Rajib Karim, from the London Metropolitan Police’s website.
Two days ago, a British court convicted a Bangladeshi-born British Airways employee of terrorism charges, including plotting a “spectacular” airplane bombing. The plotter, Rajib Karim, who had begun working for the airline company in 2007, led a double life. Outwardly, he appeared to be an ordinary computer expert. Secretly, however, Karim harbored extremist beliefs and made propaganda videos for Jamaat ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) — a known terrorist organization.
While working at British Airways, according to a profile published online by London’s Metropolitan Police, Karim “worked with his younger brother Tehzeeb Karim and other associates to raise funds for JMB, al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations who were then involved in the insurgent activity in Iraq, in the border areas of Pakistan, Afghanistan and also in the [sic] Yemen.”
In December 2009, Tehzeeb Karim traveled with two others from Bangladesh to Yemen, where he met with al Qaeda cleric Anwar al Awlaki. Tehzeeb told Awlaki about his older brother and the two began emailing in short order.
“We need men who are willing to go all the way and not hold back anything from Allah,” Awlaki told Karim, according to the Mirror (UK). Awlaki continued: “The religion of Allah cannot be given victory by part-time service. This is not a weekend religion. The contract is to sell our souls to Allah. The compensation is paradise.”
Awlaki’s words were clearly intended to inspire Karim to action, but excerpts of the cleric’s emails reveal that his role went far beyond rhetorical support. The emails and other information linking Karim to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) were discovered on Karim’s laptop, which was protected by extensive cyber security.
According to the Daily Mail (UK), Karim used some of the “most sophisticated” encryption tools British authorities have ever seen to mask his communications with various nefarious personalities, including Awlaki. Investigators found that Karim used a “Russian doll system,” which “hid his terrorist plotting behind at least eight layers of disguise and encryption.”
Anwar al Awlaki, from a jihadist website.
On Jan. 25, 2010, Awlaki emailed Karim, telling him that “depending on what your role is and the amount of information you can get your hands on, you might be able to provide us with critical and urgent information and may be able to play a crucial role for the ummah.”
Awlaki continued [emphasis added]:
I was pleased when your brother conveyed from you salaams to myself and was excited by hearing your profession. I pray that Allah may grant us a breakthrough through you. As a starter, can you please answer these questions in as much elaboration as possible: can you please specify your role in the airline industry, how much access do you have to airports, what information do you have on the limitations and cracks in present airport security systems, what procedures would travellers [sic] from the newly listed countries have to go through, what procedures would a person on a watch list have to go through?
Karim sent a reply to Awlaki, whom he addressed as the “prof,” on Jan. 29, 2010. Karim complained about having to live “with the kuffar” (disbelievers) and said he “desperately” wanted to leave.
As for his specific knowledge of the airline industry, Karim explained [emphasis added]:
I have knowledge about the key people in BA [British Airways] starting from the top management and the key people in BA IT department. I also have knowledge about key IT hardware locations, which if targeted can bring huge disruption to flights and cause BA a major financial loss … but this would be at the risk of exposing myself as I will have to do that with my own login ID….
I personally know two brothers, one who works in baggage handling at Heathrow and another who works in airport security. Both are good practising brothers and sympathise towards the cause of the mujahideen and do not slander them. They are of the type who would help with money and moral support but I am not sure if they are at the stage to sacrifice with their lives.
On Feb. 13, 2010, Awlaki emailed Karim again. This time Awlaki probed Karim’s ability to get a bomb or suicide bomber on board a plane headed for the US, and he also encouraged Karim to take a job on a flight crew. Awlaki wrote [emphasis added]:
Our highest priority is the US. Anything there, even if on a smaller scale compared to what we may do in the UK, would be our choice. So the question is: with the people you have, is it possible to get a package or a person with a package on board a flight heading to the US? If that is not possible, then what ideas do you have that could be set up for the uk?
…You should definitely take the [cabin crew] opportunity, the information you could get would be very useful.
Karim emailed his brother on Feb. 15, 2010: “If it’s not a good idea to visit you guys, then I intend to visit BD or USA. If I visit USA, I can check out what their security process is like.”
Karim also replied to Awlaki on Feb. 15, saying he was willing to work on a US-focused plot. Karim also suggested that they launch a cyber attack on British Airways. “If full damage can be inflicted,” Karim speculated, “that would mean cabin crew would be stranded in different parts of the world, planes will be grounded and it will be total chaos.”
Karim explained to Awlaki that he was trying to convince others to participate in his plot [emphasis added]:
I have started working on the bros I mentioned on the last letter without mentioning you directly. Alhamdulillah the bros responded better than I expected…
Like you say, I also agree that US is a better target than UK, but I do not know much about US. I can work with the bros to find out the possibilities of shipping a package to a US-bound plane.
As Awlaki’s emails with Rajib Karim show, the al Qaeda cleric played a direct role in the airliner plot. Awlaki encouraged Karim to attack the US, settling for an attack on the UK only as a backup.
Awlaki explored Karim’s ability to get a “package” (that is, bomb) on board a US-bound plane. This possibly foreshadowed AQAP’s late 2010 cargo plane bomb plot. In that foiled attack, AQAP attempted to detonate two bombs shipped via cargo jetliners.
Awlaki also wanted Karim to discuss “limitations and cracks in present airport security systems” as well as the “procedures…a person on a watch list” would have to go through.
More than a charismatic preacher
US counterterrorism analysts and intelligence professionals initially focused on Awlaki’s ability to inspire others to commit acts of terrorism. Over time, they have come to realize that Awlaki is directly involved in AQAP’s plotting.
Awlaki’s emails to Karim show that he was intimately involved in plotting an attack on US-bound airliners. And the emails to Karim are not the only evidence demonstrating Awlaki’s operational role.
In December 2009, the same month Karim’s younger brother visited Awlaki in Yemen, an AQAP recruit named Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner. Awlaki has publicly admitted that Abdulmutallab was one of his “students.”
In court filings last year, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper explained that Awlaki was not just a spiritual advisor for Abdulmutallab. Shortly after Abdulmutallab swore allegiance to the emir of AQAP, Nasir al Wuhayshi, he “received instructions from [Awlaki]…to detonate an explosive device aboard a US airplane over US airspace.” Awlaki was directly involved in “preparing” Abdulmutallab for the Christmas Day 2009 operation, according to Clapper.
Stuart Levey, who was then Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said in a 2010 Treasury Department press release that Awlaki “has involved himself in every aspect of the supply chain of terrorism — fundraising for terrorist groups, recruiting and training operatives, and planning and ordering attacks on innocents.”
In designating Awlaki an al Qaeda terrorist in July 2010, the Treasury Department noted that he has “taken on an increasingly operational role” in AQAP since late 2009. [See LWJ report, US adds Anwar al Awlaki to list of designated terrorists.]
Another of Awlaki’s “students” is Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who went on a shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas on Nov. 5, 2009. Like Rajib Karim, Hasan emailed back and forth with Awlaki as he plotted his day of terror.The FBI was aware of the emails before the Fort Hood shooting. Incredibly, the Bureau dismissed the importance of the email communications, incorrectly believing that they were just part of Hasan’s research into the deleterious effects of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When putting together the various pieces, a pattern emerges. In November 2009, one of Awlaki’s “students” launched a terrorist attack against military personnel inside the US. Awlaki had openly advocated such an operation beforehand. In December 2009, another of Awlaki’s students attempted to blow up a jetliner over US airspace.
Then, in January 2010, Awlaki began plotting another attack on US-bound jetliners with Rajib Karim.
Clearly, Awlaki is more than just a radical preacher.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.