The Jihadist Movement after London: Diverse Backgrounds, Common Ideology

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 15

Few events have provoked such contradictory assessments as this month’s bomb attacks in London. Until recently, the majority of research on terrorism since 9/11 has focused on militants who may have had experience fighting in Afghanistan, thus linking them directly to al-Qaeda. But, the attacks in London suggest that a new generation of Salafi-Jihadists is emerging which do not belong to any recognizable networks and are not necessarily rooted in specific countries. There are two contentions here: first, unlike the earlier generation of Salafi-Jihadists, many of the new generation of terrorists may not have the extensive experience of fighting in Algeria, Chechnya, Afghanistan or Bosnia; second, the attacks on London present further evidence that it is the Salafi-Jihadist movement, rather than organizations such as al-Qaeda, which draws upon a slightly different network of support, that constitutes the current threat in Europe. Although many of these points have recently been made in the Security, Terrorism and the UK Report (July 2005) published through Chatham House, it is further argued here that the newly-emergent terrorist networks are neither organized nor inspired by al-Qaeda. [1]

A series of events, marked at the outset by the bomb attacks in Casablanca, followed by the Madrid train attack and the detentions in Spain thereafter, the murder of Theo van Gogh and finally the attacks in London, highlight how a functional or even organizational reading of the current terror threat is misleading.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that the series of attacks in Europe and North Africa were largely overshadowed by the reporting of the war in Iraq. Thus, this instantaneous and wide-ranging coverage of the attacks in London has added to the analytical confusion. Indeed, most analysis on the UK attacks seems to be distorted by the assumption that those involved in the incidents are part of homogenous groups and linked to particular causes in specific countries.

Implications: Morocco and Madrid

In a series of arrests in Europe earlier this year, authorities are reported to have detained a number of militant operatives. In April, Spanish authorities detained twelve suspected terrorists including six Moroccans, three of Syrian origin, an Egyptian, an Algerian and a Palestinian. More recently in June, and again in Spain, at least a further sixteen suspected extremists were detained. Significantly, almost all of the detained suspects were described as extremists rather than al-Qaeda operatives. Many of those detained appear to be loosely linked to the Zarqawi network, which automatically differentiates them from a generation of recognized al-Qaeda leaders such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

Analyzing the events in London in this context indicates a number of issues and two of these are highlighted here; on the one hand, those in control of operations in Iraq and Europe, and those who have orchestrated the wave of attacks since the Casablanca bombings appear to be linked to the Salafi-Jihadist movement, and on the other hand, these incremental events and the jihadists associated with them are drawing extensively upon links with North African militants. In the case of the first attacks in London on July 7, even though the attackers appear to be British-born Muslims (three of whom are of Pakistani origin), some reports suggest that there are links between handlers, clerics and bomb-makers associated with North African militants.

British newspapers reported that British “police had asked European counterparts for information on Moroccan Mohammed al-Garbuzi, who lived in Britain for 16 years before vanishing from his north London home last year”. [2] Initial reports also pointed to links with known terrorists. As one newspaper report noted: “[F]ollowing detailed examination of the timings of the explosions and early forensic analysis of the four blast scenes… links between the terrorists and the Continent are being actively pursued.” [3] Similarly, a newspaper report published soon after the attacks on July 7 highlighted that “there are at least two distinct groups of people involved in planning the attacks in the UK: British-born young men…who may have volunteered for training in Afghanistan and who are prepared to risk jail or death to carry out an attack; and foreign citizens, including a number from north Africa, who see Britain as the next most important target after the US and use false identities to avoid detection, blending in with existing immigrant communities.” [4]

This linkage with North Africa is brought into sharp focus by looking at the foreign volunteers involved in the Iraqi insurgency. On the June 20, the London based Arabic newspaper al-Hayat published a report, drawing on points made by U.S. forces in Iraq, which noted that one in every four suicide bombers in Iraq are either Moroccan or from the North Africa region. [5] Although it is clear that a large number of Arab volunteers – perhaps as much as 80% according to some sources – involved in the Iraqi conflict are from neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Kuwait and Jordan, a considerable percentage do appear to be moving into Iraq from North Africa.

