Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Mystery of the German Plot

31 July 2006, 2 Lebanese born German students, according to DNA and other evidence, 21-year old Youssef Mohammed el-Hajdib and 20-year old Jihad Hamad both stand accused of placing suitcases stuffed with clothes, miscellaneous papers, and 11-liter propane tanks and gas canisters rigged to explode at 2:30pm onboard two trains leaving the Cologne central train station en route to Hamm and Dortmund, Germany. By a stroke of miscalculation in preparing the explosives, the timers went off but the explosives failed to detonate. Investigators indicate that had they have succeeded, the result would have been on the approximate scale of London's 7/7. Interestingly though, nearly a month after the failed attempt, investigators remain unclear as to any apparent motive, which has lead to widespread speculation. Four theories seem to encapsulate the sum of this speculation.

Theory #1: Hizbullah Actors
Some have speculated that they are acting at the behest of Hizbullah, citing ties to a known Hamburg shia mosque. The problem with this theory? The suspects are Sunni, not shia. What's more, the likelihood of Hizbullah initiating direct action against German government for perceived tacit support for Israel in the present situation is highly unlikely, it would be a marked escalation in the targeting strategy presently subscribed to by the group and would, almost without a doubt, require direct approval from not only Nasrallah, but even Tehran. Hizbullah just does not seem unlikely.

Theory # 2: Hizbullah Inspired Self-Starters
Perhaps, much akin to what has been seen in the case of al-Qa'eda, el-Hajdib and Hamad may be the early the coal mine canaries to a "second wave" of self-starters who support the Hizbullah cause, but remain independent from any direct Hizbullah or Iranian involvement. One the one hand, as previously noted, the two are apparently Sunni, not Shiah, making any ideological congruence with the Hizbullah movement somewhat unlikely. On the other hand, in the advent of Israeli action first against Gaza in response to the kidnapping of Cpl. Galid Shavit and then especially following the commencement of hostilities against Hizbullah in Iran last month, Sunni extremists worldwide have shown solidarity with the anti-Zionist efforts of Hizbullah in time of crisis, bridging the Sunni-Shiah divide. Al-Qa'eda's Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri has shown, presumably on behalf of al-Qa'eda's shura council, solidarity with the Hizbullah cause. Indonesian militants have also apparently geared up for the same, with an unclear number pledging martyrdom in support of anti-Israeli action. In this view, it would not be altogether too surprising if disgruntled self-starters sought to do the same. This theory is underscored by reports that el-Hajdib's brother was apparently killed by the IDF shortly before the planned attack. It may very well be the case that, if el-Hajdib and Hamad were indeed involved in the plot, angered by the Israeli incursion into their homeland, fueled a devout in-group Islamist mentality in particular nearby communities, and displeased with apparent tacit support by the German government for those incursions, they may have decided to take direction action themselves.

Theory # 3: al-Qa'eda Actors
As alleged Sunni Islamist extremists, el-Hajdib and Hamad may have been recruited and directed by the al-Qa'eda network, or a regional affiliate of the group's core, to conduct the attacks against the German trains. But, although al-Qa'eda has long maintained an interest in targeting means of transport within Western societies, the scale of the attack, coupled with the nature of the target (trains from Cologne to Hamm and Dortmund), seem highly unlikely to match the grandiosity traditionally aimed for by al-Qa'eda principals. If al-Qa'eda were indeed involved directly in the said plot, it would mark an important deflation in the strategic ambitions of regional operatives.

Theory # 4: al-Qa'eda Self-Starters
Perhaps the greatest fear relating to al-Qa'eda within Western Europe, is the surfacing of immigrant self-starters interesting in conducting an operation in the name of al-Qa'eda, with little or not substantive link to core al-Qa'eda operatives. This "second wave" is comprised of those who draw considerable inspiration from the bin Ladinism movement across the board, and seek to bring the theoretical into the realm of the practical, and do so in their own backyard. In the German plot, this may certainly be a strong possibility.

