Preliminary Observations from the June 2007 UK Plots

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 14

On June 29, the Tiger Tiger nightclub in London was targeted by a gas cylinder-based car bomb studded with shrapnel—one of two found in central London. The following day, two men, Kafeel Ahmad and Bilal Abdullah, rammed a Jeep Cherokee into the Glasgow airport in an apparent attempt to detonate the petrol canisters under their car. The men were allegedly combative, they apparently mumbled prayers as the vehicle burned and one left a “suicide” note behind (The Telegraph, July 6). As the investigation has unfolded, British authorities believe that those behind the Glasgow attempt were also conspirators in the failed London plot—a paradigm resembling the 2004 Madrid bombers, who conducted stand-off attacks followed days later by a “martyrdom” operation. Although the investigation process is in its infancy, the following analysis drawn from the available data elicits key initial observations that situate these plots within the broader context of jihadi activism in Britain. The focus concerns the composition of the suspected cell and the tension between its global and homegrown features.

A Departure from Previous Plots

Empirical data indicates that the June suspects represent a different face in Britain’s battle against global jihad. First, the overall ethnic composition of the alleged cell is unique. Unlike the would-be July 21, 2005 (7/21) bombers and the July 7, 2005 (7/7) attackers—cells comprising largely homogeneous ethnic groups (East African and South Asian, respectively)—two of the three charged in the plot (as of June 15) are from India, as was the alleged driver of the Jeep that rammed the Glasgow airport, Kafeel Ahmed. Sabeel Ahmed and his cousin, Australian resident Muhammad Haneef, both studied medicine at Rajiv Gandhi University (BBC News, July 16). Besides the convicted al-Qaeda-linked plotter, Dhiren Barot—an India-born Muslim convert who cased targets in and around New York City, Washington and London—there have been few, if any, Britons of Indian ancestry convicted of participating in jihadi plots targeting the United Kingdom (BBC News, November 7, 2006). The alleged involvement of these individuals demonstrates that radicalization into violent activism in the name of Islam respects neither ethnicity nor nationhood—even if camaraderie and kinship further the process—and fights against these identity markers in the name of the global “community of believers” (the ummah).

There are other distinguishing characteristics of the accused group. Unlike many previous jihadi plots and attacks in the United Kingdom (including the “Operation Crevice” cell, the 7/7 attackers and the autumn 2006 “planes” plot), there is no data thus far to indicate the involvement of Muslim converts. Converts to radical Islam have figured prominently in European-based jihadism (arguably because of their accelerated embrace of Salafi-Jihadi activism in their quest for “authentic Islam”), and the absence of such in this plot could indicate a more international cast of organizers.

Further, as has been widely observed, the alleged plotters are upwardly mobile professionals, not the petty criminals, thugs and unemployed rank-and-file from many previous UK-based cells. This is in no way a new development within the global jihadi movement at large—professionals in the mechanical, physical and biological sciences are well represented, especially in cells linked to core al-Qaeda personalities—but it seems to be the exception within what are often labeled homegrown European jihadi networks. Many of these individuals have embraced radical Islam (sometimes in prison) in order to find direction, escape addiction and crime or to defy Western society and legitimize criminality (The Guardian, July 10).

The Alleged Iraqi Connection

Finally, an individual with suspected connections to Sunni extremists in Iraq emerged as the central figure in the plot. Bilal Talal Samad Abdullah, the passenger in the Jeep driven by Kafeel Ahmed (uncharged thus far and in grave condition at a specialist burn unit), has been charged with “conspiracy to cause explosions” (BBC News, July 16). According to accounts from his medical school professors and relatives in Iraq, Abdullah was an extremist who opposed the Shiite ascendance in Iraq, was linked to individuals who died fighting U.S. troops in Fallujah and was reportedly influenced by an Iraqi Sunni cleric who promoted the culture of martyrdom and suicide bombings (The Telegraph, July 5; The Guardian, July 5). In the United Kingdom, he was noted by a former Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT) affiliate for expressing similar views during his time in Cambridge (New Statesman, July 5). Shiraz Maher mentions Abdullah’s vitriol against Shiites, disgust for Western policy in Iraq, interest in jihadi media and extreme interpretation of amr bi al-ma’ruf wa nahi ‘an al-munkar (commanding the good and forbidding the evil)—a mark of strict Salafis, which could also theoretically legitimize the targeting of a nightclub like Tiger Tiger [1].

