Posts Tagged ‘Pakistan’

This is a slightly longer freeflowing piece for an old site I used to contribute to fairly regularly called The Interpreter, the blog for a great Australian think tank called the Lowy Institute. Was based off some reflections from some recent travel I got to do to China, Pakistan and Uzbekistan. I’ve been lucky with the piece getting some traction, including some nice tweets, Casey Michel quoting it in his piece about China’s energy relations with the region and the Australian Business Spectator magazine republishing it. Thanks Sam for publishing it, and goes without saying a lot more on this theme and style to come!

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A new piece with a Chinese friend looking again at China-Afghanistan relations and trying to establish how Beijing might play a more positive role in the country. Something that looks increasingly complicated nowadays with the current chaos, but I think still remains an important project for Beijing to undertake. Much more on this topic to come as ever.

As is usual, however, most discussions with the media were terrorism related, including conversations with AFP, Radio France International and France 24 about the Thalys incident, and separately the New York Times about the death of British jihadi hacker Junaid Hussain and the Independent on Sunday about British women taking their children to join ISIS.

Can China Assert Itself in Afghanistan?

Beijing needs to play a stronger leadership role in Afghanistan.

By Raffaello Pantucci and Kane Luo for The Diplomat

Ghani Xi signing

Confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death has confused an already difficult picture in Afghanistan. Precarious relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been pushed even closer to breaking point, and the one bright spot, that of increased regional support, seems to have slipped onto the back burner. Beijing in particular needs to wake up and play a stronger leadership role in Afghanistan.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani attended the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Ufa with high hopes of again bringing the support of regional powers to bear on helping resolve his country’s ongoing civil war and the growing emergence of ISIS related terrorism within his country. On the face of it, the SCO would appear to be a very promising lead. Now expanding to include both India and Pakistan, the multilateral organization is one that manages to bring together almost all of the regional elements that are likely to be needed if we are to see a genuine local push to resolve Afghanistan’s problems. Its security architecture further offers a set of existing regional structures to discuss and implement some sort of regional response to Afghanistan’s perennial security threats. But thus far the organization has singularly failed to deliver much in terms of action on Afghanistan. The reality is that the real driver of a regional shift on Afghanistan is going to come from Beijing.

Looking solely within an SCO context, Afghanistan has only ever really been a focus under Chinese leadership. It was under Chinese stewardship that the SCO-Afghanistan contact group was created – when Beijing held the chairmanship in 2006. Six years later, it was at the 2012 Summit in Beijing at which the country was more formally accorded ‘Observer’ status. But very little activity has flowed from these shifts, and where we have seen action on Afghanistan from SCO members it largely appears to be at a bilateral level.

This includes China, which while it continues to act in Afghanistan through multilateral formats (for instance, through hosting of the trilateral discussions with Afghan and Pakistani officials), expends most of its attention on bilateral efforts. Yet these efforts have still not crossed the threshold to be decisive, and China still appears to be playing a hedging role in the country. Even in the peace talks that China is currently supporting (although the nature of its role in the wake of the Mullah Omar announcement seems unclear), it seems as though China remains an observer rather than a decisive actor.

Key to advancing China’s potential as a positive force in Afghanistan is to push the current slate of economic projects forward, as well as finding ways to ensure that the peace talks move towards some sort of resolution. Both are clearly difficult, but the first is far easier for the Chinese government move forward.

In late May the Afghan government revealed that Ghani had held talks with a Chinese construction firm to advance construction of the Jalalabad-Kabul road. The Chinese worries about the project were, understandably, primarily focused around security concerns, something that they saw as the remit of the Afghan authorities. This may indeed be the case, but the Chinese government could play a greater role in trying to offer training to Afghan forces to help improve their capacity to protect the Chinese project. Currently, China plays a somewhat marginal role in Afghan security, offering training to a few hundred police over many years, whilst also contributing some equipment to the ANSF. Whilst there are undoubtedly some logistical issues around training (linguistic differences for example), China could step up its equipment and financial support rather than only offering limited amounts of in-kind support.

More substantially in some ways than this, however, is the potential game changer that China could play in Afghanistan’s economy were some of the larger economic projects to come to fruition. At the moment, China is one of the biggest players with unrealized potential in Afghanistan. While CNPC has had some success in developing its field in the north, the Mes Aynak copper project continues to fester unfinished. During Xi Jinping’s head of state encounter with Ghani, discussion was made of the establishment of an intergovernmental committee to help the project move forwards. But there has been little movement since then, and it is unclear that we are going to see anything more in the near term future. This is hugely problematic as the project sits in a region that would benefit enormously from the investment.

At a more geostrategic level, Afghanistan also does not quite see where it fits into Xi Jinping’s great regional vision the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB). Repeated conversations with Afghans have underscored that they have not understood where they fit into this grand vision for regional connectivity. The discussion around Afghanistan’s involvement appears to focus on how it might develop into an extension or part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – the strategy for Pakistan to essentially become a corridor for goods going from Kashgar in Xinjiang to Gwadar Port in Baluchistan. Looking towards Central Asia, there has been discussion of some connections from Tajikistan extending into Afghanistan, but it is unclear that these are much of a focus for Chinese strategists and builders who are much more focused on developing routes through Central Asia to Russian and European markets. China needs to tell Afghanistan how it fits into the SREB.

China has set itself up to be a major player in Afghanistan’s future and expectations are being raised. It now needs to find ways of asserting itself both politically and economically to play the role that increasingly is being expected of it. Beijing may still shy from such ambitious aims, but at the same time, it is now too late to back away from them. China needs to find its feet and move forward in a more certain manner in Afghanistan.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and Kane Luo is Vice President of Wakhan Abresham Consulting Service.

 

New piece for RUSI about a curious and unconsidered problem emanating from the current chaos in Syria. Emerges from conversations with Jenni around the office about how Polio has started showing up in and around the conflict, as well as in other parts of the world where violent insurgent/terrorist networks operate. Maybe more on this topic coming. In the meantime, I did a few interviews around events in Xinjiang for the Associated Press, Shanghai’s CICA meeting (and adjacent China-Russia gas deal) with the Economist, Agence France Presse, and the South China Morning Post.

Polio and the Syrian Crisis: The Accidental Bioterrorist
RUSI Analysis, 21 May 2014

By Jennifer Cole, Senior Research Fellow, Resilience & Emergency Management; Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

The World Health Organization’s recent declaration of a public-health emergency due to the re-emergence of polio in countries including Syria and Somalia highlights the nexus between insecurity, violent Islamist groups and the spread of deadly diseases.

Polio vaccine in Djibouti US Department of Defense photo

The continual use of chemical weapons in Syria has shocked the world. It has also reopened speculation around the possible use of biological weapons. In January 2014, US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper suggested in a statement to the US Senate Intelligence Committee that the Assad regime is capable of producing lethal agents, though it may not yet have an effective delivery mechanism.

