Posts Tagged ‘terrorist networks’

A new post for Free Rad!cals, this time using the case of Umar Patek, the Bali bomber just going on trial in Indonesia, to explore some bigger themes about terrorist networks that I wrote about in an earlier journal article. I should add that it was also sparked off by the fact that I happened to catch late last week the National Geographic show Seconds from Disaster: Bali Bombing that highlighted a detail I had not really noticed before about the plot, and that was that a device also blew up in front of the US Consulate in Bali at the same time as the bombings. The show seemed to conclude that there was a connection. As usual reactions or thoughts welcome.

Peripatetic Jihadi

View more articles by Raff Pantucci

Filed under: Philippines, Terrorism

The case opens this week in Jakarta against Umar Patek, aka Hisyam Bin Alizein also known as “Demolition Man,” one of the supposed key bomb-makers in the 2002 Bali bombings that killed some 202 people. Captured just over a year ago in Abbotabad, the start of his trial is being referred to as that of the “last remaining” terrorists responsible for that attack, and therefore possibly bringing closure to that case. It also seems to be another nail in the coffin for his much degraded al-Qaeda affiliated network Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the formerly menacing Southeast Asian terror network that was responsible for the Bali bombings and a number of other attacks on Western interests and Christians in the region.

The purpose of this post, however, is not to focus on Patek’s group (for that I would recommend the work of Sidney Jones of the International Crisis GroupZachary Abuza of Simmons College and Ken Conboy’s book The Second Front), but rather to focus on the individual as a figure within a terrorist network and use him as a case study for examination of different roles such individuals can play. My thinking was set off by a line in this excellent AP report that claims to draw on police interrogation and other documents that detail the “peripatetic life Patek led.” A truly global jihadi, Patek seems to have been fluent in English, computer savvy, recruited early into JI, and travelled extensively amongst radical groups across Asia setting up cells and support networks wherever he went. His role in the Bali bombing seems to have been as the explosives expert who arrived in Denpasar weeks prior to the attack to assemble the device, before leaving two days prior to the actual bombing.

But the question is whether we should view Patek as a lone wanderer who simply travelled through the parallel world of global jihadism, or whether we should see him as a key fixer whose movements reflected a calculated set of opportunities that all furthered his organisation’s goals. Or in other words, should we see him as a “middle manager” (as PeterRyan and myself laid out in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism) or is he in fact more of a Ramzi Yousef figure (the man responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing who seems to have wandered the world seeing himself as something of an international playboy terrorist figure). The distinction is interesting as it serves to highlight the importance of the different figures within terrorist networks – the middle manager versus the itinerant fighter.

It is not immediately clear which group Patek falls into. Apparently recruited by fellow Bali plotter Dulmatin in the early 1990s/late 1980s, Patek claims to have been trained at a militant camp in Sadda province, Pakistan and then in Turkhom, Afghanistan from 1991-1994. He describes his courses as being “from basic to very difficult.” Following this, he returned to Indonesia from where he was dispatched to neighboring Philippines where he helped run a joint training camp JI established with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Mindanao. According to regional expert Zachary Abuza, he helped build the camp into a major centre, and in 1999-2000, following the fall of President Suharto, he seems to have been part of a group of exiled JI leaders who came home to Indonesia from where he is believed to have helped in a number of bombings. In 2002, Imam Samudra, the man described as the “commander” of the Bali operation, asked him to help the group build a bomb. He moved to Bali and spent around a month there mixing explosives while fellow radical Dulmatin built the timers. He then left the island prior to the attacks and ended up in the Philippines with his wife and fellow plotter Dulmatin and his family.

