Posts Tagged ‘online terrorism’

The culmination of a more extended piece of work I have been doing around my usual obligations with the BBC (for the programme Inside Out) looking at the phenomenon of online instigation and direction by ISIS in seeking to launch attacks in the UK. Acting as frontman for the piece, the real work was done by Zack, Claire, Dippy and some undercover reporters. We shot it around London using material from online conversations by undercover reports with Junaid Hussain and other ISIS plotters. Zack wrote the piece up for the BBC, and the piece got picked up by Associated Press/Guardian, Daily Mail, Metro, Times, and Mirror. For those of you in the UK, you can see the show on the BBC iPlayer for the next month (and maybe more as it is going to be screened on the BBC News Channel as well), in addition for those of you internationally, it is going to be screened on the BBC World News at these times. Finally, Zack and myself published the below piece with the Telegraph.

Beyond this, since the last update, spoke to the Independent about the terror threat to the UK, to Sky about assessment of the difference between the threats at home and from foreign fighters returning, to Newsweek and The National about the Barcelona attack, to National Public Radio about the broader threats to Europe, and to the Daily Mail about the possibility of chemical attacks in the UK. Finally, spoke to the Financial Times about geopolitical security clashes with China in the seas.

How Isil’s shadowy ‘online manipulators’ lure Britons into committing terrorist attacks

The man on the other end of the line was called Junaid Hussain. He was speaking to an undercover reporter through an encrypted chat application; it was the middle of 2015. “Do something over there in the heart of the crusader army,” he told the reporter. He meant London.

Birmingham-born Junaid had been in Syria for two years at that point. Soon afterwards, he would die in an American drone strike. But he had enough time to make his mark in the world of jihadist terrorism as one of the most active and earliest “online manipulators” – steering people into terrorist attacks in the West solely on the basis of commands they receive through social media and encrypted applications.

Earlier this year, the UK was indeed struck by a series of terrorist attacks. The full detail of what went on in each case is still unclear. But, as Ben Wallace, Minister of State for Security told us during our investigation into this phenomenon, the use of encrypted communications “is common throughout every single one of these incidents.”

In much the same way that the rest of us have increasingly come to rely on communications applications to maintain our social relationships, terrorists have also moved into this space. In one sense, this is merely a reflection of the fact that terrorists come from the same societies as those they target. But what Isil has become particularly adept at doing is manipulating these relationships from great distances to push people to launch terrorist attacks.

The way in which this happens is surprisingly elementary. Our investigators would in the first instance make contact with the online Isil activists through their public social media profiles. People like Junaid were very active online using Twitter and Facebook and in essence used these profiles as honeypots to draw people to themselves. Once the contact had been established, the conversation would often move into an encrypted channel through WhatsApp, Telegram, Kik or Surespot.

Here, a more intense conversation would take place, with the radical asking the recruit to prove their bona fides, and direct them to parts of the dark web where they could find guides about how to make bombs, plan lone actor terrorist attacks or mask their activity. Throughout this conversation, the recruiter would be constantly exhorting the target to launch an attack, talking about potential targets, highlighting other successful incidents and pushing our investigators to undertake their own attack.

Junaid was just one of a number of online instigators our investigators spoke to. Others suggested the idea of attacking Westminster or London Bridge, and directed them to material on the dark web that showed how to use vehicles as weapons, where to stab people for maximum effect, and how to create a fake suicide vest. They suggested this was useful as it would stop police from attacking you, giving you more time to attack. Junaid was even more ambitious, suggesting that “we can train you [in] how to make bombs.”

This is the beating heart of the online terror threat. Clearly radical material disseminated online will fan the flames of ideas, and mean that groups like Isil will be able to maintain their notoriety and draw people to themselves. But it is the online manipulation that is turning these long-distance online relationships into terrorist attacks, and individuals like Junaid are able to manipulate people into launching attacks that are difficult to prevent in western capitals.

The answer to this is complicated. There is possibly more that companies could do in terms of the speed of their response. But the reality is that they are as unable to get into these applications as the rest of the world. End-to-end encryption is designed to keep everyone – even its creators – out. And while government can spend more money on staff and surveillance, when the style of attack is so individual, basic and diffuse, it becomes very difficult to maintain complete control.

Online manipulation is one of the most menacing current expressions of terrorism. Until the groups are gone, and we have cracked the code of stopping people from being drawn towards terrorist ideologies, this form of threat will be with us.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at Rusi, and this article was co-authored by Zack Adesina, a senior producer at the BBC. Their film ‘Terror by Text’ airs on Inside Out on BBC1 at 19:30 on Monday September 4.

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I have a chapter featured in this latest book Al Qaeda After Bin Laden published by the Al Mesbar Studies & Research Centre. My chapter focuses on the evolution of the Internet as a tool for al Qaeda and affiliated groups in the west, looking in turn at the cases of the Islamic Gateway and http://www.azzam.com (two portals run out of the UK established in the mid-1990s), then the networks around Younis Tsouli and the Blackburn Resistance, before focusing on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al Shabaab’s use of the Internet. It ends looking at AQAP’s push towards Lone Wolf terrorism.

