Posts Tagged ‘Europe’

And a second post-Brexit article, this time for the Guardian, covering some of the same points but this time focused singularly on the far right and the implications for them for the Brexit vote. This has some depressing portents in the future for it, and lets hope that politicians and others can find ways to move us forwards.

Ignored by the authorities, emboldened by Brexit, Europe’s far right is surging

Rightwing extremists are a grave danger in themselves, let alone when you factor in their influence on mainstream politics, and on terrorism
Poles against migrants protest

The result of Britain’s referendum on EU membership has strengthened far-right activism across Europe. In the UK there have been reports of public racist abuse, while far-right-leaning parties across the continent have taken advantage of the situation to call for their own referendums. There is a danger that an already polarised political environment will become even more broken with some individuals choosing a path to violence in response.

Extreme rightwing terrorism has been a growing problem in Europe for some time. A recent study by a consortium led by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) highlighted that when looking at the phenomenon of “lone actor” terrorism in particular (terrorist acts conducted by individuals without any clear direction from an outside group), the extreme right wing was responsible for as many as Islamist extremists. And not all were random one-off killers – Anders Breivik was able to butcher 77 people in a murderous rampage in Norway. What was particularly worrying was the fact that these individuals sat at the far end of a spectrum of extremists that included elements closer to the mainstream.

In the runup to conducting his act of terrorism, Breivik claimed to have attended protests organised by the English Defence League (EDL), a group he admired for its stand against what he perceived as invading Muslim hordes in Europe. Founded in the UK in response to a perceived refusal by authorities to clamp down on the noisy extremist group al-Muhajiroun, the EDL became a grab bag of far-right, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant protesters who would take to the streets. It spawned imitators in continental Europe.

The emergence of the EDL, however, came at a moment when more established European nationalist groups such as Front National in France, the British National party (BNP) or the Austrian Freedom party, all became prominent in the public conversation. Far-right nationalist xenophobic sentiment has always been a part of the European conversation, but the strengthening of these groups highlighted how much the ideas they represented had started to slip into the political mainstream, largely off the back of anger with the usual parties of power. But while the far right tried to move itself into the mainstream, its violent edge remained, and as the European debate on immigration and Muslims has become more pronounced, there has been a growth in incidents of extreme rightwing violence.

The response from security forces has been mixed. While we have seen an apparent increase in extreme rightwing violence, there has been less attention paid to it by authorities. In the RUSI-led research, a particularly striking finding was that in about 40% of cases of far-right extremists, they were uncovered by chance – the individual managed to blow himself up or was discovered while authorities conducted another investigation. By contrast, around 80% of violent Islamist lone actors were discovered in intelligence-led operations – in other words, the authorities were looking for them.

But it is easy to understand why the extreme right wing gets overlooked. Most examples are fairly shambolic lonesome individuals whose efforts to launch terrorist plots seem amateurish at best. But they are still attempting to kill fellow citizens to advance a political ideology. And in the case of lone actors, they are at least as lethal as their violent Islamist counterparts – in our dataset of 120 cases, even when one removed Breivik as an outlier, the extreme right wing was as lethal as violent Islamists.

The concern from this phenomenon must now be twofold. On the one hand, the increasing mainstreaming of a xenophobic anti-immigrant narrative will feed the very “clash of civilisations” narrative that groups such as al-Qaida and Isis seek to foster – suggesting that there is a conflict between Islam and the west which they are at the heart of. It will only strengthen this sense and draw people towards them.

But there is also the danger of frustrated expectations. The reality is that notwithstanding a rise in anti-immigrant feeling in Europe, the migrants will still come. Attracted by the opportunity and prosperity they see in Europe (which is often a huge improvement on the environment they came from), they will come to seek low-paying jobs – jobs that western economies will still need to fill and are not taken by locals, which offer better prospects than where they came from. This economic dynamic means that people will not necessarily notice a dramatic change in their material environment. Foreigners will continue to come and will continue to be a presence around them – providing a community to blame when individual economic situations do not change or feel like they are getting worse.

Here lies one of the more dangerous sides of this new European political environment. A polarised society which does not appear to materially change – frustrating those who feel like they have expressed their political will only to find it unanswered. The result, unless handled properly by the mainstream political community, is a potential for violence that has already reared its head brutally on the European continent, and unless carefully checked will do so again.

Final piece from last week, this time looking at whether the incident in Paris could take place in the United Kingdom for my home institution RUSI. While it is likely not the last on this topic, likely the last commentary at this point. In addition to commentary, spoke to Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Daily Mail, NBC, The Times, Bloomberg, while the Mirror ran an interview with a press agency as an interview. In the immediate wake of the incident, RUSI also recorded this brief interview for our site. Prior to the terrible events of last Friday, spoke to Wall Street Journal, Politico and La Repubblica about the large network of arrests linked to Ansar al Islam and Mullah Krekar, and more recently to Bloomberg and Voice of America about the impact of recent deaths on China’s contributions to the current war on terrorism.

Could Paris happen in the UK?

Trafalgar Sq_Paris_Nov 2015

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary, 20 November 2015
Europe, France, Terrorism, UK, UK Counter-terrorism, Tackling Extremism, International Security Studies, Terrorism

Soon after the Paris attacks, the prospect of similar massacres happening in the UK was raised. While the danger is serious, crucial contexts specific to the Continent mean the UK faces a different kind of threat.

In the wake of the horrific terrorist attack in Paris, the immediate question posed in the UK was whether this could happen here.The prime minister made a clear statement about the potential risks, stating that British security services had disrupted seven attacks in the past six months, ‘albeit on a smaller scale to what was seen in Paris’.

The potential threat is certainly present, but, at the same time, certain specific local contexts create slightly higher hurdles for a terrorist group to launch such a terrorist attack in the UK.

There are three principal reasons for this.

Limited access to weaponry

First, it is harder to obtain high-powered rifles in the UK. Looking at the massacre in Paris, it is clear that the greatest number of casualties were caused by the use of assault rifles, which the cell was able to acquire in worrying numbers. Such rifles appear to be more easily available on the continent. Whilst the investigation has yet to publicly uncover the source of the weapons, their availability is clearly a persistent problem in France and neighbouring countries.

Since the beginning of the year, three different cells have attempted and succeeded in launching attacks with such weapons in France alone. In January, a cell in Verviers, Belgium, was found to be in possession of a number of high-powered weapons and explosives. When police tried to arrest the group, the fighters did not hesitate to fight back; they were killed during the shootout with police. Beyond terrorists, criminal networks in places like Marseille quite regularly get involved in public shoot-outs using such weapons.

So far, in the UK, terrorist cells have not been able to access modern or high-powered weaponry. Fusilier Lee Rigby’s murderers Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo were able to get an antique pistol for their plot in 2013, but the weapon failed to work and blew up in Adebowale’s hands. A cell disrupted earlier this year and going on trial soon were only able to get their hands on a Soviet-era weapon to advance their plot.

Networks have certainly sought to obtain higher-powered weapons, but restrictive laws and availability mean it is harder to do so in the UK than in Continental Europe. There are some worrying indicators regarding the proximity between terrorist and criminal networks, but so far this has not placed the same kind of equipment in the hands of terrorists.

Greater control over borders

Second, unlike France, the UK has a greater degree of control over its borders. Natural geography means that there are fewer access points into the UK, making it relatively easier for authorities to watch entry and exit points (though the system is by no means perfect – news emerged this week that two well-known repeat terrorism offenders were caught trying to cross Hungary even though they were on no-travel lists).

On the continent, the situation is very different. French authorities may attempt to get firm control over their own territory, but they border a number of countries with substantial domestic problems and with different levels of government effectiveness and cover. Yet they have open borders between them, complicating France’s ability to completely control their situation and meaning they share open borders with countries with varying levels of weapons availability as well as different criminal-justice systems.

Links to the Levant

Finally, the conflict in the Levant is one with a greater draw and connection to Arab communities on the continent. This is a reality that has come at a moment when the centre of gravity of international jihadism has shifted from South Asia to the Levant.

