Posts Tagged ‘Syria’

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.

A new piece with former colleague Laura looking at the phenomenon of criminals showing up on the battlefield in Syria. More on the topic of foreign fighters from Europe in the near future – including something longer that will eventually land! Thanks to the Airey Neave Trust for their generous support of this work.

Thick As Thieves: European Criminals Take to Syria’s Battlefield

RUSI Analysis, 31 Mar 2014 | By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

Individuals with known criminal histories are a surprisingly common feature of the current Syrian battlefield. While their motives may be a combination of redemption and opportunism, returnees in this mode pose a complicated threat picture for security services to process if they return.

By Raffaello Pantucci and Laura Dawson

Syria Report

Since the conflict began in 2011, Syria has become a magnet for European foreign fighters. Determining exact numbers is an imprecise science, but the most recent alarming figure to emerge in the UK is the anonymous government claim that some 250 British fighters are now back on UK shores having experienced the battlefield.

Although there is no single profile of those who decide to leave their homes to join the fighting in Syria, an interesting feature is the seemingly high proportion of individuals with criminal pasts who are appearing on the battlefield. This is an aspect of particular concern to security services since it gives them access to criminal networks for whom weapons are easier to obtain, helping them climb over a crucial hurdle when putting together a terrorist plot.

Hardened Criminals and Low Level Jihadists

There are three broad criminal profiles seen among those travelling to Syria: those with a history of petty crime; those who have been incarcerated for extremist Islamist behaviour; and career criminals.

Petty criminals are amongst the most common feature of the battlefield in Syria. 23-year-old Ali Almanasfi was born into a Syrian family in West London and had a troubled childhood involving gangs, theft, drug and alcohol abuse. His father – a bus driver originally from Syria – had sent Almanasfi back to Syria in an attempt to change his behaviour.

In 2009, however, Almanasfi was arrested and sentenced to prison after he attacked an older man while drunk. He was initially sent to Feltham Young Offenders institution, a prison that has had the leader of the 21/7 London bomb plot cell, Muktar Said Ibrahim and Shoe Bomber Richard Reid pass through its gates. It is believed that it was in prison that he grew religious, and in January 2013, he left for Syria.

Falsely believed to have died in May after Syrian security services showed images of a mangled body and his (previously lost) passport, Almanasfi was last heard from in June when he confirmed he had fought with the Ahrar Shaam brigade of fighters under the Islamic Front umbrella organisation.

Others draw on their criminal pasts to fund their travel to Syria. Last September, five Frenchmen – including one who claimed to have recently returned from Syria – stole €2500 from a fast-food restaurant in Paris to fund their travel to Syria. Choukri Ellekhlifi, a 22-year-old Londoner was alleged to have funded his travels to Syria by mugging people in London’s affluent Belgravia with a taser-style gun. His fellow mugger, 21-year-old Mohamed ElyasseTaleouine, is currently serving a ten-year sentence in part for possession of a converted 9mm machine gun and 24 rounds of live ammunition. Ellekhlifi was sentenced in absentia to 6 years in prison but escaped to Syria when on bail. He went on to fight with Jabhat al-Nusra and was eventually killed in an August 2013 battle against pro-Assad forces.

In addition to petty criminals, Europeans with Islamist-related arrests have also appeared in Syria. The 23-year-old Mohammed el-Araj (who trained in Syria alongside Choukri Ellekhlifi) from Notting Hill was the second Briton confirmed dead in Syria in mid-August last year. A mechanical engineering student, el-Araj served 18 months of a two-year sentence in prison for violently protesting outside the Israeli embassy in London in 2009. Others arrested alongside him at the protest later died in Somalia alongside al Shabaab.

In some ways most alarming, however, is the presence of hardened criminals on the battlefield. Danish Abderrozak Benarabe was the leader of the recently disbanded, notorious Blågårdsgade gang, commonly known as ‘Big A’. In 2006 he was acquitted of hiring two hit men to kill five others and instead charged with aggravated assault and blackmail, serving four and a half years in prison. After his release, he traveled to Syria accompanied by a journalist to apply his skills in a war setting before returning again to Denmark. He is currently in custody on more recent charges of assault and robbery.

Coming Home

Some of these fighters will die in battle in Syria,or stay out in the region. Hundreds, however, are returning home where in some cases they are returning to criminal activity. Two Dutch returnees from Syria who are understood to have been involved in youth criminal gangs prior to their travel were part of a five-person cell arrested last month for planning an armed robbery in the Netherlands. Genc Selimi, a 19-year-old Kosovar, was one of the six arrested for plotting a terrorist attack on a major European city after he returned from a stint in Syria. Prior to leaving for the conflict, he had been arrested in 2012 for gun possession. A number of other, less public, cases have emerged in the UK of fighters in Syria with already strong connections to hardened criminals who have already flirted with radical ideas and had access to weaponry, though so far it is unclear whether these have translated into plots. In some cases, there is evidence thatthese connections providing useful logistical support for those trying to leave. The one plot that has publicly emerged in any detail in the UK is the cell that had allegedly come back with plans to launch a Mumbai-style attack, though it is unclear that they had secured any weapons.

The terror-crime nexus is not a new one. People with criminal pasts are often drawn to extremist ideologies as a way of atoning for past sins, though often they donot leave their pasts completely behind. But the high instance of people going to Syria with criminal pasts of every sort adds a further worrying dimension to the phenomenon of foreign fighters going to Syria.

RUSI is grateful for the support of the Airey Neave Trust in its work on foreign fighters and Syria

After a while’s silence due to some larger projects I am working on finishing and other reasons, here is a new piece for my institutional home RUSI looking at the news that a Briton has carried out a suicide operation in Syria. I have done interviews around this subject for CNN, The Times, as well as a video for RUSI. I also talked to DW about Syria, VoR about groups using ransom money, Sky on TPIMs and the Daily Beast about the news Brits were possibly videoed torturing someone in Syria. An expanded version of the below piece is going to appear early next week with lots more detail about Abdul Wahid Majid’s background.

Syria’s First British Suicide Bomber: The UK Jihadist Backdrop

RUSI Analysis, 14 Feb 2014

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

The revelation that the Syrian conflict has perhaps claimed its first British suicide bomber poses urgent questions for the UK radical group from which he came, and the threat from extremists radicalised over a long period of time.

AbdulWahidMajeed

Abdul Waheed Majid, who allegedly died in Syria last week, is not the first British suicide bomber. If the claims of his activism with al Muhajiroun are proven to be correct, then he is also not the first activist from within this groupto have decided to kill himself in a foreign conflict.

