Center for Strategic Communication

Finally posting my longer piece for Jane’s about the Birmingham plotters who were convicted last month. I have already done a piece for my new institutional home RUSI on this plot, and in the fullness of time will probably do more as it is a group with interesting links. Unrelated to this plot, but on terrorism more generally, I did interviews with Aftenposten on Anjem Choudary in Norway, Die Volkskrant on Europeans going to Syria and the Toronto Star about converts in the wake of the news about the Canadians linked to the In Amenas incident. Thanks to IHS Janes for agreeing to let me republish this.

Amateur Fanatics

Key Points
  • Three men were convicted of plotting to carry out suicide attacks by a court in London on 21 February.
  • The three were ringleaders of a wider cell; six other members have pleaded guilty to terrorism offences, while three others face trial later this year.
  • While elements of the plot were amateurish, cell members connected with Al-Qaeda personnel in Pakistan for training and were intent on a mass-casualty operation.

The trial and conviction of three men in the UK unveiled an Al-Qaeda-linked plot to carry out a series of suicide attacks in Birmingham. Raffaello Pantucci investigates.

“You know this operation they’ve done though, did it go a bit wrong or something or what? It didn’t do that much damage.” Referring to the 7 July 2005 London bombings that killed 52 people, the conversation recorded by police officers on 18 September 2011 conveyed the ambition of Irfan Khalid, 27, Irfan Naseer, 31, and Ashik Ali, 27. These three men were found guilty on 21 February of plotting to carry out suicide attacks in the UK city of Birmingham.

At their trial, the prosecution argued that the three had trained and communicated with Al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan and were directed to carry out a terrorist attack in Europe. The foiled plot was a seeming return to an earlier period when UK counter-terrorism was almost singly focused on the connection between the UK and Pakistan. There was a strong reason for this, as major attacks disrupted by UK authorities in 2004, 2005, and 2006 – let alone the July 2005 attacks – were all driven by plotters drawn from the UK South Asian community who had connected directly with Al-Qaeda personnel in Pakistan.

After 2006, the intensity of the threat from this South Asian link diminished, although by no means went away, with threats from different addresses rising up security agencies’ list of concerns. As such, there was a measure of surprise when, in September 2011, police officers in Birmingham conducted a series of arrests and claimed to have disrupted a plot they described as “Al-Qaeda linked” and at “an advanced stage of planning”.

Following the conclusion of the trial almost 18 months later, the details of the plot have emerged, with evidence indicating that the plotters had made connections with Al-Qaeda, received explosives training in Pakistan, were seeking to launch an attack in the UK, and had purportedly recorded martyrdom videos that had been left behind with contacts in Al-Qaeda. The weight of evidence was such that six individuals who were linked to the three core ringleaders pleaded guilty to the charges against them. Four men – Naweed Ali, 24; Ishaaq Hussain, 20; Khobaib Hussain, 20; and Shahid Khan, 20 – pleaded guilty to engaging in conduct in preparation for terrorism by travelling to Pakistan for training. Known to police as “the travellers”, they were recruited by others in the cell to go to training camps in Pakistan. Two other men – Rahin Ahmed, 28, and Mujahid Hussain, 21 – pleaded guilty to fundraising for the cell.

The players

The leader of the cell was Irfan Naseer, known to the others as ‘Big Irfan’. During the trial, his lawyer described his client as an “overweight, lazy mummy’s boy” who was obsessed with “food and farting”. Still living with his parents, Naseer was the youngest of three sons born to a family that had moved to the UK from Pakistan in 1975. He graduated from a Birmingham school with sufficient qualifications to allow him to study for an undergraduate pharmacy degree at Aston University.

He completed his degree in 2003, although by his own account one of the more important things to happen during his studies was his rediscovery of Islam. Claiming to have memorised the Quran when he was 19, Naseer told police that during this time he also started to discover more radical Islamist clerics and their ideology. On graduation, he failed to settle into working life, dropping out of a work placement at a pharmacy in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham. Instead, he took a series of jobs at religious institutions in the area, including a stint from 2007-08 as a science teacher at the Darul Uloom Islamic High School and College in Birmingham.

