September 05, 2007

AQ Bomb Plot Against American Targets in Germany Foiled


Three terror suspects held in Germany planned to carry out "imminent" and "massive" bombs attacks on a U.S. air base and Frankfurt's international airport, according to prosecutors.

The suspects, two Germans aged 22 and 29 and a 29-year-old Turk, received terrorist training in Pakistan and had close ties to al Qaeda, according to Jorg Ziercke, president of Germany's Federal Criminal Investigation Office.

Ziercke said the group was united by a "hatred against American citizens" as it planned attacks against Frankfurt airport, a popular international travel hub, and Ramstein air base, a major transit point for the U.S. military into the Middle East and Central Asia.

The group had amassed 680 kg (1,500 pounds) of hydrogen peroxide to make bombs, German federal prosecutor Monika Harms told reporters on Wednesday.

Harms said the three suspects also planned to attack bars and restaurants popular with Americans.

She said the planned attacks would have been among the biggest yet on German soil. Possible scenarios would have been car bombings used in simultaneous attacks.

Officials said the hydrogen peroxide could have produced a bomb with the explosive power of 540 kg of TNT.

The article goes on to speculate that the attacks could have been planned to have occurred on September 11.

The bombers were clearly attempting to build triacetone triperoxide (TATP) bombs, a favorite of terrorists that nevertheless often fails because of its instability. Occasionally it explodes during the production/bomb preparation steps, and other times, an improper mix leads to a bomb that either burns instead of detonating, or fails to ignite at all.

Frankly, until we know more about them and learn about their amassed equipment and technical know-how, I'm going to be quite skeptical that they could have manufactured high-grade TATP in quantities sufficient to build successful bombs of the size this report suggests. I may very well be wrong, but after the failures of the second London bombers, and the Glasgow bombers, I have very little faith in the competence of the surviving al Qaeda bomb builders remaining in Pakistan and Afghanistan who train terrorists such as these.

Update: I just contacted Yassin Musharbash, one of the two Spiegel reporters who have written the definitive post on this terrorist event thus far (h/t: Hot Air, which has an excellent round-up, as always).

He has confirmed my earlier hunch that triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, was the specfic peroxide-based explosive that these suspected terrorists were planning to use. This was the same kind of explosive used successfully in the 7/7 London tube bombings, and then fizzled in similar attacks just two weeks later on 7/21.

Pajamas Media is following the story as well.

Posted by Confederate Yankee at September 5, 2007 06:26 AM

Its surprisingly easy to make explosives out of common household stuff. I wouldn't bet the farm (or he airbase, or the international airline hub) that they'd fail.

Posted by: Santiago at September 5, 2007 06:47 AM

The news said that two of the three were "Muslim converts". Any information on this? That would add a different dimension to the terror angle.

Posted by: David Caskey at September 5, 2007 07:14 AM

Weren't the UK bombers (including the Glasgow attackers) intent upon making fuel air explosives, and not simply TATP explosives? They failed to get the right mix of explosives, fuel, and air loads to detonate properly.

Posted by: lawhawk at September 5, 2007 09:40 AM

al Qaeda has lost much in the way of trained and experienced upper-echelon personnel in Iraq and, to a lesser degree, Afghanistan. Not only in bomb and materials (like the Ricin plot in the UK), but in basic COINTEL work that should serve as a mainstay of all levels of their main organization. And as they made their affiliate system to depend upon the best training to come from al Qaeda, itself, the ability to regenerate the skills from the immediate system, even if available, is time consuming.

With that said, their contacts with Hezbollah that has training organizations dispersed globally may require some rapproachment with them so as to send aQ folks through those camps. Places like Lebanon are well known, and Syria, but Bosnia, Algeria, Chechnya, and the Tri-Border Area of South America allows Hezbollah to have a difficult to track down and end training and financing system.

The agents that aQ trained in the mid to late 1990's are mostly gone and that includes the cadre that helped fight the Soviets. Waziristan is very difficult to get to and is forcing a reliance upon more local fighters, that may not be savvy enough to actually be inventive with their work. The Chechnya operation is in the deep freeze, due to the manpower drain of aQ into Iraq. Similarly their old camps in Kosovo and Albania are dedicated to getting a few recruits basic skills, but not much else. Abu Sayyaf and the Moros are in a dagger fight with the Philippine government and JI and other Pakistani groups are looking at Kashmir more than the West.

aQ can ill afford to take a training hiatus *now* and skilled operatives not coming back increases the risk of operations and lowers overall organizational effectiveness and skill levels. We forget that equipment is cheap, but training and keeping effective personnel is very, very expensive.

Posted by: ajacksonian at September 5, 2007 10:01 AM

As ajacksonian said - training effective cadres and having them survive long enough to pass on their skills is difficult if the new troops keep getting killed. And while the internet is wonderful for passing on information to those who have the basics in a difficult and potentially dangerous subject, I would imagine that the internet is a poor way to pass on basic skills in this to the new recruit. Only training under the eye of a skilled trainer is going to be useful, to insure that bad habits are not picked up. A self-guided course has the risk that the recruit may skip some of the boring preliminary instruction and pass on quickly to the fun stuff. I don't know anything about making bombs, but I would speculate that getting it right everytime is a non-appeallable requirement. And this does not discount that the internet sites may be hacked to change some of the instructions just slightly - enough to make the bombmaker's career very short or make the product inert.

And other nations may not have quite the NYT qualms about intelligence matters and what is cricket and what isn't. The French, for example, come to mind as a nation that doesn't mind fighting dirty so long as a proper epigram is in readiness should the information ever get out.

To summarize: there is no substitute for actual training and experience in difficult technical matters, and bombmaking and operational planning are both technical matters that cannot be picked up on the fly after skimming some websites at work.

Posted by: Mikey NTH at September 5, 2007 04:39 PM

Thanks, Peter "my eyes glaze over" Glaser. A summary and a link or pasting of the website address would have done very well, thank you very much.

Posted by: Mikey NTH at September 5, 2007 06:33 PM

A terrorist plot foiled and it didn't even require invading and occupying a country in the Middle East. Almost seems impossible to imagine.

Posted by: The Voice of Reason at September 5, 2007 09:39 PM

Peter, your link dump was excessive, and has been removed. Please keep comments relatively brief and easy to read, and if that isn't possible, please post links instead.

Posted by: Confederate Yankee at September 5, 2007 10:31 PM

Jacksonian, training is always an issue when your first order to a new recruit is, "go kill yourself and take as many of the enemy as you can with you." The Japanese learned this over 60 years ago. The Muslims still haven't.

But, why should we worry? The war on terror is just a bumper sticker. John Edwards said so.

Posted by: C-C-G at September 5, 2007 10:55 PM

Watch Pakistan's role in this one - possibly more relevant given its connection to virtually all attacks apart from the Glasgow airport charade.

Posted by: Mary at September 6, 2007 04:46 AM