Posts Tagged ‘Iraq’

A new post at Free Rad!cals, this time stepping on Tim’s turf a bit (though he has gone very quiet of late). It looks at a couple of cases on individuals in Spain and Canada being chased for support activities online. Since this was published, I had discovered that it looks as though the Spanish-Moroccan chap may have in fact been sent back to Morocco, which I suppose supports the case that the Spanish were unsure what to do with him and thought it best just to get rid of him.

Chasing Web Jihadists

View all Raff Pantucci Blogs

Filed under: Online Extremism, Terrorism

This post needs to be prefaced with a note that it is based on court documents rather than any convictions. Unless specified, those mentioned are innocent until proven guilty. But this caveat also serves the purpose of providing a useful intro into this post that explores the complexities of pursuing individuals’ active supporting terrorism online.

The phenomenon of online jihadists is probably the most curious innovation to exist in the world of terrorism studies. The idea that individuals with no physical connection to their chosen group can be an integral part of a terrorist organization is something that seems anathema to a politico-terrorist movement. Traditionally terrorist networks were made up of individuals who knew each other and fought alongside each other. In the current conflict we can see people convicted at the same time for being in the same network with no clear evidence that they ever actually met in person (Younis Tsouli, aka Irhabi007, and pals for example).

But what actually is it that these individuals do online which is in support of terrorism? For Tsouli and his cell the evidence they faced overwhelmed them, and they pled guilty to inciting terrorism. In activities it seemed largely as though they helped Al Qaeda in Iraq upload videos onto the Internet and committed fraud to obtain the funds to manage to continue this activity. Tsouli may also have played a role in a cell in Bosnia and another group spanning from Bradford to Toronto, though how this worked operationally is unclear. A series of recent cases, however, seem to be pushing a bit beyond this in attempting to interdict individuals who were remotely linked to networks sending fighters and funds to battlefields in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Iraq.

Back in August last year, Spanish Guardia Civil forces in sunny Alicante raided the home of Faical Errai, a 26 year-old Moroccan resident in Spain who was allegedly one of the administrator’s and the creator of the Ansar al Mujahedeen website (www.ansaraljihad.net). Documents released at the time of his arrest highlighted Spanish police’s belief that Errai was one of the key players in the website and had helped raise funds, provide ideological sustenance and direct fighters to camps in (at least) Chechnya and Waziristan. He was recorded as having boasted on the site to other forum organizers that he had personally helped at least six Libyans get to Waziristan.

Then earlier this week, Canadian forces arrested on an American warrant, Faruq Khalil Muhammad ‘Isa, a 38 year-old Iraqi-Canadian who was allegedly involved in a network sending fighters and equipment to Iraq. According to the complaintreleased by the US Department of Justice, ‘Isa was in contact electronically with a network which sent at least four fighters from Tunisia to Iraq and which was trying to send a second team of four when it was disrupted by security forces from April 2009 onwards. Having watched these networks get closed down from Canada, it seems as though ‘Isa decided that he too wanted to join in the fighting and by early 2010 was asking to talk to the “boss” and vouching for his “not just 100% but 1,000,000%” commitment to the cause. The final paragraph in the complaint against ‘Isa highlights him telling his sister in Iraq on May 28, 2010 “go learn about weapons and go attack the police and Americans. Let it be that you die.”

Both cases are examples of individuals using the Internet to supposedly direct and conduct operations or the flow of fighters on the other side of the globe. To what degree they were the key players is unclear, but certainly in the case of Errai it seemed as though an important online player was taken out of action. Monitors noticed a substantial up-tick in online threats directed at Spain and calling for the “reconqista” in the wake of his arrest – something that was further read as evidence of his importance. For ‘Isa on the other hand, he claimed surprise at the charges at his first hearing. His role in the network is unclear from the complaint beyond having played some sort of a role in supporting ideologically, and maybe practically, a team get from Tunisia to Iraq – a team which was responsible for two separate suicide bombings, one of which killed five US service people on April 10, 2009 in Mosul. There was no immediate evidence of massive retaliation in the wake of ‘Isa’s arrest.

The cases against both men seem to focus on their capacity through the Internet to play a critical role in networks that were helping fighters get to the battlefield along with funds to support the groups hosting them. There is no suggestion that either man actually went to fight and while some of ‘Isa’s intercepts seem to hint that he may be thinking in that direction, he had not yet acted on this impulse at time of arrest.

