Lessons Learned from the July 2010 Norwegian Terrorist Plot

Aug 01, 2010

on july 8, 2010, the Norwegian Police Security Service (PST) announced the arrests of three men, suspected of having formed an al-Qa`ida-linked terrorist cell and planning bomb attacks against what were later presumed to be Chinese targets in Norway.[1] The cell is believed to be “one node” in a far-reaching al-Qa`ida network that planned attacks in multiple countries, including the New York subway plot led by Najibullah Zazi and the conspiracy to bomb shopping malls in Manchester, both foiled in 2009.[2] The alleged leader of the Norwegian cell, Mikael Davud, a 39-year-old Norwegian citizen of Chinese Uighur origin, was reportedly trained in Waziristan and is suspected of having entertained direct contacts with the commander of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), as well as top al-Qa`ida personnel, such as Salah al-Somali, al-Qa`ida’s former head of external operations who was killed in late 2009.[3] According to U.S. officials, al-Somali ordered all three attacks, and all cells planned to use the same type of portable homemade bombs.[4] Also, the Federal Bureau of Investigation believes that Adnan Shukrijumah, considered al-Qa`ida’s new head of external operations, is probably connected to the Norway plot.[5]

From a counterterrorism perspective, the Norway cell is an interesting case study in several regards. First, it provides arguments to both sides in the Sageman-Hoffman dispute over whether the al-Qa`ida threat is becoming more “homegrown,” “de-centralized,” and “Europeanized,”[6] or whether al-Qa`ida has retained the ability to direct terrorist operations in Europe and elsewhere.[7] Second, it also casts light on two observable trends in jihadist terrorism during the past few years: (i) the expanding role of al-Qa`ida’s regional branches and affiliated organizations in international terrorism; (ii) the growing multiethnic composition of jihadist cells and networks in Europe, where overwhelmingly Arab and Pakistani networks have been gradually replaced by more multinational cells. Third, the Norway cell may suggest a new emphasis in al-Qa`ida on targeting “the periphery” in the Western world, whereby the threat level in Norway may gradually converge toward that of the United Kingdom and continental Europe. Finally, the current investigation of the alleged terrorist cell in Oslo has demonstrated the continued difficulties of handling terrorism-related criminal offenses in Scandinavia where the justice systems only recently started to adapt to the new reality of transnational terrorist organizations, and where U.S. pressure to act more aggressively clashes with a deep commitment to prevention strategies and high standards of legal protection.[8]

This article will outline the details of the Norway plot and the investigation, and it will discuss the sociology of the alleged cell and possible motives. It concludes with a few remarks on the preliminary lessons learned and the implications of the plot.

The Plot and the Investigation

On July 8, 2010, three men of Uighur, Uzbek and Iraqi-Kurdish descent were arrested on terrorism charges after a one year investigation involving extensive international cooperation. The ongoing investigation reportedly included electronic room surveillance, wiretapping, GPS and radio tracking, secret searches of apartments and electronic surveillance of internet traffic. It progressed at different levels of intensity during the past year. The case became more serious in February and March 2010 as the suspects allegedly sought to obtain quantities of chemicals suitable for making peroxide-based high explosives, also used by the 7/7 London bombers as well as by previously intercepted terrorist cells in Denmark and Germany. The amount of chemicals was far smaller, however, than the hundreds of liters acquired by the so-called Sauerland cell in Germany. Nevertheless, it was reportedly sufficient to make one large bomb device or several small ones.[9] The suspects also procured chemistry masks, gloves, and other types of substances and equipment suitable for bomb-making.[10] Using a technique applied by the British MI5 against a cell in Britain in 2004, the Norwegian police secretly replaced the dangerous chemicals with harmless substances.[11]

In addition to the bomb manufacturing activities, police secured a host of other circumstantial evidence suggesting a terrorist plot, including incriminating e-mail correspondence, phone books, notes and pictures, all indicating ties to international terrorist networks. The investigators found passport photos of Ibrahim Adam, a terrorist suspect wanted by British authorities for his alleged involvement in previous plots in London. One of the cell members claims he was asked to assist in procuring false passports for Adam with a view to bringing him into the country.[12] The cell may also have been involved in money transfers to illegal terrorist organizations.[13]