The news, however, calls into question the actual danger and risk posed by such long term hardened communities of radicals associated with the provocative group, al Muhajiroun. Last year saw the brutal attack by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, individuals who had also featured on the fringes of al Muhajiroun events for some time. Now the UK has seen its first, suicide bomber in Syria associated with the group.  Previous suicide bombers linked at least peripherally to the group have killed themselves in Pakistan and Israel. All of which calls into question the viability and sagacity of the current approach that seems to simply manage al Muhajiroun rather than conclusively deal with it in any particular way.

Abdul Waheed Majid had been a feature of al Muhajiroun circles in Crawley in the late 1990s and early 2000s at least, and was spotted by self-confessed group member and later government witness Mohammed Junaid Babar at a meeting of radicals in Crawley in late 2002.

The group he met with n Crawley was made up of at least two men who went on to be convicted of serious terrorist plotting in the UK. Others included one man who died in a drone strike in Pakistan and his brother who was later placed on a control order. They were there to hear, by Mohammed Junaid Babar’s account, preacher Abdulla el Faisal (who has since been jailed and then deported), hook-handed preacher Abu Hamza (who is currently fighting a case in the US having served time in the UK) and Ausman Ali – a preacher who has not been convicted in any terrorist investigations and was a regular traveller on aid convoys to Syria. As well as speeches, the men watched martyrdom videos filmed by the11 September 2001 hijackers.

After 9/11, al-Muhajiroun continued to maintain its provocative stance, holding meetings with particularly inflammatory titles like the one describing the 11 September  attackers as ‘the magnificent nineteen.’Over time, al Muhajiroun changed its name on numerous occasions, each time operating under a new name until the government added them to a proscribed list. And over the years, individuals associated with these groups have repeatedly been convicted in terrorist operations. Richard Dart and Mohammed Chowdury are two prominent examples, though the list is far longer than this and is gone into some detail in a recent report published by Hope Not Hate. Whether individuals are active members at the time of conviction is not always clear, but their journey through the group is well documented.

Is ‘al-Muhajiroun’ Nurturing Fighters for the Long-Term?

Abdul Wahid Majid’s case presents two problems. In the first instance: his age and persistence. The fact he waited after almost 15 years of activism and participation in foreign battlefields before deciding to conduct a suicide operation is significant.

This highlights how ingrained his beliefs were, and while it may be true that his ultimate decision was to conduct an operation abroad, he nevertheless remained a dedicated extremist involved in known circles for almost 15 years, meaning he would have been known to  security services for much of this time. The case of Michael Adebolajo is instructive of a long-term extremist can become a problem at home. A feature of al Muhajiroun events since the mid-2000s, he tried to go and fight abroad and retained his extreme ideas for almost eight years before finally deciding on action.

The second issue is the broader group around al Muhajiroun. The problem there is more complicated. Clearly the group provides an ideological backdrop that is stimulating to individuals who go on to conduct terrorist activity. But at the same time, in whatever incarnation it exists, the group and its leaders are careful to try to stay on the right side of the law, while remaining firmly provocative.

Occasionally this red line moves and the latest group name is proscribed (be it al Ghurabaa, the Saved Sect, Islam4Uk or others) or some of them stray into criminal activity. But the core of the group remains and as we can see, their members appear in repeated terrorist or other criminal investigations: be this public disorder offences or incidents like the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich last year. It is never clear whether the individuals are members of the group at the time – in part as it is not clear what denotes membership of these groups given they operate more like communities rather than organisations with clear criteria for individual membership.

But whatever the case, the group persistently features in the background of terrorist investigations. This is not to say everyone who passes through the group is a criminal – an unclear number become part-time members for a while before moving on to other lives. But the question becomes: what can be done to address the groups persistent appearance?

Clearly, from a legal perspective, approaches have been tried but with limited success. Individual members of the group who break the law are often incarcerated for some time, but usually come out and return in relatively short order to their old lives. A longer-term solution requires a more dynamic approach that focuses on depriving the group of its oxygen of publicity; that focuses on containing older members who keep the group’s  flame alive, while individually de-radicalising recent recruits or younger members.

All of this alongside already existing and excellent  efforts by the Muslim community around the UK to ostracises the group (in whatever form it takes) and its leaders from Muslim public spaces. This approach will not rid the United Kingdom of the problem of individuals being attracted to radical ideas, but at the same time it will maybe remove one focus of extreme ideas in the UK that has been involved in driving young Britons towards self-destructive radical ideologies for almost two decades.

And on the topic of Syria and foreign fighters from Europe, here is a piece that I wrote a little while ago that has now gone live for a new outlet, Alternatives Internationales Hors-séries a French outlet. For those who cannot read the below French, it is similar to this piece I did for RUSI. More on this subject en route.

Les Jihadistes occidentaux rentrent à la maison

Raffaello Pantucci, chercheur au Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), Londres
Alternatives Internationales Hors-série n° 014 – janvier 2014

Des centaines de jeunes Européens sont partis faire le jihad en Syrie. Et la plupart en reviendront. Radicalisés, vengeurs, ou indifférents, ils sont devenus la bête noire des services de renseignement.

Le conflit syrien est devenu le terreau le plus fertile du jihadisme mondialisé. Alors que l’on va entrer dans la quatrième année du conflit, la guerre civile syrienne est devenue un pot-pourri d’extrémistes, jeunes sunnites ou chiites venant combattre aux côtés des différentes factions en présence. Parmi eux, on trouve de plus en plus de jeunes Européens.

Ces jihadistes occidentaux renforcent-ils la menace terroriste dans les pays européens ? Pour le moment, la guerre en Syrie a surtout alimenté la menace terroriste au niveau régional : une cellule planifiant des attentats en Jordanie a été démantelée, des attaques ont été commises en Turquie ou au Liban. De même, faut-il le rappeler, il n’y a pas de branche européenne d’Al-Qaïda. Parce que l’organisation terroriste peine à faire des émules sur le Vieux Continent, mais aussi parce qu’aucun groupe ne remplit les critères d’adhésion – autonomie logistique et financière, liens établis avec la haute hiérarchie du mouvement – édictés par la maison mère. En outre, si une branche européenne venait à officiellement se faire connaître, la réponse des services de renseignement et de sécurité ne se ferait pas attendre, et elle serait aussitôt arrêtée.

Mais les responsables européens ont raison de s’inquiéter, car historiquement nombre de terroristes ont d’abord été des combattants jihadistes. Et à moyen terme, les Occidentaux vont devoir se pencher sur leurs jeunes ressortissants revenant du front syrien, avec l’expérience, l’entraînement et les réseaux qui peuvent être utilisés à des fins terroristes sur leurs sols.

