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posted on 12 October 2017

Revelations From A Thwarted Plot On New York


-- this post authored by Scott Stewart

An undercover FBI agent posing as a jihadist on social media received a message from Abdulrahman El Bahnasawy in April 2016. El Bahnasawy, a Canadian citizen who was then 18 years old, claimed to support the Islamic State, said he wanted to conduct an attack in New York City and solicited the agent's help in planning one. Over the next month, he discussed possible targets and methods with the agent, sending maps of the New York subway system and photos of Times Square. He also introduced the agent to two other men: Talha Haroon, an 18-year-old U.S. citizen living in Pakistan who wanted to participate in the attack, and Russell Salic, a 36-year-old doctor in the Philippines who would help finance it.

El Bahnasawy was arrested on May 21, 2016, after traveling from Canada to Cranford, New Jersey, with the stated intent of joining the undercover agent at a rural cabin to make bombs. Five months later, he pleaded guilty to a seven-count indictment; Haroon and Salic were also arrested and are pending extradition from Pakistan and the Philippines. The U.S. Department of Justice recently unsealed documents related to the case, including criminal complaints against the three conspirators who had planned attacks throughout New York during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in 2016. El Bahnasawy's quick plea and the fact that the government kept the case sealed for so long suggest that he was working with U.S. officials to identify other jihadists with whom he had been in contact. Now that the Justice Department has gotten what it wanted from El Bahnasawy and unsealed the case, we have access to a wealth of information that can help put the jihadist threat in context.

Going by the Book

A look at the documents reveals a classic grassroots plot. Several aspects of the averted attack not only track with current jihadist trends but also recall past terrorist incidents. Even the plan to use a remote cabin to build bombs and practice shooting harkens back to previous attacks. Anders Breivik, for example, rented a remote farm in Norway to build his truck bomb, and the groups behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombingand the 2007 Fort Dix armed assault plot traveled to rural Pennsylvania to work on their shooting skills.

The main conspirators behind the plot fit a familiar profile as two young operatives who met over social media and then used the technology to hatch their plan. Social media is an invaluable tool for aspiring jihadists. For one thing, it gives isolated and geographically distant jihadists a sense of community that encourages their radicalization. For another, it puts them in touch with people with the experience, expertise and resources they need to plan and execute an attack. Social media sites are also useful for organizing small cells, which can conduct larger, more ambitious strikes than a single person could. Like the would-be perpetrators behind many other thwarted terrorism cases, El Bahnasawy and Haroon maintained multiple accounts on a variety of social media applications. And like many other foiled jihadists, El Bahnasawy made a critical misstep while looking for assistance to plan his attack and inadvertently reached out to a government informant instead of a like-minded collaborator.

The young plotters in this case may well have failed even without the FBI's intervention. Among the many attacks El Bahnasawy and Haroon discussed with the agent was a spectacular car bombing in Times Square. Whether they had the capabilities to construct the bombs required for such a feat may be another story, though. Triacetone triperoxide (TATP) is a powerful explosive that grassroots jihadists can manufacture quickly from everyday materials. But the substance is notoriously volatile and can be a dangerous choice for first-time bombmakers - especially if they're trying to synthesize large quantities. In fact, three jihadists died in an explosion in August while trying to make a big batch of TATP in a house in Alcanar, Spain. El Bahnasawy and Haroon seem to have realized the car bomb plot might be a lofty goal for their level of experience. The unsealed documents reveal that they eventually settled on a more modest plan for an armed assault using guns and suicide vests.

Beyond the perils of TATP, the recently unsealed case also offers a reminder of the dangers lurking across the United States' northern border. El Bahnasawy, as a Canadian citizen, could easily travel to the United States to conduct an attack - he didn't even need a visa. For all the attention the southern U.S. border receives, the northern border still poses a far more serious threat where terrorism is concerned, as El Bahnasawy's case demonstrates. His use of e-commerce sites to purchase hydrogen peroxide and other bombmaking necessities, moreover, sheds light on the hazards that come along with the convenience of online shopping.