The UK has seen over 700 people go and join the fighting in Syria and Iraq – but these numbers are higher in countries like France (where officials refer to around 700 or more) and Belgium (where most recently officials refer to up to 800 having gone), which have seen large numbers of extremists go and fight, while others have instead stayed at home and stewed in anger, with some of those who were prevented from going to fight instead choosing to launch attacks at home.

A different kind of threat

None of this is to say that the UK is not facing a dangerous menace. It has been featured regularly in ISIS propaganda as a target, is fighting in the coalition against ISIS and has launched drone strikes against key individuals in the group. Authorities in the UK are working at full pelt to disrupt networks, and, as highlighted before by the prime minister, some seven plots have already been disrupted in the past year.

But the nature of the threat appears different. Networked plots exist, but have so far been effectively penetrated and disrupted before moving into action – though this track record is something that has been shown to be imperfect in the past. Greater levels of concern are often expressed around more dispersed plots that seem to demonstrate less clear command and control from abroad, but seek to undertake attacks like the murder of Lee Rigby.

Whilst we now face the horror of a large-scale terrorist attack in Paris, the reality is that the murder of a single man in the UK almost three years ago in Woolwich had a quite substantial media impact, even if not on the scale of the atrocity in Paris.

*Header image: A vigil for the victims of the Paris attacks in Trafalgar Square, 14 November 2015. Image courtesy of Hannah McKay / PA Wire/Press Association Images

And my second post for the day, this time for an Observer article I wrote for the weekend’s paper in the wake of the near-miss terrorist incident in France on Friday. The piece oddly only appears in the iPad edition and the hardcopy, but here is the text below and a screenshot from the iPad. Worth pointing out the title was the papers choice. I also spoke to the Financial Times about the repercussions of the attack and had a longer interview with AFP which has been picked up in a number of different ways.

IMG_0188

The Blend of high impact and low preparation means everyone in Europe is a potential target

Raffaello Pantucci

Royal United Services Institute

With the attempted train attack on Friday, the threat of terrorism in Europe rears its head again. It is still early days in the investigation, but the early indicators are of an attempted lone shooter with some links to Syria, known by intelligence agencies launching a random act of terror to sow fear into the continent. It is a pattern of facts that is increasingly the norm globally.

Ever since 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, terrorist groups have sought to launch mass casualty shootings on soft targets. The blend of high impact and low preparation required makes it an appealing way of getting your message across.

The potential targets are limitless, and the only requirement is to obtain a gun – something that is easier in continental Europe than in the UK. In addition, Islamic State’s leadership has been shouting to anyone who would listen or read their material that it considers anything a target. The result has been a spate of similar attacks in Europe and abroad.

The attack in Sousse saw a marauding gunmen massacre holidaymakers as they enjoyed Tunisia’s heritage and beaches. In Brussels, visitors to a Jewish museum were gunned down by a terrorist linked to ISIS as they enjoyed an afternoon tour.

In Copenhagen, a lone shooter opened fire at a public event featuring cartoonist Lars Viks, killing a bystander, before heading to a nearby synagogue where he murdered guards that had been put there to protect the institution from people like him.

In Canada a gunman shot a soldier as he stood on parade in Ottawa. And in January this year, two brothers murdered their way through the editorial staff of the magazine Charlie Hebdo and shot a policeman in the street as an acquaintance held a group of shoppers hostage in a Jewish supermarket.

And then there are the numerous other plots that did not involve guns, or those that were prevented from coming to fruition by alert authorities.

With strict gun controls, the UK has been fortunate in not having faced many such incidents. But authorities have considered and trained for the possibility, and armed response units are increasingly visible on our streets.

On the continent, individual member states have varied legislation around weapons, and the free movement of citizens between countries requiring ever-tighter cooperation between agencies whose default mode is secretive. Visit Brussels today and armed soldiers stand prominently on display in their camouflage outside most public buildings.

In many ways these displays are a signal of terrorist victory, a sign that we have had to militarize our response to a criminal justice problem at home. But the sad truth is that they reflect the reality of the current threat picture where a growing number of Europeans and young men globally have first hand experience of guns and a battlefield, while terrorist groups are exhorting them constantly to launch such attacks.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director, International Security Studies at RUSI and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists

After a period of silence, a couple of new pieces, the first for the CTC Sentinel, West Point’s excellent counter-terrorism journal. This one looks at the pernicious influence of al Muhajiroun, Anjem Choudhary and Omar Bakri Mohammed’s group across Europe. It is a subject a lot more could be written about, and the volume of information is simply massive, but at the same time there is only limited space here. The topic will become more relevant again when Anjem and Mizanur’s trial comes about, and maybe around then something else could be done on the topic.

Beyond this, had a few media conversations in the past weeks. Will save the ones around the incident at the weekend on the Thalys train for the next post, but I spoke to the South China Morning Post about the bombing in Bangkok and some Chinese terror arrests, the Telegraph about the death of the last of the Portsmouth cluster of British jihadi’s in Syria/Iraq, the Daily Mail about the plan to use soldiers in cases of emergency on UK streets, the Times about the death of Muhsin al Fadhli in Syria, and the New York Times for a large piece they did about ISIS recruitment in the UK.

Al-Muhajiroun’s European Recruiting Pipeline

August 21, 2015
Author(s): Raffaello Pantucci

On August 5, 2015 Anjem Choudary and Mizanur Rahman appeared in court to be charged and detained without bail. Initially arrested September 24, 2014, the men had been free on bail as investigators dug into their histories.[1] When the decision to formally arrest and charge was made, the Crown Prosecution Service charged the men with inviting ”support for a proscribed terrorist organization, namely ISIL, also known as ISIS or the Islamic State, contrary to section 12 Terrorism Act 2000.”[2] The specific charges seemed to crystallize a reality that was increasingly observable across Europe that the various groups associated with the al-Muhajiroun (ALM) constellation of organizations were at the heart of current European recruitment networks sending radicals to fight in Syria and Iraq.

A long-standing feature of Europe’s extremist landscape, the al-Muhajiroun family of organizations is one that has been linked to a variety of terrorist organizations. One survey of plots linked to the group in the UK concluded that of 51 incidents and plots emanating from the UK from the late 1990s until 2013, 23 were linked to the group.[3] Britain’s first known suicide bomber in Syria, Abdul Waheed Majid, had been a feature at group events since the 1990s.[4] A similar French organization Forsane Alizza was disbanded after Mohammed Merah’s murderous rampage in 2012, while one of their associates Oumar Diaby ended up heading a French brigade in Syria.[5] The group’s tentacles and links reach across the continent and are increasingly showing up at the sharper end of the terrorist threat that Europe is facing.

Al-Muhajiroun’s European History

Al-Muhajiroun (the emigrants) was born in Europe in February 1996 when Omar Bakri Mohammed Fostok (hereon Omar Bakri) was ejected from the organization Hizb ut Tahrir (HuT) in the UK. A long-term HuT activist, Omar Bakri arrived in the United Kingdom in 1984 having fled Saudi Arabia where his activities as an Islamist activist clashed with the state. In the UK he sought political asylum and soon rose to public prominence through his willingness to make provocative statements at any opportunity to any available media outlet.[6] The birth of ALM in 1996 was likely the product of this style of leadership and media management clashing with the traditionally low-key and secretive HuT. The founding of ALM unleashed Omar Bakri, with the group ramping up its provocative actions and organizing an International Islamic Conference on September 8, 1996 to which Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam, and many other jihadi leaders were purportedly invited. The event was cancelled at the last minute, though the publicity it generated in terms of media coverage and a documentary about Omar Bakri entitled “Tottenham Ayatollah” likely served the organization’s initial intent to attract attention.[7]

Present in the background of the documentary is Anjem Choudary, at the time a lawyer who was working as Omar Bakri’s assistant. Over time, his role evolved and in the wake of the London bombings of 2005, when Omar Bakri chose to flee the country,[8] Choudary took over as UK leader for the group. A few months prior to Omar Bakri’s departure, the group announced its dissolution in an attempt to get ahead of security services, with a series of sub-groups emerging largely reflecting the same ideology as ALM with Choudary effectively at the helm. In the wake of the attacks, British authorities focused on the group, adding the sub-groups to the proscribed terror list at various points and seeking greater powers to restrict their ability to operate. The group, however, has continued to operate with the leadership remaining fairly constant. This became most prominently visible in around 2009 when the group adopted the name Islam4Uk, which was proscribed a year or so later.

