Wednesday

20th Mar 2019

Opinion

Europe's threat from Pakistan

During a recent visit to Pakistan, Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown stated that a third of terror plots in the UK have connections to that beleaguered country.

In a press conference with President Asif Zardari he went on to state that with a set of new proposed measures, he hoped to "break the chain of terror that links the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the streets of the UK."

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  • Nato soldiers in Afghanistan - the region is a security threat for Europe as a whole (Photo: army.mil)

But while the UK seems to have taken a view that there is a very real threat to Europe that needs to be engaged with in Afghanistan and Pakistan and makes the case regularly to its public, there is remarkably little sensible public discussion on such matters from other European capitals.

This is not to say that the EU and other European states are not engaged in the region. A number of European member states have troops deployed on the ground in Afghanistan, and the European Union has committed some €200 million into Pakistan for the period 2007-2010. Furthermore, the European Commission has disbursed a whopping €1.59 billion to Afghanistan, and continues to be at the forefront of fundraising efforts for reconstruction in that nation.

However, at a political level, few European states like to attract political attention to what they are doing in Afghanistan – something that is usually due to a general public unpopularity or scepticism towards operations in the nation. This is a very dangerous posture for European governments to take, as it is not solely the UK that is in Al Qaeda and the Taliban's crosshairs.

It is first instructive to clarify how intertwined the threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan are. Taliban forces that operate in Afghanistan fighting against Nato forces often fall-back to regroup and rearm in the Pakistani tribal areas, where many of their tribal brethren live. Al Qaeda forces in the region are further blended in to this mix, as the leadership has re-deployed in these provinces since the American invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.

Operationally speaking, it is increasingly hard to tell the difference between Al Qaeda or Taliban (either Pakistani Tehrik-e-Taliban or the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) fighters, with a further layer of confusion added by the fact that training camps run by either group (or other affiliates based in the region) tend to support each other and add further cross-pollination between networks.

This means that on the ground in Afghanistan, it is very hard to distinguish where specific operations or operators come from. Groups regularly release videos or statements claiming attacks, and these often show evidence of groups working together and even targeting beyond their borders. For example, videos released by the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) show fighters engaging Nato forces, while the same group has also claimed responsibility for the plot from September 2007 codenamed "Operation Alberich" by the German security services.

The plan saw a group of plotters who had trained in IJU camps try to carry out a bombing campaign in Germany ahead of a Bundestag vote on extending the German army's mandate in Afghanistan. The trial against the alleged plotters recently opened in Germany.

Pakistanis have long complained that they do not radicalise the young Europeans who come and train in camps in their lawless regions; rather they arrive "pre-cooked" and simply seek training in terrorist camps beyond the Pakistani government's control.

For the most part this is true, but at the same time, the problem is far more complex, with groups in Pakistan's lawless regions providing training, inspiration and in some cases direct operational guidance for plots in Europe.

For the United Kingdom, it would seem as though the main threat comes from cells that assemble in the UK around individuals who have at some point travelled and trained at extremist camps in Pakistan's Northern provinces.

Prominent examples include Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shezhad Tanweer who were the ringleaders of the July 7, 2005 bombing campaign in London; Muktar Said Ibrahim of the copycat 21 July, 2005 group who attempted to carry out an almost identical assault two weeks later; the 2004 "fertiliser plot" group in which a group of individuals planned to carry out a major bombing campaign in the UK using fertiliser based explosives; and the alleged ringleader of the 2006 Transatlantic Airlines plot that led to the current restrictions on carrying liquids on board airplanes. In all of these cases, key individuals apparently sought training in Pakistan before they were sent back with directions to attack the United Kingdom.

Patterns repeated

To return to "Operation Alberich," a similar pattern can be seen in Germany, where a cell allegedly led by German-Muslim convert Fritz Gelowicz went to Waziristan to train at Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) camps before heading back to Germany. A police wire-tap overhead Gelowicz telling co-conspirators that he had not planned to return from Pakistan/Afghanistan, but was otherwise directed by his IJU handlers. Similar wire-taps caught July 7, 2005 plotter Mohammed Siddique Khan talking to a colleague in the UK about going to the country, and video footage to emerge later showed him saying goodbye to his daughter before what he thought was to be his final journey to the conflict in Afghanistan.

