Marking the sad anniversary of ten years on from the July 7, 2005 attack on London, Prospect asked for an article about where we stand today as compared to a decade ago. Sitting in London writing this and seeing all the coverage today has been quite sad and moving. The threat has really evolved from a decade ago, but in some ways is far more complicated and dangerous. I spoke to quite a few journalists in the run up to today, including Sky News about the threat 10 years on and the 21/7 plot two weeks later, to Al Jazeera English about the impact on Muslim communities, to the BBC about where we stand today, and the New York Times has quoted my book in its write-up on the day.
British IS fighters returning from Syria are a potentially deadly threat
In November 2004, a pair of lads from Beeston met with a young man from Birmingham in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Far from home, the three were linked by a common hatred of the west. For the Beeston pair, Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shezhad Tanweer, their plan was to stay and fight in Afghanistan against Americans (a notion Khan himself was not entirely new to, having previously attended a camp in Kashmir and visited Afghanistan). By the end of their trip, the Brummie, Rashid Rauf, had introduced them to a senior al Qaeda figure known as Haji who had convinced the Beeston pair to turn around and launch an attack back home. The aged jihadi fighter had persuaded the trio that if they really wanted to play a role in the struggle they had come to fight and die for, they would be better served going back home. From foreign fighters to homegrown terrorists, the 7th July bombers’ journey shows how the transition can be made.
Nowadays, the focus of our attention is on the travellers. Stories like the family from Luton, heading en masse with grandparents to live under the Islamic State (IS) black banner. The Bethnal Green trio of girls thought to have been lured in part by a Scottish woman who had gone over before them and the handsome warriors stroking cats on social media pages. Or Talha Asmal, from Mohammed Sidique Khan’s hometown of Dewsbury, who was drawn from his family to earn the dubious distinction of being the UK’s youngest reported suicide bomber at the age of 17. The centre of our attention has moved from the terrorist plots back home to those who are travelling abroad to participate in foreign conflicts.
Why does this matter? If these people want to go abroad and live under IS or fight against the Assad regime, who are they hurting beyond themselves and their families? A sympathetic eye might read these stories as those of idealists who are going to fight in foreign fields to protect or fight for brother Muslims suffering as the world does little. While traditional news broadcasts tend to be dominated by stories of headline-grabbing IS atrocities, online you can also find plenty of horror stories of acts committed by the Assad regime and propaganda images of an idealised Islamic state being created in the Levant.
A more sceptical eye would instead focus on the fact that they are going to join terrorist organisations that are either part of al Qaeda (or are led by men close to the group) like Jabhat al Nusrah, or continue to spout rhetoric that seeks to inspire and instigate terrorism, like IS. At the moment these two groups appear to differ in their goals—IS seems to be railing against the world as it builds its caliphate in the sand, while Jabhat al Nusrah seems to have put al Qaeda’s global ambitions to one side while it focuses on the fight in Syria. But this is only their current state and these are groups with millennarial perspectives. Seen in this light, these travellers might eventually be deployed as weapons. For an organisation with the ideological ambitions of a group such as IS, foreign fighters are a gift. The stories of people going over strengthen their narrative of success. Later on, however, they might also provide a useful network with which to launch strikes against the west, North Africa, or elsewhere.
In fact, we may have already seen this. The slaughter in Sousse last month and the preceding attack on tourists at the Bardo Museum in Tunis were both carried out by individuals linked to IS training camps in Libya. In Verviers, Belgium this January, the authorities had a dramatic shoot-out with a group who they suspected of having recently returned from fighting in Syria. When confronted by authorities—they whipped out their weapons and in the subsequent gunfight two of the fighters were gunned down. A few days prior to this incident, the Kouachi brothers attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices while their friend Amedy Coulibaly stormed a Jewish supermarket in Paris. Coulibaly claimed in a pre-recorded video to be undertaking the attack on behalf of IS and his wife, Hayat Boumeddiene, was later featured in IS propaganda alongside the group in Syria.
In the UK we have not seen such advanced planning yet, though authorities believe they have disrupted several plots with links to Syria and Iraq in some way. In at least two cases, it is believed the plots include individuals who were foreign fighters at some point. In all of these cases, it is highly unlikely that these young men started out with intentions to launch attacks back at home. People eager to kill do not need to travel to foreign fields to find justification to carry out their acts. More likely, they were eager to see what was happening and were drawn by the excitement of the conflict or the narrative of seeing what a supposed Islamic state looks like up close. Once there, it is unclear what happens to them: some seem to head back disillusioned by the experience, others revel in what they find there, and yet some appear to come back with deadly intent. Where and why this intent spawns is unclear.
This curiosity of visiting an Islamic state is familiar from Mohammed Sidique Khan’s narrative. In the summer of 2003, he was part of a group of Britons who met at the airport in Islamabad, Pakistan. Connected to the same networks in the UK, one group from Crawley were gathering to go and set up their own terrorist training camp where they sought to teach themselves to fight. Mohammed and his close friend from Beeston had instead become curious about what was going on in Afghanistan.
He had travelled previously to Afghanistan just before 11th September 2001 and seen the Taliban for himself. Impressed by the state they were building, he wanted to see how it was now surviving the American-led assault. After the 2003 training camp, Mohammed Sidique Khan’s plot took years to mature, showing the long tail of radical ideas that can sit within a person for some time.
A decade on from the 7th July bombings and we are still as confused as before as to what really draws young British men and women to fight for groups like IS or al Qaeda and launch terror attacks at home. There is an understanding of the ideology and subsequently how individuals are drawn to it. But this does not make prediction any easier. And it does not resolve the horror that these young Britons feel a greater loyalty to transnational groups espousing eschatological narratives than they do their country of birth. Today, as the nation commemorates the lives of the 52 Londoners who died in the attack, we are still seeking understanding as a new generation of foreign fighters head abroad to Syria and beyond.