The Wall Street Journal ran a fascinating story on Monday about the encryption methods employed by radical Islamist activists. The details emerged in the ongoing UK trial of Rajib Karim. The article is a reminder that there is more to online jihadism than what we see published on radical websites.
A key question in the Stockholm investigation is whether Taymour Abdalwahhab was acting on behalf of the al-Qaida linked group “Islamic State in Iraq”. The question matters because if he was, then ISI is targeting Europe and can be expected to send more bombers.
First, let me stress that “acting on behalf of” means someting more than simply “training with”. Given Taymour’s Iraqi background, his recent trips to Jordan (and possibly Syria), and his own claim of having been to the Middle East for jihad, we can pretty much assume that he trained with Islamist militants in Iraq. What we are trying to find out is whether he was dispatched by ISI – i.e. whether the plot was initiated, directed and resourced by senior ISI operatives – or whether he simply attended a camp and then acted independently, in a manner comparable to Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.
There is some concrete evidence in favour of Taimour having a close ISI connection:
- The photomontage on the Hanain forum presenting Taymour as “One of the knights [fursan] of the Islamic State of Iraq”
- Taymour’s reference to “the Islamic State” in his martyrdom will
- Taymour’s reference, in the same will, to having been a mujahid for “four years”
There is also some circumstantial evidence:
- ISI leader Abu Umar al-Baghadi’s September 2007 statement calling for attacks in Sweden as punishment for the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad
- The past involvement of other Swedish Muslims in ISI and its predecessors (see Brian Fishman’s excellent piece for details)
A more debatable piece of evidence is the early identification of Taimour Abdalwahhab on the Shumukh forum by a writer using the alias “Abu Sulayman al-Nasir.” As Aaron, Ibn Siqilli and Garbi point out in the comments to my previous post, the alias bears a striking similarity to the name of ISI’s War Minister Abu Sulayman al-Nasir li-DIn Allah. Could they be the same person? Personally I am sceptical. It is extremely rare (though admittedly not unheard of) for senior activists to use their real names on forums. Moreover, Abu Sulayman the forum writer has also issued audio statements threatening NATO. Why would ISI’s War Minister issue “rogue” statements outside of ISI highly streamlined propaganda framework?
On the other hand there is weighty evidence against Taimour acting on behalf of ISI:
- The absence of a claim of responsibility from ISI proper, despite ISI being perhaps the world’s largest producer of jihadi propaganda
- The absence of a post-attack martyrdom video, which is what groups with media wings tend to produce
- The near absence of past ISI-directed plots in Europe. AQI was admittedly linked to the 2007 Glasgow and London attacks but the nature of those links have never been elucidated. Why would ISI conduct its first (or one of its first) major European attack in Sweden? Why not use Taymour to strike in Britain, a country that actually participated in the Iraq invasion and the country in which Taymour resided?
Of course it is still early, and an ISI claim or video could appear any time. However, in the absence of such documents, I lean toward the view that Taymour trained with Islamist militants in Iraq, but was not on an ISI-directed mission. I share Aaron’s view that the case most resembles that of Faisal Shahzad, who trained in Pakistan but did most of the planning and organization himself.
This does not preclude the possibility that Taymour had a handful of helpers, in Sweden and/or in Britain. On this note, there is an interesting report in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet quoting the previous owner of the bombing vehicle as saying Taymour came to buy the car together with another man. The other man was a bit shorter, aged 45-50 and did not say very much.
A number questions remain, notably:
- Who is the mystery man who came to buy the car with Taymour?
- Is there a second person coughing on Taymour’s audio recording?
- Why did Taymour choose to attack in Sweden when he lived in the UK?
- Is it a coincidence that Taymour lived three streets away from Muhammad Qayum Khan?
- Where exactly in the Middle East did Taymour travel between 2006 and 2010?
- If ISI trained him, why are they not taking some form of credit?
- If Taymour left a written message for his wife two weeks before the bombing, why does his wife say she didn’t know anything?
[PS: I am still unable to print forum posts to PDF, but I will do so as soon as I can]
Forum readers woke up this morning to find Taimour’s picture on the top banner of Shumukh (the main jihadi forum). The banner advertises a poem by a certain “Sha’ir al-Ansar” (Poet of the Ansar) praising Taimour Abdalwahab. At first sight this might seem like the work of an accomplice, but the poet explicitly states that he did not know Taimour personally.
More interesting is the posting of a new audio message by a certain Abu Sulayman al-Nasir titled “Warning to NATO Countries Following the Stockholm Raid.” The message echoes an earlier statement by the same person issued on 20 November.
What’s interesting here is not so much the messages as the messenger, because Abu Sulayman al-Nasir is the same person who first mentioned Taimour Abdulwahhab’s name on Shumukh. This obviously raises the possibility that he has some connection to the Stockholm attack.
The problem is that the earliest public reference to Taimour’s name was made on 11 December at 10.24 pm on a non-Islamist Swedish forum, based on private pictures on the license plate of the bombing vehicle. Abu Sulayman al-Nasir’s Shumukh post mentioning Taimour’s name was published at around 6pm on 12 December, ie almost 20 hours after the name had entered the public sphere. Al-Nasir could therefore very well have found Taimour’s name on the web.
