Posts Tagged ‘foreign fighters’

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

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

Observer screenshot_August 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new piece for my institutional home RUSI, looking at the threat from ISIS in the context of the history of the group. In the wake of the brutal Foley murder, there was a spike in media interest and I spoke on related topics to the Australian, Metro, Global PostGuardian, NBCSlate, in this conversation with USA Today, they drew the conclusion I meant poverty was a driver of why people would go and join to fight in Syria/Iraq. Not quite my intention, it is more about blocked mobility sometimes providing people with an opening to radical ideas rather than deprivation driving them towards it. Were poverty a driver of terrorism, there would be many more terrorists in the world. Earlier I spoke to Channel 4 about ISIS camps in Syria/Iraq, to Voice of America about the group more broadly, about British gangsta’s going to fight to the Sunday Express, as well as to the Evening Standard about gangsta rapper MC now fighting in Syria/Iraq Abdel Bary. Beyond ISIS and Iraq/Syria, I spoke to Voice of America about Xinjiang and with the South China Morning Post about this coming week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) counter-terror drill

Is ISIS a Threat to the UK?

RUSI Analysis, 21 Aug 2014

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

The murder of American journalist James Foley brought global attention to the menace of ISIS. But what kind of a threat does the group actually post beyond the Levant?

British jihadists, Isis recruitment video

image from here

The cruel beheading by a possibly British ISIS fighter of American journalist James Foley is the latest act of brutality by a group whose willingness to use such violence continues to reach new depths.

However, in the understandable consternation around the group and its activity, care should be taken to understand better the exact nature of the threat that this group poses. ISIS is working hard to try to overturn the current Westphalian order with its repeated invocations of destroying the Sykes-Picot borders of the Middle East and has quite successfully taken over an ever-expanding chunk of the Levant. The question is whether the group remains principally a regional threat or an international one.

The best answer is to look more closely at the group’s history. ISIS (or Islamic State as they refer to themselves) is a group that has waxed and waned over the years. Borne out of Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s group that he founded in Herat, Afghanistan in the late 1990s, it came to more international prominence in in August 2003 when they attacked the Jordanian Embassy and UN Headquarters in Baghdad and a Shia shrine in Najaf. In the process they killed hundreds including UN Special Envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, the leader of the SCIRI Party and one of the leaders of Shia Iraq. In time, the group, which in 2006 changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) to make it sound more Iraqi, suffered public blowback at its unremitting and brutal violence with the Sahwa ‘awakening’ movement as Sunni’s grew tired of the unremitting murder and sectarian tensions that ISI was stirring up.

But for all its brutality within Iraq, the group did not much stretch beyond its domestic borders. Under Zarqawi’s watch in November 2005 they launched a series of three coordinated attacks on Western hotels in Amman, Jordan, killing 60 and injuring over 100. It was possibly linked to some attempts to attack Israel, but these amounted to little. This notwithstanding the fact that the group had the technical expertise, contacts, and fighters to use as tools to launch attacks against the West or elsewhere.

The Threat Today

Cut to today and we have a group that has formally severed its links with Al Qa’ida and established a dominion of sorts over chunks of Iraq and Syria. A decade on, it is still resorting to sending political messages through the brutal and public beheading of American hostages. We have yet, however, to see confirmed evidence of the group actually launching attacks outside its immediate territory (beyond possible links to incidents elsewhere in the Levant). This is not to say that we have not seen plots emanate from foreign fighter networks linked to the group. Mehdi Nemmouche, a French national, had allegedly fought alongside ISIS for some time prior to returning to Europe where he took it upon himself to murder four people at the Jewish museum in Brussels. And while his was the only successful attack, at least four other plots have been disrupted within European borders in which individuals fought in Syria (and possibly Iraq) before coming back home and undertaking plotting clearly in the direction of trying to do something within Europe rather than back in the Levant.

But absent from these reported plots is much evidence of direction by ISIS. There have been suggestions of directed plots linked to Jabhat al Nusrah, but the information around these has been sketchy. Rather, it seems as though these plots for the most part seem to be undertaken by individuals who have battlefield experience and decide to come back and do something under their own steam. In many ways, this actually reflects the historical experience with foreigners who fight or train alongside groups in Iraq: Bilal Abdulla and Taimour Abdulwahab al Abdaly both spent some time in Iraq alongside the insurgency before heading back to the UK and Sweden respectively to try to carry out attacks. In neither case was their evidence produced of direction off the battlefield, though their cases illustrate clear examples of individuals that a group like ISIS could have used had it wanted to launch attacks against Europe.

A Menace, Yes. But is ISIS a Threat to the West?

It is clear that ISIS is a menace that leaders rightly focus on. It has the potential to upend the Middle East and cause death and misery to thousands. But it is not as of yet clear that it is a group with the desire and intent to launch itself against the West and Europe in particular. It has the means at its disposal to launch such attacks and has rhetorically threatened such attacks, but so far we have not seen these clearly materialise.

This is of course not to say that they might not take place. Clearly, ISIS is a group that has evolved over time, and it might yet evolve in a strategic direction that leads to a concerted effort to launch attacks against the West. But as we can see from the fact that in a decade of unleashing brutality, its approach to attracting publicity has little changed, it is possible that its aims and goals have equally shifted little and it continues to be more interested in regional ambitions.

The significance of this distinction lies in the subsequent official reaction in Western capitals to the group. Foley’s brutal murder, like the group’s earlier gains in Iraq, were predictable, but were greeted with shock which mandated major response – a product of the relative inattention that was being paid to what was happening in Syria and Iraq. The danger is that in the absence of a clear plot linked to the group, attention might fade and the group will be seen as a regional irritation that can be managed, rather than an organisation that requires focused extrication and where possible eradication.

This difficult conclusion is one that will only be achieved over a lengthy and committed timeline involving a complicated array of bolstering local forces, cutting deals with tribes to undermine the group, as well as focused counter-terrorism efforts to eliminate leaders and cut off supply routes. More strategically, an inclusive government needs to be fostered in Iraq and the civil war in Syria needs to be brought to some resolution. None of these are easy solutions, but they are long-term solutions to what is necessary to finally bring some peace to the brutalised Levant.

A piece for a new outlet, War on the Rocks, an online magazine established by some friends formerly of the London War Studies community now in Washington. Good resource with a great roster of writers. The piece offers some thoughts on Mehdi Nemmouche and his alleged attack in Belgium within the context of lone actor terrorism trends and the bigger problem of foreign fighters going to Syria and coming home a problem. Beyond this, I did an interview with Swedish TV about foreign fighters around some interesting cases they have going on, as well as talking to Channel 4 and NBC about the current chaos engulfing Iraq. Per War on the Rocks request, I have only posted the first paragraph here, and the rest can be found after the hyperlinks free of charge.

Mehdi Nemmouche and Syria: Europe’s Foreign Fighter Problem

The capture of Mehdi Nemmouche in France alongside his apparent videoed confession claiming responsibility for a shooting last month at a Jewish museum in Brussels offers the first example of deaths in Europe linked to the battlefield in Syria. EU Counterterrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove has spoken of his expectation of more such small-scale attacks, while European security services grow increasingly concerned about the potential scale of the blowback they might expect from Syria. The key problem that has yet to be grappled with is the necessary community messaging that will persuade people of the negative consequences of joining the fight in Syria.

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

45

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.