In the United Kingdom, the discovery of new terrorist plots generally follows a clear trend. In a blaze of publicity, the would-be terrorists are arrested or, more rarely, succeed in carrying out an attack. Soon afterward, their friends and family are quoted as saying that the suspects are innocent and that they would never be involved in terrorism. Meanwhile, journalists speculate that these men (of whom little is yet known) apparently acted alone and had few if any links to known terrorists or extremist groups. This is often accompanied by learned speculation that this is a sign that more terrorists are becoming “self-starters,” operating alone and forming fully independent cells as outlined in Abu Mus`ab al-Suri’s The Global Islamic Resistance Call. This in turn often triggers further speculation that al-Qa`ida no longer exists as an organization or even as a network, an impression that is often only strengthened by the internet ranting of apparently isolated figures such as Ayman al-Zawahiri.

In the light of 24-hour news, this process is understandable. It ignores, however, the steady stream of information from terrorism trials in the United Kingdom—some of which last for months—that are increasingly bringing the whole concept of “self-starters” and “leaderless jihad” into question. Recent British trials in fact indicate that the majority of major terrorist plots formulated in the United Kingdom in the post-9/11 era were at least partly directed by major al-Qa`ida figures in the Afghanistan and Pakistan border region. Indeed, without the training supplied by al-Qa`ida members, it is likely that few of these plots would ever have become viable. This article shows that each of the major terrorist plots affecting the United Kingdom since the 9/11 attacks in the United States have had ties back to al-Qa`ida’s central organization in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The 7/7 Bombings

The terrorists who carried out the July 7, 2005 London bombings were initially depicted as “ordinary” British Muslims who had been “brainwashed” by extremist Islamist preachers and radicalized by the war in Iraq [1]. Since then, it has become clear that the 7/7 bombers, and particularly their leader Mohammed Siddique Khan, had been involved in jihadist movements prior to 9/11 and that he and the other bombers had deliberately cultivated relationships with a wide range of pro-jihadist groups and individuals in the United Kingdom and abroad.

Siddique Khan’s serious involvement in jihadist groups began in July 2001 when he attended training camps at Mansehra in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) run by Harkat-ul-Mujahidin, a Kashmiri terrorist group with close ties to the Taliban [2]. Khan then traveled to Afghanistan where he hoped to fight against the Northern Alliance. He was taken ill, however, and unable to take part in any fighting. In July 2003, Khan returned to the region to attend training camps run by unspecified jihadist groups at Malakand in northern Pakistan [3]. At these camps, Khan and other volunteers were trained to use light weapons and rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) [4]. Zeeshan Siddique, another British Muslim who attended the camps with Siddique Khan, was later arrested by Pakistani police and found to have phone numbers for known al-Qa`ida members in his possession [5]. It is possible, therefore, that Siddique Khan first made contact with al-Qa`ida at this time while at the camp. According to some media reports, Siddique Khan and others in the Malakand camp actually received training from Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, a senior Iraqi member of al-Qa`ida [6].

In December 2004, Siddique Khan, along with Shehzad Tanweer who would become one of the 7/7 suicide bombers, traveled to Pakistan for the final time. The two men stayed in the country for six weeks, leaving in February 2005. On this trip, their precise whereabouts are unknown—although it is likely that they received further bomb-making training that was specific to their proposed mission. At some point during the trip, each man also recorded a martyrdom video. Their decision to make the videos indicates that they had not only decided to carry out the London bombing attacks, but also that they had now all received the training and skills necessary to do so. After the bombings, this recording was released exclusively by al-Qa`ida’s media wing, al-Sahab. Significantly, the video had been edited to include clips of Ayman al-Zawahiri praising the two Britons. This again probably indicates that there was a clear channel of communication—albeit probably through a number of intermediaries—between these British men and al-Qa`ida’s most senior leaders.

7/21 Bombings

Initially, the abortive 7/21 bombings carried out on July 21, 2005, two weeks after the 7/7 bombings, were described as a “copycat” attack that had been hastily put together—hence the reason suggested for its failure. In the months following the bombings, however, it became clear that the 7/21 bombers had significant contact with a range of other extremist groups and individuals in Pakistan and the United Kingdom—including with people who were close to the 7/7 bombers. It is also now known that the bombings were planned well in advance and that Muktar Said Ibrahim, the leader of the 7/21 plot, traveled to Pakistan at approximately the same time as Siddique Khan [7].

