Sunday, August 29, 2010

Norway 'Bomb Plot' Underscores Al-Qaida Pitfalls

Via (AP) -

When police arrested a suspected al-Qaida cell in Norway last month they turned up the makings of a bomb lab tucked away in a nondescript Oslo apartment building.

An Associated Press investigation shows that authorities learned early on about the alleged cell by intercepting e-mails from an al-Qaida operative in Pakistan and - thanks to those early warnings - were able to secretly replace a key bomb-making ingredient with a harmless liquid when one of the suspects ordered it at an Oslo pharmacy.

Officials say the suspected plot against this quiet Nordic country was one of three planned attacks on the West hatched in the rugged mountains of northwest Pakistan by some of al-Qaida's most senior leaders. The other plots targeted the bustling New York subway and a shopping mall in Manchester, England.

Interviews with U.S. and European intelligence officials and documents reviewed by the AP paint the picture of a loosely organized cell that was doomed to fail long before Norwegian police raided its basement lab in suburban Oslo in July. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the cases publicly.

The Norwegian plot's undoing, and that of its sibling plots in the U.S. and Britain, casts light on the potential pitfalls of al-Qaida's changing tactics in the decade since the massive, highly organized Sept. 11 attacks. In recent years, al-Qaida has grown increasingly decentralized and nimble, relying on amateurs to recruit local cells and carry out smaller-level attacks without extensive planning and hands-on training.

While such plots are harder to detect, they are also harder to manage - and the slack remote control they often require leaves greater room for operational error and sloppy tradecraft.

All three plots were thwarted after suspected operatives exchanged e-mails - sometimes poorly coded ones - in and out of Pakistan.


"There are strengths and weaknesses in decentralization," said Magnus Norell, a terrorism expert at the Swedish Defense Research Agency. "It's a strength because it's difficult to find these plots unless you stumble upon them or have very good intelligence. Also, you can bring in people who might not be able to join otherwise. The weaknesses - they came to the surface in these cases."

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