopping malls, beaches or tourist hotels” (Capital FM [Nairobi], March 17; Standard [Nairobi], March 17; March 20). A day later, Ugandan authorities announced they had heightened their security in response to a threat from al-Shabaab aimed at fuel plants in the country (Africa Report, March 19).

The VBIED was built into the car, with ball bearings and other shrapnel welded into its sides and a mobile phone detonator wired to the device (Standard [Nairobi], March 20). The men were also caught with an AK-47, 270 rounds of ammunition, six grenades and five detonators (Capital FM [Nairobi], March 18). The suspects, Abdiaziz Abdillahi Abdi and Isaak Noor Ibrahim, were both born in 1988, with Abdiaziz allegedly “a cattle trader and renowned navigator of old caravan trade routes based in Garissa town,” while Noor was described as “a long distance truck driver or conductor who often travelled to South Sudan through Uganda” (Standard [Nairobi], March 23). Their ethnicity was unclear with conflicting reports in the press, though the names suggest a Somali heritage, with Abdiaziz in particular being identified as a member of the Degodia, a sub-clan of the Hawiye of Somalia (Standard [Nairobi], March 23).

Later leaked reports indicated that another possible target was the Mombasa International Airport (Standard [Nairobi], March 23). On January 16, a bomb went off at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. Initially dismissed as a light bulb blowing up, authorities later admitted an IED had caused the explosion in a bin in the airport and reported capturing a car with further explosives onboard after a shootout near the airport. One man was killed in the gunfire and four others were subsequently charged in connection to the plot. One of those charged, Ilyas Yusuf Warsame, was identified by his lawyers as being accredited as a third secretary at the Somali Embassy in Nairobi (AP, February 4).

Authorities claimed to have been tracking a larger cell of individuals targeting Mombasa for around a month prior to the arrests with international assistance. One senior intelligence officer told the Kenyan press that five of the group had gone to Nairobi and the rest to Mombasa. The group allegedly included “foreign fighters” described as members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) by the Kenyan press (Standard [Nairobi], March 23). Official accounts around the plot were somewhat undermined by a report that Kenyan police had initially kept the VBIED parked outside their headquarters after seizing the vehicle without realizing it had a live device wired up within it (Daily Telegraph [London], March 19).

There is little independent corroboration of the international connection to the plot, though one name to appear repeatedly in the press was Fuad Abubakar Manswab, a Nairobi-born man connected by authorities to a number of plots in the past. Most notably, Manswab was arrested and charged alongside Briton Germaine Grant in Mombasa in December 2011. The two were accused of being involved in a bombing campaign in the city that was directed by Ikrima al-Muhajir, a Somalia-based al-Shabaab leader with close ties to al-Qaeda (for Ikrima, see Militant Leadership Monitor, November 2013). Manswab jumped bail in that case and a year later was almost killed in a shootout with Kenyan authorities in the Majengo neighborhood of Mombasa. Two others were killed in the confrontation with authorities and a cache of weapons uncovered, though Manswab managed to escape by jumping out a window with bullet wounds in his shoulder (Star [Nairobi], June 12, 2013). The group was alleged by prosecutors to have been plotting to free other al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab prisoners being held in Mombasa, as well as launching a series of assassinations of security officials and grenade attacks on bars (Daily Nation [Nairobi], October 30, 2012). Manswab was later reported to have joined al-Shabaab in Somalia (Star [Nairobi], June 12, 2013).

This targeting of Mombasa comes as a popular radical preacher was mysteriously gunned down in the street. Shaykh Abubakar Shariff Ahmed (a.k.a. Makaburi) was gunned down alongside another man as he left a courtroom within the Shimo la Tewa maximum security prison (Daily Nation [Nairobi], April 1). Long reported by official and media sources to be close to al-Shabaab, Makaburi was on U.S. and UN sanctions lists for his connections via funding and support to terrorist networks in East Africa. [1] He had also been connected to the transit of over 100 British nationals to join al-Shabaab, including the elusive Samantha Lewthwaite and Germaine Grant (Daily Mail, April 2). Close to slain radical clerics Shaykh Aboud Rogo and Shaykh Ibrahim Ismael, Makaburi was the leader of the radical Masjid Shuhada (Martyrs Mosque), previously known as the Masjid Musa. Similar to events in the wake of the deaths of the other two clerics, rioting broke out in Mombasa, though local authorities repeatedly called for calm and the violence was markedly less than in the wake of the deaths of the other clerics (Kenyan Broadcasting Corporation, April 2).

Following Makaburi’s death, another controversial cleric known as Shaykh Amir (a.k.a.  Mahboob) took control of the mosque and called for “total war against non-Muslims” to a packed house (The People [Nairobi], April 8). Sectarian violence was already visible in Mombasa prior to Makaburi’s death, when gunmen tied to the Masjid Shuhada by the Kenyan press were accused of opening fire on a mass in the Joy in Jesus church in the Likoni district, killing seven (Star[Nairobi], March 23).  The attackers attempted to go on to target another local church, but dropped the necessary ammunition before they got there (Daily Nation [Nairobi], March 23). The attack on the church was believed to be a reaction to a police raid on the Masjid Musa in early February in which two youths from the mosque and a policeman were killed. Among the 129 people arrested in the raid, police claimed to have arrested an individual alleged to be close to the late al-Qaeda in East Africa leader, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed. (Daily Nation [Nairobi] February 4).

