LONDON (Reuters) - Counter-terrorism experts say an attempted car bombing in New York underscores concerns about increasingly active Western-based volunteer militants with vague ties to groups overseas.
Many analysts say the weekend incident bears striking similarities to an attempted attack in London in 2007, which first came to light when a doorman at a crowded nightclub noticed gas fumes inside a vehicle parked nearby.
As a throng of young people partied inside Tiger Tiger club on a warm summer night, the doorman and club manager approached the car and smelt liquid petroleum gas.
The alarming signals led to the discovery of a plot by two British-based militants acting on their own to blow up two cars packed with gas canisters, fuel containers and nails left in central London’s West End entertainment district.
Experts caution the details of the New York incident, claimed by the Pakistan Taliban, remain under investigation, and a law enforcement source told Reuters in New York that a suspect arrested in the case, Faisal Shahzad, has said he acted alone.
But security experts say the incident will prompt law enforcement authorities to pay renewed attention to what they call the growing phenomenon of poorly trained would-be bombers who act with few or no links to established groups.
What such homegrown enthusiasts lack in technical expertise, they make up for in their invisibility: Volunteering for militant service and with no prior convictions, their apparent lack of ties means they do not show up in counter-terrorism surveillance or electronic eavesdropping, experts say.
“It’s the proverbial needle in a haystack,” said Hagai Segal, a lecturer at New York University in London.
While bomb-making instructions are easily available on the internet, it is a skill that needs personal tuition, he said.
“If you don’t have proper training in chemistry, engineering and the processes of building a bomb, you’re just guessing,” said Segal, who also advises London companies on security.
Skills needed can include the refrigeration or heating of chemicals to a precise temperature, mixing chemicals to an exact proportion, or understanding the degree of concealment needed to smuggle a substance through an airport scanner.
Australian counter-terrorism expert Leah Farrell wrote on her blog that it was far more difficult to get something to “go boom” for the average untrained person than people think.
“This is why, for example, training for construction of explosives and explosives devices in terrorist training camps has historically taken up to two years, as opposed to the usual basic training where people are trained how to ‘use’ explosives instead of how to build devices,” she wrote.
“It is an ongoing problem for militant groups. This is why some of them (here I’m thinking al Qaeda) often sent the detonator or a key part of it back with those it was deploying to carry out attacks, especially for the more sophisticated attacks.”
A study by British think-tank Demos of 58 homegrown convicted terrorists in Canada and Europe advocated pointing out militant incompetence to remove whatever glamour al Qaeda held.
Examples of acts by would-be militants, experts say, include a December 25, 2009 attempted downing of a U.S. airliner over Detroit, allegedly by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian student from a wealthy family with no criminal record.
He has pleaded not guilty and faces trial but U.S. authorities said he told them after his arrest he was trained and given bomb materials by al Qaeda militants in Yemen.
In 2005, a group of Islamists made a failed attempt at a copycat bombing two weeks after another group killed 52 people in suicide attacks on London’s transport system. Sajjan Gohel, a British-based security expert, said the attack failed because the group had failed to adequately refrigerate the chemicals.
Briton Richard Reid packed explosives in his shoes and tried to ignite it on an American plane on December 22, 2001.
Shortcomings are not the preserve of the novice.
Experienced militant Ramzi Yousef was sentenced in 1998 to life in prison plus 240 years for the 1993 bombing of New York’s World Trade Center. The February 26, 1993, explosion killed six and injured more than 1,000 but was intended to do much more damage.
Yousef said he would have built “a more efficient bomb” if he had had more money.
In the Tiger Tiger case, Iraqi doctor Bilal Abdulla, with accomplice Kafeel Ahmed, an Indian engineer, turned to a dramatic attack on Glasgow Airport when their initial plans failed. Ahmed died of injuries sustained in the Glasgow attack. He was the only casualty.
Abdullawas jailed for 32 years in 2008 for conspiracy to murder and cause explosions.
They wanted to punish the British people for their country’s role in Afghanistan and particularly Iraq, prosecutors said, adding the two only failed because of bad luck and technical mistakes in making the bombs.
Reporting by William Maclean, Editing by Angus MacSwan