The arrests of suspected al-Qaeda supporters in Europe this week illustrate the evolving challenge authorities face in identifying and keeping watch over terrorism suspects, as radicals from increasingly disparate backgrounds gather in smaller, overlapping cells.
Officials in Norway on Thursday, July 8, said they have arrested three men with ties to al-Qaeda suspected of "preparing terror activities." It was unclear if their targets were to be in Norway or elsewhere. The men one of whom was apprehended in Germany were described as two legal Norwegian residents and a naturalized citizen. They are thought to have been planning bombing attacks similar to and apparently linked to last September's averted suicide strike on the New York City subway system. On Wednesday, British police arrested a man suspected of involvement in what authorities revealed had been a plan thwarted in April 2009 to bomb downtown Manchester, in northern England. U.S. officials said the Manchester and New York City plots were "directly related," and initial indicators suggest the Norwegian operation was connected to those as well.
"We believe this group has had links to people abroad who can be linked to al-Qaeda and to people who are involved in investigations in other countries, among others the United States and Britain," Janne Kristiansen, head of Norway's Police Security Service, said at a press conference in Oslo on Thursday. Though relatively little information about the suspects was given, Kristiansen did say they included a 39-year-old Uighur from China, a 37-year-old Iraqi and a 31-year-old Uzbek. Kristiansen also said authorities decided to move on the suspects after more than a year of surveillance to beat pending media coverage that could have led them to flee.
So how does the Norwegian operation tie into last year's prevented New York City subway strike? As in the New York plot, authorities believe, the operatives planning attacks in Norway and Manchester intended to use portable bombs made with peroxide. All three attacks are thought by U.S. officials to have been ordered by Salah al-Somali, an alleged al-Qaeda terrorism planner believed to have been killed in a drone hit in northwest Pakistan last year. The suspect in Wednesday's U.K. bust Abid Naseer, a 24-year-old ethnic Pakistani is known to have been in Pakistan at the same time as Afghan native Najibullah Zazi, who is in prison after pleading guilty to planning to carry out the thwarted New York City subway attack. U.S. prosecutors say both Naseer and Zazi had been directed in their plotting via e-mail by an al-Qaeda facilitator in Pakistan referred to as "Ahmad." U.S. investigators speculate that many of the plotters in the three foiled strikes may have been recruited to al-Qaeda's cause by 34-year-old Saudi native Adnan el Shukrijumah, who was also indicted in Zazi's case.
That these individuals come from such varied backgrounds in many ways contrasts with the earlier modus operandi of radical groups that have been uncovered over the past decade. Though no hard rules apply to extremist movements, security officials say networks have in the past usually engaged in money raising, document forging, recruitment and logistical activities to support their terrorist objectives. As with the U.K. and New York plots, however, the group in Norway focused mainly on preparing their alleged strikes, with periodic direction from radical leaders in South Asia. Most radical groups especially in Europe also tended to constitute themselves in a relatively homogeneous manner among Pakistani, Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian or Middle Eastern nationals or their descendants. And while that still may generally be the case with the networks that police have under watch, the appearance of operatives from different backgrounds forming ever smaller cells could pose new challenges for authorities.
"It's clear that if you have a few people from entirely different horizons converging on a place with the objective of planning an attack, they're going to be harder to identify than people linking up with established groups we're already on to," says a European counterterrorism official. "Still, experience shows even people from completely different backgrounds who wind up in the same plot invariably met one another earlier and established a plan somewhere and that's usually Pakistan [or] Afghanistan. So the key is to know who goes in and comes out of that region, and keep your eyes on them when they wind up on your turf."
The official hastens to note that the markedly dissimilar origins of the suspects in the Norwegian arrests is a rarity and that the more homogeneous nature of radical networks is still the rule. However, he says European security forces can learn a lot from America's success in fighting terrorists who plot outside the box. "The U.S. has always been exceptional in that terror plotters have always planned more ambitious strikes for America, and using more diverse operatives and strategies for carrying them out than we've seen," he says meaning, if Europe wants to ensure it isn't caught off-guard by other terrorists from nations not on its watch list, it had better study how the U.S. tripped up plotters like Zazi who also seemed to come from out of nowhere.