At present, tensions remain high in the city and the government seemed to have responded to the recent spike in trouble with mass arrests and the threatened deportation of foreign nationals. A day prior to Makaburi’s shooting, some 657 people were arrested in sweeps in Eastleigh, a mostly Somali neighborhood in Nairobi, as part of the government’s response to grenade attacks on restaurants in the city that killed six (Daily Nation [Nairobi], April 1). A week after Makaburi’s death, some 4,000 Somalis were reportedly being held in Nairobi’s Kasarani stadium as authorities sifted through who was a Kenyan and who was not (Standard, [Nairobi], April 8). Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku stated that 3,000 had been detained, with 82 deported to Mogadishu (AFP, April 10). On April 12-13, Mombasa police rounded up 60 foreign suspects as part of an ongoing operation (KTN TV [Nairobi], April 13).

This focus on foreigners, however, may be a distraction from the larger problem of radicalization in Kenya, epitomized by the goings on around the mosques in Mombasa where there is evidence of connections to Somalia through Somali youth attending the mosque and connections through preachers like Makaburi, but it is not as clear that it is a solely foreign problem. The connection between the mosque and the community around it in Mombasa and foreign elements (including a trio of Algerian, Belgian and French nationals deported to Belgium on charges of being part of a Belgian-based network sending people to fight in Syria and Somalia) and reports of possible plotting in Uganda all highlight how these problems in Mombasa could have an international dimension (AFP, March 23; Africa Report, March 19).

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of the forthcoming We Love Death as You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen (Hurst/Columbia University Press).

Note

1. www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg1630.aspx; https://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2012/sc10748.doc.htm.

After a while’s silence due to some larger projects I am working on finishing and other reasons, here is a new piece for my institutional home RUSI looking at the news that a Briton has carried out a suicide operation in Syria. I have done interviews around this subject for CNN, The Times, as well as a video for RUSI. I also talked to DW about Syria, VoR about groups using ransom money, Sky on TPIMs and the Daily Beast about the news Brits were possibly videoed torturing someone in Syria. An expanded version of the below piece is going to appear early next week with lots more detail about Abdul Wahid Majid’s background.

Syria’s First British Suicide Bomber: The UK Jihadist Backdrop

RUSI Analysis, 14 Feb 2014

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

The revelation that the Syrian conflict has perhaps claimed its first British suicide bomber poses urgent questions for the UK radical group from which he came, and the threat from extremists radicalised over a long period of time.

AbdulWahidMajeed

Abdul Waheed Majid, who allegedly died in Syria last week, is not the first British suicide bomber. If the claims of his activism with al Muhajiroun are proven to be correct, then he is also not the first activist from within this groupto have decided to kill himself in a foreign conflict.

The news, however, calls into question the actual danger and risk posed by such long term hardened communities of radicals associated with the provocative group, al Muhajiroun. Last year saw the brutal attack by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, individuals who had also featured on the fringes of al Muhajiroun events for some time. Now the UK has seen its first, suicide bomber in Syria associated with the group.  Previous suicide bombers linked at least peripherally to the group have killed themselves in Pakistan and Israel. All of which calls into question the viability and sagacity of the current approach that seems to simply manage al Muhajiroun rather than conclusively deal with it in any particular way.

Abdul Waheed Majid had been a feature of al Muhajiroun circles in Crawley in the late 1990s and early 2000s at least, and was spotted by self-confessed group member and later government witness Mohammed Junaid Babar at a meeting of radicals in Crawley in late 2002.

The group he met with n Crawley was made up of at least two men who went on to be convicted of serious terrorist plotting in the UK. Others included one man who died in a drone strike in Pakistan and his brother who was later placed on a control order. They were there to hear, by Mohammed Junaid Babar’s account, preacher Abdulla el Faisal (who has since been jailed and then deported), hook-handed preacher Abu Hamza (who is currently fighting a case in the US having served time in the UK) and Ausman Ali – a preacher who has not been convicted in any terrorist investigations and was a regular traveller on aid convoys to Syria. As well as speeches, the men watched martyrdom videos filmed by the11 September 2001 hijackers.

After 9/11, al-Muhajiroun continued to maintain its provocative stance, holding meetings with particularly inflammatory titles like the one describing the 11 September  attackers as ‘the magnificent nineteen.’Over time, al Muhajiroun changed its name on numerous occasions, each time operating under a new name until the government added them to a proscribed list. And over the years, individuals associated with these groups have repeatedly been convicted in terrorist operations. Richard Dart and Mohammed Chowdury are two prominent examples, though the list is far longer than this and is gone into some detail in a recent report published by Hope Not Hate. Whether individuals are active members at the time of conviction is not always clear, but their journey through the group is well documented.