But the potential use of such weapons is not the most pressing biological threat emanating from Syria. Earlier this month, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHIEC)[1] as a result of an unintentional bio-crisis: the re-emergence of polio, a deadly killer which was once almost eradicated. Over the last twelve months, twenty-five cases of polio have been confirmed in Syria, putting neighbouring Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey at risk. Prior to its ongoing civil war, Syria had been polio-free for fourteen years but the country’s immunisation rates have plummeted from more than 95 per cent of eligible children before the conflict to around 52 per cent at the time of the polio outbreak.[2] Tellingly, the majority of the children affected were born after the vaccination programme fell apart.

(In)security and Bio-Threats

The global, long-term impact of what appears to be a lost opportunity to rid the world of this crippling disease is just as devastating as any deliberate act of bioterrorism.

The challenging security environment that has facilitated its spread should sound alarm bells for the future. Genetic sequencing has linked the strain of polio responsible for the October 2013 outbreak in the Deir Al-Zour province in eastern Syria to one of Pakistani origin that has also been found in Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories in recent months. The speculation is that Pakistani fighters battling the Assad regime, or Syrian military personnel who have undergone training in Pakistan, may have inadvertently brought the virus to Syria with them.

Two-thirds of the 400 or so polio cases recorded globally in 2013 were caused by strains imported to the affected country from elsewhere, again largely from Pakistan – while ninety-two actually occurred in Pakistan.[3]. Sixty-nine per cent of these were concentrated in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA),[4] where the Taliban is particularly active, while Peshawar – the main city that is a way station for people transiting to Afghanistan – is the largest polio reservoir in the world.

Islamist Resistance to Vaccination

The apparent link between polio and Islamist activity is no coincidence: efforts to eradicate the disease in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria – the only three countries where the disease remains endemic, with ‘wild’ or naturally occurring strains still circulating – have long been challenged by Islamist militants who claim that the vaccinations are a Western plot to make their children infertile, to spread AIDS, or that health workers are undercover Western spies. The latter claim is not without substance: Dr Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani physician working for the CIA, famously obtained DNA from children in Abbottabad in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, under the cover of a fake immunisation campaign. Such suspicion can have a devastating impact: twenty-seven polio workers have been assassinated in Pakistan since December 2012.[5] Nonetheless, as long as the virus remains endemic in Pakistan, jihadist fighters will be able to inadvertently carry it to other areas of instability across the globe.

This problem is not exclusive to Pakistan. In May 2013, cases of the disease were recorded in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu for the first time since 2007, caused by strains imported from northern Nigeria, where imams and local political leaders issued a polio-vaccination boycott in 2003. In February 2013, the Islamist group Boko Haram murdered nine young women working on polio-vaccination programmes. Meanwhile, the spread of the disease across Somalia itself has been further helped by Al-Qa’ida-affiliated Al-Shabaab extremists discouraging parents from vaccinating their children by claiming that the vaccines contain AIDS.

A Polio-Free World?

How the world reacts to this global public-health emergency in the coming months – particularly over the summer, which heralds what is traditionally the high-transmission season for polio – will determine whether we can realistically continue to aim for a world that is polio-free.

Co-ordinating international efforts to support vaccination programmes in failed and fragile states is one response. Another measure – that has now been implemented by WHO – is to limit international travel from affected regions by those who cannot prove they have been vaccinated.  This is an approach that has also been replicated within countries. For example, Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif has stipulated that no unvaccinated child from FATA be allowed to enter the settled areas of Pakistan. He has also ordered army protection for polio vaccinators going into volatile regions of the country.

Other more creative measures should also be considered. The Organization of the Islamic Conference has issued fatwas in support of polio vaccination, and Pakistan has encouraged senior imams to speak out on the topic. On 16 May, the White House issued a statement that the CIA will no longer make operational use of vaccination workers.

But beyond these, there needs to be greater awareness amongst the broader security community of how this niche problem can develop into a global threat – an ancillary product of instability and violence that can have deep, longer-term ramifications. Security issues and the success or failure of WHO’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative are clearly, if intricately, linked. As such, efforts to wipe out polio in its last few remaining strongholds must be approached with both in mind.

Another piece for my institutional home’s analytical publication, Newsbrief, this time looking at the relationship between Pakistan and China. While this is not exactly Central Asia, it still forms a component of my bigger research project looking at China in Central Asia with Alex. More on this broader theme on the way.

China in Pakistan: An Awkward Relationship Beneath the Surface
RUSI Newsbrief, 15 Jan 2014
By Raffaello Pantucci

Characterised by soaring rhetoric, at first glance the China–Pakistan bilateral relationship appears to be one of the world’s closest. Yet below the surface calm bubble concerns, with policy-makers in Beijing particularly worried about the implications of the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan for stability in Pakistan. Western policy-makers should not, however, be optimistic that these concerns will soon translate into Chinese willingness to somehow assume responsibility or leadership in helping Pakistan to develop in a way favourable to the West. Rather, Chinese concerns should be seen within the context of a regional relationship that is likely to grow in prominence as time goes on, ultimately drawing China into a more responsible role in South Asia at least.

China’s Pakistan policy has three principal pillars – political, economic and security – which, together, leaders in Pakistan see as their main bulwark against international abandonment. Elites in both countries have publicly signalled the importance of the Sino–Pakistani relationship. For example, Premier Li Keqiang was the first foreign leader to visit Pakistan after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was elected in June 2013, while Sharif made China his first international destination as prime minister. Meanwhile, speaking about the region more broadly, China’s Ambassador to Islamabad Sun Weidong told Pakistan’s National Defence University in October that ‘the Chinese government attaches great importance to developing relations with South Asia, and takes South Asia as a key direction of China’s opening up to the west and a prominent position in China’s neighbouring diplomacy’.

However, the decision to refer to Pakistan in the regional context reflects a divergence of views between the two countries on the importance of the relationship. While China clearly cherishes its links with Pakistan – indeed, Ambassador Sun closed his speech with the rallying call: ‘May the China–Pakistan friendship last forever!’ – the relationship between the two is imbalanced, with China the big brother and Pakistan the supplicant.

Indeed, for China, Pakistan is significant particularly within the broader regional context of relations with the countries along its western borderlands – stretching from Kazakhstan in the north to India in the south. Ties with Pakistan are seen by Beijing as part of this wider picture, rather than constituting a bilateral relationship in its own right.

This has been evident, most recently, in the relatively slow progress on the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – a 2,000 km route connecting the Pakistani port of Gwadar with Kashgar in the northwestern Xinjiang region of China – which was formally mentioned during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s May 2013 visit to Pakistan. Always an ambitious project, at a Sino–Pakistani track-two meeting in Beijing in August 2013, Lin Dajian, vice director general of the Department of International Cooperation at the National Development and Reform Commission, highlighted ‘the security issues and challenges that could impede the speed of [the] project’. A month later, Ambassador Sun more pointedly stressed the expectation of Pakistani support in ‘safeguarding the security of Chinese institutions and citizens in Pakistan’ as they developed the CPEC.

