The Islamic State Threat to Britain: Evidence from Recent Terror Trials
March 17, 2016
Abstract: While clearly at the top of the Islamic State’s targeting list, the United Kingdom so far has been spared from any major terrorist atrocities at home with direct links to the Islamic State. A review of the trials of those accused of terrorist plotting in the country between 2013 and 2015 reveals that the violent Islamist threat picture has instead been dominated by lone-actor plots, with some demonstrating connections of some sort to individuals on the battlefield in Syria or Iraq. Going forward, however, the threat is likely to become more acute as the Islamic State pivots toward international terror.
In the wake of November’s terrorist attack in Paris, a series of Islamic State videos suggested the United Kingdom was next on the target list. For British officials, the threat was not new. As British Prime Minister David Cameron put it days after the Paris attack, “Our security services have stopped seven attacks in the last six months, albeit on a smaller scale.” Earlier this month, Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, who oversees counterterrorism efforts for the London Metropolitan Police, warned, “In recent months we’ve seen a broadening of that—much more plans to attack Western lifestyle, going from that narrow focus on police and military as symbols of the state to something much broader. And you see a terrorist group which has big ambitions for enormous and spectacular attacks, not just the types that we’ve seen foiled to date.”
This article takes stock of the threat to the United Kingdom, drawing on court documents of recent British terror trials of those accused of plotting between 2013 and 2015. Currently, most of the cases that have passed through Britain’s courts have not shown clear evidence of Islamic State direction, though the plots covered in these cases for the most part predate the group’s active surge of international plotting last year that culminated in the Paris attacks in November. Up to this point, most plotting seen in the United Kingdom appears to demonstrate an ideological affinity to the Islamic State, with most plots fitting the lone-actor model and having no clear command and control from Islamic State operatives in Syria and Iraq. Going forward, however, security officials see a growing, direct threat from the Islamic State, with Richard Walton, the former head of the Metropolitan Police’s Counter-terrorism Command, stating in January, “We are concerned about Daesh’s external ambitions to project their terror overseas rather than them just trying to consolidate their so-called caliphate.”[a]
Alleged Instigation Overseas: The Erol Incedal Case
In October 2013, as part of a series of coordinated arrests, four men were detained for allegedly plotting to launch a “Mumbai-style” attack in London. Two men were released soon afterward while Erol Incedal, a British passport holder of Turkish-Alawite descent, and Mounir Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, a British-Algerian were brought to trial. Rarmoul-Bouhadjar pleaded guilty to possession of a bomb-making manual and was sentenced to three years in prison while Incedal instead chose to fight the charges against him. In a first for the British judicial system, the trial was held partially under secret circumstances for reasons that were not publicly revealed.
The public part of this trial shed light on the accused’s travels and contacts. In late 2012 the two men tried to reach Syria through Turkey. Rather than getting across the border, however, they ended up in a safe house in Hatay full of people “engaged somewhat in the resistance against Assad.” Here they met “Ahmed,” a British-Yemeni extremist who would become a key figure in the prosecution’s case. Ahmed had spent time in France, and he claimed to have fled to the Syrian-Turkish border area as he felt under pressure from security services in the United Kingdom. In court, Incedal described him as having ‘“sympathies with the global jihad” though Incedal was also quick to highlight that he was angry at the West since some of his family members had reportedly been killed in drone strikes in Yemen.
By early March Incedal and Rarmoul-Bouhadjar were bored of the inactivity at the safe house and told Ahmed they were going to head back to the United Kingdom. According to Incedal, Ahmed told them, ““Bruv, you know, you are going back, I wish, you know, you could do something in the UK” do some – he actually said “shit,” “do some shit in the UK, blow these guys up” and, you know, basically do an attack in the UK.”” In court Incedal stated that Ahmed’s view was not shared by all in the safe house. “The majority of the people there were thinking more specific to Syria and not worried about the West,” he testified. Nevertheless, Ahmed apparently saw value in the men back in the United Kingdom, telling them, “It would be nice to keep in touch and maybe you can help us in this global cause in the U.K.”