According to one report quoting Dulmatin’s wife, they stayed with MILF helping train the group and providing a support network for operatives back in Indonesia until 2004 when peace talks between the MILF and government meant they could no longer host them. The men transferred themselves to the protection of the Abu Sayyaf group, another Philippine Islamist terrorist network. From here they continued to plot and help train networks until 2009 when they separately snuck back into Indonesia. Dulmatin appears to have decided that Aceh was an area ripe for establishing a training camp and set off to develop al-Qaeda in Aceh while Patek instead told investigators that he wanted to fight on a bigger battlefield and instead headed towards Afghanistan-Pakistan. A temporarily smart choice as Indonesian forces reacted rapidly and heavily to the news of al-Qaeda affiliate in Aceh, killing Dulmatin in a shoot-out in March 2010.

Using false identities, Patek and his wife snuck to Lahore sometime in 2010, though the details of his journey there are not entirely clear. One report pointed to him attending a mysterious meeting of Southeast Asian jihadists in Mecca in between. However, by early 2011 he was in Abbotabad where he was in contact with a known al-Qaeda operative whom Pakistani authorities had become aware of (or their American friends were watching and telling them about). Trailing this connector, Tahir Shehzad, the Pakistanis were first able to grab a pair of French jihadis who were heading to the lawless Northwest Frontier Province and then eventually catch Patek.

So we can see how Patek was a key plotter, bomb-maker, trainer, terrorist with connections to JI’s networks as well as al-Qaeda networks in Pakistan. But does this make him a “middle manager” or something else? In our previous article, Peter, Ryan and myself define the “middle management” in al-Qaeda as:

 

The middle management combines several of the characteristics of the top leadership and the grass-roots. Like the top leadership, middle managers are experienced and skilled, and maintain contact with members of the leadership. They may have met bin Laden, but do not necessarily have a close, personal relationship. Importantly, they are not permanently based in the tribal areas but have returned to their home countries or other non-battlefront states, sometimes travelling back and forth, building support networks and raising money for the global jihad. Like the grass-roots, then, their outlook and ideology is global but most of their activities are focused locally.

 

In many ways Patek would fit this profile: he was clearly in contact with top leaders (it would be surprising if his presence in Abbotabad, where bin Laden was killed was merely a coincidence, and the fact he was able to hide for so long in Indonesia with such a substantial bounty on his head must have meant he was well connected there), he was widely travelled and helped establish support networks for his organization, and was certainly a skilled and experienced warrior.

But the distinction of him from the “middle management” community comes into play when we focus on him as a figure who travelled around a lot aligning himself with whatever local terrorist network he was able to connect with. Clearly, his first allegiance lay with his home group, JI, but he seems to have been at ease building up MILF and Abu Sayyaf – though in both cases he appears to have also been supporting JI networks from a distance. However, when his old comrade Dulmatin asked him to join him in Aceh, he declined, instead wanting to join the jihad in Afghanistan. Something suggestive of a personality more inclined to jihadist activity in support of a global movement than the maybe more parochial Indonesian focus suggested by establishing operations in Aceh. Seen in this light, we can view Patek as part of the community of itinerant jihadists to have emerged from the mess of Afghanistan in the late 1980s and early 1990s focused on bringing murder and mayhem wherever they could in advance of their vision of violent Islamism. Travelling around Southeast Asia, Patek provided support and his bomb construction skills wherever he could; aiding whichever group he was with at the time.

The importance of this distinction is not simply academic. The “middle manager” figure can be hard to identify, but is crucial in providing connective tissue between a radical group’s leadership and the warriors in the field carrying out operations, while the freewheeling itinerant jihadist is a dangerous figure who simply has to be tracked down and captured. The latter figure can sometimes act as a “middle manager” but is a far more operational individual who is dangerous as a highly trained terrorist with a global grudge. The middle manager probably lacks this operational edge, but this will make them a harder figure to identify.

Of course, the specifics of Umar Patek’s case may come out further in the course of his trial. His long career and close affiliation with various terrorist networks point to an individual that is best kept off the streets – whether he was a “middle manager” or something else.

