'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Connecting Dots – Stockholm, Luton, Amman, Baghdad

Thomas Hegghammer’s rigorous analysis of Taimour Abdulwahhab al-Abdaly’s martyrdom operation in Stockholm (post 1; post 2; post 3) generates a number of questions:

Firstly, is there such a thing as an unsuccessful martyrdom operation?

By any measure, Abdulwahhab’s operation was a failure, having had little detrimental effect on the Swedish national psyche or substantially impacting on European media. JFK said famously after the Bay of Pigs debacle that, ‘victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan’ - successful martyrdom operations do not often lack for originators in their aftermath and even the failed attempt to detonate a suicide bomb device by Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, Christmas Day 2009 generated a supposed two minute audio, released on al Jazeera, of Osama bin Laden claiming responsibility, as the event gained worldwide media attention.

Islamist forums were quick to offer praise for al-Abdaly and promise more “Stockholm raids” but there was no visual spectacular, only a grainy piece of footage of a white vehicle on fire. It is difficult to conceive of positive aspects to the operation – material damage was nil, civilian casualties were nil, and it offered intelligence agencies excellent information on what Crone would term, ‘internal affiliated’ terrorism.

Secondly, where is the evidence for the involvement of the Islamic State in Iraq?

Hegghammer notes that a Swedish explosives expert who examined photographs of the scene described the bombs as ‘amateurish’: a failed operation with an ‘amateur’ level of technical proficiency. A ‘pretty unsophisticated and bungling attempt at mass murder’ points to two possible scenarios:
Firstly, given the failure of the operation, its lack of media attention and low level of sophistication, no group would gain from claiming responsibility, or
Secondly, the low level of sophistication, the apparent absence of handlers, the initial absence of professional jihadi visual propaganda relating to the attack, and the lone nature of the bomber suggest that this was a solo operation with sporadic local assistance in the final phase. Further, the audio statement that Abdulwahhab released makes no mention of other operatives, group or organization.  

A rumour spread that ‘according to reports gleaned from websites linked to al-Qaeda, Abdulwahab had visited Jordan last month to meet his Iraqi handlers and was taking orders from Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the commander of al-Qaeda in Iraq.’ But that forum speculation fits less well than with an amateur attempt, similar to the attempted bombing of Danish newspaper offices in September. Further, Crone and Harrow’s informative study of 228 Islamic terrorists captured in the West revealed a telling statistic: Between 2004 and 2008, fully 84% of ‘culprits’ had a Western upbringing but only 28% had links to foreign militants.

The screen-name of the man who first named al-Abdaly on the Islamist forum Shumukh was “Abu Sulayman al-Nasir”, a great deal has been made of the similiarity to the name of the Islamic State of Iraq’s War Minister, Abu Sulayman al-Nasir il-Din, but screen-names aping famed names from the Islamist world are commonplace; witness the rise in the screen-names ‘Osama’ and ‘bin Laden’ in many secular Internet forums after 9.11. Further, the vague threats that al-Nasir has posted to the forum do not fit with the tight rhetoric of the Islamic State of Iraq, as Heghammer has noted.

That al-Abdaly’s target was Stockholm and that the Islamic State of Iraq’s leader, Abu Umar al-Baghadi, had called in September 2007 for reprisals against Sweden following publication of newspaper caricatures of the Prophet may have been a motivating factor in al-Abdaly’s decision to target Stockholm, but Sweden also has a token force in Afghanistan (nearly 500 troops near Mazar-i-Sharif in the North), has an assumed large militant network (see also this 2004 example) and Sweden is his country of nationality, allowing him to move more freely there.

Although on 15 December, Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani told the Associated Press that militants captured in Iraq had confessed suicide attacks were planned in European capitals for the Christmas period and that the Stockholm event was one such operation, the confessions had come after the event had been executed.

Thirdly, how great a part did social media play in enabling the operation?

Hegghammer, always insightful, argues that al-Abdaly cannot have been ‘radicalizaed in a vacuum. He must have been in touch with other activists at some stage, on the Internet and/or in the field’. Given the large visual range of jihadi material that al-Abdaly uploaded to his Facebook page it is evident that he was an ardent consumer of online propaganda, but it appears unlikely, and here this piece contradicts the opinion of Hegghammer, that he fits the profile of a ‘very active contributor’. Secular suicide sites have long been a notable element of the social Internet, but al-Abdaly’s radicalisation raises the issue of the ability of the Internet and social media vehicles (Islamist forums, Facebook, youtube) to enable/incite/inspire martyrdom operations.

