Militant Islamist group remains an inspiration to many would-be extremists
Source: CBC News(Andre Mayer)
“I would say its influence now is as great or greater than it’s ever been, though more in an indirect sense,” says Lorne Dawson, co-director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society.
Dawson says that one of the achievements of the group behind the Sept. 11 attacks was inspiring like-minded organizations and setting “an example to all these groups around the world on how to reach out and communicate” to would-be extremists.
Part of its indirect influence has been to inspire “self-appointed jihadis” who take it upon themselves to seek out people willing to carry out attacks, and then pass these individuals up the line for further training by someone else.
The alleged train attack plot “appears to be a manifestation of what [Osama] bin Laden advised the world some years ago — namely, that there are a handful of countries that he had wanted struck,” said David Harris, an Ottawa-based lawyer and director of Insignis Strategic Research.
“Canada was among them, and Canada remains the only one of the lot yet to be hit on the scale that al-Qaeda has desired,” he added.
On Monday, RCMP charged Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, of Montreal, and Raed Jaser, 35, of Toronto, with conspiracy to carry out a terrorist attack and “conspiring to murder persons unknown for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with a terrorist group.”
U.S. law enforcement and national security sources told Reuters that these individuals were targeting a rail line between Toronto and New York.
RCMP Assistant Commissioner James Malizia said the two accused were getting “direction and guidance” from al-Qaeda elements in Iran.
The evolution of al-Qaeda
Since the details of the plot were revealed on Monday, many commentators have remarked on how unusual it is that al-Qaeda, a Sunni Muslim organization formed by Osama bin Laden, would have a presence in Iran, a country made up largely of Shia Muslims.
Canadian security expert Wesley Wark says the notion of al-Qaeda as a centralized command structure that authorizes and carries out attacks in Western countries is “a thing of the past.”
He says that even before bin Laden’s death in 2011, the group had splintered off into localized factions, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, that were more focused on insurgencies in countries such as Mali or Yemen.
“From my perspective, I don’t think al-Qaeda affiliates are likely to target Canada. I think their operations will be primarily on regional environments,” says Wark.
What’s fuelling prospective Muslim radicals in Canada, he says, is the “al-Qaeda narrative” — namely, the legacy and inspiration of bin Laden.
In 2004, Momin Khawaja became the first Canadian charged under Canada’s Anti-terrorism Act.(Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)
Wark says this narrative had a great influence on the Toronto 18, a group that attempted to create an al-Qaeda-type cell in Toronto and carry out attacks on Canadian landmarks; as well as on Mohmin Khawaja, the Canadian-born computer programmer who was convicted in 2008 of financing and facilitating terrorist activities in London.
Dawson, who is based in the department of sociology and legal studies at the University of Waterloo, has looked at case studies of extremists and heard from many experts in the field of radicalization.
He says that in the absence of a top-down recruitment drive, the self-appointed jihadis inspired by al-Qaeda often become “middlemen,” taking it upon themselves to seek out people willing to carry out attacks.
These middlemen “are pretty adept at using the internet, they’ve had conversations in chat forums and they become sort of entrepreneurs,” says Dawson.
“They’re the ones that get in contact with younger people. Conversations are had, and they discover whether they’re dealing with a young person somewhere and whether their commitment [to the cause] is sincere. ”
Once the middleman is convinced the recruit is serious, Dawson says it could lead to a “referral” to a more senior operative who could provide the young radical with training and guidance.
The radicalization problem
Jabeur Fathally, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, believes this country’s experiences with radicalization can be partly attributed to the fallout of the Arab Spring, as well as Canada’s generous immigration policies.
Under such former authoritarian leaders as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, for example, people that these regimes deemed radical Muslims were often persecuted and denied passports.
But since the overthrow of such strongmen, many Islamist parties have come to power in the Middle East, and have encouraged many of their previously persecuted citizens to study, work or otherwise do business in immigrant-friendly countries such as Canada.