If the charges against Abdullah hold and a direct connection to Iraqi jihadi networks is established, this would mark the first time that a British or European national with such links attacked their Western residence—as opposed to recruiting European Muslims for combat there, as has been witnessed, for example, in Spain (Terrorism Monitor, June 7). If verified, this visceral “blowback,” while anticipated by many Western analysts, could be the first among many such incidents inside Europe (Los Angeles Times, July 8). Once European-based jihadi networks responsible for sending cadres to Iraq recalibrate their focus following the withdrawal of Western forces from the country, an examination of past and present jihadi tendencies indicates that they will pursue one of several options: 1) turn again toward South Asia given the apocalyptic overtones of Khorasan (Afghanistan) and a clearly defined Western adversary occupying Muslim territory; 2) travel to other “fault line” conflicts, such as in Somalia, in the spirit of jihad as an individual obligation (fard ‘ayn); 3) continue to use Iraq as a venue for training and/or confrontation with the Shiites in the absence of a strong central government; 4) focus on attacking Western Europe itself following the ideological premise of extracting a “balance of suffering” from those who have “harmed” the ummah [2]. Given current geopolitics, the profound radicalism of many European Salafi networks and the pitched online jihadi activism that rose parallel with the Iraq conflict, the fourth option will almost certainly become viable for some.

Homegrown or Global Jihad?

While still too early to draw firm conclusions about the plot and its alleged participants, there is one strategic angle elicited by these events that merits consideration: the tension between the global and homegrown nature of the plot, a point of recent media speculation and contradicting views among the quoted “intelligence sources” (Daily Mail, July 4). The history of jihad in the United Kingdom demonstrates that, with few exceptions, this is a faulty dichotomy. Both global and homegrown forces motivated and shaped most, if not all, jihadi plots in the United Kingdom and the West. This theory will likely be validated in the case of the June 2007 plots as well.

There is no shortage of homegrown catalysts for radicalization into jihadi activism found in the British and Western context. Based upon the author’s fieldwork in the United Kingdom, a number of these include:

– The detention of jihadi ideologues like Abu Qatada, and other radical clerics such as Abu Hamza al-Masri, which some Muslims perceive as evidence of a Western conspiracy against Islam.

– The growing popularity of the internet as a venue for radicalization, incitement, religious guidance and tactical development. Online radicalization often works synergistically with Marc Sageman’s “group of guys” theory, where jihadi ideology is inculcated and reinforced through kinship and socialization.

– Ongoing conflicts in the Palestinian territories, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, which highlight Muslim suffering at the hands of Western forces and are conflated by instigators with local (UK) events. This fosters the notion of a monolithic Western conspiracy against Islam—emphasized by radical British Muslims—and aligns with the motivational framing strategy of al-Qaeda.

– Post-9/11 anti-terrorism measures, which are often interpreted by Western Muslim communities as unwarranted and invasive. These local measures are seen in some radical circles to threaten ‘Aqd Amaan (the Covenant of Security)—a theological doctrine concerning just war in Islam and the responsibilities of Muslims living under kuffar (infidel) regimes, which prohibits them from waging war against their host governments so long as they are able to practice their faith without persecution (Terrorism Monitor, January 26, 2006).

– The continual search for identity, meaningful religious guidance and a consistent ideology that marks many young British Muslims—largely English speakers unfamiliar with traditional Islamic systems of learning.

– Radical preachers, often unemployed and fluent in Western languages, with limited (if any) formal religious pedigrees, who offer clearly-defined radical ideological alternatives to the “diluted” and “geriatric” Islam often encountered in Western mosques. Such preachers often operate in basement or home mosques, are active in social venues away from the eyes of law enforcement and romanticize jihad as a rite of passage, or a mechanism to atone for “sins.”

