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”.

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.

Details of alleged Norwegian plot

The Associated Press has an interesting story this morning, concerning the recent arrests of an alleged jihadist bombing cell in Norway last month. Three men, Mikael Davud (39), a naturalised Norwegian of Uighur origin, Shawan Sadek Saeed Bujak Bujak (37) an Iraqi Kurd and David Jakobsen (31), who was a Uzbek national, are alleged to have been plotting to construct hydrogen peroxide based explosives, but had not chosen a target. Davud and Jakobsen were both arrested in Norway, while Bujak was arrested in Dulsburg, Germany before being extradited.

Apparently the authorities had been aware of the plotters’ intent for some time, having intercepted emails to and from a contact in Pakistan (who may have been al-Qai’da’s chief of external operations, Saleh al-Somali). Unaware that they were under surveillance, the men proceeded to procure the precursor materials for their devices and over a two-week period in August/September 2009 they purchased nail polish remover, a one-liter bottle of 30-percent hydrogen peroxide, citric acid, flour and laboratory equipment, including a scale, gloves and dust masks. However, the authorities had ensured that the pharmacy which sold the men their chemicals in fact sold them a hydrogen peroxide substitute, thereby rendering any device they went on to construct harmless (this is an old counterterrorism trick – in Northern Ireland the police and army were adept at identifying PIRA arms caches and replacing explosives and ammunition with inert or dud substitutes, a process known as ‘jarking’)*.

However, the alleged plotters never got to the point of finding out that their bomb components had been jarked. Apparently Davud was spooked when detained by police on a trip to Turkey in September 2009 – this is said to have made him more cautious; also, it is has been suggested that their al-Qai’da contact in Pakistan may have been killed in a drone strike in December 2009. Finally, one of the cell members, Jakobsen, switched sides and in Autumn 2009 went to the Norwegian security services and began informing on Davud. This appears to be another example of the sort of thing I talked about in this previous post, specifically the downsides to depending upon decentralised amateurs who don’t have access to expertise or resources from a sponsoring organization. This plot was apparently doomed from early due to a lack of effective operational security awareness, which was then compounded by one of the cell member having a change of heart and going to the police.

* For more detail on the use of ‘jarking’ as a means of disrupting attacks see :Urban, M. Big Boys’ Rules: The Secret Struggle against the IRA: Faber & Faber, 1992.

Whence the threat

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.

Attacks in Moscow

Moscow Metro Map

Moscow’s Chief of Police has reportedly said he believes this morning’s two explosions on the Moscow metro system were caused by suicide attackers detonating devices. Reports so far indicate that 37 people were killed. The Times is reporting that a senior Russian official has stated that the explosions were caused by two female suicide attackers.

The first attack occurred during Monday morning rush hour at 0750 local time in the Lubyanka railway station, killing 19 people both on the platform and on an incoming train reports the NYT. This might imply that the attacker was on the platform, but its likely too early to say anything for certain. Forty minutes later a second explosion occurred inside the second carriage of a train in the Park Kultury station, killing 14. Both stations are on the Red (Sokolnicheskaya) subway line.

Of course this is not the first time the Moscow underground system has been targeted. In February 2004 a male attacker, detonated a device on the metro’s Green line, killing 41 and injuring 120. Later in August 2004 a female attacker apparently panicked and prematurely detonated herself outside another metro station, killing ten people including her handler.

It seems likely that these attacks will prove to the work of Chechen or Ingush militants. As I noted previously (here, here and here), in Autumn 2009 there was a spate of new suicide attacks against Russian targets in Ingushetia, most of which were claimed by the Riyad-us-Saliheen (Gardens of the Righteous) Martyrs’ Brigade. The use of female attackers, if true, is certainly consistent with Chechen militants’ modus operandi for suicide operations.

It would appear that, if the same group is responsible, they have shifted their focus away from striking targets on their own ground to hitting the Russian capital. Whether they have the capacity to mount a campaign in Moscow remains to be seen.

Failed attack in Milan

I was holding off posting on this until some more details emerged, but it does now look like yesterday’s attempt to bomb a military barracks in Milan, Italy was a failed suicide attack.

Reportedly, one Mohammad Game, a Libyan, managed to get into the perimeter of the base but was spotted by a sentry before he got near the main building. When challenged he detonated (or threw, its not quite clear) a toolbox containing an explosive device which partly exploded seriously wounding Game (he’s apparently had an arm amputated and lost both eyes) and the sentry was lightly wounded.

It has been reported that the 35-year-old failed businessman had at least two accomplices, who have been arrested. One was Egyptian, and is alleged to have transported Game to the barracks, while the other, another Libyan, assisted with the explosives.

One hundred kilos of fertilizer and other material was allegedly found at their home. The target of the attack, the Santa Barbara barracks, is home to some of Italy’s forces who are deployed in Afghanistan. Last month, these forces suffered a major blow, when a suicide VBIED killed six of their personnel in an attack in Kabul.

I reckon this is a pretty significant incident, in that, as far as I can recall, it is the first attempted suicide attack (i.e. one that got as far as trying to detonate a device) in Western Europe since May 2008, when British man Nicky Reilly injured himself in a failed attempt to bomb a restaurant in Exeter, UK.

While its early to say much more about this latest incident, it demonstrates yet again that downloading instructions, making home-made explosives and manufacturing a viable device out of them is not as simple as some would have us believe. As I highlighted in this post, the lack of access to skilled personnel and resources makes jihadist cells potentially much less competent than they might otherwise be.