Saudi Arabia, Iraq and London

In the last year there has been an upsurge of violence in Iraq. While it is clear that the influx of Arab volunteers into Iraq is in some ways part of a different phenomenon, it is still worthwhile looking at the recently published Saudi most wanted list of suspected terrorists (announced on June 29) which illustrates that those involved in the Jihadi movement do appear to be from a younger generation. [6] In fact, the average age of the new list is 26.8, while the previous list’s average was 28.4. Most of those named in earlier reports had the experience of fighting or were involved in the Afghan-Taliban wars, while many of those mentioned on the new list do not have this experience. This hints that, following the increase in clashes between Saudi forces and jihadis over the past two years, a new generation of militants is emerging. This new generation of militants, which is being produced in every place where there is conflict between the state (or in the case of Iraq, an occupying army propping up a new regime) and radicalized Muslims, illustrates how the global terrorist landscape is being transformed.

Of course, many groups have claimed responsibility for attacks in the past, insofar as such atrocities promote their own organizational aims and agendas. However outside of the Iraqi theatre, the traditional response to spectacular terrorist attacks is one of a quick, unequivocal and credible statement, from a recognized source, timed to maximize the impact of the attack. But, in the case of the London attacks this did not occur. This is yet another indication of the emergence of a “new wave” or new generation of committed militants, inspired by Salafi-Jihadism, and not linked to any recognized networks. In this sense, it appears that many of the new generation of jihadis are not known militants from recognized extremist movements, but individuals with multiple allegiances.

Conclusion

The Casablanca attacks in 2003 signified the emergence of a new generation of Salafi-Jihadi cells which draw on different networks from those associated directly with al-Qaeda. The proposed legislation and policy changes following the attacks in London seeks to limit the activities or prosecute those supporting or advocating terrorist groups and ideologies. However as recent reports (such as the Chatham House paper) illustrate, one characteristic of the current terror threat stems from “no-warning coordinated suicide attacks.” It is increasingly clear that many of those involved in the new terror networks do not recognize either the legal or the political frameworks associated with known terrorist organizations. Therefore, what is being proposed by some UK government officials and influential media circles runs the very real risk of being – at best – irrelevant to the real issues.

The UK authorities would be better served by paying closer attention to three factors which are compounding the existing threat: first, the use of different tactics – such as the failure to immediately claim responsibility and the use of home-grown bombers; second, the importance of networks aiding trans-boundary movement and implicitly aiding recruitment by appeals to non-territorial forms of identity; third, the connections with North African militants, suggesting that the terror threat in Europe is morphing, creating a new Salafi-Jihadist generation which is no longer in the al-Qaeda orbit.

Notes:

1. Frank Gregory and Paul Wilkinson, ‘Riding Pillion for Tackling Terrorism is a High-risk Policy’, Security, Terrorism and the UK, available at: http://www.riia.org/pdf/research/niis/BPsecurity.pdf

2. David Williams “London bombing was precise attack”, at http://www.mg.co.za/articlePage.aspx?articleid=244992&area=/london_terror/london_news/

3. Antony Barnett, David Rose, Jason Burke and Jo Revill, “Police target Europe terror cell as London toll tops 70”, The Observer, July 10, 2005.

4. Richard Norton-Taylor and Duncan Campbell “Intelligence officials were braced for an offensive – but lowered threat levels”, The Guardian, July 8, 2005.

5. Rasheed Khashanah, Estshhadeon Magharbeon, al-Hayat Newspaper, June 20, 2005

6. Murad Batal Al-Shishani, The Future of Salfi-Jihadists in Saudi Arabia, al-Ghad Jordanian daily, July 7, 2005, http://www.alghad.jo/?news=32017.