Posts Tagged ‘foreign fighters’

My new piece for CTC’s Sentinel, this one an update for a piece I did for them last February looking at the UK-Syria connection. Lots more on this topic coming.

The British Foreign Fighter Contingent in Syria

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In mid-April 2014, the British government released its latest annual report on CONTEST, the British counterterrorism strategy. Focusing on the persistent threat from international terrorism faced by the United Kingdom, the document highlighted how the British government is “concerned about the threat to the UK from Syria based groups and the threat from foreign fighters returning to this country.”[1] Officials spoke of 33-50% of security service casework having a Syria component to it.[2]

The threat of returning fighters from Syria is one that British security officials already believe they have seen and disrupted, specifically in the form of a “Mumbai-style” plot targeting the United Kingdom in October 2013 that reportedly had links to Syria.[3] On the ground in Syria, British fighters continue to die and broadcast their activities through a variety of social media platforms, while publicly denying the accusation of wanting to launch attacks in the United Kingdom.[4] The community of Britons in Syria, however, reveals a group with strong links to criminal networks in the United Kingdom, as well as a growing willingness to publicize violent activity that might constitute war crimes.

Taken alongside the fact that Britons appear to be fighting with a multiplicity of groups (many British fighters who announce their affiliation claim to be members of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, although others appear in images fighting alongside groups connected to Jabhat al-Nusra or even other smaller units), it seems that the threat to the United Kingdom is growing. The actual number of British fighters in Syria is an imprecise science, with French President Francois Hollande saying in January 2014 that some 700 Britons were fighting in Syria, a figure downplayed by the British government who stood by 350 fighters.[5] The International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) estimated in December 2013 that there were somewhere between 43-366 British fighters who had traveled to Syria.[6] A more recent figure was offered by Helen Ball, the senior national coordinator for counterterrorism in the Metropolitan Police, who admitted that as many as 700 Britons might be fighting in Syria.[7]

This article offers a brief background on the alleged Mumbai-style plot that was disrupted in October 2013, and then looks more specifically at the community of British fighters in Syria. It finds that while most British foreign fighters in Syria may not pose a domestic threat to the United Kingdom, it appears likely that some might, especially in light of the recent Mumbai-style plot that reportedly had connections to the Syrian battlefield.

Mumbai-Style Plot
On the evening of October 14, 2013, police staged a dramatic series of arrests across London.[8] Four men, all allegedly long-term investigative suspects, were picked up in the sweep after authorities believed the group might have had access to firearms.[9] Two individuals were arrested in a “hard stop” involving shotgun rounds used to blow out the wheels of the car they were driving, a third at his home in Peckham and a final suspect outside an Iranian restaurant in Westbourne Grove.[10]

The identities of the four men were not confirmed beyond their ethnicities and ages: all were British nationals, but one each of Algerian, Azerbaijani, Pakistani and Turkish ethnicity. Ultimately, charges were only brought against the Algerian and Turkish individuals, who were both charged with “making record of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism or possessing a document or record containing information of that kind.”[11] The Turkish individual was also accused of “preparing a terrorist act,” while the Algerian was accused of “possession with a false document.”[12] It is believed the other two were released.

There has been a tight hold on further information allowed in the public domain, although the understanding is that the men were believed to be planning a “Mumbai-style” shooting spree attack and the plot was one which had connections to Syria.[13] One report suggested the men may have met in Syria.[14] Information around the case has been limited with the names of the charged men kept out of the public domain. The case is due to go to trial later in the year.

British Fighters Increasingly Bold in Syria
Syria continues to have connections to Britain’s longstanding Islamist community, and the police have moved to clamp down heavily on the foreign fighter phenomenon at home. In the first three months of 2014, authorities made more than 40 arrests connected to Syria-related activity.[15] At the same time, the groups in Syria have become more bold, with British fighters communicating with the media to discuss their intentions and even going so far as to establish their own media outlet and group in December 2013 known as Rayat al-Tawhid.

The Rayat al-Tawhid branding has become an increasingly prominent feature of reporting in the United Kingdom around Syria, with the group publishing a series of videos and pictures through YouTube, Instagram and Twitter accounts that offer insights into personal experiences on the battlefield. The videos have glorified the fighting, calling on people to leave “the gangster life behind and join the life of jihad.”[16] Other more recent videos have shown the background of their lives near the battlefield, characterizing it as “Five Star Jihad”—a likely ironic reference to earlier images that emerged off the battlefield in which Britons described the luxurious lives they were leading with sweets from home and abandoned mansions with swimming pools in which to live.[17] Rayat al-Tawhid videos reflect a harder life on the battlefield, illustrating the basic living conditions, while also using the videos to solicit funding from the United Kingdom.[18] The group has also posted images of members involved in the apparent execution of an individual identified as a rapist, and in another image one of them is seen with a bag of heads that are apparently from a group of regime soldiers.[19]

It is not clear who is behind Rayat al-Tawhid, although their activities and publicity are reminiscent of longstanding British extremist groups. They speak with British accents, and their references to gang culture suggest at least a working knowledge of that life. What is somewhat disturbing about the group is their ease with the extreme violence and brutality of the battlefield in Syria, including involvement in battlefield executions, beheadings and possibly torture. The men all seem eager to maintain their anonymity and only appear in videos with their faces covered, which suggests that they want to protect their families back home from the attention of the authorities, or that they might plan to eventually return to the United Kingdom. This latter prospect is of great concern to British authorities, given their brutalization and apparent ability to manufacture explosives (a skillset suggested in images in which they show homemade bombs).

Kataib al-Muhajirin/Kataib al-Kawthar
This is not the first time that Britons have emerged in such a public way on the Syrian battlefield. In early 2013, a group called Kataib al-Kawthar began to produce tweets under the handle @KAlKawthar and established a Facebook page that on March 31, 2013, released a video entitled Commander Abu Musab’s Weekly Address, purporting to be “the first weekly address of Abu Musab, a western Mujaahid commander who is currently leading his forces against the oppressive regime of al-Assad.”[20] Delivered in fluent, but accented, English, the blurb promised regular weekly updates, although it is not clear if any more statements emerged. At around the same time as the video’s publication, Kataib al-Kawthar released a hagiographical video of Abu Kamal al-Swedee in both English and Arabic, with the English language delivered in native sounding English.[21] Abu Kamal was identified as a Finnish-born Swede with a convert Finnish mother and Swedish father.[22]

The video about Abu Kamal appeared to be produced by a parallel or sister group to Kataib al-Kawthar called Kataib al-Muhajirin, a grouping composed of foreign fighters in Syria apparently led by the Georgian Omar al-Shishani. The divisions between the group are unclear, with Abu Musab being referred to in a video released by Kataib al-Muhajirin as one of Omar al-Shishani’s commanders. The Abu Musab in the second video speaks only in Arabic, although prominent in the video are also Sayfullah al-Shishani and Ibrahim al-Mazwagi, a Libyan-Brit who was the first confirmed Briton killed in Syria.[23] A prominent figure who shows up repeatedly in Kataib al-Muhajirin videos, al-Mazwagi (also known as Abu Fidaa) fought previously in Libya and appeared to have enjoyed being filmed fighting in Syria.[24] Subsequent to his death, for example, a mini-film emerged showing his activities on the battlefield, joking around with fellow foreign fighters and marrying a Swedish woman who had come to the front.[25] In the Abu Kamal video, Abu Fidaa is referred to alongside suspected British national Abu Qudamah as carrying their fallen Swedish comrade’s body back to an ambulance.[26] Abu Qudamah seems to be the battlefield name of another British man from London who was later killed and who features prominently in images released by Kataib al-Muhajirin.

Abu Qudamah and Ibrahim al-Mazwagi feature in a number of images together, as well as with other individuals. Al-Mazwagi is later photographed alongside Omar al-Shishani, while Abu Qudamah is instead featured in a montage set of images published on Facebook by a now closed account in which a group of individuals were heralded as “Green Birds.”[27] What is particularly striking about this collection of images is that alongside Abu Qudamah, the montages feature Mohammed el-Araj, Bilal al-Berjawi and Mohammed Sakr. Al-Berjawi and Sakr were two Britons who came from west London and were killed in Somalia fighting alongside al-Shabab.[28] Mohammed el-Araj, on the other hand, was a Briton of Palestinian descent from Ladbroke Grove in west London who was killed in Syria in August 2013.[29] El-Araj was an engineering student who was arrested in January 2009 at a protest outside the Israeli Embassy.[30] Also arrested at the protest were Mohammed Sakr and Walla Rehman, although both received far lighter punishments than el-Araj—Sakr and Rehman were charged with affray under the public order act, while el-Araj was charged with handling stolen goods. Rehman’s significance within this context comes from the fact that he was identified as being involved in the same network as al-Berjawi and Sakr in East Africa.[31]

It is of course impossible to know the extent or importance of these connections, although it is notable that the men all come from a relatively similar part of London. It is possible that the young men all knew each other and the grouping behind them is one that has previously helped fighters reach Somalia and is now directing people toward Syria.[32] What is certainly concerning about this grouping is that it has clearly pledged allegiance and fought alongside Omar al-Shishani, a man who was the leader of foreign fighters in Syria and has now moved over to be a sub-commander to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)—one of the most violent groups in Syria. The other Chechen visible in the aforementioned video featuring Omar and Abu Musab, Sayfullah al-Shishani, appears to have broken away from Omar to set up a more independent faction fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra.[33] He was killed in early February 2014 in an attack on Aleppo prison where the first recorded British suicide bomber, Abdul Waheed Majid, killed himself.[34] A long-term activist himself, Abdul Waheed Majid had featured on the periphery of serious terrorist investigations in the United Kingdom for some time, including the large 2004 plot called Crevice that intended to target a shopping mall outside London with a large fertilizer-based explosive device.[35]

