Recent weeks have seen increasing international interest in the connections between jihadis in the UK and their counterparts in Pakistan. Attention has focused on how such groups and individuals could link up and cooperate to carry out attacks in Europe, South Asia or the United States. This concern has now reached its highest levels. On January 29, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said that flaws in the British counter-terrorist strategy were hurting global efforts to contain Islamic terrorism (Guardian, January 29; Dawn [Lahore], January 29). In particular, he referred to the UK’s decision not to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir, a global group that aims to re-establish the caliphate and which has been blamed for radicalizing several individuals who carried out attacks after leaving the group (Independent, January 28). He also suggested that the UK’s policy was excessively focused on preventing imminent attacks rather than defeating al-Qaeda’s ideology. While Musharraf’s accusations may have been partly intended to deflect attention from Pakistan’s own problems, there is increasing evidence that networks linking jihadis in Britain and Pakistan have evolved to survive government crackdowns, threatening the security not only of Britain, but also that of its allies.
Background to the British Jihad
The Pakistan-UK axis has long been central to jihadist movements worldwide. The UK is home to at least 600,000 people of Pakistani origin, many of whom come from areas like Kashmir which have played a central role in Islamic militancy. During the 1990s, several factors conspired to create a radical pan-Islamist identity among British Muslims, notably the entrenchment of Jamaat-e-Islami and Muslim Brotherhood activists in mosques and Islamic organizations and the arrival of radical preachers from the Arab world. Conflicts in Kashmir, Bosnia and elsewhere were widely interpreted by many Muslims as a conflict between Islam and Christianity, furthering the process of radicalization. However, the enthusiasm that this factor aroused for jihad was tempered by the idea of a “covenant of security” that radical Islamist preachers said existed between them and the British government and which initially prevented attacks against the UK. Inevitably, this restriction compelled British jihadis to export their violence abroad—often in the direction of Pakistan. In the mid-1990s, Mohammed Sohail, a Pakistani professional, created the Global Jihad Fund to channel donations from British Muslims to jihadis in South Asia.
In the late 1990s, Babar Ahmad, presently fighting deportation to the United States, allegedly used the Azzam.com website to spread pro-jihadist propaganda and to channel money, equipment and volunteers to the Taliban through Pakistan . Separately, Dhiren Barot—also known as Isa al-Hindi—a Hindu brought up in the UK, converted to Islam and fought in Kashmir in 1995, writing of his experiences in The Army of Medinah in Kashmir, an influential book for would-be jihadis (BBC, November 7, 2006). In 1994, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, born to a middle-class Pakistani family living in the UK, travelled to Pakistan where he attended a training camp run by Harkat ul-Mujaheddin (BBC, July 26, 2005). In 1999, he attended an al-Qaeda training camp at Khalden in Afghanistan. In 2002, he kidnapped and killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Richard Reid, “the shoe bomber,” a London-born convert to Islam, and his co-conspirator, Sajid Badat, are also said to have travelled to Pakistan or Afghanistan to collect detonators prior to Reid’s attempt to down a trans-Atlantic airliner in 2001 (Telegraph, December 27, 2001). In some cases, Islamist groups had well-developed networks. During the late 1990s, al-Muhajiroun, a British radical Islamist group whose members were predominantly South Asian, sent several hundred British citizens to train in Pakistan. Following 9/11, the group openly arranged for several dozen British Muslims to travel via Pakistan to fight U.S. forces in Afghanistan. In many cases, these individuals did not work directly with al-Qaeda but with a range of other local groups; it is likely that this remains the case with present-day jihadis making the same journey.
