Posts Tagged ‘Yemen’

Been quiet for a few weeks as I try to crack on with some much longer and larger writing commitments. They should land eventually and cover a few issues I look at. In the meantime, however, I have been doing a bit around the current threat pulse that is passing through the system. I did a few media bits, including a longer interview for ITN that was used by the Telegraph. Below is my contribution to the conversation from the yesterday for my institutional home, RUSI. More on this story as it emerges.

Al-Qa’ida’s August Surprise?

RUSI Analysis, 5 Aug 2013
By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

US officials are speaking of a level of terrorist chatter as high as that prior to 11 September 2001. With Embassy closures across the Muslim world, large-scale prison breaks in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan, the threat tempo is rising. Is Al-Qa’ida planning an August surprise?

AQAP Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula

The weekend announcement by the American government that nineteen embassies should remain closed through the next week, alongside a travel advisory for US citizens travelling in the region, seems to emanate from a threat linked to Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Coming hot on the heels of a series of large-scale prison breaks in IraqLibya and Pakistan, the fear is that this is part of some co-ordinated effort. The reality is probably far more complicated than this, with the larger point being that the threat from Al-Qa’ida affiliated and associated terrorism continues to be a major concern.

The Threat from Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula

The first aspect to focus on is the danger from Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the driver of the threat reporting this past weekend. It seems to be focused on Sana’a in particular, with American, British, French, and German embassies all electing to close in Yemen last weekend. This was extended for the US, UK and German Embassies at least through Eid at the end of the week. French Foreign Minister Fabius announced the French mission would reopen Wednesday. Beyond this, the US closed a further twenty embassies across the Muslim world, while Canada decided to close its in Dhaka, Bangladesh – all relating to the same stream of threat reporting.

The level of specificity around the threat suggests that intelligence agencies have intercepted something particular, but the link to AQAP is not surprising. It is just over two weeks since Transport Security Administration (TSA) Administrator John Pistole confirmed a story that had been circulating for some time that AQAP master bomb-maker Ibrahim al-Asiri had managed to successfully train a number of students. This knowledge transfer was seen as particularly dangerous given that al-Asiri has been responsible for a number of cunning devices that were able to penetrate airport security – Umar ‘underpants bomber’ Farouk Abdulmutallab, the dual printer bombs that were intercepted in Dubai and the UK while en route to the US, and the ‘underpants 2‘ bomb that was handed over to authorities by an agent that had penetrated AQAP. In addition, we have seen a growing volume of drone strikes in Yemen in the past few weeks withthree in quick succession since July 28, suggesting a growing focus by US intelligence.

A year has now passed since a bomb with al-Asiri’s touch had been publicly detected, but he remains on the loose and eager to strike the US. Most recently, there has been a particular tempo of threat warnings from Al-Qa’ida in particular with leader Ayman al Zawahiri vowing to ‘spare no effort’ to free the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, whilst also condemning the use of drones. Guantanamo has a particular resonance with the leadership of AQAP, with recently deceased senior member Saaed al Shirhi having spent time in the jail before being released in 2007. His death by drone was recently confirmed by Ibrahim al Rubaish, another senior AQAP member who had been in Guantanamo. The group vowed to avenge his death. AQAP leader Nasir al Wuhaishi, a former confidant of Osama bin Laden is reported to have been promoted to a senior role within the global Al-Qa’idaorganisation. The close links between what is left of Al-Qa’ida core in Waziristan and AQAP in Yemen, its technical capabilities, as well as its ability to control pieces of territory in Yemen, all point to it being one of the most dangerous of the Al-Qa’ida affiliates in terms of wanting and being able to launch attacks in the West.

As Al-Qa’ida-Core Fades, Al-Qa’ida Affiliates Consolidate

All of this comes in parallel to the large-scale prison breaks that we have seen in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. The exact implications of the Libya break-out is unclear. But in Iraq and Pakistan the hand of Al-Qa’ida linked groups can be seen. In Pakistan, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) demonstrated an ability to once again launch targeted operations with relative impunity in Pakistan – this time leading to the release of some 250 prisoners. It is unclear whether any of them were particularly high value targets, but doubtless the influx of people will be a boost to the organisation’s capabilities regionally.

The Iraqi break seems far more alarming, especially given the reporting that a number of individuals of high concern have escaped. This comes as the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham (ISIS, the Iraqi affiliate of Al-Qa’ida that has spread its wings deep into Syria), the group that claimed responsibility for the prison break, demonstrates an increasing ability on the field in Syria, while the death toll in Iraq last month is creeping up to the levels of the brutal insurgency of a few years ago. The almost 1,000 killed in the past month is a five year high. The influx of hardened fighters in the wake of the prison break will only further bolster its capabilities and raise the potential risk of the group launching attacks against targets in the broader region.

