Sunday, July 24, 2011

Oslo’s Terror Blasts Caused by Car Bombs

This charred wreck may be the remains of a car bomb that detonated outside the Norwegian prime minister’s office in Oslo. Could terrorists have succeeded in Norway where last year’s would-be Times Square bomber failed?

Details of Friday’s attack in Oslo are scant. Initial reports are vague and incomplete. Local police have confirmed a blast that damaged several Oslo buildings and killed at least one person — a toll expected to rise — was the result of a bomb. Norwegian TV is showing images of this car as a potential source of the bombing. Some reports indicate there might be a second bomb-packed car.

As of this writing, there don’t appear to be body parts around the hulk of the car, or other telltale indications of a suicide driver. That would indicate the style of attack aped that of would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, who loaded an SUV with fireworks, gas and propane, ignited the device and walked away, expecting the car to detonate.

“That’s been so common that it’s not necessarily so sophisticated,” says Hank Crumpton, the former State Department counterterrorism chief. “Hezbollah’s used both suicide driver and remote detonations. Oklahoma City was remotely detonated, no suicide driver.”

Except that this appears to be the first time a car bomb — a signature weapon of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — has targeted Oslo. (That is, if the attack is the result of a car bomb.) It may be paired with another attack, as reports are coming in of a gunman dressed as a police officer shooting up a youth conference for Norway’s Labour Party on Utoya Island. Simultaneous “complex” attacks — those that use a mixture of tactics — are the hallmark of al-Qaida and aligned terrorists.

Car bombs are most often used to drive up to a target and attack it. But not always: the first World Trade Center bombing came from a parked van stuffed with explosives. Parked car bombs avoid the operational difficulty of planting a bomb inside a building.

Evan Kohlmann, a terrorism analyst, says that on the extremist Shamukh forum, a user named Amir Grozny posted a warning that Norway will see “blood running in the streets” if it doesn’t withdraw its 400 troops from Afghanistan. “Norway has had an increasing problem with these kind of asymmetric threats from al-Qaida and its Central Asian allies,” Kohlmann says. “Amir Grozny is a user who appears to be from the Caucasus originally, now fighting in Afghanistan.”

The apparent blast caught the rapt attention of the Pentagon’s bomb squad, known as JIEDDO. It tweeted that the reported source of the blast, a vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, or VBIEDs, are the “third most common” type of homemade bombs — and that insurgents and terrorists plant an average of 553 homemade bombs each month outside of Iraq and Afghanistan.

One potential culprit is Mullah Krekar, an Iraqi Kurdish extremist and founder of the al-Qaida-aligned Ansar al-Islam who’s lived in Norway for years. Krekar was recently charged with terrorism-related crimes for threatening attacks against Norway if immigration officials deport him.

Jim Arkedis, a former Defense Department counterterrorism analyst who focused on Europe, guesses that the actual perpetrators are a “relatively isolated cell that formed on its own,” with “tangential links” to established jihadi organizations. That, at least, was the modus operandi of the cells responsible for the 2004 attack on Madrid and the 2005 attack on London. A car bomb is less sophisticated than either of those attacks — multiple suicide bombers simultaneously attacking packed mass transit — but, Arkedis says, getting at least one car bomb into a secure area is “typically more complex on the operational side than convincing a young kid that a bombing is worth his life.”

For more on the Oslo bombings, check out the Twitter hashtags #Oslo, #osloblast, #osloexpl, and #oslobomb.

Update, 1:40 p.m.: Reuters reports that the death toll has risen to seven. Also updated after JIEDDO clarified some of its tweets.

Update, 3:35 p.m.: The terrorist-watchers at IntelCenter emailed out some passages from al-Qaida leaders threatening Norway over the years. In a 2004 interview, Ayman Zawahiri denied any ties to Krekar but said he considered “extraditing any Muslim to the enemies of Islam a crime against Islam and Muslims.” And in 2006, after Norwegian newspapers were among those European papers publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, Abu Yahya al-Libi said he wished Norway among nations that should “be smashed, turn to ashes that go with the wind, resemble the ruined crops, and seem like they have never been rich before. We also wish that they could vanish.”

Update, 7:45 p.m.: The Utoya gunman is reportedly a blond, blue-eyed, Norwegian, non-Muslim extremist. If true, it should teach all of us in the media — this blog included — a lesson about immediately jumping to “jihadi!” conclusions.
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