- By Raffaello PantucciRaffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and a China program associate with the European Council on Foreign Relations.
This year, the United Kingdom hosts the Olympic Games, and security services are on particularly high alert. Magnifying an already tense environment, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and then al-Qaeda released videos in the past few weeks, threatening the United Kingdom if convicted jihadists serving sentences in the U.K. are not treated better. The TTP threatened, "we will show them how we take revenge for the mistreatment of our brothers." Are these just empty threats, or are they, in fact, causes for genuine concern for British security services?
The first video threat was a speech by Waliur Rehman Mehsud (TTP’s deputy leader and a regular spokesman), who told British authorities to take better care of the jihadists that it was holding in prison, specifically highlighting the cases of Roshonara Choudhry, the woman who tried to kill a member of Parliament for his support of the Iraq War after watching Anwar al-Awlaki videos; Dhiren Barot, the Hindu convert who fought alongside Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, wrote about his experiences in a book, and was later arrested as part of a cell plotting unspecified attacks in the U.K.; and Bilal Abdullah, the Iraqi doctor who was jailed for first leaving a set of car bombs in central London in 2007, and then driving a jeep laden with explosive material into Glasgow airport. All three are serving long sentences in the U.K., and Barot and Abdullah have been linked to al-Qaeda Central to al-Qaeda in Iraq respectively.
Two weeks later, al-Qaeda released a statement telling the U.K. not to extradite Abu Qatada, the Jordanian-Palestinian imam who was one of the cornerstones of Londonistan, to Jordan. Though he has not been convicted of any offenses, security services have repeatedly highlighted his menace, and in March 2004 a British high court judge described him as "very heavily involved, indeed at the center in the United Kingdom of terrorist activities associate with al Qaeda. He is truly a dangerous individual." He is currently still battling his extradition to Jordan on charges linked to a plot in that country from around the Millennium. In the statement, al-Qaeda demands that the British government send the cleric to one of the Arab Spring nations instead of Jordan. This threat was followed soon afterwards by similar messages from al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate (the Islamic State of Iraq), and another by al-Shabaab (the Somali group that recently pledged allegiance to al Qaeda).
Neither of these statements is in fact very new: TTP and Waliur Mehsud have repeatedly threatened the West, and have been linked to terrorist plots in Europe and America. Similarly, in June 2009 al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) demanded the British government release Abu Qatada, and executed captive British citizen Edwin Dyer when British officials refused to comply. Whether al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan are currently holding any British prisoners they can use as leverage this time around is unclear, but given the long-standing connection between jihad in Pakistan and the United Kingdom, British services will be watching these messages closely.
Whilst the British-Pakistani terrorist connection is no longer what it was — a source of most of Britain’s domestic terrorist plots as young British men went to fight in Afghanistan and were re-directed back home to carry out attacks — it has not completely dissipated. Earlier this year, a group of nine men pled guilty to a plot to plant a bomb in the London Stock Exchange. Four were directly implicated in the bombing plan, while the others were fulfilling a series of subsidiary roles, including developing a training camp in Pakistan that they could turn into a location for British citizens to prepare for jihad. And later this year we will see the trial of a group of Pakistani-Britons arrested in Birmingham last October. The group of seven has allegedly been linked to training in the AfPak region, and were reported to have recorded martyrdom videos. And these allegations are merely the most recent in a long list. British intelligence officers have broken up other cells containing individuals who have gone abroad to seek training, and their early intervention prevented the plots from advancing much beyond this point. And at least four British citizens have fallen foul of drone strikes in Waziristan since October 2010.
But the stream of money and fighters (according to British intelligence, prior to 2002 some 3,000 British citizens had gone to fight) that used to go back and forth has now died down to a trickle. Clearly, some sympathy still exists amongst Britain’s South Asian community for what many see as the plight of their brethren at home, but the number of young men willing to go fight alongside militants there has fallen. The intelligence community is unwilling to specify publicly, but told journalist Jason Burke that "never more than a few score in any one year, their number [of young Britons going to fight in South Asia] has now been reduced to a handful." This has likely stunted the capacity of al-Qaeda and its affiliates to launch attacks in the United Kingdom with much ease. This is not to say that the U.K. is not a target – these latest statements are testament to the country’s continued presence on group’s priority list – but militants are now likely find their plots more difficult to put into action.
What is unclear is whether this difficulty of moving into action is a result of a lack of willingness from recruits or whether it is a lack of capacity from al-Qaeda to be able to manage plots and networks launching strikes abroad. According to a series of documents believed to be from al-Qaeda Central that were obtained by German security forces when they arrested a pair of fighters returning from Waziristan last year, al-Qaeda used to have a capacity to manage large networks of plotters in the United Kingdom using operational managers in Waziristan, who were in close contact with the cells on the ground. This capacity seems to have gone away, with the group taking a far more hands-off approach to managing cells. In neither of the aforementioned British plots (that on the London Stock Exchange and that involving a Birmingham cell) was there, from information currently available, evidence of management by al-Qaeda Central of the plot on the ground. The last major set of plots with a key manager in Waziristan were concocted by a group disrupted in northern England in April 2009 (who were allegedly planning a campaign in northern England), another cell led by Najibullah Zazi stopped in September 2009 in New York (one of whom is currently on trial in New York), and then in July 2010 in Norway (when a group of three was planning an unspecified attack in Oslo using hydrogen peroxide based bombs).
Since then, we have seen an increasingly loose set of individuals dispatched from Waziristan to the West (and in particular the U.K.) to attempt to carry out terrorist attacks. Some sort of network of people going back and forth from the U.K. continues to exist – it was only July last year that British Special Forces in Herat detained a British couple who had snuck into Afghanistan and were allegedly trying to connect with extremists to launch an unspecified attack either in Afghanistan or back in the U.K. The couple, at least one of whom was a British citizen, is currently in Afghanistan in unknown circumstances, having been released by British forces. However, we are no longer seeing the sorts of large-scale plots with connections right to the top that we saw coming along the British-Pakistani pipeline in the early/mid-2000s.
All of this suggests both a lowering in the volume of individuals going back and forth, and a degradation of the capacity of al-Qaeda or others in Afghanistan and Pakistan to effectively manage such individuals and turn them into operational cells. The days of the British-Pakistani connection’s role as the primary source of the terrorist threat in the West appear to have passed.
Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and the author of the forthcoming "We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen" (Hurst/Columbia University Press). His writing can be found at: http://www.raffaellopantucci.com.