And atop this, we have seen a growing tempo of violence from the long brewing insurgency in the Egyptian Sinai and an open question hanging over what will happen now that the military has deposed the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring, has seen gradually escalating violence and instability with targeted political assassinations, a number ofdeadly clashes between militants and authorities, and a man blowing himself up by accident in the capital while preparing a device. A recent report on foreign fighters being drawn to the battlefield in Syria highlighted the fact that in the dataset examined by the authors of death notices posted by groups, Tunisians accounted for the second-most number of foreign nationals killed at the front. This is a surprising evolution, further suggesting that jihadi fervor is strong in the country. And across North and West Africa, brewing hotspots and roving networks continue to launch sporadic attacks. In Somalia, a group that had largely been counted out, al-Shabaab, continues to be able to function with a relatively regular flow of incidents attributed to the group.

It seems, therefore, that there are many facets to this complicated threat picture, but it is not clear as to the degree to which all of these are connected. Even in the cases where there are clear and known links between the groups, it is not certain that all of these activities can be seen as part of a campaign.

Instead, a conclusion that can be drawn is the fact that some terrorist groups abroad are growing in strength and capability. At the moment, they remain relatively disparate with occasional links and connections though the co-ordination and global drive that used to underline Al-Qa’ida seems to have gone. But the connections cannot be completely discounted – in particular with AQAP – and the unifying impact of the conflict in Syria may yet bring some coherence back to the group.

There is a longer-term concern here. The more groups are able to consolidate their hold on pieces of territory, replenish their ranks through prison breaks and gain greater experience on the battlefield, the more experience and capability they develop. At the moment this seems something that is of greater regional than international concern, but the worry remains that eventually they might decide to live up to their international aspirations and rhetoric. Alternatively, individuals or groups with global ambition or anti-Western views might use these groups as a springboard to launch attacks against the West, drawing on their replenished capacity to attack.

Al-Qa’ida may now be a shadow of its former self, but the ideology and, more importantly, the affiliates it helped nurture remain. As they benefit from the chaos stirred by the Arab Spring, the long tail left after the 11 September, 2001 attacks gets longer. Countering terrorism overseas is clearly going to be key for Western policymakers for the next few years

A short article for a new outlet, this time an interesting student run website called E-International Relations. They contacted me looking for a piece, and I am always happy to write for places that ask nicely (well, within reason, at the moment am trying to avoid taking on new commitments as am desperately trying to catch up on myself). A somewhat larger strategic overlook at the terrorist threat that I hope to hear some reactions to.

Grinding Terrorist Networks Down in 2012

By  on February 26, 2012

In an age of persistent conflict, terrorism will continue to be a threat confronting governments. However, the nature of this threat is shifting and the question that has not been properly answered is whether we are seeing a threat that is finally in decline or continues to ascend.

The general tendency is to answer this question with a shrug of the shoulders and say the threat seems to have “plateaued” – in other words, the threat is persistent but seems not to be increasing in volume. But this response is less than satisfying for numerous reasons – not least because it attempts to put a standard answer on a threat that has diversified considerably in the past few years.

In some parts of Africa and Asia, while major strides have been made against the variety of terrorist organizations that come under the al Qaeda brand, or ascribe to a violent Islamist ideology, the groups have proven impressively resistant and refuse to be eradicated. There continues to be a steady patter of violence emanating from them as local forces, often with the support of western intelligence and military, mount operations targeting leaders and disrupting networks. While some pose a threat to the west, the majority poses a more direct threat to local international interests or local targets. For example, beyond the depressing list of attacks targeting local forces or civilians across Asia, the Middle East or Africa, the al Shabaab instigated plot in August 2009 to target American Secretary of State Hilary Clinton while she was visiting Kenya; al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s persistent targeting of western tourists or aid workers in North Africa; or the targeting of western hotels and tourist destinations in Southeast Asia by local Islamist networks. [1]

When looking instead at the direct threat in the west, outside directed networks continue to pose a threat with individuals and groups periodically disrupted with connections to Pakistan. But intelligence capacity (and electronic intercepts) has reached such a point that these networks are disrupted before they are able to move towards any operational capacity. Instead, we have seen the larger danger emanate from unaffiliated networks and individuals that self-radicalize and self-activate, loosely following what they believe to be the al Qaeda playbook. Often this is something that they have found in reading from the Internet or in the form of American-Yemeni preacher Anwar al Awlaki’s preaching or writing.

The result has been while we continue to see a steady stream of threats emanating from abroad, these have declined in number and quality. A certain volume of young men and women choose to go and join radical networks abroad, but few end up returning home (and often they are on security services radars). Heightened vigilance has also made it hard for external networks to penetrate the west, but nevertheless some are able to get through though so far they have been caught prior to being able to do anything. Instead, when terrorist plots or attacks are perpetrated, they tend to be from groups or individuals who are almost completely homegrown and auto-didactic in nature. For example, the loner Islamist plotters Arid Uka of Germany who shot two American servicemen as they waited to be taken to a flight in Frankfurt or Roshonara Choudhry who tried to stab a Member of Parliament Stephen Timms for his support of the Iraq war. Both were clearly inspired by ideas that could be described as spawned from al Qaeda, but neither was being directed by anyone in or near the organization. Similarly, the nine men convicted for a series of offenses in the United Kingdom early this year including attempting to leave an explosive device in the London Stock Exchange were not connected to al Qaeda, though they were involved in radical groups in the UK and had made moves towards establishing a terrorist training camp in Pakistan.

