A longer piece I did for Jane’s, this time exploring the importance of training camps for British jihadists.
Fuelling the campfire – the importance of training camps to aspirant UK jihadists
- UK jihadists engaged in militant training in the UK and abroad during the 1990s, with training camps providing a core element the necessary preparation for jihad.
- Despite a crackdown on such activities, a series of disrupted jihadist plots in the UK over the past three years have highlighted the persistence of key elements in militant training.
- Most notable was the continuing importance attached to training by aspirant jihadists and the preference for travelling abroad to train with existing jihadist networks.
A series of convictions of Islamist militants in the United Kingdom in early 2013 has underlined the continuing importance attached to militant training camps in the UK and abroad by aspirant jihadists.Raffaello Pantucci investigates.
The investigation into the bombing of the Boston marathon in the United States on 15 April has refocused attention on the issue of training in terrorist plots in the West, in particular whether plotters are able to rely on militant publications – such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) English-language magazine Inspire – to learn how to make explosive devices, or if they need to actually physically attend a training camp. In the case of the alleged perpetrators of the Boston attack – brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – it remains unclear, but a recent series of failed and disrupted attack plots in the United Kingdom indicated in some detail the ongoing importance attributed to training and the role of camps by Western jihadist cells.Although these plots are ultimately historical, and it is difficult to accurately assess the degree to which they reflect the ongoing reality of current training camps, they nonetheless have a number of similarities with longstanding trends seen among jihadists not only in the UK but also in the West more broadly. Additionally, the features of the training camps that the individuals are eager to attend, or are establishing themselves, are broadly similar to previous jihadist training camps, illustrating the persistence of certain patterns.
In the 1990s, UK jihadists were urged to prepare to fight by radical Islamist clerics such as Mustafa Kamel Mustafa (alias Abu Hamza al-Masri) – who was subsequently extradited to the US in October 2012 to face terrorism charges – and Omar Bakri Mohammed, a former leader of now-banned UK Islamist activist group Al-Muhajiroun, who is currently residing in Lebanon. As part of an investigation by UK newspaperThe Sunday Telegraph in November 1999, a number of UK nationals confessed to training both in the UK and abroad. Abdul Wahid Majid – current status unknown – was quoted as stating: “After my basic training with swords and sticks at the mosque [in the UK], I then went on a number of courses, where I was taught how to use firearms and live ammunition.”
Abu Hamza al-Masri stated toThe Sunday Telegraph : “We do use weapons which have been decommissioned by the police,” while senior Islamist activist and former Al-Muhajiroun spokesman Anjem Choudary confirmed to the paper: “Before they go abroad to fight for organisations like the IIF [a reference to the International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders, an entity consisting of Al-Qaeda and several allied militant Islamist groups that was first mentioned by now-deceased Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a February 1998 statement and which facilitated UK Muslims to travel to fight in Bosnia and Chechnya], the volunteers are trained in Britain. Some of the training does involve guns and live ammunition.”
While these statements may have been brash pronouncements overstating what may have been little more than adventure camps, they highlighted the importance of training camps to UK jihadists at that point. The speeches by Omar Bakri Mohammed and Abu Hamza al-Masri in this period appear to constantly exhort their students to prepare and train. Individuals would seemingly train in the UK and then travel abroad to train further or fight, a trend that continued even after the arrest of Abu Hamza al-Masri in August 2003 and the expulsion of Islamist groups from the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London.
In May 2004, Mohammed Hamid – a senior member of the Finsbury Park Mosque community who was jailed indefinitely in March 2008 after being convicted of organising terrorist training and soliciting murder – organised a training camp in the county of Cumbria in the northwest of the UK, which was attended by four men who were jailed for life in 2007 over the failed 21 July 2005 London bomb plot (in which five bombs were placed in London Underground stations, but failed to detonate properly). A year later, two other men who attended the same camp travelled to Somalia “for purposes relating to terrorism”, according to court documents. In footage that emerged subsequent to Hamid’s trial, images were seen of the men exercising together, walking around with heavy packs, and camping in the Welsh countryside.
The jihadist cell around these camps was largely disrupted, with some members arrested as part of the 21 July 2005 attack network or alongside Hamid in September 2007. Others were reported to have died in air strikes in Somalia – deaths confirmed by both families and militant groups. One such figure, Bilal Berjawi, re-emerged in January 2012 when his official biography and a video were released by the Al-Kataib Media branch of Somali militant Islamist group the Shabab.
Berjawi was a UK citizen of Lebanese origin who rose through the ranks of the community of Al-Qaeda fighters in East Africa to purportedly become a key fighter and leader of the Shabab. According to his official biography, Berjawi travelled back and forth from Somalia to the UK, raising funds between bouts of fighting in Somalia. In addition, the video of Berjawi showed him training with other Islamist militants in Somalia, including his close friend Mohammed Sakr. Friends since they were 12 years old, the two young men went to Somalia more than once and – after being stripped of their UK citizenship by the government in 2010 – both were subsequently killed in suspected US unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) missile strikes in Somalia; Berjawi in January 2012 and Sakr the following month.