This style of nomenclature was soon seen replicated across Europe with Shariah4Belgium, Shariah4Holland, Shariah4Denmark, Shariah4Italy, Shariah4Finland, and even briefly Shariah4Poland. In France a group called Forsane Alizza (Knights of Pride) emerged as the local clone of the group (sometimes using Shariah4France) and in Germany Millatu Ibrahim (the religious community of Ibrahim, a name drawing on the title of a book by Muhammad al Maqdisi) took on the mantle. Millatu Ibrahim is a name that has since appeared in Norway, Holland, and Denmark as well). In Scandinavia, Profetens Ummah (the Umma of the Prophet) represents the ideology in Norway and Kadet til Islam (Call to Islam) is the lead group in Denmark.

All of these groups adopted a narrative and approach clearly modeled on ALM, and in many cases this was allegedly the product of direct contact and training by Choudary. For example, in March 2013, he visited Helsinki, Finland where he spoke alongside Awat Hamasalih, a British national of Kurdish origin from Birmingham, at an event organized by Shariah4Finland to celebrate the tenth anniversary of local Iraqi radical leader Mullah Krekar’s incarceration.[9] Choudary reciprocated this generous hosting, inviting Hamasalih to speak when he was back in the UK.[10]

This example of travel is representative of Choudary’s contacts with affiliate groups, and there are reports that he and other key ALM members travelled around Europe to support their events.[11] Similarly, there are reports that key individuals from regional affiliates have come to London. And there are multiple reports of Choudary (and Omar Bakri) preaching to supporters in Europe over PalTalk using web cameras and interactive online messaging.[12] Both Choudary and Mizanur Rahman  have also communicated extensively with supporters over Twitter.[13]

In terms of how Choudary sees his role with these groups, some clarity is provided in his supportive comments towards his Norwegian clone Profetens Ummah:

I have regular contact with Hussain and Ibraheem (two group leaders). There are no administrative links between us, but I am a mentor and adviser for them. There are many people who claim they represent Islam, but I see the Prophet’s Umma as one of the few voices in Europe that speak the truth about Islam without compromise.[14]

Choudary helped Profetens publish videos and develop a style to preach and call people to their radical brand of Islam.[15]

In other contexts people reached out to Choudary having heard about him in the press. Anas el-Abboubi was a young man born in Morocco who moved to Italy when he was young. An up-and-coming rapper, he was featured on MTV Italia as one to watch under his rap nom-de-music MC Khalif. This lifestyle, however, seemed unappealing to him and instead he was drawn to violent Islamist ideas and began an online conversation with Choudary over social media in which he asked for his advice about how he could advance radical ideas in Italy. El-Abboubi also participated in PalTalk sessions led by the group’s creator Omar Bakri and he bought plane tickets to visit the Shariah4Belgium group who he had also connected with online.

Soon after this, el-Abboubi established Shariah4Italy, a short-lived organization that seemed to flourish and shrink with its founder.[16] By October 2013 he fled Italy to join the Islamic State along a route that took him through Albania. The degree of influence that Choudary had over his decision-making process is unclear from the public domain, but it is clear that he and ALM had some influence over the young man, something exemplified by his establishing of Shariah4Italy despite a background in Italy that was largely detached from extremist ideologies and groups.

The Current Picture

There increasingly appears to be a consensus across European security agencies that Choudary’s group plays a role in networks that provide new recruits to fight in Syria and Iraq. In both the 2013 and 2014 TE-SAT Terrorism Situation and Trends report issued by Europol, the agency depicted  “al-Muhajiroun and its latest incarnation the Sharia4 movement” as being a driver for people to go and fight in Syria and Iraq.[17] Watching a pan-European trend, Europol observed:

some salafist individuals and groups in the EU, such as the Sharia4 movement, seem to have heeded the advice of prominent jihadist ideologues to stop their controversial public appearances in Europe….instead, they have been encouraged to participate in what these ideologues describe as a ‘jihad’ against un-Islamic rule in Muslim countries.[18]

There is further evidence of Omar Bakri playing an active role in helping people go fight in Syria. This is evident in the case of Shariah4Belgium,[19] a clone established in 2010 after Fouad Belkacem, a Moroccan-Belgian who had served some time in prison for theft and fraud, came to the UK to learn about how “to start something in Belgium.” Drawn to the bright light of Choudary’s celebrity, Belkacem listened as the established Briton “went through the history of ALM, how we set it up.”[20] The Belgian took the lessons to heart and returned to establish a similarly confrontational organization back home. Choudary and others were occasional visitors and both Choudary and ALM “godfather” Omar Bakri would provide online classes for the group in Belgium.[21]

In 2011, one of Shariah4Belgium’s core members left Belgium to seek out their mentor Omar Bakri in Lebanon. Now formally excluded from the United Kingdom by the Home Secretary, Omar Bakri continued to draw journalists and radicals from across the world. Nabil Kasmi was one of these young men, arriving in Lebanon as the conflict in Syria was catching fire. He returned to Belgium a few months later, but then in March 2012 headed off to the Levant again, this time going through Lebanon to Syria.[22]

At around the same time, another group associated with Shariah4Belgium were intercepted traveling to Yemen on suspicion of trying to join a terrorist group. Nabil Kasmi’s success, however, highlighted the options offered by the conflict in Syria.[23] In August he returned to Europe, only to leave again on August 20, this time followed days later by a cluster of some five members from the group who all ended up fighting with the Islamic State in Syria.[24] Over time, more and more of the group went to Syria, drawing on their Belgian and other European contacts from the broad ALM family of organizations. The exact numbers are unclear, but it is believed that at least 50 Belgian fighters in Syria and Iraq have roots in Shariah4Belgium.[25]

One of the few who failed to travel to Syria or Iraq was Fouad Belkacem, who was instead jailed in February 2015 for 12 years for recruiting and radicalizing people to go fight in Syria and Iraq.[26] On trial with another 47 people (the majority of which failed to appear in court as they were believed to be fighting or dead in the Levant), Belkacem’s trial seemed to be the capstone in the story of ALM’s European links to the battlefield in Syria and Iraq.

European Plotting?

What is not yet completely clear is the degree to which these networks are ones that are producing terrorist plots back in Europe. There are growing numbers of plots being disrupted in Europe with links to the battlefield in Syria and Iraq, though it remains uncertain whether these are being directed by the Islamic State or other groups from their safe haven in Syria and Iraq. Some plots, like that in Verviers, Belgium and at least one of those in the UK, are reported by authorities to show clear evidence of connections to the battlefield, but the nature of these links remains somewhat opaque.[27]

Looking to the ALM-associated networks across Europe, it remains unclear the degree to which they have thus far been credibly associated with attack planning. Reports around the January raid in Verviers, suggested some possible linkages (especially given the timing near Fouad Belkacem’s trial), but they have yet to be confirmed publicly.[28]

What has been seen, however, is the emergence of lone actor-style terrorism on the periphery of the group’s networks. A case in point is that of Brusthom Ziamani in the UK. Ziamani was a troubled teenager who sought out Anjem Choudary and his friends as a surrogate family. Having tried to ingratiate himself with the group and even considering travel to Syria, Ziamani instead decided to emulate his heroes Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale and their murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in 2013. Taking a knife, axe, and Islamist flag, Ziamani was planning on butchering a member of the security forces before police intercepted him.[29] He was convicted of attempted murder and plotting to commit a terrorist act, and sentenced to 27 years incarceration.[30] There is no clear evidence that Ziamani told Choudary what he was going to do, but Ziamani’s case has been championed by ALM-associated Twitter accounts in the UK.[31]

