The dwindling Kashmir-Britain militant pipeline

Largely unremarked beyond in South Asia, last weekend marked the twenty-seventh anniversary of the death of Maqbool Butt. One of the first prominent leaders of the Kashmiri liberation struggle, Butt’s execution almost three decades ago was expedited as a result of events on the other side of the globe in Birmingham, England when a group ...

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

Largely unremarked beyond in South Asia, last weekend marked the twenty-seventh anniversary of the death of Maqbool Butt. One of the first prominent leaders of the Kashmiri liberation struggle, Butt's execution almost three decades ago was expedited as a result of events on the other side of the globe in Birmingham, England when a group of Kashmiris kidnapped and executed an Indian diplomat. A set of connected events that while anomalous at the time presaged what used to be the one of the main motors of jihad in the U.K.

Claiming to be members of the Kashmir Liberation Army, the kidnappers snatched Ravindra Mhatre, then the deputy Indian High Commissioner in Birmingham, as he stepped off the bus on his way home with a birthday cake for his daughter. Bundling him into the back of a car, they took him to the Alum Rock part of the city where they held him for a day while demanding through the press £1 million in cash and the liberation of Maqbool Butt. Quickly losing patience, the men waited about a day before taking Mhatre into the countryside outside the city and executing him outside a farm. The Indian government's response was swift and within less than a week they had expedited the hanging of Maqbool Butt, who had been sitting on Indian death row for almost eight years for the murder of a bank manager during a robbery.

The executions were a shock and the first public example for Britons of the depth of feeling and connection between the Kashmiri population in the U.K. and their relations on the other side of the globe. Political parties and religious leaders would use the U.K. as a base for fundraising and rallies, families would travel back and forth and send children and brides to join other family members, and militant factions would seek money and recruits to support the cause of Kashmiri liberation back in South Asia. Years later, this would provide the next generation of young men with both a network of contacts to go and join militant groups in Pakistan or Afghanistan, but also normalize the notion of going abroad to fight for a cause.

Largely unremarked beyond in South Asia, last weekend marked the twenty-seventh anniversary of the death of Maqbool Butt. One of the first prominent leaders of the Kashmiri liberation struggle, Butt’s execution almost three decades ago was expedited as a result of events on the other side of the globe in Birmingham, England when a group of Kashmiris kidnapped and executed an Indian diplomat. A set of connected events that while anomalous at the time presaged what used to be the one of the main motors of jihad in the U.K.

Claiming to be members of the Kashmir Liberation Army, the kidnappers snatched Ravindra Mhatre, then the deputy Indian High Commissioner in Birmingham, as he stepped off the bus on his way home with a birthday cake for his daughter. Bundling him into the back of a car, they took him to the Alum Rock part of the city where they held him for a day while demanding through the press £1 million in cash and the liberation of Maqbool Butt. Quickly losing patience, the men waited about a day before taking Mhatre into the countryside outside the city and executing him outside a farm. The Indian government’s response was swift and within less than a week they had expedited the hanging of Maqbool Butt, who had been sitting on Indian death row for almost eight years for the murder of a bank manager during a robbery.

The executions were a shock and the first public example for Britons of the depth of feeling and connection between the Kashmiri population in the U.K. and their relations on the other side of the globe. Political parties and religious leaders would use the U.K. as a base for fundraising and rallies, families would travel back and forth and send children and brides to join other family members, and militant factions would seek money and recruits to support the cause of Kashmiri liberation back in South Asia. Years later, this would provide the next generation of young men with both a network of contacts to go and join militant groups in Pakistan or Afghanistan, but also normalize the notion of going abroad to fight for a cause.

And in the years immediately after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the pipeline this created was at the heart of British terrorism problems. Operation Crevice in 2004 (the fertilizer bomb plotters), Operation Rhyme the same year (the cell led by long-term Lashkar-e-Taiba warrior and author Dhiren Barot), the July 7, 2005 attack on London’s public transport system and Operation Overt (the 2006 attempt to bring down seven planes as they were in transit across the Atlantic) all owed something to this pipeline, with key individuals in all cases being initially drawn to the cause of jihad through the Kashmiri cause. The proximity of Kashmiri groups to their ideological brethren in al-Qaeda and interchange between them meant al-Qaeda was able to tap this network for a string of plots targeting the U.K.

But since this apex in the mid-2000s, the problem has now shrunk a bit. While security officials are clearly still alert to the potential problems engendered by the enduring Pakistani connection in the U.K., the threat has now evolved in a number of different directions.

One recent example of how this threat has evolved is the case currently on trial at Woolwich Crown Court in which Rajib Karim, a confessed member of Jamaat ul Mujahedeen Bangladesh, a Bangladeshi jihadist group attempting to establish a shariah state in that nation, is accused of plotting with Anwar al Awlaki, the American-Yemeni preacher linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in Yemen to carry out attacks in the U.K. or U.S. It does not appear as though any of the strands in the plot lead back to Pakistan, and seems instead to have been an externally directed effort from Yemen linked up with Bangladeshi extremists in the U.K. This is merely the latest such plot from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in a string that includes Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Christmas day 2009 and the parcel bombs from late last year — both of which also had London links.

Then over Christmas, police disrupted a cell of mostly Bangladeshi-Britons they accuse of plotting to carry out a series of attacks in the U.K., while in Stockholm an Iraqi-Swede radicalized in Luton blew himself up in a suicide attack attempting to target a shopping mall. And late last year, Roshonara Choudhry, a young woman who had attempted to kill British parliamentarian Steven Timms for his support of the Iraq war, became the latest in a growing list of lone wolf attackers who seemingly using only the internet radicalized and attempted to carry out an attack in the U.K.

In none of these plots has there been evidence of a Kashmiri connection. This does not mean that the Pakistan-U.K. connection has now been completely severed, however. In April 2009, British police disrupted what they think was a major plot emanating from Pakistan’s tribal regions as part of a wave of attacks in New York, the U.K. and Oslo (admittedly all in varying degrees of preparation), and according to the confession of David Headley, a key plotter in the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks, in August 2009 he connected with a cell of Pakistanis from Kolti in Derby who were in contact with Ilyas Kashmiri, the former Lashkar warrior now thought to be close to al-Qaeda. And in the fall of 2010, European officials searched for a group of plotters supposedly coming from Pakistan’s tribal regions allegedly seeking to attack targets in the U.K., France, and Germany.

But none of these resulted in a plot emanating from Kashmiri-British network, and for almost three years now it has been tough to see a plot that draws as from this nexus in the same way as the plots of several years ago. Problematically for British counterterrorists, this has not apparently reduced the overall threat — just sent it scattering in a variety of different directions.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR).

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.