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Friday, August 22, 2008 

al-Qaida in Britain return.

It's interesting to say the least that the BBC are reporting that the arrests made in Lancashire last week are connected to the investigation into the supposed setting up of "al-Qaida in Britain". You might recall that this got certain sections of the media very excited back in January, after a message was posted on the al-Ekhlass jihadist forum which threatened both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair with death if British troops weren't withdrawn from Afghanistan and Iraq by the end of March. As both are still very much with us and there hasn't been even the sniff of a major attack for over a year, the scepticism with which it was treated outside of the confines of Newsnight and the Times seems to have been very much warranted.

The three men arrested, all in their early twenties, were apparently about to travel to that well-known hot-bed of Islamic militancy, Finland. The ages of the men perhaps further gives the game away: if this truly was another franchise of al-Qaida setting itself up, it hardly seems likely that they would have chosen three individuals hardly out of nappies to head it. From the sketches of what we know about the offshoots which have spread across the Muslim world, the leaders of the groups have tended to be veterans of past conflicts, or at least long-time adherents to the takfirist/Salafist ideology which underpins al-Qaida's thought processes. While al-Zarqawi, former leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, now the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq, only turned up in Afghanistan after the fighting had finished against the Soviets in the 80s, he was still considered a veteran. His successor (or at least considered real successor, with Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as a figurehead, Masri serving as ISI's "minister for war"), presumed to Abu Ayyub al-Masri, was a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, an organisation formerly helmed by Ayman al-Zahawiri himself. Elsewhere, formerly independent radical groups have pledged allegiance to al-Qaida, such as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in Algeria, now known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb, keeping their leadership intact.

As a security source said at the time, this was always likely to be the work of fantasists dreaming about truly belonging to al-Qaida. The short shrift their proclamations were given on al-Ekhlass further underlined how even amongst their apparent peers they were viewed as being bullshit artists. If it does indeed turn out these three were responsible, then it will only likely further show the amateurish nature of the current "radicals" in this country.

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You may find the latest book by Marc Sageman of interest. He suggests, not without some justification, it seems, that these amateur, self-starting cells are the way "Al-Qaeda" is going.

It would be more useful to have a different name for Al-Qaeda, the group headed by Bin Laden and its various franchises, and "Al-Qaeda" the ideology/social movement that spawns self-starting cells, because conflating one with the other gives a far greater impression of the former's ability and power than otherwise exists. It also draws links between the former and latter when few, if any, exist.

The latter, the self-starter are as you say, amateurish, usually not very knowledgeable about Islam, usually in their early 20s and usually draw their friends into a cell. They often get their worldview, as well as their information on how to carry out terrorist attacks, via the internet, and not directly from some hidden terrorist mastermind lurking in the shadows somewhere.

In short, while they are superficially similar to the terrorist threat we are used to, there are real differences. MI5, going by the recently leaked report in the Guardian, seems to understand this. The media, and to a degree, the politicians, seem to have not yet caught on, however, and that does worry me.

The book by Sageman is called Leaderless Jihad, by the way. I highly recommend it.

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