There are two unrelated loose ends to Patek’s tale I will end on. Specifically, his capture in the same town as bin Laden is a curiosity and makes one wonder whether he was on his way to meet the leader or whether al-Qaeda simply use the city as a way point with the junior leadership having no idea that they are in the same city as their leader (something that would be a particularly audacious approach to protecting bin Laden). I wonder if more on this will ever come out. And secondly, whatever happened to the two Frenchmen who were supposedly captured prior to Patek’s capture by following the same courier that led to Patek? The story of his capture is still a bit murky, but from what I can tell, those two individuals (described as “of Pakistani origin [and] the other described as a white Muslim convert”) are still out there somewhere, presumably in custody. If anyone has come across any stories about them, please feel free to send them my way.

 

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A slightly longer post for Free Rad!cals looking at the Shabaab’s new television channel and trying to explore its gradual evolution towards international violence. I have a longer piece on the topic of Shabaab and foreign fighters coming up soon for Jane’s.

A Threat Coming to Your TV Screen

In September last year, the Director General of the Security Service (MI5) made a speech in which he highlighted,

In Somalia, for example, there are a significant number of UK residents training in al-Shabaab camps to fight in the insurgency there. al-Shabaab, an Islamist militia in Somalia, is closely aligned with al-Qaeda and Somalia shows many of the characteristics that made Afghanistan so dangerous as a seedbed for terrorism in the period before the fall of the Taliban. There is no effective government, there is a strong extremist presence and there are training camps attracting would be jihadists from across the world.

This speech was the latest proof of high-level concern about the Islamist al-Shabaab (the youth) militia in Somalia, which has evolved quite rapidly from regional insurgency to aspirant regional al-Qaeda affiliate. The most recent evidence of its evolution was the revelation last week that the group both had a new logo and was launching its own television channel. As the official press release put it,

The “al-Kataib News Channel” came to teach.. to tell.. and to incite.. in honor of the martyrs who covered battlefields with their blood in various fronts; east and west, south and north. This came in defense of the victories of the Mujahideen who broke the pride of the infidel West, scattered its papers and made their senior commanders lose their minds. This in support of the Muwahideen’s patience and persistence in the land of pride.

This news comes in the wake of a continuing escalation in activity from the group. I have written in the past about the group in a number of different formats, each highlighting different aspects of the group’s morph from regional insurgent to global actor. It has gone from being one amongst many in the civil war in Somalia, to being an actor able to launch attacks first in semi-autonomous Puntland, to being able and willing to launch attacks in neighboring Uganda, to maybe even being connected to international attacks. There has been an almost constant digest of stories of al-Qaeda leaders hiding out amongst the group in East Africa, rhetorical video exchanges between al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab, and evidence of other al-Qaeda affiliates moving to set up shop in Somalia. On the ground, stories point to the group’s increasing extremism and imposition of Shariah law, now a television channel, and all the while it seems able to draw a wide community of foreigners to its ranks.

International Threat? Members of al-Shabaab in Training

The trajectory it seems to be headed is an attack on the international stage. As Evans put it, the group ‘shows many of the characteristics that made Afghanistan so dangerous as a seedbed for terrorism,’ and consequently it understandable that it is high on the list of threats that keeps him up at night. But at the same time, the question that should be asked is whether we are wishing ourselves towards a conclusion that in fact is not in the interests of the group?

Yes, it does seem as though the Shabaab’s trajectory is invariably taking it towards attacking the West, and at least one of its leaders has openly threatened America. As Omar Hammami, aka Abu Mansour,put it to the New York Times, “it’s quite obvious that I believe America is a target.”

But why would the group attack the West? On the one hand it would give it a greater profile and prestige, all which would invariably bring it a greater degree of support and contacts, but at the same time such an attack would bring the additional nuisance of foreign interference and attention. It already has a great deal, but compared to AQAP or AQ core in Waziristan it remains a secondary issue for western counter-terrorists. So much so that aspiring Western fighters wanting to go to jihad consider Somalia an easier place to go than the other jihadi battlefields. As far as Western security services are concerned, the greatest concern is from radicalised networks affiliated with the group that chose to move into action in their home states, rather than going to Somalia to fight. Examples of this would be in Denmark in the case of young Somali-Dane who tried to kill Kurt Westegaard, one of the cartoonists responsible for the infamous Mohammed cartoons, and the cell in Australia who were trying to get to Somalia, but failed and instead decided to try to do something at home. In addition, there is the mixed group in Demark who were apparently targeting Jyllands-Posten, and at least one of whom had tried to link up with Somali networks in the past.