Other Chinese firms with investments in Pakistan have previously expressed similar concern for the safety of staff based there. In September 2011, China Kingho Group, one of the country’s largest private coal-mining firms, backed out of a $19 billion deal in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province, telling the Wall Street Journal that this was out of security concerns for its staff. In 2004, the Chinese state-owned enterprise Sinohydro, which had won a contract to build the Gomal Zam Dam in Pakistan’s restive southern Waziristan province, suspended work when Chinese engineers were kidnapped near the site. One died during a rescue attempt, and the project was delayed for a further three years while Sinohydro aggressively renegotiated the contract (more than doubling its price). While this dam has now been completed, other Sinohydro projects, like the Duber Khwar hydropower project, have encountered similar problems.

These examples highlight the difficulties – even for Chinese companies – of doing business in Pakistan, belying the overly positive vision of the relationship often portrayed by the media. It also casts some doubt on the feasibility of the CPEC. With the state-owned China Overseas Holdings Limited responsible for managing the Gwadar port since February, focus has turned to the attendant ambitious plans for the Chinese-led re-development of Pakistan’s roads, railways and pipelines, with the aim of transforming the country into a giant highway conveying Chinese goods to the open seas. So far, however, it is unclear how much progress has been made on rendering the port usable. In July, it was revealed in the Pakistani media that an investigation would be initiated into why a Chinese ship had been unable to reach the port due to heavy silt, despite ‘billions of rupees’ having apparently been spent on dredging work.

Yet China’s security concerns with regard to Pakistan extend beyond apprehension about the safety of its nationals. In October 2013, a BBC Urdu report indicated that, at the behest of the Chinese government, Pakistani authorities had added the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM – known within the group itself as the Turkestan Islamic Party) as well as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) to its list of proscribed terrorist organisations. This announcement came amidst a period of turbulence in China, which saw attacks in Xinjiang and one in central Beijing in Tiananmen Square in late October. Although Chinese authorities did not specifically mention a Pakistani link in relation to these attacks, they have previously referred repeatedly to Pakistan or South Asia (which is usually read as Pakistan) as the source of such plots. They also reported, in the aftermath of a number of the attacks in Xinjiang and the Beijing incident, that radical material produced by ETIM had been found at the homes of those involved.

The nature of this connection with ETIM is unclear. While there are radical elements in Xinjiang who might use the ideological inspiration of the group as cover for their actions, it is not clear that there is a command-and-control connection. Certainly, those elements of ETIM that do exist outside of China mostly reside in Pakistan’s badlands, under the protection of those close to the most fervently anti-state members of the militant outfit Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). There, they produce a constant flow of radical videos, magazines and audio messages, calling for the overthrow of the Chinese state and for funding and support. In two messages in 2013, ETIM leader Abdullah Mansour praised those behind recent acts of violence in China: one message was released following an incident in Bachu County in April in which twenty-one were killed after a confrontation with authorities, and the other in the wake of the Beijing attack. However, Mansour did not claim responsibility for these two attacks, instead appearing more eager to give the impression that such acts are not the product of mindless anger, but of a global jihad.

Indeed, domestic messaging about international links to recent incidents in China tends not to refer specifically to Pakistan, but – increasingly – to Syria. For example, Chinese officials have suggested that individuals involved in attacks in Xinjiang also intended to go to Syria while reports in the Chinese media in July 2013 suggested that ETIM members were already fighting there. Subsequent reporting indicated that one member of the group had confessed that he had been dispatched from the battlefield in Syria with orders to conduct some sort of attack in China. Whilst the specifics of these reports are unconfirmed, videos have emerged showing Chinese-speaking individuals and Uighurs on the battlefield there – although whether they hail from China originally or from the large diaspora community in Turkey is unclear.

Despite this, for Beijing, the decision to push for Pakistan to list these groups as terrorist organisations seems more closely linked to concerns that ETIM is increasingly seeking and receiving support from other Central Asian groups based in Pakistan’s badlands. Indeed, the increasingly broad fusion of jihadi groups in the region is likely to be appealing to ETIM, which has historically had difficulty sustaining itself and gaining traction among its counterparts internationally. Furthermore, Central Asian groups like IMU and IJU would be natural partners given their linguistic and ethnic proximity, and recent reports indicate that IMU in particular has been moving northward through Afghanistan, possibly heading back towards its primary ideological target – Islam Karimov’s regime in Uzbekistan. As such, Chinese analysts speak with growing concern about the ‘re-networking’ of extremist groups across the broader Central Asian region.

This is where the importance of Pakistan to China, due to its role and position in the region, becomes clear. Although China has invested substantially in Pakistan itself, it has also invested heavily in the broader region. Afghanistan, Central Asia and India are all potential trade partners and sources of the natural resources needed by China to bolster national growth and, more specifically, to enhance development in Xinjiang. Instability in Pakistan – perhaps through the presence of terrorist organisations – has the potential to undermine such efforts. Thus the prosperity and, indeed, the survival of the Pakistani state is essential to China.

Yet Western policy-makers must remain cautious in their interpretation of this relationship. While China may have a great deal invested in Pakistan, the way in which it pursues its interests there is not likely to further those of the West. Indeed, China will advance an agenda that, first and foremost, safeguards its citizens and assets. It will be unlikely to take on a major security role, preferring to bolster local authorities with whatever they say they need to counter the threat. Human-rights issues are unlikely to be prioritised, and in cases where bribes are required to expedite a process, it is unlikely that Chinese firms will hesitate to oblige.

The positive side of all of this is that China will provide Pakistan with useful infrastructure, be it roads, ports, railways or alternative sources of electricity. China has also demonstrated a willingness to lean on Pakistan when the mutual hostility with India becomes too tense: in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack, Chinese shuttle diplomacy was important in soothing tensions. Following a visit by then-President Zardari of Pakistan to India in 2012, former Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani told the press that it was ‘our best friend China … [which] advised us to promote trade relations with India’.

The end result is a situation in which China will increasingly find itself as the responsible partner to Pakistan, drawn more closely into Pakistani affairs. However, Beijing is unlikely to push for reforms within the Pakistani system or to try to influence affairs beyond its own specific interests. Any Western–Pakistani spats or discussions will be left to one side, with China more eager to nurture a stable country than one that is friendly with the West.

Raffaello Pantucci
Senior Research Fellow, RUSI
Twitter: @raffpantucci

A post for a new outlet, Reuters, this one looking at painting a big picture of China’s interests in Central Asia and Pakistan and how they all stitch together. A bigger theme that I am going to be exploring more through my co-edited site: http://www.chinaincentralasia.com

China re-wires it’s West

OCTOBER 4, 2013

By Raffaello Pantucci

(Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, London)

In his seminal article from October 2012 advocating for China’s ‘March Westwards’ Beijing University Dean of International Relations Wang Jisi spoke of a ‘new silk road [that] would extend from China’s eastern ports, through the center of Asia and Europe, to the eastern banks of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean coastal countries in the west.’ In addition to this route to Europe, ‘A major route from China’s western regions through the Indian Ocean should also be constructed as quickly as possible.’ An ambitious geopolitical sketch of the world seen from Beijing, but one that is being brought to life under President Xi Jinping, whose recent tour of Central Asia provided some definition of what exactly China is aiming for in its western relationships.

