The South Asia Channel
Exclusive: al Qaeda bomb-factory video
This footage may not be used or reproduced without the permission of the author and the AfPak Channel. Please contact Tiedemann@newamerica.net with inquiries. Attempted Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad claims he received explosives training in Waziristan, Pakistan, the heartland of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a militant group closely allied with al-Qaeda. U.S. Attorney General ...
Attempted Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad claims he received explosives training in Waziristan, Pakistan, the heartland of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a militant group closely allied with al-Qaeda. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has publicly stated that Shahzad was both directed and financed by the TTP. Yet Shahzad’s alleged militant pedigree reconciles very poorly with the ineptitude of his attempted attack, which raises more questions about his background than it answers.
- Was Shahzad simply a poor bomb-making student/incompetent jihadist?
- Was the training he received unsuited for conducting attacks in the U.S. context?
- Despite claims of a six month sojourn in Waziristan, did he really get any bomb-training?
One place to look for answers is the improvised explosive device Shahzad cobbled together. The FBI’s criminal complaint against Shahzad describes an IED constructed of 153 M-88 firecrackers, three propane tanks, two five-gallon cans of gasoline, bags of fertilizer, and two alarm clocks connected to wires.
A demolition and pyrotechnic expert with 23 years of experience, Matt Kutcher, deconstructs Shahzad’s device in an interview:
First, gasoline has to be aspirated (thoroughly mixed with air) before it becomes even a low-grade explosive. One example would be to wrap the gas can with detonation cord to rupture the vessel, and then use a bursting charge to disburse the gas. Shahzad’s device had no mechanism to reliably do that. Second, propane tanks for the U.S. market, i.e. those readily available at most hardware stores, now have a regulating float valve built into them. When you turn on a modern propane tank that is not mated to an appropriate connection, i.e. the intake valve of a barbecue grill, the back-up safety system of that float regulator ensures no propane comes out. Third, the fertilizer Shahzad used was not suitable for use as an explosive. Finally, as for using M-88 firecrackers for a detonator, the idea is a joke: you could have put a bottle rocket up the tailpipe of Shahzad’s SUV and gotten about the same ineffectual results that Shahzad got.
By way of contrast, a look at an al-Qaeda propaganda video for sale in the local bazaar of Wana, South Waziristan, is instructive. The bulk of the action in the video is of Pashtun fighters, likely the local Taliban allies of the al-Qaeda filmmakers, carrying out various attacks. But the quieter interludes of the video include scenes of a bombmaker meticulously assembling IEDs. The deadly craftsman carefully cuts and packs military-grade high explosives into canisters, pauses to check the reliability of the firing circuit with an ohmmeter, and then continues to layer the devices with heavy-duty nuts and bolts to provide a hail of lethal shrapnel. No crude "alarm clock" detonators are in sight, but rather a serious detonation rig hooked to electronic control circuits, the better to release the explosive fury at precisely the right instant. While the level of technology in the IED under construction is primitive compared to the U.S.’s "smart" munitions, it is clearly still an order of magnitude better than the dysfunctional IED Shahzad constructed.
Kutcher quickly knocks down the notion that Shahzad may have been forced to make a crude device only because the military-grade explosives typically used by the Taliban and al-Qaeda were not available in the U.S. "A better device could easily have been constructed with a single trip to any Wal-Mart. The explosive components of an ANFO bomb, (ammonium nitrate fertilizer combined with fuel oil or diesel) are readily available, easy to put together, and much, much more lethal than what Shahzad attempted to detonate," Kutcher said. Indeed, the Taliban’s bombmakers are very familiar with the use of ANFOs: Afghan President Hamid Karzai banned the possession of ammonium nitrate fertilizer in Afghanistan in February 2010, after Taliban militants used ANFO in a series of bomb attacks.
Kutcher commented, "I cannot imagine Shahzad had even rudimentary training, particularly when I compare his IED to the real devastation that Taliban bombers regularly inflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I could teach someone to build a better device with a single hour of training in my own workshop."
The total ineffectiveness of Shahzad’s attempt implies that, even assuming Shahzad did have some level of contact with the TTP, that he received little, if any, practical training in the construction of IEDs. Alternatively, it suggests that if he did receive such training, he did not quite grasp the fundamentals of bombmaking, and was singularly unable to retain and implement the lessons imparted to him.