This fact is likely to result in difficulties for prosecutors. For Errai, I believe he is still in jail in Spain waiting trial, while the U.S. and Canadian governments are settling in for a long-term extradition tangle. ‘Isa’s case could end up something like Babar Ahmad’s, the British-Pakistani sitting in prison in UK unconvicted as he fights extradition to the US on charges for the most part linked with his role in the www.azzam.com family of websites and helping send support to fighters in Afghanistan and Chechnya. The key difference being that the US wants ‘Isa in specific connection to an attack in Iraq that killed five Americans, giving them a clear set of victims to show a court of law.

Herein lies the nub of the problem: how is it possible to link in a legally satisfying way individuals who are supporting extremists and networks online without actually doing anything which contravenes the law in the way that a terrorist attack does. Using a computer can seem a very detached way of supporting a terrorist act for a jury. Laws can be adapted, as has happened in the UK, to adopt charges of “incitement” to terrorism, but this remains very hard to pursue in a court of law. So the question remains how can one actively and successfully chase and convict people online who are playing a seemingly important role in fostering networks on the other side of the globe. It remains to be seen how this game will play out.

A new post for Free Rad!cals, this exploring once again the issue of Lone Wolves. I have written a number of pieces about them previously, and am working on publishing a longer report for ICSR about them. Any pointers or thoughts on Lone Wolves I may have missed would be hugely appreciated.

Catching Lone Attackers

Whatever is discovered about Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly’s links to extremist groups, we are still left with the growing problem of lone attackers and the issues that security services have in interdicting them. While it seems as though, like an increasing amount of his earlier comrades, al-Abdaly has left something of an electronic footprint demonstrating his radicalization, from a security perspective this is an almost impossible element to latch onto given the sheer volume of similar jihobbyists around online who are simply bored teenagers showing off.
Or is this really the case? In the United States, a more proactive approach seems to have been taken with tracking and capturing such individuals. The two most recent cases are Mohamed Osman Mohamud in Oregon and Muhammad Hussain, aka Antonio Martinez, in Maryland. In both cases, it seems as though following an online alert (in Osman’s case he tried to contact extremists abroad, for Hussain he was apparently noted because of radical things on his Facebook page), FBI agents set up elaborate operations to capture the individuals as they were attempting to blow up in a public place what they thought were vehicle borne explosive devices. I have argued elsewhere about the conduct of these operations and their efficacy in stamping out the problem of radicalisation, but it is interesting that while the US arrests two of these chaps in quick succession, Taimour was able to almost carry out his operation in Europe.

But does this mean that the United States has cracked the code of capturing such attackers? I am unsure this is really the case. While on the one hand, it does seem as though they are able to capture more of these chaps, they have also had some very close calls, like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and Faisal Shahzad in the past year alone. Admittedly in the former of these cases, he was not actually able to get to the US, but with Shahzad, it is clear that he was not on any radars and was in the US. Both men also left some semblance of an electronic trace that was found subsequently, though again, it would be hard to point to this as the element which should have alerted security agencies of the pending menace these men posed.

In Europe, there have been numerous cases similar to these. In the UK alone, Nicky Reilly in Exeter almost managed to blow himself and a restaurant full of people up in May 2008. Much of his radicalization appears to have taken place online, and afterwards his YouTube page was discovered to be filled with radical images and ideas. More recently, by her own admission, Roshonara Choudhry’sdecision to try to kill Stephen Timms MP, was for the most part the product of ideas she got online.

If it emerges that al-Abdaly did have contact with extremist groups and training, then it would appear he joins Abdulmutallab and Shahzad, as individuals who can be termed lone attackers with links to extremist groups. This is rather than a Lone Wolf, in the sense of being an autodidact extremist who decides to do something of his own activation (like Choudhry or the earlier case of Isa Ibrahim). Both are dangerous, though in different ways.

The point is that it now seems as though there is a new need to actively pursue individuals who have expressed extreme ideas online, but at the same time to find ways of separating out who is dangerous and who is not. Certainly the American approach seems effective in catching people, but it is hard to know whether these are the correct ones to be catching, or whether there is a more dangerous body of individuals out there who are being missed. Is it really important to capture people like Osman or Hussain, while individuals like Shahzad and Nidal Hassan Malik slip past?

This is not to absolve either Osman or Hussain of their responsibility. In both cases, I do not doubt that the court cases against them will show them calculating how to kill innocent people in a callous and cold-hearted manner. But it does seem necessary to ask whether either was going to continue on to become like Nicky Reilly or whether they were instead going to continue to be online aspirants who would grow out of this fad. The distinction between these chaps and the ones who actually almost carry out attacks is very hard to draw, but is clearly at the heart of understanding what exactly it is that the new radical profile looks like.

In the New Year, ICSR will publish Raffaello’s latest paper, which offers a framework for formulating a typology for lone-wolf terrorists

 

A new piece for HSToday.us, this was originally meant for the magazine, but instead went up on the website. A very quick response to the Stockholm attempt. More on this as information comes to light.

