Britain’s Terror Threat from the Levant
January 20, 2015
On January 8, 2014, in the immediate wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, MI5 Director-General Andrew Parker gave his second public speech, during which, among other things, he outlined the nature of the threat that the United Kingdom faces from Syria. As he put it, “Terrorists based in Syria harbour [terrorist] ambitions towards the United Kingdom, trying to direct attacks against our country and exhorting extremists here to act independently.” He highlighted how the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has tried to “direct terrorist attacks in the UK and elsewhere from Syria” as well as “seeking through propaganda to provoke individuals in the UK to carry out violent acts here.” He also highlighted how the threat faced was one that comes not only from ISIL extremists, but also “that a group of core al-Qa’ida terrorists in Syria is planning mass casualty attacks against the West.”
So far, there have been five publicly identifiable, alleged plots disrupted in the United Kingdom as well as a number of scares. The alleged plotting dates back to October 14, 2013, when British police in London conducted a series of dramatic arrests to foil what was at the time characterized as a “suspected Islamist terror plot to attack London.” Almost exactly a year later, the trial against the two defendants charged in the wake of the arrests (two other individuals were released without charge) took place, providing Britain with the most detailed look yet into the nature of the threat that Britain’s security services see emanating from Syria. Ultimately, one of the men pleaded guilty while the jury could not reach a verdict in the other case. Amplifying the perception of the threat to the United Kingdom, as the trial was underway, police arrested another group of individuals who stand accused of plotting terrorism, and the United Kingdom experienced its first reported suicide bomber in Iraq.
This article will examine the current landscape of Islamist terror activity linked to Syria and Iraq in the United Kingdom, examining both recent plotting on the domestic front and the growing role of Britons in Syria and Iraq. It concludes that the lines and links between these two categories of radicalized Britons present a fluid and complicated community that is continuing to produce a steady stream of plots and networks of concern to security services. Both are building on significant challenges that have been extant in the United Kingdom for some time and that were most recently highlighted in a parliamentary report into the May 2013 murder of Lee Rigby by Islamist extremists. That plot, and the parliamentary investigation, showed the complexity of the lone-actor terrorist threat the United Kingdom faces from both isolated individuals and those already on the radar screen of intelligence services, something that is increasingly also seen among the pool of potential threats emerging from radicalization of Britons in the wake of the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The threat from Syria and Iraq is increasingly maturing and following a trajectory that reflects broader trends that have been visible in the United Kingdom for some time. Syria and Iraq and the associated foreign fighter flow is something that British security services expect will occupy their attention for the immediate future.
The trial of Mounir Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, a 26-year-old British national of Algerian descent, and Erol Incedal, a 26-year-old of Turkish origin, opened October 8, 2014, at the Old Bailey. Initially, the trial was to be held in secret with the two defendants listed anonymously as AB and CD, but after a media-led battle in the courts, it was decided that only some of the trial would be held in secret and that the two defendants would be named. On the eve of the trial, Rarmoul-Bouhadjar pleaded guilty to possessing a “document containing information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, namely a document entitled ‘Bomb making.’” A second charge of improperly obtaining an identity document was dropped. Incedal, on the other hand, fought the case, and after a month long trial a jury was unable to reach a verdict. The judge dismissed the jury and the Crown Prosecution Services (CPS) declared it would seek a retrial.
Much of Incedal’s defense was held behind closed doors, while the prosecution was able to lay its case out publicly. Incedal had been in possession of a Secure Digital card taped to his mobile phone, in which the same bomb-making material that Rarmoul-Bouhadjar owned was saved, labeled “good stuff.” According to expert-witness testimony provided during the trial, the instructions contained in the document would have made an extremely sensitive mix of triacetone triperoxide (TATP). As the witness stated on the stand, the document “generally contains correct information that could be used to produce viable devices. However, it lacks detail and further information might be required.” In a further reference to bomb-making, another file on the memory card stated, “The first rule of bomb-making is that your first mistake will be your last.”