Clues suggesting they are self-starters:
1. Propane tanks are rarely used by sophisticated terrorist organizations. Were these alleged terrorists "plugged in" to a broader terrorist agenda, then why no trace of traditional terrorist explosives? This point is mitigated in part by the fact that, according to investigators, the designs were reasonably sophisticated. But keep in mind, they didn't work. What might very well have been the case is that el-Hajdib and Hamad downloaded -or otherwise acquired -do it yourself (DIY) manuals and applied el-Hajdib's techical knowledge from university to the task. Note too, according to el-Hajdib's teacher at the university, he was not dedicated, not particularly intelligent or adept at the technical sciences. In fact, he went so far as to suggest in an interview with the AP that if only he had been attentive in his classes, the bombs might have worked. This is an important point, because he might have had just enough technical ability to assemble a bomb from DIY manuals, but not enough to be reassured of its success. Propane tanks tied to detonators is not common for terrorists, but is more likely to be readily available by way of DIY manuals.
2. There appears to have been no exit strategy. After having gone into hiding for several weeks, el-Hajdib was caught last Saturday attempting to board a train in an effort to flee the city, or perhaps more likely to leave the country. There are exceptions, as always, but most non-suicidal terrorists plan both the operation and the post-operation. From reports in the media, it appears el-Hajdib panicked. Now, there are a number of possible reasons for this, after all the bombs did fail to detonate, leaving a host of "pocket trash" clues for investigators to draw from. But, were he more intricately enmeshed with a larger network, it seems possible that he may very well have been able to escape more readily, untraced. Much of this issue though, will not be more fully understood until after investigators learn more about what the two did, where they went into hiding, and who -if anyone -assisted them and for what reasons.
3. Motive. An IDF invasion of the suspects' homeland almost certainly played into their radicalization. But the period between the initiation of hostilities and the attempted attack, approximately one month, is unlikely to have been enough to mobilize elements for a terrorist organization -whether Hizbullah, al-Qa'eda, or any other terrorist network of the sort -sufficient for an operation, deep in the heart of the West. Very rarely do terrorist organizations move this quickly, especially not when conducting operations outside of the principal geographical domain.
4. Local targets. It seems highly unlikely were al-Qa'eda or Hizbullah desiring a strike in Germany, that they would select targets with such low visibility. Target selection is a key distinguishing factor between a self-starter and a major terrorist threat. And major terrorist organizations tend to have highly visible targets.
5. No signaling. Neither Nasrallah nor al-Zawahiri, in their latest public statements, have indicated the desire to strike Germany. Signaling is an important, albeit highly visible tool, by which the leader of a terrorist organization can indicate his desire that operatives initiate an attack. This is relevant for both operatives who operate on behalf of the terrorist organization and self-starters acting in the same cause, of which the al-Qa'eda core is aware. No signals were sent.
6. He had a roommate... this is a basic element to operational security that terrorist organizations don't divulge from... you don't have a roommate who's not in on the plot, while you're involved with an organization of the sort.

Whatever of these four theories turns out to be the most accurate, or were there any other possibility akin to these four theories, the German plot is an important wakeup call not only to Western Europeans, but to the field of counterterrorism alike. In the first scenario, the plot would indicate a dramatic shift in Hizbullah targeting. In the second scenario, Hizbullah (whether directly or as a proxy for the front against perceived Israeli aggression) has inspired its own self-starters in various places of the world, and Sunni self-starters at that. In the third scenario, al-Qa'eda is targeting lower profile targets in a nation largely independent from those policies which have so galvanized Sunni Islamic extremists, like Iraq. Or, finally, in the fourth scenario, al-Qa'eda self-starters are at it again, this time acting without the propaganda arm so typical in al-Qa'eda attacks, independent or otherwise.

I suspect we will learn a great deal in the days to come.