Historical and Criminal Networks
The war in Syria also has connections to longstanding members of the jihadist community in the United Kingdom. British foreign fighter Abdel Majed Abdel Bary, for example, is the son of Adel Abdel Bary, who was extradited to the United States in 2012 after spending years in British custody.[36] He stands accused of being the leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad’s cell in London in the 1990s and of providing support to Usama bin Ladin by helping to run a media outpost for al-Qa`ida.[37] He is also accused of involvement in the 1998 East Africa U.S. Embassy bombings.[38] The younger Bary, a former grime music rapper from west London, seems to have had a radical damascene moment in mid-2013, and in July declared on his Facebook page that “the unknown mixtape with my bro tabanacle will be the last music I’m ever releasing. I have left everything for the sake of Allah.”[39] In October 2013, he used his Twitter feed to ask “for everyone that still asks me about where my videos have gone, like I said a while back I quit music & I took all the vids I can down….& if you own a channel that has any of my music up can you take it down also, appreciated. Bless.”[40]

In other moments, the younger Bary referred to his missing father, pushed back against those who defamed the ISIL, and repeatedly denied accusations that he was in some way connected to prominent British extremist preacher Anjem Choudary. Mentioned in an early profile that exposed him publicly as fighting in Syria,[41] Bary seemed offended by the prospect, stating at one point “why linking me to anjem choudary again though, I dont know the man and we aint on the same wave lol hes on that microphone jihad.”[42] In another post, he reported how he and a fellow Briton were “kidnapped/tortured by FSA/IF scum they stole our ak’s and a 7mm, my vehicle & our phones and cash.”[43] Highlighting the circles in which he operated back in the United Kingdom, in mid-March 2014 he declared that “my lil brother ahmed got sentenced to life…26 years minimum….love lil bro see you in the afterlife inshallah #kasper.”[44] He appears to be referring to Ahmed Kasper Mikhaimar, a convicted burglar who in January 2014 was sentenced to 26 years incarceration for the murder of a teenager on London’s streets.[45]

This link to serious criminality can be found elsewhere among Britain’s community of fighters in Syria. Choukri Ellekhlifi, a Briton of Moroccan descent from Paddington west London who used the name Abu Hujama, was killed in August 2013 alongside his brother-in-arms Mohammed el-Araj.[46] Prior to coming to Syria, Ellekhlifi had been arrested with Mohammed Elyasse Taleouine and Mohammed Ibrahim in August 2012 after a series of brutal robberies in London’s affluent Belgravia district where masked men on bicycles attacked people walking the streets, threatening them with a taser while they stole their possessions.[47] In two cases, they used the taser on their victims.[48] The men were released on bail, and it appears that at this point Ellekhlifi fled the country and traveled to Syria where he joined the fighting.[49] Taleouine was re-arrested on January 10, 2013, when counterterrorism officers undertook an “intelligence-led operation” into “alleged facilitation of travel overseas for terrorism.”[50] Searching Taleouine’s property, police discovered a converted 9mm MAC-10 submachine gun, and he ultimately pleaded guilty to firearms offenses and robbery charges.[51] Taleouine was sentenced to 10 years in jail.[52]

Abdel Majed Abdel Bary also provides a connection to another relation of a prominent British individual previously accused of involvement with radical circles. On April 18, 2014, Bary tweeted “Subhanallah just seen the brother less than 2 weeks ago, may Allah accept his shahada, Abdullah Deghayas, martyr inshallah.”[53] This was a reference to Abdullah Deghayes, an 18-year-old Briton of Libyan descent who was killed fighting in Kassab, Latakia.[54] The nephew of former Guantanamo detainee Omar Deghayes, Abdullah is the middle child of three brothers who have left their homes in Brighton to fight alongside a Libyan unit in Syria called al-Battar.[55] His older brother Amer was shot in the stomach during the same clash, while his younger brother Jaffer is the youngest publicly confirmed Briton fighting in Syria at 16 years of age.[56] Their father has since pleaded for his two remaining sons to return home, although it seems uncertain whether this will be possible.[57]

The final connection to longstanding members of the UK jihadist scene is the case of Moazzam Begg, the former Guantanamo Bay detainee and founder of the Azzam Publications bookshop in Birmingham.[58] UK authorities arrested Begg on February 25, 2014, and charged him with providing terrorist training as well as funding terrorism overseas.[59] Arrested alongside him were Gerrie and Mouloud Tahari, a mother and son who are also charged with supporting terrorism overseas.[60] Begg’s arrest elicited substantial public outcry and his trial later in the year is likely to prove a major spectacle as he fights against perceived persecution.

Portsmouth’s Bangladeshi Bad Boys
Another cluster of Britons drawn to Syria can be found in Portsmouth where a group that seems to in part echo a local da`wa (propagation) community has gone to fight in Syria alongside the ISIL. The Portsmouth Da`wa Team continues to carry out its peaceful activities in the city center, and there has been no evidence presented that it is connected to terrorism. A number of former members, however, have gone to fight in Syria. Most prominently, Iftekar Jaman, a former call center employee and son of fast food restaurant owners, became something of a celebrity jihadist through his online media profile.[61] In November 2013, he achieved particular notoriety when he was interviewed by the BBC’s flagship Newsnight program.[62] He was also responsible for helping to facilitate travel to Syria for two other Britons who used the pseudonyms Abu Qaqa and Abu Layth al-Khorasani.[63] Abu Layth was later revealed to be a Manchester-born student at Liverpool University and part-time amateur boxer called Anil Khalil Raoufi.[64] Both Raoufi and Iftekar Jaman have since been killed fighting.[65]

Others from the Portsmouth cluster who are still fighting in Syria include former private schoolboy and fitness fanatic Muhammad Hassan.[66] Hassan, another participant in the Portsmouth da`wa group, is a regular on social media and promotes the ISIL’s cause.[67] In mid-November 2013, another Portsmouth man, Muhammad Hamidur Rahman, a manager at a local retail clothing store, told his family he was heading to Syria as part of an aid convoy only to reemerge weeks later as a fighter alongside the ISIL.[68] Both men are believed to still be fighting in Syria.

In contrast, Mashudur Choudhury, who recently became the first Briton to be convicted of terrorism charges related to the conflict in Syria,[69] was arrested upon his return to the United Kingdom on October 26, 2013.[70] He had left for Syria on October 8 with four other Portsmouth men on a commercial flight to Turkey (including Muhammad Hamidur Rahman and Muhammad Hassan) after long conversations via various social media and online communication methods, including Skype, with Iftekar Jaman.[71] In one of these messages, Choudhury suggested that the group he was traveling with should call themselves the “Britani brigade Bangladeshi bad boys,” which elicited a “lol sounds long” from Jaman.[72] Choudhury was also revealed to have argued about his activity with his wife who saw him as a fantasist and who finally told him in a July text message to “go die in battlefield. Go die, I really mean it just go. I’ll be relieved. At last. At last.”[73]

Conclusion

The flow of foreign fighters to Syria from the United Kingdom continues, although the scale is difficult to determine. The trends are worrisome, with the preponderance of longstanding networks of individuals involved in radical activity, the continued featuring of British nationals fighting alongside the ISIL, and the fact that a number of these nationals are connected to serious criminal networks in the United Kingdom. These factors highlight a trend that is likely to develop into future threats. The twin incidents of the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich by longstanding activist Michael Adebolajo and the suicide bombing in Aleppo by Abdul Waheed Majid, a man with almost two decades of radical activity, serve to highlight the persistent and long-term threat that such radicalized individuals can pose.

Thus far, only one domestic terrorist plot in the United Kingdom has been reported as having a connection to Syria, but there is an expectation that more will emerge.[74] While most fighters who return from Syria may not pose a threat, it is likely that some will. British fighters state that they have no intention of carrying out attacks in the United Kingdom, but the indicators from across Europe (including the recently foiled Mumbai-style plot) suggest that future domestic threats connected to the war in Syria are likely to emerge.[75]

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) and is grateful for the support of the Airey Neave Trust in his work on foreign fighters.

[1] “CONTEST: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism, Annual Report,” UK Home Office, April 9, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Duncan Gardham, “Police Foil ‘Mumbai-Style’ Terrorist Plot in London, Say Security Sources,” Guardian, October 14, 2013.

[4] “British Fighters in Syria ‘Not Planning UK Attacks,’” ITV News, April 8, 2014.

[5] Tom Whitehead, “700 Britons Fighting in Syria Terror Groups, Warns Hollande,” Telegraph, January 31, 2014.

[6] “Up to 11,000 Foreign Fighters in Syria; Steep Rise Among Western Europeans,” The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, December 17, 2013.

[7] Tom Whitehead, “Up to 700 Britons Feared to be in Syria,” Telegraph, April 24, 2014.

[8] Sean O’Neill and David Brown, “Syria Link to Terror Arrests in London Raids,” Times, October 15, 2014.

[9] Justin Davenport, “Police Foil ‘Major Islamist Terror Plot’ After Armed Raids Across London,” Evening Standard, October 14, 2013.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Two Men Charged with Terrorism Offences,” Press Association, October 20, 2013.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Gardham, “Police Foil ‘Mumbai-Style’ Terrorist Plot in London, Say Security Sources”; Justin Davenport, “Islamist Terror Suspects Could Have Met During Syria Conflict,” Evening Standard, October 15, 2013; Amanda Williams, “Hundreds of British Jihadis Returning From Fight in Syria Spark Terror Alert After Police and MI5 Thwart Mumbai-Style Attack on London,” Mail Online, February 16, 2014.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Tom Whitehead, “Syria-Related Arrests Soar as Police Urge Mothers and Wives to Stop Would-be Jihadis,” Telegraph, April 24, 2014.

[16] Steve Swann, “British Man Recruits for Syria Jihad,” BBC, December 20, 2013.

[17] Aris Roussinos, “Jihad Selfies: These British Extremists in Syria Love Social Media,” Vice, December 5, 2013.

[18] Know Your Role, Rayat al-Tawhid, April 25, 2014, available on Instagram.

