On July 24 in Ansbach, Germany, a 27-year-old refugee from Syria detonated a bomb concealed in his backpack, injuring several bystanders and killing himself. His intended target appears to have been a nearby music festival, but he didn't have a ticket and was denied entry. Instead he detonated his device outside a bar near the festival. The attack was the first suicide bombing in Germany, albeit a poorly executed one.
German authorities have confirmed the attacker had recorded a video pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State. The jihadist group's Amaq news agency was quick to adopt the assault, calling the bomber a "soldier" who had responded to calls for attacks against citizens of countries in the coalition fighting the Islamic State. In other words, the attacker was a grassroots jihadist operating under the leaderless resistance model and was not dispatched to Germany by the Islamic State core.
Many have scoffed at the attacker's poor bombmaking and lack of operational skills. But those are not unusual traits in cases involving grassroots attackers, who frequently are more like stray mutts than lone wolves. It does not take much skill to kill people, however, and in recent days, grassroots jihadists in Europe have conducted a number of simple attacks using rudimentary weapons — an ax, a truck, knives and this poorly made bomb. These incidents serve as timely reminders that even poorly trained terrorists can be deadly.
A Troubled Past
Like many assailants, the Ansbach bomber appears to have had a troubled past that could have contributed to his decision to attack. He had lived in Germany for two years after fleeing Syria and had a police record for petty crime and drug possession. He also had received psychiatric treatment for suicidal tendencies. Indeed, mental illness and radical ideology are not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, the state had denied his application for asylum last year, and he was awaiting deportation to Bulgaria.
This is not to suggest that the bomber is some sort of victim. He not only decided to end his own life but also attempted to take others with him. With a criminal history and apparent mental health issues, the attacker appears to share a background with other recent grassroots attackers. His status as an asylum seeker is a bit of an outlier — we simply have not seen much of that yet in Europe, aside from in Germany. (On July 18, police killed a 17-year-old Afghan refugee after he injured four train passengers in Wuerzburg with an ax and knife.)
That the bomber was the only casualty in the Ansbach incident is not surprising. Grassroots operatives often struggle to pull off successful attacks and tend to be far more aspirational than operational.
And as we look at the attacks in Ansbach and Wuerzburg, or in Rouen, France, where two men armed with knives killed an 84-year-old priest and critically wounded a parishioner during Mass on July 26, most of them tend to resemble stray mutts
Practically Clueless but Still Deadly
But even stray mutts can have sharp teeth. Depending on luck, circumstances or skill, a lone attacker can create significant carnage, as was the case in the Bastille Day truck attack in Nice, France, and in the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida. But fortunately, such attacks are exceptions rather than the rule, and for the most part, grassroots operatives working by themselves or in small cells lack the training of their professional counterparts.
One of the biggest problems for grassroots operatives is acquiring the skills necessary to conduct a successful large-scale attack. The complexity of planning and executing a successful suicide bombing, for instance, is one reason that such attacks by lone amateurs so frequently miss the mark. Acquiring these skills can be a daunting challenge.
It is easy to find websites and military manuals with instructions on how to make bombs or shoot guns. Computer games offer simulated combat situations. But those will not make a person an expert tactical shooter or an accomplished bombmaker. There is no substitute for hands-on experience in the real world. Gaining such expertise requires physical practice. Intellectual prowess is not an effective substitute for real-world experience. Even Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, a genius, constantly refined the design of his explosive devices based on trial and error. Of the 16 bombs Kaczynski mailed, several malfunctioned. In the end, Kaczynski's 18-year bombing campaign killed only three people.
Immaturity and a lack of common sense are significant hurdles for some would-be grassroots operatives.
A person who attempts to buy an illicit fully automatic weapon when a less expensive semi-automatic version is legally available does not understand the effectiveness of controlled, sustained fire versus the spray-and-pray shooting depicted in the movies or on television. As demonstrated by the Pulse and Dallas police shootings, automatic weapons are simply not needed to inflict serious damage.
Even in cases where attackers can build effective bombs or have obtained firearms undetected, they also require more subtle abilities to achieve their goals that are difficult to master without training and practice. Perhaps the most significant of these skills is surveillance. Radical publications often tell would-be operatives that they must conduct surveillance before attacks. They do not, however, provide detailed instructions, and grassroots operatives tend to be terrible at surveillance. Even if written instruction on how to conduct surveillance were available, mastering the complex set of skills required to be a good surveillance operative takes a great deal of training and practical experience. It would be extremely difficult for someone to acquire and hone these skills without help.
Because of this lack of tradecraft, grassroots attackers often botch attacks or conduct less-than-spectacular ones. Their poor tradecraft also makes them vulnerable to detection as they plan and prepare for their attack following the steps required by the terrorist attack cycle.
That said, even bumbling stray mutts can kill people. This is especially true with the help of a professional terrorist operative who can equip and instruct them. The group involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing had been judged by the FBI to be so inept as to pose little or no threat. Yet, when professional terrorist Ramzi Yousef traveled to New York, he was able to use the ragtag bunch to construct, deliver and detonate a massive bomb in a rented truck. After the bombing, group member Mohammed Salameh made an amateur blunder — he was arrested when he returned to the rental office to collect his deposit on the truck he claimed had been stolen. Another bumbler, Richard Reid, was nearly able to destroy an aircraft using a shoe bomb that a professional al Qaeda terrorist had given him. Amateur terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was spun up and equipped by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, failed to detonate the explosives sewn into his underwear.
Many have been critical of the FBI's program of baiting and then arresting would-be stray mutt attackers in the United States, arguing that they were open to suggestion and manipulation. But those critics overlook the fact that when possible, terrorist planners will manipulate and then use such people to conduct attacks. This means that if the suspect had encountered a real terrorist planner instead of an FBI informant, the plot they were trying to see through could have been the real deal.