Last April, British police arrested a 28-year-old Londoner called Khalid Mohammed Omar Ali outside the House of Commons. He was carrying three knives at the time. On June 26, the Central Criminal Court convicted Ali, an Islamist radical, of a plan to use those knives to kill police officers, soldiers or a Member of Parliament.
So far, so normal. Islamist terrorists using knives in terror plots is common: between January 2014 and December 2017, over a quarter of plots in Europe featured an edged weapon. The location was also unsurprising considering a terrorist attack had taken place in almost precisely that spot a month earlier (on that occasion, Khalid Masood had run over civilians on Westminster Bridge before stabbing a policeman to death).
However, Ali’s case is also different. Whereas the vast majority of Western radicals have some tie to the Islamic State and their activities in Syria — electronic, personal or just ideological — Ali was a bomb maker for al Qaeda and the Taliban who had just spent years in Afghanistan. His case serves as a timely reminder of the ongoing relevance of the al Qaeda-Taliban-Afghanistan nexus.
Ali traveled to Afghanistan in 2011, where he admitted to detonating over 300 devices in half a decade, and did not return to the U.K. until November 2016. Upon return, British authorities took his DNA and fingerprints and shared them with the FBI, who found 42 fingerprints linked to Ali on explosive devices in Afghanistan. They had been able to pull fingerprints from sticky tape used to construct them that had been handed in in Kandahar in January and July 2012, and the court heard from a British soldier that it was “unlikely that [Ali’s] level of knowledge could have been gleaned” without training.
Rather than arrest Ali, British intelligence began watching him. They saw how, on March 18, 2017, he used the cover of attending a "Stand Up to Racism" rally to carry out reconnaissance on the busy Regent Street in central London and police presence on Whitehall (the spot of his eventual arrest). A month later, he carried out further surveillance, this time on MI6 headquarters in Vauxhall, the Houses of Parliament and — once again — Whitehall.
Ali’s plans were inconvenienced by an unlikely source: his mother. The night before Ali was set to launch his attack, she found an array of knives on Ali’s bedroom floor. The police were called and the knives confiscated. However, this turn of events was not conveyed to counter-terrorism police. The next day, Ali bought himself three more knives and headed into Westminster. Recognizing the attack was imminent, British authorities swooped.
Ali explained his motivations in police custody. He admitted to being a “mujahid” fighter and soldier of Islam. He explained that his allegiance was with al Qaeda and the Taliban. During questioning by the police, Ali warned that, “Jihad is what we do. We are Mujahideen … UK is next on the list.” Ali said that he had headed to Westminster to deliver a “message” to the UK’s political leadership, and it was straight out of the al Qaeda playbook list of demands: the expulsion of the West from “Muslim lands,” freedom for Palestine and the release of Muslim prisoners.
It is unclear if al Qaeda’s senior leadership in that region sanctioned Ali’s plan, which could lead to him spending the rest of his life in jail. Yet it should help focus the international community’s thoughts on al Qaeda’ broader strategy.
For understandable reasons, the international community remains focused on what the Islamic State’s next move is after the loss of its Caliphate. Al Qaeda gets less focus and yet remains a persistent force in many areas in which ISIS may look to regenerate. The UK government’s recently published counter-terrorism strategy points out that al Qaeda “has focused its strategy on the long term” and tried “to involve itself in local struggles, with the aim of diminishing western influence and developing the desire for Islamist rule in local populations.” It has had success in doing so in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere. One United Kingdom official warned that al Qaeda “will still be there when ISIS is done.”
Simultaneously, al Qaeda still poses a live threat within the West. It was al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that gunned down Charlie Hebdo staffers in Paris in January 2015 and the UK‘s new counter-terrorism strategy acknowledges that al Qaeda “is a potent and resilient global threat with the long-term intent and capability to attack the UK and other countries.”
Other Western nations should heed this warning. Just because so many of the personalities that helped shape al Qaeda in its early years have now been killed or captured does not mean that its goals — the creation of a Caliphate, imposing sharia law, the defeat of the U.S. — have changed. In fact, al Qaeda has proven itself a remarkably durable threat. Any counter-terrorism strategy that only focuses on the Islamic State, and ignores the group that gave birth to it, is one destined to fail.
This piece originally appeared in the Hill