There were many significant moments during President Xi’s tour of Central Asia. He planted a tree and opened the CNPC-managed gas field at Galkynysh in Turkmenistan, in Uzbekistan he signed agreements with an aging Islam Karimov, in Kyrgyzstan he attended an SCO Summit and deals worth $3 billion (a small sum compared to investments in neighbors, but nonetheless a substantial amount for Kyrgyzstan whose 2012 GDP $6.5 billion), and in Kazakhstan he presided over the signing of deals worth $30 billion and gave a keynote speech at Nazarbayev University. In many ways, it was this speech that provided the clearest insight into China’s strategy towards Central Asia, outlining a ‘silk road economic belt’ that would ‘open up the transportation channel from the Pacific to the Baltic Sea.’

Five days after President Xi gave this keynote address in Kazakhstan, the Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan, Sun Weidong, gave an equally ambitious speech at the National Defence University in Islamabad. In between platitudes about China and Pakistan being ‘brothers’ he spoke of the ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’ that brings together ‘the transportation infrastructure, the energy and economic zones along the corridor, which will organically combine China’s ‘Western Development’ strategy and ‘Opening up to the West’ policy together with [a] Pakistani blueprint for national development.’ China’s strategy in Pakistan is both integrally bound into Pakistan and China’s national development.

These two speeches illustrate the greater vision that Professor Wang was talking about. A ‘silk road economic belt’ to bring European markets closer to China, as a ‘organic’ binding transforms Pakistan into a highway for Chinese goods to get to the Indian Ocean. The ultimate aim for Beijing: to reconnect its western province Xinjiang to the world and open it up for trade. Under-developed and riven with ethnic tensions that continue to spill over into violence, Beijing’s solution is an economic development strategy that needs routes to markets. Hence a highway through Central Asia to Europe and a path through Pakistan to the Indian Ocean.

The odd man out in this broader vision is Afghanistan that sits squarely in between these two routes. China has invested in some routes through the country, but these are at best subsidiary paths to the outer edges of the routes from Central Asia to Xinjiang or possibly a longer-term vision to directly correct Iran to China. But where Afghanistan can play a spoiler in this plan is to disrupt broader regional stability – in particular in Pakistan where a difficult situation on the ground will likely get further exacerbated by a negative outcome post-2014 in Afghanistan. In Central Asia a similar threat exists, but appears far less existential – militant groups previously occupied fighting western forces in Afghanistan may flow back home to Central Asia, but they are unlikely to have the sorts of numbers necessary to overthrow regimes. Nevertheless, an unstable Afghanistan would have negative repercussions on the region and all of this would displace China’s broader strategy.

The grander Chinese vision may be imperiled by potentially negative fall-out in Afghanistan, but the reality is that there are numerous short-term problems that are already hindering the situation. Pakistani instability has always presented a problem for Chinese firms: back in September 2011 China Kingho pulled out of a massive investment in southern Sindh in fear of the security of its workers (though this now may be back on). And the investment climate in Kyrgyzstan is so difficult that in late 2012 Li Deming, the head of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in the country wrote an op-ed in Global Times highlighting all the difficulties Chinese firms faced in the country.

Difficulties notwithstanding, China is making moves to fulfill the reality of the broader vision. There is already a route for goods to go from China to Europe by rail, and it is already possible to travel by road from Kashgar to Gwadar through Pakistan. And Chinese firms are working to re-develop these routes either using national development banks or through the Asian Development Bank. As the world looks elsewhere, China is re-wiring the infrastructure of its western neighbors to bind them ‘organically’ into Beijing’s domestic development strategy.

A longer piece I did for Jane’s, this time exploring the importance of training camps for British jihadists.

Fuelling the campfire – the importance of training camps to aspirant UK jihadists

  • UK jihadists engaged in militant training in the UK and abroad during the 1990s, with training camps providing a core element the necessary preparation for jihad.
  • Despite a crackdown on such activities, a series of disrupted jihadist plots in the UK over the past three years have highlighted the persistence of key elements in militant training.
  • Most notable was the continuing importance attached to training by aspirant jihadists and the preference for travelling abroad to train with existing jihadist networks.

A series of convictions of Islamist militants in the United Kingdom in early 2013 has underlined the continuing importance attached to militant training camps in the UK and abroad by aspirant jihadists.Raffaello Pantucci investigates.

The investigation into the bombing of the Boston marathon in the United States on 15 April has refocused attention on the issue of training in terrorist plots in the West, in particular whether plotters are able to rely on militant publications – such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) English-language magazine Inspire – to learn how to make explosive devices, or if they need to actually physically attend a training camp. In the case of the alleged perpetrators of the Boston attack – brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – it remains unclear, but a recent series of failed and disrupted attack plots in the United Kingdom indicated in some detail the ongoing importance attributed to training and the role of camps by Western jihadist cells.Although these plots are ultimately historical, and it is difficult to accurately assess the degree to which they reflect the ongoing reality of current training camps, they nonetheless have a number of similarities with longstanding trends seen among jihadists not only in the UK but also in the West more broadly. Additionally, the features of the training camps that the individuals are eager to attend, or are establishing themselves, are broadly similar to previous jihadist training camps, illustrating the persistence of certain patterns.

Precedents

In the 1990s, UK jihadists were urged to prepare to fight by radical Islamist clerics such as Mustafa Kamel Mustafa (alias Abu Hamza al-Masri) – who was subsequently extradited to the US in October 2012 to face terrorism charges – and Omar Bakri Mohammed, a former leader of now-banned UK Islamist activist group Al-Muhajiroun, who is currently residing in Lebanon. As part of an investigation by UK newspaperThe Sunday Telegraph in November 1999, a number of UK nationals confessed to training both in the UK and abroad. Abdul Wahid Majid – current status unknown – was quoted as stating: “After my basic training with swords and sticks at the mosque [in the UK], I then went on a number of courses, where I was taught how to use firearms and live ammunition.”

Abu Hamza al-Masri stated toThe Sunday Telegraph : “We do use weapons which have been decommissioned by the police,” while senior Islamist activist and former Al-Muhajiroun spokesman Anjem Choudary confirmed to the paper: “Before they go abroad to fight for organisations like the IIF [a reference to the International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders, an entity consisting of Al-Qaeda and several allied militant Islamist groups that was first mentioned by now-deceased Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a February 1998 statement and which facilitated UK Muslims to travel to fight in Bosnia and Chechnya], the volunteers are trained in Britain. Some of the training does involve guns and live ammunition.”

While these statements may have been brash pronouncements overstating what may have been little more than adventure camps, they highlighted the importance of training camps to UK jihadists at that point. The speeches by Omar Bakri Mohammed and Abu Hamza al-Masri in this period appear to constantly exhort their students to prepare and train. Individuals would seemingly train in the UK and then travel abroad to train further or fight, a trend that continued even after the arrest of Abu Hamza al-Masri in August 2003 and the expulsion of Islamist groups from the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London.