At the same time, Europe has also been targeted in a more direct way from the region by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Baitullah Mehsud. In Pakistan, Mehsud's brutal group has been held responsible for much of the escalation in suicide attacks against the government in Pakistan, but it has attempted to also strike beyond that country's borders.

In February 2008, on the basis of a tip-off from an informant who had penetrated the group, the Spanish Guardia Civil arrested a group of 14 Muslims of mostly Pakistani origin, some of whom had entered the country indirectly from Pakistan and activated a local cell. In May of this year a video interview was released with TTP spokesman Maulvi Omar in which he claimed the cell was a TTP unit that had sworn allegiance to Baitullah Mehsuhd, and promised that while they were currently "concentrating on Afghanistan" once they were done here they "would look to strike in every country that sent their forces to Afghanistan."

Beyond these direct threats, there is a final group of aspirants from Europe who are drawn to Pakistan's lawless regions and the terrorist training camps they foster like moths to a flame. These individuals are drawn from across Europe: from the recently arrested network in Belgium and France around Malika el Aroud, the "Al Qaeda living legend," who appeared to be facilitating travel for jihadists to fight in Afghanistan, one of whom, according to Belgian authorities, was now preparing for a possible suicide attack in Europe.

To Bradford-born Aabid Khan who apparently travelled to Pakistan to establish connections with extremist groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba, who are believed to be responsible for the Mumbai attacks of November 2008, and its local twin Jaish-e-Mohammed, that was responsible for the 2001 attacks on the Indian parliament that almost brought India and Pakistan to war.

A pan-European problem

It is not always completely clear to what extent some of those mentioned in these plots were directed and connected to Al Qaeda and its affiliates, or were rather groups of fired up zealots who went to seek connections to jihad in Pakistan. What is clear is that this is a pan-European problem, and while the UK may seem the eye of the storm, the rest of Europe is also threatened.

But to listen to public statements (or the absence of them), it would seem as though only Britain is threatened. This is a risky strategy for European leaders, and the danger is that one of these many plots may finally succeed in leading to an unpredictable public reaction. No matter how one defines how events played out in Madrid after the 2004 bombings, the perception that has been left in the global public memory is that Spain changed governments and withdrew its troops from Iraq.

There is a clear need for European leaders to start to find ways of reaching out and explaining their foreign policy and its potential security implications at home to their publics. In the UK, the British Foreign Office has undertaken a major effort with David Miliband and other Foreign Office dignitaries travelling up and down the nation to meet with groups of citizens to discuss the nation's involvement in operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, specifically highlighting that the UK is not at war with the Islamic world, but is rather advancing the nation's interests as part of a "generational struggle" to counter extremist Islamist terrorism.

Such efforts should be paralleled in other major European states, with an explicit effort to engage with public opinion on foreign policy matters. These discussions may prove awkward in some cases, but to simply wish them away is inadvisable.

Selling conflict

And, at root, it is this that is the key issue for European leaders: why do they understand that they are in Afghanistan and how have they sold this to the public? If they recognize that the problems of Afghanistan need to be mended for the good of the international community, then the case should be easy to make. If on the other hand, their deployments in Afghanistan are broadly seen with public revulsion and incomprehension, then the conflict has clearly not been sold to them effectively.

This entire question has received an added impetus now that President Obama has ascended to the throne in Washington. His administration has already reached out on this issue, and Europe needs to be sure that it is reaching back with support that is commensurate with its interests in the region. To do any less will not only potentially expose European publics to a security threat, but may also do longer term damage to the transatlantic relationship.

Foreign policy cannot exist in a vacuum, especially when one faces a terrorist threat with tentacles around the globe. If Europe's leaders want to ensure that they are insulated from a nasty political shock after a terrorist attack, now is the time to make sure their public knows what their aims are abroad.

Raffaello Pantucci is a research associate with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

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