Is ‘al-Muhajiroun’ Nurturing Fighters for the Long-Term?

Abdul Wahid Majid’s case presents two problems. In the first instance: his age and persistence. The fact he waited after almost 15 years of activism and participation in foreign battlefields before deciding to conduct a suicide operation is significant.

This highlights how ingrained his beliefs were, and while it may be true that his ultimate decision was to conduct an operation abroad, he nevertheless remained a dedicated extremist involved in known circles for almost 15 years, meaning he would have been known to  security services for much of this time. The case of Michael Adebolajo is instructive of a long-term extremist can become a problem at home. A feature of al Muhajiroun events since the mid-2000s, he tried to go and fight abroad and retained his extreme ideas for almost eight years before finally deciding on action.

The second issue is the broader group around al Muhajiroun. The problem there is more complicated. Clearly the group provides an ideological backdrop that is stimulating to individuals who go on to conduct terrorist activity. But at the same time, in whatever incarnation it exists, the group and its leaders are careful to try to stay on the right side of the law, while remaining firmly provocative.

Occasionally this red line moves and the latest group name is proscribed (be it al Ghurabaa, the Saved Sect, Islam4Uk or others) or some of them stray into criminal activity. But the core of the group remains and as we can see, their members appear in repeated terrorist or other criminal investigations: be this public disorder offences or incidents like the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich last year. It is never clear whether the individuals are members of the group at the time – in part as it is not clear what denotes membership of these groups given they operate more like communities rather than organisations with clear criteria for individual membership.

But whatever the case, the group persistently features in the background of terrorist investigations. This is not to say everyone who passes through the group is a criminal – an unclear number become part-time members for a while before moving on to other lives. But the question becomes: what can be done to address the groups persistent appearance?

Clearly, from a legal perspective, approaches have been tried but with limited success. Individual members of the group who break the law are often incarcerated for some time, but usually come out and return in relatively short order to their old lives. A longer-term solution requires a more dynamic approach that focuses on depriving the group of its oxygen of publicity; that focuses on containing older members who keep the group’s  flame alive, while individually de-radicalising recent recruits or younger members.

All of this alongside already existing and excellent  efforts by the Muslim community around the UK to ostracises the group (in whatever form it takes) and its leaders from Muslim public spaces. This approach will not rid the United Kingdom of the problem of individuals being attracted to radical ideas, but at the same time it will maybe remove one focus of extreme ideas in the UK that has been involved in driving young Britons towards self-destructive radical ideologies for almost two decades.

And on the topic of Syria and foreign fighters from Europe, here is a piece that I wrote a little while ago that has now gone live for a new outlet, Alternatives Internationales Hors-séries a French outlet. For those who cannot read the below French, it is similar to this piece I did for RUSI. More on this subject en route.

Les Jihadistes occidentaux rentrent à la maison

Raffaello Pantucci, chercheur au Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), Londres
Alternatives Internationales Hors-série n° 014 – janvier 2014

Des centaines de jeunes Européens sont partis faire le jihad en Syrie. Et la plupart en reviendront. Radicalisés, vengeurs, ou indifférents, ils sont devenus la bête noire des services de renseignement.

Le conflit syrien est devenu le terreau le plus fertile du jihadisme mondialisé. Alors que l’on va entrer dans la quatrième année du conflit, la guerre civile syrienne est devenue un pot-pourri d’extrémistes, jeunes sunnites ou chiites venant combattre aux côtés des différentes factions en présence. Parmi eux, on trouve de plus en plus de jeunes Européens.

Ces jihadistes occidentaux renforcent-ils la menace terroriste dans les pays européens ? Pour le moment, la guerre en Syrie a surtout alimenté la menace terroriste au niveau régional : une cellule planifiant des attentats en Jordanie a été démantelée, des attaques ont été commises en Turquie ou au Liban. De même, faut-il le rappeler, il n’y a pas de branche européenne d’Al-Qaïda. Parce que l’organisation terroriste peine à faire des émules sur le Vieux Continent, mais aussi parce qu’aucun groupe ne remplit les critères d’adhésion – autonomie logistique et financière, liens établis avec la haute hiérarchie du mouvement – édictés par la maison mère. En outre, si une branche européenne venait à officiellement se faire connaître, la réponse des services de renseignement et de sécurité ne se ferait pas attendre, et elle serait aussitôt arrêtée.

Mais les responsables européens ont raison de s’inquiéter, car historiquement nombre de terroristes ont d’abord été des combattants jihadistes. Et à moyen terme, les Occidentaux vont devoir se pencher sur leurs jeunes ressortissants revenant du front syrien, avec l’expérience, l’entraînement et les réseaux qui peuvent être utilisés à des fins terroristes sur leurs sols.