The quality and degree of threat posed by such groups and individuals is clearly of a different level than the group that perpetrated the July 7, 2005 bombing in London, the September 11, 2001 group or the plotters who planned in summer 2006 to bring down as many as eight airlines on transatlantic routes using ingeniously designed liquid bombs. There we saw groups trained abroad and then directed to conduct operations in the west using counter-surveillance techniques, coded emails and cleverly designed explosive devices. Close contact was maintained between the cell on the ground and operators abroad, highlighting the degree to which the plots can be described as al Qaeda directed. The newer wave display much less contact and much less operational guile and savvy. [2]

But what is to be read from this? Is the point that intelligence services have gotten so much better at detecting and disrupting externally directed networks, or that they have stopped trying to get in as much? And is the fact that we are now seeing self-started local plots as the main driver of threat an expression of the fact that we are looking at a threat that is in terminal decline since it cannot get in or merely that this is the only aspect of the menace that security services have not quite managed to get their heads around disrupting?

Difficult questions all, but to give a general answer, it is clear that some of the heat has gone out of the violent Islamist terrorist threat. The persistent hammering of leaders with drone strikes and Special Forces operations has reduced capacity, while enhanced intelligence focus has given a much better over watch position from which to ensure that networks are not able to dispatch cells to conduct attacks. The fact that the most active plots now come from groups that are self-started and self-directed is a reflection of two things: that these individuals are unable to make contact with known networks (because it is now harder to do so due to a lack of options and security) and that the ideas are incredibly diffuse in society’s general consciousness. But the ideas are clearly only inspiring small groups of individuals, so the threat is reduced and less capable than before.

But having said all of this, there still remains a rump of individuals in the west who are drawn to violent radical ideas, something indicative of the fact that, counter-radicalisation programmes notwithstanding, progress has been relatively limited in devising effective ways to deter people from choosing this path. What has been reduced however is the capability of networks abroad to connect with these individuals undetected. And when this is coupled with the fact that these networks are being vigorously shrunk through aggressive counter-terrorism operations abroad, it is possible to determine that the terrorist threat to the west from radical Islamist groups is in decline. Not necessarily in absolute and terminal decline, but certainly a far less capable and direct threat than it was in the mid-2000s and before when large-scale networks that had been developing for decades were able to repeatedly attempt to carry out plots in the west.

Terrorism has always come in cycles . The current menace from violent Islamists targeting the west is no different. Entropic forces tend to wind down violent political networks that are unable to achieve their immediate goals in a short-to-medium term timeline, and over time networks are degraded and their ideas lose some force or evolve in new directions. Al Qaedaism as we currently know it is clearly facing a downward trajectory, but the sparks as it winds down will trouble the world for years to come.

This article was commissioned in response to Dr Gunaratna’s piece.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR). His writing can be found here:http://www.raffaellopantucci.com

[1] Raffaello Pantucci, “The Islamist Terrorist Threat to Europe after Osama bin Laden’s death,” Chatham House Workshop Paper, July 1, 2011,http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/public/Research/International%20Security/010811wr_terrorism.pdf

[2] Bruce Hoffman, “Radicalization and Subversion: Al Qaeda and the 7 July 2005 Bombings and the 2006 Airline Bombing Plot,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, vol.32, no.12, 2009

A post for the long-ignored Free Rad!cals at ICSR. This one looking at the stories around Abu Musab al-Suri’s possible release and the implications of it. Brynjar was kind enough to give me some time to talk about it and I would recommend everyone read his book on the subject if they find the time.

Whither al Suri?

Towards the end of last year a story emerged that suggested that infamous al Qaida ideologue Mustafa Setmariam Nasr, aka Abu Musab al- Suri, had been released from the Syrian jail in which it was believed he had been languishing. Picked up in Quetta in October 2005, al-Suri was a longtime jihadist who during his career had served as a trainer in Afghanistan, married a Spanish woman, and worked as a propagandist from Londonistan. He is most well-known, however, as an author and ideologue and particularly for his massive tome, Global Islamic Resistance Call, a text that laid out his idea for al-Qaeda’s structure as “nizam, la tanzim” (system, not organization). Most recently, his writing had gotten increased traction as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had very publicly taken up his ideas as part of their push in Inspire magazine to try to stir up Lone Wolf terrorism.

