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Terrorism and the Not-So-Exceptional Individual

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By Scott Stewart

In last week's Security Weekly, we used a thwarted underwear bomb plot, as well as the U.S. government's easing the rules of engagement for unmanned aerial vehicle strikes in Yemen, as an opportunity to examine the role of exceptional individuals in militant groups that conduct terrorist attacks. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's (AQAP's) innovative bombmaker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, is one such individual.

Reported by AP on May 7, the news of the thwarted underwear plot overshadowed another event in Yemen that occurred May 6: a U.S. airstrike in Shabwa province that killed Fahd al-Quso, a Yemeni militant wanted for his involvement in the attack against the USS Cole in October 2000. Al-Quso appeared in a video released by AQAP's al-Malahim Media in May 2010, during which he threatened attacks against the continental United States, its embassy in Yemen and warships in the waters surrounding Yemen.

The media and the U.S. government frequently mention al-Quso's involvement in the USS Cole bombing, but they rarely discuss his precise duty the day of the attack. Al-Quso had been tasked to record the attack from ashore so that the video could be used later in al Qaeda propaganda. Unfortunately for the group, al-Quso was derelict in his duty; he slept through his alarm, and the attack went unrecorded.

Oversleeping a terrorist attack was not al-Quso's only operational gaffe. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, al-Quso had been dispatched in January 2001 to transport money to al Qaeda facilitator Walid bin Attash in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The money reportedly funded the travel and initial living expenses of 9/11 operatives Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khaled al-Midhar. However, al-Quso failed to get a Malaysian visa. He was stuck in Bangkok, and bin Attash, al-Hazmi and al-Midhar had to meet him in Bangkok to retrieve the funds.   

If al-Asiri gives cause to discuss the role of the exceptional individual in terrorism operations, al-Quso provides us the opportunity to discuss the not-so exceptional individual — and how these maladroit actors nonetheless pose a threat.

Tradecraft Errors

The history of al Qaeda's war against the United States is replete with examples of jihadist operations that were foiled due to tradecraft failures. In September 1992, Ahmed Ajaj attempted to enter the United States with a poorly altered Swedish passport while carrying a suitcase full of bombmaking instructions and other training manuals and videos. Both lapses in judgment are characteristic of a novice. An alert customs inspector stopped Ajaj, who later was detained and charged with passport fraud.

Ajaj was traveling from Osama bin Laden's Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan with Abdel Basit, also known as Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center attack. An immigration inspector likewise stopped Basit, but he requested political asylum. Because he was not carrying a suitcase full of bombmaking manuals or using an altered passport, Basit later was released pending a hearing on his asylum claim. (Had he remained in custody, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing would not have been conducted.)

In another instance of tradecraft error, the would-be millennium bomber, Ahmed Ressam, fell victim to "burn syndrome" while attempting to enter the United States from Canada in December 1999. Ressam panicked when approached by a U.S. customs inspector, who was performing a routine check of the ferry on which he was traveling. The inspector was unaware that Ressam was an Islamist militant or that he was in operational mode. In fact, when Ressam lost his composure, she assumed he was smuggling drugs rather than explosives.

The 9/11 Commission Report also detailed a number of errors committed by the supposed al Qaeda elite prior to hijacking the four aircraft on 9/11. Mohammed Atta was cited for driving with an invalid license and failed to appear at the subsequent court hearing, causing a bench warrant to be issued for his arrest. Moreover, known al Qaeda associates al-Hamzi and al-Midhar entered the United States under their own names. (A flight instructor even characterized al-Hamzi and al-Midhar as "Dumb and Dumber," saying they were "clueless" as would-be pilots.) Any of these errors could have brought down the entire 9/11 operation.

More recently, we have seen cases where individuals such as Faisal Shahzad and Najibullah Zazi have shown the intent, but not the ability, to conduct attacks. While Shahzad was able to assemble a large vehicle-borne improvised explosive device without detection, the design of the device's firing chain was seriously flawed — clearly the work of a novice. U.S. government surveillance of Zazi's activities determined that he was an inexperienced bombmaker and that he could not create the proper chemical mixture to manufacture effective triacetone triperoxide (TATP). This is common problem for novice bombmakers. We have seen several planned attacks, such as the London bomb attempt on July 21, 2005, fizzle out due to bad batches of TATP.