Al-Abdaly is thus potentially representative of what Jarret M. Brachman (jarretbrachman.net) terms ‘jihobbyists’ (see the case of  'Jihad Jane' for example) Brachman has been quoted as saying that jihobbyists are “fans in the same way other people might follow football teams. But their sport is Al Qaeda.” 

The problem, as Brachman acknowledges, is when thought crosses over into action, as happened so tragically with al-Abdaly and thus merits serious research. Al-Abdaly appears to be a lone actor who gained considerable support from virtual communities. The most worrying scenario is the Internet as inciter, enabler and prosecutor, in that al-Abdaly, exclusively from his use of the Internet may have gone from ‘zero to hero’, from aggrieved civilian to suicide bomber wholly from exposure to social media whilst his time in the Middle East may have been a confirmation of his dedication to his friends within the virtual community.

Fourth, why did the world news media so readily connect the dots between “Abu Sulayman al-Nasir” and al-Abdaly?

Hegghammer’s roleback of the timing of the first publicly orientated announcement of the suicide bomber’s identity revealed that,

“the problem is that the earliest public reference to Taimour’s name was made on 11 December at 10.24 pm on a non-Islamist Swedish forum, based on private pictures on the license plate of the bombing vehicle. Abu Sulayman al-Nasir’s Shumukh post mentioning Taimour’s name was published at around 6pm on 12 December, ie almost 20 hours after the name had entered the public sphere. Al-Nasir could therefore very well have found Taimour’s name on the web.” 

Al-Nasir made an audio broadcast on 19 November on the Islamist forum Shumukh in which he made a general reference to attacks on NATO and European countries. Only on December 13 did al-Nasir then reference the ‘Stockholm raid’ and promise further events. As such, it appears that al-Nasir piggybacked onto the Stockholm operation and thus appeared to be, after the event, al-Abdaly’s virtual handler, which made for a much more coherent and important news story with far greater implications for European counter-terrorism.

As a further investigation, it is constructive to examine how al-Abdaly fits with the model designed by Crone and Harrow in their recent study:

The trajectory of al-Abdaly from the time that his teacher at college noted his grievances concerning the 2003 Iraq War to becoming a suicide bomber seven years later suggests the ability of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to coalesce the idea of a coherent Muslim Ummah – that grievance results in a popular gain for Islamist vehicles.

Crohn and Harrow’s excellent study on terrorism proposes that, ‘since 2003, Islamist terrorism in the West has become increasingly homegrown’. The authors found the concept of ‘homegrown’ ambiguous and therefore introduced a distinction between two further dimensions of homegrown terrorism, that of ‘belonging’ and of ‘autonomy’

Autonomy: Since it is not known how much training al-Abdaly received in his travel within the Middle East, it can be assumed from the level of sophistication of the plot that he was relatively autonomous in his planning and execution.

Belonging: Al-Abdaly was born in Iraq, moving to Sweden aged ten, so may have felt stronger ties with the country than many other European Muslims and thus moved by the Iraq war by many more orders of magnitude. Further, it is suggested that he belongs to several geographic and cybercommunities of which the latter may have proved the most resilient. Given that al-Abdaly’s wife and children lived in Britain and had further family in Sweden, Crone and Harrow would classify his having a high degree of belonging to the West, with the result that al-Abdaly is an internal affiliated terrorist. In fact, al-Abdaly fits with the conclusions of their paper, for to cite Crone and Harrow:

“Homegrown terrorism has previously been framed as a distinction between transnational dynamics or domestic dynamics. In other words, is terrorism in Britain the result of geopolitics in Central Asia or racist attacks in the London Underground? The quantitative material in this article makes it very clear that Islamist militancy outside the West has been critical to the terrorist plots prior to 2004,
but also to most of  the plots ever since. We therefore suggest that the sudden appearance of  “homegrown terrorism” could more precisely be conceptualized as an evolution from “external affiliated” to “internal affiliated”— with a short interval marked by “internal autonomous” terrorism.” (Crone and Harrow, 2010, p.20)