While the unconfirmed announcement of his release has not gotten much traction, the story was interesting given the importance al-Suri’s work is often given by researchers (and the fact that he was amongst the individuals whom Zawahiri asked for in exchange for kidnapped American Warren Weistein). Intrigued by the story, I reached out to Dr. Brynjar Lia of FFI in Norway, the world’s foremost expert of al-Suri, having written the excellent biography “Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al Qaeda Strategist Abu Musab al Suri,” to see what he thought of the story and its potential consequences:

I think it is quite likely that al-Suri was transferred to Syria and has been held there, judging by the various reports pointing in that direction over the past few years. However, I am not sure whether Syrian authorities would have much to gain by releasing him. He is no friend of the Syrian regime to say the least, and he consistently denounced the Syrian regime both politically and religiously, labeling them “a Nusayri [another word for the Alawi, Bashar al Assad’s ethnic community] occupation”. The only thing I could think of is that the regime is trying to send a signal to the West, and the U.S. in particular, that if they push the Assad regime too hard, they will lose a partner in “the war on terrorism”, to use an outdated term. Al-Zawahiri mentioned al-Suri as one of several jihadis he wanted to see released in return for a U.S. citizen, reportedly held hostage by al-Qaida in Pakistan. However, in the current climate it is hard to imagine U.S.-Syrian cooperation on swapping al-Suri for the U.S. hostage.

“The impact of al-Suri’s release, if true, will not necessarily be dramatic, although it depends on the circumstances of his release. I don’t really see him in any operational role in the jihadi organisations in the region such as al-Qaida in Iraq, Ansar al-Islam, Fatah al-Islam or others. As for the Syrian opposition in exile, they will probably view him as a liability and they seem to believe that he might have been released as part of the Syrian regime’s orchestrated efforts to portray the opposition as an al-Qaida supported insurgency. Furthermore, al-Suri has few friends among the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, whom he singled out for very harsh criticism in his early writings. He did not have a large crowd of dedicated disciples, but was mostly a theoretician and a writer and was admired for his writings and his seniority as a jihadist.

For my own two cents, it would be strange for the Syrians to take such an action for a man who was so clearly their enemy and unlikely to ever do them any favors – but then again, as the Shia Iranian experience with allowing Sunni al Qaida to stay in their territory has shown, the geopolitics of the war on terrorism are complex. But I also wonder whether it would necessarily be the case that his release would be some sort of a boon to the notion of Lone Wolf jihad as espoused by AQAP. Clearly Inspiremagazine saw al-Suri as their ideological godfather and repeatedly held up his image and writing as key in their thinking, but I wonder if al-Suri would equally embrace the notions as they have advanced it.

To start with, it is unclear to me on the basis of his work that al Suri would be that impressed by the religious and ideological knowledge displayed by the army of young people who are taking up arms in response to AQAP’s call. In the early 1990s as he was first advancing his ideas in Peshawar, al Suri spoke of being unimpressed by the lack of “necessary doctrinal, programmatic, ideological and political guidance” amongst his fellow Arab-Afghans. Furthermore, in his magum opus, the Global Islamic Resistance Call, where he praises “the school of individual jihad and small cells” and a group of lone individuals who took up the cause of jihad, he highlights how while these attacks may be a military, security and agitation success, their political and educational impact is relatively low. It is hard to imagine that he would see greater ideological fervor or wider political success amongst the young people claiming his heritage.

Beyond this, it is unclear that he would necessarily approve of the sort of random targeting that is suggested by Inspire magazine’s ideas of taking down apartment blocs full of people by renting out one on a lower floor and letting the gas run freely or the idea to use a combine harvester to literally mow through crowds. While al-Suri’s writing does recognise the validity of targeting civilians, he does say that this needs to be done in a discriminating fashion. This is reflected in information to have emerged from Abbotabad where it is claimed that bin-Laden was “taken aback” by the Inspire proposal to use a harvester “he complains that this tactical proposal promotes indiscriminate slaughter. He says he rejects this and it is not something that reflects what al-Qaeda does.”

It is unclear whether al-Suri will be able to react in any sort of a public way to the children of the jihad who have claimed his legacy, not least because we have no idea at the moment of whether he has even been released (or if he has what limitations he may be under). But should he have been released and be able to become an active jihadi ideologue once again, it will undoubtedly prove a coup for al-Qaeda’s battered ideology and forces (as Jarret Brachmann has pointed out). What is less clear, however, is what kind of an impact it would have on the AQAP driven push towards indiscriminate, undirected Lone Wolf terrorism. It is uncertain to what degree the group is responsible for the growth in such events, and it is even less certain whether al-Suri would necessarily appreciate the interpretation of his work that they have been advancing.

Lone Wolf terrorism will no doubt continue to emerge whether al-Suri has been released or not. Al Suri’s potential addition to this mix will be to breathe new life into a group whose ideology and leadership has taken a sound beating, offering a leader whose ideas at the time were not paid much attention to, but since his arrest have increasingly become the vogue amongst terrorist tacticians.

A new post for the Telegraph, intended to be a response to the July 7 Coroner’s Inquest. It also tees up some ideas that will be gone into detail in my forthcoming book.