Thus far the book has only been published in Arabic, and I have pasted below the summary they published in English. I have not gotten a copy in Arabic, but believe it is available online if you contact them. If instead you would like a copy of the English text, drop me a note and I can see about getting a version to you. There is discussion of maybe publishing an English version, but it has not come together yet as far as I know.

63 Al-Qaeda after Bin Laden

The sixty-third Monthly book aims to highlight and focus on al-Qaeda after bin Laden, and whether it will endure and remain in the arena, or disappear from sight by the disappearance of its founder, due to his death.

This issue is gaining more importance in the light of major events and developments that do not only include disorders in the Arab region since a year and more, but also the withdrawal of American troops out of Iraq, and the expected withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan.

In this rare Arabic version, we offer multiple views of prominent researchers and experts.

In the preface written by Manuel Almeida, lecturer at the London School of Economics and Political Science, it was shown that it is not easy to answer if whether Al-Qaeda will remain on the scene and endure after the death of bin Laden as it requires exploring hidden facts and details concerning Bin Laden and his inspiration to Al-Qaeda organization which he intended to form in Afghanistan.

Almeida illustrates that the role of bin Laden in recent years have been important in terms of strategy, funding, recruitment and polarization, as he was the great symbol of the jihadist movement, and therefore it is important to tackle the consequences of his death as well as implications of his disappearance from the scene.

Understanding the implications of the death of bin Laden and its reflections on Al-Qaeda as well as the continuous transformation process taking place in the organization, was discussed by a professor of Middle East Studies at the University (Science Po) in Paris, Jean-Pierre Filho.

He discussed the meaning of forced change in Al-Qaeda leadership, by tackling areas of agreement between bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s new Prince Ayman al-Zawahiri. Jean-Pierre addressed aspects that differentiated bin Laden as well as his uniqueness, and how his absence will affect the future of the Organization, leading to make Al-Zawahiri’s task very rugged, and complex.

Alia Brahimi, a researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of Oxford, shows the process of change that began before the death of bin Laden, explaining that it will influence the strategy and overall objectives of the organization.

She addresses traditional goals of the organization in order to understand whether AlQaeda succeed or failed on it. Also, she tackles change in al-Qaeda, specifically democratic power within the organization, and whether it is an indicator of power or a crisis plaguing the organization.

The professor at the International Centre for the Study of radicalization (ICSR) at the Kings College University in London, Raffaello Pantucci, addressed Al Qaeda’s strategy with more depth in the evolving nature of jihadist movement.

Raffaello tackles the jihadist movement that found the internet an online tool that enabled it to play a role in the network of global jihad.

The Yemeni journalist, Nasser Al-Rubaiee, addressed the threat posed by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as it related to the global concerns about the situation of chronic instability in Yemen.

Furthermore he discusses the implications of Awlaki death and explains that al-Qaeda is not the only beneficiary of the chronic instability in Yemen, it is also tribesmen and sympathizers with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the Yemeni government and the political opposition.

All these actors in the Yemeni political arena perceived the existence of Al-Qaeda to achieve their own agenda.

Although there are a number of armed groups in Punjab province, the Pakistani group, “Lashkar-e-Taiba”, is one of the groups most powerful and dangerous of all.

Rashmi Singh, lecture at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV) at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, explains the reasons why this group is different from other armed groups in Pakistan.

She analyzed links that combine this group and al-Qaeda, and provides an overview of its emergence and its involvement in the context of Pakistan’s war against India.

There is no doubt that the Somali Youth movement has close links with al Qaeda. The associate professor in international relations, and the President of International Relations Program at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Stig Jarle Hansen, shows that tackling this relationship is not easy, especially when looking at Somali movement’s ideology and al Qaeda, as well as the daily aspects of interaction between them.

The long war on terror, which United States has engaged in, along with its allies against al-Qaeda by its organized central and local branches, sparks a long list of ethical, legal and strategic aspects.

Jorge Lasmar, an international lawyer and professor of international relations at the University of (PUC), in Menas (Brazil), outlined a set of practices included human rights and democratic values that took place in the war against terrorism.

The director of Middle East Center at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Fawaz Gerges, explores the possibilities behind the outbreak of Arab revolutions, in terms of its ability to put an end to terrorism, specifically the mania which the United States possesses regarding the threat posed by al Qaeda.

Gerges also deals in depth with Arab spring events and their ties with Al-Qaeda, and how it led to marginalize Al-Qaeda and other Jihadist leaders.

Omar Al-Bashir Al-Turabi read the book entitled, “The rise and fall of Al-Qaeda”, by Fawaz Gerges, which was released after the death of bin Laden. Gerges finds out that when decision makers in the United States end the war against terrorism, thoughts will expand to more available alternatives.

Furthermore he calls for concerted efforts to reveal the forgery novel of terrorism and to put an end to the acquisition of Al-Qaeda in the imagination of Americans.