Les plus inquiétants sont ceux qui sont directement missionnés par des organisations jihadistes, comme le montre l’exemple de Mohammed Siddique Khan et Shezad Tanweer, le duo au coeur des attentats de Londres de juillet 2005. Khan, la tête pensante, avait réalisé nombre de voyages au Pakistan et en Afghanistan où il s’était entraîné dans un premier temps avec les groupes jihadistes du Cachemire, puis plus tard avec les Afghans. Son troisième voyage en Afghanistan aurait dû être le dernier – il avait prévu d’y mourir comme il l’a indiqué dans une vidéo adressée à sa jeune fille – jusqu’à ce qu’il rencontre des membres d’Al-Qaïda le convainquant de l’intérêt de mener une attaque sur son sol d’origine. D’autres ont emprunté ce chemin, mais sans parvenir à leurs fins, comme Faisal Shahzad et Najibullah Zazi, qui voulaient chacun commettre un attentat à New York après des voyages en Afghanistan et au Pakistan.

Avant de partir combattre déjà, ces hommes nourrissaient une haine de l’Occident, et voyaient dans le fait de détenir un passeport occidental l’occasion de commettre plus facilement un attentat. Un tel sentiment anime-t-il ceux qui sont aujourd’hui en Syrie ? Leur rhétorique et leur allégeance à Al-Qaïda pourraient laisser penser qu’ils partagent ses convictions, mais, pour l’heure, leur priorité est bel et bien de faire tomber le régime d’Assad, pas d’attaquer l’Occident.

Seul contre tous

La deuxième façon dont la menace s’est exprimée dans le passé, c’est à travers des individus qui se sont rendus sur les champs de bataille jihadiste, qui s’y sont constitué un réseau, s’y sont entraînés, puis sont rentrés pour planifier une attaque de leur propre chef. Par exemple, Bilal Abudllha, un médecin irako-britannique qui avec le soutien de son ami Kafeel Ahmed, a tenté de faire exploser deux voitures piégées en plein Londres, et réussi à lancer une voiture remplie d’explosif dans l’aéroport international de Glasgow, en 2007. Abdullah s’était auparavant rendu en Irak, s’était entraîné parmi les insurgés, mais il n’est pas sûr que ces derniers lui aient demandé de commettre des attentats au Royaume-Uni. Dans la même veine, Mohamed Muhidin Gelle, un jeune dano-somalien proche des Chebab avec qui il s’était entraîné, a été accusé de fomenter avec d’autres un attentat contre Hillary Clinton. Le complot a été découvert, et Gelle a été extradé vers le Danemark. Là-bas, il semble qu’il ait pu reprendre une vie normale, jusqu’au 31 décembre 2009 où il s’est attaqué au domicile du caricaturiste Kurt Westegaard, armé d’une hache et de sabres. Mais, même si les Chebab ont admis connaître cet individu, rien ne prouve qu’ils ont été les commanditaires de cette tentative d’assassinat.

C’est plutôt ce profil que l’on retrouve en Syrie. Parmi la foultitude de jeunes hommes prêts à faire le jihad à l’étranger, il est quasiment certain qu’au moins l’un d’entre eux rentrera à la maison vivant, entraîné, et décidé à agir en son nom propre. Est-ce cela qui explique le faible soutien des pays occidentaux à la rébellion syrienne ? En tout cas, c’est ce genre d’individus qui devrait inquiéter leurs diplomates et gouvernants.

Recommandé par les anciens

Enfin, il y a ceux qui partent se battre, rentrent pleins de colère, mais pas suffisamment pour commettre un attentat. Ils préfèrent aider les autres jihadistes à trouver des fonds et deviennent des figures du radicalisme, à l’instar du prédicateur anglo-égyptien Abu Hamza al Masri, célèbre pour ses prêches enflammés dans la mosquée de Finsbury Park à Londres. Jeune homme fuyant la conscription en Égypte, Abu Hamza (alias Mustafa Kamel) était parti combattre les Soviétiques en Afghanistan. Là-bas, il a rencontré Abullah Azam, figure tutélaire du jihad antisoviétique, avant de rentrer blessé et mutilé, ce qui a d’ailleurs contribué à sa renommée. De retour au Royaume-Uni, il est devenu prédicateur, puis petit à petit il est apparu comme une figure incontournable de la mouvance extrémiste britannique. Même s’il ne s’est jamais personnellement impliqué dans une attaque terroriste, il a radicalisé et influencé toute une génération de jeunes hommes, les persuadant de partir se battre à l’étranger, de s’entraîner, voire de perpétrer des attaques en Occident. Il y a, à des niveaux d’influence moindre, bien d’autres exemples comme Abu Hamza, et la plupart d’entre eux n’ont jamais attiré l’attention. Ces individus sortent souvent des radars publics, soit parce qu’ils rejoignent un groupe encore inconnu des services, soit parce qu’ils sont très prudents, soit parce que tout simplement ils n’ont pas l’intention de commettre un attentat.

À cause d’eux, non seulement plus de jeunes sont tentés d’aller combattre en Syrie, mais surtout l’idéologie du jihad se répand en Europe, car leur expérience personnelle est aisément transposable dans le récit plus global du jihad. Ainsi, le problème du terrorisme islamique qui semblait en déclin va en fait s’étendre et se prolonger en Europe.

Même s’il est impossible de savoir combien exactement de jeunes Occidentaux sont partis (ou prévoient de) combattre en Syrie (quelques centaines d’Européens, estiment les services de renseignements, mais ils sont certainement plus nombreux), l’expérience montre que lorsque des Occidentaux rejoignent les champs de bataille jihadiste, la menace terroriste se renforce de manière générale. Reste pour les services de renseignements à déterminer quand et comment celle-ci pourrait se matérialiser. La Syrie hantera l’Europe pendant de longues années encore.

My latest for Jane’s Intelligence Review about European Foreign Fighters going to Syria. Unfortunately, its behind a firewall, so I cannot just post it here now, but they have agreed to let me put up what is below so far with the rest later in the month. Get in touch if you have any questions. In the meantime I did interviews for the Sunday Times on the same subject, something with Sky News about prison radicalisation and something for NBC about the Iraq-Syria troubles and its links back home. Many thanks to the Airey Neave Trust for their support of my work on this topic.

UPDATE: March 22, 2014 – per agreement with Jane’s I have now posted the entire article here. Thanks to my editors!