Once back in the United Kingdom, the men entered into a world of semi-criminal activity and partying. An Azerbaijani friend named Ruslan who was connected to wealthy Azeris provided them with an entrée into London’s high life. Incedal appears to have been close to the sons of the Egyptian extremist cleric Abu Hamza, who, according to Incedal, were now involved in post office robberies “because their father [had] given them the right to do it.” Incedal appears to have considered ways of working with them and of raising money to buy guns for protection during drug deals. During this time, Incedal appears to have maintained contact with Ahmed (who was either in Turkey or Syria) through Skype conversations during which they discussed sourcing weapon “straps,” getting detonators sent to the United Kingdom from Syria, and whether Rarmoul-Bouhadjar still remembered any bomb-making training he had received at the safe house.
In the end the jury cleared Incedal of the charges of plotting a terrorist attack, he was found guilty of possessing a bomb-making manual and sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison. Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, who had pleaded guilty to the same charge, served some time in prison and was discharged on restrictive release.
In the second half of 2014, British authorities disrupted several separate plots involving attack planning. The missing element from this cluster of cells, however, was clear direction from the Islamic State, though there were clear sympathies.
Stay-at-Home Jihadi: The Brusthom Ziamani Case
The first of these cases was that of Brusthom Ziamani, an 18-year-old extremist known as Mujahid Karim, from Peckham in south London. Raised a Jehovah’s Witness, Ziamani was thrown out of his family’s home after converting to Islam. He subsequently moved (or moved deeper) into the orbit of al Muhajiroun, a British extremist grouping supportive of the Islamic State. In June 2014 he was arrested on an unrelated charge, and during a search of his belongings police found a letter addressed to his parents in which he declared:
“Because I have no means ov gettin there [Syria and Iraq] I will wage war against the british government on this soil the british government will have a taste ov there own medicine they will be humiliated this is ISIB Islamic States of Ireland and Britain.”
Under interview he confirmed that the letter was his but denied he was planning an attack in the United Kingdom. He praised Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, the murderers of the British soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich in May 2013, and stated that the letters were “written in case he went abroad and died fighting there, or if the U.K. became an Islamic state, in which case he would join in the uprising. He was bailed, and officials working in the British government’s deradicalization program “Prevent” repeatedly tried to engage him to see if he could be moved off a path of violent extremism. These efforts failed, and Ziamani continued to seek out radical material online. On the morning of August 19 he appeared at his ex-girlfriend’s house with a black backpack in which he showed her he had a large knife, a hammer, and an Islamic flag. He told her, “Me and the brothers are planning a terrorist attack,” though not a bombing. “No, not like that, basically to kill soldiers.”
Later that afternoon police stopped him as he was walking in the street in East London. Searching his belongings, they found his weapons and took him into custody, charging him with terrorist offenses. Months later he told a security officer in prison that he “loved” Michael Adebolajo and had handed out leaflets with him. He also confessed, “I was on my way to kill a British Soldier at an army barracks. I was going to behead the soldier and hold his head in the air so my friend could take a photograph.” There was no evidence provided that Ziamani had any co-conspirators, though in passing a 22-year sentence, Justice Pontius stated that “he had little doubt that, like Adebolajo and Adebowale before him, he fell under the malign influence of al-Muhajiroun fanatics who were considerably older, and had been immersed in extremist ideology far longer, than him but he was, nevertheless, a willing student and all too ready to absorb and adopt their teaching.”