While not all of them are radicals, Fathally says that at least some have sympathies with more hardline, Islamist thought.
“These people can fly easily, they can go to Turkey, they can move easily to Europe, and they can come easily to Canada,” says Fathally.
However, despite the recent media coverage of al-Qaeda-inspired plots in Canada, Wark doesn’t believe that these individuals pose the same existential threat that bin Laden’s group did in its heyday.
“I think they are a lesser threat than an organized, professional, trained network of the kind that al-Qaeda once was,” he says.
“It’s a challenge to uncover them, but the danger that they present is of a smaller degree.”
A 20-year-old Saudi Arabian student living in Texas has been arrested by federal agents, who charged him with planning to build bombs for terror attacks in the United States, the Justice Department announced Thursday.
According to an affidavit filed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the student, Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, indicated in online research and in a journal that he was considering attacking the Dallas residence of former President George W. Bush as well as hydroelectric dams, nuclear power plants, nightclubs and the homes of soldiers who were formerly stationed at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Mr. Aldawsari, a business major at South Plains College in Lubbock, Tex., is in the United States legally on a student visa, the bureau said. He came to the government’s attention on Feb. 1, when a North Carolina supply company reported that he had tried to order five liters of a chemical that can be used to make an explosive.
A subsequent investigation found that he had already obtained large supplies of the other two chemicals needed for the explosive compound — trinitrophenol or TNP — in December, court documents said.
“Aldawsari purchased ingredients to construct an explosive device and was actively researching potential targets in the United States,” said David Kris, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s national security division. “Thanks to the efforts of many agents, analysts and prosecutors, this plot was thwarted before it could advance further.”
There was no indication on Thursday that investigators had found links between Mr. Aldawsari and Al Qaeda or some other foreign militant group. According to the affidavit, he wrote in his journal that he wanted to found a new terrorist group modeled after Al Qaeda, which he would lead, and he indicated that he had been methodically planning for years to commit a terrorist attack.
“I excelled in my studies in high school in order to take advantage of an opportunity for a scholarship to America” that was offered by the Saudi Arabian government, investigators said he wrote. “And now, after mastering the English language, learning how to build explosives, and continuous planning to target the infidel Americans, it is time for Jihad.”
The journal was also said to list “important steps” toward his goal, including obtaining a forged United States birth certificate, applying for a passport and driver’s license, renting cars online, putting bombs in them and taking them to various sites during rush hours, and then leaving the city for a “safe place.”
The affidavit says that in his journal, Mr. Aldawsari said he was inspired by the speeches of Osama Bin Laden and wrote that the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had produced a “big change” in his thinking. It also contends that he was the writer of a blog called FromFarAway90, published in a mix of English and Arabic.
The Arabic posts on that blog speak at times about war and distress in Palestine and other Muslim lands and about driving infidels out of the Islamic world, and they ask that Allah make the writer a martyr. It is not clear whether Mr. Aldawsari wrote the posts or copied material from elsewhere.
The affidavit also said Mr. Aldawsari, using several e-mail accounts, often sent research to himself about potential targets and explosives. The authorities retrieved several e-mails about manufacturing TNP and other explosives and about how to convert a cellphone into a remote detonator.
Other e-mails — with subject lines like “Nice targets” — contained the names and addresses of three Americans who had been stationed at Abu Ghraib during their military service in Iraq and the locations of 12 reservoirs and dams in Colorado and California. An e-mail entitled “Tyrant’s House” listed the address for Mr. Bush’s house in Dallas.
Mr. Aldawsari also made “numerous Internet searches” related to realistic-looking baby dolls and strollers and viewed photographs of altered dolls, which the F.B.I. said “could indicate” that he was considering concealing explosives in such a doll.
The search of his apartment, the affidavit said, also found flasks and chemical lab equipment, a gas mask, a protective suit and Christmas light wiring that it said was suitable for producing a bomb.