An abundance of data indicates that a combination of these homegrown forces have influenced the behavior of past British jihadis [3].

The nature of global jihadi ideology itself, however, with its focus on pan-Islamic suffering and unity, defense of Muslim lands and the establishment of Sharia zones in the place of current Middle Eastern, African and Asian regimes, inherently exhibits transnational qualities and aspirations—even if those who subscribe to it never travel outside London or Los Angeles to meet with al-Qaeda operatives or receive overt directions from international terrorist networks. Homegrown jihadi plots, in this respect, are misnomers.

Furthermore, to use the example of the homegrown 7/7 bombers and 7/21 plotters, it has emerged that the key leaders in both groups, Muhammad Siddique Khan, Shehzad Tanweer (7/7) and Mukhtar Said Ibrahim (the 7/21 ringleader), spent time training in jihadi camps in Pakistan (and Sudan, in Ibrahim’s case) (The Guardian, July 10). The same held true for the Operation Crevice cell (The Guardian, September 19, 2006). It is thus widely assumed that these militants came into contact with al-Qaeda-associated figures—a theory backed by Tanweer’s video statement and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s associated commentary (BBC News, July 6, 2006). This implies a distinct top-down or global motivation. Moreover, those who did not travel were undoubtedly exposed to the online culture of global jihad during their forays into cyberspace. Travel—whether physical or virtual—is omnipresent in these and other homegrown British cases and is indicative of global motivation and contact with international jihadis.

Both homegrown and global characteristics mark the June 2007 investigation. Bilal Abdullah and Kafeel Ahmed allegedly spent time in HuT circles in Britain (HuT is often mentioned as a catalyst and sustainer of radicalization), yet both are also suspected of links to radicals in Iraq and India, respectively (International Herald Tribune, July 15). There is also speculation that Kafeel Ahmed is linked to Abbas Boutrab, a shadowy al-Qaeda-associated figure convicted in Northern Ireland of conspiring to bring down airliners with bombs hidden in cassette players (The Observer, July 8).

In sum, separating the homegrown from the global nature of this plot will likely prove exceedingly difficult, as will determining whether the bottom-up impetus of the suspects’ British experiences—or conversely, their association with al-Qaeda-linked figures—motivated their suspected activities. This calls for a new mode of thinking about Western jihadi networks and a re-exploration of the strategic doctrine behind this militant organizational form—one in which the structural links to al-Qaeda are ambiguous, but ideologically connectivity a certainty.

In this light, the writings of jihadi strategist Abu Musab al-Suri’s Da’wat al-muqawamah al-islamiyyah al-‘alamiyyah (The Call to Global Islamic Resistance) should take on new relevance. Linked by name and operational tradecraft to the 2004 Madrid bombings and the 7/7 attacks, al-Suri emphasized nizam, la tanzim (system, not organization). In al-Suri’s logic, firm organizational bonds linking Western cells to tangible terrorist networks should be discarded; leadership should be delegated to the cellular level; and global cells should be interconnected by nothing more than ideology and a template for action: a “common aim, a common doctrinal program and a comprehensive (self-) educational program” (Terrorism Monitor, January 18, February 1).

While the characteristics of the June 2007 cell appear unique against the backdrop of historic British jihadi activism, investigation may once again demonstrate the importance (directly or indirectly) of al-Suri’s thought, thereby superseding the strategic importance of the global-versus-local debate [4].

Notes

1. See at-Tawheed Publications, “Al-Walaa wal-Baraa, The Character of the Believer,” at http://almuwahideen.blogspot.com/2005/10/al-walaa-wal-baraa-character-of.html.

2. See at-Tibyan Publications, “Clarification regarding intentionally targetting [sic] women and children,” downloaded November 9, 2005 (website no longer available).

3. The themes echoed in Shehzad Tanweer’s statement are instructive. See BBC News, July 6, 2006.

4. The author wishes to thank a colleague at the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office for her views on the problematic dichotomy of “local” versus “homegrown” jihadi cells.