There is still much uncertainty and confusion surrounding the Norway cell and its intentions. Authorities believe the cell intended to strike a target on Norwegian soil, possibly against Chinese interests. Thus far, however, this assumption appears to rest more on inference and conjecture than actual evidence.[14] The fact that one of the cell members applied twice for a preparatory course at an oil drilling company (although he never showed up) has raised fears that the alleged cell planned attacks against Norway’s vital oil industry; Norway is among the world’s largest oil exporting countries.[15]

The investigation of the Norway cell has clearly been influenced by both national and international media. The timing of the arrests was premature and not ideal from an investigation point of view.[16] Officially, the story is that an Associated Press investigation into the global terrorist network, of which the Norway cell was part, forced Norwegian authorities to arrest the suspects.[17] On the other hand, growing U.S. pressure to act decisively against a cell that had links both to the United States and to al-Qa`ida’s top command may also explain why the police moved in prematurely.

Following the highly publicized arrests, a steady stream of leaks from sources close to the investigation has fed the national media. Initially, the leaks appeared to strengthen the prosecution’s case, but gradually information more favorable to the defendants has found its way to the newspapers, to a point where the security service chief threatened to have the defendants’ lawyers replaced for leaking classified information.[18] Even though the present case looks much stronger than previous terrorism investigations in Norway when the defendants have been acquitted on terrorism charges, many commentators have voiced skepticism about the prospects of a conclusive verdict. Norway’s antiterrorism laws require a collective effort, a “conspiracy” of two or more people, which in principle makes it legal for a lone individual to initiate limited preparations for terrorist acts on his/her own.[19] The defense lawyers have had some success in pushing this argument, not the least because it has transpired that one of the defendants had in fact been a police informant since 2009—one of the more intriguing details of the Norway plot. He claims to have alerted the authorities about the passport fraud operation and other issues. He has, however, reportedly admitted that he failed to notify them about the purchase of chemicals.[20] Information so far suggests that the cell leader, the Uighur national, was far more involved than the other two, and it remains to be seen if a conspiracy can be proven conclusively.

The Sociology of the Alleged Terrorist Cell

The three cell members are all relatively recent immigrants to Norway. They arrived in the country in the late 1990s or early 2000s, and gradually obtained permanent residency and, in the case of Davud, Norwegian citizenship. Their profiles depart somewhat from the new arch-type of homegrown terrorism, in which cell members are young disenfranchised second or third generation immigrants, and are mostly self-radicalized and self-recruited, operating autonomously from any central leadership.

Information so far suggests that the cell leader, Mikael Davud, had established contacts with al-Qa`ida back in 2001-2002 and is suspected of having maintained longtime contacts with militant leaders in Waziristan, which he allegedly visited in 2008-2009. Investigators first came across his name when Seyfullah, the top commander of the Turkistan Islamic Party, reportedly tried to call his mobile number in September 2008. Davud had also studied at an Islamic boarding school (madrasa) in Karachi during the late 1990s, but did not complete his education for unknown reasons. The two other cell members, the Iraqi-Kurd Shawan Sadek Saeed Bujak (37-years-old) and the Uzbek national David Jakobsen (31-years-old), had apparently been radicalized in Europe. Bujak spent several years seeking asylum in Germany where he reportedly became “more religious.” Jakobsen, the youngest cell member, adopted radical views after arriving in Norway. Leaders of the Uzbek community in Oslo claim they knew about him and had alerted the authorities about militant activism in their community.[26]

Despite living relatively inconspicuous lives, several of the cell members were involved in various forms of petty crime, such as the smuggling of halal meat from Sweden, the purchase of illegal travel documents, and misappropriation of company funds.[27] They may also have drawn attention to themselves by the fact that they engaged openly in Islamic activism in the Norwegian towns where they set foot; they made little effort to hide their radical leanings. Bujak headed an Islamic cultural center in Førde, a small town in western Norway and was remembered among his former work colleagues for having voiced strong sympathies for al-Qa`ida and Usama bin Ladin.[28] Davud attended the Muslim Culture Center, a controversial mosque known for its militant views, in the sleepy town of Sarpsborg, southeast of Oslo.[29] This is where he got to know Jakobsen. Davud also frequented radical milieus in Bergen, where he reportedly met Bujak.[31]