Foreign Fighters – Battle-hardened Europeans return from Syria

Key Points
  • Rising numbers of European citizens travelling to fight for Islamist groups in the Syrian civil war increase the domestic terrorism threat as they return home.
  • European fighters in Syria are from a diverse range of nationalities and ethnicities, with the domestic threat seemingly most elevated in the Balkans, Belgium, and the United Kingdom.
  • The risk of domestic militant attacks in European countries will rise further should Syria’s civil war continue.

Increasing numbers of European citizens have travelled to Syria to fight for Islamist groups in the civil war. Raffaello Pantucci examines the threat facing Europe from fighters returning home and the risk of domestic militant attacks as a result.

Syrian militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) on 7 December 2013 posted an announcement on its Facebook page stating that a Luxembourg national using the battlefield name Abu Huthaifa had died in al-Safira, Aleppo governorate. The news – although unconfirmed in any mainstream press – marked a new chapter in the history of global jihadism.
As the first national from Luxembourg publicly known to have died fighting alongside jihadist groups in Syria, he became another ‘first’ in a war that is rapidly eclipsing all previous jihadist battlefields. For European security officials who are increasingly concerned about the conflict, 2013 marked a new high in a trend that had been rising since 2012.
In its annual report on terrorist trends in Europe, the EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE-SAT) 2013, the European Police Office (Europol) reported that, “in 2012, there was a distinct rise in the number of EU citizens travelling to Syria, in a number of cases fighting alongside groups associated with religiously inspired terrorism”.

In 2013, this trend accelerated further, with an assessment published by researcher Aaron Zelin of King’s College London suggesting that over the period from April to December 2013 the number of Europeans heading to fight in Syria had almost tripled, and could total between 5,000 to 10,000.

More worryingly, in 2013, further evidence started to emerge suggesting that the return of these fighters home may have increased terrorist threats in Europe.

Jihadist profiles

Little is known about Abu Huthaifa. The brief statement posted about him on JeM’s Facebook page indicated that he had entered Syria through Turkey and that he might be as young as 18 years old. Beyond this, he was a young Caucasian wearing traditional army garb. However, in his portrait there are a number of features observed among the European contingent fighting in Syria.

First, the lack of clarity about his ethnicity reflects the broad background of the European foreign fighter contingent in Syria. Unlike the civil conflict in Libya, which seemed to draw mostly, but not only, Libyan Europeans to fight, the civil war in Syria has attracted Europeans of various ethnic backgrounds, from Arabs and South Asians to converts of every ethnicity.

A review of available information about foreign fighters in Syria reveals that the broad base of fighters in the country reflects the ethnic breakdown of Muslims across Europe. According to the 2011 census, the majority of Muslims in the UK are of South Asian origin. Citizens of that origin equally represent the largest contingent of British foreign fighters in Syria.

Europeans of multiple ethnicities with distinct national accents appear in videos recorded by jihadist groups on the battlefield. One video discovered in early June 2013, which purported to have been taken in March, showed a group including Dutch-speaking individuals beheading someone identified as a Syrian government supporter, with at least one of those involved speaking Flemish (Belgian Dutch).

Other videos to emerge actively encourage individuals to join the fighting in their native languages: English – by a Briton of seemingly African origin talking by the side of the road as he loads a pistol; Swedish – by Swedes of Arab origin; Danish; French; and other languages.

German authorities have grown increasingly concerned about the activity of a 38-year-old former rapper, Denis Mamadou Cuspert. A Ghanaian-German convert, he was known by his stage name Deso Dogg or his battlefield kunya (an honorific title) Abu Talha al-Almani. Prominent for his radical views in Germany before going to Syria, Cuspert has become the face of German jihad in Syria, releasing videos of himself rapping and calling on others to join the fight. It is unknown whether or not he is still alive.

Second, Abu Huthaifa’s age reflects the fact that jihad in Syria remains primarily attractive to the younger demographic, with a large number of teenagers in particular drawn to the fight. In October, Burkhard Freier, head of the North Rhine-Westphalia branch of the German domestic intelligence agency Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), told the ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen) television network that his service had “observed adolescents who departed for Syria in order to fight there”.

In September, he reported that a group of more than 20 young German Muslims had gone from Germany to Turkey and onwards to Syria. Among the group there were five teenagers, including a 15-year-old. In December, the minister of the interior of the German federal state of Hesse, Boris Rhein, highlighted a study commissioned by his ministry, which suggested that of 23 males who had gone to fight in Syria, nine were still at school.

In Norway, a pair of Somali-born sisters aged 16 and 19 declared in an email to their parents, “Something needs to be done [about Syria]. We want to help the Muslims, and the only way to do so is to be with them in their pains and their joy.” The girls’ father tracked them down in Syria, but failed to persuade them to return. In Belgium, the worried parents of two teenagers – Jejoen Bontinck and Brian de Mulder – separately spoke to the international media in March and April of 2013, expressing their concerns about their sons, who had gone to fight in Syria.

However, the spectrum of fighters also includes those who are middle-aged. Abdal Munem Mustafa Halima (also known as Abu Basir al-Tartusi) – a London-based extremist preacher, believed to be in his 50s and originally from Syria – emerged in videos published online by the group Ansar al-Sham in October 2012, seemingly addressing crowds in Latakia. One video posted on the video-sharing website YouTube is dated 8 August 2012.

In February 2013, reports emerged that Slimane Hadj Abderrahmane, a 39-year-old former Guantánamo Bay camp detainee, had died fighting four months after arriving in Syria. Abderrahmane was born in Denmark. At the age of seven he moved to Algeria with his family and then returned to Denmark in his late teens. Formerly a popular techno DJ, he became concerned by the suffering of Muslims around the world and trained in Afghanistan. In February 2002, he was captured and handed over to the US forces, which held him in the Guantánamo Bay detention camp for two years before releasing him to Denmark, where he wrote a book about his experiences, protested against Danish support of American foreign policy, and was imprisoned for credit card fraud.

The reason for Abderrahmane’s decision to go to Syria was unclear, with the Facebook group Islamisk Budskab (Islamic Message), which posted news of his death, merely saying that he “packed his backpack, said goodbye to his wife and children, and gone off [sic] to Kastrup Airport [Copenhagen Airport]”.

However, the average age of foreign jihadists seems to be somewhere between the mid-teens and middle age. In his detailed public records study of 18 Swedish nationals who had fought in Syria, Swedish researcher and journalist Per Gudmundson found that the fighters’ average age was 23.5 years. The results of this study were published in the September 2013 edition of the New York City Combating Terrorism Center’s (CTC) monthly publication CTC Sentinel.

