on july 7, 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed fresh charges against a group of foreign and U.S. nationals that it claimed were at the heart of an al-Qa`ida conspiracy to attack New York and Manchester, England. A day later in Norway, prosecutors announced charges against a cell of individuals who they claimed were also part of the same conspiracy and were plotting an attack in Scandinavia. Allegedly planned and directed by senior al-Qa`ida figures as part of a series of operational cells dispatched at around the same time, the plots highlight the group’s persistent ability to train individuals and then send them to carry out attacks in the West.

Using recently released information linked to the three separate, but centrally directed plots in Manchester, New York and Oslo, this article will explore al-Qa`ida’s persistent ability to plot in Pakistan’s badlands in the face of increased pressure from U.S. and Pakistani forces. It will highlight the group’s ongoing ability to attract and train foreigners, and its focus on soft targets in the West. Finally, it will examine the increasing globalization of the network, with its apparent ability to utilize individuals linked to other extremist groups based in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

The three plots do not appear to be the only elements drawn to al-Qa`ida’s camps during 2008. American al-Qa`ida plotter Bryant Neal Vinas and a network of plotters around Malika el-Aroud, a Belgian-Moroccan who was the wife of one of Ahmad Shah Massoud’s killers, both appear to have been connected to the same radical networks. Vinas provided information to American and European investigators showing the growing importance of Rashid Rauf as an al-Qa`ida plotter.[1]

This article, however, focuses on the aspiring jihadists in Manchester, New York and Oslo, who trained in Pakistan and then headed back to their respective target countries where they launched preparations to carry out attacks using hydrogen peroxide-based devices. According to American and British court documents, as well as quotes from officials in Norway, the plots were directed and coordinated by senior al-Qa`ida figures Salah al-Somali, Rashid Rauf and Adnan Shukrijumah. Key individuals in all three cells were apparently present in the same parts of Pakistan in November 2008.[28] There may indeed be other plots that will prove to be linked in the same way, but they have not been publicly unmasked yet.

The Manchester Plot

In April 2009, British authorities foiled a plot allegedly involving suicide attacks on soft targets in Manchester. The specifics of the initial tip-off are unclear. One story claimed the evidence came from a jihadist who was helping security service investigators in Belgium in late 2008. Another said the information first came to MI5 in 2009 referring to an al-Qa`ida cell in northwest England. Codenamed Operation Pathway, the investigation launched in February that year was focused on British-Pakistani national Hamza Khan Shenwari of Cheetham Hill, Manchester.[4] According to his lawyers, Shenwari is a 42-year-old Pashtu speaker who worked as a security guard and came to England in 2000 seeking asylum following mistreatment at the hands of the Taliban.[5]

The investigation uncovered evidence of what security services believed was a large cell of some 12 individuals with links to al-Qa`ida in Pakistan. Key among these was Shenwari’s roommate, Abid Naseer, a 24-year-old Pakistani national from Peshawar who first came to the United Kingdom in 2006.[6] Naseer arrived in the United Kingdom ostensibly to study at Liverpool John Moores University, having worked in Peshawar at the university’s representative office there. It was here that he met some of the men who were subsequently to stand accused with him, including Tariq ur Rehman, a 39-year-old widower from Miran Shah in North Waziristan Agency. Rehman first came to the United Kingdom in September 2007, also to attend a course at the John Moores University.[7]

Neither man spent much time in their university courses, dropping out almost immediately after their arrivals to later sign up for English-language courses at the Manchester College of Professional Services, described by courts as “an institution with a dubious reputation.”[8] Instead, they appear to have spent their time wandering around taking pictures of themselves in front of local shopping malls and docks.[9] It is unclear exactly when these pictures were taken, but it would appear as though it was before Rehman and Naseer separately went back to Pakistan in September-November 2008, meeting up twice in Peshawar while there.[10]

Prior to returning to the United Kingdom, Naseer opened an e-mail account under the name humaonion [at] yahoo [dot] com on November 14, 2008, which 16 days later started receiving e-mails from the account sana_pakhtana [at] yahoo [dot] com. This account was opened by an individual known only as “Ahmad” who was using it to pass messages from Salah al-Somali, referred to as al-Qa`ida’s then-chief of external operations.[12]

By the time British investigators started to uncover the network in February 2009, Naseer appeared to have progressed far down the path of preparation. E-mail traffic between the two accounts showed Naseer discussing a complex list of possible girlfriends—which security services interpreted as discussion of bomb ingredients—while investigators noted with alarm that Shenwari was working at a hair products company, giving him easy access to peroxide products.[13] He was also in contact with a network of Pakistani nationals in Liverpool and Manchester, at least some of whom were later assessed to being knowing conspirators.[14]

