Was the apprehension of the Birmingham suicide bombers inevitable?

Using research from the journal, Behavioural Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression and its creation of a Terrorist Attack Complexity Index we look at the planned Birmingham bombings and ask: how predictable was the operation and its subsequent prevention; and are complex terrorist operations no longer viable? 

Once again, we are reminded that we are at the forefront of a War on Terror as three would-be Birmingham-based suicide bombers were convicted on Thursday after they had been caught planning a terrorist attack that would, prosecutors said, have caused "death and injury on a massive scale".

Yet, whilst certain elements revealed in the court hearing made the terrorist seem like amateurs, the plan was an overall complex mission that was intended to be more horrific than the London July 7 bombings.

 Using recently published data from the journal of Behavioural Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, we have a unique opportunity to compare the planned attack in light of the ground-breaking research that led to the creation of the Terrorist Attack Complexity Index.

“Until now, no systematic research has been done into the complexity of terrorist attacks, nor into the relation between the complexity of attacks and their perpetrators”, writes the author, Teun van Dongen.

The Index looks at 21 EU-based Jihadist attacks, including Madrid and the London Bombings, over the past nine years. The research detailed in the article aims to fill the above research gaps and provide a framework in which to measure the complexity of a terrorist attack. Using this data, it then examines the relation between these factors and three perpetrator characteristics: Jihad training (gained in camps outside the EU), the number of perpetrators and instructions from terrorist groups.

Using the data compiled in the Index, we can look at how the planned Birmingham bombings stand-up against similar Jihadist attacks:

61% of attacks required training or previous experience

It was found that the Birmingham terrorists had visited a compound in Pakistan numerous times for extensive training. The findings in the Index corroborate this; it looked at camps ‘outside of Europe’ and said it was more than likely that these would be in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia or Yemen. The Index shows a clear correlation between the complexity of attacks and experience gained with other groups. Of the 11 most complex attacks, all but one required training.

48% of attacks involved 2 – 10 perpetrators

Clusters in the Index indicate a relation toward the complexity of terrorist attacks and the number of perpetrators involved. Unsurprisingly the results showed that the larger the numbers involved, the larger the level of complexity. The number involved in the planned Birmingham-based attack conforms to the complexity of the operation.

48% of attacks involve external instructions

The study found that it is conceivable that the presence of role models brings terrorists to set higher standards for their attacks. Indeed, this is evident in the Birmingham attacks, where it was shown the group was radicalised by the preaching of the now-dead Anwar al-Awlaki,  one-time leader of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.  Van Dongen writes, “Research in other sectors has shown that the presence of such leaders enhances motivation and performance of subordinates.”

What is perhaps most interesting is that the Index correctly predicted the chain of events that would lead to the apprehending of the terrorists and gives hope that complex, highly-destructive events such as the London and Madrid bombings are a thing of the past:

“From the characteristics in the Terrorist Attack Complexity Index, it can be deduced that… A very complex attack requires travel, reconnaissance missions, criminal acts in the preparatory stage, contact between various perpetrators and the acquisition or learning of certain skills…. All these elements are dots that can be connected by police or intelligence services.”

These very elements of their plan were what alerted various intelligence and counter terrorism forces, leading to the biggest counter-terrorism operation mounted in the UK for seven years.

However, whilst the prevention of this complex attack is certainly a coup, it raises the threat of small cells and ‘lone wolf’ attacks (given that these are consequently difficult to detect). And with the rise of this threat can a government, already criticized for its intrusive intelligence work, afford to delve deeper into the private lives of their citizens for their own safety?

Read the full article: ‘The lengths terrorists go to: perpetrator characteristics anf the complexity of jihadist terrorist attacks in Europe, 2004 – 2011’ http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19434472.2013.769115


References & Links



18 January 2013, Teun van Dongen

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