Security expert Dr Dave Sloggett considers the evolving nature of terrorism threats:
Events such as the attack in London on 7 July 2005 have defined a specific form of terrorism. Planned and executed by a group and aimed at creating large numbers of fatalities and casualties. Recent court cases in the United Kingdom have shown how that particular form of terrorism still represents a paradigm that many still aspire to carry out. The attack in Boston however shows that once again the nature of the threat is evolving. The question is could a Boston style of attack occur in the United Kingdom?
The simple answer to that is yes. There are a number of reasons why that answer can be given with complete certainty. The first point is that the individuals that have been alleged to have been involved managed to operate just below the radar horizon of the intelligence services. In the United Kingdom Roshonara Choudhry managed to do the same before she attempted to kill the Member of Parliament Stephen Timms. Andrew Ibrahim is Bristol did the same until he sought help from the local Muslim community who decided to report his behaviour to the police. Nicky Reilly in Exeter also appeared out of the blue.
No specific connection
The vital point about the Boston attack is that it is unlikely to show any specific connection to an intermediary involved in Al Qaeda who gave directions to the attackers. In the United Kingdom the recent court case that saw three individuals jailed for planning attacks in Birmingham showed how two of them had travelled to Pakistan to attend some form of terrorist training camp. Whilst in Pakistan they would have discussed their plans and possible targets. In the case of the Boston attack this appears not to have been the case. The two brothers alleged to have been involved also operated off Al Qaeda’s radar horizon.
The attack in Boston represents an important first for Al Qaeda. For some time now it has had to adjust its modus operandi. It has had to adapt to the impact of the American drone-strikes in Pakistan aimed at disrupting the operation of what is known as the core of Al Qaeda. This is the remnants of its key leadership team.
Encouraging acts of terrorism
In recognition of its weak position Al Qaeda has allowed its franchises to become more involved in encouraging acts of terrorism. In the Yemen Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been in the vanguard of promoting acts of terrorism overseas. It has also been involved. AQAP was behind the attempt to bring down an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day and the printer bombs that were sent via parcel mail to an address in Chicago but were intercepted on route.
Through its Inspire magazine AQAP has been trying to foster attacks overseas whilst encouraging people not to travel to places such as Pakistan to visit terrorist training facilities. From accounts that have appeared in the media it would seem that these so-called terrorist training camps are not quite what they used to be in some locations. Before 11 September the camps where training took place in Afghanistan were large-scale affairs readily spotted in satellite imagery.
Fine tuning terrorist plans
Today the so-called training camps are little more than houses in which people meet up and live for several days at a time before being moved on. Some locations have even been little more than a few tents in a field. However rudimentary such facilities are in practice people who visit do have an opportunity to discuss their plans with experienced operators who can fine tune plans that those seeking training have developed.
Looking objectively at the attacks in Boston it is hard not to conclude that the Boston attacks were quite amateurish. The brothers seemed unaware on the local of CCTV cameras. The bombs themselves were quite simple devices. Gunpowder from fireworks was used at the explosives. This limited their effective range despite being loaded with ball bearings to enhance their killing effect. Some commentators have suggested that the devices themselves were modelled on a design promoted in Inspire in an article called “How to build a bomb in the kitchen of your mum”. The bombs were also apparently triggered by hand-held infra-red devices used to open garages.
The limited effective range of the bombs was graphically shown at the point where the first device exploded knocking a nearby runner to the floor. Ironically some of the impact of the devices was reduced by the fact they were placed near the stands occupied by those who had come to support the runners. This explains in part the relatively low death toll at the scene and the nature of the injuries sustained by those who have lost limbs. Nearly twenty people were severely injured in this way.
Of all the variables the timing of the attack is the most puzzling. Why leave detonating the bombs until the time when over three-quarters of the runners had completed the race? One explanation of that is that the bombers simply did not think through the peak arrival rate of runners in a marathon. Had they detonated the devices a mere thirty minutes earlier the impact could have been far greater.
Breaking new ground for Al Qaeda
The attack in Boston appears to break new ground. It would seem that the two brothers involved self-radicalised. They made their own plans. They did not discuss what they were going to do with any Al Qaeda mentor. Once the police released their images they spontaneously decided to use their remaining bombs in New York. They were on their way there when the Boston Police intervened.
For members of the United Kingdom emergency services the Boston attacks need to be added to the list of possible scenarios in which they might become involved. What brought horror to the streets of Boston and tainted the image of one of its highest profile events could so easily migrate across the Atlantic Ocean. The Boston attack represents a new form of terrorism. The paradigm of terrorism-lite so actively encouraged by Al Qaeda over the last eighteen months has finally arrived.