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Tackling the Challenge Posed by Amateur Terrorists

Alok Rashmi Mukhopadhyay was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • August 01, 2007

    After a month of global media frenzy, alliterative headlines, statements by senior politicians across continents, charges and rebuttals, the terrorist attempts in London and Glasgow appear to be finally gaining some concrete shape. The attempts, which coincided with the second anniversary of the July 7 terrorist attacks on the London Underground, and the subsequent arrests, present a changing trend. The most striking aspect of these failed terrorist attacks is the social and professional strata of the persons detained on charges of involvement. Profiles of the detained persons do not conform to the hitherto existing pattern of second or third generation Muslim immigrants or converts. Rather, persons with considerable professional expertise and a respectable career seem to have exploited the British National Health Service (NHS) to plan these attacks. Apart from sharing the same religious belief, the other common denominator among the perpetrators was their professional accomplishment.

    However, strictly speaking, the involvement of professionals - based or raised in Europe - in terrorist activities is not all that new a phenomenon. Omar Sheikh - a dropout from the London School of Economics - was involved in terrorist activities in the Indian subcontinent. Dhiren Barot, a British convert, was given a forty-year sentence in 2006 (reduced to 30 years subsequently) on charges of planning terrorist attacks. It may also be recalled that some young German nationals or residents were recently arrested along the Pakistan-Iran border. German authorities suspect that young German nationals have chosen to go to Afghanistan to obtain training in terrorist camps there. Quoting August Hanning, the State Secretary for the Interior, as well as German Interior Ministry sources, German media reports have emphasised that Pakistan has become the Mecca for the training of Islamist combatants of different hues. The German Interior Ministry is reportedly aware of at least fourteen German radicals who have in recent months sneaked into Pakistan to obtain armed training there. German authorities are worried that these radicals might, upon their return, target installations in the home country. In fact, two Lebanese students made an unsuccessful attempt last year to explode suitcase bombs at Koblenz and Dortmund stations, angered by the publication of a cartoon series about the Prophet Mohammad in the Danish daily Jyllands Posten. And last week in Italy, police arrested an Imam and his assistants at a mosque in Perugia for using the internet to download combat training manuals as well as for hoarding chemicals used in the manufacture of explosives.

    While European governments have been justifiably worried about the return of radicals from training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they are at the same time confronted by a new trend - the involvement of autodidacts who use their professional expertise in other areas and supplement this with information gleaned from cyberspace. Observers of the global terror scenario have in unison suggested that the recent terror attempts in London and Glasgow were 'amateurish' or 'do-it-yourself' type and lacked 'professional execution'. However, the fact remains that that no government or security agency would wish to take any chance of attempts by such 'terror-clowns' succeeding even remotely, for it would only further encourage other autodidacts to indulge in such a sinister sport.

    Apart from terrorist manuals that are freely available in cyberspace, rhetorical statements and more importantly the personal memoirs of jihadists who are believed to have waged jihad in various conflict zones also contribute enormously to the radicalisation of susceptible Muslim youth in Europe. For example, "The Army of Madinah in Kashmir" written by Dhiren Barot under the pseudonym of 'Esa Al-Hindi is a classic case in point. In this book Barot not only justifies violence in a non-emotive style but his vivid operational details offer proof of the authenticity of his personal experience. The book was originally brought out by a Birmingham-based publishing house, Maktabah Al Ansaar in 1999, and till Barot's conviction in November 2006 an electronic version could easily be downloaded from the internet. Thus, the threat of silent and quick radicalisation of students and professionals with access to sophisticated means of communications, especially the internet, looms large before the international community.

    The question that now confronts us is how to tackle this looming threat. The United Kingdom, for its part, has, since July 2005, been attempting to send strong signals to home-grown radicals and to roving rabble rousers from West Asia and other places that the rules of the game have changed. British courts recently awarded forty year sentences to the four perpetrators of the foiled July 21, 2005 attacks in London, and a ten year sentence to Younis Tsouli - a Moroccan terror internet expert based in the UK - on charges of running Jihadi websites. Gordon Brown's appointment of Admiral Sir Alan West as the Parliamentary Under Secretary in charge of Security is also a distinct measure in this direction. Whether other counter-terrorist measures like longer detention periods, prohibiting the frontal organisations of virulent radical Islamist groups, and cooperation with affected countries would be successful in the long run would depend upon a wider political consensus at home. Nonetheless, the exact nature of the threat has been eloquently assessed by Sir Alan when he described the present threat of radicalisation of a section of Muslim youth in the UK as a generational one and that the remedial process may take a minimum of fifteen years. It is time to build upon this sound understanding of the problem at hand.