By Scott Stewart
Not all grassroots militants who want to conduct a terrorist attack are created equal. As we have previously discussed, this is true in several aspects, including personal intellect, drive and capability. But recent events in Russia and the United States have highlighted another dimension of this inequality, that of location.
On Dec. 13, Terry Loewen, an avionics technician working at the Wichita Mid-Continent Airport in Wichita, Kansas, attempted to drive what he believed to be a vehicle bomb onto the airport's tarmac area, using his employee badge to gain access. Loewen, a convert to Islam who had been radicalized by material he accessed via the Internet, believed he was about to conduct a suicide bombing operation at the behest of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Unfortunately for the aspiring suicide bomber, the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula "operative" he met in a jihadist chat room was an employee of the FBI — and the device he attempted to drive onto the tarmac was inert. Loewen was arrested after his deactivated airport access card failed to open the gate onto the tarmac and charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction (a term used in U.S. federal law to define an improvised explosive device). He was also charged with attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.
Loewen has joined a long list of would-be grassroots terror operatives who intended to conduct attacks but found themselves ensnared in FBI operations. The primary reason for this dynamic is that grassroots operatives often aspire to conduct attacks that surpass their operational capabilities. This means that they must look for assistance to conduct spectacular attacks, and their efforts to seek help frequently result in them being brought to the attention of law enforcement.
A few aspiring grassroots operatives, like the Tsarnayev brothers, who attacked the Boston Marathon in April, and Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, recognized their operational limitations and conducted attacks within those capabilities without searching for outside help. Such operatives tend to be more successful than those who aspire to carry out grandiose attacks, compelling militant ideologues to go to great lengths to convince other grassroots operatives to act within their means. Just last week, al Qaeda's media branch, As-Sahab, released an hour-long video praising successful grassroots operatives (including the Tsarnaev brothers and Hasan) and urging others to conduct similarly simple attacks.
Yet, as detailed in criminal complaints and other court documents, it is clear that many aspiring grassroots attackers simply do not have the mental make-up required to accurately assess their capabilities and thus plan attacks they cannot realistically accomplish without outside help. Such individuals tend to be far more aspirational, idealistic and grandiose in their planning.
Some less-equipped operatives with elaborate ambitions have connected with professional terrorist organizations, which can train, equip and dispatch assailants to carry out attacks. Past examples of this include shoe bomber Richard Reid and would-be Christmas Day 2009 airline bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. In both these cases, malfunctioning explosive devices resulted in narrowly averted catastrophic attacks against commercial aircraft.
Grassroots Advantages in the Caucasus
While many people will read a criminal complaint like the one filed in the Loewen case and poke fun at his naive and bumbling attempt to join the global jihad, the primary aspect that sets Loewen apart from attackers such as Reid and Abdulmutallab is location. Reid and Abdulmutallab were situated in places where it was possible to easily connect with a legitimate terrorist organization. Loewen was not. This is where the recent events in Russia come in.
On Dec. 30, a suicide bomber detonated a device aboard a trolley bus during the morning rush hour in the Russian city of Volgograd, killing at least 15 people and wounding dozens more. It was the second suicide bombing in two days in Volgograd. Russian authorities identified the bomber as Pavel Pechenkin, an ethnic Russian convert to Islam from the Mari El republic in central Russia, who moved to Dagestan to fight with jihadists there. Pechenkin reportedly worked as either a paramedic or an emergency room nurse in his home city before becoming radicalized.
Despite the heavy pressure Russian security forces have applied to militant groups such as the Caucasus Emirate in the area, an active insurgency continues. In addition to the ethnic and religious foundations of the Caucasus insurgency, provincial militants are greatly aided by the difficult topography and complex ethnic mosaic of the region.
But for Russians like Pechenkin who become radicalized and want to fight in the insurgency or conduct terrorist attacks in Russia, the presence of an active jihadist insurgency in the Caucasus makes it possible to travel easily and attend militant training camps, where they can be educated and equipped for future attacks. The fact that most jihadists in the Caucasus speak Russian is also helpful in this regard. While the Russian security services are looking to identify and arrest such grassroots operatives before they can join established jihadist networks, it is difficult to interdict them all.
Compared to ethnic Muslim jihadists from the Caucasus, it is more difficult to profile ethnic Slavic operatives based on appearance alone. It is also easier for them to conduct attacks within ethnic Russian areas. Pechenkin was identified as having been radicalized in 2012, so it might have been more difficult for him to travel to Moscow than to Volgograd — the largest ethnically Slavic city near the Caucuses — hence the use of a Russian suicide operative for an attack in Volgograd rather than Moscow. The "black widow" (a term describing female suicide bombers thought to be the sisters or widows of jihadists) who attacked the train station in Volgograd the day before was reportedly spotted by police near the entrance to the station and detonated her device as police approached. Pechenkin was able to fit into the crowd in Volgograd without drawing attention to himself.
The insurgency in the Caucasus has long benefitted from the availability of military ordnance, and unlike the United States or the United Kingdom it is a relatively easy place to buy high-grade explosives such as TNT (often called trotyl in Russia). As a result, most terrorist bombings in the Caucasus are conducted with military-grade explosives rather than the low-grade explosives or improvised explosive mixtures frequently used in attacks in the West.
Of course, this principle of organization and support does not just apply to the Caucuses alone; grassroots jihadists in many parts of the world benefit from proximity and alignment to professional terrorist groups and arms. Location dictates the availability (or lack thereof) of quality explosives and professional terrorist tradecraft. Grassroots militants who connect with a militant organization gain access to all the terrorist tradecraft expertise and logistical capabilities of the group. This means they can acquire explosive devices and have their attacks planned by professional terror operatives. The organization can also plan their travel, ensuring that they get to the attack site prepared and ready to go. Such grassroots operatives can also find ideological support and reinforcement for their beliefs that can serve to steel their resolve to conduct a suicide attack — or manipulate them into undertaking one.
The militant groups in the Caucuses and elsewhere have become adept at grooming and preparing individuals for suicide attacks. Grassroots operatives working as lone wolves or in small cells simply do not have this type of support. Indeed, had Loewen been able to connect with a militant group, with assistance he could easily have become a successful suicide bomber rather than a bumbler ensnared by a law enforcement sting.