Latest News

New generation of terrorists cyber-inspired, cyber-trained

COLOGNE, Germany—Sitting on a platform bench in Cologne's cavernous main station watching his alleged co-conspirator step onto a train, the young Lebanese who's accused of plotting the deadliest terrorist attack in Germany's history finished his orange juice, stood up to throw the container in a recycling bin and rolled a heavy case toward Platform 4.

His junior partner, Jihad Hamad, 19, had just stowed a suitcase that contained enough explosives to rip a train car to shreds on the regional train, which was headed to the Rhine valley tourist haven of Koblenz.

Now it was Youssef Mohammed el Hajdib's turn. The 21-year-old weaved through the crowded station and boarded the double-decker North Rhine-Westfalia Express, bound for the industrial center of Dortmund to the north. Video cameras captured both men boarding with the bags.

To cause maximum damage, the bomb-makers had diverted slightly from the instructions they'd obtained from a Web site that police said had al-Qaida connections. They'd crammed both suitcases with explosives and stuffed any empty space with plastic bags of food starch, which they thought would cover survivors of the blast with a burning, oily coat.

That, police later said, was a "beginner's mistake." In their attempt to increase the destruction from the bombs, they'd made the charges "too fat." By not leaving any space for air, they'd suffocated their bombs.

The two Lebanese disembarked before the timers ignited the fuses, which failed to ignite the charges.

Railway employees discovered the suitcases later that evening and turned them in to lost-and-found offices. Each case contained 3 } gallons of propane in metal canisters, a little more than a gallon of gasoline in plastic mineral-water bottles and a small alarm clock, timed to detonate at 2:30 p.m. as the crowded trains neared Koblenz and Dortmund.

German police think that 400 passengers would have died if the bombs had detonated, making it the deadliest terrorist attack in German history.

Terrorism investigators around Europe see a lesson in this failed attempt at mass murder and in other failed or thwarted terrorist plots in recent years. While U.S. and British intelligence officials think that al-Qaida has regrouped in the mountains of Pakistan and is again capable of and intent on launching mass attacks around the globe, investigators in Britain, Germany and France are convinced that there's a broader terrorist threat against Europe. They're tracking thousands of suspected terrorists whom they say are planning mass murder.

Unlike the Sept. 11 plotters, the new wave of terrorists—the so-called third generation terrorists—are dreaming up, planning, funding and attempting attacks on their own, without international support.

The first generation of al-Qaida terrorists were Osama bin Laden and other veterans of the jihad in Afghanistan against Soviet occupiers during the 1980s. After the Soviet Union withdrew its troops, they turned their attention to the West, which they believed was corrupting and bullying the Islamic world.

The hijackers who flew passenger jets into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington were typical of the second generation: professional, educated men, chosen and directed by Osama bin Laden, trained in the Afghanistan camps and financed by the al-Qaida network.

But the third generation has learned its hatred from television and its tactics from the Web, according to the experts. Its only connections to al-Qaida are Web sites and a shared anti-West philosophy. Its practitioners go online to find inspiration as well as practical advice, such as how to build a bomb.

The result has been a number of duds. "The new generation is not professional. They build bombs that don't explode," said Rolf Tophoven, one of Germany's most respected terrorism experts and the co-director of the Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy in Essen.

Still, he noted, studies of bombings in the Palestinian territories indicate that a "completely professional suicide bomber"—able to construct a bomb and conduct an attack—"can be created in three weeks."

He added that he expects the number of attacks to be high in the coming years, and over time he expects this generation to learn from the mistakes now being made.

Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the director general of Britain's MI6 Security Service, said in November that Britain was tracking 1,600 individuals and more than 200 groups thought to be involved in terrorism. Germany is investigating 200 suspected terrorist plots.

The two London commuter attacks in July 2005 are a prime example. The attackers were local; most were second-generation residents, products of British schools and middle-class homes, though with family links to Pakistan. In the first attack, on July 7, four suicide bombs killed 52 morning commuters. In the second, two weeks later, four young men stood on subways and a bus, shouted praise to Allah and attempted to detonate backpack bombs, which fizzled.

Last summer, British police arrested two dozen men—mostly British Muslims of Pakistani background—accused of plotting to blow up 10 trans-Atlantic jets en route to the United States. The alleged plotters, most of whom lived in the London area, are suspected of planning to sneak liquid explosives onto the planes and build bombs during the flights. Police said that as many as 4,000 people could have died if the plot had succeeded.