But in all three cases, it is unclear to what degree al-Shabaab central command was involved. This does not mean that they are absolved of activity outside Somalia – certainly the Kampala attack seems to have had a high degree of Shabaab involvement – but it remains uncertain that the group wants to start attacks in the west. The risk it would seem is from radicalized networks who decide to do things at home of their own volition (like the Australian or Danish networks), or might be coopted by groups like Al Qaeda to carry out attacks in the west (maybe the mixed network of attackers in Denmark).

This nonetheless means the group is a threat, but it is different from the threat posed by groups whose leadership appears to have made a conscious decision to attack the west. At the moment its attacks outside Somali borders have focused on nations involved in the AMISOM force, rather than any “kaffir” state. The danger is that we wish ourselves into facing a threat from the group by focusing too much attention on it. While it seems clear that radicalized networks are a threat, it is not clear that the group itself is eager to launch attacks against the west. This is not to say that it might not happen (I am wary of making any concrete assumptions, aware of how these groups mutate and how easy it is for affiliate networks to be coopted by others), but it is unclear that we are there yet in terms of core command targeting cities in America or Europe.

The Director General of MI5 seems very aware of this, and chose his words carefully about the group. “I am concerned that it is only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside al-Shabaab,” is how he put it. But maybe this should be more delicately put saying “connected” rather than “inspired.” The point is not that the group is not dangerous or a threat, but that it is not quite at the stage of being an AQAP or AQ core threat. To think strategically it would seem as though we need to find a better way by which to assess which affiliates are direct and indirect threats and what are the signs they are moving in an increasingly dangerous direction. All of which might help identify what moves might be made to send them down a different path.

 

A new piece for Jamestown’s Terrorism Monitor, exploring once again the supposedly Shabaab linked plot in Australia. I might do more work on this plot as it seems like it could be an interesting case study. Should you note any new tips or stories emerge from it, please drop me a note.

Operation Neath: Is Somalia’s al-Shabaab Movement Active in Australia?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 3
January 20, 2011 02:58 PM Age: 6 hrs
Lebanese-Australian Wissam Mahmoud Fattal, accused in the 2009 bomb plot against Holsworthy Army base outside of Sydney.

“Islam is the true religion. Thank you very much.” So declared Wissam Mahmoud Fattal, a 34-year-old Lebanese Australian former kick-boxer after he was convicted of participating in a plot to attack the Holsworthy Army base just outside Sydney (The Age [Melbourne], December 23, 2010; Australian Associated Press, December 23, 2010). The statement stood in contrast to Fattal’s earlier comments following his arrest when he shouted at the court, “Your army kills innocent people in Afghanistan and Iraq. You call us terrorists – that’s not true” (Daily Telegraph, August 5, 2009).

Fattal’s statement came at the conclusion of a lengthy trial that began after the August 2009 arrests and raids of 19 properties that concluded Operation Neath, one of Australia’s most substantial terrorism investigations to date (see Terrorism Monitor, September 10, 2009).  Convicted alongside Fattal were Saney Edow Aweys, 27, and Nayef el-Sayed, 26, Somali and Lebanese naturalized Australians, respectively. Cleared of charges related to the plot were Yacqub Khayre, 23, and Abdirahman Ahmed, 26, both Somali-Australians.