In May 2004, Mohammed Hamid – a senior member of the Finsbury Park Mosque community who was jailed indefinitely in March 2008 after being convicted of organising terrorist training and soliciting murder – organised a training camp in the county of Cumbria in the northwest of the UK, which was attended by four men who were jailed for life in 2007 over the failed 21 July 2005 London bomb plot (in which five bombs were placed in London Underground stations, but failed to detonate properly). A year later, two other men who attended the same camp travelled to Somalia “for purposes relating to terrorism”, according to court documents. In footage that emerged subsequent to Hamid’s trial, images were seen of the men exercising together, walking around with heavy packs, and camping in the Welsh countryside.

Recurring trends

The jihadist cell around these camps was largely disrupted, with some members arrested as part of the 21 July 2005 attack network or alongside Hamid in September 2007. Others were reported to have died in air strikes in Somalia – deaths confirmed by both families and militant groups. One such figure, Bilal Berjawi, re-emerged in January 2012 when his official biography and a video were released by the Al-Kataib Media branch of Somali militant Islamist group the Shabab.

Berjawi was a UK citizen of Lebanese origin who rose through the ranks of the community of Al-Qaeda fighters in East Africa to purportedly become a key fighter and leader of the Shabab. According to his official biography, Berjawi travelled back and forth from Somalia to the UK, raising funds between bouts of fighting in Somalia. In addition, the video of Berjawi showed him training with other Islamist militants in Somalia, including his close friend Mohammed Sakr. Friends since they were 12 years old, the two young men went to Somalia more than once and – after being stripped of their UK citizenship by the government in 2010 – both were subsequently killed in suspected US unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) missile strikes in Somalia; Berjawi in January 2012 and Sakr the following month.

These cases highlight that UK jihadist cells are seemingly fixated with carrying out training, whether in the UK or abroad, particularly connecting with jihadist groups, be it in Somalia like Berjawi; or in the UK like Muktar Said Ibrahim, the leader of the 21 July 2005 cell. Ibrahim attended one of Hamid’s camps in the UK and then later met with Rashid Rauf – a UK national of Pakistani descent who was linked to a UK plot to bomb transatlantic airliners in 2006, and reportedly killed in a 2008 UAV strike in Pakistan – and other senior Al-Qaeda figures in Pakistan. Training in the UK provides a framework to demonstrate a certain level of commitment to Islamist militancy and to develop contacts, while linking up with groups abroad for training frequently proves a more operational shift.

The significance of these trends is underlined by the way they have persisted through to more recent plots. A series of attack plots by UK jihadist cells through the late 2000s and early 2010s seem to confirm that, as late as early 2012, this modus operandi remained in play. In all of the plots disrupted by security services, the cells consistently gave an indication of seeking training, or attempting to develop their own training camps. These are traits that reflect longstanding plotting methodology and highlight the ongoing importance of training for groups of UK jihadists.

Gyms

A four-member militant cell based in the UK city of Luton headed by Zahid Iqbal pleaded guilty to preparing for acts of terrorism in March 2013. Police observed the men undertaking hiking expeditions in Wales, and according to recordings used by the prosecution during their trial, on returning from one of these trips to Snowdonia in March 2011, one of the men in the group was overheard saying the trip was “good jihad training”. During another trip later in the month, convicted cell members Mohammed Sarfraz Ahmed and Umar Arshad were overheard discussing how Scafell Pike – the highest mountain in England – was similar in conditions to the parts of Pakistan that Ahmed had visited as part of an earlier trip in pursuit of militant training.

During the trial, Ahmed in particular was identified by the prosecution as being “actively engaged in the radicalisation and recruitment of others for extremist purposes”, adding that he “engaged in physically and mentally training these others [the other cell members]”. During a trip to Snowdonia, Ahmed was observed by police leading groups in what was described by the prosecution as “regimental walking, press-ups, running in formation, and using logs perhaps as mock firearms”. These activities had been observed by police in earlier camps run by Hamid.

Another similarity with earlier attack plots was the use of gyms as places in which individuals would undergo physical training in preparation for future activities. Iqbal was recorded by police telling others that he had joined a gym to help himself train. In a separate conversation, Ahmed was overheard saying: “A lot of the stuff we do, you can do at home, say your press-up, burpees [a physical exercise] and stuff,” but while he stated the value of training with others, he highlighted the risks associated with doing military-style exercises and group training at public gyms.

One such gym in the UK city of Birmingham, the Darul Ihsaan, or Abode of Excellence, gym – also known to locals as Jimmy’s Gym – was used as a focus of congregation by two separate militant Islamist cells in the city, members of both of which were later convicted on terrorism charges.

The first cell was headed up by Irfan Naseer, with support from Irfan Khalid and Ashik Ali. The three were convicted in February 2013 of plotting suicide attacks in Birmingham. According to a 22 February 2013 report in UK newspaperThe Daily Telegraph , Naseer first met Khalid and Ali at “premises known as the 24/7 Gym” in Birmingham in 2007 and 2008, although the men later collectively changed to the Darul Ihsaan gym.

In addition, Anzal Hussain and Mohammed Saud – two members of a six-man cell that pleaded guilty in April 2013 to planning to bomb a far-right English Defence League (EDL) rally in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, in June 2012 – were identified in local media reports as being employed at the Darul Ihsaan gym.

Overseas training

For Naseer, the Darul Ihsaan gym was also a source of recruits, including the four members of a cell who pleaded guilty in October 2012 to travelling to training camps in Pakistan. The group ended up being part of Naseer’s downfall as their absence was noted by their families who vociferously complained to another prominent local individual – identified as Ahmed Faraz (alias Abu Bakr), who was convicted in December 2011 on charges of possessing terrorist material – and accused him of facilitating the men’s travel. A regular at the Darul Ihsaan gym, Faraz denied responsibility and pointed the angered families in Naseer’s direction.

For Naseer, like all of the other cells, the priority seems to have been travelling overseas to train. However, while Naseer and Khalid twice travelled to Pakistan for training, from March-November 2009 and from December 2010 to mid-2011, not all of the cells appear to have been able to

In the case of one such cell – nine members of which were arrested in December 2010 and pleaded guilty in February 2012 to planning to bomb the London Stock Exchange – the solution was instead to build their own camp using land one of their families already owned. A member of the cell, Usman Khan, had a piece of family land in Pakistani-administered Kashmir on which – according to the prosecution – the cell was planning to build a madrassah (religious seminary) that could be used to train people for terrorism. Adjacent to an already existing mosque, the prosecution claimed the cell had long-term ambitions to fundraise and build a camp around the madrassah that could become a base for UK Muslims seeking training in a secure environment.