The Power of the Fatwa: The Tarik Hassane Case
In the second plot disrupted, police arrested a cluster of young men in West London in late September and early October 2014. Over a year later in January 2016, the trial began for four of the men arrested for planning to shoot a security officer with a Baikal gun and silencer that they had procured. The plot was alleged to have started on July 9, 2014, when one of the alleged co-conspirators—Tarik Hassane, then based in Sudan—announced to a Telegram group that some of the men were part of that he had made bay`a to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.[b]
Soon after this, Hassane came back to the United Kingdom via Jordan, and planning for an attack appears to have intensified. The group started to discuss obtaining something from “Umar,” later identified as Nyall Hamlett, a man currently on trial who was identified as being involved in London’s criminal fraternities and had access to weaponry. Using all sorts of coded references, Hassane, Suhaid Majeed (an accused co-conspirator also still being tried who was studying physics at King’s College in London), and others discussed trying to obtain “straps” or “creps.” They looked for a garage in Shepherd’s Bush using an online rental manager. They also sought to obtain a moped. By September 21, with Hassane still in Sudan, the group appears to have finally been close to obtaining a gun. Majeed told the group to “make serious dua [prayer] for me,” which the prosecution suggested was the moment at which the group knew they were obtaining their weapon.
A day after senior Islamic State figure Muhammad al Adnani released his infamous fatwa calling on followers around the world who had pledged bay`a to kill disbelievers “in any manner” wherever they can find them, Majeed went through an elaborate transaction to obtain a Baikal gun, ammunition, and a silencer. Once home, he searched for videos about how to handle the weapon on YouTube and spoke to his friends abroad. Not wanting to take any chances, British police moved in to arrest all of the individuals under surveillance. As Majeed’s parent’s property was being searched by armed police a gun and equipment were tossed out of the window. During the search of co-defendant Nathan Cuffy’s premises they found a series of four different guns and ammunition.
All of this activity was taking place as Hassane was still abroad. On September 30 he returned home and was arrested soon afterward. Hassane pleaded guilty to the charges against him, while the other three continue to fight their charges.
Frustrated Travelers: The Nadir Syed Case
The al-Adnani fatwa also provided an inflection point for a third plot disrupted in the second half of 2014. The alleged co-conspirators, Haseeb Hamayoun and cousins Nadir Syed[c] and Yousaf Syed, were all from London and of Pakistani origin. The story of their plot begins in December 2013 when Nadir Syed was arrested for public order incidents and released under strict bail conditions. In breach of these, on January 19, 2014, he was stopped from boarding a plane trying to travel to Turkey, alongside his cousin Yousaf and a third man, Luqman Warsame. While Nadir was prevented from traveling, Yousaf and Warsame continued their journey. Yousaf Syed returned after spending some time in Turkey, but Warsame joined the Islamic State in Syria, from where he remained in contact with the two Syeds. Warsame’s current status is unclear. Yousaf Syed was stripped of his freedom to travel in April 2014. Nadir Syed also remained stuck in the United Kingdom, but in October 2014 he applied for a new passport from the Home Office.
Like Ziamani, the group appears to have had a fixation with the murder of Lee Rigby and knives. Evidence was introduced at trial of Nadir Syed talking to others about the two Woolwich killers in 2013. Also introduced into evidence were the trio’s September 2014 WhatsApp conversations in which they shared images of the Woolwich attackers and their activity. In the wake of an attack in Australia on September 23, 2014, in which Numan Haider, a Melbourne teenager tried to stab a pair of policemen after his passport was canceled and was instead shot by the officers, the men praised the attempt and compared it to Michael Adebolajo, praising Adebolajo as a “diamond geezer” in their discussions. After a court appearance by Nadir Syed on November 6, 2014, for his public order offense charges, Haseeb Hamayoun met him outside the courtroom and the men seem to have gone straight to a kitchen shop. Soon after this, authorities decided to intervene, and all three men were arrested separately later that same day.
In the end, the court was unable to reach a conclusion about Hamayoun and Yousaf Syed, though Nadir was found guilty of planning to murder a security official around Remembrance Day with a knife. Hamayoon and Yousaf Syed face a retrial. The reasoning behind Nadir Syed’s plot is best discerned from Nadir’s online commentary after Adnani’s September 2013 fatwa: “These governments need to rethink their policy…esp after Adnani’s speech, why the hell would you let an ISIS supporter stay here….in other words the muslim in the west is left with two choices, either turn back from your deen or end up in jail,” he stated.