Stockholm Bomber: Sign of a New Syndrome?

by Raff Pantucci

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Suicide bombing attempt raises perplexing questions

News has been coming out of Stockholm of an attempted suicide bombing by Iraqi-born Swede Taimour al-Abdaly. At this early stage in the investigation it is dangerous to draw any absolute conclusions, but it does seem possible to draw some preliminary thoughts on the attack and its repercussions.

First, Taimour appears to have been a lone attacker. It may later emerge that he had contact with other people, but it appears as though the intention was to conduct a solo operation. Whether this was intended to be a suicide attack seems unclear. The relatively clumsy nature of the operation confuses this picture: a car bomb for the most part fizzled out destroying only the car, while the pipe bombs Taimour himself was carrying blew up prematurely killing only himself.

A second conclusion that seems possible to draw is that Taimour’s radicalization took place, at least in part, in the UK and specifically a suburb of London called Luton. According to various sources, Taimour received a BSc in sports sciences from the local University of Bedfordshire. A friend quoted in the British Telegraph newspaper said, “there is no doubt that Taimour changed when he went to Britain…when he came back he had grown a beard and he was very serious. He talked about Afghanistan and religion and did not want to hang out with his friends.”

More famous for the nearby low budget airport which is a major employer for the city, Luton has latterly achieved a sort of notoriety as a center of radicalization in the United Kingdom. The first major plot disrupted of what could be termed the British jihad emanated from the city: key fertilizer plotter Omar Khyam was brought up in nearby Crawley and security surveillance later released into the public domain showed a network of radicals operating in the area.

A man initially identified as “Q” in the press and later officially outed as being called Mohammed Quayum Khan in a Parliamentary report about the failures of intelligence in the July 7, 2005 bombing, still apparently lives in the area, apparently three roads over from where Taimour was staying.

Khan was identified by the Parliamentary report as being “the leader of an Al Qaeda facilitation network in the UK.” This was also not the first time the area made the presses as a center of radicalization: in October 2001 a couple of local men were identified as having been killed by US bombers in Afghanistan having left the city a few weeks before to go and fight alongside the Taliban.

Earlier than that, British jihadi Omar Saeed Sheikh, who currently sits in a Pakistani jail for murdering Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, reported in his diary that in early 1994 he went around the area to “encourage people to go for training. In this time, I collect many items of interest for the camp and also given funds by people (though I don’t ask for them).”

At this early stage it is almost impossible to definitively say Taimour can be characterized as a “Lone Wolf” in the sense that he had no connections whatsoever. A claim of responsibility suspected to have come from Taimour went to official agencies in the minutes prior to the attack, saying “our actions will speak for themselves. Now your children, daughters and sisters will die like our brothers and sisters and children are dying.” It then went on to specifically threaten Sweden for having soldiers in Sweden and for hosting “Lars Vilks the pig,” in reference to the controversial cartoonist who was responsible for one of the infamous Muhammad cartoons. A further subsequent claim was published on extremist websites from the Islamic State of Iraq, heralding Taimour as a “mujahedeen.”

All of this serves to highlight two things: terrorists are increasingly looking for ever lower hanging fruit. From large-scale plots like the August 2006 plot to bring down eight flights on transatlantic routes from London, they are now attempting to carry out low-tech, random attacks on third tier supporters of NATO operations in Afghanistan. That the cartoons continue to also resonate as a radicalizing influence is interesting, but this is likely the product of opportunity more than anything else.

Secondly, the shift towards lone attackers is something which is increasingly worrying planners. These individuals are popping up with an ever-growing regularity, confusing traditional security dragnets due to their lack of distinct connections to other radicals. In 2010 alone we have seen Mohammed Gelle, a Somali-Dane attempt to attack Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard with an axe, American-Pakistani Faisal Shahzad attempt to blow up Times Square, British-Bangladeshi Roshonara Choudhry stab a British Member for Parliament, and Lors Dukayev, a Chechen living in Belgium, attempt to carry out an unspecified bombing campaign in Denmark.

In all of these cases it is unclear to what degree we are dealing with loners, crazy people, or lone attackers dispatched by known networks – but it seems clear that there is a shift towards individual such attacks. This is not an entirely new phenomenon, but its increasing preponderance suggests that operations to disrupt large networks are working, but also that there is an increasing level of radicalization occurring at an ever more diffuse rate. As former Metropolitan Police Counter-Terrorism Head Peter Clarke put it in interview to HSToday.us, “the counter-narrative is not getting through,” something which should concern security planners as they look forwards to countering terrorism in the near future.