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.
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.
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.
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.
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