Everything’s Changed Since July 7, 2005

By Raffaello Pantucci 5:55PM BST 11 May 2011

The conclusion that the Security Services could have done more to investigate the leader of the July 7, 2005 bombings on London’s transport system is not a surprising one. Some key mistakes seem to have been made that allowed Mohammed Siddique Khan and his friends to continue to operate along a well-trodden pipeline feeding zealous young Brits to training camps in Pakistan. The excuse that this was merely one cell of many that was operating using this pipeline is worrying but to some degree a reasonable excuse. The danger is that this result is the main lesson being learned from this process. A danger since while the path they took is one that has been now for the most part disrupted and compromised, the threat in the UK has scattered in a variety of different directions meaning we have failed to effectively address the ideological roots of the problem.

None of this is to say that the link to training camps in South Asia does not still exist but at the same time, more recently the threat from violent Islamism in the UK has had return addresses in places like Iraq, Yemen, Somalia or the Internet. This is similar to the way that Osama’s death confirmed that Al Qaeda, a force that has been quite heavily reduced from its previous level, is no longer the main global expression of violent Islamism, but rather the array of regional groups that flocked to his banner are now the main threat.

This trend is not that new. It was last September that the Director General of MI5 said that the volume of the threat that his service was watching from Pakistan had decreased to be about 50% of their workload. From being solely concerned with training camps and networks in Pakistan, they are now worrying about schools in Yemen which cover for training camps or are recruiting grounds for Anwar al-Awlaki’s Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In Somalia, “there are a significant number of UK residents training in Al Shabaab camps to fight in the insurgency there.” And it seems as though Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, the Luton educated man who blew himself up in Stockholm at around Christmas time last year, spent some time with fighters in Iraq. Less geographically, the Internet has become a global purveyor of extreme ideas that has allowed a number of individuals, sometimes of questionable mental health but for the most part simply socially awkward, carry out disruptive activities that have come very close to causing mass death.

None of which are threats that will be effectively countered by following policies that focus on the old networks that incubated the July 7 team and their copycat team two weeks later. Some lessons learned are transferable, but having been through a process of self-flagellation and learned the lessons of 7/7 years ago, the security services have hopefully penetrated the necessary networks and hardened against this particular threat. And yet the ideological expressions remain. While the visible head of the violent Islamist movement ideology has been eradicated, the ideas that flow from it continue to cause flare-ups. Until we have dried the kindling that feeds these flames we are set to continue to have to address expressions of the problem that may be as effective as 7/7.

A new piece for HSToday, covering some of the ground I already touched upon with my earlier piece on Rajib Karim,but now going into greater detail about Awlaki’s clear obsession with flights to America. One detail I should clarify, the way the piece reads, it looks like I said that it was the voice message Awlaki sent Rajib and his brother that got security forces switched onto them. I do not know this for certain, though this certainly seems one of the earlier pieces of communication between Awlaki and the Karim to have been released. In fact, it seems likely that he was on radars for a while before this.

Britain Convicts Awlaki Acolyte Targeting US Bound Planes

By: Raffaello Pantucci

03/08/2011 (12:00am)

Last week a court in London convicted Rajib Karim, a 31-year-old Bangladeshi national in the UK working for British Airways of plotting with the Yemeni-American Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader, Anwar Al Awlaki, to attack flights bound for the United States.

According to information released during Karim’s trial, Karim exchanged emails with Awlaki in Yemen thinking through ways attacks could be carried out. The target for Awlaki remains America. In an email exchange with Karim, he is alleged to have stated “our highest priority is to attack the US.”

The prosecution asserted that Karim is “committed to an extreme jihadist and religious cause” and was “determined to seek martyrdom.”

Karim denied he got a job with the airline so that he could plan a terror attack, and maintained that “Islam teaches that you can’t target civilians.”

Karim’s conviction is clear evidence of a third attempt by Awlaki to attack aircraft bound for America. In the first known case, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a young London-educated Nigerian, hid an explosive in his underwear and boarded a flight from Ghana through Amsterdam to Detroit. He was overwhelmed before the explosive he carried could fully detonate and currently is in American custody awaiting trial.

A year later, a second attempt came in the form of a set of parcel bombs that originated in Yemen bound for targets in the US. Acting on information from a Saudi informant, one of the bombs was intercepted in Dubai and the other at East Midlands Airport in the UK. In a subsequent “special” edition of Inspire, the publication produced by AQAP, the group claimed credit for the attempted bombings, which it dubbed “Operation Hemorrhage.”

In the case of Karim, it is less clear exactly what Awlaki was planning, but emails between the two men disclosed a series of possibilities. An IT worker at British Airways at time of arrest, Karim moved to the UK in 2006 when he immigrated with his wife and child seeking medical aid for the child. The child got better, and while the move seems genuine enough, Karim by this point was a radicalized individual providing funding and logistical support for the Bangladeshi jihadist group, Jamaat al Mujahedeen.

