In the West, Islamic terrorism is a threat traditionally associated with Middle Eastern men whose faces are easily perceived as “alien” and who present a suitable profile around which to organize law enforcement monitoring. Recent events have again shown that this profile is outdated. The July 7, 2005 London bombings and the further discovery of other operational cells in Britain and Canada included several converts, such as 25-year-old Hindu-Canadian convert Steven Chand and Germaine “Jamal” Lindsay, the young Briton who not only participated in but led the four-man suicide bombing cell on July 7. The activities of converts, or rather those who adopt a militant ideology inspired by Salafi-Jihadi interpretations of Islam, have become increasingly important in executing terrorist attacks. The incorrect perception of the “face of terror” risks obscuring our understanding of how terrorist groups operate. In monitoring and preventing terrorist activity, law enforcement agencies need to move beyond the current profile and react to the empirical reality.
That empirical reality has been apparent for some time, particularly in France. The logistical support cell involved in the Algerian Armed Islamic Group’s (GIA) 1995 bombing campaign in France included two converts, David Vallat and Joseph Raime, who had been converted to Salafi-Jihadism while in prison by GIA “emir” and Afghan veteran Ahtmane Saada. Beyond logistical support, French law enforcement also found operational converts when they investigated the ultra-violent jihadi-gangster Roubaix Gang (Terrorism Monitor, January 12). Notably, the gang was composed of Algerians led by two ethnic Frenchmen, both veterans of the war in Bosnia.
In another French example, the “blue-eyed emir” Pierre Robert, who was apprehended by authorities, was the recruiter and leader of several Salafi-Jihadi cells involved in the Casablanca suicide bombings of May 2003 (La Gazette du Maroc, February 4, 2004). Other converts were involved at different levels in this operation, including Andre Rowe, a Briton of Afro-Caribbean origin who was a Bosnian war veteran linked to the Roubaix Gang (The Telegraph, July 9, 2005). In the latter examples, French and Algerian cultural/historical enmity had no effect on cooperation. Easily bypassing racial and ethnic divides, the French converts were cell leaders whose faith, commitment and legitimacy were not questioned on account of their ethnic or cultural background. In fact, conversion may help to strengthen perceptions of devotion in some cases.
Beyond France, the participation of converts in al-Qaeda activities has been visible at all levels of operations. German national Christian Ganczarski, accused of involvement in the Djerba synagogue attack along with another white convert Daniel Morgenej, was asked for a religious blessing by young suicide bomber Nizar Nawar moments before he struck a Tunisian synagogue (AFP, April 20, 2002). Not only was he respected enough as a religious ideologue to offer such a blessing, but he had maintained a close personal relationship with al-Qaeda’s inner circle, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Osama bin Laden himself, indicating a high-level of trust from the secretive organization. Not simply foot soldiers, Australians Shane Kent and Jack Roche also met bin Laden personally and, as reported by terrorism analyst Trevor Stanley, Roche was given a mission to create a “Caucasian Cell,” highlighting what appears to be a tactical shift for al-Qaeda. Other reports seem to support this. According to the London Times on June 7, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had called for “an army of ‘white-skinned’ militants, men born in Europe and America who can convert to Islam and become harder for the authorities to detect.”
Converts are fully trusted to carry out attacks, lead cells and to lend logistical, financial and even ideological support. It was a Jamaican convert, Trevor William Forest, imam at the Brixton mosque in Britain, who radicalized Zacarias Moussaoui as well as converts Xavier Jaffo and Richard Reid. This is an issue that contemporary counter-terrorism officials need to take into account in order to prepare themselves for terrorists who do not fit the nationality profile.
The use of converts in al-Qaeda videos is a further sign of their growing symbolic importance for al-Qaeda’s legitimacy and for increasing recruitment efforts aimed at Muslims and non-Muslims. In August 2005, an Australian East Timor veteran Mathew Stewart appeared in a propaganda video exhorting jihad. Most recently, al-Qaeda member Adam Pearlman (known as “Azzam the American”) appeared for the third time in a broadcast inviting Americans to convert to Islam. Al-Qaeda may presume that English language propaganda will attract more Westerners to Salafi-Jihadi ideology.