It remains unclear whether members of this cell had been able to establish any connection to known militant Islamist organisations in the region, although at least one member of the cell was believed by authorities to have had contact with other radical Islamists in prison, and cell leader Mohammed Chowdhury had been widely identified in media reports as being present at a number of marches organised by off-shoots of Al-Muhajiroun. By contrast, Naseer had been able to make contact with elements linked to Al-Qaeda and to arrange training at a Harakat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) camp in North Waziristan in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

To a lesser extent, Iqbal, leader of the Luton cell, was identified by the prosecution as being in contact with an individual, identified only by the Security Service codename ‘Modern Sleeve’, who facilitated fellow cell member Ahmed’s travel to Pakistan for training in early 2011. While a 15 April 2013Daily Telegraph report described ‘Modern Sleeve’ as an “Al-Qaeda contact”, his group affiliation remains unconfirmed in open sources. At another point, Iqbal was recorded by police telling another cell member that “Mauritania has got thing now innit, it’s got an AQ [Al-Qaeda] group innit. AQ of the Islamic Maghreb” – a likely reference to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – to which Ahmed replied: “If they (the brothers) are still saying wait, I don’t want to keep waiting here, do you understand? I want to get out of this place and I’ll wait over there, at least then I’m close by sort of thing.” Whether the cell actually had any contact with the Al-Qaeda affiliate in North Africa remains unclear.

Similarly, it is unclear whether Richard ‘Salahuddin’ Dart and Jahangir Alom – two members of a three-man cell who pleaded guilty in April 2013 to plotting a series of bomb attacks – were able to actually make the connections with the militant Islamist groups they were hoping for. In an online conversation between Dart and the third cell member, Imran Mahmood – who the prosecution claimed had come into contact with explosives, as evidenced by traces of explosive materials found on his possessions – Mahmood told Dart: “Tare [sic] with TTP [Pakistani militant Islamist group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan] and AQ, no its not Swat Valley but they got connection and I try get u close to the people who are close to them amir and thats rare.” Mahmood is admitting difficulty in connecting Dart but is selling it to him that he has an ability to reach out to the TTP and Al-Qaeda. Dart’s response illustrated where his interest lay: “Yer al hamdulilah [praise be to Allah] that would be excellent. We would want to be active and with the right people.”

Adventure’s end

However, when training abroad could be arranged, the training camps were not always the exciting adventure camps the men expected. Court documents described how the four cell members from Birmingham were shocked when they arrived in Pakistan in August 2011 to find themselves dumped in a bare camp on a mountainside with no toilets, beds, or protection from the stifling heat and mosquitoes. The entire trip seemingly quickly lost its romantic appeal and the group first called one of the cell back in the UK before reaching out to their families, who commanded them to leave the camp and meet with Pakistani relations in a nearby city.

Despite suffering a rather ignominious expulsion from his second training trip to Pakistan, Naseer was able to obtain some useful training. When he was arrested in September 2011, he was found to be in possession of quite capable bomb and detonator designs, and while it is sometimes hard to separate reality from bluster, it seems he was able to make connections with Al-Qaeda-linked individuals in Pakistan – with whom he and Khalid left martyrdom videos that they were later heard discussing and re-enacting for others. This separates the Birmingham cell somewhat from the other cells previously identified, who were unable to firmly establish connections with militant personnel in Pakistan and whose training was either self-created or aspirational.

Another commonality across some of the cells was the desire to masquerade as observers of non-violent Deobandi Islamic reform and propagation movement Tablighi Jamaat to hide their movements. During the trial of the Luton cell, the prosecution stated: “Iqbal and Ahmed discussed using the Tablighi sect as a cover for travel… It is generally considered to eschew controversy hence the defendants’ belief that it provided good cover.” In a separate conversation in Birmingham, Naseer was recorded by police giving fellow cell member Ishaq Hussain – one of the four who pleaded guilty to travelling to Pakistani training camps in October 2012 – a list of madrassahs he was to say he attended if he was questioned by police about his activities in Pakistan, one of which was a “Tablighi” madrassah. This habit of using Tablighi Jamaat as cover, both in terms of travelling and also in Pakistan, seems to be fairly standard among UK jihadists, some of whom have spent time at Tablighi mosques in the UK and all of whom recognise the travelling missionary cover provided by the sect as one that is hard for security services to dispute as well as providing them access to a community of missionaries that will always welcome fellow believers.

The key conclusions from many of these plots appear clear: UK patterns in jihadist training persist and have largely remained unchanged as time has passed. Jihadist cells continue to be eager to use the UK’s highlands and gyms as places to train, and remain eager to participate in some form of training overseas – particularly in Pakistan. What has changed, though, is the increasing difficulty cells face in achieving this, with security forces increasingly identifying and intercepting those who attempt to travel overseas for militant training.

While the ongoing anti-government uprising in Syria has somewhat provided an additional venue for UK nationals to receive militant training, the strong UK connection to South Asia and the persistence of groups like HuM who are quite mercenary in their willingness to train people for money means that Pakistan will likely continue to attract aspirant Western jihadists for training. As such, it seems likely that training at camps in the UK and abroad will continue to be a feature of the UK jihadist scene for the foreseeable future.

Finally posting my longer piece for Jane’s about the Birmingham plotters who were convicted last month. I have already done a piece for my new institutional home RUSI on this plot, and in the fullness of time will probably do more as it is a group with interesting links. Unrelated to this plot, but on terrorism more generally, I did interviews with Aftenposten on Anjem Choudary in Norway, Die Volkskrant on Europeans going to Syria and the Toronto Star about converts in the wake of the news about the Canadians linked to the In Amenas incident. Thanks to IHS Janes for agreeing to let me republish this.

Amateur Fanatics

Key Points
  • Three men were convicted of plotting to carry out suicide attacks by a court in London on 21 February.
  • The three were ringleaders of a wider cell; six other members have pleaded guilty to terrorism offences, while three others face trial later this year.
  • While elements of the plot were amateurish, cell members connected with Al-Qaeda personnel in Pakistan for training and were intent on a mass-casualty operation.

The trial and conviction of three men in the UK unveiled an Al-Qaeda-linked plot to carry out a series of suicide attacks in Birmingham. Raffaello Pantucci investigates.

“You know this operation they’ve done though, did it go a bit wrong or something or what? It didn’t do that much damage.” Referring to the 7 July 2005 London bombings that killed 52 people, the conversation recorded by police officers on 18 September 2011 conveyed the ambition of Irfan Khalid, 27, Irfan Naseer, 31, and Ashik Ali, 27. These three men were found guilty on 21 February of plotting to carry out suicide attacks in the UK city of Birmingham.

At their trial, the prosecution argued that the three had trained and communicated with Al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan and were directed to carry out a terrorist attack in Europe. The foiled plot was a seeming return to an earlier period when UK counter-terrorism was almost singly focused on the connection between the UK and Pakistan. There was a strong reason for this, as major attacks disrupted by UK authorities in 2004, 2005, and 2006 – let alone the July 2005 attacks – were all driven by plotters drawn from the UK South Asian community who had connected directly with Al-Qaeda personnel in Pakistan.