Other Cases: The Disconnected, the Very Young, and the Isolated
The fourth plot thwarted in the second half of 2014 was that of Kazi Islam, the nephew of Kazi Rahman, a former jailed terrorist linked to the 7/7 cell. Arrested in November 2014, Islam was jailed in May 2015 for “grooming” another young man to try to build a bomb or conduct a terrorist attack. An apparent attendee of al Muhajiroun lectures, Islam was undone when the 18-year-old he was spurring on to launch an attack failed to get the right materials to build a bomb and told friends about the plan. Although the exact nature of the plot is not entirely clear, Islam appears to have been pushing the boy to build bombs, obtain knives, and think about targeting security officials.
In late March 2015 police in northwest England arrested a 14-year-old boy from Blackburn after he threatened to behead his teachers, accusing him of being involved in instigating a terrorist plot in Australia linked to attacking a security official on Australia’s day of remembrance, Anzac Day. The boy was accused of talking to Australian Sevdet Besim, a radicalized teenager who was part of a larger community of concern in Australia and spurring him on “to run a cop over or the anzac parade & then continue to kill a cop then take ghanimah and run to shahadah?” Besim was further connected to Numan Haider, the Melbourne teen shot by police in September 2014. While the exact role of Islamic State behind this network is unclear, the group was all connected to the now-deceased Neil Prakash, a notorious Australian jihadi fighting alongside the group in Syria also known as Abu Khaled al Kambodi. The boy was found guilty, becoming the youngest convicted terrorist in the United Kingdom.[d]
The shambolic nature of Kazi Islam’s November 2014 “grooming” plot was matched in May 2015 when police arrested the married couple Mohammed Rehman and Sana Ahmed Khan after Mohammed Rehman tweeted from his Twitter account,[e] “Silent Bomber,” the question “Westfield shopping center of London underground? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.” The question—seeking suggestions about which target he should attempt to attack—caught the attention of authorities. Investigators uncovered Mohammed Rehman, an unemployed drug addict still living with his family. His wife, Sana Khan, also lived at home with her parents who disapproved of Rehman. The two decided that they wanted to launch a terrorist attack against the London Underground or a shopping center, with Rehman seeking chemicals online to detonate a bomb while Khan provided the funding. The couple discussed bomb tests, and Rehman eventually tested a bomb in his backyard. Two weeks after they were detected online, the couple was arrested, and after a short trial, they were given life sentences.
In neither case was there any clear evidence of direction by a terrorist group overseas or links to any other plots. Both appear to be fairly classic, disconnected lone-actor plots with the only clear connections to the Islamic State being either through consumption of radical material (magazines like Dabiq), statements of intent to join the group (which apparently Kazi Islam made to his friends), or a letter that Rehman left pledging his allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Alleged Communication with the Islamic State: The Junead and Shazib Khan Case
An alleged plot targeting the RAF Lakenheath airbase, home of the U.S. Air Force 48th fighter wing, disrupted in July 2015 was more clearly linked to external networks, though any degree of external direction is unclear and the trials are ongoing. Junead Khan and his uncle Shazib Khan (the two were so close in age, they refered to each other as cousins) from Luton are currently standing trial for planning to join the Islamic State, with Junead also accused of wanting to launch an attack in the United Kingdom against “military personnel” at military bases in Lakenheath or Molesworth. Junead apparently knew and admired another local Luton man who had gone to fight (and was subsequently killed) named Rahin Aziz. The men were allegedly in contact with a number of fighters in Syria, including the notorious British Islamic State operative Junaid Hussain who allegedly told Junead via the encrypted messaging app Surespot that “I can get u addresses but of British soldiers” and that “I can tell u how to make a bomb.” There was further evidence presented at trial from his computer and phone that he was seeking instructions on how to make explosives. The case is ongoing and is due to conclude next month.