Incedal was born to a Kurdish family in Turkey, where his father, an active communist, died when he was six weeks old. His mother, an Alawite, moved to Britain when Incedal was a year old, leaving her children to join her later in the UK. His older sister joined the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and died fighting alongside the group, while his older brother was later sectioned (taken into a secure mental hospital) under the mental health act. As a young man in the United Kingdom, Incedal was involved in gangs and arrested for attempted theft in October 2001. A year or so later he became religious, and soon afterward was drawn to Tablighi Jamaat, enjoying the brotherhood it provided. He traveled with the group to Greece, India, Bangladesh, and New York, and met his co-defendant Rarmoul-Bouhadjar in Tablighi Jamaat. Sometime in 2011 he became connected to the now-jailed sons of cleric Abu Hamza, Hamza, Sufyan, and Yaasir, with whom he was allegedly planning frauds and armed robberies of post offices. It is not clear what became of these plans.
The prosecution’s case centered on the accusation that the defendants were planning a Mumbai-style attackor possibly a targeted assassination of former Prime Minister Tony Blair. In Skype conversations in which he used the name Fatima Hamoodi to communicate with an individual abroad who called himself Zaynab Alawi, Incedal wrote, “These straps are not the little ones, they are like the ones we have here – y knw k 1122aa shhh etc.” “Straps” was believed to refer to guns (a traditional terminology amongst urban youth in London) and “k 1122aa shhh” to Kalashnikov. Later in the Skype conversation the two Skype accounts were recorded discussing, “If they’re able to get these type and it works, may want you to MO 88M 55BAY style,” something the prosecution interpreted as being a reference to the Mumbai attacks of 2008. However, at the time of their arrests the men were not found in possession of any guns, though they were overheard through a police listening device discussing purchasing one in their car, using the slang “sausage” to refer to a gun and “sauce” for bullets.
The plotting around the assassination of Tony Blair was far more circumstantial. Incedal was pulled over under the guise of a traffic stop in September, during which time authorities searched his car. In the process they found a Versace glasses case, which contained one of Tony Blair’s addresses. This same case was then later found at a second flat that Incedal failed to report to authorities when he was arrested. They also found evidence of multiple inhabitants and the computer on which Incedal was talking to someone abroad.
At another moment during the trial, the two defendants were overheard seeming to refer to their time in Syria. In a conversation recorded in their vehicle Rarmoul-Bouhadjar was heard saying, “In Syria the weather was . . .” before Incedal interrupts saying, “Wallahi [I swear] it was like minus 20 degrees because we were on a mountain.” At another moment while the men were overheard watching extremist videos in which men were shooting, Incedal comments “we used that,” while in another moment Incedal reports that ISIL undertakes a lot of “drive by shootings” that he finds inspiring: “They do it a love bruv. And they’ve got this special like machine Uzi gun like and silence on it – its nuts.”
It is unclear why the jury returned an inconclusive verdict, though likely the absence of weaponry or a clearly defined plan of attack left some major gaps in the prosecution’s case. It is likely that Incedal’s defense will eventually be revealed, though at this point it is being kept behind the veil of secrecy. The re-trial is expected to occur sometime this year.
Targeting of Officials
This is the not the only plot that British security services believe they have intercepted. In early October 2014, police arrested five individuals believed to be involved in a plot targeting police officers with a Russian-made Baikal machine gun and ammunition. Tarik Hassane, 21, a medical student at university in Sudan; Suhaib Majeed, 20, a physics student at King’s College London; Momen Motasim, 21; and Nyall Hamlett, 24, all stand accused of planning to use the gun and a moped to conduct a drive-by shooting of security officers. A fifth man charged alongside them was accused of supplying the gun. The men were believed to be inspired by ISIL and had allegedly downloaded ISIL spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s fatwa calling on followers to launch attacks, taken pictures of police officers, discussed ISIL online, undertaken online reconnaissance of a police station in west London, and pledged allegiance to the group. Charged with planning a terrorist attack, the men face trial this year.