Meanwhile, Karim’s younger brother, Tehzeeb, spent his time attempting to connect with jihadists in other parts of the world and ended up traveling to Yemen where he connected with Awlaki.

Having made contact with Awlaki using a path that went through the same language school in Sanaa as the one used by Abdulmutallab, Tehzeeb boasted to Awlaki about his brother who worked at British Airways in the UK. This immediately piqued Awlaki’s interest and the Al Qaeda spiritual leader contacted Karim to hear more about his position and how he could help him with his plotting to attack America.

Karim told Awlaki of knowing “two brothers, one who works in baggage handling at Heathrow, and another who works in airport security. Both are good practicing brothers and sympathize towards the cause of the mujahedeen.”

Several other men also were arrested in the initial sweep after Karim’s arrest, but nothing came of the possible charges against them. One was fired from his position at British Airways.

At another point during the plotting when it was announced that British Airways staff were going to go on strike, Karim suggested (and was encouraged) by Awlaki to sign up to act as replacement staff. But he was rejected on the basis that he had worked for the firm for less than five years.

Clearly seeing the potential of the Bangladeshi brothers, Awlaki paid special attention to them, and at one point even sent them a special voice message confirming that rumors of his death were untrue. It is likely that this communication tipped off intelligence agencies to Karim.

When initially arrested, Karim was calm, according to police sources, who suspect that his coolness stemmed from his belief that the security programs he had installed on his computer would keep his secrets hidden from investigators. Coupled with his cover as an IT worker for British Airways and a public persona co-workers described as “mild mannered, well-educated and respectful.”

Karim believed himself a perfect sleeper jihadist.

Police nevertheless were able to crack his encryption codes and methods of hiding information and uncovered a treasure trove of documents and information regarding his communications with Awlaki and his jihadist brother. They were able to piece together his plotting and his growing desire to leave the United Kingdom to conduct jihad.

Karim wrote on January 29, 2010″ “Without anything happening and also not being able to have any concrete plans to do anything here, my iman [faith] was getting affected. I started feeling like a real munafiq [hypocrite]. It has been three years that I have been living here away from the company of good brothers and spending a good part of my working day with the kuffar [infidels] … that’s why I desperately wanted to make hijrah [journey to fight jihad].”

For Awlaki, clearly, the preference would have been for Karim to attempt an attack in the West. And given Karim’s connections and position, it is easy to see how close he came.

 

A new piece for Jamestown looking at a case currently ongoing in the UK against a Bangladeshi chap who may or may not have been in contact with Anwar al-Awlaki. An interesting case, and I have a feeling the fact he confessed to the JMB charges will probably play against him.

Al-Awlaki Recruits Bangladeshi Militants for Strike on the United States

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 7
February 17, 2011 04:43 PM Age: 3 hrs

Rajib Karim, Bangladeshi national resident in the UK who pled guilty to charges of assisting Jamaat ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).

Rajib Karim, a 31-year-old Bangladeshi national resident in the United Kingdom, pled guilty on January 31 to charges of assisting Bangladeshi terrorist group Jamaat ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Confessing to helping produce and distribute videos on behalf of the JMB, sending money for terrorist purposes and offering himself for terror training abroad, Karim’s admission was made public at the beginning of a trial against him at Woolwich Crown Court in suburban London (Press Association [London], January 31; BdNews24.com [Dhaka], February 2).

Founded in 1998, the JMB is the largest extremist group in Bangladesh. The movement has expressed its opposition to democracy, socialism, secularism, cultural events, public entertainment and women’s rights through hundreds of bombings within Bangladesh. Though banned in 2005, the movement is believed to still maintain ties with various Islamist groups in the country.

On trial for further charges of preparing acts of terrorism in the UK, it has been suggested in the press that Karim was identified by the Home Secretary as a suspected agent for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) (Press Association, November 3, 2010). [1]

According to information released at the opening of his trial, Karim first came to the UK in 2006 with his wife to seek a hospital for their child who was sick with what they thought was cancer (Guardian, February 2). The child got better and by September of the next year Karim had secured a position in a British Airways trainee scheme in Newcastle. According to the prosecution, he established himself as a sleeper agent in the UK, making “a very conscious and successful effort to adopt this low profile.” He kept his beard short, did not become involved in local Muslim groups, did not express radical views, played football locally, went to the gym and was described by people who knew him as “mild-mannered, well-educated and respectful” (Newcastle Evening Chronicle, February 2).

Much of the prosecution’s information on Karim appears to come from electronic communications between himself and his brother Tehzeeb that the police were able to find on Karim’s hard-drive. According to the prosecutor’s opening statement, Tehzeeb was also a long-term radical for JMB who travelled in 2009 with two others from Bangladesh to Yemen to seek out Anwar al-Awlaki (Press Association, February 1). Once connected with Awlaki, Tehzeeb told the Yemeni-American preacher of his brother. Awlaki recognized the benefits of having such a contact in place and in January 2010, the preacher is said to have emailed Karim, saying “my advice to you is to remain in your current position….I pray that Allah may grant us a breakthrough through you [to find] limitations and cracks in airport security systems.” The preacher apparently found the brothers of such importance that he sent them a personal voice message to counter claims of his death that had circulated in December 2009 (Press Association, February 2).