Naseer’s deputy in the plot was Irfan Khalid, known as ‘Little Irfan’ to distinguish him from Naseer. Born in the UK to a father from the disputed region of Kashmir, Khalid was the oldest of three children who were raised at his maternal grandparents’ residence in the Sparkbrook area of Birmingham. An underachiever, he attended Solihull College between 2001 and 2003, taking courses on information technology that he failed to complete. In 2005, he travelled to Kashmir – staying with his paternal family – to assist in aid efforts following the recent earthquake in the area. After returning to the UK, at one point he worked as a security officer, although the details are unclear. At the time of the plot, he was living with his parents in Sparkbrook.

The third convicted plotter was Ashik Ali, a visually-impaired man who was born in the UK to a father who lived with his two wives in Sparkbrook. Ali underachieved at school, and performed poorly in his examinations. After leaving school, his father helped him get a job in food processing, although he left this job after nine months to work as a receptionist at a gym – one of the many locations the cell members used to frequent. By September 2009, he had enrolled on an Open University science foundation course, although he subsequently failed to complete any of the course requirements.

Perhaps most salient regarding the plot, in February 2008 Ali married Salma Kabal and the couple lived with Kabal’s family while they waited to be assigned council housing. In January 2011 they were given a one-bedroom flat but, according to Ali, the relationship had ended by then and he elected to move in by himself. In the narrative advanced during the trial, he purposely split from Kabal in order to distance her from the plot and prevent her being implicated. Instead, he seemed determined to use the flat as a safe-house for the cell.

Around the three core cell members, there were a further nine people. In addition to the six men who pleaded guilty to their involvement in the plot, three others are due to face trial this year after pleading not guilty to terrorism-related charges. Mohammed Rizwan, 33, and Bahader Ali (Ashik Ali’s brother), 29, face charges of supporting the cell in attack planning and helping them recruit others, while Kabal, 23, faces charges of failing to notify the authorities of what her supposedly estranged husband was planning

Going to train

When police first started investigating the cell in April 2011, Naseer and Khalid were in Pakistan on their second trip seeking training. They both first travelled to Pakistan in 2009, departing together from Birmingham International Airport (BIA) on 24 March and returning separately in mid-to-late November that year. Evidence subsequently indicated that while they were in Pakistan they received money from fellow cell member Rahin Ahmed, and the prosecution’s assertion was that during this period Naseer and Khalid spent time at a training camp. However, details of the nature of the alleged training they received, or who they reportedly trained with, were not made publicly available.

Just over a year later, on 26 December 2010, Naseer and Khalid made a second trip to Pakistan, again allegedly to train, according to prosecutors. By their own admission, the two were able to connect with the Pakistan-based Kashmiri militant Islamist group Harakat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM). In a statement on 17 September 2011 – which was recorded by UK authorities, used as evidence in the trial, and is presented here unedited – Naseer stated: “We had learnt our firing in Hurcut mujahideen [sic]… in a camp, that was inside Pakistan though, that was one of the Hurcut camps, see you get the best training there because the government doesn’t attack them, because those mujahideen say ‘we’re not going to attack Pakistani government’ and they say ‘ok you can send people [to] Kashmir and Afghanistan but don’t do nothing here’.”

In an attempt to mask what they were talking about, Naseer and Khalid would refer to the Waziristan region of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where their training allegedly took place, as “W”, with Naseer recorded as telling Mohammed Rizwan on 17 September 2011: “‘W’ hasn’t got no more camps now… there’s no camps, no training what they do, this is what they do out here, you living in houses like this, yeah, because you know the brothers use to be in the mountains… the brothers in the mountains the drones [unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)] just get them straight away, they just bomb the camps, so what they do is they stay, you know all this what they taught us was inside houses.”

Their activities at the camps seem to have been restrained due to pressure from the use of UAVs by the United States over Pakistan’s tribal region. Naseer was recorded on 18 September describing the nature of the training: “They keep [us] in a house like this, just these two rooms like that and a toilet. And after being there like for two or three weeks and then move you up to another place.”