More recently, on the eve of the 2014 November 11th Remembrance Day celebrations in the United Kingdom, police arrested a further four men in raids that were believed to be linked to a plot to target security officials at a public event. The main suspect in the case, Yousaf Syed, is a 19-year-old who had his passport canceled after security services believed he tried to travel to Pakistan in 2013 for “terrorist purposes” and then in 2014 attempted to go to Syria. On November 20, 2014, three men (Yousaf Syed, Yousaf’s cousin Nadir Ali Sayed, and Haseeb Hamayoon) were charged with plotting to behead a member of the public on the streets of Britain. The men were reported to have “laughed hysterically” as the charges against them were read out in court and were reported in court to have been inspired by ISIL. They also face trial this year.
Reflecting a threat picture that from the security services’ perspective has widened beyond networks of people plotting attacks to include “lone actor” terrorists, police separately arrested 19-year-old Brustchom Ziamani and 18-year-old Kazi Jawad Islam. Both men stand accused of planning to launch attacks against government security forces, though in different ways. Jawad Islam was arrested in east London on August 13, 2014, having reportedly given the order to unknown others to kill a British soldier. In court he was reported to have been overheard saying, “When I give the order I want you to kill a soldier.” He is alleged to have searched for materials to help him produce an improvised explosive device as well as possessed a document entitled “How to Make Semtex.”
A Congolese-British convert, Ziamani was also arrested in August in the wake of the release of the ISIL video in which the American reporter James Foley was beheaded. Accused of planning an attack similar to the one against British soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich in May 2013, Ziamani was arrested with a knife and a hammer wrapped in an Islamic flag in a bag on his back. In presenting Ziamani to the court, the prosecution stated that “he is 19 and of previous good character. He said to (a female teenager) he is going to commit a … terrorist atrocity either on troops or members of the government.” He was further accused of wanting to go to Syria to fight alongside ISIL. Both men are due to stand trial this year.
The lone-actor plot, in particular targeting authorities, has become the heart of the threat that British security services currently see. In early December 2014, a threat believed to have come through social media ignited concern that police officers in Birmingham were to be targeted for attack. One man was arrested as a result. This concern escalated further around Christmas with armed police standing guard outside prominent locations in London where formal sentries stand to attention in dress uniform (such as Buckingham Palace or the famous Horseguards Parade), while service personnel were told not to wear their uniforms to and from work.
Britain’s Levantine Connection Strengthens
This escalating number of plots took place against a backdrop of revelations that British fighters were killed in U.S. airstrikes against Khorasan Group camps near Aleppo on September 23, 2014; that a number of Britons died fighting alongside ISIL in Kobane, Syria; and that a Briton was involved in a suicide bombing attack alongside the group in Iraq. The suicide bomber was Derby-born Kabir Ahmed, who was revealed to have been previously convicted of hate crimes, and had gone to Syria in 2012. Ahmed is the second British suicide bomber to have been publicly revealed as dying in Iraq or Syria, though it is believed more than 30 Britons have died in total during the conflict so far.
Furthermore, British-linked fighters are believed to be rising in the ranks of groups fighting in Syria and Iraq, most prominently in the case of the infamous “Jihadi John,” who is accused of being the executioner in the ISIL beheading videos and separately as the leader of a group called Kateeba al Kawthar. In proscribing the latter group, British Minister James Brokenshire described its leader as an individual with a British accent who is featured in recruitment videos under the name Abu Musab but whose true name was revealed as Rabah Tahari. Tahari’s wife and son were arrested and charged in Birmingham, accused of sending goods to him in Syria. Ultimately, charges against both of them were dropped, and Tahari is believed to continue to be out of the United Kingdom. All of this presents a worrying picture for security services who are concerned about the fact that British nationals are being radicalized, are fighting alongside numerous different groups, and are taking leadership roles in some cases.