It seems as though Karim was in contact with extremist commanders long before this. According to the prosecution’s case, anonymous “terror chiefs abroad” wanted him to remain in his British Airways job as far back as November 2007 and to become a “managing director” for them. In an email exchange with his brother at around this time, the two discussed whether a small team could also “be the beginning of another July Seven;” a supposed reference to the July 7, 2005 terrorist attacks on London’s underground system (Press Association, February 2). It is unclear at the moment who these terror chiefs were, though it has been suggested Karim was in contact with Awlaki for more than two years.

By early 2011, Karim had become of greater concern to British police. His emails to his brother indicated that he was becoming restless and wanted to go abroad to fight. He had apparently spoken to his wife about this prospect, reporting to his brother that he “told her if she wants to, she can make hijrah [migration] with me and if the new baby dies or she dies while delivering, it is qadr Allah [predestined] and they will be counted as martyrs” (Press Association, February 2). He was also exchanging emails with Anwar al-Awlaki that indicated he had made contact with “two brothers [i.e. Muslims], one who works in baggage handling at Heathrow and another who works in airport security. Both are good practicing brothers and sympathize.” Awlaki was doubtless pleased to hear this, though he indicated, “our highest priority is the U.S. Anything there, even on a smaller scale compared to what we may do in the UK, would be our choice” (Daily Mail, February 2). It seems likely that the “brothers” referred to were those picked up by police in Slough a month after Karim’s arrest, though none were charged (The Times, March 4, 2010; Telegraph, March 10, 2010).

This message and others turned up after Metropolitan Police, with the assistance of Britain’s intelligence agencies, were able to crack the rather complex encryption system that Karim used to store his messages and information on his computers (Daily Star [Dhaka], February 15). Much of this now appears to be the foundation of the case against Karim beyond the charges he has already admitted to as a member of JMB. JMB has some history in the UK; acting on a British intelligence tip, Bangladeshi forces raided a charity-run school in March 2009 and found a large cache of weapons and extremist material. One of the key individuals involved in the charity was a figure who is believed to be a long-term British intelligence target. In another case, two British-Bangladeshi brothers allegedly linked to the banned British extremist group al-Muhajiroun were accused of giving the JMB money. [2] In neither case was there evidence the UK was targeted and it seems as though prosecutors in this current case are more eager to incarcerate Karim for his connections with Anwar al-Awlaki and AQAP than for his involvement with JMB abroad.

Notes:

1. Theresa May speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), November 3, 2010,www.rusi.org/news/,/ref:N4CD17AFA05486/.
2. “The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh,” International Crisis Group, Asia Report no.187, March 1, 2010,  www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/asia/south-asia/bangladesh/187_the_threat_from_jamaat_ul_mujahideen_bangladesh.ashx.

 

My latest for the Jamestown Foundation’s Global Terrorism Monitor, this time exploring the odd case of Roshonara Choudhry, which friends in the UK tell me is a really rather concerning sign about the levels of radicalization in the UK. It remains to be seen what actually ends up happening in the broader frame, but it is certainly an extraordinary story about how far one can push oneself when persuaded by dangerous ideas. It will be interesting to see what happens with this girl as time goes on. Should anyone see any interesting stories emerge, please let me know. More on the topic of Lone Wolves more generally soon. Thanks also to Peter for taking time to talk to me.

Trial of Would-be Assassin Illustrates al-Awlaki’s Influence on the British Jihad

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 44
December 2, 2010 01:45 PM Age: 7 hrs

By: Raffaello Pantucci

Roshonara Choudhry 

The conclusion in early November of the trial against 21-year-old Roshonara Choudhry, convicted of attempting to murder British member of Parliament Stephen Timms, marked the end of a case that dealt with the importation of the concept of the “lone jihadi” as espoused by American-Yemeni jihad ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki.  According to Peter Clarke, the former head of London’s Counter Terrorism Command, Choudhry’s actions highlighted the fact that “we are nowhere near getting the counter-narrative [to jihad] through,” and were described by British police as the first instance in which an al-Qaeda inspired Briton attempted an assassination on British soil (Guardian, November 3). [1]

The strange case of Roshonara Choudhry first came to the public’s attention on May 14, 2010, when she walked into MP Stephen Timms’ constituency office for an appointment she had made. Specifying that she had to see the MP rather than an assistant, when she arrived for her appointment Choudhry seemed “anxious” to the security guard working in the office (Telegraph, November 2).

