Trending Topics

Sloppy tradecraft led to Saudi bomb plotter’s capture

The arrest of a Saudi citizen in Texas on charges of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction shows that grassroots militants still pose a threat

FBI agents arrested Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari in Lubbock, Texas, on Feb. 23 on charges of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. Although Aldawsari allegedly gathered chemicals that can be used to manufacture explosive material and picked out potential targets, he did not construct a viable explosive device. While Aldawsari was caught before he could construct and deploy such a device, he demonstrated the intent and thus the threat that such grassroots militants continue to pose.

FBI agents arrested Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, a 20-year-old Saudi citizen with a U.S. student visa, in Lubbock, Texas, on Feb. 23 on charges of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. Aldawsari, arrested after a nearly monthlong FBI investigation, is accused of purchasing various precursor chemicals to construct an improvised explosive device (IED) and e-mailing himself a list of potential attack locations.

Aldawsari is the latest in what is becoming a long list of grassroots jihadists arrested in the United States before carrying out a successful attack. He is also part of the continuing trend of grassroots jihadists attempting an attack within the United States but lacking the tradecraft needed to succeed. For instance, in the Portland case of Mohamed Osman Mohamud and the Newburgh cell case, the grassroots jihadists were unable to construct a viable explosive device and reached out for that expertise, which allowed the FBI to infiltrate their operations. Aldawsari similarly reached out to purchase the precursor chemicals. These moves led to detection and subsequent arrests.

Three Mistakes
Aldawsari made at least three mistakes that allowed law enforcement authorities to become aware of his radicalization and malicious intent. First, Aldawsari allegedly attempted to purchase 10 500 ml bottles of 80 percent concentration phenol (a toxic chemical that can be used to construct trinitrophenol, or picric acid, a high explosive). This raised red flags for both the chemical supplier, Carolina Biological Supply, and the freight-forwarder, Con-Way. Carolina Biological Supply reported the suspicious purchase to the FBI but mailed the chemicals anyway. When Aldawsari had the chemical sent to one of its warehouses, Con-Way alerted the Lubbock Police Department, which in turn notified the FBI. The FBI was subsequently able to get a search warrant that allowed them to monitor Aldawsari’s e-mail activity and search his apartment. Aldawsari also made other online purchases that, when taken together, would raise suspicions; some of the items purchased were a gas mask, a hazmat suit, wiring, a stun gun, clocks and a battery tester.

Second, Aldawsari sent overt e-mail messages to himself suggesting possible targets to attack and ways to construct an explosive device. Aldawsari did not try to hide the contents of these e-mails and went so far as to use the subject lines, “military explosive” and “NICE TARGETS.” He might have been trying to be covert in sending these messages to himself (authorities were able to view the e-mails since they had access to his e-mail account), but the extremely overt subject lines showcase Aldawsari’s lack of terrorist tradecraft.

Third, Aldawsari broadcast his jihadist sentiments by posting his views on an extremist blog. One of his posts reads, “You who created mankind ... grant me martyrdom for Your sake and make jihad easy for me only in Your path.” These posts on public websites announced to the world and law enforcement officials his intent to commit martyrdom through a jihadist attack, which opened him to scrutiny that would disrupt his operation.

In addition, law enforcement authorities found images of dolls apparently manipulated into IEDs on the search history on his computer. This harkens back to Ramzi Yousef’s attempt to use dolls in the Bojinka Plot to attack airliners flying from Asia to the United States in 1995.

Sloppy Tradecraft
The targets that Aldawsari identified further strengthen the case for his lack of terrorist tradecraft. The targets indentified are: the homes of military personnel who previously served at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 12 reservoir dams, hydroelectric dams, nuclear power plants, the Dallas residence of former President George W. Bush and nightclubs. Most of these locations would be difficult to attack given the security surrounding many of these targets and because of the large amount of explosive material needed. However, the nightclubs and the residences of former military personnel, being soft targets, would have been viable targets for a grassroots jihadist if he had been able to construct an operable device. The other potential target selections -- harder targets where he stood little or no chance of success -- showcase Aldawsari’s lack of understanding of his own limitations.

Aldawsari operated with the same lack of operational capability seen in other grassroots cases. His sloppy tradecraft in preparing for his attack and saving and disseminating information over e-mail messages and blogs opened him up to law enforcement detection. This case demonstrates the challenges that grassroots operatives face when attempting to orchestrate an attack; they risk attracting attention at numerous points in the attack cycle, long before the actual attack. However, it must be kept in mind that although these grassroots jihadists often lack the skill set to conduct a spectacular terrorist operation against a hard target, it does not take all that much skill to execute an attack against soft targets that can result in injuries and deaths.

Fred Burton is one of the world’s foremost authorities on security, terrorists and terrorist organizations. In his capacity as Vice President for Counterterrorism and Corporate Security, Mr. Burton oversees Stratfor’s terrorism intelligence service and consults with clients on security-related issues affecting their organizations or personal safety. He leads a team of terrorism experts and a global network of human intelligence sources to analyze and forecast the most significant events and trends related to terrorism and counterterrorism.