After 2006, the intensity of the threat from this South Asian link diminished, although by no means went away, with threats from different addresses rising up security agencies’ list of concerns. As such, there was a measure of surprise when, in September 2011, police officers in Birmingham conducted a series of arrests and claimed to have disrupted a plot they described as “Al-Qaeda linked” and at “an advanced stage of planning”.

Following the conclusion of the trial almost 18 months later, the details of the plot have emerged, with evidence indicating that the plotters had made connections with Al-Qaeda, received explosives training in Pakistan, were seeking to launch an attack in the UK, and had purportedly recorded martyrdom videos that had been left behind with contacts in Al-Qaeda. The weight of evidence was such that six individuals who were linked to the three core ringleaders pleaded guilty to the charges against them. Four men – Naweed Ali, 24; Ishaaq Hussain, 20; Khobaib Hussain, 20; and Shahid Khan, 20 – pleaded guilty to engaging in conduct in preparation for terrorism by travelling to Pakistan for training. Known to police as “the travellers”, they were recruited by others in the cell to go to training camps in Pakistan. Two other men – Rahin Ahmed, 28, and Mujahid Hussain, 21 – pleaded guilty to fundraising for the cell.

The players

The leader of the cell was Irfan Naseer, known to the others as ‘Big Irfan’. During the trial, his lawyer described his client as an “overweight, lazy mummy’s boy” who was obsessed with “food and farting”. Still living with his parents, Naseer was the youngest of three sons born to a family that had moved to the UK from Pakistan in 1975. He graduated from a Birmingham school with sufficient qualifications to allow him to study for an undergraduate pharmacy degree at Aston University.

He completed his degree in 2003, although by his own account one of the more important things to happen during his studies was his rediscovery of Islam. Claiming to have memorised the Quran when he was 19, Naseer told police that during this time he also started to discover more radical Islamist clerics and their ideology. On graduation, he failed to settle into working life, dropping out of a work placement at a pharmacy in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham. Instead, he took a series of jobs at religious institutions in the area, including a stint from 2007-08 as a science teacher at the Darul Uloom Islamic High School and College in Birmingham.

Naseer’s deputy in the plot was Irfan Khalid, known as ‘Little Irfan’ to distinguish him from Naseer. Born in the UK to a father from the disputed region of Kashmir, Khalid was the oldest of three children who were raised at his maternal grandparents’ residence in the Sparkbrook area of Birmingham. An underachiever, he attended Solihull College between 2001 and 2003, taking courses on information technology that he failed to complete. In 2005, he travelled to Kashmir – staying with his paternal family – to assist in aid efforts following the recent earthquake in the area. After returning to the UK, at one point he worked as a security officer, although the details are unclear. At the time of the plot, he was living with his parents in Sparkbrook.

The third convicted plotter was Ashik Ali, a visually-impaired man who was born in the UK to a father who lived with his two wives in Sparkbrook. Ali underachieved at school, and performed poorly in his examinations. After leaving school, his father helped him get a job in food processing, although he left this job after nine months to work as a receptionist at a gym – one of the many locations the cell members used to frequent. By September 2009, he had enrolled on an Open University science foundation course, although he subsequently failed to complete any of the course requirements.

Perhaps most salient regarding the plot, in February 2008 Ali married Salma Kabal and the couple lived with Kabal’s family while they waited to be assigned council housing. In January 2011 they were given a one-bedroom flat but, according to Ali, the relationship had ended by then and he elected to move in by himself. In the narrative advanced during the trial, he purposely split from Kabal in order to distance her from the plot and prevent her being implicated. Instead, he seemed determined to use the flat as a safe-house for the cell.

Around the three core cell members, there were a further nine people. In addition to the six men who pleaded guilty to their involvement in the plot, three others are due to face trial this year after pleading not guilty to terrorism-related charges. Mohammed Rizwan, 33, and Bahader Ali (Ashik Ali’s brother), 29, face charges of supporting the cell in attack planning and helping them recruit others, while Kabal, 23, faces charges of failing to notify the authorities of what her supposedly estranged husband was planning

Going to train

When police first started investigating the cell in April 2011, Naseer and Khalid were in Pakistan on their second trip seeking training. They both first travelled to Pakistan in 2009, departing together from Birmingham International Airport (BIA) on 24 March and returning separately in mid-to-late November that year. Evidence subsequently indicated that while they were in Pakistan they received money from fellow cell member Rahin Ahmed, and the prosecution’s assertion was that during this period Naseer and Khalid spent time at a training camp. However, details of the nature of the alleged training they received, or who they reportedly trained with, were not made publicly available.

Just over a year later, on 26 December 2010, Naseer and Khalid made a second trip to Pakistan, again allegedly to train, according to prosecutors. By their own admission, the two were able to connect with the Pakistan-based Kashmiri militant Islamist group Harakat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM). In a statement on 17 September 2011 – which was recorded by UK authorities, used as evidence in the trial, and is presented here unedited – Naseer stated: “We had learnt our firing in Hurcut mujahideen [sic]… in a camp, that was inside Pakistan though, that was one of the Hurcut camps, see you get the best training there because the government doesn’t attack them, because those mujahideen say ‘we’re not going to attack Pakistani government’ and they say ‘ok you can send people [to] Kashmir and Afghanistan but don’t do nothing here’.”

In an attempt to mask what they were talking about, Naseer and Khalid would refer to the Waziristan region of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where their training allegedly took place, as “W”, with Naseer recorded as telling Mohammed Rizwan on 17 September 2011: “‘W’ hasn’t got no more camps now… there’s no camps, no training what they do, this is what they do out here, you living in houses like this, yeah, because you know the brothers use to be in the mountains… the brothers in the mountains the drones [unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)] just get them straight away, they just bomb the camps, so what they do is they stay, you know all this what they taught us was inside houses.”

Their activities at the camps seem to have been restrained due to pressure from the use of UAVs by the United States over Pakistan’s tribal region. Naseer was recorded on 18 September describing the nature of the training: “They keep [us] in a house like this, just these two rooms like that and a toilet. And after being there like for two or three weeks and then move you up to another place.”

At a certain point, they were brought to a madrassah (religious school) in Binori near the city of Karachi, where they were sent to classes to learn about “J” [jihad], an experience that the men apparently did not enjoy. Naseer was recorded telling Ashik Ali on 18 September 2011: “I was like rolling around with pain and that in my stomach. [But] they still go, ‘go lesson’. So what it is – guess what we start doing? We go forget it man. If these lot [sic] throw us out, they throw us out. We went upstairs and we got wireless internet… So we were just watching ‘J’ videos all day. After Fajr [dawn prayers] they used to come to our room. We used to be knocked out – say we were ill. They would come up again. Then, they eventually got fed up after two months and threw us out.”

Who exactly trained the men is unclear, although in conversations recorded by police the cell members referred to having received orders from the upper reaches of Al-Qaeda and in particular Sheikh Khalid bin Abdul Rahman al-Hussainan (alias Abu Zaid al-Kuwaiti), a senior figure in the group who was reportedly killed in a US UAV missile strike in North Waziristan on 6 December 2012.