Shahzad seems not to be the heir of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers, but rather the intellectual brother of failed ‘shoe bomber’ Richard Reid and failed ‘Christmas underwear bomber’ Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Reid, Abdulmutallab, and Shahzad all intended to carry out attacks which, coupled with contact with either al-Qaeda or Taliban militants, theoretically could have transformed lethal intent into lethal action, yet somehow failed to do so.
What, then, divides the "successful" bombers produced by al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere, from the unsuccessful trio of Reid, Abdulmutallab, and Shahzad?
One possible reason for the serial failures of Reid, Abdulmutallab, and Shahzad may be the lack of direct supporting infrastructure during the execution of attacks. "Successful" bombers involved in terror attacks, suicide or otherwise, frequently use bombs constructed by highly skilled bombmakers to be "idiot proof," requiring a low level of skill from the emplacer, and often use a separate trigger man as well. In the particular case of suicide bombers, the would-be ‘martyrs’ usually have handlers by their sides in the days and hours before an attack. The handlers talk the bombers through the attack and bolster the bomber’s fervor, all while guiding the bomber away from simple tactical mistakes. This close support prevents a nascent attack from fading into a fizzle born of cold feet, or easily avoidable missteps.
Direct "professional" support and supervision in the execution stage not always necessary, however, as suggested by the lethal "7/7" London subway bombings in 2005, carried out by four self-radicalized Muslim youths with limited training (although two of the bombers had traveled to Pakistan prior to the attacks, an investigation by the British government concluded there was no direct al-Qaeda involvement). Working as a group, the 7/7 bombers managed to puzzle out the construction of home-made but deadly organic peroxide IEDs, and provided mutual ideological/emotional support necessary to see such attacks through to their tragic conclusions.
The failures of Reid, Abdulmutallab, and Shahzad hint that, without the existence of a support cell to help train, indoctrinate, and guide a ‘lone’ bomber all the way through the execution phase of an explosive attack, the threat posed by lone bombers, even those who have been in contact with either al-Qaeda or the Taliban, will be hit or miss at best. Direct support of a group of like-minded individuals, ‘professional’ or not, may be the missing ingredients that allowed the 7/7 bombers to succeed where Reid, Abdulmutallab, and Shahzad could not, despite their contact with militant groups.
This is not to say that the self-radicalized solo actor does not pose a danger. The grim success of the firearm-based attack of Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 and wounding 29, suggests that even an unsupported individual can pose a grave threat, if he avoids the complexities involved in effectively constructing and detonating an IED and sticks to the simplicity, reliability, and ready availability of guns.
Much of the furor surrounding Shahzad has arisen because his attempt allegedly represents the first foray of the TTP into ‘external operations,’ terrorist strikes conducted outside Afghanistan and Pakistan on U.S. soil. While a concerted campaign by the TTP to put major resources into ‘external operations’ would represent a genuinely alarming trend, little about Shahzad’s attempt credibly suggests it was the opening shot in such a volley. TTP spokesman Azam Tariq was quick to disavow Shahzad’s attack, even as he claimed the TTP has agents in Europe and the U.S. poised to strike. Master TTP bomber Qari Hussain did claim the bombing for the Taliban, but he also described it with grossly exaggerated rhetoric as a "jaw-breaking blow to Satan U.S.A." Aside from the somewhat schizophrenic claims of the TTP’s leadership, no concrete evidence has yet surfaced to suggest that Shahzad’s solo trip to Pakistan was part of a larger wave of Western recruits deliberately enticed to Pakistan to get militant training, and then return to their homelands to conduct terror attacks.
Despite the wide availability of information on explosives on the Internet, there still appears to be a gap between reading about explosives or receiving elementary training on them, and the ability of a single person to integrate that knowledge into an "operation" that results in a successful bomb attack. Regarding the real level of threat posed by would-be bombers like Faisal Shahzad, who had demonstrably weak practical knowledge of explosives, demolition expert Matt Kutcher remarked, "Yes, one of these single guys could add A+B+C together and do something that could hurt a lot of people, but without having an idea of how explosives really work, they’d probably have to get lucky to do it."
Faisal Shahzad appears to be just the latest in a series of dilettante jihadis, self-radicalized would-be bombers, long on the intent to cause harm, perhaps, but short on the ability to do it.
Art Keller is a former case officer for the Central Intelligence Agency. He participated in counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda in the FATA of Pakistan in 2006.