Ibrahim first traveled to Pakistan in late 2004 [8] where the Crown Prosecution Service believe he was trained in bomb-making. As in the case of Siddique Khan, how and where this took place is presently unknown. Unlike Khan, Ibrahim, a Somali, had few contacts in Pakistan and no experience in training camps there. Therefore, it is likely that Ibrahim received some assistance and advice before he left the United Kingdom. It has been reported by UK newspapers that MI5 believes that Ibrahim was assisted by Mohammed al-Ghabra, a U.S. Treasury-designated terrorist who lives freely in the United Kingdom [9]. The U.S. Treasury has accused al-Ghabra of organizing “travel to Pakistan for individuals seeking to meet with senior al Qaida individuals and to undertake jihad training. Several of these individuals have returned to the UK to engage in covert activity on behalf of al Qaida” [10]. It also said that al-Ghabra traveled to Pakistan in 2005 to meet Faraj al-Libi who was then “al-Qaeda’s director of operations” and that he had contact with Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami and Harkat-ul-Mujahidin, two Pakistani terrorist groups [11]. If true, this may mean that al-Ghabra could have arranged for Ibrahim to be trained in bomb-making in Pakistan and for him to meet individuals from al-Qa`ida and related organizations—a possibility that some British newspapers have suggested [12]. One fact in support of this thesis is that in December 2004 Ibrahim was driven to Heathrow airport to catch his flight to Pakistan by Rauf Mohammed, an Iraqi taxi driver who is believed to have helped al-Ghabra send British Muslims to fight abroad [13]. Prominent British politicians have called for al-Ghabra to be prosecuted; however, the police apparently lack the necessary evidence to do so [14]. Despite this, the Bank of England has ordered for al-Ghabra’s assets to be frozen under British measures initiated in 2001 against the Taliban and al-Qa`ida—a highly unusual measure that indicates the suspicion surrounding him [15].

“Crevice” Plotters

Planned and developed in parallel to the 7/7 and 7/21 plots was the so-called “Crevice Plot” to attack unspecified targets in the United Kingdom—potentially including nightclubs and shopping centers. It was led by Omar Khyam, a British Muslim from south London, who had extensive experience of training camps in Pakistan and who was part of the British al-Muhajiroun network led by Omar Bakri. Khyam first attended militant training camps in Pakistan in 1999, at age 18, where he received training in light weaponry and RPGs [16]. In 2001, he traveled to Afghanistan where he was reportedly impressed by the Taliban.

These experiences, however, were apparently not enough to secure him access to the terrorist training that he wanted. Therefore, Khyam possibly turned—like Ibrahim—to British extremists in order to contact al-Qa`ida in Pakistan. Among them may have been Mohammed Quayyum Khan, a British man living in Luton (known as “Q” under British reporting restrictions) who is reported to have been in contact with Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, the Iraqi al-Qa`ida man who may also have trained Siddique Khan. MI5 reportedly said that Abd al-Hadi had “secret meetings” with Khyam on several occasions [17]. In summer 2003, Khyam, perhaps now armed with information about how to contact al-Qa`ida, returned to Pakistan. In Pakistan, he learned to build homemade bombs using ammonium nitrate and aluminum powder—most probably from Abd al-Hadi or someone similar [18]. At some point in Pakistan, Khyam came into contact with Siddique Khan [19]. Together with other British extremists, Khyam and Siddique Khan conducted test explosions at their rented house in Lahore—eventually attracting the attention of the Pakistani police (who briefly investigated but took no action) [20]. Khyam may have already been introduced to Siddique Khan through Quayyam Kham, their mutual contact from Luton. Nine months after their meeting in Lahore, in February 2004 Khyam was recorded by MI5 talking to Siddique Khan a few months before Khan headed to the Malakand training camp. During the call, Khyam gave Khan advice about training camps: “you’ll be with Arab brothers, Chechen brothers. The only thing I will advise you, yeah, is total obedience to whoever your Emir is…whether he is Sunni, Arab, Chechen, Saudi, British—total obedience. I’ll tell you up there you can get your head cut off” [21].

The ethnic diversity that Khyam emphasized is likely to be only found in an al-Qa`ida camp—perhaps the one that Siddique Khan visited in Malakand.

Once back in the United Kingdom, Khyam maintained his contacts with al-Qa`ida members in Pakistan. On one occasion, also in February 2004, Khyam even reportedly contacted Abu Munthir, Abd al-Hadi’s deputy, to double-check a bomb-making recipe [22]. Soon afterward, Khyam and his gang were arrested by police who feared that they were close to completing their own bomb project based on ammonium nitrate fertilizer.