[19] The image of the severed heads was posted on Instagram. The execution video was made public through the reporting of Tom Rayner, “British Fighters Filmed in Syria ‘War Crime,’” Sky News, May 2, 2014.

[20] Commander Abu Musab’s Weekly Address, Kataib al-Kawthar, March 30, 2013, available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wE0VWLgQnA.

[21] Shaheed Abu Kamal English Version, Kataib al Muhajirin, March 13, 2013, available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vn_8Ul4K_Gc.

[22] Per Gudmundson, “The Swedish Foreign Fighter Contingent in Syria,” CTC Sentinel 6:9 (2013).

[23] Richard Kerbaj and Malik al-Abdeh, “Dead at 21: Britain’s Veteran Jihadist,” Sunday Times, March 3, 2013.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Inigo Gilmore, “Britons Fighting with Syria’s Jihadi ‘Band of Brothers,’” Channel 4 News, June 14, 2013.

[26] Shaheed Abu Kamal English Version.

[27] Roussinos.

[28] For a more complete story about al-Berjawi’s and Sakr’s adventures in Somalia, see Raffaello Pantucci, “Bilal al-Berjawi and the Shifting Fortunes of Foreign Fighters in Somalia,” CTC Sentinel 6:9 (2013).

[29] Shiv Malik and Haroon Siddique, “Briton Killed Fighting in Syria Civil War,” Guardian, November 20, 2013.

[30] Ibid.

[31] J1 v. The Secretary of State for the Home Department, Royal Courts of Justice, 2013.

[32] It is possible that there is a similar structure at play in Belgium in a case currently working its way through the system in which fighters were being sent to both Somalia and Syria. See “L’epouse de Rachid Benomari lui envoyait de l’argent en Somalie,” La Libre, March 10, 2014.

[33] “An In-Depth Look At Chechen Fighters in Syria – Part I: Sayfullah Al-Shishani and His Circle,” Middle East Media Research Institute, December 6, 2013.

[34] “UK ‘Suicide Bomber’ Abdul Waheed Majid Video Posted Online,” BBC, February 14, 2014.

[35] Raffaello Pantucci, “Syria’s First British Suicide Bomber: The UK Jihadist Backdrop,” Royal United Services Institute, February 14, 2014.

[36] Chris Greenwood, “Fighting Jihad in Syria, The British ‘Grime’ Rapper from £1m Home in Maida Vale, West London, Who is the Son of a Suspected Al Qaeda Mastermind,” Daily Mail, December 31, 2013.

[37] “Fact Sheet on Extradition of 5 Terrorism Suspects to US: Information on Charges,” U.S. Embassy London, October 5, 2012.

[38] Ibid.

[39] This post, dated July 1, 2013, is available at http://www.facebook.com/LyricistJinn/posts/634492946562118.

[40] Twitter feed @ItsLJinny, October 9, 2013.

[41] Greenwood.

[42] Twitter feed @ItsLJinny, March 9, 2014.

[43] “The Scum Stole our Cash,” Daily Mail, March 9, 2014.

[44] Twitter feed @ItsLJinny, March 13, 2014.

[45] William Turvill, “Five Thugs who Killed a Schoolboy Stabbing Him with Swords and Meat Cleavers in one of Britain’s Wealthiest Postcodes are Jailed for 131 Years,” Daily Mail, January 31, 2014.

[46] Amie Keeley, “Four Britons ‘Killed Fighting in Syrian Civil War With Al Qaeda Rebels,’” Mail Online, November 20, 2013.

[47] Duncan Gardham, ‘The Al Qaeda Fanatic from Britain who Funded Jihad Trip to Syria by Mugging Londoners with a Taser,” Mail on Sunday, November 30, 2013.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Metropolitan Police statement, undated, available at http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.538475426199901.1073741856.423306314383480&type=3.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Twitter feed @ItsLJinny, April 18, 2014.

[54] “Father Scared for Sons in Syria,” Press Association, April 21, 2014.

[55] Conal Urquhart and Shiv Malik, “Teenager From Brighton Killed Within Weeks of Joining Syrian Conflict,” Guardian, April 18, 2014.

[56] Urquhart and Malik.

[57] Shiv Malik, “Father of UK Teenager Killed in Syria Implores his Other Sons to Return,” Guardian, April 20, 2014.

[58] “UK Ex-Guantanamo Detainee Moazzam Begg Remanded in Custody,” BBC, March 1, 2014.

[59] Ibid.

[60] “Mouloud Tahari: Briton, 20, Charged over Funding Syria Terrorism,” Independent, March 4, 2014.

[61] Edward Malnick and Richard Spencer, “British ‘Celebrity Jihadi’ and Chef Dies in Syria,” Telegraph, December 17, 2013.

[62] Richard Watson, “Briton ‘Doing his Duty’ by Fighting with Group Linked to al Qaeda in Syria,” BBC, November 21, 2013.

[63] Tam Hussein, “Social Media Jihadi: The Inside Story of a Briton who Died Fighting for ISIS,” Huffington Post, February 6, 2014.

[64] Yakub Qureshi, “Anil Khalil Raoufi, 20, Killed Fighting in Syria Thought War was ‘Like Star Wars,’” Manchester Evening News, February 13, 2014.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Dipesh Gadher, David Leppard, Hala Jaber, Toby Harnden and Laura Molyneaux, “‘We Need to Start Taking Heads Off’: The YouTube Jihadists who Pose a Risk to Britain,” Sunday Times, January 12, 2014.

[67] Dipesh Gadher and Laura Molyneaux, “Portsmouth’s Primark Jihadist Surfaces in Syria,” Sunday Times, December 1, 2013.

[68] Ibid.

[69] Dominic Casciani, “Mashudur Choudhury: Serial Liar and Jihadist,” BBC, May 20, 2014.

[70] Tom Whitehead, “Man Travelled to Syrian Terror Training Camp After Angry Wife Said ‘Go Die on Battlefield,’ Court Told,” Telegraph, May 7, 2014.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Ibid.

[74] O’Neill and Brown.

[75] Raffaello Pantucci, “Thick as Thieves: European Criminals Take to Syria’s Battlefield,” Royal United Services Institute, March 31, 2014.

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

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

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

RUSI Analysis, 14 Feb 2014

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

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

AbdulWahidMajeed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Les Jihadistes occidentaux rentrent à la maison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seul contre tous

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

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

Recommandé par les anciens

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

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

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

I have gone quiet for a while due to various travelling and other commitments. Written a few longer things which will eventually land, but for the time being here is my latest piece with Sayyid on al Shabaab’s internal difficulties for Jamestown.

Foreign Fighters in Somalia and al-Shabaab’s Internal Purge

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 22
December 3, 2013 11:21 AM Age: 8 hrs

Al-Shabaab (Source AFP)

The role of foreign fighters in al-Shabaab was brought to public attention once again in October with the release by al-Kata’ib (Shabaab’s media wing) of a video entitled: “It’s an eye for an eye: the Woolwich attacks.” [1] The video featured ten British jihadis who had died fighting alongside al-Shabaab as well as one Somali-Norwegian shown carrying out the massacre at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall. The video appeared to confirm the prominent role of foreigners inside the East African terrorist networks (Telegraph, October 25; BBC, October 18). The reality, however, is more complicated, with evidence indicating that the size of the foreign fighter contingent in East Africa has been in flux, with a number dying in a complicated internal struggle from which Ahmad Abdi Godane (a.k.a. Abu Zubayr) has emerged victorious.

The most prominent casualty amongst this foreign fighter contingent was Omar Hammami, the American who rose within al-Shabaab to become its unofficial poster-boy. Increasingly angered by what he saw as the “authoritarian” approach adopted by Godane, he lashed out through videos and on his Twitter account, claiming he was under threat from the Shabaab leadership. Hammami survived one attempt on his life before succumbing to an assassin’s bullet on September 12. Dying alongside him was Osama al-Britani, a British-Pakistani national believed to be Habib Ghani, a long-standing British fighter in the region who was closely linked to the semi-mythical “white widow” Samantha Lewthwaite, widow of one of the July 7, 2005 bombers of London’s underground system (Daily Mail, September 13).

The deaths of the two men came as the capstone of a series of foreign fighter deaths under mysterious circumstances. One of the first to fall was Bilal al-Berjawi, a British-Lebanese sub-commander within the group who was killed by a drone strike in January 22, 2012. A month later his companion Muhammad Sakr was also killed under similar circumstances. While the direct cause of death was clear, the circumstances that enabled the drones to find these individuals were not.

In an apparent attempt to clarify these circumstances, al-Kata’ib made the unusual step of releasing a video which purported to be a confession by a young Somali who claimed to have helped direct the drone strikes against Bilal al-Berjawi and Muhammad Sakr. The confessional video seemed aimed at emphasizing that the two men had died as the result of offensive operations by the group’s enemies rather than executed by the group itself, suggesting there was some doubt that this was the case. [2]

Evidence of an internal dispute over the targeting of foreign fighters was found in other areas. For example, in the wake of al-Berjawi’s death, there was a reported exodus of foreigners from Somalia. In late April 2013, senior leaders within the organization published a fatwa (legal pronouncement in Islam) specifically ordering that Omar Hammami, Osama al-Britani and Egyptian Khatab al-Masri not be targeted for assassination. [3] In mid-2010 there was still strong evidence that Westerners, from the UK at least, were providing a fairly steady stream of young warriors to join the Somali group, but the indicators over time have been negative. With the rise of jihad operations in Syria and other Arab Spring countries, young Westerners no longer saw the appeal of joining Godane’s increasingly xenophobic jihad.

For its part, al-Shabaab appears more eager to reach out to the foreign community than before. The video “Woolwich Attack: It’s an Eye for an Eye” came in the wake of a YouTube video published by the group that described the journey of a group from Minneapolis who left the United States to join al-Shabaab (the video has since been removed from the Internet). The video eulogized the fallen Westerners in a manner that seemed aimed at recruiting people to come to Somalia and to illustrate how the fight that al-Shabaab was undertaking was part of a larger conflict directed by core al-Qaeda.

