Though Wednesday's arrests of three radical Islamists preparing terror strikes in Germany was dramatic, many of the tactics and habits the suspects have demonstrated while under surveillance are not particularly new to terrorism investigators. Indeed, one of the main assets counter-terrorism officials file away from each attempted or executed strike are shared similarities that raise their chances of heading off future attacks before they happen.
Among the biggest trends in terror: there are more lone wolves. "Increasingly, you're not dealing with organizations, groups, or even cells any more, but rather one or several individuals who are out there taking action in an isolated fashion," says one senior French intelligence official. "So if we now have to be on the lookout for one or a few guys preparing terror, we have to know what kinds of individuals we should be checking out. You have to use the patterns that emerge."
How details from past plots can be used to better identify new ones was demonstrated in a recent study by New York Police Department patching together commonalities of foiled jihadist activity in both the U.S. and Europe. One increasingly common aspect in many plots, the NYPD report notes, is the frequent presence of converts whose zeal to prove their dedication to Islam can propel some into underground extremist activity facilitated sometimes by their physical appearances. "In politically incorrect language, they don't look like Muslims to most people, and the freedom of movement and lack of suspicion that affords is used to the hilt in preparing attacks," the French intelligence official explains. "In addition to their radicalism, converts often feel they are proving their piety through jihad. That's an extra motivation that makes them a real danger."
Indeed, news reports suggest that one of two German converts arrested, a 28-year-old being identified as Fritz Martin G., was the leader of the busted cell. He is believed to have converted and come under the influence of extremists in the southern city of Neu-Ulm, whose large militant community has concerned officials for years. Investigators say the operational cells were formed after the trio had undergone training in Pakistan by the radical Islamic Jihad Union, and received periodic logistical support as they advanced their plot from a score of people also being sought. If accurate, that description of Fritz Martin G.'s journey toward jihadist terror activity mirrors those of earlier converts.
Shoe bomber Richard Reid underwent a similar evolution and was selected for his failed mission in December 2001 on the assumption that his British citizenship and clandestine conversion to radical Islam would protect him from suspicion ahead of his attack. Jamaican-born convert Lindsey Germaine was similarly central to the July 2005 London attacks. Even German officials have had previous experience with radical converts: in 2003, France arrested Christian Ganczarski a German national who has boasted his ties with top al-Qaeda leaders, and was implicated in the 2002 bombing of a synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia after Germany was forced to kick him free due to subsequently altered legal restraints. "Extremists will always turn to people Westerners won't initially suspect: converts, doctors, women," the intelligence official says. "We've seen converts, doctors, and women involved in jihadist terrorism. Expect that again, and start looking for the next unexpected category."
Another repeated variable counter-terrorism forces look out for is what another French security official calls "the key": a particularly intense meeting, training session, or combat stint that pushes young extremists over the threshold of talk, and into a mind-set where action becomes a must. Fighting with jihadist forces in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Chechnya and now Iraq has served that purpose for thousands. But as was seen with member of the London bombing group and the trio arrested in Germany this week, trips to Pakistan to meet with or receive instruction from extremists there can also serve the purpose. So, too, can intensive stints in radical religious and indoctrination centers in places like Syria, the French counter-terrorism official adds. "The difference between those who have gotten that key and those who haven't is striking. There's a palpable toughness and brutal single-mindedness the others don't exhibit," the official says. "Often, that can be enough to drive other group members on to attack who haven't gotten that key."
The dramatic terms often used to communicate uncovered plots to a frenzied media notwithstanding, both officials also say the volume of materials stockpiled and explosive power they pack shouldn't be used as a yardstick of how determined or bloodthirsty the attackers were: the murderous ambition behind them is usually the same. If the quantities and blasting capacities of materials collected in the German plot were far larger than the London bombers relied on, that's because the attack modes and venues were different. "Success is paramount for terrorists, so you're not going to risk getting caught by collecting large stores of materials if you'll be detonating a smaller bomb in a tight and enclosed environment like a train," the security official notes. "If you're using remote detonation against open-air targets, success is greater if you go larger, as was the case earlier this summer in London, and now seems so in Germany."
The importance placed on an attack succeeding, meanwhile, means that jihadist plots whether prepared autonomously, or inspired and shaped from places like Pakistan will almost always be attempted in countries and against targets where success has been judged greater, and by operatives best placed to pull them off: locals. The immediate political calculations often ascribed to such schemes the German plot seeking to strike U.S. installations for its involvement in Iraq, and to also force Berlin to pull its troops from Afghanistan, for example are actually usually secondary concerns.
"The failed bombings of German trains last year was proof Germany was, is and will continue being a primary target of terrorists, just like we all are," notes the French intelligence official. "We're hosting the World Cup of rugby, featuring teams from all the main coalition countries in Iraq, meaning our alert level will be particularly high. But it's been high for years anyway, because France like the U.S., U.K., Germany, and most others is a prime target not for what we do, but what we represent. None of this is new, and unfortunately each new attack or attempt is only the most recent in a long series. Which is exactly why we need to learn as much as possible what each plot tells us about the wider threat, because I'm afraid it's one we'll be facing for decades."