Related Cells

In addition to these major bomb attempts, there is further evidence that suggests a range of connections between other UK-based extremists and al-Qa`ida members abroad.

In December 2008, Rangzieb Ahmed, a Pakistani man living in Manchester, was convicted of being a member of al-Qa`ida. Much of the evidence for the conviction came from analysis of his phone records and from incriminating evidence written in invisible ink in one of his notebooks. Ahmed’s contacts include: Abu Hamza Rabia, a leading Egyptian member of al-Qa`ida who was killed in Pakistan in December 2005; Mamoun Darkazanli, a key al-Qa`ida financier of the 2004 Madrid bombings who also knew several of the 9/11 hijackers; and Khalid Habib, a prominent al-Qa`ida fighter who had fought in Chechnya and Afghanistan [23]. Ahmed also had connections to Yassin Omar, one of the 7/21 bombers, who had called his cellular phone in March 2005. He additionally worked with Abdul Rahman, a local “recruiting sergeant” in Manchester to locate potential recruits to al-Qa`ida who might be willing to travel to Pakistan or Afghanistan. Additionally, Habib Ahmed, Rangzieb’s co-defendant who was also convicted, had numerous close contacts with al-Muhajiroun, the British radical organization. Rangzieb Ahmed’s connections both to al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership and to British extremists are a clear indication that al-Qa`ida potentially plays a direct role in the recruitment of British Muslims at the street-level in the UK itself—as well as in their training in Pakistan.

Additional recent evidence of close links between British extremists and al-Qa`ida members in Pakistan comes from the trial of the 2006 “airline bombers.” Ahmed Abdulla Ali, the leading airline plotter, was in Pakistan frequently during 2002-2005—including in December 2004 when the 7/7 and 7/21 bomb plot leaders were also in the country [24]. Ali was in phone contact with Muktar Ibrahim, the leader of the 7/21 plot, and British officials believe that all these plotters were trained simultaneously or by the same al-Qa`ida operatives—all three plots involved the use of Hydrogen Peroxide-based explosives [25]. Ali and Assad Sarwar, two other airline plotters, were reportedly first “radicalized” partly during visits in 2002 to a Pakistani camp for Afghan refugees [26]. Such camps are frequently used by the Taliban and other groups to recruit supporters—initial contacts with al-Qa`ida sympathizers may have been made there. Another leading suspect in the airline plot was Rashid Rauf, a British Muslim who was arrested by Pakistani police in 2006, and who reportedly also had contacts with Muktar Ibrahim, the leader of the 7/21 bombers [27]. In December 2007, however, Rauf escaped from police custody shortly before he was due to be extradited to the United Kingdom [28]. Rauf was later reported to have been killed by a U.S. missile strike in November 2008 in Waziristan in northern Pakistan while in the company of Abu Zubair al-Masri, an Egyptian who was an al-Qa`ida explosives expert [29]. Although Rauf’s death has not been officially confirmed, his death in the presence of a senior al-Qa`ida member would suggest a further link between the airline plotters and al-Qa`ida’s senior members—as well as underscore the links between the 7/21 bombers and al-Qa`ida.


As more evidence emerges from police and judicial investigations, it is becoming clear that many of the United Kingdom’s largest terrorist plots developed as a direct result of the plotters’ close involvement with senior members of al-Qa`ida in Pakistan. Indeed, it seems fair to say that without al-Qa`ida’s direct involvement, many of these plots would never have become remotely viable. Other bomb plots carried out without al-Qa`ida’s guidance have been far more amateurish and ineffective. The July 2007 attempted car bombings in London and Glasgow, for example, involved far cruder “bombs” made of propane gas cylinders and petrol [30]. The May 2008 attempted restaurant bombing in Exeter was even more amateurish, being built largely according to videos on the website [31].

Several important questions about the al-Qa`ida-linked plots, however, remain unanswered. For example, it is not yet clear to what extent the leaders of the 7/7 and 7/21 bomb plots proactively sought out al-Qa`ida members and to what extent al-Qa`ida found them and pushed them toward violence. Likewise, it is not yet clear at what stage Siddique Khan, Khyam and others decided to target the United Kingdom. Did they make this decision before they left the United Kingdom and traveled to meet militants in Pakistan? Or did they travel abroad planning to fight in Kashmir or Afghanistan, only to be convinced that they should instead attack targets in Britain?

