Over on his new blog, Abu Susu, aka Yassin Mubarash has provided a brief write-up of a series of alleged al Qaeda documents that have come to light as part of a terrorism trial in Germany, alongside a challenge for people to discuss the implications of the information if true. At around the same time or just before, another German journalist, Florian Flade, published a similar post on his site Jih@d, providing a slightly different description of the same documents.
The one that has most piqued my interest are the alleged British documents that are supposed to have been written by Rashid Rauf. From the understanding I have, the papers are essentially a post-operation report on the July 7, July 21, and Overt bomb plots (Overt was the codename for the 2006 attempt by Abdulla Ali and a bunch of his mates to bring down about eight planes as they made there way to America) and German intelligence seems pretty convinced that this was written by Rashid Rauf, the infamous British-Pakistani terrorist operator. This is apparently based on the detailed knowledge of the British plots and some biographical details that are mentioned.
Now I have to preface what comes next with the comment that I have not seen the documents, and so am basing my read-out on second hand analysis. But on the assumption that these are the real deal, this is fascinating as it confirms that al Qaeda in fact directed all three British plots, though to varying degrees of success. In his new book The Al Qaeda Factor, NYPD Director of Intelligence Mitchell Silber, identifies the three plots as having connections, but ends up concluding that while Overt was likely a directed plot, the 7/7 and the 21/7 plots were what he considers as “suggested/endorsed” by al Qaeda. In his assessment, there was clearly a connection, but it is uncertain that the group was directing the cells in London.
To deal with the plots in order – the confirmation that al Qaeda directed the July 7, 2005 atrocity on London’s underground is not surprising. The video in which al Qaeda claimed it and included the will of leader Mohammed Siddique Khan, “Will of the Knights of the London Raid”, featured Ayman al Zawahiri, demonstrating a high level connection. Khan was also on the periphery of the large network around the Crevice group, who had connections right up to the number three in al Qaeda at the time, Abdul Hadi al Iraqi. Furthermore, as we saw during the Coroner’s Inquest into the incident, Khan was in contact with a number in Pakistan a great deal in the run-up to his attack, and a same number in Pakistan tried to call his phone after he had carried his bombing.
That the connection might flow through Rauf in some way is also not that surprising: when Khan went to Pakistan in mid-2001 to train, he and his young protégé Waheed Ali, went to a Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen (HuM) training camp. When Rauf went to Pakistan after fleeing police in the wake of the murder of his uncle in Birmingham in 2002, he seems to have connected quite quickly with Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a slightly different Kashmir oriented group (like HuM) that JeM’s leader Maulana Masood Azhar (a former leader in HuM) had founded after he was released from prison alongside another British jihadist Omar Saeed Sheikh (who later became famous for the murder of reporter Daniel Pearl and who also first found jihad in South Asia through HuM). HuM and JeM are parallel groups with some cross-pollination and so that Khan and Rauf’s networks intersected is unsurprising. Consequently, that Khan would have connected with Rauf on one of his later trips to Pakistan – either in 2003 when he attended a training camp with the Crevice cell, or in 2004 when he went back again expecting to die fighting in Afghanistan is not entirely surprising. It has long been believed that Rauf was involved in the July 7 plot in some way, this new information seems to confirm that.
The news of a stronger connection to the July 21, 2005 attempt on London’s underground is much more surprising and interesting. In this case, we have very little solid information on the connection to al Qaeda. The belief is that Muktar Said Ibrahim may have trained with the group in late 2004 when he Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer (of the July 7 group) and Abdulla Ali (of the Overt plot) were all in Pakistan at the same time learning how to make remarkably similar bombs. Ibrahim had initially headed out with two others from his circle of friends from London’s radical community in London to Pakistan to fight in Afghanistan (the two men’s passports were allegedly found in a house of Rauf’s in Bahawalpur). A man who was later identified as a key point of contact for the Overt group and as Rashid Rauf’s key man on the ground with the Overt cell allegedly sent them to Pakistan (or at least helped them with the contacts). And finally, Muktar Said Ibrahim called numbers linked to Abdulla Ali (the leader on the ground of Overt), and some dodgy numbers in Pakistan, while his co-conspirator Yassin Omar contacted a number linked to Rangzieb Ahmed, an admitted HuM fighter who is currently in jail for being a director of al Qaeda.
But it remained unclear to what degree the group had been directed by al Qaeda. Little information has been put into the public domain about Muktar Said Ibrahim’s time in Pakistan, beyond certain statements by security services that he had trained alongside the other cells, highlighting the surprising use of hydrogen peroxide in all three devices, something never seen before in the United Kingdom. Now it seems as though the group was in fact in contact with al Qaeda core, but managed to lose contact with their handler and as a result were unable to correct the crucial flaw in their devices that meant they harmlessly popped on London’s underground system. According to Abu Susu’s read-out, the group tried to reach out but was unable to contact their handler and as a result was unable to correct their mistake in mixing their devices. So the attempt failed.
