We seem to be in limbo as far as the Stockholm investigation is concerned. Swedish and British authorities have not yet revealed any major new insights from their respective investigations. I haven’t seen any vital new documents on the jihadi forums either.
A key question in the Stockholm investigation is whether Taymour Abdalwahhab was acting on behalf of the al-Qaida linked group “Islamic State in Iraq”. The question matters because if he was, then ISI is targeting Europe and can be expected to send more bombers.
First, let me stress that “acting on behalf of” means someting more than simply “training with”. Given Taymour’s Iraqi background, his recent trips to Jordan (and possibly Syria), and his own claim of having been to the Middle East for jihad, we can pretty much assume that he trained with Islamist militants in Iraq. What we are trying to find out is whether he was dispatched by ISI – i.e. whether the plot was initiated, directed and resourced by senior ISI operatives – or whether he simply attended a camp and then acted independently, in a manner comparable to Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.
There is some concrete evidence in favour of Taimour having a close ISI connection:
- The photomontage on the Hanain forum presenting Taymour as “One of the knights [fursan] of the Islamic State of Iraq”
- Taymour’s reference to “the Islamic State” in his martyrdom will
- Taymour’s reference, in the same will, to having been a mujahid for “four years”
There is also some circumstantial evidence:
- ISI leader Abu Umar al-Baghadi’s September 2007 statement calling for attacks in Sweden as punishment for the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad
- The past involvement of other Swedish Muslims in ISI and its predecessors (see Brian Fishman’s excellent piece for details)
A more debatable piece of evidence is the early identification of Taimour Abdalwahhab on the Shumukh forum by a writer using the alias “Abu Sulayman al-Nasir.” As Aaron, Ibn Siqilli and Garbi point out in the comments to my previous post, the alias bears a striking similarity to the name of ISI’s War Minister Abu Sulayman al-Nasir li-DIn Allah. Could they be the same person? Personally I am sceptical. It is extremely rare (though admittedly not unheard of) for senior activists to use their real names on forums. Moreover, Abu Sulayman the forum writer has also issued audio statements threatening NATO. Why would ISI’s War Minister issue “rogue” statements outside of ISI highly streamlined propaganda framework?
On the other hand there is weighty evidence against Taimour acting on behalf of ISI:
- The absence of a claim of responsibility from ISI proper, despite ISI being perhaps the world’s largest producer of jihadi propaganda
- The absence of a post-attack martyrdom video, which is what groups with media wings tend to produce
- The near absence of past ISI-directed plots in Europe. AQI was admittedly linked to the 2007 Glasgow and London attacks but the nature of those links have never been elucidated. Why would ISI conduct its first (or one of its first) major European attack in Sweden? Why not use Taymour to strike in Britain, a country that actually participated in the Iraq invasion and the country in which Taymour resided?
Of course it is still early, and an ISI claim or video could appear any time. However, in the absence of such documents, I lean toward the view that Taymour trained with Islamist militants in Iraq, but was not on an ISI-directed mission. I share Aaron’s view that the case most resembles that of Faisal Shahzad, who trained in Pakistan but did most of the planning and organization himself.
This does not preclude the possibility that Taymour had a handful of helpers, in Sweden and/or in Britain. On this note, there is an interesting report in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet quoting the previous owner of the bombing vehicle as saying Taymour came to buy the car together with another man. The other man was a bit shorter, aged 45-50 and did not say very much.
A number questions remain, notably:
- Who is the mystery man who came to buy the car with Taymour?
- Is there a second person coughing on Taymour’s audio recording?
- Why did Taymour choose to attack in Sweden when he lived in the UK?
- Is it a coincidence that Taymour lived three streets away from Muhammad Qayum Khan?
- Where exactly in the Middle East did Taymour travel between 2006 and 2010?
- If ISI trained him, why are they not taking some form of credit?
- If Taymour left a written message for his wife two weeks before the bombing, why does his wife say she didn’t know anything?
[PS: I am still unable to print forum posts to PDF, but I will do so as soon as I can]
Forum readers woke up this morning to find Taimour’s picture on the top banner of Shumukh (the main jihadi forum). The banner advertises a poem by a certain “Sha’ir al-Ansar” (Poet of the Ansar) praising Taimour Abdalwahab. At first sight this might seem like the work of an accomplice, but the poet explicitly states that he did not know Taimour personally.
More interesting is the posting of a new audio message by a certain Abu Sulayman al-Nasir titled “Warning to NATO Countries Following the Stockholm Raid.” The message echoes an earlier statement by the same person issued on 20 November.
What’s interesting here is not so much the messages as the messenger, because Abu Sulayman al-Nasir is the same person who first mentioned Taimour Abdulwahhab’s name on Shumukh. This obviously raises the possibility that he has some connection to the Stockholm attack.
The problem is that the earliest public reference to Taimour’s name was made on 11 December at 10.24 pm on a non-Islamist Swedish forum, based on private pictures on the license plate of the bombing vehicle. Abu Sulayman al-Nasir’s Shumukh post mentioning Taimour’s name was published at around 6pm on 12 December, ie almost 20 hours after the name had entered the public sphere. Al-Nasir could therefore very well have found Taimour’s name on the web.