Close examination of the videos and the records of the fallen men illustrates that these cases are, for the most part, historical rather than current. The Minneapolis group moved from the United States to Somalia in a series of waves dating back to 2007. The known British fighters mentioned all seem to have travelled to the conflict before 2010. In some cases, court documents identify individuals who fought alongside al-Shabaab and then returned home. In others, networks back in the UK that were providing support and funding for fighters were disrupted, yielding information on when individuals left and how long they required financial support. [4] Some of those provided with support through these networks are now reported dead. One man, identified as “CF” in court documents, first tried to travel to Afghanistan to fight, but was dissuaded by the difficulties encountered in entering that country and instead settled for Somalia. [5]

Having said all of this, there is still some evidence that Godane retains the loyalty and support of some of his foreign cadres. Part of this is evidenced through various media outlets, like the pro-Godane Twitter feed @MYC_Press, which is widely speculated to be run by Samantha Lewthwaite. Whether run by Lewthwaite or not, the account is clearly written by someone whose mother tongue is colloquial British English. Similarly, all of the videos mentioned in this piece are narrated by Abu Omar, an English-speaking Shabaab fighter who has a very clear grasp of the languages and culture of the West, most likely indicating strong foreign links. In terms of the Westgate incident, the growing evidence of a strong link to Somali diaspora elements from Norway suggests the group is still able to call upon its foreign links to conduct audacious operations.

However, the dilemma remains about what role foreign fighters will have in the new organization being crafted by Godane. In April 2013, an open letter to al-Qaeda leader Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri was released by Ibrahim al-Afghani (a.k.a. Abu Bakr al-Zaylai), in which al-Afghani called for the al-Qaeda leader to step into an increasingly fractious battle within al-Shabaab that was threatening to tear the organization apart. At the heart of the division was a split between the local and international fighters, with the two groups divided over al-Shabaab’s direction (African Review [Nairobi], April 9, 2013). Interestingly, it seemed as though the foreign contingent was focused on consolidating power within Somalia, while the faction led by Godane was more interested in expanding al-Shabaab’s international reach, possibly to live up to its role as an al-Qaeda affiliate.

It is possibly within this split that we see the seeds of the Westgate incident as well as an explanation of the future role Godane sees for the foreign fighters in his group. While the Westgate plot clearly used assets within Kenya and is therefore in part a product of domestic radicalization issues inside Kenya, it was nevertheless directed and claimed by Godane’s al-Shabaab network. The intent was to mount a large-scale incident to attract international attention alongside other major international jihadist attacks, such as this year’s In Aménas attack, the 2008 Mumbai attack and other large-scale terrorist operations in which mass casualties have been ascribed to al-Qaeda or its affiliates.

At the same time, the group’s latest video release pointed to an eagerness to place the Somali cause within a larger ideological arc (highlighting the causes of the Uyghur and Rohignya as examples where the West was proving it did not care about Muslims) and also called upon individuals to conduct terrorist plots in the West. Al-Shabaab has previously refrained from calling openly for such terrorist operations. Delivered clearly and coherently in English, the rhetorical shift is something clearly aimed at a Western audience.

The danger for Western security officials is that the group has finally made the long-awaited strategic decision to focus efforts outside of Somalia. At the same time, the decision to make this shift seems to come at a moment when the group is having less success in attracting Western fighters to its ranks, thus depriving them of the most effective tool to launch an attack in the heart of the West. With Syria currently dominating jihadists’ attention, this dynamic is unlikely to change substantially in the near future. In the longer-term, Godane’s clear interest in living up to his group’s al-Qaeda affiliation would suggest more incidents aimed at Western targets in Africa at least are likely.

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

A.R. Sayyid is the editor of The Somali War Monitor Blog www.somaliwarmonitor.wordpress.com. 

Notes

1. The video confession was posted in May 2013 and is available:ia600707.us.archive.org/22/items/3d-f7dhrhm-2/SoBeware2_HQ.m4v.

2. See www.aljahad.com/vb/showthread.php.

3. Regina vs Mohammed Shabir Ali and Mohammed Shakif Ali, Central Criminal Court, August 1, 2012.

4. Secretary of State for the Home Department vs CC and CF, Royal Courts of Justice, October 19, 2012, [2012] EWHC 2837.

A new article for the CTC Sentinel that has been in the pipeline for a while. Looks at the phenomenon of British fighters going to Syria and the larger connections between the UK and fighting in Syria. A fascinating story that has not been dug into much, but is going to get bigger as time goes on. On other matters, I was quoted in a pair of Associated Press stories, here and here about the recent Ansaru Nigerian kidnappings.

British Fighters Joining the War in Syria

Feb 20, 2013

Author: Raffaello Pantucci

Since the start of the Syrian war, British police have arrested and charged three men for their roles in a terrorist conspiracy linked to the conflict. British security officials fear that these arrests may only be the tip of an iceberg as they watch Syria become the brightest flame drawing in young British radicals. As British Foreign Secretary William Hague recently said, “Syria is now the number one destination for jihadists anywhere in the world today. This includes a number of individuals connected with the United Kingdom and other European countries. They may not pose a threat to us when they first go to Syria, but if they survive some may return ideologically hardened and with experience of weapons and explosives.”[1]

The most striking aspect about the Syria-UK connection is its similarity to past events. Not only are there shades of Bosnia in the ease with which Britons can join the war in Syria,[2] but there are also similarities in the structures that have nurtured the conflict.[3] Longstanding London-based preachers have returned to join fighters on the frontlines, convoys run by Muslim charities take food and supplies while hosting events at which they criticize the lack of action by the international community, and young men are taking time off from their ordinary lives to join the fight. Atop all of this, a political debate in the United Kingdom—reflective of the broader global debate—about what action to take in Syria has failed to deliver meaningful results, providing more fodder for those who perceive that the West is turning a blind eye to the plight of Muslims.

In highlighting the complexity of this threat, this article identifies the current known links between the Syrian and British jihadist communities, as well as the broader context from which it is emerging. It also shows how fallout from Syria has the potential to have negative repercussions in the United Kingdom for years to come.

The Case of the Kidnapped Journalists
Attention was first drawn publicly to the issue of British jihadists operating in Syria when a British and Dutch journalist escaped from their captors in Syria and made it to safety in Turkey. The men, Jerome Oerlemans and John Cantlie, had entered Syria on July 19, 2012, on assignment, but had the misfortune to fall into the hands of a group of mostly foreign extremists.[4] Held captive for a week, the men were repeatedly threatened with death and beaten after an escape attempt.[5] They were eventually released by a group of Syrians who had initially helped them enter the country.[6] Yet the most surprising news to emerge from the event was that among the men’s captors had been almost a dozen British jihadists—nine of whom “had London accents” and at least one who claimed to be a National Health Service (NHS) doctor.[7]

The trainee doctor in question, Shajul Islam, was intercepted on October 9, 2012, when he returned on a flight from Egypt with his wife and child.[8] A Briton of Bangladeshi origin, little is known about Shajul Islam aside from his age, 26-years-old, that he is from Stratford in East London, and that he is a doctor.[9] A graduate of St. Bartholomew’s and a University of London hospital, he reportedly had a first class degree in biochemistry.[10] According to captive John Cantlie, he carried an NHS medical kit with him and planned to return to work as a trauma consultant after a two year sabbatical.[11] Less is known about his co-conspirator Jubayer Chowdhury, except that he is of Bangladeshi descent. Both are currently awaiting trial for their role in kidnapping the two journalists.

In what was reported as an expansion of the case, authorities arrested an additional six men in mid-January 2013 as part of a wide-ranging police investigation into links with Syria.[12] Authorities arrested one group of three men at addresses in east London, while a fourth man identified as being Portuguese was picked up at Gatwick airport.[13] All were detained “on suspicion of commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.”[14] Authorities arrested a second pair “outside a business” in west London, although no link was immediately drawn between the two cases.[15] In the end, all but Mohamed Elyasse Taleouine from Lisson Grove, north London, were cleared, while Taleouine was charged with possession of a blank-firing MAC-10 that had been converted into a live weapon.[16] A week later, police went back and re-arrested a man from the first set of arrests, revealing him to be Najul Islam, brother of Shajul Islam.[17]

Najul Islam was charged with a variety of offenses, including funding his brother’s travel to Syria, funding Jubayer Chowdhury’s return from Syria, and sending them money to support their activities.[18] Additionally, police believe he traveled by vehicle from the United Kingdom through Turkey to Syria to provide equipment including night vision goggles, air rifle optic mounts, and medical supplies.[19] Likely to come to trial next year, more information will then be released about the men and how they reached Syria.

