Swedish attack update

Swedish police this week released details of their investigation into the failed Christmas 2010 suicide bombing in Stockholm. On 11 December 2010, Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, a Swedish citizen of Iraqi origin died in an explosion in central Stockholm. His body was discovered with abdominal blast injuries along with a bag containing explosive material. Al-Abdaly had previously lived in Luton in the UK, along with his wife and two children. At the time it appeared that one of his devices exploded prematurely. The new information from the Swedish investigation suggests that a faulty trigger mechanism prevented the main charge he was carrying from detonating. This would appear to tally with reports at the time of the incident, which referred to a suspected attacker who had died from abdominal injuries.

Al-Abdaly was carrying two devices, one in a backpack comprising some 10kg of explosives, the second, made up of 6kg of explosive was wrapped around his waist. The Swedes also revealed he had placed a device in a vehicle with a remote detonator,but this also appears to have malfunctioned. Apparently the car bomb was  made up of ‘ fireworks, gasoline and liquid gas tanks’, something that has been seen several times before – notably in the Times Square and Glasgow Airport bombings (see this previous post).

The video below, a news report from around the time of the attack, shows first the blazing car and then, just off-screen, the explosion when al-Abdaly’s device detonated. The aftermath shows he was fairly far away from the main shopping street, suggesting he may have detonated prematurely or had suffered a technical failure. The Swedish police also reported that his two devices were augmented with a large quantity of nails.

One theory is that he intended the device in the car to explode, drawing in emergency services and bystanders, and he would then set off his device amongst this crowd. A Swedish prosecutor stated that:

“A possible scenario is that the car was supposed to attract people and that the bomb was supposed to explode. The perpetrator planned to walk into this environment and trigger his bombs,”

Interestingly there is little detail about how al-Abdaly went about constructing his devices. He had apparently purchased materials and equipment in the local area, but the investigation has yet to discover where he manufactured and assembled the devices. It also appears that al-Abdaly was operating by himself within Sweden, although one man was arrested and charged in Luton in the UK. At the time of the attack there was speculation that al-Abdaly may have had help from others in Sweden. Al-Abdaly had also reportedly travelled to Syria and Iraq in 2007 and 2009, so it is possible be received some form of training in explosives while there.

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Suicide attack in Dagestan

Around 30 people were injured late on Friday in the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala. A male suicide attacker approached a police cordon close to a house where security forces had earlier had a firefight with suspected militants. Around 20 of the wounded were police officers; reportedly the bomber:

“attempted to break through a police cordon, but he was stopped by a policeman and set off the bomb”.

Foiled attack on US base in Afghanistan

FOB Gardez - an ambitious target

In another example of what I was discussing in this post, Afghan insurgents tried for the second time in three days to attack a fortified US military installation. In today’s incident, a vehicle (presumably a VBIED, the reports don’t specify yet; correction – this report quotes a NATO spokesman who says it was a SVBIED) accompanied by four men armed with rifles and wearing suicide vests tried to breach the perimeter at Forward Operation Base (FOB) Gardez in Paktya province. According to NATO media, the base’s defenders spotted the attackers and engaged them, destroying the vehicle and killing five insurgents. One was reportedly captured. Two Afghan security guard guards were injured and one local civilian employee was killed (it is not clear from the reporting whether the employee was inside the base at the time). The US DoD’s news service suggests that these attackers were part of a larger force of some 20 other insurgents.

Why hard targets?

© Hesco

I’ve been giving some thought to hard targets, as in why do insurgent/terrorist groups attack targets that have some sort of active/passive defences which would hinder the successful execution of a (suicide) attack. Such targets would include:

  • military/security installations (FOB/COPs in Afghanistan)
  • diplomatic/political sites (embassies in Kabul)
  • major international hotels (such as the Marriott in Islamabad, Jakarta)
  • mobile military/security force patrols (armed, possibly armoured, with a degree of situational awareness)
  • airports (think Glasgow)

Now some of these are going to be considerably harder than others – launching an attack on a US Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan or Iraq is a pretty difficult proposition (for example, see the result of this recent failed attack). Given Western forces’ preponderance of surveillance assets and firepower there’s a fairly high probability the attackers are going to be wiped out before they manage to get close enough to do any serious damage. Of course this might be context dependent – attacks on Afghan police sites or Pakistani military compounds may well have a different outcome.

However, despite this insurgents/militants/terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have undertaken these types of attacks fairly regularly. What I’m interested in exploring is the rationale for doing so when there are lots of potentially softer targets that could be attacked with a greater degree of confidence in a successful outcome. So far this is what (from reading various sources) I’ve come up  with:

  • desire to mount spectaculars which will gain greater media attention and create the impression of a worsening security situation;
  • creation of recruitment propaganda;
  • undermine the credibility of the security forces and the state by taking them on directly;
  • contesting ground in areas the insurgents wish to use as safe havens or liberated zones;
  • demonstration of organizational capability and prowess;
  • elimination of a threat to the organization;
  • intimidation of members of the political/diplomatic communities;

I’d be very interested if anybody else has any other ideas or views on any of the above. What other potential motivations would cause a group to expend a good deal of resource and effort on attacking a hard target? Let me know in the comments section.

al-Shabab’s media capability

al-Katāayb Media Logo

While skimming through an English language Islamist forum I came across a recent propaganda video released by the Somali al-Shabab militia (who have conducted a number of suicide attacks, including two in Kampala during the football World Cup, and more recently against a hotel in which over 30 people were killed). The video, entitled ‘Mogadishu: The Crusaders Graveyard’ is pretty impressive – it looks and feels like a piece of war reporting, with some very high quality video and an English narration throughout. There is a good analysis of the video provided by Christopher Anzalone here, in which he charts the evolution of al-Shabab’s media capability. Also see here for a translation of al-Shabab’s statement reagarding the release of their new media channel logo.

