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The Blackburn Resistance

25/03/2010

Up North at Manchester Crown Court, brothers Abbas and Ilyas Iqbal have been found guilty this week of charges relating to their the dissemination of material useful to terrorists and preparation of acts of terrorism. A third man, a white Muslim convert, was cleared of charges against him.

The men became dubbed the “Blackburn Resistance” after a video was uncovered on a mobile SIM card in Abbas Iqbal’s luggage as he tried to board a plane at Manchester airport. The clip showed the men running around a park in Blackburn in camouflage and seemingly imitating command training with As Sahab-type music in the background. At the beginning of the video the words the “Blackburn Resistance” featured prominently, and a voice intoned “They are fighting against oppression, they are The Blackburn Resistance.”

Alongside this footage and a wide array of other photos of the men brandishing or trying weapons out, a variety of knives, BB guns, an air rifle and pistol, crossbows and live ammunition were found with the men. Two documents entitled “attack planning” and “urban combat” were also found bearing the brothers fingerprints.

But while some of the pictures of the group are quite dramatic looking, the reality is that it is very hard to imagine this group as a cell of hardened terrorists. Cognizant of this, the prosecution was very careful to not paint the men in too heavy a light, recognizing that “some aspects of the material may at first blush seem almost comical in [their] amateurishness.” Nonetheless, they saw the group as “intoxicated by the evil of terrorism,” and actively preparing to disseminate recruiting material abroad.

The men ultimately received relatively light sentences, Abbas Iqbal, 24, was sentenced to two years in prison for the dissemination of terrorist publications, while his younger brother Ilyas, 23, was incarcerated for 18 months for possessing a document likely to be useful to a terrorist. Given he has spent almost that amount of time already on remand, Ilyas was released, while his older brother will still serve another three to four months. Their co-defendant was cleared on all charges having spent 387 days in custody. A fourth man picked up with them at the airport is still on trial in a separate case.

But it is hard to judge exactly how much of a victory this really is for counter-terrorists. This is not a cell of global travelers with contacts to Al Qaeda core, but rather a group of young men who through the internet and home computers were able to create an imitation set of videos and pictures of themselves dressing up as terrorists. That they may have later gone on to do something is of course perfectly possible, but as the prosecutor pointed out: “at the stage when they were stopped by police, they had not got very far.”

It is easy to see how this could play badly in the court of public opinion, where what even the prosecution described as “larking around in a park in Blackburn,” was painted as potential terrorist training. The fact they seem not to have been receiving much coverage in the press is a good thing, and probably the product of the fact that very few editors would have taken the group very seriously.

A final point I would add about these chaps, however, is how lucky they are to have been caught doing these acts in the UK – had they been nabbed for similar things in the U.S., they would probably be looking at very long stints inside.