These cases highlight that UK jihadist cells are seemingly fixated with carrying out training, whether in the UK or abroad, particularly connecting with jihadist groups, be it in Somalia like Berjawi; or in the UK like Muktar Said Ibrahim, the leader of the 21 July 2005 cell. Ibrahim attended one of Hamid’s camps in the UK and then later met with Rashid Rauf – a UK national of Pakistani descent who was linked to a UK plot to bomb transatlantic airliners in 2006, and reportedly killed in a 2008 UAV strike in Pakistan – and other senior Al-Qaeda figures in Pakistan. Training in the UK provides a framework to demonstrate a certain level of commitment to Islamist militancy and to develop contacts, while linking up with groups abroad for training frequently proves a more operational shift.
The significance of these trends is underlined by the way they have persisted through to more recent plots. A series of attack plots by UK jihadist cells through the late 2000s and early 2010s seem to confirm that, as late as early 2012, this modus operandi remained in play. In all of the plots disrupted by security services, the cells consistently gave an indication of seeking training, or attempting to develop their own training camps. These are traits that reflect longstanding plotting methodology and highlight the ongoing importance of training for groups of UK jihadists.
A four-member militant cell based in the UK city of Luton headed by Zahid Iqbal pleaded guilty to preparing for acts of terrorism in March 2013. Police observed the men undertaking hiking expeditions in Wales, and according to recordings used by the prosecution during their trial, on returning from one of these trips to Snowdonia in March 2011, one of the men in the group was overheard saying the trip was “good jihad training”. During another trip later in the month, convicted cell members Mohammed Sarfraz Ahmed and Umar Arshad were overheard discussing how Scafell Pike – the highest mountain in England – was similar in conditions to the parts of Pakistan that Ahmed had visited as part of an earlier trip in pursuit of militant training.
During the trial, Ahmed in particular was identified by the prosecution as being “actively engaged in the radicalisation and recruitment of others for extremist purposes”, adding that he “engaged in physically and mentally training these others [the other cell members]“. During a trip to Snowdonia, Ahmed was observed by police leading groups in what was described by the prosecution as “regimental walking, press-ups, running in formation, and using logs perhaps as mock firearms”. These activities had been observed by police in earlier camps run by Hamid.
Another similarity with earlier attack plots was the use of gyms as places in which individuals would undergo physical training in preparation for future activities. Iqbal was recorded by police telling others that he had joined a gym to help himself train. In a separate conversation, Ahmed was overheard saying: “A lot of the stuff we do, you can do at home, say your press-up, burpees [a physical exercise] and stuff,” but while he stated the value of training with others, he highlighted the risks associated with doing military-style exercises and group training at public gyms.
One such gym in the UK city of Birmingham, the Darul Ihsaan, or Abode of Excellence, gym – also known to locals as Jimmy’s Gym – was used as a focus of congregation by two separate militant Islamist cells in the city, members of both of which were later convicted on terrorism charges.
The first cell was headed up by Irfan Naseer, with support from Irfan Khalid and Ashik Ali. The three were convicted in February 2013 of plotting suicide attacks in Birmingham. According to a 22 February 2013 report in UK newspaperThe Daily Telegraph , Naseer first met Khalid and Ali at “premises known as the 24/7 Gym” in Birmingham in 2007 and 2008, although the men later collectively changed to the Darul Ihsaan gym.
In addition, Anzal Hussain and Mohammed Saud – two members of a six-man cell that pleaded guilty in April 2013 to planning to bomb a far-right English Defence League (EDL) rally in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, in June 2012 – were identified in local media reports as being employed at the Darul Ihsaan gym.
For Naseer, the Darul Ihsaan gym was also a source of recruits, including the four members of a cell who pleaded guilty in October 2012 to travelling to training camps in Pakistan. The group ended up being part of Naseer’s downfall as their absence was noted by their families who vociferously complained to another prominent local individual – identified as Ahmed Faraz (alias Abu Bakr), who was convicted in December 2011 on charges of possessing terrorist material – and accused him of facilitating the men’s travel. A regular at the Darul Ihsaan gym, Faraz denied responsibility and pointed the angered families in Naseer’s direction.
For Naseer, like all of the other cells, the priority seems to have been travelling overseas to train. However, while Naseer and Khalid twice travelled to Pakistan for training, from March-November 2009 and from December 2010 to mid-2011, not all of the cells appear to have been able to
In the case of one such cell – nine members of which were arrested in December 2010 and pleaded guilty in February 2012 to planning to bomb the London Stock Exchange – the solution was instead to build their own camp using land one of their families already owned. A member of the cell, Usman Khan, had a piece of family land in Pakistani-administered Kashmir on which – according to the prosecution – the cell was planning to build a madrassah (religious seminary) that could be used to train people for terrorism. Adjacent to an already existing mosque, the prosecution claimed the cell had long-term ambitions to fundraise and build a camp around the madrassah that could become a base for UK Muslims seeking training in a secure environment.
