Europol has recently released the latest EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE_SAT 2010). One statistic in particular jumped out at me from this report. In 2009 there were 294 terrorist incidents in the EU (with another 124 in Northern Ireland). How many of these were perpetrated by Islamist/Jihadist groups or cells? Just one. And that was an amateurish effort by a Libyan to suicide bomb a military barracks in Milan, Italy. In that incident (noted in this previous post) the attacker managed only to seriously injure himself. The remainder of the attacks came from ethno-nationalist, separatist and left-wing/anarchist groups (almost all in France, Spain and Northern Ireland).
Of the 587 individuals arrested for terrorism offences in 2009, 110 were linked to Islamist activities (a decline of 41% from 2008 when 187 were arrested and continues a downward trend from 2007 when 201 were arrested for suspected jihadist links). Interestingly, two-thirds of those arrested in 2008 and 2009 could not be linked to a specific organisation, and nearly one-third were EU citizens. It might be reasonable to suggest that the decline in arrests is due to a reduction in the number of plots or attempted attacks being undertaken by jihadists in Europe.
The Europol report suggests that jihadist groups are using the EU as a platform from which to conduct support activities (fundraising, recruitment, logistics) rather than conducting actual attacks. Further, zones of conflict in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and others are acting as a magnet, attracting those who might try and do something in Europe to go and fight elsewhere. The other implication is that such groups are still limited by their organizational resources and capabilities within Europe and are not capable of mounting meaningful actions within EU member states.
Sadly the dissident Republican groups in Northern Ireland do not appear to have any problem in getting their devices to explode. The increase in the threat from Republican paramilitary groups was underlined in the latest UK Intelligence and Security Committee report, in which it was revealed that the Security Service (MI5) was facing “considerably more what we would call priority 1, i.e. life- threatening investigations, in Northern Ireland than we do in the rest of Great Britain” and as a result had increased its allocation of resources dedicated to combating Irish terrorism from 13 per cent in 2009/9 to 18 per cent in 2009/10. Jihadist attempts to cause mass casualties may still generate greater headlines and hyperbole, but the main threat in Europe still emanates from those groups who have both the intent and the capability to mount attacks.
Site of failed NYC attack
The recent failed car-bomb attempt in NYC appears to be a clear example of the issues I discussed in this post relating to the difference between learning the theory of making bombs and actually doing so with the materials you have to hand in the local environment.
Reportedly a street vendor spotted smoke coming out of an SUV which had been abandoned in Times Square, alerted a police officer who then called in the bomb squad. When the VBIED was made safe and dismantled it was found to be made up of three barbeque propane tanks, eight bags of ‘non-explosive grade’ fertilizer, petrol and some commercial firecrackers. The detonator appears to have been connected to couple of alarm clocks, suggesting this was not intended to be a suicide attack. It seems that the intent was to use the firecrackers to explode the fuel containers. As will be seen below, this is an unlikely way to try to cause gas canisters and fertilizer to explode.
One of the things that interests me about suicide attacks is how groups go about developing them as a weapon and turning them into a re-useable capability in their operations. A key part of my thesis argument centres on the importance of organizational resources and processes in delivering an effective capability.
Thomas Hegghammer’s 2008 article on the rise and fall of the al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is an insightful look at the importance of resources and capability in facilitating (or hindering) the activities of terrorist or insurgent groups. Hegghammer notes that prior to the May 2003 car-bombings in Riyadh, there had been little in way of jihadist violence with the Saudi Kingdom, and attributes this to organizational factors. First, following a series of failures by the nascent al-Qa’ida movement in Saudi between 1997 and 1998, bin-Laden took the decision to postpone actions in the Kingdom, lest the network be fatally weakened. Instead bin-Laden and al-Qa’ida turned their attention to international targets and the United States. Hegghammer argues convincingly that before 1998 AQ lacked the capability to mount operations in Saudi Arabia, and between 1999 and 2001 it (or bin Laden) lacked the intention.
The al-Sarafiyah Bridge in Baghdad - April 2007
Recently a reader of this blog (its good to know I have at least one) emailed pmsmartbomb at gmail dot com and asked some interesting questions about whether suicide attacks had ever been used against infrastructure targets rather than aiming at causing mass casualties.
The short answer was, yes they have.
The first incident I came across was in Iraq in 2003, when three explosive -laden boats attempted to attack an important offshore oil platform near Basra. The attack was beaten off by US naval forces, with two American fatalities. According to reports at the time the terminal was responsible for most of Iraq’s 1.9 million barrels per day of exports. So, strategically a fairly important target.
One aspect of my ongoing research is the development of a dataset of suicide attacks. The day before yesterday I reached the 1,000 mark, a cause of some satisfaction coupled with depression (logging that much death and destruction is wearying). As I was analysing the most recent data, I thought it might be interesting to share it. So, here is an inaugural data sample covering last month.
In the month of September, there were (by my reckoning) 20 attacks in total. The majority were in Afghanistan , followed by Iraq and Pakistan. Russia saw several, in keeping with the new campaign being waged in Chechnya and Ingushetia.
Six attacks were aimed at military installations, while four attacked civilian populations. Security checkpoints were attacked twice and three attacks were assassination attempts on individuals. In 80 per cent of cases VBIEDs were utilised, the remainder being PBIEDs. Overall, 60 per cent of these attacks were successful in striking their apparent intended target.
Total casualties arising from attacks in September were 158 dead and 424 wounded (though these need to be treated with caution as press reporting of casualties can vary wildly). The most lethal attack during this period was Kohat, Pakistan on 18 September, where a VBIED was used to attack a crowd of Shia civilians, killing at least 30 and wounding at least 65.