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The convictions of three Birmingham residents of a terrorist plot reveal classic linkages between homegrown bombers and Pakistan. The supply side of the terrorist threat in the UK continues to prove a problem.
In what has been described by the Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) as the 'most significant Counter-Terrorism investigation since the airlines bomb plot of 2006' a jury at Woolwich Crown Court yesterday found three Birmingham residents guilty of planning a terrorist campaign in the UK. The plot was unraveled in a landmark police surveillance operation, codenamed Pitsford.
The plot seems to be a throw back to an earlier time, where a group of radicalised young, British-born Muslims have links to Al-Qa'ida in Waziristan - a connection that seems to have flowed through Kashmiri oriented networks - and were caught seeking innovative ways of creating a bomb. The key difference is Al-Qa'ida in Pakistan is a very different entity today than it was in the mid-2000s, no longer able to exert the same sort of command and control over terrorist cells it has trained and sent to carry out attacks.
The men involved in the plot all fit a profile that has been perceived as being all too common in British counter-terrorism. Young men from Britain's South Asian Muslim communities with some education, had elected to dedicate themselves to Al-Qa'ida's cause rather than become productive members of society and to instead inflict 'revenge for everything, what we're doing is another 9/11' as Irfan Khalid put it within range of a security service listening device. Having decided what they were seeking to do, they headed to Pakistan where they sought and obtained connections to Al-Qa'ida.
How high these connections went is something that was made clear by cell leader Irfan Khalid 'well you know the sheikh we're on about, the Kuwaiti guy. You know about the top 5.....he's the one who's blessed this whole thing and he's the one who is saying people are doing dua [praying] for you. Then, there's other top people doing dua. They've done istekhara [religious prayer for guidance] from what we guess.' The man they are referring to is Abu Zaid al-Kuwaiti, a senior Al-Qa'ida leader who was killed in a drone strike last December. Whether they met with him is unclear, but it is certain that they had made contact with one of his lieutenants who brought around Waziristan to training camps and helped them record their martyrdom videos.
Their story is reminiscent of a narrative that had been common in counter-terror investigations from a few years ago, in particular the 7 July bombers who killed fifty-two in an Al-Qa'ida directed attack on London's public transport system. In both plots, radicalised young British Muslims went to Pakistan, were able to connect with Al-Qa'ida, were trained by the group in creative ways to make bombs, recorded martyrdom videos that they left behind and were then dispatched back to the UK to carry out an attack.
Looking back further, there were similarities in some of the influences on key plotters belonging to the two cells: in recorded conversations, the Pitsford cell, praised the work of now dead radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and would use his work to further radicalise individuals they were drawing into their network. While driving one group to the airport to go to Pakistan, one of the lieutenants who had previously pleaded guilty for his role in the cell asked how a fellow plotter had discovered the path of jihad: 'how did you know this was the "haqq" [truth], Anwar al-Awlaki?' Having affirmed this, he praised the cleric, 'may Allah reward him. Cause of him so many people [have discovered the truth]'.
In material to have subsequently emerged around the 7 July plotters, it was revealed that their handler in Pakistan, another Birmingham man named Rashid Rauf, had realised that Mohammed Siddique Khan and his co-conspirator were serious and had 'good knowledge' as they used to listen to, amongst others, Anwar al-Awlaki. In the Pitsford case, Awlaki seems to have played an even more prominent role through the magazine that he created with a young American acolyte, Inspire. The men were found in possession of the magazine, but also recorded discussing some of the plots mentioned in it, including the idea of driving a harvester machine re-fitted with swords or blades into a crowd and the bomb-making recipes within it.
An even earlier ideological parallel can also be found in the fact that one of the men in the cell reported that he had his first encounter with extremist ideas at the age of eight when he found a book at his house by Maulana Masood Azhar. A prominent Pakistani preacher who is seen as a key figure in the Islamicisation of the nationalist campaign in Kashmir, Azhar stands as a shadow over the history of British jihadism, especially on Pakistani/South Asian communities.
In the early 1990s, Azhar visited the UK to raise money for the Kashmiri struggle, including a stop in Birmingham. He was later arrested and jailed by Indian authorities, only to be released (alongside another young Briton he had helped radicalised, LSE graduate Omar Saeed Sheikh) in exchange for a planeload of Indian passengers en route to Nepal. He went on to found a group called Jaish-e-Mohammed that claimed responsibility for the first reported British suicide bomber, another young Birmingham man called Asif Sadiq, who in December 2000 blew himself up in a car bomb in Srinagar, Kashmir. Jaish-e-Mohammed, alongside Harakut-ul-Mujahedeen - another similar group Azhar has also been linked to-became key conduits and training vehicles for British Muslims seeking jihad in Kashmir.
During the Pitsford case, one of the plotters, Rahin Ahmed, said he had first found extreme ideas through Azhar's writing. For the 7 July cell, Azhar's book The Virtues of Jihad, was an important text that they would read to each other at a training camp they shared with other young Britons who went on to be convicted of terrorist plots in the United Kingdom. Members of the group associated with the 7 July bombers also admitted to having gone and trained at camps managed by Harakat ul-Mujahedeen. The point being that the network of jihadist groups in Pakistan that had previously been focused on Kashmir provided a network that the young Britons were able to use to find not only radical ideas, but also obtain training.
Differences between 7/7 bombers and the Pitsford cell
Similarities notwithstanding, there were two key differences between the Pitsford group and the 7 July cell. First, of course, was the failure of the Pitsford cell to carry out their deadly duty. Second, however, was the degree to which Al-Qa'ida was able to direct them: the 7 July team remained in contact with their handlers in Pakistan right up to the point they carried out their operation. In the evidence to have emerged, there is no sign that the Pitsford cell were able to maintain this same level of communication, and were instead trained and then dispatched to spread the word and carry out an act. The level of command and control that has been visible in previous plots is clearly no longer able to exist in the same fashion. Al-Qa'ida has evolved as an entity: from being an organisation that could direct and communicate with its cells around the world, to one that dispatches footsoldiers from Pakistan with uncertainty about the final outcome.
The reasons for this shift are undoubtedly in part because of the pressure the group has come under in Pakistan through drone strikes and focused intelligence attention. But beyond this, it is also because the centre of gravity for jihadist ideas has shifted. Dissemination and conceptualisation of the Jihadist creed is no longer the preserve of Al-Qa'ida core in Pakistan. These ideas have found fertile ground in Somalia, the Sahel, parts of northern Nigeria, Yemen, wider Central Asia, and returned to parts of the Middle East and in particular Syria. These new battlefields have taken away some of the attention from Al-Qa'ida core and its ability to be the only draw for money and recruits. For a young Briton seeking the thrill of jihad in a foreign field, better the live fire battlefield of Syria fighting an oppressive dictator than hiding under trees from drone strikes in Waziristan.
Nevertheless, the plot unraveled by Operation Pitford highlights once again a fundamental problem before us. Eight years after the 7 July bombings, and almost 20 years after their ideas first inculcated themselves in the United Kingdom, we continue to see young Britons radicalised to the point of wanting to join terrorist groups and networks abroad. And in some cases they are willing to plot and carry out atrocities at home. The supply side of the terrorist threat in the UK continues to prove a problem.