The foiled terrorist attacks in London on 29 June, and the subsequent attack at Glasgow Airport, differ from previous British Islamic terrorist plots in two important ways.
First, in terms of their tactics. These were car bombs. The Iraqi insurgency, it seemed, had for the first time been outsourced to British soil.
Second, according to police, those involved in the plot or plots were not British-born or bred. With the notable exception of the Algerian Kamel Bourgass, the lead figure behind the so-called ricin plot in 2003 (a suspected plan to create havoc using home-made poison), pretty much every recent UK-based Islamic terrorist plot has had a British-bred rump at its centre.
But the Brit factor is not the only one that links those behind the 2001 “shoe bombing”, the 2003 bombings in Tel Aviv, the Bluewater plot, the 7/7 and failed 21/7 bombings and the 2006 plot to blow up aircraft on transatlantic flights. Almost all of those involved in these incidents were associated with a network of jihadis who were radicalised during the time of the Bosnian conflict, and/or were ex-members of the British Islamist group al-Muhajiroun who went to Pakistan before or just after the 11 September 2001 attacks (see Observations, NS, 7 May 2007).
In the past few days, attention has focused around the profession of the suspects in the latest attacks: foreign doctors working in British hospitals. Much astonishment has been expressed that highly educated, affluent family men could perpetrate acts of terrorism. Yet this comes as no surprise to those close to the jihadi networks. These groups have long attracted people from all professional and social classes, not just the poor and socially deprived. It is often forgotten, for example, that Mohammad Sidique Khan, leader of the 7/7 bombers, was university-educated, as was Omar Sheikh (who masterminded the murder of Daniel Pearl) – and, indeed, so were the 9/11 terrorists themselves. Dhiren Barot, the British al-Qaeda plotter, was also middle-class. Hassan Butt, a former fundraiser for al-Muhajiroun, commented this past week that many of his donors in Manchester and the north-west of England were professionals. Junaid Babar, supergrass in the Operation Crevice case, also stated that in 2002 he travelled “to the north of England to see a doctor to raise money for jihad”. The doctor donated several hundred pounds.
In all but the most vicious of police states, it is possible to radicalise and indoctrinate terrorists with the right kind of ideology and mentality anywhere. Thankfully, however, there are very few places in the world where aspiring terrorists can equip themselves with the skills necessary to commit mass murder effectively. An audacious attempt to do so in the wilds of Oregon, where the Islamist British cleric Abu Hamza and his henchmen set up an ad hoc camp between 1999 and 2000, was quickly spotted by US law-enforcement authorities. And whatever is said about the vast amount of weapons information on the internet, nothing compares to being taught in person. Setting up an effective terror cell involves more than just knowing how to construct a bomb.
Those with inside knowledge tell me that if a cell is to be effective, it needs to learn discipline (in British jihadi circles this is known as amarship), as well as anti-surveillance techniques, how to operate secure funding structures, and the art of reconnaissance (so the jihadists don’t make basic mistakes such as parking their improvised explosive device in a Westminster council tow zone).
And then there are the lessons that can only be learned through experience. For example, the Bluewater plotters wasted weeks trying to devise methods of smuggling nitrogen fertiliser through Pakistani customs, when they should have realised that it can be purchased quite easily in Britain (but not, of course, if you want half a tonne of it in one go). This learning of lessons is one reason why armed forces are far more effective at killing people than terrorists; institutions are much better at remembering their mistakes.
In Britain, the vast majority of home-grown terrorists are of south Asian descent and acquired their skills to kill in Afghanistan during the Taliban era (the 1990s) or during the few years after 9/11, when the Pakistani authorities were still grappling to take control of their historically lawless tribal regions. With filial links and few language barriers, aspiring British terrorists found that Pakistan was an easy place to manoeuvre around. The sterling in their pockets, raised from donors in Britain’s Muslim com munities, also helped to elevate them into the ranks of Pakistani terrorist networks faster than their experience should have warranted. However, as President Pervez Musharraf made genuine attempts to crack down on foreign terrorist camps, it became much harder for Brits to travel to Pakistan to receive training.
Since the 7 July 2005 attacks on London, with Pakistan largely closed off, south Asian British radicals have found it extremely difficult to get training in other parts of the world, such as Iraq. For a start, they don’t speak the pan-jihadi language – Arabic. (Sources tell me that although the Iraqi insurgents take on foot soldiers, they don’t yet have any substantial capacity to train non-Arabic speakers in terrorist methods.) And so, as the men of the 1990s-to-2004 generation of trained jihadists have been arrested, fled the UK or, more horrifyingly, died succeeding, the overall skills base of the British terrorist network has dwindled rapidly.
In theory, if all other factors remained equal, the security services would just have to pick off the rest of the pre-2004 generation. The bad news is that all factors have not remained equal.
In recent months, there have been two major developments on the training front. First, before the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia last December, there was a window of roughly six months when the pro-jihadist Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) was in control of the capital, Mogadishu. During that time, I am told, it was possible for British Somalis to travel back to Somalia to receive terrorist training. “If the UIC hadn’t been removed, Britain would have had another nightmare,” said a source who asked not to be identified.
The second problem is even more worrying. In Pakistan, as President Mu sharraf has tried to tackle the liberal opposition, he has had, out of necessity, to drop the ball of fighting extremism. The summer training season has been in full swing. “Musharraf,” said another source, “has turned a blind eye to what Islamists and jihadists are doing there because he can’t tackle everything. It has totally opened up.” Under pressure, the Pakistani military has begun to clamp down again on hardline mosques. The potential for violence, and further grievance, is great.