Some Help From Overseas

El Bahnasawy's co-conspirators, likewise, provide valuable insight into the world of grassroots jihadists. Haroon claimed to have ties to the Islamic State's Wilayat Khorasan in Pakistan. He said he had wanted to join the group but that the Khorasan chapter's leaders thought it better for him to travel to the United States to conduct the attack. According to Haroon, the Wilayat Khorasan even blessed the plot he and El Bahnasawy were cooking up, though the group apparently declined to buy him an airline ticket to the United States to carry it out.

That Haroon couldn't get Wilayat Khorasan to arrange his travel is just one of several indications that his claims of contact with the group were overblown, if not altogether false. Pakistani militant groups, after all, have helped Western jihadists conduct past attacks, including the bombings in London on July 7, 2005, and Faisal Shahzad's botched Times Square attack. The cost of a one-way ticket from Pakistan to the United States would be a small price for a terrorist group to pay to help an operative presumably unknown to U.S. law enforcement officials stage an attack in New York. Militant groups in Pakistan also previously have provided hands-on bombmaking training to operatives. Yet Haroon demurred when he was asked to run the bombmaking instructions El Bahnasawy had found online past the explosives expert he purported to know, saying the Islamic State didn't want too many people involved in the plot. He also said the bombmaker had told him they needed detonating cord, which is difficult to procure in the United States. All things considered, Haroon probably was a keyboard jihadist who had not yet made the leap from online radicalism to real-life terrorism.

Salic is another interesting figure. According to the criminal complaint against him, the Filipino doctor and small-time terrorism financier sent hundreds of dollars not only to the undercover FBI agent involved with El Bahnasawy but also to jihadists in Malaysia, Lebanon, Bosnia, Syria, Australia and Palestine. Salic had a prominent social media presence, which is presumably how he came in contact with El Bahnasawy and the other jihadists he backed. Unlike other jihadist sympathizers, such as former Maj. Nidal Hasan, the U.S. military psychiatrist who attacked Fort Hood in 2009, Salic appears to have used social media to contribute small amounts of money to fund grassroots operations, rather than donate large sums to charities that support jihadist causes. Salic's criminal complaint includes allegations that he sent $426.30 on June 24, 2016, to a person in Malaysia named Jasanizam Rosni. Rosni picked up the money June 26, two days before a grenade attack on a bar in Kuala Lumpur, which the Islamic State claimed. In August 2016, Malaysian authorities arrested and charged Rosni in connection with the attack, perhaps thanks to the investigation into the foiled plot in New York.

Setting the Scene

In addition to details on the attackers, the recently unsealed documents reveal useful information about the locations they considered. El Bahnasawy and Haroon, for example, floated the idea of attacking New York's subway system, a perennial target for jihadists (though it has so far escaped the kinds of attacks that have rocked transit lines in cities such as London, Madrid, Brussels and Moscow).

The aspiring jihadists also considered attacking a concert venue. Their discussions took place a full year before the deadly bombing outside an Ariana Grande performance in Manchester - and well before the mass shooting at a music festival in Las Vegas on Oct. 1. The plotters said the high death toll that assailants achieved at Paris' Bataclan theater in November 2015 had inspired them. Based on their statements, we can expect the more recent attacks on concerts, which also inflicted large numbers of casualties, to draw jihadists and other attackers to concert halls and festivals in the future.

The timing of the prospective attacks is no less notable. In 2016, an unprecedented number of attacks answered the Islamic State's calls for violence during Ramadan, which lasted from June 6 to July 5. El Bahnasawy and Haroon's assault is one of several thwarted attacks that could have added to the mayhem during the holy month. Similarly, attacks spiked during Ramadan this year, and we can expect the trend to continue next year, when Ramadan will take place from May 15 to June 14.

El Bahnasawy and Haroon's plot never came to fruition, considering that it involved an undercover agent from its very inception. Nevertheless, the documents released in the case offer us a rare window into the transnational world of grassroots jihadists organizing and raising support for their attacks - as well as a window into the efforts to stop them.

"Revelations From a Thwarted Plot on New York" is republished with permission of Stratfor.

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