Beyond al-Qaeda’s strategy or tactics, much of the phenomenon revolves around the nature of the ideology itself. There is still a misconception in the general public that the al-Qaeda movement is Arab-centrist when in fact it effectively transcends ethnic differences, rejecting Arab nationalism (and any other nationalism) and stressing the supremacy of the Muslim Ummah. A good example is the conflict in Chechnya, where “Chechen” field commanders are from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, including ethnic Russians like Vitali Smirnov. The Islamist website Kavkaz Center frequently claimed that many disaffected Russian soldiers—captive or otherwise—had joined the ranks of the Chechen fighters and there is some evidence to support this. On June 11, 2000, ex-Russian soldier Sergey Dimitriyev conducted a suicide mission in Khankala, Chechnya . This was not an isolated case; another ex-soldier, Pavel Kosolapov, was recruited by warlord Shamil Basaev prior to his involvement in several bomb attacks and, as reported by The Jamestown Foundation, one of the Beslan ringleaders and perpetrators of several bomb attacks in southern Russia was an ethnic Ukrainian convert and veteran of Chechnya, Vladimir Khodov (Newsru.com, May 13, 2005).
While “profiling” measures in Russia (especially in Moscow) are particularly stringent, Russian law enforcement authorities are at a loss when trying to deal with a threat generally associated with people of Middle Eastern or North Caucasian ancestry. In Dagestan, ex-Russian soldier Sergei Tiunov, who was arrested in November 2001, had allegedly been commissioned—along with two other accomplices—by the warlord Khattab to assassinate Russian Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov (Vesti7.ru, November 18, 2001). More recently, it was disclosed that the February and August 2004 Moscow subway blasts are believed to have been organized by mostly Slavic converts led by ethnic Ukrainian Nikolai Kipkeyev (Gazeta.ru, August 31, 2005). The “Karachai Jamaat” network, as it calls itself, is also thought to be behind several deadly explosions in Krasnodar, Russia.
The phenomenon of conversions to Islam, however, needs to be separated from the conversion to a destructive ideology such as Salafi-Jihadism, which is a violent revolutionary strain of fundamentalist Islamism. As illustrated by the case of Franco-Algerian Khaled Kelkal (who converted to Salafi-Jihadism in prison), there are in effect two types of converts: those who convert to Islam and those, both Muslims and non-Muslims, who gravitate toward Salafi-Jihadi ideology. A good example of the significance of this distinction is in Central Asia. In that region, governments and clergy are pitting local traditional Islam against imported Salafi-Jihadism, denouncing the latter as a deviancy in media and speeches and warning against converting to “alien ideologies.” It is telling that the only documented terrorist act attempted in Kazakhstan was by an ethnic Russian convert, Andrey Mironov, arrested in January of this year for attempting to blow up a public administration building he had infiltrated as an employee (Kompromat.kz, January 6).
Conflict Zones and Virtual Recruitment
What has continued to be more important than nationality in security profiling is personal history, especially engagement with radical preachers (often veterans of past jihads) and/or exposure to Islamicized conflict zones. With regard to the latter, war in Muslim countries and the associated loss of lives are heavily exploited in extremist propaganda to attract recruits. A central component of this effort is the presentation of injustices—real or perceived—on graphic videos posted on the internet. Converts such as French terrorist Lionel Dumont and David Vallat have testified that footage of the Bosnian genocide or the Chechen conflict was a primary catalyst in their radicalization (La Croix, December 16, 2005; L’Humanité, December 3, 1997).
Al-Qaeda’s ideology is undoubtedly gaining legitimacy in the current international context, which it tries to frame as a war on Islam and Muslims through propaganda concocted by media-savvy jihadi groups. In Romania, Florian Les was preparing a car bomb attack in the city of Timisoara when arrested by Romanian security services. His stated intent was to “teach a lesson” to Romania for its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and to avenge “his brothers in Chechnya and Bosnia” . Authorities believe that he was radicalized after exposure to jihadi literature and videos on the internet, which also enabled him to forge links with jihadi fighters around the world, just as Wyoming native Mark Robert Walker had done in his efforts to provide material assistance to al-Ittihad al-Islami in Somalia (News365.ro, June 27). The impact and effectiveness of this “virtual recruitment” can also be seen in the failed attempts of former U.S. National Guardsman Ryan Anderson to assist al-Qaeda, as well as young Dutch convert R. Maik who discovered Salafi-Jihadism and Takfir ideology on the internet, subsequently building a home-made bomb and sending death threats to controversial Dutch politicians (De Volkskrant, November 7, 2005).