In this connection it is worth noting that Shumukh has a LOT of readers in Sweden. Aaron recently posted traffic data for Shumukh for the month of November, according to which a full 3.6 percent of non-proxy IP addresses were based in Sweden. If you adjust for population size, this means Sweden had over 20 times as many Shumukh readers per 1000 inhabitants, and over 33 times as many readers per 1000 Muslims as the United Kingdom. This is admittedly back-of-the envelope calculations using on population data from Wikipedia, (here and here), but the proportions are striking.
As expected, the freelance jihadi media machinery has started churning out material glorifying the Stockholm bomber. In addition to the abovementioned poem, someone posted a Youtube production of Taimour’s martyrdom will, along with a cheesy photo montage with Taimour surrounded by lightning.
Mainstream media has also started digging into Taimour’s life in Luton, showing, among other things, that he was radicalised by at least 2007, when he revealed militant anti-Western views to an imam in a local mosque.
There is also a lot of interesting commentary in the blogoshpere, with Aaron at Haganah providing the most interesting information, as usual. Anyone who doubts the radicalising influence of Youtube should take a look at Taimour’s Facebook profile, retrieved by Aaron. Taimour wallowed in jihadi Youtube videos.
On a final note, let me clarify my view on the question of Taimour’s associations, as some readers seem to have misinterpreted my earlier post. I do not believe Taimour was a pure lone wolf. What I am saying is that he was most likely either alone or helped by at most two people in the final stages of – i.e. last few weeks before – the attack. The point here is that I think the initiative for the operation came from Taimour himself; I don’t think he was instrumentalised by a large, established organization. There could be a couple of people in Sweden or in Luton who were directly involved, but I would be very surprised if Taimour took orders from AQ in Pakistan or from ISI in Iraq.
Moreover, I don’t believe Taimour radicalised in a complete vacuum; people almost never do, as I stressed in my Cadadian Senate testimony last week. Taimour, like most other homegrown militants, must have interacted with other people during his radicalization process, even if the interaction occurred mainly on the Internet or in very small social circles.
[PS: the reason I am not posting pdfs of the forum posts is that I am using a different computer this morning which doesn’t allow me to print Arabic fonts to pdf. I’ll post pdfs later this evening.]
[Editor’s note: I am extremely happy to present a new ad-hoc contributor. He should be known to most Jihadica readers: Brian Fishman is a former director of research at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center and the author of several landmark studies on al-Qaida in Iraq, several of which are available here. He brings us quite a story today.]
Since the awful shootings at Fort Hood, media attention has focused on MAJ Nidal Hasan’s relationship with Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born salafi preacher now in Yemen. Less well known, however, is that al-Awlaki was once declared kafir (infidel) by then London-based jihadi Sheikh Abdullah al-Faisal.
The Jamaica-born al-Faisal, himself a convert, was a key figure in late 1990s and early 2000s “Londonistan”; he was imprisoned in 2003 for soliciting murder and eventually deported from the UK in May 2007 for his links to 7/7 bomber Germaine Lindsey. Indeed it is al-Faisal, not al-Awlaki, who is the most prominent English-speaking jihadi preacher. The lesson here is certainly not that Anwar al-Awlaki is a moderate, but that the world of jihadi ideologues is never as simple as it seems.
Al-Awlaki began his religious preaching at the Rabat Mosque in San Diego. Sometime in 2001, Awlaki moved to Virginia; he spent time in the UK in 2002 before returning to Virginia, and finally he moved to Yemen in 2004.
The date is unclear, but at some point prior to al-Awlaki’s move to Virginia one of his lectures came to the attention of al-Faisal, who was so furious over its content that he devoted one of his own sermons to refuting al-Awlaki and ultimately declared him a kafir—or no longer a Muslim, which meant that he could be killed as a non-believer. One of al-Faisal’s followers can be heard in the recording suggesting that al-Awlaki should be killed.
Al-Faisal’s lecture on al-Awlaki is listed as “CIA Islam – Sheikh Faisal’s Takfeer of Anwar Awlaki” on www.archive.org. On the recording, Faisal explains that his lecture is about a preacher named “Anwar” from the Masjid al-Rabat in San Diego. He then proceeds to play sections of Awlaki’s lecture for his audience before refuting its points. The voice on the tape seems to be that of Anwar al-Awlaki.
Al-Faisal’s complaint about al-Awlaki is basically twofold: First, that al-Awlaki’s criteria for declaring takfir was overly restrictive—someone would have to directly refute the Quran or blatantly denounce central tenets of Islam in order to receive that designation. And, second, that al-Awlaki argued that only God should judge Muslims. Al-Faisal argues that this non-judgmental understanding of Islam is pushed by the CIA in order to limit violent activism.
The issue of judgment resonates deeply for al-Faisal. After playing a portion of the lecture in which al-Awlaki declares, “we do not judge the people…we leave that for Allah,” al-Faisal pointedly asks his audience, “Do you agree with that, brothers?”
