x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Focus:In search of the unlikely extremists

Sunday focus The men convicted of conspiracy to murder in a London terror plot show that the profile of a terrorist has become much more complicated.

Abdullah Ahmed Ali was convicted of conspiracy to murder in the 2006 scare.
Abdullah Ahmed Ali was convicted of conspiracy to murder in the 2006 scare.

In the old days, says Professor Alex Schmid, the world-renowned Dutch terrorism scholar, security services could hide a camera in a radical book shop, collect the till receipts and bag some terrorists. Today, he says, things are a lot more complicated. Professor Schmid, 62, former officer-in-charge of the United Nations' Terrorism Prevention Branch, is based at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, where he heads the respected Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence.

He laughs at his own simplification of the problem that is perplexing intelligence services around the world - a dilemma personified by the six-month trial in London of eight British Muslims accused of plotting mass murder by blowing up planes as they flew from Heathrow to the US and Canada. If the alleged conspiracy had gone ahead, say police, the death toll would probably have exceeded that of the September 11 attacks in 2001.

In the event, on Monday a jury in London found three of the men guilty of conspiracy to murder but was unable to reach a verdict on the most serious charges facing them and five others. One man was acquitted. The seven face a retrial on the charges of conspiring to commit mass murder by exploding bombs on planes. The men insisted they had never intended to attack planes. They might have carried out a few explosions at Heathrow and elsewhere, they said, but only to win publicity for their cause. They did not want to hurt anyone.

They were arrested in August 2006, after police decided they would soon try to blow up planes, using explosive liquids carried in soft-drink bottles. Overnight, a ban on liquids and creams was imposed on airline passengers around the world. It is still in force today. What emerged clearly from the trial, and in the footage of the apparent "martyrdom" videos recorded by some of the men, was that the time has long passed when security forces could go looking for terrorists in radical bookshops. Increasingly, intelligence agencies are unable to answer key questions: what makes young Muslims become terrorists? Do they share any characteristics? Is there a classic terrorist profile - and if not, as now appears to be the case, how can they be stopped?

The trial ended a few days after a newspaper reported that MI5, the British counter-intelligence service, had reached some uncomfortable conclusions, among them that it was impossible to make any meaningful generalisations about the sort of Muslims who might turn to violence. They could be British-born, or not. They could be well-educated, or not. Some might have been religious for many years but, equally, some might have just discovered religion. Some might be scrupulously clean-living; others might enjoy alcohol, drugs and sex.

They could be in their 20s or they could be older. Some might have no family ties, whereas others could be married and have children. They would probably be male, but they could be supported emotionally or even financially by women. Probably, most would be in low-grade jobs - but not inevitably. Some could be psychologically unbalanced - "bad and mad" - but others were as "normal" as the people they sought to murder.

In short, concluded the security service, any Muslim, of any age and any background, could become a terrorist. The only way to combat the sheer randomness of Muslim extremism today, said MI5, was to accept that any stereotyping was redundant. Terrorists could be tracked only by first-class detective work and by enlisting the help of their own communities. "Terrorists are a diverse collection of individuals, fitting no single demographic profile, nor do they all follow a typical pathway to violent extremism," said MI5. Education was also vital, to combat the massive amount of extremist propaganda on the internet.

The lesson that anyone could become a terrorist was graphically illustrated in July last year when a British-born doctor of Iraqi descent, who worked at a hospital near Glasgow in Scotland, was part of a failed plot to blow up the city's airport by crashing a car packed with gas canisters into the terminal. The attack was foiled by the security bollards at the entrance. The driver of the vehicle was an Indian-born Muslim and mechanical engineer who had spent time in Saudi Arabia. He died of his burns.

Some of the eight accused in the liquid-bombs plot were, in the lexicon of terrorism experts, "wastrels and underclass", the foot-soldiers of extremism. But the key figures, who organised and recruited, were intelligent, articulate and educated. Though they had ties with Pakistan, they had been born and brought up in the UK and yet somehow had become so angry that they were prepared to kill thousands of people and, apparently, to die themselves.

Unlike others - such as Kurds, Basques, Northern Irish Republicans or Palestinians - they were not pursuing a definable political goal, such as independence from what they condemned as an occupying power, but were merely disgusted by everything they saw. The leader of the al Qa'eda-inspired London cell was Abdulla Ahmed Ali, a 27-year-old father of two with a bachelor's degree in computer systems engineering. Born in London, he had spent his early childhood in Pakistan. In 1987 he returned with his parents to London where, police said, he became interested in religion. He spent six months in Pakistan in 2002, ostensibly working for a charity. After that, he returned often and it was there, it is thought, that he became convinced of the need to "punish" the British.

In a recording he made shortly before he was arrested, in an apparent echo of al Qa'eda martyrdom videos, he ranted about wanting to kill as many people as possible. His sentiments, such as wanting to drive western forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, were familiar, but it was disconcerting to hear them expressed in English, spoken with a distinctly London accent. "Sheikh Osama [bin Laden] warned you many times to leave our lands or you will be destroyed, and now the time has come for you to be destroyed," he said in one passage.