In June 2013, Belgian minister of the interior Joëlle Milquet stated that the average age of Belgian nationals fighting in Syria was between 23 and 25 years old. A BBC radio File on Four programme from October quoted UK officials who told Shiraz Maher, a researcher at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London, that the average age of Britons going to fight was in their 20s. Public data and specific instances across Europe suggest that the majority of those reported to be fighting in Syria are in their 20s, with a few more seasoned fighters in their 30s.

Moreover, although the overwhelming majority of those travelling to Syria are men, there has been some evidence of young women also going to the battlefield, but it remains unclear what roles they perform. The case of the teenage Norwegian sisters has already been mentioned, and a report for the UK’s Channel 4 television channel from July also highlighted the case of British citizens “Maryam” and “Aisha”. The two women were living with their husbands, who were fighting alongside the Sunni militia Katiba al Muhajireen in Syria.

Having converted to Islam four years before, Maryam decided to move to Syria in early 2013, where she met her Swedish-Arab husband. Aisha moved to Syria with her British husband, and the two families lived in the same building near the Syrian frontlines. According to the documentary, the men fought together, while the women stayed behind to look after their children.

There are more such cases of married partners moving to Syria. A report in the Bosnian press published in December highlighted the case of approximately 10 married couples who had gone to Syria, with some of them taking children who were as young as three months old.

Although many women appear to adopt domestic roles, some have died on the battlefield. In late May, the Syrian government published pictures of what purported to be the passport of a British man, an American woman, and a third individual killed in a car outside Idlib in the northwest. It transpired that the British man was in fact alive, because he had handed over his passport to his handlers, who then gave it to someone else – a typical practice for foreign fighters in Syria. The American woman was identified as Nicole Lynn Mansfield, a 33-year-old convert whose death was confirmed by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The details of her case remain unclear, but Mansfield’s death demonstrated that some foreign females who go to Syria also take on frontline roles.

Travel and recruitment

A third element that Abu Huthaifa’s case highlights is the method of travelling to Syria. Having entered the country through Turkey, his case reveals the main route used by European foreign fighters to the battlefield. In most cases, individuals travel to Turkey and from there cross the porous border into Syria, where they connect with Islamist groups on the ground.

Sometimes it is done by road under the auspices of aid convoys from Europe. The convoys often carry genuine medical supplies or other essential goods and are driven by individuals who have raised money with a genuine intent to hand it over to refugees. Yet often unwittingly, the convoys also transport individuals who seek to join jihadist groups in Syria. As a result, border authorities at the UK port of Dover frequently stop and search suspicious individuals in convoys under Schedule 7 on port and border controls of the UK Terrorism Act 2000.

Others fly into Turkey (sometimes on unused package holidays), using the country’s well-connected main cities as points of entry from where they travel to the Syrian border by internal transport. In other instances, individuals take circuitous routes across Europe, driving to a smaller European airport to then take a flight to Turkey. Some go through North African countries such as Egypt and then take flights on to Lebanon or Turkey.

A senior Turkish official at a presentation in London in late October 2013 reported that Turkish authorities had prevented several hundred individuals from crossing the border into Syria. However, given the reported number of European fighters on the ground, which could be in the low thousands, this highlights the porosity of the border. According to media reports from early December, Turkey informed its European partners that during 2013 it had arrested and deported approximately 1,110 EU citizens who had arrived in Turkey with the intention of joining jihadist groups in Syria; requests for their detention had been received from other countries or the sharing of intelligence through the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol).

The fourth element of Abu Huthaifa’s profile becomes salient once he arrived in the country. Given that his biography was posted on a Facebook page that is managed by a group close to one of Al-Qaeda’s affiliates – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – it seems likely that he was serving alongside this group. According to Zelin’s study, only 20% of subjects reported group affiliation; the two primary Al-Qaeda affiliates on the battlefield, based on their responses, were ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Nevertheless, although these groups attract many of the foreign fighters, they are not the only ones that draw Europeans to their ranks. Numerous other groups also count on European members, including Jund al-Sham, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, and Jund al-Khilafah.

From a threat perspective, those sub-groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda are of the greatest concern as their rhetoric and approach hardly differ, and it is likely that a number of plots have been initiated by groups associated with them.

It is currently unclear how actively those groups are recruiting for the battlefield in Syria, or whether individuals are being drawn there by a compelling news narrative that attracts them to fight. It appears that extremist groups operating camps on the ground in Syria have a vetting system, as prospective jihadists often need to have a group connection back home to support them as they travel to the battlefield. Volunteers are usually expected to pay substantial amounts of money for their training and are required to hand over their documents upon arrival in Syria. These are often circulated among other individuals in the group for use as false identification.

Many of those travelling to Syria also appear to be individuals who have previously been involved in a terrorist act or criminal investigations in their home countries. Their exact number is not available, but many media reports suggest that such individuals have criminal records for either extremism or common criminality. Per Gudmundson’s study of Swedish fighters indicated that at least eight out of the 18 subjects had criminal records.

Those connected to recognised radical movements include a group in Bosnia that was linked to Mevludin JaÜarevic, who opened fire at the US embassy in Sarajevo in October 2011; and the extremist Belgian group Shariah4Belgium, which was associated with a number of cases of radicalisation of individuals who went to fight in Syria. In Europol’s TE-SAT 2013, the agency specifically identified Shariah4Belgium as contributing to “the radicalisation and engagement of EU citizens in the Syrian conflict”.

Returnee threat

Shariah4Belgium has become notorious among European affiliates of the British group al-Muhajiroun – initially established in 1996 in the UK by now-excluded preacher Omar Bakri Mohammed and is currently overseen by preacher Anjem Choudary – because of allegations in the Belgian press that individuals connected to Shariah4Belgium in Syria had been recorded threatening attacks in Europe. For example, a Facebook message was sent to Dutch-language Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws listing a series of targets in Antwerp and Brussels to be attacked on 31 December 2013.

In July 2012, one of the leaders of Shariah4Belgium, 22-year-old Houssien Elouassaki, was sentenced to 200 hours of community service in Belgium for “insults, threats, and racist comments” to a police officer. He failed to serve his sentence and subsequently fled to Syria, where he became the leader of a group of approximately 35-40 Belgians who were connected with Jabhat al-Nusra.

In April 2013, Elouassaki’s younger brother Hakim returned home from Syria to Vilvoorde, Belgium, having been seriously injured. Houssien was killed fighting in Syria on 13 September, according to sources quoted in the Belgian press. Based on reports in Belgian media verified by official sources, Houssien was overheard talking about wanting to attack the Palais de Justice in Brussels. Whether or not these threats were anywhere near becoming actual plots remains unclear.