After a short wait, Mr. Timms came out of his office to greet the young woman, who approached him as though to shake his hand. All dressed in black and wearing traditional Muslim garb, Timms “was a little puzzled because a Muslim woman dressed in that way wouldn’t normally be willing to shake a man’s hand, still less take the initiative to do so” (Telegraph, November 2). In fact, as described by Choudhry, the outstretched hand was a ruse: “I walked towards him with my left hand out as if I wanted to shake his hand. Then I pulled the knife out of my bag and I hit him in the stomach with it. I put it in the top part of his stomach like when you punch someone” (Telegraph, November 2).

The security guard and one of Timms’ assistants quickly restrained the young girl, and police and ambulance services were summoned. In an interview conducted hours after her arrest, Choudhry was open in describing her desire to die in the course of her action: “I wanted to be a martyr,” since “that’s the best way to die… It’s an Islamic teaching.” [2] Prior to her attack, Choudhry decided to clear all of her debts, something typical of aspirant Islamist martyrs (Guardian, November 2). When asked why she targeted Timms in her attack, Choudhry responded, “I thought that it’s not right that he voted for the declaration of war in Iraq,” adding that the ideas for this path of vengeance came from “listening to lectures by Anwar al-Awlaki” she found on the internet.

Choudhry appears to have been something of a model student, working up from humble beginnings in East London as one of five children of a Bangladeshi tailor. At the time of her attack, the family was largely living off of benefits and monies the children were able to raise through work. Her background did not prevent Choudhry from earning a place at the prestigious King’s College, London, where she studied English and Communications. In her spare time, she volunteered at an Islamic school and was seen as a prize student on course to achieve a first-class degree (the highest level in the British university system) (Guardian, November 2).

Sometime during her third and final year, Choudhry underwent a transformation and decided to drop out of her course: “Because King’s College is involved in things where they work against Muslims….they gave an award to [Israeli politician] Shimon Peres and they also have a department for tackling radicalization….So I just didn’t wanna go there anymore…cos it would be against my religion.” By her own account, the path that led her to attacking Timms was set in motion prior to her decision to drop out. She discovered Anwar al-Awlaki’s speeches sometime in November 2009, claiming that she found them through her “own research.” From his lectures she got the idea that “as Muslims we’re all brothers and sisters and we should all look out for each other and we shouldn’t sit back and do nothing while others suffer.” She was particularly taken by al-Awlaki’s speeches as “he explains things really comprehensively and in an interesting way so I thought I could learn a lot from him and I was also surprised at how little I knew about my religion so that motivated me to learn more.”

According to Choudhry, it was a video featuring the late Shaykh Abdullah Azzam (1941-1989) and his instruction that it is “obligatory on everyone [i.e. every Muslim] to defend [Muslim] land” that pushed her into the decision to act sometime in April 2010. At this point she decided to seek revenge on a member of the British parliament who had supported the invasion of Iraq using public information websites and a radical website called RevolutionMuslim.com that provided a list of MPs who had voted in favor of the Iraq invasion. Timms was specifically chosen because according to websites she had found, “he very strongly agreed with the invasion of Iraq.” Another factor was Choudhry’s own experience of meeting the MP as part of a school trip sometime in 2006 or 2007.

What is striking about the choice of Timms is that during this first meeting with the MP, Choudhry recalled a fellow student questioning Timms over his support of the war and of feeling that “she [the student] should be quiet and that she’s embarrassing herself.” Four years later, Choudhry had been radicalized to the point that she was willing to murder the same MP.

In the wake of Choudhry’s arrest, there was a spike of attention in the British media about the radicalizing impact of websites. In a speech in Washington, DC, Security Minister Lady Pauline Neville-Jones raised the issue of YouTube hosting videos by radical preachers and other US websites that hosted material she described as “inciting cold blooded murder” (Guardian, November 3). On November 17, British police arrested 23-year-old Bilal Zaheer Ahmand from Dunstall, Wolverhampton for soliciting murder and possessing information likely to be useful to terrorists. The young man was allegedly linked to RevolutionMuslim.com, which published the list of MPs who had voted for the Iraq war and a post which praised Choudhry as a “heroine” (BBC, November 17; Telegraph, November 17). Whether Ahmand will be successfully convicted is still in question. A trial in July against Mohammed Gul, a 22-year-old London student who was allegedly uploading radical videos to a website and who was in contact with extremists abroad, concluded with a hung jury and will go to retrial next year (Romford Recorder, July 27, 2010; Daily Mail, February 24, 2009). For Choudhry, however, the future is clear; on November 3 she was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum of 15 years. She is currently being held as a “Category A” prisoner, meaning she is subject to intrusive strip-search regimes every time someone visits, something she finds demeaning and against her faith and which has, as a result, kept her in isolation since her incarceration (Guardian, November 2).

Notes:

1. Peter Clarke, interview with author, November 2010.
2. Unless otherwise indicated, Choudhry’s quotes are taken from her police interview, published by the Guardian, November 3, 2010:http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/nov/03/roshonara-choudhry-police-interview.