Les plus inquiétants sont ceux qui sont directement missionnés par des organisations jihadistes, comme le montre l’exemple de Mohammed Siddique Khan et Shezad Tanweer, le duo au coeur des attentats de Londres de juillet 2005. Khan, la tête pensante, avait réalisé nombre de voyages au Pakistan et en Afghanistan où il s’était entraîné dans un premier temps avec les groupes jihadistes du Cachemire, puis plus tard avec les Afghans. Son troisième voyage en Afghanistan aurait dû être le dernier – il avait prévu d’y mourir comme il l’a indiqué dans une vidéo adressée à sa jeune fille – jusqu’à ce qu’il rencontre des membres d’Al-Qaïda le convainquant de l’intérêt de mener une attaque sur son sol d’origine. D’autres ont emprunté ce chemin, mais sans parvenir à leurs fins, comme Faisal Shahzad et Najibullah Zazi, qui voulaient chacun commettre un attentat à New York après des voyages en Afghanistan et au Pakistan.

Avant de partir combattre déjà, ces hommes nourrissaient une haine de l’Occident, et voyaient dans le fait de détenir un passeport occidental l’occasion de commettre plus facilement un attentat. Un tel sentiment anime-t-il ceux qui sont aujourd’hui en Syrie ? Leur rhétorique et leur allégeance à Al-Qaïda pourraient laisser penser qu’ils partagent ses convictions, mais, pour l’heure, leur priorité est bel et bien de faire tomber le régime d’Assad, pas d’attaquer l’Occident.

Seul contre tous

La deuxième façon dont la menace s’est exprimée dans le passé, c’est à travers des individus qui se sont rendus sur les champs de bataille jihadiste, qui s’y sont constitué un réseau, s’y sont entraînés, puis sont rentrés pour planifier une attaque de leur propre chef. Par exemple, Bilal Abudllha, un médecin irako-britannique qui avec le soutien de son ami Kafeel Ahmed, a tenté de faire exploser deux voitures piégées en plein Londres, et réussi à lancer une voiture remplie d’explosif dans l’aéroport international de Glasgow, en 2007. Abdullah s’était auparavant rendu en Irak, s’était entraîné parmi les insurgés, mais il n’est pas sûr que ces derniers lui aient demandé de commettre des attentats au Royaume-Uni. Dans la même veine, Mohamed Muhidin Gelle, un jeune dano-somalien proche des Chebab avec qui il s’était entraîné, a été accusé de fomenter avec d’autres un attentat contre Hillary Clinton. Le complot a été découvert, et Gelle a été extradé vers le Danemark. Là-bas, il semble qu’il ait pu reprendre une vie normale, jusqu’au 31 décembre 2009 où il s’est attaqué au domicile du caricaturiste Kurt Westegaard, armé d’une hache et de sabres. Mais, même si les Chebab ont admis connaître cet individu, rien ne prouve qu’ils ont été les commanditaires de cette tentative d’assassinat.

C’est plutôt ce profil que l’on retrouve en Syrie. Parmi la foultitude de jeunes hommes prêts à faire le jihad à l’étranger, il est quasiment certain qu’au moins l’un d’entre eux rentrera à la maison vivant, entraîné, et décidé à agir en son nom propre. Est-ce cela qui explique le faible soutien des pays occidentaux à la rébellion syrienne ? En tout cas, c’est ce genre d’individus qui devrait inquiéter leurs diplomates et gouvernants.

Recommandé par les anciens

Enfin, il y a ceux qui partent se battre, rentrent pleins de colère, mais pas suffisamment pour commettre un attentat. Ils préfèrent aider les autres jihadistes à trouver des fonds et deviennent des figures du radicalisme, à l’instar du prédicateur anglo-égyptien Abu Hamza al Masri, célèbre pour ses prêches enflammés dans la mosquée de Finsbury Park à Londres. Jeune homme fuyant la conscription en Égypte, Abu Hamza (alias Mustafa Kamel) était parti combattre les Soviétiques en Afghanistan. Là-bas, il a rencontré Abullah Azam, figure tutélaire du jihad antisoviétique, avant de rentrer blessé et mutilé, ce qui a d’ailleurs contribué à sa renommée. De retour au Royaume-Uni, il est devenu prédicateur, puis petit à petit il est apparu comme une figure incontournable de la mouvance extrémiste britannique. Même s’il ne s’est jamais personnellement impliqué dans une attaque terroriste, il a radicalisé et influencé toute une génération de jeunes hommes, les persuadant de partir se battre à l’étranger, de s’entraîner, voire de perpétrer des attaques en Occident. Il y a, à des niveaux d’influence moindre, bien d’autres exemples comme Abu Hamza, et la plupart d’entre eux n’ont jamais attiré l’attention. Ces individus sortent souvent des radars publics, soit parce qu’ils rejoignent un groupe encore inconnu des services, soit parce qu’ils sont très prudents, soit parce que tout simplement ils n’ont pas l’intention de commettre un attentat.

