How to Tell if Your Neighbor is a Bomb Maker
By Scott Stewart
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released the fifth edition of its English-language jihadist magazine “Inspire” on March 30. AQAP publishes this magazine with the stated intent of radicalizing English-speaking Muslims and encouraging them to engage in jihadist militant activity. Since its inception, Inspire magazine has also advocated the concept that jihadists living in the West should conduct attacks there, rather than traveling to places like Pakistan or Yemen, since such travel can bring them to the attention of the authorities before they can conduct attacks, and AQAP views attacking in the West as “striking at the heart of the unbelievers.”
To further promote this concept, each edition of Inspire magazine has a section called “Open Source Jihad,” which is intended to equip aspiring jihadist attackers with the tools they need to conduct attacks without traveling to jihadist training camps. The Open Source Jihad sections in past editions have contained articles such as the pictorial guide with instructions titled “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom” that appeared in the first edition.
In this latest edition of Inspire there are at least three places where AQAP encourages jihadists to conduct “lone wolf” attacks rather than coordinate with others due to the security risks inherent in such collaboration (several jihadist plots have been thwarted when would-be attackers have approached government informants looking for assistance). In recent years there have been a number of lone wolf attacks inside the United States, such as the June 2009 shooting at an armed forces recruiting center in Little Rock, Ark.; the November 2009 Fort Hood shooting; and the failed bombing attack in New York’s Times Square in May 2010. Of course, the lone wolf phenomena is not just confined to the United States, as evidenced by such incidents as the March 2 shooting attack against U.S. military personnel in Frankfurt, Germany.
In the past, STRATFOR has examined the challenges that lone wolf assailants and small, insulated cells — what we call grassroots jihadists — present to law enforcement and intelligence agencies. We have also discussed the fact that, in many cases, grassroots defenders such as local police officers can be a more effective defense against grassroots attackers than centralized federal agencies.
But local federal agents and local police officers are not the only grassroots defenders who can be effective in detecting lone wolves and small cells before they are able to launch an attack. Many of the steps required to conduct a terrorist attack are undertaken in a manner that makes the actions visible to any outside observer. It is at these junctures in the terrorist attack cycle that people practicing good situational awareness can detect these attack steps — not only to avoid the danger themselves, but also to alert the authorities to the suspicious activity.
Detecting grassroots operatives can be difficult, but it is possible if observers focus not only on the “who” aspect of a terrorist attack but also the “how” — that is, those activities that indicate an attack is in the works. In the past we’ve talked in some detail about detecting preoperational surveillance as part of this focus on the “how.” Now, we would like to focus on detecting another element of the “how” of terrorism and discuss the ways one can detect signs of improvised-explosives preparation — in other words, how to tell if your neighbor is a bombmaker.