In this connection it is worth noting that Shumukh has a LOT of readers in Sweden. Aaron recently posted traffic data for Shumukh for the month of November, according to which a full 3.6 percent of non-proxy IP addresses were based in Sweden. If you adjust for population size, this means Sweden had over 20 times as many Shumukh readers per 1000 inhabitants, and over 33 times as many readers per 1000 Muslims as the United Kingdom. This is admittedly back-of-the envelope calculations using on population data from Wikipedia, (here and here), but the proportions are striking.
As expected, the freelance jihadi media machinery has started churning out material glorifying the Stockholm bomber. In addition to the abovementioned poem, someone posted a Youtube production of Taimour’s martyrdom will, along with a cheesy photo montage with Taimour surrounded by lightning.
Mainstream media has also started digging into Taimour’s life in Luton, showing, among other things, that he was radicalised by at least 2007, when he revealed militant anti-Western views to an imam in a local mosque.
There is also a lot of interesting commentary in the blogoshpere, with Aaron at Haganah providing the most interesting information, as usual. Anyone who doubts the radicalising influence of Youtube should take a look at Taimour’s Facebook profile, retrieved by Aaron. Taimour wallowed in jihadi Youtube videos.
On a final note, let me clarify my view on the question of Taimour’s associations, as some readers seem to have misinterpreted my earlier post. I do not believe Taimour was a pure lone wolf. What I am saying is that he was most likely either alone or helped by at most two people in the final stages of – i.e. last few weeks before – the attack. The point here is that I think the initiative for the operation came from Taimour himself; I don’t think he was instrumentalised by a large, established organization. There could be a couple of people in Sweden or in Luton who were directly involved, but I would be very surprised if Taimour took orders from AQ in Pakistan or from ISI in Iraq.
Moreover, I don’t believe Taimour radicalised in a complete vacuum; people almost never do, as I stressed in my Cadadian Senate testimony last week. Taimour, like most other homegrown militants, must have interacted with other people during his radicalization process, even if the interaction occurred mainly on the Internet or in very small social circles.
[PS: the reason I am not posting pdfs of the forum posts is that I am using a different computer this morning which doesn’t allow me to print Arabic fonts to pdf. I’ll post pdfs later this evening.]
Scandinavia witnessed its first suicide bombing yesterday when a man blew himself up in Stockholm, killing nobody but himself. There is an excellent roundup here (Swedish only, i am afraid). Key information points:
- The bomber has been identified as Taimour Abdalwahhab al-Abdaly, a 28-year old man of Iraqi origin who moved to Sweden in 1992. He leaves a wife and three children. See here and here for profiles.
- The bomber sent an audio statement to a Swedish news agency shortly before the blast. The recording is available here.
- In the statement the bomber says he recently traveled to the Middle East “for jihad”. His Facebook page reportedly contained recent pictures of him in Jordan.
- The bomber lived for a while in Luton, UK, a city with a well known community of radical Islamists.
- The bomber’s facebook page reportedly carried gradually more jihadi videos starting in the spring of 2010
- A Swedish explosives expert who examined pictures from the scene described the bomb as amateurish.
- The jihadi internet forum Shumukh has several threads devoted to the incident (see e.g. here, here, here, here, here and here). The bomber is referred to by other forum members as “our brother“, but this is a standard phrase and does not necessarily indicate a prior connection. So far there are no claims of responsibility by a known organization or jihadi media entity.
1) Did the bomber have operational accomplices in Sweden?
Maybe, maybe not. One the one hand, it is true that solo acts are relatively rare, especially when they involve a suicide operation. Sweden does have a certain number or radicalized Muslims. Moreover, in the audio statement, the speaker uses the prononoun “we”. It also sounded to me like there could have been a second person on the recording; at one point there is a cough, and it sounds as if it is coming from someone who is closer to the microphone than the main speaker. On the other hand solo acts are becoming more frequent, and the operation itself does not seem to have been particularly sophisticated. It is perfectly possible that the bomber acted alone. Having said that, he cannot have radicalized in a vacuum. He must have been in touch with other activists at some stage, on the Internet and/or in the field.
2) Did he receive training somewhere in the Middle East, and if so, where?
I personally think it is very likely that he did, not just because he says so himself, but also because a suicide operation requires a very high level of radicalization, of the kind that usually develops through social interaction. If he did train, it was most likely in Iraq.
3) Was he in touch with known militants during his time in Britain?
It is not impossible, but you would think that this would have put him on the authorities’ radar long ago. Moreover, his reported Facebook activities suggest his radicalisation did not begin until this year.
4) Was he active on jihadi internet forums?
He was reportedly a consumer of online propaganda, but we don’t yet know if he was a very active contributor. He has not yet been tied to a specific online alias, but I would not be surprised if it turns out he has left a trail of writings. If he was a prominent contributor, we can probably expect his online buddies to out him in not too long.
If pressed to make a guess about what this whole thing is about, I would say the available evidence points toward a solo act or a very small cell. If a bigger group were involved, we wouldn’t have had the makeshift audiostatement before the incident, but a more elaborate video released some time afterward. The bombing device would also have been much more effective. My guess – and I stress that this is pure speculation – is that Taimour initially radicalised primarily on the Internet and then went on a short trip to Iraq to experience the real thing. In the field, he radicalized further, learned to make bombs, and decided to return home and blow himself up there, possibly with the help of a close friend or two.
I may be completely wrong, but in any case we will find out fairly soon. A lot more details will emerge in the coming days as the press jumps on this guy’s family and acquaintances, investigators pore over his computer, and intel agencies compare notes. That’s the downside to being a mujahid in the digital age.
To be continued.