Security concerns reached a fever pitch on April 3, 2009, when an e-mail was intercepted from Naseer’s account to “Ahmad” that was believed to state that an attack was being prepared between April 15-20. Authorities decided to arrest the men a few days later, although the final action was rushed forward by a few hours after Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick of the Metropolitan Police was caught on camera entering 10 Downing Street displaying documents related to the plot.[15] Police arrested 12 individuals, although they were unable to locate any evidence of explosives or collection of materials beyond “large amounts of flour and oil.”[16] Furthermore, in addition to the photos of sites in Liverpool and Manchester, detailed maps of Manchester city center were found with the same sites highlighted. Mobile phones and surveillance footage of the different groups of plotters also tied the arrested men together to varying degrees.[17]

The evidence, however, proved inconclusive and the courts decided that the men could not be prosecuted, turning them either free or over to immigration authorities. Security services and the courts remain convinced that Abid Naseer “was an Al Qaeda operative who posed and still poses a serious threat.”[18] Yet while the media focused on the public relations disaster that followed, security officials concentrated on ascertaining Naseer’s contacts in Pakistan. Sometime later, they noticed activity from the account linked to “Ahmad” to a 24-year-old Pashtun-American named Najibullah Zazi.[19] Zazi and Naseer were both in contact with the same individual through this e-mail account and discussed the topic of marriages in similar terms.[20] Reports in the British press suggest that this was the tip-off that alerted U.S. authorities to Zazi’s activities, although this detail has not been officially confirmed.[21]

The New York Subway Plot

According to documents released in July 2010, Najibullah Zazi and two high school friends, Zarein Ahmedzay, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Afghanistan, and Adis Medunjanin, a Bosnian-born naturalized U.S. citizen, flew from New York through Doha to Peshawar on August 28, 2008.[22] Once in Pakistan they established contact with “Ahmad” who took the men to Waziristan where they could receive military training.[23] At the training camp they met with individuals who were later identified as Salah al-Somali and Rashid Rauf, who urged the men to consider going back to the United States to carry out attacks rather than fight in Afghanistan.[24] They are said to have also met Adnan Shukrijumah, and the al-Qa`ida leaders recruited the men to carry out attacks on the New York subway.[25]

The three Americans left Waziristan soon afterward, with Medunjanin flying back to the United States on September 22, while the other two stayed to receive explosives training. In November 2008, however, “Ahmad” brought only Zazi to a training camp in Waziristan where he was trained in explosives.[26] It was during this period that he likely drafted notes on how to fabricate Triacetone Triperoxide (TATP) using flour, oil, hydrogen peroxide and acetone, which he e-mailed to himself in early December 2008 and which were later used as evidence against him.[27] Ahmedzay later admitted to reviewing Zazi’s notes.[28]

Having completed their time in Pakistan, Zazi returned to the United States on January 15, 2009, with Ahmedzay following on January 22. Zazi moved to Aurora, Colorado soon after this, while Ahmedzay and Medunjanin remained in New York. In Colorado, Zazi and unidentified others located the sources of the necessary ingredients to produce TATP, and he experimented with the ingredients in a hotel room he rented in Aurora.[29] During spring and summer of 2009, he made at least two trips to New York where he discussed with Ahmedzay how he was proceeding with making the TATP, and they agreed to carry out suicide attacks on the New York subway system on September 14, 15, and 16.[30] As they got closer to the time of attack, Zazi attempted repeatedly to make contact with unknown individuals trying to confirm the exact measurements required to assemble the explosives.[31] At some point he also made contact with “Ahmad,” this time using a code referring to the timing of a wedding that was similar to that which British services had noted in Abid Naseer’s e-mails.[32]

Zazi was picked up by police in mid-September 2009 and pled guilty to training and plotting to attack the New York subway. Recognizing that the noose was closing, Medunjanin seems to have lost control, and on January 7, 2010 called 911 from his mobile phone telling the operator “we love death” before crashing his car on the Whitestone Expressway in Queens, New York.[33] He survived, and the next day both Ahmedzay and Medunjanin were indicted for seeking to fight abroad. In April, Ahmedzay confessed his role in the subway plot, while Medunjanin continues to plead his innocence.