À cause d’eux, non seulement plus de jeunes sont tentés d’aller combattre en Syrie, mais surtout l’idéologie du jihad se répand en Europe, car leur expérience personnelle est aisément transposable dans le récit plus global du jihad. Ainsi, le problème du terrorisme islamique qui semblait en déclin va en fait s’étendre et se prolonger en Europe.

Même s’il est impossible de savoir combien exactement de jeunes Occidentaux sont partis (ou prévoient de) combattre en Syrie (quelques centaines d’Européens, estiment les services de renseignements, mais ils sont certainement plus nombreux), l’expérience montre que lorsque des Occidentaux rejoignent les champs de bataille jihadiste, la menace terroriste se renforce de manière générale. Reste pour les services de renseignements à déterminer quand et comment celle-ci pourrait se matérialiser. La Syrie hantera l’Europe pendant de longues années encore.

My latest for Jane’s Intelligence Review about European Foreign Fighters going to Syria. Unfortunately, its behind a firewall, so I cannot just post it here now, but they have agreed to let me put up what is below so far with the rest later in the month. Get in touch if you have any questions. In the meantime I did interviews for the Sunday Times on the same subject, something with Sky News about prison radicalisation and something for NBC about the Iraq-Syria troubles and its links back home. Many thanks to the Airey Neave Trust for their support of my work on this topic.

UPDATE: March 22, 2014 – per agreement with Jane’s I have now posted the entire article here. Thanks to my editors!

Foreign Fighters – Battle-hardened Europeans return from Syria

Key Points
  • Rising numbers of European citizens travelling to fight for Islamist groups in the Syrian civil war increase the domestic terrorism threat as they return home.
  • European fighters in Syria are from a diverse range of nationalities and ethnicities, with the domestic threat seemingly most elevated in the Balkans, Belgium, and the United Kingdom.
  • The risk of domestic militant attacks in European countries will rise further should Syria’s civil war continue.

Increasing numbers of European citizens have travelled to Syria to fight for Islamist groups in the civil war. Raffaello Pantucci examines the threat facing Europe from fighters returning home and the risk of domestic militant attacks as a result.

Syrian militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) on 7 December 2013 posted an announcement on its Facebook page stating that a Luxembourg national using the battlefield name Abu Huthaifa had died in al-Safira, Aleppo governorate. The news – although unconfirmed in any mainstream press – marked a new chapter in the history of global jihadism.
As the first national from Luxembourg publicly known to have died fighting alongside jihadist groups in Syria, he became another ‘first’ in a war that is rapidly eclipsing all previous jihadist battlefields. For European security officials who are increasingly concerned about the conflict, 2013 marked a new high in a trend that had been rising since 2012.
In its annual report on terrorist trends in Europe, the EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE-SAT) 2013, the European Police Office (Europol) reported that, “in 2012, there was a distinct rise in the number of EU citizens travelling to Syria, in a number of cases fighting alongside groups associated with religiously inspired terrorism”.

In 2013, this trend accelerated further, with an assessment published by researcher Aaron Zelin of King’s College London suggesting that over the period from April to December 2013 the number of Europeans heading to fight in Syria had almost tripled, and could total between 5,000 to 10,000.

More worryingly, in 2013, further evidence started to emerge suggesting that the return of these fighters home may have increased terrorist threats in Europe.

Jihadist profiles

Little is known about Abu Huthaifa. The brief statement posted about him on JeM’s Facebook page indicated that he had entered Syria through Turkey and that he might be as young as 18 years old. Beyond this, he was a young Caucasian wearing traditional army garb. However, in his portrait there are a number of features observed among the European contingent fighting in Syria.

First, the lack of clarity about his ethnicity reflects the broad background of the European foreign fighter contingent in Syria. Unlike the civil conflict in Libya, which seemed to draw mostly, but not only, Libyan Europeans to fight, the civil war in Syria has attracted Europeans of various ethnic backgrounds, from Arabs and South Asians to converts of every ethnicity.

A review of available information about foreign fighters in Syria reveals that the broad base of fighters in the country reflects the ethnic breakdown of Muslims across Europe. According to the 2011 census, the majority of Muslims in the UK are of South Asian origin. Citizens of that origin equally represent the largest contingent of British foreign fighters in Syria.

Europeans of multiple ethnicities with distinct national accents appear in videos recorded by jihadist groups on the battlefield. One video discovered in early June 2013, which purported to have been taken in March, showed a group including Dutch-speaking individuals beheading someone identified as a Syrian government supporter, with at least one of those involved speaking Flemish (Belgian Dutch).

Other videos to emerge actively encourage individuals to join the fighting in their native languages: English – by a Briton of seemingly African origin talking by the side of the road as he loads a pistol; Swedish – by Swedes of Arab origin; Danish; French; and other languages.

German authorities have grown increasingly concerned about the activity of a 38-year-old former rapper, Denis Mamadou Cuspert. A Ghanaian-German convert, he was known by his stage name Deso Dogg or his battlefield kunya (an honorific title) Abu Talha al-Almani. Prominent for his radical views in Germany before going to Syria, Cuspert has become the face of German jihad in Syria, releasing videos of himself rapping and calling on others to join the fight. It is unknown whether or not he is still alive.