It remains unclear whether members of this cell had been able to establish any connection to known militant Islamist organisations in the region, although at least one member of the cell was believed by authorities to have had contact with other radical Islamists in prison, and cell leader Mohammed Chowdhury had been widely identified in media reports as being present at a number of marches organised by off-shoots of Al-Muhajiroun. By contrast, Naseer had been able to make contact with elements linked to Al-Qaeda and to arrange training at a Harakat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) camp in North Waziristan in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
To a lesser extent, Iqbal, leader of the Luton cell, was identified by the prosecution as being in contact with an individual, identified only by the Security Service codename ‘Modern Sleeve’, who facilitated fellow cell member Ahmed’s travel to Pakistan for training in early 2011. While a 15 April 2013Daily Telegraph report described ‘Modern Sleeve’ as an “Al-Qaeda contact”, his group affiliation remains unconfirmed in open sources. At another point, Iqbal was recorded by police telling another cell member that “Mauritania has got thing now innit, it’s got an AQ [Al-Qaeda] group innit. AQ of the Islamic Maghreb” – a likely reference to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – to which Ahmed replied: “If they (the brothers) are still saying wait, I don’t want to keep waiting here, do you understand? I want to get out of this place and I’ll wait over there, at least then I’m close by sort of thing.” Whether the cell actually had any contact with the Al-Qaeda affiliate in North Africa remains unclear.
Similarly, it is unclear whether Richard ‘Salahuddin’ Dart and Jahangir Alom – two members of a three-man cell who pleaded guilty in April 2013 to plotting a series of bomb attacks – were able to actually make the connections with the militant Islamist groups they were hoping for. In an online conversation between Dart and the third cell member, Imran Mahmood – who the prosecution claimed had come into contact with explosives, as evidenced by traces of explosive materials found on his possessions – Mahmood told Dart: “Tare [sic] with TTP [Pakistani militant Islamist group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan] and AQ, no its not Swat Valley but they got connection and I try get u close to the people who are close to them amir and thats rare.” Mahmood is admitting difficulty in connecting Dart but is selling it to him that he has an ability to reach out to the TTP and Al-Qaeda. Dart’s response illustrated where his interest lay: “Yer al hamdulilah [praise be to Allah] that would be excellent. We would want to be active and with the right people.”
However, when training abroad could be arranged, the training camps were not always the exciting adventure camps the men expected. Court documents described how the four cell members from Birmingham were shocked when they arrived in Pakistan in August 2011 to find themselves dumped in a bare camp on a mountainside with no toilets, beds, or protection from the stifling heat and mosquitoes. The entire trip seemingly quickly lost its romantic appeal and the group first called one of the cell back in the UK before reaching out to their families, who commanded them to leave the camp and meet with Pakistani relations in a nearby city.
Despite suffering a rather ignominious expulsion from his second training trip to Pakistan, Naseer was able to obtain some useful training. When he was arrested in September 2011, he was found to be in possession of quite capable bomb and detonator designs, and while it is sometimes hard to separate reality from bluster, it seems he was able to make connections with Al-Qaeda-linked individuals in Pakistan – with whom he and Khalid left martyrdom videos that they were later heard discussing and re-enacting for others. This separates the Birmingham cell somewhat from the other cells previously identified, who were unable to firmly establish connections with militant personnel in Pakistan and whose training was either self-created or aspirational.
Another commonality across some of the cells was the desire to masquerade as observers of non-violent Deobandi Islamic reform and propagation movement Tablighi Jamaat to hide their movements. During the trial of the Luton cell, the prosecution stated: “Iqbal and Ahmed discussed using the Tablighi sect as a cover for travel… It is generally considered to eschew controversy hence the defendants’ belief that it provided good cover.” In a separate conversation in Birmingham, Naseer was recorded by police giving fellow cell member Ishaq Hussain – one of the four who pleaded guilty to travelling to Pakistani training camps in October 2012 – a list of madrassahs he was to say he attended if he was questioned by police about his activities in Pakistan, one of which was a “Tablighi” madrassah. This habit of using Tablighi Jamaat as cover, both in terms of travelling and also in Pakistan, seems to be fairly standard among UK jihadists, some of whom have spent time at Tablighi mosques in the UK and all of whom recognise the travelling missionary cover provided by the sect as one that is hard for security services to dispute as well as providing them access to a community of missionaries that will always welcome fellow believers.
The key conclusions from many of these plots appear clear: UK patterns in jihadist training persist and have largely remained unchanged as time has passed. Jihadist cells continue to be eager to use the UK’s highlands and gyms as places to train, and remain eager to participate in some form of training overseas – particularly in Pakistan. What has changed, though, is the increasing difficulty cells face in achieving this, with security forces increasingly identifying and intercepting those who attempt to travel overseas for militant training.
While the ongoing anti-government uprising in Syria has somewhat provided an additional venue for UK nationals to receive militant training, the strong UK connection to South Asia and the persistence of groups like HuM who are quite mercenary in their willingness to train people for money means that Pakistan will likely continue to attract aspirant Western jihadists for training. As such, it seems likely that training at camps in the UK and abroad will continue to be a feature of the UK jihadist scene for the foreseeable future.