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.

Gone in 53 hours

Perusing the charge sheet against Faisal Shahzad, the alleged Times Square failed bomber, a number of interesting little nuggets are apparent.

1. Shahzad had returned to the US from a five-month trip to Pakistan on 3 February, where he claimed to have been visiting his parents. Shahzad appears to be the son of a senior Pakistani military officer. Interestingly he had also left his wife behind in Pakistan (and the NYT notes his two young children). Shahzad has apparently admitted to having recently received training in bomb-making in Waziristan.

2. Inside the failed VBIED, the police found keys to Shahzad’s rented home in Connecticut and to his other vehicle. Despite changing the number plates, Shahzad had failed to remove the VIN or Vehicle Identification Number, allowing police to track down the person who had sold it to him and provided the police with a description of Shahzad.

3. The police were somehow able to tie a pre-paid (i.e. disposable) cell phone to Shahzad. Such phones are supposed to be highly anonymous so it will be interesting to see what details emerge on how they went about this. As the NYT notes:

Though they declined to say precisely how they tracked such an anonymous number, they established not only that Mr. Shahzad was the buyer of the Pathfinder, but also that he got four phone calls from a Pakistani number associated with him in the hour before he made his final calls to arrange the purchase of the vehicle, according to the papers.

Shahzad apparently also used the phone to call a store that sold the fireworks used in the VBIED’s construction.

4. Shahzad’s rented residence gave him exclusive access to a garage, which presumably allowed him to construct his device without being observed.

5. Inside the vehicle officers found at least two firearms.

The apparent carelessness about leaving his residence keys in the VBIED makes me wonder if this was meant to be a suicide detonation that went wrong. Also, the point about him leaving his wife and children behind in Pakistan and the fact he took several days to try and extract himself from the US might support this theory. The use of clocks as timing devices in the vehicle might undermine this however. Of course, he could just be really incompetent and have left the keys behind by mistake. By the same token, it appears that the ‘training’ he received in Pakistan was of limited use.  However, the admission to having been to a camp in Waziristan might lend some credence to the apparent claim by the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) to have been behind the attempted bombing. If so, it says something about the TTP’s ability to project force beyond their immediate areas of control.I wonder if this will turn out to be similar to cases in the UK (7/7, 21/7) where individuals have travelled with a view to fighting in Afghanistan but have been turned around and sent back to conduct an attack in their country of residence.

The discovery of the firearms is also interesting; why – if you are not confident about your explosives capability – risk bungling the attack when you could just walk into a shopping mall and shoot potentially dozens of people, perhaps taking inspiration from Nidal Malik Hasan? Is there something symbolic or talismanic about an causing an explosion that a shooting attack does not satisfy?

The other thing that jumps out of this investigation is that it took the authorities just over 53 hours from the discovery of the VBIED to the making of the arrest. That’s pretty impressive in anyone’s book. Though the revelation that the FBI surveillance team lost track of Shahzad and that he had managed to board a plane bound for Dubai is a little alarming.

Defection

An interesting little story from AFP, about ‘Hameed’, a 25-year-old Afghan ‘reformed’ suicide bomber. He was apparently recruited by his uncle, a member of the Taliban, and was trained to assassinate the Chief of Police in Wardak province. The details of the training he received are pretty familiar. He was sent to a madrassa near Peshawar and

“soon after I arrived that I was told for the first time that I was going to be trained for a suicide bombing mission. I was assigned to attack the Wardak police chief, General Abdul Yameen Muzafaruddin”. He and about 15 other Afghans were trained in how to put on suicide vests, how to choose the target and how to stay calm.

But Hameen had a change of heart and decided not to become a bomber, contacted his other uncle who was a police commander (family get-togethers must be interesting) who extracted him and presented Hameen to his intended target. Hameen recited the plan and handed over his explosives vest.

The former bomber is now a police officer working for the man he was trained to assassinate. Quite the turnaround, but I’d not like to be sitting next to him in the patrol car. This is the first instance I’ve come across of a failed suicide attacker being turned in such a way – if anyone has other examples I’d be very interested to hear about them.

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.

Three man suicide assault and attack on police patrol in Kandahar

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Saturday saw a three man suicide team attempt to assault a detention centre in Kandahar operated by the Afghan intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security. One attacker detonated at the front gate to the facility, the other two engaged the guards with small arms fire and then detonated themselves without gaining access to the building. A guard and a child were killed in the incident, and three other guards were wounded. The Taliban have form for this type of attack: in June 2008, they used two suicide attackers as the opening to a large armed assault on Kandahar’s Sarposa prison, freeing some 400 Taliban detainees. On this occasion however it appears the attackers failed to breach the facility’s defences.

On Friday a foot-borne bomber approached a police patrol vehicle in Panjwai district and detonated himself. There were no fatalities, but six policemen and three civilians were injured.

A backside-borne IED?

In late August, a known al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula militant attempted to assassinate the Saudi head of counter-terrorism, Assistant Minster of Interior for Security Affairs, Prince Mohammed Bin Naif. The attacker, Abdullah Bin Hassan Bin Taleh Asiri (23), was supposed to be surrendering himself to the Saudi authorities. He was transported from the southern border region to Jeddah on a Saudi private jet. Upon meeting the Prince and during discussions regarding the surrender of other militants, Asiri detonated his device.

There are two curious aspects to this incident: first, how did Asiri manage to get a device on an aircraft and then into proximity to the target; second, why was he the only casualty? Both questions might be answered by reports that he had secreted the explosives internally (to be specific, in his anus). This is the first time I have heard of a suicide attacker seeking to conceal a device in such a way. Presumably the combination of the necessarily small quantities of explosive (and I’m guessing not much in the way of shrapnel), combined with the fact the attacker’s body must have absorbed a large amount of the device’s energy is what saved the PRince from more than minor injuries.

An interesting example of an innovative but not entirely successful variation of the suicide attack. I wonder if an airport security scanner would be able to pick up such a device?