Second, Abu Huthaifa’s age reflects the fact that jihad in Syria remains primarily attractive to the younger demographic, with a large number of teenagers in particular drawn to the fight. In October, Burkhard Freier, head of the North Rhine-Westphalia branch of the German domestic intelligence agency Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), told the ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen) television network that his service had “observed adolescents who departed for Syria in order to fight there”.

In September, he reported that a group of more than 20 young German Muslims had gone from Germany to Turkey and onwards to Syria. Among the group there were five teenagers, including a 15-year-old. In December, the minister of the interior of the German federal state of Hesse, Boris Rhein, highlighted a study commissioned by his ministry, which suggested that of 23 males who had gone to fight in Syria, nine were still at school.

In Norway, a pair of Somali-born sisters aged 16 and 19 declared in an email to their parents, “Something needs to be done [about Syria]. We want to help the Muslims, and the only way to do so is to be with them in their pains and their joy.” The girls’ father tracked them down in Syria, but failed to persuade them to return. In Belgium, the worried parents of two teenagers – Jejoen Bontinck and Brian de Mulder – separately spoke to the international media in March and April of 2013, expressing their concerns about their sons, who had gone to fight in Syria.

However, the spectrum of fighters also includes those who are middle-aged. Abdal Munem Mustafa Halima (also known as Abu Basir al-Tartusi) – a London-based extremist preacher, believed to be in his 50s and originally from Syria – emerged in videos published online by the group Ansar al-Sham in October 2012, seemingly addressing crowds in Latakia. One video posted on the video-sharing website YouTube is dated 8 August 2012.

In February 2013, reports emerged that Slimane Hadj Abderrahmane, a 39-year-old former Guantánamo Bay camp detainee, had died fighting four months after arriving in Syria. Abderrahmane was born in Denmark. At the age of seven he moved to Algeria with his family and then returned to Denmark in his late teens. Formerly a popular techno DJ, he became concerned by the suffering of Muslims around the world and trained in Afghanistan. In February 2002, he was captured and handed over to the US forces, which held him in the Guantánamo Bay detention camp for two years before releasing him to Denmark, where he wrote a book about his experiences, protested against Danish support of American foreign policy, and was imprisoned for credit card fraud.

The reason for Abderrahmane’s decision to go to Syria was unclear, with the Facebook group Islamisk Budskab (Islamic Message), which posted news of his death, merely saying that he “packed his backpack, said goodbye to his wife and children, and gone off [sic] to Kastrup Airport [Copenhagen Airport]”.

However, the average age of foreign jihadists seems to be somewhere between the mid-teens and middle age. In his detailed public records study of 18 Swedish nationals who had fought in Syria, Swedish researcher and journalist Per Gudmundson found that the fighters’ average age was 23.5 years. The results of this study were published in the September 2013 edition of the New York City Combating Terrorism Center’s (CTC) monthly publication CTC Sentinel.

In June 2013, Belgian minister of the interior Joëlle Milquet stated that the average age of Belgian nationals fighting in Syria was between 23 and 25 years old. A BBC radio File on Four programme from October quoted UK officials who told Shiraz Maher, a researcher at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London, that the average age of Britons going to fight was in their 20s. Public data and specific instances across Europe suggest that the majority of those reported to be fighting in Syria are in their 20s, with a few more seasoned fighters in their 30s.

Moreover, although the overwhelming majority of those travelling to Syria are men, there has been some evidence of young women also going to the battlefield, but it remains unclear what roles they perform. The case of the teenage Norwegian sisters has already been mentioned, and a report for the UK’s Channel 4 television channel from July also highlighted the case of British citizens “Maryam” and “Aisha”. The two women were living with their husbands, who were fighting alongside the Sunni militia Katiba al Muhajireen in Syria.

Having converted to Islam four years before, Maryam decided to move to Syria in early 2013, where she met her Swedish-Arab husband. Aisha moved to Syria with her British husband, and the two families lived in the same building near the Syrian frontlines. According to the documentary, the men fought together, while the women stayed behind to look after their children.

There are more such cases of married partners moving to Syria. A report in the Bosnian press published in December highlighted the case of approximately 10 married couples who had gone to Syria, with some of them taking children who were as young as three months old.

Although many women appear to adopt domestic roles, some have died on the battlefield. In late May, the Syrian government published pictures of what purported to be the passport of a British man, an American woman, and a third individual killed in a car outside Idlib in the northwest. It transpired that the British man was in fact alive, because he had handed over his passport to his handlers, who then gave it to someone else – a typical practice for foreign fighters in Syria. The American woman was identified as Nicole Lynn Mansfield, a 33-year-old convert whose death was confirmed by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The details of her case remain unclear, but Mansfield’s death demonstrated that some foreign females who go to Syria also take on frontline roles.