One interesting detail of the Norway cell is the fact that all members changed their names in 2006-2007, following the Prophet Muhammad cartoon crisis. Two of them adopted names that sounded less foreign. Jakobsen’s original name was Alisjer Abdulaif and Davud’s name was Mohammad Rashidin. They also changed addresses relatively often, presumably to make it more difficult for authorities to keep track of them.[32]

Age-wise, the Norway cell also departs slightly from the typical pattern, with all members well into their 30s, and one of them close to 40. Analyses of recent terrorism cases in Europe have hypothesized that there is a trend toward younger militants.[33] The Norway cell is one of several examples contradicting this thesis. Throughout the history of jihadism in Europe, terrorist cells have typically been mentored and led by people in their late 30s, whereas the foot soldiers have been youngsters in their teens or early 20s.[34]

The multinational character of the cell is also interesting, as it is consistent with what appears to be an increasingly more important pattern of jihadist terrorism in Europe. Previously dominated by Arabs from North Africa and the Middle East, jihadist networks have grown more diverse, including large numbers of activists from Asia, mainly Pakistan, the Caucasus, and East Africa, as well as European converts. In a growing number of cases, non-Arabs have also assumed important leadership positions. The Germany-based Sauerland-cell in 2007 is a case in point.[35] Uighurs, however, have hardly ever figured in jihadist networks in Europe.

Possible Motives

The available information provides few clues about the exact motive for an attack in Norway at this point. If Chinese interests were in fact the target, the ongoing conflict between Uighur separatists and the Chinese government will be seen as the most likely motive, in which case Norway is merely an opportune arena rather than a target. It should not be surprising, however, if it develops that the group sought to strike at Norwegian interests directly. While Norway has not been a priority target for al-Qa`ida in the past, it has been specifically singled out by name in al-Qa`ida speeches, most ominously by Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2003 and 2004, and by Abu Yahya al-Libi in 2006. There are good reasons for this: from al-Qa`ida’s perspective, Norway maintains a close military alliance with the United States, has a historical, deep-rooted friendship with Israel and is a significant military contributor in Afghanistan and other fronts in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Moreover, Norwegian authorities previously imprisoned Mullah Krekar, the infamous founder of the Kurdish-Iraqi terrorist group Ansar al-Islam, and have ordered his deportation. Finally, the publication of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons by a few Norwegian newspapers also added to the country’s visibility on jihadist websites, although it was overshadowed by events in neighboring Denmark.

Preliminary Implications and Lessons Learned

Assessments of the wider implications of the Norway cell will necessarily have to take into account its organizational origins and its intended target, key details that still remain murky. If the cell primarily operated on behalf of the Turkistan Islamic Party, targeting Chinese interests internationally, the case may be seen as another example of increased involvement by al-Qa`ida’s regional affiliates in international terrorism outside their immediate theater of operation. Other recent examples of this include the role of al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula in the Christmas Day airliner plot in Detroit in 2009, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s involvement in the Times Square attack in May 2010, and the Islamic Jihad Union’s plot in Germany (the Sauerland cell) in September 2007. One may also add the recent assassination attempt on Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard by a Danish-Somali who has been linked to the al-Shabab movement.

If, on the other hand, it is proven that the plotters received direct orders from al-Qa`ida’s central command in Pakistan, the case should be interpreted as another sign of al-Qa`ida’s success in sustaining an operational capability in the West. Furthermore, the discovery of al-Qa`ida cells in Norway may suggest that the organization seeks to build a new capability to strike Europe’s periphery. Its networks in central Europe have suffered serious setbacks after the disruption of numerous cells in Spain, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Denmark, and it may have pushed al-Qa`ida to seek new opportunities in countries less affected by al-Qa`ida terrorism.

From Norway’s perspective, it is important to acknowledge the fact that terrorist cells hardly ever emerge from a vacuum. Terrorist cells need supporters and sympathizers to recruit and operate successfully. Discovery of such cells is usually a strong sign that radicalism and underground extremist networks are on the rise.

Petter Nesser is a research fellow at The Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI). He is trained in the areas of social science, Middle Eastern Studies, and Arabic, and has conducted extensive research on jihadist terrorism in Europe. Mr. Nesser has focused mainly on terrorist motivations and radicalization processes.

