My extended, 2,000 word, feature on the counterproductive British geostrategy over the last decade which has bound us with al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists, from the Balkans to Syria, and beyond....
Published in Asia Times
UPDATE - also published on OpenDemocracy
Published in Asia Times
UPDATE - also published on OpenDemocracy
The brutal murder of an off-duty British soldier in broad daylight in the southeast London district of Woolwich raises new questions about the government's national security strategy, at home and abroad. Officials have highlighted the danger of 'self-radicalising' cells inspired by internet extremism, but this ignores overwhelming evidence that major UK terror plots have been incubated by the banned al-Qaeda linked group formerly known as Al Muhajiroun.
Equally, it is no surprise that the attackers surfaced on MI5's radar. While Al Muhajiroun's emir, Syrian cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed - currently self-exiled to Tripoli in northern Lebanon - has previously claimed "public immunity" due to murky connections with British intelligence, compelling evidence suggests such connections might still be operational in the context of foreign policy imperatives linked to oil and gas interests.
The Security Services and the Woolwich Suspect
Despite being proscribed, Al Muhajiroun has continued to function with impunity in new incarnations, most recently under the banner of Izhar Ud-Deen-il-Haq - run under the tutelage of Bakri's London-based deputy, British-born Anjem Choudary.
Indeed, almost every major terrorist attack and plot in the UK has in some way been linked to Choudary's extremist network. The Woolwich attack was no exception. Anjem Choudary himself admitted to knowing one of the attackers, Michael "Mujahid" Adebolajo, as someone who "attended our meetings and my lectures." Adebolajo was a regular at Al Muhajiroun's Woolwich high street dawah (propagation) stall, was "tutored" by Omar Bakri himself, and had attended the group's meetings between 2005 and 2011.
According to intelligence sources, both attackers were known to "MI5 and MI6" and had appeared on "intelligence watch lists"; and Adebolajo had "featured in several counter-terrorist investigations" as a "peripheral figure" for the "last eight years" - suggesting his terrorist activities began precisely when he joined Al Muhajiroun. In particular, credible reports suggest he was high on MI5's priority for the last three years, with family and friends confirming that he was repeatedly harassed by the agency to become an informant - as late as six months ago.
In this context, the oft-touted 'lone wolf' hypothesis is baseless. For instance, while the recently convicted Birmingham eleven had access to al-Qaeda's Inspire magazine and Anwar al-Awlaki's video speeches, they had also attended al-Qaeda terrorist training camps in Pakistan. This could only happen through an established UK-based Islamist network with foreign connections.
Al Muhajiroun is the only organisation which fits the profile. One in five terrorist convictions in the UK for more than a decade were for people who were either members of or had links to Al Muhajiroun. Last year, four Al Muhajiroun members were convicted at Woolwich Crown Court of planning to bomb the London Stock Exchange. Inspired by Awlaki's teachings, the plotters had also been taught by Choudary's longtime Al Muhajiroun colleague, ex-terror convict Abu Izzadeen. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.
MI6's UK Terror Network
In 1996, Omar Bakri founded Al Muhajiroun with Anjem Choudary. According to John Loftus, a former US Army Intelligence Officer and Justice Department prosecutor, three senior Al Muhajiroun figures at the time - Bakri, Abu Hamza, and Haroon Rashid Aswat - had been recruited by MI6 that year to facilitate Islamist activities in the Balkans. The objective was geopolitical expansion - destabilising former Soviet republics, sidelining Russia and paving the way for the Trans-Balkan oil pipeline protected by incoming NATO 'peacekeeping' bases.
"This is about America's energy security", said then US energy secretary Bill Richardson:
"It's also about preventing strategic inroads by those who don't share our values. We're trying to move these newly independent countries toward the west. We would like to see them reliant on western commercial and political interests rather than going another way. We've made a substantial political investment in the Caspian, and it's very important to us that both the pipeline map and the politics come out right."
On 10th February 1998, Bakri and Choudary issued and signed a "fatwa" - a religious ruling - titled "Muslims in Britain Declare War Against the US and British governments", which warned that the governments of "non-Muslim countries" must "stay away from Iraq, Palestine, Pakistan, Arabia, etc. or face a full scale war of Jihad which will be the responsibility of every Muslim around the world to participate in" - "including the Muslims in the USA and in Britain" who should "confront by all means whether verbally, financially, politically or militarily the US and British aggression."
The same year, Bakri was one of a select few to receive a fax from Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan outlining four objectives for a jihad against the US, including hijacking civilian planes.
In 2000, Bakri admitted to training British Muslims to fight as jihadists in Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya or South Lebanon. Recruits were "learning firearms and explosives use, surveillance and other skills" and "would be expected to join a jihad being waged in one country or another." That year, he boasted: "The British government knows who we are. MI5 has interrogated us many times. I think now we have something called public immunity. There is nothing left. You can label us ... put us behind bars, but it's not going to work."
Labour Party MP Andrew Dismore told Parliament the following year about a month after 9/11 that Bakri's private security firm, Sakina Security Services, "sends people overseas for jihad training with live arms and ammunition", including training camps "in Pakistan and Afghanistan", and even at "many different sites in the United Kingdom." Hundreds of Britons were being funnelled through such training only to return to the UK advocating that Whitehall and Downing Street be attacked as "legitimate targets." Though Sakina was raided by police and shut down, Bakri and Hamza were not even arrested, let alone charged or prosecuted.
It later emerged that the FBI had flagged up the unusual presence of Al Muhajiroun activists at Arizona flight schools in the US in the summer preceding 9/11, many of whom had terrorist connections, including one described as a close bin Laden associate.