The Oslo Plotters

The final plot from this network was disrupted in Oslo, Norway in July 2010, the day after the indictment officially linking the New York and Manchester plots was unsealed.[34] Whether the prosecution’s hand was forced by the indictments published the day before in the United States, other American pressure or the fact that the Associated Press had discovered the investigation, police felt they had to move in and arrest two men in Oslo: Mikael Davud, a 39-year-old ethnic Uighur with Norwegian citizenship, and David Jakobsen, a 31-year-old Uzbek with legal residency in Norway. At the same time, German police arrested a third man, Shawan Sadek Saeed Bujak, a 37-year-old Iraqi-Kurd who was on holiday in Duisburg, Germany.

Norwegian and U.S. officials were quoted in the press as saying that the men had been under surveillance for just over a year and the belief was that the plot was directed by Salah al-Somali.[35] As Petter Nesser and Brynjar Lia identify, it seems as though this cell was “one node” in a wave of attacks directed by al-Qa`ida at the West.[36]

The central figure in the Norwegian plot, Mikael Davud, was apparently in Waziristan at around the same time as Najibullah Zazi, although it is unclear that he trained at the same camp.[37] Officials in Norway believe the men were linked to the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), a primarily China-oriented extremist group based in Waziristan that has in the past called for attacks on China and which is often confused with the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM).[38]

As with most information connected to either group, the details are murky. The strongest connections between Davud and terrorist groups, however, flow through TIP; apparently TIP commander Seyfullah called Davud’s phone number in September 2008.[39] Furthermore, Davud was in possession of a passport photograph of missing British extremist Ibrahim Adam (brother of convicted Crevice plotter Anthony Garcia), which Davud claimed he had received from an acquaintance in Turkey in 2009. The connections between the terrorist group and the other two are instead unclear and clouded by the fact that the Uzbek suspect, David Jakobsen, had worked as an informant since November 2009.[40] Jakobsen claimed that he had contacted the police after he realized what he was involved in and had met with them on a weekly basis since first providing them with information.[41] Police doubt his authenticity, highlighting the fact that he failed to inform them that he had purchased a quantity of hydrogen peroxide in furtherance of the plot.[42]

The plotters went quiet in the period running up to the arrests, but police claim Davud accumulated enough explosives and other materials to construct a large device or several small devices (they had in fact already swapped what he thought was hydrogen peroxide with an inert substance). Their exact target is unclear, although there is speculation that the oil industry was being targeted when it was revealed that Jakobsen had applied for a place at a school which trained people for jobs in the oil industry.[43]

Al-Qa`ida’s Core Persists

There are a few key analytical points to be drawn from this series of plots. First, it appears that al-Qa`ida continues to maintain a capacity to train individuals from its base in Pakistan’s tribal areas despite being under pressure. Faisal Shahzad, the attempted Times Square bomber, made his way to Peshawar in July 2009, apparently tracking a path similar to Zazi’s network. This shows that as of a year ago, despite drone strikes operating at full tempo, the route and capacity to train in the region had not been closed down.

Second, the al-Qa`ida narrative continues to draw in a wide community of individuals across ethnic lines and from around the globe. While the Manchester plot was driven by recent arrivals to the United Kingdom who were predominantly from Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), Uighur Davud had lived in Norway since 1999 and Zazi and his cell had all attended high school together in the United States. Also, while less successful in their attempts at plotting in the West, Vinas and the cell around Malika el-Aroud show the ideology’s reach to converts and the North African diaspora in continental Europe. The cross-cultural appeal is equally visible in the growing roster of young Westerners being drawn to al-Shabab’s jihad in Somalia. Furthermore, the possible link to TIP highlights the group’s ability to draw upon networks fostered by “sister” extremist groups operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Finally, the plotters’ persistence is worth noting. While it is unclear (and unlikely) that the three plots knew of each other (though it seems likely that some information on them may have come from interrogations of other terrorist camp graduates), they nevertheless continued plotting in the face of news that their leaders in Waziristan had been killed and information was leaking out about their network. Despite persistent declarations of al-Qa`ida’s demise, the uncovering of this network highlights the group’s ongoing ability to generate plots in the face of increased pressure from drone strikes and Pakistani government efforts in its lawless regions.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London. His work can be found at www.raffaellopantucci.com.

[1] Paul Cruickshank, “The 2008 Belgium Cell and FATA’s Terrorist Pipeline,” CTC Sentinel 2:4 (2009); Paul Cruickshank and Nic Robertson, “Recruits Reveal Al Qaeda’s Sprawling Web,” CNN, July 30, 2009.

[2] “Charges Unsealed Against Five Alleged Members of Al Qaeda Plot to Attack the United States and United Kingdom,” U.S. Department of Justice, July 7, 2010; “3 Arrested in Norway Al Qaeda Bombing Plot,” Associated Press, July 8, 2010.

