The UK Observer's Jason Burke, one of the more level-headed and analytical writers on Al Qaeda, takes a solid look at the spread of Al Qaeda ideology and recruitment across Europe, and how young Muslim men, fired up on Al Qaeda propaganda, find their way to Pakistan to complete their training, before returning home. But a disturbing new trend has emerged, and Burke digs deep and uncovers a trove of new information - young European men are converting to Islam and quickly traveling down the indoctrination road towards violent jihad :
The Observer has learnt that senior Islamic militant leaders based in Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan have decided to step up attacks in Europe. This summer, European intelligence agencies issued a series of warnings about attacks orchestrated from what one source last week called 'the Grand Central station of jihad': the lawless tribal-run regions on Pakistan's western borders with Afghanistan.
Though the most recent alleged terrorist plot in Britain - the so-called 'Doctors' Plot' of June - did not involve any confirmed links to Pakistan, many other high-profile attacks or attempted attacks have done so. Key figures in the 7 July bombings and the plot, uncovered by the police's Operation Crevice, to bomb targets in south-east England with fertiliser bombs trained in camps along the Pakistan-Afghan border. Osama bin Laden and his close associates are believed to be hiding in the area - it is thought that the video released yesterday by al-Qaeda and featuring their leader was filmed there - as are a range of other militant leaders from countries as far apart as Libya and Uzbekistan. Bin Laden's video was titled, in English, 'an address to the American people'.
'America remains the number one target, but is hard to hit. If they could get on a plane and arrive in Cincinnati, they would. But they can't, so Europe is the next best option,' the source said.
Striking Europe serves other purposes too: militants hope that a successful attack on a western country that has troops deployed in Afghanistan might force a government to pull them out from the fight against the Taliban, helping Afghan fighters whose relations with the international militants based in the region are often tense. Equally, bombs in London, Frankfurt or Madrid have a powerful propaganda effect on Muslims in the Middle East and in central and south-west Asia, which have always been the 'core audience' for al-Qaeda and other groups. Finally, anything that can be done to further a 'dynamic of confrontation' in Europe is helpful.
'The militants know that tens of millions of happily integrated European Muslims is a big problem for them and that a massive upsurge of radicalisation of Europe's Muslims is a huge problem for us,' said a second, US-based, intelligence source. 'The best way to rile things up and set communities against each other is to have bombs going off left, right and centre.
'Ten years ago there was no real homegrown terrorism problem in western Europe. Now there is. The militants see that as a major achievement and something to build on. They have limited resources so are looking to maximise the return on any investment,' the US source said.
This weekend, Germans are agonising over the possibility that the nation's three million Muslims, hitherto largely untouched by the sort of radicalism seen in Britain and France, has been affected by the al-Qaeda ideology and global tensions. Along with a second convert, the third suspect arrested last week is a Turkish immigrant.
However, many analysts insist that seeing Pakistan as 'the source of all evil' is not right. They stress that the volunteers are radicalised at home and make their way to the camps 'under their own steam'. This means that militants simply exploit 'the raw material'. One intelligence source described the targeting of attacks as 'opportunistic'.
Current analysis is that the bulk of the volunteers in the region are south Asian or Arab and will be sent into action in the primary local theatre, which is Afghanistan. Equally, volunteers with Western passports will BE exploited as particularly valuable assets, and will be turned around and sent back to their countries of origin to commit attacks or develop networks. Britain is particularly vulnerable in this regard because of the historic links it has with Pakistan and the large Muslim population of Pakistani origin.
At least seven Germans and 18 individuals with British nationality are currently detained in Pakistan. Bin Laden has threatened virtually every western European country - making an exception for Sweden - in communications over recent years. In the most recent video, released on Friday, he referred specifically to the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy.
The alleged plot uncovered last week in Germany is doubly worrying as it involves both 'homegrown' suspects and converts. Germany has only seen a handful of conspiracies before: it was the staging ground for the 9/11 hijackers and the scene of a failed attempt to detonate bombs on trains last year, allegedly by two Lebanese men. This was believed to be an initiation test aimed at proving their ability before travelling to Iraq. Until last week, most Germans believed the threat to their nation to be relatively low.
Converts have already figured significantly in terrorism in Europe, comprising 8 per cent of militants arrested in Europe according to a recent survey by Dutch analysts. In Britain, one of the 7 July bombers was a convert, as was Richard Reid, the 'shoe bomber' in prison in America for attempting to blow up a transatlantic jet in 2001.
Converts have also been bit players in conspiracies in the Netherlands and America. A US-born convert is believed to be based in Pakistan playing a key role in al-Qaeda's propaganda.
According to some recent studies of militancy, converts are also more likely to be radicalised. 'Converts have played a prominent role... and tend to be the most zealous members of groups,' a recent report by the New York Police Department noted. 'Their need to prove their religious convictions to their companions often makes them the most aggressive [and] conversion also tends to drive a wedge between the convert and his [natural] family, turning the radicalising group into his 'surrogate family'.'
Four thousand Germans converted last year, compared with just 1,000 in 2005, according to government statistics, bringing the total of Muslim converts in the country to 15,000.
British security services have taken a particular interest in converts. The large number of Islamic militants who convert in prisons is of deep concern to them. 'Converts are a very important sub-group,' one security source told The Observer. 'We see this starting out as a social problem, with people looking for a meaning in their life. This is not a Muslim issue.'
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