Naseer told Mohammed Rizwan: “You know him, he’s in the top five of AQ after Ayman al-Zawahiri… well you know the sheikh we’re on about, the Kuwaiti guy, you know about the top five… bro, there is no more proof than him saying it, that, do it.”

As with previous plots, the Al-Qaeda personnel allegedly training foreigners in explosives seem focused on teaching innovative and original ways of sourcing materials, evidently impressing Naseer. He was recorded on 17 September 2011 as stating: “They got such knowledge that, for example, in this country, they know yeah, that, different, different place where you can get, achieve like, for example, like, from [inaudible] where you can make a bomb from [inaudible] yeah like, they make it easy for you.”

One innovation of the plot was to use cold packs – used by athletes to soothe injuries – as a source of ammonium nitrate for explosives. While at one point Naseer was recorded assuring Ali that the packs contained the necessary ingredients, the information was faulty as cold packs have been manufactured without ammonium nitrate for several years for safety reasons. Nevertheless, they continued to search for other methods of obtaining the necessary materials.

Recruitment and fundraising

One of the clear messages that Naseer and Khalid allegedly received from their contacts during training in Pakistan was to disseminate the message and training further. Naseer was recorded on 17 September 2011, stating: “They said yeah, the knowledge they gave us, they want that to spread in Europe.” They successfully persuaded the four-man group, referred to by police as “the travellers”, to go to Pakistan for training and aimed to persuade Mohammed Rizwan to do the same. While this was ultimately unsuccessful, Rizwan still faces charges related to his alleged involvement with the cell and in particular providing support and encouragement in the planned operation.

Among those who pleaded guilty, Ahmed, the self-described “taxi driver” of the group, was tasked with multiplying the cell’s money through online foreign exchange trading. The seed money that he used in this enterprise was obtained by the cell through a series of fake charitable drives that they undertook on Birmingham’s streets, claiming to raise money for UK-based charity Muslim Aid and the local Madrassah-e-Ashraful Uloom. Using official green Muslim Aid T-shirts and high visibility tabards, the group carried green Muslim Aid-labelled buckets around Birmingham and briefly Leicester, and had leaflets and other merchandise from the organisation to make them seem credible.

This material was obtained by a cell member who volunteered for Muslim Aid, but there is no suggestion that the charity supported or was aware of the cell’s fundraising efforts. Indeed, a statement released by Muslim Aid following the conviction of Naseer, Khalid, and Ali on 21 February read: “We welcome the conviction and sentencing of the individuals who… used our name and property to collect funds illegally for their intended criminal activity. A volunteer of the charity who pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing assisted these individuals and abused the name of Muslim Aid without our knowledge.”

Having collected around GBP14,000 (USD21,000), Ahmed reportedly stated that there was a “next to impossible chance of losing the money”. However, his optimism was misplaced. Between 17 August and 16 September 2010, he managed to lose around GBP9,000. Of that amount, GBP 3,000 was lost when he left his computer to make a cup of tea, missing a key market shift. This led the others to distrust Ahmed and to cut him out of some elements of the plot. They castigated him and told him that he would have to sell his car and take out loans that he did not intend to repay to cover the losses.

Influences and targets

There is seemingly little doubt about the cell’s contact with Al-Qaeda personnel in Pakistan, and Naseer and Khalid appear to have at least somewhat adopted the group’s ideology. During a conversation with Rizwan as part of his effort to persuade him to join the cell, Naseer was recorded on 17 September 2011 describing what he said in the martyrdom video that he left behind in Pakistan: “It was Sheikh Osama [bin Laden] who we mentioned, and the torture of [the] Muslim people.” Khalid was also recorded as stating: “Don’t you think you can mess with the Muslims, don’t you think you can mess with the Muslims and get away with it because we’re coming to your house.”

What is less certain is what they were intending to do in terms of the attack in the UK. In a conversation on 17 September 2011, which was recorded by police, members of the cell discussed using poison creams, something that they had been taught by their Al-Qaeda trainers. They stated: “He goes that like make it and put it inside like, you know like Vaseline or cream like that, like Nivea cream and put it on people’s cars, you know like the door handles on a whole, imagine putting it on [the] whole like area overnight and when they come in the morning to work they start touching the, they open the door and then five minutes [later] they die man, all of them start dying and that, kill about 1,000 people.”

Although the main focus of the plot appeared to be the use of explosive devices, the cell spoke of the possibility of using guns in some form of attack, and were recorded by police on 17 September 2011 as stating: “Even if you can’t make a bomb, get guns yeah from the black geezers, Africans, and charge into some like synagogue or charge into different places.” However, this, like many of the other plans, seemed largely fanciful. The most likely one seemed to be collecting chemicals and testing out recipes to establish the best way to build an explosive device from readily sourced materials.

Indeed, when the three ringleaders were convicted on 21 February, the judge told Naseer: “You were seeking to recruit a team of somewhere between six and eight suicide bombers to carry out a spectacular bombing campaign, one which would create an anniversary along the lines of 7/7 or 9/11 [the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US].” However, there was no indication at the time of their arrest that the cell members had made any credible progress towards producing a viable explosive device.

Concluding Lions

The sometimes amateurish nature of the plotters has led to them being painted by the UK media as figures from the film satire Four Lions. Ahmed’s trading losses, alongside the news that Ali had eBay accounts named TerrorShop and Shop Terror, all seemed to point to a rather clownish operation.

However, this should not detract from the cell’s genuine intent. Not only were cell members able to connect with Al-Qaeda personnel, Naseer and Khalid were able to attend training camps in Pakistan on at least two separate occasions, raise substantial funds, dispatch another team of recruits to Pakistan, and start to deploy their training back in the UK. When Khalid was recorded by police, joking as he drove around Birmingham with a group of fellow plotters, stating “it’s the four suicide bombers driving around ready to take on England, oh my God take them out”, he was only half joking.

It was also notable that this vocal group of extremists was not reported earlier to authorities by the local Muslim community. In particular, it was highlighted that even though community members discovered “the travellers” had been sent to a training camp, and forced Naseer to make sure they got back safely, no one reported this to the authorities.

In retrospect, it is somewhat surprising that there was less awareness of the cell. In their own recordings, they refer to interaction with radical elements in Birmingham, and there are connections between the broader cell and at least three separate terrorist investigations. It is difficult to know if this was simply the background chatter visible in a tight-knit community such as Birmingham’s Sparkbrook and Sparkhill. Plots of varying degrees of seriousness are periodically disrupted in this area of the country, with at least one important trial expected later in the year. The underlying lesson from this plot seems to be that terrorism in the UK continues to have a strong Pakistani connection, something that has clearly managed to outlive Bin Laden and the disaggregation of Al-Qaeda’s senior hierarchy.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI and the author of the forthcomingWe Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen (Hurst/Columbia University Press)