In contrast, on the battlefield, individuals associated with ALM- related organizations appear in a number of both prominent and less high-profile roles. Reflecting their preference for noisy self-promotion and in-your-face dawa (proselytization), many are active on social media. One particularly prominent figure in this regard was Rahin Aziz, who fled to Syria after being sought in conjunction with an assault on a football fan in the UK. In Syria he quickly aligned himself with the Islamic State, and started to actively post across social media platforms. Among images to emerge were ones of him posing with weapons with Denis Cuspert, a prominent member of the German al-Mujahiroun linked group Millatu Ibrahim.[32]

For Aziz, the connection to ALM was instrumental in helping him build his networks in Syria and Iraq, as well as highlighting how interconnected the community across Europe was. In a conversation over Twitter he reported:

when I came to sham the amount of brothers from other countries who recognized me and agreed n even said were by us….what we did with demos etc aided the jihad, global awareness etc which motivated many to go fight jihad.[33]

Prior to going to the Levant, he reported going to:

Belgium many times, delivered lectures and me met from Europe there….many 3-4 times….France twice….Holland where we took part in a conference about khilafah…I knew the brothers from Germany….Their ameer abu usama al Ghareeb contacted me when he came out of prison….he asked me to do some videos for them….met Denmark guys in Belgium even in UK they came to visit us.[34]

It was a network fostered in Europe maturing and re-networking on the battlefield in the Levant.

Others seem to have taken to the battlefield to undertake activities largely similar to those they were carrying out previously in the United Kingdom. For example, Siddartha Dhar, a Hindu convert also known as Abu Rumaysah, was arrested alongside Anjem Choudary in September 2014. However, unlike his teacher, he took his passport and jumped on a bus to Paris with his pregnant wife and family, the first leg in a journey that ended with him living under the Islamic State a month later. In typical ALM style, Dhar decided to alert authorities to his presence through the posting of a photo of himself holding an AK-47 in one hand and his newborn baby in the other. Since then, Dhar has periodically re-emerged on Twitter and other social media, and in May 2015 became prominent once again when a book was published under his kunya (jihadi name) about life under the Islamic State.[35]

These are only a few of the men and women to have gone to join the Islamic State from the ALM networks. Exact numbers are difficult to know, but certainly from the UK alone, more than a dozen prominent individuals from these networks have gone over, while others have attempted to go. What remains worrying is that there continues to be a community of activists associated with these groups who are seeking to go fight in Syria and Iraq, and also that the pool of support in Europe remains fairly constant.

One illustration of this is that in the wake of the reports of Rahin Aziz’s death in a U.S. strike, a sweet shop in East London issued candies celebrating his martyrdom and a vigil was held for him that appeared to show a few dozen people praying in his honor.[36] A few days later, three men were arrested in the Luton area.[37] One was released while the other two (an uncle and nephew) were charged with plotting to carry out a terrorist attack in the UK intended to attack and kill military personnel.[38] Some reports suggested the plot was an attempted beheading of a U.S. serviceperson in revenge for Aziz’s death.[39] Details are unclear, though the men were allegedly also attempting to go to the Islamic State, and the case is working its way through the courts and is likely to come to trial in 2016.[40]

Conclusion

The arrest and charging of Anjem Choudary and his principal acolyte Mizanur Rahman is a significant moment in ALM’s history. The group has developed from its early days when London was a center of jihadist thinking with ALM at its core, drawing in radicals from across Europe and around the world. Since the prominence ALM achieved in the late 2000s, it has now become a net exporter organization around Europe, still drawing people to London, but then also watching as they return home to establish affiliate networks and communities. This European generation of ALM supporters is increasingly proving to be at the heart of Europe’s radical Islamist community connected with Islamic State and the conflict in Syria and Iraq. Given the volumes of plots that have emerged from these networks in the past in the United Kingdom in particular, it seems likely that similar problems are likely to emerge from the European ALM networks.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists (UK: Hurst/US: Oxford University Press). You can follow him at @raffpantucci.

[1] In March 2014, Choudary and other ALM activists had been identified in a set of protests in London clearly inspired by the Islamic State. Dipesh Gadher, “Preacher Anjem Choudary investigated over ‘road show’ linked to jihadists,” Sunday Times, March 9, 2014 .

[2] Statement by Metropolitan Police, August 5, 2015 .

[3] Dominic Kennedy, “Radical al-Muhajiroun group is behind most UK terror plots,” Times, March 21, 2015.

[4] Morten Storm, Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, Agent Storm: A Spy Inside al-Qaeda, (London: Penguin, March 2015), p. 334.

[5] Olivier Tocser, “Les Secrets d’un Emir,” Le Nouvel Observateur, March 20, 2014.

[6] Memorably on November 12, 1991 he told The Mail on Sunday: “‘John Major [then Prime Minister] is a legitimate target. If anyone gets the opportunity to assassinate him, I don’t think they should save it. It is our Islamic duty and we will celebrate his death.”

[7] The documentary is available online, and was recounted in a chapter in Jon Ronson, Them (London: Picador, 2001). Ronson was also the director of the documentary.

[8] “Cleric Bakri ‘will return’ to UK,” BBC News, August 9, 2005.

[9] Mullah Krekar, the founder of the Ansar al Islam movement that was involved in fighting in Iraq, is an infamous radical preacher with whom Choudary has developed a link. Laura Helminen, “Radical Muslim Preacher Spoke in Helsinki,” Helsingin Sanomat, March 13, March 28, 2013.

[10]. In January 2015, authorities in Finland sought to eject Hamasalih. According to coverage around this time, Hamasalih, in contrast to most Kurds, was not seeking nationhood with his activity, but instead “his goal [was] jihad, an Islamic caliphate, and sharia, the law of Islam”  as the local newspaper said. Anu Nousiainen: “Finland Expelled Radical Extremist From Turku to UK – ‘Serious Threat to Public Security,’” Helsingin Sanomat, January 15, 2015.

[11] See Ben Taub, “Journey to Jihad,” New Yorker, June 1, 2015.

[12] Shortly prior to their arrest, Rahman and Choudary (alongside others), made a PalTalk video in which they answered questions from an American audience. Similar videos have been made for European audiences.

[13] There has been no comprehensive mapping of ALM’s online links and contacts, but almost all of the prominent members (in Syria and Iraq or back in Europe) have accounts and numerous others who aspire to be involved in these groups’ proselytization create accounts that are very similar. The best sense of outreach and effectiveness of this online contact is suggested in the fact that Choudary has 32.9K followers on Twitter, while Rahman has 29K. Of course, number of followers does not equate to contact and influence, but both are very active online and respond to people’s questions and contacts.

[14] Andreas Bakke Foss, “British Extremist Calls Himself a Mentor for Norwegian Islamists,” Aftenposten, March 3, 2013.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Lorenzo Vidino, Home-Grown Jihadism in Italy: Birth, Development and Radicalization Dynamics, (Milan: Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale, 2015), pp. 63-67.

[17] European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2014, (The Hague: Europol, 2014), p. 21.

[18] Ibid, p.23.

[19] Paul Cruickshank, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Interview with Alain Grignard,”  CTC Sentinel,  8:8 (August, 2015).

[20] Taub.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] J. La. Avec Belga, “Sharia4Belgium qualifie de groupe terroriste, 12 ans de prison pour Fouad Belkacem,” La Libre, February 11, 2015.

[27] Paul Cruickshank, Steve Almasy, and Deborah Feyerick, “Source: Belgium terror cell has links to ISIS, some members still at large,” CNN, January 17, 2015.

[28] “Aantal radicalen in Wallonie wordt onderschat,” Het Laatste Nieuws, January 16, 2015.