A great deal more information, however, has emerged about an unconnected, separate case involving Nassim Terreri and Walid Blidi, two men of Algerian descent who were raised in London and died March 26, 2012, at Darkoush, a few miles from the Turkish border.[20] Respectively from west and south London, the men led relatively uneventful lives prior to their deaths.[21] Reported as a kind young man who worked hard at school, Nassim Terreri dropped out of a university course and had drifted into waiting tables.[22] In his early 20s, he found religion and traveled to Mecca, after which he began wearing traditional Arab dress.[23] He reportedly participated in an aid convoy to Gaza led by Minister of Parliament George Galloway.[24] By the end of 2011, however, his family noted he had shaved off his beard and met a girl—suggesting that his religious fervor may have passed.[25] In early 2012, he went on a vacation with Walid Blidi to France.[26] Two weeks later, he called his mother from the Syrian border and, according to a family friend, “told her he was going to find out what was really happening in Syria.”[27] After another two weeks, she received a call that he and Blidi were dead.[28] Much less is known about Blidi, except that in August 2007 he was arrested in Exeter alongside a pair of others during a police drug sting.[29]

Initially, reports from Syria indicated that Blidi and Terreri were journalists.[30] Little evidence, however, emerged of them having done any reporting, and the al-Assad regime included their names in a list to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as evidence foreign terrorists were involved in the insurgency.[31] The real story emerged when reporters interviewed fighters who claimed to have been with the men on the night they died.[32] The two British fighters apparently opened fire at a passing Syrian government convoy, attracting retaliatory fire and getting the group caught in a firefight between government and rebel forces.[33] During the clash, other Syrian fighters were killed, and another Briton known only as Hamza was injured.[34] His fate is unknown.[35] The brigade in which the men were fighting, the Hisham Haboub brigade of the Free Syrian Army, was not Salafi-jihadi, but the men’s actions and deaths highlight how easy it is for British nationals to participate in frontline fighting in Syria. Biographies published in the British media highlighted that Nassim Terreri in particular “favorited” videos of “extremist Australian preacher” Shaykh Feiz Mohammed.[36]

“Londonistan’s” Syrian Flavor
Young Britons fighting in Syria is not a surprising development. British fighters have been found on almost every jihadist battlefield since Afghanistan in the 1970s. This pipeline was nurtured by the unique combination of restive second-generation immigrant communities, dissident Arab populations—both secular and non-secular—who used bases in London to promote causes, including anti-government agendas, at home, with a seemingly passive British government response.[37] Captured in the public imagination with the shorthand term “Londonistan,” this community also provided a home for radical preachers who brought jihadist ideas to British shores and ended up radicalizing a portion of British youth. This led to young Britons becoming involved in international radical networks, including al-Qa`ida, leading ultimately to the July 7, 2005, bombings when a group of young Britons under orders from al-Qa`ida killed 52 people on London’s transport system.[38]

Since the advent of the Arab Spring, however, the larger connection between Arab dissidents based in London and their home nations has become more prominent. Libyan exiles from London and Manchester went back in unknown numbers to fight alongside the rebels against the Mu`ammar Qadhafi regime,[39] a number of key Tunisian Ennahda party members (including leader Rashid al-Ghannouchi[40]) relocated from Britain to help run the country in the wake of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s departure, and prominent former Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Kamal Helbawy was among a number of exiles who returned to Egypt as Hosni Mubarak was deposed.[41] The United Kingdom has a personal connection with the anti-government forces in many Arab Spring countries—whether they are secular, nationalist, or Islamist. This connection is also present with Syria, where dissidents and exiles from the Syrian community living in the United Kingdom (estimated at 13,000 strong[42]) have become a key support network for their brethren in the Middle East. Support includes providing funding and aid convoys, dissident groups providing a way for information to get out from the war raging in Syria, as well as fighters and spiritual leaders for the rebellion.

In addition to Syrians, British Muslims of other ethnicities have traveled to Syria as well. As highlighted by the previous examples, British fighters known to have fought in Syria are young men who have graduated from university, worked as waiters, trainee doctors, or even as former drug dealers. The exact numbers in terms of ethnic provenance are hard to determine, but a substantial amount seem to be drawn from communities other than Syrian. According to Birmingham Minister of Parliament Khalid Mahmood, as of August 2012 at least 30 young Britons not of Syrian descent had traveled to Syria.[43] A Sudanese community leader from west London reported that he had spoken to a younger member of his community who claimed to have at least 21 friends who were training to go to Syria, and spoke of joining formerly UK-based Moroccans and Somalis who had already gone to fight.[44] In August 2012, a British journalist in Aleppo met a British convert from Walthamstow who used the name “Abu Yacoub.”[45] He claimed to have converted five years earlier, having originally been born in Tanzania and brought to the United Kingdom as a child.[46] He came to Syria four months earlier and was found in the company of an Iraqi friend who had been injured. Both men claimed to be members of Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham (Free Men of Syria), an Islamist group involved in the war.[47]

Another report from later in the year instead highlighted a “pious” young Bangladeshi Briton who had risen in the ranks of foreign fighters and was responsible for about 50 Britons who went to fight in Syria.[48] Thus far, none of those reportedly arrested around the case linked to the kidnapping of the two journalists have been identified as being of Syrian descent.

Yet while the foot soldiers may come from different ethnicities, the older “Londonistani” warriors who have gone back to join the frontlines seem to be Syrian. Most prominent is Abu Basir al-Tartusi, a preacher formerly based in Poplar, east London. One of the few preachers with a following among radical communities to still operate in the United Kingdom, al-Tartusi was once quoted in the press as being “a leading jihadi theologian on a level with Abu Qatada.”[49]

His importance internationally had not translated into great acclaim among Britain’s young jihadist community. His lack of English and the fact that he condemned suicide bombing (including the July 7, 2005, London bombings), taking a more moderate line than most of the “Londonistani” preachers, meant he had less of a following among the radical community in the United Kingdom. The radical community tended to follow preachers such as Abu Hamza al-Masri[50] and Abdullah Faisal[51] (both of whom were incarcerated on charges of inciting racial hatred and murder), Abu Qatada (who openly boasted to British authorities about his power over the United Kingdom’s extremist Algerian community),[52] and Omar Bakri Mohammed (the Syrian preacher who founded al-Muhajiroun).[53] Al-Tartusi’s decision to travel to the Syrian frontlines surprised some, and likely elevated him in the eyes of the broader radical community.[54] While al-Tartusi’s exact activities since traveling to the front are unclear, he has maintained a steady production of materials and fatawa and has been spotted at least twice brandishing an AK-47.[55] Al-Tartusi responded angrily when the news emerged that he was at the front, with the implication being that he was consorting with terrorists, and he published a remonstration on his site in which he declared that he was there as “a servant and an adviser to all the heroic rebels and to all the Syrian people who are in defiance against the oppression and tyranny of Bashar al-Assad.”[56]

Another former “Londonistani” who appeared briefly toward the beginning of the Syrian conflict and then disappeared was Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, otherwise known as Abu Mus`ab al-Suri. A prominent jihadist theologian, U.S. and Pakistani forces captured him in Quetta in 2005 and eventually transferred him to Syrian authorities.[57] In the late 1990s, al-Suri was one of the prominent former Arab Afghan warriors to have landed in London as Afghanistan descended into civil war and the jihad against the Soviets concluded.[58] Alongside Abu Qatada, al-Suri managed the jihadist screed Ansar that openly supported extremist groups in Algeria. Following his time in London, he moved to Afghanistan from where he helped train fighters and authored literature until he was captured in late 2005.[59]

Al-Suri languished in Syrian custody until early February 2012, when news emerged on the Shumukh jihadist website that he had been freed.[60] While it is hard to independently verify this claim, the news has been widely accepted as true among the expert community and seemingly confirmed both by reliable extremists on forums and London-based extremists who knew him.[61] The logic behind the al-Assad regime’s decision to release him is unclear.

Humanitarian Support
Support for the war in Syria has not only come through fighters and warrior preachers. One of the more under-reported but highly important figures to have emerged from the United Kingdom is Muhammad Surur bin Nayif Zain al-Abidin. A British passport holder, Surur was based in the United Kingdom for almost two decades after moving there in the 1980s.[62] He has reportedly been characterized as a “Godfather-like” figure who had previously vetted individuals who had traveled to the United Kingdom to meet with Saad al-Faqih or Muhammad al-Massari. Al-Faqih and al-Massari are two prominent Saudi dissidents in London who have played senior roles in the “Londonistan” community. As well as individually running dissident groups aimed against the Saudi regime, al-Massari in particular was an active supporter of Britain’s nascent online jihadist community.[63]

A former Muslim Brotherhood activist, Surur was an innovator in Salafist thinking and established with his followers the Center for Islamic Studies in Birmingham, from where he published magazines and later ran the http://www.alsunnah.org website.[64] In 2004, Surur left the United Kingdom, moving to Jordan and later to Qatar, and it is from here that, according to one prominent Syrian journalist based in London, he has become an important figure in the flow of Qatari money to Syria.[65] As journalist Malik al-Abdeh alleged, “Surur has established himself as one of the key conduits for Qatari money to the anti-Assad rebels.”[66]

Other Syrians have remained in the United Kingdom and have taken roles publicly supporting the rebels in other ways, either through formal new Syrian National Council structures or Syrian-managed NGOs.[67] Beyond politics, a basic sense of feeling the need to support the Syrian refugees seen regularly on television screens has driven unknown numbers of Britons to give money and other forms of aid to support those living in refugee camps in Turkey or elsewhere. Support for Syrian refugees has come from traditional charitable entities from across Britain’s Muslim community. Using a blend of videos, magazines, flyers, stalls in city centers, charity boxes inside and outside mosques, and sponsored events, these charities turn the money they raise into goods which they then drive—in convoys usually with donated ambulances—to refugee camps in Turkey.[68] There is no evidence that these are anything but charitable enterprises, but some of the individuals involved are notable for more radical views.[69] More openly controversial groups such as Hizb al-Tahrir have also regularly held demonstrations or protest events at which they call for al-Assad’s downfall.[70] At these events, emotive language is used to encourage people to help support the refugees, with preachers often providing a religious explanation for why more should be done. These are all legitimate activities, yet it highlights the backdrop around which the issue is discussed in Britain’s Muslim community.

Demonstrating the ease with which British citizens are able to get close to the fighting—either for military or humanitarian purposes—former Guantanamo Bay prisoner and spokesman for the activist group Cage Prisoners, Moazzam Begg, made a trip to Syria as part of an aid convoy at some point in the first half of 2012. According to his own report, he traveled to “the outskirts of the city of Aleppo [where] I stayed with a group of pious, well-educated, relatively young and very hospitable fighters.”[71]

Conclusion
The trouble in Syria remains beyond British borders. Security officials are somewhat constrained about how to respond, and understandably only take action when specific cases linked to kidnapping or terrorism can be constructed. The question becomes what will happen to the young men who are bloodied in the conflict after the Syrian war winds down, as well as the networks that will have been established between radical groups in Syria and in the United Kingdom.