The London Bombings
In 2003, two Al Muhajiroun members carried out a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, Israel. That year, authorities began tracking an al-Qaeda ringleader in Britain, Mohammed Quayyum Khan. By 2004, the surveillance operation uncovered the notorious fertiliser bomb plot, prepared by a cell of eighteen people, most of whom were Al Muhajiroun members who had studied under Bakri and Choudary. Quayyum Khan, like the latter, remains free.
The 7/7 bombers, also Al Muhajiroun members, were connected to both terror plots - Mohamed Sidique Khan had been friends with the Tel Aviv bombers, and had even travelled to Israel weeks before their suicide attack. Khan went on to learn to make explosives in a terrorist training camp set up by Al Muhajiroun's British and American members in northern Pakistan.
A year before 7/7, Bakri warned of a "well-organised group" linked to al-Qaeda "on the verge of launching a big operation" against London. Then just months before the 7/7 bombings, The Times picked up Bakri telling his followers in internet lectures: "I believe the whole of Britain has become Dar al-Harb (land of war). The kuffar [non-believer] has no sanctity for their own life or property." Muslims are "obliged" to "join the jihad... wherever you are", and suicide bombings are permitted because "Al-Qaeda... have the emir."
Entrapment Gone Crazy
The strange reluctance to prosecute Al Muhajiroun activists despite their support for al-Qaeda terrorism seems inexplicable. But has Britain's support for al-Qaeda affiliated extremists abroad granted their Islamist allies at home "public immunity"? In early 2005, shortly before the London bombings, the Wall Street Journal's Pulitizer Prize winning journalist Ron Suskind interviewed Bakri after he was told by an MI5 official that the cleric:
"had helped MI5 on several of its investigations."
Suskind recounts in his book, The Way of the World, that when asked why, Bakri told him:
"Because I like it here. My family's here. I like the health benefits." Bakri reiterated this in an interview in early 2007 after his move to Tripoli, Lebanon, claiming, "We were able to control the Muslim youth... The radical preacher that allows a venting of a point of view is preventing violence."
"Bakri enjoyed his notoriety and was willing to pay for it with information he passed to the police... It's a fabric of subtle interlocking needs: the [British authorities] need be in a backchannel conversation with someone working the steam valve of Muslim anger; Bakri needs health insurance."
Why would MI5 and MI6 retain the services of someone as dangerous as Bakri given the overwhelming evidence of his centrality to the path to violent radicalisation? On the one hand, it would seem that through Al Muhajiroun, MI5 is spawning many of the plots it lays claim to successfully foiling - as the FBI is also doing. On the other, the strategy aligns conveniently with narrow geopolitical interests rooted in Britain's unflinching subservience to wider US strategy in the Muslim world.
The Not-So-New Great Game
Little has changed since the Great Game in the Balkans.
According to Alastair Crooke, a former MI6 officer and Middle East advisor to EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, the Saudis are mobilising Islamist extremists to service mutual US-Saudi interests:
"US officials speculated as to what might be done to block this vital corridor [from Iran to Syria], but it was Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia who surprised them by saying that the solution was to harness Islamic forces. The Americans were intrigued, but could not deal with such people. Leave that to me, Bandar retorted."
This region-wide strategy involves sponsorship of Salafi jihadists in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq. Praising Obama's appropriation of this policy, John Hannah - former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney - rejoiced that the idea was to "weaken the Iranian mullahs; undermine the Assad regime; support a successful transition in Egypt; facilitate Qaddafi’s departure; reintegrate Iraq into the Arab fold; and encourage a negotiated solution in Yemen."
The strategy's endgame? Petro-politics, once again, is centre-stage, with the US-UK seeking to dominate regional oil and gas pipeline routes designed, in the words of Saudi expert John Bradley “to disrupt and emasculate the awakenings that threaten absolute monarchism” in the Persian Gulf petro-states.
The seeds of this clandestine alliance with Islamists go back more than six years, when Seymour Hersh reported that the Bush administration had
"cooperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations" intended to weaken the Shi'ite Hezbollah in Lebanon. "The US has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria," wrote Hersh, "a byproduct of which is "the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups" hostile to the United States and "sympathetic to al-Qaeda." He also noted that “the Saudi government, with Washington’s approval, would provide funds and logistical aid to weaken the government of President Bashir Assad, of Syria."
In April 2007, the Lebanese Daily Star reported that the United States had earmarked $60 million to reinforce Interior Ministry forces and Sunni organisations identified as "jihadists." Did Omar Bakri benefit from this? Having settled in Lebanon, Bakri told one journalist at the time, "Today, angry Lebanese Sunnis ask me to organize their jihad against the Shi'ites... Al-Qaeda in Lebanon... are the only ones who can defeat Hezbollah."
And last year, Bakri boasted, "I’m involved with training the mujahideen [fighters] in camps on the Syrian borders and also on the Palestine side." The trainees included four British Islamists "with professional backgrounds" who would go on to join the war in Syria. Bakri also claimed to have trained "many fighters", including people from Germany and France, since arriving in Lebanon.
That Bakri appears to be benefiting from the US strategy to support Islamist extremists in the region is particularly worrying given the British government's acknowledgement that a "substantial number" of Britons are fighting in Syria, who "will seek to carry out attacks against Western interests... or in Western states."
With the arms embargo lifted after David Cameron's pledge to support Syria's rebels - some of whom are al-Qaeda affiliated Islamists with links to extremists at home - the question must be asked whether Britain's security services remain compromised by short-sighted geopolitical interests rooted in our chronic dependency on fossil fuels.
Unfortunately the British government's latest proposals to deal with violent radicalisation - internet censorship, a lower threshold for banning 'extremist' groups - deal not with the failures of state policy, but with the symptoms of those failures. Perhaps governments have tacitly accepted that terrorism, after all, is the price of business as usual.