Travel and recruitment

A third element that Abu Huthaifa’s case highlights is the method of travelling to Syria. Having entered the country through Turkey, his case reveals the main route used by European foreign fighters to the battlefield. In most cases, individuals travel to Turkey and from there cross the porous border into Syria, where they connect with Islamist groups on the ground.

Sometimes it is done by road under the auspices of aid convoys from Europe. The convoys often carry genuine medical supplies or other essential goods and are driven by individuals who have raised money with a genuine intent to hand it over to refugees. Yet often unwittingly, the convoys also transport individuals who seek to join jihadist groups in Syria. As a result, border authorities at the UK port of Dover frequently stop and search suspicious individuals in convoys under Schedule 7 on port and border controls of the UK Terrorism Act 2000.

Others fly into Turkey (sometimes on unused package holidays), using the country’s well-connected main cities as points of entry from where they travel to the Syrian border by internal transport. In other instances, individuals take circuitous routes across Europe, driving to a smaller European airport to then take a flight to Turkey. Some go through North African countries such as Egypt and then take flights on to Lebanon or Turkey.

A senior Turkish official at a presentation in London in late October 2013 reported that Turkish authorities had prevented several hundred individuals from crossing the border into Syria. However, given the reported number of European fighters on the ground, which could be in the low thousands, this highlights the porosity of the border. According to media reports from early December, Turkey informed its European partners that during 2013 it had arrested and deported approximately 1,110 EU citizens who had arrived in Turkey with the intention of joining jihadist groups in Syria; requests for their detention had been received from other countries or the sharing of intelligence through the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol).

The fourth element of Abu Huthaifa’s profile becomes salient once he arrived in the country. Given that his biography was posted on a Facebook page that is managed by a group close to one of Al-Qaeda’s affiliates – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – it seems likely that he was serving alongside this group. According to Zelin’s study, only 20% of subjects reported group affiliation; the two primary Al-Qaeda affiliates on the battlefield, based on their responses, were ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Nevertheless, although these groups attract many of the foreign fighters, they are not the only ones that draw Europeans to their ranks. Numerous other groups also count on European members, including Jund al-Sham, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, and Jund al-Khilafah.

From a threat perspective, those sub-groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda are of the greatest concern as their rhetoric and approach hardly differ, and it is likely that a number of plots have been initiated by groups associated with them.

It is currently unclear how actively those groups are recruiting for the battlefield in Syria, or whether individuals are being drawn there by a compelling news narrative that attracts them to fight. It appears that extremist groups operating camps on the ground in Syria have a vetting system, as prospective jihadists often need to have a group connection back home to support them as they travel to the battlefield. Volunteers are usually expected to pay substantial amounts of money for their training and are required to hand over their documents upon arrival in Syria. These are often circulated among other individuals in the group for use as false identification.

Many of those travelling to Syria also appear to be individuals who have previously been involved in a terrorist act or criminal investigations in their home countries. Their exact number is not available, but many media reports suggest that such individuals have criminal records for either extremism or common criminality. Per Gudmundson’s study of Swedish fighters indicated that at least eight out of the 18 subjects had criminal records.

Those connected to recognised radical movements include a group in Bosnia that was linked to Mevludin JaÜarevic, who opened fire at the US embassy in Sarajevo in October 2011; and the extremist Belgian group Shariah4Belgium, which was associated with a number of cases of radicalisation of individuals who went to fight in Syria. In Europol’s TE-SAT 2013, the agency specifically identified Shariah4Belgium as contributing to “the radicalisation and engagement of EU citizens in the Syrian conflict”.

Returnee threat

Shariah4Belgium has become notorious among European affiliates of the British group al-Muhajiroun – initially established in 1996 in the UK by now-excluded preacher Omar Bakri Mohammed and is currently overseen by preacher Anjem Choudary – because of allegations in the Belgian press that individuals connected to Shariah4Belgium in Syria had been recorded threatening attacks in Europe. For example, a Facebook message was sent to Dutch-language Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws listing a series of targets in Antwerp and Brussels to be attacked on 31 December 2013.

In July 2012, one of the leaders of Shariah4Belgium, 22-year-old Houssien Elouassaki, was sentenced to 200 hours of community service in Belgium for “insults, threats, and racist comments” to a police officer. He failed to serve his sentence and subsequently fled to Syria, where he became the leader of a group of approximately 35-40 Belgians who were connected with Jabhat al-Nusra.

In April 2013, Elouassaki’s younger brother Hakim returned home from Syria to Vilvoorde, Belgium, having been seriously injured. Houssien was killed fighting in Syria on 13 September, according to sources quoted in the Belgian press. Based on reports in Belgian media verified by official sources, Houssien was overheard talking about wanting to attack the Palais de Justice in Brussels. Whether or not these threats were anywhere near becoming actual plots remains unclear.

A far more dangerous militant cell was discovered in Kosovo in early November. Kosovar authorities conducted operations in the cities of Pristina and Gjilan, arresting six ethnic Albanians. A seventh suspect escaped. Two of the men were alleged to have attacked a pair of American Mormon missionaries in Pristina on 3 November, and those group members were arrested as they tried to purchase weapons from undercover officers. The status of legal proceedings against those detained was unknown at the time of going to press.