"We will take our revenge and anger, ripping amongst your people and scattering the people and your body parts responsible for these wars and oppression, decorating the streets." Once, it was thought that only the poor, the badly educated and the thoroughly alienated, who had no stake in a society which had rejected them, would turn to the nihilism of mass murder and justify it by calling it jihad. Only those, it was thought, with minds which had never been shaped by study, could be seduced by the idea that modern civilisation must be destroyed because it was wholly corrupt. Ali gives the lie to this, as do his two lieutenants.

Assad Sarwar, 28, was quiet and shy - and bright. He was also respectable and, apparently, law-abiding. He dropped out of university, where he was studying earth sciences, and became a postman. He was the group's scientific mastermind, who prepared the bombs. Tanvir Hussain, 27, had once been a womaniser, drinker and drug-user but, he told police, those days were behind him. Now, he said, he was a devout Muslim. "People are going to die," he said in his video. "But it's worth the price. Civilian targets are the battlegrounds for today. You know, I wish I could do this again, you know, and come back and do this again until people come to their senses and realise, don't mess with Muslims."

This video, he told the court, had been nothing more than rhetoric, useful for generating publicity. Professor Schmid says that important operational lessons can be drawn from this case. "The average age level of those taking part in terrorism has gone down since 9/11," he says. "Within a terrorist network there tend to be leaders with ideological convictions and followers who are often more attracted by the thrills of playing with arms and bombs. Occasionally criminals also join such networks."

Next, he thinks, the authorities must acknowledge the impact of the internet and a global media that operates 24 hours a days, seven days a week. "Most viewers do not imitate violence that comes through visual media, but some do," he says. "In audiences measured in millions, even if it is only one in 10,000 who picks up an action type from the media and prepares for a copycat crime, that is a lot of people.

"Young people watching violent scenes from jihadist websites in groups can get inspiration and such a 'bunch of guys' might decide to go out and do likewise. When external factors such as pep-talks by real-life jihadist veterans and sermons by itinerant hotheads are added, a critical mass might be created to take the next step: engage in local training and planning for violent action and linking up with training camps and al Qa'eda core members in the Pakistani-Afghan border region."

It is also important, he says, that the police, who must gather evidence that will stand up in court, reach a better understanding with the intelligence services, who operate with different objectives. The eight men arrested in August 2006 were picked up, he says, only after the Americans insisted that another man, the group's alleged link with al Qa'eda, had to be arrested. This forced Britain's hand and the authorities, fearful they might not yet have enough evidence to convince a jury, were furious with the Americans.

"For secret services, the protection of a source of evidence is often more important than the conviction of an individual suspect," says Professor Schmid. "Intelligence agencies are therefore often reluctant to share all they know with the prosecutor and the defence lawyer. There is a tendency to disrupt plots rather than to let them ripen until all the evidence needed to stand up in court is in. But waiting long enough for sufficient proof might be waiting too long to stop a tragedy."

Other experts on terrorism say that a Muslim suicide bomber is as likely to have a university degree, be clean-shaven and hold down a white-collar job as he is to fit the stereotype of a bearded extremist. Dr Philip Davies, who runs the UK-based Brunel University's Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies, says these glib stereotypes must be abandoned. "They are useful starting points but you cannot go far with them," he says - and, to a certain extent, this has always been true.

"Take the IRA," the Irish Republican Army, that was dedicated to the creation of a united Ireland; "Though it fought the Protestant ruling class in Northern Ireland it had non-Catholic Britons as members." He says that Muslim extremist cells tend to be run by those who have been "culturally marginalised". Usually men in their 20s or early 30s, they have been educated and brought up in the West, but do not feel they belong to the society in which they live. Extremist religious ideology offers them apparent explanations for their anger. They can also be influenced, he says, by the success, or failure, of al Qa'eda in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan: "If al Qa'eda scores what they call a victory it appeals to people. People like winners."

Analysts say that ill-judged military actions, which kill or injure Muslim civilians, could help to attract such people to al Qa'eda. On Friday it was reported that 14 people had been killed and others injured when a missile, probably fired by a US drone, hit a house in North Waziristan, an area in Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan, in an attack on suspected militants. This attack, say analysts, is likely to be another blow to Western credibility in the region - and a propaganda boost for al Qa'eda.

Observers of al Qa'eda, who thought it had become little more than a label in recent years, fear it is making a comeback, as an organisation capable of training recruits and sending them to the West to cause carnage. Professor Schmid says: "Global jihad is as much about perceptions as results on the ground. It is like the stock market where psychology is often as important as economics in driving up or down the price of stocks. Al Qa' eda's appeal as a jihadist movement is still there."

sfreeman@thenational.ae