A far more dangerous militant cell was discovered in Kosovo in early November. Kosovar authorities conducted operations in the cities of Pristina and Gjilan, arresting six ethnic Albanians. A seventh suspect escaped. Two of the men were alleged to have attacked a pair of American Mormon missionaries in Pristina on 3 November, and those group members were arrested as they tried to purchase weapons from undercover officers. The status of legal proceedings against those detained was unknown at the time of going to press.

According to the authorities’ briefing with the Associated Press, the investigation into the cell had apparently lasted three months, and following the interception of a telephone call in which group members were heard discussing a possible attack in an unnamed European country, the group was arrested.

The group was found to have in its possession a sniper rifle, a carbine, an assault rifle, two handguns, 1,200 rounds for an AK-47 assault rifle, and explosive materials for possibly making an improvised explosive device (IED). According to officials talking to the press at the time, two of the detainees had fought in Syria, and the broader cell was linked to a wider community of radicals who had been travelling back and forth to Syria.

Far more mature than the threats emanating from the Belgian group, the Kosovo plot was of the type with links to Syria that concerns European security services, namely, individuals with battlefield experience and access to weapons who return home with the intent to carry out an attack. Kosovar authorities reported that following the arrests they received threats and demands to release the detainees, identified in the Serbian press as a group known as ‘Jihad of Kosovo’.

The Albanian group’s targeting was not clear, but a long tradition of jihadist fighting in the Balkans has made the region a source of concern for authorities across Europe, with the problem aggravated by the fact that an estimated 150 Albanians are believed by Kosovar authorities to be fighting in Syria.

Despite the apparent severity of the Albanian threat, the most serious warnings are increasingly coming from the UK. The director general of the Security Service (MI5), Andrew Parker, and the head of the Counter-Terrorism Command (CTC), or SO15, at the Metropolitan Police, Commander Richard Walton, have mentioned the fact that the jihad in Syria is increasingly becoming a security threat beyond its borders.

In his speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) on 8 October, Parker highlighted that MI5 had noted a substantial increase in cases with connections to Syria. According to Parker, “a growing proportion of our casework now has some link to Syria, mostly concerning individuals from the UK who have travelled to fight there or who aspire to do so”.

He also spoke of how MI5 judged that “[Jabhat] al-Nusra and other extremist Sunni groups there aligned with Al-Qaeda aspire to attack Western countries”.

This threat was brought into sharper domestic focus in December, when Walton told an audience in London that his officers were “starting to see signs” that Britons were returning from Syria tasked with carrying out attacks back at home.

The assessment of an expanding threat from the European contingent in Syria was also emphasised in December by Belgian authorities, which told the press that they were assessing a group of “Dutch-speaking Belgian jihadists” who had participated in an attack in Iraq. A source from the Belgian police believed that “the leaders of the Syrian networks are determined to export – in time – to Morocco and Tunisia the fighting capacity that is now assembled in Syria”.

The Belgian officials were also quoted saying, “Al-Qaeda has four to five thousand jihadist combatants at hand deployed in Syria who have passports from a Schengen area country”. This is a very high figure that exceeds most public assessments provided by European security officials so far.

Outlook

There is a rising level of concern among security officials across Europe consulted by IHS Jane’s about the threat emanating from Syria. The plots highlighted to date probably represent only the beginning of a threat that will evolve in various ways in the coming years.

Although it is by no means the case that every individual returning from Syria will pose a domestic threat or will launch an attack, the high number of European jihadist fighters in Syria means that a threat of some sort is likely to emerge. Moreover, a protraction of Syria’s civil war would mean more individuals would be drawn to the battlefield, therefore increasing the pool of potential jihadist recruits who could be a threat back at home.

Indeed, the gravity of the situation was highlighted by a US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assessment reported in The Wall Street Journal on 31 December, that drew on analysis of previous insurgencies, concluding that the civil war in Syria “could last another decade or more”.

The foreign fighter contingent in Syria is likely to match this timescale and is therefore also likely to be at the heart of Europe’s militant threat for the next five years at least – a period of time that will only increase the longer the conflict continues.

Case Study: Abu Huthaifa

Abu Huthaifa’s profile appears on the Facebook page of the “Army of Mohammad Peace and Blessings be upon him – Abu Ubaidah al-Muhajir” (which translates as the migrant – meaning that the fighter is or was outside his homeland). Abu Ubaidah al-Muhajir appears to be the name of one of the units fighting in the conflict.

IHS Jane’s assesses that the Arabic-language page has an international jihadist tenor, rather than exclusively Syrian jihadist.

Unusually, most of its updates are about members who have been killed in action rather than about major victories or battles, with a particular bias towards recording the deaths of Tunisian citizens.

According to the Facebook account, the ‘brother’ and media activist from Luxembourg, Abu Huthaifa, left his family back home. He entered Turkey to study, then moved to Syria to support the religion of Allah. He was not more than 18 years old. He was martyred in al-Safira, Aleppo governorate.

The comments following the entry about Abu Huthaifa’s death are all blessings calling for Allah to rest his soul. Two more individuals who had been killed and mentioned on the page were a Tunisian called Abu Maryam, and media activist Abu Usama. The comments also include links to YouTube videos that allegedly were produced by Abu Huthaifa.

More for my institutional home RUSI as I use August to catch up on longer pieces of writing I owe. This looks at the increasingly studied question of foreign fighters, one that we are currently a specific research project on. Results due later in the year! Oh and for those who want to hear me babbling away about terrorism with John Amble and Robin Simcox for the new War on the Rocks, listen here.

How Might Syria Come Back to the UK?

RUSI Analysis, 0 Aug 2013By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow, Counter-Terrorism
al-mazwagi Syria foreign fighter

British citizen Ibrahim al-Mazwagi killed earlier in the year

The ongoing intractable civil war in Syria has become a magnet for foreign fighters of every stripe. Unlike previous jihadist battlefields that have drawn foreigners in, however, this has not so far produced a terrorist threat back in the West. This is not same regionally. Across the border in Jordan, a terrorist network with connections to the battlefield has been disrupted, while in Iraq,Lebanon and Turkey, bombs have gone off with return addresses in Syria. The question now preoccupying European policymakers in particular is whether the pipeline of European nationals going to fight on the battlefield in Syria may eventually transform into a similar set of incidents in Europe.

The first thing to understand is how we have seen terrorist threats emanate from battlefields in the past. Historically speaking, jihadi battlefields have produced three types of terrorist threats (with an unknown number choosing to come back return to ordinary lives): directed plots by individuals sent back with instruction; terrorist plots conducted by individuals who decide to carry out attacks without direction; and networks of individuals that provide support and infrastructure for other terrorist plots.