These cases also make clear that many of the links between British extremists and al-Qa`ida were forged after 9/11 at a time when al-Qa`ida’s network in the United Kingdom and Pakistan was supposedly under heavy pressure. The fact that al-Qa`ida could not only survive this pressure but also expand aggressively into the United Kingdom demonstrates both the group’s remarkable resilience and also the resourcefulness of its members. Above all, however, these cases indicate that al-Qa`ida remains a potent network of like-minded individuals—if not a formal, centralized organization as it was pre-9/11—whose continuing power and reach should not be underestimated.

James Brandon is a senior research fellow at the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank based in the United Kingdom. He previously worked for the British think tank Civitas and has written on Islamism and terrorism for numerous think tanks and journals. He has also worked as a journalist, reporting on Islamic issues from Europe, the Middle East and Africa for print and broadcast media in 2002-2007. Mr. Brandon has a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.


[1] “Suicide Bombers’ ‘Ordinary’ Lives,” BBC, July 18, 2005.

[2] Rachel Williams, “July 7 Plot Accused Tell of Times with Taliban,” Guardian, May 21, 2008.

[3]  “7/7 Accused ‘Joined Weapons Camp,’” BBC, April 18, 2008.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mohammed Khan and Carlotta Gall, “Accounts After 2005 London Bombings Point to Al Qaeda Role From Pakistan,” New York Times, August 13, 2006; Dominic Casciani, “Jihadi Diary: Inside the Mind,” BBC, June 14, 2007.

[6] Daniel McGrory et al., “Meeting of Murderous Minds on the Backstreets of Lahore,” The Times, May 1, 2007; Sean O’Neill et al., “7/7 ‘Mastermind’ is Seized in Iraq,” The Times, April 28, 2007.

[7] “Profile: Muktar Ibrahim,” BBC, July 11, 2007.

[8] Ibid.

[9] David Leppard, “Fixer for 21/7 Plot Free in London,” The Times, July 15, 2007.

[10]  “Treasury Designates Individual Supporting Al Qaida, Other Terrorist Organizations,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, December 19, 2006.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Leppard.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Financial Sanctions: Terrorist Financing and al-Qaeda and the Taliban,” Bank of England, December 21, 2006.

[16] “MI5 Transcript of Bomber’s Conversation,” Channel 4 News [London], May 1, 2007.

[17] Shiv Malek, “The Jihadi House Parties of Hate,” Sunday Times, May 6, 2007; Ian Cobain and Jeevan Vasagar, “Free – The Man Accused of Being an al-Qaida Leader, aka ‘Q,’” Guardian, May 1, 2007; “Questions Over ‘Plot Mastermind,’” BBC, May 1, 2007.

[18] McGrory et al.

[19] Casciani.

[20] McGrory et al.

[21]  “MI5 Transcript of Bomber’s Conversation.”

[22] “Terrorists Planned to Rival 9/11 with UK Bomb Plot,” Daily Mail, April 30, 2007; Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, “Al Qaeda-on-Thames: UK Plotters Connected,” Washington Post, April 30, 2007.

[23] “Links to Global Terror Network,” Manchester Evening News, December 18, 2008.

[24] Cahal Milmo, “‘You will be Destroyed’: Bombers Convicted of Heathrow Plot,” Independent, September 9, 2008.

[25] Janet Stobart and Sebastian Rotella, “Retrials Will be Sought in Alleged Al Qaeda Plot,” Los Angeles Times, September 11, 2008; Gordon Corera, “Bomb Plot – The al-Qaeda Connection,” BBC, September 9, 2008.

[26] Milmo.

[27] Duncan Gardham, “Airliner Bomber Plot: The al-Qaeda Connections,” Daily Telegraph, September 8, 2008.

[28] Massoud Ansari and Miles Erwin, “London Airline Bomb Plot Suspect Escapes,” Daily Telegraph, December 17, 2007.

[29] Kevin Dowling, “Missile Strike Kills Suspected UK Mastermind of Airline Bomb Plot,” The Times, November 22, 2008.

[30] Duncan Gardham, “Glasgow Bomb Plot: The Bombs Constructed by Airport Terrorists,” Daily Telegraph, December 16, 2008.

[31] “Muslim Convert Admits Failed Suicide Bomb Attack,” The Scotsman, October 15, 2008.

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