Dr. Brynjar Lia is a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) where he currently heads FFI’s research on international terrorism and radical Islamism. Trained in Arabic, Russian and Middle Eastern studies, he obtained his Ph.D. in contemporary Middle Eastern history at the University of Oslo. He was a Visiting Fulbright Scholar at Harvard University from 2001-2002. Dr. Lia’s most recent book is Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of al-Qa`ida Strategist Abu Mus`ab al-Suri (Columbia University Press, 2008).

[1] “Tre personer pågrepet,” Politiets Sikkerhetstjeneste, July 8, 2010.

[2] Scott Shane and Eric Schmitt, “Norway Announces Three Arrests in Terrorist Plot,” New York Times, July 8, 2010; Kristoffer Rønneberg, “Terrorplaner i Oslo, London og New York kobles sammen,” Aftenposten, July 8, 2010; Harald Berg Sævereid, “Han tystet om norsk terror-celle,” Verdens Gang, July 9, 2010.

[3] Yassin Musharbash, “Festgenommene Qaida-Verdächtige Norwegisches Terror-Puzzle,” Der Spiegel, July 8, 2010; Jonas Sverrisson Rasch and Gunnar Hultgreen, “Terrorgruppe tilhørte uigurisk separatistgruppe,” Dagbladet, July 8, 2010; “Davuds mobilnummer funnet hos uigurtopp,” Dagbladet, August 2, 2010.

[4] Bruce Crumley, “Norway’s al-Qaeda Arrests: Terrorism’s Changing Face,” Time Magazine, July 8, 2010.

[5] “Ny al-Qaida-topp kobles til terrorplaner i Norge,” Aftenposten, August 6, 2010; Curt Anderson, “New al-Qaida Leader Knows US Well,” Associated Press, August 6, 2010.

[6] See, for example, Marc Sageman, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

[7] See, for example, Bruce Hoffman, “The Myth of Grass-Roots Terrorism,” Foreign Affairs 87:3 (2008): pp. 133-138.

[8] See, for example, Michael Jonsson and Christian N. Larson, “Scandinavian Trials Demonstrate Difficulty of Obtaining Terrorist Financing Convictions,” Terrorism Monitor 7:5 (2009); Ian MacDougall, “Norway al-Qaida Case Highlights Terror Strategy,” Associated Press, July 16, 2010. Also see the entries about Norway in the U.S. Department of State’s “Patterns of Global Terrorism” for 2007 to 2009.

[9] “Norge var terrormålet,” Aftenposten, July 10, 2010; ”Eksplosivene ble ikke oppbevart hos siktede,” Aftenposten, July 11, 2010.

[10] “Slik ble de avslørt,” Dagbladet, July 16, 2010.

[11] “Norge var terrormålet.”

[12] Amund Bakke Foss, Francis Lundh, and Daniel Pinheiro Harbo, “Terrorsiktet ble bedt om å skaffe falskt pass,” Verdens Gang, July 12, 2010; Frode Hansen and Harald S. Klungtveit, “Terror-ettersøkte Ibrahim (23) skulle hjelpes inn i Norge med falsk pass,” Dagbladet, July 16, 2010.

[13] According to U.S. Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey, the U.S. Terrorism Finance Tracking Program (TFTP), which has been accessing all international bank transactions recorded by the Belgium-based company SWIFT until the end of 2009, “provided support to the Norwegian investigation.” Another possible indication is that one of the suspects had registered a private firm from which he withdrew nearly $600,000 before the firm went bankrupt. The firm’s transactions were considered illegal by experts. See Valentina Pop, “‘Swift’ Used in Norway’s al Qaeda Sting, US Says,” EUObserver, July 9, 2010; Jarle Brenna, Rolf J. Widerøe, Kari Tone Sperstad, and Amund Bakke Foss, “Terrorsiktet tok ut seks millioner i kontanter,” Verdens Gang, July 9, 2010.

[14] Harald S. Klungtveit et al., “Slik planla de terror på norsk jord,” Dagbladet, July 13, 2010; Kari Tone Sperstad, Tom Bakkeli, and Amund Bakke Foss, “PST: – Terrorhandlingen skulle skje på norsk jord,” Verdens Gang, July 12, 2010.

