Britain’s camera-shy jihadis
A few weeks have passed since the discovery on extremist forums of the image of alleged martyr "Musa, the British." While Britain’s intelligence service MI5 confirms that they believe that at least 4,000 young Britons have been drawn to fight and train at militant camps in Waziristan and Afghanistan prior to 2009, they have thus ...
A few weeks have passed since the discovery on extremist forums of the image of alleged martyr "Musa, the British." While Britain’s intelligence service MI5 confirms that they believe that at least 4,000 young Britons have been drawn to fight and train at militant camps in Waziristan and Afghanistan prior to 2009, they have thus far been remarkably coy in their appearances in propaganda videos produced by jihadi media outlets. This stands in stark contrast with the German jihadist contingent, which seem to revel in their celebrity and repeatedly feature in jihadist media outlets, as well as self-publishing tracts describing their experiences. Parsing this difference between these two groups (and the related question of why only Adam Gadahn appears amongst the estimated hundred or so Americans Bob Woodward was told have ventured to Waziristan) might offer some deeper insights into the machinations of the networks drawing young western Muslims to Pakistani training camps and help analysts better understand trends of growth or shrinkage of such networks.
The shot of "Musa" was the first image of a British jihadi "martyr" linked to Afghanistan or Pakistan since the videos emerged of Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, two of the July 7, 2005 London subway bombers. The two men were part of the pipeline of young British fighters drawn to training camps in Pakistan, though ultimately they were directed to carry out an operation back home in the U.K. rather fight and die on the field in Afghanistan. However, these three men aside, there have been few images released by al-Qaeda or its affiliates that have included British jihadis. In Somalia, a young British-Somali blew himself up in October 2007, though the video took almost two years to surface and in Tel Aviv, two British-Pakistani Muslims attempted a suicide attack on Mike’s Place bar in 2003. In contrast, ever since about 2007 when German fighters started to surface in growing numbers in Waziristan, there has been an ever-growing digest of jihadi media in German and featuring a select group of German nationals.
Why there is such a divergence between the U.K. and Germany is hard to understand. One possible answer is that the German jihad in Waziristan is still in an earlier phase its British counterpart. According to Guido Steinberg of the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik and a former adviser to the German Chancellery, the network to send young Germans to Waziristan only really got established in 2006. In an interview, he described that before 2006 the networks were a haphazard affair, suggesting that the network is still relatively immature, and might therefore need more advertising to attract young recruits. In the U.K., on the other hand, jihadi networks have been drawing young Britons to fight in South Asia since the early-to-mid-1990s — almost two decades of militant travel have established a strong network.
But this German network now exists in force, and security forces in Germany have a large body of returnees and missing individuals whom they believe are training in Pakistan’s tribal areas that they are worried about. An unknown number of individuals are still being drawn to Waziristan, with officials at home concerned about more than 30 that have been trained and a further 200 who have been radicalized. In September 2007, the possible threat that this network posed was illustrated by the case of the Sauerland Cell, a group of Germans who were planning an attack on an American base in Germany– having been tasked to do this by their commanders in the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU). An offshoot of the Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan, the group’s primary target is Uzbekistan, though it has now been operating in Waziristan alongside al-Qaeda and Taliban groups for some time.
Operationally, the constant appearance of young Germans in videos in Waziristan merely gives the German authorities a useful list of individuals to place on international watch lists and investigative leads into networks back in Germany. From this perspective, al-Qaeda’s British recruits have proved to be much more useful in international plotting. Their bashfulness before the camera means that their identities are still theoretically hidden and therefore they are still deployable in terrorist plots. In the period from 2004 to 2007, most major al-Qaeda linked terrorist plotting in the U.K. were linked to British citizens who had trained in Waziristan. Al-Qaeda and its affiliate networks may have concluded that the German contingent is less useful operationally in the West.
Ideologically, it is likely that the videos in some cases have even had a counterproductive effect insofar as some of the images may have reduced Western fears of the group, to the point of ridicule in some situations. The surreal sight of German-Moroccan jihadist Bekkay Harrach standing before a red matinee curtain in a suit while he threatened Germany to vote correctly in an election was not followed by any visible attacks. For an audience of both potential jihadists and the general public, the impression was of empty threats that will not have strengthened the group’s hand.
In contrast, when British jihadis with links to Afghanistan and Pakistan have appeared in propaganda videos, it has been when they are featured in videos that claim to celebrate their deaths in the pursuit of jihad. And none of them or their many compatriots have written lengthy tracts describing their adventures seeking fields of jihad like Mounir and Yassin Chouka, a pair of German-Moroccans currently fighting alongside the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in Waziristan, or the fallen Eric Breininger, the young German convert who hid out fighting alongside the IJU regularly releasing odd videos showing off about how much fun he was having. His subsequent obituary was an epic document that helped clarify a bit to German authorities how the networks of Germans going to fight had evolved.
But it was not always so. Dhiren Barot, the British Hindu convert to Islam who in the mid-1990s ran away to Kashmir to join Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani militant group responsible for the deadly terrorist attacks on Mumbai in 2008, subsequently wrote a book about his experiences. Other British Muslims radicalized during the 1990s served as "correspondents" for www.qoqaz.com or www.azzam.com, the infamous British-based websites that supported jihad in Chechnya and Afghanistan, writing about their experiences in hagiographic terms. And prior to that, videos and cassettes that are still available online describe the experience of British jihadis (amongst others) going to fight in Bosnia.
None of this is very surprising — these Western warriors have been convinced by the al-Qaeda narrative that they are carrying out sacred acts in the name of a good cause, and it should be expected that they want to show off about it before a camera. Having seen countless others in such videos before they leave, it is not shocking that they want to add their names and images to the lists to inspire future terrorists. But, for British jihadists at least, this need seems to have faded away, with occasional rumors or newspapers stories around single individuals. Unlike their German comrades whose names are becoming tabloid currency, Britons like "Musa" have largely fallen silent.
Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR).
More from Foreign Policy
America Is a Heartbeat Away From a War It Could Lose
Global war is neither a theoretical contingency nor the fever dream of hawks and militarists.
The West’s Incoherent Critique of Israel’s Gaza Strategy
The reality of fighting Hamas in Gaza makes this war terrible one way or another.
Biden Owns the Israel-Palestine Conflict Now
In tying Washington to Israel’s war in Gaza, the U.S. president now shares responsibility for the broader conflict’s fate.
Taiwan’s Room to Maneuver Shrinks as Biden and Xi Meet
As the latest crisis in the straits wraps up, Taipei is on the back foot.