[29] Tom Whitehead, “Brusthom Ziamani: the former Jehovah’s Witness who was radicalised within weeks,” Telegraph, February 19, 2015; Prosecution Opening Note, Regina vs. Brusthom Ziamani, Central Criminal Court, February 9. 2015.

[30] Regina vs Brusthom Ziamani, Sentencing Remarks of HHJ Pontius, Central Criminal Court, March 20, 2015.

[31] Tweet from @muslimprisoners, January 5, 2015 3:06pm

[32] Also known as Deso Dogg or Abu Talha al-Almani, Cuspert was a prominent German former rap star turned jihadi and activist for German ALM equivalent Millatu Ibrahim. He was one of several Miltatu Ibrahim figures to travel Syria. The Austrian founder of the group Mohammed Mahmoud was one of Cuspert’s close contacts. Mahhmoud left home aged 17 in 2002 to train in an Ansar al-Islam camp in Iraq. After his return to Europe he played a major role in the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF), a source for non-Arabic language translations of jihadi material. In 2007 he was arrested by authorities, leading to a four year jail sentence. On his release he moved to Berlin and founded Millatu Ibrahim, which rapidly became the center of Germany’s Salafi scene. In 2012 he fled to Egypt before becoming a senior figure in the insurgency in Syria. He  is now considered one of the most senior figures in the German and European foreign fighter contingent, helping produce the Islamic State propaganda magazine Dabiq and al-Hayat media center releases. He is believed to continue to draw on his ALM-linked European contacts to recruit. See “In Search of ‘True’ Islam: Salafists Abandon Germany for Egypt,” Der Spiegel, August 13, 2002; Souad Mekhennet, “Austrian Returns, Unrepentant, to Online Jihad,” New York Times, November 15, 2011; Petra Ramsauer, “Mohamed Mahmoud: A Holy Warrior’s Book,” Profil, August 17, 2015.

[33] Author archive: Twitter conversation between Secunder Kermani and Rahin Aziz.

[34] Author archive: Twitter conversation between Secunder Kermani and Rahin Aziz.

[35] “New Brit propaganda guide by Brit sells ‘Costa’ caliphate,” Channel 4, May 19, 2015.

[36] Tweet with pictures by @TawheedNetwrk July 8, 2015 4:41pm

[37] “Three in terror-related arrests in Luton and Letchworth,” BBC News, July 14, 2015.

[38] “Man charged with US military terrorist plot,” Sky News, July 21, 2015.

[39] Mike Sullivan, “Foiled: British terror attacks in days,” Sun, July 14, 2015.

[40] “Man charged with US military terrorist plot,” Sky News, July 21, 2015.

A new brief reaction piece for my home institute RUSI looking at some of the current trends in ISIS and jihadism. My preference is to use ISIS, but it appears as though the institutional choice is Daesh. Undoubtedly more on this topic to come. In the meantime, I have been doing book promotion events around town, thanks to those who have hosted me and am looking forward to future ones. For those interested, here is me talking to the Henry Jackson Society. I am going to be at the Bradford Literature Festival this weekend, the Hay Festival on the 31st May, and the Lewes Festival on July 18th. And hopefully more of those to come! Please also feel free to leave comments on Amazon about the book should you read it!
The Texas Attack: An Expression of Daesh’s Reach
RUSI Analysis, 11 May 2015 | By Raffaello Pantucci, Director of International Security Studies
The jihadist movement known as Daesh has claimed responsibility for the aborted attack on an art contest in Texas. But other than shared motives, there are hardly anyreal  linkages. Overreaction and misreading of the threat will merely play into their hands.
Garland Shooting Perpetrators 2015

The claim by Daesh (or ISIS, as it is also known as) of some connection and responsibility for the attempted attack on Sunday 3 May 2015 in Texas is credible. While it is unlikely that the senior leadership within the group tasked the American pair or saw the event in Texas as a globally significant target, it is perfectly possible that it will emerge that the two men had at least some online connection to the group and were spurred into action by a combination of this contact and the group’s regular exhortations to its followers to launch attacks in the West.

At the same time, it is not clear that this is in any way an expression of the beginning of a campaign by the group to launch terrorist attacks outside its territory or that we need to worry about Daesh anymore now than before. Rather, Daesh continues to show itself to be an opportunistically canny organisation that is able to read global trends and stoke public debates at the right moment to maximise their apparent reach and power.

The threat picture for the immediate future is likely to be a continuing pattern of similar attacks, alongside a continuing potential menace of more classically directed terrorist cells. This seemingly enhanced threat, however, has to be kept in perspective and care needs to be paid not to overreact. A measured response will help deal with the problem in the longer term, while an exaggerated response will only fuel it.

Daesh Going Out?

Daesh remains a primarily Middle Eastern focused organisation, intent on growing and consolidating its territorial gains in Iraq and Syria. At the same time, over the past few months there has been an increasing level of connectivity and interaction between its core in Mosul/Raqqa and its regional Wilayats (provincial governorates) in Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan and Yemen. The degree of strength of these regional connections is not always clear, though looking at the Libyan case in particular, it is clear that there is some strong link between the centre and what is happening in that country in terms of ideology, means and direction.

A series of attacks on foreign targets in Tripoli, grim beheading videos being done to a schedule dictated from Syria/Iraq and stories of fighters and money flowing from the Levant to Libya point to something more than just an ideological affiliation.

In Egypt, Afghanistan and Yemen at least there is some evidence of ideological and possibly individual, but less clear is the degree to which this is a strong flow with much direction, rather than exploratory links. On the purely aspirational end of the scale, there is the link to Boko Haram – an organisation that has shown itself to be even more opportunistic than Daesh and has proclaimed links to Al-Qa’ida and others repeatedly over the years with little tangible evidence of much by way of strong connections.

In parallel to this there has been the growth in inspired and instigated attacks in the lone actor model: plots undertaken by individuals or small cells lacking any clear command and control from an outside organisation. Choosing soft targets that can broadly be captured under the aegis of the global struggle between Islam and the West, these individuals get caught up in the fervour and hysteria around Daesh and launch attacks at home in the West under their own direction.

Some cases appear to demonstrate links back to Syria (like Mehdi Nemmouche in Brussels) some may be reacting to travel restrictions (like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau in Ottawa), while others appear  simply to be attracted by the allure and hysteria of the group (like the spate of incidents in France late last year or Man Haroun Monis in Australia). For some of these individuals, Daesh’s narrative is simply the loudest in the public conversation for them to draw on.

Lone actor or copy-cat, whichever model it is, Daesh can subsequently claim it or praise the incident and appear as though it is somehow responsible for a global wave of terror.

Extensions of longer-term trends

In reality, both trends are extensions of what has been going on with jihadist terrorism for the past few years. Since around 2010 al Qaeda core’s capability and links globally have shrunk as the group’s ideology has increasingly found that the local causes that it would parasitically attach itself to increasingly moved towards advancing their own more local agendas rather than the group’s global directives. When launching attacks, regional affiliates would still use the jihadist rhetoric and targeting choices, but it was increasingly hard to see strong levels of command and control from the core. There were of course exceptions to this like Yemen where AQAP retains a strong core following loyal to the movement’s globalist perspective. But for the most part regional affiliate groups increasingly drifted away from the core’s orbit as Al-Qa’ida’s remnant leadership spent its time hiding from drones in Pakistan’s hinterlands.

The result has been a fracturing of the global jihadist movement operating under Al-Qa’ida’s ideological banner. As leaders have been killed, it has led to groups splintering into different factions. Furthermore, with a weakened core, regional affiliates have shifted in their targeting and intent back towards their own regions. In launching attacks they will still choose international targets as these bring attention and appear to be part of a global cause. Often, however, the degree to which they have been directed from the core is limited. Examples include the In Amenas attack in Algeria by an off-shoot of AQIM, or the al Shabaab linked attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.

