The Emergence of Asian Terrorist Networks

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Rohan Gunaratna
09 Jul 2020

Four decades of sustained violence in the Middle East has prompted the world to view the orient differently. The first thought of a Westerner upon seeing an Arab in traditional garb was: "Is he a sympathiser of terrorism?" Even the educated believed that Middle Easterners were more prone to supporting terrorism. This will no longer be the case.

The global threat complexion has changed dramatically in the past decade. Although the Middle East remains the epicentre of violence, the Middle East-centric terrorist threat has dispersed to Africa and to Asia. Ideas, trained personnel, and technologies continue to flow from the Middle East to Asia. Either by direct contact or direct transfer, many Asian threat groups have learnt from their Middle Eastern counterparts.

Since 1968, Middle Eastern threat groups have dominated the international terrorism landscape. As the international centre of terrorist training, the Syrian controlled Bekka Valley in Lebanon was replaced by Afghanistan with the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The fighting against the Soviets and the subsequent lawlessness created in Afghanistan provided a sanctuary for many Middle Eastern groups in Asia. After Arabs with experience in Afghanistan returned to Egypt and Algeria with the fall of Kabul in 1992, the Afghanistan "jihad diaspora" was ready to spawn. To quote Gilles Kepel, "Trained to jihadism-salafism in Peshawar, these men now contributed to the radicalising of the local jihad by applying their international experience."

Afghanistan also created an opportunity for the Middle Eastern groups to come into contact with their Central, South, and Southeast Asian counterparts. Over a period of a decade, the Middle Eastern threat groups politicised, radicalised and mobilised their Asian counterparts into behaving like them. The legitimacy of their participation in Afghanistan, a campaign supported by the West and the Muslim world, enabled them to survive as groups. They disseminated the ideologies articulated by the first generation ideologues and practitioners of the jihad – Dr Abdullah Azzam, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, Dr Ayman al Zawahiri, and Osama bin Laden. Although none is an ideologue, all of them visited or lived in Asia, notably in Pakistan and Afghanistan since the 1980s.

Within the last decade, terrorist attacks by Asian groups and Asian participation in multinational terrorist networks have grown significantly. From Central Asia to South Asia and to Southeast Asia, robust threat groups capable of sustained violence are now active. Separately, Asians living in migrant and diaspora communities in the West, from Canada to the UK, and Australia, have been influenced by a comparable ideology. The recently failed attacks in London and Glasgow are cases in point. In addition, Western-born youth of Asian heritage have also conducted or planned attacks in their host as well as target countries.

The threat to the West stems largely from networks politicised and radicalised by the virulent ideologies disseminated by groups operating in the conflict zones. These groups and their networks instil the false belief that Muslims are being purposely killed and the US and its allies are deliberately attacking Islam. The ideologues of the global jihad claim that every good Muslim's religious obligation or sacred duty is to attack Satan. By Satan the politicised and radicalised Muslim youth mean the US, their European and Australian allies, and their friends in the Muslim and non-Muslim world. This is at the heart of their core set of beliefs instilled through the Internet, preachers of hate and the television images from Iraq and other conflict zones where Muslims are suffering.

After 9-11, the US, and its allies and friends were determined to hunt these well-structured threat groups with guerrilla and terrorist capabilities. However, they have failed to fight their robust ideology – the real source of inspiration and instigation.

Among the terrorist leaders and operatives of Asian origin that have emerged in the last five years, the best known is Khalid Sheikh Mohamed alias KSM alias Mokhtar. The mastermind of the 9-11 attacks, KSM was a Western educated Pakistani terrorist. If not for KSM, the man who conceived and operationalised the attack on AmericaÕs iconic economic, military and politically landmarks at the dawn of the 21st century, Al Qaeda would not be well known globally.

Both he and his nephew Ramzi Ahmed Youself grew up in Kuwait. Together they planned the February 1993 attack on the World Trade Centre and the bombing of a dozen aircraft over the Pacific (Operation Bojinka) in 1995. Having grownup in the Middle East, Ramzi Ahmed Youself and KSM were comfortable operating with both Asian and Arab terrorists. KSM planned several other attacks, such as the second wave of attacks against the US in 2002, including the Bank of America building in Los Angeles, partially funded the Bali bombing in 2002, and personally murdered Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street journalist, the first American to be killed in an act of terrorism after 9-11.

Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan alias Abu Talal, a computer specialist, was the communications coordinator of Al Qaeda. Arrested in Pakistan on July 13, 2020, his laptop contained surveillance profiles of Heathrow airport and the Stock Exchange and Citigroup HQ in New York, Prudential building in New Jersey and the IMF and World Bank buildings in Washington DC. A protege of KSM and Al Qaeda leader in the UK, Dhiren Barot had surveilled these targets.

Dhiren Barot, also known as Bilal, Abu Musa al-Hindi, Abu Eissa al-Hindi, and Issa al-Britani, was an Indian Muslim convert. He travelled to the US in August 2000 and in March 2001 to study the targets in minute detail and briefed the Al Qaeda leadership on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Although known to the British intelligence community and New Scotland Yard since December 2001, he was identified and arrested in August 2004. Born in 1971, Dhiren BarotÕs cell members were British nationals of Pakistani heritage - Mohammed Naveed Bhatti, 24; Abdul Aziz Jalil, 31; Omar Abdul Rehman, 20; Junade Feroze, 28; Zia ul Haq, 25; Qaisar Shaffi, 25; and Nadeem Tarmohammed, 26.

After 9-11 attacks, security measures and countermeasures made it very difficult for the Arab members of Al Qaeda to operate effectively. There was a recognition by the Al Qaeda high command that it was difficult for its Arab members to operate in the West. As Arabs were suspected, Al Qaeda relied on its Asian members, particularly, those living in the West to spearhead its operations. Europe especially UK-based South Asian members either trained or inspired by Al Qaeda, are likely to dominate the threat landscape in future.

Rohan Gunaratna is a specialist of the global threat environment. He is the head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and author of Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror (Columbia University Press), an international bestseller.

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