Posts Tagged ‘online’

My latest more journalistic contribution for HSToday, providing them with an update on the situation in the UK. The timings are a little mangled, but provides some summary of recent HMG documents on terrorism. Thanks to Tim Stevens at Ubiwar for providing some very helpful insights in interview.

by Raffaello Pantucci
Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The risk … is that a heavy-handed reaction will focus on the symptom, rather than the cause Britain is under a “severe” threat of a terrorist attack, according to its security services.

Assessments provided by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Center (JTAC) stated that “an attack is highly likely.”

But maintaining public engagement and support continues to be a problem for the British government, especially as it attempts to tackle the new menace of online radicalization.

While the threat was raised to its current level in January for unspecified reasons, Lord Carlisle, the government’s independent auditor of terrorism legislation, told the BBC “the message from the current change of assessment is not that we should be more afraid, but that we should be a little bit more vigilant than we have been.”

But critics speculated that the decision to raise the threat level had a lot more to do with the upcoming election cycle to stoke public fears for political advantage.

Whatever the reason, terrorism remains the “preeminent security threat to the UK,” according to the first annual report of the Home Office’s Office for Security and Counterterrorism’s broadened counterterrorism strategy, known as CONTEST.

According to the report, CBRN threats are increasing due to a “significant increase in the illicit trafficking of radiological materials, the availability of CBRN related technologies on the internet and the increasing use of CBRN material for legitimate purposes.”

And the upcoming 2012 Olympic and Para-Olympic games present “one of the most significant challenges we will face over the next two years,” the report stressed, noting that the principal terrorist threat to the UK continues to be Al Qaeda in Pakistan.

Al Qaeda and instability in Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel also present a threat, the report stated.

But while government sees a growing Al Qaeda threat, the public remains increasingly skeptical – apathy seems to be is the most noticeable feature of the public debate. There also is a high level of distrust.

In a report in the Guardian about a Parliamentary oversight committee reporton the Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) program that Whitehall sees as fundamental to Britain’s long-term counterterrorism strategy, Committee Chair, MP Phyllis Starkey, said “the close association between [PVE] and the government’s wider counterterrorism strategy has bred profound distrust on a community level.”

This is a deeply problematic disconnect when considering that the government’s strategy is meant to strengthen these communities so that they are better able to tackle negative ideologies themselves.

As the report highlights, Muslims increasingly see the government engaging them only through the prism of countering terrorism, and see the specter of intelligence gathering behind any program that’s aimed at strengthening or engaging communities. Meanwhile, there’s a growing backlash among some communities angry at the money and attention that is being lavished on Muslims.

Cognizant of these trends, there has been an effort to publish more information on Britain’s terrorist threats in an attempt to garner greater public support and understanding.

Leading the way is the Home Office’s Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), which in addition to issuing a weekly report to its counterterrorism consumers that highlights the official line on relevant stories each week, also issues reports for internal use only.

This strategy is fraught with problems for a variety of reasons. One recently issued report, “Estimating Network Size and Tracking Dissemination Information Amongst Islamic Blogs” (which was written in April 2008), by David Stevens of the University of Nottingham, “[studied] the link patterns and discussions of Islamic bloggers with particular reference to the UK.” The report listed the top twenty most popular “Islamic” blogs, how they are interlinked, and highlighted the fact that there are more “anti-Islamic” blogs than “pro-Isamic blogs.”

The report didn’t receive a very warm reception. Guardian newspaper columnist Brian Whitaker asked: “Why did they bother” to publish a report that threw up “some blindingly obvious insights.” That sentiment was echoed by Jillian York at Al Jazeera, who attacked the report’s “flawed” methodology while quoting a number of the bloggers “outed” as pro-Islamic.

Similar perspectives were repeated in an interview with Tim Stevens, a researcher of online radicalization at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College.

“Personally, I think the report’s assumptions, methodology, execution and analysis are weaker than they might be, mainly as they don’t seem to achieve the stated aims of the research,” Stevens said. “It adds very little to our understanding of the topic and does not provide an insightful picture of the specific media it set out to study.”