Into this fractured scene steps Daesh, offering a more hardline ideology, a new leader claiming to be Amir al Mu’mineen (commander of the faithful) who commands a territory he declares a Caliphate. Here is a narrative of success that stands in contrast to Al-Qa’ida’s declining fortunes. This quickly offers an appealing alternate power base that becomes the opposite pole to the current established jihadist narrative directed by Al-Qa’ida and draws in many of the disaffected and detached affiliate groups. Daesh appeal to them is not necessarily the ideology of the group, but rather the fact the group offers an alternate expression and successful banner to the status quo for them to attach themselves to.

The lone actor phenomenon is also not one that Daesh can claim stake to owning. Lone actor plots started to emerge in 2007/2008 (arguably Bilal Abdulla and Kafeel Ahmed’s attempted double bombing in London and Glasgow in 2007 was an early expression demonstrating no level of direction by a group, though some connectivity to terrorist networks in Iraq), and have been an increasingly regular feature of the terrorist threat picture since then. In 2010 Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) sought to try to harness the growing wave of such attacks and spur them further on through Inspire magazine and its ideology of ‘just do it’ attacks and ‘open source jihad’ that made jihadi terrorism accessible and actionable by everybody.

But there was little tangible evidence the magazine did much more than stoke fires that were already burning. The magazine became a staple feature of terrorism investigations. A growing number of plotters tried to build bombs to the magazines design and in online forums extremists increasingly talked proudly of being ‘lone wolves.’ But the trend towards this type of terrorism was underway prior to the magazine and there has been little clear evidence that the magazine can be singularly blamed for any specific plot.

Daesh has merely taken this strategy to the next level through its active promotion of the idea of such attacks through speeches, magazines and increasingly through individual fighters who connect through social media to the aspirant keyboard warriors who have not chosen to make the trip to the Levant, but seek it out instead online. By creating more noise around the idea of such attacks, they become more attractive and the group creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in its narrative.

This results in more people hearing it and more disaffected folk concluding that if they want to make themselves heard (for whatever reason) then Daesh’s ideology is the one to attach themselves to. All of this needs to be borne in mind against the backdrop that the ideology of violent Islamist inspired terrorism as one of the dominant global anti-establishment ideologies of the moment. Previously disaffected folk might be drawn to other movements, Al-Qa’ida or Daesh are now the alternative global movement. Again, rather than creating something new, Daesh (and Al-Qa’ida before it), have simply harnessed and attempted to spur on a trend that was already underway.

The Danger of Over-reaction

The importance of understanding the proper roots of these trends is to mitigate against the dangers of overreaction to them. If the Western reaction to the attack in Texas (and other future possible attacks) is to attack the organisation in a large fashion involving deployed armies and forces, this will have exactly the effect the group is likely hoping for.

An overreaction draws it into more direct conflict with the West making it both seem more powerful than it is, showing it able to stand up and fight directly with the world’s superpowers. It feeds into the group’s narrative of where it stands in the world and helps it become more important than it really is.

Instead, the focus needs to be on fixing the underlying reasons behind the contexts where the group’s ideology is able to take root. In Syria this means finding ways of bringing the brutal civil war to a close. In Iraq it involves building a participatory government so that the country’s Sunni’s do not look to groups like Daesh as defenders. In Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan and Egypt it involves solving local problems that will help reduce the space in which the group is able to permeate.

And in the West, it involves engaging with people who are so disaffected from societies that they feel they want to rebel violently against them. None of this is easy, and for Western government’s to succeed the reality is they need to target limited resources on specific countries abroad in a global division of labour, and at home need to find ways of developing grass roots programmes to engage with specific individuals who are drifting towards extremist ideologies. But key to making sure that we do not prolong this problem any longer than it needs to be is a clear understanding of the nature of the threat that is faced.

A new piece with former colleague Laura looking at the phenomenon of criminals showing up on the battlefield in Syria. More on the topic of foreign fighters from Europe in the near future – including something longer that will eventually land! Thanks to the Airey Neave Trust for their generous support of this work.

Thick As Thieves: European Criminals Take to Syria’s Battlefield

RUSI Analysis, 31 Mar 2014 | By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

Individuals with known criminal histories are a surprisingly common feature of the current Syrian battlefield. While their motives may be a combination of redemption and opportunism, returnees in this mode pose a complicated threat picture for security services to process if they return.

By Raffaello Pantucci and Laura Dawson

Syria Report

Since the conflict began in 2011, Syria has become a magnet for European foreign fighters. Determining exact numbers is an imprecise science, but the most recent alarming figure to emerge in the UK is the anonymous government claim that some 250 British fighters are now back on UK shores having experienced the battlefield.

Although there is no single profile of those who decide to leave their homes to join the fighting in Syria, an interesting feature is the seemingly high proportion of individuals with criminal pasts who are appearing on the battlefield. This is an aspect of particular concern to security services since it gives them access to criminal networks for whom weapons are easier to obtain, helping them climb over a crucial hurdle when putting together a terrorist plot.

Hardened Criminals and Low Level Jihadists

There are three broad criminal profiles seen among those travelling to Syria: those with a history of petty crime; those who have been incarcerated for extremist Islamist behaviour; and career criminals.

Petty criminals are amongst the most common feature of the battlefield in Syria. 23-year-old Ali Almanasfi was born into a Syrian family in West London and had a troubled childhood involving gangs, theft, drug and alcohol abuse. His father – a bus driver originally from Syria – had sent Almanasfi back to Syria in an attempt to change his behaviour.

In 2009, however, Almanasfi was arrested and sentenced to prison after he attacked an older man while drunk. He was initially sent to Feltham Young Offenders institution, a prison that has had the leader of the 21/7 London bomb plot cell, Muktar Said Ibrahim and Shoe Bomber Richard Reid pass through its gates. It is believed that it was in prison that he grew religious, and in January 2013, he left for Syria.

Falsely believed to have died in May after Syrian security services showed images of a mangled body and his (previously lost) passport, Almanasfi was last heard from in June when he confirmed he had fought with the Ahrar Shaam brigade of fighters under the Islamic Front umbrella organisation.

Others draw on their criminal pasts to fund their travel to Syria. Last September, five Frenchmen – including one who claimed to have recently returned from Syria – stole €2500 from a fast-food restaurant in Paris to fund their travel to Syria. Choukri Ellekhlifi, a 22-year-old Londoner was alleged to have funded his travels to Syria by mugging people in London’s affluent Belgravia with a taser-style gun. His fellow mugger, 21-year-old Mohamed ElyasseTaleouine, is currently serving a ten-year sentence in part for possession of a converted 9mm machine gun and 24 rounds of live ammunition. Ellekhlifi was sentenced in absentia to 6 years in prison but escaped to Syria when on bail. He went on to fight with Jabhat al-Nusra and was eventually killed in an August 2013 battle against pro-Assad forces.

In addition to petty criminals, Europeans with Islamist-related arrests have also appeared in Syria. The 23-year-old Mohammed el-Araj (who trained in Syria alongside Choukri Ellekhlifi) from Notting Hill was the second Briton confirmed dead in Syria in mid-August last year. A mechanical engineering student, el-Araj served 18 months of a two-year sentence in prison for violently protesting outside the Israeli embassy in London in 2009. Others arrested alongside him at the protest later died in Somalia alongside al Shabaab.

In some ways most alarming, however, is the presence of hardened criminals on the battlefield. Danish Abderrozak Benarabe was the leader of the recently disbanded, notorious Blågårdsgade gang, commonly known as ‘Big A’. In 2006 he was acquitted of hiring two hit men to kill five others and instead charged with aggravated assault and blackmail, serving four and a half years in prison. After his release, he traveled to Syria accompanied by a journalist to apply his skills in a war setting before returning again to Denmark. He is currently in custody on more recent charges of assault and robbery.

