Abu Qatada symbolised an era of British jihadism that relied on radical preachers to motivate a generation of terrorists. Alongside a general degradation of Al-Qa'ida's capacity to launch large-scale plots, Qatada's departure marks an end of an era that peaked during the 7 July 2005 attacks on London.
The departure of Abu Qatada from British soil on the eighth anniversary of the 7 July bombings in London marks something of a marker for a period of British jihadism. From a coordinated threat directed by Al-Qa'ida that drew on a community of young British Muslims fostered by radical preachers leading to plots like the 7/7 attack, the menace has now evolved. Expressions in the form of attempted attacks or thwarted plots continue to appear, but gone is both the easy and public coordination at home epitomised by the radical preacher community in the UK, and gone is ability of Al-Qaida core in Waziristan in particular to manipulate large scale plots through this particular network to strike on British soil.
Abu Qatada was the last of four prominent preachers in the United Kingdom around whom young radicals from around the world gathered and who formed the nub of what was publicly derided as 'Londonistan.' A period in the 1990s when Britain became the home away from home for a number of preachers and activists from across the Muslim world agitating for change, both violent and non-violent, in their home countries. Many of these individuals presented (and continue to present) no specific threat to the UK, and are focused very much on events abroad.
Abu Qatada's role within this community was an interesting one. Largely focused abroad, he nevertheless had authority over this sub-community in the UK. In particular, he was reported to have told security services that he could 'wield powerful, spiritual influence over the Algerian community in London.' He also acted as a teacher figure to younger men Abu Hamza and Abdullah el-Faisal, both of whom were characterised as his students at one time or another. He seems to have had a less direct relationship with Omar Bakri Mohammed, the fourth of the radical preachers, though it seems clear the men moved in similar circles in London. Abu Qatada's credentials as a scholar and his links to one the fathers of modern Salafism, Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani set him apart from the other three who lacked such credentials. Unlike the other three, his impact seems to have been more ideological, while the others fostered networks and communities from which a number of terrorist plots emerged.
Al Qa'ida Orchestration
The most successful of these plots was 7/7 bombings carried out by four men, at least two of whom had been trained by Al-Qa'ida in Waziristan. This plot, like a number of others that were disrupted before and since, involved Britons who had been radicalised in part under the tutelage of the radical preacher community, managed to establish connections with Al Qa'ida core and were directed to carry out attacks in the West. Numerous other plots were disrupted from this network, including the August 2006 plot codenamed 'Overt' that aimed to bring down somewhere in the region of eight flights on transatlantic routes with a potential casualty count higher than the 11 September 2001 attacks.
These plots drew their footsoldiers from the radical communities that the UK-based preachers fostered. Recruiters for Al-Qa'ida or other extremists used this space to seek out funding and followers. Going abroad, most of these men were initially seeking to fight and die on foreign battlefields. However, once there, some were re-directed back to conduct attacks at home as Al-Qa'ida realised their potential as a community that could penetrate deep into Western society. Key individuals like British national Rashid Rauf became the connective tissue providing a link between the senior echelons of Al-Qa'ida and the British recruits, helping them get around Waziristan and then providing managerial control over operations.
Over time, however, this connection has come under increasing scrutiny as Western intelligence services realised its magnitude and increasingly became able to intercept its communications, penetrate its structures and remove key players from the field. This led to a gradual degradation of the network, though there is evidence that the community of individuals eager to travel back and forth to seek training continues to exist.
Most recently this connection was seen in a case in Birmingham in which a number of Britons travelled to Pakistan's lawless provinces, trained alongside groups close to Al-Qa'ida before receiving loose direction to return home to carry out an incident of some sort. This is a world apart from the Operation Overt cell from 2006 where multiple elements were in repeated contact with masterminds back in Pakistan who had provided specific training and targeting and helped them along the trajectory of the plot. By 2011, the level of orchestration from afar was much harder to identify with Irfan Naseer - the plot leader of the Birmingham cell - giving little indication of being in regular touch with someone abroad. In a comment overheard by a security listening device he said that his guidance was more rudimentary than that: 'they said yeah, the knowledge they gave us, they want that to spread to Europe.' There was little evidence offered during the case (or any of the other cases linked to the core cell around IrfanNaseer) that anything was being orchestrated from afar. As was commented at the time, the approach seemed to be 'fire and forget.'
Threat Shifting Overseas
But as groups in Pakistan in particular come under increasing pressure and lose their reach back to the UK, the threat elsewhere abroad has been growing, and the potential remains for foreign networks to use the continuing flow of British fighters to places like Syria to launch attacks back home. Currently, groups leading the fight in Syria have demonstrated no interest in launching a terrorist attack in the UK (or anywhere else in particular for that matter - their interest seems focused on toppling Bashar al Assad's regime), but it is an open question how this will develop in the future.
Beyond foreign battlefields, the Internet has helped spread radical ideas and made them more accessible. Lone actor terrorism is a novel phenomenon that has shown an ability to express itself in a random and violent manner. And actions by extremist Islamist groups in Europe have led to a counter-reaction by extremists on the other end of the spectrum. We have now evolved, though not entirely passed, from a time when people sought out the community of radical preachers such as Abu Qatada, and from them were recruited by groups to go and fight abroad.
This evolution has come about for a number of reasons. Primary amongst these was the removal of the radical preachers (Abu Hamza through jail and then deportation to the US, Abdulla el Faisal through jail and then deportation to Jamaica, and Omar Bakri Mohammed through a self-imposed exile) and the removal of the open space in which they could operate. Abu Qatada's departure from Britain for Jordan's courts marks the conclusion of a long process by successive British governments that sought to expel these figures from the UK. New charismatic leaders and preachers have since emerged, but current legislation means that they are much more circumspect in their comments and openness in actively pushing people to go and fight abroad. Individuals are still drawing ideas from this ideological pool and some are electing to go and fight abroad, but the direct linkages are now far more discreet.
The other side to this coin is found in Pakistan where Al-Qa'ida's ability to direct plots and plotters has been substantially degraded. The pressure of drone strikes and a growing western intelligence footprint means that key figures like Rauf and numerous other Al-Qa'ida figures have been taken off the battlefield. Those that are left are having to provide guidance and training in far more constrained environment, and once people have left the camps they are largely being left to simply get on with attempting to carry out attacks. The age of large-scale orchestrated plots from Pakistan seems to have passed.
Additionally, the emergence of Al-Qa'ida affiliates and battlefields of competing interest has given individuals a number of different locations where they can seek to find the adventure and thrill of jihad or play their role in fighting to protect the 'ummah.' How these different battlefields will impact the threat picture in the UK is a developing story, but at the moment they do not pose the same sort of threat that Al-Qa'ida's grand plans directed from Pakistan did.
Coming exactly eight years after Al-Qa'ida's last successful attack on the west, Abu Qatada's deportation marks the end of an era in British counter-terrorism. But as one era seems to come to a close, a new one may be being forged on foreign battlefields and the internet marking an evolution of a problem many in the UK may consider removed with Abu Qatada's departure.
Senior Associate Fellow