Pakistan’s Connection to the Transit System Bombings in London
The July 7, 2005 bombings in London in which four bombers killed 52 people marked the moment at which the idea of the “covenant” between the UK and its radical Islamists broke down. There were, however, substantial similarities between this attack and previous actions by British jihadis abroad. Three of the four bombers were of Pakistani origin and at least two of them travelled to Pakistan—and possibly Afghanistan—shortly before the bombings. There they apparently met senior al-Qaeda figures, recorded their political testaments and received instructions in bomb-making. In a video released after the bombings, Ayman al-Zawahiri said that the two visited al-Qaeda camps while in Pakistan. This and subsequent attempted attacks indicate that, while the covenant no longer exists and the formal networks of the 1990s have been replaced by looser webs of contacts and family members, a trip to Pakistan nonetheless remains an effective way for British jihadis to acquire military training and mental indoctrination into al-Qaeda’s ideology.
Two weeks after the July 7 bombings, four men—this time of East African origin—attempted to carry out more suicide attacks on the London transport system. Again, there were clear links to Pakistan. In December 2004, the leader of the group, Muktar Ibrahim, an Eritrean, travelled to Pakistan with £2,000 in cash, a video camera and cold weather clothing. During his time there he is believed to have visited a training camp run by Harkat ul-Mujaheddin in Mirpur—an area of Pakistani Kashmir where many British Pakistanis originate—and received explosives training (Independent, July 10, 2007). This group is believed to have also been visited by Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, Daniel Pearl’s murderer. Ibrahim returned to the UK in March 2005, assembled the bombs and distributed them to the other three would-be bombers he had met in radical circles in London (TimesOnline, July 10, 2007). Before attempting to carry out their attacks, the bombers also travelled to the Lake District, a mountainous area of the UK, where they climbed mountains in an attempt to replicate some of the experiences of jihadist training camps.
Targeting Muslim Troops in the British Army
In January 2007, police broke up a plan by several Pakistani men in Birmingham to kidnap and behead a British Muslim soldier in the city (BBC, January 29). The group had planned to videotape the execution and post it online in order to cause panic and make Tony Blair go “crazy” (Telegraph, February 15). The planned murder fit into the long-standing takfiri strategy of attempting to deter Muslims from assisting non-Muslim governments. Significantly, members of the group not only planned to carry out attacks in the UK, but also shipped military equipment to jihadis in Pakistan. Between 2004 and 2006, they shipped goods weighing almost a ton, including tents, outdoor clothing, night-vision binoculars, range finders, walkie-talkies, electronic bug detectors and split-finger gloves, which were useful for snipers (TimesOnline, January 30). Some of these shipments were sent to Islamabad and then forwarded to Mirpur.
In 2004, a major police action, “Operation Crevice,” halted plans by another group to use fertilizer bombs to attack nightclubs in London. This plot centered around four men of Pakistani origin and one Algerian. Omar Khyam, from Crawley near London, was the group’s leader. He first travelled to Pakistan for military training in January 2000 when he attended the training camp of al-Badr Mujahideen, a militant group in Muzaffarabad, close to Indian-controlled Kashmir (BBC, April 30, 2007). "They taught me everything I needed for guerrilla warfare in Kashmir; AK-47s, pistols, sniper rifles, reconnaissance and light machine-guns," said Khyam at his trial, adding that he believed that he had received training from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Later in 2001, after briefly returning to the UK, he attended another training camp in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) near Afghanistan before crossing the border to meet Taliban members. In 2003, he traveled to Malakand, in Pakistan’s NWFP, with £16,000 taken from his overdraft, together with some of the other plotters (BBC, April 30, 2007). It is believed that he met Abdul Hadi, a senior al-Qaeda leader; the meeting was arranged by contacts in Luton, a town near London with a large radical Islamic population and a large number of Muhajiroun supporters (BBC, April 30, 2007). Among the other targets discussed by the group were soccer matches and airliners.