[15] Amund Bakke Foss et al., “Terrorsiktet meldte seg opp til oljeboringskurs,” Verdens Gang, July 9, 2010. It is not uncommon for jihadists in Europe to find work in sectors vulnerable to terrorist attacks. For example, several members of the Dutch-Moroccan Hofstadgroup linked to the 2004 murder of Theo Van Gogh worked at Schiphol airport, and a central member of a Pakistani cell planning attacks in the United Kingdom in 2004 worked at Britain’s main electricity grid provider, stealing information about its vulnerabilities. See The British Crown, “Opening statement Regina vs Omar Khyam et al.,” as published in “Momin Khawaja Constitutes the Canadian End of the Conspiracy,” Ottawa Citizen, March 23, 2006.

[16] “Terrorsiktelsene kunne ha vært utvidet,” Aftenposten, July 8, 2010.

[17] Randi Fuglehaug and Jonas Sverrisson Rasch, “Amerikansk nyhetsbyrå visste om saken,” Dagbladet, July 9, 2010.

[18] “Forsvarer: – PST bør holde kjeft,” Aftenposten, July 10, 2010; “PST anklager forsvarere for lekkasjer,” Verdens Gang, August 6, 2010.

[19] Per Asle Rustad, “Terrorsiktede kan reddes av norsk lov,” Verdens Gang, July 21, 2010.

[20] Tom Bakkeli et al., “Terrorsiktet har vært informant for PST siden 2009,” Verdens Gang, July 12, 2010; Lars Akerhaug, Jenny Sandvig, and Lars-Christian U. Talseth, “Var mistenkt – ble informant,” Aftenposten, July 12, 2010.

[21] Musharbash.

[22] “Davuds mobilnummer funnet hos uigurtopp.”

[23] Davud had obtained permission by Chinese authorities to travel to Pakistan. See Line Brustad, Ida Hanstad and Per Asle Rustad, “Terrorsiktet ville bli imam,” Verdens Gang, July 17, 2010.

[24] Eiliv Frich Flydal and Mikal Hem, “Terrorsiktet hyllet Bin Laden,” Dagbladet, July 25, 2010.

[25]  Harald S. Klungtveit et al., “Her pågripes terrorsiktede Shawan (37) av tysk spesialpoliti,” Dagbladet, July 9, 2010.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Hans Torgersen et al., “Her drev én av de terrorsiktede kiosk,” Aftenposten, July 11, 2010.

[28] Flydal and Hem; Harald S. Klungtveit and Torgeir P. Krokfjord, “Slik levde de terrorsiktede et dobbeltliv,” Dagbladet, July 11, 2010.

[29] The mosque’s imam, Shaikhjami Abdul-Qudus, has preached the death penalty for Muslims converting to Christianity and that Islamic law is above Norwegian law. Reportedly, there have been several conflicts between Muslim communities in Sarpsborg over issues such as suicide bombing and the Iraq war. See Anders Engen Sanden, “Omstridt moské i Sarpsborg,” Aftenposten, July 12, 2010.

[30]  Ibid.

[31] In spring 2010, another Uighur resident from Bergen was reportedly arrested in Pakistan on terrorism charges. See “Uigur fra Bergen pågrepet i Pakistan,” ABCNyheter.no, July 15, 2010.

[32] Klungtveit and Krokfjord.

[33]  See, for example, Lorenzo Vidino, “The Hofstad Group: The New Face of Terrorist Networks in Europe,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 30:7 (2007): pp. 579-592.

[34] In fact, young people have only headed terrorist cells in a limited number of cases. See Petter Nesser, Jihad in Europe: A Survey of the Motivations for Sunni Islamist Terrorism in Post-Millennium Europe (Kjeller: Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, 2004); “Profile: Omar Khyam,” BBC, April 30, 2007.

[35] See, for example, Guido Steinberg, The Islamic Jihad Union (Berlin: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, 2008); Simone Kaiser, Marcel Rosenbach and Holger Stark, “Operation Alberich, How the CIA Helped Germany Foil Terror Plot,” Der Spiegel, September 10, 2007. Also see Morten Skjoldager, Truslen indefra – De Danske Terrorister (Copenhagen: Lindhardt og Ringhof, 2009); Petter Nesser, “Lessons Learned from the September 2007 German Terrorist Plot,” CTC Sentinel 1:4 (2008); Petter Nesser, “Chronology of Jihadism in Western Europe 1994-2007: Planned, Prepared, and Executed Terrorist Attacks,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 31:10 (2008): pp. 924-946.