Since the emergence of the Islamic State as a major terrorist force in the Middle East, there has not been clear-cut evidence presented at trial of plots being directed by the leadership of the Islamic State against the United Kingdom. The cases formally prosecuted through the courts all suggest a threat picture that remains dominated by lone-actor terrorism, in some cases inspired by the Islamic State. The United Kingdom has also seen plots by extremists blocked from traveling to join the Islamic State, something also seen in Australia and Canada.[f]
The trials have not yet revealed clear direction by the group against the United Kingdom. There have been reports that Islamic State recruiters are seeking out Europeans with links to Germany or the United Kingdom to help facilitate attacks there, but thus far, the evidence offered in courts is not as clear cut. Security authorities certainly see an escalating threat, something reflected in Assistant Commissioner Rowley’s warning that British authorities fear a spectacular Paris-style attack.
While the nature of the threat in the United Kingdom is different than in France in certain respects —for example, there is easier access to heavy weaponry and ammunition on the European continent—the Islamic State itself has made clear that the United Kingdom is a priority target. Until now the public threat picture has been dominated by lone-actor plots. Going forward, however, with the Islamic State appearing to pivot toward international terrorism and around 1000 British extremists having traveled to Syria and Iraq, half of whom are still there, there is a growing danger of Islamic State-directed plots against the British homeland.
Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists. Follow @raffpantucci
[a] The British government refers to the Islamic State as Daesh.
[b] Hassane went on to post his pledge in full: statement that showed “that I, poor servant of Allah, Tariq Hassan (sic), swear allegiance to the Amir of [leader] of the faithful, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Abullah Ibrahim ibn Awad al-Quraishi al-Husseini, Caliph of the Muslims, he owes me to listen and obey him through thick and thin as much as I can.” Regina vs Tarik Hassane et al, January 15, 2016, p. 26.
[c] Nadir Syed was part of the broader community around the al Muhajiroun community in the U.K., most clearly as part of a WhatsApp group called ‘the lads’ with prominent figures Abu Waleed and Abu Haleema. See Lisa O’Carroll, “Man convicted of planning Isis-inspired Remembrance Sunday attack,” Guardian, December 14, 2015.
[d] He received a life sentence with a review in five years to see if he had been de-radicalized prior to him ascending into the adult prison population. “Anzac Day terror plot: Blackburn boy sentenced to life,” BBC News, October 2, 2015.
[e] His Twitter account profile photo was an image of Islamic State executioner “Jihadi John.”
[f] The Australian case was the aforementioned case of Numan Haider. In Canada, Quebec attacker Martin Couture-Rouleau was blocked from traveling to join the Islamic State, and Ottawa shooter Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was blocked from traveling to the region. See Allan Woods, “How Martin Couture-Rouleau became an aspiring Islamic State fighter,” Star, October 26, 2015; “How Michael Zehaf-Bibeau went from petty criminal to the face of homegrown terrorism,” National Post, November 7, 2014.
 Raya Jalabi, “Isis video threatening UK claims to show Paris attackers in Syria and Iraq,” Guardian, January 25, 2016.
 David Cameron interview with BBC Radio 4 Today program, November 16, 2015.
 Vikram Dodd, “Isis planning ‘enormous and spectacular attacks’, anti-terror chief warns,” Guardian, March 7, 2016.
 Paul Cruickshank, “A View from the CT Foxhole: An Interview with Richard Walton, Head, Counter Terrorism Command, London Metropolitan Police,” CTC Sentinel 9:1 (2016).
 Regina vs Incedal and Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, March 11, 2015, p. 13.
 Regina vs Incedal and Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, March 11, 2015, p. 16.
 Regina vs Incedal and Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, March 11, 2015, p. 41.
 Regina vs Incedal and Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, March 11, 2015, p. 49.
 Regina vs Incedal and Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, March 13, 2015, p. 49.