At a certain point, they were brought to a madrassah (religious school) in Binori near the city of Karachi, where they were sent to classes to learn about “J” [jihad], an experience that the men apparently did not enjoy. Naseer was recorded telling Ashik Ali on 18 September 2011: “I was like rolling around with pain and that in my stomach. [But] they still go, ‘go lesson’. So what it is – guess what we start doing? We go forget it man. If these lot [sic] throw us out, they throw us out. We went upstairs and we got wireless internet… So we were just watching ‘J’ videos all day. After Fajr [dawn prayers] they used to come to our room. We used to be knocked out – say we were ill. They would come up again. Then, they eventually got fed up after two months and threw us out.”

Who exactly trained the men is unclear, although in conversations recorded by police the cell members referred to having received orders from the upper reaches of Al-Qaeda and in particular Sheikh Khalid bin Abdul Rahman al-Hussainan (alias Abu Zaid al-Kuwaiti), a senior figure in the group who was reportedly killed in a US UAV missile strike in North Waziristan on 6 December 2012.

Naseer told Mohammed Rizwan: “You know him, he’s in the top five of AQ after Ayman al-Zawahiri… well you know the sheikh we’re on about, the Kuwaiti guy, you know about the top five… bro, there is no more proof than him saying it, that, do it.”

As with previous plots, the Al-Qaeda personnel allegedly training foreigners in explosives seem focused on teaching innovative and original ways of sourcing materials, evidently impressing Naseer. He was recorded on 17 September 2011 as stating: “They got such knowledge that, for example, in this country, they know yeah, that, different, different place where you can get, achieve like, for example, like, from [inaudible] where you can make a bomb from [inaudible] yeah like, they make it easy for you.”

One innovation of the plot was to use cold packs – used by athletes to soothe injuries – as a source of ammonium nitrate for explosives. While at one point Naseer was recorded assuring Ali that the packs contained the necessary ingredients, the information was faulty as cold packs have been manufactured without ammonium nitrate for several years for safety reasons. Nevertheless, they continued to search for other methods of obtaining the necessary materials.

Recruitment and fundraising

One of the clear messages that Naseer and Khalid allegedly received from their contacts during training in Pakistan was to disseminate the message and training further. Naseer was recorded on 17 September 2011, stating: “They said yeah, the knowledge they gave us, they want that to spread in Europe.” They successfully persuaded the four-man group, referred to by police as “the travellers”, to go to Pakistan for training and aimed to persuade Mohammed Rizwan to do the same. While this was ultimately unsuccessful, Rizwan still faces charges related to his alleged involvement with the cell and in particular providing support and encouragement in the planned operation.

Among those who pleaded guilty, Ahmed, the self-described “taxi driver” of the group, was tasked with multiplying the cell’s money through online foreign exchange trading. The seed money that he used in this enterprise was obtained by the cell through a series of fake charitable drives that they undertook on Birmingham’s streets, claiming to raise money for UK-based charity Muslim Aid and the local Madrassah-e-Ashraful Uloom. Using official green Muslim Aid T-shirts and high visibility tabards, the group carried green Muslim Aid-labelled buckets around Birmingham and briefly Leicester, and had leaflets and other merchandise from the organisation to make them seem credible.

This material was obtained by a cell member who volunteered for Muslim Aid, but there is no suggestion that the charity supported or was aware of the cell’s fundraising efforts. Indeed, a statement released by Muslim Aid following the conviction of Naseer, Khalid, and Ali on 21 February read: “We welcome the conviction and sentencing of the individuals who… used our name and property to collect funds illegally for their intended criminal activity. A volunteer of the charity who pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing assisted these individuals and abused the name of Muslim Aid without our knowledge.”