At the same time, the public debate in the United Kingdom has been increasingly colored by and focused on the question of what to do with returning fighters. This debate became livelier with the revelations in early September 2014 that a group of British fighters in Syria contacted researchers at King’s College and asked them to facilitate their return to the UK. Other groups of fighters have also allegedly been identified, though it is unclear the degree to which these clusters of individuals are real fighters or are British nationals who went out under the auspices of aid work and ended up becoming embroiled in the fighting and now find themselves with nowhere to go. The dilemma of what to do with returnees is something that security forces balance against the number of disrupted plots that they have faced. One report to emerge in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris stated that “more than 30 ISIS fighters in the UK have been placed under surveillance by MI5 because they are considered a serious threat” and that “a further 120 who retain ‘extremist’ views but have escaped detailed scrutiny will be reassessed amid fears that they have the firearms training to commit a copycat attack.”
It is not clear whether the plots discussed in this article were directed by foreign groups or networks like ISIL, al-Nusra Front, or the cluster identified as the Khorasan Group on the battlefield in Syria or Iraq. In Incedal’s case, it seems that he was discussing his plans with someone abroad, but in the other cases no evidence of direction from overseas has yet been provided, though clearly the head of MI5 has identified that his service has seen such active plotting. Instead, the publicly identified and detailed plots appear to bear the hallmarks of being inspired by ISIL or potentially loosely linked to individuals with direct experience on the battlefield.
The plots appear to be the product of a fusion of trends, of lone actors and foreign fighters, with some individuals seemingly heeding al-Adnani’s call to “kill a disbelieving American or European–especially the spiteful and filthy French–or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be….Do not ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict. Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they have the same ruling. Both of them are disbelievers.”
Having already experienced the Woolwich incident, in which a pair of radicalized individuals who were longstanding subjects of counterterrorism investigations abruptly decided to run over in a car and brutally butcher an off-duty soldier, British forces are already alert to the possible threat from such small-cell or lone-actor terrorist activity. But given the potential numbers of individuals of concern connected with Syria and Iraq (of whom about 250-300 are believed to have returned home), the threat picture is one that has multiplied significantly.
Distinguishing the fighters who are genuine in their desire to return home to ordinary lives from those who might pose a terrorist threat is a major challenge. However, given the current trend of plots that appear to have loose connections to the battlefield but limited direction, British security forces seem to be dealing with two distinct groups. One group within the United Kingdom seems to be radicalizing and, inspired by narratives that ISIL is broadcasting, is choosing to plot terrorist attacks at home. The other is choosing to go abroad to fight with some possibly returning home to plan attacks. The line between these two groups is unclear, but what does seem clear is that these two parallel trends, and their increasing collision together, will cause major counterterrorism challenges for the next several years at least.
Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
 Andrew Parker, “Terrorism, Technology and Accountability,” Address by the Director-General of the Security Service, Andrew Parker, to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Thames House, January 9, 2015.
 Justin Davenport, “Police foil ‘major Islamist terror plot’ after armed raids across London,” The Evening Standard, October 15, 2013.
 Patrick Sawer, Nicola Harley, and Tom Whitehead, “Armed police arrest four men amid fears of Islamist Remembrance Day terror plot,” The Telegraph, November 7, 2014.
 Martin Naylor, “Suicide Bomber: report claims Islamic State suicide bomber in Kabir Ahmed, of Normanton, Derby,” Derby Telegraph, November 10, 2014.
 “Report on the intelligence relating the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby,” Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, November 25, 2014.
 Guardian News and Media Ltd vs AB CD, Royal Courts of Justice, Strand, Case No: 2014/02393C1, judgment handed down June 12, 2014.
 “Defendant in UK’s first secret trial pleads guilty,” The Telegraph, October 9, 2014.
 Duncan Gardham, “Terror suspect had ‘reasonable excuse’ for having bomb-making plans,’” The Times, October 27, 2014.
 Sean O’Neill, “Armed police hunted Mercedes of terror suspect and blew out tires,” The Times, October 15, 2014.
 In Kurdish, Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK).
 Tablighi Jamaat is a Muslim movement whose name literally translates as “society for spreading faith” and is an off-shoot of the Deobandi movement in South Asia.