In another example, U.S. Army Pfc. Naser Jason Abdo was arrested and charged with planning an attack on Ft. Hood in July 2011. Abdo was brought to the attention of the authorities after purchasing smokeless powder to be used in an improvised explosive device. His furtive demeanor caused a store clerk to report him to the police.

As Stratfor has noted, there has been a shift in the jihadist threat. Once stemming from the al Qaeda core, the jihadist threat now emanates primarily from grassroots jihadists. While grassroots jihadists pose a more diffuse threat because they are more difficult than hierarchical groups for national intelligence and law enforcement agencies to detect, they also pose a less severe threat because they generally lack the terrorist tradecraft required to conduct a large-scale attack. Since they lack such tradecraft, they tend to seek assistance to conduct their plots. This assistance usually involves the acquisition of explosives or firearms, as seen in the February 2010 case involving Amine el Khalifi. In this case, an FBI informant posing as a jihadist leader provided the suspect with an inert suicide vest and a submachine gun before the suspect's arrest for plotting to attack the U.S. Capitol building.

The dynamic of would-be attackers reaching out for help has been seen repeatedly in the United States. In June 2011, two jihadists were arrested in Seattle and charged with plotting to attack a U.S. Military Entrance Processing Station in an industrial area south of downtown Seattle. The men attempted to obtain M16 rifles and hand grenades from an FBI informant. Notably, this trend also has been seen outside the jihadist world. On April 30, five self-identified anarchists were arrested in connection with a plot to destroy a bridge outside Cleveland, Ohio. They had purchased remotely detonated improvised explosive devices from an FBI informant.

The Cleveland group had previously discussed constructing improvised explosive mixtures using recipes they had found on the Internet. But the possibility of buying authentic C4 explosives was attractive to them because, according to the FBI criminal complaint filed in the case, the group believed the real explosives would be more powerful and destructive than homemade explosives.

Would-be attackers, such as Shahzad and the anarchists of the Cleveland group, typically do not have a realistic assessment of their capabilities and therefore tend to attempt attacks that are beyond their capabilities. In attempting a spectacular attack, they frequently achieve little or nothing. As we have previously noted, it is a rare individual who possesses the requisite combination of will, discipline, adaptability and technical skill to make the leap from theory to practice and become a successful militant in a lone-wolf or small-cell environment.

The Danger of 'Kramer Jihadists'

Through retrospective trial testimony or FBI arrest affidavits, the exploits of Abdo, el Khalifi or the Cleveland anarchists can appear almost comical. In fact, such cases often leave people wondering if ridiculous would-be attackers could be involved in terrorist activity to begin with. However, militant groups — indeed, most organizations — are composed of exceptional individuals and not-so-exceptional individuals. Just as the business world needs chief executive officers, engineers and assembly line workers, the militant world needs operational planners, bombmakers, foot soldiers and suicide bombers. Placed in the proper roles, these individuals can combine their efforts to produce effective results.

It is easy to dismiss novice militants as inept, but we should keep in mind that if some of these individuals found an actual terrorist facilitator rather than a federal informant, they probably would have killed many people in an attack. Richard Reid, often referred to as the "Kramer of al Qaeda" after the bumbling character from the television series Seinfeld, came very close to taking down a jumbo jet full of people over the Atlantic Ocean because he had been equipped and dispatched by those more capable than himself. Working under the leadership of exceptional individuals, even al-Hamzi and al-Midhar ("Dumb and Dumber") helped hijack American Airlines Flight 77, which was crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11.

The 1993 World Trade Center bombing provides a valuable lesson on dealing with Kramer jihadists. Before the attack, a government informant infiltrated the core group of perpetrators. After the informant proved to be too difficult to handle, coverage of the group was dropped because its members were considered inept. In truth, many of them were; one suspect, Mohammed Salameh, tried to retrieve the deposit he put down on the rental truck used to transport the bomb. But this only highlights the importance of the exceptional individual — in this case, Abdel Basit. He was sent to New York to lead what proved to be a successfully executed bomb plot.

History demonstrates clearly that even groups of bumbling aspiring attackers can be organized successfully if they are empowered by someone who provides them with means and oversight. Accordingly, authorities cannot afford to ignore bumblers, no matter how inept they may appear.

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