Directed Plots

The archetypal example of this is Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shezhad Tanweer, the pair of young men at the core of the 7 July 2005 attack on London’s transport system. Khan in particular was a regular to fighting and training abroad, and made at least three known trips to join with extremist groups with whom he conducted some sort of training, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Initially drawn to the battlefield by mythology around Kashmir, he seems to have quickly moved into preferring the Afghan struggle and ultimately believing that he was going to fight and die in Afghanistan. Once there on what he thought would be his final trip in 2004, he was instead re-directed by Al-Qa’ida to return to the UK to launch his infamous terrorist attack.

The clear lesson in foreign fighter terms here was that Khan was drawn initially to the battlefield to fight there, and was then persuaded by groups there to launch an attack back home. The driver of this seems to have largely been the eagerness of the group on the ground, Al-Qa’ida, to strike the West. The arrival of British passport holders seeking to support the cause was a gift to the group that they were able to transform into a tool to conduct a successful operation. The 7 July  cell may have been the only ones to have succeeded, but a number of other plots have been detected that bear similar hallmarks.

Self-Started Plots

Security officials on both sides of the Atlantic have spoken of concern about the growth of lone wolf or small cell terror plots. Usually involving single individuals or tight-knit units of individuals who demonstrate no direction from either Al-Qa’ida or one of its affiliates, expressions of this threat can be found in recent incidents in Boston, Paris, Toulouse, and Woolwich.

In some of these cases, a trace connection can be found to a known terrorist organisation, though there is little evidence of any direction in the choice of targets or other operational specifics. The foreign fighters phenomenon has some linkeage here: in both the Toulouse and Woolwich cases, for example, there is evidence that the individuals involved sought to make connections with radical groups abroad. Specifically, in Toulouse, Mohammed Merah went to Pakistan, trained with Al-Qa’ida linked groups and was then apparently sent back with some loose direction. However, his subsequent attack against off-duty French soldiers and then against Jewish school children seems to have been carried outlargely under his own steam.

Almost five years before Merah committed his bloody acts, a similar dynamic played out in the UK when Bilal Abdulla and Kafeel Ahmed first left a pair of car bombs in central London before launching an attempted suicide attack on Glasgow’s international airport. Ahmed died during the attempt in Scotland, but Bilal Abdulla was arrested and convicted, with his case uncovering a link between him and Al-Qa’ida’s Iraqi affiliate, with whom it is believed he had undertaken some training. Seemingly undirected by the group, Abdulla seems to have taken it upon himself to punish the UK for its involvement in the war that tore his country apart.

Networks

In some ways it is the networks that foreign battlefields create that are of the greatest longer-term concern. The danger is not that individuals who are drawn to foreign battlefields may actually come back and launch anti-Western attacks, rather, they might instead provide support networks for individuals who have been tasked to launch attacks or help radicalise others.

With experience and contacts from the battlefield, they present the potential for providing soft support for networks intending to launch attacks as well as becoming potential radicalisers who persuade others of the salience of the global jihadi narrative, using their own personal experience as an example. In most terrorist plots that have been uncovered in the West, links to such radicalisers can be found – either in terms of loud public preachers such as Abu Hamza or more locally radicalising figures who do not appear on the public radar but feature in the background of security investigations.

This last group is deeply intangible, but in many ways can present itself as the most dangerous long-term menace, providing a natural incubator for global jihadist ideas in the West. Those going abroad to fight may have no intention to come back and launch attacks, but through connections they might find themselves drawn into supporting others and invariably through transmission of their experience will act as radicalising agents. Groups eager to launch attacks against the West continue to exist abroad, and it is perfectly possible that they will use these networks and communities to eventually try to direct other attacks.

New Ungoverned Spaces Presents Long-Term Problem

At this point the flow  of Europeans going to Syria to fight has not produced any threats back home, though there have been a number of related arrests across the continent. In the UK a group is facing trial later in the year in connection to the kidnapping of a pair of European journalists in July 2012. A cell in Belgium appears to have been overheard talking about attacking the Palais de Justice in Brussels, but it is unclear that this had moved anything beyond the discussion phase.

Other networks can be found across Europe, and as security agencies focus on them, it is likely that other echoes will be heard. The bigger problem, however, is the situation in Syria where an inability to topple the regime and an incoherent opposition means that we are slowly seeing a Balkanisation of the country with radical groups  taking hold of pieces of territory and are creating parallel governance structures. This presents the danger of new safe havens allowing groups to train and plot. This is all the more menacing when one considers the heavy presence of the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham (ISIS, the latest incarnation of Al-Qa’ida’s Iraqi affiliate) on the field, as well as other Salafi-jihadi groups. Atop this, there are the reports of growing numbers of foreigners from across the Muslim world some of whom are connected to other Al-Qa’ida affiliates being drawn to Syria. Networks linking these spaces and groups to the West are of clear concern and rightly alarm security services.

Syria’s slow slide into chaos and civil war is tearing at the fabric of the Muslim world. The already tense Sunni-Shia divide now has a battlefield in which to brutally play itself out and has already provided overspill into neighbouring countries. The West remains divided over what to do, and age-old rivalries are playing themselves out in the UN Security Council. European foreign fighters provide a direct link between Europe and a battlefield that is developing in so many different directions that it is difficult to know what the repercussions in the longer-term will be.  What does seem clear though is that the community of foreign fighters is likely to prolong the incubation of extreme and violent Islamist ideas in Europe for the foreseeable future.

RUSI is currently undertaking a research project looking at the phenomenon of foreign fighters in Europe and how this can express itself as a terrorist threat back home.

A bit slow up as travel and events have been impeding my ability to post, but a new piece for my new think tank base RUSI looking at the news of the link up or not between Jabhat al Nusrah and the Islamic State of Iraq. I also did a longer interview for de Volkskrant about Syria and the foreign fighters question, something that I am developing a couple of projects about. I was also quoted in a BBC piece about the last British resident in Guantanamo, Shaker Aamer, and this broader Metro piece about al Qaeda globally.

The al-Nusra Front ‘Merger’: Underscoring the Growing Regionalisation of Al-Qa’ida
RUSI Analysis, 15 Apr 2013

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

There is much confusion over the supposed ‘merger between Syria’s Jabhet al-Nusra and the Islamic state of Iraq group. The confusion itself emphasises the erosion of Al-Qa’ida’s supra-national aims and the reduced focus on Western targets.

al-Nusra Front thumb

Confusion reigned in the Syrian jihad last week as it was first announced, then denied, with the caveat of a connection of some sort admitted to, that the Jabhet al-Nusra (or the al Nusra Front ) was officially aligning itself with the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, the given name of Al-Qa’ida’s Iraqi affiliate), al-Qa’ida’s bloodiest franchise.