Having collected around GBP14,000 (USD21,000), Ahmed reportedly stated that there was a “next to impossible chance of losing the money”. However, his optimism was misplaced. Between 17 August and 16 September 2010, he managed to lose around GBP9,000. Of that amount, GBP 3,000 was lost when he left his computer to make a cup of tea, missing a key market shift. This led the others to distrust Ahmed and to cut him out of some elements of the plot. They castigated him and told him that he would have to sell his car and take out loans that he did not intend to repay to cover the losses.

Influences and targets

There is seemingly little doubt about the cell’s contact with Al-Qaeda personnel in Pakistan, and Naseer and Khalid appear to have at least somewhat adopted the group’s ideology. During a conversation with Rizwan as part of his effort to persuade him to join the cell, Naseer was recorded on 17 September 2011 describing what he said in the martyrdom video that he left behind in Pakistan: “It was Sheikh Osama [bin Laden] who we mentioned, and the torture of [the] Muslim people.” Khalid was also recorded as stating: “Don’t you think you can mess with the Muslims, don’t you think you can mess with the Muslims and get away with it because we’re coming to your house.”

What is less certain is what they were intending to do in terms of the attack in the UK. In a conversation on 17 September 2011, which was recorded by police, members of the cell discussed using poison creams, something that they had been taught by their Al-Qaeda trainers. They stated: “He goes that like make it and put it inside like, you know like Vaseline or cream like that, like Nivea cream and put it on people’s cars, you know like the door handles on a whole, imagine putting it on [the] whole like area overnight and when they come in the morning to work they start touching the, they open the door and then five minutes [later] they die man, all of them start dying and that, kill about 1,000 people.”

Although the main focus of the plot appeared to be the use of explosive devices, the cell spoke of the possibility of using guns in some form of attack, and were recorded by police on 17 September 2011 as stating: “Even if you can’t make a bomb, get guns yeah from the black geezers, Africans, and charge into some like synagogue or charge into different places.” However, this, like many of the other plans, seemed largely fanciful. The most likely one seemed to be collecting chemicals and testing out recipes to establish the best way to build an explosive device from readily sourced materials.

Indeed, when the three ringleaders were convicted on 21 February, the judge told Naseer: “You were seeking to recruit a team of somewhere between six and eight suicide bombers to carry out a spectacular bombing campaign, one which would create an anniversary along the lines of 7/7 or 9/11 [the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US].” However, there was no indication at the time of their arrest that the cell members had made any credible progress towards producing a viable explosive device.

Concluding Lions

The sometimes amateurish nature of the plotters has led to them being painted by the UK media as figures from the film satire Four Lions. Ahmed’s trading losses, alongside the news that Ali had eBay accounts named TerrorShop and Shop Terror, all seemed to point to a rather clownish operation.

However, this should not detract from the cell’s genuine intent. Not only were cell members able to connect with Al-Qaeda personnel, Naseer and Khalid were able to attend training camps in Pakistan on at least two separate occasions, raise substantial funds, dispatch another team of recruits to Pakistan, and start to deploy their training back in the UK. When Khalid was recorded by police, joking as he drove around Birmingham with a group of fellow plotters, stating “it’s the four suicide bombers driving around ready to take on England, oh my God take them out”, he was only half joking.

It was also notable that this vocal group of extremists was not reported earlier to authorities by the local Muslim community. In particular, it was highlighted that even though community members discovered “the travellers” had been sent to a training camp, and forced Naseer to make sure they got back safely, no one reported this to the authorities.

In retrospect, it is somewhat surprising that there was less awareness of the cell. In their own recordings, they refer to interaction with radical elements in Birmingham, and there are connections between the broader cell and at least three separate terrorist investigations. It is difficult to know if this was simply the background chatter visible in a tight-knit community such as Birmingham’s Sparkbrook and Sparkhill. Plots of varying degrees of seriousness are periodically disrupted in this area of the country, with at least one important trial expected later in the year. The underlying lesson from this plot seems to be that terrorism in the UK continues to have a strong Pakistani connection, something that has clearly managed to outlive Bin Laden and the disaggregation of Al-Qaeda’s senior hierarchy.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI and the author of the forthcomingWe Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen (Hurst/Columbia University Press)