America and Europe have experienced a string of terrorist attacks perpetrated by “homegrown” terrorists. But the term “homegrown” is often conflated with “independent”. There are in fact two types of homegrown terrorists: those with external support and guidance and those without. In recent years a clear pattern has emerged. Technically sophisticated attacks, such as the 7/7 attacks in London and the airline liquid explosives plot, have with almost no exception been carried out by terrorists who where homegrown, but had received substantial training and guidance from terrorist groups outside Europe, usually based in Pakistan. Terrorists who lacked the connections to established terror networks had to resort to more primitive methods such as shooting or stabbing.
This importance of hands-on training has been neglected in the hype surrounding “homegrown” terrorism. It turns out that it is more difficult than it was once believed to teach bomb making and other essential terrorist skills over the internet. One indication for this is that intelligence agencies still presume that there are only a limited number of proficient bomb makers within al-Qaida’s ranks.
The internet, however, does play a role in radicalization processes. In May 2010 British student Roshonara Choudhry tried to stab MP Stephen Timms for his support of the Iraq war. When interrogated by the police shortly after the crime, she said that video sermons by the radical preacher Anwar Al-Awlaki, who resides in Yemen, had prompted her to “punish” Timms. She had also consulted an Islamist website which had called on Muslims to “raise the knife of Jihad” against MPs who had voted for the Iraq war in 2003. There is no question that Choudhry was not radicalized solely by watching a couple of videos featuring Al-Awlaki, but it is reasonable to assume that these contributed to her decision to attack Timms.
The implications of the importance of hands-on training have not been lost on the intelligence community. Completely independent “self-radicalized” terrorists are excruciatingly difficult to spot, but due to the lack of training they are also unlikely to perpetrate a mass casualty attack. Roshonara Choudhry’s choice of weapon – a kitchen knife – is characteristical for this homegrown but “unconnected” type of attackers. While the attempted stabbing of British MP Timms is certainly to be taken very seriously, the ramifications of this attack go nowhere near the 7/7 bombings in London.
Individuals who are in touch with al-Qaida operatives and who then travel to training camps are – in contrast – likely to appear on the radar of the intelligence services. The importance of hands-on training is also the reason why the current intense drone campaign waged by the US is understood to have severely degraded al-Qaida’s capacity to carry out a large-scale attack. Before the advent of the drone campaign al-Qaida used to run ‘lavish’ training camps in the Afghan-Pakistani border region. Large numbers of fighters would congregate and train together. With the start of the drone campaign al-Qaida and like-minded groups like the Tehrik-e Taliban (TTP) have been forced to keep a very low profile. This means that much of the training recently has been confined to indoor spaces and has been substantially shortened in duration and scope.
It remains to be seen if Europe and the US will see a lasting shift towards low-tech terrorist attacks. Much depends on the developments in alternative havens, namely Yemen, Somalia and Mali. This only underscores the fact that the international community ought to pay attention to these ailing states before they become fertile training grounds for terrorists.
See today’s ISN Insights article on al-Qaida in Yemen and Al-Awlaki’s growing profile.