Coming Home

Some of these fighters will die in battle in Syria,or stay out in the region. Hundreds, however, are returning home where in some cases they are returning to criminal activity. Two Dutch returnees from Syria who are understood to have been involved in youth criminal gangs prior to their travel were part of a five-person cell arrested last month for planning an armed robbery in the Netherlands. Genc Selimi, a 19-year-old Kosovar, was one of the six arrested for plotting a terrorist attack on a major European city after he returned from a stint in Syria. Prior to leaving for the conflict, he had been arrested in 2012 for gun possession. A number of other, less public, cases have emerged in the UK of fighters in Syria with already strong connections to hardened criminals who have already flirted with radical ideas and had access to weaponry, though so far it is unclear whether these have translated into plots. In some cases, there is evidence thatthese connections providing useful logistical support for those trying to leave. The one plot that has publicly emerged in any detail in the UK is the cell that had allegedly come back with plans to launch a Mumbai-style attack, though it is unclear that they had secured any weapons.

The terror-crime nexus is not a new one. People with criminal pasts are often drawn to extremist ideologies as a way of atoning for past sins, though often they donot leave their pasts completely behind. But the high instance of people going to Syria with criminal pasts of every sort adds a further worrying dimension to the phenomenon of foreign fighters going to Syria.

RUSI is grateful for the support of the Airey Neave Trust in its work on foreign fighters and Syria

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.

Another piece for my institutional home RUSI, this time looking at the recently concluded case of Pavlo Lapshyn, the Ukrainian one-man terror wave who terrorised Muslim communities in the Black Country. A bit of controversy around this case given how little attention it got compared to Woolwich, for example, but at the same time, the connectivity of violent Islamists does make them a different sort of threat – at least at the moment. However, the right-wing (or people drawing from a right-leaning ideology), has long been an issue boiling in the background in the UK and elsewhere in Europe but that mostly attracts attention amongst a smaller community. For a close examination of Breivik in the context of Lone Actor terrorism, I would highlight an earlier piece I wrote for Perspectives on Terrorism, an approach I may return to with Lapshyn. In other terrorism related news, I did interviews with Channel 4 and DW around the Anas al Libi arrest, NBC about the deteriorating situation in Syria, Sunday Times about foreign fighters going to Syria, and then Sunday Times, Daily Mail and ITV about al Shabab links to the UK.

From Ukraine with Hate: What Pavlo Lapshyn Conviction Says About the Far-Right Extremism

RUSI Analysis, 25 Oct 2013

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow, Counter-Terrorism

Far-right extremist Pavlo Lapshyn has today been imprisoned for murdering a Muslim man and attempting to bomb mosques. The incident highlights that violent Islamists are not the only ones willing to murder in advance of a political ideology.

Pavlo Lapshyn

There is a tendency in the United Kingdom and elsewhere to equate international terrorism with Islamist terrorism.This week’s conviction of Pavlo Lapshyn highlighted how the right-wing has also internationalised. A sometimes overlooked threat, Lapshyn’s activity in Birmingham highlights how the extreme right wing (XRW in security parlance) has also become less predictable and internationally footloose. The case shows how the full range of counter-terrorism actors and tools need to be deployed to respond to the threat posed by extreme political violence and race hate actors.  The extreme right wing is not someone else’s problem and needs a coherent response.

Prioritisation of the Far Right

The rationale behind the lower prioritisation of far-right terrorism is long-standing. Individuals featured in cases often appear of limited capability and in some instance may be ‘low functioning’ individuals.  As the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson QC noted in July 2013 with regard to the extreme right wing threat; Political views are often overlaid with mental health issues, personality disorder, criminality and social isolation: this should dictate caution in the use of terrorism-specific powers.

In one sense security actors may need to be creative rather than cautious with the  use of legislation in tackling the extreme right wing threat.  It is fair to say many extreme right wing cases do not meet the threshold for investigation under terrorism legislation.  However, many such actors have a fascination with firearms; and UK police forces have a solid track record in prosecuting these people under the Firearms Acts as well as using racially aggravated public order legislation when appropriate. Moreover in 2012 there were five arrests under terrorism legislation in relation to extreme right wing activity and one 15-year-old, Gary Walton, was charged and convicted of two TA 2000 section 58 offences.

Aside from a couple of exceptions,whilst they may have had the intent to conduct large scale terrorist campaigns leading to much loss of life, extreme right wing subjects have had neither the capability or ‘knowledge networks’ of Islamist extremists. Often lone operators, many extreme right wing actors have been  interdicted prior to being able to conduct terrorist acts thanks to attracting the attention of authorities through poor operational security or through criminal activity: Martyn Gilleard,  was identified after an investigation into paedophilic material, andTerence Gavan’s ‘bomb and weapons factory’ was uncovered subsequent to an investigation into illegal firearms. Both cases highlight the nexus between criminality and the far right as well as the lack of operational competence of some of those drawn to right-wing ideology.

Having said this, the Gilleard and Gavan cases potentially suggest that the authorities are reliant on lucky breaks rather than in-depth strategic understanding to tackle the threat.  This may be changing.  As David Anderson’s report notes: ‘Following the Breivik incident, MI5 in conjunction with the police National Domestic Extremist Unit [NDEU] has assessed and prioritised the XRW threat in such a way as to improve their understanding of it.

This review is timely.  And the extreme right wing threat is real and sustained.  We forget at our peril that the UK has suffered from effective and lethal home grown far right terrorists. Most prominently, in April 1999 David Copeland launched a one-man terror campaign involving nail bombs placed London locations symbolising British diversity, killing 3 and injuring 139. Since then, numerous individuals have been arrested at early, incipient stages of attack planning. The 2010 Prevent review noted at least 17 people serving prison sentences in the UK for terrorism related offences who are known to be linked to far-right groups, though none of these groups are proscribed. Pavlo Lapshyn is the first to successfully conduct a murderous campaign of this nature in the UK since David Copeland, the London Nail Bomber. Within a European context, Lapshyn comes in the wake of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian who in July 2011 killed 77 and injured 319 in a one-man terror wave in Norway.

Predictably Unpredictable?

Ideologically speaking, both Breivik and Lapshyn draw from the far-right narrative that blames foreigners and particularly Muslims for many of Europe’s current troubles. But in reflecting the complexity of this newly emergent right-leaning threat, one sees that both chose very different targets with the same objective of sewing societal discord. In Breivik’s case, he chose to target the government and the ruling political party, killing a cross-section of Norwegian society affiliated with the then ruling Labour Party. Lapshyn instead selected a random Muslim individual in Small Heath, Birmingham and left explosive devices near mosques in Walsall, Wolverhampton and Tipton.  Potentially strategic targeting versus opportunistic targeting and both expressing themselves in ways that are very hard to predict.

It is fair to say Lapshyn does not fit the template of a UK based extreme right wing terrorist. Unlike other far-right activists in the UK, he was gainfully employed as a student on a government supported scholarship. He had only arrived in the UK five days prior to conducting his initial attack against Mr Mohammed Saleem and was not apparently overtly racist or in contact with far-right groups. There is little about his profile that would have immediately attracted security and intelligence agencies’ attention. A lone actor, it took considerable time for officers to piece together Lapshyn’s movements and ultimately identify him. Security conscious Lapshyn reportedly asked arresting officers ‘How did you find me? Was it the CCTV? ‘

The lone actor phenomenon is typical of the far right, where a premium is placed ideologically on individuals gathering weaponry and preparing for a race war. Initially borne from the thinking of individuals like Ulius Amoss and Louis Beam, the principle behind lone actor terrorism in a right-wing context is a survivalist response to an overwhelming invading force. Individuals are encouraged to undertake activity by themselves and using their own wits and direction, rather than rely on others.

All of which makes the already difficult job of intelligence agencies even harder. From individuals who do not disclose their intentions and avoid indicative activity, targeting locations and people in a randomised fashion, unpredictability is the only predictable feature of competent extreme right lone actor terrorists.