It took a few years before former Bosnian fighters were implicated in terrorist plots in the United Kingdom. In 1995, Andrew Rowe, an aimless former drug dealer, converted to Islam and went to Bosnia where he took up arms and was injured during fighting.[72] In 2003, he was arrested with unspecified terrorist plans after being connected with a number of French former Bosnian fighters who carried out a series of violent robberies across France.[73] Saajid Badat went to Sarajevo in 1998 and the next year to Afghanistan.[74] Two years later he was on his way back to the United Kingdom with Richard Reid and a set of “shoe bombs” with the intent to blow up transatlantic airlines.[75] Also in 1998, Omar Sharif answered the call to go and join Kosovar militants fighting Serbs, although he cut his trip short. He went to Damascus approximately a year later, then Afghanistan after 9/11, before his fatal trip in 2003 back to Damascus where he hoped to join the insurgency in Iraq and instead ended up as part of a two-man suicide cell operating on Hamas’ behalf in Tel Aviv.[76]

This is not a new narrative. Conflicts with a jihadist flavor attract idealistic young fighters who are sometimes redirected to other conflicts. At some point, if these fighters encounter certain groups or individuals, this energy can develop into plotting at home. Certainly this is not always the case, and most of those who go—either to fight or simply to do charity work—will return home and resume their lives. Yet the growing depth and complexity of the UK-Syria connection will perplex security services for years to come as they try to identify who is connected with Salafi-jihadi groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and who went for less nefarious reasons.

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

[1] William Hague, “Foreign Secretary on Countering Terrorism,” speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), February 14, 2013.

[2] Bosnia was a bus or car ride away for British citizens, similar to Syria.

[3] Covered in greater detail later in the article, there are charitable organizations, as well as jihadist support networks, that help British Muslims become involved in Syria: either in providing aid as part of charity convoys, or more active roles as fighters. This is similar to Bosnia where similar structures existed. Evan Kohlmann’s Al-Qaeda’s Jihad in Europe: The Afghan-Bosnian Network provides a snapshot of British jihadist support structures in Bosnia.

[4] John Cantlie, “Are You Ready to Die?” Sunday Times, August 5, 2012.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] John-Paul Ford Rojas, “NHS Doctor ‘Led Extremist Cell in Syria,’” Telegraph, August 27, 2012.

[8] “British Police Arrest 2 at Heathrow Airport in Probe into Terrorist Activity in Syria,” Associated Press, October 9, 2012.

[9] Tom Whitehead, “NHS Doctor Accused of Being Part of a British Jihadi Group in Syria,” Telegraph, October 17, 2012.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Paul Peachey, “Four Men Arrested Over Syria Terror Fears,” Independent, January 10, 2012.

[13] Tom Whitehead, “Four Men Arrested Under Terror Laws After Kidnap of Journalist,” Telegraph, January 10, 2012.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Margaret Davis, “London Man Charged Over Sub Machine Gun Possession,” Independent, January 17, 2013.

[16] “Man, 20, is Held on Sub-Machine Gun Charge by Officers Investigating Alleged Support for Terrorism,” West End Extra, January 18, 2013.

[17] “Man Charged in UK Over Journalists’ Syria Kidnap,” Agence France-Presse, January 25, 2013.

[18] “Man at Court Charged with Terrorism Act 2006 Offence,” Crime & Justice, January 25, 2013.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Tom Coghlan and Laura Pitel, “The British Pals Who Died Waging Holy War in Syria,” Times, October 13, 2012.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] “Drug Squad Criticizes Jail Terms Handed out to Crack Cocaine Trio,” Express and Echo, February 10, 2008.

[30] “Two Independent Journalists Killed in Syria,” Committee to Protect Journalists, March 27, 2012.

[31] Laura Pitel and James Hider, “British ‘Terrorists’ Among Dead, Says Syria,” Times, May 18, 2012.

[32] Coghlan and Pitel.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] “Two Independent Journalists Killed in Syria.”

[36] Coghlan and Pitel.

[37] Omar Nasiri, Inside the Jihad: My Life with al Qaeda (London: Hurst, 2006), p. 16.

[38] Raffaello Pantucci, “A Biography of Rashid Rauf: Al-Qa`ida’s British Operative,” CTC Sentinel 5:7 (2012); Nic Robertson, Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, “Documents Give New Details on al Qaeda’s London Bombings,” CNN, April 30, 2012.

[39] Exact numbers are unknown, but anecdotal stories suggest that dozens went back to fight from Manchester’s Libyan community. See Jane Deith, “The Teenage Libyan Rebel from Manchester,” Channel 4 News, June 11, 2011; Edna Fernandes, “Why Do So Many Libyan Rebels Seen on TV Speak with British Accents?” Daily Mail, July 31, 2011.

[40] “Tunisian Islamist Leader Rashid Ghannouchi Returns Home,” BBC, January 30, 2011. Another key figure to have returned was Said Ferjani.

[41] Mohamed Elmeshad, “Profile: Kamal al-Helbawy, a Defector of Conscience,” Egypt Independent, September 4, 2012. For a longer overview of Britain’s “Londonistani” community and the impact of the Arab Spring, see James Brandon and Raffaello Pantucci, “UK Islamists and the Arab Uprisings,” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology 13 (2012).

[42] Zubeda Malik, “Britain’s ‘Fragmented’ Syrian Community,” BBC, August 24, 2012.

[43] Andrew Gilligan, “Security Services ‘Failing’ to Stop British Jihadis Heading to Syria,” Sunday Telegraph, August 25, 2012.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Richard Spencer, “British Convert to Islam Vows to Fight to the Death on Syrian Rebel Front Line,” Telegraph, August 16, 2012.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] David Brown, Sean O’Neill and Dominic Kennedy, “British Jihadi Recruits 50 Muslims for War in Syria,” Times, October 18, 2012.

[49] Duncan Gardham, “The Poplar Preacher Leading an Armed Gang of Jihadis in Syria,” Telegraph, October 19, 2012.

[50] “Abu Hamza Jailed for Seven Years,” BBC, February 7, 2006.

[51] “Hate Preaching Cleric Jailed,” BBC, March 7, 2003.

[52] Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, or Abu Qatada v. Secretary of State for the Home Department, Special Immigration Appeals Commission, March 8, 2004.

[53] Mahan Abedin, “Al-Muhajiroun in the UK: An Interview with Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed,” Spotlight on Terror 2:5 (2005); Shiv Malik, “The Missing Links,” New Statesman, May 7, 2007.

[54] This statement is drawn from conversations with London’s Muslim community, and discussions such as the following on the Islamic Awakening Forum: http://www.forums.islamicawakening.com/f18/sheikh-abu-basir-al-tartousi-hafidhahullah-liberates-61936.

[55] Ibid. Also see the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=uJfBkUgkSU8.

[56] For details, see his statement at http://www.abubaseer.bizland.com/hadath/Read/hadath%2093.pdf. By February 2013, al-Tartusi had returned to the United Kingdom.

[57] This abbreviated biography is drawn primarily from Brynjar Lia, Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al Qaeda Strategist Abu Mus`ab al-Suri (London: Hurst, 2009).

[58] Ibid.

[59]  Ibid.

[60]  Murad Batal al-Shishani, “Syria’s Surprising Release of Jihadi Strategist Abu Musab al Suri,” Terrorism Monitor 10:3 (2012).

[61]  Specifically, Egyptian Yasser al-Siri has claimed that he has information pertaining to Abu Mus`ab’s release. See “Abu Musab Al-Suri Speaks on His Pakistan Detention,” The Arab Digest, February 24, 2012.

[62] Details on Surur can be found in Lia.

[63] In 1999, a British man working for Railtrack, Mohammed Sohail, was revealed to be using his work account to fundraise for jihad abroad, in locations such as Kashmir, Algeria and Chechnya, among others. When confronted by reporters, he told them, “I work for two people really, Mr. Massari and Osama bin Laden.” See Chris Hastings and Jessica Berry, “Muslim Militia Training in Britain: Bin Laden Groups to Join Mujahedeen for Various Wars, Including Chechnya,” Ottowa Citizen, November 7, 1999. In later years, al-Massari would openly talk on the BBC about running jihad supporting websites and radio stations from the United Kingdom. See “The New al-Qaeda: jihad.com,” BBC, July 20, 2005; Philip Johnston, “Calls to Deport ‘the Voice of al-Qa’eda,’” Telegraph, July 27, 2005.

[64]  Jarret Brachman, Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice (London: Routledge, 2008), p. 38; Lia.

[65]   Ibid.; personal interview, Malik al-Abdeh, London, November 2012.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Two prominent examples are Walid Saffour and Rami Abdulrahman.

[68]  The author encountered one such convoy on its way to Ancona, Italy, in the Marche region of Italy heading to a boat to Turkey. With a bus branded from “Dudley [a British city in the west midlands] to Damascus,” the drivers reported being part of a six vehicle convoy including an ambulance and a heavy goods truck with clothes and children’s milk. They were linked to the charity United Muslims (www.unitedmuslims.co.uk). Other convoys have been sent from the Aid Convoy charity (www.aid-convoy.org.uk).

[69]  For example, on February 25, 2012, outside the Syrian Embassy, the group Aid Convoy 2 Syria (that later became the Aid Convoy) held an event called “Answer the Call: Charity Rally for Syria,” at which Shaykh Haithem al-Haddad and Imam Shakeel Begg spoke with the Qur’anic recitation provided by Sufyan Mustafa Kamal, the son of recently deported preacher Abu Hamza al-Masri. While none of these men have been convicted on any terrorism charges or fallen under suspicion of any crime, they have all attracted some controversy due to the tone in their preaching.

[70] For pictures of this demonstration, see http://www.demotix.com/news/1060472/hizb-ut-tahrir-march-through-london-support-syrian-uprising#media-1060346.

[71] Moazzam Begg, “Syria: My Journey to the Land of Blessing, and Torture,” Cage Prisoners, August 16, 2012.