This book presented different visions and was praised by intellectuals who demanded it to be among the list read by world leaders and presidents.

This book came up as a result of the supervision, coordination and communication carried out by Manuel Almeida for a period of seven months, supported by the follow-up of our colleague, Omar Al-Bashir Al-Turabi. We thank and appreciate them for their efforts.

A new post for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, exploring western jihobbyists use of the Internet and their connections with radical groups. I have a longer book chapter on a similar topic forthcoming – exploring the history of use of the Internet. A topic ripe for further contemplation I think – any tips for interesting articles warmly appreciated.

The jihad will be YouTubed

By Raffaello Pantucci | Thursday, December 15, 2011 | 11:23AM

Two weeks ago, 24-year-old Pakistani-American Jubair Ahmad admitted that he had been making videos for Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) from his Woodbridge, Virginia home under the direction of LeT leader Hafiz Saeed’s son Talha. Around the same time, governments on both sides of the Atlantic published findings into the link between online activity and terrorism. In the United Kingdom, the Home Office published a paper that concluded “the internet does not appear to play a significant role in AQIR [al Qaeda influenced radicalization],” while in the United States, at a hearing on the Hill, RAND terrorism guru Brian Michael Jenkins concluded that jihadist websites “may create virtual armies, but these armies remain virtual.” But while the link between turning individuals from passive consumers into active terrorists may be weak, cases like that of Jubair Ahmad show the important role this virtual army can play in magnifying the message of al-Qaeda and affiliated groups.

Jubair Ahmed is not the first Western individual who has helped establish websites or created video content in support of radical groups. One of the earliest was U.K.-based www.azzam.com, established in 1996, which provided a point from which groups in Afghanistan and Chechnya could broadcast their message while also telling potential recruits how to contact the groups. In addition,www.azzam.com  (using the moniker Azzam Publications) helped produce a series of videos and cassette tapes about the fighting in Bosnia and Chechnya that venerated fighters in the field.

By the mid-2000s, the Internet had become a more viable vehicle through which videos could not only be sold, but also streamed and downloaded. Recognizing the value of getting footage from the field out as quickly as possible, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was at the forefront of a new practice, turning videos into slick packages that could be uploaded onto radical forums. But what was most interesting was the revelation in late 2005 that British police in London had found a young Moroccan who turned out to be the infamous online jihadist known as Irhabi007 (terrorist007). Using this online handle, Younis Tsouli had set himself up as a key webmaster and designer for AQI, and was notorious for being able to find the webspace needed to publish the grim video American contractor Nicholas Berg’s beheading.

The novel aspect in Tsouli’s case was the fact that AQI leaders noticed his online abilities and started to use him as a key outlet for their material. There have been numerous other Western webmasters for important al-Qaeda linked websites – for example, in Belgium, Malika el-Aroud ran MinbarSoS, a website that provided a forum to recruit French-speaking Muslims to fight in Afghanistan. From the sunny Costa Blanca in Spain, Faical Errai helped run ansaraljihad.net, and provided assistance for radicals seeking to get to Afghanistan and Chechnya. But Tsouli appears to have been one of the first Western residents to have been actively solicited by groups in the field for his technical abilities.

And since Tsouli, we have seen al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) use the skills of a young Pakistani-American radical blogger, Samir Khan, to help them produce Inspire magazine – a publication that has repeatedly shown up in the hands of recently arrested terrorist plotters. Khan and his American-Yemeni mentor Anwar al-Awlaki are now both dead, but in a reflection of the importance that AQAP placed upon al-Awlaki’s capacity to reach a Western audience through new media, communications found during the U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani compound allegedly include an offer from AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi to put al-Awlaki in charge of the regional group. Bin Laden declined the request, possibly highlighting the different level of importance he placed upon new media capabilities in comparison to his regional affiliate leader.

A particularly surprising aspect of the Jubair Ahmad case is the volume of micromanagement that Talha Saeed put into creating the video. He tells Ahmad what images to include (not ones from the group’s infamous Mumbai attack), where to insert images of his father, the LeT leader, and what music to have over the video. Saeed is obliged to get someone in America to do the technical work for him – quite a long distance from which to direct the production of a short YouTube video using easily available technology – which likely reflects a greater facility with such technology had by people brought up in the West.

Just how easy it is to create these videos was seen recently in a case in the United Kingdom in which a law student, Mohammad Gul, was convicted of producing YouTube videos that glorified terrorist violence. While clearly the technology to make such videos is something that is universal, it does seem as though it is aspirant jihadists in the West who find it easiest to use. There was no evidence that Gul was being directed by foreign terrorist organizations to produce his material, and his case shows the continued existence of young Westerners producing radical material on their own. It may indeed be the case that the virtual armies have yet to fully emerge as active warriors on the battlefield, but in the meantime they are doing a great deal to keep the jihadist flame alive on the Web, either by themselves or at the direction of organized parties.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and the author of the forthcoming “We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen” (Hurst/Columbia University Press). His writing can be found at:http://www.raffaellopantucci.com.

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.