This raises a number of questions: first, did the July 7 and July 21 groups have the same handlers? It seems unlikely that this would be the case, if for no other reason than the different way in which they were managed. Khan was in regular contact with someone in Pakistan who was helping him along. Presumably, the same handler would have done the same thing with Ibrahim if he was the manager of the contact and losing contact would be remarkably inept and quite a contrast. It would also have been quite lax operational security to have the same person handle the contacts with two cells that otherwise were kept so firmly apart. Having said this, it would not be the first time that this was done: the New York cell led by Najibullah Zazi became known to authorities because he reached out to the same email account that a cell in northern England had used in Pakistan to discuss their plot. An account linked to this one helped uncover another linked cell in Oslo. So such mistakes have been made. But in 2004/5 al Qaeda likely had much more freedom operating and as a result would probably have had more resources to deploy in managing the cells.
We already know a lot more about the final cell identified here, the Overt group were long known to have had a strong connection to al Qaeda core, and specifically Rashid Rauf. What is fascinating from the discovery of these documents is that we can now see how the contacts apparently evolved. With the July 2005 bombers, al Qaeda seems to have kept them on a relatively long leash. By the time we get to the Overt group, we have Rauf himself managing the connection, through phone calls and emails. But this was not enough, with him deciding to send a close confidant in to manage things on the ground and guarantee that things went off without a hitch. Having said that, it also seems as though this individual was in contact with other potential cells around the country, suggesting that his job was not solely to manage the Overt group.
So what can be drawn from this information?
Well, first of all, it is interesting the degree to which we see the groups requiring help in building their devices once back in the UK. Clearly, an inability to check with their bosses was the key flaw that stymied the 21/7 group. Khan needed a lot of handholding and it seems had faced a similar difficulty prior to his attempt, something he was able to resolve with his handler. For the Overt chaps, we can see from emails that have been released that they discussed in some detail their progress in developing a device.
Secondly, it is fascinating that by the end of 2004, al Qaeda was willing to have quite high level leaders meet with Briton’s on jihadi tourism in South Asia and then trust these individuals to go back home and build cells. In all three cases, we can see how the key ‘emir’ in the UK (Khan, Ibrahim and Ali) trained with al Qaeda and then came back to the UK where they were able to assemble quite substantial cells of individuals willing to offer themselves as suicide bombers without having had direct contact themselves with al Qaeda. This is a testament to the volume of radicals around in the UK at the time, and the confidence of these cell leaders to be able to transform their wider networks in the UK into teams of suicide bombers. The wider cell around the 7/7 is somewhat unclear, the 21/7 group was large and included a number of individuals around the Finsbury Park mosque, and the Overt cell was always most worrying because of the large number of individuals who had seemingly offered themselves as suicide bombers and the six who had recorded martyrdom videos.
And then there is a timing question. It is fascinating to now see that al Qaeda was indeed likely directing the three cells. They came after the Crevice group who seem to have been amongst the pathfinders in terms of building connections to al Qaeda’s broader network from the UK. But based on Mohammed Junaid Babar’s testimony and other bits in the public domain, the cell there was very eager to connect with al Qaeda core (and cell leader Omar Khyam was quite noisy about his supposed connection with Abdul Hadi al Iraqi), but it seems largely to have elected to go and do something back in the UK by themselves. Whether we can read anything into the lack of inclusion of the cell in the post-event reports is unclear, but certainly they were using a different type of device and it seems as though they found their bomb training from another source. Based on what information exists, it seems as though the Crevice lot were in fact a supply network in the first place that expressed eagerness to do something, rather than a tasked cell. What contact the group did have seems to have flowed though Salahuddin Amin who was their contact in Pakistan and whom they asked for details about how to build their device. But demonstrative maybe of how far from the core he was, Amin had to spent some days going to find the answer to the question from cell leader Omar Khyam, presumably unlike the handlers for the other British plots who were directly hardwired into al Qaeda core.
So one possibility is that after the failure of the Crevice cell, al Qaeda decided to try to actually redirect some of these Brits who were showing up to more useful activities rather than let them just die in Afghanistan or go back to concoct half-baked plots. They now believed that these Brits were dedicated to the cause and were willing to trust them both with high level contacts, but also with plans that would involve them going to recruit a high number of dedicated warriors in the UK who had never trained alongside the group. The point being that maybe it took until 2004 to realise that these foreigners were trustworthy and the real thing – something confirmed by the efforts of the Crevice cell and the growing presence of increasingly senior Brits in their ranks (Rashid Rauf and Omar Saeed Sheikh being just two).
There is a final point to touch upon. German authorities seem quite convinced that Rashid Rauf wrote these documents, but he has theoretically been dead for over three years now. Were these part of some electronic brain-trust of the organisation (maybe the mysterious Office of Services Abu Susu refers to?), or is he simply not dead? Or maybe these were multi-authored documents? The common belief is that Rauf was killed by drone strike in November 2008, but no tangible evidence has ever been produced and plots with his fingerprints have emerged a number of times since then. While quite logical explanations exist for this (his contacts were passed on to someone else), you have to wonder why his name keeps showing up.