[72]  Jeremy Britton, “Rowe ‘Bore al-Qaeda Hallmarks,’” BBC, September 23, 2005.

[73] “Al Qaeda Exploits ‘Blue-Eyed’ Muslim Converts,” Reuters, October 11, 2005.

[74] Martin Beckford, “Terrorist Supergrass Saajid Badat: The Shoe Bomber Who Got Cold Feet,” Telegraph, April 17, 2012.

[75] Paul Cruickshank, “Transatlantic Shoe Bomber Knew Bin Laden,” CNN, April 20, 2012.

[76] “World: Road to Martyrdom,” Journeyman Pictures, first broadcast on May 30, 2007.

A new post for CNN, this one expanding on some brief comments in my earlier letter to the Financial Times. I see it has inspired a certain amount of vitriol on their comments. The overall point here is to highlight the fact that a bad situation is being allowed to simply get worse to no-one’s benefit and the long-term implications are going to be negative. Per CNN’s agreement, I have only posted the first 150 odd words here, please follow the hyperlinks to read the whole piece. UPDATE (Oct 20, 2012): I realize I owe Shashank a note of thanks for reading an earlier draft of this.

Analysis: The Lure of the Jihad and the Danger to Europe

By Raffaello Pantucci, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Raffaello Pantucci is an associate fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College and the author of the forthcoming “We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen” (Hurst).

A growing number of young Europeans drawn to protect their abandoned Muslim brethren have taken up arms in Syria. It’s a dynamic that Europe has witnessed before.

In the 1990s, young Europeans were enticed by the idea of fighting jihad in Bosnia. Spurred on by radical preachers, young men and women were drawn to fight to protect their Muslim brethren merely a bus ride away.

Before the September 11 attack in 2001, the notion of fighting in a holy war was something far from most people’s minds and reserved for history books about the Crusades. Occasional appearances by fearsome looking radical preachers at rallies where people would shout about holy war were shown every so often on television, but that was the extent of public knowledge of the issue.

But there was more going on, mostly unseen to the average citizen in Europe. In the mid-1990s as Yugoslavia started to fall apart, stories emerged of middle-class Europeans being killed fighting and of Western forces finding groups of fighters with British accents among the Bosnian ranks.

More

A brief letter in the Financial Times, in reaction to this op-ed in the paper. I have a longer piece focused on what I am talking about landing soon, I think the issue of fighters going to Syria is something which is only going to increase over time.

When the moral card fails it’s time to get personal

From Mr Raffaello Pantucci.

Sir, Rhonda Roumani’s emotional appeal to regional states to muster western support to end the lethal stalemate in Syria pulls at heartstrings that have been tugged into numbness (“A conflict that is staining the conscience of the world”, October 15). As we enter the 20th month of fighting with little sign of much active western intervention, it is abundantly clear that such emotive appeals are not the solution. A more pragmatic line must be taken.

The key is to remind people of what happened in Bosnia in the 1990s, where a civil war developed into a proxy struggle with Iranian, Saudi, Russian and western proxies sniping on the ground while a sectarian conflict gradually adopted greater religious overtones. The net result of Bosnia was to create a cauldron into which religious extremists could pour their ideas and ply their trade – to come back to plague leaders across the world in the form of a network of extremists connected to al-Qaeda and its extremist ideas. All sides came out worse than they went in, with even Iran and Saudi Arabia ultimately suffering from the resurgent extremist feeling that they helped stoke.

The point is that as Syria continues to drag on, we are increasingly seeing a similar dynamic play out on the ground. No resolution one way or the other only proves to extremists that the narrative they believe is true, and stokes fires that will invariably come back to haunt us. This quite blunt practical reality is the key to persuading people that more must be done. The moral card has been played already and has quite clearly been ignored. Appeal to people’s sense of personal security and you might be able to get through.

Raffaello Pantucci, Associate Fellow, International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College London, UK

 

A new op-ed for the Chinese paper 东方早报 (Oriental Morning Post) that I write an occasional column for. This one looks a bit at events in Syria and the growing jihadi presence and what it means. Doesn’t really focus on the Chinese lack of involvement there, but the idea is to try to explain something and its potential dangers to a Chinese audience. The published Chinese is above, with the English I submitted below.

叙利亚不仅仅是叙利亚
潘睿凡   发表于2012-08-10 04:12

叙利亚前总理里亚德·希贾卜出走转投反对派,让阿萨德政权又一次雪上加霜。

潘睿凡 英国伦敦国际激进主义化研究中心副研究员

叙利亚前总理里亚德·希贾卜出走转投反对派,让阿萨德政权又一次雪上加霜。由于国际社会对于这一危机依然采取了僵持态度,激进势力积聚力量,代理人暗战日益恶化。如果只是简单地让叙利亚战争顺势爆发,这将会带来诸多难以想象的负面影响。正如之前人们在“阿拉伯之春”运动中多次观察到的那样,乐观估计总是被现实击得粉碎。如果叙利亚因为派系之争而分崩离析,这会对中东乃至整个世界带来长期消极影响。

如今的事实是,我们正在看着叙利亚慢慢地变成一团纠缠不清的乱麻,被阿拉维少数派统治的逊尼多数派产生了强烈憎恨情绪,来自世界各地的激进组织极端分子人数在增加,逊尼派海湾国家和伊朗什叶派之间的代理人战争愈演愈烈。如果不对此加以控制影响,这样复杂的内战将会酿成全球恶果。

理解当今叙利亚混乱局势和其潜在危险的关键在于回溯到第二次海湾战争、伊朗战争和伊斯兰逊尼派与什叶派之间的长期纷争。逊尼派与什叶派是伊斯兰教派中主要的两支:从世界范围来看,逊尼派人数占多数,为全球穆斯林人口75%,什叶派占10%到20%。什叶派相信先知穆罕默德指派了自己的堂弟阿里为伊斯兰领袖。逊尼派则认为真正应该追随的是在先知逝世后获得领袖地位的穆罕默德岳父艾布·伯克尔。两派对于领袖的分裂看法自此成为全世界穆斯林信徒间最重要的派别之争。

伊拉克战争使得伊拉克变成了公开的什叶派国家,一个由什叶派占据主导的国家。萨达姆政权的倒台,意味着将国家领导权交给与伊朗关系亲密的什叶派。什叶派在伊拉克掌权也意味着什叶派(或者对于什叶派友好的领袖,比如阿萨德的阿拉维教派)如今掌控着中东的伊朗、伊拉克、叙利亚和黎巴嫩。

在“阿拉伯之春”中,这一动态在海湾国家愈发显现。在北非和埃及,权力从非宗教专制政权过渡到伊斯兰教徒手中;在海湾国家,什叶派愤怒地揭竿而起,对抗掌权的逊尼派。在沙特阿拉伯东部,什叶派开始抗议;在由逊尼派王室控制人数占国内多数的什叶派的巴林,反抗浪潮一波未平一波又起。也门也同样面临着各种危机,但目前看来,还未正面受到占据约40%人口的什叶派的公开起义威胁。

对逊尼派领导人来说,前景堪称相当险恶。约旦国王阿卜杜拉二世在提出“什叶派新月带”威胁的时候详尽地表达了他的担忧。我们在叙利亚战场上越来越多地看到,海湾地区(主要是沙特和卡塔尔)的资金和特种部队训练支持着逊尼派反对者与阿萨德政权斗争。伊朗也并没有闲着。除了利用它的代理人和全球情报服务来攻击以色列之外,伊朗也在继续为阿萨德政权提供支持。

除了这些之外,我们还能看到来自世界各地的激进组织分子越来越多地出现在叙利亚。过去这周,一位年轻的德国医学院学生在阿勒颇被杀,一对外国记者也在叙利亚被挟持为人质,据说挟持者分别来自车臣、巴基斯坦、沙特和英格兰。值得我们注意的是,在美国入侵伊拉克期间,大量曾经帮助战士进入伊拉克的激进组织经叙利亚而来。部分组织由此将注意力放回了本土,也有消息说伊拉克的“基地组织”正在重返叙利亚。与此同时,伊拉克“基地组织”也在发起一系列具有高度组织性的攻击,证明他们有能力继续在伊拉克造成更多伤亡和毁灭。这些激进组织是逊尼派,尽管外部支持者会尽其可能不直接为他们提供资金援助,但在这样复杂的内战中,要将他们与逊尼派自由叙利亚军分开,还是有相当难度。在这两派中间还有那些普通的叙利亚人,他们发现自己被卷入了一场日益残酷的内战之中,战争已经几乎延续了一年半,看不到任何停止的迹象。

这一切都已经发生,而世界却还在一旁争执着是否要制裁叙利亚。西方国家暗示他们将寻找某种途径来支援这个国家中可靠的代理人,这是一条危险道路,历史上不乏不良后果。如今是需要一个负责的领袖站出来解决问题的时候。

(李鸣燕 译)录入编辑:张珺

 

Syria is about much more than Syria

The defection of Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab to the rebel side is the latest in a growing number of losses that the Assad regime has suffered in the past few months. As the international community remains deadlocked in what to do about the ongoing crisis, radical forces gather strength and a proxy war being played out by others continues to get worse. Simply letting the war in Syria play itself naturally out is something with repercussions that will be hard to judge. As has been shown repeatedly before in the Arab Spring, optimistic expectations are often shattered by reality. Letting Syria tear itself apart in a sectarian struggle is something that will have longer-term repercussions across the Middle East and the world.

China’s current approach to the Syrian crisis is to take shade under its famous rubric of ‘non-interference.’ In a particularly angry statement after the latest western instigated round of discussions to bring UN condemnation against the Assad regime, Long Zhou, a counselor in the Foreign Ministry, stated ‘we are opposed to intervention in domestic affairs, imposition of regime change and support for military interference.’ Furthermore, ‘the countries with such acts and remarks should rethink what role they have played and who indeed has been the obstacle in resolving the Syrian crisis.’

