Increasing numbers of Muslims in Europe are travelling to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and other conflict zones to obtain training in terrorist methods.
Although intelligence agencies have been following the trend since the July 2005 bombings of the London commuter system, which were perpetrated by four home-grown Islamic terrorists, the scale of the problem has come into greater focus in recent weeks.
European security officials are especially concerned about reports that al-Qaeda is recruiting and training Western operatives who have “clean” criminal records and have the ability to travel freely and blend in with European and American cultures.
In Norway, for example, an ethnic Norwegian convert to militant Islam who has received terrorist training from al-Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen, is awaiting orders to carry out an attack on the West, officials from three European security agencies said on June 25.
European officials have confirmed that the man is “operational,” meaning he has completed his training and is about to receive a target. Although the terrorist-in-waiting is believed to still be in Yemen, even if he is found he cannot be extradited: under Norwegian law it is not a crime to attend a terrorist training camp.
The London-based newspaper Sunday Times, quoting intelligence services, published a story on July 1 that said the Norwegian jihadist had been trained by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP] to evade airport security and is plotting to hijack an American passenger plane and, in a suicide mission, crash it. The newspaper portrayed the plot as an attack on the upcoming London Olympics, to be held from July 27 to August 12, but said the target was specifically supposed to be an American aircraft.
The paper described the recruit as being a Norwegian citizen in his 30s, with no immigrant background, but who calls himself Abu Abdulrahman. The man, who converted to Islam in 2008, has apparently in recent months been undergoing training at AQAP bases in Yemen.
According to a detailed report in the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet, on July 5, the individual is a 33-year-old Norwegian who, in his youth, was associated with Oslo’s far-left Blitz movement. Despite his one-time radical credentials, he later worked as a babysitter at a daycare center in Oslo, the city where he was born and raised. He did not have a history of violence, the paper said.
Dagbladet went on to report that eventually he became a member of the Green Party; a source close to the suspect said that, after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, he had come to be viewed as an easily-influenced conspiracy theorist.
His ideological priorities shifted, according to the paper, after he married the daughter of a diplomat from an unspecified North African country. In 2008, he converted to Islam and underwent a change of lifestyle: he gave up alcohol and broke off almost all contact with his earlier friends. The newspaper stated that he recently became a father, and that his wife had travelled to her home country with their child.
Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5, Britain’s domestic security service, recently provided important context to the threat posed by would-be jihadists. In a rare public address on June 25, Evans said the Olympic Games in London “present an attractive target for our enemies and they will be at the center of the world’s attention in a month or so. No doubt some terrorist networks have thought about whether they could pull off an attack.”
“In back rooms and in cars and on the streets of this country there is no shortage of individuals talking about wanting to mount terrorist attacks here,” Evans continued. “It is essential that we maintain pressure on al-Qaeda.”
Evans also said that al-Qaeda militants are using the countries which toppled their leaders in the Arab Spring as bases to train radical Western youths for potential attacks on Britain: “This is the completion of a cycle. Al-Qaida first moved to Afghanistan in the 1990s due to pressure in their Arab countries of origin. They moved on to Pakistan after the fall of the Taliban. And now some are heading home to the Arab world again.”
“Today,” Evans added, “parts of the Arab world have once more become a permissive environment for al-Qaeda. A small number of British would-be jihadis are also making their way to Arab countries to seek training and opportunities for militant activity, as they do in Somalia and Yemen. Some will return to the UK and pose a threat here. This is a new and worrying development and could get worse.”