Conflict zones are also a destination of choice for jihadis and converts who wish to undergo military and ideological training. Afghanistan has, for a long time, been such a destination. Australian Jack Thomas is but one of many Westerners suspected of having trained in the country and it is telling that three of the nine Britons arrested in Afghanistan and detained in Guantanamo are catholic-to-Islam converts. Kosovo was a training ground for Australian David Hicks, and Chechnya (like Bosnia) attracted a number of Westerners, including American Aqil Collins and French convert Xavier Jaffo, a propagandist for the jihadi site Azzam.com who was killed in 2000 (CNN, July 3, 2002). Beyond Europeans and North Americans, many jihadi converts from the post-Soviet states also travel to the North Caucasus (in part for geographic but also linguistic reasons), such as in the case of the Belarusian and alleged chemical weapons expert Sergei Malyshev who was recently arrested in Spain for his involvement in a recruitment network for Iraq (Regnum.ru, December 20, 2005). Somewhat bewildering, in August 2002 Hiroshi Minami, a Japanese convert who had fought in the war-torn republic, was arrested with a Chechen militant trying to cross the Georgian border into Chechnya. Interestingly, Palestine has remained relatively free of this phenomenon, with the possible exception of Stephen Smyrek, a German convert who was arrested in Israel in November 1997 (Al-Ahram Weekly, August 26-September 1, 1999). An admitted member of Hezbollah, he had allegedly been trained in southern Lebanon to carry out a suicide attack in Tel Aviv.
Iraq has now become a magnet for jihadis. While the majority of foreigners in Iraq are still from the Arab world, there is evidence that converts are at least involved in logistical support and recruitment in Europe. The recently arrested Spaniard José Antonio D.M. is one of 18 men charged in relation to a cell supplying volunteers to Iraq. At the operational level, Peter Cherif, the young French convert who was arrested in Iraq by U.S. forces, had been radicalized and incited along with other young Frenchmen by Afghan veterans (El Pais, December 21, 2005; Le Figaro, May 21, 2005). These examples further showcase the “egalitarian” non-ethnic nature of many of the jihadi networks; these networks are increasingly non-Arab as a result of the first Afghan jihad generation dwindling in numbers and veterans of other conflict zones entering the arena.
The tightening of security measures, particularly profiling, may put more pressure on the networks to rely on individuals who would otherwise be able to pass the first security “screening” with more ease, mainly Caucasian men but also women. The latter would prove to be even more of an interdiction nightmare. As French anti-terrorism Judge Jean Louis Bruguière has long warned, al-Qaeda is also interested in recruiting women. The case of 35-year-old Belgian female Muriel Degauque’s successful suicide attack against a U.S. convoy in Iraq should therefore not be viewed as an anomaly. In May, for example, Der Spiegel reported on a foiled suicide bombing plot in Iraq involving a German female convert. It is interesting to note that convert Pascal Cruypenninck, the alleged head of the Belgian network sending suicide bombers to Iraq, was preparing a similar operation with another female convert named Angelique when he was apprehended by authorities (La Derniere Heure, December 2, 2005). Just as unsettling, in March, Australian Jill Courtney was arrested on terrorism charges, while in the Netherlands Martine Van Den is alleged to have had strong links to the Dutch Islamist militant organization the Hofstad Group (which also included several Dutch converts) (De Volkskrant, July 6, 2005).
Where conversion involves an adoption of violent ideologies, traditional profiling techniques may be inadequate. Nevertheless, it is clearly a mistake to simply expand the profile to include all converts. Law enforcement monitoring faces a clear challenge in creating a suitable filter to inform this distinction and the existence of this endogenous threat should not feed the fantasies of a “fifth column.” Many converts and born Muslims are at the forefront of the anti-jihadi struggle. For example, it was friend and fellow convert Ibrahim Fraser who first alerted police about Australian Jacke Roche’s obsession with jihadi ideology. Similarly, the El Fath Mosque in Amersfoort threw out the Walker brothers, who were members of the Hofstad Group, and also informed the authorities of their extremist tendencies.
Recent arrests in Britain involving at least five converts (of Afro-Caribbean origin) training to become suicide bombers—as well as the arrest of Dhiren Barot, a convert plotting a dirty bomb attack in the United States—indicate that this trend is on the upswing, reflecting both the globalization and growing appeal of Salafi-Jihadism and a tactical adjustment to Western security and profiling measures on the part of al-Qaeda and its affiliates. It also underscores the truly transnational and cross-cultural nature of the threat, against which profiling may not provide an adequate defense.
1. International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, June 20, 2000.
2. See https://www.roumanie.com/Justice-Un_homme_converti_islamisme_soupconne_de_terrorisme-A1250.html.