According to Stevens, “the publication of the report may be counterproductive, in that it makes them and their Home Office sponsors look out of touch and potentially antagonistic to Muslims.”

In much the same way that Muslim communities perceives that the government sees them solely through the prism of terrorism, their online counterparts appear to be angry that moderate voices are being scrutinzed by researchers who are paid out of a counter-terrorism budget.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Edip Yuksel of the American Islamic reform movement said of the first blog on the list, Ali Eteraz, “listing Ali’s name in research to track terrorists is a travesty of truth.”

Nevertheless, understanding the Internet and its role in radicalization is a key focus of the British government. A recent high-profile BBC series, “Generation Jihad,” focused on the growing importance of the Internet in terrorist plots in the United Kingdom and its apparent influence in radicalizing ever younger individuals.

The risk, however, is that a heavy-handed reaction will focus on the symptom, rather than the cause.

As Stevens put it: “The internet is important, but there are other important factors in radicalization, too. Even if it were possible or desirable to shut down the internet, it wouldn’t stop the existence or influence of violent or radical ideas.”

These ideas, though, will continue to be the principal long-term battleground for the British, and global, counterterrorism struggle.

My latest for the Jamestown Terrorism Monitor, looking at a different aspect of the legal problems that the British government is having with some of the cases they are pursuing in the courts. This looks in particular at the case against Mohammed Atif Siddique who was recently released in Scotland, and went on to do a series of awkward interviews.

U.K. Prosecutors Lose a Legal Option in Preventing Terrorism

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 8

February 26, 2010 10:22 AM Age: 14 hrs

On January 29, 2010 an appellate court in Scotland declared it was quashing a terrorism charge against 24-year old Mohammed Atif Siddique, the first person to be convicted on charges related to Islamist terrorism in Scotland. [1] Initially convicted on charges of disorderly conduct, setting up websites to disseminate extremist material, disseminating extremist material, and possessing items related to terrorism, the appeals court concluded that the conviction on the last of these charges was unsound, resulting in a “miscarriage of justice.” Siddique has at this point already served four years which the Crown Prosecution Service considered sufficient to cover the other charges and he was released on February 9 (BBC, February 10).

Reporting on the case naturally centered around the “miscarriage of justice,” though reports also pointed out that the convictions still stood on the other two terrorism-related charges and the disorderly conduct charge (Times, January 29; BBC, February 10; UK Press Association, February 9). In a series of interviews after his release, Siddique was unable to provide much explanation for the actions which led to his initial convictions, beyond that he was a “numpty” (a Scottish pejorative for a foolish person), and that he was bored and trying to find out “the other side of the story” (BBC Radio 5 Live, February 10; Scotsman, February 11). His justification for providing links to extremist material was that it was all “freely available” on the internet (he claimed to have obtained some of his material from the Israeli-based website run by Reuven Paz, former head of the Mossad research department) and that anyway, it was all in Arabic, a language he didn’t understand (BBC, February 10). He further dismissed statements he had made that he was planning to become a suicide bomber, by pointing out that he had also claimed to have met with Osama bin Laden – painting himself as a naïf eager to impress others (BBC, February 10). Siddique suggested he was a victim of racism and bad timing. “Had a white person downloaded this stuff, there would have been no prosecution… My trial came at a time when there was a lot of hostility – the Glasgow Airport attacks had just happened, my trial finished on the anniversary of 9/11″ (The Scotsman, February 11).