According to the authorities’ briefing with the Associated Press, the investigation into the cell had apparently lasted three months, and following the interception of a telephone call in which group members were heard discussing a possible attack in an unnamed European country, the group was arrested.

The group was found to have in its possession a sniper rifle, a carbine, an assault rifle, two handguns, 1,200 rounds for an AK-47 assault rifle, and explosive materials for possibly making an improvised explosive device (IED). According to officials talking to the press at the time, two of the detainees had fought in Syria, and the broader cell was linked to a wider community of radicals who had been travelling back and forth to Syria.

Far more mature than the threats emanating from the Belgian group, the Kosovo plot was of the type with links to Syria that concerns European security services, namely, individuals with battlefield experience and access to weapons who return home with the intent to carry out an attack. Kosovar authorities reported that following the arrests they received threats and demands to release the detainees, identified in the Serbian press as a group known as ‘Jihad of Kosovo’.

The Albanian group’s targeting was not clear, but a long tradition of jihadist fighting in the Balkans has made the region a source of concern for authorities across Europe, with the problem aggravated by the fact that an estimated 150 Albanians are believed by Kosovar authorities to be fighting in Syria.

Despite the apparent severity of the Albanian threat, the most serious warnings are increasingly coming from the UK. The director general of the Security Service (MI5), Andrew Parker, and the head of the Counter-Terrorism Command (CTC), or SO15, at the Metropolitan Police, Commander Richard Walton, have mentioned the fact that the jihad in Syria is increasingly becoming a security threat beyond its borders.

In his speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) on 8 October, Parker highlighted that MI5 had noted a substantial increase in cases with connections to Syria. According to Parker, “a growing proportion of our casework now has some link to Syria, mostly concerning individuals from the UK who have travelled to fight there or who aspire to do so”.

He also spoke of how MI5 judged that “[Jabhat] al-Nusra and other extremist Sunni groups there aligned with Al-Qaeda aspire to attack Western countries”.

This threat was brought into sharper domestic focus in December, when Walton told an audience in London that his officers were “starting to see signs” that Britons were returning from Syria tasked with carrying out attacks back at home.

The assessment of an expanding threat from the European contingent in Syria was also emphasised in December by Belgian authorities, which told the press that they were assessing a group of “Dutch-speaking Belgian jihadists” who had participated in an attack in Iraq. A source from the Belgian police believed that “the leaders of the Syrian networks are determined to export – in time – to Morocco and Tunisia the fighting capacity that is now assembled in Syria”.

The Belgian officials were also quoted saying, “Al-Qaeda has four to five thousand jihadist combatants at hand deployed in Syria who have passports from a Schengen area country”. This is a very high figure that exceeds most public assessments provided by European security officials so far.

Outlook

There is a rising level of concern among security officials across Europe consulted by IHS Jane’s about the threat emanating from Syria. The plots highlighted to date probably represent only the beginning of a threat that will evolve in various ways in the coming years.

Although it is by no means the case that every individual returning from Syria will pose a domestic threat or will launch an attack, the high number of European jihadist fighters in Syria means that a threat of some sort is likely to emerge. Moreover, a protraction of Syria’s civil war would mean more individuals would be drawn to the battlefield, therefore increasing the pool of potential jihadist recruits who could be a threat back at home.

Indeed, the gravity of the situation was highlighted by a US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assessment reported in The Wall Street Journal on 31 December, that drew on analysis of previous insurgencies, concluding that the civil war in Syria “could last another decade or more”.

The foreign fighter contingent in Syria is likely to match this timescale and is therefore also likely to be at the heart of Europe’s militant threat for the next five years at least – a period of time that will only increase the longer the conflict continues.

Case Study: Abu Huthaifa

Abu Huthaifa’s profile appears on the Facebook page of the “Army of Mohammad Peace and Blessings be upon him – Abu Ubaidah al-Muhajir” (which translates as the migrant – meaning that the fighter is or was outside his homeland). Abu Ubaidah al-Muhajir appears to be the name of one of the units fighting in the conflict.

IHS Jane’s assesses that the Arabic-language page has an international jihadist tenor, rather than exclusively Syrian jihadist.

Unusually, most of its updates are about members who have been killed in action rather than about major victories or battles, with a particular bias towards recording the deaths of Tunisian citizens.

According to the Facebook account, the ‘brother’ and media activist from Luxembourg, Abu Huthaifa, left his family back home. He entered Turkey to study, then moved to Syria to support the religion of Allah. He was not more than 18 years old. He was martyred in al-Safira, Aleppo governorate.

The comments following the entry about Abu Huthaifa’s death are all blessings calling for Allah to rest his soul. Two more individuals who had been killed and mentioned on the page were a Tunisian called Abu Maryam, and media activist Abu Usama. The comments also include links to YouTube videos that allegedly were produced by Abu Huthaifa.