Plot to Bomb Trans-Atlantic Airliners
In summer 2006, British police arrested 23 people over an alleged plan to bomb several trans-Atlantic airliners. Although 11 people have since been charged, none has been tried. At least one of the suspects is said to have attended meetings of the Tablighi Jamaat, a non-violent but highly conservative Islamic group whose followers in Pakistan are believed to be seen by al-Qaeda as ripe for radicalization (Telegraph, July 11, 2007). Other arrests were made in Pakistan. One of those detained was Rashid Rauf, who was accused by the Pakistani authorities of being linked to al-Qaeda and possessing bomb-making equipment (Guardian, August, 14, 2006). Rauf, who has dual UK-Pakistani nationality, escaped from the Pakistani police in December 2007 and remains on the run. He is also said to have links to Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Kashmiri militant group (Guardian, January 28).
Prosecution of the Bradford Cell
In July 2007, five British men of Pakistani origin aged 19 to 21—including four students from Bradford University—were convicted of downloading extremist Islamic literature and planning to travel to Pakistan to attend a training camp (BBC, July 26, 2007). Although their convictions were quashed this month on the grounds that they had not made any concrete plans to carry out terrorist attacks, it is clear that their radicalization occurred in the UK (TimesOnline, February 13). The group’s actions seem to indicate that fighting abroad is still perceived as preferable to carrying out attacks on civilians in the UK.
British Muslims and Terrorist Fundraising
In addition to these high-profile plots, there have been a number of less dramatic cases which shed further light on the links between jihadis in Pakistan and the UK. Last month, Sohail Anjum Qureshi, a Pakistani-born dental technician living in the UK, was convicted of attempting to travel to Pakistan to join the Taliban (Metropolitan Police Service [London], January 9). He was arrested in October 2006 at Heathrow airport while boarding a flight to Islamabad. A sniper scope, night-vision equipment, two metal batons and £9,000 in cash was discovered in his luggage (BBC, January 8). The police believed that he had previously received training from al-Qaeda and that he intended to rejoin them or the Taliban. There is other evidence which suggests that fundraising networks are able to operate in the UK with relative impunity—especially if individuals are raising funds not directly for al-Qaeda but for less high-profile Pakistani jihadist groups. In 2006, the Indian government said that British Muslims had provided funds which were used to carry out the July 2006 Mumbai train bombings which killed over 200 people (TimesOnline, July 17, 2006).
There is substantial evidence that the connections between UK-based jihadis and their counterparts in Pakistan remain of importance to both groups. Funds from British-Pakistanis play an important role in sustaining a number of jihadist movements in South Asia. Training—both ideological and military—available in Pakistan is an important stepping stone toward violence for British radicals. However, it remains unclear precisely how these networks function. For example, it is uncertain whether would-be jihadis usually obtain introductions and directions to jihadist camps through contacts based in the UK, or whether such connections were made entirely in South Asia.
It seems beyond dispute, however, that the primary radicalization of such individuals generally occurs in the UK; primarily in mosques, social clubs, gyms and universities. In almost all known cases, British militants appear to have absorbed radical ideas in the UK before travelling to Pakistan to seek out relevant military training and carry out attacks there or in Afghanistan. Their reasons for going to Pakistan vary; many have family connections, others speak the local languages—others still are drawn to places like Peshawar where renowned jihadis like Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden once lived. Other would-be jihadis have never travelled abroad. In 2005, Muhammad Abu Baker Mansha, a 21-year old from London, was convicted of planning to kill a British soldier who had recently returned from Iraq (BBC, December 22, 2005). Police who raided his flat found a blank-firing pistol in the process of conversion to fire live rounds, al-Qaeda propaganda and beheading videos. Mansha, however, never traveled to a training camp and had few contacts with known radicals; he is the prime example of how the internet has become a “virtual training camp,” making travel abroad largely superfluous. At present, however, such cases of “self-radicalization” are rare. Travelling to training camps in Pakistan or Afghanistan continues to hold a talismanic significance for British jihadis and this may provide vital opportunities for the security services to intercept them before they strike in Britain or abroad.
1. Affidavit In Support of Request for Extradition of Babar Ahmad: