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London Bridge Knifing Attack – Does Europe Learn?

By: Dr. Ely Karmon, Senior researcher at The Institute for Counter Terrorism, IDC Herzliyah

Abstract

The threat of a renewed major wave of jihadist terrorism in Europe depends on the way we seize the opportunity offered by the decline of ISIS’s self-declared caliphate.

Europe has to decide on common coordinated strategies how to challenge the threats: the policy for the returning Foreign Fighters; the fate of women and children in camps and prisons in Syria and Iraq; radicalization in prisons, including the policies of punishment and liberation of prisoners. The latest example of the knifing attack by Usman Khan in London is a vivid reminder.

The European leniency vis-à-vis major influential entrepreneurs and ideologues, like Anjem Choudary, who are much more dangerous than the jihadist “soldiers” or even the leading operational heads, needs to be replaced by a strategy adapted to the threat they represent.

The focus should be on prevention of radicalization rather than de-radicalization, as several EU Horizon2020 projects try to promote.

 

The London Bridge knifing attack

The November 19, 2019 knifing attack in London was staged by 28-year-old Usman Khan, born in the United Kingdom to immigrant parents from the Pakistan controlled Kashmir province.

Khan was part of a group of men charged with plotting to attack in 2010 the London Stock Exchange, the Houses of Parliament, the US embassy, two rabbis at two synagogues, the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, the home of then London Mayor Boris Johnson. Khan, then age 19, pleaded guilty to several charges, including trying to raise money for a future madrassa in Kashmir, planning to make that madrassa an available training facility, including firearms training.[1]

Khan was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2012, but in April 2013, a Court of Appeal gave him a sentence of 16 years. He was granted an early release in December 2018 on the agreement that he would wear an electronic monitoring tag.[2]

Khan had been invited to attend a justice conference on prison rehabilitation at Fishmongers’ Hall, on the northern side of London Bridge on the day of the attack. He had previously participated in Cambridge University’s “Learning Together,” a prison-based education initiative with the emphasis on “being, belonging, becoming.” but had showed “no cause for concern.’” [3] The Times reported Khan had threatened to “blow up” the building.

In an excellent analysis of the London attack, Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, raise some of the “perennial questions for law enforcement and intelligence agencies — who is at risk of re-offending? And can they be effectively monitored? How effective are deradicalization and rehabilitation programs?” They raise also the possibility that Khan, whose main preoccupation in the preparation of the 2010 attacks was Kashmir, his ancestral homeland, possibly was motivated in his knifing spree, by recent events in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir, where  the government in Delhi launched a security crackdown this year and stripped much of it of its autonomous status.[4]

Five of Khan’s accomplices in the 2010 plot have also been released. Interestingly, one of them, Mohibur Rahman, was released early after he applied to a deradicalization program — but was jailed again in August 2017 for plotting a “mass casualty attack” on a police or military target with two other men. Rahman received a minimum 20-year sentence.[5]

Khan’s attack opened a fierce political and professional debate in the UK, ahead of the forthcoming elections, about the British government’s policy concerning the trials and the release of condemned terrorists and the de-radicalization programs of former terrorists.

PM Boris Johnson attacked the “failed approaches” that led to the early release of Khan and ordered a review of dozens of violent terrorists released from prison in recent years. The Ministry of Justice launched an urgent inquiry to examine the licence conditions of up to 70 violent terrorists believed to have been freed from jail.[6]

Boris Johnson blamed changes to the law made under former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labour government for Khan’s freedom, arguing that it was “ridiculous and repulsive” that he was automatically freed halfway through his sentence. But Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party leader and Johnson’s opponent in the upcoming election, declared that it was “not necessarily” right that convicted extremists should have to serve their full sentence.[7]

Kyle Orton, a British independent terrorism researcher, claimed that it is “impossible to argue that [Khan] shouldn’t have been in prison. He was so obviously a dangerous person.” Orton believes that rehabilitation works “in some cases, especially for those who are dabbling in extremism. In those circumstances, early intervention can make a big difference. But he is skeptical of claims that rehabilitation programs should be used more generally as a tool to counter extremism. The solution, according to Orton, lies in tougher sentencing: “In the US, terrorists receive 20-30 years of prison for material support of an extremist group,” Orton said. “Keeping jihadists off the streets is preferable to trusting in half-baked reformation.”[8]

David Wilson, emeritus professor of criminology at Birmingham City University, told The Times that “people know what they have to say so that you can tick boxes to say you have done the [rehabilitation] course. It is not rigorous and nobody has confidence that it does what it says on the tin.” He added: “The prison service has no idea how to cope with terrorists. The only good thing that might come out of this terrible tragedy is there will be a proper look at how we are going to cope with people convicted of terrorist offences.”[9]

One of the issues for which the conservative government has been criticized is the major drop in the number of police officers, who should be the ones to ensure the security in the streets and the country at large.

According to figures from GMB, the union for police staff, 23,500 police staff jobs have been lost in England and Wales since 2010.The most affected region is London, which has lost almost half (47 per cent or 9,000 jobs) of its police staff since 2010. The worst of the cuts were inflicted in the Metropolitan Police during Boris Johnson’s term as Mayor of London.“Only Labour can be trusted to put police back on our streets and provide the staff needed to maintain law and order,” claims the leftist union.That would almost reverse the reduction in police numbers since the Conservatives came to power.[10]

It should be noted however, that the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson had announced in July 2019 plans to recruit an extra 20,000 police officers in England and Wales.Police leaders greeted the announcement warmly, but there are questions over whether there are enough training instructors, stations and suitable candidates to meet the target in three years. Asked how the extra officers would be housed following the closure of 600 police stations since 2010, the new policing minister admitted there were “logistical challenges”.[11]

 

The ISIS – al-Qaeda connection

ISIS’s Amaq news agency has claimed responsibility for the London Bridge terror attack without offering any proof of its claim. The attack could possibly be a result of a call to action by the “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in an audio of August 2018. Al-Baghdadi gave his blessing to “lone wolves in the lands of crusaders in Canada, Europe and elsewhere for their work in supporting their brothers,” and called on ISIS supporters to carry out similar, simple attacks: “A bullet or a stab or a bomb would be worth a thousand operations. And don’t forget to drive into crowds in the streets.”

However, the terrorist attacks for which Khan was condemned in 2012 where clearly inspired by al-Qaeda. Documents from 2012 confirm that Khan was, while a member of a nine-strong UK cell with networks in London, Cardiff and Stoke, inspired by the ideology and methodology of the radical Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was then the pre-eminent English-language jihadist internet recruiter. Awlaki has surfaced as a principal radicalizer in terrorism plots including the 7 July 2005 London bombings.[12]

Moreover, Khan was a student and close friend of Anjem Choudary, the infamous leader of the British salafi/jihadist group, al-Muhajiroun, outlawed in 2005. When arrested in 2010, Khan had Choudary’s private mobile number stored on his phone. According to The Guardian, the connection raises fresh questions over al-Muhajiroun. A number of the network’s members were released from prison over a six-month period beginning in the autumn of 2018. One of them was Khan. When asked if the al-Muhajiroun network was attempting to expand operations out of its traditional powerbase of south east England, British security service sources said the group was being “contained”.[13]

This connection raises the larger question of the importance of the al-Qaeda networks responsible for the recruitment and dispatching of European foreign fighters (FFs) to Syria from 2011 to 2014, the conversion of many of them to ISIS fighters after the declaration of the Islamic State (IS) Caliphate in June 2014 and the future of the balance of power between ISIS and al-Qaeda networks in Europe, after the demise of the IS.

The EU Horizon2020 project TRIVALENT, to which this author and his institute ICT, participate, has finished in March 2019 its analysis of these issues in the framework of the task “Analysis of the Internal Organisations and Networks of Radical Groups in Europe.”[14] The analysis and its conclusions were resumed in a published article, The Jihadist Radicalization Processes in Europe (2001-2019). Below several important points raised in this analysis which refer exactly to the issues of jail sentences for terrorists and their early release and the destructive role of ideologues like Choudary.[15]

 

Radicalization networks in prisons and criminal links.

Prisons play a critical role in both triggering and reinforcing the radicalization process and have gained in importance as “radicalization incubator.” Many of the jihadist terrorists after 2007 had a criminal history and radicalized while behind bars. 10 of the 17 operatives of the 2015-2016 Paris-Brussels network had a past of petty crimes. From the 247 people radicalized and involved in jihadist activities arrested in Spain until summer 2018, 87% provisionally entered prisons and 2% in juvenile centres.[16]

On this background, it should be stressed that known non-arrested suspects or liberated terrorists from jail can represent a major threat, as they possibly are highly motivated and trained.  UK Police and security services face a surge in the number of convicted terrorists released from prison. More than 40% of the sentences for terrorism offences handed down over a 10-year period will have been served by the end of 2018. More than 80 of the 193 terms issued for terrorism offences between 2007 and 2016 will run out by the end of 2018. However, the number of individuals released could be much higher as prisoners are eligible for release halfway through their sentence.[17]

At 1st June 2018, French prisons held 512 individuals convicted of acts of terrorism and 1,145 inmates under common law who had been identified as radicalized. These figures have increased significantly since 2016. 48 Islamist terrorist inmates and 402 radicalized inmates under common are set to be freed by the end of 2019. The potential threat that they represent calls for special vigilance in their monitoring.[18]

In 2018, 17 EU Member States reported a total of 653 individuals who were convicted or acquitted of terrorist offences. This number is higher than the numbers reported over the past two years. In 2018, France was the Member State that reported the highest number of individuals in concluded court proceedings for terrorist offences (141), followed by Spain (120), the UK (115) and Belgium (80). Some of the defendants who appeared before courts in the EU Member States were minors at the time of trial and/or when the offences were committed. The number of female defendants judged in 2018 (94) continued to increase as compared to 2017 (66) and 2016 (53).[19]

 

The role of Anjem Choudary and the Sharia4 Movement

The indoctrination and radicalization of potential terrorists is facilitated and driven by a “spiritual sanctioner” or “entrepreneurs” involved in propagating the jihad-Salafi ideology. One networked cooperation involves cooperative activities between a terrorist entrepreneur and an informal network.

This type of cooperation is illustrated in the British jihadist entrepreneur Anjem Choudary’s role in helping to establish a number of jihadist and Salafist networks in Europe, many including the “Sharia4” prefix in their names.[20]

Choudary, a British-born Salafist preacher of Pakistani origin, was a leading member of the UK branch of Al-Muhajiroun (The Emigrants, AM), a jihadist organization founded in 1986 by Omar Bakri Mohammed, a Syrian born Salafist preacher and activist. Choudary served as Bakri’s assistant. The AM grew to become the most prominent Islamist movement in the UK and the group’s broader contacts reached into the thousands in about 30 cities and towns across the UK, but also in other countries.[21]

In the decade following the London bombings of July 7, 2005, Choudary has gradually become the most well-known, and one of the most controversial, activists associated with the European Salafist-jihadist scene, focused on “street da’wa”, using leaflets, demonstrations, and similar activities on the streets of European cities and villages, actively supporting jihad by “hand, tongue, or heart.”[22]

Shortly after the 7/7 bombings in London, AM was banned in Britain, and Bakri fled to Lebanon. However, AM continued to evolve through a steadily growing number of front groups, at least 50 platforms, that operated under various names, but were largely run by the same small circle of leaders, de facto under the control of Choudary.

Since 2010, Choudary began exporting a new brand known as the Sharia4 movement. Its Belgian franchise, Sharia4Belgium developed in early 2010 as an informal network separate from Choudary’s UK movement, although closely inspired, guided and financially supported by it. The group formed around a young Belgian-born jihadist of Moroccan extraction, Fouad Belkacem who recruited predominantly young Muslims and converts through street preaching.

In September 2014, the Belgian court ruled that Sharia4Belgium was a terrorist organization and found 45 members of the network guilty. Belkacem, the undisputed leader of the network, was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

In the summer of 2015, the European networks connected to the Sharia4 movement were at the heart of Europe’s radical Islamist community cooperating with ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Belgium topped the list of jihadi FFs and Sharia4Belgium facilitated the movement to Syria and Iraq of other jihadists, such as members of Dutch informal networks.

The internationalization of the movement would proceed through the export of the new brand, “Sharia4,” such as Sharia4Holland or Shariah4Andalus (aka Sharia4Spain) outside of Europe, such as Sharia4USA, Sharia4Australia, Shariah4Southafrica, or Sharia4 Pakistan. The cooperation between these various networks relies heavily upon the Internet and social media platforms. On the ideological level their goal is the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate as the remedy to the perceived predicaments facing the global Islamic community of believers.

Anjem Choudary was finally arrested in 2014 after pledging allegiance to ISIS. The oath of allegiance was a “turning point” which meant he could be put on trial. Choudary was convicted on 6 September 2016 to five years and six months in prison.[23] Sadly, like Usman Khan, Anjem Choudary was freed in October 2018 having served only half of a five-and-a-half-year prison sentence.[24]

 

Conclusion

The threat of a renewed major wave of jihadist terrorism in Europe depends on the way we seize the opportunity offered by the decline of ISIS’s self-declared caliphate. The fascination with ISIS will die out, at least temporarily, as a result of the failure of its state project, since this constituted a critical part of its appeal.