Such strong words may illustrate Chinese anger at being repeatedly blamed for holding up any action on Syria, but they do not particularly offer a path forwards to try to resolve the current crisis. Nor do they take account of the reality already being played out on the ground. The reality is that we are slowly watching Syria become an ever more tangled mess of sectarian fighting between a Sunni majority who always resented being ruled by the minority Alawite community, the growing presence of jihadist extremists from around the world, and a growing proxy war between the Sunni Gulf states and Shia Iran. Just the sort of complicated civil war that ends up having global repercussions if it is allowed to fester indefinitely.

The key to understanding the current Syrian chaos and its potential danger going forwards goes right back to the second Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq and the long-standing Sunni-Shia divide in Islam. Sunni and Shia are the two main branches of Islam: Sunni are the global majority (around 75% of the global Muslim population – including China’s Muslim minorities), while Shia are a minority (around 10-20%) who differentiate themselves from Sunni’s believing that on his death the prophet Mohammed designated his cousin Ali as the leader of Islam. Sunni’s in contrast believe Abu Bakr, Mohammed’s father-in-law, was the correct follower who took the reins of power as the head of Islam after the prophet’s death. This early split in leadership has been the foundation of most major divisions in the Muslim world since.

Whilst the invasion of Iraq was positive in that it deposed one of the world’s cruelest dictators, it had the additional effect of turning Iraq into an openly Shia nation. A Shia majority country, it was always clear that the introduction of democracy to Iraq would turn the country’s leadership over to a Shia leadership with a close affinity to Iran. And the introduction of a Shia regime in Iraq meant that Shia leaders (or Shia friendly leaders like the Alawite Assad’s) now ruled a swathe of the Middle East from Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

And as the Arab Spring gathered pace this dynamic was further exacerbated in the Gulf countries. While in North Africa and Egypt, power was passed from secular authoritarian regimes to political Islamists, in the Gulf countries, mostly angry and oppressed Shia minorities or in some cases, majorities, started to rise up against the deeply Sunni kings that ruled the kingdoms. In eastern Saudi Arabia, Shia protests started to take place, and in Bahrain, where a Shia majority is ruled by a Sunni king, repeated protests have taken place led mostly by Shia’s. Yemen has faced all manner of chaos, but thus far it seems to have been saved much of an open uprising by its 40% or more Shia minority.

For Sunni leaders, this is a menacing prospect. Jordanian King Abdulla II enunciated these concerns when he spoke of the danger of a ‘Shiite crescent’ across the Middle East. And there has been pushback, something we are increasingly seeing on the ground in Syria where stories of Gulf (primarily Saudi and Qatari) funding and Special Forces training supporting the mostly Sunni rebels fighting the Assad regime. Iran has not been idle. In addition to using its proxies and intelligence services globally to attack Israeli targets (and apparently plotting to kill the Saudi Ambassador to Washington), it has continued to provide support for the Assad regime. The two sides are supporting different factions in the civil war.

Beyond these networks, we have also seen growing numbers of jihadists from around the world showing up in Syria. This past week a young German medical student was killed fighting in Aleppo, while a pair of foreign journalists who were held captive in Syria reported being held by a group of fanatics that included Chechens, Pakistanis, Saudis and Britons. It is worth remembering that many of the jihadist networks that were helping fighters get into Iraq during the peak of the American invasion flowed through Syria. Some of these networks have now started to turn their eyes back home, and there are stories of al Qaeda in Iraq forces re-directing into Syria. At the same time al Qaeda in Iraq is proving itself increasingly able to sow death and destruction in Iraq itself – launching a series of highly coordinated attacks in the past weeks. These jihadist networks are Sunni, and while it is likely that outside supporters are doing their best to not provide funding directly to them, it may be hard to separate such groups out from the Sunni Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the chaos of a civil war. Caught in the middle of the misery are average Syrians who now find themselves in the midst of an increasingly brutal civil war that has stretched on for almost a year and a half with no prospects of conclusion in sight.

All of this is already happening. And while it does, the world is sitting by arguing about condemnation of a regime that has proven itself willing to kill its own people. The west has now started to hint that it might try to find ways of providing support for approved proxies in the country, a dangerous path that has led to problems in the past, but equally, sitting on the side letting things play themselves out is only going to let the current scenario get worse and become more bitter. The world is watching as the Middle Eastern cauldron stirs itself up, and it is only a matter of time before it spills over the side. The time has come for some responsible leadership to step forwards and find a way through the current impasse. Simply letting things play themselves out may take a long time and in period tensions will be stoked that will take decades to play themselves out with uncertain outcomes for everyone.

A slightly longer post for Free Rad!cals looking at the Shabaab’s new television channel and trying to explore its gradual evolution towards international violence. I have a longer piece on the topic of Shabaab and foreign fighters coming up soon for Jane’s.

A Threat Coming to Your TV Screen

In September last year, the Director General of the Security Service (MI5) made a speech in which he highlighted,

In Somalia, for example, there are a significant number of UK residents training in al-Shabaab camps to fight in the insurgency there. al-Shabaab, an Islamist militia in Somalia, is closely aligned with al-Qaeda and Somalia shows many of the characteristics that made Afghanistan so dangerous as a seedbed for terrorism in the period before the fall of the Taliban. There is no effective government, there is a strong extremist presence and there are training camps attracting would be jihadists from across the world.

This speech was the latest proof of high-level concern about the Islamist al-Shabaab (the youth) militia in Somalia, which has evolved quite rapidly from regional insurgency to aspirant regional al-Qaeda affiliate. The most recent evidence of its evolution was the revelation last week that the group both had a new logo and was launching its own television channel. As the official press release put it,

The “al-Kataib News Channel” came to teach.. to tell.. and to incite.. in honor of the martyrs who covered battlefields with their blood in various fronts; east and west, south and north. This came in defense of the victories of the Mujahideen who broke the pride of the infidel West, scattered its papers and made their senior commanders lose their minds. This in support of the Muwahideen’s patience and persistence in the land of pride.

This news comes in the wake of a continuing escalation in activity from the group. I have written in the past about the group in a number of different formats, each highlighting different aspects of the group’s morph from regional insurgent to global actor. It has gone from being one amongst many in the civil war in Somalia, to being an actor able to launch attacks first in semi-autonomous Puntland, to being able and willing to launch attacks in neighboring Uganda, to maybe even being connected to international attacks. There has been an almost constant digest of stories of al-Qaeda leaders hiding out amongst the group in East Africa, rhetorical video exchanges between al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab, and evidence of other al-Qaeda affiliates moving to set up shop in Somalia. On the ground, stories point to the group’s increasing extremism and imposition of Shariah law, now a television channel, and all the while it seems able to draw a wide community of foreigners to its ranks.

International Threat? Members of al-Shabaab in Training

The trajectory it seems to be headed is an attack on the international stage. As Evans put it, the group ‘shows many of the characteristics that made Afghanistan so dangerous as a seedbed for terrorism,’ and consequently it understandable that it is high on the list of threats that keeps him up at night. But at the same time, the question that should be asked is whether we are wishing ourselves towards a conclusion that in fact is not in the interests of the group?

Yes, it does seem as though the Shabaab’s trajectory is invariably taking it towards attacking the West, and at least one of its leaders has openly threatened America. As Omar Hammami, aka Abu Mansour,put it to the New York Times, “it’s quite obvious that I believe America is a target.”

But why would the group attack the West? On the one hand it would give it a greater profile and prestige, all which would invariably bring it a greater degree of support and contacts, but at the same time such an attack would bring the additional nuisance of foreign interference and attention. It already has a great deal, but compared to AQAP or AQ core in Waziristan it remains a secondary issue for western counter-terrorists. So much so that aspiring Western fighters wanting to go to jihad consider Somalia an easier place to go than the other jihadi battlefields. As far as Western security services are concerned, the greatest concern is from radicalised networks affiliated with the group that chose to move into action in their home states, rather than going to Somalia to fight. Examples of this would be in Denmark in the case of young Somali-Dane who tried to kill Kurt Westegaard, one of the cartoonists responsible for the infamous Mohammed cartoons, and the cell in Australia who were trying to get to Somalia, but failed and instead decided to try to do something at home. In addition, there is the mixed group in Demark who were apparently targeting Jyllands-Posten, and at least one of whom had tried to link up with Somali networks in the past.

But in all three cases, it is unclear to what degree al-Shabaab central command was involved. This does not mean that they are absolved of activity outside Somalia – certainly the Kampala attack seems to have had a high degree of Shabaab involvement – but it remains uncertain that the group wants to start attacks in the west. The risk it would seem is from radicalized networks who decide to do things at home of their own volition (like the Australian or Danish networks), or might be coopted by groups like Al Qaeda to carry out attacks in the west (maybe the mixed network of attackers in Denmark).

This nonetheless means the group is a threat, but it is different from the threat posed by groups whose leadership appears to have made a conscious decision to attack the west. At the moment its attacks outside Somali borders have focused on nations involved in the AMISOM force, rather than any “kaffir” state. The danger is that we wish ourselves into facing a threat from the group by focusing too much attention on it. While it seems clear that radicalized networks are a threat, it is not clear that the group itself is eager to launch attacks against the west. This is not to say that it might not happen (I am wary of making any concrete assumptions, aware of how these groups mutate and how easy it is for affiliate networks to be coopted by others), but it is unclear that we are there yet in terms of core command targeting cities in America or Europe.

The Director General of MI5 seems very aware of this, and chose his words carefully about the group. “I am concerned that it is only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside al-Shabaab,” is how he put it. But maybe this should be more delicately put saying “connected” rather than “inspired.” The point is not that the group is not dangerous or a threat, but that it is not quite at the stage of being an AQAP or AQ core threat. To think strategically it would seem as though we need to find a better way by which to assess which affiliates are direct and indirect threats and what are the signs they are moving in an increasingly dangerous direction. All of which might help identify what moves might be made to send them down a different path.