Check out my new article at The Atlantic: “How We’ve Changed al-Qaeda”
Last week, news agencies around the world reported that a plot hatched in the Pakistani tribal regions was aiming to conduct a “Mumbai-style” attack in London and major cities in France, Germany, Italy, and Belgium. Since then, each day has brought new revelations about its extent and scope. In the past, jihadists targeting the West have used spectacular, carefully synchronized suicide bomb attacks on various modes of transportation or in highly populated areas. But the reported plan to mimic the 2008 Mumbai attack, in which Pakistani gunmen shot at civilians in “soft” targets such as hotels and restaurants, reveals an important shift for al-Qaeda. Pressured by the increased effectiveness of Western governments’ counterterrorism efforts and learning from its string of recent failed bomb attempts, al-Qaeda is adapting its tactics.
Since the July 7, 2005, attack in London, in which coordinated suicide bombings targeted commuter buses and trains, there has not been a large-scale jihadist attack on Western soil. (The obvious exception, the March 2010 suicide bombings in Moscow subways, was more about Chechen separatism than global jihadism.) The U.S. and European leadership have adjusted their counterterrorism measures by enacting new laws to better prosecute terrorists, sharing more intelligence, monitoring terrorist cells more effectively, disrupting training camps in the Pakistani tribal areas, just to name a few. Since then, though the terrorists are still plotting, the success rate for their attacks has dropped precipitously.
One of the most important changes is al-Qaeda’s deteriorating ability to train and deploy bomb-makers. Prior to 9/11 and, later, during al-Qaeda’s regrouping in the Pakistani tribal regions from 2004-2008, the group had the time and breathing room to effectively train its operatives in bomb making. Its training camps lasted at least a month, with some trainees even going on to a kind of graduate school for advanced bomb making. But President Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of Sept. 11 and, later, President Obama’s ramped up drone strikes severely disrupted their ability to openly train operatives over an extended period of time. Al-Qaeda was forced to outsource much of its training to local Pakistani groups that had mobile training camps, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, and Lashkar-e-Janghvi. But these groups lack al-Qaeda’s expertise and their abbreviated training is less effective. Faisal Shahzad, the Time Square bomber, received five days of bomb-making training from a Pakistani group but, as evidenced by his failed bomb, which included bales of non-flammable fertilizer, he clearly did not know what he was doing.
Further, these developments also raised the status of the Yemen and Somalia battlefield since they provided alternative locations to train individuals while not being harassed, as they would be in the Pakistani tribal areas.
With suicide bombings no longer an ideal or practical option, it should be no surprise that al-Qaeda is seeking to mimic the 2008 attack in Mumbai. It was classic urban warfare, involving ten attackers conducting ten simultaneous bombing and shooting attacks across Mumbai. Some took hostages as well. Prior to the assault, the conspirators used GPS to familiarize themselves with the locations of their targets. In the aftermath, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explained the logic of the attack over a suicide bombing: because the attack could be drawn out over several hours or days, it forced the closure of much of Mumbai, an economic hub for India. If a similar attack shuttered one or more European capitals for a day, the economic repercussions would be significant and global.
The ease of the Mumbai attack on “soft” targets likely appeals to terrorist groups plotting attacks within the open societies of the West. As Malou Innocent emphasized in a recent article in The National Interest, a key passage in Bob Woodward’s new book Obama War’s reports that the Mumbai attack became a game-changer for the U.S. intelligence community. They realized that this type of attack could also occur in the United States – and that it was much tougher to detect or disrupt. I am sure al-Qaeda noticed, too.
Of course, even if al-Qaeda is expanding its tactical arsenal it does not necessarily mean it will not attempt suicide attacks in the future. The group has always been a fluid and dynamic organization that exploits every potential opportunity. For the time being, however it appears to have bent to outside pressure. While its move away from suicide bombings is a welcome reprieve, al-Qaeda’s highly adaptive and nimble nature virtually ensures it will continue to plague Western governments for years to come.