However, many of the conducive environments that permitted ISIS’s success in widely different locations around the world, including Europe, are still very much in place. Some respite is now offered in which to address the conducive environment. If we fail to seize this moment, at some point in the future it might again be difficult to address the re-emergence of a fresh jihadi wave in time.

Europe has to decide on common coordinated strategies how to challenge the threats: the policy for the returning FFs; the fate of women and children in camps and prisons in Syria and Iraq; radicalization in prisons, including the policies of punishment and liberation of prisoners. The latest example of the knifing attack by Usman Khan in London is a vivid reminder.

The European leniency vis-à-vis major influential entrepreneurs and ideologues, like Omar Muhammed Bakri, Anjem Choudary, who are much more dangerous than the jihadist “soldiers” or even the leading operational heads, needs to be replaced by a strategy adapted to the threat they represent.

The focus should be on prevention of radicalization rather than de-radicalization, as several Horizon2020 projects try to promote.

 


[1]  Sarah Gray, “Police have identified the London Bridge terror suspect as Usman Khan. He had previously been jailed for terrorism-related offenses.” Insider, November 30, 2019.

[2]  Ibid.

[3]  Emily Webber, “’My friend died in my arms’: Inside the academic day out that turned to tragedy when terrorist Usman Khan stabbed two people to death in rampage at rehabilitation conference called Learning Together,” Mailonline. November 30, 2019 l

[4]  Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, “Hundreds of former jihadis are set to be freed from jail. London terror attack shows the risks,” CNN, December 1, 2019.

[5]  Ibid.

[6]  Edward Malnick  and Martin Evans, “Boris Johnson’s fury over 70 freed terrorists as he blasts failures over London Bridge jihadist,” The Telegraph, November 30, 2019.

[7]  Charlie Peters, UK’s ‘half-baked reformation’ blamed for London attack, Arab News, December 03, 2019.

[8]  Ibid.

[9]  Ibid.

[10]  GMB Union, “Shock figures reveal 23,500 police staff cut under the Tories,” GMB website, December 4, 2019.

[11]  Lizzie Dearden, “Boris Johnson’s new policing minister admits ‘logistical challenges’ in recruiting 20,000 police officers,” The Independent, July 26, 2019.

[12]  Mark Townsend and Nosheen Iqbal, “We don’t understand how Usman Khan ended up like this” The Guardian, November 30, 2019.

[13]  Ibid.

[14]  See TRIVALENT website at https://trivalent-project.eu/

[15]  Ely Karmon, “The Jihadist Radicalization Processes in Europe (2001-2019),” International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) website, July 28, 2019, URL: https://www.ict.org.il/Article/2427/The_Jihadist_Radicalization_Processes_in-Europe#gsc.tab=0

[16]  Álvaro Vicente, “La excarcelación de yihadistas: un reto para España” (The release of jihadists: a challenge for Spain), Global terrorism, The Elcano Royal Institute, July 27, 2018.

[17]  Jamie Grierson and Caelainn Bar, “Police facing surge in extremists released from jail, analysis finds,” The Guardian, June 3, 2018.

[18]  “Action Plan Against Terrorism,” France’s Prime Minister’s Report, 13 July 2018, URL: http://www.sgdsn.gouv.fr/uploads/2018/10/20181004-plan-d-action-contre-le-terrorisme-anglais.pdf

[19] European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2019 (TeSat 2019), EUROPOL, p. 21, URL: https://www.europol.europa.eu/activities-services/main-reports/terrorism-situation-and-trend-report-2019-te-sat

[20]  Assaf Moghadam, Nexus of Global Jihad: Understanding Cooperation Among Terrorist Actors, Columbia University Press, 2017.

[21]  Lorenzo Vidino, Sharia4: Straddling Political Activism and Jihad in the West (Dubai: Al Mesbar Studies and Research Centre, 2015), in Arabic.

[22] Nick Lowles and Joe Mulhall, “Gateway to Terror: Anjem Choudary and the al-Muhajiroun Network. Hope Not Hate,” London, 2014. As quoted in Andrew Anthony, “Anjem Choudary: The British extremist who Backs the Caliphate,” The Guardian, September 7, 2014.

[23]  “Radical preacher Anjem Choudary jailed for five years”, BBC News, September 6, 2016.

[24]  Ben Quinn “Radical preacher Anjem Choudary freed from prison,” The Guardian, October 19, 2018.

 

Originally published by the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (IDC Herzliya)