The reason for the decision to quash the conviction was based around a failure by the trial judge to instruct the jury that it had to be sure that the items Siddique possessed were intended for use in a terrorist act, according to section 57 of the Terrorism Act 2000:

“A person commits an offence if he possesses an article in circumstances which give rise to a reasonable suspicion that his possession is for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism. [2]”

According to section 57, the jury must be sure that the intended possession of terrorism-related material is under “circumstances which give rise to a reasonable suspicion” that they were part of a terrorist plot.  By failing to indicate this crucial point, the judge “misdirected” the jury, rendering their conclusion unsound. [3]

The case is not, however, without precedent. Siddique was part of an online sub-culture of individuals involved in At-Tibyan publications and their related websites. Individuals involved in this network, including Aabid Khan and Younis Tsouli are currently incarcerated on terrorism charges, while a separate group, mostly from Bradford, was released under circumstances similar to Siddique’s in February 2008. [4] In that case, the appeals judge concluded that the jury had been equally misdirected about the specific nature of the charges connected to Section 57 and that it was unclear whether the materials the suspects possessed were linked to planned terrorist acts. [5] The men were allegedly planning to join the mujahideen in fighting NATO forces in Afghanistan; Siddique was initially stopped after he attempted to board a flight going to Pakistan, claiming he was going to visit an uncle’s farm.

Later in 2008, Samina Malik, the self-described “Lyrical Terrorist” was cleared of a conviction under section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 (which states that “a person commits an offense if: they “collect” or “possess” “information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”). The conviction was overturned after the appeals judge concluded that it was too intertwined with the Section 57 charge of which she had already been cleared. [6]

The key prosecution charge in all of the aforementioned cases came under Section 57; the individuals involved possessed substantial volumes of radical material they had obtained online and were using in furtherance of terrorist plots. While all (aside from Samina Malik) were initially convicted on this charge, the government’s case was undermined on appeal by nature of the wording used in court around the charge, something which highlights the difficulty in bringing a conviction based on possession of extremist material as the main charge. The point is that the individuals were not caught in possession of weaponry or other clearly bellicose accoutrements, but rather online tracts and handbooks which, when taken in conjunction with other evidence, amounted  to, in the prosecution’s view, tangible evidence that a terrorist conspiracy was afoot. The defense instead painted these materials as merely evidence of youthful curiosity.

In all of the cases, other factors would appear to support the accusation that something suspicious was occurring: Mohammed Atif Siddique was initially interdicted as he attempted to board a plane to Pakistan, something he may have been inspired to do after online conversations with Aabid Khan (BBC, August 18, 2008). The Bradford group gathered with the alleged intention of going abroad to fight, and Samina Malik was passing information on Heathrow security to Sohail Qureishi, a dental technician who was arrested before ever reaching Afghanistan, where he had intended to fight. But in all three cases, the wording of the legislation resulted in a successful appeal mounted by the defense against the initial conviction.

Mohammed Atif Siddique is now likely to return to life as a young man in Scotland; but the implications of his release are hard to gauge. The government has faced criticism in the past over the heavy burden placed upon defendants to prove they are innocent under section 57 and has tried to soften this with later amendments to legislation. But more specifically, the problem of proving whether extremist material that is often widely available is going to be used in pursuit of a terrorist action is something that presents an ongoing problem for British authorities. In one recent case, an individual was picked up after gathering materials during the course of post-graduate research, and was later released with no charges against him. This was a public relations disaster, with the student’s professor declaring that he was no longer going to teach terrorism courses for fear that his students may be detained (Guardian, February 5). In another case, two individuals pled guilty to charges of possessing and disseminating terrorist material, though it was unclear whether they were involved in any direct plotting of attacks (Halifax Courier [UK], December 18, 2007).

With the threat of terrorism and radicalization in the U.K. remaining very real, the government continues to seek ways to intercept individuals before they move too far down the road to action. It increasingly appears that conviction on the basis of possession of extremist material is no longer an available measure.


1. The complete court judgment can be found at:
2. The complete Act can be found at:
4. For more on the Khan/Tsouli network, please see Raffaello Pantucci “Operation Praline: The Realization of Al Suri’s Nizam, la tanzim?,” Perspectives on Terrorism, vol.2, no.12, November , 2008; and Evan Kohlmann, “Anatomy of a Modern Homegrown Terror Cell: Aabid Khan et al. (Operation Praline),” September 2008,  – others from this network have also been incarcerated elsewhere around the globe.
5. Regina vs. Zafar & Ors, before Supreme Court of Judicature, Court of Appeal, handed down February 13, 2008.
6. Regina vs. Samina Hussain Malik, before Court of Appeal, handed down June 17, 2008.

