The South Asia Channel
The perils of leaderless jihad
Just over a year ago a group of twelve men were arrested as part of a long-term investigation led by British intelligence agency MI5 into a network of cells of British Muslims suspected of plotting acts of terrorism. Last week, just as the jury trial was about to get underway, the nine defendants eventually charged ...
Just over a year ago a group of twelve men were arrested as part of a long-term investigation led by British intelligence agency MI5 into a network of cells of British Muslims suspected of plotting acts of terrorism. Last week, just as the jury trial was about to get underway, the nine defendants eventually charged in the case chose to plead guilty in the hope of getting reduced sentences. Codenamed Operation Guava and featuring British radical groups, the Internet, Inspire magazine, training camps in Pakistan, prison radicalization and a mysterious character known as "the Bengali," this case brings together a number of different strands in British jihadist terrorism.
The accused plotters were rounded up in four different locations: Birmingham, Cardiff, East London and Stoke-on-Trent, though charges against the Birmingham group were dropped. Four of the men have now admitted to planning on leaving a bomb inside the restroom of the London Stock Exchange (LSE), while the other five pled guilty to various charges of terrorist fundraising, attending terrorist attack planning meetings, or possessing al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Inspire magazine. In summing up, the prosecutor highlighted that the group had not actually planned to kill anyone; "their intention was to cause terror and economic harm and disruption." However, "their chosen method meant there was a risk people would be maimed or killed."
The various cells of the plot met independently in their various locations before connecting nationally through radical networks, Dawah (proselytization) stalls run by extremist groups in cities like Cardiff and webforums like PalTalk. They had all met together in person just a couple of times. The prosecution characterized Mohammed Chowdhury of London as the "ring leader" of the network, though it seems to have been less structured than that. The Stoke group in particular developed plans on its own to carry out a bombing campaign in Stoke, and were eager to recruit more members and train in Kashmir. Stories in the media indicated that members of the Cardiff and Stoke groups had been seen at meetings and protests organized by successor groups of al Muhajiroun (the infamous group established in the late 1990s by a cleric now-banned from Britain, Omar Bakri Mohammed). And a picture has emerged of central plotter Mohammed Chowdury holding an Islam4UK placard at one of the organization’s events (Islam4UK was a name adopted by al Muhajiroun after a former appellation was added to the list of proscribed terror groups by British authorities). While the role of al Muhajiroun — or whatever the name of the successor group may be; at other times they have used the names Saved Sect, al Ghurabaa, Muslims Against Crusades, and the one in vogue currently, Ummah United — as a radicalizer in networks that have produced terrorists has somewhat receded from that of its heyday, this plot showed the potential risks that still linger from the network.
Neighbors of the men detained in Cardiff reported that some members of the group had apparently served time in prison, where it seemed they had picked up radical ideas. A longstanding concern of Western authorities, the potential for prison radicalization had already reared its head this year in the U.K. when it was revealed last month that a British man who had been converted while serving in Feltham Young Offenders Institution was a key figure in an alleged terrorist plot that was disrupted in December in Mombasa, Kenya. He was not the first terrorist to have done time in Feltham; both ‘shoe bomber’ Richard Reid and leader of the July 21, 2005 follow-up attempt to attack London’s underground system, Muktar Said Ibrahim, passed through their gates.
But the element that has caught the most media attention is the group’s use of AQAP’s English-language jihadi manual Inspire. The group had downloaded copies of the magazine and were apparently following its advice in trying to plan a terrorist plot. They discussed the idea of copying the parcel bombs sent by the group in October 2010 and using the Royal Mail or DHL to send bombs within the United Kingdom. Where they were planning on sending them was hinted at in a list they had compiled of the addresses of London Mayor Boris Johnson and at least two prominent British rabbis. Members of the group were also trailed as they reconnoitered a number of locations in London, including the London Stock Exchange, the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster, Houses of Parliament, Blackfriars Bridge and the Church of Scientology. The Stoke group discussed leaving bombs in local pubs and clubs. They seemed to have taken Anwar al-Awlaki’s injunctions (of which they had collected substantial amounts) to heart, and were eager to strike in the West at any targets that they could find.
But the group also appears to have maintained some connections with more classic aspects of the British jihadi story, and sought to train abroad in Kashmir. Initially, they claimed that their meetings were to find ways of raising money for Kashmir. Indeed, the Stoke group (predominantly made up of Pakistani-Britons, unlike the London and Cardiff groups, which were made up of Bangladeshi-Britons) had decided to travel abroad to obtain training and had already funded the construction of a madrassa in Kashmir that they spoke of using as a training camp for British radicals. Furthermore, they made connections to a mysterious figure named in court only as "the Bengali," after which they had moved forward with putting their ideas into practice, scoping out targets and trying out making bombs.
This plot is not the only one currently making its way through British courts. Late last year, police in Birmingham arrested a group they claimed had discussed suicide bombs and had allegedly made connections with groups in Pakistan. Operation Guava’s significance lies in the fact that it brings together a number of different strands in current counter-terrorism concerns in the UK, creating a complex hybrid plot that seems to have been hatched and conceived entirely at home. A textbook example of Leaderless Jihad.
Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), and his writing can be found: http://www.raffaellopantucci.com.