The reasons for this clumsy uncovering of what was already known could be personality based as much as anything else, but the experience did highlight a growing lack of coherence amongst the global jihadist movement. ‘Al-Qa’idaism’ seems to have not completely recovered from the loss of Osama bin Laden.

The announcements out of Syria were preceded by the latest audio message by Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor and the leader of what is left of Al-Qa’ida-core in Pakistan, in which he praised the ‘lions of Islam’ in the Levant ‘who fight for the Ummah’s religion, dignity, glory and sanctities.’ He exhorted the fighters in the Levant to ‘do everything in your power to yield a jihadist Islamic state.’ A few days after this, a message appeared on the forums purporting to be from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of the Islamic State of Iraq (Al-Qa’ida’s Iraqi affiliate) declaring the establishment of the ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Sham’ (or greater Syria). In other words, unifying the Iraqi and Syrian groups into one unified force.

Making his statement, al-Baghdadi claimed to be revealing something that was always the case, but had been kept secret until now: ‘what is al-Nusrah Front but an extension of the Islamic State of Iraq, and a part of it?’ He clarified how the Iraqi group had been responsible for the establishment of Al-Nusra Front (ANF) – providing support and funding – and how they had dispatched Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, a leader of the Front’s, to get the group going.

A day later al-Jawlani responded with a message that seemed to push back against al-Baghdadi’s declaration. Praising the fellow jihadist leader as a warrior he had the honour of serving alongside and recognising that the Iraqi group had provided support for the Syrian fighters, he nonetheless prevaricated over the declaration of unity. He specifically stated that ANF would retain their standard and instead pledged allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri stating they would ‘listen to and obey him in hardship and ease.’ At the same time, he reassured ‘our people in the Levant that the Front policy of defending the faith, your honours, and your blood, and its kindness toward you and the fighting group will remain as before.’

The message from al-Jawlani is a confusing one. On the one hand he seems to be pushing back against an overt alliance with the Islamic State of Iraq(a group he has admitted connections to), but at the same time, he is pledging direct allegiance to Al-Qa’ida core. The intent seems to be to strengthen the link to the centre while distancing himself from the group that he is most likely to benefit from materially.

It is possible that the key to understanding this mixed message lies in al-Jawlani’s emphasis onAl-Nusra Front continuing to focus its work in Syria. The Front has gone to great lengths to be perceived as first and foremost a group fighting the Assad regime, bringing law, order and other public goods to people in the areas that it controls. The priority for the Front is Syria and toppling Bashar al Assad, rather than the struggle that the Islamic State of Iraq is still undertaking against the Shia governmentin Baghdad or any international goal.

Transnational Connections

This desire to focus on local struggles over distant fields is a message that has been echoed elsewhere as well. Earlier this year, Dokku Umarov, a senior figure in the jihadist struggle in north Caucasus seemed to walk back his earlier statements of praise of the Syrian jihad to tell people not to leave the battlefields in the north Caucasus for Syria as there was an unresolved conflict at home still to be fought. In March of this year, a similar call came out of north Africa where Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) emphasised the need for people to stay and fight there. Syria it seems is becoming a distraction to other jihadist struggles.

There are a number of key points to be drawn from this. In the first instance, it seems clear that Syria has become the brightest flame on the jihadi map. So much so that other regional groups in North Africa and the North Caucasus are telling people not to abandon their battlefields, while Islamic State in Iraqhas sought to try to co-opt the Al-Nusra Front’s success under its banner. Supporting this assessment, various national security services have all concluded that Syria is now the hottest jihadi battlefield around. Whether this is due to limited resources being stretched or mere displacement is unclear.

Secondly, the focus and unity of purpose that used to appear more obvious under Al-Qa’ida has faded. While these groups see each other as brothers and in some cases have clear connections with each other, they are more focused on their regional conflicts than any grander global struggle. Their interest is to win a local victory, something that they are apparently now willing to seek to the detriment of fellow travellers on other jihadi battlefields.

Implications for the Jihad Against the West

This regional focus also helps explain the drop-off in large-scale plots being orchestrated abroad targeting the West. Individual plots do appear, in the form of lone actors or small cells with links abroad. But in most cases there is very little evidence of much direction – this is of course not to say directed plots do not still exist, but there number seems to be lower.

None of this necessarily contradicts the message being sent out by Ayman al-Zawahiri. In his latest missive, he does the rounds of international jihad, highlighting and praising warriors around the globe. He warns them to be alert to Western interference – and in fact dedicates some considerable portion of his presentation to highlighting how Iran is a major enemy of the jihadist cause – but there is little about attacking the West. Rather, the focus seems to be on people to stand firm in their jihad, defend Islam and to seek greater unity amongst Muslims.

In this light, al-Jawlani’sdecision to pledge his allegiance to al-Zawahiri while distancing himself from al-Baghdadi can possibly be understood to make sense. Al-Zawahiri’s message is one of groups continuing their brave struggles in their respective fields, rather than a unified international fight against the West. This is a vision of Al-Qa’ida as the righteous global leader of those struggling in Islam’s name. A vision al-Jawlani sees as useful in advancing his struggle in Syria.

Sitting in a Western capital, this all augurs quite well. Al-Qa’ida and its affiliates seem to be more focused on their local struggles over the international enemy. To paraphrase al-Zawahiri – who spoke of the near enemy (the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East) versus the far enemy (America and the west that used to bolster them) – the focus now seems to be near enemy. But this shift in focus does not necessarily mean an end to all problems. These battlefields continue to draw in young Westerners, and what happens to these battle-hardened young men afterwards remains a dilemma (some come home and do nothing, while others come back with a desire to launch attacks). There are also groups that remain bent on attacking the West. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Al-Nusra Front may not currently have much interest in attacking the West, but individuals in Pakistan – both Al-Qa’ida-core and groups like the Pakistani Taliban  – as well as elements within Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remain fixated with trying to attack the West or instigate lone actor plots there.

But the broader trend is clear. For the time being at least, the priority has shifted back to the regions. ‘Al-Qa’idaism’ may still speak in global terms, but is increasingly regionally focused. For western government’s this merely strengthens the case of why counter-terrorism efforts need to maintain vigilance at home for potential backlash from these foreign fields, but increasingly need to focus their resources abroad.