The arrest by Norwegian police today of an Uzbek, a Uighur, and a Kurdish Iraqi – all described as being linked to Al Qaeda – shows the ability of jihadi groups to better organize abroad in a united front where race or nationality is ever less a determining factor, analysts say.
“The group is connected to the Al Qaeda network and the case has links to the US and Great Britain,” said Janne Kristiansen, head of Norway's Police Security Service, without going further into what those links are.
Coming at a time when many combatants killed or captured in Afghanistan, Waziristan, and Pakistan are discovered to be from nations as wide-ranging as Uzbekistan, Egypt, and Yemen – the arrests in Norway show the ability of a well-connected transnational Islamic group to bring widely differing individuals together.
“Whether it is organized by Al Qaeda or a new group, we are seeing varied nationalities coming together under one banner…. They are not yet realizing their aims, but are taking first steps, connecting and planning,” says Maha Azzam, a specialist at Chatham House, an international research group in London. “Despite different Islamic contexts…there is a thread that is bonding these individuals in the name of a cause.”
In many cases, including the 9/11 attacks, whose participants were mostly Saudis, coordination is often dominated by one nationality or ethnic group -- be it Saudi or Pashtun.
The arrest of the three men, two in Norway and one in Germany, took place after a year of surveillance by Norwegian authorities; the decision to arrest came after unnamed members of the “international media” had discovered the investigation, Norwegian police said. The men were said to be preparing homemade peroxide bombs not unlike the one that failed to go off in the New York subway in 2009.
The Norwegian plot was linked to the same terrorist planners behind that failed attack and one aimed at a British shopping mall. The Associated Press reported that US and Norwegian counterterrorism officials worked together on the Norwegian plot, officials said. Ms. Kristiansen traveled to the US this spring to review intelligence from in the case.
A Norwegian police statement described those arrested as “Person 1,” a Chinese Uighur that came to Norway in the late 1990s as a refugee who was granted citizenship in 2007. “Person 2” is an Iraqi Kurd arriving in the late 1990s and holding Norwegian permanent residence status. And “Person 3” is an Uzbek asylum seeker in the early 2000s who was later granted permanent residence. All three are in their 30s.
Shift from nationalist to Islamic causes
The backgrounds of the three men may be significant not simply because they are so varied, analysts say, but also because they come out of what a decade ago would have been nationalistic movements in which “Islam” had far lesser meaning.
Uighur militants identified with causes like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement which pushed back against Chinese rule, and not a serious expression of political Islam. Also, Uzbek and Kurdish movements were often a matter of territory more than an imposition of sharia law, which hard-core political Islam advocates. But this may be changing.
“They used to be fighting for land, but now the more influential Arab Islamic radicals have changed the ideology, so that the cause is now land and jihad,” says a US-based expert on jihad in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The line from fighting for a nationalist cause to expressing an Islamist line is not so far,” Ms. Azzam says.
Several analysts questioned how airtight were the Norwegian groups links to Al Qaeda. “I have no doubt the Norwegian police had good reason and good intel to arrest these men,” says Ali Laidi of the International Institute for Strategic Research in Paris. “But how they can link it so quickly to Al Qaeda – I’d want to know more. There have been many arrests in recent years that purport a link to Al Qaeda,” he says, but proven later not to be reliable.
Both Mr. Laidi and Ms. Azzam at Chatham House cautioned against overdramatizing an arrest of a group whose capability, numbers, competence, and religious zeal are quite unclear.
“I sometimes worry that we are making these groups larger than life,” says Ms. Azzam. “You only need a few individuals to make an arrest, and with a bit of grandiose analysis, they seem more important than they may in fact be.”
Laidi stressed that Al Qaeda has been in a kind of retrenchment, with problems of communications, and has been unable to achieve the kinds of dramatic and “exciting” headlines useful for recruiting for jihad.
The group arrested in Norway may not have been targeting Norwegian sites, and the terrorism threat levels in Norway remained low. The Police Security Services statement stated that “groups in Norway that may constitute a threat to national security are small and primarily involved in support activities to foreign countries.”
Eventual targets were likely the UK and the US; the Norwegian authorities had been working with US intelligence. Norway does have a contingent of troops in Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri has mentioned Norway as a target.
But Norway is considered a “third circle” priority target very far down the list, according to one senior European terrorism expert who requested anonymity.