In northern Europe, few cases have had more impact than one on Nov. 2, 2004. A previously unknown Muslim Dutch citizen shot filmmaker Theo van Gogh, the great-grand-nephew of artist Vincent van Gogh, from his bicycle during his morning commute. The killer, Muhammad Bouyeri, 27, claimed that van Gogh's film "Submission," about violence against Muslim women, made him an enemy of Islam.

After knocking him to the sidewalk on a Dutch street, Bouyeri—raised in Amsterdam, but proud of his Moroccan heritage—slit van Gogh's throat with a knife, then put a page of Quranic verses on the knife and plunged the blade into van Gogh's chest. Police think that Bouyeri radicalized online, then joined Al Tahweed Mosque in Amsterdam, where he helped form the Hofstad Network, a Dutch terrorist group.

There have been many others. Magnus Ranstorp, an anti-terrorism expert at the Swedish Defense College, estimates that "about 40 serious plots" have been broken up in Europe since September 2001.

Last November, Norwegian police bugged the car of a 29-year-old Pakistani-Norwegian whom they suspected of having fired shots at an Oslo synagogue. They said they heard three other men and him—all of whom had criminal records—discussing plans to bomb the U.S. and Israeli embassies. The men—all younger than 30, two of Pakistani backgrounds, one of Turkish background and one Norwegian—were arrested, though it wasn't known whether they were close to carrying out the plot.

Police also have reported breaking up terrorist plots in Denmark, Italy, Spain, France, Turkey and Greece.

Tophoven said the plotters were European citizens or residents, usually Muslim and children of immigrants, and generally young.

Herbert Landolin Mueller, who's considered the top expert on Islamic terrorist organizations with the German equivalent of the National Security Agency, thinks that governments are overly focused on highly organized, international terrorism.

"People want to believe that there are terror cells, awaiting awakening, all within a central terrorist organization," he said. "But the Islamic movement is simply people who want to belong, people from the wealthy, middle class and lower classes. All attempts to define them are futile. Again, look at the attempted train bombing in Germany."

In that bombing attempt, investigators said that the two Lebanese men—both in Germany on student visas, one about to start a combined computer-electronics engineering program in Kiel, the other not yet enrolled at a college—told them that their plot was motivated by the Danish cartoon controversy that started in autumn 2005 over a collection of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, which were reprinted in Germany. The two hadn't attracted any suspicion before the attempt, police said. They're now in jail awaiting trial on terrorism charges.

Mueller thinks that many citizens would feel more comfortable if attacks emanated from a centralized terrorist organization, because that implies that the terrorists have been identified and the threat can be managed. Mueller thinks that the terrorism threat is as great as ever, but far more diverse and impossible to track. He considers the successful bombings in London and Madrid, Spain, as examples of the danger of homegrown, cyber-motivated and cyber-trained terrorists.

Bob Ayers, a former chief of the U.S. Department of Defense Information Systems Agency who's now an expert on security matters with Chatham House, a London research center, warned against dismissing the idea of central control.

"Al-Qaida is the spiritual head, the moral base of the movement," he said.

"Do not make the mistake and believe that these are stupid people. They are not. In the West, too often people want to see them as backwards, uneducated, living in caves and filled with nothing but hatred."

His view has support among U.S. and British intelligence experts. But many say that the nature of the terrorism threat is not either/or—either under central direction or self-radicalized. It can be both, with a central organization influencing untrained people online and through mosques that are friendly to their views. Ayers thinks that's what's happening.

"Remember, the people lighting the fuse on the suicide bomb are always foot soldiers, highly expendable," he said. "The real concerns are those convincing the foot soldiers it's a good idea to kill themselves carrying out an attack."

Third wave terrorists will improve their professionalism, experts agree. Jean-Louis Bruguiere, who heads France's anti-terrorism efforts, said that while many were flying under investigative radar, others were becoming bold. His biggest worry is residents who've attached themselves to Islamic jihadism, and have gone to Iraq to learn more about how to run an insurgency.

Generally, the numbers of those who are leaving Europe for Iraq aren't thought to be large; experts think that five to 10 from Germany have made the trip, for example. And most of those who go are expected to die in fighting. But if even a few return, the experts worry about their impact.

"We have found a few returning, not many," Bruguiere said recently. "More than 10, fewer than 20. We know of as many as 100 who have left for Iraq."

They're particularly dangerous because not only will they bring back know-how but they'll also have hero status to young recruits, Bruguiere said.

That, Germany's Mueller thinks, is bad news for Europe.

"There will be future attacks, in many, many places," he said. "And those who carry out these attacks will not be known to law enforcement before the attack, but will have been leading very innocent lives."

———

(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Need to map

  Comments