Prosecutors alleged that the men were in the process of planning a fidayin or suicide-style attack on the Australian army base, in which they would use automatic weapons to wreak havoc until they were brought down. In a recorded conversation between Saney Aweys and a cleric in Somalia, Aweys outlined the plotters’ intention of attacking a barracks; “There are about six guys…20 minutes will be enough for us to take out five, six, ten…I don’t know. Until they will use up their weapons” (The Age, December 23, 2010).

Much of the media attention around the plot focused on the cell’s apparent connection to al-Shabaab militants in Somalia. Three of the men charged were of Somali descent and it was alleged that the group had sought to obtain a fatwa from clerics in Somalia to justify their actions. Furthermore, the case uncovered a network that was apparently responsible for funneling fighters and funding to the Somali extremist group.

At the center of the plot was Saney Aweys, a Somali refugee who retained a strong connection to his native land and the conflict it currently endures. In an attempt to deflect attention from his client Fattal, lawyer Patrick Tehan pointed an accusing finger at Aweys, declaring his “tentacles seem to be all over the place…he seems to be up to all sorts of activities” (The Age, December 24, 2010). Using seven different mobile phones registered under a variety of names, Aweys was the one who provided contacts with al-Shabaab networks in Somalia.  It was apparently a phone call between Fattal and Aweys which first alerted Australian authorities to the danger posed by the cell (Australian, August 4, 2009). Fattal had expressed to an undercover officer his desire to achieve martyrdom fighting abroad in Somalia, which he described as the “true jihad.” Fattal, however, was unable to travel due to visa problems (Australian, September 23, 2010).

Early on in the case, Aweys was accused of facilitating the travel to Somalia of other Australian Somali’s, including the missing Walid Osman Mohamed (believed to be in Somalia) and fellow defendant Yacqub Khayre, as well as sending money to the group. However, a decision not to prosecute was made on the grounds that the amounts were small and that al-Shabaab was not proscribed in Australia at the time (Australian, August 6, 2009). It is also possible that he was in contact with missing Australian-Somali suspect Hussein Hashi Farah, a man described in the press as the “mastermind” of the plot, who was last seen when he escaped from Kenyan custody after being picked up as he attempted to cross the Ugandan-Kenyan border (AAP, March 23, 2010; AAP, June 28, 2010).

Aweys was the key figure in seeking a fatwa from shaykhs abroad to condone their intended actions in Australia. As well as being in direct contact with Shaykh Hayakallah in Somalia, he also dispatched Yacqub Khayre, a young Somali-Australian and former drug addict he had taken under his wing, to Somalia to obtain the fatwa and (allegedly) to train with al-Shabaab. Khayre was something of an unreliable recruit, regularly fleeing from the camp and was described in an intercept between Somalia and Aweys as “a risk to you, us and the whole thing” (Australian, September 16, 2010).  Khayre’s defense successfully argued that the fatwa Khayre sought when he went to Somalia in April 2009 was merely to condone the conduct of fraud in obtaining money to support al-Shabaab (The Age, December 24, 2010).

These connections aside, it does not seem as though al-Shabaab was directly responsible for tasking the men to carry out jihad in Australia. Shortly after the initial arrests, al-Shabaab spokesman Shaykh Ali Mahmud Raage (a.k.a. Shaykh Ali Dheere) issued a statement dismissing reports that the detainees were in any way members of al-Shabaab, claiming the men were arrested solely because they were Muslims (Dayniile, August 6). While it seems clear that Australian police have disrupted a network providing support for al-Shabaab from their nation, it is not clear that this plot was indeed the beginning of a shift in the group’s profile. This is somewhat tangential, however, from the perspective of Western security services, as what the case does highlight is that networks providing support for terrorist groups abroad can pose a potential threat at home. Described repeatedly as the key figure in the plot, the narrative painted by the prosecution was that Fattal had decided to turn his attention to Australia after having been thwarted in his attempts to conduct jihad abroad. He then used his connections to a network sending fighters and money to Somalia to turn those dreams into action, highlighting the very real risk that fundraising networks can pose for their host nations. The men are to be officially sentenced later this month and are likely to receive heavy terms.