Developing a Richer International Picture

However, in both of the Breivik and Lapshyn cases, there is some evidence of preceding indicators. Breivik had attempted to purchase chemicals online from Poland that set off an intelligence tripwire in Norway, while Lapshyn seems to have previously encountered authorities in Ukraine after an explosion in his flat. By themselves these incidents may not have been enough of a trigger to cross the threshold to warrant investigation, but they demonstrate that these individuals are not completely off the radar. Both men crossed European borders, offering a further possible tripwire, suggesting that European authorities might want to better coordinate their activities in countering the right wing.

A key lesson to be drawn from the incident is that Islamist terrorists are not the only ones to cross borders and conduct successful terrorist incidents. It remains to be seen whether Lapshyn’s case is merely an outlier or the start of a trend (or perhaps the start of a pattern of outliers?).  Nonetheless given the increasing traction across Europe of the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim narratives that himself and Breivik ascribed to, it would not unsurprising if this is a phenomenon that European police, security and intelligence agencies find themselves facing with increasing frequency. And while the acts themselves may appear random, the cumulative strategic objective of exacerbating social tensions does have the potential to undermine stability and security.

More for my institutional home RUSI as I use August to catch up on longer pieces of writing I owe. This looks at the increasingly studied question of foreign fighters, one that we are currently a specific research project on. Results due later in the year! Oh and for those who want to hear me babbling away about terrorism with John Amble and Robin Simcox for the new War on the Rocks, listen here.

How Might Syria Come Back to the UK?

RUSI Analysis, 0 Aug 2013By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow, Counter-Terrorism
al-mazwagi Syria foreign fighter

British citizen Ibrahim al-Mazwagi killed earlier in the year

The ongoing intractable civil war in Syria has become a magnet for foreign fighters of every stripe. Unlike previous jihadist battlefields that have drawn foreigners in, however, this has not so far produced a terrorist threat back in the West. This is not same regionally. Across the border in Jordan, a terrorist network with connections to the battlefield has been disrupted, while in Iraq,Lebanon and Turkey, bombs have gone off with return addresses in Syria. The question now preoccupying European policymakers in particular is whether the pipeline of European nationals going to fight on the battlefield in Syria may eventually transform into a similar set of incidents in Europe.

The first thing to understand is how we have seen terrorist threats emanate from battlefields in the past. Historically speaking, jihadi battlefields have produced three types of terrorist threats (with an unknown number choosing to come back return to ordinary lives): directed plots by individuals sent back with instruction; terrorist plots conducted by individuals who decide to carry out attacks without direction; and networks of individuals that provide support and infrastructure for other terrorist plots.

Directed Plots

The archetypal example of this is Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shezhad Tanweer, the pair of young men at the core of the 7 July 2005 attack on London’s transport system. Khan in particular was a regular to fighting and training abroad, and made at least three known trips to join with extremist groups with whom he conducted some sort of training, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Initially drawn to the battlefield by mythology around Kashmir, he seems to have quickly moved into preferring the Afghan struggle and ultimately believing that he was going to fight and die in Afghanistan. Once there on what he thought would be his final trip in 2004, he was instead re-directed by Al-Qa’ida to return to the UK to launch his infamous terrorist attack.

The clear lesson in foreign fighter terms here was that Khan was drawn initially to the battlefield to fight there, and was then persuaded by groups there to launch an attack back home. The driver of this seems to have largely been the eagerness of the group on the ground, Al-Qa’ida, to strike the West. The arrival of British passport holders seeking to support the cause was a gift to the group that they were able to transform into a tool to conduct a successful operation. The 7 July  cell may have been the only ones to have succeeded, but a number of other plots have been detected that bear similar hallmarks.

Self-Started Plots

Security officials on both sides of the Atlantic have spoken of concern about the growth of lone wolf or small cell terror plots. Usually involving single individuals or tight-knit units of individuals who demonstrate no direction from either Al-Qa’ida or one of its affiliates, expressions of this threat can be found in recent incidents in Boston, Paris, Toulouse, and Woolwich.

In some of these cases, a trace connection can be found to a known terrorist organisation, though there is little evidence of any direction in the choice of targets or other operational specifics. The foreign fighters phenomenon has some linkeage here: in both the Toulouse and Woolwich cases, for example, there is evidence that the individuals involved sought to make connections with radical groups abroad. Specifically, in Toulouse, Mohammed Merah went to Pakistan, trained with Al-Qa’ida linked groups and was then apparently sent back with some loose direction. However, his subsequent attack against off-duty French soldiers and then against Jewish school children seems to have been carried outlargely under his own steam.

Almost five years before Merah committed his bloody acts, a similar dynamic played out in the UK when Bilal Abdulla and Kafeel Ahmed first left a pair of car bombs in central London before launching an attempted suicide attack on Glasgow’s international airport. Ahmed died during the attempt in Scotland, but Bilal Abdulla was arrested and convicted, with his case uncovering a link between him and Al-Qa’ida’s Iraqi affiliate, with whom it is believed he had undertaken some training. Seemingly undirected by the group, Abdulla seems to have taken it upon himself to punish the UK for its involvement in the war that tore his country apart.

Networks

In some ways it is the networks that foreign battlefields create that are of the greatest longer-term concern. The danger is not that individuals who are drawn to foreign battlefields may actually come back and launch anti-Western attacks, rather, they might instead provide support networks for individuals who have been tasked to launch attacks or help radicalise others.

With experience and contacts from the battlefield, they present the potential for providing soft support for networks intending to launch attacks as well as becoming potential radicalisers who persuade others of the salience of the global jihadi narrative, using their own personal experience as an example. In most terrorist plots that have been uncovered in the West, links to such radicalisers can be found – either in terms of loud public preachers such as Abu Hamza or more locally radicalising figures who do not appear on the public radar but feature in the background of security investigations.

This last group is deeply intangible, but in many ways can present itself as the most dangerous long-term menace, providing a natural incubator for global jihadist ideas in the West. Those going abroad to fight may have no intention to come back and launch attacks, but through connections they might find themselves drawn into supporting others and invariably through transmission of their experience will act as radicalising agents. Groups eager to launch attacks against the West continue to exist abroad, and it is perfectly possible that they will use these networks and communities to eventually try to direct other attacks.

New Ungoverned Spaces Presents Long-Term Problem

At this point the flow  of Europeans going to Syria to fight has not produced any threats back home, though there have been a number of related arrests across the continent. In the UK a group is facing trial later in the year in connection to the kidnapping of a pair of European journalists in July 2012. A cell in Belgium appears to have been overheard talking about attacking the Palais de Justice in Brussels, but it is unclear that this had moved anything beyond the discussion phase.

Other networks can be found across Europe, and as security agencies focus on them, it is likely that other echoes will be heard. The bigger problem, however, is the situation in Syria where an inability to topple the regime and an incoherent opposition means that we are slowly seeing a Balkanisation of the country with radical groups  taking hold of pieces of territory and are creating parallel governance structures. This presents the danger of new safe havens allowing groups to train and plot. This is all the more menacing when one considers the heavy presence of the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham (ISIS, the latest incarnation of Al-Qa’ida’s Iraqi affiliate) on the field, as well as other Salafi-jihadi groups. Atop this, there are the reports of growing numbers of foreigners from across the Muslim world some of whom are connected to other Al-Qa’ida affiliates being drawn to Syria. Networks linking these spaces and groups to the West are of clear concern and rightly alarm security services.

Syria’s slow slide into chaos and civil war is tearing at the fabric of the Muslim world. The already tense Sunni-Shia divide now has a battlefield in which to brutally play itself out and has already provided overspill into neighbouring countries. The West remains divided over what to do, and age-old rivalries are playing themselves out in the UN Security Council. European foreign fighters provide a direct link between Europe and a battlefield that is developing in so many different directions that it is difficult to know what the repercussions in the longer-term will be.  What does seem clear though is that the community of foreign fighters is likely to prolong the incubation of extreme and violent Islamist ideas in Europe for the foreseeable future.

RUSI is currently undertaking a research project looking at the phenomenon of foreign fighters in Europe and how this can express itself as a terrorist threat back home.