After the audience grumbles in response, Faisal prompts them again, “I can’t hear you!” and then asks, “What should we do with him?” Referring to al-Awlaki, someone in the audience replies, “Kill him, brother, kill him.” To hammer home the point, al-Faisal affirms, “The brother said ‘kill him.”
Later, speaking rhetorically to al-Awlaki, al-Faisal exclaims, “Did you realize that when you opened your mouth and said ‘we are not here to judge’ you became worse than the kuffar?… You have become the lowest of the low.”
Al-Faisal’s reactions to al-Awlaki are typical of jihadi critiques of Muslims that do not join their cause. Indeed, al-Awlaki’s ideological arguments in the San Diego recording are at odds with the most virulent contemporary jihadi ideology. It certainly did not meet al-Faisal’s standards.
The available snippets of al-Awlaki’s San Diego tape, al-Faisal’s reaction to it, and al-Awlaki’s more recent statements about violence suggest that al-Awlaki went through a radicalization process of his own. Al-Awlaki’s statements in a February 13, 2004 interview with National Public Radio illustrate the tension that ultimately seems to have led Nidal Hasan to violence. Pressed about the role of Muslims in the West after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, al-Awlaki condemned 9/11 strongly but explained that “after the bombing (the invasion of Iraq)…the conversation shifted…Muslims are torn between solidarity with their religious fellowmen and their fellow citizens.”
Al-Awlaki’s old statements raise more questions than answers. They hint at a personal ideological evolution and the frustrations that led to violence. They should leave us wondering how al-Awlaki recovered from such a denunciation to build a good reputation in the jihadi community. And did al-Awlaki and al-Faisal ever meet during al-Awlaki’s stint in the UK? Was al-Awlaki intimidated into more radical positions? Or did he hold them all along?
Al-Faisal’s denunciation of al-Awlaki does not mean that he is—or even was—a good guy. But it does mean that even the relatively small English-speaking jihadi movement has its divisions over ideology and leadership. That should be one of the lessons that comes out of the terrible tragedy at Fort Hood—not just that we need to identify the Nidal Hasans of the world (which we do), but that the Anwar al-Awlakis of the world face ideological and personal crises of their own. When jihadis make enemies of one another, that’s when it is time for counterterrorism professionals to make allies.
Abu Qatada, often called “al-Qaeda’s ambassador to Europe” by the press, has been interviewed by his fellow inmate, `Adil `Abd al-Majid. A transcript of the lengthy, wide-ranging interview has been posted on the Shumukh forum. Second only to Maqdisi as an ideologue among Jihadis, Abu Qatada has been in and out of detention in the U.K. since 9/11 (he’s in again). This interview gives us a snapshot of where he stands intellectually after seven years. Particularly of note are his remarks on the Muslim Brotherhood, Alan Johnston (the BBC reporter held hostage in Gaza), and dialogue with the British government. Here’s a summary of some of the interesting bits (direct translations are in quotes):
- Opinion on Saudi Shaykhs – Bin Baz: No one alive today is his equal, but he made the mistake of obeying the Saudi regime, which brought great harm to the umma. Safar al-Hawali: He’s good, but couldn’t reach the summit of Islam [jihad]. He stopped or back peddled before he reached the top. The same goes for Salman al-`Awda. Both men talk the talk, but don’t go the next step.
- Muslim Brothers – There is some good in them. But over time, they became more concerned with protecting their organizational gains. You can see their opportunism in the past. Sayyaf `Abd al-Rasul, a Muslim Brother in Afghanistan, worked with the U.S. against the Taliban. The Muslim Brotherhood operates as the Islamic Party in Iraq and works with the Americans. Officials in the Iraqi government have been Muslim Brothers, such as Tariq al-Hashimi (a vice president). I love the MB when it is oppressed because it focuses on education and jihad. But when it is allowed greater freedom, it loses motivation and becomes a pragmatic political party. Hamas is a good case in point. Look at its recent decision not to declare itself an Islamic emirate like the Taliban.
- Revisionists – The revisionists are criminals. “It’s wrong to think that we will behave like seminary students, changing our minds because they want us to.”
- Women – “Women are the internal fortress and jihad is the external fortress.”
- Alan Johnston – When the U.K. Foreign Office learned that the brothers in Gaza wanted to exchange Johnston for me, they asked my lawyer to ask me if I would intervene on his behalf and secure his release. I demanded that the Guantanamo prisoners who have families in the U.K. be brought home and tried and that others not be extradited to America. This request was refused. I offered to lead a delegation to go to Gaza and talk to the Army of Islam (which was holding Johnson), but this was not allowed. I considered making a plea purely on humanitarian grounds, but the other brothers in detention discouraged me [presumably because Abu Qatada wasn’t getting anything in return.] The British government used my non-compliance against me in court when I requested to be released on bail after the court of cassation rejected the decision of the high court to extradite me to Jordan.
- Dialogue with British Government – I told a British security officer that there was a pseudo-agreement among the British Jihadi groups not to engage in armed activity in the U.K. I am open to dialogue with the government, even though some of the brothers are against it. I’ve been accused of many things, but I can live with myself.
Document (Arabic): 12-22-08-shamikh-recent-q-and-a-with-abu-qatada-in-prison