The English narration is interesting, given the recent remarks by the head of the British Security Service (MI5) Jonathan Evans:

‘In Somalia, for example, there are a significant number of UK residents training in Al Shabaab camps to fight in the insurgency there. Al Shabaab, an Islamist militia in Somalia, is closely aligned with Al Qaida and Somalia shows many of the characteristics that made Afghanistan so dangerous as a seedbed for terrorism in the period before the fall of the Taleban…We need to do whatever we can to stop people from this country becoming involved in terrorism and murder in Somalia, but beyond that I am concerned that it is only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside Al Shabaab’.

It seems pretty clear that videos like this are designed to appeal to and draw in potential recruits from the Somali diaspora in the West (for example there are large ethnic Somali population in the UK (over 40,000), and in the US  (Minnesota alone has around 20,000 Somali immigrants). According to recent testimony from Michael Leiter, the head of the US National Counter-terrorism Centre:

the Somalia-based training program established by al-Shabaab and now-deceased al- Qa‘ida operative Saleh Nabhan, continues to attract hundreds of violent extremists from across the globe, to include dozens of recruits from the United States. At least 20 US persons—the majority of whom are ethnic Somalis––have traveled to Somalia since 2006 to fight and train with al-Shabaab.(1)

US-born Somalis who returned to train and fight with al-Shabab have been involved in conducting suicide attacks against targets in Somalia itself. One of the five bombers involved in the October 2008 multiple attacks was Shirwa Ahmed, a naturalised US citizen who lived in Minnesota. (The New York Times has a useful resource detailing some of the other US recruits to the Somalian jihadist group). It was also reported that at least one of the attackers who mounted the September 2009 attacks against the African Union peacekeeping force compound in Mogadishu may have spoken with an American accent.

The attacks in Kampala were the first sign of al-Shabab’s intent and capability to mount attacks beyond Somali itself, targeting a country which contributes to the AU peacekeeping force. In January of this year, another US citizen, Omar Hammami (Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki), told The New York Times that:

“It’s quite obvious that I believe America is a target,”

Presumably however, if al-Shabab intends to attack the US or the West more widely, it would probably not be using American or British passport holders to mount suicide attacks in Somalia, or using them to fight as insurgents. Such individuals would clearly be a great asset in efforts to mount operations back in their countries of residence. This is not to say that al-Shabab’s intent will not change, or that these potentially very valuable human resources will not be co-opted by al-Qaida; after all, a number of British residents and citizens travelled to Pakistan in order to fight in Afghanistan, only to be given training and turned around and told to attack their home country. So the US and UK security authorities are probably right in being concerned by the prospect of their citizens and residents returning from Somalia.

References

(1) Michael Leiter, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center. “Nine Years after 9/11: Confronting the Terrorist Threat to the Homeland” Statement for Record Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee ” 22 September 2010

French hunt alleged female suicide attacker

Various news sources are reporting that the French authorities are on the hunt for a woman who threatened to blow herself up in  a ‘busy part of Paris’. Apparently a specific threat has been confirmed, based on intelligence received from a North African source that an Algerian was planning to attack French public transport., specifically on Thursday of this week. Presumably this threat originates from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), though I can’t recall them using female attackers before. The French have been on heightened alert for some time, with bomb scares at the Eiffel Tower and a metro station last the week. The Guardian reports that:

France fears the threat is heightened by the return to France of Islamist extremists who have been waging jihad in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is also anger over the planned ban on wearing the burqa in public places, the presence of French troops in Afghanistan, and a French commando attack on an al-Qaida base in Mali in July, which led to the death of seven members of the organisation’s north African branch.

Interview Insights

ResearchBlogging.org

Two of the central themes of my research are (a) the centrality of the organization in executing suicide attacks and (b) the extent to which the capability of the organization impacts on the characteristics and outcomes of the suicide attacks it mounts. So it was with some interest that I read these latest articles by Ariel Merari[i] et al, detailing the process and results from a series of interviews carried out with both would-be suicide attackers and their handlers (those who organize the attacks). This is significant, because not a great deal is known about the motivations or characteristics of those who organize suicide attacks.[ii]

Methodologically, Merari and the rest of the study team conducted a series of semi-structured interviews and psychological assessments of three groups of Palestinian prisoners held within Israeli jails (a group of failed suicide attackers, a group of attack organizers, and a control group made of those involved in more conventional political violence and protest). The articles also recount some interesting detail about the discussions that took place with the in-prison leadership of the groups (Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade/Fatah) these interviewees belonged to in order to gain cooperation for the study to take place.

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