Al Qaeda 2.0

Posted: December 12, 2008 in Survival
Tags: ,

This is possibly a bit of a mean post, as the article is not necessarily accessible to all and sundry. However, if you write to me, I can try to find some sort of accommodation (this will also help me see how many people actually read this). In any case, as a tempter, it is a journal article for Survival ( and is a review essay of three recent books on terrorism. Brynjar Lia’s Architect of Global Jihad, Johnny Ryan’s Countering Militant Islamist Radicalization on the Internet: A User Driven Strategy to Recover the Web, and Libicki, Gompert, Frelinger, and Smith’s Byting Back: Regaining Information Superiority Against 21st Century Insurgents. I pull them together to give an overarching narrative about Al Qaeda’s evolution from being a bunch of guys in caves in Afghanistan, to a 21st century terrorist network and affiliated groups.

This is a distinctly more academic article I have written for the Perspectives on Terrorism journal that looks in detail at a recent network of plots. This group seems to show a potentially very interesting set of developments, and I think the information about them is not yet all out, as there would seem to be a number of loose ends – and other cases in the pipeline.

Operation Praline: The Realization of Al-Suri’s Nizam, la Tanzim?

By Raffaello Pantucci


This article will attempt to show how a recent plot in the United Kingdom, known by its police codename Operation Praline[1], and the broader international conspiracy that supported the  group responsible may constitute an organic evolution of terrorist networks towards al-Qaeda “architect” Abu Musab al-Suri’s nizam la tanzim – “a system, not secret organization.”[2] This is not to conclude that Aabid Khan and his broader network were necessarily purposefully moulding themselves in this direction – as the author has not seen evidence supporting this assertion – but rather this article attempts to show how al-Suri’s framework for global jihad offers a good prism through which to analyse this group since they would appear to have developed in broad accordance with al-Suri’s principles, whether wittingly or no.


Al Qaeda’s Seven Year Itch

Posted: October 30, 2008 in HSToday
Tags: ,

This could probably already do with a bit of updating, but the information remains interesting and valid and is part of ongoing thinking about AQ’s use of the internet. They still have that awful photo of me though.

Al Qaeda’s Seven Year Itch

By Raffaello Pantucci

Wednesday, 19 October 2008


Videos reach out to audience who believes terrorist group not weakenedLess than a month ago, after some delay, Al Qaeda’s media wing, As Sahab, finally released the terrorist group’s perennial anniversary 9/11 video. While it contained few surprises, it once again emphasized the utility of the Internet to Al Qaeda, and highlighted how the dark side of globalization has managed to harness its most useful tool.As it so often is with the online world of smoke and mirrors where Al Qaeda lurks, the reasons for the delayed release of the video are unclear. Preceeding the 9/11 anniversary, a number of the principal websites and chat forums where Al Qaeda videos and statements are usually posted were knocked offline (a few appear to have been reinstated)—an event that sparked considerable speculation about some sort of pre-planned attack, presumably by Western intelligence services. (more…)

A productive set of days. Here’s another one for the New Statesman – again, some of the ideas should feature in a longer piece i need to finish. Also, this draws from a recent workshop we did.

Al Qaeda’s delayed release

Raffaello Pantucci

Published 19 September 2008

Extremist websites are abuzz this week with barely contained rage at the delayed online release by Al Qaeda’s media outlet the As-Sahab Foundation of their annual video celebrating the anniversary of 9/11.


Since the atrocities on 11 September 2001 Al Qaeda hasn’t missed the opportunity of an anniversary to celebrate their murderous attacks. Usually a video is released like clockwork on 11 September. It inevitably features an array of Al Qaeda stars like Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri who celebrate the advance of their global jihad to a backdrop of Arabic nasheeds (Islamic songs) and footage from battlefields around the world. The purpose of the release, this year entitled “The Results of Seven Years of the Crusades,” is to show the world and supporters that Al Qaeda is alive and well seven years after its biggest achievement.