[3] David Leppard, Kevin Dowling, Philip Cardy and Daud Khattak, “Ghost in the Machine,” Sunday Times, April 12, 2009.

[4] Duncan Gardham and Gordon Rayner, “A Plot for Mass Murder Here and in the US,” Daily Telegraph, May 19, 2010.

[5] Jonathan Brown, Robert Verkaik and Kim Sengupta, “Police and PM in Dock Over Arrest of Terrorist Suspects,” Independent, April 23, 2009.

[6] Abid Naseer, Ahmad Faraz Khan, Shoaib Khan, Abdul Wahab Khan and Tariq ur Rehman v. Secretary of State for the Home Department, Special Immigration Appeals Commission, May 18, 2010.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Sultan Sher, Mohammed Umar Farooq, Mohammed Rizwan Sharif v. Greater Manchester Police, City of Westminster Magistrates, July 21, 2010.

[10] Abid Naseer, Ahmad Faraz Khan, Shoaib Khan, Abdul Wahab Khan and Tariq ur Rehman v. Secretary of State for the Home Department.

[11] Ibid.

[12]  “Charges Unsealed Against Five Alleged Members of Al Qaeda Plot to Attack the United States and United Kingdom.”

[13] Lord Carlile of Berriew, “Operation Pathway: Report Following Review,” October 2009.

[14] Abid Naseer, Ahmad Faraz Khan, Shoaib Khan, Abdul Wahab Khan and Tariq ur Rehman v. Secretary of State for the Home Department.

[15] Lord Carlile of Berriew.

[16] “Charges Unsealed Against Five Alleged Members of Al Qaeda Plot to Attack the United States and United Kingdom.”

[17] Sultan Sher, Mohammed Umar Farooq, Mohammed Rizwan Sharif v. Greater Manchester Police.

[18] Abid Naseer, Ahmad Faraz Khan, Shoaib Khan, Abdul Wahab Khan and Tariq ur Rehman v. Secretary of State for the Home Department.

[19] “Charges Unsealed Against Five Alleged Members of Al Qaeda Plot to Attack the United States and United Kingdom.”

[20] Ibid.

[21] “British Spies Help Prevent Al Qaeda-inspired Attack on New York Subway,” Telegraph, November 9, 2009.

[22] U.S.A. v. Adis Medunjanin, Abid Naseer, Adnan el Shukrijumah, Tariq ur Rehman, FNU LNU, and Name Redacted, Eastern District of New York, 2010.

[23] Ibid.

[24] “Zarein Ahmedzay Pleads Guilty to Terror Violations in Connection with Al Qaeda New York Subway Plot,” U.S. Department of Justice, April 23, 2010.

[25] U.S.A. v. Adis Medunjanin, Abid Naseer, Adnan el Shukrijumah, Tariq ur Rehman, FNU LNU, and Name Redacted.

[26] Ibid.

[27 U.S.A. v. Najibullah Zazi, Eastern District of New York, 2009.

[28] “Zarein Ahmedzay Pleads Guilty to Terror Violations in Connection with Al Qaeda New York Subway Plot.”

[29] U.S.A. v. Najibullah Zazi.

[30] “Zarein Ahmedzay Pleads Guilty to Terror Violations in Connection with Al Qaeda New York Subway Plot.”

[31] U.S.A. v. Najibullah Zazi.

[32] “Charges Unsealed Against Five Alleged Members of Al Qaeda Plot to Attack the United States and United Kingdom.”

[33] U.S.A. v. Adis Medunjanin, Abid Naseer, Adnan el Shukrijumah, Tariq ur Rehman, FNU LNU, and Name Redacted.

[34] The author is grateful to Anne Stenersen of FFI for helping with research into the Oslo group.

[35] Gwladys Fouche and Joachim Dagenborg, “Norway Arrests Al Qaeda-Linked Suspects Over Plot,” Reuters, July 8, 2010.

[36] Petter Nesser and Brynjar Lia, “Lessons Learned from the July 2010 Norwegian Terrorist Plot,” CTC Sentinel 3:8 (2010).

[37] Ibid.

[38] Edward Wong, “Chinese Separatists Tied to Norway Bomb Plot,” New York Times, July 9, 2010.

[39] Lia and Nesser.

[40] Ibid.

[41]  “Norway: Al Qaeda Bomb Suspect Was Police Informant,” Associated Press, July 12, 2010.

[42]  “Norwegian Police Secretly Filmed Terror Suspect: Report,” Agence France-Presse, July 10, 2010.

[43] Ibid.

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up