 Regina vs Incedal and Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, March 12, 2015, p. 41.
 Regina vs Incedal and Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, March 12, 2015, pp. 7-8.
 “Erol Incedal Jailed for 42 months over bomb-making manual,” BBC, April 1, 2015.
 (Typos as rendered in the document) Regina vs Ziamani, February 9, 2015, p. 4.
 Regina vs Ziamani, February 9, 2015, p. 6.
 Regina vs Ziamani, February 9, 2015.
 Regina vs Ziamani, February 9, 2015.
 Regina vs Brusthom Ziamani, Sentencing remarks of HHJ Pontius, Central Criminal Court, March 20, 2015.
 Regina vs Tarik Hassane et al., January 15, 2016, p. 68.
 Regina vs Tarik Hassane et al., January 15, 2016, p. 69.
 Regina vs Tarik Hassane et al., January 15, 2016, p. 87.
 Regina vs Tarik Hassane et al., January 15, 2016, p. 95.
 Regina vs Tarik Hassane et al., January 15, 2016, p. 101.
 Regina vs Tarik Hassane et al., January 15, 2016, p. 109.
 Sebastian Mann, “Terror accused have told ‘buffed and polished’ lies to mask guilt, court hears,” Evening Standard, March 8, 2016.
 Regina vs Hasib Hamayoon et al., October 8, 2015, p. 6.
 Regina vs Hasib Hamayoon et al., October 8, 2015, p. 9.
 Regina vs Hasib Hamayoon et al., October 8, 2015, p. 9.
 Regina vs Hasib Hamayoon et al., October 8, 2015, p. 11.
 Melissa Davey, “Police had no choice but to shoot Numan Haider, inquest hears,” Guardian, March 7, 2016.
 Regina vs Hasib Hamayoon et al., October 8, 2015, p. 21.
 Regina vs Hasib Hamayoon et al., October 8, 2015, p. 34.
 Lisa O’Carroll, “Man convicted of planning Isis-inspired Remembrance Sunday attack,” Guardian, December 14, 2015.
 Tom Whitehead, “Extremists allowed to leave UK to ease home terror threat,” Telegraph, December 15, 2015.
 Regina vs Hasib Hamayoon et al., October 8, 2015, p.20.
 Duncan Gardham and Amanda Williams, “Teenage Islamic terrorist who groomed man with learning difficulties to carry out Lee Rigby-style attack on British soldier is jailed for eight years,” Daily Mail, May 29, 2015.
 “Anzac Day terror plot: Blackburn boy sentenced to life,” BBC News, October 2, 2015.
 Dan Oakes, “Numan Haider inquest: Anzac Day terror accused Sevdet Besim called to give evidence,” Australia Plus, March 7, 2016.
 Joshua Robertson, “Neil Prakash, Australia’s most senior operative in Islamic State, reported dead,” Guardian, January 31, 2016.
 Regina vs Mohammed Rehman and Sana Ahmed Khan, November 14, 2015.
 Tom Whitehead, “7/7 suicide bomb plot couple jailed for life,” Telegraph, December 30, 2015.
 Tom Whitehead and David Barrett, “Middle class daughter of magistrate who turned to suicide bomb plotter,” Telegraph, December 30, 2015.
 “Man allegedly planned Lee Rigby-style attacks on US soldiers in UK,” Guardian, February 17, 2016.
 Regina vs Junead Ahmed Khan and Shazib Ahmed Khan, February 12, 2016.
 “Alleged extremist accused of ‘planning attack on RAF base in East Anglia’ takes stand in trial,” Cambridge News, March 4, 2016.
 Regina vs Junead Ahmed Khan and Shazib Ahmed Khan, February 12, 2016.
 “You will lose the feeling of being a human being,” BBC Radio 4 PM, February 22, 2016.
 Patrick Wintor and Shiv Malik, “Hundreds of Britain caught trying to join jihadis, says Foreign Secretary,” Guardian, January 15, 2016.