 Duncan Gardham, “Terror suspect had ‘reasonable excuse’ for having bomb-making plans,” The Times, October 27, 2014.
 Tom Whitehead, “Secret terror trial hears Erol Incedal considered joining forces with Abu Hamza’s sons,” The Telegraph, November 3, 2014.
 This refers to the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, India, during which teams of Lashkar-i-Tayyiba attackers assaulted multiple targets in Mumbai using small arms and taking hostages, ultimately killing 164 people (including 10 attackers).
 Sean O’Neill, “Tony Blair was a ‘terror target,’” The Times, October 14, 2014.
 Tom Whitehead, “Erol Incedal secret terror trial: jury discharged and retrial ordered,” The Telegraph, November 11, 2014.
 Sean O’Neill, “Armed police hunted Mercedes of terror suspect and blew out tires,” The Times, October 15, 2014.
 Victoria Ward, “Secret terror trial hears Erol Incedal used code word ‘sausage’ to buy a gun,” The Telegraph, October 16, 2014.
 Victoria Ward, “Tony and Cherie Blair named in secret terror trial as potential targets,” The Telegraph, October 14, 2014.
 Sean O’Neill and Duncan Gardham, “Terror suspect ‘discussed Syria and buying firearm,’” The Times, October 17, 2014.
 “Terror accused ‘praised jihadist battles in Syria and Iraq,’” BBC News, October 15, 2014.
 Fiona Hamilton and Sean O’Neill, “Terror suspects charged with moped plot to shoot police,” The Times, October 18, 2014.
 Fiona Hamilton and Sean O’Neill, “Terror suspects charged with moped plot to shoot police,” The Times, October 18, 2014.
 Victoria Ward and Nicola Harley, “ISIL terror suspect Tarik Hassane offered place at top UK university,” The Telegraph, October 8, 2014.
 Michael Powell and Duncan Gardham, “Teenage suspect in ‘Poppy terror plot’ tried to travel to Syria six months ago to ‘take part in extremist activity,’” The Mail on Sunday, November 8, 2014.
 Martin Evans, “Terror suspects plotted to behead member of the public, court hears,” The Telegraph, November 20, 2014.
 “Islam: Teenager Gave ‘Kill Solider’ Order,” Court News UK, December 4, 2014.
 Martin Robinson, “British-born Muslim convert ‘plotted atrocity and had a knife and hammer wrapped in an Islamic flag,’” Daily Mail, August 21, 2014.
 Vikram Dodd, “Man arrested in West Midlands after police warning of security threat,” The Guardian, December 9, 2014.
 Abul Taher and Mark Nichol, “Retreating of the Queen’s Guard: End of an era as palace sentries fall back in face of mounting fears of new ‘lone wolf’ terrorist attack,” The Mail on Sunday, December 27, 2014.
 Secunder Kermani, “Friend of British jihadist Ibrahim Kamara tells of fight,” BBC Newsnight, September 25, 2014.
 Patrick Sawer and Duncan Gardham, “Portsmouth private school jihadi killed in Syria,” The Telegraph, October 25, 2014.
 Martin Naylor, “Derby would-be suicide bomber: He is dad Kabir Ahmed with gay-hatred convictions,” Derby Telegraph, July 24, 2014.
 Tom Whitehead, John Bingham, and Sarah Knapton, “Up to 30 British jihadists now dead in Syria but toll will rise with ISIS lure,” The Telegraph, October 15, 2014.
 Hansard Parliamentary record, June 19, 2014.
 “Tahari: Mum and Son Bailed Over Syria Terrorism Charges,” Court News UK, March 17, 2014.
 Tom Coghlan, “Let us come home, say young British jihadists,” The Times, September 5, 2014.
 Tim Shipman, Richard Kerbaj, Dipesh Gadher, and Tom Harper, “Terror alert over 150 UK jihadists,” The Sunday Times, January 11, 2015.
 Helen Davidson, “ISIS instructs followers to kill Australians and other ‘disbelievers,’” The Guardian, September 23, 2014.